Anytime, Except for Ever Again
“Back so soon?” said Dorian as Eleanor found herself waiting at the bar again. She hoped that this would be the last time she would find herself away from Cullen for a little while, so when the young bartender asked her, “Two more?” she accepted before asking for the second shot. She would stock up now though she’d hardly touched the beer she’d come inside for last time and be able to stay outside with Cullen for a while longer than she had yet. She liked being close to him, liked being alone with him, and while she knew there was alcohol coursing through her veins and speeding up the natural course of her emotions, strengthening them even as it did, she wasn’t sure she minded terribly. After all, he did look good in that shirt. And the way he’d laid his hand across hers in a way she thought he hoped she wouldn’t notice implied that he thought she looked rather good in hers as well. And, she laughed as she thought, perhaps he thought she would look good out of it. Normally Eleanor would cold-cock a man in the mouth for thinking such things about her - when she could tell, of course, or when he was stupid enough to say so - but Cullen had been, after all, living in her upstairs rooms for months now and had not made so much as a move. If she was reading him right, she didn’t think she should cold-cock him so much as give him a trophy for his restraint. If she was reading him wrong, then Eleanor got the feeling that she was drunk enough to find out tonight. Though a part of her doubted that it was the alcohol at all. She thought perhaps it was just the right time, and the right place, and the kiss she had given Dorian had ignited something inside of her, not for the mage, no, but a sort of vague tingling all through her body that she longed to indulge. Cullen, she decided as she waited for her drinks, would not be the worst person to indulge it with, if, of course, he would indulge her.
“Hopefully for the last time,” she answered Dorian.
He reached out and took her hand, in plain enough view of the rest of the bar that he thought it might partly be for show, but in such a tender way that she sensed there was something more behind it as he said, “I would be remiss if I didn’t say I hoped so too.” He nodded her head toward the two girls from whom she had tried to rescue him, and saw them now consorting with three of the young men who had been sitting on the opposite side of the bar, engrossed in the football game.
“What’s going on over there?” she asked softly.
“Well,” he said, drawing the word out, and as if on queue, one of the women pointed around the heads of the soldiers they stood behind and straight at Eleanor.
“Oh, Dorian. What have you gotten us into.”
“What would you have had me do?”
“Stay at home, for one thing.”
“Ah.” He let her hand go.
The bartender presented her with two more glasses and the tall shot, and Eleanor reached down to tuck one of the beers under her arm so that she could carry the other and the shot glass in her hands.
“May I help you with that?” he offered apologetically.
“No, it’s alright, really,” and she turned slowly, keeping her eyes on the drinks in her grasp, only to look up into the eyes of one of the girls who had expressed interest in Dorian.
Eleanor rolled her eyes and sighed.
“He belong to you?”
“Well, he’s a human being, so no.”
The girl stared back blankly, clearly not in on Eleanor’s meaning. Dorian nudged Eleanor in the ribs, nearly making her spill the beer tucked against her side.
“Yes he’s my boyfriend,” she said dully.
“Then who’s that for?” she indicated the drinks in Eleanor’s grasp. The girl crossed her arms over her blue tank top, grinning as though she had just won the game.
“My boss,” Eleanor answered, and it wasn’t as much of a lie as her previous statement had been. Something about that realization in the wake of all of her other small epiphanies that evening made her nose crinkle.
“Oh.” She paused, then put her hands on her hips, turning back to the other girl, and the three men with him. They almost mirrored the four soldiers who were now taking no small notice of the exchange. The other girl mouthed something to her more confrontational friend, and she turned around to ask Eleanor, “I thought he said he was gay.”
“Well, he’s mostly gay.” She heard Dorian chuckle behind him. Dorian wasn’t mostly anything. He didn’t do anything by halves. “I mean, I’m only mostly straight. And anyway,” Eleanor went on, feeling indignant and inebriated now, and with the drinks in her hands only wanting to be done with this conversation so that she could continue to become further inebriated in the company of an entirely different person, “this is the twenty-first century. Sexual orientation is a fluid thing.” She stopped before "we’re here, we’re queer, get over it."
