For a long time, Cullen told himself he didn’t care.
He didn’t care whether she smiled at him from across the war table; he didn’t care whether she came to visit him whenever she returned to Skyhold. It was easier that way—he didn’t need to focus on anything but the task at hand, on keeping his own demons at bay long enough for all of them to survive this mess.
“I don’t know who you think you’re fooling,” Cullen muttered to himself.
He leaned against the wall next to one of the narrow windows of his office, looking down at the courtyard below, where the Inquisitor and Dorian were sparring for the entertainment of Sera, Iron Bull, and Cole. Spells flew back and forth, sparking with multicolored light, blocked or dodged neatly by both Vera and Dorian. One of Vera’s ice spells finally caught Dorian on the head, frosting his hair and the tips of his mustache snowy white.
Sera burst out in giggles, falling over onto her back and clutching her stomach. Vera snorted an inelegant laugh into her hand.
Dorian tossed his staff on the ground. “Oh, I’ll teach you to mess about with a man’s hair.” He caught the Inquisitor by the waist and hauled her bodily over one shoulder.
“Wait—wait, Dorian!” Vera yelped, but she was laughing, loud and bright. “I call foul! You’re supposed to use magic! Put me down!”
“The kitchens seem to have misplaced a sack of potatoes,” said Dorian, ignoring her. He turned in a slow circle, still holding her over his shoulder. “I wonder if I should place it in this mud puddle over here.”
Cullen turned away from the window.
“Well, someone looks like a thundercloud,” said a silken voice behind him.
And Cullen did not jump. In fact, he held himself perfectly still as Leliana emerged from the shadows, but he suspected that Leliana knew she had spooked him regardless. The way she had a slight smirk on her face said it all. Cullen sighed, scrubbing a hand over the back of his neck as he sat back down at his desk. “And to what do I owe the pleasure?” he asked.
Leliana usually sent one of her agents to relay messages to Cullen. To see her outside of the rookery or the war room was rare.
She didn’t answer him immediately. She was still smirking at him. “You should say something. I think you may be surprised by the answer.”
Cullen felt his ears getting hot. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He shuffled around some papers on his desk, if only to give his hands something to do.
“Of course you do, but fine, I’ll allow you to keep up the pretense. For now.” Leliana kept right on smirking, but the expression turned softer and gentler. “You’re quite sweet, you know that? Like a schoolboy. It’s... charming.” Her mouth turned on the last word, so it sounded only partially sincere.
“Maker’s...” Cullen’s face was aflame, he could feel it. He barreled on, forcing the change of subject. “You had something else to discuss with me, I take it?”
Leliana, like a card flipping to show its other face, was deadly solemn and professional once more, as if the last five minutes did not happen at all. She produced a roll of parchment from somewhere in her robes and laid it out over Cullen’s papers. It was a miniaturized map of Orlais. She pointed to a few spots on the map that she had marked off. “We’ve found another smuggler caravan, but it’s on the move. The Inquisitor can intercept, but if you can send some men in advance to block off the route—”
“Of course.” Cullen didn’t even ask if Leliana had spare agents to help. This task in particular was his fight, more than anyone else’s. In fact... “I should. I should go as well. I’ll accompany them.”
“What?” Leliana was rarely surprised, and if she was, she hardly ever let it show in her expression. So to see her slightly raise her eyebrows right now indicated just how shocked she was. “You’re the commander. We can’t risk you going to the field for this one—”
“We send the Inquisitor after every last venetori camp from here to the Forbidden Oasis. I hardly think I am more important to the Inquisition than the Inquisitor herself.” Cullen assumed an air of affront. “Or is this your way of saying I’m getting too old for field work?”
Leliana made a huff of a sound, which, for Leliana, counted as a full-on laugh. “Hardly.” She waved a conceding hand. “Fine, go play swords with the red lyrium smugglers.”
“Of course you would make it sound like I’m just—” But Cullen found himself talking to the air. Leliana was gone, vanished into the shadows once more within the span of a breath.
Damn it, he hated when she did that.
Later that day, Cullen was packing up the last of the supplies into the caravan when he heard a warm voice say, “You’re coming with us?”
Cullen dropped the box he was holding on his foot. He swore, both out of pain and embarrassment, because of course he had to look like an idiot in front of—But, to her credit, the Inquisitor didn’t laugh at him, but immediately stooped to help him gather up the spilled contents of the box, bedrolls and blankets that had tumbled onto the ground.
“Yes, I am. I… If that’s alright?”
Vera settled the last of the bedrolls back in the box. “Of course it is. The more help we have, the sooner we can all go home.” She smiled, straightening up and putting the box back in Cullen’s arms. “And I’ve always wanted to see our commander in action.”
