Isabela isn't the sort of woman Aveline goes for, being an indiscriminate rake, a thief, a pirate and the biggest slut this side of Thedas and utterly unapologetic about it and whatever happens to be taking up residence in her crotch at any given moment. Actually, Avenline doesn't really go for women in general which seems to surprise some for a moment, the ones with the backward notions about women who are built bigger than men but there have been a few women, here and there that caught her eye, soldiers like her, the ones she could relax with, laugh with. But then there was Wesley and she found this hiddeen layer of girlishness where she could giggle (Maker she didn't know who'd been more surprised, her or Wesley) and blush and sometimes it was nice to be under someone else. Lying down, you forgot who had the height and muscle advantage.
Aveline was raised on the tales of knights by her father, Orlesian accent inflecting all the words as he made his daughter turn all the pages herself, let her dictate every inch of the stories. Like many little girls, head full of tales. But Aveline did not imagine being the girl saved by the valiant knight. In her dreams at night after her father tucked her in, she wore gleaming armour (usually matching whatever the hero had been described as wearing, her favourite was when they wore the scales of some monstrous high dragon they had slain) and held a sword aloft in one hand, a shield in another. She was never afraid.
Aveline could outfight any of the village boys, even the older tougher ones.
Aveline liked Wesley, loved Wesley because he never worried about who was the stronger of the two, who was the taller - they were warriors who believed in something. Wesley believed in the Templars and that they were doing the right thing by keeping the people and the Mages safe - even now she doesn't hold the same polarising opinions to the annoyance of Anders - and she had pledged her loyalty to the King, Cailan who was pomp and frippery and the foolishness of youth but he was Ferelden's ruler. Loyalty, honour, a sense of what was right. She can't let an injustice sit there, it niggles at her like a loose tooth; if there is a wronged party, she will put it right no matter the opinions.
And there are a lot of opinions ever since she joined up with Hawke. A simple life. That's what she wanted. Cailan gone, Ferelden facing the Blight and on the run suddenly without a clear direction or purpose anymore. Then widowhood. Maker that still hurts. A piece of her will always be Wesley's because when you marry someone, there are pieces of you that blur, the edges interlock (she sees that now with Hawke and Anders, the way they look because a soldier sees things differently and a captain of the guard even more). It was hard for that first year where she joined up alongside Hawke and Bethany and got involved in things she doesn't like to think about because they don't sit well with who or what she is and who and what she wants to be but it got her through it, she couldn't dwell on her grief. Wesley's voice saying, 'come on love, just another month', 'another job to be done and it's over'. Wesley is with her, his shield, his strength even if she remembers the pestilence spreading through him the same way it ravaged the lands. It's why she's glad she never went into the Deep Roads. She might not have come out, on a one woman mission to send every Darkspawn to whatever rotten, stinking place Darkspawn went when a sword went through them or a shield bashed their brains out.
Hawke went in with a sister. He lost her. Oh she still lives but the first time he looked at Aveline when he got out there was a knowing look, this bright flash of openness and pain and Hawke is a nice man, a good man (others would disagree but he is, if you know how to understand him) who helps out no matter the opinion but all he has to show for it is loss and how he never quite lets anyone look at him full-on anymore. Aveline is no Varric, she can't describe the exact lines of his face, the set of his shoulders and discern his whole mental outlook but Hawke is always marching on, one foot in front of the other because there is no other way for him to live. Because that's how she has to live sometimes. She has to just keep forging on because what else is there for them? It's not a life if you sit around and sob or drink, recalling all the hurt you've lived through and the countless opportunities you had (or think you had) to change something, the moments where doubt creeps in and crawls inside like demons do, twisting you into some hideous creature of guilt and blame. You can't change your past and wishes don't sustain you.
None of this goes any way towards explaining Isabela and yet it does. Isabela is capable of sugar coating things but she doesn't bother - it's a captain thing even if they're from very opposite ends. They're both women though, in charge of mostly men and that's one little thing they can both agree on, that they have to work so damn hard every bloody day to get the respect they've more than earned. Aveline surrounds herself with her duty, her job and the figure she has to be - Kirkwall is a cesspool, there's always something, always this seedy bed of corruption that makes her faintly sick and so she has to hold herself apart from as much of it as she can, even with Hawke. (More like especially with Hawke.) When you do that yourself, you can catch it with someone else and Isabela does the same thing, she just does it a very different way.
Aveline really knows much better than to be drawn to Isabela. Part of her early vitriol involves that. It's to stop herself from ever falling into those 'charms'. In the loosest sense of the word.
