Cullen was keeping vigil at the bottom of the stairs again. And awaiting a scolding for leaving his post yesterday. He was rather surprised that it hadn't yet come, but perhaps the Knight-Commander had more pressing things on his mind than internal discipline issues.
There was no defence against his actions. Cullen could hardly tell Greagoir that one of the mages he particularly despised had tempted a templar into a rather sinful exchange. Especially when the templar was Cullen and the mage was a woman he wanted to protect, even if it was foolish. He shivered. Best think about something else – the walls, for instance.
Sadly, Cullen's newfound interest in the stonework was short-lived, as Eve had just appeared from nowhere. She looked strangely contrite. His stomach gave a traitorous leap of joy at the sight of her, but he squashed it back down. He wasn't going to betray the Maker with his unholy behaviour again.
"Hello Cullen," she said, with more reservation than yesterday.
"Hello. I can't talk to you." He forced the words out as authoritatively as he could, staring defiantly at the wall and trying to ignore the colour that always rose in his face when she was around.
"I'm sorry. About yesterday."
Cullen's concentration broke, and he gazed at the forlorn apprentice. She was staring at her shoes, shame-faced. Her eyebrows were pinched, as though she was considering her words and couldn't find the right ones. This was new. Usually, when Eve and Jowan landed him in trouble or embarrassed him, she seemed oblivious to the effect it had on him.
He wasn't sure how to respond, but gawping seemed to be the only route to take.
"I shouldn't be distracting you from your duties like that. I know the rules about templars and mages, and... it wasn't fair on you." Eve's eyes flickered upwards, meeting his. They seemed so honest. No mischief, no cunning games. Just sincerity. Cullen didn't realise that she could seem more beautiful than she had before. In this image, as she was now, she could be Andraste herself – pure and compassionate. He could feel his resolve to ignore her slipping through his fingers.
She continued, giving him a hopeful smile. "So, in future maybe we could just talk, yes?"
"Oh, yes. Yes."
Eve grinned at him. Her gazed drifted up the stairs and she took a few steps backwards, slipping off into an adjacent classroom before he could say anything else. Cullen stared after her, fleetingly confused, until he realised what the cause of her alarm must be. He turned his attention to the stairs, down which a fuming Greagoir was stomping.
Cullen forced himself not to grimace, facing his superior with a deferential dip of the head. "Knight-Commander."
"Templar Cullen," Gregoir barked, getting right to the point. "Do you know why you were given the task of guarding the first floor staircase?"
Cullen was never sure if questions like this were rhetorical or not. He frowned, wondering whether he should answer with reference to the pranks in the tower, or say something about the Maker instead. Greagoir didn't seem to want an answer though, as he continued in a thunderous voice.
"This important duty was assigned to you because there have been numerous attempts to undermine templar authority within the Circle Tower. This will not be tolerated. I have witnesses who claim to have seen you gallivanting around the tower during your watch yesterday; is this correct?"
"Yes, ser." Cullen stared at the floor. He had never felt so small in his life. The corridor was deserted, but he could almost feel life emanating from the walls with the intensity of a thousand eavesdroppers.
Greagoir twitched his shoulder irritably. He seemed to have difficulty remaining still. "During this time, an apprentice is understood to have sneaked upstairs to defile the templar quarters yet again. I am quite certain you know the identity of this mage, which is why I am giving you one opportunity to name the culprit."
Cullen's stomach contracted. And then contracted again. He wasn't certain that Eve was responsible, but he couldn't name her even if she was. Especially after the olive branch she had just offered him. Their words a few moments ago might be the start of the friendship he was hoping for. It wasn't the passionate relationship he secretly wanted, but it was safer and only discouraged, not forbidden. If he betrayed her now she might not forgive him. There was a good chance that Jowan was responsible if she wasn't, but the apprentice was Eve's friend. Cullen doubted she would look too kindly on him betraying her friend either.
