Cullen closed his eyes at the soothing feel of her fingers through his hair. Like so many times before the simple touch immediately calmed his troubled mind. But, of all the worries he had brought to her door previously, this was the first time it was another woman.
When she remained silent, he sighed. "I'm sorry. Perhaps it's not fair to talk to you about her."
He opened his eyes again to see her pale cornflower blue eyes watching him. Her sculpted brows were drawn down not in judgment but in compassion. Then the faint careworn lines around her eyes crinkled as she smiled her enigmatic, knowing smile, the one that always reassured him that everything would turn out as it should.
She chuckled lightly. "Ah, mon cher, you know you need not worry about jealousy with me. We have long been past that, no?"
He did know. He also knew that he had never before given her any cause. But, the affection in her heavily accented voice relieved him nonetheless.
Even after thirty years in Kirkwall, Celeste's Orlesian accent was strong. Cullen used to think she used it deliberately in her trade, to attract clients from among the wealthy and influential denizens of Hightown who were lucky enough to secure her attentions. But he had never seen it waver or diminish over the years, even with someone as unworthy as he.
Her fingers continued to work their magic. Her fingertips softly raked along his scalp, running through his dense blonde curls to the nape of his neck and then back again, a gentle rhythm that lulled his fears.
"Now, why don't you tell me more about this Marian Hawke. I cannot yet tell if she makes you happy or miserable. If it is the latter, well… then, I am afraid I cannot allow that." Her decorously painted lips turned up at the corners, almost suggesting she was making a joke. Except that he knew her and how ruthlessly protective she could be. Not jealousy, exactly, but something more dangerous.
"No, no, it's not like that." He rubbed the back of his neck, feeling the unfamiliar pull across his shoulders of the tunic he wore for once in place of his templar armor. "She's… she's remarkable. She's strong and smart and beautiful. She stands up for what is right, often when no one else does." He flushed. "But, I don't know if she even sees me… that way. And, of course, I'm a templar. I don't know how the Order might view it either, even if she is the Champion of Kirkwall." Celeste smiled indulgently at his gushing, understanding him even when he wasn't making much sense.
She meticulously brushed back an escaping lock of hair at her temple, where still surprisingly little grey threaded through the natural mahogany of her hair. She leaned closer and took his face in one hand, holding his chin firmly. "I think before you worry about how others might view your interest in this woman, you need to decide first how you view it." She looked steadily into his amber eyes and said more quietly, "You do deserve to have a love of your own, mon chéri."
He frowned but remained silent, so she went back to stroking his hair and humming a low tune. It had taken him several years of hearing it to recognize the tune, a well-known children's song from Orlais. He wasn't sure why she was so fond of it but had never asked. He had been much too timid in the beginning and later it just seemed too… trivial.
Celeste now had the dubious honor of being his oldest friend and for a great while, his only friend in Kirkwall. He had met her when he was still new to Kirkwall, still fresh from his ordeal in Ferelden's Circle, still haunted and friendless. Back when he was still trying to find his place within this new Circle, among the templars who hadn't yet decided what to think of their new Fereldan transfer and so didn't yet despise him. At that point, there had even been a budding sense of camaraderie, when his former infatuation with Solona Amell had merely been a ribald but harmless joke, and his lingering innocence simply a problem to conquer.
Conquering that problem had been their objective that night in dragging him to the Blooming Rose. He had only agreed in the interest of building rapport with his new brothers in arms. After his relatively ascetic life in the Ferelden Circle, he had had no idea what to expect from the Rose, but it hadn't been the tawdry, painted ladies pawing and leering. Nearly incapacitated with embarrassment, he did the only thing he could. He started to drink.
After a long night, filled with many a "No" and "No thank you," he found himself abandoned by his erstwhile comrades and drinking alone. He was preparing to stumble home without them when a strikingly elegant woman with compassionate blue eyes had approached him.
She was impeccably tailored, wearing an exotically embroidered dress that tastefully showed off her womanly figure, and her dark hair was tied up in a sophisticated twist. While older than any of the other women there, she wore her maturity like yet another allure, enhancing her already compelling beauty. He was sure she was just another patron like him, until she took his hand in both of hers and started stroking the back of it.
"Poor lamb," she said, her tone light but not mocking. "Has your flock deserted you?" Her eyes said, I understand. You don't need to be alone.
He could only swallow in drunken apprehension as her kind yet penetrating gaze raked over him. Then she smiled. "Let me see if I can help you." She took his hand and led him through a series of long hallways, away from the raucous noise and laughter, to a spare, quiet room somewhere in the bowels of the establishment.
