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those who speak in kindness.

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Fenris is covered in blood, which means it's a Tuesday.

...He misses Hawke.

"Please," a voice says. It's some woman, a Laetus mage in torn robes, covered in mud and seawater. She is still mostly whole, but wounded enough that scrambling away from Fenris is clearly a painful affair for her. It's why Fenris likes fighting along the coast. When he destroys these piteous slavers, he can literally rub salt in their wounds.

The wreckage around them sizable. Fenris has killed everyone in the convoy who wasn't a slave, or being carried off to become one. Slavers have been picking elves and the poor off the coast for weeks, to the point that the lord, some duke or arl, of the local manor had put out word for hired help. Either he couldn't abide Tevinters picking off his people, or it hurt his pride, or he genuinely cared-- it didn't matter to Fenris. He'd heard of the call for arms in town, and set about waiting by the ocean for the shapes of Tevinter ships to form in the mist. It was work he'd easily do for free, though if he could make some coin afterward, he'd hardly argue.

The mage continued to whimper. She was clearly disoriented, backing away as she was, going in the wrong direction. Her back was to the sea. "Please," she said. "Mercy-"

"I will show you the mercy you are famed for." He brings his hand up, armed and encased in metal, and lets the lyrium gleam. This woman branded her slaves, even before they reached market. The men and women he's freed will live the rest of their life with the name of her company on their hip, their shoulder-- some even had it on their hand.

He rips her heart out.

The screaming is such that he doesn't hear the huge qunari until they're within earshot.

"That was pretty badass," he said. "The glowing was a nice touch."

Fenris whirls on instinct, all rushing attack, sword at the ready- the qunari blocks him with a simple parry.

Fenris surveys the scene. A huge qunari-- tal-vashoth, from the looks of it-- and a band of mismatched miscreants standing behind him, all clearly ready to fight. Ah. Someone else has taken the duke up on his offer. Or... was it an arl?

Did it matter? Fenris shakes his head.

"You are mercenaries?" Fenris put his sword aside. He had no quarrel with this man. "I seem to have, er..." How do you explain this? He's used his lyrium pretty intensely, in the last fight, and it's still recharging. If they attack him in an attempt to claim his prize, well... it'll be a close battle. He's outnumbered, and they're... big.

The qunari smiles down at him. "You exploded the bastards!" He laughs, and Fenris finds himself approving despite himself. "How'd you do that? You a mage? Never seen a mage do that."

"I am no mage."

"Whoa, whoa, easy there, tiny." The qunari- did he just wink at him? Can you do that when you only have one eye?

"Told you we should have left earlier, chief," one of the mercenaries, still assembled at the qunari's back, speaks up.

"And miss last call? Live a little, Krem." The qunari turns away, begins picking through the bodies, or, well. Fenris supposes it's more accurate to say remains. "Shit," the qunari says. "Something ripped through 'em. Like shrapnel, but more precise. You rip all their hearts out, tiny?"

From years of hanging around Varric, Fenris hardly flinches at the new nickname. He just says, "yes."

"Talk about overkill-- ha!"

The one called Krem rolls his eyes at the pun.

"So, let me guess," the qunari says. "You're some freaky mercenary with a grudge."

"I am no mercenary."

The qunari thinks about that. "Would you like to be?"

And that is how, four hours later, Fenris is drunk-- and eventually asleep-- in the back room of a tavern. When he awakes, he extradites himself from the embrace of a Tevinter mercenary. Krem, as he calls himself, is the right sort, and he more-less approves of all the others in the Charger's company. And, as The Iron Bull said: "You wanna get paid for exploding slavers? C'mon, I can see it in your pretty eyes."

They were all a bit drunk by that point.

Wandering out into the morning air, Fenris decides it's probably best to find out if the offer still stands. He finds The Iron Bull around a corner, pissing into a rosebush.

"Heh," he's muttering to himself. "Orlesians."

Fenris, ever accommodating, waits until he's finished.

"So," The Iron Bull says a few minutes later, "you wanna talk terms?"

"I care little for money," Fenris says like a boast.

"But your armor doesn't keep itself up, c'mon. And even elves have to eat something."

"Even elves?"

"You're all so tiny," The Iron Bull grins, clearly remembering Fenris' new nickname.

Fenris pretends to think it over, as though this is not one of the better offers he's received in his life. He holds out his hand for a shake. "Alright, Iron Bull," he says. "It's a deal."

"Let's discuss terms, first," The Iron Bull says, surprisingly courteous. "And the next time you wanna go shaking hands, take the gauntlets off first."

The terms are this: Do what The Iron Bull says. Only argue if you think it's really bad. Don't tear out anyone's heart if they have to be returned alive. Kill slavers. Remember details, and report back to The Iron Bull if you see anything 'weird', so they'll know it's a trap.

"And don't give Krem shit about being Tevinter," The Iron Bull says. "That's my job."

They kill seventy-seven slavers, the majority of which are mages, in the next few weeks. It's good work, and the company is good, too. It's nothing like Kirkwall, which Fenris will always miss, but perhaps that, too, is a good thing. The chapter of his life in Kirkwall is ended. It is time to move forward.

A month of this, in another tavern, The Iron Bull leans into him with a grin on his face. "Hey," he says. He smells like cheap ale. Like a great quantity of cheap ale. "So," he says again, "what's your story?"

So Fenris tells it.

Though it all, he begins to suspect that The Iron Bull isn't as soused as he's pretending to be, but that's fine. Some people need the veneer of alcohol if they want to act as they like. The Iron Bull exudes confidence, but he's Tal-Vashoth all the same. Something about the Qun did not sit well with him, enough that he ran.

Later that night, it occur to Fenris that Tal-Vashoth usually cut off their horns. Perhaps he is simply Vashoth?