The girl didn’t back down, only stood firm.
“Oh, this is ridiculous,” she said, turning to Dorian. “Defend your own damn self.”
“But I -” Dorian started, but Eleanor took a step forward to move away. And then the girl put out her hand and pushed Eleanor against the chest, a bit of beer sloshing out of both glasses and onto her shirt. It was dark blue, but the wet patches were immediately noticeable even in the dim light of the bar.
Eleanor’s eyes narrowed. “Oh. You don’t want to do that.”
“Oh yeah? What are you gonna do about it?”
The Inquisition soldiers stepped forward, each staring down one of the opposing party. From Dorian, a ripple of ozone filled the room, the threat of magic ripe in the air. He was under express orders not to do any spellcasting, but Eleanor could tell from the looks on the faces of the five that the could sense something. The girl backed away a few steps. She wondered what it felt like to them, these people who didn’t know of magic. She tried to imagine what it would have felt like for her if Eleanor had not been told from the start what it was. But it didn’t matter. She had a clear path to the door, and she took it. She had bigger fish to fry.
Cullen hadn’t touched his beer since Eleanor had left, she noticed. He held the extinguished cigarette between his fingers still, seemingly lost in thought. There was a tinge of chill on the air, and Eleanor wondered idly if, assuming she could still stand straight after the two drinks that she now had before her, the bartender would humor her with something warm to drink. A hot toddy or something. Then again, after the two drinks in front of her, she might be warm enough all on her own.
“You know, you’re allowed to have your own fucking cigarette,” she said with a laugh, and presented him the shot with a bow. He took it gingerly, brought it to his lips, and swallowed it down in one expert gulp.
Coughing gently against the burn, he said, “I’ll take you up on that.”
She sat and reached for her purse, which had slipped to the floor beside her chair. From it she withdrew two more cigarettes and a different lighter, an old-fashioned affair, one that she would have to refill from time to time with lighter fluid. It had been her dad’s, like most of the nicer things that she owned, and she couldn’t bring herself to use it every day, like most of the things he had left behind, things she had boxed up and put in the attic and would occasionally rummage through when she needed to have a good cry. But this was a special occasion.
Eleanor handed the Zippo over to Cullen and watched him light it, watched his hands, knuckles thick in a way that implied strength, the callouses thick and rough on the pad of his right hand. She wondered if that was where his sword rubbed the most. The pommel? she wondered hazily. He handed the lighter back to her and she lit her own cigarette.
“It’s called the pommel, right?”
His head jerked back slightly and he cocked an eyebrow at her.
“The part of the sword that you… like, hold.”
He offered her a smile, “The grip. The pommel is the bit at the end of the grip.”
“Do you… hit people with it?”
Cullen laughed. “You can.”
She shook her head.
“What is it?”
Eleanor shrugged, running one finger around the edge of her glass. It made a dull humming sound. She thought maybe if she circled faster, it would sing. “That’s just… not something I thought I would ever need to know.”
“Well,” he granted, taking a puff of his smoke, “you don’t really need to know it now, I suppose.”
She bobbed her head from side to side in tentative agreement. “Then, I guess I’d never thought I’d have someone to ask. Or even be motivated to ask, really.”
“I’ll give you that one.” He took a drink and then asked, “What made you think of it at all?”
“Your hands,” she answered, as though that was all the explanation he would need, but his look of bewilderment signalled to her that he didn’t understand. “Your callouses,” she tried again. “They’re different on your right hand.”
Holding the cigarette in pinched fingers, he turned his palms up and examined them. “You’re right, they are.”
“You never noticed before?”
He shrugged and pulled his lips tight in a quick gesture. “I guess not.”
