Used to be that The Hanged Man was a place to put away the stress of the day, to forget about responsibilities, templars and blood mages, about the blight, about the war. To drink and forget and enjoy the company of friends. Now, Aveline still drinks, but all those things she’s been looking to forget are staring her in the face.
Hawke’s watching Fenris like there’s no one else in the room, and she supposes there isn’t for either of them. Aveline finds herself catching each small movement, each time their hands brush, each time one of them shares the smallest of smiles, a raised eyebrow, the subtle shifts closer on the bench they share. She suspects even that if she looked under the table, she would find one of them with a foot hooked over the other’s. It wouldn’t be the first time. It’s not something they’ve come right out and said to anyone, but most of them seem to know, to pay them some deference of space when it’s needed. Tonight might be one of those nights, by the way everyone else is finding a reason to be elsewhere.
Varric is in the far corner of the room holding his own sort of court. People move in and out of his sway, coins exchanged for knowledge or small bags of things she’s probably better off not knowing the contents of.
Carver and Merrill have found a table that’s just too small for any other company. Each of them is taking turns looking away, each of them too shy to do more than stare longingly at the other. Aveline has to grip the side of the table to resist the urge to go over and just tell them to just get on with it. She’s never been so great at relationships, but even she can see the wanting between them.
The wanting is a weakness.
Arriving in Kirkwall was a new beginning, time to put everything from Ferelden away. She stopped using Wesley’s shield, stopped going to the Chantry to light a candle for him, stopped trying to remember him at all. It wasn’t like she could bring him back, not even the Witch could have done that, and wanting it only made it hurt more. It was a distraction and one she could no longer afford. Not with all the trouble Hawke seemed to find.
With an idea to leave the tavern altogether, she gets up from the table. Fenris and Hawke barely notice, engaged as they are in a strange conversation about Tevinter fashion. She shakes her head and steps away with a mumbled goodbye neither of them acknowledge. Her drinks are paid for already, so she threads her way through the crowd and makes her way to the entrance.
“Going somewhere, big girl?” Isabela is there before she can put her hand on the door to leave. The pirate has one hand on a hip, the other hand out is reaching for Aveline’s shoulder, and she has her regular smirk firmly in place.
“Step away from the door.” She is in no mood for jokes, not even from Isabela and it’s not like has a particularly high tolerance for the pirate’s brand of humor even on the best of days.
Aveline steps forward, putting her hand on the door, just above Isabela’s shoulder. “I’m leaving. Now get out of my way.”
“Or what?” Isabela’s hand rests against her armor. She can’t feel it, but she can feel the bit of force Isabela puts into it, pushing her back.
Aveline narrows her eyes and collects a deep breath, one that keeps her from slapping Isabela’s hand away. “Move. Aside.”
“Why? We’ve only just gotten here. The fun hasn’t even started.” Isabela pouts and curls her fingers. Aveline looks down at the pirate’s dark hand as she walks her fingers down Aveline’s breastplate, curving just to the outside and then on to her arm. She watches with clenched teeth and an aching chest, both anger and frustration building up inside and blocking her breaths. She will not punch Isabela, no matter how her fist clenches against the door.
Finally she forces her glance away, finding the grain in the door infinitely more interesting than Isabela’s pouting lips. She brings her hand away, too close to Isabela- too close to anything to be of comfort. Her fingertips go to her forehead, willing and kneading away the headache that threatens just behind her temples.
“Oh, come on. Anders said something about a game of Wicked Grace. That should be a good time.” Isabela hooks an arm around hers with an effort to turn her around.
She pulls her arm out of Isabela’s grip, the clanking of armor at the quick motion gathering looks from patrons at the closest tables. “It only sounds good because you cheat,” she says voice low and nearly a growl. She was done with the room, with the couples everywhere she turned, and most certainly with the pirate at her elbow trying to coerce her back into the room.
