It occurs to Dorian only one solid month after they have ensconced themselves in Minrathous that living in a land of blood mages might be bad for Cullen.
It isn't that Dorian hasn't thought of the danger. Quite the opposite. It's all he's thought about -- that Cullen will be a target because of Dorian's family and connections and inclinations and political aspirations. That Cullen will be a target because of his own connections to the Inquisition, and because he is a southern Templar ("former" is simply a meaningless term, for both Cullen and all Tevinter), and because he is a man without magic in a land where such people will always be second-class citizens at best. Dorian has thought deeply about this danger. He has built all his strategies around it. It's just that this was never the only danger he should have feared.
The problem begins to manifest on a hot, humid night, like so many nights in the Minrathous summer. Dorian lies naked in his bed, sprawled within elegantly-draped mosquito nets and beneath a ceiling fan which is cranked by an elaborate mechanism on the roof. The mechanism somehow turns the sun's heat into steam, which spins a small turbine, and then... well, really, Dorian has no clue how it works. It cost dear, though, and is an oddity in a city where most sensible Altus would have simply purchased a slave to fan them all night. He's heard that the strange mechanism merits some envious gossip in the soporati artificers' salons, and some sniping from wealthy laetan families; how nice to be talked about. Dorian is glad that the Inquisition has settled enough of a salary on him that he can afford to maintain his principles and be stylish in the process. In any case --
Cullen is Dorian's Primus: a title Dorian jokingly proposed and which Cullen has jealously claimed for himself. He likes the title's tacit declaration that he is first in Dorian's affections -- Dorian's first, Dorian's only, Dorian's. He likes better that Dorian has put him in charge of the house's security, since years of experience as a mage prison warden make him eminently qualified for the task. To that end, the house's servants and guards now run like a well-oiled machine, which allows Cullen to spend his nights personally seeing that Dorian's safety and good health are properly attended-to. The servants and guards all know what this means, because Cullen wants them to know. He has taught the staff to treat their sexual activity no differently to any other casual household activity; if they would come in and clean while Cullen is reading the paper, then they should come in and clean while Cullen is reading the paper and fucking Dorian over his desk. If they would offer him tea while Cullen is writing letters, then they should offer him tea while Dorian is in his lap, writhing and whimpering with Cullen's hand working his cock. Cullen has carried on entire meetings -- brief ones, granted -- while in Dorian's bed, in the middle of plowing Dorian into the pillows. The last time, he asked for a few breaths' pause while he shuddered and uttered a little grunt of release, then resumed -- both the prior conversation about patrol schedules, and fucking Dorian, the latter to Dorian's great relief since he had not yet spent himself.
Now it's midnight, and Cullen is walking toward Dorian's bed. It's been a long day. Dorian has spent the latter half of it thinking about Cullen, craving him, wishing Cullen was in him or on him or both. Cullen is an addiction for him, like lyrium. Worse, since lyrium doesn't leave bruises. Lyrium doesn't savage him in the night and then kiss him in the morning, whispering, "I would be tender with you if I could."
Lyrium is not loosening the laces of its shirt now, gazing at him with an intensity that would make lesser men quail in fear, and which Dorian simply accepts as his due. He is a terrible person too, isn't he? A shame upon his family, to the Altus class, to all Tevinter. And even if he has acquitted himself somewhat by helping to kill Corypheus and making Tevinter an ally of the world's newest superpower... so much of him welcomes Cullen's brutality. Craves it. It is no less, and no more, than he deserves.
But Cullen is beautiful, and there is love underlying his cruelty, which is the real rub of the matter. Dorian does not deserve the love. He has not figured out, yet, how to make Cullen understand this.
"What a beautiful mage you are," Cullen says, while gazing at Dorian with his eyes full of the Void. "If you had been the one to summon the demons at Kinloch, I would have hesitated to kill you."
So much love.
Dorian remains where he is, and how he is: naked, spread-eagled, available. "I would never have summoned demons." He will die before he ever touches blood magic. Cullen knows this, and Dorian knows that's the only reason Cullen has ever touched him... and hasn't killed him.
"Yes." Cullen pulls the shirt off to bare a torso that puts fine sculpture to shame. "Spread your legs. And none of your caterwauling tonight. I'm in no mood for it."
Cullen is in a cruel mood indeed, Dorian discovers when he obeys and Cullen ravages him with his mouth. It is a rare treat, Cullen suckling and swallowing, but also a threat, because Cullen does not pretend that he has no teeth. Sometimes, after he has half-swallowed Dorian into the Void, he pulls back with nothing but teeth, dragging them slow and pent against Dorian's taut flesh. Because Dorian is perverse, this is one of the most erotic sensations he has ever felt. Because Dorian is not stupid, he shivers, holding his breath every time. It's worse this time because of the look on Cullen's face. Sometimes Cullen is interested in Dorian's pleasure. He likes making Dorian break. Today, though, there is something colder in his expression. Something angry and tense, hovering, just waiting for an excuse to break loose.
Dorian reaches for Cullen's head as it moves, curls fingers into his waxed hair, shudders within his embrace, and thinks, But you can hurt me anyway. You don't need an excuse.
