People Will Get Hurt
She'd kept her room at The Hanged Man while she'd been away, and Mahariel sat at her same familiar table with a fresh but familiar candle, turning a small, incredibly aged slip of parchment over and over in her hands. Her treaties and requests sat in a pile at her feet. She'd left them in her room while she had been away, in chest that Varric promised her would be safe. Varric was a man of extreme contradictions; almost everything out of his mouth was a lie, but when he promised something, one could bet he'd guard the truth of that promise with his life, so the Warden-Commander had no qualms leaving them behind. But this small slip of paper, this small piece of writing, that was something she would keep close to her, no matter what.
She hadn't yet told Anders she'd returned. It was still early, at any rate, and if and when Anders had time to sleep, she would let him. He looked like he barely slept at all anymore, and she felt relief when she woke and he was still in her arms, resting soundly. But she wouldn't go to him. Not yet.
"Mahariel," a soft, gritty whisper came through the door.
Without answering, she put the slip of parchment face-down on the table, stood, and went to open it.
Fenris stood in the pale morning sun, his arms loosely folded. The light shone on his all-too-silver hair and reflected mysteriously against the lyrium set into his skin, the darkness of his flesh making it seem to radiate all the more. Mahariel saw so many of the same things in him that she saw in Anders - they were both men who could look so strong and so weak at the same time.
"I saw you come in."
She motioned that he could entered the room; she didn't ask how or why he had seen her, she didn't need to know. His intentions were not malicious, he was not here to accuse her; she could sense that, and that satisfied her.
He walked to the small table and sat down in the chair he had been in before when Mahariel had so quickly left the room, her thoughts getting the better of her. The Warden Commander stood by her chair but didn't sit, not right away. Fenris watched her pick up a small piece of parchment from the table, set it on top of a stack of parchement at her feet, pick up the whole stack with her limber fingers and sinewy arms, and place it in a chest near the head of her bed. She closed the lid on the chest and locked it, giving the lock a firm tug to make sure it was sealed before she stood tall and gave a small backbend to stretch her spine.
"If I'm interuppting -"
"Fenris, when was the last time you had a good meal? A good breakfast?"
The question took him by surprise, but he crossed his legs, leaning back, and replied, "Well, Hawke sometimes -"
Again, she cut him off. "I'm betting a place like this can at least make decent eggs. What do you say we give it a try?"
Perplexed, Fenris shrugged, showing his palms to the ceiling, elbows bent. He didn't know what Mahariel was up to, but he couldn't help but find his lips twisting into an involuntary grin. The more he talked to her, the more he understood how the self-proclaimed scared little girl could have become a Grey Warden, a Hero, a Commander, an Arlessa. She never had to bend people to her will. They did it willingly, and with a smile. Thedas was lucky then, he reflected, that she seemed to have absolutely no ill will in her tiny body.
"Eggs it is," she confirmed, and her eyes seemed to brighten at the idea of food, or of sharing it with him. "I'll be right back," Mahariel excused herself, bare feet padding softly on the dirt floor as she went to place their order.
Fenris watched her go, but as soon as she was gone, his eyes were drawn back to that locked chest in the corner of the room. He assumed he knew mostly what was written on those sheets of parchment: the comings and goings of the people of Amaranthine, anything that needed approved or notarised or required the attention of the person who kept track of the arling. She was not a queen; all that responsibility fell directly to Mahariel. There were people she could defer to, perhaps, but they would come to her with questions, with confirmations, and it probably saved her time to take care of all major issues herself. If Marahiel seemed to Fenris that she was anything, it was that she seemed efficient. After all, she had stopped the Blight in just under a year. Yes, it was probably better for her to keep her hand directly in the affairs of the arling. Those papers were important, those papers impacted people's lives.
But she hadn't locked up those papers before.
