dedication: to emily and sonya and claire.
notes: listen. sometimes a bitch just wants to write fenris experiencing emotions, okay
notes2: make your way — EMBRZ.
title: until the night collapses
summary: A baby. He brings her a baby. Oh, Creators. — Merrill/Fenris.
Fenris wakes with the worst crick in his neck that he's ever had the misfortune to live through.
It still rains, a faint pale grey sound muffled from outside. Disorientation as he shakes himself awake. Fenris blinks what little rest he's had from the eaves of his eyes, and finds himself staring blearily at the witch. She's sleep-mussed and slow-moving, and—smiling at the child.
"You're very pretty, aren't you," she tells the child, very seriously. "Everyone is going t'be so jealous when you grow up!"
"Envious, witch," Fenris says. His voice sounds like he's gargled sand, scratchy and rough. Everything hurts. "The correct word is envious."
"Envious, then," she agrees, easily. The witch dangles her fingers in front of the child's face, laughs quietly when he catches her fingers and attempts to stuff them in his mouth, chews roundly on them when she allows this. She is delighted. "Oh, the wee thing is growing teeth!"
"Teething," says Fenris, and closes his eyes.
"You never told me his name?" the witch says. She still does not bother to look at Fenris as she says it, far too busy babbling at the child. He understands the urge, as it has consumed him for days. Odd, then, when he is so unacquainted with care.
"You will not like it, witch," Fenris sighs, after a moment. He cracks one eye open to glance her over.
"It doesn't really matter what it is, y'know—"
"He does not have one."
The witch pauses, at that. She raises her head, stares Fenris straight in the face. "What've you been calling him, then?"
Puer, which means only child. He does not tell her this. He does not need the witch to know the inside confines of his mind; he would prefer that she did not. Fenris is aware that he is intruding, but there was no one else—the thought of Hawke near a baby near overcame him with hysterics, and he will not subject himself to this torture a second time—and the witch is…
She is curled in her bed around the child as though she has done it every day of her life.
(At the time, it made sense to bring the child to the witch. Fenris will also not tell her this, either.)
"Nothing," Fenris says. "It did not seem… fair."
"Oh," says the witch. Her voice falls, soft as eiderdown. Fenris expects pity in her face, but finds none when he looks for it. It is as though she simply—understands. Fenris is not so very good at names. He is even worse at Dalish names. It would not have been right. "We should pick something, then, don't y'think? It's strange t'keep calling him baby."
Fenris crooks an eyebrow at her. It is a struggle not to give into the beginnings of the headache between his ears. "What would you name him?"
"Oh, I hadn't thought that far," the witch says, raising her face to blink owlishly. "I've never had t'name anyone before."
He huffs, biting down on a tiny flare of amusement. It hurts his head.
"Go on, witch," Fenris says.
The witch thinks for a drawn-out moment, chewing on her thumbnail. Fenris watches the way she traces over the child's nose, tapping right on the tip and giggling at him when he burbles. Something horrible twists in Fenris' chest.
"Would you mind if it were elvhen? Or ancient?"
"Your name is neither ancient nor elven," Fenris feels compelled to point out.
"No, not really, but I was named after someone," she says. "We could call him Hawke?"
"She would never let anyone live that down," says Fenris, very flatly. "No, witch."
"He is not a griffon."
The witch smiles out of the corner of her mouth. He gets the sense that she is laughing at him. Infuriating. "Oh, see, y'do listen t'me, sometimes!"
Fenris restrains himself from glaring at her. It is far too early to be arguing. "If you are going to be difficult—"
"Aren't I always, a little bit?"
"Oh, alright, if you're going t'be like that," the witch shakes her head. She tucks a wild lock of hair away behind her ear. It's longer than Fenris has ever seen it, thick and ink-dark, and it slides over her shoulders like clouds of ash. The thin lines of blood-writing drawn into her skin is blurred through the translucence of her sleep-shift. He doesn't stare. "Names are important, y'know."
"I am aware."
"There's—I—" starts the witch, and then she falls silent. Curls a little closer around the child.
"What," says Fenris.
Before the witch can answer him, the babe takes her attention away. "Oh! You poor thing, y'must be hungry!"