Something of this thought must come through Dorian's touch. Cullen's brow tightens, and when he slurps free, his teeth click shut with audible tension. "Turn over," he says. When Dorian does so, and Cullen covers his back with his body, he thinks he knows what to expect. Cullen's hand is still on his cock, working it steadily, but what Cullen likes best of all is Dorian's arse. Having Dorian this way makes him feel as if Dorian is helpless -- even though Dorian isn't; being on one's knees with another man's balls slapping one's own still leaves the hands and mouth free for spellcasting. Well, some things are about symbolism rather than practicality. And generally, when Cullen is this aroused, when Dorian is this pliant and eager for him, when they have the whole night free and a full bottle of oil to hand... Cullen takes him. Cullen needs to take him. And Dorian needs to be taken.
This time, though... something is different. It is only now that Dorian belatedly realizes Cullen still hasn't taken off his trousers. He's hard within them; Dorian feels that when he thrusts hungrily against Dorian's backside. But he doesn't undress further. When Dorian opens his mouth to moan for Cullen, Cullen's fingers fumble over his chin and between his teeth, to silence him. His other hand is still working Dorian's cock, and though Dorian rarely comes without at least a finger in his nethers, sweet Maker this time he's on the brink.
"You are so like these creatures," Cullen whispers in Dorian's ear, when Dorian makes a soft sound of frustration. He pushes against Dorian's arse again, forcing him to thrust against Cullen's grip. How good it feels! And how strange, and how wrong. But Cullen is not done. "Perfumed and pretty, bedecked in silks and jewels and fine leather. So soft. You, you have honed edges, but most of these creatures... so soft. So -- " He shivers, presses his face into the nape of Dorian's hair; Dorian feels teeth graze the back of his neck. "So tender. And breakable."
And then -- Maker -- he goes silent. Cullen silent is never safe, because Cullen silent is Cullen in his own head, letting his fantasies feed upon themselves. It is at times like these that he comes up with new torments for Dorian, like choking him half to death or chaining him to a wall and whipping Dorian with his belt, or making Dorian kiss his booted feet. His hand pumps faster. Dorian tries to beg. Please, Cullen, please, I just want you in me, please -- But the words are a mumble around Cullen's fingers. When he persists, Cullen's hand shifts to wrap around the bottom half of his face, cutting him off decisively. He keeps Dorian like this, helpless, mute, terrified that at any moment Cullen will inflict some surprise pain on him, wanting that... until the pleasure peaks and he shudders the orgasm out, whimpering at the back of his nose while his eyes roll back.
When Dorian recovers he is alone, lying in his own spend, his back cooling from his own and Cullen's sweat. And Cullen is at the door, shirt in hand, about to leave. "But," he blurts.
Cullen stops. His shoulders are heaving as if he is the one who just came, though when he finally turns, the lump tenting his trousers has not flagged in the slightest. In the dim bedchamber light, his eyes gleam with malevolence. "You've had pleasure of me, mage. Is that not enough?"
It is a warning, that sudden mage, but Dorian has never been sensible where it concerns Cullen. He pushes himself up, and says what he truly feels instead of something flippant, as he should. "But I want everything of you."
He sees the words strike Cullen, and draw him up short, and soften away the malevolence. And then he looks -- what? -- guilty. For some Maker-damned reason.
Then he leaves Dorian's bedroom, and does not return for a week.
He says that nothing is wrong, when -- over breakfast, two days later -- Dorian works up courage enough to ask. But he does not return to Dorian's bed.
Because Halward Pavus has decided to groom Dorian to inherit his seat in the Magisterium, Dorian attends its sessions several days a week. And because Cullen is officially an ambassador of the Inquisition, he travels with Dorian to sit in on the sessions as well. They share a carriage ride.
On Dorian's first few days back home, they spent these rides conferring. Dorian needed to explain the customs of the Magisterium, which are fully as ridiculous as the customs of a multimillennial empire can be expected to be. Once that was done, though, Cullen spent the rides either talking with Dorian or gazing out the window at the filthy splendor of the oldest and greatest human city in the world. Lately he has spent the rides doing nothing but looking at the city -- and now, hyperaware of Cullen's every movement, miserable in his loneliness and confusion, Dorian begins to realize that Cullen's gaze is not neutral. How has Dorian never noticed the way that Cullen's hand slowly clenches into a fist as they pass the slums? These are the lowest of the low, people undesirable even as slaves because of infirmities or disease or scandal -- and here they starve, mostly, though a few eke out a living by offering themselves up to magisters for (hopefully non-lethal) experiments. And how has Dorian never noticed how Cullen's jaw tightens when they pass through the red light district? It is active even by day, though the adult courtesans are usually asleep. Their servants and proteges run about doing errands meanwhile, and yes, some of the proteges are... young. Children.
Yes, it's all terrible. But Dorian has seen starving peasants and child prostitutes in Val Royeaux, sometimes in the very shadow of the Chantry; in the alleys of pretty, wholesome Redcliffe; and for that matter in the down-mountain camp of the Inquisition's army. Yes, there's more of the ugliness in Minrathous, but that is because Minrathous is a thousand times the size of any place that Cullen has ever lived, including Kirkwall. Cullen knows this. Which means that Cullen's churning, palpable, intensifying anger has some other source.
And sometimes, when they reach the Magisterium but before the servants have come to open the carriage door, he looks at Dorian. In these instants his expression is flatly neutral, as it should be; everyone in this place will be reading his face for potential weaknesses or secrets. But now it begins to trouble Dorian that Cullen offers him that same flatness, without concession. Without any hint of But you are different.
