Originally began as a kmeme prompt: "So it's been ten years, but the Knight Captain still has a crush on the Warden Amell. But it's been ten years, and he's not the man he used to be. He's older and far more confident than the blushing templar he once was. And since the rest of the world has gone to hell in a handbasket, maybe it's the perfect time for him to set out and try to woo the girl of his dreams. I want confident, sauve "I know what I want and by the Maker I am going to get it" Cullen trying to woo Amell. Bonus points if Amell has never been in a serious relationship, only flings, and so now it's her turn to be the blushing, shy one in the relationship."
And it...ah. Grew.
Non-WWB-verse compliant, Therrin Amell/Cullen postgame fic, Dragon Age 2 spoilers abound.
In the aftermath of Meredith's death the city seemed loath to recover.
With the smoking wreck of the Chantry at its heart the city was torn, damaged buildings jutting skyward like broken teeth, and with Hawke fled and Meredith burned and no viscount to speak of the thankless task of piecing Kirkwall back together fell on Cullen's shoulders.
No more days standing watch in the Gallows, no more days spent in diligent attention at Meredith's shoulder. He toiled over requisitions, over search and rescue, over the simmering unease of a city in the aftermath of an explosive declaration of war. So many of his templars had fallen, so many of the mages, and the citizenry watched each side with unease, strained to the breaking point. In a vain attempt to ease the tension Cullen worked from before dawn until after midnight as the days slipped past.
He would hold Kirkwall together with his bare hands, if he could.
But it wasn't enough, no matter how fervent his efforts. There was too much destruction for one city, for one lifetime, and though Cullen sent messages to Starkhaven and Cumberland, Orlais and Ferelden, he received no reply. There was too much trouble in the world for any nation to take an interest in aiding anyone outside its own borders. As weeks slipped by he struggled to keep the city from shredding itself to nothing, a constant losing battle that ground him down by inches, more convinced by the day that no aid would be coming.
Until it did, and the little ship docked by the Gallows, flying the colors of Ferelden.
"Knight-Captain," Basil called, trying to pitch his voice low for discretion and failing. "Knight-Captain Cullen!"
Curious onlookers turned to see the cause of the commotion and Cullen swallowed his irritation. There were enough people gawking these days at what was left of the Gallows; he didn't need any more attention. "Yes, what is it?"
"An emissary, serrah. Ferelden sent…" Basil winced, sweat beading at his hairline even though the day was barely warm. "Aid."
Cullen frowned in surprise and motioned Basil to follow. Once around the corner there was at least the illusion of privacy. "What do you mean, aid? Have they sent more templars? Food?"
"No, just a mage, serrah. A Fereldan mage. She claims the king sent her."
Perfect. Wonderful. Because that was precisely what Kirkwall needed just now, hot on the heels of the mage uprising – reinforcements for the wrong side. "Where is she?" he asked, a sour taste in his mouth. Too much to hope for that Ferelden would send anything useful, then. The king might not be pleased to have his emissary put right back on a ship bound for home but Cullen knew Kirkwall, and the last thing Kirkwall needed right now was a foreign mage around to muck up what little progress he'd made.
Perhaps it wouldn't be terrible, he told himself. He could write another letter, explain in better detail the nature of the difficulties Kirkwall had faced.
Surely nothing in his previous letter could have been misconstrued to mean SEND MORE MAGES, could it?
He didn't take the time to wash and eat, though his neglected stomach grumbled at him as he navigated the hallways. No, it was undoubtedly better to deal with this as quickly as possible. If he was lucky, he could have her dismissed back to Ferelden and on a ship to go out with the evening tide so he could get back to more important matters.
He steeled himself for the conversation as he approached the courtyard, wondering again if he should have taken on the role of Knight-Commander in name as well as duty. Perhaps it would have carried more weight, been more convincing when he'd asked for aid. Perhaps then Ferelden would have sent more than one person to help aid Cullen's adopted city.
The mage in question was facing away when he approached, looking up at a particularly forbidding piece of statuary, a small red-robed spot like a splash of blood on the bone-white stone. "Emissary," he began, trying to keep his annoyance from creeping into his tone. "I fear there's been a misunder—" She turned, and his words crumbled to ash, his heart stuttering to a halt before it took off again racing at the sight of a face almost as familiar to him as his own.
It was a joke, it had to be a joke. Some idiot brother had pulled an ill-advised prank with the worst timing in Kirkwall, surely—
But if it was a joke, no one had told Therrin Amell. Her eyes widened in surprise at the sight of him, and though she opened her mouth to speak she closed it again noiselessly, and only finally managed a faint, "Cullen." She wet her lips, staring at him as though he were a mirage. "What are you doing here?"
"I'm the Knight-Captain," he answered, wondering if this was a dream. "What are you doing here?"
She frowned. "I'm here to help with the reconstruction of Kirkwall. Surely your man told you I was here."
She seemed to recover from the surprise before he did, and he kicked himself silently and tried to catch up. "I… Therrin. Forgive me for saying it. But Kirkwall's problems aren't the type that you can magic away. We need more than—"
"Magic away?" She stepped closer and frowned, the afternoon sun lighting up her hair. "You think that's what I'm here for?"
"We need more help than one mage can supply. There's been enough damage to the city—"
"Which is exactly why I'm here," she interrupted, piqued. "In Denerim after the Blight—after I killed the Archdemon, you'll recall—I was there to help oversee the most intense phases of the city's reconstruction."
"And after that I spent a year at the Circle of Magi as a volunteer enchanter while they rebuilt. I kept peace between the groups of foreign mages until they could keep the peace themselves."
"And after that," she went on, rolling right over his protests, "I led the Wardens that stopped the darkspawn menace on the coast. And when that was done, I all but put the city of Amaranthine back together with my own two hands." Her brows rose, a challenge. "Question whatever you like; I believe my record speaks for itself."
Cullen absorbed it all in silence, part of him whispering you could use the help, any help, and another, less dutiful part of himself still almost too stunned to function noting the way an errant tendril of hair fluttered against her throat in the breeze, the way she stood before him with such conviction—she hadn't been so bold back at the Circle, not in the days they'd spent making eyes at each other in hopeless infatuation—but it appeared time had changed them.
Both of them.
"Very well," Cullen said finally.
"Excellent." Therrin gave him a brisk, professional smile. "Where do I start?"
It was a bit of a marvel, Cullen thought. Like watching a small whirlwind of productivity sweep through the Gallows, picking up disorder and leaving behind a trail of bewildered men and women who'd been conscripted into helping, what few mages were left and all the Tranquil, and a few of the templars who hadn't been quick enough to get out of the way.
