If there’s one thing Isabela knows, knows as emphatically as the starbursts of freckles across her shoulders and the cloudless curl of a good sailing sky, it’s the shape Merrill’s door makes in the nighttime flicker of the Alienage streetlamps: mottled, scratch-streaked, very slightly irregular at the hinges where it doesn’t fit into a respectable rectangle like it ought, if it ever truly did. It’s gone six years unchanged, in all these muzzy Kirkwall nights. Still squeaks the same when it opens.
The feet shifting uncertainly through the shadows on the other side, though, the sudden stutter of her own heart as they hesitate at the door—that’s a new one.
“You’re here,” says Merrill from the dark space of her sitting room, sleep-coarse and heavy under the eyes with not even the decency to sound surprised that Isabela’s knocking on her door for the first time in—oh, it’s been the better part of a year now. Probably, she isn’t. “D’you know, you left half a sandwich last time? I’m afraid it went a little off. I had to throw it out.”
“Oh, Kitten, you know I always meant to come back for that,” says Isabela, who is restless and reckless and positively lit as a firecracker, swaying with it as Merrill’s face filters in through the whisky-wobbles. “And you’ve thrown it out! Tossed a, a, a whole part of my soul to the gulls, like so much moldy rubbish, you know what, that’s just, it’s unforgivable. Is what.”
“But you didn’t, so. It’s gone now.” Merrill rubs a hand against the back of her neck and looks up, and Isabela almost forgets to meet her eyes in the quiet that flattens out between them. “Come in,” she says, “I’ve still got your luckiest knickers.”
“You’ve kept my lucky knickers but you don’t want to tend my sandwich fungus,” she mock-pouts, or at least she thinks she does. Her face does such impossible things when she’s drunk. “What does that make us, then? If neither of us is willing to do the dirty work.”
“Fungi are tricky,” says Merrill, steering her away from the walls and towards the rumpled sheets and clutter of a drafty bedroom she’s not seen in who-knows-how-long. “It’s best if you’ve got help.”
Sometimes, Merrill does this—says these sharp, needly things that stick to her skin like burrs and jackknife over her ribs—and it makes Isabela want to throw things. Tell her to stop tiptoeing around it and being so bloody nice and just say what she means, or if she can’t do that much, at least be honest about it: It’s been nearly a year and there is no us or we, there’s you and me and I and she, so pick up your ball and get on with it because I’m very much finished waiting for you to screw your head on straight. Ta, dear.
Or, maybe that’s not what she means at all, which only makes her wish she had another bottle of Antiva’s finest to wash down the extreme inner turmoil, or possibly that’s just the nausea crawling up her throat to say goodnight.
When Merrill pauses midway through tugging Isabela’s boots off, the infrequent red-bright candlelight glittering on the bridge of her nose and her painted cheeksbones, Isabela throws caution, turmoil, and nausea all to the dry autumn winds and leans down, unfurls her fingers at the cut of Merrill’s jaw and feels her lean into it, slowly, slowly. Quiet, here in the twilight shiver where they are something like uncomplicated, just her fingers and Merrill's fingers.
“Andraste’s sagging tits, I miss you,” she says, though it comes out hoarse as marsh reeds.
Merrill, her eyes surprised and mossy-warm, smiles into her palm. “I missed you, too.”
“No, Kitten. Present-tense. I am, we are, he, she—no, bugger, I don’t remember. I miss you.”
“Oh. I—well, I miss you, too, you know,” says Merrill, and this—this, here, this is a Moment, a moment with a capital M where something earth-shaking, bone-shaking, something really banging significant is supposed to happen. It stretches out in the chill of Merrill’s room, their eyes, her skin on Merrill’s skin, but then a whisky-hiccup catches in Isabela’s throat and it breaks, brittle, in the air around her fingers as Merrill pushes her gently onto the side of the bed she was just beginning so dangerously to think of as her own.
“Sleep, da’len,” she says, plucking up the candle from its perch on the nightstand. The pillow is Merrill exactly, cotton-soft, all over lavender and dittany.
