It had dawned in him during the debriefing. The debriefing which had been mandatory--he was the commander, after all; Cullen had to know what had happened at Redcliffe Castle while he remained cooped up poring over reports, maps and lists of supplies--but which had unsettled him, if he were honest with himself, prompting more questions than answers.
He'd interrogated the mage, after first hearing from the Inquisitor that the mages trickling in across the great span of stone leading to Skyhold would not abate. Would, in fact, grow ever larger as word got out that the Inquisition was welcoming the rebel mages with open arms. Cullen had grown angry then--so had they all, honestly; they'd expected to have more time to decide, to plan, to stall--and stormed out of the debriefing before it had been proper. He'd had to call the mage back later, alone with Leliana and Josephine, for a more detailed explanation of the specific kind of magic afoot in Redcliffe Castle.
"How do you know it was a year in the future? A year exactly? That's awfully...precise," he'd demanded.
Dorian, oddly muscled for one whose heaviest accoutrement was his staff, shrugged beneath the equally odd rope-tied covering he wore and sniffed disdainfully. "Time magic. Another idiot Tevinter sticking his nose where it doesn't belong, playing with powers he doesn't understand. Is that what you want me to say?"
"No! What does that have to do with anything? I want to know how you could possibly have known it was precisely a year gone! Is that such a hard question?"
"I just waltzed up to a guard and asked him the date, before cheerfully blowing his head off with a fireball. Obviously."
"Dorian--" Josephine began, the familiar diplomat's placation putting its feelers out.
Cullen had no patience for it all of a sudden. He was not in a mood to placate, not after losing what chance they'd had to fix all the wrongs of the templars--or at least to have tried--and not after trying and failing to get the details out of some strange man who had appeared out of nowhere, right before an invasion that cost them their base and hundreds of lives. He slammed both hands on the war table, causing the figures representing various factions to topple. Josephine's eyes met Leliana's with a look whose complete lack of surprise frustrated Cullen all the more.
"How. Did. You. Know." He kept his voice flat and level as one of the measuring rods the dwarves were even now using in the Great Hall, trying to keep the floors level as they rebuilt them.
He met the man's gray-eyed stare glower for glower, and finally Dorian did roll his eyes and used it as an excuse to look away--out the windows, toward the lengthy sweep of shadow pouring down off this side of the peaks at day's end.
"I asked Leliana," he said.
The spymaster--for that was what she was, whatever anyone wished to call her--allowed her eyebrows to rise, but tucked any other reaction tightly away where Cullen couldn't read it. "Me?" she said lightly.
Dorian's eyes remained fixed on a point beyond the mountains. "Yes, you. You were there! You were...the year of Corypheus's reign had been...difficult. You and Cassandra and Solas were there. You...died for us. For us to come fix this." His face hardened. "For us to come fix the mess Alexius will make if his beloved Corypheus has his way."
Cullen would never have ranked himself among the most observant of men, and in truth he admitted to himself later that he might have missed it completely had he not noticed Josephine's wince. But wince she did, right as the Tevinter mage's voice twisted on beloved, and Cullen thought he understood a little more what led the man to be so nasty about the events at Redcliffe.
"I'm sorry," he said suddenly, surprising not only himself but Leliana, who actually allowed her eyebrows to fly skyward a second time.
Dorian looked away from the mountains then, his gaze sharp and guarded as a hidden dagger. "What an odd thing for you to say. We're all back in one piece after all, aren't we? Demons vanquished, damsels rescued, happily ever after and all that?"
"I'm sorry for calling you in before you'd had a chance to--" Cope? Cullen suspected that mouth under that ridiculous mustache would twist cruelly were he to even suggest such a thing. "--Before you'd had a chance to rest."
"My dear commander, a mage I may be, even one from the tepid north, but made of glass I assuredly am not," Dorian replied, rising gracefully in a rustle of silks that were (miraculously!) only slightly worn from travel and near-death experiences. "While you were here arranging your toys, after all," he glanced downward at the troop movement markers Cullen's outburst had knocked over, "I was travelling through time to amend my former mentor's disastrous mistakes. I hope you'll understand from this that I am hardly some fragile creature in need of constant coddling in order to be of any value to your cause." A sudden smile streaked across his face, like a rabbit startled out of a bush--there then gone. "Though I wouldn't mind a bath, if we are discussing coddling. A real one, in a tub. You do have tubs here in the south, don't you? Or are we supposed to leap into frigid rivers and come out frozen solid, to keep down the smell?
"The Inquisitor has spoken for you," Josephine interjected smoothly. "Your value is not in doubt. And I do believe we have a large copper tub, yes, just recently arrived as a gift from one of our wealthier Orlesian adherents. Commander, unless there is more information you require...?"
Cullen blinked. His mind had gone rather too far down the path of copper tubs and steaming torrents of water for his liking, and he knew Leliana, at least, was not unaware of his discomfiture. "Yes, well. I believe we've gathered all the information we need to at present." He coughed, resting his eyes on the rope bindings at the mage's shoulders rather than his eyes. "You are dismissed."
"So kind of you," Dorian drawled, wearing an expression Cullen kept himself from seeing by staring at the knots. Cullen saw the swirl of his mage's robes, though, as he turned to follow Josephine out of the war room and toward the hoped-for loan of the copper tub.
When he turned away from the doorway he realized Leliana was smirking at him openly, and he felt the inescapable flush claw its way up his cheeks.
"Not a word," he snapped.
Leliana pursed her lips in a perfect moue, the picture of Andrastian innocence. "I was only curious as to your thoughts on the merits of Orlesian copper tubs versus--what was it? Throwing yourself into a frigid river in the Ferelden fashion?"
"That's several words, if I'm counting right."
"Perhaps as a Ferelden you are unfamiliar with the concept of a decent bath? Great shining tubs of near-boiling-hot water, gouts of steam curling upward, bathing the skin in a sheen of sweat before you even sit down--if you hurry you might ask Josephine if she could order enough water for two."
Cullen hoped his glare was like twin daggers. Straight into the innocent spymaster's smirk.
"I'll leave you to pick up after yourself, then," Leliana quipped in a perfect imitation of Dorian's speech and cadence, grinning when she saw Cullen realize this. "We wouldn't want people to think we were invading Lake Calenhad, now, would we?"
Leliana gone, Cullen plucked the fallen soldier from Lake Calenhad and righted it squarely over Redcliffe Village. Where this mage had, apparently, gone forward in time. Where he had lost any hope of redeeming his one-time lover. And from which he had returned, against all reason or expectation, here. Now. To Skyhold. To join the Inquisition.
This chapter is a bit on the fluff side but it's a means to an end, I promise.
That had been a month ago. Now Cullen was standing in his tower office, arms stretched out to either side like a lunatic as he shivered slightly under the ministrations of Josephine's prized, if famously taciturn, tailor.
"I don't even know why they want me at this...soirée. It isn't as though they're not going to know from taking one look at me that I don't belong there," Cullen grumbled.
"Higher, please," the woman with the measuring tape murmured through a mouthful of pins.
Raising his arms straight up, Cullen continued his lament. Someone needed to hear it. "They're going to be expertly dodging currents I can't even see. Battles I can do, but polite conversation laced with hidden barbs? No thank you."
"For a newcomer you paint quite the detailed picture of the so-highly-vaunted classes," purred a voice from behind him. Cullen leapt half a foot in the air at least and whirled, eliciting a hiss of vexation from his tailor.
Dorian lounged in the doorway, utterly at ease, one hip flush against the frame and one ankle tucked neatly behind the other. Like a cat on a rooftop, Cullen thought, regretting it instantly as he felt his cheeks redden.
"You needed something, Dorian?"
The other man's smile was more fox than feline, but his voice remained pleasant enough. "Oh, you know, just your fellow council members perpetually on a quest for your opinion, strong-arming the nearest passersby to serve as their messenger to you. But no need to rush," he added as Cullen moved to extricate himself from the tailor's clutches, causing her to harrumph again, "it's not a pressing matter. I'll just wait right here. Wouldn't want to ruin the magic of a good wardrobe in the making." His eyes traveled up and down the full length of Cullen's half-clad body, taking little trouble to hide where he thought the magic lay.
Cullen tried to scowl, then tarnished his imperious air somewhat with a shiver. Dorian saw it and grinned wickedly. "The frost-bitten Ferelden commander is prone to taking chills? Perish the thought!"
"Yes, well, if you had to stand in a drafty mountain tower half-naked as someone stuck you with pins--not that it's your fault, madame," he added to the tailor, who had resumed ignoring him completely, "you'd be shivering too."
"Oh I already have," Dorian purred. He paused a moment, seemingly to cement that image in the mind of his interlocutor, before carrying on. "Terribly dashing, these uniforms. Josephine does have excellent taste, I'll give her that. For a southerner."
Caught trying to fight back the blush deepened by thoughts of Dorian standing unclothed in the speckled sunlight of one of Skyhold's under-construction ceilings, it took Cullen a moment to process what the other man had said. When he did, his eyes widened. "Uniforms--you have one too? You're coming?"
"Oh yes. You didn't think they'd leave me behind at a big event like this, did you? And with a tailor ordered for the occasion!"
"I didn't...I mean, of course you're...but...you've only been here a month?" Cullen finished lamely, wincing as the tailor nicked him with a pin for moving.
Dorian's sigh was the stuff of theater. "He doesn't want me to attend the ball! I had best tell the Inquisitor that she'll have to bring the qunari instead. I wonder if we have enough of the velvet left..." He spun on his soft-booted heels and headed out the door.
"Wait!" Tossing an apology over his shoulder to the thoroughly annoyed tailor, Cullen deftly leapt out of the folds of red cloth and skidded to the door. Dorian paused on the walkway outside, full sun gleaming off the rich cobalts and golds of his collar, his cuffs, his many folds of silk. The effect was rather more arresting than Cullen had counted upon, and he stood there awkwardly for a moment.
"Yes?" Dorian prompted.
"I--sorry. I'm sorry. That wasn't what I meant. I hadn't known you were accompanying us, is all."
Cullen stood there in his breeches and bare feet, trying to think of something to say. A gust of wind vaulted over the parapet and hit him full in the chest, prompting a shiver even the abundant sunshine couldn't prevent.
"My dear man, you're freezing to death." Dorian reached up to the gold hook enclosure at his own throat, removing his brightly-colored cloak with a flourish. "Here." Before Cullen could react Dorian had swept forward and twirled the rich fabric around the commander's shoulders, clicking the hook-and-eye shut beneath Cullen's stubbled chin. This close, Cullen could smell the scented oils in the man's hair, the remains of breakfast on his breath. "Wouldn't want you to catch cold." Dorian's tone remained mild, conciliatory, but his eyes flickered with something that made Cullen shiver even beneath the cloak.
"But then you'll freeze instead," he said stupidly, mouth dry.
"I, my good man, am expendable." Dorian broke the closeness then, stepping back to bow with a flourish. "I am but a humble mage of fallen family, after all, while you are the commander of the Inquisition's forces. Can't have anything untoward happen to you." Sunlight flashed across the newly-exposed gold ropes that snaked across Dorian's tanned and muscled back in a complex lattice. How did one maintain a tan in the snowy mountains, even accounting for difference in skin tone? "Besides," he added with a smug little smirk as he rose from his elaborate bow, "I have more than a few of those lying around. Return it when you find it convenient, won't you?"
"Ah, yes." Close your mouth, Cullen. "Yes, I will do that." Close it! "Thank you."
"They're still waiting for you in the war room," Dorian added, spinning on his heel for good this time before sauntering across the battlements in a glory of gold and silks. "Best not to dally!"
That shook Cullen from his daze. He coughed and tried to adopt his best commander's voice. "What did they want to tell me? You had a message?"
Dorian turned with a deliberately neutral expression. "Why yes. I was to suggest to you that I was coming and to ascertain your confirmation that it was a good idea. Was it not?"
"No. I mean, yes! I mean, good idea. Tell them."
"With pleasure." Dorian's lips quirked beneath his curling mustache. "You might want to meet with them to discuss strategy. Or potential soirée beverage choices. Or whatever it is the three of you do, huddled over that table all day." Another swirl of his robes, and he was sweeping down the stones again, seemingly impervious to the cold though Cullen knew this was not the case. Light danced along the gold braid twining over his shoulder muscles.
Cullen watched him go until the great monolith that was the Great Hall swallowed him up. The flared collar of Dorian's cloak rose up around his face and assaulted him with a torrent of smells Cullen couldn't begin to name. Ginger? Incense? Silk, a part of his mind noted distantly, should not be this warm. Was traditionally not this warm. Perhaps lingering body heat was contributing to this unreasonable warmth?
The thought set him shivering again.
To the soirée!
Cullen had plan. A plan. As soon as he could divest himself from these perfumed and coiffed interlopers--did he need a drink? was he married? how was he finding the Winter Palace as compared to those dreadful Ferelden excuses for gatherings they had all heard tell of on cold winter nights?--he could set it into motion.
Unfortunately, extricating himself from these nobles was proving more difficult than he had foreseen. Every time he tried to make apologies and slip out from the circle of pressing hopefuls, every time he thought he spotted an opening between brocaded elbows or voluminous skirts, someone new appeared to fill in the gap. He was growing impatient. How was he supposed to keep an eye out for trouble if he couldn't see beyond a four-foot radius of bejeweled gossipmongers?
For that matter, how was he supposed to find Dorian?
It was Varric, of all people, who saved him. The burly dwarf was adept at making space for himself when no space appeared to be available, then softening the blow of being nudged aside with a flurry of suave apologies. One hooded look from him, though, made it clear he felt as harassed by the surroundings as Cullen did.
"A word, my lord Commander," he announced loudly, making a leg for the benefit of those gathered. "The Inquisitor wishes to speak with you."
"Of course. If you would excuse me."
With a silent ululation of success, he followed Varric out from between the stifling press of skirts and coattails, barely managing to restrain himself from running for the doors. Varric led him into a small sitting area blessedly empty of people for the moment. Cullen looked around, but could see no members of their party in sight, Inquisitor or otherwise.
"I don't suppose that was a ruse to rescue me from the attentions of those...charming people?"
"You suppose correctly." Varric's mouth twisted in disgust. "It isn't as though anyone was going to speak to me long enough to divulge anything useful. I stick out like a sore thumb here. Figured the least I could do was give you a moment's respite."
"Have you seen anything out of the ordinary, then?"
The dwarf shook his head, his gold earrings catching numerous points of candlelight and flinging them back at the similarly gold surroundings. "Nothing. Leliana says to keep an eye out. Josephine says the same, or would, but I guess her sister is in attendance and is somewhat hampering her own efforts at information-gathering." He eyed Cullen sideways. "What about you?"
"Other than the knowledge that these Orlesians are much more interested in the background of a Ferelden ex-templar than common sense could possibly warrant, no. Nothing suspicious."
Cullen's eyes narrowed. "What do you mean?"
Varric scrubbed a hand along the back of his neck; a gesture Cullen instantly recognized as a prelude to a touchy subject. "You haven't made it out onto the terrace then, have you?"
"Varric, I've barely seen the other side of this ballroom, let alone the rest of the palace. No, I haven't made it out onto the terrace. Should I have?"
"Maybe." The dwarf shrugged, seemingly trying to determine which course of action was best. "Dorian's out there. Might be good to, you know. Keep in touch. Make sure everyone knows what they're doing. That sort of thing."
A light flashed in Cullen's mind. "Ah." Awkward silence. "Thank you." Varric looked at him expectantly, and Cullen shifted his weight from foot to foot. "I might...require a drink first, if it comes to that. Would you know is there is wine somewhere?"
Varric grinned then, apparently the first good thing he'd heard all evening. "Wine, ale and everything in between. Right this way, Commander."
The table in the dimly-lit room--did they not believe in candles on this side of the palace?--fairly groaned under the weight of its offerings. Spiced wine, no less than three spitted hogs, elaborate arrangements of meat and vegetables glistening in every sauce under the sun, and an array of tiny brightly-colored cakes more varied than Cullen knew was possible filled the trestle table to its very edges, with more being brought in every few minutes by blank-faced servants as guests picked away at the bounty.
Cullen had tossed back three goblets of wine before they'd been five minutes in the room--two he procured himself and one helpfully proffered by Varric when the second glass ran dry. To his credit, the dwarf had so far said not a word about watching himself or his consumption, for which Cullen was grateful. He felt guilty enough about what he was about to do; he didn't need Varric's censure to add to his troubles.
"They don't skimp on the booze, I'll give them that," Varric said over his own second glass. He and Cullen had cloistered themselves as far into a profusion of spiky plants and overhanging draperies as was decent; neither wanted to be hemmed in by insatiably curious partygoers again.
"Indeed not." Cullen drained his fourth glass and tallied up the state of his senses. Tongue a little thickened, feet a little unsteady, but nothing major. More was clearly required.
Varric's eyes lit on the empty glass and he nodded toward the table. "Want a refill? I somehow doubt I'll be as prone to the infatuation of these nobles as you are. Don't think they go in for chest hair in these parts."
Cullen snorted, startling himself with the sound. Was he drunker than he thought? "Yes, please, if you would." He gratefully handed his glass off to Varric and busied himself examining the plants, the draperies, the embroidery on his cuffs--anything to look preoccupied and thus deter curious onlookers from preying upon him. When a shadow thrown by the candelabras from the balcony outside fell across him, he barely stifled a groan. So much for escaping the attentions of the local wildlife.
"Are you testing out a new form of camouflage here, Commander? I rather think we ought to have gone with the green velvet over the red, if that was your intention this evening."
There Dorian stood, resplendent in vivid red surcoat and shimmering blue sash, backlit by the starry night sky and the flickering of candlelight on smooth balcony railings. An involuntary glance downward--Cullen hadn't seen the man since their arrival; they'd come in separate carriages, the Inquisitor's war council and her allies, and in the flurry of introductions and dignitaries he hadn't managed a glimpse--revealed that, yes, Josephine's tailor had made Dorian's velour breeches precisely as tight as Cullen had imagined.
Dorian saw the glance and pouted prettily. "Terrible, aren't they? So restrictive. How you warriors carry on all day in what amounts to a pair of leg corsets I will never understand."
Had Cullen had wine in his mouth he would have spluttered, as it was he choked on his own laughter, fearing any attention--and newcomers--it might draw to the conversation. "Not much for breeches in the Imperium, then, are you?"
"Oh, you have no idea." Dorian's mustache shone in the moonlight as he grinned wickedly and turned to face the room; Cullen found himself wondering if he oiled his facial hair. Might that be the source of the man's scent? "Ah, I see you have a loyal companion already," Dorian continued, and Cullen's face fell at the words--Varric was returning, a glass in each hand, looking very much the triumphant victor of a hard-won battle. One look at Cullen's face, though, and he turned his arrival into a flourishing departure, glasses held out to each of them.
"I don't suppose I could interest you in any wine? I need to check in with Leliana, and if I spill on anyone's dress on the way I may very well end up spitted like those hogs."
"That's a perfectly fair assessment," Dorian remarked, taking a glass with relish and downing half of it in one gulp. Cullen tried not to stare as the mage licked stray droplets from his lips. "The finest clothes anyone here owns will be on display tonight. If I'd spent the fortune they did on my finery--rather than depending on our dear Josephine to provide it for me--I might very well kill you too if you slopped wine on my velvet. Though I suppose the red we decided on might be less disastrous than, say, a cream or a silver..."
"Right then, I'll talk to you later," Varric interrupted, handing Cullen his glass and fairly bustling from the room. Cullen was almost sad to see him go--now he was all alone with his plans. And with Dorian, which was just as bad.
The mage in question eyed him speculatively over the rim of his wineglass as he drank deeply. "Enjoying the party?" he intoned, lowering his voice in testament to their sudden solitude or to discourage listeners, Cullen didn't know.
"Orlesian social gatherings are hardly my area of expertise," he groaned. "Another hour and I'd have been crushed to death beneath the ruffles of a dozen jockeying onlookers, half of them trying to marry their daughters to me and the other half trying to arrange a tryst between those daughters and themselves, with me sometimes as a participant and sometimes an impartial observer."
Dorian's vulpine smile deepened. "Sounds delightful." He tossed back the rest of his wine and left his glass on the try of a passing servant without needing to look, keeping his eyes fixed on Cullen with an almost unsettling intensity. "Really, though, you aren't enjoying the soirée? You could hardly find a finer one. What about it displeases your fine Ferelden sensibilities?"
"All this," Cullen gestured, taking in the glimmering columns, the statues, the very ceiling. "It's a bit much."
"A bit much of what? Opulence? Grandeur? Style?"
Cullen grimaced, attempting and failing to shrug within the tight confines of his coat. "No. Fakery."
At this Dorian's mouth turned up at the corners, not entirely kindly. "And what, pray tell, would you prefer, oh Commander? Openness and honesty? Amongst these people?"
"Well, yes." Cullen blinked, only slightly woozy. "Wouldn't you?"
"Oh my dear, dear boy. Honesty is the salt to the snails that are the upper crust. That man over there, with the woman on his arm, do you think that's his wife?"
Cullen followed Dorian's gaze to a delicate creature in a pale green mask and paler ruffles, a porcelain hand laid on the heavy velvet cuff of a formidable gentleman in burgundy. "Well, no, I suppose not, but--"
"You're wrong. That is his wife. They despise each other. He's sleeping with at least two of the men they're talking to--see how they lean toward each other, in silent competition to get closer to him? To respond first to his colorless quips? He's doing it to confound his wife, and she'll return it in kind later in the evening. In your honest world, would it be better for them to draw blades over this?"
Cullen blinked, beginning to feel the wine work in him. It was growing harder to think. "Well, no, but--"
"And that group over there. Sisters or cousins, I can't quite tell, but really it's much the same thing at this level, what with all the intermarrying. They'd have each other's heads on platters if they had their way--probably something they're warring over, a man or a woman or a fortune. Again, much the same thing. Would you have them exchange their simpering little smiles for poison? For claw-marks on each other's faces?"
"Surely it can't be as bad as all that," Cullen interjected, the gold and glitter in the walls and floor beginning to ripple for him, promising to whirl by the end of the evening. "I'm not saying everyone should act on their basest impulses, only that--"
"--only that they have better impulses." Dorian finished for him acidly. "That's what you want to believe is there. Better people. I can assure you, however, that you would be thoroughly disappointed on that score."
Cullen did not appreciate having his sentences finished for him, and glared to show it. "And how would you know? You come from who-knows-where in Tevinter, not the Orlesian court!"
Dorian's smile was definitely dangerous now, his eyes flashing with the reflections of candles and crystal. "Check a map, Commander. Minrathous was the crowning jewel of an empire when Orlais was little more than some hovels and fields." As suddenly as it was there the danger was gone, like a crumb flicked off a cuff, and he smiled wryly. "Not that that means we've got any greater claim to brazen imbecility than these esteemed individuals. But, generally speaking, if you've seen one party you've seen them all."
"I...see." Cullen spoke carefully, as the room threatened to move from rippling to full-on tilting around him.
"Dear man, I do believe you're drunk!" Dorian snickered softly, reaching out a hand to steady him. Cullen hadn't realized he'd been swaying. The grip on his elbow felt warm through the velvet. Firm. He felt himself shudder with pleasure, rippling like the room around him, and tried not to giggle at the similarity.
"You are very drunk," Dorian amended. "Let's get you some air."
"I am the commander of the Inquisition's forces!" Cullen chortled, slightly too loudly as Dorian tugged him from the room with the food through a glittering vestibule, to an adjoining smaller moonlit room with several doors. People turned to look at the pair of red-clad men as they pushed past. "I cannot be drunk!"
"You're right, you must just be a master of deception," Dorian muttered dryly as they at last reached a pair of tall glass doors leading out onto a terrace.
Soirée cont'd. Not fluff.
Suddenly space opened up around them--not much, as the terrace was hardly empty, but a great deal more than indoors. Muted blues and purples took over where red and gold had reigned; Cullen felt his eyes struggling to adjust to the darkness. Statues and topiaried animals gathered around them among the guests--actually that's the other way around, he thought, unable to suppress a snort of amusement at his own cleverness--and a lone minstrel sang huskily at one end of a long pale stone railing, past which the Winter Palace's expansive grounds gave way to the lake and, beyond that, the dark slopes of mountains against the sky. The mountains put Cullen in mind of home, and his steps wavered a little.
Dorian led him past the minstrel and her listeners, past the milling groups of twos and threes to the very far edge of the terrace, tucked up against the opposite wall, the stars above and the lake below. When Cullen merely stood there, the mage gently picked up his forearms from his sides and placed them on the stone railing, leaning him forward and doing the same himself once he saw that Cullen stayed put.
"Breathe," the mage instructed. Cullen breathed. The air was heavy with the aromas of flowers real and bottled, but above it all wafted the distant scents of water and trees, ferns and space. He closed his eyes, breathing deeply as instructed.
"Not that much, man. You'll pass out on me."
"Mmm." Cullen allowed himself--gripping the railing for balance like this, he could manage a little more control over his movements--to lean ever so slightly sideways towards Dorian, to suggest that passing out on him might not be the most unfortunate turn of events. He was congratulating himself on his subtlety when the other man shoved him firmly back.
"Oh no, I don't think so." The other man gripped his shoulder long enough to push him back to his former distance, then let go.
Cullen missed the touch. "What was that for?"
Dorian's lips beneath his curling mustache were unsmiling. "You know exactly what that was for. The center of the Orlesian empire on one of the most diplomatically important nights of the year, when more factions than you can count are vying for supremacy, is not the time to decide after one too many glasses of wine that you want to experiment."
Cullen fixed the man with a glare he hoped was baleful, his tongue slow to form words under the influence of the all the wine in his otherwise empty stomach. "And what makes you so sure that's what I was doing?"
"Cullen, you can barely stand up." Dorian's voice was firm, but not unkind, now. Cullen wasn't sure whether to be moved or hurt by the gentleness, the mollifying distance it conjured. Dorian had used his name!. But like this... "Of course that's what you were doing."
"You don't know me." Cullen turned to face the lake and the mountains, preferring their dimly-sketched outlines to the almost paternal concern in Dorian's face. He reached up to scrub his hand through his hair--an unconscious gesture--but felt his hand freeze, enclosed in the other man's grasp.
"Don't," Dorian said, still with that concerned but deliberately distant tone to his voice. "You'll muss up your hair."
"I'm not you. I'm allowed to."
"Not tonight you aren't." When he was sure Cullen would return his hand to the railing, he let go. "I am under explicit instructions from Josephine not to let you appear...disheveled."
Cullen's mouth worked soundlessly for a few moments. When he found his voice, it bristled with outrage. "She gave you explicit instructions? About me? Whatever for? She could have told me herself."
"Perhaps she suspected that I could hold my alcohol better than you. A suspicion, I might add, that lends credence to her powers of perception."
"I don't like people going behind my back." Cullen rubbed his eyes with his knuckles, the bitter taste of despair beginning to rise in his throat. This was not going as he'd planned. "Acting like they know me."
"She was commenting on your hair, not the inner workings of your soul." Dorian smirked, a familiar gesture made foreign in the play of moonlit shadows and unvoiced disappointment. "That's one mineshaft we won't be digging in tonight."
"Won't we though?" Cullen's tongue was starting to regain some of its traction, though the world still threatened to spin when he turned toward away from the mountains to face Dorian.
Dorian, who frowned.
"You think I'm some drunken know-nothing who decided to test the limits of your propriety by tempting you, is that it?"
"I don't know that I would have put it quite like that, but that's more or less the gist of things, yes," the mage replied carefully.
"Right. Well you can take all your speculation and stuff it up your--and stuff it," Cullen amended. He could feel the wine turning him mean, like the languor of a summer day giving way to storm, and there was nothing he could do. "You're so convinced you know how people work. How men work. You have these types and you assign them to people from day one. You decided that I was some quivering lonely virgin who might be interested in what the experienced foreign mage could show me, if I got up the balls and the drink enough to try it."
Dorian's eyes hardened visibly, even in the poor lighting. "Do go on and tell your story; I'm sure you've rehearsed it all evening. Commander."
"That's just it!" Cullen snapped. "I have rehearsed it. Because I figured that was something that you'd go for. A...story...that would work. If I came at you sober in the light of day, you'd back off like steam off a griddle. The proposition, the seriousness, it would be too...messy for you."
Cullen leaned in as he spoke; felt Dorian leaning away the few inches he could before he hit the smooth stone of the palace wall. He could smell the man; those spices he remembered from the collar of Dorian's cloak still clung to him.
Dorian glared right back at him. "Lovely soliloquy, points for effort. But you're growing trite."
"Rant all you like, you're still a drunk man trying to pull one over on me in the middle of an important operation that you yourself helped orchestrate. Forgive me for doubting your powers of rationalization."
"Damn my powers of rationalization!"
Heads turned. Dorian ducked as though sheepish, and dug a booted foot into Cullen's ankle.
"Idiot." He turned his body deliberately out toward the lake. Away. "This is a land of fans and whispers. You don't get to yell when things don't go your way."
"Then go my way."
Dorian turned on him then, face half-shadowed but no less thunderous for its obfuscation. "Do you even know what you are asking? Do you know what you will do?" He whispered, but it was the rasp of a rusty knife leaving a sheath. "Right now it’s 'Oh, Dorian, you're lovely, Dorian!' While barely sober enough to stand upright, let alone anything else. Then come morning it will be all, 'Maker's breath, Inquisitor, do we really need that mage here? He's so Tevinter and everything, couldn't you please keep him away from me?'"
Cullen was so shocked he forgot to be angry. "That's what you think of me?"
"I don't have to think it. I know it. That's what happens. And as you may have heard I don't have a great many ports open to me right now, so if it's all the same to you I'd prefer not to be chased out of this particular harbor."
Cullen struggled to think through the haze the wine cast over his senses. He remained convinced this was a situation that could be salvaged. He had had a plan! Tactics. He was good at tactics, wasn't he? That's why he was here. But if his carefully thought-out feint had failed, what then?
"What if," he began, whispering as well, if slurring only slightly, "I told you I weren't the wilting flower you think I am? What if I perhaps I weren't so worldly as you, but pretty damned close?"
"I wouldn't believe you," Dorian snarled.
"Do you really think there are so many women in the templars, or so much of the Chantry's money in our pockets, that we wouldn't have tried other things than softer flesh? The beds of our fellow recruits, for example?"
The Tevinter's glower dripped with disdain. "Oh, lovely. I give you a chance to hearken back to your training days. Tell me, do you prefer men in heavy armor? I'm sure the Inquisitor could commandeer some for me so I could more perfectly match your memories."
Cullen fought down a wave of anger brought on by the man's sneer. Dorian, when provoked, could be positively vile. Still, saying as much would hardly improve matters. "You're being deliberately difficult."
An indelicate snort. "Can you blame me?"
"I'm looking out for my own best interests and you know it."
"What you're doing is refusing to listen. I planned this. I arranged it. I deliberately drank...slightly more than I should have...so you would feel you could take liberties with me you might not, under other circumstances." Cullen swallowed. He hated admitting to flaws in his strategizing; it didn't matter if it was troops or words; he wanted to be right. "If I misjudged you in thinking you would take advantage, fine. But then you misjudged me too, in assuming it was only a curious boy deep in his cups who wanted to toy with you."
Was that a quaver in Dorian's sigh? Cullen's heart surged with hope he desperately fought to keep off his face. Dorian, for his part, had turned away again, toward the looming shadows of the mountains, his face taking on some of their darkness as he did so.
"Don't be foolish. I'm not so blind as to write you off as a boy. You're probably older than I am."
"I doubt it."
Cullen shook his head, only mildly regretting the way it made the terrace spin. Play his game, he thought, and he'll lead you off track before you can blink. He leaned closer. "I don't care how old you are. I care that you believe me when I say I intended this. And that I still do." He was as close as he could get without actually putting a foot forward to redistribute his weight, and given his death grip on the railing he didn't think he could do that just yet. "Well?" he whispered. "Do you?"
Dorian regarded him for a long moment, longer than he could maintain complete control over his facial expression. Cullen watched the lust pace there; watched those gray eyes flicker over his face, weighing and measuring. Watched the nostrils flare, probably breathing in Cullen's wine fumes the way Cullen was breathing in the medley of spices that seemed to follow the man wherever he went.
Then Dorian kicked him, hard, in the shin, and Cullen toppled forward into Dorian's iron grip that was so much stronger than any mage's ought to have been.
"Let me make one thing clear," Dorian hissed, his eyes mere inches from Cullen's own. "I am not a nice man. These people here? Their fakery? Their pettiness, that you so scorn? I am one of them." He glared at Cullen, breathing heavily under the full weight of the bigger man pressed against his chest. "I will not be manipulated though, not by you or anyone else." He leaned close, so close his lips brushed the other man's earlobe. Cullen writhed a little, involuntarily, but Dorian held him fast. "I will not fuck you here, and have you be a drunken sobbing mess when assassins or rebels or demons or whoever else comes hurtling out of the night at us."
Cullen's legs were like pools of candle wax. He couldn't have stood if he tried. But he held Dorian's eyes with all the will his body couldn't summon. "If not here then where?"
The sudden flash of white teeth in the shadows had to have been the most unexpected smile of Cullen's life. "You are persistent, aren't you?" A voice fractured with strain and restraint, but amused nonetheless.
"Not here. Later."
"You won't forget?"
The long, slow look belonged to the sardonic Dorian whom Cullen recognized from the weeks before, and Cullen couldn't suppress a slight sigh of relief. "If you think I'd forget something like this," the mage drawled, "you're a worse judge of character than I thought."
Picking up immediately after the previous chapter. As in, a sentence later.
"Worse than Josephine, even," Dorian added, and Cullen frowned boozily.
"Weren't you just praising her powers of perception a minute ago?"
Dorian struggled to set Cullen ---still off-balance and clinging to him--upright and, having done so, proceeded to tug the commander's sash back into place and to rearrange his wrinkled epaulets into a semblance of order. He showed only the merest trace of hesitation in reaching out to touch the other man--a hesitation which Cullen did not miss, however, even in his less than optimal state. "She predicted you might become carried away in your attempts to escape the fawning masses in to the rose-tinged realm of wine, yes," the mage sighed, "but I rather doubt she imagined you getting so shit-faced you couldn't take two steps on your own."
Cullen shook his head carefully but even so, the terrace, the railing and Dorian all spun as one. "I won't stay this way," he said after the wave of nausea passed.
Dorian quirked an eyebrow. "No?"
"No. You'll need to punch me."
The mage stared. "I? Punch you?"
Cullen nodded, then winced. "In the stomach. So it all comes back up."
"This was part of your plan? This was the best our master strategist could come up with? Get drunk so Dorian will pounce on me, then ask him to punch me so I'm sober enough to coordinate an attack if called on?"
"More or less."
"That is a terrible plan."
"I believed we've established that, yes." Cullen's face took on a tinge of green. "Please hurry."
Dorian stroked a finger down a curl of mustache, suddenly thoughtful. "You do realize I'm a mage."
"So I've heard." Cullen grimaced. His stomach was considering doing somersaults.
"I could heal you. Burn it out of you." At Cullen's wide-eyed stare he laughed outright, the first genuine laugh they'd shared all evening. Masked faces elsewhere on the terrace turned toward them--openly, this time, instead of the covert scrutiny they'd been receiving since their arrival--and Dorian lowered his voice. "Don't look so scandalized! I wouldn't be setting you on fire."
"Aren't your spells usually more...combative?"
"You may have noticed I signed up for a war against the greatest threat the world has ever faced, aside from an actual Blight. I would be a fool not to come armed with a little healing knowledge." He grinned. "Now, hangovers may be the extent of my skills, realistically speaking, but even the ability to cure those comes in handy. Especially when there are soldiers around."
"Your assistance, then, would be greatly appreciated."
"At the risk of repeating myself, I have to insist: not here."
And there it was again. They'd come full circle, away into safety and now right back into the flames. Cullen regarded Dorian levelly--or as levelly as he could, with the world tilting precariously around him. Waiting. Dorian returned the gaze, his sheen of frivolity slipping. Cullen tried to look serious, desperate, chastened. He didn't know how he ought to look, and settled with tired-drunk, letting his eyes drift to the distant mountains that promised a stability he was sorely lacking at the moment. Finally Dorian seemed to arrive at a decision, for he took Cullen firmly by the elbow and began to steer him toward an doorway on the far side of the terrace. "I will do it," Dorian said quietly as he bowed and nodded their way through the milling masked figures, "but I meant what I said before. About the other thing. Not here."
Cullen nodded, face grim, wishing he hadn't drunk quite so much wine. The other thing. He was dreadfully out of practice at being this far gone.
Dorian navigated them to a small room, a parlor of some kind, with brocaded benches of middling levels of comfort but--blessedly--complete silence and privacy. Cullen, who could not have found his way back out to the terrace if his life depended on it at that moment, declined to ask whether they were officially allowed to be in this part of the palace or not.
Dorian was fastidiously unbuttoning the braided gold buttons at his wrists, one sleeve already rolled up, when he noticed Cullen swaying in place. "Lay down," he said, nodding to a plush bench in patterned gold fabric against the wall. "And don't get any ideas," he added, in a voice sharper than the commander thought was strictly necessary.
Keeping a steadying hand to the wall, Cullen gingerly lowered himself to the gold bench. Ridiculous piece of furniture. Pointless Orlesian ornamentation. He was still ranting to himself, none too soberly, about the deplorable state of Orlais and aristocrats in general when he felt Dorian's hands upon him, and all other thoughts scattered to the four corners of the room.
"Give me your hands," the mage said--of all things!--gruffly. An affectation of gruffness, from Dorian! Cullen spread open his palms where they lay on his chest , tentative despite himself, and felt the warmth of the man's many gold rings press against his own clammy skin, clasping his hands and resting on his breastbone. In these close quarters, Dorian's scent was stronger than ever, and Cullen hoped to the Maker he was too drunk to show any interest. Lying face-up on the bench like this, he would have little chance to hide anything.
Amidst these flurry of thoughts, Dorian closed his eyes and began to murmur. It was a language Cullen didn't understand, words he couldn't quite catch, but as he listened to the almost rhythmic drift of the syllables, he began to feel...something...emanating out from Dorian's touch; pouring through their entwined fingertips and down through Cullen's arms into his middle. The warmth there--it was a kind of warmth--pooled, expanded, calming and restoring everything it touched. Slowly Cullen's stomach began to settle and the wine-fog that had enveloped his brain began to lift. He became distinctly aware, for example, that he was lying flat on his back on a plush couch in a deserted side-room, holding hands with a man whom he'd plotted--rather disastrously--to seduce not an before. He watched Dorian's lips move, his eyes flicker beneath their lids; and he felt the warmth continue to flow into him from the other man, attending to pains he hadn't known he'd had in his too-new boots; in his bad knee.
"Wait a minute, you're doing more than cure my hangover," Cullen interjected, but the mage seemed not to hear him. Cullen felt unnervingly predatory, voyeuristic, watching Dorian so exposed like this; the other man's eyes remained shut, the rise and fall of his breath clearly visible beneath the blue silk sash curving down the side of his dark neck. Cullen could see the barest stubble beginning there--a testament to the late hour.
The mage's pulse, too, he could see, drubbing just beneath the skin. He swallowed.
Abruptly the murmuring stopped and Dorian's eyes flew open, pinning Cullen in place with the full knowledge of where he'd been looking. And how. His answering smile was far, far more predatory than Cullen felt. "All your hurts are eased, Commander," Dorian murmured.
"I, ah. Thank you." The warmth lingered in his body still, tingling but fading, like the slow return to dry, dull room temperature after a scalding bath of the kind the mage didn't know Cullen knew about. The thought made the latter man blush, though, and he clumsily sought to extricate his fingers from Dorian's beringed ones.
Dorian's hand closed tighter on his, however, vise-like. "There's something wrong with you," he hissed. Dangerous, that voice, but puzzled, like a wolf who can't figure out how to flush the rabbit from the hole. "I couldn't quite tell what. I'm not that skilled of a healer. But there's something...missing." As taught as his voice was, his eyebrows knit together in frustration, explanations visibly forming and dissolving on his face.
"Indeed, well, that's touching, I'll grant you, but I need to get back to--" Cullen tried to sit up, but Dorian used their entwined hands to press him bodily back down, standing in order to gain the leverage to do so. He loomed large and moonlit and menacing.
"There's something wrong with you, Cullen."
So Dorian had known what using his name did to Cullen, he had seen it back in the vestibule. Cullen had been sure he'd concealed his reaction. Just was he was sure now that the other man was doing this deliberately, trying to trick him, to drag information out of him that would shine light on this latest barrier to his perspicacity.
"Care to share what it is?"
"If I recall," Cullen replied, struggling to keep his voice even--he really needed to get off this bench before certain things became woefully apparent--"you said 'not here.' Those were your words, or am I mistaken?"
"I said not here, while over there."
Cullen's surcoat seemed to shrink against him. "Then--?"
"And I don't mean here, either," Dorian replied, too sweetly. "But I would still very much like to know what it is that's amiss with you that my magic couldn't touch."
"You said it yourself. You're not very good with healing magic." Cullen's voice was hoarse; he really needed to get up off this bench.
"Maybe you're just running up against your own inadequacy." Gathering his strength, Cullen hurled himself upward, throwing Dorian's weight off him and freeing his hands from Dorian's own in the process. Cullen tried not to regret that. He also tried, once standing, to subtly shift his weight around to make the constriction of his breeches more bearable, before Dorian could recover his balance and--
"I told you breeches are a waste of good cloth," Dorian smirked, staring openly at Cullen's attempts to adjust. "Not terribly comfortable now, are they?"
"I have to go." Cullen's turn to be gruff.
"Of course you do. A kingdom to save and all that." Suddenly Dorian was beside him, mouth mere inches from his ear, his voice the low scrape of the blade on the sharpening stone. "I will not forget. Not a moment." A pause. "But if you think to force my hand...to force anything..." Cullen could hear the man swallow; hear him regain control in a heartbeat. Was both astounded and appalled that he, Cullen, had the power to cause that. "Don't. I mean it."
The mustaches tickling Cullen's skin made him shudder. That was all. Just the tickling. Surely.
After a moment's silence which Cullen knew better than to trust himself to fill, Dorian pulled back, all dazzling smiles and curling mustaches--the rakish dandy once again.
"Go to your empire, Commander. I expect that while you marshal your forces, the Inquisitor will be needing footpads burst into flames somewhere in this jumble of silk and stone."
"Indeed," Cullen said briskly, taking the queue to stride commander-like to the door, lest he be blocked again. Once there, however, he paused, looking back with sudden ice in his gut. "Dorian, you'll be--"
The other man's eyes blazed from across the room. "If you tell me to be careful like some fisherwife bidding her husband goodbye of a stormy morning, I'll light your clothes on fire from here." Teeth glimmered, but not quite in a smile. "With or without magic."
"Ah. Right then. I'll...be off." Cullen lurched from the room and set off down the nearest hallway at trot. Before he could say something else stupid.
Behind him, in the suddenly stifling silence of moonlight and damask, Dorian struggled to adjust the fit of his breeches, not for the first time. His movements were distracted, however. The smiles were gone, replaced instead by furrows of frustration. Worry. Something was wrong with the man; Dorian had felt it when he delved him. He just couldn't figure out what.
Dawn. Lighter fare. Everything in moderation.
By the time the assassins had been foiled and the fate of the empire decided, the speeches given and toasts made, the sky over the mountains that enfolded Halamshiral shone a limpid blue. It dyed the lake below the same, deepening from cornflower in the east to cerulean in the west. The effect, Cullen noted from the wide garden steps where he stood, shrugging the familiar fur collar of his campaign jacket closer around his shoulders, was that of an illuminated manuscript. He had seen sisters of Andraste making the endpapers for these back when he was training to be a templar, and he remembered the way the colored oils sat sill upon the water, blues and greens and purples mingling without mixing, until a blade drawn down the middle pulled all the colors after, like eager followers, and the patterns created on either side of the blade mirrored each other. In the scene before him, the sky and the lake were the oils, and the mountains running down to the edge of the water, the knife.
"You could have used feathers, you know."
