Cullen is not entirely sure how he ended up in this moment.
"Sister Leliana," he appears to be saying, "I assure you, I have no intention of becoming ... entangled with Ambassador Montilyet. My relationship with her is professional. I can't imagine what has caused you to think otherwise."
Leliana's eyebrows raise. "Surely you would not call your relationship with our Inquisitor purely professional."
Cullen is not a man given to blushing, but from those times he's attempted to play Wicked Grace he knows he has a transparently readable face; he can only hope that his expression is neutral rather than ashamed. Of course Leliana knows that he and Inquisitor Trevelyan recently returned from a brief trip to the Fallow Mire -- they made no secret of it -- and it is perhaps no great leap for Leliana to see that they have no new allies or information to show for the journey, and conclude that it was personal. He just doesn't see how it follows that she should be asking about his relationship with Josephine, of all people.
"I would not call my relationship with the Inquisitor purely professional, no," Cullen allows. "What I cannot understand is why you would feel the need to question my relationship with the rest of her council. Would you also like to know how I feel about Cassandra?"
Leliana looks momentarily surprised. Cullen assumes, abashedly, that it is because he's being short with her in his confusion, until Leliana says, "Then you haven't noticed ...?"
"Noticed what?" Cullen asks, scrutinizing Leliana. Her expression is as opaque as always, calm and even. The only betrayal of her thoughts is the faintest of frowns marring her brow.
"I think it's best that you take it up with the Inquisitor herself," Leliana says only. "I'm sorry I mentioned it."
"Think nothing of it," Cullen says reflexively, and leaves her.
Frankly, none of the relationships among the leadership of the Inquisition can be described as professional, even leaving aside Cullen's tentative romance with the Inquisitor. Josephine and Leliana have been close friends for a number of years, as Cullen understands it. Leliana and Cassandra have been friendly colleagues working towards the same goals for nearly as long. Cullen and Leliana ...
The first time Cullen met Leliana, he was half-mad with lack of sleep and worse hallucinations brought on by Uldred and his blood mages. Cullen had hardly noticed her; she was the face of a concerned stranger, fading into the background as everything went out of focus except for Apprentice Amell. Warden Amell, although Cullen hadn't known it at the time, hadn't known anything except this last, worst horror.
He learned later, to his shameful relief, that she had been oblivious to his fumbling advances not because she was being kind of his young, terrified awkwardness, but because she hadn't even realized his interest. Everyone who followed key political players in Thedas knew, soon after the Blight ended, that the Hero of Ferelden was romantically involved with the Left Hand of the Divine. Cullen tried to feel happy for her. Mostly he felt numb.
The few times he's tried to broach the subject with Leliana, she has deliberately taken his attempts at conversation as prurient curiosity, or otherwise obfuscated. Cullen respects her desire to keep her personal life personal, of course, but it would be ... nice if she acknowledged their strange shared history rather than avoiding it entirely. (Maker, what a conversation that would be, if he ever worked up the grace to have it. "My attempt to quit lyrium involves discussing difficult memories with others who were there. Care to share your experience?" Sweet Andraste, no.)
All of this is to say that Cullen finds Leliana's questioning about nonexistent entanglements with Ambassador Montilyet both baffling and impertinent. But nothing will be solved by simply stewing in the strangeness of the conversation, so Cullen takes her advice, and sets out to find Inquisitor Trevelyan.
He's unsurprised to discover her walking the battlements. She does this almost every day when she's home at Skyhold; surveying the troops, she'd called it, with a sideways smile, when he asked her what she was doing. Cullen understands. He checks their fortifications and perimeter as often as she does -- more often, probably, since she is so often away, tackling the mess that is Thedas one on-the-ground problem at a time.
Inquisitor Trevelyan must hear him coming. She looks up at his approach and smiles, a soft fond smile he's never seen on her face otherwise and so suspects might be only for him. "Inquisitor," he says, coming to stand beside her.
(Cullen doesn't know why he still calls her that. She has a name, a lovely one, but Cullen can't bring himself to say it. Maybe it's a foolish urge to keep some professionalism between them, when Cullen has long since shattered that with stolen kisses on the battlements and impulsive trips to the fens of his childhood. Maybe it's something else, though Cullen has no name for the warmth he feels when he thinks of their growing intimacy and his own formality in proximity to each other.)
"Cullen," she says, stepping into his space. This feels wonderful. It always feels wonderful, being near her, in a way Cullen never expected for himself. "Something to report?"
"No, not at the moment," Cullen says, rubbing the back of his neck. "I've had a ... rather puzzling conversation with Leliana. She wanted to know if I had intentions upon Ambassador Montilyet, which is frankly ridiculous --"
He stops. Something complicated is happening on the Inquisitor's face. Unlike Leliana, she has never learned to conceal her expressions, so Cullen reads shock, brief mortification, and rueful amusement in quick succession.
"Or not ridiculous," Cullen says slowly. "Inquisitor, may I ask what's going on?"
The Inquisitor twists her hands together, looking away, out over the far-below frozen river and the mountains beyond. Cullen has seen these hundreds of times, and continues watching her face. "I was trying to think of a way to talk about this with you," the Inquisitor says. "Leave it to Leliana to force my hand." She takes a deep breath, straightens her shoulders, and turns back to Cullen. "Leliana is rather ahead of me, I'm afraid. She's assuming much more than has happened -- or she knows nothing has happened and wants to make sure nothing does."
"Happened," Cullen repeats. He gropes for something sensible to say. "Happened with Josephine?"
"Yes," the Inquisitor agrees. "Happened between me and Josephine, specifically. But she knows I have feelings for you. She asked me whether I was toying with you, and I said of course I wasn't. Then she asked me whether I was toying with Josephine, and I said I would never want that. I suppose that's when she went to you."
"Ah," Cullen says. "Why in the Maker's name was she asking whether you were toying with the Ambassador?"
"Because," the Inquisitor says, in the gentle voice Cullen fancied, up until this moment, that she reserved for him, "I have been flirting with Josephine, and Leliana was entirely right to ask."
"I see," Cullen says stiffly.
"Cullen." The Inquisitor steps towards him, offering her hands, and perhaps Cullen is being a fool, but he takes them. She squeezes his hands encouragingly, smiling her kind lovely smile, and says, "Only say the word and I'll apologize to Josephine and do my best to make it up to you. But first, could I be terribly Orlaisian?"
"All right," Cullen says cautiously. He can't imagine what this is a euphemism for. He's not entirely sure what to think at all, but it is not in his nature these days to make any rash decisions before examining the facts, so he holds his potential feeling of hurt betrayal at bay for the moment.
"I've never felt about anyone the way I do about you," the Inquisitor is saying. "I feel cared for, and respected, and I want you to feel the same way with me. I don't feel that way about Josephine. I feel ... interested. Fond. It would be easy to turn those feelings to friendship." She hesitates.
"This doesn't sound terribly Orlaisian yet," Cullen ventures, and is rewarded by her rueful smile.
"Here's the Orlaisian part," she says. "Assuming you're both amenable, I'd like to try relationships with both of you, with your full knowledge and consent."
"Oh," says Cullen. "That is ... terribly Orlaisian, yes."
The Inquisitor laughs, a choked giggle more than half panic. Oddly, this is what reassures Cullen more than anything else. The Inquisitor is always a charming mix of hesitant and assured, careful of all her actions but committed to them once they're made. It's one of the things Cullen most loves about her. She looks so hopeful, and Cullen understands that she's not hoping he'll say yes; she's hoping that, no matter what he says, what they have together will weather it.
Well, that makes two of them.
"If I may be terribly Fereldan with my answer," Cullen says, looking the Inquisitor seriously in the face and squeezing her hands in return, "I believe we could both survive that." She bites her lip, uncertain of this answer. Cullen adds, gently, "I cannot promise I'll like it. I have ... never had opportunity to be jealous before, so I may be a jealous man. But if there is a chance I'm not, I see no reason to say no to you."
"Thank you," the Inquisitor says, smiling. She draws him into a kiss that is focused, and grateful, and feels like a promise they will be all right.
Everything about Inquisitor Trevelyan has been unexpected.
The first time she approached him on his own, weaving her way through his practicing troops across the snow-packed ground at Haven, Cullen had braced himself. Trevelyan had conducted herself politely and well when discussing strategy at the war table, but Cullen had seen the staff slung across her back, and assumed. Fool. Where Cullen had expected defensiveness to outright hostility, he'd found courteousness and curiosity. She was not nervous of his background as a templar. She smiled like she was interested.
Really, Cullen hadn't stood a chance.
He wonders, in his darker moments, whether his attraction is about her at all. Maybe being shut up in Ferelden's Circle tower, surrounded by other serious young templars, his lyrium dose being slowly upped as he went through training, told the only girls his age were potentially dangerous monsters, had warped something in him. He hasn't felt attraction like he feels towards the Inquisitor since he was nineteen and thinking strange filthy thoughts about Apprentice Amell; what if he's only capable of attraction to mages? What if his feelings aren't for the Inquisitor's beautiful eyes and fond smile and clever mind, but for the potential she has to wreck him? These are, after all, his darker moments, when his hands tremble and he longs for the lyrium bottle, when he would rather wreck himself and pretend it is something he can control.
