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The Kitchen

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For Cullen, the nights are the worst. During the day, he can hide. He hides behind his work. He hides by the fighting arena, yelling at the recruits. He hides behind the paperwork, checking requisitions, overseeing every little aspect of the troops movement. He hides himself in the war room, even though they all know the truth of who he is. He still jokes about the bunny shaped Lake Calenhad, just to draw attention away from himself.

It’s been six months and fourteen days since his last drought of lyrium. He’s been counting. His veins are silent, devoid of the song. There is no freedom in its absence, not tonight. The only thing standing between him and the philter is his duty. 

He made a promise. He made a promise to Cassandra; he made a promise to the Inquisitor; he made the promise to the soldiers, even if they don’t know it.

He is their Commander. He cannot falter. 

He can’t sleep. On the night like this, the nightmares are most harrowing. The demon hisses into his ear, offering all the delights, everything Cullen wants. 

“You’re my Commander,” the demon pleads and begs, wearing her face and spreading her thighs before him. “Please.”

He says ‘no’ every single time until he wakes up and vomits. The pounding headache is unbearable, the cold sweat covers his body.

His hands shake as he puts on the armor. He can barely tie it together, but he manages. The office seems like prison, and Cullen has known prisons in his life. The hole in the roof is not enough. Nothing is enough. 

His legs tremble when he walks the barricades. For about ten minutes, the air is cold and refreshing. Then it turns to be just freezing and punishing. 

He should stand there and let it punish him, Cullen thinks, but he is walking again, until he reaches the main part of the castle. None of the soldiers question him. No one would dare, and Cullen bitterly wonders how by the Maker did he convince everyone of his strength and competence. 

His mouth is dry. He needs a drink, something to warm up. He pushes the door to the kitchens, he knows where they are. He would not come here during the day, but at night, when no one is there—

“Can I help you?”, the woman asks, eyeing him.

The kitchenmaid. She’s wearing a bonnet, hiding her hair and a large apron. Her face is dirtied with flour and so are her hands.

“Uhm”, Cullen rubs his neck, stepping closer into the light. 

She must have recognized who he is because her eyes widen and she takes a tiny step back. He shouldn’t have come, the servants don’t like to be bothered, it is hardly appropriate. 

She looks at him in silence.

“Minor headache”, Cullen points to his head, awkward. “I thought perhaps tea…”

“Give me a moment, Commander”, the woman mumbles, confirming his suspicion. “I will make you some.”

He sits on one of the two chairs available in the kitchen, by the giant prep table. He was raised in the village, as a commoner. His mother baked bread. He recognizes the sourdough starter sitting in the corner and the dough on the counter, and he sees the proofing baskets set on the side. How stupid of him. Skyhold has several kitchens, and they all probably have someone working at night, making bread or prepping everything for tomorrow.

He is intruding, he knows that, but the fire burning in the stove is too warm and pleasant and he doesn’t want to go back into the cold, not now.

“Peppermint and elfroot”, the kitchenmaid informs, placing the blazing hot mug in front of him while he tries to thank her. 

She doesn’t hide her sigh, but then turns to work,  kneading the dough. He doesn’t mean to stare, but the process brings back so many childhood memories that it chokes him. He hasn’t thought about his mother in months, but he remembers that. There is something soothing about watching the motions. Something good for the soul.

The tea is hot, and he burns his tongue while taking the first sip. It warms him up, and the headache subsides, just slightly. 

He thinks of Evelyn, how foolish he has been to want her, to want more. How deluded. She is   beautiful, and smart, and kind. His feelings have been developing since Haven, and when he almost lost her, he became certain he was in love. They spent some time together, played chess and maybe even flirted, but when he tried to kiss her, she turned away.

“Cullen”, she gave him a faint smile, a little embarrassed. “I… I don’t think of you that way.”

He respected that, of course, and has never asked why.

Why, why, isn't it obvious? He is a broken man. Maybe not everyone notices, but Evelyn knows just enough to be aware of that. What she doesn’t know is only further proof of his brokenness. What could he offer to her, to anyone? What Kinloch brought? The atrocities committed at Kirkwall? Maker preserve him, she is a mage. It is surprising she stands his presence at all, and she gracefully offered him her friendship. 

The demons know. They know how he feels and what he dreams of, and they hunt him in his sleep. In those dreams, Evelyn whispers to him all the things he yearns to hear. How much she loves him, how much she wants him, how strong and good he is, how he is the only one to protect her, how much she needs him. How his touch makes her feel alive, how he is the only one for her.

Cullen has never said ‘yes’ to a demon. He hates himself for how much he enjoys the brief moments when the demon lays the sweet seduction. It is a lie, it is manipulation, it is perverted and distorted and yet a part of him likes it. 

He flinches out of disgust and spills the tea all over the table. It doesn’t burn him, luckily, but it snaps him out of his thoughts. He watches as the kitchenmaid rushes to clean the mess, wiping the table and then getting on her knees to clean up the floor while he stands there like a tool. 

“Commander?”, the woman looks at him uncertainly. “Are you injured?”

Injured? He wants to laugh bitterly. That was just a spilled tea. Nothing. 

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he tries to apologize. “Not… not injured.”

“Would you like another tea, Commander?”

He would, but he has embarrassed himself enough.

“No, no, thank you,” he can feel himself wanting to disappear. “I… will go.”

He leaves just like that and rushes to his office. It will dawn in two hours, he can do some paperwork in the meantime.

When he reaches the barricades, he realizes that he has not even asked the kitchenmaid for her name, like an utter arsehole.


Orla enjoys working the nights. She is alone, surrounded by mere silence. She is warm because of the large furnace-stove. The servants bedrooms near the cellars are not heated enough during the night. She prefers to sleep during the day. No one yells at her when she takes few minutes to sit down or eats a meat-pie or a piece of bread.

Many girls are afraid to work so late. It is the fortress, after all, and even though Skyhold’s reputation is overall good, those within its walls are still soldiers. During the day they train, during the night they sleep, or drink, or wander.

No one wanders into her kitchen. It is the smallest one in Skyhold. No one until the Commander himself appears here with no warning, looking pale and distraught.

At first, Orla is scared. The girls have said nothing about the Commander being inappropriate, but Orla knows life well enough to know she can never be too sure. If he makes any demands, what could she do anyway? 

He only wants tea, says he has a headache. 

Orla is relieved, but her irritation rises when he sits down at the table. It is an unwritten rule that lords and ladies and the command do not go to the kitchens. When they need something, they send for the servants first. 

Commander sits and drinks his tea that is surely too hot, and then flinches. She warned him it was hot, didn’t she? She did. He doesn’t complain.

He watches her kneading bread, and she cannot be certain what he is thinking about. He doesn’t seem a creep. He looks tired and sick, pale and a bit greenish in the face. His armor is scary, and he has a fur mantle all around his neck, but from up close, he looks just like a regular man, maybe more handsome. 

She has seen him few times, yelling at the recruits. She knows that they call him the Lion of Ferelden, and he has Fereldan accent. She is from Ferelden as well. Not that he would ask. People like him don’t engage in conversations with kitchen maids, even if they make demands. He doesn’t ask her name. Why would he? 

He spills the tea and Orla hopes that he is less clumsy with the sword than around here, because otherwise they are all doomed and demons will take over the world. Psh. Everyone is less mighty from up close. 

He refuses another tea, thankfully, and leaves with a face of a dog being chased away from the kitchens. What an odd man.

At last, Orla is alone again. Her arms hurt from all the kneading, but the bread is already proving in the baskets. She washes up and cleans the surface until the wood on the table is immaculate. She likes the feel of it underneath her fingers. She takes the bonnet off, unbraids her hair and sits down the fire, taking time to drink her own tea. 

Before Haven got sacked, she worked at the tavern there. It was much smaller, and she knew Flissa. Now, with Flissa dead, she prefers the kitchens. She could go to the Herald’s Rest. Maybe they would hire her. She has been always told her face is pleasant enough. She could get few coppers more, but this feels better. Safer. No one bothers her usually. Certainly not one of the high people, until tonight. The weird blond boy came in once or twice, the one with ragged clothes and a weird hat. 

Orla is not the one to judge. She gets used to weirdness quickly. She made him a buttered sandwich cause he seemed hungry. He looked at her like he had never seen butter. 

The guilt is always there because if she worked elsewhere, she could send more coin home. Orla doesn’t like noise and drunk men, and Skyhold is so much bigger than Haven. Maybe she could find something else to do on a side to get few coins more. Maker knows there is not enough coin, ever. 

She has little news from home. She can’t read or write, except her own name. She sends coin through the merchant going in and out of Skyhold, the same one that helped her in Heaven. She can’t be sure her mother receives the money, but the merchant is a woman and seems kind, and few times she brought back her mother’s jam and the news that Orla’s baby sister had a wee one.

Life has always been hard, but it is just the way it is for people like her. Orla tries not to think about it. Too many mouths to feed, not enough coin. Sometimes she imagines she was born a lady or a princess or a daughter of a trader, but that is just foolish. Sometimes she wishes she had magic and power, sometimes she hopes she was sent to the Order. All foolishness. Orla is just herself and that is all she will ever be.

She is from Lothering, originally. She was fourteen when the Blight started and took away her father and her two brothers. Her brothers… Niall and Cian were the pride of the family. They went to the Templars early, got educated. Died at Ostagar, too soon. Orla was just thirteen. Their father died in Lothering when they were evacuating. Her mother cried for a week and then steeled herself. There were three babes in the house, and she was the oldest. She started working at fourteen and left the house at fifteen. There was never time to learn to read, and the coin was always just barely enough. 

Orla has always been a servant. She has cleaned and laundered, but she likes cooking and baking the most. It felt nice to make something good, and she knew how to make food last. She moved a lot, never finding a place to settle until the small inn at the Hinterlands, but then the war erupted and everything changed. The inn got destroyed, but Orla survived. 

The Revered Mother found her and had Orla help the refugees. She cooked meals from what little they had. She washed and cooked the bandages and dressings. She cleaned the tents. When the Reverend Mother left for Haven, Orla went there too. What else could she do? 

Haven ended too. Orla survived again. Maybe that is her talent. Surviving.

Now she is here, at Skyhold. She has her own room. It is small, and cold, and dark, without windows, but it is hers alone and the walls are thick. She has the job that pays enough to eat. After everything that happened, this seems almost enough. Whatever longings are there in her heart, Orla has learned to get by. 

It is time to put the bread into the oven. It will be a good batch. 

Orla has long forgotten about the Commander.


Cullen wakes up again the next night. He doesn’t vomit this time, but the headache appears again. He goes down the ladder, dresses up and stares at the lyrium philter again. The philter taunts him, provokes him. If he simply took it, everything would be better.

Except it wouldn’t. Cullen might be an idiot about a lot of things, but not this. He thinks of Meredith and Kirkwall, and tonight that is enough to say “no”. 

Before he realizes, he walks to the kitchens again. The fire is burning, but they are empty. He wanders around trying to figure out where the water kettle is when the kitchenmaid enters the room, carrying the baskets of vegetables. His presence startles her before she collects herself. 

“Tea?” she takes initiative.

He rushes to help her with what she carries, but she shoves the baskets on the table before he reaches her. She places her hands on her waist.

“Tea,” he answers and she nods. He sits at the table again, not knowing what to say or why he even came here. 

“No bread making?” he tries.

“I bake it every three days,” she looks at him and flushes. “It is a lot of work.”

“Of course,” he mumbles to himself. 

He could walk around the barricades, but there are soldiers patrolling them. He could go to the library but there is always someone there. He would not go the tavern, because even at this hour there were people inside. This is safer. No one would bother him here. He can be alone… well, not entirely alone.

Cullen looks at the woman. She washes the vegetables in the sink and is facing away from him. This time, she is not wearing a bonnet or an apron, just a simple linen shirt and a long skirt. He can see a thick, messy braid down her back. Her hair is dark, brown and reddish. He believes they call the color ‘auburn’. He doesn’t see her hands, but he knows she is quick. 

She ignores him entirely. Why wouldn’t she? He is invading her space yet again, in the middle of the night.

She sits by the table, on the other corner, as far away from him as possible and starts peeling and chopping the vegetables. He guesses this is the preparation for all the cooking done during the day. The little knife moves fast. He notices she is young and quite pretty. 

“What is your name?” he asks, and the kitchenmaid looks at him surprised.


The Commander is here again and Orla doesn’t know what to think, so she makes him tea and chooses to ignore his presence, focusing on the task at hand. Was she wrong, and he truly is a perverted man seeking something from her? He still looks sickly and unwell. Maybe all he wants is tea. 

“What is your name?” he asks.

Maybe he wants more than tea. Orla looks at him and finds nothing behind the question. He looks shy. Why does he look shy? He is a very handsome man, and she has heard enough servants giggling how they wouldn’t mind him taking them to bed. Perhaps he should try with them, she thinks.

“Orla,” she says.

“I’m Cullen,”, he replies quietly. “Thank you for the tea, Orla.”

“You’re welcome, Commander.”

Why would he even mention his name? It is inconceivable for her to call him that. Orla is uncomfortable and a little unsure. She is far from innocent. She has been with men, and some of it was good, some of it wasn’t. She prefers to stay away from it. The servants always warn each other about those things; who is safe to be around, who isn’t. She has heard nothing bad being told about the Commander. 

“Are you Fereldan?” he tries. 

Maybe he just wants to talk. He looks very miserable. 

“Lothering, initially,” she answers. 

Oh,” he mutters. 

Oh indeed, she thinks bitterly. “Yes,” she confirms.

“I am sorry,” he rubs his temple. “I… my family is from Honnleath. My parents died during the Blight.”

Oh,” Orla remarks stupidly herself, caught by surprise. “I am sorry to hear that.”

“How old were you?”

“Fourteen.”

“I was twenty. But I was at the Circle at the time.”

She nods, because what else could she say? She knows little of those things, except the memories of her brothers.

“My older brothers were Templars,” she shares. “They died at Ostagar.”

“Oh,” he repeats and some part of Orla wants to laugh, because the whole talk is just utterly ridiculous. “I am sorry.”

She knows he is a Templar. Was a Templar. Of that she isn’t sure, now that the Inquisition happened. There are some Templars who still wear the armor of the Order. The Commander doesn’t. She remembers Niall saying that one was a Templar until death, but those are strange times they live in now. Until recently she thought demons would not be randomly dropping from the sky and that Blight was the worst that could ever happen. 

She continues chopping, looking at her fingers. One portion down, julienned. The rest to cube. 

“I am really sorry,” he starts again, “for intruding. I… I am a bit unwell and the tea helps.”

He is sorry a lot, Orla thinks to herself. Not typical for a man in power. That she is sure of.

“Peppermint and elfroot is good for headaches,” she announces. 

He doesn’t actually want to have a conversation, does he? He sits in silence and drinks his tea, and Orla relaxes a little. Maybe he will go again soon. 

“Do you like it here in Skyhold?” he asks instead and Orla feels something inside her bending and bending and she knows sooner or later it will snap and the pain will burst. 

“Yes,” she whispers and recoils. 

There is one reason a man of his station goes to the kitchens and stays. He could have asked for tea and took it wherever his bedroom is. He could request a maid or a soldier to bring whatever he wants to him. He sits here fully armored, likely carrying weapons. He is weird, his behavior odd, and she just prays he doesn’t want too much and leaves her alone soon. It would be better if he just said it, because that forced interaction makes everything worse.


Cullen never has the opportunity to converse with people who know nothing about him. Not ever, actually. Orla knows who he is, but nothing else. She has an obvious Fereldan accent and he would love to talk about something, anything that would distract from Corypheus, lyrium or Evelyn Trevelyan. 

She does not call him by his name and he feels foolish for even introducing himself like that. He is the Commander. He is a former Templar. He is also just Cullen, the son of a farmer from Honnleath. A commoner through and through. Maker’s breath; he has no patience for nobility. His childhood probably resembled Orla’s.

“Honnleath is not that far from Lothering,” not from his perspective, anyway. “Do you remember the candy for Summerday? I don’t know if Lothering had it, it was… jaw-breaking and sweet. They called it Andraste’s Sweetness, that I remember.”

“Yes,” she says. “It is just a two-colored taffy.”

“I loved it as a child. I also remember pinwheels. More than the Chantry procession itself. Pinwheels and candy.”

“Children tend to prefer that to Chantry’s sermons,” she mumbles, continuing the chopping process. 

“I don’t know if that happened in Lothering, but I also remember the girls wearing floral crows and boys chasing them to sprinkle them with water—“

“What do you want?” the woman snaps and looks straight at him. “I still have some work to do so if you must, I’d prefer for you to rush with it.”

He is a foolish man. He had no right to impose himself on her. 

“In that case…” he coughs and stands up, finishing his tea in few gulps, preparing to take his leave. 

He turns to thank her for the tea and to apologize, and he sees Orla red-faced, sitting on the counter and looking down as she unlaces the blouse.

“What—what—what are you doing?” he stutters panicked, the dread filling his body. 

She faces away from him and her hands shiver. “I won’t fight you,” she whispers, “just… be gentle.”

The absolute terror floods Cullen, all his nightmares and memories mixing into one and he takes a second to breathe.

“I don’t—why—why would you think—? I would never ever force or hurt—ever. I—“

“You came here in the middle of the night, twice and started talking with me. And when I said for you to rush with it—“

Cullen runs towards the sink and vomits. It helps, a bit, but he can’t look at the woman. 

He has noticed she was pretty. How in the Void has he not realized how all of this seemed to her? He is aware what some Templars did to mages, so why—

She passes him the cloth to wipe his mouth. 

“Please forgive me, Orla, I am begging you. I’m sick and I couldn’t sleep. Tea helps and I swear to you I was only trying to make a conversation to pass the time,”, he looks at her and sees that even her ears are red. He must look the same. “I was not trying to… do anything. I would never do that to anyone. Has anyone… done that to you?”

He asks as the Commander of Skyhold, the one who must keep everyone within those walls safe. He asks as a former Knight-Captain who failed to do so. Still, the second the question leaves his mouth he realizes he should not have asked at all. Her hands are still shaking as she laces her blouse back. She doesn’t answer. 

“I am sorry”, his voice breaks, “I—As the commander, I can, I ought to punish anyone who—“

“It hasn’t happened here”, she murmurs, and he knows what hides behind it, and he nods. 

“I will clean my—“

“I can do it”, she protests.

“I’m a soldier. I can clean my own vomit. I am so sorry. For everything.”

His armor clackers as he moves to grab the cloths and the sudden realization that he’s armed and armored hits him. Maker’s breath. What else was she supposed to think when he came here in the middle of the night? Not once, twice, the second time on purpose. 

“I am sorry,” she whispers, not looking at him.

“Don’t,” he clenches his jaw. “It is entirely my fault. I cannot even find the words to apologize—“

“I can make some tea,” she interrupts him. “For your throat, I am sure—“

The pain clenches his heart so much and he feels both shame and anguish.

“No need, Orla, I won’t bother—“

“I am making one for myself anyway,” she breathes. “It’s no bother.”

“Fine”, he relents, watching the water washing out the contents of his stomach down the pipe.


Orla’s shirt is soaked in sweat. She feels her cheeks burning, she feels the burning in her throat, in her stomach. She got it wrong, and the relief is so great it overwhelms her, but she also feels shame and embarrassment. She knows her fear was not ridiculous. It was based in reality. This happened often. She knows the Commander knows it too. He’s pale as he’s drinking the tea standing, not even wanting to sit down.

She sits because she might otherwise faint. Her heart is beating so fast.

It is beyond awkward. 

“I have nightmares,” his voice is low and raspy. “Demons. Something happened to me with demons a decade ago. They showed me things… and did things and touched me against my will.”

Oh, Orla blinks. She did not expect that. She sees his face getting redder and redder and she sees regret from sharing what he just did. 

He is hurting.  

“It is not your fault,” she utters the same words that the servant girls tell each other as needed. “It does not make you any worse.”

Apparently it happens to men, too. He looks broken. What else was there to say, really? This was not even compassion. She gave him the truth.

He takes a deep breath and composes himself. “Thank you, for your kindness. I will… take my leave. I- I- I will appreciate if you don’t tell anyone.”

“Commander,” she says and he flinches. She gives up. “Cullen.”

He glances at her, surprised. 

“If you wish to stay, we can just sit in silence and chop vegetables. I presume you’re decent with blades.”

The tiniest smirk appears on his face as he rubs his forehead.

“So I’ve been told,” he mutters softly, “but I have never fought a potato.”

“I won’t tell anyone if you lose,” she smiles lightly.

“Well, then,” he takes a knife, and joins her in work. 

He is slow and careful, meticulously cubing the potatoes. They won’t notice tomorrow it wasn’t her work. The silence is not tedious. It is not soothing in itself, but it is not causing more distress. Orla is fine with that. Her heart slows down, her breathing steadies. 

She makes them another tea. Cullen brings more vegetables from the pantry and stays until they are all chopped. He looks calmer now, more composed. Working with hands can comfort, but not when one is using swords, Orla thinks to herself. 

“I shall go,” he finally says. Her own work will end in an hour.

“The third night from now,” she hesitates, “I am to make Fereldan taffies. Come if you want.”

“I will,” he promises.

Orla doubts it.


Cullen feels tired. Tonight was dreadful - but then it was not dreadful as well. He removes his armor and brushes his teeth. The war meeting is later in the day; he could try sleeping more. 

He lies on his bed and the realization hits him. 

He told someone his deepest, most shameful secret and did not die in the process. 

It is not your fault. It does not make you any worse. 

He closes his eyes and chants the words as prayer. 

Chapter Text

Orla doesn’t expect to talk to the Commander ever again. What happened was embarrassing, and it revealed far too much, and she doubts he would wish to be reminded of that. 

She sets out the ingredients on the table. Mistress Martha, who oversees all the kitchens, has requested the taffy. This one serves mostly as a preparation area, and to supplement the function of other ones. Orla doesn’t cook in other kitchens. She can cook, she does it well, but no one in Skyhold wants to taste Fereldan food. She heard the Ambassador lady joke with the mustached mage from Tevinter once. Fereldan food is apparently common, and tasteless, and disgusting. Their whole country smells like a wet dog, too. Apparently. 

Orla has never been to Tevinter, or Orlais, or Antiva, or anywhere, really, so what does she know? But her food is always fresh and good, and definitely not tasteless. She knows how to dry herbs, make jams and jellies, how to pickle and cure meats and fish. She knows how to add flavor and enhance the texture of the lake salmon; she knows how to make the best ram jerky; she knows how to bake fruit pies and honey cakes. She cooked at the inn, before the war. Everyone liked her food. For a while, things were good back then. It did not last.

The taffy she is to make tonight is not for the dignified guests. It’s for the bonfire held for the soldiers in two days time. Many of the Fereldans want to taste something from their childhood. Orla wonders what taffies do other lands possess, but the recipe for Andraste’s Sweetness is very simple. She looks at the amounts of eggs she needs to use and sighs. She is a strong woman, but whisking that many egg whites by hand is a rough ordeal. 

Well, she has the whole night ahead to do it. If she’s lucky, she will be able to sleep for a while as the taffy hardens. She wasted so much time doing her laundry today. She can’t afford the laundry services, and the fabrics don’t dry fast enough in her room. Still, this would never be a reason for her to forego cleanliness. Orla is absolutely certain that she never smells like a wet dog, regardless what certain high born foreigners might imply. 

She had few nice things back in the Hinterlands. She saved some when the war erupted. They are all now buried underneath Haven, so she had to start from scratch. 

The knock on the door startles her. Could she have been wrong?

“Yes?”, she raises her voice. 

Cullen opens the door, entering slowly. 

“Good evening, Orla,” he says.

“Good evening, Comma”-, she starts but corrects herself. “Cullen.

He is wearing his armor again, alongside with that ridiculous mantle. They should call him a Mabari instead of a lion. Lion! From Ferelden. How ridiculous. Orlesians must have invented that monicker. 

He paces when she offers to make tea. He seems so different from a man who yells at recruits or the leader who got them out of Haven. He’s unsure.

“You either sit or help,” she orders. “You can’t just wander around my legs like a lost dog.”

He blushes heavily and freezes in place. What an odd man, really. Thankfully the enemy does not fight using pans and rollers, or the Commander would surely lose. 

“I help,” he decides.

“You need to take some of this off,” she gestures in the general area of his armor. “I won’t attack you, you know.”

“You are good with knives,” he smiles. “You could be a rogue.”

She waves her hand dismissively. She has never known how to fight. “I am sure they made you the Commander for some reason.”

“Sometimes I ponder”, he replies, but takes off the various parts of metal plates and sets it in the corner, by the door. 

He looks different wearing just the white linen tunic and brown breeches. Less like the Commander. More like Cullen. She could pretend he isn’t who he is. If she wanted to. She is too smart for that. 

“Whisk the egg whites,” she instructs. “You look strong enough. There is more after you’re done with that amount.”

He raises his eyebrows and chuckles to himself. He has a nice laugh when she’s not cornered like a house mouse by a cat. She brews the pot of tea, to not waste time later. The pot will keep hot for a long time. 

It’s clear he doesn’t know how to whisk properly. 

“Show me?”, he manages.

“This won’t do,” she sighs and grabs his forearms. He smells nice and fresh, a bit like a forest, a bit like an orchard, a bit like… leather. It is either some good soap and oils or perfume. Orla had bought orange blossom oil twice in her lifetime, and it was the loveliest. On Cullen, it is… elderflower, she realizes. Elderflower and something else, more bitter.

That is how Ferelden smells, she thinks to herself. Not like a wet dog. It smells like Cullen. 

She turns to make syrup, humming to herself. She has a thermometer in her hand and as always she is quite excited to use it. The liquid metal will rise to show the temperature. Orla can’t read letters, but she can read numbers, she knows that well. 

Cullen doesn’t talk much this time, but when she checks up on him, he is finishing beating the third bowl of eggs whites. This saves her a lot of time. She might make more syrup at one go. He will be able to carry the pot.

How funny that the Commander is helping her at her work. Orla doesn’t complain. She takes each moment of rest and enjoys it.


Cullen stands in the middle of the kitchen, entirely defenseless, making candy. The entire situation still escapes his understanding, but he came here willingly. He even came here early, much earlier than other nights. He did not even catch a catnap beforehand. He might regret it at tomorrow’s drill, but for now he feels oddly comfortable. 

Orla has little patience for clumsiness. She should be a drill sergeant, Cullen thinks to himself. She eyes him like a hawk, and comes in to correct him every time he does something wrong, which is often. She barks orders with confidence. 

Her glances switch between the giant pot of boiling syrup and him. 

“When I tell you,” she instructs, “I want you to lift the pot up and slowly pour it to the bowls as I mix it. Slowly. You will burn yourself and me otherwise, and I cannot work without those hands.”

The pot is extremely heavy. 

“How would you do it alone,” he whines.

“I wouldn’t. I would do it four times individually, taking much more time,” she explains.

Well, he is glad that she at least gets something of it. 

She folds the mixture lightly as he pours the hot syrup, straining his muscles. Soon enough, it fills all bowls. She adds some mixture to half of them and then spreads them on large trays. 

“What now?” he asks.

“We wait and then cut it. Then we put each taffy into a piece of waxed paper.”

“Each taffy?”

“They will stick otherwise.”

“There will be like a thousand here.”

“Well,” Orla shrugs. “It is not your job. You don’t have to do it. You can watch or just go.”

The sense of embarrassment fills his heart. She hands him a fresh cup of tea.

“What do you do when you wait?”

“I sleep,” she replies, unabashed. “There are blankets I found in the pantry. I washed them. I roll it out and take some rest when I can. It’s nice and warm. I can roll them out now to sit.”

Before he protests or helps her with carrying things, she leaves and brings them in, and sets them out. He sits in the bare corner, leaning against the wall while she settles herself in front of the fire. 

He shies away from the conversation. After everything that happened three days ago he doesn’t want to repeat his mistakes, though Orla does not seem afraid or uncomfortable at the moment. He stares into the flickering flame.

“Do you know any stories?” Orla asks.

“Stories?” he repeats like an idiot.

“Stories. You have traveled a lot, haven’t you? I’m sure you know some tales,” she looks at him. 

“I have traveled little,” he laughs. “Just Ferelden and the Free Marches.”

The flush comes to her cheeks, and she examines her braid. “I have never even seen the sea,” she whispers. “Just north of Lothering, into the Bannorn, and then some Redcliffe Airling. Here and there.”

“Ah,” he gasps and cringes at himself.

He is a thoughtless man who’s bothering this poor woman and is not even able to entertain her. 

“It’s fine, Cullen,” Orla finally breaks the awkward silence, lying down and closing her eyes. “People like you rarely talk to people like me. I’m fine with quiet.”

His stomach churns, because it’s not true, and it’s not like that, and he certainly did not come here to make her feel that way. 

“Do you know what happened with Kirkwall?” he asks.

“With what?” she mutters to herself.

“The Champion? The Chantry explosion? Arishok?”

“The Champion is from Lothering. I remember her. Marian. I didn’t know she was a mage though. She was pretty. She told me everything would be all right when we were fleeing.”

She was pretty the last time he saw her, too, Cullen thinks to himself bitterly. Perhaps he should be more ashamed about Kirkwall than he is about Kinloch, but Kinloch is his private secret. Thanks to Varric everyone knows what was happening at the Gallows. Everyone knows he was a Knight-Captain and then Knight-Commander. Does Orla know about that?

“I met her,” Cullen says. “I was the Knight-Captain of the Templar Order there, then the Knight-Commander.”

“Bad things happened there, right?”, Orla doesn’t even open her eyes.

“Yes,” he admits. “I let some of them happen.”

“Did you make up for it?” there is no hesitation in her voice.

“No,” he flinches. “But I am trying.”

“Is that also why you can’t sleep?”

“Yes,” he admits.

“Well,” Orla offers tentatively. “That is something, I suppose.”

Cullen laughs, covering his face in his hands and then chokes on the sudden sadness overwhelming him.

Something. 

Such a little, peculiar word. That is not what Cassandra offered him when she recruited him. Her commendation was much more, describing his valor in standing up to Meredith and his good character in his efforts to rebuilt the city. She shared it with him back in Kirkwall, stating that that is why the Inquisition needed him. He still remembers the feeling in his stomach upon hearing it all. 

If Cullen himself feels he is broken, the Commander in him feels like a fraud. 

He tried to rationalize his choice. They had no one else. He had to agree. The madness covered Thedas, and the Templars denounced the Chantry and rebelled. There was no one else, so he agreed, and suddenly, months later, he is leading an army against the ancient darkspawn.

Evelyn offered him more, too.

“You are a good man, Cullen,” she said. “You are a good man who made terrible choices. But you are good, and kind. Without you, the Inquisition would not exist. You have redeemed yourself.”

The Inquisition would not exist without him, that for once is true. Nonetheless, Cullen can hide from anyone but himself. To himself, he needs to be honest. He knows he hasn’t redeemed himself. He wants to. He tries to. But it hasn’t happened yet. It is wrong to claim it before the times come. It is worse than imitation, it is deception. 

Cullen hates pretending. He has never been a good diplomat.

“Have I offended you?” Orla is sitting again, eyeing him with slight worry in her eyes.

“No.” he reassures her and then grimaces. “Are you worried because of who I am?”

She searches for something in his face.

“Yes,” she confesses. “You know what they say to girls like me.”

“What?”

“Keep your clothes clean, keep quiet and never trusts a man who can get you fired, or something like that.”

His fingers are jittering a little as he looks down his hands. He had been the part of the Order for so long. There is no nobility among the Templars, but there is rank and power. He has both rank and power now. More than he had ever assumed he would end up having. The power that makes him stare at his lyrium philter each night just to wonder how less tired and more effective he would be when taking it.

“You know some things about me then no one knows,” he attempts. “If that comforts you.”

Cullen,” she chuckles, shaking her head. “I will be honest, since you insist.”

“Please,” he says, and he means it.

“You reveal all that about yourself to me precisely because I am no one,” she breathes.

The rift between them opens, and Cullen tries to push away the thoughts that it might be true. 

No,” he protests.

She makes a face, not looking to him.

“Let’s cut the candy,” she offers, getting up, and he follows.


He is decent enough with knives, Orla decides, that she can trust him with making cuts. Apparently all that sword training is not for nothing. She sits down and rolls them into the paper. One by one, the baskets fill with Andraste’s Sweetness. 

She has never found out why the taffies are called that. Perhaps the Chantry wants to make everything about Andraste, even the candy. Perhaps it is to show Andraste had a sweet voice. She pops one into her mouth. It is hard and tasty, the subtle flavor of both vanilla and raspberry. She has to admit, Skyhold is very well stocked. She never needs to strain to fulfill the orders..

She hands him a taffy because the man is apparently too shy to grab one himself. The kitchen is not his territory. Who even cooks at the circles? Not Knight-Captains or Knight-Commanders, she thinks. 

He is more reticent since she told him what she thinks. Oh, well. It is true. Fine, he is just odd, not a creep, but it doesn’t make them friends. Fine, she calls him Cullen, but she very well knows whose armor is by the door. He can pretend all he wants, but no man can ever run from himself.

There are many things Orla wishes to run away from, but she doesn’t, because it never works. She won’t pretend that he is just a regular Fereldan man hanging around the kitchen. 

She glances at him here and there, chewing on another candy. He is as handsome as he is awkward. It has to be the demons, because men as attractive as he is are more confident, and certainly more confident around women like her. 

“Do you really feel you’re no one?” he questions, making her almost choke on her taffy.

He is not smartest, is he? They never are not as smart as they think. Surely in his mind it all becomes about how she thinks of herself, as if that was the problem and if that was about to solve her issues. As if suddenly waking up with a smile on her face would give her more skills, more money, a room with a window and respect. 

It is not about how Orla feels about herself. It’s about how the world feels about her. 

don’t think that,” Orla says. “But many people do.”

I don’t think that,” Cullen replies, looking at her.

He probably believes it deep in his heart. He seems the type. How noble of him, and how little that matters after all. He is not entirely useless. The whole process would have taken much longer if it wasn’t for his help. 

“Cut the taffy,” she rushes him. “It cannot become too hard or it wastes the work.”

“It really is very good. Just like what I remember from my childhood,” he murmurs.

“Take some when you leave,” she offers.

“Aren’t they supposed to be for sale?”

What an impossible man. That bothers their sensibilities. Few taffies disappearing during preparation. Not the fact that she earns so little coin she could not eat at the tavern daily or that servants are not welcomed to the food at the main hall. But the candies being taken! Maker is surely offended. She puts another taffy into her mouth, raises her eyebrows and stares at him.

“Well,” he coughs and blushes up to his ears. “I will take some.”

For someone who supposedly commands for living, he does not protest her ordering him around. Ha! If his recruits could see him. She would tell no one, of course. Cullen might not understand, but she would be in trouble. Helena got fondled in the corner by some Orlesian prick lord and Mistress Martha fired her after the prick’s lady wife came to complain. Still, the image of the soldiers watching their Commander make candy brings a smile to her face that only widens at the thought that those soldiers will eat that exact candy in just two days.

“What?” he asks her softly, both smiling and unsure. 

“The soldiers,” she giggles. “They have no idea they will eat the taffy you yourself made.”

When he laughs, there is warmth in his voice. His voice is very nice, Orla realizes. He doesn’t make himself too loud. Not here, anyway.

“I will think that watching them eat,” for once he sounds amused. “Are you going?”

“I am working here,” she says. 

She has one day a month off. It is what it is, this is what she is paid for. The bonfire day she is working, and she is to make bread. Not that Orla minds. There was a time when she enjoyed dancing and flirting, but then the war and Haven happened. It has been barely three months since then, and sometimes she can still smell the smoke and hear Flissa’s screams.

 The last thing Orla wants to see is a bonfire. 

 “The soldiers deserve a break,” Cullen suddenly feels the need to talk. “After everything that happened, we manage to rebuild. When did you get here? To Skyhold?”

She feels the irritation rising but then she sighs. Of course he would not know. She was a nameless scared figure, and he never visited the Singing Maiden. Not that he would remember her.

“I was there,” her voice cracks just slightly. “In Haven, that is.”

Oh,” Cullen says and this time she his reaction does not frustrate her. “I didn’t know.”

“Why would you? You were busy, and I was just another refugee.”

“How did you end up in Haven in the first place?”

She swallows. “Mother Gisele in Hinterlands.”

Orla,” he whispers. “I am—“

“I am alive,” she cuts him off. “That is more than what some could say.” 

“Did you work at the canteen in Haven?”

“No,” the whole questioning sequence brings some panicky feelings in her. “The tavern.”

Cullen tightens his lips, fighting with himself whether to say something or stay silent. 

“We lost many people that day,” he settles on a sentence that is not the worst choice.

“Yes,” Orla agrees. 

“If I had done better—“

No,” Orla snaps. “No.”

“I am worried it will happen again”, he breathes out, and the world stills around them. 

She is nothing, Orla reminds herself, that is why he is saying all that out loud.

“The walls are thicker here,” she muses and Cullen shakes his head, smiling.

“That is very true,” he agrees. “As a Commander, I can confirm it improves the defenses. That there are walls certainly helps as well. 

“See,” Orla relaxes a bit. “It’s more than before.”

“I didn’t think you’d be such a positive thinker. How very not Fereldan.”

“What can I say,” Orla shrugs. “I tend to survive.”

Cullen stares at her until she berates him for being idle and hands him the paper to wrap the candy.


He had no idea she survived Haven. Really, he has no idea about her at all and every question he asks seems to frustrate her. She is blunt, and direct and a bit sour and bitter.

It’s an unjust thought, he decides after a second. He is both sour and bitter. He broods constantly. He doubts Orla does much brooding. There is something unwavering about her. She pushes through her work, huffing at him for not keeping up. 

The work is so mundane and repetitive, yet it feels much better than sifting through the requisitions or reports. Perhaps because at the moment Cullen does not need to focus as much, he can let his hands do the job while his mind rests.

It still bothers him what she said about her being no one. The way Cullen thinks of himself is oftentimes not pleasant. He doesn’t deserve much that is pleasant. In all his agony, he has never considered himself no one. He is too little or too much. He’s a broken Templar, he is a broken man who never moved past his issues. He is the Knight-Captain who stood silently in the face of injustice. He is the Knight-Commander who could have tried harder. He is the Commander who lost Haven. Their haven. 

He is never no one. Not only to himself but also to others.

Sometimes he wishes to be. He reasons that that is why he is in this kitchen, putting Andraste’s Sweetness taffy into the wax paper. Even Orla knows who he is.

The Commander. The former Templar. The man plagued with demons. The man plagued with guilt. The man who’s afraid. 

She maintains the same level of irritability, not giving him that much attention.

Maybe the grass is always greener. The little that she shared or rather alluded to shows a past that is difficult and full of pain. Some things he can imagine, some things he doesn’t even wish to. 

There were no servants in the Circles, not like that. Tranquil, yes. Mages, yes. Templar recruits, yes. No maids. No people like Orla.

There was someone in Haven who did his laundry. He didn’t question it, his laundry got done in the Circle as well. Got done. Almost as if there was no one behind it. There is someone in Skyhold who does his laundry. He still doesn’t question it, barely noticing as he pays for that and other services. Maybe Josephine arranges it for everyone. There are people in Skyhold making food, the same food he refuses to eat. There is someone sweeping the floors and cleaning the tavern after Varric’s Wicked Grace. And yet he, Cullen Rutherford, the son of a poor Honnleath farmer, does not notice. At all. 

It does not make Orla no one. It merely adds to the long lists of his failures.

“We’re done!” she exclaims and looks up to him and beams

For a few seconds, there is pure unadulterated joy on her face. When she smiles, the rest of her seems to smile too, and the whole kitchen becomes lighter. 

It fades away soon as she reverts to her regular, half polite half disapproving expression.

“Good work,” she praises him and he can’t stop smiling himself. He helped wrap thousand of taffies and he feels more accomplished than after any war meeting in weeks. 

“Thank you, Orla,” he takes a deep breath. “I should probably go.”

“Don’t forget your taffies,” she gets up from the table, rolls out her sleeves and readies to do the dishes.

She doesn’t even look at him as he puts on his armor, piece by piece. When she finally does, she snorts a little. 

“Whoever says that clothing does not make a man,” she notices, “clearly does not think about armors.”

“It’s just me”, he mutters, which sounds even stupider out loud than inside his mind.

“And do you know who that is exactly?”, she raises her eyebrows.

“No,” he confesses. “Do you know who you are?”

“Yes”, she chides, and he doesn’t know if he believes it. She grabs two handful of taffies and gives it to him. “Do armors have pockets?”

He shoves it into a little satchel attached to his belt.

“It was nice,” he looks at her again with a question in his eyes.

“You can come sometime,” she sighs, “if you plan to be helpful.”

He knows he will come. It’s not like he can sleep that well, anyway.

“Take care, Orla.”

“Take care, Cullen.”

 

There is little time to rest. By the time Cullen enters his quarters, he has only a few of hours to sleep. Still, for some reason he feels more at peace than in a long time. He undresses, washes his face and foregoes brushing his teeth tonight.

When he slips underneath his covers, he shoves the taffy into his mouth. For a moment, all bitterness goes away. There only thing remaining is sweetness. 

Chapter Text

 Cullen watches the large bonfire at the Skyhold courtyard. The blazing flame combined with the loud live music and celebration reminds him of Haven, and he feels his heart beating faster. They are supposed to celebrate surviving, rebuilding, but right now the flashbacks assault his own mind. The fire consuming the buildings. The screams all around, the overwhelming call of red lyrium, the fear, the hopelessness. Evelyn running through the Chantry door into the darkness, alone, to meet the Elder One. The paralyzing feeling of losing her, losing the Inquisitor while leading everyone into the cold frozen mountains. He remembers his headache, the sounds of a baby crying, the wails of those who lost someone.

He wrote letters to the families of the deceased himself. That day, he hid his tears and snapped at Jim, raising his voice unjustly, taking his own failures and grief on the poor scout. He mumbled his apologies later. 

Yelling is a part of drills. The recruits are a messy bunch, and they need discipline for their own sake. The more they know, the more they can do, the more confident they feel in their own abilities, the more chance they have in battle. Cullen knows he is good at training. He has always had an aptitude for that and he enjoys it. Transforming recruits into soldiers makes him proud. He is also aware that he snaps too often and yells too much. He wants to believe himself to be composed and in control, but his temper can be short at times. When withdrawal symptoms get worse, so does his irritability. 

He looks at the surrounding celebration. Clearly the bonfire does not bother everyone, because he sees people singing, and dancing, and drinking. The open flame mitigates the cold of the night. The long row of tables is set up nearby and they are heavy with food. Cabot serves ale from the stock of barrels. Cullen watches a young woman giggling and whispering something into a soldier’s ear and then pulling him into a kiss. 

Something inside him hurts. He glances at Evelyn, mingling with the crowd and laughing, showcasing those sweet dimples in her cheeks. With her light blonde hair and noble beauty it is easy to see her as Andraste’s Chosen. She looks like a figure from a stained glass herself. He is a fool of a man; he knows it. He had given up on this part of himself before, but then Evelyn appeared and everything changed.

She is a miracle embodied, of that Cullen is certain. 

Evelyn looks back at him and Cullen breaks his gaze. He does not have the right to stare. It’s been a month and a half since she turned down his clumsy advances. She has done some missions in Orlais, and they have talked in the war room. It’s not awkward. He is better than that. Nonetheless, there is a splinter in his heart and he doesn’t know how to remove it.

He doesn’t want to converse, so he walks up to the tables bending with sweets, seemingly interested in the selection even though he has little appetite as of late. He forces himself to eat just not to lose his muscle and strength. It is growing harder. The sight of Fereldan taffies makes him chuckle, and he remembers Orla teasing him about his soldiers not knowing they would taste the candy prepared by their Commander.

He recognizes few Fereldan bakes like his favorite shortbread or apple turnovers and wonders if she made some of them herself. He hasn’t come back to the kitchen yet. The last two days were busy with war meetings and late night paperwork. The nightmares got worse once Evelyn back got back to Skyhold. The demons couldn’t have known, but they sensed the tension.

He sees few delicacies he tried in Kirkwall. The thin waffles with a layer of caramel between them, the tiny donuts covered with sugar, the sweet pastry filled with nuts and honey. There is a whole table of Orlesian confectionery and baked goods as well. The chocolate coins, the hazelnut pralines, the cream puffs, some miniature cakes. He buys two of everything he can find.

“My, my,” says the voice to his right. “Is this the Commander I know? Shamelessly indulging in Orlesian desserts?”

“Dorian,” Cullen smirks. “I believe you caught me red-handed.”

“I won’t tell anyone,” the mage looks amused and then coughs a little. “How have you been doing?”

“I’m fine,” Cullen lies, and he lies badly. 

“You know I was rooting for you,” Dorian does not deal with subtleties.

“Well,” Cullen says. “Those things happen.”

Evelyn shouts something and Dorian turns to wave at her.

“Chess?” he gives Cullen the final glance. “Tomorrow. I won’t take no for an answer.”

“Chess,” he agrees. “Tomorrow.”

The smell of smoke reaches Cullen’s nostrils. His eyes tear up and he decides to make his retreat.

“Commander,” Rylen shouts at him. “Already retiring?”

“Tomorrow is an early day,” he gives him a small nod. 

“You’re hardly fun,” his Knight-Captain jokes, shaking his head at him before something else catches his attention.

It’s all in good faith. It still makes him uncomfortable, sometimes.

Cullen walks the barricades but doesn’t follow the route to his tower. Instead, avoiding the patrols, he sneaks into the kitchens. 

                                                                                 ******

Orla is cross as two sticks. She takes it on the bread, kneading it furiously until it submits to her will. The slapping sound calms her down. She grinds and grinds daily, trying to make her life better and build something for herself, and it never works. She had better pay in Haven. She had more things in Haven. The Inquisition pays her ten coppers a day, discounting for the room near the cellars. She got twenty coppers working for Flissa. The meals at Herald’s Rest can cost seven to eight coppers, so she doesn’t go there. The basements are cold, but she can’t afford more sleeping furs. She has only four shirts and can’t keep up with washing them, because nothing dries well in the cellar. She still doesn’t have a coat. Thankfully the weather is getting warmer, so at least there’s that. 

Skyhold needs rebuilding, Mistress Martha reminds them. The Inquisitor is Andraste’s chosen, Mistress Martha reminds them. The troops require support, Mistress Martha reminds them. 

Cabot doesn’t search for cooks at the tavern. Mistress Martha doesn’t want to hear about a Fereldan working the main kitchens. Whenever Orla thinks about being a barmaid again, she feels sick and her body shivers. She can’t. There are few things she can’t do, but this is one of them.

She could try to find a nice man, she supposes, but there are still things she remembers and wants to forget. Haven gave her a nasty scar on her body too, all across her stomach. She still doesn’t own a mirror, but she saw it in the bathrooms once and hasn’t looked at it again since. It was risen and red and ugly and Orla cried for an hour. She’d rather be a little cold than lie with a man. 

Every single time things get better, it all ends abruptly. Each time she allows herself to hope and dream, she finds herself at the bottom.

The bread is quickly proofing in the baskets, given how vigorously she worked. She doesn’t get paid enough, but she still does a good job. She takes naps and eats the food, but her work doesn’t suffer. She baked so many things in the last two days and they all turned out tasty. It’s a matter of pride and Orla has her dignity. 

She just wishes… She doesn’t know what she wishes for anymore, except for things to be better. She wishes to have more shirts, a pair of shoes, a new coat and a pair of breeches. She wishes to have a mirror and soap that makes her hair smell all nice. She wishes to go to the tavern and eat the roast. She wishes to have a sleeping fur and some wool and knitting needles. 

She wishes to know for sure how her mother is doing. She wishes to know where to go next. She wishes to not be so lonely.

When she worked at the Inn in Hinterlands, before the Templars and the mages started killing each other, there was someone she liked. Someone she loved. Finn. They met at the village fair and he asked her for a dance. He asked her to dance with him ten times in a row. He liked her braids, and he called her his sweetling. His kisses were sweet and his touches were gentle, and it actually felt good with him. 

Her eyes are a bit wet when she hears the knock of the door. Cullen arrives, looking both shy and hopeful, like a stray dog in search for a new master. Orla doesn’t have patience today, but he carries a paper box and she knows that this is the kind they used to sell sweets at the bonfire. Orla might be proud, but she is not too proud to say ‘no’ to food if he brought some. If he didn’t, she will kick him right out. 

“Hi, Orla,” Cullen hesitates as if she was the one wearing armor. 

“Hi, Cullen,” she crosses her arms. 

“I- Well - The bonfire - I had to attend and then, uhm, I thought you might enjoy some things,” he sets the box on the table and opens it and Orla can feel her mouth watering.

She doesn’t go hungry. She isn’t too thin. That is the benefit of working in the kitchen. It doesn’t mean she doesn’t wish to try new things. The Fereldan stuff she knows. She has seen some of other desserts, but she has never tasted them.

“Well,” she gestures towards the table. “I’ll make tea.”

“The shortbread is my favorite,” he mutters.

“I made it,” she admits satisfied and places the mug in front of him. 

“You’re a good baker, Orla,” he looks up at her.

“You’re Fereldan through and through,” she dismisses him, trying to hide her smirk. “Easy to please.”

“Are you done with work?,” he asks.

“It’s just bread, and it’s proofing. I worked fast today. How is the bonfire?”

“Lively,” Cullen chuckles as she bites through the pastry that looks like it’s filled with cream.

There’s chocolate and oranges in it. They don’t send those ingredients to this tiny kitchen. She closes her eyes and devours the whole thing in seconds, licking her fingers and taking a sip of her tea. She reaches for another dessert.

“You seem hungry”, he adds warmly, but she can feel her cheeks flushing. 

The high born don’t eat like common folk, especially women. The women are dainty. Food can be dainty too, just as that heavily decorated small piece of cake she was just about to shove in her mouth. 

Orla doesn’t want to be judged. On some days, it doesn’t bother her but today, everything just stings. Instead of one, she takes two bites, eating slowly. 

“It tastes good”, she whispers and Cullen lightens up as if she praised him and not the bakes. 

He eats his shortbread after dipping it into tea. There are lines of worry around his eyes and he looks tired. It’s not visible from afar, Orla is sure of that, but from up close she can certainly tell. An odd man, but he can continue to be a nuisance if he’s useful or brings pastry. 

“The music… You know this dance, that gets faster and faster with so much spinning? They played it.”

“Of course I know it”, Orla smiles as her heart pinches at the memory of Finn. “I am Fereldan, after all.”

“I- Well, I barely remembered the music, but it reminded me of my older sister, Mia and how she danced with all the boys in Honnleath,” he laughs, eating yet another shortbread.

“I’ve never thought that highborn folks danced to it,” she remarks.

“Orla,” Cullen frowns. “My parents were farmers.”

Oh. She didn’t know. Was all this from the Templars? Could Niall and Cian become commanders if they didn’t die?

“Why did you go to the Templars?” she asks. “My brothers… well. Too many mouths to feed.”

“I wanted to go,” he grimaces in pain. “It was… my dream. There was an old Templar in Honnleath that taught me some sword fighting. When I was thirteen, the visiting Knight-Captain noticed me and that’s how I got recruited. I wanted to…”, he coughs and then blushes, “help people.”

He need not say it. Orla is not stupid. He thinks he failed. She doesn’t know how to respond to that. 

“Could you have known my brothers?” she whispers instead and he looks at her surprised.

“Most likely if they were in Kinloch,” he measures his words. “What is your last name?”

“I’m just Orla,” she hates that she looks down saying it, “of Lothering, I suppose.”

Oh,” Cullen mumbles and she wishes he didn’t. “What where their names?”

“Niall and Cian.”

“I recall both, but I knew Niall more. I remember him… quiet, reserved.”

“I barely recall myself,” Orla shrugs. “I was just a little girl when they went away and we didn’t have much contact with them. My parents were very proud.”

“I remember not being allowed to sent many letters,” Cullen says and the pastry that Orla just took a bite off gets stuck in her throat.

He doesn’t realize she can’t read. He really is a stupid man, not grasping the obvious and Orla is mad because now she feels like she should tell him even though he should have already known. She is even madder that she feels ashamed. 

She is used to people ignoring her or expecting little of her. She is not used to disappointing them. She should not care what the Commander thinks of her. She knows others who can’t read or write, though it is less common here, in Skyhold. The maids and servants taking care of the rooms at the upper levels do, so do the cooks in the main kitchen, able to open the books and follow the recipes. 

Orla still remembers when they just came to Skyhold and she took the wrong turn on the stairs and got yelled at because there was a piece of parchment on the door saying it was dangerous during the renovation and she couldn’t understand it. 

Even among the servants, she is almost at the bottom. 

She finishes her tea just to regain her focus.

It will be few days before Cullen gets bored with whatever this is and stops coming. She doesn’t owe him or the world any explanations, and she shouldn’t feel embarrassed for wanting to be comfortable when he is the one who sits in her kitchen bothering her at work for which she is not paid enough while his whole armor costs more than what she could earn in years. 

                                                                       ***********

Cullen eats all the Fereldan bakes from the box. The sweetness feels almost sickening but pleasant at the same time, and the tea helps washing it out. He usually forces himself to eat something, so this is unexpected. Maybe it’s the sight of Orla devouring the desserts. There is sugar on the corner of her mouth and on the tip of her nose. He should tell her, but it makes her look adorable. 

There is something stern and tough about her. She uses plain and bold language. She is not unkind, but she does not try to be too polite. It’s nice to see her enjoying the sweets, and he is glad he came here. He likes the kitchen, with its cold stone and blazing fire in the middle, and the rough wooden wood table and just two chairs. He likes the tea he’s drinking. He likes the company. It doesn’t wear on him. 

He watches her using the peel to put the bread in the oven. She is quick ad graceful, every move choreographed as if a dance. 

“Now I wait,” she says either to him or herself.

He waits with her too. The bonfire is probably still going on, and he doesn’t feel like sleeping. 

“I dreamed of being a Templar. What did you dream of when you were a child?”, he asks when she sits back again after handing him another tea. She sighs and makes a face.

“I wanted to be Princess Marigold,” she scoffs and blushes a little. 

“I know this story,” he reminds himself. “Once upon a time, there was a small village surrounded by the forest. There lived Marigold, brave and beautiful. My younger sister Rosalie had the whole book, and this was her favorite story.”

Orla looks flustered. “That’s the story.”

“One day Marigold goes hunting and encounters a wounded Mabari, scowling. She tries to help the dog, but the dog pulls away, so she follows it. It leads her to an injured man whom she helps by trying to get him into her hut. On the way there, the bear attacks them and Margold kills it, and… why do I remember it so well?”

“Every child knows this story,” she rolls her eyes at him.

“Anyway, Marigold kills the bear. The man turns out to be a handsome prince, and he marries her and she becomes a princess.”

“That’s the one,” Orla eats yet another dessert, this time the caramel waffle from the Marches. 

“What about now?” he wonders and watches her as she swallows the bite she just took.

“Now,” she clears her throat, “I am grateful that I have avoided meeting any bears.”

He takes that answer, although there surely is more. If she asked him what his dreams were now, he would choke on pastry. He is uncertain of anything aside from the goal of defeating Corypheus. 

“How many siblings do you have?” the question reaches him.

“Three. Mia is the oldest, then me, then Branson, then Rosalie. What about you?”

“There were five of us. Niall and Cian, my brothers. You know they died. Then there is me, then my younger sisters. There were still little when I left home. Aileen and Faye.”

“How old where you when you left?”

“Fifteen,” she winces. 

“On your own?” he gasps.

“Too many mouths to feed, as I said,” she twitches her fingers. “That happens.”

He might be foolish, be he knows enough to know she’s right. Still, that is very young. He left at thirteen, but the Templar Order took care of the recruits. He never worried about money or providing for himself. Out of every issue the Order was facing, this was not one.

Princess Marigold. He still remembers Rosalie insisting on reading that story every single night. Would she still have the book? He should write them, at least Mia. He hasn’t done it in a while. He still has yet to reply to the letter she sent after Haven.

Princess Marigold. He watches Orla take the bread out, one by one, immediately, wielding the peel almost like a weapon.

“You could kill a bear with it,” he jokes. “I could see you as Princess Marigold.”

She gives him a peculiar look and doesn’t laugh. “I’m just a kitchen maid, Cullen.”

The air around them changes and he is unsure how to respond, cursing inside because it is clear she took offense. 

“I only meant—” he starts, but she has none of it.

“People like me are never heroes. They say it’s a miracle a mage got chosen as the Herald of Andraste. Ha!” Orla’s hand taps the table. “I say you try imagining a maid as one.”

Cullen tries and then fails, the embarrassment rising in his chest. He thinks of Evelyn, her family name, her elegance and grace, her successes at diplomacy, her perfect enunciation of words, her impressive magic. She is revered

Orla triumphs from across the table.

“I can’t imagine the Inquisitor being anyone else,” he says, hoping it is enough.

“What is she like?” Orla whispers, playing with the tip of her braid. “I mean, you know her. I’ve only seen her from afar.”

“She is…,“ he doesn’t know what to say without sounding like a complete fool. “She bears the responsibility courageously. She was willing to give up her life for the sake of everyone at Haven. She’s capable and witty, and she is a very accomplished mage. To become an Enchanter at such a young age, that says something. She’s kind and beautiful, and she has won the hearts of many people—“

“By the Maker,” Orla gasps. “You have hots for her.”

Maker’s breath! He knows that he is crimson red, averting her eyes. He could deny it, he will deny it, but the fact that she just guessed it… He remains silent.

“Cullen,” Orla murmurs. “I am no one. It’s not like I can tell anyone.”

“Fine,” he relents. “I fell for her. I made my feelings known and got rejected. Go on, laugh at me.”

                                                                               ******

Orla stares at Cullen with a mixture of empathy and irritation. 

“Why would I laugh at you?” she speaks, weighing each word. “Do you find me cruel?”

 “No,” he snaps. “I just thought—“

 She waits for his answer. 

 “I don’t know what I thought,” he finishes lamely. “That it’s embarrassing, maybe.”

 “I don’t go around laughing at people for falling for someone,” she adds, hurt. 

 “Sorry,” he mumbles, his arms flailing just a little.  

 Orla would not laugh. Cullen is a fool in many ways. He is not the subtlest of fools either. Still, he is a man who suffers and struggles, and she respects that. Orla had vices, but cruelty was never one of them.

 “I was a scullery maid once,” she takes a deep breath. “For a noble house in the Bannorn. Not the main one. Brothers and cousins of the Bann. I fell for a boy, the noble son. I was sixteen. He brought me flowers from the garden few times. I knew better, but I went with him, anyway. He told me I was sweet and lovable. He took my virginity and two weeks later I was without work, without a roof over my head and without references. Luckily I wasn’t with child. I don’t mock.”

 “It wasn’t right for this to happen to you,” Cullen says, still red in the face. 

 Orla knows that. It matters little now. 

 “Right or not, people laugh at stupid and naïve maids. I don’t laugh at anyone. I know how it feels. And the Inquisitor and the Commander… I doubt people mock that.”

 “Anyway, I am clearly not good enough,” he rubs his neck. 

 “Why?” Orla asks, crossing her arms and Cullen blinks several times.

 “I am a broken man, Orla.”

 “Cullen,” she shakes her head in disapproval. “Many people are broken.”

 “I—I did things—“

 “So you said.”

 “There were—thing that happened—“

 “I understand.”

 “She is better than me,” he groans.

 “Why?” Orla feels something burning in the throat, and she waits for his answer to prickle.

 “She’s the most powerful woman in Thedas. The bravest person I have met. In all this that she didn’t choose, she remains full of noble intentions. There’s so much she does. She’s both a fighter and a lady and I’m just—“ Cullen stops himself, the redness on his cheeks deepening.

 Orla’s throat burns indeed so she takes a bite of another pastry, chewing it slowly. No amount of sweetness helps.

 Cullen may be stupid at times, but he is not an idiot. Orla gathers he knows what he just said. 

 She likes to be right, though no one notices her victories. Sometimes being right causes pain and that she doesn’t enjoy. She is not sixteen, she is no longer naïve and stupid. Cullen thinks the Inquisitor is better than him because of her standing. 

 Cullen doesn’t think of people like her at all. They just don’t cross his mind. 

 “You’re the Commander here,” she looks at him, and the embarrassment on his face is visible. He probably wallows in guilt now. “Some would say that makes you the most powerful man in Thedas. You’re somewhere right there, anyway. Maybe she’s no better than you. Maybe just… not everyone likes Fereldan shortbread.”

 The air between them is so thick she could slice it. 

 “Orla,” he begins. “I didn’t mean—I didn’t think—“

 “I know,” she shrugs, hating that it hurts inside. “I’m used to it. I told you, didn’t I? We talk because I am no one.”

 He looks so uncomfortable that she almost wants to take pity on him and that makes her angry. It’s all because he has that face of an abandoned puppy.

 “Stop with the guilt, Cullen,” she scolds him, glowering and standing up. “It serves no one. Certainly not me. I’d rather you sweep the floors.”

 He sweeps them, doing half decent job and mumbling some apologies that Orla ignores. 

                                                                             *******

 It is painful to realize that Orla is right about most of what she just said. Every single reason for Evelyn’s rejection he came up with in the secrecy of his mind has been about his shortcomings, his past, his demons. Not once he has considered that it could be much simpler. Whether due to vanity or pride or because it was convenient, he blamed it all on Kinloch and Kirkwall. 

 Orla is right that his position as the Commander certainly means he has a fair share of power. He almost crushes underneath it and the responsibility it brings, but it is there, nonetheless. He’s not a fresh recruit who barely knows how to hold a sword. He has experience. He has a reputation. Some of it is good, some of it bad. He is anything but no one. Far from it. He is at the war table deciding the future of Thedas every single day. 

 He has been careless to whine like that to Orla. He has been cruel in his stupidity and while she clearly doesn’t want him to see that, he is not blind to miss the pain on her face. 

 He has been so selfish he hasn’t accounted for how that all sounds from her perspective. Here he is, the Commander of the Inquisition, going whenever he wants at whatever time he wants, monopolizing her attention and starting conversations because it distracts him. Her tea is good, her bluntness is oddly comforting and even when she berates him, she’s still kind whenever it matters. She knows about Kinloch, Kirkwall and Evelyn, at least a little. She makes him feel better.

 In all this time, he has only made her feel as if she was no one.

 He sweeps that damn floor, just to do something useful. He wishes to find meaningful words, to apologize, to tell her she is wrong, and that she is someone and he’s just an utter fool. She would not believe him. Why would she? When he stops, he sees Orla on her knees in the corner, scrubbing the stone. 

 “I should take my leave,” he breathes.

 “Goodbye, Cullen,” she doesn’t even look at him. “Thank you for the sweets.”

 “My pleasure,” he mutters, something pinching his heart. “Goodbye, Orla.”

                                                                                   *********

 By the time the morning comes, the kitchen shines even more than usual, and every bone in Orla’s body feels achy and tired. She did more than she needed to, and now she just wants to sleep. She still needs to wash herself and clean her clothing. Most Skyhold bedrooms have their own bathrooms, but not the tiny rooms that some servants use in the cellars. Whenever she showers, she washes her undergarments and her blouse as well, and hangs them on the line in her room. The water today is cold, and Orla feels her teeth chattering. She makes sure not to look in the mirror. 

 She goes into her bedroom. There only is enough space for a small bed and a chest and one chair. She was lucky, the bed was already there when she got the room. She found the chair and the chest and since no one claimed it, she took them for herself. She doesn’t have a lot of possessions at all. Some blankets, some clothes, soap, one pair of shoes, rope and scissors, a comb and hair ribbons, one bowl, one mug, one spoon. She spent her first wages on blankets, and yet it is still a bit cold. She spent the rest on clothing, and then she had a cough and had to buy a potion for that. She has barely any coin after sending some to her mother. She has nothing from home, not anymore. There was a necklace that Finn gave her, and a hair pin, and they are all lost somewhere underneath Haven. 

 Seeing how little she has reminds Orla how small she is and even though she rarely allows herself to cry, this time she bursts in tears the second she lies down. 

 Orla is more than no one. She is a person, and she has her thoughts and feelings and opinions even if there is no one left to care. She can cook and knit and she knows how to grow fruits and vegetables. She likes village fairs and dancing and things that smell nice. 

 She had someone who loved her just the way she was and now he is dead and she is all alone. 

 And yes, Orla has dreams, just like anyone else, she just doesn’t dare to think of them now. There are demons falling from the skies and some ancient darkspawn lurking somewhere and the world is ending, and she is cold, so she doesn’t allow herself to dream about the house with a garden surrounded by trees, about a man chopping wood and smiling at her, about children running around with a dog. 

 She doesn’t cry for long. Servants know how to control themselves. She rolls around, not able to settle herself. 

 She doesn’t think Cullen will come to the kitchen again. 

 Orla cries just a bit more.  

Chapter Text

Cullen dreams of Kinloch again, of the mage he liked and how the demons used it to taunt him, to torture him. In his dream, he watches himself in the cage again, half mad, like an animal. The demons arouse him with the sweetest images just for it to turn vile and brutal. He sees them touching him and begging him and teasing him. He sees his young self closing his eyes and screaming. He sees himself fighting, over and over again, and then they show him something gentle and lovely just to make him resist less,  and then the torture repeats over and over again.

He dreams of Kirkwall. The demon speaks directly to him, whispering into his ears all the things he had missed, all of his failure to protect the charges. The demon tells him that if he knew, he would have not stopped it, he would have joined in, he would have enjoyed it. 

He dreams of finding Evelyn in the snow, half frozen. She buries her face into his neck as he carries her to the tent. He covers her with furs and holds her, waiting for the healers, but then she laughs and laughs, the sounds growing wicked, and he knows she is a demon as well. 

Cullen wakes up with a scream in his mouth, drenched in sweat. He sees the stars through the skylight window above, but it doesn’t help now, he’s almost suffocating, he needs to leave. He tosses some clothing down to the office. He almost slips descending the ladder, struggling to catch a breath, his legs shaking. He looks at his desk and the amount of paperwork on it, all the decisions he has to make. His hands tremble as he dresses, and he doesn’t even put a plate armor on, just a simple gambeson and his mantle.

He walks out to catch some fresh air and leans on the barricades. The night is beautiful and quiet, with a full moon and a starry firmament shining above him, but he can’t focus, he can’t anchor himself onto anything, he cannot keep himself composed.

He continues walking, feeling his stomach twisting and churning, searching for the patrols but there is no one. He retches down the wall, coughing. It brings tears into his eyes and then Cullen cries and cries and cries until he finds himself at the kitchen’s door.

He half tries to stop himself from walking in, the guilt tugging at his conscience, but then he gently pushes the door. Orla is sleeping on the floor by the fire, covered in blankets. He freezes in place, covering his mouth but then runs into the sink and starts vomiting again.

He hears a scream and some clattering behind him before he feels hands touching his back. 

“Cullen?” she says harshly. “What’s going on?”

He is heaving, not able to speak. 

“Shh,” her voice softens. “It’s all right. Don’t answer. It’s all right.”

She waits by his side, her hand still on him as he vomits the bile again, straining. His abdomen hurts, his whole body shivers. 

It passes a little, eventually, and Orla runs water and wipes his face off with a lukewarm cloth. He is standing still, exposed and ashamed. 