Cullen jumped. He hated that he jumped, but he jumped. In all the furor surrounding the Venatori agents, the Empress, the agreements about troops and supplies; this particular voice wasn't one he'd expected to hear again anytime soon. Dorian stood at ease against a vine-wrapped pillar at the edge of the garden, hip cocked and arms crossed in exactly the same pose he'd used in Cullen's doorway in Skyhold what seemed like lifetimes ago. Unlike Cullen, he'd returned to the velvet uniform he'd arrived in, and the rich material stretched pleasingly taut over arms and chest and hips as he stood there, waiting.
Dorian twirled a mustache around the tip of his finger. "Feathers. You know, as a show of solidarity with the mages."
"Are you truly so oblivious to the attire of your comrades?"
Cullen was weary--utterly drained, in fact. Fatigue made him reckless. "Not all of them, no," he ventured, taking a step toward the edge of the landing.
Dorian smiled at that, causing Cullen to release a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. "That's sweet, but that isn't what I'm talking about. Surely you've noticed the tendency of southern mages to parade about the countryside in pauldrons made of feathers?"
Cullen considered. "No. No, I guess I haven't."
Dorian rolled his eyes. "Of course you haven't. And even if you had, I don't suppose you enjoy such a historically close relationship with mages that you'd consider echoing their costume in your own, as a visual reminder of your newly-forged alliance. Still," he continued, springing suddenly away from the shelter of the column and skipping nimbly up the stairs to where Cullen stood, "you might have considered it." He stopped perhaps a foot from Cullen and reached out a hand, running his fingers through the black wolf hair collar with its occasional streaks of brown and red. "This could have been feathers."
"That wouldn't have been very warm."
Dorian's laughter split the dawn silence of the garden like a peal of bells. "Oh, you are practical to a fault, you southerners!" he cried. His own tumultuous feelings aside, Cullen could sense, as a seasoned military man, the necessity of this laughter; the tension of a night's tense combat it released. He found himself wishing it were always so easy to lay aside his own feelings as Dorian reached out again to the furry ruff to steady himself. The touch, almost impossible to feel through the thick layer of fur, still sent what felt like flocks of birds thundering through Cullen's chest.
"How do you feel?" Dorian said abruptly, cutting off his own laughter--though the edges of his eyes still gleamed with its tears--with the precision of a butcher.
"What do you mean?"
"It's not a difficult question, Commander." Dorian's eyes flickered inscrutably. "How do you feel?"
Cullen paused, casting about to the columns, the sky, the fading stars, for clues as to whether this was a trap. As to whether there were currents here he couldn't see, waiting to snare him and drag him under. "Tired," he sighed, giving up. Too tired to navigate these waters. "Just tired."
"You look it."
"Why thank you."
Dorian regarded him for a moment, then cocked his head to the side, eyes unfocused. "Listen. Do you hear it?"
"What, the sound of an empire propped up by the actions of a very small number of people?"
Again the rolling eyes. "No, you foolish man. Music."
"Of course there's music. This is Orlais. The entire country almost collapsed. So they're playing waltzes."
Dorian's gray eyes held his for a moment.
Dorian reached for Cullen's hand, buried in the leather gloves he'd donned for the fighting. "You do know how, don't you?"
How should he make his face look? What was the proper answer? Was this a test? Was he supposed to be dashing; was he supposed to be restrained, was he supposed to--
Cullen could feel the spots on his cheeks blooming and he could watch their effect on the man in front of him as it happened. Maker, how he hated being so readable. Dorian's slate-gray eyes, though, softened.
"I'm only asking you for a dance." He squeezed the other man's hand through the supple leather, and the flock of birds winged back through Cullen's chest at breakneck speed. "That's all."
"I'm not very good."
"I should think not. I can't imagine them finding much time to instruct you in the fine art of dancing, between teaching you how to combat mages and how to thwack the swords out of opponents' hands before running them through. But then, you're not the only one who's exhausted here." He grimaced and Cullen saw that it was true; dark circles crinkled under his eyes. "My steps may not entirely be up to my own high standards, I warn you."
"So we're on even footing, then," Cullen said. "For once."
"Oh, I wouldn't go that far, Commander."
Dorian grinned, plucked Cullen's other hand from his side and began to sweep them around the wide stone landing. Cullen followed, hesitantly at first, then growing more expansive with his movements as he acclimated himself to the other man's stride. Around them, light flowed from the sky and the lake outward, to trees and vines and marble; across the refracting surface of fountains and ricocheting off windows and balconies where blood had been spilled. The music was distant but persistent, and the dawn was slow.
"Won't someone..." Cullen trailed off after several turns about the landing.
Dorian shook his head. "I don't believe anyone will be looking for the much sought-after commander of the Inquisition at the moment, no. No matter how popular he may be."
"I--I meant you!"
"Ah. Well, even the evil Tevinter mage, watched as he must be, won't be missed at this particular point in time. Look." Dorian nodded over Cullen's shoulder, spinning the man so he could see. And he could: two red-clad figures, gold embroidery catching the light and sending it off again into the morning, moving slowly around a terrace above and to the north of their garden sanctuary.
"I believe our fearless leader has claimed center stage, at least for the rest of this melody," Dorian intoned, returning Cullen's eyes to him with his voice. Dorian regarded the taller man then, sharply, with his full attention, head tilted a touch upward to account for the difference in height. Then--did his jaw harden slightly?--he closed his eyes, almost resolute, and tucked his head forward into the crook of Cullen's neck, between the pulse in his throat and the encircling ruff of the thick wolf-fur collar.
Cullen's breath caught. The hammering wingbeats in his chest would carry through his neck, he knew, and so Dorian would feel them. Even with his face out of sight, it seemed, he was doomed to be readable, and he froze for a moment, afraid that a wrong move might shatter everything.
Then, at the mage's gentle tugging, they danced as before, and Cullen felt his frantic pulse fluttering against the bridge of Dorian's nose, and it did not matter. And as the sun finally crested the mountains surrounding the lake, Dorian murmured something into the fur collar that Cullen didn't quite catch.
"What was that?"
"I said," the mage mumbled, only a fraction louder, "I'm glad they're not feathers." He exhaled in a huff, causing the fur to tickle Cullen's neck and bring gooseflesh there.
Cullen frowned, perplexed. "Why?"
"Feathers make me sneeze."
More of an in-transit chapter en route to somewhere else. I have the destination chapter already done though, so bear with me.
Cullen rubbed his eyes, blinking against the glare of the scintillating Skyhold morning lancing through his office. "Yes, Leliana?"
"I was wondering if I could have a word with you."
When only silence followed this statement, he looked up from the papers he'd been reviewing by candlelight. The red-haired spymaster stood in the middle of the room, head tilted, eyeing him with concern.
"You wanted something?" Cullen prompted.
Leliana frowned. "You look worn out."
"Of course I look worn out. Normal people sleep at night instead of parading about in ill-fitting suitcoats until the sun has come up again."
"Is that all?"
Cullen felt tension coiling like a snake in his belly. "What do you mean?"
"Oh, you know," the spymaster shrugged, drifting over to a bookshelf to browse the titles there. "I just wanted to make sure it was only being pursued by the dowager's twelve eligible granddaughters that was sapping your energies, and not..." Her ellipsis was artless--deliberately so, from one as skilled in the Game as Leliana.
"And not what?"
She looked over at him then, the ghost of an apology flickering almost to life in her eyes. "I understand you have an agreement with Cassandra..."
Cullen sighed, scrubbing his hands through his hair. He told himself he shouldn't be surprised. He told himself it was foolish to imagine that anything might escape the Nightingale, especially when they shared the same isolated mountain fortress. Still, he had to work to keep the anger out of his voice.
"You understand correctly, yes. Though it was my impression that that was between myself and the Seeker."
"Surely you cannot believe that. When you lead the forces of the Inquisition?" Leliana took a step toward him, all pretense of interest in his bookshelf gone, replaced by a steely blue gaze. "There are no small number of lives hanging in the balance of your sanity, Commander Cullen."
He slammed the palm of his hand onto his desk, causing the ink bottles to jump. "You think I don't know that?" He watched her mask settle firmly into place, any chance of apology long gone. "You think I don't think of that every time I wake up in the middle of the night screaming? Oh, don't look so shocked--surely your spies have told you ages ago."
"I was aware, yes."
"Then why even come here? What can I possibly tell you that you don't already know?" He spun away from her and began to pace, his heels slamming into the floorboards like hoofbeats. Anything to redirect that fury somewhere he wouldn't break anything. Somewhere away from Leliana.
"You've just told me," she said quietly, waiting for him to reach the end of his loop and turn around before continuing in a more neutral tone. "You're leaving Skyhold later this afternoon, no?"
"Yes, to Haven. The memorial is almost finished and--and I wanted to be there for it."
Cullen eyed her warily. "Why good?"
"Maybe you should...spend some time off the mountain. Take a day or two."
His voice dripped acid, startling even him with its venom. "You do realize this particular ailment doesn't care much for whether I'm snug in my Skyhold aerie or bedded down in a camp tent somewhere? And that I've already wasted the better part of a week planning, preparing for and attending a party, of all things, instead of whipping my army into shape as I ought to have been doing?"
"Cullen." Leliana approached him, almost with--did he dare treat it as genuine?--pity in her face, and gripped his forearm. "I do realize that, yes. I also realize that you've been working yourself to the bone for months. Even if you won't take the lyrium--"
"I will not take the lyrium!" he thundered, flinging off her arm. "My vows are worthless if I cannot keep them!"
"Fine! But even if you won't take it, you might think about sleeping somewhere you don't scare everyone into thinking you're going to have a fit in your dreams and die on them!"
Cullen stared, mouth slack. Blue eyes blazed back at him. After a moment of speechlessness, his voice, when he spoke, rang as empty as the mountains that ringed them. "Everyone knows? Everyone is...afraid?"
"Not everyone, no. I try to use my people to keep others away, once your candles have gone out at night. But this is a fortress, Cullen, not a forest. You can hear almost everything if you wait long enough."
"And the men? Do they...doubt me?" Fear me?
Genuine pity, now. It felt worse than the mask. "I don't think so, no. It would be...easier if you took lyrium again. At least until we beat Corypheus."
"That's what the Inquisitor said."
"But she also said she respected your decision, did she not?"
Cullen tried for a smile. "I see you're thoroughly well-informed about the contents of that conversation, as well."
"I am. And so long as the Inquisitor respects your wishes, I will. But I would ask you to at least please...consider...what it might mean. What it might cost us."
"There is never a day when I don't consider that."
Leliana bowed her head, stepping toward the doorway. "That is all I ask, then. I'll leave you to your work." Dust motes danced on either side of her as she paused in the doorway, turning to face him over her shoulder. "Oh, and Commander? When you go to Haven, take Dorian."
Cullen swallowed. "Dorian?"
"He's making quite the fuss about not getting to go with the Inquisitor to meet with Iron Bull's contacts on the Storm Coast. Something about no one trusting an evil Tevinter. Get him out of Skyhold, would you? He's driving Josephine up the wall."
"I...didn't think it was possible for anyone to drive Josephine up the wall."
"He is a man of many talents, our Dorian," Leliana sighed. "The longer you can keep him out of Skyhold, the more peaceful it will be." Dust motes moved in to replace her as she stepped out the door, drawing lazy golden spirals in the spot they spymaster had so recently vacated.
Maybe more peaceful for you, Cullen thought, pushing papers and ink bottles around his desk in a halfhearted attempt at fastidiousness. Not so much for me. He tried to ignore the fluttering in his gut, and wondered whether the man in question would even be ready to go in a few hours' time.
"You'd think they didn't like me," Dorian complained atop his stately gray mare as they picked their way down the mountain pass toward Haven. "Bundling me off without so much as a by-your-leave, right after sweeping away in the night to meet a bunch of qunari, as though nothing bad come come of that."
Cullen kept his eyes fixed on the road, wary of snow-covered rocks and patches of ice. He did not want to face Horsemaster Dennett having lamed any of his prized beasts. "You have to admit you wouldn't exactly be the most popular attendee at the meeting."
"What, just because of my accent? I could keep my mouth shut, you know. They'd have had no idea I was Tevinter."
Cullen let silence speak his answer to that. In volumes.
"Well, perhaps I am a bit too fashionable for your southern climes. Still, it isn't as though they spend a great deal of time traipsing about the countryside down here, is it? They'd be none the wiser."
"Iron Bull would know."
The mage snorted. "Iron Bull doesn't care!"
"Yes, but if they asked? Iron Bull doesn't do a great deal of lying."
"Oh, they wouldn't ask."
"Why are you so impatient to be gone, anyway?"
With a great effort Cullen managed to restrain himself from whipping his head around. Dorian, brought up short for words? After a moment's pause and some overt fiddling about his saddle, Dorian coughed politely.
"I didn't want to crowd you."
This time Cullen did turn to gape at the other man. "What? Crowd me?"
"I had told you to keep your distance and....I didn't think...it would be terribly decent of me, following you about like a lost puppy when I'd told you explicitly to back off until I said otherwise."
"You clearly don't fear for your safety, then."
"On the contrary, commander, you possess the reputation for being a great man about vows, morals, those sorts of things," Dorian continued, voice purposefully light. "I never doubted for a moment you would do as you said. I, on the other hand...have been known to..." He coughed. "Well, we can't all be shimmering paragons of goodness and morality, now, can we?"
Cullen barked a bitter laugh. "Whatever I am, Dorian, it's not that."
"No." An uneasy silence punctuated only by the snowy crunch of horses' hooves and the ever-present whistle of the wind stretched between them. A few horse-lengths behind plodded the retinue Leliana had insisted accompany them. Far enough back, Cullen thought, to be out of hearing, but he lowered his voice all the same.
"We ride toward a memorial service for those we lost at Haven."
"I know that."
"If you don't want to participate in the ceremony, I understand."
Dorian glanced at him sharply. "Why ever would I not?"
"Well...I don't know how they do things in the Imperium." Cullen shifted in his saddle. "Here, there is singing, and..."
"And no sacrifice of small children for ritualistic blood magic, you mean? What a dreadfully dull ceremony."
"I didn't mean that."
"Well what else did you mean then?" Dorian sat straight in his seat, bristling with outrage. "And here I thought I'd proven my humanity to you people by whisking you out of harm's way right before an army led by a demon on a dragon showed up on your doorstep."
"Yes, well, you didn't quite get there soon enough, did you?" Cullen snapped. "Or else there'd be no reason for us to be riding to a funeral!"
He regretted it the instant he said it. But said it he had. Here he was, leaving the fortress partly to get away from the anger that stalked him through its passages, and now he found himself blaming, for the disaster at Haven, the only person who'd risked life and limb to warn them of the impending disaster at Haven. Cullen opened his mouth to apologize, but Dorian was already looking elsewhere, feigning enchantment with the glittering peaks that surrounded them, letting his horse drop back and away.
Brilliant strategizing, Commander, Cullen thought blackly, turning back to watch the ground for hazards. Perhaps he would do a better job at spotting them in the earth than in conversation.
Science of templars (esp. language used) informed somewhat by the Asunder novel that comes between DA2 and DA3.
"...lost friends, loved ones, and mentors here in this valley!" Cullen's voice echoed, forlorn, across the splintery remains of fortifications and the charred ruins of buildings, all softened under a perversely clean blanket of snow. "For some of us, we have lost all three." He raised a gauntleted hand, then, to thump the stone plinth next to him. "We will not forget. And we will not let their deaths have been in vain! They died, so that we could live. But what they--"
His voice caught. He hated doing this. He hated doing this more than anything.
"But what they missed...what they really missed...was something you and I both experienced that night, after we had lost so much."
So many faces turned up to him, following his movements back and forth before the monolith that was all many of them had left of those they had lost. A lump of carven stone. That was it.
"That night, amidst so much chaos, huddled over fires that were themselves small triumphs against the cold and the dark, we sang. As one. I would have wanted them to see that. To see the great muddle of peoples that make up the Inquisition come together in that moment. So I thought..." He swallowed. "I thought we could sing for them again. Here. Where perhaps their spirits might hear us, and find peace. And where they might know that the cause they died fighting for lives on, and is stronger for their sacrifice."
He waited a heartbeat, then began to sing. The song Mother Giselle had begun singing that night; the song that had shouldered aside his and Leliana's and Josephine's panicked arguing and united a hodgepodge of people in the depths of despair.
"Shadows fall and hope has fled."
One by one heads turned, backs stiffened, and voices rose.
"Steel your heart, the dawn will come."
He wanted to close his eyes but did not. He watched every crying eye, every clutched hand, every head bowed down against the seeing of it. The living past it.
"The night is long and the path is dark."
Around them stood the ruins of the town--no more than a collection of buildings around a chapel, really--that had sheltered the birth of the Inquisition. The gaping holes of empty windows stared blankly onto the proceedings. Something else he couldn't allow himself not to see.
"Look to the sky..."
His soldiers. His camp followers. His people. So many of them dead.
"For one day soon..."
And all of them who remained, singing. Revered mothers, mages, archers, infantry, and--
"The dawn will come."
And Dorian. Tucked to the side with the soldiers who had accompanied him from Haven, mouth open, voice raised. He stood close enough that when Cullen concentrated he thought he could pick the mage's voice out from the crowd. Dorian's eyes, too, were open, and he saw Cullen notice him.
His voice grew louder.
After the singing and the rites performed by the revered mothers, when the sun and the tears both had fallen, there was dancing. There was always dancing, Cullen thought--a way of fighting back the dark. He would not begrudge the survivors of Haven that. But he would not partake in the festivities, either, and urged his guards to go make merry as they wished while he remained in his tent. The clamor of tension released and wine quaffed by roaring bonfires became a dull shapeless noise, pulsing beneath the headache that had blossomed behind his eyes as soon as they came down out of the mountains.
Without guards as he was, there was no one to warn Cullen when someone waited on him, and it took a polite cough for him to realize that Dorian was waiting outside his tent. Had been, for who knew how long.
I'm getting soft, Cullen thought, sitting up and pulling aside the tent flap.
There Dorian stood, thick cream-colored robes near to glowing in the combined light of moon, snow and the distant reflections of revelers' fires. He carried a wine jug under one arm and kept the other pulled tight across his body for warmth, shivering only slightly, but flashed a smile as luminous as the snow when his eyes lit on Cullen.
"My commander, I presume," he said with a little flourish. Snow skirled around his rustling robes as he bowed. "I wanted to congratulate you on an excellent speech this evening."
Cullen sighed, rubbing his temples. "I don't feel much like being congratulated, Dorian."
"Be that as it may, it's the next best thing to a fire to warm you--" He made a sound of disgust. "You don't even have a fire in there, do you?"
Cullen glanced back into the dark depths of his stone-cold tent. "No, I don't."
"You'll freeze to death!"
"I didn't freeze to death in the blizzard after Haven. I'll be fine."
Dorian regarded him for an unreadable moment. "Any one of your more distinguished colleagues would not hesitate to point out the idiocy of your plan to punish yourself for the loss of Haven by suffering silently in your tent while people dance not a thousand paces away. Since they are not here," the mage continued, neatly sidestepping Cullen's bulk and darting into the tent with the grace of a fox, "it falls to me. So then: your plan is inexcusably stupid and needs to be foiled. Which is where I come in."
"Let me just get a bit of a fire going in here. Don't worry, I'll keep it hovering a hand or so off the floor, so nothing gets singed."
Dorian opened a palm and a flame burst to light there, apple-sized and growing larger as he bent to set it down. He froze, though, when he saw Cullen hiss and throw up a hand before his eyes.
"Maker's breath, Dorian, I've a headache! Light makes it worse!" Cullen groaned. "Light makes everything worse."
"Forgive me." Dorian let the fireball loose, a cheery little ball of flame emitting heat in the center of the rather spacious tent. Cullen could hear the frown of concentration in the mage’s voice. "Let me see if I can...aha! There. I changed the hue without changing the amount of heat it produces. I didn't know I could do that."
Cullen cracked an eye open and saw that, indeed, the flames of the magical fire had changed from a crisping white to a dull, dark green that cast lurid shadows about the tent. Still, the dismal color was much gentler on his eyeballs, and he had to admit the warmth was welcome. He had lost feeling in his toes what seemed like hours ago.
"I meant it, what I said about the speech," Dorian continued as he unstoppered the wine jug, arranging his robes in a pool around himself as he lowered himself to a sheepskin to sit. "You told them what they needed to hear."
"I didn't know they sang that song up in the Imperium," Cullen said by way of avoiding the topic of his guilt or his harnessing of a spontaneous act of solidarity to make his own loss easier to bear.
"Oh, The Dawn Will Come? They, ah, don't." The mage carefully did not look at Cullen as he took a swig from the bottle, then passed it his way. "I may have looked it up in the library as soon as I knew where we were going this morning."
"You knew I would ask them to sing?"
"It seemed a distinct possibility, yes."
"We...had that song in the library?"
"My dear man, gratuitously long treatises, reflections and ruminations upon all aspects of the southern Chantry are about all we do have in that library. And why aren't you drinking?"
Cullen dug the heels of his hands into his eyes. "My headache, remember?"
"There is no headache so awful that a little wine won't fix it."
"Dorian." Cullen fixed him with a glare, then, light be damned. "I tried this on you. It didn't work. Now is not the time to engineer the reverse."
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"Yes you do. And I don't want to be drunk. Not tonight."
The magical firelight played on Dorian's features, making him seem to shift like quicksilver through innumerable emotions in a smattering of moments. At least, Cullen thought it was the firelight's doing. "And what, then, is it that you want this evening?" Voice ever so light, Dorian's, movements ever so casual as he retrieved the wine jug from where he'd propped it between the two of them.
"Honestly? To sleep. But I can't," Cullen added as he saw Dorian's face fall. "Not much, anyway."
"Sleepless watchfulness being part of your penance, then, is it?"
"No. I...can't sleep much. Ever. Not very well." Cullen scrubbed his hands through his hair in frustration. How much to tell? "I don't sleep very well in general, is what I mean."
Even in the dim light he could see scholarly interest kindle in Dorian: the man leaned forward, hands laced, head cocked to listen. Ready for a puzzle he had every intention of solving.
"Dorian, I really think you should go. I--" Cullen bit off the words as he clamped his mouth shut against a spasm of pain that lanced from his skull down through his neck and his collarbone, coming to a halt somewhere under his ribs. He gasped, hunching over, and felt Dorian's hands grab him to keep him from toppling sideways on the sheepskins.
"Pain?" Dorian asked in an odd, clipped voice Cullen hadn't heard before.
Eyes clamped shut against the light, Cullen nodded. A part of his mind not consumed with the agony smirked that "pain" was rather obvious at this point.
If there was a motion or a gesture intended to give shape to Dorian's request, Cullen didn't see it and he didn't care. "Fine," he hissed between clenched teeth. He just wanted this to stop.
Hands like icicles burrowed past the thick fur ruff of his campaign jacket to rest on either side of his neck, and he swore.
"I'm sorry, it's a bit chilly out."
"You're not helping!"
"Let me try."
A moment of murmuring, and then the familiar tingling warmth leapt from Dorian's hands, up into Cullen's skull and down across his chest, seeking, attending to small hurts and strained muscles but unable to touch the ache that crashed from one end of Cullen to the other. To his shame, he whimpered. He had thought...had hoped, when Dorian placed his hands on him...that perhaps this could be healed.
"Vishante kaffas, there's not a damn thing wrong with you!" Dorian growled softly, the warmth spreading faster now, checking everywhere. "You should be fine! You should be better than fine!"
"Except that hole. What is that damnable hole doing there? I can see it but it's like looking at that cluster of stars--it's easier to see looking to the side of it than straight-on. What is that?"
"What?" Dorian snapped, breaking his concentration. The warmth ebbed.
Cullen fought to keep the despair from his voice. He needed Dorian to go away, to leave him to the darkness, and not argue with him. "You can't fix this."
"And what would you know about it? Just because a thing hasn't been seen before doesn't mean a way can't be found around--"
"You can't find a way around it."
Cullen cracked an eye open in the barest squint, and saw Dorian's glower from close-up. Such fury! The man's gray eyes caught the greenish veilfire and glinted dangerously in the darkness. His hands, still flush against Cullen's collarbone, were warm now, but Cullen couldn't tell if that was genuine warmth or an aftereffect of the magic.
He closed his eyes again and let out a shuddering breath. "Do they not give the templars in Tevinter lyrium?"
Above him, Dorian scoffed. "Of course not. Who does that? Certainly we have our horror stories we tell about you people down south, but our own templars are little more than..." Even with his eyes closed, Cullen could see the instantaneous flash of understanding in Dorian's face, hear the intake of the other man’s breath. "Lyrium? It's lyrium? That's what's wrong with you?"
"You stupid, stupid man!" Cullen felt himself be drop to the sheepskins with an unceremonious thunk, and groaned. "Why didn't you tell me? I have some potions in my saddlebags, let me just go and--"
"No. I won’t be taking any lyrium."
Dorian had already risen and raised the tent flap; Cullen felt the burst of colder air on his face. To Dorian, further conversation was clearly only a temporary obstacle to be overcome on the path to lyrium and thus the solution to all Cullen's problems. "Why not? I don't mind. You're the commander of the Inquistion, we've got plenty of--"
"Isn't that just the thing, though?" The pain was so bad that Cullen had begun to sweat; he could feel the fur of his coat sticking to the back of his neck, itching. "I'm the commander of the Inquisition, I should be taking lyrium."
"Yes, we've established this."
"But I won't."
Dorian's exasperation was an almost physical presence in the room with them. "Why, oh great commander, is lyrium off the table?"
Cullen opened his mouth to respond, but a spasm hit him and he writhed onto his side, hissing through his teeth. He'd slammed his eyes shut against this but there they were, the visions: twisting pink masses of what was once flesh clinging to walls and floor, breathing there, hulking monstrosities that had once been mages roaming the halls, crooking their fingers at him, knowing him in a way no one should ever have known him, and then acting on that knowledge in terrible ways. He cried out.
“Hey now.” Hands were cupping his face, cradling it. "Shh."
“It’s bad enough that I see them when I sleep! I don’t want to see them when I’m awake, too.”
The hands remained, but silence stretched taut and awful in the tent, threatening to deafen Cullen, to bring the voices back. To rob him of the only person standing between him and that awful host of memories, right now.
“See...who?” Dorian’s voice, above him again, was husky, hesitant.
Cullen forced his eyes open. Forced himself to look at what he did to people. Like when he gave the speech earlier, paving over people’s deaths with petty words. I can’t not see this. Dorian knelt next to him, crouched over so their eyes were almost level, brown and gray. Cullen had never seen the mage look so serious without being also angry. There was no anger here now, though--just a touch of fear.
“You think I’m possessed,” he croaked.
Dorian snorted--and Cullen found himself grateful for his flippancy. “That’s impossible. You’re not a mage. You are, however, burning up under that great dead animal you wear around. May I remove it?”
Cullen did not protest as Dorian leaned forward to do exactly that. “They did this to me,” he whispered as Dorian tugged at the jacket. “They made this be my choice--this, and submission to them and all that they do, all that they’re still doing, or...oblivion. Forgetting everything. That’s what happens to the oldest templars. We just forget.” He shuddered. “What kind of a choice is that?”
Dorian made a face at the clammy wolf’s hide jacket and tossed it into a corner, frowning at the sheen of sweat that coated Cullen’s face and neck, tinged a lurid green by the glow of the veilfire. “This happens often?” he said.
“It has been getting worse. I stopped after Kirkwall. You’ve...heard about what happened there?”
“Yes. These things you’re seeing, then, they’re from Kirkwall? Memories?”
“No, no, no,” Cullen moaned, struggling to hang onto his voice, this tent, the person talking to him. I am here in the ruins of Haven, talking to Dorian. “Earlier. Lake Calenhad. The Circle Tower.”
Dorian’s gasp was sharp, sad. “You were there? When they invoked the Rite of Annulment?”
“Yes,” Cullen whimpered. “My first assignment. And they...it was bad, Dorian.” He tried to swallow. Tried to remain in command. “It was very, very bad.” The visions flickered behind his eyes, and he started to cry.
“Shh.” Dorian lifted Cullen’s head and placed it in his lap. He gestured toward the orb of veilfire to increase its strength; whereas a minute ago Cullen had been streaming sweat, now his teeth kept frantic staccato time as they chattered. Heat flooded into the room, and Cullen struggled to bring his breathing under control.
“You must find this in...awfully…” He grimaced as a spasm wracked him. “Poor taste.”
Cullen felt Dorian’s disdainful sniff. “Hush. Don’t be stupid. I’m thinking.”
“You should go. Enjoy the party. There’s dancing--”
“The Inquisitor could have sided with the templars, no?”
“I...what? Yes, she could have.” Cullen blinked back the lurking green shadows; tried to focus on the eyes fixed on a far distant point above him. “Why?”
“So she could have harnessed their power to try to close the Breach.”
“Yes, but Dorian--”
“Be quiet. I don’t know much about templars because they’re mostly for ornamentation, in Tevinter. But if there is power there for them to draw on…” Dorian closed his eyes. Cullen could almost see the thoughts flickering through the man’s head, being sorted and discarded, placed hierarchically in levels of likelihood. His great dark eyebrows twitched under the strain and Cullen resisted the urge to reach up a hand to smooth them. Firstly because he was in too much pain to risk moving much, and secondly because he had made a promise. He would force nothing, not even with his head in the lap of this man who had said not to push.
Finally his eyes flew open and he looked down again. Really looked, unguarded for a moment, and Cullen saw that he was frightened, and sad. Terribly, terribly sad.
“When you were a templar, and you did...whatever it is you do. Channeled the power of the lyrium. Can you remember how you reached for that power?”
“I...yes, but Dorian, there’s no power left. I haven’t taken lyrium for months.”
Dorian shook his head. “I’m not asking you to.” Gently, he reached out and grasped Cullen’s hands where they lay clenched into fists against his chest. “Could you try, though?”
“You’re wasting your time,” Cullen wheezed. “But all right.”
He closed his eyes, fighting back the wave of nausea that threatened to engulf him when the images of past atrocities started festering behind his eyelids again. He did his best to ignore them. I’m just doing what I’ve always done, Cullen told himself. What I’ve done for years. It was difficult, fighting back the distracting horror of the visions as well as the milder, but still persistent spectre of his own conviction that this was foolish, but soon he fell into the old mental grooves of focusing, opening, reaching, for that sweetness he knew wasn’t there anymore--
--Except it was. Torrents of it, swirling, lapping at his touch, just sitting there, waiting for him. Without thinking, without any articulated response except a kind of reckless joy, Cullen drew from it, all of it, the tumult of power like standing in a waterfall after a lifetime with barely enough moisture to lick one’s lips. It filled every echoing hollow of him, burning away the nightmares in a triumphant cavalcade of coruscating light. As though from a great distance, Cullen felt a beatific smile split his face, felt the chattering cease in his teeth; felt better than he’d felt in months.
And then, from the same impossible distance, he heard someone screaming.
“...stop, stop, STOP!” Dorian bellowed, trying to rip his hands from Cullen’s iron grasp. “Cullen, please!” He lifted their knotted hands and thumped Cullen’s chest, hard. All the air left Cullen’s lungs in a whoosh and the he could see again, albeit in scintillating detail--the fibers of the tent, the thin line of moonlight creeping in under the the tent flap (where had the veilfire gone?), the infinitesimal difference in darkness between the shadows in the folds of the sheepskin versus the shadow cast by the wine jug, and--
--and Dorian, hunched over him, face ashen, hands crushed between Cullen’s own.
“Dorian!” Cullen rolled out from under the mage, breaking contact, and the world became less sharp, less sweet. But still real; still with the visions burned away. “Maker’s bloody balls, Dorian, what have you done?” He caught Dorian by the shoulders as the mage pitched sideways.
The mage looked up at him with lips pinched thin and pale from pain. “I let you use me as a conduit,” he gasped, trying for a haggard smile and not quite making it. “It...worked, I’ll have you know.”
“A conduit?” Cullen spluttered. “Dorian, you’re--you’re not a rock. You’re not lyrium! You don’t get distilled into potions!”
“I am beginning to see...the advantage...of being a rock, in these situations.” His laugh was a wheeze. “Much less chance of...damage.”
“Damage? Have I hurt you? What have I--I tried to--”
“You tried to do exactly what I told you to. Just...give me a moment.” Dorian took a few shuddering breaths, the last of which he used to chuckle weakly. “Such a reversal, this,” he murmured with a pale reflection of his usual urbanity, gesturing with the hand not pinned by Cullen’s supporting arm against his side. “If memory serves, you were most definitely the party in need of assistance a moment ago.”
“And I’m grateful to you for--” Suddenly the gravity of what Dorian had done crashed down onto Cullen, the realization of the weight that had been lifted: spasms gone, sweats and shaking erased. And the visions--he closed his eyes, and there was nothing. Only darkness. “For...you have no idea.” He swallowed. “How grateful. How good it feels, even if it won’t...last.”
“It won’t,” Dorian replied, answering the question Cullen had dreaded to ask outright. “I don’t know how long you will...feel the effects...because to my knowledge this hasn’t been done before, not like this.” A bitter note there--for the process, or for its failure to solve the problem? Cullen couldn’t tell. “Tell me again how grateful you are, though. I’m listening.”
Cullen gaped for a moment. The man next to him--the man he was holding upright--was bowed over with pain, pale even in the darkness of the tent with fatigue, and he was...joking?
“Not a joke,” Dorian snickered, and grinned when he saw Cullen’s eyes widen. “There are aftereffects of such a process, it seems. On my end, anyway.”
Their faces were only inches apart; Cullen knew the worry on his face spoke for him. “You can read my mind?”
“No, no. Nothing so grand as that. Just...echoes of emotion. From the connection. You wrung me out for every last drop of magic I could handle after all; it’s only fair I get something in return.” That grin again. “It’s fading already. But not fast enough for me to miss that.”
“That little thrill in you. There, see, there it is again. Like bells.” Dorian leaned closer, the smell of him, spices and soap, curling up around them like the veilfire flames that had gone out during his little gamble. “I can feel it in you. It’s only fair,” the mage repeated, his voice a purr.
Cullen’s heart thumped so hard it almost hurt, and his tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth. “But, I...you’re exhausted.”
“I am, yes.”
“It’s almost pitch dark in here.”
“This is also true.”
“So what do you propose we…?”
“Don’t advertise such a deplorable lack of imagination, Commander.” Dorian shifted in Cullen’s grip and thwacked the inside of Cullen's supporting elbow, tumbling them both down onto the sheepskins and landing on top. “It’s unbecoming.”
“You’re too tired!” Cullen’s voice was so high he worried it would crack, and he was distinctly aware that his mounting excitement could not go unnoticed. “You said it yourself, I wrung every last drop of…”
“And am I only the sum of the magic I can command?” Dorian whispered, pulling himself with effort up onto his elbows, nose touching Cullen’s own. “I just performed a rather dangerous experiment that resulted both in the return of your equanimity and in me not dying. I would call that a success.” He licked his lips. “And I intend to celebrate it.” He let his elbows give way, planting him firmly into a kiss that tasted of wine and spices and triumph.
A different burst of coruscating light, then.
Dorian had curled up and fallen asleep after only a bit of fumbling, of course. Cullen had tucked his great wolfhide coat around the other man, sitting nearby and observing him first as an ethereal creature lit by dwindling moonlight and then as a mere lump in the darkness. No nightmares stalked him; no images lurked in the dark corners of his mind. He was peaceful. Watchful. His questions--and he had many--could wait.
When dawn streaked the sky with embers, he rose and picked his way through he impromptu camp toward a well-trodden clearing where some hearty soul had had the foresight to get a stew going. Only a few soldiers were up so early, and none of them commented on the absence of his coat, made starkly apparent by the rattling of the ladle against the stewpot as he filled two bowls. Nor did they comment on the fact that there were, indeed, two bowls. Whatever else he lacked--sleep, coat, control over his psyche without supreme magical intervention--respect was not one of them.
"Breakfast in bed, how lovely!" Dorian cried as Cullen pushed back the tent flap upon his return.
"Shouldn't you be asleep?"
"Can't. Ravenous," Dorian replied, grasping at his bowl and slurping in a most un-Dorian-like manner. He wore the wolfhide coat as a blanket, and thick spiky black hairs stuck up around his chin, framing a face that was still too pale.
"Takes it out of you, does it?" Cullen ventured. His questions couldn't wait forever.
"Mmmph?" Dorian raised his eyebrows over a mouthful of stew.
"The...whatever you did. The magic. It taxes you?"
"Oh, that. Well. You always have to replenish, it's just usually not so physically draining. But then usually you're not bled dry, so. It makes sense." A few mouthfuls later Dorian actually looked up from his stew and saw Cullen’s face, whereupon he smirked. "Dear Maker, I do believe you're worried about me."
"Of course I am. Do you even know what you did?"
Dorian’s smile was innocence itself. "That depends which part of the evening you're referring to."
"The magic, Dorian."
"Well fine then, be boring. The answer to your question is no. I don't know what I did. But I intend to find out." He shoveled the last bit of stew from his bowl and then turned his eyes to Cullen's, left untouched on the floor between them. "Are you going to eat that?"
Cullen watched his breakfast disappear in a few much-relished gulps, then tried again. "Do you think you...do you think we made it worse?"
"Made what worse?"
"The addiction to lyrium, obviously! The...leaving of it."
"Again, I'm really not quite sure what I did." Dorian fixed him with an gray-eyed stare. "And I believe certain developments last night ought to have made rather clear my readily-ascertainable status as something other than a lump of blue stone mined for its magical properties." Abruptly the turned his stare into a lascivious visual caress, and Cullen swallowed, hard. "On the other hand, were I to have accurately replicated the process that occurs with lyrium, that might place you in the position of being addicted to me. I can think of worse fates."
Cullen tried to maintain a level of decorum despite the furious blush he knew was crawling up his cheeks. "But what if you did?” he insisted. “What if I--Dorian, I don’t know if you’ve ever been addicted to anything, but it’s not--”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” the mage replied with a droll laugh. “How do you think I spent the springtime of my youth?”
“Ah.” Would the blush never go away? “You’re not that old--”
“I’m precisely as old as you believe me to be, and not a minute younger. But do me a favor and avoid recasting me as some cossetted little princeling the Maker smiled on, just because I wasn’t force-fed a highly-addictive substance by the people supposed to be looking out for my better welfare.” His laugh, now, was unkind. “We possess true skill, we Tevinter, for getting ourselves hopelessly infatuated with lost causes. The war with the Qunari being only the most blatantly discernible amongst a whole host of failures. Political and personal.”
Several responses ran through Cullen’s mind, and the one he chose--blurted, really--wasn’t necessarily the one he thought best. “You don’t think I can get through this, then? Don’t think I can...stop?”
“What are you talking about?” The understanding flashing across Dorian’s face was like a second dawn. “Oh, no. No, do not make this about you. I didn’t mean you were a lost cause. I was…” Here Dorian faltered, laying the empty soup bowl down and pulling the coat tighter around himself, buying for time. “Being...theatrical,” he finished lamely.
“So you think I can do it.”
“I don’t see why not.”
“But it hasn’t been done before. You said.”
Dorian rolled his eyes. “My not having heard of something hardly rules it out as never having happened, somewhere, sometime, for someone. Besides, it isn’t as though an Inquisition--not quite like this one, anyway--has been formed before, either. First time for everything.”
Cullen shook his head. “The price is too high if I fail.”
“What choice do you have? You’re the one who told me your options are either insanity or oblivion. Which is just a less upsetting version of insanity, really.”
“But look at you. You’re a wreck.”
Even ensconced in a decidedly unfashionable garment, only recently returned from a profoundly draining experience, Dorian had the capacity to look scandalized. “I beg your pardon?”
“You are!” Cullen snapped. “Look at you! You’ve next to no color to you, you can barely sit upright--you slept on my floor, for pity’s sake!”
Beneath its mustaches, Dorian’s jaw hardened. “I didn’t hear you complaining about my company last night.”
“Of course not, but Dorian, you nearly died! You should’ve been in a bed, with real blankets, a fire, broth, something--”
“If it was so important to you, why didn’t you make arrangements and carry me to your so-highly-recommended real bed? I healed the shit out of you. You could have carried an ox!”
“I…” Cullen buried his hands in his hair, gazing down at the rumbled sheepskin bedroll for answers. “I wanted you to stay,” he mumbled.
“Well well well, such progress! Next we’ll be getting the high and mighty commander to admit he fancies men. Perish the thought!” Dorian rose now, swaying slightly, throwing Cullen’s coat forcibly to the floor. “I bid you good day, sir. I wouldn’t want to shame you any more with my presence.” He wobbled toward the door.
“Maker’s blood, Dorian, I’m not ashamed of you!” Cullen leapt easily to his feet and blocked the way out of the tent, batting away Dorian’s attempts to dodge around him. “Won’t you listen to me?”
“No. Move aside.”
“Because this is all too familiar!” Dorian snarled, teeth glinting ferally in the spill of light from the gap around the tent flap. “Help me Dorian, save me Dorian,” he mimicked, in a falsetto sharp enough to cut diamonds. “And now it’s oh no, someone saw him in my tent, best to get rid of him before he damages my reputation--”
Cullen thumped the tent wall, needing to hit something, and the whole structure shuddered. “I told you that wasn’t the case. Before, at the palace!”
“Well I didn’t believe you then and I don’t now.”
“Then why did you stay?”
The mage opened his mouth to respond, the picture of lightning-quick anger poised to strike. Then his eyes seemed to lose focus, and he clicked his jaw shut firmly, shaking his head as if to clear it. “Because I was foolish in my fatigue,” he murmured, and tried to rush the door.
Cullen stopped him, though, easily, and Dorian bounced off him as off a wall, crumpling into a snowy-robed heap. Cullen sank to his knees next to him, grabbing him by the shoulders when the mage attempted to roll away.
“Dorian. Listen to me. It’s not shame.”
Caught in his grip, Dorian glowered at him like a snake. “I’ll believe that when I see it.”
“It’s not. Look at me. I’m a practical man. You’re right, I could have sent you away. Could have easily arranged it, through loyal soldiers, with none the wiser. But I didn’t. Because I wanted you here when I woke up.”
“Lovely that we were able to arrange this little meeting of the minds, then.”
“It’s not that simple. Look at what I did to you last night.”
“You didn’t do a damn--”
Cullen hissed in vexation. “You know what I mean. I caused you to put yourself in a situation where you could have died.”
“If you could just have shown some restraint--”
“But I didn’t, did I? And who’s to say I ever could? I know you. You will keep trying to solve my problem and you’ll get yourself killed in the process. And that’s just the lyrium I’m talking about! I haven’t even started on the wars, the what I’m told are likely to be numerous assassination attempts, the uncertain futures--”
Even wan in exhaustion, mustaches drooping, Dorian’s sneer dripped disdain as he addressed an imaginary audience. “A kiss and a fondle in a tent in the dead of night, and now he’s talking about knowing me? About uncertain futures? Could he be more parochial?”
“I don’t know what that means.” Cullen took a deep breath; tried to remain calm. “And I take it from your...tone…that that’s not something you want to talk about. Fine. But I didn’t slice you a back door through the tent, did I? Didn’t bundle you out in the predawn hours. I let you sleep, here. And now I’m regretting it, not because of anything having to do with my reputation.” He sighed heavily, wishing Dorian would meet his eyes instead of staring at some fixed point beneath his chin. “It’s because whatever it is you want from me, I don’t appear to be able to give it. And what I can do--what I am--someone to perform your experiments on, someone to fix, is something I’m not willing to give, or to be. I don’t need any more blood on my hands.”
Dorian, masterfully self-possessed Dorian, actually flinched at the word “fix,” and this time when he attempted to roll away Cullen let him. The mage lay on his side, facing the tent wall away from Cullen, wrinkled white robes spilling over him like a shroud. Cullen watched the rise and fall of his breathing for a few moments, willing the man to speak, or turn back. To do something.
But silence reigned.
After a minute or two more Cullen stood, grabbing his jacket and whipping the tent flap open in jerky, angry motions. He had one foot out on the cold earth when he paused to pick up one of the sheepskins on the tent floor and fling it, fleece side-down, over the unmoving mage.
“Stay warm,” he ordered. “You need rest.”
He’d expected no response to this and almost received none--he barely heard the words flung back at him as he let the tent flap fall shut behind him.
