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Take the Leap

Chapter Text

Ser Mattis lay unmoving on the dirty floor of the abandoned barn. The blood that had sprayed from his opened throat had slowed to a steady trickle, contributing to the wide red circle expanding around him. Unblinking eyes stared up at the hole in the roof. One hand had dragged across his shirt, pulling a thick red line through the remaining clean space. His legs, which had been kicking uselessly only moments ago, lay still and slightly open. His cock hung flaccidly out of the opening of his unlaced trousers.

Arista turned away and vomited forcefully.

What now?

She found a less soiled patch on her blood-soaked tunic and used it to wipe the knife she held in her hand, then examined the blade. It was engraved with the templar’s name and a verse: Those who oppose thee shall know the wrath of Heaven. Arista looked through the hole in the roof at the perfectly blue sky, as though waiting for the wrath to come down, and laughed mirthlessly.

*

She was supposed to be finding mushrooms.

Danal, who ran the inn in town, was paying handsomely for late summer chanterelles and Arista knew of a birch grove deep in the woods where they were popping up like weeds. While Carver and Mother were baking bread and Bethany was practicing frost spells on a bucket of water, Arista had laced up her doeskin boots and slipped out of the house like a shadow.

Lothering was a riot of color, celebrating the harvest perhaps. The grain that hadn’t yet been reaped was richly golden and the trees were all yellow and red. The sun still thought it was summer, but the wind had started practicing its bite. Arista breathed in deeply and shivered, appreciating the chill. She had grown up by the sea; her first memories were of West Hill, then Amaranthine, then Denerim for a short time. Land-locked Lothering had been a hard transition, but the only thing that could come close to the pleasure of cold, salty sea air was the cold wet leaf smell of Lothering in the Fall.

The trail leading to the Hawke homestead was little more than a deer path through the sparse woods that dotted the lands to the north of Lothering Proper. Following this trail led straight to a patch of the Imperial Highway, a timeworn and sunbleached structure that criss-crossed that part of Ferelden like a massive white grid. Taking the highway would get Arista to her destination quite a bit quicker but at the risk of having to communicate with other travelers. Usually, she chose the route that took her underneath and along the creek that curved around the town but that day the creek was swollen with rainwater and the ancient stone road was surrounded by mud.

She climbed the uneven stairway up to the highway and immediately regretted the decision. Just down the road, bright sunlight glinted off of polished armor. They were too far outside of town for it to be a normal patrol, but Arista felt a sick certainty that the armor was templar issue. She considered her options. She couldn’t run. The templar had definitely seen her and running would make him suspicious even if he wasn’t who she feared. If it was him it was already too late. He would have recognized her even from that distance. In fair-haired Ferelden, the raven-headed Hawkes tended to stick out.

She continued on her path casually, as if she hadn’t seen him; as if she weren’t afraid.

Soon she heard the crunch of armored boots on stone. The templar overtook her.

“You’ve been avoiding me, farmgirl,” said Ser Mattis when he was close.

Arista bit the inside of her mouth to keep from giving voice to the obscenities roiling in her head. She willed her heart to beat slower. The templar grabbed the long black braid that hung down her back and yanked, jerking her head backward and upsetting her footing. Her teeth cut into her cheek and she tasted blood.

“Have you grown tired of our arrangement?” He held her close to him by her hair, using his height to full advantage. He was close enough that she could smell the lyrium on his breath. Fully charged, as he was, magic would be useless against him.

“I have paid enough for your silence,” said Arista.

“Have you now?” He let her go and gestured as though he were going to head back to town. “Then I suppose I have been silent long enough. Perhaps Revered Mother will have me escort your sister to the tower myself. She’s developing nicely, your sister.” He cupped his hands lewdly over his breastplate. “Prettier than you already.”

Static crackled between Arista’s fingers and she balled her hands into fists despite the sting. Calm. Control. If she exposed herself to him, he would have twice as much power over her.

“What do you want?”

He laughed smugly and pinched her chin between his thumb and forefinger. “You know what I want.”

Arista hadn’t exactly been a Chantry Sister before Ser Mattis. During the first summer the Hawkes had spent in Lothering, Arista had fallen ass over teakettle for a merchant’s son with the most marvelous red hair and that had gotten well into the heavy petting stages before his caravan left for Redcliffe. The next winter Father had helped a young elf escape from the circle to a Dalish clan camped in the Brecilian Forest. Mother had caught them with his hands under Arista’s dress and it was a wonder that Arista had not died of embarrassment. Neither of those innocent teenage affairs had prepared her for the rough, thoughtless, repugnant way Ser Mattis treated her. How he had polluted her.

Six times. She had tried not to count them but she just couldn’t stop herself from keeping a catalogue of each violation. Every time it happened she told herself it would be the last. She would stay out of his sight and eventually he would be transferred out of Lothering--the Chantry did not like leaving unmarried templars in any one place for too long. Despite her vigilance and near complete avoidance of the town he just kept finding her. And the longer it went on, the more impossible any solution seemed.

This time, however, she spotted the knife.

It had been carelessly placed in the wrong holster on his belt. A flash of sunlight caught it by the gilded handle as she followed Ser Mattis back down the steps of the Imperial Highway. Her eyes kept falling to it as they made their way through the muddy bank of the creek and into the woods toward his favorite rendezvous: the abandoned barn. She imagined herself deftly plucking it from his belt and shoving it into the space between his breastplate and pauldron, right into his lung.

Distracted by that fantasy, she barely noticed whatever foul thing he was saying on the way. Something about an escapee from Kinloch Hold who had, no doubt, been horrifically abused by the templars sent to find him.

The barn was a popular spot for unlawful conspiracy of all kinds due to its convenient proximity to town and the fact that it was totally obscured by a thick knot of oak and pine. One handsome oak had actually begun growing into the blackened wall of the place, living wood slowly absorbing the dead. The inside was littered with empty bottles and other detritus. A couple of makeshift pallets made of rags and straw sat in one corner and the remains of a hundred bonfires piled up in the middle of the space, just below the portion of the roof that had long succumbed to rot.

Ser Mattis immediately began unbuckling his armor and Arista saw her opportunity.

“Most girls can’t keep their hands off a man in armor,” he mused while he pulled the heavy breastplate over his head. While his eyes were covered, Arista snatched the knife from its precarious seat and stuffed it into her boot. “And here you run and hide like a little idiot,” he continued, completely oblivious. “This is the best you can hope for, farmgirl. You aren’t special.”

The knife was sharp. It had cut straight through Arista’s stocking and nicked her shin. Good. Her heart was fit to burst, it was beating so hard.

“You are tight, though,” Ser Mattis growled. He grabbed her, pulled her to him so that he was pressed up against her back. One hand pawed at her crotch while the other reached up her shirt, grasping at her chest. He laughed at the pounding he felt there. “Are you scared, little bird?”

Arista tasted bile.

He pushed her torso forward, pulled down her breeches and rubbed himself against her; preparing. She concentrated on the small pain in her leg where his knife had cut her. She imagined the arc she would make with that knife, prayed for the courage to go through with that action.

“You used to wriggle more.” he slapped her on the ass, hard enough to elicit an involuntary cry. “Next time I think I’ll take your sister. I’ll bet she’s even tighter.”

As though that was all the permission she needed, she made her move. It was the kind of clean, single motion that Father would have been happy to see when Arista and Carver were practicing their swordwork. She captured the hilt in her fingers and the knife became an extension of her arm. That single apparatus curved upward while her left foot made a graceful circle and her body pivoted in turn: knees, hips, chest, shoulders. Up, around and through.

Metal contacted skin with a soft whisper. The effect was immediate. A thick, bright, red line appeared along his neck. He made a horrible gurgling noise and reached up, pointlessly, as the blood began to pour in pulses out of his throat. He pawed weakly at Arista as he collapsed onto the ground, convulsing.

What now?

*

The entire ordeal had probably taken less than an hour. Bright daylight beamed into the old barn, filtered through the dark red leaves that remained on the branches of the big oaks outside. The whole gory scene was illuminated in stark detail.

Arista couldn’t wait until dark. The place smelled sickeningly of blood, piss, and lyrium, not to mention her own vomit. Even if she could stand to stay there, there was no way to be certain no one knew to come looking there for the templar. Leaving meant trekking through at least four miles of sparse woods and occupied homesteads while covered in blood, though. And once she got home?

There wasn’t much choice. Arista returned the knife to its new home in her boot, carefully this time, pulled up her breeches and stepped gingerly around the expanding red pool.

It took a long time to get home. She reached the creek and tried, futilely, to rinse the blood from her shirt. Now she was cold and wet and still looked like she had been working for the butcher all morning. She had to cross the creek to avoid a woodcutter and then, several miles later, she crossed it again to keep away from a hunting party. Then she came too close to town and had to cut a winding path through a berry orchard, hunched over to stay hidden in the bushes.

By the time the Hawke house was in view, the sun was low and everything was warmly tinted with orange light. The Hawkes would be sitting down to supper soon, if they weren’t already, and Mother would be furious with worry.

Arista noisily stepped through a pile of fallen leaves to cross from the treeline onto the path that led to her family’s field. She was so preoccupied, wondering how she would get into the house unnoticed, that she didn’t even check to see that she was alone on the road.

“Arista!”

Shit. Father.

Arista’s feet froze in place. She looked over her shoulder, trying to keep the gory side of her tunic out of view, knowing it was only a matter of time. Father was wearing his good coat but had none of his gear. He had probably just left to look for Arista in town.

“Maker’s breath, girl, your mother is having kittens.” He kept walking toward her and her legs kept not working. She felt like a rabbit, staring down a mabari. “You were supposed to do the laundry today. Where have you--Maker!” He finally saw the blood on her and twisted her sharply toward him by the shoulders. “Arista, my baby girl, what happened? Are you alright?”

She swallowed but couldn’t find the voice to answer him. He grabbed her face with both hands, checking her eyes. He thinks I’m possessed, she realized with all new horror.

“You haven’t summoned anything, sweetling?” His voice sounded desperate. “It’s just you in there?”

Arista suddenly felt very cold. She shivered hard and her unsteady knees threatened to give out. She managed to nod her head. Her father gathered her tightly in his arms and sighed, then began to pat her down, looking for any sign of injury.

“Who did this--” he started, before determining that she was unhurt. “Is any of this blood yours?”

The ocean of tears the didn’t even realize she was holding back finally broke through. She collapsed into her father, sobbing breathlessly like a child, chest heaving.

“Breathe, sweetling,” Father cooed, patting her tangled hair. “Tell me what happened.”

She took a deep breath and tried to compose herself. “Ser--” she couldn’t say his name. “A templar,” she finally started. “A templar found out about Bethany. It was my fault.”

“How?”

“It was all my fault, Papa. I knew I was making her angry and I just kept pushing.”

“Start at the beginning.”

“We were shopping for cloth for Bethany’s birthday dress and everything was so expensive and we were both so frustrated and I said something I shouldn’t have. She got so angry she set a bolt of silk on fire.”

It was cathartic just to let the story come out; Arista had kept it secret for so long. She should have told Father about it ages ago, but whenever she recalled the moment, she could hear Mother scolding her. Bethany’s just a child, Arista. You’re supposed to be the responsible one! How could you have said something like that to her? You had to know that you would set her off. This is on your head, girl!

“She didn’t mean to,” Arista continued. “I don’t even remember what I said, but it was impulsive and unkind and I should never have goaded her on. But then I put the fire out and everything seemed to be fine. I didn’t think anyone had seen. The merchant even gave us a discount on the bolt because it was damaged. But--but he saw.”

“This templar.”

The memory was still vivid.

*

“That little brat should be locked up in the Circle,” he says, standing over us menacingly.

I pull Bethany close. “I don’t have any idea what you’re talking about, Ser.”

“Sure you don’t. What’s a little fire here and there? Summer frost. Lightning out of a clear blue sky.” He smiles hungrily.

“If you have nothing better to do than make baseless accusations, we’ll be on our way.”

I move to leave but he grabs me by the shoulder. I’m strong for my size, but he is much larger and much stronger.

“I do have better things to do, in fact. You see, in this uniform, I’m duty bound to round up little witchlets and send them off to live in the tower. Out of uniform, I couldn’t care less if she burns your house down with your whole blighted family inside.” He leans in even closer and hisses into my ear. “So maybe a pretty little farmgirl gets me out of uniform. You catch me?”

My mind races. I’m not prepared to fight a fully armored templar, and it would only reveal that I’m a mage as well. We could just go home and tell Father. And then probably have to leave town. Again. I’m almost seventeen; I’m not a child anymore. I can handle this myself. I can protect my family.

“Bets,” I pat Bethany on the arm in what I hope is an encouraging way. “Go home and show Mother your pretty cloth. I’ll be back soon.”

“But, Riss--”

“No need to mention this, right? Don’t want to distract her from her sewing.” We exchange several meaningful glances before Bethany finally heads down the road.

“Smart for a peasant, aren’t you,” Ser Mattis barks and slaps me hard on the rear.

*

Arista looked away from her father again. She couldn’t make herself tell it just as it happened, no matter how clearly she recalled it. “He followed us out of town and stopped us on the road. He said he’d have Bethany sent to the Circle unless I… if I didn’t… do things for him.”

Father seemed to follow along even without the details. His eyes flashed with rage but when he spoke his voice remained calm and measured. “The twins’ birthday was months ago, Arista. Why are you covered in blood now?”

“I thought if I--I thought that he would leave us alone. After that time. But he kept finding me.”

He held her apart from him with his hands on her shoulders. “He’s not going to find you again, is he?” She shook her head and his expression softened into something that might have indicated pride. “Good,” he said darkly, bringing her back into him for a tight hug.

He kept an arm around her shoulders as they walked the rest of the way to the house. Warm light and marvelous smells emanated from it. Freshly baked bread and cooked meat. Arista wasn’t sure she would ever be hungry again.

Father instructed her to stay outside, by the well. She could rinse her hair and hands while he went inside to get her a fresh shirt and make excuses for her. After a moment she could hear conversation inside, but not well enough to understand what they were saying. She wondered what sort of story Father was telling them. Judging by the tones of their voices, it couldn’t possibly have been the truth.

Several minutes later, Father reappeared with a clean shirt, a coat, and two crystal-topped staves. She regarded the latter with some excitement, getting to use one of Father’s staves was a rare treat. When Arista had changed into the new shirt and coat, he handed her the simpler of the two and she clutched it like a precious artifact, reveling in the way it focused her connection to the Fade.

“We’re going to clean up together, you and I,” said Father exactly as though he were about to give a lesson in spellcasting or fighting. “If you must defend yourself physically, it is best to do so thoroughly. Never leave a witness, sweetling, and never leave a trail.” He indicated that she should follow him as he began to head down the trail. “Oh, and I told your mother that you took down a deer that was too heavy for you to carry, so do keep an eye open for something we can bring home.”

Chapter Text

He woke up missing Kirkwall. There had been a riot in the Foundry District the night before he had left, leading to a massive fire that killed several workers. In response to that tragedy, the Madam at the Blooming Rose had run a special on redheads. Kirkwall had character, that’s why.

Cumberland was too easy to get around to ever develop character. The streets were too straight, too wide, and too well marked. Everything had been built into a neat, predictable grid and the people milled about the squares they belonged in like neat, predictable people. Even the guards looked bored.

Hey, what if a Cumberland City Guardsman took a job as a bouncer for a Kirkwall brothel? There’s a story--

Nope.

Yellow skin. Wet Cough. The smell of piss and old booze. Every time he had a new idea it was flooded out by the memories. He remembered her sick in her bed, begging to know how the story ended. And he would come up with another adventure so it never had to end. He had had the stupid, selfish idea that sheer curiosity might keep her around for another day. Another day full of pain and misery. All he did was make sure she would never know how it ended. Now nobody would.

No, Varric Tethras the Author had burned away with that final, unfinished manuscript and he wasn’t spending a small fortune at the most expensive inn in Nevarra to linger on what had or could have been.

Varric Tethras the Businessman was in Nevarra to determine once and for all if his damned repeating crossbow would ever work. Taking a room at The Diamond Lass had just been something to check off of his bucket list.

The Diamond Lass was Cumberland’s sole redeeming feature, a place that took luxury to the point of absurdity. Whatever enchanter they employed to keep the bar stocked with frost runes could probably purchase an estate in Hightown every month if they were paying him fair wages. Every room came with a tub that filled with hot water just by turning a lever. The mattresses were stuffed with wyvern down--or something that was soft enough that the proprietor could claim it was wyvern down without being brought before a magistrate by litigious Orlesians.

He peeled himself out of the absurdly soft bed. He dressed, washed, and packed his satchel full of the designs he had drawn up with Gerav. Gerav’s latest worthless prototype got tossed on top. Varric pulled the letter out from where it had been wedged into the trigger.

Varric,

This one is close, I know it. You can feel it working when you pull the lever. Best as I can tell, the problem is in the gears. I can’t make them small enough.

You hear about that smith in Cumberland? Something Davri. It’s either Helga or Bianca, but I’m sure about the Davri bit. Word is, she’s the best damn smith living. Built some kind of planting machine that puts seeds in the ground at just the right depth. Making some fiddly little gears will be nothing for this girl.

I can’t talk to her because the Guild has her under contract but you can just say it’s a Guild project, right? Just show her the blueprint and have her make something about a third of the size.

This time it’s going to work!

--Gerav

This was Gerav’s fourteenth prototype, and Varric was beginning to think the man had no idea what he was talking about. Smaller gears? Could he be serious?

But Gerav wasn’t the only one raving about Bianca Davri. Her seed mill had started an agricultural revolution; there were villages that were going to survive the winter because of her. The Merchants’ Guild was talking about selecting a Deshyr from house Davri, when no new house had been eligible in decades. If she was willing to look at the crossbow design, she could probably come up with a better answer for making it work than it needs smaller gears.

Number 48 Rue Galet was the place he was looking for. He didn’t even bother asking how to find it as he left the inn early that morning. There was no doubt in Varric’s mind that Rue Galet would lead him directly to number 48 without ever turning into a dead alley or having its name changed. Fucking Cumberland.

The buildings became more austere the further he got from the district gates. Things also got a lot more dwarfy. Statues of the Paragons lined every square, complete with plaques full of pleas to the ancestors and lamentations for having left the Stone. Varric wondered just how many dwarves there had ever set foot in Orzammar. What had the Maker-damned Stone ever done for them other than dictate who would be working over a fire and who would be working over a glass of wine generations later?

The door to number 48 was slightly open and acrid smoke was pouring out if it. It was one of the grubbier buildings in the square, small for a workshop, but it was the place. A sign in the shape of a gear hung over the door indicating that it was the entrance to Davri Machineworks.

Varric was sweating after three steps inside the door. Hot, sooty air burned his nose and made his eyes water. He was seriously considering abandoning the whole endeavor and getting another rune-chilled drink at the Lass when he caught sight of her through the haze.

A tiny blond ponytail stuck out of a mask with round, reflective eyes. The mask and thick leather apron obscured any sense of gender or body shape. If he hadn’t known the smith was a “she” he would never have guessed it on seeing her in all that protective gear. She lifted a glowing object in a giant set of calipers and turned to immerse it in the cooling tank, displaying a particularly shapely ass.

Varric drew his eyes upward right away and kept himself from smiling too broadly. “Hey, ah, sorry to bother you.” The macabre mask with its flashing eye plates turned to face him. “Are you Bianca Davri?”

She pulled off the mask, revealing a pleasant heart-shaped face, glistening with sweat and splattered with freckles. Dark eyes regarded him coolly. “Who wants to know?”

He bent into a short bow. “Varric Tethras. Businessman. Rogue.” With the last title, he rose and flashed her a grin. She raised an eyebrow in return. “My friend Gerav said you might be able to help me with a little project.”

“Well, I guess I really have made it if Carta nail-pounders are throwing my name around.”

“We have a design here, and he’s made some prototypes, but we can’t seem to make it work. You came highly recommended—and not just from Gerav.”

“Of course I did,” she said with no hint of boasting. “I’m almost certainly the best smith above ground.”

“And legends will tell of your modesty, no doubt,” Varric teased. Her confidence was so genuine, so matter-of-fact, that he probably would have believed her even if her name wasn’t on the lips of every surface dwarf south of Tevinter.