"I'm going to need a staff," she explained when he asked.
His eyes flicked to the crystal-headed staff at her back.
"Of people." The corner of her mouth tugged upward and an answering tug came from inside his chest, a reassurance—if he'd needed one—that oh, yes, that particular spark was still very much alive. Even through everything, after so many years and a lifetime of changes, he still felt different in her presence, quieter and stronger and more vibrantly alive.
It made no sense at all. "I'll need my templars back tomorrow," he cautioned.
She made a face. "I'm keeping the rest. Unless I'm stepping on someone's toes, here," she said, the last bit almost a question.
"No, you're not. I've tried to spearhead the efforts, but…" But it was obvious to anyone with eyes how well that'd been going. "You're welcome to what resources you need," he said instead.
"Good." She bit her bottom lip absently as she skimmed over a letter, seeming to forget his presence; he let his eyes linger on the reddening curve of her mouth only a moment before he went back to his side of the hallway and his ever-present duties.
He steered clear for the rest of the evening and most of the next day, too thrown by his own feelings to risk muddling them further with Therrin's particular brand of distraction. He walked, instead, down the Hightown byways, up the many stairs to the Viscount's Way, hoping that fresh air and private thought might provide some illumination where a night's worth of restless unease had failed.
It was difficult to think that she'd come to the city by coincidence.
It was also difficult to deny the response she engendered in him, long-buried and so nearly forgotten. It'd been years. Years. They weren't practically children anymore; they were figureheads now, whether they wanted to be or not, trying to rebuild a broken city with too much at stake for anything like a casual dalliance.
Which isn't what you want, and you know it.
Cullen sighed to himself, took in the sight of the city below, and started back down the stairs.
Perhaps he shouldn't have looked in on her that evening—a small hesitant part of him informed him that it was a poor idea—but attempting to unravel his own feelings in privacy had been a futile endeavor. He had to know, and knowing could only come from being around her; he settled across from her at what used to be Orsino's desk and watched one Tranquil come and leave, and then another. "Thank you," she said in dismissal, with a small crisp nod for emphasis.
A commander of men. He'd never have predicted it.
Then again, he'd never have predicted so much of how his life had turned out.
"You don't mind working with the Tranquil?" he asked, and at her inquisitive look went on, "It seems many mages despise them. Or find them… disquieting." Or use them as living symbols of templar brutality, he added silently.
"I don't mind, no. They're still people." She propped her chin in one hand, considering. "I've worked with them before, and they're… even broken mages are still mages," she said. "I'd think they deserve compassion, not fear. Just like anyone else."
She shrugged as though it was nothing, though Cullen's private estimation insisted it was the opposite. His mind worked to measure her up, to get a sense of what was the same now as before, what was different, where their paths had deviated—but there were new boundaries here, edges he hadn't expected, an expansive determination he hadn't seen of her in the Circle.
"Anyway, Tranquil are easy," she said. "It's Kirkwall that's giving me fits."
Cullen raised an eyebrow. "What, really?"
"It's just familiar enough to lull me into complacency before someone calls me serrah and ruins the whole thing," she complained. "I can't get a sense of the place. Sure, Denerim felt strange at first but Kirkwall…" she blew a bit of hair out of her eyes, "It just feels odd."
Inspiration struck like a bolt from the blue. "I think I know exactly how to help that."
She frowned. "I'm sorry?"
But yes, absolutely, it was a perfect idea; why hadn't he thought about it before? "There's something you ought to see," he said, rising from his chair. "Perhaps it'll help."
Hightown in twilight was a maze of dusky blues and violets, and though Cullen knew pickpockets slunk through the long shadows no one dared intrude as he walked with Therrin down the streets.
They must have made an odd picture, he mused, the Knight-Captain going for a stroll with Therrin Amell, Hero and mage of the Circle. Years ago—days ago—he'd have called it a stark impossibility. Now they ambled together in comfortable silence as the last rays of sunlight faded, until Cullen called a halt.
Vines had grown over the family crest again, white-flowered and untended in the weeks since Hawke's departure; he pulled several tendrils of them away and passed them to Therrin. "Here. The Amell estate. It's your family's."
She stared wide-eyed at the crest, and at him. "You're kidding."
"No." He searched momentarily for the key—they'd had to search the place, just in case, but they'd found nothing—and unlocked the door, holding it open for her and then closing it behind them. "The Amells have been nobility in Kirkwall for four hundred years."
She stared at the foyer disbelieving, taking it all in with a dazed silence, and then licked her lips from nerves. "It could be a different Amell."
"No." He'd done his research, back when he'd first heard the name, back when it'd been new enough to be startling to hear the name of the girl he'd loved on everyone's lips. "I looked into it." And then when she only gawked instead of answering: "They were cousins of yours, in Kirkwall. You're a noblewoman."
It shook her from her reverie. "You're kidding."
"No." But she didn't seem inclined to move past the foyer, and without thinking he held out a hand. "Come on."
Without thinking, she took it.
"Aren't we intruding?" she balked at the sight of the main hall, a worried crease on her forehead.
"No, everyone's gone." A fine coating of dust made the furniture seem a bit pale in the moonlight; Therrin took in everything in a fathomless quiet and didn't let go of his hand. "Hawke and her companions don't seem inclined to return. You have another cousin, Gamlen, but he's disappeared as well. And since you're the only Amell in Kirkwall, I think it's safe to say the estate is yours."
"Holy Maker," she breathed. And Cullen's heart seemed to squeeze in on itself, because in the dim soft light her expression was wholly unguarded, as open and honest as it'd been years ago when he'd first fallen in love with her, and that thought was all that was needed to gather up the wayward threads of his own feelings and weave them into a perfect seamless whole, so simple and so obvious that Cullen thought: oh.
The more things changed…
But before they could never have stood here in a doorway holding hands, no matter how absent-mindedly, and finally she let go to walk a slow circle around the hall, looking into the cold ashes left in the fireplace, running a fingertip over the dust on a cluttered table. The estate looked as though someone had left in a hurry—which they had—and might return at any moment, which Cullen suspected they wouldn't. He'd heard Hawke had stopped long enough to seize her maid and a pair of dwarves and the guard captain's husband; it seemed a clean break from Kirkwall, if nothing else.
"It feels like I'm breaking into someone else's house," she admitted at last with a grimace. "But…" She didn't finish, only cast a reluctant glance at the paintings on the walls—other Amells? Cullen didn't know.
