AN: Sup guys. So I have a crazy work week this week so no chapter next week i just won't have the time. But I made sure to get one done for this week so it's not too bad a wait. Thank you again for all the reviews and wonderful messages. They mean the world to me every one.
Fenris didn't leave his home unless he had to for two days. He hadn't realized just how exhausted the excursion into the Vimmark Mountains had made him, and he wound up sleeping in twelve hour bursts.
He was awoken mid-afternoon by a timid but quick knocking on his door. He hadn't been in deep sleep, or he never would have heard it otherwise. He forced himself out of bed and down the stairs to open his front door. It obviously wasn't any of his comrades as they never used the front entrance.
"Letter for you sir," a small boy said, handing him a folded up piece of paper with his name scrawled over it.
"Thank you," he said, taking the letter and watching the urchin bolt back into the thrum of Hightown.
The handwriting was unfamiliar, and if that wasn't enough to make him wary, he had no idea who would even have cause to write him a letter. He tore open the generic seal as he made his way back upstairs and checked the signature at the bottom before reading.
It was from Bethany. What the devil?
It occurred to me yesterday that before the calamity with the Carta and Corypheus, you came to visit me in the Gallows with a very different intention than fighting off an army of bloodthirsty dwarves. What with all the insanity the past week, I had completely forgotten about it until just recently.
If I recall correctly you came to me seeking advice on teaching Nara to swim. I don't know how much help I would be on the subject, you know very well she rarely listens to anyone, but I might be able to offer a little insight.
I don't remember when she fell through the ice. We were all very young. Ever since, though, she's been terrified of being submerged in water. It was years before we could even convince her to come into shallow water with us, even if she could easily stand.
You know how capable she is. Once she learns the mechanics, she will master swimming with the same ruthless efficiency that she masters everything. The problem will not be in teaching her, but in getting her to trust the water. I remember she says being in the water is like being 'swallowed up'. Before you can teach her the technical aspect of swimming, your biggest hurdle will be in getting her to be calm in it.
I have no idea how you can do that, but I'm starting to think that if anyone can, it's you.
Good luck, Fenris. I'm rooting for you.
Fenris sat down at the desk in his bedroom and laid the letter flat on the top of it as he thought over its contents. Bethany had a point. Once Anara knew the mechanics of swimming, she would excel at it the way she did everything else. How would he get her comfortable with being submerged, he wondered. Bethany's insight seemed obvious, but Fenris was grateful for it. Perhaps he had been looking at the problem wrong. His motivation for the whole thing was invigorated; perhaps he would bring it up to Anara on their walk home from Wicked Grace tomorrow night.
He fished out a blank piece of paper from the supplies Anara had left him when she first started teaching him how to read and began to pen a reply to Bethany.
Thank you for your letter. I am sorry for the quality of my script as this is the first occasion I have had to pen a letter. I should also apologize for any misspellings as I am still new at this.
I am sure you are right about Anara being perfectly capable once she learns the basics. Your insite is appreciated. Thank you for your vote of confidence. I will do my best in helping your sister to learn to swim.
Fenris smiled down at his haphazardly scrawled letter. He re-wrote it on a fresh piece of paper once he was mostly certain he caught all of his spelling mistakes and stood to see it delivered. He only hoped Bethany could read it.
Hawke would have loved to spend a few days recuperating from the nonsense in the Vimmark Mountains, but that just didn't seem to be in the cards for her. She had apparently missed two very important social events while she'd been gone and her mother was determined for her to make up for it.
She found that, surprisingly, she didn't mind it this time. Whenever the nobles of Hightown were their typical boring selves, Hawke let her mind wander to sitting on Fenris' roof, running the tips of her fingers over his tattoos. She thought about how he had turned his head, allowing her to run her fingers down the side of his throat, only to turn and meet her eyes again, the slightest hint of a smile tugging at the corner of his lips.
More than once someone commented on her good mood when they caught her grinning like a fool.
After the tediousness of catching up with the social whirl, Hawke was more than glad to help Merrill with whatever business she had with Keeper Marethari. Varric could not be bothered, so Hawke sent word to Isabela. Hawke was rather impressed, albeit a little suspicious, of her timeliness.
