Sister Ramona taught choir, a mandatory class for all the boys at the Chantry that happened immediately after chapel on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Everyone hated it. Alistair hated it, too.
Until the templars got a new recruit, an eager kid with ridiculous blonde curls sticking out all over his head. Cullen. He'd already been through school, though, and spent most of his time doing more of the soldier stuff the older boys did, so Alistair only got to see him during choir... and lunch from across the hall and in the training yard between classes and sometimes in the evening during free time, but that was just seeing Cullen. Staring, really. Not talking to him or sitting by him or getting to really interact with him at all.
Cullen had been with them for two years now, and Alistair's crush was getting a bit out of hand.
“Alistair,” one of his friends shoved his shoulder roughly. “Did you not hear me?”
“Hmm?” He looked away from the training yard, where Cullen was running drills with the other recruits – teeth bared, sweat frizzing his curls worse than usual, cheeks red with exertion, and bare chest heaving with the effort of swinging that huge sword around.
Really, was he losing his mind over a skinny nobody who was so into being a templar he forgot to have any fun?
Cullen closed his eyes when he sang, really meant the words to all those stuffy Chantry hymns. Alistair never knew which verse they were on – they all had so many verses – and ended up mumbling under his breath instead of really singing.
Besides, if he was quiet enough, he could hear the other boy singing next to him, and Cullen could sing.
This is ridiculous, Alistair told himself, pretending to tie his boots so he could stay after class.
“Thank you for letting me borrow that sheet music, Sister Ramona,” Cullen handed some papers to her. “You were right about it being much more challenging than what we sing in class.”
Alistair nearly rolled his eyes, untying and retying his laces.
Finally the other boy was done, offering Alistair a shy smile before stepping away.
“Hey!” Alistair jumped from his seat, falling into step beside Cullen as they walked down the aisle of the main sanctuary.
Cullen flinched like he was going to be hit. “Yes?”
“You're Cullen, right?” Alistair's laces flapped on the red runner down the aisle – he hadn't fully retied that one. “I've seen you around.”
“I am. And you're... Alistair.”
When they reached the door, Alistair shoved it open harder than was necessary and it banged against the stone with a loud clatter.
“Alistair!” Shouted someone, reprimanding. “Be careful!”
“Sorry!” He called, not caring who had scolded him this time.
Cullen stepped through, smiling though it was clear he didn't want to.
“What are you doing later?” Alistair asked, scratching at his elbow to have something to do with his hands.
“Yeah. You know. Free time.”
“Oh. I was probably going to... practice running drills.”
Alistair wrinkled his nose. “Don't you do enough of that during exercises? It seems like all you guys ever do is run drills. I don't know how you stand it.”
“I still need to work on my form. I'm behind the rest of you who've been here your whole lives. I have a lot to make up for.”
“You sound... envious.”
Cullen's cheeks turned pink and Alistair found that he liked the way it looked on him.
“I am, a little. It took me so long to convince my parents to let me join.”
A dark, needy thing lashed out in Alistair. How dare you think we're the lucky ones when you have-
But Cullen smiled, his eyes sparkling a bit through his too-long lashes, and he rubbed the back of his neck, pink going redder. “I know I try too hard. I've just... wanted this my whole life. I don't want to screw it up.”
Something fluttered in Alistair's chest. “Right, well...” Wasn't he going to ask something? He cleared his throat. “Me and the guys are going out to the pond after classes. You know, before fall hits and it gets too cold to swim. You should come.”
“The pond?” Cullen blinked.
“Yeah. You know.”
The other boy turned even redder. “I... didn't realize there was a pond.”
Alistair laughed. “You mean to tell me you've been here for two years and didn't know we had a pond?”
“I don't... I mean, that is... I don't really leave the grounds much, and, I mean...”
Alistair wanted to hug the other boy, and couldn't stop grinning. “How about I meet you here, then?” He gestured to the front of the sanctuary. “I'll walk you.”
“That would be nice!” Cullen said it a little too eagerly, and smiled at Alistair in a way that made him feel a little bit... melty. Cullen seemed to realize what it sounded like and he straightened.“Swimming. I suppose I should bring a towel?”
“Then... I'll see you after classes?”
“... Bye then.”
Cullen fidgeted with his towel, not sure how to stand. He folded his arms, then left them at his sides, then leaned against the wall. He kept wringing the towel in his hands.
He's not going to show up. It's got to be a prank. None of Alistair's friends have ever wanted to hang out with me.
