It had been two-hundred and thirty-eight days since Hawke had last seen Varric. She wasn't counting, but Carver was. "Forty-three days since you were last sufferable, sister," he liked to say, to which Hawke liked to reply, "Sufferable isn't even a word, you enormous gob." Subtlety often went over Carver's head, so Hawke had long ago learned to discard it in favor of a bullying bluntness. "Two-hundred and thirty-seven days since you were last sufferable, sister," Carver said once they were within sight of Val Royeaux, and, "Oh look, Carver, is that dog shit on your armor?" said Hawke.
If day two-hundred and thirty-eight seemed interminable, it was nothing compared to day two-hundred and thirty-nine. The Bull and his Chargers had continued south to the White Spire, where the Inquisitor's retinue was conducting business of dire importance that might have concerned anything from the return of the archdemons to the price of goats in Rivain. Hawke and her sidekick, however, had remained in the city's Old Quarter, which was charmingly cramped, partly as a result of the architecture and partly because of the large number of literary luminaries who had gathered there for a five-day conference.
"Association of Southern Storytellers and Editors Roundtable Symposium," Carver read from his pamphlet. He'd gotten rather tall — well, not 'gotten,' really, since he'd been unfortunately tall since adolescence. Maybe it was the blue-and-silver armor that added the illusion of increased height. Whatever the reason, the effect was undeniable. Tragically so, in Hawke's opinion, since that last thing one wanted to noticed was the number of eyes that followed one's brother when he lumbered down the street. "Are they paid by the word?"
"You know, I'm really rather fond of the name," said Hawke.
Carver pulled a face. "ASSERS," he said. "You would be. Why are we here, again?"
"I'm here to see Varric," Hawke recited. "Varric is here to confront a critic — foolish, but it would be the height of hypocrisy for me to judge. Lady Pentaghast is here to collect autographs, although she'll claim she's here because the Inquisitor told her to keep an eye on the rest of us. You're here because you want to see Lady Pentaghast again."
"I am not," Carver said, and he flushed all the way to the roots of his dark hair. It was a good thing Hawke didn't blush herself — she'd probably look as ridiculous as he did. They had regrettably similar features, right down to what Varric said were unsettlingly blue eyes.
"She's taken, brother," said Hawke. "By the Inquisitor. Also, she's quite a bit older than you, hadn't you noticed? And anyway, you've only met her the once."
"Marian, shut up," Carver hissed. And he was supposed to be some kind of fantastically gifted warrior. Ha! Grey Warden he might be, but he would always be Hawke's little brother first.
"Good luck making that happen," said Hawke. "Better men than you have tried and failed, brother." Her attention was caught and briefly held by a booth purveying the sort of sordid-looking novels most enjoyed by Nevarran ladies; one of them had a rather brawny-looking dwarf on the cover. Hawke turned away before her face betrayed her with one of the aforementioned blushes.
"Is he really only here to confront a critic?" Carver said. "Varric, I mean." Hawke urged him along with a prod to the small of his back. The crowd being what it was, Carver made for a rather convenient shield that allowed her to plow through the throng at double the going pace. ASSERS — the book convention — was being held in some rich patron's manor and the fancy inn opposite but had spilled over into the courtyard between the two buildings. There was an ornate fountain large enough to bathe in at the courtyard's center, and Hawke steered Carver towards it and then collapsed on the low ledge surrounding the fountain.
Carver, after a moment, unbuckled his greatsword and sat down beside her. "Not that I'm putting it past him, mind," he added. "The only thing he's more defensive over than his writing is you, and that's saying a lot."
Hawke ignored this last comment despite the satisfaction it brought her. "He's giving some kind of lecture, I think," she said. "What with it taking a world-ending threat to drag him out of Kirkwall, he's never put in an appearance at one of these before. I gather it's causing quite the stir."
"You aren't still holding that against him, are you?" Carver asked.
"What? The writing? It's gauche, I'll admit, but I've grown fond of having my own biographer. He's horribly biased, of course, but that is the sort of loyalty I inspire."
