dedication: to summer thunderstorms, cheap beer, and a cracked heart.
notes: here have some codas for templar!au because i'm not done playing with that verse yet and also i love this ship A Lot
summary: It hurts until it doesn't. — templar!au coda; Merrill/Fenris, Varric, Aveline, peripheral Alistair/Bethany.
The long days after the Chantry explosion are characterized by Kirkwall losing its mind entire.
Merrill nibbles on her thumbnail, peeking out of the new window that someone had kindly thought to make while she'd been off helping Hawke do what was right, and watches as her alienage tries to put itself back together. The construction in the main city rings out all the time, even faintly through the night, but here in the alienage they're a little more respectful about it. People do need to sleep!
But it's funny, really, how little there is to do; the templars had done their damage to Kirkwall and done it well. It seems that they more or less left the alienage alone.
Or, well, they left it more alone than the Qunari did.
Merrill shudders just thinking about it. It's been three years, and the vhenadahl has still not entirely recovered. There are still marks in the bark, as there are still marks in the city elves, the last lingering fingers of the Qun's hollow song whispering along her collar, careful over the back of her neck.
But for the rest of Kirkwall, this was probably worse. Humans aren't nearly as resilient as elvhenan has had to be.
Then again, humans don't have a millennia of resistance to fall back on.
Merrill's people do. The destruction of everything elvhenan have ever known is only par for the course, and no silly little human squabble about who controls magic is going to change that fact. Nothing is, not even—
Merrill glances over her shoulder, gaze catching on the shattered mirror frame.
Creators, looking at it hurts.
(The Keeper is an open wound, even now. Bethany says time will help, but Merrill doesn't see how. Time never did anything for anyone except to take Tamlen and Lyna away.)
Merrill turns back to the window. If she'd learned anything from the Beyond, it's that it is better not to dwell on your own mistakes. And besides, looking at the broken mirror always brings another thought, not painful but perhaps unpleasant in its place, to the surface. Brown skin and pale hair and eyes green as the Brecilian had ever been, his hands all over her in the grey half-dark of the Hanged Man's back rooms. Bitterale cut through with misery. The bright blue-white gleam of lyrium—
Keeper Marethari had loved Merrill.
Fenris does not.
"Dread Wolf take you, you stubborn bit of—!"
Merrill does not enjoy cleaning. Merrill has never enjoyed cleaning, not once in her entire life, not even when Hawke would come to visit and all she'd have to offer was cobwebs and old stacks of books.
And yet, here we are.
The dirt in the corners is baked down hard enough that it's nearly part of the floor, and Merrill goes at it with the ferocity usually reserved for defending the Creators and hitting Hawke's enemies over the head with a stick. Her whole house is getting the scrub-down because it is easier to clean than it is to be angry, because at least cleaning is productive. Anger doesn't help anything anymore, and Merrill isn't so far gone she isn't self-aware.
Soap is made of lye and ash, like so many other things.
Merrill swallows down the grit between her teeth. The alienage is the only part of the city that the templars didn't burn, and so now they seem to think they have some right to it, as though they've done her people a favour. Faces masked and hips flashing steel, stalking through her streets and her quiet spaces, searching for whatever bits of the Circle that have managed to elude them.
The Gallows phylacteries stores were destroyed.
Good, Bethany had said, vicious and sharp in the mouth, and Merrill had leaned against her in the cracked-to-yawning open doorway of the Amell Estate, because even though Hawke is gone, the rest of the family is not. They have a life here, even though Kirkwall is a terrible mess.
Mostly, Merrill is just so glad that she's not alone that it feels like she's eaten broken glass.
(Like there's blood all the way down her throat. Merrill's stomach rolls.)
But alone is only a state of mind, because the alienage hums along outside the window, and the Gallows invade the little bubble of Merrill's existence, and she—wonders, sometimes, how humans can stand it. They have no Keepers, they have no clan to fall back on. No roots.
Merrill ripped up her roots but she still has the dried-up leaden pieces, at the very least.
And memories have a very heavy weight.
The water scalds away grime, slopping over the sides of the bucket and swamping all over. She'd got the books off the floor earlier, and she's thankful for that foresight, now.
She grits her teeth and gets to work.
Time passes, though Merrill couldn't say how much. The sun's sunk low, the next time she looks up, and she's startled to find Fenris leaning against the doorjamb with his arms crossed, a very funny look on his face.
