dedication: to jupiter and kauri.
notes: i was so close to titling this CULLEN RUTHERFORD: BISEXUAL DISASTER you don't even know
notes2: this is choppy as hell and makes zero sense unless you've read the other pieces of this series but honestly do i look like i care? no? correct.
notes3: backslide — the naked & famous.
summary: God help me, I've come undone. — templar!au coda; Cullen, peripheral Alistair/Bethany.
Smoke hazes from Kirkwall's streets for a very long time after the explosion.
The Waking Sea breaks against the Gallows' docks in shimmering grey crests, the wind whipping cold down the collar of his armour. Cullen hunches against it, metal burning icy where it touches his skin. Winter on the Waking Sea is entirely colourless, and it's made even more so as the quiet days grow short.
Quiet, but only because it had been so loud for so long.
The docks echo. The quay here is empty; the merchant ships are gone for the season, and they won't be back until spring. They've headed out for warmer ventures, or safer, at least. Antiva. Rivain. Cullen understands that it's easier to deal with the Crows and the pirates.
The Crows, at least, do not keep haunting lyrium statues strewn about. Pirates, at least, do not kill children.
Cullen bites down on the thought.
Even inside his own head, it sounds like something the Champion would say. And it is not helpful in the slightest, as he knows very well what the Chantry's stance on Kirkwall is, and the Right of Annulment, and all the other things that he's been trying to deal with for the last half-season, ever since the world caught fire. He is Knight-Commander in all but name.
Here he is. The docks groan under the onslaught of the cold wind.
Here, he is.
Kirkwall's nobility do get back on their feet quickly, don't they.
Reports pour in from the Viscount's Keep, all in support for the absentee Hawke family that Cullen can't entirely say he's surprised by. Marian Hawke made herself very visible the night of the explosion, and no one's going to let him forget it; nor should they, he thinks, grimly, very determinedly not thinking of the glint of sunlight off the red lyrium statue still silently screaming on her knees in the courtyard. It's hardly been a fortnight, but already the story of what happened between the Knight-Commander and the Champion has trickled out into the city's rings, and the beast of civilian unrest has begun to stir.
Cullen groans into his hands as the world swims.
(Maker, if they don't have a riot on their hands, it'll be half a miracle.)
"Well, don't you look gorgeous," comes an easy voice from the doorway, low and cool and like something out of a memory, half-echo, half-ripple, all strange. "Harrowed anyone, recently?"
Cullen blinks upwards.
Alistair leans against the doorframe with his arms crossed over his chest, and for a moment, Cullen thinks he's seeing things. It wouldn't be the first time, and ghosts haunt the Gallows as a matter of course. But—no, this is real. The armour is templar standard-issue, but there's that scorch mark from a Saarebas in Darktown that Cullen tries not to think about because an entire regiment had nearly died taking the thing down. It's time-out-of-time, a little off-kilter, because as much as he recognizes the armour, there are new wounds to it that Cullen doesn't know.
"I wasn't aware that the Order allowed deserters to keep their vestments," Cullen says stiffly, and then mentally hits himself in the face. Why am I like this, he thinks. Winces. "That's—I'm sorry, that—that came out wrong—"
He's never had many friends, Cullen; that hasn't changed since the explosion.
(Honestly, it's not like he doesn't know why.)
A horrible little grin crooks Alistair's face up. "Oh, and he's in a mood! Maker, I should have stayed home with Beth, it'd have been more productive. I could have helped move furniture or sommat."
Cullen goes very still, palms closing into fists beneath the desk. Something lurches beneath his sternum, tight and hot and oddly—tender, like a bitten lip. He exhales in increments. "So you've come back, then. Is Hawke…?"
"Which one," Alistair asks, though it's not really a question.
"Hawke," Cullen says, which would be funny if it weren't quite so sad. No one says Hawke in that tone and means anyone save the Champion herself, and they both know it.
"Oh, no, she's gone sailing somewhere with her mad pirate and hasn't written, I don't know where she is," Alistair says airily. He flaps a hand at Cullen, the way he might at one of his daughters to get the pair of them to quiet down. "So don't ask me about it."
"I wasn't planning to," Cullen says. He gets the sense that Alistair wouldn't tell him even if he did know where the Champion's got to, which stings more than it ought, and he has to shuffle papers across the desk so that his hands don't shake. "It was—"
"Well, either way, we're back," Alistair says. His voice has cooled, and there's a strange look on his face: pensive, yes, but somehow—distant. "Thought you ought to know so that you don't stumble across Beth in the commons and try to arrest her."
"I wouldn't," Cullen says, aghast. "It's not—she's—"
"Still a mage," Alistair finishes.
"Yes," Cullen says. "Well. I—"
"If you see her, don't."
