Cullen hadn’t wanted to go to Kirkwall, but he hadn’t exactly wanted to stay in Ferelden, either.
In these dangerous times, he supposed it was better to have a choice at all, no matter how unpleasant the choice was. Most didn’t even have that much, so it was something, anyway.
The passage from Gwaren was also unpleasant, but he was one of the few Fereldans who were allowed inside the city proper. The rest were corralled like livestock, and Cullen could do nothing to help them.
Passing through the gates into the City of Chains, he looked back over his shoulder at his countrymen, the weeping statues burnished in the narrow sunlight behind them, and a little of what he’d suffered seemed to slough off him with the shifting of the tide.
Sometimes, a man needed to see what he wasn’t in order to understand who he was. That was what happened to Cullen in the weeks that followed his first meeting with Knight-Commander Meredith.
Cullen was not Knight-Commander Meredith. He might not have known himself these days beyond that comparison, but her ruthlessness frightened him almost the same way the mages had, when even Lake Calenhad outside the tower window had seemed too far away.
He shifted in the shade of the proud Kirkwall architecture at his back. Long years of training had taught him to ignore the weight of his armor and the warmth of his skin beneath, the lines of sweat that would have tickled any other, maybe any lesser man. He smelled of steel and the lyrium, which itself smelled like warm metal, too, and something dusty, and something sweet.
Maybe it was better if he didn’t try to describe it.
‘You there,’ a voice said, ‘you look like an able man, an upstanding citizen of Kirkwall. What can you tell me about Knight-Commander Meredith?’
What couldn’t I tell you? Cullen thought, and turned, not sensing the trap that had been laid before him.
Templars were too straightforward for that. Their visions were clear, but often they lacked the cunning.
That was the first time he met Serah Hawke, though it wasn’t the first time he’d caught wind of his doings. Infamous in Kirkwall—Hawke preferred the term ‘soon-to-be-legendary’—along with his curious band of miscreants and misfits. And apostates, according to certain sources.
Cullen could see with his own eyes that much was true, but somehow, Hawke was able to convince even the most hardened of templars that those rules didn’t apply to him. Or to his associates.
The second time he met Hawke, Cullen sent him to interrogate a few employees of the Blooming Rose. It wasn’t exactly the impression he wished to make on behalf of the templars, but there was something about Hawke that suggested it would be best to have him on his way as quickly as possible. Like a demon—though surely that comparison was unjust—it was better not to listen to any of his suggestive comments, but rather strike first and hard, before anything burrowed under his skin.
His life would have been far easier if he could deal with everything that made him uncomfortable in the same way that he dealt with demons, but alas, such methods were frowned upon, even by the Knight-Commander.
‘You aren’t even a little curious about what methods we used?’ Hawke asked him, after the business with Keran was over. He’d come to observe the aftermath, his handiwork, to check up.
‘I am not,’ Cullen assured him. It wasn’t quite a lie, and therefore not quite a sin in the eyes of the Maker.
‘You know, the reason no one likes templars is because you won’t cut loose,’ Hawke informed him, reaching out to run his thumb over the pommel of Cullen’s sword in a way that was superfluous, and also suggestive.
‘And I would venture to say that the reason everyone fears mages is because they, as you say, ‘cut loose’ far too often,’ Cullen said.
The way Hawke focused his attention on him then, a lesser man would have been sweating, but Cullen had learned to combat that impulse long ago.
The sun was setting low over the harbor in the Gallows when Cullen caught sight of the shadowy figure heading toward him. Backlit, it was impossible to make out his features, but there was something familiar about the easy confidence in his gait that allowed Cullen to imagine—perhaps even hope, but that was illogical.
‘Knight-Captain,’ Hawke said, with a friendly bob of his head. His eyes, in contrast, gleamed, foreboding. ‘Do you have any plans for this evening?’
‘I do not,’ Cullen said. ‘Unless you refer to the necessary continuance of my duties that occurs every night, but... I somehow get the sense that you were referring to something different.’
‘Well, here’s the thing,’ Hawke admitted, looking over his shoulder to make sure they weren’t overheard. And just where was his merry band of illegal apostates and other unsavory characters? Against all logic, Cullen had never seen him without them. Perhaps he just assumed they all came together as one, a single entity, not separate pieces. ‘A bunch of the guard are going to the Hanged Man later, and they bet me a whole sovereign that I couldn’t get one of the templars to show up. Allergic to having fun, I think, was the terminology they employed. Can you believe that? More importantly, are you going to stand for that?’
‘I stand for many things, Serah Hawke,’ Cullen replied.
‘Truth, honor, justice,’ Hawke said, ticking each quality off on splayed fingers, already smelling of sawdust and whiskey, ‘strength, clanking armor, men in skirts, and square-topped helmets that make you all look like giant thimbles.’
‘More or less,’ Cullen said.