She had taken care of his 'problem' that night with a gentle thoroughness he hadn't expected and with a tender joy he would always remember. She had merely smiled mysteriously when he had asked how much to pay her, so he had dropped something that seemed appropriate on the table, trying to hold up his part of the bargain, whatever it had been. In return, she had handed him an embossed card that only had the word Celeste printed above a Hightown address. Then he had fled.
It wasn't until several months later that he saw her again. His life had drastically changed once more. He had been promoted to Knight-Captain, second only to Knight-Commander Meredith herself, and the resentment toward him around the Gallows was palpable. After yet another dinner alone in his quarters he came across her card, and before he knew it, he was skimming across the harbor to the city. It had taken all his mettle not to turn and bolt while he waited before the door of her stately Hightown mansion. A prim Orlesian servant greeted him and, after a puzzled look, led him to a small parlor to wait.
He heard murmurings in the hallway, some of them male if he wasn't mistaken, and then after a time, the thud of the massive front door. Eventually the parlor door opened to admit Celeste. She was wearing a diaphanous, silken caftan with long draping arms that instead of obscuring her figure served to accentuate it. Her dark hair was loose, tumbling down her back, but was far from careless.
He found himself mumbling apologies for disturbing her. She smiled and said, "You are not."
He looked around the room, taking in the refined furnishing, the gilded frescoes. "You don't work for Madam Lusine."
She chuckled and shook her head. "Lusine and I have been friends for a very long time."
"Then… then… w- why? Why did you…?" He felt his face turn crimson red.
"You were alone and looking for something… very specific. You were not going to find it there."
He frowned warily. "And what was I looking for, precisely?"
"Companionship," she said simply. She looked him over again, her perceptive eyes seeming to see everything he might try to hide, and she smiled again, that worldly smile. "Your scars run deep, mon chevalier, and your position also holds you apart. Apart from the common folk. Apart from the mages you monitor. Apart even from your fellow templar." She tilted her head to the side. "Your subordinates now, are they not, Knight-Captain? Even now, you remain alone. But, also lonely."
He didn't know what he could say in the face of such truths. He raised his head high. "You see much."
She nodded once. "Why are you here?" The knowing light in eyes showed it wasn't really a question.
"I…" He cleared his throat and his eyes darted away. "I don't honestly know," he said at last.
She gave a throaty chuckle and approached him. She ran her hand gently down the side of his face, the slight touch somehow… familiar. "Do not worry. I know." She ran her hand further down his arm to his hand and, taking it, led him to a nearby velvet-covered settee. She sank down on it and he automatically followed. She kept hold of his hand, running the soft pad of her thumb lightly across the hard calluses on his palm. "Now, why don't you tell me what I do not see."
Somehow she had dragged out of him all his troubles. The loneliness of his post, his inability to fraternize with the other templar now that he had been promoted above them all, the disrespect he experienced for his youth and precipitous advancement, the slander and spite he endured for being a Fereldan in the Free Marches. She had even gotten him talking about what happened when Ferelden's Tower fell, something he'd locked away so far inside himself that he sometimes wondered if he truly recalled everything that had happened anymore. The peace he'd felt afterward was so compelling that he was already home before it occurred to him that she hadn't even slept with him.
Inexorably, he was drawn back again a few days later, and so it had begun. She had become his refuge, his support, his confidant. At first, he had insisted on paying her, even though most times all they did was talk. It wasn't until he finally learned who she was that he had realized that the paltry offering was probably insulting her.
As a professional courtesan of the highest caliber, Celeste was companion to the rich and powerful of the Free Marches. It was even murmured that she might actually be a bard, with her true trade being secrets. He frankly didn't want to know. He didn't need any more reasons to question why she would have chosen him in the first place.
Of course, it wasn't always just talk. He was only human, after all, and she had insisted that there were a few things she should teach him. And, so she had. But that was some time ago. Before his complicated feelings for Marian Hawke.
He sighed. Marian Hawke. The current source of his trouble. He had met Hawke not long after he had begun seeing Celeste. A fellow Fereldan, Hawke had been instrumental in foiling a diabolical plot against the Order. Her selfless dedication to her adopted city was often unsung, but he had always noticed. Her receipt of the Champion's title a few years back had only formalized her hero status as far as he was concerned.
While he had had few opportunities to work with her directly over the years, she had become his regular visitor at the Gallows and eventually one of his only real friends. It wasn't until he realized how even a brief visit from her could brighten his entire day, or how he could recall the exact shade of her eyes when she laughed, or how the mere thought of her in harm's way brought out some of his more primeval instincts, that he knew there was more going on. At least, for him.
When he had finally admitted his struggles with these unfamiliar emotions to Celeste, she of course had already known. And, as always, Celeste was right. He needed to understand what he was feeling before he could worry about anything else. Was it just a crush, like his one-time infatuation with Solona, or something more? It felt like more. Much more. But didn't it always?
