The Bull’s Chargers slept mornings and trained afternoons. When the sun went down, they packed their gear away and drank and diced and wenched well into the night. Even among mercenaries, they stood out as lax and undisciplined, infuriatingly so. They were sloppy and poorly outfitted, they mouthed off; they organized a boxing league among the enlisted men. Cullen had assumed the Herald was joking when they asked that funds be allocated to pay their exorbitant rates, but no. The Herald was taken with the Chargers’ commander and insisted that they be hired on.
“You haven’t seen them in action,” said the Herald, wide-eyed and earnest, leaning forward on the war table and making a mess of his maps. “The Iron Bull chopped two ‘Vints in half with one swing!”
It was enough to drive a man to drink, but Cullen could ill afford another bad habit. Instead, he observed them in the practice yards. If he compiled enough evidence of their inefficacy, he could talk Cassandra and Leliana around and force them to take action. The Chargers threatened the reputation and discipline of the entire Inquisition. Bad enough to be seen hiring mercenaries, worse to be paying a company of louts to drink all the good ale and go about pantsless.
There was only one among their number who held any promise as a soldier. The Bull’s lieutenant--Cremisius Aclassi, Tevinter-born, a deserter from the Imperial army--was courteous and punctual. He acted as an intermediary between the Chargers and the Inquisitions, and all Cullen’s direct dealings with the mercenaries had been through him. Cullen liked the man’s military manner and bearing; he admired the good state of his armor and weaponry. Every morning, Aclassi rose at dawn to drill with the Inquisition’s troops. His form was excellent, betraying genuine skill and discipline. He was young, but plainly skilled and well-seasoned, and Cullen planned to extend an offer of employment when he dismissed the Chargers. Aclassi would do very well in the Inquisition, very well indeed.
Cullen watched him sparring with one of the younger recruits. The girl was seventeen, eighteen at the most, and green as glass. Aclassi corrected her form, adjusted her grip, and lead her through a simple routine of thrusts and blocks. “You’ll need to build up strength in your arms and shoulders,” he said, nudging her elbows into the proper position. “It’s tiring, but good defensive form’ll save your life out on the field.”
The girl beamed up at him, batting her eyelashes. She said something Cullen couldn’t hear, and Aclassi coughed and looked away, color rising in his cheeks. “Some other time,” he said, gruffly. “Focus on your stance.”
He glanced over at Cullen, and a frown flickered across his face. He turned abruptly and spoke to the girl again, too quiet to overhear. She nodded and Aclassi walked away, disappearing into the crowd. The girl returned to her fellows, giggling, and resumed sparring, her form much improved.
He didn’t see Aclassi again until midday. Noting the position of the sun in the sky, Cullen called a break for lunch. The clack of wooden swords ceased, and the recruits lowered their practice weapons, sighing as they stretched sore muscles. Chatter picked up as they shuffled towards Haven en masse in search of a hot meal. Cullen counted heads as they filed past, idly wondering where Aclassi had run off to. He sighed, scratching his stubble, and set off towards his quarters in the Haven Chantry, intending to rest his eyes for a moment before training resumed that afternoon.
He approached the Chantry by the back way, circling around the tavern and cutting through the ring of huts where the mages slept, intending to check that all was as it should be. Aclassi was waiting for him there, leaning against a clapboard wall, still dressed a quilted sparring jacket.
Cullen lifted his hand in greeting, but the other man cut him off.
“If you’ve got a problem with me,” he said, “Just say it.”
“I’ve heard enough crap from enough men like you,” said Aclassi, nostrils flaring. “You’re always staring at me.Go ahead, say it.”
“Say what?” Cullen wracked his brain, unable to come up with an inciting incident. “If this is about your ‘traveling expenses’ again, I’ve already told you, the answer is ‘no.’”
Aclassi faltered. “You don’t know?” he said.
“Don’t know what?”
The other man laughed, all the tension draining from his shoulders. He extended his hand, a lazy, lopsided grin on his broad face. “I owe you an apology,” he said cheerily. “Seems I misjudged you.”
Cullen shook his hand, thoroughly confused. “I don’t understand.”
