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A Time for Firsts. A Time for Lasts.

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A Time for Firsts. A Time for Lasts.

Tears. Everywhere he looked, tears.

Too many, Cullen thought, you wouldn’t care for that. I know this whole thing is far too common for your tastes. But grief *is* common, love, and you’ll have to bear with us for just a while.

Wrinkles, cut into flesh by a lifetime of heartache and laughter, deepened around the edges of amber eyes as scarred lips turned up into a soft smile. Despite the years that had slowed his gait, thickened his waist, and turned his golden curls gray, despite the utter exhaustion and raw sorrow of the past few days, Cullen Rutherford stood tall while family and friends paraded past him.

For today, it was his duty to receive their condolences, and he wouldn’t see his duties shirked. Regardless of how much they hurt.

Faces from long ago passed by in a blur. Their eyes, wide and unsure and streaming tears, studied his expression. Breathy platitudes, barely whispered, passed shaking lips on their way to his ears. Unsteady hands sought out his own, holding on in grips both desperate and pleading.

Please understand how much we love you, those eyes and lips and hands said, Please understand how much we loved him. 

But there were smiles, too. They were hiding, shy and timid, behind the watery veils that clouded the faces in this parade of sorrow… but they were there, ready to be teased out by a story.

And, oh Maker, there were stories to be told. Forty years of stories rolled just under the surface of all this common grieving. Tales of love, laughter, pain, a few truly spectacular arguments; they were all biding their time, waiting patiently until they were needed. Waiting to heal the hurt, as Cole would say. 

And at the center of them all… him.

Decades of habit caused Cullen to turn to the shrouded figure lying on the furs and flowers at his side, his face wearing one of the many secret expressions they’d used to communicate silently – their own private language cultivated over years of familiarity. Too late, he realized there would be no little smile, half hidden by a curled mustache, no eyes glinting wickedly with bemusement in return – there was no one where he used to be.    

Stop it! Don ’t look.

But the damage was done, of course. Cullen bit his lip to stop the trembling as he fought a fresh wave of… Sadness? Terror? Loneliness? Heartbreak? All of those things and none of them seemed to describe the angry sea of emotion he’d been riding since….

… I ’d do it all again, Amatus

Whispered last words echoed through Cullen’s mind. The fear of finality sank its teeth into his gut.

And he was so scared. The aged former commander of the Inquisition, the man who had once led armies to war… he felt small and alone and like time had slipped through his fingers. All he had were memories now.

How do I hold on to them? How do I keep them safe? His mind raced frantically.

How do you remember the heat of a flame after it ’s been extinguished?

But he already knew the answer.

Stories. We remember with our stories.

Bleary eyes regarded the crowd of people gathered to honor the man lying on the altar beside him.

He wasn’t surprised to hear that the stories had already started.

“Bull, you remember the first time Sparkler tried to outdrink you?” Varric’s voice, cracked with age.

“First and last, old buddy! What about the first time Lavellan dragged him out to a dragon fight?” Bull’s laugh, hearty and strong as it ever was.

“The time his mustache got singed? How could I forget? I don’t know what was more dangerous, the dragon or the wrath of Dorian. I’m serious. I legitimately feared for my life! Oh! Remember the time….”

But Cullen’s mind turned inward, drifting away and losing the thread of their conversation.

Firsts, he thought, watching shy smiles grow, showing themselves as his memorial really began. You brought so many firsts into my life.

--------------------------------

The First Time They Met

Cullen ground his teeth, fighting to maintain composure as Inquisitor Lavellan argued for taking the Inquisition to Redcliffe. Could she not see it was folly? Redcliffe Castle was more formidable than she could imagine. They’d waste weeks laying siege to it and still be no closer to the mages she so desperately wanted. 

“Other than the main gate, there’s got to be another way into the castle. A sewer? A water course? Something?” Meria Lavellan spoke softly, but her eyes were on fire. He knew she wouldn’t be swayed. She was a mage herself – it was obvious to everyone that this had become personal for her.

But isn’t it also personal for you? A little voice nipped at the back of his mind, Or is it just coincidence that’s led you to think the Templars are the better choice?

He shook his head to clear it and replied, “There’s nothing I know of that would work.”

“Wait,” Leliana chimed in. Cullen groaned. Would this never end? “There is a secret passage into the castle. An escape route for the family. It’s too narrow for our troops, but we could send agents through.”

Couldn't she hear how ridiculous this all sounded? A handful of agents – barely trained agents – against a full-fledged Magister? It was lunacy. He fought to keep his tone level as he answered her carefully. Too much was at stake for him to lose his temper here.

“Too risky. Those agents will be discovered well before they reach the Magister.”

Leliana smirked, an expression Cullen regarded with equal measures of admiration and trepidation. It meant her mind was working on a plan... likely brilliant… but he didn’t always care for her methods. The ends didn't always justify her means.

“That’s why we need a distraction. Perhaps the envoy Alexius wants so badly?”

He saw the merits of her scheme in spite of himself. “While they’re focused on Lavellan, we break the Magister’s defenses. It could work, but it’s a huge risk….”

Without warning, the door to the makeshift war room burst open. Shock was plainly written on everyone's faces as they watched the newcomer, a mage by the look of him, brazenly sauntering towards them, lips curled in a smug half-smile.

“Fortunately, you’ll have help,” he announced.

The agent skittering behind the man with the dancing eyes was saying something, but Cullen paid him no mind. His focus was on the swaggering mage approaching the table.

