It would be appreciated, Fenris had written, if you ceased to goad a man who has earned his current respite.
That was not all he had written; there was more to it, yet the words were no sharper than barbs, the polished spikes on old armor or the tips of sleek gauntlets, or two favored daggers inlaid with a young dwarf’s uncanny enchantments for speed.
It’s a real pity, one of Varric’s letters had once suggested, that words can’t come alive off the page and challenge you to a fight. Or maybe by ‘it’s a real pity’ I mean ‘it’s real lucky,’ which not too many people seem to believe these days. Certainly not you, Fenris. Still, it’s a good thing a sentence can’t tear my heart out—well, not literally, anyway.
All that was the usual, the expected. Varric wrote as he chose; Hawke wrote as he pleased; and Fenris wrote, apparently, as other men attempted to murder.
But there were reasons for that—such as the gray hairs at Hawke’s temple, and those moments Hawke acquiesced to acknowledge there would only be more, and never less.
‘One day we’ll match,’ Hawke said. ‘White hair, black brows—but Fenris, you’re going to have to grow a beard.’
‘Am I now?’ Fenris asked. He touched the air before his jaw and chin, and Hawke knew, however it was he knew, that he was tracing the shape of a beard that would never exist, rather than hiding the strange smile that already did beneath the shadowed cast of his fingers.
Or perhaps it was both.
Varric had a job; he phrased it as an idea, an acquaintance, who was no doubt a murderous thief or a cunning assassin, perhaps a member of the Legion of the Dead, perhaps a Crow or a retired magister or a renegade Saarebas, perhaps another Grey Warden possessed by a harbinger of change from the Fade. Just somebody I met one time, Varric would explain, when pressed for further detail—but Varric was as far as Rivain now, ‘enjoying the sights, smells, and sunlight,’ and could not be held accountable for the sudden glint in Hawke’s eyes.
‘Do you remember that time we hunted wyverns, Fenris?’ Hawke asked.
‘It is a difficult memory to forget,’ Fenris replied.
‘Come to think of it, most of them are,’ Hawke admitted, and touched a cracked thumb to his temple—where the hair was gray, but not yet white, neither color accepting or committing itself to the other. They were together, but also distinct, and surely that meant something.
Still, by his presence alone, Hawke had a habit of turning even a simple task treacherous. Fenris had no love for fancy parties—his years spent pouring wine and serving as furniture may have been past, yet just as people remained, so did their predilections—but even Fenris could see that a night spent parrying witty remarks and indulging in Orlesian high society games was still preferable to battling ghasts and wyverns, fighting their way through a duke’s dungeon only to murder the duke himself at the end of the day.
‘Few will invite you to their parties again, I suspect,’ Fenris had said, while they cleaned the blood from everything.
‘That’s where you’re wrong, Fenris,’ Hawke had replied, though it was so often the implication. ‘If anything, I’ll be receiving invitations every hour for months to come. They’ll be ravenous—unable to get enough of me.’
Fenris recalled saying something of the Free Marches after that—or simply saying The Free Marches, further silence being commentary enough.
Hawke did not agree when it came to parties, or when it came to dragons, or when it came to wyverns—which at last Fenris had acknowledged were separate, and deserving of separate consideration. Hawke did not fit in with them, either, not amongst the collection of scales and claws and heat-blasts he preferred, or the tight-pinched waistcoats of varying colors, the cufflinks made of polished bone, the high collars that, Fenris thought but did not say, suited him.
Then over the many, protracted years, their mutual refusal to belong anywhere forced Fenris to reconsider.
Even if they stood out everywhere they went, they could at least be conspicuous together.
‘Varric wouldn’t ask if he didn’t think we could handle it,’ Hawke said, but he made a face after he’d spoken, as though he knew it was a lie, the same face he wore when his meal did not please him.
Those two were often similar in feeling and in source—something restless, somewhere deep in the belly.
‘Varric thought it was a good idea to travel to the Deep Roads,’ Fenris reminded him. It was a detail their biographer did not omit, but neither did he highlight it, that it was not all the work of his brother and his brother’s greed.
A writer’s curiosity was also involved. Because I wanted to know how the story ended, of course, should not have been an acceptable excuse for everything.
‘That is true.’ Hawke held the letter in his hands. Fenris recognized the hand, recalled the ink, and knew he would write to Varric later that evening, when the candles were burning low. ‘But he was also responsible for passing along that job with Anso. Remind me again—how did that one turn out?’
‘Enough,’ Fenris said, palm flat, tone flatter.
He was not the sort to indulge in frivolous physicality, and so Hawke did this for him, nudging shoulder against shoulder, armored steel knocking into Fenris’s chest-plate.
