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A Reel for Fools

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It started as a bet, as in, "I'd bet you and the dwarf can't convince Isabela's friend you're married." The conversation leading to that particular turnpoint was as convoluted, as dramatic, as wildly unpredictable, and as inebriated as Hawke herself; Aveline wasn't usually a woman given to gambling or flights of fancy, but Varric had introduced a top-shelf whiskey to the party, and Aveline had an eye for whiskey like Isabela had an eye for women — except somewhat better disguised in the former's case, since everyone knew that Isabela was given to batting her eyes at all barmaids with rosy cheeks and high bosoms, and no one had ever seen Aveline bat her eyes at a bottle of Tevinter Reserve.

The hour was late, late enough that Hawke's bad ideas took on the distant, warm glow of sense. There was, of course, no question of Varric's involvement; he unwaveringly supported Hawke's schemes, although there was usually a great deal of grousing if the scheme in question involved physical danger, physical exertion, nature, going out-of-doors, magic, politics, sticking her nose where it didn't belong, those damn qunari bastards, or his editor. (Hawke had only met Varric's editor once, but the occasion had been… memorable. For everyone involved. Varric certainly remembered, at very least. He liked to bring it up often and loudly.)

Hawke looked at Varric. Varric grinned at Hawke. A contract was struck — without the use of words, but no less articulate for the unspoken nature of the agreement.

"Shall we say… five silvers?" Hawke offered.

"I'll pick up your tab for the evening if you pull it off," Aveline said. She was loose with the magnanimity of the very drunk. "His, too."

"Done," said Hawke. "Husband? Shall we?"

"I thought you'd never ask," Varric said. He downed the last of his beer and rose to follow Hawke toward the fireplace, where Isabela was entertaining a half-elf swashbuckler who claimed to be a mere merchant but who had about forty too many tattoos to make the claim convincing.

"Hawke!" Isabela said. "You remember Darren, don't you? Darren, this is Hawke."

"Charmed," said Hawke. "Darren, my husband, Varric Tethras." Varric bowed. Isabela's eyebrows climbed her forehead.

"Yes, Hawke and her… husband," Isabela said. "Sorry, kitten, news of the happy couple must have slipped my mind." Never let it be said that Isabela wasn't always up for a good scheme, too; even when she hadn't been involved with the planning stages, she recognized when Hawke was working her craft.

"A human and a dwarf? That'll be hell on the kids," said Darren. She had deep brown skin and hair the same color, which she wore very long except on one side, where her scalp had been shaved to reveal yet another tattoo. Her cheeks were flush with drink, and her bosom was small but excellent. Hawke suspected Isabela was running a scheme of her own.

"We're undecided on the subject," Varric said, and then — this very nearly caught Hawke by surprise — he pulled out her chair for her. Certainly he'd never been so solicitous before. Oh, he watched her back in a fight, and he bribed more than one member of the Chantry to ignore Hawke's occasional outbursts of magical talent, but he'd never treated her like that before. Not with manners. "I want five, but Marian here says that one's one and two's a dozen."

"I have younger siblings," Hawe remarked. "It's not a state I'm eager to inflict on anyone else." See, that would be the real trick; all she had to do was sit back and let Varric weave his spell and pretend she'd never thought about having this conversation (she had; her answer was always no, not with the fire smoldering in her bloodline, not when half-dwarven offspring were rarer than jewels; and Varric would agree that he'd rather leave the having of children to people better suited for it).

(But once, only once, she had let herself wonder...)

(Although not, of course, about Varric, who was her bosom comrade but who was not comradely with her bosom.)

(Bosoms were evidently something of a theme tonight.)

"I have four children by three men," said Darren. "And married was I to all three of them, too." Her eyes glinted in the lamplight like the eyes of a snake; Hawke very much wished for a measure of that reptilian distance for herself.

"Don't good things come in threes?" said Hawke. "Or bad things, I can never recall. Certainly something comes in threes."

"Mmm, kitten," said Isabela. "I could make you come in threes." Varric let slip a sharp noise, so she relented a little: "If your giant oaf of a husband would allow me the liberty."