Isabela raises an eyebrow, “What’s twisted your knickers, grouchy guard?” She steps back, but only enough to allow her space to give Aveline a good looking over. Her earrings swing wide with a shake of her head. Aveline wants to escape that look just as much as she wants to leave the tavern. If anyone can suss out what she’s thinking it’s Isabela and there’s a spark in those brown eyes that says she’s already done for.
“Don’t.” She gives Isabela her most intimidating glare, one she reserves for darkspawn and demons, and Isabela at her most diabolical.
“Too late. I know what you need,” Isabela says with a wink. She doesn’t say anything else, just grabs her hand and pulls her towards the exit. And if nothing else, Aveline is thankful for that at least.
Isabela’s grip on her hand is firm, and though her fingers aren’t quite long enough to close completely around Aveline’s palm with any sort of security, it’s hard to wrench out of her grasp. Aveline stops trying by the time they reach Hightown.
Isabela is strangely quiet until they reach the stairs leading to the Viscount's keep, and only by the presence of her hand on Aveline's wrist reminds the guard captain that Isabela is there at all. Curiosity for where she's being led and a strength of will born out of frustration keeps her from repeated glances towards Isabela. And only when she feels the fading sensation of fingertips from hers does she she give in.
"What?" she asks, not bothering to hide the grump in her voice. She raises an eyebrow and stares at the other woman who is half hidden in nighttime shadows.
Isabela shrugs and keeps walking, around the side of the building, past the gardens and towards the side-entrance of the barracks. The training yard, if she wasn't already used to it, would look eerie in the darkness. Instead, at least to Aveline, it has a calming effect; everything is in it's place and all the yard is quiet. She searches for Isabela who has placed herself in the middle of the ring, the glint of twin daggers giving her away.
"Maker help me, Isabela..."
The pirate leaps back, daggers out and ready for battle as though facing an invisible foe and it gives Aveline pause. "Don't worry your broad ginger head," Isabela calls. "Just a small bit of fun. You and me, Aveline. A friendly fight to get out all that extra stress you're carrying around."
There's a word on Aveline's tongue and she's ready to spit it towards the ring, find the door to the barracks and go inside. What she means is that it’s a bit of nonsense, an unnecessary distraction. She pivots on a heel and looks at the looming shadow of the building.
Isn't that what she'd wanted? A distraction from her own thoughts and memories and the wanting she can’t put a name too. That wanting is a weakness. The daughter of Benoit du Lac, is not weak.
Aveline turns and stalks into the ring, the clanging of her armor echoing in the night. Once inside Isabela grins and lowers her hands, daggers at her side- waiting. Aveline grabs her sword and unslings her shield, and stares across the way at her friend... though she wonders if friend is too strong a word. What she feels: the stress in her shoulders and thrumming in her head, none of her other friends make her quite so annoyed. Though on her worst days, Hawke gives Isabela a run for the frustrating prize. She remembers Hawke and Fenris in the Hanged Man and tightens her grip on her sword.
“Uh unh, big girl. Armor off. And no shield. Just me and you and the steel in our hands.”
She shakes her head and Isabela gives a small shrug that could mean she doesn’t care, or that she’s finished pushing and joking, and is just amused at the idea of getting Aveline to comply with her request. Aveline sets her sword and shield aside near the posts long enough to undo the buckles and straps of her breastplate, her pauldrons and gauntlets and when it’s all undone, it’s set aside on a stand, a proper suit of shining armor. It looks so different in the dark, a different Aveline, a weaker one, that is all air and shadow and jangling pieces.
She leaves her shield where it is and grabs her sword, in the same motion turning and facing Isabela. Would they fight to first blood? There is another question burning in her, one she isn't ready to ask. So she goes with something a little more sensible.
"What will we fight to?" She crosses the distance between them, unsure footsteps taking her closer and giving her a better view of Isabela's face with each one.
The pirate's grin remains, a permanent fixture in her sight with each step. When she stops, the question hangs between them, something nearly tangible. Isabela blinks slowly and Aveline watches her take a deep breath, curious at her need for one. Aveline takes one of her own, shoulders rising and falling with the deepness of it. She swallows and waits.
