Cullen regretted his casual words the moment he uttered them. Because when Kate took a step toward him, Cullen felt his chest tighten. Something tangled in his rib cage and squeezed his lungs. He felt his breathing go shallow, but his heart rate sped up. And Cullen cursed his own foolish reaction.
Maker’s breath, what was wrong with him? It wasn’t like lyrium protocols allowed for a great deal of intimacy. But then, even thinking the word ‘intimacy’ set Cullen blushing.
“It’s just rudimentary first aid,” he muttered to himself, the better to remind himself why he’d agreed to this.
“Er, sort of,” Kate said, evidently thinking that utterance was meant for her ears. “A simple laying on of hands.” As if ‘laying on of hands’ weren’t a phrase to heat Cullen further.
“No need to disrobe,” she told him. “Or disarmor, I guess.” It might have been Cullen’s imagination, but Kate seemed to be blushing as well.
“Of course not,” Cullen agreed. “But usually you’d just check my lyrium level and top me off. But as I don’t take lyrium, you won’t be topping me…”
He stopped there, realizing there was another way to take that phrase. Cullen was certain his face was now the color of his crimson mantle.
“You’ve done this before?” he asked, his tone precise.
“Um, sort of?” Kate said. “I’m not quite as talented as Coll. She volunteered in the infirmary all the time. And a master healer could examine you by blinking. But it might take me a while to get a good read on you. Though if you allow me to touch your skin, that might help speed things along.”
Cullen felt his shoulders tense. “Touch my skin?”
“Just your hand. Is that a problem?”
Cullen could not answer. He felt an oily sensation run down his back. It was probably just sweat. But for a second, it felt like the tip of a claw. Cullen knew what came next. He gritted his teeth and tried not to give in to memory. Sweet Andraste, you’d think that he’d have gotten past this by now.
“Or we could go get Coll,” Kate offered, hesitantly.
As if that would make things easier. Cullen didn’t want anyone else involved in this debacle. The world around him went strangely distant then, and a voice seemed to slither into his ear:
Come on then, templar. Just one touch. You’ve gone so long without, haven’t you? Just a touch. Just a taste…
“Good Maker, Cullen! You’ve gone white as a sheet. Alright then. Never mind this. Let’s go down to the infirmary.” Kate’s voice seemed to echo across a chasm. But much closer was the voice of nightmares:
Just a taste, templar. Just a taste…
“No,” Cullen said, sharply.
The whispers of memory went silent, but so also did Kate. Cullen blinked his eyes and found himself standing on the ramparts. Sunshine glowed mockingly around him, and the wind whistled over the stones. Kate stared up at him in utter confusion.
Cullen opened his mouth to explain himself, but no sound came out. What could he say anyway? “Oh that? That’s just a little residual trauma. Curiously enough, Inquisitor, if you combine a naturally shy young man with a tower full of desire demons and blood mages, he’s bound to come out the other end of that ordeal with all sorts of nightmares and phobias. That’s assuming he survives at all. Yes, I know. Not something one ever forgets, but I manage to repress my way through the years.” He could hardly tell Kate that.
Besides, Cullen thought, it wasn’t that he disliked touch. Quite the opposite, really. He liked touch a little too well. It was lack of control that he did not like. And therein lay the problem. Demons of desire and pride did not take. Their prey was sweeter when willing. None of the spirits in Kinloch Hold had bested Cullen or rode his body, but he feared that they’d broken something in him all the same. Cullen could never endure touch without a twinge of fear - without the worry that if he wanted the contact too much, he’d been lost.
One-sided desire, Cullen thought. That was the root of all damnation. If you allowed yourself to want something, then it owned you. Better to accept whatever the Maker granted. The trick was not to want anything at all.
But again, he could not say this. So he said the only thing that he could:
Cullen yanked off his glove, though it took him two tries to do so. He shoved his hand right under Kate’s nose. She jerked back to avoid being smacked by his fingers. “Let’s do this and be done with it.” He knew he was being rude, but right now Cullen couldn’t care.
“Cullen,” Kate said softly, “Look at me.”
He did not, and maybe that was why Kate took his hand in her own. Cullen flinched at the contact, but he did not pull away. To his surprise, Kate’s hands were freezing cold and dry as paper. They felt nothing like the hot, oily claws of his nightmares. Without thinking, Cullen’s fingers curled. Kate squeezed his hand right back.
“We don’t need to do this,” she said. She held his hand as if she was praying around his palm.
“No,” Cullen said. “I…”
He could manage nothing more. Instead, he looked down at their fingers, studying the differences. Kate’s hands were freckled and slim, covered in new callouses. By contrast, Cullen’s hands were tanned and rough and crisscrossed with many scars.
“Did they teach you that mages are unclean?” he heard Kate ask. “Because you know that’s just ignorant superstition. Mages can’t poison you with a touch.”
Cullen looked up at her in surprise. “What?”
“Fade-magics don’t crawl along our skin,” Kate told him. “We don’t have lyrium for blood, or any such nonsense. Surely you know that.”
“People think that?”
“People think a lot of stupid things.”
“Of course I don’t think that,” Cullen snorted. “I was a templar, not a moron. And it’s nothing to do with magic. It’s merely that I don’t…” Cullen again tried to find the words to explain himself, and again came up with nothing.
“Does physical contact cause you pain?” Kate asked him. “Because of the withdrawals, I mean?”
“I… Sort of?”
But not in the way she thought, Cullen added silently. He could still remember the last - the only - time that Kate had touched his bare skin. After the battle of Haven, she had held his hand for just a moment. Cullen had felt the heat of her for days after.
“I’m fine,” Cullen insisted, willing it to be so. “And I ought to be checked, oughtn’t I?” he added, when Kate still looked doubtful. “If the lyrium changed things or broke things…” - Maker forbid - “I ought to know.”
“I don’t need to touch you,” Kate said, though she still cradled his hand as if it were an injured bird. “I really don’t.”
“But it would help.”
“It helps me focus, yes,” Kate admitted.
“Then please.” Cullen attempted to smile as he flexed his fingers within her grasp. But Kate continued to look up at him with concern. Cullen stood there, unsure if he should pull his hand away or just hold his ground.
“Lyrium gives me odd aches and pains,” he went on. “I’ve gotten jumpy about what might set me off.” It wasn’t quite a lie, but the truth was far more than he could articulate right now.
“Please excuse me,” he finished. “My worry wasn’t entirely rational.”
“Worry rarely is,” Kate returned. Her slight smile had Cullen relaxing and tensing all at once. On the one hand, he was relieved that she accepted his explanation. On the other hand, her kindness was as tempting as touch.
Oh, come now, Cullen thought irritably. He was being ridiculous. Kindness was not a form of temptation. Besides, this was Kate, not a breast-tassel-wearing demon. She’d offered him a a medical examination, not a seduction.
“So,” Cullen said, crisply. “Lyrium protocols.”
“Lyrium protocols,” Kate agreed. She sounded a bit flustered, but perhaps that was Cullen’s imagination. With that, Kate turned Cullen’s hand up. Her right hand hovered over his palm, glowing with a faint golden light.
“I’ll try and make this as quick and painless as possible,” Kate told him. “I just want to get a better understanding of what’s going on inside of you, see if the vibration coming from your augmented neural clusters has reversed polarity or if it’s even singing at all. Create a baseline for further observation, if I may.”
“I… Augmented what?”
