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All For A Kiss

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Cullen's mouth is filled with blood and ash, and that's all he cares to identify as he pushes himself up from the ground with a grunt. Blood runs into his eyes from somewhere though he's sure it's not his own. He wastes a precious moment to swipe at it and get his bearings as he kneels. The overwhelming press of demons and possessed Wardens has thinned. Whatever the force was that threw him to the ground has ripped most of the shades apart and made the rage demons founder.

There's the lingering scent of the storm in the air and Cullen feels the way the small hairs on the back of his neck still stand on end. Lightning then. The air stirs above his head and he ducks back down on instinct. He still has hold of his sword but the sound of crunching bones stays his hand long enough to look before striking.

The huge sledgehammer cuts through the air over his head again and Cullen recognizes the flash of power just over Krem's shoulder as the Charger's "archer" throwing things that cannot be called arrows in any sense of the word despite her protests.

"Still got your head?" Krem's voice echoes in the confines of his helmet. A useful thing to have and Cullen doesn't have the time to chastise himself for losing his so damnably early in the assault.

"I'm fine," Cullen pushes himself up as the Chargers make short work of shoring up the hole that had nearly collapsed their line as the demons had massed suddenly enough that Cullen hadn't been able to shift their forces. Only the warnings of some retreating, sane Wardens had made sure his push to contain chaos didn't fail so soon. "I thought your group was on the southern wall."

"You're welcome," Krem's weapon cracks the stones as he lets it slam down to the ground. The long haft of the weapon propped against his shoulder as he yanks on the buckles of his gauntlets. Tightening and resettling it before slinging his weapon over his shoulder with an ease that's surprising for his frame. Right up until he is seen taking the brunt of The Iron Bull's charge with only a shield and slight shift. "Funny thing about the southern wall though, Commander, is it's being held by a bunch of Gray Wardens now. Not much use for us there."

"Not all of the Wardens seem to approve of the plan to summon a horde of demons," Cullen assesses the placement of the mercenaries. They flow well with his soldiers and fit the gaps left. As expected. The Chargers have been with the Inquisition since Haven, and had more practice working together than any other of their newer gained forces. "Surprisingly, some of them seem to recognize it for the bad idea it is."

Krem's laugh is sharp as the ring of metal as he smacks his weapon down into his free hand. Holding it ready as demons begin to approach again. "Go on then Commander. Show the gloomy bastards not as smart how stupid they are. We've got this area."

~

The Gray Wardens follow them back to Skyhold. Inquisition forces stay in Adamant to finish securing it. To make sure nothing lingers and to find anything that might be too dangerously to leave behind. None of the Wardens asked to stay behind after sending their dead off, and Cullen had spoken against asking it of them. Their loyalty is untested and Cullen knows well the eyes of haunted men.

Leaving the desert is easier than entering it. Even with the siege engines on hand to return. Cullen knows it's the dual nature of victory and loss that quickens his troop’s steps, but he is grateful for it all the same. The sight of demons doesn't paralyze him the way it used to. His duty to rid the world of them had not allowed him to keep that reaction for very long, but he knows himself well enough to know --now that the worst of the danger is over-- his dreams at first camp will not be the pleasant kind. The more distance he puts between him and Adamant won't stop that, but it eases his mind anyway.

Cullen paces pack and forth. Checking in with his soldiers and making sure his face is seen. He's heading up to the front where the Inquisitor is leading the way when he spots Krem, and remembers he has something to say to the man.

"Krem," Cullen says and the man looks over his shoulder before slowing his steps to fall in with Cullen. "I forgot to thank you, for earlier. I'm sure I would have lost more of my head than is healthy back there if not for you."

"Ah, you would have been fine," they both slide a little as the road angles down, and Krem throws him grin that's just charming enough for Cullen to recognize. Dorian uses a brighter version when he's trying to get away with something. "Not too upset we left the southern wall then?"

"No," Cullen responds puzzled for a moment at the random question. It may not have broken their assault, but not having the Chargers there when the line broke would have certainly led to higher losses.

"Really," Krem states and he's equal parts amused and surprised. "We've worked with armies before you know. Had my arse chewed out good a time or two for not sticking to the grand plan."

"I've yet to see a plan survive first blow completely intact. The situation changed and you adapted. That's often how battles are won," Cullen knows the Chargers have worked in many countries, but Orlais has been their main base of operations. He can well imagine the kind of micromanaging that some of those nobles would get up to with a mercenary group. "You are employed by the Inquisition, but you are not my soldiers. I may give some direction, but as long as you do not leave our back unprotected I expect you to know where you are needed most."

It had been one of the conditions insisted on by Bull. The man had been insistent on his Chargers keeping some autonomy. Point them at a target and allow them to figure out how best to get to it. Cullen trusts them to hold to that by now, and being angered over them leaving their place had not occurred to him.

"Good to know, Commander," Krem says though Cullen knows very well that those conditions must have been insisted on by him as well. He's Bull's right hand and knows everything the qunari does. But then, Cullen is aware that knowing something should be true isn't as strong as actually knowing it to be true. "You should stop by once we set up camp. We've got a few casks to break open, share a drink with us. Won't last long with all these thirsty hanger-ons though."

One of the Chargers laughs as Krem waves at the suddenly interested faces of some of Cullen's soldiers. The ones close enough to hear about the casks. Very little can get a soldier's attention like the mention of a drink and Cullen smiles ruefully as he answers honestly, "I think I shall."

