Power in Stories

“There's power in stories, though. That's all history is: the best tales. The ones that last. Might as well be mine.” – Varric Tethras

The Sordid Tale of Meryell Verlen, Chapter 57

When he woke with the distinct feeling that he was being watched, Cullen first imagined that somehow Meryell had made it home in far better timing than expected. As soon as he opened his eyes, however, he knew that wasn’t the case. Largely because she wasn’t curled around him like a leech but mostly because he immediately saw blue eyes, not green over the edge of his bed.

“Elo, Cu’en,” came a childish voice and he frowned. That was…

“Mathis?” he questioned, propping himself up on an elbow. The four year-old – or was he five now? – grinned up at him from where he stood next to the bed. It was that same I am up to so much shit grin that his mother had given Cullen every day she made an appearance in the Gallows.

Suspecting a prank, he looked around his upper floor for Hawke herself but she was nowhere to be found. Frowning, he looked down at the boy and asked, “How exactly did you get up here?”

Rolling his eyes, the boy replied, “‘Adder. Was big but not scary. Not la-like where Mama hid us.” Mathis wrinkled his nose in disgust as he lifted both arms high and spread his fingers wide. “High, high, high, up tree one time. Was scared but Mama pah-rom-ised t’keep me safe.”

Maker. He’d always been under the impression that Hawke had found somewhere safe to hide and raise her son for the whole time. She had periodically popped up near Kirkwall in the past, usually visiting long enough for Carver to make it out to meet her before she was off again. Once he’d had to go to the meeting himself when her brother was ill and she had stayed long enough to hear he was fine before bolting with Mathis like a frightened deer. He hadn’t contemplated the possibility that she had just kept moving when she needed to. Knowing what little he did of the siblings childhood, he knew they had similar instances while growing up (such was the peril of a mage parent and two magical children) but he also knew parents often wanted better for their children than what they’d had. He was sorry Hawke hadn’t been able to give that to her son.

Cullen just nodded and said, “I’m sure your mother would keep you safe from anything, Mathis.” Then he asked, “And how did you get inside my tower?”

The boy giggled and held up a familiar looking bit of rolled up leather tied up with a cord. He then opened it up, showing off a few well worn and simplistic variations of a thieves toolkit. Cullen had seen Varric’s and Sera’s enough times now to recognize one, not to even mention that Meryell had at least five hidden around Skyhold as well as the one she carried with her.

Part of him wanted to be furious but Mathis’ face was open and earnest as he answered, “Prac-tice,” sounding the word out into separate syllables.

Maker’s breath, someone (Varric probably) was turning the boy into a rogue at what seemed far too young an age.

With a sigh, Cullen sat up, tossing off his sheets and letting his bare feet rest on the floor. As he mercifully blessed the fact that his habit was to sleep in pants, he held out a hand for the set. “May I?”

Mathis abruptly clammed up, clutching at the kit, before asking, “Gonna give it back, right?”

“Of course,” he assured. There was a tense moment and then the boy tentatively placed the hastily rolled up bundle in his open palm. Cullen flipped it open, the leather soft and supple against his skin, and saw very clearly that this was a kit fitted specifically for a child’s hands. Though it looked like the pieces themselves had once been for a larger kit and had been resized. He ran his thumb over an old maker’s mark at the bottom of the leather, a mix of olive leaves and a sword, then asked, “Did Varric give this to you?”

“Aun’ Isa,” mumbled the boy in reply. He scuffed the toes of his small boots against the floorboards before adding, “She says Mama needs a la-Iahk-picker per-mahn-ent-lee.” The boy sounded out the Iast two words with careful care, as if he had practiced them a great deal.

Of course it was Isabela.

Cullen hadn’t encountered the pirate often – and thankfully never without Hawke around to run interference between him and her grabby hands that he’d been well warned about by Carver – but he knew enough about her that he wasn’t surprised.

“And what does your mother say about that?”

The boy shrugged but Cullen knew that type of shrug. He remembered getting in trouble as a boy with both of his parents and that shrug was for when you didn’t want to give away something. Which probably meant that Hawke was unaware of her son’s activities.

He wasn’t the boy’s father or any sort of figure with authority over him except the general label of adult yet he couldn’t let him continue his little secret. Not when the boy had broken into his tower. Responsibly using his new skills would be a lesson that Isabela had likely not taught him. Given what he knew of her, she’d probably actually encouraged breaking and entering.

