Mages may look like you or me, and therein lies the greatest deception - for the templars know that any one of them, at any moment, is but one breath away from abomination and ruin.
Cullen shouldn't have to be reminded of this, which makes the reprimand all the more uncomfortable. He feels dwarfed by the massive solidity of Greagoir's desk, absurdly like a child caught stealing as he forces himself not to fidget.
He hadn't ever been in here before, especially not for a reprimand, because he's good at this. And even now he hasn't actually done anything, he thinks.
It doesn't assuage the sense of squirming, half-caught guilt that whines at his mind.
But Greagoir isn't as harsh as Cullen expects him to be, and there's the faintest trace of rueful humor in the older man's eyes when Cullen makes his earnest, formal apology. "You're not the first templar to have to be reminded to keep his eyes to himself," the Knight-Commander says with a slow shake of his head. "And lad, you won't be the last. I have no doubt of your devotion to the templars, or to your duty." A pause as Greagoir's fingers tap the ancient desktop and the humor dies entirely, Cullen trapped like an insect under Greagoir's suddenly sharp regard. "But mind yourself. Remember what they are, what she is. Know that we are what we are because of what they are."
Cullen nods and leaves stiffly when he's dismissed, holding himself rigid and not glancing at anyone else down the long semicircle hall, not any of his fellow templars, or any of the mage apprentices, and most certainly not at her.
The Circle is only so large, though, and despite his best efforts at what he fervently tells himself isn't avoidance there's no way around the fact of living in the same building and walking the same halls.
There's also no way to excuse himself when she ambles into the library while he's at his regular post, humming faintly to her collection of books and sitting practically under his nose to thumb through them. Cullen thinks for a wild minute that the Maker has an odd sense of humor and this is some sort of joke (and it isn't funny), but when he shifts and his armor creaks it startles her out of her thoughts. Blinking soft-eyed like a newborn doe, she asks with a smile if he's bored.
Just in time, Cullen catches himself and doesn't answer. Instead, he sets his jaw and stares at the wall like a templar carved of stone, and tells himself later that he imagines her expression of disappointment.
He hadn't been particularly unsettled when he'd been ordered to attend the Harrowing—this is what he's trained for, this is what he is—but at the sight of her, nodding her head at Irving's encouragement, reaching her hand out, and then the gasp as her limp form falls crumpled by the font…
It can't be coincidence, he thinks.
The time drags by slow and heavy as amber, sickness pooling acrid in the back of his throat at the thought of her turning, emerging twisted unrecognizable by the Fade. The scrape-weight of duty gets heavier with each heartbeat, a tympanic marking-out of time that stretches and flows in an agony of waiting.
She looks like she's dreaming.
Cullen grips the pommel of his sword, hard, steeling himself for the worst at her every tremor, the flicker-frown of nightmares and the reflexive grasp of her hands as though she's reaching out, helplessly. Shadows deepen around her eyes as her lashes flutter and he's sick with the thought of her waking up with eyes full of darkness and evil, the raw necessity of what he'll have to do.
But on the floor she gasps and lets out a long, bone-slack sigh, and the relief in the room is palpable as they dismiss him.
She didn't fail, but he can't shake the feeling that she wasn't the only one being tested.
She finds him later on her way to somewhere else, and for some ridiculous, damnable reason when she stops to make polite conversation he confesses that he had been chosen to strike the killing blow at her Harrowing. It takes her aback—that, or maybe his obvious discomfort, the way he nearly squirms in his armor like the greenest of youths—and it takes a moment before she laughs a little in disbelief and thanks him.
Thanks him. He only nods, expecting her to go about her business, but she doesn't. Instead she stands in front of him, considering. Thoughtful. "I feel like we're so much closer, now," she says at last, her attempt at deadpan ruined by the twitch of a grin at the corner of her mouth. "We should go get to know each other better, don't you think, Cullen?"
And it's all he can do not to stammer like an idiot yes or umm or I'm sorry, I can't. But with Greagoir's reprimand still fresh in his ears he catches himself in time for a curt, "No."
Her eyebrows arch. "No?"
Cullen squares his shoulders and rallies all his discipline. "No templar has reason to fraternize with a mage."
And this time there's no mistaking the look of stung disappointment she shoots back at him as she leaves, but he reminds himself of what she is and what she might be and what he is with a sharp, grim determination that does nothing to mitigate an altogether uncomfortable echo of regret.
By the next morning he's had it gnawing at his mind long enough to decide he's been rather an ass, but before he gets the chance to apologize he gets word that she's left the Circle forever.
She comes back, naturally.
Only it isn't real and Cullen knows it, trapped in the circle-cage with the bloody-handed mages worming their magic down into his brain, tearing intrusive little roots down into the darkest corners of his heart and turning it against him. He sees her, again and again, in sunlight and shadow, holy and unholy and everywhere. And he knows it isn't real because they hadn't ever actually been left alone, and they'd certainly never done anything like what haunts his every waking moment.
He's still snarling against the illusion when it comes again, but she doesn't leave when he tells her to go and this time she is real. He recognizes her even worried and drawn, falling to her knees on the other side of his cage, and he can't keep from babbling a fall of horrifying things that tumble near-insensible from his lips. It's a relief when she leaves because shame yawns vast and open below him and threatens to swallow him whole.
There are screams from the chamber above, the heavy crash of bodies and groans and the shivering prickle-feeling of magic.
And then: silence.
The door opens what seems like ages later, and when he makes his way back down Greagoir sags slightly with relief at the news that it's over.
There isn't any celebration because too much has been lost. Cullen is still watching her and doesn't miss when the other man—the former templar—tugs her into an alcove and they pass murmurs back and forth before he pulls her into his arms and holds her tightly, pressing a kiss to the top of her hair as she clings to him as though he's the pillar at the center of the world.
In the visions in the cage, it had been him, and he'd known even in the depths of illusion that it was wrong because he's a templar and she's a mage.
Mages and templars… don't.
None of this seems to matter to the pair in the alcove, holding on as though they could fuse together, the man's arm firm around her shoulder and his eyes worried as he guides her away. She goes willing, head bowed and expression hidden by the fall of her hair, and so all he knows for certain is that she doesn't stop and she doesn't look back. Cullen doesn't resist the thought that he was happier back in the circle-cage with the too-sweet lies than here in the broken Circle (a larger cage, but a cage still), a dead husk of a place as empty as the dreams he knows will come.