"Barring the incredibly unlikely, it is yours," he said. "Your family's, if nothing else."
"Family," Therrin repeated, voice almost lost in the vast empty space of the dark house. "Before today I thought I didn't have a family. Nobility, really?" But she shook her head, impatient. "I should've brought my things. I could've spent the night." She glanced at the high dark ceiling, and he thought he heard her laugh. "I wonder if it's haunted."
"You'd want to stay the night in a haunted house?"
"I slept for a week and a half in the hold of a ship that smelled like rotted cabbage. I spent last night on a blanket on the floor. For the sake of a bed, I'd take a ghost or two." She circled back his direction, smiling. "Did you know them? The… Hawkes, you said?"
And on the way back to the Gallows he told her what he could, what little he'd known firsthand and a few of the less-improbable stories he'd heard from time to time. Back at the Gallows they were both quiet, mindful of the empty halls and people sleeping nearby, and he walked her to the office that had doubled as workspace and bedroom both, the flowering vines from earlier still streaming from one hand.
"Here," he said quietly as he handed over the key. "This is yours."
He should've given it to her in the first place, he thought, but better late than never. "Oh." Therrin gave an uncomfortable half-smile. "This doesn't feel real," she confessed.
"Which part? The nobility or the estate?"
"Both. All of it." She shrugged, casting about for words. "Being… here." She searched his face, the weight of her gaze almost like a touch, still open and unguarded and inexpressibly sweet.
"I'm glad you're here," he admitted. Considering the alternatives… and of all the people for the Maker to drop in his lap… "I'm glad it's you."
The mask of professionalism slipped back into place and she smiled, the nearly too-bright smile he was beginning to suspect was a lie. "You just haven't had to work with me yet. You'll change your tune." But she softened a little. "Thank you, Cullen. For… this."
"It wasn't mine to give you," he said. "I'll walk you back over in the morning, if you like."
"Then goodnight." And the little nod felt more like a bow, like something more, and when he glanced back as he turned the corner she was still in the hallway, flowers in one hand and the key in the other, her fingers curled around the metal as though trying by touch to decipher the secrets of heaven.
As the days slipped past and the recovery efforts came together the city seemed to breathe again, the nervous citizenry soothed a little more with every day that passed and no new trouble came. All Therrin's warnings aside, he didn't find her unpleasant to work with at all—the opposite, in fact. Between diplomacy and ruthless endurance and (in the case of those bandit gangs down in the docks) some old-fashion head-bashing, they got things done.
It was extremely satisfying. No more sitting on his hands and biting his tongue, watching the city's problems go unaddressed while Meredith hunted phantoms; now he could wade in unreservedly, take action where action had long been needed.
Some tasks were harder than others. Writing letters to the families of each of the templar dead drained him for days, enough that when he walked Therrin back to Hightown in the evenings he stayed, drinking in the stately quiet of the mansion like a balm to his troubled spirit. There had been so much death, such an incredible magnitude of it—lives cut short, people he knew or half-knew or didn't know at all, gone, and for what?
"It's all you can do," Therrin told him over a meal and a glass of wine that took off the raw edge of his tension. "They made their choices when they signed on. You can lead, and you can clean up the mess after. The rest is up to them."
Cullen grimaced anyway. "Voice of experience?"
"Yes," she admitted, her face as grave and contemplative as he felt. "The Joining's fatal a lot of the time. And war is messy business." She sighed and he thought he could hear the ghost of long sleepless nights and second-guessing in the sound, a commiseration in his own heart sighing in agreement. "We make do," she said finally, and then laughed a bit ruefully. "Which is a pretty poor philosophy, I imagine. 'Do what you can, and let the rest go.'"
"No," Cullen said, resting his head on the back of the chair, strangely relaxed as though her words had been permission. "I don't think it's a poor philosophy at all."
The awareness of his feelings never went away, though it was easy to get absorbed in work and let the idea of it lapse into the back of his brain until something brought it to mind. Sometimes they could work in companionable silence for a day in all productivity and then he'd find himself distracted by the way sunlight gilded her eyelashes, or an overheard bit of conversation made him smile to himself. More and more he believed her claim to have put Amaranthine back together by force of will; she brought to bear such determination on Kirkwall that he could hardly doubt it.
It was so like and so unlike before that it made him ache, sometimes. Years before it'd been a helpless infatuation beyond reason or resistance, and he'd fallen in love and looked for reasons why afterward. Now it was changed, with reasons in abundance and his own senseless heart trailing along behind, gaping in silent awe at the sights along the way.
There was no avoiding it at last. He'd been working in Meredith's office for weeks, and the last ghosts of guilt had faded. He needed the workspace, and so one afternoon in between overseeing the first wave of new recruits and signing off on the latest duty roster, he cleared away Meredith's belongings and set about moving in.
It wasn't much of a task. Meredith had accumulated a good many personal effects but once those were crated up and sent to storage, he had few things of his own to replace them.
Still, it was more than he should have attempted in one load. His armful of belongings was precariously balanced and slipping even as he walked, and it was more than he could do to juggle them quite all the way to Meredith's—his—desk. A box of letters upended and spilled to the floor and he only barely caught the ceremonial shield before it could clatter to the stone and alert half the Gallows to his clumsiness, but once he'd got it all rearranged save the letters he was so contorted trying to hold it all that he could barely walk.
Therrin peered out of Orsino's office, concerned.
"Help," Cullen said as the pile seemed to shift of its own volition. "Please?"
She grinned but didn't mention his momentary ungainliness, taking enough off his hands so that he could manage the rest. He hung the shield in its place at the wall before he realized that Therrin was picking up the letters in the hallway; by the time he looked, she'd…
The rod of fire request form hadn't aged well. It had yellowed at all four corners and the vellum had cracked in quarter-lines from folding and unfolding and being shoved to the backs of drawers for years at a time. It looked fragile in her fingertips, fluttering gently from her breath as she read it. No point in saying that isn't yours because it had been, and in any case he didn't want to interrupt, not with her eyes gone soft and thoughtful. He didn't have to see the words to figure out about where she'd be; he knew it by heart, the formal Tranquil words punctuated by Sweeny's distracted scrawl, as though his signature had got bored midway through signing and wandered off for a snack.
"Sorry," she said when she noticed him at last, jumping a bit as she came from her reverie. "It fell open. I wasn't trying…" She stared at it again in disbelief, just for a second. "You kept it. Why?"
He bent to collect the other letters, shuffling them into a pile. "Because it was yours."
