Here lies the abyss, the well of all souls.
From these emerald waters doth life begin anew.
— Andraste 14:11
Hawke was always dashingly nonchalant about the whole affair. "Maker's balls, Hawke, why do I let you do this to me?" Varric would complain after he let her take a trick at diamondback, and Hawke would wink and scoop her winnings over to her side of the table and say, invariably, "Because you love me, obviously." It had the rhythm and familiarity of a well-worn joke, one that was recycled more because of its intimacy than because it was particularly funny, and Hawke, who could never be anyone but herself, used it both when it was appropriate and when it wasn't.
"That was one of the worst ideas you've ever had," Varric would say after downing most of a keg in the course of an evening, and Hawke would drain the last dregs of her flagon and say, "Good thing you adore me." Or Varric would find himself in the middle of a melee and would shout over his shoulder, "Why the hell do I keep following you around?" and Hawke would freeze someone's feet to the ground and answer, "That's what love does to a man, Varric!" Or, drunk and aching after the latest dispatch from Bianca, Varric would say, "I'm not sure why you don't leave me too, Champion," and Hawke would say, "Because you're in love with me." He'd gone very quiet that time, and Hawke had held her breath so long she felt light-headed; and then he'd said, "Get out," and no more was spoken of the matter.
She was often lacking in judgment like that. Caver said that she was a mage by birth but a scoundrel by calling, to which Hawke replied that it wasn't her fault that Carver was too stupid to make a living as a card sharp. "You're barely better than a pickpocket," he liked to retort. She laughed outwardly at that but inwardly added it to her miser's collection of failings.
None of them had expected Varric to take his new role as Viscount of Kirkwall seriously. Hawke herself had thought he'd assume it as a dummy title — an enjoyable lark and a nice way to thumb his nose at those among Kirkwall's nobility who sneered at dwarves, not an actual vocation. His time with the Inquisition had corrupted him, clearly. When he'd been primarily under Hawke's influence, he'd been far more interested in nug racing and drinking beer, activities which Hawke herself usually padded out with a little adventuring ('looting', Carver liked to call it) to fill her time. Now he had an aide.
That wasn't to say Varric had ever been a bad sort. He'd always been charitably inclined; he'd picked her up out of the gutter, hadn't he? And he'd always looked out for Merrill, and he'd helped with the Qunari business, but previously all of that had merely been a footnote in his glorious career of being a wastrel younger brother. And yes, all right, perhaps he'd been more involved in the fiscal side of the Tethras family affairs than he usually let on, and there was his career as an author — he joked about that, but Hawke knew he took it seriously. Still, this whole Viscount delusion was starting to look startlingly respectable.
"He has a schedule," she complained. "A schedule! Back when we were young and free, we slept until noon and drank until dawn. We weren't bound by a schedule. A schedule. Can you imagine!"
"He's Viscount, Hawke," said Aveline. "You can't expect him to give you his undivided attention when he has a whole city to look after." Aveline was pragmatic like that. She was so pragmatic that she visited Lowtown thrice a week to 'see how Hawke was getting on', which was her way of saying that she thought Hawke still needed a mother. Hawke also privately thought that Aveline liked the excuse to have a night out at the tavern, which was hard to manage when she was was a guard captain and married besides, but that was all right; the Hanged Man was akin to a wasteland now, empty of all the old regulars except Hawke herself.
"He worships me, I think a little undivided attention isn't too much to ask," Hawke declared. "And did I say anything about that anyway?"
"I suppose not," said Aveline. "Do you really want to sit here and complain about Varric all night?"
"Would you rather complain about Donnic instead?" Hawke said, because her mouth occasionally got ahead of her. In desperation, she grasped for the one topic guaranteed to make either Aveline or Varric twist themselves into a fury. "Or the budget?"
"It's de Carrac again, the toad," Aveline said, and then she growled. Or belched — hard to say which. "He's got in his head that it's his business to oversee the treasury, which according to section eighteen paragraph four of the charter — "
Hawke tuned her out. She'd developed a knack for nodding in all the right places at a young age, when her mother used to insist on incorporating a book on etiquette into her children's schooling, and had applied that knack indiscriminately ever since. Varric might have currently been holding Kirkwall together by dint of large sums of gold and sheer will, but he would have failed before he'd even started if not for Aveline, who was such a rock she might have been dug out of one of Kirkwall's quarries herself.
"You know," Hawke said, reentering the conversation with the all the grace for which she wasn't known, "if you're looking to inject a, ah, profit flux into the current economic meterage — "
"Spit it out, Hawke," said Aveline.
"I've been thinking of selling the Bone Pit. No, wait! Hear me out — this is an exciting opportunity. Real estate is a sure investment, Aveline, and if the city buys me out, why, picture all the opportunities for development."
"That place is a rat warren," said Aveline. "Except it has dragons instead of rats."
"You're right," said Hawke. "Much too valuable to sell. Maybe I could turn it into a reservation instead? Yes?"
"You aren't any fun at all."
"As you often remind me," said Aveline. "That's it for me; Donnic's expecting me back sometime before dawn." She dropped a coin on the table and pushed back her stool. "I'll see you later, Hawke. Don't stay out too long."
"Me? Would I ever?" said Hawke. She watched Aveline leave with apparent interest, but once the guardswoman was out of sight, she pulled Aveline's tankard over and peered into the bottom. It was still a third of the way full, which was wonderful. Full of swill, true, but that swill was still three coppers a glass. Hawke drained it and wiped her chin with the back of her hand, and then she made her way home.
It was odd to be back in Lowtown after all these years, but it would have been odder still to occupy Hightown, and despite her immense wealth (she assumed — Varric had control of her finances), she was far more comfortable in Gamlen's hovel than she ever had been in the Amell mansion. Gamlen had swanned off somewhere; presumably he wasn't dead, although Hawke wouldn't have bet on it, and she thought one of the neighbors had mentioned seeing him leave with his daughter. Anyway, his modest suite had been empty when she'd sauntered back into Kirkwall, and it was there that Hawke had taken up residence.
The Amell mansion, meanwhile, stood empty. Hawke had the key somewhere. It was worthless to her, but Carver was still kicking and might possibly someday issue heirs, if he found a woman stupid enough to have him. Small chance of that; Carver's taste in women ran towards dour older swordswomen who knew better than to involve themselves with a twit. Hawke loved Carver, really, but she didn't miss him at all. Anyway, he seemed to be having a splendid time as a Grey Warden, and if he did die, at least she'd get her dog back.
It was starting to get nippy; Kirkwall's seasons were milder than Ferelden's, but at this time of year, the wind blowing off the Waking Sea was biting, carrying with it the chill winds of the far south. She hiked the collar of her old gray coat up around her neck and relied on the lingering glow of the liquor to warm her the rest of the way home. The glow had to carry her through until morning; her bed was empty, and she didn't care to summon the energy to build a fire in the grate. In her younger years she would have lit the tinder already laid in the fireplace with a spell, but after accidentally setting her mother's kitchen on fire once, she had learned to be a tad more cautious. Not much more cautious, mind; Hawke was daringly impulsive and the champion of the city to boot.