“There’s a brothel down the street if you’re looking for a girl who’ll fawn when you compliment her,” said Bianca as she reached back to untie her leather apron. “If you want someone to make this design of yours work—well, if I can’t do it, it can’t be done.”

She hung the apron over a peg on the wall and Varric had to set his face in the position he usually reserved for sensitive business deals and Wicked Grace. Bianca Davri was built like a lonely man’s drawing of a woman, with a slim waist and copious bosom. If she was half as cunning as she was confident, Varric was about to lose a lot of money. He might have fun doing it, though.

“So,” she said, raising an eyebrow at him impatiently, “let’s see it.”

He chuckled as he pulled the blueprints out of their case and spread them out on the desk, handling the vellum reverently. This thing had been in the back of his thoughts for years. Since Mother had died and the words had stopped flowing it had become an obsession, the only thing that could distract him from the stresses of his crumbling family.

Varric wasn’t a craftsman by any definition of the word, but he knew enough to get by. He could fix his own crossbow when it got jammed and he had a decent mind for making traps. It was while he was putting together a pressure trap that he got the idea for the repeating crossbow. No more running from a fight because you didn’t have the time to reload, a simple cranking mechanism could reload for you in a second. Let the Coterie try to intimidate him with something like that slung over his shoulder.

Clearly it wasn’t as simple as he had thought. He had broken six standard crossbows trying to get the mechanism to work. So he had gone to Gerav, who had a decent reputation as a tinkerer and, being Carta, knew a thing or two about keeping his mouth shut.

“It’s a crossbow,” Bianca said flatly. Varric was about to correct her when her face lit up. “Oh, I see! You have a loading mechanism here. That’s an interesting idea. Too bad it will never work.”

“Are you saying it can’t be done?”

“It can definitely be done, just not like this,” she said, pointing to a more complicated section of the blueprint. She circled that section and then another with increasing enthusiasm. She looked at Varric and smiled. Her face was radiant with excitement and he was certain he had come to the right girl. “Let me guess, your prototypes shoot weakly when they aren’t breaking bolts.” He nodded. “You need something to regulate tension here.”

Bianca rounded the table so she was standing right next to Varric. She started making notes on the blueprint and explaining things so quickly he had no chance of keeping up. He found himself distracted by the firm curve of her muscular arms and the softer one where her back met her legs.

Suddenly she went quiet and he swung his head back around to her face.

“You said Tethras, right?” she asked, looking nervous. “You’re with the Merchants’ Guild?”

“Princess, back in Kirkwall I am the Merchants’ Guild,” Varric said boastfully before thinking better of it. “My brother is a Deshyr, anyway. I go to some of the parties, but I usually skip the meetings.”

She studied him for a moment. “I’ll do it.”

“I know about your contract,” he admitted, “would the answer have been different if I wasn’t in the Guild?”

“The price would have been different.” She smiled again, slyly this time. Damn, she was beautiful. “Come back tomorrow, I’ll have a new blueprint and an invoice for you.”

“I’ll come back tonight if you’ll join me for dinner,” said Varric, giving her his most roguish grin.

She looked him over from top to bottom. “Come back tomorrow. We can talk cost and dinner.”

Varric had a bottle of the finest whiskey he could find sent to Gerav that night.

*

It worked.

After her, it was probably the most beautiful thing in Thedas. The heft of it in his arms and the sounds it made as he worked it; it was transcendent. And so was Bianca.

Varric had considered himself the consummate bachelor. Bartrand was the one carrying the family name and Varric had been happy to let him. Being the playboy younger brother of a wealthy noble house had seemed like the best life he could possibly have been given, all other hardships considered. That was before.

A few months was all it had taken for him to go from being certain he couldn’t live with anyone to being certain he couldn’t live without Bianca. He loved her cruel wit, her dark temper, the way laughter got to her eyes first, and how she was always mentally fifteen steps ahead of everyone else. Nothing else could have made him return to Cumberland again and again.

He woke up in his silken suite at the Diamond Lass with his legs tangled up in hers. Her head rested on his arm and her hair was even softer than those ridiculously expensive sheets. He pushed it out of her face so that he could examine the fullness of her lips, the dark line of her eyelashes. He followed the arc of her body, caressing the ample curve of her breast and reveling in the internal warmth he felt when her nipple firmed visibly under the covers.

Her eyelashes fluttered. “Hmmm.”

Varric curled up the arm she was laying on, bringing her lips against his.

“Good morning, Princess.”

She shifted a thigh gently into the vicinity of his groin. “Well,” she said with a smirk, “good morning to you, too.”

“Huh,” he kissed her again. “How did that get there?”

“I have the impression you might be attracted to me, Tethras.”

“Nothing gets by you, I see.” Varric slid his arm out and pushed himself over her, kissing her on the neck, along the hard line of her clavicle.

“Varric,” said Bianca, suddenly very solemn, “you can’t manufacture that crossbow for sale.”

He rested his head on the crest of her ribcage. “Is that really what’s on your mind right now?”

“I’m serious,” she pulled herself out from under him and sat up on crossed legs. “That thing can shoot thirty bolts per minute with better accuracy with anything else on the market. Imagine if the Carta or the Coterie got hold of ten or twenty of those. Think about the next war, with untrained kids on both sides carrying repeating crossbows.”

“Think about the edge this could give us against the darkspawn in the Deep Roads. We could take back the thaigs.”

“You can’t control who gets to use the crossbow or what they use it for. When that design gets out, it’ll be carnage. We ought to destroy the one we made--I’ll be contractually bound to make and sell them if the Guild ever finds out I built it.” She pulled her knees up to her chest. “I won’t do it, Varric. I don’t want to be involved in the violence that thing could unleash.”

She looked at him with wide, sincere eyes. Her face was pink with emotion. He wondered how long she had been holding this back. “I know that crossbow was important to you. I’m sorry.”

Varric studied her face. She had the same determined look she sometimes had when she was turning screws on a poorly functioning mechanism. There would be no changing her mind and, even worse, she was probably right.

Everything had gone to shit since his mother had died. Bartrand had become so insufferable that Varric had moved out of the Tethras estate and into a suite at his favorite Lowtown tavern. It was only a matter of time before Raella Dace officially broke off her engagement with Bartrand, which would mean a lot of social damage control in the Merchants’ Guild that would likely fall on Varric’s shoulders. Stories were still being drowned out by memories of his mother on her deathbed and the repeating crossbow was not the first of his business ventures to fall completely apart. Despite all that, Varric was happier than he had ever been.

“Alright, we won’t manufacture the crossbow.”

“Wait, really? You’re not upset?” She loosened her grip on her knees and looked at him with wide eyes.

“Bianca, I need you a hell of a lot more than I need the money.”

She flashed him that smile that could light up the entire district. “I love you too, Varric.”

Chapter Text

By the time he was sixteen, Carver was easily the best swordsman in Lothering. He was probably one of the top ten in Ferelden but he would never know. Arista was the only one who ever got to see the full force of his skill. Even when she fought dirty—and she always fought dirty—she could no longer hope to best him.

It wasn’t any wonder. What else did Carver have? He learned his mathematics and history dutifully enough. He did his chores with little complaint, as long as Mother was in earshot. He was an inspired baker, in fact, and made all the household bread. The sword was what really defined him, though. Building his strength and developing his technique was clearly what made him feel alive.

“You’re wasted here,” Arista finally admitted one day. She had attempted a quick hit on an opening he had made, but it turned out to be a feint. He brought his practice weapon down hard and fast and her own went flying out of her hand.

He received the compliment bashfully, making her realize with a pang just how little encouragement he received for his hard work. Father worried about Carver getting cocky, but wasn’t it just as bad if he was lacking confidence?

“It’s not like I can go anywhere else,” he grumbled.

An idea had been festering in Arista’s mind since she had returned from the last job she and Father had done in the capital. “You could go to Denerim,” she said. “There’s a new king, now. He’s young and ambitious. They say he’ll build an army to put legends to shame.”

Carver sighed, but there was definitely a new light in his eyes. “Father would never allow it. Maker forbid I might bring glory to the name Hawke.” He handed her the practice sword she had dropped. “Let’s see if I can do that when you know it’s coming.”

“You don't have to give them your real name, you know.”

She took up the tight bundle of sticks and dropped into combat stance. They danced around each other for a few moments, smacking the weapons together noncommittally. He opened up his right flank again and she countered with a feint of her own, pulling her hit short before it came in contact with him and performing a little pirouette in hopes of catching his left shoulder while he was still swung to the right. He caught her foot in the middle of the pivot, sending her tumbling onto her rear with a grunt. As he brought his weapon down to pantomime chopping her head off, she pulled the very real knife from her boot and brought it swiftly around to smack the flat of it against his upper thigh.

“The apostate was vanquished, but not before she took her revenge,” Arista joked. “Your poor future wife.”

“Cheat.”

Everyone cheats when life hangs in the balance,” Arista quoted their father. “We should head back. I promised Bethany I’d help her with force spells today.” She stood up gingerly. “Maybe she can heal this pain in my ass while we’re at it.”

Carver looked pensive as he gathered up the gear they had brought with them. “Thanks,” he said finally.

“For what?”

“You’re the only one who has any faith in me.”

“That isn’t true, I have just as little faith in you as everyone else,” she teased. He sighed and gave her a disgusted scowl. “We all have faith in you, Carver. You’re mother’s golden boy and Father only holds back because he doesn’t want you to do anything foolhardy. If he saw how talented you are—“

“Father doesn’t even see me,” he said bitterly.

It wasn’t something she could easily deny. Their father had shown clear preference for his daughters as soon as they had shown magical ability. Since Arista had started working with him, it must have looked like she was the favorite. They couldn’t see his face when he had to ask her to kill for him or charm a mark. He didn’t take her with him because she was his favorite, he took her because she was already broken.

“I’ll talk to him about Denerim, if you like,” she said after a long silence. They were nearly home already.

“Eager to get rid of me?”

“Well, you do smell pretty bad.”

*

Mother was in a frenzy when they entered the house. A burning smell was wafting from the kitchen and every curtain and rug had been bundled up by the door. Bethany was on hands and knees scrubbing the floor.

“Andraste preserve me, where have you two been?” Mother rushed them like a guard dog. “No matter,” she continued before they could respond, “grab a rug or a curtain and beat it. The house must be spotless and then you,” she clutched Arista’s arm, “are to take a bath and put on your best dress. Understood? Well, get to it!”

There was no questioning Mother when she got like that. The younger Hawkes swept and scrubbed and shook everything until the house was sparkling. When every surface gleamed, Mother set Carver to making bread and shooed both Arista and Bethany into a room with a steaming tub. Finally, Arista was able to get some of the story from Bethany: They were expecting Lady Ravelle and her son for dinner and Mother was desperate to impress them, for some reason.

“She’s trying to marry you off,” said Bethany while she combed out Arista’s long hair.

If she hadn’t been sitting in the tub, she would have fallen on her ass—again. “She’s what!?”

“You’re twenty-one, Rissa. Don’t you want to get married?”

Arista hadn’t ever thought about it, but now that she was forced to think about it, the answer was emphatically clear. “Andraste’s inflamed asshole, no. Why would I want to do such a thing?”

Bethany giggled at her blasphemy. “Mother will dose your stew with laxatives if she hears you talking like that. Or,” her voice dropped to a conspiratorial tone, “if she finds out you’ve been meeting with that elf in the Inn.”

Arista twisted around and her hair, stuck in Bethany’s comb, was pulled very sharply. “How do you even know about that?”

“I pay attention,” she said smugly. “He’s very handsome. Is that why you don’t want to get married? Are you in love with him?”

Dear, sweet Bethany. “Jaren is fun. We have a tumble when he passes through town and when Father and I run into him on a job he pretends not to know my name. I’m not sure I’m the sort of girl who falls in love.” Time to change the subject. “Do you want to get married?”

“Of course,” Bethany said a little too quickly. “I mean, someday. I’ll marry someone I really love. Someone who can keep me safe,” she suddenly sounded sad, “then you and Carver can have your own lives.”

Arista grabbed one of Bethany’s hands and squeezed. “You’ll have so many suitors, I’ll have to schedule interviews. But you won’t ever be rid of me, Bets. I’ll always take care of you.”

Bethany took a turn in the tub while Arista dried off and put on her best dress. Well, she tried to put on her best dress. She hadn’t had to wear it in nearly three years and it had to be let out in the bust and hips. Mother took an embarrassing sort of pleasure in having to stitch up the garment in a rush, making a joke about Arista being a late bloomer.

“You would think I had two sons, but maybe that’s what I get for naming you after my father. We never would have known what a lovely woman you’ve become, the way you dress,” Mother continued teasing.

Bethany, of course, looked resplendent and womanly in her simple blue cotton. Mother made her put a shawl on to cover her generous cleavage. Wouldn’t want to take attention off of the elder Hawke daughter. Bethany would have had to put a sack over her head for Arista to truly stand out.

The Hawke house looked like a proper high-class home when everything was clean and the good china was laid out. New candles burned in their polished copper stands. Carver’s fragrant herbed bread steamed on the table while a hunk of mutton finished roasting on a spit over the fire. The Hawke children were more of a mixed bag. Bethany was beautiful, Arista was uncomfortable, and Carver was sulking.

Lady Matrina Ravelle was the daughter of a Bann, apparently, and her son Perrin had been fostered by the Teyrn of Highever until very recently. Within minutes of their arrival, the Hawkes were all intimately aware that he had been fostered in Highever because Lady Ravelle had announced it at least thirty times. They were also very aware that he was to be named an heir to the Bannorn if he married before his cousin, which explained why the Ravelles were so keen to take a gamble on the Hawkes. When she wasn’t talking about her son’s prospects, Lady Ravelle was complaining about Lothering. The food was inedible, the weather was terrible, the company was barbaric.

Lord Perrin was a weak-looking lad of roughly nineteen years with a long nose, kind grey eyes, and flat, flaxen hair. He said little but he did have the decency to look embarrassed by his mother’s chattering. Arista had no intention of marrying him, but she did not immediately hate him.

“I hear Teyrn Cousland is fond of hunting. Were you able to join him, Lord Perrin?” Arista posed the question just to give the poor guy a chance to say something for himself.

He lit up. “Oh yes, all of the Couslands are exceptional hunters. Even Lady Briony, the Teyrn’s daughter. She’s a right terror with a bow,” he said reverently. His mother gave him a warning glance and his face turned crimson. “And, um, they raise fine dogs as well. I noticed you have a mabari pup of your own.”

Arista, relieved that the boy was infatuated with someone else a hundred miles away, was about to tell Perrin all about their new puppy when there was a knock at the door.

“Who could--” Mother started.

“I’ll get it,” Arista leapt up and darted away from the table. She reached down and felt the familiar shape of her knife, laced to her calf while she wore slippers instead of boots, through the green satin of her skirt. Then she opened the door.

“Little Hawke,” the elf at the door said breathlessly. The name was one only someone who worked with Father would use, and the elf at the door was Needle, one of Father’s most trusted associates. She was sweating and red to her ear tips. “You must come quickly, I couldn’t get him up the trail.”

The only him it could be was Father. Without looking back, without even thinking about the dinner or the fact that they had guests, Arista rushed out the door. Needle led her down the path all the way to where it opened to the Lothering road, where a large bundle lay in a makeshift litter.

“Is he injured? Did you carry him all this way?”

“He fought with an assassin, but I saw no injury. It is some sort of illness. He lost his footing about five miles outside of town, I dragged him as far as I could, My Lady.”

“Oh, Needle,” Arista almost hugged her.

“He would have done the same for me.”

Arista crouched over the litter. Father was pale and sweating, unconscious but breathing. She rested the inside of her wrist over his forehead, just like Mother would when one of the children were sick. He was burning up with fever. Disregarding the finery she was dressed in, Arista wrapped her arms around the posts of the litter and pulled her father back toward the house.

“You’ll have a hot meal and a soft bed if you come back with me,” she said to Needle. “It’s the least I can offer.” The elf looked like she was going to protest, but she turned to examine her friend in the litter and nodded.

Arista pulled the litter into the house noisily, with Needle right behind. Lady Ravelle gasped and fanned herself with her hand while everyone else jumped up to see what was happening.

“Malcolm!” cried mother.

“He’s ill,” said Arista, lowering the poles of the litter to the floor. “Carver, help me get him into bed. Bethany, bring some fresh water from the well. Mother,” she sighed and glanced over at the table, “would you take care of our audience?”

“Most irregular,” Arista heard Lady Ravelle say while she and Carver hefted their father off of the ground. “What sort of work did you say your husband did, Leandra?”

They laid him in his bed as gently as possible. He was regaining consciousness, moaning incoherently. Arista removed his coat and loosened the collar of his shirt. Bethany appeared with a bucket of cool water and Arista soaked a rag in it to dab on Father’s face and chest. She found the source of his ailment when she laid a hand on his arm and he convulsed with pain. Taking up her knife, she cut open the sleeve of his shirt. There was a scratch there, on his arm, only an inch long but blackened, hot and smelling strongly of corruption.

Poison.

“There is no saving his arm,” Arista said quietly. She cut away the rest of his shirt. Dark lines snaked up his arm and over his shoulder onto his chest. She swallowed and stepped back. For a moment she thought she might collapse, or burst into tears, or lose her mind altogether. There was no saving him at all.

She looked at her sister, then her mother. Both of their faces were white and stricken as they fussed over Father, assuring each other that he would be fine. She looked at Carver, who stood with his arms crossed, stiff against a wall with a blank, wide-eyed expression. Father had protected all of them from the realities of his work, the effort it took to keep them all together. He had given them all the luxury of falling apart. Except for Arista.

“Little Hawke, will you speak to me?” Needle whispered from over Arista’s shoulder. They stepped into the hallway and the elf continued. “I didn’t know he was cut. If I had seen the injury--”

“He would have told you if there was something that could have been done,” Arista replied in a cold, flat voice she barely recognized.

“I--I would take my leave. I must learn what I can about our assailant.”

Revenge. Father would have said revenge was the resort of the weak; a path to possession. It was the only sort of closure Arista could afford. “Let me know what you find.”

*

Father was in and out of consciousness for several days. Bethany cast healing spells on him as often as she could and she and Mother both worked around the clock to keep him comfortable.

Arista and Carver worked the field and cared for the animals. Then they sparred until they were exhausted. These were not the friendly practice fights they were used to. Both of them were powered by grief and wholly merciless. Every bout ended in bruises and many of them ended with the siblings shouting at each other. When the fights got too real, Arista would end the night in the tavern with too many cups of ale.

She was four cups in when Needle found her.

“Hawke I--are you drunk?”

“Psh, no,” Arista started a little too enthusiastically. “Barely. A little, yes.”

The elf sighed. “No one could blame you, but I rather hope my news will sober you up.”

“Lay it on me, beautiful.”

Needle gave her a disapproving look. “The organization Lord Hawke was acting against call themselves the Tempest Company. They had intercepted a shipment meant for The White Hand and we were sent to get it back.”

“So they sent an assassin to retaliate.”

“Yes.”

“And you have located this assassin?”

Needle looked scandalized. She unrolled a bundle of papers, each full of names, locations, notes about appearance and preferences. Fourteen people in all. “I have located the Tempest Company. We can eradicate them.”

*

As far as last words go, Father’s were appropriately sage. During his final hours of sanity, he told everyone he loved them and began a string of paternal guidance that was eventually twisted and lost to the ravages of fever. Then he was gone.

Arista’s were the only dry eyes as the family made their procession to the Chantry. She couldn’t shake a dark feeling of resentment. He had gone off without her and gotten himself killed. He had left her with the crushing responsibility of holding the family together in the face of poverty, apostasy and their own special brand of dysfunction. She recited names from Needle’s list as they marched.

A surprising number of people came to see him off. The people of Lothering came to see a neighbor who may have been secretive but was always willing to help when a new roof needed to be put up; who brought around food in the winter if the crop had been poor; who had a special kind of way with sick animals. Associates from all over Ferelden came, including a Grey Warden who did not introduce himself. Even Surette, the leader of The White Hand, was there, flanked by Qunari bodyguards. Needle and Jaren the Locksmith stood in the shadows with hoods covering their pointed ears while four Dalish hunters displayed their ears and faces proudly, as though daring someone to ask why they were there.