He was about to explain this when he heard a distant racket. His eyes shot to the door, puzzled, but Celeste continued stroking his hair, unfazed since she never let anything distract her. Even when the door abruptly burst open and a quartet of grimy adventurers barged in, trailed by a servant objecting in an invective staccato of Orlesian.
It took a moment for Cullen's startled eyes to recognize a determined Hawke plowing across the room in full armor, her auburn hair running down her back in a tight braid and looking for all the world like she'd just stepped from the battlefield. She was trailed by a pained-looking Varric, the smirking Isabela and a wary Fenris. But Hawke ground to a halt when she saw Cullen with Celeste, her mouth literally falling open in shock.
He jumped to his feet. "Hawke! What is the meaning of this?"
Hawke just gaped at them, immediately taking note of Celeste's carelessly swept up hair and loose silk robe, obviously very informal garb for greeting guests, and of Cullen's atypically casual clothing. Her sea green eyes got a little wild around the edges as they darted back and forth. Her mouth opened and shut several times before she said, "I might ask you the same thing!"
"Celeste is a friend," he said, trying hard not to sound defensive but only partially succeeding.
Hawke gave an inelegant snort. "Oh is that what they're called these days?"
He bristled at her innuendo, even though she wasn't that far off the mark. "Hawke—" he started, a warning in his tone as he took a step toward her.
But she sliced her hand through the air to cut him off. "On second thought, I don't want to know," she said with a curl of her lip. She tossed her braid back over her shoulder and squared her shoulders, but her angry eyes returned to glare at him.
"Uh, yeah, okay, right," Varric said into the uncomfortable silence, sweeping a bow at Celeste. "Celeste, my dear, I apologize for the…" He glanced at Hawke before continuing, "um, overzealous intrusion. We need information you may have, and I'm afraid time is of the essence."
Celeste gave him a placid smile from where she remained seated on a divan. "Of course, Varric, anything for you." She arched a meaningful eyebrow at Hawke before turning back to Varric. With a sweep of her hand she murmured, "Please sit down," and then clasped her hands in her lap. "What has happened?"
While Varric explained something about an assassination plot against some ambassador of Celeste's acquaintance, Cullen and Hawke remained standing and continued to eye each other guardedly. He would never have wanted for her to learn about Celeste this way, so couldn't help the guilt from creeping across his face. Hawke's anger, on the other hand, seemed to have given way to acute discomfort. She couldn't seem to stand still and her eyes kept returning to surreptitiously observe the older woman, who in turn politely kept her attention focused on Varric.
As the interview started coming to an end, Hawke brusquely interrupted. "If we have what we need, then we best be on our way." She gave Cullen one last glance and then turned to go, but then Celeste got to her feet at last.
"So… you must be Hawke," Celeste said in a strong voice, causing Hawke to stiffen and turn back slowly. "The Champion of Kirkwall. I have heard so much. Let me look at you."
Celeste stepped closer and smiled at the warrior. Hawke held her head high under the older woman's scrutiny, only the slight flare of his nostrils betraying her uneasiness. The two women could not have been more different. Hawke stood almost a head taller, her broad shoulders and warrior's stance contrasting sharply with Celeste's feminine figure and elegant mannerisms.
"Ah," Celeste continued, still studying Hawke shrewdly. "Headstrong but sincere. Interesting. You are also alone, ma petite, even when you are surrounded by companions it seems." Celeste nodded sagely and then glanced at Cullen. "Yes, I see your choices more clearly now, mon cher."
Hawke's gaze darted between Cullen and Celeste, looking panicked and confused, a bit too much like a cornered animal. Then her eyes narrowed. "We're done here," she gritted and stormed out.
Celeste watched the door through which Hawke had fled with sad eyes. "This is good, but you should go after her." She glanced back at Cullen. "Now, before she gets too far, or too angry."
"Go. If you need me, I am here. As always." She gave him an affectionate smile and then made a shooing motion with her hands.
After a brief hesitation, he was out the door.
He chased through the high class mansions surrounding Celeste's house, knowing Hawke wouldn't stay in the area for long. He went down the stair that led toward the Chantry, taking the steps two at a time, but upon passing the Chantry board, suddenly knew exactly where she would go. He hurried up the steps to the Chantry's massive doors.
When he approached the Chantry's belfry the door stood slightly ajar. He stepped across the catwalk that led around the massive bell and crouched through the low doorway that led outside onto the small stone lookout surrounding the tall spire. There, leaning on the balustrade, was Hawke, looking out over the city below. She had told him that she sometimes escaped up here to think. He was ashamed that her latest escape was from him.
Wisps of hair around her face had escaped her tight braid and blew gently in the breeze. Her changeable blue-green eyes were clouded, like a storm at sea, and remained lost in the distance.
