A/N: I'd like to thank my friends Lucky Thirteen and silentstephi for beta-ing this fic for me. You guys are the best!
The Loner and The Pariah
The grand market of Lowtown was completely packed with rows and rows of stalls occupying the entire center of the district.
Even near dusk, it was bustling with working class people who were all chatting, laughing, bartering, arguing and fighting simultaneously in the same place, sometimes over the same deals. The peace was barely kept by city guards roaming through the corridors with enormous sword sheaths that bulged out from their sides knocking into everything and everyone in their path. The low winds carried smells of different kinds of merchandise throughout the entire center. Everything from large slabs of meat dangled on hooks to earthy flowers to smoke from molten metal had their smells accumulated into one place by the unpleasant breezes. It didn't help that it had been a particularly hot day that accelerated the rotting of the meat and the flowers, although it wasn't unlike any other day in Lowtown.
Hawke decided to take her small party of Isabela, Carver and Merrill out for an evening in Lowtown after a tiresome day of work. Soon after they arrived, Carver declared that he was going to walk through the marketplace alone to get away from the group.
"Why? Are you afraid of being seen with a bunch of women?" Isabela prodded with her hand to her hip.
"I'm not afraid of any of you. I DON'T go shopping with women. I am NOT going to come along just to be your lackey and carry all of your purses for you." He shot back at her, spreading his eye contact to the two other women.
Isabela rolled her eyes and turned to Hawke. "What the hell is his deal? Did you treat him as a pack mule one day or something?"
"Well, we needed someone to carry all of our stuff and we couldn't afford an actual mule. And he also makes his adorable braying sound when he sleeps..." Hawke humorously replied. Her cheeky smile infuriated Carver in the inside, and she knew this quite well. She then starkly stared at her brother and responded, "Fine. If you don't want to travel with us, off you go then. We'll just carry our own stuff." She waved him off dismissively and lead the girls into the market.
He scowled at his older sister behind her back for having the authority and the power in the family to wave him off like a servant. He chose to think no more of it despite his growing annoyance and went off on his own accord.
He wandered the marketplace on his own, browsing around the stalls and trying his best to not run into anyone he knew; specifically his or Isabela. He hated being the butt of their jokes. He was constantly turning the other way whenever he saw them or heard them laughing at a distance.
After the first few sightings, he began to notice that Merrill was never there with his sister and Isabela each time he saw him together, leading him to believe that she must have stopped following them shortly after he left. He became curious as to why he couldn't see her anywhere despite the fact that he had already circled the marketplace a few times at that point.
He wondered briefly if she was away from the group because she was like him in that she preferred to spend time to herself, or if she ran home, either to her little place in the Alienage or back to her clan on the damned mountain, or if she was simply afraid of company. He didn't know the answer for sure but he didn't want to hold his breath for anything fantastic in case if he did manage to find her.
A few hours later, he finally spotted Merrill arguing with a merchant at his stand about a certain statuette. He couldn't hear the details of the argument, although him and the entire marketplace could later hear him shout "Get out! Get out you dirty worthless knife ear! Get out and take your nonexistent coins with you!"
Merrill walked away from the stall and the people pointing and snickering behind her with a hardened expression. She kept her head down to avoid seeing any of the unwanted attention. Carver could tell that she was accustomed to this kind of behavior, as all elves had to be, and that it couldn't have been easy.
He waved to grab her attention. Her eyes lit up as she saw him and immediately ran to him, happy to see a face that was at least somewhat familiar.
"Doesn't that make you want to go back to the Dalish, Merrill?" He asked.
Merrill, surprised at Carver for attempting to break the ice, said "Almost. But I think I can continue to deal with this for the rest of my life if I have to."
"But why would you have to? Why exactly are you with us again?"
She averted her sight away from Carver for a second before looking back."I can't be in Sundermount. My clan and I don't agree on certain things. That's all I'm willing to say."
"Seems like a really petty reason to leave anyone. I'm always disagreeing with my family and I'm still here. Maker knows why but I am."
"It's not the same. I won't say more than that it's complicated." She kept her head down in shame again as though she was reminiscing on painful memories. He saw that it was probably a topic he shouldn't have pressed on.
"I guess I'll take your word for it then." Her answer didn't satisfy him but he shrugged and said, "Are you heading back home? It's getting a little dark now."
"Now that you've mentioned it, I should probably start walking. I'd hate to be out here at night."
"I can escort you home if you like in case of any danger comes your way."
She responded back with a smile and laughed at his generosity. "I can handle myself, you know. I wasn't made the Keeper's First for nothing. I'd very much appreciate it if you still came with me though. We can have a nice evening of tea in my little humble abode."
He looked at her in complete disbelief. "What? Why would you invite me over to your house all of a sudden?"
"Well, we've traveled together for a while, but we haven't really talked. Your sister talks about you all the time, but I still feel like I don't know you at all."
His lip curled in disgust, "So you just want to talk to me because of my sister?"