But even though Cullen is not getting enough sleep, has gone without lyrium for three months now, though even if he were in peak physical and psychological shape he would probably still be spending sleepless nights strategizing and worrying over the fate of the world, he knows those worries are lies. He is not a frightened teenager anymore; magic is a part of the Inquisitor, but it feels to him like a neutral quality in her, like the color of her hair, and in truth he is neither attracted or repelled by it.
The important fact about Inquisitor Trevelyan is this: she has stood calmly while Cullen raged, spilling the whole ugly story of his templar life to her far more messily than he ever intended; she has set a firm hand on his breastplate, just above his heart, and said You can do this. She is not one of the abominations he sees whenever he closes his eyes. She is his strength.
After their latest conversation on the battlements, Cullen discovers a new concern, surfacing in the wake of his willingness to give her unconventional, Orlaisian happiness a try. What if I cannot do this after all? he thinks. What if Josephine can, and is measured better in the Inquisitor's heart, and she leaves me? But this thought feels like his worst, paranoid self, and every time the Inquisitor has surprised him, his life has gone better for it. Besides, he respects Ambassador Montilyet, and he has every faith they will all conduct themselves well, however this goes.
Cullen realizes he's been clutching the stone of the parapet. He lets go slowly, wincing, and turns to make his way to his office. His small personal dramas will have to wait, in any case: Thedas still needs to be saved.
"A word, Commander?"
Cullen freezes. This was going to happen sooner or later, after all, since the only path between the great hall and the war room goes through Josephine's office. Still, Cullen would have preferred later.
"Yes, Ambassador?" he says, turning smartly.
Josephine is sitting behind her desk. She gestures pleasantly for Cullen to take the chair across from her, and Cullen can think of no graceful way to decline, so after a fractional hesitation he comes down the steps and sits.
It's a very comfortable chair. The ambassador's whole office is very well-put-together, from the new upholstery on the cushions to the tapestry above the mantelpiece to the merrily crackling fire to the bookshelves behind Josephine's desk. Cullen has never really paused to take in the room before, and now that he has, his own quarters feel accusatorily shabby. He gives Josephine a polite nod.
"I thought we should acknowledge the wyvern in the room," Josephine begins. Ah, yes. Diplomacy is nine-tenths disarming forthrightness disguised as politeness, after all. "Inquisitor Trevelyan assures me she's discussed the matter with you, but I find that even the most well-meaning go-between is no substitute for firsthand conversation." She folds her hands together on the desk and fixes Cullen with a polite, friendly look. "So, Commander. How do you feel about the arrangement?"
"Er." Cullen feels quite caught out. In the week between his conversation with Inquisitor Trevelyan regarding Josephine and this moment, he's seen the Inquisitor several times: they've kissed on the battlements, discussed next moves regarding their latest information on the whereabouts of the Red Templars, played a game of chess. The Inquisitor mentioned, briefly, that Josephine was responsive to her advances, and had agreed to a relationship with knowledge of Cullen's. Things between them have, for the most part, been the same, and Cullen has nearly convinced himself that the way the Inquisitor looks at him is still a look for him alone.
"I ... feel fine about it, so far," Cullen says. "I respect you, Ambassador, and --"
"That may be the problem," Josephine breaks in gently. "Forgive me, Commander, I am aware I am the interloper here. But I have a sense that respect alone will not be sufficient for such an arrangement."
"Oh?" Cullen says.
Josephine leans forward. "I admit, I have not had ... much opportunity for affairs of the heart prior to this. Therefore there is no reason to let my own preconceived notions dictate how this arrangement will play out. I realize this must be odd for you as well --"
"Yes, very." Cullen finds himself giving a huff of laughter, and is relieved when Josephine smiles in return. Whether or not she intends it, her careful groping through this conversation is deeply reassuring. Cullen feels far less lost. "All right. Let's say we set our preconceived notions of romance aside. What, apart from respect, do you think we will need to make this work?"
"Friendship," Josephine says, her eyes sparkling with enthusiasm. Cullen, with some surprise, suddenly understands what the Inquisitor might see in her. "Our common cause, the Inquisition, makes us allies. What our common attachment to the Inquisitor makes us, I don't yet know, but I do not want us to be in competition, and so ..."
"And so friendship." Cullen nods. "With respect, Ambassador, it's one thing to declare an intention of friendship, and another entirely to make it work."
Josephine smiles. "I'm well aware, Commander. Might I interest you in a game of chess?"
Something jagged and uneasy in Cullen goes still. He smiles back, without any effort. "By all means, Ambassador."
As it turns out, Cullen is not a jealous man.
He senses he is being carefully managed, both by the Inquisitor and by Josephine, but it feels like caring rather than manipulation. The Inquisitor stops by Cullen's office whenever she's at Skyhold, even if it's only for a quick press of lips before she rushes on to the next thing. When she's gone again, deployed to check on rumors of Red Templars in the Emprise du Lion, Cullen discovers that Josephine is fighting insomnia nearly as much as he is. One night they stay up until the hour candles gutter, debating their best course of action for Empress Celene's upcoming ball. Another night, they demolish a very good bottle of Antivan wine, while Josephine recounts rather shocking stories of her adventures with a younger Leliana, and Cullen finds himself telling her about silly pranks among templar recruits.
It's been weeks since he's wanted lyrium enough to try bargaining himself for it, enough to imagine with physical visceral vividness how good it would feel to have it again. He still gets dizzy at unexpected moments. He still wakes up screaming. But he feels settled, somehow. He finds himself humming snatches of Chantry hymns or folk songs while he goes over his reports. He catches glimpses of himself reflected in windowpanes, and sees that he's smiling. Cassandra catches his eye during one war table meeting and gives him a nod of approval.
Both Josephine and the Inquisitor seem to be in particularly good moods as well, though Cullen suspects this may have something to do with the Inquisition ousting the Red Templars from the Emprise, and also with Josephine's latest successful feast, presented with aplomb in the great hall with not one but three magnificent dragon heads artfully arranged near the banquet tables. As always, Cullen is impressed with Josephine's skill at the social aspects of running the Inquisition, but there is a quality of fondness to this observation now. Friendship.
Two days after the feast, the Inquisitor comes to Cullen's office with a determined look in her eye. "I need a favor," she says.
"Of course," Cullen says at once.
"I could ask Leliana," the Inquisitor begins, "since I'm sure she has the contacts to get it done quickly, but I still not quite know whether she approves of Josephine and me. Besides, I wanted you to be part of this."
"All right," Cullen says, a little more cautiously, "what is 'this,' exactly?"
"Finding the old Montilyet family crest," the Inquisitor says, as though this is self-explanatory. She must see surprise or confusion in Cullen's face, because she laughs and adds, "The Montilyets have ties to Orlais. Josephine says they used to have holdings in Val Royeaux, even. When the Montilyets were forced into exile, they abandoned the original design of their family crest, and Josephine mentioned she'd love to see it. We have enough connections in Val Royeaux that I thought it might be worth a look."
"You're right, Leliana could find something much more quickly than I could," Cullen starts, but even as he says it, he's annoyed with himself for his own practicality. The Inquisitor wants to invest time and effort in a frivolity because it might make Josephine happy, and it reminds him of his own impulse to bring the Inquisitor all the way to the Fallow Mire simply to give her a good luck charm. The fact that she wants his help with this warms him. "But it wouldn't be too difficult for me to investigate it," Cullen goes on swiftly. Usually, when the Inquisitor presents him with a problem, he throws soldiers at it, and that will work even in these unconventional circumstances. "Several of my officers and templars are from Orlais. I'll see if any of them are familiar with the nobility of Val Royeaux and might be able to point us in the direction of the Montilyet crest."
"Good," the Inquisitor says. "Thank you, Cullen. It means a lot to me, and I'm sure it'll mean a lot to Josephine."
After she leaves him, Cullen drafts a memo to one of his attachés. He receives several gratifying responses within a day: no less than three of his people think they have the qualifications to seek out the Montilyet crest. After some consideration, Cullen chooses a chevalier who claims friendly terms with several comtes stationed in the Imperial Court. He sends the chevalier that evening.
Of course he doesn't hear anything for another week. The Inquisitor leaves again, this time to track down Venatori holdouts in the far western reaches of Orlais. Cullen vets and begins to train a new wave of Inquisition recruits. Josephine quietly arranges a number of favors before coming to Cullen and pacing up and down the length of his office, fretting over the political intricacies of using Duke Gaspard to obtain entrance to the upcoming ball when they have every reason to suspect the Duke. Since Cullen shares her concerns, he doesn't attempt any empty words of consolation. Instead, he offers Josephine his arm, and stands with her on the battlements, the two of them quietly watching the sunset.
The next morning, among his pile of dispatches, Cullen discovers a letter from a Marquis Pellantaise. The man is apparently an antiquarian at the court, and has asked among the reputable merchants of Val Royeaux, with an assurance that they will pass on the whereabouts of the Montilyet crest if it is to be found. Smiling with satisfaction, Cullen in turn drafts a missive to the Inquisitor, passing the list of merchants on to her.
When she returns the following week, the Inquisitor is in an excellent mood: the Venatori outpost in the desert is dealt with, and more importantly, one of the merchants in Val Royeaux found the old Montilyet family crest. "I wanted to thank you," the Inquisitor says breathlessly, giving Cullen a quick kiss he has no time to return, and adds, "I'm giving it to her right away," before dashing back out the door towards the main bulk of Skyhold. Cullen shakes his head, chuckling to himself, and returns to work.
