Chapter 1: People Don't Just...Fucking Materialize
Cullen decided Morrigan was an alright sort. In his previous life, he would have been suspicious of her—beyond suspicious, really. Terrified, was the likelier term. But she doted on this son of hers, and she seemed loyal to their cause, so he decided that anyone so in love with their child was, deep down, a good enough person. But this eluvian business that she kept dragging the Inquisitor to…suspicious. He’d tried not to pry, figured it wasn’t really his concern. If something unsavory was happening in the Arbor Wilds, he’d be most useful in the military sense—certainly not the ancient relic interpretation sense. But it piqued his curiosity nonetheless, which is why he stood in front of it, staring into the watery glass at his undulating reflection, sometime around three in the morning one night in the middle of winter.
He kept his hand on the pommel of his sword as if there were something threatening about it. It was a nervous habit—most of his habits were nervous—meant to instill a bit of courage in him. And he figured he had good enough reason to need courage in the face of such a mirror. Once, out of the corner of his eye when he was walking through the courtyard, he’d seen the Inquisitor and Morrigan walk right through the blasted thing. So he at least understood that it wasn’t physically a mirror. Not a normal mirror, anyway. Perhaps things could come out of it just as easily as they went in. Not daring to risk his own hand, he looked about and spied all manner of ecclesiastical clutter. He picked up one of the longer taper candles that lay strewn on the floor and prodded at the glass with it—no resistance, as was expected. He frowned, bewildered, but unafraid, and pulled the taper back out of the frame, inspecting it for damage or difference. It looked fine. An unremarkable candle, as ever.
Satisfied with his night’s adventure, he squatted down, set the taper gently onto the floor, and nodded at the mirror…window…door? He still wasn’t sure what to make of it, but he was finally feeling a bit drowsy and he reminded himself that the Inquisitor never seemed to be harmed after she used it. So he decided to call it a night. He stood, cracked his neck, and stretched his arms above his head, trying to loosen himself up in preparation for the many stairs he’d have to climb before he ever hit his bed.
But he wouldn’t climb any stairs
Rather, he’d fail to notice another candle mere inches from his boot. He’d turn, and he’d step on it quite unevenly. He’d lose his balance, fail to grip anything despite waving his arms about, and stumble backwards, directly into the eluvian.
“Okay guys, you’ve clearly checked out.”
Charlotte adjusted her glasses and scanned the classroom before her. The students in the front row giggled—overachievers determined to get on her good side. At least one student in the back was audibly snoring, and others were undoubtedly dozing. The majority either hadn’t heard her, or didn’t care to respond. “You can’t come to class hungover every Friday, you know.” Still, no answer. She was joking about underage drinking and none of them were even minutely fazed. Perhaps was losing her touch. “Is it the spring weather? I know it’s nice outside, but—actually…” She turned around and looked out the window. The sun shone clear and bright and the pond out on Prince lawn glimmered a short ways off.
“Alright, up! Get up!” The students looked around and whispered to one another. “Get off your lazy bums, we’re going outside.”
One of the more rambunctious women in the class shot her hand up. “We’re allowed to do that?”
“To go outside?” It seemed a ludicrous question, but she often forgot that most of her students were fresh out of high schools that might as well have been prisons. “Yeah, we can go outside. In fact,” she said, raising her voice to indicate that everyone ought to listen as she packed up her own bag, “it’s more appropriate that we take this lesson outside. The transcendentalists considered nature to be a truer church than any cathedral could possibly be.” Someone groaned. “Don’t care if you don’t like it, it’ll be on the midterm.”
The dozen or so people of the group proceeded through the classroom door and down the hall, toward the staircase. Once on the first floor, Charlotte led them around the other side of the building to the exit nearest the pond. She liked her job. She loved it, actually. The campus was lovely, the humanities building was nicer than most universities could boast, and the whole university was a source of great nostalgia. She had studied there herself when she was a young thing, and now she had the title of “doctor” and was pleased to find herself teaching.
It was important to her that her students felt like people, first. She sometimes hazed them gently, like she did today, but when push came to shove, she knew that most of them weren’t genuinely interested in the literature she taught. This rarely diminished her enthusiasm. And if she were being honest with herself, she didn’t blame them for being distracted on this particular day. Situated on the coast, their small tourist town always felt spring much earlier than most of them were used to in their northeastern hometowns—she often fell prone to spring fever herself, and relished this excuse to sit outside and read some good, hardy, early American literature.
The group approached a charming little area shaded by trees, just on the bank of the pond. Students plopped down haphazardly, pulled out sunglasses, and made themselves comfortable as Charlotte instructed them to open their anthologies to Emerson’s “The Poet.” She’d assigned the reading the class before, but it was important enough that she decided to read an excerpt aloud: “But the highest minds of the world,” she began, somewhat dramatically, “have never ceased to explore the double meaning, or, shall I say, the quadruple, or the centuple, or much more manifold meaning, of every sensuous fact: Orpheus, Empedocles, Heraclitus, Plato, Plutarch, Dante, Swedenborg, and the masters of sculpture, picture, and poetry.” Part of her indulged in reading aloud. She liked to toy with the notion that, in another life, she performed on stage, made people weep with her monologues. Her literature students felt the weight of this pipe dream. She heard one of them snigger and curse under his breath. “Was it Heraclitus that did it? Such children…” she teased.
“No,” the giggler answered. “Sorry Dr. Trevi, we thought we saw something.”
“Man, I don’t know. Little white thing, floating over the pond.”
The student frowned at her. “Shoot, I know what a bird is. Whatever, forget about it. It’s too bright out here, now I’m seeing things.”
Charlotte shook her head, cleared her throat and continued. They were approaching one of her favorite parts: “For we are not pans and barrows, nor even porters of the fire and torch-bearers, but children of the fire, made of it, and only the same divinity transmuted, and at two or three removes, when we know least about it.” She lifted her hand gently into the air, as if to point something out. “And this hidden truth, that the fountains whence all this river of Time, and its creatures, floweth, are intrinsically ideal and beautiful, draws us to the consideration of the nature and functions of the Poet, or the man of Beauty—“
A thunderous splash from behind her. Something akin to waves pummeling an outcrop of rocks, but with more of a…plop. She stopped, hand still raised, and deadpanned at her students. “What the hell was that?”
“Holy shit, a dude just fell in the pond!”
She knew she was furrowing her brow, but it made sense. Some sense. It was rush week for Greek life, and lots of people were being put in ludicrous situations. Last year, a pledge was challenged to steal an alligator from the swamps near campus and relocate it to the pond. He managed it, and then the beast grew so big that a volunteer wildlife group had to remove it before it ate all of the turtles. Pushing a brother into the pond was small potatoes for most of the fraternities. So she turned around to look at the bridge that spanned the pond some fifty yards away. But the splash, now indicated only by the ripples it left in its wake, was nowhere near it.
“Where did he fall from?”
“The fucking sky. Like—the. air. Dude just appeared!”
At this ridiculous notion, she stood up, admitting defeat, knowing she had lost all semblance of control over the class. She muttered under her breath as she approached the very edge of the water. “I know I’m not a physics professor, but things, people don’t just…” she waved her hands madly, searching for the right words, “…fucking materialize.” The ripples had all but settled as she looked over the water. The only logical explanation was a tourist…some tourist had signed up for one of those paragliding adventures that the radio station always advertised. He must have gotten way off track—exponentially off track—and ended up over the campus. Then—judging by the stillness of the water—he had fallen to his death in the pond. And she was definitely going to have to give a statement about the whole thing to the police.
A student whose voice she didn’t recognize called out. “Should somebody go in and pull him out?” She realized then that they were all crowded behind her, watching the pond expectantly.
“God, of course!” she shouted. It was a chest deep pond at most, but if someone had really fallen and hit their head, they might not be able to get back up. They could be unconscious. Her head spun with awful scenarios, her adrenaline kicked in, she started removing her shoes, and then—
The man launched up out of the water and sucked in a painful gasp. The students behind her gasped just as loudly and one grabbed onto Charlotte’s shoulder in shock. The fallen figure lifted his arm out from his side and swung a longsword in a wide radius around himself as he choked and garbled out the water in his chest.
Charlotte slung her own arms out, as if to defend the students piled behind her. “Get back, stay back.” They did as she bade and retreated away from the pond, all the while staring in wonderment at the monster of a man.