I ’d wager my fur pauldrons that this smirky ass was on the other side of the door the whole time … waiting for the right moment to make a grand entrance

“Your spies will never get past Alexius’ magic without my help. So, if you’re going after him, I’m coming along,” the man said with a confidence that was mind-boggling.

Cullen pursed his lips, biting back the stream of angry retorts that bubbled below the calm veneer of his face.

First of all, who in the Maker ’s name are you? How dare you sashay in here like you own the place? Are you … are you from Tevinter?

But he held his tongue. He knew who this man was. Wasn’t Meria just rattling on about meeting “the most charming man” who had “bravely fought off demons with just his staff” and told them all about Alexius’ plot? This must be him. This… Dorian Pavus.

Cullen turned to the Inquisitor, worry lining his face. He didn’t trust this newcomer farther than he could throw him. He was a Tevinter mage, after all. But if Meria trusted him…

“The plan puts you in the most danger,” he sighed, “We can’t, in good conscience, order you to do this.”

He let his words sink in before continuing. “We can still go after the Templars,” he heard Dorian sniff disdainfully from across the table, but Cullen pressed on, “if you’d rather not play the bait. It’s up to you.”

Of course, he knew how it would end. Meria chose to follow the advice of Leliana and the interloper. She chose to go to Redcliffe to face a Tevinter Magister with another Tevinter – a Tevinter mage! – at her side.

As the group filed out of the room, Cullen stayed behind.

“Dorian… was it?” he asked, his tone firm, “A word, if you would be so kind.” It was clear that this was more a command than a request.

“Oh, for such a charming young man as yourself, I would be so kind,” the stranger replied lightly, but his eyes were hard. “Allow me to guess what it is you’re after. Will the evil mage from Tevinter turn on your doe-eyed Inquisitor? Is this all some sort of elaborate plot?”

Cullen’s jaw worked as he fought the urge to fling the man, smarmy face first, into the snow outside of Haven’s gates.

“Since you have so clearly understood my intentions, enlighten me, won’t you?” Cullen replied through clenched teeth.

“You’re not far off the mark, Commander Grimface. It is an elaborate plot…”

“That you freely admit?!”

Dorian laughed and narrowed his eyes as he moved lithely toward the commander, hips swaying ever so slightly as he trailed his elegant fingers across the surface of the war table.

“My dear man, this is an elaborate plot to get you where you want to go…” 

He was getting closer.

“Where you were planning to go in the first place, I might add…”

Closer still, and now Cullen was aware of the shade of this man’s eyes – gray and so bright! – and the shape of his jaw. 

“So you can get the help you need…”

Too close! Cullen could make out his scent – a warm mix of spice and lyrium. He desperately wanted to take a step back. The closeness was too much, he’d suffocate soon if he didn’t move, but he couldn’t. He was transfixed, cemented in place by the startling effect this man had on him.  

“To close the breach,” Dorian finished, tone low as he leaned in, tilting his head slightly and parting his lips. Cullen’s chest heaved as he took a breath to clear his head, but all he could smell was him, this complete stranger. All he could see was the graceful curve of his neck and the teasing smile under that ridiculous mustache. As if his body had a mind of its own, as if he hadn’t been ready to pitch the man out into the cold only moments before, Cullen felt himself leaning in, too.

And then the man laughed.

“I’m sorry… I’m sorry. It was just too easy!” Dorian snorted, “I couldn’t help myself.”

Cullen’s focus snapped back into place. He found his anger was still there, honed to a fine point of fury by embarrassment. Dorian had just played him in his own domain like a cat with a cornered mouse.

“Out! Maker damn you, get out of my war room!”

Still cackling, Dorian took a step back and turned to leave.

“Mark my words, Dorian, if your actions aren’t 100% above scrutiny… if you so much as look at the Inquisitor in a way I don’t like...”

“Right, right, horrific death and dismemberment in my future. I understand.”   

Cullen grabbed Dorian’s arm and spun him around, bringing their faces close once more.

“You don’t understand, but I will make you,” he growled as the grin on Dorian’s face slid away.

Good, Cullen thought, he’s taking me seriously now.

“She is the only hope we have of ending this madness. She’s chosen to trust you, and so I must tolerate your presence. But unlike her, I know a snake when I see one,” Cullen sneered, jutting his chin out and allowing his eyes to linger on the Tevinter insignias adorning Dorian’s leathers and robes, “So watch yourself, ‘Vint.”

Dorian’s jaw set, all pretense of levity had faded when Cullen grabbed him.

“Yes, I am Tevinter, and no, I am not ashamed of that fact,” the mage lifted his head and squared his shoulders, eyes flashing dangerously, “I applaud you for working that out. Bravo, as they say. I’m sure the mental acrobatics required to deduce such a thing were absolutely exhausting.” He took a breath, eyebrow cocked. “Or am I giving you too much credit? Did your Inquisitor already tell you who I am? Regardless…” Dorian pushed a lacquered fingertip into Cullen’s armored chest as he continued, “… If you think you know me… if you think I can be summed up by your quaint, monosyllabic slur, it is you who doesn’t understand.”

Cullen opened his mouth to reply, but he couldn’t find the words. This exchange had started badly and had gotten steadily worse as it continued. He’d meant to be in control. He’d meant to intimidate the stranger into playing nice. But the man fuming before him refused to be intimidated; indeed, he’d had the upper hand from the very beginning. And now here he was, Commander of the Inquisition, scratching the back of his neck and casting his eyes downward like some puppy who’d just been scolded for wetting the floor.

Dorian’s face relaxed as he slowly exhaled. Cullen noticed that his eyes remained sharp and alert, however.

