It's Worked for Me for Years
As Eleanor was pulling her shirt over her head, there came a voice at her door. “Ellie?”
“Come in, Dorian,” she said, unwinding her hair from her tight braid. He came in just as she was scratching at her head like an animal, trying to work the tightest plaits down, leaving her hair a mass of kinks and waves.
He leaned in the doorway and said, “Don’t be too angry with Cullen.”
Eleanor cocked her head him. “But he -”
Dorian put up his hands. “I know, I know. He can be a bit of an ass when it comes to mages. I’ve been putting up with him for years. But,” Dorian let his hands fall, seeming exhausted, “he doesn’t mean any harm by it. And trust me when I say that there are plenty who do. He’d fight to the death to protect an innocent mage. Any innocent person, some, not so innocent.” Dorian shook his head, looking at his boots. “Cullen has seen… a lot. You can ask Varric about it; he was there, though believe about one-fourth of what that dwarf tells you. Look, Eleanor, my point is, Cullen might still be hung up on some things because of whatever bullshit the Order put him through. He’s better than that, though. I sincerely believe that. And he loves you. He’s just trying to protect you, even if he’s doing it in the most half-assed way possible.”
Eleanor rolled her eyes and made her way to her nightstand for cigarettes.
“I mean it, Eleanor.”
“I know you do, Dor, and that’s why it’s so frustrating. I can’t fucking stay mad at him.” It was true. In just the time it had taken her to remove and hang up her robe, her accoutrements in the wardrobe, she’d already found herself wishing that Cullen would come back. “What a jerk,” she said, and she said it with an inflection of nothing but respect, of endearment.
Dorian’s face gave half a grin. “Now there’s a feeling I know well.”
They sat down at the table with Varric. Cullen’s papers were still confined to his bedroom, the bedroom in which he had not spent the previous two nights. Eleanor hoped a bit that it would stay that way. But no one was willing to go digging through the commander’s things, though no one felt like they were particularly missing out, either. No one knew what was down in that ravine; any information given to them by the Inquisition would be based on former Blights, all having taken place in Thedas, and would probably be meaningless. Eleanor couldn’t read them either way, the strange angular writing with its weird dips and curls a mystery to her. She should probably ask about that one day, but right now she felt it couldn’t be of less importance.
“Alright, Varric. You’ve been in the Deep Roads,” began Dorian.
Varric shook his head, put up his hands. “I mean, I have, Sparkler, but I don’t think it’s gonna matter much. And unless we’re within about two leagues of Orzammar, my knowledge comes entirely from panicked excursions to find a thaig that ended up dismantling a pretty good deal of the Chantry. Entirely by accident, you understand,” he added in a confidential manner to Eleanor.
“So, what you’re saying is, we go down and hope for the best?” she asked him.
“Hey, it’s worked for me for years,” Varric offered, “strictly speaking.”
Dorian gave a deep sigh, drumming his fingers impatiently on the table.
“Dorian? Something to add?” Eleanor said, sitting back in her chair and turning her lighter - not her good black one, Cullen had walked off with that; a skinny little blue plastic one - over and over across her knuckles.
“Until we’ve got a map of the ravine, we’ve got nothing. We don’t know how many darkspawn are down there, we don’t know where the Archdemon is waiting; we’re the experiment. We go down there, the Inquisition sees if we live. If we do, we try to bring back a map. Try to tell them just how many little beasties they’re going to have to face.” He pursed his lips. “We’ve got nothing. That’s the whole point of this.”
No one said anything, because Dorian was right. Unless Cullen had had something meaningful to add, something that the three of them for whatever reason would have been unable to suss out on their own, this was pointless.
“What do we do if one of us dies?”
Eleanor said it so casually that it struck Dorian in the chest like a fist. He was glad Cullen was not here to see the completely unaffected expression on Eleanor’s face.
“We go on,” said Varric.
Eleanor nodded. “Alright. We go on.”
She heard Cullen come in well past midnight. She had been lying in bed. A book was pressed against her chest, but she hadn’t managed a single page. She’d managed a few drinks, though, and she laid there, staff at her side, twiddling the half-empty vial of lyrium in her hands, listening to the song it sang in her head. But when she heard the screen door open, the heavy front door squeak open and swish shut, she froze, waiting to see what the man would do. Her door was not completely closed; she’d left it open a crack for Swiffer to pace in and out, and Eleanor had no intention yet of falling asleep, even though she was tired, even though she should. But she waited, until she heard his feet go not to her room, the few paces from the front door to hers, but went upstairs, slowly, awkwardly. Something about the rhythm of his steps was off. Eleanor was suddenly glad her house was a hundred-odd years old. She could follow him with her ears, and so she did, sitting up straight now and putting the lyrium in the nightstand, pushing the book onto the comforter.
