A year can be a long, trying eternity, and this last year has been just that, for the Champion of Kirkwall.
Precariously balanced on the forefront of the wave of change that was sweeping through the City of Chains, he had been briefly happy in the arms of another man for the first time since he'd been-- oh-- barely sixteen, and in very deep trouble with his father and mother both, afterward. He had flirted with danger, come to know the mysterious Qunari, and then that brief flash of happiness, like a sunflare.
That was all eclipsed by his mother's death. By the frightened look on Isabela's face, just before she'd run off-- how could he have known?-- forever.
Then the duel: a duel to impress the man he loved, as much as to keep Isabela's secret out of some foolish notion that they had been friends, once, even if she couldn't trust him enough to stay. A bloody duel, one that had been so taxing he had not been able to stand on his own power afterward, and had not been able to make it to Darktown to find Anders for help. The flow of interested nobles marking him a man of power for the next few weeks had made them the loneliest, darkest period of convalescence he'd ever suffered. When his house was not invaded by simpering politicians seeking to poison his ear to their enemies, it was empty, save the servants. Mother's room was a haunting horror that gave him terrible nightmares.
Orana was a little like Bethany had been, and those last days of winter, when he was well enough to go out but hadn't felt willing, she had spent evenings singing to him, softly playing her lute, in Arcanum. It was a nice thought, though the soft treble of her breathy voice sometimes made him think more of ghosts and spirits than the verdant pastures she said the songs had been written for. Bodahn had had to explain to her why the 'master' was indisposed when her voice reminded him too strongly of his mother.
And on the turning of that year, he had asked them all to celebrate somewhere. His friends had long given up trying to catch him at home, knowing his tendency to be out and about looking for them when possible, knowing that he needed his time alone, otherwise, unless their business was sorely pressing.
In his library, hidden behind a small, unassuming end table with a tiny brass sculpture of Ser Aveline (oft remarked upon with favor by his very own Ser Aveline, whom he had offered to give it to as a wedding present), he has just now found a small bundle of letters, tied tight and forgotten.
All addressed to him, in a wispy, spidering hand he knows well. A hand he taught.
And, ravenous for them, he has stolen out into the main room by the fireplace. Each letter is precious, each one a treasure. Sometimes they are no more than a paragraph, and they ease some deep, aching empty feeling in his heart as no words of comfort, no glass of rum nor dreamless sleep has touched in all this time.
His name, precious and rarely used by anyone anymore, is scrawled so cautiously that he doesn't doubt there are many others before the first, crumpled up and thrown out because they simply were not good enough. It is a foolish, silly thing to be grateful to see. In a way he is more grateful to see it written this way, and not in Carver's harsh, accusatory script. It chases off that unbearable feeling that he has no connection to the world anymore that has settled around him since his mother's death.
I have often written you before. I find it difficult to write whenn I am emotional but I want you
te to know that what you have taugt me meant something to me.
I burn the letters I write to you. I do not know why I simply do I think I am afraid of you or what you represent.
I should hate you but I do not. I have written these words many times and cast them into flames but they are still true. I am afraid of you
and I know you are dangerus but you are also kind. And so even though I know better I have been your friend.
You should not trust me. I have told you why. You should turn me away or enslave as your own pet.
I am afraid of you, Leonard. I need you to understand this so I have decided to leave this letter with your servants or next time our lessons are finished. I cannot speak to you directly about it. I
I want to trust you as you seem to trust me. I must know what you think of
m my fear.
If this is to be my last act as a free man, thank you for the reading lessons.
There are six other letters, though he shudders at the thought of what he might find within them. Instead of taking them up to his stairs, he thinks better of it, and places those he has not read back where he found them. The first he puts beneath all of the knickknacks he has acquired throughout the years in his storage chest.
Feeling oddly lighthearted, he pens a brief reply, leaving it in the first letter's place.
It's all right to be afraid.
I'm afraid all the time.
For the first time all winter, he sleeps soundly in his bed, suffers no nightmares, and wakes up feeling like going to the Hanged Man for some friendly chatter. So he does.