But in the moment, The Iron Bull just says, "ah, shit," and then, "Tevinters are bastards. Sorry, Krem."

Krem is asleep next to them, his head resting comfortably on the table in front of him. Someone has politely moved him so his forehead is no longer resting in a bowl of soup.

"The mages are the worst," The Iron Bull continues, after taking a loud snore as Krem's reply. "I didn't know they did that shit."

Fenris shrugs, but there's still a sneer in his voice. "Most don't. It is an expensive procedure, I'm told."

"Shit!" The Iron Bull says, "bastards. Is that why you don't take off the armor? Don't... want people to see it?"

Fenris wasn't expecting that salvo, and so he forgets to dodge. "I-" He frowns. "It shines through everything else."

"You should take it off," The Iron Bull says. "You know who you are. Fuck everybody else. Literally, if you want."

From the shores of dreaming, even Krem is still able to groan at that joke.

Fenris awakes in the morning with Skinner poking his shoulder. Dalish is standing behind her, fixing the 'string' of her 'bow'.

"Tiny," Skinner says. "This city. Nobles are fucking around in the Alienage." A grin spreads on her face. "I figure we elves should fuck back."

It's odd, to be included. This is not an invitation Fenris has ever received before. He takes it with both hands.

While they're perched on the wall of the Alienage, Skinner warns, "we will have to be careful, or they will purge it, eh?"

"Careful isn't what I'm known for," Fenris points out.

"That's why I'm here," Dalish aims her bow. "Dalish archers are known for their ability to clean up messes."

And it turns out Dalish is quite good at that. The bodies of the nobles who thought they could slum it in the Alienage will never be found, and The Iron Bull's words on the subject are unexpectedly light. "As long as they can never trace it back to us," he says as they leave town, "because that'd fuck up our reputation."

"And then, how do we keep you in strong ale, Chief?"

"Exactly!"

While they travel, Fenris puts on a cloth shirt, and no one in the company stares. And if people outside of the company stare? "Well," Krem says, "fuck 'em."

There's another battle. Fenris wears armor for those, of course. More fallen slavers. Sometimes, it's other people Fenris has no quarrel with, but he doesn't mind that. Fighting isn't always about personal grudges, he's learning. It can be about skill, about money, about all sorts of things.

"Whoever gets the most kills," The Iron Bull roars, "gets the best ale in the house tonight!"

It can also be about that.

Looking back, Fenris doesn't remember who wins. He just remembers falling asleep and using The Iron Bull's sizable calf as a pillow. He wakes up in the middle of the night to find The Iron Bull has moved. He's staring at the stars through the tavern window. "You've been to Seheron," he says. "Do the stars ever fuck you up?"

"Yes," Fenris knows what he means. In the jungles of Seheron, it was often impossible to navigate by anything the sky at night. But the stars are different, here. If you're not careful, you'll fall into old habits without meaning to, and end up in a lake.

"Weird shit," he says, "you see that cluster, there?"

He's pointing to a constellation. Fenris steps closer to inspect it. "The chained man," Fenris says. "Servani. Blessed by Andoral, the god of slaves."

"They've got a god of slaves?" Bull shakes his head. "Fuck. No, that's hossith-kaa," he says, drawing the lines to make a shape only he can see.

"A merciful act?" Fenris says.

"You know qunlat?" The Iron Bull laughs, but not loud enough to wake anyone nearby. "Close! It's, uh. 'Acting in kindness'."

"Are those words not the same?"

"Depends on the context," he says. "It's supposed to be of a tamassran. She invented Qamek."

"And that is supposed to be an act of kindness?" Fenris can't quite keep the skepticism from his voice.

"Yeah, depends on who you ask. If you fuck up, who wants to remember that?" The Iron bull looks over at Fenris. "You been with us long enough. Probably time I tell you my story, eh?"

"If you wish."

So The Iron Bull does. It's not what Fenris expected, but he finds he has no grievance with it.

"I had wondered..."

"Really?" The Iron Bull laughs.

"I hadn't suspected that," Fenris countered. "But you are... more watchful than you seem."

"Yeah," The Iron Bull turns his head to look back out the window. He reaches blindly out to shove Fenris, the sort of rough playfulness expected of everyone in their company, but his hand lingers.

Which is odd, but Fenris doesn't think of it much. Later, they've rented out nicer accommodations (a big job went very well) and The Iron Bull calls Fenris up to his room. "Hey," he says. "Close the door after you."

So Fenris does.

"Been a while since I talked to someone from Seheron," The Iron Bull says. "What do you remember of it?"

"Mostly the oppressive heat."

The Iron Bull laughs. "I bet! In that armor and leather. You always wear that?"

"It was the only clothing I was allowed," Fenris says, and then thinks better of it. "Until later, but... I did not want to forget."

"Forget what?"

Fenris looks out the window, and wishes he could see the stars. It's day, some days after their conversation about constellations. The stars, Isabela used to say, are a guiding light. Guiding to where? "I'm not sure, anymore," Fenris answers, truthful because it hurts as much as lying. "Perhaps I've forgotten."

They talk for hours, about Seheron and their life before. The Iron Bull speaks well of the Qun, but as he has no interest in converting anyone, so Fenris has no quarrel with him. And Fenris speaks well of the Fog Warriors, as long as he does not support their aims, The Iron Bull doesn't argue with it. "I have no stake in the fighting," he says. "I found the men themselves honorable."

"They gave you a place," The Iron Bull says. "Some folks spend their whole lives trying to find that."

"Outside of the Qun," Fenris says.

"I was getting to that," The Iron Bull laughs, and shoves him again, and again his hand lingers. After a moment's deliberation, he says, "hey," and then, "you wanna ride the bull?"

Fenris is instantly reminded of Isabela. How does he keep ending up in these situations?