On good nights, the Hanged Man was pleasantly swimmy with company. Literally as well as figuratively -- Isabela liked the Hanged Man most when she was drunk, and everyone was sloshing back and forth in her vision like they were all standing on the sway of a ship. Everything was better blurry. The hours slid away like greased leather, and then it was morning again: a few hours to endure painfully before it was time to wash it all down once more. That wasn't to say that spending all your time in bars was healthy; of course it wasn't. That wouldn't leave you any time for the brothels.
Despite her reputation, Isabela didn't like to make a habit out of drinking to excess. A warm, pleasant buzz was best, so as not to let down your guard completely in the event of a brawl. Still, accidents happened. In this case, said accident was a man named Pockface Tom, who had somehow managed to net a bottle of Orlesian Marsh-Blush shipped to him straight from Val Royeaux. He'd bragged about it for an entire week. It had taken Isabela one night to win it off him. She considered the time to be well invested; even the bottle was fancy stuff, all fluted glass and ripples, worth something to an alchemist or a collector who might peddle in the Hightown Market.
She hadn't wasted any time in cracking the cork, just in case Pockface Tom had second thoughts about losing fairly. The wine had been outstanding. Marsh-Blush was an erratic mixture of red and white, laced with something more exotic that was rumored to be hauled deep out of the Nahashin swamplands; she'd only heard about the blend, never savored it herself. The taste, it was said, could make even the strongest Grey Warden weep.
But there'd been something else in the liquor too, some cheap, horrible thinner that had been slipped in, suspiciously similar to weapon grease or something equally vile. Either the intention had been to flavor the bottle or to tamper with the contents, but the end result was the same. Isabela had worked her way through a proper two-cup start before she felt the chemicals hitting like a knife under the sweetness, a dangerous subtlety that left her doubting if she'd felt it at all. Three glasses left her vision churning. Even though her liquor tolerance was toughened from frequent exercise, the Marsh-Blush had yanked her straight past her own resistance before she could slow down; the lurching in the back of her head made her feel as if she was continually descending forward, and that if she curled up on the ground, she might just go through it. It wasn't a good sort of drunk, where your nerves were nicely warm and sloshy. It was the nasty sort of intoxication, the kind that made you certain everything was absolutely fine until you started leaning the wrong way, and then everything kept trying to move with you until it shoved you right over in its eagerness to meet the floor.
"Let me tell you a story, Kitten," she slurred. Merrill helpfully scooted closer. The elf had joined her during the last few inches of the bottle, early enough that Isabela had been able to warn her away, though she'd downed the rest of it quickly to protect Merrill from the perils of curiosity. That had also been a mistake. "There was once a girl who ended up in a marriage she didn't want. It wasn't her choice -- she'd been given away for less coin than you'd drop on a group discount night at the Blooming Rose. And yet this girl, she tried to accept her situation, instead of thinking about what was best for herself. Rather than knife this... this jackass in the back, she tried to make the best of things, and it changed her until she started to lose sight of everything else. Until, one day, there was an assassin -- an elf -- an elf-assassin," ("Meaning that he didn't assassinate only elves?" Merrill interjected, and Isabela was kind enough to overlook this,) "who didn't care about any of those things. And only after this girl was free did she realize that it had been a mistake to try and force herself to fit for so long."
The look on Merrill's face started out attentively eager, and then gradually dwindled to chagrin. "I'm sorry -- wait. Does this mean you're telling me that I'm doing something wrong as well, are you?"
Isabela brought her hand down on the table. It bounced a little, or maybe the table did; she glared at them both in case either of them were planning on being feisty. "I'm saying you did something right. Thinking that you're stuck in one place, just because someone else wants you to stay? Being something, just because someone else needs you to be it? That'll kill you in the end. I mean, look at me. Look at me!" Her finger refused to point higher than her chest, but that was simply gravity's fault. "I would -- if it meant a choice between Hawke and me, Kitten, I would choose myself, because someone has to look out for, for. For my beer."
A few tables down, a disgruntled card game finally broke out into a full-out brawl, voices rising and cracking along with people's knuckles. Isabela's feet instinctively twitched. Merrill's hand darted over her mouth, covering a laugh. Then she sobered. "You wouldn't really abandon Hawke, would you?"