~

There aren't too many beggars though. The sight of Cullen watching is enough to deter all but the most shameless of the "bottom feeders" as Rocky likes to call them. It makes him wonder as he nurses, his second mug, if that was the real reason he was invited among them.

"Not too warm is it?" Krem asks. Sprawled out on the ground with his head propped up by his helmet at an angle that's uncomfortable to look at. He's drinking straight from the neck of a wine bottle, his own mug lent to Cullen without hesitation earlier.

Surprisingly, the ale isn't as warm as it should be given the heat of the desert they've been traveling through for over a week. It's a far better quality ale than what's available at Skyhold too, and is easy to drink. Too easy. He'd only planned for one, and now is firmly reminding himself he doesn't need a third. The forces might be bedding down but there's enough to keep Cullen going for the rest of the night if he's not too addled from drink. "Not at all."

"Well if it's not that, then why are you playing with your cups more than drinking?" Krem raises the bottle and there's enough light from the fire that Cullen can see the man's already down to the dregs. "It's not that nug piss we get at Skyhold. So I know it's not the taste."

"No, not the taste. The drink is too fine actually," Cullen tilts the sturdy travel mug far enough down that Krem can see how very little is left in it. "I'd rather not get completely sotted on the road though."

"Best place for it. Especially after a day like today," Krem disagrees. He tilts the bottle straight up and drains it with only a slight grimace at whatever sediment has settled in the bottle. "I think you could use a night of being drunk myself. Show your men you're human enough to make a fool of yourself once in a while. It's do wonders for morale that's for sure. But whatever works for you."

Cullen's a sleepy drunk. More likely to pass out than make an ass of himself, and there was a time when he thought that perfectly fine. A time when not being able to wake himself from nightmares because of the alcohol in his body wasn't a terrifying thought. Cullen smiles politely enough and hands the mug to Krem to finish. He's drunk more than enough already, because he almost shard that thought with the mercenary. "Unfortunately, there's too much left for me to attend to sober. Thank you though, for the drinks."

"Might be some left if you swing by before the Chief gets back," Krem offers and doesn't protest taking the mug back. He eyes the level in it with squinted eyes before shrugging and draining it. It's an open invitation that Cullen won't take up and the man probably knows it but he thankfully doesn't press as Cullen walks away.

~

Cullen manages push through another day before his hands start shaking a little too much. The first warning sign that he's pushed too far and things will go very badly for him if he keeps at it. He sleeps then, and though it's not pleasant at all he gains enough rest from the broken hours before the sun rises again to be functional.

The flush of victory is fading and the army is starting to remember more keenly all those lost on Adamant's walls. Cullen roams the lone of marching men more feely and sees more than a few looks being thrown backwards where the blue of the Gray Warden armor sticks out against the sand of the landscape. It's not surprising or unexpected.

"The men are starting to grow resentful," Cullen reports when he makes his way up to the head of the column next. Cassandra blows out a sharp sigh and her jaw firms up as the Inquisitor closes his eyes for a moment in weariness. "The Wardens camp far enough away that it is not a problem, but it will spill over at Skyhold."

"So it will," Maxwell says when he opens his eyes again. His smile is rueful and tugs at the scars on his face that seem so out of place for a noble. "Well, it's not like anything has been easy yet. We have enough experience with friction in the ranks already."

"Just let them smash the crap out of each other," Bull offers from his post of hovering over the Inquisitor's right shoulder. A spot he hasn't left since Maxwell came stumbling, unexpectedly, back out of the rift after reports had placed him as victim to the dragon. Cullen doesn't know what is between the two men --and quite frankly he's happy with that-- but he's sure it's a bit more than the simple fling that the others seem to view it as. Bull's voice is light and joking, and it matches the smile on his face but none of that reaches his eyes. "Nothing a good brawl can't sort out for them."

"I'd prefer to have a functioning army, not a force of recovering injured," Cullen notes because he's thought of just allowing things to take their natural course. Were it any other group but Wardens he would not have thought twice about it. However, it is Gray Wardens they're dealing with, and Cullen is all too aware of exactly how much damage they can cause should it come to that. Had the majority of the Wardens not come to their senses so soon the Inquisition would have paid far more dearly to breach Adamant.

"We will deal with it at Skyhold," Cassandra decrees with a confidence Cullen's glad one of them feels. "It can be no more difficult that reconciling our mages with our templars has been. There is time yet before we must have a plan."

And opportunities to implement them are --unfortunately-- plentiful. Cullen sees the wisdom in Cassandra's words though and nods. By the time they return to the keep there will no doubt be some matter that needs their attention. Something where the skills of the Wardens can shine through and cut through some of the distrust. He nods and slows his pace to continue watching the men and women as they march.

~

The distance between Cullen's forces and the Wardens is strictly observed, and Cullen feels grateful for the insight from them even as he knows he's going to have to work hard to fix that separation. The Inquisitor wants the Wardens to be part of the Inquisition, and they are now technically his people. The distance is tended to carefully by the Wardens, and strictly enforced for the rest of the army.

Bull eventually wanders back from Maxwell's side as Cullen's observing the dark looks growing darker at the rear of the line. The Chargers fall in around him taking up the very rear. Forming a wall of friendly insults and bickering that turns pointed when any soldier tries to slow. Tries to look beyond them. It's subtle and Cullen appreciates it greatly when the flagging pace of the march picks up a bit more.

