Crystals glitter in the air. Cullen notices this in stillness, near the cooking fires. Snow wisps around them, and his nose runs, one ungraceful drop after another falling to dot the armor plate on his chest.
The Tevinter mage has his left side angled toward the largest fire, unsurprisingly--his bare shoulder must be chilled to the bone. He's hunched forward, breath hanging in white clouds in front of him, and he looks halfway asleep, which isn't surprising either given the circumstances of his arrival.
Cullen is no longer certain what he would consider surprising. Mages and Templars working in perfect cooperation, perhaps. Nobles letting go of petty power struggles. Evil and corruption disappearing into the ground along with the blight, blood magic falling so far out of favor it ceased to be. All of Thedas united under one banner against annihilation: that would be a surprise.
Being warm enough ever again would be another. But they are lucky to be alive to feel the cold.
Cassandra and Leliana stand side by side, talking quietly. Cassandra's voice carries, even when she lowers it, but the conversation is private and Cullen tunes his ears to the soldiers hunkered under makeshift shelters instead, listening to their gruff, clipped exchanges.
They will wait as long as they can, hoping against hope that the Herald will walk unharmed out of the night, but they can't afford more than an hour or two.
Distance is the only thing saving them. Haven fell, and the Herald with it, and time is precious.
The mark saved the Herald once. All that's left is to pray it will do so again.
Cullen chooses a spot next to the fire to warm his hands, a few feet from Dorian, who’s still awake but fading.
"There's time, if you'd like to sleep," Cullen says. "Even for a few moments."
Dorian turns to him, red-cheeked in the glow of the flames. "Oh, no. If you're telling me I look tired I must be a disaster." He brushes fingers through his hair, an odd cut, pushing the bangs back so they flop and curl at his temples.
Cullen picks the strangest of moments to think up the simplest of questions. Hope is behind them, lost somewhere in the snowdrifts and dark, and--however inappropriate--mundanity rises like heat off the guttering flames.
How do you get your hair to stay like that when it rains?
Of all the foolish things.
He shouldn't ask. On the one hand, there's benefit to maintaining points of normalcy, but he's never been good at pretending, at least when it's something more than the little lies every man tells himself in order to believe the sun will rise the next morning whether he goes to bed or not.
For the men. For the soldiers. For the others who don't fight, whose hands haven't the first inkling of how to grip a sword, who nonetheless lost everything they held dear that very night.
On the other hand, no words can stand against that loss. To try would be an insult to the ruin where humble little houses once stood and good men and women raised arms to train.
"Not very chatty, are you?" Dorian asks. "Perhaps I should join the heated conversation between the spymaster and--Cassandra, isn’t it? The woman with the voice like a battering ram. At the very least, all that passion would keep me warm."
"How can you joke at a time like this?" The question slips free so much easier than Cullen unties the strappings of his armor at night. If only it were that simple to remove breastplate and shield. He didn't mean to sound so sharp, but there it is, no lying about himself in this kind of cold.
"Commander, it's the only time I do joke," Dorian replies.
Couldn't have asked for a better deflection for an unworthy question.
"Forgive me," Cullen says. "We're all under duress."
Dorian is smiling, the curl of his lips accentuated by the curl in his mustache. Too perfect a thing for the ordeal they've undergone, still whole and right on his face, holding the exact shape he intends it to. An enchantment, maybe. Perhaps that explained the hair as well.
A few paces away, Cassandra steps into a tent to confer with Solas. The apostate elf has been at the head of the pack since they were forced to abandon Haven, undoubtedly guiding them through their blindness, though to where remains to be seen. The Frostbacks stretch far and high and the snows are deep, and Cullen's nose has been pink since he joined the Inquisition forces and he suspects it will remain so in the weeks to come, if they survive. They have to survive. For all the people who already sacrificed, they are honor bound to survive, or die trying.
His nose is pink, and it's still running. He rubs at his face with a palm, wishing for a handkerchief.
Dorian shivers, although his teeth aren't chattering. "Don't the elves have a whimsical story about a magic halla that guides stranded travelers out of storms?"
"I believe so, yes." Cullen shifts and extends his legs toward the fire. He hasn't felt his toes in hours. "A halla with glowing horns."
"Glowing nose, actually, if memory serves," Dorian says. "Though horns would make more sense, wouldn't they? No matter. Any idea if we've got a shot at that?"
Cullen watches the fire lick and leap around the thin logs. "There are no halla at this elevation." He's said it before he grasps that this is a joke, most likely. Not a wildlife survey.
"Hm." Dorian's smile extends into his cheeks. "Fair point." He chafes his hands together and then blows into them before holding them out toward the flames. "So, no, then."
Cullen's answering laugh is closer to a cough. "I fear not."
"Spectacular outfit you have here."
Cullen only supposes he should bristle on behalf of his troops, not to mention the rest of the poor bastards he truly intended to protect. But that's the tricky thing about sacrifice, isn't it? He thinks he will bristle--later, when he's had the chance to thaw, and when reactions can return in the wake of sheer survival. One foot in front of the other. Stillness only in necessary rest.
"No, no, I didn't mean the outfit," Dorian waves to the nearest members of the nearly-failed Inquisition, then waves somewhere closer, in the vicinity of Cullen's shoulders, "I meant the outfit. The one you have on right now. "
"I could say the same thing about what you're wearing," Cullen replies.
"I'd take that as a compliment."
"And if it wasn't?"
Dorian sighs. His breath crystallizes white and icy on the air in front of his mouth before it disappears, like a little spell that wasn't wrought to last. There was a time when even the memory of magic chilled Cullen's blood, and that chill is worse than any the snow banks can hope to bring. The comfort he takes in that is--what else?--cold indeed.
"I don't suppose there's any room in there for one more?" Dorian tilts his head to the side. That mustache is definitely magicked, such a point of frivolity that Cullen huffs. His breath does the same little thing: condensation briefly visible, fading just as swiftly into the night. "Perhaps I wasn't clear. I'm asking if I could join you in that big, warm coat of yours that no doubt smells of what the south always does--mud and dogs. And muddy dogs."
"I've matters--business--I must attend to," Cullen says.
And he does. There's no untruth to the statement. So he stands, and leaves Dorian by the firelight to warm his ridiculous bare shoulder by himself.
Someone thinks they’ve seen a light over one of the rises behind them. The distant flicker of a dim green glow. Imagined or otherwise, they will walk out into the gale to see if there’s anything to be found.
Skyhold is a landscape in flux. Every day, the faces change, the face of the very castle itself changes. New arrivals. Restored ramparts, new stone work, tons of supply wood and rock carted in on the backs of men and beasts alike, all in the name of the Inquisition. For some, the word has become synonymous with hope. But not for all. Those matters, Cullen knows, are best left in Josephine's capable hands. He's a soldier, first and foremost. A knight, if you were in the mood to idealize, but a true knight's place is at the center of the action, near the fight. Not in a damp office, perching over maps to coordinate troop movements. But there are reasons he cannot trust himself to march daily into the thick of things alongside the Inquisitor, and he accepts that basic truth.
His perspective is more valuable at the war table, for one. The other reasons are less palatable and infinitely more personal.
There are times when his own inability to act tries his temper, but when that mood clouds him he goes to Cassandra. Her stiff lilting assurance, formal but never unkind, levels the discomfort. He reiterates that she must keep an eye on him, and every time she agrees, though he can tell the repetition sometimes grates her. "I am doing it now," she says. "Maker give us both strength."
By which she means, “Maker give me strength to endure your constant self-doubt. I believe in you. Why can you not do the same?”
He wishes he had a fraction of her faith.
The Herald is renamed; practically reborn, if you ask around the encampments. Stories circulate, exaggerated by every tongue they touch. Cullen knows it's not only a fortress they're building, but a legend. Power in stone, power in story.
His office is modest, and solitary. The room above suffers a missing portion of ceiling, so a draft blows at all hours, keeping the tip of his nose pink. In spite of the dilapidated roof, the bed is soft and that's more than he's accustomed to. A few steps bring him to the courtyard, and a few more to the tavern, which he avoids unless Cassandra insists they both have a drink at the end of a long day. She travels for stretches with the Inquisitor, in the western deserts or woods, and when she comes back she is often sun-touched and scraped up, ready for a rare evening of genial drinks and a report on how restoration is progressing.
Tonight is one such night.
But Cullen's nursing a headache the way some nurse a tankard of ale, and the noise in the taproom after a certain sunset hour doesn't help. The Chargers seem to be a useful lot, and dedicated to the Inquisition even if they inhabit a space beyond the form and order Cullen would prefer--but they're the type to cheer everything from a bloody nose to a rousing toast, and their shouts and laughter are practically projectiles.
Cassandra's eyes darken across the way. She's many things, but never subtle. Her concern looks like a rustic brew tastes, all richness and shadows. She's wondering if he's having the usual trouble--which he is and isn't.
She plows on. "--and narrowly escaped the dragon's flaming breath. This time. Perhaps the Inquisitor will add dragon slayer to the list of accomplishments before long," she finishes. "I will deliver the final roster of our actions in the Approach to you by tomorrow. They will be thorough."
They're always thorough.
Cullen nods. The Chargers cheer again. The tavern bard's song would be a lullaby if it weren't sung in this place.
"Some fresh air, I think," Cullen says.
He leaves through the back way; the soldiers he ran through drills just that morning are entering through the front, trailing after Varric and his stories with such enviable hunger. They'll be useless come sunrise, but a commander is nothing if he can't let his troops remind themselves of what it is to live, what it is they're fighting for, now and again.
It's there, just over his shoulder. Cullen readjusts the fall of a furred pauldron, skin more accustomed to the bite in the air than to the warmth in the taproom. All those bodies, all that noise. As long as he isn't skulking in an alleyway, he can allow himself a private exit, without commentary.
The door swings heavily shut behind him--trapping him between a wall and a familiar silhouette.
"What is it you southern chantry types always say?" Dorian asks. "Maker's breath, isn't it? Always so quaint--so rustically charming."
Cullen almost says it, reflexively. It’s become a verbal hiccup at this point, something that jumps unbidden from his lips.
Instead, he sighs. “Hello,” he says.
A few feet to the left of the door is a spot often used as a makeshift latrine by the exceedingly drunk soldiers on their way out of the tavern at the end of the night, in spite of regular discouragement, and for a moment Cullen wonders if Dorian is as human as any other man. They’ve all done it, at some point or another. Sera, with her usual charisma and grace, had even asked Cullen once if he’d ever pissed over the ramparts. “Not at this castle,” he’d said, which was true. A firm, all-encompassing no would’ve been lying. Adolescent boys left unsupervised in groups would get up to all kinds of nonsense.
He isn’t young anymore. There’s too much standing between him and the past, and he was rarely frivolous even then.
“It stinks out here, doesn’t it,” Dorian says. “Not exactly the fresh air I had in mind when I stepped out. I presume you’re returning to your quarters?”
“May I walk with you?”
“If you wish.”
They stroll across the courtyard, occupied by the back and forth of late evening activity. Torches are lit, and somewhere in the forge someone is still hammering.
Dorian sucks in a huge breath, and lets it free in a hum. “Ah, much better. Bull insisted I try some positively evil liquid the qunari pass off as drink, and I have survived, but it came at a cost.”
“And what was that?”
“I’m too drunk to keep drinking, and it’s far too early to retire. Well,” he raises a brow at Cullen. “too early for me to retire. Strapping young Templars don’t stay out past bedtime.”
Cullen wants to fight the statement, argue that he’s no longer among the order, no longer the knight he once was, then add, in no uncertain terms that he will never be that knight again. But his own weakness brings a flash of Cassandra’s flint-hard eyes to mind, and he clenches a fist at his side. Instead of speaking, he manages a mixture of a grimace and a smile; ugly, and unfriendly. Too serious. He’s always, always been serious, and joining the Inquisition has changed nothing. Why should it?
They reach his door and he readies himself to step inside and leave Dorian to wend his way back to the library, or more likely back to the tavern, where he’ll accept the next glass Bull offers him even if the first one knocked him off his feet. He’ll keep accepting them until he’s sick or passed out. So far, it hasn’t caused any trouble, and Dorian can obviously handle his drink, but there’s a sadness that creeps in at the corners sometimes and it’s one Cullen knows by sight. It mirrors his own heart.
He pauses, trying to decide how to bid him goodnight.
“Commander Cullen, you wouldn’t by any chance fancy a bit of chess?” Dorian asks.
If it keeps Dorian out of the tavern for an hour, and Cullen’s mind off his headache until he’s ready for sleep to take him, then perhaps chess is the kind of seriousness he can offer amicably.
“I’d be delighted,” he says. “Though you may not be, since my victory is inevitable.”
“Ha!” Dorian steps past him, into the office. “Prepare for me to disappoint you, then, Commander. In every possible way. It’s my specialty.”
“Your company could hardly be called a disappointment,” Cullen says, and his sincerity is too hot in his own ears.
Dorian grins and gives him a hard clap on the shoulder. “I know. I’m an absolute delight. I only meant you’re going to lose.”
Delight or disappointment--the two are hardly synonymous. In fact, they couldn't be more opposite if they tried, which Cullen has to assume is part of the point, the subterfuge, the tactic.
There are some men who play chess like a game; the rest know it's meant to be serious. Clearly Dorian is the former, given his laughter at the sight of the board.
He settles his weight into a chair as though it's his old favorite every wintersend--as though Cullen's room in the ramparts, which isn't a home to anyone, has been Dorian's since before Skyhold was flushed from the shadows of time and thrust into the sunlight of present-day. He crosses one leg over the other, cracks his knuckles, and fixes Cullen with a look that has far too much eyebrow about it.
"If the rules are different in Tevinter--" Cullen begins, setting the board on the table.
"Not to worry, Commander. I'll not stoop to paltry excuses should you best me. Which you won't," Dorian adds. "You may be adept when it comes to moving life-sized knights around the southern wilds, but I have my intellect to support me."
"You're also drunk," Cullen points out. "It's a handicap."
Dorian waves a hand. "Hardly. I've won card games while twice as inebriated as this." He pauses. "Not many of them, mind, but enough to know it is possible. And don't you dare go easy on me, either. Take the gloves off. Treat me as you would a formidable rival--because I am one, you see."
Sitting doesn't hurt--it's never the act of sitting that does but the prolonged state of sitting that wears at already aching joints and itches beneath Cullen's fingernails. He can't stay still; it's stillness that's the trouble. It's letting the body become too accustomed to a single position, giving it time to remember all its grievances. Standing is a little better because eventually the act of standing is what hurts, common and straightforward and entirely about the muscle and bone instead of something trickier, something else.
He leans forward, making the first move.
"Bold. Aggressive. Should I read something into that?"
"White plays first. A game of chess is a game of chess."
"Ah, but that's where you're wrong." Dorian runs his forefinger over the head of a simple pawn, tapping it twice for good measure, his touch lingering on the piece without actually nudging it forward from one square to the next. "I didn't know you had it in you, Cullen, but good on you."
If the air wasn't so cold, a lesser man would flush. "You're trying to distract me."
"Is it working?"
“Keep trying and perhaps you’ll find out.”
In answer, Dorian makes his move.
It’s slow going, neither one of them willing to commit to early sacrifices. Cullen decides to castle and Dorian mimics the maneuver, both of them stacking defense around their kings. All the while, Dorian talks; about the north, about the cold, about the latest wildlife encounter with the Inquisitor and how he thinks Bull might be a liability due to his slight fetish for high dragons. Exactly what that means, Cullen doesn’t want to know and says as much, which sets Dorian laughing again.