Somewhere behind him, Cullen heard a snort of amusement. He turned to see Dorian approaching, wearing a traveling cloak, staff strapped to his back.
“I think we would all like to see that, my dear.”
Vera blushed, and it really wasn’t fair that she could even blush prettily, her cheeks and the bridge of her nose going rosy. Seeing it made something in Cullen’s stomach twist around in knots. “On the field! I mean... I didn’t mean.” Vera clapped a hand over her eyes, still blushing. “Oh Maker blind me. Just... ignore me and go about your business.” She backed swiftly away, somehow gracefully making an exit even with a hand over her eyes.
“I do love to tease her. It’s just so amusing.” Dorian watched her leave with a fond look that he never gave to anyone else—at least, not that Cullen had ever seen.
Cullen ground his teeth together. “Just... be kind to her, alright?”
“Why?” Dorian asked, perplexed. “She’s not made of glass.”
This was utterly unforgivable. He couldn’t truly be that casual about, about—Cullen had a hand on the pommel of his sword and he couldn’t even remember putting it there. He unclenched his hand with a concentrated effort. “Pavus, if you dare hurt her, I’ll—”
Dorian was staring at him in confusion, but then a realization broke across his face, clearing away his puzzled expression. “Oh. Oh, you think—” Dorian made a coughing sound, which Cullen realized was the sound of Dorian holding back a laugh, but he eventually gave in and just started laughing outright.
“What. Is. So. Funny.”
“Oh, this... is just... so priceless.” Dorian could barely breathe, gasping out the words between chuckles. Cullen didn’t have the patience for it, and was about to draw his sword, when Dorian held up both hands in a sign of surrender. He knuckled away a tear that had escaped his eye while laughing. “My dear commander. You will be relieved to know that... well, let’s say you have nothing to worry about.”
Cullen released his sword, letting it fall back into its scabbard. He felt like the conversation had turned around several times in less than a minute, leaving him adrift. “What are you on about, Dorian?”
“You two done with your tea party?” Varric asked as he ambled by, hefting his gigantic crossbow over one shoulder. “The away party’s ready to go whenever you are.”
“We’ll talk more later,” Dorian promised, tossing Cullen an enigmatic wink before following after the dwarf.
They had agreed beforehand that they’d split the party into two; Cullen would be flanked by Dorian, while Vera and Varric would follow Cassandra. The leader of the red templar group was on the other side of the clearing, and he didn’t have any lackeys protecting him; it was a clear shot. Cullen could see the barrier spell around him dissipating, but Dorian was still recovering from his last area-wide fire blast and there wasn’t enough time; he had to—
“Cover me when you can,” said Cullen through gritted teeth, and he broke through the fray.
“Wait, commander!” Dorian was calling after him, but Cullen ignored him.
The red templar leader spotted Cullen’s approach and drew his sword. He grinned. “Come on, then, Rutherford,” he said. He tilted his head to one side. “My, but you’re looking tired. How’s life without lyrium treating you, these days?”
“Cullen! Look out!” Vera screamed.
A shimmering blue barrier exploded around him, just in time to turn away a pair of arrows aiming straight for his head. Cullen turned around to see Varric shoot the brains out of a pair of archers with an explosive shot—literally, as the archers’ brain matter scattered messily onto the grass.
A movement behind him caught Cullen’s attention and he raised his guard to block the leader’s overhead blow. He brought his sword around to stab sideways into the templar’s armor, at the weak spot under the arm that he knew existed because he once wore armor just like it. The leader gasped, blood spurting through his teeth, and Cullen may have twisted the sword a little, just to make it hurt more, but he wasn’t proud to admit it. Cassandra ran up and silently and swiftly ended it with a two-handed swing of her sword, decapitating the templar leader. His head fell to the ground with a soft thud.
Vera, Dorian, and Varric ran up to them. To Cullen’s shock, Vera smacked the center of his chest with the end of her staff.
“Don’t you dare do that again! You can’t just run into the middle of the fray without a barrier!” She was shouting, gripping her staff so hard the bones of her hand showed through her skin, and electricity was sparking around her, filling the air with the tang of ozone. Cullen was briefly worried she might actually electrocute him.
“I had an opportunity and I took it,” said Cullen, cautiously, because he wasn’t sure exactly where this outburst was coming from. “I know the risks.”
“Don’t you ever think of your own safety? Ever?”
“Why are you angry?” asked Cullen, bewildered.
“Of course I’m angry, you idiot!” Vera wrung her hands around the grip of her staff and for a second, Cullen thought she was going to smack him in the head with it. She made a frustrated sound in her throat, then whirled on her heel and began marching back to camp. “Andraste’s ass.”
Cassandra glared at all of them, but particularly at Cullen. “Men,” she said, rolling her eyes, and went after the Inquisitor.