‘Was that a joke?’ Hawke asked.
Cullen shifted with a clank of bulky armor, the breeze that traveled over the moat stale, with a promise of more open water beyond that. ‘I believe it was your joke first, Serah Hawke.’
‘Must we be so formal?’ Hawke asked.
‘We must,’ Cullen replied.
‘I’m no healer,’ Hawke told him, with a heavy sigh and a slip of a laugh, ‘but I think I know a fine cure for that near-fatal illness, Knight-Captain.’
The Hanged Man was the worst representation of every buried templar fantasy, a world outside the world of propriety, upside-down like the soldier on the sign.
From the waist up, Cullen didn’t entirely look out of place—not with how many guards were patrons of the establishment—though he didn’t wear Kirkwall’s colors, only polished steel.
There was fun to be had here, depending on one’s interpretation of the word, a freedom that didn’t entirely feel comfortable where Cullen was standing. There was also a pirate wearing no pants at all, the one Hawke unsurprisingly associated with, bare brown thighs and drunken laughter; a loquacious dwarf, joining the pirate in revealing his own ample chest; even the city’s guard captain, who for some reason, despite Cullen’s understanding that she was an upright citizen, enjoyed Hawke’s company, and even smiled at him when his back was turned, though it was with a tightness of mouth and apprehension of posture that Cullen could appreciate.
And Hawke, in the center of it all, clapping backs and draining tankards. It was difficult to imagine he ever got anything done, and Cullen wondered if his reputation was based not on what he’d accomplished for the refugees, but how many of them he’d drunk under the table.
There were carved wooden staffs leaning against the bar, apostates playing diamondback. Cullen thought he recognized one, that Hawke may have worn it before, when they met high on Sundermount.
Hawke ignored him the entire night, but Cullen felt drink-bright eyes on him when he left early. He didn’t think he’d attend in the first place; now he knew he wouldn’t come again.
By contrast, Hawke’s eyes were squinty the next morning; he shielded them from the sunlight, stepping a moment later into Cullen’s favored shade.
‘Ah, that’s better,’ he sighed.
Cullen nodded. Hawke was silent. He loosened a tie at his throat, and let his gaze wander.
‘Not everyone can hold their liquor,’ Hawke added, crossing his arms over his worn leather jerkin, the soft under-robe beneath. ‘It’s nothing to be ashamed of. Can’t imagine you’d have built up much resistance to the stuff, anyway.’
‘I am on duty, Serah,’ Cullen reminded him.
‘So am I,’ Hawke replied. ‘Remarkable what passes for duty these days, isn’t it?’
The man was stalking him. There was no other explanation for it.
Cullen had left Ferelden in the hopes of leaving behind his paranoia and fear, but there were times when it seemed to have followed him even across the water. He woke sweating in the darkness, after dreams of abominations and Uldred’s blood mages twisting his mind, his body, to their will.
But some nights, he woke sweating from an entirely different type of dream, though these were no less distressing.
And neither of them faded with time.
It was all Hawke’s fault, whether he knew it or not. The man arrived at the Gallows to do some secret business with Ser Thrask, and although Cullen attempted to overhear what they were saying, the distance between them was too vast, and it was lost amongst the columns and the shadows.
‘It’s rude to eavesdrop,’ Hawke commented later, passing by with the elf apostate and the raider with no pants in tow. His smile caused him to stand out easily among the mage students and Tranquil; they did not smile ever.
Cullen stiffened, the jibe forcing him to stand at attention, the way he ought to have been doing all along. ‘You are much mistaken if you think that I have the time for such frivolities.’
‘Right, I know,’ Hawke said, giving Cullen a sympathetic look; his behavior became instantly suspicious. ‘All that standing around and looking shiny. If I were a mage, that act would definitely scare all the sparkle out of my fingers.’ He wiggled his fingers then, smooth hands, ones that had obviously never notched a bow nor twirled a dagger, nor callused in the hold of a sword. Cullen watched them, the pale, soft little dance, then quickly looked away.
‘Do you have business here?’ Cullen allowed exasperation to color his words. His gauntlets scraped against the inside of his elbows, metal-on-metal.
‘I had some business with your colleague over there,’ Hawke said, indicating Ser Thrask. ‘This, however, is entirely pleasure.’
The elf began to giggle while the pirate just stared at him, the force of her gaze worse than any desire demon Cullen had ever encountered. The shape of her body, too…
Cullen shook it off. ‘There is no reason to mock me, Serah Hawke,” he said stiffly.
‘Mock you?’ Hawke repeated, with the gall to sound surprised. ‘Is that any way to behave, when I’m trying to invite you to dinner?’
‘I beg your pardon?’ Cullen asked.
Judging by the reaction of his audience—laughter from the apostate with no shoes and the pirate with no pants—that wasn’t the right answer to give.
