Aveline did not normally give much thought to how her friends were dressed. She noticed things, certainly—when Sebastian's belt buckle disappeared for three days (to Isabela's exaggerated surprise and barely-concealed satisfaction), for example, or the way that Hawke's color coordination had dramatically improved around the same time that he and Anders had begun exchanging saccharine glances and honeyed smiles whenever they thought no one was looking—but she had more important matters to dwell on than other people's personal grooming. How to keep the fools from being killed or arrested, mainly. If some of Hawke's companions were too thick to dress properly, it wasn't her responsibility; she was the Guard-Captain of Kirkwall, not their mother.
Arms crossed and lips pressed tightly together, she leaned against one of the gaudy pillars in front of the Hawke estate. It was a late morning in Harvestmere, the sky blue and clear; she pulled the cloth around her neck up a bit higher against the chill, and gave Merrill an even nod and a faint smile as the elven woman approached.
“Good morning, Aveline.” Merrill's eyes glittered like a pair of emeralds, lively even as she wrung her delicate hands. “Are you looking forward to going to the coast? Oh, I'm so excited to get out of the city for a bit.”
“It's a bit cold for my tastes,” Aveline replied without bitterness.
“Oh, it is, isn't it?” Merrill did not seem at all perturbed by this; in fact, there was a note of giddiness in her voice. “The rain barrels in the Alienage froze solid last night. Do you think the sea will be frozen, too?”
Aveline was saved having to explain the properties of salt water as the estate's front door swung open, and Hawke and Anders filed into the courtyard, their hands brushing conspicuously—but Aveline did not dwell on their entangled fingers or Hawke's wrinkled collar. Instead, she stared straight at Anders, feeling a frown begin to etch itself around her lips and brows. She might not have cared a lick about fashion, but there were certain things that a person could not simply ignore.
“Sorry we're late,” Hawke announced rather too briskly. “I've got the location of the mage we're to rescue, and it shouldn't take us more than a few hours to get there. The good news is, in this weather, there shouldn't be too many people out there. Is everyone ready to go?”
“Anders,” Aveline interrupted, her breath trailing white in the damp air as she watched him with dubiously-narrowed eyes. “What is that you're wearing?”
“Clothing,” the mage answered without a moment's pause. “Most people wear it, more's the pity.”
The crease between her eyebrows deepened. “I mean that... thing around your neck, Anders. What is it?”
“What...” He glanced down and took between his fingers the amorphous mass of tangled, knotted—she could not bring herself to call it knitted—cerulean yarn, lumpy and irregular, the edges already fraying, tufts of yarn and stray ends sticking out here and there like the feathers of a half-plucked turkey. He fixed her with a wounded scowl. “Do you mean my scarf?”
“If you want to dignify it with the word,” she winced. However hurt he might have been, it was nothing compared to the agony she felt just looking at the poor thing—it was riddled with little holes where the stitches didn't line up, and she couldn't tell if its creator had intended to make a fringe or had simply forgotten to properly bind the edges. They'd pulled better specimens from dusty crates in Lowtown. “Where did you find it, one of Isabela's hat shops?”
“I made it, actually,” Hawke put in, crossing his arms. “Is something wrong with it, Aveline?”
She stared at him for a moment. “You made... that.”
“It was a gift,” Anders said as if this somehow excused the crime.
“Hawke...” Aveline had to turn away, just for a moment, pinching the bridge of her nose between two fingers to keep from losing her composure. “Well, at least we've found something you're worse at than taking my advice. Where did you learn to... er, knit?”
“I taught myself, or is there somewhere in this blasted city you'd recommend I go to learn?”
She sighed, though such behavior was no different than she had come to expect from the man. “You might have mentioned it to me. I could have helped you.”
“Hold on,” Hawke blinked. “You knit? Really?”
“Yes,” she replied with forced patience. “Is that so strange, knitting?”
“It's just not what I expected from...” He made a prompting sort of gesture, casting a sideways glance at Anders, who raised an eyebrow, apparently nonplussed.