Carver rolled his eyes. "I mean joining up with the Inquisition."
"Oh," said Hawke. "No. Of course not — well, all right, perhaps there was the merest hint of resentment on my part, what with Varric falling in with the woman who was trying to track me down and force me to lead some kind of chantry-sponsored militia. But it's all right, we're friends now," she added.
"I think you're a little more than friends," said Carver.
"I meant Cassandra, not Varric."
"Oh." Carver thought that over. "Well, at least no one can claim they're surprised — about Varric, not Cassandra. You've been mooning over him for years."
"I have not!" said Hawke, outraged by such a bald lie. "Take that back. I've never mooned over anyone in my life."
"Please." Carver put on a ridiculous voice pitched far too high to be hers. "'Oh, Varric, tell me another story about how charming and strong and beautiful I am. Oh, Varric, your chest hair is so manly. Oh, Varric, I'm going to ignore the ten other people trying to lure me into bed so I can spend all evening playing cards with you and hoping you notice my flirting — '"
Hawke, unable to stand his slander any longer, put her brother in a headlock. Carver tried to retaliate but was laughing too hard to squirm free. She was teetering precariously on the edge of the fountain, her arm still locked around Carver's neck, when Varric and Cassandra emerged from the crowd, announced by what to Hawke's ear was affectionate squabbling.
"I'm not going to tell you, Seeker, so give it up."
"All I want is an explanation for this… this secrecy. You owe me an answer."
"And I'm telling you — you'll have to wait for the panel along with everyone else. There they are."
Unfortunately, at that moment Carver managed to slip free and give Hawke a good shove in the process. She was only saved from a damp and humiliating fate because Varric reached out and snagged her by the front of her shirt. He gave her a tug, and Hawke teetered in the other direction instead — but this time she fell without struggle and ended up collapsed happily over Varric's shoulders.
"Hello, Varric," she said, with all the considerable dignity she could muster.
"Hawke," said Varric. "Junior."
"Champion," said Cassandra. "And Warden. A pleasure."
"So that's still going on, eh?" Varric said into Hawke's ear.
"Oh yes," said Hawke.
"Good. I could use a little entertainment." He gave her rump a furtive pat and then helped her find her footing. Hawke smacked a kiss against his whiskery cheek on her way up. Fonder greetings would have to wait until they were in private.
"Marian," Cassandra said — demanded, rather, in a way that was so guilelessly imperious you couldn't fault her for it. "Instruct the dwarf to tell me why he is engaged to speak at this… this…" She looked around, apparently unable to describe the bacchanal occurring around them.
"ASSERS?" Hawke helpfully suggested.
"That's what it's called," said Hawke. "ASSERS. Association for… something and… writers… no, that's not quite right… anyway, symposium."
"Association for Southern Storytellers and Editors Roundtable Symposium," Carver contributed.
"Yes. That," said Hawke.
"Wonder what they were smoking when they came up with that name," said Varric.
"Smoking? Oh no," said Hawke. "This was the product of a bet, surely."
"A dozen royals if you can use ass in the title, good sir!"
"And they say Orlesians aren't any fun," said Hawke.
Varric smirked at her. "They only say that in Ferelden, Hawke."
"Surely not," said Hawke. "Everyone knows that Fereldens are the final word on what is and what isn't fun." Oh, she had missed this — missed him. No one else played along quite so beautifully as Varric.
"You're half-Marcher," Varric said. "That's your fun half."
"And the Ferelden half?"
"Not to be mentioned in polite company."
"We're Ferelden by way of Tevinter," Carver interjected.
"Yes, thank you, your realism certainly contributes to the conversation," Hawke said. "Lady Cassandra, my apologies, but it appears you and I are destined to find out along with the rest of the rabble." She glanced down at Varric to confirm; he turned his head and winked at her, which Hawke took to mean she could have all his secrets if only she asked. The sense of power was heady.