Despite his better judgment, Cullen found himself in the Hawke estate entryway, a bottle of some respectable vintage in his hands and no armor at all—which shouldn’t have been a problem, considering that the battle he faced now was a simple dinner amongst nobility, and no blood mages at all.
At least, none that he knew of.
‘You honor us with your presence, serah,’ said the lady of the house, taking the wine and ushering him into the dining hall. ‘I’m always telling my son he should invite more people over for dinner… More, ah, regular guests, that is.’ Upstanding, well-mannered, courteous. No; Cullen had difficulty seeing Hawke consorting with anyone like that. ‘We certainly have the space now!’
‘Yes—and you have my congratulations,’ Cullen said, with a half-bow that felt off-balance in plain clothing, freed from the weight of his armor.
The story of how Hawke had bettered his fortunes in the Deep Roads was a popular one even as far as the Gallows, and it did Cullen some good to know that the Amell family had reclaimed its lineage in Kirkwall. Some things could be restored, even if others were lost in the process.
Standing in the warmth from a nearby fire, as two dwarves and a mabari looked on, it was almost a comfort to be here. Peaceful; not at all what he’d expected; and thankfully not at all like the Hanged Man.
It was at this juncture that Cullen realized he only had two topics of conversation readily prepared: the Amell cousin of Hawke’s that he’d known in Ferelden, and his condolences on Hawke’s promising younger brother having perished in the Deep Roads. Staring into the kindly, beautiful face of Hawke’s mother, both subjects seemed wildly inappropriate.
‘Do make yourself comfortable,’ the mistress of the house said.
That was impossible, but Cullen would have to do his best to pretend otherwise.
Mistress Hawke—born Mistress Amell—was a fine woman, well-mannered and intelligent and soft-spoken. Perhaps she seemed a bit young for her age, despite the lines around her eyes and the gray of her hair; it was remarkable, with everything that had happened to her, that she’d maintained any youthful happiness at all.
It was also remarkable she was related to the Hawke Cullen knew—swearing like a pirate himself in the Hanged Man and, if rumor was to be trusted, occasionally also lacking pants.
Not that Cullen could say anything on the topic. It would kill this good woman to know about it, if she did not already.
‘The Knight-Captain knew an Amell once before, Mother,’ Hawke said, reclining before the second course. But his napkin was folded in his lap and he didn’t eat with his hands, nor did he appear to be inebriated. The effects of his mother on him. It was unusual to see him this politely charming, instead of what he usually was. Something else, for which Cullen had no adequate descriptive.
‘Yes, well,’ Cullen agreed.
‘Back in Ferelden,’ Hawke added.
Cullen shifted in his dining chair. ‘Back in Ferelden.’
‘You know, that one awful member of the family who decided to become a Grey Warden and a hero.’ Hawke lifted his wine glass in a one-man toast. ‘As if it wasn’t enough to be just one or the other. Cocky little bastard, sorry Mother—by the way, did you pick this out yourself, Cullen? I had no idea you were such a connoisseur—and made the rest of us feel like we were the most dreadful under-achievers you can imagine. Talk about family pressure.’
‘Now, now,’ Mistress Hawke murmured.
Hawke sighed, wrist lolling against the arm of his chair. ‘I did say I was sorry, didn’t I?’
‘I knew him before he was the Hero of Ferelden,’ Cullen explained pointlessly. ‘While he was still in the…Circle, as an apprentice. That was a long time ago.’ He watched as Hawke lifted his glass to his mouth, tilted his head back just slightly, the unshaven stretch and the shadows on his throat, the bob of it as he swallowed deeply.
‘But that’s wonderful,’ Mistress Hawke said. ‘What a small world it feels like sometimes, don’t you agree?’
A little too small, Cullen thought, because it was getting to be a pattern. There were always Amells in his life just before his life was changed, and he’d been given enough change now for a lifetime.
‘Yes, doesn’t it?’ Cullen replied. There was no reason not to be a gentleman.
‘What do you think?’ Hawke asked later, over stout brandy glasses in the study.
‘It’s a bit strong for my tastes,’ Cullen admitted, the smell powerful, spiced, probably Rivaini in origin. ‘It has fine legs, but I’m more of a traditionalist when it comes to my spirits, I suppose you could say.’
Mistress Hawke had retired to bed; the dwarf attendants had done the same; even the mabari was slumbering by the fire. There was no buffer between them, just Hawke leaning against the mantle above the hearth, firelight melting the color of the brandy in his glass to the tincture of pure amber.
‘I meant the statue,’ Hawke said, looking up at the carved features leering from above him, something tribal or Tevinter in origin. ‘As…entertaining as that little dissertation on contraband Rivaini brandy was. I’ll have to bring you along to my next tasting.’
‘The statue?’ Cullen regarded it warily. ‘Ah, yes. That statue. What about it?’