He watched the sun dip lower to the horizon, and balled the towel up.
They're probably hiding somewhere, laughing at me. Maker. I can't believe I fell for this.
Cullen pushed himself off the wall and walked toward the training grounds, discreetly tossing his towel into the bin with the ones they used to wash with after practice.
I am so stupid for actually showing up.
“Cullen!” Alistair's voice behind him. “Wait up!”
Cullen worked his jaw, clenching his hands into fists as he whirled.
Alistair was panting, face red. He leaned on the fence that ran around the training yard, breathing hard. “I'm so sorry.”
Cullen said nothing, wary.
“I was an idiot and made some stupid joke when we were supposed to be-” He shook his head, catching his breath. “Ser Blakely made me stay after and write verses.” He made a face. “The entire Canticle of Transfigurations. Do you have any idea how long that is? Anyway, the guys left without me, and I'm sorry. It's my own fault I'm late.” Alistair squinted at the sun. “By the time we get there, it'll be time for dinner. I am so sorry.”
The anger was fading in Cullen with the true sincerity of each apology, and he tried to smile. “I thought you were... I don't know. Making a joke at my expense.”
Alistair pulled his head back a fraction. “What? You thought I was standing you up on purpose?”
Standing you up. Like... like it was a date. Cullen could feel his cheeks going hot at the idea. “Well, you guys are kind of known for... that sort of thing.”
The other boy looked sheepish, scratching at his jaw. “Yeah, but... I wouldn't do that to you.”
Cullen's face was getting decidedly hot now. “So, um. What now?”
Alistair huffed a sigh. “I don't know. Don't suppose you'd be up for trying to swipe cheese from the kitchens?”
The idea made Cullen's eyes go round with fear. “Not really?”
He laughed. “Didn't think so.”
Cullen scuffed his feet in the dirt. “We could play chess.”
“Chess?” Alistair made a face. “Really?”
“It was a dumb idea, sorry.” He stared at his boots.
There was something playful in Alistair's voice, something warm. “I don't think I've ever really played chess before. Always seemed kind of boring. I'm much better at cards.” Cullen looked up to see Alistair grinning. “You'll have to teach me.” His tone was low and sly and definitely... not the sort of tone anyone had ever used with Cullen before.
He swallowed. “I'll um... go get my board, then?”
Alistair chuckled. “You have your own board. Because of course you do.”
Alistair was still laughing low under his breath as he reached out a hand to Cullen's shoulder. It turned into a fumbling sort of heavy pat, then he pulled his hand back. “Go get your board. I'll be here.”
Cullen had tried to go easy on Alistair, but he really was making it difficult.
“You're terrible at this,” Cullen said, laughing.
“I really am, aren't I?” He folded his hands beneath his chin and glared at the board. “Every time I move, you kill my pieces.”
“I'm not killing them.”
Alistair picked up his knight and moved it across the board in a decisive gesture.
Cullen bit his lip.
“Wait, was that bad?” Alistair reached to take it back.
“You can't do that.” Cullen swatted his hand off the board.
Alistair grinned. “What, no take-backs?”
“No.” Cullen moved a pawn.
“Are you letting me win?”
He arched an eyebrow, gesturing to the large pile of white pieces in the grass beside the board, compared to the two lonely black pawns by Alistair's knee. “Does it look like I'm letting you win?”
“Hey! Alistair!” A voice called, and Cullen looked up to see Alistair's friends coming closer. His shoulders tensed.
“Where were you?”
“Copying verses. Way to leave me behind, by the way.”
“What are you doing?” One of them laughed, ugly and harsh. “Is that chess?”
Cullen felt heat at the back of his neck and he kept his eyes down, running a hand over the broken nub where the knight piece's head used to be. It had broken off years ago when his sister had flipped the board in a tantrum.
“Hey, it's not that bad. And Cullen here is kicking my ass.”
“Whatever. We're headed to dinner. You coming?”
“In a minute.”
The group left, and Cullen nudged several pieces back into their squares on the board. “You can go.”
“What? Admit defeat? Never.” He moved a piece seemingly at random. “I'm sure I'll be able to beat you before dinner.”
When Alistair joined his friends in the dining hall, he greeted each one with a complicated series of gestures ending in a burly hug and some back-slapping before pulling away to greet the next guy. It immediately intimidated Cullen and he shrunk back, clutching his chess board and looking for another table.
“Come eat with us,” Alistair had said.
Like it was that simple.
