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Stuck on the Puzzle

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The idea had been percolating in his mind ever since he’d gotten wind of some of the Iron Bull’s proclivities.

Before the Inquisition, before Haven, after Kinloch and after Kirkwall, in the years he’d tried to find something like stability in the chaotic world around him; selfishly as much for his own peace of mind as for anyone else’s…after that, he’d had something of an arrangement with a member of the city guard – Damhian Searidge – who was an official disciplinarian for those who had committed light to moderate offenses.

It hadn’t been much really. A cat o’ nine tails was the only thing of any high regard between the two of them. Cullen had come to believe the man had enjoyed it, quite outside of it being his job, and Cullen had needed it to stay focused.

An unfortunate side effect of Kinloch. Pain could be destructive or instructive. It could be focusing or distracting. Cullen used whatever tools were at his disposal to make sure he could be as competent as possible. It turned out that lash marks riddling his shoulders and upper back kept him grounded, even if he had to be very careful with the elfroot salve to make sure that they didn’t infect. It wasn’t like Searidge tore him apart. It was that helping to rebuild the Gallows and spending one’s days going about in heavy clothing created the kind of sticky, sweaty humidity that was terrible for healing wounds.

Besides, Searidge wouldn’t hit him if any of the lashes had broken skin and infected. He’d work over a bruised back, but wounds like that…

Take the sodding elfroot potion,’ Searidge had snapped at him once, thrusting it into his palms. ‘You make me feel like a monster.’

‘It’s not my intention,’ Cullen had said, feeling agitated and unsettled, knowing that Searidge wouldn’t touch him now. Not tonight. ‘I need the reminder for more than twelve hours. It’s not like I can see you every evening. Suspicions are something we can do with less of.’

But after that, Searidge had looked at him for too long sometimes, something troubled on his face. He found excuses to not be available the nights when Cullen needed to see him, even if those evenings had been arranged days or even weeks in advance. By the time Cassandra Pentaghast came to Kirkwall, Cullen was several orders of ready to be well shot of the place and all the memories that followed him. Naively, he hoped the withdrawals wouldn’t dog him so badly if he took on more responsibility, and more, and more.

Perspective had made him realise that he’d probably put Searidge in an awkward position. A person of some authority asking for something like that, requiring utmost confidentiality, who confused the cleanness of the arrangement by not taking care of himself properly afterwards.

Now, at Skyhold, they’d acquired all manner of items from merchants and tradesfolk and more. A crate of disciplinary tools had come in one of the many consignments, and Cullen had been one of the first to go through them, publically claiming that he didn’t think the Inquisitor would want to see much by the way of corporal punishment. He was right about that, too.

It meant that he could steal several of the items to the loft that served as his room and hold the unused cat o’ nine tails in his hands and stare down at it when the withdrawals became more than just a niggling thought, but a feeling that the very sky was reversing its position. When the vertigo was so bad that standing straight took every ounce of effort, feeling as hard as it had sometimes to survive the worst of Kinloch. His lungs would tighten, his breathing wheezed, and he’d hold the leather in his palms so tightly that he’d etch marks into his calloused hands.

Still, he didn’t approach the Iron Bull for some time. Not least because of the words 'Ben-Hassrath' that blared through his mind whenever he thought of giving that side of himself to someone else again. He certainly wasn’t stupid enough to do it with someone who could inform the upper Qunari echelons that the Inquisitor’s Commander had a penchant for being beaten.

*

He didn’t approach the Iron Bull after he became Tal-Vashoth either. At first because it seemed an insensitive thing to do and he wasn’t quite sure if Bull's disposition would change. Then, because there was a constant influx of people into Skyhold, and it meant decision-making, it meant a greater increase of lyrium within the walls, it meant that even risking a visit to the tavern could mean watching some ale-guzzling Templar talk speculatively about what the red stuff would be like, if the blue stuff was already so good.