“It’s almost my bird-feeding time,” says Merrill, pulling at her flannel dressing gown, practically swimming in it. “They get cranky, you know, if I don’t.”
“Tell them I said hello. And—well, if you want, I’m just saying. I’ll be here.”
A smile, then, soft and secret with the slightest glint of teeth. “I’m glad,” she says.
In the morning (the late, late, late morning), Isabela wakes to an empty house and the dull pulse-throb of a hangover winding its way around her head and does some theatrical writhing about beneath the quilt for a bit, half-sick with it, until she sees the chipped porcelain cup full of tea and a plate of toast and jam on the nightstand, forgiveness enough for anything. She swallows the tea while it’s too hot and loses the roof of her mouth and the back of her throat alike, but she keeps drinking anyway, whether for the sweet honey-soothe or the way it trips her heart up in her chest, she can’t be sure; she lies in bed until afternoon, until the gulls start to crow their tuneless midday babel and she finally gets up, folds it all safely into her belly just the way it is: the sheets, the empty plate, her raw, scorched mouth. Forgets to even grouse at the sun for being so damn bright.
The thing about Isabela, the thing she’s grown, nurtured, cultivated, encouraged since the day she picked up a dagger and sculpted herself from the immaculate clay of the Amaranthine Sea—she’s an acrobat. Tightwire. Spilt milk. An oil slick in Rialto Bay, gone before anyone notices the carnage.
After so long spent walking to the careful, knifepoint rhythm of performance, she never can pin down the exact moment when her feet fall into step with her heart.
“You and me, you see,” Isabela is saying through half a mouthful of lemon tart, “we’re like runner beans. We grow on the same plant, but we’re not from the same pod.”
Merrill blinks, cocks her head. Chews approximately twelve times. “I like that,” she says. “I like green things. They cook down so nicely.”
“Good for the heart and the digestion. Though, I would also liken you to a strawberry pie, or a really good scone. You know, if I were a poetic sort.”
“Oh! Well, good spiced tea always makes me think of you. And mackerel. I do love mackerel.”
This, Isabela thinks just a little hysterically, is what it’s come to: twisting and turning elaborately around each other in front of Merrill’s crumbling hearth, talking in terrible dinnertime innuendo so they don’t risk saying what they actually mean or doing anything really cataclysmic, like touching each other. It’s miserable. It’s stupid. It’s what Aveline would do. It’s disgusting and awkward and it’s making her even hungrier, but more than that, worse than that, it’s truly bloody pathetic because they are both grown women and neither of them cowards; Isabela puts her fork down with purpose and means to find Merrill’s eyes, but focuses on the shadows playing under her chin instead.
“Look, Kitten. I didn’t come here to tell you how much I’d like to have you for dessert.”
“No, you came here because you were drunk,” says Merrill, her lips twitching at the edges and threatening to unfurl into something moon-bright and lovely, if only Isabela could remember how to pull it out of her. “It’s all right.”
“Merrill, I’m—I’m sorry. I am. I’ve missed you. I like your face. I don’t want to talk about runner beans.”
“Da’len, it’s all right.”
“No,” she laughs, or tries to, but the sound catches in her throat and sticks there, thrumming out of time with a heart that’s been trying to strangle her for dead on six years now. “It’s not. You deserve better, you know, you deserve so much bloody better than—than me, Maker’s bollocks—I don’t know what I’m even—”
“Isabela.” Her face, stuck suddenly between Merrill’s patchwork hands and turned into the warmth of the light, begins to heat at the temples beneath Merrill’s thumbs, so close for the first time in so very, very long. “I know what I deserve, and I know you deserve a whole lot of things, a whole lot of things and a halla. I'd like you to be happy," she says, her eyes hard, fierce in a way Isabela's only seen them a few times before, "and I love you quite a lot, you know, at least as much as the jellyfish love the sea.”
