Actions

Work Header

Porpentine

Chapter Text

The Hero of Ferelden is dead.

There is only a husk now, here in the Fade, a seed stripped of its inner meat: sucked, devoured, and spat back to the earth. Something empty, that asks for the time, long after it has stopped asking for a door.

"What time is it? What year is it? What day is it?" it asks, to those with no interest in knowing, even if they could.

It looks like a child now, here in the Fade, with limpid, unwashed dark hair that near covers its eyes. Its sharp-pointed ears loom gargantuan; its bony, fragile hands cover its cowering, gaunt face. Under those hands, on cheeks where there were once tattoos, there are now gaping, open scabs, infected and weeping, tracing the same patterns. It cannot remember what the markings once were called.

A warping, shimmering figure of a Templar puts hands around the child's neck, as many other demons have done. The prey does not react. The tormentor grows bored, drops its mask, and leaves, formless, seeking new pursuits.

The Hero of Ferelden would have never allowed familiarity with demons. But this new, empty creature has no such qualms. It curls upon the spiked, matted fur of the back of a Sloth demon too lazy to find more suitable prey. The child sleeps, seeking a comfort never found, missing in sense memory another creature, perhaps a wolf—no! a dog! something thinks then dissipates—that has no place here. Sloth grumbles, but does not move away.

The hero's husk ghosts through the fire storms of Rages incarnate, feeling blankness, and no sense of burn. (The demons, of course, are angry at their failure to incite.)

Pride is proud of the hero's descent, but has nothing more to do with it, sights set on higher ambitions.

Desire, once intrigued, has lost lust since the want to escape has trickled away like blood from a bitten tongue.

For all the empty once-hero's lack, there is power in being so broken. There is nothing, no demon, that can truly harm it. It is untouchable. In emptiness, there is nothing to steal away.

The child makes dreams for its visitors, because it can, and because it remembers how to do little else. The dreams are filled with horrors.

The Hero of Ferelden is dead.

After enough monstrosity, only monstrousness remains.

Chapter Text

10 years earlier

"Have I mentioned I hate rocks?" Joaquina Hawke yells as the wraith starts charging up another searing red pulse of power.

Varric sprints to cover, wheezing to catch his breath. "Sorry Ancestors, but I've gotta agree!"

Hawke huddles next to Varric and claps her hands over her ears as the droning of said unpleasant rock magic reaches its peak. When the red glow fizzles out and Hawke's no longer at risk of getting her skin ripped from her bones—in the next moment or so, anyway—she plunges back out from the cave wall, and sends out pulses of lightning as quickly as her mana and her poorly balanced apostate stave can carry her.

Through the hazy, red flares surrounding the wraith, Hawke sees Isabela chip away at the lumbering rock creature with her daggers. Varric tests out a chain of nifty flaming arrows, and Merrill shoots her own spells. Scary entropy spells, no less. For all Merrill's twiggy body and big, gooey eyes, she's quite creepy, even when she's not practicing blood magic.

After a few more close calls, they manage to wear down their demonic stone friend. Hawke sighs and re-latches her staff to her back. She squints at a shiny buckle on Varric's coat to see how much her eye paint has been smudged, licks her thumb a few times to clean up a smear from her cheek—nope, that's just blood—then gazes at the now inanimate pile of rubble on the cavern ground.

"Well," Hawke begins, flexing her fingers despite the burns across her knuckles.

"Here we go," Varric says, already recognizing her tone.

"Our fight got off to a rocky start," Hawke says, "but it wasn't so bad. We never hit rock bottom."

Varric breaks into a grin. "Hawke, your puns are a piece of schist."

"I know." She sighs. "And I just keep getting boulder by the minute."

"I'm missing something, aren't I?" Merrill says, frowning and peering at Hawke.

"Don't worry about it, kitten," Isabela says, sheathing her daggers then stretching. "They're not even bothering to make dirty jokes about rock-hard pricks. Such wasted possibilities. Unforgivable."

"I do like dirty jokes," Merrill agrees solemnly.

Hawke loots a key out of the wraith's rubble. It would be useful if they actually knew an exit not blocked by Bartrand and his obsession with glowing red dolls. As they trek out of the cavern, a promising passage leads to yet another Deep Roads dead end. Hawke is really starting to get tired of these endless musty caverns. They smell like a bad crotch.

As good a time as any to try and wheedle Bianca facts out of Varric.

"If we're going to die down here," Hawke announces, "we should tell each other secrets. Varric, you first. How did Bianca get her name?"

"I'm not dying until I get a chance to stick a bolt between Bartrand's eyes," Varric says.

"If I guess correctly, you'll tell me, won't you?" Hawke squints at Varric's crossbow, and he hugs it closer. Tsk, tsk. So protective.

"Not necessarily," Varric says, ever patient and put-upon.

Hawke tries anyway. “A mage turned the real Bianca into a crossbow?”

“No, Hawke.”

“A dragon mauled the real Bianca, and you made a crossbow of the bones?”

Varric sighs. “No, Hawke.”

There's a line between pushing Varric's buttons and full-on pushing him, and since Hawke actually likes Varric, she shrugs and backs off. “I want to be a dragon,” she says. Anytime Varric hears about dragons, he gets this old-man-with-a-headcold look about him. The thought of Hawke popping up as the beast herself makes him doubly grumpy. It's great.

“You'd be the nosiest dragon the world has ever seen,” Varric grumbles.

“The word you're looking for is 'snoutiest' in dragon terminology. Dear me, show some respect, serah!"

Varric chuckles. "Apologies, Messere Dragon."

***

Even Lowtown smells fresh compared to the Deep Roads. Hawke takes the stairs up to Gamlen's two at a time, squinting. Even when direct sunlight is blocked out by crowded buildings, it's nothing to the dim underground.

When Hawke pushes open the door and announces her arrival, Uncle Gamlen grumbles over his drink like usual, and Perrito wags his tail so hard he nearly topples. Mother, on the other hand, barely gives Hawke a warning before Carver enters the room. A new, short-cropped hairstyle makes his head look strangely naked. And he's wearing...

... Templar armor?

Maker, is he still playing dress-up at this age, or is this really what it looks like? Could Carver be so daft as to join the Templars just because she didn't let him get trapped in a hellhole by Varric's lousy brother?

What's gotten into people's siblings these days?

"Carver!" Hawke says, when she realizes she's been standing with her mouth open.

"Hello sister," Carver says, solemn and at least having the grace to look uncomfortable.

Hawke raises her eyebrows at Carver and puts on a bemused smirk to bury the feeling of betrayal rising in her throat like too heavy a breakfast. "You realize that you’re related to an apostate?"

Carver immediately turns to Mother, as if Hawke has proved a point. "See, Mother? I told you she'd only think of herself!"

"Carver, please!" Mother begs, before Hawke has a chance to retort. She's selfish? "The Order is so dangerous!"

"I’ll be fine, Mother. You don’t need to worry about me," Carver says, in a self-aggrandizing tone, as though he's suddenly grown up and stopped being a whiny brat. Hawke scowls. "And," Carver adds, turning to Hawke, "you don’t need to worry about me turning you in. I know the value of family."

He begins a slow walk-out to Gamlen's front door. He's so clearly itching for Hawke to stop him and keep the argument going, it's tragic, really. Hawke is angry enough to take him up on it.

"Carver," she says.

"Joaquina," Carver mocks back, turning around to stay, just like she knows he wanted to in the first place.

Mother's expression shifts from wide-eyed concern to an eyeroll. She raises her palms in surrender, declaring herself a neutral party, and shakes her head, going away into the back room. Gamlen barks out a laugh and returns to his bottle.

Hawke ignores them both, and lets out her own humorless laugh.

"Selfish old me," Hawke mock-muses, "rummaging around in the Deep Roads for coin to take care of family! I should have joined up with an order that hunts family members instead!" Hawke steps closer to Carver and prods the armor he's apparently shined with pride. She leaves smudged fingerprints on it, to her satisfaction.

"There weren't a lot of options," Carver retorts, brushing her hand away.

Hawke crosses her arms. "Sounds like bullshit to me. Athenril always has smuggling work to go around. Or Aveline could've gotten you in with the guards."

"You know Athenril only took me because of you. She has plenty of muscle. It's your magic that had her buy our way. And maybe Aveline could have." Carver lifts his chin proudly. "But I need to forge my own path."

Oh Maker, this again. She rolls her eyes.

Carver glares and continues. "Without breaking the law," he says pointedly, "and with my own skills. I want to build a real reputation. One I earned."

"You're right, I don't earn anything, I only have wiley criminal ways."

"If you were here, sister, maybe I would have asked for your input, but somebody had to take care of this family while you were gone."

Hawke scoffs. Just like him to ignore that she was the one who made him stay and help Mother while he whined like a baby. "I was only in the Deep Roads for a few weeks!"

"You could have been massacred by darkspawn before the end of day one for all we knew! We couldn't wait around and starve hoping you'd show up. I got a job, all right? Is it too much to ask that you're happy for me for once?"

Hawke frowns and shakes her head. She sighs. "What am I going to do with you, Carver?"

At least Templar Carver still trusts her well enough—he doesn't flinch or accuse her of trying to turn him into a toad when she reaches up and strokes the top of her brother's head with a thumb. She frowns harder. Most of his hair has been sheared to less than a knuckle-width in length. Some of the places are uneven where she sees the Templars used a blade too dull to cut the thick texture, apparently baffled by Carver's kind of hair. Hawke's almost always had shorter hair than Carver, but now her shoulder-length, heat-pressed cut seems miles longer than his lumpy bare scalp.

"They cut your locks off," she says, regretful, softer than her earlier retorts. "You'd been tending them for so long."

Carver's hair had been just like Father's: soft, tight-coiled pieces locked up thick, whipping with motion. Not just hair like something is just an eyelash or just a toenail clipping. Important. A part of Father's bedtime stories, real ones, history, about people hurting and surviving before even Father was born, stories about people who looked like them. Father's hair had been down to mid-back. Carver's had been shorter but growing.

Carver's face squirms into a grimace of discomfort but he doesn't move away from her gentle touch. Physical affection between them is a rare thing, and she knows full well it's her fault. She's never been a touchy-feely sibling, not like Bethany was. Hawke prefers to either tackle-hug Carver to irritate him, or do nothing at all.

But she wonders if he ever thinks about Father sprawled across the bench at the entrance of their house in Lothering, asking for a head rub from the family, after healing the countless Rivaini-migrant neighbors from farming and mining injuries. Too much spellcasting and lyrium throughout the day left Malcolm with excruciating pain that he dismissed with a grin bright against his dark brown skin, a grin Hawke knows she inherited. Grumpy Carver's Mother's doing, and who knows where angelic Bethany came from, a real mystery besides having Leandra's lighter skin. (Having had, Hawke reminds herself uncomfortably.) Father would ask if they'd help rub the smarts leaking out of his head back in for a little longer, so they would have a father who was still stupid, but not too stupid.

Though the joke never changed, Hawke would always giggle, imagining intelligence as a disgusting ooze one could lose at any moment. Sometimes Hawke would knead his head with her stubby fingers. Malcolm only let her massage his scalp for a few moments before he pretended to fall asleep with a massive false snore, sending Hawke from careful, childish concentration, to shrieking, startled laughter. Hawke would run off to play again, and Leandra, if she was home, would take over soothing her apostate husband's weary skull.

"It's regulation," Carver says.

Hawke pulls her hand away. "Ah yes, I should have realized! Abominations lurk in long Rivaini hair! Best be rid of it."

"The Order pays well," Carver retorts.

Hawke pulls a face. "We just brought a fortune back from the Deep Roads!"

Carver's face goes harsh and cold. Still grumpy about not being invited, she sees. But Mother was right, one of them had to stay, they couldn't just leave her alone. And whose arse had been running around town for the better part of a year collecting the coin for the expedition? Plus, Carver gets on better with Mother.

"Did they already start you on lyrium?" Hawke asks.

Carver looks away, still frowning. "Yes."

She nods. She thought so, she can usually tell, somewhere in her sternum where her magic rests, when someone has lyrium in their blood. "So they've got you nice and trapped now."

"I need to make my own way, sister," he says stiffly.

Hawke rolls her eyes. "Who am I to stop you? Go make your 'own way' under someone else's command, addicted, and arresting mages."

"You admitted before that Templars aren't all bad! Father named me after a Templar who helped him!"

"I think I'm named after some great-grandmother who shoveled coal, but you don't see me with a mining apron on!"

"Some of us actually want to protect mages, Joaqui."

Wow, he really wants her approval on this, doesn't he? She's not going to give it. "Ah yes, 'protection' with big pointy swords through our eyeballs."

"That's not fair."

"That's regulation."

"Come off it," Carver snaps.

"Leave him alone, dear," Mother finally calls to Hawke from the other room, where it sounds like she's already gathering her few possessions in preparation for Hawke's Deep Roads money to come through. Apparently she's had her peak fill of Hawke children arguing for the day. "He does look very nice in the armor."

Hawke makes a face and silently mouths 'He does look very nice in the armor' at Carver, who glares at her. She sighs and turns to collect her mail from Gamlen's rickety desk.

"Bethy would have understood," Carver mutters under his breath as soon as her back is turned.

Hawke's whole body tenses, her fingers jerking into a curl to crumple an unopened letter she just picked up. In her mind, like in the Fade near every night, she sees Bethany's paling broken neck. Smells the rot of darkspawn. Feels the quiver of ground from the ogre's footsteps. She remembers Mother's accusation—"This is your fault! How could you let her charge off like that?"—better than she remembers what she had for breakfast this morning.

Hawke scoops up the rest of her letters, and sets her face into one of blank amusement, eyebrows raised, though she knows her eyes look dangerous.

Don't be an asshole, Hawke, she was his twin.

... Oh fuck it.

Hawke turns back to Carver. "Yes," she muses, "too bad the nice mage sister got made into lunchmeat instead of the rude one. You know, Carver, there might be some of Bethy's skeleton left over. Surely some bits were a little too crunchy."

"Leandra!" Uncle Gamlen pipes up. "Hear this damned daughter of yours? Maker, I swear—"

"We can grab her," Hawke says, raising her voice, "prop her up in the new estate, stick a little Templar flag in her hand, and just toss me off the Docks. You'll be perfectly understood then, won't you, Carver?"

Carver stares at her, stunned and hurt.

"Joaquina," Mother says, appearing in the room, face and voice full of shocked rage.

Hawke continues, her internal squirm of guilt only raising her voice even louder, angrier. "As good as new! It's not as though she spoke much anyway!"

"Joaquina, you are the most—" Mother begins.

Hawke doesn't stick around to hear the rest of what she's the most of. Something bad, no doubt. Instead, she hightails it out of there to the Hanged Man, to find Varric and Isabela.

***

Hawke ignores her throat's warning convulsion at her drink's rancid smell, and takes a swig. She swallows it, then shudders. "Blah. Rat spit with just a touch of pickled feet. Delicious."

To be fair to her drink, it's a miracle she can smell or taste anything that's not just the Hanged Man's air, with its rank, stuffy mix of packed-in, sweaty bodies, the various multidirectional excretions from said bodies, spilled drinks rotting the floorboards, and the occasional ill-advised lit fire, all competing to escape out the single front door, where Lowtown's vaguely fishy breeze occasionally puffs in.

There's nowhere else Hawke would rather be.

A few tables away, two regulars are loud enough for their voices to rise above the rest of the chatter. They seem to be having a lazy bar fight, so drunk while wrestling that they're causing no real harm. Really, they might as well be cuddling.

"Y'know, in Orlais," Varric says on the splintery bench next to her, holding his drink up toward the ceiling as though considering a fine wine, "they drink this shit on purpose! Ha! Special occasions only. Un goût de pauvreté,"1 he says with a hand flourish. "A decadent sip of our low class lives."

"Listen to you with your 'our,'" Isabela says, taking a good three or four swallows out of Hawke's mug, before inspecting her own nails and shaking her head. "You two are rich now with your dwarven treasure. Leaving your dear bosom friends in the seat of poverty."

"Aw, Isabela, you're more than just a lovely bosom," Hawke says, grabbing back her drink, and gesturing to Norah for a top-off.

"Rivaini, we offered you a share of gold," Varric says.

"But that's no fun! I much prefer stealing it from you bit by bit over time." Isabela leans forward to Hawke, propping her cleavage up with the edge of the table in Hawke's direction, in a way Hawke presumes is meant to be comforting. Maybe it helps a bit, in an abstract way. They are nice breasts.

"So, Junior's a Templar now." Varric sighs. "Everybody's growing up."

"You're supposed to be consoling me, not just sitting there feeling old," Hawke complains, then gulps more of her drink.

"You're young as shit, Chuckles. I always feel old around you. But hey." Varric raises his hands in defense. "Full agreement here. It was a shitty move on his part. Sure, you could have avoided the disturbing off-color joke, but given those circumstances? I'm with you all the way."

"Everything considered, Hawke," Isabela says, "I bet Carver does look nice in the armor."

Hawke shoos her hand at Isabela. "That's what my mother said!"

Varric shrugs. "Lady knows her stuff."

"A woman of excellent taste," Isabela agrees.

Hawke snorts, then turns a watchful eye on Isabela, staring her down. "Isabela, you can sleep with anyone you want, just not my brother, please."

Isabela gets an evil glint in her eyes. Uh oh. "Not my mother either," Hawke says for good measure, and takes another shudder-sip of her drink.

Her tongue's been flayed by the hard liquor, but it's not all that terrible once it heats up her knees and makes her lips go numb. Tingly.

Isabela pouts, then looks thoughtful. "Anyone else?" Isabela muses, expression turning mischievous. "How about... Fenris."

Hawke wishes she could blame the alcohol on her bodily twitch at his name, but she's pretty sure her reflexes are slowed down, not sped up. Damn.

"See," Varric says, "I thought you were gonna go the old 'how about you, Hawke?' route, but this is much more interesting."

"Oh, that offer's been on the table for ages," Isabela drawls, grinning wickedly.

Ah, Fenris. Hawke thinks a lot about the first time she met him. He saw Hawke's fireballs, against the demons he wanted dead thank you very much, and confronted her by the wall outside the mansion as though she'd been trying to hide it, rather than channeling her mana for all she was worth.

"What manner of mage are you?" Fenris asked Hawke with narrowed eyes. "What is it that you seek?"

"I'm just trying to get by," Hawke said with a shrug, and expected that to be enough to reassure the (breathtaking) angry-glowy elf in front of her. Her response was honest, too. She didn't care for much else. Nothing righteous, but nothing power-hungry either. Just hungry in the regular sense, and surrounded by other rumbling bellies: a volatile mum, a good-for-nothing uncle, a silly big brother, and a smelly dog who loves fights and his favorite moldy rug.

"Many evil deeds have been done in the name of survival," Fenris said.

The next week, when Athenril wanted a little magical merchant intimidation, smoke and wisps for a piece of the cut, Hawke hesitated. She'd never hesitated before. She gave an excuse, and ended up plucking some herbs for Sol instead, receiving a much lighter handful of coins in return.

She'd never taken to scoldings. Maker knows Aveline tried and failed over the previous year, and Mother gave up long ago. But... Fenris. His prematurely-white hair thrashing, body alight, up to the elbow in another man's heartblood. Then Fenris, talked down to like less than a Mabari runt, less than a chair or filthy scrap of cloth. Then Fenris' gaze and judgment on her.

It was all in short order, and it made her want to be... better, maybe? Not a goody two-shoes. Certainly not a hero. Just not that kind of mage. The kind who used survival as an excuse.

Sure, she's a mage here, and it's not all skipping through sunny fields, but magic is different there, in Tevinter. Hawke knows it, Anders knows it (and is a terrible dickboat about it), and Fenris certainly knows it. It's not like Fenris ever tries to turn anybody in to the Templars. He grumps a lot, but he isn't dangerous to her, or even Merrill or Anders. Hawke's not going to waste time complaining that Fenris hates mages, that Fenris doesn't trust her or any of her kind. It's pointless and he's been through enough.

Even so, the tugging in her chest isn't pity, no matter Fenris' suspicions on the matter.

And here we go—maybe she's had far too much to drink.

Hawke drinks some more.

She gives a hopefully nonchalant shrug to Isabela. "I suppose you have a chance with Fenris since you're not a mage. Not that he doesn't have plenty of reason to hate mages."

"Ha!" Varric says, so loud, even in the ambient bar noise, that Hawke starts. "You catch that, Rivaini?"

"Couldn't miss it," Isabela says, and gives him a smug grin.

"What?" Hawke looks between the two of them. "What? What did I do?"

"You never bother justifying someone like that," Varric says, grinning at her. "You've got it bad, huh kid?"

"Absolutely not," Hawke says, and hides herself behind her cup. When she peers back over the edge, Varric is still smiling at her and she laughs. "Stop that. If I did, it wouldn't matter anyway. I just want to be there for him, y'know?"

"Who are you?"

"Shush," Isabela says. "She'll get jaded once she's out of the 'teens. Then everything will be fun again. Let her have her little romantic swoon for now."

"Hey," Varric concedes, "Better Broody than Blondie, I guess."

Hawke and Isabela cackle in unison.

Talking with Anders is always a bit like what made Hawke backtrack a mile a minute away from Meeran and go with Athenril instead. Namely: flirting. And a hot gaze that makes Anders' eyes go so foggy she's sure he's not really looking at her anymore, just at whatever eerie fantasy he has churning in his mind.

Isabela's flirtations are a different story. It's not that it's a joke, like with Varric. Bela means it. But she isn't pushy. In a grabby hands sort of way, sure, but not deep down inside. Anders, on the other hand...

"'You don't want to boff me? You're oppressing me, Hawke!'" Isabela dramatically recounts. "'You're oppressing my feelings for you!'"

Varric grins and shakes his head. "I don't think he knows what that word even means."

"'I bet you're just pretending to be a mage to break my heart,'" Hawke joins in.

Isabela puts a mournful hand on her forehead. "'Look at you, wicked temptress, denying my pained, spirit-possessed body its tender release!'"

Hawke laughs, downs the rest of her drink in a dedicated series of nose-pinched swallows, then eyes Varric's still mostly-full drink. "Varric, if you're going to nurse that all night, pass it along to a good home."

"Goodbye, booze," Varric says to his mug. "I hope we never meet again, especially not on the way back out. Especially not on my coat. Pass the message to Hawke's stomach for me, will you?"

"I'm fine," Hawke says, only slightly woozily, and takes the drink from his clutches. "Tell me a story, Varric."

"All right, Chuckles," Varric says, already switching to the soothing, rhythmic scratchiness of his storyteller voice. "What do you wanna hear?"

"Ooh," Isabela says. "Tell her about when we had those nobles convinced false mustaches made of deepstalker hide were all the rage in Rivain."

"Where was I? Why wasn't I there?" Hawke complains, starting to feel sleepy. She laps ungracefully into once-Varric's-now-Hawke's mug, because dogs drink like this, and how on Thedas do they go about their business not being thirsty all the time, because she's certainly not making much progress getting the booze into her mouth and down her throat.

"This was right when Rivaini got stranded in Kirkwall, before we met you," Varric explains.

Hawke sighs. "Without me in your lives! Tragic! Okay, continue."

"I shit you not, Chuckles, Rivaini comes up to me like, 'I've come into possession of these skins,' and..."

***

Fenris has been keeping strange company.

If someone had told him he'd willingly enter the Fade with a mage, he would have asked them if they wished their lungs ripped out.

As it is, Fenris... willingly entered the Fade with a mage.

Fenris' eyes open to a nauseating instability, green fog, and blurry vision as though he's been knocked in the head during battle. Somewhere near but untraceable, multi-toned voices whisper phrases Fenris cannot understand.

He decides he hates the Fade as much as he predicted he would, though he gives no outward complaint. Better him here than the blood witch or the abomination.

Fenris would trust Hawke less, he thinks, if she hid her dealings with other mages from him. Instead, she asks for his help during every doomed, ill-planned mission to rescue her compatriots. For this honesty, at least, he can respect her. Fenris finds himself assisting her, even after he feels he is no longer in her debt, for many of those she helps are slaves or soon to be, and Fenris cannot allow that to stand... even if they are mages.

As they venture forth in the boy Feynriel's dreams, the pirate immediately falls to a desire demon. This is no surprise to anyone except perhaps Hawke, who seemed to take Isabela's laughable declaration of "I'm never tempted" at face value, despite all evidence to the contrary.

Hawke reassures them with great nonchalance that Isabela will have simply woken up from the dream, unharmed. Even so, it is with a growing unease that he, Varric, and Hawke proceed with one less traveling companion by their sides.

Soon after, or long after, he cannot tell, Fenris begins to have a creeping realization: Hawke prevents him from seeking justice against Danarius! Hawke does not understand the extent of Fenris' power, does not wish him to exert it against magisters. Fenris needs no one but himself, Hawke and all others will only stand in his way. Fenris alone will destroy the Imperium, and Hawke will fight him every step of the way if he does not make sure to eliminate her interference. See, she fights him even now, spells flung in his direction as he parries with a greatsword, and—

Fenris wakes with a start on the ground, the concerned face of Keeper Marethari gazing down on him.

"Here, da'len," the Keeper says, and beckons for Fenris to sit up. She hands him a hot stone bowl of liquid. "To help ground you in this world."

Fenris, suspicious of any mage's offering, is dizzy enough to accept. He sips the drink. It is pungent with spice and makes his eyes water, but immediately makes Fenris feel more real.

Then Fenris flushes hot with shame as his mind clears and he remembers what just came to pass. He looks for Hawke, and sees her near, still asleep and clearly breathing.

"Hawke," Fenris begins, hoarse, then clears his throat and tries again. "Hawke rebuffed the advances of demons. And I was weak enough to fall prey to one myself." His voice is harsh and bitter. "Weak enough to betray her."

The Keeper smiles at him. "No harm is done, da'len. Hawke continues the ritual. You are not the only one to succumb, and Hawke ensured both your safe returns."

"If she had been unable to stop me—"

"Yet she did. It is no fault of your own, child. It is easy even for those with many years of training in the Beyond to fall prey to demons. Without training—"

"That is no excuse," Fenris retorts. He sets the stone bowl on the ground, and glares at it.

"You may find it a failing," Marethari continues, "but she will not." She gestures to Hawke's sleeping form. "Cherish her well."

Fenris' gaze flashes back up to the Keeper's face, and with a frown, he opens his mouth to ask her what erroneous assumptions she means to imply.

"Now," the Keeper says, before Fenris can speak. "Prepare yourself. We must all be ready if Feynriel wakes with more than himself inside."

Feynriel, in fact, wakes with less than himself inside. Hawke explains she had no better alternatives. The Keeper seems grim but approving, and Fenris shares her sentiment. Tranquility, when used wisely, seems less cruel than allowing an abomination to enter the world.

But Hawke, though loud and cheery as ever, will look no one in the eyes for the rest of the evening.

***

"I meant to clean, I swear," Merrill blurts out as soon as she opens the door for Isabela. "It's just that one shelf was awfully dusty, and I brushed it off, but if I put my nose up to it, it still smelled dusty, so I decided to wash it, but I didn't have any soap left from my bath, so I went out picking herbs to make some more, and then they had to infuse in the bucket water, and then by the time I washed the shelf and put all of the things back, here you are in no time at all, and—oh dear, that sounds like I don't want to see you, doesn't it? But I do, I'm very glad to see you, it's just I haven't cleaned anything else, and—"

"Kitten," Isabela says, stepping into Merrill's place over the pile of wood blocking the doorway. Merrill collected it for the fireplace, but it never quite made it that far. "It's all right."

Merrill steadies her breath from her frantic explanation, and bounces from heel to toe watching Isabela meander around the place. Her home seems worse when someone else is looking at it. Lopsided candles drip wax onto the table. Food scraps Merrill meant to compost outside have started composting themselves indoors without her help, letting off a funny smell. There are herbs laid out to dry on the seat of one of Merrill's two chairs, books stacked precariously on the other, and a tangle of dust, spiderwebs, and crumbs in every corner. Even her bucket of cleaning water is slopped over and left out in the middle of the floor. She watches Isabela and worries at a loose hangnail with her teeth.

Isabela stops her casual inspection of Merrill's living space. "Your place is lovely," Isabela says, smiling. "Just the way I like things. Life is messy. Places that are too clean give me the creeps."

"Oh. Well, good." Merrill wants Isabela to feel at home here, and she doesn't want Isabela—anyone, but especially Isabela—thinking she's a child, just because she's not used to having her own place or cleaning without the clan's help and the Keeper's assignments.

Isabela crawls into Merrill's unmade bed, plumps up the pillows, then lazily reclines back, smiling at Merrill. Merrill blinks at her for a moment before remembering: hospitality!

How do humans show hospitality?

"Would you like a drink?" Merrill asks. "I have, um... water."

Creators, she's boring. She's boring and a terrible host. Merrill reminds herself to ask Varric what kind of alcoholic drinks people are supposed to keep in their houses to offer guests. And food. The compost doesn't count.

Isabela wriggles to settle herself, curled and languid, against the crumpled bedspread.

"No thanks," Isabela says, "I'm perfect as is."

Yes, you are, thinks Merrill, and flushes, though she doesn't say it. "Good," Merrill says instead. "I'm glad."

"There's room enough for two, you know," Isabela says, patting her hand on the bed.

"Oh no, I'm—I'm fine," Merrill says. She scurries over to her chair, tips the herb bundles off it onto the floor, then drags it to the side of the bed. To stop her cheeks from heating any further, Merrill changes the subject. "How do you feel after coming back from the Beyond? It can be rough for some, their first lucid time."

Isabela frowns. "I suppose Hawke's told everyone about how I'll sell her out for a demon's pretty tits and the promise of a ship?"

"Oh," Merrill says, and winces. Perhaps not such a good topic to talk about after all, if it pulls the happiness from Isabela's face like that. "I don't think you did anything wrong at all," she tries to reassure. "I just wish Hawke had brought me along. Spirits are tricky. You have to be very careful about the wording of your agreement, especially with Desire, but the promises aren't always empty." Merrill sighs. "Hawke didn't have to kill the spirit. She kills them much too readily. I could have helped you get your ship."

"Thanks, Merrill." Isabela twirls the gold piercing below her bottom lip, and looks thoughtful. "You do have practice with your own little demon deals, don't you?"

Merrill purses her lips. "I know that it's dangerous, but I know what I'm doing."

Isabela nods. "We all do dangerous stuff, kitten. If you say you can handle it, I believe you."

Later, when Isabela's left and Merrill's alone in her house again, Merrill skips a few giddy jumps from the closed front door to the bed. She flings herself face down, then drags a pillow closer and presses it to her nose.

It still smells like Isabela.

Chapter Text

Even after Hadriana is dead, the smell of her favored perfume—a nauseating strain of clove oils, overpowering in the inclosed cave—mixes with the scent of blood in an all too familiar way. Fenris' muscles twitch, and he stretches, trying to rid himself of the sensation that crawling hands pinch along his lyrium tattoos.

Somewhere beyond the buzzing in his ears, Hawke says his name. Hawke rests her hand on his shoulder in what Fenris knows, rationally, is an unthinking impulse to soothe.

It may as well be a lash of the whip for all the comfort he gains from it.

Fenris flinches jerkily away from her touch, angry words bubbling up and spitting out of him.

The world mocks Fenris even now, as he speaks of spoiled things, of his hatred of magic's curse, a singular sickness rotting the world and all those in it. For he turns to see one not merely touched by magic, but containing magic herself. How innocent and young Hawke looks, how completely nonplussed by his rage. Her slightly raised brows are near-hidden beneath the dark fringe of her hair, but her eyes retain her neutral, heavy-lidded expression.

Some part of him wishes she would become defensive so he could have something more to rail against, but instead she is calm and thinks herself—knows herself—not the kind of mage that has given him this hatred. She knows that she has no need for defense. She merely looks at him, waiting, and untainted.

He cannot. It is too much. He turns and leaves.

***

Merrill resolutely tugs the mirror down the stairs into the Alienage, leaving a thin path behind her from the edge's scrape along the dirt. Alienage elves milling about look curiously at her as she sweats and pants, dragging the Eluvian at her side, but they don't ask her any questions. Merrill's mostly kept to herself here, and doesn't really know any of them.

It's a wonder she hasn't broken the mirror more, really, once she gets it into her home. She does have to scurry back to the front door to pick up a shard of glass that dropped, but no matter. There are cracks in it everywhere. If it was just a matter of gluing it back together after the Blight first contaminated it and the Keeper finished the job? Then Merrill might not be here, estranged from her clan, in the first place.

D'alla Mahariel was such a good girl, who would have longed to be First if she had magic, who would have wept and begged if ever made to leave the clan. She would have never left of her own accord. She would have never lived willingly among shem, who she'd kill as quick as rabbits when threatened on a hunt.

But Mahariel is dead.

And Merrill's alive. And she wouldn't have had to leave, Merrill reminds herself, if her clan wiped their eyes of prejudice and fear of spirits and old magic, and simply understood that Merrill can't let danger stop her from helping her People.

Ignorance of the Eluvian didn't keep the clan safe. And despite what the Keeper had hoped, destroying the mirror didn't cure the Blight contamination that wrought a near-boiling fever and pustules across Mahariel's flesh, and the flesh of poor dear Ashalle after Mahariel coughed blood in her eyes while being tended to and comforted. Destroying it didn't change the fact that they had to burn the bodies like shem'len worshipping Andraste, unable to keep the old ways of the soil for fear of tainting groundwater. Worse yet, destroying it threw away all chance they had of finding Tam or even his body, his spirit forced to roam restless now without a chance of finding home.

Yet when Merrill wanted to study a piece of glass, reconstruct it, and cleanse the mirror of its horrors, to unlock the secrets it might hold of their People's long-suppressed histories, the Keeper dared to tell her she was the foolish one?

The Eluvian is taller than her, and twined with thick vines and bronze, swirls and symbols, the face of a figure she has no knowledge of (yet), but that she tried to replicate as closely as possible from her research. Each time Merrill inspects it, she painstakingly updates her small leaflet grimoire's handwritten notes of what she senses, of new patterns she notices, of what the spirit tells her and teaches her.

"It's wonderful, isn't it?" Merrill sighs, when Hawke visits and sees the mirror for the first time.

Hawke contorts her face and gives a shrug, eyeing it warily. "Sure, gorgeous, if you like creepy things that'll eat your soul while you're sleeping."

Varric, too, shows his disapproval, like Hawke, like the Keeper, treating Merrill like a child again by giving her more words of caution.

But Isabela only coos and runs her dark, jeweled fingers along the curved, unbroken parts of the edge. "It's beautiful, kitten," she breathes. "Watch out, or I'll sneak in here and steal it."

Merrill has reconstructed this mirror with her blood. More of Merrill's self—literally—is in this mirror than anything else Merrill has ever attempted. And Isabela finds it beautiful, even if her own People don't.

***

In the companionable conversation after apologies, wine heats Fenris' stomach and Hawke heats Fenris' gaze. He watches Hawke's tentative awe with no small pleasure as he calls her beautiful. The pain in his markings, in his past, has guided him to keep others at a distance, he explains, even physically. But with Hawke, Fenris muses aloud, it might be different.

"We could try," Hawke offers, and smiles at him.

Three small words, but for Fenris, the change is immediate. Small twinges and the low, ignorable pulse of arousal he felt when he and Hawke spoke of such things in imprecise words now become overwhelming. His cock hardens, pressing painfully against the death-grip of his leathers, and his head spins with far more than drink.

Somehow, Fenris manages to keep his outward cool, to defer her offer to the indefinite future. But after Hawke leaves to return to her own estate, her cheeks flushed and smile broad and genuine as she says farewell, Fenris finds himself touching the lyrium marks on his thighs over his leggings.

The pain is sometimes like running a finger over an infected cut, sometimes worse or less. He tries to imagine if the hurt would be too much if it were someone else touching him at his request. And not merely someone, and not merely touching, but Hawke's thick thighs and buttocks, bare and rubbing against him here, as he pulls her down so she straddles him, as he takes her, as her flesh slaps against his and she writhes uncontrolled on him. He imagines she would be just as loud, just as raucous, as when she laughs and jokes in the tavern.

He wishes it. He has not felt such desire in a long time, and perhaps never of his own making. Were he not filled with drink and cowardice tonight, perhaps he would have...

Fenris frees himself from his leathers in front of the cold house's dying fireplace, resting his forehead against stone. He uses the barest amount of spit and grips his foreskin hard, jerking too rough and finishing too soon, spilling himself into the embers, imagining how she might feel around him, inviolate Hawke allowing him in her wet heat with a grin on her face.

Fenris spends days in a wrecked state. He drinks, and breaks Danarius' possessions in rage when his mind reminds him the woman he agonizes over is a mage. Then he tugs on his cock at too-frequent and ungodly hours to tend to the need that was rarely present so often before, when his mind reminds him she is also Hawke, Hawke who has proved herself, Hawke whom Fenris respects. Hawke has offered herself to him. Fenris stares at the ill-kept ceiling from his cot of linens he needs to but has not yet washed, and barely pulls himself together to answer the mansion door when Hawke knocks and asks him to accompany her on minor chores: bouts with raiders on the Coast, gathering herbs for potions, tending to Hawke's Maker-forsaken Bone Pit investment.

Some ill-fated thugs set upon them one night in Lowtown. Hawke's shoulder strappings, secured against her muscular, bare brown arm, thump against Fenris' own arm as she rushes to his side. She knocks their surrounding enemies flat with a pulse of a spell. Hawke prefers to make herself the taunting center of every fight, combat magic bursting out in close circumference around her, rather than cast from the sidelines. Her magic synchronizes with Fenris' greatsword swipes at the last of the enemies. Hawke jumps up and down on a ribcage in her ankle-high leather boots to make sure the corpse is dead, then grins at Fenris, her red-painted lids crinkling around her eyes in what Fenris sees, with a start, is genuine fondness.

She says, "Either we're marvelous at this or we have terrible competition."

Fenris' glance fixes on hers. He wants to charge at Hawke, shove her to the ground in no mind of corpses and the varied effluvia of the streets, and claim her then and there. Through or around their clothes and armor, it is no matter to him, his gauntlets are sharp and can rip through fabric...

He knows he cannot stay away for much longer. Especially as Merrill of all creatures seems to catch on to his blatant near-loss of control, and looks between him and Hawke, puzzled. Fenris has become truly unhinged if the witch notices.

And so, later, Fenris subsumes his nerves in the raw energy he feels, pushes past his mind's warnings of caution, and walks, brisk and hunched, the short distance to Hawke's mansion.

Fenris waits in the foyer for Hawke. Some time passes. The exact amount is unclear, save for the burn in his legs from pacing, and the nighttime fires lit by a talkative Bodhan, who finally comprehends Fenris' disinterest in conversation and goes away to bed.

The front door creaks. Fenris curses himself for being here, and prays it is not Leandra.

It is not Leandra.

Hawke enters with a yawn that breaks into wakefulness when she sees him.

"Fenris?" she asks, surprised.

He hears the concern in her voice, but hears it is not fear of him, but fear for him, for what news he might bring. So Fenris stalks forward, encroaching on her space. Hawke does not step back or flinch away, but leans toward him, nearly closing what little gap he has left between them.

"I have been thinking of you," Fenris says, and he is hard again just by being so near. "In fact, I can think of little else. Command me to go and I shall."

Hawke's face takes on a dazed, awed look.

"No need," Hawke murmurs, and then her mouth and body are eager against his.

***

Hawke learns something new every day. Today, she learned why Isabela fails to guess the color of Fenris' underwear.

Fenris—clever, clever man—doesn't wear any.

He is, in fact, not wearing any right in front of Hawke right now.

Either Hawke is about to get very, very possessed by a very, very convincing desire demon, or Hawke is actually this lucky.

Thank Maker that Mother's a heavy sleeper. Hawke and Fenris didn't so much walk up as clatter up the stairs, gauntlets and boots avalanching. Fenris tugged her rough against him every few moments to kiss her again, as Hawke, dizzy with excitement, tasted into his mouth and clung to him for purchase, laughing, and squirming herself against the thigh he maneuvered between her legs.

They shooed Perrito out of the bedroom, then Fenris made quick work of both their clothes, including Hawke's smallclothes and Fenris' lack thereof.

And now, here they are. Hawke's going to faint from bliss if she's not careful. Her hands scrabble for Fenris, but she remembers their past conversation and stops.

"Fenris?" she asks, gasping breaths between his kisses. "Your markings?"

"They're fine," he growls, then pushes her back against the soft pillows and sheets, climbing over her.

Hawke's breasts are small for her frame and a little lopsided, but Fenris explores them with appreciation in his hot gaze, tugging and shoving at her flesh with his hands until Hawke's nipples are fit to poke someone's eyes out. Hawke thinks she ought to do something with her hands, but couldn't think her way out of a burlap sack at the moment, so she settles instead for trying to keep up basic functions like breathing and consciousness, while her hands flail around like lost birds.

"I have thought much about what it would be like to be within you," Fenris rumbles low in her ear. His voice alone is enough to make her muscles tense in pleasure. His cock is hard against her stomach, leaving a faint shining trail along her skin from its tip, and she pants harder, grinning.

"Yes!" Hawke says, and widens her legs under him.

Fenris reaches out to the crux of her thighs, then stops. His eyes flick up to hers, concern in his features. "Are you—will I hurt you?"

Ah, virginity, everyone's favorite subject. Hawke shrugs. "People have been in there before, if that's what you mean. You won't hurt me."

He doesn't press the subject further, and at her nod, Fenris touches her, two of his slim, brown fingers dipping lightly, too lightly, inside her. She clamps down around them, contorting her face in a way that probably looks like something gone wrong, though she feels precisely the opposite.

"Yes, Fenris," Hawke's voice manages, and he slides in a third finger.

Fenris groans, a hoarse grunt of a sound, as if trying to maintain his composure. "You're soaking wet. Hawke—"

Yes, she is. And he's pressing down his own cock as if it's hurting him.

"Fenris, please," she breathes out, neck arching back.

She's done something very right because Fenris smiles harshly, eyes dark, darker than ever, and says, "Are you going to beg?"

Oh Maker, she's going to explode into a million pieces, she just knows it. Hawke's hips writhe at his tone, his expression, and she grinds her bottom into the sheets so she won't take him faster than he wants, and because the wait, the aching that makes even her uppermost thighs slippery now, is wonderful.

"Yes," she pants out, fast, because she sees a look of uncertainty cross Fenris' face. She knows he must be questioning if he has a right to talk like this to her, even though she can barely think to speak, barely breathe, only wants him. "Please, yes, please, please, Fenris."

Fenris pulls his hand back, but Hawke has no time to long for his fingers inside her again. With a growl, he descends and thrusts his cock inside her like his hand rips organs, sudden and fluid. The fullness isn't too much, it's only the hard, deep motions that hurt when he bottoms out inside her, but the shock of pain sends waves up through her abdomen like water breaking on land, spreading through her spine into pleasure instead, and Hawke moans.

She's short but not exactly a light load, all arm and shoulder muscles, and fat belly, hips, thighs. Even so, Fenris, her spindly lover (lover!), tall and thin like a varterral (but without any of the things that make her hate spiders!), pulls out and flips her onto her stomach like she's nothing. He plunges back into her from behind, as she pulls a wrinkle of the sheets taut and rocks herself against it, already wanting to come, and come now.

The sheets might not have been intended for this purpose, but it still doesn't take long. The skin slapping vibrations, Fenris thick inside her with ragged breathing, the rub of fabric. Hawke comes, laughing.

Fenris gives a hoarse growl and pulls her hair to tug her head back to kiss her, and Hawke breathes all the encouragement she can voice in light of the giddy spinning of her head. Fenris' body shudders then tenses in a snap as he comes.