Fenris is surprised that the child is not yet screaming bloody murder. He is not usually this easy, or this calm; it had taken several days before Fenris had managed the knack of hushing him quiet while he found a satisfactory meal.
But the witch is, Fenris supposes, magic.
She stretches into standing, scooping the babe up in her arms and making for the kitchen. All of his bones creak as Fenris rises from the chair he slept in to follow the trail of witch-cooing and baby-laughter behind them. The ache from the cold will not leave his fingers until the sun is well and full in the sky.
But it is good to be in Kirkwall, again.
It is good to be away from Tevinter.
"Fenris, d'you want tea?" the witch cranes her neck around to look over her shoulder. She stands in the doorway, the top of the child's dark brown head and his dark brown eyes peeped up by her chin; they are both so sleep-soft and warm, dripping with foreign comfort that is so alien to Fenris' experience that he near recoils from it.
"I would not be averse," Fenris says, lowly, biting down on the sudden acidity at the back of his throat.
It is not that Fenris particularly enjoys tea, but it is hot and will force the cold from his limbs a smidge faster than it would otherwise leave. The witch is not a horrible cook; he has consumed worse meals than what she manages to scrounge together, when he is left to his own devices.
The child will eat better with the two of them working at it, for certain.
Fenris is not entirely sure why this slows his pulse, only that it does.
And so he follows her into the kitchen, pale winter light in through the windows. The wind rattles at the shutters, and the alienage outside filters in so loud already.
He does not know how she can stand it.
The witch's abode is hers. There is discomfort in the impulse to offer his help; Fenris does not know how she arranges her life, because he is outside of it. There are little bundles of dried greens hanging by the washbasin, spiky purple thistle-flower petals scattered haphazard near her books. There is a cracked porcelain water pitcher, a round of dry sausage and the odds and ends of a loaf of bread covered by a moth-eaten cloth.
She has built herself a life.
And he is intruding.
This knowledge that it is not without reason does not make him more content for it.
"Witch," Fenris says, finally. His head is throbbing, bright and hot. "Tea. Please."
The witch hasn't been paying him any attention, busy babbling nonsense at the child. She goes very still for a long moment that seems to hang without end, before she turns to look him over. She blinks several times very rapidly, almost too fast to follow, and a complicated series of emotions flit across her face.
"Fenris," she says, a moment later, "Go back t'bed."
"What," says Fenris.
"Go back t'bed," the witch repeats, a little more firmly. Her mouth thins, as though she's preparing herself for a fight. "And not in the chair! On the bed, I won't be in it, and I'll keep an eye on the wee'un. But y'need t'get some rest."
"I do not—"
"Y'do, Fenris. You look like you're about t'fall over!"
Somehow, Fenris gets the sense that this is not something the witch is willing to compromise about. She has that set to her jaw that she used to get about the mirror; bull-headed. It is odd to have it shone in his own direction.
"Sleeping will get nothing done, witch."
"I promise I won't tell Varric or Aveline that you've come home for three days, if y'go back t'bed right now," the witch says, without a trace of shame that she's attempting to bribe him.
Attempting and succeeding, damn her. This is deeply unfair, as it plays into the one thing that she could offer to get her way. Fenris narrows his eyes at her. "You promise, witch?"
"If y'don't go t'bed, Fenris, I'll go to the Hanged Man to t'talk to Varric," she says, eyes cool. She's already won this argument, and they are both aware of it. Fenris tries very hard to hate her. "Right now, y'know I will, you couldn't stop me if y'tried. So, yes, I promise not t'tell them."
"If I sleep."
"Only if y'sleep."
"I am not a child, witch, I do not need to be told when to rest!"
"You're behaving like one," the witch retorts. "Can y'even stand up without dying?"
Fenris chooses to glare at her, because he cannot say for certain that she is not correct. He is not about to attempt standing while she's watching, either, because she is not, perhaps, entirely wrong. He also does not want to admit that she is not perhaps entirely wrong, as that would be tantamount to admitting defeat and accepting surrender.
There is one acceptable option, and that is to ignore the other options entirely.
He takes it.
"Do not lose the child, witch," Fenris says, glowering only a little.
"Y'wouldn't' have come if y'didn't plan t'trust me with him," the witch says, very reasonably, which is somehow even more infuriating.