Krem finds his Cullen on one of his passes and nods at him. "Thank you."

"No idea what you're on about," Krem says with a smirk that drags one side of his mouth up higher than the other. "And I'd rather be thanked with a round if you're feeling so inclined to keep thanking me."

"Noted," Cullen says and he means it. If they get back to Skyhold without a single incident he'll buy a round for all of the Charges. Just one though.

~

"Not so bad now is it?" Krem asks over a frothy mug that actually smells close to what it tastes like. Nug piss, as the man was so fond of calling it. Cullen drinks anyway, and he's feeling warmer than he should in the Herald's Rest. "I've only seen you disciplining half a dozen groups so far."

"It's only been two days," Cullen wishes Krem hadn't brought that up. He's only on his second round and truly feels like he needs a few more before thinking about the ridiculousness he can already see coming. "Give them time. They'll find things to fight over soon enough."

The Wardens are settled in now, and remarkably insular given the size of the keep. It's taken the soldiers a bit of creative thinking to get into altercations with the Wardens. It will not last though. Frustration is building among them, and Cullen's still sorting out the ranks for them. Those who led them were the first to die at Adamant, and what he's left with are only a handful of people with more than a year as a Warden.

They're resilient and dealing well with the massive losses they've taken, but they are still only mortal in the end. Mortal men and women who will snap and lash out when pushed far enough.

"You're a barrel of cheer tonight. Need any more of that to help?" Krem waves at Cullen's mug as he stands and Cullen doesn't have time to debate before Krem makes the decision for him. "Give it here."

Laughter rises too loud for Cullen's dutiful protest to be heard. Krem sits in the corner of the tavern. On the edge of his company where he can listen in on them and still keep watch of the rest of the building. Cullen leans back in the stool he kicked over when the other mercenaries started pressing him for another round.

Maxwell sits easily among them. Laughing and listening intently to their tales. A prominent reminder of his trust in the mercenaries that had worked wonders for silencing the grumbles from the soldiers at their presence. Though Cullen's sure it does little to silence the rumors about what is between him and Bull. Not that either man appears to care much to Josephine's consternation.

The tavern is full. The returning troops making their presence known as they fill the building up to the rafters. Though the very top floor is grudgingly filled as usual. If he wanted to he could look up and would likely see Cole perched on the railing mostly ignored by the people around him, but not ignoring them in turn.

Crockery clatters on the barrel between Cullen and Krem's chair when he returns with more than just ale. He's got two steep walled bowls filled with a thick brown liquid. Unidentifiable lumps breaking the surface here and there. A hunk of bread and a square of crumbling cheese are laid out as well and Krem smirks at Cullen's look. "You've drunk enough that it won't taste as bad as it actually is."

There's paperwork that has built up in the time he was away. Plans to make and new incidents to read up on and familiarize himself with. He has recruiters to send out and new recruits to test. Patrols to assign and several personal requests to look over. Sleep should ideally also happen sometime in that mess as well. He shouldn't be here much longer. He's already spent more time than he'd planned sitting.

"I don't know," he picks up the hot bowl and cradles it in his left hand dubiously. "I've heard things about the tavern food."

Usually from men or women with pale faces curled over a privy hole or clutching a spare bucket. Muttering prayers and depreciations in equal measure.

"Guarantee you they're not even close to the truth," Krem shows no hesitation in breaking the bread up and using it to scoop out some of the stew. Though he does wash down the first bite with a hearty drink. "Come on, Commander. You've been so busy lately I don't think I've seen you stop by the hall for a meal at all lately."

"I do eat," just not in the main hall. Usually a messenger or one of Leliana's people run him down with a tray just as he's thinking about stopping by the kitchen so he's had no need. He follows Krem's example and scoops up a generous bite with some bread. It's bland and warm. Not very good but better than Cullen's had before, and not deserving of the depreciations he's heard about it. "I also sleep and shave like any other man despite what the rumors may say."

"Don't let word of that get out or your men'll die of shock," Krem settles back to sit sideways in his chair. Eyes straying back to the tavern floor for a moment before flicking over to the tables occupied by his men, and then over to Cullen again. It's a pattern he settles into so that he can see everything. "Some of your friends too I suspect."

"Indeed," Cullen no longer startles when Leliana's voice leaps out behind him unexpectedly. Jumping only amuses her though ignoring her tendency to sneak has yet to make her stop. Her hand is light as she leans over his shoulder to peer into his bowl. Her other hand places a rolled parchment next to his ale. Unmarked and sealed only with a bit of twine. Information then, but nothing important that needs immediate attention. Just something that only his eyes need to see. "Though we do appreciate what a good meal and decent night of sleep does for our commander's good looks."

Krem barks out a laugh as the woman leaves and Cullen sighs at the joke that's already grown old.

~

It comes slowly. A comment here, another there, and Cullen suddenly feels awkward and more than a bit foolish. Krem's face is softer, and his voice not as deep but Cullen hadn't really thought....

No one said differently though, and how was he supposed to know? Was he supposed to know? Krem is Bull's second in command and the qunari calls him a man when he's not calling him several insulting names. He's qunari though, and apt to confuse one human for another without care. Cullen wonders on it a bit but the Chargers do not all share that in common, and to them Krem is a man. Cullen has spent enough time around them to be sure of that.