Varric had insisted on replacing the furniture, at least. That was back when he'd dropped in more regularly, before he actually started answering when people addressed him as 'Viscount' instead of feigning selective deafness. Hawke would have to go visit him sometime soon; it was her last thought before she dropped off in her clean, too-large bed, or almost her last thought, because she caught the green tinging the edges of her vision as sleep took her. The green bled into the red of Kirkwall's sigil, and then she was under.
The world was different now. It had changed in her absence, and now Hawke was left behind. She didn't mind, of course, because minding would imply that she cared at all, and Hawke was a creature who had always been happiest when left to her own devices. Privately, she chose to blame the Inquisition, which had trampled over Thedas in its single-minded determination to thwart Corypheus — and, of course, that meant it was really all Hawke's fault, since the Inquisition was doing little more than cleaning up the mess she'd left behind. It was one for the history books, really.
Still, the Hanged Man had been much more fun before Isabela had left to go galavanting around on the open ocean with her elven lover. The elven lover himself had only been fun on alternating days, but he'd also been the only person willing to split a bottle of wine with her and then perch somewhere high so they could throw rocks at passing nobles. Merrill was off doing something mysterious and Dalish, Anders was preoccupied with life as a fugitive rebel, and Sebastian had never been all that fun to start with.
At loose ends, Hawke took herself down to the coastline and threw rocks into the sea. There weren't any nobles there, but she did accidentally hit the tentacle of a medium-sized kraken, who promptly seized the rock and threw it right back at her. The wind blowing from the south was still chilled despite the morning sun, and Hawke, who could trace her ancestry back to one of King Calenhad's advisors, found herself looking towards Highever.
On the other hand, perhaps it wasn't the best idea to follow that particular ancestor's idea by running away to Ferelden. He'd been a Tevinter magister who'd had a change of heart halfway through putting down a slave uprising in Kirkwall and who'd surfaced years later at Calenhad's side, where he remained until the growing influence of the Chantry forced him into hiding. Centuries later, his descendants returned to Tevinter in chains as slaves themselves. It was a messy cycle.
When she ran out of rocks, she started the long trudge back up the coastline, through the gates, through Lowtown, up the great parade of steps to the Viscount's Keep. The guards there had standing orders to let her in no matter the time of day, but Hawke rather fancied that they would have let her in even without orders; the denizens of Kirkwall had a wide and varied collection of opinions about their champion, but one of the prevailing opinions was definitely 'fear'.
Varric was in the middle of a meeting.
"Hello, Varric," she said. "Are you busy? No? Excellent."
Bran, Varric's seneschal, slammed the inkwell he was holding against the table. Ink splattered across the papers and maps scattered there; Hawke thought she caught the corner of what looked like a bit of smut written in Varric's hand. Nice to see he still had time for his hobbies. "You!" Bran snapped. "Can you not see we're in the middle of a meeting? This is an important diplomatic envoy, Champion, and despite your arrogance, you cannot dictate what the Viscount does!"
"Of course I can," said Hawke. "Varric loves me, that means I can dictate whatever I like."
"But — "
"Bran, shut it," Varric said. "We could all use a break anyway. No, don't argue."
"Viscount — "
"Go away now," said Hawke. "Didn't you hear Varric?"
Bran shut his jaw with a snap and ushered the rest of the party out of the office, but not without throwing a deeply wounded glare back at his Viscount. Bran, for reasons beyond Hawke's fathoming, liked Varric, which meant Hawke had now wasted many long hours squabbling with a man nearly old enough to be her father.
When the door was shut again, she collapsed into the chair closest to Varric and said brightly, "You know what I think would make a spectacular addition to the city? When you hear this, Varric, you'll be astonished you haven't thought of it yourself."
"A park," Hawke declared.
"A park, huh? Any idea where we're going to put this park?"
"You know," Hawke said, "I have the perfect plot of land in mind. It might need some, er, light reconstruction efforts — "
"Are you trying to sell me the Bone Pit again?"
"No," said Hawke. "Would I do that?"
"Yeah, you would."
"All right, I would," Hawke said. "But it is an excellent location, Varric, you can't argue with that — "
"You know, if you're bored, I could use someone to clean out the Gallows," Varric said. "I had a couple of people volunteer, but there's some pretty esoteric shit there, and the only mage who has enough knowledge to begin to sort through the more dangerous artifacts just came down with croup."
"Bored? Perish the thought," said Hawke. "I had a kraken through a rock at my head today, would you call that boring? And anyway, I'm not Circle-trained — I wouldn't have the faintest idea of where to start."
"You make it hard to tell when you're playing dumb to get out of work and when you're playing dumb because you really don't know what you're talking about," Varric said, "but Hawke, I'll say this: I spent years running around with some of the best and most powerful mages in the Marches or anywhere else, including Empress Celene's personal advisor, and I still haven't met anyone who knows what you know."
"Work the shaft?" Hawke suggested.
"Ha ha," said Varric. "Did you get that one from Rivaini?"
"I wish. Look," she said, "I appreciate that you've got… quite a lot going on here, but don't you have anything a little more in my line of work? Some darkspawn to kill? A stubborn noble badly in need of blackmailing?" A little desperate, she added, "Some smuggling that needs to be smuggled?"
"I'll have you know that I'm trying to go legitimate here, Hawke — "
"Nice try, Varric, but I know half your contact are smugglers," she said. "Anyway, I saw you slipping that bag of coin to the nug racer last week. Nugs are still illegal in Kirkwall, didn't you know?"
"Only because nug racing is more lucrative when it's underground," Varric said, and then he winked at her, which certainly didn't make Hawke's insides twist. She'd eaten some questionable stew the night before that was almost definitely the source of the problem.
"That's a no, then?"
"I'll let you know first thing if something comes along for you, but unless you've suddenly developed an interest in crop tariffs, I think that's it, Champion." Varric leaned back and rubbed a broad hand against his chin; it was a nice chin, attached to a nice jaw, or so Hawke had always thought.
"Tariffs? Much too complicated. I wouldn't even know how to spell it," said Hawke. "I don't suppose you have time for a game of cards?"
"No Wicked Grace for me when duty calls," Varric said. "Sorry. I'll try to make it down to the Hanged Man sometime soon — the old girl probably misses me."
"Somehow, the tavern has remained standing in your absence." Hawke pushed back from the table and stood to stretch; she had to force herself not to watch Varric for a reaction, but the urge was an old one and easily stifled.
"Don't break my heart, now," said Varric.
"Small chance of that," said Hawke.
That was when the idea took hold of her. She was in Aveline's house, or more precisely Aveline's bed, lounging on her back while the guard captain shined her sword. That wasn't a euphemism — Aveline really did have a sword, and she really was oiling it. Donnic had the evening patrol, and Aveline had bribed Hawke into dropping by with the offer of stew that wasn't of questionable age.
"All this work can't be good for him, Aveline," said Hawke. "He's going to go blind, you know he's too vain to wear spectacles."
