The histories will write that it began in Orlais, but they'd be wrong.
This is how it starts.
A quiet, sinister magic burns at a remote chantry in Redcliffe, where four heroes enter, never to be heard from again. But no one will heed the cry of a young, naïve Inquisition, no matter how many scouts or ravens call. No one breaks, no one talks, and after a time, no one questions. Because it's no surprise, not really. This town remembers the burden of heroes, the pain of sacrifice. It's a tragic thing, but no more tragic than their empty eyes, their hollow hearts. No more will their ears hear or their eyes open. No more will they stand and fight.
A week later the village falls, hard and fast and unfeeling. Barely more than a whisper escapes the rubble the day hope and town alike turn to dust.
Orlais? Orlais was the end.
Redcliffe is where it all began.
It's subtle at first, this war. Crisp and careful and calculated to a tee. After Redcliffe, other villages disappear. But it's a quiet thing, always so quiet, so rural and remote, no one pays it much mind. With a giant tear in the sky and an ongoing Mage-Templar rebellion, it's easy to overlook. But soon half the plains in the Hinterlands are scorched with fire and magic and it's not just a few rebellious mages, it's a hostile takeover and it's bloody successful. Too successful.
After that, the world becomes a whole lot smaller and a whole lot clearer.
Bit by agonizing bit the regions fall, strategic and slow and brilliantly planned. He's a Commander, he would know: it's the perfect setup to the perfect execution. Slaughter the townspeople of a small village and hope and justice will rise to meet you; strike at the heart of the most powerful nation and watch as an entire country collapses at your feet.
So this god monster in the flesh, he dallies for a time. He pokes and he prods and he rallies and he destroys. The more he obliterates small, rural villages the more the nations rise to meet him, and so his master plan is set in motion with little more than a flick of the wrist and a few bloodied fields. In the span of one season half of Thedas rises together in a brilliant display of unity, all but oblivious to the trap laid before them. The peasants and farmers? Mere appetizers. All of Thedas is the three course meal.
They should have seen this coming, truly.
By the time they do see it, it's far too late: the leaders of Ferelden and Orlais united in the same room under the same banner when the sky opens an eerie hue, encapsulating every last veteran, advisor, and politician in one massive, brutal tear that leaves aftershocks for days.
This is how it ends.
He's a good soldier.
That's what they always told him.
One half of his life he'd spent existing as a small gangly kid hell bent on being a Templar, and the other half he'd spent becoming one. It was a good life, a good choice, and he’d been rather good at it. He followed orders, he fought battles, he defeated enemies. And if there was ever a particular talent he was lacking in, he'd always make up for it with sheer determination and willpower. Because he was motivated. Because he was inspired. Because he believed.
Because he was a Templar.
But faith did not cover everything, he learned. Faith didn't reunite him with his family one more time. Faith didn't bring back his fallen brothers and sisters in arms. Faith didn't stop mages from turning into abominations. And faith certainly didn't stop magic from tearing the world apart.
So when Cassandra asks him to join the Inquisition, to band together and fight darkness, he accepts. How can he not? He's always believed in protecting the innocent, in upholding justice and declaring the truth. The Templars are half the Order they used to be, but he won't stop believing in what's right. He can't not.
But the fact remains. He's half the man he used to be, too.
And it's a hard thing to accept, at first. Because in many ways, he still is that small kid desperate to be a Templar. He still believes, after all. He yearns to be the righteous soldier, fight the holy war, prevail against all evil. And that's the crux of the matter, isn't it? He's seen evil. He's looked it straight in the eye. He's fought evil. He's barred it with his own blade. He's defeated evil.
But only by a thread.
And he wonders, then, if it's enough to simply prevail. He hasn't been perfect in life, but has he done enough? Has the good outweighed the bad? Has he truly protected the innocent? Has he upheld the sincerest of vows?
Does any of it matter anymore?
It's troubling, it's confusing, it's downright irritating. Cullen has been many things: a brother, a soldier, a Templar, a Knight-Captain—but he's never been this alone before, with his own thoughts and his own judgments and his own doubts.
So he turns to the Nightingale.
Not at first. And not outright. But in small ways, little ways, he seeks her out, follows her lead. It's a risky move, given that he doesn't really know anything about her, but he's growing desperate for any form of work to keep himself occupied, any form of leadership to tell him what to do. It's almost a surprise to him that it works: after just a few short minutes of standing in front of the measly splinters of wood they're calling a war table Cullen can feel the rush of adrenaline as he discusses tactics and layouts and scouts and troops and yes, he thinks, this is what I'm meant to do.
He was a good soldier. That's what they always told him.
Maybe he can be a good Commander, too.
He's fortifying troop movements when Leliana enters, her movements swift and pointed as always, but lacking their usual grace and poise. The door clangs shut behind her, an awful sound, wood straining against metal.
Cullen dismisses the courier with a glance and turns, dread cool on his skin.
“The Herald. She's...”
There's an edge to her voice, timid and unfamiliar, and suddenly everything about this unexpected visit becomes so very clear. He knows this tone, this conversation. Far better than any man should.
Cullen has always thought of Leliana as the capable sort, but all that conviction and assurance is nowhere to be found, now. It's unsettling, frankly, but not knowing unsettles him more. Not being able to plan or act is the worst fate he can succumb to, but he also trusts Leliana. For all their bickering and barbed insults, he knows the situation is dire if she, of all people, is struggling to keep up appearances. And it’s that knowledge, more than any before it, that makes Cullen bite his tongue. It makes him stand in silence, patient. Or as close to patient as it gets with Cullen Rutherford.
The Nightingale assembles her strength and replies, quiet and low:
“She's not—she's just gone, Cullen.”
Somehow, for all his expertise with soldiers and death and war—it's all intertwined and unavoidable, after all—he still balks at the explanation.