"Is that a comment on my stature, Rivaini?" said Varric. He played it off as a lark, the way Hawke herself would, but there was an edge to his words that most people wouldn't expect of him. Hawke was not most people.

"Isabela, I'm shocked," Hawke said. "Positively shocked. You think I need my husband's permission to come when you call?" Isabela choked with laughter. Varric choked with… ale, apparently. Funny, Hawke hadn't seen him pick up his mug.

"And here I thought Fereldens were known for their faithfulness," said Varric.

Hawke batted her eyes at him. "That's our dogs, I'm afraid."

Across the table, Isabela's friend roared with laughter. "Oho! You two," she said. "I see why she likes you. I had my doubts when she said you were landlocked and stationary to boot, but never have I been happier to be proven wrong. How did such a pair of rascals meet?"

"The Gallows, wasn't it, Hawke?" said Isabela. "One of the templars had you marked for a mage. Falsely, of course," she added in an aside to Darren. "You know how templars are. They dragged her across the bay bound in chains, but when Varric caught sight of her and heard her cursing, he was so taken with her beauty and her tongue that he paid the templar thirty gold coins to release her."

"That's a nice story," said Hawke, "but I believe you're misremembering. His editor hired me to retrieve Varric's manuscript by whatever means necessary, since he refused to relinquish it under more peaceable terms, so I crept into his chambers in the dark of night and stole it from beneath his pillow. I was nearly out the door when I heard the report of a crossbow and a bolt pinned me to the wall though the tail of my coat. Our ensuing fight lasted until dawn, when we fell into bed together and stayed there for the next… oh, what was it? Three days, I think." She threaded her arm behind Varric's neck and leaned into his shoulder, the better to sell her tale; he smelled like warmth, like amber whiskey and the tarnished metal of a copper coin, like leather and shaving cream, like a soft comforting dishonesty, and, because Kirkwall was baked into his bones, a little like a foundry; all told, he smelled remarkably good for a dwarf who lived over a bar. Hawke was unbiased in her assessment.

He turned his head so his nose was buried in her hair — he did this sometimes even when they weren't trying to pull a fast one to win a bet; Hawke had really excellent hair — and laughed so that his breath was caught against the side of her neck. "Liar," he rumbled into her ear, so lowly said that neither Darren nor Isabela heard, and then he pulled away.

"You two," he said, and Hawke recognized the tone of his voice immediately; this was going to be a performance. "Always telling tall tales. You want to hear how we really met?" He directed this nominally at Darren, who after all was supposed to be the only one ignorant of their history, but Hawke knew in the way she knew all things Varric that she was really as much or more the intended audience.

"Barkeep!" Darren roared. "Another round for us, yeah?" Cora swept towards them with four mugs of ale, a basket of warm bread, a little pot of butter, and a smaller pot of honey balanced on a tray; when she had laid out her bounty in front of them and cleared away the empty mugs, they all settled more deeply into their seats — all of them except Varric, who was both looser and more alert. He really did love this sort of thing, bless him.

"All right," said Darren, "go on, then, get on with it." It was one of the ways you paid a storyteller, Hawke had learned — offering up your eagerness, telling them yes and now and more as they spun an anticipation so exquisite it settled over the senses like a shroud. Hawke had spent hours across from Varric, listening rapt as he wound her tighter and tighter and tighter until denouement seemed like a very different sort of release. She recognized all the symptoms.

"Oh, all right, if you're going to insist," he said. "It was four years ago now — 9:31 Dragon. I remember because my brother and I had just come into some money. He kept insisting I attend Merchants' Guild meetings and galas and balls. 'We have to maintain our connections, Varric.' Shit like that." His voice rose half an octave and took on a fussy diction when he mimicked Bartrand. "I'm not saying I don't understand his motivation, since Bartrand was about as charming as a dead nug and someone had to make a good impression on Kirkwall's ranking citizens, but I prefer to spend my attention on other pursuits."

"Wine, women, and song?" Isabela suggested.

"Come on, Rivaini — have you ever heard me sing?"

