Cullen freezes outside of a little alcove above the gardens on rounds. He's not supposed to be here—this is Lady Cassandra's domain, at best—but it's been a very long day and the hot red throb behind his left eyeball hasn't yet abated, and so here he is.
Fresh air helps, and so does walking, Cullen's found.
(Lacking the lyrium, anyway; fresh air and walking help the most, because while lyirum would help, it would also certainly not help, and he has come so far. Cullen inhales until his lungs are sore. Better to hurt, and feel the echo.)
So, he walks.
And this is how he's come to be standing on the battlements on the other side of the castle. and how he's currently accidentally eavesdropping on a conversation that he likely has no business eavesdropping on.
But Lady Maxine Trevelyan does sound very much like her twin sister for anything else, truly, and when he'd first heard the voice, Cullen had thought—well, if it's Lady Evelyn, perhaps I could say hello—
But it is not Lady Evelyn.
It is Lady Maxine, and she is not happy.
"—bloody idiot, I set you on him to keep him away from her, not the other way 'round! Have you lost your damn fool mind?!"
In reply, there is a very dignified "Mrrp!"
His fingers twitch. Oh, Maker, Cullen knows that sound.
(The cat is not his nemesis. Not really. Nemesis gives the thing far too much credit; nemesis makes it seem as though Cullen respects the cat, when he does not. The creature has infested his office, and last Cullen checked, Bread was absolutely entirely content to remain there and continue to make his, Cullen's, life a profound misery.)
"Don't you mrrp me, you little bastard," Lady Maxine hisses through her teeth. She sounds less like Lady Evelyn, now. Thank the Maker for small mercies. "Don't you have a brain between your bloody ears? She's gone and fallen in love with him!"
"Oh, alright, yes, she does still love you more. And fine, yes, it's not love yet. Yet, Breadsticks! If you keep this nonsense up, it will be, and then what are we to do?"
"Yes, Breadsticks, that would be bad!"
Cullen has never heard a human being have quite this sort of conversation with a cat, before. There is a cadence to normal conversations, between normal people—a give and take, a push and pull, a call and reply and a waiting for an answer—that doesn't oft exist between animals and their keepers. But this conversation has that cadence, perhaps in a way it shouldn't. Conversations with barn cats are usually not so involved!
It leads credence to his theory that Bread is, in fact, a demon.
Cullen is very vindicated by this.
"Oh for—you know what'll happen, don't you? He's a templar! No one ever stops being a templar!"
Bread hisses, and Cullen goes cold all over.
But he can hear the sneer in Lady Maxine's voice when she speaks next, absolutely dripping with derision. "Yes, even Cedric. Don't start, I'm still furious with him."
"Rraowr," says Bread.
"No, I don't care, stop trying to convince me. I get enough of that out of Evie, thanks, and it won't change anything."
"I don't… know. Shite. You're not right. Shut up."
"Merw," Bread says. If it were possible for a cat to sound smug, this is exactly what it would sound like. Smug, conceited satisfaction. Cullen hates that on a person, but it is a thousand times worse coming from a cat. "Mewrw!"
"No, you quit it! Templar, you brainless lump of fur! Templar!"
"Mew," says Bread, unconcerned.
"Mioaw to you, too—no, wait, hold on, get back here—!"
And, unconcerned with his mistress' sister's ire, Bread comes trotting daintily out of the closer with the nose of his horrible squashed face stuck high enough in the air to make an Orlesian courtier envious. The beast pauses for a moment to regard Cullen with a very significant kind of contempt, one that only very spoiled cats are capable of.
But before Cullen has the chance to back away. Bread winds himself around his ankles, making it sufficiently impossible to reach any kind of escape, just in time for Lady Maxine Trevelyan to come stomping out into the hall with a thundercloud on her face.
Bread, horrible creature that he is, chatters cat laughter through his teeth and dashes off, leaving Cullen to his ignominious fate.
"…How much of that did you hear?" Lady Maxine asks, perfectly, terrifyingly calm.
"Er," says Cullen. All of it, he thinks. Enough to make Lady Maxine's head explode, surely. In this split-second, he decides that playing dumb is probably his best course of action. "Heard what?"
