A/N: Thank you for reading, and I'm so sorry to take so long between chapters.
The halls were quiet.
Quiet enough that if one closed their eyes, one wouldn't know that there had been chaos just a few short minutes ago.
The temptation of that reprieve was overwhelming, but with all the madness that had befallen the castle, Cullen didn't dare close his eyes.
In a way, he felt like he was back in Kinloch Hold. Well…there had been more demons in Kinloch.
A few Venatori had resorted to demons when they realized they were outnumbered, but most of them had fought as themselves, with whatever blood they could get ahold of.
Cullen felt sick, though it was less from the dull throbbing in his head and the images bubbling up in his mind that threatened to swallow him whole and more from the fact that King Cousland had made more than a few dry comments about mages, and more than once, Cullen had instinctively agreed.
Never out loud, but that hardly changed anything.
Mages did turn to blood magic with too much ease. Mages were a threat. Mages were dangerous.
He had though he was doing better than this.
They…were, but not all of them…
Well, all of them had potential to become something monstrous, but…
Maker, it was hard to think beyond that pounding in his head, but he tried. He tried to think of the mages who had survived Kinloch having never fallen to a demon's sway—even though he had tried to condemn them back then, now he could look back and see that they weren't so different from Finley. Frightened and still clinging to goodness because that was a part of who they were.
He thought of the mages who had surrendered in the Gallows, despite all the signs that their surrender would lead to their deaths, rather than turn to blood. Of the mages who worked for the Inquisition now.
He thought of Finley.
And still his mind would snap back to those hateful thoughts, those hissing whispers that the world would be better off with every mage tranquil, unable to cause so much devastation.
Surana had been a friend, had passed their Harrowing and done so well. They had joked with him, offered opinions on how the Circles could be made better, and Cullen had thought there was merit in their ideas.
And all the while they'd been practicing blood magic with Jowan, waiting for a moment of weakness to tear their way through the templar ranks. All those conversations, those smiles, what Cullen had thought of as a friendship—one he'd been proud of, despite a few more seasoned templars warning him against it.
It had all been lies.
And then Meredith… she'd been so quick to fan those fears, to point out each time she caught a mage in a white lie with a simple glance at him or whisper. She'd ask him what he thought they were hiding, nod in approval when he followed his paranoia to find blood magic.
Mages fell to demons' sway too easily.
He wanted to believe otherwise, but it was so hard when his fears were reinforced over and over.
If only he could get away from it all, from both sides and give his mind time to settle, time to heal. Then he could hear his own thoughts again and maybe…
Maker, his head hurt.
Leliana's voice was quiet, with a hint of impatience, and Cullen wondered how many times she had called to him before he'd heard.
In the very least, it grounded him in the present.
"Have they found Finley yet?" The question hardly sounded like something professional, but he couldn't care. He wanted to know that she was alright. That she wasn't one of the bodies still being gathered from the halls to be burned.
"They escaped and headed to a safe house just out of town," Leliana stated, voice smoother, a practiced smile in place. Of the other advisors, Leliana was the one he least liked to be alone with. There was the fact that she knew his past, but also that she was so damned good at schooling her emotions. In some ways, he thought she was better than Josephine.
And that terrified him.
"We've already sent someone to retrieve them."
"You're sure it's safe?" Cullen asked, his voice managing at least a little of his usual confidence. "I'd be loath to invite them back into more chaos."
Leliana's picturesque demeanor faltered for just an instance, a scolding look in place for just a breath before she was distant and polite again. "We are sure, commander."
He tried not to feel the weight of her look or the way she was talking to him. He wished Cassandra or Josephine were there to change the subject or bring up another aspect of danger he wasn't thinking of.
He thanked the Maker silently when an Inquisition soldier came in, calling for his attention. Out of the Inquisition's home, he felt like he had hardly any power. Most of their soldiers were off elsewhere, and the few that were here were having to work with and report to the Denerim castle guard.
He felt so out of place.
At least things had quieted down.
There had been high casualties at first, when the venatori had taken them by surprise. However, the tables had turned quick enough, especially when the Chargers showed up. Cullen was a bit surprised by that, but welcomed the help.
Now, as he dismissed the soldier, he found the Iron Bull waiting for an audience. He pretended not to care when the qunari motioned Leliana over as well.
"I thought you might want to know what brought us here."
Cullen slumped onto the edge of his bed, once again feeling as though he was less than useless. The Bull and his company had headed back out into the city after the crisis was over, saying that they were going to gather a few friends and head back to Skyhold.
To keep an eye on things until Leliana could figure out what to do.