“Where are you going?”
Cullen shoved his arms into the sleeves of his jacket as if all this were the jacket’s fault. Now he talks, he thought grimly. Aloud, he said only, “Away!” and then stalked down the slope toward the picket lines for the horses.
Around him the camp was stirring to life. More people stepped gingerly through the ruins--whether out of concern for their hangovers or for the sanctity of the dead, Cullen did not know--and the formerly lonesome stewpots now boasted a shivering throng of former revelers, waiting in line for their bowlfuls. With a twist in his chest Cullen saw that the base of the stone monument erected for those lost was almost completely obscured now with toys, bundles and no small number of frozen clumps of flowers. However hard they danced at night, these people knew why they were here. It pained him.
He had barely taken a few paces toward the picket lines before a green-hooded attaché appeared at his side, clipboard in hand. “Commander? Are we heading out?”
“No, just me.”
Cullen whirled on him. “Look, I’m not supposed to return to Skyhold yet anyway, right? You’re one of Leliana’s people, I expect you have instructions.”
The green-hooded man gulped audibly and nodded.
“That’s what I thought. Keep him away from the fortress awhile, she tells you. As though that puts you in an enviable position.” He grimaced, belatedly realizing that by snapping at this poor man he was making it that much less enviable a position. “I’m just going to ride out for awhile, all right? I’m from these parts, more or less. I know what I’m doing. I don’t need an entourage.”
Cullen knew very well that Leliana’s people would still be trailing him--as if she would allow them to let the leader of their forces to just slip away!--but at least now he hopefully wouldn’t have to see them or, worse, make conversation with them. He did not feel like making conversation with anyone.
Excepting, perhaps, his horse, who whinnied with joy when he came into view.
“Hey there, lovely,” he crooned, stroking the big bay’s nose. He felt bad for the poor beast--Master Dennett had presented him to Cullen shortly after arriving at Skyhold, but given how rarely the commander actually got to leave Skyhold, his horse must have been pining for open pasture for quite some time. “Let’s give you some new ground to cover, eh?”
He turned to look for his tack, but saw that scurrying soldiers in green had already appeared to rub down the horse’s legs and saddle him. Cullen stood awkwardly for a few moments, wishing he could just do it himself but too mindful of the way he’d treated the man with the clipboard to intervene now. Let them do what they were ordered to do, and not get their heads bitten off for it. After what seemed like an interminable wait, the horse stood rubbed and ready in his campaign gear, saddlebags fit to bursting on either side of its rump.
Cullen raised an eyebrow at those, and one of the attending soldiers saw. “S-supplies, Commander,” he stammered. “In case, you know, you--needed--something.”
Fine, just let me get out of here, Cullen thought waspishly, and swung up onto the horse’s back. He would have to think of a name for him--as far as he knew the great gleaming animal was simply “the commander’s horse,” which was a terrible name as far as Cullen was concerned.
“Thank you,” he said, voice gruff, as the horse trotted off, and the soldier smiled and saluted. Before him, the snow-clad ruins of Haven gave way to spruce and pine, wind and sky--and sweet, sweet solitude.
Non-canonical scars, which I defend up here as being more plausible than not.
This was, ultimately, his place. The whispers in the pines, the scuttling away of small game, the crunch of bracken underfoot--this was where he belonged. Not abusing mages by decree of the Chantry in some stuffy tower somewhere; or killing them outright in another; or even hunching over an endless parade of maps and figures, troop markers and missives. Here. This was where he was supposed to be.
This was not news to Cullen. He had known it since boyhood midsummers spent tromping through the woods with his siblings, tricking the older ones and terrorizing the younger ones. He had known. But it was good, he thought, to be reminded now and again. To go back.
Which was what he was doing now, leading his his prized steed farther and farther away from the Inquisition forces still gathered at Haven, southeast along forest tracks unknown save to those that lived there. Or had lived there once. Even his family was gone now, scattered by marriage and the chaos of the Blight, these ten years later.
But still, he belonged here. He felt it when he had to bid the last of the trees farewell on the rising road to Skyhold. He felt it gazing at the dark shapes of mountains across the lake at Halamshiral. He felt it even--if he were being honest with himself, and while he still had his full mental faculties, he wanted to be honest with himself--in the tent with Dorian, fumbling giddily toward a kind of gratitude.
Cullen snorted at himself and his mount's ears flicked back, listening. "Don't mind me," he told the horse, patting its neck. He told himself not to think of Dorian; not to think of the Inquisition; not to think about anything. Just to be in the woods and not have things...complicated. By anyone.
This was a fine plan, until it began to rain. He didn't notice it at first, sheltered by the trees as they were, and then when he did notice it he welcomed the rain for the smells of earth and sap it brought from the ground, the trees. It felt welcoming.
That had been five hours ago, however--back when the rain had been a light mist and not a cold, steady mountain downpour. Now Cullen's breaths came in great steaming gouts before his face, and every inch of his accoutrement, not to mention his horse, was sopping wet. He'd approached several places he knew hunters used to keep shacks, only to find them all worn to ruin or grown over by now. The Blight may have ended years ago, but between it and the war between the mages and the templars, it seemed folk were slow to return to the mountain paths.
Cullen pressed on south, stubbornly refusing to turn back. He knew he should. He half expected one of Leliana's undoubtedly nearby watchers to materialize at any moment and beg him to turn back, for all their sakes. If that happened he thought he would probably relent, and spare them their miserable cold wet vigil. But the road had remained empty, and he pushed onward. Leliana had wanted him out of Skyhold, did she? She was going to get him out of Skyhold. Take a day or two.
Finally as the light began to dim, the familiar surroundings grew more familiar still, and he turned aside into the undergrowth, dismounting and leading the horse by the bridle along a path he hadn't walked in fifteen years--and which he hadn't been sure he could find in the swiftly-descending shadows of evening. But there it was: the sudden falling-away of the forest to mist-shrouded lake, the island with its stately gnarled tree, the dock framed by cattails. Home.
He led the horse to a small copse by the water's edge, hobbling it in the partial shelter as he rubbed it down with a rag one of the soldiers had helpfully stuffed into his oilskin saddlebags. That helpfulness, unfortunately, did not extend to the rest of their supplies: it appeared that, with the exception of oats and several blankets in varying states of dampness, they had packed little but alcohol. Two bottles of wine, three jugs of beer, and a flask of what smelled like saddle soap, to be precise--all carefully wrapped in cloth to keep them from clinking or breaking along the road.
"You have got to be kidding me," Cullen groaned, leaning his face against the horse's neck when he'd emptied the last of the saddlebags to no avail. "Oh they want you back well-fed, sure, but me? They want me pickled," he told the beast.
Between the commandeering of his breakfast by more needful parties, and the long hours in the saddle, Cullen was starving. And cold. And soaked through to the bone. Ignoring the outraged cries of his stomach, he pulled twine and a twisted bit of fishhook from his pockets--old habits--and tromped out onto the dock with a fishing pole fashioned from a poplar branch, hoping to the Maker something was biting at this late and rainy hour.
Here, at least, his luck held, and three fat trout dangled from his lines as the last of the light leeched out of the sky. He had to squint to find his way back to the copse, and almost dropped the fish as the shadows claimed his path and he walked face-first into the body of a horse--but not his horse, whose white-striped nose he could plainly see a few paces away, turned toward him with interest.
He leapt back from the unknown animal, brandishing his fishing pole like the sword he'd foolishly left piled with the saddlebags. "Show yourself!" he roared into the forest, startling the horses into nervous whinnies. "I don't appreciate being preyed upon!"
With a whoosh the fish in his hand disappeared under licking white flames, and he yelped as he flung them away.
"Oh come now, it wasn't that hot. That was clearly a slow-roast there, not some cataclysmic fireball from the depths of the Deep Roads."
Out of the trees, lit by a cheerily bobbing blue ball of light that trailed a pace behind him, stepped Dorian, every hair in place, immaculate in riding robes whose capacious white collar turned up and swooped about his face, carrying a corona of light with it. "It's a shame about your distaste for being preyed upon. I was rather looking forward to it, myself."
Cullen's eyes grew so wide they watered. "Dorian?"
"Unless you know of any other well-dressed mages wandering these woods? Do tell me if so; I love competition." He stepped around the horses and toward the general vicinity of the fallen fish, directing his glowing ball toward the ground, searching. "I hope you haven't lost our dinner. I'm fairly certain I cooked it to perfection."
"Our...dinner?" Cullen said dazedly. He wondered if the cold and damp and stomach-twisting hunger were causing him to hallucinate. Perhaps the lyrium withdrawal's effects were returning?
"I assume. You weren't planning on feeding it to the horses, were you?"
"I...no." Cullen blinked. Seeing the mage in the wet woods of his childhood was disorienting--two parts of his life that should have remained entirely separate, colliding without warning. "Dorian, what are you doing here? How....how did you find me?"
"What, you mean you doubt my skills as a woodsman? Aha!" Dorian darted forward and plucked the steaming fish from a tangle of bushes. "A few leaves here and there, but nothing we can't fix. Dinner is served!"
Over the impatient growling of his stomach, Cullen still fought to make sense of the situation. "No but really, how did you find me?"
"Oh, that was the easy part," Dorian said, handing him the fish and kindling a fresh ball of fire in the palm of his hand. "The remnants. From what we did? You're still...traceable to me. I could feel which way you went, and I so followed." He paused, fish in hand, and looked at Cullen with a face carefully emptied of expression. "It's fading, though," he added softly. "I can't, ah, sense your emotions anymore. So I have no idea how you...feel. About all this."
He held up the fish hesitantly, in a gesture meant to indicate all this, and Cullen started to laugh.
"You are the absolute last person I would ever have pegged to be waving fish at me in Ferelden forest."
Relief rippled visibly across Dorian's face, though he struggled to hide the reaction in a courtly bow. "Who wants to be predictable?"
They set to eating with gusto, Dorian prudently nudging the final fish in Cullen’s direction when the latter suggested they split it. “I had the advantage of a rather lengthy breakfast,” Dorian said by way of explanation. “Rather the complete opposite of you.”
“You went back for seconds, then?”
The mage grinned. “Seconds, thirds, and fourths.”
“Wouldn’t know it to look at you.”
“Why thank you. I do try.”
While Cullen was finishing the last of the fish--which was indeed well-roasted, he noted with pleasure--Dorian poked around rudimentary campsite, coming upon the contents of Cullen’s saddlebags with a gleeful cry. “Wine! You brought wine! Why didn’t you say so earlier?”
“I didn’t bring anything,” Cullen muttered around a mouthful of fish. “The soldiers packed those. I was going to--well, I was just going to leave, but they insisted. And then when I stopped for the evening, soaked through, I open the bags and find nothing. No food at all! Just alcohol.”
Dorian tutted, plucking the flask from the pile and sniffing curiously at it. “And brandy, even! Oh I wouldn’t fault your soldiers, Commander. They sent you off with the good stuff.”
“And what need could they possibly foresee me having for ‘the good stuff?’” Cullen grumbled, licking the fish drippings from his fingers and wishing there were more. He squatted on his heels, huddling closer to the globe of veilfire that provided both warmth and light both for the clearing.
“Perhaps they were just being thoughtful,” Dorian mused, taking a sip of the brandy. The pleased smile, like a cat’s, that split his face spoke more to the brandy’s quality than words.
Cullen grimaced. “I can’t believe you drink that.”
“You mean you don’t?”
“It smells like soap.”
Dorian raised an eyebrow. “Have you even tried it?”
“Of course not.”
"Well then, we should remedy that." Dorian came over and bent to hand him the flask, causing a rush of exotic smells to whirl around him as he moved.
Cullen's nostrils flared. He was about to comment on the mage's scent--did it come from perfume? soap? oil? that last thought made him shiver--before he noticed that the white hems of the mage's robes shone spotless in the firelight.
"You're not even wet!"
"Neither are you, right now."
"What are you talking about? I'm freezing." Cullen shivered in timely emphasis.
Dorian shook his head. "That's just cold. You're no wetter then you were when you arrived. I've built a bit of a dome." When Cullen looked around, the other man laughed. "Of magic, of course, of the same kind I channeled around me as we came south. No point in both of us getting soaked, after all." He watched Cullen shiver again, and nodded toward the flask. "Drink up. You'll feel warmer."
"But I won't be warmer."
Curling mustaches, flashing teeth. "Drink, and we'll see to that. Starting with getting you out of those wet clothes.
Ignoring the stutter in his own pulse as best he could, Cullen did as he was bidden, scowling as the acrid taste hit his tongue. When he lowered the flask, though, his eyes were thoughtful. "Can I ask you something, Dorian?"
"Sentences that begin like that never end well," Dorian sighed. "But yes, go ahead."
"It's nothing bad. I just wondered...does it make it easier for you?"
Dorian's eyebrows drew together. "Does what make what easier for me?"
"This." Cullen shook the flask. "Being drunk, does it--do you find it necessary?"
Gray eyes weighed, measured, calculated the potential gains and losses attendant to truth. "I find it helps things along, yes."
"I was just thinking we hadn't yet...not without one of us being drunk or out of our minds with fatigue or...other things, and..." Cullen coughed. "And I didn't know if it was something you were afraid to do."
In the blink of an eye Dorian was kneeling behind him, not touching, but leaning close, out of sight, his breath hot against Cullen's ear.
"You would think me afraid?" The man's voice dripped danger and knew it.
Cullen held very still, torn between relishing the moment--he could feel the tension held in check just beyond his skin!--and pursuing his point, on which he very much wanted an answer. The latter impulse won. "Fear can take many forms," he said, proud that his own voice remained steady. For the most part.
"You doubt me."
"You're a convincing man, Dorian, but you've trained in...playing games with the truth...the way I've trained with a blade." No point lurking in the shadows forever, he thought, summoning a kind of verbal brashness for his next statement that he hardly felt. Would this count as forcing something? Would he ruin this? "If you're not afraid, prove it to me."
He felt the intake of breath as a sudden absence of warmth against his neck. Only for a moment, though, before the serpentine voice returned, probing.
"And how do you propose I do that?"
Cullen swallowed. "Take my clothes off, for one."
A pause again, which lasted so long Cullen craned his neck around to see the results of his gambit. The exultant longing that lay coiled in Dorian's face nearly made him jump.
His innards certainly did.
"You are not without skill," Dorian murmured, lunging for a kiss Cullen only just managed to dodge by whipping his head to the left. He felt lips on his ear, and then a nip as a frustrated hiss blew across the side of his face.
"Not yet," he said in as close to his official templar's voice as he could manage. Cool, calm, in command. Not trembling. Definitely not. "No touching. Just...undress me."
Silence again, and Cullen wondered whether he had pushed too far. He had no idea how Dorian's perception of power worked. He had no idea how a great deal of Dorian worked. But the idea of getting sloshed, again, and just happening to end up in each other's arms, again, did not appeal to him. It felt like...like cheating. Just when the crackling of the veilfire and the now-audible tap of the rain against Dorian's magical dome threatened to become deafeningly solemn, a lament for lust foiled, he felt hands grip the dampened ruff of his coat on either side of his neck.
"As you command," purred the voice in his ear. Close again, but not touching. As he had commanded.
He had to shrug his shoulders slightly for Dorian to be able to peel the coat off them. He was soaked through, and everything stuck together. The loss of even that sodden layer of warmth, though, made him shiver, and he heard a deep chuckle of pleasure behind him.
Pause. "I will have to come around to the front. There are buckles."
Dorian circled around him, coming to sit directly in front of Cullen as he reached out for the leather straps. Blocking most of the veilfire's light as he was, Dorian had to squint to see what he was doing. That, and his hands were shaking.
"Not afraid, hmm?" Cullen crooned, letting lasciviousness conceal how endearing he found that involuntary tremor.
"There is fear and there is impatience," Dorian grumbled, or tried to. His voice had sudden dips and hollows in it, like a horse running over uneven ground. "Why aren't you wearing your pauldrons, anyway? I was expecting more metal."
"I left in a rush." Cullen did not want to dwell on the nature of his departure, the essentially unresolved argument that lay behind them in that morning. Better, much better, to focus on the present.
"But you wore the breastplate?"
"I slept in it, if you recall." Cullen's own laugh wasn't making Dorian's attempts to unbuckle the saturated leather straps any easier. "There is fear and there is common sense," he added, smiling inwardly at the other man's snort.
"Aha. One down, one to go."
"Not quite. There are straps on the sides, too."
"More straps? Bah!" A little snarl. "Festis bei umo canavarum."
"And what does that mean?"
Dorian met his eyes. "You will be the death of me."
"Let's hope not just yet."
Shoulder strap, left side strap, right side strap. Dorian's hands fiddling so close to his skin made Cullen shudder, and he knew the other man enjoyed it. Some comeuppance, he supposed, for being told to wait. At last the two halves of the breastplate came away and Dorian set them carefully to the side, where the fire's reflections played across their carved surfaces.
Cullen paused. Again, he didn't know how Dorian worked, or how he would react to...evidence, on his body, of past conflicts. But he could guess how long restraint would last after the removal of his breeches, so he wasn't sure which to--
Dorian smirked. "Might I recommend the boots?"
"I thought you said the connection, the echoes of emotion or whatever it was, was fading."
"You don't need magic to see a man trying to make a decision he doesn't have to."
"You'll need to stand up, though."
Cullen did, and felt the tingling numbness in his legs from squatting for so long. Dorian remained on his knees--white robes be damned--laboriously unlacing one boot and then having to yank, twist, and eventually peel it off. He tried to conceal a wrinkling of his nose by ducking his head, but Cullen saw.
"I don't suppose you'd smell so good, either, if your feet had been squished into wet boots all day."
"I don't suppose they would," Dorian replied doubtfully, then giggled. "Your feet are as pale as my robes."
"It's our balmy southern climate."
One boot later, Dorian hovered uncertainly, still kneeling, and looked upward, seeking direction. Swooning was a real possibility, Cullen realized, looking down to see the mage's face backlit by veilfire, craning upward, gray eyes and full lips mere inches from his belt buckle.
"Shirt," he ordered hoarsely. "But Dorian--"
The cold, clammy red shirt was up and over his head before he could finish his sentence, and tangled in its recesses he couldn't see Dorian's first reaction to whatever the veilfire was doing to the scarring on his body. He heard the gasp, though, and fear lashed its way through his guts. He fought the rest of the way out of his shirt on his own.
"I...was going to tell you..." he trailed off. Dorian had had to stand to remove the shirt, and now his brows creased in minute attention, lips pursed beneath his mustaches, staring at Cullen's chest and belly, where the flesh rippled and bubbled in a pinkish swath that stretched from nipples to hip bones, down his right side and stretching across his middle. He reached out, many-ringed fingers glinting with the light of the fire, but stopped just over the surface of the scar, hovering.
"How?" he asked, eyes not leaving the distended skin, the stippled and striated remnants of a fireball's direct hit.
"Kirkwall. I'm sorry I didn't--"
"Why didn't anyone heal it?" Dorian's voice was low, hollow; Cullen couldn't tell why and it terrified him.
"With all the fighting, I thought it better to leave the healers to--"
"That's not true." Dorian's eyes dragged themselves up from the old wound with effort and pinned Cullen's in place. "You were a leader. They would have healed you. Would have insisted. You had to have actively refused them."
Please don't make me explain. "No, there were people worse off, and--" Cullen began desperately.
"And this," Dorian continued, that odd hollowness to his tone deepening, becoming more foreign and empty. His hand rose to Cullen's face and brushed the scar there, extending from lip up almost to nose, before retreating, the ban on physical contact apparently remembered.
The brief touch made Cullen's whole body tingle.
"This should have been healed too. Why wasn't it? It would have been easy."
Cullen wished Dorian had sounded harsh, angry, anything--any known emotion. Instead his statement was more of a suggestion than a command, Cullen felt something wail inside him. It wasn't supposed to go wrong this time! he thought, stricken.
"I..." Dorian was looking at him, so close, eyes so fixed and focused and listening, he couldn't lie. "I did refuse. It was magic. I had...difficulties with magic. With mages. For a long time." He reached a hand up to run his fingers nervously through his hair, but Dorian caught them at his temple, thumb cool against the sweat of Cullen's palm.
"You were afraid of mages."
Cullen looked away, toward their flickering shadows on the damp earth. "Yes, but I was angry, and--"
"So afraid you wouldn't even accept healing."
Dorian's other hand touched him too, now, breaking the ban, tracing the path of the burn down his body. "This must have been extraordinarily painful."
Cullen shut his eyes as desire fought with despair, and nodded.
"No, don't close your eyes. Look at me."
Dorian was inches away, had his hands on his body, his eyes locked in place; he was a force of truth that would drag the words out of Cullen if it killed him. If it killed the both of them.
"Tell me. Last night. When I put my hands on you. Were you frightened?"
"Dorian, I was delirious--"
The mage shook his head: a short, sharp gesture. "Fine then. At the palace. When I got rid of your hangover. You said--" Here Dorian squinted, trying to remember, the angles of his face coming together in exquisite concentration. "You said to wait, that I was doing more than just curing your hangover."
"I could feel it, yes."
"And were you frightened? Look at me."
Cullen did. He was certainly frightened now, of that voice and of the terrifying emptiness it portended. But then? "No."
Cullen shrugged in a gesture they both knew was blatantly false in its casualness. "I...trusted you."
"Why." Not even a rising intonation, just a statement.
"I don't know."
"Mages had tortured you, you said. They had to be put down. They did...this...to you." Fingers on his chest. "A fireball, was it? Melting your skin, Cullen. And you let me delve into you like it was nothing. Like you hadn't spent ten years dreading even the faintest whiff of magic."
"I know. I'm sorry."
"Does it still make you uncomfortable?"
Why is he prolonging this? Just push me away already. "A little."
"But not from me."
Dorian closed his eyes, eyelids quivering, and Cullen watched him miserably. He had felt like this once before, when he'd received the scar on his mouth, actually--saw the blade coming toward him as if in slow motion; felt the pooling of adrenaline preparing to course through him when the pain hit, slicing upward through his lip. Readying for the blow. Helpless to prevent it in those last few seconds.
Abruptly he realized that that quivering of Dorian's eyelids was his attempt to hold back tears. Wetness glistened along the dark lashes, water held in check, trembling in place, and Cullen's jaw fell open. I didn't know that actually happened, a distant part of his mind marveled. Jaws falling open.
Dorian held up a hand. The hand that had been resting on Cullen's chest a moment ago. "Your trust is--" Dorian's voice caught, and he opened his eyes, blinking hard, trying to focus on Cullen through the moisture. "Your trust is...a gift," he managed finally. Huskily. "And I don't know what to do with it."
Cullen gaped. He had had no warning that this was where that hollow tone was leading. To crying? To Dorian crying? He stood there shivering for a long, long moment, Dorian staring steadily up at him though tears, and realized with a jolt that he actually did know what to do. For once.
"I have an idea," Cullen hazarded, gently extricating the hand Dorian had held suspended at his temple all this time and placing it at the mage's waist. He bent his head ever so slightly--they were almost the same height--and brought his mouth to Dorian's, flush and full. Mustaches tickled his scarred lip as he flicked his tongue between the mage's teeth, trying to rouse him, to drag him forcibly by desire through whatever jumbled emotional forest he was lost in.
Dorian's eyes gleamed wolflike through their sheen of tears, almost silver, and suddenly his tongue was savage in Cullen's own mouth, tasting of brandy and salt. Their noses mashed together as Dorian pulled Cullen closer, the cold clammy body pressed up against the warmth and the spice, the need.
"Amatus," Dorian gasped as they pulled apart for air, the world a torrent of sensation. Everything seemed sharper: the ping of the rain against the magical shield, the crackle of the fire, the glitter of light on damp lashes.
"I think I know what that means," Cullen murmured.
"No," Dorian corrected him, leaning in again, hands sliding all over the other man now, as if to make up for not having been allowed to touch him for so long. Like rain down a rockface. "I really don't think you do."
"Then show me."
So he did.
They slept on the dock.
They had no tent, and little in the way of blankets, but with Dorian's dome it didn't matter where they were. Cullen proposed it, slick and warm, languorous and wanting to sleep--but he wanted more; wanted to pull all the good things in his life together in one place and tie them in a knot there, keep them safe. Dorian, safety, an interlude between withdrawal malaise, the forest and the lake, his childhood--all of it. He wanted it bound up together in his memories, locked away securely.
He had articulated none of this. Had only asked. But Dorian, beautiful well-formed Dorian who himself was indolent with post-coital torpor, had watched his face when he asked, and had said yes, just a moment while he readied the dome--still keeping them dry--for transport. He'd closed his eyes, fully naked and lit by the flickering veilfire, and murmured in that language Cullen didn't understand, and had held his hands a certain way--Cullen had to resist the urge to grab him again, poised like that, concentrating and capable. A master of his craft.
And they had slept, the water lapping beneath them, the soft susurration of raindrops pattering down onto the lake all around them. It wasn't the most comfortable bed by any means, with only two blankets between their bare skin and the weathered boards, and only a blanket and Dorian's robes atop them for warmth. But to Cullen it was bliss. He wrapped his arm around the other man, over his side, his fingers curling under a smooth sternum as they settled into sleep. He did not dream.
Sometime during the night, the rain stopped, giving way to a dawn like a Chantry window, all vivid pinks and violets. Cullen watched it over the curve of Dorian's cheek, not daring to move lest he wake the other man. Around them the gathered mist sharply defined the limits of Dorian's dome, billowing up against the invisible edges, stirred by currents unseen. It was somewhat eery, but Cullen was grateful that the cold, clinging mist was held at bay. Chilly as he was, he suspected he would be much more so had the mist been allowed to wash over them, coating them in its clammy embrace.
Dorian's voice was torpid with sleep, but unexpected all the same; Cullen tensed at the sound. Pressed against him as he was, Dorian felt it at once, and pushed backwards, snuggling closer.
"Scared you, did I?"
"I didn't know you were awake, that's all."
"I've been awake for hours." He yawned hugely. "Can't really sleep too long with this thing up. Sleep too deeply and it starts to flicker."
Cullen was aghast. "You didn't have to--we didn't need--"
"Oh, nevermind sleep. Yes I did have to, and yes we did need. Had I let it fall I might as well have let you jump in the lake, we'd be so damp. Besides, you didn't answer my question."
Cullen nuzzled into the back of Dorian's neck, inhaling the foreignness he was determined to make familiar. Ginger? Cloves? Cardamom? "What question?"
Cullen twirled his fingers in patterns on Dorian's chest as he considered. "I had a big family. Have. I would come here to get away from them."
Sleep clotted Dorian's voice, but he was clearly fighting it. "Didn't get along with them, did you?"
"Oh no, I loved them! I still do, though I don't write them as much as I should. There were just...so many of them. It got loud. So I came here, to think."
Dorian seemed to consider this for a moment, before rolling over onto Cullen, almost tumbling them both into the lake. He folded his hands on Cullen's chest and rested his chin on top of them, so their noses were almost touching. If Cullen thought the motion was a prelude to ravishment, he was wrong.
"What's it like, having so many siblings? Brothers? Sisters?"
Cullen propped his head up on his arms so he could see Dorian better without craning his neck. Gooseflesh pebbled his exposed skin immediately, but he wouldn't have shifted the man off him for all the gold in the Inquisition's coffers. "Two brothers and a sister. Mia. She's furious I haven't written more often." He grinned. "Every time the courier brings one of her letters in, I expect it to set the table on fire when he sets it down."
"Are you friends with them?"
Cullen squinted at the man on his chest. "What an odd question."
"Well, we used to be friends when we were little, I suppose. No more bullying than in any other family, I mean. No real competition either, except maybe during chess. But as we grew older, we grew apart. You know how it is."
"I don't, actually." So close, Cullen could see the stubble on Dorian's chin, and the dark smudges of sleeplessness under his eyes. "Not a sibling to be found in my household. Or any of them among the Minrathous elite, now that I think about it. It's more breeding by that point, really, than having children."
"You don't think you're being a little too harsh on them? Your parents?"
Dorian's eyes, pale as the sky above, grew hooded, and his voice flat and deadly as a blade. "No. I don't."
Cullen winced. "I'm sorry. I don't know anything about it. I shouldn't have asked."
"It's all right." The mage's sigh expanded in his chest and lifted him up, up, and then back down, bumping noses with Cullen as he exhaled. His smile was sad. "If I'm so incapable of talking about family, I shouldn't have brought it up. I just wondered what it was like. To have...friends, companions like that, even from a young age. Who will only ever be that, not jockeying for something else."
Oh no. "If you're...regretting...anything..." Cullen began, cutting off when Dorian lunged at him, covering Cullen's mouth with his own.
"It's not that at all. Please don't think it," Dorian pleaded, when he let go. Actually pleaded. His face was so earnest it turned the pit of Cullen's stomach to ice.
"All right then...what is it?" The kiss had left neither of them completely unresponsive, and with Dorian lying on top of him both of them knew it.
"I wasn't saying I wished to...demote you. To anything other than what you are. I only meant that I didn't know how it worked. When things are equal."
Cullen raised his eyebrows, more interested now despite the distraction of his desire. "Equal?"
"Yes, you know, where neither party owes the other anything." Dorian sat up then, somewhat to Cullen's disappointment, and wrapped the blanket around himself like a cloak. Cullen had to settle with pulling Dorian's white robe around him as the mage continued. "Every past relationship--of any level--that I can think of, something has been owed. Sometimes it's as simple as money. Sometimes it's prestige, or favors. Or revenge." He rubbed his eyes with thumb and forefinger, pinching the pressure points on either side of his nose for a moment before going on. "I'm not always the one doing the owing, either. I've been a port in a storm before. Somewhere...safe."
Dorian watched the mist curl and uncurl against his magic dome, and Cullen watched Dorian. Coiled, capable man that he was, he was more exposed in the morning--through fatigue, probably--than Cullen was used to seeing him. It was enchanting, even if it made him feel vaguely guilty for thinking so.
"But the last time, with Alexius...we were equals, for a while. Not long--I started out as his pupil, and we left on bad terms, for good reason. But before Felix got sick, and I turned into little more than a possible path to some sort of breakthrough in magical intervention, healing or otherwise--" Here his voice hardened, and Cullen remembered how Dorian had flinched when he'd been accused of wanting to someone to fix, "Before that, for a while, we were equals. And...I may have been a bit lost."
Cullen couldn't think what to say other than, "Why?"
"I'm not sure, really. It could have been because I was his protégé for so long, in his shadow but liking it there. Treating him like he knew everything, like my helping him was something he was granting me the privilege of doing." He stopped, looking down at Cullen from where he sat, more regal in his woolen blanket than he could possibly have known. "Am I making any sense?"
“A little," Cullen replied. Careful.
"Look, I..." Dorian gazed down at the sun-bleached boards of the dock where Cullen lay. "I'm sorry I mentioned family at all. What I wanted to ask was how it works as...as equals. I know how to act, when things aren't balanced. I'm either leading or being followed. I was so good at being a loyal lapdog to Alexius, sitting up and doing tricks for something so meagre as a compliment. I lived for his compliments!" Bitterness, there, and pain. No small amount of pain. "That's why they discourage it, you know--masters and pupils. They know we're such hopelessly willing little toadies. We'd do anything to be told we're doing well, doing the right thing. Even if we're ripping the world apart to do it."
Around them, the mists swirled, like predatory cats pacing out their prey.
"But you didn't."
Dorian looked up. "But I wanted to, Cullen. Oh, how I wanted to!"
"But you didn't," Cullen repeated.
"If I hadn't been--well, honestly, if my father hadn't been my father, if he hadn't raised me to...expect better, of magic and those who use it, I might have gone on with Alexius until the end. As it is, I still helped him to create something that shouldn't exist."
Cullen laid a hand on Dorian's back through his blanket. Just the contact, nothing more, but the man seemed to ripple under it. His voice, when he spoke, was husky, hunching like his body did. "I thought the world of him. When he fell apart over his son I was sure I could fix him, him and Felix both--I could put them back together again. And I couldn't. But before we found that out, Alexius thought the world of me. I wasn't his pupil anymore. I was the smartest, bravest, most beautiful man in the world, and I was going to save him."
Oh, Dorian. They had watched Alexius's head roll off his neck not two months prior. The Inquisitor's justice was as swift as winter, and as unrelenting.
"And since we all know how bad Alexius got, and how long he stayed...how long he had been that way, I don't even trust that period where we were equals anymore. I don't...know that that's what it was, really, no matter what it felt like. Not if he was actually planning on selling us all out to Corypheus the whole time, for the sake of the same son he recruited me to try to heal." He sighed under Cullen's hand. "So it turns out I know even less about all this than I thought." He raised his blanket-cloaked arms slightly to encompass sky, lake, dock. And Cullen. "And I don't know how not to owe someone something. Or be owed." His tone huddled over his last vowel, protective and ashamed of it at the same time.
Hearing that, Cullen felt as though he could move, after having held himself on the precipice of action for the length of the mage’s story. He rolled up onto the balls of his feet without a word and, gripping an end of Dorian's garment in each hand, flung it about the both of them as a kind of makeshift cape. His face ended up pressed into the curve of Dorian's neck, and he spoke there.
"You don't owe me anything."
"You don't know that."
Cullen shook his head, scratching his face against Dorian's stubble. "I do."
Dorian twisted in his embrace, so he could see Cullen eye-to-eye. He looked haggard and regretful. “For a man with as many terrible experiences as you’ve had, you can be so…innocent, sometimes.” He closed his eyes then, shutting away the gray, and Cullen poked him with his nose, tickling it against dark curling mustaches.
“Dorian,” he said gently. “Let the shield go. You’re exhausted.”
“We’ll get wet.”
Dorian did nothing that Cullen could see--no waving of the hands, no incantations--but suddenly the billowing mists that had been pacing around them, curling and uncurling like water around rocks, swept free. From all sides at once they advanced, into a pocket of the world formerly denied them, and Cullen continued to hold Dorian as the cold wet clouds moved in, swallowing them both.
They rode back to Haven under a brilliant noon sun, all trace of cloud blown away. Around them the pines glistened with the memory of the night's rain, radiating light and the scent of what was, to Cullen, freedom.
They trotted in companionable silence. Dorian had slept deeply through the gathering mist and then its dissipation as the sun rose, and Cullen had, with effort, resisted the urge to wake him. In truth, he too was sore and ill-rested, the wooden slats of a dock not ranking particularly high on his list of places to curl up with a new lover. But that very phrase, the newness of it--their feet bumping as they rode their horses close to each other; the way he could sometimes feel Dorian looking at him, admiring him, when the other man thought he wasn't paying attention--these more than made up for the protests of cramped muscles and chilled bones.
Besides, he hadn't been the one clinging to a sodden sort of semi-wakefulness all night, just to keep a few raindrops at bay.
At the very edge of the trees that gave away to the clearing of what had once been the village, Dorian reined his horse up short. Cullen noticed belatedly and reined in as well, blinking as full sun, unfiltered by forest, cascaded down his face. Behind him, Dorian still stood in shadow, and it took a minute for his eyes to adjust enough to note that the man looked troubled.
"Something wrong?" Cullen asked, genuinely believing this to be impossible, in the dazzle of the day and the lingering giddiness of the night before.
Dorian smiled one of his slow smiles, like butter melting over hot rolls--but his eyes did not follow suit, shifting with an unease his horse picked up on and mimicked. "You're happy here," he announced. It was a statement, not a question.
Cullen frowned. "Well, yes, but I can't stay away forever--I'm not about to build a cottage and move into the woods, if that's what you're worried about."
"No, it's..." Dorian shook his head and urged his horse closer, out into the sunlight that splashed down on him and his blazing white robes like the Maker's light itself. He watched Cullen for a moment, that smile still lingering. "You're the happiest I've ever seen you."
"Well I don't know that that's saying all that much," Cullen grinned wryly, "since you usually see me buried under a mountain of parchment, all of which needed signing the day before. Why? Is something the matter?"
Dorian opened his mouth to reply, but hoofbeats thundering down the road from Haven caused them both to turn. A rider in green, scout's hood fallen back and whipping in the wind, skimmed the horse's back expertly, skidding to a stop just before the two riders and leaping from the saddle into a flourishing bow that surely, Cullen thought, must do Dorian proud. Or at least make him want to try it himself.
"A message, commander. From Skyhold. You are to return at once."
Cullen nodded. "We're on our way, we should have the company back by--"
The scout shook her head, then seemed to realize she was interrupting the commander of the Inquisition, and flushed a self-conscious crimson. "Apologies, commander, but it--it can't wait. I was instructed to inform you it can't wait. That you should leave those gathered here and return immediately."
"Understood. Thank you, soldier." Cullen expected her to move aside and make room for them to pass, but she turned instead to address Dorian.
"Lord Pavus, if you please?"
Dorian blinked. "I am he, but I am hardly--"
"This is for you," she said, fishing inside her leather vest and producing a crisp piece of creamy parchment, red wax seal broken, though visibly imprinted with a sigil Cullen didn't recognize. "From the Inquisitor herself. It wasn't addressed to you," the scout added quickly when she saw Dorian's eyes settle on the broken seal and his lips purse, "but the Inquisitor said it was important that you receive it as soon as possible."
The scout extended the folded parchment, which Dorian took as though she were handing him a poisonous snake. With a flick of his wrist the folds of the parchment were open and his eyes clawed rapidly down the page, narrowing as they went.
Dread clanged through Cullen's chest cavity, watching: was the Inquisitor disappointed in Dorian somehow; would he be sent away? Had word of his experiment to help Cullen with the lyrium been spread, somehow, to displeased ears? Did someone disapprove of their gallivanting off into the woods? Finally he could wait no longer.
"Dorian, what is it?" he blurted.
Any tenderness or warmth that had been present in Dorian's face a minute ago had long since evaporated, leaving only a tight little smile that was anything but tender.
"It's my father." Dorian's tone left little to the imagination as to how thrilled the mage was to hear from his paternal guardian. "He wants to...arrange a meeting."
Apologies for the extremely short chapter. Had to chop up this wall of text somehow. More to follow.
"What do you mean she won't let me go with him?"
Leliana glared from over a tiny scrap of paper she'd been perusing when Cullen stormed up the winding staircase to her eyrie. "Exactly that, Commander."
Cullen shoved a hand angrily through his hair, glaring at cages full of ravens suspended next to Leliana's desk as though it were their fault. "But you wanted me out of Skyhold--"
"I did. And now you're back, and you're fine, and we need to move on."
"But nothing fell apart in the day that I was gone!"
"Redcliffe is more than a day's ride away, the last time I checked." Leliana rose, her ringmail tunic glinting in the last light of the dying sun, and adopted a look almost of pity.
"I know you are fond of him, Cullen--"
"You're damn right I'm fond of him! But that isn't why I want to--it could be a trap, and--"
Leliana's voice was soft. "If it is a trap, it's far more important that we keep the commander of our armies out of it, wouldn't you agree?"
"Far more important than what?"
Than letting the commander's expendable sweetheart fall into the clutches of the enemy, Cullen's mind filled in for him, unbidden. He closed his eyes and bit his tongue, willing himself not to explode at his spymaster.
Leliana watched him carefully, clearly filling in the same ending to Cullen's question that Cullen did, but knowing better than to voice the answer out loud.
"I applaud the goodness of your intentions," the spymaster said, circling her desk and going to the deep-cut window to sit on the ledge, observing him. "And I am more glad than you know that you are feeling...better, and that Dorian, in whatever capacity, has helped enable that to happen."
Cullen told his eyes not to narrow.
"Surely you recognize, though," Leliana continued, not dwelling on the actual explanation for Cullen's improvement--does she already know? he wondered, "that one of the necessities of any relationship is in recognizing when it is not your battle to win?"
"But..." But everything is my battle! Cullen thought brashly, knowing it childish and, moreover, grossly incorrect, and barely managing to restrain himself from saying it all the same. From yelling it, really.
"We need you here, commander," Leliana insisted, sunset blazing around her silhouette, backlighting her. She allowed a calculated few moments to pass before adding, "unless you think your change in...priorities...is something along the lines of what you and Cassandra talked about?"
Cullen felt the flush of anger surge into his cheeks--but it wasn't just anger, this time, and he knew Leliana knew it. He had no idea what she thought, since even if she weren't backlit he'd likely have no idea how to read whatever lay behind the mask she chose to put up, but she did not say things without cause. Or without having whittled down a list of possible reactions.
"No," he said stiffly. "I do not believe that to be the case."
"Good. I'll see you in the war room later then," the spymaster replied, already turning back to her documents and her ravens.
Cullen stalked down the curling staircase, transitioning from the sun-struck upper reaches of the tower to the library. Here candlelight outnumbered the windows, glimmering off the gilt titles of books that had begun to flow into Skyhold like water, under the combined influences of the mages' requests and various nobles' desire to curry favor. He hoped Dorian would not be there. He wanted to gain control of himself, to bury this conversation somewhere it wouldn't be written all over his--
"Fancy meeting you here."
Dorian glided over, much refreshed for his brief return from the wilds. His cheeks shone dully, freshly shaven, and his mustaches gleamed with what was no doubt scented oil. He had exchanged his soiled white robes for the lightly padded gray armor studded with thin diamonds of metal--the one whose twin rope attachments, sweeping over the mage's left shoulder to anchor over his collarbone, Cullen knew so well. He recalled trying to focus on those knots, on anything other than Dorian's lips during his first interview after his arrival, and felt ages away from that day.
"I know I'm striking, but I don't tend to render you speechless," the mage smirked.
Cullen realized he had been staring and flushed deeper. "Yes, well, you'd be surprised," he muttered, fiddling with a gauntlet.
"Didn't go well, I take it?"
Cullen looked up sharply. "What didn't go well?"
"Come now, commander, you may have been a floor above but I'll remind you this is the same room." Dorian gestured with a hand glistening with buckles into the vaulted space that continued up and up, to where the caws of Leliana's ravens echoed about the space, ricocheting off every surface and creating a general cacophony. "I mean your meeting with Leliana, of course."
"Ah." Cullen sighed. "Am I that transparent?"
"Like a pond."
Cullen strode toward what he thought of as Dorian's window, given that the mage could so often be found in the alcove that housed it, poring over books or--more recently--rearranging them, nonplussed at the organizational skills of whichever of the quartermaster's flunkies lugged them up from below.
Cullen leaned against the glass there, gazing out at the bustling courtyard, the battlements, the mountains. Dorian followed, placing a hand on either side of the casement, pinning him there.
"Your solicitude is touching, but you don't have to come with me."
Cullen's glower felt sulky even to him. "Well that's good, because I'm not allowed to."
"It is expressly my business."
Dorian thrust his chest forward, fixing Cullen's eyes with his own. "You're not listening, are you?"
"What if it's a trap? Some ploy?"
Laughter, followed by a hand thrust through Cullen's hair--Dorian's, knowing the other man would reach to make that motion and beating him to it. "I may have risen in your estimation, but that hardly translates to the rest of the world, you know. To most people, at best, I'm just one of the more eclectic members of the Inquisition--albeit the most well-dressed by far." He tossed his head airily, sending not one strand of hair out of place. "And of course at worst, I'm an evil Tevinter blood mage plotting the end of the world as we know it. Either way, hardly someone worth dragging all the way to Redcliffe in order to ensnare."
"But what if--"
Dorian hissed, glancing to the side as though considering the consequences of public action, then rolled his eyes, dismissing them, and flung himself forward. He darted in not for a kiss, though, as Cullen expected, but for a bite, and not a gentle one.
"Ow! What was that for?" Cullen growled, touching his earlobe gingerly.
"For forgetting, even for a moment, that you lead these armies and that they rise and fall on your command." Dorian stayed close, pushing Cullen back into the window ledge, his scent filling the enclosed space.
"You did. And the family squabbles of a fallen son are beneath your concern." Dorian watched him, coiled, ready to strike in the event of further protest.
Cullen opened his mouth, then closed it. His earlobe throbbed. After a moment he changed direction. "You're leaving soon, then?"
"Tomorrow. First thing in the morning."
"--Careful. Yes. Please don't sound like a mother. Not my mother--I rather think she'd prefer me to come to grief, actually--but a mother. I've little patience for it."
"All right." Cullen waited, poised, for the mage's ire to die down. Like waiting for a horse's ears to flick forward after lying back and threatening a bucking. "You smell like yourself again," he murmured after a moment, watching closely for the reaction to this statement.