Fenris, as it turns out, cannot stand when the witch is reasonable. "Do not go near the Gallows."
"No," she says. "I never do."
The quiet, painful cool of her voice is unlike anything Fenris has heard from the witch ever before. He squints at her, hunting for whatever the strangeness is, but can't find it. The witch's shoulders hunch up around her ears, and for a moment, it's like no time has passed at all, and Hawke's shadow is backlit violent red by the smoking remains of the Chantry explosion.
But it smooths out, and there is nothing left but calm in her face. She moves sharply like a bird, tipping her head back and forth. There is something of a crow in it, a smeary creature made of ash, a nightmare thing, there and then gone.
You may not be so far off about needing to rest, Fenris thinks darkly.
It is weakness, but it is not weakness that he has any say in. The witch has the nerve to pointedly raise her eyebrows at him.
"Are you going t'bed, or not?" she asks. It is very clear which option she prefers.
Fenris glares at her.
The witch takes this with very good grace, which only makes it worse.
"Fine," growls Fenris, and goes. There is no door to slam, only the witch's curtain to partition her room from the rest of the place. If he didn't feel so foul, he'd stay awake just to spite her.
Unfortunately, he does feel foul.
The witch's bed is wider than he expected, and more comfortable. Fenris fights annoyance. The blankets are a mess. There is no reason for this. The day is begun, he is not—
He is still fighting the annoyance as he crawls into the witch's bed, and then he falls asleep.
This is how they come to pass the days, as winter settles over Kirkwall, and Fenris settles into the alienage. The witch is up with the sun when it deigns to peek from behind the greyscale of cloud-cover, shivering light down the vhenadahl's near-bare branches. One breath of wind would be enough to strip it, but the air is perfectly still, save for the hustles and sigh of the elves streaming in and out of the alienage gates.
Belatedly, Fenris remembers why he does not enjoy the alienage.
It is so miserable here.
But the witch seems content enough, bustling the child about on the meagre curve of her hip, only smiling when anyone asks her a question about it. She evades it so thoroughly that Fenris would almost think she were trying to protect them both.
Fenris sleeps more, in these first few weeks, than he has slept in possibly his entire life. It is a strange routine; the witch rises and takes the child with her, and Fenris crawls into the space left warm in bed. He does not know where she goes in the mornings—out into the alienage, he assumes, though to do what, he does not know.
He is asleep through it, regardless.
Fenris allows himself to sleep until noon-bell, and then the witch returns.
It is one of these mornings, after he has dragged himself from the witch's bed and back into the kitchen to sit with a cup of long-gone-cold elfroot tea, when the witch comes blowing in with the babe in her arms and the winter wind biting at her heels.
Fasta vass, it is cold—
Fenris cracks open one eye to glance at her. The witch is pink in the cheeks, bright-eyed and finished divesting the child of a thick scarf. He did not imagine that she said something. "What?"
"For the wee'un. I think we ought t'call him Iseth!"
"And what does that mean, witch?"
It takes her a moment to reply, but when she does, her brows pull together in faint consternation. "Y'don't hate it, do you?"
"I do not," Fenris says, and exhales heavily. She is impossible. "But I cannot read your mind. What does it mean?"
The witch fiddles with hem of her tunic, and it occurs to Fenris that she is not pink simply from the cold—the witch is blushing. The cold could only explain the first few minutes of the bite, but it remains, staining her skin far longer than it ought.
Fenris is appalled.
The colour in the witch's cheeks deepens. "It's nothing bad!"
"Really, it isn't!"
"Fire, Fenris. It means fire!"
Fenris pauses. Blinks. Ponders it for a long moment, and then another. The witch does not entirely manage to look him in the eye, choosing instead to stare at the floor and her knuckles in turn, but Fenris does not begrudge her this.
It is no small thing, choosing a name.
"I think it suits him? He's just so small, and always so warm, and sometimes he laughs and—" the witch has started to babble, knotting her fingers through one another, voice gone high and panicky. Fenris had forgotten she allowed this, the vicious little zig-zag of her own distrust.
She had not always been so impossible. Fenris owes her an apology, but he has no idea where to start.
"Do you like it?" he asks, very slowly. He stares at a spot left of her ear, careful not to meet her gaze and startle her. The witch is trying; he can smell no new blood on her, and her magic feels less like old rust than it used to. It burns less. She is trying.