Hawke sees his lyrium tattoos ghost and in out, so quick she's not sure if he notices.

***

Fenris wants to hurt Hawke.

Not because she is a mage or did anything amiss, but because it would give him pleasure to do so, to pinch or slap or bite, bruise her shoulder with his mouth, mar her wrists with too-tight grasp. The urge to cause pain is for the purposes of his own lust, and this is frighteningly close to what he knows, has experienced, of magisters.

It is no matter that in his fantasies, she wishes for his torments, grinning and giddy and perfectly Hawke. It is no matter that the scant, fleeting roughness he succumbed to in this sole night with her—nowhere a match for the entirety of thoughts in his mind—she encouraged, unmistakably gleeful.

It is still close enough that, as Hawke sleeps, Fenris stands by her fireplace, trying to cease shaking.

In the clearest moments of bliss, memories had burrowed their way into Fenris' mind, like maggots in a skull: A mirror's reflection of his own hair, but dark, not scorched white. The lump of bone in Hadriana's pale wrist. A bleeding slave. Danarius' mouth.

When Fenris has dressed and fastened his gauntlets back on, he rips a strip from Hawke's red bedsheets. The torn bit of fabric is the result of dual urges: the impulse to destroy something, and the impulse to ground himself with a token of his moments here with Hawke. Fenris ties it around his wrist. He will not forget this night.

He will not leave while Hawke still sleeps. He will not let her think he wished only to take from her body then leave her alone.

But when she wakes, he will flee.

***

Merrill glances warily around. The Hanged Man is crowded tonight, and loud enough that she and Isabela have to shout at each other to hear. No Hawke in sight, but it still makes her nervous.

"Don't worry, kitten," Isabela says (or, well, yells) in her direction, shuffling the deck of cards she's going to teach Merrill to play. "I'll warn you if I see her come in."

"Thank you, lethallan," Merrill murmurs back, then realizes Isabela's probably not heard, and repeats herself in a much louder voice.

Merrill had been stupidly, stupidly sure Hawke would give her the dagger. No matter how much Hawke disapproved of the Eluvian's repair, no matter Hawke's humanity, Merrill had been naive and thought Hawke would never keep a sacred Dalish artifact for herself, even if Keeper Marethari had lost all sense and granted it to her.

When Hawke had given Merrill the same set-jaw look the Keeper had, and carefully stashed the arulin'holm away from Merrill's sight? Merrill wanted to hurt Hawke. Wanted to kill Hawke, because how dare a shem'len keep a piece of her People's history from her, keep a tool away that could finally unlock the Eluvian and set all her work and purpose into motion at last?

But the moment had passed, and Merrill simply walked away, shaking, with tears forcing themselves out of her eyes.

Since then, she's been doing her best to avoid Hawke whenever possible.

"Want me to steal the dagger for you?" Isabela offers, and Merrill realizes she's been staring gloomily at the Hanged Man crowd in silence for a while.

Merrill shakes her head. "If Hawke's going to be a shem, I hope she steps on it and gets a nasty cut." She glares, and has to blink back tears again. "I'll find another way."

"Fair enough," Isabela says. The tavern's noise gets even more raucous, and Isabela rolls her eyes. "This is ridiculous," she yells to Merrill, and gets up, goes around the table, and scoots in next to Merrill's side instead.

"That's better," Isabela says in a normal tone of voice in her ear. "We wouldn't want that lovely voice of yours to go hoarse from yelling. And you know I'm looking for an excuse to cozy up to you." She bumps her shoulder against Merrill's, and Merrill smiles down at the cards in Isabela's hands.

"Do you mean it?" Merrill asks, on impulse. It's about time for her to say something, and Isabela won't judge her, even if the answer's no.

"Do I mean what, sweet thing?"

"When you flirt, would you actually, you know, want to be with that person?"

"Depends on who and if I'm after anything. Mostly? Yes."

"Hmm," Merrill says. "Do you mean it when you flirt with me?"

Isabela grins. "Definitely."

"Can we?"

"Oh yes."

"Really?" Excitement jolts through Merrill. "I'm glad! I've been meaning to ask you," she confesses. "Just in case I got the nerve, I even kept my fingernails bitten off so they'd be nice and short. I wouldn't want to scratch you by accident, especially not on sensitive places."

Isabela gives Merrill a fake gasp. "Merrill, look at you, all prepared."

"I wanted to be, just in case," Merrill says, blushing, and smiles.

"Have you ever been with anyone, kitten?"

"There was a boy in my clan, a while back." Merrill makes a thoughtful face. "It was a bit brief though. He sort of pulled his rahn out and then sort of accidentally came on my clothes before he got them off. We never really tried it again. So I need practice. Lots. But I know I want to be with you."

"What are we waiting for, then?" Isabela grins, and grabs her hand as they abandon the deck of cards on the table, and race through the crowds to Isabela's room.

***

Merrill is eager, Isabela is delighted to find, seeking her mouth for wet, heated kisses as soon as the door shuts, and unabashedly stripping off her clothes. Isabela joins her, shimmying off her trousers. She lets out a comfortable sigh as she unloosens and steps out of her corset, and pulls her tunic over her head.

"Oh dear," Merrill says, eyes worried, fingers hovering near but not quite touching the darker, reddened pressure marks indenting Isabela's skin. "Your corset is so tight. Doesn't it hurt you?"

"Nah, not really," Isabela says with a shrug. "I'm used to wearing it. But it does feel nice to be free of it. Gives my plump a little room to breathe." Isabela stretches with her arms up over her head. Then she catches Merrill staring in awe at her breasts, stomach, and hips.

She grins, and grabs up a handful of her own flesh teasingly for good measure, enjoying the feel of her own hand and the look on Merrill's face both. "Like what you see, kitten?"

"Yes. I'm a bit like a sad, broken-off twig compared to you, though." Merrill frowns and glances down at her pale and angular body.

Isabela pouts. "Nonsense. Just look at these breasts. Just right for pinching and sucking. And Merrill, your belly button is the cutest little thing."

Merrill flushes, but still looks a little doubtful. "Even with the way it sort of does a sticky-outy thing?"

"Especially."

Finally, Merrill's smile broadens again.

Isabela wanders her gaze over Merrill's body with appreciation, ignoring the clusters of scar lines of varying ages criss-crossing on Merrill's thighs and belly. Whether from blood magic or a bad day, it's none of Isabela's business, and she certainly has her own scars to join Merrill's.

They kiss some more, first on the lips, then the neck, and when Isabela feels nice and wobbly in the knees and lies down on the bed, Merrill joins her and ventures lower.

"Is this all right?" Merrill asks, hovering near her hip, and Isabela grins.

"Wherever you'd like to put your mouth is fair game, kitten," she says.

Merrill brushes a kiss against Isabela's hip, then promptly crawls between Isabela's spread thighs like a woman on a mission. Merrill gives a thorough lick, then tilts her head back up to look at Isabela, beaming.

“You taste so lovely,” Merrill says happily. “Sort of like seaweed and mermaids and the side of your neck, really wonderful things.”

“You know what mermaids taste like, sweetums?” Isabela says, letting out a soft, pleased chuckle. She runs the flat of her thumb up from Merrill's forehead to her hair, stroking in a gentle way that's really only okay because it's Merrill, and this is how people should treat Merrill.

“Well, no,” Merrill says. “But I imagine they'd taste like pirates and the sea shore.”

“Mm, I can say for certain most pirates don't taste very good.”

“Well, you do,” Merrill concludes, and burrows her face between Isabela's thighs again, with the refreshing and rare enthusiasm of someone completely unafraid of cunts. No cautious, precise distance and clit-flicking for this one. Merrill puts her whole self into it, smooshing her face right against Isabela in delight and determination.

Isabela sighs and spreads her legs further in encouragement.

“Am I doing all right?” Merrill asks, voice muffled and carrying a nice little vibration, since she doesn't bother to pull her lips away from tonguing and kissing Isabela's folds.

“You're perfect, kitten,” Isabela says, and strokes Merrill's ear tip with the pad of her finger.

Merrill's big eyes get wetter and darker, and her cheeks turn from already dark pink flushed to positively red underneath her tattoos. Merrill smiles.

“Well, I'm very glad,” Merrill says. “You deserve to feel very nice, and I was so worried I wouldn't do nice enough things for you.”

Isabela sighs, murmuring more to herself than for Merrill's benefit, “Wherever did I find you?”

A pleasant low heat starts to circle Bela's upper thighs, as Merrill kisses and licks and sucks and nuzzles, a slow deep first orgasm of the night creeping into the vicinity.

With a loud slurp, Merrill backs her mouth away again enough to reply, “Sundermount at first. But you weren't there yet to find me, that was Hawke and her brother and Varric, remember?”

Isabela smiles. “Yes, kitten. I remember.”

Merrill dutifully gets back to work, even bending her arm and slipping in two of her slim, cold fingers when Isabela inspects her adorable bitten-off fingernails and asks her so.

Soon, with a low, happy moan, Isabela stretches her arms up above her head to grab the bed's headboard, and comes, a long, deep thing, drawn out and full of slow pulses inside her. She feels positively languid.

“I did it, didn't I?” Merrill says, grinning and flushed, already looking ravished with puffy lips and a shining wet face from nose down.

“You did,” Isabela affirms, and gives a contented sigh. “It's always all right not to come or not to be able to make someone else come, but you did it, and you did wonderfully.”

Merrill clambers over her, all long legs and kisses. Isabela kisses back, savoring Merrill's taste and her own, and the smooth texture of the inside of Merrill's bottom lip.

“Can I take my turn to make you feel good now, kitten? We don't have to, but would you like to?”

“Yes please!” Merrill says, and bless her, promptly sprawls lanky on her back, not so much 'come hither' as 'come here now!'

Isabela likes it. She likes it a lot.

She plants little kisses on Merrill's toes. “What would you like, sweetness? We can do a whole boatload of things.”

“Hmm,” Merrill says, and ponders, not a single look of shame or embarrassment on her face. Good. “Well, I quite like my own fingers inside, so yours would be even better. I like when you talk about dirty things. And I like, um...” The first hint of shyness. “Pain? Not a lot of it, mind you, but maybe a little bit.”

“Now let's see,” Isabela says, sneaking up to where Merrill's belly has gone tense, then blowing a soft raspberry against it, relishing Merrill's giggle and relaxed muscles. She flicks Merrill's bellybutton with a tongue. “How about I fingerfuck you, spank you, and tell you what a naughty girl you've been? That'll be all three!”

“Yes,” Merrill breathes. "Yes please."

***

When they're catching their breaths, Isabela thinks there's no real harm in letting Merrill cuddle up a little. It does send a warning flutter to Isabela's chest, but she reminds herself it's Merrill, and—

“I love you,” Merrill murmurs, not softly enough that Isabela can pretend not to hear.

Shit, Isabela thinks.

“Shit,” Isabela says.

Merrill tenses against her.

“Oh,” Merrill says, then sits up. “Oh. I mean—oh. Allrighty then. That's—fine. Perfectly—”

“No, Merrill,” Isabela tries, and sits up too. “It's just—I can't—you know I don't—“

“I knew I'd make a mess of things,” Merrill says, and flees the bed. She fumbles to put her little green bodice back on, hiding her breasts with her arms for the first time this evening. “Elgar'nan," she swears. "I should go.” Her voice quivers. She's making a valiant effort not to cry.

Merrill's hands shake and she drops the bodice. She gives up on it and gathers on her other clothes without anything underclothes on top, clutching the bodice in her hands.

Isabela cringes. “Kitten, wait.”

“What?” Merrill says, voice strained and high, not turning to look at Isabela.

Isabela squints at Merrill's tense back, and grimaces. “If you come sit down, I'll try to explain.”

Part of Isabela's mind screams warnings and tells her to flee from Merrill, who has botched up everything, but that's not the part of Isabela she wants to show Merrill. Not when Merrill's been so sweet and earnest with her.

Merrill's voice still trembles. “I would like to go. Can I go?”

The question is like a stab to Isabela's gut. She feels sick. “Of course you can. You don't need anybody's permission for anything.”

Is this what Merrill thinks of her? That she'd make her stay? That she'd want Merrill to capitulate, instead of doing whatever she damn well pleases? The nice feeling of post-exertion hunger flees from Isabela, leaving her hollow and nauseated.

Merrill nods, tugs at her clothes again, picks up her stave from the floor with pale, shaky hands, and leaves.

Isabela lets out a groan and thumps over face down on the bed, ignoring the uncomfortable press of the bunched sheets and mattress against her breasts and stomach. She blows out a frustrated gust of air into the pillow. She needs a drink. But a drink downstairs means Varric, and she doesn't know if she's ready for whatever stern look he might give her for... 'trampling on Daisy's blossoms,' or whatever he thinks up if he's seen Merrill's exit. Which she's sure he has.

Isabela decides to avoid him at all costs, takes a chilly bath, and rummages around under her bed, hanging off her mattress, bathwater-wet skin clinging to the sheets, looking for the fifth of liquor she knows she tossed down there sometime.

Someone knocks.

She goes over to the door thinking Not Merrill, not Merrill, not Merrill, looks out the peep hole, sighs, then opens the door to Varric, not bothering to put on clothes.

A drunk patron stumbles past behind Varric, catches sight of Isabela, and whistles. “You looking for some company, whore?” he calls out.

“My daggers are always lonely for you to take a very close look at them,” she purrs in return, and the man pales before stumbling out of sight.

“I'll put a few extra rounds for the house on that asshole's tab tonight,” Varric says, scowling and shaking his head.

“Do I want to know why you're here?” Isabela asks glumly.

“Hi yourself, Rivaini,” Varric says, walks in, and shuts the door behind him, before turning around to face away from her. “Get less naked, then we'll talk.”

Despite herself, Isabela chuckles. Varric, always the gentleman. “Distracted?” she asks breezily, but makes some effort to stick on at least a tunic and underthings.

“Hey, you know the glorious sight of you impairs my language skills,” Varric banters back with ease, still facing the door. “And I'm a storyteller. I am nothing without my words.”

She scoffs, mock-offended. “I know a delicious patch of chest hair that needs no narration.” She pulls the bedspread up over her twisted, soiled sheets. “There. Everything's decent now.”

Varric turns around, and strolls over to Isabela's table, plopping himself down in one of the chairs. “With you and me, Rivaini? Never.”

Isabela pulls a headscarf taut over her damp, flyaway hair, and joins Varric at the table. “You showing up tonight is no coincidence,” she says, interrupting the banter.

“You got me there,” Varric concedes, face growing more serious.

Isabela groans, and scowls at the wood grain of the table. “Here to scold me about how I've shattered Merrill's heart?” She looks up and glares at him. “Because I need more alcohol for that.”

“Meh,” Varric says, and shrugs. “Daisy's all grown up. She'll be fine.”

Isabela raises a skeptical eyebrow. “Then why are you here?”

“See, we're this weird phenomenon called 'friends.' I don't know who came up with it, probably blood mages, but I digress. What these 'friends' do...” Varric tugs a thick, clear bottle of liquor out of one of his many inner coat pockets, “... is bring each other drinks when love lives go to hell. Hawke had her own special session, and now I hear it's your turn.”

“Oh Varric,” Isabela exclaims, and leans across the table to plant a kiss on his cheek. He grins.

She cracks open the seal on the bottle and takes a long swig, before handing it back to him. Varric's full of shit, of course—pretends he drinks gallons when he rarely drinks at all, pretends he's charmed the pants off everyone in Kirkwall when he never seeks any lays—but Isabela's altogether used to it. She's unsurprised when he takes only a dainty sip hidden by a show of a giant glug. He can fool his pub customers but he can't fool her, and he knows it. Varric gives it back to her to finish.

“But really,” Isabela sighs, “the lack of love is the problem.”

“That is a rumor I've heard.” He pauses, and grimaces. “Hey, look, I'm not the best example of a healthy relationship—"

Isabela makes a sad, cooing sound. “Did you and Bianca have a fight, sweet thing? Because if she needs a woman's comfort, I know exactly where to put my trigger finger.”

Varric cracks a grin but pats his crossbow protectively. “Hey, hands off. This lady and I are perfectly fine, thank you. But, uh... look. Daisy? Daisy'll probably get demonically possessed and try to slaughter us all. Possibly even soon. But beyond that? I don't think she's gonna hurt you, Rivaini.”

Isabela finishes off another few swallows, feeling a pleasant, heavy burning in her stomach and throat, then sets the bottle down and squints her eyes into a suspicious look at Varric. “Aww, quaint. You're trying to tell me it's not too risky if I decide I el-oh-vee-ee Merrill? Is this a pep talk where you convince me to tell her how I feel?” She frowns and crinkles her nose at him.

Varric shrugs. “Something like that. Great spelling, by the way.”

Isabela rolls her eyes. “Thanks. Been working on it with my Aveline friend fiction. Want to see?”

Varric, bless his soul, picks up on the topic change. Such a pro. Isabela knew there was a reason she liked him.

“Damn right I do,” Varric says.

The rest of the bottle later, with twenty-five new ways to describe Donnic's “manhood” quilled down to Isabela's giggles and Varric's wheezing laughter, Isabela can almost forget the way Merrill clung against her, like a kitten seeking warmth and a lioness daring anyone to challenge her fierce protection, all at once.

“It's not me getting hurt I'm worried about,” Isabela says, as though they never stopped the conversation.

Varric gives her a sad smile. “I hear you, Rivaini. I hear you.”

Isabela sighs. “I love you oodles, Varric.”

“And will you look at that. Rivaini finally said the four-letter word. That wasn't so hard, was it?”

She kicks Varric's ankle under the table, not hard enough to hurt, and he bursts out laughing again. Isabela gives him a dry smooch on the lips, and leans her head on his shoulder. Varric tucks Bianca in one of his arms, and puts the other around her shoulders. They sit, comfortable and warm.

***

Isabela sees Merrill enter the Hanged Man well in advance of her actually coming to see Isabela, but pretends not to notice. If she wants to talk, Isabela's hard to miss. If she doesn't, Isabela won't push her.

But Merrill's braver than anyone gives her credit. That's always been true.

Merrill sits down on the edge of the bench next to Isabela, and gives Isabela an uncertain glance, lips pinched tight, shoulders hunched. Then she gets right to it.

"I'm very sorry," Merrill says. "About how I reacted. You don't have to feel anything on my account. It was terribly selfish of me. Everything was lovely and I just screwed it all up by acting... you know. You're lovely and you don't owe anyone a thing. So. Yes. I'm sorry."

Isabela sighs, and hoists one foot up to rest her knee on her chin. She owes quite a few people quite a lot of things, certain tomes and otherwise, but she gets Merrill's point.

Merrill looks at her, waiting.

“Oh Merrill,” Isabela finally says. “You haven't done anything. It's just... I don't fall in love with people. It makes things too complicated.”

Merrill's bottom lip disappears into her mouth to be chewed on, and her forehead furrows. “I see.”

Isabela stifles an internal groan. Merrill is trying her hardest, that much is clear. Isabela grabs her and kisses her, a quick wet smooch on the mouth. Merrill lets out a squeak and drops open her mouth to Isabela's, leaning in, but Isabela doesn't take her up on the offer.

"Sweetness," Isabela says, pulling away. "I care about you very much. Do you understand? That I care about you, even if I can't—even if I don't you-know-what you?"

"Yes," Merrill says bravely. "I think I understand."

"Good."

"I think..." Merrill begins. "I think I'm not very good at doing dirty things without feeling... things."

"And that's okay, kitten."

Merrill nods, giving a small smile now. "Is it all right if we don't do those things anymore and go back to only friends?"

"Nothing 'only' about it," Isabela says. "Friends are delightful. Yes, Merrill. Whatever you want."

"Thank you, lethallan," Merrill says quietly, and then pats Isabela's hand, awkward but genuine.

Isabela gives her a smile and pretends she feels relief, pushing aside the faint idea floating in her head that maybe if just once someone didn't give up, if someone tried to fight for her, then maybe she... no.

This is better.

Chapter Text

White lilies.

Up until the very end, despite the quiver of anxiety in her chest, Hawke believed it'd be a huge, horrible, hilarious coincidence. They'd barge in on Leandra in the throes of passion with a perfectly non-murderous lover. After sprinting away in horror at catching Mother bottoms up, Hawke would laugh with Varric about scrubbing her eyes out with fire. She'd laugh with Varric about how silly she was to ever worry her mother might be dead.

Hawke's mother is dead.

For the first time in Hawke's life, Uncle Gamlen tells her he's proud, and it's because she killed the bastard who did it. She feels no remorse, but she doesn't feel proud. Hawke just thinks numbly that if her family has to keep dying, she wishes it could stop being so grotesque.

Gamlen goes into the other room and weeps. Hawke's discomfort reaches a critical peak, and she retreats into a ball with her knees to her chest in the armchair. She pushes fists hard against her ears to block the sounds of his sobbing and gasping. He didn't even have to see.

She has to pay the cremator for her mother's ashes in the morning. She has to stop Leandra's mail.

She has to tell Carver.

Later, the bed dips where Fenris sits next to her, in her bedroom for the first time since the night he left. His armor creaks, and his posture is stiff. Hawke begs him to say something, anything, and he fumbles with stilted musings about the Maker before they slip back to silence.

He's wearing his gauntlets like he's here to beat back bandits, not to offer gentle, awkward comfort, and... Hawke's mother is dead. Hawke will never be the same. Her mother is dead. But Fenris being here... it helps.

If Fenris tries to be different, for Hawke's sake, her other friends are just the same as ever. Somehow, that helps too.

"At least your mother loved you," Isabela accuses, grimacing and looking like she'd rather be sinking a thousand ships.

Aveline claps Hawke hard on the back, then ignores Hawke's feelings altogether. Aveline rants so long about her own father's death that Hawke feels sick and yells at her to shut up. (At least Donnic's nearby to break up the fistfight that ensues.)

Varric pays his respects but promptly avoids the topic from thereon out, which, really, is Hawke's preferred tactic.

She tells Carver.

She thinks he really starts to hate her that day—because a mage did it, because Hawke didn't stop it in time.

Hawke can't say she disagrees with Carver, but there's not much she can do about it now.

***

People don't usually go from screaming "I'm going to kill you!" at Isabela, to fighting religious leaders for her life. Especially not in the same evening. There are mood swings and then there are mood swings.

But she supposes Hawke's just funny like that.

Isabela stands on the sidelines with Hawke's friends and several dispassionate Qunari soldiers, as Hawke and the Arishok fight in the center of the room. 'Fight' might not be the right word, though, since Hawke's main strategy is to run away in a circle.

"This would be so much easier," Isabela fusses, "if we just helped her out."

"Sure," Varric says, "but—"

"Blah blah Qunari honor something something single combat blah. Who cares?" Isabela complains. "We could just kill the lot of them and be done with it."

Several of the nearby Qunari shoot glares in Isabela's direction, but otherwise don't move. Impressive self-control, if nothing else. Not that Isabela's ever cared much about self-control.

"Hawke cares about honor, unlike some," Aveline says, glaring. Ooh. That big girl's definitely still furious at Isabela.

Isabela sighs. "Right. Who am I to complain," she says, and goes back to observing.

At least Hawke seems to be doing better than Fenris. Fenris' face looks ashen and his posture more rigid than usual as he stares at the battle in front of them, hand clenched into a fist an inch away from his greatsword hilt. When Hawke casts a spell for too long and the Arishok skewers Hawke in the air on the end of his sword like a chunk of meat over a campfire—ouch—Fenris lights up and jerks forward.

Only Varric's arm across his chest and Aveline's grip on his arm stop him from moving any further.

"Don't do it, Broody," Varric warns. "Let Chuckles handle this. She'll be all right."

Sure enough, as soon as Hawke drops back to the ground, she scampers away, heals herself, and continues running in circles ahead of the Arishok, muttering under her breath. Isabela can read lips a little, and she's pretty sure Hawke's picked up a chant of "fuck, fuck, fuck, run away, run away..."

Hawke casts another spell, and her mabari appears with a bark beside her, lunging for a bite at the Arishok as Hawke limps further away.

"That is cheating," Aveline murmurs to Varric, who shrugs.

"I'm not gonna tell them that," Varric mutters back.

"She's running out of mana," Anders says worriedly, squinting at Hawke and somehow managing to keep his own glowy problem in check.

"Maker help her and guide her," Sebastian says, and starts muttering a constant stream of prayers.

"She'll build up more mana if she just keeps running," Merrill offers cheerfully.

Fenris responds with a noise Isabela will have to tease him about later—something between a grunt and whine.

A good part of the hour later, Hawke and the Arishok are still fighting.

"I'm bored," Isabela complains, even beginning to eye up the muscles of the Qunari standing at attention. She wonders how much it would take to make one of those stoic soldiers lose his control. She bets she'd be up to the task.

It takes a lot of boredom for her to eye up Qunari. She hates them.

"She's doing this for you," Fenris says, gruff, without taking his eyes off Hawke.

As if Isabela needs reminding.

It doesn't take much longer for Hawke to win. The Arishok may have oodles more physical prowess, but Hawke can heal herself as the Arishok gets increasingly more wounded. It helps that Hawke's dog keeps popping into existence, which the Qunari still haven't put up a fuss about. Isabela gets the feeling their priority right now involves getting the hell out of Kirkwall as quickly as possible.

With Hawke's victory, the Qunari reaffirm that Hawke's the highest of the lowly scum in their books. Finally, they clear out.

Isabela slips away. What's left of the city leaders are already singing Hawke's praises, and Isabela's just the thieving bitch who started the whole mess.

Later, Isabela decides to simply hide from Hawke, despite Varric's insistence that Hawke keeps trying to check on her. She finds Merrill's company palatable, though. Merrill's sweet, but not some kind of righteous Champion. Merrill's disappearing into the city every day, not becoming some kind of hero. And Isabela just isn't comfortable with heroes.

“That wasn't a very good thing,” Merrill says, “Taking the Qunari's book.”

“In case you haven't noticed, kitten, I'm not a very good person.”

“But,” Merrill continues, determined, “you had an awfully tough decision, because of that brute of a man. I don't blame you.” She pauses. “Even if Hawke does.”

To deflect the warmth in her at Merrill's statement, Isabela only answers the latter part of Merrill's comments. “Hawke, as much as she pretends otherwise, has some awfully stubborn morals sometimes.”

“Yes,” Merrill says, no doubt thinking of her mirror. “She does.” Silence, then: "I'm glad Hawke didn't hand you over. I would have been terribly cross."

"Don't worry, sweet thing, I would have escaped. But I'm glad too."

"I would have missed you," Merrill adds.

Isabela would have missed Merrill too—more than she cares to admit. "I'm a lot to miss," she says with a wink.

In the end, Hawke chases her down anyway, and Isabela finds her head isn't much inflated by her new heroic title. Hawke just wants to get into the same old trouble with Isabela again.

And who is Isabela to turn away a drink from the woman who killed the Arishok for her?

***

Fenris should have quashed the false hope that his sister would be anything more than his master's puppet. Because of her, Danarius stands before Fenris in the Hanged Man.

"Ah, my little Fenris," Danarius says, with a smile.

All the anger, the rage that protects Fenris if not keeping him whole, drops out of Fenris with what feels like his stomach too. All the old feelings, the ones he hates but can't get rid of, return: Guilt at ever feeling anger against a magister. A hopelessly childlike sensation that he is very small and Danarius towers over him, irregardless of actual heights and strengths. The feeling that Danarius, though disappointed in Fenris, though repulsive, is the only one who will ever care about Fenris, will be magnanimous even now if Fenris only drops to Danarius' feet, grovels on the floor, sobs, and gets hard for him when he commands it, and quivers, and loses everything he's gained. If Fenris becomes what he is meant to be (nothing) again.

In that moment, Fenris stops being the man who plays cards with Donnic, who learns to read by Hawke's fireplace, who snorts with laughter at Varric's absurd tales, who guards the Abomination's clinic patients on busy nights, who lets Isabela guess a wild range of underwear colors without letting her in on the truth, who debates theology with Sebastian, who treks up Sundermount with the witch for her errands... Fenris stops being.

Just as quick, Fenris puts up his walls again, flings on a mask of anger, but he knows it is too late. Danarius grins. He has seen all in Fenris' face, has seen how easily Fenris' own mind will enslave him again at the mere sight of his master. And Danarius is pleased.

"And this is your new mistress, then?" Danarius muses. "The Champion of Kirkwall. Quite lovely."

“Fenris doesn't belong to anyone!” Hawke snaps.

"Do I detect a note of jealousy?" Danarius laughs. "It's not surprising. The lad is rather skilled, isn't he?"

The implication is clear. Fenris' heart jolts and speeds. No. Not this. "Shut your mouth, Danarius!"

Fenris didn't want Hawke to know, not Hawke who's never been in his place, who has smuggled for an indenturer, not a slaver. Hawke, never branded, who was free to quit after a year. Let Hawke think he was beaten, tortured, used as spell fodder, used as guard dog, used as furniture, experimented on, deprived of food and water, sentenced to a thousand menial and grueling tasks... and all true.

But let Hawke not find out that Fenris was touched, and not always harshly. Gently enough sometimes to send his skin crawling from Hawke's hand on his wrist, shoulder, upper back.

Let Hawke not find out that her touch can remind him of Danarius, of Hadriana, though she is nothing like them.

That every time Fenris finds release, a part of him reminds him that Danarius or Hadriana could always make him find it quicker if they so chose.

That Hawke could do the same, with her magic, if she ever sought to use it for harm, though she does not.

The way Fenris has been used... it is far worse than the glowing scars across his body. He kept it from her, never wished to reveal it, because she will think of it now, if they ever have anything again. They cannot, he decides, more surely than he had felt from mere cowardice. Danarius has destroyed even this.

Hawke knows.

Fenris flushes in shame and panic, and wishes he had simply thought to kill himself when he escaped, even if it is against the Maker, if the Maker even exists. For surely that is the only way to truly be free.

But when Fenris dares a glance at Hawke, out of some masochistic urge to read the expression of pity and surprise he knows he will see on her face... she looks like no revelation has been made at all. Hawke merely seems angry that Danarius dare compare himself to her.

She doesn't look at Fenris like he is a thing Danarius has touched. She looks at him as she always has: thick, haphazard dark brows, one higher in near-perpetual amusement, her lids heavy beneath her encircling bright red eye paint, her face assured, her smooth, dark brown skin glowing darker in the Hanged Man's lighting.

Her eyes blaze then, and a pinch across his skin's lyrium warns him she readies a far more tangible flame inside her, soon to burst out with her magics.

She doesn't waste time pretending to be cordial. Fenris feels a rush of gratitude, for while Hawke can use trickery well, if he heard her now even attempt to bluff, even if for Fenris' sake pretend to humor Danarius, it would be... too much.

“Fenris is going to kill you,” Hawke says to Danarius. “And his friends are going to help.”

She says it like truth. Absolute confidence in his strength, and in his freedom, and in his worthiness of friendship.

Fenris decides to take Hawke at her word, as the Hanged Man alights in Hawke's radius of flame that never burns her allies, only her foes.

Fenris charges.

***

Danarius is a coward who uses his demons to fight, and the fight is brutal. But Isabela—smelling of drink yet steady as ever with her daggers—joins Fenris when she hears the commotion, alongside Hawke, Varric, and Aveline. Together, they strip Danarius of his magical fiends and shields. Then Fenris rips Danarius' heart from his chest, and crushes it in his fist.

After Danarius is dead, it is... strange.

Danarius, whom Fenris has feared, and been repulsed by, and been aroused by, and hated, and felt completely powerless in subservience to, is just a weak, pathetic old man, shriveled and not even heavy as he drops lifeless to the floor.

Then Fenris kills his sister, his betrayer. He is alone.

"I'm here, Fenris," Hawke says.

They are not so different in age, but she seems to him very young, her eyes wide in the hope that everything is better now. Fenris touches Hawke's face, grateful, but leaves.

***

Hawke didn't need much patience to wait for Fenris. She wasn't tempted to take up with anyone else, after all. So when Fenris tells her he misses her, and tries to explain why he left, it's an easy thing.

"I always understood," she says, and thrills as he tugs her close and his hot mouth descends to hers.

"I will ask for a little more patience from you," Fenris murmurs to her after what could have been a moment or a year of kisses. "You are," he smiles wryly, "the only true lover I've known, after all. Still," he adds, and his voice drops into a teasing lower register, "I think I will learn quickly."

Hawke laughs. "The blind leading the blind!" She burrows closer into his embrace. "Wouldn't have it any other way. I'm sure we'll fumble around to our satisfaction somehow."

"At least you've had lovers before," Fenris retorts with a smirk, and kisses her.

Hawke's stomach clenches unpleasantly. "Uh..." She pushes his chest back with her palms to look up at him, and tries to make her tone light and dismissive. "I really wouldn't call sneaky old men who groped at me 'lovers'."

Fenris pulls back and looks alarmed. Damn, damn, damn. Hawke should've just ignored the comment.

"But that night," Fenris begins, "you said—"

"Did I?" Hawke starts to feel sick. "If you recall, I think I just agreed that my maidenhead was long gone, not that I liked who took it and when."

"Why didn't you tell me?" Fenris accuses, and Hawke's nausea shifts to rage. Really? From him?

"Oh, I'm sorry," Hawke snaps. "I didn't know I was supposed to walk around with it stamped on my forehead!"

Fenris' brows descend. "On your forehead?" he says, harsh. "On your skin, you mean, like my lyrium?"

How dare he even—

Hawke lets out a growl of frustration. "You know that's not what I was referencing, Fenris! Maker."

"I—" Fenris begins, then she can see his anger vanish in a whoosh. "Apologies, Hawke."

Damn right he needs to apologize.

"I felt guilt, and reacted poorly," Fenris continues, frowning with regret. "It was unfair to take it out on you."

"Well, yes," Hawke agrees, eyebrows raised. "You were pretty terrible."

Fenris nods. "Do you wish me to go?"

"No," Hawke says, and sighs. "Let's just eat some dinner, all right?"

They head the short distance to Hawke's estate, which is significantly more well-stocked with food and places to sit than Fenris' mansion, and embark on a quiet dinner that sort of reminds Hawke of the early days when she'd do all the chatter and Fenris would mostly listen, looking inscrutable. Except now, even Hawke's not all that talkative.

When the dishes are cleared (or, well, tucked away from Perrito's nose explorations to be dealt with later), Hawke claps her hands together, and dares a smile in Fenris' direction. He returns his tentative own, and a weight lifts off Hawke's chest.

"So," Hawke says, "still want me?"

"Of course," Fenris says, as if there was no question.

It's not that Hawke exactly expected Fenris of all people to say "No, nope, no thank you, I'll pass on those damaged goods," but it's still a relief for his words and the want in his eyes to clear away her fears. Hawke is eager to get out of this awkward atmosphere and get on to the fun, so she sprints to her bedroom, Fenris in tow, and collapses onto the bed.

"Come here and have me, then," she says, wriggling out her robe, and grins at him encouragingly as Fenris smirks, strips, and crawls over her on the bed, his shaggy white hair hanging down toward her.

Teeth flashing, Fenris' open mouth descends for her neck as something inside her soars with glee... but then, with a stuttered movement, as though Fenris thinks better of it, Hawke receives a light kiss to her collarbone instead. His hands touch her, but are cautious against her sides, not too low or too high. He doesn’t crush his body against hers, but holds himself separate, movements controlled and soft. He carries a small, concentrated frown on his face.

This is as disparate from the Fenris with dark, promising, teasing eyes, who manhandled her, rough and demanding and precisely what she wanted, as anything she could imagine.

Hawke feels the sting of shame building. As much as she loves the man, this is exactly what she was afraid of, exactly what she didn't want. Why some things were better left unspoken. One near-chaste touch to her arm later, and she sits up and pulls away, making a growling, dissatisfied sound.

Fenris pulls himself back, quick. “Hawke. Is it—am I being too—“

He thinks he's too rough like this? Even his voice is forced, gentle. Fenris is not by nature gentle. It'd be sweet, it is sweet, he is trying, she knows, and she would think only of that and be grateful if it wasn't so Maker-damned humiliating.

“You damned hypocrite!” Hawke interrupts, crossing her arms over her chest.

Fenris looks startled. “Excuse me?” Good, that tone's more like him.

“Fenris,” she says, then sighs. “Fenris, Fenris, Fenris.”

“Yes?” Fenris frowns. “Hawke,” he adds, though not more times in a row.

Hawke shrugs and lets out another frustrated breath. “You hate when people coddle you. You even hate when you pretend people are coddling you.”

He's about to interrupt, but she continues. “Fenris. Once when you were sad I tripped on my own boots and touched your arm to catch myself, but you thought I was trying to give you a pat of comfort, and you were cross with me for the rest of the day!"

Fenris continues to frown but does not deny the utter truth of her story.

"You should win an award," Hawke says, "for Thedas' Least Likely to Support Real or Completely Harebrained Imaginary Coddling. Yet here we are, enjoying a perfectly delightful naked evening, and just because you've found out this... stupid thing about me..." She's not going to cry. She’s not. "Not even about me, about other people's demented perversions they thought would be grand to involve me in without my say-so..." Hawke breathes in harsh and wet through her nose. "And now you're tiptoeing around like I'm some... biscuit you're going to crumble if you look at it too hard, much less bite it.” Not tears. Nope.

“Hawke.” Fenris looks at her helplessly, and some of Hawke's anger deflates. “I am... at a loss," Fenris continues, faltering. "I wish only to respect you as best I can.”

“I know,” Hawke acknowledges, softer, then sighs. She drops her head down into her crossed arms for a moment to think, then pops back up to see Fenris still sitting beside her, frowning and fidgeting.

“All right, here's what I'm thinking,” Hawke announces. “Instead of trying to ignore our bullshit pasts, let's invite them into the bedroom.”

Fenris' eyebrows descend, wary. “Speak plainly, Hawke,” he grits out.

She doesn't. Instead, Hawke says, “Don't think about nugs! Now, what did you just think about?”

“... Nugs.” His eyes narrow suspiciously.

"Exactly!" Hawke says, clapping her hands together once. “So instead of trying to ignore nugs, which clearly doesn't work, why not think about them on purpose?”

“And 'nugs' is your metaphor for...”

“You know, our stuff." Hawke waves her hands vaguely in the air. "And stuff we could do to think about it, but play with it, take power over it! Isabela's filthy books have lots of what I mean. She gave you a bunch for your reading lessons, didn't she? Playacting aggressor and ownership, real willingness but mock struggle...”

Hawke trails off as his jaw and shoulders stiffen. She sees in an instant Fenris has interpreted her offer the opposite of what it really means.

This man sometimes. Honestly.

“I will never again submit to anyone,” Fenris says, voice abruptly cold, eyes flashing. “No one. Not even you, Hawke." Oh, she hates it when he says her name like that. Especially now that she knows the much nicer ways he says her name. "Not even playing a part."

"Fenris," Hawke says patiently.

"You would have me in bed with a magister even now? After everything?” he continues, his volume rising.

"Fenris."

“If you think this would offer me any pleasure or comfort, you know me very little." He stands from the bed, somehow managing to still look perfectly intimidating while naked. Hawke will have to practice that trick.

"If you seek this kind of—of... catharsis...” Fenris says the word with a scowl of disgust. “You need find it elsewhere.”

“Fenris,” Hawke says again. She plants her hands on each side of her face, elbows on thighs, and smiles up at him. “I love you." He blinks, looking startled. She supposes pledging himself to her side and vice versa isn't quite the same as hearing the words themselves.

Then he looks more furious and wary. Oops.

"You've got it entirely opposite," Hawke continues before he can interrupt and make himself feel worse. "I'm talking about you claiming me.”

Realization lights in his eyes. “Ah,” Fenris says.

In an awkward move, he sits back down.

She sees the disgust and anger vanish from his face, but the discomfort remains. Its new cause, however, appears to be sheepishness. Hawke gets a pleasant pinch in her chest at the sight. Adorable.

“Why do you offer this?” Fenris asks, still wary.

“Because I want it,” Hawke says.

He raises his eyebrows, eyes widening. He is silent for a moment, in thought, then: “The idea holds... some appeal,” Fenris admits. A smirk begins to unfurl across his face.

“I always have good plans,” Hawke says, satisfied, reaching out and running her fingers along his palm.

“Except where dragons are involved,” Fenris says, squeezing her hand in his.

Hawke gives him a cheeky grin. “Involving dragons now are we? Kinky.”

Hawke admires Fenris' face during his breath of a laugh for only a moment, as soon after, she finds herself the recipient of a hungry kiss. She gasps against Fenris' mouth, making a pleased sound and drooping against him as he intrudes into her mouth with his tongue, and pulls her near-painfully tight against him, his bare chest hot against her air-chilled skin.

Just as suddenly, he pulls away, but keeps his hand fixed on the back of her head, and breathes with her, touching her forehead to his.

“I'll consider it,” Fenris says, his voice rough.

It's too easy. Hawke can't resist. “You'll consider dragons?”

He grins. “No dragons. The rest, however...” He continues, haltingly: “We need to speak of it more. I won't be the cause of harm to you. And I can't feel as though I'm becoming... like them. It needs to be—you're sure you wish to consider this? If it were just your selflessness it would be too much to bear. I wouldn't want—“

“I understand, Fenris,” she says, and now he knows she does. She understands all too well if not the specifics, the slavery. Some of it, she understands. And Hawke's suddenly grateful that he knows it. “It might be hard to see this from my end of things, but for me, from you, it would help. Not make it worse." She touches her nose to his. "And yes, I'm sure," she adds. "There's nothing selfless about the swamp in my underpants.”

Fenris lets out another laugh, one of the loud, sudden ones that always seem to surprise him. Eyes dark when he stares at her, Fenris guides Hawke's eager-to-follow hand to press firm against his erection, hot and stone hard. She brushes her thumb against its slow-leaking tip.

"Our conversation has given me a predicament as well," he says, his voice low, sensual, teasing.

Hawke shivers, strokes him, and sighs. “Now you've done it. The swamp's flooded and destroyed two whole villages already. That's downright selfish of me.”

“I'm sure I will find a way to forgive,” Fenris says dryly.

Having him in hand, near, strikes her as so right yet something from so long ago, that she says, quietly, “No guilt, no regrets. But I missed you.”

“You never will again,” Fenris swears, and claims her mouth once more.

***

This is a nightmare, Merrill thinks desperately. A terrible, terrible nightmare, one of those times in the Beyond that feels so real, her pillow will be soaked through with sweat and tears when she wakes. It has to be.

Her clan's supplies are scattered around the camp, next to half-eaten meals and still-bright flames. Signs of life with no one left alive, as Merrill weeps in horror. Why did they attack? Why did they not listen? All of them charged, not just the hunters or scouts. Every single one, and when they saw Merrill overpowered them, they slew the clan's children. All because the Keeper told them Merrill’s blood magic was worse than death.

"Losing you would be a terrible crime, da'len," Hahren Paivel once told Merrill, when the clan first gained knowledge of her plans for the mirror. "You belong to more than just yourself. Or do you not remember?"

"Of course I remember," Merrill said, too irritated to be polite. "I'm not weak, Hahren, I know what I'm doing. I'll be perfectly fine."

The Hahren's favorite task was to interrupt the children's play with tales of their origins, wishing them to grow up filled with love for their People. But he wouldn’t accept that Merrill had grown up and wished to act on this love.

Hahren Paivel's fears were wrong, Merrill thinks, and has to stifle a manic, humorless giggle. The clan didn’t lose Merrill. She lost them, by her own hand, by Hawke's hand, Varric's, Fenris'. By Marethari’s hand, most of all, thanks to her interference.

The children's bodies lie strewn in mud formed of soil and blood, face down, with pigtail braids splayed. Some of the bodies still wear Merrill's old hand-me-down clothes.