“Guys, this is Cullen.” Alistair said, gesturing to him with a wide sweep of his arm, and introducing the others. “He's not as bad as you think.”
“A glowing recommendation, if I've ever heard one,” Cullen muttered, and the Alistair laughed, loud enough to cover the fact that none of the others found him half as funny.
After dinner, Cullen lingered, not sure if Alistair wanted him to stay after, or what. He had three different excuses ready if he needed to make up a reason to leave.
Alistair was content to linger with him, talking and laughing long after the rest of the boys had gone, and even heading back to the recruit barracks with him, their arms bumping as they walked side by side.
“I'm on the third floor,” said Cullen, pausing by the stairs at the end of the hall.
“Ah. Right. They've still got me in the kiddie wing,” Alistair joked. “Thank the Maker. The longer I can hold out joining the real recruits, the better.”
Cullen frowned at that, and opened his mouth to ask, but Alistair was holding out his hand the way he had to all the other guys.
“I, uh.” Cullen coughed. “I have no idea how to do... all of that.” He butted his fists together.
Alistair laughed. “Really? Two years you've been here, and...” He laughed again. “Here.”
He clasped Cullen's hand in his, fingers wrapping around his wrist – warm and soft and oh – then slid his palm slowly back, curling his fingertips around Cullen's just before they separated, drawing their hands into an interlocking fist. Alistair then pulled Cullen forward, using their joined hands to tug them together, hands crushed between their chests as they slowly grew close. Alistair's other arm came around him, a hand at his back, gently patting where had loudly slapped the other guys.
Their cheeks were nearly touching, a halo of body heat brushing Cullen's jaw. He thought he could feel Alistair's heartbeat banging against his ribs just as fast as Cullen's was.
Alistair paused a moment, holding them together, before stepping back and releasing Cullen's hand.
“It's like that.”
Cullen stared at Alistair's mouth, his face so red, not wanting to meet the others' eyes.
“I'll see you tomorrow, then,” Alistair's lips said.
What would they feel like? Cullen blinked hard. “Right. Yeah.”
When Sister Ramona wasn't making them sing hymns for what felt like hours, she was lapsing almost poetic about The Proper Way for a Gentleman to Treat a Lady. She could fill entire class periods with admonitions about Gentlemanly Conduct and how one should behave while courting.
Generally this meant Alistair and his friends could play the hymnal game – flipping through the songs, adding “in bed” to the end of every title in their heads and trying not to laugh too loudly – but today he was sitting with Cullen. (He found himself sitting with Cullen often these days.) And Cullen was listening with patient attention, his elbows on his knees and his hands folded beneath his chin.
“Make your intentions clear with a gesture. Flowers, or a gift.”
It went on like that for some time, and Alistair had nothing better to do than sneak glances at Cullen out the corner of his eyes.
“Ask before you kiss a girl. Don't ambush her.”
The tips of Cullen's lashes were as golden as his hair.
“Name her good qualities, but respectfully. Let her know you appreciate her for more than her beauty.”
Alistair raised his hand. “Sister Ramona?”
She sighed. “What is it?”
“All that stuff you've been talking about – does it work on guys?”
Snickers throughout the room, and Sister Ramona blushed. “That's, um. Well. I'm not a man myself, so I'm afraid I don't have any experience in... those matters.”
A whispered comment about Sister Ramona's experience had laughter rippling through the room again.
“But I suppose, Alistair, if you're truly asking and not just trying to waste my time, consider what you would want someone to do for you in that situation. Would these kinds of gestures, as you put it, work on you?”
Alistair flushed, and he stammered. “I don't... that is, I, um...” The boys in the class began to laugh again. “I guess, if, um...”
Cullen sat up straight, his hands dropping to grip the seat of his chair with whitening knuckles. “Sister Ramona?”
“I think it would work on a guy. Everyone appreciates being respected, and complimented, and given gifts.”
The class snickered again.
“Excellent point, Cullen.” Sister Ramona smiled. “Now, if no one has any more questions, I believe we were discussing the third verse?”
It was a week before Alistair made his move, slipping the little box into Cullen's things while he was training. Alistair had skipped class to hover in the shade by the stables, watching and waiting.
After Cullen was done training, he went to the pile of his stuff in the grass, grabbing his shirt and tugging it back over his head and... pausing, lifting the box and looking around, clearly confused, then opening it.
He had picked his spot well. He could see Cullen's face break into a smile as he lifted the little knight chess piece from the box, then the folded note beneath it.