Something in the region of Isabela’s solar plexus explodes, detaches, and lands in the general area of her lungs, stealing the breath right out of her and snapping her mouth shut quicker than anything because there’s not a single syllable she trusts herself to say to that. If she could do that, just string everything she means into something sweet and unmistakable the way Merrill can, she wouldn’t be sitting in front of this fire with her insides flopping about and every word turned to mush on her tongue. The whole thing just seems unfair, illogical. She’s supposed to be the brazen one.
And it shouldn’t be surprising, that Merrill bottled up her love and let it ripen in these dark, curled-in places instead of pouring it all down the drain every time Isabela skipped the country, flushed it away until there was nothing left but the soggy, clotted dregs below, sour as a bad memory. It shouldn’t be, but somehow—somehow, it is, like looking outside and noticing it’s just a little brighter, a little warmer than you thought it was. Their roots are still there thriving in the earth, just waiting for the sun to wash away the muck so they can shoot back up again.
Like bright, growing green things. Like stupid sodding runner beans.
“How do you do that? Just—just re-route everything in my whole bloody body, why don’t you.”
“It’s only a fact, you know,” Merrill shrugs, her knuckles brushing up under Isabela’s chin where she’s angled her head down again. “Like the hole in my ceiling. It’s easy for me. But I—I’m not, I’m not the same, anymore. Is that… all right?”
“Kitten. Look at me. I gave up the best damn thing thieving job these capable fingers ever sunk themselves into because it was the right thing to do, apparently. I drink green tea with lemon, I'm practically stodgy nowadays. Do you honestly think I’m who I was a year ago?” she asks, hanging her hands in the crooks of Merrill’s elbows and squeezing gently while she leans forward, slowly, to press the curve of their foreheads together. “Because I’m not, I’m absolutely, positively not. Neither of us. That isn’t a bad thing. Is it?”
Merrill’s eyelashes brush right up against her cheeks when she blinks, whisper-soft, both of them—all their sharp angles and all their warmest parts shoved up together, every bit of them there on the too-warm hearth, just breathing. “It’s a good thing,” says Merrill. Isabela can feel her voice in her own skin, bubbling brighter than a summertime brook. “But I’ll still fold your knickers, you know, when you leave them.”
“Knickers don’t need folding, you. Just wad them up.”
“And I’ll still get angry at you for killing the spiders, they’re only resting.”
“I’ll always sulk when you steal my last bit of cake, then. And topsails—I’ll always be lewd about the topsails.”
“Oh,” says Merrill, soft and surprised against her lips, “then—then I think that means we’re going the right way.”
“It does,” says Isabela, and tips her face to Merrill’s to kiss her.
They don’t actually make it to the bed, which is a new thing and as surprising as it is really bloody brilliant because Merrill was always so traditional about this before—or, at least, she always wanted to save herself the ache of the floorboards lingering in splintery shards across her spine; Isabela lets her push her back against the tattered rug and pull every stitch of clothing off her, both of them frantic, suddenly, with the hush of waiting and wanting that’s been humming so quietly, always, in their blood. Merrill’s mouth moves over her throat, pressed to the secret spill of her pulse and watching her—every breath and every wicked-sharp grin—as she hooks Isabela’s leg around her hip and trails her fingers along the inside of her thigh over and over, light enough to make her shiver.
“You—you—you are still really bloody good at that,” she groans, Merrill crooking her finger deliberately with every word, “and you know it.”
“I do,” says Merrill, mouthing at her breast and then shifting down her body, fingers splayed over her hip and her eyes on Isabela’s at her belly, bending her head again to flick her tongue out over her clit, agonizingly slow and then faster, harder—until suddenly, oh, it breaks like a surprise, the sweet slick dissolve spreading wild through her body, Merrill’s mouth pressed to the trembling muscles of her lower belly and her fingers stroking her through the gasping, the back-arching, the string of Maker-knows-what that bursts unbidden from her mouth.
“You,” says Isabela, pulling Merrill’s face closer with both hands and feeling as breathless as she’s maybe ever been. “You.”