“You think you’re done?” she whispers and he merely nods. She pours him a glass of water and he spits the first few sips, cleaning his mouth before he drinks some, his throat achy. 

“Come,” her touch is gentle and firm, and Cullen doesn’t resist as she’s leading him to the blankets near the fireplace where she just slept. He sits down in silence, not looking at her, just trying to work on his breathing. His whole body feels limp and weak. 

He swore to himself to not burden her again, to not impose, to not use Orla to make himself better. It’s been five days. He says no to demons, he says no to lyrium, he still couldn’t prevent himself from barging in here. 

In this moment, Cullen hates himself. He feels her hands grabbing his as she puts a warm mug in his hand.

“The tea will settle your stomach and help with the throat.” she murmurs. “It’s not too hot.”

He doesn’t make any move, so she nudges him and pushes the mug closer to his mouth. He takes several sips, worried he would vomit again, but he just feels the slight sweetness and coolness of elfroot on his tongue. 

“I am sorry for coming here, Orla,” he mumbles. “I am sorry for—“

“I have never told you not to come here, you stupid man,” she sighs, encouraging him to drink more. She only relents when he finishes half of it. 

“Orla,” he tries to stand up as she grabs his shoulder.

“You utter fool,” she complains, “where do you think you’re going? You could barely stand by the sink. Take down the jacket and lie down. Lie down.”

“I- I- I- can’t,” he protests and looks at her as she helps slide off his gambeson and puts it to the side. 

She is very close, her face lined with his. He can see her thick eyebrows furrowing, her dark eyes blazing, her wide and full mouth serious. She doesn’t waver. 

“Cullen,” she taps him on the cheek unceremoniously. “If you get hurt right outside of my kitchen, I will be in trouble. If you die, they will probably kill me. Lie down, now.”

She removes his mantle and places it underneath his head and then she covers him with the blanket. 

“Orla,” his voice cracks and he feels himself on the verge of panic. “I—I—I—have nightmares. They are—I am sure they look—“

“So you said,” she shrugs. “Im sure I’ve seen worse.”

“I don’t take lyrium,” he snaps, realizing that she doesn’t know what it implies, what it means, but then she tenses up and he can feel her grip tightening.

“I was in Hinterlands when the Templars and the mages fought,” she whispers. “I’ve seen things. I’ve seen some Templars without lyrium.”

The dread fills Cullen at the thought of what might that mean for a woman like Orla and he makes a slight move but she gently holds him down.

“It’s been longer than six months,” he admits.

“You’re not dying,” she breathes out. “I’ve seen enough to know that. You need to rest. How much are you sleeping?”

“Couple hours here and there,” he confesses, defeated.

“You have to sleep, Cullen,” there is worry and desperation in her voice.

“I—I — I—,“ his eyes get wet and Cullen cries again, like a child, turning away before he whispers what he would have not admitted to anyone else. “I am—I am afraid.”

He is the Commander of the Inquisition, and he sobs on the kitchen floor, covering his face with his hands, the deepest shame overtaking him. The Templars… there has never been privacy. If his soldiers saw him now they would never trust his orders.

“It happens sometimes,” Orla’s voice is steady and quiet but firm. “Move a bit.”

Before he realizes, she lies beside him and he can feel her hand stroking his back in a soothing manner. No one touched like that since—Maybe since leaving Honnleath. Maybe since he was a child himself. For a second he thinks it would remind him of his dreams, of Kinloch, of every miserable and failed attempt at—No. It doesn’t. It’s just comforting and tender enough for some of his tension to release. 

“Everyone gets afraid,” she sooths. “Everyone. Those strong and those weak, those smart and stupid, men and women, nobles and common folks. Everyone. Even kings and empresses and commanders.”

He snivels and frantically tries to wipe off his face.

“Everyone cries too,” Orla breathes. “Everyone. Maids are invisible enough to know those things. No one is here. No one will know.”

Orla,” he manages before his voice cracks.

She shushes him, her hand still caressing him. 

“Did your mother sing to you when you were a wee one? I used to sing to my sisters,” before he even attempts to answer, he can hear her pretty voice, shaking a little. “Sleep, my babe, full of wonder, all through the night. Deep the silence ‘round us spreading, all through the night. Dark the path that we are treading, all through the night. I am vigil keeping round you, I will of all fears disarm you, all through the night. No forebodings should alarm you, I will let no peril harm you, all through the night”.

Cullen doesn’t remember if that was the song from his childhood, but Orla’s voice is sweet and comforting, and something in his heart moves. He closes his eyes, and she sings this over and over again, and he slowly calms down until he falls asleep.

                                                                                  *****************

Cullen is sweaty, and the shirt underneath her fingers feels a bit wet. It’s a soft linen, the highest quality, Orla can tell. He seems to be running both hot and cold and the same time, and Orla adjust the blankets on him. 

His breathing is steady and heavy, he is asleep now. Orla is glad she finished all the meat pies already because she doesn’t want to clacker around the kitchen and wake him up. 

She got scared when she heard the noises and suddenly woke up. It took her breath away for a minute, but it was just Cullen, barely holding onto the counter, drenched and sick, vomiting. 

Vomit and sick people hardly bother Orla. She was the one taking care of her little sisters growing up when both of her parents worked. As a maid, she has seen a lot too, and she is used to it. She faced no issues helping the refugees in the Hinterlands, guided by the Revered Mother.

Cullen was ashamed, that much is clear to her. He should be used to things, as a soldier, but he is a man in power and he is too proud for his own good. Stupid, poor man. Doesn’t he have anyone at all? Not anyone to confide in so he has to find the lowliest maid to take care of him? Orla is not angry. Truthfully, part of her is glad to see him again, though she wishes he would feel better.

He’s like a puppy who’s been kicked and beaten and left in the rain, so Orla holds him. Those things need not be complicated. She has always thought that. When someone is hungry, they should be fed. When someone is injured, they should be helped. When someone is scared, they should be consoled. When someone is foolish, they should be scolded. Cullen is all of that, all in one.

Without his armor, curled on the side, with that ridiculous mantle as a pillow, he looks defenseless. Helpless. He is tall and strong, and she can feel the hard muscles of his back underneath that shirt. He’s also little and sad and lost, like a child. He was crying so hard, so embarrassed by it all. 

Orla knows how that feels. She has been alone many times. With few exceptions in her life, she has been alone for a very long time now. He seems entirely alone, or he makes himself alone, because he is stupid and thinks that people are better than him and can’t be bothered. Truly, Orla thinks that too about herself too, but the difference between them is that Orla is just a kitchenmaid and he is the Commander. He’s not like her, and even she would get help for herself if she was that sick.

She doesn’t have friends at Skyhold. There are few girls that she trades favors with, but that is all. Everyone moves on. Those that survived Haven together avoid each other’s company, not wishing to speak of it all. The new people arrive daily; traders, servants, soldiers, but Orla has no confidence to put herself out there, not yet. Skyhold is bigger that most places she is used to, the people sometimes a bit fancier, more foreigners than she’s ever met. It’s larger than what she knows, and she’s been so quiet lately she barely recognizes herself. It feels safer to stay away, to not draw too much attention. Each time she tries to ask for something, like for a chance to cook or for advancement on her wages, Mistress Martha says ‘no’. Orla knows how to be relentless, but she also knows when to shut up, because now at least she has a job.

She hasn’t talked with almost anyone in the last months, except for Cullen. He talks mostly about himself, but she expects no less. He has said things that hurt her, it is true and Orla knows she is right and he doesn’t care. Still, sometimes it feels nice to just open her mouth. 

She rolls on the other side and presses her back against his. She can sense him breathing, and she takes some of the blanket for herself. She has to admit that feeling his body pressed against her brings her some comfort too. A shared loneliness, she supposes.

Orla drifts into her sleep, knowing she will rouse in just a couple of hours to glaze all the pork pies. 

                                                                               ****************

Cullen doesn’t dream of Kinchold, Cullen doesn’t dream of Kirkwall, Cullen doesn’t dream of Evelyn. He dreams of everything in between, other things he is ashamed of. Sometimes there is a demon that doesn’t taunt him, but merely mocks him instead. Cullen dreams of the first time he’s ever had sex with a merchant’s widow in Kirkwall. It’s been a couple years since Kinchold, he thinks himself as calm, composed, responsible.

The dream is just a memory. He is back there, his hands are shaking, he doesn’t know what he is doing, but he’s also so eager. She smells so nice, her hair is so sleek, her breath is heavy, her lips greedy. It feels good for a short while, and then the images flood him so violently that he’s not able to continue. Her disappointed “that’s it?,” as he runs in the bathroom, and her “what’s wrong with you?” later.

Demon appears and laughs at him, saying that he has never satisfied a woman and he never will, that no one will love him or want him. 

“Commander,” the demon wears the face of the woman from Kirkwall, “this is all you’ll ever have.”

“No,” Cullen shakes his head and pulls away, “Leave me! Leave me alone!”

Then he wakes up.

                                                                               *****************

Like all servants, Orla is a light sleeper. Cullen’s body shaking is enough to rouse her, and she half sits to look at him. He’s trembling and moving his hands, as if pushing someone away. He’s voice sounds scared and broken, and his face is marred with worry.

“No,” he pleads. “Leave me! Leave me alone!”

Orla has a knot in the pit of her stomach. She knows she has said those exact words few times in her life. Not in her dreams. 

She waits.

Cullen wakes up and lifts his head abruptly.

“It’s Orla,” she brushes against his shoulder as he looks at her and breathes out. “You’re safe. It’s fine.”

“I’m sorry,” he whispers desperate, and it tugs at her heart. “Did I scare you? It must have looked—“

“It’s not that bad,” she reassures him and guides him to place his head back on the fur mantle. “You were completely still most of the time.”

“Really?” she can hear him swallow. “I always imagine—“

“You imagine too many things,” she sighs. “I expected worse.”

“Did you fall asleep too?” he asks and Orla feels her cheeks reddening. 

“I was already lying down when I sang you a lullaby and I was sleeping before when you came in—“

“I don’t mind,” he blurts. 

“Try sleeping more,” she instructs to mask the tenderness she feels. “I will wake you before the morn arrives.”

“I will,” Cullen agrees and shuts his eyes. 

He’s a stray Mabari pup, Orla thinks to herself.

Now that he’s on his back, she can look at his face more carefully. The stove flame provides her with enough light. There are dark circles around his eyes and he still looks pale. There is redness on his face too and it’s clear he’s been crying. She will make him wash his face with cold water later on. He’s still handsome. Pretty as a picture. Maybe the prettiest man she’s ever seen. 

She waits until she’s sure he’s out, and then she gets up to prepare the glaze. She doesn’t light more candles and moves quietly, glancing at the floor in front of the fireplace from time to time. 

Cullen sleeps for much longer, not stirring even once, out. 

Orla glazes all the pork pies and set them in baskets to deliver to the main kitchens later. She cooks millet and applesauce, both sweetened with honey and prepares tea before walking him up. 

                                                                              **************

Cullen rises quickly, as a soldier should. He takes less than a second to remind himself where he’s at. Orla’s braid falls onto his chest as she kneels in front of him, gently shaking his shoulder. 

“Time to get up,” she announces. “I made you breakfast and there’s freshly brewed tea. You will eat before leaving.”

The memory of last night hits him with full force. He burst in, walking her up and likely frightening her, then he hurled all over the sink, and then he shamelessly cried and then he slept for… a long time. 

The shame rises in his chest. He realizes he’s not wearing his armor, just breeches, shoes and a shirt. He swallows, aware of his morning hardness as he covers himself with a blanket.

Orla doesn’t seem flustered by anything. Not even in the slightest. 

“How are you feeling?” she observes him. 

How does he—He gasps because he feels rather good. His head feels heavy, but there’s no pain. His back is uncomfortable from sleeping on the floor. He needs a shower, that’s certain. He doesn’t feel bad. 

“Better,” he acknowledges. 

“Who would have thought,” Orla raises her eyebrows and gets up in one swift motion. “It seems you’re just a man, Cullen. A man who needs sleep.”

“Orla,” he looks at her and measures his words. “I am… I am sorry for everything. I know what I did last night and how you took care of me and there are no works to express my gratitude—“

“Stop fussing,” she dismisses him with a frown. “Your food is getting cold. And wash your face. You look horrible.”

He chuckles a bit. The icy water awakens him fully.

He sits at the table, takes a sip of his tea and digs into a bowl of… millet and apples? Common folks’ food, one that he remembers from his own childhood.

“No complaining”, Orla warns him, bustling around the kitchen. “It’s good for your stomach.”

Cullen is not the one to complain about food. Besides, it is delicious. Better than the memories of this dish from his childhood. The apples are tangy and not too mushy, flavored with honey. The millet is creamy, just slightly sweet with added spices like cinnamon and cloves. 

She’s a good cook, that is obvious. She’s a good woman, too. She could have kicked him out or she could have said so many things, but instead she just—He cried and she sang him a lovely lullaby, as if he was a child. She made him feel safe and accepted, and even though he’s ashamed by all that happened, he also feels more whole than before.

Cullen rubs his head, fully aware that he is the one reaping the benefits. He knows what Orla thinks, and it’s like a needle going through his heart, but anything he could say feels intrusive. Orla is not very keen for elaborate displays of gratitude or elaborate displays of anything. 

She looks different today, too. Maybe because she got some sleep herself. Her thick braid, reaching almost to her waist is messed up, strands of her hair pulling out of it. It makes her look softer, younger. 

Orla is young, he chastises himself. Fourteen during the Blight, maybe not even twenty five now. 

She sits down across the table, drinking her tea and watching him eat. He bets she would scold him if he left anything, but somehow he doesn’t mind. She tugs some loose hair behind her ear. Her hands show the signs of physical work, just like those of the soldiers. Her fingers are long, the nails trimmed short. Her outfit is very simple, and even though Cullen usually pays no attention, he can notice her shirt has been repaired few times before. 

“It was very tasty,” he says right after finishing his food, feeling pleasantly full for once. 

“Good,” Orla replies satisfied and smiles.

She is beautiful, Cullen catches himself. Her dark brown eyes light up when she beams, and her whole face brightens. Her skin is creamy, her lips pink and full. Maker’s breath. He has no right to be thinking all that.

“I need to—,“ he gets up, aware that he is about to sneak around the barricades to avoid soldiers spotting him without his armor.

“I know. I am glad you’re doing better.”

“Orla, I don’t know how to repay you—“

“Take a better care of yourself,” she finishes, without hesitation.

“Yes, uhm, well—,“ he flusters. “I will certainly try.”

“Someone should remind you,” Orla sighs. 

Cullen is very aware that after the last night he cannot argue with her. She would give him one of her critical glances. Maker’s breath, what does she think of him? 

“Well,” he clears his throat, “I am the Commander, so it can be complicated and—“

“Come here if you need help,” she responds and Cullen blinks.

It’s more than he deserves. He shouldn’t. He has already burdened her beyond any appropriateness. She is at work, she is busy, and he’s been nothing but—

It’s been a solace. 

He knows he’ll be here again.

“Orla, I have already caused you so much inconvenience—“ he stops. She’s glaring at him. 

“Oh, you think I somehow haven’t noticed?” she shrugs. “Do you think me stupid, Cullen?”

“N-no. Not at all,” his face flushes. “I-just—well. I didn’t want to seem—“

She gets up and shakes her head. “When I say you can come here, it means you can come here. That’s it. No need for the charade.”

“I—I will come here again,” he whispers.

“Have a nice day, Cullen,” she walks to him to the door.

“You too, Orla,” it is still dark, way before the dawn.

He hasn’t felt that rested in ages.    

                                                                                **************

Orla delivers the pork pies to the main kitchen. Mistress Martha looks at them critically. They look perfect, Orla knows that. She also knows she won’t get any praise. Today it doesn’t sting. 

He’s the most powerful man in Skyhold, that is certain. He wields a sword, he wears an armor every day. Every soldier here responds to him. He decides things Orla knows nothing about. He knows the Inquisitor. He loves the Inquisitor. He is all that, big and mighty. They call him the Lion of Ferelden. He’s also just Cullen. He’s afraid to sleep. He has bad dreams. He eats poorly unless someone watches over him. He doesn’t rest enough. 

Tending to the Commander makes Orla feel braver. Tending to Cullen makes her feel warmer.

She can’t decide which is worse. 

She knows she is foolish. As much as she berates Cullen for his stupidity, she is foolish herself for wanting to see him again. 

Chapter Text

Cullen has been visiting the kitchen regularly in the last couple of weeks. He feels a little embarrassed by his neediness, improper. Orla doesn’t seem to mind, no more than usual, at least. The thought lurks inside of his brain. If it bothered her, would she say something? She is direct, even brazen, and Cullen might be oblivious at times, but he is not an ignorant, uneducated man. He knows of power imbalances; he is the former Templar. Former Knight-Commander of the Gallows. He knows that Orla is working; he knows she is a maid; he knows how inappropriate this would seem if anyone saw them sleeping on the floor side by side, however innocent it is. 

He still comes often, waiting for Orla to berate him for something, trying to make her laugh, letting her fix food for him. It is selfish, but here in the kitchen he is more Cullen than he is the Commander, and he likes it. 

He likes her. Orla watches him critically, sighing with disapproval whenever he gets something wrong. She puts him to work and rolls her eyes when it becomes clear how little he can do. She praises him sparsely, but each time she does, he swells with pride. 

“Not bad,” she looks at him standing by the prep table, attempting to knead bread. “You’re a strong man, Cullen.”

He cannot hide his smirk. With more sleep and more food, he actually feels stronger. He won sparring match today with Cassandra, though he wonders if he was in such a bad shape that she has been holding back lately and this morning he surprised her. It feels good to win. It feels good to rely on his body. 

“You’re strong too, Orla,” he answers. “I’ve seen you work.”

“It’s not the same type of strength,” she replies, shaking the flour from her hands. “How does it feel?”

“How does what feel?”.

“To walk the world the way you do. With that mantle and that title and that sword. People respect you. People obey you.”

Cullen swallows. What can he say? The power brought out the worst in him, when he was second-in-command to Meredith. When he helped running the Gallows with an iron hand. He could try legitimizing his actions by a virtue of ignorance, but ultimately, there is no excuse for his failures. Kinloch is not an excuse either. There’s only regret and the will to not repeat it. After he turned against Meredith, he became the Knight-Commander himself, in a desperate attempt to save and salvage, and to atone. He has never lost the position of authority, even though he deserved to. When Cassandra approached him, it was with the proposition of running the forces. 

Cullen is used to it all. He’s used to giving orders and making difficult choices. What he is still learning is how to make sure they are the right ones, and that, as he had found out, is a lifelong task. 

Nonetheless, Cullen also knows how to feels powerless. Whenever he’s back at the Kinloch Tower, in his flashbacks or his dreams, he holds no power there. His fight is almost meaningless, each of his senses flooded by the demon’s beguiling. The sight the mage he fancied back then contorted and spread before half the Tower’s templars. The smell of lightning and fire, but also the sweet smell of flowers, just like her hair. He hears the moans, the screams, the whimpers. He tastes the bile of his vomit, he tastes the blood flowing from his gums, he almost tastes the lyrium he craves. And then, the demon touches his body everywhere. 

He is aware of the intertwine between the power and weakness. He’s aware why Meredith had chosen him for the Knight-Captain, he’s aware that without it all he would have never risen rank, but he also tries, he really tries to be everything he needs to be right now. 

He still believes. He believes in goodness, he believes in the Inquisition, and somewhere deep inside of him, despite all the evidence to the contrary, he even believes in himself. 

“It feels lonely,” he finally says, knowing for certain he is self-absorbed and petulant. “It feels lonely, and dangerous, and comfortable, and after a while, it feels ordinary. I don’t know a different life. Sometimes it is scary. Sometimes it is crushing.”

“It sounds so grand,” she places the kneaded bread in the baskets, “to be able to change the world. I suppose it’s a lot different from what I imagine.”

It is grand. It’s easy to forget when he’s dealing with daily requisitions and hopeless recruits barely knowing how to hold their swords. He marches into the war room every day and they talk and decide the future of Thedas as if it was the toss of a coin. 

“I suppose it’s easy to forget how grand it really is,” he responds, rubbing his head. 

“Do you think the world will end?” Orla asks, and her voice shakes a bit. 

That little tremble grips at Cullen’s heart and everything he stands for, at his need to protect, to save, to help.

“The Inquisition,” he firms his tone. “We won’t let it happen. I won’t let it happen.”

She looks at him for few seconds, without saying a word. 

“Well then,” she remarks softly. “I guess I can’t let you go hungry. Tea first?”

Cullen smiles. 

                                                                             ******************

Orla is so used to Cullen coming over, she finds herself distracted the nights he is not there. She tries to push the thoughts aside, but part of her misses his company, and this is exactly the foolishness a servant like her should not engage in. She is not a dumb sixteen-year-old. He is not her friend, he is the Commander who seeks a distraction. She is not his friend, she is a maid. She reminds herself that each time she hands him tea or cooks him a quick meal. She is just a kitchenmaid.

“Eat,” she places a bowl of barley soup in front of him. 

“Thank you, Orla,” he gives her a shy smile and something pinches at her heart. 

Cullen looks better, and she feels pride and satisfaction knowing that it is because of her. He stands taller, his voice doesn’t shake as much, the circles underneath his eyes almost disappear. 

He still follows her around like a faithful dog, freezing each time she gives him a stink eye. Even so, she can believe how this is the man leading the army. There is strength around him, the aura of authority. Whenever they talk about the war, the future, his voice is firmer, his stance more stern. 

He laughs more too and Orla enjoys how it sounds. They play a silly game of apple toss before making turnovers, and Cullen laughs more than she expected. Maybe that’s a soldier in him, maybe that’s just a man in him, but he doesn’t like to lose and Orla can see how he squints his eyes and turns his body so that the apple would land in the bucket.

“Ten points for me,” he announced with pride, keeping the score.

Orla giggles. 

“You’re very serious about it, Cullen.”

Very,” he looks at her with mirth. “I was always the one to lose at any games with my siblings.”

The very thought brings a smile to her face. She tosses her apple and misses.

“Well, no luck for me.”

“It’s not luck,” Cullen announces with passion. “You need to shift your body. Put one leg in the front. All right. Good. Immobilize your arm, use just your elbow.”

The apple falls into one of the three buckets set up by the wall. 

“How many points is that?” she asks innocently.

“That does not count, Orla,” he furrows his brows, chuckling. “I guided you through it.”

“Remarkable confidence for a man who needs guidance to wash the dishes.”

“I claim my victories whenever I can.”

“I bet I can beat you at the laughing game,” she bites her lip.

“Is that the one when one person is making silly faces and the other tries not to laugh?” he wonders.

“That’s the one.”

“You’re absolutely on,” he moves to the table. “I’ll have you know that I am very serious and I am used to keeping my composure around the soldiers.”

“If you say so,” Orla sits across him.

He could be the King himself, and Orla would still bet on a maid every single time. If there is one thing she knows, it is to hide her reactions in front of others. Each maid has that skill set, otherwise she’s in danger. 

“You start,” he puts his elbow on the table and looks at her with a blank expression on his face.

She grimaces, shows her teeth, crosses her eyes, puffs her cheeks, but it’s her ability to touch the tip of her nose with her tongue that gets Cullen.

“How are you even doing this?” he rubs his neck while trying to stop himself from laughing and failing.

“Some people just can,” she responds. “Your turn.”

Cullen is so awkward while trying to be silly. Every face he makes is just not enough and Orla stares at him unmoved, watching him blush and blush more and sticking his tongue just a little until his embarrassment is just too much and she laughs so hard she places her head on the table and covers it with her hands.

“You are terrible at this, Cullen,” she looks at him, all flustered and adorable.

“Not at all,” he denies, still smiling. “It’s called diversion.”

Orla rolls her eyes. 

For a moment, she feels happy.

                                                                            ********************

Cullen reaches to grab one of the apple turnovers and Orla swats his hand with the piece of cloth.

“Not now!” she frowns. “You will burn your mouth.”

He laughs. “If my soldiers saw their Commander like that—“

Orla pales, her eyes widen and Cullen regrets his words instantly.

“Forgive me,” she starts, and it feels so wrong to see her so contrite. His stomach churns.

“No, Orla,” he turns towards her, “No, please, don’t. I—I am so sorry. I didn’t mean it that way. Please. I don’t—I like how you are. Please. I’m an utter fool, remember? I say wrong things all the time.”

Cullen sees the blush appearing on her face, but she remains reticent and hesitant. He really is a fool. Each time he thinks he does something right and then he says something ill-timed and insensitive, causing this, all while he allows himself to come here whenever he pleases. 

She still holds the cloth in her hand, averting his eyes, and Cullen’s heart is twisting in pain. He grips her arm, gently.

“Orla,” he whispers. “You can do no wrong. I come here because of your grace, and I am here at your mercy. You know my failures, and you’ve seen me at my lowest. You can do as you please. I am broken, and I am stupid, but even I am not that foolish nor that careless. I allow myself to come here, I eat your food, I sleep in your blankets. Say what you think. Do what you wish. You can do no wrong, Orla. I swear to you, with all that I am, I swear on the Maker that I will never harm you. I’ll say wrong things, because I am a fool, but… Get me to work, I will do it. Tell me to leave, I will, with no hesitation. Orla, I… I am at your command.”

She scoffs and frowns, irate, but then her features soften and she pats him on the shoulder.

“Cullen,” she sighs and he can’t read her dark eyes, “I am sure that the turnovers have cooled down in the time you’ve made that speech.”

There is little he can do to convince her, and he can only imagine how many times her trust have been broken. How easy would it be to consider her cold or bitter, but Orla is none of that, of that he is certain. 

He picks two apple turnovers and watches her taking a bite as well, not even sitting down, but moving around the kitchen, putting away clean bowls and kitchen tools. 

“You don’t care for words, do you?” he nudges her a little.

“Ah,” she dismisses him, “people sprinkle sugar on words far too often.”

He thinks of war table talks and how often he is frustrated with the Ambassador’s approach, so different from his own, but then he also thinks of everything Josephine accomplishes and he doesn’t. He thinks of literature he enjoys, he thinks of how words can improve soldiers’ morale in the field.

“Is it always that wrong?” he wonders.

“Cullen,” she says. “How uncouth you must find me. I care for words, and I try for mine to have meaning. I like stories, and I like songs. I don’t know how to speak prettily like you do. What do you want me to say? When you’re a girl like me, you learn to be careful. Things that I have to say rarely matter to anyone. You say that I don’t care so, as if I have never given you a kind and gentle word. I’m no lady, Cullen. You won’t get praise for honeyed speeches, but don’t allow yourself to decide what I care or don’t care about.”

“I—well—“ he stammers. “I — I suppose you are right.”

“You’re a fool,” she huffs, looking at him. “But you’re a good fool and I like you. That’s all you get.”

How odd. Something moves his heart in motion and he flushes. Even his ears feel warm. 

“It’s more than I deserve,” he replies and she rolls her eyes. 

“Better help me with those bowls. I am tall but I have nothing on you.”

She is tall, Cullen realizes standing right beside her, helping her place everything on the highest shelving. He has never even noticed, since they are always alone. For a slight second his brain latches onto a thought that she must have really long legs before he dismisses it with fury. He cannot. She is a… Friend? He doesn’t know how to name it, but he still remembers how she thought he would force her to—No. She knows about his demons, she knows about Evelyn, and while he’s just a man and she is a beautiful woman, he cannot be thinking of her that way. 

“Cullen?” she turns to him and glowers. “What? Do I have something on my face?”

“Yes,” he lies, bringing his hand to her cheek and stroking it gently with his thumb. “There, all done.”

“Thank you,” she smiles a little and Maker’s breath, she is close. He can see all the shades of brown and black in her eyes. “Sit down by the fire, Cullen. I’ll just put those turnovers in the basket and I’ll join you.”

                                                                                     *******************

Cullen doesn’t always sleep in the kitchen, but he does it often, and Orla naps there from time to time too. Since the first night it happened, since he doesn’t mind she lies on the blanket with him. She has always been poor, she shared the bed with her sisters as a child. She is a servant, she survived a war, she was a refugee, she has slept besides many people and she is used to falling into slumber almost anywhere. 

It means nothing to Orla to have someone by her side. Nothing at all. It’s just a  warm body, and there is distance between them, and they are both dressed. 

Except that this is Cullen, and he smells like a forest and an orchard at once. He smells like Ferelden, and Orla wants to put her nose into his neck and breathe it in. She wants to cling to him and feel his strength around her.

She distracts herself with thoughts of Finn, but even the pain she feels doesn’t squash the fluttering in her stomach, as if she swallowed a butterfly. She is no one, she reminds herself. She is no one, and it is not like that. He is a sick, lost man. He is a man in love with another woman. He’s in love with the Inquisitor herself. Orla is not naïve. She knows all that very well, but her body doesn’t listen and she feels the warmth filling her, the shiver around her skin, the pooling between her thighs.

It isn’t supposed to happen, not after — There is hurt she carries, and she hasn’t wanted to lay with a man in a very long time. Her want had all dried up. She thought she would never want it again; and now Cullen is here, sleeping by her side, and the need spreads all around her. “I am at your command”, says Cullen in her mind and she scolds herself time after time.

It’s wrong. It’s all wrong. He carries hurt too, and she is not stupid, she knows what his nightmares are about. She pushes away the idea that she could make him feel good. She already makes him feel good enough for him to come here, to eat her food, to sleep by her side. No, she can’t be thinking that. She was stupid before, when she was much younger. This won’t happen, and if it did, nothing good would come from it. She is no one, he’s the Commander, and she doesn’t want to be used, she just wants… She scorns herself for things she wants. 

Cullen moves in his sleep, repeating “no” over and over again, and now Orla feels guilty and she wraps her arms across her chest. He calms down a bit, shifts on the floor, and then he does something he has never done before. His arm falls around her waist and he holds her. 

Orla’s heart is beating fast. He’s asleep, he doesn’t know what he’s doing. Suddenly he is closer, and he pulls her in and she feels heat radiating from his chest. His breath is by her ear, and the scent of his body covers her. His embrace is so nice, and it makes her feel safe. Should she move away? She puts her hand on his, thinking of wiggling away, but then he intertwines his fingers with hers. 

What is he dreaming of? Is he dreaming of the Inquisitor, lying there beside him? Of him guarding her and protecting her? She is the Inquisitor, he is her Commander, and Orla is… just a girl whose heart wiggles like a swallow trapped in a barn. 

She knows better than to allow herself to enjoy it. She should tell him to leave and not come back, he said he’d listen. She should, but Cullen coming to the kitchen is her favorite part of the day. Seeing his stupid, pretty face getting all flustered, watching him try to follow her directions meticulously and with care, seeing him relax by the fire, laughing together. It is everything a maid should never do. 

It will pass, she knows that. He has no one else now, so he comes here. It won’t last, and he will become a distant memory of few weeks of her life.

He stirs again a bit, mumbling something incoherent and his grip on her tightens. He really smells so nice. Orla feels his nose in her hair. His body flushes against hers, and the sensation of his face rubbing onto her neck sends shivers down her spine. 

She is no one, she reminds herself, the hurt spreading all over. 

“Orla,” Cullen says dreamily, and she forgets to breathe. 

She closes her eyes and steadies herself. It is her name he just whispered. She did not mishear it, that she is sure of. 

It still means nothing.

“Orla,” Cullen repeats in his slumber and then there’s only silence of the night surrounding them, with the fire crackling behind. 

Enough, Orla decides and falls asleep. 

                                                                            ****************

Cullen has never awakened earlier than Orla. His nightmare roused him from time to time, but they always roused her as well. This is the first time he just wakes up alone, not remembering the dreams, and he immediately realizes he’s cradling her in his arms, that his hand is touching her stomach. Maker’s breath, he is hard as a rock, right against her body. Horrified at his own boldness and the undeniable intimacy of the moment, he moves his arm and gently pulls away. Orla shifts and turns, and now her face is so close their noses are almost touching. 

Andraste preserve him. 

When she is awake, she is snappy, witty and quick. Even when she sits down, she still keeps moving in some way. Now everything about her seems softer and sweeter. He sees few freckles on her nose and cheeks. Her eyelashes twitch as she sleeps, and her full lips are slightly parted. The sudden tenderness befalls him, the feeling that doesn’t stem from his loins, but from the place where his heart and soul briefly meet. 

This cannot be. He is in love with Evelyn, he has been for a long time, this is just—He has no right. Of everyone here in Skyhold, Orla has to be the one he cannot fail. The memory of how she thought he would force himself on her twists in his stomach, taking away all the desire. She trusts him. It is clear because she is able to fall asleep by his side, so vulnerable and innocent. It is clear with how she talks to him and the things she says. She trusts him, despite everything he does wrong, despite knowing what he had done and what had happened to him. She trusts him despite how often her trust had had been broken, and Cullen clenches his jaw thinking about the noble son who took advantage of her, and everything else she might have been through.

Orla is his lifeline, the one person to see him through each of the worst days. It is more he could have asked for, and it is precious. She is precious. He won’t ruin it, and he will keep her from harm, even from himself, if necessary. 

She frowns a little, just the tiniest move of an eyebrow and then she opens her eyes and blinks few times. Her eyes are dazed with dreams before he sees the realization suddenly hitting her.

“Hi, Cullen,” she murmurs.

“Hi, Orla,” he answers, something clenching his throat.

“Did you sleep well?”

“Yes,” he fights the desire to touch her face, “I did. No bad dreams. Did… did you sleep well?”

How long was he holding her? Does she know?

“I always sleep well”, Orla gets up and Cullen sees her braid so wonderfully disheveled. “Would you like some drop scones for breakfast?”

“Whatever you’re willing…,” he doesn’t finish when her eyes snap at him. “Drop scones sound delightful.”

Cullen,” she half-approves, half-scolds, patting his arm. “You learn after all.”

“You can teach an old dog new tricks, it seems,” he mutters and by some miracle this is the sentence that earns him a radiant smile. 

“Come, Mabari. You’ll peel and core some apples.”

He flushes at the remark and obeys her, thinking than any war hound would listen to Orla. 

                                                                          ********************

Orla doesn’t have a winter coat, so she doesn’t go outside. The cold is still too punishing; and where would she go, anyway? She wishes she had another job, or something on the side to earn money, but there’s little chance for that, not with not being able to read, not with Orlesian food being preferred here. She has never worked as a personal maid, and those who attend the visiting dignitaries are very well trained. 

She should leave Skyhold when the summer comes. She could ask some merchant, go back to Ferelden, except that there’s war now and the thought she might be out there once again makes her want to vomit. People talk about mages and Templars, and nobody cares about the bandits, the smugglers and what happened to countless villages. Skyhold traps her. Maybe she would have more chance of work anywhere in Ferelden. Skyhold has thick walls, and she has her own room, and as poor as she is, she need not worry about food. 

Skyhold has Cullen.

Cullen, who won’t let the world fail. Cullen, who has no one. 

Ah, isn’t she stupid? Years and years have passed, and she is not smarter than that stupid little girl with hopes and dreams, eager to let a man with a pretty smile ruin her. 

She waits for Mistress Martha to finish her speech about the honor of serving the Inquisition. Orla knows that honor has filled no one’s stomach or stopped them from freezing. If she got a coin for every time someone would mention honor to her, she would buy herself a coat.

Funny, she thinks to herself, how her honor is to always serve, with a smile on her face, dutifully. If she doesn’t smile and thank Mistress Martha for the coin she has earned, the woman calls her rude and ungrateful, and reminds her that there is life outside of Skyhold.

There is life outside Skyhold, there is even a good life outside of Skyhold, but Orla still remembers seeing Finn’s body and then, two days later, the bandits finding her when she tried to get to the Crossroads and dragging her down the road. 

She wonders if there’s anything she could tell Cullen, truly, about herself. Sometimes he asks her opinions, but he doesn’t ask as much about her, and she isn’t sure if it’s kindness or indifference. 

She is not the one changing the world. She hardly can change her own life.

One thing she is certain of. If she was Mistress Martha, she would treat the maids better. She would pay better, and she would not demand gratitude. It is all possible, and Orla knows it, because she experienced it herself, working at the Inn she loved. 

She picks her money and rushes to her bedroom. She has enough to buy more soap and maybe few items of clothing, depending what merchants sell. She needs more shirts. It would be easier if she stopped sending coin home, but she had been doing it for years and that is her duty. 

She passes through the large window near the main kitchens and looks outside.

The fighting grounds are visible and she spots Cullen’s silhouette, his reddish mantle glistening in the sun. He’s fighting someone, and it looks like dancing. It looks scary and beautiful at the same time, and tenderness fills Orla from the top of her head to the tips of her toes.

She reminds herself of Princess Marigold and that stupid story, of a wounded Mabari and a prince in need, and how when she was a little girl, she wanted to be beautiful and brave for someone, to be a hero for them. 

Before this ends, her heart will crack.

It won’t be the first time.

                                                                              **************************

Cullen is not a man of many needs. After years of being a Templar, there is little he requires, and the Inquisition takes care of almost all of it, from his armor and weapons, to his wardrobe and clothing. He only visits the vendors when he must purchase few personal products. This time, it is his hair pomade. The teasing at the war table was quite obvious in that regard.

He buys that and a batch of soap he uses, and he is ready to make his retreat when something else catches his eye. He looks at a small table selling children’s toys. There are few children in Skyhold, but he notices them sometimes running around the courtyard. He walks towards the vendor and picks up a book, bound in a dark blue cloth, the way he remembers. 

The Brave Mabari and Other Tales”. He opens it and sure enough, there is a tale of Princess Marigold there. 

He could close his eye right now and see his mother and father, and the nighttime ritual of putting Rosalie to bed. She was the youngest, the prettiest, the fussiest. Daddy’s little girl. They all took turns reading that book to her. He wonders if she still has it, if they saved anything from Honnleath. If she bought it again if they didn’t. 

So many people lost everything during the Blight. Ferelden has barely healed, and now it is being torn apart again, this time by a different enemy. 

He thinks of Orla, of the flush on her cheeks and her embarrassment when she told him of her silly childhood dream. He thinks of how many times she told him she was no one, and how each time he failed to convince her otherwise.

He buys the book.

 

He wonders if a gift is too inappropriate, too daring, but it is children’s book they have already conversed about. There hardly can be a gift more innocent than this. Above all, Cullen doesn’t want to make Orla uncomfortable, but the thought of bringing a smile on her face wins. 

He knocks on the kitchen door and Orla welcomes him with a faint smile, and right away she places the kettle on the stove to make tea. 

“Cullen,” she looks at him, “how was your day?”

“Uneventful,” he says. “How was yours?”

“Just about the same,” she sighs. “Today is just chopping and preparation.”

“I, uhm, well,” he starts. “I got you something.”

She turns surprised, and he hands her the book. Orla’s hand shakes when she receives it, and Cullen sees her tensing up. Maybe it was a bad idea, Maker, what if she takes it the wrong way and thinks that—

“I—I just stumbled upon it and it reminded me of our conversation, it’s—it’s the book that my sister Rosalie had as a little girl and it has the story of Princess Marigold—You must think it’s silly—“

Orla frowns, touching the book as she opens it, caressing the pages one by one. She looks so serious, and he can’t quite discern what she might be thinking. It’s rare for her to be so quiet, and Cullen’s heart is thudding in his chest. 

“I—well,” he doesn’t even know what to say. 

She takes few steps towards him.

“Thank you, Cullen,” she whispers and kisses him on the cheek. 

“My—my pleasure,” the kiss burns on his skin but he feels lighter inside. 

“Sit,” she orders. “I made a cheese and egg pie.”

“I—I can help,” he offers, seeing her move with so much grace between the counters and the table.

“Help or hinder?” she raises her eyebrows and makes a face. “Sit down. You can help later, but first, you eat.”

She’s sour as an apple and sweet as a pie, and Cullen feels more than he should.

Chapter Text

There are times when Orla comes across people from Haven somewhere around the fortress. They usually barely acknowledge each other’s presence, not wanting to recount all the loss and pain. Today is different. She stumbles upon Mariska in the shower. They both worked for Flissa, though Mariska was not at the tavern that very night. Orla wants to avoid the girl, to pretend she didn’t notice her, but then she sees the tears flowing out of the her eyes and she has no heart to run away.

“Mariska”, she taps the girl, placing the bag with her wet clothes she just washed on the side. “What’s wrong?”

“Orla!”, she looks at her surprised and wipes up her tears immediately. “Boris is sick and I have no one to leave him with. He normally stays with a girl who has her own babe and can provide milk for him. Now she doesn’t want to get her babe sick, and he’s too wee to go without milk. If I don’t come to the tavern, Cabot will fire me. I don’t trust to ask other girls because what if they tell on me about something just to get my job? I will get fired anyway.”

“Don’t you have a man to help you with?”, Orla sits next to Mariska. “I might have heard something.”

“He’s with Boris now. We just got together, Orla, and the kid is not his. He will kick me out if I can’t bring coin home. He’s nice but you know how it is for a girl like me.”

Orla’s heart clenches. What can she say? She has her opinions, but that’s not what Mariska needs at the moment.

“What’s the sickness?”

“Rash and fever. Healer thinks he will be fine, but I need to make sure he eats so me and my tits have to be there as well. If he doesn’t eat— Orla, he was just a few weeks old when Haven happened and I had my mama to help me back then.”

That is true. Orla still remembers the faint cries of little baby Boris, the youngest of those fleeing to Skyhold. Each time the babe quieted down, Orla prayed to the Maker to spare him. Just a little wee one, not deserving any of this. 

“Orla”, Mariska’s eyes widen. “You can cover me at the tavern. Don’t you work nights? I work days. Take my pay for when you work. You I trust, I know you won’t steal the job from me. Cabot won’t mind once I tell him you worked for Flissa.”

Orla feels dizzy and her throat clenches, and she feels the sweat building up on her body. She can’t go to the tavern. She closes her eyes and hears Flissa screaming and the smell—

“Orla”, Mariska nudges, grabbing her hand. “Please, Orla. Please. I beg of you. Not for me, for Boris.”

Orla thinks of that tiny little baby and how she thought he would surely freeze in the mountains. How little his hands and feet were when she held him when Mariska screamed for her mother, how pale he looked, and how sunken his cheeks became by the time they arrived in Skyhold. No baby should go through this. No one should go through this, but especially no little ones, pure and sweet.

“Fine”, Orla relents. “For Boris. Just few times, alright?”

“Thank you”,  Mariska breathes easier. “You’re a good woman, Orla.”

“It’s alright”, she responds, her throat shutting down. “No need for that.”

                                                                                     ***********

It’s not everyday Cullen is able to save a life, but today he does it for certain, letting Varric hide from Cassandra in his office. 

“What did you do?”, he barks at the dwarf who seems unusually laconic.

“N-nothing, Curly, nothing”, Varric answers in the tone that suggests otherwise. “Seeker is simply on one of her murderous rampages.”

“Cassandra is many things, but she does not simply go on murderous rampages, Varric.”

“You don’t know her like I do”, the dwarf protests. “But fine, have at it. Hawke is here.”

Hawke is here?”, Cullen repeats mindlessly, his knees weak. 

“Hawke is here. As you very well know, we actually fought Corypheus—“

“Maker’s breath”, Cullen says barely audibly, rubbing his neck.

“Ah, Curly, you both ended on a good note, you have nothing to worry about.”

At the end, they fought Meredith together, side by side, but that does not erase all that had been said between them beforehand. For Cullen, Kinloch is something that happened to him, the private, horrible shame. Kirkwall represents everything he had done himself, his most despicable choices, his failures to protect. The Circle fell, and the innocent died on the streets, and he could have done better. 

The disgrace will always remain. Good, Cullen thinks. It should never go away.

“I’d avoid Cassandra for several days, if I were you”, he muses. 

The knock on the door startles them both. It’s Jim, asking them to the war room.

Cullen sighs, knowing it will be a long day. 

                                                                          ***************

Orla crosses the door to the tavern with no hesitation, aided by the fact that she has no cloak and she’s freezing. It is only a minute later, upon receiving instructions from Cabot that she starts shivering and senses the smell of smoke in her nostrils. She is to wait the tables, to smile politely, to carry the heavy trays full of ale and food. If she trips, she won’t help Mariska and Boris, and she won’t get paid. She takes few deep breaths before entering the main room, and she tries her best to think about nothing. To not go back to Haven, to the people dying, to the screams, to the sounds of swords clanking, to the demon slashing at her body. 

She is able to control herself. If anything, Orla has the ability to pick herself up, as she had done many times in the past. The different memory returns as the soldiers smirk at her, trying to make a conversation. Her stomach tightens, but Orla says little. It’s still early, she won’t be here for the night, where most men are drunk. 

At least Cabot seems like a decent sort. He tells her to come to him if someone bothers her too much, but Orla is aware not to until things are dire. 

The hours pass slowly, and Orla’s fear boils just underneath the surface. Thankfully she has always been good on her feet, so even now she’s able to pass through the tables swiftly, as if to the tune of music. Maryden is playing. Orla recognizes few songs from Haven.

When she finally thinks she’ll survive the day without any disturbances, she sees the door open and a large group of people enter. She notices Cullen immediately and something grips at her heart and can’t let go, and then she notices the Inquisitor herself, and then… Orla blinks, because if she’s not mistaken, that is Marian Hawke. There are others as well, including the tall Qunari who always gave her good tips at the Singing Maiden. There’s Sera who actually talks to the servants from time to time. There’s that bearded Grey Warden who helped Orla to the chantry when she tried moving through the fire and smoke. She doubts he’d recognize her. There’s that foreign mage who claims all Fereldans stink, the lady Ambassador herself, the dwarf who used to tell stories in Haven, the lady Seeker. Nobody even glances at her as they take over the large table in the alcove of the tavern. 

Orla tries hard not to look there at all, but she can’t help watching Cullen smile and chat with the Inquisitor. She is petite and beautiful, dressed is blue silks and velvets that only make her silvery blonde hair shine more. She looks like a princess from the tale, and Orla scolds herself for everything she’s feeling right now. Orla is a stupid, stupid girl flying towards Cullen like a moth to a flame.  

She is just about to go upstairs to take more orders when Cabot grabs her by the arm and pushes her gently towards the Inquisitor’s table. 

“Now, now”, he whispers. “There’s been some misunderstanding about the origin of ale I served recently, and you are the new girl. Serve that table, and I’ll give you few coins more.”

Her heart beats so fast as she approaches them, but the dwarf cries out “a round for everyone” before she gets close, and Orla quickly runs away to fulfill that order.

                                                                                   ********

The evening at the tavern is Hawke’s idea, obviously. It is to end the several hours at the war table discussing Corypheus and the possible role he might have played in the Wardens’ disappearance. Evelyn agrees that food and drink might provide them with much needed distraction, and before Cullen realizes he sits at the table between Cassandra and Varric, apparently serving as a living shield. 

How peculiar, Cullen thinks to himself. He looks at Evelyn, at her pretty face and that sweet smile and while some of the dull pain in his chest remains, it is much lessened, like a faint echo of an old wound. It’s no longer about the demons she doesn’t even know about, it’s not about the Gallows everyone does. Perhaps, Cullen ponders, she just doesn’t like Fereldan shortbread. Perhaps it is as simple at that. 

He breathes out, straightens his back and joins the conversation, listening to Hawke charming everyone, aided by the dwarf.

“No, no, Varric”, Marian corrects her friend, chuckling. “You’re a liar and a cheat. That is not how it happened, and you still owe me for that day.”

Ha!”, Cassandra shouts triumphantly, roaring herself. 

“Don’t encourage her, Hawke”, Varric glances at the Seeker carefully. “I am, after all, a storyteller. It is much funnier when I describe the events.”

“Fine, fine”, Hawke waves her hand. “You always interrupt me anyway.”

The ale appears in front of everyone, and Cullen takes a sip. He’s not the one to drink often. It doesn’t settle with his stomach, but one pint should not cause any harm. 

“We should think how much food we need to order”, Evelyn sighs. 

“Yes”, Dorian muses. “Whatever quantity you come up with, dear, I recommend multiplying it by two, since both Bull and Blackwall are here with us.”

“Qunari are big”, Iron Bull winks and Cassandra giggles, much to Sera’s delight. 

“The ladies are here”, Blackwall coughs, looking at Josephine who’s trying to stop herself from laughing.

“Wait”, Hawke says suddenly to someone. “You do look familiar. Do I know you?”

“I am… I am from Lothering”, the voice replies, the voice Cullen would recognize anywhere.

He looks up and there’s Orla, standing quietly by the table with a serious expression on her face, avoiding his gaze. 

                                                                             ************

Oftentimes, Orla doesn’t mind being invisible. From time to time it hurts, but she knows that in some situations being noticed can cause trouble, and sometimes it brings embarassment.

She doesn’t want to be noticed tonight. She can’t refuse Cabot, she can’t refuse to do the job. She knows she shouldn’t have come to the tavern in the first place. She is already sweaty from all the stress and effort of dealing with her emotions. 

It takes her two trips to bring the ale, and they are all so engaged in the conversation that no one minds her at all. Cullen sits back, relaxed and smiling, and Orla feels a pinch in her stomach. Where are all those people when he can barely stand on his legs? Where are all those people when he’s vomiting? Where are all those people when he doesn’t sleep?

Those are foolish questions and she knows the answer. They are not there, because he doesn’t want them to see him like that, because they matter and he is a stupid, proud man. Cullen is not ashamed of Orla precisely because she matters little.

She matters little even if he sleeps with his arm across her body, even if he gives her a gift, even when she kisses him on the cheek. 

Cullen meant well with the book, but the road to abyss is also paved with good intentions. After all this time, he still doesn’t know her, and maybe she should have told him, but he should have figured it out. She is a servant, just a kitchenmaid, not even a cook. He imagines her as someone else.

She is embarrassed, and the shame burns inside of her heart. The world reminds her often how little she is, how little she means, how little she has and how little she knows. There are moments she feels proud and confident, but Orla knows who she is when she walks the corridors of Skyhold. The soldiers don’t bow to her with respect. She’s not allowed to eat in the main hall. She is invisible to most, unless they want something from her. 

Orla has never owned a book before. She has seen some, of course, but she’s always been a bit shy to touch them. She opens the book Cullen gave her in the mornings to look through it, page by page. The signs are so small and there’s so many of them. The book has drawings too, so Orla recognizes what the stories are about. The brave Mabari, the lost duckling, Princess Marigold defeating the bear, the dragon getting tricked into eating sheep skin filled with salt, the proud gardener and his turnip. She knows all of them already. Every Fereldan child does. She wonders if they are written any different. 

“Wait”, Marian Hawke looks up at her. “You look familiar. Do I know you?”

“I am… I am from Lothering”, she replies, trying to keep herself calm.

“Right”, the famous Champion furrows her eyebrows. “Yes, I remember you. You were just a girl.”

“Yes”, Orla agrees, hoping this ends the exchange.

“I remember seeing you on the streets with your sisters”, Hawke muses to herself. “You were always dancing and jumping around.”

“Yes”, Orla swallows. 

“You lost people, right? Well, I am glad you’re still here… I am sorry, I don’t believe I recall your name.”

“Orla”, she says quietly. “Just Orla.”

“Orla”, Marian Hawke smiles. 

“Weren’t you a barmaid at the Singing Maiden?”, Varric wonders and the voices around them die down a little.

“Yes”, Orla repeats, knowing that they all probably think of Flissa.

“We should order”, the Inquisitor declares loudly, ending everyone’s discomfort. “We need a lot of food tonight.”

“Yes”, Orla nods.

“Orla”, the foreign mage grins widely. “Don’t be alarmed by it all. Some of us eat quite a lot.”

“Of course.”

“You might want to write that down, sweetheart”, Varric laughs. “They are not joking, it will be quite the feast.”

Orla’s heart stops for a second, and she knows her cheeks become red.

“I… I will remember”, she promises.

It is true. Orla remembers everything, she always has and it has never failed her before. 

“No, really”, the Inquisitor insists, “We’ll need at least several orders of fried dumplings alone, and roasted potatoes, and bread and cheeses, and bone marrow fritters, and meat cuts, and that is just to start with. Don’t underestimate the one here”, she points at the Qunari man. “It might be best if you take notes.”

I can remember all that, Orla thinks to herself helplessly, but she can’t and won’t argue with the Andraste’s Chosen. 

She takes a deep breath, desperately wanting to disappear and trying her hardest to not glance at Cullen at all. Not even for a second. 

“I don’t know how”, her voice shakes a little and she loathes herself for that, “to read or write.”

The silence that follows makes Orla want to cry and scream. She is not the only one in that blighted castle that can’t do it. Don’t they travel all over Thedas? Don’t they ever see regular people, talk to the serfs and the refugees? 

“I am just covering for a friend tonight”, she adds a second later, “I can call for Cabot—“

“No”, Hawke cuts her off gently. “It’s not necessary. You said you can memorize it.”

Orla listens to the order carefully, knowing she will remember all of it without fail and leaves, catching one glimpse of Cullen’s piercing eyes before turning away. 

Her chin trembles when she reaches the kitchen. She tells the cook what’s needed and leans the back of her head on the wall. 

Enough, Orla thinks, taking a deep breath before Cabot shouts at her to hurry and tend to another table. 

                                                                        *********

“It didn’t even cross my mind”, Evelyn gasps, her eyes wide open, “that she might be illiterate. How awful is that? Poor girl”, and Cullen shuts his eyes and rubs his forehead.

Evelyn might be a circle mage from a noble family, but he is not. Honnleath had a chantry that took all the kids in and educated them, but not every village was the same. How come he has never even considered it as a possibility? Why would Orla not mention it then when he gave her a book?

Maker’s breath. His mind goes back to each time Orla said that she was no one, that she was just a maid and he feels ashamed. He has never seen using a recipe, he has never seen her taking notes, he has never — How come has he never noticed

“My dear friend, you couldn’t have known”, Dorian rushes to console Evelyn. “It wouldn’t occur to me either.”

“It wouldn’t occur— There are slaves in Tevinter”, Hawke says cooly and Cullen remembers the elf with lyrium tattoos accompanying her in Kirkwall. “Are they all literate?”

Dorian plays with his mustache, visibly uncomfortable. “Most of the ones I encounter are, in fact—“

“And which ones do you encounter, exactly?”, the fire in Hawke’s eyes in unmistakable.

Evelyn blushes a bit and mumbles, “I can’t imagine how it feels. I wouldn’t know what to do with myself if I didn’t know how to read, and to live like that—”, just as Orla appears at the table, holding the tray heavy with the food. 

Cullen understands he might be sometimes oblivious. Orla is right, he might be a fool, but he is not blind, and it doesn’t escape his attention that Orla’s face is reddened and her hands are shaking a bit. She certainly heard those words. Evelyn bites her lip and rubs her forehead as Orla slowly sets each serving plate in the middle of the table. 

“I will bring more in a moment. I hope you enjoy your meal.”

Cullen wishes he would be able to say anything, anything at all, but Orla disappears quickly.

“Saying things like that make you all look like shite”, Sera has daggers in her eyes. “Lots of people don’t know how to read or write. Nothing wrong with them.”

Cullen is an idiot. He is an idiot who gave Orla a book, and now he is sure that her hesitancy and the look in her eyes where not merely because he bought a gift for her, but because he chose that particular one. And she kissed him. She kissed him as he flooded her with his pathetic whining, and he felt so glad and happy, and so proud of himself. He is a fool, and she deserves better ad he needs to apologize — 

Orla arrives with more food and ale, and Cullen feels like a coward. 

He should be saying something, not Sera.

He glances at Orla later, moving around the tables, walking gracefully as she carries more ale. She knows so much about him, but he really doesn’t know much about her at all. She answers his questions whenever he asks them, but he has noticed her reticency before. Maker’s breath, he has taken such liberties with her time and her care, and he has offered nothing in return. Maybe worse than nothing. 

She looks straight at him and for a second they eyes lock before she immediately turns away.

                                                                                       ********

Cullen catches her staring at him, and Orla needs for the evening to be over. He is busy tonight, he won’t come to the kitchen, and she will be alone, she just must survive until then. As the evening approaches, the music at the tavern becomes louder, the soldiers rowdier, their comments and whistles racier. Her body feels like it’s covered with hundred ants, and Orla is dizzy and nauseous. 

Only few moments, she calms herself. Only few moments and she will step out in the cold, and she will run to the kitchen, and no one will find her there. She has an easy job tonight too, baking custard pies. There will be time for tea and napping, and she will be safe there.

Safe and alone.  

“What’s your name, pretty girl?”, one of the soldiers asks, accompanied by two friends.

They are the worst in a group.

“Orla”, she replies dryly.

“Pretty name for a pretty girl. How about a smile? It all tastes better with a smile”, he grins disgustingly. 

“What do you need?”, she asks instead. “More ale?”

“Hey, hey”, the soldier calls after her when she walks away to bring them more drinks. “Don’t be like that, sweetling!”

Sweetling, the wound opens. That was how Finn used to call her. Her good, kind and funny Finn who never wanted her to be more than herself. 

                                                                                  ***********

“So”, Bull sits next to Cullen. “You look better. We should spar tomorrow.”

“We might”, he answers absent-mindedly, watching the room. 

“I expected you to brood longer afterwards”, Bull muses.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about”, Cullen groans. 

“Sure you do. Ben-Hassrath, remember?”

“Are you trying to remind me not to trust you?”, he jokes. “I was against recruiting you, just so you know.”

Bull laughs warmly, patting him on the back. “She’s cute. I don’t blame you.”

“Who is, Evelyn?”, he asks confused.

“The barmaid you’ve been ogling the whole night”, the Qunari responds calmly, and Cullen blushes up to his ears.

                                                                                   **********

Finally, she is done, leaving her tables in the care of Marla, the girl working nights. Cabot promises to split the tips later, but she doubts he will be fair. It’s alright. She earned twenty five coppers anyway. One or two more days and Boris will get better, Mariska will be back at the tavern, and Orla won’t step her foot there ever again. 

She will afford the cloak. 

It’s so cold it almost takes her breath away. The route through barricades is the fastest but the wind is unbearable, so Orla chooses to cross the Skyhold gardens, even though it takes longer. She is about to open the door to the castle, when someone walks out quickly and slams into her.

“Maker’s breath, I am so sorry”, Cullen gasps, grabbing her to not let her fall. “Orla, are you alright?”

“Cull— Commander”, she winces in pain, acutely aware that they are in public, even if no one else is there. 

“Don’t— You don’t need to call me that.”

She rubs her aching arm, avoiding to look at his face. She will have a bad bruise.

“I was waiting by the kitchen. I — I was worried so — I came looking for you.“

“Someone might see us”, she interrupts him.

His hand is still on her waist. 

“I don’t care about that, Orla”, he whispers.

How nice, she thinks bitterly, as if her mouth was full of pine tar. The rumors would not harm him, but they would certainly hurt her. She doesn’t need soldiers to think she’s the Commander leftovers when he finally gets bored of whatever this is. 

“Cullen”, she murmurs. “Let me in. I am cold.”

Andraste preserve me”, Cullen looks at her as if he saw her for the first time and guides into the building. “Why aren’t you wearing a coat?”

Why— Orla is speechless. What a fool for a man. She says nothing until they reach the kitchen. 

“You’re freezing”, he rushes to put the kettle on the stove and gently pushes her towards the fire, placing his mantle on her arms. “You need to warm up, why — Cold can be really dangerous, Orla, you can’t—“

“How stupid do you think I really am, Cullen?”, she finally snaps, all the anger and hurt overflowing her body. “I don’t have a coat. If I had one, I would wear it.”

“You don’t have a coat?”, he repeats quietly like a fool, staring at her.

She can’t handle that look in his eyes, the combination of terror, confusion and pity. 

“You really have no idea, do you?”, she trembles a little bit but she doesn’t allow herself to cry. “Why would you? You’re the Commander. You just assume… You assume so much, Cullen, you assume I am someone else, someone better. I told you I’m just no one, but you refuse to believe it, and then you look at me like that. I don’t have a coat. I don’t know how to read. What else are you going to ask me? Are you going to ask me why I didn’t tell you when you gave me the book? Are you going to make me say that out loud? For whose sake is it, anyway? You don’t think I know how people like you look at people like me? Do you think I am so simple-minded that I don’t feel embarrassment, that I am unaware of everything I lack? Do you think it’s nice to have people whisper about me with such pity that makes my life seem worthless? Do you need to me to tell you how worthless I feel? Do you think I want to be cold? If I didn’t eat food from this kitchen I would be hungry too, because this blighted Inquisition pays the maids like me ten coppers a day—“, she stops herself, covering her mouth. She can’t prevent the few hot tears from escaping her eyes.

                                                                                      ************

There are hundreds of thoughts running around Cullen’s head as he watches Orla wiping her face furiously. She doesn’t have a coat. She’s been cold. She earns ten coppers a day. Ten coppers. Ten coppers. He told Leliana and Josephine than forty coppers was unacceptable for the recruits, that they needed to be paid fifty at least, and he felt proud for taking care of his men. Ten coppers a day can barely cover one meal at the tavern. Ten fucking coppers. 

He’s been coming here for a month, devouring the food Orla made for him, spending time with her, talking with her, laughing with her and this whole time, she’s been cold and—

“Orla”, he finally says, words pouring out of his mouth. “I am so sorry. I — Maker’s breath, I came here to apologize in the first place and now I have even more to apologize for. I am truly sorry for everything. You’re… I come here so often and you do so much for me, you cook for me, I should — Orla, I could just pay you—“

“Why”, she interrupts him, “do you need to insult me?”

“What? No—  No— I just—“ 

“What do you want to pay me for, exactly?”, she swallows, looking straight at the fire. “For the food? For holding my body as you sleep?”

Andraste preserve him, she did notice, Cullen thinks and then he realizes what she implied.

“No-no-no-no!”, he exclaims, “No, that’s not— I would never—“

“Do you think I would do it all for just anyone who gives me coin?”

“Never”, he doesn’t, it’s all wrong, and he doesn’t know how to make it right. 

“I still have some dignity, Cullen”, she sneers. “A little, I admit, but it’s still there.”

“Orla, please— I am so sorry, I just — You’re my—“

“What am I, if not your servant?”. 

“You’re my — my friend and I can’t bear that you’re cold or—“

“You can’t bear it. You can’t bear it. What else about my existence offends you so much that you can’t bear it?”

He covers his head with his hands and gathers his thoughts for a minute. That is not at all what he means, but the right words escape him desperately, and the harder he tries, the more he fails. He stands up to start brewing the tea, and then brings the mug to Orla.

She’s all thorny. Thorny, and distrustful, and sour, and he wishes to be there for her just as she’s always been there for him.

                                                                                      *********

Orla is both angry and terrified at her own boldness. She says it all to Cullen, the man who sleeps by her side and does whatever she tells him. He’s the Commander, he could get her in trouble but… He’s a good man, she reminds herself. He’s stupid, thoughtless, ignorant, but he’s not evil. 

“You’re right about a lot of things, Orla”, he rasps. “You’re right about most of them. You’re right that I am a careless fool, you’re right that I assume a lot. You’re right when you call me out on the things I say. But you’re wrong about something, too. You’re wrong about how I see you. I don’t see you as my servant. I have never thought that. I know your kindness stems from who you are. I know no one can buy your care.”

“Cullen”, she takes a deep breath, her irritation rising, “I know you believe it—“

“No”, he says firmly. “I am a man of many faults and even more failures. I accept all your judgement except this. I am a fool, I will grant that readily. I might speak prettily at times, but I don’t know the right words now. Nothing about your existence offends me, that is not at all what I meant—“

“You don’t even know me”, she scoffs. “You couldn’t even imagine I can’t read. It would not even occur to you, you need me to tell you everything or else you never figure it out.“

“It’s true”, he whispers. “I didn’t realize… Honnleath had a chantry that provided schooling for all the children.”

“You’re not like me, Cullen”, she sighs, “You think you are, because you were once a commoner too, but you had time for schooling, your siblings did too, I bet your parents owned the land.”

“They did”, he admits.

“I don’t even have a last name!”, she cries out. “The chantry in Lothering required parents to pay few coppers for their children to learn. My parents paid for my brothers, and I was left to care for my sisters. We have never owned a land, we all slept in one room. We’re not similar just because we’re both Fereldan and we’re not friends just because you like the food that I make.”

“It’s you I like”, he blushes. “Do you really think I come here for the food?”

“I do cook well”, she responds sternly and Cullen chuckles.

“I come here for you, Orla.”

Her heart bursts into pieces, because despite knowing better, she cares for him. She cares for him, she likes him, she might love him a little, and he loves the Herald. He doesn’t care for Orla, he’s never cared for her, she’s just comfortable and convenient. He takes pity on her, and Orla does’t want pity. 

“I have work to do, Cullen”, she hides her emotions. “You should go.”

“Orla—“

“You once said you’d leave if I tell you to.”

He gets up slowly, looking at her hesitantly. He wants to say something, but he doesn’t, because Cullen is a man of his word. She hears him opening the door.

“You never said not to come back”, he blurts out hopefully.

If she does tell him that now, he’ll listen. He won’t bother her and they will never see each other again. Where else could the Commander and the kitchenmaid meet?

The thought of not looking into his puppy eyes, not hearing his laughter, not watching him wander around the kitchen, not feeling his body close cuts straight to the bone. There is nothing Orla can’t bear, she knows that, but at the moment, this comes dangerously close. 

Maybe her heart has always been a little foolish. 

“Maker knows you can’t take care of yourself, you stupid man”, she scolds him. “Come back if you like.”

“I will. I’ll see you soon, Orla.”

“Until then, Cullen.”

As soon as he leaves, Orla realizes that his mantle is still on her shoulders. 

Chapter Text

Cullen has not visited the kitchen in three nights. Orla still has his fur mantle, which she carries under her skirt each night coming to work. Each morning, she carries it back to her quarters and snuggles with it to sleep. 

It smells like Cullen. It smells exactly like him, and in the secrecy of her own tiny bedroom she can shamelessly bury her face in that scent. The fur is long and soft, tickling her cheeks, and it is easy to imagine he’s lying by her side. 

Orla misses him. 

                                                                                         *************

Cullen leads the drill first thing in the morning. He did not get as much sleep as he wanted to last night, but he is still doing much better than several weeks ago. The slight shaking of his muscles after all the runs around the lake is of a good kind. 

He lets the new recruits catch a moment of breath while he judges the group. There are barely warriors, though they slowly shape up. By the time they face Corypheus, they will become proper soldiers, comrades-in-arms. 

Right now, they are sons and daughters of farmers; they are refugees, laborers, some minor nobles. They are more boys and girls than men and women. 

It will change. It always does. Right now, they are happy and smiling. They have not experienced Haven, many are paid better than ever before, enjoying their life in the Inquisition. As the Commander, he tries to prepare them, but he is acutely aware that his words won’t stick, not until that first battle, that first taste of fear that gives birth to a fighter.

He walks around, hearing the snippets of conversations. Someone’s brother recently got married, someone’s father struggles with the back ache, someone awaits a letter from their sweetheart. 

“Plenty of fish in this sea”, he hears one soldier state to another. “A man can’t complain.”

“I don’t want a girl who can beat me with a sword”, the recruit replies. “I like them sweeter.”

“You should try the servants, the lesser, the better”, the first one laughs loudly. “I met a girl who’s a laundry maid. I am telling you, they give them so little coin… Mine lets me fuck her however I want just because I buy her food. They are grateful little things.”