“Not—poor choice of words. She's not, well she could be, but she's—she's just gone. Disappeared.”
“Impossible. Where was she last seen?”
Cullen places a stern hand on the table. He doesn’t miss Leliana’s flinch, however slight.
“I'm going to have to ask you to repeat that.”
“There's nothing left. We have no witnesses, no explanation. One scout, who reported when she didn't check in after her meeting with the mages. He found nothing. We have...nothing.”
Fist meets table. Hard.
Silence follows, hard and unyielding, before a warmth spreads across his shoulder. Comforting, he thinks, except that it is anything but.
A few steadying breaths, then: “I will travel to Redcliffe myself.”
Leliana’s fingers fall when he stands, four long, elegant fingers sliding along his fur coat, desperate for purchase on the way down. He should offer some measure of support, but he cannot. Not until he knows. Not until the Herald is alive and safe and the cause of this mess is one soon-to-be-fired scout who had the luxury of getting on Commander Cullen's bad side.
Not until then.
It’s Leliana’s turn to balk.
“The Herald disappeared. Vanished, without a trace. The townspeople don't even recall seeing her. You know what this means, Cullen. I cannot, in good conscience allow you to walk into the same trap!”
He doesn't bother arguing. He packs one bag, light and only the essentials without breaking stride, not even when her slim weight slams against the door, halting his retreat, blue eyes bright and pleading in the dark.
“Do not be so quick to throw your life away.”
They're the wrong words to say and she knows it, if the shock stricken across her face is any indication. But Cullen has lived enough to recognize desperation when he sees it, just as he knows himself well enough to not be offended by the unintentional accusation.
Besides, they're not talking about him. Not truly.
“I'm not about to abandon my post based on one scout's account of what he didn't hear. The Herald walked into a trap unwittingly. If I walk into the same trap, then you may call me the fool and be done with it.”
Leliana sighs, a quiet sound, before moving aside. Cullen gives the door one rough shove before turning back.
“Do not mistake my daring for foolishness.”
Leliana nods once, a steadiness in her gaze for the first time since she entered the room. A sense of normalcy returns with it, and Cullen is grateful that even bad news cannot thwart the established lines of routine. It is a cold comfort, at this point, but Cullen is accustomed to lukewarm solace.
It's only after he's a step through the archway that Cullen hears her call, quiet but firm:
“I'll set out with you in five minutes.”
He doesn't turn back, doesn't break stride. “Thank you.”
The door shudders behind him, still ringing that awful sound.
They search high and low for three straight days, they unearth every possible rumor, clue, and witness. They camp where the Herald camped, walk where the Herald walked. The truth is both everywhere and nowhere at the same time: every farmer’s hard, sullen face holds a story, and every common boy’s bleak, repressed wave houses a tale.
It’s not the first town to lose hope, and it won’t be the last.
In the chantry they find a mage’s spellbook, sliced down the middle with the pages burned black. It’s not the Herald’s, nor is it Solas’, but Cullen handles the book with care nonetheless, harboring the clue with the respect it is due.
He flicks through a few scorched pages and dust pours out between the thin slips of parchment that remain. It’s strange in color, even stranger in odor, a faint pulse of magic lingering that even his weakened lrium senses can detect. Perhaps it’s his prolonged abstinence from the Templars making his paranoia rise, but the after-effect of mana feels different here. Darker. It lingers, when nothing else lingers at all.
“Ash,” Leliana says over his shoulder. Cullen is about to ask her to elaborate when he looks down and sees it:
The collection of dust on floor has collected into a haphazard pile of remains, glowing with magic and death. It pulses once, twice, three times, like the beat of a heart long gone from this earth.
She’s right, Cullen realizes. It’s ash.
Operations go on, for a time.
They don’t earn themselves any new allies, but they don’t make any new enemies either, so Cullen supposes things are not as bad as they could be. With their leader mysteriously missing or abducted, it would seem there is little to be done, but Leliana makes short work of those doubts. Her cunning is in the shadows, in secrets and subterfuge, and this is where she shines: when the nobles question the Inquisition’s lack of leadership Leliana but turns the other cheek and asks, oh so primly, “Do we seem in any way lacking to you?”
It’s a bluff, but not an altogether terrible one.
It’s better than what Cullen could hope to accomplish, in any case.
As it stands, Cullen delegates what charges the Inquisition yet holds, small though the numbers may be. It’s a suiting post, he finds, in part because he still doubts his own leadership and in part because no one else is around to do it. The world is in chaos, though none of them know the extent of what danger lurks, not yet, but for once Cullen is grateful their army is small so as to go unnoticed by a larger, greater threat.
It’s all so very temporary, all so very frail, but they get by. Day by day, they survive.
Cullen can’t help but wonder for how long.
Josephine insists on attending a great Orlesian ball and for once, Leliana agrees when Cullen shuts down the invitation with a curt no.
Maybe the world is ending, after all.
“Josephine,” Leliana says in a tone that is quiet, conciliatory, “this is dangerous. Too dangerous. I know your family will be there but we—”
“Cannot abandon them when every family will be there to represent?”
“Leliana. You are always the one taking risks. It would be a disservice to allow me the same courtesy.”
“Ladies.” Cullen clears his throat, a touch awkward. “If I may.”
Cullen supposes neither party expects him to play ambassador, rightly so, but he hasn’t served the Inquisition for three months and learned nothing. It’s almost worth it for the surprise on their faces alone, though Cullen would never admit as such out loud.
“If honor or duty requires you to go, then go with our blessing.” Josephine smiles, Leliana’s back straightens. Cullen ignores them both. “But heed Leliana’s cautions, ambassador. Our best have gone missing despite having a full armament guarding their backs. I do not know much of Orlesian politics, but I know they are far more terrifying and elusive than any armed or armored foe.”
Cullen sighs, runs a hand through his hair.
