Chapter Twenty-Eight: Gotta Love a Sturdy Desk

The room was quiet, dark, the embers glowing peacefully in the hearth, the lamps turned down, the warmth from his body still staining the bedclothes. Cullen was no longer on the bed, however, standing instead near one of the chairs in front of the hearth. He was just finishing getting dressed, shrugging into his coat as he thumped his heels into his boots. The sound was louder than he intended, and guiltily he stole a quick glance towards the bed, afraid of the slightest sound awakening the sole occupant. Peredura remained asleep, thankfully, her breathing steady and calm, her eyes closed, her dark lashes resting long and curled upon her cheeks.

Andraste's wedding knickers, but how he loved her. How beautiful. How strong. How caring and empathetic. How loyal and enduring. How endearing.

He wanted to kiss her.

He made himself turn away and face the balcony doors. He hated to leave her, even for a few moments, but it was nearing that time of the morning, the time when—for the past ten years of his life—he would have risen before the dawn to prepare his daily dosage of lyrium. The habit was deeply ingrained, so deep that it sometimes seemed even more overwhelming than the physical need for the elixir itself. He had to use every trick he could think of to break the habit and distract himself from the NEED.

Hence, his vacating the bed and his retreat to the balcony.

He told himself it would be for only a moment, a single moment, a brief sojourn out onto the balcony—to stand for a breath or two, to feel the passage of the air against his skin, to affirm the nightmares were not real and the demons were not solid. He could feel them close at hand, those demons, lingering in a dark corner of his mind, seeking for a weakness they could use to their advantage to escape the prison he kept them behind…

..and all too vividly the memory of the pair of desire demons flared to life, their shapes taking youthful and maidenly forms, their voices husky and wanton, their hands pleading and reaching for him, and he knew how easily he could defeat their taunts and temptations if he only had a little bit of lyrium…

His shaking hand raked his hair, the fingers tightening, threatening to rip it out by the roots! He screwed his eyes shut, his lips lifting into a feral snarl, as he voicelessly prayed, Maker's breath, would there be no end to this torment?! A single pant, soft though heavy, fell from his parted lips.

There was a sound akin to distant thunder, more felt than heard, and he opened his eyes to see Fear. The Mabari puppy had grown over the past several months, leaving behind the chubbiness of a newborn for the lanky limbs of an adolescent, but he was still a puppy. Even so, despite his youthfulness and inexperience, despite the fact that Fear hadn't moved from his curled-up position on the rug in front of the hearth—he looked at Cullen with one opened eye, the deep brown orb seeing past all the sweats and the shaking and the shortness of breath directly into Cullen's soul…

Cullen couldn't turn away, staring back, all but drawn in return into the hound's soul, the two of them sharing, communicating on this deeper level, Mabari to Man.

The growl sounded again, not as a preamble to danger, but full of concern and care. Cullen swallowed, and swallowed again, before his fingers began to loosen. He took a breath, deep enough to infuse his blood with oxygen and begin to clear his head. A second breath, and he began feeling more in control of himself than he had a moment ago. He busied his hands, still shaking, with finishing the clasps of his coat and straightening his appearance. His fingers combed through his locks, noticing that the curls were coming free of the hair tonic he used to keep them flat. Maker's breath, he was going to need to find his pack before Peredura awoke and started receiving visitors.

But after he got some fresh air.

Before heading to the balcony, though, he knew he had to acknowledge someone's assistance, first. He remembered Peredura had once told him of Fear's uncanny ability to ascertain whether or not he was in his right mind. He wasn't sure if he believed her at the time, but he believed her now, seeing as how Fear's timely warning kept him from plummeting over the edge. He looked back at the Mabari and inclined his head. "I'm alright now, Fear, thank you."

The hound didn't seem to take his word for it, lifting his muzzle to sniff at him and judge for himself. Yet, apparently, he agreed with Cullen's self-diagnosis, as he curled back up even tighter than before and returned to his dozing slumber.

"Thank you for your vote of confidence," Cullen hummed dryly.

Fear's nose twitched, but other than that he gave no sign that he was still listening.

Cullen left him sleeping, the need to feel fresh and unrestrained air still nagging at his thoughts, like an itch between his shoulders that he couldn't quite reach, or an irritating tickle that wouldn't dislodge from the back of his throat, or…

His hand was shaking again as he reached for the latch, but so close to his goal he didn't think he would need Fear's intervention. He could make it in time, the door clicking as the latch disengaged, the hinges giving a slight groan, the wood creaking as it pivoted and the stresses pulled at different parts of the door.

Then he was there, the iron railing firm and cold beneath his grip, the air clean and brisk as it finished ruffling his hair free, as it fanned and chilled his cheeks, as it dried and assuaged the sweat at his temples. He inhaled, deeply, filling his lungs near to bursting with the nippy wind, and held it for as long as he dared, his eyes closed in blissful self-indulgence.

Something alerted him. Something broke into his private commune with nature. Something told him that Peredura was awake.

"Maker's breath," he swore again for the umpteenth time that morning, "I only just stepped out here… for a moment… taken one breath… how could you…" He lifted his eyes heavenward, but if there was an answer there to find, he didn't see it. He knocked his fist, gently, against the railing before turning back to the room. "Oh, never mind, I'm coming."

Reluctantly he closed the door and returned to the bed. As he came around from behind the headboard, his stubbled face full of concern and his eyes only for her, he noticed she was fully awake. He braced one hand against the headboard as he sat down next to her, leaning over her, his other hand stroking her scarred cheek.

"Pere? What is it? Are you alright? Do you need anything? Oh, ah, not that you can answer me, not yet at any rate, but you know, if it's something I can guess or…"

He slowed to a stop when her hand took his. He could tell by the look on her face that she was suffering, experiencing some dark torment—how often had that look stained his own features? But whatever it was would have to remain a mystery for now. He could only grip her hand in return and breathe, "Pere?"

He watched in fascination as she swallowed and prepared herself for her attempt at communication. Her hand left his, lifting up to his cheek, feeling the muscles clench and twitch. She took several deep breaths, holding his gaze, locking their eyes together, before she very clearly and very elaborately mouthed three words.

'Open. The. Door.'

Cullen stared at her lips as they moved, the overly large vowels and puckered consonants, forming very well without breath or voice. He could feign ignorance, pretend a lack of understanding, but that would be a lie, and he could never lie to her. He knew what she was trying to say, but he couldn't allow himself to do it. "No, Pere, I dare not."

Her hand moved, from his cheek to his temples, cupping his ear, her thumb and fingers breaking through his sweat-dried locks. She knew the signs, of course she did, probably better than he knew them. He gave a single shudder for the effort it cost him to keep the demons at bay, and dropped his gaze, "I know, I need the air, but you do not." His hand covered hers, wanting to keep her there, needing to keep her there, "The temperature's dropping outside. The wind's picking up. There'll be a storm before sunrise, if there even is a sunrise, the sky is so black with clouds." He risked it, looking back up at her face, his eyes flickering back and forth between her own surrounded by dark circles. Her cheeks were sunken, her skin sallow and pale, her arm already beginning to tremble with fatigue, "You've been through so much, so weak and frail, you'd catch your death of cold if I left the balcony doors open. I couldn't allow that to happen, no matter what discomfort it may cause me."

