disclaimer: disclaimed
dedication: to jupe and smut, because the former lets me blather about things no one cares about and the latter encourages me to be terrible about it!
notes: anyway so now that the world is corrosive as well as on fire—
notes2: pieces — cider sky.

title: butcherbird pining
summary: She still doesn't know what to make of it. — Merrill/Fenris.

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Winter comes to Kirkwall drippy and grey, and Fenris blows in off the Waking Sea like a storm.

"Hmn," he grumbles, skinning off his armour. His hair is wet. Rain patterns against the roof, a peaceful puh-plink-puh-plink in counterpoint to the merry crackle of the fire in the hearth. The gush of cold wet air in through the door pebbles her skin, and then it closes off.

Merrill doesn't turn to look to see who's come in. She knows the sound of Fenris' footsteps and his breathing as well as she knows her own; no one else is half so silent and still so loud.

"You left it unlocked," Fenris glowers over her shoulder. Merrill doesn't need to see it to know that he's glowering, either; there's no one alive in the Creator's sight that manages to glower the way Fenris does.

He has a knack for it. He's always so loud!

"Hello t'you, too," Merrill says. She blinks over her shoulder at him. "It was good I did, though, isn't it? It's wet out, and you'd have been stuck out there longer if I hadn't."

"I am fine, witch," Fenris scowls. He shakes his head, shaggy like a sheepdog. Water sprays everywhere. "Being wet will not kill me. Lock your door."

"Last time you stayed out in the rain, y'got sick," Merrill reminds him, which is a fair point, she thinks, because Fenris is a misery when he's ill. Worse than anyone she's ever met. He's needy! Not that she minds, honestly, but he is.

"Witch," he says, low and warning. "Lock the door."

"Are they really calling you 'wraith', now?" Merrill asks, instead of answering, because no one is budging on that: Fenris will repeat himself 'til he's blue in the face, and it's still not going to convince Merrill to lock the door. Someone might need something, and a lock is only a hindrance to that.

Besides.

Merrill sort of likes that he can always come back, if he wants. She doesn't expect that he won't, anymore, but—

It's nice, all the same.

Fenris makes a sound that, on anyone else, might be called a groan. It rumbles out of his chest in the rain-soaked dust, all grouchy, all irritation in the huff at the end. He makes his way to settle next to her on the floor in the wash of light and heat, dripping wet but free of his armour. He keeps extra shirts and breeches in the chest by the door, and when he finally makes himself comfortable, it's in the oldest clothes he has.

(Oh, Mythal, she's not wrong. They do call him wraith, and he can't stand it. Merrill swallows a hiccup of laughter. They do!)

"Must you remind me?"

"It's not so bad, though. People let you alone. Don't they?"

Fenris crooks a slow eyebrow at her. "How did you find out? Who told you?"

"Varric," Merrill says, unconcerned. Who else? Hawke's not very good at letter-writing, and Isabela only ever says she'll explain when Merrill's older and then never does, and Bethany is gone and Aveline is trying to keep Kirkwall from exploding, and—

"That dwarf talks too much," Fenris says, grumpily. He hovers a little closer, just at Merrill's shoulder, as though he's waiting for permission to touch her. It's very strange. He never used to do it.

Merrill doesn't know what to make of it.

But it's probably better to make nothing of it. The Creators have given her this much, and Merrill doesn't want to push her luck. Fenris is here, for now. He'll run off if she thinks about it too much. That's just what Fenris does.

But—oh!

"Thank you," Merrill says. "I wanted t'say—for the roof. Y'didn't have to."

"It was damp," Fenris says evenly. "You were unhappy that it was ruining your books."

It wasn't ruining the books, exactly, but she had been worried that the mold would eat them clean through. Books and pages and ink aren't meant for water. They just don't hold up, and there's already so little left.

Losing the books would be dreadful.

"I know," Merrill agrees. She ducks a little, one shoulder up and down like a bird. "But I didn't—y'didn't have to, Fenris. Thank you."

"I wanted to," he says, too simply for so large a thing. Between the roof and the book cubboard he'd managed to scrounge for her, it feels almost the way a home should. The sun still comes in through the glass patched over the roof, and the wind still shakes the shutters, and if she's very lucky, if she keeps her eyes closed when she wakes up, she could still be in an aravel.

Every time Merrill thinks about, her cheeks burn.

(If this was anywhere else, if he was anyone else, Merrill would call it a courting. But this is Fenris—he doesn't know, Creators, of course he doesn't know how it comes across! It's not his fault. He's not Dalish, and he doesn't know what Merrill grew up knowing; he doesn't mean it like that. She swallows down the disappointment every time, and reminds herself that even though he likes her at least a little, now, it wasn't always like that. Homes can't be built inside people. Hawke taught her that.)

Creators, but she's being silly. Merrill tugs on her tunic, half a child without vallaslin. He always makes her feel like this. He always makes her feel so young.

"Thank you," Merrill says, for a third time because she doesn't know what else to say.

