The days are getting longer and warmer with the arrival of spring, but it's the light breeze from the open doors that's keeping Cullen awake. He's always found some measure of pride in his ability to focus on the task at hand, seeing it through to the end, and that the work is finished in a timely and effective manner. However, five pages into a thirty-three page report on the proper stone to use in bridge reconstruction and he's ready to throw himself at the mercy of the Maker. This is it, this is the battle he cannot win: the tedium of paperwork.
Worst of all, when it's over and he's finally through with the blighted report and the stack of equally, if not more, soporific reports to follow there would only be more waiting for him. As much as he's always grateful for the relative safety inside of Skyhold's keep there's a part of him that longs for the adventures he's left to read about.
With a sigh he flips back to the first page and signs his name at the bottom. No amount of reading on the different types of stone and their common uses and function will ever help him to understand why he should care. He trusts his people and their judgment in these matters anyway.
The chair creaks as he leans back, stretching his arms above him and yawning wide enough to crack his jack. These days he feels older than his years and, if he's honest with himself, it's been that way for a long time now. Such is the burden of, well, nearly every decision he's made in his adult life.
The sound of horses riding in to Skyhold catches his attention and before he can do anything one of his soldiers pokes their head into the open doorway and informs him of the Inquisitor's return. He stands, nodding at the soldier as he passes on his way down the steps toward the stables, intent on meeting Inquisitor Lavellan.
Above, the sky is orange-pink with the setting sun and it's the first time that Cullen has noticed how late the day has gotten. Cassandra offers him a smile as they pass each other near the front gate, though she seems far more preoccupied with removing her gauntlets. They're stained red, flecks of dried blood peeling off, and bits of matter fur clinging to the metal fastenings. There are, of course, some benefits to not having to do any fieldwork, he decides, stepping over a small piece of what may be entrails that have come loose from the bottom of Cassandra's shoe.
"Cullen," says Dorian, smiling at him as he approaches the stables.
He greets Dorian with a nod, then turns to Lavellan as she tends to her horse. "My soldiers hope to have the bridge in the Emprise du Lion. completed by the end of the month," he says, trying to sound equal parts charming and professional.
"That's good to hear," says Lavellan, distracted by a finicky mare and the knotted straps of her saddle. Eventually she sighs and waves over one of Dennet's apprentices to finish up for her, and startles when she sees Cullen, like she'd forgotten he was there. "Did you come down here only to tell me that? You don't have to go out of you way just to pass along information, I'm sure you have more important things to do."
"It's no bother," he says.
"If you're sure..." Lavellan trails off, having noticed the large tear in her sleeve and pulling at the loose threads.
"Eye's bright, beautiful, but not looking at me. It hurts, but sometimes love does. I don't understand."
"Ah, yes, I thinks it's time we go find the tavern, don't you, Cole?" Dorian says, taking Cole by the shoulders and gently steering him away. Cullen hadn't even been aware that Cole was with the Inquisitor’s party.
"The tavern isn't lost," says Cole, "it knows exactly where it should be."
Cullen watches as Cole follows Dorian up the stairs and wonders how many more of his secrets does that boy know and how many of them has he shared with the Inquisitor or any others. He straightens his back and tries to ignore the warmth in his cheeks. "I thought I'd walk with you to the war room, since we're both headed there."
"Of course," says Lavellan. She pats her horse a final time before exiting the stables, heading off toward the keep's interior. "I've been meaning to ask you; how have you been? The last time we spoke you weren't doing so well with the withdrawal and were talking about going back on lyrium."
"Right," he would have preferred a more pleasant topic, but, "I wish you hadn't seen me like that. I will continue to manage, as I have been."
"If you're sure," she says, lowering her voice as they reach the main hall. Too many ears always listening for the next piece of gossip. "A lot of people here care for you a great deal. If you ever need anything, I know that any one of them, including myself, will be here for you."
"That's—" Cullen stops, unsure of what to say. "Thank you." He holds the door to Josephine's office open for Lavellan and once she's turned her focus away from him and onto Josephine, he uses the time to collect himself. Knowing that he has friends willing to bear his burdens with him is still something of a shock.
"Cullen?" Josephine calls for him, standing at the other side of the room, waiting for him. The Inquisitor is at her side, arms folded, patient as always.
He steps away from the door and follows them into the war room.
There's a knock at the door and Dorian enters without waiting for an answer. "Good," he says, "you're here and not off having fun with everyone else. I had been worried that you would discover the joys of socializing in my absence." Music carries through the air, out from the tavern, and serves to emphasize the fun that Cullen isn't having while he sits alone in his tower.
"The Chantry never taught us about fun," Cullen says. "We only ever learned about the evils of magic, how to spot an apostate at twenty paces, and praying to the Maker in solitude."
Dorian glances from Cullen to the pile of unfinished reports on the desk to the empty room around them, and back to Cullen. "I honestly can't tell if you're making a joke. I'm feeling rather sorry for you right now, either way."
"Is there something you need?"
"Of course," says Dorian, stepping further into the office and shutting the door. "You see, I found this statuette of a mabari in some dusty old tomb and, well, I thought it might be valuable, or at least worth keeping as souvenir from the time I spent walking around a dusty old tomb. Anyway," he hands the statuette over to Cullen, "you Fereldens love dogs, don't you?"
It's carved from onyx and inlaid with gold and polished bloodstone. Even in the candlelight Cullen can see all of the fine details etched into the stone, giving it a sense of life. "This is for me?"
"Yes," says Dorian. "Do you like it?"
"I do, thank you."
Dorian looks at him in a way he can't interpret, head tilted to the side and eyebrows slightly scrunched together, but before Cullen has a chance to ask about it the sky tears open. There's a flash of green light and a sound like static from magical energy and for a moment everything seems frozen, the calm before the storm. In the next moment Cullen is out the door, sword and shield in hand, with Dorian right at his heels.