Cullen spends several minutes each turn contemplating the board. Dorian is quicker, but impatience in chess spells mistakes. Unlike a real battlefield, there’s no demand for decisive action. However, as in any fight, decisive action can have both rewards and pitfalls. Dorian takes the first piece, but Cullen waits, considering for long minutes before setting in motion a trap he’s been hoping would catch Dorian with his guard down.
“And what do you make of that?” he asks.
Uncharacteristic silence is his answer, and he looks up to see that Dorian--composed, bright-eyed Dorian--has fallen asleep where he sits.
People soften in sleep in a way they don’t anywhere else in their lives. Cullen’s seen hardened soldiers turn back into children once they collapse on a bedroll, their slack faces free and calm or on the bad end of it, twisted by night terrors brought on by day’s unpleasant work. It’s bound to happen, when your profession rests on a sword. In either case, the person is altered from their waking self.
Dorian looks younger. Suddenly the mustache seems a ploy to add years to his face. Cullen assumed them not far apart initially, but now...
He’s left wondering.
“Dorian,” he says.
Not so much as a flinch in response.
Whatever Bull shared from his qunari pantry was obviously potent.
Cullen stands and reaches out, putting his palm on Dorian’s perpetually bared shoulder. Dorian’s skin is warm, hot to the touch. Before now, Cullen hardly realized how frigid his hands were, but against Dorian's smooth shoulder they feel dead and chill as ice.
Dorian stirs and looks up at him, still half-sleeping, eyes in a fathomless squint. “Cullen?” He shivers and covers Cullen’s hand with his own. “Cold hands,” he says.
“Forgive me, but you drifted off and I...” Cullen moves to pull away, but Dorian’s hold is firm. His fingers trace up to Cullen’s wrist and pause there for a few moments before his hand drops.
“Did I really?” He palms his yawn.
“A comment on my enthralling company, I’ve no doubt,” Cullen says, smiling in spite of himself.
"More of a comment on how seriously you take a game of chess. There are two sorts of chess players, you know."
"Yes. I had considered that."
"Did it distract you?" Dorian asks.
That's a different question from the one that came before. Dorian's lips are still parted, an after-effect of an incomplete yawn, a hint of white teeth below the softened shadows. Cullen rubs the back of his neck, fingers chill, throat prickling warm.
"You're clearly tired," Cullen says, "and it will do neither of us any favors to stay up past this hour."
"You're kicking me out."
"I'm signaling my departure to bed. It's only polite." Though most would undress for sleep, Cullen pulls his heavy collar tighter beneath his chin. Some nights, the ladder deters him from restless dreaming; tonight, it's an obvious escape, and Dorian's eyes on Cullen's back remind him of it--as though he could forget.
Four and a half games of chess later, paused in check but not checkmate, they attend the Winter Palace. Halamshiral.
There's no room for dancing in wartime; there's a damned original darkspawn who's Maker-bent on tearing the world into sundered pieces--a world barely holding together as it is--and these nobles are still concerned with whether or not they're wearing the proper mask and making the proper small-talk over the proper glass of expensive Antivan wine. It takes all Cullen has not to fuss with his sash, pinned between bustling skirts and heady chuckles, strangers determined to flirt with him as though frivolity is their true savior. If they pretend hard enough, if they're committed to the act, then no shadows will blow past their windows.
"You're popular tonight," Dorian says, holding out a little tray of spiced nuts. "I'm very nearly jealous. Of the attention, that is. I do like attention."
"What I wouldn't give for a sword," Cullen mutters. He isn't hungry.
"That would only make you more dashing, not less." The velvet hugs Dorian's body in a swath of comfort that shouldn't be possible, given how Cullen's pinches whenever he breathes. "You could always undo that top-most button, you know--unless you think flashing a little pink throat to your adoring public might cause one or more of them to swoon. Is that the sort of impression we're supposed to be making at this fancy to-do? I can't recall. You could certainly distract the assassin with your southern charm, if that's the strategy for the evening."
"It's a serious matter," Cullen says.
"Yes. Quite serious. That gentleman can't seem to take his eyes off your backside."
"I know." Cullen's fingers twitch to tug at his collar, or to do as Dorian suggests and slip one of the buttons loose from its choking hole. "That's why I've my back to the wall."
"And here I'd thought they cornered you. That you needed rescuing." Dorian shakes his head. “Should’ve known, it’s all part of your strategy. Castling, if you will.”
Cullen laughs, though hardly louder than a breath. In spite of the pomp and artifice of the ball, whatever comes to pass tonight will have deadly serious consequences and they must all be on guard.
“There’s little choice. I’m here to serve the needs of the Inquisitor.”
“Surely one dance couldn’t hurt, could it? After such a grand entrance it seems a shame to scurry off into a corner and make that face you’re making.”
“What’s wrong with my face?”
“Oh, nothing, it’s a very good face in general, but you look positively dire! You won’t even consider a quick spin across the ballroom with an adoring young lady?” Dorian has abandoned the spiced nuts and instead sips wine, delicately, holding the glass with perfect poise. “Or gentleman, maybe?” He lifts an eyebrow and touches his chest, the suggestion obvious on every feature.
Cullen sighs, but he does smile. He’s not forgotten that Dorian is himself a creature of court, son of a magister and well versed in all the accompanying spite and treachery, petty or severe; he knows what’s at stake. Somehow, he’s still in good humor, as though the peril brings a shine to his eyes and tucks a smile into the corner of both cheeks.
“It would not be...prudent.” Cullen turns his head side to side, hoping to encourage his collar to sit looser, to no avail.
“No, I suppose not. A wise decision, I feel. If you were to dance with only one admirer, the collective disappointment of the rest might be enough to start another war.” Dorian finishes his glass of wine. “And in that regard, I’d have to say our dance cards are full enough as it is.”
A servant immediately appears with a tray of wine, and Dorian accepts a new glass in exchange for the empty one without batting an eye. Practiced. His collar is sitting perfectly and he looks for all the world like a prince.
“Quite right,” Cullen agrees. “To that end, be careful with the wine.”
That makes Dorian laugh, setting a hand on Cullen’s arm. “If you think three mouthfuls of red wine is enough to slow me down, you’ve gravely mistaken my character. I almost feel attacked.”
“Forgive me, I only meant--”
Dorian squeezes his arm; less than a second later his hand falls away. “I know, Cullen. I’m on my very best behaviour, cross my heart. I don’t hope to die though, not at the moment. That always seemed awfully grim.”
Three women with exceptionally ornate masks walk past them, each one making no secret that they are eyeing Dorian--and Cullen--from top to bottom. The two men walking close behind them appear to be doing exactly the same.
“Maker’s breath,” Cullen mutters.
“That, I think, is my cue,” Dorian says. “No doubt the Inquisitor will be by soon enough. In the mean time, should you need rescuing from the hungry clutches of all these beautiful people appreciating your backside, I’ll be in the gardens. Do at least try the canapés, hm?”
With that, he turns on his heel and departs into the crowd. He moves with the same swagger they do, though it’s less affected: confident, shoulders back, head high, looking down his aquiline nose. Cullen watches people stand aside and mutter amongst themselves as Dorian passes, and he wonders at the risk of bringing him here.
With his graces and several times the charm of almost the entire Inquisition--not counting Josephine, naturally--Dorian’s less out of place than Cullen himself, or even Cassandra. However, he’s still a mage from Tevinter: as he walks the crowd parts, and whispers linger in his wake.
The entire evening could go very, very badly.
Tut tut, Commander, Dorian would say.
It should concern Cullen more that he can predict Dorian's admonishments this well, but it's a matter of companionship. When he was younger, living in close quarters with the other templar recruits, they all picked up one another's bad habits, or learned them from top to bottom, predicting them like clockwork. After a time, those little details could be more familiar than their own faces reflected in polished breastplates. Depending on the day, in any case. And the lessons. Always those.
But if he tugs at his collar one more time, Leliana's going to scold him for letting the Inquisition down with his appallingly un-Orlesian behavior, and Josephine's going to fuss about his finery being a size too small, as though it's her fault. It isn't.
It's tight at the seams--just like the name they announced when he entered, all too-many syllables of it.
Cullen would like to believe the others will forget that little detail, what with the excitement. Attempts on the Inquisitor's life, countless status-shattering scandals and stolen secrets, harlequin assassins--surely no one will remember Cullen Stanton Rutherford of Honnleath in the morning.
Returned to Skyhold following the ball, he could go to the tavern to prove it to himself, but there's the regular busy-work the next afternoon and late into the evening, not to mention missives arriving by the droves in response to the business at Halamshiral and what it means.
What it means is the world is ending and they're trying to stop it and no, they aren't going to send along autographed handkerchiefs from the Inquisitor to every fluttering Orlesian dandy who requests one as a souvenir.
Three days later and Cullen Stanton Rutherford is all but certainly forgotten. He could stay at his desk and write to his sister, or he could spend the night in the taproom in order to win the argument he has with Cassandra about whether or not he's done something other than work for a change.
It's a mistake. Dorian homes in on him like an archer in the training fields.
"Stanton!" he shouts. "Stanton?" He slams an open palm on the wooden table and howls a laugh, perfect white teeth catching the lamplight.
"Maker's breath, would you contain yourself?" Cullen leans into one hand, gripping his temples between thumb and forefinger. With the other hand he reaches for his ale. He's nearly finished--only one pint, to spare his already aching head.
"Cullen Stanton Rutherford of Honnleath. I couldn’t believe my ears when they announced you. Is that all of it?"
"Yes, that's quite all."
Dorian swallows the last gulp in his glass and signals for a refill. "Cullen. Stanton. Rutherford. It's a mouthful. Very blond, somehow. Does that make sense?"
"You only say that because I'm blond," Cullen replies.
"No, no," Dorian waves his hand, as if tossing away the notion literally. "It's the mouth feel. Starts off with a bite, smooths over in the middle, and leaves with a rounded finish. Pleasing. Like a fine beer."
"Pleasing, hm." Cullen stares at the dregs of his drink. "I fear I'm anything but."
"Ah, see? Bitterness! A fine beer indeed."
A barmaid comes by with a replacement glass for Dorian, full to the brim, and a second pint for Cullen he did not ask for.
"My apologies, I'm--”
But she's already disappeared into the squall that comes each night to the tavern. Soldiers banter and laugh, and Bull's chargers are dominating the space with bawdy drinking songs, occupying a long table adjacent the bar. Somewhere in the rafters, there is a ghost haunting softly and sweetly.
Dorian clinks the rim of his fresh glass against Cullen's unwanted pint. "Surely one more can't hurt," he says. Then he sobers, all in a moment, eyes clear and gaze fast. He leans forward, "Unless it can, Ser Rutherford?" His seriousness has the sharpness of a blade's edge, and the hair on the back of Cullen's neck stands on end.
"I'm fine," he snaps.
First it was only Cassandra who knew his full name, then Leliana, because you couldn't keep anything from a spymaster. Though, he suspected Cassandra had simply told her. And then the damned Orlesians--traitorous thoughts to their tenuous alliance, speaking of his Ferelden heritage and Ferelden prejudices--had to go and announce him to all and sundry.
"Very well, Commander. But, all you must do is ask and I'll relieve you of the problem," Dorian says with another wave of the hand, as though casting a spell.
He's already three deep or more in whatever concoction he's been imbibing, likely more since he's been drinking since sundown. There's high color on his cheeks and the twinkle in his eye has multiplied sevenfold.
"What are you drinking, anyway?" Cullen asks him. He cranes his neck across the table trying to glimpse the exact hue and luster of the alcohol, but there's not enough light.
Dorian slides the glass over to him, fingers still lingering on the rim. "Here. Satisfy your curiosity."
Up close, it looks weighty. Cullen lifts the glass and breathes it, then fights the urge to cough as his eyes start watering. "Maker preserve me, that is...horrible. You and Blackwall haven't been uncorking those dubious bottles the Inquisitor keeps turning up, have you?"
Three clicks of the tongue and Dorian has reclaimed his poison. "I expected a good Ferelden chantry boy to know this one." He holds the glass up to the light, turning it slowly in his fingers. "It's the finest vintage available here at Skyhold so far. Too bad that only puts it a step or two above fox piss. In Tevinter, we lovingly call it swamp whiskey, since it looks and tastes like a southern bog, but," he shrugs, then knocks back a swallow, "it gets the job done." His fingers trace over his mustache, righting one of the twists. "Not only that, but depending on where it's brewed it possesses mild hallucinogenic properties. Perfect for livening up fancy parties."
Cullen can only shake his head.
Across the room the Chargers have broken out into another song, and Krem is standing on a chair. Again. "A bull's eye view!" he proclaims, which is apparently part of the chorus. Iron Bull has his head thrown back in booming laughter, horns very nearly catching on the wall behind him.
"They're certainly enthusiastic," Dorian says, his eyes following Cullen's gaze. "And handsome."
"Yes," Cullen says. "I mean, the enthusiasm, yes. I'm...unfit to comment beyond that."
"You have eyes, Commander. Nothing wrong with seeing."
"Let me guess," Dorian hooks an elbow on the back of his chair and leans there, his bare shoulder warm in the glow of the lamps. "You prefer the company of women." He lifts his glass to his lips, smiling behind it.
Cullen swallows. He licks his teeth and slides the untouched pint into his hands but only stares at it. "In theory."
Dorian coughs into his drink, patting his chest to clear out the misdirected liquid. After he's composed himself his eyes soften. "In theory?" He leans back across the table; close. Conspiratorial. "Commander, are you saying what I think you're saying?"
A glass shatters somewhere and the entire bar cheers and whistles, applauding the clumsiness. Sera's laughter carries all the way from her strange corner room upstairs.
The distraction doesn't break Dorian's focus.
"That...depends on what you think I'm saying," Cullen replies. He delves deep into his second ale, knowing he'll regret it tomorrow. As soon as an hour from now. Another regret on the long, long list.
This is Cassandra's fault. Somehow.
"Allow me to elucidate, then," Dorian says. "In the context of my question, that answer--in theory--likely means one of two things. First, it could mean you’ve never in fact enjoyed the company of a woman, which," Dorian gestures up and down at Cullen, "look at you, dashing knight in armor. Highly unlikely, unless... Well, that brings us to the second meaning." He holds up a finger. "Which is that in practice, you wouldn’t be unwilling to partake in the company of a man should the opportunity present itself."
Bull roars with laughter, mercifully unrelated, on the other side of the tavern. Cullen feels the scar over his lip pulling at his expression while he fumbles for an answer.
In the moment that follows, Dorian tilts his head to the side. "There is a third possibility as well," he says. "Which is both the first and second possibility combined. Is it both, Commander?"
Cullen begins to rise. "I must take my leave," he says. "There are preparations, operations to be mapped, I must..."
"Oh dear, now I've frightened you away. I forget myself with you upstanding pious types, please, Commander, don't fly off, we can discuss politics! Perhaps your trebuchet adjustments?" Dorian stands and reaches across the table, fingers gentle against Cullen's elbow. "Stay and finish your pint, at the very least."
"I'd best not. Forgive me."
Cullen leaves the tavern without looking back.
The air is frigid after sundown, no thin rays warming the courtyards, and it's a long climb up the steps to the ramparts. The darkness of the mountains is spectacular and complete, seas of stars flowing above in churning silence. His office will be cold, the bedroom above it colder, but the fire the Tevinter mage has set alight in his cheeks will burn hot enough to see him through the night.
Actually, the cold is welcome. There are other heats, feverish, frustrated, especially at night. Memories of flasks and the wonderful promises they made, the strength they brought in their clear draughts.
In the morning, it snows for the first time since they arrived, fresh little crystals on the air, the few children that have gathered streaking through the courtyard with snowballs, of all things, and there's something about that icy damp that threatens to crack Cullen's ribs. His knees; the knuckles of his fingers; a space between his eyes gnawing splinters through his skull.
