It was an odd thing to not hear him approach, as normally he carted around nearly seventy pounds of metal with him everywhere he went, and for the most part sounded like an old tin rolling through a back alley. In camp, however, he’d stripped himself of that armor and managed to sneak up on her, catching her off her guard as she lingered near the edge of the forest and stared into the depth and shadow of the trees.
“Are you busy?”
“Maker’s breath, Alistair,” she gasped, hand clutching her chest as she spun around. “You scared me half to death.”
“Ha!” he grinned mischievously. “I scared you, and I wasn’t even trying to. I should get points for that. Are we keeping a tally somewhere? Does the winner get a prize of some sort?”
“I’m glad you think this is funny,” she smirked and crossed her arms, her body turning slowly inward so they were face to face. Leaning her back against the tree behind her, she drew her foot up and pressed it to the trunk in a fluid, comfortable stance.
“Honestly, I didn’t think you were afraid of anything, but truth be told I didn’t come all this way to terrify you. We see enough terrors everywhere else we go. I don’t know about you, but I’ve come to think of camp as the one place that feels just a little safe because we’re all here together. Well, except for Morrigan. Nowhere she is happens to be safe. I’m sure of that.”
“Poor Morrigan.” Neria’s smirk softened, the corners of her mouth rising upward in a soft grin.
“Poor Morrigan? What about poor Alistair? I know she has a doll of me she uses as a pin cushion. She makes every one of my limbs ache with her witchery.”
“That is a nice thought though,” she agreed with a nod.
“Oh, I see how it is. I should have guessed you’d side with her…”
“No, no, that wasn’t what I meant at all. I was talking about camp being safe because we’re all here together.”
“Oh, right,” he chuckled, “right.”
“So, if you didn’t come to terrify me…”
“I wanted to ask you something, actually. Something about what happened at the Circle Tower.”
“I thought we struck a sort of unspoken agreement to not talk about what happened in the Fade.”
“Oh, we did,” he stiffened uncomfortably and for a moment he was silent as he relived the fading memory of a sister and family he didn’t want to let go of because it was the first time in his life he actually felt like he’d belonged somewhere—with someone. “We absolutely did, but this has nothing to do with the sloth demon’s trickery.”
“In that case, ask away.”
Lowering his head, he toed the dirt between them, his brow furrowing with thought as he tried to put into words that which weighed most heavily on his mind. “That Templar,” he started, returning his eyes to hers and studying her face as he tilted his head. “The one we found in the prison below the Harrowing Chamber…”
“Cullen,” her voice grew softer than she’d intended it to as tormented memory rose to the surface.
“Cullen,” he nodded. “Right. That was his name, wasn’t it?” After a few seconds’ pause, he went on to ask, “You knew each other before you came to Ostagar with Duncan to join the wardens, from the Circle, didn’t you?”
Even lowering her gaze so she didn’t have to look him in the eye, she could feel him staring at her, imploring her to answer. “It was that obvious, was it?”
“Just a little,” he shrugged. “If you don’t wish to talk about it…”
“No, it’s all right. I don’t mind.” And that was true enough, but she felt every single one of her muscles tighten and grow tense.
“How well did you two know each other?”
“I saw Cullen almost every single day for the last three years of my apprenticeship,” she explained, and though she wanted more than anything to hide it, it was impossible to deter the nostalgic tone from her voice as memories of him flooded her mind.
Glancing up from her studies to see him posted in the corridor outside the library, the feel of his eyes on her as she sashayed down the hallway toward the apprentice dormitories, the lingering stares and exchanged smiles as each of them realized their infatuation was shared. A forbidden and impossible affair he’d been too proud to initiate even though she could see he wanted to every time their eyes met.
“I figured as much, but…” Alistair’s words lingered in the air between them for several seconds before he found the courage to go on. “But, I don’t know, it just seemed the two of you were so much closer than your typical Templar and Mage.”
“Closer,” she nodded, recalling the Templar’s confessions while in his prison, his anguish and fear when she appeared before him and admitted that the demons had been using her image in attempt to break his mind after his brethren had been slaughtered.
