Disclaimer and Author's Note:
Dragon Age: Origins belongs to Bioware, along with all recognizable characters. "What We Become" is the sequel to the stories "What We Are" and "What We Were". Cullen/Amell, post-game for DA:O.
Update: As of February 2013, the story has been revised, and comments and reviews may reflect content that has since been cut or altered. I left the author's notes, mostly thanking cjk1701 for beta-ing, and while I wanted to preserve the sentiment, as of this update any and all mistakes are solely mine.
There's no warning, save a messenger's breathless news: the Archdemon is defeated, the Blight routed, Ferelden saved. There isn't any celebration at what remains of the Circle, only a collective sigh of weary relief. It isn't long before the bodies of fallen templars start coming in, returned to the Circle in wagons by the few of their battered brethren left alive. In the aftermath of Uldred's revolt, there are few enough templars left as it is; now the number in the Circle is scarcely more than a handful.
There are more dead than alive, and soon the dead are only ashes.
The Tower is very, very quiet. The footsteps of the few who remain seem drowned in the cavernous emptiness of places where people used to live. Had it been otherwise, Cullen might not have heard it at all, but down a long circle hall where no one else should be comes the wet sound of panting and snuffling breath. A demon, he thinks as his heart plummets and he draws his sword. A blood mage that must have been missed or an abomination that evaded the sword somehow. Nothing's supposed to be here. With the sudden focus of impending battle he can hear shuffling footsteps along with the licking of heavy jowls, and he tries to pinpoint the location in his mind as he creeps around the corner, sword raised to strike at the—
Therrin Amell is lost in thought and trailing fingertips along the stone wall, expression distant as though listening to faraway music until the mabari at her side barks at him and she blinks, twice, and stares at Cullen hollow-eyed and silent.
"You," he breathes in disbelief, lowering the sword even though something screeches in his mind don't trust it, it's a trick and the hair on his arms stands up in foreboding. "What are you doing here?"
Her forehead creases a moment in confusion, as though she doesn't understand him, doesn't speak the language anymore. "I came back."
That much is obvious and unhelpful and besides, she doesn't look like herself. The gray robes hanging from her frame are foreign and she'd never seemed so… so blank before. It could still be a trick, couldn't it? A demon inside her, perhaps, using her like a puppet. Hadn't she been there when the Archdemon had fallen? "Why?" Cullen demands, tightening his grip on the sword. How many times had he heard it whispered among the mages that the Circle was a prison, that they'd give almost anything to be free of it?
Her fingers splay across the dead stone. "It's my home," she says at last, in a voice as empty as the Tower itself.
Cullen scowls deeply. "Home?" It comes out harsh, surprising him with its bitterness. "Look around you. There's nothing left here anymore." She does look, sort of, eyes drifting over everything like she doesn't really see anything at all. Cullen notices that there's still blood on the wall, high up where no one has cleaned yet because the Tower is large and those left inside are few. They have bigger problems than bloodstains in hallways where no one is supposed to be.
The first flicker of something like feeling creeps into her expression. Curiosity and… anger? "Why are you here, then?" she demands.
It's the last thing in the world he expects; second-last is the click-sharp silence where his response should have been except he doesn't have one. "Because I'm a templar," he manages finally, sheathing his sword and ignoring that it was only half an answer.
She nods once, exaggerated as though her head is too heavy. "And I'm a mage." The mabari whines at her side, ears flattened against his massive skull as he looks up at her in a plea she doesn't seem to notice. "I should get up to bed. I'll be in the… in the apprentice quarters, I suppose," she says faintly, swallowing thick as though it hurts.
The whole thing feels wrong and his armor suddenly doesn't seem to fit. "Why?" At her blank look he continues, "You don't have a bed there. You're not an apprentice." Though granted, he thinks, she could probably have her pick of beds now. There's hardly a crowd.
There's a long stretch of quiet as she considers his words, looking perplexed, and it's only then Cullen realizes she's got one hand on the mabari and is leaning on him for support, trembling in place. It only deepens his unease. "You passed your Harrowing, don't you remember? I was there."
Best not to think about that. Or about after, when they'd talked, or after that when he'd got word that she'd been taken away.
What's wrong with you?
"Of course." The words come out numb and toneless as though she's been made Tranquil. "Mage's quarters, then."
"You don't want to go up there. There's still… it's still bad," Cullen manages to get out at last, even though bad is a vast understatement. Even without the bodies, there's still more wreckage than anything else, death in every stone and splintered piece of wood.
She seems to process the thought slowly. "Then I'll be in the library."
She starts off without another look at him, leaning on the whining mabari as she turns the curve of the hall and disappears. As soon as the door clicks closed behind her Cullen stops holding his breath and lets out a long, ragged sigh.
By the Maker, why? Why? He could scream. And no one would hear him, he thinks with an edge of hysteria, he could scream himself hoarse and there would be no one around to care.
But if the Maker has answers, He doesn't share them with Cullen. Raking hands through his hair in frustration he bites back a grim, bitter oath and turns to follow the mage, trying not to think that he's going to regret this, and dearly, and soon.