The Inquisitor had it in her head that he was a strong man. He was both horrified that she couldn’t see through his attempts to make himself appear that way, and absurdly grateful that she bought the performance.

It made him even more convinced that the Inquisitor needed advisers like Leliana and Josephine, because Maker knew she wasn’t going to see through lies and deceptions solely on her own. The Mark made her many things, but discerning wasn’t one of them.

*

It turned out he didn’t need to approach the Iron Bull at all.

A late evening, and Cullen page-flicking by candlelight, desperately trying to find the name of an old Knight-Commander he couldn’t recall. He’d wanted to make a passing reference in some correspondence to Knight-Captain Rylen. It bothered him that he couldn’t just remember. Hadn’t it been drummed into him as part of his early studies? And hadn’t he applied himself so zealously, precisely so he wouldn’t forget?

His breathing came rough and ragged, the pangs in his body far louder than usual. It was a griping in his gut that wouldn’t ease with food. It was a narrowing of his vision and a feeling as though he was lessened, somehow. That where other people boldly walked around assuming they were still people, he knew he was a shell of something and lived in an imposter’s syndrome of terror that they’d find him out.

He just needed to find the blasted name, that was all. If he couldn’t remember it…

A knock at the door, and Cullen clipped off a sharp ‘come in’ and wondered if the night-watch had spotted something.

The Iron Bull’s presence loomed big in his office. Cullen stayed bent over the book for several more seconds, his fingers already holding a handful of pages, ready to keep flipping through. He straightened and forced himself to make a steady eye contact.

‘Can I help you?’

There, that’s what real people sounded like, wasn’t it? Certainly what Commanders sounded like.

The Iron Bull shrugged, came closer, had an easy expression on his face.

‘That new lot of Templars that defected, they asked if they could spar with the Chargers to learn some new ways of scrapping. Not such a bad idea. Thought I’d check with you first.’

‘Of course,’ Cullen said, hoping the words weren’t waspish as they felt. ‘I’m not their keeper.’

The Iron Bull raised his eyebrows at the response.

Cullen knew that everything the Iron Bull did was a choice. If he was surprised by Cullen’s tone, he didn’t have to show that to Cullen himself.

‘You doing all right?' Bull said. 'It’s late.’

Is it? I never would have guessed.

But Cullen couldn’t stop thinking about the cat o’ nine tails he had just up the ladder. And he couldn’t help but think about one of those thick arms wielding it. Maker’s breath, it would be perfect. The Iron Bull’s eyebrows crept higher, and Cullen flushed and looked down at his book again, thinking that he might have been staring at Bull like he stared at the tails.

Ask him.

‘I’ve heard rumours about you,’ Cullen said, looking up again. ‘About the things you enjoy doing.’

The Iron Bull’s expression shifted, became easy once more, even lewd.

‘Yeah?’ he said, ‘You want to ride the-’

‘No,’ Cullen said.

Bull laughed like he’d expected the response, and Cullen wondered if he’d just been baited.

‘I want you to hit me,’ Cullen said, driving the words out before he could swallow them and be poisoned by longing.

Bull’s expression didn’t change, exactly. But it stilled. He was examining Cullen more openly now, and Cullen was aware that underneath his clothing, he was covered in a fine layer of cold sweat. That had no doubt started hours ago. He was lucky to not be horizontal and shivering on his bed. But he was practiced at forcing himself through the episodes, and sometimes just making himself work was enough to keep the worst of it at bay.

‘Sure thing,’ Bull said. ‘You strap on some armour, get that sword of yours, and we’ll-’

‘Don’t do that,’ Cullen said, swallowing. ‘Don’t be obtuse on purpose.’

‘Then you’ll need to be clearer,’ Bull said, his voice a soft rumble. It was even inviting. Perhaps Cullen was just imagining that. Maker, how had he done this with Searidge again? He couldn’t even remember.