He called what happened between them a sin, claimed the Maker would forgive him for that single, passionate kiss, and though she wanted to believe he couldn’t possibly know how much that revelation broke her heart, something inside her she thought she’d let go of shattered into a thousand little piece that pricked and stabbed and made it hard for her to feel safe and comfortable in her own skin.
You are a Mage and I am a Templar. It is my duty to oppose you and all you are.
In that moment he’d drawn the line between them, marking their difference and their opposition so firmly no amount of heartfelt emotion would ever prompt him to erase it, no matter how much she tempted him.
“I suppose we were… close in some way there are probably no words to describe. Cullen was the Templar who oversaw my Harrowing with Knight-Commander Gregoir. He was tasked with putting an end to me if I did not return from the Fade alone.”
“Oh,” the significance of that dawned on him and then he said again, “oh!” with more clarity. “Right, I can see how that would bring two people together, but …”
“You’re asking if there was something else between us?”
“Unless you don’t want me to ask,” he drew back almost nervously, “in which case tell me to mind my own business, by all means.”
“It’s all right, really.”
A long sigh escaped her. She’d come to care for Alistair a great deal since they’d escaped death together only to find themselves smack dab in the middle of a Blight, the last two Grey Wardens in Ferelden. They flirted and joked, made eyes at one another from time to time, but until that moment she hadn’t thought to wonder if she actually meant something to him.
Some silly part of her kept clinging to the idea of a future with Cullen, an impossible, forbidden future that never stood a chance—not even when he’d taken her in his arms and kissed her back before slipping that amulet into her palm and walking away.
“The truth is, I did care for Cullen,” she said distantly. “Or at least I thought I did at the time, and I was sure he felt the same way, but I was stupid and naïve to believe that. We used to flirt,” she explained. “Or rather, I flirted and he blushed and stuttered when I did because apparently I made him very nervous. What with my being an evil, corruptible freak of nature and all.”
“You’re not evil,” Alistair inserted.
“No?” She wanted to believe that, almost as much as she once wanted to believe Cullen cared for her as much as she cared for him, but the girl who believed those things had been stupid and Neria cut her off before she could rise to the surface and take over.
“Morrigan is evil,” he grinned. “Over there all by herself, poking that little Alistair poppet with pins, plotting to turn people into toads…”
“I’m a mage too,” she pointed out. “And you trained to become a Templar before Duncan conscripted you. By all rights you should suspect me.”
“A mage, yes, an apostate… hardly. You don’t have that same wicked witch of the wilds vibe she casts.”
“But how do you actually know I’m not plotting to turn people into toads? That at this very moment I’m not calling my power to me and envisioning you as this adorable little green creature with hoppy legs and…”
“You? You’d never…”
“Wouldn’t I?” She shrugged playfully, grateful for the moment to not be thinking of the things Cullen said to her. They’d haunted her endlessly since they’d left the tower, terrorizing her dreams with almost the same ferocity as the darkspawn. The hatred in his eyes, the distrust and cruelty, the harsh words he’d spat at her. He wouldn’t even look at her after she told Knight-Commander Gregoir what happened, after she’d argued against him and claimed the Circle was clean. As she walked away, she swore she felt his eyes on her, but when she turned around to meet his gaze one last time, he’d only sneered and looked away.
Despite the seriousness of everything they’d endured within the tower, Alistair immediately started making jokes as they made their way back to camp with Wynne at their side, and though her heart had been breaking, she remembered thinking how grateful she was to have him with her, how sad it made her feel to know how lonely he felt. She’d grown so comfortable with Alistair since arriving at Ostagar, part of her even entertaining thoughts of him that made her blush just a little. They talked often, he flirted almost shamelessly and always made her laugh.
But despite popular belief that the Circle of Mages was a sex-driven and scandalous place for young magic-users to grow up, her own experience there hadn’t been so frivolous. Maybe she spent time in the wrong company, or maybe burying her nose so often in books deterred the others from inviting her to join in their games, but she’d never so much as kissed anyone other than Cullen. She had about as much experience with relationships as Alistair did.