"Stop thanking me," Fenris says. Merrill has to look up to see into his eyes. The floor is cold beneath her, and she doesn't know when he got so close. She could count his eyelashes from here, if she wanted. He inhales. "I have done nothing to deserve it."

"But I—"

"Witch," he says. "Stop."

Merrill stops.

Fenris sets his arms around her and pulls her, carefully, carefully, close into his chest. Without all the spiky armour, there's something oddly gentle to it, as though he's waiting for her to shrink away.

"I do not mind looking after you," he says, very quietly into the top of her head.

"I can look after myself," Merrill tells him, a little muffled.

If I fall down, I'll just get back up again. She'd said that, once. She'd meant it, too.

"I am aware," says Fenris. A funny little thread of amusements runs through the words, and droplets of cold-water drip from the edge of his jaw into Merrill's skin, and she shivers with it. "I still do not mind it."

"I s'pose," mumbles Merrill. "If you're sure."

"I am," Fenris says, and drops his chin to rest against her hair. Heat rises in Merrill's cheeks all over again; is this how Bethany feels about Alistair all the time? Like her heart might beat its way right out of her chest, if she let it have its merry way? How does she survive it? How does anyone?

They sit there together for some time. Longer than either of them are willing to admit, Merrill thinks, until the fire's burned down to embers and the rain is the only sound save for their breathing.

I missed you, Merrill allows herself the thought. She can't make herself say it aloud, even though she wishes she'd the courage for it. It sits in her mouth sweet as honey, cool as lavender. She'd be able to say it, if she were Hawke.

But she's not Hawke.

So Merrill thinks it, instead.

I missed you. Did you miss me, too?

Fenris follows Merrill out of the house, the next morning when she leaves. He's strapped himself into dark leathers, that giant sword of his lung over his shoulder. A bow, too.

"I will see you tonight," Fenris murmurs, tipping his head in towards her just a little.

Merrill blinks. "Are you going t'see Aveline?"

"No," he says. "Hunting."

"Oh," says Merrill. She's not entirely sure what to do with this. "Well, um, please try not t'get killed?"

"I will make an effort to not die," Fenris says, and if Merrill didn't know better, she'd say that he was grinning at her. He reaches up to tug at one of the stray locks of hair not long enough to tuck away into a braid with the rest. His gaze is fond. "Please attempt to return the favour, witch. I will not be in the city."

"I've lasted this long, haven't I?" Merrill says. It wants to come out huffy and sharp but—doesn't, somehow. Soft instead, and Merrill finds herself thinking of the way he'd said I am. It has something to do with that, she knows it does, but she can't—she doesn't—

Creators, Merrill doesn't even know what this is, anymore. Fenris is normally so fiercely private that this easy affection confuses her. And worse, there's no one around to help her make it make sense!

It's very quiet between them for a moment, only the slow murmur of the waking alienage and the distant roar of the Waking Sea to break it.

"Are you well, witch?" Fenris inspects her, frowning very faintly.

Merrill doesn't know how to answer that, so she just nods. She's not a very good liar, Merrill; he'll hear it in her voice, especially as he's looking for it.

When she says nothing else, the frown deepens. There's half a war in his face for a moment, between the push to question and the fact that there are people watching them. And there are people watching them, early as it is. There are always people watching them when they're together, and now is no different. Merrill can feel the curious eyes of the alienage's children on her shoulders. They think him a hero from the stories!

It's funny, as he almost is. He's Fenris. If Merrill wanted to embarrass them, she'd have caught them out at it, but mostly she thinks it's sweet.

Merrill had been First, once. A long time ago, of course, and not a very good First, but First all the same.

"I'm fine, Fenris," she tells his chest.

Quiet, again.

"I'll be back by sundown," he says, finally, when the silence has hung too long. Merrill is startled to feel the graze of warm brown fingers against her cheek, and then he's gone, a flash of dark skin and light hair and lyrium blue everything else.

Her knees buckle.

Creators.

Merrill stands there on her own for a moment, trying to find her mind in the roaring sound in her ears. The sun peeks over the low buildings, creeping series and gold streaks that set the sky alight. Elgar'nan, triumphing over the night, again.

What is she going to do?

(The ball of twin that she used to follow home, the one that Varric promised would always wind up just right, is tucked into the depths of her bag. Merrills never uses it anymore, or at least almost never. She's grown up, and there's no reason to the lump in her throat. She misses Varric. She misses Bethany. She misses Hawke. Hawke would be able to make sense of it. Hawke was always good at making sense of things.)

"Keeper? Is everything alright?"

"Oh, yes," Merrill answers without thinking about it. Only the children call her Keeper.

She doesn't have the heart to tell them that she's not the Keeper of anything, or to try to get them to stop. Merrill doesn't have the right to be anyone's Keeper. She knows that.

Still.

It's not as though they've anyone else. "Did y'need something, da'len?"

"My mamas wanted to know if you was still wantin' help to clean out the garden," the girl says. She's tiny and dark-haired, freckles across her nose, and she sounds just like Lyna used to, slow and methodic, always measured and just as careful. "They sent me, if you do."

"Oh!" Merrill says. "Yes, I'd love that. We're almost finished, da'len, but I could use the help."