Today, his unease won’t leave him. He stands in the yards watching the soldiers train, breathing white clouds and crunching snow under his boots as he shifts his weight side to side. The fur of his collar will be wet for hours: the falling snow sticks in it. He’s reminded of Haven, and the thought twists his mouth. They should’ve known better than to stay for so long. Outrageous, being caught that way, like a soldier in camp stripped of their armor and readying for bed while the enemy surrounds the fire with a circle of archers. Cullen believes the mistake is more his than anyone else’s, even if they didn’t know the scope of what they faced.
Skyhold is different. No more mistakes.
In the early evening, he is called to the war table, and the headache is bad enough that Leliana offers her arm as they step away after the day’s meeting. He accepts it, because if he doesn’t he risks stumbling, and he would prefer not to answer to Josephine or the Inquisitor for perceived illness or clumsiness. Leliana leans up and speaks to him of the weather in whispers, as though delivering a secret her scouts have brought from the field. He’s thankful for the ruse.
“Rest, Commander,” she tells him as they arrive in his office. “It’s almost sundown. There’s nothing further to be done until we have word on today’s work. If you feel better later, I believe there will be a new batch of mulled cider at the tavern.” She leaves him through the side door, off along the ramparts. Back to her ravens.
Dorian is constantly complaining about the ravens. “Birds! In the middle of a blasted library! What fresh nonsense will you southerners think up next?”
Cullen glances at the chessboard--their chessboard, minus the odd game with the Inquisitor--still frozen in the midst of that same arduous round that neither one of them wanted to lose but neither one of them could grasp how to win. He thinks of the tavern the night prior, and rubs his temples.
He can't face Cassandra. He'll ask her to relieve him again--and again, she'll deny him even that. She believes she knows better, and he can't remember to be charitable, to remind himself that her strong frame has its own struggles with doubt.
He'd even prefer to write to his sister now.
Instead, he takes to bed.
As he strips out of his armor, he hopes for a night without dreams. They come when he wants them least; blunt nightmares, in which he tries to make himself small to shrink the pain but all it does is wind it tighter and tighter, a chain around raw wrists.
He woke up once in recent months with a ragged figure standing over him, which made him yelp and nearly fall from the bed. But it was only Cole.
“Sorry,” Cole said. “I heard you crying. I want to help.”
“Sneaking into a man’s quarters in the dead of night is not helpful,” Cullen remembers growling at him.
Something squirmed inside Cole’s coat. “Here.” He opened it and set a mabari puppy on the bedspread, as though it were the only obvious action; like a baker offering a loaf of bread. The small brown dog bounced up onto Cullen’s chest and proceeded to lick his face vigorously. “I asked if it was alright, and she said yes.”
“The mother dog.”
Cullen wasn’t sure what other answer he expected.
When he was boy, he’d had a mabari. Every Ferelden had a beloved childhood mabari. His had been a gentle giant of a creature who did the rounds between him and his siblings, sleeping on the bed where she was needed most. She had a nose for heartache, bad dreams, loneliness, fears and hurts. She’d seen him through more than his share of nightmares, her big, solid head heavy and comforting on his chest.
Cullen feared the pup would fall from the upper level in the dark, so he dressed and took it to the stables, where Blackwall was awake and carving some handsome trinket or other. The man had a knack.
“Commander,” Blackwall said, after looking up to see whose shadow was in the doorframe. “Trouble sleeping?”
“I was...interrupted.” Cullen told him, or something like that. He put the pup down and watched it dart into a heap of hay. “Do you know where this came from?” Cullen asked him.
“I knew I heard puppies,” Blackwall said. “Been looking for ‘em but the dam must’ve found herself a snug hidey-hole.”
“The ghost found them. He...brought this one to me.”
Blackwall paused his carving. “You like dogs, then?”
“Leave the little nugget here and me and Dennet’ll see to him. Dog’s gotta have horse sense to be any use. Best to start them young.”
That was weeks ago now. Cole hasn’t been back to Cullen’s quarters since that night, thank the Maker, and the puppy is already getting into its leggy, big-eared stage. It belongs to all of them and none of them, passing afternoons at Blackwall’s side and evenings running to and fro with Cole in the courtyard, the occasional morning barking at Iron Bull and the soldiers as they train, and at least once every day it troops into Cullen’s office, shoving the door open with its wet nose to drool on his hands and nap under his desk.
Someone named it Turnip and it stuck, though nobody will own the deed.
It suits well enough.
Cullen pulls an extra shirt over top of his long underwear and slides under the heap of blankets on his bed. The ceiling is missing in places but fortunately no snow has managed to find its way into his covers, and he shivers for a few minutes knowing the warmth will come if he waits.
He’s drifting when he hears a knock at his door. Ignoring it is hardly befitting of someone of his station, but that is exactly what he does.
The door opens by itself a few moments later, and closes again. “Hello?” Dorian calls. “Commander?”
Dorian’s company, while perhaps not ideal, is hardly unwelcome. Cullen owes him a response, at the very least.
“Above,” Cullen croaks.
Silence from the floor below. “Commander, is it past your bedtime already? It can’t even be seven o’clock, I haven’t started drinking yet. Are you all right up there?”
Cullen sighs. He isn’t sure, if he’s honest.
“You’re not dying, are you? That would be very bad for morale. This whole Inquisition business would be so much uglier without you. Literally. You and I are the handsomest ones here. And Krem, but I digress.”
Typical Dorian. Dispersing tension and concern with joke after joke. “Just tired,” Cullen replies.
“Ah. I won’t disturb you further, then. Goodnight.”
“Wait,” Cullen calls. “Do you need something? Is there business that requires my attention?”
“It’ll keep,” Dorian says. “Long shelf life, much like our chess game.”
Cullen would like nothing better than to climb out of bed and finish that game. Take a few risks and perhaps let Dorian think he’s grown careless. He’s won with that strategy before.
Unfortunately his head is aching and the concentration required is unfeasible, give his state. Plus, he’s dressed only in long underwear, which would be inappropriate. However, the thought of spending the evening alone with every ghost in his head...
“Dorian?” Cullen says.
“Come up, if you would.”
"More ladders." Though it's too quiet for Cullen to hear at this distance, the brief pause isn't a pause at all--it's one of Dorian's tut-tuts. "Why, just the other day, the Inquisitor took me to the desert to run about for hours--at least it was warmer than the usual fare, and it wasn't raining--and we climbed at least a hundred ladders that afternoon alone. Though now it seems it was ample practice for this very moment." Cullen's ladder creaks. Dorian's voice draws nearer. "It does make a man wonder--exactly who is building all these ladders in the desert? Is there one intrepid fellow, or is it a conspiracy? A group of ladder enthusiasts? The south is as peculiar as it is perverse. Fasta vass, did you know there's a hole in your ceiling?"
Cullen shuts his eyes, listening to Dorian's footsteps pause at the edge of the floorboards. Perhaps he's more to worry about than just the pup. "Oh--is that what that is?"
"Don't play coy with me. It's a very big hole, at that. More hole than there is ceiling. With all the mending of bridges and fortresses and keeps this Inquisition does, you'd think its commander might mention there's a roof that needs thatching in Skyhold."
"A waste of resources and manpower."
"An enormous hole in your ceiling!"
"The stars," Cullen explains. Dorian's never going to stop teasing him for the admission, but perhaps he'll stop shouting about the ceiling--and that's an even trade. "I enjoy looking at the stars."
"Don't tell me your Fereldan constitution means you don't feel the cold. I've seen your nose turn pink. Is this a bizarre training ritual your templars go through? If so, it's barbaric."
Cullen winces, though it's fortunately hidden beneath the blankets. "Not a common practice, no."
"A personal idiosyncrasy, then." The floorboards creak again. When Dorian next speaks, it's closer. "You're a romantic, aren't you? One of those people who says to himself, 'I don't mind the cold; it's worth it to bathe in the starlight.' That's disturbing to hear. Possibly a fatal flaw."
If ever there was a voice that would chase ghosts away, Cullen thinks, it's Dorian's. "I suppose I should be offended."
"By your own behavior, if anything. May I sit in this chair, or is it reserved for your fluffy cloak?"
Cullen swallows. "Feel free."
"I endeavor to do so in all situations." There's rustling, more creaking. "This thing isn't as warm as it looks."
"Are you wearing my--"
"You said to feel free."
So Cullen did. "So I did."
Checkmate, of sorts. Or maybe only check. With Dorian, it can be difficult to read what he counts as victory and what is merely an element of the game, a move that calls for a quick parry. Cullen likes his victories absolute, but life rarely provides such luxuries, and when it comes to any war of words he must’ve accepted long ago that he’s fated to lose every time. Chess and conversations: the rare battlefields where the wounds dealt tend to damage a man’s pride more than anything else--not to say those particular injuries can’t be grievous, but it isn’t the same.
Cullen is at least more than passably capable of winning a game of chess now and then, and capable of losing gracefully too, which is perhaps another sort of victory from a philosophical standpoint.
“Hmm,” Dorian says, and Cullen can hear him ruffling up the fur collar. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I suspect it looks better on me. That’s true of almost everything that comes in contact with my body, however, and no fault of yours.”
Cullen turns under the covers to face Dorian, curious to see the cloak slung over someone else’s shoulders. It looks strange, but not as odd as he expected. The red and black fur on Dorian is regal in a way Cullen is sure it never has been on him. When he wears it, he looks like a cold, pale, miserable Ferelden--which, if he’s feeling morose, is accurate enough.
He wants to tell Dorian he strikes a fine figure in the cloak, but instead he says, “That old thing must stink.”
Dorian laughs. “Yes, of mud and dogs. I knew it would.”
“No deterrent to you, apparently.”
“Ah but I never said mud and dogs were bad smells, necessarily.” Dorian burrows deeper into the cloak, pulling it tightly about his shoulders. “It’s...homey. Like visiting the family farm. You know, nice until the weather changes and the novelty of waking at dawn to feed the snoufleurs wears off.”
“Something you’ve had copious experience with, I’ve no doubt.” Cullen can’t picture it to save his life.
“Salty about the mud and dogs, are we?” Dorian pats the blankets, a non-verbal there, there, and stares up through the hole in the ceiling. “What shall I say, that you smell of snow and starlight? Of soft leather and spiced rum? Would that ease your tender, romantic heart?”
Cullen’s heart thuds faster in his chest. “No,” he replies. He’s never been a good liar and hardly sees reason to try.
“Fair enough.” Dorian leans over and glances down at the floor. “A little light reading?” he asks.
The memory of the text gives Cullen a jolt, and in an instant he rethinks his position on lying. “It’s nothing.”
“Oh, well. In that case I must know.” Dorian picks up the book and Cullen makes an ill-advised lunge for it, but he’s thwarted by Dorian extending his arm to the opposite side of the room. Unless he wants to fall into the man’s lap to retrieve it, he’s resigned to what comes next.
“You didn’t get it from Cassandra, did you?” Dorian asks.
“Oh, nothing.” Dorian holds the text to the candlelight on the table and his expression undergoes what could only be called a cosmic shift. “Commander! You have a taste for the great classics, I see. I never would have thought. No offense, of course, but to find a copy of Leasandre and Teosin at a knight’s bedside in this day and age is...unusual. You’ve defied my expectations. Good for you.”
“I liked the story when I was a boy,” Cullen says.
He used to read and reread it on summer afternoons in the hayloft, back at home. When the word home meant something more than he suspects it ever will again.
It was safer then, to daydream about brave young men making sacrifices for the world.
“It’s a grand adventure, isn’t it? Two templar soldiers laying siege to a city of apostates, fighting side by side for the glory of the chantry, dying tragically while each man tries to save the other.” Dorian leafs through the book, jumping from end to beginning to middle. “An unabridged copy, too; what a treat. Do you know in the Imperium they paint them as absurd figures? A comedic example of the lengths the unmagical will go to in their attempts to control magic.”
“You’d need a perverse mind to see any humor in such an end,” Cullen says.
“Well, you know the Imperium. We’re nothing if not perverse.” Dorian pushes a hand through his hair and crosses one leg over the other, then uncrosses them again. He’s likely too cold, sitting like that, what with the hole in the ceiling. He isn’t used to it the way Cullen is. “They edit out the allusions to them being lovers, as well.”
Cullen feels color rising in his cheeks. Pink, to match the tip of his nose. “No two scholars could ever agree if they were intended to be lovers in the first place.”
“Pish! They absolutely were. I’ve read a number of editions and trust me, even when some old prude tries to wrest every instance of pining, every declaration of deep affection from these pages, they always miss at least two. Or they miss the point entirely and they leave in the whole love scene...” Dorian begins furiously turning the pages.
“You don’t have to find it, I know what you’re referring to.”
This discussion needs to end before it goes further. The scene Dorian is searching for is one Cullen read over and over as a boy, turning the words about in his mind in disbelief and profound, uncomfortable understanding. He was always pulled to that page by some merciless force that put fire on his cheeks, and it was heat he recognized--the same fire lit whenever he spoke to the neighbouring household’s teenage daughters. His sisters teased him for that, the way he turned red as a beet while sweat immediately sprung to his temples whenever he was sent over to borrow an egg or an axe or whatever else, the little inconsequential exchanges that take place between friendly neighbours.
“I swear it’s here near the end,” Dorian says.
“Dorian, it’s not--”
“Ah! Found it.” He clears his throat, and begins to read.
Every nuance, the deep love and coming pain of separation, ring truer aloud than on the page. Dorian’s voice softens from its usual bluster and his inflection breathes life into the passion of the young , if foolish, Templars. In truth, it’s only a few short lines, but Cullen can’t turn his eyes away. He’s transfixed, listening to familiar words as though they’re revelation.
Dorian finishes the passage and closes the book, setting his palm on the cover. “You cannot tell me those two men weren’t deeply in love with one another,” he says. “This is no mere soldierly camaraderie. Not that I have much experience with the soldierly.” His fingers trace the leather of the binding and he goes still.
Sadness is creeping in; the one Cullen has noticed on nights when Dorian strays too far into his cups.
He reaches out and takes hold of Dorian’s wrist. “I wasn’t arguing with you. I’ve felt comradeship for my fair share of soldiers, but this...” He pauses, shakes his head. “This is something else.”
Snowflakes begin to fall through the ceiling. Dorian watches them for a few moments, then shivers. “This, Commander?”
Dorian’s tendons flex under Cullen’s fingers. He swallows.
“This is different,” Cullen says. How, he isn’t sure, and why leaves him equally at a loss.
A hard gust of freezing air lashes through the open roof, carrying scattered snow with it, and Dorian hisses through his teeth. “That’s it,” he says. He shakes off Cullen’s hand and cloak, then lets the book drop to the floor with a thunk.
Cullen pushes up onto an elbow, heart racing to find words to amend whatever harm he’s done. “Dorian, I--"
“Move,” Dorian says. “Make room, Commander. If I’m to keep you company I refuse to freeze to death doing it.”
Cullen blinks, several times in rapid succession, but the command is clear. He makes room, and Dorian barely pauses to unhasp and kick off his boots before he snatches up the edge of the covers and crawls in.
Andraste preserve me.
Dorian would laugh at that, another relic of the devout, Chantry-boy upbringing, coupled with the oft-employed Maker's breath. Well, he would if he weren't otherwise occupied, swinging his legs beneath the blankets, which rise, briefly tented, over both their bodies. The cold air blows underneath, but it won't linger for long.
"The blankets smell as well," Dorian says.
"There was a mabari pup--briefly."
"Ah, yes. The nameless one. Or does it answer to Turnip now? Either way, it slobbers even more than some of our latest recruits to the cause. Tell me you've had the bedclothes washed since it arrived."