“It’s astounding how terrible you both are at this.” The side of Dorian’s mouth quirked upward. “Truly awful.”
Cullen scowled. “Not now, Dorian.”
“I never thought I would say this, but Sparkler’s right. In case you need it spelled out for you, she was worried about you.” Varric was preoccupied with strapping Bianca back onto his back, but Cullen thought he could see a ghost of a smirk on Varric’s face as well. “Go, apologize. We’ll get this cache sorted out and bring it back to camp.”
“She was...?” Until Varric said it, the thought hadn’t occurred to him.
Dorian sighed. “Like I said, awful.”
Cullen followed after Cassandra and Vera, but he didn’t catch up to them until they were back at camp, and even then, they both pointedly ignored him. Cassandra went to the soldiers’ tents to get them to start packing up, while Vera disappeared into her tent, closing the flap behind her.
After a moment’s hesitation, Cullen went and pulled the flap open again. “Can I come in?”
Vera was rolling up her clothing and packing it into a trunk. She didn’t look up. “Do as you like.”
Cullen stepped inside the tent. It was a tiny space, barely enough for two people to turn around, and he had to duck his head to fit under the low height. “I... didn’t mean to worry you. Forgive me.”
“I wasn’t worried at all.” Vera slammed her trunk closed. “You just have terrible battle strategy.”
Now that Cullen suspected he understood the source of her anger, he found it… well, it was actually adorable, but he wouldn’t ever say that aloud to her. He said, amused, “Is that so?”
“Yes, it is.”
“You know, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you angry before.”
“Yes, well, best not incur my wrath in the future.” Vera raised her head and looked up at him defiantly, daring him to contradict her. When she saw the expression on Cullen’s face, she blushed. “Why are you smiling? This isn’t funny.”
“No, Inquisitor, not at all.”
They were so close, standing together in the small darkened space, that Cullen could smell the embrium she used to wash her hair. The urge to touch her came over him so suddenly that he had to close his hands into fists just to stop himself. As if she could hear what he was thinking, Vera’s blush deepened, and Cullen’s heart was going too fast in his chest. It felt like it was rioting against his chestplate.
Vera cleared her throat, stepping away from him. “Come on, let’s see what they were carrying in their caravans.”
They were about halfway back to Skyhold when they decided to make camp for the night. Cullen sat on one side of the fire, scrubbing the mud off of his boots with a bristle brush. Varric was in his tent, writing, and Dorian was lying on his back on the ground, seemingly dozing, but his eyes were open, looking up at the stars. On the other side of the camp, a little bit away from the fire, Cassandra and Vera were eating their supper and talking.
From the bits of conversation that Cullen could catch, Cassandra was telling the Inquisitor a rather tall tale of a Nevarran noblewoman who had crashed a royal ball while riding a horse. They had their heads bent together like sisters sharing gossip, breaking out in laughter occasionally, and if you had asked Cullen to imagine Cassandra participating in such a scene not three months ago, he wouldn’t have been able to even conceive of it. But the Inquisitor seemed to have that effect on people.
Vera let out a sudden peal of laughter, and the sound of it broke out across the camp, making Cullen smile despite himself.
“You know, commander, you can’t actually take a person’s clothes off by staring at them hard enough.” Dorian sat up. “Believe me, I’ve tried.”
“Dorian,” said Cullen warningly. He wasn’t thinking anything of the sort before, but he was certainly thinking about it now, and he just hoped the flickering firelight would hide the flush on his face.
Dorian sat down beside him. “Here, have a drink with me.” He pulled a silverite flask out of his robes. “I promised you a chat earlier, and I am a man that keeps my promises.”
“What is this?” Cullen took the offered flask. When he unscrewed the cap, the whiff of alcohol that was released made his eyes water.
“No idea. The Bull gave it to me, so as to its origins, your guess is as good as mine. It does the trick in a pinch.”
Cullen took a cautious sip and barely managed to keep from choking on it. He passed it back. “It’s... disgusting.”
“Indeed.” Dorian smiled around the mouth of the flask before he took his own drink.
“So you wished to speak.” Cullen blinked. He could feel the effect of the liquor immediately, warming him from his chest outward and fuzzing up his head.
“Well, there’s no sense in dancing around the issue. I’ll say this once, but I’ll say it slowly so that you can keep up,” said Dorian, and Cullen frowned but let Dorian continue. “I have no interest in our dear Inquisitor at all. Although she is a lovely woman, skilled, terribly clever, fair-minded, and it’s quite entrancing to watch her walk away...” Dorian trailed off for a moment, as if lost in thought.
Cullen couldn’t help scowling at that. For some reason, it irritated him to no end to hear Dorian talk about her like that. “Do you have a point?”
“My point? Oh, yes,” said Dorian. “It is that, despite all those fine qualities, I will never be interested in her. Not in that way.”