Alright then. She’d completely lost him. Cullen thought he knew lyrium protocols, but this sounded nothing like his past examinations. And what was this about further observation? Surely Kate wasn’t planning on making a habit of this.
“The vibration of the lyrium… Oh, right. That’s sort of, um, obscure.” Kate’s brows furrowed. “Never mind. I’ll just check you. Without the commentary.”
“I think I’d prefer the commentary,” Cullen said, all seriousness. “If there’s something seriously wrong with me…”
“No, no!” Kate said, looking up at him. “At least, I don’t think so. Not beyond the usual problem of drinking a dangerous foreign substance like lyrium and completely altering your internal predisposition to Fade-song. And, of course, the danger of stopping drinking lyrium and whatever falls out from that. But otherwise… Hm,” she caught herself and frowned. “Yes, I can see how the commentary might be helpful after all.”
“It might be,” Cullen agreed, trying to keep his tone even. “Perhaps if you explain what you’re on about, it would put my mind at ease.”
Of course, Cullen wasn’t certain if anything could put his mind at ease, not with Kate re-adjusting his hand her in her grip. But Kate nodded all the same.
“Alright,” she said. “What I’m trying to check for is…”
But as she spoke, Kate stroked her finger along the inside of Cullen’s wrist. Quite suddenly, Cullen heard a dull roaring in his ears. He felt an inferno sweep through his nerves, as if his body had caught fire and begun to sing all at once. It wasn’t until he managed to take a few breaths that he even realized Kate was looking up at him in alarm.
“Too much?” she asked.
“I… Yeah… Yes.” Cullen swallowed, then looked down at his hands.
“Sorry,” Kate said, “I’ll try again. How’s that?”
The burning had faded to a mere prickle. Cullen almost imagined he could hear a tune in it, but that must have just been the wind. He couldn’t tell if he’d just been swept full of Kate’s magic, or if that had been reaction to her touch. It might have been both, Andraste save him.
“Better,” Cullen said, though that was only partially true. He shifted his feet, trying to plant them more firmly on the stones. Kate looked up at him nervously, then turned her attention back to their hands. The buzzing in his hand became stronger, vibrating up Cullen’s arm. His shoulder ached in response, and Cullen let out a small noise of pain.
“Sorry,” Kate said again, frowning. “Ugh, it’s the iron in your armor. It’s causing an odd echo. There’s a reason mages wear robes in the classroom. You can compensate once you’ve learned the frequency, but otherwise the polarity can backfire if metal is involved.”
“Polarity?” Cullen repeated. That was the second time Kate had used that word. And as much out of curiosity as from a desire to distract himself, he asked: “Is that something to do with my lyrium problem?”
“Maybe?” Kate wrinkled her nose, which only confused him further. For she fell silent and said nothing more.
“I thought you were going to explain what you were doing,” Cullen prompted.
“I’m trying to decide how much to explain,” Kate returned. “Coll and I had to keep all this secret before. Feels odd to even mention it to someone else.”
Cullen frowned. “Keep what secret?” he asked.
“Our research,” Kate said, still inspecting his hand. “I mean, it wasn’t exactly forbidden.”
“Wasn’t exactly forbidden?”
“Alright. It wasn’t exactly sanctioned, either. It just…” Kate trailed off, as if trying to make up her mind about something. For a moment, Cullen found himself holding his breath. He wasn’t sure why. After all, it shouldn’t have mattered to him if Kate trusted him with her research or not. And yet, for some reason, it did.
“Alright,” Kate said, startling him. “I’ll try and keep it simple, but this… It’s just… This is my theory, you understand?”
Cullen didn’t understand. For Kate had said ‘my theory’ in the way a mother might say ‘my baby.’ But he tried to nod encouragingly. Kate looked around, as if someone might be standing nearby. Even though they were alone on the ramparts, she leaned forward and lowered her voice.
“Coll and I theorize,” Kate said, and Cullen had to lean forward to hear her, “that the Veil is really a kind of vibration.”
“Um…” He tried to think of something suitable to say, and could not. He opted for honesty instead. “There are other mages who think the same,” he told her.
“Yes,” Kate agreed eagerly. “But we’ve made some additional developments that… Have you ever read Leonardo of Vincinium?”
Kate asked this last question more loudly. Cullen drew back, startled by the sudden change of topic.
“The Tevinter inventor?”
“That’s the one! There was a book of his in the Trevelyan house library. My old tutor was quite taken with his writings on dragons - the wing construction and so on. But Leonardo also had theories on why dragon roars might be heard from miles away. He theorizes - Leonardo, that is, not Master Frederic - He theorizes that sound travels in waves.”
As Kate said this, her eyes lit up. For some reason, Cullen felt an answering thrill inside of him. It might have been that Kate’s excitement was catching. Or it might have been that she absently traced her finger along his wrist again.
“Waves?” he said, trying to focus on her words.
“Like on the ocean,” Kate said. “I quite forgot about those writings, until years and years later. When Coll arrived at the Ostwick tower, she smuggled in this old Dalish, er… theory. The ancient elves also thought of sound as a kind of wave. More than that, they suggested that the Veil itself was made of waves.”
“The Veil is a kind of ocean?”
“Not quite. The elves referred to the Veil as ‘sulahn-manen’. Please excuse my elven, Coll mocks my pronunciation endlessly. ‘Singing-sea’ is the closest translation we could puzzle out. Might be ‘singing waters’ or ‘singing waves’? Ugh, we must have gone over that passage a hundred times. Of course, in another passage, it reads ‘soulen-manen’ - ‘lightning-waves’. Not certain what lightning has to do with with sea outside of storms. It might be allegorical. The point is, we worked out from the text that the Veil pushes the Fade away somehow. Repels it, in fact. Sort of like how a lodestone pushes away another lodestone.”
“Lodestone?” Cullen frowned. “So the Veil is like a magnet in a compass?”
“No, no. The Veil is like the um…” Kate held her hands out, acting as if she was trying to press her palms together, but could not do so. “The Veil is the pushy-away thing. The sulahn-manen. Maker, we need to work on better vocabulary for this model, don’t we? Think of it this way: the Veil is like the force between two lodestones set wrong-end together. It’s the thing that keeps them apart. Only instead of pushing iron from iron, the Veil pushes the Fade away. With song.”
“The Veil pushes the Fade away with song,” Cullen repeated.
“Sound waves, more accurately. This is all very much theory at this point,” Kate added, resting her hands on Cullen’s once again. She did not inspect him, however, but seemed to just be holding his hand out of habit now. Evidently she’d forgotten all about the examination in light of her theory. Cullen didn’t bother to remind her about the lyrium protocols, however. He found he liked the pressure of her hand on his.
“The practical upshot,” Kate went on, “is that the Veil sings in one direction, and mages sing in the opposite direction. Put it another way, a mage’s Fade-polarity allows her to draw Fade-energy across the Veil.”
“So the Veil isn’t a magnet, but mages are?”
“Er, yes? I suppose that’s one way to look at it. More accurately, lyrium is the magnet and it all depends on which way you point it. Lyrium has a kind of hum - Fade-resonant or Fade-dissonant. And I think - even though I can’t prove it just yet - but I think that the sound waves and the magic are interrelated. And that’s what allows mages to cast magic - lyrium’s hum.”
“But mages can do magic without lyrium,” Cullen pointed out. “After all, they don’t let apprentices have draughts until they’ve been Harrowed.”
“Ah!” Kate said, holding up her finger in an ‘ah-ha!’ sort of gesture. “But can mages do magic without lyrium?” She looked at Cullen expectantly.