She didn't let go, either of his head or his gaze, despite her indisposition. Instead her expression grew stern and motherly, her lips parting to mouth again a single word.

'Open.'

He wanted to defy her, but she had made up her mind, he could see it in her eyes, feel it in the grip of her fingers. But he couldn't allow her a complete victory over him. "Is that an order?"

Naturally he would respond best if she made it a command. She blinked, twice, very obvious and deliberate. Yes.

"Then I shall, of course, obey." Caught up by an impulse, he turned his face just far enough to brush his lips against the palm of her hand, never taking his eyes from hers. "I am at your command, Madam Inquisitor."

He was rewarded, watching the blood flush her cheeks, burning them bright red right before his eyes. Her eyes flashed, her lips pursed, but she remained silent, knowing she could not yet talk back at him and scold him and probably a hundred other things she wanted to say to him. Savoring his victory, however short-lived it may turn out to be, he pulled away from her. "I'll open the balcony door, but only a crack, and only for a little while. If you show any sign of feeling a chill, I'll close the door again, understood?"

She may have won the skirmish, but there would still be a war. Fine. Whatever. At least he would have some fresh air. She blinked twice, making the simple expression ooze with surliness. He smiled in return, with only the slightest hint of a smirk, and kissed her hand again, this time the backs of her fingers, as he vowed, "I'll be right back."

An exasperated breath burst from her chest. Oh, but he was infuriating! When she was allowed to, she was going to give him such a tongue-lashing, that he would feel like one of his own fresh recruits that he liked to dress-down so often during training exercises. And it would serve him right!

She was so caught up in her plans of revenge, that she didn't hear the breathy chuckle burst from his chest, or notice the lightness of his footfalls as he retraced his earlier steps, or see how boyishly his eyes twinkled. Gone were the demons of the night, banished by the woman he loved, though even Cullen himself didn't notice. He only knew he felt better, propping the balcony door open with a chair on one side and a cushion on the other so the wind could neither bang the door completely open nor slam it shut. Then he was returning back to the bed, back to Peredura…

…back to his love.

Oh, Blessed Andraste, how he wanted to tell her, how he had already told her, and maybe she hadn't dozed off before he'd said it… maybe he wouldn't have to repeat the agony and insecurity of that first utterance. That was what made him trip on the toe of his boot just a few feet from her, the thought of having to go through all that torture again, the angst, the build-up of courage, the final plunge as he said those three little words that would forever change their relationship—either for them to remain together in mutual bliss, or indelibly driving them apart in awkward unrequited emotions.

Maybe, if he tried jogging her memory, she might remember him telling her last night, and then she could either feign a lack of knowledge if she did not love him in return yet still wished to remain friends, or… well… the only other option was to repeat himself and see what would happen. He'd try jogging her memory first.

"Peredura," he began, standing next to the bed, looming over her. No, that wasn't the right posture, too formal, too stiff, if he was about to proclaim his undying love for her, or re-proclaim, or something of the sort. He cleared his throat and sat down on the edge of the bed, doing his best not to shake it, and reached across her to take her good right hand in his. He swallowed, made himself stare into her doe-like brown eyes, and tried again, "Pere."

She blinked at him, twice, her hand in his squeezing gently in a reassuring manner. Why she was giving him comfort, he couldn't fathom, but then again, he was acting strangely.

"Pere, do… do you remember… last night… what we talked about… ah-a-a-after Stitches left…?" Damn, his voice was stuttering. He'd never felt so terrified as he did at this moment. How could such a mere slip of a girl unman him so completely?

In a flash he knew, the answer so clear he instantly knew it to be the absolute truth: because she meant so much to him. Because she was so very important to him. Because he loved her. The realization gave him strength, gave him power over this new obstacle, and gave him the courage to soldier on.

"I know you were getting tired, and beginning to doze off, but this was important. Do you remember what we talked about? Or rather," he paused to allow a half-chuckle to slip out, "What I talked about?"

Peredura looked at him, her brow wrinkling just that little bit, her teeth poised to nip her lip, as she tried to figure out what it was he was trying to tell her. She did remember it, she supposed, their rather one sided conversation. But she had been so tired, and she was sure Stitches had slipped something into her healing potion that encouraged her to doze off. Still, in her memories, fuzzy from exhaustion and relieved of the pain and warm after the potions…

She blinked, slowly, very overtly, two times.

"Oh!" He sounded surprised, and she watched in confusion as he nervously shifted on the bed and licked at his lips with a suddenly dry tongue. "You do? That's… ah… unexpected…" As if just realizing what he had said might sound wrong, he stuttered to cover it up, "I mean, good, yes, that's good, that you remember, because it was so important, what I had to tell you…" His words faded away again, his expression sideways, head tilted, brow furrowed, eyes narrowing slightly. "Are you sure you remember?"

Nope, she wasn't sure at all, not if he was acting like this. She racked her brain, trying to force the memories to focus. She remembered she had lifted the covers, and he had declined but offered to sleep on top of the blankets, and then he told her…

'Cassandra.'

He blinked at her, not having expected her lips to have moved, and tried to figure out belatedly what she had mouthed. "I beg your pardon?"

Now it was her turn to feel confusion. Hadn't he told her about Cassandra, how she didn't hold Peredura responsible for what had happened to the Divine? After Peredura's memories had been returned during their sojourn in the Fade—her private and painful memories shared with everyone there!—Cassandra had been distant, preoccupied more than usual, and Peredura had immediately supposed Cassandra was blaming her for the Divine's death. After all, Peredura had deliberately taken that knife and cut her own flesh and shed her blood to bind the Divine for Corypheus' plans. Why wouldn't Cassandra blame her? Yet Cullen told her that Cassandra had purposely asked him to deliver a message, to let Peredura know that despite her own issues with what had happened, she didn't hold Peredura responsible. Isn't that what Cullen was talking about?

'Cassandra.'

"Oh!" Cullen finally read her lips—he was paying attention this second time—and felt relief flooding through him and making his shoulders sag. "Oh. Oh, Maker's breath, no, I mean, yes, I did tell you that, about Cassandra, giving you her message, so yes, that was important. But I, erm, I mentioned something, after that, do you remember?" He watched her face, screwing up slightly as she tried to remember, and he gave her a way out if she needed it, "I know you were exhausted, and already dozing off, so if you didn't hear me that's alright. I was just wondering if you remembered, so I don't end up repeating myself unnecessarily."

He knew her face. He knew every minutiae of every expression of every emotion. She was terrible at concealing her thoughts and feelings, a characteristic so honest and pure that he loved it about her, so he could tell she honestly did not remember his profession of undying love. Well, that left him back at square one, that desperate desire to speak those words, on the verge of scrambling to get out of his skin lest the love is not returned. He swallowed, took a deep breath to square his shoulders, and prepared to plunge into those icy waters of No Return.

"Pere, I…"

"Ah, good, a little fresh air is good for the soul," Stitches' voice drifted in softly from the main bedroom door, "Though we won't want to leave the door open for too long. It is getting cooler outside, wouldn't due to have her Worship catch a chill. Excuse me," he started tiptoeing up to the bed, "Don't mean to wake anyone up, just wanted to see how she was doing this morning."