Fenris' lips parted and he uncrossed his legs, placing both feet firmly on the ground as he tried to rationalise Mahariel's actions. She'd been away, maybe to deal with a more immediate problem. Maybe it was serious, volitile, maybe those pieces of parchment were of a different nature than the ones she'd left behind, left alone with him before. After all, he didn't know what she dealt with - or in - in Amaranthine; he could only assume. He couldn't know anything for sure. But he'd seen magisters leave things out in the open, things that slaves would have no reason to read, no interest in, assuming they could read at all. And he'd seen them lock things up. He'd seen them lock up papers that their slaves couldn't even have any hope of understanding. They locked them up for their own piece of mind. Or maybe because it helped the magisters feel safe from the harm that they themselves were inflicting. Or -
Fenris shook his head and swallowed hard.
This woman had liberated people, this woman had rescued nations. This woman had seen the good in people Fenris would have thought beyond saving and put them to work to redeem themselves.
This woman probably has secrets, and they were hers alone to keep.
Fenris had secrets of his own, he thought to himself. They just weren't the kind he could put in a chest and lock away.
He ran his hands through his hair and put his elbows on the table, holding his head gently. Maybe he would simply never be able to trust anyone. There were times when he even doubted Hawke, even when the Champion gave him that smile and that wink, and Fenris felt a dull ache in his chest he couldn't recall feeling for anyone before.
"I hope you're hungry," came a soft voice from the hall and Mahariel came back into the room, followed by the bar girl Fenris thought was called Norah. They both carried plates, and tucked under Mahariel's arm was bottle of wine the likes of which Fenris hadn't seen in The Hanged Man before; it must have been from the tavern's secret stash, rumours of which he'd only heard from Varric.
"And thirsty," Fenris commented coyly as Mahariel set the bottle down on the table amongst the eggs, toast, bacon, fried vegetables, jam, and butter that fought for space on the small wooden surface. Mahariel cocked her head with a grin as Norah retrieved two glasses from her apron pockets and gave a small bow as she left the room. The Warden lifted a finger quickly signalling for Fenris to wait, and she followed Norah out of the room. From his chair, he could see Mahariel slip the barmaid much too large a tip, and instead of Norah's usual sarcasm and chiding, he only saw the girl blush fiercely and say nothing. Mahariel clasped her wrist gently, comfortingly, then sent Norah on her way.
When she came back into the room, Mahariel said off-hand, "I'd hate to be her. Living off of the tips from the same drunk sailors every night. I'd rather work at the Rose than sell my dignity the way she has to. At least the girls at the Rose make a decent wage." She lifted the corkscrew that had come with the wine and twirled it expertly around one finger before plunging the sharp end into the cork in a way that, if plunged into a heart, would have been instantly deadly. Instead, the rich, red liquid that poured from the bottle was cool, not warm, but for two people who had a lot to forget, it was equally life-sustaining, except in the moments when it helped them to remember.
Mahariel poured for Fenris first, and he realised that Mahariel didn't see herself as special or entitled or even as woman. She saw herself as an equal, an equal to absolutely everyone she met, except for the people she held in even higher regard.
Fenris took a sip of the wine. He sighed, and closed his eyes. It was bright and dry, it woke up his tongue and throat and stomach and then put them back to sleep. Without realising he'd done it, he drained the cup.
Mahariel did the same, then poured them both more, before picking up a fork to delve into her eggs, their yokes set soft on top, just hard enough to offer a moment of hopeless resistence before the tines of the fork punctured the thin membrane and yellow spilled all along the whites. Brown, crispy toast soaked it up and Mahariel ate with the fervor of a starving woman, but with the forcefully slow, concentrating movements of an experienced lover. The food was nothing special, not like the wine, but Fenris knew how the Warden Commander felt: simple pleasures were special when nothing about one's life was simple. They smeared butter and jam decadently on toast, folding the bread in half and taking big, uncivilised bites, but chewing slowly, savoring the innocence of an average meal. Whenever one drained their glass, the other would fill the offending empty cup, until every morsel of food, every drop of wine was gone, and when it was, Mahariel only asked, "More?"