He thought that would be the end of it, but the next time he's passing through Josephine's office, she calls, "Commander, if I may?" and beckons him over. When Cullen comes to her desk, she points at a wooden ship with a brass plaque inlaid upon its roof, bearing the likeness of a ship again, and the inscription From sea to shore, we tame the waves. Cullen finds himself smiling, charmed to find such a proudly merchant sensibility on a noble house crest. "Magnificent, isn't it?" Josephine says.
"It's lovely," Cullen returns. "I'm pleased you have it."
"I hear I have you to thank for it, as well as the Inquisitor," Josephine says. Cullen looks up from the crest to her face, rather startled, and sees that she's beaming at him. "I wanted you to see what you had a hand in bringing to me. And, I wanted to thank you."
"No need," Cullen says, suddenly flustered. "That is, when the Inquisitor said she wanted my help surprising you, I was very happy to assist her. You -- ah, I -- it pleases me to see you so satisfied with the outcome of our efforts."
Josephine flushes. She hides it well, but Cullen feels suddenly over-warm himself, and can see it reflected in her face. All Josephine says, though, is, "Thank you, Cullen, truly. I never thought to see an example of this crest, much less own one. It was very kind of you both."
"Then you are most welcome," Cullen manages, with a small courteous bow, and excuses himself.
He still feels warm and flustered. The sensation is somewhat akin to how he felt when giving the Inquisitor his good luck token, but more acute, perhaps because he had been expecting no reaction from Josephine. It is possible that this is simply the way Cullen feels when giving gifts -- after all, apart from siblings' birthdays and childhood Satinalias, he has had little opportunity to do so. It is possible, but very unlikely. In actuality, the explanation is something like this: he wants Josephine to be happy as much as he wants the Inquisitor to be happy, and being in any way the instrument of this happiness, in either of them, is one of the finest things that has ever happened to him.
Cullen is discovering in himself something like the opposite of jealousy. He holds this close, and feels hollowed out and made clean by it just as thoroughly as he ever did when giving himself over to the Chant of Light.
It is several days later when all the bright tenderness inside Cullen spills over. He's receiving a brief from his lieutenants, and considering the best places to deploy their soldiers for relief efforts -- the Hinterlands are calm now, but Sarn is still a disaster in the wake of the Red Templars -- when he sees the Inquisitor waiting by the door. Cullen falters mid-phrase, momentarily distracted by her, but he manages to finish his thought, and say, "Dismissed."
His lieutenants file out, and Cullen shuts the door behind him with a sigh. The Inquisitor is watching him sympathetically, and to this Cullen says, "There's always something more, isn't there?" He gazes at his gloved fingertips against the grain of wood in the door, pressed hard enough to crease the leather, and finds himself adding, "But this war won't last forever. When it started, I hadn't considered much beyond our survival." His heart rate picks up. But there really is nothing else he can possibly say, given how he's been feeling this past week. "Things are different now."
"What do you mean?" she asks.
"I find myself wondering," Cullen says, turning to her, "what will happen after. When this is over, I won't want to move on ... not from you." He touches her face gently, feeling unspeakably tender, and catches himself. He's presuming much, especially given ... everything, with Josephine. There is no reason to assume she sees what's between them with the surety Cullen's beginning to feel. "But I don't know what you -- that is, if you, ah ..."
He stops, resting his hands in fists on his desk. The Inquisitor touches his arm, with a firm reassuring grip. "Cullen. Do you need to ask?"
The world tips and realigns itself into a perfect, clear-eyed version of what Cullen sensed was the truth. "I suppose not," he breathes. He turns and steps towards the Inquisitor, who leans back against the desk, watching him with a smile. "I want --" he starts, still more breath than word, and the Inquisitor's hand slips on a paper, smashing an empty ink vial upon the ground. She makes a small startled noise, but doesn't break his gaze. Cullen hesitates, pulled in by the desire rising in her face, for a trembling moment still balanced on what he should with propriety do; then he sweeps his hand across the desk, papers flying, more glass smashing against the stone floor, making a space for her.
The Inquisitor looks shocked, delighted. Cullen gently pushes her into the space he's created, and she falls back on the desk willingly, reaching out to him as he moves atop her to kiss her. Her legs fall open, giving him leave to settle himself in a perfect fit against her; her hands come up to cup the back of his head while she returns his kiss with fervor.
How they manage to get from desk to bed, Cullen doesn't quite know; he does know that his cloak and outer armor end up in a heap on his office floor, that the Inquisitor's top comes somehow unbuttoned and unlaced while they're still on the desk, that she breathes a shaky laugh and fists both her hands in Cullen's hair when he ducks to kiss the curve of her breast where it spills out of her shirt.
Cullen is not entirely inexperienced, but he's never done anything quite like this before. Some of it is newly intimate in the expected way: all of her bare skin on all of his feels shocking and wonderful, where they entwine in a cocoon of blankets and furs when they do manage to make it up the ladder to Cullen's bed. Some of it is entirely unexpected: every time the Inquisitor pulls Cullen's hair, which is often, Cullen feels as though all his joints have turned to water, and he finds himself making the most obscene involuntary noises in response. She lets him inside her by pushing him down on his back, her legs bracketing his hips, and sliding down onto him, sweet and tight and perfect, while he babbles some nonsense about doing anything she wants, Maker please. She kisses him breathless while they move together, and laughs with startled joy when she comes. Cullen takes longer, but the Inquisitor doesn't appear to mind; her hair sticks to her forehead with sweat, and she settles his hands on her hips, twining their fingers together while she rides him.
It feels so good it feels dangerous, the warm buildup of pleasure almost a threat; Cullen can't remember the last time he felt this good without lyrium, and he finds himself fighting it, trying to hold it off. The Inquisitor must feel him tense, but her face is still full of delight. "Here, let me --" she says, and rolls, taking Cullen with her, so that she ends up on her back with Cullen atop her, raising her hips so that after a moment he's inside her again. Cullen makes a choked-off noise, half pleasure and half panic, before she reaches up to tangle her hands in his hair again, and pulls so hard that every thought flees Cullen's head in a flare of pain that blazes up into probably the most powerful orgasm he has ever had.
He wasn't aware the specifics of sex were going to be quite like this for him, with her, Cullen thinks dazedly while they lay in each other's arms. She kisses him softly and sighs with such contentment that Cullen feels replete, the abyss of his fear fading in the face of how safe he feels in the aftermath.
As he's slipping into sleep, the Inquisitor rubs a thumb tenderly across his jaw and murmurs, "Good boy." It makes Cullen shiver with pleased aftershocks. He laces her free hand with his, and sleeps.
Even being left brimming with joy and exhaustion doesn't stop the nightmares, of course. This one is about Uldred -- they are all about Uldred -- pacing outside Cullen's cage of light, watching him like an interesting specimen. He's telling Cullen something about what the demons will do with him when Uldred's work is complete, but Cullen can't focus on the words, too exhausted from withdrawal and days awake. Instead he kneels in his prison, talking over Uldred to drown the words. Days ago he spoke the Chant of Light; now all he has left is begging, pleading Uldred to leave him, the words rising louder and louder with the panic in his throat --
The last leave me Cullen speaks so loud he jerks awake.
It takes him a moment to understand where he is. There's daylight here -- a tree? inside? -- before he takes in his bedroom walls, stone climbing with vines, the carpets he's placed on the wood floor, the hole in the ceiling that he can't be bothered to fix because everything else is too pressing, and finally, the Inquisitor, dressed again and sitting on his bed, watching his face.
"Bad dream?" she asks.
"They always are," Cullen finds himself admitting. After everything else he's told her, it's easy. "Without lyrium, they're worse." Her face shifts toward sympathy without pity. Cullen doesn't know what he's done to deserve her. He props himself up on an elbow and touches the Inquisitor's face. "I didn't mean to worry you."
"I'm never worried," she says, his steadfast pillar of strength.
She makes him feel like crying, laughing, tumbling her over on the bed and having her again. "I almost believe you," Cullen says. He presses his forehead to hers. "You are ... I have never felt anything like this."
"I love you," she whispers. "You know that, right?"
He knows. Maker, he's never felt so happy. "I love you too."
He tilts his head at the same time she does, in perfect understanding. They kiss again, beneath the dust motes of morning sun coming through the branches of Cullen's broken roof.
After breakfast, when both the last tatters of dream and the pure joy of his good fortune have worn off, Cullen realizes he missed a crucial step. It is all very well to be wonderfully in love, but Cullen imagines if their positions were reversed, and feels shocked horror at the thought of having done this to Josephine.
He feels so urgently about this that he actually runs out of the barracks and across the green to Skyhold's main stairs, intending to go straight to Josephine without a plan. It's sheer luck that he runs into the Inquisitor in the great hall. She's talking with Varric, but she breaks off when she sees the look on Cullen's face.
"Excuse me, Varric, can we continue this later?" she says.
"Go ahead," says Varric, who is eyeing Cullen and looking as though he wants nothing to do with it.
"Come to the garden with me," the Inquisitor says, offering Cullen her arm. He hesitates, but takes it: the garden is large enough that they'll be able to talk without anyone overhearing.
The Inquisitor has evidently thought of the same thing. They stroll the perimeter of the garden together until they find a quiet shady spot near the gazebo; then she stops and turns to Cullen, serious. "What is it?"