Cullen hasn't. Dorian's knees bump Cullen's below the covers. He might be wearing woolly socks, if Cullen's bare feet aren't too chill to tell the texture. The idea of woolly socks on Dorian's feet is enough to coax laughter, soft and shy, from Cullen's lips.
He coughs to free it.
"Ah, yes. The view from here isn't exactly terrible. Possibly insane," Dorian says, "but you're right about the stars. Very romantic. No doubt the puppy was adequately wooed." He shifts, taking his time, getting comfortable with an infuriating rocking of his hips, the mattress too old and too lumpy for someone with Dorian's exacting standards. No matter how he wiggles, he isn't going to make the thing any more hospitable. Dorian's certain to insult it any moment now, and after that, move on to the poor fools who gave a mattress like this one to the commander of the Inquisition's troops--no doubt the same individuals who saw the hole in the ceiling and allowed it to pass without mending.
"There is a snowflake," Dorian adds, "on my nose."
"I am told the Inquisition is a...unique experience."
"More so than all the other unique experiences I've had, yes." Dorian's pause is neither pregnant nor penetrable. "Well. This business with the red lyrium... Troubling, isn't it?"
Cullen shuts his eyes, then opens them. He won't close them to the truth, whatever it may be. "Troubling. Indeed. An uncommonly subtle description--"
"From someone as prone as I to exaggeration?" Dorian chuckles, a sound trapped beneath the layers of furs and rough blankets. "Perhaps there's nothing to worry about after all, is there? Your mind is as quick and cutting as ever."
"When you put it that way, it seems an insult."
"Your interpretation, Cullen; not mine."
Cullen swallows. His throat is always dry; on better days, he blames the weather, but it isn't that. "Has Cassandra told you?"
"Not surprisingly, I am not the good Seeker Pentaghast's primary confidante."
Another raw chuckle, less easy this time to pass off as clearing his throat. "No. I can't picture it. Not on this side of the Fade; you're right."
"I so often am."
"I'm no tragic templar, either."
"Despite how you seem to enjoy reading about them."
"I told you--a story from my childhood." Cullen holds back a yawn. "But that isn't what I intended to-- You are remarkably difficult to finish a sentence around. You must already know that."
"My lips are sealed," Dorian says. "At least until my teeth begin chattering. Then, I can make no promises."
It might be important--to tell a friend; to turn into the warmth, the heat, of Dorian's body, despite how he complains of being too cold, and offer the secret as simple as snowfall. The withdrawal is a dark thing, without starlight, and always waits, like nightfall. Maybe that's the reason for the hole in the roof--for a reminder, when the cloud cover isn't too thick to see the moon through.
"Yours appear to be sealed as well," Dorian murmurs. "Have you fallen asleep? Have my tender ministrations at last guided you into some much-needed rest?"
"No. That isn't..." Ministrations. What a word. Cullen rubs his forehead with the heel of his palm.
“You don’t smell like a Templar. Did you know that?” Dorian speaks softly. He’s finally settled in and stopped moving.
“And what does a Templar smell like, exactly?” In all his years in the barracks, Cullen never noted any specific smell, other than the expected ones that come with bodies sharing space. Sweat stink and old hay, dirty cotton, worn leather, and on the bad days, blood.
“Lyrium, of course. It’s very distinct. There are hints on you, but they’ve faded.”
Just like that, Dorian’s done most of his telling for him, which Cullen counts as a kindness given how private matters seem to stick in his throat when he speaks of them, worse than little fish bones. Certainly lyrium has a smell, but exposure over time has dulled Cullen’s senses to it, the way you adapt to any smell that lingers. He never would’ve associated it with himself.
“I...haven’t been a Templar since I arrived to the Inquisition,” Cullen says.
In the courtyards below someone sings a soft hymn, drunken and inconsolable. It’s getting on toward that time of night.
“Has it been difficult? If I may ask.”
Cullen nods. “The withdrawal is...” Excruciating. Crushing. “Painful, at times. Cassandra has been unwavering in her encouragement, however, and I’m grateful for her support.”
“Cassandra is your rock, is she? A good choice, the woman is hard as diamond. I hope you’re a fan of the tough love approach.”
This makes Cullen laugh, already a full chuckle before he can turn it to a cough. “Out of necessity. Were it not for Cassandra, I would’ve...” He thinks of the philter, the wooden box he still places on his desk in moments, minutes of indecision and thick, cloying weakness. Hours of drowning in the open air with a shadow nagging in his skull. “If it were not for Cassandra, I’d be in far more dire straits.”
Dorian gives a small nod. “She is nothing if not resolute, I will say that for our dear Seeker.”
“Her tenacity is admirable,” Cullen agrees. He counts her among his rare friends and feels honored to do so. “She is to keep an eye on me. If she doubts my judgment for even a moment, she’s to relieve me of command and find a replacement posthaste.”
“Posthaste! Goodness, Cullen. Don’t mistake me, I have utmost faith in Cassandra, but having her replace you with someone your equal is as about as likely as convincing Solas to do something different with his hair.”
While the image of Solas with hair is one to ruminate on, the idea of being irreplaceable is a daily discomfort Cullen tries to ignore. He prefers to think it untrue.
“There are many good men and women among the Inquisition. Any number of them would step willingly into the role if asked.”
Dorian only shakes his head. “Maybe, but I’m sure none of them would be quite so gracious as you about losing round after round of chess to the Tevinter mage.”
“Round after-- I’d hardly say beating me twice constitutes round after round!”
“It was twice in a row,” Dorian says.
Outside, the lone drunk’s hymn has turned from music into crying.
“Poor sod,” Dorian says. “Perhaps it’s nothing serious. Shot down by a potential lover, or spilled a bottle of good wine.”
“Mm,” Cullen frowns. He recognized the tune before it dissolved: an old Ferelden funeral staple, which he’s heard more times in his life than he would have liked. “I’m afraid it’s one of our songs for the lost,” he says, “which...”
“Ah. Doesn’t bode well.”
They’re both quiet, listening to the crying taper into silence. Sometimes within the walls of Skyhold one loses sight of the losses they face every day in the field.
“Do you want to step down from your post?” Dorian asks. He’s staring up at the stars.
“Cassandra believes I--”
“No, no, I’m asking you. How do you feel?”
Cullen’s shaky breath is white when he exhales it. Heat and cold mingling to make the invisible seen, then, just like that, it dissipates, irretrievable. Warmth he won’t get back.
“I’m tired,” he says. “But unless it becomes unsafe for me to command, the responsibility is mine. I must fight to remain, for a number of personal reasons. That said...” There’s the nagging in his skull. The shaking that comes and goes like changing weather. “I’ve asked Cassandra to begin a search for my replacement. I fear I may not have the strength to see this through to its end.”
Dorian reaches out under the covers and puts a hand on Cullen’s arm. “You’re doing well,” he says. “I thought you looked ill, when we met--such hollow cheeks! But recently you seem better. You’ve done far less staring off into the distance, save for the amount required to keep your romantic soul from withering.”
“Well.” Cullen tries to swallow but his throat is sticky, and he covers a cough. Dorian’s palm is hot, far hotter than it has any business being. “I do feel as though some of the fog has cleared.”
The hand doesn't move--Dorian doesn't move it. He doesn't see fit. There are countless ways he could move that hand, countless twists for the fingertips--little fidgets and flourishes he indulges in every other hour of the day--but it remains, still and still hot. Cullen doesn't inspire that sort of movement, or maybe it's the hour. The mourning song has finally faded on the air and the snow, if it can be called that instead of a half-hearted flurry, is still drifting, drifting.
Cullen blinks. Sleep threatens to overtake him but there's something about the moment that suggests it shouldn't and he fights the instinct, swimming against the tide. He can't help yawning again, close to smiling when Dorian catches the yawn from him and does the same.
"You stopped talking," Cullen points out.
Dorian pitches his voice low, a rumble in his chest like a guttering fire. "Don't tell anyone it's possible or they'll all clamor to learn your secret--how you achieved the nigh unachievable."
"By being incapable of holding up my end of a conversation, I assume. It isn't difficult to master."
"That's never stopped me before. If anything, it spurs me on to new dialogic heights."
"I'd thought you were tired. A rare moment of rest for someone who could use it." Dorian barely pauses. "I meant myself, of course. I was the one in the desert with the ladders; I certainly crave the sweet embrace of a warm bed and a downy comforter."
"Ah. I didn't think that you-- My apologies."
"Nonsense. None required. The fog has cleared, has it? And your cheeks are less hollow. Why, the other day they were practically rosy. A positive sign, if anything."
If anything, Cullen's cheeks are rosy now. They feel it, warm in the once-hollow spaces, which were drawn tightest on the long trek from their lost Haven to the yet-unknown hold in the mountains. If Cullen were standing--if this were a proper conversation--Cullen would rub the back of his neck to deflect all focus from his face, but one cheek is pressed to a limp pillow and the other is swathed in shadows. If Dorian can see the flush now, then no amount of deflection would hide the fact elsewhere.
They'd barely known one another then. Dorian had been an unmeasured variable, an inappropriately dressed Tevinter complaining about the snow in his northerner boots. But he hadn't stopped then, had he? The path was bitterly cold, drifts up to their knees and higher, long, black nights with the torches blown out by knife-sharp winds, and he must have been frozen in those peculiar and ornate robes.
Cullen blinks again, rapidly. "I'm awake still," he says.
"Did I wake you?"
"Hardly. You'd know if you had."
"Are you warm enough?" Cullen asks. "The hole in the ceiling, it... The room gets cold."
"Was that subtlety? From a Fereldan?"
"And deflection," Cullen says around another yawn, "from a Tevinter. We're playing our parts almost, almost too well."
"In this weather," Dorian replies, "I am never warm enough. Not quite."
“I’d offer you another blanket but, I fear this is all I have.”
It was worse when they first arrived. Supplies were limited. There were nights when Cullen wondered if he’d be better off back in the tents with the rest of the soldiers, each additional body warming the makeshift walls until it was almost bearable to wear only three layers instead of four when you crawled into your bedroll. The price of solitude is cold ears and a runny nose that rarely quits.
Sometime after their arrival, two perfectly folded pelts were placed on the chair next to Cullen’s bed, and he never did find out who left them. Perhaps Cole had visited more than once, or maybe it was Leliana. She had remarked on Cullen’s pink nose during their time around the war table, so he couldn’t rule her out.
Next to him, Dorian shivers. “I’ll endure it,” he says. “Somehow.”
They’ve come this far--this close. Cullen takes a deep breath and shifts forward. “Here,” he says, stretching out his legs and snaking his other arm under the second pillow. “If you wish, we can...” His fingers brush a buckle on Dorian’s side, above his hip, and he sets his hand down flat against it. “It’ll be warmer,” he finishes, hardly believing he’s making the offer even in the midst of doing it.
Dorian raises an eyebrow. He hesitates; Cullen wonders if he’s overstepped. The apology has begun to form on his lips when Dorian leans into him, nestling tight against Cullen’s front, forehead bumping the three-day beard on his chin.
Just like that, they’re in each other’s arms.
“Scratchy,” Dorian mumbles. “You Fereldans all look like you’ve never had a proper shave in your lives.”
Cullen’s throat bobs on a hard swallow and he exhales. “You’re one to talk. That fancy little mustache of yours tickles.”
Dorian huffs, arm cinching around Cullen’s waist.
He’s warm and he smells wonderful. There’s a fragrant note in his hair; perhaps an herbal oil. Nothing like the stuff Cullen uses on his own curls to keep them tamed. The mustache truly does tickle, though, and Cullen twitches, starting to laugh. It’s the first time he’s been held in...he dares not admit to himself how long.
“Honestly, are you that ticklish? You realize this is prime blackmail material. A ticklish commander... What would people think?” Dorian noses the base of Cullen’s throat and it makes him smile.
“If anyone finds out, I’ll know exactly who to take it up with.”
“Hm. Fair enough. In that case, it’s between us.”
There’s certainly something between us, Cullen thinks, only realizing how much the thought contains after it’s done darting across his mind. The thing that isn’t between them is space: he can feel the contours of Dorian’s chest and the brush of his stomach. He’s substantial the way a lean cat is much heavier than it looks, and deceptively soft.
Cullen’s drifting, again. The entire situation is dangerously pleasant. He squeezes Dorian tighter, a bid to hang on to consciousness, and rubs his back with an open palm. “Better?” he asks.
“Much warmer, thank you. I must say, I can’t help but notice that your cheeks aren’t the only thing that’s gotten less hollow since we arrived.”
Cullen groans, turning his head into the pillow.
“Don’t be that way! I’m glad for it,” Dorian pushes his nose against Cullen’s chest. “I’d say less gaunt is good, considering your recent tribulations.”
“It’s...inappropriate,” Cullen says, meaning he should be gaunt. He should take less, need less, run on whatever scraps aren’t used up by the people working under him. Excesses are unacceptable. But it can be hard to say no when Josephine comes by with a box of colourful Orlesian dainties, sent by this or that noble trying to curry favour without committing resources. If the Orlesians are good for anything it’s their baking, but sometimes he swears to everything holy it stops there.
Dorian only shakes his head. The mustache follows, back and forth. “Best to have our commander looking sturdy and hale, in my not-so-humble opinion. Besides, that armor of yours hides a multitude of sins.”
“Indeed. Formal wear, on the other hand...”
“Nonsense! Leliana was just showing me some of the letters we’ve received inquiring after your--"
“She wouldn’t!” But of course she would. “Andraste’s ass...”
“Oh,” Dorian says, laughing, “that’s a new one. At least, I’ve never heard it from you before.”
Cullen sighs and holds him tighter, and Dorian holds on to him in turn. In an unlikely twist of fate, it leads to silence.
“The stars do look beautiful, don’t they,” Dorian whispers sometime later. It’s the last thing Cullen remembers hearing before the drift of sleep finally takes him.
He wakes early, still tired. Through the hole in the ceiling, he can see the sky softening to sunrise blue from the pitch dark of night.
And he’s alone.
The mountains of Emprise du Lion cut a jagged silhouette into the sky. Cullen has made his first mistake of the day, which is to work up a sweat, then slow down. Now he’s chilled, and there will be no shaking it until they build their fires and make camp for the night. Sunset is not for another two hours.
He endures it.
There is no other choice.
So far, the trip has been uneventful, save for a run in with a disorganized group of bandits, from which his men escaped without injury. Best of all, they’ve managed to unearth some valuable resources from the region.
The Inquisition is a hungry thing. Manpower comes with mouths to feed and bodies to outfit in armor, hands that are empty without swords and people that need to be taught to wield them before they’re made proper soldiers.
All of it is distraction--distraction that is helping build an army that will save the world, or so they all hope--and Cullen is thankful.
In spite of that, nothing keeps his evening with Dorian out of his thoughts. It haunts him as soon as he pauses, much like the rest of his old ghosts, only this is a living man, one he has to see often, and he can only join so many field outings before his work at Skyhold catches up with him. He’ll be needed back in the next few days; a message to that effect is liable to arrive by raven or scout any moment.
Until then, Cullen digs with the rest of his men. They’ve found an valuable stone deposit in a small cave; although he could retreat to camp and read reports from Skyhold, he prefers the digging. It will warm him up again.
As he digs, Cullen thinks about the first time Dorian wound up in his arms when he staggered into Haven too tired to stand. Harbinger of their destruction, and a far cry from the second time. The real difference between the two instances was that the first was well-intentioned, a soldier helping a man stay on his feet, while the second was far less noble. Selfishness under the guise of good intentions, which is little better than an outright lie.
Cullen tells himself this. He tries to believe it. But deeper, in the dustier valleys of his heart, he knows he’s been hurt.