Then they go inside the Magisterium and spend hours having razorwire conversations with people who probably want them both dead. On the ride home, the whole way, Cullen looks at Dorian with that same flat, cold expression. As soon as the footman opens the carriage again, he leaves before Dorian, and retires to his quarters without a word.
Dorian has purchased a new manor in south central Minrathous, rather than moving into the Pavus estate. This is simultaneously a wise diplomatic choice, a familial insult, and a familial protection. The diplomacy lies in what the manor represents: the Inquisition's foothold in Tevinter high society. In addition, the manor is near the Pavus estate -- and Dorian makes certain to visit the old homestead regularly to take tea with his father, because it is crucial that others of the Altus class know Dorian has reconciled with his family. But the insult lies in Dorian's refusal to move back into the Pavus estate, or to ever bring his esteemed guest there -- for Cullen is, officially, the Inquisition's ambassador. The Pavus clan, aside from Dorian, will reap no social capital from the famed Commander's favor.
Dorian also lives separately so that Halward doesn't have to hear Dorian cavorting with his male lover. The peace between him and his father is delicate, after all, and best-managed with a bit of distance to soften old hurts. But most importantly, Dorian does not bring Cullen to visit the family estate because its wine cellar still echoes with the spiritual residue of the blood magic his father attempted to inflict on Dorian. And while Dorian certainly has his issues with the old man, he's not much inclined to watch his lover slaughter his father in cold blood right before his eyes. Some things, he knows, are simply... nature.
Which is why, though it is foolish, though his every instinct warns against it... after five days of Cullen's neglect, Dorian goes to see him in his quarters.
He's angry. He's hurt, damn it. He's been rejected before, after all, dozens of times -- but never in his own home, by a man who still lives with him afterward. The least Cullen could do is move out, Dorian decides to tell him, in an excess of bravado that he fuels with more wine than he should. But really. It's just unbearable. So he storms down the hall and up the steps, because Cullen's room is literally on the other side of the house for the sake of appearances. And just to prove that he's forgotten all sense, Dorian uses a wave of force magic to slam open the heavy wooden doors, so that he can storm in with proper drama.
The Holy Smite is almost instantaneous. It is also, Dorian realizes when the windows and vases and mirrors are done shattering, a very near miss. When Dorian turns from contemplating the sudden devastation of twenty percent of the room, he sees Cullen, half-dressed, half standing from his bed with a book splayed brokeback on the floor beside him. He is staring at Dorian, arm still upraised and body tensed with the aftermath of the thrown strike, eyes wide with horror at what he almost did to Dorian.
They stare at one another for a long moment. Belatedly it occurs to Dorian that he is in the greater wrong, here. It would be noble of him, Altus of him, to acknowledge it.
Dorian is a terrible Altus. "Honestly, Commander," he says, nastily, "if you didn't like the decor, I could simply have summoned the designer again."
Cullen's face twists in fury. "Have you completely lost your wits?"
Yes, yes, at last. Dorian has been waiting for this. He braces his feet, ready for battle, heady with it, desperate for interaction even if this is all he may have. "Perhaps I have! Since I've been left to my own devices with nothing to do but chase my own tail until I catch the bloody thing. Don't you think you owe me at least a fight?"
"If you're going to bloody dump me, then yes, you do! Call me a fop. Call me something else -- so many fine choices, especially if you'd like to toss in a bit about my sexual proclivities, never stopped anyone else who liked to fuck me blind -- "
Cullen gets fully up from the bed and straightens, letting out a harsh breath. "Maker's breath, Dorian. I almost -- "
"Yes, fine, almost struck me, which is better than the nothing I've gotten from you for days."
It is another warning, how quickly Cullen goes from exasperation and shock to anger. "Do not be so quick to invoke my wrath, mage."
Yes. Dorian steps forward, getting into his face and ignoring the way Cullen tenses, the way his hand cocks and curls, the way his eyes blaze. Dorian has been so desperate for this -- for anything, really. He is starving and Cullen can feed him, even if the feast is bitter. So he says, with just the right degree of sauciness, "So we're back to that, are we? I'm just another mage to you? Is mage arse generally no longer to your liking, or have you started to crave someone less willing instead? That apprentice at the Magisterium, perhaps, with the -- " Dorian gestures vaguely at his own chest to indicate enormous breasts.
Cullen hisses like a cat and grabs Dorian by the shoulders hard enough to bruise, and the pain is a balm upon Dorian's soul. How good it is to feel again, after so many days without! How good it is to hear Cullen snarl, "You dare! Have you any inkling of what I might do to you?"
Dorian laughs, deliriously. "Of course I don't! How could I, when you won't fucking do any of it?" And he twists his arms, never mind the pain, to grab at Cullen's in turn, as hard as he can. "Well, here I am. Smite me, and don't bloody pull it this time. Don't miss. Knock me out and drag me to your bed and do whatever you sodding want with me. No more threats, my dear Commander. I want the real thing this time. If I'm to be discarded -- no. No!" He pulls hard on Cullen, yanking the other man off-balance; Cullen blinks in surprise, bracing his feet. "At least do me the courtesy of giving me a reason to hate you!"
Cullen recoils, his fingers loosening just a little. His face is a mask of anguish. "Dorian. Maker, I should have expected this."