Cullen felt like Dorian was saying something important, but he was missing what it was. It was probably the vile brew clouding his mind. “Why?”
Dorian took a drink. “It’ll never be her. Or any woman.” This last bit was uttered low.
“Is that a problem?” Dorian asked, raising an eyebrow in challenge.
“No, of course not.” Cullen rubbed a hand over his forehead. His thoughts were going too quickly at first for him to catch onto any one in particular, but when they had finally settled down a little, he knew one thing for certain. “Would it be alright to say I am a bit relieved that you like men?”
Dorian huffed a surprised laugh. “That... that is the first time anyone has ever had that reaction. To be honest, it’s quite refreshing.”
“Thank you for telling me. It must be difficult for you.”
“Oh, hardly.” Dorian waved a hand. “Nothing here compares to what I suffered back home. You southerners are so lax about these things, I’m starting to feel I should’ve left Tevinter long ago.”
Cullen accepted the flask as it was passed back to him, and took another careful sip. He turned the small container over in his hands. It was beautiful; intricately carved with a pattern of whorls and tiny gem chips studded the edges. Cullen wondered if it was from Tevinter. “She is quite fond of you, in any case,” he said. “You can’t blame me for mistaking it for something else.”
“That’s the rub, isn’t it? Even though I don’t think of her that way, I can’t help but bask in the attention. She’s so busy, all the time, everyone asking her to find this, kill that, save that damned druffalo, when she has the time to spare for you, and only you...” Dorian shrugged, a small lift of one shoulder. “You can’t help feeling a little bit like...”
“Like you’re a better man just because she’s there with you?”
“Ah, commander.” Dorian patted Cullen’s arm. “You’ve got it pretty bad.”
Cullen grunted, but did not confirm or deny with an actual reply. He gave the flask to Dorian, who drank from it liberally.
“You know, although she and I have never discussed this at length, I can tell she’s fond of you, too. More than fond, actually.”
“Don’t say such things just to be kind.” Cullen waved a hand, as if he could wave away the idea itself. “It doesn’t do me any favors.”
“Hah! When have I ever gone out of my way to be kind?” said Dorian. “I’m just telling you what I observe.”
“Somehow that just makes it worse.”
“Why? There’s no rule against it. Thou shalt not covet your Inquisitor, or some such. And even if there were, hang the rules,” said Dorian. He gave an exaggerated sigh. “Oh, look who I am talking to. You were probably born with a rulebook in your hand.”
“Shut up, Pavus.” Cullen gave Doran a slight shove.
“Ow, that bloody hurt, you brute.” After a moment, Dorian added, consideringly, “I could talk to her.”
“I... don’t. No. Please don’t.”
“If it’s not of her own choosing, I’d rather it not happen at all.” Cullen ran a hand through his hair. “It’s... I want it to be her choice. She’s been forced into too many things because of circumstance, and I don’t want this to be another thing someone has pushed her into. Does that make sense?”
Dorian didn’t respond at first. He just looked at him in silence, and it went on for long enough that Cullen started to feel uncomfortable.
Finally, Dorian said, “Yes. It does. Maker, what a depressing way of thinking, commander. Look at what you’re doing, forcing me to drink more just to drown away your sorrows.” He took another long drink from the flask, and Cullen wondered exactly how much liquor that little bottle could contain.
“I’m forcing you, am I?”
“Yes, and therefore you must join me, shot for shot.” Dorian pushed the flask into Cullen’s hands. “I’m making that a rule, therefore you must follow it. That’s how you operate, isn’t it?”
“Well if it’s a rule...” Cullen took another drink.
“Ah, I knew I liked you.” This was said in a warm and flirtatious tone.
“Don’t get any ideas, Dorian.” And Cullen felt a little pleased with himself when that made Dorian laugh.
Cullen woke up the next morning to the sound of voices. He wasn’t quite awake enough to open his eyes. He could feel the morning sun on his back, warming the back of his neck, and it was gentle enough that he could easily go back to sleep. The voices, however, he could not ignore.
“Damn, sometimes you just cannot make this shit up.”
“Shh, you’re going to wake them.”
“Good, wake them, this is getting quite ridicu—Varric, what are you writing?”
“Nothing, nothing, don’t mind me.”
The more awake Cullen became, the more aware he was that he was lying on the cold rocky ground, with nothing but spare grass to cushion him. The only thing that was warm was an unmoving shape next to him, and something across Cullen’s chest. He opened his eyes slightly and was horrified to see himself tangled up with Dorian—no, more precisely, he was burrowed into Dorian’s side and Dorian had an arm slung over Cullen’s chest.