(Later, it will strike him that the look on Alistair's face is pity.)
"We're not friends anymore, Cullen," Alistair says, quietly. The slick of the firelight turns the Sword of Mercy etched into his armour into a wound that swallows all light. A void, dead-frozen and cold and there is nothing here, anymore. Only clumsiness, and the detritus of the past left jagged and scattered everywhere in rusted shards.
Oh, an ended friendship.
"I understand," Cullen swallows hard. It feels like he's chewing broken glass. "I'm—I am sorry. If it helps. I am."
"I know you are," Alistair says. He shakes his head, just a little. "But it doesn't. It never did."
And so Alistair leaves, just like that, out through the door as breezily as he'd come in. For a split-second, the Gallows sunshine burns brightly through the open slat, leaving Cullen half-blind and dazzled with it. He can hear the day hawking itself, begging to come in. The clash and clang. The sound of voices, calling. Calling.
But then the door closes, and Cullen is left in the quiet and the dark.
Cullen doesn't know what he expected, but none of it was ever Solona Amell.
The days pass, and he finds himself thinking of her, again.
(None of it was ever Marian Hawke, either, nor Bethany Hawke. Nor Lady Leandra, nor the twins, even. None of it was any of the women in his life, and maybe he ought not be so surprised.)
There is a part of him that insists he go find her, but that part is rather small and listless, these days. Has been small and listless for a very long time, really; Cullen isn't sure how long ago it was he realized that she'd been a dream, but it must have happened. The exact timing is forgotten, now, lost to the halls of memory and sorrow and fear.
He'd never really loved her, and she'd never really given him all that much thought.
But he'd not expected her, first in Kinloch and then later in Kirkwall, and the Gallows do not ring the way they used to, Cullen finds.
White stone still shimmers beneath the brilliant burn of the sun, but it is very quiet, now. The remaining Enchanters stay inside, a protective hovering around the few apprentices that Cullen dares not disturb. As it stands, Lady Leandra has already swept up most of the younglings to the estate on the coast, and half of his templars are making the trek there or back, one way or another. If there ever was a way to weaken the Order, Cullen thinks, grimly, this is it.
The courtyard is so silent.
There is no one around.
Cullen swallows hard, gaze skipping to the shining red statue screaming in the center of the yard. He can't exactly blame anyone for staying away—ghastly, the lot of it. Cullen chances a nervous glance at that gaping mouth, the holes for eyes, the burned-away crystal that used to be flesh. She'd lost it entire at the end, Knight-Commander Meredith, sworn at shadows and never quite all the way inside her own head.
Thinks, sick to his stomach: it could have been me.
Cullen listens to the echo of his own footsteps all the way to the barracks, and feels quite off-kilter until the solid door to the templars' quarters closes behind him. Because if the courtyard was still as a forgotten tomb, the barracks are the exact opposite.
It is an explosion of noise!
Armour against armour, the clang and the crash of metal scraping against stone, and laughter wove between. They haven't noticed him yet, Cullen's sure of it, because all of his reports have this strange habit of turning to rabbits as soon as he enters a room. He stands in the hallway and just listens for a little while, letting the comforting sound of life roll over him like waves. A shriek echoes, something about frogs, loud blaspheming, and then, hissed through the open door to his left:
"Ser Alistair's—shite, do we still call 'im that, is he still a Ser—?"
"Shut it, Raif, he's better than—"
"Don't say it, knob!"
Cullen's about to break into the conversation to take the hissers to task for slacking, but someone else gets there first. Sun slats through the crack in the door, scattered in shards of light across the floor.
"Aren't you lot supposed to be on patrol?" says the voice, half-amused. "Since when is it my job to keep you out of trouble?"
(Cullen feels his lips twitching, startled with the lack of control over his own body. Sometimes, he thinks he's forgotten how to laugh; it's a dagger between the fourth and fifth rib, the lightness that suffuses him for all of a second. He doesn't know how to deal with it anymore. He doesn't have friends anymore.)
It is suddenly very hard to breathe over the reluctant chorus of agreement from the templars. They sound so green, all of them clamouring for the speaker's attention the way younger siblings do, stumbling around like newborn lambs. The door creaks as someone shoves it open and they all begin to file out. There's a cacophony of yelling, the kind of playful ribbing that Cullen himself had never engaged in; when they see him, they all stop short, blinking a though they've just been hit over the head.
(Yes, Cullen remembers that feeling, too.)
"Oh! Knight-Commander! We, er, we didn't know you were out here—!"
Maker, the recruits always did like Alistair better than they liked Cullen.
Cullen has to fight very hard with himself not to let this bother him. He looks blankly at the recruits, allows his face to go slack and flat, the dead-eye stare that had always sent him scuttling when he was their age. They're all shifting their weight back and forth, and any second now he's expecting the volley of apologies to start.