Dorian has no clue what Cullen should have expected, but he despises being predictable. With an angry snarl he tries to wrestle his arms free, and when he gets one halfway loose he shoves Cullen, with all his strength. As well try to shove a wall. But Cullen reacts like a man who has spent nearly as many years fighting as Dorian has been alive, and an instant later Dorian finds himself on his back in Cullen's bed with no real notion of how he got there. He doesn't care, either, because in the next instant Cullen's hand wraps around his throat.
He's going to kill Dorian this time. There's nothing but rage in Cullen's expression, a great whopping madness of it, stark and wild and tooth-bared and savage. The grip on Dorian's throat is so instantly tight that he remembers he hates being throttled, unless it's during good sex. And that grip is so instantly strong that Dorian belatedly remembers reading somewhere how many victims of throttling don't actually die of asphyxiation, but of having their larynx crushed and then asphyxiating...
And then the pressure is gone. It takes Dorian some time -- he isn't sure how much -- to recover his senses. As he does, he becomes aware of soft, rhythmic whispering. What is that? Cullen's voice. Why?
Finally Dorian manages to sit up on one elbow, where he sees that Cullen has dropped to one knee to pray. Cullen is rocking a little with the fervor of the prayer, eyes shut tight, hands clasped together so tightly that the knuckles show white. Praying for forgiveness.
Dorian sighs, suddenly weary. "You didn't kill me, you fool." His voice rasps. "Though how in the Void you cocked that up, I can't even fathom."
It takes a few moments, but there's an effect. Cullen's rocking slows, and finally he takes a deep breath and stops whispering entreaties to Andraste. Now he just sits there, shoulders slumped, head bowed. It looks almost as if he's praying to Dorian, instead.
"I wanted to," Cullen says at last, softly. "Kill you."
Dorian clears his throat experimentally. Doesn't think anything's broken. He's really going to have to learn some healing magic at some point. "You always want to kill me."
"No." Cullen looks up sharply, pinning Dorian in place with hazel intensity. "I always want to hurt you."
Oh. My. Yes, if he is, hmm, escalating, then that is different enough to be a matter of concern. And -- oh. Dorian clears his throat. "That -- Maker. You won't touch me, anymore." That's why.
Cullen gets to his feet and begins to pace. He's such a big man, with a naturally proud carriage -- but in this moment he is tense, tormented, prowling the confines of the room as if they are a prison. For the first time, Dorian has an inkling of what Cullen must have been like in that demon's cage, back at Kinloch.
"I cannot," he confesses to Dorian. "Not with such thoughts -- " His fists clench. "No. I'm sorry."
Meaning that he intends to continue leaving Dorian alone. It's unacceptable. Dorian sits up. "Then you've no objection to me finding another lover?" he rasps, which ruins his attempt to speak flippantly. "Because it's rather unfair that I must suffer for your... dysfunction."
Muscles work in Cullen's jaw, and his nostrils flare. He doesn't like the idea of Dorian with someone else. And yet -- "If you must."
That hurts. A lot. Dorian retaliates instinctively. "Certainly I must, if this situation has no forseeable endpoint!" Dorian crosses his legs primly. He means it to be symbolic, although that's foolishness because the problem is that Cullen won't have him, not the other way around. "On that you really must agree, Commander. You cannot expect me to endure... celibacy." He shudders elaborately. "Not when you're here -- "
"Did you not hear me?" The anger is returning; Cullen gestures sharply in his pacing. "I said that I craved your death, Dorian."
"And I do not care." All at once it's too much, and Dorian can't maintain the act. He pushes to his feet, in Cullen's face again; Cullen stops short. "Kill me, then. Choke me, beat me past an inch of my life -- "
"You cannot mean that!"
Dorian laughs. "Do you think it never occurred to me that this would be the natural outcome of our relationship? You are mad as a bag of cats, Cullen. And I -- By the Maker, who deserves each other better than you and I?" Now Cullen is turning away, muttering imprecations. Dorian grabs him, twists fingers in the shirt he's worn to bed, clings. "Please. I -- " Words fail him. "Please."
Cullen stares, his anger fading. In its place is a sorrow so deep that it threatens to drown Dorian; he fights it, because that way lies tears and he is still a man, after all, even if he likes to be held and admired and mounted like a woman. But Cullen takes Dorian's hands where they fist against his own chest. His touch is gentle. Dorian's skin reverberates.
"I will not do this thing you ask," he says. His voice is gentle, too. Dorian hates it when Cullen is gentle, because he does not deserve it. "You have always used me to..." He shakes his head, frowning. "To punish yourself. You should not ever, but... But especially not this way, Dorian. I swore to myself that I would never truly hurt you."
What the Maker did he do that for? Dorian pushes at him, trying again. "Cullen, Maker, I -- " It hurts. It hurts so much. He needs his outside to match his insides. "I need you. Please!"
He tugs, and Cullen wavers. He wants Dorian too. This knowledge is both a balm and a goad. Dorian pulls Cullen closer, closer. Presses their foreheads together, breathes his sighs. Brushes Cullen's lips with his own. Once upon a time, Dorian knew how to seduce. He keeps the kiss light because he knows that is a particular torment to a man whose kisses are like fucking but with tongues. He smooths hands up from Cullen's chest along the sides of his neck, cupping his face. Keeping him there. Come, he wills. Come to me, be with me, let me be what you need, need me.
