Of all things, Dorian never thought a teacup would expose his secret.
That’s where the unraveling started, with a blasted teacup – or it really started when Cullen entered the kitchen just as said teacup was suspended in the air, just as it levitated from the counter and floated towards Dorian’s waiting hand, just as Dorian looked up from the morning paper and realized exactly what Cullen was witnessing, just as Cullen was struggling to make sense of the scene playing out in front of him.
Just like that.
The teacup came to a shuddering halt in the middle of the kitchen, piping hot liquid spilling onto the saucer, and for a comical moment it looked like it had been caught red-handed doing something it shouldn’t. Then the spell abruptly broke, sending the cup crashing to the ground, and both men stared silently at its remains, frozen in time.
It used to be one of those paper-thin, hand painted porcelain cups and it didn’t shatter so much as it pulverized upon impact. It was part of a ridiculous 20-piece tea set (the only 20-piece anything they would ever own), a wedding present from Cullen’s parents (who in turn had inherited it from Cullen’s grandparents), and Dorian had insisted from day one that they should use it regularly (‘because it will otherwise end up gathering dust on a shelf, we don’t even know twenty people to invite over for tea’).
“What was that…?”
The frail bubble of silence burst at Cullen’s nervous question. The words left him softly and breathlessly but their presence was loud, filling the room entirely, and Dorian put the newspaper away.
I suppose it’s a 19-piece tea set now, he thought distantly, not without regret, and glanced up at the man who had just discovered his husband was a mage.
And I suppose this is what they call a dealbreaker.
The first word Cullen ever said to him was ‘checkmate’.
Before that happened, Dorian had gotten used to the thought of spending the rest of his life alone, to the point that he didn’t mind. He could count what precious few friends he had on only one hand, but he did not seek their company often and rather enjoyed spending his free time on his own. Lonely walks in the early morning hours became something he did for relaxation, especially on Sundays when people were likely to sleep in, leaving the nearby park and its chess tables mostly empty.
Young Dorian would have despised early morning walks. He used to be one of those people who stayed in bed until noon, lazily wrapped up in silken sheets, but back then he had also been considered royalty. Unsurprisingly, much had changed after he fled south and rebranded his entire life. Society was different here, it moved by its own set of rules, forcing the years to rush by at breakneck speed. It was liberal and different and free.
“No one cares; it’s the twenties,” people always told him with a wink and a smile. “Live a little, darling.”
Ironically, the country that appeared accepting of his inclination was also unkind to his abilities. He could not have the best of both worlds, much to his disappointment, and returning home was not an option. This was his home now, whether he approved of it or not. So Dorian adjusted as best he could. He invested in fashionable three-piece suits, managed to land an acceptable university job, turned on his charm to make up for his accent and skin tone, and he hid his magic completely. He even grew (in his opinion) a most flattering mustache. As far as anyone was concerned he was just an ordinary immigrant in his thirties who enjoyed walks and a solitary game of chess every once in a while. In other words he was living, albeit only just a little.
But then came the checkmate, completely out of nowhere, while Dorian sat contemplating his board. A hand swept in, moved one of the white bishops, exposed the king, and that was the game. He stared at the final result with a confused frown. He hadn’t even considered that option but now that it was done it became clear to him how painfully obvious it was.
“What an interesting move,” he murmured, equally fascinated and annoyed. “How did I miss it…?”
“You must’ve been distracted.”
Dorian realized he was not talking to himself anymore and that the unknown hand had to be attached to someone. He looked up, squinted at the sharp morning sun, and finally laid eyes on the most handsome man he’d seen in quite some time. The sight gave him pause, his gaze roaming shamelessly before he could stop it, taking in everything about him – his soft blond curls, carelessly brushed back, the shadow of a three-day stubble stretching along his jawline, his warm honey-brown eyes and the attractive scar cutting the corner of his upper lip. The brown plaid of his suit was a terrible choice but he had taken his jacket off and rolled up his shirtsleeves, revealing broad shoulders and well-defined arms, his suspenders emphasizing the expanse of his chest. Dorian reconsidered his initial impression; maybe this was the most handsome man he’d ever seen.
“Well, I am certainly distracted now…” He leaned back with a smirk and crossed his arms, twisting one twirl of his mustache. “So how long did you watch me struggle before you took pity on me?”
The stranger reached up and rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly, an adorable dusting of pink appearing at the edge his sharp cheekbones.
“Forgive me.” He shrugged, giving him a careful smile. “It was too tempting, I couldn’t help it.”
“Tempting, you say?” Dorian gestured widely at the empty seat across from him. “In that case, may I tempt you into joining me for another game? Only if you can spare the time, of course,” he quickly added.
The man looked at him for a moment, seemingly contemplating the offer, teeth pulling at his lip. Then he nodded and slipped into the seat without further hesitation.