Dorian finally stirred, turning his face away from the sunlight. “Kaffas, everyone please shut up.” He turned right into Cullen’s pauldron, pushing his nose into the fur, and it was almost comical to see him wake up more fully. He blinked, staring at Cullen’s shoulder. “Oh. Huh.”
“This isn’t—it’s not what it looks like!” Cullen tried to pry away from Dorian, but Dorian, stubborn and contrary as a cat, just held onto him tighter.
“Well, what do you think it looks like, my dear?” asked Dorian, and Cullen had no idea how someone could make so many insinuations with just a smile.
“Dorian, you are decidedly not helping,” hissed Cullen.
“I think it’s cute,” said Vera, grinning, and all the while, Varric was writing who knew what.
“I hate you all.” Cullen sat up and immediately swore, clutching at his head, which seemed like it was going to split in half. “But I think I hate Iron Bull the most for that damned drink.”
Vera seemed to take pity on him. She extended her hand to him and helped him to stand. “C’mon, I may have something for your headache.”
“I... alright.” Now that Cullen was standing, he felt a little better, but who was he to refuse her attention? It was as Dorian said, he was hopelessly caught by it, seeking it out like sunlight.
Dorian said, “I’m fine, don’t mind me wallowing in pain on the ground here.”
Vera lifted an eyebrow. “I know you probably egged him on, so no medicine for you.”
“You’re a cruel woman. And Varric, I want royalties for whatever gets published from what you’re writing there.”
“Talk to my people and we’ll negotiate the percentage.” Varric even didn’t look up, still busy scribbling away.
“Are you adding drawings?” asked Cassandra in a horrified voice.
Cullen followed the Inquisitor back to her tent, and he had a strange feeling of déjà vu as they entered the small enclosed space together, Cullen once again ducking his head to stand inside the low tent. Vera gestured for Cullen to sit on a spare box, and she started rummaging through her trunk.
“You and Dorian are getting along.”
Cullen snorted. “Are we? I just thought he just found his new favorite target.”
“If he teases you, it just means he likes you.” Vera produced a small squat pot from her trunk and came to kneel in front of Cullen. She smiled up at him and Cullen found himself flushing, warm under the collar.
Maker above, wasn’t he getting too old to be blushing like this every time a pretty woman looked his way? Apparently not.
Cullen cleared his throat and resisted the urge to rub at the back of his neck, which he knew was a nervous habit of his. “We all know Dorian really only likes himself. And perhaps you.”
“He’s the kind who generally says the opposite of what he means, so you just have to get used to listening for what he’s really saying.” Vera unscrewed the pot, and Cullen caught the familiar scent of elfroot mixed with something minty, maybe prophet’s laurel. She scooped some of the salve onto two fingers and rubbed it on Cullen’s temples, first one side, then the other. Cullen could feel it settling into his skin, icy cold on first touch and then oddly warming. She murmured, “How does that feel?”
“Better.” Cullen didn’t recognize his own voice, hoarse and low.
Vera suddenly seemed embarrassed, and she ducked her head, looking down at her lap. “Oh, that’s—I mean, good—”
“There are creases on your cheek.” Cullen was reaching for her cheek before he knew what he was doing, touching the marks with the back of his hand, and he felt the warmth of her skin rise underneath his touch, and it made—it made him want, so badly, that the reaction was almost violent, coursing through him like an electric shock.
“I... from my pillow, I suppose.” Vera was staring at him, mouth slightly parted, and her voice was soft when she said, “Cullen, I’ve wanted to—”
The tent flap flipped open. “If you’re done, we need to pack up the tents, so—Oh.” Cassandra stopped short upon seeing them.
Vera backed away so quickly that she nearly fell over doing so. “Right. I mean, I—” She gave Cullen an apologetic look. “I should go.”
“So... you and the Inquisitor.” Cassandra’s expression looked mild, but there was also a hint of disapproval lurking there. Probably disapproving of Cullen, if anything.
Cullen sighed, palming his face with one hand. “Andraste, kill me now.”
It was nearing midnight, and Skyhold was finally quieting down a little for the day. The guard had just switched over to the night watch and Cullen had resigned himself to take care of some paperwork he could no longer ignore, when he heard a crash outside his door and a familiar voice swearing in Tevene.
Cullen got up and yanked the door open, peering out. “Dorian?”
The mage was pressed against the wall of the battlements, hiding in the shadow and trying to edge out of sight, but the scattered weaponry around him, which had been standing upright not that long ago, gave him away.
“Damn. Why haven’t I invented a spell of invisibility yet? That’s next on my to-do list.” Dorian stepped out of the shadows.
He seemed drunk—he wasn’t slurring exactly, but he was speaking with the careful enunciation of someone who was trying very hard to not sound drunk.
“Are you alright?”
“Oh yes, I’m fine, I’m just taking an inebriated stroll across the battlements in the hopes that I’ll trip and fall down the side of a mountain.”