Cullen lingers in his office under the pretext of catching up on the reports that don't ever truly stop coming in. He makes good headway with it and little else. Dorian tracks him down and drags him out eventually. Determined to regain some pride from the last rout of a game.

Cullen's attention is only half on the game much to the other man's delight as Cullen immediately loses three pieces to Dorian's bold attack strategy. He's smirking and Cullen wonders if there's any overlap between the noble class of Tevinter and the lower ranks.
"Are there women in the Tevinter army?" Cullen asks and the unexpectedness of it makes Dorian's hand falter a little. He puts his piece down on the wrong square and scowls down at it as Cullen takes the small reprieve.

"Yes," Dorian chooses to answer the question though he watches with hawk-like intensity as Cullen makes his move to exploit the mistake. "Though you're not likely to encounter them. Women serve in less aggressive positions than they do in the southern countries."

"I see," is that it then? No one can deny that Krem is a fighter through and through. Is his --her?-- manner and habits a holdover from that? Dorian's next move minimizes his mistake and Cullen takes his time to look over the whole board.

"Do you?" Dorian asks and leans back in his chair to wait. His eyes are shrewd as he tents his fingers before him. "I don't suppose this conversation is going the way I think it is, is it? You have been spending a remarkable chunk of time with the Chargers of late," he grins suddenly. Bright and deeply amused as he leans forward quickly and drops his voice. "Tell me, Cullen, were you not aware of Krem's unique situation?"

Cullen plants the heel of his hand against Dorian's forehead and pushes the man back, but knows his face is burning with embarrassment even before he speaks. "No, I was not. I'm still not if you wish me to be perfectly honest."

"Well I suppose I can help the poor man out," Dorian fusses with his hair for a bit. Ignoring the glare Cullen gives him as he takes his time to resettle himself in his chair. "He must truly be tired of telling the same story over and over again. For being such an, ah, open people the strangest things seem to confound you."

"And will you take pity on the poor barbaric southern or continue to gloat?" Cullen asks with a patient sigh because Dorian is fueled by the frustrations of others.

"Krem was born a woman physically, but he is in fact a man despite that," Dorian says simply, and then waits expectantly.

"I don't understand," because Cullen doesn't. He truly doesn't, and he almost thinks Dorian is jesting but it's not really the kind of topic he would joke over. "It has nothing to do with the Tevinter military? He deserted because-"

"Ah!" Dorian holds one hand up in a firm gesture and shakes his head. "No, not at all! Krem wasn't drummed out so fiercely for that. Trust me. The men who went after him were far more concerned with the fact that Krem had lied than anything else. Or maybe just that he got caught actually now that I think about it. I can assure you they didn't give two damns about whether the bulge in his pants was real or not."

Cullen blinks and reaches out to make his move. He doesn't understand, and maybe he can't. Dorian takes two more of his pieces and Cullen knows he should concede to save his dignity, but he doubts he has much left after that fumbling attempt to gain an answer.

"Enough of that. If you frown any harder I'm afraid you'll break your face," Dorian holds up one of the pieces he had just captured. "You are worried that you've said something to cause offense, or that you will eventually."

Cullen flinches as Dorian puts his finger right on a matter he hasn't yet gotten around to truly thinking about, but is true all the same. "I wasn't before."

"You've done a good job so far when you did not think about it at all," Dorian makes a pleased sound when Cullen makes his next move. "Continue as you are. I'm sure Krem is more than capable of speaking up to correct anything he may have issue with."

Another truth though Dorian understates it greatly. Krem can shout down anything with the kind of loud and commanding voice needed on the battlefield, but it's his dry quips are far more feared by those who know him. Almost as much as his uncanny accuracy for throwing things across the tavern when he doesn't feel like raising his voice.

"That is a very good point," Cullen concedes.

"Me, the voice of reason. I think I need to have a few drinks until the taste of that washes out of my mouth. I do believe this game is mine as it is," Dorian says as he places Cullen into check. Far too easily and Cullen will need to work hard to beat down the smugness the other man will throw in his face until the next game. Dorian wait for Cullen to tip his king in acceptance of the defeat before rising to his feet with a brilliant white toothed grin. "Care to join me? Watching you trip over your words would be a perfect end to my day."

Cullen weighs his king in one hand briefly before throwing it at Dorian's smirk.

~

Cullen does not understand still, but that does not matter he starts to think. There are many things he doesn't understand. The concept isn't entirely foreign to him when he thinks about it either. Though Cullen does try his best not to use his time in Kirkwall as a way to measure the world by too often. Dorian's advice, glib as it was no doubt meant to be, is perhaps the best he's heard.

He returns to occasionally drinking ale that tastes like nug piss, sitting on a stool too short for his legs, and listening to the creative insults Skinner shouts up to Sera at random. And he doesn't think about it.

It works in fits and starts that get easier with time and one very memorable threat involving Cullen's family jewels that he's not entirely sure isn't something made up after a few too many drinks or not.

~

"I won't say no," Krem says as Bull throws four of Cullen's strongest men into the ivy covered wall near the practice dummies. One by one, quick enough that there's almost a rhythm to it. "But I have to point out that you pay us well, and part of that pay is meant to go to keeping us well equipped."

The men shake it off admirably and are back in the brawl. Their faces are contorted with the kind of frustrated anger that bounces right off of Bull's booming laugh. His amusement, not hidden at all, over being able to so easily best them does nothing for the men's egos, and their rage fuels them to acts of stupidity. The same stupidity that has seen them in his office twice so far this month. It's why Cullen had thrown them at the qunari instead of making them do some other kind of punishment for their latest actions.