Predictably, Alistair sorts them out before it gets to that point.
"Right, go on," Alistair says. "You've got your orders."
The recruits nearly trample one another in the ensuing stampede to escape. Cullen is going to have to do something about that, it's not decorous, they ought not behave like wild animals! He should set them up with the guard, see how they liked it, then.
But it eventually quiets, and Cullen can't entirely ignore what's in front of his nose, anymore.
Alistair crooks an eyebrow at him across the space between them. "Bit like ducklings, aren't they?"
"They like you better than me," Cullen tries valiantly not to sulk. From the look on Alistair's face, he does not succeed in this. "It isn't fair. You aren't even part of the Order anymore."
"Yes, but I don't threaten them with Darktown patrols when they're not doing what they should be," Alistair says, and there's a tinge of smugness to it that Cullen reads as I'm the fun parent, and there's nothing you can do about it. He can't help but wonder how often Lady Bethany has to deal with this, and resolves to think about it when the lady's self-same husband isn't in the room. "Of course they like me better."
"Someone must do it," Cullen says, stiff.
No one likes Darktown patrols. They're not meant to be a reward! But like all distasteful things—Harrowings, dealing with abominations in the rank underbelly of the city, scrubbing the scullery, latrine duty, writing to Mia—they must be done.
"Yes," Alistair agrees, easy. He grins out of the corner of his mouth in the horrible way he does when he's about to say something that's going to ruin the entire day. Cullen hates him. "But I'm still not the one telling them to do it."
"How does Lady Bethany put up with you? Better, why does she put up with you?!"
The words are out before Cullen's quite realized what he's said, and then it's too late to take them back. He freezes. There are some things that they've never said to one another, the vicious things that have lurked beneath the surface since long before the night of the explosion. Lady Bethany had always been Alistair's drawn line, and even now, that hasn't changed. Even after the little ones, Lady Bethany is what Alistair anchors himself around, and Cullen knows it.
(Maker's breath, he's said something unforgiveable, hasn't he?)
His old friend freezes, too.
"Beth likes me," Alistair says, too quiet, the kind of delicate that Cullen knows only because he's tripped over those same sharp edges himself, wounded himself just as deep. "She wouldn't have stayed if she didn't. I don't know why, but she wouldn't have—"
"Alistair, I didn't mean—"
"Leave it," Alistair cuts them both off. He exhales a slow breath that feels like pain. "I didn't come to fight."
"Why are you here?" Cullen forces the words out level, bites his tongue bloody to keep the apology in his throat from escaping. It'll only do more harm than good, now. Still. I didn't mean it.
"Lady Leandra sent me," Alistair says. "She wants to see you."
"Maker, what did they do now," Cullen says beneath his breath, because that's the only reason that Lady Leandra would send for him. The Hawke matriarch is terrifying even on her worst day, and Cullen still hasn't forgotten the steely way she'd swept the apprentices out of the Gallows without so much as a by-your-leave. She'd not even given his men the time to protest the removal. She hadn't allowed it.
"I don't know," Alistair says. "And Beth wants you to come for supper."
"No," Cullen says, automatic. The twins and Malcolm are—no, he can't, he doesn't deserve to—
"That's what I said, too," Alistair says. There's an edge of wry humour to it, an echo of old fondness, but it's wiped away beneath the sharpness that still lingers and the cruelty that Cullen knows he deserves. We're not friends anymore, mate, Alistair had said, and so they aren't. But it hadn't just been Alistair, had it? It had been Lady Bethany and Lady Leandra and Hawke, even Hawke, and it had been the twins and Malcolm and Maker, it had been Solona Amell. It had been Solona Amell, alive despite the Aeonar, and it had gutted him clean through.
It had been a family.
Cullen won't admit to missing it, not even in the safety of his own mind.
And so he shakes his head, doesn't quite look Alistair in the eye. "Please extend my apologies. I'm sure—I'm sure Lady Bethany will understand."
She won't, which they both know very well.
But beggars can't be choosers, and Cullen will throw himself from the Keep's highest tower before he allows himself the chance to be anywhere near the Hawke children. Twenty-seven apprentices had died the night of the explosion, and Cullen had been unable to stop it. Even though Lady Bethany seems to have forgiven him for it, Cullen still hasn't forgiven himself.
He doesn't think he even knows how.
Worse: he doesn't think he wants to.
"She's not going to listen to me," Alistair says, mildly. Oddly, it feels like he's protesting only by rote; as though he'd expected this. "You know she won't, she'll want to hear it from you."
Cullen doesn't know what to make of it. "I should not. Again, my apologies, and my best wishes."
Alistair shakes his head. "It's your funeral."