Cullen bit back a smile. “A simple ‘no’ would suffice.”
“Ah, see, that is never the case with me. Why use one word when twenty will do?”
“Would you like to come inside?” Cullen held his door open wider. It was freezing out, and Dorian wasn’t wearing a cloak.
Dorian crossed his arms and stared out over the battlements in apparent disinterest. “Not particularly.”
Cullen had dealt with enough contrary younger siblings in his life to know how to deal with Dorian in a mood like this. “Suit yourself. I’ve got a fire going, though. And some hot cider from the kitchens.”
“Oh, twist my arm, why don’t you.” Dorian came into Cullen’s office, brushing past him and stealing Cullen’s drink—there was another empty cup on the tray, but of course Dorian would take his. He sat down on the wooden chair by the small fireplace.
“Out drinking with the Chargers again?” Cullen shut the door, closing out the cold, and sat back down at his desk.
“They’re off gallivanting in the Haven ruins, actually.” Dorian stared into the fire. He held the cider in his hands, but didn’t drink.
“Didn’t you and the Inquisitor go to Redcliffe today? How did that go?” Vera had mentioned Dorian had some personal business there and he wanted her to accompany him, but she hadn’t said what exactly the personal business was and Cullen didn’t want to pry.
That was the wrong question to ask, because Dorian snapped, eyes flashing, “What is this, a tavern drinking game? How many questions can I ask Dorian before he sets my hair on fire?”
“So it didn’t go well.” Cullen lifted an eyebrow, unimpressed with the display of temper.
Dorian could tell, and he deflated, the flash of anger gone as quick as it came. He turned back to staring at the fire. “It was... fine. Just, not what I expected.”
“Do you want to talk about it?”
Dorian just shot him a withering look.
Cullen shrugged. “I’m just going to keep working here, then. Stay as long as you like.”
They sat in silence for some time, with only the scratch of Cullen writing his reports and the crackling of the fire making any noise in the room at all. When Cullen looked up again, an hour had passed and he saw that Dorian had fallen asleep, leaning back in his chair, chin tucked into his chest. Cullen got up, and found a spare blanket in the trunk he kept in the corner of the room. He laid it over Dorian, who didn’t stir at all.
For all the Dorian postured, he was a bit younger than Cullen, and in sleep, he finally looked his age. For a moment, Cullen thought of his own brother, which made him smile to himself as he leaned over and blew out the last candlelight.
It was mid-afternoon, and Iron Bull had volunteered to oversee the new recruits in their drills, which left Cullen with a rare afternoon free. He was taking a walk through the garden when he saw Dorian, trying futilely to teach Cole the rules of chess. Dorian had, with visible relief, accepted Cullen’s challenge to a game, and Cole had disappeared immediately. Now that he was thinking about it, Cullen wasn’t quite sure where the boy had gone.
Dorian shook his head as he moved his piece across the board. “You’re quite terrible at this, commander.”
“I’m just warming up.” Cullen leaned back in his chair, and offered Dorian a grin. “Or maybe I’m playing terribly in a ploy to get your guard down.”
“You’re sneaky,” said Dorian, sounding pleased. “I think I like that.”
It was such an innocuous afternoon that it somehow made it all the more ironic when Cullen felt that familiar trembling in his fingertips, starting in his hands and then spreading all over his body, making him break out in a cold sweat. For a second, his vision doubled and he saw two game boards, two Dorians staring at him in alarm.
“Cullen?” It probably meant something that Dorian had used his actual name for once.
But Cullen was too out of it to take real notice. It came on suddenly like this sometimes. His heart was going too fast and his vision was swimming. He closed his eyes, and in the blackness of the backs of his eyelids, he could see pulsating blue vials. “I’m... I need.”
“It’s the lyrium withdrawal.”
Cullen didn’t bother to ask how Dorian knew. He hadn’t told anyone but Cassandra and Vera. As it was, Cullen could only focus on keeping his breathing normal and not gasping like he wanted to. He scrabbled to hold onto the sides of the table with both hands, clenching tight, because it felt like he couldn’t sit upright anymore. “I’m... fine.”
Dorian said something under his breath in Tevene that Cullen couldn’t catch. “Like the Blight you are.”
“I just need a moment.” Cullen buried his face in both hands and fought off the urge to vomit.
“Kaffas, alright, never let it be said that I’m not entirely a selfish bastard. C’mon, up.”
Dorian gripped one of Cullen’s forearms and drew his arm around Dorian’s neck, and hauled them both upright. He was stronger than he looked, and he supported Cullen’s weight easily when Cullen staggered as he stood.
