“There you are.”
His voice comes as no surprise to Althea, but she feels her body tense, anyway. It’s the frustration in his voice, the exasperation, like he can’t believe she bloody ran off because she couldn’t win this argument.
(She could; she’s just too damned tired to. Her ears still ring with the warped humming of red lyrium; her limbs ache from battle and from travel; her chest still seizes with the memory of the bodies in the mine, blood mixing with the crystalline vermilion growing out of their chest. Althea is tired, and she just wanted to come home to Skyhold and sleep for a year.)
“I don’t want to talk to you.” As if that wasn’t clear from the fact that she had climbed onto the highest tower, hiding in the shadow of the Frostbacks because the library, or her quarters, were obvious enough places. “Leave me alone.” Althea’s voice is stilted, her own agitation simmering beneath each syllable.
An annoyed huff leaves the Commander, but Althea doesn’t hear any retreating footsteps. “Oh, you don’t want to listen to me chastise you again? You don’t want to listen to me telling you how reckless you were?” On this isolated tower, away from the guards, from the scouts, Cullen doesn’t try to hold back.
She almost turns around to punch him in the jaw; her clenched fists shake with the effort not to.
So, it’s this again, is it?
“Does it matter if I’m reckless?” Althea does turn, a storm in her expression as she finally looks at the Commander. “The Breach is sealed, isn’t it? You don’t need me to defeat Corypheus.” Her chest heaves but her voice is steady, certain. “I’m sure you can just find someone else to be Inquisitor. It’s not like anyone knows who I am, anyway.” They’ve had this conversation before, haven’t they? When Althea was no more than a reluctant Herald, when she was just a figurehead, a prisoner with no chains.
She thought that had changed. Apparently, it hadn’t.
Cullen is silent, lips still parted with a retort. He almost shrinks away from her glare, and Althea takes a single moment to relish in that before she moves for the door.
“Do you truly believe that?” It’s said so quietly, she almost doesn’t hear him. Something shifts in his expression, the anger so quickly giving way to…something else. Something a little broken.
“It doesn’t matter what I believe.” Althea’s anger is still there, accompanied by something that feels an awful lot like resignation.
“It does.” He takes a step toward her, and instinctively, Althea takes a step back. She’s trying very hard not to notice the hurt on Cullen’s face.
“Why? Why does it matter?” Her voice breaks with the weight of her exhaustion, her overwhelming sense of inadequacy. The night after a long journey is not the best time to tackle those feelings again.
“Because it’s not true.” It’s said softly, resolutely. “Because you’re—you’re not just the Inquisitor. Because you matter. To us.” Cullen pauses, and when Althea chances a furtive glance at him, she sees him struggling with his next words.
“To me.” His eyes meet hers, and—Althea doesn’t know what it is that she’s feeling. Like her ribs are tightening around her heart, a heart that’s beating too fast, like the wingbeats of a hundred doves. “Althea, I…I think I’m falling in love with you.”
Her eyes widen, and it’s the only response she can muster. Because her mind, already a maelstrom, takes this moment to politely decline to function.
Cullen watches her, brows knotted together, his expression tender and hopeful and hurting all at once. But Althea still says nothing.
“I—I’m sorry.” His expression breaks, and he’s taking steps backwards, putting more distance between them. “I’m sorry,” he says again. Like he can’t bear to look at her any longer, Cullen turns, his shoulders hunched as he disappears behind into the stairwell.
Althea remains, unmoving, staring at the spot where the Commander had stood.