The congregation arrived at the Chantry in silence. Arista and Carver stretched sore fingers as six Sisters in white veils took over the burden of carrying the body. Mother wailed as he was taken away and Bethany held her tight. The Sisters performed their ritual cleaning and the Revered Mother said a number of words that were probably supposed to be comforting. Arista started the list over again in her head.

Nothing was real until they came to the pyre and then everything was horrifically real. Arista could see every speck on every stick laid below him, she smelled the sooty kindling and the herbed oil. Worst of all were the pallor of his skin and his utter lack of movement. No pulse. No soft tide of breath. The shell was empty and even that would be consumed by flame.

She fell to her knees.

There was a story he used to tell her about Alamarri shield maidens who would cut their hair and take the place of their brothers and fathers when they fell in battle. She took out her knife, eliciting a cry of protest from her mother behind her. With one hand, she held her braid tightly back from her neck and with the other she sliced through it.

Arista rose to her feet, dropped the silky black bundle into the fire, and walked away from the Chantry.

Chapter Text

One day, Varric met some assassins. That was how he found out about the clan war and when it suddenly became apparent that at least one of the Tethras brothers should probably be attending Merchants’ Guild meetings.

He had been having a drink with his former editor, a Coterie drudge with a violent passion for grammar who was none too pleased with the crisis of identity that had caused Varric to stop writing. She was trying to convince him to invest in her so she could break out of the Coterie and run her own smuggling operation. Varric had a lot of faith in Athenril as both an editor and a smuggler, but he was playing hard to get.

So there they were, drinking in Hightown for a change like a couple of respectable businesspeople, when assassins jumped out of the shadows spinning their daggers around and shouting, “For House Vasca!” It was all very cliche and very confusing. Varric dispatched two of them with his brilliant repeating crossbow, which they were clearly not expecting. Athenril took out the third with a dagger in the back.

“It’s been weeks since I had to kill someone before dinner,” said Athenril. “That must be your new pet,” she gestured to the crossbow, “Gerav finally came through?”

“He did,” Varric lied proudly. “I call it Bianca.”

“Bianca?”

“Long story. Inside joke. You had to be there. Etcetera.”

“Moving on, then. Who did you piss off this time?” She patted down the dwarf she had killed and, finding nothing, wiped her dagger on his shirt.

“Hell if I know,” Varric replied. His companion raised her eyebrows skeptically. “Hand to the Maker, I’ve been out of the trouble game for months.”

“And this House Vasca is...?”

“The Vascas are smiths; probably the most powerful smith caste house in the Guild. We don’t have much to do with them since they prefer legitimate business. I couldn’t tell you why they’d want to kill me.”

The purveyor of the fine establishment whose floor they had just sullied with assassin blood swooped down and insisted that they leave immediately, saying something very rude about elves. Athenril responded with an equally rude hand gesture. They were enthusiastically encouraged to leave.

“Now you know why I drink in Lowtown,” said Varric.

“Forgive me if I wanted to enjoy an ale that wasn’t cut with horse piss.” Athenril dusted herself off while she stared angrily at the door to the tavern. “This is why I’m breaking out. If Harlan gave me half the pay or a quarter of the credit I deserved, shem assholes like that wouldn’t dare cross me. Hey, now I’ve got an idea!”

“Oh, no….”

“I’ll help you resolve this little conundrum if you invest in my solo venture.”

“It’s clearly Guild business, Athenril.”

“Exactly why you need someone on the outside.”

She had a point, and he had been planning to front her the money anyway. He owed her that much for backing out of their ten novel verbal contract, not that he would be the first to admit it. “Twenty percent interest.”

“Ten.” He gave her a stern look and she read it correctly. “Fine, fifteen.”

*

Dear Messere Tethras,

Please accept our sincerest sympathies for whatever misfortune caused you to be absent at the latest Assembly of Deshyrs. We regret that we must inform you of a motion to remove your house from our fine order. The motion was made by Messere Vasca and supported by the Smith Houses. A wild claim has been made that your brother, Varric Tethras, has interfered in an irrevocable contract of marriage between House Vasca and House Davri.

Naturally, the great Noble Houses have stood behind their honorable Tethras cousins but the argument continues. Blood has been shed. In the unlikely event that this claim has any validity, we kindly request that House Tethras address the issue with House Vasca peacefully. If it is base slander Houses Helmi, Bemot, Dace and Vollney stand ready to defend against the smith upstarts.

Sincerest Regards,
Your Noble Allies in the Venerated Dwarven Merchants’ Guild

Varric read the letter for the fortieth time, hoping that this time it would make sense. Nope. He kept asking himself the same questions Bartrand had asked when he had handed the letter over to Varric: What does this mean? How did you get into this mess? What are you going to do to fix it? Bartrand was not going to like any of the answers Varric had come up with.

That had been a fun visit. The stately Tethras home in the Dwarven District had been dark and dusty. Bartrand had apparently decided servants and candles were frivolous wastes of his precious coin. He was occupying a single room in the building, full of maps with colored pins stuck in them and with a desk covered in correspondence from all over Thedas. He had beckoned Varric through the dark foyer and into that room, where he had waived the letter from the Guild nobles around angrily and told Varric to fix it or don’t bother returning to Kirkwall.

A day later, Varric was on a ship with his plan mostly in place.

“It’s beautiful!” Athenril exclaimed. The gleaming golden dome of the College of Magi had just come into view, towering over the clean whites, golds and greens of Cumberland. “You know, I’ve never been to Nevarra.”

“I’m still not sure why you’re here now,” Varric grumbled. He folded the letter and returned it to his pocket.

“And leave you to confront a horde of assassins all on your own? Besides, if things go poorly for you and your Lady Love, I want to be sure I’m there to comfort you.”

Varric pinched the bridge of his nose. It did nothing to ease the tension that had been building there over the past week. After the first assassin attack he had gone to his brother to figure out if the grudge House Vasca was harboring was personal or a family thing. Meanwhile, Athenril had weaseled the story out of some Carta boss she used to date and thus, much to Varric’s chagrin, she was firmly insinuated in the operation.

“So she’s hot, right?” Athenril asked. She had been digging for details about Bianca since they boarded the ship. “She must be, because I know she’s not rich.”

“Athenril,” said Varric warningly.

“I’m just trying to figure out why you and this Vasca guy would go through all this trouble.” She turned her back to the view and leaned against the railing. “You’re talking about taking her to Ostheim, I mean, do you know how depressing Ostheim is this time of year?”

“She’s worth the trouble.”

“Definitely hot, then.”

Ostheim was just going to be the first stop. As a major Merchants’ Guild hub it was probably the only place worse to run to than Kirkwall, but the Tethras vault was there. All Varric needed was the money to get them to the next place. Val Royeaux, maybe? Or perhaps somewhere more exotic, like Llomerynn or Minrathous. Shit, if she wanted to go to Par Vollen, he’d take her there. Screw the Merchants’ Guild and screw everyone else. They didn’t need anyone as they had each other.

Varric was first off the ship, marching out the moment the planks were in place with Athenril capering at his heels. He fought the urge to go straight to her workshop, cutting a straight path to the Diamond Lass instead.

When he had a room under his usual alias, he sent Athenril out with Bianca’s address and a message. Athenril complained about being put to work without so much as a sandwich but he barely heard her. Once she was gone all that was left was the waiting and the buzz of his thoughts.

The fact that Bianca was under a marriage contract was not at all surprising. Conservative clans like hers were always promising off their daughters to gain whatever status they could. And Dwarven women were few enough on the surface that highborn families were happy to sign their sons into the first contract they could get. It might be uncommon for those contracts to be enforced so absolutely, but Bianca was an uncommon catch.

What was surprising, what made questions bubble into Varric’s mind that he then had to shake away, was that she hadn’t told him. They had told each other every little secret--or so he thought--every guilty pleasure, every silly idea that had come to mind and she hadn’t so much as given him a hint about this. In the four years they had spent traveling back and forth over the Waking Sea, sending each other salacious letters, making desperate declarations of love and making embarrassingly sentimental plans for the future she had never thought to mention the tiny snag that was Bogden Vasca?

There’s an explanation, he assured himself. She was going to explain everything and then he was going to tell her his plan. Then: happily ever after. More or less.

It was a wonder he had not bored a hole through the floor with his pacing by the time Athenril returned with a much shorter person obscured by a hooded cloak. Bianca rushed in, letting the hood fall, and embraced Varric with her usual zeal.

“I’ll just guard the door, shall I?” said Athenril with a smirk. She made a gesture behind Bianca’s back that indicated, a bit lecherously, that she approved of Varric’s taste in women.

“What the hell are you doing here, Varric? Not that I’m disappointed to see you but it isn’t safe for you to be seen with me right now.”

“Kirkwall wasn’t much safer,” said Varric dryly. She looked confused, so at least she didn’t know about the assassins. He handed her the letter from his pocket. “On top of that, your fiance sent some friends to see me. The stabby kind of friends.”

“Shit.”

“When were you going to tell me about the marriage contract?”

She delayed her answer by taking off her coat and carefully placing it over the back of a chair. “Honestly? I wasn’t really planning to tell you.”

That was not the answer he had been expecting. Speechless, he walked over to the sofa and sat, raking a hand through his hair. She followed him, settling in close enough that he could smell the anise and clove soap she liked to use. She tucked her legs in under herself so that she loomed over him slightly.

“It’s business, Varric,” she continued. “It doesn’t have to change anything. It certainly doesn’t change the fact that I love you.”

“So you were just going to marry what’s-his-name one day and keep carrying on with me like nothing was different?”

“Nothing would be different.” She rolled her eyes at him. “Don’t pretend this isn’t a thing people do all the time.”

“It isn’t something I do.” She didn’t respond to that, so he continued. “Apparently it isn’t something your fiance does, either, since he’s working so hard to get rid of me.”

“Bogden is a pushover,” said Bianca casually. “It’s his family. They’re all very into the whole Dwarven Honor thing. This will all wash over after the wedding.”

Varric let out a bleak laugh. “The wedding. Of course. My invitation must have gotten lost in the mail.”

“I thought you agreed with me that all this tradition stuff is bullshit. We play the roles we need to play to get what we need and outside of those roles we do whatever the hell we want.”

He had said that. But he had meant the roles imposed on them by dwarven culture, and she damn well knew it.

“What I want is to share my life with you,” he confessed. “I want to see you every day; to eat and sleep next to you. I want to get into stupid fights about what color curtains to put up in the kid’s room. I can’t have any of that if you marry someone else.”

“Varric.” She grabbed his hand and held it tightly.

For a moment the room was so quiet they could hear the clock ticking. Varric could have sworn he heard Athenril shifting position just outside the door.

He scanned her face, charmingly freckled and intimidatingly clever. “Marry me instead.”

“What? What about Bogden, and the Guild?”

She let go of his hand and he leaned in to grasp her shoulder. “They’ll get over it. We’ll leave town until things settle down. Marry me.”

“And if they don’t get over it?”

“Then fuck ‘em. My brother has a ton of gold put away in Ostheim, we don’t need the Maker-damned Guild.”

“You’re very sexy when you get worked up like this.” She guided his face in for a kiss. Those hands that looked so delicate were strong and calloused but her softly bowed lips were exactly as supple as they appeared. He pushed her away before falling too deeply into her trap.

“That’s not an answer.”

“Alright.” She sighed and stretched her legs out in front of her. “I don’t want to lose you.”

That might be as close to a confirmation as he was going to get. He felt the blood return to his fingers and toes. “Meet me in the Chantry tonight. We’ll get hitched and be on a ship out of here before anyone realizes I’m not in Kirkwall.”

He kissed her and she kissed back and it seemed like everything was right with the world.

*

Things didn’t go exactly according to plan. When do they ever? The next morning, Varric found himself on a ship again. Reading a letter he had already read forty times. Again.

Varric,

You’re not the only one who can give ultimatums, so here is mine.

I love you, but I can’t choose you over the life I’ve worked so hard for. You can’t pretend that you can provide half of what is going to come from this alliance. The influence my family will gain alone is something I can’t afford to walk away from. Factor in the state-of-the-art workshop the Vascas are already building in Val Royeaux and you should begin to understand.

Here’s what I propose: You go back to Kirkwall and let things get back to normal. Once I’m married your little assassin infestation should be functionally eradicated and we can meet in secret just like we have been. When the shop in Val Royeaux is up to speed, I’ll have one built in Kirkwall so we can live at least half our days according to your charming vision of domestic bliss.

This is what I can offer you. If you love me, I beg you to consider it.

Yours always,
Bianca

PS: I won’t be able to protect you from the Vascas, so please don’t interfere any further.

“Huh,” said Athenril, reading over his shoulder. “I rather think ultimata is the more compelling plural for ultimatum, don’t you?”

Chapter Text

“Please, Madame.” The apothecary’s Orlesian accent is heavy and his voice is thick and wet just like the tears falling from his eyes. “My wife ees dead. My sister is ill. Zere is no one left to care for our children.”

With the magic of dreams they are suddenly there. Rosy cherub cheeks and big, glossy eyes. So many children, calling out for their papa.

I want to be cold but with every kill I lose sight of the goal of this stupid revenge quest and I end up feeling empty instead. Will killing another father make the loss of my own any more meaningful? I wonder if my own father ever had to beg to return to us.

The children fade away and it’s just me and him. The Templar knife is at his throat. A force spell pins him to the wall.

“How much poison did you sell to the Tempest Company?” I know by now that I am not going to kill him. I am already planning to cross this name off of Needle’s list and hope she doesn’t check my work.

He looks confused. “None! None to any Tempest Company, Madame! Eet is too complex to be made een quantity. I sold only one dose, and only to ze elf.”

I lean into the blade. Any further and I’ll draw blood. He chokes a little and another tear draws a line down his mottled cheek.

“I sold only to ze elf, I swear eet.”

YOU KNOW OF WHOM HE SPEAKS.

The scene dissolves and the Orlesian is gone but I am not alone. There is no alone in the Fade.

YOU WILL KNOW BOUNDLESS POWER. TIME AND DISTANCE WILL HAVE NO MEANING. MAKE HER PAY WITH ENDLESS TORMENT.

No.

YOU ARE SO TIRED. WE WILL HELP YOU IF YOU LET US IN. TOGETHER WE WILL SET IT RIGHT. THEN YOU CAN REST. SO TIRED.

I am tired.

“Hawke! Riss, wake up. It’s only a dream.”

Only a dream, he says.

The eerie, pondwater-green light of the Fade was burnt away by early morning sunshine bursting in through a grubby window. Jaren hovered over her, shaking her shoulder and looking at her with concern in his big green eyes. The concern faded to relief shortly after she opened her own, blinking at him.

“That must have been some nightmare. I thought you were going to tear apart my sheets.” He brushed her face with his long, nimble fingers. “Tell me about it, so it won’t come back.”

Arista smiled despite everything. Mother used to say something like that, too, when she was really little. Before magic. “I don’t think that works for mages.”

“Ah. Demons?” He kissed her sweetly. “Haven’t brought any back with you, I hope. You already fuck like a monster.”

When Arista had first met Jaren the Locksmith, he had waited until her father was out of earshot before commenting on her legs. They look strong, he had said, I bet you could strangle a man with them. And then, Would you like to try?

If a job took Jaren through Lothering, he would tie a ribbon to the fencepost by the Hawke house so she would know to look for him at the inn. She liked the secrecy. She liked having all the control.

The Locksmith was a name Jaren had earned by being the best picklock in Ferelden, but he was also actually a locksmith. He kept a workshop in the front room of his grandfather’s house in the Denerim alienage. Arista hadn’t intended to look him up while she was in Denerim, her mission there was a grim one, after all, but when she had not been able to meet Needle right away she had gone looking for a distraction. Jaren was a locksmith, a picklock, and a very good distraction.

She had hoped, in vain, that he would be distracting enough to keep her from running into demons while she slept. She was starting to get used to those visits. Father had always said that anger and sorrow turned a mage into a beacon in the Fade and she had them both in bulk.

Jaren left her to clean and dress herself, and then returned with tiny cups full of the hot, mud-colored liquid that was so popular among pirates and Rivaini traders. They slipped out of the upper window onto the ragged roof of the house and admired the Vhenadahl while sipping the bitter drink.

Arista had always felt comfortable in the Denerim alienage. Malcolm Hawke had had a number of friends there, and they always visited when they were in the city. Occasionally someone called her shem and told her to watch her back but, for the most part, the elves were much kinder both to her and to each other, than humans in similar poverty. People in the alienage looked out for one another. They shared their resources and celebrated their victories as a community.

While Jaren and Arista sat quietly drinking they observed an elderly man delivering vegetables to a woman with three little children. Across the square, a woman gave a shimmering garment to a pretty girl who took it and hugged the gifter joyfully. Jaren explained that there was to be a wedding, and the older woman was handing down the dress she had worn to her own.

Arista liked to imagine herself in a place where everyone knew who she was. A place where she wasn’t always thinking about the best way to get out without anyone knowing where the Hawkes had run off to.

Jaren broke the silence. “Are you sure you have to take on Needle?” he asked without looking her in the eye.

Arista turned to him sharply. “She killed my father and used me to get rid of her conspirators, Jaren, are you sure that’s a question you just asked me?”

“It wasn’t my best work.” For a moment they were both silent again. He pulled a flask from his pocket, topped off his cup and then handed it to her. “Whatever evidence you may have discovered, Needle is still one of Surette’s favorites. If you can’t prove anything, you might be bringing the whole force of the White hand down onto your head.”

“I have a plan.”

He laughed and the sound of it rankled her. “I’m sure you do, you are Malcolm Hawke’s daughter, after all. But I mean to say that I am a White Hand man. I would not like to be made to choose between the organization that keeps my pantry full and the woman I… well… you.”

Suddenly, Arista very much wanted to be killing people instead of sitting on the roof.

“You are speechless.” He put a hand on her knee. “There have certainly been better opportunities for me to tell you that I have… feelings for you.”

How was she supposed to react to that? This thing with Jaren was supposed to be simple: a fun bit of rebellion between a notorious criminal and a backwater shem apostate. How could he have feelings for her? He didn’t even know her. She thought about her mother, sucked into a life on the run by the fool notion that she couldn’t live without the man she loved. She thought about Bethany and all her talk about weddings and soulmates. Then—inexplicably—she recalled Ser Mattis telling her she wasn’t special.

Arista took a deep gulp of sweet liquor from the flask and handed it back to Jaren.

“I have a traitor to kill.”

*

The Fish Tooth was one of the cheapest inns in Denerim. Conveniently located a short distance between the Pearl and the Docks, it was an ideal location for shady dealings of all kinds. It was also the sort of place where the innkeeper would not look askance if someone had paid for a room and then left it empty all night, which was particularly valuable to Arista as she passed through the common room. She had enough on her mind.

She made it all the way to the stairs before the buxom serving girl managed to catch her attention. “Lady Hawke!” Her blond curls sprang around her shoulders delightfully and her pink cheeks made Arista think of Bethany. “Your associate sent a messenger. She will meet with you this evening.”

“Excellent,” Arista made herself smile cheerfully, the better to hide the dark purpose of that upcoming meeting. She dug into her pocket for two silvers. “Send up two bottles of wine and keep the change, won’t you?”

Her smile faded immediately once she climbed up the stairs.

All the wheels were in motion, now. Maybe once it was all done, the demons would leave her alone. Of course, she might not be around to be bothered by demons if Needle had any idea that Arista knew the truth.

She closed the door behind her, started a fire in the hearth with a wave of her hand, and then sat down to write her letters: her contingency plan.

Surette, leader of the White Hand, would be receiving a package detailing everything Arista had done for Needle. The list of names and notes for each member of the so-called Tempest Company was there, in Needle’s own hand. All the items Arista collected to prove she had ended each person on that list would go in the package as well. Then there was the statement from the Orlesian apothecary. She took several hours to personally chronicle everything she had done and learned, and put that on top.

Next, she wrote to Carver. Mother would never understand and writing to Bethany turned out to be too hard.