Cullen stops abruptly, letting the anger and shame fill his body. How could they allow for this to stand?

“Ten more laps”, he barks at the group. “Now. Do you think your enemies will wait for you?”

He thinks of Orla. Of course he thinks of Orla, he’s been thinking of her almost every passing moment in the last days.

He has yet to return to the kitchen. He wants to give her a break, to not say anything wrong the next time he sees her —

That’s not the reason.

He has dreams about her. Nightmares, maybe. He doesn’t wake up with a scream, because somehow the demons can’t get Orla right. She looks the same, but her frowns don’t match, her laughter doesn’t sound the same, the way she speaks is wrong. Maybe the demons are more used to trying to impersonate mages. 

They are still dreams, and they are vivid. It’s Orla by the fireplace in the kitchen, pulling herself closer and closer, unlacing her shirt.

No, it’s not Orla, it’s a demon.

It’s a demon that has identical lips and eyes and braids and those few freckles on the nose and cheeks. 

“Cullen”, the demon whispers, the voice full of need. “Cullen, I’m so cold. Warm me up.”

The dreams leave him disgusted with himself. 

                                                                                           ***************

Orla moves through the merchant tables, glancing at items uncertainly. Mariska is back working at the tavern, but Orla earned quite the sum in those three days, more than a double of what three days of work brings her in the kitchens. Cabot turned out to be decent and gave her some coin from the tips too. She has enough to send some to her mother, and to buy herself a coat and few more items as well. 

She can’t afford anything trimmed nicely or lined with furs, but the spring will come sooner or later, and wool is good enough, even if it’s lower quality. Orla looks through the rack of cheapest cloaks, but her mind gets distracted. The merchant whom she asks to deliver coin to her mother is not there, and that is unusual. It’s been a while since Orla heard any news, and the pit forms in her stomach.

Anything could have happened. Merchants lose money, get robbed, change delivery schedules, that is not unheard of, but Lena has never failed to appear in Skyhold before, and Orla suspects that any help at the end of the winer would be welcomed home.

Home. There was no home, not really, not since the day she left. Orla has no home. She has not seen her family in a decade. While she was traveling west, her mother and her sisters went east. Still, Orla has only one mother, and she has always made sure to support her. 

She brings her attention back to other rack of cloaks. Those are much nicer ones, lush and warm, embroidered at the sleeves, finished with a pretty pin.

The merchant eyes Orla quietly and doesn’t say anything. They both know what she can and cannot afford. 

She pays the sum that makes her stomach churn and picks up a simple greenish overcoat, and immediately puts it over her arms. 

Now she could go the gardens and walk around without freezing first. 

“Sweetheart”, the vendor, a middle aged woman, calls for her and hands her a mirror. “You look real nice. See for yourself.”

Orla studies her reflection. She rarely does, the only mirrors she can use are in the bathrooms. She should get her own, she really should, but not today. There are more important things first. 

She looks the same as always. Perhaps a bit pale, she was avoiding going outside due to the cold. Her braid is slightly messed up in the front, she can’t do a good job without looking in the mirror. For a shameful second she wonders if Cullen finds her pretty before thinking of the Inquisitor and scolding herself. 

Maybe he does, but not like that. 

There were soldiers who found her pretty enough at the tavern, but that did not make Orla feel good.

The girl in a mirror could use a new shirt or two.

“I look alright”, she decides finally. 

There’s a part of her heart that rebels at her own words, remembering the dancing in the village, the flowers in her braid, Finn’s blue eyes glancing at her approvingly as he would not give a chance for anyone else to dance with her and a sweet kiss when he walked her back to the inn where she worked at. She wasn’t merely alright then. She doesn’t want to be merely alright now. 

She buys few more items, all cheap but solid and new, and then, in the act of frivolousness she rarely allows herself, she purchases a soap that smells nicely like a spring meadow. 

                                                                                                   ***************

It is the first meeting since Evelyn left with Hawke and her party for Crestwood, rushing to meet the Grey Warden contact. Each time the Inquisitor leaves, they argue. It’s more pretend than any real discord and Cullen ponders if it just to make them all feel less useless at the moment. When the matter is finally settled, Cullen asks the question that’s been weighing on him for the few days now.

“Who decides the wages for servants in Skyhold?”

“Skyhold has a seneschal”, Josephine replies surprised. “You have met her before. Mistress Genevieve Laurent.”

He doesn’t remember. He barely pays attention to those matters. 

“Do you have any concerns?”, Leliana asks innocuously.

“I’ve become aware”, he coughs, “that some of our servants are paid so little that they go hungry. My soldiers imply in their gossip that some maids are vulnerable to some… advances because they don’t have enough coin to feed or clothe themselves.”

The Ambassador’s hand reaches her mouth. “I can certainly make some inquiries about compensation, but we are already scraping ourselves to find funds as it is.

“You don’t suggest”, Cullen hisses, “that we let people go hungry and cold.”

“Most certainly not”, Josephine’s tone is sharp, hurt visible in her eyes.

“Mind I remind you, Commander”, Lelianna adds pointedly, “that during one of our first meetings in this very room you were the one to throw a fit that your troops do not earn enough and told us to find coin wherever he can.”

His face reddens momentarily. That he is able to recall indeed. 

“It would be much easier”, the Spymaster continues smoothly, “if we paid each recruit forty coppers instead of paying fifty. Mind I also remind you, Commander, that you continuously refuse to participate in dinners with our dignified guests. That is how the Inquisition acquires funding, and you do little on your part to help to sway the nobility our way.”

The embarrassment almost chokes him. He has never thought— Of course he realizes that resources are not unlimited. As a Templar, he rarely if ever participated in political machinations, and the Chantry never complained about the lack of financial means. Since the Inquisition started, he has counted on both Josephine and Leliana to manage their growing needs. 

“I don’t want people to go hungry”, he finally says, tapping the table with his fist. “It’s wrong. It’s beneath us— I will do whatever you require of me. I — I apologize—“

“Very well, Commander”, Leliana sighs. “Josie?”

“You have my word that I will look into it, Cullen”, the Ambassador’s voice softens. “None of us considers it right.”

“I am sorry, Josephine, my behavior was uncalled for.”

“It’s been a trying time”, she says graciously. 

Cullen is unsure whether he is really sorry. He knows lady Montilyet well enough to realize that this was more an oversight than a deliberate behavior, and she’s a diplomat, not the person in charge of administration and domestic matters. That is not her fault, not personally, and Josephine is the nicest soul he knows. At the same time, it is their fault. They are the Inquisition. They are supposed to care and protect. 

They don’t. Here within the walls of the fortress he commands, there are people not earning enough to provide themselves with the bare minimum. 

 

He moves to the door swiftly the second the meeting ends. 

Commander”, Leliana’s crystal clear voice stops him in his tracks. “A word?”

Cullen freezes immediately, taking a second to collect himself. 

“Of course”, he stays behind. 

“I have been meaning to talk to you”, she says carefully. “About your accommodations.”

“My accommodations?”, he repeats.

“I realize that Josephine’s initial idea might have been too… fanciful, for the lack of the better word, but now that we have cleared Skyhold, I have found the suitable bedroom that can provide you with more… privacy.”

She knows about his... escapades, Cullen realizes. He’s been spending many of the nights outside of his tower. Of course she knows, he chastises himself. She is their Spymaster, after all. 

“That sounds reasonable”, he coughs out, red in the face.

He can’t expect to walk through the barricades unnoticed to visit Orla. Not that often, anyway. The loft… It barely fulfilled the promise of comfort and a breathing space.

“Good. It’s settled”, Leliana dismisses him. 

He doesn’t want to question what she imagines, and he knows he would regret starting that particular conversation. There is no sense in trying to explain and even less sense in trying to deny anything. 

                                                                              ******************

She shudders upon hearing the knock on the door, her heart jumping up to her throat. 

He comes in hesitantly, but in a different way than usual. She did tell him off, didn’t she?

“Hi, Cullen”, she says quietly, unsure what to do next, her own shame rising.

‘Hi, Orla”, he hands her a small package. “I got you some chocolate.”

“You don’t have to bring me gifts”, she scolds him before biting her tongue.

“Fine, I’ll eat it myself”, he smiles gently and puts it on the table and Orla feels the corners of her mouth lifting. 

“I’ll help you. I got myself a coat”, she blurts out quickly, turning away and putting the kettle on. “So, that’s done. You don’t need to worry anymore.”

She waits for him to protest, but there’s only silence and then the sound of him breathing before he speaks up. 

“That’s alright”, he mutters. “I’m glad.”

“I have your mantle too”, she rushes to the cupboard where it’s rolled between the blankets. “Here.”

“Thank you”, he carelessly tosses it to the chair.

He’s not wearing any armor, Orla realizes, not even the jacket, just a simple red shirt, embroidered in a gold thread near the neckline. She has seen him like that before, whenever he would sleep here, but he almost always comes fully armored. 

He still seems unsure, standing in the kitchen and glancing at her, unwilling to take too much space.

“You’re lucky, Cullen”, she remarks. “I made a Fereldan cawl soup today, using some of the meat I was given to make pasties. Are you hungry?”

“I am always hungry for your food”, he replies with visible relief, sitting by the corner of the prep table.

“Good”, she a mug of tea in front of him. “I’ll heat it right up.”

She is right by the stove when she suddenly turns around and whispers. “Cullen? I’m glad you’re here. It took you few days to come.”

                                                                                    ************

Cullen swallows the sip of his tea, burning his throat. It took him few says to come, and it would be so easy to lie, to tell Orla it was because of the words between them. He can’t bring himself up to do it. It seems wrong, as if he took offense, and he did not, he had no right to. He has been the one to say hurtful things, to not get to know Orla well enough.

“I am sorry”, he knows he’s flushing. “I wanted to come earlier, but I— I don’t want to lie to you, Orla.”

“Then don’t”, she shrugs, stirring the content of the pot with a wooden spoon.

“I had some… dreams about you”, he reveals quietly, and the world stops as Orla looks at him cautiously.

“With… demons?”, she asks tentatively.

“Yes”, he admits, hot with embarrassment.

He has never explained the details regarding his nightmares, and Orla doesn’t pry now, just stares at him silently. Cullen feels his face might explode out of shame. 

“I am sorry”, she whispers finally. “You said my name once or twice while sleeping here.”

Maker’s breath!

“I… did not realize”, he manages to blurt out. “Listen, Orla, I truly apologize, I’ve been so selfish and the last thing I want to do is to make you feel uncomfortable in any way.”

“I’m not uncomfortable”, she raises her eyebrows. “It seems that you are.”

“I’ve had nightmares as long as I can remember”, he breathes. “In a way, I’m used to them. And demons… I know it’s not you when I am dreaming.”

“When in doubt, you can always ask for the Fereldan shortbread recipe”, she pours soup into bowl. “I don’t think demons know how to cook, do they?”

Cullen laughs freely, suddenly disarmed. “I have never thought about it that way. I don’t think they do.”

“Well then”, Orla sits across him. “Eat.”

There’s always that little command at the end. The soup is hot and flavorful, and he asks for seconds and thirds, watching Orla assemble meat pasties to put into the oven. 

Cullen doesn’t know what to call it, except there is fondness spilling out of his heart. He knows he cannot let the evening pass without attempting to go back to their last conversation, but Orla seems content, and he really hopes to not ruin her mood.

She already made sure to tell him she owns a coat, and it takes much effort to not inquire further, to not ask if she needs anything else. He knows not to be stupid today, regardless how deeply he cares. It is not abut him, after all. It’s not about him at all.

There are so many questions he wishes to pose. 

“How do you keep contact with your family?”, he tries, watching Orla put a piece of chocolate into her mouth. “Does someone write letters for you?”

Her body jerks slightly before she composes herself.

“No. There is a merchant in Skyhold. She travels all over Ferelden and she delivers coin and news to my mother”, she responds calmly.

How is she able to send anything home while earning so little, Cullen ponders, something hurting inside. 

“She was supposed to be in Skyhold this week”, Orla adds, the pang of pain appearing on her face. “But she has not arrived. I haven’t heard any news in almost three months now.”

“When was the last time you’ve seen her?”

“When I left home”, she bites her lip. “So, ten years ago? My mother and my sisters moved further west, and— You know.”

“I haven’t seen my siblings since I left for the Templar training. I was thirteen years old.”

“That is a long time too. At least you can write them. I am sure it makes everything easier”, she sighs.

He can write them, he just doesn’t, and now the shame flows through his veins. Mia has done nothing to deserve the treatment he has given her over the years. None of them did, but he has always been the closest with his oldest. Through all the rumors about Kirkwall, and then Haven she has always continued reaching out to him with no hesitation and no judgement. 

“Where does your mother live now?”, he inquires.

“South Reach for the last five years. My sisters live there too”, Orla responds and he freezes.

“That’s… that’s where my siblings are.”

“Oh”, she looks at him with wide eyes. “I suppose Ferelden is smaller than I have imagined.”

Maker preserve him, what are the odds? 

“I could—”, he hesitates slightly, “I can write my sister Mia. She and her husband run a store there and believe me, Mia certainly knows everyone. She could find out how your mother is faring.”

“Could you really?”, she breathes out with such emotion on her face that it punches him straight in a gut. “I’m a bit worried.”

“Certainly”, he assures her gently. “What is your mother’s name?”

“Maura. Aileen and Faye are my sisters. Aileen has a little boy, Theo. Can you— I can bring the coins, maybe tomorrow? Could you send it as well?”

He knows how little she earns here and he doesn’t understand how is she able to save any anything. She shouldn’t be sending any coin home, but he can’t quite tell her that. 

“Of course.”

“Thank you”, the relief on Orla’s face is visible. “Truly. I don’t want to be be a bother—”

“It’s the least I can do”, he interrupts her sternly. “You’re never a bother, Orla. It’s me who’s bothering you.”

“I hardly mind”, she confesses. “I don’t… I don’t talk with a lot of people.”

Cullen has been so self-centered that he barely has spent any time wondering how lonely Orla could be in Skyhold. 

“I talk mostly with you”, he simply says.

“I saw you at the tavern. With— your friends. You seemed to have fun.”

There is no judgements in her voice, but Cullen still feels slightly uncertain.

“I— There was a difficult meeting that day before we arrived at Herald’s Rest”, the lump in his throat makes it hard to breathe. “I did enjoy some parts of the dinner and— Orla, I am so sorry at what you’ve heard at that table.”

That?”, she puts another piece of chocolate into her mouth. “ I’ve heard similar things before.”

It makes it worse, and he should have said something that day. 

“I am not ashamed of knowing you”, he spills awkwardly and immediately realizes how badly it sounds. 

Orla’s face covers with a crimson blush as she tenses up. 

“I only meant — Maker’s breath”, Cullen is horrified with himself, “I only wanted to explain why I didn’t let anyone know that I know you—“

“Cullen”, she stops him firmly. “It would only bring trouble.”

For him or for her, he wonders, another pang of guilt hitting him. Andraste preserve him, now Leliana is aware where he spends some nights and she clearly alluded to what she considers to be the nature of his relationship with Orla. The Spymaster would be discreet, and it would be pointless to explain everything in detail. It doesn’t matter what it truly is when it looks certain way. 

His new bedroom is just a corridor away, surrounded by the storage rooms. It is small, but it has huge windows overseeing the valley below. No one would be able to peak into the room, but he won’t feel trapped, at least not more than in his office. Now he’s able to simply stroll to the kitchen, not bothering to put an armor on, not passing the barricades, not risking being seen by any patrols or guests. 

Is what he’s doing wrong? He comes here on purpose, he seeks Orla’s company, he plans for it enough to cover his tracks. He doesn’t fall asleep here by accident, he anticipates it.

I’m glad you’re here, Orla said. She is glad, and he is surely glad as well, so it couldn’t be too bad, could it? 

He offers to help her remove the pasties from the oven, but she only gives him that critical glance and sighs loudly.

He loves coming to the kitchen.

                                                                                  ***************

They lie down on the blankets, with a proper distance between them, and Orla tries to recall when was the last time she felt similarly. What would Finn think of her now, she wonders, if he could see her? She pushes it away. Finn is gone, and much has happened since his death. 

“You really don’t mind that I’m here?”, Cullen mumbles by her side and Orla groans frustratingly.

“I already told you”, she snaps. “You’re worse than a dog. They know how to listen.”

He chuckles and she turns towards him. His lips thin as he clearly tries to suppress his laughter and fails miserably. The warm sound reaches straight to her heart and soon enough Orla starts laughing too, for no reason at all, until there are tears in her eyes.

Everything quiets down.

“You are…”, Cullen whispers, looking into her eyes and Orla’s heart stops, because he’s so close their noses almost touch.

He doesn’t finish the sentence. Nothing happens, nothing at all, except now she imagines how it would feel to kiss him. It’s reckless, it’s careless, and she certainly knows better than that. She doesn’t need another reminder of who he is, who she is, of his feelings for the Inquisitor, of his sickness and nightmares and what brings him here. 

“I’m just Orla”, she says quietly.

“Orla”, he repeats her name. “Thank you for letting me stay, even though I’m worse than a dog. Not even a Mabari, huh? Just a dog.”

“Stop fussing”, she scolds him, her whole body warm like a loaf of freshly baked bread. 

“As you command”, he promises so seriously she snorts and rolls her eyes. 

“How did you get that scar?”, she points her chin at his mouth. “Being brave in a battle?”

“Not at all”, he scoffs. “It’s a very boring story, actually. Very disappointing, believe me.”

“As I command”, she dares to say and blinks at her own boldness, but Cullen just laughs again, shaking his head a little.

“Then I have no choice but to tell you. During the battle, soldiers wear helmets so scarring like this is unlikely unless for some reason you lose your head protection. I got this scar shortly after becoming the Knight-Commander of the Gallows in Kirkwall. We managed to rebuild as much as we could, the morale was low. Few Templar recruits got their hands on the barrel of Qunari alcohol, and needless to say, I got bashed with a shield by a completely drunk eighteen year old. If I had it treated immediately it wouldn’t leave the scar, but I was stupid—“

“That does not surprise me”, she sighs.

“I was unsurprisingly stupid and waited too long and it left that scar.”

“What happened to the kid?”

“Lieutenant Corr is a respected member of the Inquisitor forces”, he smiles. “Although she still struggles to look me in the face.”

“I would imagine so”, she giggles. “That was not the worst story I’ve ever heard.’

“I remember you saying you like stories”, he murmurs. “That’s why I— The book — I thought— I am sorry.”

The little ball of shame stirs in her stomach, but Orla fights it bravely.

“I know”, she swallows. “The book has all the tales from my childhood. I — I can tell from the drawings.”

‘You kept it? I— I assumed you might have—“

“It was a gift”, she interrupts him, feeling the blush creeping on her neck and cheeks. “Of course I kept it. I have… never owned a book before.”

Stupid girl, she thinks to herself. She wants him to know, to remember who she is, to not think she is someone else, someone smarter, but the ball of shame twirls and moves and grows inside of her. 

“I am not good at telling stories”, he says calmly, “but I could read to you sometime, if you want to. That book or something else. Only if you—“

“Yes”, she answers quickly and nervously. “I wouldn’t mind that.”

“Alright. I’ll remember.”

Orla doesn’t find the right words for the mixture of embarrassment and affection she feels. 

“You should try to sleep”, she remarks instead. “Don’t you train the soldiers in the morning?”

“I do”, he admits heavily.   

“I’m here”, she assures him stupidly, as if her presence could change his nightmares.

“I know. It’s just— I’m sorry for holding you when sleeping before”, he looks away, flustered. “I didn’t want to bring it up but —“

“It’s fine, Cullen”, she calms him, the familiar longing spreading over her. 

“I swear on everything I am, I would never—“

“It makes me feel… safer”, she admits hesitantly, rubbing her neck.

Oh”, Cullen breathes. “Uhm, well, I could just— If you— We could—“

He shifts on his back, wiggling his arm above her head, and Orla is certain she’s not mistaking his intention. She moves closer, placing her cheek onto his chest. His heart is thudding loudly, and then his hand gently lands on her back. 

He’s radiating heat, and now she smells him more intensely than ever, and her whole body tightens with need. She tells herself it’s merely because he’s handsome and near, but there’s more. 

He’s just… He’s Cullen.

“Goodnight”, Orla manages. 

“Goodnight”, he replies softly. 

Orla takes a deep breath and closes her eyes. 

                                                                                           ************

Cullen can’t sleep. It took a little while for Orla’s breathing to steady and now he is certain she actually asleep. Her hand is wrapped around his waist and her whole body is clinging to him, and it feels so good, so right. 

He needs to be more careful, he cannot allow himself to want her, but it’s already too late, because he does. He is supposed to be in love with Evelyn and yet this right here seems perfect, and yet he doesn’t want to imagine anyone else lying with him but Orla, his Orla and—

Void take him, she’s not his

Maker’s breath, he is a fool indeed. A stupid, broken man with a confused heart, somehow holding the best girl in his arms. 

Chapter Text

Mia,

I am still alive, as you have heard. You are well within your right to berate me. I should have written you sooner, and there are hardly words enough to try to apologize for my silence this time and every other time in the past. I won’t try to excuse myself, let me just say that I fully intend to do better when it comes writing letters. 

The Inquisition is rebuilding, and we’re receiving new recruits each day. Everyone works tirelessly to stop the threat looming over Thedas, and while the task ahead of us is not easy, I assure you that there are great minds and hearts behind all that we do. 

Haven was devastating, but we were lucky to suffer fewer losses that we could have. Skyhold proves to be a blessing each day, and the fortress offers much more protection.  

I am staying safe, Mia. In fact, as the Commander, I rarely venture outside of the gates myself. You have nothing to worry about. There have been trying moments, but I am doing fine.

How are you and Matthew doing? How are the children? Is there anything new going on with Branson or Rosalie? I have been the most horrible brother, I am aware of that. No words can make up for all the years of silence, but let me assure you that I care and I have always cared. There were reasons for my reticence over the years, some good and some bad, all inadequate. Thank you for not giving up on me.

I actually have a favor to ask of you. I have a friend, I suppose. Her name is Orla. She works at Skyhold and she’s illiterate, and has been waiting for any news from her mother and sisters who happen to live in South Reach, too. The mother’s name is Maura, and the sisters are Aileen (Eileen?) and Faye. They are originally from Lothering, the father died during the Blight, so did the two brothers who were in the Order. Orla’s worried, and I know it would mean a lot to her to know her family is safe. I am also attaching some coin that she wants to send to her mother. 

Give my love to everyone,

Cullen                                                          

                                                                                               ************

Cullen sits at the desk of his office, looking at the pile of paperwork to go through. He reads the reports from the field, he signs the necessary requisitions, he goes through detailed maps and plans future troop movements, both in Orlais and Ferelden, he skims through letters of thanks for the Inquisition’s help.

It’s nothing new, he’s been doing it for a long time now, since becoming the Knight Captain over a decade ago. Nonetheless, there are days when it weighs on him, when he finds it difficult to focus. 

Sometimes he wishes to be in out there, to fight and bleed, to feel it all in his aching muscles. It’s a different kind of tiredness, the type that makes it easier not to think, and there’s a lot on Cullen’s mind.

He opens the drawer of his desk and stares at his lyrium kit. He has made it so far, and he has no intention to falter, but facing the philter makes him feel like a man who owns his choices. 

Can he be really free? It’s been better lately, much better. He still has headaches, and nausea, and occasional dizziness, but it’s been better, and somewhere deep in his heart Cullen hopes that one day it could be merely good.

He still struggles to sleep, but he’s had more rest recently. He eats little when trying to stop for meals, but he makes up for it whenever he goes to the kitchen, and lately he spends every single night there, with Orla by his side.

Sour-sweet Orla, with her warm smile and disapproving glances, with her soft sleepy expressions and snappy comments, with her full lips that he wants to kiss—

If he is to be honest with himself, he doesn’t think of Evelyn that much and that surprises him, because his feelings were so strong he couldn’t imagine them just passing. Now there’s more discomfort than pain. 

Evelyn is a miracle, he still believes that. Orla is… Orla. There is no other way Cullen can think of her. She’s Orla, and that encompasses everything that matters. There’s no miracle and he has no need for one. 

 

When he enters the kitchen that night, Orla stands by the table making dumplings filled with potatoes and cheese. She moves very quickly, putting the spoonful of filling in each circle of dough, folding them nicely. She lets him try it few times before she sighs and shoos him away.

“Useless”, she complains, laughing. “Cullen, you’re ruining my work! Stop. Sit down. Do anything but this.”

“I was just trying to help”, he whines purposefully.

“Not with those...”, she eyes him critically and he's getting warmer, “warrior hands of yours, made to hold the sword, not to seal the dough. It has to be pretty, like this. Go away. Fill that large pot with water and place it on the stove. Add salt to it!”

“As you wish”, he chuckles. 

Maker’s breath. It makes him feel like home he doesn’t ever remember. 

                                                                                       **************

Cullen eats twenty five dumplings, Orla has been counting. He looks like a dog that ransacked the kitchens on the day of Satlnalia, and she can’t help but to smile. He looks both satisfied and relaxed and Orla’s heart is making that little foolish dance inside.

He’s not her man, he can’t be and he won’t be, but she takes care of him nonetheless. She serves him food, she warms his side as he sleeps, and truthfully, there is more she would give him, because she is both stupid and and a little bit in love. 

She knows what this is. He is sick and broken, and lonely, and overburdened at work, and this is his escape. She is broken too, in more ways than one, and lonely, and bored and frustrated at work, and this makes her feel good.

Sometimes she imagines Cullen kissing her breasts, her lips, moving inside of her, gently and with care. It makes her feel safe, and warm, and wet. Maybe it’s safe precisely because it’s not happening, but it’s still more than the emptiness before. She thought everything was laid waste, but now her body is in bloom again, and that brings hope.

He dutifully dries all the dishes she keeps handing him. 

“You’re slow”, she sighs, waiting for him to rush. 

“I’m stuffed”, he laughs embarrassingly. 

“I have not encouraged you to eat twenty five dumplings, Cullen. You brought it on yourself.”

“Maker’s breath, woman”, he frowns at her with a smile. “Did you actually count?”

“Less talk, more work, Cullen”, she scolds him. “We’re almost done.”

 

When they lie down on the blankets, he puts his arm around her with no hesitation, no shame or shyness. 

“Do you really feel safe with me?”, Cullen whispers. 

“Yes”, she answers simply, though there is more she could say.

“Good. I’ll protect you.”

“From what?”, she snorts. “Pots and pans? We’re in the kitchen. The only danger we’re facing here is your own clumsiness.”

Cullen’s whole body is shaking out of amusement and Orla enjoys the sound of his soft, low chuckles. 

“Oh, Orla”, he murmurs happily. 

She wants to remind herself that she is no one, but she can’t, because she doesn’t feel like no one with Cullen. She feels like herself.

                                                                            **************

Cullen,

I was glad to receive a letter from you and to learn that you’re doing fine. Let’s say that I believe you. I will hold you to your promise about doing better in the future.

I am afraid I have to be the bearer of bad news. Unfortunately,  Maura passed away in a tragic accident several weeks ago. The whole house burned down. Please assure Orla that there was a nice a Chantry service. The surviving daughters, Aileen and Faye had some of the ashes tossed around the field surrounding the orchards here. I believe that was Maura’s favorite place. 

I knew Maura, but not very well. She was a decent woman, poor and struggling, trying her best. She mentioned Orla few times throughout the years. I believe at some point Orla was a cook at the inn in the Redcliffe Airling, before the Mage-Templar war ravaged so many villages there. Maura always praised Orla for doing whatever she could to help and she certainly seemed quite proud. I know she wished for all her girls to find some happiness.

Faye is working as a seamstress for a local dressmaker who is my friend, and is currently staying at their house. Please tell Orla that the family is decent and kind, and despite losing her mother, Faye is doing well. She has a secure roof over her head and good employment, and I’ll be glad to keep an eye on her. I gave her half of the sum you sent.

I wish I had better news regarding Aileen. She’s only nineteen years old, younger than our Rosalie. She married a man a year ago, a local smith apprentice who likes the bottle and runs his house with an iron fist, if you gather my meaning. They have a little boy, Theo and I would not be surprised if another child was on the way soon. I wish I could tell you this was uncommon, but it is not. I worry about Rosalie ending up in that situation daily. Anyway, Aileen’s husband is very controlling and I did not feel comfortable giving her the coin directly, because he would have taken it away. He earns enough, but I’ve seen Aileen go hungry. I offered her to set up a credit in my store, to be able to get the items she needs directly.  She agreed. She’s not a stupid girl, Cullen, far from it, and she is very sweet and caring towards her child. I will definitely keep an eye on her as well. 

I am truly sorry, and my heart breaks for Orla. I wish I had better news. Did you know she was just fifteen years old when she left home? Fifteen. Neither of us, even me, were ready for anything like that at fifteen. I think it was Maura who communicated with Orla the most, and I am not sure the girls knew how to reach their sister at Skyhold.

Aileen cried when I talked with her about Orla. She wanted me to send this hairpin, one of the items that Maura apparently gave her when she got married. Aileen wants Orla to have it as a keepsake.

Please give my condolences to Orla. You and I both know what it means to not have both of our parents with us, and at least I’ve always had knew that Branson and Rosalie were safe with me. Please, please let Orla know that I will look out for both Faye and Aileen as much as I can. 

Cullen, I have never pried too much, but I can’t help but wonder who is Orla to you. I know how much she has been sending her family in the last few months, and your letter contained over twentyfold of that sum, so I know this is coming from you. You have never mentioned a woman in your letters before. I know Orla’s family enough to realize how poor and destitute they have always been, and I can quite easily imagine you don’t run in the same circles at Skyhold. I have never allowed myself to write anything like that before, but I know how it is to be a young commoner woman trying to survive in this world, and from what I know I still had it much easier than Orla. All I am asking of you is to be a decent man. I have no right to write you this, but I remember Maura mentioning that her daughter’s beloved was killed by the bandits in the Hinterlands. Be careful not to hurt her. I would never tell you whom to get involved with or not, but you’re a man in power and Orla is a woman who has lost almost everyone in her life. Just remember that, please. 

Nonetheless, write me about her. There are few people you mention in your letters, and even fewer you’ve managed to call your friends. Everything I’ve heard about Orla was from people who have not seen her in years, and only communicated with her through others. I would like to know what kind of person prompts my brother to reach out to his family with a request after months of silence.

We are doing well, you do not need to worry. I have my suspicions that Branson and his wife are expecting again, but they haven’t said a word yet. Matthew is in good health and sends his greetings. Our store does well. Eli and Timothy run around beating each other with sticks and pretending to be famed warriors, like their uncle. Do you know they call you the Lion of Ferelden? Thanks to that now I hear roaring around my house approximately hundred times a day from. The boys are both are dreaming about being in the King’s Guard. 

I wish I could deliver better news. Just please know that we all love you and care much for you.

Give my condolences to Orla. 

Your caring sister,

Mia 

                                                                                                  *********

Cullen’s heart clenches in pain as he looks at the parchment in his hand. Maker’s breath, he definitely has not anticipated that when he sent the letter to Mia. Oh, poor, poor Orla, and he is the one that needs to tell her tonight. His hands shake a little, and the gulp forms in his throat.

How many times has he sent out the letters informing of the death of someone under his command? Hundreds, thousands at this point considering what happened at the Gallows? He always wrote the notifications personally. Decency requires it. How many times has he told other soldiers that their comrades had fallen? Too many to count. That is the duty of the Commander. 

How many times has he received a letter about death of a close relative? Exactly once. It was after demons took over Kinloch Tower, and he was in a poisonous state of mind. He still remembers crying helplessly. By the time he knew, Mia had already managed to lead Branson and Rosalie to safety. The pain of learning his parents were both gone was overwhelming, and everything he felt at the time was dulled by lyrium and trauma. 

Poor Orla. Hasn’t she been through enough? There’s so much he doesn’t know, but he knows enough to realize her life hasn’t been easy, and the snippets of information Mia included in her letter certainly paint a rough picture. Orla. Orla who has never stopped caring for her family and wanting to provide them with something better. Orla who has been by herself since the age of fifteen, who survived Blight, and the war, and Haven, and everything in between. Orla, who has been cold, and hungry, and hurt probably more times that he wants to imagine.

Orla, the best girl. 

He doesn’t head to the kitchen immediately. She always does so much work at first, and somehow Cullen thinks she would not be able to take off, and he wants her to have time to process everything. It seems both cruel and a kindness to wait, and he is unsure if there’s any good and pure deed there. 

 

When he finally gets to the kitchen, he pushes the door gently. Orla finishes placing bread in the baskets. It smells so wonderful, and Orla smiles to him. 

“Cullen”, she welcomes him as if his presence was the most obvious thing in the world. “You’re pretty late. I have the tea ready.”

She keeps moving so swiftly, picking items and pouring tea and he knows he needs to interrupt it.

Orla”, he tries to remain calm and composed, “I received a letter from my sister.”

She turns to him rapidly and her eyes search his face before they well with tears. Somehow she knows.

“Tell me”, she winces in pain. “Cullen, tell me!”

He takes several steps towards her. 

“Your mother died several weeks ago”, he says softly. “I am sorry. It was a house fire. Your sisters are alive.”

She covers her mouth and he barely manages to catch her as falls onto the floor, desperately trying to hold onto something.

“I’m so sorry, Orla. I’m so so sorry”, he whispers, kneeling by her side, steadying her. 

The sound she makes is not a cry but rather a howl, like a wounded animal. It cuts him straight to the bone and more than anything in the world right now, he wishes to take some of her pain onto himself. 

Orla’s body is tense and rigid as he gently pulls her into his embrace. He realizes she tries to stop herself from sobbing, but then her arms wrap around him and she buries her face into his neck, and he can feel the wetness on his skin. He sits down and pulls her onto his lap and Orla cries, and cries, and cries. There’s nothing he can do, nothing at all, except to hold her tightly. 

There’s more news to relate, and so much of it not pretty, and Cullen feels his own heart bleeding. Nobody deserves it, and that is not how life works. He has witnessed death, the horrible, harrowing death, he has witnessed shattering injustice, he has helped evil himself, in a way. Cullen is a man of sword, and he has seen a lot. He has seen people collapse out of grief, and yet that is his… Andraste preserve him, that is his girl, in a way, at least. 

As violently as Orla shudders and wails, it all ends abruptly one moment when she takes one deep breath and quiets down.

He is very unsure what to do next as Orla continues inhaling and exhaling loudly while still grasping onto him. 

“Orla”, he murmurs in the gentlest way possible, “I am truly sorry for your loss. There are no words.”

“I don’t remember her voice”, Orla is shaking. “I’ve thought that maybe one day I would see her again, but now— She’s dead. She’s gone. And I don’t even remember her voice.”

“I know what you mean”, he says quietly and he means it.

“Faye and Aileen? Faye? You said they are alive, but Faye is just seventeen and—“

“My sister Mira was very firm that Faye is doing well. She works as a seamstress and lives with her employer. Mia writes that this is a good and honest family and that despite everything Faye is faring really well. I— I really trust my sister. She’s much smarter than me, Orla. She has always been very observant. She gave Fay half of the coin you sent. She said she will keep an eye on her, too.”

“She was just seven when I left. I don’t even know what she looks like or whether I’d recognize her, although I think I would.”

Truthfully, Cullen has wondered many times if he would recognize Mia and Branson. Rosalie was still in diapers when he left for the Order, and unless she’s similar to their parents or to himself, he would struggle to find her face among the crowd. 

“What about Aileen?”, Orla probes and Cullen’s stomach recoils.

“Uhm”, he swallows, “Mia mentioned that she is sweet and has a little boy, but her husband might not be the kindest man.”

Orla whimpers a little, and there’s so much Cullen wishes he would be able to do.

“I wasn’t born yesterday, Cullen. I know what you mean. I… thank your sister from me.”

“Is there anything that can be done—?

“Don’t”, Orla interrupts him sternly. “Don’t be a fool. What can be done? Even if I was there, I could not drag her away from her husband. Cullen, it’s— It’s difficult. I can imagine a lot of things. I can imagine rescuing my sister, I can imagine lightning striking her husband, but how would that help her? She has a little one still on her breast, and she does’t need my judgment and doesn’t need my know-it-all. I will continue sending coin whenever I can, so maybe she doesn’t need to ask him for things as much and maybe he’s not cross with her. Women are not stupid, Cullen. It’s not right. It’s just… not that simple.”

Cullen says nothing, just tastes the bitterness of her words is his mouth. It’s a peculiar feeling, oscillating between the hopelessness and realizing the extent of his own power. Cullen knows how it feels to not be able to get away. He can’t shed Kinloch. Kirkwall will always drag behind, the craving for lyrium in his veins still leaves him breathless at times and on some nights he is afraid to face his nightmares. Yet he is acutely aware that he’s the Commander, that he wields his sword with ease, that when he walks into the room the conversation stops, that men risk their life with no hesitation when he orders them to. 

He can’t help Orla or her family. Not beyond what already has been done. 

“There is a hairpin your sister wants you to have”, he reaches to the pocket on his chest. 

“Oh”, Orla gasps, looking at the simple flower hairpin and then puts it into her braid. “I remember my mother wearing it.”

“It’s very pretty”, he muses. 

She’s still in his lap, looking so miserable. Her face is red and puffed up from crying. Her chin is trembling. In fact, her whole body is shivering slightly. 

He wants to do something, anything, but there is nothing. Nothing can change the reality that now Orla doesn’t have a mother, that both of her parents are dead. He has experienced the totality of that loss and even though it doesn’t crush him anymore there is still a part of his heart that got chipped away.

“Mia knew your mother”, he whispers. “She praised you to others and she seemed proud of you.”

“We never talked after I left. Not really”, Orla frowns. “The messages I’ve managed to send where few and in between, and relayed by others. There are things I never told my mother, things I’ve done or things that were done to me. I’ve always wondered if she could guess. I knew that there were things she never told me either. That’s just… it’s always been very short and to the point. But I continued sending coin, and she continued sending news from home and a occasional jar or jam or something like that. I just — She was still pretty young, you know? I hoped to see her one day.”

“I am sorry, Orla. I— This world can be cruel and— I am sorry I am not finding anything better to say.”

“Cullen”, she wipes few tears falling down her cheeks, “No one asks you to.”

He knows that. 

“You can make tea”,  she adds quietly. 

“Orla, you’re sitting on me”, Cullen notices softly. “Do you want to lie down?”

“Yes”, she snivels. 

She gets up awkwardly and he leads her to the blankets by the fire, placing the kettle on the stove. 

                                                                                           ***************

Orla watches the fire crackling and suddenly feels almost sick. House fire. Did it hurt? Was her mother asleep when it happened? Orla doesn’t know, and she likely won’t ever find out. 

What she does know is enough to make her heart crack and blister and bruise. 

“It’s still hot”, Cullen whispers, placing the mug on the floor. 

“I was there when Flissa died”, Orla mumbles. 

She can hear Cullen moving and shifting and fumbling on the blankets, and suddenly he’s just quietly lying down behind her, embracing her and holding her hand. She feels little and heartbroken, but she’s not cold and she’s not alone either. 

"I was not there in the room, but I was still at the tavern and — The smoke was burning my eyes and it was hard to breathe. The things were falling from the ceiling and it was both blazing light and pitch black at the same time, and I couldn’t see anything. I was close to the entrance and somehow I got out quickly, but Flissa didn’t, and I could hear her screaming. And now my mother died in the fire and I wonder if she screamed as well.”

He just gently squeezes her hand. 

“I wish she had more than this life gave her”, the pain prickles everywhere. “More than having this life take everything from her. I was so afraid when she told me to leave. I was terrified. It was just a year after the Blight ended and everything was in ruins and we had so little I thought we would freeze during winter. The rebuilding of Lothering didn’t work. She did not prepare me, she just told me one day I needed to go because she didn’t have enough and the girls were old enough to stay by themselves. She couldn’t look me in the eye. She found a wagon that would take me for free and just sent me away. I felt so angry and sad that I promised myself to never speak to her again, but two months later I found a way to send her something and let her know I was doing fine.”

“You were just a child.”

“I was. And I thought that— I was scared but I had this will and I thought that if I just try, if I try really hard, there would be things that I could do. That things would be better. And you know what? Now I think she did what she could. I think she hoped for her children to find something better, but Cullen”, her voice breaks, “this life really just takes and takes.”

 “I am sure that knowing you have survived was a solace to her”, he breathes. 

“I don’t know if she even heard of what happened with Haven before I asked the merchant to reach out to her.”

“Believe me, the news definitely got to South Reach. My sister sent me a stern worded letter.”

“You didn’t write her after Haven?”

“You said there were things your mother never knew? There are things I have never disclosed to my siblings either, and it sometimes it’s easier to just not write instead of trying to go around them.”

How easy it comes to him to say it. 

“Cullen”, she mutters softly. “If I could write, I would probably say more. I would be able to use my own words.”

“I — Next time, I could write down your words”, he responds gently. “I should have thought about that.”

Everything hurts, the dull ache reaching every fiber of Orla’s body. It would be worse if she was alone. 

“Alright”, she agrees. 

His chin is resting on her head, his body is so close. On any other night, she would scold herself for everything she’s feeling, but tonight Orla doesn’t care. Her heart is wounded, and Cullen makes it easier to breathe. 

“Don’t forget your tea”, he reminds her and she raises up slightly to reach it. It’s nice and sweet. 

Orla doesn’t know how to pass the time. She can’t handle talking about her mother for the whole night, and she won’t be able to fall asleep, and any other topic feels wrong and inadequate.

“Cullen?”, she asks shyly. “I brought the book.”

“Where is it?”, he gets up, understanding her immediately.

“Right there, hidden between the blanket in the corner.”

He lies on his back, putting the blanket under his head. Orla shamelessly snuggles up to him, inhaling the scent of his body.

He opens the book and coughs out. 

Once upon a time, there was a small village surrounded by the forest. There lived Marigold, brave and beautiful…

Cullen’s voice is soft, soothing and warm, and the story brings many memories from childhood.  Niall and Cian were still alive, Faye was just a baby, Aileen was the cutest chubby thing. Father was alive, and mother laughed a lot. They were poor as dirt, but in a way, they were happy too, and Orla had a head full of dreams of hunting bears, befriending Mabaris and rescuing handsome princes. 

 

Chapter Text

Cullen writes most of his letters in his office, but this one he tries to compose sitting around his new bedroom. It is nice, the windows are large and overseeing the valley below. He sees snowy mountain peaks, he sees the river below and the view stuns him with its beauty. The small fireplace warms up the space inside. The furniture is simple and functional, and the bedding is fresh and very soft. Someone, likely Josephine, made sure there’s a painting on the wall and a fur rug on the floor. Cullen is used to austerity and doesn’t care for luxury, but he appreciates the thoughtfulness. It’s certainly more appropriate that the bedroom he was offered when they moved to Skyhold initially. 

It’s close to the kitchen. That matters more than anything else. 

He looks at the messages from Orla to her sisters. He has no problem writing his own thanks to Mia for everything she has done, he has no problem reminiscing their parents, or adding few words to his nephews. 

He struggles with what to tell Mia about Orla. What is she to him, exactly? Dorian is his friend. They chat whenever he’s not traveling with Evelyn. They play chess, they talk. Orla is… lately he spends every damn night in her company. He feels her fall into slumber in his arms. She cooks for both of them the way his mother cooked for the family. She is a friend, but she is more, too.

I do not know how to reply to you, he writes, but Orla is not my lover. I don’t know what she is to me, Mia, but I am not a man to take advantage. I met her by pure accident and we have started talking. I do realize how it sounds, but I have no better answer for you. Perhaps she is my lifeline. 

Is he a decent man? Is he doing right by Orla, coming there every night? 

You would like her, the words fall onto the parchment chaotically. She is stern and she scolds me all the time around the kitchen. She tells me I am a fool and she is right. She doesn’t sugarcoat things, but her words bring more solace than anything else. I have never been equally honest with anyone before, and she gives me kindness that I believe in. There’s something about her that is almost intimidating, that roughness under the surface, but she is warm and gentle as well. She’s a good woman, Mia, and she’s a friend. 

It’s not a lie, but it’s not full truth either. He doesn’t mention how lovely Orla is, how beautiful her face appears when she sleeps, how graceful is each movement she makes, how much he thinks of her. It’s not the demons in his dreams that make him imagine kissing her lips. 

It’s him, awake and unrestrained, of his own volition.

He knows to be honest with himself, and he doesn’t deny the tenderness floating in his veins. 

                                                                                         **********

Orla misses the meadows and the fields and the orchards of Ferelden. Back then, however small her room was, she could always go out and walk and breathe the fresh air. She misses it. She misses the village square where a market would set up each Saturday. She misses the small wooden Chantry in the next town, and the walk there. She misses the flowers; marigolds, and daisies, buttercups and poppies. She misses the haymaking, the smell and the business of it. She misses the feel of haystack prickling her back when Finn took off her shirt for the first time.

“I’ve never liked it that much”, she told him earnestly and he laughed and looked at her with those blue eyes like the summer sky. 

“I’ll change your mind if you let me”, he said. 

She did let him, and he did change her mind.

Orla misses all of it, and she wonders if she would ever feel the same walking those meadows after the war, the bandits and the hurt that came along.

She had to flee few times now, and each time something in her heart shifted, and now instead of the fields she is surrounded by the tall and thick barricades of Skyhold, and her world seems smaller, but at least it seems safer too.

The spring has started arriving in the mountains. Orla can see the sings even though she spends most of her time either in the kitchen or her windowless bedroom. Crocuses bloom all around the paths in the courtyard, and something hopeful blossoms inside her heart. 

                                                                                         ***************

Cullen stands over the war table, looking resignedly at the map. The news coming from Crestwood is not good, and Evelyn is traveling to the Western Approach. The Grey Wardens have disappeared from Orlais because of the false calling, and they plan the blood ritual to end all of the Blight. Madness, Cullen thinks as the blood in his veins freezes. Madness. 

“We need to start sending troops to the Western Approach, Ambassador. We cannot simply wait for the Duke and the Empress to suddenly see reason”, he sighs.

“We can’t do that”, Josephine frowns. “We can’t just march the troops into Orlais still bleeding from the civil war. The Empress would not allow it, the Duke would not stand for it either.”

“They are letting their own people die, they ignore the threat of Corypheus, they wait for the Inquisitor to clean their messes but they don’t want her to be properly supported by her own forces”, Cullen hisses bitterly, “and you expect me, the Commander, to ignore it?”

“I expect our fight to be against Corypheus, not the Orlesian Empire, Commander”, lady Montilyet remains unmoved, “I don’t wish to wake up one morning to the Orlesian army at our gates.”

Cullen is angry and tired, and he knows that Josephine is not wrong. They should be delegating many units to the Western Approach, but they cannot, not until they receive the permission from the Empress of Orlais. 

“I am still sending Rylen there”, he relents quietly. “He can help secure the Keep and to establish a proper military base in the region. Both the Empress and the Duke do not seem to care about the peripheries of their country.”

“I will allocate my agents as well”, Leliana offers, looking at them both. “The ball and the peace talks at Halamshiral happen in a month, Commander. You shall have your resolution then.”

“Very well”, he rubs his forehead resignedly.

“That brings another point on my agenda”, the Ambassador announces gently, in a voice that always makes Cullen alert. “Commander, you shall begin your dance classes. We cannot wait for the Inquisitor to come back to Skyhold, and you need to be prepared.”

He can’t help the groan escaping his mouth.

“Is it really necessary?”, he asks faintly, though he knows the answer. He has barely helped with building connections and acquiring new funding for the Inquisition, and he is out of excuses. 

“Yes”, Josephine replies smilingly. 

Cullen is a soldier experienced enough to recognize the battle already lost. 

“Whatever is required, as long as it doesn’t impact my duties.’

“Of course, Commander. There is one last thing. I finally received the report concerning the earnings of Skyhold servants. Thank you for bringing it to my attention. There certainly have been areas where compensation was severely lacking. I had a stern chat with our seneschal and we have already made necessary corrections.”

“Good”, he mutters with some relief. 

“I sent the copy onto your desk.”

“It does cost us”, Leliana remarks. “We need to find more donors and our visit to the Winter’s Palace provides the opportunity we have to latch on. I know you have needs for siege equipment—”

“I will help”, he says with strange firmness in his voice. “I will find more coin.”

The Inquisition Forces come first. There’s war. The world is ending. In times like these, the sacrifices are made for the sake of the armies, for the sake of the troops. They bleed and they die, and it’s only fair they’d be well armed, well armored, well fed, well paid, their families financially secure.

Not at the cost of others going hungry and cold. 

He doesn’t allow himself to feel any irritation. He doesn’t allow himself to complain. Not about this. 

“Good”, both the Ambassador and the Spymaster reply in unison. 

That is a pact, and Cullen knows it. He will be asked to fulfill his end of the bargain. 

It’s only right. 

                                                                                 ******************

Orla has lost people before. It feels like bruising covering her soul. She doesn’t cry often, but pain and tenderness remain right there under her skin. It feels better when Cullen is around, and she keeps reminding herself that it won’t last, that he will stop coming. Nonetheless, his voice, his smell, his touch are like ointment, and Orla clings to it. 

Maybe at one point he was the one to seek comfort in her, but now she is seeking comfort in him, too. 

They sleep almost like lovers, embracing. The only time when Cullen’s hands are on her body is when they lie in the blankets. It’s gentle and subtle, and never inappropriate, but it is more than mere physical nearness. His fingers stroke her back or his arm is wrapped across her stomach. 

He reads often to her, too. At first, it’s just the childhood tales, but then he brings the book of travels by the Chantry scholar, and he reads to her of Ferelden, of Orlais, of everything beyond, and Orla imagines seas, cities, mountains and paths. Everything is described in a way that makes her almost see it. 

Sometimes he stops, when brother Genitivi talks of a place he has been to, and he adds a story or two. That’s her favorite part, even though he is not the best storyteller. 

“Orla?”, he asks at the end. “I will be leaving in three weeks time.”

“Oh”, she clears her throat. 

“I’m going to Halamshiral. The Winter Palace. There is the ball organized by the Empress and the peace talks—“

“You’re going to the ball organized by the Empress of Orlais?”, she can’t hide the awe from her voice.

“Yes”, he says gently. “They make me take dance classes, too.”

Now Orla imagines Cullen holding a beautiful lady in his arms and swinging with her in a ballroom. She doesn’t know if the palace looks anything like Skyhold castle, but she is sure it’s impressive, with sparkling chandeliers and polished stone floor. The pinch of stupid and pointless jealousy hits her unexpectedly, and Orla chastises herself. Of course he will dance with noble women, he will dance with the Inquisitor herself, too. He will attend the ball, the proper ball, like in tales, and Orla will always remain a girl who has never seen much. 

“It won’t take long”, he murmurs, “two weeks, maybe.”

She doesn’t find the words to say out loud. Everything between them is limited to the kitchen, to the hours when she works and he seeks a way out of his loneliness. She’s just a maid, wearing a patched up skirt and a simple blouse. She probably smells of the food she cooks. She’s no lady, no princess of the tale.

“Well”, she breathes out. “I am always here.”

There’s always just this kitchen, with its four stone walls, its large hearthside with the stove and the oven, its cupboards, its pantry, its pots and pans. Whatever is between them, it never leaves this room. The kitchen is warm, quiet, even private, and Orla likes it here, but it’s only one room, her place of work.  

Maybe there’s little to Orla outside of the kitchen now, but it used to be different.

For a second she thinks she would like for Cullen to see her differently. To see her eating apricots fresh from the trees, to see her run around the meadows, to see her make floral wreaths, to see her with her arms bare, dancing during Summertime. 

It’s foolish.

It’s more than foolish. She loved and was loved once already, and it seems greedy to want more of this world. 

“I am horrible dancer”, Cullen remarks casually. “I can’t get the steps right.” 

“Really?”, she regains composure. “I’ve seen you spar. You don’t seem to have two left feet.”

“You have seen me?”, he asks surprised.

“Once or twice”, she replies, the gulp forming in her throat. “Through the window. You’re the Commander. It’s easy to recognize you.”

“I suppose the next time I dance I’ll think of the sparring ring”, Cullen chuckles. 

“You are very welcome”, she says dryly and then adds in a whisper: “I love dancing.”

“You do?”, he swallows. 

“I have always loved it, especially the obertas. The more you spin, the more fun it is.”

“That sounds… dizzying.”

“It’s supposed to be dizzying”, she smiles and then sadness floods over her heart. “It’s supposed to leave you slightly confused and light-headed, like falling in love with someone.”

“Have you… ever been in love?”, the question startles her and he immediately corrects himself. “That is— I am sorry, I should not—“

“Yes”, she answers calmly, her body aching. “He was perfect, and he died.”

“War?”

“Yes.”

Mage-Templar war. Orla is unable to stop the bitterness from spreading. The rest of us are forgotten. 

“I am sorry”, Cullen’s voice cracks.

“You did not fight in it”, she states. “I know that. People talk.”

“I didn’t”, he admits. “It wasn’t right, and I kept the Order in check until leaving. I brought some men with me to Haven.”

“War is terrible”, Orla bites her lip. “I know there is one in Orlais now, and you’re still going to the ball.”

“I know”, he pulls her closer. “I wouldn’t go if it wasn’t necessary. There will be peace talks there—”

“There’s always dancing somewhere around the world, and there’s usually war too, but the Empress holds the ball as her own people keep dying.”

“I know. I wish it wasn’t like that.”

“See, Cullen”, Orla closes her eyes. “That’s how people like me are no one. We live plainly and we die plainly too. There are no songs, no tombs, no ruins of famed battles. Just the fleeting memory.”

“I am sorry”, Cullen repeats, grasping her tightly. 

“It’s not on you. For what is worth, you should still try to dance well. For Ferelden, at least.”

“I will”, he promises her, “but it will be a battle.”

“And you’re a soldier.”

“I am.” Cullen mutters. “You know, Orla, sometimes war happens because we must defend the world, like we do now from Corypheus. No soldier should love war for its sake. It is whom we defend that matters. When I fight, I try to remember that. You remind me why I must.”

“I feel slightly better”, she admits, “knowing that it’s you protecting the rest of us.”

“You have seen me at my weakest”, he sighs.

“I have seen you feel and fear. It means you have a heart. And you endure.”

“Orla? Thank you.”

She falls asleep in his arms, safe and secure, the sea of sadness calming down next to the warmth of his body. 

                                                                                 *********************

The lyrium craving comes and goes in phases. Cullen thinks of Samson. Samson, who was kinder and better than him. Samson, who could see the mages’ struggle better, who used his heart to help them and paid the price. Samson, who corrupted not only himself, but those around him, their bodies and their minds, in the most twisted way. 

There were few crossroads in Cullen’s life. Few steps taken differently, and he could have been one of the Red Templars. Maybe their Knight-Captain. Maybe their general himself.

The thought is vile and disgusting, and it bothers him, but he knows what he did in the past. He knows the things that happened under his watch. 

He doesn’t wallow in scrupulosity, but he is not merely a man guilty of transgressions. He is a man who still commands others, who sends them into danger. 

He is the man facing Samson. He’s the Commander of the Inquisition.

Sometimes, for a moment, there is dread filling him looking at the evil around. Templars, Mages, Wardens, Seekers. There is hardly any place untouched by the calamity.

The Inquisition should be without blemish, but it cannot be. He is not without blemish.

He breaks the lyrium philter, the glass shattering. The headache doesn’t stop. 

 

Orla welcomes him warmly, bringing him food and hot tea. She watches him carefully, and Cullen feels ashamed. He doesn’t deserve all that kindness. He still eats dinner, and the headache subsides a bit. 

“You don’t feel well, do you?”, she asks with care.

“It’s nothing”, he replies.

“Cullen”, she pushes. “I can see it, you know. When something is wrong. You can talk to me.”

You would not understand”, Cullen snaps irritably.

He regrets it instantly, watching Orla’s face covering in blush. She blinks few times, her eyes a little glassy.

The guilt strikes him, and he is more than a blighted fool. He can almost sense the wound caused by his own words.

Orla gets up and turns away and he stands up immediately, his throat dry, knowing that the apology won’t be enough. She wraps her arms around her, and he can see her long braid falling between her shoulder blades. Maker’s breath, now he’s done it. 

“No”, she suddenly looks at his face and then she takes few steps closer, her arms crossed. He’s unsure whether she’s hurt, or angry, but he is certain she will kick him out. “You’re wrong. You’re wrong and unkind. You don’t get to say that, Cullen. You come here as you please, whenever you want, whenever you feel the need to. You decide when and if you come. I am always here. I don’t decide when to see you. You’re eating here, you’re sleeping here, you’re snuggling me. I know what I am, Cullen. But you come here nonetheless, and you come here to see me, and you say that I’m your friend. If you don’t feel like talking, just say it, but you’re not allowed to make me feel stupid or to dismiss me when you’re in a bad mood. You chose to come here tonight, so either treat me right or leave, Cullen Rutherford.”

Andraste preserve him, every word is true. 

“You’re right”, he whispers. “You’re so right, Orla, and I do apologize. I won’t do that again, please, I— Forgive me.”

“Well then. Clean after yourself”, she sighs and just like that, he is almost forgiven. “And add wood to the fire.”

He washes the dishes and Orla is arranging pies in the baskets on the counter. There is still tension around them.

“Stanton”, he coughs out.

“What?”

“It’s Cullen Stanton Rutherford, if you need to scold me properly.”

Orla tightens her lips, and he knows she’s fighting the smile from appearing on her face.

“The goal is for you to behave, not for me to scold you, Cullen.”

“To answer you”, he takes a deep breath. “I can’t tell the details. I can’t give the details to anyone, really, I just— There has been a lot going on in regards to my work and it is both discouraging and draining to realize how much corruption there have been around us. I don’t know where it stops. I wonder if there is an end to it at all.”

“Everything ends, Cullen”, she whispers, furrowing her brows. 

“The Inquisitor is fighting the battle against the much bigger enemy and I have the limited resources to support her the way I should, as the Commander of the forces. There are delays, there are decisions to be made. I am afraid to fail, in many ways. People better than me failed and fell for the evil. I don’t know if I’m the best man for the job.”

“Do you have to be the best?”, she glances at him uncertainly. “Or can you just be good enough?”

“Ha”, Cullen mutters to himself. 

What sort of question— Maker’s breath.

“I suppose good enough would suffice”, he admits reluctantly, and some worry disappears from his stomach. 

“Maybe it’s silly”, Orla’s cheeks redden and Cullen is afraid it is because of his earlier words, “but when I was little, my father would always say that there would be smarter, better people than me, but I could still make use of all the strength and heart and wits I have. There are those that have more strength, heart and wits than you. You’re likely not the best, Cullen, but that doesn’t mean you’re not enough. ”

His heart trembles in his chest, taken by gratitude, shame and affection at once. Orla is scrubbing the counter carefully, not even glancing at him. 

“There’s nothing silly about things you say”, he murmurs. 

“Don’t forget about the fire”, she reminds him.

                                                                                    *********************

Cullen is always contrite, but it doesn’t take away pinching pain, even as she lies right next to him. Sometimes she forgets herself for a moment. It’s hard to sleep by someone’s side and not let the walls crumble. She tries to be careful, but her feelings flow to the surface like water escaping the pot that boils over. 

You would not understand. 

It taunts her and it hurts her, because from the start, she has tried. She’s not a soldier, she’s not a scholar, she’s not a Templar, she’s not a mage, she’s certainly no lady and she’s no fighter either. She’s just Orla. A girl who can’t read or write. A girl who knows little but how to clean or cook. A girl who has never even been in a proper city. 

Cullen is, well, he is the Commander. Whatever doubts he carries, he is educated, and accomplished, and well-read and well-traveled. He leads the armies, and she bakes bread.

If he has not stumbled here by accident, they would never talk. The embarrassment wiggles in her stomach. 

How foolish is she, really? She can make use of all her wits, but It still won’t be much. Cullen talks to her, but does it even matter what she says in return? 

“Orla?”, he asks, examining her face. 

“It’s nothing”, she brushes him off. “Go to sleep, Cullen.”

He raises his head enough to be almost above her, and his eyes are very serious and concerned, like there was something wrong with her. 

“I really hurt you, didn’t I?”, he winces. “Orla—“

“I forgive you”, she cuts him off.

He doesn’t say anything for a moment, still looking at her, and Orla feels bare under that gaze. 

“I know I can’t understand your work and what you’re doing.” 

“You understand better than you think. You understand me better than anyone else.”

“Everyday”, Orla whispers, “everyday I am reminded of things I don’t understand. Simple things. I get nervous seeing notices on the walls or doors because I can’t read them until I find the courage to ask someone to do it for me. I work in the smallest kitchen at night because there are proper cooks here in Skyhold. I have no other skills but cooking and cleaning and little gardening and maybe taking care of children. I know how little I’ve seen and how little I understand, but I have my own mind. This world reminds me of how small I am, and today, you made me feel small, but unlike everyone else who passes me in those corridors and gives me orders, you know me, Cullen.”

“Orla—“

“It’s easy to tell myself that nobody really knows me, but you do. You’ve talked with me plenty.”

“Orla, I am an idiot”, he rubs her arm. “I’m such an utter idiot. I am so sorry, I really am. I am an idiot who didn’t want to bother to answer your question, I don’t— I— You’re not— You’re not stupid, you’re — I know you have your own mind. The things you say make me change my perspective so often. I love talking with you, Orla. I— Maker’s breath, I wonder why you keep seeing me. Whatever I intend, I know I’ve hurt you before, and we both know I am rather stupid.”

Orla knows why. 

“You’re like a helpless Mabari puppy”, she jokes and Cullen laughs loudly. “It’s hard for a Fereldan girl to not take pity.”

“Mabari? I thought I am worse than a dog.”

“You’re certainly not a lion.”

Maker’s breath.”

Cullen”, Orla says very seriously. “No Fereldan man should be called a cat.

He lowers his head laughing and she can feel his breath on her neck.

“I agree. I wholeheartedly agree.”

“Dogs are better, anyways.”

“Orla”, he muses, “You are the best girl.”

Her heart twists and twists, both out of joy and sadness, and she wishes to open up, to tell him more, to dare to try, but that never ends well, does it?

“Don’t mock me”, she frowns and taps his chest with her open palm.

“I would never dare to do that”, he says solemnly.

 Stupid girl, waiting for another heartbreak. 

                                                                              *************

The warm flame of the fire is enough to shed a light on Orla’s face, and Cullen does not want to stop looking at her. 

Guilt dances around his heart, and Orla’s voice telling him she’s no one echoes in his memory. She’s someone, she’s her wonderful self, and somehow she always knows what to say. He wants to bring her comfort too, but what he does so often is the exact opposite. 

Mia’s words from her letter hang above his head. He is aware of the imbalance of power around the whole situation, of the fact that he chooses when to see her, of the fact that she’s just waiting, of— well, of everything, really. Orla is right, as always. 

He has no right, except that he has already given himself the right, except that he’s been here every night, except that she’s lying on her back almost below him and he can count every single freckle on her face. He can hear her breathe, he can see her chest rising and falling, he can see every single speckle of color in her irises. She’s so close, so near, and Cullen knows it’s too late to pretend that this is nothing, just two strangers who accidentally keep bumping into each other.

He doesn’t know what Orla thinks about it all, but she allows him to be here and she cares for him. She might scold him all the time, but she gives him warmth and kindness and Cullen knows that she gives it freely, that she likes him, in a way.

Maker’s breath, he’s never been good with women. He knows he’s attractive, but that can’t make up for all the awkwardness and the baggage he carries with him since Kinchold. His few dalliances ended pretty miserably and shamefully, and he has avoided this part of his life for so long until Evelyn…

Andraste preserve him. He told Orla about Evelyn, he told her that in the most stupid, careless way, and he’s not sure how to tell her that he doesn’t feel that anymore. He doesn’t know how to give Orla any sign that he is absolutely, entirely smitten by her, except that he’s coming here all the time, and he’s coming for her. 

It all makes him look like an arse and— She’s been hurt before, and she loved before, and she has lost people— Would she be even—? 

He continues to do everything wrong. He continues to say things that harm her, he continues to take without giving as much, and he has enough awareness to recognize that, but he doesn’t know how to fix it.

“Orla”, he murmurs, “abut what you said earlier, I— Let me finish. I know what you’ll say, but you can see me whenever you want. You can. You can come to my office and my— don’t take it the wrong way — my quarters are in the next corridor from here, the third door from the left. If you need anything, at any time, you can… you can come. Whenever you want.”

“Cullen”, she breathes out, her lip trembling. “You’re the Commander. I’m the maid. You’re not that stupid to not know how it would look if I ever approached you in public.”

Would it be bad because it would look like they’re together? Would it be bad because she doesn’t want it or because of his title or—? Would it be terrible if it was true? It’s increasingly hard for him to ignore all the affection that he feels for Orla. Maybe it’s selfish, maybe it’s egoistical, maybe he is not careful enough. 

“So they would think we’re together—“

“They would not think that”, Orla says bitterly. “Nobody would think that. They would think I spread my legs for you, that’s it.”

“By the Maker, Orla”, he gasps. “That’s—“

“People like you and me are not together. You’re not supposed to even know I exist.”

“But I do”, he protests helplessly, “And you matter to me, Orla.”

“There are a lot of men in this castle”, Orla looks away and the unease starts filling Cullen’s stomach. “They could look at you and me and think that they can—“

She doesn’t finish, she doesn’t need to. Cullen feels the anger boiling in his blood. He hasn’t forgotten the second night he came to the kitchen, and Orla’s shaking hands unlacing her blouse, and everything she said that night. He hasn’t forgotten the story of the noble son taking her virginity, and there’s probably more, too. Cullen has his Kinloch and his demons, but it’s men that Orla fears. 

“I just wanted you to know what if you ever change your mind, if you ever need me, you can interrupt anything I do. I know who I am, Orla, but… I come here so often and I just wish for you to know have the right to seek my company too. And I swear to you, on everything I am, that if any man in this fortress troubles you in any way, they will pay the price.”

She turns red, slightly uncomfortable and he wonders if every word he utters tonight makes her feel worse. 

“Alright”, she frowns. “I know I can bother you if I need to.”

That’s… something, at least. He leans back, looking at the stone ceiling and wood beams adorned with dried herbs high above their heads. 

“Orla”, he opens up nervously, not sure anymore if it is right or wrong, “seeing you is the best part of my day.”

The world stills, and every second seems like eternity, and Cullen doesn’t even glance at her, his eyes focusing on the beams. He still can hear her breathing. 

“Well”, her voice shakes a little. “Your work is tiresome and difficult.”

Cullen worries about pushing too hard, about cornering Orla, about causing her discomfort, or worse, but she’s right there, every single night, and that cannot be entirely meaningless. She’s hard to read or he’s simply bad at all this. Everything about Orla is full or paradoxes, both simple and nuanced, easy and difficult, sweet and bitter. 

“It’s not that”, he insists. 

“The Inquisitor is away”, she suggests and now he’s flushing in shame. 

“My feelings… changed”, he says awkwardly, shutting his eyes. 

Orla doesn’t respond.

His heart is thudding so loudly that the sound could seemingly fill the room. 

“Goodnight, Cullen”, she finally muses, and he still doesn’t know where he’s standing.

