Sleepless nights were not unfamiliar to Cullen. Since the events of Kinloch Hold he struggled to sleep through the night. His mind always plagued by the images and sounds of when he was held captive by Uldred and his mages. He would hear his friends screaming, dying, being tortured in the Harrowing chamber and see their faces as if they stood before him. He heard the voices of the demons who tried to break him as he was kept in the magic prison. He remembered their words, seductive and slow, whispered, hissed into his ears. Promises of things he could have if he just gave in. The longer he resisted them, the more aggressive their attempts became. When the pain started, memories of claws digging into his flesh, drawing blood from deep wounds - that was when he would wake with a start; gasping, sweating, and trembling all over.
His mind was never quiet. During the daylight hours he could distract himself with work, but at night when the lure of sleep was too strong for him to resist he was defenceless and was forced to surrender himself to the terrors of his memory.
Cullen could not recall the last time he managed a full night's sleep. He did not rely on sleeping draughts, though they were tempting, he did not wish for his mind to be slow for any reason. The withdrawal of lyrium already caused him daily pain, a dull throb he felt as constant as his heart beat, he did not wish to add being sluggish and dense to that. He could get by on very little sleep. He had adapted over the years, he had been forced to.
As he walked from his tower across the bridge towards the main keep he relished the quiet. Skyhold was a busy place, no busier than Haven had been, but somehow it seemed louder to him. The constant stream of nobles, of pilgrims, and refugees made it feel as if the fortress was never settled, there was always something. That was why he preferred Skyhold during the night. Everyone was abed, except for the guards on rotation, Skyhold got it's chance to breathe and so did Cullen. The keep was empty of all its gossiping nobles and the Chantry clerics left the gardens. It was peaceful.
Cullen's steps echoed off the flagstones as he walked through the rotunda. While Solas was normally found there, at night he disappeared off to sleep like any normal person - though if the place he chose to sleep that night was normal, Cullen could not say. He closed the door from the bridge as softly as possible, wincing when it squeaked and the latch clicked into place. While he knew most people would be sleeping in their rooms and guest quarters, he was never certain if Leliana would be asleep or not.
As he crossed the space, he heard the messenger crows above him. Soft cawing, the ruffle of feathers, as they adjusted to settle down after their mild disturbance. He closed the door to the main hall with as much care as the previous door, they were heavy and often slammed if left to close on their own. The hall was as silent as the rest of Skyhold, neat too without people and things cluttering it up. Chairs were tucked underneath tables, mugs and plates from an evening of socialising were returned to the tavern and kitchen, and at the head of it all the Inquisitor's Ferelden inspired throne, with its thick, heavy furs neatly laid out across the seat.
He was less careful with the doors from the hall to the war room when they closed. He knew Josephine kept them well oiled and in good condition, not wanting any visiting nobles or associates to be subjected to creaky doors.
When he entered the war room, he was startled to find he was not alone. He was used to there being no one else awake, it was the dead of night after all. Why would anyone need to be awake? Yet he was met with the anxious gaze of the Inquisitor meeting his from across the room. Wide-eyed, bloodshot, and glassy - as if she had been caught doing something wrong.
They stood in silence for a few heart beats, the two of them looking at each other, both in a state of undress. Cullen in his bed shirt, the sleeves rolled up to his elbows, a loose pair of cotton breeches and his boots. Nevena in a white cotton shift which came half way down to her thighs and a long cloak fastened around her shoulders to keep out the cold.
Swallowing thickly, Cullen averted his gaze from the flush of colour across Nevena's chest and walked further into the room. He could feel the air almost pulsate around them both. Not an unfamiliar sensation when they were alone together but one which still made his skin prickle beneath his clothes and his hair stand on end. It was as if the room was filled with electricity formed between the pair of them.
"I didn't realise anyone else was up." Cullen said, coming to lean on the war table opposite the Inquisitor.
"I can leave." Nevena replied swiftly. "If I'm bothering you."
"Why would you bother me?" He asked her in a low voice, mouth curving into a soft smile. Nevena returned it and the tension started to dissipate. Their personal relationship, their intimate relationship, was still new to them both. It was hard to know where they stood all the time, and harder still to get a grasp on their situation considering how often she was away from Skyhold. Cullen tried to make her comfortable when they were alone together in any situation, and that in turn helped him feel more at ease and calmer in her presence. "What were you doing?"
"Staring at the war table." Nevena sighed. She pushed her fingers back through her loose hair causing blonde waves to cascade over her slim shoulders. "Pretending I know what I'm doing."
"Couldn't sleep?" Inquired Cullen, lifting a brow. He knew the signs well enough, he wore them most days. The bloodshot eyes, the weighted speech, the hollows beneath her eyes, she was sleeping less and less since Adamant and it was beginning to take its toll.