For a moment, neither of them move. They're both frozen in it, caught up in remembering that they are friends anymore. Or Alistair is, anyway. Cullen has accepted things, just as they are. And the silence is easier.
The clink of platemail is the only sound. They both shrug.
"Better mine than hers," Cullen says, and means it.
He'd meant to stay away.
Truly, he had.
But Cullen had failed to consider one thing: that Lady Bethany is far more stubborn than anyone gives her credit for.
Services are still held once a week, just outside of the crater where the Chantry use to be. There's already construction going up. The walls stand stark and hungry, unpainted stone pale as death itself. The Bone Pit still belongs to the Hawke family; the irony of this does not escape Cullen, that the Champion's shadow lingers still. Gold has poured into the Order's coffers from all corners of the continent, because the Chantry will have their due.
This is exhausting, as there is no proper Knight-Commander currently in place for disbursement of funds. Cullen tries not to think about it, and returns his attention to the Mother bravely leading her flock in song.
The Chant rings clear through Hightown, winding through rubble and ruin, through virtue and vice. It slips in between his ribs, the familiar notes an old comfort. He could stay down in the Gallows for this, because there's a small chapel there, too, and they sing the Chant just as well, but—
But there's something to be said for being surrounded by mourners. He does not sing, anymore, because the words are heavy as lead, and the Maker left Cullen to his own devices a long time ago.
It is better than nothing, and it makes Cullen feel a little less alone.
Caught up in it, this is when that stubbornness that he'd failed to account for accosts him.
"You," Lady Bethany seizes on him, as the services end. Her palm closes around his wrist. Through his gauntlet, Cullen imagines he can feel the furious squeeze of her fingers. "Come with me."
"I—?" Cullen hazards.
"Now, Ser Cullen! Services are done, I'm going shopping, and you're coming with me!"
He has two thoughts, and only two:
Maker's breath, Alistair is going to murder me, and oh, alright.
Lady Bethany stuffs a woven basket into his arms with extreme prejudice, though Cullen gets the sense that her ire isn't directed at him. She's huffy the entire trip down to Lowtown's market, her hand fisted in her skirt, the sunshine sinking hot into the dark of curls, and Cullen has to swallow hard every time she stops to speak to someone and doesn't rip their head off.
Sometimes Kirkwall's Champion shines through Alistair's wife's eyes, and it is terrifying.
But Lowtown knows its own, and Lady Bethany moves among them like a Kirkwaller born. Cullen watches her pick over the remains of the baker's offerings, nose wrinkled as she lingers between the sticky-honey rolls and the cinnamon bread, then on to the grocer's and the butcher's, marbled meat and the bright red shine of fresh apples. She consults him the way she's always consulted him, which is to say she doesn't, really, just ends up muttering to herself about whether or not the twins will deign to eat lettuce, and whether or not she wants to have that fight.
Er," Cullen says, chokes on it. He misses the twins. Has to clear his throat. "Lady Bethany, is there—may I help?"
Lady Bethany startles, blinking like a deer in torchlight. "Oh, Ser Cullen, I—I forgot you had the other basket! Here, take this—"
It comes off like I forgot you were here, which Cullen figures is rather fair. He supposes that she's used to doing this on her own; truthfully, the only reason he, himself, is along is because Alistair wasn't there to stop Lady Bethany from doing whatever it is she pleased, and what of Andraste's endless mercy does that say?
(The knowledge of it curls sick in his heart.)
But Lady Bethany doesn't seem to acknowledge the acrid wash of stomach acid at the back of Cullen's throat. She just loads up his basket with the lean cut of meat she's deemed acceptable and a pile of dark leafy greens, hands quick, and when she's finished the task she tips her head up to smile at him brilliant as a sunrise.
When she smiles like that, it isn't hard to see why Alistair loves her so much, Cullen reflects. Why anyone would love her so much; why the entire Hawke family had fought so hard to keep her magic hidden. Lady Bethany is the fulcrum around which the whole family turns, even now.
Cullen thinks about Solona, and his stomach drops down to his toes.
This may not have been the best idea he's ever had.
"Ser Cullen?" Lady Bethany blinks up at him. "Is everything alright?"
"I—yes, everything's fine," Cullen says, half-halting and still trying not to hesitate. "You needn't worry."
Lady Bethany stares at him for another long moment, face wiped briefly clean of emotion. He is viciously thrown back to the last time she looked at him like this: the deep blue velvet of night, the crackle-pop! of flames jumping across dry wood, the white-knuckled way she'd held a stave. The way both she and Alistair had set themselves between their children and whatever pointy as might come their way.
Cullen has to fight very hard to breathe through being that something pointy.
He'd never—he'd never wanted any of it.
Maker, he'd never wanted any of it.