Cullen wasn't sure if he felt grateful for the reprieve, or angry over the delay. His nostrils flared over his irritation as he answered, "We're awake, ah, that is, she's awake, I mean, we're just having a little chat, that's all."

She could hear the disgruntled tone in his voice, every nuance of his character was so plainly clear to her, but for the life of her she couldn't figure out what was going on. Was there more to last night, something else, something he had mentioned after he delivered Cassandra's message? She honestly could not remember…

"Having a chat, are we? Did you forget your promise not to try talking until later today?" the Chargers' healer directed his questions at his patient.

She looked back at Stitches, tried to shake her head but encountered the damn braces. Feeling a bit frustrated herself over her own inability to communicate something important, she blinked her eyes, once.

If Stitches caught on to the atmosphere in the room, to the charged energy, as if lightning was about to strike—twice!—he gave no sign. "Good, good," he hummed, setting down his pack and sitting on the side opposite Cullen. "You're probably all healed anyway, but I just want to make sure before you try talking. Could do yourself some real damage if you use your vocal chords before they're ready. Now, let me see, here, how things are shaping up. We'll start with your neck, shall we?" His expert fingers slipped around the straps and ties and probed gently along her spine.

Cullen felt like he was being pushed aside, Stitches leaning over her as he had been doing, forcing him to back out of the way, but he tried not to take it personally. After all, Stitches wasn't the one who had feelings for her. Or was he? The sudden thought of a rival made Cullen's mind take a dark turn as he considered the facts. Stitches had been ready to go with, at a moment's notice, on just the rumor that Peredura was in trouble and would need the services of a healer, a healer who knew about her unusual circumstances, a healer they could trust, like Stitches…

Something bumped his leg, hard, before settling heavily against his thigh, sending his dark musings skittering away from his thoughts and back into the shadows. Cullen looked down and to the side to see Fear leaning against him, the Mabari's deep brown eyes overhung with concerned and pitiable brows. When he acted as if he was about to ignore the hound's request, Fear gave a little whimper and padded a few steps away before returning to pressing against Cullen's leg.

"I think the hound needs letting out," Stitches, damn him, commented dryly. "Go on, Commander, take care of him. We'll be finished by the time you get back."

Not if I can help it, Cullen thought rebelliously to himself, feeling again that stab of jealousy pinch his heart. Yet he stood, bowed formally to the bed, "Madam Inquisitor," and spun smartly on his heel for the door. We'll just see how long you're left alone with her, he muttered so far under his breath not even Fear could hear it.

Outside in the hall the atmosphere changed, the hallway looming dark and long and seemingly without end, the air stale and clinging and growing thicker in his chest with each heartbeat. He walked to the opposite wall and braced his hand against it, willing the torment away…

"Ser?" Devensport's voice called again, barely managing to break through the invisible wool muffling his ears, "…the Inquisitor… what… we do…"

Damn it, he cursed himself as the morning took another turn back for the worse. He was beginning to feel like a battering ram, swinging back and forth on its hinges, from the shakes of withdrawal to the bliss of being in love. But he had to get ahold of himself; this was not the time to have an 'episode!' He took a deep breath, forcing himself to admit that the air was breathable and he was not about to suffocate, and lifted his head. "What?!"

Well, that came out a bit more gruff than intended, but he was fairly sure Devensport and Abbets knew why he was occasionally extra surly—everyone in Skyhold had to know by now that he was no longer taking lyrium, and the former templars would understand with even more empathy what that would mean for him. In fact, Abbets looked a bit shaky himself, possibly a bit too empathetic towards his Commander, but Cullen decided not to address that this morning.

"Ser, the Inquisitor, well," Devensport cleared his throat, but with the way the Commander had staggered from the room, how he clung to the wall and didn't seem to be able to hear them. "Is she alright? You seem upset, and we were just worried, if there might be something wrong. I mean, we did come here because she was in danger or hurt or something, didn't we, ser?"

"Yes, yes," he waved their concern aside, allowing himself one heartbeat, and only one heartbeat longer, to lean against the wall before he squared his shoulders and faced them fully, relying only on his own two feet to keep his balance. "Yes, she's alright, now. Stitches is in with her, of course, but that's just a formality; there shouldn't be any complications."

Devensport looked relieved, but Abbets remained his taciturn self. "Very good, Ser. Anything we can do, just let us know."

"Actually, yes, there is something you can do." Cullen gestured to the hound, "Fear needs some attention, the usual, a bit of exercise and a bit of food. Then return him here."

"I'd see to it personally, Ser, only, well, it's just that…" he glanced at Abbets who remained standing at attention on the other side of the door, staring straight ahead at nothing. "Maybe I should call someone to…"

"Take Fear yourself, Devensport, he knows you and will listen to you, whereas he might disobey or pretend to ignore a servant or other stranger."

If Fear knew Cullen was talking about his minor transgressions, such as the occasional squirrel chase or the odd back scratching against some smelly plant, he pretended innocence.

"And don't worry about the Inquisitor's safety. We're secure in this estate, surrounded by Leliana's scouts, a score of former templars, not to mention Abbets here will remain at his post, and I'll be with the Inquisitor every moment that Fear's away. She's safe."

Devensport cleared his throat, "Ah, yes, Ser, I didn't meant, well, no, Ser, of course she's safe, I just, well, I'll take Fear now. Come on, boy, let's get you outside before the rain starts."

Fear gave a brief bark, not too loud, but happy and agreeable and started off down the hallway, leaving Devensport to have to catch up with him.

"He is a handful, that hound," Cullen muttered to himself. Then he turned back to the other guard. "Abbets, you do look a bit tired. Have you been on duty all night?"

Abbets nodded.

If Cullen was disturbed by the lack of vocalization, he didn't show it. "When does your shift end?"

"An hour, Ser."

Abbets' voice shook, sounding dry and harsh, as if the man was suffering a cold. Cullen noted it, but he knew better than to point it out to Abbets; no one ever spoke of the suffering of templars, especially when it was simply a case of the sniffles. "Devensport should be back before them. Very well, carry on, Abbets."

"Ser!"

With the hound's needs being seen to, and Peredura's Honor Guard reassured of her continued good health—they'd spread the news that she was well and on the mend—Cullen returned to the bedchamber.

As expected, Stitches was still there, conducting his thorough examination, messing with the comforter that barely protected her nude form.

Damn him.

"Ah, Commander, good, I'm glad you're back. Could you close the balcony door now? I'd like to take a close look at her ankle, but the room might be a bit chilly for her."

Peredura, still flat on her back and tied to the makeshift braces and not allowed to speak, did a very childish and spiteful sticking-out-of-her-tongue that was so comical, and behind Stitches' back as he was facing Cullen when he spoke, that it nearly made Cullen laugh. Instead he coughed, hiding politely behind his hand as the jealously fled from his heart—she had done that for his eyes only—and bowed. "Agreed. Besides, that storm looks like it's about to break."

As he made for the door, the wind already rattling it against the chair, he wondered at Peredura's fathomless insight. How could she? How could she know what he was feeling? How could she sense his jealously and needs? And how could she do the exact right thing to set aside his fears? He shook his head, resigned to the fact that he would probably never truly, completely, indubitably understand the slip of a woman who held the fate of Thedas in her hand—literally! He secured the latch, not a single thought of regret over the loss of moving air, and started back for the bed.