The bodies of the peers and elders Merrill grew up with lie still where they fell in battle. Fenarel, always soft-spoken—crumpled on his broken bow. Maren, whose blood-bright hair had gone gray mourning the loss of the halla—head covered with red once more. Master Ilen, with deft hands fit for crafting, not battle—slumped near disordered supplies. Junar, who brought Pol to the clan and grew sweet on him—face contorted in an ashen grimace.

And others, so many others.

So many faces with her vallas'lin, so many prepared aravels for their next journey, one they will never make.

All dead. All of them.

***

Isabela's already been tipped off by Varric when Merrill arrives at her room—both about Merrill's clan, and Hawke's enraged scolding afterwards. But even if she didn't know, Isabela would be able to tell something's wrong.

"Hello, kitten," Isabela says, not wanting to start with empty sorries that won't bring Merrill's people back.

Merrill drifts in the doorway, eyes glazed. "I'm glad you weren't there," she says. "That Hawke didn't bring you. I wanted you with me at first, but it's better this way." Merrill's voice breaks, and she swallows hard. "Because now you never harmed my people before they... before I...”

Isabela frowns as she shuts the door. “Kitten, don't put me on a pedestal for a coincidence. I've done far worse, I promise. If not helping to kill your clan because I was drunk off my ass all night is why you like my company, you've really got to work on your taste in friends.”

Merrill shakes her head, and Isabela's not convinced she heard her at all. Isabela sits on the edge of her bed, and lets Merrill wander the room as she pleases, not pushing her to say more.

Abruptly, Merrill shivers in a jerk, like waking up from a dream. Without warning, Merrill begins shucking off her clothes. Her tatty elbow-length gloves strip away to reveal newly healed cuts across her forearms. Isabela doesn't say a word. Merrill pulls off her snug top fast enough that it leaves traces of fabric burn along Merrill's pale skin, her nipples reddening and stiff. Merrill shimmies her leggings down in a similar fervor, though they catch on Merrill's ankles. She lets out a noise of frustration, and kicks them away, still not looking at Isabela.

"Do you want to run a bath?" Isabela says, finding herself solemn, and at a loss for flirtation.

"I want to fuck you," Merrill says, and glares up at her with hungry, darkened eyes.

A good person would refuse, Isabela thinks. A good person would gather up all Merrill's clothes, give them back, and tell her she's in a rough spot that sex won't solve. Best just to forget the whole thing and talk through some feelings instead.

But Isabela knows the kind of grief and fury that demands a nice hard romp as its only cure.

And Isabela's not a very good person.

"What are you waiting for, then?" Isabela says, rolling her shoulders back and giving Merrill the most dazzling grin she can muster.

Merrill's on her like some rabid thing, her intensity pushing Isabela as wet as the seashore, Merrill's body like taut running rigs, ready to snap at the first sign of wind.

Merrill comes once almost right away, just from humping jerkily against Isabela's hand between her legs. But it's barely a hiccup compared to her thrashing when they get their legs in between each other's, Merrill's arms squeezed like a vice around Isabela. They draw blood from each other's lips—pecking, biting, tugging with kisses.

Merrill gets her head between Isabela's legs. Isabela throws her head back and lets out a shriek of pleasure as Merrill sucks and licks with an intent fury. She doesn't stop until Isabela comes, and even then, Merrill doesn't pull her lips and tongue away until the aftershocks build back up into another orgasm, and another.

Isabela loses track of time and loses track of the pulses inside her. When Isabela is drenched in sweat and hoarse from noises, and her nerves are edging into numbness, Merrill sends a zap of buzzing electric magic into her clit. Isabela's hips fly upward again in another violent, shuddering orgasm.

Panting and seeing blind spots, muscles weak, mouth dry and cottony, Isabela licks her chapped lips and thinks this is the best sex she's had in a long, long time. Top quality in her book. It'll be like a nasty comedown from drugs afterward, she knows, all these chemicals flooding through her, and her cunt's swollen up tender now from overstimulation, but she doesn't care in the least. Isabela laughs, breathless.

Merrill seems to leave her trance then and inspects between Isabela's legs, wincing in apparent regret at the swelling. Silently, Merrill stands and retrieves two glasses of water. She offers one to Isabela, which Isabela downs gratefully. Then Merrill gathers up a scrap of cloth, soaks it in the second glass, and uses her magic to ice it. Frost ghosts rise up from the cloth in the hot room. Merrill presses it gently between Isabela's legs.

Isabela lets out a hiss from the cold, then a sigh of delight as the chill soothes. Merrill absently brushes kisses against the pudge of flesh above Isabela's pubic hair, but as she does, stares off at nothing, her face looking downright haunted. Merrill flips over the cloth when one side gets warm, and holds it against Isabela again.

Isabela lets Merrill tend to her and dozes, until Merrill pulls away. Isabela lets her eyes flicker open to see Merrill sliding her clothes back on.

"Mm," Isabela says, "thanks. That was..." She sighs. "Wow. I needed that."

Merrill flashes her a small, cheerless smile, without looking her in the eyes. "Me too," Merrill says, then adds more softly, "I've been so stupid, Isabela. There are elves, right there in the Alienage, who need my help. And this whole time, I've ignored them. Just because they don't know a clan, don't have vallas'lin... Even the vhenadhal tree didn't remind me. It took my own clan..." Merrill trails off and shakes her head. "I'll help the Alienage. It's the least I can do."

Isabela gingerly sits up, grinning at her own tenderness. "That sounds like a wonderful idea, kitten."

Merrill nods, then without another word or gesture, walks out the door.

No feelings this time, then. None of those uncomfortable words of love. If Merrill still feels anything, Isabela muses, she kept it to herself.

Well, good. That is what Isabela wanted, isn't it?

***

Beyond the occasional shit-talking session with Fenris about mages, Meredith had, for a while, been downright tolerant of Hawke's status as apostate extraordinaire.

Looks like Hawke won't be getting any perks from that arrangement anymore.

When the Gallows goes quiet, and the last moving statues plummet to the cobblestones, lifeless again, Carver is still deep in the ranks of his fellow shiny Templars, and refuses to meet Hawke's eyes. She discards her original idea (bonk Carver on the skull and drag him with her), and goes for the next best plan (just run the hell away).

The Templars' attention starts to waver from the big red lyrium block that used to be their Knight-Commander, and Hawke gives a meaningful look to the bedraggled friends beside her. The creeping pace they've been using to back away turns into a full-blown sprint.

Near the Docks, with no Templars giving chase, Aveline slows to a halt. She's not even breathless, just pushes her red plait back out of her face, and glances around calmly. Then her and Donnic have some kind of secret married couple chat with their eyes. Hawke, in the mean time, grips her own knees and heaves in ragged breaths, then leans gratefully into Fenris' hand as he rubs her back. Wouldn't it be great to have long legs?

"Donnic and I will stay behind with the city guard," Aveline announces.

Hawke's mind takes up a chant that sounds something like no, no, no, no, no. Too much loss for one day, thanks. Anders dead, Sebastian being princely, Carver being an idiot. She tries to think of a logical reason to protest, instead of just you can't leave me too, Aveline!

"But the Templars will take you!" Hawke says. Excellent. Very logical.

Aveline scoffs. "I'd like to see them try. Kirkwall's in shambles thanks to the mess you started, and someone needs to help restore order."

"I started?" Hawke protests, temporarily forgetting her abandonment crisis for annoyance. "I had no idea I abused mages, blew up the Chantry, and ordered the Right of Annulment. I'm prolific!"

Still, Aveline's Aveline-ness smarts less with her "I'm with you, Hawke" in recent memory. After Wesley, Hawke never thought she'd see Aveline tearing down Templars with her blade.

"You know what I mean," Aveline says, dismissive.

"Good old Aveline," Varric says. "Always ready to pin the blame on anyone not in city armor."

"The rest of us need to flee," Fenris says. "Quickly. Especially Hawke."

"Right then," Isabela says, then saunters up to Aveline, as Donnic and Fenris exchange handshakes, and Hawke tries to wrap her head around more goodbyes. "Be good, big girl. Don't do anything I wouldn't do."

"You've truly limited my options there," Aveline says dryly, but holds out a hand to Isabela. "It's been an honor fighting alongside you... Captain."

Isabela grins giddily, ignores the offered hand, and throws her arms around Aveline in a gigantic embrace. "Look at you, Captain, fulfilling my two biggest wishes! Calling me by title, and putting those beefy arms around me!"

Aveline scoffs and breaks the hug, but doesn't bother to hide the affection on her face. "Oh, be off with you now. Degenerate."

Isabela smirks. "You know you'll miss me. Prude."

Then Aveline looks to Hawke, and Hawke has to try not to cry. No matter that Varric is Hawke's best friend, or that being near Fenris feels like Hawke's known him forever. Aveline's been with her the longest. Aveline's the only friend left who knew Bethany when she was alive, on that rocky path away from Lothering.

"Take care of Carver," Hawke says, and tries to blink quick enough to clear the watery film from her eyes without letting tears drip down her cheeks.

Aveline nods. "If he lets me."

"Bullshit! Do it even if he doesn't, I know you can do that, you've done it enough to me."

"All right, Hawke."

"And the Alienage!" Merrill adds in. "Please. They'll need help, so much of it."

"And Gamlen and Charade," Hawke says. "Make sure nobody comes after them. And Perrito. Make sure he gets lots of treats."

Aveline nods. "Will do. Stay safe, Hawke," she says, gruff with emotion.

She claps Hawke on the shoulder. Hawke flinches away before the touch sets off a waterfall down her face, and Aveline starts back to the Gallows with Donnic at her side.

"You too," Hawke says belatedly, when they've already rounded the corner.

After a moment of quiet, Merrill pipes up. "Now what do we do?"

"Allow me," Isabela says.

***

The Docks are a mess of dead demons, Templars, refugees, and... well, bodies. Most of them are in too many pieces to tell. It's nasty business when the people with magic and the people without both slice and dice as they please.

The living sailors milling about want to leave Kirkwall, same as they do, but haven't managed to organize themselves. It's a thrilling, easy thing for Isabela to find out which captains are dead and pick a ship—a sturdy little clinker-built cog, bless these Free Marchers' hearts. It's no Siren's Call II, but it'll work in a pinch. She eyes up potential for a skeleton crew, looking for the usuals: skill, loyalty, but no love for their former captains.

Isabela discards her usual winks and grins, and settles back comfortably into her stern Captain's tone. She offers her top choices a way out of this shithole and the promise of future coin, and soon enough, Isabela has a crew.

It's well into the night, near dawn, when they hoist anchor and set sail. On deck, Hawke drools onto Fenris' shoulder in heavy sleep, no longer on the lookout for Templars. Hawke seems to have been given an unspoken, temporary reprieve, thanks to the delicious irony of an anti-mage Knight-Commander using deadly enchantments. Fenris sits with his nose pressed against the top of Hawke's head and a gauntleted arm wrapped around her. Isabela doubts Varric is less than at least a little alert, but his eyes are closed, and his head rests on Merrill's lap as she cards spindly fingers through the hair loosened from his ponytail.

Merrill smiles up at Isabela with weary, bloodshot eyes. Isabela's scarf is stiff from bloodstains, but she affixes it on tighter as the wind starts to whip her hair.

She has a ship again. Isabela stares giddily up at the fast-fading night stars, inspecting their course away from the Free Marches.

"This all worked out for me," Isabela says. "I should have destroyed Kirkwall sooner!"

Varric cracks one eye open at her. "You can't say you didn't try," he says, and yawns, before he settles in Merrill's lap again.

"Belay those rigs!" Isabela shouts.

The crew scrambles to comply, and the wind catches sail full on.

Free.

Chapter Text

Those hidden places below the earth, where the Deep Roads tread ever deeper, are said to be an underworld. And in that underworld, where the only true gods sleep in the form of dragons, one with language reborn was crowned a god for his speech, a god of those also-dead.

The Mother called him the Father, but he is only the Architect.

Once upon a time, an Elvhen maiden stretched out her hand to a chasm in the ground, and found him. She turned her shoulders away from the light of Springtime, the blossoms of her Dalish mothers, and stepped without fear into the deep dark of his realm.

He was old and bitter and not above kidnapping, but she shocked him by asking. By venturing willingly. She pressed his fingers to the markings on her face.

"Your people struggle as my people struggle," Seranni said, clutching one cold hand between two of her smaller, warmer ones. "I will help them understand. My sister is First to our Keeper. She will help us make change."

She feared not his contamination.

She should have.

An accident. One bite from a comrade not yet tamed, and he could hear her in his mind, just as he heard all his companions. A true goddess of Hell, now, with her rotting flesh, yellowing eyes. Her clan would not listen, for she was no longer one of them, but one of his. One beyond hope.

One to be put down.

Darkspawn.

He never wished to claim her like this.

"You merely claimed your ancient legacy," the stranger's voice now whispers in the Architect's mind. "For you are a magister, are you not?"

Chapter Text

Hawke lies on her stomach on deck, in the thick of a dramatic game of strategy and chance with Varric. He's a spoilsport old man, so he sits on a crate in front of her, preferring not to sprawl. She and Varric weight their played cards down with small bottles of whisky so they don't flutter away in the salt-air breeze.

Varric introduced Hawke to the game, Spells, back in Kirkwall. The cards were originally passed around Orzammar by Chantry missionaries, or so Varric's story goes. They meant for the illustrations to explain the dangers of magic to dwarves, presumably to scold them about lyrium smuggling. To the Chantry's woe, the cards picked up an unauthorized set of rules and a following of players in the Merchant's Guild. To the Chantry's even greater woe, scoundrels like Varric started teaching it to non-dwarves too.

Varric had the presence of mind to have his card sets on his person when they fled Kirkwall, which helps prevent Hawke from jumping overboard out of boredom. Instead, she gets to be constructive, what with pretending to cause a magical apocalypse against her best friend.

Hawke's doing well. She's got a few downright scandalous desire demon cards, and enough lyrium and blood cards to "summon" them next round, presuming Varric doesn't steal her hand with his own cards first.

Fenris walks over to their game, and stops. He makes a quiet noise of discomfort, paces away, comes back, and stands over them, frowning.

Hawke flicks her eyes up to Fenris, and when it's Varric's turn, puts her hand of cards face down in a stack. She rolls onto her back to look up at Fenris, and crosses a leg up on her knee. “Need something, my dearest love?”

Fenris' eyes widen in surprise. Hawke knows he's still not used to hearing it. Then Fenris flushes at the public endearment, and scowls at his own flushing, as Hawke grins at him. She loves getting him flustered. She's expert at it now. That's the other thing that keeps her from getting bored.

“Pay him no mind, Hawke,” Varric says, not even bothering to look up at Fenris while scrutinizing his cards. “Lurking is Broody's natural state of being.”

Fenris glances at Varric, back to Hawke, then away, until he says abruptly, “I stole a letter from your house, Hawke.”

“You can phase through the ocean and get to Kirkwall?” Hawke says, nonplussed, holding an expression of deadpan awe. “I'd no idea.”

Fenris frowns harder, and still won't look at her. “Prior to the events at the Gallows. Perhaps I shouldn't have taken it, but...” He trails off.

Varric gives Hawke an eyebrow-raised look, his way of asking if it's something he needs to be serious about. Hawke has no clue, which in her book means no.

When she shrugs at Varric, he looks to Fenris. “Love affair drama, huh? Let me grab my quill. I'll take down all the juicy details for my next book.” Varric plays a card.

"But Varric," Hawke says, "your romances are so good already! Petticoats rustling like rats in trash, bosoms swollen like two overfed nugs. Beautiful. Profound. Life-changing, even. No research needed."

"Don't forget the time I called sweat 'glittering man-dew'. My editor loved that shit."

"I don't doubt it. You're a poet." Hawke picks up her cards again, pinches one of them out of her hand, and flicks it on top of Varric's.

Varric grabs the card before it can blow away, inspects it, then groans in dismay. "You're killin' me here, Chuckles."

"That is my dastardly plan."

"Hawke," Fenris tries again, voice sounding strained.

Hawke flops lazily back over to her stomach, this time in Fenris' direction. She captures the top of one of his bare feet against the palm of her hand and pets it. It's like a little smooth, lyrium-tattooed critter... attached to a fidgety, muscley, leather-covered leg. One of her favorite four legs, in fact. In the top two, even, if not counting Hawke's own.

She props her chin with her other hand and peers up at Fenris, squinting against his backdrop of sun reflecting off the ocean. The ship rocks leisurely.

“What's the letter?” Hawke asks, and plants a tiny kiss on the top of Fenris' foot.

***

Fenris stares down at Hawke. She seems entirely unconcerned about his disclosure of theft of her personal property. The sight of her lolling calmly on the ground like a mabari begging for a stomach rub, a kiss pressed at his feet, makes for a bizarre contrast to the letter he is nervous to disclose.

The letter Fenris would not have been able to read were it not for Hawke's lessons in literacy, he thinks bitterly.

“It details your inheritance in the Tevinter Imperium.”

Varric looks up sharply with interest. Hawke, however, only laughs.

“What?” she asks, when no one joins in her mirth, not even Varric. She looks between the two of them. “It's a scam. You have no clue how much trash mail ended up on my writing desk. Bodhan and Sandal never sorted it out. There was always some fortune or another I could claim if I just went to Lowtown at midnight alone and unarmed, carrying two-hundred sovereign and a bottle of wine, and tapped three times on—"

“You mistake me, Hawke,” Fenris says, grave. “The letter carries the seal of the Imperium and House Danarius.”

Hawke scrambles to a sitting position before he can even finish saying his former Master's name. She is instantly alarmed and frowning, even glancing around them as if Danarius might appear.

Fenris loves her, he thinks suddenly. The feeling derails his own concern for just a moment.

“What do you mean?” Hawke asks.

“I wasn't sure when to tell you, or if I even should. I regretted taking it,” Fenris says, descending to sit on a crate near Hawke and Varric. “You have earned my trust, many times over. It was wrong of me. But I saw the seal, first, and I—“

Hawke waves off his attempt at apology. “Fenris, that doesn't matter. What does it say? Are they after you again?"

He shakes his head. “You still misunderstand. Hawke, you... as you are well aware, you are a mage. And as a mage, you challenged Danarius and arose from the battle victorious. The rules of the Imperium are clear on the matter of duels. They likely presume you will never seek to answer their call, and within the year they will declare the matter null. But by slaying Danarius, a magister with no blood heir and no living apprentice, you have claim to inherit his estate, and all associated property. They will leach heavy taxes, of course, but—”

"What?" Hawke shakes her head, mouth agape. “But you killed Danarius.”

Fenris gives a humorless smile. “Servus non habet personam,” he says.

Hawke's eyebrows furrow in confusion.

Varric, breaking his unusual silence, translates glumly, “'A slave has no personhood.'”

Fenris narrows his eyes at Varric. “I was not aware you spoke Tevene.”

Varric shrugs. “I know a lot of languages. Words are kinda my thing. Honestly, Broody? I just can't believe you're disclosing this whole thing in front of me.”

Fenris scoffs. “You'll know soon enough anyway. Hawke tells you everything. I've ceased trying to prevent it.”

“Smart guy you've got here, Hawke,” Varric says.

Hawke shakes her head roughly. The part of Fenris not entirely numbed by the conversation sees the hyperfocused rage in her eyes with appreciation.

“Wait,” she says, then makes a frustrated growl of a noise, and gnaws on a fingernail with ferocity. “Hang on." She drops her hand back down. "You're saying, according to their damned records, you're considered my property?

Fenris gives a short nod, not wishing to consider the implications, after everything, of returning to a magister's bed, of being named a slave once more, even if it is Hawke. Hawke.

“For the time being,” he says, monotone. “Your most valuable asset, no less. My markings were... expensive. As for the rest, the lead household staff run the property in your stead, either until your arrival, or until the Senate dissolves your pending contract for lack of response. If the latter occurs, property rights will be split among the Magisterium.”

Fenris sees a small spurt of red flame seep between Hawke's clenched fists. With little other warning, she jumps to her feet, lets out a grunt of rage, and slams a kick into the nearest unoccupied wooden barrel with her booted foot. The wood makes a cracking sound, and a far-off sailor shouts, “Oi! There's good salt fish in there, be careful!”

Hawke ignores the sailor and spins back to Fenris and Varric. “Fuck,” she says. "This is bullshit."

“You're not wrong,” Varric says, frowning.

To Fenris' numbed, blank mind, plans seem fleeting and pointless. But Hawke startles Fenris out of his daze by dropping to her knees in front of him. She puts her chin on his knees, her dark eyes beginning to sparkle again, her mood as variable as cloud formations, and less stormy now.

“You're a free man, Fenris," Hawke says. "This doesn't change that." Then, as if to counteract the risk that Fenris might take her words as empty comfort: "Let's go kill some slavers,” she breathes.

Hope begins to lift in Fenris' chest, wary as it may be. He rests his hand along the side of her face, fingers touching the back of her neck. Her skin is hot, her hair swishes backward and forward against the back of his hand with the sway of the boat. Hawke anchors him.

Fenris feared she would try to convince him simply to flee, to believe that the Imperium would never bother to catch up, despite his worth in a fortune of a substance magisters covet most. Hawke is a fugitive now, too, after all. It would be reasonable, even, for Hawke to persuade him to give up the insane cause of confrontation, of making his freedom known and accepted, even to his tormenters. To ask Fenris to let his pride go, for her, and accept freedom in being but not in name, de facto if not de jure, despite how sickened Fenris feels at the idea.

Despite how much he despises fleeing. Despite how there is something in him that pulls him back to Tevinter, too. The urge always lingers in Fenris' mind, reminding him that even if he is free, there are countless others he abandoned behind him, on Danarius' property alone. Those others, who will never have the ability—the privilege, though it is hard to think of his life in such terms—to escape and fight as he did. Despite all this, Fenris thought Hawke might ask him to let it all go.

Yet here is Hawke, not asking for anything save to help in a mission that may be doomed to failure at the hands of ten-thousand blood mages.

But Fenris must first speak sense. Someone must address the logical choice, even if not Hawke. If nothing else, Hawke will be in danger if they make to fight.

“There are more slavers than not in the Imperium,” Fenris warns.

Hawke's eyes fix on his, determination and excitement gleaming in them. “I know,” she says. “Shall we go fuck up everything they hold near and dear?”

They are both mad, Fenris thinks. They will have near nothing but hardships if they take this path.

But they will take this path together.

A joy is rising within him.

“With you at my side, I want nothing more,” Fenris says.

Fenris leans down as Hawke rises up. They clatter teeth in the start of a forceful kiss, until they settle in and fit, he and Hawke fit together, and Fenris tries to send his gratitude and hope to her without words, with silent mouth and tongue alone. She welcomes him with a sigh, with enthusiasm far beyond mere willingness.

That is, until Varric coughs and says, "Uh. Hey, you two."

With reluctance, though Fenris rarely allows such public shows of their want for each other, he and Hawke break their kiss.

"Yes?" Fenris asks, voice hoarse. He is having difficulty looking away from the reddening in Hawke's dark brown cheeks, and the pink of Hawke's tongue as it darts out to taste at her own lips.

"I have connections here and there," Varric says. "Hawke'll be at your side, sure, but you've got another side that could use guarding. Why don't I join in? Uh, no kissing for me, though. You're a real hottie and all, Broody, but I'm a one-crossbow kinda man."

Isabela appears out of seemingly nowhere, as rogues are wont to do. (Captain Isabela, rather, as she is keen to remind everyone as many times as necessary, even Fenris for whom reminders of titles of deference can be painful. She never coddles him, even at the risk of occasional off-taste remarks. He appreciates this about her.)

"You and Fenris were smooching in public," Isabela says to Hawke. Given her tone and pointed finger, she would seem downright accusatory if not for her delighted expression. "The last time you did that Kirkwall was burning down! What did I miss?"

Hawke gives Fenris a look of unspoken question. He shrugs and gives her a nod.

Hawke turns to Isabela with an enormous grin. "I've accidentally become a Tevinter magister, so Fenris, Varric, and I are going to go tear down the entire Imperium."

Hawke has escalated their plans rather quickly, it seems. Fenris can't say he disapproves.

"Ooh!" Isabela says, full enthusiasm with no questions asked. "I know the perfect captain to sail you there and get you back alive! Can I have kisses now too?"

As for Merrill, Fenris sees her approaching, for she runs—no, skips—toward them from the other side of the ship.

"All of you are gathered looking very excited," Merrill says, breathless, when she arrives to a skidding halt in front of them. "Is something exciting happening?"

Again, Hawke explains, and again, another of Hawke's companions—Fenris' companions—joins in without an invitation.

Merrill claps her hands, bouncing up on her bare toes and back down again. "That is exciting," she breathes, delighted. "How wonderful. I'll help too."

"Excellent," Fenris drawls, scowling at her, choosing to deflect the warmth in his chest with an insult. "One more blood mage in Tevinter. Exactly what I need."

"I thought so," Merrill says graciously, clearly choosing not to acknowledge his sarcasm. "There are lots of nasty little curses blood mages cast that only blood mages can undo." Before he can protest, she adds to her case, "And you know, many artifacts from the Elvhenan are in Tevinter, and humans there have twisted them for their own use. Even without blood magic, my Keeper's knowledge will help you." She sets a stubborn look on her face, glowering at Fenris. "What you're all going to do is very dangerous, and you're my friends. And that's why I'm going with you."

Fenris fixes the deck with a glare in an effort to clamp down on emotions threatening to spill to the surface. Simple friendship, from all of them, even after its presence in his new, freed life for years now, still occasionally overwhelms him. Like the Fog Warriors once did, these people he stumbled upon in Kirkwall treat him unequivocally and effortlessly like a person, not something to be owned. It is more a question in Fenris' mind than theirs of his non-monetary worth. He is not unaware of this.

When he dares a glance back up, Merrill is smiling at him, and Fenris knows the gist of his thoughts have not escaped her. He sees her, for a moment, not simply as a mage and the worst kind—he will go back to thinking so about the blood witch soon, he has no doubt—but as an elf who has also lost much because of Tevinter. He is not alone in that.

"Thank you," Fenris manages. "All of you."

"All this empty thanks is boring," Isabela says. "I'm still waiting for that kiss."

***

Merrill spends a good part of each afternoon and early evening perched in the crow's nest of the ship. She points out funny-shaped clouds to the sailors passing below, and tries to remember all of Keeper Marethari's lessons on Tevinter.

She uses a cloak pin to prick her finger, too, and meditates on the drop of blood that wells up. It's good practice, stretching her mind and expanding the power she can drain from just this tiny speck. The rations they picked up in Ostwick weigh heavy in Merrill's stomach and help her ground herself as she drifts out into the pulse of the blood's power.

Just as Isabela promised, the seasickness Merrill felt on the voyage to Kirkwall is gone here. When she was locked under deck with the clan, the smells of the others' upsets always pressed her to do the same. Above deck, mist from the ocean sprinkles across her face every time she starts to feel even a little dizzy, and soothes her right away. Merrill likes sailing this way.

And she loves watching Isabela be a captain.

Isabela yells out very silly-sounding words to her crew throughout the day. Merrill sees with delight how they scramble to do exactly as told. Well, she imagines so anyway. She can't really tell much, can she, since she doesn't know what they're doing or what it means. But the crew looks at Isabela with more reverence than most of the clan ever looked at the Keeper.

As for her and Isabela, they've both been stubbornly ignoring that evening—that very, very, um, intense evening—when Merrill lost it a bit. Isabela's kind and doesn't seem to mind that it happened, and also doesn't seem to mind not talking about it ever.

When dusk starts creeping in, Isabela hoists herself up and sits next to Merrill. Merrill blinks away from staring at the droplet on her fingertip, and shrugs off the power radius around her. She pops her finger into her mouth to suck off the bit of blood remaining.

"You seem so happy traveling," Merrill says, and gives Isabela a smile. Isabela smells of sweat, but it's good, very good. It smells like her, and makes Merrill want to wrap her arms around Isabela, or maybe nudge her nose against her neck, or maybe... other things. Merrill clasps her hands together. "So much happier than stuck in one place."

"It's true!" Isabela agrees, and grins back. “Pirates are never really supposed to stay in one place for long.”

“Same with the Dalish,” Merrill muses. “Though I suppose that's not our choice, is it? It's only just getting kicked out of our homelands and getting kicked out of other places too.”

Isabela frowns. “Humans are atrocious.”

“Rivain's never troubled us,” Merrill says, wanting to be fair.

Isabela lets out a little laugh. “Well, sure, sweet thing, but that's because we were too busy getting shit on by the other humans. If given the chance, we would have.”

"I don't think so," Merrill says. 

Isabela shakes her head, and goes quiet, staring up at the stars starting to appear in the dark-flushing sky.

Merrill follows her gaze for a while. "Have you ever been to Tevinter before?"

"Unfortunately, yes. And now that you mention it..." Isabela tugs a block of wood attached to a piece of twine from her belt. She sticks one end of the twine between her teeth and holds up the block to the sky.

"See this knot?" Isabela asks, pointing to one of several along the stretch of string, voice muffled as she clamps the twine in her mouth. "It's for the Minrathous port of call. Been there enough times to mark it."

Merrill leans in, curious. "What is that? Can I try it?"

Isabela hands it over. "It's a kamal. Makes sure we're going the right angle on our route, and tells us how far we have left to travel. You just have to even up the bottom bit with the horizon, and hold the top bit so it only just blocks that big bright star in that constellation there. Equinor. See it? That top one in the stallion's head?"

Merrill smiles. "Those are Ghilan'nain stars. The Dalish see the form of a halla. And just as a halla's loyalty never wavers once earned, the Halla Mother's brightest star never wavers from its place."

"Precisely, kitten," Isabela says, and gives her a thrilled grin. "That's why we use it to measure our path. We'll make a proper sailor of you yet."

Merrill sticks the twine in her mouth. The stringy end is still wet from Isabela's mouth as Merrill clamps it between her teeth. Isabela is warm, pressed against her arm, as she guides Merrill to line up the device.

When Merrill's done testing it out—though despite Isabela's instruction, she thinks she would get them quite lost if she were in charge—she asks, "Is Tevinter going to be very dangerous for you, lethallan, if you've been there before?"

Isabela shrugs. "There might be a few here and there who'll recognize me, sure."

Merrill knows that Isabela is kind and lovely. She also knows that not a lot of people see Isabela that way. "Should we keep watch for anyone in particular?"

Isabela sticks the kamal back into a belt pocket, and stands up. "I'm positively famished," Isabela says. "Aren't you? Let's go make the boys rustle up something from our stores."

***

In all their years in Kirkwall, Hawke and Fenris never lived together. Hawke doesn't think Fenris ever even slept any time he stayed the night.

But now? They're cabinmates.

More than anything, the change reminds Hawke that Fenris is largely to blame for her massive pimples breakout in the later days of Kirkwall. She would go to bed with him (and promptly fall asleep afterwards) with face still unwashed. Damn him, that exhaustingly sexy man. One of the first nights living on Isabela's new ship, Hawke tries to correct the error of her ways by being shockingly hygienic and scrubbing her face before bed. Then she climbs into the cabin bunk with Fenris.

He glances up at her, then blinks, startled. "Hawke, your eyes." 

She lets out a fake gasp, and pokes at the corners of her eyes. "What? Are they gone? Who took them?"

Fenris snorts a laugh and shakes his head. "They appear to be in place. They're simply... less decorative than usual."

"Oh, that. Yes, don't I look bizarre?" She scoots in next to Fenris, immediately welcomed by the heat of his body and the hum of his lyrium. "Maybe your tattoos wash off too and I just never knew."

More important than Hawke's face, however, is the matter of sleeping habits. Hawke snores (though she'll never, not even under duress of blood magic, admit it out loud), and Fenris twitches during the night a lot in nightmares. For a while, they even wake up engaged in fist fights they started with each other while unconscious. Such restful sleepers, the both of them.

Soon, however, they figure out decent strategies. For instance, if Fenris spoons up against Hawke before they sleep, his arms wrapped firm around her, her back pressed to his chest, she's less squirmy, and he's more defensive of her than defensive against her in sleep.

If only the daytime were so simple and relaxing.

Despite their agreement to fuck up all the Imperium's things, going in swinging is only going to get themselves and a bunch of slaves killed. An entire empire's not quite the same thing as a few slaving rings in Dark Town. With this in mind, Hawke's been doing one of her least favorite activities: planning. Sigh.

"No," Hawke says, sitting around the table in Isabela's spacious captain's cabin with Fenris and Varric. "Absolutely not."

"Hawke," Fenris tries again.

"No! I'm not going to pretend to treat you like my slave."

"Hawke, you know I appreciate the sentiment," Fenris says, "but this will be best for our purposes. And it may be the only thing that keeps you safe when you arrive under immediate scrutiny."

"Varric," Hawke begs, "please talk some sense into him."

Varric shrugs. "Broody's got a point, Hawke."

Hawke thunks her head against the table, then sits up again. "No, he doesn't! He's a silly, silly man. How are we going to gain the trust of the resistance that way? And you underestimate the amount of swooning Fenris makes me do by merely existing. I'm glad you both think I'm fabulous at acting, but I'm not that good."

Fenris sighs. "At the very least, Hawke, don't jump to correct magisters who presume they understand our relationship, and keep our actions in public ambiguous. Allow them to make their own judgments. Can you do this for me?"

Hawke glares. "Fine. You're lucky I love you."

"Indeed I am," Fenris says, and gives her one of those looks, one of the ones with the smirk and the darkening eyes. Hawke's lungs take a little swoop, and she smiles at him. Here's that swooning she was talking about.

"So, uh," Varric says, "since we're going the subtle route, you two know that legally you'll need a judge to sign off on any slaves you want to free?"

"A judge?" Hawke shrugs. "Judges love being blackmailed, don't they? Every judge I've met does."

"Pain is also an excellent motivator," Fenris adds.

"Or pain!" Hawke agrees, cheerfully.

"Both legit strategies," Varric says. "I just thought I should mention, I've got this friend in Qarinus who might be able to help us get with the in-crowd. Her name's Maevaris Tilani, she's a magister, dunno if you've ever—"

Fenris' posture suddenly stiffens. “You are friends with a magister, dwarf?”

It's news to Hawke, too, though by now she's sort of used to Varric knowing absolutely everyone.

“Hey, she's family, okay?" Varric shrugs. "She's my cousin's widow. The other magisters treat her like shit anyway, but—”

“A lowly magister is still a magister," Fenris retorts. "And can be worse, for what they are willing to do to gain the power they lack.”

“A lowly magister like Hawke.”

"Hawke has ulterior goals."

"Technically, you can say the same about Mae."

"And Hawke did not choose this."

"It's true," Hawke adds in. "I got a threatening recruitment letter and everything."

"Look, just laying an offer on the table," Varric says. "Do whatever you want with it. She's an abolitionist—"

"Among magisters?" Fenris is getting increasingly agitated. "There is no such thing."

"Fine, fine," Varric concedes. "Whatever you want to call it. She's just not quite as bad as the rest of them."

"That remains to be seen."

Fenris glares, but Varric stares back with a mellow expression until they seem to reach an uneasy peace.

***

Hawke tracks the distance to their destination not from landmarks—one lumpy seaside cliff looks much the same as another—but by how increasingly twitchy Isabela gets about being near Qunari lands. Eventually every conversation Hawke begins when Isabela's back is turned involves squeaks of horror and a drawn dagger before Isabela sees it's just Hawke, not a rampaging horned horde. 

"Hawke," Isabela whines when Hawke teases her about it. "You know what they wanted to do to me last time!"

"Pretty sure the way their honor works, you're cleared of all charges now. 'The debt has been paid, basra,' and all that. I bet they'd even have to be nice to you."

Isabela shudders. "Stop that, Hawke. You sound like them. It's creepy."

Isabela's not the only nervous one, of course. Soon, too soon as far as Hawke's concerned, they're near Tevinter, already crossing into the Nocen Sea on the way to Minrathous. Hawke's starting to feel like hummingbirds are residing in her throat, buzzing around trying to get out, and she hasn't seen Fenris quite like this since before Danarius' death.

It's subtle, the way Fenris changes, but she notices it. His eyes go blank when he's not part of an immediate conversation, or when Hawke and Merrill use magic in front of him. He stops reading books casually to pass the time, and starts reading them with a regimented fervor, as if to remind himself he can. His lyrium lights up much more often than usual when he's sparring, springing up well before he even breaks into a sweat. Hawke's prepping herself with magic, with laps around the ship, with bare bones Tevene lessons from Varric. Fenris, in the mean time, is preparing to survive in the place that chained him.

The morning of the day they're expecting to dock, Hawke wakes to Fenris' arms wrapped tight around her, the length of his body pressed against her so she can feel him hard against her backside. She can't stifle a high-pitched sigh of want, and she feels him stir awake.

“Hawke,” Fenris murmurs against the back of her neck, and it is a question.

“Yes,” Hawke sighs, arching her back.

She presses closer against him, and he spreads her buttocks, finds her already-slippery entrance, and pushes in with a groan. 

The sea rocks them, gentle and stormless, but they both know what day today is, and there's a low electric hum of nerves in the air.

"Leave marks," she says, and feels Fenris' cock twitch inside her. "Something to remind you when we're in that drasted place. I'll tell you if it's too much."

Fenris' arms wrap around her and his hands grip the flesh of her breasts and belly, tugging her closer against him during his shallow, sleepy thrusts. Then he grows bolder, and presses and drags with his fingers, hard enough that his blunt nails leave scratches that first pale her dark skin, then fade to redden it.

"I can take it harder than that," Hawke says with a smile, and Fenris finally scrapes enough to let up a faint sheen of blood along her skin.

Hawke hisses in delight, and grabs encouragingly at the strip of red cloth around Fenris' wrist.

"Is it—" Fenris begins.

"Good," she sighs, and he does it again.

Red cloth for Fenris, red marks for her. It's fitting, she thinks. They belong to each other, and right here, now, she wants Fenris to remember one particular part of that—that she belongs to him. No matter what Tevinter documents say. No matter what will happen when they land.

Fenris' hand traces up her throat and one of his long fingers pushes against her lips. She's not sure he'll want her morning breath slobber on his hand, but it seems he doesn't mind when she takes her chances and sucks his finger into her mouth. The tang of lyrium sears into her tongue as he groans quietly against her neck. Hawke sticks her hand between her legs and works at herself from the front as he thrusts harder, though no quicker. His teeth clamp down the side of her neck and suction and tug, raising up her blood near to the skin to bruise.

Hawke rides the heady mix of pain and delight and sleepiness, suckling his thrusting fingers and arching back into his thrusting hips. When Fenris finally jerks to a standstill, his lyrium pulses in time with each throb of his cock as he spills himself inside her. Hawke shudders and spasms around him in turn.

For a while, they breathe together without speaking. Fenris slips out of her, but doesn't stop holding her, and Hawke drifts back to sleep.

Then the ship bell begins to toll. Minrathous. They're here.

Hawke's eyes fly open. "Fenris," she says, a sudden surge of anxiety making her turn in his arms to look frantic at his face. She clutches herself closer to him. "Let's just stay here. Let's just live in this bed forever."

Fenris' smile is sad as he strokes the hair out of her face. "Forever is a long time, Hawke. The sheets will need cleaning."

Hawke considers a dozen jokes, but settles on her real fear. "What if it's a trap? What if they just swarm us and try to take you?"

"Then we fight," he says.

Hawke breathes in and out, then nods. "We're good at that."

Fenris fought Templars for her. Hawke will certainly fight a city full of mages for him.

She pulls back from Fenris enough to bare her front to him, the scrapes and marks from his fingers. They're shallow enough that they've already closed up, leaving small smears of crinkling dried blood in their wake. They're deep enough that she hopes they'll linger for a while. "Look at these," Hawke says. "Remember what we are, all right?"

"Dum spiro, spero,"2 Fenris says, and kisses her once more before pulling away.

Chapter Text

They do not yet need to fight. Fenris is not sure if he is relieved or disappointed.

The residual pulse of the sea lingers in his legs when he steps off onto land. Fenris pushes down the thrum of his nerves into the stillness he was once so accustomed to embodying. A stray fly buzzes. Fenris does not swipe it away. His muscles sink back into perfect control. No disordered movements. No restless stretching and rocking to soothe his aching joints and his lyrium's comburent energy.

Tevinter is as hot and sticky as Fenris remembers, but the docks smell only of salt air, with none of the fishiness of Kirkwall's sea port. Fenris did not expect to miss the stench, and yet he would prefer it to the odor-neutralizing magic that surrounds them here. It is a manipulation of nature, even if a pleasant one. One of the many lies the magisters hide behind to make their capital city more attractive to visitors.

The sky above Minrathous looks a strange, pure blue, and Fenris feels as though he is dreaming, slipping back into the unreality that kept him alive for so long. A particular kind of numbness, where every stroke of fingertips or whip lands on a shell without a mind or soul to care.

Fenris falls into step behind Hawke, a bodyguard's pace at her left flank.

He should be disgusted by how seamlessly his body can shift from free back to—

Hawke halts abruptly to wait for Fenris. He collides with her, letting out an undignified grunt.

"Sorry!" Hawke says, and gives him a sheepish grin. Fenris nods, and gestures for her to walk on ahead.

She does, for a few more strides. Then she tries to maneuver herself to walk by his side, and he nearly trips over her feet in the effort to remain behind her. Fenris gives her a raised-eyebrow look. Hawke blinks false-innocently at him and shrugs.

Hawke, Fenris reminds himself, is no true magister. He stifles the urge to kiss her.

Varric swaggers up to the port authorities and presents their documents, announcing Hawke's arrival with a flourish. Dwarves are a common sight in Tevinter, and Varric will serve as Hawke's translator and business liaison. As for the others, Isabela declined to come ashore for now, and Merrill will play the role of magister's apprentice. Ironic, given that Merrill is better versed in the perverse magics Tevinter loves, than Hawke of few and forthright spells.

Fenris sees the authorities' eyes glaze past Hawke—dark-skinned and leathered up in her smuggler's strappings and dirty boots—as they search for the magister noted in the inheritance papers. Their eyes widen when they see Fenris, and widen further when they finally focus on Hawke. They mutter to themselves, and one guard sprints off. Soon enough, an elderly man comes shuffling down to the docks.

The man is skinny and pale-skinned, with red splotches from the sun covering his face. He drips sweat, and tugs on his disheveled wrapped silk pallium, staff clattering and scraping on the ground behind him from the loose strap on his back. He is a laetan, then, a human mage born of a magicless family, no doubt unsatisfied with his mediocre position and blind to his privilege as one who is free.

"Good morning!" Hawke announces with exuberance.

"What's so good about it?" the laetan mutters.

"It's very sunny," Merrill says. "That's good, isn't it?"

"And you get to look at my face!" Hawke says. "Imagine your luck."

The man scowls. "You're Hawke, Champion of Kirkwall?"

Hawke glances in all directions. "The who what of where now?"

Varric disguises a laugh as a short cough, then clears his throat. "Yeah, she's the one and only."

The laetan looks increasingly disgusted. "Very well, come with me."

On each side of Minrathous' ancient, arching iron gates, the Juggernauts stand, symbols of the ancient alliance between dwarves and the Imperium: huge, silent stone golems, at least double the height of a large qunari. Though motionless, it is said they will surge to life should the Imperium ever wish to exploit them as weapons. The gates open at the laetan's command, and Fenris follows Hawke into the heart of Minrathous.

Their dour guide scribbles on a vellum scroll while walking, unconcerned with navigating the clutter and bustle of the city before him. Varric narrates the city's features to Hawke as they follow.

Though unashamed of their trade in slaves, the Imperium is acute enough to soothe their slaveless diplomatic visitors by disallowing slaving blocks or lone auctorati in the entryway markets of Minrathous. The slaves for sale are deeper within the city, out of immediate sight, and Fenris knows he will need to visit them soon, even if he doesn't know what he will do when he gets there. He still... needs to see them. 