“We… well, we seem to have gotten off on the wrong foot here, Commander,” he continued, tone softer, “I am Dorian, of House Pavus; most recently from Minrathous. Pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

Dorian held his right hand out expectantly, that little half-smile playing at his lips again.

Cullen sighed.

Maybe I was acting like a nug ’s ass.

“No. My words were... unworthy. Cullen Rutherford. No house. Just a little family from a small village,” the commander replied as he took Dorian’s ringed hand into his own gloved one. “The pleasure is mine.”

---------------------------

Back in the now, Cullen laughed softly to himself.

Well, it certainly wasn ’t love at first sight. It wasn ’t even “amiable acquaintances at first sight. ” It took quite some time for me to get over your little stunt, didn ’t it? But you had me pegged from the very beginning. You knew what you were doing … and the effect you would have on me, I ’ll give you that. Andraste ’s ass, I was so mad at you for so long for that almost kiss. Still, despite our … let ’s say rocky … first impressions, we were able to at least salvage a friendship.

And eventually, I knew it was more than that. For me, anyway. 

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The First Time He Knew it was Love

The sun was high above Skyhold by the time Cullen freed himself from what was possibly the most harrowing war council meeting yet and made his way to the garden. His steps were quick, but his heart was heavy. He was desperate for the soothing sanctuary of the small alter to Andraste; desperate to find a little solace for his troubled soul.

As usual, the Inquisitor’s choices frustrated him during their council meetings; that was nothing new. Meria often relied on Josephine and Leliana to play the game, to approach problems from the side rather than confront them directly. Sometimes, that worked in her favor, regardless of how much easier Cullen knew things would be if the Inquisitor stopped dancing and started fighting.

But today… today had been heartbreaking.

This time, dealing in politics and subterfuge had backfired in the worst possible way. This time, the advisors had to report that the entirety of Clan Lavellan, down to the tiniest, newest soul, had been slaughtered – including her brother, the only family she had left in this world.

The memory of Meria’s anguished wail sent shivers down Cullen’s spine as he entered the dimly lit shrine and closed the door quietly behind him. He leaned his head back against the smooth wood of the door and massaged his temples in a vain attempt to ward off the headache he could feel pounding behind his eyes. The sadness was just a little more than he could bear right now.

Maker, what if this happens again? What would I do if Mia or Branson were …?

But he couldn’t even finish the thought before the fear and sorrow gripped him, thick and choking. He walked the few steps to the foot of Andraste and fell to his knees, bowing his head as he fought the fluttering anxiety in his chest. His heart went out to Lavellan while he sifted through the catalog of his mind, searching for the right words to say.

Satisfied he’d found the benedictions, he squeezed his eyes shut and prayed for the souls of those who were taken from this world.

“I shall not be left to wander the drifting roads of the Fade, for there is no darkness, nor death either, in the Maker’s Light, and nothing that He has wrought shall be lost.”

For Lavellan, for his own anger, as a promise to himself that they’d right the things that had gone so wrong, he continued the prayer with a verse from a different book.

“Now her hand is raised, a sword to pierce the sun, with iron shield she defends the faithful, let chaos be undone.”

Maker, help us, he thought, resting his elbows on the stone and hiding his face in his hands.

The pain in his head was growing, relentless in its hunger. The signs were all there – this wasn’t a normal headache, it was a part of the painful process of lyrium withdrawal, probably brought on by the stress of this morning. The absence of the lyrium’s song left a void in his mind that always tugged at his consciousness, but never more insistently than when he was already so troubled.

“Maker, help me,” he whispered, low and rough.

“He should help you show up to your engagements on time,” a voice sighed from behind him.

Dorian. Cullen hadn’t heard the door open or even the mage’s jangly steps across the stones. The commander didn’t move as he replied, “I’m afraid I’ll have to postpone our match.”

“I won’t hear of it. You spend far too much time with your reports, cooped up inside your own head. Or are you worried my winning streak will...” Dorian’s words trailed off when Cullen turned to face him. The mage’s grey eyes went wide with realization, and his playful smile dissolved into a frown.

“That bad, huh?” Cullen murmured. He knew how he looked when the lyrium storms overtook him. This storm was still little more than a rumbling on the horizon, but he knew exactly what Dorian must be seeing – bloodshot eyes, too-pale skin, cold sweat, and droopy, swollen eyelids. He knew if he unclenched his fists, his hands would be shaking, so he kept them balled tightly and offered a weak smile for his friend.

“Cullen,” the coy tone had completely left Dorian’s voice, replaced by worry and care so obvious the commander’s heart made a little lurch in his chest. “Another lyrium headache? Why didn’t you tell me? We need to get you to a bed…”

Dorian knelt by his side now, placing a hand on the Commander’s back. Concern painted on his face so earnestly that Cullen couldn’t help but chuckle, despite the pain.

“This… is amusing?”

“No,” Cullen husked, “Not at all. Just… stop looking at me like that. It’s not even that bad, really.”

Dorian pursed his lips, raising his eyebrow in disbelief, “Then why, pray tell, have I discovered you in such a sorry state?”

Cullen sighed and turned to sit on the steps leading to the altar. Dorian sat next to him, crossing his legs and waiting patiently for the weary man to open up.

Finally, Cullen relented.

“It’s not just the… withdrawal. That is… part of what’s wrong… but it didn’t start that way. It started with news of the Inquisitor’s clan…” the commander paused.