When next he feels the need to be totally alone-- a need, he reflects gratefully, he no longer feels so often anymore-- he sends Orana to the market with a sovereign and Bodahn and Sandal to protect her, telling them to be sure she buys something for herself.
Bodahn's protest actually brings a shadow of his old smile out, as he's blocking his own door ominously and the frigid late-winter air is whipping through Bodahn's livery, stirring his beard. Sandal and Orana, sufficiently distracted by a clapping game, do not hear Bodahn's exasperated laugh. "You really do know how to ask the impossible, don't you, serah?"
Nodding once, Hawke folds his arms over his chest, unabashedly bemused at Bodahn's expense. "Not a copper for you out of that, either, Bodahn. No easy way out. You must spend that whole sovereign on something Orana will like, and I'll check to be sure you did with all the merchants after."
"So I take it you'll be wanting us back around, say, sundown?" Bodahn laughs, executing a swift little bow. His shrewd eyes seek out some secret form lurking in the shadows of the foyer, but none is to be found. Hawke doesn't make it easier for him by giving it away, but clearly there will be Rumors before this is all over.
That's somehow reassuring. He can almost believe that life, in its irritating, obstinate, inexorable fashion, does in fact go on, even if he wants to let himself be haunted by his personal (and certainly not literal, though Anders and Merrill alike have expressed their worry in recent weeks at all his brooding) demons.
"I'll make dinner." And, before Bodahn can protest, he lifts a finger, clicking his tongue. "I will accept no arguments, so you'd best stop wasting time and get to market."
With a tiny scoffing sound, Bodahn turns back to his charges, laughter ringing as he sees the pair of them engaging in some surprisingly coordinated pattern to their game. Orana is reciting a rhyme with it that makes Sandal croon happily.
But Hawke closes the door with a small wave, and retreats to his library.
His note is missing, but the number of letters has increased. At the forefront, now, is one large note scrawled very hastily on a stolen sheet of Anders's manifesto:
You shouldn't read the others, but it is your choice.
Hawke counts, finds that there are, in fact, now ten letters where once there were six, and resolves to read them all over breakfast. An apple in hand and glass of water waiting to the side, he sits down at his writing desk and peers at slowly improving handwriting, heedless of Fenris's warnings.
They are visceral, vivid.
I cannot write much today. I have killed Hadriana, and you have taken a slave into your home. You said it was a job but what does that make me
I am your unpaid servant I would follow you into flames
is has to be something wrong with me but I dare not accuse you of blood magic I remember its touch and feel it still, at times, when I remember too much of him and forget where I am
i hate everything you are
They leave him as breathless as if Fenris had just beaten him senseless. But he wants to know.
He keeps reading.
The life I had before is
What we did
I will not fail this time. Leonard,
I remembered more of my past than I thought I ever would again. What I said to you that night was cruel and unfair. I am selfish, I know this, I know that I was not the only one seeking happiness and I hope that you
and he can't keep going, for some minutes, just buries his head in his hands and fights with anger and hurt and bitterness in his throat until it all settles into a quiet, sad resignation. He leaves the letters on his desk, and spends some hours tidying up about the house, entertaining himself with a game of find-the-manifesto and turning most of the pages he discovers into various paper sculptures. In the peak of his unwillingness to continue, he fashions a makeshift house of cards from carefully folded, diamond-shaped pages, and of course, just as he's content with his success, Matthew wakes from a long, happy nap and barks, excitedly lunging into the midst of the structure, sending the pages scattering every which way.
"Well, that was hardly sporting." He raises one eyebrow at his unrepentant companion, and offers the beast a scratch behind his ears. "You know, they talk about liquid courage, but never mabari courage. I wonder why that is."
Matthew whuffles disapprovingly, pulling his head back and Leonard has to laugh.