"I'm sure it's concern for his eyesight that's motivating you," Aveline said.
"He never has fun any more," said Hawke. "I know it's an unfamiliar concept, but not all of us like to occupy our free time with scintillating activities like 'practice drills' and 'inventing new filing systems'. Varric's natural habitat is no more the Viscount's office than mine is a..." She frowned, unable to lay a finger on an environment in which she wouldn't be completely at home. Hawke was blessed with a remarkable ability to charm or otherwise swindle affection out of nearly everyone.
"A wyvern hunt?" Aveline said. "A grand ball? A tea party? A merchant's guild meeting? A — "
"Yes, all right, that's quite enough. I think I did well at the wyvern hunt, thanks." She flopped onto her side and watched Aveline slowly buff her one-hander to a fine sheen. Something in her back twinged; Hawke was occasionally reminded that she was now well past thirty when various body parts refused to cooperate as readily as they once had. "All the stress can't be good for his health, that's all I'm saying."
"I doubt polishing off a bottle of Nevarran whiskey and waking up with a hangover would be good for his health either," Aveline observed in that dry, impossible way of hers. "He's good at this sort of thing, Hawke. Must have done a lot of it with the Inquisition. Let him have it."
"Maker's tits, I'm not trying to kidnap him, just suggest he take a break or ten. I don't want to see Kirkwall burn again, you know."
"Don't you?" said Aveline.
"What," said Hawke, sitting up, "is that supposed to mean?"
"Nothing." Aveline dropped into silence again; she turned her sword over and began her cleaning ritual on the other side. Her ginger hair slipped over one shoulder as she smoothed oil down the blade, and she pushed it back out of her way with a huff.
Merrill had always occupied the spot Bethany once held in her esteem, and Hawke was uncomfortably aware of it; but Aveline was something more and less than sister. They were bound together in the same way, by proximity and shared experience if not blood, and Hawke counted it a minor miracle that Aveline hadn't slapped her upside the head before leaving all together, but despite their differences there had never been any real tension between them.
She also knew that if she waited long enough, Aveline might be coaxed into saying a little more; Hawke could feign patience when it benefitted her.
"All I meant," said Aveline, still not looking away from her task, "was that you've traveled a long way to come back to where you started. This city's never been kind to you."
"You must have missed the part where I'm the Champion of Kirkwall," Hawke confided. "It was a lovely ceremony, very moving. The adulation of the masses was almost enough to compensate for being gutted." She laid back down. "I have a responsibility, you know. Kissing babies and fighting off dragons. Very tiring work, being a champion."
"Is it? You don't seem to do much."
"Pardon me, I fought a kraken today," said Hawke. "A man-eating kraken. It was monstrous. Twice as tall as a dragon. Would have taken out all of Darktown if left unchecked."
"You don't have to stay here, Hawke," Aveline said.
"And where are you proposing I go?" said Hawke, even though she knew Aveline was wrong. Of course she had to stay.
"Isabela would take you. So would the Inquisition. Join Anders and his rebels if it makes you happy — I don't care, so long as you realize you aren't chained here."
Hawke was quiet for a very long while after that. The only sounds were her breath and Aveline's, mingled together, and the shing of cloth on steel.
"I used to wander in the wilds," she finally said. "When we lived in Lothering. Before Father died, and sometimes after, if it seemed like Mother had enough food and coin for the month. I kept ranging farther and farther, into Kocari proper. It's tempting, you know, to just vanish; I can hunt and trap well enough. The solitude's lovely. None of that 'Champion, sign this' and 'Champion, do that' nonsense."
"Why don't you?"
"Carver has my traveling companion," Hawke said. "No good camping without a Mabari."
"That's the only reason?"
"No," said Hawke, who was almost certainly thinking of creature comforts and not of the long seasons she had wandered alone in the Fade, fighting nightmares and worse.
"All right, Hawke," Aveline said, as though Hawke were in need of reassurance. "All right."
"Anyway," Hawke said, "you can see why it's so important we pry Varric out of that office and remind him of all the many and varied delights Kirkwall has to offer."
Aveline sighed. "Just don't take him to the whorehouse."
She didn't take him to the whorehouse. What she did was get in touch with Athenril, who still operated out of Kirkwall (almost unilaterally, now that Varric had come down on the Coterie) and was still fond of Hawke despite the several wild tales Hawke had spun to extract herself from Athenril's organization. After that, it was only a matter of figuring out the best time to accost Varric. Hawke selected late morning, at an hour when he usually emerged from his office long enough to stretch his legs and inspect the Chantry notice board, which continued to operate uninterrupted despite the lack of a Chantry.
Bran had followed him, of course. Bran followed him everywhere.
"Varric!" Hawke said. "Fancy meeting you here."
"Champion," said Varric. "That is an amazing coincidence." He was grinning as he said it, though.
"I hope you won't think I'm abusing my connections," said Hawke, even though that was what she was doing and they all knew it, "but I was hoping to borrow the Viscount for a moment."
"The Viscount is busy," said Bran.
Hawke raised her eyebrows in feigned astonishment. "I'm sorry, was I talking to you?"
"I hope you keep this in mind when you're considering my request for a raise," Bran said to Varric, but he scampered off obligingly to the other side of the courtyard. Hawke made a rude gesture at his back when he couldn't see it. Served him right.
"Hawke," said Varric quellingly. "You don't have to take the piss out of him quite so often. This whole place would have fallen down around our ears if not for him, and he makes my job a hell of a lot easier."
"I make your job a hell of a lot easier," said Hawke, indignant, although that was such a bald-faced lie that Varric didn't even call her on it.
"Sure you do," he said.
"Or you like me well enough to make up for it, at least. What can he do that I can't? I bet he can't even juggle."
"And you can?" Varric said. "This I've got to see."
"Later," said Hawke, who was not at all desperately calculating how fast she could learn juggling. "This is more important. Urgent business, down at the docks. Can't wait another moment, I'm afraid."
"Urgent?" said Varric.
"Dire," said Hawke. "Catastrophic, I would go so far as to say." She took a moment to straighten the red sash wrapped jauntily about her hips; it, and the black surcoat with the gold trim she wore beneath it, had been carefully selected from the small collection of clothing she owned that didn't look like they'd been stitched together from the salvaged remains of a magpie's nest. It was her own personal effort at respectability; the urge would probably pass by tomorrow.
"I suppose I could spare a few minutes," Varric said. "For a, ah, pressing problem presented to me by Kirkwall's champion."
"Yes, right. And it's just — " Hawke wasn't sure why they were playacting; Bran was all the way over by a flower stand, most definitely out of earshot. "This way," she finished.
"Lead on, Hawke," Varric said. "And fast, if you don't mind, while my seneschal's looking the other way."
Hawke tugged him past the ruins of the Chantry and down a side alley and through a passage that aspired to be an alley and around the perimeter of a successively cramped series of hexes; the route only appeared winding, but really it was the quickest path to the Lowtown docks, provided you didn't mind passing by one or two of the fouler-smelling foundries. They finally emerged at one of the more secluded landings, the type that would be deserted until darkness fell. It was removed from the main hustle of Lowtown, and immediately to the rear rose the tall sheet of cliff atop which Hightown perched.