“Don’t worry about it,” said Aclassi, patting his shoulder. “Just a misunderstanding, that’s all.” He smiled again, throwing all of his features into sharp relief. Cullen stared at him, blankly, noticing for the first time that the other man was handsome. No wonder the recruits had been throwing themselves at him; ten years ago, Cullen might have done the same.
He shook the thought away as a dog shook off water. “Whatever it was, you have my apologies.” Cullen shied away from the other man. “If you’ll excuse me, Lieutenant Aclassi.”
The other man winced. “Krem,” he said, shaking his head. “Andraste's ass, don’t call me Lieutenant Aclassi. Maker.”
“Krem,” Cullen repeated, testing the feel of the name on his tongue. “Very good. Shorter.”
“That is the point,” Krem said drily. “Sorry for accusing you. Won’t happen again.” He stood back and gestured for Cullen to pass.
The space between the two huts wasn’t wide enough to permit them both, so Cullen turned sideways to slip past. For another moment, he found himself face-to-face with Lieutenant Aclassi--with Krem, he corrected himself--and he was again struck by the natural symmetry of his features. He noticed, for the first time, a scar on Krem’s chin: twin to his own, faded but still visible against his olive skin.
Cullen nodded in farewell. He turned up his collar and strode purposefully toward the Chantry, his face burning.
He would rather amputate his feet at the ankles than say so out loud, but Cullen grudgingly acknowledged that the Herald had, perhaps, been correct in their assessment of the Chargers’ worth.
The following season was marked by an increase in demon activity throughout Southern Thedas. The Inquisitor alone could seal rifts, but the Chargers proved themselves useful in mopping up afterwards, defending isolated farms and settlements from encroaching demons. Reviewing his own ledgers and Krem’s field notes, Cullen realized that the Chargers were, if anything, underpaid.
The recruits, young and old, continued to flirt with Krem. One woman accused him of fathering her child, which reduced the Iron Bull to a fit of hysterics unbecoming of a member of the Herald’s inner circle. “Trust me,” the Qunari wheezed, clapping Cullen on the shoulder. “The kid ain’t Krem’s.”
Cullen, feeling more like a nursemaid than a commander, was forced to sort out the entire mess. After a week of stomping around the barracks, demanding answers, it emerged that the child’s father was one of the Inquisitor’s pet apostates. They had been quarreling, and in a fit of pique, the woman had named Krem as the father. Cullen sat them down in his office, and the couple reconciled in a flurry of kisses and tearful vows. Seggrit produced a wedding cake, charging “a reasonable fifty coppers,” and Mother Giselle performed the ceremony. The wedding proved a rousing success, boosting morale and fostering goodwill between the mages and enlisted men.
Josephine’s congratulations did nothing to soothe Cullen’s irritation. He resented having to lower himself to settle petty disputes, and he resented the implication that Krem was laying with the recruits. His wore his foul mood like an oilcloth, letting it wick away petty irritations and minor arguments. One look at his stormy face, and the recruits turned tail and fled to seek a more sympathetic audience.
His ill temper did not go unnoticed among the Inquisition’s higher ranks. Josephine delicately suggested that he take a few days off to visit his family in Honnleath; Leliana scolded him for terrorizing the enlisted men. Cassandra was sympathetic, Sera told him to “unclench,” and the Iron Bull prescribed “a good lay.” Cullen brushed them all off with a scowl and a curt “I’m fine” and spent his off hours in the training yards, decimating the Inquisition’s population of straw dummies.
One evening, Krem joined him in the training yard. He showed up wearing leather trousers and the same padded sparring jacket. He took up a position at an adjacent dummy and nodded in greeting, his stance loose and relaxed. Cullen watched the other man out of the corner of his eye, admiring the strength and grace of his movements. Dummies didn’t fight back, but Krem scored a dozen kill strikes in a few minutes, wooden sword thumping against the dummy’s chest and belly.
“You favor your left hand,” Cullen observed.
Krem glanced over at him, eyebrow raised. “I do.”
“Templars trained us to fight right-handed,” he said, lowering his own weapon.
Krem shrugged, shifted his weight, and struck another solid hit on the dummy’s torso. The blow would have cracked a man’s ribs, regardless of his armor. Cullen winced.