"Josephine," Cullen says. "I ought to apologize -- I ought to apologize to her -- I can't imagine how she'll feel, I always intended to go no further than you were willing to go and instead I --"
"Cullen," the Inquisitor interrupts gently. To Cullen's surprise, she's smiling. "It's all right. Josephine and I are taking it slow. We have talked about it, and she understands that we might not go at the same pace. But I appreciate you thinking of it. I'll take care of letting Josephine know."
"Oh," Cullen says, all the terror going out of him. "Well. All right."
The Inquisitor hesitates. "If I did want to sleep with her ... would that be all right with you? You haven't seemed to mind how it's gone so far, but your happiness means the world to me."
Aware that others in the garden might see them, Cullen contents himself with taking both her hands in his, and looking her in the eye as he says, "Of course it's all right. I know you love me."
The Inquisitor smiles the lovely tender smile that Cullen now knows is for him, and in the garden, in front of the herbalists and sisters and Blessed Andraste, she kisses him.
As Empress Celene's ball is being held at the end of the month, the Inquisitor and her advisors agree that it's best she stick close to Skyhold -- except, of course, in the case of emergency -- so that she won't be out of contact or too far afield while they all attempt their final plans and preparations.
In some ways Cullen finds this a blessing, as in consequence the Inquisitor has more time both for him and for Josephine than usual. But mostly it means all of them, Cassandra and the near-unruffleable Leliana included, are feeling the pressure together, and feeding on each other's nervy energy. Josephine in particular seems on edge, turning her careful turns of phrase into precise razor-thin slices of language, cutting through everyone's arguments whenever they debate what to do at the war table, no matter how small the issue on hand.
Cullen tries not to take it personally, but while she is equally sharp with everyone, they've both been too busy to spare a real moment alone together, and Cullen fears he hasn't been handling the intricacies of their relationship with the care he should, no matter that the Inquisitor tells him she talked with Josephine, and that Josephine had not minded the news. This wears at Cullen too: had not minded is, realistically, the best he could hope for, but somehow, foolishly, he had been hoping for her to express happiness for them. Absurd.
Worse, on the afternoon he finally has a free moment in which to approach her, she rebuffs him utterly. "Not now, Commander!" she cries, brushing past him, and leaves Cullen in her wake, staring in astonishment.
Still, there is work to be done, and if Josephine doesn't have time for a conversation, Cullen can table his worry for the moment. He is making good headway through the latest pile of reports from his lieutenants when the Inquisitor bursts in through his office door. "Cullen!"
He's halfway out of his seat before she's finished speaking his name: the last time he saw her look this distressed was at Adamant Fortress, and part of his mind is expecting her to say that Corypheus and his forces have been spotted on the horizon, even though it makes no sense that the Inquisitor would be the one to deliver this message. "What is it?"
"It's Josephine," the Inquisitor says, which in no way makes Cullen's alarm feel any less urgent than it did when he thought it might be Corypheus. "She's engaged."
"She's what?" Cullen says, brought up short.
The Inquisitor pushes the door shut behind her and sighs. "Engaged. To a Lord -- something fancy and Antivan. Otranto? Adorno Ciel Otranto."
"When did this happen?" Cullen asks, though he suspects it must be recent; given Josephine's willingness to be party to several relationships, it seems odd that she would keep this one a secret.
"She only just received the news," the Inquisitor says, looking miserable. "Apparently Josephine's parents have no idea about us, and they've been looking for a suitable match for Josephine. Lord Otranto is it. She received the letter today."
"I ... assume she does not love him," Cullen ventures.
"I don't think she's ever even met him." The Inquisitor twists her hands together. "Josephine says she cannot risk my reputation. She promised to deal with it. She's horrified at the idea of the Inquisitor -- of the Herald of Andraste -- being anyone's mistress. She said we can't carry on while she's betrothed."
Cullen understands that quite a few facets of this situation might be distressing, but listening, he realizes that most of all the Inquisitor hates the idea of being protected. She is quite intelligent enough to know that Josephine must be protecting herself as well as the Inquisitor; but then, the Inquisitor also prizes collaboration far above noble sacrifice. Cullen takes a breath. "What can we do?"
The Inquisitor looks up, momentarily startled. "I asked that too. She says the only
acceptable thing to do would be to challenge him to a duel for Josephine's favor. Then of course she said she didn't want to see me skewered on a sword for the sake of her honor."
"I do see her point," Cullen murmurs. "I imagine you have more experience with a staff than a blade." Then he finds himself adding, quite without intending to, "Shall I issue the challenge? I could duel for Josephine on your behalf."
The Inquisitor has begun to frown, but this jolts her back to surprise. "No, Cullen. I have to do it. If I'm not willing to duel him myself, I would rather have her settle the matter herself than ask for any proxy -- not even you."
"Of course," Cullen says, though his chest feels leaden. He wonders why. He finds no fault with her decision, and he believes she is more than competent enough to comport herself well in a duel whether or not she has the skill to win it. Perhaps he has confused the desire to serve her in the capacity of her commander with a desire to serve her in personal matters. But it feels like more than that. As Josephine's friend, he deeply dislikes the idea of her getting married off to some distant suitor, and he wants to do something to help prevent it. "I'll send one of my people to issue your challenge, then, if that is your command."
The Inquisitor's shoulders drop with relief. "It is," she says. "Thank you for not -- thank you."
"Of course." Cullen looks down at his desk. "I can draft the challenge now."
"Wait," the Inquisitor says. Cullen glances back up at her. She's frowning again, but thoughtfully now. "This is going to be ... very public, Cullen. The whole world will know about my romance with Josephine."
Cullen blinks. He hadn't even given it a moment of consideration. He does now, playing it out in his mind: the gossip, the way Josephine will have to manage the resultant fallout, the likelihood that the politically expedient thing to will be to pretend Cullen and the Inquisitor are not also involved. Then he sees the way the Inquisitor is watching him, and knows with absolute certainty that, even if they will have to be circumspect in the short term, there is no possibility that she'll pretend he is not just as important to her. He finds himself smiling. "You are going to Orlais," he says. "I hear they're very Orlaisian there. Go win our Ambassador's heart, Inquisitor."
How Josephine knew that the Inquisitor had accepted a duel in Val Royeaux for her honor, Cullen doesn't know. Probably the messenger Otranto sent was more than willing to talk with curious passers-by in the courtyard before delivering Otranto's reply to the Inquisitor. In any case, Josephine leaves mere hours after the Inquisitor, and though Cullen is grateful that she does not suspect his involvement, or at least have time to discuss it with him, he wonders how well this is going to turn out.
He doesn't have to wait long. Even before Josephine and the Inquisitor return, several of Leliana's people return from Val Royeaux, and Leliana evidently makes no effort to stop their reports from turning to gossip and spreading through Skyhold like wildfire. The apparent facts amid the gossip are these: Josephine interrupted Otranto and the Inquisitor mid-duel; the Inquisitor publically declared her love for Josephine; Lord Otranto, equally publically, conceded and broke off the engagement. Some of the people in Skyhold spreading this story look delighted or unsurprised; others, especially among the templars, soldiers, and runners, less so. From this quarter Cullen catches several sidelong concerned or considering looks in his direction. Cullen ignores them; he expected this.
Josephine and the Inquisitor return that night, in the wake of the gossip. Cullen takes a late dinner, opting not to invite more curious looks than he has to, and when he leaves the barracks he can see, away above the garden wall, the flicker of firelight from the windows of the Inquisitor's rooms.
It is Josephine who comes to Cullen's office the next morning. She raps smartly on his door and enters with her shoulders square and eyes sparkling, looking better than she has in weeks.
"I hear congratulations are in order," Cullen says, by way of greeting. "You are no longer engaged."
"Which presents its own new set of problems," Josephine replies, but she's smiling as she says it. "I must deal with my parents, there is the Montilyet relationship with House Otranto to consider, there is now the relationship with the Trevelyans to consider as well ... and that is the public aspect of things. There are also our private matters."
"I'm sure I didn't think of all of them," Cullen acknowledges, "but I did consider several ways this might fall out. The Inquisitor went to that duel with my full knowledge and approval."
"Yes, so she said," Josephine says. Her face turns serious. "And I -- I would like you to know, however this plays out in the days to come, I do not want you swept under the rug as a matter of convenience. I know the Inquisitor loves you, Commander, as well as she does me, and it would be most ungracious of me to ask either of you to pretend otherwise."
"I have a sense," Cullen says carefully, Josephine's words from weeks ago coming back to him, "that graciousness alone will not be sufficient for such an arrangement." He gives Josephine a lopsided smile. "I know you value our friendship, Josephine, but -- forgive me, this will be rather impertinent -- are you simply tolerating this arrangement for the sake of my happiness, or the Inquisitor's? I cannot imagine that will remain tolerable in the long term."
"I ... do not believe so, no," Josephine says, looking baffled.
Cullen takes a breath, trying to find the words to explain this. "I -- there is a difference, I think, between settling for something because you desire the happiness of those you care for, and of ... being happy for them." He runs a hand through his hair. "I'm sorry, I'm not sure how to express it. When the Inquisitor said she wanted to fight a duel for you, I -- I didn't even think of objecting. I want her to be happy with you. I want --" He gestures to Josephine. "You look better today than you have in weeks, and it delights me."