Does she share some of his feelings but is cautious and tentative, or is it something else entirely?

She nudges his arm and wiggles herself closer, burrowing her face into his neck, landing her palm onto his chest. She moves her fingers down, carefully and slowly, until she finds his and all of a sudden they are holding hands. She still says nothing, but she doesn’t need to. That is more than enough. 

With unexpected boldness, he kisses the top of her head. 

“Goodnight, Orla.”

 

 

Chapter Text

It has been a while since Orla had enough courage to just go out and walk around. Maybe it is all foolish. She takes few steps towards the courtyard and then hesitates. Has the war and Haven changed her that much that now she is afraid to simply wander around? It is not a crime. She is allowed to do that. She is allowed to walk to the fighting grounds as well. Plenty of people do it on a daily basis. It means nothing. 

She adjusts her simple cloak and marches with more confidence than there is currently in her heart. She recognizes Cullen’s silhouette from afar. Anyone would be able to do so, he is wearing his armor and that fur mantle, and his golden hair shine in the bright light of the early afternoon. 

Still not a lion, she thinks to herself with a hint of amusement. Most certainly not a lion. 

She reaches the corner of the sparring arena and stands there alone. Whatever Cullen said about her being able to simply walk up to him and start talking— Orla wouldn’t dare to do that, not now, not in public. It really would be reckless but at the same time, she is happy to see him. 

She pretends to watch the fight, but her mind is distracted and she barely notices what’s going on there. She observes Cullen instead. He seems different than in the kitchen, and it’s more than just his armor. 

He is the Commander right now. His voice is loud and carries through, he shouts directions with confidence, his eyes are scrutinizing the arena. He is a hawk watching his prey. 

The longer Orla stares at him, the less certain she is about being here. It is easier to keep whatever there is between them inside of that small kitchen instead of foolishly trying to—

Her knees get weak because one of the soldier that just won the sparring match takes of his helmet and Orla recognizes him. 

By the Maker, it can’t be. No. No. No.

How could— No

The blow to her heart is so powerful she almost falls but then she steadies herself and slowly and quietly turns around to walk away before she is discovered. 

Orla of Lothering!”, the unmistakable voice shouts loud enough for everyone to hear. “Don’t you dare walk away from me!”

“Liam of Lanstoke”, she faces him with a hiss and crosses her arms. “Hush! I know for a fact you were taught better than to make ruckus in public.”

He has exactly the same eyes as Finn. The same bright blue eyes, piercing her soul. His face is covered in sweat and the hand holding the sword is shaking. Liam. Finn’s little brother Liam. Here, in Skyhold. 

“Orla”, he manages more quietly, getting close. “I was sure you were dead.”

For a while it felt that way. She says nothing for a moment and he waits. His body shiver, the consternation paints his face. 

“I wasn’t sure if you were alive too”, her voice cracks. 

She saw Liam three times in her life. The first one was the same night she met Finn, the last one months before his death.

In all this time, since war and destruction she has not met anyone who knew of Finn. Everyone else died, but now Liam is here. By the Maker, Liam is here. He will have questions, and she will need to reminiscence all the moments she wants to forget, but it needs to be done, because this is Liam. This is Finn’s blood, his careless eager little brother. He is as tall as Finn, his eyes are like forget-me-nots, his dark her now long and disheveled. He seems well fed and  healthy and strong, at the very least.

He is a soldier now, no longer a plowman. 

Suddenly she can feel his arms around her, pulling her tightly and Orla freezes. 

Andraste’s tits”, Liam says, looking at her and she shakes her head disapprovingly. 

“Your mother would put soap into your mouth if she heard that”, Orla mutters and Liam chuckles.

It sounds like Finn’s laughter and that hurts more than anything else.

“My mother would be glad to know you survived. Orla, why— where did you go after everything that happened in Connellmoor? There are so many things I want to ask you about. By the Maker, Orla, you are the sight for sore eyes. Finn would be so glad that you made it.”

Orla has never had any doubt about that, and that kept her going despite all the pain, fear and humiliation. 

“I know. He would be glad you are alive, too. Liam, I’m sorry—“

“Are you mad, girl?”, he frowns at her. “What do you have to be sorry for? You were to be my sister. I am just… happy to see you.”

Orla pats him on the chest with as much of restrained affection as she can muster without bursting into tears, and she would not want to cry in front of all those people. 

                                                                        **********

Cullen notices Orla the second private Liam shouts her name. Before he even has time to consider whether she came to the fighting grounds for him, he sees private Liam taking her into his arms, still holding the sword in his hand. 

Maker’s breath. He wants to tell the man to at least sheathe it, he wants to ask Orla if she is alright, he wants to… well, for a brief and shameful second he wants to know who is the private to Orla to embrace her like that in public. 

Cullen curses internally for the thought is petty and unworthy of both him and her. 

He just wants to know that she is fine. He takes few steps towards them, but stops immediately when he overhears the snippet of their conversation. 

‘You were to be my sister”, private Liam whispers. “I am just happy to see you.”

Cullen’s legs turn into stone, and he is unable to move, because now he knows more than he should have. He has no right, no right at all to invade Orla’s most private space. He glances at her profile, and he can see the distress on her face. 

He steadies himself enough to make a quiet retreat before he hears the words of another soldier passing by.

“I see you got yourself a bitch”, the man hurts insults towards private Liam and Orla, “I heard Fereldan women fuck with dogs when they can find no man.”

Cullen clearly sees private Liam’s fingers tightening on the pommel of his sword. He gets there immediately, but Orla is quicker than him. She puts both of her hands on the private’s chest stop him from starting a fight. 

“Shhh”, her voice is soft and gentle. “Those are just words, Liam. They don’t mean anything.”

It is a lie. Orla knows it, private Liam knows it, and Cullen knows it, too. 

Recruits!”, Cullen barks and Orla jumps up, glancing at him nervously. The blush creeps up on her neck and cheeks. 

“Commander”, both private Liam and another main reply in unison.

Names”, he orders, barely able to control his fury. 

“Private Liam.”

“Private Armand.”

He is angry. He growls silently just to let some of it out, to compose himself. This is more than disrespect and disregard. It’s not crudeness, it’s cruelty and callousness. 

He has enough will inside of him to not strike Private Armand for his words. He is the Commander, and his job is to manage the soldiers. He has plenty of tools to discipline them and to punish them, but this is his Orla and—

Private Armand”, he hisses cooly, “Such words are unacceptable and unforgivable. Confinement to barracks for two weeks alongside latrine duty. For now. I will be adding a note into your file, and I will have a chat with your direct supervisor. Quiet! You may not speak. I will be personally ensuring you’re following my orders. Get out of here, now!”

The man listens, his face sour and upset. Cullen takes a deep breath. He catches Orla’s eyes looking at him. He might be wrong, but he strongly suspects that revealing that he knows her is the last thing she needs right now. 

Her lips tremble.

He wants nothing more but to pull her close and to wrap his arms around her, but he cannot do this. He would not do this without being sure, and right now, Orla turns to avert his gaze. 

Andraste preserve him.

“Private Liam”, he instructs. “Do sheathe your weapon before you embrace anyone.”

“Yes, Commander”, the man replies obediently, protectively hovering around Orla.

“Are you alright?”, Cullen merely asks her.

“Yes, Commander”, she replies uncomfortably. 

There’s nothing more he can do.

“I apologize for my soldier”, he breathes out before walking away.

Was this one unfortunate incident or is that something that happens to Orla more regularly? Cullen is certainly aware of the way soldiers can talk to each other, but there is a conduct of behavior required of them. He is the Commander, he hears and sees thing around the fighting grounds, he has access to everyone’s personal files, but what can he truly know of a life of someone like Orla? Only what she has tried to tell him, and Cullen wonders whether he listens carefully enough.

                                                                             *********

Liam drags Orla to the tavern, offering to buy her dinner. She doesn’t calm down enough to even begin to consider everything she’s feeling at the moment. She has not talked about Finn with anyone since he died. 

The roast is good, at least. Orla rarely eats meat and can barely remember the last time someone served her food. She eats fast and a bit greedily, despite hoping to delay the conversation. 

She avoids looking at his face.

He has always looked a little like Finn, but now that cuts straight to the bone. Those eyes… It is difficult to look at those eyes.

“How you’ve been, Orla?”, he inquires carefully.

“Fine”, she replies simply. No point in mentioning the details of the war and Haven and everything in between. “What about you? When did you get to Skyhold?”

 “Just a month ago or so. I spent some time in the Bannorn and I avoided Hinterlands… Orla, I would have tried to find you if I thought you’d be alive. I knew Finn was gone, there were some who escaped and— I thought you were with him. Where you—Where you there when he died?”

The piece of meat gets stuck in her throat and she coughs, tears filling her eyes.

“No”, she admits at last. “But I saw him, later.”

Liams rubs his face with both hands, and Orla feels shame for speaking shortly. 

“He asked mama for the ring for you not long before— He was supposed to come in few months to get it.“

The memory returns fully. Finn was so bad at deception.

“He told me”, she murmurs. “He was terrible at keeping secrets. He told me and then he said he wouldn’t ask without it being proper, so I needed to wait.”

“Maker’s balls, that does sound like him, doesn’t it? You know I took bets with him the night of the dance? I told him you were too pretty for him and that he stood little chance.”

Orla snorts and takes a sip of her swill. “I was too pretty for him, but he was too nice for me.”

“He could see no wrong in you.”

“Not exactly true”, she can’t help but to smile. “But close enough.”

“I am sorry, Orla”, Liam whispers. “He really loved you.”

“He loved people easily”, she sighs. “What about you now? Got yourself a girl?”

“Naye”, he shrugs. “The war… Maybe after it’s done. I am soldier now, it’s different and by the time my day ends I collapse out of tiredness.”

“Do they treat you well here?”, she asks, thinking of the man harassing them.

“One or two Orlesian pricks here, but overall it is… they pay me more coin that I have ever earned in my entire life. My lieutenant is from the Marches. She requires a lot from us but she is fair and patient, too. She explains what she needs. The work is not bad. Easier than plowing so far.”

“You haven’t fought yet, have you?”

“No. They deploy us after three months of training, and I still have two left.”

Orla doesn’t need to say it out loud. They both know Liam might not make it, but at the same time she has witnessed enough to understand why he needs to hold a weapon in his hand. 

“Have you found a man yet?”, he questions her casually but Orla blushes as if she got caught. 

“No”, she tightens her lips.

“I knew my brother like my own mind”, Liam remarks softly. “You know he wouldn’t want you to sulk around.”

“I knew your brother pretty well, too”, she glares at him. “I am not sulking, it’s just— Maybe someday.”

“Anyone pestering you?”, he examines her carefully.

“No!”, she frowns. “I keep to myself. The only person pestering me is you with your silly questions.”

His laughter reaches’ her heart. 

“We would be a family. Let me check on you from time to time. Maker knows I could use someone checking on me.”

He is Finn’s little brother after all. He is her family. 

“Fine”, she agrees. “But you’re paying. Maids do not get as much coin as soldiers.”

“Fine”, he chuckles. “Still working the kitchens? You can bring proper Fereldan pie from time to time.”

They shake their hands to seal the deal, and Orla notices that despite all the hurt today, her heart is still intact. 

                                                              *****************

Cullen wonders whether he should visit the kitchen tonight. He has been there every single night lately, and he can’t imagine not ensuring Orla is safe and sound. He feels uncomfortable knowing that he unintentionally learned something very private and intimate about her, something she has not shared willingly herself. Nonetheless, the need to make certain she is doing fine is stronger than his doubts, and he knows she can kick him out whenever she wants to. 

“Hi, Cullen”, she welcomes him quietly, without a smile. Her eyes are a bit reddened and very glassy.

“Hi, Orla”, he whispers. “I— I am sorry, I don’t intend to bother you, but— I just wanted to check—“

She marches towards him so quickly that for a split second Cullen wants to flinch but Orla is not angry and she does not snap at him. Instead, he feels her arms wrapping around his waist. 

He exhales loudly, in shock and then he hugs her closely. They stand like that in the middle of the kitchen for Maker knows how long.

That is such an unexpected wave of affection and intimacy. He doesn’t find the right words to say and he can sense all the tension floating right underneath Orla’s skin. She has never leaned on him quite like that, seeking comfort right away. Pangs of pain cross his heart, but part of him delights in being able to bring her comfort. 

Orla doesn’t cry, she doesn’t move, she doesn’t say anything, she just stands there and breathes quietly as he caresses her back in a gesture that is meant to be more reassuring than anything else. 

She is the one to pull away first. 

“Tea? Yes?”, she asks him so quickly he doesn’t even manage to interrupt her, and before he knows she’s moving around the stove. 

“Orla?”, he hesitates. “How are you feeling?”

“I don’t know”, she responds flatly, and Cullen frowns a little. “I need to finish those pies”, she gestures at the prep table.

He is the one to brew the tea after all, and he doesn’t press to encourage her to talk. There is more rigidity in her movements as she makes the pies, but she is working as swiftly as usual. He walks around the kitchen until she snaps at him to sit down and stop wandering like a stray dog looking for a bone. 

As usual, Cullen listens and he is patiently waiting. She has not told him to leave, and by now he understands that it means that she wants him here.

It takes a while before she joins him on the blankets, sipping on her now cold tea.

“I will make you a new one”, he offers but she just grips his arm, forcing him to stay. 

“No need”, she says quietly. 

“Orla”, he whispers, “I am so sorry about what happened today—“

“You punished that soldier.”

“It shouldn’t have happened in the first place.”

“Cullen”, Orla looks at him with an expression on her face that makes him catch his breath. “It does happen. It just doesn’t usually happen when the Commander is around.”

He knows she is right, but part of Cullen wants to rebel against it. He wants to fix it. He wants to make sure that it is unacceptable and that it is weeded out of the Inquisition.

“You can always come to me—“

“Can any girl come to you either?”, she cuts him impatiently. “Cullen. There are things that even the Commander cannot change. I know you care, but sometimes you just sound snooty, like I am not able to recognize what is right or wrong. I know it is wrong. But we maids stay silent not because we’re stupid. We do it because it is safer, because we have no choice, because no one listens or cares.”

He remains quiet, chewing on her words. 

“Don’t wait for people like me to complain to you, Cullen”, she adds quietly. “We learn very early on that we can only count on ourselves.”

“Orla”, he says desperately. “I care about you. You are— I— You can count on me.”

She places her hand on his shoulder and pats him like a dog, and somehow that is worse than denial. Orla oscillates between affection and apprehension, and Cullen can’t shake the feeling that this is his failure. 

She would call him on that too, probably. He can almost hear her say it is not about him.

He takes a deep breath and composes himself. 

“Orla”, he coaxes her, thinking it might be a bad idea, “You know I have accidentally overheard some other—“

Yes?

“If you ever want to talk”, he swallows nervously. “I am always here for you.”

She raises her eyebrows and he braces himself for whatever else she might say, but to his surprise, she merely lets out a soft sigh.

“Fine”, she agrees. “I just… am not sure I know how.”

At this point, Cullen is almost panicking, because he anticipated quite a different response.

“Oh”, he breathes out. “So, private Liam…”

“is the younger brother of the man I loved”, she finishes gently. “I only met him three times and I have never thought I would see him again.”

“Do you want to say few words about him? Your… beloved? You mentioned him passing away.”

It is by far the most intimate question he has ever asked, but Orla just looks ahead, her face sad and serious. 

“Finn was sweet and funny”, her voice is barely audible. “We met at the Summerday dance. I thought he was a bit ugly when he first approached me, but he also had the bluest eyes I have ever seen. I can’t recall when and how, but at some point that night I realized I enjoyed looking at his face and I have not danced with anyone else. Now that stupid ugly face remains perfect in my mind. He was nice in a way most people aren’t. I am not that nice, but Finn was.”

Cullen measures and weighs his words carefully, but he has never been that good at it. “I am sorry, Orla”, he says. “For everything you lost.”

“Thank you”, she replies quietly. “Liam asked me if I saw Finn die.”

Cullen freezes and closes his eyes. “Did you?”

“No”, she whispers. “I hid in the fields. The inn was further away from the village and I had time to run. I don’t know for how long I was there. All I remember is not moving for hours. There was fire and smoke at the end, and so much blood all over. It wasn’t mages or Templars, it was just the bandits.”

Cullen’s stomach tightens in dread, and he can sense the cold sweat on his body. He knows how war looks like, but he knows it as someone who wears an armor and carries a sword. Someone who can fight and defend himself. 

“Anyway”, she brushes the dust off her skirt. “Finn is gone. He has been gone for way over a year now. I just… I never thought I would see his brother again. Or anyone who knew him. And Liam”, her voice cracks, “has the same eyes.”

“He seems like a good lad”, Cullen murmurs softly.

“I can’t blame him for wanting to pick up the sword”, Orla shudders. “Not after everything I have seen.”

It did not stop at Hinterlands either. Cullen is painfully aware of that. Whatever Orla experienced during the war, she lived through Haven as well and… Maker’s breath. Let it be the end of it.  

He doesn’t know whether he should touch her or hug her, whether he should once again mutter how sorry he is. There are things he says as the Commander, but Orla is neither his charge, nor his soldier. She doesn’t share easily, and she is thorny as a thistle. He doesn’t have her gift to say the right thing. 

“You know what’s the worst, Cullen?”, Orla’s voice cuts through the silence like a knife.

Maker’s breath, there is so much Cullen imagines that could the worst.

"What?”, he asks with a heavy heart, preparing himself. 

“He has been on my mind less and less lately”, she confesses, covering her mouth quickly. Cullen’s throat is dry as a desert. 

“Do you think he would disapprove?”

“He’s dead, Cullen, he doesn’t approve or disapprove of anything”, Orla snorts but then she buries her face in her hands. “He wasn’t like that. It’s more like… There is always that hole in my heart, but the world keeps turning and the time passes, and everything heals, whether I want it or not. Today hurts badly, but it hurts differently than a year ago and there are days when it almost doesn’t hurt.”

Orla”, he coughs out, “there’s nothing wrong with healing.”

“Look at you”, she gasps. “Do you ever listen to your own advice?”

He can’t help but to laugh softly at her words. “Maybe.”

“Maybe”, she sighs. “You know, I don’t think words are your strength.”

“I apologize”, he flushes. “That does not mean—“

“You could give a girl a hug instead.”

                                                                      ***********

Cullen might say the wrong thing sometimes, and sometimes he doesn’t find much to say at all, but his arms are good and warm, and Orla feels better just by listening to the beating of his heart and smelling his perfume. 

He might not be the best with words, but Orla tells him more than anyone else anyway. 

He listens, patiently, and that means something to her. More than the times when he mumbles about protecting her, more than all his knightly gestures. What good does it bring to have the Commander make promises he can’t keep? Orla has no need for that. Cullen spending his time holding her and letting her say whatever she has to say, without pretending he can change the world? That is what melts Orla’s heart. It doesn’t matter if he knows what to say or not, it matters that he tries, it matters that he doesn’t walk away, it matters that she feels like someone… Someone important.

He is a stupid man in many ways, but he is smart enough to realize how she might feel about him. As much as she tries to deny it, she thinks he might feel similarly, too. 

There is nothing about his touch that would be improper, but his hand moves surely on her back, stroking it gently. It is sweet in a way it can only be between people who care.

There is dull ache all around her body, and there’s a little bit of grief left, but there is also tenderness, coating Orla’s heart in layers and layers of honey. 

It’s not mere warmth she seeks, it’s the warmth emitting from Cullen’s body. It’s not merely that he smells nice, he smells like himself, like that foolish, prickly man who gives orders to everyone and then comes to Orla to order him around. It’s not only companionship she craves. For some odd and peculiar reason it’s his presence that fills her with wonder.

He’s such a pest sometimes, really, bothering her at work, slowing her down and distracting her, but Orla wishes nothing more than to be bothered. 

She would think he was asleep if not for the fact that his hand still trails down her spine.

“Cullen”, she shakes his body a little and he stirs.

“Mhm?”

“I am not made of stone”, Orla whispers and the heat reaches her face. “I feel things.’

His hand touches her cheek and she feels his thumb running on her skin and his eye are blazing, reflecting the fire of the hearthside.

"You will get bored of this and you’ll stop coming”, she adds, unable to hide or escape.

No”, Cullen protests and Orla wants to roll her eyes at him but he looks at her so sincerely she can’t bring herself to be as leery as usual.

“I am—“

Do not say it”, he pleads so quietly she can barely hear him.

Cullen”, she repeats, her heart thudding in her chest. “You can’t run away from it. You come here because you can approach me, because I am just a stupid village girl whom you don’t find better than yourself, so it is easy for you.”

He can’t win, Orla knows that. She leaves him no chance to win. He fell for the Inquisitor, and Orla could hardly compete with any lady, not to mention the one who is the hero saving the world. Orla is Cullen’s consolation, someone to open his mouth to, someone warm to hold at night, someone who wont’ judge him for crying or screaming in his sleep. 

He can’t change that. No one can.

“You’re wrong”, he denies pointlessly and then raises his head a bit. “You’re also not that approachable.”

“Nonsense”, she scoffs loudly. “You hardly have any issue to barge in here.”

“Fully expecting you to berate me at any moment. I like your company, and I cherish the things you say, but none of that I would call easy.”

“And now he’s complaining”, she sighs loudly, frowning at him. “You should learn gratitude from dogs.”

He chuckles a little and shakes his head. 

“I won’t ask why you think the way you think—“

“That would be stupid, even for you. I just told you”, she mutters dryly.

Oh, Orla”, he looks both helpless and hopeful, like a mutt begging for scraps. “Can I try changing your mind?”

The ache and the sweetness alike spread over her body furiously, for Orla was asked that before and she said yes and the world became better and brighter. It was taken away from her, it vanished and it chipped at her heart and soul.

“You know, people are wrong and there can be harm in trying”, she replies earnestly, her heart bare. “But I suppose you can.”

He brings her hand to his mouth and kisses it, and Orla buries her nose into his neck. 

Chapter Text

Occasionally Mistress Martha likes to remind all the girls working in the kitchens how they should keep their knees shut, for no one would help them here if they got in trouble. Orla knows better than to roll her eyes, but she wants to kick something. At least she is paid more now, they all are. It must have put Mistress Martha in a bad mood, because she is taking deep breathes and complains how reckless all the girls will become, and how grateful they all must be to the Inquisition for all its generosity.

There is little in life that Orla wants more than for people to stop demand her gratitude. She wants to give it freely instead of it being taken away. Gratitude. How easily can such a pretty word turn into the most bitter one. Orla was asked to be grateful before, always by people who hurt her one way or another.

Orla doesn’t demand gratitude from anyone. She snaps at Cullen, and she barks, and bickers and she nags and she orders him around, she knows that. Still, she doesn’t require thanks from him. Neither for food, nor for anything else. 

Cullen doesn’t demand. He comes to the kitchen and he bothers her, but he does not ever make any demands. 

Orla gives what she can because she likes to, because she likes him. It is stupid and reckless, and maybe it will get her in some sort of trouble, but to be able to give means she is not broken. 

It makes her feel whole again, like a part of her was frozen and yet it has thawed by now and everything springs back to life.

                                                                             ***************

Cullen keeps his word and doesn’t complain during dance classes, but that does not mean he enjoys them. He meets Josephine dutifully in the Skyhold ballroom, and actually puts in an honest effort in making sure his feet land exactly where they should. After all, it is like a battle, and he knows how to fight. He promised Orla that he would try. For Ferelden. 

He achieves a moderate success so far. The Ambassador is polite and diplomatic enough to praise him from time to time, but he can sense the awkwardness of his movements. Maybe he won’t step on some Orlesian shoe during the ball and cause scandal. Maybe he will be spared from dancing at all. There will be plenty to keep them busy trying to influence the peace talks.

He aims to occupy his mind with work, letting his body fall into the routine, but he fails miserably. It is not work he thinks of, but Orla. 

Orla who apparently loves dancing, and suddenly Cullen imagines she would be in his arms, spinning across the floor. 

                                                           **************

Orla likes working with the bread. When they found Skyhold, she had to make a new sourdough starter from scratch, and she has been using it since. She has baked every single loaf with it, and she knows her bread is good. The main kitchen wants mostly wheat bread, but Orla prefers the rye one that leaves that tinge of sourness and earthiness on her tongue. 

Cullen likes that bread, too. He easily eats half a loaf in one sitting, alongside the Fereldan pork lard spread. The main kitchen would never serve that, but Orla made her own from the ingredients she had at hand, adding onions and apples and dried herbs. 

Poor man, she thinks as she watches him devour the food. She can hear the crack of the pickle underneath his teeth. He is the Commander of the armies, and apparently no one cares if he is being fed. Well, except her. 

It is silly, but it does warm her heart. She has always enjoyed feeding people, and there was a time when she took great pride in her cooking. She doesn’t have the same opportunity in Skyhold, but Cullen coming to the kitchen has motivated her to cook more dishes on the side. He appreciates the food she serves him, Orla has no doubt of that. She could tell if he was lying. 

He looks better, too. He still doesn’t get enough sleep, and he still faces nightmares almost each night, but he looks strong and when he is here, he looks relaxed. He looks like he belongs, and that terrifies Orla, because he does not. He is not supposed to be here. 

She sits down to rest and he immediately hands her a piece of bread with lard and a pickle, sprinkled with coarse salt.

“Look at you”, Orla teases before taking a bite. “Preparing food for me.”

His smile brightens the kitchen even more. “I am afraid that is all I can do. There are soldiers who can cook, but I have always been… well. I have never had a need to.”

“Clearly”, she raises her eyebrows. “You have learned few things coming here though.”

“It is hard not to when you’re scolding me like a dog.”

“You have spent too many springs outside Ferelden, Cullen”, she corrects him. “we do not scold our dogs, we guide them.”

He seems happy. 

“You look lovely tonight”, he says suddenly. 

Orla’s mouth is full of bread, lard and pickle, and she almost chokes before taking few large gulps of tea. 

“I look the same as any other night”, she answers calmly despite all the emotions swirling inside. 

Cullen turns crimson red up to his ears.

“W— Well”, he stammers. “I — I always think you are lovely.”

The blush is reaching her cheeks, and Orla feels the heat burning her face. Cullen might have suggested he was interested in her before, but he has never said something as plain and sweet as this and Orla doesn’t know what to respond with. Before she finds any words suitable, Cullen rubs his neck awkwardly and starts averting her gaze.

“That is”, he begins, “I— I am sorry, I didn’t mean—“

“Oh”, she notices somberly. “You did not mean it then.”

“No, no”, he looks at her so horrified that it is almost endearing. “I — I do mean it.”

Truth be told, Orla rarely feels lovely. She keeps herself clean and she braids her hair nicely but she also works in the kitchen. Her skirts get dusty, half of her shirts have small patches here and there, and she still has only one pair of shoes. The only time Cullen sees her is at work, when she is sweaty, and disheveled, and her hands get dirty and scraped. 

“Thank you”, she manages and he nods.  

                                                                ****************

Cullen has never been that good at any of this. He would even dare to say he is awkward at flirting, and a bit insecure as well. He has not wanted anyone in his life until Evelyn, and it hurt when she rejected him, but this is not about her. This is about Orla, and Orla is a whole different person, and Cullen struggles to find words to express himself.

He talks to Orla every single night, he sleeps by her side, he holds her close. She has admitted to harbor at least some feelings for him, and she outright told him he could try and change her mind. 

She is bustling around the kitchen, a bit of blush still on her cheeks, and Cullen wants to say something but everything just comes out wrong, and that compliment only made her more guarded. 

He sighs to himself. He has so much hope, but he does not know how to begin and she is not the easiest person to approach. Not all all. It is him being the Commander, it is the imbalance between them, it is what she knows of Evelyn, it is Orla’s own past and… 

The truth is that while Cullen has certainly managed to catch an eye of few women in his life, he has never been able to win someone’s heart. The only person before Orla was Evelyn and… Maker’s breath

He would have gladly invited Orla somewhere, except that according to her, it would bring nothing but trouble, so now he can’t take her to the tavern, ask her to walk the barricades, ask her to meet him in the gardens. 

He has to figure out something, because this needs to be more than him pestering her at work, especially if she is to be convinced that it means something to him. That it means everything to him.

“It was a nice day today”, he begins and then silently curses himself when she turns and eyes him in disbelief.

“Yes, it was”, she agrees, blinking.

“Well — I—“, he stutters again.

“Are you feeling fine?”, she frowns and approaches him, touching his forehead with her wrist. “You don’t seem feverish.”

He can’t tell if she is joking or if he is indeed that pathetic, so he just stands there awkwardly trying to come up with anything new to muster. Why is it so hard? They have been talking hundreds of times. 

“Would you like to dance with me?”, he breathes out quickly, without thinking. “I have been, uhm, practicing, and—“

He doesn’t finish, and something in her deep dark eyes almost chokes him.

“Cullen”, she laughs a little, “I don’t think I know how Orlesians dance at the court.”

“It is a simple box step”, he repeats Josephine’s worlds like a fool, not knowing what he is doing.

“Now? Here?”, she scoffs and walks to wash her hands.

“Well—“, his heart is in his throat and he should just apologize and shut up, but Orla wipes her hands with a cloth and comes back to stand right before him, waiting.

“Fine”, she mutters simply.

“Uhm”, Cullen rubs his neck before he offers her his hand.

Her palm is a little cold from the water. He places another hand on her back. How silly, he has caressed her there before, but now that gentle touch sends little jolts down his spine. 

She is tall, taller than the Ambassador, and she looks him straight in the eye. When they lie together, it is usually darker. He rarely sees her so vividly from up close. Now the candle chandelier is right above them. The light twinkles in her eyes. Something about Orla completely captures his heart—

“Cullen”, she whispers. “You have to actually lead.”

“Right”, he swallows, and awkwardly steps forward.

Orla’s back is straight and she holds her head high. He moves rigidly and uncertainly, but even he is able to notice that she almost floats while dancing. She is the epitome of grace. 

He counts in his head, following the known routine. It is harder than with Josephine, because now he’s actually trying. Still, all that effort earns him a little smile from Orla, and that makes it worth it. 

“Well, it turns out I know those steps, Cullen, more than you do”, she mentions. 

“Templars do not frequent balls”, he remarks apologetically. 

“So, do you know any turns or spins?”, she asks and all he does is try and then he accidentally stomps on her foot. 

“I am so sorry”, he mumbles, still holding Orla in his arms while she laughs at him completely unabashedly. 

“Cullen”, she pats him on the shoulder. “Just do not step on the foot of some Duchess. I have heard it might cause a war with Orlais.”

He laughs shortly, if only to dispel the tension he feels.

“So I have been warned, believe me”, he sighs. “Perhaps I took the battlefield advise too literally.”

“Do all highborn people dance like that?”, she furrows her eyebrows. “Barely touching at all?”

Cullen feels the heat slapping his cheeks. “That is what is appropriate—“

Appropriate”, Orla chews on the word as if it was particularly nasty. “Clearly not the concern when we common folk dance.”

He has seen such dances before, the last one at the bonfire. In some act of bizarre bravery, he grasps Orla’s waist and pulls her in, and now she almost brushes against his chest.

“Like that?”, he groans a little and watches the color reappear on Orla’s cheeks. 

“Yes”, she replies softly. “Just like that.”

There’s something in her voice that boosts his confidence, so he leads again, more slowly and deliberately this time, swaying around the kitchen. Her face is near, allowing him to hear her breathing. He sees the little lines around her eyes when she’s smiling.

Cullen wants to kiss her.

He won’t, but he yearns to. 

Instead, he clumsily spins her around, at least succeeding at not trampling her. Orla laughs happily while few strands of her hair fly loose. The sound of her laughter hits Cullen straight in the heart. He doesn’t know how or when it happened exactly but he is sure he is in love with her. 

                                                         ************

The last time Orla danced was so long ago she almost forgot how it feels like. Even though Cullen is bad at this, really, really bad, it still is fun and she still likes the feel of his hands on her body and how committed he is to trying to get the steps right. 

She is a little out of breath when they are done, thanks to all the spinning. Now Orla is dizzy and happy, giggling with no reservation.

Cullen says nothing. He just looks at her fondly and something about that look dries Orla’s throat.

She tries to be reasonable. She does. This is a bad idea, and she already knows it will end in heartbreak. That is how it always ends, but as much as she pretends nothing has happened, she has already allowed him into her heart. 

Maybe the worst part is that Cullen is not trying to cause harm. He is kind and clueless, like a stupid large dog begging for affection. Once he changes is mind, and Orla thinks it is bound to happen, he will feel guilty and remorseful. 

How can it end in anything but heartbreak? He is who he is, and she is all she is ever going to be. 

If she was smart, she would tell Liam to introduce her to some nice soldier boy from a humble background who would not be embarrassed that she can’t read. If she was smart, she would find a man who was decent enough, kind enough and warm enough instead of letting herself dream that this means more than it does.

Cullen might be the Commander, but he is ignorant and foolish, and he doesn’t even begin to understand the way people would look at them if they saw them together. Men like him bed women like her, they don’t court them or marry them or—

It does not happen, aside from the stories and tales.

Orla can imagine the horror on the Ambassador’s face if she knew, the horror on the Inquisitor’s face and the pity looks Cullen would receive. It cannot be. There are guests and dignitaries coming to Skyhold, he is the Commander, and he might not notice, but he would feel shame seeing how people view her.

What they have begins and ends here, in the kitchen, and it doesn’t leave that door. It is done. Orla doesn’t know when and she doesn’t know how, but she knows this ends. 

What she does not know is how much to reveal and to give of herself before it does. 

“That was really nice”, Cullen whispers, laying on the blanket as if he belonged here, with her. 

“There are nice things you can’t find at the palace, I suppose”, she embraces him as if it was her right. 

“I will miss you, Orla”, Cullen confesses and her heart melts and bleeds at the same time. 

“Indeed. Who will you bother? What will you eat?”, she wonders loudly, making him laugh again. 

“Perhaps I won’t perish out of starvation”, he murmurs, “but I might come back very hungry.”

His voice vibrates in her ear and the shivers travel down Orla’s body. She wants grab him and kiss him, she wants to place his hands on all those parts of her body he hasn’t touched yet. By the Maker, she is bothered right now, and even recalling Mistress Martha’s cruel remarks doesn’t help. 

“There is always plenty of food here”, she makes her voice level and dry. 

“Orla”, Cullen hesitates, “I’ve been thinking…”

“I have a night off in two days”, she interrupts him quickly. “So you can’t come here.”

“Oh”, Cullen breathes out. “I have wondered about that. I have never seen you take a day off.”

“I had one night off a month. Now it’s two”, she doesn’t need to try to sound bitter, it comes easily when she talks about her work.

“I— I see.”

“It was you, right?”, she asks even though she knows the answer. “The whole wage increase and everything else.”

“Well, no, uhm, yes, a little, but—“ his voice shakes a little and Orla kisses him on the cheek.

“Thank you”, she mutters. “It is… helpful. Anyway, you have always managed to miss my day off but now you come here every night and in two nights I won’t be here. I don’t think anyone covers my shift, I think the kitchen will be closed.”

“Perhaps”, Cullen says quietly, “you would like to spend some time with me. Not… not the night, but… Just, maybe, the day or— whatever, really—“

Orla would like that, but that cannot be. It simply cannot happen, and she knows how she would be looked upon.

Cullen”, she braces herself to begin her tirade.

“No, no, wait”, he begs. “Just listen. I can… We could leave Skyhold secretly. By the Maker, I am the commander, after all.”

“I don’t know”, she admits. “What if someone—?”

“Orla”, he whispers. “I can give you the uniform to wear if you really want to hide who you are. I — I really want to see you. I can make it happen, I can make whatever you need happen, just let me try—“

“Fine”, she cuts him off. “Fine.”

“You’re not— you’re not saying that just because…”

Cullen”, she scolds him.

“Right”, he chuckles lightly. “Good. I’m really happy.”

“Just remember…”, she bites her lip nervously. “You know I’m just… I can’t ride a horse—“

“Don’t worry”, he calms her fears. “I can, we can just ride together. It’s no bother, we wouldn’t be going far.”

“You do realize that I cannot protect you from the bears either, right?”, she pokes his side and he flinches a bit.

“Well”, Cullen smiles triumphantly. “The fur mantle I wear is actually a bear pelt. We’ll be fine”. 

“Did you kill that bear with your two bare hands?”, she teases.

“With my sword”, he frowns amused. “Forgive me if that disappoints.”

“Not at all”, Orla muses. “Cullen?”

“Mhm?”

“I am not a warrior or anyone, really. I am not very brave about being alone outside those walls after everything and—“

"Orla”, he wraps his arms around her. “You won’t be alone. You will be with me. Believe me, I won’t take you far and we have traders and marchers and dignitaries travel those roads without any issues. It is safe here.”

“Alright then”, she closes her eyes, enjoying the proximity of his body. “Sleep well, Cullen.”

“You too, Orla”, he responds warmly. 

                                                              ************

Cullen doesn’t enjoy secrecy. He understands Orla’s concerns and he realizes that he probably doesn’t recognize all the consequences she would face, but there is something that feels almost inappropriate about planning to sneak her out of the castle to spend time together. They are not doing anything wrong. It wouldn’t be wrong if they were together. Nonetheless, it is what makes her more comfortable and she said yes. It is not about him, it is about her.

He goes to the armory himself, picking up the items from the standard scout uniform, using the rope measurements Orla gave him before he left the kitchen. He has never seen Orla in anything else than a simple skirt and shirt, so this certainly will be a noticeable change. 

The easiest time to leave would be after the morning drill, when all the forces start individual training at the fighting grounds with their lieutenants. Most of the time, he tries to oversee that, but he has missed it before. 

Leliana would know anyway. Cullen doubts there is anything she doesn’t know about, but the Spymaster is a discreet woman.

He wishes he would be able to just walk around the Skyhold with Orla by his side. 

 

That evening he gives her all the new clothing and boots, and she looks a little shy, a little uncomfortable, a little thrown off but thankfully a little excited as well. 

“I will also pick up some food and drinks from the tavern”, Cullen remarks. “Is there something you, uhm, like?”

It is such a stupid question given that they meet in the kitchen and he witnesses Orla cooking and eating each night.

“I eat everything, I suppose”, she remarks quietly. “So, you promise I won’t get jailed for stealing the Inquisition’s equipment?”

“No, no”, he rushes in with explanations. “Orla, I am not… I am the Commander. I can requisition whatever I want.”

“So how do we—?”

“We’ll just… leave through the main gate. No one will see your face and I have left with scouts or soldiers for training or recon before. I am sure my leave will be noticed, but I doubt anyone is going to pay much attention to you”, he flushes crimson red. “Except, well, me.”

He can’t read Orla now, aside from slight nervousness.

“Am I completely foolish and stupid?”, her voice betrays so much vulnerability that Cullen’s heart clenches.

No”, he whispers. “Listen, I never want to make you do anything you don’t want to. I just— Well, I am just trying to— I really want to spend that day with you.”

Orla is no longer thorny or prickly. Some of her snark and boldness is gone, and now she seems almost shy. It is his job to reassure her, but reassuring Orla is nothing but challenging, and he feels like failing.

“Will I be cold in just this?”

“You can take your cloak and I will pack some furs… No, Orla, I won’t let you be cold.”

“Where would we meet?”

“Staircase near here?”, his throat is dry now. 

It’s like planning the mission, except it is most definitely not a mission. It is personal, and it is private, and Cullen has never done anything like that before.

“Fine”, she murmurs.

                                                             ***********

Orla can’t sleep. She is comfortable, she is warm. Cullen’s chest is slowly rising and falling, and she listens to the beat of his heart. She is able to sleep anywhere and anytime but tonight. Why did she have to fall for this man? 

What if they meet outside of the kitchen, in the light of the day, and he doesn’t like her? It is a stupid, shameful thought, and she behaves like a young girl, not a grown up woman. It is just Cullen. He has been coming here for more than a couple of months now. 

He will have that stupid armor on him tomorrow, and his sword, and his shield, and his horse, and he will become the Commander. Perhaps it is for the better. It is easier to forget who he is when she can sense the heat of his body right underneath that soft linen tunic he’s wearing.

She could wake him up and tell him it is all a bad idea, and she is absolutely sure he would listen. The only problem is that as much as she tries to hide it, she has wanted Cullen to see her outside of the kitchen for a while now. To see her differently than as a mere kitchenmaid. 

He does see her differently, in a way. Orla is not blind. She can see his eyes stopping on her lips just for a second too long. She knows enough to realize that even though he recently claimed to have feeling for the Inquisitor, he is rather serious than careless. It is not his intentions that Orla doubts.

It is his wisdom and common sense. It is his inability to see the differences between them as the obstacle that is almost impossible to be crossed. 

He is the man leading the armies of the Herald of Andraste. His life has been nothing but extraordinary. There is very little that seems impossible to men like him. Difficult, perhaps. Not impossible.

Since leaving home, Orla has learned over and over again that almost everything is impossible to her. She knows she will stay poor her whole life, she just wants enough to have a roof over her head and to have food on her table and maybe something to spare. She doesn’t dream of gowns and grand palaces, she just wishes to have few nice things and to go to a dance from time to time. If there is one thing a maid learns quickly and painfully in this world, it is to not want a man she can’t and shouldn’t have. 

He is right there, smelling like Ferelden, giving his warmth and the safety of his embrace. 

He is offering more. More than he should have. 

Will he try to kiss her tomorrow? With a lot of other men, she would have been more wary, but Cullen has been snuggling with her for a while now and he has never ever demanded anything more. He doesn’t ask for much, he has been happy with whatever she would give him. He doesn’t ask for much, but he asked for tomorrow. 

Orla would like to be kissed. 

                                                   ***************

Cullen showers frantically after the morning dill, feeling the nervousness surrounding him. What if Orla changes her mind? What if he really is selfish in encouraging her to do all that? What if something goes wrong? What if he once again says something ignorant and oblivious? What if she doesn’t like spending time with him? What if she agreed only because he insisted? 

He makes sure to put pomade in his hair, although Orla has surely seen it disheveled before. He slaps his perfume on his neck and once again he dresses in full armor. 

Maker’s breath. He remembers her words about how differently he looks in it and he knows she is right. He is the Commander right now. Still, he is also Cullen who is fond of a certain lovely and witty and snappy Fereldan girl. 

Andraste preserve him, he thinks. Why is he so worried? He has never seen Orla going back on her word. 

He waits at the staircase and then he hears the steps, and his heart thuds in his chest. 

                                                *****************

Orla likes the feel of the pants on her body. She owns a mirror now, so at least she can see how she looks. She is unrecognizable in those clothes, especially with her hair hidden. Cullen is not wrong. People rarely focus on her face, and if she takes the helmet off, the rest of her outfit looks normal and average, but different from what she is used to wearing. 

She is anxious, to be honest.

With Cullen coming to the kitchen, it has been easy to pretend it is about food or comfort, but that? That is a tryst. That is him trying to make it happen, that is her agreeing to it all because she wants to. 

She half runs the castle corridors, slightly afraid of being caught. Her hands sweat a little. Her heart is caught somewhere between nervousness and excitement. 

What if—?

She slows down the second she sees Cullen.

He is the Commander right now. He stands tall, and proud, and fully armored, and perhaps less coy in the light of the day. 

His eyes flicker from her face to her body. 

“Hi, Orla”, his voice is warm as a blanket.

“Hi, Cul—Cullen”, she replies so quietly, very aware that they are in public. 

“Are you ready? I have everything prepped so we can just—“

“Sure, yes”, she interrupts him impatiently, eager to leave the walls of the fortress and be alone again. 

“Orla”, he grins. “I am delighted to see you.”

Orla is definitely in trouble, and she almost doesn’t care. 

Chapter Text

As they walk toward the stables, Cullen can’t help but notice that Orla is avoiding looking at him. In fact, she is consistently glancing down, at her feet. She stays silent and he is stressing so he keeps talking about the clear skies and how nice it is that the spring has finally arrived.  

They reach the stables and he briefly chats with Master Dennet while she turns away and rubs her arms. There are perhaps things that escape him, but it is painfully obvious how nervous Orla is. He has wanted nothing more but to do something nice and sweet for her, and instead her fear and discomfort hit him straight in the face. 

It is so peculiar. He got used to Orla being witty, blunt and quick to scold him, and now she tries her hardest to disappear. She has told him many times how it is to walk in her shoes, and he has listened, but to see such a rapid change in her behavior dries his throat a little. 

He has been the one to initiate it, and he has managed to convince her to go. Now the guilt starts burning his stomach like a drop of acid. Every single worry she mentioned yesterday comes back to invade Cullen’s mind with full force. The worry of being noticed. The worry of being punished for stealing, even though she has not. The worry of what everyone would think and what they would say. Maker’s breath. 

He is responsible for all that. He wants to shift their dynamic to show Orla he is there for her, anytime, anywhere. He wants to show that her he has feelings for her. She means so much to him but so far not only is she more guarded than usual, she also seems unhappy, and Cullen’s heart reaches his throat.

He shakes off that feeling and braves himself, leading his horse to Orla. Her hands are a bit jittery, and Cullen takes a deep breath. 

“This is Gus”, he says softly and reaches to pass her a piece of an apple. “Go on, you can give him a snack. Keep your palm open.”

“Hi, Gus”, she mutters quietly, offering the food. She smiles a little. “I thought you would have a fancier name.”

“Don’t listen to her, Gus”, he jokes, patting the horse. “You are fancy enough. The best horse I have ever had.”

Orla touches Gus shyly, but her smile widens a bit and Cullen grows in confidence. “He likes you.”

“Does he?”, she repeats. “I think I like him, too. Old Gus.”

“Apparently he enjoys your insults.”

“Well, isn’t that a surprise”, she murmurs, running her long fingers through Gus’ neck. 

“Whenever you’re ready”, he tells her. “Just put your leg here… Let me…”, he grabs her hips and helps her position herself on the saddle. “Is that alright?”

“I… I think so”, she swallows. “How are you…?”

“Behind the saddle”, Cullen explains, mounting Gus himself. Fortunately he is a very tolerant horse. “We are not going far.”

Just like that, they are passing through Skyhold gates.  

                                                                                                   ***********

Don’t look down, don’t look down, Orla tells herself as they cross the bridge. She remembers when they all first arrived to Skyhold. Her heart was beating so fast walking through it, and now it beating fast too, for a different reason. She feels Cullen’s hands near the sides of her body as he is holding the brindles and even though they are not touching, he is so close

She can’t believe she is doing this. She is excited, but mostly, she is nervous. Not only she is nervous to spend some time with Cullen, but it also is her first time to ride a horse, her first time to leave Skyhold, and it is her first outing in nature since she lost her village, her home and Finn.

There was a time once when Orla loved walking and wandering across the meadows and the fields. She even liked venturing into the forest to forage mushrooms or berries. The world was a dangerous place, but it was the everyday danger, nothing like the war that came after. The war in the Hinterlands hit like Blight, cruel and disastrous, and it brought so much pain, and the fields and the meadows turned into place of hurt.

They follow the old stone path that looks ancient and she is shaking a little. Cullen places his fur mantle across her shoulders.

“Let me know if you’re still cold”, he whispers.

It is not cold that makes her shake, and she is embarrassed by all that. As much as he usually looks lost around the kitchen, right now he is calm and confident. He’s a warrior, he’s a soldier, he’s the Commander. 

“I’m fine, thank you”, she replies quietly.

They do not talk, but it does not bother Orla much. She is busy staring at the road ahead, at the snowy mountain peaks all around, at the evergreen trees. They stray from the path a little, and after a short while she sees the grassland ahead. It is entirely purple, covered with crocuses like those that grow around Skyhold. Here, there are hundreds of them. Down below there is a valley and a river snaking through it among pine and cedar trees. 

Cullen helps her down from the horse and hitches Gus while Orla just looks around. 

“Down below”, she hears him. “That is Ferelden.”

Something grips her heart and doesn’t let go. 

“It’s not the way we came from Haven, is it?”, she asks, while Cullen sets leathers and furs on the ground to sit on.

“No”, he glances at her. “We went into the opposite direction. That river that you see eventually ends up in Lake Calenhad.”

“It’s beautiful’, she manages. 

“I think so too”. 

It is funny, Orla thinks. All this time, and she has never seen him in the light of day from up close. Even the day when she met Liam on the fighting ground she avoided gazing at Cullen. The nights in the kitchen were illuminated by the fire and candlelight. He seems paler, and his skin is slightly pinkish from little cold and breeze. His hair makes her think of hay. His armor is polished and shiny, reflecting the rays of sunshine. The fur mantle is still on her arms, so now she sees the line of his shoulders, even if they are covered in metal. 

He has been spending each night by her side, and yet this is different and Orla feels shy.

She reminds herself about the helmet and the hood over her head, and she removes it, placing it carefully by the leathers. She sits down. 

“I brought many things”, Cullen says quickly. “I was not sure what— Never mind. There is bread, and different cheeses, and ram jerky, and fruit, and all the deserts I could get my hands of, including chocolate. Water. Cider. Bottle of wine. I don’t know what you prefer to drink or— well. There is also hot tea.”

Maybe he is a little bit nervous, too. She can can see his ears reddening and can’t help but smile a little.

“Tea would be nice.”

“Tea, then”, he pours it into two steel army cups.

“Thank you.”

The tea is hot and sweet, the way she likes it. It almost burns her mouth, but Orla drinks it if only to pass the fluttering inside her stomach. 

                                                                                              *****************

Orla’s braid today is not simple and messy. It is encircling her head like a crown and there is a blue ribbon entwined in it. He has seen Fereldan women doing it for special occasions, and now he can’t hide his smirk daring to think that going out with him counts as such for Orla. 

“Your hair, uhm”, he stammers, “You are, well, you look—“

“Thank you”, she replies quickly, before he is able to say how beautiful he finds her. 

That politeness could kill him. He silently hopes that Orla will call him a fool sooner or later, because he is lost without it. Then again, it is up to him to try now, and Cullen steadies himself, hoping that he will find the topic of the conversation that will stick. They have talked so many times, about so many things. Well, perhaps he was talking about himself at first, shamefully. He does not want her to think she is no one to him. That could not be furthest from truth. 

“Before, uhm, everything”, he starts, knowing she would gather his meaning. “Where… where did you live?”

“Connellmoor”, she replies calmly, and he knows something about Connellmoor. 

It is still Redcliffe Airling for sure, not that far from Honnleath, to be honest. That is not that. Connellmoor. It hits him suddenly and without mercy. During his trip from Kirkwall to Haven he spent most of his time reading various reports about the Mage-Templar war. Connellmoor massacre. One of the villages that got burned to the ground by the bandits benefiting from war to carry on with their pillaging and plundering. It takes his breath away. He doesn’t want to think how she made it to the Crossroads, and that is quite the distance. 

“Were you a kitchenmaid there as well?”, he asks awkwardly, just to say something. He clenches his jaw seeing the blush deepening on Orla’s cheeks. 

“I was more like a proper cook at the inn. Well, proper for a village standard, I guess. It was more than just an inn. A little bit of everything. I suppose I did everything I do here, just… Sometimes there would be guests to stay overnight, there were three rooms available. Sometimes the inn would serve as sort of a tavern or a place to eat. Sometimes there would a wedding celebration or a funeral or some other party, sometimes I would simply bake to sell the items. The owner treated me right and… I liked that place. Maybe even loved it. The inn was just a house, old and large with a wooden floor that creaked. The walls were thick and whitewashed, and the beams supporting the ceiling so nice. It had a small stone fence in the front, and there was a garden in the back. We grew fruits and vegetables, and there were apricot, apple and plum and pear trees. I’ve seen mansions before, but I liked the inn most of all.”

“That all sounds lovely”, he whispers.

It does sound lovely and it brings memory of Honnleath and his childhood, although perhaps their house was smaller. It brings more, too and Cullen wonders whether he could have a home one day. 

“I would ask you how Kirkwall looks like but I already know, thanks to Brother Genitivi”, she remarks lightly and he chuckles. He likes reading to her. 

“I am afraid that Brother Genitivi provides more entertaining descriptions than me in any case.”

“Did you miss Ferelden back then?”

“No”, he answers truthfully. “After Kinloch and… the demons. I don’t know. I did not miss it for a long time, but being back… I think the part of me that could miss remained silent and broken when I was in Kirkwall. I was… well… worse than I am now.”

“I heard… things, here and there”, she breathes out and the shame appears in his chest. “Was it because of lyrium?”

“No”, his calm surprises him, but he has already been honest and open with Orla. “I am afraid it was just me.”

“Are you tempted to take it again?”.

He wanted her bold, now he has her bold.

“Yes. Sometimes”, he swallows. “I actually… I tried stopping before and failed. This is not my first attempt. My first was still in the Gallows, after the Rebellion. My second, too. This should be my last. It will be. It has been the longest and… I feel a lot better.”

There is a promise in his voice and he hopes she takes it as such. 

“Good”, she simply says and somehow Orla’s ‘good’ means more than anyone else’s honeyed words. 

He believes her. He believes her when she calls him stupid, and he believes her sparse praises, but most importantly, and he believes her words in between. 

She looks at him with those dark eyes, frowning gently, and Cullen thinks he has never allowed anyone to get to know him better. She is so—

“Can we eat something?”

Maker’s breath”, he flusters. He listed everything, and yet it’s still all in the sack. “I—I apologize, of course.”

“Is the cheese Fereldan?”, she bites her lip.

“Some of it”, he admits. “It is surprisingly difficult to locate some Fereldan—“

“You don’t need to tell me”, she chuckles as he carefully sets out the plates.

Cullen feels happy. Just ordinarily happy. 

                                                                                                     ****************

It has been a very long time since Orla had a picnic. Cullen brought more than enough food and it feels nice to just enjoy the meal without preparing it first. She wonders if he has ever thought about inviting her to the tavern, but after all that time of her telling him that they cannot be seen together she can’t be upset that they are meeting in secrecy. 

It is a lovely day. She has relaxed by now, and even the sight of Cullen in full armor does not seem so intimidating. It is still Cullen, the same man with whom she has been spending all this time anyway. 

The only thing tainting the day is her knowing it could not last. She has allowed for all this to happen. She has allowed herself to fall for him, but she cannot start dreaming that this could be more than mere few months of distraction. 

“What?”, Cullen asks softly.

“Nothing.”

He peels the orange and passes her the pieces, and the cold tanginess hits her senses so strongly her eyes almost water. It is delicious, and orange would always be one of Orla’s favorite smells. She does not want to admit it out loud but she has never had a raw orange until arriving in Skyhold, when she was able to take some from the pantry once. 

“So”, Cullen clears his throat. “What else do you like doing in your pastime, aside from dancing?”

Her face gets slightly warmer. 

“I don’t know if I have any proper pastimes”, she confesses slowly, suddenly embarrassed again and angry at herself for that. “I like simple things. I like gardening, I suppose, and even though some of it was for work I have always rather enjoyed it. I like… well, fairs and markets and… games, maybe. I like walking. I used to, at least, before the war and— I like knitting, too. I don’t sew well, but I do knit.”

Between the coin she sends to Faye and Aileen, she still has yet to buy the needless, and the yarn tends to be expensive, but there is no need to mention that. 

“I don’t know if I have any proper pastimes either”, Cullen says simply. “Well, I do like reading.”

Orla knows that, and while there is no judgement in his voice, it still stings a little. She never forgets how uneducated she is, especially in comparison to him. 

“I also like chess, I suppose”, he adds, looking ahead. “Dorian always teases me that I am very boring.”

“I know how to play”, she remarks instantly. “Well, I know the moves. I— There was a chessboard at the inn, and the owner taught me the first winter after I arrived there.”

“Really?”, he breathes. “I actually do have a small travel set, I don’t know why I took it, but—“

“It seems like you hauled half the Skyhold here”, she puts another slice or orange into her mouth.

“Well”, he laughs and rubs his neck. “I am not… I am not very good at this, I am afraid. I did not know what to plan and— Would you care for a game?”

“Fine. Just don’t expect me to be a any good at it.”

“Dorian cheats constantly. I am sure playing with you will be much nicer.”

“Dorian”, she swallows, “is the mage from Tevinter?”

“Yes. He is probably my closest friend here, believe it or not”, he replies amused. “Aside from, well, you. Do you want to play white?”

“You can start”, she responds quietly and he glances at her carefully. 

“You got a a bit tense when I mentioned Dorian”, he tries and Orla bites her lip, because she is ashamed to even say it out loud.

“I overheard him once saying that Ferelden smells like a wet dog”, she relents. “And that we don’t bathe. I have heard that… few times here in Skyhold.”

She regrets sharing it almost immediately, because Cullen always smells so nice and while Orla bathes or showers every single day, she does not wear perfume and—

Oh” he gasps. “I am so sorry, that is… Well— Dorian is a bit of an idiot. You should definitely not listen to him about Ferelden. Ad he is a cheat at chess.”

She smirks a little, setting her pieces on the board. 

“You always smell, well, uhm… really nice”, he adds gently.

“Like kitchen?”, she can’t help but to scoff.

“Like home”, he whispers and blushes at the same time.

Orla is no longer able to sneer when warmth and tenderness fill every part of her body. 

                                                       ***************

She is a better player than he anticipated, and part of Cullen is a bit ashamed of his prejudgments. She is not trained, obviously. Truthfully, he has spent way too much of his free time reading books about chess. He likely was worse natural player than Orla.

The fact that she is busy looking at the chessboard means that he is able to look at her. It is very nice to study her face in broad daylight. If he did not know her, it would daunt on him how lovely she is, from her ribboned braid to her serious eyebrows to those dark eyes and the freckles adorning her nose, to those perfect, full lips that he wants to kiss. 

He briefly thinks of the barricades and Evelyn and a little pinch hits his stomach. Orla is not Evelyn, and he doesn’t want her to be. It’s just… He misread the signals once, and he is afraid of doing again. He can’t, not to Orla. 

He could barely focus when she was eating the orange and her mouth was covered with juice, but he also knows that she depends on him to go back to Skyhold, and he doesn’t want to put any pressure on her, as if the situation was not already complicated. Orla is cautious, and she has the right to be cautious. He has already talked her into this outing. 

“It is your turn”, she snaps him out of daydreaming.

Cullen rubs his head like a child caught stealing the desert before dinner and he feels so hot on the neck. 

“Uhm— Wait”, he stammers. “What was your last move?”

She shows him.

“You could have won by now, could’t you?”, she eyes him carefully.

“Why—What—“, he begins and she giggles.

“I sure hope you are a better Commander than you are a liar", she jokes and he can’t help but to laugh.

He is not sure if she has ever allowed herself to joke about his position, and the fact that she does now fills him with so much hope.

“Excuse me”, he coughs out and frowns on purpose. “I will have you know that I do in fact use deception almost each day.”

“You can’t deceive people with that face, Cullen.”

He is surely red as a beetroot by now and he can’t stop himself from grinning.

“Well, then”, he announces. “Now I won’t let you win.”

                                                                                               *******************

Orla asks Cullen a question about sword fighting, and before she realizes he lets her hold his sword. It is lighter than she expected, to be honest. She thought it would strain to lift it up, but it is actually way easier to handle than the peel she uses while baking bread. Funny. She guesses it is not quiet as simple after hours of wielding it. 

Cullen is standing behind her, showing her how to grip the pommel and how to thrust. 

“Not bad”, he says approvingly and the warmth of his voice coats her. “I wish half my recruits would be able to do it like that.”

“How does it feel?”, she asks, handing it back to him. “To be good at fighting?”

“I gather it feels like being good at anything else”, he sheathes his weapon. “Unless you’re asking how it feels to kill someone.”

Seeing the war, Orla has wondered sometimes. Even at the worst, she never had more than a knife on her, and it would not help. It has not helped. 

She doesn’t say a word, but Cullen looks at her very seriously. 

“Somehow it feels easier than it should”, he says. “But that is a lie. It might feel easy, but it is not and it shouldn’t be. It feels good to win, though. It feels good to survive, at least at first. It feels good to not be helpless.”

He always responds honestly to those types of questions. It makes them matter. It makes his answers matter, too.

“I sometimes wonder”, she opens up. “About my brothers. Well, you know now my family couldn’t read or write, except them. I wonder what was it like, for them. I have never met a Templar… I know you’re not one now, but still, I have seen Templars in the Hinterlands, but I have never talked with anyone like that.”

“You can always ask me anything. Anything you want.”

At that moment, she actually begins to believe it. 

They walk around a little and she enjoys the view. Seeing even the tiniest part of Ferelden like this, beautiful and not scary means more to her that she can put into words. She has always loved Ferelden, but the escape from Haven caused wounds. Now she is in the mountains breathing fresh air and she enjoys it. 

“It really is very pretty here”, she murmurs.

“I hoped you would think that”, his voice is soft like fur. 

Orla doesn’t know what she was thinking. Perhaps she thought that talking with Cullen outside of the kitchen would be awkward, but it is not. 

It is nice. 

 

When they sit down again, they drink cider that tastes of pears and apples and reminds her of the fall in the Hinterlands. Cullen breaks the chocolate block, full of nuts and raisins, and Orla shamelessly eats most of it.

He is very close, and his eyes slide down her lips. Orla is not blind, she knows he wants to kiss her, but he doesn’t. She is both disappointed and relieved. She longs for that kiss, but she knows that once that happens there won’t be any denial of what is between them, and it scares her.

Here, right now, he is  Cullen, her Cullen, but that is still one mountain meadow covered in beautiful flowers. It is real, and yet it is not at the same time. To each other, they might be just Cullen and Orla, but to the world, they would still be the Commander and a stupid, naive kitchenmaid. 

Orla does not want to be a cautionary tale that people like Mistress Martha tell other girls to remind them to keep their hearts guarded and their legs closed. She had been foolish in the past, as a young girl. 

She should know better by now, and yet Cullen’s eyes are both earnest and warm. Her caution barely clings to her ankle at the moment. 

She won’t kiss him first. He is the one that is supposed to change her mind, or maybe she just feels braver, but not yet that brave.  

The chocolate melts in her mouth.

Does today change anything? 

                                                                                        *********************

Orla is right, he is certainly a fool. This time, he is a fool because the closer they are to Skyhold, the more tense she becomes. He can see it in the line of her shoulders, or in her frantic movements to cover her hair. By the time they reach the stables, she is very quiet, and Cullen’s heart sinks a little. 

He should have kissed her back then, on the meadow.

She still pets Gus and feeds him carrots, but she doesn’t smile and she shudders a bit when Master Dennet approaches them. 

They walk to the castle, and while he knows some patrols might notice him, there is no way anyone would be able to recognize Orla. He hates hiding, but he has no right to ask for more she is willing to give. It should be her choice. 

The more he gets to know her, the more he lets her get to know him, the brighter and more obvious his feelings become. 

While Orla is right about him being stupid, she is so wrong about herself. He knows he can be selfish, and unkind, but the way she erases herself at times chokes him. He likes her, and not because of what she gives, but because of who she is.

He loves her wit and her snappy responses. He loves the parts of her that are bitter and sour and tangy, and how it make her kindness and warmth so much sweeter. She is honest and earnest, and she is principled. In some way, she is one of the most principled people he has ever met. She has changed his mind quite a few times, and he is not sure he has ever changed hers. That does not bother Cullen, as long as he manages to do it just once and convince her that he is not careless, that he won’t get bored, that he likes her, and well, he is in love.

He doesn’t want to say it. He doesn’t want to rush, and he doesn’t want to cheapen the confession. Oddly, he felt more confident with Evelyn, even though he has not shared with her almost anything that Orla already knows about him. Perhaps that is what made him confident.

He is apprehensive now. Orla has never truly pushed him away, but it is not about that. It is not good enough. It is not good enough that she allows him to come to the kitchen. He needs to and wants to prove his affection—

She would scold him for those words, too. He can clearly imagine her sigh and that slight roll of her eyes. 

What now? Should he walk her to her quarters, or invite her in, or—?

They stop at the staircase when they met that morning. Orla stands with her arms crossed. 

“Orla, I—“, he begins but she interrupts him.

“It was, uhm, nice."

“Yes”, he confirms eagerly, and he takes half a step closer towards her. 

He can’t kiss her when she is still standing like that.

She licks her lips a little and Cullen swallows. 

She looks at him, and for a second he thinks she would touch him, but then a door slams somewhere above. It is not close by, but Orla jumps up. 

“I have to go”, she says quickly and nervously.

“Orla”, he tries, but he has no right. “I loved spending time with you”, he murmurs instead.

She is already descending the stairs when she turns around and gives him that fleeting, dreamy half smile before disappearing. 

                                                                            *****************

Orla reaches her small, dingy cellar room, opens the door and falls on the mattress without undressing or taking off the boots. It is slightly cold here, and she frowns at herself. Why, she thinks, why? What is the point when she has already crossed every line. She already loves Cullen, more than a little. She already is a fool. 

She takes a deep breath to calm her racing heart. 

She made that mistake before. 

Her heart will be broken anyway. 

She is a little nobody— No. She won’t tell that to herself. Not after today. 

Orla closes her eyes and lies there in silence, until she can’t handle it anymore. 

 

She gets up fast, before she loses all the courage, and then she leaves and she runs and runs and runs, and for a split second she thinks she will bump into someone and get caught and— Why is that such a long run? Her heart is in her throat and she barely catches her breath flying up the stairs. She should turn away, she should just go to bed and sleep and spend the quiet night by herself and she certainly should not be standing right in front of the door to Cullen’s quarters.

It is the door to his room, right? What did he say that one time? Next corridor from the kitchen, the third door from the left?

She knocks, and if she is wrong—

Cullen opens the door, freezing in place before she steps in, afraid that someone will see her if she remains outside.

The door closes with a thud. 

He is barefoot, wearing only breeches and a simple tunic and his hair is still damp from the bath. She does not smell his perfume, there is only a scent of a herbal soap and his warm body.

Orla”, Cullen whispers in disbelief, his eyes not leaving her face.

She grabs him by the shirt and places her lips on his, gently.

She feels his hands all over her back, searching and not being able to settle, and she wraps her own across his neck. Cullen crushes her mouth into hers greedily, and slightly clumsily, but it feels so good that every part of her body is set aflame and Orla burns. She hears his harsh breathing and sharp inhales and she almost gets dizzy.

Most kisses she has known go from slow and gentle to passionate and deep, but Cullen pulls apart, eyes her and then kisses her again, more tenderly and sweetly, and this time there is nothing clumsy about it. 

Stay”, he groans and her knees get weak. “That is…”, he immediately corrects himself. “I do not—I do not not expect… I just… You have slept in my arms before, and I thought it would be, mhmm, really nice if you, uhm, stayed and—“

“I will”, she says quickly. 

She loves him, and she wants him. She will stay.

“Can I, uhm”, he looks her straight in the eyes, his hand grasping her waist, “kiss you again?”

Cullen”, she giggles and she brushes that scar above his lip with her mouth. “Yes, you can.”

He does, and Orla’s heart is in full bloom. 

Chapter Text

There is the taste of chocolate still on Orla’s mouth. Her lips are soft and warm, her fingers are running through his hair, and Cullen can barely believe they are truly kissing. Maker’s breath, he would think it is a dream, but somehow the demons are never able to get Orla right. He knows it is her, from that faint and subtle smell of herbs and flowers, to the slightly rough feel of her fingertips, to the way she says his name, to the way she giggles.

He asked her to stay and she said yes.

