The first time Bethany encounters Isabela it's during a brawl at the Hanged Man. In the span of a few frenzied moments Isabela despatches two thugs with just her fists then pulls a dagger on the their leader, a lowlife by the name of Lucky, sending all three men scurrying.
Bethany's still gawking when Garrett introduces himself. It's only when Isabela returns a frank stare of her own, a quick, appraising sweep from head to toe and back again, that Bethany forces herself to look away, finding a sudden fascination with the sawdust that carpets the floor.
Over the following weeks, even as she learns that Isabela drinks too much, propositions almost everyone and says the most outrageous things, Bethany's quiet admiration grows.
There are restless nights she lies in bed examining the events of the day, when the tension of worrying about discovery ebbs, and she finds herself thinking of Isabela, envying her irreverence, her carefree disposition, and wishing that just once she could allow herself the same freedom.
Isabela's confounding and magnetic and Bethany's never known anyone like her. With her gold piercings and bright scarves she seems so exotic, so completely at odds with the downtrodden bleakness that permeates Kirkwall and its denizens; she's a streak of marvellous colour in an otherwise dreary world.
While many would argue that Isabela's most alluring attribute is her prominent chest, for Bethany it isn't anything so glaringly obvious.
It's Isabela's arms that have Bethany captivated. They're lean, subtly muscular, covered in dark freckles and the sight of the golden serpent tattoo that encircles one forearm causes a strange, fluttery sensation to dwell within her chest.
Garrett catches Bethany looking once, a deep frown etched on his features as he follows her line of sight. For the rest of the day she doesn't dare catch his eye.
Isabela doesn't really seem to be aware of the effect she has on Bethany. She makes suggestive comments, smirks and winks but Isabela is indiscriminate and unsubtle in her flirtations and it doesn't mean a thing.
It doesn't mean a thing that when Isabela looks her way it makes Bethany's stomach drop, that she has to avert her gaze because Isabela's wicked amber eyes make her feel too exposed.
For someone whose entire life and liberty has hinged on remaining unseen, it's a dangerous and terrifying feeling.
It happens while following Garrett on some errand that's supposed to help raise coin for the Deep Roads expedition but just seems like a lot endless trekking through sewage in Darktown.
Bethany isn't quite sure how she stumbles into admitting that she's a virgin but Isabela takes great delight in this new-found nugget of information. She doesn't know what's worse: being invisible to Isabela or being the sudden, unwavering focus of her attention.
When Isabela offers to treat her to a night at the Rose, despite Garrett's angry opposition, Bethany wishes she could magic herself away. As it is she blushes, ducks her head and prays that Isabela will quickly grow bored and find another target to torment.
Bethany watches Garrett's retreating back, as he and the Deep Roads expedition party trudge out of Hightown, and the guilt she feels is tempered by relief. Mother clings to her arm, tense with worry while all Bethany can do is be silently grateful.
She'd made a convincing show of objecting to being left behind but, secretly, it's what she wanted. Does that make her a terrible sister? She looks over to where Isabela leans against a pillar. Their eyes meet and Bethany wonders if Isabela sees the shame that burns bright within her.
"Don't worry, he'll be fine," Isabela offers with a faint smile. She pushes off from the pillar and starts to saunter away. "See you at the Hanged Man tonight for Wicked Grace?"
Isabela doesn't hang around to hear her response. Mother's disapproval is almost tangible.
They're cleaning – surely an exercise in futility when it comes to Uncle Gamlen's rancid hovel – when Mother idly broaches the subject. "You've been seeing an awful lot of that Rivaini girl lately. Isabela, isn't it?"
From the corner where he's pottering about, Gamlen scoffs, "Wouldn't be difficult. Everyone's had an eyeful of her; that pirate slut doesn't even wear trousers!"
Bethany ignores him, scrubbing that much harder at an ominous stain on the floorboards. Her cheeks colour but she doesn't lift her eyes to look at Mother. "What of it?" It comes out sounding far too defensive.
"Nothing," Mother says, taking a few steps closer and lowering her voice so Gamlen can't eavesdrop. "She's very... worldly and you've been so sheltered, my darling."
Bethany does look up then. "I'm not a child. I don't need to be coddled."
"It's just that with Garrett away and Carver..." Mother trails off, growing fretful. "Can you blame me for wanting to hold on to my little girl a while longer?"
"Of course not." Bethany stands and gently takes hold of Mother's arms. "But I won't have you or Garrett choosing my friends for me. I know she's unconventional but I like Isabela, she makes me laugh." And cringe and be appalled in equal measure, she adds mentally.
Mother touches Bethany's cheek. "I suppose these past few years you haven't had much to smile about. Just be careful, won't you?"
