As soon as they walked in, he knew who they were. More importantly, he knew what they were here for in the first place. Me. Ringed fingers tensed and twitched and jaw muscles worked under smooth, burnished skin while teeth ground on teeth.
Fuck. Not now. Not here. He’ll fight them, he will. The great, noble lout.
In the moment before a heavy, gloved hand fell on Dorian’s shoulder, he cast darkened, warning eyes to meet those of honey and amber. Don’t, Cullen. Please.
But of course, he did. He did because that was who the man was. He was honor and goodness and trying to be the best he could be so no one else had to suffer. He was golden and pure, a protector and pillar of strength despite the cracks he’d been working to seal… or maybe because of them. He was everything Dorian needed but never knew or understood.
He was… Cullen. He was just Cullen, and that was why he was already rising from his chair, where he’d been sitting across from Dorian as they continued their tentative dance towards something more. Drinks. It was supposed to be drinks and banter and feeling each other out. It was supposed to be their first real step forward after a long night of talking, both opening wounds that had never really healed, and a kiss that had surprised both of them with its emotion and how right it felt. Because, Maker help them, even with the war raging on and their search for Corypheus finally showing promise, even amidst chaos and uncertainty and the surety that none of them were promised tomorrow… even with all that, the Commander’s arms had been strong and sure, his lips had been gentle and soft and full of care, his solid warmth pressed against Dorian had spoken of a security that the mage had never dared to dream for.
All that. After the first time, Dorian wanted all that and more. He wanted everything Cullen would give, desperately, and that was new. And frightening. But it seemed Cullen had felt the same way, was frightened, too, so Dorian took solace in that as well. He wasn’t alone in this.
So, fumbling, he’d started this dance, one with steps he didn’t know. But right in time with him was the Commander. For the first time in too many years to count, he didn’t want to fall. Dorian didn’t want to run or let this slide into the easier, if more hectic and carnal, dance that he knew so well.
And so tonight, this rare moment where neither of them had duties to fulfill or meetings to attend or backwater areas to explore for the barest sign of red Templars or Venatori agents, this was supposed to be the continuation of that dance. This was supposed to be where they found their footing. Where they learned how the other moved and truly became… partners.
Fuck, Dorian thought again as Cullen pulled himself to his full height, squaring his shoulders and slinging one hand comfortably over the pommel of his sword. Loose, it seemed, but Dorian knew it was anything but. The flash of metal, bright and golden and fierce, in the Commander’s eyes told Dorian that the man was ready to move. Ready to fight.
This can’t happen. If they know, if they think… they’ll hound him and slander the Inquisition all over Tevinter. This is bigger than… us.
It’s not fair. Andraste preserve me, I just wanted one good thing. I just wanted… him.
But he knew what he had to do. He knew, and that knowledge made his bright eyes dull as that dance music died in his mind and the steps faltered to a stop. It was the cold cover of snow and ice and finality where Cullen was the sun and everything warm and good and full of promise. It was lonely. So lonely.
But it was right.
Cullen saw the man across from him tense as soon as it happened. He didn’t know why exactly, and for a fleeting moment, his head was filled with with worry - cold feet and maybe tonight was going to be the rejection he’d feared from the moment Dorian became more. More than a member of the inner circle. More than the Inquisitor’s friend. More than razor sharp wit and a seemingly endless array of quips and comments. More.
Cullen would have liked to believe that it was just the fear of rejection that held him back, but he knew it had been deeper, a little darker. Whispered words, rolling from the tongues of demons he still fought each time he closed eyes that burned from exhaustion, held him in check, even when he noticed his chest fluttering when Dorian held him in his stormcloud gaze. It had… it had gotten better. Quieter, really, that old knee-jerk defense against magic, the old hate fueled by screams of innocent people slaughtered through the actions of one powerful madman when Cullen was just a boy. It was something that had worked its way so deeply and so quickly that he didn’t even notice the lasting effects.
Until the end. Until Kirkwall was burning and Meredith was fractured, he wasn’t even aware how wrong he’d been.