“It is Sunday,” he replied, once again blushing slightly. “And some things are worth making time for.”
Hiding his magic from Cullen turned out to be easier than expected, and Dorian felt both relieved and guilty at that.
He had always thought highly of his magical prowess. He had no trouble whatsoever believing himself far more skilled than the other mages he had met, simply because it was a fact. Dorian suffered no delusions when it came to his abilities. He knew he was exceptional and he was genuinely proud of it, no matter how much the law frowned upon his kind. And because he was such a skilled mage, he was convinced he could rein his magic in just as efficiently as he could wield it. There had been some close calls, of course – once or twice he’d closed a door or lit a candle with only a wave of his hand (and the first time they had sex he’d almost set the curtains on fire) – but if Cullen noticed that something was amiss he didn’t comment on it.
Besides, the more they got to know each other, the less Dorian wanted to reveal this particular side of him. Cullen had spent the better part of the last decade working as a prison guard. Dorian knew very well how and from where such guards were typically recruited, and he also knew that many prisons across the country held an overwhelming majority of mages. They were nearing the ten-year mark since the last violent uprising and old prejudices hadn’t exactly disappeared in the meantime. After some gentle encouragement he found out that this rebellion had been Cullen’s reason for quitting his job, and the experience had clearly left its fair share of traumatic wounds.
Dorian did not prod any further. He did not need to, not when he could clearly tell that Cullen was a changed man. More importantly he was a good man. He was comfortable in his age, steadily carrying his thirties, the insecurity and inexperience of adolescence long gone. His recovery was something he worked on diligently and he was currently happy in his new job as a firefighter (which Dorian couldn’t help but find a little ironic, his affinity for fire considered). A former Chantry boy, Cullen was devout but not deeply so. He rarely turned to prayer unless he felt there was a real need but he always meant it whenever he wished good fortune and protection upon someone. Dorian could never mock him for his beliefs, nor could he fault him for them, no more than he could ever mock or fault him for turning to the bottle in the past, not after everything he had gone through.
“Some things are difficult to talk about,” Cullen admitted, none the wiser to Dorian’s secret. “Especially when you’re talking to good men who deserve better.”
Dorian knew, deep down, that he should have ended things the moment he learned of Cullen’s past. It should have been a dealbreaker in itself. If he felt he had to keep up pretenses instead of confessing to the man that he was a mage, then he really had no business falling in love with him. But Dorian had long since accepted the fact that he was a weak man when it came to these things; he was weak and selfish and greedy and stubborn. For once in his life he had ended up in a good relationship that made him happy of all unlikely things; he wasn’t about to give that up so easily. He told himself that he had made his decision out of necessity and concern. The last thing he wanted was to bring back any bad memories.
And if a small voice in the back of his head accused him of being a coward who feared Cullen would despise him if he found out – well, then he simply pretended not to hear it.
“You’re in luck, my dear Cullen,” Dorian replied with a wry smile, only just managing to pass it off as a lighthearted joke. “Because I am not a good man.”
“Unless I’m experiencing some extreme withdrawals right now,” Cullen began unsteadily, still staring at the lukewarm pool of tea and porcelain on the floor, “then I’m fairly certain I saw that cup floating in the air just moments ago.”
“Oh, did it?” Dorian replied with a nervous chuckle. “I… forgot my tea on the counter. I simply wanted to drink it before it got cold.”
“Dorian,” Cullen said quietly, meeting his eyes for the first time since he entered the kitchen, and Dorian’s smile faded. “What’s going on?”
For someone usually so eloquent he found himself at a frustrating loss for words. Because what was he supposed to say? I meant to tell you eventually. That was an outright lie; he had been fully prepared to take his secret to the grave. It’s not what it looks like. It was exactly what it looked like, both he and Cullen knew. You just imagined it. No, he had no intention of cruelly messing with his husband’s head. I’m sorry. He could not apologize for an ability he was born with, for who he was.
Please don’t hate me… was perhaps much too close to his fears. He doubted he could voice his fears just yet.
“I… would never hurt you,” Dorian said instead, wincing at the faintly desperate edge in his voice. “You know I never would, not accidentally and certainly not intentionally. I have this completely under control, I –”
His name once again, softer now, barely above a whisper but still loud enough to stop his rambling. Dorian saw Cullen’s beautiful brown eyes speckled with sadness and confusion and he felt his heart break. He sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose, feeling like his chest cavity was about to implode and he struggled not to show it.
“So. I’m a mage. I suppose that’s a reasonable place to start.”
“You’re a mage,” Cullen repeated, slowly, as though he had to get used to the words on his tongue. “And you didn’t tell me this…why?”