"Get the Inquisitor," Cullen yells to one of the soldiers staring slack-jawed up at the rift. He has to grab the young man to force his attention away, and repeat, "the Inquisitor. Now."
Another loud crack from the rift and it split open completely signaling the beginning of the flood of demons. Wraiths mostly, a dozen or so, but more lurk behind the veil biding their time. Cullen cuts down one, then swings his sword into another slicing upward through the despair demon's abdomen. It shrieks at him, breath smelling of ash and cold, and Cullen has to push forward, putting his weight into it, to cleave the demon in two. When it's gone his sword chills his hand and his shield is covered in in ice. From the corner of his eye he can see Blackwall slam into a shade, forcing it away from the stables.
"Behind you!" Dorian shouts, giving Cullen just enough time to turn and raise his shield.
Whatever slams into him does so with enough force to send shockwaves up his arm. There's fire and ash and smoke that fills his nose and mouth as Dorian burns the demon away. He doesn't have his staff and with his next spell, more fire and heat, the area around them lights up as it burns. Cullen can see that Dorian's fingers are red, blistered, from having to expel all of his magic through only his hands.
Demons continue to pour out from the rift and there are still too few people awake and armed, ready to help, though their numbers are growing. In the back of his mind Cullen begins to form an evacuation plan, even while he prays that it won't come to that. More soldiers join the fight, though many of them are new to the Inquisition, and many more are without armor. There's little time to check each face, and too dark to see anyway, but he recognises some of them and knows they only joined after the siege at Haven and have barely fought against a human let alone faced anything from the fade. This will serve as a chance for these soldiers to prove their worth.
There's a shriek, high-pitched, like broken glass over a death rattle, and it turns his blood cold in his veins. Cullen steels himself, preparing for another attack, but an arrow flies past his head and embeds itself in the demon's skull, right between its eyes. All six of them. He knows without having to look that it was Leliana who fired the shot, but when another arrow comes from the other side, tearing through the demon's exposed jugular, then he does have to check. It's Sera, high up on the ramparts. The cavalry has arrived.
"Inquisitor!" Cullen yells when he spots her running into the fray. "We can hold them off for now, but if the rift isn't sealed soon then we'll be overrun."
Lavellan comes to a stop at his side, staring up at the rift. "Understood."
They're still outnumbered, but their odds are starting to look better. Demons are familiar territory for Cullen, enough so that he can almost lose himself in the momentum of battle. But he's also aware of what they can do when someone lets their guard down. He blocks with his shield, then strikes with his sword, and it's easy to believe that they can win this and anything else thrown at them.
He almost doesn't see it, almost pretends that he can't, when the desire demon steps out from the rift. It's grey and pale and impossibly beautiful as they always are. Cullen can't think, can't make himself look away. Even with the images of desire demons burned into his mind, refusing to let him forget, there's still an allure, a pull. It has noticed him.
No, he says, but it's not spoken and even as the word dies on his tongue he knows it is too weak. "No," he says again, a hoarse whisper barely making it out of his throat.
The demon only smiles, grin too wide, teeth too sharp. It's terrifying and perfect. It reaches out to him closer than it should be. He hadn't seen it move.
"Precious thing," it says, caressing his cheek, and Cullen wants to curl up in its embrace, but he cannot. He will not. Not now, not ever. He raises his sword and pushes it into the demon, right below where a human heart would be. There's no resistance, it's too easy, and the blade goes clean through to the other side and out.
It screams as it dies and the sound echoes like laughter inside his skull.
"Cullen!" someone screams, but he can't make out the voice. Everything is too sharp, too bright, and it's only when the light dims does he realise that it was there at all.
The Inquisitor is in front of him, but it's Dorian at his side keeping him standing. The demons are gone. Every last one of them, along with the rift they came from.
"Good question," says Dorian. "There were demons everywhere, then a desire demon sort of—"
"Exploded?" Lavellan shrugs. "Popped?"
"Yes, that. There was a blinding light and you, Commander, were in the center of it." Dorian sounds concerned and angry in equal measure, but Cullen isn't sure whether it's directed at him or the situation they're in.
"And the rest of the demons?" Cullen asks.
"Gone," says Lavellan. She looks around, then up to where the rift had been only moment before. "When I could see again, it was all gone."
"Right." Cullen removes himself from Dorian's hold, though the lingering effect of whatever happened has left him a little disoriented. He sways on his feet as the world tilts and shifts under him, but regains his balance before toppling to the ground. "We'll have to do a sweep through Skyhold; make sure nothing remains. Our people are supposed to be safe here."
"Our people understand that there are some things we cannot protect them from," Leliana says, joining their little group.
"We should be able to!"
"Cullen," says Lavellan, placing her hand over his arm, not quite touching.
He knows they're concerned, can see it written across their faces, but he's angry at himself and more than that he's afraid. It's an old fear reaching out to him from a memory of not enough years ago and laced with a bitter desire. "I'll get my soldiers and begin the search," he says.
"Dorian, don't," says Lavellan.
"He can't think that," Dorian grabs Cullen by the wrist, fingers warm against his skin. "You could be hurt. We don't know what that desire demon did or any effect it may have. Don't you think we should maybe try to figure that out?"
Cullen jerks his arm back, out of Dorian's hold. "It can wait until tomorrow."
The drawstring on his trousers had come loose in his sleep and he has to use one hand to keep them from falling from his hips as he climbs the ladder into his office. "Hold on," he says, taking a moment to retie the lace and hoping that somehow he won't look as though he's just woken up.
"Good, you're not dead," Dorian says when Cullen lets him into the room. "I've been worried since you stormed off last night. Demons and fade rifts are bad enough without adding an element of mystery on top. Now will you please allow me to make sure that you continue to not be dead?"
"It's early, Dorian, can't this wait until later?"