Fenris was too drunk to say no, to not take advantage of Mahariel's kindness, and she left the room only briefly this time to return with another bottle of the same vintage. When she uncorked it, her hands were steady, but flushed cheeks and slow eyes betrayed her.
As she poured a fresh round, Fenris finally asked, "What are we celebrating?"
Mahariel set the bottle down amongst the dirty, baren plates and shook her head. "Celebrating? No. We're doing whatever the opposite of that is."
Fenris couldn't help himself. "And Anders?"
Mahariel gave a quick laugh through her nose. "He'll get his."
Fenris rolled his eyes, and Mahariel didn't fight it. She only waved a dismissive hand at him and went back to her wine.
The candle had burnt down but the room was filled with light, light that threatened early afternoon and the pair sat quietly, each not wanting to break the other's reverie. They drank slowly now, enjoying the haze in their minds and the company of an equally hazy companion.
But when Marahiel cleared her throat gently, Fenris knew it was to get his attention.
"Mm?" he asked, his glass at his lips.
"Have you ever been in love?"
Almost tenderly, Fenris lowered the glass to the table and folded his hands. His hazel eyes burnt into Mahariel's, and when he answered, "I don't know," she knew he was sincere.
"I don't recommend it," the Warden answered bluntly. "It makes you do stupid things."
Fenris, inhibitions dulled, asked, "Alistair..?"
Mahariel smiled at him, "The stupidest of them all, of course. But probably not the worst."
If Mahariel had been sober, and Fenris had been anyone else, he probably wouldn't have noticed her eyes dart to the chest she'd painstakingly locked before lavishing breakfast upon the elf.
She didn't answer.
"Lyna," he used her given name, and it got her to look gingerly up at him. "What did you put in the chest?"
The air Mahariel breathed in was audibly lonely. She stood, and Fenris watched as her fists clenched and unclenched. The Warden Commander circled the table to stand next to Fenris, and took him by surprise when she dropped to her knees before him and clasped his hands tightly in hers.
"Fenris. I've talked with you like I've been able to talk to few people before. But if you only take one thing from what I've given you, please let it be this: never, ever stop fighting for what you believe in. No matter what it means for, what it does to, the people around you. Once you know what you need to do it, you do it, and you never, ever ask for forgiveness. But always forgive.
"And when you find someone to love, you cling to them. You let them turn you into the person you need to become. You'll find out a lot of truths about yourself that you couldn't have come to otherwise.
"People will hate you. People will get hurt. But being true to who you are and what you know to be right is the only thing you - we - get in this life. It's a naked, ugly truth," she twined her fingers in between Fenris', "and it's the only way we can ever do anything to make this world more beautiful. And Maker knows it could use a little more beauty."
He ran his thumbs over hers, trying to devine her purpose, using her name as a question: "Mahariel?"
"I know we don't see eye-to-eye, Fenris, and that's fine. We never will. I respect that. I only wish I'd known you sooner."
She looked away from him, from his knitted eyebrows, his pursed lips, and stood tall, releasing his hands slowly.
"Thank you for sharing breakfast with me," she said, and there was a kind of dark finality in her words.
He stood, barely inches from her, and boldly grabbed her forearms. "Mahariel," he said insistantly. "Thank you." Almost reverently, he pressed his lips to her temple. He could feel blood throbbing against her skin. He let go of her with one hand and brushed her hair away from her face to look deeply into her blue eyes, a darkness wherein he'd found something rare and endlessly valuable - a friend.
He released her and took a step back. Licking his lips, he nodded.
"Fenris," she said.
He acknowledged her dismissal and left her room, closing the door behind him. He didn't need to know what was in the chest. He didn't want to know.
Alone, Mahariel pushed the plates and glasses aside. She went to the chest quickly and unlocked it, retrieving from it the thin slip of parchment, still face down, and a clean piece, as well as her inkwell and quill, stripped of all unnecessary decoration. Returning to the table, she sat down quickly to write.