‘They have them at the Rose, you know,’ Hawke continued. ‘I suppose a face like that gets some people in the mood, but not me.’
‘I hardly think…’ Cullen said, wine and brandy and firelight making his head swim. It was a dangerous combination. He felt soothed, lulled. It was a state he knew well, just before sleep took him; he always woke with a start seconds later, body trembling, not trusting that ease, that relaxation.
‘That’s the problem, I’d imagine,’ Hawke said. Instead of lingering on the statue, his eyes flicked over to Cullen’s face. He said he was no mage, but there was a quality in his gaze that felt as though it probed beneath his very flesh.
There was something impious about it. But then, Hawke was a secular man. He wasn’t given to the same rules and restrictions that Cullen bound himself to.
‘I beg your pardon?’ Cullen asked, quite sure that he was supposed to feel insulted by that remark. And he did, only—slowly.
‘You don’t think,’ Hawke said, leaning closer as he spoke. ‘There’s a whole wide world out there, full of prostitutes and dragons and rat-flavored whiskey and the smell of the docks at high noon—all of it magic, really—and you don’t consider any of it. All you see are mages and templars.’
He was right about that, but who didn’t in Kirkwall these days? Even Ferelden hadn’t been so strict about the issue, after Uldred’s attempt at destroying them all. It would take a wiser man than Cullen to understand the reasoning behind that. But its repercussions were felt, little echoes from a neighboring tragedy.
Not quite the Blight. Who knew which would prove more lasting?
‘You aren’t making a very compelling case,’ Cullen said. Hawke’s hand was on his forearm. Without his usual armor, the touch seemed even more of an invasion than usual. He could feel the warmth of Hawke’s fingers through the thin silk of his shirt, fine palm against fine fabric. Hawke’s fingertips were stained by polished wood and smelled electric. Cullen was half expecting them to smell of something else, sweat and whiskey and the grooved, splintering wood of the Hanged Man’s taproom tables. He wanted them to smell of leather and metal, a reminder that they were both warriors in their own way—but there was no such indication, only an ink stain at the corner of Hawke’s thumb and a gentle, heated touch.
‘That’s just because your priorities are all wrong,’ Hawke said. He’d lowered his voice, perhaps in an attempt to coax Cullen into leaning closer. His breath was warm, and it smelled of spiced brandy.
Cullen swallowed. Hawke was exceptionally skilled at laying traps. Perhaps that was why he’d always assumed—or told himself to assume—the man was a rogue.
‘This may be another matter on which we must agree to disagree, Serah Hawke,’ Cullen managed, though his throat felt dry; his pulse was racing, and the rest of his body felt numb, not charged with adrenaline at all. Dull, dim, slow. Be-spelled, he’d say, but this was no simple mage he dealt with.
‘Call me Hawke,’ Hawke suggested, with a charmingly lopsided smile. ‘All my friends do, anyway.’
His mannerisms were dangerous, neither sloppy nor careful. Reckless—that was the word for it.
And his own mother was sleeping upstairs.
‘That would be inappropriate,’ Cullen said, his voice reverberating from the inside of his glass.
‘Not as inappropriate as some other things I can imagine.’ Hawke’s hand tightened on Cullen’s arm. ‘I, unlike so much of Hightown, have a very keen sense of imagination.’
Something twisted low in Cullen’s stomach, not revulsion, but a relative of that, heated and rippling over his skin with anticipation. He entertained the thought of pushing Hawke away, but the connection between his mind and his body appeared severed, and he had no knowledge of what it might take to rejoin them. It was not at all the same as being held in thrall, yet he could not quite help feeling that his actions weren’t entirely his own, either.
‘Your imagination does you either a great credit or a great disservice,’ Cullen said, softly. ‘Though I admit that I cannot decide which.’
‘Let me know when you’ve made up your mind,’ Hawke told him, then turned abruptly away, seeking to refill his empty glass.
Cullen found himself watching him go; bitter on his tongue was the taste of relief and disappointment.
Hawke did not come back to the Gallows for some time after that. Merchants and mages landed in boats, and the Tranquil sold their wares amongst groups of gossiping templar recruits, but there was no sign of a familiar, dark man jogging past with his latest prize clutched in his fist—one day it had been a dragon fang, the next, a simple blossom. It was a mystery to anyone what he did with those things, or where he’d gotten them in the first place.
Cullen heard the stories, but he didn’t feel it prudent to believe any of them.
Each day, he saw with his own eyes the faded light in the lusterless gazes of the Tranquil, heard their dulled voices as they spoke their business with the Knight-Commander. Each day, he recognized the relief and the distant pleasure in the Knight-Commander’s expression when she was finished with them, the satisfaction she felt to see them in their place, posing no threat to themselves or any other. Each day, he could sense the unrest of his subordinates, those who questioned their actions, and those who didn’t. Some reminded him of himself when he was younger; some reminded him of the peers he’d come to hate, the indulgences of power they held over others clearly a pleasure.