"Oh," Merrill blinks at him, owlish in the streaky red of sunset. "Fenris."
(Maybe she ought not be so surprised.)
He doesn't say good afternoon or hello or any of the things a normal person would say. He certainly doesn't say any of the quiet romances that once upon a time, Merrill had been partial to; she'd thought Carver might have said them, once, and Isabela says them but never means them because Isabela looks at Hawke and sees the whole universe and of course, no one can really compete with a universe.
Fenris just frowns at her.
"Why are you cleaning," he says, doesn't ask.
Merrill huffs. "Because some of us don't want t'live in rotting mansions full of corpses!"
"You hate cleaning," Fenris reminds her, as though Merrill doesn't know this.
"It needs t'get done," Merrill says, dropping her head back down to concentrate on the scrub-brush and the last bits of soap. Lye and ash into soap, too, she remembers. Her tongue is thick in her mouth. "Creators, why are you here, Fenris? Just to bother me? Don't y'have anything better t'do?"
"I do not," he says, carefully picking his way around the sudsy remains of Merrill's day. The floor is still wet, after all.
"Then go find something t'do, because I'm busy!"
Fenris doesn't bother to dignify this with an answer. He settles at the fringe of her consciousness, a buzzing little awareness that pricks all of Merrill's senses to attentiveness. He's not going to hurt her. He doesn't know how, anymore.
At least, not hurt in a way as can't be fixed.
Merrill keeps her head down.
"Witch—" Fenris starts.
And that's—that's enough, isn't it. That's enough. He's not going away, and she's not happy, and none of this—none of this makes sense, anyway. None of this makes sense anyway! Merrill plunges the scrub-brush back into the bucket and stands, her knees buckling. She's not going to get any of this finished, just like no matter how much she cleans, she's not getting rid of the blood magic stains beneath her fingernails.
Things don't work like that.
"Kiss me," Merrill snaps the word off with her teeth. Anger is a comforting fizz beneath her skin; she looks up at the blankness behind his eyes, bubbling inside, and Fenris just stares right through her. He always does that, looks without seeing, or maybe he looks and finds her lacking, but either way it brings the blood and the regret in her stomach to a seething boil.
What do you want from me, she spits inside of her head, bitter and breaking and broken.
Fenris' palms bite into her shoulders, all vicious, all cruel. Merrill expects the pain, wants it like a lyrium addict, needs it because it's as much a lodestone as anything is anymore. Acid bubbles over into hunger, and her whole body lights up with it.
If pain is a punishment—
His mouth slams over hers in killing time.
—then by the Creators, Merrill will have her every aching due.
In the pale grey of false dawn, Merrill slips from the bed to her bathing room, quiet as a forest mouse, feet silent on the just-cleaned floor. It itches; without the layer of dirt, she's halfways to detached and all the way to disoriented. Creators, this is why she doesn't clean. What's the point, when she can't feel the earth beneath her toes?
The shadows creep long over her skin. The slow drip of water into washbasin is an old friend. Merrill breathes out, and finally takes stock.
Oh, but he did leave bruises, didn't he.
She counts them the way that humans count gold, hoarding every purple mark, savouring the memory of the violence. They are sweet as eir'il wine on her tongue. For a horrible second, Merrill is thrown back to the Brecilian in the days before the clan had left Ferelden with Master Ilen, carefully securing the last bottles of the clan's supply. For when we return, he'd said, and Merrill had been young and naïve enough to believe him. It was before Tamlen and Lyna—
Merrill shakes herself of it. That was before a lot of things, and she isn't that person, anymore. That was before Hawke. Before the halla moved on. Before Sundermount.
And certainly before Fenris.
On the topic of the wayward killer—
He thinks he's being very quiet, Merrill reflects. But the alienage has been Merrill's home for nearly a decade now, and she knows when someone's out of place. Fenris' feet pad-pad-pad over the floor.
At least he's sensible enough not to wear shoes.
Merrill waits in her little alcove until well after the sun has cracked over the horizon and the house fills with light. He ought to be gone by now, and she can go about her day. Even though Isabela and Hawke are gone, Varric ought to have something for her to do. He's been very good about making sure that Merrill never gets bored enough to wander into the Gallows, and there are lots of things to do in Kirkwall, especially now that it's about to fall into the sea.
She doesn't wander towards Sundermount, either. The clan is gone, but the memories are not.