After Donnic doesn't work out, much to Hawke and co's mutual exasperation, she sort of decides that that's it without ever really deciding or thinking over it as her life slides into place. She's happy for Hawke when word gets out through Varric because everything goes through Varric and he makes it glorious, makes it into this utterly unbelievable yet believable masterpiece while still keeping the heart and soul of it, romanticising as little as possible, embelleshing it all until it glitters, so damn happy for him. He needs this and she's sure that Anders does too but it reminds her of her own loneliness. Because she is lonely. She misses having someone there who she can talk to properly about her work, about her feelings but she can't with her friends for one reason or another and really, she just wants to hold and be held. Anyone can relate to that, she thinks, to have someone there in the night when sleep won't come or when the nightmares do, a steady reassuring presence. Someone who smiles that little bit differently when you walk into a room. Maybe you only get that once in your life and she missed it thanks to duty.
This sort of mood is why places like the Hanged Man exist. She spends enough time in there on nights where they all gather together and forget whatever issues they have with one another and laugh and joke (and one time Hawke sang and they all banned him from such a thing immediately after) and she can forget the rank smell of piss and stale vomit and the fact that the drinks are absolutely foul. It's a place where you can just be some sad, lonely person in a foul, lonely mood wrapped in a cloak of 'fuck off'.
Isabela is there when Aveline arrives, as she always is, in the same spot and she's not actively avoiding company but she'd rather be on her own, signalling for a drink and she can't escape being captain of the guard but sometimes it pays off because you can't argue with a speedy drink service.
She's losing track of her drinks when she hears the shout only there's no need for a shout because Isabela is at the table, tray cocked on her hip with a fresh tankard and the glass of whatever it is that Isabela drinks and Isabela usually sits, makes herself at home, the captain of wherever she is but not right now.
"I'm hurt big girl, none of the usual greetings?" She doesn't sound hurt, she sounds about as close to worried as Aveline has ever heard her. "Are you here to arrest me?" Now that's a common question because yes, Aveline has come to the Hanged Man on many occassions to arrest Isabela for a night or two.
"Not tonight," she finishes her drink, "slattern," she adds for the sake of things and it makes Isabela smile that radiant smile that looks like it belongs to a completely different girl, "I'm not the captain of the guards tonight."
"You still look like one," Isabela points out as she takes her seat, "I suppose that's a hazard of being a battering ram gussied up as a woman."
"Most people aren't even sure about the woman part." The bitterness in her own voice suprises her when she reaches out to take her drink from Isabela and watches the pirate raise an eyebrow at her. "I'm not really up for the banter tonight," she admits with less reluctance than she expects.
"Something going on up in Hightown?"
"When isn't there? It's always something and there's always at least one idiot who questions why an outsider or a woman is the one in charge."
"That's always the way it goes," Isabela agrees with a curl of her lip, the smile of someone who knows a situation well but doesn't care for it much at all. Aveline's surprise must show on her face because Isabela is suddenly shrugging her shoulders, almost defensive. "What? You think pirates are any different to guards? You always have to show them who's boss."
"You don't think your behaviour is a factor in that?"
It hangs in the air. Aveline doesn't regret saying it. It's something she's wondered really. She'll admit that she has certain views on promiscuity, enough for her to be called a prude but lurking in there is a morbid fascination about being so free. There was a point when she was young that Aveline knew she was different to the other girls, her hard work paying off with broader shoulders and she wasn't as slender as the rest of them; she was never going to be a willowy waif or a buxom, curvaceous wonder. Aveline takes pride in her strength and how she can stand for all of them in a fight but still, sometimes she's very aware of how big she is, the butt of the joke. Isabela is lust personified at times, the woman most men and many women want: all curves, the hard muscles of her arms and legs showcased by her lack of clothing, the full lips, the dark hair that looks as if she's just had a very enjoyable and vigorous tumble somewhere, the soft dark skin punctuated with gold jewellery and those knowing eyes, full of fire and mischief.
Isabela is universally wanted. Aveline knows herself well enough to know that want is there, a slow burn of it, something she thought she'd locked away in a box. Then again Isabela is a thief and a pirate, Isabela is good at unlocking things.
"This isn't the sort of thing you and I should be getting into," Isabela finally says and her voice is tight, taught like a bowstring.
"No?" Aveline leans forward, feels like she does when they have to interrogate someone the few times it comes to that (all too often she just has to glower for them to wilt, frowers in the frost), "Come on then, isn't this the exact sort of thing we should be getting into? Always disapproving of the other one, casting aspersions, all the friction." She regrets saying friction. It's an unfortunate word. Her cheeks heat but Isabela for once doesn't notice, thank Andraste, instead she's running her finger around the rim of her glass as if she will divine an answer from it.
"Look, we've been doing this dance for so long that all the old sore spots are gone, aren't they?" And Aveline nods because Isabela is many things but she's Aveline's somehow and if anyone else called Isabela what Aveline calls her she'd break their arm. "I know who I am big girl, I know exactly who I am. Like you."