It was a loss, felt keenly, to open his eyes to find empty space at his side, with only the same lingering stars being chased from the sky by daylight for company.
Perhaps he misread everything. The book; their talks; the chess games and bad jokes. Dorian’s very nature is quick and flirtatious, and it would be easy to mistake it for...
Whatever Cullen mistook it for. He isn’t certain himself, and it’s the confusion that pins his expression in a grimace.
Ah, what his men must think. Another day in a growing history of days when they know to give their commander a wide berth. His idiosyncrasies have fueled idle gossip before, though his soldiers are good enough to do so well out of Cullen's earshot. In this case, what eludes him doesn't trouble him. If they believed him unfit, they would file complaint, a straightforward procedure that he finds blessedly uncomplicated. He may fear the day that paperwork lands on his desk, Leliana and Cassandra both standing on the other side of it with grim expressions and their arms tightly folded, but if it comes then it comes, with no uncertainty surrounding it.
His fingers are chapped and cold. He pauses his work briefly to chafe them and huff into his cupped hands for fleeting warmth.
It isn't the Winter Palace in Halamshiral and what's more, he's glad of it. Solid rock doesn't flirt with a man from behind a feathered fan or insinuate between titters; it doesn't ask him to dance just to laugh at his discomfort. Blunted cliffsides never try to be a thing they aren't. Even the cold is forthright, and the grunts of his men as they work signal honest, good labor.
Of course, the day bleeds into night and leaves Cullen's joints tight and his muscles clenched, while the glittering deposits of ore in their cart offer no advice on another matter.
If the friendship is at risk, then it should be protected. And the friendship cannot be protected by distance, silence, or subterfuge.
What the night could have meant slipped away before dawn, putting on its boots, without so much as leaving a note. Whatever Cullen had thought, he had been wrong. Disappointment is no stranger to someone who chose this life. The chilblains on his knuckles are proof of that.
They return to Skyhold two days later--not an hour past the point Leliana's latest missive says they cannot do without their forces' commander any longer. He wouldn't put her out of sorts on account of a personal matter.
The courtyard is as open and full as ever, sprawled under a sunny afternoon that sees Dennet fussing with the newest mounts to arrive, the air crisp and smelling of wood shavings and hay. The latest injured lie on their cots by the great stone steps and Cole, an inverted shadow like a fall of sunlight, lingers by them, soothing their murmured hurts. One of their old volunteers from Haven, the potion master Adan, is engaged in fervent debate with an unfamiliar apostate. Two of the Iron Bull's Chargers appear to have embarked on target practice--or is it a competition?--with an apple atop Scout Harding's head as the bulls-eye. There is much good in their world, and satisfaction, and happiness.
Cullen's mind wanders, despite his best efforts to avoid the diversion, to where Dorian would be at this time of day. Not in the tavern--no, he'll be with his books, fussing over the collection's shortcomings to any who will listen. The tranquil who does research on fade-touched creatures in that part of the keep is patient enough with him, but even Solas has remarked on the commotion from time to time.
If Dorian is to be at the tavern, it will be later. There's no reason at all for Cullen to pass through the Inquisition's temporary library on his way to his offices. It isn't avoidance if there's work elsewhere to be done, and there's always work elsewhere to be done. There's no time for a trip to the tavern that evening, a stack of scrolls waiting on Cullen's desk and demanding his attention.
He sleeps that night in his chair without ascending the ladder, his cloak blanketed around his shoulders.
There's a matter of Inquisition judgment the next morning; negotiations have gone sour with a noble family from Ostwick and a troop of soldiers requires deployment to remind them of the Inquisition's power; training rounds continue, which Cullen oversees himself. No time for the tavern that evening, either, though the songs spill outward from it late into the night as each patron departs.
It isn't avoidance if there's work elsewhere to be done--but it is avoidance all the same.
He tells himself that if he had a pressing reason to visit the library, if he needed some chantry scholar’s text or other, then he would attend in short order. No excuses, and no ducking in through the upper side door to bypass climbing the stairs that lead straight to Dorian’s lair. It’s a well chosen spot, advantageous for monitoring comings and goings, and it suits him, though Cullen marvels that he can accomplish any reading in the midst of all that bustle. Too many bodies moving about, too many squawking birds.
Dorian does enjoy complaining about the birds.
After the torches are lit for the night and Cullen has eaten supper, he realizes he does need a text. He knows full well there is no copy of it on his shelves, yet there he stands, staring at his meager collection of reference volumes, hoping he can will it into existence if he concentrates hard enough. He rubs the back of his neck, wondering if maybe Dorian has shifted to the tavern for the evening.
But Cullen can still set this task aside for the morning. Perhaps it would be better delegated to Josephine, who has infinite patience for these entirely meaningless details that govern whether mercurial noble favor is granted or withheld.
He sits again, pulling a different report to the top of the pile. He needs a text for this one, too, but this time he does have a copy.
There are two sharp knocks on his door a few moments later, most likely a scout with late evening news.
“Come,” he says. He’s scanning the topmost shelves with no sign of the reference book he needs. “If this is regarding the latest mess in Denerim, I’m advising we defer to Josephine. Maker knows she’s better suited to charming emissaries than I am.”
“Now now, don’t sell yourself short, Commander.”
Cullen turns so quickly at the sound of Dorian’s voice that he nearly knocks three separate things off his shelves. No wonder he can’t find the books he needs, if he’s always this clumsy. “Dorian, I...”
“I’m afraid this has nothing to do with Denerim, though I admit my curiosity is piqued about what could possibly require the wiles of our lovely ambassador.” Dorian takes a few steps forward into the room.
“Nothing terribly exciting. The usual pompous carrying on.” Cullen pushes his hair back and fights to keep the red in his cheeks from overtaking his whole face. “I trust you’ve been well?”
“Indeed. Good to see you returned from the Emprise in one piece.”
“Ah, yes. An uneventful, if lucrative, excursion.” Cullen approaches his desk and leans forward, placing both palms on either side of the map he’s spread out to plot troop movements. He forgets himself and puts too much weight on the right-hand side, and the whole thing wobbles. “Oh, for the love of...”
Dorian clicks his tongue. “A hole in your ceiling and a wobbly desk?” Just what kind of Inquisition are you running here, exactly?”
Cullen kneels down to investigate the troublesome leg. “It wasn’t like this at first.” Sure enough, the wooden wedge he pilfered from the forge some days back has disappeared. Again. “I’ve fixed it on no less than three occasions and yet...”
“Sounds like a conspiracy,” Dorian says.
“Sounds like Sera, is what it sounds like. Blackwall and the Inquisitor both encourage her, you know.”
“So I’ve heard. Quite the chaotic little trio. Or rather, big trio, since Blackwall is roughly bear-sized and ups the average considerably.” Dorian crosses his arms and smiles. “Good thing they’re on our side, isn’t it? Just imagine: if they weren’t, there’d be nary a solid piece of furniture left in Skyhold. Wobbly chairs, wobbly tables--no work accomplished free of annoyance ever again.”
Cullen looks up at Dorian. He doesn’t want to return the offered smile, but the corner of his lip curls before he can turn away.
“You’re right, it's harmless. I’m overreacting.” Cullen stands and huffs a breath. He’ll find another wedge later.
“Why not prop it up on a stack of your love letters from Orlesian dandies?”
“Thankfully, those letters seem to have ceased for the time being.”
Dorian’s eyebrows tighten in something like a frown. “You may want to have a word with our dear Nightingale about that.”
Cullen’s jaw works and he almost speaks, but instead he covers his face with a palm and growls through a sigh.
“Commander, all jests aside, I... I felt it of utmost importance to apologize to you for what happened during my last visit to your, ah, humble abode. We were both tired and I’m afraid we may have misunderstood one another. Truthfully, I’d come by that evening to apologize for my behaviour the time before, when I spoke out of turn at the tavern.” Dorian steps forward until he’s standing opposite Cullen, on the other side of the desk. “It was inconsiderate of me to pry into your personal affairs, regardless of how many drinks I’d had.” He shakes his head, “And it was a few, that night. Anyway,” he puts a hand to his chest, “I apologize, and I apologize. You’re under no obligation to forgive me, though I do have one final peace offering.”
He sets a book down on the desk between them, finger trailing along the cover before tapping it twice.
It isn’t the volume Cullen was looking for, obviously, as mages haven’t yet perfected the art of mind-reading, but instead a small blue book with no visible title. “What’s this?”
“Given your fondness for Leasandre and Teosin, I feel you might enjoy this one, too.” Dorian gestures at the veritable mountain of reports still occupying half the desk. “That is, if you’ve the time to do any personal reading ever again.”
“I...” Cullen stares down at the book, then meets Dorian’s gaze. His gray eyes are bright and soft, apologetic as a sad mabari pup. “Thank you.”
"Try not to forgive me until after you've read it."
"There's nothing to forgive--"
Dorian waves a silencing goodbye over his shoulder, already on his way out and giving Cullen no chance to prolong the conversation. Dorian's posture is impeccable and he stands at a jaunty angle; it's like no quick retreat Cullen's ever witnessed. Still, it gives the impression of being some kind of rout, if only because Dorian never seems the type to apologize freely. He has the air of someone whose every offered slight is intentional rather than accidental. If he bandies barbs, he has a quick enough wit and a sparkle to his eye that suggest he meant the insults, the same as any other nobleman.
But apologize he does--and did--leaving a token of his earnestness in his wake.
There's still the pile of unattended paperwork waiting. It isn't going anywhere and it won't tend to itself. Dorian was right; Cullen has no time to read for pleasure. If anything, he carves out hours for such pastimes from those he should spend sleeping, rather than shirking his duties.
Still, Dorian loves his books. He's chosen to live among them--not that Cullen would presume to interpret the choice with any accurate insight--as though he prefers them to people. He's chosen to live among them despite the chaos of Leliana's messenger birds, which he hates, and if that's any indication of his dedication to the library collection, then it's certain he feels strongly about it.
Cullen thumbs the book open to the first page. He isn't the type to flip idly through. When it comes to a story, there's only one way to begin: at the beginning. Once committed, it's best to see it through until the end.
Introduction: A critic's response to the tale of Leasandre and Teosin.
Essay: Scholarly analysis on the tale of Leasandre and Teosin.
Main text: An extensive collection of poetry inspired by, or directly involving, the tale of Leasandre and Teosin.
Cullen sits. Curiosity gets the better of him. It shouldn't, but it has, and there's no denying that.
However, a book is meant to offer insight. Yet Cullen's light reading--if it can be called that, when so many of the passages are erudite and dense, and the poetry even more difficult to untangle--only leaves him twice as perplexed as he was before Dorian arrived.
They spent the night together, which could have been interpreted as romantic or simply as practical. Dorian's departure in the wee hours the following morning was sensible; therefore, it should follow that the interpretation should err on the practical end. Except this is a book of poetry, much of it romantic in subject matter and form, and there's no denying what it means to share poetry. The meaning should be clear.
Rhyming couplets that twist Cullen's thoughts--and heart--into knots, winding in his belly, hot as the breath that catches on his knuckles, where his chin rests on his palm. It is love poetry, given to him by Dorian, who laughs at the very idea of romanticism. He laughs at Cullen, too.
"Maker's balls," Cullen says.
Another quaint southerner turn-of-phrase that would make Dorian tut and chuckle, all warm humor and teasing glances, a hint of gold in his eyes.
Maker's balls, indeed.
Cullen returns the book after a reasonable amount of time has passed--if anything, he'd spend the better part of the year attempting to find the secret meanings in each poem, and Dorian would never see his book again. It would hardly be polite. He can't return it too soon, either, since that would suggest a lack of attention; too long, and Dorian might think him slow-witted, if he doesn't already.
A raven swoops toward him on his way up the stairs. If Cullen didn't know better, he'd say Leliana trains them to do that.
The smile on her face as she peers over the upper railing at him certainly does her professed innocence in the matter no favors. Or perhaps she knows the purpose of his visit.
Perhaps she knows everything. There’s a good chance she does, given her position. Best to assume so and make peace with it rather than worry, since anything Leliana doesn’t know she very soon will.
Dorian is seated in his big chair by the window, a stack of books at his side and two in his lap, another open in his palm. The light from the window silhouettes his profile, highlighting the perfect arch and point of his nose as his free hand fusses with the curl of his mustache.
The mustache that tickles.
Cullen feels his cheeks start to redden, and he clears his throat.
There’s a brief, calculated pause before Dorian glances over. “Commander!” he says. “Good to see you in my neck of the woods.” He offloads the texts from his lap onto one of his nearby stacks and stands. His shoulder is bare, as always.
“I’d’ve knocked,” Cullen says, “but I’m afraid you’ve no door.”
Dorian blinks a few times, glancing around them. “Don’t I? Goodness, is this really only an alcove? All this time I’d thought that was just how things were in the south. No ceilings, wobbly desks, missing doors, strange paint fumes wafting from downstairs where the master is toiling away on his oeuvre.”
Solas is below them now, brush in hand, recording history while Dorian combs through histories already recorded in book after book, digging for answers or inspiration or, apparently, poetry.
“No need to stand on ceremony, Commander. Come join me by the window.”
Sidestepping several piles of books, Cullen walks far enough into Dorian’s space to realize he has, of all things, a lute tucked away in the corner. “Oh. You play?”
“I do, yes. I’m quite good if I say so myself, but it attracts the birds--Leliana included. She has a lovely singing voice.”
“Yes, I’ve had the pleasure of hearing her before.”
Dorian crosses his arms and leans next to the window. “And you, Cullen, do you play?”
“I’m afraid not. Never had much aptitude for it. I sang a bit in the chantry choir as a boy, but to be honest I mostly mouthed the words.”
Cullen chuckles, a dry sound that matches all the dusty parchment. “Yes. Afraid to sing the wrong note.” He’d done it once, and although his parents assured him nobody had even noticed, he still carried the fear in his heart that he’d ruined the whole chant.
“Sometimes singing the wrong note is half the fun. After all, music is a game, a lot like chess. There are certain combinations that bring about certain results, and once you’ve learned them it’s a bit like magic. The right song can cast a spell.”
“That would explain my lack of aptitude,” Cullen says.
Dorian laughs. “Maybe.” He turns to look out the window. “Hold on, what’s this?”
Cullen glances down at the main gate to see a troupe of warriors, kitted to the nines, marching into Skyhold’s courtyard. Josephine stands at the ready to receive them, Cassandra beside her.
“Mercenaries, by the look of them,” Cullen says. “Cassandra did say we were expecting an all female company in the next few days. They sent two of their number ahead with word last week.”
“Ah, the two warrior goddesses who’ve been drinking with Krem the past couple nights, I presume? The Tal-Vashoth woman and the one with the stunning head of hair. When they first walked in I think Krem briefly thought he’d died and gone to the bosom of a very welcoming Maker.”
Dorian turns his attention back out the window and Cullen allows his to follow. One of the women pulls off her helmet and her dark skin shines in the thin sunlight as she greets Cassandra and Josephine with a bow.
“By the look of it, he’s going to have another near death experience tonight,” Dorian says. “How many goddesses is that altogether? Twelve?” He shakes his head. “But I digress. This visit of yours must be some matter of business or other. What can I help you with, Cullen?”
Cullen looks down at the small volume in his hand, then holds it up. “Nothing serious. I merely wanted to return your book. I finished it.”
Dorian tilts his head ever so slightly to the side and smiles; a closed-lipped, private sort of smile. “And?”
“I enjoyed it very much,” Cullen tells him. “The bits I understood, at least. As you’ve no doubt guessed, I’m no great student of literature.”