Carver,

If you’re reading this, I screwed up. I’m sorry. All you need to know is that all that shit Father said about revenge was right: it doesn’t solve anything or bring anyone back. I’ve just been stacking wood on my own pyre for the past two years. So don’t be an idiot like me, alright? Focus on keeping everyone together and out of trouble. You’ll be a better protector than I ever could have been. There are thirty crowns in the stump in the field, just try to save them in case you have to leave town.

No matter what I’ve said in the past, I love you. You’re everything a little brother should be. Tell Bets that I love her, too, and I hope she gets everything she wants in life. I don’t know anyone else who deserves it more. And Mother, well… tell Mother I’m sorry that I disappointed her. I could only ever be me.

Your stupid dead sister,

Arista

She shivered as she signed it. There was nothing quite like admitting you were doing something stupid and pointless before doing it anyway.

The package was immediately put in the hands of a well-paid messenger. Arista wanted to be certain it was on its way to Surette before the confrontation so that, regardless of the victor, the surviving Hawkes would not be implicated in any trespass against the White Hand.

She gave the letter to the innkeeper with instructions to hold it for two days before sending it.
Then there was nothing to do but wait. And drink wine.

Just as the light coming in the window was turning orange there was a knock at the door. Arista was only through two glasses of wine, having found herself distracted by coming up with witty things to say to Needle. And then witty things to say to Jaren about his ridiculous feelings. And then witty things to say to the Maker when she inevitably ended up on the other side. Just as she was getting up, she had the idea to pour out most of the open bottle into the chamber pot. It wouldn’t hurt for Needle to underestimate her.

She opened the door with the bottle still in her hand. “Needle! Come celebrate with me. The job is done!” The elf was alone. That was a good sign.

Needle slipped into the room, quiet as a cat, with an unreadable expression on her face. It could have been suspicion. It could have been guilt. She looked over the surroundings before taking the bottle from Arista’s hand and draining it.

“I heard about the Orlesian,” she said with a devious smile. “His sister is taking the children to the Free Marches. She believes it is too dangerous here for her countrymen. You do good work, Lady Hawke.”

She had been paying much closer attention to the marks than Arista had known. It was a lucky thing Arista had told the Orlesian to play dead and get out of town. She hadn’t even done it with his safety in mind, she had just been angry.

Arista uncorked the second bottle with a satisfying pop and poured out two glasses. “So it’s done, then?”

“It’s done,” said Needle, taking a glass right away. “Those bastards got what was coming to them. Do you have the things I told you to collect?”

“The jewelry and baubles and locks of hair?”

“Yes,” she said greedily.

Arista was making her way over to a tall backed chair that was currently propping up her staff. “I sent all of that off to Surette. I thought she’d want to know how well we had done, taking out the Tempest Company.”

Needle went pale to the roots of her dark hair. “You… you sent everything to Surette?”

“Yep,” Arista replied cheerfully. “Along with your list.”

The glass in Needle’s hand snapped at the stem. Wine spilled all over the threadbare rug.

“Was that the wrong thing to do?” Arista continued in the same sunny tone. She took a tiny sip from her own, intact glass.

“Idiot girl!” Needle went to the window and scanned the street below. Looking for White Hand operatives, perhaps. “When did you send it? Does she know we’re here now?”

Arista laughed and Needle spun around to look at her. It was a false, breathy thing, let out to release the tension building up in her chest. Her hands were tingling with static, pulling magic across the Veil just through the power of her rage. She could just begin to hear the soft murmuring of her demons, waiting in the Fade. The wine in her cup began to bubble and spark so she set it down on an end table. That move brought her within grabbing distance of her staff at last.

“You really didn’t think it through, did you?” she said. Something like comprehension was emerging in Needle’s expression. “I mean, if I was stupid enough to fall for your little game, I might just be stupid enough to really screw you over.”

Needle knew what was coming now, she had dropped into her knees and eased her shoulders. “It wasn’t a game, Hawke. It was business.”

“Business. Of course. So, did Father forget to initial pages six and seven of the contract? Because I can see how that might warrant a grisly death.”

“Hawke--Malcolm--was my friend.”

“Do you murder all of your friends? It seems like that would get lonely.”

“I had no choice!”

“You had a hundred choices.” Magic crackled and snapped between Arista’s fingers. “You chose to conspire against Surette. You chose to steal from the organization you were supposed to be loyal to. You chose to ally yourself with thieves and traitors. When you faced exposure you chose to murder a good man instead of facing the consequences and you chose to poison him like a coward. You chose to use a poison that took two weeks to kill him.”

TWO WEEKS OF PAIN AND MADNESS. WE CAN MAKE IT RIGHT. WE CAN MAKE HER PAY.

Power was flowing freely into her across the Veil, now. Her demons were gathered on the other side: Rage, Pride, and Desire working together and against one another to vie for her attention. She could hear them calling to her from the Fade. The slightest loss of focus could end everything.

Needle wasn’t a mage, but she could certainly tell that something was happening.

“I didn’t know the poison would work so slowly,” she admitted. “I never meant for his death to be so painful.”

SHE LIES. WE CAN MAKE HER FEEL WHAT HE FELT.

“But you did mean to kill him.”

“You’re right,” Needle looked around the room as she spoke, devising her plan of action or escape. “I allied myself with traitors. When things went to shit, I couldn’t trust them to keep my name off of their tongues.” She paced and moved her hands to distract from her roaming eyes. “Hawke was going to tell Surette what he knew. He was giving me time to get out of Ferelden but he didn’t know how far I had taken the Tempest Company. He didn’t know about the others and I didn’t have enough time to take them out. If Surette found out I led them, no distance would be far enough.”

Needle took a step toward Arista, who immediately reached for her staff. For a moment the demons were quiet as her magic was focused into its amber orb. Needle held up her hands.

“We don’t have to fight. You’ve already damned me. You could just let me run, like Malcolm would have.”

A fresh wave of anger washed over and through Arista. Her skin tingled. The fire suddenly roared into massive life, overcoming the confines of the fireplace, then returned to normal.

“Clever,” said Arista darkly. “Offer her the same deal that got her father killed, see if she notices.”

WE WILL TEACH HER THE COST OF UNDERESTIMATING YOU.

“Have it your way,” Needle sneered. She reached both arms up and drew her daggers out of their sheaths so swiftly the metal sang. Without any more warning she disappeared in a puff of black smoke.

Ugh. Assassins.

Arista lifted her staff defensively, dropped low into her knees and kept her eyes moving. Stealth was not a perfect art, if she was wary she would see—there! She pivoted away just in time to hear the hum of Needle’s daggers. Focusing on the spot where she had seen the air bend around the elf’s form, Arista gathered up her energy and pushed it out with force. Chairs and tables scraped across the floor and the fire was blown completely out. There was a sound like someone stumbling and then silence.

Twice more Arista watched for the wavering light and twice more she dodged Needle’s blades, but Needle could dodge just as well.

WE CAN SEE HER. WE CAN END HER. LET US IN.

Of course, demons could see the invisible. That must be useful….

This was what Father had always warned her about. Eventually, demons would find something convincing to say to you. This was why he had taught her to fight with a blade and her fists, why he had taught her to only use magic when she was calm. He hadn’t taught her how to not want to use magic to tear someone apart inside out when a blade could only make them bleed.

She barely dodged another cut while she thought about what it might look like to actually tear someone apart inside out. Maybe bleeding was enough. Fuck you, demons.

Arista took a deep breath and discharged as much magic as she could in a hail of lightning that singed dark spots into the furniture and bedclothes. There was a groan and a slightly charred Needle came fully back into view, making a neat little pivot to regain her footing. Arista rushed her, swinging the blade of the staff toward her but Needle kicked out and caught a shin. She fell hard into a chair and rolled out of it just in time to see one of Needle’s daggers slice into the back cushion.

The opening was clear, but Arista had her staff in the wrong position. There was nothing for it, with both hands she swung the crystal end of the weapon around and into Needle’s head with a disgusting smack.

The elf dropped her left dagger and stumbled backward into the wall. Arista followed her and pinned her to the wall with the blade of her staff pointed right over her heart. The right dagger clattered to the floor.

Needle spat out a tooth that bounced off of Arista’s leather jerkin. “I yield,” she groaned.

“This is revenge. There’s no yielding in revenge.”

“Your father wouldn’t want you to become a murderer, Hawke.”

“Too late for that.” Arista braced her legs and pushed.

*

It was nearly morning when she finally set off for home. Outside, the air felt so normal. It was cool and smelled like fish. Everything was normal. In the great scheme of things, the lives of an elven assassin and two criminal apostates really didn’t mean much. Revenge meant even less.

At least now she was calm and the demons had moved on to some other prey--probably some poor circle mage just trying to live through their harrowing.

She read the letter to Carver again, she had collected it from the innkeeper on her way out. Your stupid dead sister. He would have liked that part. Eventually. It burst into flames in her hands and she let the ashes float off into the wind.

Just over a city block ahead of her, a harried looking man with a bucket was rushing along followed by a boy with a stack of broadsides that must have weighed almost as much as he did himself. The man brushed a slash of liquid from the bucket onto the wall, grabbed a sheaf from the boy’s pile, and then brushed more liquid over it. They moved on to the next wall.

Whatever the news was, it would probably be another month before it reached Lothering. Arista took the slight detour from her path to read it.

Another Blight?

Darkspawn Reported in Korcari Wilds. Grey Wardens Call Upon King Cailan. Could Ferelden Be the Home of the Fifth Blight?

Arista looked up at the last morning stars. “Maker, are you fucking serious?”

Chapter Text

“Hey, kid, who is that?”

“That’s Tenell, of course. You know about Big Tenell, Messere Tethras.”

“I know Big damned Tenell, kid. Who is that human riling him up?” Other than someone with a death wish, that is.

Kevin was not the brightest courier in Varric’s collection but he was in the right place at the right time. Varric had been stepping out of his tailor’s shop when he had caught a glimpse of Tenell leaning on his infamous, blood-spackled hammer just across the cobblestones. The man was a monster, notoriously bloodthirsty and short tempered. Plus, he was on Coterie payroll. It was smart to give Big Tenell plenty of room and that was just what Varric intended to do.

The kid had run up to Varric with a message just as this crazy human had traipsed up to Big Tenell looking like a terrier provoking a mabari. As certain as Varric was that she was going to be plastered on the wall of a Lowtown hovel, he had to admire her balls.

“I think that’s Athenril’s new girl,” said Kevin. “Goes by Falcon, or maybe Hawk? Some bird name like that.”

Varric paid the kid and positioned himself so he could better hear what was going on. He slipped his crossbow out of its holster and released the safety. It was too late to save the girl from her own stupidity but he might be able to buy her some time to run before she got turned into paste.

“Couldn’t you just find another city to terrorize? I hear Starkhaven is so lovely in the Spring.” She had a light, musical voice and a heavy Ferelden accent. Her stance seemed to expose some combat training; her feet were set farther apart than most would stand casually and she was seated bouncily over her knees. Still, Tenell had turned his share of assassin’s blades as well as greatswords, it seemed unlikely that her shabby leathers and the weird spear thing she carried would be enough to see her through.

“Get out of here, dog-fucker, or I’ll paint this here street with your brains.”

“That’s a common misconception but, I assure you, my relationship with my dog is strictly platonic,” she said cheerfully. She danced over to his other side, either trying to disorient him or piss him off. “Look, serah, my boss really doesn’t like it when I kill people so maybe you should do everyone a favor and take a long vacation or something. It must be exhausting being the biggest asshole in Lowtown, am I right?”

“Look, bitch, you’ve got two options. You can run along to Athenril and tell her to get fucked or you can get fucked. By my hammer.”

“I’m sensing a bit of a preoccupation with sex. No Mrs. Big Ugly Extortionist at home? I’m guessing it’s the smell that keeps them away because your personality is just magnetic, really.”

Tenell growled like an animal and lifted the hammer. Varric raised Bianca onto his shoulder. The Ferelden pivoted out of Tenell’s trajectory and twisted the polearm swiftly from over her shoulder so that the rounded end of it hit Tenell in the side while his arms were raised mid-swing. She dropped deep into her knees to slip under the altered arc of the hammer as he reeled, then jabbed the blade of her weapon into the meat of his thigh. He came down onto his knees hard, letting go of the hammer with one hand to steady himself on the ground. The Ferelden stomped on that hand and her weapon made a pleasant swooshing sound through the air as the blade of it twirled toward his neck. She stopped it short at his throat.

Her delicate little voice dropped to a harsh snarl. “You’re going to get out of the extortion game and you’re going to stay out of my sight. Is that clear?”

She dug her heel into the knuckles of his hand until he nodded. Varric would have sworn he heard bones cracking.

“Maker’s balls, Riss. I thought you were going to wait for me,” another Ferelden entered the scene, stage right. He had a strong resemblance to the first player, and not even in an All-Humans-Look-Alike kind of way. They had the same black hair, strong chin, and bright blue eyes.

The girl released Tenell, who skulked away, leaving a trail of blood streaming from his leg. The hammer was left behind. He might not have been able to carry it with so many of his fingers broken.

“All he had was a war hammer and he overextended his back just like you used to,” she poked him in the ribs and he scowled. “Speaking of hammers, want one?”

He kicked Tenell’s discarded weapon so that the head fell flat with a thump. “So I can be slow as honey and open my guts to anyone with sense? No thanks.”

Varric was getting a strong younger brother vibe from the guy. Sometimes it takes one to know one.

The girl picked up the hammer with ease. “Maybe we can sell it.”

“That would almost be like getting paid,” grumbled the little brother. She patted him on the shoulder and they left.

Varric couldn’t help it; he was impressed. He relaxed Bianca and reset the safety, making a note to get in touch with Athenril. That would be fun.

*

Bartrand so rarely debased himself by entering the Hanged Man that Varric was certain some distant, wealthy relative had died. The elder Tethras stomped into the place, scowled at everyone, completely ignored a serving girl just trying to do her job, and came to a stop at Varric’s elbow.

“Care to make yourself useful?”

“Hello, dear brother,” Varric exclaimed dramatically. “How long has it been? I hope you’ve been well. Can I buy you a drink?”

Bartrand ignored his pleasantries. “What do you know about these nug-licking Sharps Highwaymen?”

“Small potatoes. They mostly hassle Hightown drunks when they come down to slum around but rumor has it they’re patrolling the coast as well--trying to intercept some business from the bigger potatoes. The Coterie will probably have them beaten down before the year is over.”

“Your rumors are good, kid,” Bartrand spread a grubby scrap of parchment out on the table.

Your shipment has been delayed. Bring ten sovereigns to Dock 14 for immediate return, care of Sharps.

“Looks like they’ve reached that cocky stage in their development,” said Varric. “They grow up so fast.” He caught the serving girl’s eye and signaled for her to bring a round of drinks. Bartrand wouldn’t partake, but Varric would probably need the leftovers. “Can I assume they took something important?”

“You can assume whatever you damn well please as long as you get it back,” he replied gruffly. There was a gleam in his eye, though. Something clearly had him excited. “I’ve got something big stewing up, Kid. Get my goods and I’ll let you in on my research.”

Norah was bringing over two pints of ale as Bartrand slapped his hand down on the note and then stormed back out of the tavern as resolutely as he had entered. She set the cups down on the table, looking very confused. As soon as she turned away, a slim hand wrapped around the cup closer to Varric and lifted it over his shoulder.

An ache was developing directly behind his eyes. He fought the instinct to press his fingers between his eyebrows. That would be a tell, Varric.

“Athenril, you have the most impeccable timing in Kirkwall.”

“I always thought you planned things this way.” Athenril drew a chair close to him and swiveled gracefully to a seat. She took a long drink before continuing. “Was that your brother I saw trampling out of here? Good beard on that one. Have you told him yet about our little adventure?”

“We’re not really the story-sharing kind of brothers.”

“And how is Bianca, these days?” Athenril’s smile was so devious it should have been considered illegal.

What could he say about Bianca? That it was more confusing than ever? As much as he would have liked to tell Bianca to leave him out of her blighted marriage and her Maker-damned influence, he hadn’t been able to do it. They still exchanged letters that the Randy Dowager Quarterly would have turned down for being too bawdy. In between the innuendo, she would wax eloquent about their destined romance and how their sacrifice would pay off in the end.

He had met her once since her wedding, in Cumberland while the Husband was making arrangements for her workshop in Val Royeaux. The heat between them was more intense and magical than ever before but he had come home feeling empty and ashamed.

Athenril may have helped him get out of that situation with Bianca and the Guild, but she hadn’t quite earned the right to insight on the complicated feelings part of the story. Varric patted his crossbow with a smirk. “Still shoots straighter and faster than any other machine in Thedas.”

“Right,” she purred. “Well, I’m not actually here to harass you. Sadly. One of your young representatives told me you were looking to have a chat.”

“Tell me about this new girl of yours.”

“All business? I was hoping this was a social call.” She mocked disappointment then smiled into her ale. “Everyone wants to know about Hawke. Gamlen really came through on that one. Best deal I ever made.”

“Gamlen? Gamlen Amell, that washed up old cheat? What does he have to do with her?”

“The Hawkes, Arista and Carver, are his sister’s kids. They’re all refugees, but of course, old Gamlen didn’t have the coin to get them into the city. So he comes to me and says his niece is this hotshot apostate-for-hire and his nephew fought at Ostagar and if I get the family into the city they could work for me. He even claimed she had taken down an ogre by herself. At this point, I might believe it. I don’t mind telling you I’ve made my money back ten times over.”

“She’s a mage? I saw her take out some Coterie muscle-head with a pointed stick.”

“She’s a pro, Varric. She’s been keeping upwind of the templars her whole life. If she’s using magic get the hell out of there because she does not leave witnesses.” Athenril downed the rest of her ale in one gulp. “But you know I’m only telling you this because I trust your discretion.”

“I know you’re telling me because you’re hoping the right people will find out you’ve got an apostate on your roster.”

“You read me like a poem.”

“And the next line is, ‘more ale for the lady,’ I’m guessing.” While he signaled Norah the note Bartrand had left caught his eye. Why not? If he gave Bartrand’s gig to Athenril’s new girl it would free up his evening and he’d have that much more confirmation of her skill. “I think I have a job for your Hawke if you’ll loan her to me.”

“I’m going to be extraordinarily offended if you pass me by for a human, Tethras.”

He ignored her and passed the note from the Sharps over. “I’ll consider this ten sovereigns off of what you owe me if the new girl gets this package back to me before sundown tomorrow.”

“Sharps Highwaymen?” Athenril chuckled. “She’s not going to like this one.”

“Why not?”

“Too easy.”

*

The package arrived before midday with splatters of blood on it and a note that said:

A-

So now that we’re smuggling books, can I make a request for something a little more exciting? Because if you’re going to give me 24 hours to run and fetch something from a bunch of amateurs, I deserve something better than eight hundred pages on dwarven genealogy. Yawn. Let’s smuggle something about dragons. Dragons are cool. Hey--let’s smuggle an actual dragon! Yes? No? Maybe?

Also, tell your “client” he could have avoided all of this if he bothered outfitting his hirelings. Those guys were helpless. They’re both fine, by the way, no thanks to their cheapskate employer.

-AMH

*

He watched them closely over the next months. There was always a chance the Hawkes would go back to Ferelden when their obligation to Athenril was complete. The Blight was over, after all. The last of the the Ferelden Grey Wardens had rid the land of the darkspawn and were crowned King and Queen just like in a fairy story. They promised to return the country to its former glory.

A few more weeks went by, however, and Hawke was still living with her sad sack drunk uncle in his tiny Lowtown shack along with her brother, mother, and a very large and slobbery dog. Varric knew she hadn’t accepted an offer from Athenril to stay on, despite the promise of steady pay. Either she was stubbornly independent or she knew she had the potential to do better on her own. He could work with both of those.

He made sure the news of Bartrand’s Deep Roads expedition made it out into the spheres Hawke moved in. It was exactly the sort of thing she and her brother should be interested in: fighting darkspawn and the promise of cartloads of gold. Sure enough, he spotted them heading into Hightown’s Dwarven Quarter one morning geared up in what was probably the best armor they could scrounge together. They were clearly trying to impress.