‘I have a cat o’ nine upstairs,’ Cullen said. ‘And I used to have an arrangement with someone before…the Inquisition. I’m not looking for sex. It would only take a few minutes of your time on a semi-frequent basis, once a month maybe. You can strike me on the shoulders and back.’

‘I’m not sure what you’ve heard about me,’ Bull said slowly, ‘but that’s not what I think of, when I think of having a good time.’

It was the lyrium, the lack of. It made Cullen stupid. It made him say things he was doing a perfectly fine job of not saying the rest of the time. His fingers crumpled the pages in his grip and then he forced himself to slowly close the book and take several deep breaths. He wasn’t sure what to say. He couldn’t take it back. He couldn’t claim it was some kind of ploy.

‘Whatever you’re using it for,’ Bull said, interrupting Cullen’s thoughts, ‘is it the only thing you have to help you?’

Cullen looked up then, startled. Or at least he tried to, the sudden movement made his vision sway, and he clutched the table and breathed through his nose until the room righted. Bull looked concerned now, but perhaps that was Cullen’s imagination.

‘No,’ Cullen said. ‘I’ve not had it to help me at all since the Inquisition began. I don’t need it.’

Lies.

‘You want to come down to the tavern, talk about this over a beer? My shout.’

‘No, thank you,’ Cullen said. ‘Perhaps you could forget this happened.’

‘That wasn’t an all or nothing offer,’ Bull said. ‘It’s not like this conversation stops just because you don’t want to have it there. We can have it here.’

‘I don’t want to have a conversation about it,’ Cullen said. ‘How hard is it to wield the tails twenty, thirty times and then walk away?’

‘For me?’ Bull said, shrugging. ‘Seems pretty hard.’

‘It’s designed to work in your favour,’ Cullen said, staring at him. ‘All you have to do is keep my confidence, I manage every other part of the transaction.’

‘Transaction,’ Bull said quietly. ‘Right.’

‘Maker’s breath, I’m not trying to offend you. It just seems to be a byproduct of me opening my mouth after three in the morning. If you-’

‘How about you stop talking, and I’ll talk a bit instead,’ Bull said. Cullen closed his mouth and didn’t want to open it again. ‘I assume that’s how it happened last time? You found someone who would whip you a bit, then walk away?’

Cullen nodded without speaking. The Bull nodded as well, but less in agreement, and more like someone who was staring at a particularly finicky operation on the War Table.

‘You ever have a watchword for it?’ Bull said.

Cullen shook his head. Then couldn’t help the reply. ‘To be fair to him, Bull, I never needed it.’

‘But he didn’t think to give you one?’

‘No,’ Cullen said. ‘He was- Criminals and the disorderly don’t get one before stepping up to the cross, do you understand?’

‘Right,’ Bull said again. ‘I don’t work without one. Or play. Giant guy like me, it’s all too easy to do damage to someone like you.’

It wasn’t helping; Cullen realised. Bull emphasising their height and size difference like that. It wasn’t helping Cullen to want this less. He wished he could sit down, but he felt like that would be showing too much weakness at a time like this. He locked his knees and still couldn’t really believe this was happening.

‘Being the good Samaritan that I am, I could do this,’ Bull said, like someone who still wasn’t entirely sure they should. ‘I have some conditions.’

Cullen gestured that Bull should continue.

‘The first is that you pick a watchword, and-’

‘Phylactery,’ Cullen said.

Bull laughed.

‘Not that one. Something one or two syllables only. Believe it or not, sometimes a mind can forget to wrap itself around words like that. And I didn’t ask you to name it now. You know, you're interrupting me a lot. I don’t mind that out in the field. But you can treat me with some more respect now, can’t you?’

Cullen’s cheeks flamed, even his neck burned. He felt chastened, shamed. He nodded again. Had he really been interrupting Bull so much? It was likely his way of trying to get control over a situation that felt so vastly beyond it. He rubbed at the back of his neck, and then looked up quickly when Bull stepped forwards.