But Cullen doesn't know how to tell her that without vomiting up every heretical thought he's ever had, because Lady Bethany engenders that in people: there's something that makes her so painfully easy to trust, even though Cullen knows he has no business trusting anyone. So he flounders, looking at her, kind of shrugs.
"You're a terrible liar, you know," Lady Bethany says, without artifice. It's an observation, not an insult.
"I am aware," Cullen says. "Please don't invite me for supper, Lady Bethany."
"I wasn't going to," she says.
"You're not a very good liar, either," Cullen tells her.
Lady Bethany's cheeks flush darkly. "I never said I was," she shakes her head, curls everywhere. "But you're worse. You're almost as bad as Alistair!"
"That is not possible, no one is as bad a liar as your husband."
"Says you," she says. "You haven't met Merrill."
"I have," Cullen says. "Twice."
"Stop trying to distract me, I was going to say something important."
"My apologies, Lady Bethany."
Lady Bethany scrunches her face up. She looks patently ridiculous, and Cullen feels his lips twitch. Thank the Maker, she hasn't changed. "Why do you—no, never mind, you probably don't have an answer for me. But I wanted to ask, have you seen the Seeker, yet?"
"There's a Seeker in the city?" Cullen's existence narrows to mild panic.
"Yes, she came to speak to Alistair this morning, and she said she wanted to speak to you, too. Ser Cullen? Is everything alright? You look like you've bit a lemon."
"I'm fine, my lady," Cullen says.
Maker's breath, it's a good thing she's looked away.
Frankly, Cullen thinks he's going to be sick.
Seeker Pentaghast has never cut an unimposing figure in her entire life.
Even bent ungainly across his desk and buried hip-high in old patrol reports, Seeker Cassandra Pentaghast carries herself with the kind of grace reserved for high-born ladies and deadly killers alike. That she's both these things is irrelevant; Lady Cassandra is unrepentantly herself, even when she's demanding access to paperwork.
It strikes him that he ought, perhaps, be paying attention.
The Seeker's brown furrows, her fingers skating across the documents strewn across the tables. Knight-Commander Meredith's old files, they are; not even Cullen knows what's in them, though perhaps he should. He hasn't really had time to go through them.
He does not think that the Seeker will take this as an acceptable excuse.
(The truth of the matter is that Cullen has not wanted to go through them. He already knows full-well what he'll find, but as always, there is a difference between knowing and knowing. If he doesn't find reports on every single one of the Hawke family, he'll be surprised. The Champion's shadow is very long.)
"Has anyone else seen these?" the Seeker's voice cuts through the silence, harsh.
"No, Seeker Pentaghast," Cullen says.
"Good. I am taking them," she announces. She shakes her shoulders out, perfect posture as she sweeps all the documents up into a single pile. Cullen catches a flash of Meredith's spidery writing, stark against the heavy cream of the vellum, but it's gone before the thought can crystallize. "Where are the First Enchanter's letters? Are there more?"
The answer is yes, because of course there are; the few that Cullen has found are scattered here, and the rest kept in his chambers for the safety of everyone involved. Knight-Commander Meredith had bolt-holes all over the Gallows and Maker knows where else, that Tranquil assistant of hers always guarding the door. Andraste, Cullen can't even remember the girl's name, anymore—Ava? Elsa?—and this alone sends a wave of shame down his spine. He'd not been the one to administer that Right, but he'd heard about it. It hadn't been an easy one. Ser Thrask had only shaken his head when Cullen had asked him about, had murmured something dark into his beard about Ser Karras and a predilection for the dirty work.
Cullen had thought nothing of it, then, but now, he wonders.
Seeker Cassandra clears her throat, and it shakes Cullen of the reverie.
"Commander?" the Seeker asks with an imperious little tilt to her head, the long scar along her jaw thrown into high relief. She reminds him so much of Mia in this moment that Cullen nearly panics; the image of his older sister layered over Seeker armour was nothing he ever wanted to consider. "Are there more?"
"Yes," he exhales, hands balled to hide the shaking.
"As I thought. Take me to them," the Seeker demands.
And so Cullen does.
His chambers are a long walk from the Knight-Commander's office. Cullen knows very well that he could have his pick of any room in the Gallows, but still he remains crammed in the smallest of the Knight-Captain's rooms, the first one he'd slept in. There is familiarity to it, old comfort in the way of known things.
And really, Cullen likes his tiny room with its tiny bed, the low chest that slips beneath the frame where he keeps his folded clothes, the way there's always a draft in through the broken shutters. He's got a lock and a writing desk despite the fact that it's crammed into the corner, and he doesn't need much more than that. Besides, small as it is, t is infinitely better than the barracks.
As it turns out, he likes it rather a lot less when he's leading Lady Cassandra towards it.