"It's midday," says Dorian. "This is later."
"Oh." That would explain why the sunlight had been on his face instead of the wall behind him as it usually was. Cullen scratches at the stubble on his chin, and gives in to the yawn he'd been trying to suppress, and has the sudden, startling realisation that the trousers he's wearing are very old and very thin and leave little left to the imagination. He glances down at himself and shifts he weight from one foot to the other.
"Your virtue is safe with me, Commander," Dorian snaps.
"That's not— I didn't say anything."
"No, but you're far too easy to read."
Cullen lets out a frustrated sigh. "I only thought that it might not be the best idea for me to be practically naked in front of other members of the Inquisition. Once was already more than I'd like. I wasn't thinking about you."
"No," says Dorian, "you wouldn't." Cullen can't tell if that's supposed to be a concession or an accusation, but Dorian takes a deep breath and exhales slowly. "If you would sit down, I'll make this quick."
Cullen takes a seat at the edge of his desk, careful not to knock anything over. "I didn't mean to offend you. I'm sorry."
"Consider it forgotten," says Dorian. "I'll have to use magic for this," he adds, stopping before he reaches Cullen. "Is that all right?"
"It's fine," Cullen says, though he has to remind himself not to tense up or pull away. With anyone else, he's not sure he could keep himself so still, but he trusts Dorian with his life and that makes everything easier.
Dorian nods, pressing his hand flat against Cullen's chest. Tendrils of magic stretch out from his palm, glowing blue and pulsing in time with his beating heart. Carefully he begins tracing sigils and runes into Cullen's skin, leaving sparks and flurries of magic in the wake of his fingers. It's beautiful and when Cullen looks up at Dorian's face, concentrating on what he's doing, it's mesmerizing. He's never seen Dorian like this before.
He's warm all over and his heartbeat picks up and is reflected in the quickening pulses of Dorian's magic. "What are you doing?" he asks, voice softer than he'd intended.
"Checking for possession, mostly. Making absolutely sure that you're not a demon disguised as Commander Cullen; that sort of thing." The glow fades and the magic dissipates and when Dorian takes his hand away he leaves Cullen feeling colder. "No demons," he says, but he's frowning.
"Usually people are happy about that."
"I am happy about that, believe me," Dorian says. "However, I don't know what happened last night and that worries me."
"Maybe it was nothing."
"When have you ever know it to be nothing with a desire demon?"
"Fair point," Cullen says, getting up from the desk. "Thank you, for this. Caring about me."
"I have precious few friends and I'd like to keep the ones that I do have alive."
"Then I am glad to have you looking out for me."
For a moment Cullen thinks Dorian is going to say something else; his mouth is open, lips parted, but then there's another knock at the door and Dorian's expression shifts, becoming neutral and distant.
"Well, I should be leaving," Dorian says and heads for the door. When he opens it, he pauses briefly, back going stiff, then relaxing as he says "Inquisitor," in greeting and continues walking out.
Cullen considers going after him, but when Lavellan steps into the room, taking Dorian's place, she shuts the door hard and Cullen's mind is suddenly on an entirely different subject. Specifically the way Lavellan is looking at him, focusing on his naked chest and then lower. He only just resists the urge to cover himself.
"Inquisitor," he says, the same moment that she says, "Cullen."
"Sorry," he laughs, feeling out of place and awkward in front of the Inquisitor. "Is there something you need?"
"Yes," she says, closer than she had been. Her hand rests against his cheek in a caress, and when she speaks her breath is warm against his lips. "I needed to see you."
The kiss is expected, yet it catches him by surprise anyway. In a way it's almost chaste, but he can feel her fingers trailing down his chest and her nails scratching against his skin. She stops at the waistband of his trousers, and Cullen thinks that's as far as she'll go until there's a tug at the laces as she tries to undo the knot.
He breathes in, sharp, and pulls away so they're no longer touching. "This is..." he doesn't know what to say. "A little fast, perhaps. I don't know what you want."
"I want you, isn't that enough?"
"You've never shown any interest in me this way before."
Lavellan presses forward, closing the short distance between them. "I am now," she says. "I've been thinking about you all day and I know you want me, too. I've seen the way you look at me."
"I find you attractive, yes, but I am not willing to—" he grasps for the right way to say what he wants, "to fall into bed with you. Not without," romance, love, "more."
"I never said it had to be in a bed." She reaches out to him again, but stops, dropping her hand to her side. "I'm sorry, Cullen," Lavellan says, frowning. "I don't know what I—" her features smooth out and her smile returns. "I understand, but please consider my offer. We could have a lot of fun."
Cullen waits for the Inquisitor to leave before climbing the ladder back up into his bedroom. There's an odd, nervous energy running through his nerves as he drops down onto his bed and touches the angry red lines on his skin from Lavellan's nails. It takes a few minutes before he's ready to start the day again.
Cullen's eyes snap open and he stands up, knocking his chair over backwards; the sound of wood hitting stone breaks the silence in the room. The image of the desire demon fades in his mind like a dream.
He needs to clear his head.
It's not until he's halfway to the gardens does Cullen realise that is where he's heading. He'd meant only to walk around outside of the closed-in space of his office, maybe check in with the soldiers and see how training the rookies was coming along. Perhaps this is a better idea.
The garden in mostly empty. Two young mages are sitting by the far wall huddled over a book, whispering together and laughing, and one of the visiting nobles is stretched out on a bench, face tilted up toward the afternoon sun, asleep. The whole area smells like elfroot and ginger and then fresh turned soil when he gets closer to his usual table in the shade where he often plays chess against Dorian. Someone has planted new flowers.
Cullen sits and collects the small, carved chess pieces and begins to arrange them on the board, intending to play a match against himself. But a shadow falls over the table and when he looks up it's to see a man he recognises as one brought in with the rest of the rebel mages. The way he's staring, though, puts Cullen on edge.
