Maerad had been looking downcast for weeks, thought Cadvan. He hadn't heard her laugh in so long that he had almost forgotten the sound, and her smiles were always wan and short-lived. She had taken recently to spending hours at a time in the flower gardens of Innail, and Cadvan could sometimes hear her singing softly to herself as she stared into a fountain full of lily pads or wrote in her small, leather-bound notebook. He tried to cheer her up: He took her riding to special places he knew of, he persuaded Hem to come and visit from Turbansk, he told her stories and tried to lift the sadness from her eyes, but still it lingered, and Cadvan was at his wit's end.
Finally, one day, he saw her sitting cross-legged in the grass with her eyes closed and her head tilted toward the sky and couldn't stop himself from walking slowly out to meet her. As he approached, quietly to avoid startling her, he was dismayed to see a single tear glistening silver on her cheek, and slowly crouched down until he was sitting beside her. He reached out softly and took her hand. She didn't jump, and he suspected that he hadn't been as silent as he had hoped, or that maybe nothing could reach her in this strange, unresponsive state. He gazed at her face while she took deep breaths, examining it earnestly, and then carefully cupped her face and wiped the tear away.
Maerad opened her eyes, looking up at him as he dropped his hand again, and then turned her gaze away and stared at a bird twittering merrily on a branch. Cadvan waited for her to compose herself, and rubbed small circles on her hand with his thumb, trying to provide her with some small measure of comfort. Finally, she looked back and gave a shaky laugh. "I'm sorry," she said, her face twisted in a morose sort of half-smile. "I've been terrible company lately, haven't I? Even Hem wanted to leave as soon as he was able to last week."
"Hem is very busy," Cadvan said, choosing to omit that Hem had, in fact, been discouraged by her lack of enthusiasm while he was visiting. "He had duties to attend to and couldn't stay away for long."
She sighed. "I know. But I've also been terrible to my other friends, too, and especially you. It's just that-" She hesitated and then shook her head. "I'm sorry."
He placed his other hand over hers as well, holding it tightly in both his own, and leaned forward, gazing at her intently. "Maerad, I wish you would tell me what is bothering you. You know I wouldn't judge you, whatever it is."
"No, you wouldn't," she agreed. "But it's just hard to put into words, and I'm... ashamed." She lowered her eyes to her lap.
He took her chin gently and tilted it back up, searching her face, not letting her hide. "Ashamed? What could you possibly have to be ashamed of, Maerad?"
She didn't answer for a long time, and he thought maybe she wouldn't at all, when she suddenly looked up, and her words were raw and slightly desperate. "I have everything, Cadvan. Everything I could possibly desire. People bow to me in the streets, they rush to attend me in shops, taverns, in the library, they offer me their possessions, their services, all in the name of gratitude. Everywhere I go." He understood what she meant. They had returned to Innail after defeating the Nameless One several years ago, and people since then positively fell over themselves in their hurry to greet her, thank her, the moment they laid eyes on her. She had become a living, breathing legend.
She looked him seriously in the eye. "I don't want it, Cadvan."
He didn't know what to say, because there was nothing he, nor anyone else, could do. It was her fate to be honored, and people wouldn't be persuaded otherwise. Instead, he said gently, "But what have you to be ashamed of? They admire you."
"I'm ashamed," she whispered. "Because I'm still not happy. I have... so much... and it's not enough. What right do I have to want more?"
Her words confused him. "What do you want? Name it, and it shall be yours."
She shook her head slowly. "It won't be mine. It can never be mine, because what I want is a person, Cadvan. I want-" She took a shuddering breath. "I want someone who can stay with me, love me, for me, for Maerad. Not for Elednor. I ceased to be the Fire Lily of Edil-Amarandh the day that Sharma left this world, but no one knows. No one stops to consider Maerad, they just idolize and care for their savior. And I know it sounds selfish, and I know it's terribly vain, but I feel lonely."
"It's not true," he said immediately. "People, your friends, care about you, Maerad."
"I know," she said, her eyes closed again. "I have Hem, I have Saliman and Silvia and Malgorn, and I have you, but... it's a different sort of bond."
"Ah," he said quietly. "I understand."
