A/N: Bladesworn asked for Cullen/Amell fluff, so this is for her.
They are three days into the Wilds when they come across darkspawn—five hurlocks, led by an alpha, and their presence is so unexpected that Cullen does not see them until it's nearly too late. In one moment, only leaves and ferns and forest around them; in the next, monsters are swarming forth from the shadows like a dark tide rising. "Down!" Cullen shouts, drawing his sword.
The fool mageling isn't listening. She's already arching up against the sky, her eyes going wide and blank as the Veil slips and tears just a little bit and elemental powers come slipping through from the Fade, and she would've taken an arrow straight to the throat if Cullen hadn't managed to throw his shield up before her in time.
He's too old for this. "Down," he growls at her again—but it's useless, she's barely even here.
"O Maker, thy voice is the thunder in the whirlwind," she's murmuring, power spreading out about her in a rippling circle that sends the hurlocks reeling. "Thy will is the lightning across heaven, thine anger the ceaseless storm—"
—and in thy mercy spare me from the tempest, Cullen finishes, silently, and cuts down the nearest hurlock with his blade. The wind is picking up, furious, raging. The darkspawn are staggering forward again.
The alpha comes for her. Cullen swallows an oath and steps in the way; she's still casting, magic flaring up around her like a shroud as darkspawn blades come for her and he does his very best to keep them from cutting her down. Fool mageling—the next time anything like this happens, Cullen swears to himself, ducking under the alpha's sword-sweep, he's dragging the mage behind the nearest tree and keeping her there until all the darkspawn are dead.
Shards of ice and lightning flashing through the air—
And, in a flash, the battle is over.
Cullen blinks away the afterimages of the spell. Around them, the darkspawn corpses are already starting to decay, black corruption oozing out from their bodies where ice and lightning have ruptured their skin; behind him, the mage is looking satisfied with herself. Cullen slams his sword back into his sheath and stalks over to her.
"Don't ever do that again," he snaps.
She blinks at him, surprised. "Do what?" she asks, wiping off the end of her staff on a nearby clump of grass. "Cast spells? Kill darkspawn?"
"Stand out in the open like an idiot," Cullen says shortly. There's a dent in his shield where the arrow had hit it. "When I tell you to get down, get down."
"Then I wouldn't have been able to see anything," the mageling points out. "I didn't come along so I could hide behind you."
Cullen scowls at her. She has a point, unfortunately, reluctant though he may be to admit it; he is the Templar, here to protect her as she casts her spells. "Let's go," he says instead. "We shouldn't linger here."
But she persists. "You shouted at me with the bandits, too," she says, trailing after him as he pushes ahead. "And the wolves, and that giant—spider—thing. If you won't let me cast, then what am I even out here for?"
Making trouble, clearly, and he cannot keep the bitterness from his thoughts. "It's almost dark. We'll set up camp once we're far enough away from the darkspawn."
"Come on," he snaps at her.
He pretends not to see the hurt, disappointed flicker in her eyes as she falls silent.
Their camp is a small, rough thing, built within a circle of trees and fallen stones, and the mageling lights the fire with a spell when Cullen discovers that the wood is too damp for flint and tinder. "It's only fire," she says, peering up at him from across the flickering flames. "There's really no need to brood over it so."
Which is when Cullen realizes that he has his hand on his sword-hilt. "I'm a Templar," he says shortly. "Vigilance is our creed."
She rocks back on her heels. "I know," she says. "You're always—watching."
He has failed his duty once; he will not fail it again. "Get to bed," he tells her. "We have a long way to go, still."
But: "I'm not tired," she says. "I was thinking I could look around a little—"
She blinks. "But—"
"No," Cullen says again. "It's too dangerous. Get to bed, mageling."
And now she is rising to her feet, her eyes gleaming golden in the firelight. "Mageling," she echoes. "We've traveled together for so long, and you still call me that. Do you even remember my name?"
They've been traveling together for—for—Cullen cannot remember. But it can't have been that long; she's eighteen years old and fresh from her Harrowing (he remembers standing guard over her in the cold, cold chamber, his sword at the ready, tense and a little frightened and sick to his stomach with worry, and—)
(No. That can't be right. It has been such a long, long time since he cared whether a mage lived through her Harrowing or not.)
"Of course I know your name," he snaps at her. "It's Amell."