"Commander," the man says, smiling, lips stretched thin over teeth that are too big, too sharp. "I've been thinking about you." He runs his fingers down the side of Cullen's face, along his jaw.
"Excuse me?" Cullen brushes the man's hand off, but unable to look away.
"Well this certainly looks interesting," Dorian says, placing himself between the other mage and Cullen, leaning his hip against the table. The moment snaps and falls away. "I hope I'm not interrupting anything."
"Sorry, I—" The man blinks, looking at Dorian and appearing more human than he had moments before. "It's nothing, I was just leaving."
When he's gone, Dorian turns to Cullen, eyebrow raised. "What was that about?"
"I'm not sure," Cullen says. "Did anything seem off about him?"
"I mean, was there anything about his face that looked... wrong?"
Dorian makes a small, thoughtful noise and takes the seat across from him. "Nothing more than his usual pallor and untrimmed beard. You southerners are very pale."
"I know him, a little," Dorian says, moving his white knight without having given even a brief glance at the board. "His name is Marcus. When he first arrived he kept asking me about the differences between magic in Tevinter and magic here in Ferelden."
"He certainly didn't have any questions for me," Cullen says, moving his pawn and taking the knight that Dorian had just played.
"Perhaps he wasn't aware of your feelings about mages," says Dorian, making several illegal moves with his bishop.
Cullen frowns, more at what Dorian has said rather than his unique style of chess. "I have no issue with any of the mages here. The Inquisitor is a mage."
"I, also, am a mage if you have forgotten."
"Really? You mean that flashy stick you carry around isn't a fashionable Tevinter sword? Why this changes everything!"
Dorian sighs and shakes his head. "I do hope no one has told you that you're funny. I'd hate to think you have been lied to all these years."
"That's why you're here," Cullen says, taking one of Dorian's pawns. "You keep me humble."
"It's the least I can do," says Dorian. He picks up his queen and instead of placing it on another spot, he uses it to point at Cullen. "What are you doing out here, anyway?"
"I could ask you the same thing."
"You could, but I recall asking you first."
Cullen shrugs. "Honestly, I'm not really sure."
Dorian studies him for a few seconds, but doesn't ask anything more. "Elfroot," he says, setting down his queen and pulling a sprig of it from a small pouch. "I need it for a poultice." He holds his hand out and Cullen can see where the tips of his fingers are still red from his own fire spells.
"Back in the circle apprentices weren't given a staff until they passed their harrowing," Cullen says, reaching across the table for Dorian's hand. There are older, lighter scars crisscrossing his palm, only partially hidden by the newer burns. "I never knew what that meant for them."
"No, I don't imagine it's covered in your training as a templar."
"It should have been."
Dorian's laugh is hollow, though not insincere. "Would that have made any difference?"
"I don't know," Cullen answers honestly. It would be nice to think that it would have made a difference, but perhaps that’s not a lie he’s willing to tell himself.
"You're not that man anymore," Dorian says. "Obviously, I didn't know you then, but seeing as you've yet to smite me, I'd say you've changed for the better. And with the Inquisitor, the rebel mages, and myself most of all, you're practically a friend to mages everywhere."
Cullen leans back in his chair, releasing Dorian's hand. "I'm honored by your approval."
"I'm here to serve the Inquisition in any way I can. Encouraging words are the very least that I can do."
Cullen laughs, intent on continuing the joke, but hesitates. There is something he wants to share, and maybe Dorian can offer some insight. "Earlier, after you left, the Inquisitor kissed me."
"Ah," says Dorian. "I'm happy for you. It's obvious to anyone that you're fond of her."
Cullen wants to deny he's been obvious about anything, but that isn't his real concern. "I mean, the way she was acting was strange."
"Yes, certainly, that the Inquisitor would ever find you handsome or charming. Perish the thought."
"That's not what I—"
"As fun as this is, poultices can be finicky and I've little talent for them," Dorian says, standing. "I really must get started on that."
"What?" Cullen gets up and follows after Dorian.
"Forgive me for not having time to hear about your love life right now."
"Are you angry with me? Did I do something?"
"Believe it or not my emotional state does not revolve around you," says Dorian. "I told you what I was doing."
"It just seems as though I’ve made you angry somehow."
They stop at Dorian's room on the second floor above the gardens and Cullen lingers in the doorway, unsure if he should enter. There are books piled up in every corner and even more on the bed, open with the pages down against the blankets. Cinnamon and oak permeate the air. Subtle, but hard to miss. Cullen has never once been in here before.
"If I did anything..."
"You didn't." Dorian's back is to him as he puts together the elfroot and a variety of other ingredients that Cullen is unfamiliar with.
Someone exits the room next to Dorian's and neither of them pay it any notice until the woman, one of Leliana's spies, is standing at Cullen's side. Annie, his mind supplies when he tries to recall her name. It's useless trivia, really, when she takes his face between her hands and leans in to kiss him.
"What are you doing?" he asks, pushing her off and holding her at arms length.
Instead of answering she smiles, slips out of his hold, and walks away.
Dorian clears his throat. "Does that happen often?"
"It didn't used to," Cullen says, frowning.
"Well that's interesting," Dorian says, but his words fade out as a low ringing starts in Cullen's ears, tearing through his skull and leaving him off balance. It's come on too fast to be the withdrawal, yet that's what it feels like.
The desire demon carefully pulls him into its embrace and Cullen blinks, gasping for breath as his heart thuds in his chest. The only other person there is Dorian, standing close, but not touching, concern painted over his face.
"I—" Cullen steps back, out of the doorway. "I should speak with Leliana about her people."
"What? Are you alright?"