It's only by the thinnest of margins that Bethany stops herself from rolling her eyes. It would be churlish and ungrateful and Mother doesn't deserve to have Bethany's frustration with the way things are taken out on her.
She squeezes Mother's hand and gives a smile that doesn't reach her eyes. "I always am."
"I've been thinking about what you said," Bethany says, fiddling with the metal buckle of her belt. Isabela gives her curious look. "About the Rose," she clarifies, half-under her breath, aware of the other patrons slumped against the bar nearby.
"I see..." Isabela leers. "While Hawke's away, the mice will play. Let's ditch this place and head up there now. We'll find a handsome, strapping boy for you."
"No. I mean - that's not what I had in mind."
"Corff, put this on my tab, will you?" Isabela shouts across to the bartender. She turns back to Bethany, a speculative gleam in her eyes. "A pretty girl?"
"Isabela." Bethany's blushing, she feels the heat rising in her cheeks, but soldiers on regardless. "I really don't want to go to the Rose."
Isabela pouts, clearly disappointed that a night with some prostitute isn't on the cards after all. "Why bring it up, then?"
"Because I don't want to... give it away to a stranger, much less pay them for it." Bethany pauses, takes a small step closer as she lowers her voice. "I - I want it to be with someone I know, someone I trust, someone... experienced." She gives the other woman a meaningful look, hoping that she won't need to elaborate further because this is mortifying enough.
Isabela stares at her for a beat before the slight widening of her eyes betrays her sudden understanding. Bethany waits for her to say something, anything. A long, interminable minute passes and she begins to wonder how she can possibly flee with some shred of dignity intact.
"Oh?" Isabela swallows the last dregs of her drink then leans back, one elbow on the bar, slanting narrowed eyes in Bethany's direction. "And what are you going to do about it, sweetness?"
It isn't a rejection, at least, though it feels like Isabela is mocking her.
"I thought I was doing something," Bethany responds, blowing out a frustrated breath. "Maker. You're intent on making this difficult for me, aren't you?"
Isabela's laugh is rich and bawdy, only growing in volume when she sees Bethany's cheeks redden again. "How adorable you look when you blush." She signals the bartender. "I think we're both going to need a stiff one for this."
While Corff pours the whiskey, Bethany fidgets under Isabela's gaze.
They take their drinks to a vacant table. Bethany takes slow, delicate sips; she never could develop a taste for hard liquor but it gives her something to do while Isabela watches her.
"You need to knock this swill back in one, it's the only way to make it halfway palatable," Isabela says and the way she leans forward, elbows on the table, accentuates her cleavage. It's a calculated move, designed to distract and disorient. Bethany's eyes flick down briefly then away.
She does as Isabela suggests, finishing the whiskey in one long swallow and tries to suppress the urge to gag as it burns its way down her gullet.
Hanging back beside the closed door Bethany watches Isabela prowl across the room, eyes focused on the exaggerated sway of the pirate's hips. The liquid courage of earlier is fast deserting Bethany; her hands are clammy, a cold sweat making her blouse stick to her skin. The irony of the situation isn't lost on her; she's faced off templars, blood mages and demons galore but none of that has frightened her as much as the prospect of exposing herself, her body, to Isabela, a woman to whom this – sex – is the most casual, meaningless thing in the world.
She should run – every instinct is telling her to do so – but she doesn't. She forces herself to step forward. Isabela turns to her with a beckoning smirk.
Bethany sets her staff against the wall, within arm's reach of the bed (force of habit) and moves slowly towards the other woman, drawing to a stop a foot's breadth away. She's never had call to stand this close to Isabela but being so near, now, she sees flecks of gold shimmer in Isabela's eyes, smells the potent whiskey on her breath as Isabela leans into her.
At the first press of Isabela's lips against her own, just a tantalising brush, Bethany's eyes flutter shut. She inhales sharply, unprepared for how soft, how yielding Isabela's mouth is. It's not the first time she's been kissed. There was a farm boy in Lothering, Erik, but that was only twice and she hadn't liked his stubbly chin or sloppy technique. She tries to ignore the pang of sadness at the very real possibility that he didn't survive.
Those maudlin thoughts slip away from her when Isabela kisses her again, firmer this time, and she gasps quietly when she feels the teasing swipe of a tongue against her upper lip. It causes what little control she has remaining to unfurl.
She grips Isabela by the waist and tugs her closer, eliciting a pleased chuckle. "And I thought your brother was the forceful one."
She doesn't want to hear about Isabela and Garrett, what they have or haven't done together, so the only option is to keep Isabela's mouth occupied. They kiss until Bethany's lips ache, a subtle throb that mirrors the growing one between her thighs.