For some reason she is smiling, very faintly, the corners of her mouth curling up a little as she watches him. "Thank you," she says.
The next day they go deeper into the woods, past the last signs of civilization and into the parts where only the Chasind dwell; the mageling Amell (a compromise, Cullen thinks, to call her both) sweeps her hair out of her eyes and bends down to study a plant.
"Deathroot," she pronounces, prodding it gingerly with the end of her staff. "But unusual. I know some of the Senior Enchanters would love to take a look at this."
"There isn't time," Cullen says. In the distance, the Blight wolves are howling. "We have to go."
She sighs and—for once—doesn't protest. They set out again. Cullen checks that his sword is loose in its sheath; Blight wolves are dangerous things, and years ago when the Templars had returned from Ostagar he had heard tales of men going mad with the corruption after being bitten—
But then, everything to do with the Blight is dangerous.
(Had been dangerous.)
(Because the Blight has been over for so many years, now; Amell is young, too young to have even been born when the Archdemon was last defeated, and Cullen must be careful that she takes the wolves as seriously as he does.)
The sunlight comes through the forest canopy above them, gold-tinted greenery, and beside him Amell (the mageling) is humming an old, old tune he half remembers.
On the seventh day, they find the tower.
Or rather, she finds the tower; "This way," Amell says suddenly (in the middle of the afternoon) and then she's dashing off into the woods as Cullen chases her as quickly as he can. Then he's crashing into her back, because she's stopped as suddenly as she started, and before them both are the ruins of what used to be a Circle Tower.
It's old and unkempt and overgrown—the base is covered with vines, the tower top is missing large chunks of masonry—and Cullen thinks that this is what a Tower should look like, empty and ruined, its mages dead or become abominations—
"It's beautiful," says the mage standing beside him, who is not dead and not (yet) an abomination. "I wonder who used to live here?"
"Mages," Cullen answers. "It's a Circle Tower, isn't it?"
"Don't you ever smile?" she asks him—which has nothing to do with anything, really, and Cullen stares at her for a moment before she shrugs and turns away again. "Never mind. Let's go see if anything's inside."
"Abominations, no doubt," Cullen says darkly.
She's laughing a little, as though he has just told her a very funny joke. "Come on, then," Amell says, stepping lightly over a pile of fallen rubble. "You can go and scowl at someone else besides me for a while—it should make a nice change, shouldn't it?"
She's eighteen years old, young and golden-eyed and lovely as the dawn, and there was a time once when Cullen would have followed her anywhere just for the grace of her smile.
(She's ten times as dangerous as any abomination, he remembers now.)
The tower is unexpectedly empty. Cullen is still uneasy as they set up camp in what used to be the main hall—there are fallen bookshelves they use for firewood, the books in them long since fallen to dust—but nothing happens whatsoever. (Except that Amell insists on going upstairs to see if she can salvage any of the alchemy equipment, and Cullen winds up shouting at her when she is nearly flattened by a collapsing dresser. But.) There are still no abominations; there are no darkspawn, or Blight wolves, or giant spiders; there isn't the single hint of trouble.
Until, of course, night comes.
He should have known that sleeping in a haunted tower was a bad idea. Out in the Wilds the ground is always damp and there are things in the woods—but here, there are ghosts, and strange shadows, and demons waiting just a little way beyond the Veil, and so Cullen isn't entirely surprised when Amell wakes him up in the middle of the night with the violence of her nightmares.
And because Cullen is the only real thing around for miles and miles, it's up to him to crawl out of his sleeping roll and shake her awake and say, wearily: "Wake up, Amell, it's just a dream."
He should have remembered that for mages, it's never just a dream.
The Veil tears as she jolts up, gasping and startled, and there's ice everywhere and the fire goes out and all of a sudden there are things in the room. Cullen leaps for his sword, coming up against something that reeks of blood and magic—no, he's wrong, there aren't things in the room—there's just one thing, and it's not quite human, and Amell is begging for it to stop—
Abomination, Cullen thinks, and strikes out sharp and fast as the thing comes for him.
There's the taint of dark sorcery everywhere. The creature rears up, seething and furious, and shouts something with what used to be a face; Amell flings out her hands before her and flame lights up the room for a brief moment before everything goes dark again. (Cullen has the absurd thought that he really shouldn't be here—this is someone else's nightmare.)