“No!” Kate said, triumphantly. “How could they? How could anyone? And this is where my Veil-theory meets Coll’s anatomy studies! Coll theorizes that mages have tiny bits of lyrium all throughout our body - far too small to be seen or even felt by all but the most attuned of healers. ‘Bio-nodes’ she called them - or was it ‘biotic-nodes?’ She needs to work on her vocabulary as well. I preferred ‘crystaline nervous-cluster lyrium deposits,’ but Coll says that’s too wordy. But this is her area of the research, so she won that debate…”
“Hang on,” Cullen interrupted. “Mages have lyrium in their veins? Didn’t you just say a few minutes ago that that’s just ignorant superstition?”
“No, no,” Kate shook her head. “Mages having lyrium for blood - that’s ignorant superstition. Mages having a lyrium-mutated nervous system that’s attuned to the polarity of the Fade and can reach across the Fade-dissonance of the Veil? Absolutely. That’s our working theory, after all. Unfortunately, there are some holes when it comes to explaining…”
“I’m sorry,” Cullen said, holding up his free hand. “I’m not sure I follow. I did take magical theory,” he added, lest Kate think him simple. He refrained from adding that he’d gotten top marks in the class. “You’ve got lyrium in your blood - er, nerves. Whatever. And the Veil as an ocean of song? This isn’t quite how they speak of it in Chantry. “
“No, it’s not,” Kate said, wryly. “The Chantry prefers to speak in the language of judgment and punishment and unhelpful fabric metaphors. But I find such semantics do little to promote proficiency in the magical arts. The Veil is real enough. The Fade is real enough. It stands to reason that they can be studied and understood. If the Maker did create it all, one would expect him to do so in the most elegant manner possible. That’s what good artists do, yes? So it stands to reason he would use the simplest tools in the most varied manner. Thus, we suspect that lyrium is the root of it all - the source of the song.”
“They do say that lyrium is the waters of the Maker’s creation,” Cullen agreed.
“Yes!” Kate said, squeezing Cullen’s hand as her eyes lit up again. “Yes, they do, don’t they? Water… waves. I wonder. Maybe there is some truth to the metaphors after all. Andraste’s tears. Now I’ll have go back and re-read the Canticle of Threnodies…”
“So then lyrium is some sort of humming lodestone?” Cullen tried not to be distracted by the way that Kate was still holding onto him like they’d stopped mid-handshake. “Templars drink a kind of magical magnet?”
“More or less,” Kate said, looking up at him seriously. “That’s how the lyrium shifts your internal neural polarity.”
“It does what to my what?”
“Oh, sorry,” Kate said. “That’s… Now be warned, this gets into Coll’s end of the theory, and she’s always correcting my explanations. But if you get her going on this subject she’s likely to rattle off in elven and completely forget to translate for you. What Coll worked out is that… Well, the simplified version is that Coll spent a lot of time volunteering in the Ostwick infirmary. That’s how she got a reputation as a healer. More accurately speaking however, she’s a anatomist. She always preferred it when she got called in to work on corpses. Oh dear, that sounds grisly. What I mean is that she likes to be able to poke about in people’s nervous system without them complaining. Hmm… That didn’t sound much better.”
“That explains her bedside manner,” Cullen said, dryly.
“Yes, it does, doesn’t it?” Kate laughed. “But for all her nettlesome ways, Coll is very good at what she does. She sensed right off that I had something odd about my nerves. That’s why she wanted to study me in the first place.”
“Your nerves are odd?”
“After I survived…” Kate cringed. “Actually, I was never a strong mage. But I learned to be a subtle one. Coll says that a dancer is just as powerful as a berserker in her own way. Of course, that was before this mark got in the way and fouled up my magic.” Kate glared at her left hand accusingly.
“I thought you were casting rather well,” Cullen offered.
“That’s kind of you to say. The truth is, I’ve been stumbling all over the place. Like an apprentice learning every spell all over again. The truly annoying thing about this mark,” Kate added with a frown, “Is that it completely undermined at least half of my Veil-theory just by existing. It isn’t Fade-harmonious nor Fade-discordant. It’s like nothing we’ve ever seen. Not that we’ve got time for research, what with all the missions going on. And I do beg your pardon. Here I am, getting long-winded and off-topic. I’ve completely forgotten to check you.”
“It’s quite alright,” Cullen said.
“My point in all of this,” Kate said, as she turned her attention back to Cullen’s hand, “is that lyrium is the source of all magic. Thus, we theorize that there must be lyrium present in the body of any magic user. In mages, this must be some sort of natural mutation. Hm,” Kate cocked her head. “Natural mutation. How’s that for an oxymoron? But it’s true. Lyrium gives us mages a kind of additional sense. Like hearing with your body - and singing with your body, too.”
“Singing with your, um, body?”
Cullen tried not to imagine himself singing along with Kate’s body. It didn’t help that she chose that moment to gently brush her fingers across his hand again. Cullen felt an answering melody thrum in his blood. Whether it was magic or desire, he could not tell.
“Not every mages feels magic like that,” Kate went on, though Cullen was only half-listening. “And many of them don’t even bother to learn proper magical theory. But then, an opera singer might have no understanding of sound-waves, yet she could belt out an aria. And by all accounts, Leonardo himself couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket. Theory and application of the theory are worlds apart.”
Cullen wondered if Kate was referring to herself in this metaphor. But before he could ask this, she went on: “Either way. A mage’s lyrium growth is natural in its origin. A templar’s growth, however? That’s completely artificial.”
Cullen drew himself up. “My growth?”
“The growth of lyrium within you,” Kate said, as if he should have been following this. “By taking draughts as you do, templars build up Fade-discordant lyrium in their nerve endings. You’ve turned the lodestone around, so to speak.”
“What, so I’m a magnet now? The south to your north?”
“Er, no. That would mean we were attracted to one another. Magically speaking, that is,” Kate added, flushing.
“Oh,” Cullen flushed too. “Right. Opposites attract.”
“In lodestones, yes. And in magic, too. Coll and I theorize – well, no. Coll’s confirmed it. By taking lyrium in prescribed doses, templars effectively turn themselves into walking Veils.”
“Walking Veils?” Cullen repeated. “That’s how you see me? A walking Veil?”
“That’s not how I see you,” Kate frowned. “That’s just… Look. What I meant to say - through all my twists and turns - is that the Veil - that soulen-sulahn-manen - is a kind of hum or vibration. Lyrium likewise hums. Mages have lyrium in their bodies that hums in such a way to attract energy through the Veil. Templars have lyrium in their bodies that hums so as to reinforce the Veil and keep Fade-energy from getting through. And there you are. Eight years of research in a nutshell. Maker’s breath.”
“That’s…” Cullen paused there. How did one respond to all that? Kate had gone rather still, as waiting to hear what he would say in reply.
“That’s interesting,” he said.
“Is it?” Kate asked, “Or are you just saying that?”
“No, it’s interesting,” Cullen assured her. Mostly heretical, but interesting. “So,” he went on, “This is why you wanted to check me? Because of your research?”
“Oh, no!” Kate said, eyes widening. “No, I’m not trying to use you for some sort of experiment. Good Maker, I wouldn’t want you to think that. No, no,” she shook her head. “I just wanted to check you because, well…”
“You think I still have traces of lyrium inside of me.” Cullen did not like that idea one bit.