It was easy to see things from where he stood, removed from the center of the Gallows courtyard—because he’d never really belong here, because he wasn’t native to this place.
But each day, he was drawn closer and closer into the eye of the storm. He knew trouble intimately. He knew it was coming.
Kirkwall summers were hot; the height was sweltering. Some of the younger templars, the newer and unseasoned recruits, suffered needlessly as they baked in the sunlight, trapped in plate upon interlocking plate. But the threats were real. They’d be grateful for that armor someday, even if Keran’s face was the color of raw lobster as he ran his errands.
‘Now there’s a good templar for you,’ Hawke said, appearing sans entourage, his cheeks flushed and his collar undone. ‘About to die unnecessarily in service to the—who is it that you serve again? Some big shot, people always talking about him, more important than the Viscount and just as disagreeable as the Arishok…’
‘Interesting how many you manage to offend in the span of a single sentence,’ Cullen replied.
Hawke shrugged. ‘I like to stay ambitious.’
Cullen pretended he was one of the statues that lined the courtyard and kept silent, motionless vigil. ‘So I’ve heard.’
‘What else have you heard?’ Hawke asked, passing a skein from his belt; Cullen eyed it cautiously, and Hawke sighed. ‘It’s water, Knight Captain; would I be so seditious as to entice a hard-working templar away from his duty with alcoholic beverages?’
‘You would,’ Cullen said, but he drank deeply and gratefully. It was cool, a boon he hadn’t known he’d needed.
Hawke took it back, fingertips grazing the back of Cullen’s hand as he did so, and drank after. ‘You’re right about that,’ he admitted, ‘but not this time.’
‘Why are you here, Serah Hawke?’ Cullen asked.
‘Just passing through,’ Hawke said. ‘Thought I’d stop by. Keran looks awfully hot in that uniform, don’t you think? These things—’ Hawke tapped Cullen’s chest plate, and Cullen felt the echo in his chest, ‘—need better ventilation. Or someone clever enough to take them off.’
It was only later in the evening that Cullen allowed himself to wonder if there’d been a second, intentional meaning to what Hawke said. There usually was.
Cullen had long since stopped repeating the Chant of Light in times of need—he’d exhausted it in the Fereldan Circle, trapped without end, without sign from the Maker—and so he found other ways to distract himself, other thoughts to put his wandering mind at ease.
The armor did come off, piece by piece, with buckles and straps falling slack as they were undone. Cullen was used to the weight by now, experienced as he was in wearing the full plate, but it did come as something of a relief when he was able to strip it off at the end of a long, hot day.
His rooms in the Gallows tower were always cool once the sun set, with the breezes that blew in off the ocean in the evening. He’d eaten dinner early, and finished debriefing with Knight-Commander Meredith, a daily occurrence. She was thorough, and her methodical nature was admirable, if not—sometimes—her actual methods.
It was a curious position to be in, with no duties to perform whatsoever, but not entirely unpleasant, either. Usually the Knight-Captain’s responsibilities after hours involved routing blood mages or hunting down escaped apostates, and he’d had enough of that for the time being. So had they. It was too hot for blood magic, and so both sides had entered a weary détente—for the time being.
There were whispers of a tunnel leading from the Gallows to somewhere in Darktown, that it was being used to escort mages out of the Circle and into dangerous freedom elsewhere in the Free Marches—but that was an investigation that would best be served by waiting until morning. There were rumors too that Ser Alrik was planning something drastic, but Cullen hadn’t spoken to the man in recent weeks.
A templar’s work was never done. Was it any wonder, then, that so many of them made difficult decisions under duress?
Sometimes they made them poorly. But everybody did that.
‘Ouch,’ commented a voice from outside the open window. The newly opened window, for while Cullen had unlatched the glass panes, in search of a cross-breeze, he was certain he’d left the grate firmly closed. ‘You must be thinking about something very hard. It looks painful.’
‘Hawke,’ Cullen said, too startled for formalities. He’d reached for his sword first—at least he could be certain his timing wasn’t off, his priorities somewhere…other.
Hawke was straddling his windowsill, half-in and half-out, one muddy leather boot on the carpet and a lock-pick in his teeth. He looked insufferably self-satisfied, the way Cullen imagined most sinners did, and his hair was in disarray, presumably from having scaled the side of the building.
The wind was stiff at this height. Cullen’s fingers tightened around the hilt of his sword, blade marked and scoured by time, one he’d brought all the way from Ferelden. All the years he’d spent with it made him no more certain of himself now, or what he should do under the circumstances.
‘Aren’t you going to invite me in?’ Hawke asked, throwing his left leg over the sill, then leaning out the window to close the grating again. ‘Such manners! And after Varric went to all that trouble teaching me how to pick a lock… Never mind, I understand, you’re speechless. It’s not every day a man breaks into a prison just to see someone, is it?’