Cullen held out the little kit and when Mathis’ smaller fingers touched it he said, “You know I’m going to have to tell your mother.” The betrayal was immediately evident on the boy’s face but he wasn’t going to let this lesson pass by unacknowledged. Hawke would probably kill him herself if he did and she found out. “Practice or not, Mathis, you broke into my tower. Was I in danger?”

“No,” replied the boy meekly. He tugged lightly at the kit but Cullen kept his grip firm on the other end.

Leaning forward he continued, “Was someone else in danger that needed my aid?”

“No.”

Cullen ducked his head low so he could see the boy’s downcast eyes and asked, “Then why did you, Mathis?” When the boy just shrugged in reply and remained silent, he sighed. “We’re going straight to your mother then.”

That made the boy whip his head up and his whole bearing went panicked, causing him to tug wildly at the kit. When he realized that wasn’t working, Mathis released it and made a bolt for the top of the ladder…but Cullen had been waiting for the first frightened move. He’d trained enough wet-behind-the-ears recruits to recognize the signs of a panicked bolt and he was ready.

Before the boy even got a full step away, Cullen had gotten to his feet and swept him up with one arm. Mathis started squirming the instant his feet were off the ground and let out a yelp that made him think he’d somehow hurt the boy. Instead of attempting to keep a hold of him, he turned and tossed the boy onto his bed. Mathis bounced once with a second yelp before he scrambled up to try and bolt again. Cullen stretched out his arm before he could reach the edge and shoved him back and down with just enough force that he flopped back down onto the mattress.

“Enough,” he sternly intoned with just a touch of the voice he used on the training field.

Mathis blinked up at him, blue eyes bright and glimmering in a familiar fashion…

Oh no. Those are tears.

Cullen stared blankly at the boy for a moment before the stern words of ten years previous darted through his head.

Be firm but kind, Ser Cullen, and the children will listen to you. Even though he had never seen her again after leaving Kinloch, Enchanter Wynne’s voice was still firmly in his memory. You will always get more with kindness mixed with a firm resolve over a rough hand and rougher words.

A-and what about the older mages, Enchanter? he recalled asking. Wynne had just smiled in that motherly way she’d had and replied, That is advice for another day. I believe your charges are due at their next lesson.

He had always remembered to speak kindly to the children after that, even at his worst. Though his reasoning then was more that kindness made them trust him, which also made them less aware of where he and his sword were. It made them easier to kill if it came to such and he was horrified that he had ever been fine with that situation. He would still wield his blade in the face of a threat if need be but Cullen would no longer strike first and ask questions later like he once would.

Moving forward, he sat down slowly on the edge of the bed before soothingly saying, “Come on now. Look at me, Mathis. Look at me.” After a moment or two the boy glanced up as he sniffled and Cullen smiled gently. “There you are. Now, what are all of these tears about?”

“Doan wa-wanna get i-in trouble,” answered the boy, his voice wavering wildly as he hiccuped around unshed tears.

Sighing, Cullen thought over all of the things he could say. He could point out that that would have been the thought to have before breaking into the tower but he would leave that to Hawke. No, he would do something different instead.

“You know, no one wants to get into trouble,” he began.

Mathis sniffed and asked, “Not even g-grownups?”

“Not even them,” Cullen answered sagely. He then held up a single finger in front of the boy’s face and continued, “But do you know that it’s much braver to admit that you did something wrong rather than hiding it?”

“M-Mama says I shou’d.”

Nodding, he said, “Your mother is very right.” Cullen watched the boy as Mathis nervously chewed on his lower lip for a long moment.

Then Mathis looked up at him and asked, “Why brave though?”

“Because…” Abruptly he trailed off and sighed. Then Cullen leaned forward and whispered, as if he was sharing a secret, “Because sometimes we’re scared and it’s very brave to do a thing when you’re scared.”

Grownups get scared?” breathed the boy in obvious awe. Then he wiped his sleeve across his face and asked, “You been scared, Cu’en?”

“I have and I still am sometimes,” replied Cullen honestly. “But there is a difference in being scared and letting it control you. You mustn’t let fear control what you do.”

Mathis frowned before asking in a whisper, “Why?”

A thousand or more things done wrong flashed through his head: things that he had missed or, far worse, ignored entirely because of reasoning that sounded terrible now. Things that he could never make right. His own fears had driven him to those things but doing them had still ultimately been his choice. And he had to live with that.