Fenris just helped bleed some of the guilt out.
(It's sick, but he always does.)
Merrill takes a breath of sunlight right down deep into her lungs. The Keeper used to do that every morning, and it's funny because it sticks with Merril even now, all these long years later. She's no one's First anymore, but she's also the closest thing Kirkwall's alienage have to a proper Keeper, and someone needs to remember the old ways.
She runs a callused thumb over the sylvanwood ring. Rare as diamonds, and just as shiny. The Dread Wolf gleams when it catches the light.
You're not the only wolf I know, Merrill tells the old trickster. And I think mine's fair more grumpy than you ever have been!
The Dread Wolf's open maw widens with imagined laughter. Merrill scolds him aloud all the way back into her bedroom. "Oh, no, y'don't, you've done more than enough laughing at the People—!"
"Witch, who are you talking to?"
Merrill stops short, blinking dumbly.
Fenris is splayed out in the slat of light that pours in through the skylight. He is jarringly relaxed-looking, not wearing a shirt and down to naught but the pair of soft breeches he wears beneath his armour. It's the least guarded Merrill has ever seen him in her entire life, and that includes that night in the Hanged Man when Hawke had gotten him drunk enough to nearly agree to play strip Wicked Grace. That had been something all on its own, but it has nothing on this.
Frankly, Merrill has never seen anything like this in her life.
"Witch, I asked you a question," says Fenris, a reminder made quiet with something like patience.
"You—" she breaks to blink at him again. There is a possibility that this is the Dread Wolf playing tricks. Merrill's not about to put it past the old god, and Fenris never stays. "I thought you'd left? Don't you have somewhere t'be, you never stay after—"
"I do not have anywhere to be," he says, unfolding from his seat. Every one of his limbs takes its time in this. When he's not hunched over like some tainted dwarf, Fenris is the tallest elvhen that Merrill has ever known. She is aware of this, rationally, but she is often too angry to really register it.
Creators, but she registers it now.
Fenris arches a single pale eyebrow. "I will leave if you wish."
She wants to say no. She wants to scream yes. She wants to throw something at him for being like this, being here in her space and never giving her a second to breathe or think or wind down. She wants to tear into him, wants to mirror the dark purple marks all over her all over him. She wants him terrible. She wants him beneath her, she wants her heart out of her chest in his hand beating red, she wants him to grab her by the hair. She wants him brutal and bitter and bloody. She wants him—
"No," Merrill manages to pull herself from the old blood thrall. "No, that's—it's alright. You can stay."
Even as she says it, the leaving ripples across his face. Merrill follows it like shadows over water, the dappled liquid glow of sunlight sinking down to the depths. Brilliant as lyrium. Quiet as sin.
She doesn't know what she expected.
Fenris shakes his limbs out, the bones cracking sickly beneath his musculature.
Merrill flinches away. She's no good at this, she's all stops and starts, she doesn't want him anyway—
"I am going back to bed," Fenris announces. He doesn't bother to wait for a reply; he simply turns on his heel to pad back towards her sleeping space without giving her the chance to think about the implications of it, and he doesn't look back.
But he leaves the door open behind him.
Merrill's jaw drops.
No. No, no, no, no, no, she is not, she cannot, she wasn't—she doesn't have a script for this, this isn't a story she knows! A door left ajar is as good as an invitation from Fenris, because he takes such care with every movement that nothing is unnecessary and nothing is left to chance, except for when he's fighting, but even then. He's never unaware of how he moves himself. And now he's in her bedroom! On his own! Again!
Merrill breathes in, unsteady all the way down to her bones. He can't be here like this, he can't be kind like this, he can't—he can't—!
Alright, Merrill, she tells herself, trying to calm down and having so little idea why. Even in her head, the Brecilian accent comes thick, just like it always does when she's nervous. That's—that's something, then, isn't it.
She doesn't think she can figure this out on her own.
Merrill reaches for her discarded mail, shining cheerful in the bright morning, the golds and greens catching the light. It's a good thing her vestments are shred-proof, or as good as, because they're the only things she's got that don't require her going into her room. She knows, with a crystal-clear kind of certainty, that if she does in there now, she won't be coming out for the rest of the day.
Merrill sets her jaw, all her freckles winking at the sky.
For Fenris, she's going to need advice.
"I don't know what t'do!"
