xxx H xxx
"Come on, Merrill, I'll walk you home." I say gently, wrapping my arm tight around her slender shoulders as we step back out into the Lowtown night. She nods silently, and looks over her shoulder to wave goodbye to Mother, who smiles at her kindly, encouragingly, though her eyes are filled with sorrow and worry. Gamlen and Carver are both elsewhere tonight, perhaps at the Hanged Man (or the Rose), which is really a mercy. Not that they wouldn't be concerned, but it is just easier on Merrill that they are not here. The way she must be feeling right now, the less men around, the better. Praise Andraste that Mother was home, although I suppose it would be highly unlikely for her to be anywhere else at this hour. Mother was wonderful tonight; she knew just what to do, what to say to Merrill, which was more than I could manage, I'm sure. This wasn't a situation I could fix with a clever quip or a sarcastic comment. As soon as I walked in with Merrill, Mother took one look at her and knew what had happened, and she was instantly in protective maternal mode. She folded Merrill into her arms and spoke calm and reassuring words, much better than anything I came up with. She even dressed Merrill in a shirt and a pair of leggings that had belonged to Bethany; I thought nothing in the world would make her part with those. The gesture wasn't lost on Merrill; her eyes got all big and misty, and she thanked Mother over and over, promising to wash them and bring them back as soon as she could. Mother smiled at that, and told her to keep them, saying they suited her.
As we walk out the door and down the street, I keep to her left, blocking her view of the alleyway and the two broken bodies of the bastards who hurt her. I almost wish I hadn't killed them so quickly and cleanly; vermin like that deserve to suffer. I don't know what she was doing out this late by herself, but this is no time to lecture, and after this, I doubt she'll need it. I will ask Varric to set a closer watch on her, though. It was only blind chance that this happened anywhere near my house; if she had been only a few streets further away, I'd never have heard her cry out for me, and then... I can't bear to think about it, and I hug her closer as we walk toward the elves' part of town. I'm glad Gamlen's house is so close by. I feel a silent snarl twist my features; those bastards must have been purposefully waiting for an elf to brutalise on her way back to the alienage. What sort of a monster do you have to be to do something like that? Void take them! I hate the way that elves are treated, I always have. It doesn't make sense; how are they any different to humans or dwarves? Why in the Maker's name are we any better? But I don't know how to change the world. All I can do is try my hardest to help the elves in my own life, however I can. It's a start.
At the end of the street we turn left towards stairs leading down to the alienage. Merrill hasn't said a word, but I don't expect her to. She put on a brave face for Mother, but I know she must still be shaken; I can feel her trembling where she is pressed against my side. I steal a glance at her from the corner of my eye as I scan around us for threats. Her beautiful leaf-green eyes are downcast, staring at nothing as she walks along, her bare feet hardly making a sound on the hard packed earth. Her skin is pale, much more so than usual, the intricate lines of her vallaslin tattoos standing out starkly in the moonlight. She has her arms folded around her chest, hugging herself tightly. She looks so small, so young, so sad. Maker. It kills me a little, seeing her like this. From the moment I met her, so friendly and eager, bright and beautiful, I felt something stir deep within my heart. Everything about her resonated within my spirit and my soul. Her shining, compassionate eyes. Her lilting, musical voice. Her grace in battle when the dead rose around us, so powerful, so swift, and the sweet realisation that she was a mage, like me.
I saw the courage and the passion and the goodness in her soul when she told me of her intent to save her people, and I saw the hurt in her eyes at the scornful words and looks of her clan mates as we left the camp. I knew then I would do anything to protect her, to keep her from all harm, and I feel a pain deep in my chest now at the thought of her so hurt. And I wasn't there. I wasn't with her, and I was almost too late to save her.
The harsh, raucous laughter of men reaches us from the streets below, and Merrill flinches, a small whimper escaping her, her body freezing in remembered fear. A fist clenches around my heart, and I wrap her tightly in my arms.
"It's all right, Merrill, I'm here, I've got you. You're safe," I say softly into her ear, holding her close.
"Safe," she whispers, and relaxes a little. "Yes. You are here." I guess I managed to say something right.
We keep walking down the steps and into the alienage, past the magnificent old tree in the centre of the square, past a small, deserted market stall to the door of her small house. I lead her inside, closing and securing the door as best I can before summoning my elemental magic and lighting the fire, the hanging lamps and every candle in the small house with swift motions of my hands. An incautious display of magic, perhaps, but at this moment I don't care. She needs a world without shadows tonight. She stands silent in the middle of the room, still hugging herself, watching me, the firelight playing across her features, dancing in her eyes. I light the last candle and turn to look at her, and she graces me with a small, sweet smile.