Isabela's hand sank. "Don't ask that," she replied moodily. Her confidence had soured along with her stomach. Or maybe it was her stomach that was causing all the trouble instead. The cup was empty when she lifted it; she bumped it fruitlessly against her lips anyway. "I learned my lessons at a high enough price. Don't you ever sell yourself cheap, Kitten. Value yourself, because no one else will do it for you. You think that you can't leave because of someone else's mistakes, or that if only you wait a little longer, you'll be in a better position to start fresh. And then you get trapped like that, nibbled down into something small that becomes weaker and weaker while it waits, so that it's never the right time to escape. All your strength's gone into trying to endure. You mash yourself down so tight, trying to live in a place that isn't good for you that you don't have any energy left to get out. If you're lucky, someone might be there to shock you out of it. But not everyone's lucky. Not everyone gets reminded they can run."
"Is this story true?"
Isabela focused on Merrill, taking her damned sweet time doing so. "It's a lie, Kitten," she said flatly. "It's all a bloody lie. Except for the parts that help you. Those, you keep."
At first it seemed that Merrill would question her again; the elf's gaze lowered, teeth worrying at her lip. One slender finger prodded the table. But she seemed to come to a decision at last, drawing in a deep breath that reignited the cheer in her expression. "I don't think I've ever seen you this drunk before, Isabela. It's sort of fantastic. I mean, in a bad way. Like seeing an unfriendly dragon coming towards you! Only, you've got fewer scales."
Hoping to exude the proper amount of bravery in the face of certain doom, Isabela lifted her chin. "I may not survive," she admitted, trying to translate the number of cups she'd imbibed into the appropriate amount of beer. The figure was embarrassingly low. Choking on her own vomit would be a humiliating way to go. She'd have to try and remember to pass out with her head propped over a bucket.
But Merrill was standing up, concern transforming her into a flurry of activity. "All the noise in here can't possibly be good for you right now! Let's have you rest at my place," she suggested brightly, pulling at Isabela's arm until she could drape it over her shoulders. When it slid off, she hauled it up again, keeping a firmer grip this time and frowning in determination as the brawl began to expand throughout the tavern.
"I don't want to go to the Alienage," Isabela declared resolutely as Merrill began to drag. It came out as a rather undignified wail. Her grand speech of the ages had wrung every inch of willpower out of her, leaving behind a powerful urge to sleep. "Just -- find me a convenient barrel. We'll be the best of friends, me and it. We'll have adventures."
She protested all the way to the door, hooking the empty bottle as an afterthought, nourishing the vain hope that selling the thing would make the agony she was enduring well worth it. The spring air was warm; not as warm as Rivain, naturally, but few things were, and Isabela's skin was flushed enough with heat to where every stray breeze gave her the chills. Fluctuating temperature was an ominous sign. It was going to be a terrible night.
She got about as far as two steps outside the tavern before the first of the gloriously awful stomach heaves began. Between convulsions, she was dimly aware of Merrill patting at her, the gentle hands as ineffective as feather dusters against a midden heap. For a horrible moment, Isabela wondered if Merrill would try working blood magic as some kind of cure; the mental images that came to mind were bad enough to encourage another round of spasms.
"Well, I can't leave you here," Merril protested when Isabela made a helpless flap at her leg. "Not in front of the Hanged Man. Varric would make too much fun of you."
"I wouldn't care if I was dead," Isabela felt the need to point out dutifully. The inverted puppet overhead seemed to agree with her, creaking on its rope. She groaned as Merrill took hold of her once more. Her next undignified shudder almost sent them both staggering into the nearest wall, but Merrill regained her balance barely in time, and continued relentlessly moving forward.
Lowtown was barely safe to navigate even for a person fully sober at noon, let alone two distracted women at night. Either the Maker or Varric's urchins were looking out for them, however, for the other midnight strays gave them a wide berth; that, or any troublemakers were wisely cautious of Isabela's vomit. She lost count of the number of times they had to stop so that she could retch and squat and curse the Maker for the creation of stomachs. It seemed like she was destined to visit each and every slumhouse corner, head bowed down to the cobbles until they finally clattered their way into Merrill's hovel.
Musty darkness smothered Isabela's face. Moonlight leaked through the high windows and glittered dangerously off an object deep within the room: the Eluvian, still shattered, hungry for any attention that was cast upon it. Then Merrill uncovered a lantern, flooding the chamber with a warm, benevolent glow, and Isabela kicked shut the door.
The empty bottle had lost itself somewhere along the way, probably when Isabela gave up and had to clutch at Merrill with both hands. After stirring up the coals of the fire and sparking a few candles, Merrill promptly fussed her into one of the chairs -- which thankfully had armrests to keep Isabela from falling back out -- and wiped at Isabela's chin. "I'll get you some fresh water. I'm sure I have some around here that's clean."
Isabela winced. Vomit had scoured her throat and nose like a basin of sand; the idea of swallowing anything back down seemed counterproductive. "Don't bother. I bet they make you ration it here, so you can keep your magical shrubbery alive. Keep it, I don't want to be responsible for the death of a sacred plant. I've offended enough holy people lately. At this rate, I'll end up rutting with Sebastian and the Grand Cleric together at once, and then frolic through the streets naked with the Divine."