But he was only holding up a hand, something troubled on his face.

‘We’re still talking about it because I think we need to, not because I’m trying to drag it out before ultimately saying no. Understand?’

Cullen cleared his throat. He nodded. He wasn’t sure if he believed it.

‘So, conditions. Yeah, a watchword. Something one or two syllables. We can use my go-to, if you’d prefer. Katoh. The other is that I decide how much is enough and how much you can take. I’m not interested in bloodying you up before you suit up in armour. Elfroot can help, sure, but what happens if you come to me and then thirty minutes later you’re jostling on horseback waiting for the potion to kick in? With how things happen here, that’s a possibility. I wouldn’t mind it so much with someone else, but you're the Commander so…that matters.’

Cullen took it in. It made sense, of course. He wasn’t going to disagree, though he was probably going to avoid taking as much elfroot as Bull thought he should take. But that was easy enough to do when Bull wasn’t watching.

‘Aftercare,’ Bull said, watching him like a hawk now. ‘I stick around afterwards. Take care of you.’

Cullen couldn’t stop himself from rolling his eyes, even though his eyes hurt in their sockets. The Bull laughed quietly.

‘Yeah, thought that’s what you’d do.’

‘I don’t need it,’ Cullen said. ‘That’s not the point of it.’

‘You want the pain to last, I get that. I’m not saying I’d help you heal it all away immediately after. You want to carry those bruises you earn from me? You have a right to.’

Cullen frowned, surprised at what Bull was saying. He remembered Searidge saying that Cullen made him feel like a monster sometimes. Wondered if he was dreaming this entire conversation. With the kinds of dreams he had sometimes, he wouldn’t be surprised.

‘I’d keep an eye on you. Get you some water, some food, salve any places where the skin was open. Make sure we’re square.’

‘I don’t need it,’ Cullen said again.

‘Hey, I don’t care,’ Bull said, smiling. ‘It’s a condition I have. You don’t have to accept the condition, we don’t have to do this.’

‘Are there any other conditions?’

‘Not at the moment,’ Bull said. ‘Oh, wait, one more. I want to use my own tools. They’re looked after and broken in. That cat o’ nine tails you have, is it broken in?’

Cullen shook his head, sighing quietly. That condition was easy enough to accept. Stiff leather was unpredictable at best.

‘So,’ Cullen said. ‘A watchword – katoh is fine. I stop interrupting you. Aftercare. Your own tools. Am I missing anything?’

‘Nicely done,’ Bull said to Cullen’s summary, and Cullen ignored the faint warmth at the praise. He couldn’t trust that warmth, he didn’t trust praise. They’d seen how eager he was to win praise in Kinloch. They’d seen. And they’d used it to try and break him. ‘You’re missing one thing.’

‘I am?’ Cullen said, confused.

‘Your conditions.’

‘I…yes,’ Cullen said. ‘Of course. Confidentiality. You tell no one. Not the Inquisitor, not your Chargers, not the Qunari. No one.’

‘Sure,’ Bull said easily. ‘I can do that. But if I think you’re gonna hurt yourself badly, or someone else – I’ll tell the Inquisitor that. Not what we do, but what I’ve learned if I think you’re at risk.

Cullen thought of the arrangement he had with the Seeker, and nodded an acceptance of that. It was only fair.

‘Anything else?’ Bull said.

‘No sex,’ Cullen said again, taking a slow breath. It wasn’t that the thought of sex with Bull was terrible. It wasn’t. It…was curious, enticing even. It was that Cullen didn’t really let himself think about sex and temptation anymore. He hadn’t for a long time. He didn’t want to confuse what this was supposed to be with sexual intimacy.

‘Got it,’ Bull said. ‘What about gentling?’

‘I have no idea what you’re talking about,’ Cullen said, starting to lose his patience again. It wasn’t like he was being asked to be babied.

‘If you get overwhelmed, really distressed. You know, a hand on the side of your arm, on the back of your head. Just something to ground you.’