Isabela laughed, but Hawke was rather taken by the idea. She wondered what it would take to convince him to sing for her. If he was bad at it, she'd have a laugh at his expense, and there was no better way to ward off soft feelings than with small meannesses; and if he was good at it, well, that would certainly be… something.

"I saw her before I spoke to her," Varric continued. "It was a hot summer day. Flies everywhere. I was doing my best to dodge Bartrand, so I ducked out of the Hanged Man and decided to get lost in the Lowtown Market. There was a big crowd shopping that day; half of them were hoping for a breeze, and half of them wanted to see what the big trading ship that had arrived the day before was selling. Or maybe they just wanted a sweet ice — the templars had brought three or four of the more docile mages over from the Gallows, and they were freezing sticks of sugar water and selling them for a copper apiece."

Hawke remembered that day so suddenly and with such clarity that she almost remarked on it; but of course she remembered, or at least was supposed to remember. She had been there, too.

"So there I was," Varric said, "standing in line at the book seller's, because I figured I might as well make the most out of avoiding my brother, when I see a nobleman turn around and backhand this street rat who had snuck up behind him. The kid had been trying to pickpocket the nobleman. Almost got away with it, too — he had a purse in his hand, but the nobleman must have caught him at it. Poor kid looked half-starved. Probably needed the money a lot more than some crusty, titled asshole.

"Anyway, the asshole hits the kid across the face and demands his purse back. The kid hands it over, and I figured that was the end of it — either the kid would dart off, or the nobleman would turn him over to the guards — when a woman came stumbling out of the crowd and tripped right into the nobleman."

And Hawke remembered that, too. The nobleman had been a Lord Randulf Whiterich. She hadn't realized Varric had been watching. Odd, though — she thought she'd been on an errand for Athenril that day.

"She apologize to him right away. 'Terribly sorry, serah,' she said." For Hawke his voice went rollicking and breathy. "It's the sun, you see, I'm about to swoon, or perhaps I've recently swooned. Difficult to keep track. Did this boy try to steal from you?' And the nobleman can't decide if he wants her to fall against him again or strike her across the face, too — she was a real looker, but dressed like something that had just washed up at the docks."

"Let me guess," said Darren. "Raven hair and lapis eyes?"

"The fashion sense of a magpie?" added Isabela. "Smelled like wet dog?"

Varric chuckled. "I'll leave that to your imagination," he said. "But she kept up a whole storm of words — 'Can you believe the nerve of the impoverished, taking what rightfully belongs to their betters, and such distinguished betters to suit' — and, once the nobleman looked confused enough, she led him over to the stairs and started him on his way back to Hightown. And that isn't even the best part."

"All right, go on," said Darren.

"Once the nobleman was out of sight," said Varric, "she walks over, reaches into her pocket, pulls out the nobleman's purse, and drops it in the kid's lap."

Darren laughed. "The nerve on this one," she said.

"In plain sight, right in front of the crowd," Varric agreed. "She bolted out of there pretty fast after that, but it was the kind of performance that sticks with you." He looked at Hawke, and smiled, and winked; and Hawke, helpless, smiled back.

"Smitten from the first time you laid eyes," said Darren. "From anyone else, I wouldn't believe that load of bullshit, but coming from you it's damn near convincing. What happened after that?"

Varric's smile turned public and sly. He picked up his mug and drained it, and then he took his time wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, and finally he said, "Now that's a story for another night. Time for me to get this one to bed. Hawke?"

He stood and held out his hand, and Hawke, puzzled but obliging, stood, too. Unfortunately, her legs proved less steady than expected, and they nearly folded under her.

"Whoa there," said Varric. "How many did you have?"

"Three," Hawke said. "No, wait, four. Five if you count the one I stole from Isabela." She thought for a moment. "Six if you count the one you stole from me."

"Sure you have that right?"

"Would my husband dare question my arithmetic?" That sounded lovely, so Hawke said it again. "Arithmetic." No, that wasn't quite right.

"I'll hold you to it," said Darren. "In the meantime, Bela here will keep me entertained for the rest of the night. Won't you, love?"