Dorian scoffs. “Poetry is meant to be understood somewhere in here,” he says, gesturing to the middle of Cullen’s chest with a circling wave. “Not so much up here.” He taps the shaved side of his head. “Scholars love nothing more than to suck the life out of the work for the sake of starting a good argument, but we’re under no obligation to take our cues from them. We can find any meaning we like, or no meaning whatsoever, at our leisure. I’m delighted to hear you enjoyed it.”
“I thought it best to bring it back to you before it disappears under a stack of reports. Wouldn’t want to deprive our library of anything of historical importance.”
Cullen holds the book out, and Dorian accepts it. Their fingers brush for a fleeting moment in the exchange.
How poetic of them.
“Thank you, but you needn’t have worried. This is one from my private collection,” Dorian says.
“Oh.” Cullen falters, uncertain if this information is meaningful or a simple fact shared for the sake of conversation. “Thank you, either way.” He’s missed something. An opportunity he doesn’t understand. Maybe he was meant to keep it long enough that Dorian would come by looking for it. The book could have served as an excuse. Now Cullen has gone and handed it back.
“It’s no trouble. If you’d like further recommendations, you need only say the word,” Dorian says. He’s flipping aimlessly through the text, his quick fingers always conjuring movement.
“I’ll...bear that in mind.”
Cullen stands for a few moments, frozen in indecision.
“Something else, Cullen?”
Since he’s given the book back, the burden lies with him to extend a further invitation. Cullen rubs the back of his neck and places a hand on the top of Dorian’s chair. “I’ve just remembered our chess game,” he says.
“Oh, no. Tell me the board isn’t still set as we left it?”
“I’m afraid so,” Cullen says with a nod.
Dorian leans a shoulder against the wall to steady his laughter. “That must be a record. We’re hopeless, aren’t we?”
“It would appear we are.”
“Shall I come by later this evening and we’ll put the sorry thing out of its misery? If you’ve the time.”
Tonight is, mercifully, free. “After the war council convenes, yes.”
Dorian reaches out and pats Cullen’s shoulder. “The duel is set. Don’t you dare spend all afternoon poring over the board either, that’s cheating.”
Cullen holds up both hands. “On my honor.”
Only the war council convenes early, and by late afternoon Cullen receives word that the Inquisitor has left: off to the Hinterlands on some errand or other, the purpose of which the messenger failed to specify. Were it major, someone would have informed him, but some leeway for operating on assumptions must be given, otherwise they’d run every messenger under their command ragged in less than three hours.
Dusk settles over the stalled chess game--in truth, just as it has every night since the pieces were last shifted across the board. It isn't as though they can anticipate the change to come to their calm little corner of inaction.
With no light reading to distract him, Cullen devotes himself to the latest reports instead, familiarizing himself with each dissatisfied and self-important noble, either adequately shamed by Josephine's honeyed tongue or blackmailed by Leliana's clever puppeteering. There's the new group of mercenaries that just arrived and their terms to consider as well, although their interest now lies in the tavern, their bawdy songs loud enough to drown out the usual chanting of the Chargers.
That’s a far cry from the choir at the Chantry, although Cullen has learned most of the words by heart, and finds himself humming along when he forgets himself, no one to overhear but the silent rafters.
He glances toward the door only once during the evening--twice, technically, but the first time doesn't count. He most assuredly heard a creak, though it turned out to be nothing more than the wind buffeting the wood and not a messenger as he'd thought, or Dorian as he'd hoped.
But if Cullen knows Dorian even a little, then he knows Dorian is bound to drop in on the festivities, making his rounds through the taproom before turning his mind to chess. Curiosity can only be sated so much by watching events transpire from behind a high window. Some men have to be a part of the singing, as it were.
Cullen sighs and returns to a letter of grievance from a noblewoman about a missing cat. The candle on his desk gutters lower, flame licking the pool of melted wax.
When the candle goes out, Cullen debates whether or not to check the tavern for signs of his would-be guest. He makes up his mind, walks all the way to his door, then rescinds the decision. He stands with fingers pressed to the rough plank wood, undecided, wondering if he ought to leave it be--but what harm can it do to check?
There are myriad reasons why Dorian could have forgotten, ten thousand different distractions and drinks that might have kept him away. Surely he won’t consider Cullen stopping in an intrusion.
He opens the door, which seems so much simpler from the other side of it.
Outside, the air nips Cullen’s face as he walks the ramparts to the stairs. For many, the evening is only just beginning; laughter and talk abound. When he steps into the tavern, the heat inside is a moist wall that smells of ale and wet boots, and he moves first to the bar to order himself a pint. Drink in hand, he scans the main floor--idly--to no avail and no sign of Dorian whatsoever.
He does, however, spot Varric, who gestures for him to come over. Cullen may be Commander of the Inquisition’s forces, but no one can deny Varric. That much is true anywhere.
“Curly, in the flesh. This is new for you, isn’t it? Turning up to the tavern without someone dragging you by the ear? Is everything all right?”
“Everything is fine.” Cullen turns his gaze to the upper floor but sees no familiar outlines and hears no indignant, melodic laughter.
Dorian hasn’t set him up for this, then.
“Looking for somebody?” Varric asks.
“No,” Cullen says.
Varric tilts his head and smiles. It’s not an unkind smile--Cullen isn’t sure Varric is capable of an unkind smile--but what it is has to be worse. It’s disbelieving, and Cullen can’t deny that, either.
“Actually, yes,” Cullen admits.
“Hm.” Varric takes a sip of his ale. “Hate to be the one to tell you, but if you’re looking for Sparkler, he left with the Inquisitor this afternoon. They were headed for Redcliffe. From what I overhead in the great hall, it sounds like the Pavus family is hoping to have a word with their wayward son.”
“Ah.” The pint in Cullen’s hand suddenly feels heavier than it ought to, prompting him to take a long drink to lighten it.
“Thought he’d stood you up, huh?” Varric chuckles. “You two and your chess. Is he any good at it? He’s never struck me as the patient type.”
“He’s clever,” Cullen says. “Sometimes that’s enough.” He lowers himself into a chair adjacent Varric and watches the bubbles rise in his beer--the brew Dorian says he doesn’t like after his first sip, but confesses to adoring halfway through his second tankard.
“He is that--for what it’s worth.” Varric leans back in his chair and crosses his outstretched legs. “Still, I hope everything’s all right. You know, he and I have a lot of bets on the go, and he needs to be here in order to make good when he loses them."
"Was it trouble?"
Varric shrugs. "What I managed to glean from the Inquisitor’s conversation with Mother Giselle sounded an awful lot like it.”
“Now, now, don’t worry your pretty head, Curly. I’m sure the two of them can handle themselves. I’m talking more about the messy emotional stuff. Family," Varric shakes his head, “family’ll mess you up every time.”
Cullen wouldn’t know. “I wouldn’t know,” he says. Save for his one sister and her occasional, albeit outraged, letters, he hasn’t felt a part of anything resembling that in years. Until now. Until the Inquisition.
He takes another long swig out of his pint and then rubs the back of his neck.
“How are you doing, anyway?” Varric asks. “You look better. Are you better?”
“At times,” Cullen replies.
Varric laughs, soft enough that it almost disappears in the noise of the bar. “That’s always how it goes, isn’t it. Still, it’s better than most of the alternatives.”
Upstairs, Sera is walking the railing and miming shooting arrows from an invisible bow.
“Maker, does she do that often?”
“That and worse." Varric holds up one hand. "Better for us both if you don’t ask.”
The tavern is finally fully alive for the night, all the soldiers done with their duties, minus a few of the more unfortunate crewman in the forge. They recognize him as a leader, of sorts--a drill master, not a drinking companion--and he wouldn’t want to pierce the illusion, cross any unspoken lines. It’s time for Cullen to bow out. He downs the last of his ale in one long pull and sets the empty tankard on the table with a clunk. That’s when he realizes he hasn’t eaten.
He’ll need to stop by the kitchen on his way back to his quarters.
“I’d ask if you’ll stay and have another, but I already know the answer,” Varric says.
“You’ll forgive my abruptness then, I hope." Cullen pauses. "One thing, before I go. May I ask how you knew I was looking for Dorian?”
The answering shrug lifts both of Varric’s broad shoulders, then drops them again. “What can I say. I’m a good guesser.” But there’s a glint in his hooded eyes that implies more. With Varric, there’s always more.
Cullen simply nods and walks away.
In fine weather, it’s three or four days hard riding to Redcliffe, and often a longer journey coming back, since the return to Skyhold is a near continuous uphill climb. Dorian and the Inquisitor are gone on their errand for over a week, and in their absence Cullen carries on exactly as he otherwise would. He oversees training in the mornings, manages troop deployments, and even leads one brief but gruelling trip into the mountains to organize search parties after a pair of expected scouts failed to return to the fortress.
As it transpired, one of them had fallen, saved only by a tether he shared with his partner, who managed to grab hold of a rocky outcropping to keep them both from tumbling into a crevasse. Both had been injured by the incident, but Skyhold’s surgeon believed they would make full recoveries.
The outcome is, as Varric would say, better than most of the alternatives.
Winter is perpetual in the Frostbacks, and Cullen spends three days after his return from the rescue miserable and sick with a cold, biting his tongue to keep his ill temper subdued around the recruits. The last thing they need is an old, snarling wolf of a commander at their throats when they’re working themselves to the bone to learn skills that take years to master, skills Cullen spent his entire youth mastering. Patience is a valuable resource, one he tends to run out of, but he must always try.
He’s only just beginning to recover from the illness when he receives word that the Inquisitor and their traveling companion have returned from Redcliffe. It’s a crisp, sunny morning. They must have taken advantage of the clear skies and ridden through the night.
The Inquisitor summons everyone to the war table to bring them up to speed, but the tone of the room is somber, and they don’t speak of Redcliffe beyond a brief mention that it didn’t go well.
It’s not Cullen’s place to go to Dorian. Were circumstances slightly less convoluted, it might be--but as it stands, he feels it necessary to wait.
In lieu of any obvious action to take, Cullen retreats to his office, still sniffling now and then and cursing the bitter elfroot tea he’s been given to combat the last traces of his ailment.
Afternoon stretches on into evening and evening into night.
It’s late when there’s a knock, quick and sharp.
“Come,” Cullen says.
When the door finally opens, bringing with it a gust of cold wind, Cullen looks up a beat too late. Dorian is there, framed by darkness without and unsteady light within, eyes candle-bright.
"You weren't beginning to think I wouldn't come, were you?" Dorian asks warmly. "I haven’t forgotten our chess game. I know, I know, eight days after the fact is arguably beyond all semblance of fashionably late but--oh, no. It seems my absence drove you to paperwork. I'll never be able to apologize enough."
"I have to go through it sometime," Cullen replies.
"At this hour? But you're the sort who prefers to get it all out of the way, aren't you? Yes; of course you are." Dorian rests his palm on the doorjamb, twisting his thumb against the wood, fingers drumming restlessly. "So, it seems I haven’t missed anything while I was off on my mad excursion. The new mercenaries have proven quite the distraction. For some, in any case--the Chargers in particular. If they don't break all the tables with their arm-wrestling competitions and the like, I'd say it's the beginning of a number of beautiful friendships."
"Never a dull moment," Cullen agrees, although the comparative silence in his quarters suggests otherwise. He clears his throat. “How was the journey?”
“Fine. It was fine. Fewer bears than normal, thankfully. It’s Cassandra they hate. Or is it like? I’m never entirely sure.”
Cullen nods. "So, the chess game--"
"Business, business; always business." Dorian flicks what might be a splinter or nothing more solid than a shadow off the tip of his forefinger. The air itself seems to fidget, catching Cullen between rising--as is only polite--and remaining seated. "But you're right, after all. The poor board--it must have felt so lonely without the attention. Let’s have at it, if you’re willing."
"Ah..." The chair scrapes the floor as Cullen finally stands with an uncomfortable screech.
"Another of Sera's tricks?"
If only Cullen could blame the shoddy craftsmanship on a simple prank. "Not entirely. In fact, I'm not even sure if the chair wasn't already here when we first arrived at Skyhold."
"Tell me it wasn't."
"It required only slight repairs," Cullen says. "It's suitable enough."
Dorian tuts, then tsks, then pushes himself off the door frame and into the room. Cullen wonders if he should breathe a sigh of relief. "Yet you don't make your guests suffer wobbly relics. Dare I take it you believe them more worthy of basic comfort than you?"
"The chess game," Cullen says again, knowing full well how foolish it sounds. The ruddy color is high in Dorian's cheeks when he passes, the heat of his body nearly a tangible thing around which Cullen could close his empty hands.
“The chess game, yes. A week late, but here we are. How dare I deviate from the stated goal of our evening.” Dorian gives a slight, mocking bow of apology, but it’s in good humor. “I’m beginning to think that’s all I am to you: a convenient chess opponent.”
“You travel too often to be called convenient,” Cullen replies.
“Oh.” Dorian covers his chest with one hand. “You wound me. An inconvenient chess opponent, then. I feel so used.”
Cullen pauses and watches Dorian waver slightly on his feet as he reaches to adjust the extra chair.
“You’ve been drinking,” Cullen says, though it's an understatement of no small measure.
Dorian laughs, a soft laugh that deepens to a chuckle. “When haven’t I been drinking?”
“You’ve had more to drink than usual. Are you quite all right?”
“So serious! Don’t fuss over me, Commander, I’m a big boy. Or are you afraid I’ll still win, even at a disadvantage? Losing to a drunk--how embarrassing that would be. Perhaps not as embarrassing as your performance at Varric’s wicked grace game, but nonetheless, a man has his reputation to consider.”
“Right. Yes. I forget myself. That never happened. I have never seen either you or Blackwall running stark naked through the courtyards in the dead of night. But for men so confident in their cards--mistakenly, I might add--neither one of you seems terribly confident in your physiques, which...well.” Dorian shrugs. “Mysteries.”
Cullen sighs and brings the chessboard down from its shelf. A fine layer of dust has accumulated on the pieces, a testament to their undue neglect; or perhaps a testament to the state of Cullen’s unfinished little corner of Skyhold. He puffs a breath over the pieces and the particles billow away, soon to join the rest of the dust coating every corner of his office. “Shall we?” he asks.
They settle into their respective seats and Cullen examines the board, trying to remember what his long game had been at the start. He’s foolishly allowed Dorian to check him; that much he remembers--and regrets.
First things first: get the king out of harm’s way, which he does without thinking for more than a few moments. He’s left a rook for the taking, which Dorian likely won’t fall for, but if he does, they'll be in check again shortly.
Without pause, Dorian takes the bait. “Oh dear,” he says. “How silly of me. Looks like you’ve got me now.”
Of course. Too easy. “Don’t just throw the round,” Cullen says.
“Throw the round? Whatever do you mean?”
“You’re not taking this seriously.”
Dorian’s reply is a shrug of his bare shoulder and a smile.
“I don’t want you to hand it to me on a silver platter. What honor is there in that?” Cullen rises. “Let’s finish it another time, when you’re...more present.”
“Are you quite serious?” Dorian makes a broad, stiff gesture. There’s frustration in the movement. “Never mind; that’s a foolish question, seeing as how you’re always serious. But don’t I have any say in the matter? You’ve won. Can’t we leave it at that?”
Cullen shakes his head. “I can’t abide hollow victories. I don’t want this.”
A shadow passes over Dorian’s face. His hands settle and he goes still. It takes Cullen several long moments to realize that Dorian has, in his own way, started to cry. It’s nothing dramatic--an extra sheen in his eyes and flare in his nostrils--but it is there. He stands the moment Cullen makes the connection and makes for the far door of the room.