Bethany's hands shift when Isabela mouths a warm trail up her throat. She covers Isabela's breasts, palms curved against the heavy weight of them, at once fearful and excited as she gives a light, experimental squeeze. She's thought of this moment for so long, so often that it seems unreal.
"Again," Isabela murmurs against her neck, breath hot and quick. "You won't break me."
Bethany reclines against threadbare pillows, loosely clutching tangled sheets to her chest. She watches in silence as Isabela sits on the end of the bed pulling on her boots, allowing herself a moment to absorb the sight of the other woman unimpeded while Isabela's back is turned. She's so gorgeous; all burnished bronze skin and endless curves and Bethany can hardly believe her luck, still.
She wrestles with dozens of conversation openers before settling for: "Garrett's wrong, you know."
Isabela stiffens momentarily as she buckles her boots. "Hmm?"
"About you," Bethany says, almost a sigh. Her mind drifts back to the previous night, indulging vivid memories of Isabela above and around her. She'd barely been able to catch her breath after the first climax before Isabela was coaxing her towards another and it'd gone on like that all blessed night. "You're nothing like he says."
Isabela stands, turning to face her. Aside from the boots, Isabela's stark naked and so shamelessly uninhibited about it that it makes Bethany blush. Her gaze wanders - she can't help it – from the proud jut of Isabela's breasts to the sparse dark hair between her legs. She knows now what it feels like to run her fingers through those coarse, springy curls, to feel the slick evidence of another woman's arousal on her skin; she's had the taste of Isabela on her lips; felt Isabela convulse around her fingers as she came apart. Now she has this knowledge she can't help but want more.
"Don't read too much into it,” Isabela says, placing a hand on her hip. The action draws Bethany's eyes away and she looks up into Isabela's face. "I was doing you a favour."
Isabela's expression would be inscrutable, were it not for the single furrow between her brows and the fleeting troubled look in her eyes. "Your first time should be enjoyable. Mine certainly wasn't and I... I wanted to give you that experience. That's all."
Bethany pulls the sheets closer around her and looks away. "Well. I hope I wasn't too much of a disappointment."
She feels Isabela's fingers under her chin then, forcing her to lift her eyes and the unexpected gentleness of the gesture causes her breath to catch. "You needn't worry on that count, sweet thing. For a novice you have very good instincts and a fantastically talented tongue."
They stare at each other for a second and Isabela looks like she might say something else, instead she resumes pulling on her clothes.
"Do you think we could... do this again, sometime?" Bethany cringes at how timid she sounds.
Isabela glances over her shoulder. "Flattered and tempted as I am, if Hawke ever found out he'd have my guts for garters. Normally I'd be exercising bragging rights all over town but I value my innards so let's keep our girlie fun between us, shall we?"
"I'd never tell him!" Bethany says, her face contorting at the mere idea. "Or anyone, for that matter."
"Good. That's settled, then."
"Good," Bethany agrees flatly, ignoring Isabela's stare as she throws off the covers and bends to pick up her own clothes.
She doesn't see hide nor hair of Isabela for two whole days until she swings by unannounced one evening. Bethany purposefully ignores Gamlen's distasteful utterances and Mother's steely gaze as she quickly ushers Isabela into her room. She closes the door, though the walls are so thin it's more a symbolic act than to preserve any privacy.
"I was starting to think you were avoiding me," Bethany says with a brittle smile.
"I was busy," Isabela shrugs. She does a circuit of the room, appraising and disregarding what few little knick-knacks the Hawke siblings have accumulated in their short time in Kirkwall. She lingers over Mother's betrothal portrait, lifting it and looking from the painting to Bethany. "There's quite a resemblance between you and Leandra. I don't think she likes me, though."
"She's just being over-protective. She doesn't trust your intentions."
"My intentions?" Isabela laughs, replacing the portrait. She walks – rather, swaggers – towards the mage. "If only she knew."
Bethany lifts her eyes to meet Isabela's. "Don't."
"Don't what?" Isabela moves into her space, pressing their bodies intimately together. She angles her head, leaning in until they're practically breathing the same air. Isabela reaches up, sinking gloved fingers into Bethany's hair and pulls her into a kiss.
It's embarrassing, really, how little resistance Bethany puts up and it's a minute, maybe five, before she breaks away, exhaling harshly against Isabela's lips. "I thought you said -"
"I say a lot of things. It's my prerogative to change my mind."
For a dazed moment she watches Isabela tug at the laces of her corset, only dimly aware of what's happening. She comes back to herself sharply. "No! Not here," she whispers. "Not with Mother and Uncle Gamlen in the next room!"