"It's less for you than the Inquisition," Cullen points out as Bull makes a remark too low for Cullen to hear, but that makes one of the men scream in rage. The man's lost what little sense he once had, and all of his training is forgotten in that rage. "I am seeing a pattern of problems in my forces and I am liking the solution the Inquisitor has proposed."

Varric seems skeptical that stupid can be beaten out of people, but Cullen is willing to give it a try for as long as Bull is up for it. He doubts that the qunari will ever say no though.

"It is nice seeing the Chief beat up on someone else," Krem offers as two of the men go sprawling in the dirt. One has a streak of blood going down his face, but his eyes are livid and unthinking as he throws himself at Bull's back. He clings on with all his strength as Bull continues to toss his friends around. Seemingly oblivious to the man's attempts to choke him. "It's hard keeping up with him sometimes. Has too damned much energy most days."

"You do well enough," Cullen turns away from the fight. Krem's still sweating from the sparring he'd interrupted, but he doesn't look any worse for the wear though Cullen knows Bull wasn't going any easier on him.

"Practice," Krem dismisses, "and the ability to keep a cool head."

Someone shouts something implausible about Bull's mother that gets cut off with a crack of the wooden practice shield that's audible. Krem winces, but it doesn't diminish the smirk that slowly spreads across his face. A bead of sweat shifts and rolls down his jawline, and Cullen watches it.

"Putting it that way, you can tell your Lady Ambassador that the Chargers will be more than happy to accept the new shields," Krem's voice startles Cullen enough to look up in time to meet the man's eyes when he turns back to look at him. "Payment for the lessons we'll be teaching your men. Just don't blame me if they come back a little mouthier than usual."

"I-" Cullen makes himself look back to the area where Bull is standing over the defeated soldiers. They'll need a healer to look at them, but the mindless anger is gone from them for the moment. Hopefully to stay away though only time will tell for that. He focuses on them and assessing their states to forget the way his eyes lingered. "I'll take their lip over their insubordination any day."

"You say that now," Krem pushes off the wall and claps a friendly hand on his shoulder before sauntering away.

~

It catches Cullen at odd times. The tavern is a nightly stop for him now unless dire missions dictate it, or Bull has his people out in the field. He doesn't always go to sit with Krem, but more often than not he finds himself in the stool that's now a permanent fixture in the corner. Listening to colorful stories of the jobs the Chargers have been hired for, and watching the door so Krem can keep a better eye on his men.

It's awkward and confusing all over, because he's not sure he should find something attractive in the way the soft light of the tavern softens Krem's cheeks. That a few dark drops of wine on his lower lip should be worth of study, or that Cullen can perfectly recall the crooked angle of his smirk when the Chargers are away.

Krem is a steady and calming presence. A perfect foil for Bull, and many others when Cullen thinks of it. He's glad to think he might call him a friend. Any thought beyond that are easily pushed aside.

~

"A sister?" Krem asks and Cullen wonders how concerned he should be over the mercenary reading his personal letters in his office. He decides he'd rather that over Krem reading any of the other reports littering his desk by the time the man lets out a low whistle. Impressed, and Cullen knows which letter he picked based off that alone. "She seems pretty terrifying."

"I'm the youngest of four," Cullen reaches for the letter and Krem gives it up only after a few seconds. Seconds needed to finish reading it no doubt. He buries it back under another pile of reports for later when he's figured out a way to keep her from following up on her threat to travel to Skyhold with words that won't ensure she shows up with the whole family in tow. "She worries needlessly."

"You have an entire army that would agree with you," Krem folds his arms over his chest, and the motion pulls at the sleeves of the simple shirt he's wearing tight against the muscles of his arms. A nonsensical thing that Cullen only notices because it's not often Krem is seen without armor. "And over a dozen friends who would loudly agree with her. Most of whom are waiting in the tavern right now."

"Is that why you're here?" Cullen asks with a groan he doesn't try to conceal. The card games have become a weekly occurrence. Attended --by the command of Varric-- by whomever is still at the keep. "What excuse it the dwarf using now?"

"None, Commander, he's carefully deciding which bit of blackmail to use," Krem smirks as Cullen shifts because if there is blackmail out there that would force his hand Varric would have it. "He's about to start debating the merits of it all out loud, and I thought you'd like the chance to stop him before Sera hears anything."

"Maker," Cullen groans but doesn't delay in dragging himself after a laughing Krem. He knows better than to think Varric is bluffing.

~

"I don't have any siblings," Krem offers the next day. Nursing the same headache that Cullen is trying to ignore as Bull delights in his newest set of living practice dummies. Men caught harassing an elven merchant for extremely unacceptable reasons.

"You're lucky," Cullen says automatically. He loves his family, but that love has always been stronger with distance.

"You really think so?" Krem asks with a wry twist of lips that almost makes Cullen forget his aching head. Maker, he needs to learn to say no when the rounds get longer. "Might not have cocked up so bad if I weren't the only kid to carry on the family."

"Maybe, maybe not," Cullen answers and closes his eyes to block out some of the light form the rising sun. "You could have just as easily ended up in a worse spot as not."

Krem laughs and the sound makes Cullen wince even though the other man stops as abruptly as he started. "True, but it might have made my mother happier to have one kid who'd do what she wanted them to."