He found that he was a hair’s breadth away from sharing how weak he felt, from baring his soul, and that terrified him. Yes, in the months that followed their rather unusual meeting, he and Dorian had grown tolerant of one another. They’d eventually become unlikely friends. A mage from Tevinter and an ex-Templar were the last pair one would expect to find laughing over their cups, but more and more, Cullen found that he could think of no one he’d rather unwind with after a hard day. Considering the amount of time they spent together in the Rest or playing chess in the garden, he assumed Dorian felt the same way.

When the mage learned that he was weaning himself off lyrium, he’d been livid, scared that Cullen was going to accidentally kill himself… but Dorian had been his strongest source of support, too, helping him through the worst of the pain until he felt human again.

Still, the commander thought, this is different. The lyrium withdrawal… that’s merely a fact about me. Facts are fine. They’re not frightening, they just are. This is… this is

“This is hard for me,” Cullen continued, casting his eyes on the ground as he spoke.

“A great deal is. I don’t know how you manage it,” Dorian hesitated a moment before adding, “Let someone help you, Cullen, even if it’s just a little bit. I can’t do much, but I can listen. Talk to me.”

They were silent for a while. Cullen could feel his heart pounding in his ears, and he wasn’t convinced it was entirely because of the headache. The care in Dorian’s voice was just so straightforward…

“We talk all the time…” Cullen began, trying to back away from exposing the emotion that had utterly overwhelmed him.

“Venhedis, Cullen, we talk about small, insipid little things. We talk about things that are utterly inconsequential. I see you, day in and day out... my friend, bearing the weight of the world on his shoulders… and all I do is crack jokes about Fereldan food and fashion sense,” Dorian stopped for a breath and shrugged. It was his turn to look away as he added, “I just… I want to help.”

The light creeping in through the slits of windows caught Dorian’s profile. He was chewing his bottom lip in agitation, brows furrowed deeply. Cullen watched as the mage wrung his hands together nervously.

It ’s hard for him, too, being honest... showing he cares. He ’s trusting me with this part of him.

The realization made it easier to continue. Knowing he was trusted helped him trust in turn.

“Meria’s clan,” Cullen began in a shaking voice, “her whole clan was wiped out because of something we decided.”

Dorian’s head snapped back around, gray eyes studying Cullen’s face.

“We made one bad call, and now so many innocent people are dead. Children, Dorian. They even… they even murdered the children,” the lump rising in his throat made it hard to speak, but he continued, voice hoarse and catching, “It wasn’t my plan, but I went along with it. I went along with it because I had another headache that day and didn’t want to fight with them… again. But look at what happened!”

Cullen could feel the edge of hysteria creeping in, but he pressed on, head in his hands and eyes wide, “What if it happens again? Maker, what if this whole thing comes crumbling around us? And what if it’s my fault? Dorian, what if I fail everyone? What if I fall?”

He couldn’t suppress the sob that escaped his lips, and once the first was free, the rest demanded to follow. Hot tears ran down his cheeks as he grit his teeth against the pain. Even Cullen didn’t know how deep his fear of failure went, how heavy his burden was. The impact that the decisions they made at their war table could have, the enormity of their influence, had been something he'd known in theory. He was now aware of the harsh reality of their reach, however, and he was drowning in it.

Strong arms wrapped around his shaking shoulders while soft hands pulled his head firmly against a warm chest. Long, dark fingers stroked golden curls as Dorian took a breath.

“I won’t tell you that you won’t fail. I’ve failed enough in my lifetime to know not to do that,” Dorian’s voice was soft, but Cullen could feel it rumbling through the mage's chest, “What I will say, what I do know, is that if you fail… if you fall… you have people who will carry that weight for you until you can rise up to carry it again.”

They sat in the cool quiet of the shrine for a moment as the commander’s body relaxed into the mage’s embrace. Cullen could make out Dorian’s heartbeat, fast and strong under his leathers. Oddly enough, his own racing heart had slowed, and even the headache had lost its intense edge. A strange sensation settled over him.

What is this?    

“I am one of those people,” Dorian finally finished, voice oddly stifled.

Amber eyes snapped open.

I know what this is.

Cullen pulled away to meet Dorian’s eyes. He was surprised to see they shone with tears that hadn’t fallen.

I know what this is. Maker, I haven ’t felt it in so long, but I know. It ’s the reason I let him see me like this. It ’s the reason I feel so easy next to him. It ’s the reason it ’s always, always him I look for.

“Cullen, what…”

But Dorian never finished the question. Cullen’s fingers tangled in the mage’s dark hair, pulling him closer until their lips met, crushing into one another in a rough kiss. The commander could feel Dorian’s tensed body release as the mage pushed back, parting his lips and deepening the kiss.

Love, Cullen thought, as Dorian’s arms renewed their embrace, This is love.

------------------------------------------

For me it was. Once I knew I loved you, it was fact. There was no other way to even be. I was so black and white back then. I guess I still am. Even now, there ’s just no other way for me to be but in love with you.

You took some time, though, love. It was the source of some amount of drama, if I recall correctly.

-------------------------------------------

The First Time He Told Him

The following weeks and months were a blur of stolen kisses and secret smiles and nights of exploration. Cullen was at once giddy and terrified. There were so many emotions rushing just below the surface, he wasn’t sure he could put words to his feelings even if he tried.

The commander had been in romantic relationships before. They had all been brief and upsetting, hardly what one would consider normal. He had no foundation, no context, for how to proceed.

To add another confusing level to the whole thing, Dorian had been and was still his friend.

How does one act around a friend after that line has been crossed? What thoughts should he share, and which are better left unsaid? Things that Cullen would have normally told Dorian were suddenly about Dorian.

I know how I feel. Is this … thing we ’re doing … does it mean the same to him?

