“Burning, wanting, yearning. He wants but pulls away, fearing that his touch will blemish and break. She is beautiful and he is broken and his chains are tight around his throat again, choking, choking…”
“Cole,” Meryell breathed as she leaned on the battlements wall outside of Cullen’s office. “ Sathan. No more.”
Next to her the spirit in a young man’s gangly form shifted nervously before saying softly, “He thinks of you when it burns in him, fever bright and potent.”
“ Cole ,” she hissed, glaring out at the peaks of the Frostbacks. “It is rude to pluck things from the minds of others.”
“I know but…it is to help.”
“I know, da’lath’in , but Cullen’s thoughts should be his own.”
She saw Cole shake his head out of the corner of her eye and turned to watch him frown. His bright eyes were sad as he whispered, “I don’t understand. He wishes to share them, wants you to know . Yet he stutters and stills his tongue, swallowing the words back down, because he fears losing all. How will you know his words if he cannot speak them?”
Meryell shook her head and turned away from the view, leaning her hips back against the stone wall. She patted the stone to her right before crossing her arms, waiting until he settled next to her and mirrored her position.
Ever since he’d quite literally popped into their lives, she’d done her best to be kind to Cole. She’d always been a good judge of character (except where bed mates were involved at times) and he had never seemed threatening. Otherworldly and eerie, yes, but never anything to fear. One conversation had revealed how utterly innocent the spirit was to the world beyond the Veil, even with the fact that he had blood on his hands. After that, she and Varric had made their own personal little pact to help the spirit learn, to teach him how the world worked despite all of Chuckles protests.
She even tended to curse less around him, which was a feat she couldn’t even manage with the Fangs littles at most times. Though any child that fell into that lot had been utter hellions ever since she’d joined up.
“We talked about this,” she said gently. “It’s very rude to tell people’s secrets.”
“You do, if there is coin or need. And the Nightingale hunts them like shiny baubles, clutching them to her until they are ready to loose. Like her finest arrows to pierce a heart.”
“But we don’t speak them where others can hear, do we?” she asked.
Cole just shrugged. “Not unless it is needed.” He then went on, “I do not understand. Why will he not tell you when he wants to?”
Sighing, Meryell replied, “People are just strange like that, da’lath’in . We have to trust that they’ll tell us in their own time.”
He frowned at that then ducked his head, his face lost behind the wide brim of his ridiculous hat. “I’ve been trying to help.”
Letting out a breath, she shifted over just enough so she could lean her head against his shoulder. He was taller than her but not quite at Cullen’s height, more along Dorian’s level than anyone else. “ Baba told me you helped save him when the attack happened.”
“You would have been sad.”
“Yes,” Meryell agreed softly, trying to not let her voice break and failing damnably, “I would have been sad.”
“I keep her away too.” When she looked up at him in confusion, lifting her head from his shoulder, Cole explained, “The elf girl with demon’s eyes. She haunts his steps, stalking his dreams, whispering cruelty in his ear. He tries to remember she is dead, that he felt her body grow cold in his arms, but sometimes he still forgets. Forgets that there is now and instead there is only the Tower. Bleeding, burning, gnawing need and want, and the screams. So loud and all there is is dying but he lives and they will not take him. They scar and cut and burn instead and he is hurting, wanting, failing, wounded all over again.”
She went still at his words and wanted partly to weep. Cullen never spoke of his nightmares despite having them frequently, preferring to keep them to himself rather than share what haunted him. She’d guessed that Kath Surana would be a feature amongst them but never had confirmation until now.
And that he felt he failed…fuck, how she knew that feeling.
Then a thought occurred to her and she asked, “Cole…it’s not a true demon, is it?”
He shook his head and Meryell breathed a heavy sigh of relief. There wasn’t an inch of magic in her bones but she knew a fucking lot of details about it thanks to Folke and the other mages. Someone like Cullen, who’d already been touched by demons and who bore the mental scars from who knew how many, was a ripe target for another. They couldn’t take a non-mage in the Fade so far as she was aware but they could influence and feed off of the reactions.