“Traces?” Kate looked confused. “There’s no ‘trace’ about it. The lyrium draughts have swollen all your nerve endings. After a decade of use, the bio-nodes must be in a rather advanced stage of mutation. That is, they ought to be, if I could get a proper read on them.”
“I… Swollen… Bio… What?” Cullen could scarcely choke out his astonishment.
Kate made a face. “Maker’s breath. This is why I tend to write things out before I say them. The words sound perfectly logical in my head, but I don’t always realize how they’ll be heard on the other end. I do beg your pardon. I should have said that sustained lyrium intake will eventually coat a templar’s nerves in a kind of lyrium paint, causing a sort of mutation in the nerve clusters that mimics a mage’s… Ah. That’s not an improvement, is it?”
It wasn’t. Cullen felt like the bottom of his stomach had dropped out. He stared down at Kate as she held her glowing palms out over hands.
“No one. Ever told me. Any of this.” Cullen couldn’t quite keep the rage from his voice.
“I know,” Kate said, softly.
“Maker’s breath,” he cursed. Cullen wanted to run his right hand through his hair, but Kate was holding onto it. He tried smoothing back his hair with his left hand instead, but that felt quite awkward.
“So this lyrium,” Cullen demanded. “It’s humming inside of me?”
“Do you hear the hum?” Kate wanted to know. She looked up in interest.
Cullen considered that. “I used to,” he said. “It was more like a song. A battle-march, really. At times it was so familiar I thought it was my own heartbeat. But it’s gone now. Instead, I hear a buzzing, or just an echoing quiet. I don’t like the quiet.”
That was an understatement. The moments of silence reminded Cullen of those awful times he’d spent in solitary confinement. Odd whispers came hissing in his ears then. It was like being haunted by ghosts. Only the voices seemed to come from inside his own head. He preferred the throb of the headaches to that misery.
“But I keep myself busy,” Cullen assured Kate, for she was looking up at him with concern. “The noise of the troops drowns out the quiet.”
Kate didn’t look comforted by that. Her lips thinned, and she said:
“So, are you hearing it now?” There seemed to be a strange emphasis on the question.
“Why?” Cullen asked.
“Well, it’s um…” Kate shook her head. “I may be setting my magic to the wrong vibration. I’ve never met a templar who was off the draught for more than a day or so. In a normal templar - er, in a templar on lyrium, I mean - the lyrium in you would be humming loudly with Veil-song. At worst, we’d find a dull, quiet spot in the system. But if you give a templar the right amount of lyrium, the song starts right up again. With you, I’ve got nothing.”
“Not yet. It might just be a fluke. Or I’m not finding the right pitch. May I check your legs?”
“My legs?” Cullen started, but Kate had already knelt before his boots. He sucked in a breath, trying to process two thoughts at once: one, that he had some sort of dead-lyrium-paint-magnet stuck inside his body. And two: Kate’s face was mere inches from his crotch. Not that she seemed interested in his crotch, Cullen thought. She seemed far more interested in running her glowing palms down the ouside of his legs. That, too, was extremely disconcerting.
“Hmmm…” Kate said, scowling. “I don’t… Oh, there it is. Found it. I’d accounted for the iron, but not the leather. Residual life force and all that. Ought to have had you strip down after all. Wait. What the Void…?”
Cullen hardly registered the word ‘strip.’ At the moment, he felt a tingling in his legs, like the sensation when one’s foot fell asleep. Only in this case, the tingling shot up his leg and into his arm. Cullen gripped the wall beside him to maintain his balance.
“What in Andraste’s name is going on in there?” Kate murmured. The tingling sensation raced through Cullen’s fingers now. “Either someone gave you draughts in the most erratic manner possible, or your neural clusters are entirely falling apart.”
“Or both,” Cullen choked out.
“Good Maker, I guess so,” Kate muttered. She went back to running her hands down his legs.
“So,” Cullen said, the better to distract himself from both Kate’s touch and his own worry, “Do you often check templars in this way?”
The question sounded much stupider once it left his mouth. But Kate shook her head, eyes focused on his knees.
“Never done anything like this,” she replied, absently. “Lyrium protocols tend to be less exploratory. Er.. You know what I mean. But if I’m understanding this right….”
Kate shot back to her feet, so quickly that she almost hit Cullen’s nose with her forehead.
“Here. Hands again,” she said. She yanked Cullen’s hands forward, placing her palms directly over his. He still wore one glove, but Kate didn’t seem to care. Cullen felt power radiating up his arms, and hissed at the burning sensation of it.
“Oh, sorry,” Kate winced. The power faded a little, but Cullen still felt singed.
“Sorry, sorry,” she muttered, as she traced her hand along his palm. “I’m getting careless in my haste. But wasn’t looking deep enough at first. I thought the song would be pitched higher. But it dropped in register.”
“Dropped?” Cullen asked. He wasn’t sure he wanted to know, but he still asked: “Dropped how?”
“From tenor to baritone,” Kate said, frowning. “Magically speaking, I mean. It used to be here,” she wiggled her finger in the air beside her head, as if drawing a wave in the air. “And now it’s here.” She wiggled her finger down by her waist. “Or… Maker. Vocabulary. I need words. What I think is happening is… No,” she shook her head. “I shouldn’t throw about theories until I know for certain.”
“Go right on ahead and theorize,” Cullen told her.
“I’m prone to do that,” she said, wryly. “A proper healer wouldn’t say a thing until she knew. But so long as we’re talking like fellow researchers, here’s my worry: Lyrium gives templars their Fade-dissonant powers. Your resistance to magic, your ability to dampen magic. Yet you haven’t taken lyrium in eight months. So what do the lyrium mutations do when they’re not fed a regular draught? Could it be that the neural growth just dies? Or does it wilt? Or does it fuse with your body and try to sustain itself? Some kind of blood magic, feeding off of your insides?”
Cullen must have made a strangled sound, for Kate looked up at once.
“I… Maker. I did it again. Please ignore me.”
Cullen shook his head. “I’m not about to ignore you,” he said. “If the lyrium is using my body to… to…”
“To keep singing its magic at this peculiar pitch? I’m not sure if that’s what it’s doing or not. But don’t worry,” Kate said hurriedly. “There are ways of surviving this. I’ll make sure you survive this. May I check with a little more force? This might sting a little.”
Cullen nodded. At this point, he’d strip to his small clothes if he thought it would give him some answers. So he tried not to flinch when Kate stepped closer and pressed a hand to his belly. Cullen felt like all the blood in his body rushed south of that hand. At the same time, a bright, burning sensation flooded his stomach, and a ringing sound filled his head. Cullen swallowed and willed himself not to step away. Maker’s breath. It felt like Kate had stuck a Chantry-bell over his head and set the bell ringing.
“So all of my withdrawals symptoms,” Cullen blinked, as his eyes had started watering, “All the symptoms of all templars in general - that’s just lyrium trying to… to live off of me? Like a leech?”
“Maybe?” Kate said. Her voice rang oddly through the noise in his head. “I don’t know. Again, I’ve never met a templar who stopped taking lyrium. I do know that once lyrium begins to build up around the brain, that’s the final stages. Coll and I suspected…”
Kate stopped there, but she didn’t have to finish that thought. Cullen finished it for her:
“That’s what makes us go mad in the end?”
“That’s the theory,” Kate said with a grimace. Mercifully, the ringing in Cullen’s head subsided. Sadly, that did nothing for the cold dread settling inside of Cullen’s chest.