Aveline shares a smile with her at that. "Sometimes I'm not always sure. Things get muddied along the way even if I'm miles away from Ferelden."
"You think too much, you need to do it my way sometime Aveline, you need to just embrace it, chase after what you want."
"And what then?"
"Toss it aside and stride off."
"Is that how it works then?"
"How do you think I've made it this far?"
"You know," she takes her time with her words, not wanting to set Isabela off when it's clear that she's already toeing some sort of invisible line, "I feel like I know you the least out of all of them."
"What do you mean?"
The hackles are up. You can't be a soldier or a guard without knowing when someone is on the defensive, when they're trying to look intimidating and when they're covering something up and as good as Isabela is, she can't hide everything from Aveline, the woman who gets to kick her arse and stood up for her when the Arishok wanted her.
"I know about everyone else, the life they've lived, what sets them off, what makes them tick but you, I can't pin you down-"
"You could if you wanted to," Isabela interrupts.
"You don't like it when we help someone unless there's money involved, you kept the Arishok thing to yourself until it exploded over the whole of Kirkwall when we all know that Hawke would have helped you, you tart around Lowtown doing what you will and you probably could have had a ship and been off. I mean clearly, that could have been an option if you sailed off and left everyone in the lurch," she lists, sitting back when she's down with folded arms, waiting to see just how Isabela will react. Honestly, she's expecting a drink to be hurled in her face. For a deflection. Maybe she's waiting on the inevitable way Isabela talks her way out of her problems or how she drops a catty quip and sashays off with swaying hips.
She is categorically not expecting the look in Isabela's eyes when she looks up from her glass.
"I don't want people to know about me. Or to know me. If I know me shouldn't that be enough?" There's a pain in Isabela's voice when she replies that Aveline would never have thought possible and her heart lurches. "I know who I am and I damn well know who I was. I don't owe anything to anyone, or I didn't until I got tangled up in this mess with Hawke and his bloody way of drawing you into his life and saving every lost kitten in Kirkwall. Is that a Ferelden thing, gathering strays?"
"I wouldn't know, I'm Orlesian."
"That's a good one," Isabela laughs, "I'm me, big girl, I'm the attractively dangerous and adventurous pirate captain. I'm exotic, I'm easy, you get what you pay for with me, not that I ever charge. I'm the life and soul of the party and the best friend: you wake up in a prison cell with me laughing about where we screwed up."
"When you get pulled in, you're always alone."
"That's because I don't need anyone quite like that," she retorts, folding her arms and it's a stalemate, Aveline staring her down and Isabela staring right back only there's no Hawke to pull them apart with an uneasy mutter of ladies all the while looking as if he'd rather be chewed on big an angry dragon.
"But you have to need someone."
"No I don't - do you need someone?"
It makes her stop. Does she need someone? No. Yes. It's all confused, wanting and needing, this clumsy awkward thing.
"I don't know, I have a plan for how things go and I see it through."
"Captain of the guards forever here in Kirkwall?"
"Alone all the time?"
She hesitates and reaches for her tankard only it's empty. "You saw how it went with Donnic."
"You tried to be what you aren't, that isn't how you go about it. I know that whole thing very well. You can't get something when you're pretending, when you're pussy-footing," Aveline snorts at the wording, "about the issue."
"Is that how you do it then?"
"You've seen me in action. I wasn't lying when I said that I've heard "get away from me, you pirate hag' more times than I can count. But I take the risk."
"I've never been very good at risks, well, minus going along with Hawke but it was either that or be swallowed up by the Darkspawn I'd been fighting since Ostagar."
"Sometimes I forget that you've known Hawke the longest, right from the very beginning, just a scared band of people running away from the Blight," she shakes her head, "I met the Warden in Denerim, probably towards the end of it, taught them a thing or two about duelling."
"I don't think Hawke even knows Hawke, he's one of those people, there's always something new that crops up."
She smiles at that and they clink their empty glass and tankard together.
"It's nice, talking to you like this, don't get me wrong because I do adore the banter but I feel like I've learned something."
"Same, I don't get to talk like this, to anyone."
"Wanna know a secret?" Isabela doesn't give her a chance to say yes or no. "I don't either. For all Hawke and I talk, he does that awful joke thing and you never get an equal exchange."
"That's what I miss about Wesley," Aveline blurts, "I miss having someone I could be completely honest with no matter what, even when I couldn't be honest with myself."
"Is that what marriage is like?"
"It's how it was with Wesley, I think he was one of the first people to see me outside of my father, you know?"
"You really loved him."
"I still do, even though he's gone. You don't just stop loving someone even when they're not with you anymore."