Dorian fairly preened. "Josephine's copper tub. It works miracles, you know. You should try it."
"You'll have to show me."
Dorian raised an eyebrow, deliciously, as the tone of the statement sank in. "I will, will I? Tonight? You have the time?"
"You're leaving. I'll have all the time in the world to stare at a table full of metal figures after you're gone."
Just before the last sliver of sun slipped behind the mountains, it shot over Cullen's shoulder and lit up Dorian's grin, white and glowing in the shadows of the alcove. "I will be happy to instruct you then, oh Commander."
Plot put on hold, mostly, for bathtime. Because the holidays are stressful.
That was Cullen's first impression, upon entering the room. Rich fabrics tumbled everywhere: thick maroon carpets with gold tassels piled one on top of the other, silk pillows in varying shades of crimson and umber tossed three-deep on top of those, double-layered velvet curtains in a blue so dark it was almost black, embroidered in thread-of-gold eyes that, from a distance, looked like the stars the curtains blocked out. Stacked on an imposing black chaise lounge with gold lion's feet teetered towels the color of clotted cream, whose fringes glinted with some sort of shining thread that changed hues in the twinkling light of innumerable candles arrayed around the room in ornate candelabras.
And in the center of it all, encircled by embroidered carpets tucked a safe distance away out of consideration for potential splashing, stood a gleaming copper tub, more than waist-high and fluted at the edges such that, viewed from above, it would resemble a giant morning glory flower.
Cullen paused in the doorway, at a loss for words.
"Didn't know we had all this, did you?"
Dorian strode in through a doorway on the other side of the room--which he securely locked behind him, Cullen noted, pocketing the key--dressed as before, but dazzling in what the flickering candlelight did to the sudden bursts of shining metal that appeared across his armor like gems. Armor aside, there was of course the man underneath, resplendently corded in muscle Cullen still couldn't find an explanation for, perfectly oiled and coiffed, slinking toward him with the grace of a cat and the smug grin of a gambler whose bets have all turned up winners.
"N-no, I...didn't," Cullen stammered.
"It's not entirely to my taste, I'll admit," Dorian said off-handedly, fingering the tassel of a cylindrical amber pillow with a slight frown as he passed, "but then it's not to the Inquisitor's either. She goes in for the more barren, I'm-a-provincial-lordling-from-the-ass-end-of-the-Free-Marches look, it seems. Which leaves all these Orlesian goodies the fawning nobles keep sending in with nowhere to go." He came to stand before Cullen and reached out a hand, smoothing the wind-tossed fur ruff of his coat. "Josephine just keeps stocking them in here, in case we might need them someday, so I thought I would borrow the room for the occasion." He patted the key in his pocket. "We shouldn't be disturbed."
Cullen reached for him but Dorian dodged nimbly backward, a wicked grin on his face. "Now now, commander, I wanted to know how it was between equals, remember? I did what you told me to, last time." He spread his hands wide and gave a little bow, an invitation to the room, the water, to himself, the rings on his fingers sparkling like the magic he wielded. "It's only fair, isn't it?"
Cullen cleared his throat. With effort. "W-what do you want me to do?"
Circling the tub to the chaise lounge, Dorian threw himself atop it, carelessly knocking over the pile of creamy towels and flinging one arm over his head, the other tossed over his chest. He held motionless there for a moment, as if willing the image to cement itself in Cullen's brain, before grinning even wider.
"Strip," he ordered.
Cullen took a half-step toward him before the mage threw up a hand.
"No. Over there."
Cullen had sloughed off his coat and was fumbling with the buckles on his breastplate when he heard a put-upon sigh from across the room.
"Slower, man. Make a show of it."
Pacing himself as best as he could, Cullen finally set the breastplate down on the carpet nearest him, whose plush layers completely swallowed what should have been a clang. With his shirt free to swing away from his body he became more aware than ever that he reeked--that he had been wearing the same sticky, wrinkled, muddied clothes for days, and that he was everything this room and the other man in it were not.
"Don't be self-conscious." It was an order, no tender rebuke.
Cullen looked up from where he'd said the breastplate down with a glare. "I didn't say one damn--"
Dorian, one arm still arranged dramatically over his head, draped across the chaise lounge, had slipped his other hand beneath the folds of his tunic, which hung just low enough to conceal what the commander so very much wanted to see.
Cullen's mouth went dry.
"You were saying?" Dorian smiled sweetly.
Slowly, then, with agonizing care, Cullen removed first one boot, then the other, controlling his face so as not to grimace as his own pungent smell wafted up at him with each movement. He could hear the whisper of fingers beneath fabric from across the room, that quickened when he peeled off breeches and shirt. He didn't even flinch when he removed the shirt this time; he began and ended with the movement of those unseen fingers, and trusted what was warped about him not to cause comment, now.
"Good," Dorian intoned, rising to stand by the edge of the tub. "Now come here."
Cullen stepped toward the shining copper basin that lay between them, eyes filled with the sight of Dorian, one hand concealed, his eyes alight with lust.
"Test the water," Dorian said, and Cullen obediently reached a hand into the tub and jerked it back out.
"I know. They only just finished carrying the water up an hour ago."
"But how are we going to--"
Dorian closed his eyes and fanned his fingers out, over the still water, beginning to murmur. On impulse, Cullen reached out and grabbed one of those hands, breaking the mage's concentration.
"Wait," he said, an idea blossoming even as he said it.
Dorian did not like being interrupted. "I thought we agreed that you had to do what I--"
"You're leaving tomorrow."
Dorian frowned. "Yes, but what does that have to do with anything?"
"You said you felt...a connection, last time." Cullen blushed. "I was wondering if you could do it again."
"Cullen, this is hardly the time for--"
"Please?" Honestly Cullen, this is terrible timing, he told himself. But he wanted this.
Dorian considered. He could make no decision lightly, Cullen thought: everything had to be put through a process. Evaluated. "You are in control now?"
Cullen's blush deepened. "Yes."
"Don't be embarrassed. I'm asking so--so this evening doesn't end with me gasping for air and curling up into an exhausted heap, with you feeling guilty and both of our desires left unfulfilled."
"I'm still fine from last time."
Dorian stroked his mustaches thoughtfully with his free hand--the one not pinned in Cullen's grip. "And you think you could...restrain yourself? Stop, if I asked you?"
"All right." Dorian extended his free hand.
Cullen looked at it, cocking his head. "Does it have to be hands?"
"Does what have to be hands?"
"I assume this is for contact. That you need the contact to do...what you do. With me. Does it have to be hands?"
"What a fascinating question." A slow smile spread across Dorian's face. "You would have made an excellent mage, you know. It's a pity you haven't any aptitude for it."
"I can store it, can't I? I can do that for you, at least."
A sudden surge of warmth in that face, which flashed away in a blink, tamped down. "I hadn't thought of it that way before. Let us try this, then." Dorian closed his eyes. "Wait for me."
Cullen was not entirely sure what this meant, but he held still, waiting. He was completely in control, he told himself. He would not do to Dorian what he'd done before, pulling too much, hurting him. A siphon. He would not treat Dorian as a siphon.
Dorian murmured for a moment, incomprehensibly, and then he took Cullen's hand to pull him closer, around the side of the copper tub. "Reach," he commanded, eyes still closed, wrenching his hand free from Cullen, suddenly, and swooping him into a kiss.
There it was again, the joy at discovering all that burbling magic waiting, just for him. This time he had known, he had known it would be there, and yet it still filled him with giddiness, with a sense of inexplicable bounty. He reached, and felt the flooding into him of this power, this sweetness so routinely denied him and so missed, these past months. It brought with it the sharpening of every sensation: the prick of each individual hair of Dorian's mustache against his upper lip; the bite of the fluted edge of the copper tub against his outer thigh; the frigid tingle of magic passing through lips and tongues.
Dorian made a sound--wordless--and Cullen took it to mean he was requesting he stop. Let go, he told himself firmly.
In what felt like a physical effort, like the halting of a waterwheel with one's bare hands, Cullen wrenched himself free, of the magic and of the kiss, stumbling backward into a pile of carpets he promptly tripped over, landing in a jumble of pillows.
Above him, Dorian opened his eyes, tentatively, as one does before a surprise awaited for some time. His lips curled in pleasure, startled and generous and warm.
Cullen smiled shyly.
Dorian ran two steps, then, and let his body fall, catching himself on his hands amongst the pillows, suspended a finger's width over Cullen's bare chest.
"Now let me take it back."
Dorian kissed him again, and through his glee and his shock and the tumult of his sense of touch, Cullen fought to figure out what he meant. Take it back? How? How to give, instead of reach? Cullen focused, looking inward, away from his tongue and the tingle of closeness his nerves told him was Dorian. He saw the tantalizingly close pool of mana that waited within the mage, but he turned aside from it, still further, and found what he'd taken, and a...force...awaiting it, a path outward lying blocked.
A path which he opened.
Then out it flowed, the sweetness, the fullness, the possibility waiting to be shaped into fact. He felt it leave, first as a trickle and then a torrent, making his lips and tongue, his whole face, tingle, seeming to chime, even, with a song he almost but didn't quite hear. He felt the power flow away and mourned its loss, despite himself, despite retaining enough of himself this time to remember this is not what I want. But for some part of him it was, and always would be, and the loss was a pain to him.
But in its place, awareness.
Cullen could feel Dorian's elation like a physical presence in the back of his skull--a warm little knot that wasn't him, that shifted and changed without his touching or doing anything to it. There was elation, and entwined with that a ululating triumph that threatened to sweep Cullen away on its tide. And beneath these: desire, pulsing like a river, most keenly and unavoidably his way.
His eyes flew open to find Dorian's crinkled in joy, so close, their lips still locked.
"It worked!" Dorian cackled, dropping himself down onto Cullen's chest in a fierce wild hug. "It worked, it worked, it worked! You took it and didn't take too much, and I took it back, and--" He sat up, holding Cullen's face in his hands, leaning over and peering closely. "I didn't hurt you, did I? I didn't take too much? I don't know if that can happen but--oh sweet Maker, why are you crying?"
Cullen was indeed crying. The awareness...the instantaneous shift in Dorian's emotions from euphoria over the success of his experiment to genuine, naked, full-hearted concern over Cullen which he felt, right there in his brain...it was like nothing he'd ever experienced before, not as a commander or a templar or a brother or a son. Not once in his whole life had he ever known someone like that, or been known by them, and it was too much for him.
"I'm sorry..." he sniffed, feeling his cheeks heat in embarrassment. "I just...I didn't know it would be so..."
"Aha! You feel it, don't you? I didn't know if it would be mutual, didn't know if non-mages could--"
Cullen's stupefaction cut its way through his tears for him. "You felt this, last time, and you didn't tell me?"
"Well in my defense I was somewhat...fatigued, at the time, so I wasn't entirely focused. And it does fade, rather quickly I might add. By the next morning all I had were faint echoes. Wait just a moment." Dorian closed his eyes. "Tell me what I'm thinking."
"There aren't any words, just--"
No words, no, but that lightning-bolt of lust was unmistakeable. It seared through Cullen's consciousness and left him dazed.
Atop his chest, Dorian let out a whoop of delight. "Oh, this is even better than I had hoped for!"
"You knew this would happen?"
"No no, as I said, I wasn't sure it would work for non-mages. I wasn't sure I could take the power back. And even if I could, I didn't know if you would have the same feeling I did. But I thought, since I was leaving and since you wanted to do it again, for a link..." Through the link Cullen felt sudden shyness, hesitance, the feeling of--Cullen struggled to make visual sense of what was essentially a tangle of emotions--of a crocus trembling before the sun's rays, almost, unsure whether to risk opening itself or not. "You did ask," Dorian added, a touch less euphorically now. Such a sea change in his emotions, and his voice was only a touch less ebullient than before? Did the man conceal this much on a regular basis? "I hadn't thought of it until you asked. When you mentioned being able to store magic, I thought perhaps it could be taken as well as given..."
Cullen squeezed his eyes shut and concentrated, summoning up all of what amounted to rather a great deal of affection and respect and tenderness and awe for this man who was inadvertently crushing his diaphragm. He held the thoughts for a moment, then cracked an eye open.
To find Dorian staring at him, all words driven out of him for the first time, eager and vulnerable and heartsick all at once. Wrung out by the force of Cullen's regard.
"Since it fades," the mage said slowly, enunciating each syllable with care, "we should take advantage of it while we can."
Cullen grinned. "How would you suggest we begin?"
"Step one: remove myself from your ribcage before I snap something." Dorian rolled off Cullen and onto his feet, extending a hand to help the naked man up. "Step two: bath."
"No. You smell." Dorian crossed his arms imperiously, though a twinkle in his eye let slip the delight the link between them could in no way conceal. "Bath."
Dorian closed his eyes and Cullen could feel him concentrating, holding his hands splayed out over the water.
The water, from which steam began, in short order, to rise, filling the room with the scent of unnamed flowers.
"You can make it smell, too?" Cullen marveled.
Dorian laughed. "No, those are oils I added before you arrived. They tend to just float there on the top until you add heat. Go on, get in--it should be warm enough."
"What about you?"
"All in good time, my dear commander."
Cullen stepped gingerly into the tub, preferring not to catch that fluted copper edging between the legs if he slipped. He had to enter slowly, for the water was indeed hot: just below the level hot enough to be able to stand without leaping out with a yelp. Slowly, in tiny increments, he lowered himself down into the scented waters, whose steam had already set a sheen of sweat to glistening down his face and neck.
Behind him, out of sight, he heard Dorian puttering briefly, and then felt him lean against the tub, observing, his lust like a purring cat through their link.
"This is...nice," Cullen sighed, when his rump finally hit the bottom of the tub and the water swirled just beneath his collarbone.
"Mmm, which part?" Dorian's voice was above him, and then his hands too, dipping a cloth in the water and wringing it out over Cullen's head.
"All of it."
Cullen felt hands in his hair, then, and the sharp sweet smell of citrus curled around his nostrils. He leaned forward into the scrubbing, the tip of his nose almost touching the water as suds leaked down around his ears. "Did you bring this soap all the way from Tevinter?"
Above him, a snort. "As flattering as your perception of my devotion to good hygiene may be, no. I left in...something of a hurry, and had next to nothing on me, in funds or otherwise." He paused thoughtfully. "Though it would have been nice if I had. This Orlesian stuff serves well enough in a pinch, but we concoct some lovely bath salts in Tevinter. At the public baths they have twenty different kinds of--"
Cullen giggled, too dreamily near swooning, between the heat and the scrubbing, even to be embarrassed by the sound. "Public baths?"
"Well, yes, though I suppose the ones I'm remembering aren't strictly public. Ridiculously wealthy and woefully inbred upper crust only, I'm afraid. Makes for terribly dull conversation partners."
"You talk to each other? In the baths?"
Dorian's amusement unfurled in Cullen's mind like a carpet. "Well, yes! Only they're much bigger, you know, great deep pools heated underneath by veilfire--"
"With strangers. Naked strangers."
"Oh, you poor Ferelden farmboy!" Dorian's face swung into view, smirking as he came to kneel at the edge of the tub, resting his chin on its rim. "Think of all the wonders of the world you've missed out on, growing up in the backwoods bundled in furs half the year round! If I could stroll you through Minrathous, your jaw would have to be tied shut, it would hang open so long..."
Cullen struggled to think through the thick fog of lethargy that lay upon him. "But...if you're all in there in the heat and this...oiled water...naked and everything..." He trailed off sheepishly, knowing Dorian could sense where his thoughts were going.
"Do I detect a note of jealousy, commander?"
"No! No, I just wondered--"
Dorian reached a hand into the water--he had removed the padded gauntlets on his arms, Cullen noticed, for the scrubbing--and splashed him. "You just wondered if we were having sex on every available surface, am I correct?" He grinned. "Well, I hate to disappoint, but one must be a bit more discreet about that in my country, sadly. Which is to say that we used most of the available surfaces. But by no means all. The bronze dragons flanking the entrance, for example, were strictly off-limits."
Cullen laughed, but could feel a sadness in Dorian suddenly--a quiet ache that had the sense of being familiar but, at the same time, familiarly suppressed.
Dorian smiled ruefully and splashed him again. "I didn't give you this connection, you know, for you to use it to ferret out my every little hurt and try to fix it."
"But I can't."
Dorian's smile slipped a little. "I know."
Silence stretched between them for a moment, and Cullen used it to trace the edges of Dorian's sorrow, in his mind, like an object encountered in the dark, felt and foreign at the same time.
"I can't fix it, but..." Cullen trailed off, leaning back, gesturing to the steaming stretch of water before him. "I could distract you?"
Dorian snorted. "You can't fool me, remember? I can feel as much of you as you can of me. You're so sleepy you can barely keep your eyes open."
"So wake me up."
Dorian regarded him steadily, outwardly sedate and thoughtful while inwardly--Cullen could feel it!--terribly aroused. "I already bathed today, you know."
"You're Tevinter. You must bathe, what, three times a day in that country, at least?"
The mage's smile was vulpine. "Oh, at least."
He reached for the knots at his shoulder, but Cullen lurched upright, sloshing water everywhere--including all over Dorian, who glared.
"Sorry, I just--I really wanted to undo those," Cullen blushed but held his ground, shivering as the comparatively air outside the water wrapped its chilly fingers around him.
Dorian looked him up and down, the part of him that was in Cullen's mind clearly pleased with what he saw. "Don't let me stand in your way, then," he replied, annoyance at getting soaked mollified by lust. He stood still as Cullen, bright red and dripping in the candlelight, surveyed the knots.
"How do you even get these muscles," Cullen muttered, stretching out a hand to trail his fingers over Dorian's shoulder, toward where the slender ropes wrapped themselves around silver prongs.
"Well it's not from waggling my fingers and making lightning bolts come out of them, I can assure you," quipped Dorian, equally distracted. His eyes flicked back and forth between Cullen's hands and his face, watching. "You really were looking forward to this, weren't you?"
"Since you came into the room." Cullen gripped one of the ropes between thumb and forefinger and began to unwind.
"I believe it was you who came into the room."
Cullen's voice was distant; it sounded not his own. All his focus was on the curl and uncurl of the thin silvery rope, coil after coil pooling in his hand. "No, no. The first time. When you came into the war room to be briefed."
A flutter of recognition and fondness and--what was that doing there?--pain carried across the bond they shared, and Cullen looked up, startled. "What? What did I say?"
"You were thinking of that then?"
"Well, yes, but I didn't--I mean, there was no reason for me to think--when you mentioned Alexius, the way you spoke of him, I was fairly certain."
Gray eyes may have been unreadable, but now Cullen could sense the tumult that lay behind their placid gaze. "Certain of what?"
"That you...loved him."
"You knew. Then."
"Should I not have?"
"And you had hope."
Cullen shook his head. "No, I knew you'd been hurt by what he'd done but that was it. There wasn't any place for hope. There was only..." He trailed off, embarrassed.
Cullen avoided looking at him. "Yes."
Dorian closed his hands over Cullen's where they hovered at his shoulder. "I had no idea. I flirted with you fully expecting to be rebuffed."
Cullen scoffed. "Well it's not like I go around advertising--"
"Stop." Dorian stepped closer, so their joined hands were pressed between their chests. "You've given me all this." The part of him Cullen felt skittered like quicksilver through emotions: joy, wonder, guilt. Guilt? "I've given you nothing."
"Tell me. Tell me to do something, tell me something you want."
"It's your turn, remember?"
Dorian shook his head. "I'm asking this, then. Please."
That twisting, inexplicable pain turned in on itself in Cullen's head, even as it thrummed with longing. He thought of the tingling feel of magic on his tongue; of Dorian's hands fanned out like bird wings over the water; of the jolt of euphoria he'd watched bloom in the man when his experiment, his magic, his craft had worked the way he'd hoped but not thought possible. Of the pain in his face when he'd seen Cullen's burn, known how Cullen had thought of mages and of magic--his profession, that which he did best and most brilliantly--for so long.
"All right," Cullen whispered. Their faces were nearly touching. "Show me what you can do."
Dorian knew what he meant. He knew what he meant immediately, and leaned back, letting go of Cullen's hands and leaving his own free. He closed his eyes.
Cullen did not. He felt Dorian's power drawing together as did his eyebrows: felt the ripples of magic, through their link, in a way he knew he normally wouldn't be able to. Felt the pull of it, drawing up through the man as up from a deep, deep, well, and then--
--and then Dorian reached out, placing his palms flat on Cullen's chest, and that power flowed through him, from chest to toes, making every hair on Cullen's body stand on end, with shock and with pleasure, a fullness, a sense of belonging, of not being stuck on the outside, that made him dizzy with its subsumption.
And it didn't stop there. From him he felt it flow out and away, after which he could sense, through the lens of Dorian's heart in his head, the magic take shape even as he watched with his own eyes what it did. The water began to cascade out of the tub in a glittering sheet, out but not down, fanning away from them and cutting itself into shapes as it flowed: leaves, flowers, stars, fragile insects with wings like crystals. And as it flowed, slower than water normally flowed, what was clear as glass, and as glittering, began to take on color and texture: as Cullen watched, a transparent cluster of petals sailing past his head turned pink and then red; what was wet and glistening became soft and striated with a plant's delicate veins. From the copper lip of the tub the water-shapes poured and rose, wrapping around them, filling the room with their imagery and beginning to whirl. Maple leaves the scarlet of autumn, fragile crocuses the delicate purple of spring, the molten gold glow of midsummer fireflies: around them streamed cut-glass images of the natural world, spun from a lace of water droplets into life, spinning slowly at first and then faster, faster, the wind created by their speed snuffing out the candles one by one.
At which point the images began to blur together, to merge and lose their shapes, or rather to melt into new shapes: stars, singly and in clusters; some whirling maelstroms of light and color and some seemingly shapeless, infinite, stretched out one after another in clouds, like colored ink dropped in a pool of water.
And when even these began to spin too swiftly to be distinguished from one another; when even the stars exploding and sending sparks of themselves out into the ether became too fast to follow, they whirled back toward the center of the room to where Cullen stood, a vortex of the sky brought to earth and to him, spiraling toward him with a kind of of roar. He felt fear then; and twitched under Dorian's touch.
But when the fountain of light and sound thundered over the lip of the tub toward him there was a flash, and it was just water that pooled around his feet: warm and scented, familiar, lapping at his ankles and then his shins, his knees, his thighs. As the stars sheeted back into water one by one, the light in the room grew dimmer and dimmer, until it would have been completely dark were it not for a last dim blue star Dorian redirected from its fall to hover just above their heads. Its flickering light let Cullen see Dorian's eye peep open, only a thin gray sliver over an uncertain little smile, and even as he saw that he could feel the other man's trepidation warring with his pride--his desire to impress and his fear that he had gone too far.
"That," Cullen whispered--it seemed that he should be whispering, after such a display, and anyway his voice was slow in coming back to to him--"was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen."
The mage's bashful smile grin in no way aligned with the burst of pride and pleasure that he sent parading through Cullen's mind.
"It's only a parlor trick, really, all water and air, nothing particularly--"
The mage's breath left his lungs in a whoosh as Cullen grabbed him through his patterned breeches.
"False modesty sits terribly on you." Cullen tugged the man closer, not entirely gentle, descending on him in a kiss that only brushed across his lips, trailing down chin and neck and the V of exposed chest below Dorian's collar before dipping even lower, nuzzling. The knot of Dorian's emotions whirled and sparked and expanded like one of his water-stars, and the fact that Cullen could feel exactly what his movements did to the other man, not just see the physical results but to know what was going on in his mind, intoxicated him.
"Why are you still outside this tub?" he asked, slightly muffled by folds of cloth and skin.
Ripples of excitement. "I--"
"You said it fades."
"So we need to use it while we can. No?"
A patrician cough, attempting to cover for excitement. "I--yes. Yes, we should."
"Get in then."
As Dorian, freshly disrobed and lit by the lone glowing star, attempted to lower himself gingerly into the bath, Cullen grabbed him and pulled them both down, down, sending water--just water this time, no leaves or flowers or fireflies--sluicing over the side, soaking everything in its path: silk, velvet, brocade.
They both surveyed the damage silently for a moment, before Dorian choked on a laugh.
"Josephine is going to kill us."
"Let her," Cullen whispered, before dunking the other man face-first under the scented waves.
This may not be to everyone's taste.
Cullen was diligent.
He signed papers. He read dispatches. He patrolled Skyhold's defenses, listening to the masons' laments and the blacksmiths' tirades about materials and time. He received report after report with Leliana and Josephine and the Inquisitor: updates, requests, proposals, warnings. He sharpened his blade and tested new ones and leaned on tables, squinting at maps from dawn until well into the night.
But every moment, behind all the day-to-day concerns, he could feel that knot the back of his head, or rather where it led to, where it unravelled, growing farther and farther away, like a ship sailing from shore. He had thought the link would be an advantage, a comfort, and it was true that at times it gave him a direction to turn toward--for a while, he did indeed know whether Dorian was due east or drifting south, and when his speed picked up when he left the winding mountain paths for the swifter roads of the lowlands. He could point to where the man lay, over the horizon.
Sometimes, however, that horizon seemed impossibly distant. As was the case when Cassandra found him hunched over his breastplate in his office, late into the afternoon, polishing furiously at a scratch on the shoulder plating he was fairly certain would never even be visible, between the combined obfuscations of his coat and his tabard.
"You have people who can do that for you, you know," the Seeker said from the doorway.
Cullen did not look up. "I know."
"You don't have...more important matters to attend to?"
"I've done them already.
"Surely not everything--"
"What is it that you want, Seeker?"
Cullen did look up then, and regretted his harsh tone. A stony sort of resignation was falling over the Seeker's face, of the kind that Cullen knew all too well: the closing of a door, the retraction of a hand extended, at some risk, in friendship. He sighed.
Cassandra crossed her arms under her breasts. "It is forgotten."
"Was there something you wanted, though?"
"I thought I would check in on you." She regarded him implacably, and he wondered if her face looked like this when she'd interrogated Varric, those months ago. Not the deceptive stillness of deep waters, as with Leliana, but the stolid steadfastness of granite. "See how you were...feeling."
"Am I out of my right mind with a need for lyrium, you mean? No. At least, not that I can tell. I suppose I wouldn't be accusing myself if I were, though, so I don't know how far you can trust that analysis."
"You do yourself too little credit."
Cullen shrugged, running his fingers through his hair. Remembered, suddenly, Dorian doing it for him, anticipating his gesture, and mourned the increasing faintness of the knot of awareness in the back of his mind. "I just don't want to get my hopes up, is all," he said.
"That is precisely what you must do, though," Cassandra snapped, striding toward him, all pretense of casualness gone. "How could you think otherwise?"
"Humility seemed like a wise course, under the circumstances."
"Humility is for show, the give and take of petty courts and mincing diplomats. We are warriors. Humility serves no purpose, for us."
Cullen blinked. "I'm...sorry?"
"This isn't what I came talk about." Cassandra strode across the room, clanking faintly. Was she ever without her armor? At Cullen's desk, she turned, arms still crossed, and gazed steadily at him. "You've changed, you know."
Fear scurried through Cullen's gut. Was he so far gone, then, that what he thought had been a return to equanimity had in fact been a worsening?
"For the better, I mean. The more stable."
"Do you know why?"
"If you're asking me if I'm taking lyrium again, the answer is no. I said I wouldn't, and I haven't."
"That's...not what I meant." The Seeker sighed, leaning back against Cullen's desk. Weighing her words. "I understand you've become close with Dorian."
"What of it?"
"I'm not judging you. At least, not poorly. I think it's...worth knowing. That having someone...helps."
Cullen looked away, suddenly, to the stones in the wall, to the grains in the floorboards. I do not want to have this conversation here, now. "I don't think it's happening the way you think it's happening," he said instead.
"You misunderstand me. I watched you struggle, after Kirkwall. I saw everything you had fought for, believed in, ripped away from you. Seeing what that did to you--" She grimaced. "It was like a warning. An example of what will happen if we fail, only to everyone. And while I am grateful for that I am more grateful that you were able to find someone who makes it better for you. Easier. Whatever that ends up meaning."
She shook her head. "I said I'm not judging you and I mean it. Not like some others." Cullen stirred at that, but said nothing. Waiting. "People think--it is easy to think that romance, like in stories, is relegated to the realms of lords and ladies, fans and frilly dresses. But this idea that it shines only those who run the countries or who write the tales is foolish. The idea that we as people should divide ourselves carefully up, like an estate--dates here, oranges there--is foolish." She wasn't even looking at Cullen now, addressing herself instead to the wall across the room. "If we were not swept away, emboldened by the need to act, for those who mean most to us, how would we end?"
She glared at him then and he regretted his flippancy. "I'm trying to help you, Cullen."
"But why? You said I was improving. What more help do I need?"
"I can send you to him."
Cullen stared. "But--you were just saying surely I had better things to--"
"And I meant it." The Seeker glared at him, daring him to argue. "It may be that I believe more in passion than is right. I certainly do not my believing in it makes it right. But if ever anyone needed proof of the healing powers of love--don't even think of laughing!--all they would need to see is you."
Cullen couldn't believe what he was hearing. Not from this woman, not in this office, not in relation to him. And why? Why now?
He asked as much, and Cassandra's eyes darkened. "Because the forces arrayed against us are great, Commander. And our resources are few, when we consider what we must do. And I happen to count among our resources the regard we have for one another." She turned from the wall to to the window, to gaze out on the courtyard below. "I envy you. When I see you together. All I have ever had to guide me was..." She shook her head. "I make presumptions upon your relationship that it is not my place to make. I ask only that you do not laugh. And that you consider my offer."
Cullen fought to keep his voice neutral, noncommittal, not tinged with the shock and suspicion he felt. "All right."
"The Seekers...they have gone. We must find them. Lucius in particular. I searched high and low but could find no trace of where they went. Now, though, there are rumors." At last, she turned to face him, jaw firmly set. "Caer Oswin. In the east. They may be there, with him. I have to investigate."
"But that's nowhere near--"
"Redcliffe, I know. But you would not need to accompany me. Only say you were doing so, and then sail down Lake Calenhad to Redcliffe Village."
"You're telling me to lie?"
The Seeker's stare was unwavering. "I need you to understand something, Cullen. Or at least to try. We, all of us, are very good at convincing ourselves we know how the world works. Then something like the Breach happens, or Kirkwall, and...you know. You have seen." She waited a moment for interruptions and, when none came, continued. "Usually when these things happen they are bad. They make us question what we used to take for granted. Very rarely do they go the other way, give us truths we can then rely upon." She watched his face. "It is a gift from the Maker, when that happens."
"But...Dorian's only going to be gone for a little while longer."
"Oh, fine. Make me say it." Cassandra sniffed derisively, but not--Cullen thought--at him. "I had a dream, Cullen, all right? A dream. That things were going or were about to go terribly wrong in Redcliffe. If anything happened and I hadn't said anything...I don't know that I would forgive myself. So please look into it. As an official."
"I thought you couldn't dream since--"
"No." Her voice was flat, final, like the last thunk of an axe into a tree. "Seekers are...different. Perhaps it is important. I am not sure. That is partly why I need to track Lucius down. You should go to Dorian."
The idea had its appeal. Of course it did. It would assuage Cullen's worries, potentially help Dorian--he certainly seemed to hold little love for his father, and might appreciate a companion for the no doubt anxiety-ridden process of proxy negotiations--and besides all that it would make Cullen feel better. Feel good. To be near him again.
But he remembered Dorian pinning him in the window. For forgetting even for a moment, that these armies rise and fall on your command. There was an accusation in that, one that Cullen could not bring himself to ignore, though he dearly wished he could.
"I cannot," he said at length.
Cassandra closed her eyes for a moment, then stepped toward him, hands shoved firmly under her elbows, as though in defense. "Do you think I believe that it is merely sleeping with him that has restored you to yourself?"
Cullen blanched. "I--I'm not--"
"Don't be stupid, Cullen. Nor assume it of others. He did something to you--I don't know what. I would love to be able to care, but I cannot. I want to see you succeed. If he helps you do that--helps you to transcend the hold the templars had on you--I do not question it."
"Cassandra, I didn't--it wasn't--"
"But if I cannot question it, others can. And will. And are. They know you he tended to you in your tent, with lights and yelling. Know you carried off into the woods with him for the better part of a day. No, don't--" she added as Cullen looked away, his face on fire and feeling strangely hollow. "I don't say these things to reprimand you. You're better, Cullen. Better than I could--than anyone else could make you."
Something dawned on Cullen, then, but Cassandra crashed right onward.
"So I would ask that you go. Go to him. Because there is so little left to us for us to take faith in. And from. And if you have found something--someone, with whom it works--it would pain me to see you lose him."
She was not looking at him then. She walked right past him, to the window facing outward this time--to the cloven peaks like great snowy hooves, marching resolutely away to parts unknown. She stood still as an oak, and as straight. Carefully, as carefully as though he were sneaking up on a hart in the woods back home, Cullen approached her, laying a gloved hand on her shoulder.
"Thank you, Cassandra."
Her voice was tight. "It is nothing. I have already put in the request about Lucius. They know I am going, and that I asked that you come too. Until we march on the Western Approach, there is little new to do that we aren't doing already, so your duties will be able to be handled by--"
"That's not what I meant."
She turned to him, only her face, and only barely. Just enough to look him in the eyes. Her own were dry, but her mouth was set, as brittle as grass blades trapped in frost. "I know what you meant," she said, soft as a footfall in snow.
Cullen leaned forward, then--slowly, slowly, giving her the chance to pull back if she so chose--and kissed her on the forehead. He felt her flinch, and when he pulled away she would not look at him.
"Thank you," he said again, patting her shoulder once before removing his hand for good.
"We leave in an hour." Her voice was crisp, professional. "See that you are ready."
Note that I played with IB in my party through the entirety of my first playthrough and that I enjoy him very much. His comment on traveling companions is intended to explain his fluidity of schedule--not to somehow slip a jab in there from me.
He had hoped never to see it again.
The sky hung empty of cloud now, thick with stars, and the sinister spire on its island stood silhouetted by the full moon, as it had been the last time Cullen had seen it. They observed it now from the west rather the the east, it was true, but the only noticeable difference was the absence of the causeway and of the dilapidated inn that had once offered succor to travelers bound for the Circle Tower.
"Bothers you, does it?"
Cullen dragged his eyes away from the Tower to consider Iron Bull, who leaned on the rail of the sturdy little ferryboat next to him. The qunari had accompanied him at the dock at the last minute, at Cassandra's insistence--she experienced a sudden spasm of guilt at her subterfuge and refused to agree to send the commander of the Inquisition's armies off alone--and Cullen had no idea how much Bull knew about him, or about his past.
"A bit," he replied.
"Me too." The qunari shifted his shoulders uncomfortably. "Terrible things happened there, or so I hear."
A guileless quest for information. But it wasn't anything he couldn't have found out eventually anyway, so Cullen went along with it. "You heard correctly."
"You were there, weren't you?"
Silence then. Cullen supposed that as the leader of the Chargers, Bull had enough experience to be able to hear when someone didn't want to talk about something.
"What was it like?"
"Whatever you heard, it was ten times worse than that." Cullen sighed. "Look, it's not something I want to--"
"You don't even want to look at it, do you?"
The commander glared. "No. I don't. I believe I'm allowed that. I was...tortured there."
"But you let it have that power over you." Bull gazed across the water with its white smear of moon, to the imposing monolith--silent, now, and empty as far as Cullen knew, since the mage rebellion. "You shouldn't give it that."
"Well, thank you so much for the advice. I'll add that to my list of things to do, right after we take Adamant Fortress, beat Corypheus and then somehow figure out what to do with all these people and resources we've amassed afterward."
Bull looked at him, then, and Cullen was grateful for the darkness that hid the heat in his face. He hated being made to feel inexperienced, foolish, lesser, especially by near strangers. His chagrin, though, did not extend so far as apologizing. Not to this man, not for this.
"My concern was for you," Bull said quietly. Well, quietly for him. Even low, his voice rumbled like a bumblebee in a cave.
"I realize that. But I don't think you understand..." Cullen sighed, gripped the rail, and forced himself to look at the Tower again. How he hated the thing. "It's not something I like to talk about."
"Better to let it eat you, then?"
"Nothing is eating me."
Iron Bull's turn to sigh. "We have a good strong north wind, you know. You won't have to put up with me much longer, since you won't be alone once we reach the village, and I have better things to do back at Skyhold. Cassandra is trying to solve the mystery of the corrupted Seekers and the Inquisitor is off poking through old ruins with her pals, and I'm not with either of them, so. I know I'm not first choice for a traveling companion here." He waited until Cullen turned to look at him before continuing. "But we're fighting on the same side--there's no harm in coming to know each other as fellow soldiers, is there?"
"Exchanging tales about abominations plowing through my mind as though they were readying the rows for turnips isn't my idea of a friendly get-together," Cullen said shortly.
"It's not mine either." Bull shrugged. "But if it were necessary, I wouldn't avoid it."
"It's not necessary."
"Are you sure of that?"
Cullen glared. "Yes."
The soft slap of the waves against the hull and the creaking of the full sails filled the space between them for a long moment. Cullen wished it had been fully dark; wished they hadn't been able to see the tower from where they'd bidden farewell to Cassandra and then waited and waited as money exchanged hands and ropes were untied, plans made. He wanted to be gone from here.
"Do you know anything about the Ben-Hassrath?"
"No." And I don't want to.
"You know I'm a spy, though."
"You told the Inquisitor as much, yes."
"Did she tell you I burned out?"
Cullen blinked. "She didn't."
"Well, I did. Seheron. Whole place was a shitshow. I was supposed to go in and fix things, but when the people you're trying to help are poisoning children, and the people you're fighting against are either appearing like magic out of a fucking cloud or calling you friend by daylight and knifing you by moonlight, it gets old." Bull shifted his weight again in a motion Cullen gathered was akin to what he himself did with his hair: a redistribution of worry, of care. "Turned myself into the re-educators and they set me straight."
Cullen raised an eyebrow. "Judging by the term I'd say that sounds unpleasant. Some kind of brainwashing."
"You're recommending brainwashing as a good way to deal with...the aftereffects...of torture? Seriously, Iron Bull?"
"No." Cullen thought he caught the pale flicker of rolled eyes, but he wasn't sure. "I know you people don't go in for that. And that's fine. But if you won't erase what happened, you might want to consider dealing with it."
"I'm fine, Bull."
"You can't even look at that stack of bricks and mortar for a minute straight!"
Cullen turned deliberately toward the Circle Tower and stared at its ridiculous verticality, the only ostentatiously upward-reaching object in a landscape of horizontals: lake, land, stars, sky. Maker, let the wind blow faster.
Beside him at the railing, Iron Bull was quiet for some moments. Waiting. When he eventually spoke, it was in a completely different timbre.
"I can see what he sees in you."
Cullen was so shocked he broke his stubborn staring contest with the Tower and turned around. "What? Who?"
"Dorian. Who else?"
"He doesn't--I mean, maybe he does, but that has nothing to do--"
"Oh come on, Commander." Bull grinned, the white teeth sudden and bright amongst the shadows of horns and nose. "Anyone can see. Why do you think I was trying to get you to talk? I thought it would help him if you were a little steadier, if he's going to be in it for the long haul."
A sliver of ice hovered over Cullen's spine. "The long...haul?"
"Well you are, aren't you? The both of you. I get that it started as a distraction--and don't get me wrong, I am the last guy to pick a bone about a good distraction--but it's different now. Like I said, anyone can see."
"What...can they see?"
"That Leliana's little foray into damage control turned into full-fledged matchmaking. I'm a little jealous, if we're being honest. Of what you two must be getting up to, I mean--if not the meddling comrades."
The sliver of ice was making its way swiftly down Cullen's spinal column now, sinking deeper vertebra by vertebra. His voice sounded miles away when he spoke. "Damage control?"
"Shit, did he not tell you?" Bull rubbed a hand across his face, dragging the flesh under it into a grimace. "She chased me off. Like a fox from a henhouse. Did he really not tell you?"
Cullen was beginning to hate the sound of his own voice, doomed to echo incredulously, it seemed, all that he heard. "Chased you off?"
"Shit. I'd be much more comfortable if we could walk away, pretend this conversation didn't happen. Is that still an option?"
"All right, all right. I mean, surely you saw it, right? Tevinter mage, far from home, meets a big hulking qunari, also far from home, the sworn enemies of each other's people for longer than either of us have been alive...of course he was interested."
"Okay, more than interested. And he was fun! One time he got so excited he set the curtains on fire. This was just after we got back from the Hinterlands--you remember? But then Leliana cornered him one day and had a few words with him and he was done. Just like that. Said he had to break it off. And the next thing you know, he's following you around like a lost puppy."
Once, during a training session when he was far too tired to be instructing, Cullen had caught a blow to the ear with a practice sword made of bundled reeds. It had knocked him to the ground, certainly, but what was worse was the sound: a kind of omnipresent, echoing gong that managed to suck him in even as it shouldered all other sensations out. It robbed him not only of balance but of the hope of ever surfacing, of standing up. Of coming back.
It was a sound not dissimilar to the one currently tolling between his ears on the deck of the ferry as he gripped the rail with white knuckles, remembering tears and kisses and trust.
Damage control. He knew about damage control. He was a soldier, and a templar before that. He had mopped up the remnants of a demon infestation. He had pulled the city of Kirkwall back together after it nearly destroyed itself. He had, most recently, been staring at the maps of two countries and been trying, as part of an ever-expanding team of diplomats, soldiers and spies, to keep them from killing each other long enough to join forces against a greater evil that would no doubt benefit from their perpetual and petty squabbling.
He knew about damage control. He just hadn't known it had been employed--by the very people he worked with every day--to try and control the damage that was him.
"I...ships. I'm a landsman. I don't do well with ships." Cullen's grip on the rail tightened. "I'll be better in a moment."
"I had no idea he hadn't told you." Iron Bull's vexed hiss contained sheepishness and regret, in addition to the frustration. "And anyway what does it matter, right? However it started, it's clear it's more now, and--"
However it started. The cape around his shoulders. The dance on the terrace. The healing, the probing. Had he known? Dorian had acted surprised about what he'd called the hole, it was true. About the lyrium addiction. But had he known, all along? Had he been briefed?
Cullen had never found much use for sadness. It was paralyzing. Unhelpful. Far better, he'd always thought, to transmute it into anger. An emotion that at least could be tapped to enable some productivity, some action.
It was a transmutation in which he was well-versed.
"Leave me." Cullen's voice sounded distant no longer, it was true. But it did not sound like his own, either. "Please."
Iron Bull paused; lifted a hand, even, as though he were going to lay it on Cullen's shoulder in--commiseration? Apology? Camaraderie? Who knew? He thought better of it, though, and retreated to the far end of the boat where the ferryman stood by the tiller, keeping a careful eye on the shore and the sky.
Cullen stayed by the rail, staring into the black waters until long past the time when the moon sank behind the surrounding hills, rendering the tower from a looming menace into a mere absence of stars.
An absence amidst thousands of other points of light.
THIS ONE GETS REALLY DARK. You have been warned.
By the time the ferry nudged up against the pier, dawn had burnished the eastern faces of Redcliffe Castle a transcendent gold, a far cry from its usual sullen gray. The same gold spilled down onto the increasingly choppy waters of the lake, setting them aglitter from castle cliffs to the sweep of the harbor and basting the sleepy town in the kind of bucolic lighting normally reserved for pastoral paintings.
Cullen had eyes for none of it. He'd said not a word to Iron Bull for the remainder of the voyage, and had deposited coins in the ferryman's hand to ensure his continued wait at the pier until their business was concluded. When the ferryman had asked how long that might take, Cullen seemed not to have heard. He strode off the boat onto the dock with arms held stiffly at his sides as though in abeyance, deaf to the cries of gulls above and the lap of the water below. All he heard were snippets of past conversations, looping--your trust is a gift, and I don't know what to do with it--and bits of laughter, murmurs, postcoital sighs. Echoes of emotion shared across a bond.
A bond, the remnants of which he now wanted to rip from the back of his skull with his fingernails.
