The alley looked like every other alley in this section of Kirkwall City: a cramped, cracked stretch of asphalt between crumbling and abandoned factories housing shooting galleries and the occasional chop shop. The pungent aroma of piss and garbage wafted up with every step. This one, to Varric's unending delight, featured a large ugly warehouse squatting at the far end. A very large rusty padlock on the wide metal door was all that stood between them and potential freedom.
Because, at the nearer end, a car idled, blocking the way they'd come in. On its door was the unmistakable winged dragon of the Kirkwall City Police.
Like the warehouse, Varric was also squatting. But he was squatting behind a dumpster—crouching, really, his inner editor corrected—so he couldn't actually see the patrol car. He knew it was there, because Marian Hawke hadn't stopped apologizing for it since it rolled up behind them.
"So, all right, maybe this wasn't my best getaway plan, but I swear I know my way from here," she said. The heat was blistering, even for summer in the city, but her hair was still spiky from whatever she put in it. Her face, however, was flushed and sweaty; her eyes, possibly edging past fevered and into full concentration-sapping panic. Still, they were nice eyes. Varric didn't have time to dwell on them, though. His thighs were seconds away from seizing up. He hadn't spent so long in such an undignified position since, oh, the last time Bianca left him hanging out of her bedroom window? To make matters worse, there was something particularly disgusting dripping onto the collar of his leather coat. His obscenely expensive and beloved leather coat.
"Unless you've got a gram of wraith in one of those pockets, I don't think even you can scale one of these buildings, sweetheart," he said. Growled, maybe. His charm was slipping farther over the horizon with every passing second.
Hawke wrinkled her nose. "That's an old wives' tale."
"I guess someone here's never seen a guy on the tail end of a three-day binge."
"Oh, like you have," she scoffed. "Lot of wraithers hanging out in the library?"
"Look, for the last time, an appreciation of old-world literature and the disgustingly lucrative trading thereof doesn't mean I spend my life in a library. Not that it would hurt if I did. You can learn things in libraries, Hawke. Like how to read a blighted map!"
He took a deep breath. "Sorry. That was rude. I'm just a little on edge because you've led us down a blind alley for no apparent reason!"
Apparently rude was the only mode of expression on the menu.
Hawke looked as murderous as a woman with a pixie cut and the outline of multiple guns under her shirt could. "Athenril could only guarantee the garage would be open until noon. You're the one who spent twice as long as we should have making Bethany and Carver look through all those damn books!"
While she defended herself, and her siblings, he risked a look around the bulk of the dumpster. There was a cop sitting in the driver's seat of the cruiser—too far away to make out any details except for shortish, darkish hair and a uniform—but the door was still open. It looked like they were on the radio. Varric waited a few more seconds, until the cop swung their foot up into the vehicle, slammed the door shut, and pulled out into traffic.
"I had to be sure they didn't grab the wrong ones!" he protested when Hawke made a crack about his micromanagement.
Hawke squawked and clapped a hand over his mouth. "Shut up!"
"They're gone," he told her, trying to pry her hand loose. She pulled away so fast Varric lost his balance. He steadied himself with a hand on the brick wall behind them. The damp, and somehow both sticky and slimy, wall.
"I fucking hate the Chantry," he muttered.
This whole district was nothing but urban decay and degenerates. Urban decay he could handle; and degenerates! Varric loved degenerates. Some of his best friends and customers in the world. There was something about the particular brand of degenerate that spawned in this quarter of the city that rubbed him the wrong way. Primarily it was that most of them didn't seem to have any money and wouldn't piss it away in his direction even if they did.
A bag of wraith or a snort of chalk, sure, plenty of buyers for that. But a first edition Ferelden Bible, bound in supple calfskin and illuminated by long-dead templars? A mint-condition Darkspawn Codex? No, only people of taste would be interested in that. Or people who thought they were people with taste. In the end it was mostly people with more money than they needed, which suited Varric just fine. In his book, there was no such thing as more money than one needed, especially if the one who needed it was Varric Tethras. The folks who frequented the Chantry, though, they'd smash in the windows of his shop and grab whatever they could get their hands on with no regard for quality or quantity. Obviously, given his current situation: crouching in a disgusting alley with a beautiful woman who cracked heads and finessed locks for a living.
Hawke stood and popped her neck, rolled her shoulders. "I've got a bolt hole about three blocks from here. Car in the garage, gas in the tank. We can still meet up with Bethany and Carver at the rendezvous within the hour, but we gotta go now. That cop's going to go street by street until they pick us up again. If they go north at the light, we've got plenty of time. South and we'll be lucky to get there in one piece."
She might have all the charm of a rampaging goat, but it seemed Hawke's reputation did her justice. She hustled them out of the alley and up the block while Varric was still trying to wipe what he hoped wasn't slime off his hands, coat, neck, and head.
Up one street, down the next, cutting between parked cars to cross the boulevard—and Hawke did it all while matching her stride to his without a word of complaint. If she kept to her usual long-legged pace, he could have kept up easily enough—bookish he might be, but a weakling he certainly wasn't; Tethras genes ran truer than that—but Varric could have convinced himself he was half in love with her for the gesture. For the whole getting his ass out of trouble thing, too, if she managed to pull that off.