Isabela just nods and there's a hint of something she's not telling Aveline but this more honest than they've ever been with one another in all the years they've known each other since Hawke decided he needed to assemble the most disparate band of people into some insane and nigh unstoppable force.
After that, they settle into some form of companionable quiet, watching the Hanged Man get sloppier and almost violent, enough to have them both going for their weapons but tonight is a blood-free night it would seem and eventually last orders are called and Aveline realises she has to make the trek to Hightown. Maker preserve her she'd sooner sleep on the floor and she says as much to Isabela who acts as though Aveline has just said the most offensive thing she could ever think of.
"I have a room here! And a bed! And I can promise that it's clean, I don't sleep anywhere dirty, not after that time Zevran and I got fleas off the bedbugs in Denerim."
"That sounds like a story," Aveline says and it's probably a comical sight, her and Isabela staggering off through the Hanged Man and oh Andraste's tits she forgot about Varric who probably spied on her and Isabela the entire time for one of his tales. She'll collar him tomorrow. Once she's back at Viscount's Keep. Or maybe next week. She doesn't know if she'll be able to handle Varric when she's hungover. Her thoughts end when she's in Isabela's room, much neater than she might have expected, more spartan. There's a couple of chests, headscarves draped about the place and a pile of gold jewellery on the table but it's not what she thought, sure that Isabela would have some great stash and all sorts of things displayed, inappropriate objects that would make the whores at the Blooming Rose blush.
"The bed's big enough for two," Isabela teases as they undress, Aveline setting her armour down with care as she checks the lock (better than the standard, she wonders if that was Isabela or Varric and settles for the latter although both parties would deny it if questioned).
"Didn't think I was your type."
Aveline means for it to be a joke. Except she's not good at jokes she actually intends to make. Which leads to the most awkward moment of her life in recent memory of Isabela staring at her naked as the day she was born and Aveline down to her smalls desperately wanting to run away and hide and blame it all on the Hanged Man's homebrew.
"Really?" Isabela prowls across the room, this confident otherworldly thing, a friendly desire demon in the flesh only much more alluring. Aveline knows she could deny it in a strained fashion but her mouth is dry, her tongue clumsy in her mouth and all she can do is stare as Isabela approaches, radiating heat. "You don't think you're my type? I thought you said anything was my type, or at least that much was implied."
"I'm not, I mean I'm--"
"Do you see yourself big girl? Andraste's ass Aveline, you're strong, you're confident, you have that gorgeous hair," as she says it Isabela is up on her tiptoes to loosen the tie, her whole body brushing against Aveline's and she makes a noise of surprise and want in the back of her throat as Isabela runs her fingers through her hair. "That strong jaw, the serious eyes, the freckles. You know I've always had a thing for good strong shoulders and I've never seen a pair like yours."
"Stop it," Aveline protests, taking a step back because she's sure this is going to be a big joke that gets brought up one night or ends up in some torrid tale but Isabela grabs her hand and pulls her forward with a good solid tug.
"Listen to me big girl, just shut up and listen."
"Is this some big joke to you?"
"Oh for the love of, I could really strangle you sometimes, you know that? If you don't want to listen to me then I suppose I'll have to show you."
Just like that, Isabela is cupping Aveline's cheek, pulling her into a kiss, tentative to start but then as soon as Aveline even hints at returning it she's in command and Aveline has never been kissed like this in all her life. She staggers back but her hands rest on Isabela's hips, thumbs rubbing small circles and oh she's missed this. Isabela wasn't bloody wrong about having had no one and she could quite happily continue on, let Isabela guide her through this and it would be so good, better than good, she'd feel like she was made of liquid gold and honey at the end, she's sure of it.
But Isabela is the one to pull back, breathless, flushed, her pupils wide.
"See?" Aveline can't reply in words but she smiles, a wide smile, an astonished in the best possible way smile and Isabela gives her a chaste kiss and leads her to the bed, plastering herself to Aveline. "Don't worry, I won't besmirch your honour or whatever that whole thing is. You're not ready yet," or that's what she says and she's right but Aveline hears 'I'm not ready yet' too and that sets her at ease. "You can sleep in my bed and after that..."
It's the right thing to say. Isabela leans up for a kiss that Aveline only breaks because she's running out of air, falling asleep with Isabela in her arms, content and smug, both of them. It's early days but it feels like a piece has finally slotted in place, the rough edges sanded most of the way, everything just a bit smoother. She buries her fingers in Isabela's thick hair and wakes with it tickling her nose in the morning.
One day, they'll go on to be another of Varric's bestsellers when he branches out from his tales of the Champion, the guard and the pirate, two of the strongest women ever to fight with the Champion but for the moment, they're quite happy just to be a tentative idea and a thought.