dedication: to my nugget, who has been dragged kicking and screaming into this ship. hi nugget.
notes: LET ME LIVE.
title: no place for promises, here
summary: This is not a kindness. — Merrill/Fenris, peripheral Hawke/Isabela.
It's never kind.
Of course it isn't; he is not a kind person. Merrill has known this as long as she's known him, and it's been a decade. It's never kind, and she's not even surprised. But this—this is different.
He blows into Kirkwall three weeks after the sky's torn open, yelling for Varric. He's predictable like that, and the clanging of greatsword against stone rings all through Lowtown, echoing its way to the vhenadahl. She sighs out a great gust of exhaustion; Varric's gone, dragged off on Seeker Pentaghast's order to the Conclave, and when Fenris comes stomping through the gates of the Alienage with a thundercloud on his face, Merrill knows that this might turn ugly. She closes her eyes, sends a quick prayer to her Lady—Mythal'enaste, satha telin min melana—and then she's got a very tall, very grumpy Tevinter elf glowering down at her, his face shadowed beneath the vhenadahl's stretching branches.
Drat it all, she's out of time.
"Where is he."
"Hello, Fenris," Merrill says. "It's nice to see you, too."
A muscle in his jaw jumps. Merrill can feel the hidden eyes of Alienage on the back of her neck, but only for a moment; Fenris tromping through the gates glowering occurs often enough that Merrill's people aren't too worried about it. They know she can take care of herself, and she's grateful, for that. It's nice to be trusted to handle something as theoretically dangerous as Fenris can be when he wants to. She tucks the thought away, and turns her face up to stare at him.
The stare does little to placate him. She's not really surprised.
"Witch," he grinds out, "I asked you a question."
"You didn't, actually," she says, blinks at him innocently. Well, he didn't ask, he demanded, and they've talked about that. She doesn't like it any more now than she ever did when Hawke was still around, and he should know by now that she's never taken well to orders. Merrill looks up at him, notes the awful smeary lines beneath his eyes that say he hasn't slept in a week, and decides not to push. "But he's not here."
"I worked that out," and that muscle jumps again as he says it. The lyrium flares blue-white, and she thinks: Anders-and-Justice, the explosion, bloody red sunrise the same colour as Meredith's sword—
(Creators, and this was trying not to push at him.)
"He's gone t' the Conclave," Merrill says, voice ticking up at the end like a question. Her hair is loose out of the braids, long enough now to curl around her collarbones, all ink-black waves against her skin. She hasn't had time to cut it and she can feel him staring at where her freckles should be. The beginnings of a flush threaten beneath her cheeks. "With Seeker Pentaghast. I think. He left a note, but it was—vague?"
Fenris scowls, all dark eyebrows and hard mouth, and she knows exactly what he's thinking because she was there all the long quiet evenings next to Hawke, helping him carefully sound out the words. The first time had been one of those nights, when he'd finally exploded, too much frustration, too many words, and Hawke had dashed off to find Isabela before Storm Fenris took off because Hawke was awful, really, and then—
Well, and then it had been something else.
Merrill tucks her hair behind her ear, and offers him a hesitant little smile. "Do you want t'see it? I've got biscuits that aren't… too old, and tea, if you like."
Fenris just looks at her, a dark little turn to his mouth. It's as good a lead on as she's going to get out of him. He doesn't deign to ever ask, is the thing, and she shouldn't expect so much.
Merrill turns, dirt crumbling away underneath her heel, and doesn't look back to see if he's following her.
He always does.
Three years out, Kirkwall's alienage still bears the scars of the last decade. They tread on silent feet over scorched ground, the jagged remains of the Qunari riot over the structural damage of a century of neglect, all layered beneath the shatterglass fragility after the Chantry explosion. The templars' brutality clings in the strangest places, all shining grit in between the teeth. Merrill lost part of the roof that night, and now she has a skylight. She wakes up to sun on her face, most mornings except when it rains. It's almost nice.
She can feel him grinding his teeth from here. Fenris hates the alienage, caging and caged, the struggling creature leashed too tight inside of him always straining to get out of his chest here. It reminds him of Tevinter, and he's only here now because Varric isn't around to complain at.
Merrill doesn't blame him, for that.
(Some days, though, she catches herself thinking of it like this: need bread, the rats have been in the larder, if they're clever enough to get in don't they deserve something nice, crafty little things, Creators, one day my home won't be such a mess—and she feels a little sick and a little relieved. Having a house is such a difficult thing when a person is used to having an aravel.)
There's no lock on her door, and when he gives her a look, she just shrugs. "What's the point? Everyone knocks, and no one comes over uninvited anyway."
He mutters something that sounds suspiciously like stupid girl.
It sticks in between her ribs. Fenris always does know how to hit where it hurts. It's been a decade, but they're not getting any better. Merrill breathes like she's chewing on broken glass, metal red thick on her tongue blood magic hazy, and she pushes open her door.