"That depends," said Isabela, "on how receptive you're going to be to my entertainment." Over Darren's head, Isabela winked. Hawke, distracted by the business of balancing herself against Varric, very nearly missed it.

They had plenty of practice navigating the path from the Hanged Man's public room to Varric's quarters with one or both of them unsteady on their feet. Most frequently the deterring factor was volume, as in the quantity of liquor consumed, but exhaustion and bloodshed had played their roles, too. Particularly now that Hawke was the last of her kind, with Mother being deceased and Carver in the Deep Roads, Varric insisted on keeping a close eye on her, which Hawke frequently told herself was a courtesy he extended to all of his friends. His regard did not in any way make her special.

"You know," Varric said, when they were safely up the stairs and out of earshot, "even if you weren't three sheets to the wind, you'd have to stay the night to keep up the act."

"Right," Hawke said. "The act."

"Easy there," said Varric, and he steadied her so she didn't sway into a wall sconce. He propped her against the wall while he fished for his keys — Hawke particularly appreciated the way he kept one idle hand around her waist while he worked the lock — and let them inside. Cora, who was on Varric's payroll and trusted enough to have a key of her own, had already laid a fire in the grate. Varric tumbled Hawke into one of his low chairs beside the hearth and knelt to pull off her boots.

"Is this another privilege?" Hawke asked as she watched him with great intent. "Of marriage. The boots. You taking them off, I mean."

Varric snorted. "Hawke, I've probably pulled off your boots a hundred times, and I'll probably do it a hundred more. I'm not letting you drag dog shit all over my sheets."

Hawke felt she should be offended on someone's behalf — hers, or her mabari's, or the whole of Ferelden's — but couldn't quite work up the focus. "Planning to keep going?" she asked. "Pants and so forth?"

"No," Varric said dryly, and then he gathered her up from the chair and directed her towards the bed, which did look clean enough that even a Ferelden might think twice about letting a dog sleep in it. "Easy — watch the corner — "

Hawke found herself on her back staring up at him; it was odd, finally seeing him from that angle. The gold stubble that shadowed his chin was thicker than usual — a result of the late hour, no doubt. He'd have to shave tomorrow.

She rolled over to leave room for him and managed not to tangle her feet too badly in the blankets in the process, but rather than climbing into bed with her, he dragged the top cover from under her legs and then stole a pillow from beneath her arm. "Sleeping in a chair?" she said. "Your back will hate you in the morning. The bed's plenty big enough for two." And it was, even if her toes could touch the end of the mattress. When he didn't respond, she added, "I wouldn't mind. All part of the act. Remember the act, Varric?"

"I'm starting to think you were lowballing me with six drinks, Hawke," Varric said. "Did you eat dinner?"

"Bread," said Hawke. "You were there. Did you forget already? Cora brought us bread and butter and beer."

"Dinner of champions," Varric said. "That'd explain it. Come on, Hawke, don't look at me like that — I'm not sharing the bed."

"Don't you want to win the bet?" she said.

"There's nobody else in the room," he said, "which means that if I climbed in with you, it would be under false pretenses."

"And what precisely does that mean?" said Hawke.

"Andraste's tits," Varric said.

"Interesting. Tell me more."

"I mean, Andraste's tits, I'm glad you aren't going to remember any of this tomorrow. And I'm not climbing into bed with you because it would mean something different to me than it would mean to you," Varric said.

"And that's a false pretense?"

"Yes," said Varric.

"Interesting," said Hawke again. "Do you think we won?"

Varric, this time sounded amused, said, "Go to sleep, Marian." Hawke thought that was an excellent suggestion; the last thing she remembered hearing before she drifted away was the scrape of a chair being dragged against the floorboards. The diffuse glow in the room dimmed as the candles were snuffed out, and then Varric settled into the chair beside the bed, and then Hawke was gone.

She woke in the middle of the night with a terrifying headache and crust coating her eyelashes. Varric was asleep with his chin on his chest, snoring gently; his feet, still in their boots, were propped on the mattress. Hawke, who felt very certain she couldn't stay any longer in that room, retrieved her own boots, slipped into her coat, and hastened away into the night. It was for the best, really. Varric, after all, was in love with someone else, and Hawke would never have the figure to compete with a broad-hipped dwarf maid. Her luck was meant for other things: survival, mostly, and gambling.