It was a small mercy to know that he didn’t have one stalking him.
Resting her head back against his shoulder, she murmured, “Thank you, Cole. For helping.”
“You worry,” observed the spirit softly.
“I worry about a lot of things, da’lath’in. ”
“Am I worthy of their belief?” whispered Cole, his voice pitched low but still carrying its eerie tone. “Of their faith? Can I be more than thief, mercenary, rabbit, knife-ear, bitch, whore? Failing, taunting, memory of a hunt gone wrong, a common theft turned to chase and murder. Hot blood on the hands. Murderer . Killer . Quiet knives in the dark, fingers finding, grasping, slipping away with prize clutched tight. Is this all I am? No, not all. His mouth on my throat, scar and stubble scratching skin, teeth nipping, heat in my belly. Love. This is love and I chase it, fear it, crave it, but am I worthy of it ?”
Meryell was shaking by the time his voice trailed off, too shocked and appalled by what he had said to interrupt. “Cole,” she began but he then abruptly moved, wrapping his arm around her.
“She returns, our Inquisitor,” he intoned. “Blessed leader. Herald. She is kind, lovely, I never expected a mercenary to care. How dare that man have called her those things? Oh, poor thing, worried about her Commander. Sweet, young love.”
She blushed and started to open her mouth again but he kept going.
“She’ll sort him out, she will, break him out of this rut. Oh, my poor girl, to have to deal with this too. Boss’ll be fine, she’s got this. Maker, keep them both safe and do not take this from them. She is but a child , could she bear the losing of him? I hope she can get through to Curly, he can be a prick but I hate seeing him like this.”
Her mouth dropped open because the first words he’d uttered had been disconnected and distant, those of people who knew her only as Herald and Inquisitor. The others, though…they were her friends. Her family. And as she listened she could recognize them in turn: Rylen. Gil. Bull. Cassandra. Solas since he was the only one to call her child. Hawke…or Varric?
“Swears has got this, I believe in her,” Cole went on and she smiled. Hawke then for the first. “I should have pressed harder, said something when I noticed he didn’t look well. Should I look quietly for a new Commander, dare I? I fear for you, my girl, fear for if this goes the wrong way. Quiet feelers spreading out, seeking answers on the blue, find them, find them , we will not lose them both.” Blackwall. Josephine. Arnald. Leliana? Maferath’s festering prick, if she really was looking for answering, to try and weed out information on lyrium from the Chantry or whoever she could find, she owed the e’lu’verelan . Fuck did she owe her.
Cole finally finished, “Quiz doesn’t need this friggin’ arse-nut’s bothering, best keep him away. Perhaps I will bother them both tomorrow, Maker knows that Cullen needs to get out of that tower.” As she smiled because those two were definitely Sera and Dorian before noticing that the spirit was frowning. Before she could open her mouth, he tilted his head to the side as he spoke several harsh, guttural sounding words before saying softly, “He thinks strangely. I hear the meaning but it’s weaving, wriggling, winding, turning about itself until it blends back into the words.”
“ Baba ,” she supplied with a smile. “He always thinks in the Chasind tongue. Habit.” She didn’t add that the Fangs’ resident Fade specialist, Miriam, was of the opinion that her father’s sporadic sense of when bad things were going to happen was because he was just a little bit Fade-touched. She wasn’t sure why that wouldn’t enable Cole to pick up on his surface thoughts but it might be an explanation.
He nodded before closing his eyes, letting out a gentle breath, before he said, “Worried, hands plucking at herbs and plants over a stained table. Worry for his daughter. Worry for his son. Will it be enough? He hopes, even prays to the old gods in silent whispers, that it is.”
Meryell let out an involuntary gasp at the emotions he picked up on because she hadn’t been aware of Folke’s view on Cullen. Did he really see him like that? Did he really think that this thing they had was going to last? Obviously he must because he was worried enough over things to be praying to the Chasind gods, beliefs he’d largely abandoned years ago. And to call Cullen his son …
“Cole,” she began softly and he smiled down at her.
