The breeze through the window was cool on Leona's cheek, smelling of damp, crisp night, the earliest morning dew already settled in the small, moonlit hours. Her blade rang on the whet-stone through the empty armory.
Sleep, she found, was quite hopeless in the face of memory.
The mage hummed steadily, providing a fluid rhythm for her task, though the sensation in her hands was unbalanced. Fingers of her left hand were chilled against the staff's smooth grain and blade's unyielding metal, the fingers of her right curled around the whet-stone, packed beneath smooth, soft-tanned black leather. Her glove kept the glowing down when she had trouble suppressing the free-flowing energy of the Fade, too like the ocean tide when one had only ever experienced a slow, summer river.
It muffled sensation, too, which was becoming more and more unbearable as the days passed. To touch even the simplest things had become a lesson in painful overstimulation, nearly impossible to ignore when she had been incredibly adept at doing so before…
"Black, black, black
is the color of my true love's hair.
Her face is something wondrous fair;
the clearest eyes, and the strongest hands,
I love the ground whereon she stands."
There was one morning in the marketplace… in Antiva, the market was Leona's favorite, the scent of cured leather and spices a heady aroma that mingled with wine and salt-breezes, summer and dark soil. Cordelia knew how to haggle with even the best of merchants, smooth words flowing from gentle lips like water over river-stones. Antivan was a language of art, and required an artist's tongue to speak properly. In many ways, she was artist and art itself.
Sunlight on raven hair was one of Leona's favorite memories: sun that streamed through merry canopies, orange and red and blue and saffron to light on midnight curls, showing silver-blue tendrils when the day caught her just so.
"I love my love, and well she knows.
I love the ground whereon she goes;
if she no more on earth should stay,
my life would quickly fade away."
She laid the staff aside, resting against her thigh, and wiped her ungloved hand over weary eyes, wondering at fate. Did Cordelia rest at the Maker's side, if, after all this, He existed at all?
The Chant was beautiful, but the words seemed emptier now than they had before.
Should she offer a prayer to the Lady of the Skies?
Lifter her voice to nameless spirits?
Friend of the Dead. Leona had always preferred the idea that one might have a friend in death, not a master of all things.
"Black, black, black
is the color of my true love's hair."
The mage let her eyes close, reclining in the stiff, wooden chair, head tipping against the stone wall at her back.
"Is there more to that one?"
If she'd been any less exhausted, she might have leapt to her feet with an arcane bolt in hand.
Instead, Leona suppressed the urge to jump out of her skin and cracked her eyes open. "That's all. You're surprisingly silent for someone who wears armor almost constantly."
Cullen, leaning in the doorway, barely illuminated by the torch and candles she'd lit, smiled. "I'm used to being quiet in plate armor." He spread his arms. "And I'm not wearing any now. Is it so surprising?" Instead, he was wrapped in linen trousers and blue robe. She couldn't recall ever seeing the color on him before; in the flickering light, playing across tousled, golden curls and pale skin, visible just under the fabric's soft folds, it was lovely.
Her long robe was burgundy, and somewhere in her too-full mind, that was amusing.
Her mouth lifted in a lopsided smile. "It is, in fact." Leona flicked her gloved hand in a vague gesture at the empty floor-space. "Find a chair, Commander."
"It seems you're not allowed to tend your weapons alone anymore," he said, shefing a chair to his usual place just across from hers.
Leona's crooked smile stayed fixed in place. "Apparently, but somehow I imagine I didn't wake you with my song or my whet-stone—unless, of course, you laid a spell on the door that lets you know when I enter the armory at odd hours?"
Cullen chuckled. "It seems I cannot fool you."
"They say I'm Andraste's Herald or the Inquisitor or the Mage-Savior or Templar's-Bane or some such nonsense—stray enchantments can't get by me." She winked playfully, allowing the weight behind those titles to dance away on the soot-laced air. The mage hefted her staff and leaned it against the wall, not taking her gaze from his sharp cheeks, the way the candles gleamed, yellow, in the hazel of his eyes. "But, in all seriousness—or, very well, perhaps only a little seriousness, what has you awake tonight, Cullen?" There was something fundamentally enjoyable about the reflexive flush that crept into his cheeks when she said his name. IT was entirely possible that he didn't even notice anymore.
He certainly did not notice now, eyes flickering to hands folded neatly, tightly on his lap. "I awoke from a nightmare, and thought a walk might to me good."