He was too afraid to ask that particular question, so Dorian’s feelings remained a mystery to the commander. In the solitude they found behind closed doors, the mage was affectionate, attentive…. passionate. In public, however, he was a skittish thing. Oh, he still flirted outrageously, full of wit and charm, but simply brushing a hand against his would, as likely as not, send Dorian jumping across the room.

Cullen didn’t understand it. He knew that what they had, their relationship, would cause a bit of a scandal if it were common knowledge. He also cared little for scandals. He understood the game; he just refused to play it.

Is that what it is? Is Dorian afraid of bringing trouble to the Inquisition? Or is it something else?

Weeks of wondering why the mage was so damn scared of being out in the open wore on Cullen’s mind. Uncertainty darkened his thoughts and made the time they shared alone bittersweet.

Here we are, sitting quietly together. You ’re snuggled into the crook of my arm, stroking my hand as we each go about our business, me reading the last reports of the day and you lost in a book. Why can ’t we always be like this? Why are we different when we ’re not behind a door? Why do you run from me? Am I not

“Am I not what you want?” Cullen finally asked. He instantly regretted it, but knew he couldn’t hold it in any longer. He had to know where he stood. 

Dorian sat up and lowered his book, shock written on his face.

“I’m sorry. What?” he asked with a small shake of his head.

“Am I not… am I not what you want? Things have changed between us… but they haven’t. Out there, it’s still the same. Out there, we’re friends who play chess sometimes. Out there, no one knows that in here we’re… together like this,” Cullen continued, not liking how his voice wavered. His heart was in his throat as he waited for Dorian’s response.

Dorian’s face twisted, unreadable emotion passing over it like a shadow, before the armor of his confident smile righted itself.

“Don’t be ridiculous, my dear man. I don’t spend my every free moment with you because I’ve nothing better to do.”

“Then you’re ashamed?”

“No, did I say that?”

“Then what, Dorian?” Cullen’s anxiety gave way to anger as Dorian continued to skirt the issue at hand, “Stop trying to redirect and just answer the Maker-damned question. Why do you run from me when others are around?”

“What we are is none of their concern. Why should it matter?” The mage’s voice had risen to match the commander’s own frustrated tone.

“It matters, Dorian…”

“I’m leaving for the Exalted Plains with Meria tomorrow… for weeks… Are we really arguing about this now?”

“Yes! Yes, we’re arguing about this. I’m done worrying whether you’ll jump away like I’m on fire if I reach for you. I’m done feeling like a dirty secret. I can’t do it,” Cullen rose from the couch they’d been sharing happily just moments before. He took a few staccato steps across the floor of Dorian’s quarters before turning. “Nothing is certain! We could all die tomorrow, and I just can’t do this anymore. I’ll not spend the next few weeks wondering if I’m the only one in love.”

Cullen’s hand rose to his mouth as he realized what he'd just revealed. His stomach turned and his heart dropped as he held his breath, waiting to see how Dorian would react.

The mage turned baleful gray eyes on the commander.

“Please don’t,” Dorian whispered.

“Don’t… what?”

“I can’t… Cullen, I can’t give you what you want. Please don’t ask that of me.”

“You can’t… give me what I want?” Cullen’s lips pressed into a hard line as the muscles in his jaw worked rapidly.

“You look at me with those eyes, so clear in what you want and how you feel, and I know I can’t… The time we’ve spent together… it’s been the best in my tragic little life, but I just can’t return it.”

“Then I’m right. I’m the only fool in love here,” the bitterness in Cullen’s tone made Dorian wince.

“Please, don’t misunderstand…”

“Oh, I understand. You couldn’t help yourself. It was too easy right?” Cullen cut him off as he turned his back on Dorian and walked to the door.

Dorian winced at hearing his own words echoed back at him.

“That’s not fair and you know it!”

“Isn’t it? Maybe first impressions aren’t so far off,” he paused, shoulders slumped, “Still, after everything, I’d thought… well, it doesn’t really matter, does it? Enjoy your time in the Exalted Plains,” Cullen retorted as he walked through the door into the cool, dark night.

He made it to his quarters before his knees buckled and he collapsed onto his bed. The mage with the beautiful dark skin and sharp gray eyes had worked his way deep into the commander, deeper than anyone had before. It would be a painful process to extricate him from the pathways of Cullen’s heart.

Maker, I am such a fool. I still don ’t understand.

------------------------------------------

And I didn ’t, not for a quite some time. That was … an awful time. I often wish I could go back and knock some sense into our past selves.

But we eventually found our way.

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The First Time They Really Made Love

Weeks passed. The anger born from embarrassment and rejection cooled quickly and left only a hollow ache in the commander’s chest.

He missed the warm embraces. He missed the fevered kisses. He missed the nights they spent tangled up in each other.

But mostly, Cullen missed his friend.

The events of the night before the Inquisitor dragged Dorian off to the Exalted Plains replayed in his head over and over again. The conversation, so short but so heavy, looped endlessly, driving Cullen to distraction as his stomach turned with regret. 

Why did I push him? Why didn ’t I let him explain? Maker ’s breath, how could I be so … selfish?

In the time that Dorian was away from Skyhold, the commander’s mind wandered from his duty so often the other advisors took notice. He didn’t miss the worried looks they shot him, but they said nothing. On the other hand, Cassandra showed a special interest in his wellbeing. It was all he could do to convince her that his sudden malaise wasn’t due to lyrium withdrawal. Even his men whispered when they thought they were out of earshot. He let them talk.