"Not much of a memento," she mumbled, frowning at it.
"You didn't leave much behind," he reminded her. Almost nothing, in fact; after she'd been taken by the Grey Warden it'd almost been like she'd never lived at the Circle at all, that she'd erased herself on the way out more permanently than any templar could have. "Don't look too shocked," he said, amused at her bafflement. "Templars can be on the superstitious side. More than you'd think carry around trinkets from their sweethearts. At least I didn't carry it around in my smallclothes."
For a moment he thought Therrin was going to laugh, but she only looked at him as though she'd never really seen him before, folding up the request form and handing it back. "Sweethearts?"
And there was more meaning than it seemed in that little word, he could feel that much, as close as he'd come to an outright admission since he'd babbled it out during Uldred's attack. But that had been wrenched from him under the torment of horror and deprivation; this time it was his to give as he chose. "Yes, sweethearts," he said, watching her cheeks grow faintly pink, her expression pleased. "Or wives."
Her scandalized face made him laugh. "What, you didn't know?"
"I…" When he closed the lid on the letter-box he stood and held out a hand; she took it and he pulled her to her feet. "I thought I had all this figured out," she admitted once they were both back in his office. "I spent my whole life around templars, almost. And I come here and it's as though everything I know is wrong. It's like waking up to be told the sky is green."
"It is green."
"Don't you start," she laughed. "You know what I mean."
"I do," he admitted. "It all seemed very strange to me, too. Though I was hardly in a state to notice, those first couple of years."
A shadow passed across her expression and for a second he wished he hadn't spoken, but she recovered, watching him tuck his belongings into drawers. "I am sorry for looking," she said after a while. "I don't know what came over me."
"Unbearable curiosity," he hazarded, and she grinned.
"If it bothers you—and it shouldn't," he began easily, "make it even. Dinner, tonight, at the estate." After straightening the office he'd scheduled in sparring practice, a sweaty, exhausting exercise that invariably left him ravenous; a good meal after would be just the thing.
"Dinner," she repeated, giving him an odd look, still faintly pleased from before. "Alright."
The Amell estate had definitely improved over the course of a few weeks, though he suspected that was more due to a maid's efforts than Therrin's. The dust was gone, though little else seemed changed, as though she'd not quite settled in. "No, I haven't," she admitted when he asked. "I keep expecting someone to come through the front door and kick me out."
"No one's going to kick you out," he insisted. Though it might be interesting to see them try; he wasn't sure who would win in a fight between Hawke and Therrin but he wouldn't bet against Therrin, if it came to it. "If nothing else, consider yourself a caretaker. Keeping up the estate while the rest of the family's away for a very extended vacation."
"You really don't think they're coming back?" She glanced over her shoulder, and there was the trespassing-worry of before but this… this was different.
Cullen tried to reason it out and couldn't. "No. I'd be very surprised if they did. If Hawke and her accomplices—companions," he corrected for her sake, a detail she didn't miss, "if they came back to Kirkwall they'd face arrest. Last reports put them long gone, anyway. Why? Were you looking forward to a family reunion?"
He expected her to laugh. She didn't. Instead she stood, pacing restlessly, skimming fingertips against the table and frowning at the paintings as though she'd demand answers if they could only speak. "It's just… being here. Surrounded by family things, living in a family estate, and…" she gestured helplessly. "And I still feel like I'm the only one." She crossed her arms, disappointment evident on her face. "I'd thought I might find some sort of connection, but these people aren't anything to me but names in a book. I have…" she picked up a half-empty volume and shook it for emphasis, "a mother I don't remember. Brothers I don't remember. Cousins I never knew, grandparents dead ages ago, everyone gone and I don't know who they are."
"The official records are a bit sanitized," Cullen said carefully, not quite sure how to approach her restless dissatisfaction. "From what I understand the Amell family's always had mages."
She laughed tightly, unsurprised. "A lot of Amells in the Kirkwall Circle, then?"
"No," Cullen conceded.
"Oh perfect. A family line of apostates."
"You've got a cousin in the templars, as well," he pointed out. "Though he's since left the Order, I believe. Fled Kirkwall with Hawke."
"So… runaway mages, and runaway templars," Therrin mused. "Cullen, I don't have anything in common with these people."
He couldn't suppress a snort. "You know, according to some schools of thought, you're an apostate yourself."
She gave him a dirty look. "What, are you going to arrest me?"
He shouldn't laugh at the thought but he couldn't help it, and anyway when he didn't answer right away Therrin only looked pleasantly flustered, sitting back down a little gracelessly and not meeting his eyes. "Alistair wrote to ask when I'm coming back to Ferelden."
Cullen's amusement went cold. "Are you leaving?"
"Not yet. There's too much to do, still." She fussed absently with a bit of decoration on her robe, still not looking up. "And ever since you brought me here I've had the thought that this place was special, that it ought to mean something. Seems a shame to leave when I've only just got here."
An estate meant for family, Cullen thought; he could understand how living alone in the wide empty spaces of it might be uncomfortable. It was meant to be full—of family, of friends, of the sounds of children and dogs—not quiet, not like this.
"What do you want?" he asked, and she frowned, not understanding. "Do you want to go back?"
"I…" She hesitated. "I don't know." But her uncertainty vanished when she turned the question back on him. "What do you want?"
Cullen had no shortage of answers: for the world to stop changing, for one, and a clear path and a good cause, and then as his wants gained momentum: I want you to stay, I want to fill up this empty house with you and family and make something together—
The intensity of the mental image was staggering, the culmination of half a life's wanting and too much experience to settle for shadows, anymore. They'd been given a second chance, he realized with the force of a blow to vitals, and he was wasting it on inaction and second-guessing.
No more. Life was too short and too uncertain; he'd learned that much the hard way. The resolution settled on him like another suit of armor, protective and formidable.
But he hadn't answered and she was still waiting, eyebrows arched. Cullen smiled, mostly to himself, and only said, "I'll tell you some other time."
From there his path was clear. Proximity wasn't a problem, not with him set up in Meredith's old office and her set up in Orsino's. The desks even faced each other, for goodness' sake; if they wanted to make eyes at each other all the day long they could.
They didn't. Not that the thought didn't have a certain appeal, but there was simply too much to do.
Still, he made time. He watched her sometimes, wondering how exactly to go about this. It's not as though a life in the templars had been adequate preparation; he could guess, but he couldn't help but wonder if there was a particular way to go about wooing a woman.
