Cullen closes his eyes and pinches the bridge of his nose, drawing in a deep breath. He's spent the day at his desk poring over supply manifests and requisition orders, and the combination of dim lighting and endless columns of tiny print has kindled a headache behind his eyes that refuses to go away. When he realizes he can still see the lines of numbers scrolling past his vision even with his eyes closed, as if the figures are permanently embossed on the backs of his eyelids, he knows it's time once and for all to get away from his desk.
It isn't until he steps outside and sees the last tangerine throes of sunset beyond the ramparts that he realizes how many hours he's lost, engrossed in repetitive administrative work. Skyhold's courtyard lies in deep inkspill pools of purple shadow, swirled with the softer lilac drifts of a recent snowfall. He shivers as he pauses on the landing, considering. He really should head down to the kitchens for a quick bite to eat, then get to bed so he can be up at dawn attacking another stack of paperwork; he's got a lot of work to get out of the way before his upcoming - and, if you ask him, completely unnecessary - trip to Val Royeaux.
But then the door to the tavern opens, across the darkened courtyard, and a flood of golden light spills out onto the snow. He catches a few bright bars of lute music on the wind, a tumble of chatter and laughter, before the door swings closed and the courtyard goes dark and silent again, and he realizes, with a sudden aching clarity, that something fundamental is lacking. He cannot stomach yet another late dinner of leftovers scraped from the bottom of a cold stewpot, yet another night spent in the solitude of his tower with nothing but the whistle of wind twining through the broken boards to break the silence. He's not one for taverns, crowds, or recreation in general, but it's cold, and he's lonely; when the door opens again and another arc of golden light fans across the snow, he's drawn to it with the inevitability of a moth to a flame.
He pauses in the doorway to look around, knocking the snow from his boots. He's never set foot inside the Herald's Rest before; he's been invited a few times, by various members of the Inquisitor's inner circle, for ale and cards at the end of long meetings. But they're always the sort of invitation that sparks his deepest insecurities, the kind where he's never really sure if he's truly wanted or if he's being invited because everyone is and there's no way to politely single him out for exclusion; he always declines. Besides, it isn't fair to his soldiers if he chooses to frequent the one place they have to blow off steam; the Herald's Rest isn't very restful for anybody if their commanding officer is there, looking over their shoulders. If he drinks, he drinks alone, in his rooms.
He takes it all in now, and he's pleasantly surprised at how cozy it is - rustic, too, to be sure, with straw spread on the coarse plank floor and furniture made from lumber so rough-hewn he's getting splinters just from looking at it - but warm and inviting, with the cheerful roar of the fire in the ground-floor hearth suffusing everything with a radiant glow. He's not sure whether it's the snow and the cold sending more people than usual in search of ale to warm their bellies or if it's always this crowded, but every table is taken, and he stands nonplussed for a moment, scanning the crowd for friendly faces to impose upon, wondering where to go.
He spots the Inquisitor and Cassandra sitting together at the bar, their heads together as they lean over something that's spread out on the countertop, their shoulders deliberately angled to keep the object of their attention blocked from view. They're giggling and blushing like schoolgirls as they whisper together, cheek to cheek. The Inquisitor throws her head back and lets out a full-throated laugh at something Cassandra says, her dark hair spilling over her shoulders, revealing the elegant line of her long, slender neck, and Cullen feels his heart stutter and his breath catch in his chest.
She's absolutely breathtaking, her cheeks dewy and flushed a soft, becoming pink from drink and whatever forbidden thing they're giggling about. Evelyn Trevelyan has been the secret object of his unworthy affections for as long as he can remember, and for a single moment Cullen is gripped by the insane desire to cross the room and claim her parted lips, consequences be damned; to suck that full lower lip between his own and bite down on it, to make her squirm and mewl beneath him as he sinks his hands into her mahogany hair and drags her down and....
He catches himself abruptly and reels himself back from the brink of madness. He's blushing now too, and it's probably not nearly as fetching on him as it is on her; worse, he doesn't have the excuse of the drink to explain it away as she does. Maker, but he is a fool. To think for even a second that someone like him could ever be worthy of someone like her, that she could ever be anything more to him than a guilty fantasy spilled on his sheets on sleepless nights....