"Oh, yeah," Varric said. "Real problem here. That gull certainly looks like it's up to no good."
"Idiot," Hawke said, and she dropped a leather pouch on his head. It took him a moment to recover, but then he opened the pouch, pulled out a pinch of the cured leaves inside, and held them to his nose.
"Pipe weed…" he said, and then his eyes darted up to Hawke. "Antivan pipe weed?"
"The very best Rialto has to offer!" she assured him. "Obtained at great personal risk to me, of course; I barely escaped with my life."
Hawke sighed. "Athenril."
"I've been trying to get the ban lifted," he said, "but one of Kirkwall's favorite sons has a minor feud going with the entirety of Antiva, and he keeps blocking me, the lily-livered bastard. Hang on, let me see if I have — " He trailed off and started patting at his pockets but, after a few moments of rifling, managed to produce nothing but a ball of twine, a crumbled piece of paper, a bag of coin, a flask, two quills, and a set of lockpicks. "Got a pipe, Hawke?"
"Do I look like an amateur?" She produced a long-stemmed beauty that had been handed down through the Amell family for years (six years; Carver had bought it from Lady Elegant) and passed it over. While Varric filled the bowl, tamped it, and lit it, she wandered over to the edge of the dock and sat down with her legs hanging off the side. The harbor was busier than she could ever remember it being in her previous life in Kirkwall, and that was saying much; Varric really was doing good work here.
After he'd taken a few draws, he came over and sat down beside her. They'd spent a lot of time like this, back when they'd both lived in Lowtown, whiling away entire afternoons while they smoked and talked and watched the ships sail by. The great black wall for which Kirkwall was named rose to their right; if Hawke squinted, she fancied she could just make out the lighthouse on the other side of the narrow passage that led from the Waking Sea into the harbor.
Varric took another draw. "Good stuff," he said, and passed the pipe to Hawke. She put her lips where his had been and inhaled. "Heard from your brother lately?"
"Oh, very occasionally," she said. "He's in the Anderfels now, I think. So much for keeping him out of harm's way. He expects to make Warden-Lieutenant soon. I gave passing thought to following him, but he wouldn't thank me for it. Is it just me, or do younger brothers become surlier as they age?"
Varric chuckled. "Hard to imagine Junior any surlier than he already is. I can't see you as a Warden anyway, Hawke — don't they have to follow a lot of rules?"
"I can follow rules!"
"You don't know what a rule is," Varric countered easily. "Nah, you'd last six months before breaking off to start your own rogue group. The Black Wardens, maybe."
"The Purple Wardens," Hawke said, taken with the idea. "We could fight something other than darkspawn."
Hawke wrinkled her nose. "Sobriety, I was thinking."
"Ever consider taking up with Anders and his private army?"
This was not a conversation that Hawke particularly wanted to be having, but she could hardly drop into the ocean and swim away after she'd gone to all the trouble of luring Varric here in the first place. She deflected instead. "I'm more concerned about Merrill, to be honest. What in the world is she doing? I'd thought she was content with taking care of the alienage here, but no, she's off running around doing Maker-knows-what. Perhaps I can get her to meet up with Carver — they can be equally inept at looking after each other."
"Still trying to make that happen?"
"I think they'd be well suited, that's all!" Hawke said. "I know you don't understand, Varric, we aren't all as emotionally astute as I am — no, stop laughing — "
"Not that it wasn't hilarious to watch your brother break from pining for Aveline long enough to notice Daisy," Varric said, "but I'm not sure she even knew he existed. Anyway, she's family no matter what, Hawke, you don't have to marry her to your brother just to make sure she sticks around."
"Yes, well, short of a binding blood magic pact, marriage does seem to be the best way to secure someone for the duration," said Hawke, who decided she didn't want to be having this conversation any more than she wanted to be having the one about Anders.
Varric snorted. "I have a hard time seeing you settling down. Any more than you are now," he amended, and he took the pipe back from Hawke's slack fingers. "You don't seem like a woman cut out for the married life."
"Oh?" Hawke managed.
"Your brother, that I can maybe see. He seems like the type to like having a passel of kids around. We all know Junior's secretly a soft touch."
Hawke swallowed. "Yes. Eccentric spinster aunt is one of my many callings in life."
"Maybe one of 'em will be a mage, and you can train them up yourself," Varric said. His hair was starting to come loose from the wind; in a fit of daring, Hawke reached out and snatched away his hair tie.
"Ow — hey, give that back!" He grabbed at her wrist, and Hawke twisted and shoved her shoulder into him to keep the tie away.
"Give back what?" she said.
"That — come on, I have a meeting later — " His hair was falling into his face now, and a bit of it tickled Hawke's nose. Her reach was sufficiently longer than his that he was really having to work for a victory. "Champion, I mean it — "
The pipe clattered to the dock. "Oof! Sorry, no idea what you mean — " Hawke said, and she started to curl into a ball around her closed fist. Varric managed to get an arm wedged between her knees and her chest, though, and then he began to bear her down to the planks. The problem was that for all her height she tended more towards lean than brawny, and while he now spent more time sitting in an office than lugging Bianca around, Varric was decidedly not lean.
She started to laugh under his assault, and he let out a mock growl before bursting into laughter himself. The laughter lasted until she realized her squirming had brought her rather closer to him than she would have liked; she was on her side, legs drawn up, and Varric was kneeling against the backs of her thighs.
She coughed a few times to clear her throat and rolled away. "Right, here you go. Couldn't resist." She dropped the hair tie in front of him and edged back to the very end of the dock. The pipe, fortunately, had neither suffered harm nor caught anything on fire. She took a pull and then ran a hand over her hair, trying to smooth it back down, not that it ever did any good — Hawke was born looking perpetually ruffled.
"You must sharpen your elbows when I'm not looking, Hawke."
"Boniness is our lot in life, I'm afraid," Hawke said. "Bethany was… well, not that you'd know. Carver, too. He used to crawl into my bed when he was small and jab me in the back with his knees." Was she babbling? No — no, this was clearly calculated distraction. "Not that he's gotten any better, I expect it's even worse now that he's as tall as a bard's tale."
Varric chuckled and took the pipe straight out of her hand like there wasn't anything wrong at all. "As family traits go, there are worse ones out there. Bartrand… he, uh, used to short sheet my bed when I was a kid. I fell for it five or six times."
"Oh?" said Hawke.
"Yeah, until I learned to start checking the bedding before I climbed in. Made me paranoid for years, even after I moved into the Hanged Man."
Instead of keeping up her end of the discussion with another amusing sibling anecdote, Hawke, who had apparently lost all control of the situation, found herself saying, "I saw Bethany again, you know."
"In the Fade," Hawke said. Her voice sounded very distant; it was likely an effect of the water splashing against the docks.
"You… saw your sister," Varric repeated. "In the Fade."