The market stalls for common goods near the main gates swarm with people. Soporati haggle and rush the streets, in contrast to the scattered slaves who pay with expedient care, counting coins twice and clutching purses to their person. A single missing copper could mean their heads if a magister so chooses. Clusters of altus and magisters, weighted down with their robes and riches, twirl and flick their hands with casual magic, as others might gesticulate for emphasis. The ripples of spell after spell from every direction burn across Fenris' skin.

As magisters sweat and breathe, so they do magic. Unthinking, unquestioned, and unchecked. A true Templar like Hawke's brother would be fine company to have here. The Imperium's Templars are inert puppets. 

It all looks the same, as if he'd only been gone for a day. Fenris has changed so much, and Minrathous so little. Abruptly, his numbness splits like a cracked egg shell. Panic and bile rise in Fenris' throat—only to be swept clear when he sees some ragged manuscripts stacked in one merchant's stall.

With no effort, he reads the words printed on each book. It is so quick, now. He no longer needs to consciously inspect each letter, nor even mouth the sounds aloud. The books are in Tevene with spatterings of Common: Nuptiae Abderitanae, one white book reads, dirty lace adorning its cover. Two books tied together with twine, Retraining and Redirection of Hedge Magic: Conjecture or Phenomenon?, and Numerickal Magicks, both in leather speckled with grease stains. A small children's book in thin green parchment, Magus liber qui iscribitur.

Typical. Yet even so, understanding the words keeps Fenris steady, and gives him power.

No wonder they deny slaves the ability to read.

"I'll be making a few changes," Hawke is saying to the frazzled laetan when Fenris' attention wanders back. "My delightful dwarf here tells me I'll need a judge for that. Where's a good one in town?"

"That's quite impossible," the laetan says. "The next initiation ball is more than a week away, and no changes to property may be made until 30 days after that. You are merely a guest of the Imperium until you declare your loyalty."

"Loop, meet hole," Varric mutters.

"A guest of the Imperium, how delightful," Hawke claps a hand to her heart, expression deadpan. "Never fear, you won't find another more loyal than I."

"Who exactly are we guests of?" Varric asks. "I assume Danarius' old slaves aren't just sitting around twiddling their thumbs."

"Have they been freed?" Merrill asks with a hopeful naiveté that turns Fenris' stomach.

The laetan stares at her, then ignores her altogether, addressing Hawke instead. "The Magisterium as a whole maintains the property in your stead. Certain assets," he glances to Fenris, "have been missing, but all else should be accounted for if you fulfill the waiting period." 

"'If'?" Varric repeats back. "Ha! I take it you've never read my serials? Hawke here has follow-through."

***

There are dragons everywhere.

Not living ones—Hawke only wishes!—but sculptures in gold and worn marble atop every other building. Some even stand by themselves in unexpected street corners, as if they'd been going about their dragonly business, peddling bushels of magical herbs, or paying taxes, before poof! someone turned them to stone.

Hawke gapes out the carriage window. "Amazing," she whispers.

Varric sighs and shakes his head. "You might wanna look a little less excited at slavers' taste in decor, Chuckles. At least in front of, y'know, the ex-slave boyfriend?"

It's not really a scolding, of course. Hawke can hear it in Varric's voice. He knows just as well as she does that Fenris appreciates a good distraction from the real issues.

"It's fine," Fenris says, with the barest hint of his wry humor. "I fully expected this. Hawke's obsessed with these monstrosities."

"These dragons deserve better," Hawke continues, letting righteous passion infuse her voice. "Let's take them away."

"They would be very heavy to move," Merrill says. "They might even sink Isabela's ship."

"I'm gonna intercede on Rivaini's behalf here and say she probably doesn't want that," Varric adds. "As far as I know, one shipwreck's enough to last her a lifetime."

The carriage hits a particularly tough bump in the road, and Fenris seizes Hawke's wrist.

She lets the window drape fall back down, and looks over at Fenris. He's gone back to sitting with a stiff posture and gazing straight ahead, above Merrill's head at the other side of the carriage wall. Speaking of statues, Hawke's never seen Fenris so... un-fidgety. She's tempted to tickle him, but she's pretty sure that won't help.

She's also pretty sure he hasn't noticed that he's gripping onto her. "You'll need to squeeze a little tighter if you want the hand to pop off. You're almost there."

"What?" Fenris looks down at her wrist. "Oh." He jerks his hand back. "Apologies, Hawke."

Hawke smiles at him. "I don't mind."

Fenris soon glances past the curtain with a frown and tells them they're nearly there. Hawke reaches out between Varric and Merrill to slide open the front-facing window. Only slightly blocked by the horse, Hawke can see that the entrance to Danarius' lands has its own mini version of the main Minrathous gates, minus the golems. At sight of the slowing carriage, two guards activate a series of mechanisms that creak the gates open, and the carriage lurches forward again.

The main house is precariously multileveled, with an impressively unlikely-looking architectural design, as if held up by magic—imagine that. It's almost like they're in a country ruled by egotistic mages.

As soon as she jumps down out of the carriage, Hawke can feel it. And lest it's just her own imagination and hatred for Danarius stirring up the sensation, Hawke takes a look at Merrill. Merrill's shoulders are hunched and she's chewing a fingernail that's already mostly gone. Merrill meets Hawke's glance and nods.

"No one fall into the Fade now," Hawke says with a sigh, shivering despite herself.

"Huh?" Varric looks alarmed.

"The Veil to the Beyond is very thin here," Merrill says, taking her finger out of her mouth to explain. "And the spirits are unhappy. There's been a lot of violence and death."

"Is this a surprise to anyone?" Fenris asks.

The house's entrance has no door in the true sense of the word, just idly drifting, translucent drapery hanging from the door frame. Behind that lies a gigantic entrance hall made up of a sparkling wading pool and marble flooring. The sight erases the notion Hawke had of a hulking, creepy castle, but maybe the farce of luxury is worse.

A tall figure, poised and leaning against a spiraling ivory staff, waits for them in the hall. Before Hawke can speak, Varric makes a noise of surprise.

"Well hot damn," Varric says, and grins, striding forward in front of Hawke with arms outstretched. "Long time no see, Mae."

"Varric darling," Mae drawls, lips quirked, and ducks down to embrace him. "The older you get, the more you look like poor Thorold. I despise it."

Varric's magister, Maevaris Tilani, is built like Aveline, tall and broad-shouldered, but with all the fashionable grace Aveline would scoff at. (Hawke misses Aveline maybe. Slightly. A lot.) Mae's chin-length blonde hair is curled and pinned in ringlets framing her pink-pale face. She wears a slinky blue dress, her waist cinched with gold.

Varric's grin turns apologetic. "Reminds you you're a widow, huh?"

"Reminds me I was ever tied down to just one man!" Mae smirks, and Varric laughs.

"Did you contact her behind our—" Fenris begins to accuse to Varric.

"Nope," Varric says. "Just more of the little synchronicities that plague Hawke's life." Varric gestures Merrill forward. "Mae, this is Daisy."

"Merrill," Merrill corrects. "Hello."

"Charmed."

"And this is—"

"Of course I know the others, Varric." Mae turns to Hawke. "You must be Joaquina Hawke. You're delightful, if I can believe a word Varric's written."

Hawke dodges an attempt at a hug. "None of that, please and thank you. Not feeling very huggy." She crosses her arms and instinctively stands closer to Fenris, pressing the side of her arm against his.

Mae takes it in stride and turns to Fenris instead. "And the famous Fenris. A pleasure to meet you."

Fenris glares at her. "I cannot say the same, magister."

"Look at all the love in the air," Varric says.

***

Merrill eagerly skims the titles on the bookshelves in Danarius' old office, hoping she might find some knowledge of the ancient elves, even if corrupted. But she can't read any of it, and Varric doesn't want to be very helpful, either. He'll only tell her that they're "magical bullshit" written in High Tevene. Perhaps she can find a spirit to teach her either the language or a spell to translate it. The Beyond will be very easy to access here. She can feel the cracks and crevasses where she could sneak her magic in, though the spirits are quite angry right now. 

Mae drapes herself into one of the severe, hard-backed chairs, and makes it look easy and comfortable. She reminds Merrill of Isabela in that way.

“I’m glad you ventured all this way to help make change," Mae says to Hawke, fanning herself with a half-circle made of the feathers of a large, white bird. Merrill wonders if the bird misses its feathers. Or maybe it's been cooked. "The Senate is the place to do it," Mae continues, "and I welcome the support. It's a beautiful country, worth preserving, even if for the history alone—“

"Actually, our first plan was to blow it up," Hawke says cheerfully, sitting cross-legged on the floor. Fenris stands against the wall, frowning. Hawke leans her head against Fenris' leg.

“Yeah, she doesn’t really give two fucks about the Magisterium, Mae, sorry,” Varric says.

“Not even one fuck,” Hawke adds.

Fenris nods. "We're here to assist slaves, nothing more."

Mae leans forward and says, in a quieter voice, "Careful, darlings. You and your slaves are more disposable before the initiation, and every house has ears."

Merrill frowns. "But houses don't—"

"Human phrase, Daisy," Varric says, gesturing for her to be quiet. Oh. Merrill shuts up again.

"Then put up a sound barrier, mage," Fenris mutters to Mae, "and we shall speak candidly."

"We don't want to act like we have something to hide. You're a guest," she says to Hawke, "enjoy a little holiday. We'll get to work once you're a magister." Louder, Mae continues, “It’s fascinating the Senate would give the inheritance to a Southerner, even with our duel laws and your mage rights reputation. I pushed to support you, but you have Danarius' notoriety to thank.”

“He was a monster," Hawke says. "I would think magisters would adore him. You excepted, of course. Hopefully.”

“We’ll see,” Fenris says.

"It's all well and good for a magister to have body slaves of any particular gender, but Danarius was unmarried and never produced an heir. Scandalous, really. Not quite as scandalous as I am, of course,” Mae smiles wryly, and tosses her head a little, clinking her dangling earrings, “but scandal enough. The Senate chose one last degrading poke at Danarius’ memory: giving his possessions to a Ferelden refugee.”

Varric looks skeptical. “So this has nothing to do with Hawke just happening to have a mine’s worth of walking talking lyrium and rage keeping her company?"

Mae crosses her legs, rolling her ankle and pointing her foot. She has dazzlingly silver shoes that look even less comfortable than the idea of shoes at all. Which already seems terribly uncomfortable to Merrill. “Of course, darling. Of course they want to get their hands on your lovely little fugitivus here.”

Fenris' posture jerks up a little straighter. “Watch your tongue or see it cut out, magister.”

"Charming," Mae says, and winks at him.

Fenris scoffs, and turns away, pacing toward the back of the office. Hawke watches him, but doesn't go to him.

Varric shakes his head to Mae. "What's this ball Hawke will have to attend?" he asks.

"An initiation ceremony and social gathering. We do love our parties. Hawke will be sworn in, alongside a few other junior magisters. Hawke, you'll be the only outsider, so I'll try to get you through the evening in the most comfortable way possible. Are you familiar with the Grand Game?" 

"I grew up in Ferelden. Everyone and their mabari shook their fists at the damned Orlesians. Well," Hawke makes a thoughtful face, "the mabari shook their paws."

"Then think of an Imperial ball like the most decadent stereotype of Orlais. Go ahead, combine everything you've heard in your mind's eye. But add more..."

"Blood? Slaves? Orgies?"

"Sure you've never been here before? Sadly, the orgies are reserved for the after-parties, and we'll be too unpopular to receive any invitations."

"Damn," Hawke says. "And here I was looking forward to Tevinter nightlife."

"Sorry to disappoint," Mae says with a smirk. "Since you'll be attending the clothed part of the evening..." She looks Hawke up and down, pursing her lips. "I'll connect you with my dressmaker. You'll need some robes suitable for a soon-to-be magister, not this ratty fur and leather nonsense you Southerners enjoy."

"I don't wear robes," Hawke counters immediately.

"As much as you love us rogues, you're not one," Varric says. "Robes might be a good idea, Chuckles. You're gonna need all the protection you can get in this shithole."

"But I hate robes!" Hawke continues, and a girl silently pushes through the fluttering, sheer cloth doorway. "They're dresses and nobody can convince me they're not dresses and I hate dress—" Hawke trails off when she sees the girl. "Er, hello."

"How you doing?" Varric adds to the greeting.

She doesn't respond in any way, carrying in a tray of some kind of bubbly pale drinks. Merrill supposes the collar around her neck means she's a slave, though she's a tall, long-limbed human. Most of the other slaves Merrill saw as she followed Mae and the others to this room were elves, ducking out of sight as soon as Merrill peered at them. This human is Rivaini like Hawke and Isabela, Merrill thinks, but with much paler skin. Her hair is tied into a crown of knots on her head, and she's dressed in gauzy sleeveless robes that drift high above her knees.

Mae doesn't seem to pay her much attention. "We'll find a compromise," Mae says to Hawke, who's frowning. "Stitching up a pair of gorgeous runed leggings instead of a skirt should be well within my dressmaker's skills."

The slave's gaze flickers to Hawke for the first time. Her eyes go wide and her lips part for a moment before she looks away. Then, with an expression of concentration, she levitates the drink glasses off the tray, and floats them in the air. She bows her head and waits.

It's strange, Merrill thinks, that they would enslave human mages here. She doesn't think Anders knew about that when he spoke of how much he'd love to live here.

Mae plucks one of the glasses out of the air with a delicate motion of her fingers. "Anyone else?" she asks, when none of them reach for any.

"No, thank you," Merrill says. Everyone else declines, too.

"Ite, missa est, darling, thank you,"3 Mae says, and flicks her fingers.

The girl curtsies, and leaves as silently as she came in, the floating drink glasses following her like a strange pack of dogs.

Fenris has been watching the exchange with narrowed eyes. "You have slaves," he states to Mae as soon as the girl has gone.

Mae dips one painted fingernail into her glass, then rubs the drop of liquid between her forefinger and thumb until it's gone. "Everyone has slaves in Tevinter, darling." She takes a sip from her glass.

Fenris sneers, and spins to face Varric. “See what your ‘friend’ is, dwarf? Tell me why Hawke and I should not simply kill her on the spot and take her estate, too.”

“You already forgot what I said about spies, hmm?" Mae says in a low murmur that Merrill can barely hear, before raising her voice to a normal volume again. "Slavery is downright archaic of us, of course,” Mae continues. “Every other rational country in Thedas has dismissed it as a relic of the past. Believe me, I've made countless speeches to the Senate on this very matter. But it’s a slow process to end it. I hope to garner enough votes to change the law one day. In the mean time, you can't simply free slaves willy-nilly. To do so is to devalue the integrity of our system."

Then, with her blue-painted eyelid, she gives them a massive wink.

***

Hawke locks the bedroom door—the very specifically non-Danarius-bedroom but guest-bedroom-instead door—with a sigh. No fewer than two slaves offered to bathe Hawke on the way from the office here. She was only able to flee by joking about Fereldens like her having a penchant for sleeping in their own filth.

A week, and then she and Fenris will explain everything. Then it'll be easier, and probably slightly more moral than downright avoiding the people they're trying to help.

Fenris stands in the center of the room, lost in his own memories and staring at the ground.

"Fenris," Hawke murmurs, and approaches him. "Care to put your hand up my shirt?"

Fenris' eyebrows furrow, and he shakes his head, still staring distant and away. "I am in no mood, Hawke." 

"I meant just along my belly, silly man."

He looks at her then, and she sees he remembers. He tugs off one gauntlet, then strides forward and obliges.

There are rough patches along her skin: uneven, speckled scabs that feel like breadcrumbs, from the drag of his nails this morning. Back before they were here, in the Imperium. She could have healed them away to nothingness, but fancies leaving them be. She hopes it's the reminder he needs.

His fingertips drift gently across the marks, and she sees a few conflicting emotions flit across his face. Uncertain guilt, a smidge of arousal—then what she was looking for, as the corner of his mouth tilts up in a small smile. He pulls his hand away, and brushes aside her thick bangs to press his lips to her forehead.

"Thank you, Hawke," Fenris mutters, and rests his chin on the top of her head.

***

After a fitful sleep, Fenris follows the downwind path from Danarius’ mansion to the estate's mines. He dresses in the same worn armor from Kirkwall, not relishing the thought of searching Danarius' wardrobes for clothes that were once made for him and will likely still fit. 

Fenris needs to leave the house, if only for a while, to remind himself of why they are here. Not for magister intrigue, but to act. For all his planning with Hawke and the dwarf, it feels despicable to stay in this Maker-forsaken house as a guest, even if just for the days it will take to enact the legalities they seek.

The path is still damp with morning dew against Fenris' bare feet. The ground starts level and smooth, then begins to make use of his callouses. It was seldom that Fenris ever set foot here. He rarely left Danarius' side, and while Danarius owned the mines as a private, flowing supply of lyrium for his brutal experimentation, he rarely deigned to check on the mining slaves himself. Danarius relied instead on a few paid dwarven foremen to reinforce servitude and punishment.

The mines were where Danarius sent undesirables to their deaths. Any Qunari who did not manage to commit suicide before capture. Elven and human body slaves if they obtained unsightly scars, often at the hands of a sadistic guest. House slaves who spit in food, mouthed back, or grew too old. And when the household's disposal needs fell below the rate of mining deaths, fresh expendable slaves could be purchased cheaply in bulk at the markets.

Fenris reaches the mouth of the mine. He lingers long enough to hear the sound of muttering, coughing, and tools on rock, and for the stench of death and aged sweat to reach him. Then he abruptly turns and starts back up the path to the house, embarrassed and frustrated. This was a fool's notion. He doesn't know what he could possibly say to those suffering inside. Not yet, not while he has nothing tangible to give them.

Fenris hears the crunch of gravel and dust behind him, and whips around.

A lone elven man approaches from the mines. A lead mining slave if the guards have allowed him exit. 

"The gossipmongers speak truth," says the man, with a huff of a humorless laugh. His voice is deep and roughened. The intense stare he gives Fenris is unlike the numbed, self-protective gazes of most slaves Fenris has known. "Fenris, the little fucking wolf."

The man is short and stocky, with heavy muscle behind thick layers of fat, near dwarf-like in appearance. His skin would be dark if the sun more frequently met it. His head is shaved down to skin, and the D of Danarius' brand for mining slaves sits old, embedded, and lumped into a tangle of scarred flesh on his forearm. He wears a crude leather collar, and is drenched in sweat that has soaked through dirty linen clothes into darker streaks, like paintbrush strokes.

“So you’ve been delivered back to us,” he jeers, walking closer. "Danarius' favored pet."

A flash of anger rushes through Fenris, and he tries to suppress it. The man is a slave. He has been a slave the entire time Fenris has been free. And Fenris remembers now: Durganus.

Durganus was a young slave, delivered to the estate as a conciliatory gift after some altercation between Danarius and a lesser magister. Where most elves on the markets were starved thin, Durganus looked like a lanista's prize gladiator, or a well-fed human criminal sold instead of jailed. Scarred, rude, and not to Danarius' tastes, the "gift" was cast off to the mines.

"No longer, Durganus," Fenris says.

Durganus barks out a loud, unfriendly laugh. "You remember my fucking name?"

Fenris frowns. "I do." 

"A fucking surprise if I've ever seen one." Durganus treads ever closer to Fenris.

Fenris holds his ground, pressing his toes into the dirt.

"You've been gone near ten years," Durganus continues, expression contorted in anger and disgust, "and now you return with head still on your neck? And the stones to peer in on us like a little fucking peepshow? Most of those brand fucking new to the mines when you fled your pampered life of lapdog—"

"Pampered?" The anger finally breaks out over Fenris' skin, flickering his lyrium.

"—are long dead already by the time you've crawled on back." Durganus jerks forward, mere centimeters from in Fenris' face.

Fenris side-steps, clenching his fists. "Time spent finding and slaughtering Danarius like the festering wound he was. He will never harm anyone again."

Durganus follows Fenris' turn, facing him again. "You think it matters to any of us in the pit which human owns us?" He sneers at Fenris, squinting against the sunlight. "I've heard of our doglord Domina. You kill to slake her ambition then think yourself the better for it?"

"I did not kill him for her," Fenris retorts, "and Hawke is not what you think. She is not here to rule."

"Listen to the horseshit that drips from your tongue." Durganus spits at Fenris' feet. Everything on Fenris' body is alight with heat, now. His lyrium pulses in and out as he struggles to prevent it from searing full force and combat-ready. "You defend her, just as you once spewed Danarius' praises."

He is a slave, Fenris' mind tries in vain to remind him again, as his heartbeat pumps in his ears. Fenris turns and starts stalking away back to the estate, but Durganus follows.

"Why?" Durganus continues, voice rough and raised. "Because she fucking spoils you? You preen at her side, and she lets you into her magister cunt just like Hadriana di—"

Fenris spins on Durganus, his fist flying in for a hit.

Durganus clearly expected the blow. He takes it not with his face but with one stocky forearm, then sends his own fist into Fenris' nose. It cracks, and the thick tang of mucous and blood flows down his throat.

Fenris snarls. The dust billows up around them as he leaps and pulls them both to the ground. They grapple in the dirt. Fenris' rage bursts out a pulse of dark energy from his markings, and Durganus' nose streams blood. He is stunned as Fenris pushes himself up to his knees. Then Durganus is on him again, raining blows down with one fist as Fenris twists his other arm back, poised to dislocate. 

"What's going on?"

Hawke's clear voice rings out through the muffled pulse in Fenris' ears. He freezes. Durganus lands a few more blows before Fenris gives him a shove and stumbles backward a few steps away.

Fenris' mind clears and he knows now with a panic what he's done, even as Durganus ignores Hawke and tries to come barreling at Fenris once more. Fenris sidesteps and shoves him aside, with no rage this time. Fenris' injuries are mild in comparison to his battles of the past, but anger and concern are alight in Hawke's eyes. She's close enough that Fenris can feel her mana writhing and readying as she raises up her arm. She will cast a spell in defense of Fenris, just as she might if she rounded a corner in Kirkwall and saw him in a scuffle with a Lowtown pickpocket.

And if she does, all will be lost.

They have only just arrived, and no slave will ever trust her. She will have punished a slave who displeased her. No matter that she won't maim or kill him. One simple force spell is enough. There will be nothing more to say or do to prove good intent.

Durganus catches sight of Hawke, and Fenris sees recklessness in his eyes as he moves to attack Fenris again.

"Hawke, stop," Fenris orders in warning, even as he deflects another hit.

Hawke blinks, and puts her outstretched hand back down at her side. Her gaze finally travels over Durganus' brand, collar, and tattered clothes. Fenris can feel her mana cut back off again, like snapping shut the cover of a book. He breathes out in relief. 

Durganus halts his attack just as quick, panting. He stares at Fenris like he's suddenly gone mad.

"Nothing like a nosebleed in the morning to start the day right," Hawke says with her lightest tone, and pulls two health potions from the pouch on her belt. "Even so..."

She tosses the potions to Fenris. He catches them, and nods. She gives him a brief smile, then turns back to the house.

Fenris downs one of the potions. He holds out the other in truce.

Durganus eyes it warily, then lifts his narrowed eyes to Fenris' face. "What fucking game does she play?"

"None," Fenris says, but Durganus does not believe him, nor should Fenris have expected that he would.

Looking more disturbed than before, Durganus wipes his nose with the back of his arm. He spits on the ground near Fenris feet again, glances at Hawke's retreating back, and heads back toward the mines.

Chapter Text

In the center of the market, next to a fidgeting guard, a crucifix ballasts up an elven man. He struggles as best he can, trying to pry himself away, with no hope of succeeding. His bones are knobby under paper-thin flesh. His arms are stretched out and bound up at the wrists on either side of his head. His feet are pinned to the wood, and drip that particular unsavory mix of torture-inspired body fluid. Mostly blood. Some other stuff too. An announcement cloth drapes across his chest, spelling out his crime in Tevene like a morbid party banner, and though Isabela isn't in the know about this type of thing, some kind of glowing fire rune wriggles on his stomach. They can't be arsed to torture people without a bit of magic added on.

The poor sod might as well be dead already for all the good his last bits of life will do for him, but he doesn't stink from this distance, and he probably doesn't stink up close, either. Vinters always did like to cover up that kind of thing.

Lovely. Isabela hates this fucking country.

She steered clear of solid ground for a few days, preferring to bob along in her little ship at the harbor. She did her part bringing them here, and she'll do her part getting them back out again, but all that middle stuff, the heroics stuff, is really more Fenris' and Hawke's domain than hers. But Varric, cheater that he is, brought Merrill down to the docks with him to wrangle her out of her ship for some shopping, and even promised to buy her a hat or two. He knows Isabela can't resist that pretty face. Or free stuff.

She should've stayed in her cabin. 

"Shit," Varric says.

"Poor bastard," Isabela agrees.

She starts back to her business. There's always terrible shit in the world, every day, and it's no fun for anyone if she dwells on it. The fabrics here in the north aren't so boring and wooly as the ones peddled in the Marches. She might be able to retire her worse-for-the-wear headscarves and get some new ones.

Then Isabela catches a glance at Merrill.

Merrill's cheeks have drained of their usual pink flush as she stares in horror, halted mid-stride in the flow of traffic. Clusters of annoyed shoppers shove around Merrill like she's a pebble in their path.

"Why?" Merrill demands, her voice going high-pitched. She blinks, and looks desperately between Varric and Isabela. "What did he do?"

Varric squints at the banner, and shakes his head. "Nothing. He's a slave, he tried to kill his master. Shit. This is literally the worst country I've ever visited."

"Well, we need to help him," Merrill says, and as though it was as simple as all that, reaches promptly for her staff.

Isabela and Varric both leap foward. "Not a good plan," Isabela says simultaneous to Varric's "woah, hold up, Daisy." They grab Merrill, steering her into a nearby alleyway, narrow and piled with scentless but festering garbage, to Merrill's yelp of surprise and protest. 

Merrill jerks herself out of their grasps, and spins on them. Isabela raises up her palms, casting a quick look behind her. Nobody in the city seems to care. The guard didn't notice anything amiss. Good. 

"Not a good idea, kitten," Isabela repeats when she turns her glance back to Merrill, who still looks skittish. Isabela lowers her hands nice and slow, and Merrill warily clips her brandished staff behind her. 

Varric shakes his head, expression regretful. "I love unlikely battle odds as much as the next writer, but if we attack the guard, the entire Imperial militia's gonna be on us like flies on especially decadent shit. We don't have the numbers for that. Not yet anyway. Maybe once Broody's plans pan out, I dunno."

"What's our plan right now, then?" Merrill hunches her shoulders, breathing fast, tears starting to pool in her eyes. "Hmm? My idea isn't a good one, so what's yours? We have to do something." Even without her staff, swirls of purple magic start to skim along the insides of her scarred wrists.

"It's too late for him, kitten," Isabela says, as gently as she can muster.

"I'll at least end his suffering, help him to die," Merrill insists, wild-eyed, taking a step forward.

"Sweetness..." Isabela steps closer to Varric to block her path back to the marketplace. 

"Daisy, you're an elf in the least elfy place in the world." Varric lowers his voice to a soothing murmur. "You're just gonna get yourself killed."

Merrill's expression turns to a glare, her slouched posture rising up rigid, taller with her disgust. "Don't talk to me like I'm a child!"

"It'll happen soon enough anyway," Isabela tries. "His death, I mean. The guard isn't allowed to leave until he dies. It's their rules. Most guards just end it once they get too bored. I've been here before, remember? I know all their little quirks."

"We can't just—you're both so—" Merrill gasps like she can't get enough breath, eyes wet and enraged. Her shaking grows worse, tears slipping down her face, ambient magic pulsing off her in stronger and stronger waves. "You'll just let—" Another wheezing gasp.

Isabela eyes her, waiting to grab her again if she tries something heroic and stupid, even if it means Merrill will blast her with some kind of spell. But suddenly the magic around Merrill bursts like a soap bubble. Merrill's spine slumps, and her hands clutch to her stomach, pale fingers curling in on themselves as her body crooks forward. Merrill turns away to the gutter and quietly vomits, with only the sound of a heaving out breath and the patter of it hitting the piles of trash. 

Varric shoots Isabela a helpless look and scratches his hand against his stubble, swallowing hard himself. Isabela frowns, and turns her glance away to watch Merrill's staff quaking on her spasming back. Isabela can barely imagine having that strong a reaction to anything these days. Not even to a good strong drink.

And here's Merrill. She's not naive. She's seen some terrible shit. Yet here she is, still full up of feelings. 

"I suppose you're right," Merrill murmurs, when she spits and wipes her face and turns to them again, her eyes gone dull and glassy. "Let's just... let's just go."

Isabela spins her under-lip piercing on the inside with her teeth, and glances back to the market.

Damn it.

"Be right back," Isabela says abruptly.

"Isabela," Varric warns. Concerned enough to shirk using her nickname, apparently.

"It's fine, Varric," she says, and heads back to the center of the market, plucking open a few of her blouse's top buttons. 

Let's just hope this one likes tits.

Isabela sashays her way through the crowd toward the lone Tevinter guard, and waits until he notices her before letting her gaze meander up and down his body. His bright red, thigh-skirted armor looks out of the shop brand new, and the short, bare sword hanging from his belt loop looks older than he is.

"Hello there, sweet thing," Isabela says.

The guard blinks, hopeful surprise blooming on his face. He wets his sunburned lips with a tongue, and returns his own sweeping gaze. "Um. Hello."

Isabela slinks closer. "I'm brand new to the city. I'm looking for someone to show me... all there is to see." She rolls her shoulders back, faking a stretch, pushing her breasts up higher. 

"I—I'd be happy to give you a tour of Minrathous."

"Mm..." She lets out a breathy little laugh. "A man in armor as my own personal guide? Sounds delicious. But I'm more interested in what's underneath the armor."

"I could give you a tour there too." He looks pleased with his turn of phrase, bless his empty little heart.

"There's a merchant's stall back that way." She winks. "We could start the journey now."

He tears his gaze away from her breasts long enough to frown, cogs of his brain tinkering away. "I have no coin to spare," he says, starting to sound a bit glum.

"Oh, I only offer freebies," Isabela reassures, and then because he's not going to buy it without some hands-on proof, leans in close and squeezes him through the armor's flaps, blocking the gesture from the crowd with her body. "You... up... for it?"

The guard shifts his hips, nudging himself against Isabela's palm. "Yeah. Yeah I am."

She's just about ready to wash her hands, not that she'll ever let it show on her face. "I've heard soldiers have wonderful stamina. Care to show me if it's true?"

"It—it's true," he brags, breath starting to go uneven. Wishful thinking, that, considering it'll be over for him in a moment if she keeps up her fondling.

Isabela grins, and pulls her hand away. "Then what are we waiting for?"

He glances to the side at his dying charge. "Uh, I'm—I'm not allowed to go away until this one's dead."

Isabela plays with her shirt buttons, and glances in faux-boredom at the pinned up elf. "Him? Ugh, he looks like he's fighting it, too. It could be days."

"Stop by the barracks after sunset," the guard pleads. "I'll be relieved of duty and—"

Isabela interrupts him with a noise of disgust. "Limited time offer. Never you mind, then. Maybe I'll swing by the barracks right now."

She turns away, but he calls out, "No, wait!"

Got him.

His voice drops to a nervous whisper. "What if I, uh, speed up the process a bit?"

She gives him a smirk. "Works for me, as long as you promise not everything you do is quick."

He glances warily to make sure no other soldiers are nearby, and draws the sword at his side. He peers around again. Then, with a quick thrust, he slips the sword point between the elf's prominent ribs, and jerks it back out again with a splatter of blood. The man's heaving, rapid breaths and groans of agony stutter into silence.

The guard grabs up a cloth from the bottom of the cross to wipe his sword. While he's bent over, Isabela liberates the bag of coins hooked on his belt (liar, he has plenty of coins to spare). She slips back into the crowd out of sight.

"He's dead," Isabela announces, after she eases her way back to Merrill and Varric.

"Thank you," Merrill says, her voice soft, and fixes her with a gaze Isabela shies away from.

"I just wanted the guard's coin," Isabela says breezily, and holds up the purse before tucking it away.

“How you doing, Daisy?” Varric murmurs to Merrill.

Merrill crosses her arms. "I’m fine, Varric."

"Shit," Varric says, sighing and adjusting his duster with discomfort. "Let's just get back to the estate I guess."

The longer Isabela's in this country the more giddy-sick reckless she feels, which is her only excuse when she says, "Varric, you should write about this."

"Isabela, don't start," Varric says, not amused in the slightest. Two "Isabela"s in one day, she's on a roll.

She ignores him. "I'm sure there's a huge readership for cruci-fiction."

Varric frowns, but says nothing.

Isabela shuts up.

***

The day of the initiation ball arrives rapidly, and all the better for Fenris, for the stalemate puts him on edge.

The building, the center of Minrathous' legal proceedings in the day, and venue in the evening for such gatherings as this, is made of sandstone and gold. In its depths, tiers of balconies extend upward and out from an enormous circular stone floor, surrounded by blue stained glass windows, and archways ringed in red velvet. The location is familiar to Fenris from many past events at Danarius' side, where he was often tasked with intimidating new initiates. But Fenris has never before attended an initiation ball with such unease as he feels today. Hawke is most at risk here, in this place, surrounded by hundreds of snarling beasts in the guise of high society.

As they make their way into the arched entryway from the carriages, Hawke leans in close. Under the black hood of her vest, her usual red eye paint is joined by a touch of silver glitter, at the behest of Varric's magister. "What say we lock the doors and pull an Anders on this place?" she whispers, expression mischievous. "Boom. No more magisters. Take all these bastards down with us."

Fenris tries not to smile. Hawke knows precisely which fantasies most cheer him. "Unfortunately, safeguards are in place to prevent just that. And all slaves in Minrathous would be purged if such an event occurred."

"Damn, all right. I'll stick with the plan." Hawke's gaze floats to his lips, and she begins to lean in for a kiss, before catching herself with a halt and glancing around.

"You may kiss me here," Fenris mutters, expression darkening. "But not with tenderness or reciprocity. Only as a magister would."

Hawke shudders and pulls a face. "Later, then. When we're ourselves again."

Fenris doubts that being himself, whatever that might mean, will be fully possible during their time in the Imperium, but he says nothing else, only nods.

Fenris wears an old set of dress armor, high-collared, black, and sleeveless, garb he once wore under Danarius' control. It was Fenris' own selection—an impromptu, defiant impulse. Fenris decides he will cherish the irony of wearing the clothes as a free man intending to gut the Imperium. He foregoes only the accompanying metal collar. As a high-level bodyguard, this will not be seen as suspect. The fit of the trousers is slightly too snug around his stomach, Fenris notices with a quirk of his lips, a consequence of Hawke's slapdash yet hearty cooking, but he wears the clothes proudly, with no small enjoyment of the hidden reclamation.

Varric catches up to Hawke's side. "All these moon-eyed gazes and secret whispers, your future husband's getting jealous."

Hawke, though opposed to playacting Fenris' master for the sake of their schemes, seems to have embraced Varric's fictional status to gain him admission to the ball. She sighs with considerable dramatics, and links arms with Varric's. "I'm terribly sorry, smoochles patootles. You know you're the only man for me."

Varric mock-shudders through a grin. "Never again, Hawke."

"Now you know how I feel, dwarf," Fenris risks in a low murmur to Varric, who laughs. 

Merrill scurries up to Varric's side to join them. "You two do look lovely together."

"Yep," Varric agrees. "I'm so glad my flufferbunny trained such an observant star pupil."

Hawke snickers.

As planned, when Varric offers their names to the crier by the doorway, Hawke is introduced as a magister certiorari, one pending judicial approval, Varric as her fiance, and Merrill as her apprentice. Fenris remains unnamed, but as their group strides down the entryway steps and other guests part for them to pass, he is met with an equal number as Hawke herself of blatant stares.

Deeper into the hall, slaves in a small stone pool at the center of the floor come into view, denied clothing and chosen for their decorative appeal, with scarless and hairless bodies. They pour waters and oils over each other in careful, slow repetition. Fenris feels ill. Though Danarius was possessive and never offered up Fenris for such display, he recalls a few such slaves, long ago, whose hands and feet one magister removed in the middle of the gathering. The slaves had been overheard quietly complaining to each other of pruning fingers and toes after a long evening in the pool. With each gentle splash of the water from the cruel tableau in front of Fenris today, he hears the screams of those other slaves in his ears.

Fenris looks away, trying to still his unsteady breath.

On either side of the display, predictably, demons stand in grids of binding crystals. A rage demon sizzles on one end, maintaining a spread of hot food, and at the other side, a bound despair demon holds an icy tray upon which drinks are poised. Simple fire or ice magics, the domains Hawke herself practices, are too pedestrian for magisters. Yet another commonplace example of the pride Tevinter mages take in dominating nature.

“Holy shit,” Varric says, coming to a halt as he notices.

“Imagine that,” Hawke says, voice light, though her face betrays her disgust. “Here us barbaric Southerners stick smoldering coals under pots to keep food warm. We could have had demons do the job for us. Such savages we are.”

“That’s wrong,” Merrill says, looking shaken. “That’s very, very wrong. Spirits should be respected.”

How typical. “Of course, the blood witch is concerned for the demons,” Fenris mutters, before checking himself. He should not speak overmuch now that they are inside, though his anger remains. 

"I need a drink," Hawke announces. "Just maybe not the demon kind."

***

In Kirkwall, the whole slavery being illegal thing was mostly for show. Hawke's seen plenty of this particular brand of despicability. But what gives Hawke pause is that she isn't allowed to just... kill all the slavers on the spot. Corral them all up under a cascade of fireballs and be done with it.

Neither she nor Fenris have the best impulse control, but somehow he's managing not to murder everyone in sight. With that in mind, until he gives the go ahead, she'll try to follow his lead. Hence the drinking. 

Speaking of, this is the best alcohol Hawke's ever tasted in her life. Even better than the stuff Fenris enjoyed painting his walls with in Kirkwall. Really, though. She thought alcohol was supposed to taste... boozey. An acquired taste, in that you kill all your taste buds and thereafter don't mind downing the stuff. Not this smooth, crisp, sharp nonsense. It would almost be worth it, if not for the, oh, you know, completely bonkers use of demons as cupholders and crockpots, and the brutalizing and enslaving people thing.

Merrill's wandered off... somewhere. Hopefully not to befriend the demons. Fenris follows along as Hawke's shadow—a shadow she has to squash the urge to hide her face against and squeeze, but a shadow nonetheless. She's trying her damnedest not to glance back at him too many times, after he warned in a murmur, "Hawke, you are telegraphing your affections." 

"I saw you staring at my ass, I'll have you know," she whispered. It was true, and it gives her some hope that Fenris doesn't have to squash away all of his usual self while they're here.

Mae chats with Varric on the dance floor as Hawke grabs an extra drink and staggers back over. (She's not even tipsy, but it can't hurt to act up. She wants all these gaggles of finely dressed magisters to underestimate her.)

Mae's dangling earrings glitter with spheres of precious stones and clink against her shoulders, and she wears a floor-length, foam green ball gown. Her eyebrows are plucked bare and painted on in a slim, arching brown ink, blonde hair stacked atop her head. It all suits her. On Hawke, it'd be a nightmare come true. To her relief, Mae settled on something different for Hawke: a hooded, black leather vest coat over leggings and boots, studded with interlocking dragon scales and protective runes, slim silver pauldrons on each shoulder, and black fingerless gloves. The back of the coat forms dubious ruffles, but the important part is, it's not a dress.

Seeing the clothes in action, Mae sighs. "The color’s dreary, but I’m against fashion by preferring my pastels. The style is a little Southern..." Another heavy sigh. "It’ll do."

"Hello to you too."

Mae turns back to Varric. "What was I asking, dear? Oh—how's Bartrand?"

“Uh, not so great,” Varric says, and tries to shrug to little avail in his tightly-tailored suit coat. It's the same black and silver as Hawke's, for their impending fake marriage and all. If they have to fight, Hawke can see that a few seams won't survive the night. Only Bianca is looking her normal self. It seems Mae knows Varric well enough to never suggest any change to bolt or latch.

“We killed him," Hawke adds. "With weapons. They were very pointy.”

"I'm... sorry to hear that?" Mae raises an eyebrow, one hand on her hip, the other wrapped around her champagne flute.

"Eh," Varric says, and shrugs. "He locked us in the Deep Roads and left us to die."

"That was," Hawke lets out a hiccup burp, "because of the red thingy."

"Sure," Varric concedes, "but he was an asshole before the idol. Can't really say what—"

Mae's expression perks up. "Red idol? Was it red lyrium? I've heard a few rumors in these parts that—"

A magister from across the room calls out, "Maevaris! Let me look at you! Your hair, your dress, your jewelry—"

Mae glances over her shoulder and calls back, "Is that a compliment or are you taking inventory?" She turns a small, bemused smile to Hawke and Varric. "Time to mingle. I'll find you later, darlings. You're doing fine." 

Well then. Hawke has some magisters to irritate. She downs the rest of her champagne in one go. If she can't kill 'em, might as well annoy 'em.

"Ready, Varric?" she asks.

Varric grins. "Yep!"

***

Isabela heads straight to the wine repository downstairs, taking a deep, appreciative breath of the chilly air and polished wood scent. She steals the fanciest bottle they've got, rips the cork out with her teeth, and sets in. The stuff down here is expensive and strong, and maybe it can help her forget for an evening about being in this piece of shit country. The chatter one floor up is easy enough to hear. If Hawke blows something up, she'll grab some bottles and make a run for it. 

Isabela's supposed to keep an ear open for gossip in the kitchens and an eye open for any fights, or some pish like that. She's not Hawke's date, and she's not a mage, so she's not supposed to be at this party in the first place. She volunteered to sneak in with the slaves, but her side of the agreement was strictly for the free alcohol.

Fenris had been cute, with a hesistant, stunted question, little creases between his brows. "You were a slave once. Playing the role again can be... troubling."

"Booze, Fenris," she replied. "Liquor. Spirits, untouched by the Fade. Rotgut. Sauce. The other kind of hard stuff. Help me out, Varric, how else do I explain?"

For her disguise, she wears a plain, white tunic dress, her heavy necklace and earrings locked up safe in her ship. Without their weight, and without the pressure of her corset, Isabela feels floaty, vague, and not quite real, all things she'd much rather feel after some fun substances, not before. She promptly starts up drinking to correct that.

The occasional slave hurries down the stairs to get someone's refills, and notices her with wide eyes. But they scurry away again after Isabela shoos them and says "carry on." Either they think she's shirking duties, or they realize she's a free woman, and either way, it doesn't matter. What's important is she's left in blissful peace, mind deliciously blank as she gazes at the wall. 

Until the dregs of the third bottle, that is.

"Show me your owner's mark," a voice calls out over footsteps down the stairs. Somebody snitched on her.

Wait. That's an awfully familiar voice.

Shit. 

"You'd better not be one of mine or you can say farewell to your—Isabela?"

It's too bad the ground never opens up and swallows someone when you want it to.

"I'm not a slave, Devon, if that's what you're thinking," Isabela says, finishing up the last of the bottle, but not setting it down, the pads of her fingertips still gripping the cool glass. "Just a look I'm trying out. Now move along."

"Isabela," Lord Devon, top slave procurer for the Felicisima Armada, repeats. A grin spreads from in between his stupid fucking square-shaped beard, as he strides up to her in his high-collared velvet suit and poofed-up white necktie. "I didn't think you were still alive, to be honest."