Bethany Hawke sits across a small wrought-iron table in the back garden of the Amell estate, sipping a cup of heavily-sweetened, milky tea, so calm that it's like Merrill hasn't been ranting at her for the last ten minutes at all.
Which is unfair, because Bethany didn't used to be this calm, and Merrill knows this for a fact. While she's never been much prone to scowling—and even less so prone when it's her very best friend she's scowling at—right this second, Merrill is willing to make an exception.
Merrill scowls. "Bethany!"
"I don't know what you want me to say," Bethany says, shrugging delicately.
This is a good point. Alistair is a very strange human, as far as humans go. And this is saying something, as Merrill has spent the better part of the last decade following Marian Hawke into mischief.
When it comes to humans, Merrill may not be unbiased.
For instance: most humans seem quite fond of their Chantry. Hawke may or may not have started a war with that self-safe institution, with Merrill's help, and Bethany and Alistair have been living in spite of the human god's laws for nearly too long to think about. There is also a not-insignificant possibility that Hawke's mother is going to start a fight with the Divine, the way she's been gathering up orphan mages from the Gallows and shipping them out to the estate on the coast where the templars can't get at them. And that's not even considering Isabela nor Anders nor any of the other bits and bobs of humanity that Hawke's introduced Merrill to over the years!
Merrill's point is that she may have a slightly skewed perception of how humans do things.
"Alistair really isn't anything like Fenris, is he," Merrill scrunches her nose.
"No, not really," Bethany says, kind of wry. She sips at her tea again, takes the long seconds in between to gather her thoughts. "I don't think Alistair and I could ever hurt each other the way you and Fenris do."
Merrill flushes all the way to the very tips of her ears. Bethany would have picked up the mouth-shaped bruises all the way down the column of Merrill's throat, wouldn't she, and because she is merciless, she absolutely had to mention it. There are days that Merrill doubts that Bethany is related to Hawke, but today is not one of those days.
Merrill buries her face in her hands. She is brilliantly red.
Her friends are the worst.
"I don't know what t'do," Merrill manages a second time, and maybe the pathetic wobble to her voice is enough to quell the teasing, because Bethany leans over to touch her shoulder.
"I'm sorry, that was mean," Bethany murmurs. Her chair scrapes against the stone of the garden cobbles. It makes a terrible sound. "Are you alright?"
"Yes," says Merrill, even though she doesn't feel particularly alright. She's a bit miserable, actually, now that she thinks about it. After a long moment, however, she feels the need to confess, "It scares me."
"Oh," Bethany says, and the sadness that suffuses the words aches. "Merrill, that's—"
"No, it's alright," Merrill tells her, and does mean it. Because it is alright, and they are both a mess, and her heart has always been a wild thing in her chest. She misses Tamlen. She misses Lyna even worse. She misses the Keeper most of all. "But… please?"
The sadness fades from Bethany's face, and she reaches across the space between them to squeeze Merrill's fingers tight. They've both changed, and grown up, but this is still the closest thing Merrill's had to family since she left the clan. Her vallaslin is stark against their twined hands, ink-dark but beginning to leaven with exposure to wind and sun and time.
"Alright," Bethany says. "Tell me again."
But this is a conversation they've had before. Especially at the start, when they'd all been younger and less wrung out—I don't know how, Merrill whispered, and it had hurt as fierce as a hole in the lung—because even though Kirkwall heals, it never heals quite right, broken bones and that.
Merrill knows all about healing wrong.
She takes a deep breath, and tries.
It shouldn't be difficult, is the thing.
And most of the time, it isn't. But there are those split-seconds when Merrill forgets that she hasn't a clan anymore. When the rats have gotten into the larder or when laughter from outside floats in through the windows, or the wind creaking at the shutters makes her think of aravels rocking in a storm—that's when it's difficult.
That's when Merrill misses.
She thinks about the way that Alistair and Bethany seem to settle around one another, the way Hawke and Isabela do when no one's looking, remembers Tamlen and Lyna the same. Because that's how love is supposed to be, isn't it, supposed to be like coming home after a long day where nothing goes right, supposed to be warm and comforting and soft and this—
This is nothing like that.
Fenris shreds Merrill's shift with the single-minded intensity she's come to expect. He mumbles something under his breath when she makes a despairing noise. It might be a sorry. It might be something else entire.
Moonlight pours in through the holes in the roof.