Josephine's usual polite listening expression has slowly turned to astonishment. "Cullen --"
"I'm sorry," Cullen says, with a short laugh. "That must sound like nonsense."
"But it doesn't," Josephine says, quite insistently. She begins pacing Cullen's office, gesturing to punctuate her words. "Ever since this started, I have asked myself, what am I doing? I always rather imagined a romance for myself like there are in the tales, and in the tales if someone comes between you and your love, they are the villain." She turns to Cullen. "I'm sorry to say it, but if the Inquisitor had asked me if she might pursue you after she was already involved with me, I think I would have said no. As it was, I -- I was intrigued enough that I had to try, and at every turn, you have conducted yourself wonderfully. You have been supportive, and kind, and never allowed any of this to distract you from our work. So ... yes, I find this arrangement more than tolerable." She lowers her voice. "In truth, I cannot imagine how it would feel if we were to be cut off from you. It would feel so much less."
"It would," Cullen breathes. He takes a moment to collect himself, and suspects that Josephine is doing the same. "But what is it you came here to tell me, Ambassador?"
"Ah," Josephine says, smoothing her skirts back into order. "Well. I thought, the Inquisitor has spent enough time being a messenger for us in these affairs, and it appears I am an earlier riser than she is."
"Are you." Cullen can hear the amusement in his voice; it may have something to do with the blush that is spreading across the Ambassador's cheeks.
"Yes," says Josephine. "One learns these things after consummating a relationship."
"One does," Cullen agrees. How he has come to this point, he doesn't quite know; what he does know is that he feels a rise of warmth and happiness for them, and cannot help smiling fondly at Josephine. It may also be what prompts him to add, "She is an earlier riser than I am, though."
"Commander!" Josephine looks both scandalized and delighted.
Cullen, briefly, wonders what it would be like to kiss her.
Instead he comes around the desk and offers her his arm. "Have you eaten yet, Ambassador?" At the shake of her head, he says, "Then come, I'll take you to breakfast."
The date of Empress Celene's ball looms near. The notables of the Inquisition set out, a larger entourage than usual, all in their finest, for Halamshiral.
The air in the Winter Palace floats with faint strains of music, the scent of a thousand mingling perfumes, and the murmurs of dozens of polite backstabbing schemes. Cullen's boots sink too far into the lush carpets. Each chandelier overhead probably costs more than what everyone in Honnleath might earn altogether in a year. The courtiers' faces are all inscrutable behind their masks. Leliana watches everything with her usual impassivity, but there is an animation to her that tells Cullen she's loving every minute of it. Josephine, from what Cullen saw before she disappeared to the other side of the ballroom, looked entirely at ease, conversing with everyone she meets as though they are her close personal friends.
Cullen absolutely hates this sort of thing.
He has tried to station himself strategically, out of the way and able to keep an eye out for any possible threats to the Empress, but he is surrounded nearly at once by a gaggle of young women, all of them clamoring for attention or asking for the favor of a dance, giggling and brushing their fingers across his epaulets and asking him invasive questions about his family and personal life. Cullen tries to stammer politely through it all, and equally politely get them to stop touching him, but he has very little success.
At one point, early in the interminable night, the Inquisitor sees Cullen's distress and comes over. Cullen's unwelcome admirers mercifully disperse for a moment, but when the first thing out of the Inquisitor's mouth is a smiling, "I don't suppose you'd save a dance for me," Cullen refuses without thinking. She looks surprised.
"No!" Cullen says. "I didn't mean to -- Maker's breath! I've been asked that question so many times I'm rejecting it automatically. I'm not one for dancing. The templars never attended balls." He hesitates. "Besides, things being as they are, I should think that if you were to ask anyone to save you a dance, it should be Josephine."
Something complicated happens on the Inquisitor's face. All she says is, "Yes, that probably is wisest," and their talk turns to quiet strategy. Cullen wants to ask her to stay, but that would be ridiculous. She moves on to continue her investigation for a traitor, and Cullen resigns himself to the crowd of eager courtiers who close back in around him.
It is, frankly, an absolute relief when the Inquisitor, with her usual swift competence, charms the whole ballroom, uncovers several intertwined conspiracies, and unmasks the Empress' cousin Duchess Florianne as Celene's would-be assassin. But the Orlaisian Court, it seems, gets over shock and scandal very quickly: scarcely ten minutes after Florianne is dealt with, the waltz music has begun again, and the courtiers are toasting the Inquisitor's health, looking supremely excited and unconcerned about the whole affair.
No longer compelled to stay at his post and endure the useless small talk of the Court, Cullen strolls the perimeter of the ballroom. It is mere chance that he sees the Inquisitor and Josephine out on a balcony, away from the press of the crowd. They are dancing together, a slow waltz, fireflies winking in the dark above their heads. Cullen pauses in the doorway and watches them, a sort of complicated joy tangling up in his chest. It touches him that they aren't making a display of this moment, even when they could.
The song ends, and they come to a stop, beaming at one another. The Inquisitor leans forward, kissing Josephine slow and tender; Josephine raises a foot, pointing her toe to the sky, and Cullen wonders with great fondness whether this is an affectation or something Josephine doesn't even know she is doing.
He realizes he was staring only when they break the kiss and both notice him in the doorway. Cullen self-consciously rubs the back of his neck, but both of them keep smiling at him, and the Inquisitor beckons him out onto the balcony.
"I'm not cutting in?" Cullen asks.
"No, not at all," Josephine says.
"Then ..." Cullen clears his throat and turns to the Inquisitor. "I may never have another chance like this, so I must ask. May I have this dance, my lady?"
"Of course," she says, taking his hand. The next song has already begun; its strains come drifting out to the balcony, and the two of them step into the rhythm of it together. "I thought you didn't dance," the Inquisitor adds.
"For you," Cullen murmurs, "I'll try."
He is aware that Josephine has stepped to the side of the balcony but has not left; he glimpses her in small moments as he turns with the Inquisitor. She is leaning back against a balustrade, watching them with a smile. Somehow, rather than making Cullen feel self-conscious, it encourages him, his steps surer, his heartbeat quick in his throat though the dance is slow. The Inquisitor's gaze remains locked on his, her face tired but her eyes shining.
At the close of the song, Cullen bows over her hand, kissing it. When he straightens, Josephine is at his shoulder.
"I hear you do not dance," she says, "but if I may ask for one, Commander?"
Cullen stares at her. True, the three of them are alone and relatively unobserved on this balcony. But this is still Halamshiral, and they are still representatives of the Inquisition, and Josephine's smile says she knows all this and is asking deliberately.
"I -- yes, of course," Cullen says. He takes her hand. He settles the other at her waist. He has become somewhat used to touching the Inquisitor's body, but not Josephine's, and he is afraid he's about to make a fool of himself and step on her toes. But the next song begins, and Josephine moves into the dance, leading Cullen so deftly that it nearly feels as though he's the one steering them. Of course Josephine has that skill on the dance floor as well as in politics.
He does still tread upon her toes once or twice. "I apologize," Cullen says, wincing, the first time this happens.
"Quite all right," Josephine says, pulling herself away for a spin and then back again against Cullen. "We are still new to one another."
Some absurd fizzing alchemy is taking place in Cullen. "True enough," he manages.
He bows over Josephine's hand at the close of this dance, too. Then he has to stand there for a moment, willing himself not to tremble. The Inquisitor shoots him a fond look and links her arm with Josephine's; they return to the ballroom together, leaving Cullen a space in the cool darkness in which to catch his breath. It was only a dance, Cullen reminds himself.
It doesn't feel as though it was only anything. There is a distinct possibility that, whether he intended to or not, he has in fact become entangled with Ambassador Montilyet.
Cullen reenters the ballroom in a state of distraction, and is therefore unprepared to be almost immediately waylaid by one of the young ladies from earlier. He remembers her elaborate swan mask. He also remembers that she was one of the more courteous and less handsy of his admirers. "Commander!" she says, stepping into his path but mercifully not taking his arm. "I couldn't help but notice --" She allows the sentence to hang, but Cullen, apart from being caught unawares, has no idea where she's going with this, and only looks at her politely until she tires of waiting. "I wasn't aware the notables of the Inquisition were engaged in a ménage à trois!"
"A what?" Cullen says, baffled.
"Ménage à trois," the lady repeats helpfully. "The household of three, Commander. You, Ambassador Montilyet, and Inquisitor Trevelyan! How delicious!"
"Ah," Cullen says. She is speaking of this not as though it is a scandal, but merely an interesting fact. Terribly Orlaisian.
"Well," the lady continues, "how foolish of us all, carrying on like that. You must have your hands quite full already, with two such exciting lovers! Next time, Commander, you really must mention that at once and save us all that effort."
"I -- I shall endeavor to," Cullen says, and bows his way out of the conversation.
The rest of the night is mercifully short, but from the time of his encounter with the courtier until the Inquisition departs, Cullen is not bothered by a single young lady, and when he catches members of the Court looking at him, he fancies the looks are less predatory than approving now.
In celebration for successfully saving the Orlaisian Empire, Varric invites everyone to a game of Wicked Grace.
"I -- I should really," Cullen says, at a loss to come up with a believable excuse to get out of it, when Varric shows up at his door looking cheerfully threatening. He has Dorian in tow.
"Should really get more work done?" Dorian suggests. "Varric is absolutely right, Commander, we deserve a chance to celebrate. Or," he adds, a wicked gleam in his eye, "are you afraid I'll destroy you even more thoroughly than I do at chess?"