"Thank you, Commander. Now I can finally take a look at that ankle."

Cullen abruptly stopped, suddenly realizing what he was about to do. He was still behind the headboard, still unable to see her lying on the bed, though he could see the thick comforter was pulled down to the foot of the bed. If he leaned forward just a bit, he might be able to see the toes of one foot. If he continued his original course, however, he'd be able to see everything…

"Could you bring that lamp a bit closer? Thank you."

Stitches asked for and acknowledged Cullen's assistance as if it were a foregone conclusion, focusing on his patient, assuming there would be no discussion. Almost in a trance, falling back into the habit of following orders—life was so much safer and easier when he all he had to do was follow orders, not give them—Cullen picked up the indicated lamp and the small table it had been sitting on, and brought them around to the foot of the bed.

She was clothed! Thank the Maker! Not that he stared or even sneaked a peek, but as he walked around the headboard, he could see she was wearing leggings and a tunic, or what was left of them. Someone, undoubtedly Stitches last night, had cut away quite a bit of the material, exposing every wound and hurt on her body, but leaving everything else in place. So her shoulders had been bared, as they had been nearly dislocated and Stitches would have had to examine them, but her, erm, torso remained concealed from sight. Cullen amazed himself, his hands were so steady when he set down the table and lamp. He even allowed himself to look at her ankle, at the dressing stained with blood and puss, and yet the skin beneath was healed and whole once more.

"Excellent. I'm very pleased with that. Wiggle your toes for me. Good. Now bend your ankle. Yes, yes. Any pain? No? Then we'll leave the wrappings off. Could you assist me again, Commander? I think she'd like to sit up for a time."

"Um, her neck…?" he hesitated before walking around to her other side, unsure if what the healer suggested was a wise course of action. He could see that her ankle was healed, and it looked like Stitches had already taken the braces off of her wrist, but her neck was still wrapped and leaving him to wonder. For that matter, what was left of her clothing had been held in place by the straps and bindings that Stitches was now removing. If she sat up, then gravity would take over and everything would fall open.

"What? Oh, her neck should be fine, the bones are, at any rate. But I'd like for her to sit up, before I take the last of the dressings off and examine her throat. Oh, er, one more thing," Stitches paused, at long last making a bit of an effort to feel embarrassed for his patient. "Is her pack anywhere around? She'd probably like a fresh tunic, because, well, you know," his fingers gestured vaguely at her chest.

Peredura was doing her best, but she was so frustrated, and so embarrassed already, any pride having gone out the window before Cullen had closed it, and now the two men were talking about her as if she couldn't hear them, as if she wasn't truly there, but a doll to play dress-up, and…

"No, ah, her pack, I think, was brought to her chambers."

"Her chambers?" Stitches asked, confused. "You mean…"

"This was to be my room, yes," Cullen finished quickly, if only to get it over with. "Long story. Doesn't matter now. But my pack is just over there. I think I have a spare tunic she could borrow. Hold on."

It was a short reprieve, the errand to fetch the item of clothing, but it was enough to get his own awkwardness under control. Damn, even though he was sure he had nothing to worry about, he would feel a lot better when this was over and Stitches was out of the room and he and Peredura could finally TALK!

When he could finally—again—tell Peredura that he loved her.

He was calm as he handed Stitches the tunic. Peredura demurely crossed her arms over her chest, ducking her head in an attempt to hide the bright red color of her cheeks, as the two men carefully lifted her to a sitting position and dropped the tunic over her head and shoulders. When the fabric pooled around her hips, she let go of her chest and wiggled her arms through the sleeves. There, all nice and neat and, most importantly, all the scars were covered. Cullen helped her scoot back against the headboard, bracing her now with pillows rather than the strips of wood and leather straps she had been in for the past several days, a far more comfortable option in her opinion, and Stitches tucked the comforter securely over her legs.

"There you go. Warm enough, are you?"

Peredura, her head still bowed thanks to the heat she continued to feel burning her face, and the fact that it felt so good to be able to move her head and neck, did take a moment to consider Stitches' question. The air in the room had chilled considerably thanks to the storm outside, but the blanket was thick and still retaining her body heat from the night before. And the tunic, though woolen and a little itchy, was also thick and smelling of dirt roads and musty packs and… Cullen… that strange and mysterious and unique mixture of horses and leather and steel and sweat and just a hint of lilacs. She closed her eyes, inhaling the scent, feeling it fill her lungs and infuse her blood to be carried throughout her body.

She nodded.

"Good. Now lift your chin, or I won't be able to take the bandages off."

She hesitated, hating to show how embarrassed she felt, but even more than that she wanted the bandages gone! She lifted her chin, trying not to look at either of them, and hoped this would be over soon. She wanted the wrappings gone, she wanted Stitches gone, she wanted it to be just her and Cullen so she could tell him…

He moved his head, tilting it just far enough to catch her eye, to make her look at him, and his smile warmed her even more, the heat spreading out from her cheeks, down her neck, past her heart, to a place so private and secret even she barely knew about it. Her lips parted, her pulse jumped, and she found it far too difficult to retreat back to that shy sanctuary behind her overgrown bangs.

"Skin's healed," she barely registered Stitches' voice, "For right now, it'll look like you got another scar, but give it some time, six months or so, and it'll fade. Not completely, but far enough to hide in the shadow of your chin. Now for the part we've all been waiting for."

There was a pause, a rather pregnant pause, and as the moment stretched into seconds, and the seconds threatened to grow to a full minute, Peredura at long last yanked her eyes from Cullen's to look at Stitches. The question, the confusion, was plain on her features, and the Chargers' healer smiled gently at her.

"Say something."

Right. Her voice. The ropes had nearly crushed her vocal chords. Everyone feared… but she had healed elsewhere… surely her voice had healed, too…

Cullen and Stitches were both staring at her, staring and waiting and hoping and pressuring and…

"Ah—um—ugh—lee!"

Cullen watched her lips part, heard the hoarse croak that blurted out, and felt her frustration as her teeth sought her lower lip and her eyes filled with tears.

"That's to be expected," Stitches reassured her. "You haven't used your voice for a good week; it's bound to be a little hoarse from disuse. Clear your throat, gently, and try again."

She could barely hear him, the humiliation flooding her thoughts. Andraste's knickers! Of all the things that had to come out of her mouth, the first thing she had said was… she hadn't realized she had been thinking about it.. but it was there… lingering in her mind like a cancer…

Was she ugly?

"Pere?" Cullen's voice prompted.

"I…" she croaked, cleared some phlegm, and tried again. "I don't know."

"What?" Cullen asked, confused.

"Exactly," she admitted, feeling the tears cloud her eyes and the sobs being to strangle her chest. "I don't know what to say. There's so much… for so long… I wanted to… to The Iron Bull… Dorian… you… everyone… and I couldn't… and now I can… but I don't know where to start!"

Cullen hadn't waited for her to finish, he hadn't waited until they were alone. He took her shoulders and pulled her close to his chest, pressing her cheek against him and stroking her long brown hair. "Shh…" he cooed, his chest thrumming soothingly in her ear. "Shh… it's alright now. It's over. You're safe. You've got the time. We'll sort it all out, you and I, work through everything, until you feel better. I promise."