It's still small and cramped, books crammed in every spare corner. But the sunlight in through the hole in the roof catches on dust motes and turns the whole world to sparkling gold, and it makes it almost seem cozy. The embers in the hearth have long gone cold, but it's an easy thing to bring them sparking to life. Death is just part of the cycle of life, and forest fires rage only so that new growth can begin again.
Merrill has always had an affinity for fire. It crackles cheerfully, throws the whole room into a wash of heat and light. Puttering about gives her time to get her head in order, a tightness in her chest that winds and winds the longer Fenris stands behind her without speaking. The water in the cistern is perfectly still, barely even a ripple when she fills the kettle.
Creators, she thought they were past this.
But of course not. It's never kind, is it.
"Isabela and Hawke sent some tea from Llomeryn, it's nice, and I think there's jam, it'll be good with the biscuits, they really aren't too old—"
"Witch," he says, voice like gravel, so low and so soft right in her ear. He's a long insistent line up her spine, breath hot on the back of her neck. Fenris is the tallest elf she's ever met, and he looms over her to throw her all in shadow. A shudder works its way down her frame—she hadn't heard him move, and now he's so, so close. It's one of those suspended moments, halfway between there and not. She'd not be surprised if she looked down to find his hand through her chest, ghost lyrium-blue and holding her heart outside of her body.
Merrill swallows hard. She dreamt that, once.
This is not a kindness, she reminds herself, and doesn't turn around to look up at him.
"I thought you wanted t'see Varric's note," she says, voice forced into lightness.
"Witch," he says, again, more insistent this time. His palm comes down against her shoulder. No gauntlets. She thinks: sunlight through clouds, dry grass after unexpected rain, warmth of skin on skin.
She's not all the way turned towards him when he sinks his irritation into the well of her mouth. All teeth, he bites down hard enough that pain flashes bright and clean, tasting of copper, and Merrill gasps beneath him with blood on her lips. He catches her hair in his fist, the sharp edges of his armour biting a grind of metal-against-metal into the mail beneath her vestment. She wants to break him down into a million tiny shards. And it's sick, it's sick, blood in her mouth, in her magic, power and power and power so close. Her hands come up to curl around the jagged plate—she hates his armour, hates what it represents, hates the scarred metal dark as her soul—and she holds on because it's all she can do.
Creators, it feels like drowning.
"Fenris," she says into his mouth, "Fenris, stop."
He freezes, and it gives her just enough leverage to pull away. Merrill wipes the blood off, and tries for a smile. It probably only made it worse, streaked the red out across her skin. "Better."
He frowns down at her for a long moment. He doesn't say anything at all.
In that too-tight split-second, Merrill wonders if he thinks of someone else. His hands are too tight on her hips, knuckles all knobs and flexing, flexing, too sharp for pleasure but too needy for anything else. Hawke, or Isabela—maybe even both—or someone else entire, someone who isn't mage and female and wrist-deep in the blood of her clan. Someone not her. Someone better.
But it might be none of those things. The breath goes out of her lungs as Fenris hikes her up and kisses her like it doesn't matter. Varric's note flutters to the floor.
This was never about kindness, anyway.
"Are you going t'go after Varric?" she asks, a long time later. Her clothes lead a haphazard trail back to the kitchen, the mail a shining lump at the door. She can't tell if it's his or hers. Maybe both. Merrill pulls her knees up to her chest and holds them there like a shield against the world. He's already moved away, and she's not hurt because she expects it. This is not a kindness.
"Yes," Fenris says. His eyes are closed, and she takes a moment to study him, all that brown skin and the bright lyrium inked there. He has a very nice face, she decides, when he's not frowning all the time. "Stop staring at me, witch."
"I'm not staring," Merrill tells him, trying very hard not to sound petulant and likely failing, "I'm studying."
"Stop it," he repeats, but he hasn't yet begun to glower at her, so she thinks he doesn't really mean it. Something quietly warm unfurls in her chest. Oh.
"When are you going?"
"No," he says.
"No, witch," he says, opens one eye to stare stonily up at her, "you are not coming with me."
She doesn't tell him how ridiculous he looks like that, one eye open and one closed, half his face scrunched with the effort of maintaining it. He is the most ridiculous person she's ever met, but she's not about to tell him that. Merrill values all her bodies parts. "I'm sorry?"
"That's what you were going to ask, was it not? To come. The answer is no."
"Why not?" Merrill asks. It seems quite logical to her. Two fighters are better than one, and an elf alone is a target even when the whole world hasn't gone mad. Perhaps she can't heal, but she has a fair store of elfroot potions tucked away, and even some lyrium. Neither are easy to come by, these days, but especially the lyrium. It's almost a death sentence; templars aren't really prone to asking when they find an elf with lyrium. They weren't before, either, but now the Gallows aren't the worst thing they can do to a mage.
"Varric would kill me," Fenris says. The eye drops closed again. "I am not willing to risk Bianca's crosshairs."