Varric had hoped to catch them before they got to Bartrand. The, admittedly unlikely, chance that the elder Tethras would see their potential as guards would really screw up Varric’s plans. Unfortunately, he was just a few seconds too slow. They were already chatting up his brother by the time he closed the distance. He followed them closely, just out of sight.

Bartrand might have a great head for business, but he had no eye at all for talent. Varric watched as his brother rudely dismissed the Hawke siblings. They stood dejectedly arguing with one another as Bartrand plodded away. He was about to announce himself as their timely benefactor when an old associate appeared directly in his path.

“Varric! How long has it been?” Torbin clapped him on the shoulder. “Hey, that smuggler you put me in touch with has been an absolute treasure. Business is booming! Do you happen to know if she’s single?”

That was the problem with the Dwarven Quarter: it was full of dwarves.

Varric got rid of Torbin just in time to see some idiot cutpurse bump into Hawke. Bianca was over his shoulder and loaded before Hawke even realized she had been burgled.

“Hey!” she shouted at the kid uselessly.

Bianca’s gears made their delightful sound: click click click click kerCHUNK! And the kid was pinned to the wall by one of Varric’s bolts. Varric gave him some sage advice before removing the bolt and turning to finally confront Arista Hawke.

“How do you do? Varric Tethras, at your service.”

Chapter Text

Hawke didn’t bother knocking on Varric’s door anymore. If he didn’t want company, he would lock it. She got a lot of enjoyment out of catching those tiny glimpses of whoever he was when he wasn’t adventuring or playing the smartass. Or playing the adventurous smartass.

Usually, she caught him writing and this instance was no exception. She swung open the door to his suite, a little too harshly, and found him curled over his desk, hair loose and brushing the table as a big, square hand made a quill dance gracefully across the parchment.

“Heya, Chief.”

“Good morning, Precious,” he said without looking up.

She made a face at that stupid nickname, though of course he didn’t see it, and came right over to prod at the papers strewn all over his desk. Varric had the prettiest handwriting she had ever seen.

“These don’t look like letters,” she said, picking up a page.

She had eyes the color of topaz and dark hair that fell across her brow like sword strokes….

“It’s literature,” said Varric, enunciating the word with purpose. He slapped her hand away. “Don’t touch anything, Hawke. I have a very delicate system.”

“It looks like you just throw all your pages in the air and hope they land in an interesting order.” He scowled at her, which she took as a victory. “I didn’t know you wrote stories. I thought you just told them to distract people when you cheat at cards.”

“I’m full of surprises,” he said. His scowl had softened into a smirk. “A crate of those dates you like fell off of a ship from Minrathous. You’re welcome to them if it will keep your dog-lord paws off of my work.”

Hawke made a delighted noise and bounced over to the cupboard where she knew Varric hid his goodies. There they were, piled all together in a little pallet. Plump, sugary little gems.

While she ate, she took a moment to appreciate his suite. It was at least as big as the house she shared with Mother, Carver, Uncle Gamlen, and Wrex--the mabari warhound who took up at least as much space on a bed as an adult human--but Varric had it all to himself. He had decorated the place comfortably, all dark woods and fluffy throw pillows. There was an unusual painting of Kirkwall as seen from the sea hanging just over the big table in his front room and in his bedroom there was a charcoal drawing of someone she suspected was his mother, betraying a certain sentimentality that Varric would never openly reveal. He had made his mark on those rooms in a way Hawke had never had a chance to. Maybe that was changing.

Anyway, for being above one of the divey-est dives in Kirkwall, he had really done a good job turning it into a palace. Hawke never regretted making that walk up the stairs from the bar.

She wolfed down five dates and licked her fingers clean.

“You’re spoiling me, Vee.”

“I’m trying.” He set his quill down and put a cork in his ink bottle. “Are you here for something or did you just miss me?”

“Oh, yeah,” said Hawke, remembering that she wasn’t just there to eat dates. “Got any leads for me today?”

“Those Flint Company guys you’re supposed to kill for that Chantry boy you’ve been drooling over have been frequenting the Rose.”

Hawke’s eyebrows came together. She had definitely not been drooling over the (very pretty) Prince of Starkhaven. But if her targets were whoring enough for it to be notable, they’d be easy to find later. “That’s it? No missing children? Kittens stuck in trees? Poorly guarded lyrium shipments?”

“That’s it. Pretty quiet.”

“Good. Want to climb Sundermount with me?”

“Oh, yes,” said Varric with a sarcastic drawl. “In fact, when I woke up this morning I thought to myself, ‘You know what would be better than relaxing in your comfortable home and writing your first novel in ten years, Varric? Going out into the wilderness for absolutely no reason at all.’”

She sighed and rolled her eyes at him. “I told you about that deal I made with the Witch of the Wilds. If I don’t take care of that amulet soon, she’s going to come here and rain fiery death all over me. Which would be awesome, but probably painful.”

“I think you’ll be able to piss off the Dalish just fine without me, Precious.”

It wasn’t that she specifically needed Varric for the trip, but since she was taking Carver and Anders, she wanted to be certain she brought at least one person she wouldn’t want to punch in the face. “You’re probably right,” she said deviously. “I’ll just ask Isabela to come along in case we come across any locks that need picking.”

“Sounds like a plan,” he said, not falling for the bait.

“I mean, she’s a faster lockpick than you, anyway.”

“Whatever you say, Precious.”

“Damn it, dwarf.”

Varric gave her a wide grin. “Give me a moment to get my gear on.”

The cagey, paranoid bits of Hawke’s inner voice had told her not to trust Varric. Those were probably the bits that had actually learned a lesson from Needle’s betrayal. Admittedly, it seemed like a big leap for Varric to have taken from, I’ve heard of you and you seem pretty capable, to, I want you to be a partner in a major business venture and I’m going to help you raise the coin to do it. Still, she found herself totally disarmed by the fact that he was the only person in Thedas who found her jokes as amusing as she did.

They were friends. Friends was a strange concept for Hawke to wrap her head around. Even when she had imagined herself as just another elf in an alienage she had never considered how much self a person gave up with they were a part of something, or how willing she would be to give so much up. And she was a part of something now. Suddenly, as though Varric had breached some kind of friendship dam, she was surrounded.

When Varric was ready to go, he and Hawke walked together to Kirkwall’s east gate where Carver was waiting.

“Anders should be on his way,” said Hawke.

“You invited the possessed mage,” Carver groused. “What were you thinking?”

“I was thinking that a talented healer who can also electrocute people might be useful to bring along on a mission where we have no idea what to expect.” Hawke observed her brother’s armor carefully while she explained herself. His breastplate looked off center. She went to fix the strap for him and he elbowed her away.

“I can dress myself, Mother.”

She rolled her eyes. “It’s been slow at the clinic, as well,” she continued. She had gone to drop off elfroot the day before and found Anders sitting at a table with his head in his hands. “I don’t like thinking of him down there, brooding over his friend. He should keep busy.”

“You didn’t think that maybe the badass glowing elf warrior we just met might be valuable for a meeting with a pack of human hating elves?”

She had considered bringing Fenris. Since meeting him she always considered bringing Fenris, everywhere they went. She could have kept him upwind and spent the whole trip drunk on the scent of the lyrium carved into his skin.

“It isn’t as simple as Elves meeting Elves, Carver,” Hawke crossed her arms. “The relationship between the Dalish and City Elves is touchy enough as it is. I can’t even imagine how the Dalish might react to Fenris.”

“Apparently sleeping with elves makes you an expert,” said Carver.

She felt the blood rush to her face. “Andraste’s tits, how does everyone know about that?!”

I don’t know about it,” Varric piped in. “An elf fetish is definitely something I can work into your biography, Hawke. Some people will find that very relatable.”

“I DON’T HAVE AN ELF FETISH,” Hawke said much more loudly and in a much higher pitch than she intended.

Of course, Anders appeared at precisely that moment. “I’ll just… file that bit of information for later, I guess.”

Hawke threw up her arms and started to walk toward the city gate. “Great! Now that I hate all of you, let’s spend the whole day together climbing a bloody great mountain.”

*

Their path took them along the Wounded Coast for a few miles before twisting upward into Sundermount’s foothills. Hawke took long, grateful breaths of the salty air. She thought about the waves crashing on the coast of Amaranthine when she was a little girl. The Waking Sea was at its most turbulent where it met the Amaranthine Ocean; in Kirkwall, there was just a ghost of that ferocity. The ghost was enough. She let the undulating rumble of the sea wash away the stresses of the past weeks.

Teaming up with Varric had elevated the kind of work they did. There was no more fighting barely-trained thugs to decide someone else’s turf war or lugging crates of tariff-free Anderfels perfume through bandit-infested roads. Now they fought templars and Tevinter slave traders and even blood mages down in Kirkwall’s endless depths. Hawke got to see the faces of the people she worked for, people who hadn’t been able to find anyone else to help them before she came around. It was both satisfying and exhausting.

“She has a name, you know,” Hawke heard her brother complaining.

“I know,” Varric replied pleasantly. “It’s Hawke.” One of the nice things about having Varric around was that he kept Carver humble.

“But I’m a Hawke as well. Her name is Arista.”

“Even you don’t call her that, Little Hawke.”

Hawke turned around and said, “Anything but that.”

Varric held his hands up in mock defense. “Alright, alright. Junior it is.”

Carver groaned.

She was just Hawke now, despite the protests from Carver. To be fair, people had been calling her that since Father had died, as though she had simply taken his place. Arista didn’t roll off the tongue all that easily and Riss was generally reserved for people with whom she had shared a bath at some point. It grew on her so gradually that she barely noticed until one day she realized she was using it internally, as well. Hawke had taken over. Barely anything tied to Arista still remained, after all. So much of that girl had died with Father, and everything else had gone with Bethany.

Maker, why did it have to be Bethany? More than a year had passed and the pain was still fresh.

“Hawke? Are you alright?” Anders caught up with her.

“Huh? Oh, yes. Just thinking,” said Hawke, “about elves.” She heard Varric snigger behind her.

“Right,” he wore a kind, if skeptical, smile. He looked down at his hands and Hawke observed that he had lovely, long, ginger eyelashes. “I never got a chance to thank you for that basket you sent.”

“Did you eat it all?” she asked. He nodded. “That’s all the thanks I need. I wasn’t sure if that was a tradition here in the Free Marches, but seeing as we’re both transplants I didn’t think it would matter.” In Ferelden, folks always brought food over to their friends and neighbors when there had been a death in the family. “It just seemed like the right thing to do.”

“Do you... cook?” he said hesitantly. Carver was apparently listening since his barking laughter rang out far too loudly at the idea of his sister cooking.

“Maker, no,” said Hawke. “If you ever have a burning desire to spend a day on a chamber pot, I’ll be happy to cook for you.” Carver continued laughing. She shot him a dirty look before returning her gaze to the road ahead. “I scrounged up the materials, Mother and Carver did the important work.”

Anders turned to Carver and thanked him. Carver looked like he was going to say something less than kind, but thought better of it.

“You’re welcome. I’m sorry about your friend.”

“Huh,” said Varric. “You were right, Hawke. Junior does have manners.”

*

We stand on the precipice of change. The world fears the inevitable plummet into the abyss. Watch for that moment… and when it comes, do not hesitate to leap. It is only when you fall that you learn whether you can fly.

The witch’s words rang in Hawke’s ears the whole way back to Kirkwall. Had she done the right thing by fulfilling her end of the bargain? There was something dark and otherworldly about Flemeth. Something more than the fact she could turn into a fucking dragon.

Plummet into the abyss. Was it some kind of prophecy? Wasn’t a Maker-damned Blight enough fun for one age?

Walking just ahead of her, Merrill was asking Varric and Carver a million questions about Kirkwall. Varric was in his element, exaggerating both the wonders and dangers of his favorite city. Carver looked a little pink, admiring their new friend. She couldn’t blame him if he was a little infatuated. Merrill had a charming way about her, she oozed kindness and her self-deprecating way of excusing her awkwardness set everyone at ease. She was pretty too. Carver had certainly taken notice of her warm green eyes and the way her vallaslin enhanced the fine features of her face.

Hawke hoped that Kirkwall wouldn’t kill Merrill’s optimism. It was going to be hard work seeing to it that it didn’t.

Aveline, Varric, Anders, Fenris, Isabela and now Merrill. It was a lot of people to keep track of, to take care of on top of Carver, Mother and Uncle Gamlen. Certainly, most of them could take care of themselves. But if they kept making the very ill-advised decision to follow Hawke on her mad, half-legal schemes she was going to have to make sure she placed herself between them and whatever danger she led them into. She would be in six places at once if she had to.

The Kirkwall Alienage was nestled deep in the labyrinth of Lowtown, not far from Gamlen’s house. Varric tried to help Merrill keep track of all the turns they made, but the poor woman was quickly overwhelmed. She looked like she might cry when the vhenadahl came into view.

“Is this really where the elves live?”

Hawke wrapped an arm around Merrill’s slim shoulders. “Think of this as another grand adventure.” Merrill looked unconvinced. “If you need anything at all, you saw where Carver and I live. My mother will happily keep you fed, and I’ll happily hit anyone who dares to be mean to you.”

“Thank you, Hawke,” said Merrill. “Truly.”

Hawke left her with the Hahren of the alienage, assuring her that they would all visit as soon as she was settled into her new home. Varric suggested a game of Wicked Grace and, as tired as the party was after the long walk, they all thought it sounded like the best way to unwind. Hawke agreed for the ale-drinking, not for the opportunity to lose more coin.

“Do you think she’ll be safe?” Anders stopped Hawke at the entrance to the Hanged Man. He had been silent as a tomb the whole way back from Sundermount.

If Merrill wasn’t pickpocketed at least three times in the next week, Hawke would be shocked. “It will take her a while to get used to city life, but we’ll check up on her.”

“I mean from herself. For the people around her. You saw her use blood magic.”

“She seems like a very nice blood mage,” said Hawke. Of course, she had seen. Of course, she was concerned! But it seemed a little inappropriate for a man with a so-called spirit of Justice in his head to judge someone who had done no worse than what the magisters of Tevinter were rumored to do at tea.

“How can you be so capable and so naïve at the same time?”

“I’m very talented. You should see me play the lute.”

Anders let out a disgusted sigh and crossed his arms. “I’m not surprised that you don’t see the danger. The way you manipulate your auric energy is almost as dangerous as opening up a vein.”

“If I had known you were watching so closely, I would have done something much more impressive by now,” she said evenly.

“It is impressive, but to augment your weak connection to ambient energy by tapping into your own auric field is incredibly risky. Reckless, even. You shine more brightly in the Fade and you’re more susceptible to burning out. The Circle would never have allowed it.”

Hawke tensed. She was not an exceptionally strong mage, she might even be weaker than average, but that wasn’t exactly something she went around sharing. It certainly wasn’t something she wanted other mages commenting about.

“All magic is dangerous, Anders. Forbidding people from learning things just means that when they are tempted to try them, they won’t do it safely.”

“Is that another one of your father’s lines?” he asked with unnecessary venom.

People going in and out of the tavern were looking askance at them now, probably wondering if it was going to turn into a fight worth watching. Hawke was beginning to gain a reputation as a brawler despite the fact that her most common opponent was her own brother. If it came down to a brawl, she was certain she could take Anders. Justice, however….

“Why are you so angry about this?”

“Because you’re a mage, but you have no idea what it means to be a mage.” He raised his voice, disregarding the sensitive nature of the topic. “You were raised up by the support of your family instead of being crushed under the thumb of the Chantry. Your brethren were being rounded up like criminals, they were being controlled through fear of possession and threatened with tranquility, all while you and Daddy were coming up with fun and dangerous ways to offset your deficiencies.”

There was the slightest tingle, a tiny itch, in the webbing of Hawke’s fingers. “You’re the one who wants to end the Circle, Anders. If you have your way, there will be thousands of mages out there just as poorly educated and reckless as me so you had better decide what exactly your mission is.”

His eyes flashed with blue light and then softened. “You… you’re right. Mages need to be given the opportunity to make mistakes, just like everyone else. I’m sorry, I don’t know why I got so worked up over this.”

“You’re afraid of me,” she said simply.

“Excuse me?”

“What is it that scares you? Is it just the way I use magic?”

While Anders considered the question, Carver poked his head out the door. Whether it was to see what was holding the mages up or because the patrons inside could hear their argument, Hawke couldn’t know for sure. She waved him back inside.

“You’re powerful, Hawke,” said Anders finally. She started to protest but he put a hand up. “I’m not talking about magic. You inspire people. You get things done. A…” he swallowed and relaxed his arms, “a demon manipulating you could devastate the Free Marches.”

“And you think I’d be safer if I’d gone through your barbaric Harrowing?”

His face broke into a roguish smirk, charming despite how annoying he was. “I don’t think you’d be safe if you passed a hundred Harrowings.”

The sudden change in tone caught Hawke by surprise. “Are we flirting now? It’s really hard to keep up with your moods.”

He laughed as he held open the door to the Hanged Man for her. “You know, I had a friend like you once. Got in all sorts of trouble. Dragged me along.”

Chapter Text

“Maybe we shouldn’t do this again.”

It was bad timing. Close to the worst timing ever. He still felt the ghost of her fingertips on his skin. Maker’s balls, his hair was still wet from the bath they had shared.

He had enough courage not to wait and say it by letter when she was gone, not enough to have said it when she arrived. He had fought countless thugs, dozens of undead, several rogue mages, and a fucking dragon since recruiting Hawke but somehow Bianca was much worse.

“What the--” Bianca stopped in the middle of buckling on the mining coat that kept people from recognizing her while she traveled through Kirkwall. “You’re doing this now?”

“This isn’t working. I can’t keep letting you go, knowing what you’re going back to.”

“You aren’t even trying.” Her eyes narrowed. “It would work if you gave it a chance. You know I don’t feel the same way about him as I feel about you. I’ve never felt this way about anyone but you.”

“But you married him.”

Ancestors, Varric. I did what I had to do. I can’t bend my life to fit yours. It’s so selfish of you to keep expecting me to.” She pulled her toward him by the opening of his shirt. “Don’t do this now. Giving up without a fight isn’t like you at all.”

Was he being selfish?

She wouldn’t have had the same life if they had gotten married instead. They would have been running from the Vascas and the Merchants’ Guild for Maker knew how long. Then there would have been the rush to find a way to make money before Bartrand’s stash ran out. Maybe that had been a stupid idea. He still wasn’t convinced it was the wrong one.

And yet, he had her love. He had the sweet anticipation of every next time and the agonizing excitement of secrecy. When she was gone he longed for just a little certainty. Maybe that was selfish.

Maybe he was getting too old for that shit.

She brushed her lips against his ear and whispered. “Tell me you love me, Varric.”

“Andraste’s--” He shivered. “Damn it, Bianca, you know I love you. These goodbyes get harder every time.”

“You’ll have your expedition to distract you and I’ll be back to cheer you up again before you know it.” She kissed him on the bridge of his nose.

“Yeah, I imagine the constant threat of death by darkspawn and the very real possibility of falling down a hole that never ends will be pretty distracting.” Meanwhile she’d be cuddled up to Bogden Vasca, looking over plans or resumes or whatever it was she happened to want at the time. “Maybe I’ll get Bartrand to find me a homely Bemot or Dace when we get back. A nice girl with a good dowry to take care of all my domestic needs so I don’t need so much distracting between your visits.”

She raised an eyebrow and her voice took on a cold edge. “Somehow I find it hard to imagine you sitting down to a roast nug every evening and chatting about whether to get brass or silver candlesticks for the foyer.”

“Is that what you do at home, Princess? Roast nugs and pick out candlesticks?”

“I’m not a nice, homely Bemot,” she wiggled against him and batted her eyelashes. “And don’t you ever forget it.”

They spent a long time saying goodbye before she finally left, taking the staff stairs and exiting through the Hanged Man’s kitchens. Varric saw her to the door and was creeping back to his suite for a meeting with an expensive Antivan liquor when he heard a crash and shouting from the common room.

“Not on the table, Hawke! Maker save me, don’t you have a home someplace you can do this in?”

“Gamlen’s house is filthy. And full of Gamlen. More whiskey!”