"Thank you, Hawke. For everything. I... thank you." She turns to gaze into the fire, and it is then I notice the large, black bruise beneath her eye that is starting to spread across her cheek. My breath catches in my throat. How could anyone do this to her? Sweet Maker, I wish I'd killed them all. I go to her and take her head gently in my hands, smoothing back her hair from her face so I can see all of it. She looks at me sidelong as I tilt her head.
"Hawke?" she says questioningly. "What are you doing?"
"You have a bruise. One of them hit you, didn't he?" She nods silently under my hands. I mutter an oath under my breath and reach deep inside me, to my well of power, channelling the mana into my hands to examine the injury. I hiss when I see the extent of the damage. I release her and take her hand, leading her over to sit on the bench before the fire. "Your cheekbone is fractured. It must have been a hard blow to cause this much damage, I'm surprised you didn't pass out."
"I nearly did, I think, but... I couldn't let myself. They were so angry when I screamed... If you hadn't come..."
Her eyes widen and she falls silent as the memory seizes her. I should say something, distract her.
"I will have to heal it right away or it will swell, and you may experience numbness below your eye or problems with your vision," I explain as I take her head in my hands again. "I'm not as strong a healer as Anders, but I pass. It's best if you are sitting for this; it might hurt a bit." She just nods again, her eyes trusting. I call on the magic of creation, let it flow through me, direct it through my fingertips and into the battered girl beneath my hands, willing bone to fuse, flesh to mend. Merrill breathes in sharply once, but then is still and quiet. There is still a bruise beneath her pale skin when I'm done, but it isn't so dark, the bone is healed and there will be no swelling.
"There we go. I've done my best. You'll still have a mark, but it will fade quickly." She touches a hand to her face, gingerly running her fingers over her cheek, and her beautiful eyes meet mine.
"Thank you, Hawke. It feels much better now."
I notice her other arm is still wrapped around her chest. "Did they hurt you anywhere else?"
She looks away, her eyes screwing shut, and that is answer enough.
I rest my hand on her arm, gently. "Show me where." She doesn't respond, doesn't move. It hurts, seeing her so quiet, so clearly distressed. "Merrill. It's alright. Let me help you. Let me see."
She is still for a moment more, then slowly she unbuttons her shirt and opens it, exposing her side. I breathe in sharply, and my hand flies to my mouth. There is a huge, dark bruise spread across her ribs, a sure sign that at least one of them is fractured, but what makes my blood run cold is the darker bruise above it on the tender flesh of her breast; the unmistakeable imprint of a hand. "Oh, Merrill, I'm so sorry I let this happen," I whisper. She looks at me sharply at this, eyes wide.
"Hawke, what do you mean? You did not let this happen, I was alone, how could you have prevented it? You stopped them, you saved me." You should not have been alone, I should have been with you. I should always be with you, I think, but I can't say it, not now, when she's so hurt, so overwrought. For now, I will be whatever she needs me to be. She needs a friend at this moment, someone to trust, to be there for her with no expectations, no demands. I can be simply that; a friend.
She also needs a healer, and luckily I can be that, too. I give her reassuring smile and reach out my hands, stopping just short of touching her injuries. "May I?" She nods, and I place my hands gently over her bruises, examining and healing first her cracked ribs, and then moving delicately to the more sensitive, cruel injury above them. I apply myself harder to this bruise, ensuring that the mark is completely gone. It is too harsh a reminder to allow any trace of it to remain. Once again, she endures the hurt bravely, and when I finish, she shocks me by kissing me on the cheek; something she has never done before. She smiles faintly at the surprise on my face, and gives a little shrug.
"I always wanted to do that. You're too good to me, lethallan." Lethallan. She called me that before. I'm not sure what it means, but it sounds nice. Merrill's voice always sounds so beautiful whenever she says something in elven. I smile back.
"Maybe I should heal you more often, whether you need it or not," I tease gently. "If you'll keep paying me in kisses." Her smile widens a fraction, and she ducks her head. I think she is blushing, though it may just be the heat of the fire. I decide to risk a little more gentle teasing. "In fact, I think my price just went up. One healing, two kisses; one for each cheek."
"Maybe it should be four kisses, then," she says, smiling shyly.
"Well done, Merrill!" I laugh, delighted.
She tilts her head to the side inquisitively. "What did I do?"
I realise she probably doesn't recognise the other meaning of what she said. "You just made a dirty joke!" I explain happily.
Her brows lift in surprise, then quickly contract as she attempts to puzzle it out. "Did I really? I didn't mean to, was it any good? What was it?"