"Have we engaged rooms at the inn?" asked Cassandra, who clearly had no time for nonsense and wasn't about to be distracted; her gaze was locked on the booth Hawke had noticed earlier, and her jaw was set with the sort of cutting determination that deserved its own statue. "Never mind, I'll inquire later. I have… urgent business. Yes. Pressing. For… the Inquisition." And then she ducked into the crowd.
"Varric," said Hawke, "I do believe you have competition."
"Not where it counts," Varric said. "Junior, want to check out the rooms?"
"I… no," said Carver. "I'll just… wander."
"Wander," said Hawke.
"To see if anything catches my interest," Carver said, and then he waded into the crowd, too. Coincidentally, his heading appeared to be the same as Cassandra's.
"He's hopeless, really," Hawke said. "Inn?"
"Inn," said Varric, and they set off across the courtyard together. It was four or five paces before Hawke noticed the ripple of interest that followed them — or, more correctly, followed Varric. He was so focused on the doors ahead of them that he didn't seem to notice. That was all right; Hawke would point it out to him later, after the proper reunion was over and done with. After all, it had been two-hundred and thirty-nine days since she'd seen him, and she wasn't ready to share his attention just yet.
Some time later, after repeated renditions of the proper reunion, Hawke was reclining naked on a fine feather mattress. The windows were open to the street below, and the long, sheer curtains were stirring gently in the summer breeze. Beside her, covered in nothing but a luxuriantly soft sheet that pooled in his lap, was a handsome dwarf. He was wearing spectacles.
"I'd ask for another round," said Hawke, "but I appear to have misplaced my second wind somewhere in the Anderfels. This might require a nap."
Varric chuckled. He was going over his notes for the lecture tomorrow — which, he had informed her, was really more of a question-and-answer session. There was also going to be some kind of announcement. Hawke knew the specifics, but he had sworn her to secrecy, and Hawke took her oaths to Varric with the utmost seriousness.
"Don't let me stop you," he said. "My editor will put a knife in my back if I screw this up. She's been trying to break into the Orlesian market for years, and this is our opportunity. If that one brainless critic hadn't blasted me…'
"I thought he was Antivan," Hawke said.
"He was." Varric was developing a kind of grimness that usually only surfaced after family members had been murdered. "But the Orlesian papers picked up his review, and my sales took a dive and never recovered."
Hawke, who had experienced enough grimness in her life without it invading her bed, sat up. The sheet fell away. "Alas," she said. "You'll have to be content with merely being a dashing war hero in Orlais without also being a renowned author."
"Well," Varric reflected. "The main perk of being an author is the women, and since you have the corner on that market — shit, Hawke, what happened here?"
Hawke's plan to distract him with her breasts was failing. He was, at least, touching her, but only to trace a finger along the thin scar that ran up the side of her breast to her armpit. Several delicate parts of her body tightened despite the lack of intent behind the gesture. "Oh, that?" she said. "Absolutely nothing."
"Nothing? This doesn't look like nothing."
"Bears," Hawke invented. "Twelve bears. A whole pack of bears, which I slew single-handedly when Carver and the Chargers were knocked unconscious. I could have woken them, but then I thought to myself, won't this make a good story for Varric to write into The Tale of the Champion Part the Second?"
"Twelve bears," said Varric.
"At least," said Hawke. "There I was, alone, in the forest, exhausted from spending all day and all night fighting a dragon to a standstill, the prone bodies of my friends at my feet, twelve hungry bears ringing my camp — "
"Marian," said Varric.
She lay back down. Varric smoothed her damp hair away from her forehead.
"What would you like me to say?" she said. "It was a mercenary party. They either recognized me as an apostate or as Kirkwall's champion. We made short work of them. I killed three — my hand to the Maker, Varric. One of them got lucky, that's all."
"You owe me a lifetime," he said. "Contractually speaking."
"Contractually speaking, you're stuck with me," Hawke said. "I'm the hero of the story, remember? It'll take more than a couple of half-rate sell-swords to take me down."
"You know what the worst part is, Hawke?"
Hawke reached out and gently shoved his spectacles up his nose; when she tried to withdraw her hand, Varric reached out and caught it in his own.