He was hulking, seemingly covered in fur, practically growling in anger or panic or both. Finally, his wild gaze fell upon the stunned crowd and he coughed up a manic question. “Where am I?!”
“Alright…you…” Charlotte was not a fit woman. She was a stereotypical scholar and she was willing to admit it—poor eyesight, less-than-ideal posture, absolutely no upper body strength, and the coordination of a panicked cat with something stuck to its side. She realized that, for no discernible reason, she was slowly moving into a squatting position as she approached the pond once more. Steadier center of gravity? Instinctive gesture of submission? “Just…put the sword down. We can talk.”
His panting was still heavy, but his eyes were starting to focus and he looked less like a beast with each breath. He lowered the sword an inch or two—just enough to indicate that he was willing to negotiate. “Tell me where I am.”
She nodded and tried to meet his gaze, which was still wandering around. “Carolina Coast University, just outside of Garden City.”
“Garden City? I don’t know it. I warn you!” he lifted his sword again, “you will tell me the truth if you value your life.”
She stumbled back a step or two, definitely catching her heel on a rock and definitely twisting her ankle. But a man had a sword pointed at her—the pain never registered. “South Carolina.”
His eyebrows knit together in continued confusion and he drew his sword up a centimeter more. “What country is this?”
Charlotte looked around at her students, who had refused to leave. None of them seemed to understand the situation any better than she. “The United States?” She could see that he was growing frustrated.
“To the south?”
“Yes! Well, you’re not in the Deep South, per se, but we’re definitely in good ol’ Dixieland.”
Something about what she had said seemed to calm him. Maybe, at the very least, he had heard of Southern hospitality and was willing to settle for it. He looked around and finally seemed to realize that he was waist deep in a pond. He slid his sword into what she could only assume was a sheath and took tentative steps toward the bank of the water. “This land is strange to me. I fear I do not recognize any of the names.”
“Well, it’s a big world…”
“Am I still in Thedas, at least?”
Her students were muttering behind her and it was getting distracting. “Alright class, clearly, you’re dismissed…I’ll see you guys on Monday. Read the Thoreau selection.” No one moved.
“Sorry Dr. Trev, but…we’re not missing this.”
By the time she had given up trying to instruct her students, the fallen man had made it out of the pond and stood dripping on the lawn. He was not covered in fur, as it happened, but rather plate armor. The fur was just the collar of some mantle that he wore, and his beastly size seemed to be the result of a large cuirass. Emblazoned on the breastplate was a stylized eye with a sword behind it. Beneath the armor, he wore a crimson tunic and leather pants, likely the same material as his gloves. It was a convincing outfit, to be sure.
“Please, answer me. Am I in Thedas?” His searching eyes look terrified.
“No…no, I’m afraid not. I’ve never even heard of it. Is that where you’re from?” Is that where you’re from? The man had fallen out of the sky, if her students were to be believed, and she was asking him where he was from. He was delusional, more than likely, and while she had experience with that sort of thing, she was surprised by her own quickness to believe him.
He started trying to wring out the cloak behind him. “Ah, yes…well, Ferelden, more specifically. Honnleath.”
“That’s sounds English. Are you from Britain? You’ve got the accent for it.”
“I don’t know what any of that means,” he said rather plainly, peeling off his gloves and tucking them into his breastplate. “But I need to get back to Skyhold. I’m the Commander of the Inquisition, I have more responsibilities than you can imagine.”
Charlotte folded her arms across her chest at his sudden bravado. “Look, I don’t know who you are, I don’t know where you came from, I’d be happy to send you back there. But as far as I can tell, you appeared out of thin air, in full medieval costume—like, LARPing level costume—blathering on about places that don’t exist. I’m just a professor. I’m not even an Associate Professor, yet, I don’t have tenure, I don’t know what to do with any of this. Are you hurt? Oh god, if you hurt your neck, it ought to be stabilized immediately. Isn’t that a thing?” She turned to look at her students who stared like she’d begun speaking in Greek. “Or rather, I can take you to the mental health counselor across campus. Are you prone to these sorts of episodes?”
The sheer volume of questions seemed to bewilder him. “Wait, mental health?...Maker, I’m not delusional. I tripped through that blasted mirror, fell for a ludicrously long stretch of time, and landed in your tiny lake.”
One of the students that had remained behind Charlotte cleared her throat and they all turned to look at her. “It’s like Through the Looking Glass.”
“Oh right, with the caterpillar…another possibility,” Charlotte said, swiveling back to the knight. “Are you intoxicated? Drugged?”
“I’m neither, damn it. That Maker forsaken eluvian sent me here!”
“What the hell is a luvian?”
“The mirror,” he said, a quiet growl of impatience in his voice. She saw then that his face was littered with scars, most of which were faint enough to be from shaving, but one of which sliced through one side of his upper lip. There was exhaustion etched around his eyes and it both saddened and warmed her to him. “It’s some sort of artifact, some magic nonsense. I was inspecting it for safety reasons. The candle I tested it with came back fine so I was satisfied to leave things be and then—“
“Wait,” Charlotte said, cocking her head to one side. “A candle? Was it a white candle?”
“Yes, why is that relevant? Are white candles of some importance in this land?”
She laughed. She cackled, more accurately, and partially at her own surprise. “Wow, you’re telling the truth.”
“Wh—well yes, of course, I’m telling—why would I lie about this?”
Charlotte turned to her students who were more wide-eyed than ever, having also pieced the puzzle together. “You guys said you saw something white floating over the pond.” She turned back to the stranger. “They saw your candle before you fell through.”
Chapter 2: What Can You Tell Me About Wormholes?
A short little something or other to tide me over between horrendous PhD exams.
Bells never rang to indicate class changes, but the changes happened like clockwork all the same. Students started filtering out of buildings slowly—first, those whose professor had dismissed early, followed by whole clumps rushing to their next class across campus. Students with lunch breaks or short days took their time in crossing Prince Lawn, basking in the early spring sun as they meandered and talked with one another. Soon, students clambered around the pond to sit and read or have a short nap. Meanwhile, the man who fell from the sky drew scads of attention, particularly when he began unbuckling his armor.
Charlotte flung her hand out as if to stop him. “Wait, what are you doing?”
“I need to wring everything out, it’s sopping wet.” He bent over to remove a boot and she didn't see a good reason to stop that. There was nothing pleasant about squishing around in a shoe full of water.
“No no no, not in the middle of all of these people. I’m not looking to end up on Reddit in some post about the most avid cosplayer of all time, hell no.” He glared at her, emptying his second boot of water, and settled for at least removing the fur mantle he wore.
“Alright, Anthro 101, rules of first contact, establish names,” she was muttering to herself now—a nervous habit—as she extended her hand toward him. “Hi. I’m Dr. Charlotte Trevi.”
He looked full of suspicion as he stared at her hand. Perhaps he wasn’t familiar with handshakes. She wracked her brain for an idea of when and where the gesture became common cultural practice, but came up empty. If she had to take a stab at his origins, she would have said Medieval Europe—vaguely. Maybe she should have curtsied. But then he took her hand in his own gloved one and, rather than shaking it, lifted it toward his face, not three inches from his lips, and tipped his head in a gentle bow.
“Commander Cullen Stanton Rutherford, Inquisition.”
Was this chivalry? Taking a lady’s hand and bowing to her? No, she knew that chivalry, real chivalry was a code, a contract, a job description by which knights abided, not merely a way that men interacted with women. Besides, there was no guarantee that he was a knight. How could she know if he’d rescued any damsels or—to be more historically accurate—invaded any Holy Lands? And what matter was any of this to her? When she read fairytales as a child, she was most interested in the dragon—not the princess or the knight. Villains were far more fascinating, and far more complex. Knights were self-righteous bullies.
But this knight, if he was a knight, had kind eyes, so she decided to take pity on him.
“I’ll stick to Cullen, if that’s alright.” She felt the impulse to grab his hand and lead him along before realizing that he was a fully grown man. Instead, she simply gestured. “Now, if you’ll follow me, let’s try to get you some answers.”
He was an amusing cacophony as he followed behind her—a medley of clanks, sloshes, and grumbles as students stared and gasped and mumbled about Renaissance fairs.
“Hey man, nice costume!”
He cocked his head at the passing student and placed his hand on the pommel of his sword out of instinct. “It’s not a bloody costume!”