And so Fenris can try, too.
"I—" the witch breaks off to blink at him. "I wouldn't have said it if I didn't, I don't think?"
"Then I have no objections," says Fenris. It is easy to give her this.
The witch's face lights up like a lamp, quick bright joy. She tucks her hair behind her ear again, wraps her arms around herself in imitation of an embrace, and beams at him like unfiltered sunlight.
For a terrible moment, Fenris has the very foreign thought that it might be nice to hug her.
Isabela used to hug the witch as a matter of course, all loose limbs and easy laughter over the crackle of the fire in the Hanged Man. Varric and Hawke, as well; they always seemed to find casual touch so simple. Fenris is still no good, in this; carrying the child about is one thing, but the witch is quite another.
It should not be so simple to make her so happy. He is aware she must be lonely, and perhaps it is this awareness that prompts the urge to wrap his arms around the slim of her shoulders.
Fenris does not indulge it, but it is there all the same.
The day whiles away like this, what little daylight there is passing away above their heads. The candles in the alienage windows prickle along his skin, a thousand little glowing lights. The witch puts up two, and leaves them to burn down.
There is something of home to the ritual, perhaps. He would not know. He has no comparison.
Home is not a concept that Fenris has ever been able to grasp.
"Fenris," she says, that evening after they've managed to get some food into the child, and have settled down in front of the fire with a set of wooden blocks that Fenris had scavenged from the docks a day previous when no one was looking.
"D'you remember—" the witch pauses. hesitates, then barrels on, "—oh, I s'pose it was a very long time ago, but do you remember—the magistrate's son? Kelder, in the ruins, he—"
"Ah," says Fenris. The memory is thick with blood and disgust, the slight lift of Hawke's eyebrow. He'd not known her, then. He'd known the witch even less. "Yes. I remember. What od it?"
"I was thinking about—children, Fenris, he took children. Elvhen children. I don't think I understood, then. Maybe I was naïve! But now…"
And she trails off, her gaze dropping to the child between them, chewing happily on his blocks. He's very small, the shiny pearl of new teeth only just beginning to push out into his mouth. He gurgles at them gleefully.
It is not difficult to tell what is going through her mind.
I would be more furious, now. I wouldn't forgive it so easily.
Fenris knows the feeling. It remains buried beneath his sternum, the burning violent regard for this tiny creature who barely has a name.
"Is it too late t'say thank you for killing him?" asks the witch. Her hands are knotted in her lap, twitching like she's trying not to wring them. "I'd heard stories, y'know. The alienage was safer, after."
"It is your home," says Fenris, which is a stupid thing to say, but he does not always know how to be kind to her, even when she has done nothing to warrant his cruelty. It has been a learning curve, living in the south. She has been a learning curve, now more than ever.
Eight years, and Fenris is still trying to get it right.
She blinks at him several times, a shatterbox impression of sunlight through leaves, dark-light-dark. Her eyes are very green, the witch. It startles him, sometimes.
"And it was the right thing," he adds, quietly. "He did not deserve to live."
Something eases in the witch's face, though whatever it is stabs at a spot tender behind his ribs. He can remember the witch smiling at him directly only rarely, but she does it now; full and wide and sweet, utterly without guile.
It turns his stomach in a hundred ways.
"Underneath all the grumpiness you're really quite nice," the witch says. Smiling, still. "I'm glad y'decided t'come back, Fenris."
Fenris does not know how to answer this. If there was anyone else, witch, he wishes to say, I would have gone there.
But there is no one else; there is only Kirkwall, and there is the witch, and there is the sharp tug beneath his heart when he sees the witch blow a bubble against the top of the child's head, affection in every gesture.
He cannot tell her this. He does not have the words.
Perhaps he does not need them, however; the witch has turned her attention back to the child and his blocks, and it is silent and still inside of Fenris' head for the first time in a very long time. He did not think it possible to find this sort of peace in her presence. It has always been too sharp between them, too hurting in a way they had both contributed to.
He is aware that his contribution was always more a cause of their enmity than hers. The word monster still feels like ash on his tongue.
Fenris had been angry. In many ways, he is angry still.