Cullen stumbles off without answering. It's only the lyrium, it has to be. The pain in his head has settled at the base of his skull, but he can feel it spreading to his temples and down his spine. Soon everything else will hurt, too, and he won't fit inside of himself the way that he should. He keeps moving through the pain, fighting the nausea, up toward the rookery to find Leliana.
She's not there, however, and when he asks a woman, an elf he's never met, she tells him that Leliana is with Josephine. There are hands that touch him, brush against his back, his thighs, lingering on his arms, but when he looks there's no one close enough to touch.
Leliana is standing to the side of Josephine's desk and when Cullen walks it their conversation ends abruptly. "Cullen," she says, crossing her arms over her chest and studying him. "You are unwell."
"One of your spies kissed me," Cullen says and when it's out of his mouth he realises how ridiculous he must sound.
"Oh?" Leliana is smiling, unconcerned. "Surely that is no problem for you."
"It is when I barely even know the woman."
"Perhaps you would prefer a woman you do know," says Josephine. She pushes her chair back from the desk, but remains sitting.
Leliana circles him, running her fingers along the back of his neck. "Is that what you want?" She's too close, right behind him, but when her turns to see her she moves with him, remaining just out of sight. "You're under so much stress, you need someone to take care of you, Cullen," she whispers and his name sounds like poison on her tongue.
Josephine laughs, drawing his attention. "I would think he needs someone a bit more gentle, don't you think?"
"I can be gentle," Leliana says playfully, like it's all a joke at his expense. "I can be very gentle, if that's what you need."
"Excuse me," Cullen says, putting distance between them and slips out of the room with their laughter trailing behind him.
Cassandra puts a hand on his shoulder, no more or less casual than what he's used to with her. "Are you sure you wish to stay out here? No one will blame you for taking a day off."
"That won't be necessary."
She narrows her eyes, not quite believing him. "Do not push yourself so far because you think you have to."
"I will consider that," Cullen says, acquiescing as much as he is willing to, for now.
"That is all I ask," she says, taking her hand from his shoulder and lightly running her fingers down his arm. She's looking at him for a reaction as well, a smile on her lips. It's not the same as how the others had acted, but it's not exactly how Cassandra acts either. "Keep your shield up," she calls to one of the recruits, finally turning away.
Cullen knows he should listen to Cassandra's advice, but it's his stubbornness that keeps him where he is. With the pain in his head, the ache in his muscles, and the nausea in his gut he becomes distracted from the soldiers around him, but when he regains his focus he become aware of one specific thing.
They're all watching him.
The soldiers in the ring are looking to him more than they are at their opponent. The recruits waiting their turn, the chantry sister at the steps leading into the keep, the elf who works in the kitchen, men and women whose faces he recognises but names he doesn't know. They carry on as they normally would, but he can see them, all of them, as they keep turning their gaze toward him. From across the courtyard Cullen makes eye contact with the chantry sister and she grins so wide it splits her face. It's him that has to look away first.
He intends to tell Cassandra that he will be taking the day for himself, but he spots Dorian coming up from the lower courtyard and heading for the tavern and he finds he's walking over to meet him without really thinking about it. "Are you still angry with me?" he asks, cutting Dorian off before he reaches the door.
"You were the one who ran off yesterday, and I was never angry with you," Dorian says, sidestepping him. "Now I'm hoping the rather unpleasant dwarf at the bar will have something better than that stale horse piss you Fereldens call ale." He stops, only just noticing Cullen, eyes going wide. "You look terrible; are you sick?"
"I'm fine," Cullen responds. "It's nothing."
"You say that, but I think you might be dying." Dorian reaches up like he's going to touch him, then draws back and asks, "Can I?"
Cullen hesitates, old fears of magic lingering long after he knows who he can trust. It always has a way of reminding him that he's powerless, but he nods, once, and says, "Yes."
Dorian presses cold magic against his temples that seeps into his skull and tempers the fire in his skin as it runs down his spine like water, cool and gentle, spreading out over his ribs and reaching inside of him. It settles in his chest and remains even when Dorian take his hands away. It's not a cure, but Cullen feels lighter, more steady on his feet, than he has in days.
"That was," Cullen starts, opening his eyes.
"Nothing special, although if you wish to thank me I will accept."
"Anything for a friend..." Dorian trails off, attention elsewhere.
That's when Cullen realises that all sounds of people working, training, speaking, have ceased. Every single person around them has stopped what they are doing to focus entirely on the two of them. A soldier has his training sword raised, mid attack against another soldier with her shield held up to block the blow that isn't coming. Even Cassandra is staring.
"Well this is strange," Dorian says as one by one they all return to their normal activities as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. He sounds far too casual, but a glance at his face betrays how unnerved he truly is.
"I was starting to think it was all in my head," says Cullen, relieved to know it's not.
"That was definitely not in your head." Dorian takes off for the keep, pausing when Cullen doesn't immediately follow. "Do come on, you can make yourself useful."
Cullen rolls his eyes, but goes with him because there is little that would make him stay. The feeling of being watched persists, however, continuing once they're inside and up into the library. There are only a handful of people between the bookshelves and all of them shift, angling themselves toward him when he enters.
"How long has this been going on? It is you, isn't it?" Dorian asks, ushering Cullen into the alcove that he's claimed as his own. "Was it only today or— that woman yesterday, yes? And the mage in the garden?"
Cullen nods. "The Inquisitor as well, I think."
"Fascinating," Dorian says. He looks thoughtful for a moment, then he starts pulling books from the shelves. "It must be that desire demon. Trust a demon to outstay their welcome, though I've never heard of anything like this..."
"Can we stop it?"
"Of course we can," Dorian says. "Probably."
Cullen takes the small stack of books handed to him and turns the first one over to check the cover. "You are aware that I don't speak a word of Tevene, right?"
"Kaffas." Dorian takes the book, tosses it on top of his chair, and places a different one on top of Cullen's stack.
