That's... Actually the Plan
“Eleanor, this is Varric,” Cullen said, indicating the dwarf with an open hand as he past the table to get his coffee. He pulled two cups from the cabinet and filled them to the brim, set one in front of his chair and one in front of the place where Eleanor now sat.
She reached across the table to Varric, offering him her hand, completely unfazed by this newest arrival’s unusual appearance. “Pleasure,” she said, giving his hand a firm shake.
“Pleasure’s all mine,” he answered, and something about the tone of his voice made Eleanor smile broadly. Cullen witnessed this and rolled his eyes, grabbing the ashtray from the dishrack and setting it down between his seat and Eleanor’s. He took the pack of cigarettes out of his pocket and laid it on the table next to the ashtray. He had a feeling that Eleanor might want them, and if she didn’t, he sure might.
“Alright,” Cullen began, wrapping his hands around his cup of coffee, leaning forward into the table, “what’s the story. Where are my troops?”
“They,” said Dorian, who sat beside Eleanor, “are back at Skyhold, and then are on to Orlais. It would seem Briala has not been the most successful ruler of late, and Trevelyan is cleaning up a mess she helped make.”
“Oh, boo hoo,” said the dwarf. “The Inquisitor did what was best at the time. Just because eight years later there might be some complications doesn’t mean you get to write her off.”
“I never said -” but Dorian stopped himself with a sigh through his nose, moving on. “The fact of the matter is, we don’t have any additional forces at our disposal. All of the soldiers who had been previously deployed are barely getting a rest, and no one is being sent in their place. At least, not right now.”
Eleanor blinked. “Excuse me?”
Dorian frowned sympathetically at her, “Ellie, I don’t like it any more than you do.”
“You’re telling me that there are no soldiers in the barn? On patrol? That there’s a god damned Archdemon in the ground twenty-odd miles away and there’s no one here but us?” She jabbed her finger against the table in emphasis and her coffee cup jiggled.
“That, unfortunately, is exactly what I’m saying.”
“You’ve gotta be fucking kidding me!” She reached for the pack of cigarettes, smacking it viciously against her palm. “So who the fuck are we going to send into the ravine with Cullen? Me? You?” She pulled a cigarette from the pack with her teeth and skidded it over the surface of the table toward Cullen, reaching for the lighter and saying as she inhaled with a flame in her hand, “You’ve gotta be fucking kidding me.”
“That’s… actually the plan,” said Varric.
Eleanor froze, the flame from the lighter still blazing, until she burnt her thumb, and she dropped the lighter, shaking the pain from her hand.
“Well,” added Varric, “The Inquisitor sent me to go with you?” He raised an eyebrow with an innocent expression on his broad face as though he knew that that was poor compensation.
“Oh, she is not paying me enough for this.”
Dorian snickered under his breath. Cullen lit a cigarette of his own.
“This is madness,” the commander said, breathing out smoke. “I won’t take you down there,” he said to Eleanor, and then looked around the table, “any of you. I won’t get us all killed.”
“Curly, as much as I hate being underground, I’m gonna have to insist you don’t go alone, even if that means I have to go with you.”
“Yes, well,” said Dorian. “I’m not exactly thrilled to death about all this myself, but…” he didn’t finish the thought.
Eleanor didn’t know what to say. She knew Dorian was experienced in combat, had to assume Varric was from the way he spoke to Cullen. What could she offer? She was a liability, and her expression, angry and confused, said as much.
“Farm Girl,” said Varric, “Sparkler tells me you’re a mage yourself.”
“Barely,” Dorian interjected. “I said she was barely a mage.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence, Dor,” said Eleanor, but there was no malice in her tone. She was barely a mage.
“You aren’t going down there,” said Cullen, and he put his hand on top of hers.
“Still, seems odd,” noted Varric, “a mage out here. A mage from here.”
“Yes, we hadn’t noticed,” Pavus muttered.
Eleanor shook her head. “I can’t do magic,” she told Varric. “Not really. Not enough.”
The dwarf shrugged, as though he meant nothing by it.
Eleanor pulled gently free of Cullen’s grasp and took a long drink of coffee. She wasn’t ready for this, wasn’t even ready for Cullen to go down there armed with… well, an army. But to take her? Good-for-nothing her? To take Dorian who very obviously hadn’t signed up for this kind of thing? Varric didn’t seem like he was very happy to be here either, though he was the only one at the table with a smile on his face.
“This isn’t right,” Cullen dissented. “This isn’t what we were promised.”
“When have we ever gotten what we were promised, Curly?”
Cullen said nothing, but shook his head, looking down into his coffee.
“What… if we wait?” asked Eleanor.