Dorian looked up, his head heavy. “Well, magic is illegal, for one. You of all people should know. And –” He waved his hand, gesturing aimlessly into the air. “You have trauma caused by… my kind. I know this seems terrible but I didn’t want to make things needlessly worse for you.” Or make you fear me. Or hate me. Or leave me. Because I love you.
Cullen considered his reasoning for a moment, not offering any additional comments. Then he nodded, stepped around the broken teacup, and found a clean dishcloth.
“Mages aren’t at fault for my trauma,” he said quietly. He knelt, covered the broken pile, and they both watched as spilled tea seeped into the red-checkered cloth. “Had you asked me five years ago my answer probably would’ve been different. I won’t deny that the mere thought of magic once made my skin crawl. But… can you imagine what kind of person I became during my time in that place? I’ve seen and done things I can’t ever forget or take back. And that fear I felt… When that fear takes root in you and conquers you so completely you’re willing to follow someone blindly… I admit it’s hard to come back from that but I like to think I’ve changed for the better.”
Cullen carefully gathered the soaked rag and left it in the sink, before he found the dustpan and collected the remaining porcelain, making sure he got all the stray splinters. The broken pieces clattered as they disappeared into the trashcan and Dorian stayed silent.
“I don’t know your reasons but you shouldn’t feel like you have to hide who you are for my sake,” Cullen continued. He put the dustpan away and turned back around to face him. “And it’s not like I’d hand you over to the authorities or anything, Dorian. I’d never do that. Your secret is safe with me, if that’s what you need to hear.”
It was the loyalty that really swept Dorian off his feet and into Cullen’s arms.
Valor was one thing and duty was another, but those values faded when compared to loyalty. Loyalty was above all and Cullen didn’t give his freely, but when he did he remained devoted for life. Cullen, who wore his heart on his sleeve, was the one person who didn’t become discouraged at Dorian’s constant sarcasm and deflection. He held firm where Dorian pushed and chipped away at his walls like he actually thought it was worth the effort, taking his biting remarks in stride, well aware that it was never meant to be a personal attack.
Loyalty was something the other men in Dorian’s life had lacked. They could be charming and handsome and loving and caring and passionate – but in the end never loyal. He wasn’t used to having that sort of constancy in his life. Such things weren’t meant for someone like him.
“I want to take care of you,” Cullen whispered and touched their foreheads together, his arms strong and firm around Dorian’s middle.
Dorian smirked. “I believe that can be arranged.”
“No, I mean –” Cullen huffed softly and blushed, taking a moment to regroup. “I want to take care of you, always. I want to protect you and look after you and be there for you for the rest of our lives.”
Maybe Cullen didn’t have Dorian’s silver-tongued gift, and maybe he wasn’t aware of his pure and innocent charm, but he was much more than a simple farmer’s son. Every day I thank the Maker for sending you to me, Cullen would sometimes say, to which Dorian would flippantly reply, I bet you practiced that line all night. But truthfully, whenever he received such praise, his eyes would burn, his heart would swell, and his skin would erupt in goosebumps. Cullen’s words always got him, in some way or another.
And here he was once again, sweeping in with yet another checkmate completely out of the blue, catching Dorian unprepared and vulnerable. He froze, fighting the urge to wriggle out of his embrace.
“If I didn’t know any better, I’d say that sounded like a proposal.”
“It is. If you’ll have me.”
Dorian swallowed against the sudden tightness in his throat and immediately fell back into the old habit of deflection.
“You want to take care of me? Well, I am no damsel in distress, if that’s what you think. For instance, I singlehandedly beat up those two fellows who once tried to jump me in an alley.” With the help of a little magic, he thought, but Cullen didn’t know that. He couldn’t know that. “I am perfectly capable of taking care of myself.”
Cullen stilled for a second, allowing his words to sink in, before he leaned away slightly, eyes wide with shock. “Some guys tried to jump you…? Maker, Dorian – when?”
“Oh, it was long before we met,” Dorian laughed and patted his arm. “You may stand down, brave sir knight. There’s no need for you to defend my honor.”
“Defend your honor?” Cullen scowled darkly. “I’d kill them.”
“You would do that for me?” Dorian replied with a put-on gasp. “Why, I’m positively swooning. You southern barbarians are so charming.”
I also want you to keep me safe for the rest of our lives, he thought as he allowed himself to be pulled close and kissed. I want it, I do, I do. But I don’t deserve it.
“So you’ll marry me, then?”
Dorian’s deflection didn’t work. He already knew from the start that it wouldn’t, not with Cullen. He asked the question directly this time, the tip of his nose brushing against Dorian’s, his breath feathering across his lips.
“You really are proposing right now.”
“I know I don’t have much to offer you –”
“– and I know you deserve a lot better –”
“Please don’t say that…”
“– but I also know that I love you,” Cullen finished softly, effectively putting an end to Dorian’s attempt at protest. “I love you more than anything.”
