I've Just Managed to Ruin Everything
They thought they were waiting for the next rotation, but it turned into waiting for Dorian to return. He had been gone for a span of twenty-four hours in the past, for spans approaching forty-eight. But after he had been gone for three days, Cullen and Eleanor began to get nervous. It wasn’t just that Dorian was supposed to deliver the letters that Cullen had written to Leliana, to Josephine, to Inquisitor Trevelyan, the letters that his troops had written to their families, and to return the replies. They were waiting for that, of course, and those letters very well may have been delivered. Probably had been, in fact. It was waiting for the replies that was the problem, because along with any pre-composed letters that had been waiting deliver before he left and any quick missives that might be jotted off in response to the things that had been sent with him, he had to bring the new rota, to tell what troops to return, and to bring the replacements. Strictly speaking, it wasn’t Dorian's place to send and recall troops. It was Cullen’s, and the Inquisitor’s. But Dorian, by virtue of his position, or more, his lack of the responsibility that Cullen had, was the messenger. And without the messenger, there could be no message.
“Can you go after him?” Eleanor asked. Her hands were sticky with honey; she had just completed the final harvest of frames from the hives. Despite the fact that she had only been able to split the hive once this year, and there had been no risk of swarming at all, no overabundance of potentially warring queens, the bees had still created enough honey for Eleanor to harvest it comb-style, cutting off huge chunks of the honeycomb and stuffing them into mason jars with the beautiful hexagonal patterns intact. There had to be quite a lot of honey for the combs to be useable on their own, instead of separating the honey from the wax by force. The comb was edible - the comb was delicious - but if there was too little honey to go around, it would be waxy and thick and tasteless. Eleanor would set aside a hunk or two so that she could have simple honey for her tea and a bit of wax to make a few small candles that she would sell at the county’s autumn farmer’s market, but the comb honey was where the real gold was in terms of taste, in terms of profit, in terms of sheer interest and elegance. Even if she kept half for herself - and she just might, with so many extra people around - she could almost fund the yearly expense of the hives on this, the final honeycomb harvest alone. As a result, the entire kitchen was covered in wax paper, every available surface stacked to the rafters with frames and combs. It was hard work, doing it on her own, but it was enjoyable. Eleanor loved the bees, and the output of useable material from the hives despite the Blight, despite the smaller colony - and Eleanor suspected the two were related - seemed to indicate that the bees loved her as well. She wondered if there would be any bees left this time next year. Or in fifteen years. Or ninety, or two hundred. But as she focused her effort into separating out a particularly stubborn piece of honeycomb to fit into the mouth of the jar, the thought fled her mind, was converted into work.
Cullen was shaking his head. “I can’t. I’d need magic to reopen the Breach.”
Eleanor frowned sideways. Though she’d set aside a portion of each day while Dorian was gone to practice the methods he had taught her to reach down and summon her mana, to harness it, and to suppress it again, she had the unsurprising notion that hers would not be enough to make the Breach even aware. She could feel herself getting stronger, could feel the magic tugging at her, teaching her on its own to do more, but she suspected it would be nothing like enough fuel to take a trip between two worlds.
“How does the Inquisitor do it?”
“Well, I expect that has less to do with her magic than with her Anchor.”
“The Inquisitor is a mage? Are they very common then?”
“Like weeds,” Cullen said, only half-jokingly. Eleanor shot him a stern look as she tried to brush her hair out of her face with the back of her wrist to avoid getting honey in her bangs. Cullen’s hands being clean, he reached out and tucked her hair behind her ear by way of apology. “Some people suspect mages make up half of the population, and that the discrepancy is made up of people either strong or smart enough not to reveal their powers or mages so weak that it’s a non-issue. I think it’s more like a third. Maybe a fourth. But it’s certainly not uncommon.”
“And you want to lock that many people away?” she asked, both honestly and directly.
“It’s not -” he sighed. He would not, could not have this argument with her. “Yes, the Inquisitor is a mage. But Dorian couldn’t make a new Breach just because he is too; the Breach is left slightly open. It’s like…” he looked around, trying to find a suitable metaphor. His eyes alit on the back door, beside the kitchen sink. “It’s like leaving a door unlocked. It can be opened by anyone who knows which way to turn the knob, as opposed to just leaving it wide open for anyone to walk right in.”
“And only the Inquisitor can lock it again?”
“Alright,” Eleanor said. “So what if another mage on our side just walks past.”
“That’s not the point,” Eleanor said, turning the vinyl gloves she wore inside out and tossing them in the trash as she reached down and began to screw shut the lids on her current batch of jars.