(Did he leave clothes out? Has he fixed the bed? He squints, trying to think: Maker's breath, please say that there aren't underwear or something equally embarrassing laying about. Terrible poetry about Solona's hair? Sad unsent letters to Alistair? Something that might expose the shaking panic that he swallows down in the morning, every morning, no matter what? Cullen thinks that if there are, he may very well expire on the spot.)
But the Seeker isn't the kind to judge, and she does nothing but follow quietly behind him, her gaze coolly dispassionate as it sweeps across the Gallows' halls. She misses nothing.
He can't entirely say he is surprised by this. Lady Cassandra is a Seeker, and she is here, after all, investigating everything that led to the explosion. Cullen forces himself to unclench his fists, if only because he doesn't really know what led to it in the end, either. Whatever else it is, it is painful to have to admit that.
"This room," Seeker Cassandra announces when they finally reach his quarters, with her hands on her hips and a purse to her mouth highly reminiscent of his older sister Mia at her most judgemental, "is a shoebox."
Cullen winces. It is not entirely an inaccurate description.
But it is his shoebox, and he is rather fond of it. It's very quiet, far and away from the raucous clang of the mess hall and most of the barracks. It's a place to sleep, a place to keep his boots and his armour, and a place to write letters to his family that he'll likely not send.
He doesn't need very much. He knows this about himself.
And so he ignores the Seeker's judgement in favour of pulling the trundles out from under the bed. Here is where he'd moved the First Enchanter's papers; he still doesn't know why he'd kept them, but he's glad of it.
"Lady Seeker, if you would."
Seeker Cassandra's eyes warm. It's the first time Cullen's seen her smile. He thinks he might faint.
"Very good," she says. She's very careful with the pages and their slick handwriting, is Seeker Cassandra; she leafs through them with the air of someone who already knows what they're looking for, but who simply has not found it yet. She does this in silence for long, stretching moments where Cullen does not think of anything at all.
Finally, she looks up, and her ink-dark, knife-sharp gaze settles on Cullen's shoulders.
"Thank you, Commander," Seeker Cassandra says.
"Oh, I—you're welcome, Lay Seeker," Cullen says, stands a little straighter.
The Seeker looks at him for a minute, something measuring in her gaze. Something like respect, or perhaps recognition of the self.
"You know, Commander," she remarks, very slowly, as though every word has a weight. "The Order could use more men like you."
Every so often, there is an apprentice that Cullen thinks would be better off in Lady Leandra's care.
This is a heretical thought. Cullen knows that. And it is not a thing that happens often, but when it does, it is a hard thought to ignore; this child would do better away from my men. It's not a good thought, but then, Cullen's been having not-good thoughts often, recently. They're going to get him in trouble, probably, but somewhere along the way he did become Knight-Commander, and there's no one to tell him he can't.
It is thoughts like that one that cause him problems.
This child would do better away from the Circle.
They don't know his name, and he won't tell them. He's small for his age, sandy-haired and eyed, and thin. Too thin. A refugee boy from Darktown, Cullen would hazard the guess, and he'd have been fine, save for the magic. The burns on the boy's hands still haven't been healed; he's not let anyone close enough to try.
The boy is why Cullen is trudging along the Wounded Coast, Alistair in tow.
It is, put lightly, not the best day Cullen has ever had.
The sun is high in the sky, the high gates of the Hawke Estate are open, and Lady Leandra stares between Cullen and Alistair, her eyebrows halfway up her forehead.
"Hello, Lady Hawke," he says. "I—perhaps I should have sent word."
(Maker's breath, it seems like he ends up doing that a lot, these days. Is he ever going to be able to deal with the extended Hawke family without guilt? Is he ever going to survive it all?)
"Perhaps you should have," she says, lips pursed. "You know the rules."
"He's sorry," Alistair says, very unhelpfully.
"I suppose it doesn't matter. Hello there," Lady Leandra says to the boy standing between them. She doesn't bother to acknowledge either man further; Cullen understands that in this moment, he and Alistair are not people. They are templars, and they are a distraction. "What's your name?"
The boy is grave-silent for a long moment. He shifts his weight back and forth, chewing on the inside of his cheek. Cullen doesn't know why Alistair had insisted on coming on this particular escort; the troublesome ones always seem to end up in Lady Leandra's care, one way or another, and it's not as though this is the first such journey Cullen's taken. Perhaps they're better out here, in the sunshine and the salt wind, but—
"Seath," the boy says, which is more than Cullen had been able to get out of him.
"Seath," Lady Leandra says, "Are you hungry?"
"I thought so," the lady nods, satisfied. Her lips curl up just a little, but she has for no one save the child. She offers him a hand. "If you want to come with me, we can go raid the kitchens. How does that sound?"
Seath casts a nervous glance at Cullen, at Alistair. "Are they coming?"