“Me,” says Merrill, kissing her wonderingly hard and guiding her hand between her legs, moans against her lips when Isabela slides one finger gently along her, and—oh, it’s like they never forgot at all.
She always feels so open after, languid and lovely and just a little illegal in the middle of the afternoon like this, with the crisp Kirkwall chill sweeping its sinews through the cracks in the door and brushing the damp hair at the back of her neck sideways, Merrill’s legs threaded through with hers on the terribly rumpled hearthrug like they were meant to go there. Love isn’t so frightening, she thinks dimly, slipping her toes along the chalky-hot stones of the hearth; it’s all tangles, all shadows and light and someone standing there beside you ready to walk into both. Quite nice, once you get past the initial nausea and steady yourself in their arms as you realize that, no, they’re not going to leave you there alone.
“I do, you know,” says Isabela, burying her nose in the crook of Merrill’s neck and breathing her in, earthy-rich sweat and lavender. “Love you.”
“Oh, ma vhenan,” Merrill murmurs, open-mouthed against her chest, “did your head catch up with your heart?”
“I think so.”
“Good.” She taps her fingers along Isabela’s spine, drumming out some nonsense rhythm until something snags in the notes; she looks up, quirks her red, red lips off to one side, and says, “You might have asked me, you know.”
“If you wanted to be my pirate lover,” she trills, bright and thrilled, “my girlfriend.”
Isabela shoves her and then laughs to match Merrill’s, presses it into the cloistered space they make between them, theirs and theirs alone.
The loamy cool snaps the leaves off the trees, bites the days shorter and brighter; her ship, scrubbed clean of Castillon from every mast and plank, sways with the winter winds, yearning already for the fluid stretch of the Waking Sea. It’s funny, a little, not to be in such a hurry for it as she walks the length of the captain’s quarters with Merrill and Bethany, here on a few nights’ leave from Ansburg and not especially eager to spend it in the lavish emptiness of a mansion that was never really hers to have—at least, not alone. She bumps Isabela’s hip at the rail, looking out at the wine-dark sky, and says, “It suits you, you know.”
“Sweetness, if it were even a scratch warmer you know I’d never be caught in anything so vulgar as trousers.”
“No, you goose. I meant Merrill. You and her,” says Bethany, tipping her head towards the spot on the deck where Merrill is toying with the ropes to the mainsail. “Being in love’s good for all your organs, you know. You’re positively sunny these days. One might say you’re a limpid depth of wonder and divine grace.”
“I’m never sending you Orlesian romances again,” she grumbles, betrayed only by the irregular upward twitch of her lips. “Never ever.”
“Mm, but you will,” Bethany hums, her eyes half-shut, sad and wistful suddenly in her cornflower blue, “and you’ll keep writing me too, won’t you? Whenever you sail off.”
Isabela leans into her and feels Bethany lean back, solid within herself and on her own two feet now in a way that makes Isabela ache for not having been there to see her come into it. “No matter where we go or what prisons we have to bust,” she answers, watching her smile from the corner of her eye. “We might also have to conscript you, y’know, if we get into any real trouble. The Wardens will just have to learn to share—law of the sea, and all.”
“Is it, then?”
“Well, it’s my law. A Captain Isabela Original, I’ll even let you use it free of charge. I’m sure they’ll understand.”
She laughs then, both of them, and then Merrill too like a bubbly shimmer of bells, sweet roll hanging out of her mouth. “You’ve two first mates to buckle your swashes now,” she says. Isabela reaches out and steals a piece of her roll. “Aren’t you the luckiest fish in the sea.”
They make a bright tangle there, the three of them set against the winter light of the water and the stone. In her bones she feels the lonely clamor of the sea, the surge-and-swell of the waves whispering to the shore, but her heart flows instead with the pulse of her own blood through her veins and the soles of both her feet, as solid and unmistakable as anything she’s ever called her own.