"All right," Cullen says, glaring at Dorian and feeling immensely pleased that Dorian cares enough for his company to make the effort to goad him, "but be prepared to be entirely shamed."
This is how Cullen comes to be at a long table in the Herald's Rest, with Josephine dealing out the cards for Wicked Grace. Evidently even Varric and Dorian's combined powers of persuasion weren't enough to coax Leliana, Vivienne, or Solas to join, but everyone else in the Inquisitor's inner circle is seated at the table, laughing and joking and, in Cassandra's case, trying to remember the points system for the cards. (The peculiar elf Sera is only partially present; Cullen nearly stepped on her when he reached the table, as she is currently under it, wrapped around a tankard of mead and snoring gently.) Cullen doesn't know if they've ever all gathered like this before, especially in such un-dire circumstances.
Across the table from him, the Inquisitor looks relaxed and happy. Cullen silently blesses Varric for thinking of this.
They play cards. Cullen has never been very good at Wicked Grace, but to his great satisfaction, Dorian also has a readable face, and over the course of the evening Cullen never bets incorrectly against him. Josephine, unsurprisingly, keeps the same expression of cheerful enjoyment on her face no matter her hand: that is where Cullen loses his coin.
This night feels very much like a number of nights drinking and talking with Josephine, though the company here is larger and more eclectic. Cullen tells his favorite story from his time in the Fereldan Circle, of the recruit who received a standing ovation from every mage and templar in the dining hall after he appeared in nothing but his knickers. This story goes over so well with the table that the Inquisitor jumps in with one of her own. "It was the night of my Harrowing," she begins, and Cullen's heart is gripped for a moment with strange fear. But the story is lighthearted, something she remembers with great fondness, and Cullen finally, fully understands why the Inquisitor was always so friendly with him: the authorities at the Ostwick Circle treated her like a person.
"I think," the Inquisitor announces, at the close of her story, "we need another round of drinks."
"I'll get them," Cullen says at once, rising. "Don't start without me!"
On his way to the bar he thinks he sees the Iron Bull giving him a thoughtful look, but frankly he has no idea what that means. He helps the dwarven bartender carry the new round of drinks back to the table, and settles in to continue proving that he's better at Wicked Grace than Dorian, and quite probably worse than Josephine.
Make that definitely worse than Josephine, Cullen amends, when several hands later she announces with great smugness, "And the dealer takes everything! I win again."
Cullen is entirely out of the small allowance of coins he brought to the table. Nearly everyone else is too; most of them have set their cards down in surrender. But Cullen sees the pleased grin on Josephine's face, an expression he has long since memorized and loves to see; he feels warm with mead and affection. "Deal again," he says, leaning forward and locking eyes with Josephine. His voice drops. "I've figured out your tells, Lady Ambassador."
"Commander!" Josephine returns, mirroring his movement. Her eyes are sparkling; her voice curls into flirtatiousness. "Everyone knows a lady has no tells."
"Then let's see if your good fortune lasts one more hand," Cullen says.
"Do you have any more money?" Varric wants to know.
"I'm going to win it all back," Cullen tells him, eyes still on Josephine's.
He does not.
"If you have nothing else to offer," Josephine says, looking thoughtfully between her spread of four knights, Cullen's pathetic two songs, knight, and angel, and the conspicuously coin-free space in front of Cullen, "I suppose your armor will do."
Cullen grumbles, for show rather than out of ill spirit, and begins unbuckling his breastplate. This spectacular loss is more than worth it for how happy Josephine looked while trouncing him.
"And your clothing," Josephine adds, still in an entirely reasonable tone of voice. "Including your underthings."
Cullen jerks upright, staring at her. Josephine is grinning at him, looking as though she means it. Head full of the white noise of shock, Cullen glances around the table. The Inquisitor is doing her best to look sympathetic, but is clearly holding back laughter. Cassandra gives Cullen a look that says better you than me. Dorian is leaning forward, undisguised mirth in his face. Varric is doing a much better job than the Inquisitor of looking sympathetic. Blackwall shrugs one shoulder, a sort of go on, get it over with. The Iron Bull is watching the whole thing like he's at a tournament. Cole looks nonplussed. Cullen's gaze swings back to Josephine, who is waiting with implacable patient amusement for Cullen to do as he's told. Cullen goes hot, and cold, and hot again. He knows he could refuse. He doesn't.
With a blush spreading through his whole damned body, Cullen strips. At least half the table politely looks away, though Cullen hardly notices with Josephine's amused gaze upon him the entire time. He endeavors to look put-upon, but whether he manages to look anything at all, he has no idea; it's all he can do to keep his hands from shaking. He sits back down, stark bloody naked.
"I tried to warn you, Curly," Varric says.
"Never bet against an Antivan, Commander," Josephine tells him. Cullen has no notion of what expression is on his face, nor what expression should be on it. His discomfort isn't so much due to her cheerful delight at humiliating him, or even at his own nakedness, so much as the fact that he's still enjoying it.
"I'm leaving," Cassandra announces. "I don't want to witness our commander's walk of shame back to the barracks."
"Well, I do," Dorian smirks.
"It comes off!" Cole breathes. "I didn't know it came off!"
"Come on, kid," Varric tells him, standing. "I'll explain some things to you about clothes."
Cullen stays pointedly in his seat while various of the others get to their feet and file out. Dorian winks hugely at Cullen as he goes, and Cullen returns him an amiably rude gesture. The Iron Bull gives Cullen another of those thoughtful looks, but leaves with Dorian. Finally the only ones left at the table are Josephine and the Inquisitor.
"Josephine, really," the Inquisitor says, looking halfway between shocked and entertained. She gets to her feet. "Cullen, would you like a cloak?"
"I'd rather like my clothes," Cullen returns, because it seems like the thing to say.
"Mm, no, I think you get those back in the morning," Josephine says. She looks Cullen over and her expression softens. "Are you all right?"
"Yes," Cullen says without hesitation. Josephine is still watching him with that unexpectedly soft look, and Cullen feels compelled to explain, "This is far from the most humiliating thing that has happened in my life, Ambassador. I believe I can survive it, even if I have to run naked to the barracks."
"Be that as it may," Josephine says, "I'm afraid I got a little carried away. I can be rather competitive." She cuts the deck of cards and taps them against the table, straightening them, before setting the deck aside. "But this was --"
"Fine," Cullen cuts in. Now that everyone else has left the table, he feels at once more relaxed and more on edge. He is no longer the center of attention for a whole group of people, some of whom he knows nearly not at all. Instead he is alone in a room with the woman he loves and -- and Josephine, who stripped him naked with cool competence and words alone, and to whom he has lately found himself very attracted. In fact, his only mercy now is that his sense of propriety is just enough to overcome his rising arousal in the face of Josephine and the Inquisitor's combined attention.
Cullen licks his suddenly dry lips. "It was fine," he repeats, his voice rougher. "And if it was in the spirit of competition, I might take my leave for the night --"
"Cullen," the Inquisitor interrupts softly. She looks between them. "Josephine ..."
Josephine hesitates. Then she says, very carefully, "You could take your leave for the night, Commander. Or you could come with us."
Josephine carries Cullen's armor back to the barracks, making no secret of her trophies. The Inquisitor gathers Cullen's clothing in a bundle for the morning while Cullen wraps himself in the offered cloak, and the two of them make their more subtle way to the Inquisitor's quarters, cutting through the night-silent gardens to keep from attracting too much attention. Cullen finds himself focusing on the oddest things: how the cool dewy grass feels between his toes; how his feet warm when they climb the well-worn stairs to the Inquisitor's rooms; the gentle weight of her hand on his shoulder through the cloak, steering him, for which Cullen is grateful -- he's been this way dozens of times before, but he's feeling oddly adrift from everything but this moment.
In the Inquisitor's rooms, the fire is already stoked, and burning merrily. The Inquisitor settles Cullen on the couch before the hearth, and sits down next to him, her hand still pressed warm to his back between his shoulder blades. Cullen stares into the fire until he senses the Inquisitor's gaze on him.
She has a faint smile about her lips and concern in her eyes. "Are you all right?"
"Why do you both keep asking me that?" Cullen says. "I'm a grown man, Inquisitor. I assure you, if I did not want to be here I would already be in the barracks."
"I know. But this is ... new, for all of us." She hesitates. "You're not doing this because you think it's what I want?"
"No!" Cullen says. "I do hope it is what you want, but I -- that is, Josephine is very lovely, and I ... would like this. Very much. With you both."
The Inquisitor's smile spreads across her face like sunrise. "So would I," she says quietly.
"Apparently in Orlais they call this the house of three," Cullen offers. "Or something like. A very helpful lady at Halamshiral informed me." The Inquisitor giggles, and Cullen smiles lopsidedly, then shivers. "Isn't our ambassador usually more punctual? I fear I'm beginning to lose the mood."
"The mood?" the Inquisitor repeats, her eyebrows going up. "Cullen, don't tell me your preferred mood is naked and humiliated." A blush begins rising to Cullen's face again, and some of the teasing fades from her expression. "Oh."
Cullen clears his throat. "Believe me," he says, "I wasn't expecting it either." Simply admitting his enjoyment of the evening so far makes the flush to his face hotter, which is its own sort of pleasure, and in turn flusters him, and -- Maker, this is confusing. He laughs. "Maker's breath."