It was a half-truth—Leona could tell from the careful, hollow tone, the twisting of fingers, even folded. But she did not blame him. She offered him a nod, understanding; she could not honestly say she knew how he felt, and knew he did not want sympathy.
Cullen returned the gesture, an unvoiced question.
"I'm ignoring my guilt, the best I can." Leona had no reason to hide. The truth could take care of itself. She kept her voice light; she did not need pity.
A frown etched concern into his features. "My lady?"
She had half a mind to kick him. She did have her boots on.
Instead, Leona settled for a carefree shrug. "There are people I miss. 'No true death in any century but the penury of memory.'"
He nodded, slowly, shadows playing across his face, deepening the sleepless circles under his eyes that matched her own. "Your parents—"
"Are alive." Leona crossed her ankles, tucked them under her chair.
"Oh—that's—it's wonderful." His brows arched to unruly-pillow-tousled curls. "You've heard from them, or know where they've taken refuge? You needn't reveal the location, of course but if they've found relative safety in these tumultuous—"
"I don't know."
The color faded from his cheeks as he studied her. She spoke again before he could voice his confusion.
"I haven't heard from them. But I know they're alive—they know how to hide, to survive—it's what they do."
The crease between his brows did not smooth. He pursed his lips, chose his words. "Would they not have heard you survived the Conclave?"
"They might assume it was some other Trevelyan. There are enough of us, after all." The half-smile was easy. Her palm burned.
The scar seemed deeper when he pressed his lips like that. "So you don't expect to hear from them."
Leona nodded. "It's unlikely."
"But they're alive."
"Yes." She rubbed her fingers over the glove, and the skin beneath prickled.
Cullen nodded, slow, eyes trailing over her features like a gentle touch. Her heart ached. She shivered. "Faith," he said, "is something we never have enough of—not in this war, and not in peace." She was grateful.
Leona looped an arm over the back of her chair and tucked a leg beneath her body, jaunty posture dragging her mind along, away from the permanent touch of the Fade. "What brought you down here in particular? Not my incredible charm, surely. And definitely not the singing."
"It was, actually—I—er—that is… the song got my attention, but your charm is—that is—" His cheeks grew redder with every word, as much as he tried to hide them in the shadows. The candles cast a fair amount of light, and if Leona sent an extra spark to the flames, well, who could blame her? "It's nice. This place. You. It's nice."
She grinned, a flutter in her chest. "You're nice." She winked, arching across the chair's back until it creaked, resting her head on her shoulder. "But I agree—it's nice here. Smell of metal, wood, and polish and ash, and then the quiet, when everyone leaves. It reminds me of our talks, even when I'm alone."
Cullen nodded, mouth curved in a small smile. "That's what I mean."
"I'm not joking, you know. When I say the things I do about you. Mostly." The mage let her grin fall away. Just for a moment. "The feelings are genuine. I hope you know that."
His shoulders tensed, mouth forming words without sound for the barest of moments. "I know. Thank you, I—I am… unsure what to say."
She gave a half-smile. "I'm a mage; you don't have to say anything."
"No!" Leona straightened immediately, the sharp edge of his tone cracking against the wall behind her. "I'm sorry—I mean, that's not—" Cullen sighed, running a hand through already mussed curls. "Maker. I know I have—of course I've given you reason to doubt—I am sorry. I want you to know that my feelings for you—I have them, regardless, and I've tried…" He pressed his hand across his forehead. "I am not proud of the man I have been. Moving past everything has not been easy, but for you—with you… I consider you a friend. Closer than any I've ever had. And—thank you."
Leona was not sure she should breathe, lest the moment pass. Cullen stood.
"Even so—" he lowered his eyes. The candlelight, flickering over his brow, cast a shadow over his gaze. "There are things I must consider."
Leona uncrossed her legs, leaned forward to rise. "Cullen—"
He knelt, met her gaze evenly, hazel eyes soft in the golden light. "I wish you to know I do not simply consider you—or anyone, now—simply 'a mage.' There is much more. When I left the Templars, this is something I never expected. Beyond respect, beyond friendship." He took her hand—the uncovered—and she could feel his calloused skin against hers. He opened his mouth again. Closed it. "Goodnight, Leona." He brushed his lips gently over her knuckles, and then he was gone, closing the heavy door behind him, leaving her to wonder if she had not just dreamed the whole thing. Surely, if it were a real and true thing, in daylight, she would have found something to say.