“Not... not through the courtyard.” Cullen blinked rapidly, trying to keep his focus. He was sweating profusely now and shivering to boot. There were too many people hanging around in the courtyard, and he really didn’t want them to see him like this. “Please.”
“I’m the picture of discretion.” True to his word, Dorian took them up one of the tower stairs of the battlements, and they walked over the outer ramparts, keeping away from the servants and the patrolling soldiers. “You just had to go and be noble, didn’t you. You’re just putting yourself through this mess. It’s entirely your own fault.”
“I’m not a templar.” Cullen focused on putting one foot in front of the other, trying to not lean on Dorian too heavily. “Not anymore.”
“I know,” said Dorian. More brightly, he added, “I don’t think I’d deign to speak with you, otherwise.”
“But I’m weaker.” Cullen grasped at Dorian’s shoulder, trying to make him understand. “I can’t do anything. I should... I should be taking it.”
“That’s the voice of the addiction talking,” murmured Dorian. He shouldered open the door to Cullen’s quarters, leading the both of them inside by shuffling through sideways.
“You don’t understand.”
“No, I suppose I don’t.” Dorian lifted Cullen’s arm off of his shoulders and guided him down onto the bed. “Stay. I’ll be back in a moment. Don’t... go taking any controlled substances while I’m gone.”
Cullen lay back in his bed and closed his eyes, trying to not think about anything, but especially not lyrium. He was sweating, but he was also freezing, and he felt jittery, like insects were crawling under his skin. How could he be so deluded, thinking he could lead the Inquisition’s forces like this? Sick and shivering in his bed, laid low by addiction and the phantoms in his nightmares?
A soft voice broke through the dark. “Cullen?”
Cullen bolted upright, and saw the Inquisitor and Dorian in his room. He was up and across the room in one stride, grabbing the front of Dorian’s robes in his fist. “Why—why did you—? You shouldn’t have told her!” He shook Dorian, and Dorian didn’t fight back, he just took it, looking at Cullen impassively.
Vera pried Cullen’s hand off. “Stop it, don’t yell at him.”
Dorian inclined his head towards the Inquisitor in a slight gesture of thanks. “With that, I’m making my exit.”
Cullen sat down heavily on the bed and stared between his knees, down at the floorboards. He heard the door to his room open and shut as Dorian left, but didn’t look up. He felt the mattress shift a little when Vera sat down next to him.
“You can tell me anything, Cullen.”
Cullen tried to laugh, but the sound came out hoarse and choked. “I embarrass myself enough in front of you already. Can’t you give me a little dignity?”
“I care about you. I don’t want to be kept in the dark if you’re hurting.”
“Cassandra should... she needs to find a replacement for me. I can’t do this.” It killed him to say it, but what was the point anymore? He wasn’t going to hobble the Inquisition—to put her in danger—because of his own stupid deluded pride.
“What?” Cullen didn’t look up, but he could hear the surprise in Vera’s voice. “You… do you really want to go?”
“No, of course not.” Cullen formed his hands into fists so that they’d stop shaking. “But I’m not going to—I’m—just look at me.”
“I am. And I have no right to ask this of you, but...” Vera put a hand under his chin, forcing him to turn his head and look her in the eye. “But can I be selfish for a second?”
Cullen almost couldn’t look at her. He had tried to tell himself he didn’t care for her, not in this way, but every time he looked at her, he couldn’t help but feel it. “What do you mean?” he asked.
“I don’t want you to leave.” Vera pulled her hand back from his face, and took his hand instead, gripping it to emphasize her words. “Stay. Please. I don’t... I don’t really know what I’d do without you here. And I’m not speaking as the Inquisitor. I know you’re a great commander, but that’s not why. I just... I need you. Please.”
Cullen felt something in his chest constrict tightly at those last words. She never asked for anything, not of anyone, and she was... She could ask him to walk through fire and he’d do it without hesitation. She had to know that. But maybe she didn’t, because she was looking at him with eyes full of pleading, uncertain.
Cullen closed his eyes and nodded. His voice was caught in his throat, so when he said, “Yes,” it was more a silent movement of his lips than anything else.
“I… alright.” Vera smiled a little. “Can I... stay with you? For a little while?”
Yes, I don’t want you to ever leave. “You don’t have to.”
“I don’t have to, but I want to.” And when she held one of his hands between both of hers, Cullen found it ceased its tremors.
The next day, Cullen was crossing the courtyard, on his way back to his office from the war room, when he heard Dorian’s voice, calling down to him from the steps leading up to the main hall.
“You look in fine form.”
Cullen smirked up at the mage. He backtracked and climbed back up the steps so that they wouldn’t have to shout at each other across the courtyard. “Flattery will get you nowhere with me, Dorian.”
“I know, and it’s such a shame. I have a list you know, and rebel templar just happens to be item number three on there. You’re keeping me from achieving my goals.” Dorian crossed his arms, leaning against the stone wall.