When they pull apart again, her skin is flushed. She is both out of breath and beaming, and that smile amazes and astounds him. He might be a fool, but he is not blind. She looks full of joy after that kiss.

Cullen’s hands are slightly sweaty, and he notices he is gripping her shirt tightly, getting it all wrinkled. 

Andraste preserve him, what happens now?

“Orla, you’re so beautiful”, he whispers the first thing that comes to his mind.

She looks rather pleased. She tries to hide it, but she can’t, and Cullen’s whole body is getting hot. 

“I have to go”, Orla points to the door and he blinks in confusion. “I need a change of clothing and a nightdress…”

“Let me”, he breathes. “I don’t want to make you run throughout the castle. Stay and relax, and I can bring you whatever you need, just tell me what and from where.”

There is hesitation on Orla’s face and she frowns a bit. 

“Are you sure?”

“Yes”, he caresses her back, still astonished that she is actually here. “I just started a fire. You can sit, and, uhm, I still have some desserts…”

“Can I”, her blush deepens and her voice shakes a bit, “take a bath? We spent the whole day outside and… well, servants have only access to the showers.”

Cullen tries very hard not to imagine Orla naked. He tries not to think of everything that might happen tonight, everything he desires, and—

“Of course you can take a bath”, he manages calmly, focusing on her at the present. “I will give you a fresh towel, and let me just light the candle for you.”

There is some embarrassment on Orla’s face, but it does not worry about that at the moment. Not right now, not after today. He hands her the towels and the soaps as she cautiously explains how to get to her quarters. 

By the time he leaves, he can hear the water filling the tub. 

 

It is quite the long way there, Cullen realizes, and he is glad he is the one making it. She came to his bedroom, she kissed him, she’s staying. The very least he can do is to make her comfortable and ensure she has everything she needs. By some miracle, he has a simple pot in his bedroom, he could brew the tea easily or simply offer her wine or cider, but he certainly does not want to seem like he wants to get her drunk—

As Cullen descends down to the cellars, the concern starts settling in his stomach. He knows he is taking the right path, he never doubts his sense of direction. He does not like the basements, but at this point of his life he can go there without dread overwhelming him. He has visited Skyhold dungeons more than once as the Commander overseeing the prisoners. It is just… no quarters should be here.

It is dark, and he only has one reading candle. He pushes the door carefully and gets inside. It is cold and unpleasant. The light fills the whole room. There is a small bed with blankets on it, a chair used as a nightstand and a chest. It would be hard to fit anything else, and Cullen swallows. There is no window, and the low temperature is causing him to have goosebumps. 

This is where Orla sleeps. He does not understand why he is still so shocked. She does not hide who she is. Each time that Cullen thinks he finally understands, he has to recognize that he does not. 

It had to be storage once, he sees the hooks in the walls. Right now there is a clothesline hanging across them, and he when he touches the shirt it still feels damp. It must be hard to dry things properly here. 

He sees exactly one metal bowl underneath the chair, filled with few pears and apples. There is a mug near it, empty. One pair of shoes is carefully placed by the door. He opens the chest and sees the neatly arranged clothing on one side. It is much less than he owns, and he does not usually pay attention to those things. He picks two pairs of smalls and chastises himself for blushing, and then a shirt and a skirt and a comb, as she instructed. He finds the nightgown folded underneath the blankets on the bed. 

There is little else in the room. Small mirror, few ribbons tied to back of the chair, a small metal plate with soap on it, and a book he gave Orla. 

The lump forms in his throat and he sits down on a bed for a second. This is how Orla lives. She would be so upset and embarrassed if he said anything, and he knows not do, so he tries very hard to control his own emotions while looking around.

It is all very neat. The clothes are organized by colors and so are the hair ribbons. The hairpin that her sister sent catches his eyes. It is so obvious that while Orla has so little, she cares about everything she owns. 

Cullen cannot say a word about this. It would only bring her pain. He has offered her money once and she kicked him out of the kitchen, and he has no right to do it again. He can’t say a word, despite all of him wanting to take care of her and to protect her. He is not allowed to make her feel ashamed. He just… he wishes to do more. This is Orla. Orla with whom he has been spending all this time, Orla who has been taking care of him, his Orla whom he just kissed, his Orla who is waiting for him in his quarters.

Orla, the woman he is in love with. 

He grits his teeth and collects himself. 

                                                                                          ***************************

Orla closes her eyes. The water is hot and wonderful. The last time she was able to take a proper bath was ages ago. She still can’t quite believe she is doing that, but the need to wash off the dirt of the day is stronger than any shame that could have stopped her from asking. The soap is foaming properly, and it smells like Cullen, and that makes her smile. There is the tiniest thought at the back of her head that this is a bad idea, but now Orla pushes it away carelessly. She came here, she kissed Cullen, she is staying. 

The anticipation makes her giddy, but even that cannot stop the different type of worry. It has been a long time. A long time since Finn. The war… She tries to not think about it at all. 

She looks down at the water and sees the scarring that Haven left her with. She quickly turns her head. No one has seen this scar except the healer on their way to Skyhold. Orla avoids it, too. She swallows slowly, and then she hears the door open.

“I am back”, Cullen says loudly. “I have what you need. Can I just—Should I— Open the door and toss it in? I won’t look, I swear, I—”

“Sure”, she replies, and then sees his hand tossing her nightgown and smalls inside.

He is always so proper, but then Orla reminds herself about the way he kisses, and she feels warm all over again.  

Cullen’s mirror in the bathroom is tiny. She doesn’t see her body or the scarring on her stomach, only her face. She is shivering a little, dressing up. There is so much she looks forward to, but at the same time the nervousness keeps growing as well. 

She unbraids her hair, taking out the ribbon and letting it fall down freely. She combs it carefully, wondering what Cullen might be doing at the same time. 

Orla knows she has always been rather pretty, but there were times it brought more bad than good, and the war caused only more hurt and wounds. She trusts Cullen, and she is aware what his nightmares are about. Even that trust does not fully resolve the uncertainty that she might give herself away and get used. 

No. She takes a deep breath. Cullen might break her heart, but it won’t be because he intends to. He cares, and why wouldn’t Orla allow herself that little bit of loving coming her way?                                                            

                                                                                                 ***********************

Cullen adds more wood to the fire and then paces around his bedroom, trying to calm himself. There are many thoughts running through his head. Orla is right there, taking a bath, and he is already a bit hard merely thinking about it. Should he remain standing? Sit down on a bed? He decides to sit down. 

Does she expect more than kissing? Does she… Could she want him? The shame fills him almost instantly. He is a grown man, and he is both nervous and excited like a boy. There are no demons here, but they do not need to be present. Cullen knows his past and his failures, and every single time the flashbacks appeared and he needed to stop. He remembers the look on his lovers’ faces. His hands fidget a little just thinking about it. The fireplace lights up the room, and Cullen won’t be able to hide the redness of his face. 

The bathroom is so quiet. There is no sound of water, just silence. 

Today has been so very nice. He does not want to ruin it, and he really does not want to disappoint Orla in any way. 

The door opens and she walks out. Cullen freezes. She is wearing a simple white nightgown with long sleeves and lacing in the front. It is short, perhaps because Orla is so tall herself, but now he is able to see her long, strong legs. The soft yellow light shines on her body. He notices the shadow of smalls underneath the fabric, and he knows she is not wearing any breast-band. Her hair falls down past her elbows, dark and long. He has never seen it unbraided before.

Orla surely is the most beautiful woman he has ever seen, and he does not know what to say. His throat is dry and he feels hot. 

“Hi”, she whispers almost shyly.

“Hi”, he replies as she walks towards him. “Would you like, uhm, anything to drink or—“

“I’m good”, she sits next to him, and he can smell his own soap on her body. Somehow it is painfully arousing.

She looks at him and waits for something, and Cullen swallows. He touches her hair and slides his hand through it. She might have slept in his arms before, but right now, seeing her in that nightgown, with her hair loose feels so much more intimate.

Orla touches him too, her hand caressing his shoulder. It daunts on him how unguarded she is now, with so much sweetness in his eyes, and Cullen feels the weight of it all. Maker’s breath, he feels so much, from the tenderness in his heart to the jolts of anticipation spreading over his body.

He tells himself to be brave.

He kisses her gently and slowly. With so little between them, her breasts press on his chest and he can feel the warmth of her skin after the bath. Her fingers run through his hair, pulling gently, and this combined with her tongue on his makes him let out a moan. 

“I like your kisses”, she smiles, caressing his face.

“Good”, he laughs a little. 

It does feel good.

Orla shifts herself, laying on the bed and pulling him by his tunic. Maker preserve him, he is already rock hard and she certainly is able to tell. She kisses him again, this time grasping onto his back at the same time.

It feels wonderful.

Nothing of this is like Kinchold and yet his mind goes there, again, reminding him how broken of a man he really is and he clenches his jaw.

“What’s wrong?”, Orla asks softly. 

Cullen no longer knows whether he is hot because of his excitement or whether it is shame. His hands are shaking and he owes her an explanation. He is so scared that all her desire is going to disappear once she hears him out. 

“I have never…”, he starts and can’t finish.

“You’ve never done it?”

He is so embarrassed it hurts his chest, but he also remembers that Orla already knows a lot, he remembers the fire in her eyes when she told him she does not mock anyone. 

“I— I have”, he stammers. “But I have never—I have never been very good at it, I suppose. Sometimes—There have been times when it reminded me of… of the demons and… my nightmares and… I had to stop. I have not been with anyone in such a long time and I am… I am really nervous.”

Perhaps he is more than nervous. Perhaps he is afraid. 

It daunts on him. She never actually said that she wanted to have sex, and now—

“I—I am sorry”, he breathes. “I don’t expect—“

Cullen”, she whispers, stroking his cheek. “It’s all fine. We could kiss and snuggle and fall asleep.”

His heart sinks a little.

“I do want you”, she adds quietly. “But only if you want me, too, and if you want this right now. It’s all good.”

“I do”, the thudding in his chest is so loud. “Orla, I— I want you so much, I am just afraid to… disappoint or that” his voice shakes, “you’ll find me… less of a man.”

He has ever spoken those words out loud before. 

Cullen”, she repeats his name. “I’m in your bed. How could I think that? You are the man I want. I… I am scared, too. I know what your nightmares are about. It… happened to me, too. Not… not with demons, but… I do understand.”

Maker’s breath. The image of the night when she thought he would hurt her invades his brain and Cullen shifts a little to rest his head because he is almost dizzy. He got so selfishly  focused on himself, as usual. 

“I am sorry”, he looks at her serious face.

“I thought I would never want to lie with a man again, but… I do now."

He holds Orla closely, hoping that it helps. It surely does help him. She is still warm, though he senses her shivering slightly. 

“There was no one after Finn”, he can hear the crack in her voice. “I do not count the war, because that was… different.”

She does not need to say it out loud for Cullen to grasp the meaning. 

“Orla, I am so sorry”, he repeats, feeling something inside pinching and aching. 

“I… try not thinking about it”, she says sternly and then her tone softens as she grabs his hand. “Cullen. I do not think any less of you. I really don’t. I want you to know that.”

He runs his thumb across her cheek.

“Orla”, he whispers. “This… I really— You mean the world to me.”

She is taking deep breaths and he can see the tentativeness in her dark eyes. Please, believe me, he pleads silently. 

Orla kisses him gently, her hands stroking his chest. He can’t request more from her. She is here, and he knows she has feelings for him, too.

“Do you really want to”, he needs to make sure, “to be with me tonight?”

“Yes”, her voice is quiet and soothing.

“I would never hurt you”, he promises solemnly.

Perhaps it is foolish, but he needs to verbalize it, he needs to know she is hearing his words. 

“I would never hurt you, too”, she gives him that rather elusive half-smile. “Cullen, it is fine, truly. It is only me.”

The fact that Orla knows him well makes him feel safe, but each time she mentions something like that his heart receives a prickle of pain. Orla is the only one for him, and he wants her, all of her, not just tonight. 

It is so easy to kiss her. Her fingers dig into his skin as he trails his mouth towards her neck. She is yet to make any sound, but her breaths are deeper and louder, and he can feel her whole body mellowing underneath his touch.

Her touch is both familiar and completely new. They have cuddled before. He would recognize the sensation of her hand on his own. Nonetheless, it has never been like that, full of yearning and hope. 

It has been so long. Cullen has hidden that part of himself way before the worst happened at Kirkwall. The hotness strikes his whole body like a blaze. His heart is beating so fast when he helps Orla remove his tunic, and suddenly her hands are all over his bare skin, caressing him tenderly.

He can hear the echo of demons teasing him, but somehow he does not forget it is really Orla with him, despite her being so quiet. Her long hair smell like herbs and get in the way, her body smells like his soap, the linen of her nightgown is rough and stiff, her skin is so smooth in comparison. 

The embarrassment doesn’t go away. When he runs his palm up and down her thigh, it is not with confidence yet. The fear of disappointing her is still there, but so is something more. More than fear, more than just mere arousal. 

There is love. 

                                                                                         ************************

Orla has worried that it all would bring memories, but it does not. The bed is soft, warm and comfortable, Cullen’s smell is nice and well-known, his touch welcome and gentle. The wetness between her legs overflows like a river after snowmelt. She thought she would never want a man again, but her whole self wants him now. 

She loves Cullen. She won’t say that out loud, but her body might as well scream it. 

He has quite the few scars on his body. Some were surely caused by swords, but some are different, a bit odd, perhaps done by magic. He feels like a warrior, even though he is shaking underneath her touch like a starved dog who has never been petted. Somehow, it makes Orla more eager to give. He is so shy and careful that it makes her feel brave. 

Not brave enough. 

“I hope…”, he breathes into her mouth. “I want to make you feel good.”

She tenses a little before relaxing again. She does not know how to say it well.

“Don’t worry about it”, she murmurs quickly. “It doesn’t come easy to me after… everything and I… I don’t want to try too hard.”

He does not protest, at least, looking at her carefully.

“It will still feel good”, she assures him. “Just—”

“It’s alright”, he repeats her own words, kissing her again and grasping onto her nightdress, but something already bugs her, and while she touches his scars freely, she does not want to uncover hers. She is not a warrior. 

“Don’t take it off”, she pleads and his hand freezes. “Not… the nightgown.”

His breathing is rough and heavy, but he doesn’t try to change her mind. Orla is ashamed, but part of her feels good just for being able to say ‘no’. She lifts her hips and slides down her smalls, tossing them aside. 

“You can”, she bites her lip. “unlace the top.”

He follows her direction dutifully, even now, and the ribbon lands somewhere on the floor as well. Orla doesn’t care. All she cares about is Cullen touching her breasts, but he has yet to do that.

Cullen’s lips follows her neck downwards. 

“You’re so beautiful”, he rasps and the pleasant anticipation coils inside of her. “Can I—?”

“Yes”, she replies quickly, sighing loudly when his mouth finds her nipple. 

The little shivers of pleasure travel all over Orla’s body. It’s like rain after the drought, like spring after the harshest winter. Her body is hers and only hers, and it is not entirely broken. She is not entirely broken. 

Cullen is so careful and gentle. Shy. Orla has never been with a man who would be that shy, but somehow it makes it better. She is able to take his hand and guide it. He follows so eagerly and it makes her feel all hot and sweet. 

“Oh, Orla”, he moans as he feels the wet between her thighs and she smiles, catching his lips with hers, feeling the eagerness of the kiss and his tongue nudging hers. 

Outside of here, Orla might be no one, but now she is certain Cullen is not thinking of anyone and anything else, and to hold that power feels quite wonderful. 

She helps him slide down his breeches, and he almost whimpers when she touches his cock for the first time. 

"Yes?”, she makes sure.

“Yes, yes”, he replies quickly.

Cullen”, she whispers his name on purpose and he buries his face into her neck. She can’t help smiling. 

“Orla”, he groans, “I don’t know if I manage… if you keep touching me like that.”

She stops and catches him in a kiss once more, pushing him gently onto his back. He lets her, and he is so keen in his movement, shifting on the pillow. 

“Is that alright?”, she asks, kneeling right beside him. “Are you ready?”

“Yes”, he looks at her so intensely and even in just the light of the fire she can see how red his face it. “Are— are you?”

“Yes.”

“Orla”, he touches her face so gently as if she was something precious and fragile. “You have to know how I feel. You— I— I am yours.”

He is hers, entirely hers, at least for tonight. That she believes.

“Yes”, she slides her leg across him and uses her hand to help him inside, slowly. It is so easy and she is so ready it does not hurt, not at all. He breathes in sharply, shutting his eyes for a second. “You are mine.”

                                                                                      ***************************

 Orla rolls her hips deliberately and without hurry, and it feels so good. He moves a little, too. His pleasure builds and builds, and he cannot stop it or slow it down. He tries distracting himself but he can’t, because if he doesn’t look at her and remember he is here with her, the memories might flood him, and that is the last thing he wants. 

She is so perfect. How is she so perfect? The view… Her face and cleavage are flushed, her lips parted a little. Her nightgown exposes those perky breasts and he can’t stop looking, he can’t stop feasting on the view. 

Cullen runs his hands underneath the fabric, across her hips and a bit higher, and suddenly he feels the scarred tissue, and Orla slows down. He doesn’t take them away, he doesn’t want her to think he minds the scars. He doesn’t, not at all. He has seen plenty, he has plenty. She is the one to gently grab his wrists and guide him onto her breasts. Oh, she likes that, arching her back a bit and letting out little sighs. 

“Orla”, he warns, “I am… I am not not going to last long, I— I am sorr—“

“Shhh, Cullen”, her voice is soft even as she scolds him. “Does it feel good?”

“Y-Yes.”

“Then let it. Let it feel good. We can always do it again.”

Just hearing those words makes him so happy, and he takes a deep breath, relaxing a little. 

“Orla, you feel so good”, he whispers.

“Yes?”, she smiles and picks up the pace. “You feel really good, too, Cullen.”

Everything tightens inside and he is so close so quickly. He can’t help grunting and groaning even though he is louder than she is. He looks at her breasts, he looks at her face. He needs it, he needs to see her, and her eyes do not leave him, not for a second.

Orla!”, he growls as he comes, the pleasure exploding sharply.

“Oh, Cullen”, she lowers herself onto him, kissing his lips, kissing his cheeks, kissing his forehead before she embraces him closely, burrowing her nose into his neck. His heart is still thudding, but this care and affection choke him, and Cullen blinks few times, overwhelmed by the emotion. 

He is still inside her, wrapping his arms around her back and holding her close, and kissing her head. He knows it was short, and Maker preserve him, he has barely done anything. He certainly knows Orla was not even close to coming, but he tries to trust her own words. Later, perhaps… 

Cullen gasps as she gently pulls apart and settles by his side, and he finally sees her face again. Her eyes are glistening and she is smiling. 

That smile is warm and sweet, and she caresses his cheek. There is no bitterness left, nothing sour remaining. He takes her hand to place a kiss. He wants to tell her how he feels, all of it, but he is afraid to startle her or worse, for her to put her guard up again. Orla is hesitant and wary as it is, and the last thing he wishes for is to bring her pain when she lies by his side after they just made love. It was that, for him. Making love. 

“They way I feel for you”, he says slowly, “I have never felt that for anyone else. I… I know what you think, but please, just… Believe me.”

“Cullen”,  she huffs. “I… I am here, am I not?”

“You are”, he agrees, feeling her hair beneath his fingers. 

“There you go.”

He supposes she is not wrong. She is here, in the most intimate way possible.

“You know”, he whispers gently, trying to sound as casual as possible. “I will never press, but I have seen many scars in my life. I have many myself.”

She stays silent, and he shuts his eyes, waiting. 

“It is so ugly.”

Her voice shakes a little and Cullen frowns. She is braver than him, much braver, and yet she still remains so insecure about herself.

“Orla”, he shifts to be more above her. “Look at me. There is nothing ugly about you. Not a single thing.”

She taps him in a gesture that is now so recognizable.

“I have to clean myself up”, she says, getting up. 

He rubs his temple. Whenever she ignores his words, he knows she does not fully believe him. 

Sometimes he thinks that nothing he says matters, but then he knows it is wrong, too. Orla trusted him to go for an outing, she came here to kiss him, she gave herself to him… What he says matters, what he does matters, he just wishes he was better at it. 

He washes up too after she is back, and brings her a glass of water. The sight of Orla sets his heart in motion. She sits on the bed and drinks it, her long hair disheveled and her nightgown completely crumbled. She seems almost bashful now, as if they did not just have sex. He might be foolish and oblivious, but he notices all that vulnerability surrounding her.

“I have a morning drill to run tomorrow”, he begins and she glances at him surprised before looking away. 

“Oh”, he can see the flush spreading on her cheeks. “I will be gone—“

“No”, he is mortified that she could have thought he wants her to leave. “Please, don’t… That is not… Please stay. I was about to say that I will bring us breakfast. Please.”

“Alright”, she still does not face him. “Cullen?”

“Yes?”

“Can you… Uhm… Pay for the witherstalk potion? I can go to the infirmary tomorrow but —“

Maker’s breath.

“Of course”, he murmurs embarrassed. “I can get it after the drill as well.”

He should have thought to mention it. He knows how little Orla earns, and it should not be her responsibility. The image of her bedroom comes to his mind and he clenches his jaw a little. He loves her, and if Cullen is honest, the thought of his girl sleeping in a cold cellar kills something inside of him. He cannot push, and he cannot expect Orla to stay forever, as much as he wants her to. It is not about him, he reminds himself. It is about her, and it is his duty to not screw this up. Especially now.

“How are you feeling?”, he asks softly.

Finally, she looks at him and smiles.

“Good. What about you?”

“Wonderful”, he kisses her gently. “You are wonderful.”

“You’re such a charmer”, she complains.

“No. Merely being truthful. Do you need anything? Are you hungry?”

“No, I am good”, she rests on him.

“Are you tired?” 

“Not that tired”, her warm breath tickles his ear and that is all it takes. 

He grins so much that his face hurts a bit, but he doesn’t care. This is happiness, both astonishing and ordinary. This, the feel of Orla’s skin and the smell of her hair, and everything that is between them. She slips out, escaping his kiss and before he realizes, she is standing by the bed, wrapping her arms around her.

“I will show you”, she says slowly. “I just… I don’t even look at it myself.”

“Orla, you’re…”, he rushes to assure her but she does not let him finish.

“Just.. wait”, she stops him and takes off her nightgown.

The soft light illuminates Orla, whose hand still covers her stomach. He admires the lines of her body, her pert breasts, the curvature of her hips, her long, strong legs. He sees the scars on her stomach. They do not take away any of her beauty, but it hurts to see them. He recognizes the pattern, and those are scars made by demons. Haven. He knew she was there, but he has not realized she got wounded that badly. He cannot carry the blame forever, but it does add to his failures. He fights the thought and wins. It is not about him. 

“You’re perfect, Orla”, he stands up and pulls her closer. “Perfect. Just the way you are.”

Her body shivers gently, and it is not from cold. He claims her lips, and she kisses him back so sweetly, her hands running through his hair. 

“Perfect”, he repeats, as they land on the bed and she lies comfortably.

“Nobody’s perfect, Cullen”, Orla protests, furrowing her eyebrows and he laughs and trails his mouth down her neck.

“Well, you are nagging and demanding, if that helps”, he nibbles her skin gently. “Still, you are the most beautiful as well.”

It makes her giggle, and he enjoys the sound of that filling the bedroom. 

“I demand you kiss me more, then.”

“Gladly.”

This is what happiness feels like. 

                                                                                ************************

Orla burns. It is different than before, less rushed. She is completely naked, and Cullen’s touch is more assured, but he is still gentle. She likes it. She loves it. He circles his fingers around that most sensitive spot, kissing her neck at the same time. The pleasure builds and it is so close, and yet it still escapes her. She thins her lip in frustration. 

She has tried on her own few times after the war, and it took such a long time and sometimes did not happen at all. Even now with Cullen it is difficult to not let some thoughts cross her mind when she is lying like that. Somehow it was easier when she felt him inside, when she could hear his voice and sounds he was making and she could see him looking at her.

“Cullen”, she cups his face and kisses him urgently. “I… I need you.

“Am I doing it wrong?”, he asks and the pang of shame fills her. 

He does not. He doesn’t do anything wrong, it is just her body being stubborn and still broken.

“No, you’re doing it right”, her voice shakes. “It’s me, not you. I’m… I’m sorry.”

She can’t hide from all the care in Cullen’s eyes.

“You have nothing to be sorry for”, he says calmly and brushes his mouth against hers. “Whatever you need, Orla.”

Orla guides him in, almost impatiently, waiting for the inevitable groan. It happens the second he fills her, and just that makes everything more real and intense. She is right here, with Cullen right above her. It is his body, his smell, the feel of his scars underneath her fingers, his breathing, his warmth. 

He moves slowly, grinding against her. It is safe, and it is good, and the tension leaves her. She wraps her legs around him, she trails his back with her fingertips. The world goes into hiding, and suddenly there is nothing but Cullen, there is nothing but them. The knot of pleasure tightens and Orla expects it to go away any second, but it doesn’t. She lifts her hand to stifle her moan.

“Orla”, Cullen whispers, “you don’t need to keep quiet. It’s just me, sweetheart.”

Sweetheart. The outpouring love hits her at his words, and it leaves her more exposed than ever before, and Orla moans. There has always been a need to be quiet, but now she tries not to and her face turns hot at her own sounds. 

“Am I truly your sweetheart?”

“Yes”, he kisses her. “My sweetest Orla.”

She loves Cullen, and there is hardly anything she would not give him. There is hardly anything she has not given him already. 

“Cullen”, she whispers and he groans. Her thighs shake at every single move he makes. She sinks her fingers into his skin.

“Sweetheart”, he repeats and Orla can’t stop the rush of emotion flooding her.

When she comes, it catches her as a surprise. Suddenly all the knots release and the pleasure spreads all over her body, leaving nothing behind and she screams, clinging to Cullen. 

He thrusts only few times before growling into her ear and it is so wonderful. He pulls alway and collapses by her side, holding her tightly.

Orla bursts into tears. 

They start flowing down her cheeks unexpectedly, and she is unable to speak. She has never cried a lot, but now everything seems almost too much, and she is horrified and embarrassed, and worried what Cullen might think and—

“I am here”, he cuddles her as she hides her face into his armpit. “Orla, I got you.”

“I don’t know why I am crying”, she reveals shamefully. “That felt so good, really.”

“Shhh, Orla. II know. t’s alright. Really. I understand, it’s alright.”

She rests in the shelter of his arms, soaking his scent and listening to the rhythm of his heart. She has messed up so badly by falling for him, because now the mere thought of this ending, of losing Cullen brings so much pain. Orla wants this, she wants more, she wants everything. The fact that she dares frightens her. 

It all calms down. It always does. She glances at Cullen, his hair wild and funny, the seriousness painting his face. He wipes her tears and kisses her forehead. 

“I care about you, Cullen”, she bares her heart, as if tonight was not clear enough.

He takes her hand and places it onto his chest, covering it with his.

“I care so much about you, sweetheart. Orla, you must know how I feel about you.”

She does and she does not. She is too smart to not realize that nothing about it is simple, but clearly foolish enough to let it all happen, to hope and dream. 

He looks at her with devotion of a faithful Mabari, and now Orla needs to fight herself not to smile. 

“You’re leaving so soon”, she complains.

“I will be back”, he says warmly. “Have some faith in me, Orla. I won’t fall down and die by dancing, as horrible as I am. I will be back.”

She grimaces not to laugh. 

“I love when you do that”, Cullen chuckles and then softens his voice. “I still hardly believe you’re here.”

“All of this and you hardly believe it?”, she rolls her eyes, scoffing.

“I only meant”, he stammers a bit. “You are my girl, right?”

She can’t guard herself, not laying naked by his side, not after tonight. 

“Sure, Cullen”, she taps his cheek, feeling the coarseness of his facial hair. “I am your girl.”

Chapter Text

Cullen dreams, and he dreams of Orla, but this time the demons do not tempt him or tease him. He sees Orla’s face, red and marred by tears. She covers her mouth to not make any sound, hiding in the fields. He sees her running barefoot and being chased, he hears her pleading and begging, he sees the Haven burning, he sees the blood soaking her shirt, he sees Orla’s chattering her teeth because of the freezing cold.

He wakes up with a scream. 

                                                                                   *********************

Orla never remembers her dreams. All that’s left is the vague picture inside her head and the feeling in her heart. When she wakes up to Cullen’s tossing and turning, for a second she thinks of Finn and all the nights they spent together. It comes and goes, making her a bit sad and tender. She watches Cullen shifting and grabbing onto the sheets. 

It has to be a bad one. Orla frowns her eyebrows. He doesn’t always have nightmares, but they sometimes happen. She never tries to wake him or to touch him. She just lies by his side and waits. The fear in his voice is obvious, and Orla feels the lump forming in her throat. 

Cullen is strong. It is obvious in the lines of his body. She has seen him command, she has seen him walk around in his armor. The room is dark, but she knows his sword is right there on a rack, alongside with his shield. He is strong, and powerful, and he has endured a lot, but everyone is a little weak at times. Everyone. There’s nothing wrong with that.

He screams, sitting up and panting. Orla shudders, half expecting someone to run inside, but the only sound remaining is Cullen taking fast, shallow breaths. 

“Cullen?”, she says softly.

“M—Maker’s breath”, he stammers, falling on the pillows and searching her face. “I scared you… didn’t I?”

“No”, she reassures him, touching his chest and feelings the hair underneath her fingers. “It was a bad one, wasn’t it?”

“Yes”, he shakes a little, covering her hand with his. “I am sorry for waking—“

“You stupid man”, she scolds him tenderly, leaning in to kiss him on the corner of his mouth. “Come here.”

His skin is hot and he is sweaty. He wraps his arms around her waist and burrows is face into her neck. Orla feels his breath on her. It slows down, and Cullen’s nose nuzzles her gently. She wants to tell him. She wants to tell him everything, she wants to say that she loves him, and that she is scared more often than she is brave. 

“Orla. Sweetheart”, Cullen muses quietly. Orla caresses his head, letting her fingers run through  the unruly curls. She knows she is the only person to see Cullen like that. No man can remain strong for all the hours of the day. 

“I’ll guard you”, she whispers. His hand tightens on her waist. 

“I should be the one guarding you”, he rasps.

She sighs loudly. 

“You know that song they sing in the taverns across Ferelden?”

She sees him blinking in confusion, still a bit sleepy.

“As a soldier I know probably too many tavern songs but… wait, what?”

You know Andraste’s old mabari

He don’t show up in the Chant.

And if you ask those holy sisters,

Well, they’ll say Andraste’s can’t

Have had some big old smelly wardog”, she starts singing.

“But all Ferelden knows it right:

Our sweet Lady needed someone

Who would warm her feet at night”, Cullen’s voice is deep and beautiful, and he sings better than Orla anticipated. 

“You can protect and be protected at the same time, like Andraste”, she says sternly. 

“I really don’t think that song is very historically accurate”, he chuckles so warmly that Orla feels little shivers all over her back. 

“Haven’t your heard, Cullen?” She digs her fingers into the skin covering his ribs, tickling him a little. “All folktales are a bit true.”

“Have mercy”, he pleads, trying to contain his laughter. “I spent years only studying the Chant. Years outside of Ferelden.”

“You poor stray dog”, Orla giggles, wrapping her arms around him.

He looks better. The is no sign of the nightmare. He smiles softly, shifting on his elbow and searching for a kiss, getting closer and closer and closer.

“No longer stray”, Cullen whispers, catching her lips. Before her mind gets dazed, Orla thinks of Ferelden, of the forests and meadows in the valley, of the home with whitewashed walls, of the garden full of hollyhocks. She thinks of Cullen and the place she could call home. 

                                               *                             ******************

When Cullen wakes up the second time, it is still quite dark despite the morning hours. The fire has almost died out, dimming the whole room. Orla is still asleep, lying on her stomach with her nose into his armpit and her hand casually thrown over his waist. His mind briefly goes back to the nightmare that disturbed him a few hours ago. He winces in pain before he forces his mind to move on. 

Orla is here, safe and sound, covered with his duvet. Her hair falls on her face, and Cullen allows himself to move it to uncover her cheek. She stirs a little. 

He knows he needs to get up. It is his duty and he surely has work to do. Still, part of him never wants to leave this room and this bed. 

It still makes him unable to find the right words, except that he loves Orla and he wishes for her to stay with him, to continue staying with him, from this day onwards. 

Orla, his sweetheart. He recalls the look in her eyes when he first called her that, the moans that escaped her, the sight of her coming apart underneath him, grasping onto him so strongly. There are things she does not say out loud, but Cullen knows she actually likes all the sweet, tender words he gives her. She likes being in his being arms, he likes kissing him, she likes him inside of her. Maybe she already loves him. He dares to hopes as he watches her body breathe steadily. 

She looks so peaceful. To Cullen, that is simply priceless. 

It is a shame she will wake up the second he moves. 

He tries to get out of the the bed quietly, but Orla is a light sleeper and lifts her head quickly. 

He has seen her waking up before, but he has never witnessed her surrounded by such deep slumber. She stretches before opening her eyes. She yawns, covering her mouth and finally, she opens her eyes and looks at him sleepily. There are pillow lines on Orla’s face and her long, straight hair seems to be everywhere.

“Cullen”, she mutters and he cups her face to place a kiss on her forehead.

“Go back to sleep, Orla”, he orders, watching her frown. “It is very early. I will be back in few hours with breakfast and”, he stammers, “the witherstalk potion.”

“Fine”, she taps him on the shoulder clumsily, before laying down again and burying her face into a pillow.

Cullen grins. She is warm, she is comfortable and that fills his heart with pride and joy. After dressing up, he rekindles the fire. 

The tenderness almost bursts. It makes him want to scream, but instead he stays in the door for a good minute just soaking in the view. The last night truly happened. 

 

The drill goes well. Unlike few months ago, he feels fit and strong. This morning, he is also in a great mood. He leads the recruits on the run. Somehow the crisp morning air seems delightful. The blood pulses through his vein quickly as he keeps up the speed. It is a beautiful day.

“What happened to you?”, Bull eyes him carefully before they enter the fighting arena.

“I do not know what you’re talking about”, he cuts him off, adjusting his armor.

“Cullen”, Bull roars in response. “We both know I am a rather observant man. There is something different about you today.”

“Perhaps”, he chuckles, gripping his sword comfortably, “I am simply ready to kick your arse.”

“Quite the confidence”, the Qunari laughs. “You shall certainly try. It is a lady, isn’t it? Only that could give you quite the boost.”

Cullen tries hiding his smirk. Orla would not welcome being called a lady in any shape or form. Still, that does not make Bull’s words untrue.

“Stop distracting me. It won’t help you today”, he challenges the opponent. “Shall we?”

Bull likes sparring with him, and Cullen certainly knows he is a very good fighter. It has always come easy to him. He enjoys it, in a way. There is a certain comfort in being in control of his own body, in executing every single movement precisely. He is calm enough to not make mistakes, and today, he feels a little more daring, a little more eager to have fun than usual. Bull does not relent easily, he is not the type. The challenge is hard, and Cullen wins fair and square. He can feel the sweat traveling down his body afterwards and he stupidly wonders what would Orla think, seeing him like that. 

                                                                          **********************

Orla sleeps longer than usual. Cullen’s bed is so warm and comfortable, with a fluffy goose feather duvet and white linen covers. She doesn’t remember the last time she slept like this. That had to be before the war erupted in the Hinterlands. She should be ashamed for lazing around so openly, but today she allows herself to be idle. 

The only thing that makes her leave the bed is the prospect of a hot bath again. It looks exactly  as it is - a stupid girl excited for all the nice things. She has missed nice things so much though. Orla might as well enjoy herself for a moment. The steaming water fills the tab and Orla soaks in, closing her eyes.  

There is slight awkwardness when she paces his quarters. Orla knows she should not be here, not really. It is still not a good idea, but she wants Cullen and he certainly wants her, for now, so  she takes what is given and gives what she can. 

Everything Cullen owns is nice. Orla wonders if he even knows that. The fur rug set in the middle of the bedroom is so soft. She scoffs. Why would anyone waste it on the floor? If this all was hers, she would never leave here, especially not to sleep on the hard kitchen floor instead. 

The sweetness fills her instantly. It’s not his bed or sleeping furs or duvets he needs for comfort. It is her. 

There are so many things here reminding her who Cullen is. She turns red, recalling that he has seen her own quarters, although he has not said a word of it. She runs her fingers through the cloth and leather book spines. There are so many of them. Maybe… maybe not so many, but more than she has ever seen in someone’s private space. There are few weapons on the rack, but the sword is gone. She doesn’t touch the daggers, but she looks closely enough to see the beautiful engravings.

Cullen is quite messy, she frowns. More messy than she’d think for someone who is a soldier. There are papers scattered on the small desk. The drawers of his wardrobe are not properly closed. It irritates her a bit, enough to want to clean it up, but those are his things. She knows not to pry or touch them, but it takes an effort not to. She still makes the bed, straightening the sheets and fluffing the pillows.

The longer she waits, the more nervous she feels and the more hesitant she gets. Last night, he said so many different things, each one sweeter and warmer than another. It would be easy to think it is a ruse, but it is Cullen. Yesterday was true. From his shaking hands to him calling her his sweetheart, to him needing the assurance she is his. It leaves Orla helpless. She should be smarter, but right now she is just a girl in love. 

When she hears the steps outside, her own nails dig into her wrist. 

Cullen enters the quarters quickly, both smiling and shy, holding a basket covered with a cloth. The blush hits his face right away, but he is grinning anyway. He takes off his armor quickly, handing it carefully on a rack.

“Hi, Cullen.”

“Hi, Orla”, he puts the basket on the desk. “I brought food and, uhm, the potion for you. Are you— are you hungry?”

“Very”, she rubs her arm shyly. 

It all feels a bit different in the light of day. Just yesterday they were both there at the meadow and now, just a mere dawn later everything changed. It is a bit awkward, and they are both unsure—

It is Cullen than kisses her first. The awkwardness is quickly gone, and Orla doesn’t need to think for her lips to open and welcome him. He tastes fresh, like an elfroot toothpaste. He smells like sweat and leather and just a bit of perfume. It is sharp and pungent and perfect, and she knows she is way over her head to be thinking that. 

“Sweetheart”, Cullen murmurs, holding her tightly and Orla smiles.

“Cullen”, she nudges him sternly. “Food.”

“Sorry”, he flusters. “I am just… really happy you’re here.”

It is hard for her to say the words, even though she feels them. She squeezes his hand a little bit instead. 

                                                                                     ***********************

There is a part of Cullen still astonished at the sight of Orla in his quarters, sitting on his rug and eating lunch with him. She seems famished, and even though it is silly he can’t stop thinking it was his efforts that caused that. The thought is, well, delicious. 

He can’t stop looking at her. He did not want to stare impolitely for too long yesterday, but after the night together he allows his eyes to linger more. She has to notice, but Orla is always able to ignore him a little. Still, he knows her well enough to recognize the satisfaction hanging around the corner of her mouth. 

Orla looks different than usual. She has not braided her hair and it softly cascades down her shoulders. He loves the intimacy of it all. He loves the feeling that he is allowed into her most private space just as he invites her into his. 

“You know how to treat a girl right”, she says quietly, and he swells with pride. 

“I’m glad you think so”, he can’t hide his eagerness to please. 

She smiles openly, blushing a little. 

“How was your training?”

“It was good. The recruits are shaping up. I won a sparing match”, he admits and then flusters at his own worlds. “With the Iron Bull and, well, he was a… worthy opponent? How—how did you sleep? I know I woke you up twice, but—“

“I slept great”, she doesn’t let him finish. “You have the proper duvet instead of just blankets.”

He thinks of her quarters and how cold it was there. He would gladly give her his duvet, but he is afraid to offer. Would she be offended? He would love to give her everything.

“Good”, he mutters instead, carefully. 

Should he say anything more? Orla did say she was his girl, and that certainly means he should be taking care of her. At the same time, that thorniness is still there, floating underneath the surface. If he pokes too much, he will get prickled and Orla will go back into hiding. 

“I have the rest of my day off”, he mentions. “We can do whatever you want. I just probably should take a bath— Not, not that I am suggesting that we, uhm— I just want to spend the day with you.”

“I thought you’d be less shy after taking me twice last night”, Orla flushes and laughs at the same time.

“Maker’s breath”, he chuckles and looks at her seriously. “I just… If I am shy, it is because everything I am feeling right now. I don’t want to say or do something wrong. I want to be with you.”

There is still a trace of hesitance on Orla’s face.

“Cullen”, she pleads. “We really can’t tell anyone.”

He breathes out. It can’t continue like this forever, and it will be up to him to convince her. 

“I won’t press”, he promises quickly. “I just want you to know how… how serious my intentions are.”

The words come out clumsy and odd, but he means it. Cullen knows all the reservations inside Orla’s heart. He even knows that she is right, in a way. She certainly has more sense on all the complications it would bring her, and that is why he cannot allow himself to make any demands.

He doesn’t want to hide. There is nothing wrong in what they do. Not truly. Actually, nothing has ever seemed more right in every possible way.

Nothing about Orla is that easy. She gives him so much and so sweetly, and yet she is so careful what to take in return. He would give her a world if he could. He has given her all of himself. 

“Alright”, she leans in and kisses him gently. “I know, Cullen.”

Does she really? He pulls her onto his lap and she laughs a little, resting comfortably in his arms. 

“Sweetheart”, he dares again and Orla brushes his neck with her mouth.

He loves saying it. She seems to like hearing it. The fresh scent of his own soap lingers on er skin. 

“Cullen?”,

“Yes?”

“Will you stop coming to the kitchen now that I come to you here?”

He should be used to those pinches around his heart and yet it still managers to sneak up on him. All of this was supposed to shift the dynamic between them, not make it seem like he summons her to his quarters.m

“Orla”, he tightens his embrace. “Of course I’ll be there. I’d love to be there, if you don’t mind. And— Sweetheart, you can come here whenever you wish to, but please know that it is your choice and we never—“

“It’s fine, Cullen”, she grabs his hand, not letting him finish. “I’ll fix us something nice to eat.”

“You always do. What— What do you want to do now?”

“You should probably bathe”, she replies, wrinkling her nose. “You do stink a little.”

He laughs, full of happy embarassment.

“As you command.”

“Later…”, she looks at him shyly. “Can you tell me about the books you have?”

The tenderness floods him. 

“Of course, Orla. Anything you want.”

                                                                                  ***********************

She is back at the kitchen again. She has not even visited her quarters, just came here straight from Cullen’s bedroom. The reality sets in. It should, anyway, but Orla is dizzy with love and she is happy. She doesn’t want it end, not now, not tonight. 

The work is easy, thankfully. There is only chopping and preparation on the schedule, so she can focus on cooking kasha and frying vegetables and morel mushrooms to mix with it later. She can top it with a fried egg, and they will have a nice filling dinner. She loves the smell of morels filling the kitchen.

Cullen slips in quietly. He smiles as if it was longer than an hour since they saw each other. 

‘It smells wonderful”, he says quietly.

“We can’t…” she glances at him quickly. “Not ever here, alright?”

“I would never…”, he flusters. “Can I, uhm, kiss you though?”

“Sure you can”, she feels Cullen’s arms embracing her and him gently placing his lips on the top of her head before walking away. “It is almost ready. Can you just—?

She turns around and sees that he is already making space on the table, wiping off the top and setting up the plates and utensils. 

“Yes?”, he glances at her quickly, waiting for further instruction. 

“Look at you, Cullen”, she shakes her head. “I barely need to tell you what to do.”

“Well”, he chuckles softly. “Even the lousiest dog can learn.”

“You’re not the lousiest”, she huffs.

“Orla, you seem to be going soft on me.”

“Stop fussing, and bring the plates.”

“Whatever you say”, he laughs.

They eat together, and Orla can’t chase away the thoughts appearing in her head. She knows better, she really does, but something about Cullen makes her forget that. He says stupid things sometimes; the things that hurt. There is so much he doesn’t fully understand. Still, he says all the sweet things too; the things that reach straight to her heart. He doesn’t demand anything, but he wants so much and Orla gives him everything she can because she is in love. He helps her to write her family. He cares. She knows he does and she also knows it rarely is enough. That is the way the world is.

She does not want it to end, not at all. She braces herself a little. Barely. What else is there? Is the Commander of the Inquisition going to marry a girl like her, however serious he thinks his intentions are? It is hard for Orla to imagine that.

Foolishly, she still does. She imagines a house with a kitchen, smaller than this one. She imagines Cullen there, sitting at the table, just as he is now. She imagines him cleaning up afterwards, just like he is going to here in a moment. It is reckless, but she can see what it would be like. She can see them together, snuggling in the evening. Him reading her stories. She can see Cullen holding her in his sleep every single night. She can see the dog. They definitely would have a dog and Cullen would surely spoil the children—

‘You got quiet”, he muses, passing her a hot cup of tea.

“I was just thinking”, she waves her hand dismissively.

“About what?”

“Home.”

He gives her that look, the one that makes her weak.

“I was actually thinking about home, too”, Cullen says calmly. 

She loves him, Orla thinks. She loves him, and maybe he loves her too, at least at the moment. Perhaps they are both stupid, but she knows she is risking more. He tries. He tries so hard, but— 

What they have now is good. She lets it be. 

Orla doesn’t even need to ask for him. He starts washing the dishes right away. She should be chopping more vegetables, but she allows herself to watch him for a second. There is so much she’s feeling. She can’t help herself and she wraps her arms around his waist, clinging to his back. He is warm and strong, and for now he is hers.                                                     

                                                              **********************

Cullen thinks of the future. He has not done it in a long time, but now he dares to try. For years, he has been without a home, but now he thinks of Ferelden and how he would like to settle, when the work is done. He could buy land near South Reach. Maybe he could even help others. He has tried to think about it for a while now, but perhaps he could help the former Templars in some way. He could have the house built and—

He imagines more. He imagines it all with Orla. He thinks of everything she told him about the place she worked at before the war. The large house with wooden beams and wooden floor and whitewashed walls. The large garden with an orchard. A little bit like home in Honnleath. He is sure Orla would not mind getting a dog, especially a Mabari. Andraste preserve him. Cullen rarely feels so confident but he could give her home and he could make her happy. 

He is foolish, and stupid, and he is broken, but with Orla, none of that overwhelms him. She knows that, she sees that, and she still looks at him the same. She scolds him and she kisses him the same. 

He loves Orla. He loves her, flesh and blood, and her Fereldan soul. He loves all the parts that are sour and bitter and all the parts that are sweet. He loves the faces she makes, the freckles on her nose. He loves how difficult to reach she sometimes is and yet how she melts in his arms. He learns to know her, he allows her to know him, truly. He loves It all, he loves her. 

He will prove to her whatever she wants proven, he will give her whatever needs and he will love her through it all. 

                                                                           *********************

Cullen,

(…) I have told you I would not pry, and I try to not to. I am glad you’re writing to me. I am glad to be of help. Cullen, you have always been a little oblivious, but you can’t expect me not to notice that every letter you send here is like a love letter to Orla. The way you keep writing about that girl is so obvious. 

I am rarely wrong about those things. We both now by now I have no ability to force you to disclose more than you wish, but I am your sister and you can write me openly. Unlike you, I have never been oblivious.

I am always here for you.

Lovingly,

Mia 

                                                                             *********************

Orla has barely visited her bedroom in the last few days. She comes to Cullen’s quarters each morning, slipping in quietly, whether he is there or not. She bathes, she sleeps in his bed. Sometimes he is more busy, sometimes he is not, but he always brings food and they always eat lunch together by the fireplace, talking and laughing. Sometimes they play chess, sometimes he reads her a book. They lay together each day, at least once.

She is drunk on love. She can’t get enough of Cullen. He kisses her all over, he touches her so gently. At first, he is so shy, but later, he gets more sure of himself. He learns her body. She likes learning his. He is both handsome and strong, and Orla loves that trusting, happy face he makes when she pleases him. She has to see his face, but Cullen does not mind. Whatever they do, he is so full of joy. She takes him into her mouth and watches his eyes lock on her, his hands desperately gripping onto the sheets. She hears his sharp breaths. He puts his mouth and tongue in between her legs and she lets herself be louder than usual. She rides him a lot, clinging to his neck, digging her fingertips into his skin. When he is on top of her, she feels safe. Protected. She doesn’t always come, but it happens more than she thought it would. She can’t get enough of him and she is impatient. Cullen is leaving soon, and all Orla wants is to love all of him with all that she’s got.

His words are sweet like honey and they make her feel beautiful, and warm, and worthy, and whole. 

“Sweetheart”, he breathes into her mouth, their foreheads pressed together. “You mean everything to me.”

“Orla”, he whispers into her ear, his hand kneading her breast, his fingers teasing her nipple. “You are so beautiful”

“Sweetheart”, he hums between her thighs. “I love how you taste.”

“Orla”, he holds her tightly after reading her the letters from South Reach. “I am always here for you. Always.”

“Sweetheart”, he rasps after waking up from his nightmare, letting her caress him. “Orla, I… you’re… you’re my girl.”

Cullen”, she replies softly to all of those, letting his name carry all the love she has. 

                                                                                ****************************

It never ceases to amaze Cullen how Orla, his thorny, prickly Orla gets so mellow and sweet between the sheets. He is not sure if she even realizes that, but he can almost see the moment when her blood turns into honey. It makes him smile. It makes him feel capable. It makes him feel like he can take care of her. He can, he thinks, and that brings so much joy. Cullen feels safe and happy.

They need to stop once because of the sudden flashbacks from Kinloch. He is embarrassed, but Orla just holds him and caresses his arm, soothing him. She smells like desire, but she doesn’t complain. She understands. For the first time in his life, the shame does not burn brightly. It’s there, but quieter. For the first time in his life, Cullen doesn’t apologize.

It is remarkable, he thinks later, when Orla is asleep in his arms. He has always imagined a lot about love. He left home at thirteen, too young to grasp the nuances surrounding his parents’ marriage. He only remembers their family to be very loving. Later… he was a naive kid full of mighty ideas. Then Kinloch happened. Since then, he thought of love as miracle. Something h surely could not deserve. He thought of love while caught up between fear and worship. With Orla, everything is ordinary and yet it is so remarkable. He is still the same man, still carrying his struggles and his wounds, still feeling the weight of his mistakes and yet every burden is lessened. 

Orla is not a miracle. She is not his redemption. She is the woman he loves, sleeping by his side. She is his girl. She gives him no lies, and Cullen doesn’t lie to himself. He believes her. 

There was a time when he was a Templar and that meant everything. There was a time when he was a Knight-Captain, and he clung to it, averting his eyes, learning how to not notice. There was little inside of him but his work and the hate in his heart. Right now, he is the Commander. It is his work, it is his mission, but there is more to. He finds himself. 

With Orla, he is Cullen. 

When she wakes up, she gives him that half-smile he likes so much. He strokes her cheek and looks at her in silence. He doesn’t want to leave for Halamshiral. He has to, and it won’t be long, but he would rather stay. 

“Stay here when I’m gone— I mean— Come here whenever you wish to”, he murmurs. She blinks a little, surprised. 

“Are you— are you sure that I can?”

“Orla, yes. You have the key. Yes, it’s your— You — Of course you can. Whatever you need.”

“I’m sad that you’re leaving”, she admits, wiggling her fingers into his hand. 

“It won’t be that long, I swear.”

“I can’t…”, her voice cracks. “I can’t even receive a letter from or send one.”

It pinches his heart to see the embarrassment appearing on her face. 

“Orla, I will think of you every day. Every night.”

She looks at him quietly.

“I can still write you a letter”, he whispers. “I’ll read it to you when I’m back.”

Even when she makes a face, he still is able to recognize the semblance of a smile beneath it. 

Cullen”, she kisses him tenderly, with love. 

He does not know if it’s the right thing to do now, but there is so much in Orla’s eyes and he cannot remain silent. Not with everything that’s already between them. 

“Sweetheart”, he says gently. “I love you. I just… I need you to know that. I love you. I — I don’t expect you to say it back, I just—“

“You’re such a fool, Cullen”, she frowns and he can barely breathe, waiting. “But I am a fool as well. Don’t you already know? I love you, too. I have loved you for a while—“

He kisses deeply, feeling her hand grabbing his hair, feeling her warming up. 

“Say it again”, she asks, bringing her body close to his.

“I love you”, he repeats, breathing onto her neck, nibbling the exposed skin. “I love you, Orla.”

Oh, Cullen”, Orla gasps, grinding against him impatiently. “I — love —you.”

He laughs happily.

Maker’s breath. 

This is home.

                                                                                       ****************

Mia,

(…) You are prying, but you’re not wrong. I love Orla. I have loved her for quite some time and she loves me, too. I have not forgotten about everything you said before. Mia, I swear to you on everything I am, I have no intention of hurting her. I might be oblivious, but I am not a careless man, and above everything, you know how serious I am. 

Orla is hesitant to let me court her properly. I don’t think she is hesitant about her feelings. She is hesitant because of who we both are and sometimes, I do not know how to reassure her. This is not a dalliance. This is not temporary. I am not that kind of man. Mia, I do not know if I am asking for your blessing or advice, but I am thinking of the future with Orla. I am thinking of marriage. There are so many things that aren’t easy, but I do know how I feel. 

Please send my love to the family. 

Your caring brother,

Cullen. 

Chapter Text

It takes them five days to reach Halamshiral. Two, maybe three nights at the palace, and Cullen will be back in Skyhold in less than two weeks altogether. The feeling sneaks up on him unexpectedly, but he welcomes it with open arms. Never before has Cullen had someone to wait fo him; someone he loved, someone who loved him in return. It is astonishing, and while there is longing in his heart, the tenderness he feels soothes him. With Orla he knows that home exists, not as the memory of the past, not even as the fearful dream for the future, but now. 

The first task to do upon arriving in the city is to meet up with the Inquisition agents and to scour the escape routes for Evelyn if things go wrong. Cullen knows his presence will be noticed, but he is not the one supposed to work in the shadows. He takes Bull with him as they venture into the Ash District. The Commander and the Qunari definitely capture the attention, while the agents move around quietly.

“So, Cullen”, Bull pokes him when they pass through the market. “When was the last time you were invisible?”

He doesn’t even remember, truthfully.

“Too long ago”, he musters. “Five o’clock.”

“I have noticed. We’re definitely being followed. See that destruction right in front on us? You still can see the burn marks on the buildings.”

Cullen looks ahead. The whole part of the district below is currently unoccupied, the houses collapsed and inhabitable. Such matters are the Spymaster’s prerogative, but it is hardly a secret that Halamshiral’s Elven population got decimated by Celene two years ago. Defenseless, ordinary people. He sighs. 

“We are supposed to save the Empress”, Bull mumbles.

“We are supposed to save the world”, Cullen counters and then lets his arms flail. “And yet it is not enough.”

“It never is.”

They come back in solemn moods. It is incredible how Halamshiral changes upon entering the High District. Suddenly, it is a different reality. 

“So, your lady friend”, Bull’s voice cuts through the silence. “Who is she?”

He knows better than to lie to the former Ben Hassrath, but he does nonetheless. “I don’t know—“

“I remember that pretty barmaid that served us once…”, Bull starts and stops upon seeing his face. “Ha.

“Can you keep it to yourself?”, Cullen grits his teeth.

The warrior raises his hands defensively. “I certainly respect privacy. Your dalliance—“

“It’s not a dalliance”, he says quickly. He does not owe the Iron Bull any explanations, but it feels wrong towards Orla to leave it like that. It feels wrong to divulge into sharing a lot of details either. “It is… serious. It’s just… private, for now.”

“Good for you, man”, the mercenary replies and Cullen wonders how everyone else would react.

Well, one day. Right now, they all need to get to work. 

                                                                                       ************************

Orla, my sweetheart,

I miss you dearly each day I am away. I miss the face you make when you think I say something stupid. I miss the sweetness of your kisses. I miss the sound of your voice and I miss your laughter. I miss the warmth of your body. I miss all the times you scold me like a dog… (…)

                                                                                         ***********************

Orla expected that Skyhold without Cullen would simply feel normal, but instead she is a little restless without him, worrying and waiting. Her nights at the kitchen are quiet. During the day, she slips into his quarters, into his bed, allowing herself to rest. The linens still smell like Cullen, and she buries her nose into the pillow just to chase that scent. 

It all still scares Orla a little, but she never sees anyone walking those corridors, and the enjoyment of the nice things that Cullen has proves too strong. The bathroom with a tub in which she can soak so easily. The bed, larger and softer than anything she has ever slept on in her entire life. She gets more rest here. She is warm. She is happy.

He loves her. He loves her, and Orla is frightened, but she believes him. It makes her want to dance, and she secretly does once or twice, knowing no one will see her. Yes, it is foolish, but Orla is in love, and love is always a little bit foolish and careless.

It also makes her braver. She does not notice it at first, but she allows herself to walk longer around the Skyhold gardens when the weather is nice. It reminds her of all those times in the Hinterlands when she was able to catch a big breath and feel the air tickling her insides and smell the grass and let the sun hit her face.

She even dares to go to the training grounds in the middle of the day. Normally, she would not allow herself so close to the soldiers, but she has promised to check up on Liam from time to time. Once again, they go to the tavern. 

“I do have that pie for you”, Orla tells him right away. “I can’t quite give it to you here.”

“We can wander around later”, Liam quickly reassures her. “One thing is sure, I am not taking the pie to the barracks, because I don’t want to share.”

She laughs and rolls her eyes. “How have you been, Liam? Any trouble?”

“I don’t know why you jump to the trouble right away, girl”, he grimaces in a gesture so similar to his older brother that she still feels the pinch of pain in her chest. “No trouble, Orla. I am fine. Training is doing well. My lieutenant says I am a natural.”

“Who would have thought”, she sighs, slightly worried.

“Don’t make that face, Orla”, he warns her, shaking his head. “Fighting is hardly the worst thing a man can do those days.”

Orla knows that, but this is Liam, and she will worry nonetheless. 

“I have no intention of dying”, he adds confidently. 

She should smack his stupid head. 

“Is that what stops the enemy from killing you?”, she frowns. “No intention of dying? Ha. Never would have guessed.”

He chuckles, turning a little red. “Let me believe it for now, Orla”, he pleads. 

“So, you made any friends?”, she asks instead.

“Actually, yes. Do you have any evenings off?”

“Tomorrow”, she replies hesitantly.

“We come to the tavern sometimes, just to drink and chat. Girls too. Why don’t you come as well?”

“I don’t know…”

“Come on, Orla. Have you made any friends?”

One, she thinks but she cannot say that out loud. 

“Fine, fine”, she dismisses him. “But you’ll walk me back to the castle.”

Liam looks at her carefully. 

“Sure, Orla. Finn would kick my arse if I didn’t take care of you.”

That, again. The sweetness of the memory and the dull ache spreading across her body. It is lessened, distant, and she knows why. 

“Save some space for the pie”, she reminds Finn before they start eating their luncheon. 

                                                                                        *********************

Evelyn seems changed. Hardened, but not in a negative way. There is a new sense of determination on her face when she greets the advisors waiting for her at the Ambassador’s sitting room. The warden situation in the Western Approach has shaken them all. Now the enemy hides away at the Adamant Fortress.

They will march there, sooner rather than later, but they cannot do it without enough men and equipment. The ball is not only about ensuring that Orlais allows for the Inquisition Forces to enter its territory in numbers way bigger that what they have sending doing now, it is also a chance to form alliances, to receive funding and resources.

They rehash the plan, negotiating the details. Frankly, Cullen is not certain whether Celene is worth saving, but the alternative is equally grim. He could argue in favor of Gaspard, and he provides the arguments he musts, but as a Fereldan he understands the danger of the Grand Duke and his Chevaliers consolidating power. Maker’s breath, he is from Honnleath, his family has lived close to the border. Close enough for him to hear the stories of occupation during his childhood. He bets Orla has a similar experience. He brings the point of alienating Ferelden if Gaspard is allowed to rule alone.

The negotiations are a farce. Instead of proper peace talks with arbitrators, this is all the Game, conducted behind the masks, in various sitting rooms of the Winter Palace, accompanied by scandal, gossip and chit-chatter. The second they enter the ballroom he can feel his headache approaching and his irritation rising.

“Ser Cullen Stanton Rutherford of Honnleath, Commander of the Forces of the Inquisition, Former Knight-Commander of Kirkwall”, they announce him. 

The last part will stay with him forever. He accepts it, he has no right to any denial. Nonetheless, It burns, especially when it is listed as his achievement. He tried, after Meredith. It was not enough. The Inquisition itself won’t be enough, but he is learning to live without clinging to that threshold. Perhaps he is allowed to find happiness before his repentance ends. Perhaps he is never supposed to stop repenting, but he can love and be loved anyway. 

He misses Orla. She would hate it here, for the most part. She would hate the masks. He is unsure about the gowns, but he knows she would like the music and the dancing.

Cullen dances, dutifully. It is the furthest from how lovely it felt to sway with Orla, but he dances without complaining. He makes an effort to hold a conversation and to spread the story of the Inquisition’s valor. It goes relatively well at first. The company changes quickly, allowing him to reuse the same boring talking points. Yes, Cullen nods, they do call him the Lion of Ferelden, no, he does not know who started it. Yes, he enjoys music and literature. No, he is not married, but yes, he is still taken. He clenches his jaw when he is met with a playful response, as if it was a challenge. 

He is a soldier,. He knows how to keep himself composed. There were few moments in his life and even fewer people that allowed to reveal more. When the questions become too private and personal, he answers calmly to change the topic, but his following increases and Cullen’s anxiety rises.

Someone grabs his buttocks and that sends him close to panic, reminding him of Kinloch, and the demons, and every single thing he saw and felt during those days. He breathes loudly several times, searching to anchor himself onto something.

“Commander”, Evelyn’s voice reaches him.

“Inquisitor”, he steadies himself. “Is there something you need?”

Before he realizes, she grabs him and guides him onto the dance floor. 

“Are you alright, Cullen?”, she asks softly as they move in careful circles. None of them is that great of a dancer, anyway.

“Yes”, he assures her quickly to steer her away. “How is—?

“The same you were last notified”, she thins her lip, angry. “This palace, this place… Between the Venatori, the Orlesians, it is daunting. Are soldiers ready?”

“Awaiting the signal”, he nods. 

Maker’s breath, he is going to feel better once he is holding his sword again. 

“Good”, Evelyn squeezes his shoulder. “You’re better than me at dancing. I must admit I am shocked.”

“I practiced”, he admits. “Will you be alright?”

“Oh”, she breathes. “I wouldn’t worry. Just… take control of the ballroom when the time is right. Minimize the losses, not only of our men. I am afraid that bloodshed is unavoidable.”

There is a bloodshed. The marble floors of the Winter’s Palace ballroom get soaked in blood. The Inquisition soldiers, his soldiers, manage to contain the damage, but several nobles get killed alongside many of the mercenaries. It is not the best ending to the night, but it could have easily been worse, and Cullen takes some solace in that thought. 

The Empress lives, and so does her Elven Ambassador Briala. Gaspard would soon be dead, and Cullen wonders what it means for the future of Thedas. The Grand Duke has wielded the power over the Chevaliers almost singlehandedly, but sooner or later someone would step into that role. Nature abhors a vacuum, and without a shadow of a doubt, so does the politics. 

Nonetheless, tonight the world is still turning. They have secured the alliance with the Empire to make the march on the Adamant fortress possible. Perhaps they have even garnered further support, and Maker knows they will need all the siege equipment and all the weaponry they could get their hands on.

It takes him over an hour to dispense further orders and to coordinate the efforts with the Imperial Guard to make sure that the remaining guests and dignitaries are safe. It is tedious, but it is the right thing to do. 

By the time he enters his lavish bedroom, his hands are jittery and his headache is pounding. 

It will end one day. He has never thought about it much before, but now he does, almost daily. The work itself will never be done, but one day it will stop being his job. There is a life after the war, there is a life after the Inquisition.

The stakes are different, more personal. Corypheus needs to be defeated, the world needs to be saved. The work they do impacts everyone. Still, each time Cullen thinks of the future, he sees Orla’s face. 

                                                                                         ***********************

The tavern is bursting with nose, and Orla is sill surprised she actually came to the Herald’s Rest. She tried to tell herself that she shouldn’t, but Liam was right. She has no friends, not aside of Cullen. She doesn’t really talk to anyone else except him and now Liam. She rarely talks to people like her. 

Not everyone at the table is from Ferelden, but none of them are highborn and the talk is going well. Orla is not fond of drinking, and she is certainly wary of soldiers, but she finds it easy to laugh tonight when Meave from Starkhaven recounts the most embarrassing experiences from their training. 

“Anyway, this is how Baryn here”, Meave points to the dwarf on her right, “accidentally presented all his bits to our Lieutenant. You know what she said?”

“Just to be entirely clear”, Baryn lifts his finger while taking a sip of his ale, “there is nothing wrong with the bits.”

“Anyway, Ser Belinda kept herself from laughing and said, in front of everyone, ‘please pick up the real sword now’.

They all laugh way too loudly. 

“We all know whom you would not mind showing your bits to, Meave”, Ross from Higheaver raises his eyebrows.

“Alright, alright”, she puts her hands up in a defensive gesture. “To be fair, I am sure most girls and guys wouldn’t mind that either.”

“She’s talking about the Commander.”

Orla knows she’s turning red, coughing up on a piece of food.

“Someone thinks that too”, Meave giggles. 

“It was just a piece of potato”, Orla says.

“Ha”, the Starkhaven girl wrinkles her nose. “So you don’t think he’s rather handsome? Have you actually seen him?”

“Once or twice”, she replies cautiously, thinking of Cullen laying beneath her and moaning her name. “He is not… bad-looking, I suppose.”

“You’re hard to please, ain’t you, Orla?”, Meave winks. “They say that about you Fereldans. Little puts a smile on your faces but your dogs.”

The loud protests erupt immediately around the table.

He is my Mabari, Orla thinks to herself. He is my Mabari and he pleases me greatly. 

“Liam calls you his sister”, Ross glances at her, “But you are far too pretty to be related to the  ugly chap.”

Thank you”, Liam furrows his eyebrows in feigned anger. “I shall remember your words next time we spar.”

She shakes her head, chuckling. It prickles her heart a bit. 

“I was his brother’s girl”, she says. “He died.”

“I only recently found out that Orla is still alive”, Liam gets serious. “I am glad.”

“I am glad too”, she pats him on the back. 

“I shall find you a good husband”, he promises, much to the table’s amusement.

“You will be lucky to find your way the barracks if you keep drinking like that”, Orla huffs, but not before she catches the fond stare that Ross gives her. 

If there was no Cullen, she would probably not mind Liam playing a match maker. Nothing wrong with Ross either. Handsome, little quiet but funny. She would be glad to catch his eye otherwise, but her heart is taken. 

 

“Did you have fun?”, Liam murmurs, walking her back to the castle.

“I did”, she means it.

“Ross likes you”, he tries. “You have noticed, haven’t you?”

“I am not looking for a man.”

“It’s hard for a girl to be alone”, he remarks softly. 

He is right about that. Orla knows it well. It can be really hard. 

“Hey”, he notices the discomfort on her face. “Too soon?”

“Maybe”, she replies, knowing the real reason.