“Maybe being a frog wouldn’t be so bad,” she shrugged. “I read a story once about a frog prince…”
“Don’t you dare,” he chuckled. “Don’t even go there.”
“I think you’d make an adorable frog. Someone would have to kiss you to break the spell, of course…”
“Now you’re trying to find reasons to kiss me. I’m going to have to keep my eye on you from now on,” he squinted. “A close and watchful eye indeed.” After a few moments, during which the laughter finally ebbed into bemused sighs, he lifted his gaze to meet with hers again and asked, “So… did you…” The words trailed into silence that hung between them like an electric force field charged by curiosity.
“Did I? Did I what? Ever turn anyone into a frog?”
“Oh, I’ve no doubt about that now, not after your wily threats, but I was talking about… You and Cullen… Were you… in love with him?”
“Are you asking if I had feelings for him, or are you asking if we ever danced around the lamppost together?”
His cheeks immediately flushed with embarrassment, an adorable blush spreading instantly to his ears until they glowed red as he ducked his gaze downward. “I don’t know, both… maybe?”
“I wasn’t lying to you when I said I’d never licked any lampposts in winter, Alistair.”
“No, I… I never thought you were lying… Of course, I just… His feelings for you seemed so… I don’t know, intense.”
“Because he obviously hates me and everything I am.” She didn’t know if he heard her when she added under her breath, “I was an idiot to think he felt any other way toward me.”
“Maybe, but hate that strong… I’m not so sure it wasn’t born from something much deeper than your typical Templar and Mage rivalry.”
“We used to make eyes at each other,” she sighed. “Living in the tower together those last few years, we saw each other all the time before my Harrowing. And I… well, I kissed him… once.”
She pursed her lips tight together and debated going on. That moment brought up too many bad memories, too much she didn’t want to think about at all.
“Just hours after my Harrowing, after I met Duncan for the first time, actually. I came upon Cullen in the hallway and he congratulated me on not becoming an abomination. He was so nervous,” she remembered. “Stuttering over his words and barely able to even look at me. I don’t know why I did it. I knew it was wrong, that nothing but heartache could come from such an affair. It’s almost entirely unheard of, practically forbidden, but I… I asked him to talk with me in private and he followed me into my room. I kissed him,” she repeated. “It might have been more, maybe if things had been different, but it was just a kiss. Then Jowan happened and… and Duncan and well… here I am now.”
“Right,” he crossed arms over his chest and leaned into the tree behind him, the flush in his cheeks still lingering in bright patches. “Do you care for him? Not… that it’s any of my business, of course.”
“It’s all right, Alistair. You can make it your business, but my answer might not be what you want to hear.”
“I was afraid of that.”
“I am sure some part of me will always care for Cullen. He was my first… crush, I guess. My first kiss, but I know in my heart we… I could never… No matter what happened, his hatred for me and everyone like me… It would be foolish for me to hold onto someone who despised me for something I have no control over, who could never accept me for who I am. So, no. I don’t think I do love him,” though she wasn’t sure how true that was, “but I did… I mean, I do care for him.”
Gentle hand reaching forward to grip her chin and lift her face, she had no choice but to look into his soft brown eyes as he said, “One who doesn’t accept you for who you are, Neria, is not worth holding onto.”
“You’re right,” she agreed. “Of course, you’re right.”
She closed her eyes and tilted her cheek into his palm, reveling in the warmth of it upon her skin. He didn’t often touch her, the very idea seemed to make him so nervous he broke out in a cold sweat, but whenever he did she could actually feel him trembling. It made her stomach rumble and quiver, her own anxiety mingling with intrigue and a hopeful sense of something beyond a forbidden love in which there was no future.
Her future was bleak enough, with only thirty years and a life full of endless darkspawn on the path, was it too much to ask for something more to see her through it? Someone to share it with, who accepted her and loved her just the way she was. Sometimes she thought maybe Alistair could be that someone. Other times, she just didn’t know. He took nothing seriously, and though she suspected his jests and laughter were defense mechanisms he hid behind to disguise his own vulnerabilities, sometimes she just wished he’d say what was really on his mind.