"I understood that one," Cullen mutters, flipping through the pages of the new book. From the corner of his eye he can see over the railing and down onto the floor below where Solas is quietly looking back at him. The expression on his face sends ice creeping up his spine and Cullen shudders, stepping further into Dorian's space.
Eventually Dorian finishes his search of relevant texts in the library and sits down in his more comfortable chair while Cullen has to make do with the floor. He gets lost in reading about demons and magic and magical theory versus its real or practical uses. It's new, all of it, and a glimpse into what Dorian must have spent a lifetime studying. Though most of what they have available in Skyhold is written by people like himself, Andrastians brought up to fear magic and those beliefs are reflected in the writing. There are still many things he'd never been taught by the Chantry.
At some point between Cullen's third and fourth book a young man brings a tray of food, setting it down beside him and then running off without a word. Most of what's on the tray are cheeses and breads, with a few slices of meats and a small bowl of fresh berries. Also included is a bottle of wine which Dorian takes immediately, pouring a glass for them both.
"It would seem there are some benefits to be had," Dorian says.
Cullen pushes the tray so it's centered between them, grabs some of the cheese for himself, and goes back to reading. Magic has always been something to be feared and even more so mages who wield their magic greater than any warrior with a sword, but he'd never really thought that magic could be mundane. It's almost unsettling to learn there are a great number of spells just for washing clothes. He sighs, closing one book and picking up another.
Mages like the Inquisitor and Dorian are difficult for him to imagine using their power for anything so unspectacular. But they are more than just tools of magic and that's not something easily unlearned.
Hours later, when Cullen finally reaches the end of his small pile of books, three things become apparent at once. One, the hour is late and the sun has gone down; two, Dorian is asleep and likely has been for some time; three, there a more people in the library now than when he last looked.
Cullen stands, joints cracking from sitting on the ground for hours. "Dorian, wake up," he says, lightly shaking Dorian awake.
There's whispering from the other side of the library, loud enough the Cullen can hear it, and he turns in time to see two women hurrying out the door. When he turns back, Dorian is awake, blinking his eyes to adjust to the light. "This place is usually empty by now," he says carefully. "We should probably leave."
"I didn't find anything useful," Cullen says, cleaning up the mess of food and books.
"Neither did I," says Dorian. "It's times like these that I truly miss my homeland and our vast libraries with entire wings dedicated to demonology."
They part ways at the bottom of the stairs and Cullen heads back to his own quarters. He nearly manages to avoid running into anyone, but Sera is seated on the landing on the stairs overlooking the courtyard using her bow to shoot old fruit into the area below.
"Hi, you," she says with a friendly wave as he passes. It's the nicest she's ever been to him.
"Goodnight, Sera," he says, and makes his way back into his office without seeing anyone else.
Cullen strips his armor off, crawls into bed, and falls asleep in an instant. Then, what could only be minutes later, but may in reality be over an hour, Cullen wakes up to the sound of someone slowly ascending the ladder from his office. He reaches over the side of his bed, grabs his sword, and sits up, pointing it at the intruder.
"Hey, no need for that," says Sera.
"What are you doing here?"
Sera shrugs and takes a seat at the foot of the bed. "I was just thinking we never hang out, yeah? Not like," she stops talking to make kissing noises, adding a few hand gestures in case he didn't understand the first part, "because that'd be real gross. You're all like--” she puffs up her chest and scrunches her face into an odd and serious expression which is as confusing as it is insulting. “And your hair. But friends, you know? You could be one of my friends."
"Do you have any idea what time it is?" Cullen asks, falling back, head hitting the pillow, and still holding his sword.
"Late? I don't know."
"Sera," he says. "Go."
"Fine," she says. "We'll talk about it later, grumpytits."
Cullen waits until he hears her climb down the ladder and walk out the door before he finally drops his sword. Groaning, he rolls over and tries to fall back asleep.
Without thinking, Cullen leaps out of bed and quickly throws on what clothes he can find in the dark, skipping his armor to save time. Stealth is not a skillset of his, but with little light to guide him or anyone else who may be awake at this hour, he does the best he can crossing the grounds without being seen. The sky is already getting lighter and the sun isn't far behind, and with it the earliest risers in the keep. He will have to make this fast because he fears what will happen if too many people are around for his departure.
Dorian's room is located between five others; two on one side and three on the other, and even at this hour Cullen feels as though he's being observed when he knock on the door. There's no answer the first time, so he tries again and waits for a few seconds, leaning in to hear if he's gotten the attention of the man inside, but it's clear he's not being loud enough. Louder, though, is not a risk he wants to take.
"Dorian," he says at the highest volume he's willing to go. "Dorian."
No answer. With a frustrated sigh, Cullen leans his forehead against the wood and attempts to wake Dorian by wishing for it hard enough. That doesn't work, of course, so he's left standing there feeling a bit foolish and out of place. The door rattles, just a little, when he puts more of his weight against it, something that only happens when the latch on the other side isn't secure. Or unlocked.
Cullen enters the room and then as a precaution he locks the door behind him. "Dorian," he says, making his way across the single room to the bed where Dorian is sleeping. "Will you wake up, I need—"
The room is dark, the only window is at the front, and not a single candle is lit, but there is no mistaking the fact that Dorian isn't wearing a single scrap of clothing. He's stretched out on his stomach, the blankets having been kicked to the floor, and Cullen can see every inch of him. The dense, coiled muscles of his back, and down further, following his spine to his firm, rounded butt. Cullen takes another step closer and overturns a pile of books and what sounds like a candlestick as it hits the ground and rolls under the bed. When he looks up it's to see that he's solved the problem of waking Dorian.
The expression on Dorian's face is ill-defined in the dark, but it morphs into shock and then confusion which Cullen is better equipped to deal with. "I can explain this."