"Magpie," Isabela said by way of greeting. She was standing in front of the fire in Hawke's front room, waiting for the rogue to come downstairs.
"We've got work, Izzy," Hawke said, closing the distance between them.
"It's about time," she said with a sway of her hips. "You've left me at the Hanged Man to drown in my vices for long enough."
"Might I remind you," Hawke drawled, "that last time I counted on your assistance, I nearly found myself concussed."
"You're really never going to let me live that down, are you?"
"Of course not," Hawke said with a grin before pulling on her hood. "What are friends for?"
"What is it we're doing?"
"A favor for Merrill. We have to go out to the Wounded Coast where the Dalish are and try to get some... artifact from the Keeper. I'm going to need you to be my voice."
"Your voice?" she asked. "Varric isn't coming?"
"I'm shocked. You never go anywhere without him."
"He's otherwise occupied."
"Varric? Too busy for your shenanigans?" Isabella scoffed.
"I think he's found a lead on his brother and he won't rest until he runs it down. You know how he gets when he's on a trail."
"Alright then, Magpie. Is there a plan?"
"Go get Merrill. Fenris and I will meet you outside the city gate. Be very respectful when speaking to the Keeper, but stay on your guard. I do not know what this... artifact does, nor do I plan on simply turning it over to Merrill before I know more about it."
"You can't think that Kitten has any... nefarious plans."
"Of course not," Hawke said with a sigh. "But, I am perfectly prepared to protect her from herself, if that's what it takes. I get the feeling she doesn't quite know with what she is toying."
"I keep forgetting that she is a blood mage... she's so innocent and pretty and kind."
"I know," Hawke conceded, taking Isabella by the shoulders. "But she's dangerous, Izzy. You have to remember that."
"Well," Isabella said with a sigh. "We'd best get moving then."
Fenris never got the chance to bring up swimming lessons again. The next time he saw Hawke, he was giving her back the gloves she'd left on his roof and following her to the Wounded Coast. The Dalish encampment was nowhere near the sea, thankfully, but it still made Fenris uneasy.
He could tell, even through her impenetrable silence, that Hawke was conflicted about the business with Merrill. She hated blood magic, and the recent excursion into her family's past had done nothing to gain her good opinion. On the other hand, however, Fenris knew she loved Merrill; it was hard not to. She was so kind and ignorant of the world. Even Fenris felt pained as Merrill mourned over the friends she found dead in the caves. Her tiny hands trembled as she picked up the emblem of each dead man and put it in her pouch.
Even when they'd manage to find one alive, it wasn't going much better.
"Stay back," Pol screeched. "What do you want from me?"
"Pol," Merrill said, holding out a hand to him. "What's wrong? I'm here to help."
"Stay back!" Pol demanded again. "Don't touch me!"
"Merrill couldn't hurt you if she tried," Isabella chimed. "The worst I've seen her do is make those... pouty faces."
"She'll do more than hurt me!" Pol roared. "Don't you know what she is?"
Pol turned to run further into the caves, crying for someone to help him as he went. Fenris refrained from mentioning that they were the only help that was likely to show up, since he saw little point in trying to speak to the frenzied elf. Merrill chased after him, and the rest of the party followed after her, screeching to a halt when the varterral emerged and skewered Pol through the ribcage.
"Pol!" Merrill screeched.
"Maker, what is that thing?" Isabela asked, unsheathing her daggers. "It looks like a giant, fanged stick insect."
"It's the varterral," Merrill said urgently. "Hurry! We must get to Pol."
It was not an easy creature to defeat. Its massive branch-like limbs were long enough to reach across the entire cave, making it difficult to get behind it or out of its range. When they finally managed to fell the creature and all its clawing underlings, the entire party was scathed and winded.
"That was unpleasant," Isabela groaned, picking up her dagger from where it had been thrown.
"Pol," Merrill cried before turning to her friends. "Help—Help me!"
The party turned to look at her as she sat on her knees, trying to pull the younger man's torso into her lap.
"We can—we can get him to the Keeper," she said, her voice thick and choking with emotion. "She can heal anything. Why aren't you helping me?"
"Merrill," Hawke said gently, putting a hand on her shoulder from behind. "There's nothing a healer can do. He's gone. I'm sorry."