Alistair's heart was hammering in his chest as the smile got wider and he stood up, cradling the gifts in his hands as he scanned the yard, finally finding Alistair.
It was too late to run.
Cullen half-jogged over to him, beaming, cheeks pink. “Was this you?”
Alistair ducked his head. “Maybe.”
Warm laughter. “Why?”
“Yours was broken. I, um. Ser Morris whittles. I asked him to make it for you, then I borrowed some paint and, well.” He shrugged. “It's not a perfect match.”
“But... why?” Breathless.
“Didn't you read the note?” His voice cracked and he swallowed hard.
Alistair looked up then, warmth spinning in his chest at the smile on Cullen's face.
“But, I mean...” Cullen rubbed the back of his neck with the hand not holding Alistair's gift. “Why?”
“You said in class... that is, um.”
The smile slipped from Cullen's face and his eyes grew wide.
“Sorry, it was a dumb idea. I just... you said everyone liked gifts. And compliments. And, um.” He tried to laugh. “I guess it didn't work after all.”
“No,” Cullen said softly. “It did.”
All the blood rushed to Alistair's head and he felt dizzy. “It did?”
Cullen nodded, eyes flicking up to meet his, then quickly glancing away.
Alistair bit his lip, trying to stop the terrible giggle that slipped out anyway. “Well, then. I'll just be, um. Over there. Smiling foolishly to myself.”
Cullen chuckled. “Oh?”
“Yeah. You know.” He shrugged. “Just me, really happy. Smiling a lot.” Alistair walked backwards, watching Cullen rub at his neck and smile. “Over there.”
Cullen rolled over, punching his pillow into shape and pulling Alistair's note from where he hid it, tucked into the mattress. He tilted it into the moonlight, mouthing the words to himself even though he knew them by heart.
You're incredibly smart and good at everything. Especially chess. And training. And generally everything.
And I really like it when you smile. At me.
Or at anything.
You're just so nice.
And I like you. A lot.
Grinning so hard it hurt, Cullen folded the note up and pressed it between his palms, then brought his hands up to his lips in a quick kiss.
“Alistair? What are you doing here?”
It was two weeks later. Two weeks of cautious hand-holding and barely making eye contact for longer than a few seconds. Of eating with Alistair's friends and trying – failing – to teach him to play chess.
Everyone was turning down their beds before lights out, and Alistair was not supposed to even be on this floor.
“How did you get in here without someone kicking you out?”
Alistair grinned. “I have my ways.” He stepped back. “Come with me.”
Cullen went, baffled, and feeling a little silly in his pajama pants and undershirt, but the other boy walked into the hall and halfway down the stairs – dark, now, the candles out.
“Where are we going?”
Alistair stopped walking. “Here.”
Cullen felt a hand slip into his, and he gasped softly.
“I wanted to ask you something.”
It was almost too dark to see, but Cullen could hear Alistair shifting his weight, could feel the air grow warm as he stepped closer.
“Would it be alright if... if I wanted to, um...”
Cullen's heart began fluttering. “Yes?” He gave Alistair's hand an encouraging squeeze.
“Maker.” A little laugh. “You know I like you.”
“Yes.” He grinned, trying to search the gloom for Alistair's face. “I like you, too.”
“Then, would it be okay if... Can I kiss you?”
Joy pooled in Cullen's chest. “Yes.”
“Yes?” Alistair gave a startled laugh. “Really?”
Alistair's other hand brushed Cullen's arm, sliding up to his shoulder, then his neck. He felt Alistair's thumb at his chin in the dark, then warm breath on his face, then a kiss.
They were both new to this, and Cullen parted his lips, letting the other's lips slip between his. Alistair moved too slowly, and Cullen moved too fast, and their noses collided more than once, but it was so good, so much better than either of them had imagined – and they had both spent the better part of the last few weeks imagining it.
“Maker's breath but you're wonderful,” Alistair whispered.
Cullen grinned. “I'm glad you think so.”
The hand at his chin pulled him close again, and Alistair kissed him again.
“Alistair?” Someone hissed from the next floor down. “Sister Maren's doing bed checks.”
“I'll be right there!” He called.
Cullen clung to Alistair's shirt. “I'll see you tomorrow?”
Another kiss, missing the corner of his mouth, then adjusting. “Yeah. Of course.”
“Good.” Cullen threw his arms around the other boy, hugging him fiercely, then pulling away.
“G'night.” Alistair's sloppy smile was audible.
So was Cullen's breathlessness. “Goodnight.”