“Because fear can make you do things that you wouldn’t do at any other time. It…” Cullen trailed off for a moment then finished, “Fear can make you hurt people even when you don’t really want to.”

“Hurtin’ people is bad,” the boy noted firmly.

“It is.”

There was silence from the boy for a long moment but Cullen could tell he was thinking from the intense expression on his young face. At least he’d stopped the tears before they had started. He didn’t think that he would have survived Hawke’s wrath if he had actually made her child cry.

Mathis looked up at him then and said softly, “I sorry I prac-ticed on your la-ock, Cu’en.”

He nodded approvingly at the apology before he asked, “And?”

“It rude to bah-reak in. I sorry.”

Cullen smiled and said warmly, “Apology accepted, Mathis.” He then turned a little more stern as he added, “Now what do we need to do now?”

The boy went pale but still meekly replied, “Find Mama.”

“And?”

“Say what’s I did. ‘Cause it brave.” Mathis’ face then screwed up into a pout before he whispered, “Come with me?”

Chuckling, Cullen answered, “Of course.” He rose from the bed then and readied himself for the day, throwing his pants on over those he’d slept in because he wasn’t changing in front of the boy. That and he feared Mathis bolting if he sent him downstairs on his own. Though the boy hadn’t moved once to bolt now, only scooting forward to the edge of the bed to watch with the same fascination all youths seemed to have with armor.

After he’d buckled his sword in place on his belt, Cullen made a vague shooing gesture with one hand as he said, “Come on then, lad.” When Mathis hesitated, he tacked on, “It’s always worse to wait. I remember the times I got in trouble with my Ma were always worse when my brother and I put it off.”

The boy opened his mouth in a great gaping ’o’ of surprise as he pushed himself off the edge of the bed. “You?” he said with a sort of awe that made Cullen chuckle.

“I was a boy your age once.”

They made their way down the ladder, Cullen going first and Mathis following after. Once they were both on the floor, he asked, “Which door was it?” He had a guess given the fact that Hawke’s room was one inside the main keep but wanted the boy to tell him.

When Mathis pointed at the middle door that guess was confirmed.

Nodding, he moved to the door and opened it in time to greet Jim coming across with what was probably the morning missives. Which meant it was earlier than he’d thought it was, since he typically had the missives on his desk when he woke up.

Jim stared for several breaths, mouth open and his eyes darting between him and the boy nervously standing next to him, before he uttered a very confused sounding, “Commander?”

Shaking his head, Cullen held up a hand to forestall the start to any questions. “Just keep to your morning routine, Jim. Don’t worry about what I’m doing or what the boy is doing here this early. Got that?”

“O-of course, Commander,” Jim stammered out. He looked down at Mathis again before he gestured with the sheaf of papers at the office behind them. “I’ll just leave these where I usually do.”

“That’s fine, Jim,” stated Cullen as he reached down to gently touch Mathis’ shoulder and steer him forward out of the doorway. Jim sidled past them along the walkway into the office, then Cullen paused to look at the lock on his door. It showed obvious scratches from an inexperienced lockpicker attempting to get it open and he frowned down at Mathis. When the boy just shrugged helplessly, clutching his little kit to his chest, he sighed.

“You can talk to your mother about getting actual practice locks,” he muttered. “Come on now.”

They made their way through Solas’ part of the rotunda with no signs of the elf’s presence or anything from Dorian’s usual spot from directly above in the library. Leliana was no doubt already in the rookery but it was a given that she would know what was going in Skyhold. Meryell wasn’t joking about the fact that the walls of the keep had ears when the Nightingale was in residence.

Staff were just beginning to move around in the main hall when they entered and they only stared a little as he passed by with his young companion. They were used to seeing him so early in the morning since he was typically up to look over his missives before the first round of training. Children, on the other hand, usually weren’t up this early and about.

They made their way slowly down into the lower levels of the keep, heading down to the floor just below the one that held Josephine’s baths. It was one of the few that boasted rooms with more than one section and Hawke had been gifted one because of her son. Cullen slowed to Mathis’ pace as the boy began dragging his feet along the hallway and idly asked, “Losing your nerve?”

“No!” exclaimed the boy, his head snapping up. Then he wilted and mumbled, “M’scared.”

