For the first time in a while, Cullen felt relieved.
The Inquisitor had returned from the Hinterlands earlier that day alongside her companions, each of them doused in blood and dirt, but largely unscathed. The sight of her reappearance had lifted a heavy weight from Cullen’s shoulders, one that burdened him since the events at Haven. Their eyes had met as she rode by, surrounded by their comrades and a herd of saluting soldiers, and she'd given him a triumphant smile that left a warmth in his chest.
At first, he was inclined to dismiss the feeling as nothing more than pride, but it did not seem right. Besides, that did little to justify the gruelling heaviness he had been feeling for the past few days, the thought of her consuming him so powerfully that he could think of little else. Sleepless nights were no stranger to him, but this muddled whirlwind of anxiety certainly was. It even manifested itself in his demeanour, whispers of which had no doubt spread around Skyhold like a rushing torrent. By now, the whole of Thedas was probably aware of the alacrity with which he turned at the sound of any horse, the nervous stammering whenever her name was mentioned in passing, the way life sprang into his tired eyes upon receiving news of her return. He was almost shocked to discover that he was even capable of these feelings, considering he had spent most of his life withdrawn from people and relationships, fixating all his passion on his duty.
Taking a deep breath, Cullen paced down the corridor leading to the war room. Skyhold was silent at this time of night, and it felt almost peaceful even amidst the war they were in. Moonlight shimmered through the crumbled walls, and a cool breeze swept through the unruly tufts of his hair, filling the air with the sultry scent of faded flowers and wet leaves. It would have been a rather charming scene if not for the loose bricks that were scattered haphazardly on the ground, displaced from their rightful places in the wall.
Cullen was surprised to find that the door was left slightly ajar. Nobody except the advisors had a key, and as far as he was aware, neither Josephine nor Leliana had the penchant for late-night visits. He had his suspicions as to who was inside, and with the blossoming of this new curiosity, he quietly opened the door and stepped inside.
The room was dark except for the moonlight that streamed through the lunette windows, casting an illuminated pattern on the carpeted floor. In the light was the wiry silhouette of a woman, with the same auburn hair that had appeared in his mind only a moment ago. Cullen blinked slowly, as though to make sure she was not just an illusion created by his self-indulgent mind. But there she stood, her poised figure basking in the dim, white light, wisps of her hair projected against the night sky.
He cleared his throat softly, trying to ease into a greeting without startling her, but it jolted her from her thoughts nonetheless. Eryn turned around quickly, blue eyes wide with alarm, a flustered blush flashing across her cheeks. It took her a moment to calibrate to the darkness, but eventually their eyes met, and she relaxed as soon as she realised it was him. Her voice was soft, composed, completely devoid of the surprise she experienced only a moment ago.
“Inquisitor.” Cullen rubbed his neck nervously. “I hope I’m not interrupting–”
“Oh, no. I wasn’t doing anything.” Eryn had been holding onto a map marker, her fingers still fidgeting with the nooks and crannies of its design. “Are you here to work?”
A soft laugh escaped him. “Is that the only thing I do?”
“Is it not?”
“No. Well, uh, at least not tonight,” he stammered, hoping that she would not inquire further. It certainly had been his intention to finish off some paperwork, but somewhere along the line he had a change of heart. He thought it was probably best not to reveal exactly when.
She raised an eyebrow, but only replied with a smile.
A cold draft whistled in from outside, flurrying through her hair, and she promptly reached to close the window. Hastily, she adjusted the thick fur that was draped over her shoulders, and gathered her windswept hair behind her ears before she turned to face him once more. It was the first time he had seen her with her hair down as opposed to in a tight bun, and it was much longer and wavier than he had expected. On her neck rested a simple silver necklace, the pendant dangling before her chest, barely obscured by the rather brazen neckline of her nightgown. He looked away quickly out of propriety, hoping that no undesirable thoughts would be birthed from this lapse of judgment. Or, at the very least, he hoped that she had not noticed his unchivalrous gaze.
“I take it you couldn’t sleep either,” she mused, leaning back on the wall, fingers combing through her hair as she brought it back over her shoulder.
“I’ve always had difficulty sleeping,” he admitted, “But it’s worse without lyrium.”