Isabela wonders why she bothers setting boundaries when nobody cares to listen to them. Just for the fun of hearing herself speak, she supposes. And here Devon had to go and wreck a perfectly mind-numbing evening by bringing up silly, irrelevant memories. Like how solid his muscles were under her hands, a distraction from all the atrophied muscles in the cargo hold. How his cologne made her gag but was still better than the stink of her ship. How his untalented jackrabbiting into her was the only thing besides drink she had to wipe her mind clear of any picking and prodding from her conscience.

"I'm alive," she mutters, and what do you know, fuck a man once and he'll never leave you alone. He's teeming with excitement because he thinks he's going to get a lay tonight. Isabela can see it in that glitter in his eyes.

"Don't mistake me, I'm very glad," he says. "Do you sail with the new magister? The Southerner? She is a friend of yours?"

Isabela sighs. "None of your goddamn business." She wonders what he'd look like if she cut off his arms and legs and drown him in one of the wine barrels. It's a lovely thought.

Devon frowns. "Isabela, you can't possibly still blame me. After all, if your friend's a magister, she won't care what happened in the Venefication Sea."

"Nothing happened there, Devon," Isabela drawls. At the moment he opens his mouth to protest, she stands, and in one quick, smooth motion, smashes the empty bottle against the stone wall, and rushes the sharp shard to his throat. "Nothing happened! You understand?"

Devon looks like he's about to agree, his eyes bulging and hands up, when a hazy mist of red circles his head. He gags. Isabela steps back. His body stiffens up, stone-still, his face contorts, and blood starts to dribble out of his mouth.

"He was troubling you, lethallan, wasn't he?" Merrill asks from the top of the stairs, a small onyx knife in one hand and a slice across her palm in the other.

"Merrill! I..." Isabela's mind swirls over and over around what Merrill could have heard, then simmers down again. Nothing much. And Devon isn't talking.

"Now, if you need him for anything," Merrill continues, "I can just—" She limps down the stairs, holding a hand out toward him, a frown of concentration on her face. "He's fighting it a little, that's very interesting! I suppose because he's used to being around blood magic." She sticks her tongue out in concentration, the expression scrunching up the tattoos on her face, and tenses her fingers. "There. He's given up now."

Isabela stares at the blood coagulating into Devon's beard. Merrill, dressed in her apprentice guise with simple dark green robes and some black slippers, shuffles to Isabela's side, clearly favoring one leg.

Isabela frowns. "You injured, kitten? Besides your blood magic, I mean."

"Oh, no, it's just shoes," Merrill says. "I'm getting a sore on my heel I think."

"Shoes are... yes, shoes can do that," Isabela says, dazed.

Isabela's rule for good lying is to never overexplain, ideally to distract. Merrill's not even asking any questions, either. But Isabela also has a few current problems, one being it's Merrill, and the other being she's been drinking more than her usual daily, and so Isabela finds herself blurting, "We had a fling a while back, Devon and I. I found out he was stashing slaves to transport on my ship. I, uh, I let them go, and he's been holding a grudge ever since."

Merrill nods gravely. "Like Castillon."

"Exactly," Isabela agrees, trying not to wince. 

"Would you like me to kill him?" Merrill asks, very matter-of-fact, standing very close. She smells like herbs, not the loopy kind, but others, from her rituals. Isabela wishes Devon wasn't here. She wishes Devon never existed. Maybe she wishes she never existed, too. She wants to lick behind Merrill's ear.

"Sure," Isabela says, suddenly weary. "Go ahead and end it."

Without the slightest concern troubling her expression, Merrill squeezes her hand, then flicks. Devon drops to the ground with a final, walloping out-breath.

Isabela lets out her own breath she didn't realize she was holding. "Thanks."

"Now what?" Merrill asks, smiling sweet, even though the whites of her eyes are pink, and the pink of her lips has turned white.

***

Hawke antagonizes magisters a large portion of the evening, and Fenris cannot say he truly disapproves. He fights the contrary feelings of anxiety and unbidden laughter in his throat, keeping his expression as flat as possible, as he follows her on her rampaging path.

When gossiping magisters titter that Hawke will be a poor mistress, one who will most certainly cause laziness in her domestics for the poor example she will set, Hawke and Varric insinuate themselves into the conversation.

"I've heard from a very reliable source she can't even make her own porridge," Varric says.

"I've witnessed the horror!" Hawke exclaims. "It turns to a solid brick every time. How ever will she fashion her slaves to be gooey delights if grains won't cooperate?"

When another group mutters Tevene insults, calling Hawke a joke of nature, lusus naturae, for possessing magic at all, Hawke does not allow them the language barrier as a facade of politeness. She hears her name, the tone, and inserts herself in the conversation, with a grin and an easy, "Oh wait, I think I know that one. My darling Varric's been teaching me, you see. Hmm... 'Hawke... is... brilliant and dashing.' How'd I do?"

A certain amount of wit and confidence endears magisters to even the most unpopular of their cohort, so Fenris sees no need to discourage their actions. It is not opposed to their purposes per se. It also gives him pleasure to see her cause magisters a flood of blush to their faces... even if he'd prefer the blood to be spilled on the outside.

Several other initiation oaths take place, but Hawke's name is not yet announced. Varric steps away, citing nature's call. In time with this departure, one minor magister approaches them.

The mage is not one of the old families, his features unfamiliar to Fenris, with a sharply receding hairline of yellow curls, over a prominent, white forehead. He must have scrabbled his way up to some small power in the time Fenris was away. The man undoubtedly hopes to capitalize on Hawke's soon to be acquired wealth, since certainly not her status.

"You are a newcomer! Allow me to welcome you. I am Decimus Seneca of the Magisterium," the mage introduces himself, with a wide, toothy smile.

Seneca scrapes a salacious look at Hawke, up and down with his watery, pale eyes. Fenris wants to dig the organs out and crush them. His approach is not a coincidence, in the absence of Hawke's supposed fiance. He looks hungrily at Fenris, too, but this gaze focuses only on the lyrium markings, greed for wealth not body.

Hawke's own aggressively confident mask of humor falters. She squirms, and Fenris' anger and disgust at the magister morphs into a pang of worry for Hawke. She should not have to go through this.

Seneca bows low and grabs Hawke's hand with two of his own, pressing a wet, suckling kiss on her knuckles.

"Hey!" Hawke yelps. She jerks away, her fingers curling into a fist, as Fenris steps forward.

Give me a reason, Fenris thinks. The line between slave striking a magister and bodyguard protecting a master is a fine one, but Fenris is more than aware of how to stretch it. If Seneca advances the slightest amount of physical danger against Hawke...

"My, my," Seneca says, as Hawke roughly wipes the wet spot away on the side of her hip, "the color of your skin looks beautiful when damp. Allow me to invest in some fine oils for you, ones you will have never encountered in the Marches."

"I do so miss my mabari slobbering on me, I'm so glad you could help," Hawke says, loud, voice mock-cheerful but her brows low and her eyes flashing. "And you know what color would be beautiful? The color of your face after it meets my fist."

He scowls. "And here we have the brutality in Rivaini blood. Over a mere compliment." 

"She does but teach lesson sorely needed, Decimus," a clear, deep voice rings out. "You impose yourself on our guest."

***

Hawke shoots a glance to the side, still trying to control her queasiness from the sleazeball in front of her. Her heart is attempting to exit her chest, and her armpits and palms pump out the big time sweats. Is it too late to run away, jump in the Nocen Sea, and take her chances with the fish? Or perhaps Fenris can phase out his entire body so that she can climb inside his chest and never come out again?

The interceding voice belongs to a different magister. Of course. This one's a man with a square jaw, sparse lines around his mouth and eyes, a short-cropped military hair style, and simple dark red robes.

Sleazeball turns a hot flush of red. "Magister Crassus," he simpers. "A pleasure."

Crassus raises his brows and shakes his head as he approaches. "Take care, Decimus. Your advances are ill-received."

To Hawke, he presents a plain linen handkerchief, with a wry tilt of his lips. "You appear to have need of this."

Hawke would almost say Crassus has kind eyes, if she didn't know enough to be wary. She tries to decide if someone can be poisoned through a scrap of cloth, but figures Fenris would intervene if he thought it likely. 

"Seems that way," Hawke mutters, and takes the cloth. She rubs with vigor at her hand.

Seneca opens his mouth. "I—"

Crassus looks at him in surprise. "Still present? Leave us."

With an even deeper flush and a flourish of his robes, Seneca spins and stalks away.

"He disgraces the Senate," Crassus announces, without any attempt at a hushed tone. "Votes to oust him will soon pass, no doubt the reason for his attitude. He is a magister of little talent, and must lust for death, to disturb the mage who felled the Mad Ox in single combat."

She tries to remember when she singlehandedly stopped any angry cattle. Oh, wait. Racial slurs. Delightful. She wishes everyone and their mother, and their mother's hound, and their mother's hound's fleas, would stop assuming she hated the Arishok. How could she? He gave Aveline the shush finger once. It was the best moment of Hawke's life.

Isabela is... Isabela. Hawke couldn't give her up, not after she came back. But Hawke wishes there could have been another way. He was just one more death she couldn't find a way to stop. One more person she cared about, gone.

"I'm sure you'll be Ari-shocked at this revelation, but he wasn't a cow. He never ate a single blade of grass. And really, he was the sanest of the lot of us Kirkwallians. It's a wonder he didn't try to crush us all sooner."

Crassus smiles. "You speak well of a fallen enemy. This speaks well of you. I wish you great honor, Certiorari Hawke, during your initiation this evening."

Crassus nods a bow, and strides away. An intrigued "ooh" reaches Hawke's ears. 

Mae clinks and glimmers back over to Hawke's side. "How did you manage that? That was Marcellus Crassus. Filthy rich general, from one of the oldest families. I haven't seen him in the Senate much, he's always off running campaigns, but he's fair by reputation. You could do much worse than have him on your side."

Fenris murmurs, "Danarius always hated him, but in the Imperium, the enemy of our enemy does not necessitate a friend." 

Varric slips back through the crowd, holding another flute of champagne. "I missed something, huh?"

"Oh, nothing much," Hawke says, crinkling up Crassus' handkerchief and stuffing it into her vest pocket. "A contender for my hand in marriage. Then, lo and behold, a savior."

"Hawke," Fenris whispers, sounding strained.

"I kid. I know he's shady too."

Mae sighs. "Don't think of us all as storybook villains, darling."

"To be fair, Mae," Varric says, "most of you act like it."

"And that's what some of us would love to put an end to. Let me clue you in on some other possible allies." She sidles in closer, and gestures with glittering fingertips. "The woman in the dark purple, high collar? Cristina Balventius. Moderate, open to reform. Heading down those steps, there, see him at the bottom? Halward Pavus. Clutches his pearls at my existence, and he'd probably ban his son from ever speaking to me if he could—"

"How kind, these friends of yours."

"—but he's a strong voice of reason against blood magic and mind domination. Who else... no, Titus is as villainous as you're going to get, ignore him, let me see..."

She proceeds to run Hawke through a list of magisters in the crowd that Hawke doesn't bother trying to remember. Mae still doesn't understand exactly how much Hawke in fact wants Mae's precious home country to crumble under their feet. It's riveting (or not), hearing about the magisters who are "reformist" or "moderate" or "broad-minded" or "sympathetic," euphemisms that mean, as far as Hawke's concerned, "still deeply imbedded up the asshole of the Imperium".

Mae's running out of less-evil-than-average fellows to point out, when Hawke's name is called up for her swearing in. The rushing sound of too many voices raised in chatter cuts abruptly into a hush.

Here goes nothing.

***

Merrill looks down at the shem's body at her feet, the blood drying crinkled in the seam of her hand. She tries not to turn her head too quick in any direction. Sometimes her magic drains her a bit much. She wouldn't like to faint and give Isabela two bodies to move away.

Merrill spent some of the evening plucking grapes off stems and stuffing the pockets of her robes with them, sneaking them to elven slaves whenever she could. She knows what hunger looks like. If she can't do anything else, if being here pretending with Hawke feels a terrible lot like how she once heard Arlathvhen leaders say they could only help free the flat-ears once the Dalish had more strength, at least she could give their stomachs something to gnaw on.

She tried whispering to the bound spirits, too, telling them she was very sorry they'd been chained away. She wasn't sure if they could hear her, and considered trying to break the binding circles, even though the spirits would be inclined to do bad things after being treated so badly. But Hawke came by for a drink, caught on to Merrill's gaze, and mouthed "I'm watching you." With irritation, Merrill tucked aside the idea. For the moment.

Then, because Varric and Hawke were being silly and didn't need her, Merrill went to find Isabela, the backs of her shoes nibbling at her heels like toothy puppies. She got lost on the way, as she always does, but followed the sounds of the frantic clattering of cookery. Once in the kitchens, she went down some stairs. And here she is.

She tries another question, after Isabela stays silent. "We should do something with him, don't you think?"

Merrill inspects Isabela, who still stares at the man's corpse like she's struggling to think of something to say. She has some specks of blood on the shoulder of her flimsy white dress, and still grips half of a broken bottle. She smells very strongly of alcohol. Well then, Merrill can tidy things up herself. Merrill gently pries Isabela's fingers off the bottle and sets it aside, then reaches up and brushes at the stain with her clean hand.

"Hmm," Merrill says. "If we get this with a bit of cold water before it sets, it shouldn't stain. Or you might want to try some cornmeal and water, mixed into a paste. Let it sit out in the sun for a while, that should lift it too. You know me, Isabela. I have plenty of practice with stains. I'm horribly clumsy sometimes, and blood magic is a bit messy."

"I—" Isabela begins, then blinks and shakes her head. "Yes. Let's stash the body somewhere." She grabs him up under his armpits, making a grunt of effort. "It'd be just our luck if someone came down the stairs right now and—"

"Apologies for intrusion," says a soft voice from the stairs.

Oh dear. Merrill steps in front of Isabela and the body. It doesn't do any good at hiding them, but this way, if someone else tries to hurt Isabela...

But at the steps is the slave who levitated the drinks for Hawke in Danarius' house, back during their first meeting with Varric's Tevinter friend. And she seems very happy to see them.

"I can help," the slave girl says.

***

Varric stands with his back to Hawke as she takes her magister's oath. For this reason, and pretty much only this reason, Hawke manages to get through repeating the words of fealty fed to her by a judge. Hawke thinks she does a damned good job. She doesn't cackle once, as she deadpan declares her solemn promise to uphold the Imperium in "true allegiance without reservation."

Then the judge takes out a sharp needle and a small glass plate. The muttering of the crowd shoots up in pace and volume.

"Your hand, please, Certiorari," he says to Hawke.

At the bottom of the stairs, standing near tables where some magisters are dining, Fenris and Mae both visibly start in Hawke's peripheral vision. 

It was all just too easy, wasn't it? Nothing like this happened to the magisters initiated earlier in the evening, but of course they'd be saving it for her. 'Oh, blood magic's illegal here, darling. They only do it behind closed doors, you won't have to worry about that at the ball.' Terrific, Mae. Just terrific.

"My hand? Why my hand? Why not a foot?" Hawke stalls, as Varric turns around to face Hawke, concerned.

Mae steps forward, and poises her hand on her hip. "Praetor, there's no need to do any archaic nonsense. We take modern magisters at their word here."

"Indeed," says Harold? Halward? Headwart?—Hawke thinks it's that last one—one of the magisters Mae pointed out earlier. "It is very crude. None have been required to perform the Sacramentum Sanguinis in the last hundred—"

"Apologies, Magister Tilani, Magister Pavus," the judge interrupts, "but it is a request from the Archon himself."

Mae's lips press into a thin line, but she steps back. The other magister shakes his head and goes quiet.

Hawke looks to Fenris. His expression holds fury barely contained, and he gives Hawke the slightest shake of the head. A no vote from Fenris on the blood magic ritual. Surprises never cease.

"Initiate Hawke, your hand," the judge prompts again.

"Seeing as I only have two of them, I'd love to know what you're going to do with that needle."

"One drop from your finger, nothing more. A small token to hold you to your word, for the good of the Imperium."

"And let's say I decide I'd rather not partake of this fun little blood ritual. What then?"

"You rescind all rights to your inheritance."

"But of course!"

Well, they've come this far, haven't they? If she says no, they'll claim Fenris is up for grabs, and with this crowd, there's not much anyone can do to prevent it. She's as good as trapped.

She shrugs, ignoring the waves of judgement and disapproval radiating off Fenris in her direction, and wiggles her fingers toward the judge, suppressing a creeped-out shudder when he takes her hand. As far as her body's reactions are concerned, the blood magic's fine. She just can't stand another stranger touching her today.

The judge steadies a finger, and pricks the tip of it with the needle. He squeezes until a droplet rises up, and smears the blood across the glass. She doesn't feel any different.

"Magister Joaquina Hawke," the judge announces, to a smattering of halfhearted applause. Tough crowd.

Time to leave, before they get any tougher.

Hawke beelines down the stairs, grabbing a flute of champagne from a tray along the way. But before she reaches Varric, Fenris, and Mae, the gust of a force spell strikes behind her knees. Her stomach flips as she falls, her drink shattering, her knees hitting on the stone floor and radiating a shock of pain up to her low back. She slams her hand down to catch herself, right onto a piece of glass.

Hawke's face floods with a burning flush, and her hands shake with a sudden spike of energy. She picks a chunk of glass out of the meat of her hand, stinging from the alcohol, then looks behind her. A group of magisters lounge at the nearby dining table around their drinks and plates of food, and titter with laughter. "Clumsy dog-lord," she hears between giggles, plus a few choice phrases in Tevene she can guess the meaning of sandwiched in with "Rivain".

Fenris, glowing in rage, lyrium pulsing, has jerked forward toward Hawke, his eyes scanning frantic for the one who cast the spell. It could have been any of them. The whoosh of blood in Hawke's ears distorts the sounds of Varric and Mae asking if she's all right. Only Fenris' voice cuts through the rush.

"They trip you as they would an unfavored slave," he hisses, blue sparks spitting off his body as she stands and heals her palm's bleeding gouge shut.

The magisters mutter something else, and go into a fit of laughter again. Hawke's body pushes for violence with everything it's got. Do it! Slug them! All of them!

She tries to shush her urges. She should take her friends and leave. She'll get all of these shitheads back later when their slaves disappear and their lifestyles crumble and... one of the magisters turns back to his food, still laughing, and says, "She has no control over her pet. It looks like a Satinalia lanter."

Well. That's decided then.

"Clumsy me," Hawke says, tone light, and takes a few casual steps forward.

She trips herself this time, in a lunge, and pretends to catch herself by planting her hand on the back of the magister's head. With her full weight, she smashes his face into his plate with a squelch of food and the shatter of porcelain and nose bones.

"Whoops," she says. "There I go again."

Voices explode in an uproar.

***

"I saw everything," the girl says to Merrill. "My name is Asenath, my lady Discipula."4 She curtsies, then speaks quickly. "The Domina is in the midst of her initiation. You should go to her if it please you. I'll take care of this."

"Oh! Um, that's very nice of you," Merrill begins, tentative, "but—"

"Tell us, sweet thing," Isabela interrupts, pausing in her effort to heave the body into her arms. "What are you hoping to get for helping?"

"Speak with Mistress Hawke on my behalf," Asenath replies, her gaze fixing onto Merrill's, even though Isabela asked the question. "You saw my magic in the library, didn't you?"

"Yes, I did," Merrill agrees.

"I can lift more than glass." Asenath holds out both arms, and the corpse floats off the ground.

She's showing off, like a youngling in a clan of many mages, all vying for First to the Keeper. But it's true that steady levitation takes skill. Merrill knows Hawke uses some force magic too, and while it's fine for fighting, it isn't controlled. When Hawke blasts things, they fly back, flopping in all directions. This is very precise, even if just one spell.

"I cannot approach the Domina on my own behalf," Asenath continues, breathless, still holding the body mid-air, "but as her apprentice, you could do so for me. I've never seen a Rivaini magister before. I'm honored to serve in her House. If anyone could help me improve my position, it would be Mistress Hawke."

"You might be surprised," Isabela mutters.

Asenath's expression flickers cold anger, but in a moment it's gone into blankness. She lets the body slump back down to the floor. A sheen of sweat glistens high on her forehead in the small wisps of hair loose from her crown of knots. "I'll keep my end of the bargain. I'll hide all trace of this, and no blame will fall on our household. I only ask you consider my request in return."

***

Panting with the rush of energy pulsing through her, Hawke swings her staff off her back and eyes the surrounding magisters as the commotion escalates in pitch and chaos. The bloody, food-faced magister staggers up, knocking over his chair in the process, swiping at his blinded eyes, calling for a healer. A slave in a white tunic rushes forward to dab frantically at his face with cloth.

The magister claps his hands twice, sending a little spray of food particles flying through the air. Another slave hurriedly approaches, this one heavily muscled, and armed with a set of wooden clubs. The magister finally manages to wipe open his reddened, leaking eyes, and holds a cloth to his nose.

"Rivaini bitch," he spits out at Hawke, sounding a lot less intimidating than he probably hopes, voice nasally from his smashed nose.

"You've forgotten already?" Hawke shakes her head. "You're breaking my heart here. It's Magister Rivaini Bitch now."

"A duel!" he shouts. "In redress for your actions! Your guard, against my fighter."

Said fighter inclines his head, but looks in apprehension at Fenris' lyrium. The crowd stirs eagerly, countless pairs of eyes watching in interest.

Hawke understands now. They want to see Fenris in action. They've been ogling his markings all evening. They wanted to provoke her into this in the first place. Maybe this particular magister didn't expect to end up with half his dinner up his swollen face, but the crowd in general? They're practically quivering with delight.

And here's the thing: Fenris will win. Normally, Fenris winning is great. In this case, however, the whole winning equals having to kill an innocent man for other people's sick entertainment puts a damper on everything.

"Fight me yourself, thanks," Hawke shouts back. "Leave your slave out of it."

The magister's face flickers with surprise and unease for a moment. Not big on doing things for himself, it seems.

Then someone else's voice joins in. "A wonderful proposal!"

Look who it is. Seneca. As if Hawke didn't already feel like she needed a bath, this slime had to reappear. She turns to see him squeezing between bystanders, the non-existent force of his personality unable to help him part the crowd.

"My gracious fellow magister, allow me to volunteer instead. I can show this girl her errors." He has a sort of manic gleam in his pale eyes, and Hawke sees what Crassus meant about him being desperate. As Isabela loves to say: if he kills her, he gets to take her stuff. Where is Isabela anyway?

The injured magister scoffs, then shrugs. "Seneca? Very well. No matter the outcome, one annoyance or another will end up dead."

Someone else from the crowd giggles and adds, "Both if we're lucky!" and the resulting wave of laughter turns Seneca's cheeks bright red. 

He still manages to attempt a sneer at Hawke, unlatching his staff. "Do you accept, girl?"

"I've so been hoping to fight you," she says, muscles itching and ready at the very thought.

***

Such a frail and desperately greedy magister as Seneca should pose little problem, Fenris thinks with relief. He steps back to give Hawke space for the fight, as the judge drones through the traditional pre-duel announcement of current date, time, and participants. Seneca should be within Hawke's skill level to defeat without assistance, even if his magic proves challenging, and the other magisters will not punish her overmuch for killing him.

Fenris' lyrium is difficult to calm once it has been fully ignited, even as he tries to breathe steady, and so his skin flickers like a torch in wind. Hawke has never once asked to use his lyrium to power herself, not even in the most dire of battles. It used to surprise him, in the beginning. Any magister would have sapped at least a little of the power from Fenris by now. It was the perverse purpose he was designed for, after all. Instead, he watches as new Magister Hawke uncorks a bottle of her own lyrium and downs it in preparation. A small shiver ripples over her skin as it takes effect.

"A potion?" Seneca scoffs, and then laughs. He gestures to Fenris. "You have this fine specimen in your control, and you don't even use it?"

"No need," Hawke calls back with forced cheer, cracking her knuckles and looking at the judge with impatience.

Fenris has no wariness left in him that Hawke might try to drain him. It has been years and years since she last needed to earn his trust.

Fenris is a fool to feel any sense of comfort in the Imperium.

In the certainty that Hawke will not use him, Fenris is slow, taken off guard, when Seneca says, "If you won't, then someone should have a taste."

Seneca thrusts out his hand, and pulls.

***

Fenris lets out a hoarse yell and drops to the ground, convulsing, and Hawke's heart leaps, hammering, into her throat. She reaches out with her magic to heal him, only to sense that he's perfectly healthy, not injured at all, but his lyrium has vanished. And he's in pain. A lot of it.

As Varric squats down at Fenris' side, Hawke spins on Seneca. He's laughing now, through chattering teeth and quaking muscles, like he's had a lifetime supply of brewed Antivan beans. Whispers of demons start to form around him.

But Hawke doesn't care how hyped up on lyrium power he is. "I'm going to kill you twice!" she shouts, charging forward, and calls up flames in her hand. She raises her palm to cast when Seneca, in a great burst of light... disintegrates.

Huh? Hawke grinds to an anticlimactic halt in front of the ashes at her feet. "Did I do that?"

When has her rage caused people to spontaneously cremate before she even casts a spell? That's new. Good thing it started after her and Carver stopped talking.

But then Crassus steps into her sightline, parting the cheering, rowdy crowd.

"Decimus claimed another's property, absent permission," Crassus says, with a nod to Hawke. "Within the bounds of our empire, such an act against a magister is punishable by death. He knew the penalty, yet chose to ignore for own desires. Here, my offered amends to you."

Fenris isn't property, Fenris isn't property, Fenris isn't... "I would have preferred to kill him myself," Hawke says, and looks back at Fenris. He's still prone on the ground, awake but with listless eyes. She doesn't know how long it'll take him to recharge. She's never seen him like this before. Even when Fenris was knocked unconscious in battles, it was different than this.

Crassus spares the pile of ash a glance of disappointment. "Decimus acted petty thief. He was no longer worthy of any magister's duel."

Hawke steps in the ash, and crunches it under her foot, then glances back at Fenris again, as Varric attempts and fails to help him stand. Mae isn't trying to help, which is one good mark on her record: at least she knows Fenris won't want her to touch him.

"I need to go," Hawke says, and begins to turn away.

"No." Crassus steps into her personal space, blocking her path, eyes suddenly cold and hard. "There must be a duel," he says. "Your earlier actions necessitate it."

Killing Seneca would have been one thing, but Hawke doubts killing a well-respected magister is going to go well for her. "That was all just a misunderstanding," she tries, stepping away again. She needs to get Fenris out of here. She needs to get herself out of here. "'Necessitate' is such an ugly word. Why don't we all just go back to drinking and—"

"It is our law," he interrupts, his fingers suddenly digging into her upper arm, hard enough to bruise.

Hawke yanks herself out of his grip. One of those to-the-letter folks, then. He and Aveline would get along splendidly in a different life.

"Fine, fight me then," Hawke says, twirling her staff, and shaking out her now sore shoulder. Killing him will be no hardship for her.

"Praetor," Crassus says, removing his staff, to the nearby judge, who's been standing dazed with his mouth open. "An update to your records. Magister Joaquina Hawke, facing Magister Marcellus Crassus, in place of Decimus Seneca, title revoked. If you would be so kind?"

The crowds of magisters and their slaves push in to form a circle around them, creeping closer and closer like a tightening noose.

The judge shakes himself from his reverie, and nods. "Begin."

The word has only just left the judge's mouth when a barrage of spells land on Hawke like a surrounding army of archers, and the protective runes lining her clothes burst and shatter to the floor. Hawke has no room to maneuver and dodge. When she tries to make room by stomping blindly on feet from the crowds behind her, she gets shoved forward instead, almost losing her balance. Her health already gushes away like someone's broken a dam. Her shields collapse every time she puts them up, Crassus' force magic punching against her abdomen.

New tactic, then. Hawke gives up on shields, and starts chugging lyrium and healing potions with one hand while casting anything she can think of with the other: slowing spells, fire, ice, storms, force, even something Merrill taught her a long time ago that makes the bottom of shoes slippery. Crassus blocks almost everything she sends at him. One of the spells rebounds into the crowd, to the sound of shrieks and shattering glass.

Crassus barely moves, nonchalant circling paired to her stumbling. Lazy, really, having her do all the work.

Hawke redoubles her efforts, forcing a laugh and a shout of, "This the best you can do?"

She bursts a chain of lightning at him, her arm hair rising and crackling, before she realizes her mistake. It bounces off his newly flung barrier back at her, and hits with a sharp zap that loosens and quakes her muscles, shooting pain from jaw to hip. The hem of her vest lights on fire. Hawke tugs it off and throws the flaming cloth at him, figuring any pathetic attack is better than none.

She scoops out a bit more of her dwindling mana to heal another zap he sends her way. She stifles a noise of pain. She can feel his power growing with each injury, siphoning off her life force. He's looking better than he was before the fight. Hawke's probably healing up his indigestion and childhood scars at this rate.

"Shit," she gasps, as another spell hits her chest and starts stealing away her mana. She tries to draw up shields to cut off the flow. It doesn't work. Among the magisters ooh-ing and ahh-ing, Mae and Varric are arguing, hopefully about something helpful. Any time now.

"The Qunari suffered great defeat at your hands," Crassus calls to her, looking disappointed, "yet I see you now find yourself in civilized lands."

"I'll civilize your face," Hawke retorts weakly, then goes back to gasping for breath. Each new healing spell she tries gets sucked dry like the Hanged Man's best whiskey in a free for all. She swigs the last of her potions, and opens a firestorm above Crassus' head, only for another shield around him to repel it like a roof and a few drops of rain.

She's rapidly getting to the point where she'd love to lie down and take a nap, just close her eyes right this very moment. Through the searing pain, she reaches inside herself and scrapes the last bits of mana she has left, flinging one last Winter's Grasp at Crassus, wheezing with the effort. It hits, but slows him only for a moment. Her magic putters out into nothing. Hawke heaves her staff at him. He grips it, and pushes, sending her stumbling backward. She drops the staff, runs forward again, and sends her fist flying toward his face. He deflects it easily, and again, and again, each time she tries, force spells still pounding into her stomach, making her heave.

Hawke limps to the side and grabs a stranger from the eager crowd, ducking behind them, just for a breather, just for a moment, her temporary, precious human shield. Crassus' magic pulls Hawke like a ragdoll back out again. She fumbles at anything she can reach: wine glasses, trays, even her own boot, flinging them at him, and they slow him down, but not enough, and her mana's too low to regenerate on its own now, she'll need potions, and...

Mae has disappeared. Hawke sees Varric shouting and grappling with at least three people, only to go down hard, Bianca wrestled out of his grip and stomped on with a cracking sound. Hawke tries to call out, "You bastards! That's Varric's girlfriend you're turning into firewood!" but the words come out garbled. Maker only knows where Isabela and Merrill are. Probably in the back of the crowd, trying to push through, and they'll never make it.

She can't see Fenris. She's losing her ability to see much of anything, truth be told. She's fought mages before, lots of them, blood mages and hedge mages and Circle mages and Dalish mages and demon mages, but mages weren't anything like this before. Not before they got to Tevinter. 

Nothing prepared Hawke for this, this truth that Anders had wet dreams about. The thing Fenris already knew, has always known. That growing up a mage in Tevinter, without Templars around the corner, with total power and no control, it makes magic easy. It makes magic strong. Too strong. Hawke never had a chance. The floating ice block of a despair demon catches her eye. They're completely bonkers here. Completely fucking deranged. As much as Hawke hates herself for numb, blank Feynriel's sake, at least she saved him from this. Father taught Hawke and Bethany how to survive in the world with magic, without shame, but there was still some kind of caution. Not like here. Father, he—

"Take a naaaap," Father said in his best deep, overexaggerated demon voice. "What do you say?"

Scratchy, yellowing grass brushed against the lighter undersides of Joaquina's small, brown hands. Father sat cross-legged on the ground in front of her and Bethany, leaning in, a co-conspirator with a grin. His long locs were tied and tucked into twin buns on either side of his head, slumped, wilted flowers stuck into them. Beth and Hawke had decided to give him pigtails and decorate them, something Malcolm never minded.

Hawke giggled. "Good idea, Carver's snores kept me awake last night."

Malcolm laughed, his good-natured low rumble. "There goes Joaqui. All right, Bethy, do I get one daughter who's not a demon? What do you say?"

"No thanks, I prefer to stay awake," Bethany said sweetly.

"Beautiful! And now, eat some caaaaaake."

Bethany piped up with, "No thanks, I'm not hun—"

"Yes please!" Hawke bounced in place. "Mum and Pa are terrible bakers!"

"Father," Bethany pleaded, pouting, pitch rising into a tearful whine. "Joaquina isn't doing it right."

Malcolm rustled Bethany's dark, squiggly curls with a large, gentle hand. "It's all right, Beth, Joaqui's just being silly. She knows what to do, right?"

Hawke gave a fervent nod.

Malcolm grinned. "Possessed by Sloth and Hunger both, Joaqui? What do we call you? Slunger?"

"Hoth," she said, between more giggles.

"What about Templars?"

"It's a walking stick," both Bethany and Hawke said at the same time.

"And?"

"We run back to you and Mum," said Bethany.

"Good."

The floor goes flying upward as Hawke's boots and legs slide out from under her. Her forehead hits the stone with a crack, the pain searing down from skull to spine. She pushes herself up with her palms, then those slide out from under her too, face hitting the warm stone again. The floor is wet with blood. It might be from her. She can smell it, and Hawke's not sure if that means it's running out of her nose or into it. She's tilted, isn't she? The floor?

Danarius was old, Hawke thinks. That's why the lot of them survived in the Hanged Man that day. Jolt after jolt of pain hits her like hail on a rooftop, as she lets out a sob, but her body hardly bothers to even twitch in response. The floor's reacting for her, dipping and shaking beneath her. Crassus, though, is no grandfather. And Hawke thinks, I'm going to die. I'm sorry Fenris, I'm going to actually bloody die.

The pulsing attacks pause, and Hawke struggles to tilt her head up from the ground.

"Come here," she slurs to one of the magisters in front of her—at least Hawke thinks so. She can't see very well with her eyes full of pins of light and blurry, swelling darkness, but a watery blob in front of her has the somber-colored yet glittery fashion scheme of most magisters she's met. She tries to beckon but finds she can't move her hand.

"C'mere," Hawke repeats. "Got a surprise for you." She certain she's going to vomit, and she might as well do it on a magister. "You deserve it."

A peachy blonde swirl floating over a wash of pulsing turquoise bends over Hawke, and says in Mae's voice, "It's over, darling."

All right, Hawke can make an exception. She won't vomit on that magister. Instead, she swallows hard. Mae is saying something else, so are the other people starting to huddle in around her, but they all seem to have decided to speak in gibberish. Hawke can hear the quick-skipping cadence of their voices but can't understand a word they're saying. Something squeezes her left arm in an invisible vice, tighter and tighter.

"Did I win?" Hawke asks...

... and faints.

Chapter Text

Anora tugs on the few strands of gray-streaked blonde hair that have slipped from her bun. She pulls out a pin and bites it open, then shoves it viciously back against her scalp, fastening the hair taut again.

Cailan had been vain, fretting about the grays that began to spring up and speckle at the sides of his forehead, but Anora doesn't bother trying to pluck or potion the gray forming in her own hair. It is good for the people to see their Queen as an experienced leader, and her aging hair only reinforces this in their minds. It tempers an appearance her opponents have long regarded as too youthful. She cannot afford vanity when without it she can reassure her citizens their lives rest in capable hands.

The rebuilding efforts have been successful, and the darkspawn have quieted, disappeared back to the pits below, as they should with no Blight to stir them. It is a pity, she muses with some slight regret, that the Warden found her death in some clandestine adventure, but Ferelden is better without its mad Hero, aligning herself with darkspawn. News of Mukarukan's death has hardly been the most pressing concern for Anora, in any event, as word arrived nearly in tandem with the occurrences at the Alienage. Occurrences leading to inevitable questions from the public.

Questions her dear uncle-in-law may be able to answer, and the reason for her jarring carriage ride to Redcliffe.

The sleeping physician jerks awake from the wooden chair at Eamon's bedside as Anora opens the door. Eamon remains sleeping, a wrinkled gray near-corpse on his back, mouth agape to achieve uneven, wheezing breaths. It seems the Urn of Sacred Ashes—if its supposed existence was not simply a scheme to overturn her father by way of the faithful—does not promise long-term health, much less immortality.

"The Arl is not to be disturbed—" the physician begins to protest.

Anora scoffs, and draws her posture up straighter. "I am your Queen."

His bleary eyes recognize her, and widen. He quickly stands from the chair, then drops to one knee, head bowed low. "Forgive me, Your Majesty. Do you wish me to inform you of his condition?"

"No. Wake him up."

His head raises in surprise. "Your Majesty, he is in considerable pain when not sleeping—"

Anora allows displeasure to show on her face, and allows her voice to raise infinitesimally. "Wake. Him. Up."

When the physician pauses and opens his mouth, she raises her eyebrows. He seems to recall with whom he is speaking. With quivering hands, he fumbles with vials in a physician's crate beside the bed, uncorks one, and drips a honey-slow liquid between Eamon's dry, shriveled lips.

The pattern of slow wheezing halts, and Eamon lets out a groan.

"Leave us," Anora commands, and the physician scurries away.

Eamon's papery lids flutter, but before his eyes can focus, he begins a fit of wracking, wet coughs. Anora considers denying him water until he tells her what she wishes to know, but decides he won’t be able to speak at all. Stifling her impatience, she pours water into a glass from the bedside flask.

Her father deserved better than to die in disgrace in front of the Landsmeet, his blood spattering her face. As much as he would have despised weakness and the lack of self-sufficiency, her father deserved to die an old man, in the comfort of an estate, in his own bed, attended to as a hero. She would have stayed with him, holding his hand, every hour until he slipped to the Fade. She would have told him the childhood tales he had told her as a girl. She would have helped him see that he deserved rest, and that he would be remembered. Her father deserved to live long enough to enter this state, no matter how little dignity it afforded.

Not fucking Eamon.

Anora wrinkles her nose. The room smells faintly of old urine, probably from the rug by Eamon's four-post bed, a worn carpet patterned with the opened jaws of mabari. Mint cooling salves for fever join with but do not mask the smell. Eamon sips at the water, swallowing with difficulty, then gives the glass back with a tremoring hand.

"Anora," Eamon says, barely a whisper.

Good, he recognizes her. His mind hasn't left his dying body on its own quite yet. He will still be able to answer her questions.

Eamon coughs and clears his throat until his voice is a little stronger. "I presume this isn't a compassionate visit. It's not your style." He writhes his head like a flopping fish on land, trying with weak arms to plump his pillow and sit up further, and failing in both attempts.

Teagan has not aged well since his brother's most recent illness, and has taken over as Arl in all but name. The name, Anora sees, will come to him very soon.

She frowns. “Tell me why the Alienage has been sealed without my order.”

Responding to her discreet request for any available information, Teyrn Fergus Cousland guided Anora here, citing mutterings in his father's old journals of a conversation with Eamon: something about elves, and magic lacing Denerim. Fergus has been vying for Anora's attentions for a while, ever needing more and more troops to deal with some issue or another. He is less fit to rule than his sister would have been, had Ainsley not been found dead in her chambers after Howe's attack on Highever.

Eamon is unsurprised, Anora sees with grim satisfaction.

"Through magic?" he asks.

"Yes."

Eamon makes a jerking motion with his chin, as if trying to shake his head. "Maker help us all."

After her guards cleared away all spectators, Anora went to the gates to see a demonstration of the problem. Entering the surrounding area caused a strange sense of impending doom, an illness of the nerves which retreated with a few feet of distance.

Those stubborn enough to persist in drawing near received no reward for the act. All attempts at breaking physically through the Alienage's heavy, locked gateway—with a skilled lock-pick, brute force, or magic—revealed only a duplicate of the barrier just torn down. Each successive effort uncovered the same, with no progress. Sorcery, and powerful, for these were material objects, not simply illusion.

Height, too, offered no solution. According to reports, scaling the wall revealed only a thicket of impenetrable, flameproof brambles, a black ceiling stretched across the entirety of the Alienage's bounds.

Anora witnessed the growing panic for herself, as teams of enchanters and Templars alike were unable to dispel any of the effects.

She ordered the surrounding area quarantined, to be monitored carefully in case of spread. She soothed the population with a reassurance that the elves had chosen to seal themselves in as an ill-planned attempt at rebellion. Anora would be lenient, she announced, and would allow their angry passions to abate naturally, rather than intervene with force.

Truth be told, of course, Anora doesn't know if any of the elves inside are still alive.

"If it continues," Anora says, "my advisors suggest I will need to take the position that it is the Maker's curse on the elves for their violence and debauchery. But I cannot have the people fear the Maker more than they fear me."

Eamon lets out a hoarse laugh. "Of course not."

"Tell me what you know." Anora fixes him with a glare. "If I want an Alienage purge, I need to authorize it, not let it slip from my control. It diminishes my authority, and I cannot know if my other citizens will be affected. What do you know?"

"There will be no harm done to citizens outside the Alienage."

She leans over him. "Tell me, old man."

"Ask the Chantry, if you must know. But don't expect people to take kindly to a woman poking around in contracts made by men long before your father ever left the swamps."

"In case you’ve forgotten in your dotage, Eamon, women run the Chantry."

"Not the Imperial Chantry."

Anora fails to hide her surprise. "Interesting. And what does the Imperial Chantry have to do with Ferelden?"

"More than you might guess."

“Dearest Uncle Guerrin, don’t you want to make a last confession? Do you really want to die both a traitor to Ferelden, and having never told anyone about it?”

"Hardly traitorous to protect Ferelden. Your own father would have approved."

"Did he know?"

"He was a peasant, Anora, before he ever became Regent. Some information is too precious to trust with non-noble blood."

She purses her lips. "And Cailan?"

"Of course not. Your husband and Maric were both idealistic fools."

"Give me more."

"I've given you more than enough." Eamon closes his eyes with a rattling sigh, his weary body seeming to sink even further into the bedclothes.

Anora sees that further pushing will be of little benefit to her. She can carry out her investigation without him. "Very well. Goodbye, Uncle. I would wish you good health, but it seems too late for that."

"Send the physician back in," Eamon rasps, as soon as she steps away.

She smiles. "If I remember. I am very busy as Queen, you know."

"You’re a bitch, Anora, you always have been."

She tilts her chin up. "I am what the world has made me."

Chapter Text

It feels strange and wrong, gripping Hawke's hand when she does not grip back, and so Fenris avoids it, lump in throat, focusing instead on cleaning her injuries.

He spent the first day after the ball near but unable to grasp consciousness, and the second day in a fatigue so great he could only draw enough breath to ask how Hawke fared, no more. His symptoms now have slipped away, leaving only his usual pain in their wake. His lyrium regenerates, as it was designed to. Fenris had no true wounds, only—

Convulsing, all bones in his body scorched like branding irons. If Fenris had any control of his hands, he would have tried to tear off his own skin for relief from the building of pressure. Then, as the glow of his lyrium snuffed out in entirety, an eternity but lasting only a moment, it was over, leaving Fenris exhausted, with no control of his muscles, skin still pulsing with residual pain, unable to help Hawke, able only to lie heavy and incompetent, impotent, as Hawke's life slipped away.

Not even Danarius drained Fenris all at once, not after the first experiments. He preferred to leach small doses over time, keeping Fenris fit, in commission to do his bidding. It had been a long time since a full drain. Fenris should not have allowed it to happen. After escaping Danarius, he taught himself exercises to expel any excess, shedding the lyrium's building charge in controlled pulses when it became too strong. In the reverse, he taught himself to shield and block the outflow, shutting off the magical tap away from any other's claim. He should have readied this skill at Hawke's initiation, as he did when Danarius sought to recapture him. Fenris should not have been so empty-headed as to relax his guard. He has no excuse but his own negligence.