And so this is how Merrill passes her day, weeding out the very last of the autumn squash and potatoes, telling the girl the old stories and listening to her chatter right back.

The work is hard, but rewarding, and when Merrill looks up next sundown is an hour away, and to the absolute mad delight of every child without shouting distance, Fenris is tromping in through the alienage gates.

He's dragging what looks to be two entire dead deer behind him.

Oh, Creators.

Fresh meat. He's brought fresh meat.

Fresh meat means full bellies.

Merrill's breath catches in her throat. Mythal, two? How did he even get them into the city? Is anyone following him? Is he alright?

But the alienage will eat for a fortnight, and the stews will last long after that. It's the thin season; the Keeper used to call it that. Thin. And it's true, isn't it, when Merrill can count her own ribs and even the rats are all gone. There aren't so many hours of daylight that there's time to waste; already, Merrill's alienage is coming together to butcher the creatures, bleed them for blood pudding, bones for stock, meat parceled out among everyone who needs it.

Oh, Mythal, it's half an Arlathvhen.

Merrill has to swallow down the sudden hot wash of tears. She hasn't any idea where the Arlathvhen is taking place, anymore, but maybe she doesn't need this. This isn't so terrible.

If only there was eir'il wine for the celebration.

Fenris makes his way to her through the crowd, grimacing. He's so careful to avoid being touched; Merrill knows that he still isn't used to casual physicality, but there's also—

Her alienage holds themselves back from him, a little bit in awe. They part around him like a stone in a river.

(Half a hero, indeed.)

"You're never going t'live this down," Merrill tells him, wisely. "They won't let you alone, not now you've fed them."

Fenris snorts. "I would not have them starve, witch. You would not forgive me if I did."

"I don't expect you t'fix things, Fenris," she says, recoiling a little. Because she doesn't. She doesn't expect much of anything; she didn't expect him to fix her roof and her doesn't expect him to fix her alienage, and she doesn't—she doesn't expect anything at all. Merrill learned a long time ago not to expect things, and that's fine, mostly.

"I went hunting because I wished to," Fenris says, slowly, as though explaining something very simple to a very small child. "And now I wish to clean myself of blood and then I wish to sleep. Will you come?"

Merrill casts her gaze out at the her alienage. They're gathered around the dead deer, rippling with excitement, cautious joy greening up the vhenadahl even this late in the year. Wintertime's dampness seems very far away.

If they need her, it's not as though she's very far away.

Merrill ducks her head.

Nods.

And so she allows him to herd her home, inside and then strip her naked of her vestments. Even though the rain's gone, the wet still chills her in her bones. The dust and the quiet settle around them. The alienage is muted, closed outside with the rest of the world.

When Fenris presses her back against the door, mouth and fingers and hips pressing into her hard enough to bruise, it's all Merrill can do not to moan.

"What do these mean? I have always wondered."

Merrill drowsily raises her head from his chest.

Fenris traces the lines of vallaslin along her shoulders, intense scrutiny in his face. His grip is firm; she won't be able to sneak out of bed, though right now she's got no reason to. It's a little easier between them, every single time.

"It's—they're stories, Fenris. Our stories."

"I do not think anything we've done should be inscribed on anyone's skin," Fenris says, voice dry. "Hawke's head would explode."

"Oh, d'you think I ought t'add something about her? I don't know where it'd fit…"

"No, witch," he glowers. The palm curled around her bare hip tightens sharply, yanks her in a little closer. The sun isn't quite high enough in the sky yet that Merrill feels as though she's wasting the day away.

And, well—

Fenris never stays very long.

One day in bed won't hurt.

"I s'pose I couldn't even if I wanted to," Merrill mumbles, more to herself than anything else. She'd never learned how to turn blood into ink, though she'd learned plenty of other things a person could do with blood, if they wanted. "Vallaslin isn't very easy t'find."

"You have not answered my question," Fenris murmurs, following the lines all the way down to her hips. The ink curls over her ribs, along the lines of her bones. She's always had more than most, but most Keepers did. It wasn't just about growing up, for Merrill and the other Firsts; it was about holding on.

She shifts against the sheets, so old now and washed soft. Isabela had picked them out, had winked and said, they'll keep the bedbugs out, kitten.

They'd never kept Fenris out, even when they were new. But he's not really a bedbug, so maybe that's why.

"I told you?" Merrill blinks up at him. "Stories. They're stories."

"They are like none I have ever seen."

"Oh," she says. "Yes, well, they're mine, aren't they?"

Fenris hums acknowledgement.

"Before Hawke came, the clan was my family," says Merrill, hesitantly. She rolls the words around in her mouth, trying to find the right ones. "But I didn't—I s'pose I didn't always belong."

"Why?"

"I was always a better witch than I was a person," Merrill whispers on a puffed exhale of breath. She tastes shame, old and unwanted, acrid like blood at the back of the throat. "My vallaslin—it's what I remember my mother's looking like?"

Fenris glances her over. "This is nothing like Marethari's, witch."