And Cullen touches him. There is tension in his face -- tension, and need, and fear, and a longing so deep that it instantly soothes some of Dorian's fears. How can he doubt that Cullen loves him? This is not a man who pretends affection. Indeed, he grinds his love into Dorian's bones, leaving tokens of it peppering Dorian's skin and bruised just underneath. This is what Dorian needs now -- proof of love. Proof that he is worthy of love from someone O Maker, since not even his bloody parents gave him that unconditionally.
Hands grip Dorian's arms, tight. Yes. Those hands come up to mirror Dorian's, cupping his cheeks, one sliding 'round his head to grip his hair and turn Dorian's mouth to where Cullen wants it. Yes. The other curls 'round Dorian's chin, fingers pressing against his cheeks to force his teeth apart, because Dorian is trembling with tension of his own and has forgotten to open up for him. That's all right, though. Cullen takes what he wants, does he not? And if he wants Dorian, he will have Dorian. Dorian wants to be had. He aches for a devouring kiss. "Please," he whispers again.
Cullen abruptly stops. His eyes flick, widening. Hypersensitive, Dorian notices where his eyes land, and suddenly sees what he sees: One hand on the back of Dorian's head. The other on his chin. Only the slightest twist of Cullen's hands will break Dorian's neck.
And Cullen hesitates, suddenly staring at Dorian with the same cold flatness that he reserves for everything else of Minrathous.
It is terrifying. But it is also... Cullen. So Dorian relaxes. Waits. Lets Cullen see his acceptance. If you need this, too --
Cullen blinks. Frowns, the flatness dissipating. Flinches away from Dorian, utter horror in his eyes. "Blessed Andraste," he breathes.
"Cullen," Dorian begins. Cullen grabs his arm, but not for loveplay, nor to kill him, nor for any of the things that Dorian craves. He hauls Dorian across the room, toward the door.
"No," Cullen snarls. When Dorian protests again, Cullen stops and grabs his arms and faces him, letting Dorian see the anguish in his face. "No! Maker and His Bride, Dorian, would you wound me like this? Would you have me look myself in the eye for the rest of my life, and know myself such a monster?"
That is... hmm. That is rather selfish of him, isn't it? And here Dorian has been thinking of it as noble self-sacrifice. He grimaces and hangs his head, ashamed.
Cullen's grip and voice soften. "My control is all that I have," he admits. "Against my... impulses. And I have felt that control slipping, Dorian. I will not -- Until I can be sure that it is safe, I cannot -- "
"I don't care about safe," Dorian snaps. "I wouldn't be with you if I did!"
Cullen groans softly and leans down to press his forehead against Dorian's. "Do not betray me so cruelly, Dorian. You are the only mage I can trust. The only other person I trust, in all this world. Don't rob me of that."
And that --
Dorian sags, defeated. And Cullen, reluctantly, tenderly... lets him go. He pulls open one of the big, ornate doors to his quarters that Dorian slammed open with magic a few moments before, and Dorian -- meek with regret and frustration -- leaves, obediently. Cullen closes the door behind him.
What is Dorian to do now, then? He does not know. Bereft, he shuffles back to his bedchamber and lies awake for the rest of the night, too empty to weep.
The next day is another on which they must attend the Magisterium. Dorian has made good progress, he feels, in impressing some of his father's peers, and in fact -- Maevaris insists, and as Dorian is beginning to see is true -- some of them are more inclined to listen to him than to Halward. Halward Pavus, after all, carries only the usual alliances and wealth and influence. Dorian, however, has the wealth and some of the alliances himself, and makes up for his lack with one rather imposing advantage: Cullen.
In the Magisterium, Cullen is the Inquisition embodied. He has traded his lionfur vest for something grander, thanks to Leliana's discernment: a floor-length lionfur cloak, the shoulder components having clearly come from a lion with a black mane. His clothing is subdued, but richly colored and made of fine materials that draw the eye. His new breastplate is embossed with the Inquisition's symbol, and enchanted for protections against elemental and spirit-draining attacks. The sword at Cullen's hip, however, is his old Templar one, accorded to him by the Chantry in thanks for his years of service. The wear on its hilt is a warning. The flame on its crossbar is a promise. That all of this rides upon the intimidating shoulders of a man who is known -- thanks to to the gossipping servants, Dorian has been counting on that -- to enjoy the harder pleasures in life... well. No one thinks Dorian weak anymore. Indeed, some seem to think him nobly self-sacrificing -- ha! Subjecting himself to the humiliations of the south, and even enduring southern depravity in his own bed, all for the sake of Tevinter.
Fools. Dorian hates them all.
Today Dorian watches as Cullen makes his way around the room between sessions, exchanging greetings with everyone from the servants to the bloody Emperor with the same polite coolness. So many eyes turn after Cullen in his wake; Dorian notes these as a matter of course. It is important to consider whose gazes linger and covet, and whose linger in fear or envy. Cullen's mere presence in the city has disrupted allegiances older than half the nations of Thedas, so who means to correct that? Who smiles sycophantically at him? Ah, the Emperor; isn't that an interesting thing. And this magister, and that one, and that one. All of them cozying up to Cullen, trying to curry favor with him. None of them noticing the way Cullen looks at them all in between his smiles, as if he wants nothing more than to unsheathe his sword and lay waste to the entire chamber.
Small wonder he struggles, here in Tevinter, to keep his darkest self leashed.
The mid-session break has grown dull. Dorian has glanced down at his nails, idly realizing he hasn't had a manicure in weeks and that this is probably a sign that his self-loathing has reached suicidal heights -- And then he hears a sharp cry.