He curses the impulse that's brought him into the tavern; he wants to turn and flee, but Evelyn's blue eyes have turned to him. She's seen him - no, worse, she's caught him staring at her - and now there's no way out but through. He forces a smile to his face and approaches the bar. "Lady Trevelyan. Seeker Pentaghast." He nods cordially to them each in turn. More words should follow, but his mind has frozen, gears ground to a halt under a torque of embarrassment and shame.
Fortunately Evelyn is too caught up in her own embarrassment to notice; both women are. Cassandra is glowing pinker than both Evelyn and Cullen put together; she sweeps something off the table - a book - and stuffs it guiltily into her knapsack. Cullen catches only the briefest glimpse of the cover, but what he sees looks suspiciously like one of Varric's romances, the cover art an image of a flowing, voluminous gown that still somehow doesn't manage to adequately cover the heaving bosom that strains against it.
"We were ... uh ... ah," Evelyn stammers tipsily, and Cullen is struck once again at how beautiful she is, how she glows in the firelight, how her lips part around panting breaths. It strikes him that she has probably been harboring indecent thoughts of her own, based on whatever she and Cassandra were just reading; he wonders what lucky bastard will keep her company in her fantasies, when she touches herself later in the silence of her room. It kills him that he will never be worthy of her, not even to occupy her dreams.
"Leaving," Cassandra says briskly. "We were leaving." The Seeker drags the Inquisitor from the bar, and Evelyn shrugs apologetically to Cullen as they go.
Cullen stares after them; he wants to flee the tavern but can't, now, for fear of running into them again on the way out. Instead he takes Evelyn's newly vacated stool, and signals to Cabot to bring him a much-needed ale.
"You okay there, Curly?" Cullen turns in time to see Varric climb onto Cassandra's empty seat beside him. The dwarf sounds amused, self-indulgent, in a way that makes Cullen's eyebrow arch suspiciously.
"I don't suppose you had something to do with that," Cullen says churlishly.
"Me?" Varric says, mock-hurt. "You think that I would dare corrupt the innocence of our dear lady Seeker? You wound me."
Cullen feels a half-smile tug at the corner of his mouth, despite himself. "Really? Because that book sure looked like a copy of Swords and Shields to me."
Varric snorts. "Now you really do wound me, Curly. I don't write that tripe anymore."
"No?" Cullen asks in disbelief.
"Nah," Varric says flippantly. "Too much plot, not nearly enough porn." He pauses as Cabot comes over to deliver two mugs of ale, then goes on: "That was an advance copy of my new serial, Midnight at Starkeep. The lusty adventures of the Queen and her dashing Man of Mystery. This one's pretty much all sex."
Cullen has just taken a long draw from his mug; he coughs into his glove, sputtering. "Burns as it goes down, doesn't it?" Varric says sympathetically. "Yeah, that's the problem with living on the side of a mountain; hard to get decent liquor up here in any quantity."
"Maker's breath!" Cullen breathes hoarsely. He's not such a prude that he doesn't know what Varric's romances entail, but hearing it described in such stark terms is mortifying. "Do people actually read things like that?" He thinks again of Evelyn, blushing prettily and giggling as she and Cassandra pored over the accounts of the fictional queen's lusty adventures, and flushes red clear to the tips of his ears.
"Why? You interested?" Varric asks. "I've got another copy--"
"Maker, no!" Cullen protests.
"I'll bring it by your office before I turn in tonight," Varric presses. "I think you'll enjoy it."
"Please don't," Cullen grits through his teeth.
But Varric, seeing his embarrassment, has taken to the idea like a dog with a bone. He's too much of a peacekeeper to have his fun at another's expense, at least overtly, so when he pushes on he couches it in the idea of educating the dear Commander. “You know, come to think of it, it might do you some good to read this book," he says casually. “Get all your blushing and stammering out of your system in the privacy of your own room, so that someday you might have a chance of being in an actual woman’s presence without turning as red as a nug's backside.”
Cullen chokes again, spitting a mouthful of ale back into his mug. “Maker’s breath!” he sputters. He feels himself turning flaming red now, and deliberately forces his eyes straight ahead, certain that if he chances a glance around him he’ll find the entire room staring. The headache that has taken up residence behind his eyes digs itself in deeper and throbs. “Surely you’re not serious.”
“Hey, I have no qualms about corrupting your innocence, Curly,” Varric says wryly. “Besides … it can’t be all that bad.” He smiles shrewdly, zeroing in on Cullen’s weakness with the same pinpoint precision he employs with his crossbow. “Evelyn sure seemed to be enjoying it.”