Stitches took the two in and smiled to himself. "She'll be alright now," he whispered behind her back, catching Cullen's eye. "A hot breakfast, a bath, plenty of rest, and she'll be as right as rain, or, erm…" he glanced at the balcony doors being battered by said rain, "You know what I mean. Send for me if you anything comes up, otherwise I'll check in on her tomorrow."

Cullen nodded his thanks, his hands full of a weeping girl. It wasn't until he heard the door close behind Stitches, it wasn't until he was sure they were alone, that he lifted her just far enough away from his chest to settle a light kiss against her lips. Very brief, very chaste, and very mindful of the salty tears covering them. "I'm listening, Pere. What do you want to say?"

She sniffed, wanting to rub her nose on the back of her sleeve, but remembering it was Cullen's thought better of it. He reached into his jacket and pulled out a handkerchief, one of the special ones his sister embroidered, and handed it gallantly to her. She took it, held it to her nose, and mumbled into the fabric, "I don't know where to start."

"Start where you tried to before," he offered, thinking he was making things easier. "What was it you first tried to say?"

"I… no…" she shook her head and dropped her hands to her lap, holding on to the used handkerchief, "It's too silly."

"It's not, you know," he softly chided her, "If it was the first statement you tried to speak in over a week, then it matters."

"Later," she sniffed, dabbing at her nose again, "Maybe. Where are The Iron Bull and Dorian?"

"Dorian is across the hall, asleep. Bull is, I imagine, halfway back to the Hissing Wastes by now. He only stayed behind long enough to ensure you and Dorian were safe before he returned. I got the impression he's going to catch up with Blackwall and Sera, who are tracking the Venatori who did this to you."

She dabbed her nose again, nodding. "I wish he wouldn't. I knew he would, I know he will, but I'd rather the men faced a just trial and sentencing, not whatever The Iron Bull has planned."

"Well, I could send a raven, try to head him off, the others there might be able to stop him," Cullen offered, but his voice belied his lack of confidence in such a plan.

Peredura shook her head—Maker but it felt good to move again!—and wiped away the tears on her cheek. "I doubt anyone could stop him."

He gave a huff of agreement. "I suppose you're right." Gently his thumb swiped at a tear she missed. He watched in consternation as she dropped her head again, staring at her hands in her lap, pulling back behind the drapery of her hair. He could tell that she was hurting emotionally, no doubt something to do with her near-death experience, and again the vision of those men… if they had touched her… taken advantage of her… Stitches said there had been no sign, but…

"Am I ugh…"

"Did they ra-a-a…"

Yet again, the two of them had spoken at the same time. And again, equally embarrassed and shy smiles met each other's eyes. Cullen gave a little chuckle and offered, "Ah, what was that?"

Peredura shook her head, her brown hair swinging lankly thanks to a dire need for a bath. "Nope. I went first last time, after Adamant. It's your turn."

Damn, but she was right, she had gone first last time. Shoring up his courage, knowing she was only stalling for time, he allowed her this victory and asked—or tried to ask—his question. "Pere, when you… when they… in the Hissing Wastes… after the Venatori captured you, did they… any of them… hurt or… touch…"

She was shaking her head long before he stuttered to a stop. "No, Cullen, I wasn't 'touched'," she answered, sounding a little bit sad, a little bit hurt, a little bit angry.

He didn't notice these things, however, the relief flooding his body far too overwhelming to allow him to register the tells of another person. "Thank the Maker!" he prayed fervently, his strong hands caressing her shoulders as he leaned forward to press their foreheads together. "I don't know… I honestly don't know… what I would have done if they… No, that's not quite true. I suppose I would have caught up with Bull, or passed him by now, and tracked down those men and taken care of them myself!"

He meant to kiss her again, he liked doing that, and she seemed to like it as well, but when he tilted his head to reach her lips, she gave a short sort of sputtering sob, full of spittle and angst, and he found himself instead with a mouth full of handkerchief as she tried to contain the flow. He leaned back, far enough to see her face, but she was hiding once more behind her bangs. "Pere? What is it? What's wrong?" A little knot of fear settled in his guts, hard and oily and making him question and doubt. "Pere, did you lie to me? Just now? To spare my feelings or some such? Did those Venatori touch you?"

She shook her head.

He pursed his lips. "I am finding that harder and harder to believe. Something has you upset, something fairly serious, and the only thing I can think of is…"

"Am I ugly?"

Silence rained like the storm outside. Her question was so abrupt, and so similar to the half-choked sounds she had first tried to make, Cullen instantly realized that these were the words she had been trying to say from the start. But the words were so shocking, so odd to him, of course she wasn't ugly, why would she question such a thing, how could she… "You are the most beautiful woman I know," the words fell from his mouth automatically, honestly, without guile or motive or plan, "That I've ever met, and I've known a lot of women, met them, I mean, there haven't been a lot of women in my life THAT way, but I have met quite a few, and gotten to know them, without KNOWING them…"

He should stop, he should really stop talking, but his inane blubbering was actually working to his advantage for once, as Peredura giggled through her tears. Well, now that he managed to stem the crying, or at least lessen it a little bit, he brushed her bangs to the side behind an ear and asked, "What brought this on?"

Her hand reached up, next to his, and unhooked the bangs from her ears, hiding the nipped points that once were elven. "I… I just… I don't know… it's silly, but… I know I shouldn't feel this way, but…"

She gripped her lower lip between both rows of teeth, as if desperate to hold the words in, fearful of what they would bring out with them. But Cullen was patient. He knew her by now, knew her habits, knew that the harder something was for her to say, the longer it would take for her to say it. But she would. She would tell him. They had shared so much already, they would share this. He merely had to wait for her to finally allow the words to come.

She shuddered, her whole body shaking with the effort, warring to keep the words in and to force them out. "I… I was too ugly to rape."

To his mind, this should have been a good thing, a relief. But then, he didn't have the mind of a woman. Though he wanted to step in, cut off any more words before they could spill her pain, reassure her and fix the trouble she was having, he knew she needed to finish before he did so, she needed to say those words—all of them—that were eating her up from within. With an iron will born of decades of training and battles, he persevered in his silence and endured to the end of her narrative.

"There was a red templar there, he had caught up with me, was holding me down, and the Venatori master, he told his apprentice, to rape me, only he took one look at me, at this," she pulled down the neck of her tunic, revealing a bit of the blood magic scarring along the top of her shoulder, "And he couldn't do it, he couldn't rape me, I tried to be brave, I tried to use it to my advantage, to make them think the scars were all over me, make them believe I was ugly, and it worked, he thought I was scarred all over, and ugly, and he didn't think he could physically keep himself hard enough to finish, not if I looked like this, not if I was so ugly, and one of the others sounded like he was puking!"

Cullen closed his eyes briefly, fully able to imagine the scene, having experiences he could barely acknowledge to himself.

"They couldn't rape me, because I was too ugly. How ugly does a woman have to be, to be too ugly to rape?!" She was gripping his arms now, twisting the fabric of his coat sleeves until it threatened to tear, "It hurt! It hurt so much! I know I should be thankful, relieved, that they hadn't, but I'm not, I'm hurt, insulted, and I'm feeling guilty for feeling hurt when I should be feeling something else but I can't all I can think about is that I'm too ugly…"

Oh, Maker, what a mess! Cullen didn't try to sort out that tangled mass of emotions, to find the one string that could be pulled to unravel the pain and make everything alright. "Pere," he breathed, pulling her once more against his chest, wrapping his muscular arms around her trembling form, willing her to leech off of his strength. "Pere, it's alright, truly, I promise you it's alright, you have nothing to be ashamed for."