But the creature shreds just as anything else does at the tip of his sword. The Veil tears again as it goes slipping away back into the Fade, and the fire comes flickering back a little apologetically; behind him, Amell's breath is coming sharp and ragged and painful-sounding. He kneels down next to her. His sword is clean, Cullen notes absently as he sets it down; this abomination was less flesh than most.
"It's gone," he tells her, and Amell must have confused him with someone else because all of a sudden she's throwing her arms around him and burying her face against his chest.
And she's sobbing.
(He tries to remember the name of her friend—the one she was close with, the one he always saw her with when she wandered about the Tower—but it has been decades since Cullen had seen him, and the memories are faint. What had been his name? He'd turned into a blood mage at the end, destroyed his phylactery and gone running off to Denereim—
But no, she isn't confused. "Cullen," she's murmuring, her breath warm against his ear, and he's cradling her against him and Maker, he's too old for this, playing the knight in shining armor for some young slip of a girl with night terrors. "I'm sorry," she says, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry—"
"For what?" Her hair is tangling beneath his fingers. "That wasn't your fault." (Because he cannot quite bring himself to be cruel to her, even now.)
Her cheeks are wet. "I saved the world, you know," she says, mournful. "I stopped a Blight, I killed an archdemon and everything—but someone always ends up dead. I couldn't stop Jowan."
So it had been him. Ghosts and demons, always waiting just beyond the Veil; at least, Cullen thinks bitterly, he knows what that feels like. "It's all right. Stop crying."
"It isn't and I can't," Amell says, and her mouth is trembling. "I'm sorry—I'm sorry you had to see that. I don't even know why you're here."
"I'm your Templar," he reminds her.
"Always," Cullen says, and it's truer than she could ever know, this young mageling of his.
"Oh." And her voice has gone all soft, and her fingers are hard against his shoulders, and all of a sudden she's kissing him.
(She's beautiful and he loves her and he's wanted her since—always. Once upon a time a demon came to him and offered him a kiss like this for just the price of his soul. Cullen remembers.)
He pushes her back, ungently. "Don't," he tells her, less sharply than he'd intended.
"Why not?" she wants to know.
(The demon had asked that, too.) "You don't know what you're doing."
"I love you," Amell says, curling her hands against his neck.
The Veil wavers about them, thin and frail here in the ruins of a Circle Tower—but no, it is whole enough, and she is not a demon. Cullen lets out a breath, closes his eyes, opens them again. "I'm too old for you," he says at last.
It's a paltry excuse, especially when there are so many other things he could have said, but this was one that she had not been expecting. "You're—too old," Amell sputters. "What—Cullen, how old am I?"
She doesn't remember her own age? (Clearly she can't be a demon; Cullen has never met one half so absentminded.) "Eighteen," he snaps. "I would have thought you'd know that—"
But she's laughing; she's laughing and crying at the same time, and clinging to him as though he's a piece of driftwood in a storm, and: "Oh, Maker," she's saying, "that's the sweetest thing you—anyone—has ever told me. Was that the only thing stopping you?"
He sighs. "And I'm a Templar, and you're a mage. You shouldn't—we shouldn't—"
"Yes," she agrees, curling against him anyway; she's warm and sweet and fits in his arms perfectly, and in between one heartbeat and the next she could become a monster and he would have to cut her throat. "And it's probably too late, anyway, isn't it? But I wanted you to know."
"Too late?" he asks, puzzled.
"Oh, Cullen," Amell says, and her voice has gone all soft again. "Sometimes I think what's done to you Templars is almost as bad as what they do to mages. I'm sorry."
He wants to ask her what in the Maker's name she's talking about (because no one's done anything to him) but she's kissing him again with her fingers on his cheek and it feels too much like goodbye. "Wait," he says, tightening his hold on her as she starts to pull away. "What are you doing? Where are you going, it's late—"
But she's slipping free, rising to her feet and shaking back her hair even as he scrambles to catch hold of her hand. "I have to go," Amell tells him.
"Orzammar," she says, matter-of-factly. "I'm sorry about the—the darkspawn, and the Blight wolves, and the—well, Jowan. But I have to go."
But they haven't packed yet, and the campfire is still flickering away merrily, and—and Cullen doesn't even have his sword, and his armor is lying in a neat pile over by the corner. It's a long way to Orzammar and she can't possibly be thinking of going by herself— "Alone?" he demands.
"Yes," she says. "It's all right."