"The worst part," he said, "is that you tell me something like that, and all I can think is that you almost died while I was halfway across the country. Shit, that's selfish."
Hawke did not feel in any way equipped to have this conversation, particularly not when she'd had that thought herself without ever once considering it selfish. If she died, or if Varric (Maker forbid) did, well, of course it would be better if they were together — Hawke, for her part, thought it would be far better, because it would make exacting bloody revenge all the easier if she were present through the entire tragedy. This was a horrifically depressing conversation. Writers. Did they have to overthink everything?
"Varric," she said, "I'm really doing my very best to distract you with my nubile body, and you don't seem sufficiently distracted. If it's me, better to say so now — I'm sure there's some Orlesian lady of leisure who has all of your novels and probably didn't even spill food on any of them that would be happy to warm your bed."
"Orlesian lady of leisure, huh?" said Varric.
"Yes," said Hawke. "Twice as nubile and half as scarred. Not nearly as witty, though."
"Nah," said Varric. "Can't have that. It's the way you drop crumbs everywhere that really turns me on."
"Deviant," Hawke accused, and then Varric told her something that Hawke still found painfully, passionately, embarrassingly fantastic. Not that she could let on — it would ruin her reputation — but she had a suspicion that Varric knew anyway.
They were well on their way to discovering their second wind when Carver had to ruin everything by knocking on the door. "Marian?" he called. "I know you're in there!"
"Shit," said Hawke. She groped around on the floor, seized the first garment her fingers touched, identified the item as Varric's trousers, and flung them at his face. "Quick, put those on, he won't go away — "
"Hawke, what are you… Hawke?" Varric stopped in the middle of struggling into his trousers to gape at the tidy tuck-and-roll Hawke had just done in an effort to remove herself from the door's line of sight.
She stuck her head over the side of the mattress. "What?"
"Never mind," Varric said. He located his shirt somewhat more easily than Hawke located hers, pulled it on, and went to answer the door. Hawke swaddled herself in the sheet and made like a board.
There was a noise that presumably indicated the door being opened. "Junior," Varric said.
"Varric," said Junior — ah, Carver. "Is my sister…?"
"Otherwise occupied," said Varric. "Probably distracted by something shiny, you know how she gets. Something I can do for you?"
"Right," said Carver. "Look. I don't exactly — this isn't news that — " He made a frustrated sort of sigh, and then there was the rustle of paper. "Here. You should probably see this. And it cost me five coppers, so tell Marian one of you had better pay me back."
"What in Andraste's knickers — "
"Oh no," said Carver. "That's it. I'm out. Deal with this yourselves." And then the door closed again, presumably with Carver on the other side.
"Is it safe?" Hawke called.
"Yeah, Hawke, you're in the clear."
She clambered back onto the mattress. Varric, attractively disheveled, was attractively carrying a stack of crudely-bound manuscripts back to the bed in which Hawke was attractively sprawled. "What's that?"
"Not sure," Varric said. He climbed up next to her and leaned back against the headboard. "Your brother says he paid for them."
Hawke tugged one of the manuscripts free. The cover featured an illustration of a dark-haired woman draped across the laps of a dashing pirate woman, a muscular elf man, and a handsome-looking prick in white armor. She could tell he was a prick, although not an entirely objectionable one, just by the expression on his face. The title of the collection was Tales of the Champion.
Hawke read the first page. She read a second page. She read a third page. She read a fourth page and then said to Varric, "Varric, I think I might need to be wearing clothing to read any more of this."
"Get dressed, Champion," Varric said. "We're going to find a bar."
They got dressed and then located a suitable establishment in short order. It took a bit of hunting — the tavern attached to the inn was, alas, entirely too clean, too reputable, for the kind of drinking Hawke had in mind. Fortunately, just down the street was an alley that led to another alley at the end of which sat the sort of bar that Hawke and her associate preferred to frequent. They bribed their way into a corner table beside the fire, and Varric took off his duster, a sure sign they were hunkered down for the duration of the evening.