"It doesn't matter," Hawke said. "It was only a dream."
Varric seemed uncomfortable — or would have, had Hawke been looking at him instead of retying her pouch of pipe weed. "Huh. Better her than Bartrand, I guess."
"Oh, absolutely," said Hawke, who seized this new conversational avenue with the fervor of a drowning man thrown a rope. "Could have been much worse. The Arishok, for instance — I wouldn't have the faintest idea what to say to him. 'Lovely day for a duel' really doesn't feel appropriate after stabbing him to death, you know."
"That does seem like bad manners," Varric agreed. He drew once more and blew out a smoke ring before passing the pipe back to her. "And speaking of bad manners, it's time for me to be getting back. I really do have a meeting, and Bran's going to track me down here to drag me back sooner or later."
"Goodness, we can't have you angering Bran," said Hawke. "Whatever would we all do without him? I certainly couldn't make it through my day without an odious little worm telling me at what time I can take a piss."
"Nah, I already missed my pissing window," Varric said, "although if I wet myself in the middle of the meeting, he's going to regret not being more flexible with that particular part of the schedule." Hawke snorted despite the lingering tension that had presented itself as a hard knot between her shoulder blades, and she relaxed further still when Varric ran a hand over her hair after standing.
"I'll try to catch you for dinner as soon as I can," he promised. "And thanks for the break — I was about to go out of my mind."
Hawke cleared her throat. "Yes, well," she said. "Only the finest of distractions."
"That's my Hawke," Varric said, and then he left. Hawke sat there a long time in his absence, until the sun sank beneath the rim that constituted Kirkwall's horizon. Eventually the tobacco in her pipe burned to ash, and she had to tap it out and refill the bowl. She lit it with a flick of her finger; she carried no staff, no token, no magical focus at all, but if she wished, she could have made the city burn.
Aveline liked to pretend to do work when Hawke visited her, but Hawke saw right through the facade — nobody like work that much, not even Aveline. "Look," Hawke said, "isn't it time for your lunch break?"
"It's evening, Hawke," Aveline said.
"Dinner, then. Home to Donnic. Where is he, anyway? I never see him these days. He isn't working two jobs, is he? You could've let me know money's tight. I am independently wealthy."
"You won't be for long if you keep giving away fistfuls of gold to street urchins," Aveline said. "You almost caused a riot in the market square yesterday. I had to pull four of my men off their regular routes to beat the mob back."
"I hope there was no literal beating," Hawke said. "Seems like an awful lot of work, beating a mob."
"There was shoving at best."
"Shoving's not so bad. Minimal expenditure of effort."
Aveline set aside one sheet of parchment in favor of another that was in no way discernible from the first. "Have you been down to the shore again? You smell like salt."
"I did in fact while away the morning there," said Hawke. "Someone has to make sure we aren't overrun by krakens. They may very well be plotting an invasion."
As was often the case, Aveline said nothing in response to Hawke's flight of whimsy.
"Maybe they were sent by Starkhaven," Hawke suggested. "Hired to conduct an amphibious assault. Take us by surprise, so to speak."
"Do you ever listen to what comes out of your mouth?"
"Not if I can avoid it."
"That," said Aveline, "is obvious. Did you have a reason for being in my office, Hawke, or are you here only to occupy space?"
"You mean you didn't want an update on our nefarious plan?" Hawke started to get to her feet. "I suppose I can conduct further operations without your approval — "
"Oh, sit back down. This is all about your scheme to make Varric relax?"
"Make him relax, save his life… exhaustion is a fatal condition, you know."
"I managed to lure him away long enough to smoke a pipe and engage in some light lounging," Hawke added. "He looked nearly dapper when I was finished with him. Then he had to rush off for a meeting, but Minrathous wasn't built in a day." Or so Dorian Pavus had told her. How was Dorian, anyway? Hawke had only secondhand information of him; she still kept in contact with the Iron Bull and with Cassandra Pentaghast but had otherwise let her wartime contacts lapse. Which implied that there wasn't still a war, or several wars, brewing, but at least she was now well removed from the field of battle.
"You didn't have to work very hard to distract him."
"Well, I am his favorite," Hawke said. "He wrote a book about me, hadn't you heard?"
"Several times, thanks to the both of you doing dramatic readings," said Aveline. "But that isn't saying much, Hawke. He'd write an ode to his chest hair if left unattended long enough."
Considering Varric's last published work was an account of the Inquisition titled All This Shit Is Weird, Aveline possibly had a point. "Anyway," Hawke said loudly. "The important thing is that I've laid the foundation."
"There's no trail of crumbs you can lay that will lure him away from the Viscount's seat, no matter how much he grumbles about it."
"Lure him away? My, that sounds sinister."
"Don't play the moron. It doesn't suit you."
"On the contrary, I think it suits me very well. One might say I've made a career out of it," said Hawke. "And I'm not at all sure what you mean when you imply that I'm trying to lure Varric away. Lure him away? From Kirkwall? That's like luring a fish out of the ocean — the first time it happened was improbable enough, but making it happen twice is asking for a miracle."
"Hn," said Aveline, in that remarkably eloquent way of hers. "I suppose you don't know why you're always at Bran's throat, either."
"Because he's a greasy, vile eel, of course," Hawke said. "Don't tell me you're a fan of his, too — I'm not sure my poor heart could take it."
Aveline said nothing but merely arched her eyebrows.
"Oh," said Hawke, "and what is that supposed to mean? Normally when people waggle their eyebrows at me they want to rendezvous in the nearest closet, but somehow I think Donnic might object — "
"All it means, Hawke, is that you could stand to reconsider your friendship with Varric."
"We've already sworn our solemn vows of camaraderie," Hawke said. "Short of establishing a secret handshake, I'm not sure what else there is to consider."
"If you say so," said Aveline, and Hawke, who found herself trapped for the third time in as many days in a conversation she desperately did not want to have, made her excuses and escaped. That may very well have been Aveline's goal all along; Aveline liked being made to converse about feelings roughly as much as Hawke did — which was to say, not at all.
The Veil was thin in Kirkwall. They were living on a blood engine.
It wasn't as though Hawke hadn't considered a number of other occupations, whatever Aveline thought. She was a mage, a celebrity (of sorts), a legend (in some parts) — there were opportunities in the world for a woman like that. She could have opened her own business tracking down dragons, for one thing. Dragon tourism. There was a real future in it; rich, stupid Orlesians would fork over their money by the sackfuls just to look at a dragon.
Or piracy — she'd probably be a decent pirate. She was a dab hand at theft, and while she knew less about sailing than stealing, she was close friends with the pirate scourge of the Waking Sea. Failing that, the Iron Bull had offered her a place in his mercenary band; Hawke had worked at a number of celebrated occupations, including refugee, fugitive, and apostate, but she'd hadn't ever been a proper mercenary before.