He seemed to be doing well enough, though. She took to smiling when she caught sight of him and the evenings at the Amell estate grew more frequent; he walked back to the Gallows after nightfall, wonderfully content, holding that peace at the heart of him to carry him through the hours.
And it was more than just emotion, he knew. There was no mistaking the pull of desire when he felt it, a slow-simmering tease of scant little touches when he handed over papers, of the way she went soft and relaxed on their walks back to Hightown, freer and younger and smiling, the way she hesitated in her own doorway with her eyes searching his as if expecting… something.
It was one line he couldn't quite bring himself to cross. Yes, in theory he wanted to, wanted… everything. Certainly his body had some ideas of its own, and made its opinion known often and adamantly. It was nearly a reassurance to see how very vivid his dream-imagination could really be, unraveling all his careful spaces of consideration and shocking him awake with his heart racing, tangled alone in damp sheets.
But in the waking world he hesitated at the cusp of action, unsure if this was the right moment, or this, or this.
Cullen knew they attracted attention, particularly together; he hadn't known how transparent they might really be.
Until: "Er, serrah?" Basil looked ill at ease in the doorway, glancing over his shoulder at Therrin's empty office. "You… have a moment?"
Not really. "Maybe one," Cullen said. "Is there a problem?"
"No, serrah," Basil said, too quickly, wincing and nearly radiating discomfort. "Just a question. It's been… ah… the fellows have been wondering, and. Ah. There was a… ah. I got the short straw."
Cullen frowned, trying to imagine what'd make the man look as though his smallclothes were stuffed with stinging nettles. "What's the question?"
"It's about that mage, serrah. The… ah… Fereldan." Basil shifted from foot to foot as though ready to sprint off. "Are you courting her?"
"Yes," Cullen said, mildly irritated at the interruption. "Is that all?"
"Yes, serrah. Thank you, serrah," Basil managed, and all but flew down the hallway.
"So," Therrin began that night, watching him from the other side of the narrow little table. "I heard the wildest rumor today."
Cullen glanced up from his absentminded notes. "Oh?"
"Yes." She laughed, the sound ever-so-faintly strained. "I heard you were courting me."
"Oh," Cullen said, relieved it was only that. "Yes."
Therrin stared at him a second, and then laughed in shock, and then flushed a spectacular red. "I… wow."
For a moment he had to wonder if he'd made a drastic misstep. "You… didn't know."
"I wondered," she said quickly. "I thought, a few times... a lot of times…"
A terrible thought occurred to him. "If there's someone else back in Ferelden—"
"No! Maker, not that, it's…" She blew out a breath. "No. There hasn't been anyone else, not since the Blight." She took a deep swallow of wine and set the cup well away as though it might bite. "If anyone's been interested in me it's only been as a pathway to Alistair," she explained. "I'd got used to being alone, I think." And before he could say you shouldn't have to get used to it she speared him with a searching look. "Is this even possible? I mean yes, I know Kirkwall's different. But you—you're Fereldan. You're you."
Cullen sat quiet at first, trying to collect his scattered thoughts, to make sense of the intensity of her gaze and the thousand wordless impulses that drove him as they coalesced into certainty, wondering how to explain. "I lived by the rules I was given from the day I joined the Order," he said at last, picking each word with all deliberation. "I lived by Greagoir's rules and watched a Circle all but annulled. I lived by Meredith's and watched her nearly annul another." Regret was dull in his chest, a well-worn mantra of it didn't have to be this way… "I've grown tired of living by other people's rules. Of standing by watching. I know what's right, and what's wrong. These days that's enough."
She watched him, eyes soft in the fading light. "And this…"
"This is right," he finished quietly, firm in his utter conviction.
"I see." Therrin sat still as a statue, looking at him as though she could read his soul if only she tried hard enough. "I thought…" She shook her head, gave a rueful not-quite-laugh. "You didn't even touch me; I didn't know what to think."
His mouth was suddenly dry. "Do you want me to?" It could all unravel, even here, she could tell him no and he'd leave and she'd go back to Ferelden.
When she spoke again it was so faint he scarcely caught it. "Yes."
His heart seemed to constrict at the word, contracting around a happiness so sharp it cut. The table was just narrow enough; he stood, leaning over carefully to press his mouth to her lips for a moment, only a moment. She made a wordless noise in her throat as he pulled away, her eyes closed as he sat back in his chair and held himself still.
Therrin squeezed her eyes shut tighter, breath hitching. "I suppose climbing over the table would be a bad idea."
"I… yes. Probably," he agreed carefully.
"Right," she said, and when she opened her eyes again they were bright with unshed tears. "Better not, then." She pushed up from her chair gingerly, as if it were made of glass, or she was, and circled the edge of the table. "You're sure about this," she murmured, taking his hand carefully and watching as his fingers fell into the spaces between hers.
"It's you," he said honestly, and pressed his lips to the back of her hand. "I've always been sure about you."
And without a table between them it was easier: she leaned in and he pulled her close, and the angle was awkward until he lifted her from the floor and she straddled his lap, curling into his breastplate and looking into his eyes. Words seemed irrelevant, then, so he held his peace. She ran her eyes over his face, watching his mouth, tracing him with feather-light touches of her fingertips; he cupped the side of her face in his palm as gently as he could, but couldn't resist any more. She was here in his arms and this was right, the brush of her lips against his own was painfully, exquisitely right, these slow torturous kisses were right—
She shivered and murmured his name against his lips, and he could have died a happy man.
But it was a ferocious frustration at the same time to be armored, to slant his mouth against hers and feel so little from the neck down, the heavy heat between his legs making its argument for fewer clothes and much less metal. He wanted to feel her against him, desperately so as slow kisses gave way to more, to hungry impatient kisses that sent his blood racing and sparks along every nerve—
He pulled away for a moment to prove to himself that he could, dizzy from the want of her and gasping for air.
The estate had grown dark, the night outside well past the usual time he took himself back to the Gallows, but she followed his gaze to the window and didn't breathe a word about the time. She kissed him again, instead, as gently as snowflakes, and all thoughts of leaving melted away like dew before the dawn.
It seemed to take forever to get up the stairs. Between every few steps was a better angle, a new patch of light, an opportunity to kiss and touch and stand together in a sublime sort of closeness, but they reached the bedroom at last and she lit the fire absently, whispering magic against his throat and making him shiver as light flared and crackled in the hearth. "How—?" She examined the edges of his armor, brow creased in concentration.