"Get you loves anything to drink?" said the server.
"Ale," Hawke said.
"Whiskey," said Varric. Ah. So that was how he felt about it. Hawke wasn't sure she liked him in this mood; Varric was meant to be convivial — grumpy, too, of course, he would bitch about anything and everything, but in recent years she had seen him more and more turn bitter without the sweetness. Varric wasn't meant to be sad, or depressed, or tired; or if he was, then it was Hawke's duty as his best friend and… the other thing they were… anyway, it was Hawke's calling to act as balm to his hurt.
"When you think about it, it's really quite flattering," she said. Varric didn't answer until after the server had delivered his whiskey; he slugged it back like he was trying to forget something truly dreadful rather than the (at times laborious but always loving) unauthorized sequels his fans had taken the initiative to pen. "This Hard in Hightown homage, for instance — I never knew you could write a detective story in verse, but it's not atrocious. The limericks are actually remarkably… ah, clever." Filthy, she had been about to say, although they certainly were clever as well.
Varric was paging through another of the portfolios — the one Hawke had been looking through earlier.
"And when you think about it, Swords and Shields is really inspired by Isabela's… what did she call it… her friend fiction about Aveline and Donnic," Hawke pointed out.
Another whiskey arrived without either of them having ordered it. Varric was too busy drinking the unexpected gift to question it — that, or he was absorbed in one of the tales of the Champion — but Hawke suspected a secret admirer. Of Varric, that was, or rather of Varric's prose. Under other circumstances she would've hunted down the culprit, if only because Varric would no doubt be delighted to run into a fan, but right now hardly seemed the time.
Hawke, despondent at her failure to capture Varric's attention, slumped in her seat. When that failed to produce a reaction, she edged closer to Varric. He didn't respond. She sighed and started reading over his shoulder.
It was easy to see why he was fixated on this collection in particular. While the other stories largely appeared to be alternate interpretations of Varric's fiction (Lewd in Lowtown by This One's Flower; Swords and Sheaths by Shiver My Timbers; the rather uncreatively-titled Knight and Dagger: Their Love Revealed by Filomena), Tales of the Champion was authored by a group who apparently found the original narrative lacking in erotic tension and had solved that problem as straightforwardly as possible by pairing Hawke up with every romantic prospect that had ever crossed her path.
"Aveline I can understand," said Hawke. "Fenris and Isabela, obviously. Merrill — all right, that's perhaps taking it a little far, she's more like Carver, were Carver a woman and less generally objectionable" — like Bethany, Hawke didn't say — "but Cullen? Meredith? Bran?"
"Oh, that's not even the worst part," Varric said. "Do you know how ridiculously out of character you are in most of these, Hawke? Look, this one has you asking Anders to walk you home because you're afraid of getting mugged, and this one has you propositioning — huh. Maybe that isn't out of character."
"That's what concerns you?" said Hawke.
"Two-thirds of these stories have you openly declaring your love halfway through the first paragraph," Varric said, "and the only time I've heard you use that word is when you're about to dive face-first into a pudding."
"I love plenty of things!" said Hawke, indignant. "See, I said it just there." She'd told Mother, hadn't she? And surely at some point in the past three decades she had mentioned to Carver that he wasn't a complete waste.
"Uh-huh," said Varric.
"I've said it to you, obviously," she bluffed.
"I think you implied it once."
This was an unsettling conversation. "I…" Hawke tried. "Well. That is to say… you know."
"Yes, Champion, I know," Varric said, sounding rather amused, which was certainly better than the grimness of before. Hawke wasn't always fond of amusement that came at her own expense, but she was willing to make as many exceptions as necessary for Varric.
"Right," said Hawke. "Good."
"And you know what else?" Varric said, as though they'd never veered away from his original litany of complaints. "Not one of these writers had the brains to pair you up with the only real contender."
"Oh?" said Hawke. "And who might that be?"
"Don't play dumb, Hawke, it doesn't suit you."