“So what do you want me to say?” he asked, a breathless whisper.
“Say you will.”
Every time Cullen exposed himself to danger by fighting fires, Dorian was so close to casting a protection spell on him. Every time he struggled with headaches and cold sweats, he was tempted to help ease his suffering. He had once touched him with magically warm hands, hoping it would bring a subtle hint of pleasure, but when Cullen commented on it he had panicked and never done it again. No matter how harmless or well-intentioned his use of magic would be, Cullen had the right to know.
He really should come clean, before they took this relationship any further, before it was too late.
“As you wish,” Dorian said instead, both in defeat and desire, his secret once again retreating into his heart. “Yes, Cullen Stanton Rutherford. I will marry you.”
Dorian sighed. It was so typical Cullen, to remain fiercely loyal to the very end. He actually had faith, like he always claimed Dorian could use more of. Sometimes it just got in the way of his own comfort and wellbeing. He was a selfless fool and he didn’t even know it.
“I’m not worried about you snitching on me.”
“Then what are you worried about? Please tell me.”
“This is a part of me, Cullen,” Dorian replied intently. “You said it yourself; I shouldn’t have to hide who I am. Well, this really is who I am. It’s not just something I know how to do. Even if I willingly chose to never practice magic again for the rest of my life it would still tear me apart if it were to be taken away from me. I can’t give it up or get rid of it and I wouldn’t have done it if I had the choice. It doesn’t matter what the law states, I would fight to the death to keep it, if it ever came to that. And that’s not just me being dramatic. Those are my beliefs about an ability that is just as dangerous as it is wonderful. Can you at least understand how some people might find these convictions problematic?”
Cullen looked at him for a long moment, his eyes searching his face, and Dorian was desperate to know what he was looking for, if he could even find it, whatever it was. Before he could ask, Cullen nodded, mostly to himself.
“I can understand that,” he agreed at last. “But I’m not some people.”
Dorian only stared back, rendered speechless. He’d forgotten how stubborn this man could be when he put his mind to it. When he couldn’t come up with a response he slumped back in the chair and closed his eyes. Cullen lingered by the kitchen counter; Dorian heard him clear away the tea-soaked dishcloth and tidy up the rest of the broken pieces. Another minute passed before he felt a pair of hands close around his and he flinched slightly. When he opened his eyes he saw Cullen kneeling next to him, his mouth tensed in a worried line, stretching the scar on his lip.
“Were you –” He cut himself off with a frown and spent some time searching for words, long enough to make Dorian concerned. “Were you maybe… afraid? That I’d do something to you if I found out?” He paused, the slightest hitch in his breath. “Were you ever afraid of me?”
There was a pleading edge to his question, a sudden hint of desperation, and Dorian immediately found himself leaning forward, as if being closer would banish such fears and doubts.
“Yes, I was afraid,” he admitted, quickly shushing Cullen before he could launch into an apology. “I was afraid you’d hate me, or that you’d come to fear me and walk away. I don’t think I would be able to bear it if you did. But I was never afraid of you,” he added in earnest. “Never you, amatus.”
Dorian tightened his grip on Cullen’s hands, daring a small burst of magical warmth as he cradled them in his palms. He smiled sadly. “I’m sorry.”
“For not trusting you more. For keeping you in the dark and agreeing to marry you under false pretenses. For being a coward and not having faith. Some things are just… difficult to talk about,” he added, repeating what Cullen had once told him. “Especially when you’re talking to good men who deserve better.”
Cullen slowly raised Dorian’s hand up to his lips, planting a light kiss on his skin. He’d never looked more like a knight than he did in that moment, kneeling next to him on their kitchen floor, kissing his hand in utter devotion. He was so good and kind and brave and his, still his somehow. He knew what he was and it hadn’t sent him running and screaming.
“We’ve been married for little over a year now,” Cullen murmured against his knuckles. “We’ve known each other for three. I’ve loved you for all those years and I suspect I will continue loving you until my years run out.”
“Lucky you, huh?” Dorian quipped, unable to help himself.
“In fact,” Cullen continued and glanced up at him, one eyebrow arched, “I’ll continue loving you in my next life, and the one after that, and the one after that. But I want to love all of you, everything that you are, if only you’d give me the chance. So please – don’t keep too many secrets from me.”
“Does that mean I can keep some secrets?”
“Yes – little secrets like how you still cheat at chess or how long you spend on your hair and mustache each morning.”
Dorian squirmed in his seat, wanting to shrug off the last few traces of fear and insecurity before he gave in to happiness. “Your husband is a free mage,” he reminded him, voice soft and expression vulnerable.
“I know,” Cullen smiled fondly, reaching up to claim his lips. “And I love him.”