“If you’re good, I could introduce you to some more eligible candidates sometime.”
Dorian looked delighted at this idea. “Color me intrigued. I knew there was something interesting going on in the templar ranks,” he said. “I mean, look at those skirts.”
“Just don’t share your imaginings with Varric. Who knows what kind of sordid tale he’ll spin from them.”
Dorian snorted a laugh. “Well, don’t let me keep you,” he said. “I just wanted to ensure you were no longer in a drug-deprived delirium that causes you to assault handsome Tevinter mages.”
Cullen stopped short. He had been meaning to stop by and talk with Dorian today, but with one meeting after another, he hadn’t had a chance to do so before now. “I’m... yes. I’m sorry for shouting at you, earlier,” he said. “Thank you. For everything.”
“Please don’t thank me for things,” said Dorian, making a face like he had just eaten something sour. “It makes me rather ill.”
Cullen smiled. He gestured towards the garden. “Do you have time for another—”
“There you are!” A voice in the courtyard below called up to them. It was Iron Bull.
Dorian’s back went rigid, and there was a strange expression on his face that Cullen couldn’t identify. If it were anyone else, Cullen would say that it was a look of mild panic, mixed with embarrassment, but both emotions were so utterly incongruous with Dorian’s personality that Cullen wasn’t entirely sure.
Dorian said flatly, without looking towards the source of the voice, “What are you doing here.”
“Well, you ran off so quickly this morning, you forgot these—” Iron Bull held up some cloth, and it was... Cullen snorted a laugh into his fist, trying to pretend it was a cough, when he saw that it was a pair of smallclothes.
Dorian snatched them away from Iron Bull and hissed, “Fasta vass, you’re doing this on purpose!”
“I don’t know what you mean,” said Iron Bull mildly. Oh, he was good. Dorian was going a little pink, high on his cheeks, and he was positively seething, but the qunari ignored all of that and lifted his chin at Cullen. “Hey, Cullen. Combat drills later, right?”
Cullen forced a sober expression onto his face. “Of course.”
Iron Bull grinned and clapped Cullen heartily on the shoulder as he left, humming a tune under this breath.
After he was out of earshot, Cullen ventured, “So...”
“Not a word, commander.”
“Was a qunari spy on that list of yours?” Cullen fought valiantly against the smirk tugging at his mouth, but it was a losing battle.
“I said, not a word!”
Dorian was embarrassed, and Cullen found it strangely endearing. He was outright glaring at Cullen, but Cullen couldn’t help grinning in return, even though it only made Dorian glare harder.
“Just one last thing,” said Cullen, and continued before Dorian could interrupt, “He’s a good man, Iron Bull.” And he was. A great leader and unexpectedly kind and fair-minded. Iron Bull was more than he appeared, and like Dorian, had that unique kind of independence and courage that it took to fight against the centuries of rules and traditions of his homeland.
“You don’t have to tell me that!” snapped Dorian. He huffed. “Are we going to play a game or not?”
In the end, in the end of all things, Cullen didn’t have much to hold onto but hope and a prayer. His heart, everything he held dear in the world, was embodied in one person and she was walking to her—to whatever fate held for her. Prayer almost didn’t feel like it was enough, and in a panic, Cullen ran down at the last minute, finding Dorian and grabbing him by the arm.
“Dorian, keep her safe.”
“She’s quite capable of keeping herself safe,” Dorian replied with an arched brow. He paused, looking at Cullen’s face, and whatever he saw there made him add, more soberly, in a quiet voice, “Yes, of course, you know I will. With my life, if need be.”
It hit Cullen then that Dorian was walking into this as well, and may never return. He let go of Dorian’s arm, and clasped him by the shoulder instead. “I’m... I’m glad to have met you.”
“Don’t get sentimental on me, commander; it’s ruining my image of you entirely.” Dorian gave him a smile, but it was… wistful. He knew as well as Cullen what may happen, that there might not be a tomorrow for him. Or for any of them. “As for your part, you’re just enough of a cad to be worth knowing.”
In spite of everything, Cullen had to smirk a little. “Was that a compliment, Dorian?”
“It was what it was,” said Dorian huffily, covering up any sign of sentiment with feigned irritation. He added, “We’ll be back. Remember, I’m a man that keeps his promises.” Dorian gave him a mocking salute, just a tap of his fingers on his chest, but Cullen knew that Dorian really meant it.
At the last second, Vera turned back to look for Cullen, eyes shining, and gave him a smile so warm that Cullen’s heart hurt from looking at it.
Then they were gone.
It was somehow easier to believe, when Dorian said it. Maybe it was blasphemous, but his promise gave Cullen something real to hold onto, something more than just a prayer.
They’ll be back.