Cullen takes a few steps after him. “I... I apologize,” he says. “Dorian, I’m--"
“Stop.” Dorian waves him off. “Don’t. It’s not...it isn't you, Cullen. It’s hardly your fault.” He shakes his head and rubs at his face with a tense hand. “I’m not myself these past few days.”
“Did something happen?” Cullen asks, approaching him slowly. It’s very much like saving a man dangling over a cliff's edge with only a tether between him and a steep drop. “While you were away?”
“You mean you haven’t heard?”
“I’m no Leliana,” Cullen replies.
"No. Not enough birds."
"None, in fact."
Cullen tells himself the long silence isn’t his fault, either, as Dorian mulls in the shadows.
“My father was in Redcliffe," he says at last. "Waiting for me. He claimed he only wanted to talk, but Maker knows what his true mind was.” Dorian takes a quick breath and holds it, lifting his head against the tears.
“I take it you don’t see eye to eye?” Cullen asks.
The laugh Dorian lets out is heart wrenching. When Cullen reaches to touch his elbow, Dorian doesn’t move away.
“He’s the reason I left Tevinter. When I refused to...to contort myself into some miserable version of acceptability to carry out his visions for the Pavus dynasty, my father concluded that the best solution to all my problems--actually his problems, you see--would be to use blood magic to turn me into someone, anyone, else. Anything but what I am.”
Cullen feels his chest filling with heaviness, like taking a pommel strike to an ill-fitting armor plate. It hurts, a sinking ache that no amount of breath can lift. “He...wanted to change you?”
“Of course he did. My deviant nature is a source of great shame--so what better way to spare himself inconvenience than to fundamentally alter my personality to suit his needs? Nevermind that it could’ve killed me, or worse.”
“I’m sorry, that’s... How awful.” Cullen fights the urge to rub at the back of his own neck. He'd have to pull his hand away from Dorian's elbow for that and it isn't worth it. It wouldn't be right. “When you say deviant, you mean...”
Dorian turns to face him, his eyes wide and red-rimmed but also, however contradictory it may be, humorously disbelieving. “Cullen, honestly."
Something shifts--a twist of Dorian’s lips, perhaps, or the angle of the shadows falling across his face.
He grabs hold of the sash about Cullen’s waist and pulls him into a rough kiss. It leaves Cullen breathless with shock, and it takes him a moment to pull away again. Not far, and not fast, but he does pull away.
“Wait.” His fingers clench in the side of Dorian’s shirt, below the bared skin. “I can’t.”
The silence between them grows heavy. Dorian’s brows crumple on his forehead. He releases his grip on Cullen’s belt. “I see,” he says. “Forgive me. Sometimes, a man’s imagination proves more powerful than reality. I’d only thought--I’d imagined, rather, that there was something between us. It’s entirely my mistake.”
Cullen blinks. “What? No, oh no--" He reaches out and clasps Dorian’s shoulders, one bare and the other covered. “Maker’s breath, forgive me, you’re not mistaken. I only meant that...” He clamps down on his tongue, sifting through words to find the ones that won’t slip from his intended meaning to another and cause more grief. “Well to begin with, I’ve been ill, but that isn't--but more importantly, you’re clearly in a very vulnerable place, which means if we do this now I’ll wonder for the rest of my days if I took advantage of that, and I... I can’t.”
As quickly as it came, the pain leaves Dorian’s face. His lips part and he pulls a deep breath. “I’m not that drunk,” he says, breaking into a soft smile.
“It isn’t the drinking that most concerns me,” Cullen says. “But you should know that I would very much like to kiss you again.”
“Just not...right now.”
Dorian sighs and leans forward, and Cullen--as though it's truly the most natural thing--opens his arms to pull him close. When Dorian nestles his face into the fur of Cullen’s cloak, Cullen sweeps his fingers over Dorian’s nape, up into his hair where it’s shorn closer at the back.
“I hope that’s not unworthy of me,” Cullen whispers. “I don’t intend to suggest I know better than you what you need. I can only...be honest about what I need.”
"You can only be honest," Dorian repeats. "Yes. Yes, I'd noticed as much. You say it as though it's a simple thing, but you do realize it isn't, don't you? You needn't answer that," he adds. "It was worth mentioning, but certainly not worth a response."
The texture of Dorian's hair on Cullen's fingertips is a tickling, prickling thing. Cullen supposes he didn't misread the signs--whatever they were--which is less a relief and more of a wonder, truth be told. But one thing is certain: they can't stand in place this way all night long. They're both already too spent for that, a cough threatening the depths of Cullen's chest between the bones of his ribs where an ache has settled.
"I understand, of course." Dorian's voice is muffled in the fur around Cullen's throat, which stirs with Dorian's ensuing sigh. "However thwarted I may feel at the moment, I assure you, the sting will ease with time. At least, I assume that it must. And I..." Dorian's fingers tighten before they release their hold, handfuls of fabric that slip free of his hands. "...I should doubtless allow the much-beleaguered commander of the Inquisition's forces his equally much-needed rest."
"It isn't necessary," Cullen says. "I had planned on chess. A longer game of it, at least."
"Ah, but I'm no good at following other people's plans," Dorian confesses. "Or living up to their expectations, for that matter. You truly--" He steps back, fussing with an unnoticeable strap on his shirt, smoothing out invisible wrinkles down the front. Perhaps Cullen shouldn't stare, but it seems equally inappropriate to look away. "You have defied mine, however. I suppose the exchange is fitting. An even trade."
Something more, Cullen tells himself. He can't leave Dorian to the shadows, though it's impossible to imagine he'd be the light to cast them back. Even his candle has gone out.
"Tomorrow, then," Cullen says. "That's a promise."
"Ah." Dorian clears his throat. "Perhaps not too early. I don't always rise with the more honorable members of this cause. Truly, I don't know how they manage it--all that shouting and stomping and shield-pounding before the sun is up." His steadies himself against the back of Cullen's chair, chuckling when it wobbles. "In fact, I don't believe I'll ever understand it."
"Nevertheless," Cullen tells him, "they remain committed, whether you understand it or not."
"A most peculiar cause," Dorian agrees, leaning heavily on the door before it shuts behind him.
Cullen's sleep, not unexpectedly, isn't sound--but it isn't plagued by the usual restlessness. He rises early and sees to the latest raw recruits with Cassandra by his side, her voice carrying where his doesn't.
Some of the newest arrivals are so green they’re practically saplings, and it falls to Cullen and the more experienced soldiers to give them enough instruction to--hopefully--keep them alive when they face their first fight and any that come after it. The ones that show promise, Cullen sends to the ring with Iron Bull to learn a slightly harsher lesson or two.
Bull, hungover but game, laughs off every strike and shouts the ways he’d cut the recruits down, were they his enemies.
It’s not the most formal method to be sure, but there are frying pans and then there are fires. In this instance at least the heat in the pan is low. The fire, the real danger burning the edges of their world and threatening to ignite like dry tinder, is outside the walls for now. There are worse things than a battered qunari mercenary bellowing and charging around like a mad...well, a mad bull in a pen, knocking unprepared trainees on their asses.
As for the trainees that aren’t so adept, Cullen will see to it that they’re kept from the front lines, no matter how eager they are for a fight. He drills them, alongside Cassandra, in the most basic maneuvers, movements he could perform in his sleep, but not every hand is shaped to comfortably wield a blade. Some of them will eventually develop their skills enough to join Bull in the ring. Others he will assign accordingly, to keep them as safe as he can.
Thankfully, the Inquisition has grown to a point where he’s able to make such decisions. The younger soldiers, all hot blooded swagger, will gripe about being sent for supplies or on mining expeditions, but boredom is a small price to pay for survival. If they live long enough, they’ll learn.
Every single soldier who returns to Skyhold to eat a hot meal and complain about the day’s drudgery to his fellows over a pint is, in Cullen’s mind, a small victory, and in a war this massive one cannot discount the importance of small victories.
After the afternoon meal, Cassandra comes by his office to inform him she’ll be leaving with the Inquisitor at dawn the following day.
“Dragon hunting, apparently,” she adds with a glint in her eye, almost smiling.
“Maker watch over you,” Cullen says.
“And you,” she replies. “I trust you will cope in my absence?”
It is as much an order as it is a question. “I shall.”
As he watches her walk away, he knows he won’t worry for her. Cassandra is nigh indestructible: a one woman army, the fiercest warrior heart in all of Ferelden. Perhaps with the exception of guard captain Aveline.
Cullen, if pressed, will admit that he liked Aveline, even misses her; she was always a welcome voice of reason and pragmatism. A rarity the world over, but especially in Kirkwall.
He doesn’t miss Kirkwall.
A defter conversationalist--like Varric, for example--would turn that glimmer of a memory into clever repartee. Something akin to: 'Were this Kirkwall, then dealing with one of the original darkspawn would be an average Tuesday, and it'd seem like nothing when compared to what we got up to by the week's end!'
Well. Something akin to that.
But Cullen isn't a defter conversationalist. He can't offer such a line over supper with Dorian the way other men would twirl a fork or drum their fingers against the tabletop. And it isn't as though Dorian will be over for supper, either. If anything, he'll be conscripted into the dragon hunting with Cassandra and the Inquisitor, and return days later with singed leather and a thousand implausible and charming stories to show for it.
The rap at Cullen's door early that evening suggests otherwise.
Dorian doesn't knock with purpose, like a messenger, or with the same pattern as the rattling wind, like one of Leliana's spies. There are times when Cullen thinks it might be Dorian on the other side and it isn't; nothing more than oddly wishful thinking--but there are also times when Cullen knows it is and that it can be no other.
"The door is open," Cullen says, then stands.
If circumstances are different now--if the tenor of their relationship has changed--then it would behoove him to answer the door himself. He's only halfway there when it swings open, Dorian posed in a calculated lean within the frame, holding a bottle in one hand and two glasses in the other.
"I assumed," he explains, lifting the latter for emphasis, "that if you were the sort of fellow to settle for the furniture that's left in a place when it sits abandoned for centuries--and you are--that you'd also be the sort of fellow to settle for the wine glasses that were left in said place from the time of its abandonment. So as you can see, I couldn't leave it to chance. I'm not about to drink from whatever musty tankards you rescued from the rubble here."
"I..." Cullen only notices he's lost the urge to rub the back of his neck when his hands feel empty at his sides. He curls his fingers inward to his palms. "I would not ask it of you."
"Naturally. And I'd never allow you to let it happen through oversight. There's so much on your mind; so many lugs you have to train not to cut off their own body parts... There's no telling how awful you'd feel about it afterward, once you realized what you'd done, and you hardly deserve that."
"You brought wine," Cullen says.
"From the cellar," Dorian confirms. "And it isn't one of the ones with a delightful warning on the label, either, as tempting as that was. It's tame. By comparison. I've been led to believe it won't burn anything vital."
The Inquisition is a curious establishment, to be sure. "Have you eaten?" Cullen clears his throat. "That-- It was an invitation to supper. Of a sort."
"Supper of a sort, or invitation of a sort?"
Less than three minutes have passed and Cullen is already blushing. At least his cold seems to have miraculously left him, for the most part. The elfroot tea doing its job.
“In that case, I haven’t eaten and would be delighted to join you.” Dorian passes by, within inches, and sets the wine and glasses on the sturdy end of Cullen’s desk.
“I’ll send for something?”
“And I’ll open the wine.”
There’s a constant watch posted outside Cullen’s door on the ramparts, and he’s made similar requests of them in the past at far stranger hours.
“I’m in a meeting,” he tells the young, freckled scout once she’s finished saluting him. “Would you bring something from the kitchen?”
“For how many, Ser?”
“Two, thank you.” He hopes the color in his cheeks won’t betray any implied informality. She dips her head in assent and heads for the stairs.
Back inside, Dorian hands him a glass of wine. “Cheers,” he says, and the quiet clink of the rims is a chime in Cullen’s head, ringing the reality of the situation.
Here he stands in a castle thought lost to time with Dorian the bare-shouldered mage from Tevinter, sipping wine, waiting on supper, and they both would very much like to kiss each other. Of all the strange happenings in the past few months, somehow this qualifies as the strangest. It flies in the face of Cullen’s every expectation and makes him wonder at half the things he thought he understood about himself.
The wine is good. The best he’s had since Halamshiral. “Excellent choice,” he says, picking up the bottle to examine the label.
“You expected less? Commander, how dare you?”
Cullen lets out a small laugh. “Our stocks have, in the past, left something to be desired. I suppose they’re improving.”
“Indeed, though Josephine still keeps the best of it under lock and key in her office. She’s willing to share if you ask nicely, but she and Leliana have been in a meeting all afternoon. Manufacturing some rich, arrogant sod’s downfall, I suspect. Tell me, Commander, how does it feel to be surrounded by such clever, beautiful women in the war room?”
“It’s a privilege,” Cullen replies, unable to make a joke of it. “On occasion I feel a bit superfluous, if I’m honest. Leliana has before, and I quote, told me to hush and look pretty.”
This sends Dorian into a fit of laughter. “Which is a duty you perform admirably, I’m sure.”
“That’s...debatable,” Cullen replies, the scar on his lip pulling when he smiles.
There’s a knock at the door and the scout returns, breathless, with a heaped tray of meat, cheeses, bread, and assorted fruit. “On your desk, Ser?”
Cullen nods, thanks her, and she sets the food down and vanishes back out onto the ramparts.
“Shall we sit?” Cullen gestures.
“Ah, yes. The immortal Skyhold chairs. You’re not supposed to use antiques, Commander.”
But Dorian sits anyway.
They nibble and drink for the better part of an hour, each of them on opposite sides of the desk. Dorian’s gray eyes brighten with every story, his hands constantly on the move through the air. Ever the spellcaster, even if all he’s talking about is a particularly hair-raising encounter with the Hinterlands wildlife.
Once the food is gone and Dorian has poured out the last of the wine between them, Cullen glances over at the chess game. He gestures to the smaller table, still in place from the night prior. It seems the next most likely step. “What do you think?” Cullen asks. “Should we revisit our match one last time? Put it to bed?”
Dorian’s eyebrow creeps slowly up his forehead with a smile to match. “Put it to bed, you say?”
“Oh, Maker.” Leave it to him to stick his foot in his mouth after two glasses of wine. He has to laugh at himself. “Poor turn of phrase.”
"Or is it?" Dorian's eyes are bright but he makes no move, sudden or otherwise. The stillness lurks beneath the surface of everything like the depths of a calm lake. "I've always suspected--you southern chantry types. You never can tell what's beneath the polished breastplate."
"They're straightforward enough. Unlike all the," Cullen finds himself pointing, "straps and buckles."
"You meant to call me a strapping young buck there, didn't you? No need to flush; you can admit the slip of the tongue. You certainly weren't insulting my sense of fashion this late into the evening; such a slight would be unforgivable." Dorian rises and circles the chessboard on its smaller table, reorienting himself.
"You insult my sense of fashion regularly," Cullen points out.
"I'd wondered if you even noticed. Well," Dorian adds, "it isn't as though you did anything to remedy the situation, is it? I thought perhaps my subtle hinting had been too subtle."
"Once you made a noise when you saw me. It sounded as though you were choking."
"At some point I abandoned subtlety," Dorian says. "I had to. Obviously."
Cullen touches the fur at his neck and shoulders. "It's warm. It serves its function."
"Yet I recall what you looked like in scarlet. At least I know that pelt wasn't something you found here as well, along with the rest. Tell me--was it in the chantry at Haven when you first arrived? You can tell me the truth. I'll only gossip a little."