The thing about love is that you don’t, in fact, fall into it like so many drunks down at the docks when the moon’s full-up; it’s a funny, insidious thing that congeals inside you like a good bread pudding, fills you to the brim and sticks to your ribs. You’ll never notice the exact moment it sinks its teeth into your heart, but you’ll feel it always afterwards, sprinkled in your tea and on your pillowcase while you dream at night, moving with you, changing with you, singing, singing in your blood.
That, too, is a Captain Isabela Original, composed while she watches Merrill knead cinnamon bun dough from her spot on the bed of her old rented room, sharpening her dagger and peeling her stockings off with her toes as the firelight licks in between them, golden-sweet. Merrill being here in her room—spending entire days here in her room—is another new thing they’ve made, possibly her favorite of all these unfamiliar dots they’ve learned to connect with the turn of the seasons. She’s learned the shape her own door makes when it opens; she’s learned the shape Merrill makes, waiting outside just for her in the softness of the shadows.
“I don’t know why you’re bothering, Kitten,” she says over Merrill’s strategically-aimed sneeze, “you know we’re both all thumbs with baking.”
“But I wanted to give you something spicy.
“I’ll give you something spicy.”
“But you don’t ooze on me when I bite into you,” says Merrill, straining about for something or other. “Or—well, I suppose you could, but that would be just awful. Terrible.”
“Absolutely revolting,” she agrees, sheathing her dagger and crossing the room quiet as anything to loop her arms briefly around Merrill’s waist, resting her chin on top of her dark head and inhaling sharply. “Yum. You smell nice.”
“I’m all grainy,” Merrill sighs, “I’m grainy and thirsty. I’ve got dough in my fingernails that’ll be there till next year, I think.”
Isabela, merciful always, grabs her glass and tips it to Merrill’s lips, her flour-white hands held out like exclamations at her sides. “You’re so lovely,” she says, slipping on her sweetest smile. “I’m glad, you know.”
“For your gritty fingers?”
“No, I mean—this,” says Merrill, gesturing from the ceiling to the curtains to her scratchy wool cloak hung by the door. “All this, and us. How we didn’t just start over and forget, like, like a couple of sparrows.”
“Sparrows just have it off with whoever happens to be flapping about,” says Isabela. “We’re swans, us. Albatrosses.”
“Only without the molting.”
“Exactly.” She leans back against her rickety table, and Merrill drifts with her, pressing her lips and then her teeth into Isabela’s earlobe, which is a new thing too, and brilliant. There’s a part of her that wants, madly, exultantly, to throw her arms around Merrill in every busy Kirkwall street, kiss her in the Viscount’s Keep, lay something valuable at her feet like a sacrifice, like an offering made in flesh and bone; that is not new, not at all, but it’s only now she’s learned to take it in her hands and wrap it around Merrill’s hips to tug her closer, kiss her softly with it, breathlessly.
A few minutes later, her lips red and wet and her arms stained conspicuously with flour dust, she perches on the bed again while Merrill wipes her hands and straightens her skirt, wearing that knife-edge smirk that is very much Isabela’s favorite out of all the smirks she’s got.
“I think,” says Isabela, crossing her ankles, leaning back, “I think it’s a good thing. I don’t think you get do-overs, you know.”
“Do-over,” Merrill repeats, rolling it around on her tongue like a lemon drop. “That sounds sexual.”
“Is that so.”
“It is so,” says Merrill. This, this is what Isabela’s compass has pointed her towards for so very long: her eyes, their voices, her skin on Merrill’s skin. A ship to steer and feet to hold her up. “I like it, you know. All our new things and all our old things. It’s so dear.”
“We are, at that,” says Isabela, stretching her arms around Merrill’s neck to pull her over and into her, pressed tight just the way they’re supposed to be.
And they're here, all of them, in the twine of their fingers and the hitch of every breath caught in their throats: all their history, all their sharp parts and all their warm coiled-in places smashed together like a tidal crash flooding in against the shore, and they've got tomorrow as sure as a gust of wind in their sails just waiting to catch and carry them both wherever it is they will go—and wherever it is they will grow.