"Surrender," Isabela says with a purr to the sound and a tilt of her head. She takes a step away, crouching down and raising her daggers again. To Aveline the pose is familiar and foreign at the same time, recognizable from all their years in battles together, but strange to face head-on.
“Surrender,” she repeats with a nod.
The smug smile on Isabela’s face wavers in the shadowed-light and if Aveline waits, the darkness will work against her and in Isabela’s favor. Not wanting to waste the moment, Aveline charges. It feels good, better than it should she thinks, to feel the cooler air on her skin as she rushes forward, her hands gripped tightly around her sword. She turns it in mid-stride, intending to strike Isabela’s arm with the flat of her blade.
But Isabela is gone before she finds the space where she should have been, and her sword pushes through empty air. There’s a laugh behind her, and she drops a shoulder to avoid the swipe of a dagger near her cheek. It’s easy to maneuver again, to find Isabela and cross the space between them. The side of her sword connects with the pirate’s hip, complete with the rewarding slap of steel on skin and a sore hiss from Isabela sounding a moment later.
The strike earns Aveline the sting of a pommel brought down hard against her shoulder and she rolls it back to ignore the pain. She pivots and brings her sword up before Isabela can tumble out of the way. Even as Isabela slides out of the way, she can feel her blade connect with the other woman’s arm.
“Fuck!” Isabela is out of the way by the time she hears the word and Aveline flinches at the sound of it. This was the danger of real blades and little armor but Aveline is smart enough to know that one real hit is not enough to slow her friend down. She swivels, blade ready and waiting for the counterattack.
There is a moment, when her eyes cannot make Isabela out of the shadows and she takes a breath, revelling in a battle that’s not meant for death but a meeting of well-matched foes. It’s in that moment that she feels the edge of a dagger against her back and an arm wraps across her chest. There’s hot breath on her neck and Aveline stills at the contact.
Isabela’s arm slides away and there’s a slick feel to the movement. Aveline grabs her arm, confirming the warm, thick sensation of blood under her fingers. Isabela wrenches out of her grasp, the dagger in Aveline’s back pricking the skin between her shoulders. She gasps at the chill of air under her tunic and against the cut. She feels the loss of warmth at her back and a moment later, there’s a hand on hers around her sword.
“Time to change the rules a little,” Isabela says and her grin has returned. There’s a wildness to it, a fierceness and Aveline knows had this been a real fight, she’d be dead with a dagger in her back. But, it’s not and she’s not. She lets Isabela pull the sword from her hands.
“I have not surrendered,” she says though there’s no real point to saying it.
Isabela only shakes her head and deposits their weapons on the ground a little distance away. “I know, Aveline. Believe me, I know. We traded blood for blood, but as sexy as I think a good scar can be, I’m not looking for anyone new ones.” She raises her arm and looks at the slice left by Aveline’s blade as she comes back over to her.
Aveline nods, mouth dry and wishing that she’d thought to order an ale for the road. She’d give a lot for a good drink as she stands torn between calling this little experiment of Isabela’s done and seeing just how far it is going to lead. She wasn’t going to admit it to Isabela,, but she does feel better. Even with the trickle of blood down she can feel down her back.
“Have to give it to you,” Isabela says with a nod at her arm. “Might have to get Anders to take a look at this one.”
She’d only gotten a quick feel, but the wound hadn’t felt so bad. If it was lighter out, she would demand a look. As it is, she takes a few steps closer to Isabela and tries not to apologize. The fight hadn’t been her idea after all.
“Are you going let a scrape like that keep you down?”
“Course not.” Isabela steps to the side, out of Aveline’s immediate grasp and laughs. “Who do you think I am anyway?”
Aveline shrugs and pivots, crouching in anticipation of an attack. “Do you even know what you’re doing without those daggers?”
Her answer comes in the form of a jab to the chin. She opens her mouth to work her jaw and then turns and swipes her foot under Isabela’s. It doesn’t fell her, but puts space between them and gives her enough time to center herself. She leans in, head bent down and rushes forward, smiling at the uncertainty that flashes across Isabela’s face in the moment it takes to close in.
