Cassandra prepares for the possibility of relapse even before Cullen takes his last dose. He insists there’s no need, and on the day he proves himself wrong, the sun bakes his room past boiling point. She buttons three layers of clothing around him like an overgrown child, nudging pitchers of water down his throat to help flush out his system.
Under the sweltering heat, he can feel the ebbing remains of the high and despises himself for it. She burns the drenched clothes and bedsheets the next morning. Even his sweat carries faint traces of lyrium - he remembers it permeating the laundry space at Kinloch, templars' mouths watering at the smell - and he refuses to have that temptation at hand.
He swears to her it won’t happen again. If she does not believe him, she at least pretends otherwise.
Dorian is the one who teaches Ellana about lyrium draughts. Dalish mages rarely have the need, and the supplies are even rarer for most of them, but there’s no shortage of either here.
It’s amazing how simple it is. Half a bottle a day boosts her mana supply, and the taste is like clear, beautiful sky, a drink that makes her insides sing.
He advises her on carrying doses in reserve, just in case of dire emergency. You don’t want to take it lightly, but it could save your life, he says.
Less than a month later, she discovers how right he was.
When they find her in the wrecked remains of Haven, she’s barely able to keep her eyes open. Her hands tremble as she conjures flames; Cullen’s breath comes more easily seeing it. If she’s shivering, it means the cold hasn’t gotten the best of her yet. But the empty vials clink in her coat pockets with every movement, and he realizes the truth of the matter.
She shakes from overdose, not from cold, even though her skin is waxy and almost white. The amount of lyrium she must have taken to fight back, to keep from succumbing to the frozen wasteland -
He carries her over his shoulders, the biting minty-spice stench clinging to her hair and clothes, and he wants to bury himself in it. But he won’t - he won’t - he won’t. It catches in his throat, turns breathing into a struggle. He can’t think.
Nearly within view of the campground, when he silently swears he can’t stand it another minute, she coughs and upchucks violently all over the both of them. The next day, she will apologize up and down for this, and he’ll say, It’s all right. Won’t add: Better to reek of sick than of lyrium.
In a quiet, vulnerable moment, he confesses his leash to her, and Ellana doesn’t know what to say. The Keeper has told her of Circles and their cruelty, but only about what they did to mages. With the knowledge that this suffering goes both ways, she understands the Chantry even less than she did yesterday.
She whispers her admiration, reminds him of his own bravery and strength. When he accepts her offer of a hug, she hears him inhale as he smells her hair.
They’ll get through this. Ellana knows it.
The first time they kiss, up on the ramparts, it lights his blood on fire. When he closes his eyes, he sees blue and beautiful and her, and his sleep that night is the best it’s been in months.
It will be some time before he puts the pieces together.
He’s out of practice, at least with kissing, Ellana thinks with a smile to herself. No matter, so is she. Practice makes better. At the end of every long day, she sheds her armor, takes her usual lyrium dose, and slips off to “borrow” the commander for a few moments.
What he lacks in technique, he makes up for in enthusiasm. Some days he kisses her like a man dying of thirst, other days like a child licking the cake batter out of a mixing bowl. It’s not always perfect, but he’s delightfully responsive, and that dazed look she gets afterwards - well, it never fails to make her feel like a goddess.
She’s been away nearly two weeks when he throws his lyrium kit across the room and slams a shaking fist against his bookshelf. In the face of his temper tantrum, she is steady. Magic buzzes under her skin when she cups his cheek - Maker help him, he craves the feeling.
He wants to beg her never to pull away. If she’s here, he can do this. As long as she stays, he can get through this.
It’s remarkable how quickly they fall into a pattern of physical intimacy. There was a time she thought of him as shy, even timid, when it came to romance. Now he can hardly keep his hands off her.
Ellana isn’t sure how she ends up on top of his desk, giggling when his kisses to her neck tickle. She reaches for the hand wandering towards her shirt fastenings.
“Maybe - it’s not that I don’t want to - I’m sorry, I’m sweaty, I was going to bathe later but now - ”
A noise rumbles out of him, his mouth at her ear making her quake. “I don’t mind,” he whispers, and her hands work at the buttons. He’s like an eager puppy, catching sweat in his mouth as he kisses his way down her chest.
She doesn’t want the possibility that surfaces in the back of her mind.
He traces her open with his lips and fingers, her thoughts fleeing at the sensation. Ellana’s release rolls over her in no time at all, she’s so wound up, and she grins like a goof up at his ceiling.
“Good,” he says, a question or a statement.
His voice is too steady.
She looks down, into bright bright clear eyes, and the realization is whiplash as she’s never felt it.
Cullen’s alone in bed when he opens his eyes. He finds Ellana back in last night’s clothes, staring out his window. From the redness in her face, he doubts she’s slept.
Without turning to look at him, she mutters, “I thought it was me you were interested in.”
“Ellana,” he tries, and then, “But it wasn’t - ” and he fumbles, tripping over his words, and how? How to convey it wasn’t a lack of interest in her, not by far, to explain what ran away with him and why, until she presses her small hands to her face and lapses into broken sobbing.
“Shut up, Cullen, just shut up,” she chokes, a hand smacking him on the shoulder when he reaches for her. She spins on her heel and runs, each footstep echoing behind her.
He is a wreck of a man, and he completely deserves this.
She leaves for Emprise du Lion the next day. Cullen’s absence at the war table when Ellana returns is neither surprising nor mysterious. The Seeker tells her what she already knows.
Relapse is part of recovery, Cassandra insists. Ellana wants to spit in her face, not because she’s blunt, but because she’s right.
She downs her lyrium outside his bedroom door, so that she still tastes it when she walks in and finds him sweating, shaking, fighting himself. “Come here,” she says roughly when he looks up - no preamble.
His expression contorts into a grimace. “No.”
“I’ll fix it. That’s what you want.”
She scowls. “Cullen.”
“No,” he barks, and then, “Out! Get out!”
On the other side of his door, her heart thumps hard enough to shake her whole body, but the thoughts that try and settle into her spinning head are nowhere near coherent.
The next day, he finds her on the ramparts where they first kissed, uncorking her regular half-full vial. Its song ebbs and fades as she drizzles the contents into bushes far below their feet.
“Inquisitor Lavellan,” he tries, and continues when she isn’t immediately repulsed: “What are you doing?”
She shrugs one shoulder. “Killing plants?”
His kit is beside her, and maybe he should be angry with her for finding it, for taking it without permission, for even knowing where it was somehow. The hinge can’t be fixed. That hadn’t kept him from refilling the box two days ago.
She watches his hands as he opens it, as a glass bottle shatters in the thorns of a prickly bush. “We’re even,” she says then, not meaning the plants.
We aren’t, he wants to tell her - aches to ask whether he can ever really make this up, where they go from here, who they are to each other now - bile rising in his throat as he watches her.
He nods instead. Baby steps.
Ellana sighs, her head coming to rest against his shoulder. He slouches to make it more comfortable for her. Just for a moment, his eyes trace down to where the bushes will wither and die not long from now.
Cullen turns his neck. Today, her hair is clean, and all he can smell is soap.