By the time he looks up, it's mostly over. Cullen stands over a youngish man in clerk's robes, whom he has more or less bent into a pretzel. The man is on his knees struggling, and Cullen has wrenched one arm up behind his shoulders; he's standing on the other hand, pinning it down out of old Templar instinct. There's a knife on the floor; oh, how gauche! No one's assassinated anyone with a knife in the Magisterium chamber in, what, ten years? It's the traditional way to deal with non-mages -- a little extra insult to say You are unworthy even of my magic -- but it's still completely unfashionable. But there is smearing along the sheen of the knife, and by this Dorian immediately realizes that this was, indeed, a serious assassination attempt. Poison and all.
The young man -- a boy, really, barely past apprenticeship -- struggles violently. Dorian recognizes him as one of the aides of Magister Casis. But then the boy does something to compound his already-considerable stupidity to stunning heights. He tenses, and then tries to attack Cullen with magic. A mind blast. Dorian groans despite himself.
The sheer, bone-jolting concussion of the Holy Smite rocks the entire Magisterium chamber, and this time Cullen does not miss. This time it's localized, targeted, and powerful as an earthquake. Although the other magisters and aides in the chamber cry out and jostle each other trying to pull back from the site, none of them are affected, near as Dorian can tell. Only the young man cries out and sags with the blow, emptied of magic and grayed out besides.
Cullen releases his prey and stands, and there is more nervous shuffling to get away at the look in his eyes. The Emperor -- Dorian has always thought that was a terrible job -- clears his throat, however, and steps forward.
"Salve, Commander," he says in greeting. It is to Tevinter's credit that the Emperor does not quail as Cullen turns madman's eyes on him. "Are you well? We shall of course immediately investigate this heinous attack upon your person."
"I am well," Cullen says, too-quietly. Dorian's skin prickles. He sits up, meaning -- what? What can he do? Cullen is just as likely to kill Dorian, in this moment. "May I inquire as to your usual punishment for assassins, my lord?"
The Emperor shuffles, then shrugs. "If the culprit is of any caste other than Altus, death by dismemberment; drawing and quartering. Alas, that is Casis' protege, and nephew, so he is responsible for -- "
Casis, the magister in question, protests vehemently. "I had no idea! I swear it! That's my sister-in-law's brat, I couldn't care less -- "
The Emperor glares Casis silent, then sighs. "Normally, Commander, an Altus who strikes an equal -- " He pauses, significantly, and there is another shuffle in the chamber as the magisters all realize what the Emperor has done. But it is only the truth; the Inquisition is powerful enough to threaten Tevinter, especially if it allies again with the Qunari. It must be treated as a sovereign, and equal, power.
"Normally," the Emperor repeats, "we resolve the matter as we do with duels. The victor in a duel wins the life of his foe, if he chooses to take it. The survivor of an assassination attempt wins the same, should he capture the assassin alive."
And... something... moves over Cullen's face. Dorian isn't sure what it is, but it is disturbing. More than usual.
"I see," Cullen says, still too-gently. "If that is the case, then I do claim this villain's life to do with as I please. But we need not let this ugly incident disrupt the Magisterium's affairs. Pray, continue."
And he bends and grabs the young man by the scruff of his robes. Drags him, semiconscious and groaning, across the vaulted hall to his own elevated seat in the visitors' gallery. Drops the young man to the floor beside the chair, and sits down. He keeps a hand knotted in the young man's clothing, Dorian notes, and uses this to position him such that he slumps against the old stone of the chair, head in reach of Cullen's fingers.
And then Cullen crosses his legs, props his chin on one fist, and sits there, stroking the young man's hair as if he is a slow, old dog.
Dorian covers his mouth, only because no one is looking at him. But he sees, now, and... oh, Maker. They're all about to see what Dorian's lover is really like.
Someone comes and carefully fetches away the knife to examine for evidence. The Emperor uneasily resumes the session, though for the sake of diplomacy he shuffles the agenda to put questioning Magister Casis at the top. Casis swears that he had nothing to do with his stupid nephew's attempt to kill the Commander. No one even likes the nephew, who is half-Orlesian, perish the thought, and named Laumer -- though apparently he is popular in the Minrathous Circle, offers the First Enchanter. And it is certainly possible that because of his popularity, Laumer has fallen in with unsavory types bent on disrupting Tevinter's relationship with the Inquisition...
The hearing drags on. Dorian stops listening. And throughout it, every ten minutes or whenever Laumer starts to recover, Cullen drops another Holy Smite on him.
It's awful, and it's cruel, and it's everything that Dorian has ever known to expect from his magnificent, monstrous beloved. The smites affect no one but Laumer, yet every mage in attendance flinches at the slam of it. Conversation stops the first few times, and then resumes nervously. Dorian sees them looking at each other, wondering if Cullen will really continue doing it. Can he? By the fourth smite it is clear that he can; by the sixth it is clear that he will. He says nothing, Dorian's love, as he smites the stupid boy again and again and again. Letting his actions make speeches for him.
Laumer, when he is able, groans and tries feebly to crawl away. Cullen yanks him back each time, smites him again, and then strokes his hair while he weeps. No one looks at this. Casis looks ill -- but does not protest, implicated as he is. The Emperor glances at Cullen once, wavering as if he is thinking about saying something to him -- and in that moment, Cullen reaches down and touches Laumer's face where it is wet. He lifts that hand and rubs his thumb and fingers together. He does not smile, because that would be crass. The cold satisfaction of his expression is more than enough in any case. There is no one in the entire Magisterium who cannot see that Cullen savors the sight of a mage's tears on his fingers.