The thing was, she'd never really had the freedom to choose what she wanted to do before. First there had been the templars, and then Father had died, and then the Blight, and then they'd had to throw themselves at Gamlen's mercy; after that had come a long parade of Deep Roads and deaths and misery, a storm Hawke had weathered by dint of proclaiming herself unsinkable, however little she truly believed it. And then there had been her years running, hunted, hunting, aware that every step she took could be the last before she toppled into an abyss; and after that had been the abyss itself.
Now she was free of family ties and accidental responsibility, possessed of a modest measure of wealth, and had the time to pursue whatever fate her heart desired. That certainly felt true, at least, and Hawke did her best to uphold it by indulging in her primary interests of playing cards, drinking ale, and writing patronizing letters to her little brother. On days when none of those felt like attractive options, she had the liberty to stay in bed in her hovel, where in lieu of sleeping she thought about what it would be like to have a hovel in the woods instead of in the city. She could be a witch — a Ferelden witch, they had the worst reputations, although she should probably learn how to turn into a spider before committing herself to that particular career.
Sometimes instead of staying in bed all day she would rise late, draw herself a bath, wash, dress, and then go to bother Varric. It was his fault she was here, after all; up to him to reap the rewards.
That day she hid herself in a closet in the Viscount's Keep until he passed by, and then she reached out and snagged him by the sleeve. He rolled his eyes but followed her willingly once he realized who had grabbed him, although Hawke couldn't help but think that Seneschal Bran would disapprove of the Viscount of Kirkwall and the Champion of Kirkwall both squeezing into a broom cupboard. Excellent.
On the other hand, her impulse now meant she was plastered all up against him, although not in a particularly attractive way, since there was the height difference to contend with on top of the bucket hanging from a hook that was currently attempting to carve a trench in Hawke's back. One of her elbows was jammed against Varric's ear — not a particularly titillating body part, the elbow. Regardless, she was now very aware of the proximity of Varric's hands to her hips. He smelled like leather (that was the coat), roasted meats (lunch), and noxious burnt metal (which merely meant he lived in Kirkwall and had at some point in the past week been out-of-doors). The odor, particularly the part contributed by the foundry, should not have been at all appealing, but at that moment Hawke felt more than passingly acquainted with the notion of sexual misery.
Probably Aveline's fault, for putting that ban on trips to the Blooming Rose. "Varric!" Hawke said. "What a coincidence, the two of us meeting like this."
"Yeah," Varric drawled in the direction of Hawke's breastbone, "what a coincidence. Is there a reason we're here, or are you just happy to see me?"
"Both," said Hawke. "Definitely both. How's life as the Viscount treating you? Any urge to let yourself be decapitated by invading hordes?"
"I like my head right where it is, thanks." That had to be an exaggeration, since his head was very close to a place that Hawke's mother had taught her was inappropriate to bare in public, but Hawke let it slide.
"The position's getting boring, is it?" said Hawke. "No surprise there — the magic does go out of a man's relationship with his title after the first few years. I remember when I was a newly-minted champion. Mm, those were the days."
"When you were bleeding out on a cot?" Varric suggested.
"Merely an expression of my, er, enthusiasm for the position." She sighed heavily. "But then we started to grow apart. My attention wandered. I began to wonder what life might be like as a marquise. Championry no longer held the charms it once had — "
"Did you just say 'championry'?"
"— And fidelity has never been my strong suit, Varric. For a while there, it was doubtful I would remain a champion at all, not when I was faced with the alluring titles of Orlais. But do you know what helped?"
"The thought of that monthly stipend the city pays you?"
"No, no, don't be crass. It was a holiday from the job. We took a break, so to speak — I tarried in Ferelden, and absence made the heart grow fonder."
"Uh-huh. You're telling me you pined for Kirkwall?"
A lie of that depth might have been beyond even Hawke, who was a consummate professional at deception. "For the adulation of the masses, certainly," she said. "And the privileges of the rank, most definitely. The stipend is beneath mention."
"Obviously," Varric said; he sounded amused. "All right, let's say I agree to a holiday — a short holiday — where would I spend it?"
"There's a bard from Wycome passing through. Hearsay suggests that a flagon of ale or two will persuade her to sing."
"Interesting," said Varric. "And are her songs bawdy?"
"Oh, the bawdiest," Hawke assured him, and with negotiations completed, all that remained was extracting themselves from the broom closet, which was something of an unintentionally bawdy activity itself. "And," Hawke thought to add as they strolled through Lowtown, "you did promise me dinner."
"Dinner?" said Varric. "Me? You're the independently wealthy one."
"And you control my pursestrings, which means you're buying either way," Hawke countered. She'd done well enough for her family when their savings amounted to a fistful of money, but being independently wealthy meant investments, and that was Varric's arena. She thought of it as something of an unspoken compromise — Varric dealt with the finances, and Hawke dealt with the large monsters that needed to be set on fire.
The Hanged Man was crowded that evening. After the Night of Lyrium and through Starkhaven's siege on Kirkwall, the city's denizens had kept to themselves. They drew their curtains, locked their doors at dusk, and invested in cheap baubles that promised protection from abominations (ineffective) and daggers (more effective). The dark cloud over the city was lifting, though; Hawke only found seats by dint of being a regular, or, in other words, because Norah shoved two other customers out of the way.
The bard was setting up beside the fireplace. She was an older woman, heavyset, with a quirk to her lips and the lines of a hard life on her face. She looked interesting; interesting people were Hawke's favorite kind of people, or at least her favorite kind of people who weren't dragons. Ale appeared, also out of the kindness of Norah's heart, and Hawke bent her lips to Varric's ear. They'd had practice communicating in this kind of din and could manage with gestures and shouts if necessary.
"How is life as the Viscount?" she said. "Still having a problem with those crop tariffs?"
Varric gestured expansively. "You know how it is, Champion — everyone wants their say, but nobody wants to do something about all this shit. It's like trying to herd nugs." He took a swig of his drink. "Almost makes me miss the Inquisition."
"Really?" said Hawke. "You? All that camping?"
He chuckled; she felt more than heard it. "Fair point. You know, I'm actually working to get some laws put in place to protect refugees — there's got to be a better way to deal with them than sticking them in Darktown."
"Or making them work as a smuggler for a year?"
"Exactly," said Varric. "So there you go, Hawke — you continue to inspire. Maybe I should write another book about you."
"The Tale of the Champion 2: Champion Harder?" Hawke said.
"Champion Versus Inquisitor."
"Fist of the Champion — or, no, how about The Re-Championing."
"It's a hard market for adventure," Varric said. "Too bad you aren't more of a lover, Hawke — romance is big right now, and I could use some inspiration."
"Yes, well, that's what you get for being infatuated with me rather than Isabela," Hawke said. "Your own fault, really. Alas, it'll never work out between us. I'm sworn to another. What was her name again? His name? It's all a bit of a blur. Too much adventuring is hell on the memory."
Fortunately, the bard finished tuning her instrument and struck up a song. She started with a nasty little ditty about a chevalier, her husband, her lover, and the lover's mistress; the crowd roared in approval. Hawke wondered if Carver had heard that one. She could almost picture the pinched expression that would settle over his face in the light of such ribald joviality.