"I said I'd take two kisses, one for each cheek, and you said it should be four kisses." She just waits, looking at me, waiting for me to say something more enlightening than simply repeating what she just said, as always endearingly oblivious to any sort of crude implications.
"Four kisses, you know, one for each-"
"Oh! Oh, Creators, no, I-I didn't mean that, I only meant two kisses on each cheek, on your face, not...Elgar'nan!"
I chuckle. "I know, Merrill, it's alright. That's part of making a good dirty joke. I know what you mean, but I can also hear the other meaning, which makes me laugh, see? You don't have to mean the other meaning, not really. Isabela does it all the time with you."
"Does she? When? Like what?"
"Like yesterday, when she said that you're so sweet she could eat you for dessert."
Merrill frowns in confusion, her eyes searching mine. "I don't understand. How is that dirty?"
Maybe I'll show you sometime... Maker's breath, I can't say that. Dangerous topic, better head it off. I tousle her hair affectionately, earning a soft, surprised giggle from her.
"Maybe I'll tell you when you're older."
She makes a little face. "Varric always says that. I'm not that much younger than you, you know!"
"I know, I know. I was just teasing you, sorry."
"It's alright, Hawke, I don't mind when you tease me," she says sweetly. "You're always so nice about it!"
"I do it with love," I say without thinking. She smiles at me, the light of the world in her eyes, and now it's my turn to blush as I cast around for something to say that will make me feel less stupid.
"How are you feeling now?" I instantly regret the question as her smile vanishes. Good bloody job, idiot.
She bites her lower lip, then looks away from me, into the fire. "I'm not hurting anymore, but... I still feel... unclean."
"Did they... touch you?" I ask tentatively.
She shakes her head a little. "N-no, at least, not the way you mean, you stopped them before they could- but... the two that you killed... They grabbed me, ran their hands all over me..." she trails off in a whisper, eyes downcast. I can't help myself; I reach out and stroke the hair back from her forehead, tucking it gently behind her pointed ear.
"You should bathe. It will help you feel better." There is a wooden tub sitting in a corner beneath a table; I fetch it and carry it to the centre of the room. She hasn't moved. I look around and see a towel and a washcloth on a drying hook by the fire. I set the tub down in front of the hearth and place the towel and cloth next to Merrill on the bench.
I don't want to leave her, not even just to get water from the pump outside. I conjure ice and fill the tub, then use a carefully controlled fireball to melt it. Instant hot water. Usually I would not use my magic for such trivial menial tasks, but this situation merits breaking my own rules, just this once.
"There you go," I say, standing awkwardly next to the tub. "Take your time. I'll go wait in your room and find you some more comfortable clothes. Just call me when you're done." I move to go into her bedroom to let her disrobe and bathe in peace, but her hand darts up, slender fingers encircling my wrist, holding tightly.
"No! Please don't go, Hawke, please don't leave me."
"I'm only going to be in the next room, Merrill. I figured you'd want some privacy."
She shakes her head again, harder, biting her lower lip as she looks up at me pleadingly. "I have nothing to fear from you, Hawke. And... I need to know you're here, to see you, I don't want you to go anywhere. I can't stand to be alone right now. Please, Hawke," she whispers, clutching my hand with both of hers, "please stay."
Maker. I place my other hand over hers reassuringly. "If that's what you want, then of course I will. I'll do whatever you need."
She smiles gratefully and stands, slipping off her still-open shirt, and I turn away, wanting to offer her that much privacy, at least. Much as I'd welcome the sight under normal circumstances, I will not take advantage of her in such a way. When I hear the small gasp as she settles into the hot water, I turn back around. She is sitting in the tub with her knees to her chest, eyes closed as she scoops up water in one cupped hand, splashing it over her skin, which now glistens in the light of the dancing flames. Maker, it's a tantalising sight. I bend and pick up the washcloth from the bench, more to distract myself than anything else as it's well within her reach, and offer it to her. "Here." She opens her eyes and takes the cloth. She wets it and rubs it over her body as I try desperately to look anywhere else, staring from the fireplace to the bookshelves against the wall, and then to the table and chairs in the corner before finally settling on craning my neck up to stare at the sky through the holes in the ceiling. Oh, yes, much better. No chance of any peripheral voyeurism occurring now.
A small splash and a quiet sob soon draw my attention, however, and I look back down at her sharply. She has let her arm fall listlessly into the water and is gazing down despondently at the cloth in her hands, head bent in quiet misery.
"What is it?" I ask quietly.