‘You cannot possibly consider this a wise course of action,’ Cullen said, attempting to sound stern once he remembered he had every right to do so.
‘That’s a nice dress,’ Hawke said. Then, he whistled, looking him up and down in a manner that, to Cullen’s knowledge, belonged not in a center for law-abiding citizens, but in a filthy Lowtown tavern.
They’d been in one together once, though the memory seemed especially unbelievable when he considered it now, dressed down to the robes beneath his armor, and Hawke perched comfortably in his window, legs crossed, as though it was the most natural thing in the world. As though he did this often.
Which he probably did.
‘What do you want?’ Cullen asked. There was real curiosity beneath the question, making it something other than a firm demand. What did Hawke want? Not simply tonight, but all the other days that had come before this one. What did he hope to gain? Why did he bother tormenting Cullen in particular, when he either ignored or did simple business with the other templars?
Was he simply a target, a means to an end, a way of getting at the Knight-Commander? Or was he something less direct and more unique?
These were questions without end. They might have no answer; a man like Hawke had impulses no one but the Maker could predict.
‘Put down that sword and I’ll show you,’ Hawke said, but he was already moving, quick as a dockside breeze, before he knew there’d be no danger.
It was each roguish feint that distracted Cullen from the true magic of it all. No simple rogue could slip by the night-guard undetected, but with the proper spell, he’d be invisible. Unpredictable, untraceable, more than a shadow, closer to a shade.
But now—now, he was direct. The force of his momentum as they collided threw them both back against the writing desk; Cullen’s sword clanged as it fell onto the floor, rolling off the rug, and Cullen reached his hand up in an unquiet motion to push Hawke off, fingers twisting in the leather of his vest, the silk shirt beneath. Hawke bit him, right at the corner of his lip, before closing his mouth over Cullen’s fully, one large hand slipping between his back and the desk.
‘You make waiting very difficult,’ Hawke said. There was ale on his breath, not fine brandy or social wine; there was the sawdust and the sunlight and the sweat-stains on his leather. He palmed the side of Cullen’s face with his free hand, deft fingers raking feather-soft across the pulse-line at his throat, sucked his bottom lip, bit the flesh. ‘Tell me, do you lock your door at night to keep out unwanted visitors?’
‘Even if I do—’ Cullen began.
‘Good,’ Hawke said, ‘clever templar; wouldn’t it be embarrassing if someone were to interrupt?’
He dropped to his knees.
Cullen had to feel mouth moving over cloth to understand what was about to happen; the position should have told him everything, but all the kneeling he did involved clasped hands and a bowed head, and there was no reason to conflate the two images, even with their similarities. He looked down to see moonlight on sleek black hair, the bridge of Hawke’s crooked nose disappearing into shadow, between Cullen’s thighs.
Close, close, friction, and Hawke’s open mouth and too much fabric between them—and he pulled away, looking up, leaning back on his heels.
‘Are any of the rumors behind these robes true?’ Hawke asked, distracted. ‘Surely you lot must get up to something exciting at night.’
Cullen made a strangled sound; he couldn’t even pretend it wanted to be words. He saw Hawke’s expression change, soften, but then the shadows came, and it was all a trick of the light; Hawke moved forward again, palming between Cullen’s legs, shifting the fabric up to his knees.
‘Don’t tell me no one’s ever done this for you before,’ Hawke said dryly, muffled against fabric. His forehead rested against Cullen’s hipbone, and Cullen was harder than armor, with no way to hide.
‘No one’s ever done this for me before,’ Cullen replied.
Hawke’s voice rumbled along Cullen’s skin. ‘I thought I told you not to tell me that.’
‘I don’t lie,’ Cullen said, and Hawke barked a laugh that was too loud, that made Cullen wince. ‘Someone will hear—’
‘And no one will care,’ Hawke said. ‘They’re all at the Rose anyway. But you’re not.’
‘And you…’ Cullen murmured.
Hawke bunched the hem of Cullen’s robes in tight fingers, guided Cullen’s hands to lift them higher. ‘Hold these for a moment, would you? There’s a good lad.’
‘You don’t have to patronize me,’ Cullen said, voice hitching on uncertainty, in the exact same way it had when he’d attempted to interrogate the women at the Blooming Rose, so many years ago. It was always the same, no matter how much time had passed. He always faltered when it came to matters of this nature.
But he’d never imagined revealing such a weakness to Hawke—to a man who was neither enemy nor friend, neither his responsibility nor completely out of his jurisdiction.
‘I’m asking you to help, actually.’ Hawke let his hands trail over Cullen’s thighs as he released the heavy fabric of his robes. Cullen held them in his place, for no reason other than the fact that he needed something to do with his hands. Clutching at the edge of the desk behind him was one possibility, and this was another.