Dorian is on his side, propping himself up with an elbow, watching him. "Honestly, this is not how I imagined this night would end," he says, swinging his legs over the side of the bed and standing, seemingly unconcerned with his own nudity. "Is. your explanation that you've missed me in the hour or so that we've been apart?" As easy as a flick of his wrist has half the candles in the room glowing red at the wick and then blooming into a small flame.
Without the darkness as a cover, either for Dorian's body, or his own answering blush, Cullen has to find any other spot to focus on when he speaks. "I, ah—" he clears his throat, staring intently an empty silver bowl upturned on a short table, and tries again, "I think it would be best for me to leave Skyhold for a few days. Sera picked the lock into my quarters and I know what the rest of our people are capable of. I'd like it if you came with me."
"I see." There's the sound of rustling fabric as Dorian gets dressed, followed by a soft thud against what is probably the bureau, and then a quiet curse before he continues. "Wouldn't it be better to stay here?"
"Why is that? I fear an escalation if I remain."
When Dorian doesn't finish speaking, Cullen finally allows himself to look back. "But?"
Dorian's face is pinched, his eyebrows drawn together and his lips pressed tight in a frown. "No, you're right. I don't know why I thought..." He nods, slowly like he's trying to work out a puzzle, but then he nods again and whatever was troubling him is gone. "We should go to Redcliffe. There may still be some things left over from the Venatori and the rebel mages. Some of those things could even turn out to be useful. Alexius must have left something of value behind."
"Redcliffe, then," says Cullen. "It's less than a day's ride from here."
"They think they love you, but the thoughts are not theirs. The love is not theirs, either."
Cullen barely manages not to jump, but Dorian has a hand pressed to his heart and his eyes are wide, startled, when Cole appears, sitting on top of the bed.
"Don't do that," Dorian hisses.
"How did you get in here?" Cullen asks. "The door is locked."
"No," says Cole. "The door is not locked, it is open. It doesn't want to be locked." And sure enough, the door is slightly open, showing the first rays of sunlight. Cole must have picked the lock.
"Beautiful, bright, a sword on the armor but the flame was no mercy. He is inside everyone's head, but he is not in my head he is too big and cannot fit. I came here to understand."
Cullen has trouble parsing the words to make any send of them. "Do you mean me? I'm in everyone's head?"
"Not mine, you don't fit."
"Well that's," Dorian pauses to think about it and eventually ends with, "something. I think."
"Why isn't Dorian affected?" Cullen asks. The question has been at the back of his mind, one that he hasn't let himself dwell on, but he has to know.
Cole tilts his head, regarding them both. "How would he know?"
"I'd know," says Dorian. "I'm perfectly able to keep my hands off of our dear Cullen, as he is aware. That's more than can be said about anyone else at the moment."
"Yes," says Cole and offers no other insight.
"Now that that's settled, we were planning a short trip to Redcliffe," says Dorian.
"They will not want you to leave."
They make a quick stop back at Cullen's office for him to grab his sword, securing the leather scabbard with the straps around his hip and thigh, and sliding his shield onto his arm. His armor, however, will have to remain behind. It's the armor of a Commander and far too conspicuous for the village they are heading to. Cullen gives it a final look and sighs, feeling somewhat uneasy without it, and climbs back down the ladder to where Dorian is waiting. "Let's go," he says.
"If anyone tries to stop us?"
"We don't let them."
Dorian makes a noise somewhere between a sigh and a laugh, almost too quiet to be heard, and says, "I wonder how easily they will forgive you and not me when this is all over."
Cullen has no answer for that.
The stables are empty, save for the horses, and it's little effort to have the them saddled and ready for the journey to Redcliffe, though trying to remain unnoticed proves more difficult. It isn't until they're leading the horses out of the stables that Cullen sees Blackwall standing in the barn's entryway, arms crossed over his chest, staring.
"Going somewhere?" Blackwall asks, far more casual than the sword in his hand would imply.
"None of your concern, Blackwall," says Cullen.
The two guards at Skyhold's entrance are standing at attention, and three more are coming down off the battlements to join them.
"Get on the horse," Cullen whispers to Dorian as they get closer to the gates.
Dorian complies, but he says once again, "it might be better if we stay."
Cullen ignores him, he can't stay here any longer. "At ease," he says to the guards. "Let us pass."
"I'm sorry, Ser, but you need to stay here."
"She's right, Ser," says the other, grabbing the reins of Cullen's horse.
Cullen has his sword out and pointed at the man's throat before he even thinks about it. "Let go." He hears the sound of metal dragging against stone, just out of his field of view, and more guards have arrived. Nine in total, not counting Blackwall.
Dorian has his staff held out in front of him, tracking the people still hiding in the shadows. "You do have a plan, yes?"
"You need to stay here," says Blackwall, circling around to the front of them. "No one wants to hurt you, so it would be best if you put down your weapons and come back inside."
Everything happens at once. Blackwall attempts to stab the horse through the heart, Cullen slams his shield into the guard still holding onto the reins, and Dorian fires a bolt of magic into Blackwall's chest with enough force to send him staggering backwards with sparks of electricity flying off of his armor. A soldier gets between Cullen and the guard, but he's without any weapons and all he can do is take hold of Cullen's shield, trying to drag him away from the horse.
Cullen slips his arm from the shield's straps, using the soldier's momentum against him. It's the opportunity he needs to mount his horse and start to ride off, Dorian right behind.
"Will Blackwall be alright?"
"I think so," says Dorian. "Just a few minor burns if he's lucky."
"Can you keep the rest from following us?"
Dorian sighs again, the same unhappy look taking over his face. "I think so," he says.
They stop at the end of the bridge and Dorian turns in his saddle to stare back at the keep. He raises his staff and does something complex that Cullen has little grasp of beyond being spellwork, but it sends the guards that he can see falling to their knees, clutching at their head and screaming. It's an ugly sight, and one Cullen knows too well from experience, but it gets the job done.
