9:26 DRAGON || HARING
" We were strangers, starting out on a journey
Never dreaming what we’d have to go through
Now here we are, I’m suddenly standing
At the beginning with you
No one told me I was going to find you
Unexpected, what you did to my heart
When I lost hope, you were there to remind me
This is the start "
—AT THE BEGINNING, RICHARD MARX & DONNA LEWIS
"Don't ever call him that again."
Brisk. Hushed. Barely louder than a whisper spewed through gritted teeth, and Carroll sneers as Cullen glowers, all up in his face and half a head smaller, and Alistair feels like an intruder. He seldom gets to see this side of him here, out in the open. Cullen's deference is irreproachable, hardly a single undisciplined bone in his body, and watching him snarl at their comrade now, for him—or because of him, rather—leaves his mind reeling on nothing, on too much, fleeting quips eluding his flair. Cullen's already a class act in the Chantry, according to the Knight-Commander—according to anyone with a pair of eyes, really—and if Carroll's hardly anything more than a cog in the wheel, Alistair doesn't feel any more relevant among them, not enough to understand Cullen's eagerness to spring to his defense.
"Call him what?" Carroll jeers, his face the epitome of his overall filthy nature; it could easily stop a clock, though it does very little to stop Cullen from growling. "A bastard?"
Oh, Carroll. So clever he could die. It stung, before. It still does, in ways. But he's grown used to the slander, he knows what he is, and yet Cullen won't have it. Carroll's stepping on a line that's been crossed many times over, one Cullen redraws now, much narrower—if Alistair doesn't intervene soon, he suspects they'll be at each other's throats faster than a templar in the wake of an apostate.
"Rutherford," Alistair clears his throat, and he can't decide if he should move forward or backward, one hand fixed in mid-air. "Don't bother, it's alri—"
"No, it's not," Cullen tilts his head, a sidelong glare and a curt sweep of his arm—Alistair swallows, one step farther away. "You're one of us."
Is he, though?
"Pfaugh, he's only here because—"
"And why are you here, Carroll." It's not a question. "Why were you recruited? I doubt it was for that particular talent of yours that never fails to knock you flat on your arse every time we spar. How long do you think you'll last against abominations if you can't even block steel with your shield?"
It almost sounds unfair—Cullen is rarely ever defeated during spars, however unaware he may seem to be of his own aptitudes, of his own everything, and Carroll takes the blow without grace, reduced to silence as he seethes, a grimace twisted on a rebuke he can't find.
His fists tighten at his sides, and Alistair promptly reclaims the step he's forgone.
"Whatever we were before doesn't define who we are now," Cullen straightens, firm still but mindful of Carroll's stance—if he dared to confront him, he most likely isn't willing to cause an actual brawl. "We must stand together, and you will address him with the same respect we all deserve."
Ah, Cullen. Meek as a lamb, a lion in wool clothing. He knows how to be heard, when he needs to be, and Alistair's face has considerably warmed at the sound of his admonition, laced with the kind of altruism and devotion that should always thrive within their hearts. His own beats a little faster, and Carroll's face has warmed as well, for different reasons—he gnarls, spits at Cullen's feet, and he leaves, making it clear in the way he scowls that he isn't entirely done with him.
"Whew," Alistair combs moist fingers through his hair, stomach growling—now that the tension's dissipated, he remembers that he was on his way to the kitchens. "That was close."
Cullen merely grunts, a non-committal noise as his palm rubs the back of his neck. It's hard to tell what he thinks, but it's clear he's grown slightly flustered—out of fatigue or discomfort, Alistair doesn't know, and he cautiously leans closer, wanting to thank him and wondering if he should.
"You didn't have to do that, you know."
"He's been grating on my nerves for much longer than I care to remember," Cullen sighs, his normally well-kept hair now hirsute with loose curls, results of a long training session—results of aggravation as well, if his altercation with Carroll's any indication—and Alistair wonders if anyone actually paid attention to the dispute, noting just now the swords still clanging around them. "He's nothing more than a troublemaker."
"And I don't?"
"You don't... what?"
"Grate. On your nerves."
That earns him a long, quizzical look, and a shake of head later, Cullen snorts, causing Alistair's lips to twitch upward as he follows him through the main hall of the monastery.
"Every hour of every day," he sighs, again, but Alistair's hardly deterred.
Despite the distances he keeps, he knows Cullen doesn't mind him there, and no matter how austere, he never fails to make him feel like he belongs—if not here, at least somewhere in his vicinity, and that's more than anyone has ever done for him.
"That often, huh," he smiles, coy, his voice louder than it should, as if to muffle the ruckus in his chest. "And yet here I am, unscathed and still breathing, rarely ever on the receiving end of that... glare of yours."
"I'm fairly certain I'm glaring now."
"Oh, that. No, that's you, you're just... standoffish. Overall, I mean. And... well, alright, maaaaybe you're a little annoyed now. You're particularly expressive, you know. For such a stern guy."
"Stern," Cullen merely repeats, the sidelong glance he casts him mildly perplexed. "You make it sound like it's a bad thing."
"Do I? Well... it's not. Not really, not where you're concerned anyhow. Just like my nerve-grating antics don't seem to bother you as much as they should... at least if I were anyone else."
Cullen's frown deepens, and Alistair's smile widens, facing each other at the end of the hallway—it splits into two passages, kitchens left and bedrooms right, and they're not headed the same way.
"You have a soft spot for me, Rutherford," he grins, and there's that other side of Cullen, one of many, unfurling in front of him—he can practically see the growing chaos in his head, fumbling in his own mind as darker colors spread to his cheeks. "It's pointless to deny it now."
"It's alright," he waves him off, taking a step back, two, a noise he wishes he hadn't made flowing out of his nose with his breath. "I do too."
He doesn't wait for a reaction; he turns on his heels, his mouth a little dry, unwilling to stay and catch in Cullen's eyes what he hopes he'll never see there—rejection, perhaps, something he's grown accustomed to from different sights, and he fears Cullen might take his teasing confession the wrong way.
It wouldn't be the first time someone misunderstood him, and the food he swallows tastes stale on his tongue as the thought lingers in his head, because the wrong way feels right, and he holds his breath again, quicker when he exhales.
He won't catch it until he finds Cullen asleep in their room, but it's frantic, leaving him light-headed, and while he lies stiff on the mattress, eyes wide on the ceiling, he ponders, abstractly, if he might have misunderstood himself.
The answer keeps him awake until the sun rises; something's changed... or perhaps it's been there all along.