“That was rude,” he said, his tone self-scolding.
“Yes, da’lath’in , it was,” Meryell agreed. Then she shifted around so she could hug him from the front and whispered, “Thank you.”
He hesitantly lifted his arms to wrap them around her in turn as he noted, “It is confusing when listening is bad then good.”
Laughing, she pulled away from him just slightly so she could look up at him. “People are strange like that too, Cole. But this…it helped.”
“You helped,” she confirmed with a gentle smile. Cole beamed down at her for a moment before he lifted his head, turning it towards the closed door of the tower with his brow slightly furrowed.
“Revulsion, resentment, rage , why this, why now, why ?” he intoned softly before he shifted his hands, gripping her shoulders tightly as his eyes went wide. “He needs you. Needs steady words and a shoulder under his. A shield arm because his fumbles. Needs warmth and love to drown out the cold song.”
Meryell flinched at the reminder of the whole reason that she’d been standing on the battlements outside Cullen’s tower in the first place – he hadn’t wanted her to watch him take the dose of lyrium Gil had come in to carefully prepare, not even when she’d reminded him that she’d watched others do the same. She lifted her hands to cover Cole’s for a moment before breathing, “Okay. Will you…are you…”
Suddenly at a loss for words, she felt his slim fingers squeeze her shoulders. “I watch. I help,” intoned Cole with a smile. Smiling, Meryell squeezed his fingers in turn then pulled away from him, heading towards the tower and nearly reached the door before she looked back. When she did, the battlement was as empty as it had been when she’d come outside, only a lone soldier making rounds further down between another set of towers in sight. Shaking her head, she opened the tower door and stopped when she saw Cullen was standing at his desk.
Clad in only trousers and a long-sleeved shirt (because now with the lyrium he had what seemed like chills at times) with his coat wrapped around him, he stood staring hard down at something she couldn’t see on the desk. As she watched, his face twisted, brows furrowing deep as a snarl curled his lip, showing off teeth that were bared. He suddenly let out a bellow of rage and twisted, sweeping the object of his ire off the desk as well as the pile of papers that had blocked it from her view. It shattered against the wall to her right, wooden splinters and shards of glass flying as the remnants fell to the stone floor.
Meryell saw the top, separated from the rest by the force of its flight, and knew instantly what it was by the image burned into the wood alone. A woman in the simple Ferelden style, clad in armor with the hilt of a sword clasped between her hands. She’d seen it and it’s like before in other lyrium kits that she’d helped steal for their templars, purely for the tools within so the healers could correctly craft the lyrium some of them required to keep going.
Blessedly, she noted, only the tools had apparently been inside. Either he’d already surrendered what supply he’d had left after Kirkwall or Gil had forced him to hand over anything that had been left in the kit.
“Maker’s breath!” he gasped as his angry eyes – the amber burned , like the still hot coals of a low burning fire – followed the flight of the kit and found her. Instantly all of the rage and fire seeped out of him, his shoulders slumping. As he reached up for the back of his neck, Cullen began, “Maker, I…”
“No,” she said firmly, stepping into the office and closing the door. She threw the bolt behind her and crossed to the others to do the same to them. Then she went to him where he still stood behind the desk. He refused to look at her, keeping his chin tucked to his chest, and she seated herself on one side of the desk. Meryell reached out for his hands and pushed him gently backwards so he would, hopefully, sink into the desk chair right behind him.
As he collapsed, she shuffled across the desk, swinging a leg around his knees so she could pin him into it by bracing the toes of her boots on the edge of the seat. Cullen’s eyes flicked up at her for a brief second before darting away again as he licked his lips, opening his mouth to speak.
Meryell immediately narrowed her eyes and hissed, “If there is about to be an apology coming from your mouth, I don’t want to fucking hear it.” Judging by the way his teeth snapped shut, it had been going to be just that.
