Tell Me You Haven't Changed
When Mahariel left Merrill's hovel, she was shaking. Her breath was uneven and her eyes were closed.
Anders thought she was taking it quite well. She hadn't reprimanded Merrill, or even questioned her actions, but if there was one occasion where Anders would let that slide, it was this one. He couldn't force an agenda on her now. In fact, the Warden-Commander had said nothing at all, until she wished Merrill dareth shiral.
He reached out to rest a hand on her shoulder and Mahariel's knees buckled as though the single weight of his fingers and palm would have been enough to crumble her so he pulled away, but she reached out and grabbed his wrist firm in a tight fist, the gesture exposing her physical strength, her emotional weakness. She pulled his hand back toward her and his feet followed as she pushed the back of his fingers against her cheek. She was hot, flushed.
"Anders," she begged. "Tell me you haven't changed."
He closed his eyes. He couldn't answer. His fingers were damp now; she was crying, quiet, gentle. He took his hand away only far enough to bring it around her waist, the other stroking her dark earthy hair.
"Let's go," he said, and forced her feet to move. The inn was yards away; she needed to rest, probably more now than she did on her arrival.
Anders questioned himself as he walked. Maybe this had been a bad idea, but wasn't it best to find out from Merrill herself than second-hand? He'd let the blood mage speak her piece, never interrupting, never judging - not this time, anyway, for Mahariel's sake. The Warden-Commander had to find out somehow, but he found himself feeling sick inside. Mahariel had been so happy to see her long-lost clan-mate. Now even the memories she had of Merrill would be tainted.
The Hanged Man was never really empty but the patrons had quieted down, sleepy from work, from liquor. Varric's door was closed; Anders had never really considered it, but the dwarf had to sleep some time, he supposed. He took Mahariel back to her room. Her trembling had ceased, she'd let him let her go, but the distant look in her eyes said more than all that. She sat down on her bed, put her elbows on her knees and her head in her hands.
"Why, Merrill?" she asked the floor.
Anders almost couldn't believe the words that left his mouth, "She did what she thought she had to do."
"Believe me," Mahariel said, not looking up, "I've allowed and encouraged some... unorthodox practices as a Warden. I understand that every little bit helps. But I've seen what blood magic does. I saw dozens of good mages almost lose their lives to The Rite of Annulment at the Circle in Ferelden. I saw what Uldred did to those who would not submit to him and I put him down like the animal he'd become." She breathed out, long and slow. "But his heart was evil. Merrill's heart... she'd never hurt anyone. I don't... Not the eluvian. Not that wretched thing."
Anders watched Mahariel contort her face as she struggled with the contradiction. He knelt down in front of her.
"And I know what you'll say," she continued. "'Blood magic makes everyone fear all magic even more.' And you'd be right. Look what it did to our clan. But no, it was fear that did that. Merrill, she, she never actually loosed any evil on the world, only on herself. But if she means to cleanse the eluvian, I don't know what lengths she'll go to. That thing is twisted. That thing turned me into what I am now, it took Tamlen from me. She means well. She always means well." She looked down at him and he, up at her. "Please tell me you're not a blood mage now too."
He laughed. He laughed loud and hard. He wasn't a blood mage, certainly, and he let her know that through his mirth, but deep in his belly he feared he might be something worse. Merrill had never loosed any evil on the world, but he nearly had. He'd nearly taken a young girl's life when Justice wanted to have his say.
Now, though, now wasn't the time to tell her, not when she was finally smiling again, not even when she asked, "There's no one else from my seedy past now in Kirkwall, is there?"
Lying, he shook his head.
"Oh, thank the Maker. I don't know if my heart could take it."
"Is seeing me really that awful?" he jested, mostly for himself.
Mahariel shook her head slowly, sucking her bottom lip between her teeth. Her hands were folded neatly in her lap. He sat beside her on the bed, having risen from his kneel. "Seeing you, Anders..." she reached out, running her toughened fingers along his auburn stubble. A chill descended his spine and he took a long breath in.
They'd fallen in love in Amaranthine, but Anders was too young and stupid to admit it and Mahariel was still in shock over the loss over her lover and king. To him, it had felt like commitment. To her, it had felt like disgrace. But wordlessly, they both knew it, saw it in the other, indulged in it in small glances and comments.
But now, years and miles away, with her hand pressed to his cheek, he was no longer young, the bliss was gone from his ignorance, and she was still so beautiful. He touched her hair, lost his fingers in it, made a fist and pulled her face close to his. But he hesitated.
She could feel his breath on her lips, a feeling she'd longed for every moment that had passed when they called Vigil's Keep home, but Alistair's death was still too fresh on her heart for her to take the lead. Now she knew what it was to be alone.
"I've waited so long," she murmured, and brought her mouth to his, kissing him softly, slowly, but eager to end the separation between them. She parted her lips for him and he tasted her mouth, her breath, hot and sweet, as his hands grasped her waist and pulled her whole body close, close enough to feel her heartbeat against his. Now that he had her he was hungry for her, starving for her touch, a touch he'd never allowed himself to know. But how had he lived so long without it?
Mahariel threaded her hands underneath the mage's thick overcoat, pulling it off of his shoulders and letting it fall onto the bed, slide onto the floor, Anders' sinewy arms exposed. His hands found safe haven on her neck, between her shoulder blades, holding her body firm against his, letting her slender legs slip over his.
He parted his lips from hers long enough to sigh, "Maker," and then brought them to the tender flesh of her neck, pushing her blanket of hair aside, tasting the skin below her sharp ears, above her battle-hardened shoulders. She breathed roughly, whispering the name he had taken, the name that had become his own. Her exhalations were hot on his skin, and holding her still, he laid her down on the rough straw mattress, moving her hair away from her face with the tips of his fingers, finding her lips again with his own. She held on to his hips, never letting him more than inches away from her.
Anders' eyes slipped closed.