Why Do I Get the Feeling...
“Maker have mercy, Ellie, wake up, please!”
Cullen was shouting at her, holding her body tight against his chest, stroking her hair and kissing her forehead and telling her that he was here, he had her, she was safe, she was dreaming, but Eleanor just kept shaking and choking and gasping, and giving out little sighs and cries and her fists were balls, and he could feel magic bleeding from her skin. He didn’t know if he should dispel it, do again to her what he had done last night, hated, or if he should just hold her until she awoke, comfort her.
But he didn’t know what kind of a dream it was. Didn’t know if it was all happening inside her mind, or in the Fade.
“Flames, Ellie, please wake up,” he begged softly, and Eleanor gave one more violent shake and then fell still. The tingle of magic evaporated from her skin.
“El? Ellie,” he laid her back down against the pillow. The sun was just cresting the horizon and in the orange morning light, her skin looked vivid, beautiful, despite its seeming lifelessness. Was this what she had meant by dreams? Was this what she had meant the whole time?
Cullen reclined, put his face next to hers, brushed her cheek with his hand and kissed it. “Maker’s breath, Ellie, please.” He could feel tears on the edges of his eyes. How long had he cohabitated with mages, that he had never seen this?
“Ellie,” he said quickly, and picked her up in his arms, pulling her close.
She pushed her face against his chest, wrapping her own arms around him, feeling raised welts on his back from the previous night. “I’m sorry,” she said quietly.
“For scaring you…” she said weakly.
“No,” he said, kissing her forehead. Her skin was hot now, as if all the life had flooded back into her in one burst. “I’m sorry I couldn’t do anything.”
She didn’t answer, only laid still in his arms, reaching out to run a finger over his nose, his split lip.
“You have a black eye,” she told him, touching the purple skin softly, then running her hand along his rough stubble. It was threatening to become a beard.
She nodded. “And your nose is crooked. I think it’s broken.” She lifted her face and kissed it. “You should probably fix it or it’ll set that way.”
“Wouldn’t be the first time,” he said, as though it were nothing, but his nose had always seemed straight to her before. She thought about reaching out to fix it, but the dream came back to her in flashes and a frown twitched on her lips. No, he could deal with his own broken nose, at least for now.
“What happened last night? At the ravine?”
He gave a disapproving look, mostly for himself, and sat up, pushing a pillow under his back. There was almost no pain. “I was stupid.”
She propped herself up on her elbow, waiting for him to go on.
“It was getting dark. I knew I should turn back, but I was almost there, so I just kept walking. I thought I could just take a look, like we had on patrol a hundred times before. I didn’t even get as close as we usually do. Not even as close as when you took me there. But it was dark; there was hardly a moon. I should have seen them, should have heard them, but before I knew it, they were on top of me. Four or five of them. One was a hurlock. I ran, Ellie. I ran as fast as I could, but one of them must have jumped me. It grabbed my sweatshirt, so I tore it off, but then it grabbed something else - I thought it was just my shirt, maybe even then it was my… me - it knocked me down, tore at my back. My face smashed against a rock, so I grabbed it and bashed the thing’s fucking head in, chucked the rock at the rest of them. I must have gotten up and just kept running… I don’t remember anything else, not until I was on the porch. It… it must have taken hours.”
For how much blood had pooled on the bathroom floor, Eleanor couldn’t even imagine how much of it Cullen had lost on the miles-long trek back from the ravine.
“I don’t know what they were doing so far out,” said Cullen.
“It’s not the furthest they’ve been,” said Eleanor, remembering the fight on the back acreage.
“No,” he confessed, “it’s not. But it worries me.”
“When should we…”
“As soon as I’m recovered. It can’t wait any longer. No, you’ve done all you can,” he waved away the offer she was about to make. “I need to stretch. Need to work this out of my muscles.” He rolled his shoulders, feeling the tightness of the newly-healed flesh.
Eleanor smiled at him. “I’ve got a few suggestions for that.”
When they finally managed to get out of bed, and once Eleanor put the bloody clothes in the wash - switching over the sheets from yesterday into the dryer - Cullen recounted the previous night’s events to Varric and Dorian, who had somehow not even stirred.
“What can I say, I’m a deep sleeper,” Varric said.
“Why do I get the feeling that none of this bodes well for any of us?”
“I’m certain it doesn’t,” said Cullen, “but now it’s obvious that we need to get down there - and get back out, so that we can send the Wardens in as soon as possible.”
No one disagreed.
When they dispersed, Dorian pulled Eleanor aside. “You healed wounds like that?”
She looked him deep in his brown eyes. “I had to.”
“Ellie… when we’re down there -”
“I know. He already told me.”
Dorian shook his head. “Alright, I… I absolutely cannot believe…”
“Believe me, Dor. Neither can I.”