 

She walks to Cullen’s quarters, the key safely in her pocket. The evening was nice, but now Orla feels a little sad. Cullen is still the Commander, she is nothing but a kitchenmaid. When they are together, she is happy and full of life, but she can’t imagine how it could be if they stopped hiding.

She knows what people would say about the Commander finding a stupid and willing girl. She reminds herself of the pretty Inquisitor and the look on everyone’s faces when Orla said she could not read. Cullen thinks he understands, but no one has ever seen him that way. 

Her chin starts trembling when she thinks of losing him, of not being able to kiss him again, of not waking up by his side. Cullen loves her, she scolds herself, clinging to the memory of his words. He did not need to say it. Orla gave him everything anyway. 

There is soreness around her heart, and she just wants to take a bath and lie down in his bed and smell—

“What are you doing here?!”, the voice barks and she drops the key out of her hand, turning around.

The Inquisition scout stands by the staircase, looking straight at her. 

“Well, I just…”, she mumbles, uncertain, her heart beating fast. 

He takes one step towards her, and Orla feels her throat clenching and her chest tightening and she doesn’t know why, but suddenly she runs—

The scout grabs her quickly, smashing her against the wall.

“You were trying to break into the Commander’s quarters!”, he raises his voice and drags her by the arm to the door.

No”, she manages, the tears welling in her eyes. “I swear, I did not.”

“Where did you get this?!”, he picks up the key and dangles it in front of her eyes. 

“He…”, she whispers, full of fear. “The Commander… He gave it to me.”

“Come with me”, he grabs her arm again, pushing her towards the stairs. It hurts and it will leave the bruise, and Orla is so scared she can barely catch her breath. Her face becomes wet from crying, but she tries to stay quiet, she tries not to anger the scout more.

The sweat slowly covers her body and by the time they reach the dungeons the palms of her hands are wet. 

“What do we have here?”, the guard asks. 

“A thief, it seems”, the man answers, leading her towards the light. “She tried to get into the Commanders’s private quarters. She must have stolen the keys.”

“I— I’m a not a thief, please—”, Orla pleads but shuts up when they both glare at her. 

“She ran when caught. I need a cell to hold her in before I go back and investigate.”

No! She wants to scream but she knows better. The cries still escape her even though she covers her face. They toss her into a cell. There is no cot, no chair, nothing. The cold bothers her, and she hides in a corner, covering her arms, shivering like a wounded animal. 

                                                                                         *************************

(…) Orla, we both know that I am perhaps not the best with words, but there are still so many things I want to say to you. My words might be clumsy but they are honest. I am entirely taken with you. You’re braver than you think, you’re kind in everything that matters, you are witty and funny and you are so beautiful that I hardly believe my luck. The days without you are long, dull and difficult. The love you show me is the greatest gift I have ever received. You must know how much I love you and how much I care. I will cherish you and I will keep you safe… (…)

                                                                                      *****************************

They arrive in Jader. Just the sight of the Frostbacks on the horizon makes Cullen feel happier. Skyhold is near, and he will see Orla in few short days. The spring has come and the air already feels different. 

It is a late afternoon and they are to spend the night here before venturing onto the mountain path first thing tomorrow morning. Cullen does not head to the inn right away. Instead, he walks around the shops and stalls near the city square, wondering what to choose for Orla. So far his track record with gifts has not been the greatest, but with everything that happened between them he does not want to come back empty handed. 

Cullen buys two boxes of fancy Orlesian chocolates. He has never seen Orla refuse sweets before. It reminds him of their first kiss and he can’t stop himself from smiling. 

                                                                                     *****************************

Nobody tells her anything, but the guard looks at her in a way that makes Orla feel naked. She averts her eyes, not wanting to catch his attention, but he keeps staring and staring. She digs her nails deep into the skin of her forearm. The fear is so strong she can barely think. Hunger hits her stomach, her throat is entirely dry from crying, but she is scared to even ask for water. Eventually, she tires out, and she goes in and out of sleep. 

There are few people that come and go, including the scout that brought her in. Orla tries to listen to their whispers, but she can understand nothing. 

Time passes but she has no way of knowing how quickly or how slowly. There is no window in the dungeon, only the candles here and there. It seems like eternity to her. She really wants to pee, but she won’t ask that guard. 

Finally, they come to get her. Her whole body shakes. They lead her to another room, where there is a table and a chair. She sits, wrapping her arms around her.

Across her stand three men. The scout and two soldiers. Orla looks at her hands.

“What is your name?”

“Orla”, she replies quietly. 

It is so cold.

“You got caught trying to break in into the Commander’s quarters. Where did you get the key?”

“He”, she swallows, “he gave it to me.”

“Why would the Commander give you the key?”

Cullen knows me. He loves me. We are something, we are together.

“We are— he, uhm — “

They laugh at her, and that terrifies her so much she almost pees herself.

“Orla, you are in big trouble. You ran. The Commander has been gone for over a week. Think. Do you want us to believe you spread your legs so easily?”, one of the soldiers stands right by her side, his hand brushing against her shoulder. 

Orla doesn’t want that. 

“The sooner you confess to your crime, the sooner you can leave. Don’t you want to, Orla?”

Yes, she does, but…

Her head hurts. It is so cold and she is so scared.

“Such a pretty girl”, she hears the whispers. “Pretty and dim-witted.”

Her whole body recoils in disgust.

“He’ll kill you if you touch me”, she says quickly, without thinking. She brings her hand to her mouth, terrified at her own words.

“Why would the Commander care for you, huh?”, the soldier says but the scout looks uncertain.

“Gavin, what—“

“Silly, filthy girl. A liar and a thief. We are the Inquisition’s soldiers. No one will touch you, who would even want to? You’re in trouble, Orla. Think. You just need to say that you tried breaking into the Commander’s quarters and we’ll let you go.”

Orla says nothing.

They bring her back to the cell, and there is a different guard there, younger. He watches her sitting on the floor uncertainly, he looks at the parchments on his desk.

“Hey”, he says. “Have you been to the bathroom?”

She shakes her head, afraid. 

“If you try to run, I’ll hit you, you understand? I don’t want to shackle you, but don’t be stupid.”

She nods.

He leads her to a small bathroom and finally she is at least able to relieve herself. There is water in the faucet too, and she drinks greedily. 

Orla is so confused. Her head is hurting, and she feels weak from hunger. She sits down in her cellar and she tries to think, but she is tired and it is still so cold.

Cullen. When is Cullen coming? He would not allow anyone to treat her that badly, but he is not here, he is far away. 

 

The men come back much later and lead her to the room with a chair and a table again. Orla rubs her forehead.

“Focus, Orla”, one of them says. “Where did you get the key?’

“I don’t know”, she replies quietly. 

“Let’s say you found it. Found it, and kept it, and decided to use it so you can get some coin.”

No”, she blinks. 

“Don’t be dumb, Orla. Are you dumb?”

She turns red.

“Read this”, one of them passes her a piece of parchment. “This explains everything. Once you confess, we can let you out. You post a small bond and then you have to await further instructions.”

“I—“, she swallows, uncertain. “I can’t read.”

“You really are a dim little thing, are you not?”, the soldier sighs. 

“Orla, what do you think will happen? We have received the news from Val Royeaux. Everyone gossips of the Commander and the Inquisitor together. People know those things. Don’t be a stupid girl, say that you tried to break in and steal from the Commander, and this will be over with.”

Her stomach is like an open hole. Orla is so hungry that it hurts, and it reminds her of war, and she just can’t focus. She says nothing and they take her back to the cell. 

 

The thoughts of Cullen with the Inquisitor invade her mind, and she just doesn’t know. The words from few months ago come back and sting. The words that Cullen used to describe the Herald of Andraste, the stupid love look on his face when he was talking about her. How could a girl like Orla ever compete with someone who is a hero? The Inquisitor is powerful, and beautiful, and brave, and she wears lovely things, and she can write letters, and she knows fancy words. 

Then she reminds herself of Cullen whispering all the sweet things to her. He kissed every part of her body, he told her he loved her, he called her his sweetheart… 

It is so cold and unpleasant. The stone floor is damp and hard, and Orla feels dizzy.

She gave Cullen everything she could, knowing it won’t be enough, knowing it would all end.

The pain is so great she can barely breathe, and she is so scared. If he… What if he comes back and denies everything? It would kill her. If he stood in front of her and said he never even knew her, it would kill her. Orla is certain. 

The fear makes her pull her hair. She doesn’t know what day it is. What will Mistress Martha say, what will happen with her job? Will she have a place to sleep? Will she need to go? Where would she even go from Skyhold? 

They send a woman this time. She smiles nicely, but Orla is scared to even look into her eyes.

“Orla, right?”, the woman says softly. “I am Knight-Captain Briony. The report just arrived on my desk today and I have to say, I am a little confused on what is going on here. It is written here that you were trying to break in to the Commander’s quarters but that you denied it?”

“I lied”, Orla says quietly.

“You lied? About what?”

“I… found the key and tried to look for coin.”

“How did you know it was the Commander’s quarters? Where did you find the key?”

“I don’t know”, she mumbles. 

Knight-Captain Briony asks few questions but all Orla is able to do is to repeat the words. She lied and she wanted to steal some coin. 

The woman looks at her carefully and then reads her the paper. Orla is confused, except that she understands she needs to pay what they call a bond. One silver. She doesn’t have one silver. She gave Cullen the coin right before he left to send to South Reach. Mistress Martha was supposed to pay her this week. Few of her things are still inside Cullen’s quarters, and they took the key. 

“I don’t have one silver”, she whispers. 

“I will post the bond for you, you can come to the offices near the tower and leave the coin for me there when you get it”, the Knight-Captain searches her face. “Orla, are you telling the truth now?”

“What?”, she blinks, afraid. 

No. Yes. No. 

“Has the Commander taken advantage of you?”, the woman asks cautiously.

“No!”, Orla denies, blushing.

He has not. She loves him. She’s just stupid and hungry, and cold, and scared. 

Orla signs the parchment with the only four letters she knows, with a little help of Knight-Captain Briony. 

 

Suddenly, Orla is free and allowed to leave. The guard escorts her outside, handing her some papers. The sun blinds her a little, and it takes a while to understand where she is. She runs and she runs until she finds her own small room in a basement. She smells so bad and the clothing clings to her body. She runs to the showers and she scrubs herself and lets the cold water flow until all of the dirt is gone. She washes the clothes although she doesn’t want to wear them again. 

One silver. She needs to repay one silver, and she doesn’t have enough. She hurries to the main kitchen and she can already see that Mistress Martha is furious.

“What are you doing here, Orla?!”, the woman screams. “Should I call the guards to take you away? I searched for you, thinking something happened and I was told you got caught thieving around! Those are respectable kitchens, not a place for crooks!”

“I did not—“

“Get out of here! You caused enough trouble!”

“The coin for last week—.”

“I am paying no thieves, you impertinent girl”, Mistress Martha slaps her. “Now get out of here before I call for someone to take you.”

Orla is so hungry. One silver, she needs one silver to repay or she will be in trouble, won’t she? She goes back to her dingy cellar and she looks around just to find something, anything. She takes the book Cullen gave her and she takes her mother’s hairpin, and the mirror she got. 

Nobody wants the book, but she sells the pin for forty coppers and the mirror for two. She is so hungry her hands are shaking. 

There is so much helplessness. Orla wants to curl on the floor and cry and she doesn’t know what to do, she doesn’t even know anyone that much and now they think she is a thief and—

Her whole body is shivering when she braves herself to enter the barracks. What if she meets the soldiers that were asking her all those questions before?

Orla?”, the familiar voice calls.

Before she says anything, Liam gestures her into the room. There are four cots there, but nobody else is present.

“Orla”, he repeats with concern on his face. “What is going on?”

She takes a deep breath. 

Chapter Text

Liam helps her with no hesitation. He gives her the coin necessary to repay the bond, and Orla does it immediately. He gives her more to buy food, and she almost cries when she finally bites into the piece bread inside her quarters. He says that he will find her there in the evening, after his training. 

Orla spends most of the afternoon lying on her small bed and trying to sleep. She is afraid that someone will come and take her again, or that one of those soldiers will come and hurt her, or that someone will tell her she is no longer allowed to sleep here and that she needs to leave Skyhold now.

Her heart feels as it someone sliced it in half. The pain pours out of it, traveling through her body, reaching everywhere. Orla is so confused. Part of her does not believe that Cullen would just betray her after all those months. She bites her lip, trying to hold back tears. Everyone knows that girls like her should keep their knees shut. Mistress Martha has enjoyed reminding her of that. At the very least girls like her should guard their hearts, and Orla has swung hers wide open. 

She has no job, she has nowhere to go. It is not the first time, but she is not sixteen anymore. She is not about to travel from town to town. There is war all around, and she is in the middle of nowhere in the mountains. What happens next? What… how will they punish her? Is Cullen even going to see her, or is she just an utter fool to hope for that? 

Orla gave him everything she could. Everything. She gave him her care each time she made food for him and each time she tended to him. She gave him the words to lift him up. Not fancy words, but there were honest and true. She gave him her time. She gave him her body. She gave him all the sweetness, but she gave him the bitter parts too. She held nothing back. She knew what she was doing, she reminds herself. She knew it would not last, but now the time has come and she is shattered. 

Liam comes back in the evening, knocking on the door first. She is so afraid she blocked it with a chair. 

“Hey”, he says softly, carrying a blanket and a bag of pasties from the tavern. “How are you feeling?”

“I—“, she doesn’t even find the right words to answer before her eyes get glassy. “I messed up so badly, Liam.”

They eat in silence. Later on, he takes care of Orla as if she was a child, speaking in soft voice and wrapping her in covers. Her shame would be greater if she was not that tired and upset. 

He insists to stay the night and truthfully she is relieved to hear that. Her mind reminds her of war and all painful things that happened than. Orla does not want to be alone. 

“Will you tell me what happened?”, he finally asks when the room is so dark that she could not even recognize his face. “I know you didn’t steal, but what exactly happened, Orla?”

It burns as if she pressed her hand into the fire. 

How could she tell him? He is Finn’s brother. How could she tell him that she allowed herself to be so foolish after Finn?

“There is…”, she starts and than she corrects herself. “There was a man.”

“Did he… force you?”, Liam breathes.

“No”, she replies, her cheeks flushing. “I— I fell in love. I thought I was allowed something, but it turns out I shouldn’t have done it after all.”

The silence seems to stretch for all eternity. 

“Is he married?”

“No!”, she scoffs, offended.

“Is he a noble?”

“Kind of”, the embarrassment surely is about to swallow her. 

“You won’t tell me who he is, will you?”

She can’t. She already imagines Liam doing something stupid. Besides, what difference does it make?

“It doesn’t matter now”, her heart breaks. “I don’t even know if he… Never mind. I just… It’s all my fault—“

No”, Liam interrupts her. “It is not.”

“I should have known better. I—“, she whispers. “I went to him, over and over again despite knowing better. I told him I loved him. I told that to no one except Finn…”, her voice cracks. “What would Finn even think of me now?”

Liam takes a deep breath and lets the air out.

“He would think the same he always had. Don’t doubt him now”, he says quietly. “Orla… maybe you should have known better, but falling in love is not a crime.”

“I don’t know where will I go now. I just—“, she starts sobbing again. “I am so tired, Liam. I am so done. When does it all end?”

“Shhh”, he embraces her. “We will think of something.”

                                                                                        ************************

They arrive in the afternoon. Skyhold gates open and Cullen is so glad to be back. He does not send anyone to his quarters to bring his belongs, thinking that Orla might be there. He picks up his own satchel when Knight-Captain Briony approaches him, the nervousness evident on her face. 

“Commander?”, she asks hesitantly. “Could we go and talk somewhere? Your office, perhaps?”

“Of course”, he frowns, wondering what issues have arisen during his absence.

“I would like to…”, Briony looks at him cautiously. “Perhaps Seeker Pentaghast could join us as well?”

That sounds rather serious, and Cassandra does not appear to be happy to be needed for assistance. They are all tired after traveling.

“What’s going on?”, Cullen asks.

Knight-Captain Briony unceremoniously picks up the report from his desk and hands it to him. 

“There appears to have been a break in attempt into your quarters, Commander.”

The full implication of her words reaches his brain and he leans on the desk to steady himself. He wants to— He needs to ask so many questions but he flips the pages of the report instead, his heart almost stopping.

“A young servant woman named Orla”, Briony continues. “confessed to it. I let her out on bond because she did not appear to actually get in and… The report I was given was inconclusive and it made me… uncomfortable. I am not sure how long she was being held, but when I got there, she told me she found the key to your chambers and that she wanted to steal some coin. I—“, she swallows. “Apparently initially she claimed you gave her the key, Commander.”

He hears Cassandra making a disgruntled noise in the background. 

“I did give Orla the key”, he coughs out quietly, straightening is back. “She did not try to break in. Maker’s breath! Why was I not notified of it right away? Where is she now?”

“I am not sure, Ser. I posted a bond for her and she repaid it very quickly by leaving the coin by the office. I did not want to scare her needlessly by searching for her throughout the castle…”, Briony rubs her face. “I was concerned you might have taken advantage of a woman, Commander. She seemed very scared.”

It feels like a slap to the face, but it immediately calms him down. He breathes out. 

“Of course”, he swallows. “I assure you both… Orla is a woman I am… courting”, he finishes awkwardly. 

Oh”, Knight-Captain Briony grimaces while Cassandra stares at him in disbelief.

“I have to go and find her, right now”, he rushes to the door. “Knight-Captain? I want every single person involved brought into interrogation chambers. Separate them.”

“As you say, Commander.”

Cullen!”, Cassandra shouts, running after him as he is leaving his tower. “Wait!”

“I have to find Orla and talk with her—”

“Cullen, if there is any implication—“

He stops abruptly. “I have known Orla for several months. I have not mentioned her because she wanted to keep it private but… Leliana knows. Please, I need to speak with Orla alone. She must be so terrified and—“

“Alright”, Seeker frowns. “What can I do—?”

“Can you ask Leliana to help? Regardless of everything I want to know why I have not been notified earlier. The report does not when was she brought in exactly and how long she was there.”

“Sure.”

The guilt hits him like a sword slashing through the muscle. He remembers Orla being afraid she would get imprisoned for stealing the scout equipment when they left Skyhold for their outing. She has always been so hesitant and full of fear of someone finding out and he doesn’t even understand what happened, except that she spent time in the dungeons. His girl, whom he promised to protect, his girl who’s been through so much in this life already. Cullen can feel his body almost trembling when he comes near Orla’s quarters. What if she got hurt, what if someone hurt her, what if—

He almost bumps into Private Liam. The man looks at him in shock, blinks for a second and then pure hatred fills his eyes. He takes a step back.

Commander”, Liam sneers. 

“Private.”

“It’s you, isn’t it?”, his hands shake, but he still controls himself. “She wouldn’t tell me, but it is you.”

“I—“

“How could you do this to her? How?! They kept her in the dungeons for two nights. Two nights! Orla still hasn’t told me what happened there exactly, except that no one gave her food the whole time. Do you understand that? She sold the only thing she had from her dead mother to help pay for a bond for something she didn’t do! She lost her job, she has no coin left. She is so afraid, even just staying in her quarters. How could you allow this to happen?!

“Well —“, he stammers, processing what he just heard.

Two nights in the dungeons without being fed. What else? The anger explodes in Cullen’s chest, and he tightens his fist so hard that his knuckles turn white. Orla is scared. She lost her job, she lost her things—

“I should punch you right now, but I know how it would end and it would break her heart even more. She said she fell in love. I know enough about Orla to know that she doesn’t love easily. What things did you tell her to make it happen? She deserves better than for a rich prick to toy with her! How could you?! Don’t you have any care about how much she already lost? Not enough ladies to go around, so you had to go for a girl who has nothing? I had you for a man of honor. How— I might be a simpleton, Ser, but I know that if you fuck a girl, you should at least have decency to make sure she is not crying out of hunger. You vile, disgust—“

LIAM!”, Orla yells. “Leave, now!”

Her skin is reddened and puffed up, she is shivering, she has been crying. Cullen swallows. 

“Orla…”, Liam tries.

Now!”, her voice breaks. “Before you get in trouble, too. Please!

“Orla, I can’t leave you here with him!”

“Cullen, get into my quarters”, she orders without giving him a single glance. 

Naturally, he does as she says, hearing Orla’s raised voice scolding Liam. He looks around her room, once again stunned at how dark, tiny and cold it is. 

She got arrested by his men and was imprisoned for two night . The report should have clear timeline, and it does not. He tries to wait to actually talk with her before he imagines anything, but—

Orla enters the room, closing the door with a thud. She is right here, right in front of him.

“By the Maker, Orla”, he gently pulls her in an embrace. “Sweetheart, I just found out. I still—I am so sorry. I —“

The words freeze in his mouth, because she tenses up before pushing him away. It is not harsh, but the meaning is clear enough. 

“What are you doing here, Cullen?”, she asks with a burning pain in her eyes. 

“I came to see you right away, I—“ he explains. “Knight-Captain Briony talked to me and I rushed here—“

“What would she say if she knew you were here?”

“Briony?”, he blinks. “I don’t understand—“

“The Inquisitor”, Orla says, keenly searching his face.

The fogginess starts to clear enough to reveal how many things have gone wrong and how Cullen can no longer assume anything. Even with the report and even after hearing Liam’s words he remains in the dark, and he is not going to waste any minute on possible miscommunication. Not after everything that happened to Orla. Not while seeing her buzzing with hurt and anger. 

“Orla”, he braces himself. “At this point I am going assume that the Inquisitor knows that I am here, because I admitted right away that you did not try breaking into my quarters and I mentioned who you are to me. Honestly, aside from my job as the Commander, me seeing a woman I love is not the Inquisitor’s business.”

The deep crimson blush appears on Orla’s cheeks and she sits on the bed, covering her face. 

“You and her…? You’re not together?”

He kneels by the side of the bed.

“Together? Orla, how could I be with her when we are—? I love you, you are my girl, we are together.

She bursts out crying and Cullen fights the overwhelming desire to take her into his arms and to comfort her.

                                                                                  *******************************

There is nothing more that Orla wants but bury herself into Cullen’s chest. She wants to believe him, but the last few days drained her. She is still so confused and the fear stays.

He is here. Cullen is here, kneeling in front of her, with his hands on her bed. He is wearing a full armor and he still has a sword sheathed by his side. He came right away. 

“If you are lying to me, you might as well kill me”, Orla whispers. 

“Orla, I am not lying. I swear on everything I am.”

She brings her face forward and leans her forehead onto Cullen’s breastplate. The metal is cold and harsh. 

“Let me take this off”, he mutters, dropping pieces of his armor onto the floor until she can see a wool sweater underneath. He pulls her in for a hug, and he is so warm, and strong, and steady. 

Her tears dry out, but the hurt inside her heart persists. It is too fresh.  

“I am so sorry, Orla. I am so sorry”, Cullen murmurs, kissing the top of her head. “Sweetheart, can you tell me what happened? Whenever you’re ready, but I need to know.”

Orla is so embarrassed that she wants to curl down and disappear, but he holds her close and his scent is so familiar. Sweaty and pungent after the travel, but his perfume lingers, and it all makes her feel safe, if only for a moment.

She hands him the parchment paper that Knight-Captain Briony gave her, and Cullen just glances at it, folds it and tells her he will take care of it. 

The memory of cold, and discomfort and hunger overwhelms her again. Her voice is quiet, but she tells him everything, even though she can’t look him in the eyes. 

Cullen says nothing aside from one or two questions, and his whispered apologies here and there. Orla doesn’t care for those, she just wants— It chokes her. There is so much unknown, and she is lost, not knowing what will happen. Not knowing what can happen.  

When she faces him again, he is angry. She has seen him short and snappy before, but it was nothing like now. His jaw clenches a lot and his whole body tenses. He tries to covers it, but Orla knows him too well by now. There is no place to hide for him and there is no place to hide for her, either. 

“Are you mad at me?”, she asks sharply, frowning. 

Cullen’s shoulders sag instantly as he breathes out sharply. 

“No”, he rubs his neck. “Orla, of course I am not mad at you. I am angry at those soldiers and believe me, they will pay the price. It shouldn’t have happened, you should have not been treated this way. I will personally make sure it doesn’t happen again to anyone else. You did nothing wrong.”

"I could not understand— I am so stupid”, she says furiously, shaking her head. 

“You are not”, he replies sternly. “You were hurt, Orla, you are not stupid.”

“Cullen, I— When I tried to tell them about you, they mocked me. They laughed at me.”

“I know.”

“I told you this would happen”, she mutters angrily, all the pain pouring out.

“I know”, his voice breaks. “Sweetheart, I am so sorry. I know I have failed you. If I could change—”

“That’s not the point, Cullen. I— don’t even know what happens now. I have nowhere to go. I have no job. If it wasn’t for Liam I don’t know what I would do to feed myself. Everyone thinks I am a thief.”

“I will take care of it. I promise. I will take care of you”, he rasps.

How? Her thoughts are bitter and her stomach is twisting and turning.

“I will need to go and… deal with some things”, he whispers softly. “Let me get you to our— my… my quarters.”

Orla thinks of the bathtub and the warm, large bed and the fireplace and that soft fur rag on the floor. She also thinks of the scout slamming her into the wall.

“I don’t know. I should stay here, maybe.”

“I will be sending someone to stand guard here anyway”, he says, catching her eye. “A woman. I will send a woman, a trusted soldier.”

She scoffs, crossing her arms.

“Orla”, he steels his voice. “I would do it for anyone in this situation. The safety of people in this fortress is my duty. Unless I know you are absolutely safe, you will have a guard outside your door at all times.”

“Fine”, she relents. “I will go with you. I can’t have a guard going with me to the bathrooms, do you realize what people would think? I just— what about Liam? He is going to panic—“

“I will send a messenger to him. He can visit you in my quarters. He already knows—“

“You’re not angry with him?”

She has been so worried about Liam doing something reckless and stupid. 

“No”, Cullen reassures her, even though he seems angry. “How could I be? He has protected you better than me. I am not angry because of the things he said. I am grateful he took care of you. He is a good man.”

The large wave of relief floods her whole body.

“I will send someone to collect your things”, Cullen remarks while putting on his armor again, tying the pieces quickly and expertly. “Take what you need now, but don’t worry about the rest.”

When they walk towards his quarters they take the same route she took when she ran to kiss him first. It was not that long ago. Cullen is holding her hand the whole time. Orla fights the urge to pull away, to try to disappear. It is already done, and he walks alongside her with no shame. There is a scout waiting by his door. Orla’s heart start beating faster, and he squeezes her palm while dispensing orders. 

“I will wait with you until Lysette is outside the door."

She looks around, slightly dazed and uncertain. 

How everything changed so quickly. It has been maybe three weeks since the day they went for an outing, since their kiss, since the first time they lay together, since she told him she was his girl. 

“Do you want me to run you a bath?”

She just nods silently, watching Cullen going in an out of the bathroom, preparing everything. 

Orla”, he whispers, seeing her still standing in the middle of the bedroom. “Will you be alright before I go back?”

“Yes.” 

There is no other choice.

“Cullen?”, she stops him shyly right before he leaves.

“Yes?”

“Can you— Can you get my mother’s hairpin back? I sold it to the merchant with a mustache.”

The shadow falls on his face. “I will get it back, sweetheart, I promise.”

                                                                          ********************************

Cullen finds the merchant right away. It might add to the gossip, but he honestly does not care. The man mentions Orla selling the mirror too, so he buys back as well. She sold the only thing left from home to not stay hungry. That is a travesty, ad he is to blame as well. 

He does not get to reach his office. One of Leliana’s agents finds him and ask him to the war room. His fists clench almost involuntarily when he gets there. The anger burns brightly. It is Orla, his Orla. 

The heavy wooden door open and he walks in to find Leliana, Josephine and Cassandra and Evelyn inside. 

“How is…”, Seeker looks almost embarrassed. “How is she?”

“She is my quarters. I put Lysette on guard duty outside.”

“My agents had no idea, Cullen”, Leliana’s crystal voice cuts through the discomfort of the room. “The best ones were with us. From what I have already gathered, it seems your soldiers did not make any notification of making an arrest until more than twenty four hours in.”

His soldiers. The words ring inside of his ear. There is one reason he can think of for a group of soldiers to fail to log that properly and fury vibrates in his veins. All he can think of is Orla sobbing and looking away, and telling him how they called her dumb and pretty. 

His soldiers. He has failed before, tremendously and astonishingly. His years as the Knight-Captain of the Gallows fill with him with little but shame, but the Inquisition is different, and he is different. There is no tolerance for exploitation, there is no tolerance for abuse. 

He would be angry in any circumstances, but that is woman he loves, and Cullen is enraged. 

“I have already given orders for the men to be identified and apprehended.”

“My agents are helping with that”, the Spymaster assures him.

“I just want to understand”, Evelyn paces around. “Who is this girl? I mean, Cullen, you getting involved with a subordinate—“

“Orla is not my subordinate”, he cuts the Inquisitor off. “She is… she was a kitchenmaid before she lost her job, but she has never been my subordinate.”

“Commander”, Josephine interrupts gently. “It still might seem a bit imprudent considering the gossip it will surely lead to.”

Cullen flushes red. “It was not my intention to keep it a secret.’

“Why does her name seems familiar?”, Evelyn frowns, trying to remember.

“You have met her. She worked in Haven at the tavern and, well— She served us at the Herald’s Rest once.”

Evelyn’s eyes widen at the realization. “The illiterate girl?”, she asks and Cullen grits his teeth, already irate. “You… went after her?”

“I already knew Orla back then”, he explains, ashamed, fully aware how it all sounds.

“Cullen, has it ever occurred to you that your dalliance with a girl like that can hurt your reputation and thus the reputation of the Inquisition?”, Evelyn gasps.

A girl like what?”, he manages, angry. “Maker’s breath, Evelyn. We have done nothing wrong. I do not care about the respectability of my relationship when a woman I love experienced being confined without food and tormented by my soldiers. I am the Commander of the Inquisition, but I do not owe this organization nor you my private life.”

They all get silent at his words.

“I was going to suggest we send the girl away somewhere, anywhere she wants”, Leliana looks him straight in the eye. “I don’t suppose it is an option.”

His heart sinks. That is not what he wants, but he has to tell her anyway.

“I will talk with Orla”, he remarks quietly. 

“Cullen”, Josephine warns him. “Whatever happens, I am afraid that there is no possibility of keeping it a secret.”

None of this is news to him, but deep inside he fears that he won’t be able to reach Orla. Why would she even allow him to? He has failed her in the most horrible way. She has warned him over and over how it would all end up horribly for her, and it has. Cullen loves her and she might regret it all. He loves her. There is no doubt in his mind and there is no doubt in his heart.

Leliana and Cassandra accompany him to the interrogations. Evelyn wants to be notified on progress, but she never participates in the actual process. She was a prisoner once, and her choice does not surprise Cullen. Knight-Captain Briony awaits them, but it is the Spymaster prerogative to take over. 

The first person they interview is one of the guards, a young man. Almost a boy. Orla mentioned him being the nicest to her and actually letting her use the bathroom. He does not seem to know much. His story confirms and clarifies much of what Orla has already stated. The words leave his mouth quickly and he is afraid. Cullen doubts there is any deception there. Another guard remains completely silent, refusing to answer questions altogether. 

The scout that grabbed Orla near his quarters is another matter altogether.

“Explain to me, Zoran”, Leliana’s voice is dangerously composed. “Why is the report missing the information on when the girl was brought to the dungeons? Why have you not reported a possible break in to the Commander’s quarters to anyone in until… well, over twenty four hours later?”

Andraste preserve him. Has he ever been that furious in is entire life. There could be Samson here awaiting him right now and Cullen would be less angry. Why would four men conspire together to hide a young female prisoner without notifying the command? Orla told them that he would kill them if they touched her and by some fucking blighted miracle they did not. 

He wants to kill them nonetheless. He won’t, he can’t, but deep inside he wants to. 

“It was all Gavin’s idea”, the scout blurts, shaking under the Spymaster’s stare. “He has done it before, as a city guard in Tantervale. With… with girls. They would often be… scared… and… grateful.

The anger feels so hot it burns every single part of his body. It takes so much willpower to remain still and to listen. 

“You don’t need to be there, Commander”, Leliana remarks quietly before Gavin is brought in.

“Those are my soldiers”, Cullen steels himself.

His soldiers. The guilt stretches and expands until there is no place inside it has not reached yet. It happened before, in Kirkwall. It happened more times than he knows. That is the darkest part of his shame. He was supposed to be protect those that needed protection, and he failed. He should have noticed more, and he did not. When he was the Knight-Captain, and he did not pay attention. He did not even make an effort, not truly. 

As the Commander he has tried over and over, and yet he has failed already. There is no choice but to carve out the corruption, but the bitter thought lingers. Has his command enabled any of that, in any shape or form? Has he done enough to prevent it?

It would always burn, but Orla… Orla, his Orla, his Fereldan sweetheart. Out of all the people in Skyhold, she was the person he did not allow himself to fail, and yet he has. He has failed to protect her. He could have done better. He should have done better. 

It hurts. It hurts, because love and responsibility he feels for Orla can’t be matched. 

Gavin talks and the words that spill out of his mouth make Cullen sick.

“All I see is that I was doing her a favor”, the former guard shrugs, looking so smug that the blood in Cullen’s veins seems on fire. “You know, us little people supporting each other. A girl falls into trouble, shows some gratitude and gets off easy.”

Cullen remembers the moment when Orla thought he would hurt her. The look in her eyes, defeated. It burns. It burns like acid. 

“That is rape”, Cassandra notices coldly. 

“Hey”, Gavin scoffs. “We didn’t force her, did we? She did not offer, we did not touch her. I guess she had already shown some gratitude towards the Commander, huh?”

Cullen does not hit the man, but he is so close.

Gavin’s attitude changes the more he realizes there is no getting away with it. He lashes it.

“So he can do it”, the former guard points at him, “but if we do it it is such a crime, huh?”

“Don’t you fucking dare—“, Cullen begins before he forces himself to stop. 

Breathe. He will stay in those dungeons and rot here after the judgement. Breathe.

“I should have fucked her when I had a chance”, Gavin sneers. “Get her ready for y—“

He doesn’t get to finish, because Cullen smashes his face with his fist, hard. The blood sprains and splutters, followed by grunting and coughing. 

Cassandra grabs him by the arm and drags him away into the corridor. He does not fight her, he knows better. The anger does not clear completely, but the haze passes, and he pants, leaning on the cold stone wall. 

“You are not going back there, Cullen”, she warns.

That is the only admonition he receives. 

He sits down, rubbing his face with his hands. Today is more than unexpected. It has entirely blindsided him, and it is nothing in comparison to what Orla went through. The fury and shame and guilt swirl inside like a rift that opened onto his heart. 

“What is she like?”, Seeker asks softly, sitting next to him. 

“Orla is…”, he tries to focus. “She is stern and thorny, and sweet and kind at the same time. She likes to cook and dance, and she is the most Fereldan person I have ever met. I… We understand each other, despite everything. She understands me better than anyone else. I do realize how it must sound to you, but she truly means the world to me.”

“How did you meet?”

“She works… she worked in one the kitchens at night. I stumbled there once battling my withdrawal and I came back the other night and— Well, eventually we started talking and I kept coming back and then… Later on, I took her out of Skyhold and— Maker’s breath, it does sound base, I know, but it has never been like that.”

“It feels odd”, Cassandra eyes him carefully. “I consider you a friend and I had no idea.”

“I could not convince Orla of letting me court her openly. Maybe she would have eventually. That was my intention. She had a lot of fears… she likely still has them, to be honest. I promise you, it was not me trying to hide or worse, being ashamed. I am not, I just— I failed her, badly. Every single fear she had about people knowing turned out to be worse in reality, all while I was not here. It’s just— I love her, Cassandra.”

“What do you think will happen now?”

"I am not sure. I— She’s in my quarters and—“

“Go to her. There is nothing you can do here, and we both know you are not interrogating those men.”

“I am their Commander—“

“And she is your woman, Cullen. You probably should not have been here in the first place. Go. Just… stop by your office first and take a shower and change.”

He looks down at his surcoat and breastplate stained in blood. The last thing Cullen wants is to upset or scare Orla more.

“Right”, he gets up. “Thank you, truly.”

Cassandra nods and gives him a faint smile.

The cold shower calms him even more. How odd. He has not been in his office at night for quite some time. He used to live here, but now it is merely a place of work. His satchels from Halamshiral are still there, so at least he can change easily. He has not even managed to check the pile of other reports and letters placed on his desk. Tomorrow, he tells himself, and then he sees a letter from Mia. 

_____________________________

Cullen,

(…) I won’t lie to you, there is a certain satisfaction in knowing that I was right all along, even if I was prying to confirm it. I know I have cautioned you greatly but love requires responsibility. I know you are serious, you have always been that way. Too serious for your own good, perhaps, but if you are truly considering commitment, then that is one thing in life to be serious about. 

If you expect me to act shocked or concerned over her status or yours, it has never been about that. Your letters paint a picture of a woman who is kind, generous, resourceful, smart and sensible. I think I might like her more than you - and I am only half-jesting. Love if a gift, and I am happy you have someone you love and someone who loves you in return. 

You are a grown man who has hardly ever listened to his eldest sister. You don’t need my advice, but I shall still write it. Be true, and honest, and loving. You don’t need my blessing either, Cullen, but you have it. You have more than that, you have my sisterly love. It has never left you. 

Much love from all of us, for both of you.

Your caring sister,

Mia. 

______________________________

Ser Lysette is still standing guard at the door. He relieves her, thanking her profusely. He slips into the quarters quietly. The small flame flickers in the fireplace, and Orla is asleep in his bed. She must have been exhausted. There are still signs of crying on her pretty face, but Cullen finds solace in the simple fact that she felt comfortable enough to change into the nightgown and actually lie down. 

Nonetheless, he is unsure where they stand and the last thing he wishes to is to overstep now. He moves quietly, finding additional blanket and laying on the floor.

Orla half-screams half-whimpers in fear, sitting abruptly, pulling legs to knees, covering herself.

“It’s me, Cullen”, he whispers, the ache spreading everywhere. “It’s just me.”

“Oh”, she says sleepily. “What are you doing there?”

“I was not sure— I did not want to intrude—“

“Oh”, she repeats. “I— Can you … hold me?”

The anger stays, the guilt remains but something lets go. He wraps his arms around her waist, feeling the warmth of her body that he has missed so much. 

“You smell like soap. How come I did not hear you bathe? Was I really that out of it?”

“I stopped by the office and changed there”, he swallows, painfully aware of the reason. “I didn’t mean to be gone for so long. How— how do you feel?”

“I feel odd, really odd. I did not know what was going on and— I did not try to doubt you—“

He tightens his embrace, pulling her closer, hoping to shield her, to protect her now.

“I am here now, I promise. I got your hairpin back, too. And your mirror.”

“Thank you”, she murmurs sheepishly. 

“Try sleeping more, sweetheart”, he nudges her gently. “ I am here. I will watch over you. I am here, I am right here.”

“Alright”, Orla agrees, placing her hand onto his.

Thankfully, it does not take long before he can hear her breaths deepening as she falls into slumber. Cullen steadies himself, inhaling the smell of her hair, his soap and that scent that always surrounds Orla, warm and subtle, tangy and sweet at the same time. 

She is here. He grounds himself in the moment. She is here, not in the dungeons, not in that cold damp cellar room. She is here, in his arms, allowing him to hold her and to guard her. 

Eventually he falls asleep, too. The demons are not idle tonight, showing him the worst.                                     

                                                                                                *****************************

“Hurt her… and I will… kill you”, Cullen grunts in his sleeps, tossing so hard that Orla moves a little further away from him. 

He is dreaming about her. That she is sure of. It goes straight to her heart, and it prickles enough to cause a bleed. She doesn’t want him to think about it too much, but he does, because he loves her. He loves her and has not hesitated to take care of her. 

Everyone knows, or they will, soon. It terrifies her to think of the looks and the whispers and all the gossip. What now? All this time, she has been so certain that it would end the moment the truth came out. Right now her mind can’t still itself long enough to think.

Liam knows. He came last night, bringing her pastry. The anger was right there, she could smell it. She tried finding disappointment, but Liam is like Finn. He doesn’t allow himself to be disappointment in others for too long, especially not after he already said she did nothing wrong by falling in love. Nonetheless, she could see his discomfort. He has not mentioned Cullen, not even once, as if they weren’t inside of the Commander’s quarters, as if Orla was not sitting on the Commander’s bed in her nightgown, with her hair wet. She wanted to say something to Liam, to explain, but how could she explain all of that? How could she explain everything that happened between and her Cullen? 

“Orla”, Cullen mutters somberly, awake. 

She reaches out to him, placing her hand onto his chest. 

“I am sorry”, he whispers like a chant. “I am so sorry, Orla, I am so sorry.”

Orla doesn’t know if he is sorry for waking her up because of the nightmare or if he is sorry for her time in the dungeons or if he is sorry for anything else or all of the above. 

His remorse is showing, and it saddens and and it irks her at the same time. She has no use for it, and seeing Cullen crushed tugs at her own heart. For the last few days she thought he was gone from her life. She thought she would never touch him or kiss him again. Worse, part of her really believed that he was with another woman. The embarrassment floats inside her stomach, because maybe if Orla was stronger or smarter things would not get so messed up. No. She doesn’t want to think that, she does not want to think at all. 

She doesn’t want his apologies, she doesn’t want his guilt and she certainly does not want his pain. What she wants is merely Cullen. 

The linen of his shirt feels so soft and slightly damp and hot from sweat. Her hands move across his chest and stomach to soothe him. One of the things he loves is being touched, and Orla can feel some tension escaping under her caresses. 

She does not want to be alone. What she wants, what she needs is closeness. She wants something… no, not something, she wants someone, she wants him. This bed has always been a place of sweetness and safety alike. 

“Cullen”, she strokes his cheek, feeling the facial hair, sharp and corse under her fingers.

The flame in the fireplace extinguished, leaving only the glowing embers behind, casting the faintest light across the room. Even amidst the darkness she is able to see the piercing look of Cullen’s eyes. He touches her hair gently, and she leans in to kiss him. 

He kisses her tenderly, almost hesitantly, as if she was made of glass. Tonight, it bothers her. Another reminder of being weak and defenseless. Orla wants no part of that, she wants… she needs to be warm, and whole again. That need soaks like pouring rain. It falls on her, spreading from the top of her head to the tip of her toes. Her tongue flicks across his scar, and she presses her body into his.

“Orla, what…? Are you trying—? I—I can’t”, he breathes into her mouth. 

“Oh”, she gasps, snapping out of it. “Cullen, I am sorry—“

“No, I am—“, he hesitates. “Not tonight. I am sorry, it has been—“

“No, no”, she pleads quickly. “There is no need to explain.”

“I’ve missed you”, his voice breaks. “So much. I have been thinking of you each day and each night.”

“I have missed you, too. I stayed here”, she confesses quietly. “Each night.…before, uhm. Maybe I shouldn’t have—“

“Please don’t say that”, he asks. “Please. That is not— I should have told someone.”

“I asked you not to.”

“It is most definitely not on you, Orla.”

“I am not sure it’s on you either, Cullen”, she replies, the dull ache spreading. There is no escape from it. 

“Those were my men. It should have never happened. Even if you truly tried breaking in, it should have never happened like that. I hope— I promise to you, that is not how it is done. It kills something in me to know you got hurt. Orla… I should have protected you. The things you worry about, the times you have to tried to warn me about…I am so sorry. ”

The tiredness washes over her, the type that reaches her bones. He is a proud. He is protective. He loves her. How easy it is to believe it now, lying right next him. How… how easy was it for her to believe otherwise. It stings. It burns.

“Please”, she begs. “Please, stop apologizing. I — I have no need for that.”

The silence comes like the first frost. That she cannot bear.

“I am ashamed”, Orla whispers, scraping the scab off the wound and letting it bleed again. “I am not ashamed of my fear. I feel such a fool now, but I know why I lied and— Cullen, nothing was settled in my heart, but I thought you— I thought there was a chance you would deny… knowing me. I am not that brave or certain of myself and”, she swallows, “you are disappointed, aren’t you?”

“No. Don’t, Orla”, his strong arms embrace her tightly. “How could I be disappointed by you? I swear to you on the Maker and on everything I am that whatever I am feeling right now, I am not disappointed. I am angry, but not at you. I am angry that you were mistreated and hurt. I am angry for not preventing it. Sweetheart, you have done nothing wrong. Nothing, do you hear me? That is the truth.”

The tears appear again, bothering her. Orla is not a crier. Her nose gets stuffy, the headache builds.

I love you”, she bares herself completely. “I thought— It is you I need, Cullen. You.”

She sobs into his neck, leaving the wet trail behind.

“I love you”, he whispers, frost gone. “I love you with all that I am, I promise. Orla, I am here and you are here with me. You have no idea how relieved I am to have you in my arms again. I will hold you. I will always hold you. I know you are afraid, but you are not alone. You are my girl, Orla.”

The words are soft and warm, covering her like a blanket, and Orla cries and cries, melting into Cullen’s body, not willing to let go of him even for a second. 

                                                                                               ****************************************

Cullen is unable to fall asleep again. Not tonight. Between the images the demons conjured in his sleep and the reality of today and tomorrow he remains restless, keeping watch around Orla just like the Mabari guarding Andraste in that silly Fereldan song. 

It does not end with tonight’s interrogations. There is no doubt in his mind that Leliana will launch a broad-scale investigation, and truthfully, he welcomes the idea. Maker’s breath, there are maybe eight weeks until they leave for Adamant. They require all the manpower they can find, the soldiers could use the morale boost, but the Inquisition must get rid of the scum among the troops. They cannot falter. It cannot be pushed aside, forgotten. The abuse spreads easily, and there is always a war to justify it. Not the Inquisition. He has made enough mistakes in his life, over and over again. Not the Inquisition, not here, not now. 

Orla’s breathing steadily. It daunts on him how peaceful and sweet she looks right now despite everything. Thank the Maker for that, at least. She is the one needing comfort and care, but somehow her presence comforts him. She needs him, and he needs her. If there is any uncertainty around his heart, it is never about loving her. She is a part of his life, the best part. Orla, his best girl, who somehow still lets him hold her in his arms, even when he hardly deserves it. 

                                                                                                  ***************************************

The sun fills Cullen’s bedroom and makes Orla blink as she looks at the view from the window. The mountain peaks look beautiful and she wonders if it is Ferelden or Orlais she is seeing, or somewhere in between. She feels suspended in between, too. Her heart is sore and her mind is still dazed. Everything has changed. Cullen is back, but she still has no job, no reputation, no future, not here, anyway. 

Fereldans have freedom, even the lowly ones like her. Fereldans can move without needing their Banns and their Arls and their Teyrns to agree. Fereldans can pack and go, and search for the better life. Orla knows how difficult it is to find something better and how easy it is to lose it. She lost Connellmoor and she lost her beloved once. Now the bitter uncertainly of tomorrow hits her again. 

The breakfast is good, but the food still gets stuck in her throat. The unknown almost drowns her. Cullen tells her of the soldiers who kept her in the dungeons. He does not say much, and he grits his teeth as he does, but he assures her she is safe. She barely listens to it, truthfully. Her mind drifts away. 

He asks if they can sit on the bed. There is some nervousness in his movements, and it all makes her stomach churn, because Orla lost him once and losing him again feels inevitable. His hands are shaking a little, and she grips onto the fabric on her skirt, bracing herself.

“Orla?”

“Yes?”, she glances at him.

“I am sure you know by now that people know about us.”

The warmth reaches her face and she looks down. Orla imagines the gossip, she imagines the looks on everyone’s faces, she imagines the laughter. 

“I know that is not what you wanted”, he whispers softly, “but it can be a good thing. We—”

How? How is that a good thing? She might not be a thief, but she is surely seen as a whore. The harshness of her own words burns like a slap, but she knows what happens to girls like her who fall for a man they should not have.

“Cullen”, she scoffs. “Look what already happened. Surely you realize what people are saying. I cannot stay here but I do not know where to go—“

“Wait— wait a moment. Wait. I promise you, I can make sure you end up safely anywhere in Ferelden if that is what you want. I swear on everything I am. Just wait a moment. I love you and I do want to be with you, and I do want to be with you even if you decide to leave—

Orla does not want to leave. He does not understand. 

Cullen”, she repeats, the hurt and irritation rising. “Are you hearing yourself? You are the Commander and I am, well, I am not even a kitchenmaid anymore—“

“Wait—“

“Cullen! Why can’t you—"

“Marry me.”

The world stills, and there is no sound in the room except their breathing. 

Yes, her heart says. That foolish dizzy heart that already got her in trouble. No. No. No. He is stupid and careless, and—

“Cullen, how— Do you really want the mother of your children to be a stupid village girl who can’t read or write?”, she says in one breath before her face turns red. 

She told him once she did not mock, and yet at the moment, she does. 

“I want the mother of my children to be you”, he replies seriously, any shyness gone. 

All her hopes and dreams flood her at once, and Orla finds herself at loss of words. He is saying that because he does not want her to leave, he is saying that because she warms his bed, he is saying that because he feels guilty and he is full or remorse, and—

“You’re such a fool, Cullen”, she snaps. “How— 

“I am not a fool about this”, there is nothing that can throw him off.

“You are not even kneeling!”, she complains carelessly before biting her tongue. 

The blush reaches his ears as he gets on his knee, right in front of her. 

                                                                                           ************************************

It almost seems like his heart is going to burst out of his chest. He forgot to kneel and he forgot about the coin, and Orla is— Well, she is at least quiet now, waiting. Surely she is as nervous as he is, and somehow that only reassures him. Usually when she doesn’t believe him, she merely ignores his words and now she is pushing back, and Cullen dares to think that she wants to agree. 

Nonetheless, that is Orla, and nothing is too easy with his stubborn and bittersweet Fereldan girl. Especially now, when she is still sore from hurting. 

“Before I left for Templar training, my brother gave me this token coin. I kept it for luck, even though I shouldn’t have, but I have survived everything up until now, and so— so have you. I don’t have a ring for you Orla, yet, but this… This has stayed with me since I first left home. In some way, it is the most precious thing I have and it is from Ferelden, so I — I am asking you to marry me with that coin. I know you are scared and confused. I want you to know that I want to be with you even if you decide to leave Skyhold, but I want you to stay as my betrothed. I want to marry you. I —I know the timing might seem rushed but I swear to you on everything I am, this is more than a spur of a moment. I know there is another war around us, and Andraste preserve me, I will leaving in two months to march on Adamant, but I do not want to wait. Orla, I am certain of how I feel. I love you, and I know you love me, too. I have loved you for longer than you realize. I have been thinking about the future and I want it all with you—

You are— 

“Call me a fool any other time but now. Just hear me out, sweetheart. If I never left Honnleath, if I was merely a son of a farmer, if I met you at the dance, if I was lucky enough to catch your attention, would I wait? We are Fereldans, we do not shy from commitment. I know you, Orla. I know of your family, I know of your past. I have seen you angry and I have seen you cry. I know your scars and I know your fears. We have spent countless hours with each other long before we kissed. I know you are nagging, and demanding, and quick to scold and sometimes hard to reach and I love every part of you. I know you are sweet, and kind, and good, and smart, and honest, and hard-working. You know what kind of a man I am. You know of my cracks. You have seen me afraid, you have seen me weak, and sick. You have seen me cry and scream because of my nightmares. You know about the lyrium, you know about my past. You have seen me being short, and careless, and obtuse, and by the Maker, you do know that I can surely be stupid. You know me better than anyone in this world. Anyone. I am sure you deserve more than this broken old man, but I love you, and I love you just how you are. I offer you my love, my respect, my fidelity. I offer you all that I am and all that I own. I will give you a home, as you have already given me, in more ways than one."

Her eyes do not leave his face, not even for a second and yet by some grace Cullen does not stumble, not this time. 

“You are my Marigold”, he adds quietly. 

“You are no prince, Cullen”, she scoffs but there in sweetness in her voice that makes him almost certain she will say yes.

“Fair enough. I’m a Fereldan dog. I’m a Mabari that imprinted on you. The bond is for life and I will follow you until death if you allow me.”

The redness shows on Orla’s cheeks and for a second she almost looks cross, but then she shakes her head and she laughs.

“Fine”, she finally says, the corner of her mouth twitching and he is unsure whether she might cry or laugh again. “You convinced me, Mabari. I will marry you."

“You will?”, he repeats stupidly, not letting her answer before he claims her lips. 

Perhaps he shouldn’t, but he feels victorious. Better than. He feels happy.  

“You heard me”, Orla says softly, catching her breath under his kisses. “Now give me that coin. I believe it was part of the deal. What about your luck?”

“I don’t need any luck right now.”

Her shy half-smile widens, and Cullen grins, too. 

“It won’t be that easy, you know”, she taps his chest. “We are still—“

“I love you. It does not need to be easy.”

Orla believes him, and he will gladly bear that responsibility until his last breath. 

“Fine, then”, she relents once again, and Cullen can’t help but wonder how is it possible for those words to sound so loving. 

Chapter Text

The first person to find out is Liam, only few hours after the proposal. The respect demands it, and Cullen understands the Fereldan custom behind it. He asks for the man to appear in his office following the afternoon sparring routine. The tavern would probably be a better place, but truthfully he is unwilling to handle the confrontation if there is one. Right here there is enough privacy for Private Liam to get angry if need be without risking a situation that would be difficult to unravel. 

“Commander.”

“Private Liam.”

Cullen read his file. He is young. Younger than Orla, and way younger than him. Strong, quick and resourceful, according to Ser Belinda.

Right now, Liam is angry. There fear is there, too but it diminishes underneath the contempt and animosity. He probably expects some admonition for the words spoke yesterday. 

“Please, sit”, Cullen gestures. 

The recruits follows the directions hesitantly, with no trust. 

“I would like to thank you”, Cullen swallows, “for everything you have done for Orla. She says that you consider her your sister, and she is lucky to have you—

“I do not need thanks for taking care of my family.”

Bold and slightly impolite. Truthfully, Cullen does admire that attitude. The mark of an honest and proud man.

“I would like to inform you that the soldiers holding Orla in the dungeons did not act I accordance with the Forces code of conduct. There is zero tolerance for crimes like that. The men have been severely punished. Moreover, Orla”, his voice cracked. “It means little considering the magnitude of my failure towards her, but I am deeply sorry for everything that happened. I never intended for any harm to befall her and I have always treated her with utmost seriousness and care. Nonetheless, I have failed. I apologize.”

“You don’t understand”, Liam scoffs. “She’s just a village girl, the gossip—“

“I asked her for her hand, and she said yes. You are the first to know.”

The silence is long and punishing, and Cullen can’t guess what Liam might be thinking. He reaches down to his desk drawer and places the bottle of triple mead on the table alongside two glasses.

“Mead, really?”, Liam asks, his eyebrows raised.

“I am Fereldan, you know. I still know how it should be done. You can’t do it in public for obvious reasons, but you can call me Cullen in private.”

“Liam.”

It is something, at least. A beginning. He pours mead for both of them.

“What do you ask for, Cullen? You don’t ask for permission, for the girl gives it freely.”

“I ask for a blessing”, he replies, amazed that he remembers anything from the tradition he has not paid any attention to. Somehow it lingers at the back of his head. The nobility have their own customs, but the culture of the commoners in Fereldan is driven by its own set of rules. 

“What are you offering your betrothed?”

The more he mentions, the better it will sound, that is the rule. Maker’s breath. 

“I offer her my love. I will respect her for all my days. I will take care of her, and I will be faithful. I can provide for her, give her a home and”, He pauses, distinctly remembering that Orla spent those two days in the dungeons starving, “everything she needs. I will protect her however I can, from any harm that might befall her.”

Liam’s eyes are full of doubt but he lifts his glass and takes sip anyway, and Cullen follows through. 

“You forgot the part when you say you will keep her burden light, her nights warm and that you will take care of any children you might have”, the young man notices with some share of amusement. 

Andraste preserve him, did he just blush in the middle of his office? “Yes, that too.”

Another sip of mead, strong and sweet alike. 

“Where are you from, Cullen? Ferelden, we all know that. Do you still have any family?”

“Honnleath.”

“Really?”, he laughs. “Not that far from Redcliffe. Not that far from Connellmoor. The Blight…?”

“My parents died. I was the second oldest, already in the Order. I have two sisters and one brother. They survived the Blight and relocated to South Reach.”

“Isn’t that—?”

“Orla’s family is there too. My sister…helps sending news. What—what about you?

“Lanstoke, north of Lothering.”

“Bannorn?”

“Yes. Finn wanted wanted to try the Hinterlands. More open space, he said, more freedom. I still have a mother, father died in the Blight. You know the story. So, will you take care of her family, too?”

“Yes”, he answers firmly, realizing that he has never told Orla about sending coin to South Reach. “My sister knows about our relationship. For what is worth, I do have their blessing.”

“Tell me, Cullen”, Liam certainly derives poorly hidden satisfaction from calling him by his first name. “Man to man. How well do you know Orla?”

“Well. I know of her childhood, the Blight, I know of Connellmoor and your brother—"

“She mentioned Finn to you?”

The sudden pang of pain hits Liam’s face. 

“Yes”, Cullen whispers, “I am very sorry for your loss.”

“That is why I am here”, Liam’s posture tenses. “After Connellmoor… It was not only Connellmoor. There were many other villages like that. I wanted to feel like I could something.”

Cullen’s experience proves that even holding a sword can’t prevent helplessness, but he understands. He has wondered that before. Would life have been better if he stayed in Honnleath? Being in Kinloch, he could not protect his family during the Blight, but would he be able to if he was there? It is tempting to indulge the thoughts that his presence could have prevented the deaths of his parents, but he has seen enough to understand that this is all folly. The farmers and peasant have little means to fight, unless someone makes them soldiers. He nods to Liam.

“Anyway”, the recruit continues. “Man to man, right?”

“Man to man”, Cullen lifts his glass of mead and they drink in silence.

“I loved my brother more than anyone in the world. And that girl is the person he loved the most. I will always take care of her as if she is my blood. I was there at the dance when they met. Truthfully, I thought he had no chance. I guess I do not need to tell you how pretty she is. Somehow, he won her over. He had eyes only for her but it was more than that. We kept it touch even with the distance between us. We would meet at farmer market’s in various towns every month. When winter came, every evening he would go to the inn she worked at. Not so she would feed him and care for him. He was doing that to make sure the fire was properly lit or that the snow was not blocking the chimney or to break the ice on the stone outside so she would not slip. He never told me any of her secrets, but I know things have been hard for her before, and Maker knows what happened after he died. The war is not easy for pretty young girls. You must treat Orla right. She knows how it feels to be treated right, so remember that. Don’t think that just because she is a village girl she has never experienced true love before.”

“I don’t think that”, he looks Liam in the eyes. “I would never disrespect your brother’s memory, and believe me, Orla would never let me. Liam, I know I am not a faultless man and I know you distrust me. Man to man, I have made mistakes in life. I do love Orla, and I swear to you, I will treat her right.”

“Cullen”, Liam raises his glass. “I say it for her sake, not yours, but you do have my blessing."

                                                                                         **************************

The memories come and go. They used to sit heavy on her chest, making it difficult to breathe, but after almost two years since Finn died Orla can look back at their time together and smile. Today the memories are vivid. Clearer than they have been in quite some time. Orla knows why. Her and Cullen crossed a threshold she had never reached with Finn. For so long, Finn was the person who had known her the most, had loved her the most, had been the most important part of her life.

Finn asked his mother for a ring. Orla remembers that conversation vividly. There were already news about fighting close to the Western border but back then it all seemed so far away. One would think that after the Blight they would know to escape right away. It never works that way. Orla knows it now. She understands how difficult it is to leave home, to leave all the livelihood early enough. They did not think about that. It did not seem that dangerous yet. Instead, she spent that day kissing Finn underneath the apple trees and seeing right through each one of his deception attempts. 

“You’re lucky you’re so pretty. How are you so pretty?”, he murmured into her ear and she giggled. “Fine, have at it. I asked mama for the ring, but I won’t ask you until I can do it properly.”

“Fine”, she gently nibbled on his lower lip. “No rush. We have all the time in the world.”

Three weeks later Finn was dead. 

The apple trees start blooming across Ferelden, and Orla is to marry another man. 

Love has sneaked up on her. No, that is wrong. She let it sneak up on her until it burst and now the happiness holds her heart tightly in a grip that is almost painful, and yet that tinge of sadness does not take the good away. 

Everything was simpler with Finn. The scars she carried were smaller and most of them had healed up nicely. The scars he carried barely bothered him. He was full of life and joy. He had barely managed to do anything wrong with his life. The world back then seemed more… familiar. Less terrifying. Finn loved with ease that only few people have. 

Everything is more difficult with Cullen. The scars mar her body and her soul alike, and they are ugly and painful. He carries a lot of hurt, too. Most nights the nightmares still wake him up. He is a proud, serious man who has done things he deeply regrets and Orla knows it won’t go away. The world is ending, or at least it could. The earth is bitter and yet love tastes so sweetly. 

"I have survived everything up until now, and so have you”, Cullen said yesterday. 

They truly have. 

 

When Cullen walks through the door, there is confidence and sense of achievement surrounding him. He looks like a warrior after the battle. She was the one to suggest he needed have this talk, and apparently she was right. Orla likes to be right. 

“It wen’t well with Liam, didn’t it?”, she asks.

“Well enough”, he presses his lips to hers and she can taste the mead on his tongue.

“You asked for a blessing?”

“I am Fereldan after all”, he smiles so smugly that she almost wants to swat him arm, but there is something endearing about it, too. “I sometimes know how to do things the proper way. I asked for a blessing and I got one. I love you. I want it to be right.”

“Fine”, she laughs, catching his lip with her teeth. It makes Cullen groan a little, and the warmth of his voice travels down her body. “I want it to be right, too.”

“Right but soon”, his arms wrap around her waist, and she lands onto to his breastplate.  

“You should be taking it off as soon as you cross the door”, she complains, tapping the hard and unforgiving metal. “And soon, yes.”

“Whatever you command, Orla”, he grins at her and she rolls her eyes.

They do not have all the time in the world. If anything, time is slipping away. It is easy to lose everything. It is hard to pick up the pieces. There is not enough time as it is.

“One month?”, he glances at her hopefully while removing his armor, piece by piece. “That is enough for our families to come, and for us to live as a married couple before I leave.”

The blush on her face alone would be enough to betray her. The embarrassment tastes sour, but she pushes it away. He is to be her husband, after all.

“Cullen?”, she loathes the shyness coming through.

“Yes?”

“I— well. My sisters. I don’t have a job—“, her cheeks feel on fire, and Orla crosses her arms.

“Actually, uhm… Don’t be mad but I have been sending coin to your sisters since… the first letter.”

"Oh”, it is not even that surprising, she supposes. 

“Perhaps I should have told you but— Well I—“

“Cullen, I not mad”, she frowns. “How could I be mad? A little ashamed, maybe, but… thank you.”

“You don’t need to— please, don’t… don’t thank me. Anyway, uhm, I — we can cover the cost of travel for your sisters. I mean, that is what I planned for my family, too.”

“I doubt they could to come. Aileen has a little one and her husband—“, she sighs. “Faye works hard. I still want them to know they can, you know? I haven’t… It’s been ten years.”

He hugs her properly now, the warmth emitting from his skin like he was hiding a furnace somewhere in there. He kisses the top of her head, he kisses her cheeks, he kisses her lips.

“Sweetheart”, he breathes. “Of course they can come. We will do what we can to make it happen. If they don’t, I promise you, we will travel to South Reach once we have more time. I haven’t seen my siblings in… Maker’s breath. Almost eighteen years. I know how you feel. I don’t always, but with this, I do.”

He is right. There are many things Cullen cannot understand, but this? This he does. Orla sinks further into his embrace. 

“Orla”, he whispers. “You know I can provide for you. Everything I have is yours and— Well, you do not need to worry.”

Well, yes. He is the Commander and Orla imagines— Truthfully, she doesn’t fully imagine anything because her whole life, she has been dirt-poor. Things that are easy or obvious for Cullen has never been easy or obvious for her.

“Alright”, she mutters into his neck. 

She can’t worry about everything at once. 

                                                                                           ***********************************

“Before we start”, Cullen says immediately upon entering the war room the next morning. “I got betrothed.”

Three pairs of eyes look at him. Leliana does not seem shocked, Josephine brings her hand to her mouth, gasping and frankly, he can’t read Evelyn. She stares at him in silence.

“I believe congratulations are in order, Commander”, the Spymaster smirks, raising her eyebrows. 

“Yes”, Josephine smiles politely. “Congratulations, Cullen.

“Of course”, the Inquisitor snaps out of it. “Congratulations.”

“Now, to work—“

“Cullen”, the Ambassador interrupts gently. “I am afraid we cannot simply go back to work. There is a matter of addressing… rumors. There is a need for public announcement, I suggest the Chantry sermon and official notice of the wall proclaiming your betrothal. Have you thought of the timeline—?

“A month from now”, he replies slowly.

A month?”, Josephie repeats as if he just said something wrong. “A month. There is some Orlesian correspondence asking for your lineage. You have received marriage proposals after Halamshiral, so I will need to reply properly. A month—“

“A month?”, Evelyn repeats. “Before Adamant?”

“Well”, he flushes, staring at the map on the war table. “I want to enjoy my wife before I leave for Maker knows how long.”

“I am not sure we can offer you much time off—“

“I don’t expect it with everything that needs to be done before we march out. Maybe one or two days, that’s it. I do know my duties.”

“The ceremony will be in the Chantry, of course”, the Ambassador continues. “I have planned many celebrations before, I would gladly offer my assistance. It is not everyday that the Commander of the Inquisition is getting married, after all. When can we meet your betrothed? Orla…?”

“Just Orla. Of Lothering”, he answers. “Honestly, I have not— I know I should make introductions but I have not yet thought of—“

“Well, we can certainly dine at the main hall—“

“Perhaps the tavern is a better idea, Josie”, Leliana’s eyes lock with Cullen’s for a moment. “The easiest way to replace the old rumors is to have the Commander and his betrothed in public with the Inquisitor and her companions.”

The tavern. That certainly seems a little better than a dinner at the main hall.

“Tonight?”, he clarifies. 

Tonight.

“Cullen?”, Evelyn stops him right before leaving. “Just… find Dorian beforehand. It would mean a lot to him.”

 

There are only few places Dorian could be at, but the Skyhold library is the surest bet. He sits by the window, holding a book when his gaze lands on Cullen.

“Are my eyes deceiving me? Is this the Commander in his own flesh, taking time to find his friend amidst all the juicy gossip? The whole Skyhold is buzzing”, his face gets serious. “Cullen, what is going on? The last thing I remember is you being pretty upset because of Evelyn. We left Skyhold and now I come back and there are rumors about you and some servant woman. Evelyn refused to tell me anything.”

“Let me explain”, Cullen sits down. 

To be entirely fair, Dorian listens. He seems quite shocked, but he listens. 

“I asked her to marry me yesterday. She agreed.”

“I do not know what to say”, the mage says earnestly. “That predicament does not happen to me often. Cullen, I have to ask. Are you sure it is not about Eve—“

“It is not”, he cuts him off harshly. “Dorian, it has nothing to do with my past infatuation.”