"All right, all right. I'll have your lunch ready before you can chew through three pages." He saunters down into the cellar, brings up tough venison and tosses a sizable chunk to the dog without regret. Matthew has, ever so politely, nosed the fallen pages into a careful, neat pile in the interim. Only after his master thanks him, distractedly, does Matthew have at the venison with a great deal of slobbering and enthusiastic tearing, his avid, intelligent eyes gleaming with pleasure at doing well.
They uncomfortably remind Hawke of Fenris, and he takes himself back upstairs, determined to at least finish the rest of the six letters that he'd found that first night. He will have wasted Bodahn's time with babysitting all afternoon for absolutely nothing. No secret trysts, and no world-shattering self-realizations to be had; all far too unromantic or interesting for Varric's taste, to be sure.
In any case, he cannot leave the letters on his writing desk, lest he forget them and Varric discover them. He is not ready to discuss that particular aspect of his life with his best friend. He may never be.
The third letter is oppressively bitter and leaves a jarring, sour taste in his mouth.
Before I laid with you all I could remember of mages was the collar Danarius made me wear the confusion the constant confusion
Hawke, he controlled every part of me. it was worse than blood magic. my entire life was his command and I did not mind. that is the worst part. when the pain had settled and I knew I could not beat him I accepted what i wass.
I cannot accept that danger with you. Your touch is
being near you, I remember that I was always docile and proud to serve him and I cannot let that happen again I cannot be with you
you frighten me, everything you are is evil.
Taste of his own blood, from biting his tongue. To see that almost beautiful, painstakingly written hand turned into something so unseemly and vicious and venomous, vengeful is painful in its own way. Just as the words are part of who Fenris is, are his thoughts, laid bare despite the danger they pose, so too are they forgotten and old, months old now.
But the fourth is,
I cannot stop thinking about you.
I am no longer certain I want to.
And the fifth,
Leonard, why have you not come to me yet?
Three weeks, and you have not come after me. I saw too clearly what would happen: visions of a terrible future, of your arrival in the mansion and your revenge a nightmare of power.
I knew what you would do to me for leaving you but i thought I had prepared myself yet you still have not come. Not even to invite me to join you in your fights, though I know from Isabela you have not stopped your work in this unremarkable, unappreciative city.
I know you, I know every inch of you. the longer you wait the less I remember those ghosts of my past, the faces, the names. I remember touching your back and tracing the scars there and I want to know where they came from. I remember the sounds you made when I tasted your skin and
why are you waiting?
I will not march like a lamb into slaughter
And the sixth, which leaves him indisposed for the rest of the day, though he fortunately hasn't far to go to lie in his bed and desperately try to banish all thought from his mind in a pathetic recreation of his father's old meditation exercises.
I do not feel that what I said was adequate, the other day. Your mother was a good woman. A strong, beautiful, kind woman; feral like you, and gentle. I did not speak to her often enough but I remember the first time I met her.
Your mother told me to love you. When I expressed my fears to her, she only smiled. I
I permitted her to touch my face. Your mother's touch was very kind, kinder than my own mother's, I know now. I did not know her long and she was not my family but I will miss her. As I would miss you.
Please do not die.
Sometime near sundown, he forces himself to stir, going through the motions of collecting foodstuffs from the cellar, preparing a small, flavorful stew that he promises, upon Bodahn's return, is 'disgustingly Ferelden.' They all eat together, which is a rare sort of thing, and he admires Orana's new necklace of pretty beads with an approving smile that almost makes it to his eyes.
Sandal declares his soup soggy, giving it to Matthew. Mabari instinct taken over, they soon all receive a thorough face-licking to get extra tastes, until Hawke takes the hint and pours the leftovers into a bowl on the floor for Matthew's pleasure. With his spirits a little higher, he manages to find it in his heart to compose a return letter again, to let Fenris know that he is, indeed, stubborn enough to put himself through emotional torture like a damned fool.
I sincerely hope none of your future letters abstain from calling me by my given name. It was jarring to see my surname instead.
While I can promise nothing, I will gladly tell you where those scars come from.
Later. Over a bottle of wine. And you will invite me to your mansion properly or you'll get nothing and like it.