(It doesn't hurt like a hole in the lung to hear the Keeper's name, anymore. Merrill swallows her grief.)

"What? Why would it? The Keeper wasn't my mother."

"She treated you like it."

"She was the Keeper. She could turn anyone's bones t'jelly with just a look, did you know? That was her job," Merrill says, frowning at him. It's not bad frowning, because it's not as though Fenris is wrong. The Keeper had been mother to the entire clan in all the ways that mattered.

Still, he asked. It can't hurt to explain the rest.

"I haven't seen my mother since I was but a wee'un, Fenris, at the last Arlathvhen. I was only… three? Or four? I don't really remember, now, it was a long time ago. I didn't even have my vallaslin, then."

Fenris rolls over to meet her gaze. He's frowning, too. "And why not, witch? Where is she?"

"With her clan and my Da, and my brothers, I expect."

His frown pulls down farther. Merrill gets an awful urge to try to rub away the scowl lines that've etched themselves into his forehead. She manages not to, but only through a sharp mental scolding: don't be silly, Merrill. It'll just put him off!

"You have not gone to them."

"I don't know where t'look," she says. And then, softer, like an afterthought, "and I don't think they'd want me. A clan can't have too many mages, and all my brothers already were when I got mine. It wasn't safe for me t'stay."

Fenris takes a long moment to digest this information. It's fine, really; Merrill likes the quiet. It feels a little bit like home. If she closes her eyes, she can pretend that the dull roar of the Waking Sea is the sound of the wind rocking the aravels.

It really is almost the same.

"It is better than you are here, witch," Fenris says, at last.

"You're being very nice t'me," Merrill blinks at him. "Are you sure you're Fenris?"

He chuckles low and deep in his chest. A shudder works its way up Merrill's spine in reply, and even though it's the middle of the morning and the day is well on its way to burning, she wants to—she wants to—

"I prefer to keep you guessing, witch," Fenris's mouth curls upwards, just a little. He pulls her bodily on top of him, and to what must be his immense satisfaction given the look that flashes across his face, she squeaks.

"What? Why?!"

"Because it is so much more fun."

Fenris whittles.

Merrill listens with careful attention to one of the alienage women worry about her youngest son's prospects for a marriage to a girl in the Ostwick alienage, and Fenris whittles.

He's not very good at it, to be sure; Merrill watches him out of the corner of her eye from where she sits beneath the vhenadahl, loose-limbed on her stoop. He's already made himself bleed! Twice! Master Ilen would have called it an embarrassment, and not allowed him near a piece of ironbark 'til he could carve a halla perfectly in miniature twenty times over.

(Distantly, a wash of sadness. Merrill misses Master Ilen.)

"He's very handsome, isn't he?"

Merrill blinks out of her reverie. The woman and her worries had left and Merrill hadn't even noticed, and now instead, Nyssa smiles down at her, mischievous in the later afternoon sunlight. It's sad, but after Huon, Merrill didn't know if Nyssa was ever going to remember how to smile ever again.

Brittle. Huon had left Nyssa brittle, inside.

"Fenris?" Merrill says, ignoring the sudden flush of blood to her ears. If she ignores it, it's more likely to go away. Or at least, she hopes that's the way it works!

"I don't see anyone else you'd be staring at," Nyssa says. She shrugs very delicately. "But what do I know? I'm no Keeper."

"Neither am I," Merrill reminds her. "I'm just—I'm just here t'help."

"If you say so."

"I do!"

Nyssa leaves it alone. The protuberant grey of her eyes is cool as mist over the gnarled pines of the Brecilian, tinted faintly the colour of dark, leafy underbrush. "He stares at you, too, if it makes you feel any better. He's staring at you right now."

Merrill's head snaps up on reflex. Nyssa likes to tease, and why on earth would Fenris be staring at her when there's plenty of other things he could be staring at. Merrill's about to start scolding, but—

Fenris is staring.

Fenris is staring at her.

The corners of his mouth seem to curl up, again, just the slightest bit larger than before. Merrill blinks dumbly for a moment, and then manages to smile uncertainly back.

Fenris cuts himself again.

"Go on," says Nyssa.

"Oh, but I'm—"

"He's going to sit there and bleed. You know he will."

"Fasta vass," Merrill huffs. It's a very satisfying thing to say. "He's worse than Hawke used t'be! Creators, what's wrong with him?!"

"Go on," Nyssa says again, a tiny skein of laughter in the words, gently shoving at Merrill's shoulder. "No one's going to miss you, you've sat here an hour."

And Merrill, flushed bright red all the way down her chest, goes.

Walking up to Fenris always feels like approaching a wild animal. If she's careful, he might not bite. And that's just the way it is: it lasts and lasts as she makes her way towards him, but Fenris is still staring at her, and he is still bleeding.

(Doesn't he feel that? Merrill has to wonder.)

"Fenris, you're bleeding!"

"I am aware, witch," Fenris says, mildly. He puts the knife and the bit of wood aside. The well of blood is brilliant crimson against the flare of lyrium, and Merrill's stomach turns itself into knots.