Nothing mattered. He spent most nights alone, caught between the grim certainty that Dorian would never speak to him again and the thin hope that perhaps the mage wouldn’t hold a grudge.  

Nothing changed when Dorian returned, however.

Cullen swallowed his pride and made his way to the gates when he heard that Meria and her party were arriving. He wanted a chance to talk, to make things right with his friend. Cullen could live without romance – he would recover from that hurt – but he wasn’t sure he’d be the same now that he knew what having a real friend was.

I did what you asked, damn you. I relied on you to help ease my load. And now I depend on you. When did that happen? Why does the thought that you won ’t be there any more make me feel so fucking lost?

The Inquisitor’s group began filing through the portcullis into the lower courtyard. Cullen’s face lit with a reserved hope and his heart fluttered when Dorian walked through the gate.

But the mage just kept walking, passing the commander without a sideways glance.

So, that's his choice then.

The hollow ache became a tearing hole.

But life went on. The Inquisition went on. Cullen’s days grew dull as he threw himself into his work; it was the only thing that kept him from falling into the empty space Dorian once filled. As for the mage, he kept busy researching the Venatori and Corypheus for Lavellan.

According to Varric, he’d also taken to spending many nights in the Rest, drinking himself into a stupor more often than not. Cullen tried to remain detached when the dwarf dropped by his office, expressing concern over Dorian’s behavior.

“Look, Curly, all I’m saying is that it’s not the same since he came back from the Plains. He’s not drinking for fun... he's drinking to forget,” Varric explained, eyeballing the stacks of reports on the commander’s desk as he did.

“As long as he fulfills his duties, what Ser Pavus does, whatever vices he’s indulging when he’s not needed… It’s none of my concern,” Cullen’s voice was even, but inside, his heart was breaking for Dorian. The thought of him self destructing... but he'd already made his choice. What concern was it of Cullen's, really, if Dorian drank himself into oblivion each evening?

“No, I don’t suppose it is. Looks like you’ve got your own vices to indulge,” the dwarf responded, gesturing at the work piled up on the desk between them.

“If that’s all, Master Tethras,” Cullen’s face was haggard and drawn, his eyes narrowed in anger.

Varric turned to leave, but stopped as he reached the door. He sighed heavily and threw one last appeal over his shoulder, “He misses you, whether he'll admit it or not. Please, just talk to him.”

And then the dwarf was gone and Cullen was, again, alone… wrestling with himself.

He misses you.

“Then why won’t he talk to me?”

You haven ’t spoken to him, either.

“But that day, he didn’t even look at me as he passed.”

And? There have been many days since then. Many chances to make him look at you.

“He’s had the same chances to come talk to me.”

So you ’re just going to sit there and let him make all the calls?

“I hurt him.”

And he hurt you. And if Varric is to be believed, he ’s drowning his guilt in wine at this very moment.

“How can I face him?”

You love him.

“What if that’s not enough?”

It is. It ’s plenty.

“I love him. Maker's breath, I do.”

Finally. Now go get him.

Cullen rose from his seat, the sudden movement sending his chair clattering to the floor behind him. He made a mad dash for the Rest, all pretenses of maintaining appearances abandoned in his urgency. He knew he had to find Dorian quickly, before his resolve wavered. He had so many things he wanted to say to the mage, but mostly, he wanted to apologize. For asking more than Dorian could give. For pushing him. For doubting him.

For not offering to listen and shoulder some of the mage’s burden.

The commander rushed down the stairs of the Rest, surveying the patrons at each level. The tavern was packed to the rafters, but Dorian was nowhere to be found.

“Bull….” Cullen managed when he’d reached the first floor, breath coming in wheezes and face red with exertion, “Bull… have you seen… Dorian?”

Cullen could feel The Iron Bull slide an eye lazily over his form. He knew the figure he cut, the bags under his eyes, the unkempt hair, the frenzied look on his face. The mercenary chuckled, a low rumbling in his thick chest.

“Not tonight, Commander,” Bull answered in that easy tone of his.

“Ah. Thanks anyway,” Cullen replied. The note of disappointment was impossible to miss. He turned with a sharp movement and started back up the stairs. Back to his empty office.

“Hey, but don’t stop looking, big guy,” the qunari called after him, “You ask me, it’s about time the two of you did some searching.”

Maker ’s breath, I suppose everyone knows.

Cullen stopped his ascent to shoot Bull a sharp look as he replied, “I didn’t ask.” He paused, then added in a softer tone, “but thank you... for your concern.”

The walk back to his office was cold and slow. He took his time, staring up at the night sky, wondering what he would have said if Dorian had been in the tavern.

How would I even start that conversation? Hey, I know I said I was in love with you and then immediately accused you of being a shallow bastard when you didn't say the things I wanted to hear – let ’s pretend none of that happened, ok?

“No. This is ridiculous,” Cullen muttered as he closed the office door behind him. The room was as he left it. Reams of paperwork covering his desk in such quantities that he often wondered how it didn’t collapse onto his lap as he worked. His chair was right where it had fallen earlier. The candle was still burning.

But still, something seemed off. Cullen cocked his head to the side, concentrating on what the difference could be. And there it was. A scent that hadn’t been there earlier, one that hadn’t been in his office for nearly two months now, a scent that had once been so welcome. Pleasant, really. A heady mix of spice and lyrium.

“Dorian?” Cullen murmured, casting his eyes about the room. “Where…”

“Here,” came the simple reply from behind him. Cullen turned, and his heart leapt when he spotted Dorian standing next to the door. It had been so long since they’d been this close. So long since his amber eyes had met Dorian’s own gray pair. So long since they just… were.