He grew more irreverent with age, instead of less, and to think of his tone in the dark-guttered alley corner of the Kirkwall alienage, the smile he offered needlessly in the City of Chain’s unceasing shadows, was another memory of those foolish things that made a man most fond.
As first impressions went, Hawke’s were no more unfortunate than his last impressions, no more appropriate than all the impressions in between.
‘You resemble a cat,’ Fenris said, with a hand at Hawke’s cheek, ‘who has dipped his whiskers too deeply into the cream.’
‘That was positively inspired of you, Fenris,’ Hawke replied. ‘Such metaphor—even Varric would be jealous. I didn’t know you had it in you. …Still, I think I prefer the days when you used to call me—what was it? Oh, yes: a dragon.’
‘One cannot lie down with a dragon.’ Fenris reached to remove Hawke’s pauldron rather than his own. This, he thought, said everything; or perhaps the light in Hawke’s eyes did that, not the flash of his teeth or the stubble in the hollow of his cheek.
‘I should hope not,’ Hawke agreed.
‘Well,’ Fenris said, ‘perhaps in Tevinter.’
They undressed one another.
The hair on Hawke’s chest had also, some sneaky time during the past year, taken to this new state—he called it salt and pepper, then bemoaned his hard life, his difficult friends, his ruthless lover, the years at sea marauding with Isabela, all the hardships and all the dragons and all the stale biscuits that caused him to go gray before his time. Fenris sat between his legs, kneeling contemplative with the weight of his upper thighs against his heels, and waited for this to pass, same as a sudden squall on Isabela’s stolen galleon.
It was not so terrible as it seemed in the moment, or even from the slanted angles one considered nostalgia, or rather private pain. These storms passed. Together, he and Hawke had learned that.
Fenris understood everything, except for the biscuits, which had nothing to do with anything.
‘Fenris,’ Hawke had said at last, ‘this is where you kiss me—too hard—and remind me what it is to be virile again. That no matter how gray I get, you’ll always—’
‘I shall always,’ Fenris had replied, lest Hawke go on forever. And, because it was not out of the question that he was already impatient to kiss him, he did just that.
But there were times to be gentle in this way, times to be fierce and times to be slow. Fenris slid a leather buckle from its metal latching, then the next, and the one after. There were many of them.
‘You need not even say it,’ Fenris said into the quiet. ‘You have…always wished to live out this fantasy of the Nevarran hunt. The mountain air is good for you, the travel makes you feel alive again, and you are, of course, man enough to kill these beasts no matter their size and your age.’
‘Actually,’ Hawke said, ‘I was wondering why I have so many damned buckles on my chestpiece.’
Fenris touched one of the two on his upper arm. There were two more on the other. ‘Likely because you have always been attracted to what is shiny rather than what is sensible.’
‘The same could be said for you,’ Hawke said. ‘If we’re speaking of…attraction.’
‘Must we speak of it?’ Fenris asked.
The shift came before Fenris could stop it—though, he admitted, he had goaded its approach, and in that sense did not wish for it to be stopped. One moment Hawke was flat on his back, his hand curled against Fenris’s side, his armored gauntlets brushing boiled leather straps. Then came a flurry of muscle and movement, Hawke’s legs tightening, thighs against flanks; after that, Fenris was the one with his shoulders to the mattress, and Hawke perched above him, no doubt imagining himself as a dragon indeed.
Fenris parted his knees, widening the stance of his legs to make room for Hawke’s weight and width, then lowered his eyes to strip Hawke’s gauntlets free.
Hawke’s wrist was thick beneath those familiar segments of worn leather, and stained by the color, by the sweat, but also pale from the bloodlessness of flesh under tightened straps. There was a scar beneath one thumb but above the wrist proper.
‘More buckles,’ Fenris said.
‘They’re everywhere,’ Hawke agreed.
Fenris set the gauntlets aside. Hawke would no doubt step on them with bare feet in the morning, on his way to find water, and so Fenris pushed them clattering beneath the bed, not into dust but into shadow.
Their lodgings were neither the fine chambers of the past, nor the master quarters fallen to wreck and ruin under the idle watch of an elf so unaccustomed to ownership of anything, much less a home. Rooms required upkeep, and there were no rooms better kept up than those at a roadside inn, where so many traveled in and out, and none were ever meant to stay.
‘You’re thinking again, Fenris.’ Hawke’s voice vibrated warm against the hollow of Fenris’s throat, where there was a line of paralleled lyrium, though Hawke swore he only tasted and smelled the sun-dark skin. ‘And here I thought I’d done away with all that years ago.’
‘Done away with thinking?’ Fenris asked. ‘You have tried.’
Then again, Hawke was a rogue, who trusted surprise better than he trusted himself.