"D'you want—I've got bandages," Merrill offers, hesitating, hating herself even as the words leave her mouth. He doesn't want the help, he doesn't need it, he's—

Fenris silently offers her his hands.

Creators, it's lucky that he can't see the way her knees buckle. Merrill busies herself with dropping down beside him and pulling out the bandages in her bag, fingers quick. Focus, she tells herself, focus, so y'don't panic.

"You are thinking very loudly," Fenris says. He doesn't pull his hands away; it's an observation, nothing more.

"I don't mean t'be," Merrill murmurs. She keeps her head down, so careful in her scrutiny. The cuts are clean of grime, at least; Fenris doesn't get ill so easily that she needs to be worried. She wants to know how long he's been watching—she wants to know why he was watching, but it's not courage she has, to ask.

Fenris remains very still, and doesn't answer her.

But she can feel his eyes burning on the back of her neck, on her shoulders. Merrill concentrates very hard on cleaning away the blood, patting it dry 'til it doesn't bleed anymore. She wraps the cuts with bandages, mushed elfroot and oil to speed the healing. It must sting. Crushed elfroot always does.

"I'm sorry, Fenris," Merrill says. Her tongue is thick in her mouth. "I'm not very good at this, am I?"

"I am not very good at carving," Fenris says. A hint of a smile colours the words. The afternoon sun shimmers over the lyrium, gold over white over bark brown skin, but it's static, mostly. Quiet. "As I am sure you can see."

"You're—well, yes, I s'pose you're not very good," Merrill says. Half sheepish, half reasonable; it's only the truth. "What were you trying t'make?"

"It was meant to be a bear."

"Oh," Merrill says. The little bit of blood-stained wood does not look like any kind of bear that Merrill has ever seen in her life. She squints. "It—oh, it looks a bit like a bear, if you squint at it! Or maybe a druffalo? A very angry druffalo, though, so maybe not…"

A dark, rich chuckle leaves him. "You see animals in clouds, witch. This is a badly-cut piece of wood."

"It's not so bad, y'know. Tamlen was worse! Lyna used t'say he could shoot a starling out of a tree from a hundred paces, but if he had anything sharp in his hands, he'd manage t'stab himself with it," is out of Merrill's mouth, before she can quite stop it.

She freezes.

Fenris doesn't know about Lyna and Tamlen. No one really knows about Lyna and Tamlen, and she'd liked it that way.

"Your clan?"

"Yes," says Merrill. She fiddles with the cuff of his shirt. "They were—I don't really know how t'talk about it."

"Why?"

"The Keeper, she—" Merrill has to stop, biting down on her tongue. "It's a long story."

"We have time, witch," Fenris murmurs. His gaze flickers to something over her shoulder and then back to her face, the heady forest green catching on the shadow of a kiss-shaped bruise hiding beneath the neckline of her vestment. "I will listen."

"Maybe—can we go inside? I don't think anyone else is going t'need me, and it's—it's hard t'explain."

Fenris' face furrows. Merrill wonders how she ever could have thought him frightening or hard to read; she understands him a little better, and it doesn't hurt so much.

"Witch…" he says.

"It's alright, Fenris! It really is just a long story. I don't want someone t'walk in and then have t'tell it twice."

Fenris hoists himself up from the stoop, yanking Merrill up with him. She near crashes into the sharp point of his chin, half a stumble with her hands curled against his chest for balance. He laughs, a heady, rich rise and fall that Merrill has only ever heard half a dozen times. It resonates in the chasm of her heart, even as air whistles out through her teeth.

"Are you trying t'kill me?!"

Fenris has the audacity to grin at her. He ducks down close, lips brushing her cheek shivery-tender like a kiss or a secret or both.

"If I was trying to kill you, witch," he murmurs, low and dark and dangerously sweet, "I would not be so obvious about it."

"I don't think that's the best thing t'say if you're trying t'reassure someone, you know!"

He laughs again, that same pleasantly deep roll of sound. It slips down Merrill's collarbones to settle fluttering and feverish in the pit of her belly, but there's something about the look in his eyes—he hasn't forgotten what she'd said.

He hasn't forgotten about Lyna and Tamlen.

Merrill swallows. Sometimes, she feels like he might be the only one. The clan had forgotten and the Keeper had forgotten, and the world never knew about either of them, anyway. Merrill had been the only one to know.

And Fenris, now, too.

He pushes open the door, leads her inside.

She takes a breath, and follows him.

The alienage goes silent behind her as the door clicks closed, cutting off life and sound. It's only the pair of them, now.

Fenris looks at her, and simply waits.

Merrill looks at her hands. It really is a long story: there'd been the darkspawn, and the mirror, and the taint, and then there's been the Waking Sea, and the spirit on Sundermount, and then there'd been Hawke, and then—

Then there's been Fenris, himself.

Merrill stares at her toes. "I don't know where t'start."

Fenris allows this to hang between them for a very long time. He divests her of her stave and her bag and her vestments, a pragmatic thing that gives her too much time to think. Merrill needs something to do with her hands, else she'll take to wringing them and then she'll wind herself into an unpickable knot.