"Hawke?" He knew she had heard, but she still didn't look at him. "Hawke, I can explain," he said softly.
"Why? There's no need," she said in a hollow voice.
"But, I think there is." He paused, licking his lower lip. "At least, I hope there is."
She glanced at him, the anger rekindling in her eyes but now looking something more like betrayal. She gave a bitter bark of laughter. "You always did seem too good to be true, Ser Cullen. So, if the innocence was an act, I wonder how much of the rest was, as well." She tore her eyes away from him.
"Hawke, please. Let me explain."
"Okay, explain." Hawke spun around to face him, crossing her arms, her tone turning ugly. "This should be good. So, she's your mother? She's certainly old enough to be."
"No, she is not," he said patiently but with a hint of steel in his voice. "Nevertheless, you will be respectful of her. She is very dear to me."
Hawke snorted. "So I shouldn't insult your who—"
"Hawke!" he roared.
"But she is your lover," she countered. She had removed her gauntlets and her fingernails were drumming a nervous rat-a-tat against the vambrace on her arm.
"Not anymore?" she sneered. "What, not since last night?"
Starting to lose his patience, he snapped, "Not since I fell for you!"
Her mouth fell open again and then her face almost comically switched from shock to anger to confusion. In the end, she settled on fury, shaking her head and then spinning on her heel and stalking away to the farthest end of the small lookout.
He closed the short distance between them in a few steps and stopped just behind her. "Hawke?"
"Stop saying that," she muttered. "I don't know what you want me to say." She hitched up one shoulder, squirming in discomfort and tightly wrapping her arms again around her body.
He cleared his throat and almost reached out, feeling the keen desire to comfort her, but he held back. "Celeste is my oldest and dearest friend, Marian. Without her, I would have been lost these last years in Kirkwall. You know what it's been like for me." She shifted again, but at least she was listening. "Before you, all I had was her."
She didn't respond, making him wonder if the glimmer of something between them simply couldn't survive something like this. Or maybe he'd merely misread her from the beginning.
The silence drew out and he was starting to despair. Finally, in tight voice she said, "And now?"
"And now, I consider myself blessed to have you in my life as well."
She sniffed disdainfully. "As well, huh? Well, I'm afraid I don't swing that way." She started to move to the bell tower door.
He rubbed his hand across his eyes and then grabbed her shoulder and spun her around. He held her shoulders between his hands and made her look him in the eye. "That is not what I meant, and you know it! Marian, what I feel for you is… different than anything I've ever felt before. About anyone. I'm still attempting to understand it myself. All I do know is that I need you in my life now." He sighed, letting his hands drop. "Even if it's just as friends. But, I'd like to find out if it's more."
She crossed her arms again and studied the floor, her jaw set. After a tense minute she grudgingly admitted, "She is… very pretty."
"Yes." He eyed her warily, knowing he needed to tread very carefully here.
"I don't know how I… I don't know why you…" She made a frustrated sound in her throat and gestured helplessly in the air. "Why would you want me after… someone like her?"
She avoided his eyes and idly rubbed the bridge of her nose, which was endearingly smudged with dirt. Caught mid-adventure, Hawke was single minded, typically not letting anything get in her way. Even a bath.
He smiled at her fondly. This is exactly why. But he couldn't tell her that. "Because, Marian, there is no one like you." He stepped closer and boldly cupped her cheek in his palm. "Because you challenge me to stand up for what I believe in. Because my heart swells with pride when I hear the citizens bless the name Marian Hawke. Because not a day goes by that I don't marvel at how the light brings out a new color in your eyes."
He waited for her reaction, worrying when she tensed up at first, that he had said too much. But then, her eyes fell shut and a small sigh escaped her lips as she leaned into his hand ever so slightly.
His heart leapt and he held his breath to see what she would do next.
Slowly she opened her eyes again and stepped back from him, her expression inscrutable. She cleared her throat and glanced up at the sun. "We should go down before the bell tolls and deafens us for the next week."
He nodded mutely. She hesitated and then reached out and slipped her hand into his. With almost painstaking care she gently laced each of her fingers between his, the whisper light touch feeling remarkably bold and intimate. Eventually she looked up at him from their entwined hands and gave him a small, sweet smile that was full of promise.
He couldn't help the broad grin that grew on his face. Without dropping her eyes, he slowly lifted their joined hands and pressed his lips to the back of her hand, enjoying the blush that suffused her cheeks. "And then?" he asked.
Her eyes narrowed, gleaming with mischief. "And then, I may need to find out just how much of this innocence was an act after all."
Now it was his turn to blush. "As… as m- my lady commands," he stammered.
Her smile turned smug as she turned to go, pulling him by the hand, fingers tightly locked together.