“But I don’t think we need to worry just yet,” Kate told him. “I mean, I’ll check your brain in a moment, but… Oh, my. There’s that bruise you got from Morris.”
“He got me good, didn’t he?” Cullen snorted.
“And he struck one of the places where the lyrium is still ringing,” Kate observed, running her hands along the side of Cullen’s ribs. “Huh. That’s a loud spot. I wonder…”
Whatever she wondered, she didn’t say. Instead, she set her hands over Cullen’s breastplate. The golden glow reflected off the iron, shining back on Kate’s face.
“You wonder?” Cullen prompted after a moment. He tried to ignore that the prickling sensations had resumed.
“Oh?” Kate said, as if she’d half forgotten she’d been speaking. “Nothing. Are there any other aches or symptoms you can think of?”
“Dozens,” Cullen replied. He found he could breathe a little easier now that Kate held her hands over his armor. From here, the magic was a mere pressure, and he could not actually feel the touch of Kate’s hands.
“Such as?” Kate prompted.
“Headaches, back pains - lower back is the worst. Shoulder aches, but that’s the life of a soldier. There’s always some ache. And the withdrawals are… bad. But I don’t want to complain.”
“You’re not complaining,” Kate said, glancing up at him. “You’re telling me what’s going on.”
“But I hardly know what’s going on,” Cullen said, not even sure where to start. “It’s not the presence of pain so much as the absence of the lyrium. I just feel… empty.”
Kate paused, her fingers curling slightly as she drew her hands back from his chest. “Empty in what way?”
Cullen tried to find words, throwing out the first ones that came to mind: “You want lyrium. Food tastes too thick. Water tastes too thin. The silence at night is too quiet and the roar of conversation is too loud. It’s like you have something comforting there for years, and now you have to live with its absence. And the absence is a presence. I’m sorry, that makes no sense.”
“That makes some sense,” Kate said.
“No, it doesn’t, but it’s kind of you to say so.”
“I wasn’t just being kind.”
“Anyhow, it’s uncomfortable, but I’ve managed to go on.”
Painfully, resignedly, and in spite of unrelenting strain, Cullen added silently. But yes, he’d gone on.
“And there are some upsides,” he added. “I don’t need as much food now.”
“Because you forget to eat.” Kate glanced over at the abandoned tea tankards on the wall.
“Yes, well, alright. But that just means I don’t have as much of an appetite,” he said, determined to wipe that worry from her face. “Some appetites are gone, others have returned. Like…”
He broke off there, not wanting to say what appetites had returned. But unfortunately, Kate pressed:
“Er, it’s nothing.”
“What appet… Oh.”
Kate blinked. Then her eyes flicked down to the font of his trousers.
“No,” Cullen choked out. “That’s not… I mean, yes. Lyrium suppresses emotion and desire, but it doesn’t render templars entirely impotent. I wouldn’t want you to think… Not that you do think… And not that I couldn’t,” he added, not sure why he felt compelled to clarify. “Given the right ratio of lyrium to ale, I found… Not that I often… Nearly never, really. It was just harder… Er, not harder. That was the trouble. I never woke hard. But now mornings are harder… Not harder!” he nearly shouted, when Kate’s mouth dropped open. “More difficult. Mornings are more difficult, I mean… Er, you know what I mean.”
Evidently Kate knew exactly what he meant. Her eyes had gone round as saucers, and Cullen felt as though his face was on fire.
“Things are harder… different,” Cullen caught himself. “Things are different,” he said, very precisely. “Without lyrium.”
He forced himself to stop there.
“Oh,” Kate said, again.
‘Oh’ indeed, Cullen thought in mortification. He had not meant to take this discussion down this particular path. He certainly had not meant to reveal that he woke most mornings with a painful erection. He would much rather keep that mortifying fact to himself. He would rather deal with it himself, too.
Dealt with it just this morning, Cullen thought. With military precision, no less. One of the more challenging aspects of his desire-related hangups was trying to take care of his physical urges. It was no small feat to avoid fantasizing and to get off at the same time. Especially when a certain Veil-theorist figured prominently in his thoughts.
Best not to think of that, Cullen decided. Best not to think on any of that. He cleared his throat, hoping to clear his mind as well.
“You were checking me for lyrium,” he reminded Kate in clipped tones. “Are you done?”
Kate jolted. “I, oh… Not quite.” Her voice squeaked. “It just need to check your back.”
“Must you?” Cullen asked.
“Well if you want me to make certain that the lyrium hasn’t calcified within your spinal column, then yes,” Kate said, matching his tone.
“I… Right,” Cullen said.
He probably ought to apologize for snapping at her - or for giving her such an inappropriate insight into his morning schedule. But as he couldn’t manage speech just now, Cullen said nothing.
Kate ducked around behind him and began bobbing around behind his back. Now that he couldn’t see her, Cullen felt even more exposed. For one moment, he felt nothing. Then Kate’s hands were pressing at his sides, and he felt a melting sensation in his lower ribs.
“So,” Kate said, a moment later. “That thing about lyrium and, um,… certain appetites.”
Cullen cringed in dread. “Yes?” he asked.
“The Chantry should have put that on the recruitment posters. No one would have signed up to guard mages after hearing that. Would have saved us the trouble of this whole mage-templar war, don’t you think?”
Cullen laughed, but sound came out loud and somewhat strangled. At least Kate was willing to make a joke of it. They were silent for a minute more, until Kate muttered:
“Oh, well that’s not good.”
“Inflammation in the joints,” Kate replied. “Blood composition isn’t quite normal, either. It’s like your body thinks you’ve got a fever.”
“I’m cold most days,” Cullen admitted.
“That would explain the fur mantle.”
Cullen couldn’t tell if that was a joke as well, or not.
“Lyrium is singing more loudly in your right shoulder,” Kate went on. “How odd. It’s like someone poured lyrium into your veins there by the bucketful, rather than brushing it on coat by coat.”
“That would explain the ache,” Cullen said, turning his head as if he might actually see the glowing lyrium inside of his body. Of course, all he saw was his own furred mantle and the top of Kate’s head. Then, quite suddenly, Cullen felt a sharp, stabbing pain in his lower back. It was like someone had run him through with a sword.
“Ah!” he cried, reaching out to catch himself on the wall. “Void take it!”
“Oh, Maker, I’m so sorry!” Kate said. She raced around to his front, then placed her hand on his belly. As she did so, a coolness swept through his middle, rather like water on a burn wound.
“Sorry, sorry. I’m so sorry,” Kate said. “Blast it. I’m not as talented as Coll, that’s for certain.”
“It’s alright,” Cullen said, though the words came through gritted teeth. He still couldn’t quite stand up straight. “You’re kinder with your words, if not with your magic.”
Kate clearly didn’t find that funny. “I’m so sorry,” she said again.
“It’s fine,” Cullen grunted as he drew himself up to full height. “Just what did you do to me?”
“Found a knot of lyrium,” Kate said, frowning. “A broken up chunk of it, right at the base of your spine.”
Well that didn’t sound good. But Cullen tried to be stoic about it.
“Explains the back pains,” he grunted. Kate continued to press her hand to his stomach. She looked worried, and her expression had Cullen straightening at once.
“What’s wrong?” he wanted to know.
“The lyrium chunk is singing to itself,” she said.
Cullen frowned. “Is that bad?”
“I don’t know.” Kate winced. “Oh, Maker, that’s going to be my litany for the morning: ‘I don’t know.’ But I don’t know. I’ve never felt anyone like you before. Oh, um… That didn’t come out right.”