Just another thing she needs to get fixed. Merrill is about to slip down into incoherence, and if this is her last thought—
Fenris laughs, low and dark in her ear.
All of his sharp and shiny edges grind up against Merrill's, the awful bite of metal against metal shrieking in her ears. She wants to wince away, she wants to press closer, she wants something she can't name. Fenris' palm balls vicious into her hair, and oh, Creators, it hurts but it doesn't hurt but it's a good hurt and—
"Witch," he breathes. "What have you done to yourself?!"
Oh. He's talking about—
From the time Merrill met Hawke to the day Hawke shattered her mirror, Merrill had worn her wrists wrapped in bandages beneath the cover of her vestments. She's always been very careful to keep them hidden, but she doesn't really expect anyone to be surprised—blood magic needs fresh blood, and fresh blood, and more fresh blood—and she jerks in his grip, hands flying up to try to cover the marks. Those old wounds are healed, now, scarred over in thin raised lines that criss-cross her left forearm all the way up to the elbow, silver in the moonlight.
Merrill lets the question hang.
She doesn't think he really wants an answer. It's not as though he doesn't know.
Air hisses out through Fenris' teeth.
At least they've healed, Merrill wants to bare her teeth. At least they're not bleeding anymore!
As though he would have touched her if they had been. He's prickly all the way down, is Fenris, and they hurt each other more often than not. In this, and in all things; Merrill doesn't think they know how to be gentle with one another. She doesn't think they would be, regardless.
She expects his gauntlets. His skin against hers is a startling thing, instead.
Merrill flinches from the warmth like a burn.
"Witch," Fenris says. More wind than sound. More soft than not. His knuckles are taut around her wrists, pale with pressure, and the bright hot throb of it is the only thing she understands anymore. "You—you are a menace."
"I know," says Merrill, and nothing else.
It's true, after all.
"Fenris," she says, at last, after the silence between them has gone on too long and the moon has risen high enough to plunge the alienage into darkness, "Fenris, that hurts."
It takes him a moment to release her. It's a jerky thing, like he'd not quite realized he'd been holding on so tight. Her wrists are red, blood rushing back to begin healing the damage; not for the first time in her life, Merrill wishes that she had the aptitude for healing magic. Blood magic only ever taught her how to break.
(It strikes Merrill that she misses Anders. Regret is so very easy.)
"Witch, I did not mean—"
"It's fine," Merrill says, cuts him off as she draws her arms back into herself. She doesn't think she can handle an apology out of him right now, or maybe ever. Fenris isn't the sort to apologize.
(She doesn't want him to be the sort that apologizes, either. There is danger in that. Perhaps this is the true crux of the matter.)
Fenris' face creases down. The lyrium flashes bright blue against his skin. Merrill's mouth goes dry. Creators, he has so many tells that he doesn't even know. He's going to put his hands all over her.
Her breath catches in her throat, and she can't speak beyond a whisper. "Fenris, please, I—"
And Fenris kisses her so gentle that she nearly cries. He keeps her pinned down to the bed like something cracked, a broken jar spilling light, all of her insides going shivery-tender with the owning of the gesture.
Fenris isn't usually vocal. He does all his talking with teeth and tongue and fingers, brute force directing her where he wants her to go. Merrill hiccups pleasure, whines need, rolls her hips up to beg him closer.
"Patience, witch," Fenris murmurs. His fingers crook inside of her thigh.
Gods, it would be so much easier if she could just hate him.
The Hanged Man isn't exactly the place it was before the explosion.
Used to be, it was never quiet here. Always patrons shouting at Corff and Corff shouting at Nora and Nora ready to knock anyone who looked at her wrong arse over tea-kettle. But there's a strange, fragile lack in the air, now. Merrill doesn't know whether to attribute it to the melancholy silence where Hawke should be or to the bitterherb burn that one of their own did this.
There are three empty seats at the table, and Merrill is on the edge of emptying her stomach in the gutter.
But still, the fire roars, and Varric's palatial suite is more or less all of their palatial suite, these days. He's scribbling something in a fat book. There's ink on his chin.
Merrill doesn't even have it in her to giggle.
Varric squints at her. "Daisy, are you—are you okay."
Merrill makes a face down at her tankard. Drinking isn't half so fun as it used to it. Without Hawke around to deal and Isabela around to laugh, it's just… quiet, is the thing. It's so quiet. Terrible ale just tastes terrible when there aren't good people around to enjoy it with.