“... from the Guard-Captain,” Aveline finished with a sour note. “Why not? You know, I'm very good at knitting.” She turned her gaze on Hawke and gave him her best official no-nonsense look, chin up just a hair, eyes half-narrowed. “I run a twice-weekly knitting circle for the other members of the guard. If you want to learn so much, I'm sure they'd love your company.”
Hawke never gave much ground, but she thought she saw him quail just slightly. “I'll—think about it, Aveline, thank you. Now, if we're all ready, let's—”
“I think it's a very lovely shade of blue, Hawke,” Merrill offered quickly. “Oh! Sorry, I interrupted you.”
“Sorry,” she chirped again, and with that, the four of them set off.
* * *
The Wounded Coast was a mess of screaming salt winds and ice-cold ocean spray that had them all shivering and just damp enough to be uncomfortable by the time they found the cave marked on Hawke's secondhand map. Aveline supposed she should at least appreciate that Anders had something to keep his neck warm, though a large part of her wished that the wind would carry the damned scarf off and put it out of its misery, preferably in a watery grave where it would never be seen again. He had tied it carefully, however, and the scarf survived a skirmish with bounty hunters and at least two nests of giant spiders before they had freed their mark and were able to turn back. The bad weather had indeed driven most people away from the coast for shelter, and the road home was miserable but uneventful. Aveline and Merrill accompanied the two men to the Hawke estate, salt water still dripping from their hair and squelching in their boots.
“Thank you for your help, Aveline—Maker's breath, it's cold out here.” Hawke slipped hastily through the door; a moment behind him, Anders moved wearily to follow.
“Make your man come to the knitting circle,” Aveline said to him in a stage-whisper as Merrill chuckled into her hand. “We'll put him right, I promise.”
Anders's eyebrows shot up in a bewildered fashion, but he smiled a moment later. “I'll see what I can do,” he said, and followed Hawke out of sight.
“Shall I walk you to the Alienage, Merrill?” Aveline regarded the smaller woman cautiously; Merrill simply smiled back up at her and began to walk, as light on her toes as a feather.
“No, thank you. I'll be quite all right.” Merrill made it five paces before she stopped on her heels and turned back around, that curious sparkle in her eyes again. “Actually, Aveline, I've been thinking since this morning, with the weather how it's been, that if you aren't too busy and you wouldn't mind—would you teach me how to knit? It wouldn't be too much trouble, would it?”
It was unusual, Aveline thought, for Merrill to approach her with something like this; the woman seemed to prefer keeping to herself (Hawke and Isabela being the most notable exceptions to this rule) and rarely admitted to wanting help with things. Aveline found herself rather touched, and she saw no harm in giving her a few lessons. “Not at all. You can come with me to the Keep now, if you like.”
“You really don't mind?” Merrill asked, beaming. “Thank you, Aveline, really. I've never been very good at making things. I had to make a bow when I came of age, and you should have seen it—well, maybe it's best that you didn't, actually...” She fell in step behind Aveline, and together they traversed the stairs and open streets until the Viscount's Way stretched before them. Aveline nodded to the guards stationed along it, while Merrill wiped her palms on her sleeves and kept closely by her side, avoiding the eyes of the templars on patrol. Once in the barracks, Aveline selected a set of knitting needles and a skein of leaf-green yarn from one drawer of her desk, and began—very slowly at first, so Merrill could see how the threads wove together to create fabric—to knit.
Merrill watched with eyes wide and shining; Aveline soon accelerated to her usual pace, and in just a few minutes, a few fingerwidths of wooly fabric hung from the needles. It was a very simple garter stitch, nothing that she would have shown off to the others, but the stitches were precise in size and shape and the fabric did not bunch or twist.
“You're so fast!” Merrill laughed delightedly. “I can hardly see what you're doing.”
“I told you, I'm quite good at it,” Aveline smiled, and when she had finished the next row, she offered the work to Merrill, showing her how to coil the strand of yarn around her fingers and arranging her hands on the needles. “Here, you try. Bring this needle up through the stitch—over the yarn—pull it back through—more of an angle, there—and slide the stitch off.”
