The sunset looked beautiful from the back of the lake. The sun easing down the horizon painted the clouds with colors Cullen had only ever seen on noblewomen’s dresses. The light cast on the water rippled with the small waves rippling across the surface. It was quiet - until he heard Mia yelling his name, telling him he must come home now.
The Templars’ armor looked beautiful glistening against the noontime sun. Cullen’s eyes always widened in awe when he and Mia passed the Chantry on the way to the market. They looked noble, untouchable. Their talk of bravery and righteousness sparked something deep in his stomach. He glanced at Mia, tightly holding his hand. He will protect people like Mia protected him. It was a promise.
One day, he muttered under his breath, one day.
Amihan was beautiful. She was sharp at the edges, her temper sometimes ran too hot, but she was beautiful. He couldn’t lie that sometimes her sharp tongue endeared him. And Maker, she was smart, her focus was extraordinary. Cullen knew nothing of magic, but he was sure what Amihan was capable of was something most of the other apprentices struggled with.
But he knew he couldn’t. She was a mage after all and under his charge. According to Greagoir, to Chantry scripture it was was wrong. She’d always be the kind of beautiful he couldn’t have, perhaps the wrong kind of beautifu-
He felt his heart thud against his chest as she saw him walk down the hallway with Finn. He was afraid that his heart thudded so hard that it rattled against the armor.
“Oi, Rutherford, your Amell’s coming this way!” cackled Hadley.
“Shh!” he hissed sharply, swallowing a gulp as Amihan and Finn passed him, her usual scowl plastered on her face.
The other recruits laughed.
Nothing after the Circle fell was beautiful. Nothing at all. Because they were right - mages are evil, cursed by the maker. The proof was right there in his scars. He felt stupid, ridiculous, for ever thinking so fondly of Amihan. Last he heard, she’d gone off somewhere with a red-headed Orlesian.
It was wrong anyway.
Greagoir had him sent to Chantry rehabilitation center for respite. Though he couldn’t understand how any of it was supposed to make him feel better. Hours in a room with nothing but prayer could only be so comforting. The food there was even blander. But perhaps it was the numbness inside him. From the nightmares. From the letter Mia sent, telling him of the death of their parents. From the heaviness of it all.
So numb that not even the bright red embrium that grew in the center’s garden looked beautiful.
Nothing was beautiful.
He was discharged within a month, the Chantry cleric insisting that yes, he absolutely fine now. Fine and ready.
He wasn’t so sure about that.
Kirkwall would only be called beautiful if you’d been stuck in a swamp for a month straight and it was the only refuge. There was no green, no trees, and the city reeked of…despair.
The Gallows had the kind of grime he’d never seen in Kinloch, but as Meredith put her hand on his shoulder, calling him “The only good one”, he decided it wasn’t his problem.
“In fact, you’re the best recruit I have, Ser Cullen,” Meredith said, smirking, “No one is as loyal, respectful, and true as you. You’re the only one who understands the evil mages hold.”
Meredith straightened her gauntlets and laughed.
“Yes you do. You remember what they did to you. And if anything, you’re seeing the world more clearly than you ever did,” she continued, “These other recruits are soft on those abominations, but you never falter. You’re the only one who understands how to really serve and protect.”
Cullen felt a sinister gleam of pride rise in his chest. Like Meredith had spoon-fed him an expensive cake with money they’d stolen off beggars.
“I think it’s time I promote you, Knight-Captain.”
Nothing is beautiful because you stop yourself from making it so.
Cullen shook the thought off as he turned his head, something he’d been used to doing. Seven years and the guilt only feels like a prickle once he got used to it.
“So you won’t tell, right?” Ser Faulkerson said, blaring his yellow teeth.
“You’re a good lad,” he crackled, fixing his tasset, as he exited the office.
Cullen followed, doing all he could to ignore the sobbing mage girl that slumped against the wall of the office.
There was the prickle of guilt.
But Meredith is right, mages aren’t people. He can’t forget what they’ve done to him.
The prickle faltered into a whisper.
He turned to the girl, avoiding her eyes.
“I’ve told Ser Faulkerson that what he did was inappropriate,” Cullen spat out in monotone, “For your distress here’s a pass for an extra meal token.”
Another sob wracked out of the her mouth. This time, avoiding her eyes was something Cullen couldn’t do.
And Maker, he felt ill. Absolutely ill.
She was no older than 13, robes too large for her.
The prickle of guilt grew into a windstorm inside him.
“P-please Ser. I will do anything. Just don’t make me face him ever again,” she sobbed, clutching at her sleeves, body shaking.
Meredith is right, she is always right. No one had ever cared for you like her, Cullen. No one cared about you after Kinloch, after they tortured you.