That same remnant informed him that Dorian was very near--just a few buildings away, in fact. The awareness had grown again with close proximity, though all he could tell now was location, not emotion. Abruptly Cullen spun on his heel, causing Iron Bull to have to skid to a stop to avoid running into him.
"I need you to stay here," the commander said.
Iron Bull grimaced. "I really don't think that's such a great idea, considering that--"
"I am your commander and I am ordering you to stay here. Do you understand?"
Bull glowered, raining disapproval down from his towering height. But grudgingly he nodded.
"Good." Without another word Cullen pushed past a group of fisherman carrying nets down to their boats and stalked down the remainder of the short dock, ignoring the oaths they spat after him. Had they not heard? He was a problem to be managed. With sweet words, apparently, and flirting and fucking, if those didn't work. These fishermen should not be surprised that such a difficult individual should carom heedlessly past them, almost knocking them into the harbor. It was to be expected. My precious handler has been away so long, after all.
Nestled between homely thatch-roofed buildings, up stone stairs scuffed with generations of wear, the inn trailed a wisp of chimney smoke, its sign creaking faintly in the rising dawn wind. Cullen sensed the few villagers in the road at this hour withdraw at his arrival; an armed man moving as he was through the streets was not someone to be crossed. Fear me then, he thought with a kind of hiccuping fury as a girl with braids and a basket under one arm hurried around a corner, away from the inn. Everyone else does. To the point where they hired someone to...to...
He ground that thought to dust, dreading the loss of his anger; dreading the despair it would give way to to if he let it fade even for a moment.
His boots rang as he stomped across the flagstones outside the inn, arm outstretched to bang the door open, hopefully off its hinges. On the verge of doing so, however, he froze: he heard voices, one in particular, and hearing it again struck him like a blow to the sternum.
"--the resort of the weak mind. Those were your words! But what was the first thing you did when your precious heir refused to play pretend for the rest of his life?"
Dorian, voice dripping venom, rising and then breaking.
"You tried to change me!"
Cullen banged the door open, deliberately drumming up noise and furor to try and shred the knot that catch in Dorian's voice threatened to tie in him.
The change from light-flooded village square to the heavy-timbered interior with few candles and fewer windows rendered him momentarily blind. Blinking, Cullen stumbled forward a few steps, propelled both by his physical and mental momentum.
Your trust is a gift, and I don't know what to do with it.
Total shock, and Cullen relished this. He wanted to be unexpected; wanted to be the storm no one sees coming until it boils over the mountains.
"What are you--"
"You snake," Cullen hissed, eyes adjusting, making out Dorian first where he shone: by the metal diamonds on his armor; the silver prongs looped with cords over one shoulder. The sight of those prongs, the memory of slowly unwinding the silken cords there, threatened to undo Cullen, and he fought the quaver in his voice, ladling more fury into it. "You filthy, lying, manipulative snake!"
Dorian's mouth worked for a moment before producing any sound. "What in the--"
"So this is another of the Inquisition's finest, is it?" quipped a man Cullen hadn't seen before on the far side the room. His clothes were foreign, but rich: sumptuous silks and brocade, and what was surely thread-of-gold embroidery along neck and sleeves and chest.
"Who the fuck are you?" Cullen spat. "Someone else in need of managing, are you? Someone else in need of courting into sanity? Another lyrium addict, perhaps?"
"Cullen, this is my father, what are you--" Dorian reached out to Cullen, rings twinkling, but the other man drew back as if burned.
"Oh, your father, is it? Wonderful. Is he the one who taught you to lie through your teeth when you said you loved someone?" Cullen turned to the foreign man, sporting a smile so sweet and nasty it made his face ache. "Awfully good tutoring, sir, I really must congratulate you."
The elder Pavus' mouth twisted in disgust. "I should have known that's what this was about."
Dorian whirled on the man, his voice recovering some of the invective it had lost upon Cullen's sudden appearance. "No! You don't get to make those assumptions. You know nothing about the Inquisition. Or about me."
"This is not what I wanted--"
"I'm never what you wanted, Father!" Like a double-bladed knife, Dorian's voice hurt and was hurting. "Or had you forgotten?"
"This reunion is charming and all," Cullen sneered, "but if you're done I'd really love--" he made the word a slap, "to ask you some questions."
Dorian struggled visibly to retain a certain level of control. "Cullen, you're not even supposed to be here, what are you--"
Cullen's effort at restraint, even if only pursued for the sake of being able to construct barbed little remarks like the ones he'd managed so far, melted in the furnace of his wrath. "Don't tell me where I'm supposed to be! Or who! Or what, to you!"
Fear flickered across not one but two faces in the room. Like father, like son. Cullen couldn't decide who it made him angrier at: himself, or Dorian.
In the end, he chose the latter.
"Tell me again," he snarled. "Tell me how much you love me. How shocked and surprised and pleased you are about what you figured out what to do with magic, how you--" His voice caught, and he hissed in despair: he could not lose his anger and collapse into sadness, not now. "How you think you can fix me. Just like all your other little experiments, is that right? Alexius and his precious son, for example? Were you fucking them both at the same time, to try and forge some sort of mental orgy, or did they--"
Cullen was a warrior. He would have seen a fist coming, even in his fury, and blocked it, or at least tried to. But the blow that exploded across his nose in a shower of blood was invisible; one minute he was yelling at Dorian and the next he was bent over with fireworks in his skull and both hands cupped over his nostrils to try and staunch the flow. Or at least keep the pieces in place.
"Don't you dare talk to my son that way."
Cullen heard, as if from a great distance, footsteps. The swish of cloth. And then a voice like the unsheathing of a sword.
"Don't ever come back. Don't ever seek to contact me again. Whatever you want me to be, I will not be it, not for you. Leave now." Cullen, head pounding, could hear the gulp even from here. "Before I kill you."
A crackle of magic, then, and Cullen looked up, squinting through the eye that watered less than the other. A few feet away stood Dorian, bristling with silvery lightning bolts that ghosted over his skin like fog over a valley, rippling and ready to strike. Dorian's father shone with magic, too--flames curled and uncurled around his fists, his forearms, his shoulders, flashing almost into conflagration before subsiding into a malevolent blue glow. Around each man light seemed to coalesce, leached from the room around them, making the windows and candles darker while adding to their own pool of power. Calculating, sizing each other up, as surely as did bears in spring meadows. Weighing where to strike.
Let them kill each other, then, Cullen thought, and reeled from the room, stumbling out into the scintillatingly bright light of morning.
He heard his name called out behind him, a cry of pain. He did not turn.
If people had hurried to avoid him before, they positively ran now. A barreling man wearing a sword, with blood pouring down his face--especially in an area so recently ravaged by the war between the mages and templars--was not a creature anyone wanted to be near. Every step jarred his nose, though, sending waves of pain radiating out from his face to thud across his whole skull, and he slowed down near the washed-out bridge to the castle causeway, tears streaming now with the blood down his chin. The light, his nose, the sound of water, his head: everything made him ache.
It was in this state that Dorian found him, hurtling up the steep slopes of the town trailing puffs of dust that streamed away on the breeze rather than between the movements of passersby. For there were no passersby.
"You're hurt," was the first thing the mage said between gasps for breath. "Let me help."
"Get away from me," Cullen spoke thickly, hands still cupped around his nose. Even muffled, though, the threat in his tone was plain.
Dorian took a step toward him. "I will not offer apologies for my father. But I can try to mend what he has--"
"I said get away!"
Dorian froze, hands outstretched and fingers splayed flat and placating. "All right. Can you tell me what happened?"
"Not as well as you can." Cullen needed to believe that the tears in his eyes were from the pain in his nose. Nowhere else. "Tell me, Dorian, am I coming along as well as you had hoped? As well as you were instructed?"
"I don't know what you're talking about."
Cullen squinted against the glare of the sun on the waterfall--rainbows shattering and reforming in the haze, one after the other--and the throbbing in his head. Saw Dorian standing there, winded from his run and worn out after who knew what kind of battle of magical wiles down at the inn, looking...frightened. The line between his eyebrows furrowed deep in concern, and his blazing white teeth held part of his lower lip in check, on the cusp of speaking but afraid to disrupt any invisible balance by doing so. Seeing this, the earnest fear and doubt juggled like floodwaters, like a hodgepodge dam of mud and wood attempting to keep a runaway creek at bay, Cullen almost gave in. His knees almost buckled. He knew if he let them that the other man would sweep him into some sort of embrace and he would try to forgive or, failing that, to forget. Try to mend, as Dorian had just said.
But he could not let happen. Because Dorian had lied.
"Tell me, Dorian." Cullen's voice shook. Maker help him, his voice shook, and he could do nothing about it. "Did Leliana instruct you to pursue me? For my own good?"
That heartbeat too long before Dorian blinked or moved in any way told Cullen all he needed to know. Some tiny golden part of him he hadn't known was there, steadfastly nurturing the hope that it had all been a terrible mistake and that Iron Bull had been dead wrong, abruptly curled up into a ball and expired. It was true.
"I..." Dorian took another step forward but Cullen tensed, and the mage saw it, and stopped. "She asked me to, Cullen, yes, but I didn't know it would--"
"You didn't know it would what, Dorian?"
The other man's voice was faint. "Didn't know it would turn into something real--"
"Real." Cullen removed his hands from his nose, not caring about the blood anymore. Wanting to make sure his voice was icy clear, his face fully exposed. "Is that what you call it?"
"Is there a threshold?" Cullen let his voice turn cloying for a moment. He wanted his mimicry to hurt. "Can you draw diagrams? Indicating, so clearly and informatively, where exactly it is that one transforms from hired bed warmer and administrative informant and occasional mana whore into something real?"
"Now you're being unfair."
Cullen's laugh sent pain shooting through his nose and he did not care. "Oh, I'm being unfair, am I? Do please forgive me. I'm so unaccustomed to your courtly manners. You'll have to instruct me in the proper response to being fucked on a spymaster's whim--more than that, for being made to believe that...that..." Cullen slammed his eyes shut against tears that he denied. If he denied them, perhaps they would retreat, like armies back across a battlefield. Banners rippling, pacts forgotten.
Before he knew what had happened, though, there were hands on him--Dorian had taken the opportunity to cross to where he stood by the waterfall. The mage's whisper rasped raw in his ear, under the thunder of the water, laced with sorrow and regret but also no small amount anger.
"Let me at least heal this, curse you, you're bleeding all over--"
It happened so quickly. The fingers against his cheekbones, the rush of cold, of light-blessed numbing cold pouring up into his nose, stemming the tide, shoring up the ruptures to numerous tiny blood vessels and cementing bone and cartilage back into their proper places.
But then it twisted, went deeper, not in a delve but in a hostile takeover. An ambush. A tiny voice in Cullen's brain shrieked you're supposed to ask.
You're supposed to have to ask.
That sweetness, the magic he was supposed to have to open up to. That he had let Dorian share with him, amidst such joy and wonder not so long ago. It came pouring in now, unbidden, over mental barriers that should have been sacrosanct, and his eyes flew open in shock.
Dorian's own eyes, gray and frantic and so so close, were fixed on his. "This is the lyrium talking," the mage gasped. "It has to be the lyrium talking. You're sick. You need this."
Your trust is a gift...
Cullen did not hear himself howl. He suspected he did, given the sudden ache in his throat a moment later, but he did not hear it. All of his efforts were focused, flailing, inward, in an attempt to beat back this unwanted, unasked-for sweetness, this last thing that he ever wanted from this last person he ever wanted it from, now. He was a physical man, and had spent most of his life honing his body into something that could deal with physical threats. So to be unable to raise a hand or wield a sword against this, this invasion filled him with a kind of terror he hadn't felt since packs of roving abominations had descended upon his mind, over a decade ago in a tower not far from here.
It was amazing, though, how times changed. What the years did for your willpower.
With an effort that felt strenuous and physical for all that he had barely moved, Cullen flung Dorian out of his mind, cutting off the mana he'd been funneling in in midstream. Before his eyes, Dorian made a strangled sound, but whether that was because of the mandatory evacuation of Cullen's mind or because of the gauntlets that suddenly crushed his hands where they'd lain against Cullen's skin, it was impossible to tell.
"What are you doing?" Cullen's voice grated dangerously low, almost inaudible over the roar of the waterfall behind them.
Dorian took a breath, tried to steel himself. "I thought--" Cullen squeezed his hands hard, bringing the mage to a gurgling halt.
"No, you did not think. You did not think at all. So let me tell you. Let me tell you what you just did. And let me tell you first that this is me talking. Not some slavering idiot blind with lyrium withdrawal, in need of your oh-so-tender ministrations--" He stopped, inhaled. Forced an exhale. Thought, for a moment, that he might have his voice and emotions under control.
"Let me tell you what you did," he began again. "You took a little piece of yourself--" Here his voice broke. Shit. "You took a little piece of yourself you put it in me and I loved it as my own. Loved you as my own, Dorian! Saw how you thought...how you felt...for me." Always with the fucking crying, Cullen. "When you cast that spell through me--let me in--let me feel all of that--it was the most beautiful thing. That's what I thought." Blood that had just begun to dry glistened again as snot and tears moistened it anew, leaking down his face, choking him and impeding his words. "Only it wasn't beautiful, was it? You did it to keep track of me. Like a collar on a mabari. No, less than that--like a brand on a sow."
Dorian's attempts at equanimity were rapidly fracturing, but he struggled to keep a quaver from his voice as he responded. Struggled to make it strong, educated, reassuring. "If you felt what you say you did then surely you could feel that it was genuine, that it was real, that I--"
"How am I supposed to trust anything about that, about anything you've done?" Cullen bellowed. "You just forced your magic into me without even asking! You do know what what would be called if you'd used your body, don't you?"
Dorian blanched, and his voice cracked as it had earlier, down in the inn with his father. "I didn't mean to--I thought it was the lyrium--"
"IT'S NOT THE FUCKING LYRIUM, DORIAN. IT'S ME."
Abruptly Cullen became aware that he was shaking the other man. He'd exchanged Dorian's fingers for his great swooping collar, and he shook him on every other syllable. Dorian was not that much smaller in stature but he flopped like a rag doll in Cullen's grip. Fighting none of it.
Had he been asked, a moment ago, whether he thought it might be possible to feel worse in this situation, Cullen would have said no.
He would have been mistaken.
"Maker's breath," he sobbed, dropping Dorian like a sack of potatoes. He turned away from the mage, shoving his hands forcefully beneath his arms to stop their shaking.
"Cullen--" came a shaky breath behind him.
"Don't come near me!"
Cullen lurched away from the waterfall, toward a small cottage with a bored brown horse cropping weeds by the front gate. "I am claiming this animal in the name of the Inquisition!" Cullen roared to empty street, before leaping up onto the back of the tethered mare and wheeling it around.
He had wanted to be fast, to thunder away before he had to see anything else, feel anything else. But he'd neglected to untie the horse from the fencepost, and as he pulled savagely at the knots he could see Dorian approaching out of the corner of his eye, hands outstretched.
"Please, Cullen, I'm sorry about Leliana. I swear to you even though I started because she asked I meant everything I said to you, every time we--"
"Stop," Cullen snarled between clenched teeth, hauling furiously at the tangled reins.
To Cullen's horror, Dorian was at the bridle of the beast, now, unavoidably crack-voiced and crying. "How good do you think I am at this?" the mage asked, trembling in lips and hands and eyes. "How many times do you think I've been able to share this much with anyone? If I didn't know how to--how to tell you how it started, or how it had changed since then, it's because I was afraid I'd lose you if I tried."
"Consider me lost, then!"
Finally, Cullen wrested the reins free of the fencepost and the mare skittered sideways, eyes wide, unnerved by the emotions running high in such close proximity to her. When Cullen dug his heels into her flanks she was only too happy to oblige by leaping into a full gallop up the last slope out of town.
"What have I done?" Dorian asked the road, the waterfall, the rising wind whipping away the dusty remnants of Cullen's passing.
Neither road, water nor wind held an answer.
My apologies for the delay.
"What have you done?" Iron Bull demanded.
Dorian did not look up, choosing instead to watch tiny dust clouds rise and then be beaten back down as the first droplets of rain hit the parched earth. Pat, pat, pat.
"Hey. Dorian. What happened back there?"
Dorian felt the toe of a boot nudge his thigh, where he squatted in the dirt. "Nothing good," he replied leadenly.
"No shit. I take it Cullen isn't coming back, then?"
"I don't think so, no."
"Should we go after him?"
"That might not be the best idea at the moment."
The maelstrom of Cullen's emotions whirled in his mind. Maker help him, he felt it, because Dorian had...imparted...the other man with magic. So soon after the exchange, even the swiftly-increasing distance between them couldn't snuff out the inferno of emotion--rage, shame, and a stultifying sense of betrayal--that boiled in the back of his head, so familiar. So terribly, terribly familiar.
"You going to tell me what caused our commander to steal a horse and go haring off into the middle of nowhere instead of leading our armies?"
Dorian's eyes narrowed, though he still didn't look up from the earth darkening with raindrops. "That depends. I don't suppose you feel like telling me how you came to be here, do you? Here with Cullen, who just happened to have crashed into an inopportune rendezvous with my father, bearing rather unsavory revelations about Leliana's involvement in our...relationship?"
The toe of Bull's boot shifted from a nudge to a jab. "Nope, you are not going to pin this on me." When Dorian failed to respond, Bull came around in front of him and squatted down, so their faces were on the level. "You should have told him, Dorian."
The mage looked up then, eyes afire. "And what gave you the right to do it for me? What did you think you were doing?"
"I didn't know he didn't know! I figured only an idiot wouldn't have told him. It wouldn't have been such a big deal if you had, before."
"You don't understand."
"What, human emotions to complicated for me, is that it? Big dumb qunari can't catch the finer nuances of a mage's stupidity?"
"He feels manipulated, Bull!"
"That's because you manipulated him!"
Dorian leapt to his feet then and whirled, facing the waterfall that hurtled over the town's namesake cliffs, cavorting through the mill's wheel before dashing itself onto the rocks below. He did not want to hear this.
"You're just jealous," he snapped.
He could hear Bull come to stand behind him; feel the presence of the much larger man as a sudden absence of rain. "I can't be both a tactless clod and a maniacally manipulative lover out for revenge, Dorian. You have to pick one." Bull's voice grated like boulders tumbling down a cliff, but his tones were not unkind.
"He's gone," Dorian whispered, so quietly he thought only he could hear.
"We can find him," Bull said, catching that whisper even amid the rising winds. "Even with the storm."
"The storm's not the problem."
"What, you've become some expert tracker, now? Last time I checked you couldn't navigate your way to the edge of the bed in the dark without falling off it."
Dorian shook his head. "No, no. I can feel where he is." He raised a hand, pointed. "He's already curving north, see?"
Silence filled with rain and waterfall. It stretced so long that Dorian looked up, alarmed, to see Iron Bull staring hard at him.
"How do you know that?"
"I...can feel him."
"You can feel him."
"And can he feel you?"
Dorian felt his cheeks heat. "Ah...no. Not...this time."
"He submitted to this by choice?"
Dorian looked away. Away to the castle on its cliffs, remote and serene--that is, until castle and cliffs both exploded in a sea of stars, and Dorian crumpled to the ground in a heap.
Bull's voice emerged through the roar that filled Dorian's ears as from a fog. "--is why he left, isn't it? You did that to him without even asking, didn't you?"
"We've done it...before..." Dorian groaned, clutching the side of his face, from which pain oozed like pulp from a split pumpkin.
"Oh sure, we've done it before. When it was both of you. You just grabbed him though, didn't you? I heard him scream. He ordered me to stay put by the docks but I heard him scream and it was because of you."
"I thought I was helping!"
"How could you think that was helping?" Bull towered over the fallen man, his face a mask of righteous fury. "On what sorry scrap of earth is it helping for you to place some kind of twisted magical stamp on a man's brain?"
"He's a lyrium addict, Bull!"
"What in shit does that have to do with anything?"
"I thought he was entering withdrawal again, that all he needed was a little mana--"
"That's your idea of helping? Why don't you just grab him by the hair and dump the blue stuff down his throat, then? It would be kinder." Bull spat, narrowly missing Dorian's face. "Kinder than treating him as a dog, at any rate."
"The connection was a...side effect," Dorian told the dirt that was rapidly turning to mud. "We only just discovered it."
The disdain in Bull's voice could have worn away cliff faces as surely as did Redcliffe's falls. "So you were using him, then. To further your knowledge. What are you doing, writing a book on it?"
"No!" Nausea welled up in Dorian as he struggled to sit upright, to not black out. He could feel the blood rushing to the side of his face, causing it to swell, but he refused to writhe in the muck while he defended himself. "Whatever else you may think of me, Bull, I didn't...I would never...just pounce on someone's need as an opportunity for study."
"You expect me to believe that. After what you did to Cullen just now."
Dorian sighed and instantly regretted it; talking hurt bad enough. "No, I don't expect you to believe it. But it's true all the same."
"I thought this was just supposed to entertain him. Make him feel better."
Bull wiped the back of his hand across his eyes, clearing away rain. "It's more now, then?"
"It is." Dorian raised a tentative hand to his cheek, wincing, before adding a bitter addendum. "It was."
Neither said anything for some moments. Around them, the rain progressed from pattering to full-fledged drumming, and thicker sheets of it could be seen en route across the water, sweeping in across Lake Calenhad.
"Does Leliana know?"
Dorian's face darkened. "We haven't spoken."
"You stopped informing the spymaster on the progress of the recovering lyrium addict you were supposed to be distracting from his addiction?"
"You can't distract someone from an addiction, Bull."
The qunari snorted. "You know this from experience?"
"Then you'll have to forgive me for being too much the thick-headed qunari to get this, Dorian, but...what were you doing trying?"
Dorian squinted up at the larger man through the haze of pain and moisture that threatened to rob him not only of vision but of consciousness as a whole. "Even if you do it differently in the north," Dorian began, fighting to keep his voice level," "even if it's usually only sex. You can understand, can't you? About loving someone?"
Iron Bull regarded him steadily for a moment. "From what I understand, what you did has little to do with loving someone."
Dorian winced, taking the remark as a physical blow. "Does it matter that I was trying?"
"I'm not the person you should be asking."
Dorian closed his eyes and felt the distance gaping wider between himself and the place hearkened back to by the knot of emotion that was Cullen. He had been trying to ignore it, trying not to feel it, because Cullen's pain was like a hot coal in the back of his mind, smoldering at the edges and urging everything it touched to writhing flame. He allowed himself to feel it now, though, and the weight of it, its darkness, threatened to push him back down into the mud.
"He's leaving," he said quietly. "Maker help me, he's leaving."
Iron Bull extended a hand. "Get up. Lying there will do you no good."
"Nothing will. He won't forgive me. He shouldn't."
"Oh come on. You're going to see him again. He's headed back to Skyhold. You'll get your chance."
"You don't understand."
Iron Bull yanked the mage to his feet, not gently. "What I understand is that you wallowing in the mud in this town where you and Cullen combined just scared the shit out of everyone does exactly zero good for anyone involved." As if to underscore this point, the pale face of a child peeped at them from a nearby window, before disappearing in a flurry of curtains when she saw them looking. "Clean yourself up and we'll see if the ferryman is still here to take us back."
Dorian's mouth twisted into a snarl. "Back to the inn? My father is there. I would rather--" He froze then, stock still in the rain, and Iron Bull whipped his head around, trying to determine the source of the threat.
"What? What is it?"
"Oh no. Oh sweet Maker, no." Dorian looked as ashen as the unmuddied parts of his robes, now, as he started off down the incline through the town, first at a totter and then snowballing into a dash as his feet kept managing to stay under him.
"Dorian!" Iron Bull came abreast of him easily, catching him under the elbow as he took a stone stairway too quickly. "What's wrong? Is it Cullen? Do you feel something?"
"I--" They careened around the corner to the inn's square, the mage leaning heavily on the qunari to avoid falling. "No, no, no!"
Iron Bull looked around, face wild with confusion.There was nothing amiss: no screams, nothing on fire. Just rain hissing on the thatched roof of the Gull & Lantern inn and the surrounding houses, slowly churning the roads into mud.
"Dorian, there's nothing here--"
"That's the point!" Dorian yelled, skidding into the inn, where an aproned man yelped and brandished a broom at him from behind a table.
"Where did he go, innkeep? The man who was here before."
The innkeeper stared at him with wide eyes, shaking his broom menacingly. "I don't want no trouble with mages, I--"
"Where did he go?"
"Gone. Don't know where. One minute him and his men were upstairs yammering, and the next, there was a terrible noise like horses dying, and they were gone. Didn't even pay, but I'll count their not returning as payment if it comes to that...?" he trailed off expectantly, perhaps hoping that this slightly less threatening mage would step in for his fellows.
By now Iron Bull had arrived in the doorway, just in time to see Dorian sag against a pillar, face buried in his hands. "He's not supposed to know this," the mage moaned. "No one is supposed to know this. Not anymore."
Bull grabbed him by the shoulders. "What exactly is the problem? Where is your father?"
"Gone." Dorian's eyes were bleak, bleaker even than they had been earlier, blinking away rain and tears in the muddy road. "That warp, these residues...he bent time, Bull. No one is supposed to know how to do that anymore, not since Alexius was killed. If my father knows, it means he--"
It felt like a whirlpool had blossomed in his brain. One minute the tangled web of hurt and fury that was Cullen was within reach, just over the lip of the cliffs that sheltered the town, or near enough. The next, an invisible force had sucked it away, shrinking to a point almost beyond sense or touch. Impossible for it to to have happened so quickly, for such distances to have gaped open between them, unless--
"Oh, Father, no. Not this. Please not this."
Cullen missed the pain in his nose. He wished Dorian hadn't healed it, wished--well, that none of what had just happened had happened. The pain, though, would have distracted him, would have given him a star around which to revolve as he clung to the back of the mare, galloping through the woods to the west of Redcliffe. As it was, he was too clear-headed: every splatter of rain on the back of his hand, every whiff of charred homestead, every rumble of thunder over the lake reached him. He did not want to be reached. By anything.
When the air began to shimmer over a copse of trees to the north, he assumed it was merely an effect of the decreasing visibility, a trick of the light and the rain. Nothing more. When, a moment later, soldiers stepped out from among the tree trunks--soldiers in odd uniforms, white and black--he drew rein sharply, and his mount skittered to a grateful stop, winded from their flight.
He did not have to wait long. A lone rider extricated himself from the group and approached, rich cape flapping gold-then-crimson, gold-then-crimson in the wind. The white horse picked its way through the scrub with surety and the utmost detachment, despite the rumbling of the storm around them.
Colors Cullen could see, but little else in the swiftly-rising storm. Not until the rider came closer could he discern facial details--details he did not believe. There was no way for Dorian's father to have arrived in the hills before him. Cullen had ridden at a dead gallop up until now--how could a man he knew to have left down in the lakeside town with only one landward exit have beaten him unseen to these woods?
He had opened his mouth to inquire as much when a burst of light seared the back of his retinas and an invisible force hurtled him out of his saddle. As if through wads of cotton he heard the frantic screaming of his horse, and of hooves trammeling away at bare earth. Stars danced in his vision and Cullen moaned, reaching up his hands to clutch his head.
His hands, however, would not move, bound in place by forces unseen.
"You could hardly have made this easier, you know."
As his vision cleared he made out the aquiline face with its finely shaped eyebrows, its spiderwebs of laugh lines--abstractedly, Cullen found himself shocked at evidence that the man took pleasure in life--mere inches from his own, framed by the gold-stitched interior of his hood.
"I said, you could hardly have made this easier."
Cullen glared, twisting his wrists against their magical bonds. "What do you think you're doing?"
"What I would have done back there, had you not seen fit to drag my son into your bed, you harlot."
"Oh I'm the harlot, am I?" Cullen laughed cruelly. "Perhaps you misheard. Your precious Dorian slept with me for the sake of--"
Had he really missed this pain? It showered across his nose again, tearing and rending, reopening wounds so recently healed.
"Do not say his name." The man's face was so close that he left spittle on Cullen's cheeks.
"Dorian, Dorian, Dorian!"
The pain came again, worse this time. Cullen grit his teeth against crying out.
"What does this gain you, exactly?" he gasped instead.
"This? Nothing." Dorian's father's smile was thin, like a shaving blade. "Merely the fleeting satisfaction of a moment. But what you will buy me is priceless."
"Have I no right to know, then?"
"Absolutely not. You have no rights." The man leaned closer. "I will tell you, though, because I like the idea of you knowing. In return for the commander of the Inquisition, my employer is prepared to...restore...my son to what he should have been all along."
Cullen struggled to process this for a moment, blinking rain out of his eyes as he attempted to think through the thudding agony in his face, back to what he knew of Dorian's family situation. A shred of the father-son argument he'd walked in on came back to him. You tried to change me!
Half-blinded by rain and pain, bound hand and foot by magic, Cullen realized with a jolt what Dorian's father intended, and his stomach twisted itself into a knot.
"It will never work," he spat.
"It will." The man's smile was the rictus of a new moon just giving way to waxing. "I am Halward of House Pavus and it will work. I will have my son returned to me, and the continuation of my line assured."
Cullen's lips twitched unbidden into a sneer. "You would destroy him for the sake of a few wagging tongues?"
"I would destroy much. Including you." Halward jabbed an exquisitely cared-for nail into the exposed bit of flesh in the small of Cullen's throat. "But I will not be destroying Dorian, no. It is why I am taking you far away from here--why I didn't whisk you away earlier, in fact, back in Redcliffe. I wish him not to be involved." His smile grew wicked. "It was terribly opportune, really, for you two to have an argument just as I arrived intending to ferret you away. Still, I don't wish him to become...distracting."
And with that the mage turned, gesturing to the waiting soldiers who materialized by his side. They fanned out in a circle, and Halward removed something from around his neck--Cullen couldn't quite make out what it was, just that it was held on a chain. The Tevinter closed his eyes, uttered a few incantations, and grabbed Cullen by the hair, suddenly, as the world began to...bend...around them. Trees, earth, bracken, the very sky began to bubble and warp; to take on new shapes.
"I could resent you," Halward murmured as the sky curved down and the ground curved up. "I could murder you. But I will do neither. I will barter you like a mule at market for the son I should have had." He smiled. "Some people have a taste for mule meat, you know. It was a mistake for Dorian to join their ranks."
"He will not come," growled Cullen, feeling as though his words were ripped from his mouth; spun away into the ether.
"Oh, I should hope not," Halward replied, twisting his fist in Cullen's hair. "What happens to you is no longer his concern. Besides," he added, stepping forward and dragging Cullen with him, through the writhing bubbles of a world that shrieked like screaming horses, "based on your last exchange I rather doubt he'll be troubling himself on your behalf anytime soon."
It was no longer dirt beneath Cullen's bound body now, but the hard cold flatness of paving stones. He twisted in Halward's grip, trying to see around the other man and the gathered soldiers to the sky above them. Same sky, streaked with clouds, but darker here--closer to the heart of the storm?--and alive with thunder and whipping curtains of rain.
Halward saw his captive struggling to see, and grinned. "Welcome home, Commander," he yelled over the racket, as a fork of lightning split the sky, casting a lurid glare upon a too-familiar spire, clawing skyward directly over them. Impossibly sharp and all too well-known.
Cullen's wail, high and long, disappeared beneath the bone-shattering crack of the thunder that followed on the lightning's heels.
"Tell me how it feels."
Cullen curled his fingers into a fist. Felt the tightening in his muscles as it did it; could see the cords standing out on his forearm as he clenched the fist tight and then relaxed it and then tightened it again.
All in an effort to dislodge the tiny red stone embedded in the back of his hand, tucked glimmering and deep between the tendons of his second and third fingers. Like a gem in setting.
"You won't do it again. We've made sure of that. Besides, even if you were to succeed, doing it in front of me only shows me what to guard against next time." His interlocutor gave a put-upon sigh. "So why don't you just give it up and tell me what I want to know?"
The skin around the stone was sick. Cullen knew they knew that; his too-pale skin was purple there, deepening to burgundy, with thin rings of crimson around the the very edge of the indentation from which the stone protruded. Beside this most recent addition to his hand lay two bruised craters, remnants of stones he'd managed to scrape and squeeze out, respectively. His successful removal of the first one had led to his entire arm being encased in a series of metal bands, rather than just the wrist shackles fused to the chair that they'd begun with--and against which he'd scraped off the stone. His successful removal of the second stone had led to this. A constant stream of watchers, trooping in and out of his cell at all times of day with no apparent pattern or schedule, guarding against his performing a third miracle and managing to remove this latest monstrosity from his body.
He would not give them the satisfaction of being able to record his impressions in their little books. That was one reason he would not talk. He would not tell them--no more than his sweat and his screams had--how it felt, either to have those stones in him or, laboriously and with scintillating amounts of pain, to rip them out.
"Honestly, Commander, you're just prolonging the inevitable here. Do you want to be delved again?"
Cullen held his face steady and flexed his hand faster, hoping to conceal any tremors that might be threatening to run through him. No, he did not want to be delved again. These people only had so many mages who could heal, and those they did have resented being called upon to perform such petty tasks as delving a captive, if said captive was not deemed responsive enough on his own.
To retaliate, they made sure it was not simply a delving one underwent. No mere neutral scan of a body, but rather a brutal raking-through by mental tines honed sharp for the harvest.
"Feels fantastic," Cullen mumbled. "Just lovely."
The questioner tapped his little leather book. "You know we have no use for your sarcasm. Have you actually progressed to the stage where it begins to feel good yet?" He flipped back a few pages, long fingers unnaturally pale against the creamy yellow vellum. "I have it in my notes that you have a previous addiction to lyrium. Going on, let's see, ten years? Surely it must feel good now, to get a little of that back?"
"Maker take you!"
Cullen spat, and though he fell well short of his target, he was pleased that his spittle at least managed to make it beyond his legs. Last time he hadn't yet discovered the trickle of rainwater seeping through the wall, and had barely enough spittle with which to talk, let alone spit. He had managed little more than to dribble down the front of himself.
He refused to drink the water they brought him in a bucket. It sang.
"What do you even think this is going to achieve?" the hooded questioner sighed, gesturing absently with his hand and causing a bolt of pain to alight across Cullen's thighs, the thin sackcloth covering them jerking beneath the magical assault.
That, he thought, but did not say. That is what I will achieve. In the cloudburst of pain that was the hail of invisible switches the questioner rained down upon him, he could not hear it. Could not hear that sweet, lilting song that welled up at him, siren-like, from the stone embedded in his hand. It was always there, running under and through everything, like a river just beneath the surface of the earth that seeps up into lakes and bogs; that fills footprints and gives life where there should be none. He needed to avoid those pools, needed to shut them out lest he drown in them. In pain, he could not hear the song; could not take life from it.
For a little while, at least.
The questioner snapped his book shut with a practiced air and rose from his chair, removing a key as long as his hand from his robes and heading toward the barred door. Halfway there he paused, reaching back for the oilrag torch he'd left in the sconce.
"I would think you'd be grateful, you know," the questioner said amiably, retrieving the torch. Close to his hood, the shadows it cast retreated a little, revealing thin lips, a tanned face, and eyes partially obscured by a red mist that crackled and fizzed about them like distant stormclouds. "Some of us would give far more than our right hands for that kind of power."
Through the haze of pain, so swiftly fading from the surface of his skin--he wanted it back, he needed it back, to keep the song at bay!--Cullen gave the man his best glare.
"Then take it from me, if you want it so badly."
The man tut-tutted. "You can't tempt me with that, Commander. We each have our place, and yours is the pet." He smiled wickedly. "Mine is the trainer. If only one of many." He yawned hugely then, and Cullen wondered if it was nighttime--or if perhaps these people had shifts and this man took night watch. There was no way to tell. "Someone will be in with food shortly. You might try eating it this time."
With that the questioner left, locking the door and sliding what sounded to Cullen like a thick bolt home. He could not hear footsteps retreating, nor words exchanged, but he expected there were at least two guards outside his door, at least.
Or perhaps not. I flatter myself. Perhaps they were so secure in their conviction that he would bend to them, cave to their commands and their stones and the songs that radiated from them into his very flesh, that they did not feel the need to guard him.
He wished this felt like an opportunity. But, bound hand and foot to a wooden chair with a hole cut into the seat for waste, plunged into renewed darkness and silence with only the melody of the red stones to keep him company, it felt like his captors could not be more correct in their assumptions. He would fall.
He would fall, singing the song of the lyrium in his veins.
"They're doing terrible things to him."
Dorian clutched his head in his hands, willing the tangle of misery in the back of his brain to take strength and sustenance from him when he knew, he knew it couldn't. That Cullen couldn't even feel him; didn't even know he was out here, struggling toward him.
He had never felt so helpless in his life.
"We're going as fast as we can," Iron Bull replied, poking the fire with a stick. "Any faster and we'll lose another horse."
Which was true. The loss of their first horse hadn't been directly from exhaustion--it had died horribly, screaming and thrashing and narrowly avoiding splitting Dorian's skull like a melon, when the mage had tried to fumblingly give it speed and strength through magic. He knew next to nothing about horses or healing them; nothing about whether it would work.
Now at day's end they were down to three, all of whom were tired nags comandeered in the name of the Inquisition from the wary townsfolk of Redcliffe. They had intended to switch off, riding one set for awhile and then switching to the fresher mounts, but with the death of Dorian's first horse they were forced to stop more often, their schedule broken. Iron Bull had insisted.
Dorian had had to fight the urge to strangle him when he halted their pursuit.
"You don't even know where he is," Iron Bull had pointed out, hauling Dorian's exhausted mount alongside his own wheezing bay.
"Yes I do!" Dorian cried, pointing almost due north, the long sweep of Lake Calenhad a dull glow to their left. The storm had rolled away south by then, leaving a sky studded with stars that seemed mocking in their serenity.
"That's a direction, not a location."
"He's stationary, isn't he? It's a location. He hasn't moved all day, once they--did what they did to take him there. Look, Bull, it fades," Dorian pleaded. He had a tendency this evening to leap between abject pleading and patrician demands--anything he thought might win the moment and a few more miles out of their horses before they halted. "We have to get to him now, before it--" He bit off his words as fresh agony poured in through his bond with Cullen. He couldn't tell what they were doing to him, only that it was incredibly painful. In a moment the bond went dull and distant--indication, Dorian surmised, that whatever they'd done to Cullen had knocked the man out cold.
Dorian's stomach heaved with the echoes of distant pain, along with an all-too-localized guilt.
"I never should have left him," he muttered now, glaring at the smooth stretch of the lake to their left. "Never should have replied to that wretched letter. I should have thrown it in the fire first thing--"
"He might have gone off alone if you'd done that," Iron Bull suggested, voice reasonable. "Intended it as a gift. A surprise, maybe. Family reconciliation, wrapped in a ribbon with a bow on top."
"And what would you know about it?"
Iron Bull gave him a flat stare, made to flicker inscrutably by the light of the fire. "It's what I would have done."
Dorian opened his mouth and then closed it. He glared stonily at the fire for a few moments before responding under his breath. "Wouldn't have worked."
"I wouldn't have found that out until too late, same as Cullen."
"But he didn't go there as a gift, Bull, he--"
"He came because Cassandra had a feeling that something bad would happen."
Dorian blinked. "She what? I thought you told him--"
"I did tell him about Leliana, yes. But that's not why he came, at first. Cassandra told him she thought something bad would happen--she had a dream. And she said he should go to you."
"I...I was under the impression that she rather fancied him."
That stare again. "She does."
Bull rolled his eyes and went back to poking at the fire. "Just because someone is out of your reach, you stupid mage, doesn't mean you stop looking out for them." Sparks rose up into the sky and died as Bull stabbed at the logs with a stick. "You're past old enough to know that."
"I'm hardly that old..." Dorian replied immediately--reaching for the jest, the jibe, the flippant remark, as a kind of known and trusted reflex--but trailed off when Bull failed to respond.
The fact was that he had neither the time or the resources to deal with this. Sounds like something Cullen would say, Dorian thought with a pang for the inert, vaguely distressed lump in the back of his skull. He could point to where the man was, still, but time was marching onward. The thought of what would happen if the link faded away before they found Cullen firmed his jaw and made him leap up from the fire to pace the edges of its light again.
"Dorian, you need to sleep."
"I need to do no such thing. As soon as the horses are ready, we leave."
"They're not going to be ready. They'll die if we keep pushing them like this."
"Maybe yours will, you great ox, but I need to go north before they do anything more to him!"
Bull did not even blink at the insult. "Not one of these horses will last halfway up the lake. Take off on one of them now and I guarantee you I'll be hauling you off your broken feet by midday."
Dorian paced, soiled robes crackling with half-dried mud as he moved. "It is unconscionable that that idiot ferryman couldn't get us north faster than mere beasts."
"Even you can't change the realities of a steady north wind."
Dorian was on the verge of a response when the thunder of hooves interrupted him. They had a moment's pause to fumble for weapons, during which time Bull swung his maul up into a ready stance and Dorian summoned a glittering ball of lightning between two hands. Then the riders were upon them, gleaming in silvery armor that made the most of the firelight, flashing and shimmering as they maneuvered into a tight circle around the two men, enclosing them.
"By my authority as Arl of this bannorn, I declare you under arrest!" Announcing as much, a splendidly garbed individual urged a horse in similarly fine ornament forward.
"On what crime? Being foreigners in your filthy little town?" Dorian snarled.
"We're members of the Inquisition," Iron Bull said loudly, glaring at Dorian. "Dorian Pavus, and the Iron Bull. No wandering cutthroats."
Little of the armored man could could be seen, but his snort was loud and clear. "You expect me to believe that?" He nodded toward the whirling ball of light in Dorian's hands. "I'd call you apostate but there's no circle anymore to deal with you. Rebel mage, then. The likes of which should have left Redcliffe, for your precious Inquisition, ages ago."
"They did," Iron Bull said flatly, overriding Dorian's brash retort about being both a rebel and a mage, but not necessarily in that order. "As we said, we are members of the Inquisitor's inner party, chasing down a--"
"--Venatori," Dorian blurted. "A band of Venatori."
The rider's mouth hardened. "You lie. All the Venatori were driven from Redcliffe months ago."
Iron Bull nodded. "They were. But some came back, and we were sent to deal with them."
"Why was I not informed of this?"
Dorian glowered. "And you are...?"
The man tugged off his helmet and bowed perfunctorily in his saddle, settling loose a wave of red hair that still held the shape of his helmet. "Arl Teagan of Redcliffe. To whom may I attribute the robbery of four horses, one of whose corpses we found along the road? Not to mention the terrorizing of the people of Redcliffe Village?"
Iron Bull grunted. "We stole your horses, yes, but the inn was the Venatori. We can pay you."
"He means the Inquisition can pay you," Dorian added quickly, "but no doubt you don't believe we are who we say you are."
It was Iron Bull's turn to glower as Arl Teagan raised an eyebrow. "You have something in mind?"
"There's no reason for you to believe us," Dorian began, "but there is a way for you to ascertain we are honest in our aims."
"And that is?"
"Come north with us. Fight the Venatori. They ravaged your town once before, no? Surely you would like to see them vanquished as much as we would." His eyes glinted in the firelight, weighing and calculating. "You're the arl himself and you came running to catch us, after all. You seem to take protecting your people seriously."
The Arl sniffed. "Once they leave my lands they are no longer my concern."
Iron Bull opened his mouth but Dorian spoke right over him, letting his ball of lighting dissipate in favor of the wrath written plain on his face. "You do realize that this is exactly the kind of mentality that led to this disaster in the first place, don't you? Everyone deciding to look the other way until it all fell apart?"
Arl Teagan's free hand, the one not holding his horse's reins, twitched toward his sword hilt. "And what would a--Tevinter, if I'm not mistaken?--and a qunari know about the state of affairs in Ferelden?"
"Not just Ferelden. This whole southern mess. You, Orlais, the mages, the templars--not one of you said a civil word to the other until your lives were literally on the line. If not blown away already by the Breach."
"Dorian--" Iron Bull growled.
"No! Do not tell me to be silent. All you people care about is squabbling over some forgotten scrap of tundra that the luckiest farmer in the land couldn't grow two turnips on, meanwhile some crazed darkspawn pretending to be an Old God gallivants around the countryside, killing your people and wreaking havoc from courts to Dalish caravans. And what is your response? Once they leave my lands they are no longer my concern!"