"One more thing," Dorian says, and in the next instant the other end of the bridge is lit with flames that lick at every inch of the gate, but spread no further.
"Let's go," Cullen says.
There's a narrow path that has been carved out of the mountain and leads all the way down to the valley below. They follow it to the end as the sun rises above them and eventually turn south along the edge of lake Calenhad to Redcliffe village.
Their trip is somber. Cullen is barely staying awake on his horse and when he does think to talk with him Dorian appears lost in thought. Even when they have to stop to let the horses rest, and maybe more importantly to allow themselves to rest and eat what little food they brought with them, the conversation is sparse.
When at last they reach Redcliffe it's night again and the moon is full and bright, high above them. It's taken nearly a full day to make the journey and Cullen can feel every minute of it in his bones and the weight of his eyelids. The adrenaline from that morning has long since worn off and he’s left exhausted.
"There's an inn above the tavern," Dorian says, heading in that direction. "We can stay there."
"Is that where you were staying when you first met the Inquisitor?"
"No," Dorian's laugh is bitter, "at that time I was camping out in the woods, if you can believe it. I couldn't be seen anywhere near here. No, I learned of the inn later when I had to come back to meet with my father."
Cullen knows the story of Dorian and his father only through idle gossip and rumors, but he knows even more when not to pry. Dorian's secrets are his own.
"There's a stable near the back," Dorian adds, dismounting from the horse when they reach the front of the tavern. "I'll get us a room."
Cullen leans over to grab the reins of the other horse and carefully walks them to the small stables behind the tavern. There are maybe half a dozen other horses in there already, but he's able to find an empty stall to secure their own. A snoring young man on a pile of hay, once woken up, agrees to tend to them for a few silvers.
The first things Cullen hears after entering the tavern is, somehow not surprisingly, arguing. Dorian and the balding, middle aged man behind the bar are exchanging increasingly heated words, nearing outright shouting. The few people left inside, at different stages of inebriation, are all watching it happen and one man, slumped over a table, keeps raising his jug either in agreement or anger whenever one of them speaks.
"I have coin, just take it and give me a room!"
"Like I said, mage, your moneys not wanted here."
Cullen walks over to them, placing a hand on Dorian's shoulder, hoping to calm him down before anything ends up on fire. "Is there a problem?"
"Yeah," says the barkeep, "this mage here," he jams a finger against Dorian's chest, "thinks we haven't had enough trouble with people like him. Thinks I can't tell he's Tevinter as well. Blood mages, all of 'em."
"I am not—"
"Like I'm gonna believe you!"
"Please," Cullen interjects, picking up the coinpurse, "my friend is no blood mage, I assure you."
"Yeah, right, why should I—" the man stops speaking as he turns to look at Cullen, and runs a hand through his thinning hair. "You're no mage."
"Well, I suppose," he clears his throat, looks at Dorian again, then back to Cullen, and tries to smooth out the wrinkles on his shirt. "Yeah, okay, we only got one room left, but you can have it." He takes their money and hands over a large brass key. "Just no mage shit, okay?"
"Thank you," Cullen says and steers Dorian up the stairs to their room before the man at the bar can change his mind.
The room is small, but clean with a table by the windows, two chairs, and a bed that will probably fit both of them if they choose to share it. Cullen sets his sword on the table and takes a seat on the edge of the bed so he can unlace his boots without risking his balance.
"I'm sorry," he says. "About that man, he's just afraid of magic. It's not personal."
"No, I'm only a mage, how could it be personal?” Dorian says between clenched teeth. “No matter, I'm used to it."
Cullen kicks off his boots then goes over to Dorian who is still standing in front of the closed door. "During the blight Redcliffe was attacked by things brought here by a mage. And now after the rebel mages and the Venatori the people here have a lot of reasons not to trust magic."
"I said I'm used to it, what more do you want?"
"I want you to understand their point of view."
"Oh I understand their point of view," Dorian spits, "but it's not me who needs to learn a little understanding. How do you think it feels being hated for how you were born? Do you even think about it? You lock your mages away and teach everyone else to fear them, but I'm the one who has to consider your feelings when I'm hated on sight."
"That's not- I didn't mean it like that," Cullen says.
Dorian steps back and spins around, starting to remove his own armor. "You never do."
"I don't hate you, I never have, and I'm not afraid of your magic," Cullen says, watching as parts of Dorian's armor fall to the ground piece by lovingly crafted piece, leaving him in only his breeches. "I've had years of Chantry training telling me that magic is evil and that the only way to be safe from magic is to rid good people of it entirely, but I'm trying to unlearn that. I'm not afraid of you. I've seen you use magic and it's—" beautiful, "I'm not afraid."
“And yet you make excuses for the behaviour of others,” Dorian mutters. “Perhaps there is more for you to unlearn.”
“I am trying,” Cullen says. “I am. Even is sometimes it can be difficult for me to see past the magic for the mage.”
When Dorian doesn't say anything more, still turned away, Cullen sits back down on the bed. "The bed is a bit small—"
"Don't worry," Dorian says, finally acknowledging him again. "I'll sleep on the floor so you don't have to worry about me doing anything untoward or magical to you in your sleep."
"Will you please stop assuming the worst of me? I was going to say that I think we'll both fit."
"I see." Dorian tilts his head to the side, lips pressed together. "I never know what to make of you."
Cullen sighs. "I can tell." If he's honest, he's not sure what to make of himself either.
He waits until Dorian has gotten into the other side of the bed before he crawls in after. It's been a long day and he's running only on the very last dregs of his energy so he lacks the wit and charm he usually saves for Dorian. "You're important to me. I'm trying to be someone better than I was and I'm sorry that I still get it wrong," he says not expecting an answer and not being surprised when he doesn't get one. When falls asleep it's to the sound of Dorian breathing.