Unbidden, unexpected tears stung the commander’s eyes as he fought to swallow the lump that had risen in his throat. The power of this emotion, the raw hurt he felt even after being apart for so long, he wasn’t prepared for any of it.

But still, he had things to say to this man.

“Dorian, I’m s…” Cullen began.

“I love you.”

Cullen shook his head in confusion. Surely, he’d heard wrong.

“I’m sorry… what?” he asked.

Dorian’s brows knit together, gray eyes shining fiercely. He looked more like a frightened animal on the defensive than a man in love. Assuming that’s what he even said at all.

“I love you, you horrible, stubborn man."

So I didn't hear wrong.

"Stubborn? Me?"

"Yes, you. When you left that night, I thought, ‘Fine, he’ll come back when he’s done throwing his tantrum. We’ll discuss this like adults.’”

Dorian’s look sharpened as he sucked his teeth in agitation.

“But you never came back! Not that night, not the next morning before we left! Not so much as a ‘don’t let the door hit your ass on the way out’ for me. Not from you. So, I thought to myself again, ‘Fine. This is what happens. A shame, really, but I suppose the fun’s over.’ I thought to myself that whatever we’d had, it was over. I decided it would be better to just cut it off, cleanly.”

“Yet here you are…” Cullen ventured.

“Maddeningly enough, yes. Here I am. I couldn't cut it off! I was constantly angry, restless beyond all measure. Forever thinking of your dumb, beautiful face," Dorian paced in front of Cullen, strides short and agitated. "Do you realize how frustrating it is to suddenly need someone? Like they're the very air you breathe? Like that air has been simply sucked from your lungs when they're gone?”

Cullen knew that feeling. He knew it very well by now.

But still...

“I didn’t think you cared…”

“You didn’t think I…. you didn’t think I cared?!” the mage sputtered, “You have to be the single most aggravating man I've ever met! You bark your orders, you practically ooze confidence out there with your men… but you showed your weakness to me. You trusted me. You let me in. Me, of all people! You let me try to save you from yourself.”

Dorian paused, lip twitching and jaw working.

“And you saved me. Somehow, all the armor I built up, all the pretense, it all melted around you. I didn’t need it. You changed me. And I didn’t know…. I didn’t know how much I needed that… how much I needed you… until it was over," Dorian stopped pacing, finally turning to face the commander, palms up and face sincere, "I was an idiot to let you walk out that night. An idiot terrified by his own heart.”

The weight of fear, of doubt, of self-pity and loathing… it all lifted at once from Cullen’s shoulders. He didn’t feel his feet hit the ground once as he crossed the distance to Dorian. He wrapped an arm around the smaller man’s waist, tangling his fingers in thick, black hair as he buried his face in the mage’s neck.

“Maker, help me, I thought… I didn’t think you felt the same… I’m so sorry.” Cullen tried to find the words as hot tears coursed down his cheeks, soaking into the soft silk of Dorian’s mantle .

Dorian clutched the crimson robe Cullen wore, pulling the larger man in and allowing tears of his own to fall over thick lashes.

“Don’t be sorry, you great oaf. Just be you. My Amatus.”

Cullen didn’t need to ask what that meant. He could feel its importance by the weight Dorian afforded it. Whatever the literal meaning, the emotion in the mage’s voice overwhelmed the commander.

He wanted to feel Dorian’s fingers on his skin. He wanted to kiss every inch of that lovely dark skin, nipping and tasting as he went. He wanted to bury his hands in the mage’s hair and hear him cry out as Dorian shuddered around him.

He wanted.

But first things first.

The commander pulled away, cupping Dorian’s face in his hands as he did. Their eyes met, and Cullen saw that the sharpness, the defensiveness had melted from the mage's expression. What was left, the adoration, the love, made Cullen's knees weak.

"Maker, I do love you."

Dorian smiled, breathtaking, before Cullen smirked and added, "And I'd like to point out that you're just as stubborn as I am. Maybe more."

The mage feigned shock, gasping dramatically.

"Commander, you wound me."

Both men laughed as Dorian cocked an eyebrow.

"And so here we are. The night is young and we have much to do in the way of... catching up."

The implication was thick in the mage's voice. It seemed the commander wasn't the only one left wanting in the wake of their confessions. Cullen turned to eye his desk, the image of sweeping all that work from it, pages raining down on the floor in a fluttering cascade, strong in his mind.

"No way. Not a chance. Not when there's a perfectly reasonable and soft bed above us, my dear commander."

Cullen knew they made it up the ladder to his loft, but for the life of him, he didn't recall the climb later. He just knew that suddenly, they were there, shaking hands pulling robes and unbuckling armor with desperate need.

"Damn it, Dorian, these Maker-forsaken, pointless straps." Cullen hissed between kisses.

Dorian's laugh was low and throaty as he replied, "Pointless? Hardly. They complement my aesthetic, you must admit."

"I'll admit they would complement the aesthetic of my floor. Now help me out here."

Conversation halted as fingers tugged at belts and mouths met again and again. Dorian pulled away long enough to help Cullen out of his cuirass, lowering it to the ground while his tongue and teeth trailed down the length of the commander’s neck. With a rough jerk, Cullen pulled loose the last of Dorian’s straps, the belt at his waist, and flung it behind them.

They made short work of the rest of their clothes.

For a moment, everything stopped. They stood in Cullen’s sparse quarters, bodies and hearts stripped completely bare, as starlight rained down on them. The urgency, the need, had quieted. In its place, a slow tenderness that made Cullen feel both vulnerable and exultant. He’d found someone he loved who somehow loved him back. This man, this baffling, wonderful, headstrong, charming, beautiful man right in front of him loved him back.