A strangled sob burst from her throat as she curled around the boy's lifeless body. "Why?" she squeaked out. "Why did you run? You—you should have understood, you shouldn't— you shouldn't have..." Her sentence melted into soft, mournful sobs.
The rest of them stood in silence. There was nothing to say, and they all knew it. Merrill wiped her eyes, sniffling as Hawke helped her to her feet. They walked out of the cave in relative silence, Isabela leading the way back.
"I want to speak to the Keeper," Merrill said, the tone of her voice strengthening with resolve. "Pol was... worldly. City-born. He should have understood. Something's not right. He... he ran from me like I was a monster."
"You are a monster," Fenris said matter-of-factly.
Merrill stiffened, but kept walking.
Hawke roughly palmed his chest plate, forcing him to an abrupt stop as Isabela led Merrill out of the caves. She waited until they were safely out of earshot before turning her frigid, golden eyes on him. He had grown so used to her eyes being filled with warmth and sincerity when she looked at him that it was startling to be on the receiving end of her frozen gaze again.
"That was ill timed and unnecessary," she said in that low, threatening tone of hers.
"It is the truth," he said simply, confused by her anger.
"It doesn't matter. Don't do it again."
"Hawke, she needs to realize the danger she is playing with."
"She just found three of her friends' corpses while she watched a fourth die. It was not the time for your life lessons, it was a time for sympathy."
"Sympathy is what got her here," Fenris growled. "The lot of you treat Merrill like she's a child to be coddled. She is an adult and what she's doing is wrong."
"Making yourself the villain is all well and good until you are more concerned with being a prick than you are with the feelings of your friends, Fenris."
"What are you saying, that I should hold her and tell her everything is alright? Let her ignore the weight of her decisions?"
"I'm saying," she sneered, her tone low and menacing, "that out of all of us, you also know what it's like to turn on the people who were trying to protect you, and your superiority rings oddly hollow to those of us who know it."
Fenris froze as the image of the Fog Warriors crashed through his mind. His hands bunched into fists and a flash of outrage went through him. How dare she use that against him? How dare she bring up something he told her in confidence and hold it over his head.
However, the anger fizzled just as quickly as it had risen. She was right. It had not been the time nor the place to chastise Merrill so fiercely. He exhaled and relaxed against the wall, looking down at Hawke's hand keeping him pinned by his chest piece.
"You are right, of course," he said softly, meeting her gaze again. "That is exactly the fate I wish to see her avoid. Her kindness and naivety that you find so endearing will not last long once she was awoken to find herself surrounded by the corpses of those that had trusted her."
Hawke's features softened and her head tilted to the side. "Your story will not be hers, Fenris."
"How can you be so sure?" he asked, arching an eyebrow.
"She has us," Hawke said softly, giving his chest piece an affectionate pat before walking past him and out of the caves. He waited a few moments before finally following.
Fenris was lost in his thoughts throughout the entire trek back to Kirkwall. He wondered if his time with the Fog Warriors would have been different if he'd had a friend who knew the danger that awaited him. He wondered if the Fog Warriors would still be alive if he had known Hawke then.
He hoped so.
Isabela and Hawke both said their goodbyes to Merrill outside of the elf's home, and it wasn't until Merrill disappeared behind the door that Fenris made a decision.
He felt Hawke's eyes on him as he went through the door to Merrill's home.
"Fenris," Merrill said as she turned to face him. She obviously hadn't been expecting him to be the one to follow her in. "If you're here to talk me out of fixing the mirror, save your breath. I've already—"
"Enough," Fenris said, holding up a hand to cease her rambling. "I am here to apologize."
"You, what?" she asked, clearly surprised by his words. "You are?"
"Not for my words," he clarified, "but for the manner and timing with which I delivered them. I do not think I said anything inherently wrong, but I was obviously tactless in the matter. You suffered a grave loss today, and I am sorry for it."
She was silent for a long time as she slowly sat down in the chair she'd been standing in front of.
"Thank you, Fenris," she said after a while. "I still don't like what you said, but I suppose I'll take what I can get. Like Varric always says, every little bit helps."
Fenris was almost satisfied with that, but before he could turn to leave, he exhaled and took a step closer.