True, the Fade could be cruel, but… this felt like the solid, waking world, even as the candles spluttered and cast their living shadows in the corners of the armory, glinting gold on half-finished blades awaiting their hafts, cross-guards, new pommels. A gentle breeze, cool, ruffled her hair. She closed her eyes.
He was crouched on a chair, well away from the racks of blades. Yes."
Leona beckoned to him, a gentle smile on her lips. "Did you suggest Cullen come see me?"
The spirit nodded, shadows flying vigorously across his wan face. There was the feeling of a smile. "Yes. You were hurting."
Her chest tightened. "Why?"
The smile faded. Cole's brow furrowed. "You… were hurting," he repeated, slowly. "Sunlight glints on her hair, flying in a warm breeze. Your heart soars, and blood, blood why is there so much blood and nothing—there's nothing here at all. Empty. Empty empty empty should be me. Falling, your hands underwater, and—"
"I know, Cole." Her throat was dry.
"I'm… hurting you." Cole crept close, trailing one hand along the back of the chair Cullen had occupied such a short time ago.
"It's ok." Leona offered a little smile, shoving the constricting tendrils of sorrow away from her heart. "It's not you. Just memory—it's ok."
The spirit shifted uneasily, fingers dancing across the wood. "You love him, too. Like you loved the lady, but different: all bright and spicy like the wind. With music… like magic. I thought it would help—he was already awake. You shouldn't both be alone."
Leona managed a chuckle, her fragile smile lifting into a free grin, searching out Cole's grey-ruby eyes. She drew her knees up under her chin. "Was Cullen hurting, too?"
He nodded, and perched in the chair, knees drawn up to his chest, until they were mirror images, arms wrapped around shins, chins perched on knees. "The demons hurt him, but only their memories hurt now."
Leona snuggled into the crimson cotton of her night-robe across her knees, cheek buried in the fabric. "Thank you, Cole."
"I'm glad it helped."
They sat in silence a little while, as the candles burned down, winking and spluttering.
"You said when you try to see my mind that it's bright and difficult to read—like looking at the sun... probably because of the Anchor. How did you know I was hurting, unless you were here the whole time?"
The spirit tilted his head. "When you feel things, it's very strong. Reading you is like looking at a shadow against the sun, yes, but all of your emotions are big enough to hear even if we're not in the same room. Like the shadow moves and you get a clear picture of the colors because the light is coming from a different angle."
Leona chuckled. "Are you saying my feelings are just really loud?"
"Yes." Cole cocked his head, the other way this time. "I thought you knew—you sing to hear something different so the feelings don't drown out the world."
Oh. She hadn't thought of it quite like that. She nodded, slowly, fabric catching on her skin. "Sometimes it's an extension of the feelings, too—when you sing, it's like releasing them, so you don't have to hold them anymore," she said.
"That's different," Cole mused, peering at her from beneath the brim of his hat. "Why would you want to lose your feelings?"
"It's not losing so much as letting of the pressure so it doesn't build up and… hurt."
"If good feelings get too strong, do they hurt, too?"
Leona's eyes crinkled at the edges. "They can, but it's a good feeling. It doesn't hurt, really—it just feels like a lot. It's not something that requires help, but it's good to have someone to share with, when that happens."
He nodded, slowly. "I think I understand. A little."
The night wind stirred her hair, and the last, flickering flames of the candle-subs, golden firelight mingling with silver moon on the planks and blades, glinting in the white streaks in her loose braid.
"Did he mean what he said?" The mage asked.
"Yes." Cole's brow furrowed. "You are concerned. About… oh. I only asked him to come and see you—Cullen decided what to say."
'Thank you." Leona closed her eyes, buried her nose in the crimson fabric draped across her knees. Her heart fluttered, settled. The night seemed warm, even as the damp, cool fingers of the breeze found her neck, pressing auburn locks aside. "Thank you, Cole."
There was a smile in his voice. "I'm glad it helped."
The spicy-sweet scent of smoke as the candles died, one by one, reached her. Leona relished it, sinking to the embrace of sleep.
"Maybe you should get into bed. You'll worry Leliana."
"Mmph." She unwound her arms and unfolded her legs with a crack, chair creaking. She racked her eyes open. Shadows and silver were all that was left in the grey armory. Cole stood beside her. "I'll make sure you don't trip on the stairs."
She required more than a little help, and when Leona had stumbled into bed, he decided to stay a while on the little sofa, listening to the songs of the runes she'd placed around the room 'just in case,' but Cole was sure she didn't mind. He left with the dawn, answering the call of a guilt-ridden soul.