Disclaimer: Cullen and most characters are property of Bioware from their DA: Inquisition game. Zima is mine. Thanks to everyone who has let me know, in any form, that they've enjoyed this story. I hope this ending doesn't disappoint.
After the Keeper was gone, Cullen continued staring out the narrow window of his office for several minutes, then took Derzka out of Skyhold to a quiet spot nearby for several hours, talking to the contented mabari in a low voice. When they returned, the Commander stopped briefly in his office to speak to his aides before crossing the bridge to the rotunda. He stood there in the center of the ground floor of the tower to survey the frescoes left by Solas, hand on Derzka's head to hold her in place, puzzling over both why the mage had not completed them in an unbroken series and what exactly the final fresco symbolized. Was there an answer of some sort there to the mystery Solas presented?
He and the apostate had never warmed to each other, though they had grudgingly developed a certain level of respect. On his part, he had always told himself it was the mage's refusal to accept that any precautions were necessary with magic, but their relationship had also become strained over time. He wondered if the mage had ever guessed how much he had frightened Zima by walking into her dream and finally admitted to himself that his own more negative feelings toward the mage dated from the day she described how that dream had shaken her. His response to what she told him that day had been something of a punch to the gut, though he hadn't had time to really examine his reaction until after he recovered from the bout of withdrawal sickness. By then, he'd understood what his feelings would mean for her even if she returned them, or he had thought he did. The ex-Templar wondered how much of that truth Solas had guessed and resented, or if he had perhaps even walked through dreams unnoticed to see their thoughts.
Derzka whined, and he again became conscious of the voices on the floors that ringed the rotunda above. Abruptly in motion, Cullen briskly passed through into the great hall, then through the door to the Inquisitor's quarters. The door to her room stood open, her way of signaling that she welcomed visitors, and they were almost up the stairs when he realized Zima wasn't alone, and the other voice held a note of irritation.
"Da'len, you admit yourself that you felt there was a message in meeting Mythal in the body of a human, someone who appears both to elves and to humans, as Asha'bellanar and as Flemeth. Why won't you accept that part of that message might be meant for you, that you have the opportunity to work for both? The duty." Deshanna faced him, though without any sign she had seen him yet, while Zima's back was to the stairs.
"I'm still Clan Lavellan, Deshanna. I haven't shattered." Zima's voice was level, but with a note of outright obstinacy that he hadn't heard before. Uncomfortably he thought maybe he should leave before they noticed he was there, then wondered if he'd get up his courage a second time.
"It doesn't matter what bow fires an arrow, da'len, as long as it still protects the Clan." Suddenly Deshanna lost her temper and began to shout. "The truth is, you're afraid of your Commander and you want to run away! You've told me repeatedly that you trust him, that he's honorable and that you're friends, but you don't believe that yourself. You don't want to return to the Clan, you want to run from him because you don't want to find out this shemlin is like other humans, not to be trusted, someone who would treat you as a plaything! You're so afraid of a shemlin while you pretend to trust him that you'd run from all the good you could do here!"
"Deshanna, how dare you! Cullen is an honorable man, more honorable than many Dalish; he'd never treat anyone like that, even me! And don't call him a shemlin!" Zima lashed out furiously, her hands clenched, but it was the "even me" that Cullen heard and understood most clearly just as a suddenly serene Keeper gazed past Zima's shoulders to meet his eyes with no sign of surprise in her pale blue ones.
"Da'len. You haven't lost your temper since before you gained your vallaslin, and you still want me to believe you only feel friendship for him?" She indicated Cullen with her chin, both hands grasped around her staff, leaning on it almost casually as Zima turned to see Cullen standing near the top of the stairs. The young woman flushed, then paled, horrified.
"Deshanna!" The stairs blocked, the younger woman fled past her desk onto one of the balconies while Deshanna continued to watch Cullen's face. After a few seconds, she walked to the stairs calmly to rest a hand on Derzka's head, reassuring the whining mabari.
"Young warrior, if you would be so kind as to show me the way to Lady Josephine's office, I think your friends need to talk." Her soft words left no room for argument for either mabari or man. The Keeper met Cullen's eyes briefly one last time, with no expression he could decipher, then led a surprisingly unprotesting mabari down the stairs, closing the door firmly at the bottom without a glance back.
Cullen stood for a second or two after the door closed, then slowly walked out to the balcony where Zima sat on one of the benches she'd had added, her back to the opening as she buried her face in arms propped on the balustrade. "Lethallan?" Her back stiffened, whether at the elvhen word or his voice or both, but she didn't move.
"I can't believe Deshanna did that to me."
He very slowly walked over to the bench, sitting down close to her without quite touching. "She did seem to know exactly what she was doing."
Very gently, he turned her around to face him, unresisting, and though she kept her hands over her face, he could see that her cheeks were wet. "Why are you sorry?"