But she’s no older than 13. Meredith these days seems off-kilter, maybe -
Hush, Cullen. Do your job. Your duty. What is right.
“We’ll see what can be done,” he replied dryly.
He watched the girl run down the hallway in tears, the guilt inside him twisting at his chest.
There is nothing beautiful about death and destruction. There is absolutely nothing beautiful about everything you’ve fought for crackling beneath your feet.
The work to remove rubble from residential areas was tiring enough to make Cullen numb. Enough to make it so that the only thing roaring in his brain is to figure out how to dispose of the debris.
But when it was too quiet, his head screamed.
You were wrong. You were wrong. You were wrong. You were wrong.
Look what you’ve done. Look what you’ve done. Look what you’ve done.
You fought for the wrong ones.
You terrible man.
Maybe you should di-
“Yes?” Cullen replied, bringing the candlelight up to the door.
“Someone here wants to see you. She says her name is Cassandra Pentaghast.”
The sunset in Haven was almost as beautiful as the one in Honnleath.
But it’s hard to admire it in peace when his insides were rumbling and shaking. Cullen dug the heel of his boot onto the snow and sighed. He wondered if the trembling in his hands were from the frost or if his body was beginning to give from withdrawal.
“Do you and I have a problem?”
Tala had never spoken to him in that way. He’d never heard Tala speak to anyone in that way.
“No, I assure you, Herald, we do not.”
All these months and not once had he seen Tala frown, not even at his Templars. The heat from her glare made something in his stomach crawl - guilt and disappointment. At himself.
“You said you wanted to change, Cullen. Show me,” she hissed. He couldn’t recognize her at that moment - the Herald was the type to give him bread in the morning.
She was right, oh she was right. His outburst left him feeling angry and sick. Especially after Tala’s cousin screamed at him - but he was used to that.
But Tala yelling at him? It had him off-kilter.
“I’m trying,” he replied weakly, gripping on the pommel of his sword.
“How am I supposed to trust you?” Tala screeched, her voice on the verge of breaking, “You didn’t tell me the full truth about Kirkwall, and now you’re angry at me for recruiting mages? Cullen, I promised you they wouldn’t hurt you, but if you don’t keep up your part and stop your Templars from harassing them, I don’t know if I’ll stay friendly with you.”
Cullen took a deep, shaky breath.
Tala promised. But what if the mages fall to temptation. Wouldn’t they? In desperation?
Uldred and Orsino, they -
“I will try.”
The sound of soft footsteps on the snow caused Cullen to perk up. He kept a close hand at his sword and turned his head to look.
“Meredith wasn’t a mage, but when power got to her head, she did unspeakable things, didn’t she?”
“Cullen,” Leliana continued, rubbing her arms, “You didn’t deserve to be tortured like that back in Kinloch. Uldred did it because he was mad with power. Not because he was a mage.”
Cullen let out a shaky breath. A strong craving for lyrium rushed through his bloodstream, making his ears ring. He pushed it back.
“The Herald is never cross with anyone. People were bound to notice when she was cross with you,” Leliana said.
The sun set further between the mountains, it’s shadow turning the snow and ice on the lake a dark blue. It wasn’t long before another soft flurry of snow began to fall.
“I want to change, I w-want…,” Cullen muttered.
Leliana took a step closer. Her face was strangely soft - towards him anyway, the first time it’d been directed toward him since they’ve met.
“Change and atonement doesn’t happen overnight,” she continued, “You will struggle and you will fail at times. But you have to try. Keep trying.”
“I’m afraid I could never.”
He hated the way defeat punched through his words.
“Want to hear something you won’t believe?”
He looked up at her, snow gathering at the hood of her cloak.
“I believe you can,” Leliana replied.
That’d been the most beautiful thing he’d heard in a long time.
Redemption, or in this case the chance for it is beautiful. Especially when he truly didn’t believe he deserved it.
His heart was racing when he’d presented himself in front of the council of mages at Skyhold. It raced so fast he almost couldn’t hear. He glanced at Fiona, who looked at him with a stony expression. Then he took a look at Tala, now their Inquisitor, staring at him with an unreadable expression.
He braced himself for their judgment.
He was ready to hear “death”.
And perhaps he deserved it.
When the spokesperson said “Reparations”, his heart calmed so fast, he nearly fainted.
Oh he didn’t deserve that. Not at all.
But he will take the chance with the promise that he really will try.
Relief feels beautiful.
One swig of the poultice and his headache is as good as gone. He’d never seen anything like it. Much less, he never thought any of the mages would make it for him.
Most were still hostile, and yes, he deserved it. Especially those from the Gallows who recognized him. They recoiled when he passed, and though he wanted to be angry and defensive at first, he stopped and thought.
Yes, they had a good reason.