Charlotte pulled his hand from his weapon and turned to acknowledge the retreating young man, “method acting, you know how theater kids get.” But this Cullen fellow wasn’t a kid. He couldn’t pass as a student. He was a grown fucking man with the start of crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes when he was angry—which as far as she could tell, was constantly. It was beyond her comprehension, how she was going to keep this man from causing a scene while she babysat him. He would need clothes, no doubt, and surely a variety of unfamiliar, mannish things. Deodorant? Razors? She had only sisters, so she tried to remember what sparse accouterments her father kept on his side of her parents’ bathroom sink.
But she was getting ahead of herself.
“We’re headed to the physics department,” she explained when he gave her an odd look. “I have a friend who might be able to help us.”
“Another doctor, then, like you?” he asked, slipping into a purposeful military stride.
“Oh, no, not physician…physics. Like the science? And I’m not a doctor.”
“You introduced yourself as one.”
“Well I have a doctorate, but I’m not a doctor in the healing, medical sense. Just the academic sense?” She looked over her shoulder to see him glaring at her, eyebrows furrowed. Still angry. “I’ll explain things better when we have more time. Right now, we have to get to my friend before his lunch break.”
They finally arrived at the dilapidated building that housed the physics and astronomy departments. Built sometime in the late 1940s and likely not restored since then, it smelled of mothballs, yellowing wallpaper, and seventy-some odd years of high humidity. She led the pair of them through the maze of narrow hallways, past leaded panes of glass, to the smallest office in the building.
Carlwood Cox IV, PhD, liked to remind people that he had the PhD, so he italicized and bolded the suffix on his standard email signature. He had been loathe to return to Carolina Coast University after his doctoral program at Princeton, particularly because anyone that still lingered at his undergraduate alma mater would remember him as an entirely different sort of person. Someone a little too fond of vodka crans with far too thick a southern drawl to possibly be a physics prodigy. But he was a physics prodigy, gotdamnit, he’d graduated from Princeton. So he emphasized that PhD now that he was back, and he spared the world his “bless her hearts”…save for his once dearest classmate, now dearest colleague.
But that’s not how he greeted her on that early March morning when she beat on his office door. He opened it gingerly to find Charlotte, wide-eyed (and a bit panicked, if he was reading her right). To her left stood a damp but handsome, yellow-haired man in full medieval costume.
He had no idea where this stunt was headed, but he refused to give her the satisfaction of his fascination. She liked to do these sorts of things to him when she learned something new. Couldn’t just text him with a “guess what I just read about.” No, she had to leave prints of Roman tintinnabulums in his mailbox so that he would have to explain to the head of the department why there were two dozen photos of phallic wind chimes in his possession.
Dismissing the memory of that ridiculous day, he put his hands on his hips and frowned. “Alright, fine…..I don’t get it.”
Her question shot from her full force. “What can you tell me about wormholes?”
“Yes. What can you tell me about wormholes?”
“Okay, are they real? Or are they just theoretical?”
“First of all, this is physics. Everything is theoretical, gravity is just a theory. So that ain’t the best way to distinguish.”
She pursed her lips and groaned at him, so he didn’t pause much before he began to explain. “They’re consistent with the general theory of relativity, so it’s very likely that they exist.
“But nobody’s ever proven that they exist?”
“Don’t you think you woulda heard about a wormhole existing?”
The truth was, she had long ago lost track of current events. Something about her mid-thirties had made her deeply apathetic to anything that didn’t directly concern her. An awful way to be, she was well aware of it. But there was no time.
“Why are you suddenly interested in wormholes?”
“Right…this guy here,” she said, tugging at Cullen’s arm. “Pretty sure he fell through one into Prince Pond.”
Carl removed his hands from his hips, cackled out a single laugh, and clapped dramatically. “You’re fuckin’ with me.”
“No, he fell into the pond,” she said, tone pleading and urgent.
“Well obviously, the man’s soaking wet. But you’re fuckin’ with me about the wormhole, yeah?”
Cullen huffed, still mostly in the hallway. “I already told her, it was the eluvian.”
Now hyper-aware of the stranger’s presence, Carl leaned back against his desk and met Charlotte’s gaze with mischief in his eyes. She recognized it as something akin to the look he got when they went out drinking and he tried to hit on men for her. “Well, darlin’, you wanna tell me what the eluvian is?”
Charlotte moved to the side so Cullen could better converse with Carl. “An elven artifact. A mirror, of sorts. Legend holds that a traveler can move between worlds through them.”
“Interesting. Well, my scientific training does us no good here. But my years spent indulging in science fiction novels tells me that we’re dealing with a basic wormhole-like device. Might not function within a structure of physics that we understand, but the premise is the same. If you can suspend your disbelief, I’m guessing this eluvia whatever-you-may,” he said, wiggling his fingers, “is a portal to a wormhole. Sucked you right into South Carolina from wherever you were.” Carl grinned at the sodden man whose hair was finally starting to dry into frizzy ringlets. “And you certainly aren’t from these parts, you poor thing.”
Cullen shifted his weight back and forth between each of his feet, increasingly confused by the man before him. “Yes, I—well, that is to say—I’m not from here, no. But there’s no need for pity. Simply help me get back to Skyhold.”
The three of them stood in silence, crammed into the small office. The two men were being so rational about the whole situation. Charlotte made note of the wood paneling on the walls and the pea green metal filing cabinets, a décor straight out of 1978. Carl’s thrifted tweed jacket and knit tie looked of the same era, and when she looked back at Cullen’s plate armor and well forged sword, any concrete comprehension of time slipped through her fingers. It was 1940, it was 1970, it was 1492 and 2017. Things went hazy, her heart thudded loud in her head, and she felt a panic attack send icy water to the tips of her fingers and toes. The last thing she caught through muffled hearing was Carl…no, Cullen…ask if she was alright.
I can't offer a face claim for Carlwood yet. But for a voice claim, check out Walter Goggins in this video: https://youtu.be/BD8vRxM2WfE
The interior of her father’s Jeep was cracking and permanently covered in a fine, dusty layer of sea salt. Warm coastal weather and all that saltwater in the air wreaks havoc on cars, he would say, in defense of his reluctance to ever wash the behemoth. Like every other hard surface she ever came in contact with, the floor of the vehicle crunched with sand under her new tennis shoes. It was only the third day of the second grade, and already, Charlotte’s fresh sneakers were scuffed.
“So…you wanna tell me about?”
She’d decided to stay the rest of the day, even after the incident happened, so it made no sense that he would have heard anything about the matter.
“How did you know?” she asked in a hoarse little squeak.
“Vice Principal Stricker told me. Said you were real brave and stood up for yourself. But she wanted to make sure I knew, in case you were upset.”
Charlotte hadn’t felt brave. She felt like a freak. But she was mad, too, and she really wanted to make them mad the same way. Instead, she frowned hard at them and said they were being bullies.
“They were stupid. They did the eye thing,” she confessed.
It had only happened twice before—once on the playground and once at Thanksgiving. Both times, little boys with stupid chubby fingers had pulled at the corners of their eyes to mock the shape of hers. At least when it was her cousin, the second time, she got to see him scolded and had a laugh out of it.
“Did you say anything to them?” papa asked from the driver’s seat. The sun was bright and sky was so, so blue that it hurt her eyes.
“Yeah, I called ‘em bullies. Just mean little boys, like mama says.”
“Well I’m proud of you.”
“Because I stayed and didn’t call to come home?”
“No, ‘cause you said something back to them. People need to know when they do something that hurts you, cucciolo. You always speak your voice, okay?
It was easy enough for him to say—he didn’t look any different, like Charlotte and her mama and sisters. He looked like everybody else. But she liked when he called her cucciolo. She always liked when he said words in eye-talian. She learned a little bit as she got older, but half of her love of the language came from its mystery. She ended up learning more of her mother’s Korean when all was said and done. But if she needed comfort, she went to her father and waited for his eye-talian endearments to soothe whatever wound troubled her.
When Charlotte came back to her senses, she was staring at a beige wall and could hear the soft murmurings of two men talking, one of which was definitely her friend Carl. Dear, dear Carl with his southern drawl like sunlight through a jar of molasses. The other voice sounded foreign. Not eye-talian, like her papa, but a little bit lilting and rumbly so that it felt like the lining of her ears were purring. It was lovely…oh, like Jon Snow. Or that pretty Hiddleston fellow. Yes, Carl was talking with Mr. Hiddleston and it was warm and she ought to keep sleeping. She closed her eyes to steal just an extra second of rest, and when she opened them again, she heard nothing.