And they're not done, Cullen still has to shout at her for even conceiving of such an idiotic notion, but Amell is not listening. She's already walking away; out of the grand (ruined) double doors, out of the Tower, out of the reach of his sword.
(Templar. He is meant to guard mages, and guard against them; the first part of his duty is no less important than the second.)
He's too old to be chasing wayward mages halfway across Fereldon.
But he certainly can't let her go alone. The Knight-Commander will understand.
In the morning Cullen goes to find the Knight-Commander, who doesn't look very surprised to hear his request. "I suppose it's about time," Greagoir says, looking uncharacteristically sympathetic. "If it is really your wish to go to Orzammar—"
"It is," Cullen says, bowing.
"—then there's a dwarven caravan that leaves this afternoon." The commander rakes his fingers through his dark hair and sighs. "It was an honor to have served the Maker at your side, Cullen."
"It's Antonias—well, never mind," the Knight-Commander says, wry. "I'll inform the First Enchanter; you should be in Orzammar within the week. May the light of the Maker be with you in all the dark places, Ser Cullen."
It is an apt prayer. Cullen bows once more and withdraws.
He finds Amell again. She's not—infuriatingly enough—in the vast underground city of the dwarves; rather, she's somewhere beneath it, in some makeshift camp near a crumbling bridge, and she seems a little surprised to see him.
More than a little surprised, really; she drops the scroll she's reading, blinks up at him, reaches out to touch his arm as though to make sure he's really there. "Cullen?" she says, incredulous. "What are you doing here?"
"You left without me," he says, scowling at her. "Why didn't you wait? I'm too old to be chasing you back and forth across Fereldon—no matter how it might amuse you."
"But what are you doing here?"
"I'm your Templar," he reminds her. (Again. She has the worst memory of any mage Cullen has ever met; aren't they supposed to be good at memorizing pages and pages worth of esoteric spells?) "Don't go off without me again."
"I—" And she's flinging her arms around him, heedless of all propriety. (And he sighs and lets her, because there are more important things, and she is not a demon and he loves her.) "I won't," she's saying. "Not if you want to come. I won't go off without you again, I promise—"
"Where are we going?" Cullen asks.
"Down," Amell answers. Which is not, in truth, much of an answer. She catches the expression on his face and adds: "I don't think it'll be a very long trip. Are you—are you absolutely certain that you want to come?"
"Yes." Of course.
Cullen had been young and foolish once; he had thought her beautiful when she first walked into the tower, and he had ached with worry when he stood over her in her Harrowing, and he had drawn a demon to him with the strength of his wanting—but even now, when he is so much older (and less foolish, he hopes) he still thinks that she's the loveliest thing that he's ever known. "We should go," he adds. "It isn't safe here—there are darkspawn about, I think."
"Darkspawn," Amell says, wry. "There are a few around here, yes."
"Stay behind me," he orders. (And he shouldn't have to remind her, but she had forgotten to do that so often when they were in the Wilds.)
"So that you can protect me?" she asks.
She sounds a little sardonic but it's a serious question all the same. Amell is watching him, a little hesitant perhaps, and Cullen remembers the way she had kissed him and said I love you. (A demon had told him the same thing once and he had thought it a liar—but he should have recalled that demons never lied when the truth might hurt just that much more.)
It doesn't hurt now. Not very much, anyway. "Always," he tells her.
Amell is smiling, faintly. "Am I still eighteen?" she asks him, young and sweet and lovely, her eyes gleaming golden like the flicker of sunlight. (She's a girl still, with a girl's vanity.) Cullen touches her cheek.
"Always," he says again, low, a solemn promise against eternity. And: "Shall we be off, mageling?"
She raises her staff. A trail of flame goes blazing off into the darkness (the Deep Roads, Cullen remembers finally; that's what these paths are called) and she turns back to him to tuck her hand into his.
"Yes," Amell says. "Let's go."
A/N: I'm...not sure if this requires an explanation? I thought it was pretty clear (but then again, I am the one writing this), but basically it's built around the premise that Cullen is a Templar, and Templars are addicted to lyrium, and toward the end they start losing it. You meet one in the game and he's not entirely there in the head, if you know what I mean. But he remembers all the important things, even if he doesn't have that strong a grasp on reality anymore. So. Yes. Dear Bladesworn: I hope this is something a little bit maybe like what you wanted.