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The Boldest Man

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a/n Congratulations to   Mille Libre   who was the 400th reviewer of my on-going epic saga   Andraste's Key   and was gifted with this one-shot. She provided me with the simple prompt "Krem/Cullen - "Be Brave and Want me back." I am not going to lie. This took me a long time to craft. It came to me in 5-minute spurts sitting at my kitchen table over many months. There were days that I frowned that it was going no where, or for the countless turns that I thought were dead ends. I'm happy to say that I was finally able to pull it together. I hope you like the result!

I also have offer bottomless thanks to both   Oleander's One   and   Clafount   for looking at this. Their edits challenged me and brought out the best in the tale I struggled to tell. Thanks so much!

CHAPTER ONE

Carelessly over the plain away,
Where by the boldest man no path
Cut before thee thou canst discern,
Make for thyself a path!

Silence, loved one, my heart!
Cracking, let it not break!
Breaking, break not with thee!

-Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

1776.

Cullen squinted and pulled the report closer in order to make sense of the words that had started to blur together in the dimness of his office. There was a sudden flash of light, illuminating the page and returning clarity.

"Sometimes you just need to shed a little light on the situation."

He set the parchment down and straightened in his chair, feeling his fatigued back muscles revolt. "Inquisitor. I wasn't expecting you."

"Of course you weren't." Despite Malika Cadash's stature, her mere presence could fill a room to capacity. She continued without missing a beat. "We're heading west in the morning. I wanted to confirm Scout Harding's report of Venatori activity."

Cullen frantically scanned his cluttered desk, not remembering where he had left it. Lika leaned on the desk.

"Relax, Commander. Just keeping you on your toes. You handed me those reports this morning. I just wanted to say good-bye."

"Oh." He slouched. "Well. Safe travels, as always." He leaned back in his chair and it creaked in response. "Who is going with you?"

"Dorian seemed pretty intent on dealing with the Venatori problem. Blackwall… or Rainier. Are we still calling him Blackwall?"

Cullen hadn't given that detail much thought. Before he could form an opinion, Lika rattled on, speaking as fast as she could swing an axe.

"Whatever. The Inquisition needs to demonstrate a little faith in our Warden-not-Warden. He's ours, so he's in …and…"

"Iron Bull?" The question seemed to pop right out of his mouth. Lika's brow quirked, revealing that she had read something into his statement. Cullen felt his cheeks burn and hoped that the dimmed light of his office would hide it.

" …Varric." She answered slowly.

"Right. Varric. Good team. Solid."

Lika crossed her arms over her chest and raised an eyebrow. She twisted her mouth in thought, which eventually broke into a crooked smile. "Thought I'd give the Chargers a bit of a break."

Did she know? Was it that obvious? Cullen stood, the chair scraping against the stone floor. With his head down and hands grasped behind his back, he took slow, deliberate steps in a display of thoughtfulness to the other side of his desk. He looked down at Lika. Even though he towered over her, she still intimidated him slightly. Her wide eyes seemed to drill right into the truth.

"I can talk to Bull if you want." Her voice had lost its sarcastic edge.

"Bull?" For a split second, he feared that there was a huge misunderstanding.

"Let him know that the Inquisition has no policy on fraternization with the Chargers."

That was far too much truth for Cullen. He felt exposed.

He retreated back to his chair, picked up a quill and dipped it twice into an inkwell.

"Is that all, Inquisitor? Scout Harding's advance party should have base camp established upon your arrival." He tilted his head up enough to look her in the eye.

"We can talk when I get back." She said, her knowing smile still there.

"Very well."

"Cullen," she sighed, "If you don't lighten up, I'll send Sera after you."

Without thinking, he rolled his eyes.

"There." She nodded once, apparently satisfied with his answer. "You know better than any of us that you don't have to command an army to demonstrate bravery." She saluted and then left without another word.

He dropped the quill and slouched over his desk, burying his head in his arms. Had he just admitted something? He couldn't tell and couldn't remember the last time he felt anything beyond the incessant call of lyrium. It had been only a few weeks since the unremitting itch of withdrawal had abated. And since then, he had barely kept his head above water—only enough to remain functional at his job. If it wasn't for Cassandra and Lika, he would have given in long ago. Now that the fog of withdrawal had finally lifted, there was this other feeling. A stirring in his heart that he had not felt in years. But the Inquisition had forces to command. There was no time for selfish indulgences, despite what the Inquisitor might have thought.