Lady Maxine clenches her jaw. She exhales, very slowly; she must know that he heard the whole thing, then, or she'd not have asked. This was not a conversation Cullen was supposed to overhear, even though it wasn't really a conversation at all.
He watches as she forces herself to unclench her hands. When she speaks, Lady Maxine's voice is low, and quiet, and perfectly, entirely deadly.
"Stay away from my sister," she says.
Cullen can't entirely say he wasn't expecting this. In small ways, he's surprised that it's taken this long. Because he's very aware that—he knows that—Lady Evelyn is—
Maker's breath, he knows.
"You heard me, templar," Lady Maxine says, cold fire burning in her gaze. "Stay away from her. You don't even deserve to know her."
"I am aware, Lady Maxine," says Cullen, stiffly. Because it's the truth, isn't it? He knows very well that he has no business being anywhere near Lady Evelyn Trevelyan. He has no right to her smile, nor her hands, nor the way she takes her tea. He doesn't have a right to care about her; he doesn't have a right to any of it at all, but here he is, right in the middle of caring about her anyway!
Lady Evelyn is the last good thing in the entire world, Cullen thinks. He won't touch her, because if he does, he'll ruin her.
Maker, but he doesn't want to ruin her.
"You're aware, but, what, you're just going to keep her around, anyway?" Lady Maxine snaps every word off. Air hisses out through her teeth. "My sister isn't—she doesn't play the Game, she's not one of Orlais' darlings! When she does things, the idiot does things for keeps! And I won't—!"
She rears backwards, mouth splitting into a snarl. "I will not let some jumped-up lyrium-addict templar recruit put her back in some god-forsaken mage prison!"
Cillen takes a half-step back, a little bewildered. That would never—he would never—after everything—
"Especially not you, Knight-Captain," Lady Maxine continues. Her lips peel back from her teeth in a wolf-mirror of a smile. "Do you think no one told stories of the Gallows? Bloody gorgeous picture, that. I heard about Ser Karras, though, so good on whoever killed him."
Cullen inhales sharply, pressing his lips together. He well knows that Hawke had likely been the one to deal with that particular thorn. And he's hated it then and he hates it now, because he'd been too slow and too stupid and too bloody scared to do the thing himself.
It's only one more in a long line of sins—Karras, Alric, twenty-seven dead children—that he holds himself accountable for.
"Yes," he says. "Well."
Lady Maxine huffs out her irritation through her nose. "Just leave her alone, alright? Then everyone'll be happy."
Not everyone, Cullen thinks. I won't.
But he supposes that he doesn't really matter, does he?
"I—here," says Cullen. He is very careful not to touch her. "Tea."
Lady Evelyn shoots him a brilliant little smile. Maker, she's pretty when she smiles. Cullen swallows hard just looking at her.
"Oh! Thank you," she says, lifting the tankard to her mouth. A tiny unconscious sound of true pleasure escapes her, just as it always does when he makes her tea, because she's very particular about her tea. The usual flush of accomplishment washes over him with her happiness.
Bread sits in her lap, purring his ugly face off.
(Cullen is not envious of a cat. He is not.)
He sits, flexes his hands. Shifts. Flexes. It had been so easy, before Adamant. He'd bled out the stiffness, had been able to talk to her like a real person and hadn't second-guessed every thought. But Lady Maxine's fury had followed him all the way into the memories of the desert, had settled in his bones as the demons had cut their way through the Inquisition's troops, Warden blue gone up in flame. It had stayed with him, poison, infection, seeping near-Tainted black blood into his system, spreading rot and decay until he'd not been sure of anything, anymore.
Cullen doesn't know how to talk to Lady Evelyn, when all he can think of is the vicious twitch of her sister's palms towards her taggers.
He thinks, knows, that if Lady Maxine had been able to get away with it, he'd likely not be breathing.
(He wonders, darkly, if that might not be such a bad thing.)
The silence has gone on too long. Lady Evelyn sets her cup down with a quiet little click of glass against wood, and she sets her hands in her lap.
"Commander?" she asks. "Is everything alright?"