"Listen to me, Merrill," he said, gripping the back of the chair across from her. "You will regret the path you are on if you do not take pains to alter it. In the end, it does not matter if your master is a demon or a magister. All that will matter is that when you wake up, you will be surrounded by the corpses of those you consider friends, and you will have been the one to put them there."
She swallowed. "Wh-why are you telling me this?"
"Because that does not have to be your fate. You have friends that care about you. Listen to them. Not everyone who has walked down the path you're now on has had that option."
She didn't say anything else, and he didn't need her to. He turned and left the small hovel, pausing when he saw Hawke standing in the door, smiling behind her mask.
"Shut up," he growled as he pushed past her.
The following night Hawke was startled awake in the middle of the night by a loud 'thunk' striking against the wall of her bedroom. The dagger she kept under her pillow was already in her hand before she was even fully coherent. She brandished it in the darkness, looking from side to side, but the room was empty. She leaned over, lit the lantern beside her bed, and pulled on her dressing gown.
She made her way to her balcony doors and stepped out into the bracing cold of the night. The noise had sounded like it had come from outside, but she couldn't be sure. She looked down over the balcony and at the neighboring buildings, but she didn't see anyone. By all rights and purposes, Hightown was completely abandoned.
She turned to go back into her bedroom when she saw the arrow embedded in the wall beside her door. The arrow was struck through a parchment, much like the threatening note Darin had left on her front door all that time ago. She whirled around to look at the rooftop across the way where the shooter would have been, but there was no sign of movement. She hurriedly snatched the arrow out of the wall and made her way into her bedroom, shutting and locking her balcony doors and drawing her drapes closed.
Hawke fumbled to remove the parchment from the arrow before sitting at the edge of the bed and holding the paper so the light of her lantern hit it.
I know your secret, lady Hawke.
If you do not wish for all of Kirkwall to know it, you will meet me at the specified location at sunrise.
Come alone and unarmed.
I will be watching.
The second page was a map of the Planasene Forest just outside of Kirkwall with a large 'X' marked over the spot she was expected to go, just at the base of the mountains.
"Damn it to hell," she growled, falling back on her bed with her hands over her face. She had only just averted the last disaster in her life, now she undoubtedly had a blackmailer to deal with on top of everything else? She was beginning to think Fenris was right. Maybe her penchant for disaster was genetic.
Those sodding dwarves had to be the cause of this. They were not exactly subtle while attacking House Amell and screaming 'blood of the Hawke' at the top of their lungs in the dead of night. She'd known it would only be a matter of time before people caught on. She couldn't hide it forever.
Still, perhaps all was not lost.
It was a good sign that the blackmailer thought forcing her to come alone would increase their chances of survival, because obviously they underestimated her. They were smart enough to force the meeting in the light of the morning instead of night time, which was a huge disadvantage to her, depending on how many there were. It also revealed that they knew enough about the Hawk to know she preferred the cover of darkness.
She thought about asking Fenris to accompany her, but the ominous tone of the 'I will be watching' made her think twice about it. It was probable that they picked a location that was most advantageous to them. Somewhere from which they could easily see whether or not Hawke came alone before she even knew where they were. Undoubtedly, they would have back up plans and escape routes planned. Blackmailers were good at that sort of thing.
Luckily, appearing to be unarmed was a specialty of hers.
Hawke sat up and began to dress. She only had an hour or two before sunrise and it was obvious she wasn't going to be getting anymore sleep.
The blackmailer did not see nor hear the Hawk approaching. The sound of the waterfall hitting the lake was good cover and the sun had only just come up over the horizon, granting the forest plenty of shadow.
But, in that way he always did, he just knew she was there.
Fenris paused where he had been playing his violin and lounging against the base of a tree when he felt her coming. "Good morning," he said before he even saw her, putting his violin down.
"Fenris," she said as she stepped out of the shadows, pulling her mask down. "What... You..."
"I see you got my letter," he said as he stood to face her, dusting off his hands.
"You prick," she growled, but he could see the humor sparkling in her eyes. "I thought I was going to have to murder someone."
"No doubt. I know nothing better to get you motivated than the promise of murder." He laughed and rolled out his shoulders. " I apologize for the theatrics. Perhaps Varric is wearing off on me."
"And what is the point of all this?" she asked, crossing her arms and sinking into a hip. "What possible reason could you have for getting me out into the middle of the forest at the crack of dawn?"