Later that night, Cullen lay in bed, listening to the wind whistle through the slats in the roof. Through a hole in the shingles, he spied a patch of stars and stretched his neck enough to make out the constellation of Judex. Ironic how the symbol of the Templar Order twinkled above him—was it taunting him or just a simple reminder of his past? He took in a relaxing breath, his eyes starting to feel heavy. The sword did not always represent the Chantry, he recalled from his studies as a young initiate in Honnleath. It once stood for justice in Tevinter—a downward-pointed sword in the moments before an execution. Tevinter. His mind drifted again, eddying past Dorian, who possessed all the vanity of a magister, while serving the Inquisition with as much loyalty as Cassandra or Leliana. He wasn't a bad match at chess either. And then at the opposite end of the spectrum was Krem, who demonstrated very little in common with his countryman. Where Dorian was haughty, Krem was unassuming, yet there was a steely confidence just below the surface that was unshakeable. He had heard all the stories—his life before the Chargers. His curiosity quickly gave way to admiration. Here was a man who was sure of himself. He couldn't even say that about himself at times.

Cullen's hands wandered beneath the blankets. He had not felt this relaxed in months—normally his mind would spin madly as he feigned rest. Either he had felt so compelled to revisit each and every task that crossed his desk, or the spectre of lyrium withdrawal whispered lies in his ear, gibing him, assuring him that he was nothing but a failure and in need of another dose. Tonight, there was just the sound of the wind and a clear image of Krem in the training yard. He encouraged his arousal, stroking himself in pace with the half-dream of the young Tevinter bringing down his sword in powerful sweeps, slicing the air and making the steel sing. The scene changed, Cullen's pace quickened, his strokes becoming more forceful and intentional. They were on a river bank, Cullen tracing his hand down Krem's muscular back, across the smooth curves that tapered to his narrow waist and firm ass. A long-drawn-out sigh escaped Cullen's throat. Tonight he'd curl into the embrace of sleep.

xxxxx

"Excuse me, Commander Cullen. I'm sorry to disturb you."

Josephine leaned on the door jamb, flipping the leaflets of parchment on her clipboard. Cullen noticed that her candle had gone out—not that it was needed this late in the morning.

"The new recruits have just arrived," she continued. The satin on her shirt caught the morning light in a dazzling display of opulence. Her very presence seemed to elevate the Inquisition's overall appearance. She could decorate a room just by standing in it.

"Recruits?" He flipped through his own stack of documents, panicking that he had forgotten yet another important detail.

"Please Commander. Do not worry yourself. They've arrived unannounced from Orlais. They are deserters from Gaspard's army, and given his recent exile, thought their services might be better appreciated by the Empress in service to the Inquisition."

"I'll get them settled, then." Normally, he'd assign them to one of the sergeants on duty, but given their unexpected arrival, he wanted to see them for himself.

"And you haven't forgotten, then?"

Cullen searched his mind, but found nothing but the jumbled thoughts of a thousand loose threads he had to attend to. "About what specifically, Ambassador?" Then quickly added, "We've discussed a great many things in the last few days." That at least was true.

Josephine rubbed her lips together, her way of trying to hide a smile during intense negotiations. For a second, he hoped that she had not been scheming with Lika. "We have a meeting with Leliana regarding a possible Qunari alliance."

He vaguely recalled the meeting coming across his desk. "Right, of course. Now?"

"Yes Commander. She's waiting in the war room."

"Then send her my apologies for being late. I'll see to the soldiers and be right up."

Cullen dashed down the stone steps, his mind going in a thousand different directions as he headed straight for the barracks. Sgt. Gregson met him at the door with a salute.

"Commander, Ser!"

"Report on the new recruits, Gregson."

"The Orlesian deserters?" he pointed a thumb behind him. They looked nothing like seasoned soldiers. They didn't even have proper gear.

"Has Leliana sent an agent down?"

"Yes, Ser. They are legitimate as far as she is concerned."

Cullen approached the motley assortment of boys and girls, noting that they were hardly old enough to qualify as adults, let alone soldiers. He rubbed the back of his neck which had gone stiff again as he performed his terse inspection. The group stood awkwardly at attention.

"At ease. What's your story?"

"We're from Riel, Ser." The boy spoke with a thick Orlesian accent and a nerve-wracked stammer. "Gaspard conscripted us in exchange for protection for our families. We were with the 2nd Division, Light Infantry."

War was always ugly. He sized them up again, after learning they had been sent to the front lines. They all looked in need of a bath and a few meals. "What sort of training did you receive?"