“It’s okay to be scared,” soothed Cullen. “Even the bravest people are scared sometimes.”

There was silence then Mathis said, “And brave is good?”

“Especially when you’re scared.”

The boy frowned, his lower lip trembling slightly, then he mumbled, “‘Kay,” before he walked a little faster towards Hawke’s door. Cullen watched him hesitate as he touched the wood then Mathis pushed it open and called out, “Mama?”

There was a sudden crash from inside right before a pair of hands jerked the boy into the room and Cullen lunged after him, just barely missing the back of his shirt. He grabbed the doorframe as he shoved the door the rest of the way open but all he saw inside was a terrified, half-armored Hawke on her knees in front of Mathis. She checked him over frantically before she seemed content that he was unharmed and gave him a little shake then dragged him into her arms.

“Don’t you ever scare me like again,” she breathed, her voice trembling in a way Cullen had only ever heard once before. Beneath Kirkwall in a bloodmage’s den of horrors as she stared at what her mother had become.

Hawke leaned back then, her hands brushing over Mathis’ face before she finally realized he was there. “Cullen?” she queried, frown crossing her face. “What are you doing here?”

He relaxed his grip on the doorframe as he replied, “I believe that is Mathis’ story to tell.”

She blinked then looked down at her son in confusion, sitting back on her heels and dropping her hands to rest them on her thighs. “What did you do?” she asked, her expression shifting into a serious frown. When he didn’t reply, Hawke pressed sternly, “Mathis. Answer me.”

The boy shuffled uneasily without replying for a moment before he glanced back at Cullen with a pleading look. He started to give the boy a look in return that encouraged him but then Hawke touched her son’s face, turning him back to face her.

For a moment there was a long silence before Mathis sniffed and held out the little thieves kit. Hawke blinked and reached out to take it, untying it and flipping it open. Immediately she closed her eyes and hissed under her breath, “Maker damn it, Isabela. I fucking told you not to do this. Shit.”

Ah. Well.

She then looked up at him with a weary sigh and apologized, “I’m sorry, Cullen. How exactly did you get dragged into this?”

He pointed at the boy, remaining silent, and waited as he shuffled nervously. Then Mathis mumbled, “I prac-ticed on Cu’en’s door.”

“You mean you broke into Cullen’s tower.”

Mathis sniffed again, swiping his hand across his nose, before he nodded. Hawke snarled a curse in a language Cullen didn’t know before she asked, “Why?”

When the boy just kept scrubbing at his face, obviously trying not to break down into tears, Cullen took pity on him. “Apparently,” he noted, “she was of the opinion that you needed a permanent lockpicker with you. Hence the practice.”

“Oh, I know Isa’s opinion of my lockpicking skills very well. Never shuts up about how useless at it I am,” grumbled Hawke. She flipped the leather back over the kit and tied it back shut before adding, “She actually was trying to convince me to let her teach him almost a year ago when we last saw her. I told her I absolutely did not want him learning it this young – if at all – but I should have known fucking better than to believe Isa would leave well enough alone.”

“I sorry, Mama,” Mathis suddenly sobbed, obviously no longer able to hold back the tears he’d been fighting. “Aun’ Isa said it was good.”

Hawke pulled her son down into her lap then, wrapping her arms tightly around him and resting her cheek against his hair. “I’m not all angry at you, sweetie. You are in trouble but I’m more angry at Aunt Isa for not respecting what I wanted. And I didn’t tell you I didn’t want you learning because I didn’t even want you to even know about it.” She then sighed and added softly, “We’ll deal with this now. It’s okay. We’re okay. Okay?”

“M’kay,” mumbled the boy, leaning heavily back against his mother. He then sniffed and said, “I sorry, Cu’en.”

“Don’t do it again,” he commented sternly. “Anything other than that, I leave up to your mother.” When he caught Hawke’s silently mouthed thank you, he knew letting her decide all punishment had been the right choice.

“Which we’re going to discuss along with when it is okay to pick locks,” she stated. Hawke then patted Mathis on the leg before she added, “Go to your room. I need to talk to Cullen for a minute.”

The boy squirmed uncomfortably in Hawke’s arms but mumbled a faint m’kay when she pushed him up off her lap. Mathis looked back over his shoulder worriedly as he moved deeper into the room and it took Cullen a long moment to realize the boy thought he was also in trouble with his mother. He smiled reassuringly and gave a vague shooing motion to indicate he go on, which seemed to soothe the boy as he smiled briefly before he darted away. When he turned his attention back to Hawke, who was now standing, she was giving him a look that was half amusement and half surprise.