It was too much. Cullen reached out for the mage and pulled him in, fingers running through his hair as he placed a gentle kiss on Dorian’s forehead.

“Dorian,” the commander’s voice was choked with emotion. His eyes were closed as he pressed their foreheads together.

Dorian’s arms pulled them closer as he gave his reply, “Amatus.”

Cullen lowered the Tevinter mage who had stolen his heart onto the bed. They’d had sex before – they’d shared their bodies during long nights of passion in this very bed – but tonight was unlike any of those other nights. Tonight was gentle kisses and soft touches and slow pleasure. Tonight was a ritual that neither had performed before, but it felt sacred and right all the same.

Tonight was about making love.

Cullen took his time and Dorian responded in kind. Hearts beat as one as fingers grabbed and clutched and pulled and explored. Time moved slowly and too quickly all at once. Half a lifetime and half a heartbeat passed, and Dorian was ready for him. The dark man from Tevinter eased himself down onto Cullen’s hips, moaning unabashedly at the moment of delicious entry. They moved together, their pace gentle at first and gaining speed as they went. Cullen couldn’t tear his eyes off Dorian. He was entranced by the sight of Dorian moving with him – riding him – in the still of night as they built toward their release together.

Maker, he really is beautiful, Cullen thought, watching Dorian move and moan and sweat in the throes of passion. Cullen held on as long as he could before everything – the warm tightness of Dorian around him, the look on the mage’s face, the breathy cries – reduced his restraint to nothingness. His own low growls joined Dorian’s voice as they rode out the wave together.

Afterwards, Dorian collapsed on Cullen’s chest. They were both spent, breathing heavily and sticky with sweat, but Cullen wasn’t quite done.

He ’ll get up soon and clean off, but not yet. One more

The commander tangled his fingers in the mage’s hair again and pulled him close for one more kiss, ardent and deep, in the afterglow.

The next morning, the two men woke with the sun. Cullen smiled at the sight of Dorian’s hair all askew and Dorian groaned as he pulled the blankets over his head.

“Patch your roof,” Dorian grumbled.

“Mmmmmmm, I like it,” Cullen murmured into the back of Dorian’s neck as he draped an arm around the growly mage.

Time passed as Cullen basked happily in the rays of the sun, eyes closed and lips curled in a content little smile. He felt Dorian’s breathing slow and become more regular, and relished the warmth radiating from the man in his arms.

The world could be a terrible, dark place. Corypheus was still out there. Templars and mages still ravaged the countryside with their war. Despots still sat on gilded thrones, passing oppression as law. Innocents suffered and died.

But this moment, this very moment of sun and warmth and love, was the first time in his sad and often misguided life that Cullen could say he was truly at peace.

For the first time in memory, all was right in Cullen’s little corner of the world.

------------------------------

The din of conversation, laughter mixed with tears, had grown steadily as Cullen reminisced. But now that the sun had dipped below the mountains, the hall grew quiet again. Reluctantly, Cullen pulled himself into the present.

The time for firsts was over.

Now was the time for lasts.

The old commander gathered his courage, summoning strength he didn’t think he had, and finally faced him.

He lay peacefully on the altar. But for the ashy pallor of his skin, he might have been asleep. The mage had worn the years well… of course he had. His hair had grown long as it turned from black to silver, his face was lined more deeply, but he was still the same man he’d been decades ago. Even in those last awful days, when his thinning body weakened and wasted away, he was still the same. Still worried about Cullen and the weight he would have to bear alone again.

In the end, there was nothing either one of them could do except hold each other and wait.

"We've come a long way, love. Were you... were you happy?" Cullen had asked in the dead of night as they lay in bed.

Dorian winced as he turned to face his love. The effort to make even that tiny movement, monumental. His face was gaunt, but the eyes set in it were bright - just as lovely, just as sharp as they'd ever been. He raised an impossibly thin hand to trace the line of Cullen’s jaw, touch tender and fever-hot.

“I’d do it all again, Amatus,” he’d said with that same soft smile that had always made Cullen weak in the knees.

As would I, love. Each and every time. 

All eyes were on the aged commander as he smiled down at the man who had been the one to complete him, the man who stole his heart and saved his soul all those years ago.

They expected words, a eulogy. There were no words. This was not the time for words, after all.

This was the time for lasts.

One last time to squeeze his hand.

One last secret smile.

One last time to caress his cheek, thumb circling the little mole that rode high on his cheekbone.

One last time to run fingers through his hair.

One last time to kiss his lips.

One last time to say

“I love you.”

-------------------

The fire that sent Dorian off to the Maker burned brightly as another memory rose to the surface of Cullen's tired mind. A soft, sweet memory of that sun-drenched morning when things were new.

"What does that word mean?" Cullen asked after he was sure the mage had finally woken up.

"Hmmmm?" Dorian muttered, still groggy and wrapped in his coccoon of blankets.

"You called me amatus. What does that mean?"

Cullen chuckled as a dark head popped out from under thick bedding, hair mussed but face serious.

"It means 'beloved,' and it's a word I'd never thought I'd use in my lifetime," Dorian looked down and added, "at least not sincerely. And it was. Sincere, I mean."

Cullen laughed and collected the mage in his arms, blankets and all, as he kissed his furrowed brow and said, "There's a first time for everything, love."

-----------------------

A time for firsts and a time for lasts,

But some things are made of eternity.

Until night comes and my journey ends,

Your Amatus I am and will ever be.