When Varric found her in the Lowtown markets some days later, he dropped a handful of coins into her hand. "Aveline says congratulations on winning," he explained.

"Ha! She did not," said Hawke.

"Her exact words were, 'Here's your money, may it do you any good,'" Varric admitted. "And then I think she swore off drinking forever."

"Weak, very weak," said Hawke. "Have I ever let a hangover teach me a lesson?" And that was the end of it, at least for a while; Hawke and Varric had won their bet, Aveline's hubris had taken a blow, and Isabela had another story to trot out when one of the tavern regulars asked her for a tale about Hawke. (The regulars agreed that Varric withheld the really good stuff because he didn't want to make Hawke look bad. Varric maintained that nobody would believe him if he broke out the truly wild tales. Isabela offered a satisfactory compromise of gossip and speculation.)

They trotted out the act every now and again when it was either convenient or amusing, and once when it was necessary to pull a quick sleight-of-hand on several of Kirkwall's less bribable templars. It was a lark, if one Hawke privately considered both less honest and more indulgent than their usual contrivances. And then came Meredith, and Orsino, and Corypheus, and Hawke spent a few very long years dodging various arms of the Chantry, and Varric evidently decided that Hawke had to stay away until he needed her, and then it was urgent Hawke trek through snow-capped mountains until her nose froze for what he assured her was the good of the Inquisition. What good had the Inquisition ever done Hawke, she wanted to ask? Other than cleaning up her messes and thwarting the abomination she had unmeaningly set loose on the world, of course. Actually, in that light, it was no wonder Varric had transferred his loyalty from a down-on-her-luck apostate to someone with the resources and foresight to actually prevent catastrophes rather than causing them.

But it was, perhaps, possible that Hawke's ire played a role in what happened after that. Hawke, despite stern instructions to remain out-of-sight, had established herself at the Herald's Rest, which was on the whole a less boisterous bar than the Hanged Man but in one corner had proven itself satisfactory rowdy. That corner belonged the Iron Bull and the Iron Bull's Chargers, and in fact Hawke and the Bull were involved in a conversation of great importance when Varric and the Seeker came over to intrude.

"Is it true that qunari believe dragons are sacred?" Hawke was inquiring.

The Bull grinned his crooked grin. "Close enough. Thinking of converting?" He poured Hawke another glass of whatever devilish liquor lived at the bottom of his flask.

"For that, I might very well consider it," said Hawke. "Among humans it's always 'Andraste this' and 'Andraste that.' I ask you, what did Andraste do other than get herself lit on fire?" The Seeker let out an outraged gasp, but Hawke pretended she hadn't noticed. "Better to do the lighting than the being lit, I like to say."

"Well put!" said the Bull. "I'll drink to that." Although he didn't seem to need much of an excuse to drink, the good fellow. At a nearby table, the Bull's second rolled his eyes.

"Hawke," Varric said. "Got a minute?"

"If the evening continues at this pace," she said, and turned her glass over to demonstrate that it was now tragically empty, "I might not have much more than a second."

"Uh huh," said Varric, and then he helped himself to a chair. The Seeker sat beside him, although not even the prospect of good company and worse liquor wiped the scowl from her face. Distressingly, Varric didn't appear perturbed by her anger; he flagged the barkeeper over and ordered for them both. "Ale for me," he said, "and a glass of Golden Scythe for the Seeker. The 9:12 vintage, if you've got any."

Oh, the 9:12 vintage. How elegant. Hawke was so busy confusedly seething over Varric knowing what sort of wine the Seeker liked that she missed whatever he said next and only managed to swallow down the hot lump in her throat when the Bull leaned over and rumbled, "These two! Too good for Dragon Piss like the rest of us, eh?" And then he filled Hawke's glass again, which was probably what gave her the balls to do what she did next.

"Do they know, Varric?" she asked.

"Know what?" demanded the Seeker.

