What Does This Mean?
As Eleanor padded back from her bedroom, warm from the shower and squeaky-clean, she caught a whiff of something. Coffee, yes, but also… what was that?
She peeked into the kitchen and saw Cullen stirring something on the stove, something that smelled heavenly. She let a sly smile crawl across her face as she also saw, beneath his white shirt, the blades of his shoulders flex as he lifted the pot away from the heat, stirred a wooden spoon, treating whatever he was making with delicacy, but all the while betraying his strength and all by moving the muscles in his back.
Eleanor had woken in the very early morning, not roused by a dream but by the remembered sensation of all of that energy being ripped away from her body in the bar. Cullen had lain still next to her, and she turned a bit, penned in by the sheets as he lay on top of them and she lay beneath. She wished that he had been bold enough to slip underneath the blankets if only for comfort’s sake, but she turned over and reached out, nestling herself against him, her nose to his neck and she tried so hard, willed herself with all she had, to fall back to sleep, but sleep wouldn’t come. Whenever she closed her eyes she felt the whiteness, felt it more than saw it, and it took all the weariness away from her body in the least pleasant way imaginable, like after drinking too much coffee and finding yourself mentally ready to nod off but underneath you your whole body was buzzing. So she got up and wandered aimlessly around, until she flicked on the kitchen light and saw all the dead bugs that had collected there throughout the long hot summer. And that was how it had started. She had cleaned out the inside of the bowl, even wiped the dust from the spirals of the halogen bulb, and she hadn’t thought about the whiteness. But now that the overhead light was clean, all she saw around her were the other things she had been neglecting since the Inquisition had arrived on her back lawn. Just after five in the morning, she found herself carefully sliding the blades off of the ceiling fan to wash them in the sink.
Now, though, watching his skeleton flex under his shirt, she wished she had tried a little harder to go back to bed.
“Whatcha got there?” she asked, walking around the kitchen table that Cullen had been so kind as to put back into place. Eleanor noticed as well that all of the dishcloths were gone, replaced with two fresh ones that hung over the handle of the oven, the place that clean dishcloths always went, and that the sink basins themselves had been cleaned of all the dust and grit that had lined them after many a wrung towel deposited its grimy contents down the drain. If Eleanor hadn’t been privy to the events of the previous evening, she might have suspected the Cullen was trying to make amends for a very serious grievance. But she knew that he was trying to comfort her, and doing it in the best way that he knew how - helping her with the little things that she hated to do, or was just too tired to deal with. Bless him, she thought.
“Ah, I hope you don’t mind. I nabbed some of the strawberries you had stored in the freezer, and I noticed that you had oats…” He held up the pan to just under her nose and Eleanor breathed in the rich smell of grains and berries, yes, but also of cream and honey and were those the walnuts she’d had stashed in the cupboard? She’d forgotten all about those. She stared down into the giant pot of oatmeal and let out a contented sigh.
“I don’t mind at all,” she said.
They sat at the kitchen table with monstrous bowls of oatmeal and mugs of coffee and Eleanor told him all the things she had been keeping inside. She told him all about the dreams, and tried to explain to him what she had felt the night before, tried to tell him that it was like something being pulled out of her at the same time that she was pushing it, that it was overcoming her at the same time that she was summoning it. He asked her if she’d ever experienced anything like that before.
“Only when I wake up in the middle of the night,” she said, and if it all hadn’t before, that confirmed it for him.
Eleanor was a mage.
She twiddled with her fingers, and Cullen wondered if she wanted a cigarette but didn’t want to get up to get one. Instead, she reached for her coffee and took a long drink until the mug was empty. Cullen reached onto the counter behind him and grabbed the carafe to pour her another cup. She accepted gratefully.
“What does this mean?” she asked quietly. “What do we do now?”
Cullen shook his head. He’d never known a mage to discover their power so late in life, and he didn’t know what risks would come with it. But there were other practical questions that popped into his head, and he reasoned with them out loud for Eleanor’s sake. “Well, I think it stands to reason that you’re well out of any Circle’s jurisdiction. But you’re in luck, I suppose. I’ll be here to watch over you.” The words left his mouth and he cringed, not liking them as soon as they were made into sounds. “I… didn’t mean that the way it sounded.”
Eleanor laughed and shook her head. “I’m with you, Cullen.”
Something in those four words threatened to take his breath away. He reached out across the table and took her hand. “About last night…”
“Isn’t that - oh. You mean… ‘about last night.’”
“Are we… okay?”
“Cullen. You slept in my bed.”
“You were rather tired.”
Eleanor rolled her eyes but squeezed his hand. “If I didn’t want you there I would have forcibly extracted you, believe me. Tired or otherwise.” But he seemed to still be waiting. “We’re okay. We’re good.” She let his hand go and pulled the oatmeal towards her, taking a few satisfying bites before she asked, “Is this going to be a problem?”
“Wh - us?”
Eleanor shook her head. “My... “ God, she couldn’t even say the word, not when she was applying it to herself, but she forced it out around another mouthful of strawberries and walnuts. “My magic-ness.”
He wanted to tell her of course not. He wanted to tell her she would be fine. To tell her that it would be a useful skill, that Dorian could teach her, that he could help keep her safe, help her understand, that nothing could touch her. But behind his eyes the images of a hundred abominations flashed, the memories of how many failed Harrowings. Would he have to Harrow her?
He wanted to, but he couldn’t lie to her.
“I don’t know.”