Rubbing his eyes, his brow, with his thumb and index finger, Cullen didn’t look up as he said, “We can’t wait. We need to get information to the Wardens as soon as possible now that the Archdemon has shown itself.”
“That would be the other thing,” said Varric, looking away as though he were interrupting. “Cullen’s right, Farm Girl. And Skyhold knows about the Archdemon. Says it’s officially a Blight. Means we can’t wait, even if we wanted to.”
“Son of a bitch,” Cullen said under his breath.
“But what can we do about that?” Eleanor asked, her eyes darting from person to person.
“Oh, absolutely nothing,” Dorian assured her sarcastically.
“Just makes it official,” said Varric with a laugh in his voice. Eleanor didn’t see what was so funny.
“I hate this,” Cullen groaned. He wanted it to be some bad dream, to wake up and find that, even if there was still a Blight, even if he had to go down into that ravine, that it wasn’t like this. That he was still lying next to Eleanor and Dorian hadn’t come back yet and when he did it was with a full battalion and Eleanor didn’t have to put herself anywhere near harm. He didn’t even understand why the Inquisitor - or Leliana, he couldn’t be sure just who was calling the shots anymore - would want Eleanor to go down there. Did they think she still needed proof? Or that she would have some knowledge of the land because she was from here? She hadn’t even known the ravine was more than a ditch in the earth until she drove them there. This should have been his decision.
“Yeah, your comments have been noted for the record, Curly,” said Varric. Cullen stubbed out his cigarette angrily.
“I just don’t understand,” said Eleanor quietly.
“Neither do I,” he said to her, putting his hand on her leg. “Neither do I.”
Eleanor spent the rest of the day in the dining room, cleaning her gun. She figured she was going to need it. Her magic was no good. So the house smelled of gun oil, and newspapers littered the dining room table, but her weapon was clean.
Cullen had gone out to the barn, just to see that it really was empty, and it was. He stood there in the cool fall day, in a red hooded sweater Eleanor had bought for him, and wished it wasn’t happening like this. Wished he wasn’t so scared. He gathered up all of the bed sheets from the bunks where his troops had slept, made sure they hadn’t left anything behind, and carried the dirty linens back to the house in a laundry basket he had found near the small kitchen in the barn.
He stopped on the porch and turned back around to look at the sky. Facing away from the ravine, he could almost imagine that none of this was happening. The sky was soft and blue, even if the air was colder than it had been since he’d arrived. Fat, white clouds, painted with a golden light, drifted past slowly, so slowly. A breeze blew and rustled the grasses, making a quiet white noise.
This place was beautiful. This place felt rare. Maybe it was just the things he had attached to it, but he didn’t want this place to be overcome by the Blight - not that he wanted any place to have to go through that, but he didn’t feel as though he would be able to get this one back once it was gone. All of a sudden, he felt like he wanted to cry.
The screen door swung open and shut behind him.
“Hey, you.” It was Eleanor. Cullen set the basket down and turned to her. She was drying her hands in a dish cloth. She tucked the towel into her back pocket, and reached out, wrapping her arms around his neck. He smiled, putting his own arms around her waist, pulling her close.
“What’s on your mind?” she asked him, resting her cheek against his shoulder.
“This place,” he said.
“I like it here,” he said.
“Me too.” She took a breath. “You… uh… you mean what you said?”
“El, I -”
“I know this isn’t your home,” she said, looking up at him with watery blue eyes. “I know this isn’t how you wanted this. So if you don’t want -”
“El. Listen to me. I made you a promise,” he said, and brought his palms up to her back to cradle her. “Don’t think for a moment I’m going to break it.”
A single tear slid down her cheek.
“Hey. Don’t start that again,” he said quietly. “I’m still sore.”
She laughed softly, sniffing back any other tears that threatened. He was too good.
“Me too,” she admitted.
He pressed his hand to the side of her face and leaned down to kiss her. The wind picked up a bit and whipped her hair around her cheeks, around his neck. The air smelled like grass and dead leaves and a kind of cold that said that sooner than they thought, it would snow.
When their lips parted, he said, “I, uh,” then he stopped, looked away from her, and said something else instead. “I got the laundry from the barn. I’ll start this soon.”
“Okay. You need me to show you..?”
He shook his head. “I’ve got it now.”
“Alright. I’ll start dinner,” she said.
“Noodles?” he asked.
She smiled. “I can do that.” Eleanor let him go and went back inside.
Cullen lit a cigarette and watched a subtle shift in color as the sun began to lower itself down to the horizon. This was all he wanted, he realized - no, not realized, always knew, somewhere in his mind. This quiet life. Watching the sun begin to set while he took care of things and someone helped him, made him dinner.
Someone he loved.
He should have told her.