Hawke sleeps, at first of her own body's accord, and now with the magister's magic, or sometimes the blood witch's. It coils his stomach with nausea, but all consulted healers insist her mind needs the forced rest.

Hawke is so still. Touching her in any way feels like a violation, though she needs the care, and—

"Hey Broody," Varric says, cutting through the rush of Fenris' mind. His tone is gentle. "I can do this for her if you need me to, y'know. Got all the practice I could ever need with Mother."

He has made hint of that before, Fenris remembers. Always in joking form, dancing around pain, Hawke's best friend in truth. A mother barely conscious from drink, until her eventual death.

"No."

Hawke would trust Varric with her care, but Fenris could not help her in battle. He cannot prove himself so weak as to not even tend to her injuries now.

Slaves who slip past and see his actions are no doubt given credence to their beliefs that he is one of them again. Hawke's slave. Fenris tries to ignore the panic the assumption causes, tries to focus only on caring for Hawke. He arranges the sheets to give her some semblance of privacy beyond the sheer curtains of the front hall. Keeping her here is far too unsecured for Fenris' comfort, but healers insisted it was unwise to move Hawke any further than the carriage ride already entailed, so Fenris accepts it, though barely. At least he can now stand guard.

Early on, crumbles of wet black earth bubbled up out her lips from the bleeding inside her, later staunched with healing. He wipes away all its traces, even running a wet cloth along Hawke's teeth before dripping lyrium potion under her tongue as instructed, to replenish her drained mana. Fenris takes great care not to wash with any pressure over the bruises along her flanks and around her navel, dark purple splotches with a halo of black, gray, and as she heals, yellow and greenish hues, where with each passing day her brown skin begins to show through in speckles.

The most subtle of her injuries is the rapidly fading mark of a pinprick on the pad of one of her fingers, from where the Praetor drew the blood the Imperium can now use to control her.

"After everything, we have found what makes you, like every other mage, cross the line to blood magic," Fenris thinks at first, one anger-steeped phrase his mind repeats and rewords and rearranges, in preparation to confront her when she wakes, fury heightened with the guilty knowledge that her motivations for agreement were to protect him. But as she stays limp and still, each day, with every swipe of cloth against her skin and gentle detangling of her hair, his rage falters until he wearies of it, and discards it.

He finds that only love and fear for her remain.

***

Merrill sits cross-legged on one of the cots they dragged into the entrance hall to make an little infirmary by the pool, her chilly toes tucked underneath her. Next to her, Hawke sleeps in underthings, a light sheet draped up to her chin. The tidy covers would make anyone who knows Hawke realize just how injured and still she's been, Merrill thinks. It's very unlike her. Much more like her is her burnt vest from the ball, shoved slumped underneath her cot.

Mae did most of the healing magics, since Merrill is useless at those. It was never really a problem back in Kirkwall, because she never went out much without Hawke, certainly not for fights, and Hawke did all the healing herself. And if Hawke ever got too hurt, they could just bring her back to Anders.

But, of course, Hawke killed Anders.

Merrill will never forget that. She wonders, the skin of her palm still tight from killing the man who wanted to hurt Isabela, what it would take for Hawke to kill her too, if she made Hawke angry enough. She thinks Hawke must have been very close to doing so after the clan died.

Not bothering with healing magics was another thing Marethari and the clan disapproved of. It was one of the ancient arts that most Dalish studied, that most clans were able to bring back to life. It's not as though it was disappearing without Merrill to tend to it, not like the other, more feared practices that few besides Merrill cared to revive. Healing can save some people, a few. But those lost magics could save more than that. They could save all elves, if only the secrets could be recovered.

Her task by Hawke's bedside is to renew the Sleep spell on Hawke when it starts to slip away, a watchful stream of magic needed for Hawke's healing after her head got addled from the beating she took. This is something Merrill can actually do to help. She can make someone sleep. Usually it's enemies, but it works here just the same. She bites the inside of her cheek and sucks, gulps at the blood that drains while letting the spell drift into Hawke, whose breath snorts and rattles in her sleep. Merrill doesn't have to use blood magic, of course, but she's tired, so it's easier. It's not as though Hawke will know. 

When Merrill and Isabela left the cellar to find Hawke, her initiation was already over, and a very Hawke-like commotion had spread through the room. Isabela grabbed Merrill's hand and helped pull her through the tight-packed crowd, ducking and sneaking and slipping through, only to find that the fight was already over, and the mage who'd put Hawke in a puddle of her own blood was doing his best to keep her alive with his magic.

Hawke had drained far too much of her mana and dipped into her life force instead, something she would have known how to avoid better if she ever practiced or even studied blood magic. Hawke's heart stopped from that more than anything, though she had other injuries too. Mae, with a huge tome tucked under her arm, kneeled over Hawke with outstretched hands glowing with healing spells, but it was the man, Crassus, who got Hawke's heart beating again.

Almost as though she had forgotten, Isabela hadn't let go of Merrill's hand the whole time, squeezing sticky and tight until Hawke took a breath.

Mae told them later she'd been able to call an end to duel by paging through a book of Tevinter laws and reciting an old, forgotten one about no duels to the death on the day of a magister's initiation. Then, just from that, Crassus had stopped trying to kill Hawke, and had healed her instead. It's things like this that convince Merrill she'll never really understand humans. It's not that she's not glad. She's just... a bit confused.

While she waits with Hawke, Merrill studies, too. She balances a Tevene translation book Isabela stole for her from the market on one thigh, and rests one of Danarius' magical texts on the other. The text seems to focus on controlling spirits against their wills, and lists human-created names for spirits, supposed purposes, and binding sigils. It's no help with any elvhen knowledge in any of the places she looks: dryadalem for "elf," or other possibilities from slurs, like auris-cultellus for knife-ear, lepus for rabbit, and some others she wouldn't have known except that Isabela, looking mournful, gave her the idea of what to look for. But all the book tells her is that sometimes spirits appear to these awful people in the form of elves, or horses, or sometimes both at the same time, and teach them about stars or plants or other things they could learn just as well without torturing and chaining beings to their will. By asking nicely, for example. Aren't any Tevinter mages taught to ask for things nicely?

She'll keep looking. There's a large library, and there's bound to be something useful in it.

Isabela hasn't been around much these few days. Merrill sees that she doesn't like being in the room while Hawke's still injured and asleep. It's clear that she's terribly worried Hawke might not wake up, and is avoiding her just in case. It's Isabela's way, detaching herself like that, and Merrill doesn't judge her for it, even if she might like the company. She wants Isabela to protect herself however she likes.

Fenris has been here almost the whole time, even if he's grumpier to be around. For a while, he was sleeping almost as much as Hawke, in a cot beside her, trying to gain back his strength from having all his lyrium pulled away. Once awake, he almost never leaves Hawke's side. It's sweet, even if it leaves him smelling a bit ripe.

Varric, cheerful despite his worry and his two black eyes, sometimes comes around to sit with Hawke, scribbling story drafts and repairing Bianca's split wood and latch misalignment, narrating both things to Merrill and Fenris, or perhaps more to the unconscious Hawke.

Mae flits in and out to check on all of them, sometimes taking some of the sleeping spell shifts, sometimes sending her physician to do the same.

And of course, there are the household's slaves.

In a way, just like in her earliest days in the Alienage, Merrill is invisible to the other elves here. They don't pay her much attention as they dust the high ceilings, gather up dirty bedsheets, scrub the already-shining floors, and talk quietly amongst themselves.

They speak in Elvish when they speak amongst themselves, in a dialect tinged with a few quirks that must be inspired by Tevene. It's not so different that Merrill can't understand them perfectly well. They don't realize she knows what they're saying, though. The only Dalish she's seen are slaves, and even those are few. They probably think she got her vallas'lin as some kind of decoration. They probably think she's never belonged to a clan.

Merrill's never been a slave, and seeing so many of her people like this is... well. It's a good reminder of what she already knows. Of the power her people need to gain back, in any way they can. It's very hard to see them like this, and she knows it's even harder for them to live it.

Merrill's starting to learn their names and more, just from listening. So she listens. Fenris has finally gone off somewhere, maybe to have that bath he needs.

"Are you daft?" a young woman named Drusa asks in Elvish. She's one of the only few Merrill's seen wearing what looks like a real smile. She has smooth, creaseless lids like Merrill does, plump cheeks, and dark straight hair tucked behind her ears. "She's clear Rivaini! They're shipped and bound same as us, no matter the round ears!"

She's talking about Hawke, then. The words are directed to Lathinia, a woman newly an elder, with drooped brown skin, her gray hair tied up in a disheveled, fluffy knot. She often smiles too, very big smiles, especially when Mae or Varric are around, but the smiles never reach her eyes. Those stay quick and somber.

"Listen to me," Lathinia says, gathering linens up to her chest and patting them to make sure none are going to fall, before adding more to the pile. "Even in Ostwick, the noble family—"

"Where's Ostwick?" Drusa laughs, pulling a cleansing enchantment shaped like a small block of sugar from the pocket of her sheer dress, and dropping it into the wading pool. "Nowhere near here."

"You're too young, you don't understand the way of things. Listen, she killed Danarius. Word has it she killed the Arishok too!"

“Good, maybe the new one will have enough balls to invade again. I'd join the Qun in a heartbeat. They let you do whatever you like best and everyone's treated all the same.” Her face takes on the same dreamy appearance Isabela gets sometimes. Well, Isabela gets it about sailing. Certainly not the Qun.

"Oh come off it. You even listening to me? There's a first time for everything, even a Rivaini magister."

"But—"

"Mark my words, don't think of her face, think of her rank. She'll be no different than the rest of them. Before she got laid up by Crassus, she already took Danarius' pet to her bed. Just as quick as any magister would, and quicker than some for all he's sloppy seconds. Wastes no time, that one. Doesn't care about scandal, just gets what she wants." Lathinia sets aside the laundry in a linen bag, and pulls out a soft cloth. She bends to walk the perimeter of the room, wiping the place where the wall meets the floor with the smallest huff of effort. "That's dangerous. You take care around her, when she wakes. Don't let your guard down, da'lena.”

Drusa shrugs, still smiling.

The lines between Lathinia's brows grow deeper as she grows more stern. It reminds Merrill of the Keeper, in a way, or more so perhaps the Hahren, she thinks, with a small twinge in her chest.

"All you young ones," Lathinia says. "You don't remember Danarius well enough. You got too long of a reprieve. You're going to end up hide torn from flesh or worse. Let me see the bottoms of your feet. Here, take a cloth—no, a clean one, don't reuse that one—and polish up your footprints when we leave. All of them. Don't roll your eyes at me, if they catch any scuffs they'll flog us. It's not just absent senators anymore, we have a real master again." She glances behind her, then mutters, "Dirtha'din," a quick warning of silence.

The warning is for Asenath, who appears a moment later. Merrill supposes Asenath, as a human, must have given them trouble before for speaking their language.

Lathinia drags away the bag of bedsheets down the hall. Drusa frowns and turns to the floor, kneeling and scooting backwards out of the room from the front of it, rubbing marks invisible to Merrill from this distance off the polished stone on her slow way out, tile by tile.

Asenath gives her a brief glance before approaching Hawke's cot. It's not the first time. She's been here quite a lot.

"The Domina's still not awake?" A few days before, the question started as a request to be of service, calling Merrill by her apprentice title in Tevene. Asenath's gotten much more agitated since then. Merrill supposes her concerns aren't about Hawke's health outright. It's about what it will mean for her, even if she hasn't mentioned the Isabela incident again.

"No," Merrill says, as kindly as she can. "Not yet."

Asenath doesn't say anything else, just presses her lips tight together, curtsies, and slips back out into the hallway. 

Hawke lets out a soft noise, and Merrill renews Sleep. Hawke's breathing evens out.

Merrill stays in a meditative daze for a while, with the slow leak of blood into her mouth, Drusa's near silence, and the give and take of stifling Hawke's consciousness. Some time later, from down the hallway, she hears the telltale sounds of two voices raised in argument, one amused, the other one she couldn't mistake for anyone else but Fenris, for all the times he's accused her in a similar tone. The voices grow louder and closer. She hears the heavy slap of Fenris' bare feet against the floor, followed by the rapid click of what must be Mae's heels.

Merrill perks up and carefully swallows, licking her teeth so that no sheen of blood remains, as Fenris comes storming in.

He sees Drusa on the floor scrubbing, and halts abruptly.

Mae only sidesteps around her, and in Fenris' startled silence, turns and says, "It was my doing that stopped Crassus from taking you as a token of victory. You are aware of that?"

Drusa looks up between them, wide-eyed, then bows her head, and backtracks more quickly. A few more swipes along the floor with the cloth, then she stands and hurries away.

Fenris watches her go with a pained expression, then seems to hear what Mae just said. He scoffs. "Do you expect me to thank you, magister?" There. That's the way Merrill is used to hearing the word spoken. It's very strange, now that they're in this country, to hear most people say it with respect or fear, not disgust.

Mae smirks. "No, darling, I rather thought you wouldn't. I'm just presenting the facts for you."

"The only fact I see is that you're keeping Hawke in an artificial slumber, as any demon of sloth would." It's a very silly comparison, but Fenris doesn't seem to notice this.

Mae shakes her head, still smiling. "If we wake her too soon, her mind may not be healed. The choice is medical, I promise you that."

"And we should take your word as truth?" Fenris growls. "Perhaps you don't wish her to wake. Perhaps you delay to keep hold of the power her absence affords you."

Mae sighs. "You know that's not true. But if you insist. If her pupils dilate correctly tonight, per my physician's orders, we can let her wake. But if she's addled and no longer herself, the blame can fall squarely on your head."

***

Fenris suppresses the urge to strike the magister's hand away as Maevaris lifts each of Hawke's eyelids and holds up a glowing orb of light before her face. Merrill observes too, looking curious, and Varric looks on, stark and open worry across his bruised face. Isabela waits outside in the hall for news, refusing to come inside until they know for certain.

"It's your lucky day," Maevaris says, giving Fenris a smile he does not return. "Her pupils seem to be working correctly again. Go ahead and pull the spell, dearheart," she instructs Merrill.

Merrill gives a small twitch of her hand, and Hawke lets out a groan. With a jolt inside his ribcage, Fenris rushes forward to kneel on the stone at her bedside.

"Get in here, Rivaini, she's waking up," Varric calls out.

"Are you sure? Because I'm not going in there if you're not sure," Isabela's voice calls from outside the room.

"I'm sure! Come on!"

"Hawke?" Fenris murmurs.

Her throat croaks out a guttural sound of disuse, then a long breath in, before, eyes still pinched closed: "Fenris?"

"Why doesn't she ever say my name so breathlessly?" Isabela grumps from nearby, but Fenris can hear the relief in Isabela's voice just as he feels it spread cool through his own chest, slackening his rigid muscles.

"Welcome back, Chuckles," Varric says.

"Fenris, you're—?" Her fingers wiggle weakly toward Fenris' hand.

He takes her hand, his own near shaking from his relief at the strength in her grip. "I am, Hawke." 

"Varric," Hawke asks, looking alarmed despite her bleary countenance, the inner corners of her brown eyes crusted from sleep. "How's Bianca?"

"She'll live. She's survived worse." He grins at Hawke. "Mind you, the worse stuff was weird shit you pulled us into, so she's still waiting on some apologies, but she'll be back to her usual self in no time."

"You look like shit," Isabela announces.

"Thanks, Bela."

"Hello Hawke," Merrill says.

"Hi Merrill."

Maevaris inspects Hawke more carefully, then begins to inform her of the events she does not remember after the duel. Fenris can only focus on the way Hawke's fingers now play against his hand, lace through his fingers, slip away to stroke his knuckles and callouses, then return again. Her gaze darts in his direction with a smile, and his own lips quirk up in return.

Finally, he forces himself to listen.

"They're already doing as much as they can to drag you under," the magister is saying. "Varric's barely off the hook for intervening in the fight, and only because I convinced the more romantic senators that it's noble for a fiance to jump to the defense of his bride-to-be. I also had to pull in some favors to put an end to a criminal investigation that you may have used blood magic during the duel."

"It's terribly hard to tell the difference, I know," Hawke says, "but that was just regular blood dripping out of me in the mortal wound sense."

"And blood drawn by the Praetor earlier in the evening," Fenris mutters, but then he gentles his voice. "You should not have agreed to such a thing, Hawke." When he thinks overmuch of it, it still bites, even just to touch her hand and think of the blood bindings on her. "To allow them to manipulate your blood, out of a desire to protect me, is... not something I can bear easily."

"Now, now," Hawke says lightly, "don't worry, it was to save myself too."

"They gave you little alternative," Maevaris says. "I'm sorry for the oversight. I gave my word to Varric to protect you as much as possible, and I don't go back on my word. I should have anticipated they'd drag out the Sanctum Sanguinis for our special guest. It does add another complication to your plans."

"It's a phylactery, isn't it?" Hawke lets go of Fenris' hand to cover her mouth over a wide, water-eyed yawn, then grasps it again. "Something like that?"

"Oh, those little tracking devices you Southerners give your Templars? No, easier than that for those who are loyal to this country, and more dire for you, darling. The Sanctum will hold you to your word. Literally. I made sure to note the specific wording used in your oath. That way, we might be able to find some loopholes. You agreed to 'uphold the Imperium in true allegiance without reservation'. We can study these words and their literal meanings in detail if we need to, but the fact remains, you're expected to have loyalty to our country."

"Your country."

"It's both of ours now. Some manner of dissent and disagreement will be fine, so long as it seeks beneficial change for the good of the Imperium. And your thoughts and fantasies will be your own, the Sanctum doesn't care about that. But any actions that could conceivably weaken, betray, or destroy the empire will be punished automatically, through pain. You may also be forced to take action to assist the Imperium if presented with the opportunity."

"So if I do something naughty, I'll get punched in the face? Magically? Lovely."

"Worse, of course, if they like. Depending on the severity of your action, you won't be able to function at all."

"Typical," Isabela says. "What country doesn't make you lick its asshole and fondle its balls to grab some power? And that's just the bait. Once you take it, you're stuck. Everything goes right along the same way it's always been, or worse. And if you make a fuss, you're done for."

"Our favorite political cynic, folks!" Varric says. "She'll be here all week."

"Shush, Varric." Isabela gently swats him. "You know it's true."

Fenris is unfortunately inclined to agree with her, while Maevaris, of course, pointedly ignores the exchange.

"I recommend you reconsider your more radical plans, Hawke," the magister says, "and consider using your rank in smaller ways. You can free your current slaves publicly if you're careful about the way you do so and don't buy any others to free. The least inflammatory way is to convert them to paid servants. This is the tactic I use most often. The rest of the Senate finds it quirky, but not too rebellious. And it's not as though freed slaves have many rights or opportunities. Keeping them within the household is—"

"Fenris?" Hawke asks, clearly having made up her mind, but deferring to him. He sides with Hawke's instincts.

"Collecting servants is not our purpose here," Fenris says. "For some slaves, that might be a kinder transition, and we should help them seek fair employment elsewhere if desired. But this cannot be our primary goal."

He remembers, from years ago, the dark red of the basements where Hadriana's wan, pale girl, Orana, face smeared with makeup and eyes wide with fright, had come running out, looking for a new mistress. Hawke, even then, did not entertain the idea of converting slave to servant (or worse, slave back to slave), only gave her a lump sum of gold to make her way. For better or worse, Hawke is not a custodian of others. It is not her inclination to monitor and direct another's path. Perhaps the girl had been robbed before the next dawn, as Fenris predicted at the time. Perhaps not. Whatever her fate, he hopes it is one where she remains free.

Hawke looks back to Mae, a smug expression on her face. "See? Not our primary goal. So let's free everyone, and give them tons of money to do whatever they want."

Mae shrugs. "Anything inflammatory, anything to compromise the Imperium itself, will—"

"I'll jump off that bridge when I get to it."

"Fine," Mae sighs. "Well, you have almost thirty days to consider your options and test the boundaries of the spell."

"Surely there's a way to break—" Hawke begins, then slaps a hand to her head with a grimace, eyes squeezing shut, as Fenris jerks in closer to her, his heart hammering.

"Shit," Varric says, looking as nauseated as Fenris feels.

The magister dares smile at Hawke's pain, though Fenris will admit the smile is sad. "And here's a little demonstration of one of the problems," Maevaris says, then meets Fenris' gaze pointedly.

Fenris understands. They will need to find a way to remove the curse without Hawke's knowledge, or the blood magic will force Hawke to choose between interference with their efforts and excruciating pain. He squeezes Hawke's hand tighter. He feared he lost her, and she is not yet returned to him in full.

"I get it, I get it," Hawke says, a little breathless. "You all can stop staring now. We'll figure out some way to..." She winces in anticipation, though it seems no pain is yet forthcoming. "... work with this."

After all the others leave Hawke to her convalescence, Fenris lingers, climbing under the sheets beside her despite the narrow cot. She rolls herself toward him with a grimace, then pushes her head underneath his chin, smothering her face against his throat.

"Hi," she says, the vibration of her voice and lips tickling his adam's apple.

"You frightened me," he says.

"I frightened myself."

"Hawke." He rests his hand against her low back. "Do not do such a thing again."

"What, single combat against powerful men? That's my trademark, I can't give it up now."

Fenris gives a wry chuckle. "It is becoming a habit for you, isn't it? But you promised me in Kirkwall you would not die. I intend to hold you to your word."

"Believe me, I'm trying my damnedest to keep it." She tilts her head up, clearly seeking his mouth, then pauses. "Sorry. I've been asleep for how long now? My breath is probably horrid."

"Actually," Fenris says, though he craves her kiss enough that it wouldn't matter, "I washed out your mouth while you slept. Several times."

Hawke grins. "To think, all the times Mother threatened to do just that, and you go ahead and do it yourself."

He shakes his head, bemused. Hawke's mouth approaches again and Fenris closes the gap with his own, Hawke's tongue a little sticky from dehydration, but eager. She lets out a small, pleased noise as his teeth gently grapple her soft lower lip. But though the kiss deepens, though a growing warmth sweeps through Fenris, Hawke squirming closer, Fenris cannot let his mind slip into the background, cannot let his racing thoughts be smothered by bliss. Instead, he retains a heightened awareness of his surroundings, of the sheer room dividers, of where they are, of what happened in this house, and of what most of those who live here believe Hawke to be. He opens his eyes, and Hawke opens hers too as if on cue, pulling back and blinking at him, licking her lips.

She looks around at the open entryway which surrounds them, and frowns. "Maybe we shouldn't—"

"I agree," he says. Not only is Hawke injured, but any slave who witnesses any such interaction between them, even as mild as a kiss, will believe it to be violence on Hawke's part. It is a sheer function of their roles here, no matter how far these roles are from the truth of them, their years and years of this freely chosen. "Even when we are in private, so long as we remain in Tevinter, we..." he begins, stumbling to explain what he feels now, that even with a locked door, something about the risk is still too great, something about the concept still weighs too heavy on him.

"I understand, Fenris," Hawke says, and smiles at him. "Soon. After."

He makes a silent promise to himself that it will not be three more years this time before he touches her again. He vows, too, with all confidence he seeks, even if he has not found it yet, "And there will be an after. I swear to you, Hawke."

***

Once she's able to walk of her own accord back to the guest quarters, Hawke moves herself back there. She eats and sleeps her way through residual aches from the duel, cuddled up to Fenris. (They've decided cuddles can't be avoided, and just try to do those in sneaky ways. Clandestine cuddling. Surreptitious snuggles. But anything further is off limits for now.) Sometimes, she cuddles up to heaps of blankets instead, when he's off doing important things, like planning with Varric. She tries her very best not to think about how off-balance she feels after Seneca's leering, grabbing, and drooling, or after Crassus' very efficient way of proving her magical power means slightly less than shit, or after being bound by blood magic. Hmm. That last one's something she really needs to not think about right now if she wants to avoid sheer crazed panic.

To be perfectly honest, she could use some of Fenris being aggro to work this out, and he could probably use it too after being put on display and drained. Once this is all over, they'll have a lot of material to work with for those catharsis sessions they've been wanting to try.

During her recovery, the room rapidly becomes a trash heap. On a good day, it’s easy for Hawke to avoid doing her chores, and even easier in her current state of full-body bruising, with a mana pool more like a puddle. It's tempting to have other people clean for her—Maker knows Bodhan and Sandal picked up the slack in Kirkwall—so to stave that off early, she makes sure to hoard used dishes in her room, and tells any slaves who express initiative not to clean them, even if the various molds look like they might develop legs and walk away. Considering Fenris willingly left corpses littered across his mansion in Kirkwall as state of the art decor, he doesn't seem to mind much either. She thinks he likes seeing Danarius' estate trashed. And Hawke's perfectly willing and able to help with that.

As for the food itself, Varric takes it upon himself to buy it in bulk from the markets, and everyone takes turns making meals. Except Merrill. Merrill still hasn't mastered the culinary arts, at least not where that evasive combination of edible, innoxious, and non-hallucinogenic are concerned.

In a way, it's all kind of like... peculiar indoor camping? Of course, according to Varric, the slave gossip going around is that she doesn't trust them, is paranoid they're trying to kill her with poison, and will probably sell or bleed them all soon. But the alternative is happily availing themselves of slave labor, so Hawke will take the rumors instead. She can't blame them for not presuming good intentions. The only one who seems hopeful about Hawke is the one Asenath girl Isabela keeps telling her about. Apparently she wants Hawke to convert her to apprentice status and make her a slave-owning magister too, which is an unfortunate plan.

"Apologies for intruding, Domina."

Hawke looks up in surprise, though she should really be used to this by now. Slaves here in the estate don't have much comprehension of privacy. Probably something to do with that whole being treated like animals instead of people thing. And so, having left the door unlocked while dragging herself out of bed to apply her eyepaint, Hawke receives a visitor.

Hawke digs the remaining smears of makeup from the bottom of the near-empty glass tub with a finger. "It's no bother."

A petite Rivaini elf with dark skin and hair pulled into two thin pigtail braids waits nervous in front of her. Her name is Ghi, Hawke has learned. She seems younger than Hawke, probably still a teenager, maybe around the same age Hawke was when they left Lothering, which gives Hawke a bizarre sense of familiarity to look at her. Ghi has heavy, swelling sags under her eyes that make her look perpetually drooped and tired.

"How can I help you?" Hawke tries again, and attempts a smile.

"What's in your makeup? What're the different parts?"

“Oh, you know, mostly the blood of my enemies,” Hawke jokes, and leans toward the mirror again to finish up swiping it under her eyes.

Behind her, reflected in the mirror, Ghi nods, looking grim. "I see, Domina. May I ask, what base do you use to stop it congealing? I can go to market for you. Orichalcium resin, lyrium, or—"

Fuck, Hawke thinks, with a lurch in her lungs. Never mind foot in mouth, she wishes for the moment that she could stick her entire leg down her gullet.

"No no no," Hawke corrects with a cringe, setting down the glass jar and wiping her finger off on her leggings. "Just joking, sorry. Really sorry. Magisters are so unbelievably creepy that I forget sometimes and start stumbling around being an ass. It's embrium and ochre, maybe some bedstraw root if I have it. No blood, I swear. I'll buy some more myself or ask Varric to pick some up. You don't need to shop for me."

Ghi shifts, hands behind her back. "As you wish, Domina. But... if you'd like it if I speak freely..."

"Hawke. Just... you can call me Hawke. And, Maker, please. Speak as much as you like. I can't be the only one word vomiting here."

She nods blankly. "Thank you, Magister Hawke." Ugh, not exactly what Hawke was going for. "Apologies, but if you're worried about your purse, I went to market for Magister Danarius. No direct eyes watching me, even when I was a little one, and he had not a bad word to say. All funds still in his pocket where he needed them."

"Maker." Hawke stifles a sigh. "No, I'm not worried about that. The whole you serving me thing? That's the problem."

She looks nervous. "I've upset you, Domina?"

"No, nothing like that. I'm just not going to have any of you waiting on me—"

She instantly looks terrified. "I—I'm h-happy to give my life, then, if that's the purpose you have for—"

"No! I don't want blood mana either! I just... slaves aren't for me. This whole magister thing? I'm faking it. You're my equals. To be perfectly honest, probably my betters, I don't have half the skills some of you have. I'm going to sign freedom papers as quick as they let me, and..."

It's not going well. Hooded blankness drops down on Ghi's eyes, no sign of belief, just numb defense from a magister's mindfuck. "Anything Domina wishes." She stands rigid and still in front of Hawke.

"Right. Um. You can go," Hawke says weakly.

"Yes, Magister." She curtsies and leaves.

Fuck.

***

"So, Varric, can we do it?"

Fenris watches Hawke shift restless from heel to tiptoe and back as she looks at the dwarf with expectant hope. Fenris himself has ambivalent feelings about the plan, but he will wait to voice concerns until they know it's feasible at all.

"Give a guy a minute here," Varric grumbles, and climbs up into one of the upholstered chairs in the largest of the estate's three offices. His eyes shoot from side to side as he counts under his breath, bowing his head over the thick leather tomes of numbers and records spread across the table. One of Varric's blank journals for his stories sits open beside the other books, and its margins are now gorged with calculations. "It's pretty stereotypical of you to stick the dwarf with the numbers, you know."

"What, like I can count?" Hawke scoffs. "Did you see what happened when I bought my own business?"

"From where I was standing, a big-ass dragon ate the workers."

"One dragon," she corrects. "And I thought there were zero. Numbers, see? I'm hopeless."

Varric grins, though distracted, still muttering under his breath. Then he nods, and looks up. "Okay, Hawke. Without dipping into the Senate-secured funds, the ones they won't let you touch yet, we can still pass off the in-house treasury to everybody. There's a decent amount, even planning for estate fees, food, everyday expenses, you name it. No way you're going to be living as large as Danarius was. After we pawn off this shit?" He gestures to the pile in the corner of potential valuables they collected from each room of the estate, expensive decor and magical oddities alike. Only the slave quarters they left untouched and unraided, to give those within some semblance of privacy. "That's a hefty chunk of gold for each person. Not enough to live on for too long, but probably more than most of them have seen. Next time I'm in the city, I can break down the treasury into smaller pieces, give 'em a chance to spend it a little bit at a time if they need to."

"Perfect," Hawke says, looking relieved. "Finally something real we can do, instead of just waiting."

"Many will secure the coin away and never use it," Fenris warns. "They may believe it a test of their loyalty, and anticipate you will request it all returned."

"I know. But it's something."

"It is," he agrees. And after enough such somethings, paired with freedom, some, though likely never all, may grow to trust Hawke, and by extension, Fenris. It is strange. He hates the shroud through which he is now viewed, hates being judged by association with a magister, even if it is Hawke.

"As for our announcement... do you want to give a speech, Fenris? Or shall I?"

The second portion of their current plan, to present those enslaved on the estate with a paradox: a command to accept no more commands. The insistence to do whatever they wish, as a prelude to the signing of their papers for freedom, in the days before the judicial process allows it.

Fenris is hesitant. An announcement of pending freedom will undoubtedly make some suffer more in the interim, either through fearful anticipation of Hawke's true motives, or anxieties about survival in an upchurning social structure where liberati possess few opportunities. Even so, Fenris must assist those at risk of dying if they continue as they are. That much Durganus has reminded him. Along with every other form of slave labor, the mining must cease, immediately. They will send for all the miners to live in the house, no longer the locked prison of barracks where they sleep in their scant non-working hours. They will offer healing to those in need.

"The announcement must come from your lips, Hawke," Fenris says. "Such a dramatic thing will only be believed from a magister, and perhaps not even then."

"Caveat to consider," Varric says, settling back into his chair with a heavy sigh as the room's temperature control hisses on. Fenris wonders if he even realizes the coolness stems from the reserves of Danarius' magic somewhere within the bowels of the estate, or if he unthinkingly enjoys the comfort without attention to the source that Fenris is unable to ignore. Unsettling, that even in Danarius' death, some residue of his power still cycles on. His legacy is a hard thing to destroy.

"You're not allowed to start or break any contracts yet," Varric continues. "Raw lyrium is an export in a few business deals, but there should be enough in storage to last for a while. The paid mining guards are gonna be the real pain in our asses with this. They've got untouchable job contracts right now."

"If we must keep them on, let's just change the work they do," Hawke says with a shrug. "Have them work in the kitchens helping feed everybody. Or, if they insist, they can guard invisible workers for a while. Maybe I'm a quirky magister."

"Then it's decided," Fenris says, and lets a small lift of the corner of his mouth match Hawke's smile.

"Good," Hawke says. "Let's do this."

***

This is going to be a disaster. Isabela can imagine how she'd have felt if one of Luis' friends up and announced his intentions to free her. She'd probably just take away his bottles.

Oh, who knows. They have to start somewhere. They haven't been listening to her terrific plan to assassinate then impersonate the Archon, so... good. This is something. She's just glad her newest fuck-ups, like not being there for Hawke when Hawke needed her at the ball, didn't cost Hawke's life. As for being here for Hawke now, well, it's a coincidence Isabela's around. A while back, after getting too antsy, she sniffed out the nearest taverns. Those are her preferred ports of call now. They're filled mostly with good, common people, clear of magisters, and she can drink and gab loud enough that she doesn't have to hear herself think.

She leans against the rough cave wall at the mine's entrance as everyone gathers, Hawke away at the front of the crowd, Varric, Fenris, and Merrill close. Merrill looks far too pale lately. Isabela wants to grab her and sail her away from this place, let her soak up the sunlight glinting off the water.

In the earliest hours of the morning, Hawke asked all of the slaves in the house and gardens to drop what they were doing and take a trip down to the mines. Then Hawke insisted to the baffled foremen that the miners were all needed outside.

Seeing all the householders gathered into one spot gives her time for an observation. "Funny," Isabela says to Fenris. "I thought there'd be more boys in the house. You know. Pretty ones."

"There were," he says shortly.

Most of the miners squint and shield from the sunlight. Some can barely stand. Except for some coughing, everyone from both groups is quiet, waiting for Hawke to say something. Nobody looks pleased. Some look like they're waiting to get their heads lopped off, others like they're plotting how to get their hands around Magister Hawke's throat. And still others she'd bet aren't thinking much of anything, mouths slack, eyes glazed, their inside selves checked out and long gone. She knows the feeling. It's safer. Cozy, in a distant, empty kind of way. It's hard to come back from, and truth be told, she's not sure it's a good idea to try.

Hawke isn't looking much like a magister should, tapping her boots against the dusty earth, her shoulders hunched from nerves. She looks at Fenris a couple times like she's begging him to throw her a rope, but all he does is raise that stern, sexy eyebrow of his at her. Lucky.

Finally, after more awkward waiting, Hawke clears her throat and takes a breath.

"So, uh, surprise!" Hawke says. "I hate slavery!"

"Oh boy," Varric groans under his breath.

Silence from the crowd, before Hawke continues at a full-paced blurt: "In Kirkwall, killing slavers was just what we did. On the way to the bar, on the way home from the bar, in the middle of drinks at the bar. All the time! They're making me wait a month, but at the earliest possible moment, we're going to whip up the documents for freedom in the eyes of the law, for all of you. And that sounds completely fake, I know, so I want to tell you right now, you can stop doing anything Danarius or the Senate made you do. We're shutting down the mines, no more hard labor. In the house, don't wait on us or clean up for us. The last I checked I wasn't your mother so... do whatever you want. And we'll pay you anyway. It's your money anyway, it's not like Danarius would've had any of it without your work, so... there you have it. In the mean time, if any of you want to leave, I won't—"

Hawke suddenly gasps, her palms flying up to her temples. She staggers before Fenris' rushes to her side, hand clenched around her arm to hold her up. Isabela winces. If the spell keeps up like this, Hawke is going to be useless long before her plans pan out. Useless, and with the worst headache imaginable, looks like.

"We'll need to do something about that," Merrill murmurs.

In a moment, Hawke drops her hand back down, gently shrugs out of Fenris' concerned grasp, and gives another grin to the crowd. She clears her throat. She continues, each word a tentative step forward, testing her boundaries. "Sorry, it's nothing. Um, I... let me try that again. My friends and I are very inexperienced slave owners, and we're terribly unobservant. That's just a... funny little thing about us. And if weapons, clothes, food, anything really, get... misplaced... who's counting? Not me. I'm terrible at counting. And um..." She looks at Fenris, and her expression grows more determined. "This isn't a rescue. It'd be insulting for me to think otherwise. I'm sure there's already a bunch of you helping each other in... ways."

Wonderful, now they're going to think it's the world's least subtle sniff-out plan for revolutionaries and escapees.

"But," Hawke continues, "I want to help too." She pauses, looking like she's pondering what she's forgotten. "Oh and everyone can live inside the house now, in any of the rooms, there's enough of them. And if all of you would like to come by the main office to pick up your money, Varric will pass it out. And then after that, well, do whatever."

Silence greets her speech, followed by a mass of shuffling back toward the estate to get the coins: in most of their views, as commanded. Isabela sighs. It wasn't as bad as it could've been, but she doubts it's going to convince anyone. Not yet, anyway.

Sure enough, afterwards, most of the householders go right on back to work again, while some of the miners mill uncertainly around, like Hanged Man customers with a few too many herbs in their pipes.

Filled with purpose of her own, Asenath finds Isabela before she has a chance to duck away again.

Her fist is clutched so hard around her new coins that they're probably leaving marks in her palm, her knuckles paling. Dust from the path down to the mines and back speckles her hair.

"I lifted tiles from the floors," Asenath says, so low it's hard to hear, but furious. Isabela's a lower rank than Merrill or Hawke in her eyes, which probably explains her new tone. "I lowered him in, and hid his body for you. I cleaned everything, and I said not a word. Immense risk. Haven't I proved my devotion to the Domina and her companions? Then what of this?" She shakes the fist with the coins. "Another test? And has she no care for her image?" Her eyes grow wider, more frantic. "There is already so much against her. If anyone takes her words at value and report such to other households, she could meet ruin!"

"I don't know what to tell you, sweet thing." Isabela shrugs, pushing away a slight twitch of nerves at the idea that they might find Devon's corpse and pin the death on a slave. Let's hope not. If so, though... no, she's just not going to think about that. Add it to the pile of things she doesn't think about. "Your help was great, but Hawke's got her own way of doing things. I'm just along for the ride."

"I—" She catches herself, and purses her lips, then only nods.

***

One by one they start coming in from the mines, more and more of the suffering, most of them suffering elves. Merrill is ill from all the suffering elves. Here, back in Kirkwall, everywhere she turns. It makes her want to climb to the top of one of the very tall, crooked towers in the city, and scream. In the wilderness, with her clan, there were always places to go for a good scream. Not anymore.

The sharp smell of many layers of heat-baked sweat diffuses through the estate like clouds. The people from the mines have other things in common, too: wretched, swollen hands, grabbing up the offered healing potions with trembling fingers. A squinted look to their eyes in the brightness. For many of the ones without shaved heads, hair shedding in clumps, and for some of the qunari, it's their horns too, or what's left of them, cracked and flaking, chipping away into nothing, which must be terribly painful.

Merrill and the others help distribute potions, soaps, and soft washcloths along the edges of the pool in the entrance hall, and the fancier communal baths on higher floors of the estate. They go to every guest room, getting each ready and making sure there are enough beds. Merrill sprinkles herbs for a restful sleep along each of the pillows. Varric keeps a tally of clothes they'll need to buy for everyone, guessing at sizes, because most of the miners' clothes are in tatters, and would cover very little even if repaired. As she works on tidying up for all the new residents, Merrill shifts and stretches, trying to ease a slight throb in her side, just underneath her left breast, under her rib. A little something that's been happening lately. She thought at first it might be from the press of the corset she sometimes wears, but taking it off doesn't help, so it's just an ache she'll have to learn to live with.

The broad, short man called Durganus is the loudest when he comes indoors. "She wants us trapped and weak," he barks out to some of the others, even as some try to hush him, "muscles slackened without work. Enough she's willing to lose lyrium profit for it. She plans something. It will cost us our lives or worse."

He doesn't take any chance to sit down and rest, and paces, keeps his fists clenched, keeps his arms swinging and bounces on the balls of his feet, eyeing the goings on.

Others are suspicious, too, in quieter ways. Merrill hears Lathinia telling many of the others, in stern Elvish, that they need to hold on to the gold as they would their own lives, that Hawke will ask for it back and they'd better have it when she does.

With the miners coming in, bringing their anguish with them, the Veil quivers even more now, thinning like the sun-spotted skin of an elder. It feels dreadful if she's not careful to shield from it. Should she work on a ritual to cleanse the space? Or should she first use the veil's thinness to reach across? She'd like to find the place in the estate where Danarius' power lingers, and hasn't been able to trace it yet. She also has some magical trinkets, some from the estate, others that Isabela found for her in the city. Having some spirits guide her through their uses and histories might be nice. Some of the objects could be linked back to the magic of the ancient elves.

Some small, unwelcome part of Merrill wonders who she'll give the knowledge to if she learns anything.

It's silly, of course, because she knows the answer is the Dalish. But her mind still prods at her once in a while, asking her who? Who cares about what she's found? How will it help? She has no clan. She doesn't know what will happen when she explains their deaths at the next Arlathvhen, or if the other clans will be just as foolish and willfully ignorant as the whole of Sabrae. Perhaps they'll try to exile her from all the Dalish altogether.

But no matter what, she reminds herself, it is important. This place has taken so much from her people. She needs to take some of it back. Even if no one but a human tries to help.

And Isabela's different than any other human. So much more than anyone, really.

Isabela hasn't been spending much time at the estate. Merrill imagines being cooped up here is just a reminder of when Isabela was cooped up in her own slaver's house, so she understands, even if she misses her. For days at a time, Isabela disappears into the city, sometimes peeling away from their group mid-conversation to join up with the few remaining members of her crew (most of them have already dispersed, she said, but she also said not to worry, she'd get more), or to tag along with strangers, to go drinking. She always returns, sometimes with stolen trinkets for Merrill, often in the very early mornings, always with a flask on hand to quell her queasiness from the night before.

"I don't understand," Merrill once said, the first time she saw it on an early morning venture, back in Kirkwall. "Wouldn't some tea be better if alcohol made you sick in the first place?"

"Hair of the dog, Merrill, it's hair of the dog," Hawke had said, as though that explained everything.

Merrill was certain elves had no drink like that, not even for medicine. "Oh. Is it a human tincture, then? From... dog fur?"

"Exactly," Hawke said. "No need to even put it in a potion. I drink too much, all I have to do is lick Perrito's brush. Works every time."

"No, kitten," Isabela explained, cracking open her eyes despite the sunlight, her gaze at Merrill sparkling with amusement, but still rescuing Merrill from more confusion, from more of Hawke's teasing. "It's a phrase, it means that booze wakes you up, gets rid of the bad stuff from the night before by giving you more of the same thing."

Isabela has her flask with her when, after the former miners get settled in, she takes Merrill down to the docks, instead of heading back out on her own. It's afternoon by now, and the sun beats hot down onto the part of Merrill's hair. They sit on the pier together, legs dangling off, knees brushing through trousers and leggings. Isabela seems comfortable here, even though the heat of the day must mean her skin is sticky under her clothes. The light and the lapping of the water can almost help Merrill set aside her exhaustion, and the terrible things she's seen here. At least for a few moments, she can focus instead on the sounds of birds, the shouting of laborers, the rhythmic pacing of patrols, all in the distant background. And in the foreground, Isabela's voice, her breath smelling heavy and sweet.

"I'm trying to decide which of these ships I'm going to steal when we get out of here," Isabela tells her, holding out some olives to Merrill cupped in the palm of her calloused hands, watching boats float in dock, approach, or leave. Merrill imagines Isabela is ready to leave this city, this country.