“I understand,” Cullen said.
“May I check your head?”
Kate scrunched up her face as she asked this, as if she was worried about what she might find. Cullen was worried as well, but he nodded. Kate raised her hands to just above his shoulders, her hands on either side of his ears. It was as if his head was a crystal ball, and Kate was trying to scry his future. Only crystal balls did not blush, Cullen mused. And he was certain he was still red in the face. Thankfully, Kate closed her eyes, so she didn’t see Cullen’s uneasy expression. This near to her, Cullen could see the veins in her eyelids.
As she searched in silence, something seemed to shift in Cullen’s chest. He felt a tendril-like fluttering just over his heart. It might have been Kate’s magic. Or it might have been attraction. Or maybe it was just panic. Right now, Cullen couldn’t tell the difference between those three.
Without warning, Kate laid her left hand on his right upper arm, and squeezed slightly. Her right hand curled around his neck, fingers threading in his hair. Cullen sucked in a breath, his arms gone limp at his sides.
But Kate didn’t respond. She now drew her hand downward, thumb at the base of his throat.
Oh dear Maker, Cullen thought. He felt as if he couldn’t breathe. Kate’s nails were at his neck, and every instinct had him wanting to run in the other direction.
Come then, templar. We can smell the need on you…
Cullen held his breath and drew back.
“Hold still, Cullen,” Kate said. Her annoyance sounded nothing like the demons of his memory. And perversely, her show of temper made Cullen relax. Certainly a desire demon wouldn’t be so prickly.
“This isn’t terribly comfortable,” he returned, equally annoyed.
Kate said nothing. Instead, her fingers teased along the back of his neck, up over his hair, and grazed the tips of his ears.
Alright then, Cullen thought. He’d made his judgment too soon. This felt rather seductive after all.
Not a trap, not a prison… he reminded himself. Kate continued to run her fingers through his hair.
“Kate…” he said, when the stroking became too much to bear.
“Sorry,” Kate said, not sounding sorry at all. “But really, this isn’t what I expected. The lyrium song should be harmonious. But it’s not. It’s all…”
“All what?” Cullen asked.
“Off,” she scowled.
She stroked her fingers forward from his neck, along the sides of his jaw, and down his throat. Cullen felt all the blood in his body answer that touch, the hot, pounding chant following call of her fingers.
“Shit! I wish I had something to compare this to.”
Coming from Kate’s lips, the expletive sounded like an explosion. Cullen stumbled back, and Kate let him go this time. She pressed her fingers together over her mouth, thinking hard. Cullen used the distance to try and regain some of his composure. It was just lyrium protocols, he reminded himself. True, they were the most intimate protocols he’d even enjoyed, but still.
“So?” he prompted when he regained speech. “How bad is it?”
“I don’t know,” Kate said, irritably, “If you’d gotten a healer to check you at the beginning, I might know more.”
“Well, I can’t help you there,” Cullen said, matching her tone.
“You’re right,” Kate said, holding up a hand, as if to stop both Cullen and herself from fighting. “You’re right. And it’s… Well, what’s done is done, isn’t it? Here’s what I know now. And it’s not much,” she added.
“Alright,” Cullen prompted.
“What I know,” Kate said, “is that normally, lyrium intake would build up a neural augmentation within you. It ought to have grown quite regularly, and it ought to be set at a particular cadence, tone, and pitch. Compared with the usual Fade-discordant song of templars, however, your insides are much more… messy.”
“You don’t have to be polite, Kate,” Cullen said. “It sounds a great deal worse than ‘messy’.”
“Fair enough. You’ve got a disastrous cacophony of discordant vibrations going on throughout your body and your nerves are taking the brunt of the noise. You’ve got inflammation all through the spinal zone, lyrium bits flaking off through your hands and feet and even some lyrium calcified along the lower ribs. And then there the matter of that loose singing bit in your lower back. Some of the lyrium seems dead and quiet, but some of it is grafted to your primary nervous system, and that bitch Meredith was either completely incompetent or a monster or both, because your draughts were obviously of poor quality as well as erratically administered. As for whether any of this is an improvement on your condition eight months ago? I have no idea.”
“No one will accuse you of pulling punches,” Cullen said dryly. “Is there any hope for me then?”
“Plenty,” Kate returned. “Because if we were going off of lyrium protocol manuals, you’d be dead and insane and dead again. According to the textbook, you’re a walking miracle.”
“Forgive me if I don’t find that diagnosis terribly encouraging,” Cullen said.
“Yes, but we’re not going off the textbook, now are we?” Kate said. “We’re going off of Coll and my theories. How’s that for encouraging?
Cullen’s expression must have answered that question, for Kate frowned.
“Well, I’m trying,” she said. “There are three scenarios as I see it: A good one, a not-so-good one, and a bad one. I think the good one…”
“What’s the bad one?” Cullen interrupted.
“You want to start with the bad one?” Kate blinked.
“I’d like to be prepared,” Cullen told her.
Kate gave him a strange look - half amused, half-pitying, then said: “It might be that the neural mutations in your body cannot survive without lyrium to sustain them. And so…” She didn’t seem to be able to finish that thought.
“So I die,” Cullen concluded.
Maker. Somehow, knowing how his body would die was much worse than suspecting that it might.
“You die,” Kate agreed. “But I don’t think… Cullen, don’t look so panicked. I don’t think…”
“Is that likely?” Cullen demanded. That was the important question.
“I think madness would set in first,” Kate answered. “Give us fair warning.”
“Yes, I know, that’s not very reassuring. But that’s the worst scenario. In the best case…”
“What’s the not-so-good-scenario?”
“You really want to work your way from worst to best? Alright. The second best scenario is that the lyrium never goes away. It lingers within you, perhaps fusing more fully with your body, perhaps breaking down and floating about inside. Either way, it remains. It might be that your body adjusts to the disharmony, somewhat, but it’s also possible that the lyrium hum will continue to cause you discomfort. If Coll and I…”
Cullen didn’t quite hear her next words. Suddenly, it seemed there wasn’t enough air in his lungs. It was one thing to face a single headache, or a persistent discomfort in his back. But to face this relentless pain and need for the rest of his life?
Cullen felt like the ramparts had started spinning.
”…Elfroot potions or some such,” Kate was saying. “Coll would know. But again, that’s still not the best scenario. It’s… Cullen, did you hear me?”
“What?” he looked down at her.
“I was saying that the best case is that your body returns to harmony. Either the lyrium stabilizes in its resonance, or, better yet, your body breaks down all traces of lyrium within you, and passes them.”
“Passes them how?” Cullen asked, cautiously. “Like a kidney stone?”
“Let’s hope it’s somewhat less painful, but yes, that’s what I was thinking. The polarity reverses itself and you’re back to normal. As if you’d never taken the stuff.”
Cullen felt hope rise within him, bright and sweet. “Is that possible?”
“It might be,” Kate said, though she sounded doubtful. Cullen felt as though that hope-bubble had burst. Cold reality sunk in.
“So I face pain that doesn’t end, pain that ends, or death.” Cullen ticked the possibilities off on his fingers, one by one. “My chances are one in three.”
“You did ask for the truth,” Kate reminded him.
“So I did.”
“But there’s reason to think you’ll beat the odds,” Kate went on. “Your lymph nodes are inflamed. Here, feel them.”