“What?” he asked.

She laughed softly and replied, “I just never expected you to be the type for children.”

Cullen just sighed and didn’t resist the urge to rub the back of his neck as he half-grumbled, “One mabari shouldn’t talk about the same kaddis on another.” The comment made Hawke laugh a little louder, nodding her head in agreement.

“Maker,” the woman said with a brief shake of her head, “I haven’t heard a saying about mabari in a decade.” She then made a vague gesture with one hand before saying, “I’m sorry you got dragged into this. I thought I’d taught him better.”

Now that made Cullen snort a laugh. “Hawke,” he intoned matter-of-factly, “not even his mother’s sternest warning can keep a curious boy from getting himself into trouble.”

“Is that experience I hear?”

“I was a boy once, as I told yours earlier.”

She laughed at that before becoming serious, saying, “I’m sorry that happened. I know you’re very private and I…shit, I really thought he knew better.”

“Hawke,” Cullen spoke somewhat sternly, like he was talking to a stubborn recruit. “I’m not angry. Maybe a little annoyed at the state of the lock on my door but not angry. The boy has his heart in the right place, he just steered it in the wrong direction. You can’t blame a child his age for the bad form of an adult.”

When she just stared at him, he asked, “What?”

Shaking her head, the woman replied, “I’m just…Maker’s cock, Cullen, you used to be a right dick. And nowadays I’m really not sure what to make of you most of the time.”

He huffed a brief laugh after grimacing at the reminder of who he’d been during most of the time that she had known him in Kirkwall. “I would like to think I’m more who I was before the Blight,” he said softly as he rubbed at his neck again. “I know I never will be entirely, that my distrust of magic may never go away, but I’m trying. You know the person I was.”

“I do.”

“I never want to be that blind again,” Cullen finished firmly.

Hawke just looked at him for a long moment before saying softly, “The fact that you can stand in front of a mage like me and not be afraid says a lot.”

That made him chuckle and shake his head before saying, “You’ve always proved yourself to be responsible, Hawke.”

She laughed at that. “You always knew I was a mage, didn’t you?”

“Not at first but I figured it out not long after. I suspected you were at first though.”

“Yet you never…”

“Tried to bring you in?” finished Cullen, feeling like this conversation was about to go places he didn’t particularly want to go.

Nodding, Hawke stated, “I’ve never been able to figure out why. Isa always suspected you had a crush on me.’’

Shaking his head, he replied, “I respect you for too much for that, Hawke. Not to mention you’re more than slightly terrifying.” Then Cullen paused briefly before saying, “I paid attention to what you did in the city after we met that first time. Mostly to confirm you actually were the mage amongst your little group but I became aware over that time of all you did. I spoke to those you helped both in armor so they knew who I was and out of armor to try and get their real opinions.” He looked at her for a long moment before he continued on. “The impression I got of you was not of an untrained mage, nor one who sought power or purely to do harm. It was…”

Now he paused for a longer moment, which made Hawke softly ask, “It was what, Cullen?”

He looked directly at her as he answered. “I saw someone who had lost things and was trying to recover. Who had been through something terrible and come out the other side still alive…even though she didn’t know how.” Typically he wouldn’t have exposed this much of himself to someone but he actually wanted Hawke to understand why.

“You,” she began then stopped, shaking her head. After a second or two of silence, Hawke said softly, “You saw yourself in me.”

Cullen shrugged, feeling himself flush along the back of his neck and this time did resist putting his hand there. “I may not have been entirely aware of it at the time – or really up until recently if I’m absolutely honest – but…yes, I did. And I…Maker, Hawke, I couldn’t be responsible for breaking you.”

“But you could take other mages in.”

That made him flinch but he nodded. He would not deny what he had done. Not anymore. And if he had to have this conversation with any mage, he was almost glad that it was Hawke before any other.

She, at the least, had no fear of him.

“What was the difference?” asked Hawke, suddenly very serious. “Where did you draw the line between good mage and murderous magical asshole?” There was only one answer to that question and while that answer was right in the context of the query itself, it was terrible in and of itself.