But he doesn't mind looking after her. He'd said he didn't mind.

"Breathe, witch," Fenris murmurs. "Begin at the beginning."

Merrill breathes.

And begins at the beginning.

"It's not very safe for the clans all t'meet at once, d'you know? We travel the way we do t'stay alive," Merrill manages. "But—but everyone so often, the clans gather for an Arlathvhen. It's a time for trade between clans, and sharing, a-and—family, sort of? I don't really remember, I've only been to the one, and I was—I was a baby! The Keeper needed a First, so she got me."

Fenris makes a noise strangled with an emotion that Merrill can't place. "Your mother did not protest?"

"Oh, she did! She and my Da fought about it, I remember that," Merrill says. The fight had been a silent thing, but it had crackled; Merrill doesn't remember her mother's smile, anymore, but she remembers that night in the aravel, the lullaby cracked through with tears.

Merrill hadn't understood, then.

"But you went?"

"Well, yes? The Keeper needed me. She didn't really have time t'raise a wee'un, though."

"So…?"

"So, Lyna and Tamlen," Merrill cringes, has to swallow hard around the sudden awful lump in her throat. "They looked after me when the Keeper couldn't."

They were my family, she wants to say; they were my parents.

"What happened to them?"

"The Blight happened to them," Merrill says. She folds inside of herself; this is a mourning that will never, ever end. "Before we left, there was—they found some darkspawn in a ruin in the forest, while they were scouting. I don't know how they found it, but they did, and I—"

She has to stop to swipe at her eyes, furious with herself. Fenris watches her through the silence and the sunset in through the window.

"I'm sorry, I don't mean t'cry."

"You miss them very much," Fenris says, very quietly.

"Yes," Merrill whispers. It hurts in her throat to speak any louder. "I do."

They sit with this.

He does not reach for her. Merrill tries to find her voice amongst the lost time and the memories and the horrible, breath-stealing pain in her lungs; it's there somewhere, she knows it is.

(A beat, a breath, a drop of water rippling away.)

"Tamlen disappeared," Merrill says, only a little ragged, raw heart held cradled in her hands. "And Lyna—Lyna went to the Grey Wardens because it was killing her, the Taint was killing her, and then there was only me and the mirror and the clan, and—well. Y'know the rest."

"Witch…"

"I've never told anyone all of it," Merrill ducks her head. She doesn't think she can look at him; what must he think of her? Isabela was bold. Hawke was bold. They've never be this shy, or this scared. "No one, except for you. Creators, I must sound like a ninny, keeping secrets that aren't even secrets!"

Fenris pulls her into his lap.

Merrill startles out of the melancholy, blinking. Fenris settles her with her back to his chest, long limbs curling around her to carry her weight. She drops her head back to blink up at him. He just looks like himself, the long nose and the brown skin and the light hair. Sometimes, Merrill thinks she knows his face well enough to draw it with her eyes closed.

"Fenris?" she asks. "Is everything alright?"

"It was meant to be a deer."

"…I'm sorry, you've lost me?"

"The wood," Fenris murmurs into the top of her head. "It was meant to be a deer, not a bear."

"Oh," she says, and blinks steadily up at him. "So, why did y'say it was meant t'be a bear?"

"Deer," he says, very quietly, rather look like halla, do they not?"

"I s'pose so?"

Fenris sighs. Merrill thinks she can hear something crack open inside of him, beneath the solid thud of his heart. It's the cistern and the still water and the lavender flowers all over again, the purple-dark bruises from his fingers mottling yellow after he'd gone, the blooming violets of exhaustion laid to rest.

"It was for you, witch," Fenris tells her, like a secret. "I was trying to make something for you.

It's not a difficult thing, to admit that Merrill likes coming home to find Fenris sprawled out in her bed, nearly asleep with one of her books propped over his face to shut out the light pouring in through the window. His feet are bare, sharp ankles and tatty breeches, a stained shirt that might have been white in another life, and little else. The lyrium inked into his skin glows very faintly, and he is entirely without artifice; Mythal, he looks so calm.

So it's not difficult to admit. Not to herself, at least.

Fenris makes a muzzy sound from beneath the book. "Lock the door."

"What would y'do if I took the lock off?" Merrill wants to know.

"Put it back," he grumbles, bleary. "And then I would lock it, as you should. That is what a lock is for."

"Locks are for humans," Merrill says. Her stomach knots up at the top of her throat. She forgets, sometimes, how attractive Fenris is when he doesn't think that anyone is looking. It's the only time he allows himself to be soft.

"Locks are for anyone who isn't you, witch," Fenris says, dryly. It sounds funny, half-muffled but parchment and leather as it is. The book falls off his face as he sits up, squinting grouchily against the light.

"Then why do y'keep trying?"

"Because I would prefer not to come back to find you with your throat slit."

"I do know how t'take care of myself, Fenris! I'm not going t'get killed, I'm perfectly safe!"

It feels like they're always having this argument, somehow. Merrill won't ever lock her door, and she can take care of herself, and it won't be the first time she's had to survive on her own. Bethany and Alistair left, and Hawke and Isabela left, and the clan left, and Merrill—Merrill watched Fenris leave, too. She hates locking the door, because it means he might not come back at all.