But he is no longer angry at the witch. How can he be, when she has asked him not one question he was not willing to answer? How can he, when the child sleeps in her bed without waking, and cries only he hasn't had something to eat on time? How can he, when she has asked nothing—nothing—of him in return?
He is not in the habit of being ungrateful for things.
Not to Hawke. Not to Varric. Not to the witch, now, either.
"Do not thank me, witch," Fenris says under his breath. He says it only because he knows she will not hear; she is entirely consumed with engaging the child, and would not answer him even if she could.
Fenris shakes his head to himself. Sighs. Speaks lower, yet again.
"I have done nothing to deserve it."
Fenris is not avoiding Varric.
He is avoiding the inevitable crooked eyebrow and the mocking that is endemic to Varric. These are not the same thing. But he is not avoiding Varric.
There is simply very little reason to go to the Hanged Man. The child and the witch are in the alienage; Aveline is busy with the guard, and thus Fenris is not avoiding Varric. The timing has been less than ideal. That is all.
But Fenris knows, as soon as he closes the door behind him that Varric has been here or is here still, and he will be able to avoid it no longer.
(To absolutely no one's surprise, Fenris is, in fact, avoiding Varric.)
The witch perks up at the sight of him. Fenris does not think he will ever entirely get used to it; she is a sleeping-springtime thing, her hair loose and dark, green growing things. She smiles at him without artifice, and he does not think he will ever get used to that, either.
"Varric says that if y'don't stop avoiding him, he's going t'set the Carta on you," the witch says, very cheerfully for someone imparting such a threat. "And the merchant's guild. And Donnic. And if y'ignore all of them, he's going t'set Aveline on, after that!"
"As though the Captain of the guard does not have better things to do," mutters Fenris under his breath, though he would not put it past Aveline to take part in the farce. And Aveline, regrettably, is the only one that Fenris fears might be able to force him into something he does not wish to do, if she thinks it is for his own good.
Fenris would not put it past Varric to appeal to Aveline's better sense.
There are, Fenris reflects, no lows to which Varric will not sink.
"Varric worries, that's all," says the witch.
Fenris knows this, too. But the witch is often in need of someone's worry. She requires someone to look after her; much of the time, she is so very unaware of how the world watches her.
Or doesn't, as the case may be.
He has not forgotten that Varric used to pay off the undercity gangs to leave the witch alone. It strikes him that not much has changed. Varric is likely still paying off the undercity gangs to leave her alone, except that now that is moot, as Fenris will look after her whether he wants to or not.
"I do not require it, witch."
"I don't see how telling me that is going t'change anything?" the witch says.
She is not wrong. Fenris keeps his mouth stubbornly shut, lest he agree with her aloud. He glares at her instead.
To his very great surprise, the witch starts to laugh. "Oh, Fenris. That's going t'stop working if y'keep doing it so often!"
"How," Fenris says. He is not offended. He is not offended at all.
"Well, now I know that y'don't really mean it—"
"What makes you think I do not mean it, witch—"
"—you're really not that frightening, I did see you clean Iseth's face off at supper—"
"—I mean it every single time; I have not ever not meant it—"
"—and now that I know it doesn't really mean anything, I s'pose I'll have to tell Varric—"
"—if you tell Varric anything, witch, I swear I will—"
"—or Isabela! Or Hawke! Oh, d'you think I ought t'tell Hawke—"
"—Hawke is worse—!"
"—or Bethany! Oh, I ought t'tell Bethany, she'll think it very funny, because it is very funny, you're so very grumpy all the time—"
"—what am I going to—witch, you will not tell anyone anything—"
And then she laughs again, mouth puckering into a mischievous little smile that Fenris has never seen in his entire life. There is something to it that he cannot entirely name; a clean pure amusement like glacial river water, clear all the way down. He would not associate it with her, not when he knows her only in blood and rust and roots growing up through the ground, but then—
Truly, Fenris does not know her. Perhaps he ought not be surprised by this.
"Varric wanted me t'tell you that he'll be waiting for you in the Hanged Man, and if y'don't come, he'll be very upset," the witch says.
Fenris sighs heavily. "Is there a threat in there somewhere, witch?"
"Yes, I think so?"
He did not want to do this today. He wanted to sit with the child, to listen to the quiet hum of the witch's voice as she reads, to the drip of the rain turning into mist.