“Us ‘Vints have a left-handed style,” he said, pausing to mop sweat from his brow. “‘S Called ‘Sinistri.’”
Cullen nodded. “Clever. Few men are prepared to face a left-handed opponent.”
“My father hated it,” said Krem. “Always used to move my needle from my left hand to my right. Said it was the ‘proper’ way of doing things.” He smiled, recalling some fond memory.
“My family were tailors.”
“That surprises me,” Cullen said, eyebrows jumping up to his hairline. “I would have thought you’d been born to the soldiering life,” he said. “You move so naturally, like you were born in armor.”
“Been watching my movements, have you, Commander?” He grinned, then hit the dummy again, another rib-breaking strike. “No, I was born naked like the rest of us.”
Color rose in Cullen’s cheeks and he cleared his throat. “I meant in the training yard,” he said, stumbling over the words. “You move quite well in the training yard.”
Krem’s expression was insufferably smug. “Want to spar?” he asked. “Unless my moves are too much for you, of course.”
“Of course,” said Cullen, grinding his teeth. He walked stiffly to the rack of practice weapons. “Sword and shield, or?”
“I prefer the bastard sword,” said Krem, coming up beside him. “If you’ve got any.”
“We call them hand-and-a-half blades in the south,” Cullen said, selecting two wooden weapons from the rack and testing their weight. He tossed one to Krem, handle-first, and thrust it twice, adjusting to the feel of it in his hand. “I must warn you,” he said, grinning, “this is the favored weapon of the Templar order. I was quite proficient, in my youth.” He set the sword aside and shrugged on a quilted coat to protect his ribs.
“I’m shaking in my boots.” Krem rolled his eyes “Come on,” he challenged. “You’re wasting time.”
They moved to the center of the training yard, rolling their shoulders to loosen up. “To ten hits?” Cullen asked lightly.
Krem shook his head, grinning. “‘Til you cry ‘mercy.’”
“Oh, you’re on.” Cullen raised his sword, and began circling; Krem did the the same. He held his sword low, so Cullen came in high, sword whistling through the air. Krem’s sword flew up to block with a resounding clack. He flicked his sword to knock Cullen’s blade away, and moved effortlessly into a thrust. Cullen caught his blow and parried, their blades locking for a moment. Krem forced Cullen onto his back foot, throwing him off-balance, then came in quick with a strike to the ribs.
“One,” he said, smile widening.
They stepped back, allowing one another a few feet of breathing room. On a count of three, they began circling again, kicking up clouds of dust and studying one another’s movements. Cullen feinted left, then dodged right, thrusting at Krem’s ribcage. The other man swung his sword around, barely catching Cullen’s blade before it connected with his torso. He parried with a grunt, taking a step back to buy himself room to maneuver. Cullen pressed his advantage to keep Krem on the defensive, testing his endurance with a series of fast strokes, easily blocked.
He let up for a moment, falling back a half-step, gravel crunching under his bootsoles. Krem lashed back with a fast overhand chop, bringing his sword down with enough force to break bone. Cullen sidestepped the blow,skidding backwards, and came in fast. He scored a clean hit on Krem’s unguarded right side.
They had begun to attract an audience. Returning scouts and a pair of Chantry sisters out for an evening stroll. Cullen scored another hit against Krem, managing to knock his weapon from his hands, earning a gasp from the milling crowd. A few apprentice smiths drifted over from Harritt’s shop, elbowing one another and whispering behind their hands.
Krem responded with a furious display of brute strength. He battered Cullen’s defenses with a series of forceful, unrelenting blows; moves adapted from a two-handed Qunari style. Krem earned a second hit, evening their scores but leaving himself temporarily winded, his face shining with exertion. Cullen scored two easy blows with rudimentary Templar moves: swinging up from below with an underhanded strike intended to knock a stave aside, then circling quickly and charging. The crowd oohed, hands flying up to their mouths.
He and Krem were evenly matched. Cullen was taller and had a longer reach, but Krem was stronger and always ready to turn the tables with an unexpected cack-handed move. The Tevinter sinistri style was fast and brutal, full of unexpected flourishes to confuse opponents unused to left-handed fighters. The Templar style was entirely practical, workmanlike thrusts and simple blocks, textbook moves honed to perfection.