Dorian's mimicking falsetto dripped acid, but he dodged away from Iron Bull's elbow as if by second sight, his eyes never leaving the Arl's face.
"You're right, I'm Tevinter, and I know egotistical tunnel vision as well as the next altus--as the next highborn mage. But you southerners never had to pay the price for that--you've just been allowed to bicker with each other for eons, with death, I mean real death, extinction," here he shot a level stare at the only qunari present to make his point, "kept at by by someone else. Well, you don't get to avoid it anymore. Except this time it isn't qunari dreadnoughts knocking at your door, it's Corypheus. And the Inquisition is the best chance you ungrateful children have at beating him." He took a breath, feeling the pulse at the back of his head, that distant misery. "And currently the commander of the Inquisition's armies is being tortured by a bunch of Venatori somewhere north of here, and frankly I would really appreciate it if you'd do us a favor and lend a fucking hand."
Only the crackling of the campfire and the soughing of the wind in the trees punctuated this tirade. Dorian felt Iron Bull's glare on him like twin pokers, but he never looked away from the Arl.
The Arl, who waited a good long moment of firelit tension before murmuring, in a voice pitched so low as to barely be audible two feet from his lips, "You love him."
Dorian's eyes opened so wide they stung.
"As do I," the Arl continued, voice growing louder, pitched for all to hear now. "As should we all who have seen what Corypheus and his Venatori can do. Very well, then. We will accompany you to the north, off our lands if need be," he narrowed his eyes a little here, to let it be known that Dorian's slight had not gone unnoticed, "both to render any aid necessary to the Inquisition and to verify your identities. If, however, you prove to be other than who you say you are," he let his hand come to rest on his sword hilt now, "our justice will be swift and merciless. The people of Redcliffe have experienced hardship enough under what you term our southern squabbles." He glared here, too, but Dorian did not flinch. "We will not suffer them to withstand further abuse."
Iron Bull sketched a bow, awkward for one so large. "Our thanks for--"
"I don't suppose you have some extra horses?" Dorian interrupted, looking around expectantly. "Ours are a bit under the weather, at the moment..."
The Arl's sigh was so loud as to be almost theatrical. "Switch off with two of my men. Anward, Dalwin, you take those stolen horses back. to town. And you, Tevinter--know that you will be the first to die if you lead us into a bad situation."
Dorian's own bow was the picture of courtly elegance.
Both newcomers mounted, Dorian astride a sturdy spotted animal and Bull atop a magnificent black steed several hands taller than anyone else's--its bulky owner did not seem pleased at being tasked to return the horses to town, at a walk no less--the party took off north at an easy canter that Dorian wished could be faster.
"That's not a exactly complete grasp of the Ferelden political situation you have there, Dorian," rumbled Iron Bull, keeping pace alongside for a moment.
Dorian squinted up through the darkness at the much bigger man, who seemed to float there atop his dark mount made invisible by the night. "I know. But we're going now, aren't we?"
"This is why no one likes vints, you know," the qunari continued, the scowl clear in his voice even if his face was hidden by shadow. "All the manipulation, the lies..."
Dorian rolled his eyes. "That has nothing to do with being Tevinter, Bull. It has to do with being well-bred."
The qunari either coughed or snorted, and veered his horse away from Dorian's, back into the main current of men and horses streaming north. Around them, the land seemed to pass with agonizing slowness, unchanging: slash of lake to the west, dark ridges of hills to the east, and stars, so many stars, above.
And Cullen, to the north. Somewhere.
It was a few moments before Dorian realized the Arl had come up next to him, appearing from the night as had Iron Bull--without warning. They rode in silence for some minutes as the soldiers, recognizing their commander, spaced themselves out in order to give them room to speak.
"What those mages did back there."
"It's what they did before."
"It shouldn't be possible."
"It shouldn't, no."
The arl waited in silence before continuing. "I was still in exile in Denerim when the Inquisition removed Alexius from power, but I understand from diplomatic missives that there was an...incident. That a Tevinter mage was involved."
Dorian rode in silence.
"That wouldn't be you, would it?"
"It might be, yes."
"You saw...what it might be like? If this...Corypheus has his way?"
Dorian schooled his face to blankness out of habit, though there was no need: the shadows hid everything. "Your missives were detailed."
The Arl chose to ignore that. "This Alexius. He was executed, was he not?"
Dorian's voice was cool, calm, controlled. Was ice. "He was."
"So the fact that this is still happening...you can stop it again, can't you? For good?"
Great towering spires of red lyrium, stabbing through ground and castle walls alike, stabbing through people, blocking out the light of a sun that no longer shone. Blocking out people's very ability to see--webbing their eyes in red film, warping them. Rippling in them.
The arl road away, back into the darkness from whence he came. His words, though, remained long after his horse melted into anonymity among the other horses. For good. Dorian had stopped Bull from mentioning that it was another Pavus who wielded this magic now. Another Pavus who held this key that should no longer exist, that could open the door to the world Dorian had seen that day in Redcliffe Castle, one year hence.
One of the last people in Thedas who loved Dorian, or ever had, and he wielded magic that should no longer exist. That needed not to exist.
Suddenly Dorian missed Cullen terribly.
I'm coming, Dorian thought, trying to hone his thoughts into arrows that could somehow fly the distance they were traversing with such infuriating slowness. I'm coming, Cullen. Please wait for me. He probed the edges of what remained in his mind of Cullen, wishing for a way in, a way to impart comfort and strength and--sure as the Arl knew it--love. I need to fix this.
Now there were two stones.
Cullen had seen the second one, smaller and less bright, when they brought the torch for the last feeding. He'd been so frightened to see what he'd felt--what he'd been sure he felt but had refused to believe--there before him, that he didn't even think to glare at the feeders when they came bearing their singing buckets. He'd just sat there, refusing to eat, coughing up crumbs and nearly choking when they'd used their magic to force his mouth open.
That was why he refused to ate. The food sang to him. Probably laced with lyrium, he'd thought. His stomach was trying to eat itself, it felt like, but so far he'd managed to resist their attempts to force-feed him.
The stones, though. Stones, plural. They had only ever planted one, with their sharp knives and their tongs, carefully holding they lyrium away from themselves with silver implements.
They had only ever planted one.
The visual confirmation of what he'd felt, what he'd dreaded and refused to believe was true, was more horrifying than he would have predicted, had he been asked. And he was asked, it was true--but he refused to say anything. Refused to provide them with fodder for their notes.
He'd felt it growing inside him.
Like vines, from the outside in. Sinking in its roots. The first stone affixed to his hand was taking hold, reaching deep, taking over. Growing.
Not like a vine, he corrected himself, his brain running circles like a crying dog in its terror. More like a mold. Mushrooming to the surface but secretly, secretly spreading beneath. Crawling under his skin. Through his bones. He could imagine it there, almost see it in his mind's eye, red crystals expanding in geometric intricacies, replacing pink flesh with glittering red rock. Rock which sang that sweet song, never stopping now, no matter what agony Cullen goaded his captors into inflicting on him.
Alone in the renewed darkness, amazed his hand wasn't lighting up the room for all the twisting, morphing pain that coruscated through it like light through a prism, Cullen felt the stones growing.
And he began to cry.
Had to chop up another wall of text. There's this much again on the way.
It took them four days.
The arl's men had not planned on long-distance travel, so they had to requisition supplies from towns in the region they came across on their route north. And while the arl was much more successful in these efforts than Dorian suspected he and Iron Bull would have been alone--the Inquisition not being so universally compelling a power to please as one's own arl--the delay ate at the mage. He was always the last to bed down for the evening and the first up in the morning, before the sky had even begun to take on a hint of color yet, kicking ashes over campfires and readying his mount.
Each day his connection with Cullen waned, filling him with a renewed sense of urgency every time he woke up. Cullen still seemed to be stationary, it was true, and they were coming closer, but with the decrease in Dorian's ability to feel the other man's emotions, he felt as though he were abandoning Cullen to forces unknown. There was, too, the increasing sense--dulled too much, soon, by the fading connection, to explore further--that something was stifling or tamping down Cullen's feelings. His reactions. To everything. His emotions, when Dorian could still feel them, began to seem as though they were wadded with gauze. Distant, muffled. It frightened Dorian.
On the second day, the Circle Tower appeared as a distant blip on the horizon. On the third day they grew close enough to see that someone had built a rickety bridge across the causeway leading to the island from the land, and an inky cloud of dread began to overtake Dorian. On the fourth day he knew. That was where Cullen lay. Inside the crucible he'd found himself in ten long years ago, when abominations had tortured him for their amusement.
When he told the arl, the other man's face fell.
"I thought it was abandoned," he insisted, as though misconception would make it so.
"Apparently not," Dorian replied, staring at the spire across the intervening leagues with a mix of panic and hope. They knew now, they knew where to find Cullen. They just had to get there.
"Venatori holed up in the Circle Tower. This will be a disaster. Those things are fortified, you know."
"They used to be temples to the dragon gods, in the olden days, and you saw what happened to them," Dorian said dryly. "Nothing is infallible."
"You damned Tevinters could have taken your fortresses with you when you left..." The arl spoke in a mutter, more to himself than to anyone else, but Dorian heard, and smiled sweetly.
"Now now, had we done that, where would you have to lock up your mages?"
Such was the kind of conversation Dorian engaged in, en route. Short and deliberate, tinged only slightly sometimes with a kind of knee-jerk flippancy he found comforting. Even Iron Bull left him alone, after the first night when Dorian's stony disregard had dispelled any illusions about his desire for comfort, sexual or otherwise.
After that, Bull had stayed away.
Until now. Now that dusk had fallen, Bull crept alongside him as the company approached the ruins of the old inn, which had fallen into disrepair since the exit of the mages whose visitors had stayed in its rooms. Arl Teagan's scouts had informed them that the place was abandoned, but as no one thought it particularly wise to go skipping into ruins a mere causeway's length from a band of Venatori zealots, caution won out. They had left the horses behind a ridge, and approached the inn with as much stealth as two dozen heavily-armed men could manage.
"You won't do anything stupid, will you?" was Bull's whispered greeting.
Dorian regretted that the light was insufficient to convey his disdainful glare, and settled for a snort instead, grimacing at the shh for quiet this prompted from the nearest soldier.
"I mean it, Dorian. You're the only mage we have. You go down and we don't see anything they're doing until they're doing it to us."
"Under different circumstances that phrase would be so appealing," Dorian murmured distractedly, eyes combing the darkness in vain for signs of life, or the threat of life ending.
"Be quiet over there," shushed the soldier.
Before them, the inn's remnants were a jumble of charred beams and hearthstones along the shore, clearly disused for some time. Whether the fire that had finally claimed the place had been caused by the mages as they fled their prison or by wandering vagabonds was unclear, but not even the faintest whiff of smoke remained--the deed had long since been done.
"Wait," Dorian hissed, and Bull and the soldier on the other side of him froze. The soldier repeated the order, though, with a gesture Dorian couldn't see, and soon the whole company waited on his command. "I would have expected them to...ah. Yes. Give me a moment."
He crept forward, hands outstretched because it helped him concentrate his magic. It was a crutch, he'd been told on more than one occasion--a foolish dependency of which he should rid himself. But long before he'd been accepted into any university or excelled there, he'd been taught to shape ideas into fact with his hands--with magic--by his father.
His father, whom he had every reason to believe was before him now, somewhere in that tower in the middle of the lake, snuffing the life force out of Cullen.
Dragging his eyes away from the spire, Dorian told himself to focus, and reached out with his inner eye instead, to the ruins where common sense and the faint internal ping he'd felt a moment ago said--Yes. There it was, a tiny little magical tripwire, unassuming and nearly imperceptible if one wasn't looking for it.
"There's a ward here," Dorian whispered to the soldier behind him now. "Let me undo it before anyone moves."
Of course, as the only mage present he was forced to be the only witness able to appreciate what a delicate operation undoing the ward was. Even to one with his skills, it felt like trying to undo a knot made in a fishing line with fingers the size of sausages. If he probed too hard, the ward would shatter and alert those inside to their presence. If he tugged too hard at the knots, the same thing would happen. He had to still all emotion and concentrate, exercising patience while never quite letting the tension drop, or else--
Across the water, the conjured sound of a great bronze bell--the one in Minrathous! Dorian realized with a jolt--pealed brazenly out from the Tower, thudding over those gathered by the ruined in as though physically pummeling them. All the soldiers froze, and beneath his own hail of curses he could feel their frustration kindling like a fire. Arl Teagan appeared at Dorian's side out of nowhere, increasing that sensation tenfold.
"They know," Dorian said.
"What do you need me to do to get you in?"
Dorian blinked. The man trusted him so far? "I--I don't--"
"Take half my men across. The rest of us will stay here and distract them. With luck maybe they'll think only we set off the alarm." The arl had already turned to bark instructions at his men, all attempts at stealth abandoned.
"But there's only one way across! And they're probably taking it out toward us!"
The Arl whirled on him, face pale and furious under the rising moon. "Maker's bloody balls, man, you're a mage, aren't you? Shove aside the water, freeze your way across, I don't care! Find a way!"
"They'll sense me!"
The arl's glower could have melted glaciers. "Then given them something to sense here."
Dorian swallowed, scanning the shoreline. Focus, Dorian. You're being shown up by a man in a tin suit. His eyes fell from the causeway with its flurry of activity coming swiftly toward them--zealots, no doubt--to the blackened timbers at his feet. Where there's smoke...
The wood was not exactly entranced with the idea of catching fire, but few remotely flammable objects could resist the allure of a fireball two paces across and growing--which was what Dorian planted there among the remnants of the inn. Large enough to leave a magical imprint for miles, and drawing at least some of its force from the memory of fire held in the wood, it would hopefully distract from and account for any magical goings-on sensed in the area--at least long enough for Dorian to get across with his force.
The arl, who'd returned to his side upon seeing the fireball ignite, stared openly at the flame. "How long can you sustain that?" he marveled, looking from fireball to Dorian.
"When it turns blue, run."
"But it's massive!"
"If I'm going to get across, they need to think the only thing magical happening on this lake is right here." Plus whatever they're doing to you, Cullen, he thought, but did not say. Lately it seemed as though he thought but did not say most everything. I have to fix this.
On his left, Iron Bull's voice was a low rumble. "How are we going to get across? They're already on bridge."
"We're going to float."
"We're going to what?"
Dorian had seized on the arl's idea, having failed to come up with anything himself in the intervening moments, but it remained to be seen exactly how he ought to freeze their way across. His first thought had been to freeze a path as they moved, but given the amount of energy the fireball was draining from him already, he doubted he could keep going through and freezing anew each section of water they came to across the lake and still be functional on the opposite shore. Far easier, he thought, to freeze one section and then devote his energies to sustaining that, while letting other more earthly powers move the section of ice across the lake.
He turned to Iron Bull. "How are you at paddling?"
Dorian's breath rasped in his throat. There were only ten of them now. Four had died--that he knew of. And if he were honest with himself, he knew little. They had split up, in an effort to cover more ground--more of these twisting, endlessly turning passageways that did not behave the same way from one floor to the next as they ought to have done--and he had seen no one besides Iron Bull for what felt like hours.
He dodged, bellowing, back behind a corner as a bolt of ice came hurtling down it, at least as much in battle fury as because he'd bumped his burned shoulder against the rough stone molding and set it alight with a fresh burst of pain. He hurled an arc of lighting around the corridor and down, and was rewarded with a gurgling scream.
"He's down, let's go," growled Iron Bull, who himself sported a slash on his leg that he'd refused to allow Dorian to heal, citing concerns about the mage's stamina. Dorian didn't know how he looked, but he suspected it was rather subpar if Iron Bull was commenting on it--not teasing, even, but outright worrying for him. He felt like he'd just run the whole length of Lake Calenhad from Redcliffe to the Circle Tower on foot, in one night. Letting the fireball finally burst behind him had helped--he hoped the arl's men had heeded his warning about it turning blue--but not enough. He was bone-weary, and all he had known of Cullen's whereabouts when they entered was that he was somewhere down. Always down. Even that awareness, now, had faded, and they wandered blindly.
I'm coming! he thought as hard as he could, pressing his back into the cold stone wall with the force of it. I'm coming, curse you!
Two more flights of stairs and five dead Venatori later, they rounded a corner into a vast domed chamber that quickly flung the echoes of their footfalls back and forth, up and down. The ceiling was so high it was lost in shadow, as was the far side of the room, ringed as it was with columns whose supply of torches was sparse--only one ever three or four columns or so. But these details quickly faded away for Dorian when Iron Bull’s grunt alerted him to the presence of a figure emerging from the shadows on the far side of the room. Torchlight glinted off gold and crimson this time, not the sparse Venatori garb of white and black, and Dorian felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise as the rich waves of dark hair, that familiar gait, approached the center of the room.
“You weren’t supposed to be here, you know,” Halward Pavus intoned. He did not raise his voice, but the acoustics of the dome raised it for him, tossing the words around and around, building upon them with volume what they lost in meaning. “Not yet.”
Dorian felt, as from a great distance, Iron Bull’s cautionary hand on his arm, but he shook it off. “What do you mean, not yet?”
Halward’s sigh chased itself around the dome. “Not yet. For the same reason you didn’t want me discovering where you’d gone until you’d made something of yourself. Not yet, as in, I wasn’t ready.”
“Don’t play games, Father,” Dorian snapped. “I have no need to prove myself to you now, and didn’t then. I hoped you wouldn’t find me because I had no desire to see you.” He took a breath. “And I still don’t. What have you done with the Inquisition’s commander?” And why in the Maker’s name are you working with the Venatori?
“You mean your pet?”
Dorian willed his shoulders not to tighten; for his body not to give way before his will. “You cannot bait me. Where is he?”
The figure in the center of the room slumped a little. “I am not trying to bait you, Dorian.” He lifted a hand, and a tiny green globe of veilfire appeared there. “I just wish you had waited.”
Iron Bull tensed at the appearance of the veilfire, but Dorian had no time to explain to him that it was only a light. “For what, Father? Waited for what?”
“For it to be finished.” Halward turned, gestured. “Come,” he called to the darkness at the back of the dome, in a different voice, that which he would use to address a dog.
A figure stepped forward, but his steps were not smooth. Dorian could hear the shuffle before he saw it; motions constrained and made awkward by--hesitance? Illness? But forward he came, into flickering light of the torches and the steadier light of the veilfire, and--
Jagged red crystals encased his right arm, catching the green and gold light and casting it back, changed. From tiny gems at wrist and fingers, the crystals grew into great thorny clusters at elbow and shoulder, to the point where, surely, if that arm were to rise the shoulder crystals would endanger ears and neck.
But Dorian registered little of this, for that too-pale, fragile ear, and the pulse beating in the grimy stubbled neck belonged to Cullen. Cullen, whose eyes twitched behind a red mist Dorian knew. Knew from seeing it over the eyes of his comrades a year from now, in a future he had destroyed.
A future he thought he had destroyed.
"Oh no, no, no, Cullen." Dorian's voice was a whisper, a fragile thing crushed to bits between two boulders, but the dome carried it around and around, taunting him, repeating the enormity of it again and again. No, no, no!
"As you can see," Halward continued, "He is not yet finished. There are...imperfections. The stride, for example, needs--"
"What have you done!" Dorian roared. "What are you doing? What is he to you? What is any of this to you?" He was furious but his voice was breaking, crumbling like walls. Odd, that, squeaked the tiny part of his mind that was always observing, noting. That dissonance. "Where is the man who raised me?"
"I am right here. As is, almost, the son I meant to have."
"This is insane!"
"It is a transaction. In return for the transformation of a leader of the Inquisition into a follower through topical application of red lyrium, without having to wait for the distillation process of potions, I will have you...restored. To what you ought to have been." Halward smiled hesitantly. "Soon this will be behind us, and we will be able forget this entire Inquisition and return home to reign supreme in Minrathous as our family was meant to."
Dorian shook his head and swore, and started forward across the floor toward where Cullen wavered on his feet, glimmering.
Halward sighed. "I raised you to be better than this, Dorian," he said calmly, taking a step forward. "But if you let me, I will fix it."
"Let you?" The lightning was alive in Dorian's hands, shooting out with the sound of a whipcrack before the echoes of his cry had even begun their circling.
It bounced harmlessly off a dull gold shield though, with barely a crackle.
"You shouldn't use your hands so much." Halward's voice was dry. "It gives you away."
Dorian shrieked, flinging another bolt of lightning. "You taught me this way!"
"Exactly." Halward's shield winked into existence again instantly, fizzling Dorian's lightning bolt a good distance from where he stood, still serene in his crimson robes, hands clasped lightly in front of him. “You think I would craft a protégé without providing the means to work around him?”
Dorian himself bounced off a shield, this time erected around Cullen, and he almost toppled to the ground, head spinning from the impact against the invisible barrier. He used the momentum of his bounce to whirl, though, and fire again; again the lightning bolt fizzled. Maker, but he was tired, and Cullen stood frozen not four feet away now, unseeing, the muscles of his eyes and face jerking spasmodically, his right arm deathly calm.
“This, then, is what will happen. You will take your hired thugs and that tamed oxman who thinks he’s going to surprise me by sneaking up from behind,” Halward drawled, eyes flicking to the shadows behind a pillar where Iron Bull froze mid-step, “and withdraw. I will sound an alarm that will let my agents know you are to pass unmolested.” His mouth twisted a bit on the word.
“And why in the name of all that is holy would I do that?” Dorian snarled.
“Because, as I said, the agreement was for a leader. Not this one,” Halward nodded to Cullen. “As far as my master is concerned, one is as good as the next. And if you do not comply, I will be forced to kill him.”
“You’re killing him already!” Dorian’s next lightning bolt died as had the last.
“He’s still standing, is he not? He even breathes.” He gestured, and Dorian felt a flare of magic fizzle away--the shield around Cullen falling. “See for yourself. I wouldn’t touch him, though--I expect you’ve seen enough of what red lyrium does to know why.”
Dorian staggered the few paces remaining between himself and Cullen and stopped just short of grabbing the man. What red lyrium does. He was breathing, yes, if shakily, and those brown eyes twisted and leapt beneath their red haze, but they did not see him.
“Cullen,” Dorian whispered, his own voice heavy and cracking, like a flapping banner sodden with rain. ”Cullen. I’m...I’m here.”
Dorian stared hard, his eyes combing over the man in his scabrous sackcloth--where were his clothes? there were bruises; how badly had they hurt him?--seeking any sign of recognition. Any change at all. But there was only the twitching. Like a lizard’s tail after it has been ripped off, twisting about in memory of life.
A cough ricocheted around the dome. “My son, this is getting maudlin--”
“I am not your son!” Dorian howled, hurling a ball of lighting at the golden man in the center of the room. Again it fizzled, and the effort made him sway on his feet.
“Dorian, we need to leave.” Iron Bull still had not moved from behind the pillar where Halward had seen him, but his deep voice would have carried easily in a room twice that size. Bass echoes filled the room: Leave. Leave. Leave.
Dorian shook his head, and the motion made him dizzy. “No.”
“He’s given us a way out--”
“I won’t take it.”
“You should listen to your henchman, Dorian. However poor your taste in company, he does have a point.”
Dorian ignored Halward, turning back to Cullen, whose right arm glittered dangerously with red lyrium spikes as the rest of him jerked. No other motion or recognition troubled his twitch-and-sway, twitch-and-sway. He stood there empty as a hollowed-out tree, ready to topple in the next stiff wind.
“I’m sorry for...for what I did earlier,” Dorian whispered, more quietly even than the dome could catch and echo. “I’m sorry I didn’t ask. I just assumed that it was the lyrium and...and I was wrong.” He stepped closer, so he stood inches from Cullen’s nose. "I was so, so wrong."
Halward’s voice, even distorted by echo, took on a note of alarm. “Dorian, step away from that man.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t say anything about Leliana,” Dorian continued, willing his gaze to penetrate the red mist that lay over Cullen’s eyes, to find something beneath, someone he knew. Someone whom he had betrayed, in almost every way possible. “And I'm sorry that I can’t now. That...that you won’t even hear me.” He blinked back tears; he wanted to see Cullen’s face, at least, even if it was empty of the man he knew. "I was only supposed to be your friend. Everything else I gave you was mine to give." He swallowed. "So is this."
Behind him, he felt a stirring of magic, and knew someone, at least, had figured out what he was about to do.
“Dorian!” Halward and Iron Bull yelled at once.
Eyes blurring, he reached out with both hands, and placed his palms on Cullen’s chest.
One of Dorian’s earliest memories was of sitting in his father’s lap, staring at a glass of wine he held as he talked. It had been the fashion in those years to to drink wine that bubbled--a rare treat, as the pressure from the fermentation usually meant more than half the attempts at bottling ended in glass-strewn explosions--and as one of the most prestigious families in Minrathous, the Pavus estate of course owned cases of the stuff. It was a pale pink wine, and this already fascinated young Dorian since, in contrast the the usual wines his father drank, which were so dark they swallowed all light, with these he could look through the glass and see the world warped into silly shapes. But what really drew his attention, as his father droned on and on about something to someone--probably not his mother, since they would likely have been fighting if they’d been talking at all--were the bubbles. They rose, seemingly without end, from the bottom of the glass, up and up, until they burst, hitting the surface and melting away like fairies; like air itself. As soon as the glass came close enough Dorian resolved to thrust his chubby hand in and catch one before it could burst on the surface, and when he had his chance he did, to the amusement of his father, who held the glass still for him. But as Dorian watched, the bubbles eschewed the surface in favor of his hand. They swarmed it, jostling along the surface of his skin in worrisome clusters, like multitudes of tiny bright insects, and he yanked his hand out with a yelp, slopping wine all over his father and causing an uproar.
What he felt, when he touched Cullen, was a swarming like the bubbles in the wine glass, only much, much worse. He sensed the malevolence of the red lyrium stir at his touch and move toward him, sensing a new body, a new path, and seeking actively to claim it. Power that had been marshaling its resources, lashing its tail as it slowly sank its fangs into its present host, leapt to life at this new presence and slunk toward him, sharp-eyed and fierce.
Dorian saw it coming, and did not meet it unarmed.
He pulled. He did everything even the newly-arrived at university, even the prepubescent little mages knew not to do: he drew power recklessly into himself, more than he could possibly handle safely, or handle at all. It burned every fiber of him; made colors flare behind his eyes and agony throb in his bones. He was a man on fire. And he pushed all of that burning, raging sweetness out, through his palms, into Cullen. It seared Dorian, both with its presence and its retreat, but he kept pouring magic into the other man, meeting that insidious force, that living presence with one of his own, one he intended to sear everything, everyone, with its intensity. He couldn't pull fast enough; he couldn't pull enough.
Cullen screamed. Flickering, in bits and pieces as glimpsed through flames, Dorian saw his mouth open but could not hear it; could not hear anything over the roar of magic in his ears. It’s going to burn us, he thought, the words remote in his head, torched quickly to ash. Me and Cullen both. And it's still not enough. That thought, too, burned away, but its implications remained. He could not siphon magic into the man fast enough to combat the menace within him. He could not win. And he could not, he realized with an inner wail, just let Cullen, or the shell of what had been Cullen, burn. Not even out of mercy.
He couldn’t have broken contact with the man for anything--the torrent of magic forbade it--so he did the only thing he could think, through the fireworks in his brain, to do--he moved closer, sliding his arms around Cullen’s ribcage, and covered his open mouth with his own, letting magic pour in there, too.
Where his hands met, under the blades of lyrium fanning off Cullen’s shoulder in spikes that didn't quite yet reach under the armpit, he lifted. Held the crystal-encrusted arm up past his left side, behind him, and made a conduit of himself for every last scrap of magic he could summon.
Poured it in, there, through lips and tongue and fingers, through the hulking blades of lyrium like red glass, through Cullen’s body, wracked with the stuff. You should stop depending on your hands so much, he heard distantly, the memory of a memory. Of a quirk that turned out to have been a trap, a failsafe, long imprinted in him by the very man who taught him how to first find his way around magic.
But these are not my hands, Father.
He felt rather than heard the shattering. The breaking of thousands of crystals, large and small, surely made a sound like an entire cathedral's worth of stained-glass windows coming down--but Dorian's awareness of what was happening came from within. Fused to Cullen by the amount of magic coursing through them, he felt the malignant mass of red lyrium tremble, as though it were a spiderweb that had been struck, and then that intricate framework lacing down through skin and tissue blew apart, the fire of Dorian's magic racing down along each strand and setting it aflame.
And even as it shattered, even as, from shoulder to fingertips, red rock grew fine cracks that gaped wider and wider, the light that filled Dorian's eyes shooting out between the gaps until they broke, it was still too much. All that energy could not be contained in any one person, or any two people, and so Dorian directed it down, down the arm he held aloft, and let it go, burning as it went.
Let it fly from Cullen's fingertips, a thunderous bolt of light stained crimson by the tainted lyrium, blasting away the dark in the dome. Blasting away, too, the frail gold shield that winked into existence, too late, before Halward Pavus.
Dorian did not see. He did not hear. But he felt the shield fail.
There was an explosion as the bar of red light hit the opposite wall. Around them, bits of mortar fell from the ceiling like snow, and with the realization that he could feel this, the magic crashing through Dorian flickered out like a candle, utterly spent, and his legs gave out under him.
But he never hit the ground.
Dorian had never looked away. Not to his father, or to the mortar raining down on them. He had wanted Cullen to be the last thing he saw, if it came to that. But his vision was spotty, burned through in places by the afterimage of holding that much magic, and so he hadn't seen the moment when Cullen came back. From whatever red purgatory he'd been banished to, he came back, and those eyes filled with personhood: with fantastical, unbelievable warmth.
His left arm looped around Dorian, supporting him--the right arm held carefully away, back behind--their faces pressed together, gray eyes and brown near enough for the eyelashes to tickle. "You came," Cullen said, voice haggard.
"I..." The lump in Dorian's throat and the blackness quavering at the edges of his vision did not help. "I don't like not being able to say my farewells," he finally managed. "It's in such...poor taste."
If skeletons could smile, so could Cullen. And though wan and stained with grime, that scarred-lipped grin lit the room as though the sun itself had shouldered its way down to these depths. Unconsciousness threatened to fold over Dorian, to tuck him away from all this tumult and feeling, since he had nothing left with which to meet it, nothing left to give.
"Cullen, I can't...there aren't any words for my apology." He swallowed. "Not in this tongue or any other."
The arm holding him shifted under his weight; Cullen was in similarly poor shape and they both wobbled a little as he struggled to hold them upright. "I heard you, earlier."
Dorian's eyes widened. "You could hear me?"
Cullen grimaced. "From...some distance. But yes. I was trying to tell you...trying so hard, but I couldn't...move."
Cullen bit his lip, actually bit his lip, in apology. "I tried..."
"Stop." Dorian could not handle this unlooked-for apology, undeserved, in the face of what he'd done. And of what he'd failed to do sooner. Tears began to leak from his eyes, great fat ones that seeped into the wound on his cheek and stung.
Cullen saw. "You're hurt."
"So are you."
"Who did that?"
"This?" Dorian took a shaky breath. "Iron Bull, but I deserved it." Awareness came in like a tide. "Iron Bull! Where is he?"
The torches on the other side of the chamber had all been snuffed out--or destroyed along with the pillars that bore them, plunging that entire expanse into darkness. The shaking had subsided, though, and bits of rubble had rolled into the light spread by the remaining torches. Except for the two men speaking, silence reigned.
"I'm fine, thanks," came a distinct bass from the shadows. "Just catching my breath over here. In case you were wondering."
Gently, Cullen began to lower Dorian to the ground. “You’re barely conscious. Let me look.”
”I? I’m not the one who’s been--” Dorian’s voice died in his throat as the realization struck him: he’d funneled magic into Cullen, after all, and awareness of the man had flowered in the back of his mind, buried in the tumult of the act and the shock of Cullen’s return, the struggle to stay upright. To keep talking. But there, alight and alive, was Cullen in his mind, his exhaustion and his love, his every bruise and his--
--and his infection, rooted in him like a tree, lopped off but not dead. Still lurking, as detectable as a bruise under the skin, partially assuaged but still there, tallying its losses, licking its wounds.
Dorian opened his mouth, closed it. The hand that laid him down to earth was gentle--and it was indeed only one hand. Cullen kept his right arm, emblazoned, Dorian could now make out, with shapes that were more than scars, far behind him. Safely distant. Dorian met those kind, sad eyes and saw that this was no news to Cullen.
“Shh. Rest. I need to go check on Iron Bull.”
Dorian struggled to sit up but found he lacked the strength, and this helplessness fed his sudden fury. “Will you fucking answer me? It’s still there! How is it still there?”
“You tried, Dorian.” Cullen straightened awkwardly and began to make his way slowly across the room, his steps tenuous, as though he walked on ice.
“Don’t leave!” Dorian’s voice came out shrill and raced around the dome, high and keening. “Don’t leave,” he repeated, almost choking on the words. “I have to fix it.”
That Cullen could smile--could feel sympathy, ringing clear as bells in through the bond--made Dorian want to howl. “I don’t think you can.”
The mage shook his head fiercely. “Don’t say that! You’re no mage, what would you know about it? You don’t even...you can’t even…” His hands shook. Fuck my hands. “I came this far, didn’t I? You’re standing here talking to me! You’re you again. If I could do that...if we could do that…”
Cullen limped back and squatted down next to Dorian, saying nothing for a moment. His left hand traced the purpled lump on Dorian’s cheek, ever so lightly, and moved from there down to his jaw, grown rough with stubble over the past few days. He wasn’t smiling now, but rather staring intently, as though trying to memorize every detail, every curve of line and tuft of hair. His fingers on Dorian’s lips were like feathers: felt, and then too soft to feel anymore. Ephemeral.
“You need to shave,” Cullen said huskily, after a prolonged silence.
“What does that have to do with anything? Why are you changing the--”
“I can still hear the singing, Dorian.”
The mage frowned, struggling to understand. “What singing? Cullen--”
“The lyrium. It...sings to me.” So stupidly, damnably gentle.
“That’s preposterous! That’s just your addiction talking! Listen to me, I know about addiction, and you can’t write yourself off as a lost cause just because--”
Cullen’s fingers moved back over Dorian’s lips and pressed them silent. Dorian had to fight with himself not to bite them in frustration. “I’m grateful you brought me back. Please don’t think I’m not. I wanted to see you, to see if--” He paused, drew a breath. Stroked Dorian’s mustache with his thumb. “I’m sorry I believed the worst about you and Leliana.”
“Who cares about Leliana? Stop talking like--”
The fingers again.
“I wanted to be able to say goodbye. Before it takes me.”
Everything hurt, everything hurt, but Dorian flung himself up onto his hands, held himself upright and irate to meet Cullen eye-to-eye. “If you think, you great flaming imbecile, that I came all the way down here--that I...I...that I killed my--”
There it was. He’d been avoiding it this whole time, and he couldn’t tell if it was rage or sorrow that was waging war against his esophagus, trying to clamp it closed, shut him up, but he refused to let it. “Just to say goodbye," he continued, dragging his voice over the lump in his throat as over hot coals, “you are a bigger fool even than Leliana took you for.”
Cullen’s face, so close, creased in compassion and concern, tilted sideways. “How did she take me for a fool?”
“For thinking your sanity could be bought with kind words and pithy remarks and, and--what? What is it?”
Cullen was smiling. “But it was, Dorian. You bought it, body and soul.”
Too many emotions, too fast, too tired. Dorian blinked. “I don’t understand.”
“It was the best deal of my life. My last. And I thank you for it.” He leaned forward, then, the few inches separating their faces, and laid his lips against Dorian’s.
It was the last thing Dorian registered before exhaustion finally claimed him for its own, and blackness swallowed eyes and lips and hands.
He woke to the nauseating sensation of a pauldron pounding rhythmically into his gut, followed immediately by a spike of panic.
“Cullen. Where is--” he mumbled. His tongue was thick and wouldn’t work properly.
"Here," came a voice at his ear.
"You...can't be...carrying me..."
A grunt. "He isn't."
"You're heavier than you look. I just thought you should know."
Dorian knew he was supposed to laugh at this, but the lurch in his stomach and the throb in his head from facing downward for so long, combined with his exhaustion and worry, made this too difficult a task for him to manage just then.
Above them, the moon had long since set, abandoning the sky to stars too numerous to number. Dorian knew this because he was looking at their reflection in the still surface of Lake Calenhad, far below: they were crossing the newly-repaired causeway, albeit extremely slowly in deference to Cullen's speed, which was flagging. Dorian's chin bounced against Iron Bull's back as the qunari carried him like a sack of potatoes, slung over one shoulder.
"Alive." The grimace came through in Bull's voice as he adjusted Dorian's weight. "Ran into some of his men on the way up. They went on ahead to make sure the path was clear for us."
Fear flared anew. "Do they know about--"
"He's covered." For now, said Bull's tone. Dorian twisted his neck around--doing his best to ignore the resulting dizziness--to see Cullen, thin-lipped and paler than usual, carefully putting one foot in front of the other. A cloak wrapped tightly about him bore the castle on a rock that was Redcliffe's crest.
"Did anyone see?"
He felt Bull shake his head no, his horns knocking against him as he did so. "This one came off a dead guy. The scout said Cullen should keep it, but he--"
"--but I intend to be away by first light," Cullen finished for him, voice tight with strain.
Dorian could feel the fatigue in the other man through their bond; he could barely walk, let alone melt off into the night. "That's ludicrous!"
Iron Bull's body rumbled with a bitter laugh. "That's what I told him, too."
"What's ludicrous is exposing anyone else to this--to me."
Dorian tried to hold himself upright long enough to glare Cullen in the eye, but he lacked the strength, and was forced to hiss furiously from where he bounced with their stride over Iron Bull's shoulder. "And you really think they'll just let you sashay away into the dark? After men died trying to reach you?"
"More will die if they stay near me!"
Dorian grew deathly quiet. "I don't believe that."
"Don't you? You can feel it. Look, Dorian, really look. You would have me expose others to this?"
It was true. Dorian could feel the thing that was the red lyrium present in Cullen, reforming and restructuring, biding its time. Preparing. But it being true did little to deter Dorian's stubbornness.
"Bull, when you found..." He steeled his voice. "Was there anything left of him, when you found Halward?"
"I'm feeling great, thanks, even though you blasted the air two feet from my head with the light of the living sun." Another gift, another way out, away from suffering and into the familiar territory of glibness. A path Dorian chose not to follow, meeting it with silence it pained him to sustain. "No," Bull replied at last, solemn.
"All right." It couldn't have worked, you shouldn't have even hoped. "No...amulet?"
Bull paused, seeking the gentlest way to respond. "Nothing, Dorian."
"All right," Dorian said again. Through the pain and the weariness and, yes, the fear in Cullen, he could sense a sudden burst of sympathy, like a flower amongst rubble, and it made him want to howl.
"Stop, Cullen," he barked harshly. It's not for you to feel, it's not for you to be able to feel. Not after what he did. "I need you to walk me through everything you felt when I...when we did what we did."
"Would I be trying to have this conversation with you under the present circumstances if I weren't?"
"Dorian, you're wasting your time."
Something in the mage snapped. "Really? And was I wasting my time when I ran all the way up here? When I killed a horse trying to make it run faster? When I got all these people killed trying to dig you out?"
Bull's bass tones carried a hint of warning. "Dorian--"
"Oh shut up, Bull. Thank you for your assistance, but shut up." Dorian managed to deliver his tirade despite dangling upside down over the back of the qunari. "Cullen, it's charming and all that you want to spare us from yourself, but that's not going to happen. I, for one, will be able to find you."
"It will fade."
"Fastevas, man, will you just tell me what I want to know?"
A pause. A step. Another pause.
"Fine." Step. "But first you should see. Bull?"
Bull obligingly stopped, and Cullen came closer, a shadow on his face. He twitched aside the cloak where it snugged tight over his right arm, and Dorian drew a breath.
The crystals were gone, it was true, but Cullen's skin held the memory of them, burned with their geometric lacework all the way up his arm, to the top of his shoulder. Dorian squinted in the poor light and his stomach twisted: it wasn't just shadows burned there, but a dull glitter: the minuscule stumps of crystals born anew. Growing back.
"I told you."
"Doesn't matter," Dorian snarled with more ferocity than he felt. What he felt was despair, and he knew Cullen knew it. "I'll figure something out."
"You're hardly in a position to--"
"What? To argue with you? By my estimation, you're hardly in a position to go running off to who knows where, and yet you seem to be comfortable considering it. Promise me you'll stay."
Cullen's reply was immediate. "I will do no such thing."
"At least for a day or two? I can still track you and I guarantee that if you go haring off into the country in this state I'll go right after you. And in case you haven't noticed, I'm exactly not feeling fantastic myself. Might even get myself attacked by a bear or something, and there I'd be, unable to light a candle to save my life. So to speak."
The commander's glare was internal as much as external, and Dorian allowed himself a grim kind of satisfaction, amid all the fear, when the other man sighed in resignation.
"Fine. For a day or two."
"At least until Redcliffe?"
"For a day or two."
"Have it your way. I puzzled out in a minute a spell that should have taken me upwards of an hour." You have as much time as I have arrows. "I've got this."
Cullen could feel the lie in that as much as Dorian could, the mage knew. But neither of them said anything more. They merely resumed their march across the causeway, watching the stars' reflections on the lake below. Behind them stretched the reflection of the Circle Tower, a blot on the carpet of stars, as still as stone. And as unforgiving.
You will notice a precipitous decline in quality. I am out of time, and trying to get this done ASAP before external obligations reign supreme. My apologies in advance. (Also, personal quest and Asunder spoilers.)
“Tell me again.”
Cullen grimaced, running a hand--his left one--through his hair. “Dorian, we’ve been through this--”
The other man glared, his eyes catching the firelight and glinting with danger and desperation. “Yes, we have, and there’s something we’re not seeing. If you don’t look at it from every possible angle you’ll miss something, and we’re missing something.” He took a deep breath. “Tell me again. What you felt and when.”
“I don’t...like to…”
“Cullen, please.” A tremor entered his voice, now, that he rushed to bury in more words. “I know it was terrible, what they did to you. That it hurts to think of it. But please. I can’t help you if you don’t tell me.”
“All right.” Cullen sighed. Around them gloaming was just giving way to real darkness, the sinister spire of the Circle Tower swallowed by the curve of the earth to the north. An absence for which both men were grateful. “They tried twice and it didn’t work. I...was able to remove the lyrium. And then--”
“Did you hear it singing then?”
Dorian fought to keep the frustration from his voice. “The two you removed. Could you hear the singing yet?”
The commander’s face hardened. “Do you not believe me about that, or--”
“No, no, I believe you!” Dorian waved his hands and began to pace. “But if we were to treat the singing, or rather your hearing of it, as an indicator of how much of a hold it has on you...did you hear it then?”
“When did it start?”
Cullen stared into the campfire, the shadows it threw doing strange things to his face. Behind him was the miserable little pallet he'd claimed for himself, and himself alone--he had insisted that Dorian sleep elsewhere, many paces away, out of deference to the lyrium that lurked beneath the sleeve of his borrowed shirt; beneath his skin, like a fungus.
"It was in the cells," Cullen said at length. "I thought it was other prisoners, at first. Not far away. That's how real it sounds--like it could be someone just a few corridors away, their voices echoing down to you. Calling you. It's...beautiful."
Dorian willed his face not to reveal the churning in his stomach caused by this particular revelation. "Might you have any idea when it started? Any sense of...time?"
"No. There was no light, no..." Cullen shook his head. "I had no idea how long I was down there. Four days seems like far too little."
"Perhaps one of the guards said something, or--"
Cullen's eyes snapped up from the fire, quick and dangerous. "Do you think I troubled them for the time of day, Dorian? Locked away with no water save that I sucked from the rocks, no food that wasn't poisoned, no light for Maker's sake--"
Wincing, Dorian pushed on, telling himself not to feel the anguish through the bond, or to mirror it as he knew he was doing. "I know it's stupid, and I'm sorry, Cullen, truly I am. But I can't puzzle this out if I don't have--"
"It's not a puzzle, damn you!" Cullen whirled on him. "It's my life! And you cannot save it." He yanked the sleeve of his right arm up to the elbow. "No, don't look away! Look! You can't stop this!"