Cullen wonders at the Tevinter obsession with marrying for status. He can follow it to a point, but there's a line where it crosses over into what Cullen frankly thinks of as absurdity. Dorian and Krem have touched on it around Cullen. Two men from entirely different stations but seemingly the same in this one area.

"You don't speak of her much," Cullen settles on saying instead, because he's not sure he's up to dealing with the intricacies of social hierarchy in Tevinter at the moment. Krem speaks often about his father. Sad memories, perhaps, given his status as a slave, but rarely does he ever mention the woman who gave birth to him.

"Not much to say," Krem replies and there's a shortness to his voice that Cullen might have missed if his eyes were open. It lurks under the dry humor of his words. "She did her best to dress me up so I could marry rich and take care of her. Didn't do right by her until I started getting the kind of pay to keep her in dresses for a while."

"You didn't even like the matches she tried making?" Cullen asks and nearly wants to hit himself for it. It strays right over the line he's been uncertainly toeing. Addressing Krem directly in a way Cullen's still not sure is insulting or not.

"Oh no, they were pretty enough to look at, but absolutely boring to talk to. Merchant sons, you know? Aren't taught anything more than how to count their money and make more of it. Besides," something hard and pointy, probably an elbow, digs into his side until Cullen cracks one eye open, "I like fighting too much to settle some merchant. Unless it's an arms seller, but they'd still have to be really pretty or I'm likely to spend more time out on missions than home."

There's no sign of anger or injury at all. Just the same dry humor Krem touches everything with, and Cullen relaxes a little.

"You'd do that anyway," Cullen can't help the smile that curves up his lips, because he can't think of any of the Chargers going anywhere without Bull and Krem hovering over them.

"It wouldn't matter if I found someone to go with me," Krem says with a bright grin that makes him wince and shutter his eyes.

"Yes," Cullen says and then can't think of another thing to say so he turns back to watch the pummeling and lets the silence stand between them.

~

"Hey, Cullen," Bull's hand is a heavy weight that drags his shoulder down without trying. "You got a moment?"

Cullen turns to face the man as the others continue on to the main hall. "Of course."

Bull leads him back into the now empty War Room, and Cullen picks up the sleek quill Josephine left behind. She'll search her desk for an hour before remembering where it is if he doesn't return it to its rightful place. "What did you need?"

"Huh, hold on," Bull leans against the table and crosses his arms. His brow furrows in dissatisfaction. "Never been in this kind of situation before so I'm a little lost for words."

"Situation?" Cullen sets the quill down and give the man his full attention. Mind going through anything he's heard lately that might concern him. There's plenty to go through but none seem particularly relevant. No more than usual threats to the Inquisitor's life that is. "What kind of a problem is it?"

"The kind of problem where you're a good guy, and I like you," Bull grumbles. Clearly annoyed even as his words throw Cullen as hard as any of Bull's shield bashes do. "Kinda takes the fun out of threatening to castrate you if you do anything stupid."

"I," Cullen blinks and looks Bull over closely, but the man is absolutely sincere. Which does nothing alleviate his confusion. Sharper now with alarm. "Why? What have I done?"

"Too soon?" Bull looks him over with an arched eyebrow before nodding sharply. "Yeah, too soon. Sorry about that. Let's forget this ever happened, and when it comes up again I should have something to say."

Bull has long legs that can eat up the ground when he wants them to, and he's gone before Cullen can question him further. He stares at the quill and tries to sort it out but his best thought lead to Sera setting this up somehow. It's left him as baffled as any conversation with her ever does.

~

Cullen should know better. No, that's an excuse. He does know better. He just apparently keeps forgetting that he should never bet against an Antivan. Somehow he keeps forgetting the vow that's quickly become an almost weekly thing.

Josephine smiles brightly like a child at a candy seller's shop and nods expectantly down to the center of the table. "My winnings, Commander."

Cullen glares ruefully at the hand that was so damn good, but just not good enough to beat hers. "May I have my bucket, please?"

Blackwall reaches over Sera --who is closest to the bucket, but is busy laughing herself into an early death-- and passes the wooden bucket to him. Cullen shifts to scoot as close to the table as he can before reaching for his smalls. The last stitch of clothing he has left on him. The procedure is sadly familiar enough that his dangling bits aren't exposed for long as he throws the clothing on the pile with the rest of his things.

His dignity no longer comes to these weekly games.

"Well," Maxwell drawls out as Josephine neatly folds the items into a little bundle Cullen won't see again until the morning. His face nearly split in half from the wide grin he's been wearing since he stopped playing after losing his shirt. "Our Commander is completely undone," Dorian brays with laughter and Cullen thinks hard about throwing something at him, but knows his aim is compromised. "I believe that's our signal to call it a night. Before we make any poorer decisions."

The ribbing and laughter is comfortable now though Cullen slaps out at Sera until she stops trying pinch him somewhere uncomfortable. They break up slowly. One by one, and a few as a pair. Cullen waits for them to clear out before standing. Thankful as always their games wait until the tavern is closed and the usual patrons are long gone. The perks of rank.

Walking while covering himself with a bucket is awkward but doable and Cullen stops at the stairs leading up in the tavern to try to recall the guard rotation. Some nights it's best for him to take the quicker route of the battlements. Others he finds himself skulking around the shadows of the courtyard.