"No, not just that. It's mainly because we've been fighting along side each other and helping each other for so many weeks now, and yet I still don't know much about you. I just want to finally have a moment to chat with you. No harm in that, right?"
He was still skeptical about her. He always was. But there was nothing he couldn't handle if something did go wrong and he did genuinely feel for the girl as a comrade too. "Alright. Tea doesn't sound so bad. Nothing more, nothing less. Now let's get going before the thieves start running about."
"Well, here's my little hovel of a home. I'm sure you've seen it before with your sister once, but in case if you weren't around for the proper introduction, this is it." Merrill opened her arms wide as her voice peaked in enthusiasm.
Carver let his eyes wander around the small one roomed house. He couldn't find anything that impressed him. To him, it was just another dump in the city. "It's... nice."
"You think it's nice? Well, I'm flattered! I didn't really think much of this place when I got it, I mean I thought it was a bit cramped when I found it. But after a bit of redecorating and some time, I'm finally glad to call this home!" Merrill smiled cheerfully and gladly breathed in the air inside her home with a big, joyous whiff.
Carver stared at the back of her head with a peculiar look. He always thought Merrill was a bit strange, even for an elf. He couldn't understand her childlike enthusiasm and appreciation for the most mundane and ugly things in the world. He thought perhaps it was just a Dalish thing.
"Oh!" Merrill suddenly snapped herself around to face Carver, which gave him a slight shock that straightened out his expression. "Pardon me for not being a proper host. I don't get any visitors other than your sister. I'll get straight to the tea. Or perhaps some water if tea isn't your cup of... tea?" She laughed nervously at her unintentional joke.
"Sure. Tea's fine." Carver tried to keep the sarcasm out of his voice. He didn't want to seem too impolite. He didn't see Merrill as a bad girl, as unusual and awkward as she was.
"Please. Take a seat. Take any seat you like. Take the clean one if you wish, I won't mind sitting in the dirty one." She lead Carver to the table before she went off into the kitchen to brew the tea.
Carver helped himself into the seat that she noted as being dirty. He wanted to present himself as the gentleman Mother had taught him to be. He didn't practice it often enough.
It surprised and delighted Merrill considerably when she returned to the table to see that he had taken the dirty seat. She took a seat on the clean seat, which Carver could clearly see in the way she presented herself that it was her favorite seat. It made him feel a little proud of himself.
Carver found it a little curious that she had brought in two tea kettles. He eyed the tea kettles as she set them down on the table. They were both identical on the outside. He could see his own puzzled reflection in both of the tea kettle's shiny surfaces. He didn't see the need for them to drink that much tea.
"I appreciate you leaving the clean seat for me! I would've told you before that I greatly favor this chair over the other one, but I didn't want to make it seem like I was being selfish. Or was it already a given that I'd like this chair over the other one? Humans generally love cleaner things more than dirty ones, right?" Merrill pondered out loud.
"Why did you brew two kettles worth of tea?" Carver said to interrupt her babble. He stared into the reflections of the tea kettles, waiting for her to finally sate his curiosity on them.
"Oh right! Silly me. I brewed two different kinds of tea. The one of the left is a special Dalish brew. A very ancient recipe made from tea leaves and flowers only found in certain mountainous places. My clan and I were lucky enough to find the ingredients on Sundermount. The other one is a more common brew that I got at the marketplace earlier today. I figured that you would be more accustomed to this sort of tea as opposed to this rare elven stuff."
Carver felt instantly offended. "And why would you assume that I'd take an immediate liking to this common human tea?"
"I don't know? I didn't know what you would've liked so I-"
He interrupted, "Picked out a generic brand and thought it best suited me?"
"N-No, like I said, I didn't know what you would've liked, I don't know anything about human tea. So I asked around and the shopkeep at the tea stall gave me this basic tea. I just thought it was best to play it safe. I didn't want to scare you away with the bad flowery tea the Orlesians drink or anything." Merrill was taken back to the unexpected reaction to simple tea. She looked shocked, and perhaps a little frightened, but her expression shown that she was willing to stand her ground.
Carver could sense she was being genuine. He was willing to except her ignorance when it came to human preferences, with tea and other things. However, he still felt slightly insulted for her getting the generic tea that didn't compare the special fancy rare elven brew she made for herself.
"Alright. Next time, you should get me the bitter black tea from the Hanged Man. That stuff really wakes me up."
Merrill said nothing to his demand. Instead, she stared at him briefly and sipped her cup loudly with a slurp.
Carver took the gesture as a signal for him to take a cup as well, and helped himself out to a cup of the plain tea.
He didn't want to admit it, but he actually enjoyed the tea a little. As plain as it was, it was the kind of tea that he couldn't dislike no matter how hard he tried. It reminded him of home. Of quiet times in Lothering when he had a moment to himself to just relax and drink a simple cup of hot tea. He remembered being alone at each opportunity, since he could never have a quiet moment whenever his family was around. He cherished those moments alone; they helped sooth him before he had to go back to dealing with the problems of his apostate family.