I would never hurt you for leaving me. The choice is given to you because you are a free man. Never doubt that.
He leaves this, like the last, in the dust behind the little table, though he does not return the letters he has yet to read, this time. Let Fenris make of that what he will.
Spring. Spring, and Isabela is in on the tide, bearing gifts for them all. Kirkwall isn't exactly blooming, but the flowers in his garden do. Merrill speaks fondly of collecting certain plants unique to the region for an old ritual involving tattoos, starlight, and a fair amount of alcohol.
Though he hadn't thought he would feel up to something like that, he agrees. And sure enough, as soon as the bitter chill of winter has lifted, they're off to a particular stretch of the wounded coast, close to the water and cool, far from the usual paths and so, much safer. Isabela, Varric and Merrill are carrying supplies; his attentions have been allocated to 'watch the dog', probably very intentionally. Aveline made him promise to tell all later; Anders wanted none of it, complaining of sand and surf alike; Fenris is--
Well, Fenris returned another book borrowed from Leonard's shelves, and said not a word of the picnic. Just,
"Are you all right, Hawke?"
He had answered truthfully, "Well enough, I suppose."
Matthew, who has not been particularly pleased with his master's lackadaisical lounging about the mansion these past months, is excited beyond measure by every smell, sound, and sight that strikes them. He bounds far ahead of the group, and Leonard finds himself curiously at peace with the idea of simply spending an afternoon chasing his dog.
So he does; Isabela sets up their blankets and a tent for the night, while Varric prepares the bowls and needles. Merrill, who is the only one of the three of them who knows which flowers will be needed, collects a surplus. When he's finished his duty, Varric lounges with a lazy smile in his most opulent leather jacket, tracing gloved fingers along Bianca's stock. The three of them chatter idly, Isabela plucking the flower petals and sorting them into each bowl, where Merrill grinds them with oil to make the dyes they seek.
And out of earshot, Leonard dashes after Matthew, calling to him when the dog gets out of sight. They play and fall and wrestle in the sand. Matthew licks his face excitedly, and he gets soaked through, and when he laughs, his chest doesn't feel as tight as it has since--
"Hawke!" Varric's voice carries on the wind, exasperated and amused. "The hell are you? Daisy's ready!"
So he extricates himself from Matthew (no small feat, as the mabari thinks they'd do better to go play in the sea a bit more) and begins picking his way back up the path. Brushing by long stringy grass, thick bushes with berry-flowers blooming on them, by scraggly trees, he finds himself covered in a light sweat beneath the salt and sand by the time he reaches them, and works with Merrill to fill her little tub (brought to rinse just in case such a problem should occur) with water not too hot, not too cold.
Isabela dumps it over his head and silences his protests by throwing a towel over him just as quickly. Laughing, they settle in, baring their backs, and each let Merrill mark their skin in turn.
"This," she tells Varric, as she begins threading green dye into his skin. "is the symbol of of the storyteller. Usually you wear on your face, but--"
"That's all right, Daisy," Varric laughs. He is warm and unfazed by all of reality. Just being near him makes a person want to smile and relax. "If I wear it on my back, people aren't as likely to see me coming."
"Oh, good," Merrill says quickly, looking relieved. Her hands never falter, and in a way, they're all entranced by her steady concentration, sitting together in a soothing silence, just listening.
By noon, she has finished, and Varric lays a bandage over the mark to be sure it keeps while Leonard follows Isabela out into the grasses and hills higher above the sea, Matthew taking point for them. They return within the hour, two hyraxes for their troubles, and eat well-- sour berries picked from Hightown gardens, lightly salted hyrax with basil, wine pilfered from Leonard's own stock.
"You can't steal something when I gave you express permission," he points out to Varric, who makes a moue of distress.
"But I like stealing."
With a wry laugh, they settle in, Isabela baring her shoulders while Leonard ties off her hair, braiding it so it will not get in Merrill's way. "Very well, Varric. Pilfered, but not missed, considering I'm here drinking it, too."