“Not all of us have the chance to say goodbye, should the worst happen. Not all of us even have a plan, let alone an escape. If taking this opportunity helps you remove your family from Orlais—or better yet, unite a noble house against a common foe—then by all means, take it.”
The silence that follows is more effective than Cullen anticipated, the quiet unwelcome. It grates on his nerves until—
“Well said, Commander.” Leliana tips her head, an acknowledgement.
Cullen nods, uncertain in the face of Orlesian female praise.
“I will not allow this opportunity to go to waste. I will find the source of this attack,” Josephine promises, brown eyes gleaming with resolve.
Cullen chuckles, the earlier tension dissipating with sharp relief. “Of that,” he smiles, “I have no doubt.”
In the end, they never hear precisely what happens.
They only know that which is reported on paper, that which the scouts scourge from the remains. The Empress is killed along with most of the nobles, politicians, and leaders of Orlais. What remains is utter chaos, but beneath that is evidence of an attack well prepared and even better executed: a terrifying slaughter that is equal parts effective and horrifying.
Cullen sits in his office and broods for half a day.
Leliana finds him when the moon is high and hope is waning, like an hourglass losing sand faster with each passing hour. She rests a hand on his shoulder, a movement that might have felt foreign before, but now feels closer to instinct.
Cullen doesn’t know if he loves or loathes its frequent appearance.
“It’s not your fault,” she whispers into the dark.
Cullen never understood the sharp tongues Orlesians sometimes possess—how their vowels lilt and their tongues resemble snakes, purposeful and precise and always ready to strike—but here, under the veil of nightfall it feels familiar. Not pleasant, precisely, but significant. In a world where people vanish without a trace, when their bones become little more than green ash on the countryside, in a world where entire empires crumble in little under a fortnight, it comes as a stark relief that someone as elusive as Leliana—a spymaster—might also be someone so easily recognizable.
She bears no mark, no rings, no tattoos or scars. Leliana may as well be a shadow behind the moonlight, but here Cullen sees her as she is: a red-headed, blue-eyed woman with a penchant for songs long lost in her deep, armored heart.
They’re not so different, in that respect.
It may have taken the end of the world for him to realize, but perhaps the world has a certain destiny about these things. Maybe knowledge is an evasive thing until a circumstance like this one, in a light shining just right.
Cullen wishes he could grant Leliana the same pardon, wishes he could temper the fire that rages her soul. He struggles over which words to say, which type of comfort to give. He’s never been a terribly good wordsmith, he’s never been renowned for his grace or his tact. Here they are opposites, here they are incomplete, so instead Cullen offers the only thing he has left: some warmth, or something like it, some company in the cool, eastern wind.
Cullen folds a large callused palm around Leliana’s small gloved hand, and he prays.
For both their sakes.
In a rare moment of honesty, Cullen finds himself appreciating Leliana’s tact.
It’s not an appreciation he would have anticipated, to be sure, but the end of the world seems to have a strange effect on one’s ideologies all over, preconceptions notwithstanding. Cullen can’t deny Leliana’s usefulness, her strategy, her overall success when his more straightforward, blunt methods do nothing to move proverbial mountains. Barging into a conflict with sword-hand raised doesn’t actually resolve the conflict of the hole in the sky, but recruiting the right mages at the right time in the right way just might. Leliana does all this and more with a flick of her finger, a slight movement of her wrist and the world bends to her will. The ease of her success would have been daunting, before. It would have been a slight against his tumultuous morality but now—now he welcomes it. Now he needs it.
Needs her, in point of fact.
Cullen can’t deny that recent events have left them scrambling, more desperate than usual—and they were desperate at the start. Leliana’s birds, her scouts, her secret armies and even more secret alliances have made certain impossible tasks possible again, and all thanks to a woman clad in a dark headdress with beautiful deft eyes.
Leliana supplies information, she supplies trade routes and treaties and rumors and theories. All the while Cullen hides in silence and sharpens his blade and prays his sword hand might once again prove useful.
The problem rests in who Cullen is: he is yet a fraction of his former self, a fact well evident in his distinct lack of charges. Day by day Cullen feels his presence in the humble Haven chantry becoming less and less required, his services no longer needed. Where once there was a large collection of paperwork on his desk, now there is a collection of dust. Where once he felt like a rejuvenated, reincarnated version of his former self, now he feels every year over thirty making his bones ache and his mind sore.
Mostly he’s just—lonely.
It’s unbecoming, Cullen knows. It’s weakness, plain and simple. The last person he needs to bother with selfish want is also the single busiest person in Haven, so Cullen distracts himself with a new quest, one which supplies will eventually run short and one which he can personally fix with his sword: food.
He hasn't contributed in the sport of hunting in half a year, too busy with one disaster after the next, but the quiet simplicity of the task calms him. It's a game in patience, in timing and precision and these are traits Cullen has been honing for some time: how to have patience with himself, how to have self-awareness for his abilities. How to live with conviction, how to forgive and move on.
It's all a bit deep for a way to pass the time, but it is both a distraction and a solution at once, so Cullen appreciates it for the menial task it is.
Cullen hunts a ram one day, a mountain goat the next. He snags a few rabbits and plenty of deer—he even manages a buffalo one sunny afternoon, though he later admits that day he also came home with a few sweltering bruises and he will never attempt the same feat again.
It’s the fifth day of this newfound hobby that Leliana approaches him.
It’s been a bad day, the worst so far, so of course this is the day the Maker decides to embellish his failure. The deer had been too swift, the goats too nimble. Or maybe Cullen has grown useless in this war against the darkness, who can say. Either way, Cullen had tried and failed, and either way, he had nothing to show for his efforts save a small, pink nug.
“What is that?” Leliana asks when Cullen approaches, arms crossed and brow furrowed.