Maker. He's horrifying. And Dorian wants to crawl to his feet and suck him off right there in front of the Emperor and his father and the damned Maker Himself.
But at last, at last, the Magisterium session ends. Half of the magisters -- a good number of them people who have inflicted worse horrors on slaves than anything Cullen has done to Laumer -- flee, like their robes are on fire. The Emperor is one of them, surrounded quickly and ushered away by guards and aides who clearly see Cullen as a greater threat than a chamber full of blood mages. Maevaris catches Dorian's eye with a delicate arch of her eyebrow; Are you sure about this one? But Dorian grins back, so she shrugs and flows out of the room, leaving him to his own folly.
Halward Pavus comes over and makes awkward conversation until Dorian realizes that his father is asking Dorian to visit. And stay. Maker bless him -- Halward is trying to help Dorian escape from Cullen. Dorian would be touched if Halward had not once threatened to mutilate Dorian's mind. Surely if Halward saw that violence as love, he can understand this? And yet he does not, Dorian realizes, as Halward blusters and indirectly pleads and then finally crouches beside Dorian's chair to whisper, "Dorian! If you ever loved me, let me help you!"
He never changes, does Halward. Always thinking he knows best what Dorian needs. But Dorian sighs, because... well. Perhaps this is not a thing anyone else can be expected to understand.
"I'll be all right, Father," he says at last. He isn't sure of that at all. Cullen is a horrorshow and there's a good chance that this whole incident will have unhinged him completely. Cullen is still stroking poor stupid Laumer's hair, meanwhile, as a case in point. Only one thing has changed: Cullen's smiling now. It is a pleasant farewell smile, the sort of distantly polite thing one does at the conclusion of a Magisterium session, when one means to be diplomatic. But even as Dorian watches, Cullen smites Laumer again, and sighs contently as the boy whimpers.
"Dorian -- " Halward tries again, desperately.
"I'll be all right." He gets to his feet then, gazing down at his father with what he hopes looks like compassion, though he feels no small measure of contempt. "I've faced worse, after all. Blood mages, for example." Halward flinches, and Dorian relents with a sigh. "Truly, Father. Please don't worry."
Then he strolls away, over to Cullen.
Cullen's eyes shift to Dorian as he approaches, and it does not trouble Dorian anymore that Cullen's gaze is so cold. The question now becomes: Will this be enough to exorcise Cullen's demons? Or has it whetted his appetite for more of the same -- or worse?
"It's certainly a pretty pet, Commander," Dorian says, stopping and putting a hand on his hip. He glances at Laumer, who is aware enough to peer up at him with pleading, hostage eyes. "But even in this land, unnecessary cruelty to pets is frowned-upon -- in public, anyhow. If you don't mean to put your pet down immediately, I would advise taking it home on a leash. I'm sure we could find some place to house it. In the basement, perhaps."
Laumer's eyes widen in horror at the idea of being at Cullen's mercy in private. Cullen glances down at him, as if only belatedly remembering that there is a person attached to the hair he's been so avidly stroking. "Ah. Yes, I suppose this is a bit vulgar. Forgive me."
And then he stands and draws his sword and whips off Laumer's head, all in one clean, swift motion.
There are a couple of gasps and cries of dismay. It isn't the first time someone's been killed in the Magisterium; this would actually be the second death in a month, the last as the result of a duel between secretaries. Cullen saw that one himself. But mage duels are -- not cleaner, not by far, more likely to result in corpses on fire or scattered into pieces by demon claws. But... expected. Normal, for Minrathous. The cold brutality of a sword is most definitely not a normal thing, here in the heart of Tevinter's power.
Cullen bends and rips off part of Laumer's sleeve to wipe his blade. (Laumer is still twitching.) When he has finished and tossed the used cloth onto the body, he sheaths his sword and turns to Dorian. "After you." When he glimpses Halward, still crouched by Dorian's chair and now gapemouthed with shock, Cullen nods politely. "Good day to you, Magister. Magisters," and he turns to bow to everyone left in the chamber. "A good even, and pleasant travels, to you all."
Dorian echoes the farewell and walks out, and Cullen trails in his wake like a shadow of fate.
Back at the manor, Cullen precedes Dorian through the door, catching the housemistress' eye and letting her know that he and Dorian will be taking dinner in Dorian's apartments. Dorian's heart lifts at this, a little, hopefully -- But Cullen does not look at him. His gait is brisk as he strides through the corridors toward Dorian's rooms, forcing Dorian to trot a little to keep up. What does this haste indicate? What awaits them at the end of the corridor, once Cullen has Dorian behind closed doors? It's wrong, so wrong, that Dorian must adjust himself as he walks. He's been hard since the Magisterium. But then what about him, them, is not deeply wrong?
And so Dorian is laughing, softly but laughing, when Cullen gets them into the room and pushes the door shut. He leans against it, head down. "Let me have you," he whispers.