"It's—I—" Cullen winces. Maker, he doesn't want to lie to her; the thought is intolerable when she's looking at him the way she is, eyes clear and blue and so very, very dark. "Your sister doesn't like me very much, does she?"
Lady Evelyn's face drops to darkness like a stone in clear water. "What did my sister say?"
"Mraowr!" says Bread.
Lady Evelyn startles. Not enough to scatter the cat from her lap, but enough that Cullen notices it. She blinks down at the orange ball of fur, wide-eyed outrage. "She what? Bread!"
"Oh, Andraste, Breadsticks, how could you?!"
"Mrreowr," Bread yowls, sticks his squashed nose in the air. "Mrrprp!"
"Off," Lady Evelyn says, very quietly.
"You heard me, Bread. Get off! I'm so disappointed in you. What would Mother say? What would Cedric say?"
"He would not. Off, Breadsticks, I mean it!"
Bread seems to decide that Lady Evelyn is not, in fact, making a joke. He rises from her lap, absolutely taking his time with it, stretching and wiggling his arse pointedly in Cullen's face—the little bastard—before he somersaults delicately from her lap to the ground, tail high in the air.
And then he flounces away from them both, and goes to install himself beneath the armoire, entirely out of reach.
Maker's breath, Cullen really needs to move that damn piece of furniture.
But Lady Evelyn is taking a slow, steady breath, has folded her hands in her lap, very briefly closes her eyes. A stillness slides over her, a pour of cold water, he reflects. There's something shaky to the exhale that sounds like what pain feels.
When she opens her eyes again, Lady Evelyn looks him directly in the face. She holds herself like a queen; shoulders down, spine straight, neck long.
Andraste herself couldn't have looked so poised, Cullen thinks, a little heretical.
"I am so sorry," Lady Evelyn says, "about my sister."
"Oh," Cullen says, blinking. "It's—"
"And about Bread," she continues, as though she'd not heard him. Her knuckles are white; they're the only outward display of whatever turmoil is rattling through her. If Cullen didn't know better, he'd say that it was simply a matter of course. Lady Evelyn's tea sits in front of her, untouched, going cold. "For everything, really. I'm so—I'm so sorry. I won't take up any more of your time, Commander. My apologies."
And she stands from the chair slow and graceful as a line of music, the awful nothing empty in her face. She looks at the armoire where her cat has wedged himself. It is eerily quiet.
"Out, Bread," Lady Evelyn says, firm. "Now."
To Cullen's great astonishment, the horrible creature slinks out from underneath the armoire with nary a yowl of displeasure. Bread pauses only once more, to stare at Cullen very significantly, before he trots out of the open door and into the blinding noon sunlight.
A sudden, intense wave of dread washes over Cullen. It has to do with the slight hesitation in Lady Evelyn's shoulders, the way she holds her jaw. He almost wants to reach out and touch her, but she's standing too far away.
"Hold on," he manages. "Lady Evelyn—"
"Please don't," Lady Evelyn says. She takes a breath, works herself up to a smile that punches all the breath out of Cullen's lungs for how lovely it is. "Really, you needn't. My sister won't bother you, anymore, I promise."
She looks as though she's about to say something more, lips slightly parted, but whatever it is is strangled to a gruesome death in her throat. Cullen doesn't know what to say. He doesn't even know what's happening.
"Enjoy the rest of your day, Commander," Lady Evelyn says, smiling again, a strange, sweetly sad cast to it, now. "Oh, and—"
"Thank you for the tea."
And with that, Lady Evelyn slips outside, and leaves Cullen quietly, achingly alone.
Cullen doesn't see her for a week.
He tries not to panic. It is only a week. She's certainly been gone longer stints than a week—the fortnight that the Lady Inquisitor brought her along to deal with the walking dead in the Fallow Mire sticks out in his head—but to Cullen's knowledge, Lady Evelyn hasn't left Skyhold. She's still in the castle, but he does not see her once.
He doesn't see her horrible cat, either. Small blessings. Cullen is able to have a cup of tea that does not have a single long orange hair floating in it, and he is entirely overjoyed.
But a week stretches to two.
And two stretches to three.