"It's a cloudy night," Cullen nearly loses his grip on the bucket as he turns his head around. Krem's in his usual seat, feet propped up on a crate, bottle dangling from his fingers, and a toothy grin on his face. His eyes are nowhere above stomach height and Cullen turns to face him out of reflex. Though the bucket only makes the man snicker. "The only moon that'll be out will be yours. I'm sure you can make a run for it up on the walls."

"Thanks," Cullen mutters and knows that he's flushing a bright, embarrassed red. He can feel the heat of it as it crawls across his face and down his neck. "I thought you retired for the night an hour ago."

Krem rarely stays through the whole game. Too used to being up early for the last watch, he'd once confided. It also gave him an excuse not to deal with the stupidly drunk more than he had to.

"Forgot something," Krem holds up the still sloshing bottle in explanation. He's blatantly ogling Cullen and making no secret of it. "And when I came back for it you were already out of your shirt so I decided to stick around for once. Chief's right, you do look human without all that armor on."

"And I look a fool without the clothes," Cullen debates the merits of darting up the stairs over slinking out the front door.

"A pretty fool. Going to have to have some words with the Chief in the morning. He's been keeping vital information from me," Krem sits up and his boots fall to the floor with loud thuds. Sera's voice floats down from above. Indistinct but cross. "Well no one asked you!" Krem shouts back as he stands. A shade unsteady but still grinning wide. He takes a pull from his bottle and winks at Cullen. "Don't let me keep you from your shame filled walk back."

Krem settles back on his heels and give the impression he's willing to wait for Cullen to leave first, and Cullen groans before snatching what pride he has left. He's the fool who bet his clothing. He can take the shame of being seen walking about nude as his penance for it.

"A good night to you, Cremisius," Cullen says after straightening up. He then turns and walks up the stairs like he normally would. No slower and no faster even as the flush expands to his ears at the sharp whistle from below.

~

"I've heard the worst sort of rumor about you from a little bird," Dorian announces in an obvious ploy to stall. His fingers are dancing between the pieces on the board and Cullen keeps his gaze steady on them. Doesn't let himself be distracted or the mage will end up switching the pieces on him and protest his innocence with the kind of zeal and outrage that should be kept to more serious matters.

"Do tell," Cullen doesn't let himself be distracted by the flash of light barely seen out of the corner of his eye. It's irrelevant and most likely Dorian's doing. "Wait, and actual bird of Leliana's or are we talking about someone else?"

It's a slight distinction but a necessary one regardless.

"It doesn't matter who I heard it from, just that I heard it," Dorian grudgingly makes his move and 'accidentally' knocks two others out of place. Cullen snaps his hand out to correct their placement before Dorian can muddle it up further. "The rumor goes that you are hopeless which we all know and are not the least bit surprised by. So I nearly tuned it out until an interesting clarifier was added on."

"And what would that be?" Cullen plays along even as he makes his next move quickly. Not giving Dorian time to settle back in his seat and plot. The man like to play for time when he's losing and pressing him often flusters him. A hard feat that Cullen thoroughly enjoys exploiting when he can.

"That you're a hopeless romantic," Dorian spits the word out thought Cullen's sure that has more to do with the fact he has to think up another plan than any distaste he has for the word. "Also not a surprise for anyone who has seen you make those sad puppy eyes at Krem, but I just thought you would like to know it's a rumor that's being talked about."

"I do not-!" Cullen jerks his eyes back down and catches Dorian trying to lift a blocked in pawn. He scowls until the piece is put back down before continuing in a calmer voice. "I do not make eyes at Krem."

Possibly, the words would sound more convincing if Cullen weren't so sure his ears are turning red.

"And I'm thinking about asking Mother Giselle to preside over my vows of chastity and giving up everything good that makes life worth living," Dorian drawls out with a smug smile as he places his piece with the same flourish he gives a particularly showy spell. "Cullen, I have eyes and I use them. It's clear to anyone who care to look. Granted, not many do, but I do like to think we are friendly enough that I can tell when you are needlessly pining."

"I am not," Cullen says and then reaches for a knight and moves it to put Dorian into check. A move the other man clearly had not been anticipating going by the way he devolves into some really filthy sounding Tevinter cursing.

~

Denial is not a strong suit for Cullen though. He's tried hiding within it often enough to know that by now.

"I thought about writing a serial about you once," Varric remarks with a knowing smirk that Cullen thinks about punching off his face for several long minutes. The dwarf came in person this time to escort Cullen to the weekly game. "Too boring though. Plus I'm really not good at the sappy shit."

"Must you?" Cullen asks wearily.

"Yes, I really must."

Cullen did not expect any other answer.

~

He cuts down on his alcohol consumption for the game, and nearly stops drinking entirely when Varric very unsubtly changes seats to allow Krem to join the table. He considers cutting down everyone else’s' drinking when they all shift. Sprawling out and pushing around the table until Cullen's pressed right up against Krem's side with nowhere to go.

Smooth and subtle, Cullen knows now, are words that can only be applied to Leliana who is grinning gleefully at him from across the table. Proving that even she can occasionally forget their meaning. Cullen repeats his earlier lament for everyone, "Must you?"

"Yes," Maxwell states without the decency to try to look confused or innocent. "It was this or lock you two in one of the cells with some supplies."