Cullen freezes, his ale mug suspended halfway to his mouth. Images of the Inquisitor flood his mind, her cheeks flushed pink behind the heavy fall of her dark hair, lush lips parted in breathy giggles as she and Cassandra read that accursed book. He forces himself to nonchalantly take a sip of his drink and lower it to the table, ignoring the tremor in his hand. “Fine," he growls.
Varric leaves him with a hearty clap on the back, and Cullen sits alone, rooted to his stool in a paralysis of embarrassment. Coming to the tavern has been a monumental mistake, but now he can’t quite bring himself to walk out, so he orders another ale and nurses his way through it, and then another. On his empty stomach, the alcohol is quick to go to his head; when he does finally muster the nerve to weave his way out through the crowded tavern, he finds his footsteps unsteady.
When he gets back to his office, Varric’s other copy of Midnight at Starkeep waits on his desk. He swears softly, cursing the dwarf, his publisher, the readers who encourage his nonsense, and the inventor of the printing press all in one breath.
Well, just because Varric insists on loaning him the book doesn’t mean he has to actually read it. He’ll keep it for a few days, then return it to the dwarf with stiff, formal thanks, and hopefully the matter will be forgotten.
In the meantime, though, the idea of simply having the book around sets his teeth on edge. He certainly can’t leave it downstairs in his office, where anyone could walk in and find it. The thought of a bored recruit nosing through his bookshelves during a meeting and finding that among his things … Cullen shudders. No; the book is definitely coming upstairs with him.
Yet upstairs poses problems too; if it’s found there, it would be strongly implied that he’s actually reading the Void-cursed thing. He pauses at the top of the ladder, looking around for a secure hiding place, before finally hefting the edge of his mattress and wedging the book between the down-filled matting and the frame.
He undresses and climbs into bed, tossing and turning in a vain attempt to get comfortable. He wants to simply drift off and let hazy, ale-induced sleep erase this night from existence, but his head is throbbing hard now, and everything is starting to sharpen again as the alcohol wears off. He sighs and balls his fists in the sheets, feeling his own jagged edges just as keenly as the hard lines of the book that pokes into his hip from beneath the mattress.
The entire evening has been an unmitigated disaster. He should have stayed in his office, reading reports into the small hours of the morning like he normally does, instead of trying to fool himself into forgetting for an evening that he is fundamentally defective, so closed off after years of avoiding people and eschewing relationships that he believes himself to be beyond repair.
The Inquisitor comes to his mind again; he hears her throaty laugh and sees her blush, at once both titillated and embarrassed by the words on Varric's page. She is radiant, beautiful ... genuine. He wants her, covets her, lies awake at night and aches for her, and yet is kept from her by the same soul-deep brokenness that holds him apart from the rest of the world. He hates himself for not being able to carry out a single conversation with her without turning into a blushing, stammering mess; but perhaps it doesn't matter. It's not like she'd ever want him back; even if he wasn't broken, she'd still deserve far better than a washed-up ex-Templar with a lyrium addiction.
And yet he torments himself night after night with thoughts of what he knows he cannot have. His mind travels across Skyhold's snow-blown courtyard and down the darkened length of the silent main hall, the floor painted in shards of jagged color from the moonlight spilling through the stained glass windows across his bare feet. He slips up the staircase to the bedroom he's never seen in waking light, and finds her lying in her bed, naked beneath the thin sheet that molds to her figure, accenting and elongating her curves. He traces the elegant lines of her body with phantom hands as he imagines stroking her awake in the starlit calm of midnight.
Beyond that, his fantasies are always rather vague; he doesn't know enough to be able to fully guess what she might like, what might make her gasp and shudder beneath his roving hands and questing mouth.... Sighing, he rolls over and feels the corner of Varric's book digging into his side; he stills, his heart pounding as he pictures her again, giggling and pink. Maybe he does know; maybe he has an unexpected window into what turns her on, what makes her blush.
Maybe all the curses he directed at Varric under his breath earlier were misplaced after all.
He bolts out of bed and lights a candle for his bedside table, then kneels to fish the book out from under his mattress. His hands shake as he spreads the book open on his pillow, a flutter of nervous excitement rippling through him at the thought that somewhere, on the other side of Skyhold, she could be clutching the other copy of Varric's book and doing the exact same thing.
He turns to the first page of Midnight at Starkeep, and begins to read.