She sat up to find Carl reclined in his office chair, staring at her, full of skepticism. “You alright?”
She considered for a moment, what it meant to be ‘alright.’ She was breathing and mostly lucid, but the eeriest feeling played at the edges of her frayed nerves, like the aftertaste of cough syrup or a moment of déjà vu that you lose as soon as you try to remember what’s so familiar. When she opened her mouth to speak, it came out in slurred mumbles. “I had the strangest dream…there was a man in armor…all golden-haired. Why am I asleep in your office?”
The physicist stood from his seat, took two steps toward her, and squatted down to her eye level—no doubt a feat in his starched chinos. “Hun, you had a panic attack.”
“Ah.” She wanted to curse, but she didn’t quite have the energy.
“A real bad one, by the looks of it. I thought they were under control.” The statement was more question than assertion.
They had been under control, for years now. Medication had become an absolute necessity to make it through the stresses of graduate school. She was reluctant, even then, to rely on drugs, but after she showed up at the emergency room convinced she was having a heart attack, it was time to admit that the anxiety wasn’t going to bend to her will.
“Every so often, one will crop up. Once a year, maybe. But it’s been a long time since I blanked out.” She had started calling it “blanking out” as early as her junior year of undergrad when she lost an entire period of a creative writing class after noticing that her heart was pounding. It wasn’t blacking out—nothing went dark, everything remained as it was—but her consciousness seemed to check out entirely. A Google search had led her to the term “disassociating,” but she preferred her own moniker.
Carl spoke and jerked her from her reverie. “Thankfully Ser Knight caught you before your head hit the ground.”
“Ser Knight?” It hadn’t been a dream, then. A man had fallen from some other dimension into the midst of her English 305, Early American Lit lecture. Her pulse beat frantically inside of her ears and she was reminded that her day had gone from perfectly typical to absolutely unfathomable in a splashing instant. “Oh God, Carl, this can’t be real, can it? What the hell am I supposed to do with him? What do people do in movies when this sort of thing happens? I suppose he needs food. A place to stay. But for how long? Should he get a job? How can he get a job without a social security card? Oh GOD, do I have to get him a social security card? Fuck, he’s an illegal alien, isn’t he? They’ll deport him, they’ll—“
Carl grabbed her by either shoulder and shook her gently. “You’re gonna give yourself another blank out.” His words were firm, assertive, and true. “Social security card…Christ almighty, you sound like your little Korean momma.”
A ludicrous notion. Her momma would never have found herself in this sort of situation to begin with because her momma would always be reasonable and, more importantly, minding her own business. “Rationally, though…what should I do?”
The knight walked in, then—Cullen, she recalled immediately. He was out of his armor, still wearing the leather breeches and wine-colored rough-spun tunic. He didn’t look quite so foreign now, all things considered. He still looked like an offstage Medieval Times performer, but the panic from earlier only bubbled up for a brief moment. She could manage a brief moment.
“Are you feeling better?” His voice was low and gentle, shockingly soothing to Charlotte’s fraught nerves.
She nodded as she began to stand (sure-footed, thank fuck, he wouldn’t have to catch her again). “It’s an old issue. I’m used to it by now.”
“Still,” he began, reaching across his chest to rub self-consciously at his shoulder, “I’m sure it was my doing. As odd as all this is for me…well, at least I’m familiar with magic and nonsense like eluvians. I can’t imagine—“ He stopped abruptly as if he’d run out of words. The discomfort writ large across his forehead looked like a tried-and-true friend of his. Suddenly, she felt a bit of pity.
“Honestly, it’s no one’s fault,” she said, primarily to fill the silence and incidentally, to absolve him. “It happens of its own accord sometimes. The anxiety, that is…do you have anxiety where you’re from?”
“We have dragons, and we have Orlesians, so…yes. Plenty of anxiety.” He chuckled to himself, so she smiled back, despite having no fucking clue what an Orlesian was and doing her best to ignore the bit about dragons.
“Clearly I’m an inconvenience,” he said, rather loudly, in a large puff of exasperation. What’s more, he seemed incapable of making eye contact. Two behaviors her students displayed when they were petrified to give a presentation. “As it happens, inconvenient is my least favorite thing to be. If you give me a bit of direction, I can be on my way.”
So he was a terribly honorable knight…probably an admirable way to be wherever he was from, but certainly not the way to survive the mess he was in now. And since the panic attack had passed, the whole situation seemed significantly more manageable, though not one iota more plausible.
“No, absolutely not,” she said, folding her arms. He drew his eyebrows together and opened his mouth to speak, but she beat him to it. “I’m not tossing you out on 501 to hitchhike your way to god knows where. No, we’ll…I don’t know, we’ll figure something out until we can get you home.”
As instantaneous as a flipped switch, Charlotte’s multi-tasking professor mode kicked in and she turned to Carl, whose presence she’d nearly forgotten. “Are you on this whole wormhole thing?”
He scoffed. “Am I?”
“You are now. If you can’t figure it out using physics, figure it out using sci-fi or Neil Gaiman or something.” She knew she was being a bit demanding, but it was the fastest way to convince Carl to help her.
“You know I teach, right? To pay my bills, I have to teach people things.”
“I teach too. I’m not saying you have to drop everything. Just, in spare moments…do some digging?”
He mulled the request over as he unbuttoned and cuffed the sleeves of his undershirt. “Fine. I’ll look into it.” He turned to Cullen, pointing his finger. “I’m gonna need more information about your fancy teleporting mirror, though.”
“I’ll write up a report, sir.”
Carl stopped fiddling with his shirt and snapped his head up to meet the knight’s gaze. “Did you just call me ‘sir?’”
“Is that not appropriate here? As a sign of respect?” Cullen asked, glance flitting between the two professors.
“My daddy’s ‘sir,’ alright, I will not be ‘sir’ while he’s still alive. It’s just Carl, to you.” It always amused Charlotte that Carl pronounced the first syllable of the fatherly moniker like the word ‘dead’—she was certain that it was a morbid wish slip.
Cullen was far less amused. “I apologize…Carl. I appreciate your help.”
All three nodded at one another in mutual appreciation and understanding. Charlotte was satisfied with the plan thus far, skeletal as it was. Figure out the physics, get him home, keep him alive and comfortable until then. But this was as far as any of them had thought, so they stood rather like idiots, staring at one another, in the increasingly warm office. Charlotte bit at a blister on the inside of her lip and avoided eye contact. Cullen seemed determined to rub the skin off of the back of his neck. Carl casually brushed at nonexistent wrinkles in his trousers and ultimately made to clean his glasses.
“Alright, well I have a class to teach, y’all better get going unless you wanna hold office hours for my freshmen seminar.”
See you around.
The goodbyes were painfully awkward and it was entirely because of Cullen. Without his presence, Carl would likely have given her a pat on the ass and told her to go make a few bad decisions. She would have shoved at his shoulder and told him not to be such a prick. But there was something uncomfortably upstanding about the knight, so the stunted pleasantries were all anyone could muster.
Once the office was empty, Charlotte resolved to break the confounding tension. “So, Ser Knight. Where’d the armor go?”
He looked over each shoulder as if to gather his bearings, then led her to a bench down the hallway. “I’m not really a knight, you know,” he said, gathering up the finely crafted gear. She saw his arms filling and offered to at least carry the ratty cloak he’d arrived with.
“I thought only knights wore armor.”
“Ah…no. Anyone who would rather not die wears armor.”
She hummed in understanding, though it wasn’t exactly an informative explanation. But there was a tone of frustration to his response, so she changed the subject.
“We can drop this off at my car, yeah? It locks, so it’ll be safe. I need to stop by the library before we…well, I don’t even know what we’re meant to do next, but I know I absolutely have to stop at the library.”
“You have libraries here?” The candid enthusiasm that tore through his question gave her some relief. There would be equal footing in the library, at least.
“Of course. Lots of them. Large ones. The one at this school isn’t terribly impressive, but it does the trick.”
He smiled so slightly that she never would have noticed if she hadn’t been anticipating it. It didn’t quite fit with his noble bearing—too charming, almost sly. “I should like to see it, if it’s not an inconvenience.” And the austerity returned.