As if he’d somehow read her thoughts, Alistair withdrew his hand from her face, and though she lamented the loss of that touch, she opened her eyes. “Maybe this is a strange time, but here.” His demeanor had changed, the sad seriousness disappearing from his face, replaced by playful intrigue and a sincere effort to cheer her up. “Look at this. Do you know what this is?”
She studied the thing he held out to her, recognizing it immediately as a rose he’d been carrying around and fondling for days. She couldn’t remember how long he’d had it, weeks, maybe longer, but he always seemed to bring it out and twirl it between his fingers as deep thought furrowed his brow.
“Is… this is a trick question?”
“Yes,” he laughed and clapped his hands together. “Absolutely. I’m trying to trick you. Is it working? Aww, I just about had you, didn’t I?”
“You’ve been thumbing that flower for a while now.”
“I picked it in Lothering. I remember thinking, ‘How could something so beautiful exist in a place with so much despair and ugliness?’” Drawing his shoulders up a little, he went on to say, “I probably should have left it alone, but I couldn’t. The darkspawn would come and their taint would just destroy it. So, I’ve had it ever since.”
“That’s a nice sentiment.” There really was so little left in the world that seemed untouched by that taint. Even what she had with Cullen had been marred by it in some way that made her heart feel so very heavy inside her chest.
“I thought that I might give it to you, actually. In a lot of ways I think the same thing when I look at you.”
“Feeling a little thorny, are we?”
The sound of his laughter rang through the night. “Wow,” he continued chuckling. “‘She’ll never see through that, I told myself.’ Boy was I wrong!”
“Thank you, Alistair. That’s a lovely thought.”
“I’m glad you like it.” Only a hint of a smile touched the corners of his mouth. “I was just thinking… here I am doing all this complaining and you haven’t exactly been having a good time of it yourself. You’ve had none of the good experiences of being a Grey Warden since your joining, not a word of thanks or congratulations. It’s all been death and fighting and tragedy. I thought maybe I could say something. Tell you what a rare and wonderful thing you are to find amidst all this… darkness.”
Staring down at the rose in her hand, she didn’t know what to say. If it was too soon after their conversation about Cullen, if he was actually saying what she thought he was saying. Did he appreciate her, respect and admire her for who she was? Was he saying that he was willing to be the man Cullen had been unable to be? That he could look past the magic, the sharpness of her long ears, and care for her not despite those things, but because of them?
There were so many unanswered questions, much of it too deep to pry into in the midst of such tension and woe.
The only thing to do, she realized, was respond with the one thing Alistair seemed to most easily understand: humor.
“So, are we married now?”
The serious expression instantly disappeared from his face, followed by an appreciative grin and a boisterous laugh. “Ha ha! You won’t land me that easily woman. I know I’m quite the prize, after all. No need to start crying on me or anything.” The grin began to fade almost as quickly as it arrived, replaced by the serious furrow of his nervous brow. “I guess it was, uh, just a stupid impulse. I don’t know, was it… the wrong one?”
“No, it wasn’t. Thank you, Alistair.”
“I’m glad you like it,” he lightened up again. “Now, if we could just move on past the awkward, embarrassing stage and get right to the steamy bits, I’d appreciate it.”
“Sounds good! Off with the armor, then.”
“Ha!” he took a nervous step backwards. “Bluff called. Damn, she saw right through me.”
“You’re so cute when you’re bashful.”
“I’ll be…” another giddy laugh escaped him, “I’ll be standing over here until the blushing stops, just to be safe. You know how it is.”
“All right,” she smiled as she watched him walk backwards toward the camp, his shining eyes never leaving her face until he finally turned around to leave her with her thoughts at the edge of the camp.
She glanced down at the rose in her hand again, the brilliant red petals curling and drying around the edges, a hint of decay discoloring the beauty before they’d actually dried out. She brought the flower toward her face, instantly catching the fragrance as she breathed in and tickled those soft petals beneath her nose.