The teasing is familiar. In point of fact, there's nothing about the evening that isn't familiar. Dorian's behavior; the sparkle in his expression; the quirk of his mouth--it's as though they didn't kiss the night before, with the promise of other kisses at its end. It might be infuriating, but it isn't insufferable. However, it leaves Cullen at a loss on how to proceed, with only the chessboard to act as a port in the storm. Dorian stands on the other side, only paying the pieces a fraction of his attention. Cullen is suddenly too aware of the distance, the space between them.
"You had no trouble with the cloak when you were wearing it," Cullen says.
"It served its function," Dorian acquiesces with a duck of his head, hair falling over his brow. Cullen can almost see the nape of his neck but briefly, hidden in shadow, a private stretch of soft, shivering skin he touched with his own hand.
Cullen draws his cloak aside on his way to sitting, the heavy bulk a part of his weight and gravity for so long. He's carried it since Haven--since Kirkwall, even. He's known himself within it and the balance it requires.
Except something has changed. Something has thrown the balance askew. The edge of his cloak knocks the edge of the chessboard and catches; the pieces scatter.
In the silence that follows, Dorian begins to laugh.
"That's one way to escape the ignominy of defeat," he says.
Cullen lowers his head, the burn in his cheeks overtaking his whole face, until he starts laughing too. “I swear upon all that is holy I did not intend to do that.” The words barely make sense through all his chuckling.
“Ohhh, certainly not, not you! You’d never do such a thing!” Dorian’s laughter continues as he toes one of the scattered pieces with the tip of a boot, nudging it back toward the table. “You’re far too honorable to resort to such underhanded tactics. You wouldn’t dream of it. It must be the cloak--it’s possessed. It overheard my slander and now, revenge.” Dorian bites his lip, still shaking with silent amusement.
With the chess game literally cast aside, the balance has shifted again and left only empty space between them. A pleasant ache that begs to be resolved. Cullen laughs a final time, unshouldering his cloak and tossing it over the back of the chair, and then he closes the gap with two short steps and kisses Dorian full on the mouth.
Dorian makes a sound; surprise, maybe, and his hands go straight to Cullen’s sides, pulling him closer. The kiss is air, or fire; it’s the simplest yet most complicated touch and Dorian’s lips are soft and Cullen can’t stop pressing into him, can’t stop kissing him. They’re backing up, one step at a time, until there’s a solid thunk and Dorian hushes, “Fasta vass... Your bloody ladder!”
Of course, the ladder. Cullen lets his head fall to Dorian’s shoulder for a moment. He breathes in the smell of him, then rumbles through a growl. They can’t stay down here, where three separate doors could open on them at any given moment.
“We go up,” he says. “Quickly.”
Dorian’s hands move to Cullen’s ass and squeeze hard, making Cullen gasp a startled breath.
“After you.” Dorian’s lips are slightly parted, still wet from their kiss.
With his eyes shut tight Cullen can almost ignore the twitching burn of frustration that stepping away from Dorian causes him. He grits his teeth and grabs the rungs and climbs, aware of Dorian right below him, every grasp and footfall vibrating through the old wood. At the top, Cullen scrambles with the straps of his breastplate, desperate to rid himself of the impediment, but his fingers are shaking in the dark and he keeps missing the catch. He curses and suddenly Dorian is in front of him, covering his hands.
“Here,” he says. “Let me.”
Cullen exhales, fighting off a full body shiver that, for once, isn’t from the cold. He stands while Dorian removes his breastplate for him, then his belt, then his undershirt. He’s bared to the waist when he reaches for the straps at Dorian’s shoulder.
Except they aren’t connected how he imagined, and neither one will budge. Cullen lets out another low, anguished growl. “How does this blasted overshirt of yours even work, I can’t--”
Dorian laughs and kisses him, his fingers brushing the bare skin of Cullen’s abdomen. He reaches across to his shoulder and pops the things with one hand, without even looking, slipping out of it with a practiced twist. “Commander of the Inquisition’s forces, defeated by two simple knots...”
Dorian tuts and slides out of his undershirt, stooping to unhasp his boots; a movement Cullen mirrors. Then Dorian nudges Cullen backward toward the bed.
Cullen recalls a time when trainers spoke highly of his prospects--when they told his superiors that he took orders well. This is hardly comparable emotionally or physically, but he follows nonetheless, as though some things do carry from one part of a man's life to the next. When the backs of his legs connect with the edge of his bed it should be awkward, by all means, to shift their way from standing to sitting, but they manage it.
"An admirable maneuver," Cullen says, though the moment it passes his lips he questions why he thought to say it.
"Perhaps I'll stop by the courtyard while you and Cassandra are running drills," Dorian replies. "Teach the men a few of my tactics. ...We were joking just now, weren't we?"
Cullen sighs a chuckle, fingertips on bare skin, an exchange of touch against touch. Dorian feels warm, but there's a stiff breeze blowing through the split wood in the ceiling--Maker's breath, it's a hole proper, and should be referred to as such--and he's complained of the cold enough before. Cullen's hands aren't enough to provide cover, no matter how they might tremble to roam.
"I can--" Cullen's knuckles curl against Dorian's flank. There's a hint of a bruise there, a remnant of a fight for which Cullen wasn't present or standing guard. Dorian's skin jumps beneath the grazing, though Cullen's calluses are thick and rough, never to soften after so much of his life spent with a sword gripped tight. "I intend to fix the hole."
"And ruin the romantic view?" Dorian glances upward but only, Cullen suspects, to show off the angles of his face in profile: the line of his chin and the length of his nose. "Especially now," he adds, "that there might finally be someone to share that romance with--"
Cullen kisses him again. He understands, or at least thinks he might someday come to understand, the way of it now. Dorian's lips part in answer. The bed creaks.
"Was this," Dorian murmurs, kiss only half-broken, "the bed, I'm referring to the bed--was this a part of the original fortress as well?"
"It should be able to carry the extra weight."
"Such a way with words you have. Fortunately, you know just the way to pursue my silence--"
Cullen pursues it, as it were, though Dorian's tongue doesn't stop moving all the while, wicked little flicks against Cullen's teeth. He thinks enough amidst the onslaught, the tug and draw of Dorian's mouth on his lower lip, to pull a handful of the blankets toward them, bunched and ungraceful.
"The cold," he explains. He drapes a corner over Dorian's shoulder, the one that's always been bare despite bitter snowfall or blazing sunlight. The bed betrays him, creaking again when he shifts.
They both laugh against each other's mouths, hot breath on jaws and chins.
"A thoughtful gesture." Dorian leans into the fabric, also rough the way the south has always been rough. "Not unexpected, coming from you, and still--somehow--ever so surprising."
“Here,” Cullen shuffles further into the bed, awkwardly lifting the blankets so they can both crawl under them. The chilled bedclothes and the heat of Dorian’s body are stark and not unpleasant contrasts. Dorian slides up against Cullen’s side and Cullen reaches out to cup the edge of his jaw and draw him in to keep kissing him.
It’s been a long time since he’s felt this interminable want for another person, and longer still since he’s felt it for someone who wanted him the same way. Dorian’s mustache tickles and the push of his lips is leaving Cullen breathless, air-starved, with his heart thudding too loud in his ears. He’s smiling--he knows he’s smiling stupidly while his fingers run the length of Dorian’s side. He’s half hard under his trousers and getting harder; he lifts his hips, trying to readjust without taking his hands off Dorian.
“Mm, I know that look,” Dorian says. “I’m getting there myself. Why are we still wearing pants, by the way? Is this a southern thing?”
Cullen grunts, then knocks their heads together, gently, chuckling low as he does it.
“Fine, fine, have it your way.” Dorian pushes himself up and moves overtop of Cullen, lowering himself down slowly.
He’s hard. The heat of him transfers through the fabric like it’s nothing. They might as well be naked for how well Cullen can feel the shape of him. He bites his lip and his pelvis rolls into the pressure. Dorian nips at his neck, licking the spot afterward, and it’s maddening how raw and right the sensation is.
“I know which poem was your favorite,” Dorian whispers. His breath blows hot over Cullen’s ear and it makes him tense his whole body, stomach to calves.
“H...how?” Cullen asks.
That makes them both sigh and grin, their foreheads brushing, hair tickling.
“No, I jest, but I do know which it was,” Dorian says. “I held the book by the spine to see what page it fell open to.”
“You don’t know it was the right one,” Cullen hushes, eyebrows knitting when Dorian ruts against him.
“No, but I know you, Cullen. It was the one with the saddest ending. And it had that nice line about the muscled thighs, which, I admit...” Dorian’s fingers trace up over the rough fabric covering the outside of Cullen’s leg, “I’m partial to, myself.”
Cullen closes his eyes and groans, because Dorian has him; that was his favorite poem. He reread it several times, flipping back to the page, the one line sticking in his head as immovable as bedrock.
“I’m right, aren’t I. I almost always--mm.”
Another kiss, deeper this time. When it breaks, Dorian is panting as hard as Cullen. “You’re never going to let me finish a sentence again, are you?” he asks. “You’re drunk with power.”
Cullen feels drunk; that heavy, pleasurable sense of well-being centered right in his gut, but it isn’t because of the wine. His hips press up and Dorian’s answer the motion. Cullen exhales a shaking breath and noses Dorian’s ear, brushes the velvet fuzz of the shorn patch on the side of his head. He’s losing himself in their small movements, stomach tensing and thighs tight. Dorian’s mouth is at his throat again, nipping and sucking in turns, and after a few determined rolls of Dorian’s hips, Cullen makes a small noise.
“Easy, easy,” he says, palm settling on the slab of muscle in Dorian’s side.
“Am I hurting you?”
“No, it’s just...been some time since I, uh...”
“What? You, the good chantry boy, going a long while without sex? No, surely it cannot be.”
Dorian huffs a laugh and wriggles his hips until their cocks are side by side. “Let it happen,” he says softly.
“Nn,” Cullen bites back a whimper as they fall into a steady rhythm. “All right but it’s--ah... It’s going to happen awfully...quickly.”
“Good. Then we can focus on me,” Dorian says, and Cullen chuckles until it turns into a hushed groan. “Are you forgetting,” Dorian whispers, “that I’m a mortalitasi? You can die a thousand small deaths and I’ll resurrect you, every time.”
Cullen laughs in earnest, and keeps laughing until Dorian starts kissing him again, harder, rutting above him like the energy they share is electric, current coursing between them that they amplify with every brush of a limb, every press of their dicks.
Magic, Dorian said, and Cullen can almost feel it, what it's like to wield that indescribable, raw heat alongside the blood and the breath. Not that he would romanticize the moment--Dorian would never let him forget it if he did--and even if he could see the stars over the rise of Dorian's shoulder, he wouldn't want to, choosing instead to bury his face against that shoulder, to kiss the pulse in Dorian's throat where a scattering of freckles form their own constellations.
It may be a poor showing, but Cullen can promise improvement. He'll do better the next time, all too eager to learn, returning again and again to the task like a lonely templar to the same archaic lines of poetry. Dorian is no less esoteric, no less perverse, than an ancient verse, but he's also flesh and muscle, the tightening of his thighs and the friction of his dick so much louder somehow than the bed's creaking. Cullen arches into him, and again, again. Of course Dorian would keep his head in the flush of this, this, enough to spin a pun or two, to pin Cullen to the mattress with more than just his weight.
Cullen very nearly bites Dorian's shoulder, bare as it is, though he catches himself: open-mouthed against Dorian's skin, stifling a few ragged whimpers with Dorian's body to muffle him. The pressure is another weight entirely from the fit and cinch of buckled armor. Dorian bows over Cullen's chest and Cullen would show restraint, he would, but Dorian cups his cheek, their brows pressed together, and the pretense of a last stand is no longer necessary.
Cullen thinks he says Dorian's name. He knows he doesn't cry out for the Maker. Maybe he makes no sound at all aside from quick, harsh breaths.
"There," Dorian says, soothing, pushing sweaty hair back from Cullen's temple and behind his ear, fingers tracing the shell. His hips are still rocking, rocking, a rhythm that drives him against Cullen's body in search of the same release.
Still panting, Cullen turns his head into Dorian’s neck and kisses the skin, hands running down the length of his lithe body to rest against the divots above his ass. He digs his fingers in and hums a small noise over the tendon in Dorian’s throat, where he tastes of salt and smells vaguely of a rainstorm, a sweetness that Cullen hungrily pulls into his lungs.
Their energy still rests on a blade’s edge, balancing higher with every thrust even though Cullen has come. He moves because Dorian moves, keeps up to provide the resistance and friction needed of him. With shaking arms, Dorian tenses, then cries out once, and again, softer. His movement slows to a lazy grind, and he turns his cheek to nudge for another kiss.
Cullen provides it, one hand climbing back up to brush through the sweaty hair on Dorian’s nape. The sounds he made are still in Cullen’s head, perfectly shaped and shaded. He needs them, needs to keep them.
Every scout on the ramparts has probably heard their tryst, but the usual twitch of humiliation Cullen feels at the thought of exposed intimacies doesn’t fire. Let them hear us, he thinks, curling further into the warmth above him. Andraste’s ass, let them hear. He can already imagine the exact whispers of every rumor that will be in full circulation come morning, but if there’s anything he’s good at it’s facing the consequences of his decisions.
And this is Dorian. This is a dear friend, an improbable and--if Cullen is honest, and he is--desperately needed companion.
Time passes around them and eventually Dorian mumbles something in Tevene and shuffles to the side.
For a moment, Cullen fears the worst. “Are you...”
“Pants. In bed,” Dorian mutters. “Of all the southern eccentricities I’ve encountered this is by far the least convenient.” He squirms around under the covers and a few moments later Cullen hears the whap of fabric hitting the floor. “You too,” Dorian says, prodding him in the stomach. “Get rid of them.”
Reluctant, Cullen lifts his hips and strips out of the last of his clothes, tossing them out the opposite side of the bed.
Dorian wriggles close again, their legs intertwining, fuzzy and heavy. “There,” he says. “Properly naked, like civilized people.”
They bump noses and kiss, Cullen running a thumb the length of Dorian’s jawline. Above them, the stars are crisp and bright.
“You will...stay, won’t you?” Cullen whispers.
Dorian’s eyes are doe soft as he lies atop Cullen’s chest, fingers tracing the contour of Cullen’s collarbone. “The things people will say, Commander. Do you really want such a mark on your reputation? ‘Carrying on with the Vint mage under cover of darkness’...”
Cullen sighs. “Stay or go, they’re going to talk regardless.” He reaches up and combs his fingers through Dorian’s hair, the long bit at the front that’s normally swept back. It’s fallen somewhat in all their embracing, looking tousled and pretty and markedly curlier than usual; perhaps they share that, too. It’s oddly pleasing to know there’s something that can muss Dorian’s hair after all--just not any trick of the weather. “Truth be told, I’m...I’ve grown excessively fond of you, and I only hope you’ll stay, this time.”
The silence of the stars is Cullen’s only answer for several long seconds. Dorian barely moves on top of him, barely breathes.
Cullen wonders if he’s miscalculated yet again, presumed their intimacy means more than it did. His sudden uncertainty spurs him to speak. “Unless you don’t, uh... Unless you’d rather--"
Dorian covers his lips with his own, but it’s a soft, careful kiss. “Shh. Hush, and look pretty,” he says. He presses his face into Cullen’s neck and sighs. “I’m--how did you put it?--excessively fond of you, too,” he whispers. “And then some. But you didn’t hear that from me. Our little secret, mm?” He murmurs something else in Tevene and pushes his lips to the corner of Cullen’s jaw.
“As you wish,” Cullen says.
He’ll ask what it is Dorian said to him in the morning with a clumsy southern tongue, and Dorian will no doubt tell him that tongue needs training.
For the time being, Cullen turns his face to Dorian’s shoulder, warming his cold nose on Dorian’s skin, warming Dorian’s shoulder with his breath.