"I can still feel them on me," she says, her voice small. I feel my heart clench in my chest. She looks up at me hesitantly, her eyes big in her face, then holds the cloth out to me.
"Maybe if... Will you help me? I'd feel better if you do it. It might make my mind believe that their touch is really gone." Whatever you need, I said. I did say it. Maker's breath.
"Of course I will," I say softly, taking the wet cloth from her hands. She closes her eyes as I kneel behind her and gently wash her lithe back, her slender arms, her delicate shoulders, moving the wet rag over her skin in slow, deliberate circles. I push back my sleeves and dip my arm into the water, lightly running the cloth over her chest, and then her firm stomach. She leans back into me at this point, letting her head rest against my shoulder, trusting me completely. I (somewhat hastily) raise the washcloth to her face before I get too carried away, dabbing gently, tracing her vallaslin with a corner. She stirs, her head turning so that it is half tucked under my chin, her cheek pressing into the hollow of my throat. I halt my movements and hold completely still. Her eyes are still closed, is she asleep? I feel my pulse quicken and hope that she is; if not, there's no way she won't feel how fast my heart is beating, how rapid my breathing has become.
"How did you know?" she asks suddenly, her voice soft.
Not asleep, then. Obviously. "Know what?"
She sits up and turns to face me in the water. I keep my eyes determinedly on her face. "When I called for you... I never... I didn't really think you would come - not that I'm saying you wouldn't, I just, I never thought you'd actually hear me. But you did. You came. How...?"
I try to think back, to remember. "I was about to go to bed, and I suddenly got this horrible feeling; like something was really, really wrong. It happens sometimes, some sort of subconscious warning, I suppose, I don't really know for certain. Father thought that perhaps I had some sort of latent talent for Seeing. It used to happen a lot when I was little, usually right before a unit of Templars would come into whatever town we were living in, looking for apostates, and we'd have to run. It hasn't happened for quite some time, but then tonight, suddenly it was stronger than I've ever felt it before. I went outside to try and see what was wrong, and then I heard you, and just started running." I look down, fiddling with the washcloth in my hands, remembering the terror I felt when I heard her scream, and the killing fury that took me when I saw her on the ground with those filthy bastards around her, abusing her, hurting her... "I'm just glad I got there when I did. I wish I'd gotten there sooner." I shake my head, and feel my mouth curl wryly. "Though, I suppose if I'm wishing for things, I wish it'd had never happened to you at all."
"So do I," she says softly. Then she blinks, and her expression becomes thoughtful, dreamy. "Although, then you wouldn't have given me so many hugs. And a bath. And I did get a new shirt, well, an old shirt, but it's new for me, not to mention leggings, as well!"
"You always manage to see good in everything." I smile. "One of your many charms. Do you feel better now?"
"Much better, yes. Thank you, Hawke."
I grab the towel and hold it open for her as she rises gracefully, rivulets of water streaming down her body as she steps out of the tub. Trying to keep my eyes averted, I wrap the towel tight around her shoulders and shepherd her gently into her small bedroom. I let her pat herself dry (Praise Andraste she hasn't asked for help with that, I don't know if I could control myself!) and find a loose shirt and a pair of thin cotton trousers under the pillow on her narrow bed. I hand them to her and turn to face the wall as she dresses herself. A gleam of light catches my eye, and my gaze falls on a small bundle of cloth lying on a table near her bed. Something shiny is poking out through the folds of material, is it... a shard of broken glass? Odd, even for Merrill. Perhaps she broke something, and just hasn't gotten around to throwing it away yet.
I dismiss the shard from my mind and turn back to her.
"You should get some rest, now. Do you think you can sleep?"
She nods, though she seems a bit unsure. "I think so, if you're here. You will stay, won't you?" she asks, suddenly anxious. I fold back the covers on her bed, and encourage her gently to lie down.
"I said I would, didn't I?" I say, tucking the blanket around her, like Mother used to do for me when I was small. I wonder if the Keeper ever did so for Merrill. I could see that she cared for her wayward First when I saw them together before we left, but Marethari did not really seem the motherly type, far too stern. Such a lonely childhood Merrill must have had. So much expected of her. I look down at her, watch her blinking her eyelids drowsily, looking sleepy and adorable, and I can't resist: I lean down and place another soft kiss on her forehead. "I'll be right here when you wake up," I promise her, and she smiles at me again, lighting my world.
"I don't know what I did to deserve a friend like you, Hawke," she says as her eyes flicker closed, and I smooth my hand over her hair.
"I feel the same way about you, Merrill." And then some.
I sit on the floor next to the bed, leaning my back against the wall, resting my arm beside her on the thin mattress. She falls asleep holding my hand.