Eleanor found Cullen in the living room, looking over the bookcase. No, the photos on the bookcase. Pictures of Eleanor as a child. Pictures of her mother and father. Pictures of the farm, of old friends. Cullen’s hand settled on one of Eleanor at about age seven, her brown hair pulled into two braids on either side of her head - Varric’s nickname for her, Farm Girl, sprang instantly into Cullen’s mind - and standing off to the side of her was a woman with the same blue eyes as Eleanor, but with flaming red hair and freckles that made her look probably about ten years younger than the woman actually was, and a man, tall and thin with Eleanor’s brown hair and the stern look she got when she was trying to hold back a fit of laughter, a false seriousness that meant she was trying to save face. They had to be her parents.
Holding the framed photo in both hands, he kept his eyes on it as he asked, “Where is your family?”
“Dead,” she said simply.
“Oh,” Cullen quickly set the photo back down. “I -”
Eleanor shook her head. “Mom died… probably about three months after that picture was taken. Car accident. Her tire blew on a dirt road. She skidded on some gravel and into a telephone pole. I was… I was with her. Totally unharmed. Completely inexplicable. She died on impact. They tell me I walked from the accident all the way back home. I don’t remember any of it. Don’t remember the tire, the accident, none of it. I don’t remember anything until her funeral. In my head it’s like one day she was there, reading me stories, and the next day we put her in the ground. I’m not sure if that’s better or worse, but there you have it.”
She approached Cullen now and picked up the same picture he had been studying, the old thing, probably developed at a pharmacy with a little time and date stamp in the corner from a cheap camera, back when that was still a thing. It was entirely unworthy of the silver-gilded frame, and at the same time, it was so much more precious than that.
Her shoulder touched Cullen’s arm as she went on. “Dad… Dad raised me from then on. God, he was an excellent father.” She shook her head as though disbelieving and sniffed. “He got cancer - well, I guess he had cancer for a very long time and never knew it. He always took care of himself. Every once in a while he smoked a cigar. He hated it when I started smoking. Said it would kill me. Turns out he’d had lung cancer for years. Small-cell… I don’t know if that means anything to you. Anyway, by the time he started feeling tired, started coughing, it was already extensive - it, um, it was already in both lungs, his lymph nodes, god, it was everywhere on the scans.” She put down the photograph and wiped her nose with her fingers. “Said he probably got it from pesticides or some shit. There was nothing they could do. Not a fucking thing. They started him on radiation, on chemotherapy - nasty medicine, Cullen, medicine that kills the cancer, but it kills everything else too.” Eleanor took a deep breath. “He didn’t want to do it. Wanted to die naturally. I told him it might save him, so he did it.” She closed her eyes. “He died a month later, and I…” Her eyelids fluttered, and little tears flicked from them and on to the glass of the photo. She sniffed hard now, wiped her eyes with her sleeve. “I think I killed him.”
“El, you -”
“Don’t, I know, I know. I did what I thought was best. I wanted him to do what the doctors wanted him to do. Maybe he would have died anyway; the cancer was already so advanced. It was just a matter of time.”
And then she looked down.
She looked at her own hands.
Cullen could see the thought that darted across her mind, and he reached out and took her hands.
“A sickness like that… I don’t think you would have been able to do anything anyway,” it was a pathetic reassurance, but he had seen people with the same kind of illness that Eleanor described. Masses, growths, festering inside a body; and it was true: often times even the best healers could do nothing. It was a sickness that had to be removed, cut out. Eleanor nodded as though accepting this further piece of bad news, but he knew it was a thought that would linger. There was nothing he could do about that.
“Anyway,” she said forcing the tears back, “that was a couple of years ago. And there’s really been nobody since then.” Eleanor let her hands slip from Cullen’s grasp and balanced against the back of the couch. “How about you? Family?”
Cullen smiled, nodded. “Plenty. Mother and father, two sisters, one brother.”
“How’d you guess?”
Eleanor shrugged. “You’re reasonable. Logical.”
Cullen laughed. “Mia is the oldest. Then me, then Branson, then Rosalie. And Branson has a son now, too; I guess he’d be about seven or eight.”
“Big family,” Eleanor said wistfully. “That’s nice.”
“I should write them,” Cullen said, frowning now. “Mia will kill me. Gah,” he put his hands on his head. “I’m an awful brother.”
“You’re off saving the world. Worlds,” she amended.
“Yes, but I’ve got time to write.” He swallowed audibly. “Maybe… maybe you could meet them, someday.”
“Go to Thedas?”
“Maybe,” he said again, softening the suggestion.
The second half of the implication then struck Eleanor. “You… want me to meet your family?”
Cullen took a defensive step back and bumped into the piano bench. “I just meant…” but what had he meant? Maybe he had said exactly that. Maybe it wasn’t such a terrifying idea.
“I think,” said Eleanor slowly, “I might like that.”
“You would?” Cullen perked up.
She smiled, appealing to him. “I might.”
He nodded as if filing the information away for future reference. “Alright,” was all he said, but inside he was overcome.
Eleanor stashed the thought in her ever-growing collection of someday maybe.