Scooting forward to the edge of the desk, Meryell leaned forward to brace one hand on the arm of his chair while she reached for his chin with the other. Gently she lifted it until his eyes met hers and breathed, “You have no reason to be shameful, vhen’an .”
His lips curled at that, eyes flaring, and he growled, “Losing my temper isn’t shameful? What if it was with one of my men?” Then his voice broke slightly as he asked, “What if it were with you ? If I…Maker, if I ever hurt you…”
“Cullen,” she interrupted, “don’t borrow trouble.”
He scowled at that then turned his face away, the lines of his throat and jaw abruptly tight with tension. Meryell let him slip away from her grip, shifting her other hand to the arm on the other side of the chair, and just watched him for a moment. Cullen stared off into some distant place for a long moment until she breathed, “ Vhen’an …Cullen, please don’t push me away.”
That made him flinch and Cullen turned back towards her, his face abruptly strained with some tension that she couldn’t quite place. After a moment he let out a breath and met her eyes, the emotion in them showing her what that tension was.
Uncertainty. Doubt. Self-recrimination.
“I don’t know if I can do this again,” he whispered, his voice barely audible. The only reason she probably caught it was because elves had keener ears humans. “It was hard enough the first time but the second…”
As his voice trailed off, she moved, carefully lifting one of his hands and folding both of hers around it. Then she asked, “Do you want to be free of it?”
Cullen looked up at her, his mouth slightly open and eyes wide, before he softly replied, “ Yes .”
Meryell nodded then said, “Trust Gil. She can do this.”
“It isn’t…Maker, it isn’t that. I remember her from the Tower now and, besides saying she’d resort to blood magic, there isn’t anything she’s done recently that would make me distrust her.”
“Then what is it?”
He clenched his jaw and she laced the fingers of her left hand with his right and reached out to cup his cheek with her own right. “Talk to me, Cullen,” she urged gently.
“That’s just it,” he growled a moment later. “I don’t talk. And I can’t… fuck .” Cullen shook his head after the curse before pressing his face into her palm, closing his eyes as he did so. “It’s hard,” he murmured, “to tell someone the things that hurt. I learned…after everything in the Tower, I learned to keep them to myself. The mages, the other templars, they were different, they were important. I wasn’t.”
“Do you still think that?” asked Meryell. “That you aren’t important?”
Cullen chuckled darkly before he replied, “In the grand scheme of the world, I don’t think any of us are terribly important. Things might fall apart for a while but eventually they’d come back to an even keel one way or another. Minus you and the rifts but that’s just right now.” He then let out a sigh as he opened his eyes and looked up at her. “But, no, I don’t. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t still hard with someone else.”
Tilting her head to the side, she asked, “With me?”
“It’s mostly easy.”
She nodded, knowing that he didn’t like to discuss his past – not that which was beyond Kirkwall anyway. “And when it’s not?” Meryell inquired softly.
He blinked at her before saying with a slight shrug, “I….try. You deserve the truth, even when I can’t say it.”
Catching onto that line, she curled her fingers so her nails scratched against the stubble on his cheek and said, “So…what about the truths you deserve, vhen’an ? That this can end? That there are things Gil and baba and the others can try to sooth the aches and pains? You’re worthy of knowing if there’s a chance.”
Pausing, Meryell leaned forward across the space between them to press a light kiss against his mouth. Only he pulled away, slight panic in his eyes and she frowned in confusion, certain that there was obvious hurt showing on her face because he instantly stammered out an apology. “I’m sorry,” he intoned softly, his voice shaking a little. “I don’t…the lyrium…”
“ Vhen’an ,” she said sternly, interrupting him. “I don’t care . That won’t make me not want to kiss you.” He looked dubious at her words but this time stayed still when she moved forward again for a kiss. His lips pressed back against hers as they connected, eager and needy, but she only let them taste of her, pulling away before either of them could get too drawn in.