Oh, it's beautiful. Dorian's already tugging loose the straps of his tunic. "What part of me?" Because that's what Cullen usually wants. Let me have your arse, he says, and then he fucks Dorian with slow ferocity, or let me have your mouth, and he half-chokes Dorian to death with his tongue or cock. It has only recently occurred to Dorian that this is also a technique of self-control for Cullen. By confining his need to only one part of Dorian, he keeps Dorian safer --
"Everything," Cullen snaps. Maker, he's shaking. "All of you. Now!" And then he rounds on Dorian, and all is madness.
Somehow Dorian finds himself naked. It's a blur how that happens. He's still got one stocking on, actually -- But Cullen is on him, still in his trousers though this time they're open, ripped open where he's torn the laces, and the heavy, hungry grind of his cock on Dorian's is as delicious as it is painful. Both his hands are fisted in Dorian's hair, holding his head back so that Cullen can bite his throat. Not lick, not kiss -- bite, hard enough that Dorian yelps and coughs and clutches at Cullen so that Cullen won't stop. And then somehow Dorian is on his belly, and Cullen is heavy on his back, and Cullen's cock is thick and churning in his arse, and Cullen's breath is a hot, broken sob in his ear while fingers toy with the bite-marks on Dorian's throat. And then somehow Dorian is screaming into the pillows, face down and arse up, one arm wrenched up behind him the way Cullen wrenched that fool Laumer's, and Cullen is taking and taking and taking him and shouting while he does it --
Dorian's not sure how long it goes on. He's not entirely sure of everything that happens. It's simultaneously too fast, and grinds on all bloody night.
But it is good, O Maker. It is so good. It is love -- even if no one else would recognize it as such. And Dorian is so very happy to have it back.
In the morning, Dorian summons a healer for his shoulder, which hurts abominably. The healer pronounces it a torn rotator cuff, heals it, then eyes the rest of Dorian's visible injuries: a split lip and bruises 'round his mouth, scratches below one ear, finger-marks on his throat, something that caused him to limp to the couch to be healed, and something else that has left his voice raw and his throat scratchy. There's more that the healer can't see, but if the man has any skill, he knows it's there. Dorian waves off the rest.
"I would advise," the healer says quietly, "that you stop doing whatever you've been doing, young lord. Before it kills you."
Cullen isn't around, but Dorian knows that the healer knows. He suspects the healer might even be in the employ of his father. Dear old Halward, always trying. So for Halward's sake, Dorian smiles back at the healer (wincing, because of the lip), and says, "That is the one thing I can count on never happening, messere."
The healer looks dubious, but lets it go. For that, Dorian gives him an extra-large tip.
That night in bed, Cullen holds him tight and trembles. They cannot make love again, not even gently, until Dorian heals -- but it is enough for Dorian that Cullen trusts himself enough for this closeness, and trusts Dorian enough for this vulnerability: "I'm sorry," Cullen whispers.
Dorian pats his shaking hands where they cross over his belly. "Never you mind. I don't." Of course he doesn't. Dorian has his proof of love, now, doesn't he? Bitten into his throat and torn into his tendons. "And don't apologize. We have the way of it, now. There were bound to be a few accidents until we did, but now everything will be fine."
The way of it is this:
To live surrounded by evil -- as one must, in Minrathous -- Cullen must periodically make some effort at destroying it. He does that, in large part, by advancing the Inquisition's interests in Tevinter... but that isn't enough. He cannot bear the demons, the prickle of magic used for ill purposes, without striking out against both. He needs to see evil bleed and suffer. Trying to restrain this part of himself only makes the urge come out... elsewhere. In a less-controlled, less safe, fashion.
So now and again, whenever the whim strikes him, Cullen heads out into the streets of Minrathous late at night. Without guards. He dresses down for this; no sense fouling fine clothing, and it isn't really the common sort of attention that he hopes to attract. Thieves are a symptom of evil, not evil itself, unavoidable in any society where bread is dear. What Cullen wants to see -- wants to kill -- are villains of a different sort. Slavers, who will see a tall, hale warrior and think of his value. Rapists or pimps, who know there is always value in beauty and conquest. And then there is Cullen's favorite prey: mages. Blood mages, or assassins sent by mages who don't want to get their own hands dirty, who in Tevinter are usually mages themselves. Not many people are stupid enough to come at Cullen directly anymore, not after Laumer. Still, Laumer was popular among the younger mages of the city, and after all someone hired Laumer in the first place. It's rare for Cullen to come back from one of his nightly jaunts with his blade unbloodied. And usually there is a smile on his lips, small and secret... because that is what madmen look like when their demons have been satisfied.
And then he comes to Dorian -- because now he is capable of controlling himself again. He also knows that Dorian craves him especially on such nights. Cullen is an addiction for Dorian, like lyrium. And when Dorian asks, "All better, my dear Primus? May I have you back?"
...Cullen replies, "You may have everything of me," and pulls him into bed.
It's never again like that first time, and it isn't always rough anymore. (Dorian likes it rough, but... he is learning to appreciate tenderness, too.) Now they know the way of it. Now after Cullen has eased his bloodlust in others, he can hold Dorian gently, and kiss his throat tenderly, and sometimes whisper in his ear, "You are the only soul in all Tevinter with nothing to fear from me."
Such sweet words. Such love. It's perfect.
"Even if I did have something to fear," Dorian promises in return, "I wouldn't be afraid. Not of you." Which makes Cullen sigh in relief that Dorian does not think him so very monstrous. Even though he is. He's precisely as much monster as Dorian needs.
And then Dorian shuts his eyes, and opens his legs, and willingly gives to Cullen... everything.