The elf looked as if with surprise at the new stitch, a smile blooming on her lips. “Oh, my. It worked? Was that right?”
“Perfect. Do another.” Aveline pulled her hands away, and with immense care, as if the yarn were spun from gold, Merrill began the process again. “In—over—through—and off. Very good. Another.”
“Oh, June help me, this is tricky,” Merrill sighed, but she continued with her lips gently pursed and her eyes focused. She formed every stitch with steady, dextrous fingers, each one a little quicker than the last. Aveline showed her how to start the next row and to add new colors, and once Merrill seemed comfortable, a stocking stitch and a moss stitch (“ooh, that's my favorite one already,” Merrill proclaimed as soon as Aveline mentioned it). Before they knew it, the sun was setting behind the smokestacks of the distant foundry, and Aveline sent Merrill off with a few skeins of various colors, a pair of serviceable wooden needles, and the assurance that she could come to Aveline if she ever needed help.
Merrill was smiling, her face a sight brighter than Aveline had seen it in a long while. “Truly, thank you,” she said earnestly, fumbling with her armful of yarn as she tried to work the doorknob without dropping any of it; Aveline smiled and turned it for her, holding the door open with one strong arm. Merrill thanked her at least three more times—and apologized twice for doing so—before she made it to the stairs, and Aveline returned to her desk as the smooth patter of Merrill's bare feet echoed off the stone.
* * *
No one saw or heard anything of Merrill for almost a week, in the frigid nights leading up to Satinalia. Hawke did not seem perturbed, since as of late it was not uncommon for her to spend days at a time tending to the eluvian, and with the weather as damp and bone-cold as it was, neither Hawke nor his other companions had gotten out much themselves. It wasn't until Satinalia that Aveline let herself begin to worry. The day was the coldest yet; the stone buildings all around them were encrusted in glittering frost, icicles dripped from every overhang and eave, and the sky was a bitter, formless white mist. The sails of the ships in the harbor were frozen as if caught in the same eternal gust of wind, and the Twins, just visible across the bay, gleamed in shackles of ice. Aveline's breath formed dense plumes of steam as she trudged to the Hanged Man, and she felt a sense of dismay upon seeing everyone of their strange group but Merrill gathered in Varric's usual room, their chairs all pulled around the glowing hearth.
“Coldest winter I can remember,” Varric grinned over his pint, a secretive air to his gravelly voice. “I swear to you, when Bianca and I went for a walk this morning, the birds were wearing wool hats and the squirrels had on itty-bitty mittens.”
“You're putting us on,” Anders returned suspiciously from Hawke's lap.
“On my dearly departed mother's grave, Blondie.” The dwarf shook his head, still smiling heartily. “It's a Satinalia miracle.”
An inebriated evening together in the Hanged Man had become a holiday tradition over the years, and it was a testament to Hawke's impossible magnetism that it had remained so, even after the time that Anders had “unintentionally” set fire to Sebastian's boots (Hawke had believed him when he'd said it was an accident; Aveline did not), or the time that had begun with an innocent card game and ended with Fenris naked save for his smalls (Isabela had assured him smugly that while he might have lost at Strip Diamondback, everyone else in the room had irrefutably won—an assertion that only Varric tried to deny). It was largely out of respect for Hawke that Anders and Fenris kept their bickering to a minimum, Sebastian held off for the most part on his proselytizing, and Isabela agreed not to pick the pockets of those too drunk to notice.
Hawke removed his arms from around Anders's waist long enough to pass Aveline a mug of mulled wine and indicate that she pull up a chair. Aveline noted with displeasure that Anders was still wearing Hawke's tragic excuse for a scarf, but it was cold enough that she supposed she could let it go for the time being. She dragged a chair over from around Varric's table and sat down next to the couple, well within range of the fire's radiant heat.
“I thought Merrill would be coming with you, Aveline,” Hawke remarked.
“I haven't seen her since the day we went to the Coast,” she confessed, years spent leading her guards the only thing that kept her eyebrows from knitting. “I hoped you might know what she's been up to.”
