Hard lines. Hard face. Hard armor and hard walls surrounding a mystery that had proven hard to solve.
He was a hard man to know.
Still, Dorian wanted to know him. He didn’t really know why, of course. The big, hulking Fereldan with his terse words and long strides carrying him swiftly about Skyhold had caught Dorian’s attention in a fashion that was almost irritating in its unlikely persistence. From the first day, the man had been unflappable confidence, unmoved by anything Dorian had thrown at him. With, perhaps, the exception of mild annoyance that had hedged into outright anger, of course, and that only once - when the heavens opened up and spat a dragon out upon them all. That impossible moment, a time when survival had seemed beyond all odds, that was the only time Dorian had gotten anything approaching a reaction.
Since then, the Commander had been a blank slate. Cassandra seemed to like him well enough, and Varric swore he had tales from Kirkwall that would turn Dorian’s hair white. When pressed, though, the dwarf clammed up - uncharacteristically - and more often than not made some comment to the effect that perhaps Dorian really was better off not knowing, that perhaps he should give the Commander a wide berth. He’d been a templar, that much was obvious, but Dorian couldn’t bring himself to fear… even when it was prudent. Even when he managed to scrape together a loose history of the stoic man at the head of the Inquisition’s army - the result of drinking too long into the night with some of the more friendly templars - he couldn’t muster whatever sense of trepidation Varric thought appropriate.
Dorian just wasn’t wired that way. He was a great cat, curious to a fault and frustrated that one of his playthings refused to dance. Once he did, once Cullen just reacted, his curiosity would be sated, and he could move along to the next shiny thing that caught his attention. He could stop prowling about, ferreting out information and batting at loose threads. He could spend his days in the library researching rather than wasting away the minutes and hours wondering how the man could be so… alive out there, animated and engaged with the troops he trained, but completely cut off, cold and blank and polite when Dorian stood in front of him. As soon as that mystery was solved, he could refocus himself in a more productive direction.
At least, that’s what he told himself. But Cullen was Cullen - too hard for his own good.
Until he wasn’t.
The day started like any other… or any other when the Inquisitor wasn’t dragging Dorian through the muck and mess of every backwater town in Ferelden. Dorian rose, early. Picked up the research he’d fallen asleep with the night before, scratching out notes as he yawned and the sun began its climb into the heavens. He wouldn’t leave his chambers for a while yet - he’d crafted the image of a man more concerned with comfort and slumber than was perhaps appropriate, and he wanted to keep it that way. If people thought him soft, he’d learned, they softened in turn. A benefit, in all regards, whether he wanted information or simply wanted them to make the mistake of underestimating him until it was too late. He found out long ago that he could never be too careful, even when amongst those to whom he’d sworn allegiance, however temporary. So he worked, studiously helping the Inquisition even as many of its members derided him for being exactly what he seemed - shallow, spoiled, born with a silver spoon in his mouth and the world at his fingertips. He knew how they saw him, some of them, anyway, and he worked that to his advantage, always.
Where mysteries were concerned, it was far better that the mystery was himself. Everyone else was an open book.
Everyone but Cullen.
Thoughts of the Commander made him uneasy, even in the comfort of his room with his books and quills. Too early. It was far too early in the day to allow disruption by this ridiculous obsession with a man who barely even registered his presence. Aggravated, he blew a long breath out through his nose, tried to concentrate on the page before him, but found that the words didn’t resolve into any language he recognized. Or, well, that wasn’t right. He read the script just fine, his mind just refused to piece it into comprehension.
Fresh air. That would help. And if that didn’t do it, It was cold enough on this damned great glacier of a mountain to shock him back to rights.
So out he went, dressed only in breeches and a tunic, hair less than perfect, face bare of the kohl he usually applied around his eyes. It was too early for Skyhold to be awake, anyway. By his estimation, he could risk a little walk out to the garden and back.