She wanted love. Not platonic love, not the love between siblings, but real, true love between people who wanted to spend their lives together and never part. She felt alone, envisioned the rest of her life stretching before her and whiled away without someone to cherish it with.
"I mean, it's selfish," she said. "But- everyone else has it. Everyone else has an opportunity to connect with someone else, someone special, and feel loved for who they are, and nothing else. Not because they're siblings, or because they traveled together, or because they had a common purpose and worked toward it together. I mean people who just met and loved each other for who their souls showed they were." She paused. "I can never have that, because I'm Elednor as well as Maerad, and that's all they see: A bright, awe-inspiring, and ultimately unapproachable figure of myth and power."
"But that's not all you are," Cadvan finished. She looked up at him, and he saw that she had tears in her eyes.
"No. It's not. I just want to be normal, Cadvan."
Normal. Despite her deeds and her humble childhood and her wish, normal, ordinary, was one thing Maerad of Pellinor would never be, to anyone. Even to him.
"I won't try to comfort you with false words and empty assurances," he said quietly. "You know as well as I that you will always be viewed as extraordinary, no matter what happens. However, you will find that, given time, people can still learn to look beyond the preconceived image and appreciate you for who you are." He looked at her closely. "There is already one who would for all the world be that person you seek."
She had been nodding resignedly, but at that her head jerked up. "What?" she said in amazement. "Who?"
He brushed back a lock of long, black hair that had fallen into her eyes and leaned forward until his face was inches from her own. "A man you know well," he breathed. "Who has travelled long with you, fought by you, laughed with you, and fallen in love with you in the process."
Her eyes widened until they were overpowering lakes of deep blue in her thin face, and Cadvan heard her breath catch. "You?" she exclaimed in a whisper. "You? Truly, Cadvan?"
He drew back slightly so he could see her face more clearly. It was deeply, deeply shocked, but he couldn't take the words back now. "Yes," he said quietly. "Truly."
She didn't move for what seemed like an eternity, and he watched her silently, not daring to move himself. Somewhere a clock struck twelve, and he realized dimly that they would be expected soon for lunch, but the fact held no importance in his mind. It seemed that everything that had happened in the past few years, since the instant he had first laid eyes on her, led up to this single moment in time, frozen, shining, and standing out blindingly from the rest of their lives. Whatever she chose, nothing would be the same after this.
And then she leaned forward fluidly, the motion seeming very rapid, and threw her arms around him, a sound escaping her that was neither a sob nor a laugh, but somewhere in between. "I wished," she said in his ear. "For so long for you to consider me more that a friend, and you never told me." Her breathless voice sounded almost accusing.
He breathed out in a rush of air that was free and relieved, and full of pure, simple joy. Time started again, rushing to make up for its momentary lapse. He hugged her back, and he couldn't tell if she was shaking or he was. Most likely they both were.
"May I be forgiven for my cowardice," said Cadvan dramatically, bowing his head when they broke apart. "It could not be helped, and alas was not intended to cause displeasure."
She laughed, and the sound rang brilliantly in his ears, rendering him slightly drunk, like finally breathing after being stuck under water for too long. It was only now that he realized how entirely he relied on her to paint his world with color.
"You are forgiven- on one condition."
He raised his eyebrows and she smilingly pushed his hair back from where it had fallen into his eyes, much as he had done earlier with hers. Her grin grew and turned mischievous, almost sly, and then she cocked her head and said, with the barest hint of a dare, "Kiss me."
His jaw dropped and he gaped in pure astonishment, causing her to raise her own eyebrows, but he quickly recovered himself, shaking his head slightly as though to clear it. "Your wish is my command," he murmured, his voice low. He placed one hand lightly behind her neck and began to lean forward very slowly, and she felt her eyelids flutter closed as gently, ever so gently, he brought his mouth down to hers.
AN: Well, wadidya think? A little pointless? ;D Something just doesn't feel right with this little ficlet to me, but I can't figure out what it is. :/ I also don't really like the title. (My, aren't I critical today? :P) Any suggestions?? Please? :D I'm back to begging for reviews, after receiving so few for my last two fics (thank you Laramie and Kiaga for reviewing!). I... need... feedback..... :D:D:D Please review!!