The celebration had been going on for hours. Lights and music were spilling onto the streets. Cullen had been watching the festivities for a while now, never quite leaving his place on the sidelines. He had talked to a couple of people over the course of the evening but mostly it had been a very solitary celebration for him. He was alright with that, he certainly hadn’t gone through any efforts to make his presence known. Everyone around him seemed happy. The dancing had been going on for quite some time and the streets around the Denerim market were packed with people. Everyone was celebrating the coronation of the new Queen. The young woman taking over her parents legacy would make a fine ruler.
Not for the first time this evening he felt like he saw a somewhat familiar figure. A woman at the other side of the marketplace, keeping to the shadows. He had noticed her several times already. Mainly because she seemed to be doing the same thing he was: Watching but not participating in anything. He couldn’t make out who she was over the distance but he had the nagging feeling that he knew her from somewhere. With his curiosity piqued he left the spot he had occupied for most of the evening and went looking for her. When he reached the area he had seen her last in it was empty. He was looking around frowning when he heard a voice behind him.
“I try my best to not get noticed and still somehow fail.” A voice that was so familiar to him he instantly recognised it. “What a surprise, Commander.”
Cullen turned around only to look at a ghost. The last time he had seen Cassia Hawke had been the day she and her sister had ridden alongside him towards Adamant Fortress. They day they fought the Wardens. That day, a little over twenty years ago, when she had gone into the fade and hadn’t returned. “Not a Commander anymore, Lady Hawke.” It was the first thing that came to mind. Cullen had never felt very confident with words.
Cassia let out a small laugh and for a moment she looked just like she did back then. “I think we can both agree that I have never, in my entire life, been an actual lady either.” She pulled the scarf that she was hiding her hair and her face behind down a bit and leaned back against the wall behind her. He gaze seemed piercing as she looked at him. “Age becomes you Cullen,” she finally remarked.
“It has been exceptionally kind to you,” he returned the compliment almost directly. Old habits seemed to stick around, even after all this time. But looking at her, now that she wasn’t hiding anymore, made him see that he wasn’t wrong. Her hair had always been standing out, unusually white. But what seemed like an exotic feature when she was young looked entirely becoming of the rest of her now. The lines on her face were not hiding the years that had passed. She still looked utterly beautiful to him.
“Flatterer,” she laughed. “I hear congratulations are in order.” At his questioning look she elaborated. “They say your rehabilitation for former templars was very successful?”
Everything about this conversation seemed a bit odd to Cullen. Twenty years had come and gone and for most of them he had been thinking she was dead and here they were, chatting like nothing happened at all. But he didn’t know how else to react but to straightforwardly answer.
“Yes, thank you. The former king accepted most of them into the Fereldan Military. A good place to be.” He meant it. Though he himself had given up on military life completely after the Inquisition, he knew that for many of his men it was a way of life not that easily shed. “I am surprised you heard about that,” he confessed.
Cassia nodded sheepishly. “Varric,” she said. “We still write now and then.”
Cullen tried to determine if she sounded sad or simply resigned. He had a hard time reading her. When she lifted her arm to brush some hair out of her face her sleeve moved just the tiniest bit. But enough for him to see the many scars that lurked underneath the clothing that was otherwise almost completely covering her. Before he could think of something smarter to say he already blurted his first thought out.
“So, you are still doing that?” With a nod towards her arm it was clear what he meant.
Self conscious Cassia hastily pulled her sleeve down. “Am I still a blood mage you mean?” She sighed. “Pretty much, yes. It’s not something you can really stop being.” A weary look was on her face now. “You are not going to arrest me or something, right?”
This time it was Cullen who laughed. “No, I am not,” he assured her. “I am not a templar anymore and after all this time, well…” he was shaking his head in disbelief. He hadn’t thought about this consciously in a long time but now, standing in front of someone he would have once considered a danger to everything he believed in, all he saw was an old friend. Who gave him a puzzled look at his odd behaviour.
“I guess,” he started explaining, “sometimes the thing you grew up fearing most does not happen. No matter how likely you thought it would be. And it surprises you to find out you were wrong.” He was vague but by the look in her eyes he felt like she knew exactly what he was talking about. Another thing he noticed formed into a question, “Why are you travelling alone? Weren’t you and…”
At the shadow that suddenly appeared on Cassia’s face he didn’t finish the sentence. She shot him an almost grateful look as she shook her head.
“No, not anymore.”
For a moment she looked like she was somewhere far away in her mind before she focused again. This time it was Cullen who looked questioningly at her. He wondered if he should ask what happened or if it would be uncalled for when she gave him an answer anyways.
“Sometimes,” she started, using almost his exact words, “ the thing you grew up fearing most does happen after all. No matter how hard you fought against it. And when it doesn’t surprise you in the end all you feel is foolish.” He saw an old hurt in her eyes mixed with the acceptance of someone who knew they would never really be pain free again. A feeling he was far too familiar with. It was surprising, that after all those years, their vague sentences now were probably the most honest they had ever been with each other.
Cassia straightened her shoulders. “Well, it was nice to see a familiar face.” It sounded like a platitude but she seemed to mean it. And wasn’t that just the strangest thing yet? She was obviously getting ready to leave.
“Where to?” Cullen asked out of curiosity again. He heard only the vaguest things from Varric over the past years. There had been a reason for most people not even knowing whether she was still alive or not.
“Lake Callenhad,” came her answer. The surprise must have been very visible on his face. Why in the world would she want to even get close to the Ferelden Circle? She had that far away look on her face again. “I’ve been living most of my life at the speed of at least three lifetimes.” She sounded a bit wistful but mostly she sounded tired. Weariness seemed to permeate through her entire self. “I think it is time I slow down.”
Cullen wasn’t sure if he imagined it but she sounded strangely content at that. He also wasn’t sure if he actually believed her. He had long ago learned that the things Cassia said and the things she actually did could be two very different things. His scepticism seemed to show because Cassia chuckled. It sounded different than he remembered. Or perhaps what he remembered had never been genuine. He couldn’t tell.
“Hard to believe, is it?”
Cullen couldn't help but agree. “You did always have a habit of lying to me,” he stated plainly. It wasn’t an accusation. Not anymore. Just a fact of life.
Cassia shook her head. “No, I had a habit of telling you what you wanted to hear.” She seemed to think the distinction was somehow important. He couldn’t see why.
“Same thing,” he murmured. Certain things he didn’t like to be reminded off. Not even years later.
Cassia just looked at him, eyebrows raised. “Is it?” She seemed intent on not letting him be. It was familiar and frustrating at the same time.
“I think twenty years is a long time,” Cullen said slowly. An attempt to put an end to this conversation that opened up more old wounds than it should after such a long time. “You might not know anymore what I do and what I don’t like to hear.”
Cassia was still watching him with the same questioning expression on her face. “Do you ?”
He was still at a loss word words when she gave him a final nod before she pulled up her scarf again. “You should come visit me if you ever are in the vicinity,” she said almost cheerfully. “I hear the circle allows that nowadays. Perhaps you’ll be surprised.” With a smile that reminded him of decades past she shouldered the small bag she had. There was a finality in her movement that made it clear their impromptu meeting was over.
“Goodbye, Cassia.” He finally found his voice again as she turned around, still smiling.
As he watched her retreating form growing smaller in the distance he kept thinking. About her words and what they implied. About his tendency to run after someone who was usually already somewhere else when he caught up. About possibilities. And the realisation that he had made a decision the moment he said goodbye already.
Shaking his head at his own predictability he went on his way. Home for now. He felt no rush chasing after her. If she told him the truth he would find her. And if she hadn’t, he was in no hurry to end the illusion.