She could hear him in his bedroom, fumbling, looking for something maybe, and then heard him leave, going to the bathroom. He slammed the door, and she heard the sink faucet go on at full-tilt. Maybe he’d been drinking too. She wouldn’t fault him for it; how could she?
But then Swiffer darted into her bedroom, jumped up on the bed. The cat turned in a little circle, meeping and mrooping until she was certain she had Eleanor’s attention, and then dashed away. Rolling her eyes, Eleanor humored the feline, getting to her feet - a little more unsteady than she’d realized - and pulling her door open the rest of the way. She flicked on the hall light, made her way to the handrail, and pulled her way onto the first step, the second, the third. Cullen may have gone heavily up the stairs, but she would at least try to be quiet; she assumed Dorian and Varric were asleep in their rooms, or else doing the same thing she had been doing. Either way, there was no reason to disturb them.
Swiffer waited for her at the top of the stairs, meowing sadly.
“Hey, little girl, what’s wrong?” Eleanor asked, as she stood on the second step from the top to look the kitten in the eye, as though Swiffer could tell her something, and Eleanor would be damned if the cat wasn’t trying. Swiffer went to the bathroom door and began to paw against it, water still running inside.
“I know Cullen’s home,” Eleanor told the cat, as though this would make a difference, but Swiffer’s paw went from the white door to a splotch just near the threshold on the floor, something dark and out of place in the dim light that filtered up from the hall.
“Hey, kitty, don’t touch that,” Eleanor cautioned as she finally climbed the top two stairs. She didn’t knock, but leaned against the door and said softly, “Hey, Cullen? Are you alright?”
The sound of water was her only answer, and then something soft hitting the floor.
“Cullen, talk to me.” She momentarily considered that maybe he was in the bathroom for a more, well, conventional reason, and she started to feel silly even as Swiffer pawed softly still at the sill, until she heard him gasp and smack the edge of the sink with his fist.
“Alright, look, I’m coming in,” she said. “Three… two…”
She heard him fumble with the doorknob and ceased her countdown, not knowing if he was trying to open it for her or lock her out. But the door swung inward slowly, and Swiffer, afraid or satisfied, bounded back down the stairs.
Cullen’s face was white as a sheet. Bare-chested, blood ran from his nose, and from a split lip, and at first she thought that he got in a bar fight, and that these superficial wounds were enough for her to chastise him while she covered him with Neosporin. But then he took his hand away from the doorknob and backed up to let her in, and she saw in the bathroom mirror that his back was in ruins.
Claw marks went from shoulder to shoulder, from shoulder to hip, and she saw shreds of skin hanging from the musculature of his body. Her hands went to her mouth, and he grabbed the sink for support, the edge of the shower box, his hands slipping as they were slick with blood.
He saw the question in her eyes, and answered weakly, “I went to the ravine.” And then he trembled, and started to fall.
Suddenly sober, Eleanor caught him in her arms, but his weight was too much for her to stay upright, so she lowered to her knees as slowly as she could, but they still landed with a resounding crack on the tile floor. She ignored her own pain, blocked it out when she heard Cullen hiss with his own. There was so much blood. It was running in rivulets down his sides, staining the denim of his jeans, pooling in little puddles on the floor.
She had to do something.
Cullen tried to keep talking. “They must have smelled me - I didn’t see them until - I didn’t try to fight, El, I promise, I tried to run -”
“Hush, Cullen,” she pleaded. Should she wash his wounds first? Wash her own hands? Was there time? His hands on her back were cold through her t-shirt, and she didn’t know if it was from being out in the night so long or from loss of blood, but when she put her hands on his cheeks and saw how heavy his eyes were, how slow his words, she decided she couldn’t wait. Eleanor put her hands just over the mangled flesh of his back and breathed as slowly, as deeply as she could despite her panic.
When he felt the healing warmth begin to spread through his wounds, he hissed at her, “Don’t, El. It’s… too much.”
“To hell with that, Cullen,” she said, and took another deep breath, closing her eyes.
“El, no,” he insisted, but his voice was quiet. She ignored him, keep breathing, kept pulling mana from deep inside of her, slowly, carefully, feeling herself coming up on the bottom of her pool all too soon. She paused, flexed her fingers as though forcing heat, actual heat, into her hands would help. She inhaled. Exhaled. Inhaled again. Reached for her power and felt a little more put her hands back over his torn skin, watched some of the surface damage begin to pull itself back together. She felt his muscles relax, knew she must be at least taking his pain away.
But there was nothing more for her to draw from. She’d left the lyrium downstairs. There was nothing more, but she dug inside of herself, feeling her own breath growing shallow, her own heartbeat speeding up, forcing the spell to continue, fueled by something that might have been the lasts reserves of her mana, might have been the Fade, and she heard Cullen’s voice, stronger now, and he insisted, “El, stop. You have to stop.”
And then there was a sharpness in her vision, a painful realness that threatened to consume her, began to overtake her, and the world went black.