"To the contrary," said Hawke, "I've built an entire career out of playing dumb. Anyway, if I understand the thrust of your point — "
"You always do," said Varric.
" — then I'm afraid your argument doesn't hold water. After all, neither of us had the brains to pair ourselves up at that time, either."
Varric threw back another slug of his whiskey. He'd had enough to drink now that it was mellowing him. Very few people realized that Varric wasn't habitually mellow, but it was impossible to see him in his cups and disregard the low, subtle tension that usually hummed beneath his easy wit like the taut string of a bow. She knew what he thought of himself — that he was a coward and complacent, that he went where he was led, that he was too shady to be a good man and too soft to be a good spymaster, and that he had failed everyone who had ever counted on him — but she also knew in the deepest, truest part of herself that he was wrong, that he was the warmest, the bravest, and the wisest person in her acquaintance. If it took her a lifetime to convince him otherwise, then so be it.
"Us?" Varric said. "Where did you get the idea I was talking about us?"
"Don't play dumb, Varric," said Hawke. "It doesn't suit you."
"And anyway," Hawke said, "if you care to retaliate, I remain ready and willing to serve as inspiration. I don't suppose they're turning a profit, either." She prodded the stack of manuscripts. "Handwritten, poorly bound, and if Carver only paid five coppers, I doubt your imitators are charging more than the cost of materials. Really, you should be flattered."
"All right, I concede the point," Varric said. "There's just one thing I don't understand."
"What's that?" asked Hawke.
"Why," said Varric, "is every damn one of these stories written in purple ink?"
POSTSCRIPT THE FIRST
The next morning, after Varric had made several futile attempts to corner his Antivan critic, Cassandra had spent the entirety of breakfast ignoring her companions in favor of ring of strange women who all had crudely-bound anthologies of their own, Carver had spilled eggs down the front of his shirt, and at least three people had composed odes to Hawke's wit, they all trooped into the manor's great hall for Varric's panel. It was uniformly packed with people, and the three more plebian members of their party found seats in the front row only by dint of their association with the guest of honor.
Hawke settled back, kicked out her boots, crossed her feet at the ankle, and tipped Varric an encouragingly roguish wink when he glanced at her over the podium. She'd convinced him to wear the spectacles, ostensibly because the last thing he needed was to be squinting at his notes but really to serve her own selfish ends.
Varric cleared his throat. The room fell silent.
"Right," he said. "You all know that I don't often make appearances at this kind of shit, but I appreciate you showing up anyway even though you didn't know what to expect. My editor keeps telling me that it's critical to break into the Orlesian market. I keep telling her that Orlesians have more sense than to buy my books" — a tide of laughter broke over the crowd — "but will she listen? No luck so far.
"Our host says there's plenty of time scheduled for all of you in the crowd to ask questions, but I thought we'd cut through the crap and get to the real reason you're here. You've probably heard that I have an announcement to make." This time it wasn't laughter but a murmur of interest that swelled in the audience. "I can't pretend this is the news you've all been waiting for," he added. "Hard in Hightown II is still in progress, and the companion to Love in the Time of Dragons may never see daylight. What I've got is a different sequel, and that story starts something like this."
Varric looked at Hawke. The corner of his mouth curled up — not so visibly that anyone would notice, but a clear dedication nonetheless. And then he looked back down at his notes and began to read.
"It was twelve days after Dagger had decided to turn herself into a dragon that Knight rode into the enemy camp to buy her freedom. She hadn't made much progress in that time, but she was feeling confident that her nails were more talon-like by the day, and the sight of Knight caused her such a burst of pleasure that scales broke out all up and down her spine…"
POSTSCRIPT THE SECOND
Despite Varric's disclaimer, interest was very high indeed. The crowd roared. The representative of the Orlesian chapter of Varric's publishing house immediately announced a reprint of The Magpie. Cassandra swooned, although she would later deny it — and as for Hawke, she was reminded that she wasn't the only one who fell rapt when Varric Tethras spoke. Not the only one, perhaps; but certainly the best loved, and that feeling was worth its weight in dragons.