She shook her head with a smile, and her hazelnut hair tumbled from one shoulder to the other. “What am I going to do with you, Cullen?” she asked playfully, and took a long drink from her glass, draining the first and setting the cup aside.
“Oh, I can think of a few things,” he said boldly.
She froze for an instant, then slowly set her cigarette down in the ashtray, her face suddenly betraying nothing. Cullen’s stomach dropped and his heart leapt into his throat. He threw up his hands defensively, trying to take it back. “I didn’t - I don’t -”
He fell silent when she tipped herself forward as far as the table between them would let her, and she reached out her hand to his cheek, brushing his stubble with the tips of her fingers. “Not yet you didn’t,” she countered his own sputtering objections, and a wry smile split across her face.
The relief in Cullen was instantly palpable. The breath he released seemed to take the tightness in his whole frame with it and his eyelids fluttered as his face sunk forward against her hand. He reached out and took her slender wrist, pushing her palm to his lips, kissing the heel of her hand hard, his eyes closed, cigarette still clutched in his opposite fingers, holding it carefully away from her skin. Eleanor watched him, watched his face change, and suddenly he seemed a different man, or a much younger one at the very least. The lines of tension, of worry, released their grip on his forehead; the inverted V that stretched from his nose to his chin shallowed and smoothed, and despite his grasp, she turned her hand over and rubbed the backs of her fingers against his cheek, the corner of his mouth.
“Blessed Andraste,” he breathed against her fingertips.
“Hallowed be her name,” Dorian said from just past the patio door.
Cullen dropped Eleanor’s hand as though it were hot and she drew it quickly against her chest, reaching out for her cigarette in the ashtray before her. The warmth of her buzz seemed to ebb away and she reached for her second beer, which she remembered now was her third. She welcomed it.
“Pavus,” Cullen growled with more venom than might have been necessary.
Unconcerned, Dorian pulled out the chair that Eleanor had at first sat in. In his hand he was swirling a glass of wine. “You might be happy to know that those two women have deemed me no longer worth their trouble and seem to have left the bar. Your proud troops stared down the menfolk until they at least left our corner to grumble the night away in a corner all their own.”
“Wonderful,” remarked Eleanor, staring into her beer, sliding her eyes up and to the left to meet Cullen’s own. Though there was disappointment on his face, when his gaze met hers his eyes brightened with conspiratorial pleasure.
Cullen took a hit from his cigarette. “Does that mean it’s safe for you to go back inside?”
“Commander, you wound me,” Dorian pouted sarcastically. “Anyway, Eleanor, I just wanted… to thank you. I hadn’t meant to put you in that position.”
“What position?” Cullen asked, adding to himself, The one where you pressed yourself against her? But he knew it was a worthless thought, given the circumstances.
Eleanor rolled her eyes. “Bitch wanted to start shit with me when I went back inside.”
Dorian snickered into his glass at her bluntness. “In so many words,” he agreed.
Cullen’s eyes narrowed, and Eleanor saw his expression shift.
“Oh, don’t,” she warned him off. “It was nothing I couldn’t handle. I’m just mad she made me spill my drink,” she reached out and pulled her shirt away from her body, the two wet patches of beer fading even now, though the damp spots were cold against her skin in the night air, which grew ever crisper as the evening wore on. “Bitch,” she murmured once more under her breath.
“Well then,” said Dorian, standing now, “I just wanted to let you know it was safe inside. And, again... thank you.”
“Anytime,” said Eleanor, raising her glass to him, “except for ever again. Ever.”
He laughed and turned her back on them, holding his now-empty wine glass by the stem.
Cullen cleared his throat, but the moment was gone. Instead of trying to reclaim it, he only reached out now to grasp Eleanor’s hand, squeezing it tightly. Her cheeks turned pink only now and she looked away from him.
“Would it be wrong to say that I’m ready to go when you are?” he asked.
She shook her head. “I think I’ve had enough excitement for one night.”
Oh, he was good at this, she thought to herself.