And three stretches to four, and—
A month. It's been a whole month that he's not had the chance to talk to her, or listen to her scowl about her cat getting into everything he shouldn't, or anything at all, really. It's been a very long, very lonely month.
And Cullen allows himself to panic.
Because Lady Evelyn is avoiding him.
She's not been obvious about it; it's a subtle thing, the way she removes herself from any room that Cullen enters within thirty seconds of him entering it. Half the time he doesn't even realize that she's disappeared, and he only catches sight of the bright tawny flash of her hair as whatever door she's ducked through is closing behind her.
The sole time Cullen managed to catch her alone, she hadn't even looked at him; she'd only apologized for intruding, and had slipped away before he was able to get a word in edgewise.
It would be aggravating if it didn't hurt so much.
(For the Maker's sake, Cullen is starting to miss the bloody cat.)
But Lady Evelyn, it turns out, excels at hiding from someone when she doesn't want to be found. Cullen can't pretend to be entirely surprised; she did grow up in a Circle, and what little he knows of Ostwick lines up in the attempt.
And for now, Lady Evelyn evidently does not want to be found.
Which it's why it's such a startling thing, when Cullen returns to his office precisely thirty-three days after Lady Evelyn left it silent as a tomb, to find Bread sitting on his desk, tail twitching, and clearly waiting for Cullen to return.
Cullen stares at Bread.
Bread stares at Cullen.
"What do you want?" Cullen finds himself asking. "She's not here, and I can't see her coming, even for you."
"Mraowr," says Bread, which Cullen imagines must mean something along the lines of your pathetic. He can't blame the beast, really; he is rather pathetic. The moping is even beginning to grate on Lady Bethany's nerves, and Cullen didn't even think that was possible.
"I'm aware," Cullen says. He gestures to the corner where the armoire still stands. "If you've nothing better to do, you're welcome to it. I have paperwork I need to do."
"Mrrowr!" says Bread, and proceeds not to move a single entire inch any which way. He stays precisely where he is, which is to say, right on top of the paperwork Cullen had been planning to take to bed. It'll take him more than a few hours to write out what he wants to say in a legible manner; his hands have been trembling since he woke up. The withdrawal is bad, today.
"I hate you."
"She doesn't want to see me," Cullen tells the awful beast. It sticks in his throat, every word jagged as shattered glass and twice as painful. "She's made that perfectly clear, I think."
"Mrrp," Bread scolds. If a cat could be reproachful, this is what it would look like. "Mreowr!"
Cats cannot be reproachful, Cullen reminds himself, and is fervently glad that neither Alistair nor Lady Bethany nor anyone else that he knows or cares about is here to witness him having an actual conversation with a cat.
Still. It would be rude not to reply. Cullen's mother taught him better than that, even if the person he's replying to isn't really a person at all, but rather a very opinionated cat whom Cullen still very much suspects of being a demon.
"What do you suppose I do?" Cullen asks. "Every time I have tried to talk to her, she's run off. I don't—" he cuts himself off, thinking of the last time he'd said something very much like this, and forges ahead regardless, "—I don't want to make her uncomfortable."
"Mewr," says Bread, dismissively. The cat jumps down from the desk, striding past Cullen in that way that cats have that makes a person feel as though you've managed to disappoint the Maker, Andraste, and Lady Leandra Hawke all at once. His tail swishes around Cullen's ankles.
Well, that can't be good. It was far too easy to remove Bread from his immediate vicinity, Cullen thinks.
Far, far too easy.
The horrible creature is up to something.
Bread loiters by the door with his nose in the air, high reminiscent of Lady Leandra at her most disdainful. Cullen isn't even sure where the parallel has come from, but there it is: Bread manages to make him feel the exact same kind of sheepish as the Hawke matriarch.
And because this is Cullen's lot, he reacts to the wordless scolding the exact same way.
"Alright, I'm coming," says Cullen, gloomily, and resigns himself to being bossed about by an ugly orange cat for the rest of his natural life.
"Mrrp," chirps Bread, and leads Cullen outside.
Skyhold is a beautiful, perpetual autumn. The air is crisp as a Hinterlands apple just-ripe, and cold enough that it's a shock to his system, leaves him faintly breathless and gasping for it.