"Here." And he pointed out the catches, the buckles, watched her fingers work the fastenings of his armor and put each piece carefully aside. Between the two of them they stripped him slowly, only made slower when he was free to the waist from his armor and caught her by the hand to pull her in again. She stood on tiptoe and leaned against his chest, making a little hum of pleasure when he kissed her. Something inside him went molten at the sound, groaning with the force of years; her fingertips trembled and he covered her hands with his own in silent reassurance.
It was easier with the last of his armor off (though when she knelt to unfasten the plate on his legs it was its own peculiar torment; he swallowed thickly and reminded himself that it was the heat of the fire on his thigh and not the warmth of her breath but his body didn't care), and when at last he was free of the confines of metal he felt as though he could breathe.
The bed was soft and she was softer, cradling him against her, firelight sending streamers of orange flicking along her hair as he smoothed it from her face; she smiled up at him and twisted to kiss his palm. He undid the fastenings of her robe himself, watching her pulse at her throat jump with every one he released, brushing his fingertips along the narrow ribbons of exposed skin before he bent to press his mouth to her throat. She moaned quietly and he felt it hum through the whole of his body, every moment more overcome as emotion and sensation magnified one another in infinite measure.
It was an effort not to rush, to yank off the last of their clothing and give in to this relentless tide of desire. But it had been years and years of wanting, denied and scorched and buried alive and still somehow whole after all this time, rising in unblemished perfection to the surface of him and refusing to stay down. If ever there was a time for slowness, it was now. He took a shuddering breath against her half-bare shoulder that sent gooseflesh chasing along her skin, and he huffed a soft laugh at the sight of it and made himself still.
Therrin was not quite as patient. She pushed her robes off entirely and dropped her underthings to the floor, out of the way, breath catching when his hand skimmed along her side. "You're overdressed," she murmured against his jaw, grazing it with her lips and curling one leg over his own.
"I started at a disadvantage," he reminded her. By the Maker this was good, skin-to-skin was a marvel of feeling; he tugged his shirt off blindly and dropped it over his shoulder, distracted by the skim of her fingertips at his waist. But being overdressed had its own advantages: under the guise of shedding his clothing he kissed his way down her body, pressing his lips to the curves of her breasts, the planes of her ribs, down to the inside of her thigh, until she squirmed on the bedclothes and made a sound like a whimper that sent all the blood in his body rushing south.
"I don't want to wait anymore," she managed, faintly hoarse as he pushed off the last of his clothes, pulling him over her and sliding her arms around him. "We've waited long enough as it is."
Overwhelmed by the sensation of her body against him, of the heat at the apex of her thighs against his length, Cullen could only nod.
And inexperience was against him but he knew enough from what he'd gathered and overheard over the years; he reached between them to adjust himself and gasped, just from that, an overload of slick-warm-soft that did nothing for rational thought and everything for his instincts. It was a delicious kind of agony to go slowly, to sink in the tiniest bit at a time, watching her eyes drift closed in pleasure as he pushed in entirely.
He was dangerously close, he could feel it, struggling for stillness and control in the few bare seconds before she shifted beneath him and something inside her flexed; he choked on the electric force of the sensation as it rolled through him, over him, wringing him out entirely. He moaned into her shoulder in mingled pleasure and disappointment as he shuddered helplessly and came, too surprised for words at the intensity of the feeling and nearly too dazed to pull away.
But Therrin had laced her legs around his hips and didn't budge. "Don't you move," she murmured, holding him inside her even as he softened, taking his face in her hands. She pressed her mouth to his and he could feel her smile against his lips.
Cullen propped himself on his elbows, embarrassed for the first time in ages. "I already—"
"I know," she interrupted, unperturbed, skimming her palms up his arms before her mouth twitched and her eyes shone. "Did you like it?"
"Ah… yes," Cullen confessed. Shouldn't that have been obvious?
"Would you like to do it again?" That something inside her flexed again, rippling along his half-hard length.
"Maker, yes," he managed breathlessly, and she laughed in delight, pulling him down again for soft languorous kisses that set his blood afire and left him groaning for more. It was a kind of bliss to explore in languid peace, to learn with his fingertips the places that made her shiver and laugh and arch into his body, holding on for dear life.
He pursued her moans and sighs with all attention, so absorbed in the task that he barely noticed he'd hardened again until they were already moving, a dual slow rhythm that sent pleasure like sparks of light shimmering down his skin. This was better, so much better than he'd imagined in a hundred solitary daydreams; the fit of her against him, around him, her breath at his earlobe and her encircling arms. He moved to match her pace until she writhed and urged him faster with hands and hips, pulling him in deep. "I'm not going to… to be able to wait," she warned.
"Then don't," he gasped, and kissed her again like a starving man.
She laughed a little desperately at that, low in her throat, and then moments later she arched against him, fingers clenching against his sides as she tightened and cried out into the skin of his throat, and that seemed to draw him out again, coaxing another heady climax from him in delirious euphoria. He was floating above his body, he felt, his head light and senseless; he rolled to his back and waited for his thundering pulse to slow, reaching blindly for her until she tucked herself beside him, legs tangled together and her hand flattened over his heart.
It was all the comfort in the world. He reached down to tug the blankets up over their bodies and sank back into the bedclothes, spent and utterly sated, lying face-to-face with Therrin trading murmurs and soft kisses as the night wore on, until the fire burned low and it grew impossible to keep his eyes open any longer.
Magic woke him before dawn the next morning, the brush of a spell against his senses drawing him from his dreams to a bleary awareness, a brief confusion at waking up alone in an unfamiliar bed before he remembered. He found Therrin in the next room over, floating in steaming-hot bathwater that still rippled from the spell that'd heated it, and she turned over like a seal at his approach, resting her arms on the stone edge and her chin on her hands. "Morning."
The side of her mouth twitched up in a small crooked smile and she held out a hand in invitation. "It's got a rough patch at the bottom," she warned him as he stepped over the high edge of the tub, water steaming around his knees, overbalanced until he settled into the water.
"It's fine." The heat was relaxing and he wasn't even tense to begin with, especially not with his back to the stone and Therrin sitting comfortably between his thighs. She leaned against him, smiling, eyes closing in contentment, and he traced droplets of water with his fingertips as they rolled down her skin. He had the faint nagging sense that he should say something but he didn't know what, but as it was Therrin didn't seem set on conversation herself.
She twitched when his fingers ran over her ribs, wriggling in the water and laughing. "Don't."
"I didn't do anything," he lied, and did it again harder.
"Yes you—Cullen!" She seized both his hands in the water, laughing; this close he could feel every shake of it through his skin. "Stop. I'll kick you out of the bath, I swear."