"She's good," Varric commented. "Think she's a real bard or just a minstrel?"
"Like the Nightingale?" Hawke craned her neck to look over the crowd. "Bard, I think. She's armed. Another drink?"
Varric nodded, and Hawke took off towards the bar. Expecting Norah to read her mind thrice in one night seemed greedy. Corff refilled her flagons; he was too busy to chat, but he gave Hawke a quick smile as he took her coin. Meanwhile, an entire parade of people appeared to have developed a desperate need for Varric's attention. In her absence, they had flocked to him, patting his shoulder or dropping a quick word in his ear as they went past. They scattered as Hawke approached.
"Should I be jealous?" she said, settling back into her seat.
"Nah," said Varric. "They know to leave me alone when I have better company." He winked at her as the bard struck up a new song, this one a little more mournful.
"Enchanters, a time has come for battle lines," the song went, "We will cut these knotted ties, and some may live and some may die." Either the bard wasn't good at reading a crowd, or she deliberately wanted to provoke a particular reaction; the response this time was duller, almost sour.
"Now that's a ballsy choice," Varric said. "Wonder if she'll stick with it?"
"Are you thinking of intervening?"
"Not my place," Varric said. "Unless it gets violent, or looks like it'll get violent, in which case my plan is to shove you at the crowd and run."
"Lovely," said Hawke. "What would your subjects think, if they knew their leader was such a coward?"
"They'd probably applaud my discretion. After all, if I die, they have to go through the process of figuring out which idiot to make viscount all over again."
Hawke laughed loudly enough to be audible even over the noise and the music, and a few of the braver souls smiled at their champion's mirth. She was feeling content, even glad, for the first time in an achingly long time; the ale and the warmth in the tavern were conspiring to make her sweat, Varric was sitting very close indeed, and the bard had moved on to a song considerably better received than the last. "Please don't bury me down in that cold cold ground," she sang. "No, I'd rather have 'em cut me up and pass me all around." By the time she reached the lyric, "Give my stomach to Highever if they run out of beer," five people had jumped up to dance a jig and the rest of the gathered patrons were stomping their feet or clapping their hands in time. Not Hawke, who was more restrained — she limited herself to bouncing her knee.
She found herself slouching further and further down in her chair, until her head was nearly level with Varric's and she was listing against his shoulder. If she squinted, she could almost imagine that Isabela was across the table, making eyes at Fenris while Merrill had an inappropriately eager conversation with the stranger sitting beside her. Anders would be deep in his cups — on nights like this one, his revolutionary stoicism could never entirely hide his libertine roots — and Sebastian would be in the corner, sipping only water but occasionally mouthing the lyrics to songs no Chantry boy should know. And Carver — Carver would be on Hawke's other side, stealing her beer and elbowing her at the songs he liked best.
"This was a good idea, Champion," Varric said, low and directly in her ear.
"All my ideas are good ideas," Hawke said. "But you're welcome. Make sure Bran knows who put the smile on your face."
"If you were really devoted to making me smile, you'd help with the Gallows clean-up," Varric said, or started to say, because the bard struck up a new song. This one was somber again, delivered in a voice so mournfully pure that Hawke sat upright like an iron rod had been shoved up her spine.
It wasn't much of a song. Varric could have done better with the lyrics; they weren't, Hawke thought with a tinge of desperation, very clever at all.
"Stay clear of the water, my mother said to me; the currents there will surely pull you down. But her warning went unheeded when the river sang my name; it was in those emerald waters that I drowned."
"Champion? Hawke? Are you okay?"
"Do you miss me, oh my darling? Do you mourn my poor lost soul? I went wandr'ing between shadows 'til the void, it took me whole."
Rubbish, really, the sort of pedestrian folderol that entertained merely the simplest sorts. Hawke had certainly taken no notice; it was almost only a dream.
"Do you know," she said to Varric, "I just remembered that I left the, ah, fireplace on. Can't have it burning down the hovel — what a shame that would be, depriving Lowtown of such architectural majesty. Terribly sorry to cut the evening short, but you know how it is."
"Hawke — "
She climbed over him in her rush to reach the door. "Tomorrow, perhaps? We'll have to do cards. Maybe Aveline and Donnic will be interested. We could have a foursome — fivesome, if Bran insists on attending. Lovely. Until then!" And then she pushed her way through the crowd and out the door, into the clean night air and a world where the only specters hanging in the sky were stars.
The ensuing days passed like a lark. She spent some time intently occupying her hovel, purely to make sure it wasn't about to burn from the ground, and some other time knocking around the mansion that Fenris had abandoned, looking for interesting old scrolls. When neither of those produced spectacular results, she took herself to the Bone Pit and passed a pleasant afternoon throwing rocks into the quarry. A small dragon emerged from the caves to investigate the racket she was making, but since it was only a small dragon, it breathed only a small gout of flame. Hawke, who had been doing her level best to cut down on her annual slaughter quota, banged her staff against the ground until it retreated again. If nobody would buy the Bone Pit, let the dragons have it.
She bothered Lady Elegant and Athenril and Corff and Norah and Donnic with an almost manic attention; she visited the Black Emporium and bought nothing but learned much; and she explored the back alleys and secret passages of Kirkwall until they led her back to Gamlen's hovel again. Her bed was always waiting. Sleep soothed her lethargy but heightened the thick, cloying panic that lived in her throat and the pit of her stomach. Panic? Surely that was an overstatement.
Aveline held her tongue admirably, but Hawke hadn't counted on that happy state lasting forever.
"Varric's been asking about you," she said one day. "He says you've been avoiding him." Fix it, her tone implied, as if Hawke didn't want to do just that.
"Did he?" said Hawke. "He must be mistaken. I'm a busy woman, you know — "
"Don't," Aveline said. "I'm not interested in your excuses, Hawke." She sighed heavily through her nose. Unlike Hawke, whose sighs sounded only either dramatic or petulant, Aveline could make a sigh sound disappointed. "He was different when he thought you were gone."
"I didn't die. Look, standing right here, as if I never left."
"We didn't know that," Aveline said. "Varric wrote the letters. To me, to your brother. It was… hard on him." She looked at Hawke. "Maybe harder than it was on anyone else."
"Yes, well — " Hawke said, but the end of the phrase caught in her craw: I am his favorite, she couldn't say.
"That's all I'm saying," Aveline finished.
"You smell like Orlesian cheese," Hawke retorted, which was perhaps uncalled for but which did make her feel the slightest bit better. Aveline scowled. Hawke, sensibly, fled.
It wasn't that she lacked an understanding of the improbability of her return. She understood better than anyone, knew the costs and had paid the toll herself. They all expected her to be grateful, though — grateful to have come through the Fade, grateful to have a second chance at living, grateful to be back in the city that had ground her down to bone. The weight of that expectation was immense.
And Varric —
When the hovel's walls grew too close, she went down to the ocean and watched the reflection of the stars in the water. The wind whipping along the shore almost sounded like a voice calling to her; that was the worst of it, the sense of never being quite sure if you were in the Fade or out of it.