Tala and Fiona had decided he was at the mages’ disposal. It wasn’t too bad - it was mostly physical labor (something he was used to) and very awkward moments (something he was also used to). He’d helped build the mage tower at Skyhold, and after it was done he found himself there often, delivering supplies and helping to straighten it out.
Amidst the dirty looks and cold glares, there were some who finally accepted him. A young man from The Spire made him the poultices, while an older woman from Ostwick sometimes healed his cuts and scars. Then, Vivienne, who was the least hostile of them all, but still kept him at an arm’s length. She often had him running for herbs and supplies, following her up the stairs with cases of flasks.
Then, there was Imryll, the Inquisitor’s cousin. She no longer snarled at him, or yelled at him. In fact, he’d realized that after leaving her bad side that she was fairly quiet, always stuck to Vivienne’s side.
She was also a very talented alchemist - one that stayed up late into the night doing research. He knew because he’d be there late at the tower too sometimes, standing guard in case any of the mage children decided to sneak there and cause trouble.
He couldn’t remember how, but he believed it began with a “Excuse me, could you help me get that book from the top shelf?”
And somehow, somehow…their late nights turned into hours of talking.
And Cullen began to feel that tingling in his chest that he hadn’t dare feel in a long time.
Imryll is beautiful. And it’d been so long since he felt like this.
Her smile lit up her entire face, he loved it so much that he’d try his best to push out lackluster jokes just to see it.
The giddiness was something he hadn’t felt since…Kinloch, and this time, maybe just maybe, it wasn’t for naught.
There was something comforting about being beside her, he never felt shameful rambling to her. And he’d never heard her talk as much as she did until the began speaking.
He caught himself smiling while watching her test a potion. He caught himself smiling at the faces she made while taking notes in her grimoire.
He caught himself smiling thinking of her.
And he caught her smiling looking at him.
She is the most beautiful thing he’d ever laid his eyes on. He almost didn’t know how to handle it.
She’s sprawled out on his bed, her loose, raven colored curls fanned out over his pillows.
“Are you sure?” he asked, heart thudding and fingers tingling.
“Yes, please,” she said, soft smile on her face, the moonlight twinkling in her black eyes.
Cullen felt like his heart would burst. He could’ve worked to deserve redemption, but he didn’t deserve her.
He hardly had anything to offer but his love.
And Maker, he was going to give her his love.
He spent the night hands all over the soft curves of her body, trailed kisses down her soft copper-brown skin. He let himself get lost in her soft breaths and moans, and the way she called out his name over and over again as her hands combed through his curls.
Her hair smelled of jasmine and herbs as he wrapped his arms around her before falling asleep.
When he woke up, the sunlight created a halo of light around her hair. For a moment, he didn’t want to move and wake her, but she shuffled under the covers and turned to face him.
“Good morning, vhenan,” she said sweetly, before placing a kiss on the tip of his nose.
If this was a dream, Cullen prayed he’d never wake up.
Imryll wasn’t used to the chill in Ferelden, and for the first few months wrapped herself in Cullen’s mantle whenever they left their small home.
She uses it more than him these days. Especially on late afternoon walks with Mushy, who had taken a liking to walking by the lake and barking at birds.
“Tala said that the recruits believe Rylen is tougher than you,” Imryll said, finding a seat on a large rock.
“I told them Rylen wasn’t going to be pushover. They didn’t believe me, huh?”
Imryll smilled and scratched Mushy’s head as he nuzzled against the ankle of her boots.
Cullen sat next to her on the rocks.
“Is she all right though?” he asked, as he caught a hint of concern in Imryll’s face.
“She’s getting used to the prosthetic arm Dagna made her,” Imryll replied, but then her face brightened, “Josie is to return to her soon, which I think is giving her the motivation.”
“I’m glad,” Cullen said, placing an arm around Imryll. She leaned her head against his shoulder.
“And are you all right?” he asked, twirling a strand of her curls in his finger. The revelations through the eluvians had hit Imryll harder than Tala.
Cullen wished he knew how to comfort her. He decided to try his best with whatever she asked for.
“Better since we’ve visited the clan,” she replied, squeezing his hand, “But it will take some time.”
“I’m here for you. I don’t know how much I can help in this area,” Cullen began, “But whatever you need.”
A faint smile appeared on Imryll’s face.
“And whatever you need, I’m here for you too,” she replied.
Tomorrow they were to meet some refugee mages and ex-Templars. Many of them had taken to writing to the both of them, looking for help in beginning anew.
Cullen was more than happy to help.
The sun began to set as Mushy spotted another bird, barking enthusiastically as if he’d caught prize game. Cullen and Imryll laughed to themselves.
The sunset looked beautiful from the back of the lake. The sun easing down the horizon painted Imryll’s face, making her glow.
For once, everything will stay beautiful.