"Isn't it obvious?" he asked, motioning his hand to the lake. "Your swimming lessons start now."
She stilled and her eyes widened. Even over the sound of the water he could hear the breath she swallowed.
"You have been avoiding the subject for months now," Fenris said softly as he closed the distance between them. "I told myself that once I managed to get you to meet me here, getting you into the water would be easier. Desperate times, etcetera."
"The water is barely chest deep on this end," Fenris quickly defended. "I will be with you the whole time."
She exhaled a shaky breath as she looked at the lake, and then back at him. "You are going to be relentless about this until I agree, aren't you?"
"I may prove to be more stubborn than you in this particular case," he said with a small smile. "I know you wish to learn, Anara. Let me teach you."
She looked at the lake again, but he could see the resignation in her eyes. "Very well," she said, almost sounding defeated as she began to remove layers of her armor. "I can see you will not change your mind until the task has proven impossible."
"Have you so little faith in me?"
"My faith in you isn't the problem," she groaned as she pulled the long tunic off over her head, revealing a strap of throwing knives across her back.
"I thought I told you to come unarmed," he teased with one eyebrow raised.
"You, of all people, should have known better," she shot back, finally starting to smile again. She removed everything until she was just wearing the short sleeved shirt and tight trousers she wore under all her armor. She folded it all into a neat pile next to his violin and clapped her hands against her thighs. "Very well," she said with an exhale. "Let's get on with it."
He led her to a small embankment on the opposite side of the lake from the waterfall. He began to step in until he was knee deep and turned when he didn't hear her following him. She was standing at the very edge, arms crossed tightly across her chest and looking down at the water as it calmly lapped against the shore. Fear was rarely something he saw expressed on her sharp, confident face. He had caught a glimpse of it the day Bethany had been taken to the Circle, and again at the Hanged Man when their comrades had tried to force her to sing, but it wasn't until that moment that he realized just how deeply ingrained in her this particular fear was.
"I don't think I can do this," she said softly, raising her eyes to him.
"Nonsense," he said, holding his hand out to her. "If I have learned anything during my time in Kirkwall, it is that you are not to be underestimated."
She hesitated before slowly reaching out toward his hand, taking small, tentative steps as if she were afraid of slipping. He took a step toward her to close the distance so he could reach her hand and slowly led her further into the lake. When she would freeze, so would he, allowing her whatever time she needed to adjust before she continued to follow him.
"Your sister said," he began, speaking as a means of distracting her, "that teaching you will not be the problem. The difficulty lies in getting you to be comfortable in the water first."
"Something like that," she said through chattering teeth. He knew very well she wasn't cold. She was afraid, and Fenris set his jaw and fought the urge to tell her she didn't have to do this now. His concern for her was what had allowed her to put it off for this long in the first place.
Once the water was about waist deep, just under chest height for her, she was violently shaking.
"It's alright," he said softly, bringing her closer by her hand. "I will not let anything happen to you."
The second she was close enough, her hands fiercely gripped into the chest of his tunic and she buried her face against his shoulder, holding onto him like she might sink if she didn't. Fenris covered her hands with his and stood there with her for long moments as she shook.
Something in Fenris' chest ached at the sight of her like this. Anara was, without a doubt, the most capable and formidable person he knew. To see her look so weak, as small and afraid as a church mouse... It felt like it broke something within him.
"I'm s-sorry," she said into his shoulder, tightening her fists in his shirt. "I'm sorry I'm like this."
"Do not apologize," he said gently. "I am all too familiar with fear."
Finally, she looked up at him. "You are?"
"Yes," he said, meeting her gaze. "There were a great many things that reduced me to quivering when I was a slave."
She scoffed. "Yes, but I doubt any of those fears were irrational. You had very good reason to be afraid, I'd wager."
"The mind does not care what it is you are afraid of," he said. "Only that you are afraid. I learned long ago that the reason doesn't matter, only the response."
"Th-thank you," she said, haltingly. "For understanding and not... mocking me or..." she didn't finish, just shook her head.
"You cannot help being afraid," he said. "Yet in spite of it, here you are. That is to be admired. Not mocked."
She looked up at him again and her trembling stilled slightly. He realized that she wasn't only afraid of the water, but afraid of his opinion once he'd seen her this way.