Isabela’s arm around her waist steals her breath. She grabs Isabela’s arm and spins, fumbling to keep her feet under her. Losing balance, Aveline falls, still holding onto Isabela.
There’s not enough breath in either of them after the initial impact, but in the next moment, she finds herself looking up at a loose blue scarf and a curtain of dark hair. It takes a breath to reorient after the fall. Isabela was supposed to hold against the push, not spin her around and let them both topple to the ground.
“Damn,” Aveline says and raises a hand to Isabela’s shoulder. She tilts her head back to take in another breath. Her chest feels like it’s burning again, from lack of air, from the press of her body against another, from worry and then relief when Isabela’s gaze meets hers.
“Is this your surrender, Guard Captain?” Isabela grins and raises a hand, sweeping her hair away from her face.
Aveline matches her smile and it feels good, like she doesn’t have the energy or the need to stop it. “You’re not getting off so easy.” Her head shakes with the joke she hears in her head before Isabela even has the chance to make it. But she doesn’t move to push the other woman away and Isabela barely moves at all.
“If it’s easy, it’s not fun,” Isabela whispers and moves a hand to the ground next to Aveline’s head. The movement makes her more conscious of the presence of Isabela’s other hand at her hip, and her own mapping the curve of the other woman’s waist under her fingertips. She doesn’t remember grabbing Isabela, but the idea of moving her hands or in truth, any part of her seems too monumental.
While she hesitates, Isabela’s grin fades and Aveline feels the small shift of hips and feet and hands as Isabela starts to pull away. She watches though it feels like everything, including the two of them are moving slowly, too slow and she’s thankful for that at the very least, when she realizes she misses the pirate’s smile. That it’s gone tells her she’s done something wrong, that she has waited a moment too long and whatever could be is quickly disappearing. She knows then that Isabela, for all her big words, won’t push her an inch past where she’s ready to go.
“Isabela?” she asks, her voice quiet. She moves her hand from the other woman’s shoulder, under a rebellious fall of hair, to curl around Isabela’s chin. Her fingertips find the edge of the scarf at the base of her neck and she pulls, to bring Isabela closer. There’s little distance left between them, save that between her mouth to Isabela’s lips.
And then that space is gone too.
Her lips are cooler than Aveline expects, softer too. She doesn’t pull away like she thought she might, and Aveline doesn’t feel shy under the inspection of her open eyes. A smile forms between them and when they do pull away it’s near enough at the same time it’s hard to tell who moves first. Their smiles turn into breaths, and then a fit of giggles as Isabela rolls off to one side, but her arm doesn’t move from Aveline’s hip.
“Oh!” Isabela says as she catches her breath. “I’ve changed my mind!”
Aveline rolls onto her side to face Isabela. “What? Are you surrendering to me?” Her lips curl into another smile with her own joke.
She lets herself be pulled closer and Isabela slides a leg between hers. Despite her own best intentions she lets out a sigh at the feeling it gives her. Isabela moves her hand to the side of her cheek. It smarts at the touch, from the woman’s earlier punch and Aveline hisses.
“Depends,” Isabela says with a tug against Aveline’s hip, thumb caressing the curve of her jaw.
“On what?” Aveline asks. She hears the edge in her own voice and regrets it immediately. It’s hard to make sense out of what of this is just a game to Isabela, and how much might be real. The warmth between them despite the chill of the night air feels right and she knows already that she wants more. Still the refrain sounds her head that wanting is a weakness. And Aveline Vallen is not a weak woman.
She is ready at a word to pretend none of this night has happened.
“Whether or not I have to hit you again,” Isabela answers. “Because your jaw, big girl, is like solid stone.”
Worry, the size of that stone, slides away with another rise and fall of her chest. She is relieved, even if she’ll never put a word to it. Aveline smiles again and closes her eyes with an exhale. “I think we can call a truce... for now.”