She was pointing out the building her squat was in when when a police cruiser came whipping around the corner. Varric saw it before Hawke did, and the shortish, darkish-haired female officer behind the wheel. Luckily her head craned around to scan the buildings on the opposite side of the block but she'd swing their way soon enough. Fuck.
Varric grabbed Hawke's arm, and took two huge steps to get in front of her on the sidewalk. While he moved, and Hawke tried to shake off his hand with a "Hey!", Varric shrugged out of his coat and thrust Hawke's hand into one of the sleeves. Within seconds, he'd managed to get the thing onto her so that she was wearing it, after a fashion. It hung loosely from her shoulders like a cape. A good two or three inches of her wrists and forearms were visible past the sleeves' hems, but at least she looked like she was swimming in the leather. If he had time, he might have thanked that ridiculous teenaged impulse to learn hand magic, once he realized a talent for the real thing would never reveal itself. Maybe he'd even flex his hard-won muscles and preen a bit.
Hawke wasn't as impressed. She was already shrugging out of the coat. "What the shit, Varric?"
He pulled out his hair tie and shook his head to let his hair fall around and over his face. "Our cop friend's back again. Can you— Uh..." Her hair was too short and spiky to do anything different with it, short of wetting it down, so he cast around for another suggestion. "Can you slouch a little?"
Maybe she could, and maybe she couldn't, but Varric didn't get the chance to find out. Apparently in this regard Hawke's brain was faster than his, because rather than fucking around with insufficient disguises, she instead wrapped her arms around Varric and turned them both, this time so Varric's back was angled toward the street. Two steps back and she collapsed against yet another brick wall. The Chantry was lousy with them.
Varric braced his hands on either side of Hawke's shoulders to keep from falling into her, but she pulled him closer, grabbing at the back of his neck and the small of his back, until they were plastered together from chests to thighs. She widened her stance so they pressed together in an even friendlier embrace.
"Don't take this personally," she said. An instant later she tightened her grip on him and mashed her mouth against his.
Personally? Hell, Varric didn't take anything personally. He especially didn't take beautiful women throwing themselves at him personally, it was such a common experience. Even if it was just to keep nosy cops off their backs.
Something about Hawke's short nails scraping through his hair must have short-circuited his brain, though. Instead of going with it, he tried to open his mouth to protest. Luckily, when he did, Hawke was ready to turn their lipsmash into a real kiss, opening her mouth to meet him halfway.
More than halfway, Maker bless her.
Varric was starting to lose track of what they were doing out in public like this instead of rolling around in his nice firm bed. But he could hardly ask Hawke to take her hands away from where she'd snaked her way under his shirt to press her thumbs into the flesh above his hipbones. Or to stop pulling his hips into hers. Or to stop making those noises in the back of her throat, the ones that vibrated through her chest and into his. She'd found a great position to align their bodies for maximum impact, too. Really impressive work. It wouldn't be polite to ask her to stop demonstrating any of that, surely.
"Hawke, for the love of the Maker!"
It was difficult but Varric finally figured out that the voice he'd heard wasn't in his head. That it was definitely not the voice of his conscience or his libido or his sainted, late (but probably still scandalized) mother.
Hawke pulled away from Varric. Fractionally. Enough for them both to take in huge gulps of air, and for Hawke to focus her attention over Varric's shoulder.
"Aveline," she said.
Her voice was flat, almost bored, but her thumbs were still swirling little patterns into Varric's skin. Whether it was intentional or impulse, Varric didn't much care. But if she didn't stop soon, he doubted her voice would stay so bored. He gritted his teeth and tried to ignore it, reciting the major authors of the brief Qunari romantic period under his breath.
"I don't suppose it would do much good to ask you to move it along, would it?"
At this Hawke grinned. She stopped stroking his skin, too. "About as much as it would if I said you could join us."
Varric stopped trying to keep his face averted from the new arrival in favor of seeing how this landed. Not that they had time for any such thing.
To his surprise, this Aveline was a tall, muscular woman in the familiar uniform of the Kirkwall City PD. The nameplate stitched on the front of her tactical vest identified her more properly as a Sergeant Vallen.
She ignored Varric entirely, keeping her eyes focused on Hawke, who finally let go of Varric and slumped against the wall with a charming if not entirely convincing insouciance. But Avaline wasn't as oblivious as she appeared. When Varric shifted his feet, her hand moved to the hilt of the nightstick hanging from her belt. Interesting.
"So, you're why Jeven is driving up and down every street between here and the alienage?" She looked at Hawke, half fond amusement, like an older sister, and half barely leashed irritation. "Let me guess. You didn't mean to walk off with, oh, some priceless piece of pre-Blight artwork, it just happened to fall in the trunk of your car while you were driving past the museum?"
"That was a private collection, thank you. And I never make the same mistake twice; you know that."
"So you say." Finally, Aveline made a show of looking over Varric, from the top of his head and down the short distance to his boots. "From the looks of things, I'd say you'll make this one a few times."