Cullen scarcely noticed the growing crowd, gritting his teeth and falling back on the techniques drilled into him over two decades in the Templar order. Sweat dripped down his spine, gluing his undershirt to his back. He was beginning to tire, his blows losing some of their urgency; his lead dwindled quickly. Krem only seemed to be gaining in strength as the fight wore on. Grinning like a madman, he met, blocked and countered each of Cullen’s blows with little apparent effort.
Breathless from exertion and excitement, Cullen swung his sword in a sloppy, uncontrolled blow that would have earned him latrine duty in his Templar days. He left himself open for half-a-second too long, and Krem managed to get in under his guard, scoring a brutal hit that knocked his feet out from under him. Cullen landed on his backside with a thud. The crowd hissed in sympathy, disappointed to see their commander bested by a ‘Vint.
Laughing, Krem extended a hand and hauled Cullen to his feet. “Give up yet?”
“Not on your life,” Cullen said, winded. Krem had landed several good hits on his torso; he would be feeling those bruises for weeks. “You caught me on an off-night.”
Krem tsked. “The Maker loves a graceful loser,” he quoted, punching Cullen’s arm playfully. “Cheer up, I’ll buy you a drink.”
Around them, the crowd began to disperse, chattering about the match. A few lingered, shooting curious glances over their shoulders at the Commander and the Tevinter mercenary. Cullen glared and they scattered.
“No thank you! I think I need to go to bed with something for the bruises.” He stretched, wincing. “Maker’s breath, you may have killed me.” He returned his sword to the weapons rack, then began fumbling with the toggles on his quilted jacket. His hands were unsteady, shaking from adrenaline.
“Let me help you with that,” said Krem.
“Oh,” said Cullen, “No, it’s fine.” Krem ignored him, reaching out to undo the fastenings. With utmost care, he slid the coat off Cullen’s shoulders, hands lingering on his arms for a moment. Krem remained in Cullen’s space for a moment, chest rising and falling rapidly. He looked up at Cullen from underneath dark lashes, and that was when Cullen pushed him back against the weapons rack and kissed him.
Krem responded enthusiastically. He dropped the coat and wrapped his arms around Cullen, pulling him closer. They kissed fiercely, tongues and lips and teeth meeting and falling back like crossed swords. Cullen worked his knee between the other man’s legs, grinding up against him. “Wait,” Krem said, pulling away, “Wait. Not here.”
“Of course not,” Cullen said, panting. “I’m not fucking you here.”
Krem rolled his eyes again and caught him by the hand, tugging at him. “Come on,” he said. “You’re wasting time.” He lead Cullen into the woods, away from Haven. Krem hurried along a path hidden by low-hanging branches, practically running. They burst from the trees in a clearing marked by a small cabin and ringed by a dilapidated wooden fence. “Here we are.”
Cullen followed him through the door and tried to kiss him again, but Krem held him at arm’s length. “I have to tell you, something,” he said, hoarsely. “I’m not--” He bit his lip, and started again. “Under my clothes, I don’t look like what you’re expecting.”
“I don’t care about scars,” Cullen said impatiently. He was halfway hard, had been since Krem had kissed him back.
The other man shook his head. “No, not that.” He swallowed and forced the next words out in one breath. “I haven’t got a cock and balls,” he said. “Underneath, I look like a woman.”
Cullen hesitated, his hands still on Krem’s forearms. “But you’re a man?”
“I guess the Maker didn’t know that, when he made me,” Krem said, a trace of bitterness in his voice. “I’ve been a man, my whole life but I don’t look right.”
“That’s--” Cullen paused, searching for words. “I don’t care, but if you don’t want to--you know--then I don’t want--”
Krem’s relief was palpable. “Of course I want to,” he said, “If you still want to.”
In response, Cullen closed the distance between them, finding the thread of their earlier kiss and picking up where they’d left off, hands fisted in one another’s shirts. Krem surged forward into Cullen’s arm, pushing him backwards. He steered Cullen through the room until they hit a bed and tumbled backwards together, lips locked and limbs tangled.
Cullen settled back on the bed, hands raised over his head while Krem fumbled with his shirt and trousers. The other man’s hands were clumsy but eager on his tunic and belt buckle, undressing him and casting his clothing aside.
