Maker’s fucking breath.
Cullen twitched at the addition of the curse, something he’d never – no, that was a lie, rarely was more truthful – said either to himself or aloud. He’d heard it plenty of times during his training and more so during the years he’d served but never – rarely! – used it. Mostly because he didn’t feel the need to and compensated curses with a withering glare that made others back down.
And he knew exactly who was to blame for it getting into his head now.
Their Herald, who was absolutely nothing like what one would think someone given the title Herald of Andraste would be, was to blame. Meryell was as sharp-tongued as she was sharp-witted, drank pint for pint with his men, and played a mean hand of Wicked Grace from what he’d overheard. He’d learned a great deal about her only a few nights ago, when he’d come across her sitting on that barrel outside of Haven and joined her because she’d asked. It was a bit pleasing to know things that Leliana didn’t given the spymaster’s penchant for digging for ever last bit of information she could find.
Meryell was also like flotsam in the river, uprooted from all she knew and washed downstream into the unknown. He knew that particular feeling all too well.
“Andraste’s ass, Curly, slow down!” snapped Varric’s voice from behind him. He sighed, having hoped that if he kept walking the dwarf would just give up but Varric was persistent if nothing else.
Coming to a stop, Cullen turned to arch an eyebrow down at the dwarf and asked, “Must you continue calling me that?”
Varric just grinned in response despite how hard he was breathing from trying to keep up and replied, “You only just became a decent enough sort to earn a nickname from me, Curly. It’s an honor!”
Snorting, Cullen rested both hand on the hilt of his sword and shifted to stand with all of his weight on one leg. “Your idea of honor,” he intoned slowly, “and mine have very different definitions, Varric.”
“Bah. Who cares. I think it’s an honor and that’s what matters.”
Rolling his eyes skyward, Cullen silently asked for strength before asking, “What do you want?”
“Me? I don’t want anything, Curly, just looking for a bit of gossip.”
“I don’t gossip, dwarf.”
“No,” replied Varric and he jerked his head downward, glaring at the dwarf as heard suggestion lacing his voice, “but there’s plenty of gossip about you and our newly beloved Herald.”
Cullen started to open his mouth to tell the dwarf that it wasn’t his or anyone else’s business about what was between him and Meryell but stopped himself. That would have been playing right into Varric’s story greedy hands. Instead he snapped his teeth together and glowered, summoning up the full force of the glare he’d worked on for years.
Varric, to his credit, didn’t flinch underneath it but the dwarf had followed Hawke around for the better part of a decade through shit that Cullen didn’t even want to begin to fully comprehend. He knew enough about a few of Treva Hawke’s exploits and those were enough to make him falter just a bit.
Taking a deep breath, he said, “I would greatly appreciate it, Varric, if you didn’t feed whatever gossip there might be about Meryell and I.”
“Oh. You’re already on first name basis, Curly?”
“What?” hissed Cullen, unable to stop his damned skin from flushing in response to the sudden embarrassment surging through him. “It’s not…I…Maker’s breath, she asked me to!” Looking down at Varric, he found the dwarf waggling his eyebrows at him and flinched before spitting out, “She didn’t want to be called Herald. I’m not one to disrespect a lady’s wishes.”
“Oh, I believe you, Curly!” The dwarf then grinned up at him and lowered his voice as he said, “But don’t expect me to believe that you don’t feel something for her. I’ve seen you eyeing her.”
Cullen closed his eyes at that, lifting a hand to pinch the bridge of his nose in an attempt to stave off the headache he could feel coming. Thankfully it was just the normal sort and not one induced by his withdrawals, so it wouldn’t be one of the ones that had him hiding in his tent from the smallest amount of light for a few hours.
“I’m worried about her,” he growled after a moment, dropping his hand. “She’s…” He’d promised her that he wouldn’t spill her secrets but that didn’t mean that he couldn’t push Varric in a certain direction with her. They were already going in the direction of friends but he knew that of anyone, the dwarf was someone good to have at your back. And he could take a good guess that Meryell felt like she didn’t have anyone here she could put her back up against. “She’s more fragile than she seems.”
“Oh, I know,” commented Varric, his eyes gleaming with something Cullen had never seen the dwarf direct towards him. Respect. “Hawke was the same way when we met.”
Huh. He’d never imagined Hawke as being one of that sort but he’d never gotten to know the apostate that well during the time they’d both been in Kirkwall. Mostly because in the early years he’d still been too wounded to lend more than grudging respect to her alongside a healthy bit of fear and too busy in the later trying to keep the Gallows from falling around his ears while trying to save as many of his charges as he could from the wrath of his fellows or Meredith.
Shaking himself, Cullen looked down at Varric and asked, “Guard her back in the field? I know the plans stand for you all to head into the Hinterlands as soon as the scouting report from Harding comes in.”
“You think I wouldn’t, Curly?” Varric asked. “I’ve got to protect my new Wicked Grace partner.”
Of course the dwarf would put it that way. He’d learned a little of how to read the vague, dancing around speech that both he and Hawke tended to use.
“Good. I’ll rest easier knowing that.”
Varric chuckled before saying, “You do like her.”
He could feel the heat crawling up the back of his neck again and hoped to everything that his fur hid the bulk of it. Resisting the urge to rub his neck, Cullen replied stonily, “Watch your words, dwarf.”
“Oh don’t worry, Curly. I think she’s been eying you too.”
With that the dwarf strode off, whistling an off-key Chantry tune that would have made Cullen wince if he hadn’t been distracted by the words he’d said. She had been eying him? Had she? He’d thought that night that they spent talking that there had been something there during the morning hours, when she’d shivered on the way back to her cabin. By and large, he’d tossed it aside as his imagination after reality had come crashing back when he’d woken up in his tent later that day.
After all, who could care for a half-broken lyrium addict?