She could see her car off in the distance of the staff lot and redirected their course toward it.
“Are these…carriages?” He was two or three paces behind her, his curiosity having slowed him down.
“You’re perceptive,” she said, glancing at him over her shoulder. He lugged the armor about with ease, despite its incessant clanking. Perhaps it would have been simpler—though not at all cooler—for him to have kept it on.
“Well, they’ve got wheels, haven’t they? And seats, for people, I assume.”
“That they do,” she confirmed, opening the door to the backseat. “You can set your…stuff here in the back. Like I said, it locks, nobody will take it.”
He did as she instructed, setting the pieces of armor down with such care that it almost warmed her heart. “I’ll make a bold claim and assume there aren’t horses involved?”
He was clever-tongued, apparently. Or at least when he wanted to be. Or perhaps when he was actually doing something physical, like carrying things and walking. Her sister’s boyfriend was much the same—interesting as drying paint when he was sitting still, but full of quips when he was working on his bike.
“Right again! Internal combustion engines,” she rattled off, as if she intimately understood the mechanics of such a thing. “I can explain it later, if you like.” She clicked the key fob until the car muttered a quiet beep, then breathed a sigh of relief when he agreed that later was better. She would have to brush up on her vehicular lingo if she were to teach him. The realization that she was taking it too far, as Carl often put it, forced her to muffle a laugh as they retraced their steps in the direction of the library
“I just have to grab a few books, then maybe we can run by Walmart and pick up the basics?”
“Wal-mart…” he rolled the name around in his mouth as he cracked each of his knuckles in repeated succession. Without something to carry or hold, he seemed to twitch. “What is Walmart?”
“Hell, basically. Do you guys have a concept of hell? You know, never mind, we’ll get to religion later. Walmart is a shop that sells all sorts of things. We can get you clothes and toiletries and food, if you’re hungry.”
He clutched his hand to his stomach as if newly aware of its existence. “Starving, actually. I hadn’t realized until you mentioned it.”
He was charming enough, this Cullen fellow. She would have to stop calling him “Ser Knight,” it seemed to upset him for some reason. He looked a bit harried, as she would expect anyone from some medieval-esque period to be. Dark circles under his eyes, light scars littering his face, line after line carved into his forehead. But in the sunlight, he shone just enough to keep her interested in restoring him as best as she could while he was stuck here.
When they finally walked into the library, she heard him gasp softly behind her and it made her beam with secret pride. Libraries were one of the better things her world had created. And this library in particular had felt much of her influence.
“What sort of books are these?” Cullen asked, craning his neck at the shelves on the first floor.
“These down here are mostly reference books, some periodicals, fiction bestsellers. The really impressive collections are upstairs.” In truth, she didn’t need anything from upstairs. Her requested books were waiting for her at the check-out desk where her friend Mark would surely be posted. But she was a proud alumnus showing off her alma mater’s material knowledge; she couldn’t resist.
When they crested the top of the staircase she heard him whisper, “Maker.”
“There’s a third floor above us, as well. This library has everything from history to art to classic literature. Scientific studies, politics, engineering.”
He had begun running his hand along the spines of the nearest books. He was somewhere in Norse mythology, she realized, and happiness bubbled in the depths of her belly. She envied him, then, and his opportunity to learn about the world for the first time. It was a Friday afternoon, the stacks were silent, and she could hear callouses on his fingertips rasp against the fabric binding of some of the older books. What she wouldn’t give to discover the things she loved for the first time once again—how her world had lit up when she first read about Yggdrasil and Loki and the cats that pulled Freyja’s chariot. Would his world light up in any similar way? He looked at the shelves the way the devout stare at an altar and she wagered yes, something here would illuminate something in him.
“We can come back any time you like,” she whispered, without really meaning to. The moment had been so gentle and hazy that she hated to disturb it with the sound of her own voice. “But we need to head back downstairs before my friend gets off his shift so the books don’t go missing.”
He turned to her suddenly and all the darkness beneath his eyes was gone. It was likely just a trick of the lighting, but he looked livelier, brighter, fuller for a split second and she felt the camaraderie.
Yes, she wanted to say, it nourishes me, too.
Instead, she led him silently back down the staircase and to the front desk where Mark nodded, disappeared, and came right back with a stack of hardbacks.
“Who’s your friend?” he asked with genuine curiosity. Another graduate of her class, Mark had rerouted from literature to library sciences when he found out that the world was sorely lacking in black, male librarians. A ‘hot commodity,’ he had called himself with all of the self-awareness that she had always admired in him.
“This is Cullen…my research assistant from the UK,” she said, cool as a cucumber. It seemed like the best route if he’d later be seen in her company and it explained the accent right off the bat. “I’ll probably have him start making these book runs for me, so if he brings you anything from the stacks, just stick it in my pile?”
“Sure thing! And hey, nice to meet you, man.” Mark extended his hand across the counter and Charlotte developed a sudden knot of dread in her chest. How did people of color figure into Ser Knight’s world? He could be a devoted racist for all she knew. Maybe he’d never seen a black person.
Cullen gripped his hand firmly and laughed. “Maker, you look just like Barris.”
Charlotte took a closer look at Mark’s shaved head and hazel eyes and then back at Cullen who seemed utterly amazed. “Sorry, he’s an old friend of mine. It’s a bit like seeing a familiar face.”
“Ah, no worries. Glad to make it feel little more like home around here. Let me know if you ever need anything! And hey, don’t let this one boss you around too much.” He nodded toward Charlotte and tossed a wink her way as he started scanning each book.
“Thanks again,” she said, stuffing them one by one into an empty canvas bag. “Hope spring fever hasn’t culled the crowd too much.”
He typed her library card number into the system, having memorized it long ago. “Nah, not too bad. Makes me wanna get out on the boat though.” He directed his attention toward Cullen. “You ever fish?”
“Not often. I did when I was a kid, but I have no skill for it.”
“Well let me know if you’re ever interested. Nothing like an early morning cast just past the pier, skill or no skill.”
Incredible. Hours into this brand new world and Ser Knight was already being invited to be sociable.
“Perhaps,” he said with a polite smile. It was impossible to tell, past the square jawline and straight set shoulders, whether or not he was completely bewildered by the invitation. But he was diplomatic. “It’s nice to meet you, regardless.”
As they walked out of the library, Cullen offered to carry her bag.
“Very gallant of you, but I’ve got it. Thanks, though.” She chanced a look at him and saw dejection: slumped shoulders, downcast eyes, restless hands. “On second thought, I do have a bit of twinge in my neck. Would you mind?” She passed the bag to him and watched for a change in demeanor, but none came. The stoicism returned as he mimicked her actions and slung the straps over his shoulder.
“Why did you lie to that man about me?” It wasn’t an accusatory question, merely a curious one.
The truth was simple enough. “I didn’t know if you wanted everyone knowing that you’re like…from some other land.” She waved her fingers wildly until she realized that he wasn’t going to be amused. “Plus, if he thinks you’re working for me, then you can find books you like and check them out.”
He adjusted the strap on his shoulder. “Check them out?”
“Borrow them. Under my name. So you can take them home and read them. Or well, not ‘home,’ I suppose. I can’t presume that this will ever feel like home to you. Just…wherever we settle you.”
“You would do me that kindness?”
She couldn’t suppress a laugh this time. “Have you not seen much kindness in your life, Ser Kn—Cullen?”
When he took more than a second to answer, she regretted the question.
“No…not particularly. Not in a very long time.”
For the record, I do really have a dear friend that looks remarkably like Ser Barris! I couldn't pass up the opportunity.
As always, kudos and comments--both brief and lengthy--are gladly welcomed. Thanks for reading!
Chapter 4: Don't Just Strip in Public
Cullen is introduced to Walmart...and deodorant and zippers and macaroni & cheese and...
Brighter than anything he’d ever seen. Not blinding, the way sunlight is, but more illuminating than even the clearest of days. Cullen tried not to look at the walls or the floor or anything white for too long, lest his head start aching. And there was a gentle humming noise that permeated the air. It felt as if he could see his blood pressure behind his eyes. Charlotte must have noticed him squinting.
“It’s the light, isn’t it?” she asked quietly. For all of her disbelief and panic about his arrival, she was kind to him. And perceptive. “Fluorescent lighting. A modern invention. Something about super-charging chemicals until they glow. It’s murder on the eyes after a while.”