Nevena's mouth quirked at the corners. "Is it that obvious?"
"A little." Cullen wandered around to one end of the war table. He retrieved a letter from a pile being held down by a skull being used as a paper weight. "Neither can I. Have you tried anything? A sleeping powder or...?"
"I don't like using things like that." Explained Nevena, glancing up from the table at him. "I've tried them in the past but I don't like how they affect me... And they make my mouth feel all tingly."
Chuckling, Cullen carried on around the table until he was on the same side as she was. He approached until they stood beside each other, their arms just touching. "I can't say I've ever experienced a tingly mouth when I've taken them..." Cullen remarked with a slow grin, "but I understand why you would be reluctant to take something."
"Doesn't stop Josie from asking one of the attendants to put them on my desk every night." Nevena gave a low sigh. "I know she's trying to help but it's not sleep that's the problem."
"What is the problem?" Cullen turned towards her, giving his full attention. He leaned his hip against the edge of the table.
"It's this." Nevena flailed her marked hand wildly. "It activates when I'm sleeping." Cullen's brows rose in alarm. This was the first he heard of the Anchor activating on its own. "It's painful, so I wake up."
"Could you be making it work as you sleep?" He inquired, genuinely curious. The Anchor was something no one knew enough about to be able to guess what could be making it activate on its own, let alone how to curb such behaviour. "Perhaps as you're dreaming? Being a mage, your connection to the Fade may be giving it additional strength?"
"You sound like Solas." Nevena teased, peering up at him with a lazy smile. "And Dagna."
Cullen rubbed the back of his neck, a nervous habit. "I only meant--"
"I know." Nevena nudged towards him, closing the small space between them. She wound her arms around his waist, pressing her cheek to his chest. After a moment of shock, Cullen returned her embrace, placing his hands at the top and bottom of her back and perching his cheek on top of her head. Whenever they were close he was always struck by how warm she was. Being near her was like sitting beside a dying fire. Even in the biting cold of the mountains she retained a regular, pleasant heat.
Cullen found he liked it. He liked the warmth she emitted, he liked how he felt when she held him like this: stalwart, enduring, and confident - like he could withstand any assault. He liked even more the way she felt in his arms when he held her. He liked the sensation of her small breasts cushioned against him, to be able to feel the steady rise and fall of her ribcage when she took measured breaths. He liked the smell of her hair - lingering saffron from a oil she used to keep it healthy in the cold. He liked the feel her bare skin as he traced small circles with the tips of his fingers where her cloak fell from her shoulder.
They stood in silence for a long time, the two of them holding the other listening to nothing. When Nevena shifted, Cullen loosened his hold until she was comfortable and then tightened it around her again. He squinted down at the map spread across the war table and found a smile teasing at his mouth as a low laugh rumbled in his chest.
"Did you know, if you squint Lake Calenhad looks like--"
"Do you want to go to bed with me?"
Nevena's sudden question made Cullen stumble over what he was saying. His eyes widened, his mouth went dry and he felt his throat close over. The warmth of his body turned to ice in a second, his feet growing heavy in his boots weighting him to the ground.
"G-go to..." His voice was tight, not his own and he forced himself to swallow, his Adam's apple grinding against the top of Nevena's head. "N-Neven..." He couldn't. They couldn't. Not that he did not wish to, but he did not wish to yet. Their relationship was still so immature, so new and they were still learning, still exploring. He did not want to rush into anything and get hurt. He did not want to hurt her, either. "I ... I don't know if..." He swallowed again, feeling his chest constrict and his heart tighten. "If that..."
Nevena leaned back, palms flat against his chest, to look up at him. His confusion and surprise was clearly evident on his face because she frowned for a moment before the implication of her words dawned on her. "Oh! No, I don't mean go to bed in that sense." She explained, her cheeks growing pink. "I'm... I just meant... maybe if two people who can't sleep trying sleeping together it might... help?" She gave a weak shrug, shaking her head. "It's stupid. I'm sorry." She began to move away from him and he missed her warmth immediately. "Forget it."
"No, no!" Cullen held her fast, the world catching up with him and his thoughts now he knew her suggestion was born of innocence and not of any baser desires. He never considered the idea of sleeping with someone making his sleeping easier. That perhaps having someone else there to touch and ground him might help. It was certainly a possibility and one he was willing to try, if it would also help Nevena in her quest for slumber. "I..." He dropped his gaze for a moment, measuring his words before saying them. "If you would like to then... it wouldn't cause any harm to try."
With a small nod and a brief, weak smile Nevena clasped one of his hands, lacing their fingers together and led the way around the war table and out of the war room. They walked slowly. Cullen wondered if perhaps it was because she was nervous or doubting her suggestion and he walked at her pace. He wanted to hope it was because the keep was empty and they could hold hands and be openly affectionate towards each other in a way they could not be when there were eyes watching them all the time.