He wanted to look away when he said it so he wouldn’t have to see her response but he needed to see it. He had to look a mage in the eye for this. So Cullen looked squarely at Hawke and replied softly, “Because you became a person while I was looking into you and not just a mage. They didn’t.”

He remembered, oh Maker did he remember, telling her once that mages aren’t people like you and me.

There was a long silence in response to that and he wasn’t entirely sure what Hawke was thinking. She was eerily silent, her face an utter blank, and the only movement was her hands opening and then closing back into fists several times. Maker, he thought, she must think the worst of me now. And well she should. The man I was in Kirkwall, that I let myself be, he should be hated.

Finally she opened her mouth and asked in a bare whisper, “And now?”

Cullen let out a breath – not fully relieved but partly – and answered with a simple, “No.” He then tacked on immediately after that, “I was wrong, Hawke. I…I let my own fears of magic and all that it could do take me down a path that I should have repelled from. Having magic does not make you or any other mage less of a person than someone like me. If anything, being a mage probably makes you stronger.”

“Because of the demons, I’m guessing,” Hawke mused softly. When he nodded, she made a clicking sound with her tongue before asking, “And my boy? What if he shows magic while we’re here?”

“This isn’t a Circle,” he replied firmly, trying hard to keep sudden anger out of his voice that she would even ask that, “and I am not a templar.”

“You trust me to teach him?”

Cullen sighed before gruffly stating, “Mathis is your son, not his father’s. And if I think I could trust you at my back, Hawke, I think I can trust you to train your own child in how to summon a proper fireball.”

She stared at him for a long moment with obvious shock on her face before she said, ”You would trust me at your back?” He knew all of the silent additions to that question: you would trust a mage at your back, a templar would trust a mage to be behind his shield and not before it?

“Hawke,” Cullen intoned seriously, “I defied the orders of my Knight-Commander for you. Because she was in the wrong.”

“That doesn’t equal trust, Cullen.”

Shrugging slightly, he replied, “Bonds forged on a battlefield are some of the strongest one can create. Rylen is fond of telling our new recruits that once you’ve shed and spilled blood with someone else, you’ve got a bond that most folks would be hard pressed to break.”

“So we have a bond,” she commented with a faintly amused smile.

Shaking his head, Cullen replied, “You were always a constant, Hawke. Sometimes a constant pain in my side but more often just a consistent focus.” He laughed then as he went on. “A thousand things could be wrong in the Gallows but the world was still right so long as you were around to cause me headaches.”

Hawke just grinned at him as she commented, “I bet I caused you a fucking lot of those.”

“You have no idea how right a descriptor that is.”

His comment made the woman chuckle before her expression became serious again. And Cullen noticed that her posture became more defensive; the subtle, shrinking into nothing defensive that mages in the Circle – especially Kirkwall – took on to seem small. He had witnessed it too many times back then and had utterly ignored the implications the pose brought to those encounters.

Never again.

“Hawke?” he asked gently, concerned at this change.

For a moment only silence greeted him, then she spoke in a soft voice. “Did you mean that?” Hawke asked.

Confused, Cullen frowned before replying, “Mean what?”

Blue eyes lifted to meet his in a stare that was part curiosity and part fear.

“That Mathis isn’t his father’s son.”

He blinked at the question briefly before replying with a, “Yes?” that was more than a little confused. Suddenly concerned by the question, Cullen asked, “What does his father have to do with anything?”

Suddenly Hawke’s went pinched with exasperation before hissing, “There are some people who have a problem with the blood he carries. I’m just…I don’t want it to be an issue amongst those of us that survived the shit hole that Kirkwall was.”

Oh.

“Treva,” Cullen began softly and her head whipped up so quickly he swore he heard her neck snap. He had never used her first name before and likely wouldn’t after this but this required the use. If only to guarantee he had her attention. “A family is far more than the bonds of flesh and blood. Your group as well as Meryell and Folke are proof enough of that. Mathis may have both from Anders but he will always be your son to me.”

He then looked away from her, thinking of that day when an explosion had shaken Kirkwall down and all of the days after as he had fought to keep the broken city upright. The stink of the streets after still haunted his nightmares alongside the wide open eyes of the dead…but that was not Mathis’ burden. That rested on the shoulders of a dead mage – of a dead man – and as much disgust he held for the action, Cullen would not allow himself to blame the boy.

“I won’t blame a boy who wasn’t even born yet for the sins of a father he never even knew,” he finished in a whisper.

