lyrium; blood; screaming. everything is sour and tattered and they'll never want him again. she'll never want him in sulfur. in burnt orange. in red. in expanses of grays and whites and amber tracing cracks under pale skin.

she should reside besides andraste and he would quicken her return.

At ten, he knew he would never marry.

At ten, she knew that she would die early by someone's hand and at fifteen, he realized it would probably be his.

At twenty-five, he broke as she watched.

At twenty-five, she walked up to him in the Gallows of Kirkwall and he broke again, the air thrust out of him in a panicked force.

Cullen tastes bile when he thinks of her, bitter and warm in his throat.

He debates telling her this before he can even greet her. But then she lowers the hood of her evergreen cape and he finds himself tracing the line of wolf's fur against the white of her collarbone. She is his blasphemy, a lyrium-carved idol to lust, a panacea to the subtle ache between his eyes each day.

A demon. A goddess. Something that makes his knees ache with the urge to run.

"Solona," he whispers her name and it still feels like a trap to wake up from, deep in the Circle's walls.

her vision in a constant hum. isthiswhatyouwant. ashes on her cheeks and in his throat and she is the face of andraste he pledges to. . ferelden and femininity and memory thick; reflecting sanguine on his hand and taunts against his chest.

everything burns and nothing burns. everything is right and nothing will ever be right again.

They've turned a corner into an alley before he'll dare to speak out loud. "Meredith could have me jailed for this," he breaks the silence, glaring at her, "You put me and your relatives in great danger, this could appear as treason."

She looks at him pleading, "Cullen, please, just a few moments of your time."

"Where is your companion? Did you both already part ways?" Cullen asks, his tone reflected in the subtle cringe in her face like she had just been hit.

He wants it to feel like a success, that he can still cause her pain. Cullen wants to feel accomplished to have achieved making her feel a fraction of the pain that he felt when Hawke first walked up to him and he had to see her face again. A ghost of a promise of a different life, a better life, still haunted him and he wanted this to kill it.

Every day blurs into another, duty folded upon duty, and the mages here can't look him in the face. He wants to tell her that it is a hell that she brought to him but he can't lie to her as easily as he can to himself.

It is no success as her face falls, it is just another time for him to see his own failure reflected back.

"Alistair is in Orlais on Grey Warden business," she explains, avoiding his eyes, "We are stretched thin and we decided that I would remain in Ferelden for the time being."

"Then why are you here?" he asks, matching his earlier tone, "Family reunion for apostates?"

"Cullen, I've missed you," she finally takes the opportunity to stare at him directly as his name seems to echo around him.

He looks at her angry and confused, "Is this a social call because I don't recall us being friends or even acquaintances anymore?"

He leaves off a final 'if we ever were'.

"Anora asked me if I would come since Meredith won't speak to her and Hawke would need more political support before being a serious candidate for Viscountess," she explains, "Nobody told me that you would be here."

He believes her since Solona had never had a skill for lying. He had learned that quickly, finding her out of bed after curfew curled within the library stacks with stories of sleepwalking or the loud noise that needed investigation.

"Anora thinks a Gray Warden could help and I am trying to decide if I should involve myself," she continues to explain, "But Meredith appears to be a few nugs short of a dozen and Hawke is wonderful, but sometimes I think she would burn the Free Marches if Anders asked."

On his most noble days, he tells himself he would've burned the Circle before he would've dispatched her. On his most honest days, he knows he would sooner die than disobey.

"What would you do?" he asks.

"If what?" she quirked her head, moving to lean on the wall beside him.

"If he asked, if the mages fought back," he asks, panic spidering through his limbs as she rests her head and closes her eyes for a moment.

Cullen lets her have her moment of silence, even if he can't remember how stillness felt to savor.

Sometimes he wonders if he ever really did.

the chant is a song from her voice, free from trembling hand or collapsing darkness against him. laughter and he remembers a time when they were young. fresh. free of taint and fear and they meet at a picnic but they aren't themselves. they are other people and he loves her unafraid.

tightness in the chest but not bad. she smiles and it is real. he knows it is real.

She leads them on a quiet serpentine path through Kirkwall before winding up at a small dock to dangle her feet near the water. He stands for awhile, pacing behind her, before finally stopping to sit beside her, removing his gauntlets and setting his sword beside him.

She grabs his hand, lacing her fingers around his, "I didn't answer you."

"You don't have to, I was just being cruel," he confesses, flinching to wait for her response.

She chuckles, resting her head on his shoulder, "What ever they do to you templars to make you so honest they should do to everyone. It is refreshing."

"Guilt and fear are surprisingly successful educational methods," he answers with a smile as both set in for him with her small frame tucked beside him.

The copper red of her hair reflected the sunlight that shone against the silver of his armor. He closed his eyes to imagine unwinding the plaits of her tight braids against the bare expanse of her shoulders..

She rested heavily against him, letting each muscle untense. "I would strive towards a middle path," she moved an arm around his back, "where children enter the circle at 14 and not before. Where their families would stay in their life and they would be allowed to love and have friends. They could have the things that would prevent them from being corrupted."

He felt an argument rising in his throat, before she continues, "I do think the Circle is important and I do think that I have a power that could have been corrupted without guidance. But mages need to decide to make the choice not be corrupted rather than just be scared of what happens if they make mistake."

"Y-you were always so smart," he stuttered, remembering being eighteen and waiting to see her turn the corner.

"You are kind," she ducked her head bashfully.

"And modesty does suit you with how pink your cheeks get," Cullen laughs, as she buried her face in her hands in embarrassment matching his laughter.

She takes another pause to stare out as ships approach the shore. Cullen takes the moment to picture the two of them leaving together, her arm tucked in his as Kirkwall grew small in his sight.

"Do you remember when I told you that I missed the outside and you brought me that bouquet of flowers and hops?" she asks quietly, and he nods, resting his chin on the top of her head.

The other templars had mocked him for weeks. He would arrive at the end of his duty to find flowers laced around his bunk, or his sword missing to be replaced with a shovel. One man had tried to mock the mage before Cullen had responded with a dagger to his throat and a threat, "No one speaks of her that way. Understood?"

They announced the next day that Cullen would be the templar to take the final blow if she had not succeeded.

emptyisbetteremptyisbetter. he forgets absence and remembers loss. she laughs at him from behind a purple wall and everything hurts. empty is better. right. full. they meet at a funeral and she cries against him. he writes her an epitaph and she goes mad alone against a stone road.

but he walks in her glory and every word to her is a pledge.

"Do you have to leave?" he asks quietly, her hand light and soft in his own.

She looks off into the distance, the pink of the sky reflected in her eyes, "Do you have to stay?"

"The Circle would do well with a teacher with your skills and you would broker peace," he responds, knowing the answer.

"The Grey Wardens would benefit from a skilled fighter and someone with your leadership skills." she answers back with more hope in her voice.

"Will you be safe?" he asks.

She squeezes his hand tighter, "Will you be strong if I'm not?"

"After this is all done and Kirkwall is safe, I'm coming for you," he ignores the question, "Mage, templar, it doesn't matter to me. When it is done, I am yours and only yours."

She looks at him, eyes thick with tears, "Cullen, it will never be done."

He kisses her cheek and she shudders slightly against him.

His lips still taste of salt as he watches her walk through the city gates.

That taste remains when he receives the letter from Alistair months later.

"She is missing. You are the only person in the world who cares as much as me that she is found."

Cullen leaves the same morning.

It is what she would do.