He doesn’t think she’s asking what type of animal he holds under his arm, so the answer is a simple, shameful one: “Dinner.”
Cullen is making fine time shaking the dirt off his boots when he feels a hand on his forearm. “No,” Leliana says, taking the strange creature from him.
“But—” Cullen stares, open-mouthed at the peculiar sight in front of him. Leliana isn’t looking at him at all, but rather the creature in her arms openly purring. Or rather, the nug equivalent of purring.
Do they even—Cullen shakes his head.
“Dinner,” Cullen repeats, waving a hand in utter confusion at the situation unfolding in front of him.
Leliana chances a look at him, no doubt taking in Cullen’s disappointing, haggard appearance. No doubt noting Cullen cannot do something as simple as make dinner correctly.
She takes him in, then shrugs one elegant, thin shoulder. “We’ll make due.”
Cullen blinks. Leliana rolls her eyes. “Come to my chambers after you’ve finished washing up. I’ll show you a proper Orlesian meal.” One perfectly sculpted eyebrow raises in teasing. “Or do you think that’d be too much for your delicate Ferelden sensibilities?”
Cullen watches Leliana sashay away, pink nug in arm and wonders when the universe will start making sense.
Cullen has always been an obedient soldier, so he does as he’s told and meets Leliana in her chambers.
It’s as cold and gloomy as ever, the only source of light a scant few candles placed here and there in a puzzle Cullen can’t begin to figure out, though he holds no illusions each individual candle holds a specific placement for a specific reason. Leliana does nothing by accident, this Cullen knows without understanding much else about the once-bard, once-Chantry sister.
He sits gingerly at the table that holds Leliana’s working documents—some of them, anyway, Cullen also holds no illusions this is the extent of a spymaster's extensive paperwork. There is nothing much to see, however, nothing that would catch the eye or otherwise distract from the blank void of this room. There is nothing but silence creeping uncomfortably at the back of his skull, much like the lyrium that once ran through his veins. Cullen has to stop his leg from bouncing in a tuneless rhythm, has to consciously choose to remain still despite every nerve in his body convincing him otherwise. He is more anxious here than he was in the Chantry hall downstairs and he doesn't know why, precisely, besides the obvious answer that Leliana has always made him a bit...nervous.
It's because she's a spymaster, he supposes, though the answer sounds too plain to his own ears. Too simple for such a sophisticated woman, a powerful political leader who no one really knows, but whose touch is evident in half the scandals, cleanups, and rumors across Thedas. And that's not mentioning her travels before she was left hand of the Divine, the rumors that she once traveled with the Hero of Ferelden, of all things.
Cullen has wondered about such things, but it never felt appropriate to ask. It borders too close to hero worship, perhaps, too close to a different type of man that is more idealistic than Cullen’s thirty-some years might suggest. Too close to being unprofessional, even if words like professionalism don’t mean much, anymore.
He also doesn't know if Leliana would appreciate the question.
“Sorry to keep you waiting, Commander.”
Leliana's voice drifts from the shadows like a morning fog rising with the sun. She stands before him in her usual purple attire, the candlelight reflecting miniscule gemstones in her garment otherwise gone unnoticed in the light of day. Much like the woman herself in that regard, Cullen thinks. There is a clue about this elusive woman right before his nose, her appreciation for the finer things in life evident in the very clothes she wears, but it is a secret unless she wishes to make it known and not a moment sooner.
Everything is under her control.
The realization brings a pang of sadness Cullen does not expect, and this for something as simple as the purple dress he has seen her in dozens, if not hundreds, of times before. Was he so oblivious before the Herald disappeared that he never bothered glancing in Leliana's direction? Was he so worried his own scars and cracks might show if he dared to meet her eyeline? Was he so arrogant and inconsiderate to another member of the Inquisition, an advisor more vital and important to their survival than his own limp grip on his sanity?
Some measure of Cullen's sorrow must show on his face; Leliana reaches a hand out as though to steady him, except the realization of her action only serves to add to the guilt. Cullen raises a hand in acknowledgement, thwarting her consideration.
He does not deserve this.
“Just Cullen, please. And not a problem.”
Leliana smiles, a quirk curve of her lip. “Would you like to see what I have planned for you, Cullen?”
Cullen almost laughs. It must be the nerves that make his tongue loose. “A dangerous question, from a spymaster.”
Leliana laughs, a high, three-part orchestra that transforms her face into someone younger. A freer version of herself Cullen has never known.
“An apt observation. Though I should expect no less, your cunning has proved itself many times over.”
Cullen does not expect such high praise, to say the least. He rubs a hand along his neck, feeling flushed despite full knowledge that the compliment is mere Orlesian courtesy. “It…pales in comparison to your accomplishments these past few months, though I suppose that is to be expected.”
Leliana stops with a hand poised over a boiling pot. She appears, for the first time Cullen has known her, surprised. Maybe even upset.
“What do you mean?”
This is not why Cullen came here. He did not come to a knowledgeable, insightful woman to receive her pardon, or her amnesty. He did not come here to glower in his mistakes, or to admit that which he would rather forget. The past circles him like the ravens Leliana so adores, like the vultures who pick at the corpses of the fallen. The only difference being Cullen yet lives and breathes, if only just.
“I meant no offense, my lady,” Cullen dodges, hoping his own Ferelden courtesy is enough to thwart offense. Hoping Leliana might let the omission lie, however doubtful.
It’s less a request and more a command. Like she is daring him, like he is craven if he chooses otherwise. A prick to offend, purposeful, just enough to inflict a wound. Cullen would be impressed if the target were anyone but him. Doubtful, indeed.
Cullen’s grievance does not have a name, however. There is no straightforward answer for that which ails him, for the contempt that burdens his shoulders. No matter how he wishes it otherwise, this war was never black and white. Not when he was a Templar at the Circle, not when he was a Knight-Captain at Kirkwall. Not here in this room, either, with its dark corners and darker secrets.