Isabela smirks, readjusting her blouse. "Come to the Hanged Man, then."
Bethany hesitates only a second. She grabs her staff and leads Isabela hastily out the room. "Don't wait up," she tells Mother in a rush, not daring to look back.
As soon as they make it beyond the threshold of Isabela's room the pirate's on her, kissing Bethany heatedly before shoving her backwards onto the bed.
Isabela climbs on top, pinning Bethany's arms above her head and driving her tongue between parted lips. Bethany kisses back just as eagerly, as if she's parched and Isabela is the only thing that could possibly slake her thirst.
She should be confused or offended or something about the way Isabela blows hot and cold but all she feels is giddy that she's allowed to do this again.
Bethany lies on her stomach, recovering, when she feels fingers on her back, slowly mapping the notches of her spine. The pads of those fingers are rough, calloused from years of combat and seafaring and the feel of them against the soft skin of Bethany's back causes pleasant ripples of sensation.
"That's nice," Bethany says, words muffled against the pillow. It's meant as an encouragement but it appears to have the opposite effect as Isabela takes her hand away.
At the loss of contact, Bethany turns over. "Is something the matter?"
There's a frown on Isabela's face, her expression more serious than Bethany's ever seen. "We can't do this again."
Bethany sits up slowly. Nervousness flutters within her but she tries to keep her voice calm, casual when she questions: "Why?"
Isabela gives her a look, widening her eyes as if Bethany's missing the obvious. She shakes her head and averts her gaze. "When Hawke comes back he won't abide me bedding his darling, innocent sister, for one thing. I may as well have myself gift-wrapped and handed over to... ugh."
Bethany sighs. "He won't hear it from me. Anyway, I thought you didn't care what anyone thought about you?"
"I don't," Isabela says sharply, shifting her eyes back to Bethany. "I care about my continued good health and future good fortune. Neither will be much consolation when I'm lying face down in a ditch because Hawke's garotted me."
"You don't know that."
"It's what I'd do if I was him."
Bethany's torn between being touched by the oblique compliment and annoyance at the other woman's stubbornness. "So that's it, then? You really don't want to... see me any more?"
"Sweetness, what I want and what's going to happen are two entirely different things. You'll thank me for it, you... deserve someone decent."
There's a finality to it as they dress and Bethany finds herself reluctant to leave, lingering over the laces and buckles of her clothing.
When the templars finally arrive at their door, it almost comes as a blessed relief; there will be no more running or hiding and, for that, Bethany's glad.
It doesn't happen in the dead of night, like she always feared it would. There's no violence, no forced entry. Instead Knight-Captain Cullen, flanked by a couple of recruits, knocks on the door, perfectly civil as he asks to come inside. Gamlen uselessly tries to fend them off with lies and Bethany feels an unexpected swell of affection for him.
"It's all right, Uncle," Bethany says, appearing at his shoulder. "I suppose I've avoided this long enough."
Mother's beside herself, of course, berating the templars and the Maker for taking away her children. And that's the moment Garrett strides through the door, looking like a ghost of himself in dirty, scuffed plate armour, with matted hair and covered in scratches. "What's going on?" he demands, gaze swinging from Cullen to Bethany to Mother.
"Mistress Bethany is being taken to the Circle of Magi in the Gallows," Cullen says, all-business despite the assistance the Hawke siblings have provided him in the past; even goodwill runs out eventually, it seems.
Garrett just stares at Bethany. "But... the Gallows is horrible! You can't go there."
As if she has any choice in the matter; the law is the law. "I have to," she says simply. This is the day they've all been waiting for all their lives and Bethany surprises herself with how calm she is, how matter-of-fact, while Mother falls apart and her older brother, normally so fierce and strong, looks utterly bereft. "That's where apostates go, isn't it?"
"Consider yourself fortunate," Cullen says with mild disdain. "The Viscount has requested we spare your family the punishment for harbouring a dangerous mage."
"Oh, Bethany," Mother says, wringing her hands, "what will happen to you?"
Death, if she fails the Harrowing; otherwise a lifetime of scrutiny and control. "Don't worry, Mother, I'll be fine," Bethany says, forcing a smile. She turns to Garrett. "Look after her."
She reaches for the scarf tied loosely around her neck, pulling it free, and presses the red cloth into his hands. "Give this to Isabela for me, will you?" He looks at her uncomprehendingly. "Please, it's important to me."
"What should I say?" His voice sounds hoarse, broken.
A small smile touches Bethany's lips. "Tell her... something to remember me by."
She follows Cullen without protest, allowing herself one final glance at her family. It breaks her heart to see Mother on the floor, sobbing inconsolably as her brother tries to comfort her, but she must be the strong one now.