He was relieved to find it wasn’t just the sensitivity of a foreigner. He could tough out a bit of unpleasant lighting. Maker knew he kept his office so dimly lit that he gave himself eyestrain regularly. “It’s no trouble. I’m merely prone to headaches.”
“Ah, then you’ll love this world’s ibuprofen.”
He wondered what that meant. He wondered what everything meant, but it was too exhausting to keep asking. Surviving this world would be a matter of choosing his battles carefully. There was too much information to absorb, so he would take only what was necessary to get himself home—and perhaps to keep himself from getting hurt. Cullen watched Charlotte inspect the hundreds of bottles on the shelves before them and decided he should probably study them too. Colors, smells, voices coming out of the ceiling and everything was a whirlwind too much, far too much. How did people live like this? Thank the Maker he could at least read their language, even if half of the words made no sense in their context.
“Foxcrest?...Bearglove? What do the animals correspond to?” he asked, pointing toward the red tubes, all in a line.
She absently hummed her curiosity. “Hm? Oh! Uh, nothing that I know of. It’s just different scents.”
How could they contain the scent of a bear? Why would they ever? “Do people like smelling like…what’s this, Hawk-ridge? Do people want to smell like hawks?”
A laugh bubbled out of her, bringing such comfort with it. He was lucky to have dropped at the feet of someone gentle, at the very least, even if she was completely ignorant of Thedas and skeptical, at best, about his very existence. “It doesn’t smell like a hawk. They have those names to make them sound tough. Manly. It’s all very heteronormative, just ignore them.”
He ignored the monosyllabic word and focused on the familiar. “I knew a Hawke, once,” he mumbled to himself. “She was…I guess tough is one way of putting it. Why do they all say ‘Old Spice?’ Is it really old?”
Another quiet chuckle. How many ignorant things could he say in a row? Or did she find the way he spoke to be funny. Perhaps she was easily amused. “Old Spice is a brand of deodorant. Just—ignore the labels and pick one that you think smells good.”
She had insisted on this toiletry called ‘de-odor-ant.’ It seemed to him that a perfume or a strong soap should do the job of keeping you from smelling too badly. He’d lived his whole life without de-odor-ant and didn’t see why he ought to start using it now. But it was rather hot outside—far hotter than Skyhold ever got—and this stuff was meant to keep you from sweating beneath the arms, so he yielded. He was prone to sweating, after all.
“Ah! A warrior’s de-odor-ant!” He picked up the bottle labeled AXE and found a button marked ‘PRESS HERE.’ Following the instructions, a pale mist shot from the top of the vessel and wafted in to his nostrils where it proceeded to burn. He coughed in an attempt to force the vapor out of his face, but coughing quickly turned to sneezing and soon his eyes were clouded over with tears.
“What the bloody Void was that?”
Charlotte snatched the bottle from his hand and cackled. “Oh hun, don’t ever touch this stuff.”
“Why would they put a poison next to toiletries?”
“It’s not poison, it’s just a really strong deodorant…body spray…cologne. Teenage boys use it, thinking it’ll make them smell manly. I swear it’s toxic.”
“Toxic…” another sneeze, “means poison…” and another, and another and he thought his heart might burst for lack of air. She pressed her hand to his back, half shove, half comforting pat, and guided him further down the aisle. After a few clean breaths, he wiped his eyes. “Is there anything that has no smell?”
She scanned the shelves again before choosing a discreet grey container with the word ‘Dove” written across it. “Another bird?” he asked, recalling the hawk de-odor-ant from before.
“Doves are gentler,” she chuckled. “This one just smells like clean powder.” She offered it to him and instructed him to sniff, so he lifted it to his nose.
After a few attempts, he couldn’t help frowning. “It doesn’t smell like anything.”
Her eyes were bright and bewildered and as her brows pulled together in preparation to laugh at him once more, he felt like an adolescent being teased. “You have to take off the cap,” she whispered.
Perhaps he would be eternally embarrassed in this world. Fascinated, no doubt, but mortified by his ignorance. He ran his fingers along the smooth vessel until he felt a seam toward its top. He pulled until he heard a satisfying pop. Another sniff confirmed the safety of this particular de-odor-ant, so she snatched it from his hand and put it in the basket nestled at her elbow.
She ushered him two aisles over before asking a question of her own. “Do you guys brush your teeth, where you’re from? Yours look to be in good shape.”
“Well I clean them, with a cloth. And usually some baking soda. Is it done differently here?” She studied him for a moment, and then grabbed a red stick with bristles at the end of it.
“I have baking soda and wash cloths at home, so you can stick with that, if you like. No reason to change everything on you. But we’ll get you this, in case you get curious.”
“What am I meant to do with it?”
She held the stick crosswise in front of her mouth and moved the brush in small circles. “Brush your teeth. Helps you get the hard to reach spots.”
After his teeth were squared away, they moved onto soap, which was infinitely more complex in this world. There was one kind of soap for your body, another for your hair, and a special one for your face. It came in bars, which was familiar enough, but also in gels and foams and something called a scrub, which he had always thought was a thing you do, not a thing you use. The smells were countless. After frowning at nearly every soap Charlotte shoved to his nose, Cullen felt rather like he was being difficult. They all smelled of strong cologne, like something Dorian might wear, but in their concentrated form, he could practically taste them. He apologized and she handed him a large bottle with a blue label full of some liquid that smelled like peppermint. She called it ‘all-purpose,’ and he sighed so heavily with relief that the voice in the ceiling could have heard him.
Razors were simple enough, though the people of this world were apparently incapable of shaving themselves without serious injury, so something called a ‘straight razor’ was his only option. The hair wax, to his enormous relief, had gone largely unchanged between Thedas and this new world. There were more options—there were a hundred options for everything here—but it felt and looked and smelled just as it should.
“There are an awful lot of people,” he noted as she led him through the immense shop. “It’s like an indoor marketplace.”
“This is the cheapest place around, so just about everybody comes here for something.”
Much of what he saw was completely unrecognizable and he felt like he needed to physically suppress all of the questions bubbling within him. Once they neared some of the foodstuffs, he realized many of the fruits and vegetables were familiar, and that was a comfort. His stomach growled at the mere thought of food and was goaded on when he smelled meat roasting. He lifted his nose toward the scent and felt his whole body lean to it.
Charlotte noticed his distraction and recalled his attention. “That’s the deli. Let’s get you some clothes, then we do food, yeah? I’m starving, too.”
“I have clothes,” he said, gesturing down at himself. He was fortunate to have been wearing his nice tunic when he fell through the eluvian, and his trousers were relatively new. The undershirt he wore now was a bit worse for the wear, but undershirts weren’t meant to be seen, so there was no shame in it.
“You have one shirt and one pair of pants. And I have no idea how to wash this—“ She grasped the edge of his shirtsleeve between her thumb and forefinger. “What is this? It feels like a potato sack.”
“It’s roughspun.” Maker, did they not even have roughspun?
“We’re going to get you something less…feudal,” she promised as she laughed, perhaps at herself. Her humor continued to elude him. “What size are you?”
“Size? Oh, my measurements? Maker, I—I don’t actually know. Josephine keeps them written down somewhere, I suppose.”
“Well I don’t know much about men’s sizes, so let’s start with this.”
She offered him a pair of dark blue pants and a plain, thin white shirt, soft as a cotton cloth and a brighter white than any fabric he’d ever seen.
“What do I do with them?”
“Try them on.”
“Put the shop’s clothes on? On top of my clothes?”
“No, you take off your clothes and put these on. To see if they fit.”
Surely there was a miscommunication. He could hardly keep count of how many people were in the vicinity and Charlotte was telling him to remove his clothes. He slung the shirt and the pants over his left shoulder and shrugged at the ludicrousness as he made to unfasten his trousers.
She reached her hand toward his groin and he nearly slapped her in reflex. “Whoa, hold up! Dressing room. Don't just strip in public.”
“Wai—what—how was I supposed to know?” He knew he had raised his voice, but there was something unpleasantly vulnerable about changing clothes in the middle of a busy market. “You didn’t tell me about dressing rooms.”