Besides, the last time Merrill got really drunk was—swaying as the room spins, mead bubbles in her nose, the far-away rending of terrible pain dulled through the haze of alcohol, and oh, Bethany, and oh, Hawke and oh, oh, Fenris, oh—she winces away from the memory.
It had been a mess is what it had been, and she doesn't really want to think about it.
"I'm alright, Varric," Merrill says, half-listless. She picks at a pockmark in the table. "I miss Hawke."
Varric sighs. "Me, too, Daisy."
"D'you think she misses us?"
"Yeah," he says. "Yeah, I do."
Merrill pushes the tankard away to pillow her chin against her crossed arms. Varric always answers her questions, no matter how silly they are. And he's right, of course; Hawke had wanted them along, but only Isabela had run with her. It's not really surprising, is it, not when Hawke and Isabela had been nearly one person rather than two, at the end.
It's probably not a good idea to tell him about Fenris.
(Probably he already knows, but then, Varric did always have rules about spying on his friends. He'd given her twine to follow home, and some days, Merrill still thinks about using it. She doesn't get lost so much anymore, though, so maybe not.)
And if telling Varric is a probably-not-good idea, then telling Aveline is a terrible idea.
The Captain of Kirkwall's Guard looks very tired, these days. Merrill understands. Half the city is at her to find Hawke, to restore order, and the other half of the city is very busy trying not to crumble into the Waking Sea. Either way, it's a huge mess, and it's Aveline's job to deal with it.
Merrill just isn't sure how Aveline does it.
"If I have to dunk one more drunken lout in the harbour, I'm going to kill something," Aveline says as she drops into an empty chair. There are deep dark lines around her eyes, and she pinches the bridge of her nose. "I'm not paid enough for this."
"No one is, madam," Varric says. Cards appear in his hands like magic. Did he have them up his sleeve? "You in?"
"Do not," Aveline says. She really has taken that little quip to heart. Merrill thinks that one of these days, Varric really is going to make her a sign. Hawke would have laughed. The thought warms Merrill to almost smiling.
"Are you drinking, at least? C'mon, Aveline, it'll be fun," Varric cajoles. He waggles his tankard in Aveline's face.
"Only if you buy, dwarf," Aveline says, and Varric chokes on his ale around a laugh. With shoulders shaking, he rises from the table to meander across the bar. He pats Aveline's shoulder on the way.
Once he's gone, though, Aveline turns her gaze to Merrill. "Alright, out with it."
"What?" Merrill blinks at her.
"Out with it," Aveline repeats, a little harder this time. Her gaze darts across Merrill's face, searching. "You look—not like you used to, but something else."
"That doesn't tell me very much, Aveline?"
"I—" Merrill sighs. It's like that time with the mirror. Aveline never does let her get away with anything. "Oh, Mythal."
Aveline allows Merrill to slump into her side. She's out of her Guard-Captain armour, and the warmth of her blood beneath her skin is a visceral thing. One of these days Kirkwall really is going to sink into the sea, but so long as Aveline is around to yell it back into shape, it won't really be the end of the world. Hawke's gone, and Isabela's gone, and the Keeper is dead, and Fenris is—well, he's Fenris, but—none of them have quite the stranglehold on sense that Aveline that.
Horrifyingly, Merrill realizes that she's about to cry.
"Oh, Maker," says Aveline, but there's such affection in it. "Come here, Merrill."
"Merrill," Aveline says again. "Come here."
And so Merrill does. She shuffles closer into Aveline's side, the wailing that's trapped in her throat finally smothered. It's very hard, building a family and then having that ripped right out from under you. Without the clan, and now without Hawke…
Fenris has kept her from being set adrift. Merrill won't deny that.
Aveline isn't the best at casual soothing, but she handles it well enough. Varric wanders back with Aveline's mead, and settles on Merrill's other side. Creators, they're missing so many parts of themselves. It's not the same, but that's alright.
Merrill sits between them for a while, the ale going warm and the fire burning low. Shadows stretch out easy across the walls, loose with safety and sleep. Family, maybe that's the right word. Love is bitter as ashes in her mouth.
But it's enough to calm her down.
(Worse, it's enough to give her courage.)
"I'm sleeping with Fenris," Merrill tells them, and braces for the impact.
No one yells about it very much.