But a cup was pressed into her hands anyway, the liquid blessedly room temperature. It smelled faintly of peppermint, but Isabela wasn't certain if that was her senses out on holiday, or some sort of restorative tonic. She was an experienced enough drinker to know not to try and rehydrate herself fully yet, taking small sips to rinse out some of the stomach acid, and provide her body with enough of a means to continue washing out any toxins.
After a moment, Merrill returned, her deft fingers tugging and fussing at Isabela's chest. "You'll get your bodice stained like this, and it's too pretty to ruin."
"It's been destroyed more times than I can count." Isabela shrugged, trying to wiggle so that the edge of one of the boning reeds stopped poking into her breast. "I just soak it in more and more soap until it turns greyer than a grandmother's nethers. Then I usually toss it on the swabcloth pile and get another."
Merrill's touch was insistent, however, and Isabela gave up on trying to discourage her. As the lacings came free and the cloth was peeled away, the easing of pressure was a relief. Cool air soothed her bare skin, urging her to relax. It was reassuring that she no longer shuddered at the merest shift in temperature; she must have evicted enough of the liquor to start up the slow path to recovery. Carefully, she took another sip of water, relishing the comfort of the chair.
Then she was promptly sick again.
She alternated like this until the water was gone, drinking just enough to give her stomach something to work with before it decided to purge it once more. The second dose of water came up more slowly than the first. Exhaustion was dragging her into its clutches; her eyes kept sliding halfway shut, only to be roused periodically by Merrill's watchful nudges. By the time she started to lose track of how long it was taking between rounds of heaving, Merrill had relit the rest of the candles -- along with the hanging braziers -- and returned to pull insistently on Isabela's hands. Once the elf had managed to coax Isabela to her feet, she did not give up until the woman was finally seated on the tidy bed in the next room -- stripping the headscarf off, then the armor, and then several minutes on the boots before tucking Isabela's feet carefully under the blankets. Isabela had enough time to be amused by the fact that Merrill left the jewelry in place before the elf resumed her ministrations, armed this time with a damp cloth and a look of intense concentration as she dabbed at the contours of Isabela's mouth.
Isabela closed her eyes as the rough cloth went over her skin. Once it had finished, whisking across her throat and dancing around the gold coins, she made a grab for Merrill's hip. "Stay," she insisted, a little whine lifting the last notes. It was too late to take the sound back; she chose to pretend instead that it didn't happen, and her pride was intact. As much of it was left.
Merrill hesitated, but finally set the cloth aside, easing herself onto the thin mattress. The first few seconds were a confused jostle. Isabela kept bumping against the headboard as she tried to make room, and Merrill didn't seem to know what to do with her own limbs; the elf ended up sitting halfway upright, wadding up the pillow against her leg. Isabela compensated by curling into the other woman instantly, as if she could absorb Merrill's better health through direct skin contact.
"There's a lullaby that I know to help children sleep when they have a touch of illness," Merrill said after a moment. "If you'd like, I can sing it to you -- "
"I'll even sing it in human, too, so you can understand." She cleared her throat. The vibration tickled Isabela's scalp. "Leaves all waving, sun is fading -- "
"Throwing up was better," Isabela interjected fervently, and didn't mean it.
Thankfully, Merrill forgave her; the elf traced her fingers down Isabela's hair, patting and untangling the strands. "Some food will do you good, later. When you can keep it down, I mean. Varric says that eggs fix anything. I don't know what good they'd be against a Blight, though. Do you think, maybe... the darkspawn like omelettes?"
Isabela tested the idea against her stomach, and found her internal organs to be blessedly quiescent. "I can't say anything on their account, but if you make me breakfast in the morning," she said passionately into Merrill's thigh, "I will kidnap you and whisk you away on the very next ship I command, for a glorious life of sex, pillaging and frying pans."
Merrill laughed, soft and sweet and generous, and in it was the sound of everything she might have been as a Keeper -- everything she threw away in favor of following her dream. It gripped something inside Isabela's chest, gripped and twisted and left her aching all the way down through her bones. "I don't know if I'd make a very good pirate queen."
Closing her eyes, Isabela gave herself a moment before she answered. "I think you'd do just fine, Kitten."
Before she could allow herself any further weakness, she rolled over, pinning Merrill to the bed and ignoring the other woman's dulcet squeak. "Maker's breath, you're as bony as a boy! I'd be afraid to ride you in case you'd snap like a bit of brittle caramel."