Her quarters were swamped in darkness but for two candles on the table beside her bed. The covers were askew, pillows dishevelled, clearly she tried to sleep or had been asleep at least for a little while. Nevena unhooked her cloak from around her shoulders and draped it over the banister. Cullen's gaze wandered low, admiring the way her shift skimmed the backs of her thighs as she walked towards her bed. When he realised he was ogling, he blushed and admonished himself mentally. Huffing and pushing his cheeks out he ran a hand through his hair.
Nevena climbed into bed, shuffling her legs under the heavy covers and puffing up her pillows. She waited for Cullen to join her, offering a coy but inviting smile, sitting with her hands in her lap. Cullen noticed she slept on the side of the bed which was furthest from the door. He wondered if that was due to her time in the Circle, or even if she realised it was a thing she did.
Climbing into bed he adjusted the pillows behind him and copied Nevena as she lay on her side facing him after blowing out the candles. He lay on his back, clasping his hands over his stomach staring up at the ceiling. He found he missed the hole in his roof, missed being able to see the stars and the draught from the wind. Of course, those thoughts were just there to distract him from the winding, clenching unease he felt grasping and swiping at his stomach. Sensations which made him feel sick.
To sleep with someone, in any sense, was to demonstrate trust. Cullen had not slept with anyone in a long time, he had not felt able to trust anyone enough to sleep with them. Now he was not only sleeping with Nevena, but admitting to them both how deeply he trusted her. He trusted her enough to be with her in his most vulnerable and defenceless state. She was trusting him too. A mage trusting a former Templar, and a former Templar trusting a mage in so intimate a setting, when they both had reasons to fear the other. The situation would have made him laugh, if he wasn't so wound up and anxious.
The tension between them was back, filling the air with crackling, pulsating energy so brittle it would break if either of them spoke. In the gloom he heard Nevena breathe as if she were about to say something, and then reconsider it leaving them in uncomfortable silence. Cullen tried to relax his body. He closed his eyes and focused on his breathing, inhaling for seven counts, holding for four and exhaling for five. His fingers clenched around each other where they rest on his belly linked together, he felt the bones of his knuckles through his skin, another distraction. A distraction he needed.
Nevena was everywhere, not just beside him. He could smell her in the covers and the pillows. Her breathing broke through his counting, soft sighs and the occasional rustle where she moved for comfort. Brows furrowing, Cullen drew his lips into a tight line as he resumed his practice of measured breaths and counting. He tried to grasp at his tenuous focus, remembering the methods used as a Templar to centre himself.
Somehow he fell asleep. Through the tight nervous energy roaming through his body the fingers of slumber wound around him and lulled him to sleep. A brief sleep though. He woke uncertain how long his eyes had been closed to the sound of crackling and Nevena whining beside him.
The first thing he noticed when he opened his eyes was the faint greenish glow of her room. Alarmed, his sleep confusion quickly left him and he jerked up, the covers pooling in his lap. Nevena was kneeling, rocking beside him grasping her left hand where the Anchor was flashing. Her face was contorted, not in pain but in agony, her lips bitten into her mouth in the efforts to muffle her anguished whimpers.
He never asked if the Anchor caused her pain. Of course it did, he should have realised that but she never complained about it. Never made a fuss. Now he could see firsthand just how intense the ache was. What she went through every time she sealed a rift or it reacted.
"Nevena," Cullen reached out and placed a hand on her shoulder. She jumped, releasing a startled yelp which descended into a low moan as she doubled over, clutching her hand into her chest.
"M'sorry." She laughed through the pain. "Go back to sleep. I'll be fine."
Cullen snorted at her suggestion, "I'm not sleeping while you're like this." He argued, pressing his palm to her back. He felt that she was covered in a thin layer of sweat. How could she expect him to sleep while she was riddled with pain, practically writhing like there was poison in her veins. "What can I do?"
"Nothing." She shook her head, biting back a gasp. Cullen watched as she shifted and put her hand under her knee, pushing all her weight down into it. "It will stop soon."
"An hour? Maybe?" Wincing, she bit down on her pillow, muffling a short scream. "Last time it was about three hours." She panted, somehow managing to grin.
"Maker's breath..." Sighed Cullen. He pushed her hair back over one shoulder, "is this every night?"
"Not-- mhnmhh!!" Nevena smashed her face into her pillows again, her yell descending into a sob. Under his hand her shoulders shuddered, he could feel the sharp angle of her shoulder blades where she flexed her hands and tightened her muscles, the notches of her spine contorting as if she was under torture. "Not every night, no." She answered him in a breathless rush. "Tonight's just a bad night."