"No, they're not," Lady Leandra says, definitive. "They're going to go watch the Enchanters teach lessons, and then they're going to go home without you. Is that alright, Seath?"
The boys nods frantically, and nearly throws himself at Lady Leandra's skirt in his haste. The Hawke matriarch catches the boy and allows him to cling; this is not a new occurrence, as far as she's concerned, clearly. She raises her eyes. "Well, that settles that, then. Alistair, take Ser Cullen… somewhere. I'll speak with him later."
"Excellent," Alistair grins. "Come on, Captain, let's go for a walk."
"It's Commander," Cullen says, because Alistair could at least get the title right.
Alistair pays him not one single iota of attention.
Oh, Cullen thinks. That's why.
Lady Bethany Hawke is watching one of the Enchanters teach a class.
Clearly both Lady Leandra and Alistair himself knew it, too. Lady Bethany looks older, Cullen thinks. Older than he's ever seen her look. Not that he's spent much time studying her, not really, but—they are all far older than they've ever been, maybe older than they'll ever be. Maybe from here they'll begin to get younger, aging backwards as their children grow opposite.
Cullen doesn't think he'll ever properly manage children, and that's probably for the best. He doesn't need to be told to know that he would be terrible at it.
But the lady's presence answers the question Cullen hadn't had the words for, before. Of course this is why Alistair had wanted to come; even before the explosion, there hadn't been a single minute where he'd not been thinking of her. And precisely in that vein, Alistair has already jumped up and abandoned him, crossed the estate's wide-open lawn heedless of the magical lesson's sparkling dangers, headed straight for Lady Bethany like he can't see anything else.
For the first time, Cullen considers that perhaps it's because Alistair can't see anything else.
Because just then, Lady Bethany turns from the lesson unfolding in front of her to the tapping on her shoulder, and finds herself face-to-face with her husband.
Cullen blinks, and she lights up like the sun over the Waking Sea.
Lady Bethany hardly looks like herself. Aglow with startled, pleased surprise at Alistair grinning down at her, Cullen watches the way everything else seems to fall away from them. It's an odd thing to witness from the outside; there are still small children flinging fireballs around the yard, and that is a particularly difficult thing to ignore, but they manage. He's too far away to catch whatever words pass between them, but it doesn't really matter.
The clean, sweet relief that they both exude at the sight of one another is palpable, even at a distance.
Cullen's throat sticks.
No one has ever looked at him like that.
Worse: Cullen himself hasn't looked at anyone like that, either. He's never looked at someone and had them light up with joy at the sight of his face. He's never cared about anyone enough to have done so, because as he watches them, he realizes that as much as the relief lights Lady Bethany up, it's the reflection of it on Alistair that makes it impossible to replicate. It's the mutuality of it.
Lady Bethany and Alistair look at each other like they belong to one another, and they're both so glad for it that it aches.
And that ache fills Cullen's chest, renders him breathless.
Or maybe it's from the lack of it, and maybe that's the worst thing of all.
Cullen swallows down the sharp sting of disappointment. There are no walls to close in on him here, and jealousy is not an attractive emotion. It's even less so when the truth of the matter is that he's not sure who it is, exactly, that he's jealous of. Neither of them. Both of them. They're so wrapped up in one another that Cullen thinks he could set the house on fire, and it wouldn't even phase them. They're occupied, and no matter how ugly Cullen feels on the inside, he's not about to sabotage that.
Because they were all friends, once.
Cullen exhales slowly. No one will miss him if he goes, now. The only person who'd taken note that he was here at all was Lady Leandra, and she—
She's standing with her hands folded in front of her, perfectly poised, nothing but infinite grace in the lines of her face. The Hawke matriarch lifts a pale grey eyebrow at him. Cullen's shoulders go up around his ears. He'd never been able to hide anything from her—he shouldn't be so surprised; she did raise the Champion—and he isn't able to hide anything from her now.
"Sometimes, it surprises me that I don't have more grandchildren," Lady Leandra says, voice mild. "They're worse about this at home."
Being alive is suffering, Cullen thinks.
"How is that even possible?"
Lady Leandra laughs, but not unkindly. "Come along, Ser Cullen. Let's go have a cup of tea."
Cullen has never been so grateful to someone in his entire life. He allows himself the escape; observing Lady Bethany and Alistair stand so close for one minute more is an unexpectedly horrible experience that he doesn't think he can rightly deal with right now. Torture is as torture does. It certainly won't be the first time that Lady Leandra has made him a cup of tea when Cullen isn't sure what to do next.
As far as cups of tea go, it also certainly won't be the last.