What else could he do but that? If he ever had children of his own, they could face similar ire from those who had been victims of his actions or inaction. That was his burden to bear, not theirs.

It suddenly hit like a thunderclap that children was a thing he actually could consider. After they defeated Corypheus it was one more open door…if Meryell wanted to take it with him.

Later, he scolded himself. You aren’t far enough ahead to be thinking about that.

Corypheus first, then he and Meryell could figure things out between them. Priorities.

Cullen turned his attention back to Hawke then and was startled to find the woman crumpled on ground, one arm wrapped around her as the other shakily pressed her fingers against her lips. As soon as he stepped in close and dropped to one knee next to her, he also noticed that she was crying silently. Having only ever witnessed Hawke cry the once, he wasn’t certain of what to do for a moment. Hawke crying was as foreign a concept to him as Varric not stretching the truth about something or Dorian not trying to cheat at chess.

“Hawke, are you,” he began, pausing as she closed her eyes, before finishing, “are you alright?”

“Fine,” she shakily replied, her voice slightly muffled by her fingers. Then she breathed, “Thank you.”

Blinking in confusion, Cullen asked, “For what?”

“For not hating him.”

For a moment he was stunned that she thought him the sort to hate a child for something not under his control but then…he wondered. Was the fear born out of nothingness or their loose familiarity? Or was this coming from somewhere else?

Had one of her little group reacted badly to her choice? He knew Carver hadn’t approved but that was more because she never told him that she was even with child until the day they met up and the signs were glaringly obvious. Cullen had silently sat through his angry ravings that night on the Amell stubbornness, Anders being a colossal piece of shit, and his being torn between leaving to help her and her wanting him to stay. As much as they butted heads, Carver loved his sister fiercely and he was absolutely smitten with his nephew.

Varric was Hawke’s best friend and he obviously doted on the boy. Isabela was still involved with them (blatantly so since she was the cause of their current situation) so it wasn’t likely to be her. Who else had been involved with Hawke?

Aveline had been frosty to him during their working together in Kirkwall’s recovery up until he’d thrown himself in front of a blade for one of her guardsmen in a joint action of the Order and the Guard. She had slowly warmed up after that and had been one of the only people besides Rylen who told him to get out of the city before trying to save it killed him. If she could warm up to him, he didn’t see her being angry at Hawke over a child. So not likely Aveline.

The little elven woman who had followed Hawke – another mage he had ignored, though when he had learned she was a blood mage from Carver he’d nearly had a fit – didn’t seem likely either. Everything Varric said about her made her sound like a naive young woman without much of a clue to human society and Carver had always defended her (with a vigor that made Cullen suspect something of a crush).

The then exiled last Prince of Starkhaven could be likely given he’d been a brother at the Chantry in Kirkwall before seeking vengeance for his family…but Cullen doubted it. He remembered him standing at Hawke’s back in the confrontation with Meredith, his blue eyes hard and his bow at the ready. By all he assumed and knew, the Prince would support her.

Which left the other elf. The one with the lyrium etched into his very skin. Cullen remembered being all too aware of where the elven warrior was during the fight against Meredith, the lyrium turning him into a burning brand of a presence at the back of Cullen’s skull. Perhaps him? It seemed the only option left.

Cautiously he reached out and rested a hand on Hawke’s knee. She jumped a little at the contact, jerking her head up and away from her fingers. As her eyes – wide, frightened, and the same bright blue of her son and brother – met his, he smiled gently.

“I have hated mages out of fear for many things, Hawke, but never the children. Feared, yes. Hated?” He paused and shook his head before finishing, “Even my worst self never hated the children for something they couldn’t control.”

Hawke choked on a noise that might have been a sob and one of her hands abruptly clutched at his. She sniffed before gasping, “I didn’t…” Her voice trailed off then she laughed, shaking her head. “I didn’t think I’d be so relieved to hear you say that. Look at me, sobbing on the floor because of the former templar. Some fearsome fucking mage I am, yeah?”

Cullen shook his head and said, “Not a mage. A mother scared for her child.” She just blinked at him, her mouth slightly open in shock, and he chuckled. “Still a dick?” he asked uncertainly, referring back to her earlier comment.

“Far from,” Hawke replied softly. Then she smiled – bright and free and Maker had he ever truly feared a mage being so unbound as to smile like that – before she squeezed his hand. “I think,” she went on, “that I see the templar you would have been if someone hadn’t failed you.”