But not thirsty, for once, which is a relief.
(It's been more terrible, recently, the thirst; Cullen is better when he has something to focus on, and it is so, so easy to focus on Lady Evelyn. With nothing else, he'd miss her for that. The lack of her perhaps more of a detriment than he's allowed himself to think about. He swallows hard.)
Bread yowls rather indignantly.
Cullen follows the cat, because what else is he to do?
Bread leads him away from the battlements and back into Skyhold proper, but not for long. They pass through the main hall and into the garden, staying close beneath the the covered walkways to remain out of the way of the gardeners, which is markedly thoughtful, for a cat. Past the alcoves where people lounge after the day's work is over and past the little chapel to Andraste with its hundred of candles melted into puddles on the floor, past—
And oh, there she is.
Lady Evelyn is sitting on the stone steps up to the mage tower's walkways, bent over a book that's consumed her attention entire. Cullen takes a moment just to look at her. If this is going to be the last time he's able to speak to her—because, Maker knows, it very well might be—he'd like to memorize what her face looks like, first.
As always, his first thought is that she is not beautiful, but only merely pretty. But there are things he notes, looking at her now, that he has not seen in her before. The long length of her eyelashes. The dip in her cheek where her single dimple sits when she smiles. The lines beneath her eyes—she hasn't been sleeping as much as she needs to, he can tell, she's faintly grey and wan and it twists in his chest—and the smear of ink high on her left cheekbone.
And as always, the long, tawny-gold mass of hair that hangs over her shoulders, refracting the sunlight every way.
Maker, Cullen wishes that she was smiling.
She has the prettiest smile.
"Hello," Cullen says, because he is stupid and doesn't have an ounce of self-preservation in his head. Lady Evelyn jerks her head up, blinking wildly. He gulps down air. Maker's breath, he's gone and ruined it, she's just going to run off again, and he doesn't think he's going to survive that, doesn't think he'll— "You've been avoiding me."
Oh, excellent start, mate, now she'll definitely want to talk to you, Cullen hears Alistair say somewhere in the back of his head.
Cullen winces. He'd not meant for it to come out quite like that.
But Lady Evelyn doesn't move. "I haven't been. I'm sorry, has Max been bothering you, again? Maker, I told her to leave it alone—"
"No, it's—" Cullen tries again. "You never come for tea, anymore."
The colour drains out of her face, leaving her chalk-white. The smattering of freckles across her cheeks stands out starkly in the cool blue shadowed light of the stairwell, and she seems to shrink backwards just a little, uses her book as a shield.
No, no, no.
He swallows down the thudding of his heart, the blood pounding in his ears, the tight involuntary flex of his hands. He is fervently glad, again, that neither Alistair nor Lady Bethany are here and now for his gloves, as well, and even that Lady Evelyn is on the stair and not standing right next to him, for she'd certainly be able to feel the nerves roiling beneath his skin.
Cullen has no idea what he's doing, or is about to do, but he can't let her think that he doesn't—that he isn't—
"I hope you do not think me too forward, Lady Evelyn, but I miss you all the time," Cullen says, inhaling, nodding, cold sweat on the back of his neck, too fast, too fast. The words chatter out through his teeth. "All the time."
"Oh," she says, eyes very wide, lips slightly parted. Cullen, in a fit of true insanity, wonders what it would be like to kiss her. "I—do you, really? I-I'm sorry, I thought you wanted me to stay out of your way, so I have done."
"I never wanted you to stay away," Cullen says, even though it feels like drowning.
Lady Evelyn looks at him for a very long moment.
"Would you like to sit, Commander?" she asks, eventually, very soft, as she tips her head towards the space on the stair next to her. "We could talk for a bit, if you've the time?"
"I'd like that very much," says Cullen. For the first time in nearly a month, he thinks he might be able to write without shaking so badly he puts a hole through the parchment from pressing too hard.
"Make yourself comfortable," Lady Evelyn says.
(Maker's breath, she really does have the loveliest smile. He doesn't want to breathe, for fear of blowing it away.)
Cullen settles down next to her, and tries.
Breadsticks, curled up at Lady Evelyn's feet, begins to purr.