He did not want to tromp all the way up to Lowtown to entertain Varric Tethras.
But there is no helping it.
Varric will be even more unbearable than the witch, if he's left to his own devices. The witch, at least, has some sense in her head.
Not much, mind you, but some.
Fenris pauses, looks at her. The firelight is all that's left; the sun sinks down into the Waking Sea and leaves the horizon a streaked-out mess of indigo and crimson, bloody scars across the sky. It is nothing like the night that the world exploded. It is so cold and so wet, Fenris almost expects it to begin to snow.
"Would you mind if I go to make him quiet, witch? I will not be long."
The edges of the witch's lips curl. She is—almost pretty, when she does that. Almost soft. Fenris shakes the thought away, and waits for her answer.
"I think I'd be disappointed if y'didn't? Varric misses you!"
She is impossible.
Fenris comes home early.
Merrill looks up, blinking owlishly, when the front door opens. The sun's been down an hour, but only an hour; it's barely dark! The alienage has slowed only to its meagre bits and bobs, the candles glowing at the foot of the vhenadahl the last of the day's light. Bruise-blue nighttime hovers around the city's shoulders, just waiting.
He's swaying in the doorframe to her bedroom, eyes half-lidded, a funny little quirk to his mouth that she'd call fond if she didn't know better. Fenris' shoulders are loose and easy, the lines to his face more relaxed than she's ever seen. He closes the door behind him with a quiet click, liquid grace in the lines.
"There you are, witch," Fenris says, a warm, slow exhalation like a sigh.
"Well, yes, where else would I be?" Merrill asks him. "You're home early. I didn't expect t'see you 'til morning… did y'have a good time?"
"Yes," he says, and that's all.
Merrill isn't sure what she's expecting, but whatever she was expecting isn't what happens. Fenris ambles towards her, tucked around Iseth as she is, and stops only when he brushes the side of the bed. She blinks up at him, her book open on her knees, the flicker of the candlelight glinting gold and red in the corner of her eye. She thinks—
Oh, Creators, she doesn't know what she thinks.
"Fenris," Merrill says. "Is everything alright? Are y'going to come to bed? Or are y'going to sleep in the chair again?"
"I would prefer to sleep where you do," Fenris says. He tips forwards just enough to sink down against the bed, against her side, against her. There's wine on his breath and something else besides, a little sweet, a little sour. He presses his face into her hair behind her ear, breathes in. "You are very warm."
"Oh," Merrill murmurs. She doesn't dare move. "Aren't you going t'be very upset with me when you're back t'normal?"
"I am never upset with you, witch," Fenris tells her.
"Well, now I know you're going t'be upset with me," she laughs very softly. Merrill doesn't have it in her to push him away, even if it would certainly be in both of their best interests. Fenris so rarely allows himself the leeway of comfort.
"No," he says. "Iseth is asleep. I will not be upset with you."
Somehow, Merrill doesn't think morning-sober-Fenris is going to much appreciate what nighttime-drunk-Fenris thinks is the correct course of action. But he's rather heavy, and most of his weight is already on top of her, and really, it's not as though there's anything wrong with a full night's sleep! Creators, but Fenris could use a full night's sleep. She can't imagine how he's managing on the few hours he gets when she takes Iseth out to walk the fish market in the mornings. "Shouldn't y'take your armour off? It's very spiky."
"Hmn," Fenris hums, content and bleary in agreement.
Metal clanks as it hits the ground, dark spiky pauldrons and gauntlets and greaves. They settle like shadows on the ground, and Merrill finds herself helping Fenris crawl into bed next to her, shivering against the gush of cold air he'd let in from outside. He huffs against her temple, tucking himself against her back.
"Turn out the light, witch," Fenris rumbles into her ear.
With a tiny puff, the candle blows out, and the room plunges into darkness.
Merrill doesn't know how long she holds her breath, but it's quite a long time. Fenris breathes at her back, and the rain's finally stopped; there is only the far-away crash of the sea against the breakwater, and very little else. His arm is heavy over her waist, and she doesn't think she's ever been this warm in her life.
"Please don't be angry with me," Merrill whispers into the dark.
Fenris, rather predictably, says nothing at all.