He jerked back at that, hissing, “Hawke?!”

“The best templar is wise,” she went on. “Wise enough to know when to push and pull as well as when to let go. It is not lyrium that makes a templar but the person themself, man or woman. My father told me that when he told me about templars when I was little.”

Staring at her for a moment, Cullen breathed, “I am not a templar.” Even if he did know better now what should be done and how mages should be treated, he feared that power in his hands far too much. Feared himself too much in that position, that old habits and fears might overrule him. The Inquisition army was different enough from commanding templars that he could make the disconnect. That was why he, Meryell, and Cassandra had made the decision together to elevate Ser Barris to lead their templar contingent.

Not even to mention that he was no longer of the opinion that mages had to be caged.

Hawke just nodded and smiled, saying, “I know. But that doesn’t change my seeing who he would have been without whatever you went through during the Blight.”

“I…”

For a moment he could imagine it himself. A templar who wouldn’t have let fear rule his actions for so long, who would have stood up and confronted Meredith’s madness far sooner. A life lived and actions taken that he would be proud of, not ashamed. He froze then, frowning, before saying softly and mostly to himself, “I wouldn’t have requested the transfer to Kirkwall after Greenfell. Wouldn’t have been at Greenfell at all. But that…”

He had never thought of how exactly his life might have been different. It had been too painful to consider before. Yet…if it had been different…

That would mean missing being mildly amused by Hawke’s sheer ballsiness to walk into the Gallows. The trial of helping mold Carver’s stubborn nature into one of the best templar’s he had trained. Varric’s good natured needling. His friendship with Cassandra. Chess with Dorian.

Gil’s motherly brand of worrying. Chats with Arnald on strategy. The Fangs’ subtle and not so subtle methods of checking up on him.

And…Meryell.

If… if he hadn’t lost everything at Kinloch, he wouldn’t have seen Greenfell. Without being forced to go there, life wouldn’t have led him into the horrors of Kirkwall. Yet…without Kirkwall he likely wouldn’t be with the Inquisition. He would have likely never met the woman who made his heart beat too fast and loved him despite all of the wrongs he’d done.

He would not be the man he was today without Kinloch, Greenfell, and Kirkwall.

If he had remained a templar at Kinloch…would he still be free?

Or would he have followed orders and become red?

Bile filled his throat at the thought of one of his more recent nightmares being real and Cullen violently shook his head. “No,” he intoned firmly.

“No?” repeated Hawke in confusion. She then let out a strangled noise and said, “Cullen, you’re shaking.”

“I…” he began before stopping, closing his eyes and bowing his head for a moment to regain his bearings. Breathe, he said to himself although, for some reason, the ‘voice’ in his head sounded exactly like Folke. Then Cullen opened his eyes to look at her and softly said, “I’m alright, Hawke.”

The woman snorted in disbelief at that before commenting, “And I’m the Queen of Ferelden.”

He gave a little huff of a laugh that didn’t have much effort behind it before saying, “I just…” Then he trailed off and shook his head slightly before saying a little breathlessly, “I just realized that if my life had turned out differently, I might not be here. And where I possibly would be isn’t anywhere I would want to be. Which means…”

Cullen paused to lick suddenly dry lips before finishing in a whisper, “Which means the most terrible things in my life have brought me here.”

Hawke’s mouth opened in a little ‘o’ of surprise before she said softly, “Meaning to wish for anything else could mean not being here. And the other options…”

“Dead,” he stated flatly. “Or…red.”

She paled and breathed, “You don’t know that those are the only choices, Cullen.”

“I know myself, Hawke. I would have followed the order to go to Therinfal if I had never learned to doubt the Order. I would have doomed myself and my men.” He lifted a shaking hand to run it over his face, the rough leather of his glove a welcome distraction for at least a moment. “Maker’s breath.”

He had never thought to be happy about the course of his life, not with the horrors of Kinloch and the struggle that was keeping his sanity in Kirkwall. Now…now he might have to be a little thankful.

Perhaps the Maker did truly work in mysterious ways.

There was an awkward silence for a moment before Hawke said, “It may be shitty of me to say this but…if that’s how the Maker works, then I’m glad your shit show of a life got you here.”

It was so Hawke that Cullen barked a laugh as he nodded.

“Me too, Hawke, me too.”

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