Nothing is ever simple.
There is never just one word, but thousands of them, millions, all building to produce a great empire or watch the existing traditions fall to ash. There’s a reason the Inquisition needs a spymaster, a ruler over every spoken word and every unspoken secret. Cullen knows the occupation is a necessity, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t loathe its necessity, either. It’s not a dislike for Leliana herself, and it’s not disrespect toward her choice of profession, either, but more a general distaste at society as a whole, perhaps, that things like Circles and spymasters and lyrium and tranquility need to exist at all. That there is no better way, if there is a different way at all.
It is not a choice for Cullen to decide, he knows, but fact does not stop desire. All he’s ever wanted is to see the world change, and all he’s ever accomplished is a front row seat to watch it all fall apart.
All he’s ever seen is failure.
“I—I simply wish to be better,” he decides on. “My services are less than required and I wish—well. For an impossibility, I suppose. One cannot change time, after all.”
There’s silence as that particular proclamation sets in.
Maybe the quiet is the reason this place is both comforting and disquieting. Maybe that’s why people spill their hearts to Leliana, the master of secrets. The whispers in these walls are more secluded than the chantry’s, more personal than a hymn. The only contempt one might feel in these halls is whatever grievance is contained within, and perhaps that is more unsettling than any power a pew or a priest might possess.
Perhaps the worst judge is yourself.
Cullen is accustomed to awkwardness, to a degree, but this particular kind of silence is borderline painful. Leliana’s eye is scrutinizing where she stands above him, and Cullen feels every inch of the power and authority in her gaze like a real, physical thing. She is his judge, Cullen realizes, and if she so chooses, his executioner.
Leliana opens her mouth to speak, Cullen’s heartbeat reaches its peak and then—
—a pink nug scurries across the floor.
Cullen raises his feet, watches as the animal scurries to Leliana’s side, squeaking and wailing until she lays a hand on its neck, a comfort.
Leliana smirks, as though daring him to question her. “Yes.”
“If you are wise, you will keep your opinion on my choice of companion to yourself, Commander.”
Cullen holds back a laugh, barely. “Your secret is safe with me, Nightingale.”
Leliana hums, pleased.
Another kind of silence settles, one which Cullen doesn’t know how to break. He’s never been particularly good at social engagements, let alone social engagements of the female variety. He’s more than content to let the quiet ride its course, though the conversation from earlier lingers, hung between them both.
Leliana is staring down at the nug with something resembling affection when she speaks again, softly. Almost tender in her omission: “I used to have one, you know.”
Cullen scrambles to retain some measure of manners. “Pardon?”
Leliana sighs, but not unkindly. “I used to have one.” At his look, she elaborates. “As a pet.”
Cullen can't even process the sentence. “You? A pet?”
Leliana rolls her eyes. “Believe it or not commander, I used to be quite the adventurer. I was a bard, you know.”
Cullen coughs, trying and failing to hide his surprise. “I know. Well, I don't know, but I've—heard. Rumors, mostly.”
Leliana chuckles again, that bright airy sound. “Not a rumor in this case.”
“You are full of surprises, it’s true.”
There’s a look that passes between them, part fond, part awkward. Cullen doesn’t know what his expression entails, exactly, but something in Leliana’s sharp, warm eyes seems to pity him. It’s a look he’s received a handful of times, each time more guilt-ridden than the last, and he appreciates it, he does, but he also does not deserve it.
So he clears his throat and looks away.
“Come then,” he hears Leliana say, alert and understanding as ever. “Let us eat and forget our troubles, if only for a little while.”
There’s not much Cullen is capable of these days, but menial tasks he can do.
This will make a fine addition to the list.
It’s when he passes through the threshold to his own quarters that Leliana stops him with a hand to his arm.
They’re always caught between doorways, it seems.
“You’re not useless, Cullen,” she says, voice kind, but firm. “Not at all.”
The use of his given name surprises him, despite his earlier suggestion she use it more often. Cullen did not expect her to take him up on the offer the same way he understood why she might not: they are both products of their respective realms, Cullen thinks, in that formality is the consistent consequence of their upbringing. It’s not an admonishment on either side, but rather an explanation for their near-constant poise, regardless of the freedom of permission. Their family homes may be on one side of the map from the other, but their habits, their courtesies, their formalities are not all that dissimilar, despite the outward appearance of their decorum being anything but familiar.
The compliment from Leliana does not surprise him, but the use of his informal name does. Her words are not surprising, but the personal touch is.
Cullen lingers, caught.
His feelings regarding his lack of worth is not something he particularly wishes to discuss, while another, deeper part of him is near begging for the opportunity to relieve the guilt. It weighs on him, heavier with each passing day and it’s foolish, downright selfish to wish for reprieve in the midst of greater problems lurking right around the corner.
“I’m half the man I should be,” he admits, a rasp caught in his throat. “Failure follows my footsteps, surely you of all people know that.”
“Follows?” The hard vowels of her Orlesian accent carries down the dark nook she calls home, the question seeming even more pronounced in this place, from her tongue.
The hand on his forearm leaves, replaced by her body blocking the exit. She is a slim woman, but her presence is large, loud. Demanding of attention and respect.
“Hardship, perhaps. Unfairness. But not failure. Not by you.”
Leliana's eyes are black jewels in the dark, shimmering with anger hard pressed and well earned. Except the heat of her anger is not for Cullen’s person so much as his own self-reflection, and maybe that is the most surprising revelation of all. He's earned her sharp tongue not for being who he is, but by admonishing what he lacks.