Honestly, Merrill had been expecting far worse than Aveline's DON'T face. Even in combination with Varric and Varric's Very Disappointed Expression, it still hadn't really been that awful.
They think she's making a bad decision.
But Merrill's made bad decisions before, and this doesn't particularly feel like one of those. This sort of feels like—a bit like how making friends with Hawke had felt, actually. Like she's always just a little bit on edge. But it makes things clearer, too, and it's easier to pick out the cracks.
Lowtown's slums give way to the alienage. Merrill breathes out her relief. It's not that she doesn't like Lowtown slums, but also, Lowtown's slums are full of staring eyes and reaching hands, and Merrill's never been fond of either of those things. And she sticks out, which is probably the more important thing; there aren't many elvhen in the slums, and even fewer elvhen with vallaslin. Aveline had offered to walk her home because the sun's dipping down, but Merrill knows Kirkwall well enough not to fear until it's well and truly black outside.
And there's a light on inside her home.
Merrill, unlike some people, has the manners to knock.
Fenris opens the door. "…Did you just knock, witch?"
"Yes," says Merrill. "Was I not supposed to?"
"It is your house."
"Yes," she says again. "But you're in it. Wouldn't it have been rude just t'barge in?"
"I do not think that that is how rudeness works," says Fenris, and moves aside to let Merrill slip past him.
It's warm inside, which is nice. It chases the evening's cool from her skin, because there's nothing in the world like the wash of comfort and heat from a familiar fire. And it's easier to focus on the fire than the fact that Fenris is still—still—here. Merrill stands there in the flickering light for a long minute, not quite sure of how she wants to approach this.
"I went t'talk to Bethany," Merrill inhales. "And Varric. And Aveline."
Fenris closes the door. "Are you drunk, witch."
Varric and Aveline never let Merrill get drunk anymore. Tipsy and happy and laughing, yes, but never drunk. With drunkenness comes melancholy, and with melancholy comes tears. She'd already nearly wailed into Aveline's shoulders once tonight, and she hadn't had a drop. Besides, mages and mead don't always go so well together. Merrill knows her limits.
"No, o'course not!"
He snorts through his nose, which isn't quite an answer. Merrill turns around to look at him.
It's very strange to see him here, when there's no one else around and sharp vicious things in her mouth.
She steps forwards.
"What are you doing, witch," Fenris says.
Merrill curls her hand into the dark metal of his chest-plate, all the vicious ridges biting into her fingertips. It's stupid that he's wearing it. When did he even put it on? He'd been bare this morning beneath her hands, and she knows what he's like underneath.
"I'm not drunk. I'm trying t'be brave," she tells his chest.
Because she is trying to be brave. Confronting this is being brave, a different kind of brave than she's ever been before. After all, at the start, leaving the clan had been brave. And then it had been stubborn, and then it had been stupid. Being friends with Hawke had been brave and then stubborn and then stupid, too. Blood magic. Friendship. Life. Brave and stubborn and stupid.
And this? Fenris?
It might be stubborn and stupid in the long run, too.
But for right now, it's just brave.
Merrill looks up at him, and again takes stock. He's not kind, and he's not sweet, and frankly he's nothing like the stars of the secret romances that she'd kept hidden behind her heart when she was just a child. He's just Fenris, tall and brown-skinned, lit up with lyrium, a grumpy turn to his mouth. His eyes are green and her own, and he's got scars all wrong. He's not pretty. He's not even very good.
But Merrill thinks they might be alright, given half the chance. She tightens her grip on his armour.
"I'm sorry," she says.
"For what," Fenris says.
"For not coming back t'bed with you," she says. "I won't do it again. Leastwise, not if y'don't deserve it first."
"And if I do deserve it? What then, witch?"
"Then I'll let Varric yell at you," Merrill says. "Or Aveline. Or Bethany."
"Varric would be the least odious," Fenris says, which is hardly a surprise at all. Creators, but everyone is a little bit frightened of Aveline, and Bethany with a grudge could probably give Tevinter magisters a run for their money.
"That's true," Merrill says.
It's never going to be easy. She knows that. It's never going to be easy for her and Fenris the way it is for Bethany and Alistair, or Aveline and Donnic, or even for Hawke and Isabela. Fenris isn't really an easy person.
But as he methodically strips her out of her vestments and herds her careful towards her vestments, Merrill thinks that's alright.
It hurts until it doesn't.
And then it doesn't hurt at all.