While their warning about the Venatori attack in Denerim had come a mite bit late, the fact that the Venatori had infiltrated Skyhold already was more than a little disheartening.
Leliana was sending word to her more trusted scouts, as well as a few of them from Denerim now.
It was a matter that Cullen could do little for, and it added to his feeling of ineptitude.
He'd been praised by the king for his ideas in flushing out the remaining Venatori in the castle—which had worked perfectly—and yet it felt so hollow.
He didn't want to be on good terms with the king. Put nicely, the man was a prick, and he echoed so many things that Cullen had been trying to overcome.
So many fears.
Cullen's eyes widened, and he shot to his feet, looking first to the door, puzzled that he hadn't heard a knock. It was closed, however, and as he turned, he found Finley resting on his windowsill, watching him in the dim candlelight, concerned.
His fingers found the way to the back of his neck, and he rubbed at his skin, feeling foolish for having been caught feeling so powerless.
"Inquisitor," he murmured, doing his best to keep his voice low as he walked over to her. She was already a few steps into his room now. "You shouldn't be sneaking in like this."
"I don't care about our credibility." She stopped when she was in front of him, reaching out and inspecting him carefully. It took him a moment to realize she was checking for injuries.
"I'm fine." He caught her hand as it brushed down his arm and held it. "Your guards need to know where you are."
"You know where I am."
Cullen drew in a slow breath, closing his eyes. They'd been over this before, and yet she was so stubborn. Before he could try to explain—again—how important it was that they be able to keep track of her and ensure her safety, she lightly tugged his hand and led him over to his bed.
As he started to protest, she pushed on his chest, indicating he sit down. "Let me finish getting a look at you and then I'll go."
Despite his skepticism, he wearily sat down on the edge of his bed again, looking up at her through tired eyes. "I'll walk you back to your chambers when you're satisfied."
"That will just raise questions," Finley murmured, fingers feathering across his skin as she inspected every inch of him. He wanted to pull her into his lap and tangle his fingers in her hair. To hold her close.
Instead, he simply sighed as she tilted his head this way and that and checked his arms.
"I'll go back the way I came. No one will see me," Finley said, finally straightening back. She placed her hand against his forehead and her palm was cool. Without thinking, he leaned into her touch.
"That doesn't make me feel better." If she could do that, who else could?
She didn't seem overly concerned, however, instead gently letting her fingers comb through his hair. A silent moment passed between them before Finley abruptly sat down next to him. She fidgeted a moment before motioning to him. "This trip has been hard for you."
He blinked, a creeping dread curling in his gut. "What?"
"I…heard a little of what happened at Kinloch Hold." Finley was playing with her hair, the way she always did when she was nervous. He didn't want her to be like that.
Not around him.
Maker, if she'd heard about Kinloch Hold though…
"When I was a little girl…" She trailed off midsentence, expression switching between a myriad of emotions before she finally shook her head. "My parents were not particularly good people. I don't remember much of them, but they were maleficar. They hurt people. They hurt me."
Cullen turned on his bed, reaching out to take one of her hands, not understanding why she would bring that up. How it could have anything to do with Kinloch Hold or him.
Before he could think of anything to say, she was talking again, quickly. "What I mean is, when I was a girl, I was very afraid of magic. I think…if I hadn't had my own, I would have always been terrified of mages, myself. And I still don't like blood mages. I mean, no one with any sense likes blood mages, but I really don't…well, I'm trying to say…" She let out a frustrated huff and looked at him. "I understand. Why you're so cautious around magic, that is. If I hadn't had it first hand and been able to see the good it can do, I—"
Her words cut off as Cullen tugged her into his lap, folding himself around her, clinging to her.
To hear her say that, it was more than he could take.
There was so much he wanted to say to her.
That she had been hurt with blood magic made his heart hurt, but more than that, that she could compare whatever she'd been through…
She had risen above her fears, become a healer, a protector.
Maker, the things that had happened that he hadn't stopped…
And she was considering them the same?
He should have told her the truth, of the blood on his hands, of the things he'd done so very, very wrong.
He should have, but her arms were around him, her head resting against his, and he needed her there. It was selfish and cruel to let her think she knew him, that he was a decent man, but he wanted to be.
He wanted to be good, to make up for what had happened, to be the protector he'd dreamed of being as a boy.
The words were damned up inside of him, though, caught behind the quiet tears that spilled forth instead, as he held on to the innocent woman in his arms.
He didn't deserve her, but he couldn't let her go, either.
Not now. Not tonight.
He felt her lips brush against his hair. "You'll be alright, Cullen."
Maker, how he wished that could be true.