"Do you like some of them better than the one you got in Kirkwall?" Merrill asks, taking an olive, and sucking at the burst of salty, bitter flavor from flesh of it around the pit. When only the pit remains, she plucks it from her mouth, and puts it in a line with the others on the wood of the pier at her other side.

"The one I have is cute and all," Isabela says, "but it's not my ship. I want a my ship. I knew I probably wasn't going to find it in the Marches. The best makes are all Northern. Rivaini, Antivan, Nevarran, and don't tell anyone I said this, Qunari. Over here, they steal the best ideas from all of them and crunch them into one. The ones here are beautifully made, and absolutely wasted on 'Vinters. These ships are practically crying out for me to take them. Tevinter's naval skills are dreadful."

"Really? Why?"

"Terrible technique, kitten. They haven't bothered to learn to sail the old-fashioned way. They try to use magic to control everything, wind, weather, rigging, you name it, and they don't take risks on the water. But the sea's not safe, it's not meant to be. You have to embrace that to do anything really great with your ship."

Merrill smiles, feels her lids start to droop a little, not from boredom or sleep, but just because she feels so calm here, right now, listening to Isabela's voice. "Tell me which ones you like."

"You have to look for the triangle sails, for one. In the South, they're barely catching on to that. Square sails are fine for stability, but they don't know how to work with whatever winds you've got. Look at that one." Merrill watches with contentment as Isabela's hand stretches out and points. "They use ships like that to transport their ground troops, but it's a waste. That beauty is a warship, a raider in her own right. See how slim she is? The hull's light too. The planks are seamless, carved all in one, not clinked together piece by piece. And she's fast. Invented by pirates, of course. She'd sail like a bird skimming the water. You might as well be flying."

Merrill sits breathless and warm, watching the ships and the gestures of Isabela's hands, which get more emphatic and complex once the olives are gone. Isabela describes each of the ships they can see, what they work best for, how they're made, what it takes to sail them. She never gave a thought to something like boats being beautiful before meeting Isabela, but Merrill looks on them in new wonder, sees how some of them are fashioned in ways that must be touched by June for their craftwork.

"I still have feelings for you, you know," Merrill says quietly, after some time.

"Merrill—"

"No, it's all right." She feels at peace for the first time since they landed. "You don't need to return the feelings. It's just silly for me to pretend they're not there."

Isabela sighs, the sudden sharp alarm leaving her face for a softer, sadder expression, then finally says, "You don't even know me, kitten."

Merrill smiles. "I've known you for years, lethallan."

"You don't even know my real name."

"Then you can tell me whenever you like."

Isabela breathes out a small sound, with a shake of her head. It might be a laugh, though a melancholy one. But she reaches out her hand and squeezes gently above Merrill's knee. It sends a deep, hollow ache to the base of Merrill's pelvis, a tight, pleasant heaviness between her legs. Isabela keeps her hand on Merrill's thigh the rest of their time on the docks, though she says nothing about it, taking the conversation back to sailing. Sometimes she taps or strokes Merrill's thigh in emphasis, or spells out the Tevene names of each of the ships with her finger as she tells them to her, scribbling, as if Merrill's leg were a sheaf of papers. Merrill doesn't bother to hide her smile. Though Isabela's eyes are shy to meet her gaze, she's smiling too.

Later, filled with more energy than she remembers having in a long while, Merrill picks a quiet part of the house to do some magic.

Danarius' small shrine room, or perhaps chapel, is empty, and suits her purposes. Just like in the Kirkwall Chantry, a small neverending flame pyre flickers on display. The centerpiece of the shrine is different: it's not a statue of Andraste, but of a towering, faceless man. It could be the Maker, or one of their other figures, Merrill's not sure. She does see a small Andraste, modest and very clearly a human mage, in some of the etchings on the panels behind the main figure. Most of the other images seem to be of magisters throughout history, with the occasional dragon.

She supposes Sebastian would be horrified to set foot in this place, but her gods are no more or less absent here than in any other Chantry she's seen, so Merrill feels no differently here than anywhere.

Places of worship, any kind of worship, are filled with power her magic can tap into. It will make what she wants to do easier. There is a gold offering bowl before the man's statue, stained with old blood, probably why Hawke and Varric didn't take it to sell for coin. The bowl will work very nicely, too.

Merrill sits on the floor, and sets the bowl down in between her crossed legs. If she could have saved some cloths soaked in her menstrual blood it would make this quicker, but she's skipped right over her cycles lately, so she'll have to do everything herself. Merrill pulls out her knife and considers her intentions for the spell. Should she find Danarius' remaining power? Or just introduce herself to a spirit? She could even try to feel out the edges of the spell Hawke's under, though that might be harder. The neverending flame will help point her to the magical reserves within the house if she focuses, so perhaps she'll try that first. She also considers where she should make her cut, which places are still a little sore and puffed pink around the edges and need more time to heal before being opened up again. Merrill decides that her upper arm is clear enough for the moment, and easy enough to press the bowl underneath with her sleeveless tunic.

She makes the cut, and patiently waits as the blood moves sluggish into the bowl. When a small, quivering pool has covered the old, dried flakes at the bottom of the bowl, and the fresh blood begins to clot to the consistency of a raw egg from time in the open air, Merrill settles the bowl back down on the floor. She takes her prepared bandages and wraps her arm tight, then starts to close her eyes, begins to peel the Veil open, her sight growing clearer.

The physical door behind her opens and a brief, stifled cry echoes through the room.

Merrill first feels irritation at being pulled away from her casting, the power in her pushing for an outlet. Then she turns to see an elf girl with tears in her eyes staring in horror at the bloody bowl.

Drusa. Her name is Drusa, and the times before this, she's been cheerful, the least skeptical of anyone Merrill's seen. But now she's stammers, seeking words, until finally, "I-I'm so sorry, Discipula, I d-did not mean to interrupt."

Merrill jumps up to her feet, then winces when the girl recoils. She hasn't seen fear directed at her like this since... well, since her clan. Her clan was prejudiced, but the people here, they have a learned fear, like Fenris. She's an idiot. She should have been more careful. "No, please don't be afraid of me," she says, pleading. "I'm sorry. The blood's mine, I don't use anyone else's. I'm not a danger to anyone."

But she's not listening to her, nobody ever listens to her, they just call her a monster like Fenris once did. Drusa's eyes are fixed on the ground, and she gasps out, "Please, I beg you, if you use mine, please don't take all of it. I know I have no right, but—"

"I won't take any, don't you understand? I'm not like that, I—" Merrill tries to think of something, anything to stop her from shaking. "Ara seranna'ma, ir abelas, hara'tel. S’ethaan, lin ma. Atish’dara."5

Drusa's eyes shoot up to stare wide at her face. "Dirtha eludirth’elvhen?"6

Merrill relaxes a little. "Sulevin, ir elvhen."7

But the fear on Drusa's face only grows, mixing with something else. She looks as though she feels disgusted now, violated.

"You can understand us?" Drusa whispers. "You've been listening to us? I—please—" She shakes her head and starts stepping backwards, trembling. She stumbles through a curtsy, then runs out the door.

Merrill sinks back to the floor, legs collapsing under her.

"Please," she says, beginning to cry. "Ir abelas. Please. I'm-I'm sorry."

Chapter Text

In the estate's kitchens, Varric stands on a stepladder, sleeves rolled up, baking up a storm. Hawke helps by sucking raw dough dutifully off the spoon, leaning with her elbows propped on the counter. Somebody's got to make sure all the dough fits in the baking pan. She's doing them all a favor, really.

Isabela, sitting cross-legged on the counter, keeps adding bigger pinches of cayenne, sugar, and candied ginger when Varric's not paying attention. When he does look her way, she goes back to nursing a bottle of the baking beer. It's supposed to be for the bread, but that's never stopped them. Hawke gestures, and Isabela passes the bottle to her for a sip. The heat of the everlasting flames of the ovens presses like a heavy blanket against Hawke's bare arms.

“Know what I mean?" Varric asks, clapping flour off his hands, and gesturing. "Hightown. Midday. Sun shining right on that bench."

Hawke does, actually. “Sure.”

"Are you sure? C'mon, really picture it. The intertwining shadows! The lithe vines creeping up the wall! The ass-numbing seat! The scorching blaze of glory from the sky!”

“Picked many a pocket there,” Isabela agrees.

"Great," he continues with a flourish, "now you've got the mental image. So Mademoiselle Bouygues sits there, prim as can be, and says, 'Please do not moof, dwarf.'" Varric doles out more spoonfuls of squishy cooked sweet roots into the second batch's bowl, as Hawke takes another swig of beer and hands it back to Bela. Isabela's giving her a weird look. "'You are wide enoof to provide excellant shade from ze glare. A leetle up on your tiptoes, please. I shall giff you un copper eef you—'”

“Fuck the Imperium,” Isabela says, eyes squinting at Hawke.

Hawke opens her mouth to say it's a bit of a non-sequitur, but fair enough, no need for context for a statement like that... then closes her mouth again. Just in case.

Wait a moment. Hawke narrows her eyes too.

“Are you testing me, Isabela?”

“I wish,” Isabela continues, voice flighty and casual, but looking poised to jump off the counter if she needs to, “that I could take over the entire Imperium.”

Hawke sighs. “You're testing me,” she says, just as Varric says, “Rivaini's testing you.”

“I wish I could... kill the Archon?” A careful look at Hawke. “Kill... the Senate? Kill everyone who lives here one by one? Nothing?”

“Nothing.”

“Huh,” Varric says. “So it knows she's joking... mostly joking.”

Hawke pouts. “Thank you so very much for trying to cause excruciating pain in one of your best friends.”

“Just... figuring out how much we can push you,” Isabela says. “Anyway, from what Mae said, it sounded like there wouldn't be pain if it's somebody else. You'd just attack.”

"And fighting you never leads to pain."

"For you, I'll be gentle." Isabela winks.

“So it has to be an imminent threat,” Varric muses. “You can think whatever you want to think, fantasize whatever you want, wishes don't count. But the minute you verbalize something against their best interests... Huh." Varric rubs flour on his forehead, lost in thought. "It uses your interpretations of what other people are saying, though. Their wishes don't count either. But if they were slaves, it'd probably be a different story. I mean, Andraste's beard, slaves having opinions? That's a treasonous act as it is. But Isabela doesn't trigger it, so it's a judgment call? I dunno. This magic shit's anyone's guess." He sighs. "One of you pass me that greased pan you moved four feet away? I'm too short for this shit."

Isabela hands it to him, apparently too contemplative to complain about the extra work. “But what if it's a sneaky spell, and Hawke is scheming against me now? Secretly, on the inside?”

“Thanks but no, no schemes," Hawke says, ready to be done with the topic, feeling not so at ease. "It's not that subtle, it's more of a magical fist to the face.” She plucks dough remnants off the spoon and squishes them between her fingers.

“You would say that, wouldn't you, you're the one under the spell.”

"Isabela—" Hawke pleads.

“Fine, all right," she concedes. "Magical fist. Bet Fenris' magical fisting is so much nicer.”

"Har har."

Isabela looks up and raises an eyebrow. “We have a visitor."

Hawke turns, and sure enough, there's Asenath, in the entrance of the kitchen, giving Isabela a hearty glare. The expression disappears into vacancy when she sees that Hawke notices. Asenath quickly bows her head.

"Need something?" Hawke sets the spoon back on the counter.

"Domina, yes, I—I know of a matter which might concern you."

Asenath's voice is a submissive whisper. Hawke's mouthful of spiced dough suddenly feels a little too thick and dry.

The past week involved the miners and household staff waiting for the other shoe to drop, when in fact Hawke has no metaphorical second shoe whatsoever. Her favorite pair of boots has been split up permanently, single and alone. One's still missing somewhere in the initiation hall after throwing it at Crassus. Her most tactical fight move ever.

Hawke clears her throat, and tries to swallow. “What's the thing?”

"Some magisters wish to gain notice when a slave is soon to die. You may have your own desires and habits.” Asenath's fingers squeeze each other tight and paled where they're folded in front of her skirt. "And your command is sacrosanct. However, I did not wish to neglect any opportunity. If you wish me to go on, only say so."

Hawke feels some definite queasiness. "Dare I ask why magisters wish to know? Doesn't seem like they'd care all that much."

"To gain some use before our expiration. We provide a final act of service to our masters." The word has none of the scathing sarcasm she's used to hearing from Fenris.

"Ah,” Hawke says. “Blood magic."

Wow. How absolutely... what's the word she's going for here? Magisters—other magisters, she's one of them now, and isn't that a terrifying thought—would probably say "economical," "non-wasteful," "prudent," but Hawke's leaning more towards "brutal" and "evil" herself. What a kick while someone's down. Too much for slaves to hope that even dying belongs only to themselves.

Asenath continues, "Do you wish to have one such slave brought to you for use? He is a former miner, and he will not recover."

Hawke should go, shouldn't she. She should really go see him. Come on, Hawke. Just... you have to. "Where's he at?"

Asenath looks satisfied. "In the guest quarters, the northernmost room. I can show you. Will you need me to fetch any tools?"

"No," Hawke says. Maker no.

Varric catches Hawke's eye and nods, covering damp cloths over the bowls full of dough. “Right behind you Hawke,” he murmurs.

Isabela jumps down from the counter to follow too.

Trailing after Asenath feels like Hawke's trying to walk with her legs stuck on backwards. When they reach the guest quarters hallway, the lead householder, Lathinia, exits one of the curtained doorways. Her posture straightens when she sees their approach. Her brow is covered in sweat, and half of her bun is loose in fluffy wisps of gray along the side of her face.

“He's in there?” Hawke asks.

Lathinia gives a stunningly convincing smile, looking nothing but accommodating. “Yes, Magister.”

"All right.” Hawke takes a deep breath. “What's his name?"

She has quite the Wicked Grace face, but it ruptures in surprise. "His...?" She recovers into polite placidity. "Revastus, Mistress."

"Good. Okay. Revastus."

Hawke's a trained healer, and trained healers are kind of... supposed to heal people. What a concept. When her friends get injured in battle or moan over the sniffles, it's all well and good. She's good at that. But dying people aren't Hawke's favorite. Or anyone she wants to be around at all, truth be told.

Bethany and Father would have been so much better at this.

Father was gone the instant Hawke and Bethany saw him fall in the field. It was his heart, some defect from childhood that had never gone away. It was over before they knew it'd begun. Bethany was level-headed: she cried, but checked everything she needed to check, tried everything she needed to try, all in quick, diligent succession. Hawke did nothing, frozen in terror. Father. One moment there, laughing and tilling up weeds and rich dirt, the next moment gone.

And when Bethany was gone, everyone around her grieving, all Hawke could do was slur out angry words. She wanted to cut the sorrow out from herself and fling it away so it could never reach her again.

And when Mother was... well, no sense thinking about that.

But Hawke has to do something. She knows she does, and she knows she can't run on pure bravado and rush her way through.

Hawke has to do something, and she has to do it with care. But she wants to run as fast as she can in the opposite direction.

It's not like she's all that surprised, either, when she opens the door to the guest room. Revastus, an elf man who looks ancient but probably isn't, is very much incurable. Hawke fails in almost everything she puts her mind to, there's no sense in her succeeding now. She won't be able to save him. She shouldn't have hoped for any different.

She gave the miners an unlimited supply of healing potions, but didn't want to force care on them, didn't want to use magic on anyone unless they asked. No one did. They were all wary of her, for damn good reason, but part of Hawke wonders if maybe she had done something a few days ago, she could have given him more time. But... no. Not even then. He's too far gone.

It's a lyrium thing, coupled with years and years of back-breaking labor and physical deprivation. The poisonous mineral's just the icing on the cake. Most of the other miners probably never made it this far, never lived long enough to enter late-stage lyrium poisoning.

His face is pitted and cragged, one eye drooped and cloudy, thick, dark lesions over his skin, especially his hands and arms. They look like mushroom patches. What little Hawke can sense with magic, before her mental shields slam back up in aversion, is death, death, death, death, death.

From the bed, Revastus squints up at her, confused.

"This is—" Asenath begins.

"Hawke,” she says before any magister titles come out. “I'm Hawke. I—”

The strange downward sag of Father's mouth. Taking the knife from Aveline and pushing it into Wesley's chest, quick, to get it over with. Bethany's bones pushing up out of skin like flowers. Mother's body all wrong in more ways than just the surgical scars, in little proportions only a child once held by her would know.

Fenris, Isabela, Varric, Aveline, Carver, everyone, they're all going to end up like that, if Carver hasn't already, and how could she know? Will she ever know, or will she never see him again and always wonder? Everything in Hawke wants to run away and hide.

Isabela suddenly makes herself known, pinching a fleshy bit on the side of Hawke's hip, hard.

“Focus, Hawke,” she murmurs, “we've got your back."

And Hawke feels like her feet are back on the ground again.

“Right. So.” Hawke tries to look chipper, her heartbeat punching against the inside of her chest. Isabela doesn't look all that comfortable herself, but she's here anyway. If Isabela, reigning Queen of Running Away is here, Hawke better stay. She doesn't want to steal that crown away from the pirate who loves fancy titles. “Rumor has it your name is Revastus, that true?"

He nods, mouth tight in a pucker of pain.

Time to test out her tenuous, still-healing mana pool. Hawke approaches the bed. “Want some magic for the pain?”

Another nod, and she lets the spell flow out in his direction. He sighs in relief, eyelids fluttering.

"So...” Hawke tugs a nearby chaise closer to his cot and sits. She forces her twitchy muscles to plant her feet on the ground, legs spread, casual, elbows propped on her thighs. She tenses hard everywhere, so that her trembling isn't as visible.

What did Father always say? That the thing about dying people is everybody starts treating them like they're already dead? And what they need the most is someone who knows they're still people, even at the very end?

“What do you like to do, Revastus?” Hawke asks.

“I'm a—” He makes an aborted motion with his hands, but she gets the idea.

“Miner, right. Rocks, obviously, you're great at mining rocks, but what about for having a good time?"

"Uhnn..." He takes long enough she begins to think her question was a terrible idea, but then: "Singing?"

"Singing," Hawke says, with a gasp, sitting upright. "Singing! Terrific! My voice could send the Maker back to the world just to shut me up, but I bet you're good."

"Know any dirty songs?" Isabela pipes up, and Varric snorts.

Revastus laughs in a wheeze. "Yeah."

"Scoundrel, Revastus," Hawke says, "such a scoundrel, I love it. What's your favorite dirty song?"

His smile suddenly droops at his open mouth, and he blinks. “I—I don't remember, I—” A grimace of empty spaces between teeth, his hands trembling. “I can't remember, I—”

"I've got an idea," Hawke redirects instead. "Isabela! You asked, so let's hear a good bawdy for our guest here." Conspiratorially, she turns back to Revastus. "She's a pirate, she'll know all the best ones."

“Way to put me on the spot, Hawke,” Isabela complains. But from her place leaning with her arms crossed against the wall, she clears her throat, pushes her shoulders back, and says “c'mon Varric.”

She breaks out into a riotous, offkey song about a notorious naval captain with his ballops undone, rallying his crew with a private show. “At the port hole he stands with his prick in his hand,” and so on. It's scandalous. Varric catches on quick and joins in on the melody.

Hawke doesn't know the tune or the words, but good on Isabela for picking one from the area, because Revastus starts humming along with a faint smile on his face. Hawke stifles a yawn inspired by the rapid morphing of her mana into pain suppressants. At least getting tired makes her more relaxed.

Isabela finishes her song, and Varric and Hawke applaud her. Revastus keeps humming, until he drifts into a nap. Hawke focuses on sitting still, and keeping up the magic.

A while later, Revastus wakes from the growling of his own stomach.

“Hungry?” Hawke asks.

Revastus looks uncertain. “Can I—can I eat? Even though I'm dying?”

It's strange to hear him just say it, but why wouldn't he know it? “Sure, if you want to.”

“I want to but—I tried. Before. And it'll just come back up again." He looks ashamed to admit it. "So it's... wasteful?”

"That's the point of eating!” Hawke insists. “It'll always come back out one way or another."

He looks at her, considering, then smiles. “Yes, I'll have some food.”

“I'm on it,” Varric says, from where he's been lurking with serious, shadowed eyes, doing what he'd probably claim was his best Broody impression.

He comes back from the kitchens with lyrium for Hawke, and food for Revastus: some of the delicious uncooked bread mix, some soft overripe fruit, some flaky fish that breaks apart with the barest touch. Things suitable enough for toothlessness and poor swallowing. He also brings water, and the finest wine in the house. As if it was the most natural thing in the world, Varric casually helps Revastus move his hand to eat and drink whatever he picks, as if he was doing it himself despite his weakness. He only eats a portion big enough for a mouse, but he seems to enjoy it.

It does come back up later, but they're prepared, and it's no real hardship.

“Time for you to take a break,” Isabela says in Hawke's ear, when Revastus drifts in and out of sleep again.

“What?” Hawke blinks up at Isabela, startled from the narrow focus of her magic.

“You've got a lot of people who want to come in and see him, but they're afraid of you. Make yourself scarce for a minute."

Hawke didn't even notice the faces at the doorway until she glances back and sees them pull away again. "Right, okay."

Hawke, Isabela, and Varric step out into the hallway and around a few corners, far enough away to stop intimidating her patient's guests, but close enough that the magical connection to Revastus still follows Hawke, as if she's tied a string around his finger and holds the other end. Hawke slumps with her back against the wall and then follows it down to the floor, landing ass on ground with a sigh.

"How you doin', Chuckles?" Varric looks concerned, and passes her another bottle of lyrium.

She glugs on it for a while, then sets the glass next to her on the floor. “Okay. Just a little tired." She yawns, then mumbles, "Where's Merrill, shouldn't she be doing a Dalish ritual for him?”

“I don't think that's a good idea,” Varric says darkly.

That's... suspicious. “What? Why?”

“They think she's your apprentice,” Isabela jumps in a little too quick. “One more person to worry them.”

Isabela's being shifty again, but Hawke's too exhausted to care. Maybe this healing thing wasn't the best idea so soon after getting drained, but what's Hawke if not a font of bad ideas?

When the distance between her and Revastus starts tugging her magic like a seam on its last threads, Varric and Isabela help her up. She sneaks back into the room. Though some of the visiting slaves start away, Hawke says, “If you want to stay, you can stay."

Some of them do.

The miners take over the parts she's worst at, the holding and touching. Revastus is well-loved. Once they realize she's not going to snap at them, once they see she hasn't been draining his blood, he attracts a gathering around his bed. They kiss Revastus on the cheek, line up at his bedside and change out who sits with him to hold his hand. Lathinia brings damp cloths to wipe up his face.

As the load of pain to suppress rises higher and higher, Revastus goes wordless, mostly sleeping. His breathing slows, stops, then in a gasp starts again, heavy. It happens over and over, as his body begins to radiate with fever. With each pause, Hawke thinks it might be over, waiting and holding her own breath until his starts again. And again and again. It's a long death, and she has no experience with those. Exhaustion and anxious impatience make her want to rush this, make her want it to be over with.

But Hawke stays, and she waits.

***

There you go, Hawke, Isabela thinks. Show 'em that thing you do that made me stick around for so long.

They're still not free. It's still not enough. But it's something. If he were going to live, the cynical ones would figure Hawke's healing him for her own benefit, upkeeping her property. But him? He's worthless. He's not going to live long enough to be loyal, to do any work. He's done for. And still, here Hawke sits, trying her damndest, eyes baggy, her face ashen from straining herself with magic, her teeth stained a faint glowing blue from chugging a whole lot of lyrium.

Isabela steps out when the chatting and singing diminish into the bulk of the dying, the delirium, the rasping and quiet. That's when Fenris approaches her from down the hall, with a loud “Is Hawke—” before Isabela sticks a quiet finger on his lips and motions.

He looks in the doorway, stands silent for a while, then nods, slipping away again.

Isabela sees when the final thing happens. Revastus' feet turn blue and Hawke leans in closer to the bedside, sudden, urgent concentration on her face. Then it's the end. All that happens is a small noise from Hawke, unobtrusive.

Revastus' eyes are closed, his dry lips open.

"He was a good man," Durganus says, and steps close, kissing Revastus' body tenderly on the forehead.

Drusa's hand cups over her mouth, tears running over her fingers as she stares at Hawke, then looks to Lathinia. Lathinia's eyes glitter with tears, and she shakes her head, looking uncertain.

Hawke looks up, dazed, until her gaze drifts and meets Isabela's. Isabela nods and crooks a finger at her. Hawke stands, sways but stays upright, and walks carefully to join Isabela out of the room, as the crowd snugs in closer around the bed. Varric follows, head bowed.

“So...” Hawke says in the hall, weakly, rubbing her hands together. Her eyes look damp and veiny from the lyrium and the strain of holding in tears. “So.”

"Yeah," Isabela says, letting out a breath. "'So' is right."

“Remember what you told me your ma said to you, Hawke?" Varric asks. "Back in Kirkwall?”

Hawke blinks. “'This is all your fault'? Relevant as always.”

Varric huffs a laugh. “Not that one. Uh, after that. About your dad. 'The best of him is in you.' Never got to meet the guy, but from what you've told me, he was a damn good healer. I think he'd be proud of you, kid.”

Hawke's eyes widen, and a tear slips out one corner before she wipes at it with the back of her hand. She throws her head back to look away. “Varric, don't betray me like this.” Her voice catches on a sob. “This is supposed to be a no tears friendship. Pure laughs, nothing else.”

“Yeah, well, I live to disappoint,” he says with a smile, then softer, “You're welcome, Chuckles.”

Isabela clacks her piercing against her teeth and looks away. Down the hall, Asenath stands in the doorway, lids low and hooded, face like stone. Then she turns and she's gone.

***

Finally, the waiting ends.

All Senate-secured funds, accessed and withdrawn. Supplies, stocked and prepared, for the inevitable backlash they will soon face.

A bribed judge sits at Danarius' desk. Maevaris stands with her hand on his shoulder to observe and instruct. Hawke stands ready to give her magisterial approval. The others stand in a line, in their last moments of slavery.

For Fenris, the moment feels surreal in its mundanity: on the desk sits a simple stack of papers. They are thick, water-resistant, flame-resistant, but look nonetheless unbearably fragile for what they represent. Magical transcriptions appear on each page, as the judge drones his declaration, and Hawke repeats her agreement.

"On this day, the eighth day of Eluviesta, in the Imperial year of 2032, Magister Joaquina Hawke hereby releases the following individuals from obligatory service, heretofore this same magister's just and legal property. The aforementioned released parties are hereafter deemed Liberati en infinite, excepting future crime or debt with resultant bondage, capable of serving the Imperium in the means dictated by common law, subject to any and all future change of Tevinter Senate laws. This proceeding is witnessed by Praetor Arcturus, and certified by the presence of Magister Hawke. Magister Hawke, do you wish to proceed?"

“Yes, I do.”

“Proceeding. Released from service: Astalon, male, Qunari, approximately 40 years old. Mining laborer. Identifying characteristics: one ram's horn lateralis sinis, one horn stump approximately two millimeters in length lateralis dex...”

The judge is sympathetic to Maevaris' “abolition” cause, no doubt thanks to the extra weight of coins in his sidepurse. Maevaris hemmed and hawed over how unusual a legal mass freeing would be, but their mercenary of legalities gives no protest.

The weather is stifling, a sheen of humidity over each surface in the office. This room, and certain others, have lost touch with Danarius' magic reserves. It should feel like a victory, to know the magic is fading without upkeep, but for the moment, Fenris only feels suffocated. The judge's words slip in and out of Fenris' grasp.

“... Magister Hawke, do you affirm?”

“I affirm.”

The judge waves a sigil in the air, signs the page, and hands it out. With something as simple as this mark on a page, each former slave's collar unclasps itself, breaks away, falls to the floor. The once-trapped flesh beneath uncovers, revealing tan lines, calluses from years of scuffing.

“... Drusa, female, elf, approximately 20 years old. Household laborer. Identifying characteristics: House Danarius tattoo at the base of head, inferior to hairline..."

Fenris has no collar to break, not any longer. He did that himself, before his journey to the Free Marches. Only his phasing abilities allowed him to rip it from his throat without the impossible pain illicit tampering would otherwise cause. The irony of one chain placed on him permitting him to break another.

“Yep. Still affirming.”

Former slaves stare at their discarded collars, those dull, frayed objects that used to form the facts of their lives. Fenris remembers the uncertainty, the possibilities, all too well. Should he keep it as a morbid memento, he wondered? Perhaps sell it for scrap in the lowest of markets? Find a slaver to kill and adorn with it? Leave it where it lies? Destroy it himself?

“Released from service...”

The judge is bored, his hand steady and limp. He and Maevaris are the only steady figures in the room.

“Affirmations, just streaming out of my mouth here.”

“Released from service: Fenris.”

Hawke's eyes grow wide, and along with her, Fenris snaps up out of his reverie.

“Male, elf, approximately 30 years old. Household personal guard. Identifying characteristics: white hair, green eyes, dermis lyrium administered by Magister Danarius across body's entirety. Magister Hawke, do you affirm?”

“I affirm,” Hawke says quietly, gazing at Fenris.

Stiffly, limbs uncooperative, Fenris walks forward and takes the paper from the judge's outstretched hand, the sigil in the air redundant with no collar on his neck.

It is done.

Danarius is dead, and even in the Imperium's eyes, Fenris has proof of his personhood.

Yet, instead of satisfaction, he feels only a restless unease.

Fenris looks at the paper in his hands, the paper he can read. The others cannot read the proof, and touch their necks in disbelief to understand.

The paper is fragile, like the tolerance of the law. The freedoms are constrained, weak at best, noting the possibility of service as an apprentice in a trade, or the lowest place in the Circle of Magi for those with magic. Nothing more. No citizenship. Careful loopholes, warning of a return to slavery if the conditions are right.

The spiteful triumph Fenris thought he'd feel is absent, just as it was after Danarius' death.

No longer a slave, even by law. Yet the law is a petty, changeable thing, and what a thing to take his satisfaction from. That a note, a word, a bribe, can mark him with sudden, slight personhood, though hardly in full? While this same law, through its cruel whims and profits, marks others as chattel? The marks on the page are nowhere near as deep as the marks on his skin. They are shallow, and so is this victory. It is nowhere near enough.

Everything must be toppled. The very system that dares choose who is chained and who is free must be brought to its knees, taught a bitter and permanent lesson.

From within himself, Fenris earned his freedom long ago. The paper carries no truths, and Fenris will do what he can to destroy the need for such documents.

“Congratulations, Fenris,” Hawke says, later, when it is all complete.

There is no usual joking tone in her voice, and Fenris sees her press a brief kiss to her own two fingertips, resting against her mouth. Her gaze is one of restraint and longing. It surges in him an urge to snap teeth at her fingers, her lips, her neck, and... another time, far away from here. He sighs, pulling himself away from his thoughts.

“It does not feel as it should,” Fenris admits.

“Is there a should? I thought it'd probably feel however the feelings feel like.”

“Indeed.” He shakes his head. “It is not... what I thought it would be. It seems... less important than it was before.” He gazes at Hawke, then looks away. More than that he cannot share with her, not yet. Not until the curse is lifted.

“Hawke darling,” Maevaris says, approaching. “Well done, but a practical matter is calling. You haven't been to a single Senate meeting. Come defend your decision. We hold session tomorrow."

“Tempting,” Hawke says. “But let's not.”

Fenris ensures Isabela is near and paying attention, before he turns from Hawke to the crowd of former slaves who still linger in the hall outside the office. He outstretches his hand to garner attention, and the murmuring dies down.

Fenris looks out the flickering curtains at the waning afternoon. His voice sounds hoarse and not his own. “You are free to go your own way. Yet all those who wish to, meet me in the training yards before sundown. Share this message with any liberati still within the grounds. I'd like... I'd like to speak with you.”

***

Fenris catches her eye then calls his meeting. Isabela gives him a wink, drapes her arm around Hawke's shoulders, and steers her in the opposite direction.

She skims a hand over Hawke's dried out, heat-flattened hair. “Your ends are looking crunchy, sweet thing. I could snap some of these off right now. Let's go take care of you.”

“Why do I get the feeling,” Hawke says lightly, though she doesn't put up a fight, “that you're distracting me from something.”

“Nonsense,” Isabela says. “When has a little pampering ever gone amiss?”

Unless Fenris gets as long-winded as Sebastian on a theological rant, he should be done far before Hawke's hair is. If he's not, it doesn't matter. In that case, they're going to lose anyway, since the whole rebellion will die of boredom.

Isabela veers Hawke around a few corners and into Isabela's guest room. She'd much rather stay on her ship, but having a space here has its uses. She pulls out a clattering assortment of jars and bottles from her stash, fragrant, oily potions packed away and padded with bundles of headscarves.

Hawke sits with a sigh on Isabela's bed, and tugs on a piece of her hair, eyeing it.

“All right," Hawke admits, "some of those Crassus spells were the last dying breath for my curls. That rebounded lightning was like sticking my head in a frying pan. Someone needs to come up with a healing spell for hair, instead of all this 'blah blah we can heal your scalp but hair is dead' nonsense. Time to invent some hair necromancy.”

“Listen to you, talking like a little Southerner. Rivaini seers have plenty of hair spells. But you know me, no magic, just a magic touch." Isabela gives Hawke a wink. "We'll do this the old-fashioned way. We won't know how bad it is until we give it some love and see if it bounces back. Now come here, you can switch back to the bed when we're conditioning."

Hawke sighs again, but gets up from the bed and sits backwards in a chair. Isabela pulls up another chair behind Hawke, straddling up close behind her to reach, and props the wash bucket on her lap between them.

Isabela knows Hawke gets squirmy and wants to run away when most other people touch her, but Isabela's been an exception for a long time. Hawke sags comfortable between the chair and Isabela's touch as she begins a vinegar-spiked cleanse, to get rid of any old blood or Maker knows what that might be lingering around after the past few weeks Hawke's been having. The tension starts to leave Hawke's neck and shoulders. After everything, and Isabela's still safe to her.

“Fenris tried his best while I was asleep," Hawke says with a yawn, "but, uh—”

“That straight white floof of his is the only thing he knows what to do with?"

"And there you have it."

"Not to worry, Hawke, he's leagues behind the kind of tenderness I can provide."

Easing the water and vinegar through Hawke's hair, Isabela's fingers pucker up already, but she ignores it. Plenty of nice things cause prune fingers, like baths and swimming and fingerfucking Merrill—fingerfucking. In general. Shush, mind. Why Merrill? Why not... Zevran? Mm, Zevran. Much better. Much less complicated.

So... wrinkly fingers. She'll take a little sacrifice for Hawke, no problem.

"Now," Isabela announces, when she's done, "beer rinse time."

Hawke looks back at Isabela with an expression of mock-offense. “You're wasting that on my head? Instead of in my body? How could you betray me like this?”

“It's all about the protein, Hawke. Trust me. You do trust me, don't you?”

“At least let me drink some of it first.”

“It's flat.”

“As if I care.”

Isabela rolls her eyes, and hands Hawke the long-uncorked bottle.

Hawke takes a fast swig and shudders, grinning before handing it back. “Mm, like parchment dropped in a puddle. You're making me all nostalgic for the Hanged Man." She relaxes forward against the chair again, sleepy voice muffled in her arms. "I'm surprised you could even keep a bottle around without drinking it."

Isabela hopes Hawke can't feel her sudden tension while she's snug up against her. Isabela's surprised too. Maker knows the number of times she's tried to flatten out beer a few days for this purpose only to drink it anyway despite her best intentions.

“It's 'cause you're special, sweetums,” she jokes instead.

After the rinse sits for a while and is almost ready to go, Hawke suddenly raises her head again, looking... at a particular corner of the room. A corner with a particular kind of rope, a special rope, coiled up and waiting. Shit. Should've snuck it to Varric before bringing Hawke here. Mages and their weird vibes thing.

"That rope..." Hawke begins, a frown on her face. At least she doesn't have it figured out... yet. "Is there..."

“You never know when you need to do a little bowline," Isabela says, quick and dismissive. "A cleat hitch. Rolling hitch. Or maybe a little sheet bend. Any kind of sheet bend, if you catch my meaning.”

Hawke blinks out of her concentration. “Ah yes, I understand the words coming out of your mouth perfectly.” At least she seems to let it go.

“Mmhm, now heat this up," Isabela says, and grabs one of her jars of oils.

“I thought this was about me relaxing. Now you're asking for magical labor? My my.”

"This may be a freebie, but you've still gotta work for it.” She thrusts the jar towards Hawke.

"Brutal," Hawke murmurs, and dips a lazy finger in, heating until Isabela tells her to stop.

"You know," Isabela says, balancing the jar between her legs and getting to work, "I could rub this hot oil everywhere. Fenris might get all grumpyface if I did, but doesn't it sound delicious?" Her hands move quickly, coating the bottom tips of Hawke's hair, then starting a little higher each time, swiping down, smoothing and parting, gently tugging her hair into sections.

"Oil everywhere?" Hawke says. "Slipping around trying to walk? Guaranteed wipeout in seconds. No one would be able to help me up either. No friction to grab onto. Sliding around on my belly like a serpent for weeks. What a nightmare."

Isabela laughs, coating her hands in more oil, then finally working down from the top, massaging Hawke's scalp.

As Hawke's head sinks against her fingertips, Isabela wonders if this is what it would've been like to have a little sister in Rivain. Someone else to share mischief with. To share touch without the trappings of sex, and love without the trappings of greed.

But never mind all that, a little sister growing up would have only meant one more person for her mother to fuck over. And one more person for Isabela to hurt too, she's sure of it.

But all the same, she's grateful, in all those sentimental words that cut her mouth when she tries to tug them out. She's grateful she has Hawke. And she's not going to let Hawke stay trapped by this spell for long. Hawke's got to be free, just like Hawke helped her stay free. And Isabela will make sure of that.

She finishes up with the oil, then wraps an oil-sealed scarf over Hawke's hair to trap in the moisture. "Time for the boring part. You can take a nap if you promise not to jostle your head around too much."

Hawke sprawls out on Isabela's bed, dutifully holding the scarf in place until she gets situated. Isabela lies down on her back beside her and stares up at the ceiling.

After a while, Isabela shoots a sideways glance at Hawke. Her eyes are closed, but she's not asleep. "Hawke..."

An eye cracks open. "Mmph," she grunts.

"You won't be tooooo angry if I tell you something, right?”

Hawke sighs, but there's no tension or malice in her when she asks, “What'd you do this time?”

Isabela decides to mostly... slightly... tell the truth about Devon's demise. Hawke likes her a lot better than Hawke likes Merrill, so she might as well take the brunt of this one. "I may have... killed a man. A nobleman. At your initiation. Just one! He was one of those men from back in the day. You know, those days. A slave trader, a real piece of work.”

Hawke rolls over with the crinkle slide noise of expensive sheets, and props her chin up on her hand, looking at Isabela. “How'd you know this wouldn't send me into one of my freakouts?”

“Ha! If interpersonal assassinations were considered a threat to this place, the Imperium wouldn't exist.”

"Fair. So, you killed someone." Hawke shrugs. "It happens. A lot. It's great."

"Weeeeeeelllllll... the problem is, somebody sort of... walked in on us." Isabela gives her a hopeful, 'still not angry?' grin-wince.

"Who?"

"Um... Asenath."

Hawke plops down on her back again. "Oh boy."

"Yeah. You mad?"

"No," Hawke says slowly, "I mean, she's obsessed with me. You're my friend, so... logic says, should be fine. No troubles in the world. Perfect bliss. Right?"

"She's obsessed with working her way up," Isabela says. "She'll be trouble."

"What can she really do about it?"

"What if I told you that maybe she... hid the body?"

Hawke sits up, claps a hand over her face and groans. She stays in this position for a moment, then takes a deep breath, letting her hand fall, a long-suffering grin on her face. "Beautiful. So she knows about the skeletons in our closet. Literally. She put them there. Okay. All right. Well, at least you're telling me instead of just pretending you have somewhere else to be whenever you see her."

Isabela sits up too, and scoffs, laughing. "Shush, you."

"'Sorry, uh, can't come into the compound, just realized I'm late for birdwatching with the Revered Mother—'"

Isabela stands up, rolls up the comforter and throws it at Hawke.

She barks out a laughs, and catches it before it smacks her in the face. "'Very important business very far away from Qunari, sorry bye!'"

Isabela pouts, crossing her arms. "Remember who gets to decide how gently or roughly she's going to detangle your hair."

"Am I wrong?" Hawke says. "Tell me I'm wrong, and I'll stop."

"You're wrong."

"Not wrong. And never letting you live it down."

"Not listening! Come on you, time for the finishing touches."

Hawke gets back in the chair. Isabela undoes the scarf, and starts detangling, gentle as can be despite her threats. Healed, tight coils are already starting to reform from the sad, stiff strands they were stuck in before. She barely needs her tiny, serrated blade, only snipping off a few ends with single strand knots and crunchy bits. Mostly everything's salvageable.

“What's that dagger called?” Hawke slurs sleepily.

“It's not a dagger, it's a rigging knife.”

“All right, what's its name?”

“I'm not Varric, you know, I don't have a name and a love song for everything I own.”

“Sure you don't,” Hawke yawns. “I remember Heartbreaker. And Backstabber.”

“Fine. It's called... Spoilt Lady's Toenail.”

Hawke snorts.

"It's looking good, Hawke," Isabela says. "Just don't heat it with magic or the old fashioned iron right away, all right? You'll ruin all of my good work, let it recover for a while.”

“I'm thinking about a change anyway. I think I'll leave it like this.”

“The curls'll get tighter and tighter with each treatment over the next few months, then. I'll help you out there."

"Is that a promise of commitment I hear? What have you done with Isabela?"

"Scary, isn't it?" Isabela gives her hair one last inspection, then sets the blade down, satisfied. She rinses Hawke's hair one last time, adds one of her creamy, scented potions, then sits back to admire her work. "Done. How are you feeling, Hawke?”

“Better.” Hawke sighs, then opens her eyes and grimaces. “Sort of. If I don't think about... you know.”

“It's terrible, Hawke. It's every kind of fucked,” Isabela says. “But don't worry, I'm going to—be here for you. You know?”

“I know. Thanks, Bela.”

Isabela stands and kisses her on the forehead. “You're welcome, sweetness. And next time you drop a fireball on my head, you can return the favor."

One Arishok down, now time to cut the control the Imperium has on Hawke. It's only right.

And it's what real family does.

***

In the yards, on the dusty, hard-packed ground once so often watered with blood, Fenris tells the new liberati everything.

He gives a warning first, that his words may cause risk or even harm. For those who simply wish to begin a new life, to forget, Fenris asks that they leave, for their own safety.

Some leave. Many stay.

Fenris is no storyteller like Varric, but as plainly and honestly as he can, he speaks. Of Danarius, of the Fog Warriors, of Kirkwall, of Hawke and her ilk and unexpected friendship, of the letter, of their purpose here. Of the spell on Hawke, and their plans to unravel it. He shares all he can think of. If not now, then when? The time for artifice has passed.

“Tell me,” he says at last, “what we can do.”

Silence from the others gathered in front of him. Silence, for so long he begins to fear it will never be broken.

Then the household's lead, Lathinia, steps forward. A much younger girl, Drusa, tries to tug her arm back with fear in her eyes and hurried whispers. Lathinia squeezes the girl's hand with her own, a hand wrinkled and roughened from work, then turns to Fenris, gaze intense. He holds her eyes, waiting.

“Keep us on as servants," she says. "Order us to market.”

Fenris' heart sinks. Brainwashing for servitude, of course. Lathinia was often diligent and scolding, now and in his scant recollections from before. He should have suspected. Slaves with lost purpose, seeking for new masters. His words fall on deaf ears. Perhaps it was naive of him to hope that—

"No," Lathinia corrects sternly, watching his expression before he can even respond. “Most of us are not like you were, Leto.”