He thought sanity must surely have departed from him in order to utter the words he gave to Greagoir: "I don't know who it was, ser."
Greagoir gave a poorly restrained snort of frustration, making a strange jerking movement with his arms.
"Very well! Until you have realised that your obedience to the Chantry supersedes any loyalty you may feel you have to certain mages, you will be punished–"
The Knight-Commander looked temporarily stunned, casting about to see who would break him off mid-flow. His expression hardened as he realised it was none other than the trouble-maker herself.
"That is Knight-Commander Greagoir," he said curtly. "I am in the middle of disciplining one of my templars, an issue which does not concern apprentices."
"But it does concern me, because it's my fault." Eve moved towards them, somehow looking both confident and guilty. Her eyes met his for a fraction of a second before she concentrated on Greagoir. "I was the one who sneaked up there. Cullen had nothing to do with it."
His emotions jarred. He was caught between joy at her proclamation of his innocence and her coming to his defence, and worry at the punishment that probably still awaited him for leaving his post.
"That does not excuse his involvement. If he had not been absent from his post, you would not have had the opportunity to commit your crime."
"Cullen only left because... I told this joke, and he thought it was offensive to the Maker. So he went to the Chapel. I didn't sneak up there during his watch though – I wouldn't get him in trouble like that."
She gave Cullen a warm look at that point, one which was not lost on Greagoir – as she had intended. That was a little risky and very unlikely, but perhaps if the Knight-Commander thought she was too fond of Cullen to intentionally get him in trouble, then he might believe her about not sneaking upstairs during Cullen's watch. Or his punishment could be doubled for encouraging a mage's affections.
Greagoir narrowed his eyes. "Then when did you sneak upstairs?"
"On Templar Ewan's watch." She fixed the Knight-Commander with her doe-eyes of innocence, but he was immune to them. Instead, he looked at the nervous templar across from him and sighed with annoyance. He cared about his templars, but guarding the Circle required vigilance – something his men were seriously lacking sometimes.
"Templar Cullen, you will still be punished for abandoning your post, albeit less severely. Let this guide your future actions wisely. Report to my office later for the details of your punishment. Apprentice Surana, you will go to the First Enchanter immediately, where he and I will determine an appropriate punishment. In the meantime, I will find Templar Ewan."
With that, he adjusted his robe and marched back up the stairs. There was something distinctly odd about the way he was walking.
Eve laughed as he disappeared from view.
"Thank you," Cullen breathed. "I-I can't believe you just did that. Was it... true?"
"Not a word." She grinned. "Jowan sneaked upstairs whilst you were looking for me, and I met up with him near the entrance to the templar quarters. I only framed Ewan because I saw him going through a drawer of my delicates the other week. The big liar said he thought I was hiding texts on forbidden magic in there. Blaming him was payback."
Cullen's brain stalled at the notion of a fellow templar unrightfully rooting through the smallclothes of the woman he... cared for. It was depraved.
"But, what did you do whilst you were up there?" he asked, curiosity overcoming him.
"We put powdered rashvine in Greagoir's bedclothes," she whispered conspiratorially. "He'll be scratching all day. And tomorrow, if he doesn't change those blankets."
Cullen gave a small smile at her mischievous glee. He felt obligated to inform Greagoir, especially in light of the Knight-Commander's leniency. And because the templars were a brotherhood – with a few sisters for good measure. However, to do so would undermine the small sacrifice that Eve had just made for him.
"I'll try to keep you out of the trouble next time," she promised, departing with a grin.
He felt elated that she did genuinely care. It hadn't just been a trick, but she wasn't going to try and take advantage of him again. Cullen could be devoted to the Maker and care about her at the same time. He could, because nothing was going to come from it but innocent friendship.
What had she meant by 'next time', though? Were she and Jowan already planning another practical joke? Perhaps she hadn't meant anything by it, and was intending to be a well behaved student from there on out. Oh, who was he kidding – there was always a next time.
A/N: Thanks for reading :)