But surprise was not, as some believed, the antithesis of thought. Surprise involved quick thinking, rather than the slow burn of contemplation, and Hawke excelled at the former while even now he denied the latter. Fenris had not asked if it could be both instead of one or the other, for the answer to that was obvious to the point of being plain.
‘Both’ was always a possibility, but by definition it was not meant to be easy.
At the end of the day—when his muscles ached from an overly ambitious backflip, when his hair stank with the fumes of miasmic smoke—Hawke had tasted his fill of surprises.
‘We don’t have to go,’ Hawke said, as Fenris drew open his jerkin, and touched the whole breadth of him, thumb to thumb and smaller fingers stretched as far as his ribcage, where it curved from chest to back. When Hawke breathed in, his lungs opened with something swollen and full, and it was almost as though Fenris held his breath itself, not just skin and tight muscle and graying hair and so much familiar flesh. The breath was customary, and the sigh that came after, what grew and shrunk by equal measures, and the keen face watching from above a lingering touch, gray fletching the unchanged shape of a rough beard. ‘…Those Nevarrans. It isn’t as though we owe them anything. Now, they’re not as bad as Orlesians, mind, but they’re not as brazen about it, either—so I’ve always asked myself, what’s the point?’
‘You wish to hunt dragons,’ Fenris said.
‘What little boy doesn’t?’ Hawke replied.
Fenris, with a sigh of his own, assented that this was important—consideration, humor, and unavoidable affection all indicated that he must say something. Something virile would be best.
‘No,’ he said. ‘You are not a boy, Hawke.’
He meant that Hawke was a man, not that he was an old man, but Hawke’s laughter had that pained edge to it, until it was swallowed by kisses.
The commotion of their bodies was more now than the commotion of Fenris’s other thoughts.
There had been a time—so many years past—that Fenris had nothing else to remember, no other connections to pleasure but the heightened awareness of an older and more intrinsic pain. Hawke smiled then, too, one of his many smiles, a young man in an overwhelming bed, with the fall of red velvet curtains framing his handsome body as Fenris left.
Now, Fenris remembered those other nights they had spent together, all the mistakes they had made, discomfort and arousal by equal measure, curiosity and experiment, success and failure and success again.
‘I killed a high dragon and fought the Arishok single-handed,’ Hawke had once said. ‘You’d think simple grease flasks might prove easier.’
The breadth of Hawke’s shoulders; the angle of his jaw; the slant of his mouth when he grinned or panted—Fenris closed his eyes, and saw it all. When he opened them again, his face was somewhere near pale skin and dark freckles. His lips were parted. He did not kiss them.
‘If you’re trying to prove you can tire me out better than the Vimmark Mountains,’ Hawke began. But he spoke in that dizzy way, unspooled and uncollected, such hazy post-pleasure warmth that Fenris’s belly was a knot of too many damned buckles—words thought in Hawke’s company voice, but meant for these moments when Hawke sounded like another man.
Another, and the same. There was sweat upon his chest, and Fenris kissed that.
‘We shall go,’ he said. ‘You rest, and I will write to Varric.’
‘Just like old times, isn’t it, Fenris?’ Hawke asked.
He lay in the bed, one arm crooked under a tangle of rough-spun, simple sheets. Fenris sat up beside him, and Hawke leaned closer, then pretended he had not done it, nor that it was so obvious.
It was not, Fenris thought, just like old times, though the times themselves were—literally—old.
The bed was not what it once was, but neither was Hawke’s back. Even Fenris was starting to feel the tug of stiff knuckle-joints in his hands when he woke, the beginnings of something most slaves in Tevinter never lived long enough to experience. When he thought of it that way, he could be grateful for the progression, if not its effects, ignoring the twinge in the ball of his thumb as he lifted Hawke’s quill.
It would be appreciated, Fenris wrote, if you ceased to goad a man who has earned his respite.
They received a letter on the open road from Cumberland to Nevarra, traveling north along the remains of the Imperial Highway to reach the mountains, where Varric’s contact and dragon-hunter was waiting. It was fine timing, as they had already exhausted the topic of beards, and next they would come to exhaust each other.
The day you let Hawke rest is the day I eat Blondie’s pillow for breakfast, was Varric’s reply—just as confounding and short as the man who’d penned it.
‘He wastes words even when forced to write them down,’ Fenris said. He crumpled the paper and slipped it under his gauntlet, tucked into the faded strip of red cloth and the knot that held it in place.
‘Oh, Fenris,’ Hawke said, with a shake of his head. Chances were he would not mind if he learned of Varric’s latest accusation, even if he found it true. ‘And here I thought we were supposed to mellow over time.’
‘One cannot mellow and hunt dragons,’ Fenris replied.