There was just enough light from the moon above to let her make out the shape of the kraken wiggling a tentacle in greeting. Hawke waved back at it until it went splashing away in search of deeper waters. That was how Varric found her: at the Wounded Coast, sitting with one knee drawn up and the other hanging off the cliffs into the void.
"I almost broke my neck looking for you, Champion," he said. "It's pitch black out here, and there's damn rubble everywhere."
Rather than speaking, Hawke shut her eyes, and then it really was pitch black.
"Sometimes," Varric said. "Sometimes… I forget you aren't like me." His voice was, for once, entirely free of the undercurrent of dry, self-aware amusement that usually characterized it; he sounded only tired. "You talk and you joke and — shit, Hawke, sometimes you know what I'm going to say before I say it. But you aren't like me, are you? You live in a world I can't touch."
She must have made a sound, because he grunted. "Yeah, that's what I thought." Footsteps, and then his voice neared: "Aveline says you're miserable here."
Hawke was finally moved to speak. "Aveline," she said vehemently, "is prone to exaggeration."
"Funny. I would have said the opposite."
"It is funny, isn't… isn't it?" Hawke said. "She's a riot, is our Aveline."
"I usually let you dance around serious subjects, but you aren't getting out of this one." Varric sounded grim; it didn't suit him at all. "Come on," he said, "tell me the truth — how are you, Hawke?"
"I'm fine," Hawke said.
"Yes, really. Quit asking."
"I'll quit asking when you quit lying about it."
"Lying? Me? I would never, Varric, you know I'm pure as driven snow, as honest as — as — "
"Hawke," said Varric.
Hawke snarled and flung a rock into the sea. It was an involuntary reaction, that feral tide of anger; couldn't he just leave it alone? "What," she snapped, "do you want me to say? The Veil is thin here. There are channels carved alongside the city's sewers for blood sacrifices; the magisters used to slaughter thousands of slaves a year in Kirkwall. I can feel it, you know — the Fade, pressing in from every side, pouring down my throat. Some days it's like I never got out at all. Is that what you want me to say? Is it?"
"Andraste's holy tears," Varric swore. "Shit. Maker's balls. Yeah, Hawke, I'd say that's a start." He came a little closer, and Hawke flinched away; it was maybe the first time she'd ever retreated from him.
He gave her the moment, and more besides, until her heaving leveled into quieter breaths and the world began to take on the tinge of surreality.
"I wish you'd said something, Champion. Why the hell are you even here, if it's that bad?"
"You asked me to stay," Hawke answered.
"Ah, shit. I only asked because… how do you always put it?" He laughed, a little, the way people laughed when everything was so heightened they had no other release, and then came the old joke: "Because I love you, that's the trick. Didn't want you to think you didn't have a home, but that doesn't mean you have to stay here, Hawke. There's no reason you can't go."
Hawke, at that moment, was feeling quite glad she was numb, because if she weren't insensate, this could have hurt very much indeed. "Not terribly kind of you, Varric," she said distantly. "I know you don't feel the same, but that's hardly reason to mock me." As soon as she said the words, she rediscovered in herself the capacity for emotion; hot shame ripped through her, curdling in her veins and bringing bile to her tongue. Balls. What was she thinking?
"You're the only person who can make me feel like an idiot twice in the same day," Varric said.
"You must have a small circle of acquaintances, then," Hawke shot back. She was feeling too raw for diplomacies.
"No, what I mean is — " Varric sighed, and then he dropped down beside her, much closer than Hawke would have liked. "What I mean is… sweetheart, I didn't know."
"Don't call me that," Hawke said.
"Okay, Champion, have it your way." He reached out for her hand, and she yanked it away, but he managed to catch her chin and force her to look at him; there was just enough moonlight for her to make out his features. "Hawke," he said gently, "I wasn't mocking. You were right all along."
"What?" Hawke said.
"You were right," Varric repeated. "I do adore you. You are my favorite. I am… embarrassingly infatuated with you, Champion. The real mystery is how you managed to miss it; everyone else has known for years."
"What?" Hawke said again.
"Is that all you're going to say?"
"Are you possessed?" Hawke managed, and in the course of flailing about managed to shove Varric in the face. "Are you the puppet of a demon? Varric, if you're a demon's puppet, I need to know now — "
"Hey, hands off the mug!"
"If you're an abomination, I'm going to have to set you on fire — "
"Maker's taint, and I thought trying to talk to you about grieving your mother was bad — hang on, Hawke, I'm not a demon puppet."
"That's exactly the kind of a thing a demon puppet would say," Hawke said.
"Yeah, well — okay, look, you said you could sense the Fade, right? Do I feel like I'm possessed?"
Hawke squinted. Varric seemed decidedly clear of any unnatural influences. "No," she said. "I suppose not." She cleared her throat. "Right. Sorry about that."
"Shit," Varric said. "That was almost as bad as the time Junior told you he was happy to be see you again."
"It was awkward," said Hawke. "Hawkeward, you might even say."
"You looked like you were going to pass out."
"We were about to do battle for our lives!"
"And you called him an ass and told him not to catch the Blight again," Varric countered. "I get the feeling I'm going to need to talk around any mutual sentiments, or else you might take a swan dive off these cliffs right into the ocean."
"No," said Hawke, who absolutely had not been contemplating any such thing; but this time, when he reached for her hand, she let him take it. He flattened her fingers out and pressed her palm to his thigh, and then he covered her hand with his own. After a moment, she sighed and slumped against him.
"What now?" she said, because there remained the fact that Varric loved Kirkwall, while Hawke loathed it. She loved it too, of course; but not enough to let it drown her.
"You tell me, Champion. You're the leader of this merry band, aren't you?"
And Hawke, whose patron card in any deck was the Fool, who turned situations upside down and never submitted for long to expectation, said, "I think that I need to leave."
"Yeah," said Varric. "I thought you might."
"You can't come with me," she added. "No, Varric, don't argue — you're doing good work here, and you thrive on it, baffling as that is. I have other roles to play. There's lots of adventuring to be done, you know; someone has to put a stop to that impending kraken invasion."
"A kraken throwing a rock at your head does not constitute an invasion," Varric said.
"I beg your pardon," said Hawke. There was a distant sound of splashing that probably meant the kraken was agreeing with her.
"You'll take care of yourself," Varric said. It was almost a question.
"Don't I always?" At his look, she said, "Yes, fine, I'll take care of myself."
"And you'll write to me often."
"And," promised Hawke, "I'll write to you often."
"Because you're my favorite," Varric finished.
"Because I'm your favorite," she agreed. There was really no arguing with that.
"Where will you go?"
"Ah, there's so many choices," she said. "Dragon tourism and piracy, mage rebellions and mercenary bands and little brothers and whatever is left of the Inquisition after they sealed that hole in the sky. I'm sure I can find plenty of opportunities to make a nuisance of myself."
"And which is first?"
She thought for a long moment.
"You know," she said finally, "I've heard that over the sea, they're in want of a witch of the wilds."