"I didn't mean to embarrass you, especially not in front of Deshanna. And I don't know why she's been so determined to get me to admit that I see you as anything other than a friend. That's all that matters. Or mattered."
"And you think that hearing you defend me changes our friendship?" He spoke as gently as he could, though a note of laughter crept into his voice. "I discover that my closest friend believes in me enough to shout at the person she respects most in all Thedas, then she thinks that would make me think less of her? Of you?" Cullen reached for the hands covering her eyes and drew them down so he could cup her face between his hands and tilt it up until her dark blue eyes reluctantly met his amber ones.
"You're…not upset? I mean…" she bit her lower lip and began chewing on it, but he wouldn't let her look away. "I just didn't want to risk your friendship. I still don't."
"You haven't." He used his thumbs to dry her cheeks, his lips twisting in a lopsided smile. "But there's one thing you didn't consider."
"What?" Now she was clearly puzzled by his reaction, though he could feel her beginning to relax as his reassurances sank in.
"This." Her mouth dropped open in surprise, about to ask what he meant when he leaned forward and kissed her very gently, his lips feathering lightly against hers before drawing back to search her eyes, her face still cupped in his hands. "Apparently we've both been idiots, Zima."
His use of her first name seemed to startle her almost as much as the kiss, and she stared back, lips parted in shock until his eyes dropped briefly to her mouth and back to her eyes with a warmth she'd never seen before. She abruptly began to blush to his delighted amusement, his thumbs caressing her cheeks as if to enjoy the warmth. "I…don't understand."
"I thought you wanted to go back to your clan."
She opened her mouth as if to say something, then closed it, instead hesitantly touching his face, fingers lightly running along his stubble. Finally, she began to laugh softly. "Deshanna was partly right. I was running away, but not because I was scared of you. I was afraid you'd realize how I really felt and it would ruin our friendship because I never thought you'd…."
Something changed in his eyes, holding hers more intently instead of finishing her sentence. "You said 'I was running away.' Does that mean you'll stay?"
"Yes, I mean if you really want me here…" Her voice trailed off, frozen as he leaned forward to capture her lips again, this time in a kiss that was soft, but filled with such passion that it erased her last doubts.
A small party had gathered in Josephine's office, with Josephine pouring and serving tea. "You knew when you arrived, then?"
Deshanna laughed quietly, relaxing her commanding, intimidating air for the moment as she sipped her tea, Derzka obediently reclining at her feet, head resting happily against the mage's leg. "Yes, once your Divine reassured herself that I wouldn't be opposed as long as he was honorable, she asked if I could sort out why both of them were pretending they only felt friendship for each other because she was certain it was pretense. And she introduced me to a rather unique young woman who made some pointed remarks about having to talk to someone as 'elfie' as I am before she described an incident at Halam'shiral when Zima got visibly angry over the Commander's mistreatment." She was clearly far more amused than offended by her encounter with Sera. "Frankly, that was enough for me to be certain about Zima at least."
Milanis accepted his cup of tea with a grin and a nod of thanks. "She spent a dozen years learning to never show anger no matter the insult; that might cause people to notice she wasn't a local elf when she travelled."
"Which has been most of the problem for her with the Dalish. Zima seemed to ignore insults and that caused many of the Dalish to react to her as if she were non-Dalish…not that some people didn't take offense for her." Veshalla and Milanis just cupped their hands around their tea and blatantly feigned wide-eyed innocence at their Keeper's mock glare.
Deshanna shook her head at the two in mock exasperation, then sighed more convincingly. "The old Keeper and I thought we could improve on the traditional go-between with her, but in doing so, we made her alien to her own people. The fault was ours, and the debt mine to repay, but I could never get past her sense of duty to the Clan. Even she's known since the breach, deep down at least, that she could do far more for the People as a weapon in the hand of the Inquisition and as a symbol of cooperation; your commander just provided the final push to convince her she can still be that."
Dorian smirked at her. "I was terrified that I'd slip in front of one of them about what you'd asked, and I was not looking forward to finding out what you'd do to me if I did."
Milanis grinned at him. "Smart man."
"It took me less than an hour to realize your commander and our clanswoman are remarkably alike in some ways. I admit I struggled not to laugh when he tried so hard to assure me that nothing had been done or even said between them."
Veshalla snickered, "Yes, it's a good thing I wasn't there because my reaction when you described it was 'that's obvious, why not?' Creators, it's about time."
"If we see either of them before breakfast, I'll be quite disappointed. Your commander strikes me as a man who may not make up his mind easily, but once he does, I believe he will try to be as…convincing in his arguments as possible." The tiny Dalish woman's pale blue eyes twinkled humorously at her own innuendo, bending to offer a tidbit to a delighted Derzka.
Charter spoke up for the first time. "Why did you tell him the rumor about you and Lavellan?"
Veshalla snorted. "Some people have made a life of inventing rumors. By last count, those rumors have had Zima in bed with Deshanna, me, Milanis, both of us together after we bonded, and I think they may have thrown in the idea of all four of us together at some point."