"Varric, you didn't tell them?" said Hawke. "You know, I might honestly be hurt if I didn't know your reasons. He's rather protective," she added to the Bull. "And when one's wife is being hunted by the Chantry — well, you can understand why he held his tongue."

"Wife?" said the Bull.

"WIFE?" said the Seeker. She shot from her seat and turned on Varric; while her attention was diverted, Hawke caught Varric's eye and winked. Oh, her heart might not have been in it, but the twinkle in her eye was no less roguish than it had been a lifetime ago in the City of Chains; and now here they were, older and wiser, a decade split open between them, but still playing the same old games.

"Come on, Seeker," Varric said. "You really think that little detail was going into the official account? Bad enough that I was Hawke's official biographer and close associate. The last thing I needed was an angry mob accusing me of being her husband."

"An egregious crime," Hawke chimed in. "But really, Cassandra, can you honestly say you didn't suspect?"

The Seeker's storm of anger was giving way to irate bafflement. "I… no," she said. "That is to say, yes, of course — there were signs…"

"Well, we tried not to be terribly obvious about it," Hawke said. "Not too many signs, I hope. And then there's the matter of the story itself…" She looked down and let a blush color her cheeks. Like a fair damask blooming, Mother used to say of her daughter's blushes, to which Carver usually replied that Marian only ever blushed for a purpose. "It's horribly romantic, you know. Can't have that kind of thing getting out. I do have a reputation to maintain."

"Romantic," said the Seeker. She sank slowly back into her seat. "How so?"

Hawke raised her brows at Varric. She had baited the hook, but this — reeling in the catch — this was Varric's domain. "Ah, Seeker, you don't want to hear how the Champion and I ended up together," he said. He was sitting around the corner from Hawke, close enough that if she wished, she could knock her knee against his.

"Don't tell me what I want, dwarf," said the Seeker. Pity she had taken Varric into custody, or Hawke might have been starting to like her. "Tell me the tale."

Varric leaned back in his chair, propped his elbows over the arms, and drank deeply of his ale. After that, he scratched his chin. "I don't know, Seeker," he said. "It's a long story. I suppose I could give you the high points…"

"I have nowhere pressing to be," said the Seeker. "And this is important. A matter of… of historical record."

"Historical record?" asked Hawke.

"Yes," said the Seeker. "Yes, of course. You, Hawke, are a figure of great consequence, and Varric is himself involved in much of what has led us to this point. It is my duty to listen to your account."

It was possible that Varric had let slip that the Seeker had something of a fascination with Hawke. It was equally possible that Hawke was willing to exploit this quality for her own amusement. "Well, I'm certainly not going to object," said Hawke. "I come off rather dashing, if I do say so myself."

"Is that how you remember it?" said Varric. "Because I recall you looking like a fish flopping around on land. It was before I approached her about the Deep Roads expedition," he added as an aside to Cassandra and the Bull, who was listening no less raptly. "Not the first time I saw her — that was when she rescued a street urchin who was caught pickpocketing — but before she had any idea who I was."

"You met in the Hightown Market in 9:31," said the Seeker.

"Like I said, that's the official story," said Varric. "But if you want to know when I fell in love with her — Hawke? You okay?"

Hawke had inhaled a lethal quantity of Dragon Piss; it was scouring its way through her air passages. The sensation was not pleasant. In fact, it was akin to being stabbed through the gut with the sword of a qunari warlord, or to seeing your mother's head stitched to another woman's body, or to hearing exactly the words you wanted to hear in the mouth of exactly the person you wanted to hear them from and knowing that he didn't mean any of it.

She coughed more dramatically than was strictly necessary and wheezed, "Wrong pipe." The Bull gave her a helpful wallop on the back. Her spine creaked in protest.

"If you want to know when I fell in love with her, that's where you'd have to start," said Varric. "It was early fall, and my brother and I were in the middle of planning our expedition." If he hesitated over the word 'brother,' Hawke doubted anyone else noticed. In point of fact, she herself barely noticed, what with accidentally sucking down the Dragon Piss and so on. "Bartrand thought we needed to be putting more effort into maintaining our connections with Kirkwall's rich and titled, maybe drum up a little support for the expedition in the process," Varric continued. "The problem was that my brother was about as charming as a bog unicorn, which left the elbow-rubbing to yours truly. A couple of the Merchant Guild's more influential ascendants had recently approached the Viscount — "

"Ascendants?" said the Bull.