Cullen had never given her anything so sweet, she thought, had never told her what a rare and wonderful thing she was. Not in words, not in anything more than curious smiles and stolen glances. The feelings he had for her, she realized, had never been spoken, and now she was left to wonder if she’d invented them, made them into something he never intended to actually feel.
Her other hand went instantly to the charm around her neck, lingering against the hollow of her tight throat as she fondled it. She curled fingers around the chain, the metal cold as it pulsed against her skin. There was magic in that charm, an ironic enchantment that strengthened her resolve almost as much as it reminded her of him. As though it knew what she was about to do and offered protest, the magic thrombed against her skin again, but before the emotions could grip her any tighter than they already had, she yanked it free from her neck and stared down at it in her hand.
Wanting him all those years… it hadn’t been stupid or naïve, not in the way she thought as she looked back in anger. She’d been a girl, and his smile took her breath away. The feel of his lips on hers had carried her through the early darkness that followed her from the tower when she left with Duncan, into the dreadful destruction and betrayal of Ostagar. Some part of her kept thinking that so long as Cullen was still out there somewhere, still loving her, she would never be forgotten, that the things she had to do would not be in vain, but she knew better now. Cullen never loved her.
And it was Alistair who got her through those days. They’d gotten each other through it, and the friendship they’d built in those months was more precious to her than the memory of any kiss she might have shared with a young man who’d never find it in his heart to actually love her.
She closed her hand around the charm, held it until it warmed to her body temperature, and then she released her fingers, allowing it to drop to the ground at her feet. The chain caught and tangled around her finger, swaying as if the past itself clung in earnest, as if it feared being released. Tipping her hand downward, she watched it drop at her feet with a thump that stirred the dry dirt around her boots.
It was an odd thing, how freeing that gesture was, how limited she felt while she’d held that forbidden love so close to her heart. She didn’t look back as she walked away and left it behind; there was no point in holding on to something that had never really been hers.
Maybe, she thought as her feet carried her toward camp, toward Alistair, she would prove to Cullen someday that not all mages were bad, that some of them could focus their gifts and their energies on making the world a better place for everyone. And if not, what would it matter? She didn’t really need to prove herself to anyone, well… except maybe Alistair, but she had a feeling he’d never ask her to prove anything to him because he already accepted her for who she was.
Alistair was the first person she’d ever met outside the circle, aside from Duncan, who’d done that from the start.
“Alistair?” she picked up the pace, a light jog carrying her after him before he reached camp and their conversation could be eavesdropped upon by curious ears.
He stopped at the sound of his name and turned around to face her. “Yes?”
“I need to tell you how much I enjoy your company,” she blurted out as she arrived in front of him and stopped to catch her breath. She hoped she didn’t sound desperate or needy. She didn’t feel like either of those things, but it certainly did feel like the right time to tell him how much she cherished their time together, even if every minute of it was riddled with fighting and darkspawn and despair.
“You know, I was just thinking the same thing,” he told her. “Given the circumstances, things could have been so much worse. I’m so grateful that you’re you instead of… some other Grey Warden. Umm… that sounded better in my head. I just mean to say that I’ve really come to care about you.”
“I feel the same way.”
“Now we just need to be rid of that pesky archdemon and everything will be back to normal, right?” The sound of his laughter, even as a defense mechanism meant to guard his own heart, was one of the most precious things she’d ever heard and though she wouldn’t be so bold as to kiss him, she wanted to right then more than anything.
But she would wait. She would bide her time and not push him into anything. She’d pushed Cullen, not that she’d had to twist his arm, but she wouldn’t be so quick to rush in this time. Alistair was worth waiting for, even if they only had a good thirty years together, she’d gladly take her time with him.
“So,” she fell into step beside him, “tell me more about the Grey Wardens.”
“Such as they are…”
*Inspired by Cullen’s in-game dialogue and the Cullen Romance Option Mod by Cmessaz