A decade, more, of decisions made colored by fear and hate burned shame into his mind every time he looked at Dorian. Each time, he thought someone like him… I would have held someone like him back, imprisoned in a circle. Or worse. I would have branded him an apostate, supported tranquility for someone just like him before Kirkwall.
So he’d held back because Maker, he had so much to atone for. He had so much, still, to work out of his system. He wasn’t worthy. Not by a long shot.
Until Dorian decided he was.
The change happened slowly at first, like a slow stream bubbling gently over worn rocks. Bit by bit, there was more. More time spent talking, more time playing chess, more little touches that may have been casual but felt anything but. And then one night, there was a flood, and the change continued, destructive, destroying everything, including Cullen’s many walls. Dorian walked in on him during a withdrawal attack, demanded in that steely voice that lay just under velvet tones why in the Maker’s name are you killing yourself? What are you trying to prove?
And then that flood broke the dam, rushing over levees and anything else in the way and came pouring out of Cullen’s mouth in torrents. Everything. Cullen had told him everything from Kinloch to Kirkwall and everything in between. By the end, his voice was hoarse and his eyes watered with that shame, but he’d gotten it out. He’d finally told him.
All the reasons he shouldn’t waste his time. All the reasons Dorian should hate him at worst or feel ambivalent about him at best.
But he didn’t do either of those things. His face didn’t wear the sneer of disgust Cullen mentally prepared himself to see when his red-rimmed eyes finally, finally looked up to meet… a softness he hadn’t expected. Even more surprising was what came after. Dorian sat down next to him on his creaky bed and the mage’s own story - the awful thing his parents did, the choices he’d made because of it, his mistakes and his triumphs - he told it all, stumbling, but without reservation. And after it all, he’d hesitated, sighed, and then taken Cullen’s trembling hand into his own.
“So in the end, we’re all just… people. But we’re trying, aren’t we? Trying to be better than what we were, hm? That’s not… that’s no small feat. For mage or templar.”
The sadness in his eyes and the kindness in his voice - it swept Cullen away and he heard himself asking a question he’d thought many times.
“May I kiss you?”
Under any other circumstances, the shock on Dorian’s face would have been comical. Now, though, Cullen immediately thought he’d pushed it too far, and his free hand moved to cover his mouth.
“I’m so sorry. Maker, I’m an idiot.”
“Not at all,” Dorian had said in a soft voice with a light huffing laugh. “I'd… I’d like it if you would.”
And so Cullen did. He did, and felt another dam break - the one in his heart - and that kiss was… everything. A release, a comfort, salve for his wounded soul. He hoped Dorian felt the same, assumed he must. After they pulled away for air, Cullen leaned in to rest his forehead against Dorian’s, his lips wearing a content smile as he simply breathed.
They’d spent the night together after that. Just… just hushed whispers as they talked and touched and held one another like they needed that contact to live. Maybe they did. Either way, Cullen couldn’t remember the last time he slept so well. He couldn’t remember waking up to a sweeter feeling than that of Dorian’s chest rising and falling, heartbeat steady under Cullen’s ear.
“What… what next?” Cullen had asked after they’d both been awake for a while, drowsy and loathe to move despite both being needed elsewhere.
“Mmmm…” Dorian had murmured as he let his fingers run through Cullen’s hair, “Drinks, I think. Away. I want to know who you are now.”
And so they’d gone at the first chance they had. It had taken weeks to find time free of the Inquisition, but finally they’d gotten some. It wasn’t much - enough for an evening at The Rest, tucked away in a corner on the third floor.
It wasn’t much, but Maker, it was all they had. It was all they had, and now these assholes, four thugs with hooded cloaks and the crackle of magic about them, were looking for trouble and just about to ruin it.
“I’m sorry, gentlemen,” Cullen said in a perfectly pleasant, perfectly menacing tone, “My friend and I aren’t looking for company.” He gave a lazy wave on the direction of the stairs, “Try the Chargers downstairs. They’re always good for a laugh.” Or an asskicking, if you’re the type to stir up trouble.