Cullen rested his arms on the windowsill, and Eryn moved to joined him, absentmindedly tracing the patterns in the wall with her fingers. Noticing the lack of metallic clatter as he shifted his weight on the stone, Cullen suddenly realised that he wasn’t wearing his armour. The heavy steel plates had always put some natural distance between them, and its absence made him feel uneasy and exposed, almost incomplete. Posing as an inanimate chaperone, it served to remind him of their shared duty, protecting him from the thoughts and feelings that he wasn’t allowed to have. With the armour, he was the Commander of the Inquisition, and she the Inquisitor, the Herald of Andraste; without it he was simply Cullen Rutherford, a nervous man standing beside a woman who made him feel like a stumbling fool.
“Is it like this every night?” Eryn’s voice was gentle, sympathetic, serene as the starless sky. Copper tresses fell over her shoulder as she turned to face him, resting her chin on the palm of her hand like a child.
Trying to lighten the mood, he said with a sardonic smirk: “I suppose that’s how I get so much work done.”
Her brows furrowed slightly, and he thought that perhaps he should have been more honest. In truth, though her return had undoubtedly eased his mind, tonight had been as tiresome as any other. The hours in the day always passed by quickly, for there was much to be done, and never a moment to rest. But every night the lyrium song played, a wistful humming that coaxed an unrelenting desire, more vicious than thirst or hunger, tugging at every vein in his body. Sometimes the noise grew louder until it reached a deafening scream, unfolding into a throbbing headache that threatened to crush him. Sometimes it was as soft and alluring as the voice of a siren, inviting him to drift into unconsciousness, only to fill him with inexorable visions of death and torture. The song was endless, and any attempt to ignore it was an exercise in futility.
Cullen had wanted to tell her all this, for he knew she could provide the comfort that he so desperately needed. But he had told himself that he could endure anything for the sake of the Inquisition, where so much depended on him. Besides, she had seemed so concerned when he first revealed he was no longer taking lyrium, and he was unwilling to add to her burden again, not when it was already so heavy.
As though she understood these unspoken words, Eryn moved a little closer, and placed her hand on his arm with an astute tenderness. It was the first time he felt her touch in the absence of his usual metal braces, and it was surprisingly cool against his skin. She tilted her head up at him, and their gaze met instantly. He could see himself in those clear, blue eyes, as if he were peering at his own reflection in a lake, fully knowing he was about to fall and drown to his death. Every nerve of his body scrambled to suppress a sharp intake of breath, and he forced himself to turn away. They stood together in silent solidarity, staring at the rugged mountains that spanned across the horizon, ashen and featureless, coarse lines lost in the foggy moonlight. All that could be seen was the glistening snow, vast and endless as the night sky. Cullen took a deep breath, and thought he might be able to hear echoes of his potent heartbeat in the white nothingness.
Her hand remained on his arm for a few moments more, until he frivolously began to wonder if her touch might turn into a loving caress, but then she drew away, taking the foolish thought with her. He knew, of course, that it was too much to ask.
A moment of silence passed before he cleared his throat inconspicuously, glancing at Eryn from the corner of his eye. Her body was slouched, chin still in her palm, yet she did not seem to be relaxed. Perhaps it was only his nerves, but she seemed different from usual – quieter, more subdued, as if there was a lingering heaviness in her heart.
“How about you?” Cullen’s voice rang out against the silence. “Is there something on your mind?”
Hesitant to meet his eyes, Eryn picked at her fingers worriedly, an ungraceful habit that showed itself whenever she felt anxious. Her face was composed as always, undoubtedly a product of her noble upbringing, but a faint frown deepened as she tried to gather her thoughts.
“I haven’t slept well since Haven,” she admitted.
It was hardly surprising, given the events that had occurred. The unexpected attack on Haven had left most of his men exhausted and fearful, and many were still grieving for the lives that had been lost.
“You need not worry about Corypheus for the time being. His forces are weakened, and we can better defend ourselves at Skyhold.”
“This isn’t about that.”
“Then what is it about?”
“I just can’t help but wonder what I could have done better.” Eryn paused, taking a deep breath. “Like how I was unable to help the mages at Redcliffe. It feels as though I had played a part in their death.”
Cullen could only imagine how difficult it must be to take on this role, to bear a burden she had never even dreamed of, let alone wanted. Though worthy of respect, her strive for perfection and righteousness had undoubtedly made this endeavour even more challenging.