"I know you do," Fenris snaps. He pulls himself up shortly, pauses as though he's about to say something else, mouth parted. They look at one another for a single, unbroken moment.

He looks away first, but Merrill doesn't much feel like she's won anything.

"Witch, please," he says. "For my sanity. Lock your door."

"Oh, fine," sighs Merrill, and goes to lock the door.

Fenris is still sitting up when Merrill makes her way back to her bedroom. There's space between him and the wall, space that wasn't there before; a trembling rush of secret affection washes over Merrill's shoulders.

He doesn't want it, Merrill knows, but that doesn't mean that it just goes away.

And he left her the space.

Merrill crawls into it, over Fenris' knees, and curls up into the bed already warm with body heat. It wouldn't be so terrible to be here forever, would it? Fenris already has her beating bloody heart taken out of her chest. What more can she give him? What more can he do?

"Your hair, witch."

"Hm?"

Fenris raises an eyebrow at the mess her braids have become over the course of the day; between the frightful wind off the sea, and several children clamouring to know when Fenris was going to go hunting again, and finally getting around to pulling out the last of the dead weeds in the communal garden, Merrill knows that she must look a fright.

"A bird might find it a suitable home, but I do not."

"I don't see how it matters. You're not a bird?"

"You will regret it in the morning, witch," Fenris reminds her. "You always do."

"Not always," Merrill mumbles.

"Always," Fenris says, firmly. "Every time. And then you pick at it the next day, and make unhappy noises every time I touch you."

"I don't!"

Fenris makes a noise at the back of his throat; a broken-off thing, not quite a word but almost, and thick with frustration. "Please, witch, may I fix your hair so that we both may sleep?"

Merrill freezes.

He can't know how that sounds. He can't know all the things it implies; he isn't Dalish, much as he sometimes acts it, and Merrill doesn't have it in her to explain.

(Lyna had cut off all of Merrill's hair the year before the Blight took hold. Merrill had been fourteen, still a child in the eyes of the clan, and had managed to get enough sylvan sap and honey in it that there had been no salvaging the situation. And there there'd been the mourning, and she'd kept it short, and the exile, and she'd had kept it short, and then there'd been Hawke, and she'd kept it short because it had been more useful, like that. It's only been recently that Merrill has stopped hacking it off every time it starts to infringe on her eyes; she won't think about what that means, and she certainly won't think about Fenris.

Instead of ruining everything, Merrill nods, a little meek. "If you want."

He is very, very gentle.

Fenris works the braids out, and then works through the tangles. His hands in her hair are liquid magic; Merrill sighs, melting boneless into his side, shivery-tender with bliss.

"Oh," she breathes. "That feels—oh, Fenris, that's lovely—

Merrill drifts.

She doesn't know how long Fenris does this for. The better part of an hour, at least; the evening sun is gone and the sky is ink-dark, the next time Merrill is entirely aware of her own body. She feels like molten gold, brilliant and glowing.

"You look much better," Fenris says.

"No more birds?"

"No more wild animals, I think."

"I-I—thank you?"

"Is that a question, witch?"

"I don't know. Maybe not."

The corner of his mouth lifts. Fenris looks about as tired as Merrill feels, but twice as pleased. He must have had a long day, too; half of the alienage is at him to teach them swordplay, Merrill knows, and the other half is constantly trying to convince him to take them out hunting. If his hair weren't already white, the stress would probably have done it!

Merrill curls up against him, the long lines of his limbs stretched and unreal in the lengthening shadows.

"Shall I braid it or leave it loose?" Fenris rumbles the question.

"Won't it get in your mouth if y'leave it loose?"

He snorts. "That is nothing new."

Merrill settles, some. She doesn't have the energy to be anxious about it, and Fenris is so neutrally careful with her right now that Merrill doesn't want to mess it up with silly questions. The Creators have allowed her this. Maybe it's alright not to question it, just this once.

And Mythal knows, having his hands in her hair feels nice.

Fenris might not know what it means, but Merrill doesn't think it's wrong to pretend. He's here more than he's not, and he's here right now. She tries not to think about tomorrow.

"Witch," Fenris says. Sighs. "Stop thinking so much."

"I don't know how?"

Fenris is very still for a very long moment. He just looks at her, hands still curled into the long soft dark of her hair.

I ought t'tell him what that means, Merrill thinks, faintly.

He won't do it anymore if she does, though. Funnily enough, that's the last thing that Merrill wants.

(Creators, things she thought she'd never say.)

"You think I do not want you," Fenris says, slowly, deliberately. He's staring down at her, his face blank but for the burning bright green of his eyes. "Think about this, then, if you must think. You think I do not want you, witch. You are wrong."

Merrill spends the next three days dissecting this.

(He may have a point. She really is thinking too much.)

Fenris pays her anxiety no more attention than he'd pay a dockside whore. Instead, he slips out of their little home in the mornings just as the sun begins to rise; he goes hunting, and he takes half the alienage children with him. They're all baby halla, stumbling over themselves as they follow him about.