“Maker, you’re fit,” Krem breathed, running calloused hands up Cullen’s sides. “Like a fucking sculpture.” His touch was gentle, mindful of Cullen’s bruises. He traced the lines of old scars and cupped Cullen through his breeches, moaning openly. “Let’s get you undressed,” he said, panting. “I want to see you.”
Together, they managed to get Cullen’s trousers off without much difficulty. Cullen reached for the hem of Krem’s shirt, but the other man pushed his hands away, shaking his head. “It stays on,” he said, and Cullen didn’t argue. He pulled Krem down for another long kiss. He groaned and whined into Krem’s mouth while he dragged his thumb across Cullen’s slit, smearing precum over the head of his dick.
Another few minutes of fumbling, and Krem removed his smallclothes. He straddled Cullen’s hips and ground down against his cock, sliding along Cullen’s length without impaling himself on it. Cullen gasped and twitched, straining up against him, but Krem pinned his hands over his head. “You like that?” he said, panting. “How’s that?”
“Don’t stop,” Cullen said, voice breaking into a whine. “Maker, don’t stop!”
Krem grunted and pushed his hips down against Cullen’s. He was hot and slick against Cullen’s cock, and he surged up against him, hands jerking in Krem’s hold. The other man cried, shifting his weight to adjust the angle. “Fuck,” he gasped. “you feel so good.” He began to move more urgently, rolling his hips against Cullen’s. “Hold still,” he ordered, his voice hoarse from arousal. “Don’t move.”
Krem’s voice lanced through him like an electric shock. Cullen whined, low in his throat, his whole body trembling from strain. He swallowed, biting his lips to keep himself quiet and still while Krem ground against him, Tevinter curses spilling from his lips. He was flush with arousal and the need to please the other man, blush spreading from his chest to his face and limbs. He felt like a river in a rainstorm, swollen and ready to flood.
“Krem,” he said, his voice raw. “I can’t, I’m going to--”
He cried out, hips shuddering and jerking, hands clenching and unclenching in Krem’s grasp while he came, painting their bellies with his seed. Krem grunted in frustration, grinding down harder against Cullen’s cock. He cried out again, overstimulated and overwhelmed, on the verge of tears. “Mercy!” he gasped. “Mercy!”
Krem grunted and rolled away, dropping onto the mattress beside Cullen. He buried his face in Cullen’s neck, and the commander watched, fascinated, as Krem brought himself off with a few quick strokes, gasping and shuddering against Cullen’s skin. He lay there for a moment, breathing like he’d run a mile, then flopped onto his back.
“I’m sorry,” Cullen breathed, rolling onto his side. “I tried to hold back, but--”
“It’s fine,” Krem said. He reached out and stroked Cullen’s cheek absentmindedly. “It happens.”
Krem interrupted him with a kiss. “It’s fine,” he repeated. “It happens.”
They lay there for a moment, staring up at the ceiling. A new, horrible thought struck Cullen, and his face grew hot. “When I came,” he said, “I didn’t finish inside you, did I?”
Krem laughed, a single, sleepy ha. “I take birthbane to stop my courses,” he explained. “I haven’t bled in years, but thanks for thinking of it.” He sat up and stretched, retrieving his trousers. “I should go. The boys’ll be wondering where I got off to.”
Cullen groaned at the loss of his warmth. “I’ve letters to answer,” he said grumpily.
“I’ll leave you to it,” said Krem. He pulled his trousers on and laced up his boots. He stood, stretched again, and moved towards the door. “This was nice,” he said. “Thank you.”
“It was,” Cullen said. He propped himself up on his elbows. “If you ever want to go for a second round…”
Krem grinned. “I don’t know if you can keep up with me,” he said, a playful edge in his voice. “I didn’t get to see any of that famed Templar endurance.” He paused in the doorway, drumming his fingers against the wood. “There’s a joke in here, somewhere. Something about swordplay.” He laughed, then pitched his voice lower, imitating Iron Bull. “You can play with my sword any time.”
Cullen groaned, lobbing a pillow at him. “Get out,” he said, but Krem was already gone, his laughter following him out into the falling dark.