She took Cullen’s fingers and pressed them to the underside of his jaw. At first he wasn’t sure what she was on about, but then he felt something that hurt when he pressed at it. There was a sort of lump along his throat on either side. Kate looked up at him with an encouraging smile. “You see?”
“This is a good thing?”
“That’s your lymphatic system. It regulates the… Never mind. Yes, that’s a good thing. Swollen lymph nodes suggest that your body is trying to break down the lyrium. It looks like we’re on the best path.”
“But wouldn’t that chunk at the base of my spine suggest that the lyrium is ready to break me down as well? I rather worry I’m going the other way.”
“Don’t talk like that,” Kate said. “You’ve made it this far. And I’m going to do everything I can to make certain you get better, not worse.”
“And yet, the process of lyrium addiction has never been reversed,” Cullen said, voicing his worst doubt.
“Not yet,” Kate agreed. “But then, no one else has gotten eight months into the process and lived to tell about it, now have they? At least not that I’ve ever heard of. You may be a first in many things, Cullen.”
“I don’t want to be an experiment,” he scowled. “Maker’s breath, I don’t even want… I just want to be a man again. A normal man. But this…”
What was wrong with him, Cullen wondered? Kate was optimistic. So why was he feeling so resentful and cold?
Because this is harder, Cullen thought. Before, he didn’t know if he’d die the next morning, or fight on for another day. Now it seemed he would fight on - and the fight would be far longer than he’d anticipated.
“Hey,” Kate said. She stepped close to him, placed a hand on his shoulder. Evidently she could read much of his fear in his face. When Cullen wouldn’t look at her, she gave him a little shake.
“You got this far, Cullen. You’re not dead. I mean, your lyrium system is partially dead. And singing off-key. Or maybe it’s was never properly tuned to begin with. But it’s not so bad.”
Cullen had to laugh at her words. “Not so bad?” he repeated.
“Oh,” she said. “Yes, that sounded worse once I said it aloud. Sorry. I’m not being much help.”
“No,” Cullen hastened to assure her. He placed a hand on her arm in return. “No, you’ve been lovely. I’m just so…” He sighed.
“I’m so tired.”
“Of course,” Kate said, looking up at him. “Maker’s breath, of course you are.”
And then, for some strange reason, Kate wrapped her arms around his waist and hugged him.
Cullen had not expected it. So he stood there, entirely shocked. Kate’s breasts were crushed to his chest, though he couldn’t feel the softness of them through his breastplate. He could feel the heat of her, however, and the temperature was enough to make him burn inside. Cullen swallowed hard, not sure what to do. But curiously, the demon-hisses from his memory remained silent. Maybe they were as shocked as he. Maybe they didn’t know what to make of this. Perhaps they didn’t know how to pervert a friendly hug. Or maybe he’d just gotten lucky for once.
Cullen waited a moment. The hug still felt comfortable. His head still remained quiet. And so, awkwardly - very awkwardly - he allowed himself to wrap his arms around Kate in return. He kept his touch feather-light, as if Kate was a dwarven explosive and the slightest jostle might set her off. Kate made a sound in her throat - a little hum, Cullen realized - and she squeezed him more tightly around the middle. Cullen sucked in a breath, but he did not pull away. He did hope that Kate would not notice that he hadn’t been lying about certain functions resuming. One particular function had resumed in his trousers just now.
Then they just… stood there. The breeze whistled overhead and a crow cawed in the distance. Kate’s head was just below Cullen’s nose, and he could smell her hair. She smelled wonderful. Cullen couldn’t quite place the scent, but it seemed familiar. Incense, maybe? It reminded him of cold mornings in the Chantry chapel. She also smelled of wind, that kind of scent people have when they’ve been walking around outdoors in the cold. Kate squeezed him once more, and then she pulled back. She looked up at Cullen and smiled. She didn’t let go of him, and Cullen didn’t let go either. Instead, a faint thought began stirring in the back of his mind:
This felt right, he thought. This wasn’t one-sided want. This was acceptance. Cullen accepted Kate’s smile, just as he accepted the sunlight, accepted this embrace, accepted the cool breeze on his face and the merciful relief from the whispers of demon-memory. And he accepted the fact that Kate fit in his arms quite well. He also accepted the fact that Kate had the most inviting mouth that Cullen had ever seen. Her lips looked full and soft. He’d noticed that before, but it occurred to him that he’d never really investigated this phenomenon. He wasn’t sure if appearance matched reality in that regard. Now, he was curious.
If he’d been thinking more clearly, Cullen might have questioned the way everything seemed to shift. He might have questioned the sudden look of interest in Kate’s eyes. But in that moment, the only thought that occurred to him was that this embrace felt safe, and it felt comfortable, and so he leaned toward Kate. Her lips parted. Cullen’s heartbeat sped up. He bent his head, Kate’s chest rose on a breath…
Kate let out a gasp. She lurched back from Cullen, breaking out of his embrace. Cullen let her go, and his arms fell slack to his sides. The air felt shockingly cold around him. His body felt shockingly warm inside of his armor. Meanwhile, Kate folded her arms over her chest and looked around wildly, as if she couldn’t quite figure out how she’d gotten up here, standing on the ramparts with a man who’d just tried to kiss her.
Holy Maker. He’d just tried to kiss her.
Thought and guilt returned to Cullen in a flash. Sweet Andraste save him. He’d almost kissed her. He’d almost kissed Kate. The Inquisitor. Right up there on the ramparts, with no one to stop him or warn him that this was a stupid idea, or that he surely risked his heart…
No, no, Cullen told himself. He hadn’t tried to kiss Kate. He’d just held her for a moment too long. And he’d looked at her mouth for a moment too long. It was an honest mistake. He hadn’t actually meant to…
Alright, fine. He’d meant to. Even now, the fantasy was tormenting him. All Cullen could imagine was him and Kate, back in that embrace, doing far more interesting things than lyrium protocols.
“I, um… I’m sorry,” Kate’s nervous voice brought him back to the present. “I’m sorry,” she said again. “I wasn’t trying to inspect you again. If you thought that was what I was doing. Trying to inspect you, I mean. I wasn’t trying to do that. I was just giving you a hug.”
“Oh,” Cullen said, stiffly. “I… Of course. I got a bit, um… confused.”
He was still confused. Worse, he could tell if he’d frightened her off or if she hadn’t even noticed that near-kiss in the first place.
“I can see why,” Kate said, with a nervous laugh. “I mean, here I was, running my hands all over you… Not that I wanted to! Or that you wanted me to. Or that you were enjoying it. Or that I…”
“Not at all,” Cullen spoke over her.
At his words, Kate stopped short. “Oh,” she said, frowning. “You didn’t?”
Didn’t what, Cullen wondered? He hadn’t caught what she’d just said. He now couldn’t remember what he’d said back. Maker’s breath, his brain felt like it was stuck in quicksand.
“I didn’t,” he repeated, muddling his way through. “Naturally not.”
“Naturally,” Kate repeated.
Hang on. Why was she looking at him like that? “Are you alright?”
“Fine,” Kate said. She didn’t sound fine. “So, we’re just… Lyrium protocols.”
They were just lyrium protocols? What did that mean? Cullen had no idea, but he went with it.
“Lyrium protocols,” he said, latching onto the words like a lifeline. “That’s what this was all about yes?”
“Right,” Kate said. Her voice sounded hollow. Now Cullen was certain she was upset.
“Well then,” Kate said, letting out a shaky breath. “I um… Well. I suppose I ought to write down my findings, then.”
“Write? What? Findings?”