Dorian looked. The crystals glinted in the firelight, pushing up through the skin, crawling up the back of Cullen's hand and his forearm like scales.
Maker, let my voice not shake. "You said the food was...poisoned?" Dorian said carefully, exceedingly carefully, looking up from Cullen's arm to his eyes and refusing to quaver or to look away.
Cullen had apparently been expecting a different response, for he sighed. In that one exhalation all the capacity for fury or argument seemed to drain out of him. "Yes, the food was poisoned. They put red lyrium in it, I don't know how. I could hear it calling to me so I wouldn't eat it." He ran his good hand through his hair, letting it slide down to cover his face. "I'm so tired, Dorian," he said into his hand. "And I'm sorry, I know you are too. But I'm...frightened."
Dorian moved toward him but Cullen leapt away. "No, remember? I will infect you. I've stayed too long as it is."
"I don't see how you can say that. I've been grilling you this entire time and I don't hear any singing." He took a step forward. "Can I not even touch you, at least?"
Cullen's voice was hard, but the part of him that lay curled in the back of Dorian's mind was crying so hard Dorian could feel it even through their weakened connection. "No."
"Dorian, stop." Cullen drew himself up to his full height and stared down his nose, every inch the commander accustomed to getting his way. "I should not have stayed this long. I've endangered all of you." His mouth became a hard, thin line. "I'll leave at dawn. Before you all continue on toward Redcliffe."
Dorian felt as thought a glacier had taken up residence in his chest. "Why are you telling me this?"
"Because you cannot come with me."
Dorian felt the pain this caused other man to say it, and didn't pause an eyeblink before blurting a response. "You won't be able to stop me."
"Dorian...what do you think I'm going off to do?" Cullen looked away, then, back north, across the scrub-brush ridges to the darkened sky which had been gracious enough to swallow the Tower. If not the memory of what happened there. "If I am a danger to people now, imagine the mess I'll be in when I'm just some...hulking lyrium-encrusted monster, wandering the countryside--"
"Maker's breath, Cullen, you can't be--"
"Yes I am serious." Cullen's voice cracked like a whip. "And yes I can do this. It would be inexcusable for me to simply hand the enemy an advantage like that--you might as well have left me in the hands of the Venatori, slowing turning to crystal and in the meantime dribbling out all our plans, all our defenses--"
"Will you stop playing at Andraste!" Dorian snapped, flinging up his hands. "I could figure this out if you would only give me the time. You said you didn't eat the food, so that means it's a purely topical application, which are historically weaker than--"
"Enough." Cullen tugged his shirt back down over his forearm, turning away from Dorian and the fire, the camp and the tethered horses, everything. "I don't just do this out of concern for the Inquisition, you know," he muttered, barely audible. "If I stayed, when it took me again...think what it could make me do. To you."
"I'm perfectly capable of looking after my own neck, thank you."
When Cullen looked back over his shoulder, his eyes glistened. "You would have me risk that? Whatever shred of me was left would know what I did. Would sit there watching what my body, what I, was doing. Better to die now than to live through that. Than to be that." He looked away.
Dorian waited for the plan. For any plan, any far-flung fancy, any highfalutin scheme to come to mind. But none came. None came, and he couldn't even go to comfort the man in front of him.
Just to check, he took a step forward, then another before Cullen heard and his shoulders tensed beneath his shirt.
"Don't come any closer."
The finality in his tone did more to stop Dorian than the words themselves. He froze in place, and waited long, agonizing moments for Cullen to turn. From him even to speak. But he just stared off into the night, hunching a little, as distant as he'd ever been, though they only stood ten feet apart.
Half a mile away, on the eastern shore of Lake Calenhad, a small craft with sails black as as new moons nudged up onto the sand. From it leapt a dark-clad figure, splashing hart-like through the shallows to dry land, where it took care to shake each foot carefully and to wipe each boot off with a corner of cloak before straightening.
When it did, it laughed.
"Come out of the shadows, Cassandra. Anyone will notice you lurking there."
Cassandra stepped out onto the strand, arms crossed. "I still do not understand how your are able to do that. The entire shoreline to choose from and you land right at my position."
"I heard tell of your whereabouts. You're hardly the most inconspicuous traveler on the road, Seeker."
Cassandra winced slightly at the title, and even in the dim light from the sliver of moon remaining, Leliana saw it.
"What news from Caer Oswin?"
"Nothing that can...help us. Not here."
That avenue of pursuit was open--something had clearly happened at Caer Oswin--but Leliana let it lie. "Have you seen him yet?"
Cassandra shook her head. "They are encamped off-shore, to the north. Iron Bull met me and showed me the way. I thought I would wait until you arrived, in case..." She set her jaw. "In case my judgment is flawed."
"I doubt that very much, Cassandra."
"Still, it is best to be prepared."
"Shall we go then?"
Cassandra nodded. "Their sentries are not far away. Try to look..."
"Less dangerous?" the spymaster offered helpfully.
"If you can. Lest they fill us full of arrows before we make it into camp."
"I know Arl Teagan. We should have no trouble."
Minutes later, they were before the arl and, broad sweeping introductions done before the pair of rather bemused sentries who had escorted them haughtily through the camp--what sort of women appeared in the dead of night, from an abandoned shoreline, with not a man between them?--the arl led them a little ways away from the fire, where shadows and silence could ensure a degree of secrecy that safety could not.
"How is he?" Cassandra asked, a little more pained in her query than Leliana could have wished.
"I do not know for sure," the arl replied, rubbing a hand over the stubble on his jaw. "The mage is with him constantly, and when I ask he says he is making progress, but Commander Cullen keeps himself distant, I think from fear of--"
"Infection, yes, correct," came a voice from the darkness.
Both Cassandra and Arl Teagan's hands leapt for their sword hilts, but Leliana only smiled.
"Come out, Dorian, you're scaring everyone."
"I find that exceedingly unlikely," Dorian murmured, stepping into view in dark robes criss-crossed with buckles and no little the worse for wear from travel. He was clean-shaven, though--freshly so--and while dark rings marred the skin under his eyes, the eyes themselves were bright and deadly sharp. He is trying, Leliana thought, marveling at the feeling almost of sadness this managed to prompt in her, even now.
"I might trouble myself to wonder why you are here, but I suspect it has entirely to do with our dear commander, yes?" Dorian continued, looking from Leliana to Cassandra in turn. "And that you, arl, brought them here?"
Arl Teagan had the grace to look abashed, and Leliana noted this, too. "I did what I could, Master Pavus."
"I see." Dorian's tone wavered between gratitude and something less so, and Leliana thought it time to lay more cards on the table.
"Arl Teagan, if we could have a moment...?"
The arl bowed his head. "Of course. I will be in my tent if you need me." He clanked as he withdrew--up waiting for their arrival, he hadn't yet taken off his armor.
"You can't kill him," Dorian said immediately once the arl had left. He faced Cassandra and his whole body bespoke tension held barely in check. "Your agreement was that you would do so only if you judged him unfit for command, without his senses, yes? Well, he still has them."
"We--we didn't come here to kill him, Dorian," Cassandra blustered.
"I may lack the subtlety of a spymaster," Dorian nodded archly in Leliana's direction, "but I'm not beginner when it comes to lying, Seeker. We both know--"
"Don't call me that," Cassandra blurted.
Dorian blinked. "Whyever not?"
Cassandra grimaced and looked away, toward the fires and light of the camp, the comfort of things known and believed in. Here it is, thought Leliana.
"I suppose there is no reason you should not know," Cassandra said slowly. "Secrets, after all, are part of what led to the mess at Caer Oswin. I am done with secrets." She held Leliana's gaze as she said this, and the spymaster did not blink. "We have done terrible things, my order. We became everything we were initially formed to fight against." Her voiced hardened. "We failed, and people died because of it."
Dorian snorted. “That’s all fine and good, but what does that have to do with--”
“This isn’t for you,” Cassandra snapped, her eyes never leaving Leliana. “Your hearing it is incidental. I wanted you to know, Leliana. Whatever that says about me, I wanted you to know that I know something of what Cullen must feel, seeing everything he’d devoted himself to...changed. The Seekers...you know of their origins?”
“It is lies. Lies built upon a foundation of truth long since crumbled. We came into existence to help the world, yes--for good reasons. But in the wrong way.”
“You found Lucius, then?” Leliana kept her voice neutral, as colorless as water.
“I did. He had been...poisoning the Order. Killing them, one by one, with red lyrium. We don’t even take lyrium--there was no reason for us to do so! And it was discovered that we were resistant to it. So Lucius lured my comrades...my friends...there, one by one, and let a band of mad cultists force it into them.” Even in the shadows, the fury could be seen stretched tight in Cassandra’s face. “They died.”
Dorian jumped into the resulting silence, all previous frustration fused into a furnace of intensity. “How did they poison them? With the lyrium?”
Cassandra’s glare should have melted Dorian on the spot. “I told you! The cultists fed it to them. Implanted them with demons, then. My protege...a young man I trained...he was there, dying. Slowly and painfully. He told us what happened. I slew him at his own request.”
“Ingestion, then, and not topical application.” Dorian’s eyes turned inward, away from the the two women and doubtless oblivious to the appearance of callousness with which he was piquing Cassandra’s ire. “But if it had to be ingestion to get past the...whatever it is that makes you Seekers…” He looked up. “What does make you Seekers?”
Leliana watched. Cassandra’s anger crashed into sorrow again. She is volatile, after whatever she saw in Caer Oswin.
“It is a...practice...handed down since the first Seekers of Truth,” Cassandra said haltingly. Clearly wishing not to continue.
“Yes, and I distinctly recall you saying not a moment ago that you were done with secrets. Did we not, Leliana?”
Leliana arched an eyebrow but said nothing.
Cassandra sighed. “I did.” Her eyes roved over the camp again, seeking a way out. “But surely this is not the time. Is Cullen awake…?”
“No, and this is very much the time.” Dorian caught the annoyed jerk of Cassandra’s head and modulated his tone. Slightly. “Cassandra, I am sorry for your loss. I don’t presume to know what that feels like, but I imagine it’s not the sort of thing one wants to exchange stories over by the fireside. But it’s...very important, for Cullen’s sake, that I know how one becomes a Seeker. If they are in fact resistant to red lyrium, his life...his life may depend on it.”
Cassandra stared at that. “Red lyrium?”
“My message was hurried,” Leliana said quietly. “I neglected to mention that part.”
“You neglected to mention that Cullen was exposed to--” Cassandra began in a near-yell, then bit off her volume into a hiss. “--to red lyrium?”
“I was uncertain how far my contacts would have to go to find you,” Leliana replied, all rivers and streams, cool and colorless. “I did not want that particular piece of information falling into the wrong hands.”
“Arl Teagan certainly didn’t seem to think--”
“Arl Teagan took a risk because he is a romantic. Do not think I would do the same.”
Cassandra’s mouth flapped soundlessly, but Dorian walked right into the silence, all bristling edges and scathing tongue.
“Really charming, Leliana. Points for compassion all around. Now Cassandra, if you could share…?”
The Seeker looked from Dorian to Leliana uncertainly. Almost apologetic. “It is not pretty,” she said. “I would prefer it if you did not...share this. Just until I track down the remaining Seekers. I want to be the one to tell them. To show them the book.”
Cassandra nodded. “Lucius had it. It contains not just the history of the Seekers but the...policies...we created.” She faced Dorian now, and the tension in the way she held herself said she was prepared for a fight. “Tranquility, for one. We invented it.”
A range of emotions passed across Dorian’s face, like clouds. The dim light this far from the fires made it difficult to distinguish them all, but he settled eventually on a pale imitation of the unflappable neutrality Leliana wore like a mask.
"All right, Tranquility. What else?"
Cassandra had paused, expecting an outburst, perhaps, or at least a nasty comment. When she continued, she was cautious. "Tranquility--that's how we...become Seekers, as you put it. When I took my vows I spent months in silent vigil, emptying myself of all thoughts and all emotions. What I thought was the result of fasting and prayer was in fact Tranquility. They made me Tranquil and I didn't even know it."
Dorian's mask, so briefly donned, crumbled at this news. "Tranquil? How could they have made you Tranquil? You're not even a mage!"
"No. I'm not. But that is how they imbue us with our abilities. They make us Tranquil and then--"
"A spirit touches you?"
Cassandra turned to stare at Leliana. "You knew this?"
"Not knew, no. But I guessed."
"Right before the war broke out, there were...rumors. An old friend investigated." There was nothing disinterested about her focus now, and she fixed Cassandra with the full force of her gaze. "What was it, then? A spirit of justice? Of mercy?"
"Of faith," Cassandra said hollowly.
"Ah." Leliana paused. "You're sure?"
"That's what the book says. It is summoned, and just a touch across the Veil brings you back. And gives us our abilities."
Leliana caught a flutter of fear in Dorian's face just before he turned, and all three of them sensed the approach of someone new. The shadows parted like trees, and Commander Cullen stood before them, fixing each of them in turn with a baleful gaze.
"You are not going to make me a Seeker of Truth."
Again, Leliana held silent, listening instead as Cassandra burst out with "Of course we can't!" at the same time as Dorian cried, "You won't even try?"
Cullen looked, Leliana thought, awful. Paler even than usual, with drawn cheeks and a dark circles under his eyes, and a odd hunch to his stance, as though he had to protect his right side. So they took his sword arm first. Clever. He stood solidly enough at the edge of their little gathering, it was true, but she had the impression that it was through effort of will alone that he did not wobble on his feet. Every line in his face bespoke exhaustion and--more disturbing, in him--fear.
"Will you not even try?" Dorian repeated, softer now and delicate, desperate enough to make even Leliana feel a tinge of guilt for being present to such a personal and private plea.
A feeling which deepened in the face of the look that passed between the two men, whose fragile hope and equally fragile apology made Cassandra look away.
Leliana, however, did not.
"This was your grand plan?" Cullen scoffed. "Turn me into a Seeker? Melt the lyrium off me, like water off a duck?"
Dorian shook his head once, sharply. "No, I didn't know anything about this until they appeared. But Cullen, isn't it worth a chance?"
"Well, Cassandra?" Cullen challenged. "Is it? You who came here having just killed, I take it, the leader of your order. You would have me join it, or die?"
"That isn't why I came, Cullen," Cassandra said, voice hoarse.
Leliana heard it. Everyone around me is close to breaking. I am an island.
"It is true, Commander," she said, interrupting what was no doubt ramping up into a tirade in the man's mind. He's trying to turn his fear into anger, into something he can work with. "We did not come here to change you into a Seeker. Certainly not against your will."
"Even if he wanted to, it wouldn't work," Cassandra sighed. "You need preparation, a group of Seekers, the ritual. All the book gives us is a plan--we would need time to put it into action."
"Time is something I do not have." Cullen turned to Dorian, and that sense that the two women were intruding again descended upon them. "Besides--did you not hear her? I would have to be made Tranquil first. Tranquil, Dorian."
"But if they could fix it, surely--"
"You would trust demons to do as you asked?" Cullen thundered, attracting the attention of no few soldiers around the campfires. "You would trust me to them?"
Dorian stood straighter, bits of armor shining about him like gems, flashing quicksilver as he moved. "I would never leave you, I would watch you constantly--"
"No." Cullen struggled for a moment, slamming his eyes shut and seeming almost to talk to something within himself. His lips writhed, clamped against the movement but not entirely pinned, and by the expression on Dorian's face Leliana surmised that whatever it was happening to Cullen, it was both a new development and a decidedly bad one. "You came here to kill me, didn't you? So do it."
The commander sank to his knees suddenly, staring up at the three of them, the fires making deep hollows of his eyes. His eyes, where tears sparked at their centers.
"Ask Dorian. He can feel it. Not so much now, but he can, through me."
Dorian shook his head. "Whatever you hear, it doesn't justify your death." He knelt, too, to look Cullen in the eye--the two observers completely forgotten. "Please do not ask this of me."
"I'm not asking it of you. I'm asking it of them. It's why they came here, Dorian."
"No it isn't. They didn't know."
Cassandra opened her mouth, but Leliana put a restraining hand on her arm.
"If they do not kill me, I will be forced to do it myself."
Dorian sounded like a man tearing apart at the seams when he replied. "I know." He swallowed. "But you said...you said you would at least stay the night."
Cullen hung his head. "You cannot touch me."
"I can watch over you."
Starlight and sadness and the weight of things unsaid. When he did speak, it barely scratched the surface of what lay between them. "And protect me from what?"
Leliana did turn away, then. Not toward the camp, but toward the darkness: toward the east, where a decade ago so much had been won, and then, on another level, so much else had been lost.
I am an island, upon which all others break.
She turned to Cassandra, whispering.
"Walk with me."
It was as though she had expected him. Her tent had been easy enough to find--just ask after the soldiers who'd been obliged to camp elsewhere, ceding the private space to her--and a candle was lit within, its quavering glow one of the few remaining lights in camp this late at night. Dorian dared not step too quietly, lest she or the sentries or both assume he was an infiltrator in need of a dagger in the throat. He kept his fingers poised to flick a shield into existence, just in case, but other than a curt nod from a sentry as he passed well within view, no one seemed to acknowledge his passing.
No one, that is, until he arrived at the closed flap of Leliana's tent, and twitched it aside to reveal the spymaster still fully clothed, seated in a camp chair with her legs drawn up neatly under her, cutting an apple into slices and eating them one by one.
"Sit," she said.
Dorian hesitated in the doorway, and she turned to look at him. "I'm not going to bite, Dorian."
The mage frowned. "The last time we had one of these conversations, some rather problematic misconceptions ensued."
"This won't take half as long," Leliana replied, reaching into the satchel at her waist and removing a tidy velvet bundle, little larger than the width of a palm. Setting aside the apple and the dagger, she unwound the strip of cloth, around around around, until it produced a small glass vial whose contents glowed blue as she set it carefully down on the tabletop.
Dorian's eyes widened. "Lyrium."
Leliana nodded. "I am setting this here. In a few moments, I am going to go relieve Iron Bull from his hawkish vigil over your companion."
"I had wondered where he'd gotten to, but I hadn't the time to--"
Leliana waved her hand dismissively. "It doesn't matter. He has been watching Cullen for days, as I requested of him when he sent the message about the red lyrium.
Dorian stared. "Bull told you?"
"Of course. You didn't tell Arl Teagan what happened at the Tower, did you?"
"Well, no." Dorian recalled the arl's words, muttered so low as to be almost inaudible: You love him. "I suppose I just thought he came to conclusions, and sought your help accordingly."
"Oh, he did--but his assumptions were tamer than the reality." She stood up, brushing wrinkles out of her robes. "He knew Cullen had once been a templar--everyone does, with his reputation as the man who put Kirkwall back together--so he correctly assumed that lyrium addiction, likely enhanced by whatever the Venatori did to him, was having an effect on our commander." Her eyes narrowed. "He just didn't know which kind of lyrium."
"But why did you tell Cassandra it was the arl?"
Dorian was no stranger to sudden turns of emotion, or to stumbling onto it where it was least expected. But to see the self-possessed spymaster suddenly smile--a genuine one, to all appearances, and a smile of genuine sadness, moreover--rattled him more than he would have cared to admit. "It is a habit best left undeveloped, secrecy, if you can avoid it." Her words fell to earth like leaves, drifting ever downward, no matter how soaring their flight. "It will cost you more than you know." She blinked, the studied poise returning to the lines of brow and mouth, and it was as though the hairline fracture of the previous moment had never happened. "Now if you will excuse me."
She moved to brush past him, and Dorian looked from her to the table. "You're just going to leave it there?"
"I am." Leliana paused, looking like she might say something, and Dorian waited. But she gave herself a little shake and continued right on. "If something happens to it while I am gone, it is out of my purview."
Dorian's great dark eyebrows beetled together in suspicion. "You would wash your hands of this, then? Prefer not to dirty them?"
When Leliana turned to face him, her face was something to behold--grim and terrible as the night. "My hands are dirtier than it is possible to clean, mage. I would not stain them further with the blood of my friends, if I can avoid it."
"If you can avoid it?"
"Make no mistake," the spymaster said, her eyes sharp as knives. "If you falter--if either of you gives off the merest whiff of possession--you will be cut down as surely as if you were at your Harrowing." Her hand touched lightly on the one visible dagger at her waist--not the dozen or so others surely hidden about her person, but rather the ornamental one that was there to show soldiers and laymen alike that she meant business. "That goes for Cullen, too."
"This is madness."
"You are correct. You would prefer the alternative?"
Memory: a shard of glass in the skin. If they do not kill me, Dorian, I will be forced to do it myself. He shook his head. "No."
"Well, then." Her smile should have tinkled, like icicles in the wind. "You saw me in the future, no? A dark one, that should not come to pass?"
"See that it does not."
With that she turned, and melted into the night as easily as shadow itself.
Which left Dorian alone in the tent, in the uncertain light of a stub of candle, before the blue vial. Its glow was soft, its light as steady as the candle's was wavering, and it sang quietly to him as his hand closed around the glass.
The two of them watched the mage's stealthy form slink up to the sleeping shape of Cullen--as close as he dared--and watched the blue glow, tiny, emerge from his robes, and then disappear swift as a sparrow between lips made invisible by darkness. Watched that form sink slowly down, down to the ground, huddle itself against the cold and then, finally, become still.
Neither said anything for a few moments, and if Leliana were honest with herself she would have preferred it that way. But Cassandra ventured into the silence with her usual inability to leave the obvious unsaid.
"If this fails, they will both die. Probably by our hands."
Leliana nodded. "I know."
"Bull is has informed Arl Teagan the soldiers must leave?"
"They are already preparing, yes. He is being told Cullen has an illness which must be prevented from spreading at all costs."
"And will he believe it?"
"Arl Teagan is no fool. Whether or not he believes, he recognizes when someone is doing him a favor."
A wind rooted amongst the bracken, stirring up dead leaves and memories.
"Why would you risk it? Why did you leave Dorian the lyrium? If the Inquisitor found out--if anyone found out--"
"And will you tell them, Cassandra?" Even whispering, Leliana's voice could carry the weight of cities in its rise and fall. "Will you tell them the hard-hearted Left Hand of the Divine melted just long enough to risk us all, one last time? Will you exalt in my softness as would our enemies, exploiting my weakness?"
"I...no. No, that is not what I meant at all."
Silence. Stillness. And then, a hand patted Cassandra's shoulder awkwardly. "I...am sorry. I know that was not your intent."
"May I ask again why you are doing this, then?"
A long pause. And then words, strung out like dew on a spider's web, connected by the thinnest of gossamer strands. "Did you not see them, Cassandra? On their knees, their hearts in their throats, as blind to as as if we were trees, or stones. Do you not remember what that is like? A love like that?"
"I..." Beneath the fine leather of Leliana's glove, the Seeker stiffened. "I am afraid I do not."
"Then let us pray he succeeds, so that we may both live long enough to learn."
Rules. He had to remember the rules.
What were they, though?
The sky was no longer the sky. It hung below him, for one, undulating queasily around in imperfect spirals. His feet rested on stone steps scuffed by many feet, but they were above his head, and if he questioned how that could be...
He felt the pull of the nauseating sky from its very un-sky-like position, and snapped his eyes shut. My feet are on the ground and the sky is above me.
When he opened his eyes again, thank the Maker, it was true. The yellow-brown stones were beneath his boots, the sickly sky above. Around him loomed blocky, indistinct buildings, much taller than any of those he'd seen in Orlais or Ferelden, sharply defined in color and texture at the base and then fading as they went up into murky obscurity--like the sketched outlines of a painting gone unfinished. Where was he?
"Now now, Dorian, you've done this before," he murmured, eyes darting around what appeared to be the city square in which he stood. The sky, he saw now, wasn't empty: more buildings pointed down out of it, sharp and menacing and pockmarked with luridly lit windows with edges too many or too few. "Lovely."
"There's one!" barked a voice, and Dorian spun around to face down a street that seemed to shift uncomfortably even as he looked at it. At the end of an alleyway that was sometimes on the left of the street, sometimes on the right, he saw the gleam of armor and shields. He had time enough to note this much before they started charging toward him, bellowing.
"Death to the rebels!"
In an eyeblink Dorian held a staff--because he believed he held a staff--and brandished it in front of him, the polished orb at one end beginning to glow a blazing purple, gathering lighting about it like a mantle, preparing to blast a lightning bolt. He could feel the power flowing around him like a fog, permeating every stone and every breath, just waiting to be pulled upon. This was the Fade, after all--this is where the stuff comes from. Those who stood before him had no chance. He almost felt like laughing in the face of the advancing templars.
Until they came close enough for him to be able to see the one who led them. Wan and dirt-besmeared, afire with battle fury, but recognizable all the same beneath that ridiculous helmet.
Dorian swore; the bolt had already begun to hurtle down the staff. He flung it wide, intending to arc it out safely to the left, away from the advancing templars. But he felt it go wrong even as the orb begin to pour forth light--he could almost feel the power that burbled and churned around him, laughing at him. This was the Fade. Of course magic was not at his command--he was at its mercy.
And there was no mercy to be had, just now.
The bolt leapt at a crazy angle away from him, then, not to the left but toward the templars, and Dorian roared warning. The templars saw the bolt coming and scattered, and the building immediately to the side of them exploded in a shower of stone. Dorian leapt forward, flinging the staff aside in fury, toward the cloud of dust that overhung the rubble. Dust choked him as he almost tripped over a groaning templar, and he knelt immediately, coughing.
"Cullen, are you all right?"
"Back, damned apostate!" the templar beneath him howled, throwing up a hand. Dorian didn't see it coming in all the dust; didn't dodge, and caught the gauntlet full on the chin. Stars cartwheeled through his vision as he tipped backward, head over heels.
"Knight-Captain, I think I got him!" Dorian heard the exultant cry as if from miles away.
"Good work, Alwin. Now if you could give me a hand here, I think Geneve needs a healer."
That voice. Dorian struggled toward it, against the stars filling his vision, fearing what would happen if he drowned in them. Have to...help him...
Clutching his jaw with both hands, Dorian rolled over onto his knees, fighting the nausea this invited, and squinted through the dust. He could make out two forms, one standing and one upright, plus a vaguely shining lump across the street that might be the third templar. Help...him.
"Cullen?" Dorian groaned. "We need to find you a--"
"Demon!" roared the owner of the fist that had clocked him. "How else does he know your name, Knight-Captain? Don't listen to him, whatever he says, he'll try to convince you of anything--"
"That's ridiculous!" Dorian snapped, instantly regretting moving his face, which felt as though an entire army of templars had marched over it. In full armor. "Cullen knows me, and I'm sure he'll thank his steadfast subordinate not to unhinge my jaw." He struggled to his feet, one hand still cupping his chin gingerly.
"Knight-Captain, he's still--"
"I'll take him." Cullen appeared then, curtains of dust seeming to part for his passing, flashes of bright breastplate glimpsed beneath the grime. His eyes were fixed, steady, unrelenting. "You will pay for what you and yours did today, mage," he intoned, raising his hand.
"What in the--" Dorian began, then yelped as a force leapt from Cullen's outstretched hand, straight at him. He could feel the magic of the Fade boil at its approach, and frantically threw himself to the side. "What is wrong with you?" Dorian growled, fighting to keep his balance.
"I don't know how you know my name, mage," Cullen hissed, advancing again, "but I know it will be the last on your lips."
"What--no! Hey!" Dorian dodged again, tripping over a chunk of rubble and stumbling a few feet. "Listen, Cullen, you know me, we're in the Fade, and--"
"Lies! Lies from a lying abomination!" Cullen thundered, charging, and Dorian did the only thing he could think to do, under the circumstances.
If he thought he was nauseous before, he knew it now. With his speed, the buildings around him pitched and yawed as if he were at sea, each step different in the amount of distance forward it actually moved him. At least, he thought they were different--since the buildings waxed and waned from view, he couldn't be sure. He darted right, then left, then right again, the pain thudding in his jaw in time with his footsteps. He could kill me, he thought, and it will be real. In his rush to tend to Cullen, he'd forgotten that detail. How to make him remember? Here they were, in the Fade, in this festering city of shifting distances, buildings crowding in on the sides and from above, and Cullen--whatever there was of him that was here--wanted to kill him. Would kill him, if he found the mage again in this place.
Which was where, exactly? Dorian ducked into an alleyway and leaned against a building, breathing hard, and looked up--and there, as he expected, hung dark and foreboding in the sky like some infernal star, sat the Black City, as grim and distant as all the stories held it to be. As he himself remembered seeing it, on his own forays into the Fade years ago.
Forays which had looked nothing like this. If the Black City was up there, then that wasn't where he was. Trying to force his breaths back below audibility, he looked up and down the alley: just blank brown stone, barrenly uninformative, with dark uneven cobbles beneath his boots. He listened, straining to hear the templars, hoping he wouldn't, and experiencing a pang at the realization. But I wantto find him! Not yet, though. Not until he figured out how to remind him, how to make sure he was known as a friend, not a foe, in the damnable Fade.
Something tugged at Dorian's memory, a fragment of a text from back during his studies, but he couldn't quite place it. Carefully he crept down the alley, opposite the end he came in, ears straining for any sound save the strange grumbling echoes that bounced around the place, almost the like sound of crowds, if warped. The end of the alley approached and then retreated, approached and retreated, and then suddenly with a footfall he was there, and the city fell away before him in jumbled layers, down to a harbor of shifting black and green: fragments of light playing upon water, reimagined darkly.
Over all of which loomed a massive statue, buildings-upon-buildings high, of a man clutching his head in his hands in despair.
"You had to dream about Kirkwall, didn't you, Cullen."
Dorian wracked his brain for what he'd heard about this, the spark that lit the mage rebellion and the sundering of the Circles. Chantry at the top, Circle at the bottom, he knew that much--he'd been here once, years ago, but his memories were dominated chiefly by dirt and the smell of unwashed bodies, rather than any premonition about the explosive events that would shape the world and set tongues wagging years hence. But then, how much of what he'd heard had born resemblance to what happened here--what is now happening here, he reminded himself grimly--and how much had been the disjointed concoctions of distance and the disdain with which most news from the Southerners was received by their betters in Tevinter?
Mages murdered left and right, well, that certainly checks out, he thought dourly, observing the crackle of lighting and fire at several points throughout the city. There had of course been rumors of abominations, too, but he and most of the altus mages had dismissed these as the products of overactive Southern imaginations, spawning rumors sent north out of--
A thought struck Dorian then, as he watched the streets jostle and twitch around the points of light that marked firefights in the city. What did the truth of what had happened matter, here? Was it not more a reflection of what people thought had happened--what Cullen thought, most of all, if Cullen's dreaming had drawn him here--that would have been preserved? The Fade was, after all, a place shaped by emotion and memory--which Dorian knew all too well was subjective. Meaning, then, that if the emotional resonance, people's fears, took precedence over whatever might actually have happened...
Dorian heard the crunch of tiny pebbles on the flagstones behind him and knew, knew he'd arrived at this particular realization a touch too late.
The staff was in his hands as he spun, sending out sheets of lighting that went every which way. The creature behind him was a thing of nightmares, too many legs connecting at odd angles to a center of shifting planes: was it faceted, as a gem would be, or were there any solid surfaces to it at all? Dorian did had neither the time nor the inclination to investigate, and hurled himself sideways as an inky black tendril shot out from the creature toward his head. The earth--what passed for earth here--trembled beneath his feet, quivering as the buildings that formed the alley buckled and heaved, collapsing outward in response to the gouts of lightning he'd flung into them.
Everywhere but where I wanted it to go, he thought furiously, stumbling as he backed out of the alley into the steep thoroughfare leading down to the water-that-was-not-water at the base of the city.
"There he is!"
Fantastic. Just fantastic.
Down a side road poured more templars, Cullen among them with more than several reinforcements. Dorian felt more than saw the anti-magic shields fly up amongst them, and he flung his hand back toward the shaking alley, where blackness sought to pour through the bricks.
"Demon!" he bellowed. "There's a demon down there, you've got to--"
"He's summoned a demon!" shrieked the foremost templar, running ahead as the thing extricated itself from the tumble of bricks with a howl that set the hair on the back of Dorian's neck on end. The templar, a terribly young man by the looks of him, stood transfixed in horror, sword shaking visibly before him as the creature drew itself to its full height, at least two good-sized men high.
Gritting his teeth, Dorian stabbed with his staff, fixing his mind on the broken building behind the creature and far to the left, visualizing his bolt hitting home there, seeing the rain of bricks and dust, and believing with all his heart that it could, that it would hit, right there.
The lightning did no such thing, swinging wide of Dorian's mark, his deliberately longed-for mark, and sweeping across the top of the shadow creature with an explosion of noxious green liquid. The thing roared its protest, reeling back into the alley and scrabbling frantically at its injury with its too-many limbs.
The templar who'd been spared crashed to his knees, sword forgotten on the cobbles beside him as he began to shake with sobs. Dorian spared only a glance for him, though, as the rest of templars approached, weapons drawn, shields crackling faintly amongst them. And at their center, Cullen, glaring at Dorian with distrust and disbelief.
"I didn't summon that demon," Dorian said carefully, wound up tense as a rabbit, ready to run. Trying so hard to read and be read, to make his intentions, his self, known. "Surely you can see that. I saved your man."
"Lies, Knight-Captain. Lies. Don't listen to him!" hissed a templar at Cullen's elbow.
A curt motion of Cullen's shield-arm silenced the man. "What do you expect to gain from that, mage? Pity? You could just as easily have called off the creature of your own accord, in order to better place us for another attack."
Dorian snorted despite himself. "You think I could command such power? Look around you, man! This is the Fade. We are both as powerless as babes, here, or near enough." He stared hard at the other man, calling on an earnestness he didn't often find himself in a position to reveal. "Listen to me. This is all the past for you. It happened long ago. You're with the Inquisition, now, and we're in Ferelden, and you--" he swallowed, wondering how much to tell, how much was credible to this Cullen-of-the-past. "You're in some difficulty, and I'm trying to help you. I came to the Fade to help you, and you pulled me here with the force of your dream."
Cullen's gaze hardened. "I would have expected better lies from so accomplished a caster," he growled, raising his sword again.
Dorian took one step back, then another, knowing he'd have to retreat but refusing to flee without trying once more. "Why? What about what I'm saying is so false?"
"How could I have pulled you to my dreams? I don't even know you." With that, Cullen surged forward, and Dorian darted back, again, and began to run.
Down, down his feet took him, the shadows of city with its lurid green lights seeming to gather in clusters at his passing, sometimes emitting high shrieks or groans that made it seem unlikely that they were mere shadows. The shouts of the templars behind him began to shift and change direction, coming sometimes from behind and sometimes before him, sometimes so far away as to barely be heard and sometimes so close that Dorian expected a sword between his ribs at any moment. He tried not to see the shifting skylines of the side streets, or the way the length of each step did not match the next.
His breath was starting to creak painfully in his chest, and he paused in a closed doorway, hunching over in its curve with his hands on his knees. The sounds of the city had grown louder the lower he sank through its tiered streets, and the corners of his vision had begun to flicker with forms unseen: when he turned to catch sight of who followed him, they were gone. The place seemed aware of his passing, alive to his every movement, and while he dearly wanted to dismiss the impression as another of the tricks the Fade played on the mind, he was not sure that was the case.
How am I going to convince you, Cullen? he thought bleakly. Then, bleaker still, And even if I could, what could I possibly do for you here? Even if Cullen came to remember who Dorian was and all that had happened since this day in Kirkwall, what then? Cassandra had said one became a Seeker through being touched by a spirit. But where exactly was he planning on finding something that didn't want to eat him, in this monstrosity of a city?
As if to underscore this point, a hiss sounded just on the other side of the door where he stood, so close to his ear that he jumped. Skidding, he backed out into the street, staff raised, and so was in an ideal position from which to observe the handle turn, the door crack open, and the most beautiful man he'd ever seen step out of the shadows' embrace.
"Poor baby." The ringing, many-layered quality to the man's voice announced him immediately as what he was--as though the perfection of every plane and curve of check and brow didn't--but Dorian still felt the pull of that tone, the power it commanded to make one want to curl up in its embrace and be petted, stroked, and then have terribly delicious things done to oneself under the curling, purling currents of that voice.
"Lovely chatting with you, but I'm afraid I must be going," Dorian said, backing up down the street, not sure if he'd been down that way yet and not, presently, caring.
In a flash the creature was behind him, though, his breath warm against the back of his neck, lips purple-gray and sculpted as if from marble by a master craftsman, close enough to take an earlobe between teeth and draw blood.
"But you're so tired, my dear," purred the demon.
And Dorian knew that it was true.
"You're creating quite a stir with all this running and yelling, going on about the Fade this and dreams that," the man continued, circling around in front so he could see, and be seen. His violet flesh seemed to glow, almost, even in the uncertain light of the city, and the muscles beneath rippled like water across arms and chest and legs as he moved.
Dorian frowned. Something the demon had said...
"You have quite a few people looking for you, you know. Why don't you shelter with me awhile? We can go somewhere quit until all this...dies down." He advanced, swaying like a willow in a summer breeze, but Dorian closed his eyes, trying to remember. Trying to remember something important.
All this...going on about the Fade this and dreams that...
"Surely you want to catch your breath? I can offer you somewhere safe to hide. You might even...enjoy yourself."
Somewhere to hide. Of course. Because they were hunting him; it hadn't been his imagination. This whole horrid city had heard him yelling about this being a dream, about him knowing it to be so, and thus announcing to every demon in the place that here was a lucid, dreamwalking mage, ripe for the taking.
Vishante kaffas, you are an idiot, Dorian. A Maker-cursed idiot who should never have been allowed to cast a fireball.
He didn't have the time to redirect his thoughts and his will; to make himself believe that something other than what he so very much needed to happen, would. No magic, then. He swung forward with his fist, and smashed that perfect face square in its delicately upturned nose, right where it swept between two mirrored eyes, irisless and black as anvils. And then he ran, again, the howl of rage rising behind him as he took a sudden flight of downward-tilting stairs by threes.
"You will be ours, you wretched man! You cannot leave of your own will, and not a one of us will help you!"
Dorian did not doubt it. But down he ran anyway, knowing the rising sounds around him now for what they were: not just fractured bits of memory--jumbled impressions of people screaming, buildings burning, skin twisting into shapes it wasn't meant to--but actual things out there, stirring at his approach, licking whatever passed for their chops and beginning to lope after him, easily, as wolves lope after wounded deer. His lungs heaved with effort as he skidded to the base of another steeply-tilting stairway. He couldn't keep doing this forever.
Then suddenly, before him, the ground opened up into vast open space, unmarred by any looming buildings save those that slunk down from above, like the fangs of vipers poised to strike. The bare gray flagstones continued for several paces before disappearing all of a sudden into blackness. Or, no, not blackness, but that shifting sea-that-was-not-a-sea. He was at the docks, then.
There, across the imperfect memories of water, towered the stark black-and-white face of an ancient Tevinter fortress--old Emerius--soaring up out of the darkness on an unforgiving crag of granite, its orderly planes and angles strangely present in a way the shifting city had not been: the towers did not flicker into and out of existence; they were solid and distinct as Dorian's own hand held out in front of him.
And as he watched, those solid, reliable lines shattered, bursting outward in a searing torrent of light and sound, chunks of rock the size of men flying in all directions, burning as they went. Dorian ducked out of the way of a face-sized chunk that rocketed past him to bury itself in the pavement, smoldering with magical fire. But the Chantry was the highest point in the city, Dorian thought, struggling to make sense of the disjuncture.That's how all the stories had it...
"Come to see your handiwork, have you?"
Cullen strode out into the open space of the waterfront, every line of him strung tight with fury.
Dorian stared. "No, I--no. Cullen, this is over. This has already happened. I'm--I'm sorry for it, but I had nothing to do with it."
"Bastard!" Cullen snarled, advancing. Behind him templars shuffled in their silvery armor, clearly wishing to surge forward but hesitating on his command. "You would have me watch you gloating over the destruction of the Chantry, and then believe you had nothing to do with it?"
"Cullen, please, listen to yourself!" Dorian cried, fighting to keep his voice steady, sure, calm, even as he took a hasty step backward. "You were telling me I did this before it had even blown up. You just saw it, just now. How did you know it was going to happen if it hadn't happened already?"
Cullen stopped, frowning. "I..." He looked from Dorian to the haze of light and molten stone across the water--stone which floated now, suspended, as though forever in flight, in the act of exploding. Lit from within by the violence birthed anew.
"Think, Cullen. Where are we? Does the Chantry of old Emerius not tower over the city from the heights? Then why are we watching its destruction in the water?"
Cullen squinted. "The Chantry...it's supposed to be..."
"This is the Fade, Cullen, like I keep telling you. Time and space work differently here--belief works differently here," he added. Gently, gently. Let the revelation come quietly or it would deafen them both. "I made a mistake earlier, announcing to the whole place who I was. What I was."
Cullen's eyes flickered dangerously, mouth twisting in stubbornness. At least there is a battle being fought there, then. "And what are you?"
"I am..." Dorian watched the other man's eyes widen, then, and he spun around to see that, once more, the fortress stood whole, solid, intact.
It keeps happening, over and over again. This was Cullen's nightmare, or at least how the Fade interpreted what stalked him in the night, and this was what Cullen had to relive when he closed his eyes: fire and death, warm flesh made cold beneath broken bricks, the sundering of safety over and over without end.
"I am yours," Dorian said, and felt the strength gathering in his voice as he said it. "I am here because you are dying and I won't let you." He let his staff wink out of existence: it was not a thing he could believe in anymore; he needed every fiber of his belief, of his being, for this.
Cullen was wavering. Dorian saw it, saw logic warring with what some part of him wanted--knew?--to be true, in his eyes and the set of his shoulders, the tilt of his head. He was going to remember. He was going to remember, and once he did they could figure out what to do. Together.
And then, the return of the searing red light Dorian did not see firsthand, this time, but rather reflected in the eyes of the man who faced it: the Chantry undone, fire and death winning out over reason, over belief, over everything, again and again. For time immemorial.
Cullen tore his eyes away from the explosion as it repeated itself, his worst fears born to gory fruition, and fixed Dorian with a gaze that glistened with tears of fury and betrayal. And in that moment Dorian made sense of the disjuncture: he knew why the Chantry was down here on an island, where the Circle of Magi was supposed to be.
It was here because this was what Cullen wanted, in his depths, to have gone up in flames--so much so that the fervency of his desire shaped the Fade around him. Not the Chantry destroyed, then, but the Circle: and all the mages within it.
"Believing your words would be beautiful," the knight-captain intoned, stepping forward. Shining dazzlingly in the reflection of the attack, red light streaming off his breastplate in rays that nearly blinded, haloing him with all the brilliance and glory that died in his eyes as he spoke. "And that is how I know they are lies."
Cullen raised his sword, and swung.
Cullen lifted his sword, and swung.
It did not strike home.
A flash of light tore through Dorian's vision and he thought, This is how it feels to die. But feeling continued, sensation continued, and the roar that filled his ears prompted him to crack an eye open, grimacing against the glare.
Before him hung a shimmering curtain, testing the limits of his vision with its burning luminosity. It was so bright, in fact, that Dorian could see little else: not the brooding city behind or the un-sky above or even Cullen, who ought to have been not a pace or two in front of him, finishing what he had come here to do. The blister of magic set his senses afire with the closeness of this...this thing, that shimmered and coruscated before him, and he reached out and touched it.
The moment his fingers brushed the curtain, it burst, from the point of contact outward: thousands upon thousands of tiny shards of light fell, as though a mirror had been shattered, and they changed as they fell into mere motes, fading into nothingness at his feet. Beyond the shattered curtain lay Cullen, motionless on the flagstones, sword discarded at his side.
"Do not touch him," came a voice, as Dorian rushed forward.
He whirled, and there against the slow-motion backdrop of the endlessly exploding Chantry stood a being of pure light, face and hands and skin all the same scintillating brightness as had been the curtain.
Dorian "You saved me," he said.
"But...what have you done to him?" Dorian looked back at Cullen and took another step toward him.
"Don't touch him!"
Dorian hovered over Cullen's inert form. "What's wrong with him?"
"He is sick. You know he is sick. He is in stasis."
"You put him there."
"He was going to kill you."
Dorian's eyes narrowed. "And what business is that of yours?"