She sniffed once before returning to sobbing and her apparent efforts to soak the front of his coat.

"They're feelings. They're neither good nor bad; they simply are. And you cannot help what you feel; they just happen. There's no rhyme or reason, no logic or sense to be made. They are emotions. They are yours. And it is perfectly alright to feel them, to let yourself feel them. In fact," he kissed the top of her head, "I have to admit, I feel relief, I do, as awkward as it sounds, I'm relieved to learn that they found you so ugly," he felt her lift her head a little and his lips moved to brush against her forehead, "I am relieved and grateful that they were such shallow men," her face lifted a little further and he kissed an eyebrow, "Otherwise, if they had raped you, I would have had to leave you to hunt them down and make them pay," he kissed the other eyebrow, "But instead I can sit here and feel relief, relief that I can stay here and hold you and kiss you," he remembered Dorian's words that any time was a good time, and they were talking about their feelings right then, so he could—should—say it now… "Because, Pere, the truth is," she had lifted her chin, staring at him, open and vulnerable and needy, and yes this was the perfect time, "You are beautiful. To me. I don't see your scars, your skin," he brushed her hair back behind her ear again, "I see what lies within. Your fierce loyalty. Your enduring strength. Your fathomless compassion. Your sense of humor. I see your soft brown eyes, the way they peek at me from behind your long bangs, and it makes my heart race. I see you, Pere, who you truly are, and I lo—"

"Good morning," an overly bright and cheerful voice announced from the doorway. "Did somebody order breakfast?"

Cullen wanted to snarl in rage. He also wanted to lock that bloody door! Or brick it over! Or…

"Dorian!"

The joy in her voice, the light in her eyes, the way her tears had dried up, Cullen wondered if it had been his words, or her friend's sudden appearance, that worked the miracle. But, no, she wasn't completely back to normal yet, he realized, as she pulled her hair forward to hide her ears, and ducked behind his form to finish wiping at her eyes and nose.

"I was on my way to the kitchens to grab my own breakfast, when I heard you were awake and hungry," he gestured to the servants following him, carrying silver-domed trays that barely contained the wafting of delicious smells, "And I said to myself, that's far more than Peredura could eat all by herself. And I bet my very good friend would like a little company this morning. So I invited myself to join you in your repast; I'm sure you won't mind."

Peredura smiled, a little forced, but perhaps only Cullen knew her well enough to notice that. She was gripping his hand fiercely, the one on the side away from the servants and Dorian, as she tucked away the handkerchief and answered, "Of course not, please, join us."

Dorian might have finally caught on, hearing the reluctance in her voice that contradicted her invitation, seeing the way she clung to Cullen, see the dark scowl that chilled the Commander's features. "Ah, perhaps I better…"

"Excuse me, Ser," a voice called from the doorway. The servants had left it open while they went about the room, setting up the trays on the table before the hearth, placing three chairs around for Peredura, Cullen, and Dorian to sit. Cullen trained his glare on the door now, to the hapless soldier standing at attention, loathe to enter the chamber and yet compelled to report to his leaders. "Ser, I'm very sorry, your Worship, but I need to speak with the Commander. There've been reports…"

"Yes, yes, I'll attend to them," Cullen sounded as if he didn't want to do anything of the sort. Then Fear chose that moment to return, pummeling past the soldier, nearly knocking him over, and bounding into the room. He reached the side of the bed, standing between it and Dorian, and gave a happy bark of good morning. The next moment he shook, sending chilly rainwater flying from his coat and overwhelming the smells of breakfast with the stench of wet dog.

"Sorry, Commander," Devensport also now stood in the doorway, looking properly chastised, "But he slipped his lead, the little pest," his heated words were cooled by an indulgent chuckle. "Likes to play in the rain, he does, that one. And the mud." Devensport noted the said muddy paws were now on the bedclothes, and he gave a cough of embarrassment. "I'll, erm, see to it that he has a bath…"

Cullen saw how Peredura's face lightened even further at the sight of her hound and gave up a sigh of defeat. "Later, Devensport, the bath can wait. That'll be all for now."

"Ser!"

"We've finished setting up your breakfast, your Worship," the servants bowed.

"Ser, these reports, they seem urgent, from Leliana herself," the soldier in the doorway gestured.

Cullen hated to admit it, but it seemed as if he had lost yet another opportunity. He stood up from the bed and faced the soldier in the doorway, "Take them to my office, just next door," he gestured to the side. When the soldier hesitated, seeing as there was a door that led to the office from inside the chamber, but feeling he shouldn't use that door, Cullen continued, "There's a door just around the corner. I'll meet you there."

"Ser!"

"Thank you," he turned to the servants next, "But I won't be joining the Inquisitor for breakfast. No, no, leave the chair, you can move it back when you come to take the trays away. Dorian," he turned to the Altus next, "I don't know how long I'll be, so I'm entrusting her to your care. See to it she eats a healthy portion, then take her to her chambers to get, erm, freshened up, you know what I mean."

"I'll take good care of her," Dorian promised, "I'll treat her as if she were the little sister I never had."

That was about as much as he could hope for, he supposed. "Yes, well," he turned lastly to Peredura, to the one who was first in his thoughts, and bowed apologetically. "I'll try to get away as soon as I can."

She managed a slight pink tint to her cheeks. "Commander."

He gave her the smirk he knew infuriated her, saw the blush deepen, and turned to march to his office. He swiped a roll off the tray as he passed, fearing this may be his only opportunity to eat until much later. But before he could head though the door to his office, Dorian's voice called out one last time. "Commander, just a quick word, if you don't mind."

He did, but he didn't let it show. "Yes?"

"Are there any special instructions regarding her care?" Dorian said, a little too loudly, making sure his voice would carry to the bed where Peredura was directing Fear to give her space so she could gain her feet. Quietly, so she couldn't hear, he added, "Did you tell her?"

Cullen's glare should have been enough of an answer, but he elaborated, "I did. Last night. But she had already fallen asleep."

Dorian's gray eyes sparkled. "But surely you told her again, this morning…"

"I've been trying, but every time I keep getting interrupted, by Stitches or breakfast or that hound."

Dorian wanted to laugh. He wanted to laugh until his sides ached, but he knew that would not only hurt Cullen's feelings, but it would allow Peredura to catch on. "Would you, erm, like a moment to…"

"No, no," Cullen held up his hand. He must have spoken too loudly, as he caught Peredura glancing their way with a thoughtful frown on her features. "No restrictions at all. She's smart enough to know her own limitations, what she can or cannot do." Then he dropped his voice again, "The moment's passed. There'll be another opportunity, later on, I'm sure. But I really do have to go, Dorian, if there's nothing else…" He left the sentence hang expectantly.

"No, no, Commander, go on and take care of your soldiery matters. I'll take on the challenge of entertaining Peredura until you're free once more."

Cullen huffed, "I'm sure she's in good hands." Then he was gone.

Dorian turned back to Peredura, who had managed to free her legs from the confines of the comforter and, under Fear's careful supervision, was preparing to stand and make her way to the table for breakfast. "Is everything alright?" she asked, glancing up at him.