"Training, Ser?"

A scrawny girl with hair as bright as copper spoke up. "There was no time for training, Ser. We were handed weapons. If it wasn't Celine's troops, it was the Freemen… or demons."

"Light infantry division? You're swordsmen? Archers?"

"A little of both, Ser." The boy looked down at his bare, filthy feet when he spoke.

Cullen picked up a sword from a nearby rack and tossed it to him. The boy missed and the weapon clattered to the ground. His companions nervously stepped back, as if the noise had frightened them.

"You cannot serve the Inquisition if you cannot be honest." Cullen gave them an authoritative glare. He guessed that was all the persuasion they might require. He tried to soften his approach. It did not surprise him that Gaspard would conscript any able body, and most likely mistreat them in the process.

"We were runners, Ser." The girl said. "We supplied the troops with ammunition, food, water… whatever."

"And the rest of you?"

"The same, ser."

Cullen's brow crumpled.

The copper-haired girl spoke up again. "Please don't send us back, Ser. We wish to serve the Inquisition. We're hardworking…"

That wasn't the issue. Cullen pinched the bridge of his nose. Sending them with Sgt Gregson's troops would only slow everyone's efforts. They needed one-on-one training to begin. Resources and men were stretched as it was.

"I assume you are no stranger to a whetstone?" The group nodded vigorously in unison. "Then you'll sharpen blades until you receive further orders."

The recruits clicked their heels and saluted, their timing still badly off.

The door slammed loudly behind him as he left the barracks. If he had only taken a squire he might have been able to be in two places at once. He rounded the corner to Haven's Rest, quickly concocting a plan.

Bull was at the bar, hunched over deep in conversation with Krem. Cullen swallowed hard, recalling his recent fantasy. A pang of guilt stirred in the pit of his stomach.

"Excuse me. Iron Bull, a word?"

The Qunari slipped off the bar stool, offering a friendly slap to Krem's shoulder and loomed over Cullen.

Cullen's gaze darted toward Krem, careful not to make eye contact. The young mercenary leaned his back against the bar, fingers woven together across his chest.

"I've a favor to ask of you," Cullen straightened himself as he spoke to the colossal Qunari, "Normally, I'd go through the Inquisitor, but she already left for the Wastes this morning."

"How can I help?"

Cullen explained his current conundrum and then requested the Iron Bull's assistance in training the recruits. "Only until they are ready to join Sgt. Gregson's company."

Bull crossed his meaty arms over his equally burly chest, raising the brow over his good eye and gave a deep, rumbling chuckle.

"I am busy. Supposedly meeting you and Red about the latest Ben-Hassreth reports. Plus, I'm no good with rookies. Tend to scare them."

"Right."

"Tell you what. Krem's available." He turned toward his companion. Cullen had to dodge the massive horns that swung perilously close to his head. "Go help out the Commander."

Krem straightened, then replied, "On it, Chief."

"I'll meet you in the War Room in ten." The Qunari stomped away before Cullen could reply.

Cullen cleared the frog that had formed in his throat. Why was he so nervous? He'd given orders to thousands of men before, and most of those orders had consequences that were far more grim than this. This was routine. This should have been easy.

"Yes, Commander?" Krem looked at him, clear-eyed, but otherwise unreadable.

"A group of recruits with no combat experience to speak of have just landed at Skyhold. I need them to get up to speed. But I can't be in two places at once." He scratched his head, feeling like an idiot. He had just explained this to Iron Bull.

"And you want me to train them." Krem replied, finishing Cullen's thought.

Cullen searched the Charger's expression for anything else, a hint perhaps, but came up with nothing.

"Yes. Basic combat training. Swords. Shields. Get them started in archery. Find out their strengths."

"Look forward to it. When do you want a report?"

In that moment, Cullen forgot every single one of his obligations that day. "I'll stop by the training yard later. Anything you need from the quartermaster is yours." He sensed his speech suddenly accelerate, his tongue felt thick and sweat started to drip from the back of his neck down the small of his back. "I appreciate… you."

Krem furrowed his brow and chuckled, then looked down, almost sheepishly. "Ser?"

The sound of his own ridiculous voice echoed in his head. "I appreciate your efforts, I meant. We are terribly short-handed at the moment."

"Right. The recruits will get a flair of the Chargers… soon you'll see them dance on the battlefield."

"Dancing." Cullen blurted. "That would be great."

Cullen didn't think he could feel more mortified.