“I do apologize for the intrusion, but we have business with Lord Pavus,” the man gripping Dorian’s shoulder said, voice full of anything but apology. For his part, Dorian’s face was slack, blank, uninterested… but Cullen could see the wheels turning behind steel eyes. Always thinking, him.
“I’m rather afraid you don’t, friend,” Cullen grinned, though it was a feral thing and more tooth than smile. “I happen to be the Commander of these forces, and I have requisitioned the pleasure of his company this evening, as it were.” The relaxed posture he feigned melted into something more overt, more aggressive, and the three behind the man who spoke stepped forward to surround Dorian. Again, Cullen felt the crackle of magic snapping out from these men, but there was something off about it, like it wasn’t theirs. It clung to their skin like borrowed clothes, ill fitting and barely suited. It begged to be shrugged off, discharged, but was held in place by some power stronger than it was. Curious.
Those fingers were digging into his skin, sharp and biting like fangs. He knew there’d be bruising there tomorrow, but still Dorian sat impassively, making no move to shrug them off as he tasted the flavor of the borrowed magic rolling off of them. Familiar. It was familiar in a way that set his stomach to turning and his heart to pounding. Of course it was familiar; it was almost as known to him as his own, though it lacked any humanity.
Dorian could have groaned. Though he knew, he’d hoped he was wrong. Hoped the walls of Skyhold kept him safe. Apparently, the long fingers of Halward Pavus could reach him, even here. He had no idea how they managed to get in. At the moment he didn’t care. What he cared about were the people on the floors below them, singing and laughing and completely oblivious to the explosion set to go off above him. What he cared about was their lives. What he cared about was the man bristling in front of him, unaware of just what and who he was threatening.
I happen to be the Commander…
Fuck, Cullen. Why don’t you tell them where your sister lives and your first love’s name while you’re at it.
“The pleasure of his company, he says,” the voice above Dorian sneered. “So it’s like that, is it? We’d heard rumors, of course, but hadn’t thought to see it. Our employer will be most interested.”
“And if it is?” Cullen returned, and that smooth voice had become a growl. “I’d like to know why your employer would care. Perhaps you’d care to tell our Sister Nightingale?”
Cullen, Maker damn it, you’re making it worse. I’m making it worse. Act, Pavus, put on a show. You’re so fucking good at it. Do it now.
Dorian’s face animated into a brilliant smile, a mask to hide a heart that was breaking and a will that was resolute. No one, least of all Cullen or the Inquisition, would be hurt by the choices he made. No one.
“No need for all that, Commander, you’ll ruffle your, well, ruff,” Dorian said in a melodic voice as he managed a chuckle. It was fake, forced, a facade he threw up to distract and hide the man beneath. It was everything Cullen had broken through, built right back up in the blink of an eye. How easy it is to pull that veil back up. How sad.
But there was no time to reflect on that. He had a job to do, and if Dorian Pavus was going to do something, he was going to do it well. Elegant fingers wrapped around his goblet of wine and brought it to lips curled in an arch smile as he finished off the bracing liquid within. Standing, he straightened out his cloak and tugged at the leather bracers on one forearm. “Gentlemen,” Dorian addressed them with a smirk in his tone and on his lips, “I believe you said you had business with me? Shall we discuss it in the yard where there’s rather less stink of Fereldan dog lord in our noses?”
It was perfect. Polished. That affected air of aloof amusement had been refined over years, after all, and he wielded it with precision.
One of the men at Dorian’s side took his bare upper arm. “Oh, how delightfully forward of you,” Dorian laughed, but as skin touched skin, the mage knew the purpose of the spell his father had cast on them. Protection. Halward had meant to protect them from his son’s magic, though it had been a rather long time since his father had experienced the full measure of Dorian’s worth. It would hold for a while… but it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t near enough to stand against Dorian, and that flirty grin became a satisfied smile.
Get them alone. Take care of them. Maybe keep one alive for Leliana. Come back.