What unbelievable folly. He wasn’t defenseless by any means, and yet here he was, Knight-Captain of Kirkwall’s templars, backed up against his own desk, with another man between his legs.
Hawke exhaled, his breath warm against Cullen’s skin—sensitive places no one had ever breathed upon—the stubble of his cheek, the bristle of his beard, scraping against his inner thigh. None of the dreams he’d had, even those that drove him to waking hard, sweating and twisted in the sheets, erection trapped against the cotton, had been this vivid.
‘I can feel you thinking,’ Hawke muttered—did the man really plan on making complaints at a time like this?—before he drew aside Cullen’s smallclothes.
There was nothing, then, no robes, no armor, not even simple fabric to hide him from Hawke’s searching gaze. How apt that he would be named after a bird of prey, since Cullen felt helpless as a hunted vole in his grip, fingernails digging into the fabric of his own robes as he held them high.
‘I am not—’ Cullen began, before losing his voice to a treacherous hitch in his breath. He knew this next step, learned it well in Ferelden: the dangle and clutch, the wait, breathless, for an end that would not come. ‘Are you here to torture me? Is that… Is that your plan?’
‘Hardly,’ Hawke murmured, and he licked his lips before sliding his mouth over the head of Cullen’s erection.
‘Oh, Maker,’ Cullen gasped, though it felt like a blasphemy, a plea for forgiveness.
He wasn’t the one with his knees bent in supplication, and there was no one in his right mind who would mistake this act for prayer. Cullen knew that the other templars visited brothels—chiefly recruits, getting it out of their systems before they had no time left, before the lyrium took most of their desires and the atrocities they saw took the rest—and while the knowledge had bothered him, he’d never envied them anything. He was dedicated; the cause of the templars was his duty, Meredith’s duty and their duty to the Maker were his duty. There was no question of being distracted by the pleasures of the flesh, not when mages could be so dangerous. One slip, just one, and everything they’d worked for could be obliterated in the blink of an eye, flesh and bone warped and twisted, sinking with a burning hiss deep into the ground.
He’d always known that mages had such power, but he’d never imagined how else they could wield it, as though they were any man—any man with a mouth; any man with a tongue.
It was difficult to keep his balance as Hawke moved his mouth forward in slow, suckling increments, his tongue tracing dedicated circles. His knees were weak, his breathing short, as though he’d been kicked in the chest. A blow from the blunt end of a staff, a strike that left him stunned—a chain of lightning, the air ripe with tension, crackling through the metal of his armor—
Hawke drew in a breath, ran his teeth gentle along the underside, and sucked. Even now, he wasn’t quiet, but his mouth always knew what he wanted, and his tongue was never tied. Sounds rose from below, the heat and the warmth of his mouth giving way to the back of his throat. Cullen pushed his hips forward, forgot about the robes and grabbed a fistful of his hair; he came quicker than pride should have allowed, with no warning but a tug from his fingertips, not enough to jerk Hawke’s head back.
To his credit, Hawke didn’t flinch. He held his ground, palm steady against Cullen’s thigh, as Cullen spent himself, bit his lower lip, the inside of his cheek, anything to keep from crying out. It was better than his dry hand in the morning, which itself wasn’t necessarily better than denying himself—he did that more often. And it was better than a bucket of cold water, better than staunch refusal, better than doing the right thing, better than the pride that came with denial and the hubris that came with pride—better than anything.
Cullen sagged, knees jellying. Hawke stayed below the fall of Cullen’s robes, breath skirting against his knee, then appeared with his fingers at the corner of his mouth, wiping what still stained his lips like he’d been drinking straight from a bottle of 4:90 Black, and grinning.
‘Always knew you had it in you, Cullen,’ Hawke said. ‘And now it looks like I have it in me.’
‘Hahh,’ Cullen replied.
Hawke straightened, touching Cullen at the hip; he gave his robes a little tug, smoothing them out over his thighs, letting his fingers linger. His lips came close to Cullen’s, a different scent on them now, something beyond the ale that Cullen found both fascinating and offensive. He wondered if Hawke would kiss him, but he seemed to think the better of it. He didn’t, and instead, he pulled away.
At the window again, Hawke loosened his collar; he steadied himself against the sill, lounging, ready to undo the grate a second time. His hands paused. Was it hesitation, was he looking for the lock pick, trying to remember how it was done—or was he just being dramatic, waiting to be asked to stay?
Cullen watched him carefully, but he couldn’t tell which subtlety it was that played across the sudden crags of Hawke’s face. His vision felt blurry. His dick felt amazing.
‘Well, that was something, wasn’t it?’ Hawke said lightly. ‘Let’s do it again sometime. Maybe the other way around—if the saying isn’t true, and you can teach old templars new tricks.’
He didn’t give Cullen time to answer—or maybe it was time that moved too quickly, while the grate creaked on its rusty hinges.