"Alright," she said, putting forth effort to calm her voice. "What's next?"
"I think it would be wise for you to get comfortable going under the water at all before we go any further."
"Under?" she asked. "You want me to go all the way under the water?"
"You have to be comfortable being submerged before you can move freely."
He could feel her entire body go tense at the prospect, but she didn't back down. "Alright," she said, swallowing hard. "Don't... Don't let go."
"I won't," he promised, firming his grip on her hands.
She hesitated before closing her eyes and sucking in a hard breath. As she lowered herself into the water, Fenris kept his grip on her hands, only shifting them to move up her forearms so he could take her weight easier.
He saw the exact moment she panicked.
She shot out of the water like a drowning cat, throwing her arms around his neck and flailing wildly. He hadn't been prepared for her to react so violently, so she ended up pulling him down into the water with her and kneeing him in the chin, which only furthered her terror. He attempted to right himself as she tried frantically to climb him. He coughed out the mouthful of water he'd inhaled as he got upright again, noting that Hawke was practically on his shoulders, clinging to him desperately.
"Hawke," he said, trying to sound authoritative. "It's alright." He tossed his head to get his wet hair out of his eyes as he reached up to take her by the waist and bring her back down.
"I'm sorry," she said, coughing. "I panicked."
"Yes, I saw," he teased, bringing her back to her feet and allowing her to grip into his tunic again.
"I'm sorry," she said again, mortified by her fit.
"It's alright," he said, reaching up to push his hair out of his face. "What happened?"
"I thought... you were letting go and I..." she shook her head and cleared her throat. "The water... I think it went up my nose and then I choked and then I was panicking."
"I see," he said, narrowing his eyes as he chewed on his words. "We are going to try again, but this time, only hold your breath until you are submerged. Then slowly exhale your breath through your nose."
She looked up at him, still shaking, her wet hair stuck to the side of her face and her eyes still wide and afraid. She took a deep, shuttering breath, then nodded her consent.
He lowered her into the water again, and just as he had instructed, she exhaled once she was under the water. He could feel her body tense and her hands tighten in his, but she didn't panic, and didn't fight to come up until he lifted her back out.
"Good," he praised gently.
"That wasn't so bad," she said, removing her hands from his so she could wipe the water off her face. He took a small victory in the fact that she was standing on her own. "Just like being in a cold bath. With my clothes on. With someone else."
"Progress is progress," he said with a small laugh before taking a step back from her."Try it without me this time."
Once she was comfortable moving around in the shallow water on her own, Fenris thought of Bethany's letter and her advice. He figured that before he could teach her anything, he should get her used to the feeling of moving through the water without the safety of being able to touch the ground.
"We're going to go to the other side," he said, motioning his hand toward where the waterfall was.
"But... I can't stand on that side. The water's too deep."
"That's the point," he said, turning around to give her his back. "Come on."
He could see her hesitate before she put her hands on his shoulders. "I'm not sure this is wise, Fenris."
"Trust me," he said, taking her hands off his shoulders and wrapping her arms around the front of his throat. "Hang on tightly. But preferably not tight enough to strangle me."
As she pressed up against his back, he could feel the shivering returning to her limbs, so he decided to move quickly.
"Take a breath and let it out under the water," He instructed as he carried her toward the deeper water on his back. "When we resurface, take another breath. Understand?"
"Won't you sink with me on your back like this?"
"Have a little faith in my strength," he said, turning a smile over his shoulder at her. "Ready?"
"As I'll ever be."
He instructed her to take a breath and then submerged them in the water. He felt her arms tighten around his neck as he began to swim them across, resurfacing more often than he would normally so she could take a breath. The farther he went, the calmer she seemed, and by the time he reached the other end of the lake she was loosely hanging onto his shoulders with her hands. He reached out to take the edge of the bank to hold them up while he turned to look at her.
"See?" he said, combing his hair back out of his face with his fingers. "It is not all that frightening, is it?"
"I find a lot of things are less frightening when I'm at your back, Fenris," she teased with a small laugh, moving to grip the edge of the bank beside him.
"I am glad to hear that," he said with a grin, surprised by just how pleased her admission made him.
"But you will not always be here."
"I am here now," he assured her. "That is all that matters."