But that left a loose end. If Dorian knew his father - and Dorian knew his father - the man was listening in right now through some enchantment or other. Dorian spared a glance at Cullen’s confused, beautiful face, but had to look away quickly, else his resolve shatter.
“Lead the way, my hooded new friends. Four at once, what an adventure.” They’ll be dead or dying within the hour.
They turned toward the stairs to leave, but a cry from behind them made Dorian stop and tense, heart like lead, as he heard the question and the hurt in that voice.
“Wait, you can’t mean to go alone… I’m coming with you.”
Dorian bowed his head for a moment and grit his teeth. This was going to hurt. This was going to bleed. This was necessary. He turned back to the Commander and part of his heart turned to ash as he hardened his face. “Oh, no need, Commander. I do believe we’re finished.”
The implication, he hoped, was clear. They were. They had to be. As long as Halward Pavus drew breath, he wouldn’t stop coming at Dorian. If the man knew Dorian had a weakness, a weakness with soft, golden waves of hair and honey-amber eyes like jewels set in an ivory face that was scarred, yes, but no less handsome for it, Halward would use that weakness. He would destroy everything Dorian cared about, everything surrounding what Dorian cared about, just to have his way. Cullen, maybe he was safe with his position and the Inquisition behind him… but what about Cullen’s family? And what would happen when the Pavus family openly waged a war of politics against the Inquisition?
I should have known better than to hope for more.
“Dorian,” Cullen continued, taking a step forward, those beautiful eyes searching Dorian’s unyielding face. “What about… I’d thought…”
And oh, how that hurt. There was burning poison in Dorian’s blood and acid in his throat.
Make him believe, Dorian. Make them both believe.
And so he laughed. That cruel, twisting laugh meant to belittle, deride, humiliate. It was mocking and horrible and it tore through him just as it ripped through Cullen. Around him, the four henchmen began to laugh, too, and Dorian watched as Cullen’s face crumpled and the blood rose to his cheeks. Shame. There was shame in those eyes now, and it killed Dorian a little on the inside to know - to really know - just how deeply this blade cut.
Finish it, Dorian.
“My dear Commander, I’m afraid you took our… relationship, if you want to call it that, too seriously. I can’t say as I blame you, I realize the effect I have on people. Still, cute as it is, this… infatuation you have with me is misplaced. A Templar, really? And not just any Templar, but the Knight-Captain at Kirkwall… Ridiculous… a dream.” And wasn’t it just. A lovely, warm, sundrenched dream… but a dream nonetheless, and Dorian had been the one dreaming for things that were never meant to be his.
It was just a moment, but the crushing weight of realization and bitter misery that washed over Cullen’s face before it darkened and closed burned itself into Dorian’s mind. This… this was what he’d remember when he forgot who he was again and thought he could try.
“Go then. You are dismissed,” Cullen replied, stony and stern, stiff in a way he’d never been with Dorian. He’s not Cullen right now. He’s the Commander. And I have been dismissed.
His choice of words, the tone he used… those implications weren’t lost on Dorian.
“You heard him,” the man at Dorian’s side barked. “We’re dismissed.”
“Shall we then, hm?” Dorian winked as he turned, steps taking him farther and farther away from where he’d left his heart.
Cullen didn’t know that Dorian returned, entirely unharmed, later that night. Cullen didn’t know that the mage had stopped outside his office and whispered I’m sorry into the worn wooden door too many times to count as he felt pieces of himself crumble away. Cullen didn’t know that the way the man drank after that night, the way he opened his bed to those who caught his eye, the way he flung himself into battle like a man possessed with no regard for his own safety… it was all to forget the one time he’d dared to dream.
All Cullen knew was the devastation that came after a flood. The way everything seemed familiar, but nothing was the same. All Cullen knew was the steady beat of what did you expect and never again that competed with the ever increasing hum of lyrium, lyrium, lyrium. All Cullen knew was that he was a fool to have thought he deserved something good after all the bad he’d done. All Cullen knew was that he had yet to atone.
If he ever truly could without a heart.