She laughs too, settling in against his side. But a moment later they hear the door further down the stairs open and close. The Inquisitor straightens. "Stay here," she tells Cullen, pressing a quick kiss to his forehead, and rises from the couch.
Cullen stays. He doesn't turn to watch her, but instead stares into the fire again, attempting to collect himself. The trick is an old one, taught by the knights during his training: when your mind is agitated, steady your breathing, gaze into the nearest flame, and recite a portion of the Chant of Light. They were always fond of the Canticle of Threnodies -- appropriate, given the circumstances of the Inquisition, but far from the place Cullen's mind is now. Instead he thinks of the beginning of Exaltations, a fragment remade for this moment: Gladly do I accept the gift invaluable / Of your glory! Let me be the vessel / Which bears the Light of your promise. The flames dance in the hearth, and Cullen finds himself settled: still over-warm and eager and nervous, but at peace with these.
Josephine and the Inquisitor are talking quietly together in the doorway. Cullen cannot make out the words, but the Inquisitor's voice rises in the cadence of inquiry, and Josephine's answer slides through tones of hesitation into certainty. Drawing the cloak closer about himself, Cullen awaits them in perfect calm.
After a moment Josephine approaches, in a rustle of skirts. Cullen looks up at her. Her face glows in the firelight, and she gives him a smile, fond and reassuring, which Cullen returns easily. "Hello," Josephine says; it's so ordinary that Cullen nearly laughs. "I ... believe we should discuss how to go about this together."
Cullen hears the invitation in her voice, but he balks at the idea of sitting with the two of them on this couch, calmly discussing how to go about this: he finds he was being entirely accurate with the Inquisitor about his desired mood. "I appreciate the offer, my lady," Cullen says, low, "but you were doing perfectly well already."
"Oh!" Josephine says. "Oh. Well then." She glances at the Inquisitor. Cullen keeps his eyes on Josephine's face, so he only sees her half of their silent exchange: surprise, amusement, a knowing smile. She turns back to Cullen. "If that is the case ..." Her voice steadies, her next words spoken with the same confidence she had at the Wicked Grace table. "Kneel before the fire, Commander."
A lifetime of templar training allows Cullen to move from the couch to his knees without faltering, the cloak still gathered around his shoulders sliding down with him. Cullen has knelt in a dozen different chantries all over Thedas, stone beneath his plated knees, and the soft carpet under him is by far the most comfortable surface he has knelt upon. Long habit also bows his head. Briefly, he feels blasphemous -- but no more than he did with that phrase of Exaltations in his head, transforming praise for Andraste into praise for this moment. Cullen does not think she would mind. He settles his hands beneath the cloak upon his thighs and looks up again at Josephine.
"That's a start," Josephine says, approving, a little breathless. Cullen feels unreasonably pleased. Josephine must sense this: her eyebrows go up, and she begins walking around him in a wide arc, looking considering. "You know, Commander, I am surprised at you. I would not have thought you were the sort of man who would actually take off all his clothes simply because he lost at cards."
"It seemed like the honorable thing to do," Cullen says. His voice is still pitched low, respectful, though he hadn't particularly planned on that. It might be his imagination, but he fancies he sees Josephine's eyes darken; the pleased amusement on her face is plain.
"But it was not very honorable of me to ask it of you," she says. "Now I have you here, and I assume there are a number of things you would do because I asked them of you." Cullen can hear the hint of laughter in her voice, humor filling in the gaps of her uncertainty at saying these things. "Is that not so?"
"It is," Cullen says. This feels, oddly enough, like dancing in the Winter Palace, both of them getting used to this new space together, except that this time Cullen has a better intuitive sense of the steps. "What would you ask of me?"
"For a start," Josephine says, without missing a beat, "you'll take off that cloak so that we can look at you properly."
Cullen's breath catches in his throat. Of course Josephine has him here to set him on display, but kneeling feels so ordinary that he lost the sense of it; now it comes flooding back. He straightens, slowly, so that the drape of the cloak loses its fight with gravity and slithers from his shoulders to pool behind him. He concentrates on keeping his hands relaxed on his thighs rather than curling them into nervous fists. He finds himself staring into the fire again, though this time his mind is blank of holy verses. He can feel Josephine's eyes on him, and the Inquisitor's, and just as in the Herald's Rest, their focus is like heat on his skin. This time he has no table to hide behind, nor sense of propriety to hide behind either. It is terrifying, and wonderful, and Cullen feels abruptly, dizzyingly aroused.
"Very good," Josephine murmurs. She probably means it in reference to how Cullen looks like this, but the words hit him like a tangible force, holding him fast to the spot. He knows, with quiet certainty, that he will do exactly what they ask of him, and love every moment of it.
"May I?" he hears the Inquisitor ask Josephine behind him. She pads up next to him, a warm familiar presence standing just behind his left shoulder. "Watch this," she says, with laughter in her voice, and runs a hand through Cullen's hair. It feels as good as it ever does when they're intimate, and Cullen tilts his head involuntarily to follow the movement. Then the Inquisitor makes a fist, yanking hard on the handful of hair, and at the lovely flare of pain Cullen's knees nearly give out, his cock jumping. His face flames.
"Quite fascinating," Josephine says. "If I may try it too?" Her hands tangle with the Inquisitor's in Cullen's hair. She tugs more gently, curious and experimental; Cullen sways, shaky. "Don't fall over, Commander," she adds, soft. "We are not nearly done with you."
"Yes, my lady," Cullen whispers.
For a moment longer Josephine's hands stay entwined with the Inquisitor's, petting and pulling at Cullen's hair until it must be in utter disarray -- Cullen feels in utter disarray, quiet and hazy with lust -- before Josephine sinks to her knees in front of Cullen, purple and gold silks settling down around her. Her hands are still in his hair, bracketing his face now. "Cullen," she says, and waits until he has fully focused on her face. She smiles, fond and tender. "I believe we have been doing this backwards," she says, and kisses him.
The Inquisitor's kisses are long and lingering, slow and savoring when they are deep, her lips soft. Josephine, at least in this moment, kisses as though she has an exciting secret to share, and urgently, not even bothering with a slide of lips before her mouth has opened Cullen's. Cullen moans shamelessly, returning the kiss as best he can without any equilibrium, and behind him the Inquisitor makes a soft noise of delight. He is bracketed by them, the Inquisitor a warmth at his back with her fingernails scratching at his scalp, Josephine drawing closer as she kisses him, her clothed front pressed to his bare chest.
She is kissing him, Cullen notices, as though she has been wanting to do so for ages. Of course he's known, from the subtleties of their interactions, that Josephine desires him; this moment is not a shock. But he recognizes in her something he is also feeling, the culmination of an attraction that goes back longer than he realized, small fondnesses stemming from the moment they decided upon friendship. He wants her as much as he wants the Inquisitor, and that -- he had not thought to look for that. To have found something like this twice over seems improbable, absurd.
And she is not a mage, Cullen thinks, a drifting fragment of thought: simply a fact, unimportant except for the way, finally, it banishes the last small dark fear that Cullen has wanted the Inquisitor for what rather than who she is.
Josephine ends the kiss in a linger of lips still for a moment in alignment. Then she draws back enough to smile at Cullen, her eyes bright with joy. "That was -- I must say, I am very glad our Lady Trevelyan was still willing to kiss me when she had this to compare to."
"I might say the same," Cullen says. His voice sounds rather less dazed than he feels.
"As you can see," the Inquisitor puts in teasingly, "I have very good taste."
"So you do," Josephine agrees. Her hand cups Cullen's jaw thoughtfully. "What shall we do with him?"
"It's your show tonight, Josephine," the Inquisitor says. "And your time to get to know one another." She hesitates. "I do have some suggestions."
Josephine smiles up at her. "If your suggestions will keep our commander this biddable, my love, I'm all ears."
Another wave of warmth rolls through Cullen. Biddable. He does not protest. The Inquisitor laughs, letting go of Cullen's hair. She rests a hand briefly on his shoulder. "Stay like that, Cullen," she says softly. "You can watch if you like." Cullen shudders, a small involuntary shiver in response, which the Inquisitor seems to take as acknowledgment. She releases her hold on Cullen's shoulder and moves past him, offering Josephine a hand.
For her part, Josephine's eyebrows have gone up, and she takes the Inquisitor's hand curiously, letting her pull Josephine to her feet. The Inquisitor presses a kiss to Josephine's lips and begins, with the careful concentration of one who has recently learned a new skill, to undress Josephine: her belt corsetry unbuckled, the sash about her waist unknotted, the folds of her purple outer garment pushed back from her breasts and off her shoulders.
As the Inquisitor works, she speaks. "He loves being told what to do," she says, "and he loves being told when he's done it well. He wants to worship you; let him. I don't think it's pain he likes, exactly, but he needs something physical to center him. And," her voice curls into a smile, "we have just discovered he quite enjoys being naked and humiliated." The Inquisitor finally glances over at Cullen. "Yes, look, he's desperate again."
Indeed, throughout the Inquisitor's precise recitation Cullen felt his flush grow more acute, and despite his best efforts his hands are clenched into fists on his thighs to keep from doing something truly absurd like touch himself -- or perhaps the Inquisitor is entirely right, and Cullen is unconsciously making a show of stopping himself so that one of them will give him permission. He feels hot and stripped-down, and he can't seem to stop trembling, full-bodied, quite another sensation from lyrium shakes; this is clean arousal, and it overwhelms him.