Thinking she might have heard part of their conversation, and not wanting to spoil the surprise, he answered as innocently as he could manage, "No, nothing's wrong, why would you think that?

She gestured at his features, "You look a bit embarrassed, you know, red in the face."

Dorian flashed his pearly white teeth at her, "No, my dear, I'm not embarrassed, I'm never embarrassed. This is just a sunburn."

"Oh."

"Is everything alright with you?"

She sniffed, but managed a smile in answer. "Yes, well, mostly, I just need a little time, after… everything that's happened to… you know, collect myself. Oh, Dorian…!"

He was caught off guard to find her suddenly leaning against him, crying into his shoulder. Awkwardly he patted her back, wondering what had brought this on, wondering if he could get Cullen back into the room without alerting anyone…

"It's so hard," she wailed softly, "I've tried. I've tried to whittle away at his defenses. I've gotten him to notice me. I've gotten him to kiss me. I've even gotten him to share his secrets with me. But I can't get him to say it. I'm beginning to think I never will, that he never will, that he cannot love me…"

Oh, Dorian thought to himself, then a little louder. "Oh. Oh, my dear girl, no, no, no," he patted her shoulder again, then began leading her to the table. "No, don't give up. You must persevere. I insist on it. Cullen's a stubborn man, yes, but there's a stubborn streak inside you, too. I'm sure he has feelings for you."

"But… is it love? Or just friendship? Or just liking each other? Or…"

"Hush," he shoved some sort of sweet bread covered in caramel and nuts into her mouth. "No more of that. I insist! Not another word on the matter. Trust me, Peredura," he settled a napkin on her lap and placed a plate in front of her, "I do know one or two things about love. And if a man is willing to kiss you," he did his best not to think of Bull, "Then he's willing to admit his feelings towards you. Don't give up, my dear girl. Give it a little more time. Though you may have to take matters into your own hands."

"What do you mean?" she finally managed to swallow the roll. "Should I tell him that I love him? I… I don't think… I could… what if he doesn't…"

"Now you see what he could be going through, working up the courage to tell you the same? Here, have this, I think they call it a crepe, some sort of think cake, but it's supposed to be delicious." Dorian swallowed himself, thinking he may have almost let too much slip, and had hastily tried to smooth things over. "Cullen may simply need the right opportunity. Later today, if he doesn't come back to you, then you go to him. Go to him, just the two of you, and see what happens. Now finish your breakfast."


Cullen didn't make it back to see her. She had finished breakfast, retired to her chambers—now that they were secured of spies and Dorian had vacated them—taken a bath and cleaned her hair, but Cullen did not check in on her. She had spent hours playing chess with Dorian, whiling away the time in idle chatter, but Cullen sent no word. Finally, a good two hours after supper, she gave up and took Dorian's advice.

Cullen's office at the Val Royeaux estate was larger than his one at Skyhold, darker too with stained woods and heavy drapes. A desk claimed the center, easily the size of a cot, and already littered with reports and parchment and inkwells and sealing wax. When she slipped in from the hallway, pressing herself against the wall, her long brown hair mimicking the paneling, she found him standing before his desk, his men and women gathered around him, handing out commands calmly and confidently.

"Rylen's men will monitor the situation. In the meantime, we'll send soldiers to…" his voice caught as his eyes were drawn to the movement of the door opening and closing. He could easily spy her, despite her attempt at camouflage, and felt his heart give a flop at the sight. She was looking more like herself again, though still thin and pale, and briefly he was reminded of that first meeting back in Haven all those months ago, when she pressed herself up against the wall and hoped no one would notice her. Hiding as she was behind the door, it was a very similar sight. Then she smiled at him oh so very slightly, and batted her eyes just once, and he felt his blood heat. Maker, but he had to get rid of everyone else. Now! "…assist as needed. That will be all."

There was a chorus of "Ser!" as his soldiers acknowledged his orders, and he walked with them towards the door, his arms spread to usher them outside. Peredura watching them file out, standing behind the door where she hoped she might go unnoticed, or at least be less noticed and hopefully quickly forgotten. It seemed as if luck was finally on her side, as no one mentioned her presence or acknowledged her. When the door closed, heavy and solid, Cullen leaned against it a moment longer, feeling the weight of command pressing him down and feeling the need for a little momentary support. "There's always something more, isn't there?"

"Long day?" She tried to keep the bitterness out of her voice, but she had hoped he would find the time to come to her, not force her to come to him.

He made a small noise of disgust, but whether it was over the amount of work that continually haunted him, or his disgust over allowing himself to share his weakness, it was hard to tell. "I shouldn't complain," was the only explanation he would give, turning away from the door, and Peredura, needing to give himself a little space. Her presence here, at this moment, was like an answer to his prayers, a long-overdue chance to say what he wanted—needed—to tell her. The only question was: how?

He needed a preamble, a segue, something that would allow him to broach the subject without opening himself up too much—just in case she didn't feel for him as deeply as he felt for her. Standing beside his desk, he began, "This war won't last forever. When it started, I hadn't considered much beyond our survival. But things are different now," he turned back towards her, willing her to understand.

Peredura pushed herself off the wall, following him, her face slightly perplexed as she asked, "What do you mean?"

He wanted to look away, he could feel his courage flagging, but he bolstered himself and trudged on through the trenches as any good soldier would do. And, looking into her soft brown eyes, seeing her before him so open and willing—she had come to his office, after all!—the words began to come of their own volition. "I find myself wondering what will happen after. When this is over, I won't want to move on…" his voice softened, filling with the love he was trying to proclaim, "Not from you."

His hand reached out, the gloved fingers stroking her unscarred cheek. She smiled at him, slightly, gently, and he smiled in return, feeling the warmth of his love and wanting to share it, but… Maker's breath, she'd done nothing more than smile at him. And he was about to say he loved her?! Surely she knew by now what he was trying to say. Surely she could take a hint. Surely… but she continued to do nothing more than smile, and when the silence grew, a tiny furrow of confusion creased her brow.

Courage fled, doubt invaded, and his brain stumbled to the forefront to pick up the battle. "But I don't know what you…" he watched that furrow grow, "That is, if you…" he had to turn away, needing air, reaching for the solidness of his desk, praying he wasn't making too much a fool of himself, "Ah…" he finished, failing utterly. Had it been this hard last night, he wondered to himself. Where had his courage gone? What happened to his words, those words, those self-cutting swords that would lay his soul bare before the woman he could not live without. He shuffled some papers, not that he hoped to find the words on them, but just to have something to do, some excuse as to why he turned away from her and towards his desk.

Peredura stared at his shoulder in shock. Cullen was running away. Briefly she was reminded of the old Cullen, the one who would take flight at the first sign of flirtatious banter, employ a standard tactic of running away whenever things got too serious. Could this mean… did she dare hope… and yet it seemed as if he was trying to say… that after Corypheus was defeated… that he wanted to remain with her…

Yet how could he be so dense? Didn't he notice all the signs she gave him, all the advances, all they shared? Why was he so hesitant, so willing to retreat at the first sign of defeat. "Cullen," she chided him, walking around his shoulder, slipping in between him and the desk. Ducking her head beneath his, catching his eye, she offered, "Do you need to ask?"