"He wouldn't," Merrill protests, because he wouldn't, really. Varric is far too fond of Fenris to actually shoot him, it would mean blood all over the Hanged Man and that would be a pain to clean up.
"You don't know that. You are not coming," he says, like that settles it. Maybe it does.
This is not a kindness she reminds herself, and if it sounds like a mantra, that's because it is. This is not a kindness and he is not a kindness and they are not a kindness. Merrill does not delude herself: that this is not a kindness will not change no matter what kind of soft sweet warmth blooms in her chest when his hand curls around her hip. It's not—she can't—it's not like that, and allowing herself the luxury of pretending even for a moment that it is anything else is going to get her killed.
Creators, one day she is going to learn her lesson. Merrill curls her knees ever closer to her chest.
Fenris sighs through his nose, a great long rush on the exhale. There's something irritated to it, a tickle of emotion at the back of his throat that makes her shake deep in her chest. It makes her think of Marethari, and Sundermount, and blood, always blood. The blood never really leaves, sketches out across her skin in whorls as dark and curling as the vallaslin inked across her face.
There's irony, there, somewhere. If only Merrill could find it.
And then neither one of them says anything for a very long time. The sun slats in through the skylight bloody orange as the day begins to end; Merrill can hear the evening rush of people returning home. The Alienage comes alive at night in that sleepy time between awake and dreaming, lanterns on strings and pinwheels spinning and the greasy smell of cooking meat hazing through the air. The burble of indistinct voices. Laughter, once in a very great while. It's home, and it only hurts a little bit anymore.
Fenris shifts on the bed next to her. Merrill tenses all over, knife-cut shoulders coming up around knife-cut ears. She knows how this goes: he moves and he gets up and he leaves, because this is not a kindness and it never was.
And besides. There is always a part of her, deep in her heart, that doesn't know what she'd do if he did deign to stay. Creators know it's much better that he leaves, else she might get attached, and then what? Then—then nothing. Nothing at all.
Still, she swallows hard. Opens her mouth, because she's remembered that he came here for something that wasn't her—
But he doesn't get up, just moves a little so that he's an inch closer than he was a minute ago. In the rapidly-darkening room, all she can make out is the silhouette of his profile: nose and mouth, dark depressions for eyes. The dying light catches on his hair, on the lyrium, on the angle of his cheekbone. The world feels unreal. He doesn't turn his head to look at her.
Merrill closes her mouth. Opens it again. She has no idea what to do with this. He ought to have gone by now. "D'you want me t'get you that note?"
"No," Fenris says.
"Oh," she says. "Oh. Um. I'm didn't mean—y'don't have t'leave. I just thought—"
"I will be gone when the sun rises, unless you wish me to leave now."
Her tongue gets tied up tightly behind her teeth, too dry, sticking to the roof of her mouth. He doesn't spend the night, and here it is again: for all that they have ever been anything to each other, Merrill doesn't know how to deal with him when he's anything but combative.
"Oh," she says. "No. It's fine."
But it's not fine. Not really. Hawke and Isabela are gone, and Aveline is too busy keeping the city from falling to pieces, and now even Varric's left her here. There's no one else. It's fine but it's not fine. The sheet is coarse against the dip of her waist, scrips and scraps and the leftover nothings held together by willpower alone.
Sheets are a lot like people, when you think about it, and Merrill thinks that she'll fix herself eventually.
"It is not—it is not that I do not think you are capable, witch," Fenris says, very quietly.
As though her capability was ever in question. Merrill remembers the gurgle of blood, and nighttime, and Hawke dropping through the air to slam her daggers into Audacity's skull. Varric's voice, gentle over the vowels of a soft Daisy, are you, I mean, are you…, and Fenris himself, eyes burning with every single I told you so that he'd never pretended to hold back. And it's too much, it's too much.
Mythal'enaste. It's too much.
"I know," Merrill says, fiddling with the edge of the sheet. It's still threadbare. There's never enough coin, not here, not now. "I know it's not that."
She can feel his eyes on her bare spine, gaze crawling up to her shoulders, the bend of her neck hidden in the fall of her hair. Hair is good for that, she reflects, a sharp little dagger of laughter slipped between her ribs. What would the Keeper say? Merrill can almost feel the woman's disappointment from beyond the grave. But it's too much and not enough and even when there are delicate violet bruises from his teeth blooming across her collarbones like the first spring crocuses, she knows that he does not mean this to be a kindness. Fenris does not know the meaning of kind. He's going to take off across the Waking Sea after Varric, giant sword and spiky armour and all the sharp deadly shrapnel that a person can be, the low dark growl, the things that go bump in the night, and he's not going to think about her at all.
But there are limits.
(Creators, she is such a coward.)
Merrill sits up, breathes in. It's only a little watery. "I'll—go get you that note, you ought t'see it. I'll be—right back."
And she stands, naked as the day as she was born, and leaves him behind.