“Does… Orla, was it? Does she know about all that?”

“What kind of a man do you think I am?”, Cullen snaps. 

“The one that is my friend, so I have to ask. You are an honorable man, and you got a girl in… a certain kind of trouble, that is for sure.”

There is only concern left in Dorian’s eyes. 

“It is not like that”, Cullen clenches his jaw. “I love Orla. I want to be with her.”

“Then I can’t wait to meet her.”

He does not need approval, he knows that fully. Still, it is a start, he supposes.    

                                                                                ***************************************

Orla is not stupid. She has always known that she could not hide in those quarters forever, but for the last two days they have provided her with shelter. This place is familiar, and safe, and warm, and truthfully, she does not want to go to the tavern, she does not want to see the Inquisitor, she does not want to meet anyone else. 

It reminds her of Cullen’s feelings for another woman. It reminds her that two days ago she truly believed he might have pushed her aside like. It reminds her of how everyone looked at her when she said that she could not read of write. It reminds her that she owns few shirts and two skirts and one pair of shoes. They will all take notice of that. It reminds her how nobody believed her, and how girls like her never marry men like him. It hits somewhere deep, and Orla is too ashamed to voice any of that. She does not know how. 

She puts on her nicest shirt, the blue one, and does her hair carefully, weaving the ribbon into her long braid as her hands are shaking. 

“You are so lovely”, Cullen looks at her with the eyes of a devout dog. There are many things he does not catch, but Orla is sure that others will. She almost brushes off his compliment, but then he adds: “The ribbon… You had a ribbon in your hair when I took you for our outing. When we kissed for the first time.”

It does earn him another kiss, even though all her insides are shuddering in worry. 

Everyone will look at her. From guards to scouts to all the soldiers at the tavern to all the barmaids, to Cabot, to the Inquisitor and her companions. Everyone will look at her and see her for who she is, and she is sure that many will mock Cullen. 

It almost feels like she can’t do it. Her heart is pounding hard, and part of Orla wants to run, but Cullen is holding her hand and walking steadily by her side. She can’t run, not if she truly is to be his wife. 

She stares down at her old shoes as they walk, not willing to face the people they pass. They all nod courtly to Cullen, addressing him as the Commander. How odd it is to be suddenly so visible. There is no going back from that. That door has shut. 

“Cullen”, her voice is so quiet she half-hopes he would not hear her. “I am nervous.”

“I know”, he squeezes her hand. “I am here, sweetheart.”

Well, that helps less than it should. Maybe even makes it worse. Orla hates to admit it, even to herself but there is that one place in her heart that still worries. Not about Cullen’s feelings, not about his intentions. She worries about disappointing him, about that one moment when he will look at her and find her lacking. The day when he will become irate that she cannot read, the day when he’ll stay silent, frustrated that she can’t understand him. The day his face will turn red because she will say something wrong, something stupid and silly. Such thoughts fill her with shame, because she should not to mock herself. She should not doubt him either, especially not after everything that happened, but it is not doubt. It’s something more fragile, and it’s barely there, but it persists and it bothers her, like a splinter. 

She tries to remember the first time she realized she was very poor. It had to be early, earlier than the memories she can recall, but the weight of that realization has changed throughout her life. At first, not having coin meant learning to get by on whatever food that was served. It meant always sharing a room and learning how to be quiet. It meant being very careful with everything they owned. Later, it changed. It became more. It became the reason why some children would not play with her. It became the reason why she would not go to school, and not learn to read and write. 

Children see, but they don’t understand everything that well. Then they grow up and learn their place in the world. The dreams change, for the most part, at least for people life her. When she was little, and brave, and quick, and witty, she wanted to be a hero of the story, a brave princess. Orla scraped her knees many times running the streets of Lothering. She got a lot of bruises fighting pretend bears with a stick. Then Aileen was born, and Niall and Cian left, then Faye came into this world and by the time she was ten, there were more changed diapers and wiped out noses than scraped knees for her. She still played, carrying Faye on her back and yelling at Ailleen every five second, but with mother and father working it was never that easy. There were friends, but the divide became clearer with each passing year. The children in nice dresses went to school, the children like her started helping at work or watched younger siblings.

She can’t remind herself the exact moment she felt no longer a child. The Blight, the loss of her father, Niall and Cian dying, trying to escape Lothering into the Bannorn, that first winter afterwards when she thought Faye would freeze. Hearing her mother cries each night and seeing her lose her temper. Leaving home. The first job, the second. The first time someone did not pay her and laughed in her face. The first time she was with a man. 

Her whole life, Orla has been learning about the world and how it views her. 

There were good things. There were many good things. There were people like her. The people among whom she would not stand out from the crowd and if she did, it was because she was pretty, or she danced well, or she baked or cooked the best. There was laughter and joy, and happiness, but always around someone like her, someone equal. 

Now everything is muddled. Orla is in love, and she is loved, and it makes her stomach flutter and her heart race, but it is not simple. It is no longer a recognizable ground underneath her feet. It is not the Summerday dance in a small town. Finn was like her. He talked the same way. His friends and her friends were the same. Their families had similar stories. She was never proud of being unschooled but it was not odd, either. Just something obvious, a part of life. Finn would always say that he was luckiest man because she was the loveliest and the sweetest girl around, and she used to roll her eyes as well, but she believed him in a different way that she believes Cullen now. 

The people she is to meet are the people that keep him company. The Inquisitor herself. Orla can’t deny the pang of silly jealousy setting around her stomach. The Tevinger mage, the loud Qunari chief, the Grey Warden himself, the most important Enchanter in the whole Orlais, the famous author and maybe even the Champion herself, even Sera… Orla has heard enough gossip about Sera to how there is nothing simple about that young elven girl. By the Maker, the Right and the Left Hand of the Divine. The Ambassador of the whole Inquisition. She has heard few of them talk but they have never even noticed her existence and now suddenly they would all see her and judge her, and look at Cullen and pity him, maybe, surely…

She can’t even read the sign outside of the tavern. 

Well, she gathers, she could use all her strength and her heart and her wits but at the moment, that seems barely enough.  

                                                                                   *****************************

It does not escape Cullen’s attention that Orla is walking half a step behind him. He recalls the memory of going out of Skyhold and how nervous she seemed before they even reached the stables, Right now, it is even worse. She is looking down and grasping his hand anxiously and he is not sure what to do to reassure her or comfort her.

There were rumors about him and Evelyn beforehand, still in Haven. Back then, she would come and watch him spar and they would chat by the fighting grounds. He had certainly developed fondness for her, and the tragedy of Haven and almost losing her only increased the feeling. It passed. For him, it passed several months ago and right now, there is not even a blister left. For most of them, it is a new information. For Orla… She truly thought he would have tossed her aside. It burns his stomach, the constant reminder of his failure.

He might be an oblivious fool at times, but not that oblivious. He has always noticed things. The time when Orla got so upset because he had not realized she couldn’t read. The blush on her cheeks and the tension in her shoulders whenever he said something hurtful. All those times when she told him she was no one. When she told him that he would get bored and stop coming to see her. How shy she was during their outing. How she told him what Dorian had said about Fereldans smelling like wet dogs and how embarrassed she seemed by that. Cullen knows that those were just stupid words but he also wonders how often the words like this took root around her heart. He remembers how she thought that he would want her gone before morning after they just made love for the first time and the acid travels through his veins. 

It is not about him. Orla would be so angry if she heard his thoughts. Cullen is just one man. Even with everything between them his words alone can’t make up for everything else has been hearing throughout her life. That does not mean he should not try. She deserves so much better than she has been given. Truthfully, she deserves better from him, too. She deserves to be certain, to be sure, even if it is still not easy. 

Orla”, he stops outside the tavern.

“Yes?”, she gives him that panicked, half-distracted glance.

“I am so happy and proud to be with you.”

Her eyes snap back at him quickly, and for a second he sees the vastness of her vulnerability revealed. Orla leans closely, just enough to brush her cheek against his.

“Are we going in…?”, she asks softly.

“Sure”, he says, protectively wrapping his arm around her back. 

Not everyone is here. He is not surprised to see Solas missing, the elf rarely frequents the tavern. Madame de Fer is absent, too, and regretfully, so is Leliana. She has been an unexpected ally, but Cullen knows she avoids gatherings like that, making the only exception for the tea parties at Josie’s. She does not like the soldiers to be too aware of her presence. It ruins the reputation, she says. 

Evelyn, Cole, Varric, Hawke, Bull, Dorian, Blackwall, Sera and Cassandra are sitting at the table already, loudly debating something. Cullen feels the tension all over Orla as he gently pushes towards the crowd. Even he can’t deny that everyone is staring at them.

“Look who is here!”, someone exclaims.

He is the one to make introductions. Orla, my betrothed, he says loudly, in front of everyone, his hand still on her body, not leaving her for a second. She smiles, says few words and immediately withdraws a little. Her posture is straight, trained and practiced. Yes and no, and please, and thank you, she says politely, not adding anything else. 

The embarrassment goes both ways. It is not difficult to pick up on it. With the exception of Leliana, who is not here and Bull, who seems as calm as ever, nobody knew until yesterday or today. They try not to, but they look at Orla with the sense of bewilderment. 

Cullen is not a man to shine at a party, but for Orla he tries his best, to ease her burden.

                                                                                      *********************************

It is awkward. The Inquisitor glances at Cullen from time to time and Orla loathes how petty she feels about that. 

He loves her. He loves her, and they all wonder why. What made him so foolish, they probably think. 

Orla is quiet, she knows that. She does not want to say anything stupid or anything wrong. Frankly, it is safer to not say anything at all, unless she is asked first. She smiles gently and she nods and she tries to not eat too fast and she only takes two sips of her ale even though she is thirsty. She tries not to stare and she tries not to constantly look down either.

Do they even want to meet her, or are they aiming to decide just how big of a mistake Cullen has made? The tightness around her throat does not let go, and even though she wishes to be able to say something there might not be any voice left in her body. It is so different than being in the kitchen with him. It is different than being in his— their quarters, too. She has grown so used to talking with him but they are not alone anymore. Her words are plain, her life is plain, and Orla feels small. Everyone else here is larger than life, loud and powerful. They know each other well. 

She looks around and notices Meave several tables away, staring at her. The Starkhaven girl turns her head the second she catches Orla’s gaze. It was only few days ago when they sat and laughed at the same table, but Orla broke the golden rule and she lied and now every conversation of that night is tainted forever. 

She belongs nowhere. Not here, not there either. 

They companions do not pose a lot of questions. Nobody asks about her job, they all know she can’t be a maid anymore. They don’t ask how she arrived at Skyhold, for obvious reasons. They don’t ask for a story about how her and Cullen met but for that she is grateful. Some memories should be theirs alone and she still has not found the right words to explain it all. 

Orla feels like an intruder. She does not fit in here. Each one of those people is very different, but somehow they belong. When she is sitting with them, it is her that does not fit in. Maybe she should try harder, maybe she should say something, but silence is comfortable. Her mind can be loud, but Orla knows how to remain quiet.

Cullen talks. He keeps his hand on her palm, and he talks. He talks too eagerly for his usual self, and he is trying hard to keep her calm and comfortable.

“Orla?”

“Yes, Your Worship?”, she replies quickly, knowing she got lost in her thoughts.

“Please”, the Inquisitor winces. “Call me Evelyn. We will be seeing a lot more of each other, after all.”

“Evelyn”, Orla repeats and it feels so strange at the tip of her tongue.

Evelyn. Cole. Varric. Hawke. Bull. Dorian. Blackwall. Sera. Cassandra. 

Everything changes, and Orla needs to be brave and survive. No, not survive. This cannot be merely that. She needs to simply adjust. 

                                                                                     *************************************

Cullen puts his fur mantle on Orla’s shoulders when they walk back to the castle at night. She was nervous at the Herald’s Rest, but once they walk through the gardens she relaxes. It is hard for her, he reminds himself. It is not that hard for him. Truthfully, he feels glad and relieved. He has wanted this for so long. To be able to walk around with the woman he loves. His future bride. There is freedom in that and it amazes him. Yes, there are demons whenever he falls asleep. Yes, there are wounds and scars and regrets and guilt of his past. There is shame, and there will always be shame. But freedom… It is perhaps undeserved, but he has worked hard on that.

He is free. The duty he carries is chosen by a grown man. He has agreed to the work they are doing right now. He left the Order. There is no trace of lyrium in his veins. There are things he looks forward besides the battle they are facing right now. He loves freely and is loved in return. He is free to marry his sweet girl. He is free to plan his life ahead. He might see his siblings. He wants to have a family one day. 

“Tonight was not that bad, was it?”, he nudges hopefully.

She raises her eyebrows and snorts. “I was really quiet.”

“A bit”, he squeezes her hand. “It was a lot at once.”

“Cullen?“ She asks suddenly. “I will need to change who I am, won’t I?”

This is the question, he thinks. The one that he needs to treat with utmost care and seriousness. With truth. Orla is thorny and she can sniff falsehoods better than a war hound. He measures his words carefully.

“No”, he looks at her and he watches her eyes narrow. “No. I won’t lie. There will be new demands placed on you because of our marriage. There are things I am forced to do that I do not enjoy. I am sure there will be many changes. But this, the Inquisition, the war? This is not forever. There is the end somewhere. I swear to you, you never need to change who you truly are. I also swear to you, I will bring you back to Ferelden one day, and that will be forever.”

Orla could mock him, and tell him he could die, or that no one could predict the future. He half-expects it to happen, but she just holds onto him and kisses him in the Skyhold garden, openly, unashamedly, in public. She kisses him so hard that it leaves him both breathless and wanting. 

“I love you”, she says afterwards, and it is not a whisper. 

Chapter Text

 

 

Dear Mia,

(…) I don’t know if all this comes to you as a surprise. There was little planning involved, but you know that I wrote to you about my intentions before. I doubt you’re shocked, and honestly, Mia, I have never been happier than I am with Orla. I wrote to you many times about her, so let me just say that she’s the best person I’ve ever met, and I get to be her husband. That is a marvel. 

It’s been almost eighteen years, Mia, since we last saw each other. I should have found the opportunity to visit a long time ago, but I am sure you can guess how dark things had been for a while. This is not a justification, it is just a reality. It had been my state of mind for a long time. 

I know this is short notice, but I hope you you will attend a wedding. Please, come. I have no right to demand your presence, but I want to see you. I need you to know that I have wanted to see you this whole time, I but I’ve been afraid for you to see me. I am no longer afraid. I can’t make up for silence throughout the years, but one of the biggest graces of the last months have been those letters. Matthew and the boys are of course invited as well, so is Branson and his family and Rosalie. I will cover the cost and sent the escort of the soldiers. 

There is another favor I need to ask of you. Deep in my heart I know you will come. You have been helping Orla communicate with her sisters, and I attach the note from her in her own words, as usual, but I know she is reticent, knowing you will read them out loud. It would mean the world to her if her sisters came. I know it might not be possible for Aileen, but Faye is working at your friend’s business. I dare to hope at least one person from Orla’s family can make it to our wedding. It hurts her deeply to know she had missed a chance to ever see her mother again, and I can see she’s afraid for it to happen with her sisters.

One day I hope for the war to be over, and I think we could even settle around South Reach. That is my dream, and my plan, even if it’s years ahead. 

Please send my regards to Matthew and the boys.

I hope to see you soon.

All my love,

Cullen

                                                                                             ******************

Orla stares at the coin purse sitting on the desk.

“I am sure you need some things, sweetheart,” Cullen said before leaving for the morning drill. “Clothes and whatever you want.”

There has never been a chance to buy whatever she wanted. Cullen is the Commander here, he must earn a lot of coin, but that doesn’t make it easier for Orla to pick up that pouch and go to the vendors. 

The coin spills on the freshly made bed and she gasps. All silvers. One, two, three, she counts, separating them by ten. Fifty silver. Fifty silver. He gave her fifty silver, and her throat gets dry. She has never seen that much coin at once. This would be enough for her to survive a year in the Hinterlands.  That is… She could get so many things for that sum; she could get everything. 

She carefully puts all the silvers back into the purse, placing it back on the desk. 

It is silly. They are betrothed, they will be married in less than a month. She does not work and as his wife she could not be a maid any longer, anyway. Something paralyzes her. The fear and embarrassment mix. All her life Orla has been cautious with coin. She had to be. All her life, there has never been enough or there has been, but barely. 

The memories of hunger return. There is nothing like that emptiness in the stomach, sucking the guts from within. So many times she had to do without food; whether as a child or during the war. Working at the kitchen has always helped; there has always been something to eat. Then, the dungeons, just the few days ago. That feeling of the hole inside again, painful and all consuming. 

Orla does not want to be hungry ever again. With Cullen, she won’t be, but the insecurity does not fully go away. Everything now is so easy and it unsettles her. They go out to eat in the tavern and she can get whatever she wants, not thinking whether she can afford it. He does not understand, he does not even notice. 

She takes three silvers and puts them in her pocket. Just in case. It is still more than she has seen in a very long time. 

                                                                                              *****************

His lucky coin - Orla’s coin- rests in the palm of his hand. It was the idea that came to him yesterday, and she smiled so sweetly when he said it out loud.

“Good morning, Commander,” Harritt welcomes him. “I heard about your betrothal. Congratulations, such a joyous occasion.”

“Yes. Thank you. Good morning, Harritt.”

“What can I do for you, Commander?”

“I have this… coin,” he gives it to the blacksmith. “I want it made into a necklace. I know you’re not a jeweler, but it is a simple coin, it has sentimental value—“

“No, no, I can do it,” the man nods. “Blacksmiths often dabble in simple jewelry making when there’s no one else. In Lothering where I come from I was the only one.”

“Lothering?” Cullen asks. “That is—That is where my betrothed is from.”

“Sometimes the world is small,” Harritt responds. “I can have it ready by the end of the day, Commander.”

“Thank you.”

Sometimes the world is small, Cullen thinks. He would have never met Orla if not by accident, and now he couldn’t imagine his life without her. So many times they both could have died, or their life could have turned out differently, but it haven’t, and now they are together. He is not a man to believe in destiny; in being an aimless pawn. Still, there is something he believes in, and meeting Orla has been a gift.

                                                                                      ***********************

The door to the Ambassador’s office is heavy, made of carved wood. Orla stands there for a few seconds before she gets the courage to enter. Cullen is busy preparing the troops to march on that fortress in Orlais. Adamant. The name is already etched into her mind. He is busy, and the time is flying, so Orla is here to talk about the wedding. 

“Come on in.”

“Good morning,” she says, shy.

“Hi, Orla,” the Ambassador smiles, getting up from behind the desk. “How are you?”

“Good,” she replies. “How are you?”

“Busy, busy, but I am so glad you are here. Mother Gisele is delighted to perform the ceremony. I would love to talk with you about the celebration itself. I have so many ideas and… shall we walk? I apologize but it will be the easiest to show you, so if you can follow me. I have tried talking with Cullen but the only response he gave me is that he does not have any wishes aside from pleasing you. You could have the party in the main hall, there is enough space there, or we could use one of the largest rooms….”

Orla does not want to get married in the main hall. She looks around the walls and the floor and the beautiful large tables and all she can think of how this was the place she could never enter, and how Mistress Martha oversees the kitchen, and how few Fereldans work there.

“There is enough space for dancing, and I am certain I could hire the musicians, we have contacts all over Thedas. I know it looks pretty bare now, but imagine it decorated with fresh flowers. I know you have invited both of your families and obviously there are quite the few people that will want to attend as well… What do you think?”

“I…,” Orla hesitates. “I am uncertain…”

The Ambassador glances at her carefully.

The truth is, she is certain, just unsure what her options are. Outside Skyhold, it would never look like that. They would marry at the local chantry, and then have a celebration at home, with the music in the garden and dancing outside. All villagers would bring something to eat, and the most experienced baker would make a split honey cake and braided bread. She knows because she has made it herself quite the few times for someone else’s wedding. Honestly, what does the nobility do for weddings? What is expected of her and Cullen here?

“Would you like if we call Mistress Martha from the kitchens to discuss the menu—?”

“No,” she rushes.

It was quick. Too quick, because the Ambassador frowns, though expression remains gentle. Her eyes are full of kindness, but Orla struggles to find the words to say.

“I worked under her,” she explains. “Lady Ambassador—“

“Please, call me Josephine. I am sorry, I thought after that evening in the tavern…”

“Right,” Orla corrects herself even though the name barely passes her lips. “Josephine.”

Josephine is waiting, that is obvious. How to explain without offending? 

“I am Fereldan commoner,” she says. “The kitchen in Skyhold serves little Fereldan food. I know because I was the one making it. Cullen… he is Fereldan, too.”

“I am sure our kitchen—“

“I don’t want Mistress Martha to make food,” Orla interrupts, red in the face and shocked by her own boldness. “I—She has never been nice to me, and she slapped me, thinking I was stealing. I don’t want—Please.”

Josephine blinks, embarrassed and uncomfortable. What happens now? Orla doesn’t know, but she can’t have Mistress Martha cook and bake for her wedding. The woman has been so awful to her. The hesitation spreads all over; after all, this is Skyhold. Can Orla want and demand things to happen? She has not even told Cullen, but Mistress Marta was the least of her problems back then. Right now Orla would like to avoid the cooks to spit into the food or to make the cake claggy, and she doesn’t trust that woman to wish her well.

“I apologize, truly,” the Ambassador’s tone soothes, and she extends her hand to touch Orla’s arm. “I suppose… there is always a tavern. It has ample space on two levels. They have their own kitchens and food, and they could hire more cooks for the event. Would—would you prefer that?”

“Yes,” she says, flooded by gratitude. 

The shame raises its head to remind her she is no one, that this is less appropriate than the main hall, but it is her wedding day and Orla has dreams, too. She wants it to be beautiful, and joyful, and above all, she wants to feel comfortable, not like someone unworthy. 

“Very well,” Josephine nods. “I can talk with Cabot and his cooks. I have read a bit about Fereldan wedding customs but… would you share what you expect?”

“I don’t know how the nobles do it,” Ola says. “But I suppose some of it must the same. When they bridal couple arrives from the Chantry, the family welcomes them with bread, salt and mead. It’s usually the parents, but me and Cullen… we don’t have parents anymore. The mead glasses get tossed and broken after drinking; it is for luck. I don’t know if Cabot would allow it. There is a lot of dancing, and drinking, and feasting but I suppose that is every wedding. What else? When the guests want the couple to kiss, they yell ‘bitter, bitter’, as in ‘bitter, bitter, this mead could be sweeter’, and kisses sweeten it. The bride and groom can’t leave the celebration until midnight, where the women remove her bridal wreath and toss it into the fire as her old way of living dies. The cake is served beforehand, and it’s a split honey cake. That’s what I know.”

“I can’t see why couldn’t we do it all,” the woman smiles. “Have you thought about what you’re going to wear?”

“Uhm,” Orla flushes, knowing she is yet to buy anything for herself. “No, I haven’t. I—I haven’t even… Not yet. The dress is usually white with embroidery, and the corset on top is more decorative. Red beaded necklace, that’s traditional, though—Well. The floral wreath. That’s a must.”

None of the clothing that Orla owns are embroidered, and she still has only one pair of shoes. It’s both easy and hard to want things, and it confuses her. She wants more, and the coin is right there in their quarters, and she has three silver in her pocket. 

“That’s lovely. I think Sister Hellanore does floral arrangements. I can also recommend a seamstress once you decide what you’re looking for.”

Orla has never used a seamstress either. She has never had clothes made especially for her.  

“Thank you,” she says, unsure what to add.

“Would you like to go back to the office? I could write everything you’ve said, and you could tell me what sort of food you’d like.”

“Josephine,” Orla dares, wincing inside. “You are so busy, and you… you must have better things to do.”

“Nonsense,” the Ambassador gestures, furrowing her eyebrows, and Orla thinks she rather likes her. “Cullen is a friend, and it is an utmost pleasure to help with planning a wedding. Especially now. I can delegate when I need to, but if I may be so honest, I rather enjoy it.”

Something warm and unexpected settles in Orla’s chest, because she believes Josephine. Even if this is for Cullen, it is for her, too. It is their wedding. 

“Shall we?” Josephine asks.

“Yes,” Orla allows herself to smile.

                                                                             ******************

“Sweetheart?” Cullen nudges when they settle in bed, Orla resting in his arms. 

He can feel the lucky coin necklace against his skin. 

“Yes?”

“I’ve noticed you didn’t buy anything for yourself.”

The silence follows, interrupted only the by the sound of Orla’s breathing.

“It’s not that I don’t want to,” she whispers. “I just… I’ve always been poor as a rat. I don’t know what to do. I’ve never even seen that much coin at once.”

It is a delicate subject, and Orla is prickly, and he really doesn’t want to make her uncomfortable. He doesn’t earn as much, when comparing to the wealth of nobility, but given the disparity between that and the poorer commoners… He has more than enough, and he helps out his family, and no doubt he can support his wife. 

“I—,” he says and then corrects himself. “We have enough, and I barely spend coin. Orla, I really want you to know that you won’t lack anything. Anything. I promise.”

“You know,” she mumbles. “When I was little, I’d sometimes catch rats to eat. It was meat, and it was rare, and we’d celebrate. I then learned it wasn’t normal, and I learned how some viewed us. We had only one room in the house, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone to bed hungry. I would go barefoot in the summer and spring. I learned to get by, and later, in Connellmoor things weren’t bad. I could get something pretty, but it was rare. I could never just get something I simply liked. You know that I ate food in the kitchen here, I barely ever bought anything for myself. I would not even go to the tavern. The only times I went was with Liam.”

“I know, sweetheart,” he really doesn’t know. His childhood was not that of a noble child, but he has lacked nothing that was essential. There was coin to spare, even between four children, and he had more than a fair share of sweets and toys a little boy. “Do you want me to go with you?”

“No, Cullen, don’t be a fool,” she scoffs. “I can do it, I just… what if I spend too much or—“

“Orla, just spend all of it. It’s fine. I actually… You know, I made sure that you can access all of my earnings at the treasury, but I gave you this coin so you could spend it all. If you need more, just tell me. Sometime soon I will take you to the treasury here in Skyhold and show you how to get more coin when I am not here. Everything I have is yours. This is just for you, to get some things you need. Clothes, something to do? You mentioned that you like knitting, and I know you’re a bit bored. I want you to have nice things, the things you want. We are not rich like the nobility, but there is coin, and you’re… you’re not poor, Orla.”

“I don’t know why I whine so much,” she grimaces. “It’s not like me. I am ashamed. I should just thank you—”

“You don’t whine,” he protests, pulling away to see her beautiful face. “It’s a change.”

“You try, huh?” She looks him in the eyes.

He does.

“Yes. I have messed up enough times before, and I will do so again, so I try very hard now. Orla, I know it all happened fast, and you went through so much—“

“We don’t talk about it anymore,” she reminds him.

“No, I am not mentioning that,” he grits at the memory of her jailed by his soldiers.

“All right,” she frowns, a bit tense and cautious. 

“I just meant to say,” he takes a second, “that between everybody knowing about us, and the betrothal, and the wedding planning, and me working and preparing for Adamant and you knowing I will leave… it is a lot.”

“It’s fine,” her voice shakes despite her words.

His stubborn, sweet girl. 

“I love you,” he moves his thumb across her cheek. “You’ll be my wife. I will always be there for you.”

“I love you, too, Cullen. It all…so odd, but not in a bad way. I am not stupid. I never wanted to be poor, I just was. I’m glad to have more. I am also ashamed because… everyone looks at me and they know who I am. Poor, and stupid, and a servant. I know you don’t think that, but people know you’re marrying a little nobody.”

Something cracks in his heart.

“Sweetheart,” he rasps. “You are not stupid, and you’ve never been. Being a servant and poor is not a shame. Orla, I love you precisely because of who you are. I don’t care what few Orlesian dignitaries gossip about in Skyhold halls. You are better than anyone I know, and it is you I love. I want you to have nice things not because I am ashamed, but because I want to make you happy. Please.”

“All right, Cullen,” she places a tiny kiss on his nose, and for now, the matter is settled.  

There will be plenty of need to talk later. There is so much to discuss, and there is so much he needs to show Orla before he leaves. Cullen works a lot now, and Adamant will be the most important battle of the Inquisition. Even when the world is ending, the life is not only about the war. They will marry, and he has duties and obligations towards his wife.

More than duties and obligations. There is a space in his heart that is only for Orla, and even when the entire world needs him, she does too, and he certainly needs her.

“Cullen?”

“Yes?”

“Can we read before we fall asleep?”

“Yes,” he smiles, getting up to grab a book and to light up a candle.

                                                                                       *********************

Orla has seen the merchandise offered by Skyhold vendors many times. Every purchase she made was careful, and everything seemed out of reach. Now, it isn’t, and the excitement shows in her step as she walks through Skyhold corridor.  

For the first time, there is no strict list. She still recounts the things she needs. Knitting needles, some yarn, one pair of shoes, undergarments,  few blouses, few skirts and maybe even a pair of pants. Skirts are always cheapest; they are easier to sew, while pants require alterations. She has always dreamt of having pants. There is a seamstress store there, she could just walk in.

The merchant who sold her the green overcoat is there, back with her usual fares. Orla touches the embroidered blows, with a flower pattern on the shoulders and near the cleavage.

“I have cute cheap blouses,” she vendor coaxes. “They even have little flowers, too.”

Orla’s cheeks burn within seconds, and she hesitates, unsure what to say.

“Marge,” another vendor coughs out, the same one she sold the mirror to. “Marge! The lady is the Commander’s betrothed. No need for cheap.”

The merchant eyes her, surprised, and then gives her a big smile. “Well, look at you. Maker’s blessings.”

“Thank you,” she manages. 

She ends up buying undergarments, three blouses and two skirts, and a soft green sweater with such pretty buttons. It feels wrong, except that it isn’t, but heart beats fast. 

Finally, Orla gets the knitting needles and a lot of yarn, happy that she will busy her hands to pass the time. She has waited so long to buy those needles. She already has more things than in ages, and she is not done. 

It’s not wrong, she reminds herself. Cullen won’t be mad. She will be his wife. That shyness surprises Orla. She has never had a problem to eat at the kitchen, to take things out of the pantry, but that is different. She would never just take something pretty, in vain.

Those people, she thinks of nobles, they treat it as normal. They could walk up and buy everything, and it doesn’t make them gasp in awe. Often, they don’t want what they sell here. It is beneath them, even though she can’t imagine soaps that smell more wonderful. She sniffs every single one, and the vendor doesn’t yell or tells her to rush it, or tries to shoo her away. The knot tightens, because it feels like somehow she’s changed, and she hasn’t. 

Even when she’s wearing her old clothes, they treat her differently because of Cullen. The word spreads fast, and every merchant knows who she is, and they refer to her as a ‘lady’, even though she’s not a lady. Not in the slightest. 

It makes her queasy, but there is no other place to shop, and Orla is smart enough to know things will change ever more when they marry. Even if rarely, there will be dinners, and people to meet, and she won’t be Orla of Lothering, but Orla Rutherford. 

The shoemaker shows her beautiful loathers, made from the softest leather, and tears well in her eyes and she puts them on. They are so comfortable, it feels like walking barefoot, but better. 

“Quite a difference, right? A lady should have a good pair of shoes. They are good for dancing. For the wedding, the etched leather?”, he points out.

The flowery etching amazes her, but this is the most expensive thing she has even bought, and perhaps something simpler would be better.

“A lady needs more than one pair,” the main frowns, and she wants to tell him off, but something stops her. “And those last long. A lady should come in the fall for boots.”

Cullen has several pairs of boots and loafers. Maybe she should get two pairs, one dressier, one simpler.  

Orla can’t stop her hands from shaking when she pays the sum, and she leaves wearing the simpler pair already. People would stare, but she wants to jump and twirl, and dance right now. It is silly. 

She visits the seamstress the last, and from the door she needs to tell the woman that she is not ordering the wedding attire yet, that she still needs to think, but maybe she could get more clothes. Daria, the seamstress, is an Orlesian woman, but something about her stature and her movement feels familiar and reassuring. She looks a bit like her mother, with the same gracefulness in her movement, as she takes Orla’s measurements. 

This is not the seamstress the real ladies use, but the fabrics she gives Orla seem so fancy to her.  

It won’t be ready right away, but Daria promises to send the clothes to their quarters as soon as possible, and she alters a pair soft breaches at the spot; the only pair that was long enough to fit Orla. 

At the end, when she bought everything she possibly could, Orla gets sweets, shoving the chocolate covered dried fruit into her mouth as soon as possible. Then something else catches her eye.

It is a small merchant table, selling knick-knacks and toys. She has never had any use for it, but she sees a little Mabari carved in wood. There is no need to get it, and yet, Orla buys it, because she can and she thinks it would make Cullen smile.

 

She wears the leather breeches and one of the new blouses to welcome him, and he notices right away, smiling.

“You look…,” he shakes his head, removing his breastplate. “Maker’s breath, Orla.”

It earns him a kiss, and she can feel his hand lowering to grab her arse. His cheeks flush as he coughs out, embarrassed.

For a man, he can be so shy, but she loves him for that. He can also be less shy, at times, and she loves it too. 

“I got you a gift,” she whispers.

“Really?”

“It’s silly,” she flusters, walking up to a night stand to pick it up. “It’s so silly, and I’ve never done anything like it. It’s—“

“It’s a Mabari,” he picks up a little figurine out of her hand. 

“Yes. I thought… It’s a Mabari, so I thought of you. You’re my Mabari, remember?”

If he finds it silly, he doesn’t say, but embraces her instead, holding her closely.

“I love it,” he says. “I love you. Did you have a nice day?”

“Yes,” she admits, whispering into his neck and smelling his perfume. “I… well, I did. I… I’ve never had so many new things. Uhm. Thank you.”

“No,” he murmurs. “Don’t thank me. It’s all yours.”

“I’ve never had pants before, ever. Or such comfortable shoes!” her cheeks burns, but it is Cullen, and she can tell him everything.

He just runs his hand through her back.

“I also got sweets, but I ate them all,” she confesses. “There’s nothing left.”

Cullen laughs, kissing her forehead.

“Main hall today?” he asks. 

The new clothes give her more confidence, and even though she prefers the tavern, today she feels she can enter the main hall without shame. 

“Yes. I am pretty hungry.”

They walk there, holding hands, and Orla feels happy.

                                                                                             **********************

“Cullen?” he hears a knock on the door to his office. The Inquisitor.

“Come on in!”

Evelyn enters, dressed in one of her more formal outfits. Right, he reminds himself. She spent the morning entertaining the Orlesian marquise who is one of the most generous supporters of the Inquisition. 

“Inquisitor,” he nods. “What can I do for you?”

“Marquise Etienne pledged more coin, and she is also friends with the Pelletiers. They agreed to not only gift us some siege equipment, but to transport it to the Western Approach right away. I thought I would deliver the good news before you sent out the reports for today.”

“That is a great help.”

“It is, indeed. At least we can sleep well knowing that we’re doing everything possible to prepare for Adamant.”

“We are,” he confirms. “It will be a challenge, but the enemy won’t surprise us. After the devastation of Haven… Whatever happens, we won’t get ambushed.”

The memory of Haven and the lives lost still aches, but it fuels his need to protect everyone. Everyone within those walls. Everyone outside those walls. Everyone. It is not a battle for glory they ready for, it is for the world to still stand. 

“It’s only several weeks,” Evelyn mentions, as if reading his mind. “And your wedding is approaching, too.”

He frowns. “Things are moving well. You needn’t worry, it won’t distract me from my duties.”

He has been working hard lately, mindful of showing his soldiers that he is a capable leader, that his private affairs do not distract him. It’s true. They do not. If anything, the peace and joy he feels make him efficient. Everything is better. Who knew he didn’t need to kill himself at work?

“Cullen,” Evelyn says, her voice rehearsed. “You don’t need to marry that woman.”

The white hot flash of anger hits him like a blunt blade. There’s no cut, but it’s dull and it hurts.

That woman,” he measures his words. “has a name. Her name is Orla, and she is my betrothed.”

“Cullen,” she repeats his name. “Just… listen to me for a minute. I just… I try to understand, but I worry about you, and I know that I’m not the only one.”

He grits his teeth, but he lets her speak. 

“It’s just… We’re leaving for Adamant. It’s happening so fast, Cullen. You got… involved with Orla, and she got hurt, and I worry that you’re so honorable you will commit yourself and regret it when in fact you don’t have to marry. You’re not obliged to. She’s a beautiful woman, anyone can see that, but—“

“Evelyn”, he hisses. “What is this?”

“I’m just trying to make sure you know what you’re doing. We both know you haven’t known her for that long.”

The embarrassment fills him, because he knows what she is referring to. The time when he confessed his infatuation and tried to kiss her on the barricades. That… it might have not been long ago, but it’s been months and everything has changed since then. Everything. Not only feelings changed, but he has, too. 

“I have known Orla long enough to marry her,” he cuts her off. 

Where is this coming from?

“I know you’re angry” her voice shakes. “But you need someone to care enough to ask those questions. For your sake, and for hers you need to ask yourself if you imagine her as your wife for the rest of your life? As a mother to your children?”

The blood in his veins pulses hot, and he takes a few deep breaths.

“I do not know,” he is careful, because if he isn’t, he will raise his voice, and this is the Inquisitor, after all, “what gives you any right to ask me any of that, but I will answer, if only to shut it down once and for all. I do not know what gives you the right to stand in my office and patronize me about my private life, as if I was not a grown man. Yes, I want to marry Orla, and to be with her, for the rest of my life.”

The blush creeps on Evelyn’s cheeks.

“You’re an educated man, Cullen,” she says. “Orla… she barely spoke a word to any of us. She is… there is a world of difference between you. There will be expectations—”

Enough!” he cuts her off. 

The anger bubbles, threatening to boil and burn. 

They stare at each other, and suddenly Cullen realizes how little he knows of Evelyn. He has been working with her for a while now, he has seen her make decisions for the Inquisition, he has seen everything that makes her the Herald of Andraste, but he knows nothing deeply personal, and she knows nothing deeply personal about him. 

“Evelyn,” he breaks the silence. “You speak like a highbrow now. And as someone who has spent too much of his life as a bigot, I feel within my right to tell you to stop being one. You do not have to like Orla, but she is a person, and you… our fight is for people like her, too. And you are wrong. You’re wrong in how you see her, and you’re wrong in how you see me as well. Frankly, it is my choice. If you disapprove so much, you do not need to attend the wedding.”

“Cullen,” she snaps, tears welling in her eyes. “Of course I will attend your wedding. I just… I needed—I wanted to say it. That’s it. I said my peace, and I will never bring this up again.”

“All right,” he replies, still tense. 

“I won’t bother you any further. See you tomorrow at the war table.”

“Certainly.”

“And Cullen?” she turns her head. “For what is worth, I am glad you are happy.”

Any words would feel bitter, but he bows down, out of respect. 

He can’t stop the trembling as he writes a letter to Rylen and signs up the final reports. It is not unexpected. Orla always calls him out about it, but truth be told, he is not as foolish as she thinks. He is fully aware how the quick betrothal and marriage might look, and in some way, he is prepared to defend it. He can deal with it all, however unpleasant it is.

The hardest part is recalling Orla’s face and seeing her sudden shyness and her fears. She has been so worried throughout this whole time, and he would love to prove her wrong. To tell her that the world doesn’t see her the way she claims it does.

Orla is the best. To see all the conversations between them, all the intimacy and tenderness reduced and mocked… That hurts the most. Cullen wishes it wouldn’t be that way, because she deserves so much better than that. So much has changed for her, for both of them, and it is difficult to adjust. Sometimes he catches that wonderful glimpse of excitement and joy on her face, and that becomes the best part of his day. 

He won’t tell her about that conversation with Evelyn. Not because he wants to hide, but because it would be cruel to. Orla has received enough cruelty as it is. Whenever they go out to eat in the main hall or he takes her to the tavern, he can see how aware she is of other people’s reactions, how much she wants to disappear, how much it bothers her. She is to be his wife, and he can shield her from some of it. 

Another knock on the door interrupts his thoughts, and this time it is Jim coming straight out of rookery with letters. Reports from different keeps, missives from the field, and then, the letter he was looking for. 

He opens it with a thudding heart, hoping to have good news to bring Orla.

 

Dear Cullen,

(…) Suffice to say, I’m not entirely shocked, but I was a little surprised with how soon you proved me right. Anyway, it is quick, and I understand. You are at war. We all are, I remind myself, despite South Reach being so peaceful. Matthew cannot leave the store for so long, but I am coming, just as you knew I would. Branson has his work and a little one on the way, and I am sure you both knew that Aileen could not come, either. She is with child, too. 

I am thrilled to say that I am bringing Rosalie with me, and Faye. Rosalie seems overly excited, and Cullen, I have to say, I have high expectations regarding the morale of your army. Rosie is a flirt, and she already asked if the soldiers escorting us will be young and handsome. 

Faye, Maker bless her, is offering to make a wedding attire for Orla provided you send the measurements right away. It is not very fancy, so I understand if Orla wants something more. I am sure you have access to fancier things, but I have to admit that my friend runs a very good dress shop and is an excellent seamstress, and Faye has true talent. Many of the items are already pre-made, so it would be a matter of alterations. I attach the note from Faye, she describes what she envisions and what she could make. Honestly, the girl is sweet and polite, and she will be a pleasure to accompany. 

You brought the smile to my face, little brother. You have no idea how long I have waited to hear from you, and how long I’ve hoped to hear something good, something happy. There are no words. Eighteen years. 

I can’t wait to see you. You have always been slow, so I can already tell you it is your job to tell me I haven’t aged and look exactly the same way as I did at sixteen. Remember. Rosalie tries to guess whether you’re handsome, or plain, like me and Branson. I might leave her somewhere along the way if she annoys me too much during the trip. 

We are all delighted to meet Orla. Cullen, you found love. That feels like such a weight lifted from my heart. 

I love you both dearly,

Mia

                                                                                          **************

When Cullen gets to their quarters at the end of the day, Orla’s hands almost ache from all the knitting she has been doing. It’s been a while since she had a chance to knit. There has always been work until now. The idleness bothers her, but not enough to explore the castle on her own just yet; not when so many people stare at her. 

He enters carrying the food from the tavern and he is smiling. The second he puts it all down and takes of his armor Orla throws her arms around him, breathing in the familiar scent.

“Hi, Cullen,” she whispers, the big smile crossing her face.

“Hi, sweetheart,” he mutters, tightening his grip. “I will tire of it. Do you mind if we stay in tonight? I am sure you’re bored—“

“I don’t mind,” she says quickly.

“We got a letter from South Reach,” he reaches out to his pocket. “Let me—“

“Is anyone coming?” she asks so fast, and the treacherous hope floods her stomach. 

Oh, how much she has tried not to let herself feel it. It has been a decade now. Whole ten years. She has never seen her mother after leaving home, and her heart has almost settled on not seeing anyone else.

“Mia is coming, and she’s bringing Rosalie and Faye with her,” Cullen grins.

The rush of emotion makes her knees weak. It’s like grief, but in reverse. Not… not joy. Orla doesn’t have the right word to name it, but she feels hot tears coming into her eyes and she covers her mouth with two hands to not whimper. She doesn’t even know how, but suddenly she’s on Cullen’s lap, sobbing quietly as caresses her back.

“Faye is coming,” she repeats, stunned.

Faye. Her sweet doe-eyed Faye who was just seven years old when Orla last saw her, and now, at seventeen, she is a young woman. Faye, her sister. 

“Yes, Orla,” his own voice chokes in his throat as Cullen nods.

“Oh, Cullen,” something bursts and she kisses him, and he laughs, and they both end up lying on the bed, squishing her knitting job, breathless. 

“I’m glad you’re happy,” he whispers, stroking her cheek.

“Happy? Cullen, I—“ she starts but then she taps his shoulder. “Cullen, you have not seen your sisters longer than me. How… how do you feel?”

“Happy,” he smiles. “A bit scared. Rosalie was merely a little one when I left. Three years old. And… I put them all through a lot. With my silence… there must have been rumors about Kirkwall. You know, we had some schooling and Mia has always managed, but if she had more money, and if she wasn’t busy with the children, she would have taken a boat to Kirkwall and drag me out of there herself. Yes, I am a bit scared. But mostly, I am just happy, and I’m so happy for everyone to meet you.”

He says the truth, and Orla knows it. Her heart still dances inside her, but she can’t help but wonder.

“Do you think they will like me? Your sisters? Especially… Mia?”

“They will love you,” he kisses her. “Mia already loves you. I wrote her a lot. It is me my older sister might not be happy with, and for over a decade of reasons. They will love you, and they come here to celebrate. Come on, let’s eat.”

Orla still trembles with emotion when Cullen unpacks the hefty bag filled with heavy containers of food. The roast melts in her mouth, and yet she almost doesn’t want to eat. She can’t help it, but she smiles from time to time, and he is the same way. The worry around his eyes is there, but the joy washes a lot of it away.

He reads her the letter at the end. Aileen expects again, and Orla feels the pit in her stomach, but she’s not surprised. She wouldn’t be able to come, anyway. Branson’s wife is pregnant too, and he can’t leave, and Mia’s husband needs to tend to the store. Mia won’t take Cullen’s nephews. She and Rosalie are coming, and they bring Faye.

Faye, the little kid. She asked in the letter, through Mia’s writing, if she could make Orla’s outfit as a gift. The girl is proud to be a seamstress, Mia added, and she is capable. Oh, Orla feels like dancing, and yes, that is exactly what she wants. A dress made by her sister. 

She puts Cullen to the task, and he measures her, cutting the string and writing information to send back. It is funny, and it makes her giddy, and at the end of it all she grabs his hand and leads him to their bed to make love. 

With Cullen, it is so sweet, and Orla hardly believes that she gets to have him and to have this for the rest of her life. Oh, it won’t be easy, yes, she realizes that. He is to leave for the Western Approach shortly after the wedding. She knows it’s far, but those distances are hard to imagine. For her, it all seems the edge of the world. He will leave, and he will fight, and her stomach twists in pain just thinking of it. There will be hard times, and she will be alone.

Then, a part of her will go with him, and a part of him will stay with her. Always. 

Chapter Text

It’s been raining the whole week. It is a light summer rain and Cullen isn’t too worried, but for the last few days he has hoped for Mia, Rosalie and Faye to not be delayed. They are not; the raven has arrived from the watchtowers already. There’s only a week until the wedding, and somehow he needs to fit eighteen years into those few days. How? How is it possible to find any new words? Despite everything, Mia has never pried as much, only when he left her an opening. Cullen tries to imagine how she has felt throughout all those years, knowing where he was, not knowing how to reach him. Sending letters into the void. In Kirkwall, his own heart was a void. It feels impossible to explain why he stayed so quiet for years. That shame has been in his blood alongside the lyrium, but lyrium can be purged. Shame stays. It can be tamed through responsibility, and action, and love. Still, it stays, and Cullen wouldn’t have it any other way. It is good to see what kind of man he has been, and what kind of man he strives to be. He just regrets holding it all in for as long as he has. There are things he won’t say to Mia, but there is longing for her to understand, and maybe even forgive. 

He opened up to Orla right away. Perhaps it was a spur of a moment; a desperate attempt to to show her he was safe to be around. She was the first person he told as much, and it didn’t kill him. There is no one like Orla, no one who knows him as well, and she loves him.

It doesn’t change his past; it doesn’t erase the evil deeds, the mistakes. Orla is not his redemption. She is his best girl, his love, his almost wife. That they are to spend their life together makes every part of his existence better, as simple as it is. 

Now that he has love, it is easier to want more. To want to reconnect with his family. To be in their lives.

It is almost time. 

“Commander,” Jim says before retreating. “Lady… uhm, Orla is approaching.”

Scout Jim never knows how to address Orla, given her commoner background and lack of titles.

Cullen turns around and sees her, walking towards them, not bothered by the drizzle. There is more confidence in her movements than two weeks ago. Her back is straight, and she doesn’t look down anymore. He wouldn’t risk saying she got sure of herself, but some fear and embarrassment dissipated, and that means something. She looks beautiful, with a determined look on her face. The long blue skirt flows to the ground, and her crisp white shirt trimmed with lace reflects the afternoon sun. The lucky coin lies between her clavicles, and Cullen smiles.

Cullen!” Orla says, voice marred with impatience. “It is almost time!”

Her eyes blaze, and there are rain droplets glistening on her face. 

“I was just about to leave,” he responds, trying to use his body to shield her from rain. “Sweetheart, it’s raining, you could have just waited—“

“Cullen,” she scoffs, tossing her thick braid behind her back. “It’s drizzling. We won’t melt. It’s not like we’re made of sugar. Come?” 

She grabs his hand, not waiting for his answer. He is still wearing his leather gloves, and most of his armor. He squeezes her palm to reassure her as they march towards the gate.

The excitement on Orla’s face helps him to forget his own nervousness. It is easier to focus on how she can’t keep her hand still, how she tiptoes from side to side. How her eyes shine with so much hope. Orla lost so much. Both parents, just like him, and two brothers, a beloved. She has been through war and suffering, and she had no sword or shield to protect herself, no power to stand behind, and yet, the life inside her bursts. She is stronger than him. Full of thorns, but she has never lost her heart to the void. 

Her lips are shaking, just enough for him to notice. 

There are others waiting with them. Josephine, who has been tireless in ensuring that everything would go smoothly. Cassandra, out of respect, nodding to him when he catches her glance. Dorian, because he is his friend, and because he is curious. Varric, who always is where things happen. Liam, who stands by Orla’s side, with a smile on his face. 

Cullen wonders if his hand trembles, too. He squeezes Orla’s once again, and she looks at him, just for a second, to give him a faint, absent-minded smile. It’s enough. It is more than enough.

The gates open, and the carriage arrives, escorted by the squadron of the Inquisition mounted soldiers.

Eighteen years. He has been away for more years than he lived back at home. 

                                                                                   ***********************

Orla’s heart is thudding as if to escape her chest. Cullen holds her hand in a firm grip, and it seems like the only thing that keeps her still and standing. The carriage stops inside of the gate, right before their eyes. Orla keeps her gaze fixed on the carriage door and everything around blurs. She sees two blonde women leaving. Those are Cullen’s sisters, and she should smile and say something, but she is waiting for another person. Her blood. Her baby sister. That awkward toothless seven-year-old with long arms and chicken legs, and blue eyes, just like their mother’s.

A young woman steps out, and she is not little anymore. Somehow, her face remains the same, and Orla rushes in to hug her, and Faye hugs her back. She smells pleasant, of starch used to clean and stiffen clothes, and of soap, not the cheapest kind. Orla clings to her smell; innocent, familiar and safe. She can only hope Faye’s life has been safe, too. 

“You are so tall!” Faye says, breathless. “I thought I’ve just remembered you as a giant because I was a kid, but you are really tall. Taller than mother. Taller than me and Aileen.”

“Father was very tall. You likely don’t remember,” Orla explains, pulling away and looking at her sister.

Her sister! She has the same freckles on her nose that Orla sees in the mirror each day, and she wonders how come she has never noticed it as a child. Faye’s chin trembles, her eyes are glassy, but she doesn’t cry, and neither does Orla. Not yet, anyway. 

It is too odd, and too soon, and yet Faye’s face already became her, as if they never parted. 

“Orla,” Faye smiles. “I—You look… different.”

“So do you,” she bursts out laughing. “You were just a kid! No teeth in the front.”

“You’re… prettier than I remember, too, you know.”

“Stop it,” Orla frowns, but something inside her dances. “How was your journey?”

It’s her sister. It’s been ten years. Ten years without Faye. Ten years without that face, those eyes, that smile, that voice. Ten years of sending short messages by a word of mouth. Ten years without talking to each other. 

“Good! Mistress Mia is very kind, and Rosalie… oh.”

“Cullen Rutherford,” Cullen introduces himself. “I am very pleased to meet you, Faye. Please call me Cullen.”

Uhm,” Faye blurts, looking at Orla, who understands too well how it feels.

“Call him Cullen,” she repeats. 

They will be family, after all. 

“Orla?”, someone says, and she turns to greet a blonde woman. “I am Mia. It is lovely to finally meet you.”

“I am sorry,” Orla flusters, before Mia places three kisses on her cheeks. “It is lovely to meet you, as well. Thank you so much for everything you’ve been doing for me and my sisters and for helping Faye to get here—“

“Sweetie,” Mia hugs her tight, and Orla feels safe and small in her strong embrace, despite being a head taller. “Always. We are family. This is Rosalie, the youngest of Rutherford siblings—“

“Hi,” a pretty girl with rosy cheeks shoots a bright smile. “Happy to be here.”

“I am happy to meet you, too.”

There is a bit of ruckus, everyone greeting everyone else. Orla doesn’t even notice that her hand is still on Faye’s shoulder, unwilling to let go, as if she was afraid that her sister would disappear. So many smiles, so many greetings. Josephine inserts herself at the perfect moment, and Orla thinks that after the last couple of weeks she understands why that woman is the Ambassador. It takes skill and gift to gather people, to lead everyone, to remind about the dinner arrangements, to make their families feel welcome. 

Maker’s breath,” Mia gasps as they walk towards the castle, and somehow she looks so much like Cullen when she does. “It is a proper fortress.”

 

By the time they reach the guests apartments where Mia, Rosalie and Faye are staying at, everyone else disappears, leaving her and Cullen alone with their families. It hits. So many years. There is an unspoken tension, like a dust that stirs up after years of being left alone, but it is not bad, either. There is a lot of emotion, too. 

“Please, let me know if you need anything, anything at all,” Cullen mumbles, rubbing his neck in a nervous gesture she recognizes right away. 

“We have a few things for you,” Orla interrupts him, taking paper boxes from the nightstand. 

“We do?” Cullen blinks, and Orla glares at him with a look that could kill. “Of course we do. Yes.”

They do, and she told him, at least twice, but he has been working so much that he barely listened. In all truth, there has been little opportunity in her life to purchase gifts, so it was Josephine that helped to order a few items or to find them around Skyhold. There are Orlesian chocolates, and Antivan coffee and spices, and fabrics from Jader for Faye, and baby clothing for two wee ones on the way, and whisky for Mia’s husband, and small wooden practice swords for the boys. 

“There is a package for Aileen, too,” she says, turning to Mia rather than Faye. “Some things for Theo and the baby.”

The woman understands immediately. Given Aileen’s marriage, it is tricky, but Orla knows Mia will find a way to give it to her. 

“You shouldn’t have,” Mia hugs her again. “I have to say, the boys will love the swords. If they annoy me too much, I might send them both to you.”

“I train recruits,” Cullen jokes. “I could do well.”

“Well, that is a confidence of a childless man, my little brother. We shall see what you’ll say once you have a child on your own.”

The warmth spreads over Orla’s heart at the mention, but it is brief and it passes. She looks at Faye, touching the silk from Jader, painted with little forget-me-nots. Her cheeks are red, and her eyes are glassy. She looks more like that little child from ten years ago. Exactly like the day when she cried because the other girl pushed her to the ground and told her she wouldn’t play with a dirty rat. 

Orla walks up, as she used to back then, and sits on the edge of the sofa, close enough to whisper, far enough to give space. She understands. She likes space, too. 

Hey,” she breathes. 

There are few tears flowing down Faye’s cheeks, one by one. 

“It’s the prettiest. You remembered that those were my favorite flowers?”

“Yes,” her own eyes get wet. “They are in bloom now.”

“They are on your bridal corset. I chose the one with a lot of forget-me-nots. I hope you’ll like it.”

“I know I will,” she wraps her arm around Faye. “I am so happy you made it. I was so proud to hear about your work, you know?”

“It’s so odd, isn’t it?” Faye snivels a little. “It’s been… so long. And mother is not here.”

“I know.”

“The war… I thought you were dead. You didn’t send a message for months. And then, I thought you were dead again, and then she died and—I’m just happy to see you.”

I love you,” Orla dares, and it is enough for the dam to break, as Faye’s hands wrap around her neck and she hears her cry, too.

“They’ll see me cry,” Faye complains quietly.

“It’s all right. Everybody cries. They are not looking. There’s no rush.”

There isn’t. Orla could stay like this for hours, breathing in Faye. 

                                                                             ************************

Cullen looks at Mia, so much shorter than him, and wonders how it is possible she still can give a glance that makes the room go silent. She looks good. Heavier than in her youth, and it suits her. Her brown eyes take in everything so quickly, and she is as vigorous as ever. Rosalie, on another hand, is… Well, she is an adult now. A beautiful young woman, the most collected out of all of them at the moment, likely because she simply has no memories of him. He might as well be a stranger, except that he is not. He is her brother. 

“Thank you,” Rosalie kisses him on the cheek for the gift he definitely hasn’t chosen himself. “I love it.”

“Of course,” he coughs out, both touched and uncertain.

He might seem like a stranger to her, but she looks just like their mother. Just as he sees himself in Mia’s features, he sees their mother in Rosalie. Especially those big, blue-eyes and soft cheeks. 

“We have a lot of things for you. Well, for Orla,” Mia eyes him up and down, so fast it is almost unnoticeable. “Let’s just give them a few minutes.”

He can hear the faint crying coming from the sofa, and he sees Orla’s shoulders shaking as she hugs her little sister. It makes him happy, because he knows how much she’s been looking forward to do this, and how open her heart is. 

It’s difficult for him. He exchanged so many letters with Mia in the last months. It was easier to write than it is to talk. In those letters, he told her so many things, about Orla, about his feelings. There were topics he never brought up, but Mia likely knows more she lets on. Why doesn’t he find the words to say right now? 

“I am so glad you came,” he tries, and he sees the smile on Mia’s face. 

A restrained one, but full of warmth, nonetheless. 

“I am very glad to be here. This place is… We’ve heard stories, but none that can compare to the reality. I presume you’re still working each day?”

“Yes,” he confirms. “I have decreased my load in the afternoons. I still run a drill in the morning and attend the war meetings, but I will be there with you, each afternoon. You’re welcome to come and see the training.”

Please,” Mia gazes at Rosalie looking out of the window at the valley. “Don’t give her any ideas.”

They laugh in unison, as they did in the past, watching their sister put her little chubby hands everywhere; trying to pet every single chicken, and to love every single kitten on the farm. 

“You look,” he remembers the instruction in her letter. “Exactly the same.”

“Funny you mention that,” Mia retorts. “You look older than I thought you would, but Maker help me if you didn’t turn out pretty. Still not pretty enough for your girl.”

“I have never claimed to be,” he replies, and with each passing second, his heart feels lighter. “Mia… We could talk alone this week, maybe?”

“I’d like that,” she touches his shoulder. “Whenever you have time.”

“Tomorrow, perhaps?” He asks, nervous. “There is a private room in the tavern, or I could order a luncheon to my office…”

It makes sense, the days right before the wedding will be busy, and part of him wants to just cross that line. 

“Tomorrow,” Mia says. 

When Orla turns and smiles to him, Cullen feels that this is more home than ever. 

                                                                                       ************************

Orla has eaten at the Skyhold dining room table before, but perhaps tonight is the only time when she feels like she belongs. Josephine has done so much to make her comfortable, but it takes seeing their families to think she’s in the right place.

Faye is shy and quiet, but not as shy as Orla thought she would be. Being a seamstress is a respectable job, and even though the girl is so young, she takes pride in her skill. The bridal gown is so beautiful. Mia never seems out of her element, and she chats at ease with everyone around, from the Inquisitor herself to Cassandra, the Iron Bull or Varric. She seems fierce. More confident than Cullen, although he always seems bolder in public than in private. Rosalie laughs loudly, sitting by Liam’s side. Just like Finn, Liam has that something that makes everyone like him. 

The evening is nice, and the weight of the conversation does not lie on either her or Cullen, which makes it easier. After all those weeks, Orla is  yet to adjust to everyone, although she knows them all. Josephine is the most familiar, as they’ve spent much time together lately, but she has talked with others, too. Even the Inquisitor, although their contact is limited to exchanging pleasantries. 

“Mia,” the Iron Bull flashes his smile across the table. “Any scandalous, embarrassing tales from Cullen’s childhood to mark this occasion?”

None,” Cullen replies, grinning. “None at all.”

“He was a very boring child,” Mia says. 

“Ah, so nothing changed then,” Varric comments, much to everyone’s amusement, and Cullen’s ears get a little red.

He is not that boring, though he likes simple things, and Orla loves that about him. He still glances at her from time to time, smiling. There’s been so much work lately, but she still finds solace in his arms at night. She would welcome things being less exciting and would gladly live a very boring life with him. 

“What about Orla?” Dorian asks.

“Well, there is a story,” Liam dares, winking at her, and raising his glass. “It is about our lovely couple.”

“Finally, someone brave! Do tell, young man.”

“There is no story,” Orla frowns, but it is Liam and she trusts him. 

“One time,” Liam starts. “Orla went out with me to the tavern, here in Skyhold. There were other soldiers from my squadron present, and we were laughing and joking.”

That story. It happened on that night. 

Cullen looks as if he wants to say something, but Orla places her hand on his, and he takes a deep breath, intertwining their fingers. He is here, and they are fine, and it is a good story, and Liam knows everything that followed, and he’s never been cruel or careless. 

“One of my mates recounted a tale where he presented all his bits to our lieutenant.”

“Classic!” Bull roars.

“Poor Belinda,” Cassandra takes a sip of her ale.

“Classic indeed,” Liam continues. “Anyway, the conversation turned into how desirable and handsome our Commander is.”

Maker’s breath,” Cullen’s blush deepens, and he rubs his forehead, looking down.

“I already like this story a lot,” Dorian grins, amused. 

“Our dear Orla coughed and flushed so intensely it did not pass unnoticed. Now, none of us knew the truth. Anyway, my mate laughed, saying that Orla surely must think so too. Orla claimed that a potato stuck in her throat.”

“It did,” she says.

It did not,” Liam beams. “Relentless, my mate asked a direct question to Orla. She asked her if she thought the Commander was handsome.”

Orla chuckles at the memory, despite it being the same night when all the bad things happened.

“Well, what did she say?” Rosalie presses.

“She said that he was… not bad-looking,” Liam finishes. “Even I thought that was rather harsh.”

Not bad-looking?” Cullen looks at her, his eyes twinkling, and Orla’s face burns. “That is a start, I suppose.”

Oh, he knows. He knows all the things she whispers to him in their bed. 

“You are very harsh!” Dorian feigns shock. “Granted, he is not as handsome as me, but he is a strapping young man in his own right.”

She laughs loudly, for the first time in their presence, wiping away her eyes. Liam looks at her, triumphant and glad. 

He has turned an ugly, hurtful memory into a warm and loving moment, and she smiles to him as he lifts his wine glass and nods. She will always love Finn, and he’ll stay in her heart forever, and Liam makes it easier to know that Finn would want her happy. Right now, Orla is so happy, with Cullen holding her right hand and her reaching out to hold Faye’s with her left one. 

It’s been so lonely for so long, and she thought she would never love like that again, but now, even amidst the war, there is so much hope around.

                                                                           *****************************

Cullen hardly believes that this is happening. That Mia and Rosalie are here, that Faye is with them as well. That they dine and drink with everyone else. That this is the most relaxed he’s seen Orla in the company of others; that she is smiling and laughing. That he gets to marry her so soon, that she loves him. 

It is a great night. Better than he expected, although to be fair, he can’t take much credit. There is no enough gratitude in the world to express thanks to Josephine for everything she has been doing. Everyone wishes them well tonight, and he sees it all. The people in this room are most important to him, and there are more of them than he anticipated. They care. 

Mia glances at them often. It’s been eighteen years, but he swears that whenever their eyes meet, it is like yesterday. She might look different. She’s married, has her family, but it is the same Mia that would always know what to say and beat him at chess. The same Mia who was a natural leader and the best eldest sibling one could dream of. She jumped at the opportunity to help him and to advise him through the letters. She went above and beyond to help Orla’s sisters. Now she’s here. 

He watches Rosalie, so youthful and joyful. He doesn’t know what he expected, but it soothes him to see her so carefree and happy. She was a child when their parents died, and Cullen is sure there are wounds, but she seems such a confident woman. She flirts with Liam, teasing and laughing. Mia has not raised a coy person, because Rosalie, just like her, is self-assured. When he was her age, he was so awkward and traumatized, but his younger sister is nothing like that.

Liam might not like him, he might even hate him, but the lad has been at Orla’s side this whole time, and Cullen has warmed up to him. Not every man in Liam’s situation would be equally supportive, but he loves Orla through and through. There is goodness about him. He fits right in. He found his place in the Inquisition, and he stands tall like a true soldier. Cullen already knows that Liam will be part of their lives forever.

It amazes him how much Faye looks like Orla. They make similar faces when they frown, and they both have those identical freckles. Faye is shy, and doesn’t talk to him, but she talks to Orla, who fawns over her like a mother hen. 

Orla is quiet tonight, but less so, as if seeing their families brought a new life into her. He wonders if he seems the same way, if the expression in her lovely eyes mirrors his. 

This they have in common. They both lost their parents, they both lost their homes, and now they both are building one together, and it daunts on him that their table would sit more than just the two of them. 

 

They settle in bed, and Orla gets so chatty it warms up his heart, even though he probably should try to sleep to rest for the morning drill. 

“Faye hugged me, Cullen,” she says. “And she looks… good. I know it doesn’t say much, but I hope things were a bit better for her, you know? She’s so good with the needle, too. I can’t believe that’s my little sister. She’s so grown, and so nice, and polite, and… I am just so happy.”

“I can see that,” he grins, placing soft kisses on her hand. “It really went well, and Faye is a great girl. I am seeing Mia tomorrow to talk.”

“You’re worried?” 

“No, sweetheart. More… ashamed, but it’s nothing new. I just know I put her through a lot of suffering. I want to talk about my parents, too. There’s been so many things, but… I wouldn’t say I am worried. I am happy she’s here. She’s even more Mia than I remember.”

“I think I see that. She has a big personality.”

“Oh, yes,” he laughs, nuzzling her neck. “You can say it. She has a commanding personality.”

“I don’t know how much you’ll tell her,” Orla whispers, and he doesn’t know it himself. “But I know she loves you.”

It is true. Throughout everything, regardless of his silence or how he acted, Mia has loved him unconditionally. There was a time when that scared him. When he thought himself so unworthy of anything warm and good that he would hide and block everything and everyone. Things have changed. He has changed, and now there are quite the few people who love him. 

                                                                                   *****************************

Faye sees her scar, the one from Haven, when Orla tries on her bridal attire. She has tried to hide it, but her sister is too quick and too observant; and now she gasps. 

“Haven,” Orla whispers, touching her with her hand. “It was bad, but I am fine. It’s just ugly. It doesn’t hurt or anything.”

Even though it’s ugly, she has stopped thinking about it. Cullen has seen her naked many times since their first night. He has touched her stomach, he has kissed it. 

Faye nods, straightening the gown and then putting on the red corset on top of the white dress, and lacing it in the front. 

“It fits you well,” she says, happy. 

“Let me see—“

“Wait!” Mia brings a beautiful red beaded necklace, a present from her and Rosalie, to put on her neck. “Let’s do it the proper way.”

Finally, Orla gets to see herself in the mirror, surrounded by three women that are her family, and she grins.

“Orla,” Rosalie says. “You are so beautiful. Faye, you have a gift. This is stunning.”

Faye blushes, looking at Orla with so much hope in her eyes.

“Do you like it?”