"You are here too strongly. You would have died." The spirit seemed to take a step forward, a limb-like construction extending from the current of light that was its center. Then it drew back, hesitating. "You do know that, don't you?"
"Of course I do. I came here, didn't I?"
"Yes. You did." There was something strange about the spirit's voice--it had the many-layered, reverberating quality the desire demon had had, to be sure, but it was more emotive than Dorian thought usual. Right, because I know so much about demons, he chided himself. Still. What spirit evinced hesitance?
Behind them, across the water, the Kirkwall Chantry continued to explode and reform, explode and reform. The same bits of debris flew forth from it every time, so Dorian no longer had to duck when the face-sized chunk soared outward. He watched it bury itself in the flagstones again, and turned back to the light-creature.
"So what are you, then? What kind of spirit?"
"Do you feel such a terrible need to classify me? Is saving your life not enough?"
"I'm just wondering." Ply for time, ply for time... If he had enough time he could figure this out, he was sure of it.
"You came here just to wonder?"
Dorian weighed the--was it flippancy?--in the spirit's words. Perhaps it's no spirit at all, but another demon. He feared then for Cullen's inert form, and bent down over it.
"No, don't!" The spirit short forward a few paces, fiery arms outstretched.
From his squatting position Dorian peered back over. He had made certain to hunch between the creature and Cullen; he was no longer sure its intentions were entirely good.
"Please...don't," the spirit added haltingly.
Dorian glared. "Or what?"
"Or he will wake up and be in exactly the same place and way I left him. He'll see that--" the spirit gestured across the water to the exploding Chantry, its towers rendered from orderly stone constructs into prisms of pinkish light. "--and take up his sword and--surely you see where this goes?"
"And what is it to you?"
There were no facial expressions to read in the spirit, not enough timbre, buried in the many-layered voice, to know for sure. But Dorian thought the stance of the thing, the way it held its fiery column of light upright, quailed a little, as though struck. I'm imagining things. Superimposing complex emotions onto beings only capable of a handful of them.
"Forgive me," said the spirit after a long pause, clearly bowing its head now. "I am but a spirit of compassion and...weak."
Dorian did not move from Cullen's side. But then, he didn't touch him, either. "Do you know what ails him?"
The spirit looked up. "I do. The red crystals are in his physical body, eating away at him. But I do not know what you expect to achieve for him here."
Dorian watched the play of reflected light from the Chantry on Cullen's lips, his stubbled cheek. His closed eyelids. He thought of the sword coming down, of the crystals infesting his arm like so many red insects--his arm was free of them in the Fade. He thought of the flash of tender sorrow he'd felt through the bond when he'd discovered that they were still there in the first place--that despite pulling every smidgeon of magic available to him, he'd merely scraped away the top layer, not eradicated them from Cullen's body. The memory of that tenderness, the other man's capacity for it despite all that had happened, threatened to undo him, and he closed his eyes against the sight of the man who'd had the generosity of spirit to feel it.
"The Seekers have a...ritual." Crying will not help him. Stop it. Now. "They make someone Tranquil, and then they get a spirit of faith to touch the person and bring them back to themselves." He swallowed. "The Seekers, it seems, are resistant to the effects of red lyrium."
"It won't work."
Dorian's eyes snapped open. "Why not?"
"He is seeded too deeply. It would be like removing his bones. Take it out of him and there will be nothing left to give him form. You could make him Tranquil, but there would be nothing to reanimate, when the spirit came."
Dorian leapt to his feet, sadness bursting into anger like kindling held to a flame. "And what would you know about it? How do you know so much about what's going on inside him but nothing about me or why I came here? How could all that have escaped your notice?" He advanced across the flagstones until he stood directly before the spirit, staring balefully into its light-lit depths.
"I know...much of you, too," the spirit hazarded, taking a step back.
Dorian pressed his advantage. "And what good does that do you, then, hmm? You won't fix Cullen--so what is it, you're biding your time until you find a convenient moment to possess me? Oh, compassion, sure, you call yourself that, but there's a man dying over there and you can't do a thing to save him!"
"That's...not entirely true."
Dorian heard the hesitancy, so uncharacteristic of spirits or demons both, and plowed right over it. "So what, then? You want to possess him, is that it? You do realize that this is why most people don't scruple to parse the difference between spirit and demon, right? In the end all any of you want is to possess people. To get back out into the world. The only thing that changes is the lie you tell them before you do it!"
"My time in the world is done," the spirit sighed.
"What are you?" Dorian demanded, voice breaking on the question. "Why won't you help me?"
He was close enough to see it happen by inches. The curtain of light surrounding the figure, blurring it into a haze of brightness, began to...disintegrate, in much the same way as the barrier between Cullen and Dorian had disintegrated when the latter touched it. In tiny shards that faded to embers it fell away, from the base, where it touched the flagstones, upward. Liquid light gave way to booted feet, to crimson robes, to an embroidered golden sunburst and then--
Halward turned his face away, when the light revealed it, eyes closed in a grimace as though expecting a blow.
One which Dorian made a fist to deliver, and stood there, paralyzed, unwilling to understand and most definitely willing to smash things in the face of his confusion.
"You're dead." he hissed. That his father was alive sound like an accusation, and he meant it that way.
"Not entirely," Halward replied in his own voice. He opened his eyes, then, and read the fury in his son from clenched fists to white lips, and hung his head. "I suppose I should be, though."
"You definitely should be," Dorian snarled. "Look, look at that man over there," he jabbed a shaking finger behind him, toward Cullen. "You did that to him. You did that!"
"He was going to kill you."
"In the Fade, yes, because he wasn't in his right mind! But how exactly did I end up in the Fade, Father? The entire reason I'm here is to try and help the man you infected with this...this..." He threw up his hands and stalked a few paces away, pinning his arms under each other lest he do something violent. "Why did you hide who you are?" he demanded after a moment, voice thick with anger.
"Would you have listened to me if you saw me for what I was?"
"Oh, I see you exactly for what you--" Dorian bit off the words, struggling to control himself. Breathing heavily, he tried again. "What do you have to say to me that's so important, anyway? All you said was that you can't help him."
"No, I said the Seeker's ritual won't work on him."
"So what, then? You thought you had to hide yourself to deliver disappointment to me? Oh Father, are you so terribly lacking in self-awareness that you think disappointment is something new? From you?"
"No, I...expect it was a constant companion to you." A pause, then, and Dorian supposed he was expected to turn around and face his father but he refused to, he absolutely refused to. "But I won't...disrespect...you so much as to look for forgiveness from you."
Dorian's voice dripped acid. "How exceedingly noble of you."
He heard footsteps behind him; he supposed Halward was moving. Dorian could see Cullen though--as long as it wasn't toward Cullen, he didn't care if his father was doing backflips into the water, or back up into the city teeming with demons. Either scenario would be preferable just now, Dorian found himself thinking blackly.
"There's a...pull, on me, Dorian," he heard his father say. "It has taken effort for me to resist it."
"That's what happens when you're supposed to die and somehow cheat your way out of it," Dorian snapped.
"I stayed for you."
Dorian whirled then, and saw that Halward was not looking at him but at the Chantry, which stood once more solid, inviolate, looking like it would last thousands more years, on top of the thousands it had already stood. Dorian had little interest in this, though, and approached his father with shaking hands.
"You would take away...everything I loved...even the ability to love, if you had your way...and you would have me believe you were kicking around here in the Fade, waiting for me?"
"I can feel him. Because of the way I...died...I can feel him."
Dorian blinked. "Who? Cullen?"
"Yes. There was a...link made, when you did what you did."
"Well, that's just fantastically awkward. Except, oh wait, it isn't, because you poisoned him so badly he's been afraid to touch me. So the most you've been privy to is--"
"His love for you, Dorian."
Dorian stared for a moment. He felt the muscles in his face twitch. The window during which he could reply, honestly, with the sob that this called for in him, was open...and then he slammed it shut, unable to deal with the repercussions.
"Well isn't that just perfect, then. Father finally realizes there's something genuine about his wayward son's affection, right before the object of that affection dies of--what was it again, Father? Oh, right. The lyrium you forced on him."
Across the water, fire sundered the Chantry anew, splitting its seams, lighting the sky and the water, the city and the faces of the onlookers like a torch.
"I cannot undo what I did. What I intended to do. But...he doesn't have to die."
Hope flared in Dorian's heart. "Then it is your duty to tell me how."
Halward looked at him and his face was heavy with loss. "I'm afraid to."
In two bounding steps Dorian was in front of his father, quaking with rage. "You would put us through all of this--drag me here--"
"You ran here."
"--yes, from demons, who by the way are awfully conveniently absent right now--"
"I'm keeping them at bay."
"And just how do you manage that? You're a dead man!"
Halward, face creased in concentration, held out his hand, and it...flickered. Light, the same light that had screened him from view earlier, leapt to life there, momentarily swallowing what was recognizable as a human hand with fingers. "There's a pull," Halward said quietly.
Dorian stared at the hand. "A pull to what?"
"I don't know. A change. But I've fought it because he...cares for you. That much. And I thought if there was a way to save him you should hear it. Even if it...isn't what I would want."
"I don't care what you want. How do I save him?"
Halward grimaced. "I told you Tranquility wouldn't work? I can feel it in him; there's too much red lyrium."
"Yes, yes, nothing left, you mentioned that. How do I fix it?"
"You replace it."
"With what, damn you!"
Halward massaged his temples with his hands that were not hands. "I can see...currents in people, now. Above and beyond the link with Cullen. I've seen it in the people who come into the Fade by accident, just for a moment--and I can see it in you. And him." He dropped his hands to his sides, where they flickered and burned. "In you, there is the blue of mana, and it...moves...I'm not making much sense, am I?"
Dorian's teeth grated. "Go on."
"In him, everything that moves is being blocked up. The red lyrium stops it, it--it's like throwing boulders into a stream. But this lyrium, it's parasitic--it knows he had a need, before, for regular lyrium, and it sank deep. If you take it away, there will be nothing flowing to replace it, nothing pushing him back from himself, and he'll cave in and die."
"Well then what if I just kept feeding him magic? Like I did when I--when you died."
Halward shook his head. "That would be an imperfect and only temporary solution. Each time you tried he'd need a little more, and eventually you'd burn yourself out trying to meet his need."
"So that what am I supposed to do? Why are you telling me this if there's no way to--"
"You need a permanent solution. A permanent source of mana." As the Chantry exploded yet again, Dorian thought he saw his father's eyes glisten in its red light. "I would do it, Dorian. If there was any shred of my body, my earthly power left, I would give it to you for this."
"If you filled the holes left in him with mana, a refilling pool of it, he'd function."
"But he's not a mage! How am I supposed to--" Dorian drew a breath. There is the blue of mana, and it moves... "Me?"
"You would never be able to cast a spell again. All that you've done, all that you've been--"
"You don't get to decide what makes me who I've been! Or who I am," Dorian spat. There was safety in anger; it let him put up a front while he reeled behind it with the knowledge of what his father was saying. "Wouldn't it...make me Tranquil, then?" he asked in a completely different voice. Perhaps the front was not as solid as he would have liked.
"If I cut you off from it, yes. But I don't think that's necessary. I wish you could see what I see, could understand..."
Halward squinted, trying to get his words right, looking more like his son than either of them knew. "The currents, they're not like veins, confined to your body. I'm looking at you now and they go out--everywhere. Maybe it's because we're here in the Fade, where magic is in every brick and breath. But at the center of you is the well, the place that lets it appear in you, outside of the Fade. I think if you stopped that up, that would be Tranquility. But if you rerouted it..."
They both looked at Cullen where he lay motionless on the pavement.
"Would he...become a mage, then?"
Halward was quiet for a moment. "I don't know. It would make sense, though. He'd have the ability to, at least."
"He hates mages."
"He doesn't hate you."
And there it was again, the thing Dorian had waited his whole life to hear: just that unhindered, simple acceptance, the acknowledgment without revulsion or denial or lies, or--
"Can you really feel him, Father?"
"But what about it...why this time do you..." Dorian closed his eyes. Words! "Did you really have to die to understand?"
"I...think so, yes." Silence. "Dorian, I can't justify what I did before. Or apologize in a way that would carry enough weight to count. For anything. But having lived a whole life, decades' worth, I can tell you that what I watch him feel for you, what I feel him feel...I never experienced that." Dorian's eyes were still closed but he could hear his father's swallow. His fight against hoarseness, voicelessness. "Not with your mother. Not with anyone. It is...something I will never know, now. But it's something I would never take away from you, and that I'll die trying to keep safe for you."
Dorian opened his eyes, and hated that there were tears in them. "But you're already dead."
"Not entirely." Halward's eyes shone too, then, and not only with tears: they flashed and changed with more than just reflections. The golden light from before struggled to appear there, fought make its way to the surface. To blaze like flame triumphant.
"You're turning into a spirit."
A wry grin, then. The first Dorian had seen in ages, it seemed. "Possibly. But whatever this is--" Halward held up his shimmering, flickering hands--"it's trying to get rid of...the rest of me. It grows harder and harder to fight it."
"And you're sure you have this power? To...reroute this?"
"If you're sure you want me to."
Dorian stood straighter. "I am."
"Then yes, I do. But...not here. This is a land of nightmare. We need to go to where he is."
Cullen lay behind them, motionless as ever. "But...he's right here."
"An echo of him, yes. But he didn't know you, remember? We need to follow the current of him, find his center."
"But I can't see the currents."
Halward extended his golden hand. "Then let me take you there."
Dorian hesitated, staring after the fallen form of Cullen. To just leave him there, in this dark city with its demons...
"This fragment of him exists here for you. It will disappear as soon as you leave."
Dorian stared at his father, or what remained of him. "How do you know all this?"
A sad smile. "With the changes come...knowledge. Not like knowledge gained from a book, rather it's...it's like remembering something you always knew, and forgot. But I do not have much time left. Let us hurry."
Dorian took his hand, and his father tugged him forward. He felt a twist in his gut as his foot soared out over the nothingness of the not-water, expecting darkness and an infinite fall, but--nothing happened. They stood there as solidly as though it were smooth pavement beneath their feet.
"Knowledge," Halward said simply, and led them across the water, toward where the Chantry was about to be suffused with fire yet again.
"This is how you get there?" Dorian said doubtfully, eyeing the column of light that split the building from its core.
"This is how you get to everyone," Halward replied, stepping up onto the crag on which the building stood. "Find the thing that tears them apart, and follow it down to where they're no longer torn."
So saying, Halward turned to watch as the building shattered, and its light flooded out, consuming them both.
Around them roared a golden wind.
Dorian had no idea how long it had taken them to reach this place--he had no sense of time at all, anymore. There had been brightness, and howling, and now he was here, held aloft on a spike of solid ground amidst a whirling vortex of--of many colors, really, in the way oil could shine many colors in the right light, but all of which refracted back through this transcendent gold haze, composed of motes, sparks, that whirled faster than the eye could trace.
And above them, Dorian supposed, staring, hung the source of all that color: a shuddering, twisting mass of brilliance that writhed even as he watched, dark red bands reaching around and across it like shackles. You can't shackle light, Dorian found himself thinking stupidly.
"You're right. You can't," Halward replied, still holding his hand. He had to raise his voice against the swirl of the vortex surrounding them.
"You can feel--?"
"Here? Here I can feel everything!" Halward yelled back. His whole body was flickering now, not just his eyes or his hands: light rose to the surface in him like bubbles to the surface of a pool, threatening to consume him. "Are you sure you want this, my son?"
"Yes! Can't you sense it?"
Halward's eyes, when visible between the flashes of gold that swallowed them, were kind and sad all at once. "What I sense is that you're afraid."
"Wouldn't you be?"
Halward nodded, then looked away after a moment. "I just wish I could have paid this price for you."
Impulsively, Dorian grabbed his father's other hand in his own, and leaned close, so he wouldn't have to yell. "It's enough," said. "It's enough that you can do this for him."
Halward shook his head. "For you."
The wind was so strong that it whipped the tears sideways across Dorian's cheeks, making concealment impossible. He thought he saw the same on his father's face, but with his flickering he couldn't be sure. He clung to the hand his father held, and had no words.
"Are you ready?" Halward cried, a torrent of light now himself, only faintly retaining the outlines of eyes and lips and nose.
Dorian nodded, relieved of the duty to respond verbally, and his father hugged him.
It began at once, a rending deep in his bones, and Dorian cried out, burying his wail in his father's shoulder. Where Halward's hands touched him on either side of his spine, there was a pulling sensation, as though the very life were being drawn out of him with a quill, and when Dorian peeped an eye open he could see thin tendrils of blue, now, spiraling up toward that bound burst of light in the center of the vortex, gleaming brightly against the dark bands that constricted it.
All that you've done, all that you've been...
Dorian thought of the time he'd shown off to Cullen, a lifetime ago it seemed now, pulling water from the Orlesian tub and turning it into shapes, flowers, stars. He thought of pouring magic into Cullen, wondering if it would work, delighting when it did. He thought of lightning bolts, whirling staves, fireballs hurled against enemies that poured over the mountains at Haven. All of it stripped from him.
Earlier, too: the years with Alexius, patient trial and error, magic wielded as skillfully as any blade; the exultation of a spell figured out. His exams passed with flying colors, magisters speechless before not just his skill but his flair for the presentation of that skill. His very real calling and craft. His first foray into the Fade, his first bolt of lightning, his first tiny little mote of light, delicate as a candle's flame, flashing into existence at the tips of his fingers for only the hairsbreadth of a moment and then gone.
Gone, gone, gone. All of it.
"Do you remember," his father said into his ear, as the only thing Dorian had been good at his whole life flowed out of him, in force, never to return, "when you were very young, and I had you in my lap with a glass of that fizzy wine that used to be so popular?"
Dorian nodded into his father's neck, speechless with pain and loss, the knowledge of what he was losing still.
"And I let you play in the glass and you knocked it over. I don't know why, but you were scared, and I yelled at you. Do you remember?"
Bubbles gathering on his chubby fist like insects, swarming, threatening to overwhelm him, like a tiny army.
Dorian nodded again.
"I...I wish I hadn't. I wish I'd comforted you, Dorian. I should have."
Dorian pulled back enough to see his father's face, flickering into and out of visibility behind a curtain of light that made him squint against its glare.
"It's all right, Father," he said, knowing that behind that light the man still lived, however inconceivably. "It's all right." He shuddered as the magic poured out of him, upward, blue shunting aside red, settling in, replacing that which was gone. "All of it...it's all right."
"Yes." It hurt to say this. It hurt to move, it hurt to think, it hurt to be who he was going to be without this. But he said it. "I forgive you."
Halward said nothing for a moment, closing his eyes--which then ceased to be eyes. As Dorian watched, the whole of his father melted into golden light and began lengthen and stretch, bending up and up, and what had been an arm--the other still streaming blue from where it wrapped around Dorian, gleaming and protective--reached, straining toward that bound-up glow that was the core of Cullen.
"What are you doing?" Dorian cried.
"He loves you so," Halward said in that voice that was many voices and none, now. "You should always feel that."
The luminescence that was Halward reached, and just brushed that great orb, and a thread of gold came down, down to Dorian, snaking around him, up his forearm and settling into him.
And from a great distance, awareness bloomed, and Dorian could feel Cullen's fear and concern for him, even in his dreams, even trapped in a nightmare of red lyrium and certain death.
"You don't have this power!" Dorian yelled over the roar.
"But spirits of compassion are weak! You can't--you'll destroy yourself--"
The ghost of laughter echoed down from the heights of Halward's golden, stretching form that whipped in the wind, now. "I have not lived a life of compassion, Dorian. You know this better than most."
"But what are you, then?"
"I am hope."
"But there's nothing--but spirits of hope never enter the world!"
The hand on Dorian's back, or whatever light-born substance had replaced it, slipped to his shoulder and squeezed, once.
"And I will never see it. My hope was that you would forgive me, and that hope has been fulfilled."
Far above, the red bands, displaced by the blue streams of mana, began to break apart, funneling down into the golden creature that reached out to embrace them, one by one.
"That will kill you!" Dorian howled.
"It will. It is a substance opposed to magic, and it has to go somewhere." One by one the bands shattered, Dorian's mana settling into the cracks, filling them, keeping everything whole, while the blackened chunks of broken constraints seeped into the spirit of hope, darkening it as they filled first the arm, then trickling down to shoulder, to chest, to neck.
"This is my purpose, Dorian," the spirit said, as close to gentle as those otherworldly tones could come. "Go find yours."
The hand on Dorian's back withdrew, its siphoning complete, and with its disappearance the spire on which Dorian had withstood the storm winked away--the will of the lifeforce keeping him in place, anchoring him, withdrawn, unmade--and he fell into the tumult of whirling light, his cry lost in the thunder of its stars.
Dorian sat bolt upright, barely registering the protest his muscles screamed at the motion after laying on the hard ground so long. Darkness lay around him like a blanket, but there were pale fingers stirring in the east--almost dawn, then. He stumbled to his feet, tottering forward, reaching even as he did so for the power that he knew would be--
Out of reach. He could sense it, oh, he could sense it, but trying to touch it was like trying to climb a slab of seamless marble, smooth and cool and inviolate. He slammed down the resultant panic this caused; he had no time for it now. It doesn't matter. It was worth it if... He crashed to his knees next to Cullen, who lay as silent as he had in the Fade--unmoving, seeming not even to breathe, curled up in on himself as though out of protection. Whether from the world from himself, who could say?
"Cullen, wake up. Please, wake up."
Cullen's eyes flew open and he jerked away from Dorian as if burned. "What are you doing, be careful of the--" He stopped. Stared hard at the arm he Dorian had been shaking, and then slowly, slowly reached for his sleeve with his good hand.
Only to reveal smooth, empty flesh beneath, pebbled with cold and patterned faintly with the memory of what had been. No crystals, nor even the glittering stumps of crystals remained, even when in a flurry of wonder Cullen yanked the sleeve up further, tearing the fabric, checking upper arm and shoulder to be certain that it was well and truly gone.
Cullen looked from his arm to Dorian. "How..."
Dorian watched the realization steal across his face, naked shock parting the wonder there like fish through water. Magic, the awareness of it, burbling in him, waiting, as Dorian could feel it doing through the link his father had given him--given both of them. In that moment he feared Cullen's revulsion as he had never feared anything in his life.
"I--I'm sorry," he stammered. "I'm sorry if it's not what you wanted, but it was the only way, you were dying, and my father was there and he was sorry, he was actually sorry, and something about the way I--the way I killed him made him feel you, how it went through the lyrium before it hit him, I think, and so he wanted to save you for me and the only way to do it was--was--"
"Dorian." Cullen's voice was thick with sleep and with emotion as he sat fully upright, to look the other man in the eyes.
Cullen reached out a hand--his right hand, the one that had been restored to him--and touched Dorian's cheek. "This is yours? This--this power. It is, isn't it?"
"Yes but there wasn't any other way, I know you hate mages but if we just removed the lyrium it would have killed you and--"
"You gave it up." He traced the ex-mage's eye with his thumb, which came back wet. "You gave up what you are."
Dorian drew his eyebrows together into his sternest glare. "Will everyone please stop telling me that, as though I am suddenly no longer myself just because I can't...I can't..." He bit it off, he would not do this, not make it suddenly about him when it really wasn't, not really, and--
Cullen's hand on his face slid around, to the back of his head, and pulled him forward suddenly into the flare of warmth that was the hollow of Cullen's neck. "I felt you. I saw you, in the dream, and--I was going to kill you. If I had, it...it would have been real, wouldn't it?"
Dorian trusted his voice for the length of a single syllable and no more. "Yes."
"It's fading, as dreams do, but--I thought--your father was there? In the dream?"
"And he...helped you to do this...and he's gone, now."
Not even the syllable, now. Dorian nodded into the neck of this man whom he'd given everything to, and waited for the axe to fall. To be pushed away for what he'd done.
And Cullen did push him away--held him back, with both arms, so he could see his face again. Brown eyes glimmered with tears that there was now enough light to catch. "The immensity of what you have done shames me, and--" he intoned formally, a lump in his throat cutting him off mid-sentence. When he continued, he was husky with it. "And I...thank you. There is absolutely nothing comparable I could do in return."
"You could live," Dorian suggested shyly, not impertinent in the least but meaning it, every word. And he felt the surge of affection in the other man, resplendent in what had been a ruin of fear and doubt and regret for what seemed like ages. The sun amid clouds, burning them away with the force of its arrival.
You should always feel that.
As they embraced, and as tears mingled in the hollows of necks and hands and lips, the two women who had lain in wait, hiding, blades drawn in case of disaster, retreated a respectful distance and turned away, to the east, to face the dawn. Which now hurtled over the horizon, turning black and blue to pink and gold; turning mist to glitter and shadow to light, blazing.
Like flame triumphant.
Thunk. Thunk. Thunk.
Early morning sunlight spilled over Skyhold, warming the cobbles and coaxing the potted plants in the sleepy green courtyard to unfurl their leaves, however reluctantly, for yet another day. In the center of that courtyard, sweeping back and forth across the open space before the well, two men with staves fought around and around, their breath streaming forth in clouds before their faces. Occasionally droplets of sweat would fly off their brows and catch the light, spattering in rainbows onto the pavement and prompting, alternately, admiring glances and then grimaces in the scullery maids whose job it was to slip past the dueling men to draw water from the well. "I don't see why they can't do this down in the training yard like normal people," grumbled one to the other as, laden with buckets, they darted back down the colonnaded walkway that encircled the yard. "Spinning around with those sticks by the well, they're likely to take one of our heads off, you watch."
In the shadows of the columns, a man overheard them and smiled into his hand, hiding his face as they passed. He had no desire to alarm them, and a very fervent wish not to draw their attention and cause them to fawn and apologize loudly and profusely, as he figured they would if they realized who he was. He turned back, then, to the men in the center, being careful to keep out of the advancing beams of sunlight. Watching.
One of the men was going easy on the other, he could see. The question was whether the other knew this. Back and forth they moved, the sharp clacks of the wood echoing about the courtyard, likely on up to the windows where no few number of late risers were clamping pillows over their ears.
"That's good, my lord Pavus, but you need to watch your left side. You're leaving it open."
"I am watching my---ow!"
"No, you're not."
"If that's how it's going to be, then--" Dorian advanced on the man, staff spinning, and entered a complex series of moves designed to--Cullen saw it coming from his hiding place in the columns; he'd seen this before--end with the top of the staff pointing directly forward, ready to emit a fireball or lightning bolt or whatever else the mage had chosen the staff to hurl outward.
Except, there would be no fireballs or lightning bolts hurtling from this staff, and in the moment it took Dorian to remember this, his adversary knocked his legs neatly out from under him, sending him toppling to the cobbles. Cullen felt how much that hurt and cringed in sympathy as Dorian's trainer, an able man with a staff and personally picked from the ranks by Cullen for his discretion as much as his skill, held a hand out to his fallen trainee.
"You're improving, my lord."
Dorian took the hand with a grimace. "I am not and you know it."
The man shrugged. "I'm not paid to lie, my lord. The recruits are about to start heading down to breakfast--shall I see you at the same time tomorrow, my l--"
"Honestly, just Dorian is fine," Dorian sighed, glaring faintly at his staff as though his bruises were its fault. "And yes. Same time tomorrow."
The soldier nodded and ambled out of the courtyard, staff swung carelessly over his shoulder. Dorian stood there a moment, rubbing gingerly at his backside, before turning directly toward where Cullen lurked behind a pillar.
"You can come out, now. People are going to get the wrong idea, you know, if you keep slinking about in the shadows like that."
Grinning sheepishly, Cullen emerged into the sunlight, admiring what exertion had done to the man standing almost bare-chested before him, only a few cords of rope looping over one shoulder as cover. "I didn't want to distract you," he said.
"You didn't want me to know how concerned you are that I get this right, you mean," Dorian muttered, spinning his staff--a simple length of oak, polished to a dull gleam, no glowing stones or skulls dangling from it--with a half-hearted flourish.
"That, too." Cullen reached out to take the staff from Dorian and pulled him close with his other hand, nuzzling behind his ear.
Dorian shivered. "What are you doing that for? I smell."
"I don't mind."
Shifting under Cullen's hands, he tried ineffectually to wriggle out of his grasp, as the staff clattered to the stones beneath them. "Shouldn't you still be asleep at this hour? You hadn't even returned by the time I got up."
"I never went to bed."
Dorian's face fell. "We're to move again, then?"
"Mm hmm," Cullen leaned into Dorian's neck, sleepy and enjoying the scent there. "We'll be pushing into the Arbor Wilds. Or rather, I will be. You won't be going anywhere."
At that Dorian did succeed in twisting away from the commander, in order to cross his arms over his chest and fix him with a severe glare. "You know that's not going to happen. Just because I can't throw fireballs--"
"It has nothing to do with fireballs, Dorian."
"It has everything to do with fireballs! And ice, and lightning, and all the rest of it." Dorian stalked away, to the well, and glared down into its depths. After a moment, Cullen came to stand beside him. "Yes, I miss it, before you ask," the ex-mage growled.
"I wasn't going to ask."
"Well, in case you were thinking about it. Now you know."
The well was far too deep to throw their reflections back up at the two men--the abyss that opened up before them was complete, uninformed by light or perceivable distance. "I already knew," Cullen said quietly. He moved his hand to cover Dorian's where it rested on the lip of the well, and this time he did not pull away.
"What about you? How does it...feel? Having it there, waiting?"
Cullen shifted uncomfortably. "I don't think about it all that often."
"You haven't been doing any of the exercises I showed you?"
Cullen felt his face flush. "I've been...busy."
Dorian's eyes, turning on him, were too knowing, too gentle. They showed none of the frustration that paced within him, lashing its tail. "I know you have. But you have to try to find time, all the same. Familiarity is--"
"--is the first step toward control, yes, I know." It was Cullen's turn to grimace, now, as he stared down into the darkness beneath their feet. "It's hard to experiment with something you spent a lifetime telling people had to be controlled, every inch of it."
Dorian's snicker startled him out of his gloom. "That's an odd way of putting it."
"Every inch of it?" White teeth flashed into a grin beneath his curling mustache. "You make it sound like it's an ex-lover you're forced to have dinner with."
Cullen rolled his eyes. "Oh grow up, Dorian."
"Every inch of me?" Dorian's aside was rewarded with a deepening of Cullen's blush, which only made the ex-mage grin wider. "That can be arranged, you know."
"Why do you think I came down here?"
"To spy on me."
"To escort you. Make sure you didn't get lost on your way to the tower." He pulled Dorian close, then, and this time he did not squirm away. He did hesitate, though, as Cullen's lips came close.
"They'll talk, you know. First a mage bungling around with a regular staff in the courtyard, then kissing the commander?" Dorian's gray eyes were all concern. "Are you sure you want to risk your reputation? For all your care in picking a discrete trainer, the cooks, the scullery maids...they'll talk..."
"Let them," Cullen said simply, and prevented further protest with his lips.
Cullen slept long into the afternoon, as befitted someone who had worked well past dawn, and Dorian woke before him, slipping out from his outstretched arm to watch him from the bedside, splashed in sunlight and not even squinting against its brightness. The man was out cold.
And not, it seemed to Dorian from he he could feel through their bond, dreaming badly. Or dreaming much at all. With magic denied him, he found himself often probing the limits of the bond his father had given the two of them right before his death. How much could he, Dorian, sense when Cullen slept? Echoes of emotion, he had once called it, but it was odd how sleep seemed to affect those echoes. Though emotions lost their edges--he could not say, for example, toward what this or that emotion was directed--they seemed to grow stronger, as though clumsily unsheathed and swung about, like a great clunky sword in the hands of one too small to wield it.
Dorian grinned to himself at the thought, watching Cullen sleep carelessly, limbs flung every which way and face mashed up against a pillow as though it were the most comfortable position in the world. Not that there are many positions you seem to take issue with, Dorian amended, watching the rise and fall of Cullen's back, lightly haired and glinting in the sun.
As if on cue, Cullen cracked an eye open, seizing on Dorian with a bleary stare.
"You were going to jump me."
Dorian raised his eyebrows. "I? I was going to do no such thing."
With an effort Cullen forced himself up on his elbows, struggling to blink the sleep out of his eyes and glare at the same time. "I felt it. I was lying here sleeping blissful as you please and then, there it was, your...desire...plain as day."
Dorian snorted, eyeing skeptically the rumpled bedclothes that rose just as high as Cullen's navel. "And you're sure that's my desire you're talking about?"
"Well obviously it's--" Cullen blinked, realized the direction of Dorian's gaze and grinned self-consciously. "Okay. Mostly yours."
Dorian took a moment to fiddle innocently with one of the several gems that graced his fingers, winking in the bars of sunlight that slanted across Cullen's bed like a berry preserved at the height of its season. He could feel how the deliberate delay was affecting Cullen and smirked into his collar. He'd donned his robes again out of necessity; all the sunlight the mountains had to offer would not keep him warm in this drafty tower Cullen insisted on claiming as his.
"You're cold," Cullen announced blithely.
Dorian shot him a sidelong glance. "Care to do anything about that?"
"You have no idea."
Cullen lunged at him across the intervening sheets and pillows, and Dorian was reminded again that, magic or no magic, this was a man who had trained his body his entire life and who had yet to see it fail. He had felt Cullen's lurking desire, it was true, but he hadn't prepared himself quite yet for the sudden onslaught of lips and tongue and hands. Grunting in surprise, he tipped over, and Cullen followed him over the edge of the bed, thumping hard onto the weathered planks in a tangle of limbs and blankets.
If Dorian had been surprised by the fall, he was even more surprised by what happened next. Pausing just a moment, their faces inches apart, Cullen hovered over his lips, as if gauging him. Dorian had no chance to ask what he had in store, though--or where that flutter of nervousness he felt in the other man came from--before Cullen lurched forward, burying Dorian's question in his lips, from which--ah--poured magic, the bone-searing roar of it, a power Dorian hadn't felt in so long coursing into him in such a sudden sweet torrent it made him yelp. And this, too, was swallowed by their embrace.
Dorian could do nothing with the power, however. He couldn't direct it, couldn't control it; it simply poured in, lighting up insides like a thousand thousand candles, and he began to thrash, trying to shake Cullen and the influx of power off before it burnt him to cinders. Belatedly Cullen realized something was amiss and drew back, nervousness flowering into full-fledged fear in him as he leapt away from Dorian as from a poker.
"What? What's wrong? I thought it would--I thought you might--that time we did it before, I thought it might work the other way--
Dorian could feel his eyes dilating with all this unused magic in him. "But I can't do anything with it, Cullen!" he cried. And it was a cry; it had felt so good to feel that again, that resource and his capacity to do things with it, but he couldn't--the mastery was gone. So it filled him near to bursting, with nowhere to go, and made the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end with its immediacy and need to be spent. "Take it back," he said hoarsely.
"Cullen, please! I can't...it's too...take it back!"
Cullen nodded, and stretched out his and, and pulled through Dorian's own. Dorian could sense him fumbling toward the way of it, and he fought the feeling of desolation that bloomed in him as the power ebbed, retreating back into the body from whence it came. He shook with its loss; he missed it so.
"Forgive me," Cullen whispered. He had not let go of Dorian's hand. "I thought it would be a surprise...that it would feel good."
"It did." Dorian took a shaky breath. Forced a smile. "Incredibly good, Cullen. I just...there wasn't anywhere for it to go."
"You can't use it?"
Dorian shook his head.
"Maker, I'm sorry," Cullen sighed, scooting over so he was next to Dorian, their backs against the foot of the bed. "I'm so sorry, Dorian." He watched the other man for a moment--the curl of his mustaches, the sad turn of his lips upward at the edges, as though that would erase the ache Cullen knew was there in the other man, at all that he had lost. Thanks to their bond he knew this--he didn't have to intuit it from tone or body language. But Dorian's effort, despite all this, made Cullen all the sadder, and after a moment's hesitation he laid his head in the crook of Dorian's shoulder, his hair spiked and befuddled from sleep tickling the ex-mage's cheek.
Dorian said as much.
"Do you want me to move?"
So the two of them sat there in the late afternoon sun, side by side, until the shadows grew longer than their silences.
The plans may have taken all of a night to solidify, but getting an entire army moving in accordance with them took somewhat longer. Cullen become ensconced in his duties as commander, as Dorian had known he would. There were scouting reports to read and orders to issue and supplies to have readied for transport, after all. Dorian understood this, and on the rare occasions when he and Cullen saw each other long enough to exchange a few words before tumbling exhausted into bed, he brushed aside ex-templar's apologies with earnest assertions that they were unnecessary. And they were.
He did not while away his days, however. When the man Cullen had found to train him in the quarterstaff--not an easy weapon skill to find a tutor for, in an army composed mostly of soldiers trained previously with the sword or the mace or the axe under one banner or another--was not working him through his paces down in the courtyard, or across the battlements, or anywhere they could find out of the way of the tumult of the readying army, Dorian pursued his studies alone. Whirling the staff up and down, across and around, sweeping out the legs of imaginary foes and repeating the movements he'd been told he must learn to make instinctually to stay alive, he ended every day aching and more than glad just to curl up next to Cullen's sleeping form--or next to the depression in the bed he would occupy when he came back from whatever vital meeting he was then attending.
Dorian knew, too, that Cullen was practicing his magic. He never did it where he could be seen, but sometimes if Dorian was in a nearby building he could sense that peculiar kind of focus in him that meant he was chanelling--or trying to. Dorian had shown him some exercises, after all, so it only made sense that he follow through and practice them when he had a moment alone, becoming more familiar with newfound and most definitely unlooked-for gift. Yet Dorian felt it hard, sometimes, to suppress the pang that arose when he knew Cullen was fumbling his way through something Dorian used to excel at, and could now only describe to him rather than show him. He would have liked to have taught him first-hand--he would have liked, he admitted to himself reluctantly, to have felt impressive again. A master of his craft, shaping the world with the power of his mind as only mages could.
The night before the army was to depart, there was a great party, with bonfires and the most luxurious foodstuffs Josephine could arrange to provide in relatively short order. Privately Cullen had expressed his dismay at the idea of turning his well-trained force of capable soldiers into, for a day at least, a great number of shuffling hungover fighters with queasy stomachs. But apparently great send-offs before a leave-taking were a much-revered custom in Orlais--and there were enough Orlesians in the ranks that denying them their time-honored tradition would be more trouble than it was worth. On the night of the party, then, after the usual amount of rousing speech-giving, Cullen slipped away from the carousing in response to a note passed his way by an artless serving girl whose winks were about as subtle as a mug-banging announcement that Commander Cullen is being called away to the bedroom, good sers! Make way!
Cullen only made it as far as his office, however--for Dorian stood therein, facing the doorway with his hands clasped behind him. He fairly glowed in the moonlight streaming through the windows onto his white robes, and he smiled a little when Cullen strode into the doorway.
"I saw you slip away, earlier--I couldn't believe my eyes. Lord Dorian Pavus, passing up a party?"
"Yes, well, I did take the precaution of having a barrel of Ferelden beer sent up here beforehand, you know. In case you still felt like you were missing out on the party." Dorian grinned. "Besides, I had to get your present."
Cullen cocked his head. "I don't know which to be more shocked about--the choice of beverage or the fact that you got me a going-away present, when we both know you have every intention of sneaking alongside the convoy whether I approve of it or not."
Dorian's face didn't miss a beat, but he knew the jolt of surprise would carry through the bond to Cullen. How did he know? he wondered briefly, before dismissing the entire line of questioning. That didn't matter. What mattered was here, and now.
"Oh, I'm quite the devotee of your local swill," he continued airily. "It's one of the many delightful things you still get to learn about me. But...whether or not I manage to slip into your entourage, you'll still want this," he added, a little less smoothly now. "At least...I think so. I rather think you should. Or would. Oh, just--here." From behind his back he drew a great furred object that gleamed in the moonlight at least as much as he did. Cullen stepped forward and held out his hands for it, but Dorian circled around him, draping the great silver fur over his shoulders. "I know it's not black," Dorian murmured, much less brash now that the gift was out in the open, "but your old one was so dour, and you so pale, and since you...lost it, in the Tower, I thought..." He stepped back, to take in the effect of the commander's new ruff. "You don't have to like it. You should just tell me if you don't. I didn't have it sewn onto your tabard yet in case you didn't. The man said this came from the greatest wolf in the Frostbacks, but you know how these peddlers like to drum up their wares, and..."
Cullen rolled his shoulders under the great furred garment, feeling the weight of it, the coziness of it wrapped around him. Even having just come from the convivial warmth of the great hall, the chill the fur warded off the back of his neck, his shoulders, his whole body, was not insignificant. He smiled.
"It's lovely," he said.
"You don't mind the color?"
Cullen twitched his shoulders up, letting the fur envelop all but his face. "I think it much more fitting for these snowy climes, don't you?"
"That's what I thought!" Dorian preened, circling around Cullen again to get the full effect. When he stopped, Cullen came forward and took his hands, one in each, the flashing of the ex-mage's rings disappearing beneath sweaty palms.
"And now I need to give you your present," Cullen said, a trifle nervous.
Dorian cocked his head curiously. "Even when you know I have every intention of being right there alongside you as you march out those gates tomorrow?
"Very well, then. Lead the way."
Cullen hesitated. "Could you close your eyes?"
Very much intrigued now, Dorian's mouth twitched in anticipation, but did as he was bidden. Cullen tugged him and he stepped forward, following, noting by the blast of cold air their emergence back out onto the battlements.
"Keep going," Cullen urged as he paused.
"If I trip and go over the edge, you're coming with me," Dorian warned, only half in jest as he resumed his forward motion, albeit more gingerly now.
"Without a doubt," Cullen replied.
At last they slowed, and he felt Cullen's hands on his shoulders holding him to a stop. He felt the other man maneuver behind him, then, and sidle up very close, so much so that Dorian could feel the tickle of the fur ruff on either side of his face.
"Keep them closed," Cullen whispered, his lips right at Dorian's ear now, his breath coming in tiny gusts of hot air. Dorian allowed both his arms to be lifted, then, as Cullen slid each of his own arms down Dorian's, entwining their fingers and holding them out straight in front of them.
"All right. Open."
Dorian opened his eyes and saw that they stood on the parapet, the snowy peaks before them, the moon above. Other than that, and the noticeable lack of guards, there was nothing to see. He held his tongue, though, and waited.
"Watch," murmured Cullen. "I've...been practicing." Dorian felt lips on his neck, then, exquisitely tender and delicate, like feathers.
Not just lips, though. Magic moved there, a current of it, not wild with abandon but slow and steady and determined. High tide. He jumped as it poured in, and had to stop himself from whimpering as it washed forward, through his neck and his shoulders, tinglingly familiar and wonderful, down his arms. And then away, to Cullen's arms where they held him in an embrace, drifting back and forth between his body and Cullen's as though there were no difference. And because he could feel what Cullen felt, could feel the magic moving in the other man as surely as it moved in himself, he could no longer tell, when a shower of golden stars cascaded from their entwined fingertips, from whom they actually came, out into the night.
He felt the slightest pressure on his hands, and lifted them. And Cullen's followed, pressed close to his, the magic shifting between the two of them, such a known power and so missed, returned to him. However unique the circumstances. Dorian raised his arm higher, and Cullen's followed, and the stars spilled forth in great gleaming arcs. He slashed his hand quickly across the space and the stars followed, streaming forth, burning their afterimages onto the backs of his eyes. A memory emblazoned in gold.
He leaned back against Cullen then, pressed tight against the full length of him, and fanned out their fingers, sending bursts of light from them like tiny sunrises. His cheek nuzzled against Cullen's, the magic still streaming forth from where they touched, the great silver ruff cradling both of them in its embrace.
"Thank you," he whispered, and felt the catch in his voice as he said it. Felt that, and the relief and pride flooding through Cullen in response, so close and strong he could almost hear it, a chord struck deep and tremulous and vibrating their very bones.
The two of them stood there like that, shooting stars from their fingertips, igniting the frozen peaks with their magic, and their hope, and their love, long into the night. From them the light fell, as it had in the Fade; as it had in a tent in the ruins of Haven and in a stuffy little room in the Winter Palace, and it fell as it should have. Golden and warm, resplendent, transcendent. In defiance of the cold and the dark.