"No you won't." He freed his hands and evaded her when she tried to seize hold of them again, but instead of going for her ribs again he reached lower, skimming along the curves of her hips before sliding inward, to those places that'd drawn out such marvelous responses from her the night before.
"That's cheating," she protested, but she didn't move to stop him. Her head fell back against his shoulder as he touched and stroked, trying to remember just where it was best, learning it all again by the scant daylight beginning to glow through the window and ignoring for the moment his own arousal as it pressed into her back. She gripped his forearms as her body went tense, muscles jumping beneath her skin. "Are you this quick a study about everything?" she asked, voice tight with want.
"Only the interesting things," he promised, taken aback when she pushed his hands off and rolled again in the water to face him, bracing one hand on the stone and reaching the other down between them. And then she was on him, sliding down to take him inside her all at once; he forgot how to breathe and how to work his tongue and made a helpless noise that didn't sound like himself at all.
When his vision cleared Therrin was smirking. "That's cheating," he protested faintly, and she laughed and began to move.
Last night had been a revelation, an intricate tapestry of joy and devotion and desire, but even this, lighthearted as it was, didn't seem a lesser experience. She smiled and sighed when he took hold of her hips to better manage their rhythm, the water sloshing quietly around them, and he took in the new and interesting view with all appreciation until the mounting tension obliterated thought entirely.
Later they dressed in comfortable quiet, Cullen donning his clothes from the day before and his armor, a piece at a time; when they were done she took up her staff and he took up his sword and they set out into the city together.
"I hope you came up with a plan for damage control when you decided to court me," she said when he returned from investigating a possible den of maleficarum in one of the warehouses down dockside.
He frowned in alarm. "What's happened?"
"No, nothing yet, it's fine." She hesitated. "But there's talk, already. They know you spent the night in Hightown, though how they know, I'm not sure." She made a dissatisfied face. "Your men are terrible gossips, by the way. You might consider putting a stop to it."
Cullen thought it over, baffled. "So they talk. And I did spend the night in Hightown. You can hardly fault them for being observant."
"Not for being observant, no," she admitted. "But if they think…" she trailed off with a grimace, grasping for words.
"It doesn't matter what anyone thinks," Cullen said, the idea rankling. "It's no one's business but ours."
She gave a wry laugh. "You've never been at court. All that matters is what people think. Most of the time the truth is beside the point entirely."
"But you're not at court," he pointed out. "This is Kirkwall."
She sighed, relenting. "True enough. Old habits, I suppose."
He stripped off his gauntlets and set them aside, rummaging in his desk drawers for wax. "What do you suppose they'd do at court, if they knew? About you being a noblewoman."
"That still sounds so bizarre." Her mouth twisted. "Honestly? They'd probably wet themselves. Most of them think I've got too much influence already."
He laughed, half from surprise. "Well. Good thing it doesn't matter what anyone thinks, isn't it?"
She snorted and went back to her side of the hallway.
He stayed at the Amell estate again that evening.
"I'm going to need a change of clothes," he noted, thinking aloud. He should have brought some over earlier; he'd been in Hightown twice before midday and hadn't thought about it.
Leaning back on her elbows on the bed and looking utterly relaxed, Therrin only shrugged. "If it's a problem, I can have Belinda wash them before she goes for the night."
"Which… would require me to be naked for a few hours," he said. "Until they dried, at least."
She smirked, a voluptuous heat in her eyes. "That's the plan."
"Clever," he admitted. "Deviant, but clever."
Her head fell back as she laughed; he decided he liked it. And they got distracted in the midst of undressing (not that he minded, not when her palms slid up his legs and she took him into her mouth and sucked until he thought he might lose his mind or fall over, whichever came first) so by the time Therrin ventured out with the bundle of his clothes the maid had gone.
He washed them himself and hung them to dry, and by the time he came back to bed Therrin was sprawled on her stomach frowning at a book. "What's the matter?"
"Nothing," she said, biting absently at her mouth. "Reading the laws of Kirkwall. Did you know it's illegal for more than four people in any party to assemble in the Gallows at any given time?"
"Yes, I knew that."
"Did you know that no one is permitted to carry more than one goat at a time through the Docks? But no mention of it in Hightown. It stands to reason that in Hightown you can carry all the goats you can manage at once."
He raised an eyebrow. "You've intentions of carrying multiple goats?"
"No." She grinned. "Still trying to get a better feel for the place. I can manage the Gallows, and Hightown's not bad. But the rest of Kirkwall's a blank; I was hoping to get a better handle on it."
"I see," Cullen said, suppressing a snort of amusement. "And… you thought reading an outdated book of laws would be more helpful than say… actually going there yourself."
"Don't you laugh at me," she warned. "It's called research and I happen to be scandalously good at it."
She shot him a dirty look but it didn't last. "You know you're welcome to stay here, if you like. I don't know what templar regulations might dictate or if you're required to live at the Gallows—"
"No. Not as long as they know where to find me, should the need arise." he admitted. "You mean, move in with you."
She shrugged. "If you'd want to. There's more than enough space, and you can't beat the company."
And he did want to, very much so; the ease with which she offered made something melt in affection inside him. She'd never been one for games or playing coy, and it seemed she'd only become more matter-of-fact with time. "I'll bring my things over tomorrow," he said by way of agreement, but she'd dived nose-first into the book again.
"This time try don't try to do it in one armful," she suggested without looking up.
"Nag, nag, nag," he breathed in mock longsuffering, unable to suppress a grin; she snickered and threw a pillow at him and missed.
The news came some weeks later on an otherwise mundane rainy morning: the Starkhaven Circle of Magi had revolted. The Knight-Commander in charge had called for annulment.
There was no word yet of survivors.
Cullen listened to the messenger's report in silence, glancing at Therrin only once. For the first time since she'd come to Kirkwall she looked undoubtedly older, grim weariness etched in every line of her posture, a crease of worry between her brows that threatened to become permanent. She listened to the messenger's report without comment, retreating to her office when he was done and closing the door quietly behind her.
The news cast a pall over the entirety of the Gallows.
Starkhaven's Circle hadn't been large but it had been the only other one in the Free Marches. Cullen knew templars who'd been assigned to Starkhaven, and wondered if they lived.
He wondered as well if this was Hawke's doing, with or without her apostate companion. He would have expected them to go west to Cumberland, if anything. Cumberland's Circle was larger and more influential with better resources. Perhaps that would lend it more stability. Cullen hoped so.
The unexpected turn north was disturbing.