Milanis leered at his mate humorously, "I'm not sure I should be flattered that they think I have that much stamina or insulted that they think I like to watch."
"Or think you're too stupid to know how I would react to the idea." She returned his leer with a sharp elbow to his ribs that caused a few drops of tea to slop over the edge of his cup, then Veshalla smiled sheepishly at Josephine. "No one in the Clans listens to the rumors anymore, but they started by spreading the first rumor outside our Clan before we knew what was going on and the source was forgotten as it spread."
"Wait, you lied to Cullen?" Josephine gaped at the Keeper.
"Really, ambassador, do I strike you as that naïve or crude?" She sipped her tea with a complacent air. "As you well know, the best weapon in negotiations is the absolute truth, but stated in such equivocal terms that the hearer interprets what he wants to hear. I said that there was a grain of truth to the rumor and he put his own interpretation on it. I never said what that grain of truth was." Deshanna nodded fondly at the two hunters. "When I lost my partner, there were three young children, just weaned and already best friends, who filled the hole that her death left, but as children, nothing more. Zima perhaps even more than these two because she was left with no close family in our Clan. So yes, my affection for her as a daughter was the reason I let her travel so much; I hoped she would find what she was looking for."
"Why not just tell him the truth?" Josephine was beginning to eye the Keeper with wary respect.
"If he already felt so guilty that she'd have to choose between him and the Clan that he wouldn't say anything, how would he react if he knew that he'd be separating her from someone who loved her as a daughter?" Deshanna chuckled at Josephine's expression, though Charter didn't seem terribly surprised. "But he would realize that having her remain with the Clan would complicate things for me as a leader if people thought we were lovers, and he wouldn't be suspicious."
Dorian chuckled. "You're right, if he knew you thought of her as a daughter, it would have been impossible to get him to admit anything. Very clever."
"We Dalish may not play the Orlesian's Game, but every leader knows some form of it. Just the form and motives differ. The truth is, if your commander owes anyone an apology, it would be to her best friends and you'll notice once they reassured themselves he was a good man, they haven't exactly been heartbroken about the idea," she nodded toward the two hunters, who smirked back. "We created a weapon, but one day she went over a wall into a chantry garden, and that weapon had not been ours alone ever since, whether by the plan of your Maker, our Creators, or simply random chance."
"Yes?" He tightened his arms around Zima, inhaling the scent of mint lingering in her hair and a trace of lemon from the oil she used on her leather.
"I just realized, but you were already coming to see me when Deshanna made me lose my temper. You never said why?"
"Ah." Cullen stalled for a moment to think by kissing the top of her head and filling his lungs with the aroma that was her. "I had an unexpected visitor earlier today."
Her voice grew suspicious. "Who?"
She raised her head to meet his eyes warily, and he inhaled sharply at the feel of her pressed against him. "And?"
He grinned and kissed her nose. "She thought you should stay with the Inquisition, and she wanted me to convince you to stay. She didn't precisely say she knew I was in love with you, but, well, she left me with no doubts that she approved."
Zima made a disgusted noise. "Creators! And I don't believe for a moment that she wasn't quite well aware you were standing on the stairs when she made me angry, either."
He drew her closer, feeling her relax into him again as he trailed delicate kisses down one cheek. "Well, as grateful as I am for her interference this time, I do have to say I'm rather relieved to know that Clan Lavellan's Keeper will be on the far edge of the Freemarches. She is quite a formidable woman." She hummed softly into his ear. "Zima?"
He had reached her ear and was nibbling the tip, feeling her shiver in his arms. "Mmm, I never knew how beautiful that word was until I heard it in your voice. I hope I have the pleasure of hearing you say it for a very long time."
Her arms tightened around him, but he felt rather than heard her chuckle. "Yes."
As much as I love a good friendship story and firmly believe friendship should never be treated as a consolation prize or less valued in itself, the hint of something else was there from the beginning of the first one-shot about the breadstick battle in the war room. I also enjoy a romance that starts as a strong friendship, so I'm sorry if anyone is disappointed that this really was both.
I wrote from a somewhat remote POV in order to capture how friendship and misunderstanding might develop between two very different cultures. Zima was conceived as a Dalish Cullen in some ways – a strong sense of duty and loyalty, reserved personality, and a lot of concealed self-doubts, but she uses humor as her mask. I'd always planned to use Deshanna to cut the strings to their masks in this ending, but I also wanted Deshanna to be a reminder that nomadic doesn't mean some sort of simplistic children of nature…
As I said at the end of "Duty," I started with three potential endings; I'd have to write a different Zima for one of them, so it will never see the light of day. The other, I may still write…
Also, for anyone wondering, yes, I chose random Russian words as the names for people, very few of which are actually names, a habit that started when trying to stop bogging down for hours trying to come up with unique names. Извините мне. Russian just happens to be the language I know best after English.