Boldly she sat on the edge of the desk, spreading her legs, bracing her hands behind her. If he didn't understand this, then she'd say those words first, but damn him even Cullen couldn't be this thick-skulled.

"I…" he attempted to answer, his voice husky with innuendo, "I suppose not, I…" Quickly a change came over him and he sputtered, "Well, yes, yes, as a matter of fact," he put his hands on her shoulders, keeping her before him, keeping himself before her, "Yes I do. I do need to ask. I won't assume anything when it comes to you; you're too important to me. I…" his hazel eyes flickered back and forth as he finished, "I love you, Pere."

Her heart sang with triumphant joy.

"Oh, Cullen, I love you, too…"

Her hand twitched, sliding just a little as she shifted, and brushed against a bottle of wine. Said bottled had been leaning over slightly, half of its base on a stack of papers and half on the desk, so it easily became unbalanced. In the blink of an eye the bottle fell, landing on the tiled floor and shattering. She gasped in surprise over the sound, over the mess, over her regret for having caused it.

"Oh, oh no," her hand flew up to her face as she looked up from the shards, "I'm sorry, Cullen, I'll clean it up, I promise, just give me a moment and… and I'll… Cullen…?"

He had looked up from the broken bottle at the same time she had, but his mind was reeling with other thoughts. He'd not only told her he loved her, but she said she loved him, too. He wanted to crow with triumph, never feeling such elation before, such victory, such hard-won success. Yet all she could say now was that she wanted to clean up a spilled bottle of wine? He shook his head, for the second time that day giving up on understanding the mind of a woman. Perhaps it was due to the long-awaited proclamation, perhaps it was due to the relief that she felt the same as he, perhaps it was simply due to the stress of the past several days bleeding away and falling behind them, but he felt an impulse. Very unlike himself, he could see it in his mind's eye, and before he considered it he was reaching around behind her, his arm sweeping over the surface of his desk, sending everything else after that initial spill. Then he was leaning over her, forcing her to lay back, further and further until she was lying across the top of his desk, his arm beneath her helping her to slide a little further so he could get onto the desk as well.

"Ser, I've a message from…"

If Peredura thought he had moved quickly and decisively before, she was astounded by his even quicker reaction to the interruption. "Quickly, man! Bring that lantern. She's fainted."

"Ser?" the solider queried, but Cullen didn't act as if anything else was amiss, other than her supposedly fainting. His hand was beside her face, shielding it from the soldier, as he loomed over her in what he prayed appeared as a concerned manner. When the soldier turned to pick up the lantern near the door, Cullen nonchalantly shifted off the desk, making sure to stand in a manner so that the soldier might think he could have been mistaken if he had thought he'd seen his Commander straddling the Inquisitor on a desk…

Peredura felt her cheeks burn, but Cullen's were hotter.

"Here's the lantern."

"Good man," Cullen acknowledged, waiting until Peredura closed her eyes before moving his hand away. "Burn the tip of that parchment, would you? The acrid smoke should be enough to revive her."

"Is she… I mean," the soldier did as he was asked, holding the smoldering edge to Cullen, "We know she was ill, or hurt, that's why we're here, but…"

"She's fine," Cullen assured him, "She just overtaxed herself this evening. There, she's coming around now, see?"

Peredura batted her eyes, taking her cue from his words, and pretended to just be waking up. "I… oh, Commander… what happened… I feel so woozy…"

"Take it slow, your Worship," the soldier suggested, helping Cullen to lift her to a sitting position, "It was just a bit of a spell. Nothing serious. Right, Commander?"

"Yes, you're alright now, Inquisitor," Cullen agreed. Then he acted as if he just remember why the soldier was there in the first place, "Oh, ah, did you have something to report."

"You had a report to give? Did my, um, 'spell' interrupt something important?"

"Of course not, Inquisitor. It was from Rylen, ser. He stated that all was quiet around the perimeter, so he was about to enlarge the search area to the surrounding streets."

"What was this?" she asked, curious and a little bit confused.

"Nothing to worry about," Cullen mumbled, refusing to meet her eyes. "Routine patrol. Very good, soldier, carry on."

"Ser, he wanted to know, well," the soldier looked at Peredura, cleared his throat, and tried again, "Rylen wanted me to ask you about the description, if it included, um, a you-know-what."

"What is this?" Peredura repeated, a little bit stronger this time.

Cullen sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose; damn, but this evening was turning out poorly. "There was a report earlier of someone lurking nearby, perhaps reconnoitering the grounds. Probably an Orlesian who got too close, or is trying to check up on his fellow who was caught spying yesterday." He didn't want to tell Peredura anything more than that, she'd been through enough lately, and there really weren't any grounds for concern. "Tell Rylen, as far as I know, the description was not detailed, but he should keep his eyes open for any suspicious activity. Understood?"

"Ser!" the soldier clicked his heels together, snapping off a smart salute. "Inquisitor!" Then he spun and left.

Cullen's shoulders deflated as soon as the door closed. "Maker's breath, that was close." Shyly he looked at her, still half-sprawled on the top of his desk, looking flushed and wide-eyed and oh-so-desirable. That impulse returned, but Cullen was back in control and able to ignore it.

"Do your men often enter your office without knocking."

"Yes," he admitted bluntly, taking her hand and helping her to her feet. "I've never had a reason before to keep them out. Nothing private goes on in here, and it's important for them to know they can reach me here, or leave a message for me, at any time of the day or night."

"Then, as your Inquisitor and, therefore, outranking you, might I give you a suggestion? Not an order, mind," her voice went dangerously low, "Just a suggestion."

"Yes?" he swallowed, not sure if he would like what she might suggest.

But she surprised him, reaching up on tiptoe to press her lips against his, "Since that conversation we were having is private, and as you said nothing private ever goes on in your office, then let's retire to a more private setting and continue our conversation. Someplace where we won't have someone walking in on us."

She glanced to the side, towards the door that led to his chambers, the chambers she had used the night before. He followed her gaze, returned his eyes back to hers, and smiled, "I am at your command, Madam Inquisitor."

Author's Note: I've already shared this on another story, but you all deserve an explanation as well.

I am sorry, my dears, so very, very, very sorry for my long absence. I cannot even begin to tell you all that has been happening to me these past several months. I've always thought: Courage is not the lack of having fears, but the act of doing what must be done in the face of those fears. And I… I am a coward.

I have come face-to-face with several of my deepest, darkest, most secretive fears. That I have survived these encounters is obvious, but it wasn't without earning my own scars. Scars, and emotions, which have held me in a suspension of writer's block, far too afraid of putting words on the page lest these overwhelming emotions take over and leave me shaken and broken and blubbering.

It took more than two months before I could even look at a story, much less tap into my muse and open up that Pandora's box of emotion within me that I feared would have no bottom and which might lead to me expelling far too much of my self, my emotions, into the aforementioned words.

But writing is cathartic for me. Therapeutic. Even as necessary as air and food and water on occasion. And though it pained me to write, I discovered a strength inside me, an ability to fight and overcome my fears… and I know I have finally started to heal.

Thank you, all of you, for your patience with me, for your reviews, for simply reading my stories and being there and reminding me that I'm not alone. I know I am stronger for having survived, but I am even stronger for having you. *HUGS*