"Told them you wouldn't mind the bars and chains, but they just wouldn't listen to me," Bull explains with a sigh that can be nearly felt as much as heard. "Even after I told them about that last time you got put in a cell with-"

"All right, you nosy bastard! We swore never to talk about the time you almost got married to that crazy bird smuggler," Bull winces and Maxwell swivels his head to fix him with a curious look. Krem tosses back his cup and stands. He plants his fists on the table and leans over it to glare Bull right in the eye. "I'm off, and I expect a round at dawn if I have to drag your hung over arse out myself."

"You gonna be that cruel to Cullen?" Bull asks with a leer that leaves nothing about his meaning to the imagination. "Cold, Krem. Literally. I hear the Commander's still got a hole in his ceiling. Guy needs something warm to cuddle with in the morning."

Cullen groans at the laughter that gets from the table and feels cold along his side as Krem pushes away from the table. Mortification simmers gently until a calloused hand knots itself into the back of his collar and pulls him up. Krem pushes him towards the stairs with one hand and aims a vulgar gesture back at the table as he walks them both away. "Like those twins you swore were only looking for a warm spot to curl up next to for a few hours?"

"Twins?" Maxwell asks and the rest of what he says gets lost as Sera speaks up in outrage.

"You horned prick! You were supposed to send them to me!"

"I am sorry," Cullen starts and is cut off with a snort as Krem jerks his head up the stairs. He's smiling, Cullen notices when he turns for the next set.

"The Chief isn't one for subtlety," Krem says as they climb up to the third floor and are well out of hearing range of the others. He sounds resigned but affectionate as he says it and Cullen knows the feeling. "Apparently it's rubbing off on the Boss."

"Maker. I did not need that image, Krem," Cullen stops to rub at his eyes with a groan, because he doesn't need to even imagine it. He's seen it and it still haunts his memories along with Cassandra's yelling.

"Rather think about me rubbing off on someone then, Cullen?" Krem asks in an even tone of voice that hits hard paired with both the image and the use of his name instead of title.

"I, no!" Cullen's grateful for the lack of light this late as he turns to Krem. Visible but indistinct enough to hide a multitude of embarrassing tics. Enough to give Cullen the confidence to correct himself. "Not just anyone."

"You?" Krem asks, and there's nothing more than straightforward interest in his voice.

"If you'd have me."

"Wasn't quite sure you'd be the type to enjoy being bent over or not," Krem says, and the first thought in Cullen's mind is not 'How?' but 'Yes!'. Cullen swallows and the dry click his throat makes is loud. Krem's smirk turns devious and his hand is warm against Cullen's back as he pushes him up the stairs. "Clearly I was wrong and have some things to prepare."

~

The air outside is bracingly cool and Cullen enjoys it as much as the heat he can feel still soaking into him from Krem's hand.

"It's a nice night," Cullen hears the words come out of his mouth with a kind of muted horror reserved for his lesser nightmares. The ones that are more about giving a briefing in the War Room while completely naked than demons trying for his sanity.

"Have your nerves cracked?" Krem says after a long silence to better appreciate the inanity of Cullen's opening bid for the conversation. "Or is your sanity finally giving up on you?"

"Can't it be both?" Cullen answers a question with a question and stops walking to lean up against the walls. He likes it out here on the battlements. Seeing the mountains give way under the keep is a breathtaking and soothing sight, but he doesn't look outward today. "I'm rather inexperienced in, hm, relationships in general as it is. And the uncertainty that I'm doing, saying something wrong makes that worse. I don't know-"

Cullen cuts himself off with gritted teeth because he doesn't know far too much. Too much to lay out neatly in precise points so that they can be addressed easily. He's tried himself with a scrap of paper he ended up burning. More because the exercise was futile than anything else.

"Right then," Krem mutters. He steps back and looks first one way then the other. Long searching looks that apparently show him what he wants to see as he nods to himself before turning back to Cullen.

Cullen's head bounces off the stone of the wall as he's pushed into it with one hard shove. The fur lining offering a little protection that he doesn't get to appreciate before Krem's on him. Pressing him hard to the wall with body and lips.

The kiss is fierce and forceful. Cullen gives into it as much out of want as to keep his lips from splitting open, and Krem growls

"Don’t worry that pretty little head of yours," Krem smirks. A lopsided thing that pulls the corner of his mouth up in a way that’s distracting in new ways now that Cullen knows how they taste and feel. "I’ll tell you what to do. No guessing or doubting at all. You’re a fighter. I’m sure you can follow orders as well as you give them. Right?"

"Yes," it’s a relief to hear and it has nothing on the way his gut tightens at the last sentence. Imagining the kind of orders Krem might give him when alone. "I can follow orders."

"Then we’ll get on just fine, you and I," Krem predicts with confidence and pushes away from him smoothly enough that Cullen isn't the least bit surprised when the soldier on wandering patrol comes through the door of the tower. The man salutes and continues on easily. Not seeing anything out of the ordinary though Cullen would swear it's written all over his face. "You should stop by the tavern for a drink tomorrow, Commander."

The invitation is casual and not one bit out of line from the hundred other invitations Krem has issued before. Cullen has to swallow to clear his tight throat when he responds though, because he knows that invitation won't end with just a drink or bit of food this time. "I'll have to see what I can arrange."

"You do that," Krem says and waits half a moment for the soldier to be lost in the dark to reach out rub his thumb against Cullen's lower lip. A wiping motion, over and done with quickly as he steps back with a nod.

Cullen tastes salt and the aftertaste of some wine when he licks his lips, and wonders if he'll be able to concentrate at all tomorrow.