There's no use arguing with her, Cullen knows. He's not lasted this long in the Inquisition by behaving foolishly in front of women his superior. He's unwittingly straddled the line of folly without intending, but the result is admittedly exquisite: Leliana is all hard eyes and pressed lips and righteous anger, but beneath that boldness is a ferocious spirit Cullen hasn't seen in weeks, let alone up close. There's a fire in her veins, a heat behind her eyelids and it's a gift, a most precious treasure to uncover such an expression now, at the end of all things.
By one such as him.
Cullen looks a moment too long, a moment too close: he can see the precise moment Leliana takes heed of their proximity instigated by her, returned by him. He can see the precise moment she notices, and the precise moment she steps away, head bowed and eyes fallen. All that courage falls by the wayside in favor of that which is comfortable, polite—more of that Orlesian mask she calls decorum.
“Forgive me.” Leliana brushes his shoulder in her haste to return to the shadows. Her perfume washes over him long after the warmth of her disappears, a piece of her remaining long after her body recedes from view.
It’s a point of irony, Cullen thinks, that he is usually the one for apologies.
He knew this day would come, and it’s as dreadful as he always dreamt it would be.
It’s subtle, at first. The signs. There’s the aura around certain images the healer warned him about, the sensitivity to certain smells. There’s the periodic headaches he’s used to, then there is the raging monster of a throb against his skull when he wakes on the third day.
But Cullen is nothing if not determined, so he carries on with his day. He works through drills, he fills out paperwork, he hunts in the mountains. There is not enough left in Haven to occupy him, not fully, so by mid-day he turns to a place that is both the cause of his strife as well as a means of relief.
No one tends to visit the inner sanctum this time of day, not with a hole in the sky and religious zealots to quell. A precious few visit when the sun is high, but Haven is a small community and growing smaller with each passing day. Cullen does not mind company, of course, but he’s never minded silence, either, and today of all days he hopes the Maker will leave him to his gloom.
What he does not expect to find is Leliana at a pew, knee deep in prayer.
“Though all before me is shadow, yet shall the Maker be my guide.”
Her whisper echoes off the brick walls, the chant a beacon of truth in the sunlight. There's a poetry in her vowels, a rhythm in her consonants Cullen did not always appreciate, before, but here they transform the words beyond mere benediction. Andraste’s message is a whole new kind of verse when it comes from her lips.
“For there is no darkness in the Maker's Light, and nothing that He has wrought shall be lost,” Cullen finishes.
If Leliana is surprised at his entrance, she doesn’t show it. She spins on her heel in one smooth motion, graceful and elegant as ever. She smiles when they stand face to face, red hair framing her cheek not unlike Andraste herself.
“It’s funny, I never thought to tease you about being a chantry boy.”
Cullen wants to smile, wants to return the quip with something witty and clever and only mildly awkward, but even the beginning of such an attempt is a drain on his senses. His left knee crumbles when he attempts to step forward, his head throbbing in agony.
Leliana rushes forward, hoisting him the rest of the way upright. “Cullen?”
Her voice is pleading in his ear, begging him to be alright. Begging him to be brave and strong and true, to be an ounce of the man he was at the start, all those years ago, when he took his vows. Cullen closes his eyes, focuses all his attention on the tight grip of her arm. It helps ground him, to remind himself of what’s real.
He counts to three, then releases a sigh. “It’s nothing.”
Leliana curses under her breath, a foreign something Cullen can’t pronounce. “It’s the lyrium, isn’t it?”
Cullen opens one eye, finds himself staring at Leliana’s bright eyes. They are both hard and soft at the same time, not unlike the woman herself. “How did you…”
“You think the Inquisition’s spymaster would not know when her Commander had ceased his Templar ways?”
Cullen feels his face grow warm despite himself. “I—”
“Did the right thing? Yes, I entirely agree.”
Cullen shakes his head. “I’ve been compromised. I’m no longer fit to lead the—”
Leliana stops him with four fingers to his mouth, but her touch is light. Delicate. Surprising and effective. “Then it’s a good thing we have no leader, isn’t it?”
It’s the easy way out, Cullen knows. Leliana offers teasing in the form of truth, but her argument is not inaccurate. The Inquisition is less a force to be reckoned with and more a merry band of misfits, a sad reincarnation of a religious group set on making the world a better place…and failing before it ever started.
Still, the weak attempt at humor is not unappreciated. Cullen closes his eyes again. “Thank you.”
They stand there for a heartbeat before Leliana shifts, linking her slim arm through his firmer, stronger one. “Now then,” she says, in a voice that clearly displays she’s made up her mind. “Let us retire to my bedchamber, hmm? The shadows there will help you rest your head.”
Cullen could not say what entirely crosses his mind, just that his head becomes more muddled than it already was. He clears his throat. “I’m not sure that would be—”
“Cullen.” Leliana stops in the doorway of the chantry, her body turning to face him without her hand moving from his side. “I’ll make it an order if that would suit you better. It’s not inappropriate, it’s not untoward. You are no longer a Templar, I am no longer a Chantry sister. Rest.”
A pause. “Please.”
Cullen stares at her, the pulse in his veins beating along his forehead like a drum. He dips his head and relents on a sigh. “Lead the way.”
Leliana leans forward on tiptoe, her lips kissing his cheek. She lingers, her sweet perfume washing over him. “Thank you,” she whispers in his ear.
Cullen doesn’t have the heart to ask her what for.
When Cullen emerges it is twilight once again, the moon high in the sky seeming brighter than normal. Its pale light encompasses what accounts for a beach this far north, and this is where he finds her: standing at the edge of a lake, bathed in moonlight and shadow.
The breach hangs above them all.
Cullen clears his throat. “Thank you—”
Leliana turns, hand clamped over her heart. “Maker’s breath, Cullen!” She hits his arm, playful. “You terrified me!”
Cullen doesn’t know whether to laugh or apologize, so he does a bit of both. “Apologies, my lady.” He offers a slight bow, an overcompensation of manners. The quirk of humor dimpling his left cheek, making his lip curl feels familiar, despite knowing that teasing on such a solemn face is not a familiar thing at all.