“You don’t know that,” he offered kindly. “We decided that there was too much risk given their newfound alliance with the Imperium. Had we chosen to help them, we wouldn’t have been able to save the remaining Templars from Envy. No matter what we chose, some would be saved, others not.”
“I suppose you’re right,” she relented, but Cullen could tell that she was not entirely convinced. She sighed, then added: “Still, I keep thinking about the lives many had before this, and the people who loved them. Too many have died in this war, and more will die trying to fix it.”
He frowned. “But that is not your fault. You took on a role that nobody else could, and you are trying your best to do the right thing. Surely that should be enough?”
“I can only hope so,” Eryn murmured.
Cullen wished she would give herself more credit, that he could open her eyes to what the people of Skyhold saw. To most, she was a kind and courageous leader with the potential to make a great difference in the world; to some, a thoughtful and good-humoured friend. Perhaps she hadn’t yet realised, but she had always been perfectly capable of handling whatever came her way, far surpassing even the highest expectations. Funny how his views have changed since she first appeared in front of him, covered in soot as she mended the hissing, pulsating tear in the sky. He had little impression of her then, save for the glowing mark on her hand and a vague feeling of distrust that he later regretted. He might have changed his mind sooner had he seen the unyielding flame in her eyes, but she had quickly turned to the apostate beside her, looking as though she was on the verge of collapse.
Now all he could see was this flame, so inherent in her nature that it seemed impossible to stifle. From afar, her auburn hair and piercing blue eyes were bright like fire, and there was an aura of fortitude that enveloped her demure, delicate face in a brilliant contrast. But one could only feel the heat up close; she burned with fierce determination and integrity, a strength of character that promised victory.
“If anyone can lead the Inquisition, it’s you,” he said finally.
Appreciatively, Eryn turned to look at him, a wry smile on her face. “It almost sounds like you admire me.”
“I do.” Cullen could hear his own voice, low and rough in his throat. “Very much so.”
He had always been somewhat guarded, careful not to expose any kind of vulnerability, but there was something in his voice that escaped the tight clutches of restraint. Flustered, his heart pounded as he hoped she would not notice the significance behind his words. But it was too late; her eyes snapped up to meet his, guileless and wide with surprise. He was done for. Heat rose up his neck, ready to spread itself across his face. He was just about to blurt out an apology until he noticed that her eyebrows were raised slightly in amusement, her lips curved in a curious smile.
Cullen swallowed, words trapped in his throat, unable to look away. The fire in her eyes was soft now, like the flicker of a bedside candle, but in the faint light remained an unchanging tenacity. It ignited a spark in the smouldering embers of his chest, one that was small but burned brightly, fighting to hold the darkness at bay. With each passing second, the flame inside him burned a little brighter, spreading in his mind like wildfire, engulfing his thoughts as though they were made of dry leaves and timber. For a moment, he forgot about the decorum and sense of duty that he had so piously imposed upon himself, and thought he might be able to take that final leap and tell her. Yet fear lingered in the back of his mind, an insidious adversary that slithered within, leaving a trail of doubt that triumphed over any desire. He stood paralysed as he realised that it could go very badly; she might push him away in disgust, or turn away uncomfortably, thinking that he had exploited a moment of vulnerability.
Nonetheless, his heart skipped a beat as an alternative revealed itself. She might repeat his words, laughing shyly she tells him how long she had been waiting to hear them. But he did not allow himself to consider such an option, to have anything more than a smidgen of hope; for he had been safe from hurt for a long time now, and though the wound was no longer fresh, a dull pain still weighed down his chest.
Before he could make up his mind, she had already turned away. A heavy silence settled over them as they both strived to ignore the spark that they so carelessly ignited.
“Thank you, Cullen,” she murmured. Her manner was curt now, fingers fidgeting at the hem of her sleeves. “Good night, then.”
Perhaps he had merely imagined it, but there was something in her tone that he did not recognise. He parted his lips to say something – anything – but his throat was dry.
A hushed whisper echoed in his mind as he watched her walk out the door. It was a gentle, wistful voice, one he thought he had heard before, but could not seem to remember where.
“Strong, quiet, it was safe on your own, but now you want more. She is like embrium – fiery, bold, brilliant, just out of your reach.”