“I don’t think this table is any cleaner, pet.”

“Shut up and sew, wench! More Maker-damned whiskey!”

Varric swung open the kitchen door and surveyed the scene. Norah stood behind the bar with her eyes wide and her arms crossed, swearing up a storm while Corff poured out amber liquor from a green bottle. The late night patrons had cleared an unusual amount of space around the table where Varric’s motley crew of misfits frequently spent their evenings. It was immediately clear why.

Hawke was awkwardly seated low in a chair with Fenris securing her by the shoulders. Her left leg was stretched over the table, bleeding freely from a long gash and missing all but a scrap of what had once been the fabric of her breeches. Isabela hovered over the leg with a needle in one hand and a candle in the other. Four empty tumblers rolled gently on the floor by Hawke’s chair.

“I’ve done this quite a few times,” said Isabela as she heated up the needle with the flame of her candle, “and I can tell you it is going to hurt.”

Corff brought over three more tumblers, Norah refused to go back to the table while Hawke was bleeding on it. Isabela put down the candle and dipped the heated needle into the whiskey before tossing it back.

Hawke caught sight of Varric. “Varric!” She said much more cheerfully than someone slowly bleeding out in a dirty tavern should have. “My very favoritest dwarf, will you be a gem and pass me that glass? I can still feel my legs.”

“You should try to enjoy feeling your leg while you still have it.” He passed her the cup and she drank it down immediately.

“I don’t do amputations,” Isabela purred. “The saw makes such a mess.”

She poured most of the third whiskey over Hawke’s wound and dabbed it with a towel. Hawke squirmed and squeezed her eyes shut. Fenris held her fast against the chair.

“I feel like we know a guy who could take care of this in a much safer way,” said Varric.

“Anders is an asshole,” said Hawke, slightly slurring. “Fenris doesn’t like him either and Fenris is an excellent judge of character.” She patted the elf’s arm where it crossed over her collarbone.

Fenris looked like he did not want to be associated with the decisions that had led to the current situation. “While I both appreciate your confidence and agree with your assessment, the dwarf does make a good point.”

“Will you carry me?” Hawke tipped her head back onto Fenris’ shoulder. “I’ll only go if you carry me.” She laughed in a tipsy, rhythmless way.

“I’m almost done, anyway,” said the Pirate. Sure enough, the wound was halfway closed by a number of neat little stitches. “You can always bother Anders if it starts bleeding again.”

“The mage will not be bothered if it gives him the opportunity to be doubly condescending,” said Fenris.

“It’s going to be fine,” said Hawke, extending the word ‘fine’ well beyond its natural boundaries. She kicked out her right leg and rested it on the table next to her left. The knife she kept tucked in her right boot tumbled out and clattered on the floor. She didn’t seem to notice. “You’re being too quiet, Vee. Distract us with a story.”

Varric picked up the knife. It was a fancy one, certainly nicer than anything else Hawke owned, made of what looked to silverite and trimmed with gold. Any sharp blade could cut a throat. It had to mean something that she had kept this one when she could have gotten a good price for it. There was a name on the hilt and an inscription on the blade. Ser Mattis Stendon. Those who oppose thee shall know the wrath of Heaven.

“Maybe you should tell us about this templar knife, Hawke.”

Hawke’s eyes went wide and it took her several beats before she was able to set her face back into a casual smirk. The appearance of the knife had definitely sobered her some. “That’s a long story.”

“You’re the one who wants a distraction.”

She looked up at the ceiling and sighed. “I killed a templar. Took his knife.” She waved a dismissive hand. “I guess that was shorter than I thought.”

Varric gave her a disbelieving eyebrow raise. The woman could not lie to save her life. Every emotion played out on her face as soon as it manifested. It was charming when they played Wicked Grace because, despite the fact that she was terrifyingly good at killing people, she was an exceptionally gracious loser.

It was unusual for her to keep secrets, though. Hawke usually told him anything if he asked a direct question. He knew about her work for the White Hand, back in Ferelden, and how she had killed the woman who betrayed her father. She had told him all about running from the darkspawn, losing her sister and Aveline’s husband, fighting the Ogre and escaping on the whim of a witch who could turn into a dragon. Was this off limits because Isabela and Fenris were there, or was it something else?

The tavern door swung open, breaking up Varric’s staring contest with Hawke. Merrill walked in looking anxious. One hand clasped the amulet she wore and her shoulders were drawn up practically to her ears. She peered around the room with wide eyes that finally fell on the strange array surrounding Hawke.

“Oh, I’m so glad you’re still here!” she said as she trotted over. “There’s one of those odd church women just outside asking all the nastiest people in Lowtown for help with some mad scheme that she won’t quite explain and I think she’s going to get herself killed so--You’re bleeding! Sylaise, Hawke, what happened to your leg? Shouldn’t you go to see Anders?”

“Good evening, Merrill,” Hawke said pleasantly. “I was bleeding, but Isabela fixed me up. No need for Mr. Grumpy Glimmer to get involved. Now what’s this about a Chantry Sister with a death wish?”

“She was just being led someplace by a mean man with a great ugly scar on his face. We might be able to catch up, but shouldn’t you--”

Hawke swung her legs off the table with the slightest wince. “I’m fine. I’ll let Fenris do most of the work, anyway.”

“Since when do I not do most of the work,” teased Fenris.

Varric let out a bark of laughter. “Sarcasm from the Broody Elf. Is that something the ‘Vints teach, or is Hawke rubbing off on you?”

“If Hawke is rubbing off on anyone, I’d certainly like to know about it,” said Isabela.

The five of them left the tavern with Merrill in the lead, heading into the maze of alleyways that made Lowtown so dangerous. And interesting. Varric brought up the rear, pulling Bianca over his shoulder and releasing the safety. He kept one eye on the shadows and the other on the limp Hawke was trying to hide.

They didn’t have to go far to find Merrill’s Chantry Sister being surrounded by a small band of murderous-looking ruffians. She seemed unusually calm. Confidence of the ignorant?

“Look, fellows,” she said while she unhooked the purse from her belt. “I have the money, but I really must insist that you complete my task first.”

A man with a scar across his brow brandished a knife at her. “We’re all pretty tired, how’s about we just take the money?”

The sister caught sight of Hawke’s group. “You there! Won’t you help me?”

“Boys, boys, boys,” Hawke chastised, “you can’t just go around threatening holy women. Hasn’t Andraste shed enough tears for your rotten souls?”

“It’s that Ferelden bitch!” shouted one of the thugs. “Get her!”

Four lovely clicks and a whooshing sound were the only preamble before the man who shouted suddenly had the end of a crossbow bolt sticking out from his throat.

“Is that any way to speak to a lady?” Varric jeered as he turned the lever to reload Bianca.

Those thugs didn’t have a chance. Isabela vanished into shadow and reappeared with both of her knives cutting straight through the leader. Fenris tore two of them down in a single rush from his massive sword. Merrill cast a spell that wrapped three of them in vines from out of nowhere and Hawke finished those off with a hail of fireballs. Not a pleasant way to go. One more went running in a mad panic, another bolt from Varric and Bianca sent him to the Maker.

The Chantry Sister surveyed the gory scene with serenity. She glided over to Hawke, a placid smile played on her face as she held out her hand. “My hero. Just the sort of person I was looking for. I am Sister Petrice.”

“I’m… happy to help,” said Hawke, perhaps wisely choosing not to put a name to her apostasy.

“I have someone I need to get out of the city. I need someone like you, someone with integrity but also a willingness to kill. The journey will not be without its dangers but the pay is quite good. This is a mission that interests you, is it not?”

Killer with Integrity is probably what they’ll put on my tombstone,” said Hawke. “But you’re taking another awful risk here. What if I chose to cut you down just like those other assholes you foolishly approached for your mission?”

The Sister’s smile widened. “Just follow us if you want to be paid.” She turned into the shadows and called out, “Varnell!”

Clanking footsteps announced him long before the dim moonlight flashed across his brilliant armor. A templar. He saluted the group and nodded to Sister Petrice. “Sister.” Together the templar and the priestess turned their backs on Hawke’s party and walked casually away.

Hawke looked at her friends. “Well, I’m intrigued.”

“I hate getting played,” said Isabela with a scowl.

“This is bad,” Merrill fretted. “She saw us use magic.”

“She will have that to use against you if we do not attend to her task,” said Fenris.

“Come along, misfits,” Varric sighed, holstering his crossbow on his back. “You know our fearless leader can’t walk away from anything.”

“I thought you were the leader, Vee,” said Hawke.

He shrugged. “You’re easier to see in a crowd.”

*

The Qunari was unpleasant to look at, so Varric mostly avoided it. Not looking didn’t help, however, with the image already burned into his mind. That terrible mask, with what looked like blood stains around the tiny eye-holes. Was it the creature’s own blood, or the blood of its enemies? Its captors had sewn its mouth shut, what if they did something to its eyes as well? A massive collar and heavy chains bound it, an apparatus that looked like it might weigh roughly three Merrills. The whole ensemble really made the Circle seem like a fun little group home for mages. It was brutal treatment, even coming from a brutal people.

And yet, it was impossible to tell if the creature had any desire at all for freedom. Even Fenris was skeptical, explaining that slavery could not be escaped if one was still a slave in one’s own mind, and the broody elf would know.

It followed Hawke silently and made no moves against her or anyone in her party. It even defended them from attack when they came across another band of idiots as they led it through the sewers. Hawke made several pointless attempts to reason with it. Varric tried to focus on watching for enemies.

They exited the sewers into the orange and pink light of dawn and the steely grey rocks of the wounded coast. Their path had barely brought them into view of the sea when they saw, instead, a small encampment of Qunari. They were waiting.

“You will hold, Basra Vashedan,” said the biggest, scariest of the Qunari. Undoubtedly the leader. “I am Arvaarad. I claim possession of Saarebas at your heel. You have disposed of many members of this karataam and we have followed the trail to this place. To you.”

“You must have seen that we just arrived,” said Hawke, “and from another direction. I haven’t killed any of your men.”

“And yet you hold the leash of this Saarebas. That, itself, is crime enough.”

Hawke looked at Fenris questioningly.

“It means, dangerous thing,” said the elf. “He must refer to the mage.”

“I was paid to take your saarebas out of the city and nothing more, but if he does not wish to go with you I won’t let you take him.”

The leader of the gathered Qunari, the Arvaarad, strode past Hawke to the creature. “Saarebas, show that your will remains bound to the Qun.” The creature grunted through the stitches on its lips before kneeling in the sand before the Arvaarad. “You see,” he continued, “Saarebas only follows because he wants to be led. He is allowed no other purpose under the Qun.”

Hawke sighed, apparently disappointed. “Very well. My part in this is complete.”

“You show an unusual ability to see reason, Basra.”

He pulled out a strange sort of sceptre and pointed it at the saarebas, who made the same growling, grunting noise through its bound lips as before. Apparently the other Qunari could make sense of it. He turned back to Hawke. “You should be honored, Basra, the Saarebas would speak to you as his final act.”

“Final--?”

The Arvaarad used a knife to cut the thread at the lips of the saarebas. The collared captive worked its jaw and cleared its throat before speaking.

“Basvaarad, you led well. You are Basalit-an. Worthy. Panahedan as you find the Qun.” It bent its head to the Arvaarad.

Brandishing the scepter, the Arvaarad shot a bolt of light at the creature’s chest that surrounded it and then faded. The saarebas collapsed onto the ground.

“They killed him,” said Merrill, stricken. “But why?”

“You went through all that trouble to find him, for this?” said Hawke.

“He was away from his arvaarad. The risk of corruption was too great. He accepted this, and his fate. This is what the Qun demands.” He replaced the sceptre at its place on his bandolier, trading it for a long blade with a notch on the end. “He did you a great honor by speaking to you, but we cannot know what demons traveled in his words. You will have a death worthy of respect.”

“Excuse me?” said Hawke, blinking.

“They’re going to attack us now, Precious,” Varric explained needlessly. “Let’s make sure we don’t die.”

*

By the time he and Isabela were back at the Hanged Man it was full on morning and Varric was pretty sure he had never been so dog-tired in his entire life. Isabela blew him a kiss as they parted ways at the top of the stairs.

Bianca would be addressing the Merchants’ Guild in another hour or so. That was the real reason she had been in Kirkwall, of course; she would never have come all that way just for a rendezvous. She’d be on her way back to Val Royeaux around the time Varric was awake again.

The coast was littered with Qunari bodies. The ones Varnell had made to frame Hawke as part of Sister Petrice’s horrendous, overly complicated, failure of a scheme, as well as the ones Hawke and the gang had made in order to come back alive.

Hawke, herself, was at that moment being deposited on the doorstep of Anders’ clinic in Darktown. Isabela’s stitches had done nothing but delay the inevitable. Hawke had been bleeding and feverish by the time they were halfway along their return trek through the sewers. Varric told her she couldn’t come to the Deep Roads with an infected leg and she reluctantly agreed to have it properly seen to.

And it seemed the Deep Roads expedition would be ready to start as soon as she was walking normally again. Varric crossed his front room to the chest where he kept the funds they would be presenting to Bartrand. He deposited the ill-gotten money Sister Petrice had given them. With that, they were now comfortably past their goal of fifty sovereigns. Bartrand would not be able to turn down Hawke’s offer, nor would he want to delay the thing any longer.

It was all going according to plan, even if it was getting there along the most convoluted route possible.

As he flung his duster over the back of a nearby chair, Varric caught sight of a new letter on his writing desk.

Varric,

I was right about you: writing is in your soul. You couldn’t stay away from the author gig forever. Murder, mayhem, corrupt city guards--this is great stuff! I am still pissed off at you for stealing Hawke from me but that doesn’t mean I won’t edit for you--it just means it will cost you more.

Speaking of money and power, I heard a rumor Harlan is finally going to offer me a decent place in the Coterie hierarchy. I don’t suppose you pulled any of your pretty little strings for that, did you? I knew you liked me. Tease.

Don’t be a stranger,
Athenril

He tossed the letter lazily back onto his table and shuffled into the bedroom. Yep. Everything was going according to plan.

Chapter Text

There’s no way out.

That was the thought that kept repeating in her mind. It was the mantra of the Deep Roads. It was the rhythm of every step. It was written in the incredible darkness.

There’s no way out.

Every tunnel just led to another cavern full of entrances to other tunnels that led to other caverns. Caverns full of the smell of ancient sweat and a strange awareness of distant lyrium. Everywhere the darkness and the damp permeated. The weight of the world above was like an executioner’s axe. The Veil felt like a fur coat in summer.

There is no way out.

She hadn’t felt a dread so pervasive since she was a teenager. She was beginning to believe there was something truly wrong with her. She was beginning to think she might be a coward, after all.

While she still had hope that it was just part of the Deep Roads experience, Hawke watched the others for any sign that they felt something similar. She watched Anders, especially. Maybe it was a mage thing? Like smelling lyrium or feeling the Veil?

No such luck.

The dwarves were particularly cheerful. That made a kind of sense. They were closer to home under the ground, of course. Varric said that many of them had not lost their Stone Sense, a sort of internal compass that allowed them to move around underground almost as though they were under the sky. But even Varric, who admitted he had never had any stone sense, was seemingly untroubled by the miles of rock and dirt between them and the soft green grass of the waking world.

The handful of humans Bartrand had hired were less lighthearted but showed no signs of completely losing their minds. Carver was bored and sulky. No change at all there.

Anders was blossoming. When he had insisted on coming along, Hawke had braced herself for several long weeks of treatises on Mage Rights and lectures about how reckless and ungrateful she was. Instead, he was sociable and funny. For all his complaining and all his insistent renunciation of all things Grey Wardeny, something about the Deep Roads opened him up. Whether proximity to the darkspawn had fired up something in his tainted blood or whether he was cheered by memories of adventures and victories past, Hawke couldn’t say. Regardless, as she watched him charm Varric with templar jokes and impress Carver with tales of escape after escape from Kinloch hold, she started to understand why the Hero of Ferelden had kept Anders around.

During the time they called Day they walked. Sometimes they would talk and sometimes someone would sing a bawdy song. Carver told about Ostagar and Anders told about the Battle of Amaranthine and the barely believable story of how the Hero of Ferelden encountered and defeated intelligent darkspawn. Varric spent most of his time keeping hirelings from mutinying under Bartrand’s tactless management. Hawke concentrated on not going insane.

They marched deeper and further into passages that had not known intelligent life for ages. They became ever more entrenched in a pit full of strange noises and stranger smells and, ugh, the damp of it. Lichens that had never known the warmth of the sun coated ancient dwarven carvings of long forgotten paragons.

Unknown hours later, someone would declare that it was Night. They would have a simple meal and a single cup of ale before rolling out their bedrolls and letting themselves be serenaded by the host of alien groans and squeaks of the deep.

Everyone acted as though all of this was normal. Like they were just camping.

Hawke couldn’t sleep. After spending the entire day circling the border of panic, she would find herself staring helplessly into the endless black. Knowing that she wouldn’t sleep was almost as bad as knowing that the hours would keep passing until she had to get up and walk ever further from the sky. As Bartrand called the group to a stop, she wondered if she would finally be exhausted enough. Maybe the next day would be so hazy she would forget to be frightened.

You made a pass at the Queen?” Carver said to Anders as they set down their gear and began preparing for the evening.

“I didn’t know she was the Queen until King Alistair came along and started sucking her face right there in the courtyard,” Anders replied. “The Commander never was forthcoming about the whole royalty thing.”

Briony damned Cousland. Hero, Warden-Commander, and bronto-fucking Queen of Ferelden. Every mention of her still made Hawke think of poor Perrin Ravelle and the night Father came home to die. But when Anders talked about the Commander and his other companions from that time, his face broke into a devious grin that made him look ten years younger.

“You knew she was Warden-Commander, surely,” said Carver, still incredulous. “She’ll have been in uniform, right? I saw Grey Wardens at Ostagar and the uniforms are pretty impressive.”

“I’d just been in solitary confinement for a year, Carver,” said Anders. “I was making passes at everybody.”

Carver still looked skeptical.

“Then,” Anders sighed, “I got caught again and dragged off to Vigil’s keep where I watched my captors die, one by one, to the darkspawn. Just as I used my last drop of mana to set one of the monsters on fire, the one right behind it was felled by an arrow right through its eye socket. So no, I wasn’t especially bothered by the fact that she was obviously much too important--and a little too young--” he chuckled at that addition, “for the likes of me. I just saw a pretty pair of green eyes gleaming through the darkspawn blood and thought I’d show my appreciation for being rescued.”

“So, the painting at the Viscount’s Keep,” Carver turned a little pink, “is it a good likeness?”

Hawke kicked open her bedroll between the two of them. Carver came out of his daydream vision of Briony Cousland with the bright green eyes.

“Oh, is that my sister?” he said in mock disbelief. “You’ve been so quiet, I thought you might have fallen into the abyss.”

Hawke ignored him and kept her gaze on Anders. “They kept you locked up alone? For a whole year?”

“Not totally alone, I suppose. I had Mr. Wiggums, the tower mouser.” He registered Hawke’s serious expression and the winsome laugh lines that had framed his mouth while he reminisced softened. “Yes. After my sixth escape.”

Somehow, that made a lot of things about Anders make sense. “My father said he saw mages go mad after only a few weeks in the cells.”

“It’s a clever tactic,” replied Anders wryly. “If you go mad or resort to forbidden magic out of desperation in there, they can brand you a maleficar and execute you with impunity.”

“You must have extraordinary will.”

“I suppose I do,” said Anders with one side of his mouth curling back up. “We have that in common.”

Hawke didn’t feel extraordinary in any way as they wiped out their dishes after finishing a lackluster meal. Bodahn and his strange, bright-eyed son poured out a cup of ale for each person there, their daily ration. A murmur of conversation came over the camp and then slowly died out, along with most of the lamps. Hawke began her long gaze into the stone ceiling.

It seemed like a long time went by, Anders and Carver were softly snuffling on either side of Hawke, but one of the lamps was still lit. She sat up slowly, stretched her back, and sighed. Varric was still awake; the last lamp illuminated an open book in his lap.