‘Needs a little grease,’ Hawke said, and left the way he came: ridiculously.
Even those who knew Cullen best couldn’t read the change in him; no one clapped him on the back, the way Hawke would have done, congratulating him for finally having the balls to get his dick sucked.
Every time Cullen thought of it—that way, with Hawke’s words, not his—he lifted his gloved hands to his brow and pinched the bridge of his nose, until finally the sharp press of metal wrestled the thoughts out of his mind.
He stood in the sun the next day, just a few steps to his right, never one for punishing himself the way some preferred, but needing the sweat and the heat and the unpleasantness to distract him. It was a means to an end, and nothing more; he wasn’t about to flog himself because he thought the way to the Maker was in the sting.
It was a slow day in such hot weather. He accompanied Ser Thrask on an envoy to Hightown to speak to Grand Cleric Elthina on a few matters that required her jurisdiction, and even a few that didn’t. Thrask was becoming concerned about the Knight Commander’s methods, though Cullen wasn’t sure yet whether that concern was justified. As a result, he found himself waiting in the Chantry courtyard, observing the nobles as they went about their daily lives. One man seemed to be calling for his dog, but the rest seemed content enough, unbothered by the presence of a templar in their midst, what it might mean for the mages in the Gallows.
He’d read all the notes on the Chanter’s Board, and bid hello to the sister in charge of such matters already, when the sound of a familiar voice caught his attention.
‘There now, Mother, you see? Just the same supplies, all for a quarter of the price you’d find them in these marked up stalls,’ Hawke was saying, as he made his way up the stairs that connected—for good or ill—Hightown to Lowtown.
‘You were right, dear.’ Mistress Hawke, walking a few paces ahead of her son. ‘I suppose I’m still getting used to the idea of searching for a bargain. Do thank your friend Varric for me, when you have the chance.’
‘He doesn’t need the boost to his ego,’ Hawke replied. It was evident by the sudden clarity of their voices that they were moving closer. ‘If his head gets any bigger, there’s no way his tiny body will be able to support it. Hah, dwarves… Do you want to be the reason for his suffering, Mother? Really. How cruel of you.’
Cullen chanced a look in their direction. Mistress Hawke was walking with her hands clasped while Hawke followed behind her, barely visible above a mountain of groceries. At least the man had some sense of decency, Cullen thought. The trip from Lowtown to Hightown was a long and difficult staircase for a woman of Mistress Hawke’s age, no matter how young she looked.
The woman in question was smiling.
‘Really,’ she said, covering her mouth, laughing against her palm.
The day’s heat had clouded Cullen’s reflexes. Rather than turn away after that simple glance, Cullen allowed his gaze to linger on the flush at the back of Hawke’s neck, the wrinkled paper bags bulging in his arms, the loaves of bread and vegetables and other mundane items—and Hawke was a man who was accustomed to attention. He lifted his head, searching, a cheeky grin flashing across his face the moment he spotted Cullen shining amidst the crowd of nobles and their servants and eager tradesmen and chantry sisters.
It was the armor. The armor stood out against everything.
Standing in front of the Chantry, with the sun beating down on him, Cullen had never felt quite so…obvious. All men were insignificant in the face of the Maker, so presumably it made sense that Hawke would have the opposite influence on him.
His body flushed in the summer heat, the armor unbearable in a way it had never been before. That, too, was Hawke’s fault. As if sensing Cullen’s thoughts, his discomfort, the man in question gave a saucy wink, passing behind an elf servant as she muttered her to-do list aloud for the tenth time since Cullen has arrived. She was more bent on speaking of what she must do than she was on actually doing it.
So many were like that. Not just in Kirkwall, but everywhere.
Cullen swallowed, allowing himself to shift where he stood. The heavy fall of his robes dragged maddeningly across the sensitive place between his legs. He did not allow himself to wonder whether Hawke would be returning that night, and he certainly wouldn’t be leaving his window unlocked in the hopes of such a visit.
After all this time, he couldn’t risk an invitation. Demons and mages and men—bidden or unbidden, they all found a way in.
‘Finished at last,’ Ser Thrask said, making his way down the stone steps of the Chantry. His apologetic voice startled Cullen out of his thoughts, but it was a welcome distraction. When there were other templars about to set an example for, he found his duties simpler, his place more obvious. ‘Are you certain we shouldn’t stop for a drink on our way back, Knight-Captain? You’re looking a little…flushed.’
Hawke had already disappeared in the crowd, heading toward the Viscount’s Keep and his own estate. Cullen bit back a sigh.
He was well-accustomed to the feeling of waiting for something, the dread and longing that came with anticipation. All he could do was trust that when the time came—and the time for trouble would come, had always been coming—that he’d be equal to its challenge.
‘It’s nothing; just the Kirkwall heat,’ he told Thrask, and began to walk in the direction of the docks.