It's a Long Story
Eleanor barely had the strength to shower but she forced herself to do so. She couldn’t imagine getting under her blankets caked in mud like she was. The rest of the house would have to wait. The soldiers had tracked it all upstairs when they took Dorian to his room, and Swiffer had tracked tiny paw prints all through it and carried it on padded feet into the rest of the house. She had tracked it in the front hall too, not thinking to take off her boots before she went in the house. Cullen had gone back to the barn to get something for his cut. Yes, the house would be filthy, but at least she would be warm and clean.
Pulling her hair back into a braid and slipping on an old t-shirt and fleece pajama bottoms - the warmest pajamas she had in her drawers this time of the year - Eleanor wearily left the bathroom.
She found Cullen sitting on her bed, hands folded in his lap. He was clean, his shirt was fresh. And he was shaking.
“Cullen?” she asked softly, and he picked up his head to meet her gaze. His eyes were bloodshot with sleeplessness, and maybe something else, but whatever it was, she couldn’t say.
She sat down next to him, close enough so that their shoulders touched. Eleanor averted her eyes, but he watched her all the while. “What’s wrong?” she asked, feeling the shaking all through his body.
“I don’t…” he shook his head. “It’s a long story.”
“I’ve got time,” she offered, deigning to lift a hand and swing it around behind him. She placed it on his back and he flinched a bit, before easing against her touch. She watched his jaw clench and unclench, and he seemed to be fighting with himself physically and mentally both. “Here,” she said, and got up, going to her nightstand to retrieve a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. Sometimes she smoked when she read, though she hadn’t had much time to sit in bed and read lately. It was a dirty habit, somehow more so than just smoking, but it was comforting to her, to lie back on a lazy morning with a book and coffee and a cigarette and to arrange herself under the covers until she felt damn good and ready to face the day. She put one between her lips and lit it, taking a drag to get the ember going, and she held the smoke in her lungs as she passed the cigarette to the trembling Cullen. He looked at her, unsure at first, then took it from her, pinching it between his thumb and forefinger, and sucked in the smoke.
Eleanor exhaled and sat back down beside him as he breathed out, smoothly at first, then with a few dry coughs. Cullen squeezed his eyes shut, took a deep breath, and then took another, steadier pull from the cigarette before passing it back to Eleanor.
The commander stared straight ahead as he said, “I was a templar. It’s the military branch of the Chantry; we watch over mages, we… make sure they’re safe.” She could tell he was choosing his words carefully. She knew a little bit about the Chantry and the Circles from Dorian, knew a little bit about mages and apostates and just what templars did to them, but she let him go on telling her what he needed to tell and nothing more. “When templars take their vows, they’re given a philter - a draught of lyrium - which helps them - us - to focus our abilities, to help focus on an, an immutable reality. It’s the very realness of that reality that keeps a mage from casting a spell.” Eleanor passed the cigarette back to him, and he took it gratefully. He pulled off a long drag and caught the ash in his hand, reaching over to the nightstand to tip the ashes into the ashtray before wiping his hand on his jeans. He coughed a bit, and his words came faster now. “Templars become addicted to lyrium. The Chantry maybe knows this, I… don’t know what to believe. They must know.” He shook his head. “I haven’t taken lyrium in seven years, and I still sometimes…” He stayed focused on the wall in front of him and let his eyes slip closed. Eleanor let him finish the cigarette in silence as the rain beat against the windows, sometimes quietly, sometimes with the force of a small gale when the wind picked up.
Leaning over, Cullen butted the cigarette in the ashtray, forced the last of the smoke out through his nose. “They’ll burn the darkspawns’ bodies tomorrow, if it’s dry enough.”
“What were you looking for on the corpses?” Eleanor asked.
The corner of Cullen’s mouth tugged back and he said, “Something. Anything. I’m not sure what. Something that would tell me what a dozen darkspawn were doing heading this way so suddenly. I thought for sure,” he said, then picked his hand up and dropped it in his lap, defeated. His trembling had diminished somewhat, and he stood, turning to face Eleanor who remained seated before him.
“We’ll figure this out,” he assured her. “I, ah,” and he pointed at the door with his thumb. “I’m going to get some sleep. Finally.”
“Good plan, Commander,” said Eleanor, failing to stifle a yawn.
Cullen reached out and put a hand on her shoulder. “Ellie, thank you. I…” Something vague crossed his face as she looked up at him, and his eyebrows furrowed for just a second. He lifted his palm just an inch or two, just high enough to press it against her cheek. But just as quickly as he had brought it to her face, he drew it away and said, “I’m sorry. I’m tired,” and he turned away, letting himself out into the hall and closing the door behind him.
Eleanor pushed the back of her hand to her cheek. His hand had been calloused, battle-hardened, rough. But it had also been warm. Frowning crookedly, she tossed the pack of cigarettes back into the nightstand drawer and banged it shut.
Eleanor awoke in a cold sweat.
She sat bolt upright in bed with a shout, convinced that for the second morning in a row she’d heard something, a pounding at her door, or something outside.
But there was nothing. Nothing at all, except Swiffer merooping at the door, a sound that would never normally have woken her up, and was probably caused by Eleanor’s sudden shout, and not the other way around. Pressing her knuckles to her forehead, she slid her legs over the side of the bed and got up to allow the kitten admittance into her bedroom, leaving the door open a crack in case the cat wanted to leave again. She paused before she got back in bed to listen to the sounds of the house. It was still raining, more gently now, but otherwise, everything was quiet. She stood there another moment and heard only a few typical creaks and groans of the wood of the house itself shifting and stretching with the humidity. Nothing at all that might have woken her, nothing at all that could have woken her and perhaps not exhausted Dorian, certainly not just as tired but ever on-edge Cullen. No. It was only her.
Something, however, was lingering in the back of Eleanor’s mind, something that wouldn’t settle down as she crawled back under the blankets, Swiffer settling between Eleanor’s knees. Had she had a dream? A nightmare? Eleanor hardly ever remembered her dreams and even when she did, they were usually nothing uncommon: stress dreams mostly, dreams of high school, dreams of her father’s cancer, dreams where she couldn’t remember her mother’s face anymore. Nothing that woke her up with a jolt, just things that woke her up slowly with a bad taste in her mouth. But she couldn’t shake it. There was something there, a feeling like someone, something, had reached out and touched her, not the physical her, but something deeper.
There was a dark feeling in the pit of her stomach, and she was suddenly grateful for the snuggling kitten at her legs. So grateful, in fact, that Eleanor reached down to grab the cat and, as Eleanor curled onto her side, she placed Swiffer along her chest so that she could feel the animal’s warmth near her heart, her belly. Swiffer had started to protest, but seemed to sense that something was wrong, that her human needed her, and so the cat readjusted herself, nuzzling against Eleanor’s ribs, little grey tail sliding under the blankets that lay just at Eleanor’s hips.
“Love you, little kitty,” Eleanor said softly to the grey ball of fluff. Swiffer only purred, but that was good enough. Within a few minutes, Eleanor felt herself drifting away. She didn’t want to wake up until the sun shone through the curtains. After the past twenty-four hours, she felt like she more than deserved it.