Uncertain what he could do, what he should do - the Anchor was a volatile thing after all - Cullen remained at her side, stroking his hand down her back trying to nurse her through the pain. Nevena kept her pain private, her screams private. He realised he was likely the only person who knew how badly the Anchor hurt her, he was probably the only person to see her like this. Even when she was out travelling she probably did her utmost not to disturb her party as they slept.
He did what little he could think of beyond making soothing circles across her back. He moved her hair away from her face so he could see her and she could see him. He fetched water for her in case she needed it and eventually pulled her into his chest where she curled up against him, trembling and tearful her voice hoarse from her screaming and crying. He was helpless in the face of something so massive and powerful. It occurred to him how little any of them really knew about the Anchor or what it did and how hard it must have been for Nevena to shoulder the burden of it alone. After all, only she knew the pain first hand. Only she knew what it was like to wake with it fractured and shuddering, threatening to open a rift in her own room. Only she could describe how intense it was to experience daily and nightly... and yet she closed rifts and did what was asked of her without complaint, despite the agony it caused her.
Remarkable was a word which did not do her justice, but it was the only one Cullen could think of to call her while he cradled her close. He eased away her tears with his thumbs and kissed her forehead, murmuring words of encouragement with each new wave of agony which crashed over her, making her body begin to quake anew.
He was not certain when the flashes began to grow less frequent or when Nevena's sobs started to soften, he only knew that both things happened and he was grateful for it. He eased Nevena's fingers from around her left wrist and held her hand in his despite her soft murmurs of protest. He kissed her wrist and the deep half-moon shapes where she dug her nails into her skin, moving his mouth upwards to kiss the inside of her wrist and the heel of her hand.
He started to move his thumbs in her palm around the Anchor, applying pressure to her skin. In his lap, Nevena leaned against him, her back flush with his chest. Hair stuck to the back of her neck and her shoulders, plastered there by her sweat. Cullen ghosted his lips over her shoulder blade, watching as the glow of the Anchor began to diminish until it was silent and angry no longer.
Sliding his fingers through Nevena's, he held her hand while guiding her to lie down. She was lucid, pliant in his hands, too weak and worn out to resist or argue. Sliding his free arm over her waist, Cullen cuddled her towards him, curling himself around her smaller body creating a protective shell. Nevena used his arm as a pillow, tracing her thumb across his while he stroked over the quiet mark on the palm of her hand.
He wanted her to sleep; she needed it more than he did and did not believe he would after what he witnessed. But he did. When he woke for the third time it was to daylight streaming through the large windows of Nevena's room. Cullen was on his side, his body turned and facing the stairwell. It took him a moment to recall where he was and why, when he did he relaxed and listened for the familiar sounds of Skyhold waking. Without the hole in the roof he could hear little. The sounds of recruits sparring was dulled, and there were no low murmurs of conversation like he was used to hearing outside the doors to his office. He could smell the alluring scent of food rising from the kitchens though, but could not find the strength to move just yet.
Cullen noticed Nevena was also on her side, her right arm flopped over his hip where she lay behind him, the positions reversed from how they fell asleep the night before. Her expression was peaceful and he noticed her left hand was clenched into a small fist. He scooted backwards across the mattress until he could feel Nevena's body against his back. She gave a little moan and wriggled until she was flush, her arm further up, now over his waist. Cullen closed his eyes, unwilling to leave the warmth of the bed or Nevena's side, not after what he saw during the night. He wanted to find a way to make the pain she experienced more bearable, if that was even possible. He reasoned Solas would be the best person to speak to about it. He seemed to know the most about the magic of the Breach and the Anchor itself - if he did not have an immediate remedy, he was at the very least a good starting point.
As his body started to succumb once more to tiredness and the need for sleep, Cullen heard the hinges on the door to Nevena's chambers squeak and his eyes snapped open. He leaned up on one elbow, ruffling a hand through his hair, trying to move as little as possible so he did not disturb Nevena. A young woman appeared over the banister carrying laundry, a servant bringing clean linens and sheets. She froze on the step when she saw Cullen staring at her as coldly and coolly as he could muster so early in the morning. Her eyes darted from him, to the clothes he wore in bed and to Nevena - also clothed - clearly putting things together.
"Out." Cullen ordered in a sharp, harsh whisper. Nevena would wake in her own time, not because it was demanded her. He would make certain of that, even if he had to send out a missive to the whole fortress. The woman placed the sheets on the couch and bobbed politely before retreating down the stairs. Once she was gone, he resumed his place, settling into his pillows and the mattress.
"Whos'at?" Nevena mumbled, her forehead pressing into Cullen's back.
"No one." Cullen replied, grasping her small hand in his.
"Go back to sleep."
"Mhm..." She yawned and nuzzled the back of his neck. Cullen waited a few minutes until he heard her steady breaths, a signal that she was indeed sleeping again. Only then did he allow himself the luxury of a few more hours of peaceful rest.