Fenris' blood begins pounding in his ears, and he cannot stop his eyes from going wide, his mouth falling open. Has she been here so long that she knew him even then? He never knew. And to hear the name again, last from his slain sister's lips— "I—"

“Not in our hearts and in the hidden corners of our minds," she continues, chin tilted up, proud. "Obedience is a game, and we can squeeze our own purposes from any roles they give us. Have her order us to market. There are messages to be passed, contacts to be made. However well-intentioned, she dismissed our usual jobs, and it posed a challenge for us. If you ask how to help? Resume these duties. And Durganus—”

“No," Durganus cuts in, observing with arms crossed. "Let's see how his death trap of a plan plays out."

Frustration shakes Fenris from his shock. “No one needs to come with us to break Hawke's curse. It is a complication, but we will resolve it.”

"Here's a resolution," Durganus retorts, "if you speak true you want to help, don't talk of plans that scream of traps to bring down the entire fucking Imperium on our heads, scheming with you or not. Try a real solution. Kill her. No more curse."

Fenris' hands itch to form fists. "Harming Hawke is not an option."

Durganus shrugs. "Must be some good—"

Lathinia punches him on the upper arm, with what appears to be surprising strength. "What did I tell you about being vulgar? And don't be so quick to kill what few allies we might have."

He laughs, shakes his head. "Whatever you wish. But I won't be a part of it."

"I will," says a young voice, a haggard but young girl named Ghi, wearing pigtail braids. "I'll go."

Da'len,” Durganus says, a strange, soft contrast to how he presents himself to Fenris, “it's easily a plan to mark you for conspiracy, to purge this whole household.”

“Why?” Ghi says, bony hands on hips. “Scheme upon scheme upon scheme, you're saying. We're not that important. They can do whatever they want to us. Why do that? Why take away the collars and give us papers? Why waste their time? The dust's clogging your head, Durg. I'm going, and I'll help.”

“But,” Drusa begins, “will she be there?”

"Hawke? No. The curse would—"

"No, not her. Hawke's... apprentice. The elf, I've seen her, she... she's a blood mage.”

Of all the—of course she—Fenris seethes, beyond coherence. “The witch never learns, does she? She can't wrap her simpleminded brain around the consequences of her actions.”

“Going to try and claim she's an enemy? A dupe?” Durganus asks, skeptical.

“No, Merrill... she's a... a friend. An ill-informed and reckless friend, but a friend nonetheless.” Fenris can hardly believe he's going to defend her, but the context is indeed different than what they suspect. Begrudging, he continues, “Though I find all blood magic despicable, she bleeds only herself. Make no mistake, a great many died from her stupidity once. But... though she dabbles with demons and dangers better left alone, in almost a decade's time, I've never known her to bleed another person.”

Drusa shakes her head. "That's what she told me too, she was using her arm, but—"

"When's a real culex8 gonna cut themselves with a hundred slaves around?" Ghi retorts. "I'm not afraid. I'm going."

Fenris inclines his head in gratitude for her bravery.

“Welcome back, Leto," Lathinia says, approaching Fenris, searching his eyes with her own. "Durganus fears for us, for good reason, but I've seen enough. I see the little boy who fought so hard to free his mother and sister. You speak the truth."

The name again. Fenris flounders. “You... you knew them? I have no memories of—few. Very few memories. Were they—”

“The past is dead,” Lathinia says. “Look to the future. Knowing won't help. I promise you that.”

He could push her further, but she speaks true. The desire to push forward is what has kept him alive. “Then call me by my name as it is now. Fenris.”

She nods, and squeezes his shoulder. “Fenris.” The gesture stings his lyrium but he cannot bring himself to mind.

***

Everything's great with their planning, until it's not.

The real problem, Isabela thinks, is that it's Hawke, and when do any of them ever hide anything from Hawke? Scratch that, they all do. Varric with Bianca, her with her... stuff, Merrill with... but not this kind of stuff. This is the kind of stuff they always bring Hawke in on, unless Hawke's the one knocking on their door giving them the in. They're used to Hawke being the leader in their schemes.

It's such a simple little thing.

“You have the thing you need, Varric?” Isabela asks. Hawke is around, but all that near, and not really paying attention to them. “Merrill's ready whenever you are."

“Tada,” Varric says, flashing the tiniest corner of the map of the old Senate archives from inside his coat breast pocket. The glimpse is just a fragment, not enough to get a good sense of it.

But suddenly, Hawke strikes.

Looking surprised and horrified at herself, Hawke tears the map from Varric's pocket. This seems to confirm her suspicions, and Hawke's hands burst into flames, the paper with them.

"Shit!" Isabela yells. She scrambles to open the pouch at her side.

Hawke lets out her own, wordless yell, and dives at Varric. Her fiery hand connects in a searing punch to his chest.

As Varric doubles over, his chest hair and shirt instantly crackle with flame. It sends a stream of smoke upward into his mouth and nose as he veers away, ducking, coughing, and patting at his chest.

Thing is, Isabela's been planning for this. She tugs her coil of magebane-coated rope out of her pouch and pounces on Hawke from behind. As soon as the rope touches, the spell on Hawke's hands fizzles out.

Hawke's still weak after the Crassus thing and after the healing session with Revastus, and that makes Isabela's job a lot easier. Making sure to keep a piece of the rope against Hawke's bare skin, Isabela wraps her arms around Hawke's upper chest and grapples her down. Hawke slides down and lands flat on her ass. Isabela gets Hawke's struggling arms out of the way behind her back first, then starts trying to tie her knees up to her chest.

Unable to look away from her efforts, Isabela calls out, "You all right, Varric?"

"Fine, Rivaini," Varric rasps, between hacks. "Gonna go grab Broody."

Won't Fenris be delighted. Poor man.

“Don't try me, Hawke, I'm a pirate, I'm great with knots,” Isabela huffs out as Hawke continues to struggle.

"I'm sorry!" Hawke says, voice a miserable wail, trying to headbutt Isabela backwards to no avail. "I'm trying to stop and it just won't, maybe if—fuck, ow—I—not you, my head, when I—"

"Shut it, Hawke. I know, sweet thing." Isabela finishes up the tie off, snug, secure, and closer to what she'd do for fun than for a captive. She's not looking to give Hawke permanent nerve damage once this spell is over.

Isabela looks up as Varric returns with Fenris. She keeps a hand on the still-struggling Hawke so she doesn't topple to the side like an unfortunate, helpless doodle bug.

Varric's managed to extinguish the flame on his chest just fine, but when he rubs the soot away in a circle, the hair falls off too, charred clumps sticking to his reddened, smooth chest.

Isabela gasps, staring dramatically at his bare skin then back to his eyes. "Varric! No. The chest hair. It's gone!"

***

Fenris kneels before Hawke, touching her heated face. She stills with a small twitch when his hand presses against her, then returns to her struggles. She looks exhausted from the effort and the magebane, as she pants with glassy eyes.

"Is there pain?" he asks, his voice rough.

Hawke shakes her head no, one blessing at least, finally closing her mouth in a dry swallow.

“Isabela's a pro. She did a good job. And I think the—you know, it, it can tell I'm doing my best. And I'm just a little... preoccupied... instead of... you know. Trying to go against the country's best interests. But if you let me go, then I'll—” She winces. “Then I'll—be fine. And most definitely won't continue to try and warn anyone, I promise. You can just untie me, please.”

“Yeah, we can't do that, Hawke," Varric says, searching his unburned trouser pocket and pulling out a pen and sheaf of paper. "You all better head out and get this over with. I'll draw you another map."

At that, Hawke jerks in her bindings, and Fenris' heart leaps sickly, his arm steadying her.

Isabela, of course, appears to be mourning the loss of Varric's chest hair the most. She slinks up to him and runs her fingertips over the now-hairless scorch marks as he sketches on the paper.

"How can I leave you here, with your loss?" Isabela says, petting him.

"It'll grow back, Rivaini. It'll grow back."

"Quickly, please," Fenris says. "The sooner this is over, the less Hawke will suffer. I'm not sure I shouldn't—"

"Neither of us should," Varric insists. "You're the most obvious person they could ever hope to bust, and they know me, too. Let's just settle in with Chuckles."

Fenris nods. Merrill may be Hawke's supposed apprentice, but for most, an elf is inconsequential, unrecognizable. And her magic is needed. Undoubtedly even her blood magic, which he tries not to consider. Fenris, however, will be far too conspicuous.

"All right, well," Isabela says. "Bye Hawke."

"Don't," Hawke says, jerking again. "You can't go, don't—listen to me, I order you not to go"

"Right. See you soon, sweet thing. Hang in there." She turns and disappears.

Heart heavy, Fenris settles on the floor against the wall next to Hawke, who's begun trembling in her bonds. "Hawke..."

"Please hold me," she says, in a small, weak voice without any more of the guile or desperation. "I know I'm an awkward bundle right now but... as best you can?"

"Of course," he says. With care, Fenris tugs Hawke close so she can rest her head against his chest. He wraps his arms around her.

Varric settles beside them, patting his reddened chest before getting comfortable against the wall. “If you hated my chest hair so much, Chuckles, you coulda just asked me to wax.”

“I'm sorry, Varric,” Hawke says, too miserable to joke.

"Nah, it's fine," Varric says, voice calm and soothing where Fenris' cannot be.

"Did I burn down past the skin?" Hawke asks, voice taking on a hysterical pitch, tensing in Fenris' arms. "If you untie me, I can heal—"

"Nice try, Chuckles." She slumps again, as Varric continues, "Anyway, it's not that bad. It's just payback for that time we all tried to kill you in the Fade."

Fenris feels rather than hears Hawke's small snort of laughter, and strokes the back of her neck with his thumb.

Now they need only wait and hope, for both sets of binds, physical and magical, to be removed from Hawke.

"How 'bout a story?" Varric suggests, and at the small rustle of Hawke's nod, goes on. "How 'bout from good old Ferelden? Did you know that the Hero of Ferelden spent most of her early life in the mages' tower, without a mabari to call her own? Sad, isn't it? Nobody knows much about Mukarukan Surana's few years before the Circle, but we do know she lived in a neighboring village with her mother, a recent Antivan migrant. And Antivans just aren't as crazy about dogs as the rest of you Fereldans.”

“It's true,” Hawke murmurs, “Mother never saw the appeal.”

“So when the Hero was recruited by the Wardens, what do you know. What was one of the first things she saw when she entered the Ostagar camp? A sick mabari."

"How sick?"

"Oh, very sick. Don't worry, there's a happy ending. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Our heroic pup contracted an infection, you see. The only hope for a cure was a wildflower that grew among the dangers of the forest: bloodthirsty darkspawn, ravenous wolves, and even, rumor would have it, the legendary Witch of the Wilds."

"So there is a dragon in this story."

"Eventually. Don't rush me. Our Hero had the heart of a healer, and the training to boot. She fell in love with the pathetic, whimpering mabari. So she braved the dangers, hoping to find this mysterious blossom...”

***

The complicated part, Merrill knows, isn't barging their way in to the archive where Hawke's binding spell is being kept, but making sure no one knows the spell's been broken at all.

It would be simple to use Hawke's blood as a channel to the plate and break the spell. But if she did that, Tevinter would know right away. Being delicate gives them more time. She needs to replace Hawke's blood in the spell with another sort of blood, something that won't be a problem, something that in its nature could never consciously betray the Imperium.

For this, Merrill drains a horse from Danarius' stables.

She doesn't kill it, of course. That would be contrary to her plan. Merrill even makes sure to put a ward spell on it, to keep it alive with magic. That way, it won't die of anything until they have no more need of it. All she needs is some of its blood, and a little extra just in case.

The only strange thing is, oh, how much it looks like a halla. Imperial Warmblood, Merrill has to remind herself. Just an Imperial Warmblood. She even read about the breed in preparation, to be sure she did it right. Not a halla, not one of the People's dearest companions. Just a mount for the Imperium to use while they dominate other cultures, bred “during the height of Tevinter spread," the book said. But the creature has so many similarities. Skittish, with familiar yellow eyes, wide and wary. Body a creamy white. Merrill clings to the differences to remind her: horse, horse. No antlers. Silvery gray mane and a long tail, made of disparate strands. Gray splotches around its nostrils, its back, its hooves.

She knows what to do. Drawing the blood is the same as with the hallas, when the clan's were growing sick and dying and she tried to find out why. Merrill wasn't a healer, and there were no answers. They overgroomed each other, refused to be calmed, lacked appetites, contracted small sicknesses only the youngest and eldest should have succumbed to. The blood showed nothing. The spirits told a little more: it was a disease of colonization, anxieties, sadness. Strong creatures, but soft creatures too.

Merrill presses the thick vein at the base of the horse's neck, making it bulge and ready itself for a needle. She massages and strokes the horse on the shoulder, then neck, then next to the place she'll pull from, chattering nonsense to soothe the creature. She takes the blood, and stores it in a wineskin lined with resin to stop any liquid from seeping through.

When she told Varric was she was going to do, nausea crept across his face.

What a silly way of thinking about things. "You eat meat, don't you?" Merrill demanded. "Tell me how this is any different."

He shrugged. "I don't wanna argue, Daisy."

Merrill, Isabela, and Ghi venture out at night, to an old, upper class area of the city. Just as Maevaris reassured, the streets are barren of people after the hours of their meetings, law-making debates, historical research, and whatever else humans would do in these parts of town. They step from shadow into the soft glow of magic sconces, and back again, until they reach the back entrance of the old Senate archives. There's another, remodeled version, Mae says, but Hawke's blood will be stored here, with the rest of the materials from the archaic ritual.

Instead of bothering with a door, Isabela remove a grate and wiggles inside with a rogue's grace, despite her complaints that the tunnels were only designed for skinny people to break into. Ghi and Merrill scoot along after her. It's very uncomfortable. Merrill bumps her elbows with each strained move forward. But soon Isabela gives the all-clear.

They emerge into a sprawling library building. The ceilings are higher than Merrill's ever seen outside of ruins, and paneled with smoothed wood, stained dark. Shelves of legal records form a labyrinth, zig-zagging and smelling of old paper and ink. Their own soft footfalls echo on the cold marble beneath Merrill's feet, without any other sounds, not even the crackling of a fire.

"Nobody's here?" Isabela whispers. "Cozy little trap we're walking into."

"After hours," Ghi says, dismissive.

"Without a single guard? Keep hoping, sweet thing."

"Culicis don't use guards when they can just use magic. Set it and leave it, not expect us to get through."

"Hmm." Isabela strokes a finger against the back of Merrill's hand. Merrill smiles, her fingers curling as goosepimples raise up. "Just be careful, kitten. There's bound to be loads for us to disarm up ahead."

Isabela, just like navigating the seas, interprets Varric's scribbled map through the confusing, winding shelves. She leads them to an unassuming door. Through it, the deepest, most ancient part of the archives wait.

Merrill tries to be cheery despite her sudden nerves, the inside of her mouth dry and sore, as Isabela picks the lock. “It's been a long time since we've had an adventure like this. Varric's stories do make me miss it sometimes.”

“How come things always end up more like the crime ones than the romances?” Isabela complains, voice muffled from the tools in her mouth, both her hands occupied.

Ghi suddenly seems much less the serious, old-too-young girl Merrill's seen before, as her eyes go wide with delight. “He writes love stories? Would he ever read them to me?”

“Oh ho ho, would he ever!" Isabela takes a moment to grin appreciatively at Ghi, then turns back to the lock, still smiling. "You have no idea. If he catches wind that someone's interested in his romances—”

Merrill hears the lock mechanism buckle. With one last flick of Isabela's wrist, the door creaks open.

A warped, magical ward blocks the way ahead, just inside the door. This part's simple. Any sort of spell would do, but Merrill uses a bit of the blood in her pouch to drift through it without disrupting or dispelling it. She beckons Isabela and Ghi along after her. The less proof that they've been here, the better.

After that, there are of course traps. Lots of them.

Usual ones in corridors, ones Merrill's seen in Kirkwall with Hawke and her friends many times, even if she still doesn't know how to disarm them. Isabela and Ghi work those out with ease.

Deeper, a room where chained spirits ask them questions about the Imperium. The spirits will raise an alarm if they get them wrong, and won't allow them to pass.

"Are they tricks?" Merrill politely asks the two spirits on either side of the room. They've taken Pride forms, crackling with lightning, and somewhere inside, below their pain from the bindings, is Wisdom. "Passwords? Riddles?"

"No guile," they answer in unison. "Prove you know this nation, and you will pass through. Uneducated rabble have no business in this hall."

It's very sad. In another circumstance, these spirits could be teachers, instead of ceaseless guards.

"Couldn't we make a bargain to help one another?" Merrill smiles at them. "What if I could free you?"

"Unacceptable."

"It's all right, kitten," Isabela says, then approaches, brows crinkled in determined focus. "C'mon, give me those questions."

Isabela answers them all. Strange names and months in Imperial years, skirmishes Merrill's never heard of, leaders of cities she never knew existed. Isabela is stunning. Merrill gazes at her, pride and giddiness blooming inside.

"Don't look at me like that," Isabela mumbles, when the door swings open, and the spirits sink back down into their summoning circles. "I just... read a lot of history books when I was married. I was bored a lot, had to do something."

Deeper, a magic-nullified room of dwarven traps. The enchanted atmosphere refuses to allow even the tiniest spell wisp to grow. Huge metal gears surround them, doors behind and in front solid and sealed shut. The gears can turn, but the sequencing matters, as they soon find out when the gears creak in closer, primed to crush them between enclosing walls.

"Booooooring," Isabela says. "I hate these kinds of traps. Give me an Everett's Purging Flame Room any day over combinations."

Ghi twists her pigtails between her fingers, nose scrunched, counting at the gears under her breath.

Merrill stands, quite useless without magic, as Ghi paces along the walls. "Remember thirty-three for me," Ghi says.

Isabela yawns and holds up three fingers on each hand.

Some while later, Ghi adds, "One hundred seven."

"I don't know what's going on, Isabela, to tell the truth," Merrill whispers, though she consigns the number to memory. She couldn't describe Ghi's tactic to anyone, not even if she had to.

Isabela shrugs and wiggles her three-and-three fingers. "She's finding a pattern. It's tedious and I hate it, but at least she's having fun."

Ghi requests the numbers repeated back, then spins some gears with satisfaction. Though as obscure to Merrill as doing magic must seem to someone without, the sequencing works. No one's crushed, and the door scrapes forward.

"Ghi, that was... amazing," Merrill says, then voices her curiosity. "Ghi. Do you know that your name has an Elvhen root? I mean, of course, you're an elf too, but I thought perhaps you didn't know. I haven't seen many Dalish here, so I thought maybe you wouldn't. The goddess Ghilan'nain?"

As with the mention of Varric's stories, Ghi perks her face up towards Merrill. Merrill's relieved to see interest. She doesn't want to cause offense. She doesn't know if the former slaves like her very much after the way Drusa found her.

"I've heard the name!" Ghi says. "Do you know any stories?"

"Yes, I do."

Deeper, finally, a bare stone wall in a bare stone room. The magic-null atmosphere continues here, too. The door they entered seals behind them.

The wall has no visible latches, openings, no apparent way to swing outward or in. But it does have a keyhole, if Merrill could call it that. It's more the engraving of a key, carved into the stone. An imprint, no more, without any hole.

Isabela tries picking it, which doesn't work. There's really nothing to pick. Chipping at it leads to nothing, not even powder.

Isabela steps back, and translates the Tevene words engraved along the wall. "Put in the iron key."

They comb the room, floor to ceiling, but find no key, nor any gaps where the key could have fallen.

"I'll put the iron key in your mother," Isabela mutters. "She'll love it."

Ghi, meanwhile, tries her best to push the wall with her small body, grunting. "Stupid wall." She stops, feels along the edges for a release. Nothing.

They run their hands everywhere they can reach, each starting from a different corner of the room and meeting where the others left off. They trace over the words, forward and backward. Nothing.

Merrill begins to think the dispelling enchantment in the room is a test of power. Perhaps she'll simply need to overcome it.

"It must need magic," Merrill muses.

"I thought you said the room wouldn't let you?" Isabela frowns.

"Exactly. Ghi, I'm going to do blood magic now."

"Fine," Ghi says. "I don't want to be stuck here."

Merrill cups her hand and pours out as much of the horse blood as she dares, to save enough for later. She bites her tongue to draw up some more of her own, and... there. Her eyes roll back as she pushes past the nullification, bursting through, the Veil peeling back in a gasp. Her magic streams frantic toward the wall. Open. Open.

"I've got it!" Merrill says. "Now I can just—"

Nothing. The magic evaporates when it touches the stone.

Breathing heavily, Merrill shakes her head. The horse blood on her palm has burned off to nothing. "It should have worked! Why didn't it work? I broke through!"

"Is there really a key?" Ghi asks, nervous. "What if it's a real key? Did we miss it?"

“If there's a lock to pick, I can pick it,” Isabela says, letting out a frustrated noise. She slams a palm against the wall. “Find it for me, and we're done here. But this bloody wall without a real lock can go and—”

Bloody. Bloody... “Oh, of course,” Merrill says. "Iron. How silly of me. Thank you, Isabela. It's blood.”

"You just tried blood magic, didn't you?"

"Not blood magic. Just blood. Like an offering. I think? Let me try."

Merrill dips a finger back into the bag of horse's blood, and presses a small dab of it against the key engraving.

The wall rumbles, then sinks into the floor, unveiling a glass staircase leading down a path to translucent glass shelves.

"Iron key," Isabela grumbles. "Why does it always have to be riddles?"

The floor is covered in old dust, except for a few footprints that lead right to an open display case of small glass plates with specks of reddish brown in their centers. Only one plate is free of dust. A small label leaning against it reads, Mag. J. Hawke.

"Here it is," Merrill says. "Wonderful."

"It's too easy," Isabela says, frowning.

"Easy? You see all those traps back there?" Ghi says, incredulous.

Isabela sighs. "Oh, I dunno. Maybe I just need a drink. You still able to switch out the blood, kitten?"

"Yes, lethallan," Merrill says.

She does. Her power is more than a match for those who created the blood binding. No trace of Hawke's energy lingers on the spell after Merrill ushers the horse's blood to take its place.

She runs her fingers over the now-cold slime of blood left in the bag, and draws it upwards into herself, making sure to discard the horse's energy while she stores the power. Merrill has no particular need for the sudden charge of magic that crackles into her jaw, that breaks her mouth open in a sudden bright smile, but there's no sense in wasting it.

Merrill turns, teeth uncovered from her lips in a grin. "There," she says. "We're done."

***

Sometime around dawn, as Fenris tries to rub and stretch out yet another of Hawke's leg cramps without actually untying her, Hawke stares at the purpleish glow starting to form in the dark.

What is it that people say? It's always darkest before the dawn? Hawke's got to call bullshit on this one the next time she hears it. The closer to dawn it gets, the lighter the sky gets. The metaphor should really be, it's only close to dawn if things are getting brighter. Otherwise you're screwed. Depressing.

Then again, she has some questions about this whole 'dark is bad, light is good' stuff. Hmm. Suspicious. She can gander a guess who came up with that.

Hawke's never really taken the time to ponder figures of speech before, but also she's never really attacked her friends before either. And now she has plenty of time on her hands.

“This isn't exactly what I had in mind when I said I wanted you to tie me up,” Hawke mutters to Fenris, her face smooshed miserably in his lap, which should otherwise be a joyous place.

“I feel the same,” Fenris says.

Varric stirs from his half-awake state. His stories helped distract her but she didn't push him to keep going after he trailed off into silence. Hawke doesn't need to make Varric lose his voice. She already ruined his chest hair.

“Don't think I've told you yet, Chuckles," Varric says, "I like your new hair."

“Technically it's my old hair making a comeback. It was in disguise before.”

"Looks good. I can see why it decided to reveal itself."

"Why Varric! If you keep that up, people will say—"

Hawke gasps as something in her head just... pops.

It's like a pressure she didn't even realize was building has finally gotten pin-pricked and deflated. She lets out a sigh of relief, her anxiety flooding out with her breath.

"It's gone," Hawke says, grinning even though some of her limbs might be asleep for the rest of her life. "They did it."

Fenris makes a sudden jerk, hugging her tighter. She hears the wariness in his voice when he says, "I hope so. But we... will not be able to untie you until they return with proof."

"Duh." No sense in arguing, they'll only think she's ensorceled even more. "In the meantime, I'm going to revel at being alone in my own head! It's phenomenal!"

True to the incredible sensation of no longer being mind-controlled, not so long after, Isabela, Merrill, and Ghi return. They announce their success, Hawke gets the rope cut off her body, and her limbs begin the arduous journey toward feeling again.

“Go ahead and test it,” Varric says, eyes still concerned.

Hawke staggers to her feet, determination growing. “We're going to destroy the Imperium." She grins as the words slide out smooth. She turns to Ghi, who looks tired but damn proud of herself. "Whatever help we can give the resistance, you've got it."

She turns, beaming, to Fenris, who's stares at her with bright eyes. "Let's go fuck them up. Let's burn this country to the ground.”

***

Hand under chin, Maevaris looks thoughtful, then shakes her head. "A surreptitious evolution of the spell? No, darling, it's not that complicated."

Fenris frowns. "Naive. This is the Imperium."

Maevaris rolls her eyes. "Of course there are blood magic spies. That's not the question. The question involves this specific spell, and no. The Sanctum Sanguinis was created to enforce magisters as figureheads, as forthright supporters of Tevinter, not spies. They don't want magisters who seem anti-Imperium, even if it's a ruse. A public figure like that? In and of itself, that puts questions in the public's minds. That defeats the purpose."

Fenris nods, feeling more assured. Hawke appeared to be herself again, but with magic such as this, even if Merrill felt she conquered it... but he admits the magister has a point. "I see. Good."

"While I'm here..." Maevaris begins.

From her slight apologetic wince, Fenris knows what inevitable topic she wishes to broach. "You wish to discuss your planned disconnection from Hawke and our cause?" he prompts, raising an eyebrow.

Maevaris sighs. "I'm sure you'll find me selfish, Fenris, and who am I to blame you? But I have ambitions for the people of this country and the world, and yes, for myself, years in the making. I can't risk unraveling everything now. I've always been one to work from within for change. Truth be told, your methods aren't my methods, darling, and while I wish all of you nothing but success, I've done all I can."

"You've done all you believe you can," Fenris says. "You are on a fool's errand. That I think so should be no surprise to you. Yet... your connections eased us to this point, and your information helped free Hawke from the curse. I did not expect more."

They stand at a quiet impasse, until Maevaris nods. "I'll go say farewell to Varric and the others," she says. "It was a pleasure to meet you. One day, under different circumstances, we may meet again." Before she turns to go, she pauses. "I don't suppose Varric's little Daisy would take any magical advice from me, would she?"

Fenris snorts. "Merrill? Advice from no one."

"A bullheaded lot, every one of you. I am too." Maevaris sighs. "It's a pity to see the signs and... oh well. Farewell, Fenris. Really, truly, I wish you the best of luck in your plans."

***

They do as Lathinia asks, and "order" certain "servants" to market.

Ghi resumes shopping, passing coded pictograms to other households. Qun-enthralled Drusa spends nights learning to speak Qunlat in a group taught by ex-miners, and days scouring the city for signs of Ben-Hassrath spies who might support their anti-Imperial goals. Fenris is skeptical about this aspect of Drusa's plans; the Qunari have their own elusive purposes, and one can never tell where a household of liberati might fall among those. Even so, Fenris considers that he might one day observe the language learning group. The sounds of the words tug at his nostalgia.

Even Asenath, despite her earlier ambitions for advancement, approaches Hawke and offers magical assistance in any rebellion's plans.

Fenris puts most of his focus on preparations for the battles sure to take place.

In the training yards, breath searing in his lungs and sweat sticking his hair to his face, his lyrium dimming after releasing its force, Fenris sees Durganus watching him.

"Got some premium lessons up at the house, huh?" Durganus says, leaning against the wooden structure housing the yard's water trough. "How many trainers did Danarius pay to teach you? Three? Four? More?"

Fenris pushes away the nagging annoyance and defensiveness Durganus rises in him. He nods, and approaches to splash water on his face. Thirsty enough, Fenris takes a sip in his cupped hands, despite the dust.

"I was trained," Fenris agrees curtly. Then, "you were right, Durganus, about the advantages I had. Still have." He forces himself to look in Durganus' eyes. "I forget, sometimes, when I dwell only on suffering. I had more chance at life than many do."

Durganus looks surprised, then nods. "Yet not such a fucking lapdog after all," he admits, quirking half a grin.

"No. No longer."

Durganus crosses his thick arms, and nods. He looks thoughtful. "You ran. Some of mine did too. But the only way they had, one at a time, was piled in with corpses. The ones already so far rotten in the mines even necromancy couldn't exploit. The only passage out of here, and only the dead get through. Who knows, maybe they suffocated under that pile and died too. Maybe some got lucky enough to plow their way out of hiding. Plow their way out of their friends, lovers. I hope so. Not much of a life, that. But a bad fucking chance is still a chance."

Fenris remembers Durganus' strange fury at Hawke closing the mines. Their last escape route, blockaded. Fenris understands now.

Durganus looks back to Fenris, breaking his rumination. "My people know how to work, how to survive, how to hide. Not many know how to fight. You should train them."

Fenris has received such requests before, though never from this source. Aveline asked him to train the guards. Sebastian, the soldiers of Starkhaven. Both offers he turned down. Fenris' skills are unwanted, taught to him without consent. The idea of using his abilities to train career-centered humans was distasteful, even at the good-natured requests of friends.

This... is different. Yet even so, Fenris isn't sure he will be proficient, or even passably capable.

"I do not know the ways of soldiers," Fenris begins, uncertain. "I was a bodyguard, and later a mercenary. Everything I learned here, I learned alone, and centering my marks' abilities. I've never taught anyone. My ability to do so is... in question."

Durganus shrugs. "You ask what you can do to help. Here it is. Sooner or later, we strike them, or they strike us. Everyone needs to be ready. I'll do it myself if I have to, but my people can use what you know."

"I'll think on it," Fenris says.

“We don't need thought, we need action. Real. Fucking. Action.”

“I... understand. I won't take long."

***

In the hallway, Hawke finds Fenris standing alone, spine rigid, facing a door.

No, not just a door. The door. One of the only doors in the house that actually locks, instead of half-hearted curtained coverings.

Danarius' bedroom.

She walks up loud enough that he knows she's there, and stands by his side. In a convoluted and, thank the Maker, mostly irrelevant way, it sort of reminds Hawke of Mother's room. Always closed up. A concept, instead of space to enter. She couldn't step foot in there after Mother died. Gamlen did. He cleaned it up, he said, and probably stole anything that wasn't nailed down because Uncle Gamlen's... Uncle Gamlen. But Hawke couldn't bear it.

This is worse. This room, for Fenris, isn't just about grief.

Fenris speaks to her quietly. “No matter how much has changed, this house remembers. I remember. I half-expect to see Danarius around every corner.”

“He's dead, Fenris,” Hawke says. “He's never coming back.”

Fenris doesn't look at her. He just stares ahead, with glassy eyes and a frown. “It's only a room. And yet...”

In an abrupt movement, as if caution or care would make him change his mind, Fenris reaches out, thrusts the handle down, and swings the door open.

The room smells clean but unused, like newly freshened sheets left to go stale. Every solid surface has a fine layer of dust, except for a few empty circles and outlines where Varric, less squeamish about it than Hawke, collected valuables to sell for the freedom fund.

The room's not exactly the perverted sadist's nightmare-scape Hawke might have imagined, not in appearance, but she should know better. She's well aware that evil still thrives in mundane surroundings, in average everyday people. Danarius may have been on the moustache-twirling, cackling end of the badness spectrum, but his room needn't be.

It's decadent in design, but nothing particularly stands out. There's a large bed, canopied and pressed against one wall. There's a chaise lounge, desks and shelf surfaces, mirrors. Yeah... the mirrors are creepy. That much is true.

When Hawke gazes back at Fenris, her stomach bottoms out. He's staring at the bed, grim resignation on his face.

Not sure if she's making a mistake, but not all that able to help herself, Hawke lets her fingers drift against Fenris'. To her relief, rather than spooking, he squeezes her hand.

“Every time, Hawke,” he says, voice rough. “This bed. In my mind, it's never any different. And I can never imagine anything else. Isn't that perverse?”

“I'm following a little but not a lot,” she admits.

Fenris gives a humorless laugh. “Every fantasy I have, every dream, in the daytime, or asleep and unaware. Even dreams of you, Hawke, even dreams that recall real times we've been... intimate. Together. Anything I crave and desire in my mind, the setting is always the same, no matter how I try to guide my imagination away. It always takes place in this bed. Not in your Kirkwall bed. Not even in the mansion, or some back room in the Hanged Man, or the middle of the street, though it may start that way. Sooner or later, this is what my mind remembers. This is where I go. This bed, this is where every fantasy takes place. It always looks like this. Even with Danarius dead and gone. Even if it's a dream of you and I and no one else and everything is well with the world... this is where we embrace. This fucking bed. Just an object, and yet... it lingers. And I can't stop it. It's my own mind's betrayal, and I despise it.”

Hawke looks at Fenris, at the disgust from his own thoughts etched across his face, at the tattoos marked there too. She's sure someone else might gently talk him through this, but frankly, that's not her. What would she want, in his place? She squeezes his hand harder. She turns and looks at the bed.

“Let's burn it,” Hawke says.

Fenris blinks, and his gaze turns to Hawke. “Did you...”

“Let's burn it.”

"You're serious?"

"I'm always serious."

A silent stare. Nope, he's not buying it.

"Okay," she says. "I'm never serious, but right now, I'm serious. What say you? Fire? Destruction?"

An unexpected smile quirks the corner of Fenris' mouth, the surprise on his face dissolving into satisfaction. “Do it.”

Hawke looses his hand and steps forward, cradling a magical flame in her palm. With a crash and bright blast beside her, Fenris lights up his marks and rips one polished wooden leg from the dresser.

Hawke raises her eyebrows and offers her hand to Fenris. He holds his makeshift torch up to her light until it ignites, then strides with purpose to the bed's coverlet.

It catches, falters, then catches again when Hawke wills the flames to burn hotter, to consume without need of any waxen or liquid fuel. The corner of the coverlet begins to crackle and curl, sending up plumes of black smoke. Fenris steps back, dragging the torch across the canopy, the pillows, all corners of the sheets until the bed itself has become a firepit, swallowed up, crumbling from the outside in. Fenris throws the torch to the center, where it too splits and crackles, then he steps back to Hawke's side.

She draws up her arms, coaxing the magic with a pull, and the flames rise higher. She hacks out something between a laugh and a cough.

Fenris grins with abandon now, the fire flickering in the water of his eyes. It's not a perfect fix, but it sure does feel good to destroy something.

“Maker, what's burn—” Lathinia's alarmed voice sounds from behind them then halts, as she gapes in the doorway.

Hawke grins and waves at her. "Hello! Perfect timing, join our party! Let's toast some marshmallow, we're burning Danarius' bed!"

A larger group, comprised of Varric and several others, everyone frantic and a few lugging buckets of water come crashing through the doorway too, only to halt behind Lathinia.

"Hi everyone," Hawke says. "It's on purpose, I swear."

Suddenly, a sigil appears on the wall behind the ruined, collapsed bed. It glows, then splits open with the flame.

"Hawke..." Fenris begins.

“I saw it too," Hawke says. "Uh... that wasn't me.”

She extends a hand, and pushes it palm down towards the ground. The flames lower into a smoulder. She approaches the wall, shoving aside the remains of the smoking bed with her boot, and squints through the haze. She kicks at the plaster and it crumbles. “There's something back here, behind the wall...”

Fenris approaches too. He lights his lyrium again, then bursts away the rest of the plaster with a fist.

It's a secret room.

Of course it is.

***

"All right," Hawke says. "All right." She peers in, her voice nervous through the forced cheer, matching Fenris' own thumping heart. "Secret blood magic torture chamber. Terrific."

“Great Maker, Hawke, what is it with you and serendipity?” Varric asks, approaching too.

“Is it serendipity? Or is it just, I like burning things, and sometimes there are things you find after burning things? Like those chocolates with the trinkets inside!”

“I'm not buying it. You must be hiding some weird prophetic shit.”

Fenris steps inside. He hears others follow.

“What the fuck is this?” Durganus says behind him.

Hawke's assessment was correct, Fenris sees.

Charred ash from Hawke's fire covers some small part of the floor, scattered out to meet the remaining lengths of tile and aged dust. The room, though neatly arranged, is one of horrors.

Stone steps lead to a pit where a wheeled cart rests. A few scattered bone fragments and incomplete skeletons remain, no doubt abandoned without proper disposal in Danarius' haste to come to Kirkwall. En masse it is hard to give them weight as individuals, as those who were once people. Fenris at first sees them blankly, as Danarius must have: as parts, objects, not entities. The pit leads to a back passage, a dark tunnel leading away further than he can see. An inconspicuous means to discard the sacrificed.

Chains, tarnished and hooked along the full length of one wall.

A sacrificial slate, carefully cleaned but irreversibly stained, over which dangles a strange, glowing device of bloodstained tubing and spiraling golden discs.

A table with straps.

That, Fenris remembers in a rush. This was where he received his markings.

He stands before the table, then looks upwards. Sure enough, the blackened memory floods back, staring up at that same ceiling, where the same crags and patterns remain. He remembers gazing up at them, eyes shrouded with tears, a desperate attempt at distraction from the pain. Though Fenris had fought to rise as Danarius' champion, fought for the prize of his family's freedom and wanted to be brave, all he could do was scream, cry out for his mother, then pushed past all limits... forget.

Next to the table, old jars, some with residual lyrium coating the insides. Neatly wrapped packages of metal tools. A journal.

Fenris' fingers cringe back to touch the fine texture of the leather, as if he were touching Danarius' skin once more. But he pushes forward. He opens the journal. He reads.

Careful, organized entries, meticulously recorded and dated in Danarius' sweeping calligraphy. Years before, this penmanship looked merely abstract, rigid lines and swirling curves, cruel points tapped against paper. But here, now, is the meaning behind the neat, artistic facade. Fenris skims to the section labeled "Lyrium Warrior," between graphs and charts of doses and times:

The ancient elven is indecipherable in many portions. What a savage tongue! Clearly a language never intended for posterity, but the gist does not evade me. It is merely the scientific specifics that currently elude. Testing on dogs demonstrates the technique, though for artistry's sake I will hire a tattooist. It is now simply a matter of the transition to elves, and sustaining the marks and life simultaneously...

... Pre-exposure to increase tolerance demonstrates very little improvement. Correlates with slightly worsened outcomes though minimally lengthened lifespan...

... My concerns proved correct, contrary to Hadriana's theory. I applaud her efforts at progress, yet even the stronger, more expensive test subjects succumb. I continue to modify my methods and delay any truly suitable investments. Grafts prevent immediate lyrium toxicity, but fail to establish when transferred. Revascularization fails without exception. Subjects with pre-existing illness present paradoxical acceptance of grafts, yet nonetheless reach rapid death...

... Tentative progress! Current subject clings to life, and offers me a greater window of study. I hypothesize...

... Brief addendum: One must be cautious in allowing the lyrium to build a charge. Regular use is required, or a certain pressure appears to procreate within the body. Had I not kept subject in force field isolation, the consequences of the minor explosion would have been unpleasant for the laboratory equipment. A small siphoning or power display at least every week seems to be sufficient at a minimum. For many subjects, externalizing lyrium is an intuitive urge, similar to the vomiting reflex. It should be easy to assert within training...

... I had hoped more progress would be made before the contest, but one cannot rush the scientific process. I will simply need patience, even with the excitement of choosing my champion. A careful dissection and extraction of glowing slime, Limax candentis, which lures prey with decorative lyrium, may prove to be key...

... After deeper meditation on the topic, I have come to the conclusion that I rely too heavily on physiology for an ultimately mystical process. Spirit possession provides resistance to lyrium poisoning, and this delicate balance between the Fade and our world houses the answers I seek, I am sure of it. The candentis tincture also offsets a minor amount of physical damage. Even minor improvements tip the scales in my favor, but in summoning I find the ultimate...

... partial suspension in the Fade, and temporary possession. The competition's preliminaries proceed without incident. Now I need only to choose a final candidate (as well as some understudies! even with preparation, accidents may...

... My newfound little wolf—I have chosen to name him Fenris—is delicious...

Reading the words, hearing the memory of Danarius' voice in his mind. It hits Fenris like a blow to the sternum. He fails to breathe once, then manages. He unlocks his knees, and reads on.

... and eager to demonstrate his uses. Consider me sufficiently impressed, both at his capabilities in violence and his potential for more pleasant endeavors. His eagerness is, I fear, a result of his belief that by acting so, I will improve his breeder bitch's status, and that of the other pup. Such quaint machinations cast a tarnish on his charm, but I have no doubt now that the ritual will bring us closer...

... It is complete. An exhausting process, but a great success. Bridging him with the Fade produced the results I struggled with in the early experiments, owing largely to the conservation and amplification of blood in the magrallen. Confident; chose to dispose of the tattooist. More details after rest and contemplation...

... Healing progress is excellent, enough to extract and banish the demon. Now semi-lucid, my little wolf is beautifully distraught, weeping. I made sure to comfort him, nothing but warmth and nurturing as he begins his new life. He now recognizes his Master, and only his Master, as his comforter. Harshness will have its place later, this is a delicate moment in the process. Skin no longer requires three baths a day, and may now be toweled, rather than air dried, though swelling remains. No sign of rejection...

... My little wolf's natural fighting abilities emerge despite the memory loss, and the lyrium creates phenomenal new effects each day. Well worth the investment. In fact, reminder: purchase bulk able bodies soon (two dozen? three?). Fenris rapidly eliminates his training "prey". Formal lessons magnify his skills exponentially. I could not be more pleased. Senators protest that I shame his trainers, tainting their reputations on a slave. His tutors themselves have no complaints about my purse. I will have the most formidable bodyguard in the Imperium. My living treasure, my dutiful pup.

Fenris closes the journal, then clenches it in his hands. Hawke watches him.

Durganus approaches, jittery, and tensing as if for a fight. "What's it say? Does he... try to explain his sick games?"

"Experiments," Fenris says, careful and voice forced between clenched teeth, for he feels he might vomit if he opens his mouth any wider. "A record of his experiments. All the people Danarius murdered, to find a way to give me these marks."

Durganus grabs at one of the table's straps, and gestures violently with it. Somehow, seeing his irreverent hands on them is a strange comfort. "This was you? Tied up here, given those?"

"Yes. With a demon to touch my mind and force me away from death." Just when Fenris thought he knew the extent of the violations placed upon him. For a few days time, he was an abomination. Kept alive through demonic forces, when all of nature would have bid that he died.

Durganus nods, looks around, nods again.

"He also mentions the people I... murdered. To train." Fenris continues. "He calls them my prey. I can't even remember them. And yet it's true. I..."

“Use it,” Durganus says, abrupt.

Fenris jerks his gaze toward him.

"We use all of this," Durganus announces. He points to the wall of chains. "We need weapons. There's what'll add to our supply of metal for forging." He gestures to the pit and tunnel for disposing of bodies. "I'll send my people to investigate the tunnel. Could be a new escape route. And you."

He turns back to Fenris. “Use what he forced on you," Durganus says, a vein bulging on his dark, bare scalp, his thick neck tensed, his eyes fierce. He grabs up the back of Fenris' neck, and holds him there. "Teach what you can about fighting, Fenris, and we'll take them down. Don't let this fucking nightmare be in vain.”

Fenris meets his gaze. Durganus holds it.

He is right.

"Very well,” says Fenris.