Cullen found himself shoved into a small room with a filthy mirror. And yet despite its filth, he had never seen his own reflection quite so clearly. Perhaps it was the lighting, or perhaps this world’s mirrors were just superior. Either way, he felt like he could finally see his age. Had there always been so many lines around his eyes? Did he spy grey hairs near his temples? He’d had a hard life, no doubt, and the recent withdrawals had done little to liven his appearance. Still, he could not imagine anyone desiring to look in one of this world’s mirrors.
He switched out of his clothes into the new ones Charlotte had chosen. The shirt was easy enough, though unbearably tight. He could see his nipples straight through the damned fabric, but assumed it was the fashion. The pants were odd—stiffer than he expected, they lacked any sort of tie. He cleared his throat, hoping to get her attention. After silence, he wondered whether first names or last names were more acceptable to use in this situation. ‘Sir’ had been too much with the Carl fellow earlier, but Charlotte was a woman.
“Lady Trevi,” he called. He heard her snort in laughter and rolled his eyes. Charlotte, then, next time.
“What’s up?” she called from the other side of the wall.
“How does one fasten these blue pants?”
“The jeans? You don’t even have denim? What about zippers?”
“What is a zipper?”
“That…thing…at the crotch of the pants? With the little teeth?”
He didn’t care much for the idea of teeth near his crotch, but he located the zipper. “What do I do with it?”
“Grab the little clasp looking thing and pull up. Just make sure nothing’s…in the way, first.”
After one gentle tug, he realized why she had given the warning. It was beyond him, why people would develop a device so threatening this close to such a sensitive area. But once the zipper was fastened, he appreciated the speed it afforded. The button was familiar, and so with a quick glance in the mirror to make sure he looked mildly proper, he exited the room.
Charlotte turned to appraise him and he noticed her face fell soft and her jaw hung a bit. Perhaps he had done something wrong.
“Is it the shirt? Is it backwards?” He dug his fingers into his hair in mild embarrassment.
“No, it’s right.” It was a quiet assurance, but she still looked baffled. Only after she cleared her throat did she explain what he’d done wrong. “The pants are fine, the shirt’s way too tight. Here, try a large.”
She pushed him back into the room and he switched sizes immediately. He was relieved to find that properly fitting clothes were fashionable, as opposed to the painted-on garment he had initially tried. In fact, when he sized himself up in the mirror once more, he was less confounded by his aged appearance than before. Perhaps the fresh, dry clothes helped him look less ragged. Or perhaps he was finally feeling a bit more comfortable in the strange land. Either way, he exited the dressing room with a new confidence and the information that he wore a ‘Large’ shirt and that he was a ‘30x32’ in pants…whatever any of that meant.
“Does this look better?” he ventured to ask. She didn’t seem displeased, but her expression made him self-conscious all the same.
“Yeah, you look—it looks great—good. Good, you look good. You look fine.”
He watched her spin around and head toward a table piled with shirts just like the one he wore. She grabbed a black one, a grey one, a brown, a dark blue, dark green, and finally a red one, nearly the same shade as his mantle.
“I take it you like this color?” She asked, holding up the final shirt. “Three out of the four garments you brought with you are this color.”
“I do like it, I suppose. I’ve grown rather used to it.”
She smiled—not in preparation to laugh, like she had done so many times that day, but rather like a friend. “Then we’ll get a back-up of it, yeah?” She gathered the many shirts in her arms and turned to grab a few more pairs of pants, as well.
“This has to be rather costly, Lady Trevi.”
“Just Charlotte, please. I’m…well, I’m not a Lady, that’s for sure.”
“Very well,” he agreed, clasping his hands behind his back. “But my concern still stands. I don’t have the means to purchase all of this.”
“I can’t allow that. You’ve already proven your generosity. Any more, and I’ll feel I’m taking advantage of you.”
She placed a reassuring hand on his shoulder and then snatched it back as if he had shocked her. “Taking advantage? No, not in the least. It’s not that expensive. Besides, I live well below my means, I’m more than capable of covering the cost.”
“Still, will you let me do something to repay you?”
“Did you have something in mind?”
“Not immediately. I’m not sure what I’m good for in this world.”
“Well if you think of something, maybe we can talk about it. For now, don’t fret. Men’s clothes are much more affordable than women’s. Thank god you’re a man.”
He watched her squeeze her eyes together in a cringe, and he quietly wondered what she had said to embarrass herself. Her humor was peculiar—though maybe it was the norm here—but he found himself endeared all the same. Hoping to change the subject, he brought up food.
“Yes! Of course. Just change back into your original clothes so we can pay for…all of that,” she said, waving her hands in his general direction. She was hesitant to make eye contact, but lit up when she pulled a thin, shiny box from her pocket. “Hold still for a second, I told Carl I’d send him proof that we could get you to blend in with everyone else.” Cullen crossed his arms as he watched her lift the box to her face, perhaps six inches away, until she seemed satisfied by tapping it and stashed it back in her pocket. “I’ll explain phones and cameras later, let’s do food.”
By the end of the afternoon, Charlotte had not only clothed him, but fed him a whole feast of chicken and vegetables and something remarkable called ‘macaroni and cheese’ from the wonderful deli at the back of the market. Now fed, he felt much more comfortable in his situation. He was far from home, no doubt about it. But he had landed somewhere hospitable enough that had food and merchants and they all spoke his language. His new companion was kind and patient, if a bit bewildering, and her friends seemed eager to help. There were new things to learn and perhaps to practice. He would find a utility here, while he waited to go home, and he would pay her back some way.
We did it! He no longer stands out like a sore thumb.
CHARLIE, ok you know how I feel about token sassy gay friends. I will not be that person to you. That being said, on behalf of everyone attracted to men in the world, I’mma need you to make sweet, sweet love to that man.
YOU DIDN’T EVEN GET HIS FACE
This was fun to write. FUN. A little tough to stay in the strict mentality of "Cullen is confused," especially since I wrote from his perspective. But we'll get some of this from Charlotte's perspective later on. *wink*
Thank you SO much for the overwhelmingly lovely response to this so far. And thank you if you're still reading. Your comments and kudos are so appreciated.
Chapter 5: I DON'T KNOW HOW TO EXPLAIN TV
A short chapter to get back into the swing of things. Poor Charlie is adapting with more trouble than Cullen, at this rate.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Few things embarrassed and enraged Charlotte more than riding the school bus. Most of her classmates had older siblings that would give them a ride, or parents who would drop them off at school on the way to work. Not Charlotte. “It builds character.” “It’s better for the environment.” “You might make friends!” Her parents’ logic was as steadfast as their resolve, on all but the last point. Charlotte would not make friends on the bus. Bus kids were bad enough in middle school with their fart jokes and experimental swearing. But by freshmen year, the only people still taking the bus smelled weird or wouldn’t stop talking about drugs (that she knew they had zero experience with).
Her best defense against the hazards of socializing was the portable CD player that she delicately guarded. She would spend hours on the computer putting together mixes—one for energetic days, one for melancholy days, one of oldies that (admittedly) made her feel better than all of her peers, one of indulgent pop music (that was marked “French” so no one would suspect anything), and one that was nothing but classical music for when she needed to spend her morning ride preparing for a test or a project. As she expanded her music knowledge, the CD mixes became more obscure and specific. One was called “Southwestern Road Trip,” despite the fact that she had no plans to travel across the Southwest. A favorite was “University Bound,” which she put together two years before applying to a single college
Once she did make it to college, her time spent invested in music dwindled. She was often listening to something or other, but her ingenuity in putting together mixes all but vanished. Still, some days, she would hear a tune on the radio and find herself mentally assigning it to a person she knew, or would like to know. If they ever end up in my car with me, this is what we’ll listen to.
“Come on, pick up, pick up, come on.” Charlotte clutched the phone between her ear and shoulder while she sat in the driver’s seat, digging through her glove compartment. The ringing finally cut short.
“Hey hun, you kiss that fool yet?”
“Hello to you too, Carl. No, I’m calling because I need a pep talk. I mean, I have to…take him to my house.”
“You just realized this? How’s that a problem?”
Shuffling papers and napkins around, she snatched her hand back in victory. “Ha! Found it!”
“Oh, nothing.” Charlotte pried the dusty CD case open and slipped the disc into the player on the dashboard. “So yeah, I guess it’s not a problem. But it’s kinda weird, right? It’s like bringing home a stray cat or something. Except exponentially stranger."
“At least he’s litter trained.”