It was very Varric to be set in the center of a warm orb of light with his soft red shirt open, as always, sturdy hands grasping extravagantly bound vellum, eyebrows gently drawn in concentration. This was how she caught him when she bounded into his suite unannounced. A little piece of home, there in the bowels of the world.

He was situated evenly between the dwarf side of camp and the human side, a symbolic bridge between cultures, with the wall of the anteroom at the head of his luxurious bedroll. Even in the Deep Roads, Varric held onto his creature comforts. He caught her eye and reached an arm into his pack, grasping a bottle that flashed green under his light. A gesture of his head urged her over.

Hawke climbed up off of the ground as quietly as possible, listening for changes in breathing from the men. Once in Varric’s space, she seated herself close to his bedroll with her back flush against the stone. She pressed her shoulders back into it, feeling the cool roughness against her sore muscles.

“I was saving this for when we find treasure but this looks like an emergency,” Varric murmured.

Hawke took a swig, recorked the bottle and handed it back. It was strong stuff, she felt warmth radiate out from her throat into her chest. She concentrated on that warmth and tried to relax her shoulders.

“You’ve been too quiet, Precious. What’s going on in there?”

He replaced the bottle in his pack and pushed himself back up against the wall so that they were sitting shoulder to shoulder. Hawke noticed for the first time that their height difference was mostly in their legs. It was easy to forget, from her usual vantage point, that he was so very robustly built. She leaned into his muscular arm and let him prop her up.

She let the silence sit heavy for a moment while she breathed in the murk and the oily smoke of the lamp. “I didn’t know I could be afraid like this,” she admitted.

“That makes sense,” said Varric. “You’re a badass, Hawke. What have you ever faced before that you couldn’t take on? Even that ogre never had a chance.”

“So, you’re saying I’m afraid because there’s nothing to face here.”

“There’s nothing to fight here. Yet. There’s everything to face.” He opened up his hands in lap, displaying a faded ink stain and a long scar on the right palm. “This place is a tomb. There are a million and one ways to make this our tomb and only a handful of them are at all heroic. The only reason these other guys aren’t as scared as you and me, Hawke, is because they aren’t letting themselves think about it.”

As scared as you and me.

Hawke had a feeling he had said that for her benefit but it worked, anyway. The walls seemed a little less close. She let her head rest back against the wall and felt the weight of three sleepless nights, enhanced by that thimbleful of good liquor, begin to pull at her eyelids.

“You’re good at this, Varric,” said Hawke.

“I know,” said Varric.

*

There is a stream. Winding, soft white on a field of greenish grey. The sky is pale but for a blur of darkness: the ever-present Black City.

The Fade is strange here, obscured and warped by the viscosity of the Veil. I thought I might never sleep down below, I never expected to dream. But here I am. And, of course, I am not alone.

WHAT IS YOUR MOTIVATION, MORTAL?

The voice resonates from nowhere and everywhere.

“The usual things,” I say. “Sex. Money. Power.”

YOU TELL FALSEHOODS BUT YOU DO NOT MISLEAD. YOU INTEND FOR THEM TO BE UNDERSTOOD AS FALSEHOODS.

“Can I assume you are not here to tempt me with sex, money, or power, then? What a shame.”

I AM NO DEMON HERE TO TEMPT YOU. I WILL UNDERSTAND.

It manifests in soft blue light. I have only rarely seen such a color in the Fade and it stands out, harsh against the murky greens and greys. It is only a silhouette. Vaguely human. Vaguely male. Vaguely familiar.

“I don’t know what motivates me,” I say, honestly. “I just try to do the right thing and keep the people I love safe.”

YOU HAVE ENDED LIVES. IS THIS THE RIGHT THING?

“I do my best to only kill people who deserve it.”

THIS IS ACCEPTABLE. HE WILL CONTINUE TO FOLLOW YOU.

He?

Of course.

“Justice?”

The blue light dissipates and the murk of the Fade goes with it, leaving me in a rather mundane dream about a talking bear

*

Hawke woke up surrounded by the smells of lemon rind, expensive ink, and sun-dried pine needles. Varric smells. It took a moment to remember that she was in the Deep Roads and a moment longer to realize she was on Varric’s fancy bedroll. It had more cushion than the actual bed she slept in at home.

Lamps had been relit and the intrepid adventurers were beginning to stir. As Hawke stretched herself into wakefulness, Varric appeared and dropped a bundle onto the ground beside her. Her own bedroll.

“Don’t get used to this, Hawke,” he said, rubbing a spot on his back to indicate how poorly he had been affected by sleeping on an inferior bed. “I’d like to keep up my reputation as a self-centered curmudgeon.”

That day they found darkspawn.

The fighting helped clear Hawke’s head. After that first encounter, they couldn’t go a mile without a confrontation. At one point, they fought waves and waves of them to carve out a path around a cave-in that blocked their main route.

There was a kind of purity to fighting darkspawn. A simplicity. Killing people was always complicated, even when you were certain of their depravity. Cutting down darkspawn felt like part of the natural order of things. Certainly, the dwarves felt that way. The unending fight against the monstrous horde was part of their history.

For Hawke and Carver, it had a special note of vengeance. Every mangled hurlock or impaled genlock fell in honor of their razed home, their uprooted lives. They fell for Bethany.

Hawke even began to talk about her sister with less reservation. She and Carver could raise their ale cups to Bethany in the evenings and pull their blankets over their shoulders with a smile on their lips.

Then there was Anders. For Anders, this battle was literally in the blood. He fought in a completely different way than Hawke had observed back in Kirkwall, where he usually held back to provide covering fire and healing spells. Here he used the classic staff technique taught to battle mages in Circles all over Thedas. He moved through each of the nine positions with preternatural grace and perfect form. The density of the Veil there seemed to have no effect at all on his magical strength. Fire, ice, and lightning all came down on their enemies with terrible power. He had a particularly impressive spell that seemed to suck energy out of the darkspawn to fuel a magical barrier.

When they retired for the night, Anders ate as much as he was allowed. He told stories and bawdy jokes and comforted those who were starting to feel anxious about the expedition’s success. Despite his insistence that he hated the Deep Roads, he was more alive there. And Justice, apart from his visit in Hawke’s dream, was quiet.

“I like Anders better than Justice,” Hawke said to him while they marched ever onward.

“Oh?” He smiled wryly. “I think it would take a philosopher to find the line that divides us at this point.”

He had said something like that before but the more Hawke observed him, the more she believed the boundary was much clearer than he thought. He hadn’t shown any sign of knowing about Hawke’s dream. Clearly, the two of them had some independence.

Hawke watched the ground pass by under her feet for a while. “Do you think you did the right thing?”

He took a long time to answer. “I don’t know. It seemed like the right thing to do at the time.”

“You said he was your friend.”

“He was.” There was subtle emphasis on that was.

“I might have done the same.”

The path narrowed and the group had to pass through singly or in pairs. Varric slipped to the back while they waited for the sides of Bodhan’s wagon to be taken off in order to fit through.

“Bartrand says it’s just ahead,” he said. “Ready to be a wealthy woman, Hawke?”

“I’m ready to drink more of that fancy liquor you’ve been hoarding.”

“Watch it, Precious. You start telling my secrets and I’ll start telling yours.”

“Holy shit.” Hawke heard Bartrand from well ahead of them.

The wagon pulled through and everyone else began funneling in through the narrow opening. A strange smell wafted in from the chamber beyond. It was both familiar and otherworldly.

Anders teetered and braced himself against the wall. “Wow,” he said lamely.

Carver was at his side first, offering his broad shoulders as a support. “What is it? I can’t see anything yet.”

“Is it lyrium?” said Hawke, asking nobody in particular. “It smells… wrong.”

It was lyrium. It was red, but it was lyrium. Veins of pure, unrefined lyrium ore snaked through the walls of a massive chamber, illuminating pillars and archways that were clearly dwarven make, but somehow different from everything they had seen up to that point. Perhaps the place was older than even Bartrand knew.

“It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” Bartrand sniffed. “Now get all of your nug-humping hides in here and start collecting anything you can carry.”

*

Much later on, Hawke would consider telling people she saw it coming. Then she’d remember what a terrible liar she was. She’d leave that to Varric, who also definitely did not see it coming.

The huge stone doors closed in slow motion and it took her a moment to understand what was happening. Bartrand stood outside the chamber, cradling the lyrium idol like a baby, looking hungrily at it like a wild animal.

Carver was the first to act. “The door!” he shouted and rushed for Bartrand.

It was too late. The solid stone pieces came together without space for even air to pass through. Sound from the other side was muffled but as Hawke, Anders, and Varric reached the door, they heard the unmistakable clanging of metal. Bartrand was destroying the mechanism that opened the stone doors.

Varric shouted and pounded uselessly on the solid barrier. That was no good. Varric was supposed to be her foundation down there. If he freaked out, how was Hawke supposed to hold it together?

She looked around frantically. Anders sat on a stair with his face in his hands while Carver paced, arms crossed and eyes full of fury. There was no other exit from that antechamber but just past the podium where they had found the idol, there was a substantial crack in the wall. Definitely big enough for a person to fit through. If that opening led to another tunnel….

Hawke pushed away images of being hopelessly stuck in a crack in the wall miles below the proper world and walked purposefully to the fissure.

“Riss,” said Carver, “what are you--wait, but what if--“

She climbed in.

With her body blocking the light from the idol room, the space beyond the crack was impossibly dark. Hawke pulled a wisp of magic across the syrupy Veil to illuminate the way forward. It was tight, but it kept going. She pulled herself along the wall, sideways when she wouldn’t fit head on. There was no floor, just the pointed edge of the crack that set her ankles at odd angles as she progressed. The others were calling her to come back.

Then there was a breeze.

It was so cold and so very welcome on skin that was now sheathed in sweat and dust. Her heart pounded, a final moment of panic before she learned if she had found a tunnel or a chasm. Or perhaps nothing at all. Perhaps she had found the passage to the Void.

She reached out her arm and felt nothing. Her tiny light wasn’t enough to fill whatever space lay beyond the crack. She stuck her foot out and, for a moment of incredible panic, felt nothing. There was a distance of about a foot and then solid ground. And relief. Pulling more energy into her magical torch revealed a rough-hewn tunnel, not like the worm-hole passages the darkspawn cut into the earth but not quite in the square, adorned style of the dwarves either.

Cries of Hawke and Riss and even an Arista--strange in Anders’ voice--poured out of the fissure.

“I’m alright,” she called back. “I found another tunnel.”

Carver was through first, grunting as he shoved his wider torso through the uneven passage. Varric had even more trouble but made it through without complaint, perhaps still too shocked by his brother’s betrayal. Anders slipped through easily, thanks to his slim frame and Warden’s grace.

“Is this the way out?” said Carver.

“Who knows?” said Hawke.

*

Hawke had been through a lot of shit. A lot of the time she thought her greatest talent might be simply living through things that should have crippled her mentally and physically. It wasn’t as flashy as being a really good mage or a really good swordsman, but it was what she had to work with.

Of all the embarrassments, betrayals, injuries, and losses she had suffered, none of them quite compared to what she felt when Carver collapsed. Or maybe all of them came together into some kind of chimera of pain.

They were supposed to have made it. They had fought the creatures in the depths and taken their treasures. They had found the way back home. They were going to buy back their ancestral estate and scandalize Kirkwall’s aristocracy with their barbarous Ferelden ways. Lordling and Ladylette Hawke: scourge of stuck-up nobles from the Waking Sea to the Vinmark Mountains.

He wasn’t supposed to die of some stupid sickness in a stupid stinking hole in the ground.

It was just a little stumble. Hawke looked back and saw him, white and sweating, and called the group to stop for a rest. She told herself it was just bad food or an infected cut but the dread and panic were setting in even as she motioned for Anders to look him over.

Anders didn’t have to say anything for her to know. He just closed his stupid kind eyes with their stupid beautiful ginger lashes and the nausea set in. Damp palms. Heart pounding like she was drowning. She could barely see through her eyes or hear through the rush of blood in her ears when he said it.

“I’m sorry, Hawke. It’s the Blight. There’s nothing I can do.”

“I knew it,” said Carver, drawing his eyebrows close together in determination. “Just like Ser Wesley. You won’t let it take me, right, Riss? You’ll end it… like Aveline did?”

Don’t cry. Don’t cry. Don’t cry. “If it comes down to it,” she said in what she hoped was a reassuring voice. “For now, we see if we can make it to the surface. Maybe someone….”

Carver tried, but couldn’t stand. “I can’t go any further,” he said, crumpled over his knees.

“Of course you can,” said Hawke breathlessly.

She gave their packs to Varric and Anders and then pulled her big, hulking, adult baby brother up on her back like she had when he was little and she was still the coolest big sister ever. She set off, afraid that if she stood too long she might lose her strength to the needling panic and the stinging in her eyes.

Anders trotted up and put a hand on her arm. “Hawke, wait—“

“Walk and talk, Anders,” she puffed.

“There’s a way--not a cure, but a possibility.”

“I’m listening.”

“I stole those maps from a party of Wardens who were heading into the Deep Roads. I just wanted to make sure they weren’t going to find me in Kirkwall but if we can find them, they might be able to help Carver.”

“How?” said Carver, over her shoulder.

“The Joining,” Anders answered. “It’s the only known cure for the blight. If you survive it.”

“The Joining? You mean become a Grey Warden?” Carver said. Hawke couldn’t tell if he was incredulous or excited. He might have been both.

“If you survive.”

“You can find them?” Hawke asked Anders.

“Yes.”

She carried her brother for miles. It felt like days but who knew down there. She only knew that she had no other options. She tried to imagine killing him with her knife, the knife she had used to kill both her father’s murderer and the sentient slime she had stolen it from. Even there, in her head, she couldn’t do it.

Anders used his spooky Warden senses to try and feel out the taint of the other wardens. Varric was quiet and stricken, relegated to insisting Hawke take a break at every other turn of the path. Finally, she had to take his advice. She lowered Carver to the ground, where he seemed able to stand well enough.

“I think we’re in their path,” said Anders. “That, or there’s darkspawn coming.”

A skittering noise from further down the passage made it clear which it was. Varric seemed almost relieved as he pulled his crossbow over his shoulder. Hawke took up Carver’s sword. She was too exhausted to use magic and his oversized blade would be better protection than her staff.

They swarmed in. A dozen of them, mostly genlocks. Anders pulled up a barrier and rained fire and lightning on them while Varric punctured them with as many bolts as Bianca could shoot. Three managed to get past, only to be sliced apart by Carver’s sword in Hawke’s hands.

It sounded like another wave was coming. The companions stood ready. Then, a single Hurlock collapsed at the entrance to the passage in front of them. A man with a thick mustache and gleaming blue and silver armor followed behind it. He was surprised to see them, and even more surprised to see the run-away comrade that he obviously recognized. Three more Grey Wardens appeared behind him.

“Anders?”

“Stroud,” said Anders cheekily. “Fancy meeting you here.”

Hawke heard Carver groan and scrambled to him, leaving Anders to make whatever arrangements had to be made.

“You’re going to be alright, Carver,” she said while she wiped his brow.

“If this means I have to be a Grey Warden… Anders didn’t make it sound all that great.”

“Grey Wardens are heroes. You’re already really good at that. And they do have very impressive uniforms.”

“And it will get me out of your big, fat shadow.” His laugh turned into a cough. “If I live through it.”

“You’re going to live,” Hawke bundled him up in a tight, awkward hug. Don’t cry. Don’t cry. Don’t cry.

“This is the boy?” said Stroud over them.

“I’m Carver Hawke,” he said proudly.

“You must know that the Joining is not a kindness and we cannot take you as a charity.”

“Carver will be worth six Wardens,” said Hawke. “You’ll see.”

He looked back at Anders. “Very well.”

Two Wardens took Carver by the shoulders. Hawke slid his sword back into its sheath on his back and then kissed his clammy forehead just as they began to take him away.

“We’re even now, Anders.” Stroud called to them as they parted ways.

Hawke snatched up her pack without a word and began walking down the passage that would lead them back to Kirkwall. When she was certain she was out of sight and nobody was going to try to talk to her she finally let the tears fall down her face.

Chapter Text

Varric,

I’m sorry about Bartrand. You probably should have seen that coming. It was so obvious he would betray you eventually. I wouldn’t have guessed he’d try to kill you because he’s definitely too cheap to hire assassins but I think the Deep Roads simply proved too good an opportunity to get rid of you.

I’m certainly glad he failed. There aren’t many dwarves as good looking or attentive as you are.

Seriously, though, you can’t just tell me you found an ancient thaig full of lyrium and rock wraiths and leave it at that!!! Where was this thaig? Was it under Kirkwall? What kind of dwarves lived there? Which clans? How do the rock wraiths even work?? Are they powered by lyrium? Some kind of magic or ancient mechanism? What was so weird about the lyrium you found there? Tell me you got a sample!! Send it along!

And who is this Hawke you keep mentioning? Since you seem to be avoiding pronouns, I have to guess that this one is a she. What’s going on there? Should I be jealous?

I haven’t been idle while you’ve been collecting misfits and getting trapped underground. The Spinning frame is selling faster than we can make them. They’re saying it will do for the textile industry what the Seed Drill did for agriculture. If Orlesians were dwarves I’d be a paragon twice over by now. Between my success and the influence of House Vasca, I’ve been able to firmly establish the shop in Val Royeaux in record time. I wish you could see it. I have everything I need and nothing holding me back. It’s amazing how it all just came together. Check out the notice I had made!

We’re discussing the possibility of opening another shop in Minrathous, can you believe it? I’m heading there to look at a site. I’ll be sure to let you know if Tevinter is everything they say it is.

Looks like it will still be a long time before I can see you. I’ll be in touch.

Love, B

Once untied, the broadside rolled open on its own. Fine, heavy inks weighed down the soft linen parchment. She had certainly spared no expense. Davri Dwarven Machineworks: 15 Chemin du Feu, Val Royeaux. Now open to the public for tours and commissions.

Varric set the poster aside and glanced over the letter one more time before folding it. It was easily the most chaste letter he had ever received from her. Perhaps this was revenge for his poor attempt at ending their… relationship? Their situation.

Worse than the modesty of it was one line: everything I need and nothing holding me back. That stung. That’s what he would have been, something to hold her back. He was sure she intended to remind him of that. There was notably no mention of that shop in Kirkwall she had promised would be the next step in her plan to have her cake and eat it, too.

He sighed and brushed a stray lock of hair out of his face. He had told her he would give it a chance and he intended to keep his word but she wasn’t going to make it easy. After the shit that happened in the Deep Roads, he wasn’t sure how much more chance he was willing to give.

I am definitely getting too old for this shit.

The folded letter went into a locked box, which went into a locked drawer. All of Bianca’s letters, since the blissful beginning, were in that box. A big pile of emotional turmoil and sexual innuendo. And… one of his bolt-heads? That didn’t belong in there.

He picked it up and examined it. The end was blunted and there were bits of plaster stuck inside the iron pyramid. Right. That bolt had pinned the kid who tried to pickpocket Hawke that day Varric finally introduced himself. He had kept it, sentimental fool that he was, as a sort of good-luck token for that forthcoming business arrangement. He left it in the drawer, outside of Bianca’s box.

He was turning the final key when his door flew open with a clatter. It was Hawke’s standard announcement. At least this time he was expecting her.

She dropped dramatically onto the bench in the front room.

“Marry me,” she said, in lieu of something normal, like hello.

Varric was too slow climbing out from Bianca’s emotional detritus to come up with something clever to say. “Excuse me?”

“Mother is on a mission to find me a husband.” She stood back up and crossed the room to lean against the wall near where he was standing.

“Has your mother met you, Hawke?”

“You’re my only hope,” she gazed at him with mock sincerity. “If you and I elope right now, she’ll never have the chance to sell me off to some monster.” Her serious expression was already starting to curl at the edges. Hawke could never control that face of hers. “I’m sure Bianca would understand a marriage of such necessity. We can lay her between us when we sleep to protect you from my wanton advances.”

Crossbow Bianca, he reminded himself as he eased his own face into something like a smile. “You’ve really thought this through, haven’t you? But Bianca is a jealous girl. You don’t think Blondie or the broody elf might be safer targets?”