Lady Leandra's solar is a brightly-lit room full of leafy green plants that Cullen couldn't name to save his life, built into the far eastern corner of the estate. Far away from the noise of the students on the upper floors, for the first time in what feels like a month, Cullen feels like he can take a breath and not lose his lungs to the crushing anxiety. Sunlight pours in white-gold through mage-tempered glass, falling lightly across a wrought-iron table and chairs, beaded pillows thrown carelessly on the divan.
It's cozy, and it's comfortable, and it's safe. Cullen hovers despondently until Lady Leandra nods towards one of the chairs for him to collapse into.
He's not sure what he's expecting, but it's not for the lady of the house to leave him to his own devices for a quarter hour in an unfamiliar room while she goes to fetch tea. But this is what happens; Lady Leandra disappears, and Cullen doesn't move from his seat until she gets back.
He almost wants to ask why she doesn't have servants for this sort of thing.
But that is rude, and Cullen is nothing if not polite.
Lady Leandra graciously allows Cullen one minute after the tea's poured to gather himself before she starts in.
"We've put Seath in with the other Starkhaven boys his age," she says, all business. "Antoine is watching them, he'll be sure to keep them out of mischief."
"He's Tranquil," Cullen says, unthinking. "Shouldn't they have an Enchanter to—?"
"Yes," Lady Leandra cuts him off. "Antoine is Tranquil."
She leaves it at that, doesn't bother to remind him that he himself is why so few of the Gallows' Enchanters are out here on the coast. It was the compromise: no templars on the estate grounds, but no Enchanters running amok outside, either.
Sometimes, Cullen wishes that the Hawke matriarch wasn't entirely such a force of nature. It would be so much easier to maintain some semblance of order if he could just keep everything straight inside of his head. But he can't, and so he's here, instead. He's here, and he's perpetuating the issues that the Gallows had tried to solve, and he's sick to his stomach with a fluttering emotion that he doesn't know how to name. Envy. Anxiety. Both?
"—Elenn and Trista are—Ser Cullen, you're not listening."
Cullen gulps. "My apologies, Lady Leandra, it wasn't my intention—"
Lady Leandra smothers a tiny laugh behind a polite cough. The sharp blue of her gaze slides over Cullen like fresh spring water, cool and unjudgmental. It trickles over his shoulders and down his spine, extinguishes the fire that's been burning beneath his skin for what seems like forever. That laugh puts the night of the explosion to bed, and he finds himself—perhaps not relaxing, but no longer on a knife's edge about to tip into the blade.
Cullen's shoulders go down.
Lady Leandra favours him with a smile that could coax a recalcitrant cat.
"Now that that's over with," she says, "Are you ready to tell me what's bothering you? Because you're not listening, and you haven't been listening this entire time. I thought we were past that, Ser Cullen."
Cullen shifts uncomfortably in his seat. Seeker Pentaghast's sharp dark eyes come back to him: we could use more men like you. And then Alistair and Lady Bethany. And then the explosion and the Chantry and even the cold salt of the Waking Sea in the wintertime, it all comes back to float about in his skull. Twenty-seven apprentices dead on hi watch, this estate, the war that the daughter of the woman sitting in front of him helped spark. The blue-white shine of lyrium, lit by sunlight.
The Conclave to come.
(Maker, he has to do something.)
Cullen takes a breath, and tells her.
His return to the Gallows is delayed late into the night. By the time he returns the winds have died and the halls are quiet. The only sound is the echo of his footsteps. This cold stone prison; it's been home for a decade.
Change will be hard.
But what isn't hard? The Gallows are hard. The Chantry is hard. Doing right by the Maker, that's hard. And Cullen's lived through hard things—the voyage across the Waking Sea, that was hard. Finding out that Lady Bethany is a mage, that was harder. And Kinloch Hold was hardest of all; Kinloch Hold still holds a part of Cullen prisoner, and he doubts he'll ever entirely recover it.
Maybe there will always be something of him left behind.
Cullen makes his way past the barracks on silent feet. He slips inside his quarters, closes the door behind him. Lets out a breath.
It is a very small room, Cullen reflects. Small, and lightless, and always closing in.
(What is he doing here?)
Haltingly, he settles at his desk. The candle has burned down to naught but a stub, only an hour left of light, no more. But an hour is enough. A quill sits next to the inkwell, dry, now, but exactly where he left them.
Cullen's knuckles flex.
There is fresh vellum in a drawer.
He reaches for it. Water for the ink. Fusses with his gauntlets for a moment, before he shakes them off. He's never been a good writer. Ink wells at the tip of the quill, beads black and shiny beetle eyes glinting in the flicker of the candle. He stares unseeingly at the wall. There's no precedent for this. No precedent for any of it. Not Alistair, not Lady Bethany, not the Conclave.
And yet, with shaking hands—
Dear Seeker Pentaghast—
Writing, Cullen starts.