"Surface dwarves who don't maintain a caste," said Varric. "The more conservative factions usually accuse them of going human, whatever that means. Anyway, a couple of the leaders in Kirkwall's chapter of the Guild had approached the Viscount about throwing a grand gala in his keep. They sold it as a demonstration of unity or some shit like that. It was really a business opportunity, and everyone knew it."

The Seeker made a noise of disgust.

"Not my cup of gin, either," Varric agreed, "but my brother forced me into a suit and off we went to socialize with the rich and the very rich. It was exactly what you'd imagine when you think of a gala — beautiful people wearing beautiful clothes in a beautiful room filled with beautiful music. I almost fell asleep six times in the first hour."

No. Hold on.

"And then the Champion entered?" said the Seeker.

"And then the Champion entered," said Varric. "Except she wasn't a champion then, just some scrawny little nobody who had washed up on Kirkwall's docks without a copper to her name. She was looking for the Viscount's chief advisor, because apparently he wouldn't give her the time of day unless she ambushed him at a formal dinner. I didn't find that out until later, though. All I knew was that this woman I'd only seen once before in Lowtown had managed to get herself into the Guild Ball. She was wearing a borrowed suit of clothes that was too wide and too short. The trousers were saved from disgrace only by the height of her tall boots, and the coat looked like it belonged to a disreputable uncle who gambled away all his savings. Every family's got one."

"Surprised they didn't throw her out," said the Bull.

"The guards took notice right away," said Varric, "but Hawke, well, she was ready for that. You could tell just by looking at her that she didn't have any money to spare, but when the first guardsman came over she greeted him by name. 'Donnic!' she said. 'Aveline sends her regards.' The second guardsman noticed that the first wasn't getting anywhere, so he came over, and Hawke says, 'Nabil! You're looking particularly handsome tonight. Is that a new breastplate?' Nabil puffs up like a cock in a henhouse — "

"Ha! Bet he does," said the Bull.

"So a third guardsman comes over, and Hawke goes, 'Melindra! How's your brother getting along? Terrible fate, almost being eaten by giant spiders. So glad I could help.' By that point, it's pretty clear that Hawke is here to stay, so she sallies off and starts working her way through the crowd looking for Seneschal Bran. Unfortunately, a certain Lord Randulf Whiterich was in attendance that night, and he'd had a run-in with Hawke a couple of weeks earlier.

"Whiterich takes one look at her and decides that he's going to take offense that Hawke is allowed in the same room as his lordship, so he cuts right down the middle of the dance floor and accosts her. 'You!' he shouts. 'You stole my purse! I'll have you stripped and arrested!' He was a big man — taller even than Hawke, although he didn't have her enchanting disposition as a failsafe. Of course, at the time I had no idea Hawke was an apostate, or that she was better in a brawl than ten men, so I started forward to try to talk some sense into him.

"But Hawke beat me to the punch. 'Serah,' she says, 'are you flirting with me? I'm afraid I don't even know your name.'

"'Lord Randulf Whiterich,' says the nobleman.

"'Lord Whiterich,' said Hawke. 'Flattering as this situation is, it's a little early in our relationship for you to be falsely accusing me or laying hands, wouldn't you say?'

"'I'll do whatever I like,' said Lord Whiterich. 'That includes throwing you in jail, you miserable Ferelden bitch.'"

"He didn't!" said the Seeker.

"He did," said Varric.

"What did the Champion do?"

"Hawke?" said Varric. "Hawke hauled back her fist and socked him right in the face."

"She didn't," said the Bull.