Merrill hates that she thinks it's charming.

Y'don't have to, she'd said, when he'd first started doing it. I want to, Fenris had replied, and left it at that. She still doesn't know what to make of it.

Especially because he's near as gentle with them as he is with her!

Three days that they don't talk about it, though Fenris sleeps curled around her and Merrill buries her face into his neck. Three days of Fenris leaving early and coming back as the sun sets, dragging dead beasts behind him to fill the alienage's winter stores with smoked meat and bone. Three days that Merrill picks at the skin of her nails, bites at her lips, hovers with all her nerves on fire.

And then:

"Here, witch," Fenris says, a little rough.

Merrill blinks. Fenris drops something extraordinarily sparkly into her palms; it's a charm to be hung from a stave, a pretty little chime of a thing made of gold and veridium twine wrapped around smoky white crystal and deep red garnet drops and—

Glinting mirror shards.

Oh, Fenris.

For the fifth time in as many days, Merrill's breath catches in her throat. The roof, and the books, and the deer, and the hair, and now this? Now this? He touches all the things she'd never expected to have for herself; as First, then as exile, now as—something close to Keeper. Not quite a Keeper, but still. Something close.

And it's too much.

Oh, it's too much. "Em, Fenris, d'you know what this is?"

"I gave it to you, did I not?"

"Are you sure?" Merrill asks him. Fenris is staring at her very intensely, scrutinizing her face. Colours paints her cheeks. "I-I don't think y'do? I don't think y'do!"

"Why."

"Well. Erm. Because it's—" Merrill stammers, getting more and more flushed with every breath. She can hear her own accent, the heavy Brecilian lilt, loud in her own ears but she can't make it stop. "Because you're giving it t'me, and it's—you're only t'give something like this t'someone y'want t'Bond to, and I know y'don't want t'be Bonded t'me, of all people—"

"Merrill," Fenris says, choked-off and faint. His eyes are a little glazed. "You cannot be this blind."

"I'm not blind!"

"Do you think I am unaware that it is a Bonding gift? I am not! That is how I meant it, witch!"

Whatever Merrill was about to say strangles itself to a gruesome death in her throat. She stares at him, wide-eyed. "I-I'm sorry, what?"

Fenris exhales slowly, teeth grit together. It looks as though it pains him, all his sharp lines help in high relief: the cords of his neck, the twitch of his jaw, the curl of his knuckles white with pressure. But as the breath leaves him, so does the tension, and Merrill finds herself blinking at a Fenris quiet with resignation.

"I will leave, witch," he says. "I am not—I cannot stay in one place for too long. But I would have you come with me, next time. And if you do not wish to come, I would have you know that I will return, and there will no one else in between."

"Fenris, I…"

"It is you or nothing, witch. Is that not what a Bonding is?"

Merrill inhales, shaking in her soul. "Yes. It is. D'you—Fenris, d'you mean it?"

"I say nothing I do not mean. You know this."

And it's true. Fenris doesn't say things he doesn't mean; not to Merrill, at least. She'd thought he'd just had no reason to lie. She'd also thought he didn't like her very much, but—

The charm glints between her fingers, just like magic.

Merrill isn't unhappy to be wrong. The edges of the mirror shards are sanded down soft; she couldn't hurt herself with them if she tries. "I didn't know y'kept any of it."

Fenris coughs, the tips of his ears darkening with a flush. It hides in the brown of his skin; if Merrill hadn't been looking for it, she'd have missed it entirely. But now that she sees it, she doesn't think she can stop seeing it. Fenris, blushing.

Not for the first time, Merrill wonders what else she's missed, following balls of twine all the way home.

"Do you like it?" he asks.

"It's beautiful."

"Then you will keep it?"

"Yes," she manages, high-pitched. "Yes, I—yes. You want t'take me with you, Fenris. If y'really promise t'come back, too, I'll keep it."

Something relaxes in in the set of his mouth, his eyes crinkling at the corners. He never really smiles, Fenris, but his gaze is very fond as it passes over her.

It's better than a smile, thinks Merrill.

(There's an old Dalish tradition that a Bonding gift ought to have a bit of something that the two Bondmates killed together. Lyna had worn fingerbones in her hair for as long as Merrill could remember, from a shem come to raid the clan; she and Tamlen had killed the man together, and Lyna had worn the bones always, after. The mirror shards in her hands feel like that, Merrill thinks. Just like that. Maybe it was only a mirror that she and Fenris killed, but it was a mirror they killed together.)

It occurs to Merrill that this whole time, this whole time she'd thought it had been a courting, she'd not been wrong. The roof, and the books, and the deer, and the hair, and the charm. It's every Bonding tradition she's ever known.

Oh, Mythal, she has been blind.

"How long have you been courting me, Fenris?"

"Nearly a year, witch," he says. Sighs like this is a sweet relief, swipes a thumb along her lower lip. There is a fine tremble to his hands.

"Really? That long?"

"Yes, that long," he says. "Thank you for finally noticing."

.

.

.

.

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fin.