“I do see your point,” Cullen said, finding a honey-free spot on the table to put his hands down on as he leaned in close to Eleanor. “But the risk seems so small…”
Eleanor pursed her lips, and when she spoke, Cullen could tell she was not joking; that this was coming from a place of real concern. “You came here, to this random spot in the middle of a state that has more cows than people, and you met one other person. And that person turned out to be a mage. How small is the risk, really?”
He was close enough to her that it stirred the hairs on her neck when he let out a deep sigh. “I… can’t argue that. But you also had others here to explain to you what was happening, to show you what this strange and unusual thing that you had done really was, and,” he leaned in closer, a bit conspiratorially, so that their noses were only inches apart, “I’ve only told you just now that you maybe, maybe might be able to work the Breach yourself. Perhaps not now, but maybe. And even if you’re strong enough, you still don’t know how to manipulate it. Would you have figured it out on your own?”
Well, he had her there, and to let him know it, she jabbed her elbow into his exposed ribs, not hard, but hard enough to make her point - he might be right, but she had a point as well. Cullen “oofed” a bit with the impact and stood back up, putting his hand on her shoulder and giving it a gentle squeeze.
“Oh, that’s nice,” Eleanor groaned with the release his hand gave the frozen muscles in her arms, her back. She’d been working at this all day, bent over the just too low surface of her table. Cullen acknowledged her sore muscles and moved over to be able to use both hands, as Eleanor straightened her posture and pressed herself into the motion of his knuckles, his thumbs. She rolled her shoulders against the action and felt the most delicious relief. A tingle surged through her that was not entirely unlike the feeling of magic in her limbs, but it was only the sensation of her bound-up muscles coming free of knots beneath her skin. Cullen’s calloused hands were strong enough to do the work, but aware enough to know which places needed more pressure than others. Maybe it was because of his work with a sword, Eleanor thought. She didn’t know much about combat, but she figured that you couldn't just choke up on a sword all the time. You had to have some kind of flexibility, some sense of movement and ease. She remembered the first time she’d discovered him out on the lawn, practicing with his blade. His first morning here. His movements were fluid like a dance, like water. There was nothing overbearing or strong about it. But he’d moved the paint can back into the house with ease, like it weighed nothing. She was small, but she was not weak, her years of working on the farm - which, admittedly, had been harder when her father was alive, when they had still owned and cultivated all of the land that Eleanor could see from the back lawn; there was so little left to do now that she had sold the tractor - having built her muscles up day by day. But to her the paint can was still heavy, still a chore to move. Not impossible, not even really difficult, but still a task that required effort, especially when it came to bringing it up the basement steps.
Cullen dug his thumb into a particularly stubborn knot beneath Eleanor’s right shoulder blade, and the brief jab of pain - a welcome, warm pain that told her work was being done - knocked something loose in her mind.
She’d never finished painting the house.
An obstinate laugh began to rise up inside of her. On that warm June day, the most important thing in the world had been to finish that task so that she could move onto others. Finish the house, then fix that shutter, then go inside and sit on that computer and fish for development work; things that would pay well even if they took more time than she wanted to put in, if only because she didn’t want to be inside all summer long.
It had been months since she’d taken any kind of job that was not an immediate necessity to keep the farm from falling apart - that was still her first priority, even if she wasn’t giving it as much care as she needed - or something Inquisition related. That had become her main focus, though she promised herself, had even told Cullen, that she wouldn’t do that. But when she saw the Blight, when she felt its encroachment, and when she witnessed the work, the amount of time and energy that the Inquisition forces poured into fighting this thing, fighting not for their land but for hers, their health and well-being were paramount. Keeping up with everything on both sides of the Breach - insomuch as she was privy, and now she felt as though she were almost as well-versed as Cullen, barring his experience - and keeping up with everyone’s needs took up more of her time than she had expected. Little things, but things she had grown to value, to love. Using her power tools to sharpen blades. Running out for boot polish. Finding enough pairs of pliers to help repair chainmail that was damaged in skirmishes with darkspawn.
But of course, there were slow days, sometimes weeks, but rarely, when all concern could slip away. There were little things she knew she could do, but in the moments when she found herself on the porch with a beer, or in the morning, a hot cup of coffee, a quiet moment of solace before someone came and sat down with her - not that she minded the company, but there was something special about sitting out there alone - in those moments, it was hard to make herself focus on the small things that could wait, and easier to focus on the moment, and in that moment, just to breathe.
And so the house had never gotten painted.
And beneath Cullen’s hands, Eleanor’s shoulders began to shake, and from her belly, she began to laugh.
Cullen stopped the motion of his fingers but didn’t pull them away from her back and asked, “What’s this now?”
She craned her neck, not wanting to move far enough that he would have to let her go. His hands had a welcome warmth, a warmth that she wished she’d taken advantage of before.