“What? Look, you’ve got that spare room, it ain’t like you gotta share a bed with the man. Though I highly recommend it.”
“Yeah, about that.” Her tone was casual, but her face was decidedly red. “I need you to stop making comments like that. I understand you think I need to get laid or whatever, but this is kind of a serious thing. I’m not gonna help the dude out and then try to get in his pants, that’s super creepy. And like…Stockholm Syndrome.”
“You didn’t kidnap him, Charlie. And you know I’m just goading you on. He’s a ridiculously attractive man. Even you have to admit that.”
“He’s…” absolutely gorgeous and solid as a rock and…“sure…he’s objectively good looking. I never denied that.”
“And you know I think you’re drop dead gorgeous. And I know you’re rolling your eyes. I just think y’all are a cute pair. But I’ll stop.”
“I’ll…I’ll cut back, at least.”
“So are you gonna be alright, then? You think you can handle cohabitating with Ser Knight in the short term? Where is he now, anyway?”
Charlotte craned her neck to look toward the sliding doors at the entrance of the building. “Returning the cart. He insists on doing everything. Even things he doesn’t really know how to do.”
“Oh poor thing, accompanied by a genuinely courteous man, how ever will you survive?”
“Look, smart ass, I gotta go. I have to wave him down before he walks past the car.” Tossing the phone into her bag, she rolled down the window and stuck her head out.
“Ah! Lady Tr—Charlotte. There you are. Sorry it took me a moment. There was an old…” As he continued walking around to the passenger’s side of the car, his voice faded until he opened his door. “…grandson. Truly! I must be fitting in here.” He jumped into his seat with a smile so wide, she couldn’t bring herself to tell him that she’d missed most of his story.
“Do you like music?” She asked abruptly.
He settled further into the seat, rather pleased with himself for remembering to fasten the seatbelt. “I do. I sang for the Chantry choir, growing up.”
A choirboy. An honest-to-goodness towheaded choirboy. She hadn’t the foggiest idea what the Chantry might be, but the image of a tiny Ser Knight in ankle-length robes nearly cracked her stoic facial expression.
“You’re going to hear a lot of music while you’re here. And some of it’s going to sound awful to you. So I thought we could start out more…traditionally.” She knew, by heart, precisely how the disc would begin. But she was relieved, all the same, to hear the opening bars of Für Elise pour from the speakers. Soft and slow, open enough to interpretation that she didn’t feel like she was introducing him to something hopelessly melancholy or overly aggressive. Vivaldi could come later, Tchaikovsky and Debussy and Gershwin…she felt sure he’d like Gershwin. But for now, some subtle Beethoven should keep from shocking his system.
“Is it too loud?” she asked, fingers poised at the volume knob.
His head snapped toward her and his eyes seemed unfocused, but calm. “No, it’s just fine. Lovely, actually. If I…” He stopped then and stared at the dashboard.
It was an opportunity to get a good look at him. Now that his hair had dried, it was golden and curled, making him look far younger than he likely was. His jaw looked carved of stone, sharp, square, and intimidating. But everything else in his expression seemed soft enough, even as his eyes remained trained on the stereo.
“Go on, Ser Knight. Ask your questions.”
“If I ask how it all works, will it lose its wonder?”
It was the miracle of music that stalled her answer. Not the quiet, grave rumble of his voice or the sincerity in his question. Certainly not the shape of his mouth. “Honestly? It never loses its wonder.”
He smiled, but never pried further into the mechanics of stereo systems or modern audiology. With little else to indicate his thoughts, she hoped that the music was soothing.
“We’re gonna head to my place, to get you settled in. It’s a bit of a drive, so if you start to feel sick let me know.”
Was it too much? Was she coddling this grown man? Surely he’d ridden on fast horses or ships. Was he claustrophobic? Did he have vertigo? She glanced over at him and felt like she was hallucinating or disassociating. This was ludicrous. Was she really meant to believe she was somehow responsible for a whole man from some other world?
He met her gaze, which must have looked momentarily fearful. “Thank you. For being considerate. I’ll keep you apprised.”
She reminded herself, then, that she was doing the best she could. Perfectionism was threatening to overwhelm her, as was the pressure of playing host to…well, by all definitions, an alien. But she began the drive despite her worries, and attempted to distract herself by wondering what his first impressions of her hometown might be.
Palm trees would likely look odd to him, though surely his world had beaches. The build of the houses would seem odd, as would billboards, neon signs, traffic lights, motorcycles...
Panic bloomed with too much pressure in her chest and she had to remind herself that she was familiar with all of these things. If she exercised too much empathy, she’d be just as freaked out as him. When had she begun biting at her nails? Fuck, she was speeding, too. A solid fifteen over the limit. When he reached over and put his hand on her arm, she jumped so harshly that she bashed her shoulder into the driver’s side window.
“Maker, I’m sorry! You weren’t responding and you started turning pale.”
Her hands were clammy and she’d missed the turn onto her street, but it took only a few additional turns to make it into her driveway. She’d forgotten to respond to his apology and it was too much, suddenly far too much as he searched her face for something meaningful.
“LOOK!” He flinched and guilt swallowed her whole. “Sorry…look…I-I’m the wrong person for this, okay? I’m a goddamn mess, deep down. Like, I make it look okay when I’ve got a routine going, but I…I don’t even know what you are! No, this isn’t. This can’t be possible, right? Like, I’m just going insane. I had to buy you clothes because YOU HAVE NO CLOTHES. You have no money. And like, that’s not your fault. It just…it’s not possible. And if it is, I, holy hell, I am not the person to be handling this. I can’t do this, like, I don’t know how to make sure that you don’t have seizures because of unnatural lighting or I DON’T EVEN KNOW YOUR DIET. What can you eat? I fed you chicken and vegetables because they eat that in Game of Thrones, but what happens if I give you coffee? Like, are you evolved like a human? I DON’T KNOW HOW TO EXPLAIN TV.”
She breathed for a moment and chanced to look over at him. His eyes were wide, his mouth drawn tight, his shoulders pulled back as if afraid to be near her.
“Oh fuck, and how do I have any right to freak out like this? You’re the one that doesn’t understand any of this shit. YOU SHOULD BE FREAKING OUT. I mean, NO, don’t. It’s okay. You don’t need to be freaking out, like, I’m gonna take care of you. I just…this is a thing I don’t know how to do.”
His concern softened and he ventured to touch her arm again. “I don’t know how to do this, either. And I think you’re doing a fine job.”
“You have to tell me more about you and your…fuck, your ‘world.’ Because I don’t know what to do with you. And before you bring up the burden thing again, that’s not…I just have to be well-informed. So you’re gonna have to inform me.”
He squeezed her arm a bit and surprisingly, it did reassure her. “I can do that. And you’ll explain this world to me?”
She exhaled more air than she thought possible to hold in her lungs, and with it flew most of her panic. “I can do that.”
They exited the car silently and filled their arms—she with shopping bags, he with his bulky armor. Unlocking the door was a clumsy task, but once it creaked open, she finally felt safe. And sure that he was safe. Something about seeing him—so foreign—in her home—so familiar—made reality settle further into her bones.
“You can set it down wherever you like,” she said, nodding toward his full arms. “We’ll get it sorted out a bit later.”
He seemed hesitant to set anything on the carpet, and instead clumped all of his gear in the tiled entryway. And then, a flurry of sharp barking and a flash of fur came thumping toward them.
Charlotte laughed and scooped the small creature into her blessedly empty arms. “There’s my pupper!”
Startled, Cullen frowned and crossed his arms. “What is—uh, who’s…this fellow?”
“Aww, this is Grandpa!”
Dread flickered across his face. “…Grandfather…?”
She affected a silly, childish voice and babbled at the mess of tawny fur. “Nooo, Walt Whitman. Isn’t that right, pupper? Grandpa Walt.” Her voice returned to normal as she held the creature closer to Cullen. “Are you alright around dogs?”
He reached out a tentative hand. “I love dogs.” A sloppy tongue slobbered all over his fingers before he managed a scruffy pet to the head. “And while this…fellow is affectionate…this is not a dog.”
Charlie and Grandpa Walt:
Thank you for sticking around through this hiatus, and for all of the encouraging comments since my last update. It took a lot of pushing to get this chapter out, and it's terribly short and not anything special. But it establishes some of Charlie's reservations and introduces a new, very important character :P