Another man might have taken offense. But another man might have missed the way the cop's mouth almost twitched into a smile when she noticed how long it took Hawke to protest.
"Oh, but a mistake is the last thing a lady has ever laid at my door," he told Aveline. "Or anywhere else. Varric Tethras, Sergeant, at your service. I've got a rare book shop on the less desirable end of Viscount Square. Hawke here is helping me with a ... sticky inventory issue."
He produced a card from inside the coat that Hawke still wore and handed it to Aveline, who tucked it inside her vest after examining it.
"You must have very particular inventory issues if one could land you on the verge of an indecent exposure citation in broad daylight."
Aveline's voice was as dry as the Orlaisian desert. Oh, Varric liked her. Even more when he saw the unexpected blush darkening Hawke's face when he drawled in response, "I'm easily distracted."
"It was a misunderstanding," Hawke said. "That's all. Jeven must have gotten us confused with someone else. You know, I thought I heard a car alarm when we were...."
She might have gone on with her patently clumsy attempt at a cover story, if Aveline hadn't held up a hand to stop her.
"It's not important, Hawke. I know you well enough by now to know not to trust more than ten words out of your mouth at a time. Just promise me it's nothing to do with Flemeth, will you? Your mother would tear the city apart with her bare hands."
"It's nothing to do with Flemeth."
"Fine. Good. Are you on your way home, then? Quickly? Quietly?"
Hawke crossed her arms over her head and stretched, yawning ostentatiously. Aveline's mouth flattened into a very pissed off line.
Varric was lost, even more than when Hawke went charging down the dead-end alley. So much of this conversation with Aveline seemed to be happening in the air between the two women. Body language he couldn't read beyond the obvious. This Flemeth he'd never heard of before, whatever that was. He didn't know enough about either woman to begin to decipher it.
Varric stepped back and slung his arm around Hawke's waist, hoping he was still reading her play correctly. When Hawke didn't stab him in the face, he risked spreading his hand over the curve of her hip and squeezing. It was a strange sensation, having a handful of his own coat with someone else's body inside it.
"I don't know about quietly, Sergeant," he said with a leer.
Hawke's laugh sounded delighted, but she didn't relax her posture one bit. Didn't curl into his embrace, or reciprocate his touch in any way. Something that was not lost on Aveline, if the searching look she gave Hawke was any consolation.
Hawke sighed. Capitulated. "I can promise I'll be safely indoors by the time the sun sets. It might even be my own home. Will that satisfy you?"
"Varric's a friend, Aveline. Truly."
Friend was stretching it quite a bit, tongues and groping aside, but Varric didn't quibble.
"She's doing me a favor," he offered. "Helping me and my brother track down some merchandise. No danger. Low risk. Your colleague got the wrong end of the stick, that's all."
Aveline held up both hands in surrender. "All right. I don't want to hear any more. I can't hear any more. You'll call if you need—"
Hawke rushed to assure her. "Of course I will. Right now, we could use a few minutes to get to my car. Could you—"
Aveline tilted her head and activated the radio at her shoulder. "Jeven, it's Vallen. Suspects spotted. I'm in pursuit." She released the button. "Where were you heading?"
When Hawke hesitated, Varric spoke up. "Southwest. My warehouse in the alienage. We'll go by way of the foundry."
"They're almost out of the Chantry," Aveline told Jeven. "Going east up Merchant in a dark blue sedan. I'll try to head them off before they hit Viscount Square. Recommend roadblock at Guild and Rose in case they get past me."
Miles away and farther with every minute, in other words. Hawke grabbed Aveline by the shoulders and bussed her on the cheek.
"I owe you one!"
"You owe me millions!" Aveline told her. "And you," she said to Varric, "will owe me so much more if she gets hurt before your inventory issue is sorted. Or after."
Aveline gave him another hard look, then tapped her vest where she'd tucked his card inside.
"Understood." He didn't even follow it up with a sarcastic salute like he would have under other circumstances. They would write odes to his restraint in the generations to come.
"Come on," Hawke yelled. She was already halfway down the block, with one leg through a gap in the fencing between two buildings. She waited for him to catch up like one hog waited on another at the trough. Varric had to push against the entire length of the fence to find the hole she'd gone through—and even then he had the distinct impression he hadn't found it so much as the fence had tired of watching him fumble.
"Maker take you," she said, exasperated, when he finally slid through the gap to find her perched on the hood of a dusty, dented sports car. "At this rate we'll be lucky if anyone is still waiting at the rendezvous."
"I think we could find something to occupy the time," he assured her.
She flashed him a grin—all bright teeth and blinding energy that hit him straight in the gut, or maybe a few inches higher—and tossed him a ring of keys. "You drive."
"Ah. You're as terrible a driver as you are at getaway plans?"
Hawke peeled off his coat and laid it on the tiny backseat of the car, followed by a holster she'd unearthed from beneath her shirt and a brace of knives from some place he couldn't even begin to guess.
She smiled. "More like I might need my hands free for something else."