“Do you remember when I asked you to put the paint can in the basement?”
He squinted, not realizing for a moment that this was not something she’d asked of him recently, not something he’d been asked but had forgotten to do. When it came back to him, she felt him nod, and he said, “That was an awful long time ago.” He’d started picking up words that she used; she noticed it now when he said “awful” instead of “awfully” and she wondered if he was just doing it for her, or even because he was being directly influenced by her speech patterns in this moment, or if he’d begun doing it all of the time. Cullen didn’t seem like an easily influenced kind of person, but then again, he wasn’t unyielding either, not by any stretch.
“Months,” she agreed, and then lead on, “You know how we never brought that paint can back up from the basement?” She turned around and gave him a weak, embarrassed smile, and to her relief he didn’t take his hands away, only slid them down to her forearms as she turned.
His eyebrows rose in sympathy. “You never finished the house.”
She shook her head.
Humor thick in his voice, he said, “Well, I’ve just managed to ruin everything, haven’t I,” and he gave her arms a squeeze, pulling her in a little closer.
“You certainly have, Commander.” She could see the lines on his face now in the autumn sunlight, pale and golden, that came in the kitchen windows. This was the closest she’d been to him in a relaxed situation, in the heavy autumn daylight. This was the closest she’d been to him since the Archdemon had shown itself and he’d pulled her and Swiffer close to his chest - the small grey furball having been kicked out of the kitchen by way of child gates placed across the hall and dining room doorways to keep the cat from getting honey in her fuzz or vice-versa while Eleanor was working with the combs - and suddenly that night seemed miles away, years ago, with Cullen here in the kitchen, and she in his arms. The lines on his face were stern, the grey in his hair almost glittering in the sun. But when he smiled, the creases deepened, and new ones seemed to appear as if from thin air around the corners of his eyes. This was a man who was not averse to smiling, not a man cursed with an ill-humor. Maybe he just hadn’t had much reason to smile lately, or at all. But she liked it when he did. “It’s hard to get anything done with you around,” she teased, and let him interpret that however he wanted.
“You’ve gotten a lot done today,” he said, and indicated the finished jars on the kitchen table, the few boxes on the floor, already shoved into corners, full of jars that she’d filled earlier that morning.
“And there’s a lot more to do,” she said, pointing to the unfinished combs that sat on top of the flat surface of the stove, covered with a piece of cardboard to level out the burners and covered with more wax paper. The combs were resting on top of the largest roasting pan she owned, drip drip dripping their honey onto it, filling up the roasting pan; but it wasn’t a waste. She could always scoop up the honey into jars with combs, or, if there was enough, jars without.
“Tell me about this,” he said, letting her go and he sidled up to the table, tapping one of the sealed but as yet unboxed jars with the knuckle of his index finger. It made a hollow ringing noise, not at all unpleasant.
“You don’t have bees in Ferelden?”
Cullen rolled his eyes, “Of course we have bees. All of Thedas has bees.” He thought of Sera, and had to suppress both a frown and a laugh. He thought Sera would like Eleanor. And Eleanor would like Sera, most likely. Which seemed dangerous. “But,” he confessed, “I can’t recall ever having seen honey like this before.”
“This is the best honey,” Eleanor said proudly. It wasn’t so much a boast of her own but a boast for her bees, who had never failed to produce excellent work. She chalked it up to the fact that she was surrounded by nothing but farmland, and that her own crops, especially now, were sweet things; berries and a small patch of tomatoes. She thought it gave the honey an almost fruity flavor, though it might have been all in her head; the bees may have strayed far out to the corn blossoms and alfalfa that grew in abundance in neighboring farms and never touched her berries, though she knew they must. She had seen them there. Either way, Eleanor could confidently assert she had tasted no finer honey than her own. Her father had said she was the bee whisperer. Maybe it was true. She couldn’t say she had never been stung by a bee - she had, many hundreds of times. But the more she handled them, the less they stung. She was hardly bothered by the pain anymore; she scraped out the stingers with her fingernails and ran rubbing alcohol on them and they cleared up in a matter of hours. Her arms and the back of her neck bore little red dots from the pre-dawn harvest; she’d taken the combs when the air was still cool and the bees were still sleepy from the chill. She shook them off almost like the were lint on a towel fresh out of the dryer. Only a few had taken offense at her invasion of their home and had gotten around her gloves and sleeves to sting her maybe a half a dozen times. Not bad at all. She hadn’t even needed the smoker.
“And what about the combs?” he lifted up the jar and peered inside as though he were missing something crucial.
Eleanor sighed. “It’s better in wooden boxes, I know” she admitted, “but they’re harder to come by than they used to be. At least it’s not plastic; the glass doesn’t interfere with the flavor.”