The squeak turned into giggles, and then into musing. "Ride me? How would you do that?"
A hundred examples skipped through Isabela's brain before she cut them off, horror slamming down like a gate. "Hold on," she protested, vainly stifling her own imagination. "you've never been with another woman, have you? In bed?"
"Keeper Marethari and I slept together many times," Merrill replied, matter-of-factly.
Isabela promptly choked on her own exclamation; she could already expect the truth to be innocuous. "I mean -- oh, hang it all," she relented, knowing that she wouldn't get anywhere by pressing the issue. As much fun as it was to tease Merrill, it was cruel to let it turn awkward. Releasing the other woman at last, Isabela slid back to the mattress, twisting so that she could study the elf like a piece of exotic landscape, all angles and foreign lines. "Listen. I'm not going to say that what you're doing isn't hazardous, but at least you're making those decisions because you want to. So I want to say -- I support you. Just... don't turn all gross and lumpy, Kitten."
Turning her face away, Merrill retreated into a silhouette of hair and ears. The candles pulled her into shapes of black and gold, the flames creating patches of light and shadow that were too harsh to allow a middle ground between them. "No. No, lumps aren't part of my goal."
Isabela squinted. But when Merrill glanced back again, her expression was simply concerned, her personal doubts quelled for the moment. She shifted down the mattress, adjusting herself bit by bit to Isabela's limbs and nearly planting her elbow in the pirate's eye. After a flurry of apologies, Isabela felt Merrill's arm slide across her body, fingers gingerly exploring the territory of a hipbone before finally tucking themselves across her spine. The body heat was welcome; Isabela's guts were still twitching, though she felt stable enough to hope for at least a few hours of respite.
"Does this mean you'd still like me even if I became an abomination?" the elf asked after a moment, sounding wistful. "I get the feeling everyone else wouldn't."
"Sweet thing, if you were an abomination, you'd be trying to eat me."
Merrill pressed against her, giggling, and then -- daringly -- mouthed Isabela's temple. "If it would make you feel better, I could still try a nibble. Or I could pretend that you'd been bitten by some venomous creature, and I'd have to draw the poison out by mouth," she added, propping herself up on an elbow so that she could touch her lips gently to Isabela's shoulder. "But that doesn't actually work. So an abomination might make more sense. Even if, er, I don't exactly want to practice for that."
Laughing, unconcerned if Merrill was being impish on purpose or by accident, Isabela watched as Merrill worked her way down the rest of the arm to the wrist. If it had been someone else in bed with her -- half-naked, no less -- she might have tried to rally her nerves back into some form of defensiveness; she didn't mind the occasional drunken tumble, but she didn't really enjoy being coerced. Merrill, however, was trustworthy. Despite the criticism of their companions, Merrill was safe. In bed, at least. And around Isabela when she was vulnerable, which was more important than issues of morality and demons and oh no someone's doing something with blood. Again. "That's the thing I like about you, Kitten. Even if the rest of us turned on you, you'd still pursue whatever you thought was best, wouldn't you? Even if you had to go it alone."
Long fingers slid across Isabela's skin, tucking up against her palm. "Well," was Merrill's quiet reply, "with everyone else here, it's a good thing that I don't have to."
Isabela smiled, spreading her knuckles so that she could interlace her fingertips with Merrill's slender hand. "You know, selling yourself to a demon is the same as selling yourself as a bride, sweet thing." She nestled her other wrist into the crook of Merrill's waist, relishing the softness of the other woman's belly. "If giving yourself away is what you really want, my offer's always open."
Her answer came in the form of a smile. She barely caught it at the angle she was sprawled at, but even a glimpse was enough to show the expression that flitted across the elf's face: a relief and gratitude that were mixed together with hope, far sweeter than any bottle of Marsh-Blush. "It's a promise, then." Merrill's fingers tightened in the briefest of squeezes. "I'll count on it."
The opportunity was ripe for further teasing, and Isabela almost tried to match it. Her exhaustion refused to be ignored, however -- it had crawled steadily up her bones in a deep, paralyzing languor that was the result of an overtaxed body finally shutting down. Her eyes slipped shut, and then refused to open. Her mouth was still parched, but there would be plenty of time to deal with the aftereffects of liquor in the morning. "I'm not sure how to thank you for letting me stay here," she pointed out, bluntly inefficient. "I'm hardly in the capacity to pay back the favor tonight, Kitten."
Merrill's chin made a brief shake. "Don't worry about that," she said simply. She leaned in, resting the curve of her face against Isabela's hair. The rest of her words came out in a whisper, barely audible as sleep finally pulled Isabela down. "I like keeping things too. Rest now, Isabela. We'll have eggs in the morning. I promise."