But for the moment the closed door on the other side of the hallway was of nearly equal concern. Therrin never worked with her door shut, and so when half an hour had passed and she didn't reemerge he crossed the hall and rapped the door lightly with his knuckles. "Therrin."
"Come in, Cullen." She stood leaning on the window-frame, watching the rain-fogged city as he closed the door behind him. "What a waste."
She glanced his direction, mouth set in a tight hard line. "This is Anders' doing, isn't it? It's got his bloody handprints all over it." It was a sore spot, he knew: she'd told him weeks ago of her part in taking the apostate into the Grey Wardens to give him a chance at the freedom he wanted. She felt guilty for what he'd become, what he'd done, and Cullen repeated her own words back to her—do what you can, and let the rest go—but she fretted over it privately nonetheless.
She took his silence for assent. "I'm going to murder him."
"You'll have to get in line," he reminded her, joining her at the window. "I knew after the battle at the Gallows that it wasn't over," he admitted, suddenly tired, as though the news of Starkhaven's Circle falling had aged him in minutes. "But I didn't think to expect something like this."
Annulment was such a numb word. The reality of it was so much more excruciating.
"From what I understand it sounds like they're looking for war." She glanced his way. "In my experience if you go looking for war, you tend to find it."
He watched the rain hang like a shroud over the recovering city and wondered if it would survive becoming a battleground again.
Four days later, the letter came.
Cullen watched Therrin take it into her hands hesitantly, frowning at the king's seal on the vellum before she cracked it open and read. Cullen bit down on his silent dread as her expression went remote, and only raised his eyebrows in question as she dropped the letter back to the tabletop. "He wants me back in Ferelden."
He blew out a quiet breath, trying to steel himself for the loss of her and finding he couldn't. "For any particular crisis?"
"No." Her mouth twisted in disapproval. "I think he means to have me at hand if I'm needed. But his problems aren't the kind I can fix for him anymore. He needs diplomats," she said, scowling at the letter. "Not me." She rose to meander the room, arms crossed and shoulders tense. "I should have resigned years ago, I think. I considered it."
Hope flared like a candle-flame, and Cullen tried to snuff it before it could catch and become unreasonable. "Why?"
"Because he doesn't need me the way he thinks he does," she shrugged, looking tired. "I tried to be his shield for so long, to keep the worst of the world away." She shook her head, dissatisfied. "I think I've become a crutch, instead. He needs to stand on his own." She sighed deeply and rubbed at her forehead before dragging both hands through her hair. "Please don't repeat that."
"Of course not." He rose from his chair, joining her in front of the hearth. "So write back and resign. Tell him you're staying in Kirkwall."
She laughed a bit hopelessly. "For what? Good sex and a templar boyfriend?"
His throat went tight. "Templar husband. It'd be more convincing." And when her eyes went wide with surprise: "It can't hurt to be specific. Last time I wrote him, I asked for aid and he sent a single mage."
Her expression went a shade distrustful. "You're joking."
"No." Words rushed in at his brain, a hundred things he hadn't said because they hadn't seemed necessary; now they crowded in to be given voice and he couldn't sort them out. "Stay. You said yourself you should have resigned. Kirkwall needs people who can manage the Circle, and you're one of the few of the nobility that's actually capable of—"
"No," she interrupted, almost angrily. "Hang the nobility. Hang the Circle and hang the city. All that could change at any moment; it's useless to build on. This is about you and me."
"And I'm asking you to marry me," he said levelly.
Her vehemence faltered and lapsed into silence. She turned away and paced the room dazedly, eyes traveling over the paintings and rugs and chairs as though they might provide answers, and Cullen waited in an almost painful anticipation, straining in the quiet.
But there was nothing else for him to say. Anything else was her word to give.
"And your Order's not going to run us both out for it?" she asked at last.
"No." Not that they might not try. "Let them worry about their rules; I don't intend to. Being a templar is about choosing right, over and over."
"And this is right," she finished, almost a question.
"I believe it with all my heart, yes." He swallowed around a tight lump in his throat. "The world is changing. The Order is changing. Nothing is the same as it was before. I don't intend to stand by and wait to be told what to do, and I don't believe you're going to do it either."
And he may not have had much of an education in how to woo a woman but even he knew that some long-descended custom dictated getting on his knees; he closed the distance and knelt and kissed her hands. "I feel as though I've already lost you twice," he confessed, chest tight. "I don't know if I could stand it again."
She squeezed his hands, her eyes searching his face, and she didn't speak for a long time. "I can't answer your question right now," she said at last.
Which wasn't a no, but… "I see," Cullen said. "Can I ask why?"
"Because I love you so much I can't think straight," she confessed, and leaned in, taking his face in her hands and kissing him briefly. "And I have to be able to think straight." She released him and he stood, watching as she took up her staff and left, closing the door behind her and leaving him alone in the estate he wondered if they still shared.
It was strange to wake up alone. Odd to think how quickly he'd become accustomed to it. But the maid didn't comment on it and he left the estate as the sun rose, the walk to the Gallows feeling more lonely than he could explain away as simple solitude.
He found Therrin sleeping at her desk with her head pillowed on her arms, wheezing slightly in the quiet. She startled awake when he rapped on the door, upsetting a cup of water and wiping her mouth with the edge of her hand before she tried to save her now-soaking documents. "Cullen—Maker," she groaned as he helped pick them up and shake the worst of the water off. Their hands brushed over a piece of vellum and she groaned again; when he looked she was disheveled and sleep-creased, biting her lip and looking impatient. "Give me two minutes," she said, and left.
Cullen busied himself laying the documents to dry on all the flat spaces in the office, and four minutes later she returned, her hair in some semblance of order and her face pink from scrubbing. "I'm an idiot sometimes," she announced, surveying the damage. "And too bloody old to stay up all night angsting my heart out over a simple question." She looked at him, level and clear-eyed and without any hesitation at all. "If this is a risk you're willing to take, I'm willing to take it with you."
It took a moment to sink in; he could have laughed from happiness, or prayed, or fallen to his knees and wept. He didn't. "It is," he said instead, steady to his bones. "I swear it."
He thought she might laugh for a second, or might cry, but she settled for smiling in the end. "Good," she said, and kissed him.
By the time they disentangled the Gallows were waking up, the hallways alive with the myriad sounds of life. They walked arm-in-arm into the common hall, in search of someone awake enough to say the right words to make it official. It was right, he thought, to be together now.
It was right to stand ready, side-by-side in the face of whatever the future held next, be it war or peace or something only the Maker yet knew.