He tried his best to ignore the smells of the other tea from across the table, Merrill's odd blend of spices, flowers and sweeteners. He noticed how she took in the vapors of the mysterious tea and savored it in nearly the same way he did only a few years ago, although he couldn't recall seeing his own face melt into a dream like state that seemed ethereal and peaceful. He took in a deep breath of the tea's aroma to get another sense of it, and he found himself immediately enthralled with the various flavors and scents. He figured that he wouldn't be able to stand the taste of the drink, since the aroma itself was already as powerful as the most potent tea he had ever tasted, so he simply went back to enjoying his own tea.
Merrill took the opportunity to start a more relaxed conversation. "So, Carver. You a fan of tea?"
"No, not really. I don't drink it often. I only drink when it's offered to me." A lie he wasn't ashamed to make.
"Are you more of a coffee person then?"
"You could say that. I like having my coffee black. My family can't stand it whenever I have a cup, but it's not like it's any of their business what I have in the morning."
It was another lie he had no shame in making. He used it often in the past and it helped that it was partially true. He didn't actually like coffee at all. As a matter of fact he couldn't stand the stuff. However it was true that his family couldn't stand the stuff, and that was precisely why he would drink it. Whenever his family sat around in a circle drinking tea, he was always on the outside with a cup of the blackest most bitter coffee he could find.
"Black coffee? Why do you always favor bitterness?" She asked him honestly.
"I don't favor it. I just am." He said quickly without a further thought.
"I was referring to your taste, not you." She responded back with severe skepticism.
"I- well- that too." He stuttered. He felt trapped and could sense that she had caught on to his lying game.
Merrill stared intently at him. Her expression remained soft and unmoving, while her large elven eyes conveyed cold messages of judgment and discernment.
It unnerved him. He couldn't stand being looked at that way. He promptly looked away from her and focused his eyes on the bottom of his empty tea cup and pretended to drink it.
"What?" He said quickly.
"You don't have to act so bitter if you don't really want to. You don't need to be ashamed of yourself." She sounded concerned.
He continued to avoid looking at her. He didn't want to bother with her preaching. He went through the same sermon so many times with every single member of his family and fought with them countless times until he finally gave up after the last fight with his older sister.
"If you're concerned about the kind of man you'll grow to become, don't be. You don't need to drink black and bitter drinks if you're really a calm tea person, and you don't need to bark at people every chance you get when all you really want is someone who will acknowledge you for who you are."
Again he ignored her. He was trying to block her out even more before she started making sense.
"If you want people to acknowledge you, learn to value the things around you. You can be a man and love puppies and people and everything else around you."
He groaned in his head. He couldn't bear to hear her anymore after that statement. She was getting more ridiculous with each sentence she spoke.
"Don't ever think of yourself as less than any other man. You were born with your manhood and you can put it to good use."
His attention peaked instantly. "What?"
"You're a man, Carver. You'll do what all good men do and you'll do it well. I'm sure of it. There's no need to prove yourself."
He felt heat rush to his face at the specific thought. "I-uh. That's not what I'm worried about"
"Stop fooling yourself. Even you must know about the issues you have with yourself." She swatted her hand around an imaginary fly to wave off the tension. "Stop telling yourself things. You are excellent with your rather large sword and you will make an excellent man with it. It almost makes me excited to know that one day I'll be able to vouch for you and your skills."
Oh Maker... His eyes suddenly became stern and he shifted in his seat in embarrassment. "Merrill, listen to what you're saying."
"What, what am I saying? I think I was being quite clear when I said-" She stopped herself. She paused for a second to examine the meaning behind his frown and the redness in his cheeks. "Oh. By the Dread Wolf! That... sounded dirty didn't it?"
Carver said nothing and looked away again. He closed his eyes and wiped his face with a free hand, hoping that it would get rid of the embarrassing heat in his expression.
Merrill blushed and moved the tea kettles away from the table with the thought that the warmth of the steam wasn't helping the situation. She hesitantly sat back down on her chair and then started to apologize profusely for making the visit suddenly awkward.
"It's alright. Just... try not to get personal with me again." He paused for a second to absorb the moment before he stood up to prepare to leave. "Now if you'll excuse me, I need to leave."
She sat still and said nothing as he began to walk towards the door. She didn't move at all.
Before reaching the door, Carver looked back and saw that she had her head down again. He felt a pinch of guilt knowing that she was probably more affected by the awkwardness of the situation than he was. "Merrill."
She looked up sullenly and responded in a quiet tone of voice. "Yes?"
"Listen. I don't want you to feel bad about this. It's not your fault you don't have a lot of experience with people. If you want to try this again later, much later, I'll be around. If that's alright with you."
She smiled as she wiped her nose with her sleeve. "Yes it's alright with me."
He looked away for the last time and made his way out the door. She still watched him as he exited the door in the same gait he had when he walked in. She couldn't tell if it was cool indifference or stupid pride in his stride, but it didn't make a difference to her. She looked forward to her second chance of getting to know him again.