“I thought I saw her at Jean Luc's, a few days ago,” Isabela mused and took another sip of brandy, the glass chiming musically against her lip piercing.
Anders drank from Hawke's cup of wine, frowning. “Why would she go there?”
“I know,” Isabela replied, “none of his robes would work on her figure!”
“Priorities,” Aveline snapped. “So she was last seen in Hightown—”
“She is probably working on that mirror,” Fenris cut in with distaste, as if the very thought made his skin itch. Still, his dark brows were furrowed as he regarded Hawke. “I told you it was dangerous to encourage her.”
Hawke did not seem to notice this remark at all; he broke off sharing a gaze with Anders (the two were so damned syrupy that Aveline considered a pint of ale just to cleanse her palate) and stared past them all at the stairwell, utterly nonplussed. He opened his mouth, shut it, opened it again and finally uttered, “I think I know where the bird hats and squirrel mittens came from.”
Only then did Aveline catch the sound of bare footsteps on the wooden stairs. There, at last, was Merrill—and in her spindly arms was a multicolored heap of knitted cloth so large that she could hardly see around it, and so heavy and voluminous that she struggled to keep it all contained. It was a wonder that she'd made it to the Hanged Man in the first place with it. At first, Aveline couldn't tell what it was, but as Merrill staggered into the room and let it drop, the mass fell into its constituent parts, and it was Aveline's turn to gape.
Maker bless her heart, Merrill had made them all sweaters.
“I'm so sorry,” she panted. “I didn't mean to be late. I almost didn't finish them, and then the steps out of the Alienage were so icy that I almost couldn't get up them. It was fascinating.”
“Merrill,” Hawke asked, still looking stunned, “what is all this?”
“They're Satinalia presents. I wanted to give something special this year, since I keep forgetting...” Taking two or three of the sweaters in her arms, she noticed suddenly that all eyes in the room were on her, and the tips of her ears went red. “That isn't presuming too much, is it? Oh, here, Hawke, this one's for you—”
Hawke stared at his gift, knit with a particularly thick sort of yarn and sporting a high, cabled collar. “Is this where you've been all week—working on these? And is that... my family crest?” With a wry but undeniably pleased grin, he smoothed his hand down the front of it, where the stylized birds and geometric lines stood out in rich maroon against a white field.
“Ooh, so I got it right, then?” Merrill beamed. “This one's yours, Anders,” she added, handing it to the mage, and then returning to the pile to collect more.
“You didn't have to do this for me,” Anders frowned, accepting his sweater with just-visible discomfort—then, unfolding it, he fell silent, and after a few seconds gained only enough presence of mind to utter, “kittens.”
Merrill had done an admirable job depicting a trio of calico cats in mid-pounce. Aveline felt an unusual swell of pride, and more than a little shock—she couldn't recall teaching Merrill how to knit such complex patterns, let alone entire garments. She found herself smiling as Merrill presented her with a steel-grey pullover, the stitches neat and tight, with a red dragon's head emblazoned on the front.
“Thank you, Merrill,” she said sincerely, and the elven woman flushed with joy.
“Are these... fish?” Isabela asked with a tilt of her head, fingering the soft wool as she held it up to look.
“Well, I wanted to make dolphins, after all the stories you've told me about them, but I realized that I didn't know what a dolphin actually was, so I did fish, instead.” Merrill's eyes widened a bit, and she wrung her hands. “Is that all right?”
“Kitten, it's lovely.” She pulled the garment over her head and tugged the sleeves down to her wrists, and turned from side to side as if admiring it in a mirror. The weave was an elastic sort and lovingly hugged her hips and breasts and the pinch of her waist; Merrill had even managed to make a neckline that hung down under its own weight, exposing her necklaces and a swath of dusky skin.
Sebastian examined his, adorned with a pattern of bows and arrows, with an extremely bewildered look, but smiled politely at Merrill all the same. “What a thoughtful gift, Merrill,” he said, as appreciation seemed to overcome surprise. “This is very well-made. These stitches are precise, and this style of hem is very difficult. I'm impressed.”