The morning that had started the same wasn’t the same any more, in other words. But the change was necessary. If he couldn’t think then… what did he have? He blamed Cullen for yet another break in concentration, scowling as his feet carried him away from warmth and the comfort of his books and towards the frigid garden. Bitter. Both the cold and the thoughts in his mind were bitter. Why wouldn’t the man look his way? Did he think Dorian not worth the time of day? Was it because he was from Tevinter, or was it because he was a mage? Was the man still stuck in a world where it was a sin to fraternize with the enemy? Was Dorian his enemy?
Questions and questions, but not enough answers to go around. Or maybe all he needed was one answer. Stop this. Drop the thread entirely. Decide that Cullen was a blank slate and that’s all he was. A tool of the southern Chantry reforged into the tool of the Inquisitor and nothing more. Nothing more behind that grim face with a criminally perfect set of lips. An expanse of duty only, no personality. Nothing. If Dorian could settle there, then maybe that was enough…
But there was the sudden sound of a creaking door across the courtyard, he realized and startled as a figure came into view. Dorian couldn’t be seen. He had an image. He had a reputation. Vital to maintain… it was folly to be out like this, with his guard down and all forms of armor off. What had he been thinking?
Fasta vass! His brain hissed at him as he ducked behind a column and watched with alert eyes as the figure drew closer.
Tall. Broad, but too, too thin at the same time. Dressed in much the same way Dorian was - breeches and tunic only despite the frigid morning air. The figure drew closer and closer with each soft step. A man. Unruly blonde curls catching the rose gold glow of the sunrise. Hollow cheeks and tired eyes and… a scar.
This wasn’t… this wasn’t Cullen, was it? It had to be, of course it did, but not as Dorian had ever seen the man. The presence. The heft. The way he seemed solid and sure. All an illusion, Dorian realized, forged with commanding voice and armor that belied the frailty beneath. The man now moving silently through the garden towards the chapel had none of that, seemed only a shadow, happy to slip by unnoticed. Only too glad to make no impression at all.
Cullen disappeared into the room that served as a worship space, and Dorian remained, stock still and wide eyed. Instinct told him to forget it, to be relieved that he’d not been spotted out of character, out of armor. His mind told him to turn right around, thank his lucky stars, and get back to his own room to pull the trappings of his image together and re-emerge later, witty and shining and impervious. Safer to do that, of course. Smarter.
But that curiosity, it would be the death of him one day. What was the saying? Curiosity killed the cat?
“… but satisfaction brought him back,” Dorian muttered absently as his feet moved, carrying him not towards his rooms, but in the direction Skyhold’s makeshift Chantry.
“What do I do? What do you want from me?” he heard a voice ask as he opened the heavy door just a crack. Cullen, but not Cullen. That voice was small and sad. Broken and private. Dorian shouldn’t be listening, he knew that. He shouldn’t be privy to this, but he couldn’t walk away, either; he could only push in further, silently sliding inside and easing the door closed again behind him. He spared a wondering thought - what the fuck am I doing? - as his eyes adjusted to the dim candlelight and settled on the figure before him. Kneeling. Rounded in supplication. Small and pleading. Not the Commander here, only a man with a burden that sorely needed unloading.
“I give you… I give the Inquisition… everything. But still… still I fail. Still I waver. The center won’t hold without the song, but the song is poison. What… is the answer?” Cullen’s voice was bleeding and raw. Breaking over every other syllable, and Dorian gasped quietly, just a soft sucking of breath, as he realized the man’s shoulders were shaking, but not from the chills. They shuddered with each choking catch of breath. Each… sob. “Do I…” Cullen went on, voice thick and full, rounded by sadness so sharp it cut deeper than the cold. “Do I make my stand here and risk everything… or do I give in? Do I step back in line and do my duty? Do I let the song kill me for the greater good? How do I fix it all?”