The words were only somewhat coherent, mirroring Cullen’s scattered thoughts. Why was she upset, he wondered? Had he said something wrong? Had they really almost kissed, or had he imagined it? What was going on? Cullen wanted to ask her these things, but didn’t dare.
“My findings from just now,” Kate told him. “About the lyrium and the protocols and the resumed urges and… Oh, I probably shouldn’t write down that part.” She blushed and ducked her head. “I’d like to monitor you, however. If you don’t mind. Check on your progress now and again. For science, of course. Next time it needn’t be so, um, thorough.”
Sweet Maker, let it be thorough. Cullen’s body reacted before his brain quite had the chance to.
“For science,” Cullen repeated. He hardly recognized that strained voice as his own. “I don’t know. I’m not sure if I can handle much more, um…”
What was the word he was looking for? Excitement? Arousal? Stimulation? Pained longing?
“Medical attention,” Cullen said. “Too much of a good thing and all that.”
Kate gave him a very odd look.
“Given how unusual your situation is,” she told him, “I think we’d better follow up on this. And I’d like to ask Coll for a second opinion. If you please.”
“Must we involve her?” Cullen had no desire to reprise this conversation in front of that elf. And if Kate were to touch him with the elf looking on, Cullen was certain that the archivist would be getting quite the show.
“I understand that you don’t want to share something so personal,” Kate said. “But Coll is a professional. As am I. Or I’m supposed to be,” she added in a grumble.
Kate folded up her notebook, tucking the pencil inside. “I’ll tell Coll the abridged version,” she said. “Leaving out the um… personal parts.”
That would be most everything, Cullen thought.
“Look, I know you don’t like this,” Kate said, frowning at his expression. “But I’m worried about you. Please let me ask Coll about this. I know what you’re going to say. Coll is loud. And opinionated. And she’s deliberately difficult. She does it to keep people from bothering her. But if you get past all that, she’s the most loyal, intelligent person you’ll ever meet. And she’s able to keep a secret, I promise you. She is,” Kate insisted, for Cullen had continued frowning. “She keeps all of my secrets, and she’s told me almost nothing about her own past.”
That made Cullen less inclined to trust the elf, not more. But he did trust Kate. He supposed that counted more than anything else. “Alright,” he said. “If it sets your mind at ease.”
“It will,” Kate said.
A pity that setting Kate’s mind at ease was likely to unsettle Cullen a great deal. Even so, he felt he ought to say:
“Thank you. I appreciate it.”
Kate looked up at him in surprise. “You do? I mean… You’re welcome.”
She seemed genuinely confused by his gratitude. Cullen mentally kicked himself. Had he really come off so brusque? He hadn’t meant to. Cullen tried again:
“Yes, I do. This situation has been weighing on my mind, and you’ve, um… You’ve been very kind. Not at all what I expected.” That was yet another understatement. “So please allow me to express my thanks. For all of this.”
Kate smiled shyly, and Cullen felt the sudden desire to wrap his arms around her again. He snatched up the tea tankard from the wall instead, and held it before him like a shield.
“Shall we go?” he asked.
“Oh,” Kate blinked. His sudden change in manner seemed to startle her. Or maybe Kate simply forgotten that there was a castle surrounding them.
“Right,” she said. “Skyhold.”
“Skyhold,” Cullen agreed. It was rather strange to think they’d never left the place. Judging by how high the sun was in the sky, his officers would soon be prowling the castle, looking for him. It was surprising that no search party had interrupted their meeting. Thank the Maker that they hadn’t, Cullen thought.
At this, Kate grabbed her tea tankard from the ramparts and turned toward the walkway. Cullen fell in step beside her, keeping pace with her strides. But as they walked, Cullen didn’t feel any more at ease. It wasn’t just the near-kiss that bothered him, nor the way it had been spectacularly aborted. Rather, something else had happened just now - something more than the lyrium confession or Kate’s offers of help or the protocols or even that awkward embrace at the end. That unknown something-more excited Cullen and frightened him all at once.
“So,” Kate’s voice startled him out of his thoughts. Cullen glanced over at her. She walked beside him, eyes on the ground, her tea-tankard dangling from her fingers.
“So?” Cullen prompted. He realized he’d been matching her steps, stride for stride.
“I’ll see you tonight at the tavern opening?” Kate asked.
Cullen started. In fact, he was so surprised, he stopped short at the top of a flight of stairs.
“Tavern opening?” he repeated.
“Hadn’t you heard? But of course you’ve heard. You’re the one building the tavern.”
“My men are,” Cullen agreed. “I just didn’t plan to go.”
“Ah,” Kate said.
She paused for a moment - just a moment - and then began walking again. Cullen hurried down the stairs after her.
“Wait,” he called, “Are you…?” She turned and looked up at him, and Cullen stopped short.
What was going on here, Cullen wondered? Was she asking him to join her at the tavern? Or was this something else entirely? As far as Cullen knew, superior officers did not ask their subordinates out for drinks. None of his Knight-Commanders had ever done so. But perhaps the rules were different for Inquisitors. Then again, the history books were notably silent on the subject of Inquisitor Ameridan’s drinking habits.
“Will you be going?” Cullen asked Kate.
“I figured I ought to,” Kate said. “As the Inquisitor, I should make an appearance for an hour or so. I thought as commander, you might do the same.”
“Oh,” Cullen said. Of course that was what Kate meant. He should have realized that her question was professional in nature, and not a personal invitation.
“I don’t drink,” Cullen said, with more bitterness than he’d intended. “With the lyrium addiction, it’s unwise to…” He stopped himself there. No need to burden Kate with the details.
“Of course,” Kate said. She looked up at Cullen with something a little like concern - or pity. He flushed.
“It’s just that large crowds tend to overwhelm me,” he said, walking on. Kate fell in step beside him. “I don’t mind people,” he added hurriedly. “I like company, in fact. When there are clear expectations and I know how to behave. It’s just that at functions where alcohol is involved, everyone seems to know what’s going on except for me.”
Cullen ended his explanation there. He was certain sounded like an idiot. To his surprise, Kate smiled and nodded.
“I feel the same,” she admitted. “But then again, I’ve never been to a real party before. I mean, I’ve been to balls and festivals and the opera. But I’ve never been to an real tavern to have real drinks with real people. I think it will be exciting.”
“Aristocrats aren’t real people?”
“I didn’t mean it that way. But you know how it is. A mage can’t just go places. Not on my own, with no one to escort me. Not that I was asking you to escort me,” Kate added hurriedly. “Not as a templar monitoring a mage or anything. Just, as a friend. I thought that maybe we could go together. Moral support for the troops and all.”
“Moral support is important,” Cullen agreed. “For you as well as the troops. After all, if this is your first tavern opening…”
“Yes, you see?” Kate said, brightening. “And if you come with me, I’ll buy you a drink. I’ve always wanted to buy someone a drink. At house parties, the punch is just sitting there. It takes all the fun out of it. I won’t buy you ale, if you don’t want it. But milk, perhaps. Or tea. If you don’t mind taking tea in a tankard.”
“I rather liked having tea in a tankard.”
Kate blushed and looked down at the mug in her hands. “I wouldn’t want to inconvenience you,” she said. “And I understand if you don’t want to go to deal with the crowds. But I thought, well…”
What Kate thought, she did not say. And against his better judgment, Cullen found himself saying:
“I think I could spare a half an hour.”
Kate’s answering smile was entirely worth that stupid promise.