But she could see he didn’t understand.
“Cullen, you eat it,” she clarified.
He squinted through the glass. “You just… eat it? Isn’t… It’s made of beeswax,” he said.
She took the jar from him and set it down, wiping her hands off on her jeans as though that would make a real difference. Reaching out again, she unscrewed the jar and reached in to pinch the honeycomb between her thumb and middle finger, carefully extracting it from the glass. She wiped off some of the honey on the rim of the jar to keep it from dripping; she wasn’t afraid of getting sticky, but there was no point in making more mess than she had to make. Grasping the comb firmly in both hands, she split it in half, keeping one for herself, and giving half to Cullen. He looked down at his hands, rubbing his fingertips against his palms as though savoring their last moments free of golden ooze, still dubious of what he was about to do, and took the comb from Eleanor. He watched as she popped hers in her mouth and saw the smile of complete bliss cross her face as she chewed, her attention completely taken away from him.
Well, he trusted her.
Cullen raised the little cube to his mouth with one hand, the other cupped under his chin to catch any honey that might drip from the comb. He gave it a tentative nibble, flinching a bit as though the honeycomb was still full of bees that were liable to swarm out and sting him at any moment. But all he got was a taste of honey, cloying and sweet, and a faint smell of flowers and somehow, sunshine. Alright, he thought. It’s honey. How bad can it be. He put the honeycomb in his mouth and chewed.
Honey burst from the wax and flooded his tastebuds, almost overwhelming him. He understood Eleanor’s expression, her distraction now. He probably looked the same way; he didn’t care that his fingers were sticky, that honey had dripped down his chin. This was something a tiny creature, an army of tiny creatures had made, completely without concern for the much larger creatures that would come along and tend those little things until this comb could be harvested, could be consumed, and yet it was somehow the most perfect thing he’d ever eaten. Even the wax, the wax that had put him off when he saw it sitting in the jar, was soft, dissolving in his mouth into a much less intense, more earthy kind of sweetness, and he chewed, savoring it until it was just a tiny shred between his teeth and there was no more to be had.
Eleanor, her own honey having been consumed but still chewing tenderly on the wax, had watched him with amusement. “I told you so,” she said, and sucked the honey off of her thumb to reach out and wipe away the drop that had gotten on his chin.
Cullen, brain still flooded with the rush of endorphins from the sweetness, the perfection of the honey, put out his hand to grab her wrist gently, bringing her thumb to his mouth and kissing the honey off of it, and then off of each and every one of the fingers on her right hand as Eleanor took in a deep, shaking breath, but smiled a small, open-lipped smile. He tugged on her wrist to pull her in close, wrapping his arm around her, back of his hand to her spine, and pressed his lips to hers, softly at first, gently, and then as he felt her pressing back, returning the kiss to him, he pulled her in tighter, kissed her harder, crushing his lips to hers and Cullen was suddenly unsure of how he had ever done without this.
Eleanor wrapped an arm around his neck, pulling him down lower, kissing him roughly, his stubble scratching the soft skin of her face. There was still honey on her lips, on his, and there was a richer taste from him, a hot, human taste, and she sought it out, taking his full bottom lip between her teeth, threatening something more violent, a threat she would never act on, unless, of course, she would.
And he wanted her to.
He needed to be closer to her, couldn’t pull her tightly enough, and he found himself pushing against her, his feet directing hers until she was backed up against the refrigerator and his lips parted from hers only to kiss her jaw, the dimple below her ear, the path of her neck all the way down to her collar bones.
Small sounds escaped her without her knowledge, without her volition, involuntary groans that told him not to stop; the bob of her throat when she swallowed hard and tipped back her head, her ponytail working itself loose as it was pressed up against the surface of the freezer. shorter hairs freeing themselves and framing her face, the picture of desire, of bliss.
Cullen brought his lips back up to hers, fighting hard against his own urges to slow his pace, to catch his breath, and he bit back a moan as she pushed out and kissed him hard once more before resting his forehead against hers.
“So, ah, there’s something here? It’s not just me?”
She laughed a breathless laugh. He loved the sound of it. “Of course it’s not just you, I told you that.”
She had, at that. But there had been drinks, and then there had been chaos. He only wanted, perhaps selfishly, to make sure that this was not a one time thing, this brief flash of passion. His nose still brushed hers, but he needed to know, needed to make sure that he could have this again. For those few moments, her skin, her mouth, had overtaken everything - the Breach, the Blight, the Archdemon - and a small piece of him could only hope that the darkspawn would hang around for a few hundred years.
Eleanor kissed him again, quickly, too quickly, and though her heart was still racing she forced herself to part from him. “If you’ll excuse me, I feel like I really need to wash my hands.”