"So I see," Josephine says, her eyes sweeping Cullen appreciatively. "I believe I can work with that."
She and the Inquisitor make quick work of the rest of her clothes -- Josephine looks absolutely beautiful, naked in the firelight, and Cullen stares unapologetically -- before the Inquisitor solicitously drapes Cullen's discarded cloak over Josephine's shoulders. Josephine settles on the couch with the regalness of a queen, opens her legs, and says, "Come here, Cullen."
This is another thing Cullen has not done before, but he knows how to kneel and he knows how to worship what he loves. He settles his hands on Josephine's thighs and bows his head, setting his mouth to her. Almost at once she gasps encouragingly, her fingers combing back into his hair, her hips lifting to allow him better access. The world narrows to the smell and taste of her, new and lovely. Cullen is only tentative until he discovers the rhythm she likes; then he licks her eagerly, deeper, while Josephine makes soft delighted sounds with her knees pressed to Cullen's shoulders and her hands twisting in his hair. He could live here, Cullen thinks dreamily, he could spend days on his knees with his jaw beginning to ache and Josephine rocking against him.
She comes far too soon. Cullen moans when he feels it, half delight and half disappointment, and tries to follow when Josephine gives a small cry and pulls back. He blinks up at her in confusion. She grins shakily. "A -- a little oversensitive," she says, and adds at once, "but that was wonderful." She looks like she means it: her cheeks are flushed, her usually neat hair falling from its twist, her smile utterly infectious.
Cullen rests his head on her thigh. "Thank you," he murmurs.
Josephine laughs, reaching down to wipe some of the slickness from his chin. "You should do it again sometime." She glances over towards the fire. "You might even do it now."
"No," the Inquisitor says, coming into Cullen's field of vision. She has divested herself of her clothing as well, and is breathing rather quickly. "Give the poor man some relief. I have an idea."
Cullen rather wants to protest he does not need any relief -- he is discovering that reaching his own orgasm feels almost immaterial to what actually gives him pleasure in these encounters -- but his cock is insistently hard, and the Inquisitor has a look of such heated interest on her face as she regards him that his insides are going molten. For this, he gets shakily to his feet when she beckons him, Josephine following with some shakiness of her own; the Inquisitor brings them both to her bed.
"Josephine, sit in the pillows -- good, and Cullen --" She pushes him gently onto the bed, sprawled on his back with his head beneath Josephine's crossed legs. "Now take his wrists," she tells Josephine, "like I said, it doesn't have to be pain, just something to anchor him --"
Josephine does so, her hands closing warm over Cullen's wrists and pressing them to the mattress. To his own surprise, Cullen relaxes utterly. Josephine makes a quiet intrigued noise. The Inquisitor simply grins, climbing onto the bed, and sinks down around Cullen's cock as though she belongs there. Josephine makes a strangled noise of appreciation, though Cullen barely hears it, his head thrown back, his arms jerking for a moment against Josephine's grip. But he is held fast, stilled, and it's perfect. The Inquisitor rolls her hips, moaning quietly: making a show of herself and of him, for Josephine, and that is so overwhelming that Cullen gasps for breath, his hips rising to meet hers helplessly.
"Oh love, this is --" Josephine whispers. Her hands are still around Cullen's wrists, but she leans forward, the sweep of her torso over Cullen's head, to kiss the Inquisitor. The kiss is open-mouthed, hungry, the Inquisitor moaning, her movements atop Cullen growing faster: he feels like an object for her pleasure, the thought flashfire-hot.
Something in Cullen's own movements must change when he thinks this, because the Inquisitor disengages from Josephine's mouth to murmur against her lips, "Oh, he loves this."
"We both do," Josephine returns. During her kiss with the Inquisitor her hair has come unpinned entirely, and falls in soft dark waves around her shoulders. Even from Cullen's vantage point, upside-down, she looks beautiful. She looks down at Cullen. "All right?"
"Better than," Cullen gasps. "The Inquisitor is always right, you know."
They both laugh at this, Josephine fond and the Inquisitor delighted. She leans down to give Cullen a quick kiss, then resumes moving, faster now, gasping; it is all Cullen can do to raise his hips in the best rhythm he can match until she comes, shaking, her face ecstatic.
Cullen wants to see Josephine's face the next time, too.
The Inquisitor rolls off him, collapsing against Cullen's side. "Next time," she mumbles against his shoulder, unconsciously echoing Cullen's thought, "we should try this with me on your face and Josephine on your cock."
"Inquisitor!" Josephine says, sounding scandalized and delighted. She is a woman after Cullen's own heart, capable of performing obscene acts but blushing when they are talked about. She is still holding Cullen's wrists. Cullen laughs softly, with pure happiness. He imagines Josephine riding him while the Inquisitor lowers herself over his mouth and feels dizzy with want.
"Next time," the Inquisitor repeats. She runs a hand over Cullen's side, along his ribs, down his belly. She wraps it gently around his cock. Cullen sighs and thrusts up onto her loose grip, teasing and perfect. He could float in this haze of arousal for hours. The Inquisitor moves her hand unhurriedly and says, her words treading carefully, "You don't enjoy coming very much, do you, Cullen?"
"It feels --" Cullen hesitates. "It feels like allowing myself something dangerous." Like lyrium, he does not say, because there is no need to. "The rest of it, I ... can back away from, if I need to. That is out of my control."
There is quiet in the room for a few moments, except for the crackle of the fire in the hearth. Josephine rubs soothing absent circles against Cullen's wrists with her thumbs. "That is why it is good to have something to center you?" she ventures.
"I suppose?" Cullen says, but the Inquisitor is shaking her head.
"I think I've been going about it wrong," she says. She is still stroking Cullen softly, a steady build of pleasure less at odds with the conversation than parallel to it. "I thought you might need to be distracted -- that you needed to get out of your head and into your body enough to stop holding yourself back. But you might need the opposite."
"Oh?" Cullen asks. It comes out breathlessly. Both the Inquisitor's hand and the considering look on her face are making him feel dizzy again, his arousal more insistent.
The Inquisitor smiles, the fond tender smile Cullen cherishes. "You've been so good for me and Josephine," she murmurs. "Now you're going to do one more thing for me, Cullen, all right?" She waits, expectant, until Cullen nods. He almost knows what she's going to do, the heat building inside him equal anticipation and fear. The Inquisitor reaches out with her free hand and runs gentle fingers down Cullen's cheek. "You're going to come now."
He does. The Inquisitor's hands and Josephine's are both on him; he is held suspended between them while he shakes through it, pleasure wrung from him that feels like nothing but itself.
In the aftermath he lays there half-insensible, shocked and dazed and happy. Josephine and the Inquisitor both speak softly to him, voices comforting but words nearly meaningless. He thinks he assures them he is well. He does his best to help when they rearrange him, the three of them more or less managing to fit on the bed, all of them curled together. The Inquisitor and Josephine stay awake for some time, talking, but Cullen drifts into sleep.
He dreams about Uldred -- it is always Uldred -- but there is no nightmare immediacy to it. Cullen is inside the memory, inside his column of light while Uldred holds up a phial of lyrium, the first Cullen has seen in days, while Uldred says Pledge yourself to me, boy, and you can have this again; but it feels like a memory this time. It feels ten years distant. Cullen knows what he is, and what he did: he did not break.
He still wakes shaking, because those memories will always be poisoned with dread. But he knows where he is: early morning light is filtering in through the mullioned windows, the cold white of mountain dawn. For once he is the first awake. The Inquisitor and Josephine are lying next to him in a warm cocoon of bedding; Josephine is snoring faintly. Cullen smiles to himself and rises.
From his bundle of clothing he finds his trousers and shirt. He pulls them on, and his boots to follow. These are enough that he can stand comfortably on the Inquisitor's balcony and watch the sunrise.
Cullen's mind is quiet. The world feels new. Soon he will have to return to the barracks, don his armor, become Commander Cullen again, begin the task of plotting their next move. For this moment, he is the sort of man who will lose all his clothes in a game of cards with his friends, and the sort of man who will turn that into his own willing seduction. This moment, he understands, is how he will be able to keep going against insurmountable odds when he must be Commander Cullen again. He watches the sun sear above the craggy horizon, and he feels at peace.
"May I join you?" Josephine asks behind him.
"Of course," Cullen says, turning. She is standing in the doorway dressed only, artfully, in a wrapped bed sheet, her hair still falling in soft waves about her shoulders. She sees the way Cullen is looking at her and blushes, smiling as she steps out onto the balcony. "Are you warm enough?" Cullen adds.
"For now, thank you," Josephine replies. But she shivers as she comes up next to him, and Cullen puts an arm around her, drawing her close. Josephine sighs and leans her head against his shoulder.
They stand in contented silence, watching light spread across the mountain peaks. It feels so ordinary: they have watched sunsets and sunrises in each other's quiet company so often already. It occurs to Cullen that there is something that still needs to be said. "Josephine," he begins. She tilts her head to look at him. "I love you," Cullen says.
"Ah," Josephine says. He can hear the smile in it. "I did notice that." She leans closer against him. "I love you too."
"Good," Cullen breathes. A thought comes to him. He laughs. "After all this," he says, "I believe I owe Sister Leliana an apology. We have all become quite entangled, after all."