Impossible to know what he meant, just how a song could kill him, but Dorian got the sense of it. He understood, and some of that mystery unraveled. Just as he wore his armor of blinding flash and shallow frivolity to hide the quick mind and iron will and vulnerable, beating heart… Cullen wore his. All those hard lines were meant to keep this, the soft curve of the man beneath, hidden away. A construct, carefully crafted to make those he commanded believe he could carry the world on those shoulders… and then some.
The Dorian he showed to the outside world would have laughed, taken pleasure in letting Cullen know he’d seen him, really seen him in this fragile moment. But that Dorian didn’t exist yet. It was too early, and he hadn’t bothered with him just yet. The man who stood there watching another pour his sadness and guilt out onto the unmoving stone lady poised above him… that man felt his heart crack. And so Dorian - not Dorian the flirt or Dorian the life of the party or Dorian the ever perfect… no, just… just Dorian - he went out the way he came. Undetected and silent, leaving the exhausted shade of the Commander to his entreaties and secret tears, he padded back to his room.
Later, both men comfortably back in their chosen form of armor, Dorian made his way to the Commander’s office. He was greeted by the same look of indifference, a slight frown turning those lips downward as the man looked up to see who had interrupted his reports.
“Dorian,” Cullen greeted with a curt nod, “Am I needed elsewhere?”
Typical that he’d think the only reason Dorian had to be there was to summon him to the Inquisitor. Snorting a laugh, Dorian grinned, the one he knew curled his mustache devilishly. “Indeed you are, Commander,” he started, strolling easily into the room though he felt his heart pounding beneath his ribs, “I’m told you play chess. There’s no one in this whole Maker-forsaken fortress can offer up a decent game. I was rather hoping you might be up for the challenge…”
Those eyes - a rather lovely warm shade of honey brown, Dorian noticed - opened wide, and for just a breath, they sparkled. Something like happiness, maybe? At the very least interest, but that little glimpse of a reaction was gone as soon as it appeared.
“I am quite sure we have better ways to use our time than…”
“Well,” Dorian said with a nonchalant air, cutting him off, “I understand if you’re afraid of losing…”
“I’m not afraid. I have…”
“Duties?” Dorian cut him off again. Failure was imminent, he could feel it, and the disappointment was hard to hide. His own armor slipped away, and his voice dropped, quiet and low. “You don’t have to… fix everything all by yourself, you know.”
“Wh… what was that?” Cullen asked, and his face… changed. Wide eyes, parted lips. Softness and sadness in a single expression. It was quiet then between them, each man seeing a glimpse of the other for the first time since Dorian came stumbling into Haven.
Dorian swallowed and tilted his head, the devilish grin replaced by something more true. Something softer. “The sun will still rise, is what I mean,” Dorian returned, “The end may be upon us, but the sun will rise and the moon will follow if Cullen Rutherford leaves his office.”
He turned then, already admitting defeat, but before his hand reached the door’s latch, he heard something he hadn’t anticipated, something he wasn’t sure he’d ever heard before. A laugh. One single sound, deep and quiet, but it was a laugh all the same. The shock of it had him turning on his heels, facing Cullen once again.
The man was… the man was smiling. And even with the pallor that was approaching sickly, even under those heavy brows and purple rings under those deep set eyes, it was the prettiest thing Dorian had seen in a long, long time.
“Two o’clock,” Cullen said, “After drills. The garden. Bring your wits.”
“I am never without those, I assure you,” Dorian answered, amazed at his own quickness. He was rewarded with another of those low chuckles.
“You are a hard man to know, Dorian,” Cullen remarked, turning his attention back to the papers on his desk. “A mystery to me. Perhaps I’ll learn something today.”
“Perhaps you will,” Dorian returned, all too aware of the irony.
They shifted then, the both of them, back into the people they had to be out in the world. It was a sad movement, Dorian noted, but not unexpected. And not absolute, he realized. There was… more to them, he knew that now. Both of them. They were men with armor over their vulnerability. Hard lines, in their own way, protecting soft curves.
Hard men to know. But the knowing… might just be worth a little softness.