‘You won’t have to worry about it. Are you making it a condition?’

‘Nah,’ Bull said, but Cullen stared at him hard for another moment, not sure that meant he wouldn’t try. It was bad enough that Bull wanted to stay afterwards and feed him.

‘I still think you’re making this more complicated than it needs to be,’ Cullen said, and Bull shrugged again. Oddly, the motion made Cullen feel like Bull thought he wasn’t making things complicated enough. A ridiculous notion.

I can’t believe I’m doing this.

A tiny part of him – a very tiny part – felt almost proud that he’d managed it - to ask, to see the conversation through. But the rest of him was a morass of responses. Denial that he even benefitted from this. Horror that he’d broached it with Bull and made the idea a possible reality. Shame that Bull was seeing this side of him, and a persistent fear that by this time tomorrow night, he and the Chargers would all be laughing over their drinks at such a broken, desperate Commander. In amongst all that, the bright hungry yearning that pulsed in him like a second heartbeat. Not for the lash – even though he wanted that – but for lyrium.

He was not going to sleep that night, no matter how much he tried. At least when he resigned himself to it, he could get some work done instead of tossing and turning in his bed.

‘Where do you want this to happen?’ Bull said quietly, his voice at odds with his presence in the office.

Cullen hesitated. Should he reveal how much he’d thought about it? How much he’d mentally scouted out locations when they’d pored through Skyhold?

‘There’s a room in the tower near the stables. We use it for storage. It’s…sound-proofed. Not many people go there, it being so far from Herald’s Rest.’

‘It’s also a dump,’ Bull said, good-naturedly.

Cullen nodded, smiled a little. ‘That too. It’s doing better now, but it’s obvious that it’s been repaired with storage in mind, not habitable spaces. That being said, it’s an easy enough walk back to my room afterwards. I can clear the night-watch from that specific region for a couple of hours.’

‘Yeah,’ the Bull said, rubbing at his chin and then nodding. ‘Okay. You tell me when suits you, if you still want to go through with it – and we’ll sort something out. You’re good about us sparring with those Templars?’

Cullen blinked at the shift in conversation. As though this really was just a casual matter, not some terrifying, clandestine secret.

‘Yes,’ Cullen said. ‘Of course. I did mean it before, I’m not their keeper. If they come to you and they think it’s a good idea, they could stand to learn some different types of combat. Drills and sparring only take you so far.’

‘That’s what I said,’ Bull said. ‘But with less words.’

Cullen laughed softly, the sound shocking him. When was the last time he’d laughed like that? Something not wry and laced through with complete cynicism?

It was then he realised that – as clichéd as it sounded – a small weight had been lifted from his shoulders. Not entirely gone, no, and the maelstrom of unpleasantness inside of him was still whirling. But…he’d had an idea, and he’d spoken it, and it had not turned into a disaster. Not yet. Bull was still here.

‘I’m…grateful,’ Cullen said, stilted.

‘We all have something we're dealing with,’ Bull said easily.

‘I’m not the only one awake past three in the morning, after all,’ Cullen observed, wondering for the first time that evening if Bull was okay.

‘Yep,’ Bull said, smiling broadly. ‘I’ll leave you to it. No hard feelings if you decide you’re not interested. Life’s too short for hard feelings between friends.’

With that, Bull turned and walked through the door he’d come, and Cullen finally sank down into his chair and realised that he was shaking and that Maker, Bull would have seen it.

Were they friends? Was that…possible? Perhaps by Bull’s flexible use of the term, it was possible. They hardly knew each other. And yet in a single evening, Cullen had felt something of simpatico that he’d been lacking in this particular area of his life for too long.

He leaned back against the chair and sucked down breaths through the pangs of pain in his body, and thought of how much strength it had taken him not to beg Bull to whip him where he stood.

No, for this to work, he’d have to be careful about it.

And he needed it to work.