Admiring the view of the sea from where they sit, he encourages Varric to regale them with a tale they haven't heard before, while Merrill begins to tattoo a strange flying serpent between her shoulderblades. Leonard can't help wondering whether it's a mark of freedom or something more, though he knows Isabela prizes freedom above all else.
It's dark before Merrill is done, and she promises him next time, she'll put the mark of his family on his neck, if he likes. "Well, I'm not sure," he jokes, glad to know that he can joke again. "Maybe something a little less-- weighty would be appropriate."
"A gem," Varric counters with a wry chuckle and a firm gesture of his flagon. "Greedy sod."
"Liking shiny things is not unique to me amongst this lot." He gives both Varric and Isabela significant looks, frosting his own glass and savoring the wine. Orlesian had always been a bit more to his taste than the Tevinter sort Fenris favored.
As if reading his mind, Isabela suggested coyly, "what sort of thing would lure a wolf? That's what dear old Hawke needs."
"I am not old," he protests with a laugh, and from there the conversation devolves into good-natured slander, culminating in Merrill telling them they're all older than she, with their wrinkles around their eyes from laughing too much, and their strange, human noses. When Varric protests that he is, of course, not human, she only answers,
"Well, Dwarf noses are even stranger."
Night finds them peacably arranged in a tangle of limbs beside the campfire they'd made to cook their meal, and while Matthew drowses curled up next to Varric and Isabela allows herself to be a particularly soft pillow for Merrill, Leonard is left to his own thoughts. He tends the fire idly, watching the stars come out until a chill breeze glides in off the white-crested waves below them.
He is glad of the time to himself, gladder still that he brought something along to read-- the book Fenris had returned, in fact. It is a history of the Free Marches written not many years ago by one Gala, eccentric priestess of the Faith, who seems to have delighted in using broad, sweeping statements to describe people, rather than actual descriptions.
Within the chapter detailing the rebellion of Starkhaven that first put the Vael family in power, he finds the first letter he's seen since his correspondence with Fenris in the winter.
Intrigued, he sets the book aside.
I am sorry I did not use your name. I understand what it is like to want certain intimacies and will endeavor to oblige you.
Additionally, I would like to invite you to visit with me sometime when you're available. I have been trying to determine what constitutes asking politely, but could not discern your meaning. Were you requesting a formal invitation? If so, please consider this letter to be that.
I don't know why you have kept reading what I write. In a way, it frightens me. You now know more of myself than I know of you, and I know so little of myself as it is.
Still, I want to tell you what it was I remembered, that night. If I don't I fear it will follow me for the rest of
my life our association, however it may end
My mother's face was the firs tthing I remembered, very jarring. Her and a little girl I think may have been my sister. most of what I remembered had to do with him. How he purchased me and had me trained to serve as his bodyguard.
Other things I learned, etiquette, manners. subservience. And I acted subservient without question. Knowing that, I wonder if I should hate myself for allowing everything else that followed.
I know I must be much older than I thought, now, for he was no older than you when he bought me, Leonard. Perhaps younger, even, though now he is an aging man, gray of hair and tired of the ugly life he forged himself. He was a scholar, then, not a politician. All the cruelties I remember, they were not commonplace at first.
Knowing myself, even a small part of myself, is more frightening than I had hoped. Not liberating at all.
If you do come to the mansion, I hope you will not forget to tell me of your scars. I cannot easily know more of myself, but I wish to know
all of more of you.
When he has read the letter twice, just to be sure of words not easy to make out in the flickering light of the fire, he folds the paper quietly up and sets it back in the book. He lies back, resting his head on Varric's thigh (to which Varric retorts with a sleepy grunt, but little else) and counts the stars until his mind grows weary, and he falls asleep.
The next morning, before they leave, he allows Merrill to tattoo the mark of Fen'harel along the back of his neck. "To catch a wolf," she tells him with a small smile, seeming to understand his meaning.
He grins in return, tapping his lips with one finger to ask her for diplomatic silence on the matter. "To catch a wolf."