“Aw, Daisy, you shouldn't have.” Varric spread his out over his lap, running his fingers over the patterns, the wondrous expression on his face saying all too clearly, I just can't make this up. “It's even got... daisies on it.”
Fenris held his up to the light and glared at the pattern of rampant wolves. “Are you mocking me?” he demanded.
“No, why would I mock you?” Merrill replied innocently. “Fen means 'wolf' in Elvish, that's all. You don't like it?”
Hawke cut Fenris off in mid-snarl. “Enough, Fenris, it's just a gift. Go on, try it on.”
“I will not wear it,” he growled, his upper lip curling with distaste. “She's probably used magic to hold the stitches in place.”
“That's ridiculous. I didn't need to use magic. Aveline taught me how to do it.”
“You know how to knit?” Isabela fixed Aveline with a salacious smile, as if she couldn't have imagined a more scandalous detail of Aveline's personal life.
“Yes, I do,” Aveline snapped, keeping her head up.
“Kittens,” Anders said again.
With all of the sweaters given out and their recipients settling back into their usual banter, Merrill breathed a relieved sigh and sat down near the fire, her eyes reflecting its dancing light and her lips forming a profoundly pleased little smile. After a moment of consideration, Aveline offered her a chair and a mug of mulled wine—both of which Merrill accepted gladly—and the two of them began to discuss the best methods for crossing cables and repairing dropped stitches. (Sebastian occasionally contributed, when he was not trying to convince a grouchy and inebriated Fenris to go with him to Starkhaven in the spring.) The night went on with everyone in remarkable cheer; as no arguments broke out, no one's clothing was set on fire, no coin-purses went missing, and everyone remained fully clothed, Aveline considered it the most successful of their holiday gatherings by far.
“So, Daisy,” Varric put forth some hours later, as the fire was dying down and the holiday ruckus from the floor below was beginning to ebb. “Just so this can all be accurately recorded for posterity—” he ignored a muffled snicker from Hawke's general direction “—how did you get the squirrels to wear your little mittens?”
“You mean you really weren't joking?” Anders exclaimed.
“It wasn't that hard, really,” Merrill giggled. “You just have to ask them nicely.”
“Peh,” muttered Fenris, and drank the last of his wine.
* * *
“All right,” Aveline announced to the circle of guards around her, “is everyone in position?”
“I expect you've all been practicing the maneuvers we went over on Tuesday last. We're going to keep a quick pace and I don't want to see any of you falling behind.”
“Very well. Needles at ready! Look alive, Lieutenant Jalen, get those shoulders straight!” She paced quickly along the row of them, checking their posture and the position of their hands. “On my mark—purl,” she barked, “two, three! Cable needles in—and knit, two, three!” She clapped her hands with each beat as if keeping time for a march. “Keep pace, Elena! Merrill, keep that needle angled! Purl, two, three! Good! And knit, two, three—”
The door to the mess hall opened with an uncertain creak. Aveline paused, and the busy click-clacking of knitting needles ceased abruptly. Merrill glanced up first and suddenly brightened. “Oh, good evening, Hawke!”
“Good evening—Merrill.” Hawke blinked as if he didn't quite believe his eyes, glancing over the two dozen or so guardsmen, men and women both, all seated on the hall's benches pulled into an orderly circle. “Jalen. Brennan. Donnic.”
“'Evening, Hawke,” Donnic replied with a bemused quirk of his brow.
“Well, this is more... popular than I expected.” Hawke moved a few paces closer to the circle. “Aveline.”
“Hawke.” She threw a glare at him, mostly for show. “You're late.”
“You know me, Aveline. Had an awful lot of pride to swallow before I could make it.” Hawke always delivered such lines with a playful sort of artistry, weaving one thread ahead of those who would try to unravel his composure, but Aveline caught, briefly, the light of sincerity in his eyes.
“Don't I know it.” She favored him with a smile, rare and warm. “Take a seat, Hawke. We'll make a decent knitter of you yet.”