"She did," said Varric. "Whiterich went down like a Chantry boy's trousers. Hawke stood there shaking out her hand and staring back at the crowd, but by that point the guard captain had caught wind of trouble and called for reinforcements. Hawke starts looking for a fast way out, but the hall was packed solid with people, so I fought my way over, grabbed her hand — at great personal risk — and started hauling her towards a door. I shoved her outside just before a couple of Whiterich's cronies managed to revive him." He smiled into his ale. "I'm not sure she ever saw my face, but a couple of weeks later, I tracked her down and made her a business offer. Bartrand thought I was crazy, but I knew who I wanted."

"And you have loved her ever since?" said the Seeker.

"Through thick and thin," said Varric, "although I didn't know it until years later. My first impression wasn't wrong, but what happened after that was what really made it stick."

"What happened after?"

"We got into trouble," said Varric, "and we got out of it. We sat around the table at a tavern like this one night after night after night, playing cards and talking. We saw each other through the worst shit you can imagine, and we watched each other's backs, and every day I fell a little harder." Varric looked at her then, for the first time since he'd started his tale, and Hawke realized he wasn't as blind to her malicious intent as she'd originally thought. "Isn't that right, Hawke?"

There was an expectant silence during which everyone turned to stare at Hawke.

"Right," said Hawke. "Yes. You're quite dashing yourself, Varric" — the silence grew more expectant — "that is to say, husband. I'm exhausted after listening to all that… whatever it was that just happened here. Bed, anyone?" She downed the rest of her Dragon Piss, coughed, shoved back her chair, and stood.

The Bull laughed. "Eager, aren't you! Not sure anyone can blame you." He winked. It was terrifying. Meanwhile the Seeker was sighing and Varric was watching Hawke and it was all a bit much, wasn't it? Hawke excused herself and made for the door. Unfortunately, Varric followed.

"That's it for me, too," she heard him say. "See you both in the morning."

"Varric," said the Seeker. "I will require more details — Varric!" But he waved her off and followed Hawke out into the cold.

In a panic but trying hard not to show it, she took the first staircase she saw. "Hawke?" Varric said. "That's the wrong way."

"I know," said Hawke, and she kept climbing.

Unfortunately, Varric continued to follow. "So what you're saying is that you're intending to go the wrong way."

"Yes," said Hawke.

"You want to get lost on the ramparts in the middle of the night when it's freezing?"

"I think I know what I want," said Hawke. "And what was with all that bullshit, anyway, Varric? What was that? All that nonsense about the gala and Lord Whiterich."

"You started it," Varric said. They were standing on the ramparts proper now, overlooking a sheer drop that was easily six hundred feet straight down; Hawke could make out the point where Skyhold met the mountainside only because the moon hung low and large in the sky. Varric was tugging on the old red scarf he wore around his neck; that scarf had started out its life as Hawke's sash, and she wasn't aware it had been repurposed or even that it had gone missing until the reunion of a few days past.

"And you finished it," said Hawke.

"Not quite as funny as it used to be, Hawke?" said Varric. "Let me tell you a story. Once there was a dwarf who lived in a city. He'd been unlucky in love, but he had other pursuits to occupy his time, and other friends for companionship. But one of those friends was bright and funny and dangerous, and she had the best heart of anyone he'd met, and they fell in love so thoroughly that it became a part of them, but neither of them even realized what had happened — "

"Don't," warned Hawke.

"Why not?"

"Because it isn't a story!" said Hawke. "It isn't a story to me, Varric. It's my life. And a few hours of play-acting is all I have, and that is, all right, laughably pathetic, but there's no reason to mock me or to make it feel quite so…"

"So what?" said Varric.

"Real," Hawke finished. "That's no reason to make it quite so painfully real. I can do without hope, thank you very much."

And now Varric was grinning. Hawke wouldn't have thought him cruel, but she was learning all sorts of things about Varric and about herself and about her own limits tonight. Actually, Varric looked almost as though he were overcome with joy. She couldn't ever remember seeing precisely that expression on his face before, not even after she'd punched out Lord Randulf Whiterich — and he'd been wrong about that; Hawke would know him anywhere.

And then he said, "Hey, Hawke."

And Hawke said, "What."

And Varric said, "Let's get hitched."

And it turned out hope wasn't done with her yet.