Leliana laughs, eyes twinkling.
Objectively, she’s been remarkable from the start, but something about the moment—emerging from her quarters, meeting her on a beach—makes the entire occurrence more poetic than it has any right to be. Poetic enough for Cullen to admit her loveliness, poetic enough to admit the stirrings of want. There’s no time for romantic notions or idle dreams, but regardless of his mind’s logic berating him for such an ill-advised thought, the reality remains the same: Leliana is still smiling at him a fraction of a heartbeat too long, and Cullen is still captivated by the sight.
Almost as unreal as her hand reaching out, an invitation.
Cullen accepts without question.
They’re both wearing gloves, of course. They’re still in the Frostbacks and they’re still upstanding, knowledgeable members of a reformed political party. Cullen cannot feel her fingertips the same way he cannot feel the toes in his boots, but even so, it feels—important. It means—something.
“You’re welcome.” Leliana smiles, her voice seeming lighter than normal.
Cullen resists the urge to rub a hand at his nape. “I’m just sorry I was out so long. Did I miss anything?”
Leliana hums. “Miss? No.” Her eyes dance in the moonlight, glancing about in a manner Cullen knows well as teasing. He both loves and loathes this dance she’s perfected.
“What?” he asks, more than a little wary.
“Oh, nothing, it’s just…” For the first time, Leliana appears properly nervous. She glances down at her shoes, before forcing her gaze up to the hard lines of Cullen’s face. “I missed you.”
Cullen tries not to let his surprise show. “I—missed you, too.”
He's not successful, if Leliana's snort of amusement is anything to go by.
But for once, Cullen is not entirely sure he minds.
Their twilight outings become a…habit. Of sorts.
Cullen is not sure when it was agreed upon, if it was agreed upon at all. Perhaps it was an unspoken invitation, one reciprocated and returned without consciously decreeing as such. They do not repeat dinner in the outward sense of the word, but they do repeat sharing each other’s company when night falls. They meet on the battlements, usually, or what accounts for battlements in these parts of the Frostbacks. There they share a cup of tea or a weighty silence before going their separate ways, to their separate rooms.
Until the day they don't.
In hindsight, their meeting on the ice river that evening was destined to occur, Cullen thinks.
It’s been a long time since he’s believed in something as divine as fate, something destined that was not the Chantry or the chronicles it teaches. Cullen has been a man of faith and willpower his whole life, but his faith in himself or anything attached to it has been a waning thing. Pieces of him have fallen by the wayside—a chip in the armor at the Circle, a crack in the shield at Kirkwall—until all that remained was a boy who fought idealistic dreams against the harsh nature of reality…and lost.
It comes as a startling revelation, then, that Leliana is the one who breathes life back into him again.
Maybe it's because she has broken faith herself. Or maybe that's why it works. Maybe their idealistic natures is the tether that binds them together, an Orlesian bureaucrat and a Ferelden soldier. Maybe their outward dissimilarities are little more than a foil, an inaccurate mirror they chip away at with each cup of tea, each conversation in the moonlight.
They're sitting on a dock overlooking the iced lake when it happens. The moon is darker than before, not nearly as poetic, but the lack of idyllic scenery doesn't stop the mood from dipping into teasing or romance, not at all.
“This reminds me of a dock in Ferelden, near Crestwood. It's near my home, the last place I visited before I left for Templar training,” he says, feeling drunk on life now that his head is no longer pounding and the lack of lyrium no longer makes him nauseous.
Cullen digs into his pocket, finds the coin with familiar ease. “My brother gave me this.” He hands over the pendant with a smile.
“Templars are not allowed to keep personal possessions.” Leliana handles the coin with care, stroking the well-worn figures in the metal like they aren't common in every market's stall near Crestwood.
When Leliana looks up at him, her blue eyes are all but twinkling. “You kept it anyway.”
Cullen chuckles. “I did.”
“Always knew you had a rebellious streak. Next you'll be joining me in diplomacy.”
“Perish the thought.”
“You're right. I much prefer you right where you are.”
“On a dock?”
“At my side.”
They're both grinning, warm despite the cold, and there's a subtext to Leliana's words more serious than any outward admission they've shared thus far. It's almost as though she's saying they would choose each other regardless of circumstance, regardless of what might have happened if the Herald had returned and the breach been healed. Like they would find each other in another lifetime, one where none of this had happened.
Like it was—it was all worth it.
Cullen stares at her, trying to understand, as though looking at her hard enough, deep enough might reveal that which a spymaster keeps under lock and key. This close, Cullen's scrutiny only causes more questions to surface: why she stares right back, why her eyes grow soft, why her breath hitches just then, when he takes in the rest of her face.
Why she moves forward, slow and careful and so very precise, and presses her mouth to his.
It's an innocent thing, a simple brush of lips before she retracts. It's less uncertainty and more a question, Cullen thinks. An inquiry of permission, of intent, of want.
Cullen responds in kind.
He touches her shoulder first, then her fiery red hair. It's longer than he remembers, but Cullen likes that: likes how it surprises him, likes how soft and pliant it feels threading through his hands. Leliana is equal parts hard and soft and Cullen likes that, too; likes how she reflects both the best and worst parts of him, but not with any particular intention. Leliana states things as they are, as she sees them, no more, no less. She is objective to the point of uncaring, but that simply makes her all the more qualified to say: if she trusts, she trusts completely, with both personal as well as practical.
Cullen could kiss her for it, honestly.
So he does.
Leliana is warm beneath him, warm and alive and Cullen did not know it was possible, to miss such a thing. He did not know he was capable of such expression, so long after everything else had died or passed away.
He didn't know it was possible, to feel.