“I love it,” she says, smiling again. “Faye, it’s perfect. I don’t think I’ve ever looked so pretty.”

“You are gorgeous,” Mia adds.

“What is Cullen wearing?” Rosalie asks. 

“Who cares?” Faye chuckles, wiping her eyes. “No one will look at him.”

“Well,” Orla frowns. “I will look at him.”

“You’ll be, I assure you, the only one,” Mia says. “But I will promise to check when I see him today.”

“Thank you, all of you, for everything.”

“Please. We’re so happy to be here,” Mia rubs her arm. 

Funny, how such a short time can change everything. Cullen read Mia’s letters, but it never is like meeting someone in person. Orla has worried how it would go. Now that they are all here, she feels like she belongs. Not just a maid marrying the Commander, not a little nobody. She is still just Orla, and yet it never seems to bother his sisters. They are so nice, and they act like Cullen is lucky to have her. It’s rare, and it warms her soul. 

                                                                               ***************************

Mia arrives right on time to his office, escorted by Scout Jim, who gets instructed to not let anyone distract them as they eat luncheon. The meal, set out on Cullen’s desk, awaits already. The office is an odd place for a personal conversation, but it awards more privacy than a tavern. He watches Mia look around, eyeing the loft, the bookshelves, the drawers full of paperwork. 

“I used to live here,” he coughs out. “Up there, in a loft. I moved so I could… see Orla more easily, I suppose.”

“Another thing I should thank her for,” Mia says, sitting on the plush chair and pouring herself a cup of tea. “Would you like some?”

“Yes,” he flusters. “You should let me—”

“It’s all right, Cullen,” she chuckles. “I am used to doing this. I am glad you’re out of here. It’s harder to rest at your place of work.”

Indeed, he thinks. 

“How is Matthew and the boys? How’s the store doing? Do you need anything?”

She gives him that all-knowing look and sighs. “We’re doing well. Things were rough few years ago, but we patched it up. Thank you for helping. It really saved us a few times.”

At least he hasn’t failed there. Not entirely. 

“I should have done more,” he admits. “It was not enough to send coin and not give you anything to hold on to.”

The hurt appears on Mia’s face just to fade away. “It’s been a long time, Cullen, and I’ve always thought you had your reasons. Misguided and broken reasons, but yours nonetheless. Even the letters you sent were rather reticent, until recently.”

“You’re right. There have been a lot of things… that happened. I am not proud of the man I was after the Blight. Our Circle fell, and… It was hard. It’s not to make excuses. You survived Blight as well. Our parents died, and you escaped with two children dependent on you and you truly never faltered.”

Oh, Cullen,” Mia speaks softly. “You are a bit of a fool. I have faltered a lot and there are things I have not written about in my letters. I wanted you to know that we were all right, but now I think I should have been more open. It never got as bad though. We were very lucky to go as far as South Reach.”

Every single time, without fail, he thinks of Orla and the Hinterlands, and the devastation that once again followed into that part of Ferelden. 

“I haven’t kept all the letters—“

“Mom and dad always loved you and they talked about you a lot.”

“I—In some of my actions, I feel I have failed them.”

“Cullen, you are their son. I have two sons, so believe me when I tell you that even when you failed our parents and their memory, they would love you without fail.”

His eyes get teary, and he blinks. 

“They would be so happy and proud of you today,” Mia adds. “Truth be told, mom’s biggest regret was that you wouldn’t marry and have his own children. She would be… ecstatic to see you now.”

He doesn’t deserve it. That is what he wants to say out loud, but she is right, as always. He remembers the tenderness of their family home, and how he never questioned that they loved him.

“Thank you,” he says, solemn. “Mia, there are no words to show how grateful I am for you, and everything you’ve done, for me, for our parents, for our siblings throughout those years. Everything you keep doing, for Orla, for her sisters. I—I could never repay you.”

“You’re my stupid little brother, there’s no need for any of that,” she smiles, her eyes glistening. “Did you mean what you wrote in your letter? You consider living in South Reach one day?”

“I will stay with the Inquisition to see this through, but I am thinking about the future. With Orla and,” he takes a deep breath, “our children, if we’re blessed. You’re all there. I never thought I would fall in love with Ferelden again, but it is home. So, yes. I don’t know when, but I would like to settle close to South Reach. I have an idea of what I could do afterwards, and I have enough coin saved to buy some land, so…”

The tears appear in Mia’s eyes, and she wipes them away. Cullen knows he can’t stop his own, and they sit against each other, sipping a cup of tea and weeping. 

“I like that plan,” she says, taking a bite of her food. “I love Orla, too. I am so glad you didn’t mess it up. You look happy, and in love, and that’s so good. I have always hoped that you’d find some of that. I know you have wounds, even if I don’t know the details. Now you have someone you love, somehow who loves you, and I can tell from experience, it is easier. It is better. It would be harder for me without Matthew. You’ll like him, Cullen.”

“I know I will. I will try to visit before we make any plans. It’s hard to say when, but I really would like to see Branson, too.”

“He is going to be a father for a second time. He’s build like an oak, taller and bigger than you.”

No way.”

“I promise you, it’s all true. He has a proper farm, too. He’s… Branson. Loud and lively.”

“Maker’s breath.”

“You’ll love his place. It reminds me of Honnleath, and our farm. Remember the table?”

How could he not? The big, beautiful wooden table, the center of their home.

“I remember.”

“Branson built one exactly like that when he got married. We meet for dinners, each month. Rosalie comes, too, even though I think sometimes it bores her to death. We stay tight, but Cullen, there has always been a place for you. Now there’s a place for both of you. Anytime.”

Eighteen years. He nods, unable to say the words out loud, because he is about to tear up again. How to describe it, truly? He knew that Mia would say all the kind things, and yet to hear them mends something in his soul only she could touch upon.

“Can I embrace you?” he asks. 

Maker’s breath, how he defended himself from any affection as a boy dreaming about joining the Templars. 

Now he is a man, not a boy, and he cries with no reservation, holding onto his big sister. 

                                                                                   ****************************

Orla buys pasties and sweets from the vendors, and takes Faye to the secluded area of Skyhold inner courtyard, amidst the garden and the flowering fruit trees, to chat. There are so many questions she wants to ask, but how? It’s been ten years, and she hasn’t been there to witness Faye’s life, to learn of her struggles. She has been receiving news, but Orla knows how many things she has kept to herself, and that might be true for Faye, too.

“I’ve never thought it would get so nice up high in the mountains,” the girls says. “It’s warm and beautiful, and then there’s snow on the peaks. It’s so different from South Reach.”

“Do you like it there?”

“I do. Mistress Ada, the dressmaker I work for, is very nice. After… after mother died, and the house burned, she took me in and put me in a small spare room. I pay lodging, but they treat me like I belong. Mistress Ada is a friend to Mistress Mia. Thank you for the coin, Orla, truly. I lost things in the fire and I could buy a lot of new ones, and you’ve been sending so much. I mean, well… Thank you. I know you’ve always been sending whatever you could.”

All this time since the first letter, it has been Cullen adding more to the few coins she has been setting aside. 

“You’re my family,” she whispers. “And I’m so sorry about mother. You’re the youngest of us, Faye, it’s the hardest.”

“I still get sad. She wasn’t always very nice, but I know she cared. She wanted us to have more. To not be that poor. She got me a needle set to practice, and then she begged Mistress Ada to give me a chance. I still get sad sometimes that she’s not here.”

Orla gets sad, too, for their mother, and for everything else, for all the years in between. 

“Cullen seems nice,” Faye mumbles, stuffing her face with chocolate. “Is he… good to you?”

Orla’s heart clenches.

“Yes,” she says, smiling. “He’s very good to me. He treats me so well. Like a man should, you know?”

The dark shadow passes through her sister’s face.

“Aileen’s husband, Ralf… he doesn’t treat her right. He ran after her for months so she would court him, and… I don’t go there, at all. He scares me, and she looks so sad and tired.”

“I heard,” Orla breathes, frowning. “You’re right to not go there. Does Aileen come and see you?”

“Sometimes. We meet at Mistress Mia’s store or she comes by to see me and Mistress Ada allows us to sit in the garden. Mother told Aileen that life without a man is harder than with one, but I am not sure.”

“You should only ever be with someone who treats you right. I had someone, before Cullen, who died. Liam’s brother, Finn. He was sweet, and he treated me right, too. Don’t worry about me. It’s not like that, and Cullen has only ever been gentle and kind to me.”

“He’s just…” Faye lowers her voice, as if anyone could overhear them, “so old! So old.

Orla laughs, covering her face.

“Oh, Faye. He’s not that old. Only a few years older than me. He’s a man, not a boy. He makes me happy, and I love him. And, you know, don’t worry about it now, but I want you to know that there are good boys out there, and you shouldn’t settle for less than kind. Mother was wrong.”

“What if I don’t like boys at all?” she asks. 

“That’s all right, too. You can like whoever. You can like no one. But if you end up liking someone, they should be nice and sweet to you. All I’m saying.”

“Fine,” Faye smiles. “Can I eat more?”

“You can eat whatever you want. We can get more, too.”

“Will you come to South Reach sometime?”

“I will,” Orla vows. “Cullen promised that we would. With everything, and the Inquisition, it might not happen soon, but we will come. And… if you need anything, let Mia know right away. Whatever you need. And you could visit here, too.”

“So,” Faye blushes, taking a sip of water. “I know you won’t be a lady now, but what will you be? Cullen, he is a knight, right?”

“He’s not a knight, like a Templar would be. He was a Templar, but he isn’t one anymore. He is… a soldier, I suppose. The Commander here. And I will be… just Orla. Orla Rutherford. He’s not a noble. You know his family. They read and write, but they are like us, common folks.”

“He doesn’t seem a common folk when he wears that armor,” her baby sister giggles, and Orla follows. “And carries that sword.”

“I know,” she goes back to the first time he entered the kitchen, and how scared and confused she was, and how much has changed since then. “He is a like a highborn person at times. That’s the Templar part, I suppose. He has read more books than anyone I know. He commands others, but he knows simple things, too. We played apple toss. He likes common food, and you should see him eating bread with lard or dumplings. He was born not that far from Lothering. He’s easier to talk to than it seems. He’s very Fereldan. And he fell for a common girl, too.”

“You really love him, don’t you? Your eyes get all sweet and stupid when you talk about him.”

Orla wants to scoff, but how could she, when it’s all true? 

                                                                                                  ***********************

Cullen rests on her stomach as Orla massages his head, messing up his hair. It is wonderful, from her gentle caress, to the feel of the body, to the smell of her orange soap. It’s her, and that’s all the matters.

“I’m happy,” she muses. “It went well with Mia for you. I got to see Faye, and we actually talked, heart to heart. Like sisters.”

“That’s good,” he whispers, his eyes still closed.

He won’t ask what they talked about, but she knows he would listen to anything she has to say. Her fingers feel divine.

“Faye said,” Orla laughs, “that you are old.”

Old?” he lifts up his head to look at her face and those eyes blazing with mirth. “I am many things, but not old.

“You are an old man marrying a young woman,” she teases, patting his nose when he catches her hand and places a kiss on her wrist. “Not my words.”

“So,” he raises his body just enough to lean over Orla. “Not only am I barely ‘not bad-looking’ but also old, huh?”

He loves the way she looks at him, with love and desire, and he sighs when she trails down his stomach. She smiles, as he gets hard under her touch.

“Not that old. Quite handsome.”

“Not that old?” he places a kiss on her neck, moving closer to her lips. “Only quite handsome?”

“You could…” she murmurs, taking a deep breath, “convince me…”

“Is that so?” he asks, just before tasting her mouth, feeling it open to welcome his tongue, as his hand slides up her inner thigh.

“Cullen,” Orla gasps, clinging to him. “You are… “

“Yes?”

“The most handsome man,” she giggles, her eyes snapping back at him, “in his prime.”

“See?” he breathes. “You are sweeter than honey.”

She seems so happy, and Cullen feels like his heart is about to burst. He has loved her for a while, and he meant it when he asked her to marry him. Still, it surprises him how much peace and love it has brought. When she softly moans underneath him - with him - he only thinks about how he gets to cherish her forever.

                                                                          ******************************

Liam offers to take Rosalie and Faye to the tavern for luncheon before they all meet with Cullen. It lets Orla and Mia talk alone, for the first time. It should feel odd, maybe embarrassing, but it doesn’t. Mia feels safe. She carries that steady warmth around her. She doesn’t try to be kind, but she is; she doesn’t try to be sweet, but she is gentle. She’s a practical woman who has seen a lot.

“He’s a lovely young man,” Mia comments, watching Liam joke around with Faye and Rosalie, walking away. “Was his brother like that, too?”

“He was,” Orla smiles to her memory, now not even sad.

“Good. Have you given it some thought? Is Cullen going to spare you for the night before the wedding?”

“Oh, he’ll spare me, all right,” Orla laughs. “Sure, I’d love to. That is the proper way to do it.”

Mia grabs her underneath the arm as the head towards the barricades. 

“I never cared much for the proper way. I was practically living with Matthew when we went to the Chantry. But the night before the wedding, we’ll do it right for you, and the morning off, we’ll braid your hair and put the flowers and the ribbons in. Rosalie will pick up the wreath. I am happy you’re getting a proper Ferelden wedding, Orla. I don’t even know if Cullen has ever seen one.”

“I hope he’ll survive all the dancing. Did you have a wedding celebration?”

“Not really,” Mia shakes her head. “Branson and his wife, Anya, did. It was fun. It was after he got his farm, and we danced outside until the morning. Anya’s a good woman, you’ll like her, too.”

It makes Orla a little sorry to know that Cullen has all those people that love him, and that he still got so lonely because they were far away, in more way than one. 

“I hope to meet everyone,” she says.

“You will,” Mia nods, so sure of her words. “Our door is always open. Cullen said he was leaving… You could come and stay with us, at least for a while. Anytime you want. Think about it, and talk with him, and remember that we’re family. So I mean it, anytime.”

The knot of warmth explodes in Orla’s heart. They continue their walk until they reach Skyhold gardens.

“The chantry is that door right there,” Orla points out. “We can sit down here. The gardens are my favorite place in the whole Skyhold.”

“It had to be rough,” Mia says, and there is no judgement hidden behind her voice. “To live where you did and then to suddenly work here.”

“The war was rough,” her voice breaks, and she looks away. She knows Mia won’t press. “What happened to Haven was hard, too. It was rough to be… someone like me, in a place like this. I couldn’t work in the main kitchen. I know—I know how people look at me and Cullen.”

“It’s obvious how much he loves you. I think I understand though. This feels… it’s nothing like South Reach, so I understand. Cullen might not be a Templar, but he has known something like this his whole life. It is new for you. Let me tell you something, Orla, it would all scare me, too. This place.”

“You don’t seem like much scares you, Mia,”

The woman looks at her with sympathy. “I might not seem like it. It’s been years of practice taking care of the rest of them after my parents died. But I scare just as much as you.”

“It really means so much to me,” Orla whispers, “that you’re accepting of me and… of my sisters. Mia, I know you say not to thank you, but you took Faye under your wings, and I know you help Aileen. It’s thanks to you that I could hear about my mother and I could communicate with them. I don’t even—There are no words.”

“I wish I could tell you more about Maura,” Mia places her hand on hers. “She talked about you, as I wrote in that letter. I know she struggled. I am sorry you didn’t get to see her. I think she would be very happy for you.”

“Thank you.”

“I know it’s hard with Aileen. I know you know it. She’s… married to him. I show her she has support, and I help her on the side, but we both know how it often goes.”

“I know.”

“If there is ever a day she comes to me, you know I will take care of her.”

“I know,” Orla nods. “And I—we—“

“I know, sweetie. And Faye… She is a wonderful girl. Ada and her husband are close friends, and I watch over her like a hawk. She lost her mother, but she’s bright, she has a decent job, and she’s getting more and more skill. I have to say, Faye is a pleasure to be around. Between us, I worry about Rosalie more, as she can be a bit lazy.”

“I don’t know how you take care of so many people.”

“Ah,” Mia scoffs, “It’s not a large town, and I am nosy and I run a store, so I see everyone and everything. You know, during the Blight… I saw some bad people, but I also saw a lot of goodness in the community. It’s not like I can do that much, but if I can, then I do it. I wouldn’t have survived if I hadn’t met the right folk.”

Orla smiles. 

“Aren’t you the same, Orla? I asked Cullen how you met, and he didn’t share as much, but I know you cared for him and nurtured him way before anything happened between you two.”

“I don’t think I’m that nice, but if someone’s hurting, they should be helped. He was hurting. But then, I don’t think Cullen knows how quickly I fell for him,” she admits, cheeks burning.

“I am elated,” Mia grins. “I have been worried for so long about him, and you know what? I worry less now.”

“He leaves for war,” Orla grimaces, opening up. “I try not to think about it now. It’s a happy time, but—I already lost a man I loved once. I thought I would never let myself love again, and I am marrying Cullen in two days. He’s… I know he’s the Commander. I know he’s strong and fierce, and he is not… helpless. But he’s mine, and I will worry. I can’t even write, and even if I learn one day, it won’t be soon.”

“Sweetie,” Mia embraces her, pulling her close. “It will hurt, and I won’t ever tell you lies or promise you things only Maker could promise you. You make him happy, and you care for him and nurture him, and that makes a man stronger, not weaker. He’s yours, so you will worry. I will worry, too.”

Orla wraps her arms around Mia’s neck, clinging to her. To the warmth and kindness, to the understanding she finds, and they sit like that, long enough. 

“You are my sister now, Orla,” the woman says. “And you know that with my siblings I am like a dog with a bone.”

“I am fine with that,” she replies. “I am so… I know you’re a commoner. I know he is, too. But you’ve seen how my mother lived. You know I can’t read or write, and he could have—I thought you might have wanted something more for him. I know so many say that he could have done much better.”

“There is nothing else I have ever wished for my brother than to be healthy, and happy. When he left the Order, I hoped… I hoped he would heal. He’s a smart, capable man. He can do so much on his own. There is no better in love and marriage than to find someone to ease the day, to soothe the heart, to warm up the night. I see how you talk to him and how he talks to you, and there’s no better. There’s no one better than you for him, and there’s no one better than him for you. That’s what I think.”

Her chin trembles, and Orla knows she’s on the verge of crying. There is no hiding, not now. It falls on her how much she has needed those words. For someone to look at her and Cullen and see between them as they marry. Mia loves him, just as Orla loves Faye and Aileen. She knows how it feels. Mia loves him, and she looks at Orla, and she doesn’t find her lacking or wrong, or small. 

“Come here,” Mia breathes, and holds her again. 

                                                                                    **************************

Master Dennet blinks few times when Cullen asks him for horseshoes to pitch, but he obliges him nonetheless. It is perhaps a bit foolish, but Mia’s laughter when he arrives carrying buckets with apples and horseshoes and stakes makes it all worth it.

“All right, Cullen,” Liam warms up his hands and helps him carry things. “I don’t believe you’ve practiced much lately, so I hope you’re ready to lose.”

“I would always lose in childhood, so now I am determined not to. You’re on, Liam.”

“It was twenty years ago,” Mia chuckles. “And you weren’t that bad at horseshoes.”

“Thank you, Mia.”

“I love horseshoes,” Faye giggles. “But I am better at apple toss. We played it a lot as children, remember? We would sneak to the orchard and get a few of those apples.”

“Oh, I remember,” Orla says. 

They set it all up on one of the fighting arenas, far away from the usual crowd. The afternoon sun is wonderful, and it brings so many memories. Mia still jumps up after the toss, twirling like she did when she was twelve. Maker’s breath, it’s been ages. Liam is good, indeed, but Cullen fares pretty well. Orla rolls her eyes, watching him carefully position his body. He tosses the horseshoe on the stake, turning around to bow to everyone.

“Good job, Cullen!” Faye shouts.

It is the first time she addresses him by his first name, and it makes him feel happy. Everyone seems to get along just fine. Rosalie chats up Liam once again. Mia says something to Orla, whose laughter carries on. He’s been so lonely for so long, and now he is with his family. It feels right. It doesn’t change the past, but it is good, and it brings hope. It’s way more than he thought he would have.

He locks eyes with Orla, and she smiles, beautiful and full of joy.

“All right,” Mia takes an apple and points out to him. “I will destroy you.”

“Why is it me that everyone wants to destroy?”

“It’s the commander thing,” Rosalie teases. “You’re like… the rooster here. Especially with that furry… thingy.”

Liam laughs so hard that his eyes tear up, and so does Orla.

“Maker’s breath,” Cullen mumbles. 

“It’s actually the right color,” Mia adds. “Remember that rooster we had? That old one?”

“Tell me,” he challenges Liam, chuckling. “Is this all going to make its way back to the barracks?”

“Not from me,” the young man lifts his hands. “You cannot hold me responsible if others figure it out on their own.”

“It’s a bear fur. A dangerous bear that I killed my own hands!” He feigns anger, which makes everyone laugh more, and Orla takes a couple steps towards him to embrace him and to laugh straight into his mantle.

“Are you having fun, sweetheart?”

Oh yes,” she gives him a quick kiss. “So much fun.”

“Just to between me and you, I’d rather be called a dog.”

“Stop it,” she laughs again, holding onto him.

A rooster.

“Cullen, I can’t…”

“It could have been worse,” Liam taps him on the shoulder and lowers his voice. “She could have said a cock instead.”

“Andraste, preserve me,” he chortles. “I’d rather my betrothed not die of laughter before our wedding. Or after, for that matter.”

She can take it,” Liam winks, retreating, just for Orla to turn red and shriek again.

“Are you all right?” he takes her face in his hands, and looks at those freckles, those red cheeks, that smile, and those glimmering eyes.

“Yes,” she manages. “Are you?”

“I am. And, you, my sweet bride, watch me destroy Mia,” he kisses Orla on a forehead. “Is that a cocky thing to say?”

She giggles again. 

It is a great day. 
                                                                               ***********************

It is the first night since Cullen came back from Halamshiral that Orla spends outside of their bedroom, not in his arms. It is the night before their wedding, and she lets Faye comb her hair, sitting on the bed.

“Are you nervous?” her sister asks.

“Why would I be nervous?”

“I don’t know. You’re the one getting married, not me.”

“I am not nervous,” Orla laughs. “I feel excited.”

“It’s going to be so nice,” Rosalie smiles. “And romantic. I saw them clearing up the tavern today and Josephine let me sneak in to see how they decorate it. Orla, it is so beautiful.”

She barely cares about the tavern, but she knew that Josephine would make it so.

“It will be perfect, and I, free of my children, intend to dance my heart out,” Mia mentions. 

“I told Liam to save ten dances for me,” Rosalie says, blushing. “He said I’d get all the dances he’s not dancing with you, Orla.”

“You know we’re coming back to South Reach,” Mia reminds her. 

“I know,” the girl shrugs. “He’s sweet and funny, and I enjoy talking to him. It’s not like there’s harm in dancing. Don’t worry. I’ll dance with others, too. I’ll dance with Cullen, if he asks.”

“He better does,” Mia raises her finger. 

“He will,” Orla says. “He’s not the best, but he’s not the worst either. And believe, I am dancing the whole night, until the wreath burning. I will sit to eat the cake, and maybe to eat something else, but I haven’t been at the dance in years, and I am dancing at my own wedding. Rosalie, Liam is a great dancer, by the way.”

“Ha, I knew it!”

“There you go,” Faye pats her on the shoulder. 

“Thank you,” Orla looks at her sister’s face, freckled and familiar, with those big blue eyes. “I am lucky that you’re here. So lucky.”

She blushes at the compliment, pleased.

How could Orla even put it in words? She loves Cullen. She would marry him any day under the sun, but to have her sister here is something she truly hoped for. Aileen is still far away, but Faye is actually here, and that is so much more than a decade of waiting, not even knowing how she looks and how she is doing. And now, Orla is gaining two more sisters thanks Cullen. 

They talk and laugh for a long time.

When the night comes, and Faye nudges her nose into her shoulder like when they slept as children, Orla’s heart crumbles with emotion. 

Her life has already changed. She loves and is loved in return, and she has more than she has ever had before. It is a little scary and dizzying, but she looks ahead and she dares to dream with her eyes open. She dreams of living with Cullen in a house one day, surrounded by trees, filled with children. Cullen would read to them every night. Their families would visit, and they would visit them, too. They would have a dog or two. Now none of it seems impossible.

Even with the demons falling out of the sky, and him leaving to the Western Approach, it is not impossible. 

It’s terrifying, and it’s beautiful, and there is so much that Orla wants from this life. 

                                                                                 ******************************

Cullen doesn’t have plans for the evening before the wedding, except maybe to read and try to go to sleep early. It is the first night he spends without Orla since Halamshiral, and to be honest, even before that, he spent most nights with her. He doesn’t anticipate company, so the knock on his bedroom door is unexpected, and even more so is who’s knocking.

Liam,” he gasps, looking at the lad’s smiling face.

“It’s me indeed,” he shows him a bottle of mead. “I come bearing gifts. You didn’t think I would let you marry without a proper Fereldan toast the night before?”

“Come on in,” he invites him, aware that Liam has been here before to see Orla many times. “I didn’t think—“

“I know,” Liam finds the glasses easily, and opens a bottle, pouring him a drink. “We’ve done it once, a month ago.”

“I remember,” he sets up a chair for him, sitting on a bed. “You gave your blessing.”

“I did,” Liam flushes. “For Orla.”

“I meant everything I said then,” Cullen rushes. “About how I feel about her, and what I want for her. I truly love her.”

“I know,” the man nods. “That is why it is important for me to say a few words.”

The uncertainty floods him, although they have been friendly with each other lately.

“Cullen,” Liam says, looking him straight in the eye. “I will say it only once in my life, and I need you to listen. It is hard for me. Finn was the best person I knew. He was my brother, and I loved him. He was better than anyone, and he loved her with all his being. Orla is a sister to me. I love her, like my own blood. I love her, and I will stand by her, and I will protect her. If you ever fail her, I will protect her.”

He wants to say that he won’t, but something in Liam’s eyes stops him.

“If something happens to you, I will take care of her. That is my promise to her, and that is my promise to you. She is my sister, for better and for worse. She’s marrying you tomorrow, in some way - a very distant way, mind you - it will make you my… brother.”

Liam’s eyes blaze, and Cullen can only imagine how much those words cost him.

“Thank you, brother,” he raps.

“Now let’s raise the glass,” Liam instructs, turning away. “And let’s not bring it up again. Unless I marry your sister,” he adds with a mischievous smile.

Cullen chuckles, shaking his head. “You’d be dealing with Mia, not me.”

Very true.”

Another knock on the door follows, and this time it is Cassandra and Dorian. At this point, he is not even surprised.

“It is just us,” Dorian sighs dramatically. “In Tevinter, you would have the whole party the night before the wedding, but I got outvoted for the sake of Fereldan tradition.”

You’re welcome,” Cassandra smiles. “Hi, Liam.”

“Hi, Cassandra,” the lad says. “Dorian.”

“You three planned this?” Cullen frowns.

“Ah, yes,” Dorian admits. “You made it thoroughly clear to Josephine that there won’t be any gathering, but we couldn’t just do nothing. That would be unacceptable. Liam caught a wind of the conversation between me and Cassandra, your closest friends, and he said that a sit down and a toast is a common Fereldan custom.”

“For every occasion.”

“Indeed.”

“Forgive us the ambush,” Cassandra says, sitting on the floor. “But that was the only way to surprise you. We didn’t want to interrupt your family time, but we wanted to do something. You’re getting married tomorrow!”

He doesn’t mind. In fact, he feels rather touched. Liam does the honor and pours the mead.

“To Cullen,” he starts to show others how it’s done. “May he be blessed with years and years with his bride. May there always be food on their table. May their family grow. May they know more joy than sadness. May their days be filled with laughter, and their nights be filled with love. All that. Maker’s blessing!”

They drink, Cassandra all blushed and excited, and Dorian laughing. 

“I like it,” the mage says. “Sweet rustic south. My turn. To Cullen! May he always be strapping and handsome, to keep his lovely bride satisfied.”

Seeker groans while Liam chuckles in earnest. 

Andraste preserve me.”

“May Andraste preserve him,” Dorian continues, unfazed. “so he lives many days surrounded by family and friends. My there always be food to share with others. May he have many adorable children running around. Oh, Cullen. I really wish you and Orla all the happiness and joy.”

“Thank you,” he mutters, taking a sip. 

“To Cullen,” Cassandra states, solemn and serious. “May the Maker bless him and Orla. May they always look at each other so sweetly as they do now. May their life together is beautiful and filled with romance. May their marriage be a respite from anything this world tosses at them, and may they be each other’s shelter and solace. May they live long and happily ever after.”

“That was beautiful,” Liam says.

“It’s all those novels, am I right?” Dorian teases, and they drink again.

He has kept so much from both his friends. He knows the surprise and shock that followed his betrothal and everyone finding out about Orla, but now those two are here, wishing them a lifetime of happiness, and it means more than he could put in words. Between Liam and Dorian and Cassandra, his heart fills with gratitude. 

It’s been easy to feel on guard, defending his relationship and Orla. Even when others met her, it still at times remained tense and awkward. They marry tomorrow, and that gesture now matters.

 

Cullen goes to sleep at a reasonable time. The nightmares might visit him, but at this point, he is not afraid or unprepared. His bed still smells like Orla, and her new orange soap. It is not his bedroom, it is their quarters, and the signs of her are everywhere. Tomorrow, she will become his wife. Their bond will be forever. It brings him peace. He is free. He’s free from the Order, he’s free from lyrium. He carries his past, but he’s not shackled by it. The task ahead strains him, but it doesn’t imprison his mind. Tomorrow, he makes a vow, the freest vow he could ever made. He takes on the sweetest and most important duty. 

He gets to marry the best girl. 

Chapter Text

Today is her wedding day. Orla wakes up more nervous than she thought she would be, but there is no time for that. The second her feet hit the floor, Mia, Rosalie and Faye rush her and soon enough begins all the prodding, and touching, and brushing, and dressing. She barely believes this day has come. Everything has changed already; she is with Cullen; she lives with Cullen, but today he makes an unbreakable promise to her. Today, the change is sealed. There are no longer the words of promise just between the two them, there are the words they say in public.

He chooses her, Orla of Lothering, and whatever the rest of them might think, she knows he chooses not a kitchenmaid, not a lowly servant, not a common girl who can’t read or write, he chooses her, all the thing she has been and all the things she will be. A fool of a man as he can be, he knows her and that is one thing she is so certain of. He knows her and he loves her, and it doesn’t need to be easy, but it is more than enough.

Her hands are trembling when she walks towards the Chantry, accompanied not only by her sisters, because Mia and Rosalie become her sisters too, but also by Josephine. It is a long walk. Long enough for her heart to quicken and slow down as she takes deep breaths. Long enough to be frightened and amazed at everything that today brings. Long enough to know everyone will look at her. Long enough to marvel that they will be together for life, and to fear how short that could be. 

Cullen stands by the staircase, waiting for her so they would cross the door to the Chantry hand in hand. He looks more Fereldan that ever before in his white tunic embroidered with a red pattern. His mantle still hangs on his shoulders. He’s pacing, half listening to Dorian talking to him, not paying attention to Liam laughing, barely glancing at Cassandra by his side. He’s not alone, and neither is she, and that means something to Orla, too. 

For so long the only love they had was secret and theirs alone, and she thought it needed to be this way, but this is better. So much better.

He sees her and freezes with his mouth slightly open. There is so much emotion and hope in his eyes, and just enough fear that she has no doubt he truly understands the vows they are taking. 

Orla smiles so hard her cheeks tremble and hurt. Somehow seeing his handsome, stupid and most lovable face takes her nerves away. 

Maker’s breath,” he gasps, taking few steps towards her. “You’re the most beautiful woman in the world—“

“No, no, no, no!” the surrounding voices erupt. 

“Commander!” Josephine frowns. “There’s no kissing before the vows, you surely must remember!”

Cullen’s ears turn red. Orla wants to kiss him, too. 

“Well, well,” Dorian clacks his tongue, “Cullen, you insatiable—“

Dorian!” Cassandra warns, her lips curling upright, patting Cullen’s mantle in a supportive gesture. “Orla, you indeed look so lovely.” 

“Thank you,” she replies, straightening her back. 

Most of her life, she has been invisible to so many people, but today, she is anything but. 

She catches the sight of Liam wiping up his eyes and looking away. The traditional way he couldn’t participate in her preparations and he’s been there for Cullen, but he is her family. 

“Give us a moment?” she asks everyone and without waiting for an answer, she grabs Liam’s hand and walks down the staircase. 

“Orla,” he breathes, smiling to her, trying to hide the tears welling in his reddened eyes. “You are the perfect bride.”

Orla doesn’t want to cry. It doesn’t come to her easily, and she doesn’t want others to see her like that, but she can’t hide from Liam either. Out of everyone here, he has known her the longest. He has seen her at a different time, before the war. He has known her when her heart was full once before and he has never given her anything but support.

“I still love him,” she whispers, and it is not a lie; her love simply changed, too. “I always will.”

The memories of Finn are sweet, warm and good, and he has taught her how to love and how to be loved in return, and now, she is at peace. When she looks into Liam’s eyes, she doesn’t see Finn, her lost beloved; she sees Liam, her brother. 

“I know,” he says back, unable to stop the few tears coming down his cheeks. “I will always love him too.”

“I know,” she says, chin quivering.

“Don’t you dare cry,” Liam warns, shaking his head. “I can, but I am not the bride.”

Orla giggles and takes a deep breath, steadying herself. It is all good. 

“I love you,” she states. “Do you know that?”

He nods. 

“I love you, too,” he manages. “And for its worth, Cullen’s not that bad.”

“He really isn’t,” she laughs, squeezing Liam’s hand.

“He grew on me,” he admits. “I like him. Finn would like him, too. He would be so happy for you, I know it.”

She knows it, too. 

“Ready to get married?” Liam asks, smiling through tears. 

“Yes,” she answers, her heart bursting in joy. “I’m ready.”

                                                                       ********************************

Cullen barely listens to the words of Mother Gisele, and truth be told, he’s not sure if Orla is listening as well. It is a day of his wedding; they are in the Chantry, and somehow, perhaps for the first time, he can’t hear a word of the sermon. If they asked him to recite anything from the Chant of Light, he’d surely stumble. 

He has imagined this moment to be serious and solemn, and instead he’s drowning in Orla’s dark eyes, staring at her face like a love-stricken puppy. She’s so beautiful, smiling brightly to him, holding his hands and squeezing them a bit every few seconds. Her braid is more elaborate than usual, the red ribbon decorating her hair. On her head rests the traditional Fereldan floral wreath. The dress is gorgeous and the red corset, embroidered with little flowers all over, clenches her waist and reveals just the bare minimum of cleavage. The threads of beads in various shades of red cover her neck, but there is still his—her lucky coin resting between her clavicles, and it makes him grin. That’s his bride, his wife in a few moments, and everything about her is perfect.

His wife. They will be married. She is one and only in his heart, but now he will proclaim it for everyone to see. His wife until his dying breath. 

For so long, Cullen has never thought it possible, but now he looks at Orla’s face and he sees everything the future can bring. There is so much already that she has gifted him with. Without her, would he pursue Mia, would he reconnect with his family? Would he strive to find a life outside his duty and work? Would he be brave in the same way? 

It is not what Orla gives him, but she gives so much. All of herself, and all the good that follows. He cherishes that because love might not always be easy, but it should be home. In Orla, he finds home and when she scolds him, laughs with him, cries with him, rests in him, he knows she finds home, too.

The Chantry is full of people, but Cullen doesn’t care. All he sees is her, and the emotion showing on her face. His prickliest girl that somehow believes in him enough to be here, to hold his hands and to swear to be his. His sweetest, bravest girl who has lost so much and more than once, and who still loves with all her might. 

Her eyes get wet, and Cullen’s heart clenches, but Orla is still smiling, still looking at him. He can lean on her. He has been doing that for months, and with Orla, he doesn’t need to be stronger than he truly is. She takes him the way he is, and she can lean on him as well, without fear or shame, because he will stand by her every single day of his life. His thumbs draw circles on her wrists, and she chuckles a little, for his eyes only. 

There is war ahead and there are battles, but today Cullen Rutherford is getting married and he couldn’t feel more joy. 

Commander?” Mother Gisele hisses by his ear. “Your vows.”

Maker’s breath.

“I swear,” he begins, and to his surprise his voice doesn’t shake even a bit, carrying through the Chantry, “unto the Maker and the Holy Andraste to love this woman for the rest of my days. I will be true to her for as long as I live.”

Orla is on the verge of crying, and that surprises him here, in public, but it also stirs something deep inside his soul. It means that right now she opens the door of her heart, even though there is a crowd looking at them. 

“I swear,” her voice cracks and Cullen smiles as the lump forms in his throat, “unto the Maker and the Holy Andraste,” she fights the tears, and part of him wants to pull her close and hold her, “to love this man for the rest of my days. I will be true to him for as long as I live.”

His best, stubborn girl who does not shed a tear and who’s back to beaming at him.

“By the Maker and the Holy Andraste, I join you both in marriage,” Mother Gisele says. 

That is it, and Cullen simply thinks that he is the happiest man alive.

                                                                    **********************************

It is as if her heart could not contain all the love, as if it needs to explode. Usually, it is so easy to control that. Orla scoffs at herself, but then she looks into Cullen’s eyes and she melts again and again. 

She won’t cry, but she feels so much that her whole body trembles with emotion, and then she smiles once more.

“By the Maker and the Holy Andraste I join you both in marriage,” Reverend Mother announces.

Cullen seems so stupidly happy, so completely unrestrained in his joy that it almost takes her breath away. Before she has time to think anything else he kisses her, crashing into her lips, like that first kiss they shared, and now she truly forgets to breathe, closing her eyes and kissing him back before he pulls away and Orla gasps.

“Well,” Mother Gisele smirks. “Our Commander is truly a man of action, for I have not even given my blessing yet.”

He blushes, and usually he is the one confident in public, but it is their wedding day and feelings are large and loud, and Orla laughs with love when she looks at his face. 

“With that blessing,” Reverend Mother continues. “You can kiss. Again.

He leans slowly, way too slowly, and it amuses her. She grabs his shirt and pulls him closer into a sweet and tender kiss, the right kind. It is all so silly and lovely, but Orla is not ashamed. They are newlyweds now, and everyone expects that affection.

When they exchange the rings, Orla does not feel like she is about to cry anymore, thankfully. Instead, she simply feels the overwhelming sense of peace, because this is right, and because nothing and no one can take this away from them. Whatever happens, he is her husband, and she is is his wife. Not only their relationship changes; she changes as well. She’s no longer Orla of Lothering, but Orla Rutherford, and it is not only his name, it is hers, too. She gains a family, two additional sisters and a brother she has yet to meet, and their lives mingle forever. Not even death could change that. 

Her heart is full, so full that it might bursts, but somehow Orla thinks that it can grow and grow; that she finds a place for all that love and all those people, and for everything that awaits them in the future. 

                                                               *************************************

Cullen has yet to let go of Orla’s hand when they walk towards the tavern, with the procession of the guests following. The sun is shining above them, the trees and grass are green, the air smells of spring, and he doesn’t focus on anything, barely noticing the world around. All he can think is that he is holding his wife, and that Orla seems full of joy, unabashedly content. 

They come to the tavern door but can’t cross the threshold, not yet. The tradition demands for their family to welcome them. When the doors open, Mia and Liam stand in them, holding a large wooden tray with two small glasses of mead and bread and salt. 

“We welcome you with this bread and salt and honey mead, so your home lacks nothing from this day onward,” Mia states, and then Cullen rips the bread and passes a piece to Orla, taking the other half for himself. They dip it into salt and chew on it. The bread to symbolize the ordinary, and salt to give it flavor. 

How peculiar. He has never paid attention to those customs, having left home so early. The Templar Order was about faith purified, unspoiled but that has proved not only false at the end, but wrong from the start. He is a man who believes in the Maker, who seeks purpose in life, and now he finds it back home. How much of it is not just about moving forward, pursuing the tomorrow he craves, but also evoking the meanings he had forgotten at one point or another.

The mead is good, strong and sweet. They break the glasses on the cobblestone by the entrance. Someone moves in to pick up the shards, but Orla drags him inside. 

Maker’s breath. Cullen has been busy preparing for their march on Adamant, and he hasn’t participated in the wedding planning. Now he sees the tavern, decorated in garlands of red ribbons and spring flowers and herbs, and he smiles at the sight. He never thought he cared, he only wanted to marry Orla, but now he freely admits to himself that the place looks beautiful. The tables, heavy from food, got pushed to the side to leave a plentiful room to dance in the middle. Today, Maryden does not sing and play alone either. Even though he has begged for mercy, he knows Orla wants to dance with him a lot. He already feels how she can’t stand still, stepping in place, waiting to move.  

That is what they start with, after introductions, when all the guests fill the tavern and raise the first glass of mead. Their first dance as a married couple, but not their first dance together. It brings the memory of that one time when he asked her to dance with him in the kitchen and made her laugh. It was the same night when he also asked her out and she agreed. 

Now he dances with Orla before everyone, their foreheads touching. He has learned his lesson. He has learned many lessons, to be exact, but this one is amongst them: Orla’s body is close to his because it is their wedding, and they dance like peasants. They are commoners, after all. He feels her warmth and excitement, and the happiness that shines through. Though he will never be an outstanding dancer, Orla loves it, and he loves her, so he’s able to do a thing or two. He spins her and twirls her in his arms, and her thick braid is flying in the air. Her eyes glimmer, her cheeks flush, and Orla laughs. 

She laughs loudly, looking just at him in front of everyone gathered here, seemingly oblivious to the surrounding noises, even though he hears Dorian’s comments and Liam whistling at them. 

He laughs, too.

                                                                     ********************************

Orla has yet to stop dancing. Cullen has taken several breaks already, and she lets him, because she is a good wife, but this is her wedding and she won’t stop until she’s positively exhausted.

Everything looks so Fereldan, like a slice of home, like everything she has known her whole life. The ribbons, the flowers, the food in the tavern, and finally, even the melody. It stirs the deepest parts of her hearts.

“Let’s show them all how it’s done,” Liam grabs her and soon enough everyone is clapping around as they turn faster and faster, never pausing, not until the music ends first and they both need to steady themselves for a moment.

He’s a great dancer, just as his brother was, and Orla grins when he goes back to Rosalie, whose hair is already untangled from all the twirling. 

“Orla!” Faye calls out to her. “Do you remember that dance you taught me when we were children?”

She remembers. During the summer in Lothering there was a tavern that had music, and of course they could never go in, but the windows were open and sometimes they would stop by the town’s square and dance to it.

“Yes,” she laughs, still seeing that little awkward kid in a polite young woman her baby sister has become. “And now we’re doing it again!”

One, two, three, four. Just like old times, when Orla was still a child, when mother and father were alive, when Niall and Cian were alive, when life was as big as Lothering itself. Before all the hurt, but also before everything good that has happened since. 

She thinks of her father. Out of everyone, except maybe Niall, she looks most like him. He was a good man, taken away too soon. She wonders what he would feel if he could see her now, at the day of her wedding. The memories of Niall and Cian always blur since they left for the Order so early. If they didn’t die during the Blight, what would have happened? Would they be here or—? No, she knows it’s pointless. They died a long time ago. 

What would mother say? Would she come with Faye if she was alive? She would, probably, and this would overwhelm her, maybe even embarrass her. Faye has the boldness of the youth, but Orla knows how it feels to be ashamed. Her mother had lived long enough to find the world cruel. 

Mother would still rejoice. They could never find a way back to each other, and that always hurts. She lifts her hand to touch the pin in her hair, that one last gift. 

Faye missteps and loses balance, grasping onto Orla and laughing so brightly that tears appear on her face. 

“I love you, baby bird,” she says.

Faye rolls her eyes in response, but Orla knows better. It’s important to say it, and it’s important for her sister to hear it.

Whenever they have a chance. 

                                                              ******************************

The music is fast and loud, and everything happens so quickly. Cullen sits at the table, taking a bite of a roast with a horseradish sauce. Finally! Some rest. He can practice fighting, but dancing is still another matter all together. 

He watches the crowd celebrating to the loud and fast Fereldan music. Orla has yet to sit down. It’s an astonishing sight, because as much as he has learned her and about her, he has never seen her so unrestrained. Is this how she looked during those village dances? If he met her back then, he wouldn’t be able to take his eyes aways, too.

She’s smiling and laughing, showing some dance moves to Josephine. What seemed impossible months ago has turned into reality. It was just a month ago, when—The piece of meat gets stuck in his throat at the memory of Orla in the dungeons. 

No, he won’t think about it. It will never happen again. Orla is fine. More than that, she is happy and jumping and dancing, her long braid with a red ribbon flying around her face. Her cheeks blush and her eyes sparkle with glee. She’s safe, and happy, and she is his. 

Their eyes lock for a moment, and his lovely bride grins and waves for him to come over. Maker’s breath, can he just sit for a moment? He points at his plate and Orla furrows her eyebrows in response, placing her hands on her waist. Uh-oh. He can barely hold off his amusement when he sees her marching towards him.

“Sweetheart,” he begs, “Can I finish—?”

“Cullen, you’ve seen food before! We’re dancing now, come on!”

What can he do, really, when she’s so pretty and stern at the same time? His stubborn girl.

Bitter! Bitter!” Someone chants and the rest of the crowd picks up on it immediately. “Bitter! Bitter!

Ah, this thing, when they’re to kiss to sweeten the alcohol floating around. Well, he was just about to wash his mouth with a sip of mead, but before he has a chance to, Orla wraps arms around him and kisses him. It’s not just a peck, but a proper kiss, as if there were alone in their chambers. 

He knows he’s turning as red as the decorations hanging around them, but somehow none of it throws Orla off. She has seen more weddings than he has, he supposes, so she knows what’s expected of them. He kissed her in the Chantry eagerly, and he still remembers Mother Giselle comments, but now at the reception he is less comfortable, aware that those under his command watch him during moments he considers intimate. It’s not all bad though. Orla’s lips and tongue taste as sweet as always. 

She grabs his hand, squeezing it a few times before she drags him on the dance floor.

“I don’t know if I can keep up,” he says, but he tries dancing the way he knows how.

“Nice try, Cullen, but I’ve seen you spar.”

“Whatever you say,” he relents, pulling her close to feel the heat emitting from her body.

Today Orla demands a lot; he knows well enough that she can order him around like no one, but this is different. It is different because they are no longer alone in the kitchen, they are in public, among half of Skyhold inhabitants. Couple of months ago he led her to the stables to take her out and she wouldn’t even look around, shy and fearful. A month later he brought her to the tavern to meet the Inner Circle, and she barely said a word. Seeing her so confident and full of life means more than he could ever put into words. 

He has brought her pain with his carelessness and his foolishness and his neediness, but he has given her something good, too. She is a better person than he is, he has always believed that, but when he watches her flushed, radiant face, he knows deep within that they are right for each other. 

                                                                     *********************************

If there’s anything a servant knows, it is how to eat efficiently. Cullen wants to sit down for hours on end, as if there was time for that during a wedding! Her way is to sneak a few bites between the songs, standing by the table. She chews on bread with a lard spread, biting off a low-salt pickle at the same time and looking around.

Cullen dances with Mia, holding her close and not paying attention to his steps, but they talk and laugh, and it makes Orla’s heart all warmer. This wedding is not just for them and about them. She thought so at first; but the meaning of family has expanded. She married Cullen, but she got more people to love and care about. More people who care about her and about them. 

“What is it and why is it so delicious?” Dorian catches her attention as he puts a generous amount of spread on a piece of dark bread. 

“It’s rendered lard,” she explains. “With apples, and herbs, and some cracklings.”

“Of course it is,” the mage sighs, amused. “I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that.”

“Cullen says you like Fereldan ale.”

“This insufferable man,” Dorian smirks. “I suppose there’s no hiding, is there? The groom surely owes me a dance, but would you do me an honor first? After we’re done with our sustenance, of course.”

“I’d like that,” she smiles. “Try it with a pickle, too.”

“Why not go all the way?” 

If anyone told Orla several months that her husband’s closest friend would be a mage from the Imperium, she’d shake her head and laugh at them. Now it no longer seems bizarre, and it no longer seems odd when they talk with each other, too. It’s new, but not strange. 

                                                                     ***********************************

It takes four people to carry the split cake, still set on a wooden rod, into the main room at the tavern. Everything quiets down and Cullen thinks that perhaps they should have given him his sword to cut that thing, not a bloody kitchen knife. 

He carves out a piece from the center, handing it to Orla, and then another one for himself. They eat it off each other’s fingers, and the taste hits his senses. This is not an everyday dessert, but now he recalls it, and with that, a childhood memory from before Rosalie was even born. It had to be a wedding too, and he remembers sitting down with Mia and Branson and their mother, all eating the same exact cake with their bare hands.

It almost chokes him how vivid and unexpected that is, but then the image dissipates, leaving only a tender warmth inside his chest. 

Mia told him how his mother regretted that he would never have a family of his own, but now he does. His parents would have loved Orla just as easily as Mia and Rosalie do. 

For so long he felt broken inside, never enough to consider his life aside from his duty at work. For so long he felt that he didn’t deserve to be loved, but now he knows that brokenness does not have to go away, and that love can penetrate the cracks, and bind them whole again. It doesn’t change his past, and his mistakes, and his years of silence and isolation, but it matters nonetheless. It changes everything else. It makes it easier to look at himself; it builds a bridge to the home of his childhood; it lets him find the goodness he thought was lost. 

Love is good. In a way, it’s such a day-to-day thing, full of simple conversations and concerns, and meals together and plans for the future. It’s quieter than he has once believed, and yet fierce. He has committed himself to Orla for the rest of his days, to share everything ordinary and extraordinary, to bear witness to her life, to stand by her side, to love

They sit down. Orla settles in his lap at last, and he marvels how long it has taken for her to take a proper break. She buries her her nose into his neck, or tries to, at least, because the floral wreath gets into the way. He smiles, inhaling her scent. 

“Getting tired?” he whispers.

“Not as tired,” she breathes into his ear. “But I’m ready to celebrate only with you.”

“Believe me, sweet—“

Orla!” Faye interrupts them. “It’s time. Everyone’s waiting! Come on, hurry.”

His bride giggles in response, kissing his lips before she gets up again.

“Hold that thought,” she smiles to him.

Oh, he will

                                                           ***********************************

The second Orla goes through the door, all the women inside squeal in excitement, making quite the noise. There’s Mia, Rosalie, Josephine, Cassandra and of course Faye; the closest of family and friends of her and Cullen. 

“I brought the bride!” Faye announces with pride as Orla sits down on a step stool in the middle of the room, by the fire. 

“You did very well,” Mia says. “We can’t risk the bride and the groom to leave without a proper blessing.”

“Now, we cannot!” Josephine agrees out loud, clearly delighted to participate in yet another custom.

She’s not Fereldan, but Orla has to admit that the Ambassador understands so much about tradition so quickly. She planned the most Fereldan wedding possible, all for her and Cullen, always making sure that everything Orla has ever wished was a part of that day. 

Cassandra seems excited, too, even though she’s always the quieter, more serious one. She stood by Cullen throughout all of this, side by side, and Orla knows how much she means to him. She’s much nicer than she appears, too.

“Get on with it, then,” Orla taps her knee with her hand.

“Someone is surely impatient to get out of here,” Mia teases and everyone laughs while Faye covers her face. “I suppose that’s one blessing we don’t need to worry about.”

It’s always like that, Orla thinks, feeling her cheeks getting hotter. All the wreath burning ceremonies she has attended in her life has had a fair share of jokes and teasing among women.

“It never hurts to make sure,” she says, making other women roar even louder. Cassandra is red as a beet, fanning her face and wiping out the tears of her eyes. 

“Everybody ready?” Rosalie smiles. 

All of them stand around her, each placing a hand on her wreath as Orla closes her eyes. 

“You’re a wife already,” Mia begins, “but before you cross the threshold of your home, take those blessings with you. We give them freely and from the bottom of our hearts, because we love you.”

She won’t cry, she thinks, grasping onto her skirt and squeezing it with all her might. 

“May you grow old together,” Mia’s words touch upon that deepest fear, “and may your love only grown throughout the years.”

“May you be blessed with children,” Rosalie adds, and Orla hopes for that, too.

“May your family stand by you always,” Faye’s voice shakes.

Orla feels her chin quiver.

“May you always have whatever you need, the fire in your hearth, the food on your table, the walls and roof to shield you. Everything you need, and more, so you can share your blessings with others,” Josephine whispers. 

Wait!” Cassandra groans. “Does that leave me—“

“Yes!” Mia rushes.

“Well, ugh” the Seeker half-laughs, half-snorts. “May you always find pleasure and joy in your husband.”

Orla giggles, but at least she doesn’t feel like crying anymore.

They remove her wreath carefully and toss it into the fire. It burns as a symbol, and Orla finds Faye’s hand to hold as she watches it while Mia places hers on her shoulder. 

Her old life is gone forever, and her new one begins. 

                                                       *************************************

Cullen sways with Evelyn to the now slower rhythm of the music. Thank the Maker. Perhaps he should order his soldiers to learn how to dance, because after hours of celebrating his legs weigh more even though he’s dressed much lighter than usual. Orla is at the wreath burning ceremony and Dorian nudged him to perform the last minute courtesies and cordialities before they leave.

He can’t wait.

“It’s a beautiful wedding, Cullen,” Evelyn whispers.

“Thank you. I wish I could take any credit, but Josephine and my wife deserve all the praises.”

“I hope,” the Inquisitor hesitates. “I hope you will be happy with her.”

There’s nothing wrong in those well-wishes, but something about Evelyn’s tone bothers him.

“I am,” he says anyway. 

They dance in silence, and Cullen looks around of the tavern. The world is at the brink of collapse, and yet there’s so much precious to protect. Each day he learns that over and over again. Each day he sees it.

Few ladies accompany Orla during her wreath burning ceremony, but the dance floor is still full. Sera challenges the arcanist to the drinking match. Hopefully, he will leave the Herald’s Rest before it becomes apparent who won the contest. Dorian and Bull dance together, holding each other, and so do Hawke and Varric. The redhead medic sits on Barris lap in the corner, and they seem entirely lost in conversation. 

Cullen catches the sight of Mia walking back into the main room, so he bows to Evelyn, thanking her for a dance. 

“There it is,” Mia studies him as he takes few steps towards her. “I know that face. It’s a face of a groom who can’t wait to get away.”

No,” he lies.

Yes, he thinks. Maker breath, yes

Liar,” Mia pats him on the shoulder. “You are as bad at this as always. Fear not, I’m here to relieve you. Orla is waiting by the back door.”

“Are you serious?”

“Oh, Cullen,” she giggles. “Sneaking out is a time-honored Fereldan tradition.”

He hides his grin, kissing Mia on the cheek, and moves past her. The music speeds up as he reaches the corridor, and there she is, his loveliest, most perfect bride, now without the wreath adorning her head.

“Ready?” she asks.

He’s never been more ready.

“Yes.”

She takes his hand and lets him open the door. Just like that, the fresh air of a beautiful spring night covers them. 

“What is that?” he asks about the paper box underneath her arm.

“The wedding cake that I barely managed to get a taste of,” she glances at him, giddy and joyful. “and some other desserts.”

“I thought you are my dessert,” he teases.

“Oh, Cullen,” she scoffs, clutching his hand. “Who told you that? I am your daily bread.”

Their laughter permeates the night. 

 

They reach their quarters quickly, both keen to be alone. He lights up the candle. The flicker of a flame fills the bedroom with a soft glow. The bedding is nice and fresh; he made sure to take care of that. Orla sets the box of desserts on the window sill by the desk. Her braid shines in the candlelight. He takes a few steps, wrapping his hands across the waist and kissing her neck. 

She turns around and giggles, so full of life. Her beauty leaves him breathless. That’s his wife. His lovely, perfect wife. He kisses her, running hands across her back. Maker’s breath, he’s been waiting hours to do that, without any chanting and drinking and other wedding games. She danced so gracefully, and she smiled and laughed so much today. He’s so happy, so entirely happy. Her lips taste like sweets, soft and sugary, and her tongue invites him in. Cullen grips onto her waist, kissing her senseless.

                                                                *******************************

Cullen is very, very horny, that Orla is sure of. He kisses her like he’s starved, and even though his touch is gentle and tender, she feels the rush, the warmth and how hard he already is, pressing against her. Oh, she loved all the dancing and fun, but now they are finally alone. He looks so handsome in that Fereldan tunic, with the mantle still on his shoulders. He nibbles her ear, and she gasps.

“Orla,” he rasps with enough want to make her dizzy, still holding her waist and moving his other hand up her thigh. “You look so beautiful.”

“You said that already,” she laughs, all sweet inside. 

Mhm,” his fingers tease her neck and cleavage, right up until the embroidered bodice, tied up tightly. “I believe I get to say it for the rest of my life, sweetheart.”

She sighs, clenching onto Cullen, catching a whiff of his sweat combined with perfume. Orla has always loved that smell, masculine and familiar, and wholly Fereldan. It’s home, he’s home, and he is hers and hers only. The soft fur of the mantle tickles her cheek as Cullen dips his finger into her spine, running them down, until he grabs her arse.

“Eager, huh?” she asks, kissing along his jawline.

Yes,” he breathes, radiating heat. “Sorry, I—You deserve a proper wedding night.”

“Cullen,” she whispers into his mouth, placing her hand onto the bulge of his breeches. “We both know you can go at it twice.”

He moans, claiming her lips as his fingers unlace the top of the bodice and the dress underneath, just enough to free her breasts and nothing more. He runs his tongue across her nipples and she arches back, gasping, her body burning.

“My sweet wife,” he murmurs.

Cullen,” she pleads, wiggling her hands underneath his tunic. “Hurry.

                                                              ********************************

Cullen loves the touch of her fingers on him, but by the Maker, he’s dying to bury himself inside of her, to be one. She kicks off her shoes and takes down her smalls. He fiddles with that thick, heavy skirt as Orla opens her legs for him, with a yearning look on her face. 

“Orla,” he lifts her up to sit at the edge of the desk, “you’re so perfect.”

She hooks one arm across his neck, tearing his mantle away. It lands somewhere on the floor. 

Cullen,” she sighs.

Only she can say his name like that. It makes his blood run hot, it makes him feel wanted, needed, loved. 

Sweetheart,” he groans, sliding in, gentle, but she squeezes his buttock, urging him deeper. 

She wraps her legs around his thighs, pushing him closer. He knows her by now, every little part of her. He knows what she likes, so he grinds into her, slow and deep. Orla’s never very loud, but those soft, sweet moans get him every time. Her whole body clings to his, and even through the fabric of his tunic he feels her nipples poking through. She leans back, just a little, letting out the tiniest whimper.

Maker’s breath, that’s his wife.

“Feels good?” he whispers, rubbing her cheek on his. 

Orla’s face is burning.

“Yes, Cullen,” she whispers, rocking with him, “I love your cock.”

The loud growl escapes him. To hear that, all that, is glorious. Before Orla, he never thought sex could be like this for him. Not just delightful, but right, as if all the broken pieces were mending together. 

                                                               ********************************

The pleasure builds up tonight like all the dancing earlier. It’s quick, and it’s joyful, and she feels every part of her body tightening in anticipation. Her thighs tremble, and she is unsure if it’s from the twirling and jumping before or is Cullen and that desk right now, and the way he fills her.

Yes,” he grunts, letting a shiver down her spine. “Orla,” he whispers. “You get so hot and wet for me.”

“Yes,” she smiles, digging her fingers into his flesh, and wrapping her legs tighter, just to rub herself more against him. Cullen shifts a bit, and the hot jolt of pleasure hits her. Oh. He knows her now so well, he knows every part of her body.

She loves it. His whole body presses against her, even her nipples brush against his shirt. It’s all Cullen, her Cullen, his hands on her, his lips by her face, his tender voice. Her husband.

Husband,” she moans, unable to add anything more, dancing at the edge. 

“Orla,” he pants, rutting into her. “my wife.”

He holds her close when she comes with a loud, long moan, clinging onto him. He squeezes her arse for the last thrusts before he spends himself, groaning, face buried into her neck.

“I love you, Orla Rutherford,” he whispers, tender and sweet. 

That’s her now. 

“I love you, my Mabari,” she answers, making him laugh.

They kiss, just a gentle peck, before he pulls out. Her dress might be ruined, but Orla doesn’t care, because she is never wearing it again.

Cullen undresses, still standing by the desk, as if she was to fall if he moved away. Maybe she would; her legs are limp now.

“Help me?” she pleads, urging him to unlace her bodice fully, and he does, fumbling with the ribbons.

“Better?” he asks with a cheeky grin and Orla can’t stop thinking that he is indeed a very pretty man.

“Better,” she nods.

They look at each other as the world freezes in time for one perfect moment, filled with silence broken only by the sounds of their breathing. Cullen slides of her corset with utmost care and then kisses both of her hands. Orla is used to the affection that he gives her every day, but tonight she knows for sure that it won’t end, not unless—It won’t end. Tonight, their love turns ordinary, just a regular Fereldan man and wife. She welcomes it all. 

“Would you like a bath?”

“I am most definitely not letting you into the bed that sweaty,” she giggles. “Yes.”

“We could bathe together.”

“Yes,” she repeats, pulling closer to inhale the scent of sex and sweat on his body before it washes away. “I would love that.”

 

They light only one small candle in the bathroom, keeping it covered in soft, pleasant darkness. Cullen goes into the water first, whining that it’s too hot. He really whines quite a lot, Orla realizes, but she likes it, because he hasn’t had much chance to whine in his life. He doesn’t at work, that she can be certain of. He does with her, because he never pretends to be anyone else.

“Stop whining,” she scoffs anyway, laughing and sitting in front of him, resting her body on his. 

“Yes,” he wraps his arms around her, and Orla closes her eyes. “A lifetime of scolding begins now.”

The water is hot, indeed, smelling of oranges. Just wonderful. 

“And you continue to whine.”

“Nonsense, sweetheart. I’m merely rejoicing in our domestic bliss.”

She pokes his rib with her finger, causing him to jolt and chuckle as the water overflows the tub.

“Get used to it,” she warns.

“I am used to it,” he answers solemnly, kissing her temples. “I’ve never been happier. It’s almost odd. I have you in my arms, my wife, and I look at today and I can say with utmost confidence that I have never been happier.”

The feelings inside her chest are steaming as the water around them. 

“I have never been happier, too,” she breathes so quietly, but Cullen is close enough to hear everything. “It’s… more than I expected. All of it. I never thought I would love again, and you are more than I expected, too.”

She doesn’t need to say more than this, because he understands. There might be many differences between them, but they have a lot in common, too. A lot that matters. Like her, Cullen has never expected he could find this. Love, and family, and home. He knows life is fragile, just as she does. 

                                                               ******************************

It all began as a happenstance when he marched into that one tiny Skyhold kitchen at night, and now, he has found more than he expected as well. He can’t see Orla’s face, but he can feel her body rising and falling with each breath. Their fingers interlace, and Cullen lets himself soak in all the peace and joy between them. 

They have a lifetime together ahead of them. A month for now, and no one can predict what will happen at Adamant. He has seen so many people fall, and half the time he feels half-ready to die, except that it is a lie, now more than ever, because he wants to come back. He wants everything with Orla, every ordinary tomorrow he can claim. Every dinner together, every conversation by a cup of tea, every smile on her face, every frown between her eyebrows, every touch of her skin, every sigh, every moan she can give him. He doesn’t want to miss them, but more importantly, he doesn’t want to lose it.

It’s a day of his wedding. He shouldn’t be thinking that at all, especially as Orla raises her legs out of water and stretches them, placing her calves on the edge of the tub, and he admires them, wet from water, glistening in the candlelight. 

Tonight, he gets everything his heart is yearning for. For the next month, however busy it will be, he will cherish each day, each night, each speckle of happiness, mundane and magnificent at the same time.  

Orla’s skin is red from the heat of the bath after they dry themselves, and Cullen can’t help himself but to grab her arse once again when she’s brushing her teeth, standing bare in front of the mirror. He still remembers how the first time they made love she wasn’t even fully naked, and how much has changed between them since then, and how any shyness is gone, leaving only the radical sense of comfort. 

He has told her everything that’s ever mattered, things no one else would hear and understand. It still amazes him, because for most of his life, Cullen has been hiding. From those around him, from his family, and even in the most shameful moments, sometimes from himself, too. He hasn’t been hiding from Orla, quite the opposite. She makes it easier, with her warmth and her kindness, and the honesty that’s never ruthless. 

“I could help you with your hair,” he says after rinsing the Elfroot taste of a toothpaste of his mouth. 

Each time he watches her unbraid her long and thick hair, it reminds me of their first time together and the inherent intimacy of it. He takes his time, removing her pin, untying the ribbon, gently pulling it through as her hair cascades down her back. 

She looks like a goddess of sorts, so beautiful his words get caught up in his throat, but that’s just Orla, his girl, his wife. He stands behind her, watching her face in the mirror, watching him back as he combs through her hair. Her freckled face is so sweet. She raises her eyebrow and wrinkles her nose in an effort to stop herself from laughing. 

“Any complaints, my beautiful bride?”

“No. You look as focused as when I watch you train your soldiers.”

“Hmm. I haven’t realized you were so keen on watching me run drills.”

“On occasion. It would do me no good to deny that you’re nice to look at.”

He grins with satisfaction, moving her hair to reveal her bare shoulder. Orla tilts her head, letting him run his mouth and tongue on her long neck. Cullen stares at her reflection, transfixed when she closes eyes and licks her lips.

Maker’s breath, has there ever been a luckier man than him? There surely has never been a better woman. 

“May I take you to our bed, sweetheart?” he whispers into her year, watching her smile. 

“Yes,” she agrees.

Yes. Such a wonderful, fruitful word. One of many yeses Orla has given him. 

She squeals in surprise when he lifts her up.

Cullen! The floor is slippery!”

“I think we’ll make it.”

He carefully lays Orla on the bed. Impatient, she pushes the covers away and then pulls him in for a greedy kiss that makes his head buzz way more than any feasting and dancing they’ve done before. 

There’s no mystery left when his hands explore her body, when he inhales the scent of her skin. Nothing they do is new, except that they are married. As eager as he was earlier, here and now he touches her slowly, with all the reverence that has settled around his heart. Somehow, it feels different. Not as every other time, but as another beginning.

“I can’t believe you’re my wife,” he murmurs into her mouth. “You’re so gorgeous.”

“I will be your wife when I’m ugly too,” she teases. “Old, ugly, and full of wrinkles.”

“Full of wrinkles, perhaps, but Orla, you could never be ugly. You will always be the most beautiful to me, because I I love you. I always will.”

As much as she might not admit it out loud, Cullen knows she likes hearing it. Her eyes mellow, and her body follows, grinding against him as he caresses the back of his neck. 

“I will always love you, too, you foolish, beautiful man.”

Mhm,” he runs his palm across her flat stomach, feeling the scar underneath his fingertips. “You’re too kind tonight.”

“Well, it is our wedding day,” Orla laughs, her breath hitching when his touch slides down until he finds the path of damp hair between her thighs.  

“It is,” he agrees, kissing her again.

It is their wedding night, and he fully intends to give a proper attention to his sweet, sweet bride.