“Talk to Gil,” she breathed. A thought suddenly occurred to her and she asked, “Or…would it be easier if I left Cassandra?”
Cullen went still at the suggestion and asked, “Then who would guard your back?”
“Cass may be my current preference due to how long we’ve been running the fuck around together but there are several other warriors who could be a damage sink for me. Bull or Blackwall would both be good replacements or I could probably even coax Astrid or Bernard into going. There’s even Rhiryd, who I fought with in the Mire, though shit knows I’d have a hard time prying him away from Sister Cecilia again. Or, fuck, Dragos has been itching to get some action.” Meryell shook her head as she finished, “I have plenty of choices for who can guard my back and I trust them all. What I’m asking is who do you need, Cullen? Who, besides me, can you bare the truth to?”
“Besides you?” he asked with a slightly wry smile.
Meryell smiled back and said fondly, “Alas, vhen’an , I can’t be here all the time. I wish I could or that you could be with me but we’re sort of fucked on that score.”
“Yes, I remember.” He then frowned seriously before asking, “You’d really feel safe with someone else at your back?”
“I’ll feel safe if I know you are taken care of.”
Cullen frowned at that and she was pretty certain he was going to call bullshit on it but he didn’t. Instead he just nodded after a moment, his features relaxing, and softly said, “I have missed her while she’s been out with you. Cassandra isn’t afraid to call me out.”
“Fantastic bullshit detector,” jibed Meryell, flashing him a crooked grin. “It’s settled then. I’ll figure out who’s coming with me before the war meeting tomorrow morning. Maybe I’ll spar a few rounds with all of them tonight and see who’s the best fit.”
He nodded then asked, “Not…not right now, right?”
Shaking her head, she replied, “Not right now.”
“Good. I want…” Cullen trailed off before letting out a huff of breath, abruptly freeing his hand from hers and showing a surprising amount of steadiness as he grasped her hips to lift her up off the desk. Meryell squeaked in surprise as he settled her sideways across his lap then laughed after he kissed her. He trailed his fingers up over her hip, just barely dipping below the fall of her tunic, and breathed, “I want you here, vhen’an .”
Meryell smiled and settled her legs over the arm of the chair before she leaned against his right side, pillowing her head on his shoulder. He wrapped his arms around her in return, callused hands pushing up her tunic at the back to palm her skin, and she softly returned, “I’m not going anywhere.”
He breathed a sigh of relief at that and she could feel pressure drain out of him with that expelling of air. Then he kissed her forehead before he laid his head against hers. They sat there for a long moment before he grunted and said, “The headaches are worse. Folke’s tea stopped working and so did Gil’s potions.”
Abruptly her heart swelled that he actually did as she asked, giving her something that bothered him, and smiled. Lifting a hand to stroke his cheek, she said, “I’ll let Gil know. There’s other formulas.”
Cullen just nodded and she cupped his cheek, lifting her head as she gently pressed so he would turn towards her. As he did, Meryell kissed him before she said firmly, “I love you.”
His cheeks flushed a little and his eyes darted away in a nervous way for a moment before meeting hers again but there was a boyish tilt to his smile as he returned, “I love you.”
As she leaned her head back against his shoulder, relaxing as he sighed contentedly and pressed his cheek to the top of her head, Meryell quietly thought, Maker, Andraste…if you actually exist, you’d best not fucking cock this up. I know life’s not fair and it sure as shitting tits isn’t easy but he doesn’t deserve this. He’s a good man, despite all his protestations.
And so help me, if he dies, I swear I’ll do one fucking better than Corypheus or any ancient Magister and I will find you if I have to tear down the Fade myself. You fucking owe him one for the shit he’s seen, I say. Pay the fuck up.
sathan – please
da’lath’in – little heart. An endearment used to describe someone who is emotional, carries their heart on their sleeve, is very empathetic, or very sympathetic to the plights of others. Typically used to describe a young person, but can be used for people of all ages who meet the description.