Cullen touches her, reverent, for as long as he can. Before Leliana realizes her mistake, before she backs away and never looks his way again. He plunges into her like a man desperate, consumed by desire made all the more paramount by the lack of expectation. Cullen does not expect sweetness, but he receives it nonetheless. He does not expect grace, but grace he receives. He does not expect soft touches and curious lips, sharp tongues and soft teeth, but he feels it, feels her and it is—more than anything he could imagine, or want.
After years of lies and torment, after hours spent reminded of every failure, the reward for stripping himself of the chains that bound him is not a church, or a scripture, or even a deity.
It's this. It's her.
Leliana steers him back toward the small cabin he calls home, but once there she allows him the freedom to set the pace how he chooses, in whatever manner he sees fit. It should be a point of annoyance, maybe, that she thinks him so fragile as to breaking, but a deeper, more rational side of Cullen knows, with a kind of soldier’s intuition, that her absolvence of choice is less her lowly opinion of him and more an expression of herself. Her soft touch and lack of direction is not just a symptom of soft and hard edges, it is a mirror of the woman herself. Leliana the bard. Leliana the Chantry sister. Leliana the spymaster.
She is everything she has ever been, same as he.
It makes him foolish. It makes him want. It makes him realize, with acute understanding, this is the end. The end of everything, perhaps, and he needs to make up for lost time. It makes his kisses bruise, makes his hand firm. It makes him coordinated in a way he so rarely is, steadfast in a way that is scarcer still. It makes him worship her body, mindful of her spirit. It makes him grateful for her choice, again and again, when she meets him breath for breath, kiss for kiss. It’s not so different from their idle games of chess in that regard, but the result is far more rewarding than any game they’ve shared yet.
They break apart when his back hits the wall, breath haggard and lips swollen. Leliana unbuckles the belt at his waist, the sound reverberating too loud in the dark.
Leliana stares into his eyes before touching his cheek, her deft fingers trailing the scar above his mouth.
“Cullen,” she whispers, chest heaving. It’s a question, he realizes. A pause, an intake of breath, an opportunity to retreat.
It’s enticing, thrilling in way Cullen never dared to consider that a woman as precise and headstrong as Leliana would allow him the opportunity to choose, for no other reason than he can. It is a surprise to them both, perhaps, to see what manner he chooses: hard and fast, slow and careful, a mixture somewhere in between. No matter the outcome, it touches him on a level he never knew existed that Leliana would trust him with this. That she might grant him this freedom with no preconception of his abilities, good or ill.
That she might—enjoy the surprise of it all. That she might enjoy his decision, for no other reason than he chose it.
“You're beautiful,” Cullen replies, and means it.
Leliana’s eyes sparkle like diamonds, some piece of her coming alive at the same time as breaking. She reels him in by the leather hanging about his waist and catches his lips in a searing kiss. Everything about her is purposeful, precise. Grateful. Loved. They pull apart to look each other in the eye and for once, Cullen does not try to stop the adoration he knows is adorning his face.
Leliana traces his face, and her gaze holds half her heart.
Cullen holds her, and his hands do not shake once.
Their enemy comes for them the following day.
It’s not even their leader is the insulting part, but rather his puppet in the form of Samson, a former Templar. Cullen always knew his past would catch up with him, but to do so in the form of such a personal subject is either poetic or offensive.
Cullen meets him at the gates, Leliana close behind. Less than half of Haven's forces yet remain, and that's not accounting for the monstrous horde marching down the valley, an army with pounding drums and red eyes.
“This is the end, brother,” Samson says, grinning with victory.
Leliana spits at his feet, bow raised.
Cullen unsheathes his sword, ready to die fighting with Leliana at his side. She wasn't wrong, the day she teased he was at his best by her side. They can't win, but they can choose their fate while there is still breath in their lungs, which is better than most.
It is a worthy ending until Samson reaches in his pocket and removes a single shard of red lyrium.
That is all it takes.
Cullen convulses for what feels like hours, body shaking and teeth chattering. He's heard of red lyrium whispering to people, infecting their minds but this is loud, much louder than anything he's heard documented before. Which means the enemy has perfected the weapon in recent months. Which means the Inquisition has failed.
It's not the kind of end Cullen would have chosen, but it is poetic, in its way. The mages, the templars, the lyrium. It's all so cyclical in nature, all so interconnected in a way no one could have predicted, but in a way that seems obvious now, at the end.
Everything is as it should be, save for one thing.
Cullen's eyes are still shut in pain when he feels Leliana kneel beside him, her hand cool upon his forehead.
“Cullen,” she breathes, that lilting voice he adores whispering in his ear.
“Leliana.” Cullen coughs, wheezing on her name. He's just now realizing he never bothered to call her by her given name until now. A grave mistake, he thinks. Another tragedy he wishes to atone for. A last confession, perhaps, or a final act of contrition.
“Shh.” Leliana runs a hand along his cheek. Cullen feels snowflakes where her fingers map a trail, but when he opens his eyes he sees not snowflakes, but tears.
“Here.” Cullen reaches into his pocket, hands her the coin. “Keep it. Maybe it will—” he grimaces, feels a cramp constricting the muscles in his left leg, “—keep you safe.”
“Give it to me yourself, when we get out of this mess.”
“Please.” His voice shudders, so close to breaking. “Something to remember me by.”
Leliana's breath hitches on a sob, but she accepts the pendant with a shaky hand. “And how—how will you remember me?”
Cullen doesn't even have to think. “I will never forget you.”
Samson leads them away after that, handcuffed and escorted on separate carts to separate cells. Leliana's hand holds a firm grip until they force her away, blindfolding her first, gagging her second.
“This isn't goodbye,” Leliana promises before they bind him, and that is the last he hears of her.
Theirs is a tragedy, Cullen thinks, but it is hardly the first.
And the end makes the tale no less beautiful.