“I do seem to be surrounded by attractive men. But Fenris is the only person in Kirkwall more fucked up than I am and Anders….” She turned a little pink. Another case of facial betrayal.

“Anders?”

“Is annoying,” she said very quickly. “Anyway, there’s an even chance Mother will approach you herself when she finds out Tethras is a noble house. So don’t accept any dinner invitations from her if you’re not willing to entertain the idea of becoming a Hawke.”

Varric tried to imagine having that conversation with Leandra Hawke, the only woman in Thedas more persistent than Hawke herself. “You wouldn’t take my name? You wound me.”

Arista Tethras. That’s not bad, actually. But whatever would you call me if not Hawke?”

Wifeykins, naturally.”

Hawke cackled. The sound was delightful.

Anders? Really, Hawke? The man was an actual abomination. He would be lucky if his obsession with mage rights only got himself killed. He was always certain he knew better than anyone else. Just a year ago Hawke had chosen bleeding out over being healed by Anders and now she was blushing like a Chantry Sister at the mention of his name.

Varric shook that train of thought out of his head. “You’re thinking about this all wrong, Precious. Being entertained by suitors means free food and the chance to piss off entitled Marcher nobles. Aren’t those your two favorite things?”

“Free food and dragons are my two favorite things,” said Hawke, “followed by the sea… then setting fires. Oh! And then that face you make when I share a really bad pun. And candied dates….”

“Dates are food.”

“But they’re good even if I pay for them.”

“Since when have you ever paid for them?”

“Then pissing off nobles,” she said, ignoring him. “How come everyone wants to give me food now that I can afford my own?”

“One of the great paradoxes of existence,” Varric replied.

Hawke sighed and strode back over to the bench to plop down just as gracelessly as before. She left a haze of lilac fragrance from her soap in her wake and he noticed that her hair was still dripping bathwater onto the ragged, oversized shirt she wore-probably one of Carver’s.

Had he really avoided mentioning to Bianca that Hawke was a woman?

She hardly made any attempt to appear womanly, but no one could ever have mistaken her for anything else. She had those bright blue eyes with their lashes like thick lines of expensive ink and he had always enjoyed the way the curves of her mouth and eyebrows worked in tandem to reveal her every emotion. Her legs might be comically long but they did look shapely in the tight breeches she liked to wear. Varric’s eye lingered on a patch of shirt rendered nearly transparent by her wet hair. He could easily see the band that compressed what he was pretty certain were a very fine pair of--

Well, shit.

“Varric?”

“Hmm?”

“I asked if you were alright. I didn’t interrupt something, did I?”

“Not at all. For you, my door is always open.” He busied himself with getting rid of the broadside that was still sitting open on his table. “You said you had something to announce to our little cadre. I’m guessing it wasn’t your intention to weaken my resolve as a one-crossbow man.”

Hawke immediately brightened. “We’ve received a bit of good news!” She dug into her pocket and presented a bit of paper that had clearly been read multiple times already. “You can read it, but you have to pretend to be surprised when I tell everyone else.”

To whom it may concern,

Warden-Recruit Carver Hawke has successfully performed the Rite of Joining and has arrived at our keep for training. He shows great promise. We believe that he will be an asset to our order and we wish to convey our gratitude for the sacrifice his family has made.

Kind Regards,
Warden-Commander Maglin

“So Baby Hawke survives outside the nest,” said Varric. “I’m glad to hear it.”

“I knew he would make it,” she took the letter back from him and looked at it with rapt pride before folding it back into her pocket. “Now we party.” She leapt up and grinned. “Drinks are on me.”

He followed her out toward the tavern. The mere suggestion that he was attracted to Hawke seemed to have opened up a door that couldn’t be closed again. He had to intentionally avoid appreciating the sway of her hips and the uncharacteristically delicate way she held her hands out as she bounced down the stairs.

This isn’t actually a problem, he told himself. He knew a lot of attractive women, after all, and it had never changed anything. Isabela was basically sex incarnate. Merrill was cute as a button. Aveline was… strong (moving on). Athenril was not only good looking, she also had grammar and her impeccable taste in dwarves on her side. Hell, even Fenris was pretty in his own, manly way.

It just took you by surprise, Tethras. It will pass.

“If you’re buying drinks, Precious, who’s going to buy you a proper outfit?”

She turned to smirk at him. “If I start dressing like some highborn peacock, I’ll have to find a cleaner tavern to loiter in.”

“You may have the coin for the Hightown bars, Messere, but I can assure you they lack the particular ambiance of this Lowtown gem.”

As they reached the bottom of the staircase she put an arm around his shoulder and pressed her hip into his side. “I suspect I would miss the company, as well.”

The Deep Roads had changed her. Maybe that was part of it. It had changed all of them in different ways. Where other blows had hardened Hawke, the Deep Roads had left her soft and raw. She was still a calculating killer; a hyper-focused powerhouse of getting shit done. She still had that fierce morality that made her kind one moment and terrifying the next. She let herself be vulnerable sometimes, now. She seemed to trust that she would survive it. Something had just… opened up. When Varric had asked her what had changed she had said, simply: It’s alright to need people. How the Deep Roads had taught her that was anybody’s guess.

“What are we celebrating?” Norah asked when Hawke ordered seven shots of whiskey and seven pints of ale.

“Maybe it’s my birthday,” Hawke said as she passed the girl a coin that was definitely too shiny for the swill they’d be getting. “What are you going to get me?”

“Don’t listen to her, her birthday is in Kingsway,” Varric assured Norah. She tucked the coin into her blouse and rushed away.

“You might be too good at listening, Vee,” said Hawke. “Don’t I tell you all sorts of horribly personal things?”

“You do, yes. And I remember them all.”

Isabela and Merrill came down the stairs, tittering like a couple of rowdy sparrows. Varric had seen them come in when he had gotten his mail, so they had been holed up in Isabela’s room doing Maker knew what for at least two hours. Each of them got enthusiastic hugs from Hawke. Isabella received an additional kiss on the cheek and little Merrill was lifted up and twirled around.

Merrill was pink and giggling when she returned to solid ground. “Ooh, you’re in a good mood, Hawke! Has something really nice happened? Should I have made a cake? I’d love to learn how to make a cake.”

“I do hope someone has finally found the key to that chastity belt you’ve been wearing,” said Isabela.

“I wouldn’t throw a party for that,” said Hawke, giving the pirate an exasperated shove.

“You won’t have to, pet, I’ll throw it for you.”

Hawke looked anxiously at the door while Merrill told them all a story about a garden she had found the day before that had Prophet’s Laurel in full bloom. It sounded very much like the viscount’s private, walled, locked garden. Varric made a mental note to have one of his lackeys follow her around for a couple days and make sure any guards were convinced not to have her arrested.

“Here I go rambling again when you had something you wanted to tell us,” said Merrill.

“I wanted to wait until everyone was here,” said Hawke. “Or at least until Anders got here.”

“Anders, hmm?” said Isabella suggestively. She was laying it on a little thick, in Varric’s opinion. “See, Varric, I would have lost that bet if you would have opened up the pool.”

Hawke gave the pirate a very disapproving, and very pink, scowl.

“That’s because you would have bet on yourself, Rivaini,” said Varric.

“I can be very persuasive when there’s gold on the line.”

Probably in answer to Hawke’s prayers, the door swung open to admit Aveline and Anders. Either it had been a rough day in the undercity or Blondie had spent much of the walk to the Hanged Man receiving even more career advice from the Guard Captain. He looked tired and twitchy. Fenris was not far behind them, keeping a steady distance from the mage.

“Hurry over,” Merrill called to them. “We want to hear Hawke’s news!”

Hawke made sure everyone had a mug and a tumbler before she jumped onto the nearest chair and pulled the folded letter from her pocket. She shook it open and cleared her throat dramatically, then read it aloud to her rapt audience. The gathered friends all clapped and hollered when she was done. She dropped the hand holding the parchment to her side and held out her whiskey glass.

“To Warden-Recruit Carver Hawke. May he cause the darkspawn such great annoyance that they never bother starting another Blight!”

As everyone drank to Carver, Hawke climbed down from her chair and went to stand by Anders’ side. “And to Anders. My brother is alive because of you. I owe you a debt that cannot be repaid.” She downed the rest of the whiskey in her tumbler, slammed it down onto the table, and then gathered Anders up into an embrace he was clearly not expecting. Varric was probably the only one there with just the right vantage point to see the normally shameless mage’s cheeks flush crimson.

The group drank to Anders and everyone took the opportunity to embrace Hawke. As usual, Varric got a face full of loosely bound bosom. Being a dwarf had its perks. Even Fenris was getting used to Hawke’s flamboyant displays of affection, wrapping a lanky, spiky, shimmering arm around her shoulders and accepting a pat on the back without even making a face.

“I am pleased to hear that your brother lives,” the elf said formally.

They milled around for a while longer before everyone eventually settled more or less into their usual places around the table. Varric heard Hawke make another crack about her mother’s marriage mission to Isabela, who also found the idea of a married Hawke very amusing.

“I was married once, you know,” said Isabela, sidling up on Hawke’s left. “You don’t have to stay married. Antivan Crows are good for that sort of thing.”

Hawke pivoted around in her seat, giving the pirate her full attention. Varric signaled Norah for another round and drained his own cup. Replacing it on the table, he noticed Anders had taken the seat to his right and was looking pensively into his still-full cup of ale.

“Nobody will think less of you if you can’t stomach it, Blondie.”

“What? Oh.” The mage took a perfunctory sip and gazed at nothing in particular. “I’ve been an ass, haven’t I.”

“On occasion.”

“I thought she was reckless. I told her she took her family for granted and couldn’t begin to understand the danger she was in.”

“And she didn’t kill you? Maybe she thinks you’re cute.”

Anders didn’t seem to hear him. He was watching Hawke with a pained expression while he took a longer, more intentional drink. “I mistook her kindness for naivete. I doubted that anyone that beautiful could have suffered real hardship. Maker, isn’t she beautiful?”

Varric would have chosen a better word than beautiful. Perhaps, perilous? Considering his own recent revelation, however, he hardly had room to correct the man. “Her legs are too long and her chin is too big, but I suppose she does alright for a human.” He concentrated on his own drink so that Hawke would not have two pairs of lascivious eyes boring through her.

How adorable. Two idiots pining away at each other and doing nothing about it. He could see it now: Hawke would show her interest by trying and failing to act as though she had no interest at all and Anders would make flirtatious suggestions and then try to take them back. They would both insist that they were unworthy of the other until the tension became so thick between them that they ended up naked on a cot in Anders’ clinic.

Don’t think about Hawke naked.

That didn’t mean Varric was rooting for their friendly neighborhood abomination. Varric was team Hawke, all the way. If Hawke wanted Anders, Anders she would have. But Anders would have to keep up certain standards.

Varric evaluated the mage from the safety of his ale cup. When he wasn’t brooding, Blondie could be damned charming. Funny, too. He was a decent looking guy, and he had proven to be a good ally. Then there was that whole healing-the-sick-for-free thing. Hawke could do worse, but she could do better, too.

Like, maybe someone who wasn’t possessed? Maybe someone who wasn’t perpetually hiding from templars?

Hell, those were probably points in Anders’ favor as far as Hawke was concerned.

“Oi, Dwarf,” Isabela pulled him out of his appraisal. “Are we going to play Wicked Grace so I can take your money fairly, or should I just tell Corff to put my drinks on your tab for the rest of the week?”

*

Before the evening had run its course, Varric caught sight of Anders talking to Hawke in a far corner of the tavern. He was gesturing emphatically, apparently throwing himself at her mercy. Her stance started out guarded but softened quickly as he entreated her. He finished his apology and bolted, leaving the Hanged Man altogether. Hawke watched him with a surprised look on her face that would not have looked out of place on her dog. Varric fought down a number of uncharitable thoughts about Anders.

Merrill, Fenris and Aveline had all retired for the night when Hawke walked unsteadily back to her spot on Varric’s left.

“Vee, did you say something to Anders?”

“I say a lot of things to a lot of people, Hawke.”

“He apologized for all the shit he gave me.” She looked at Varric and he feigned ignorance so that she would elaborate. “You know what I’m talking about.” She put on a low, whiny voice to represent Anders. “You’re so lucky, Hawke. You have no idea what true oppression is like, Hawke. You take your family for granted and take unnecessary risks, Hawke.”

“You’re such a patient woman, I didn’t even realize you were bothered by that,” Varric teased. “I didn’t say anything to him. Maybe you finally proved to him that he was wrong. Or maybe he figures you won’t take your pants off for someone who patronizes you like that.”

Hawke blushed. Mission accomplished.

“What--why? Anders doesn’t think of me like that.”

“I bet you could tell me how many daggers there are in this room before you could tell me how many times someone flirted with you tonight.”

“Nobody flirted with me.”

“And the daggers?”

“Twenty three.”

“I rest my case.”

“Who flirted?”

“Apart from me?”

She shoved him and signaled Norah for a pint, face glowing. “You are so full of shit.”

“That’s beside the point.” He considered her for a moment, choosing his words. “Hawke, I know you’re no virgin. What did the last person to take you to bed say to you that got through this wall of oblivion you have stacked up?”

“I’m not that oblivious.”

“Just answer the question. I need to know for authorly reasons.”

Norah brought Hawke a tankard and she immediately took a long swig from it, avoiding his eye.

“Mmmrghstrrggle….”

“I didn’t catch that.”

“He said, ‘I bet you could strangle a man with those legs.’ And then he asked me if I wanted to try.”

Varric couldn’t help but chuckle at that. He might even use it in that romance novel he’d been threatening Aveline with. “So the direct approach works. I’ll let Blondie know. Unless it was the strangling that got your attention?”

“I hate you, dwarf.”

“Because someone ought to warn him if you’re into that sort of thing.”

At that moment, Isabela came strutting back over to their table. Someone’s been teasing Hawke without me,” she purred, cuddling up to Hawke and pinching her flushed cheek.

“Just discussing the men she’s conquered with her whips and chains,” said Varric.

“Ooh, anyone I know?”

“He was just a picklock in Denerim and there were no whips or chains involved.” Hawke glowered into her cup. “Just good, old fashioned, casual sex.”

“You don’t mean Jaren the Locksmith, do you?”

Varric would not have believed that Hawke could get any redder, but she proved him wrong. She stretched her arms out in front of her and rested her forehead on the edge of the table.

Maker, Bela. Do you know everyone?”

“Everyone worth knowing,” said Isabela. “You must be seizing up at every joint by now, Hawke. That had to have been ages ago. Before the--oh! Oh, it must have been you, then! It is a small world, after all.”

“Do I want to know?” said Varric.

“She broke his heart, poor dear,” Isabela cooed. “Just before the Blight. He came into the Pearl every night for a week, sniffling into his wine.”

Hawke drank the rest of her cup too fast and coughed, then pushed it away to indicate she’d had enough. “Feelings,” she said as sincerely as she could muster, “are stupid.”

“Very profound, Precious.”

*

Not long later, Varric insisted on walking Hawke back to her new home in Hightown. It wasn’t a suggestion that came without protest.

“Then who’s going to walk you home?” she said a little mushily.

“I run a spy network, Precious. Do you think I’m ever truly alone in this town?”

They moved at a fast pace through the cool air, smoky from the foundries working overtime a few blocks away. Hawke spoke very quickly, and with a few slurred consonants and dropped vowels, about how beautiful Kirkwall was late at night. Varric was prone to agree. As they climbed the steps to Hightown, she watched the moon over the sea and went quiet. She sighed and wrapped her arms up tight around herself.

“You weren’t just teasing about Anders, were you.” It was a statement, not a question.

“All the evidence finally came together, eh?”

“What a mess.” She stopped altogether and leaned against the short wall of the overlook.

“It doesn’t have to be a mess. He thinks you’re cute. You think he’s cute. You both work hard enough to earn a little fun.”

“It’s never just fun.”

He put a hand on her arm. “You’ve earned that, too, Hawke.”

She didn’t look at him. Instead, she started back on the path to the Amell Estate. She kept her gaze forward as she said, “You asked me, once, about my templar knife.”

“You don’t have to tell me.”

She was going to, anyway.

“Bethany was just about to turn twelve and I was sixteen going on thirty….”

Chapter Text

One day, Hawke woke up to painful, blinding sunlight pouring in through her windows. Mother was opening up the curtains and humming an obnoxiously cheerful tune.

“Good morning, darling,” said Mother much too loudly. “There’s an elfroot tonic on your bedside table for the headache I’m certain you have.” She pulled the second set of curtains, letting even more blasted light in. “Unless, of course, someone else broke into the cellar and took both bottles of Chasind Wildwine last night.”

Ah, yes. All the pieces were coming back together. “Fenris ran out of Aggregio Pavali,” Hawke explained thickly.

“I see,” said Mother. “Naturally, you had to properly mourn its passing with the strongest wine we had on hand.”

“Naturally.”

Hawke pulled herself up into a seated position on the bed. She reached out a hand blindly for the glass on her nightstand. It was cold and the liquid inside was bitter, but it worked fast. She was able to open her eyes, just a crack. Mother came around to the far side of the bed and climbed in, shifting across it until she was seated right up against Hawke. She was always extra affectionate when she was about to pass motherly judgement and offer unsolicited life advice.

“You know, dear, the neighbors are starting to notice that you seem to go in and out of an apparently abandoned building at all hours of the night.”

That’s the scandal?” said Hawke. She took another soothing sip of her elfroot tonic. “They aren’t at all bothered by the fact that we routinely entertain elves, dwarves, and pantsless pirates in our fancy Hightown home?”

“If I had Isabela’s legs, I wouldn’t wear pants, either,” said Mother conspiratorially. Hawke smiled despite herself. “Of course they’ve noticed that. Oddly enough, they comment on Aveline the most. I think they believe you’re having an affair with her so she’ll look away when you do something illegal.”

“Close enough.”

“That kind of talk doesn’t bother me.” Mother put a hand on Hawke’s knee. “It may surprise you to know that I like your friends, Arista. Especially your handsome young men. Which is why--”

“Mother, please don’t.”

“Which is why I’m concerned.” Mother paused to make sure Hawke wasn’t going to interrupt her again. “You are certainly old enough to make your own decisions about your body and who you share it with, but I know you have not had much opportunity to have male friends in the past. When you stay late with men in their homes, when you drink with them or let them buy you things, there are bound to be certain expectations.”

Hawke swallowed her drink too hard and coughed. “Mother.”

“Anders, Fenris, and Varric are all very nice boys and it isn’t kind to string them along.”

“I am not,” Hawke shuddered, “sharing my body with anyone and I am definitely not stringing anyone along.”

“You are up at all hours with Varric and Fenris, and those puppy faces you and Anders have been making when he comes over for dinner have not gone unnoticed.” She pulled a folded bit of parchment seemingly out of thin air. “And now you’re getting early morning love letters. Someone is bound to feel strung, eventually.”

Hawke snatched up the message. Her full name was written in lovely, looping letters surrounded by dozens of insipid little hearts. The handwriting was very familiar.

“I am going to kill Varric,” she said as she unfolded it.

Dearest Hawke,

I’ve invited a certain apostate to come along with me and collect a cache of potions that was intercepted by a very shady bunch of individuals who I would definitely never associate with. Unfortunately, I have every intention of abandoning said apostate to complete this task on his own. Imagine him now, wandering the Wounded Coast, lost and alone. Why, there might be giant spiders! Or bandits! Or Templars!! It’s a beautiful day to rescue a damsel in distress.

Name your best looking kid after me.
Love, V

Hawke made a disgusted noise and flung the covers off of her legs. Mother dug the note out of the blanket and read it while Hawke threw on clean clothes and laid out her leathers.

“Huh,” said Mother. “I was certain Varric was carrying a torch for you, himself.”

“Varric is definitely not interested in humans, ” said Hawke as she buckled her belt. “And just to further allay your fears,” The chest piece went over her head and then tied to fit, “Fenris prefers very busty girls,” she paused for effect, “and very muscular boys.”

Mother’s eyebrows threatened to meet her hairline. She still clutched the message from Varric.

“They tell me these things because they are my very dear friends whom I do not have sex with.”

“And Anders,” said Mother with a distinct curl to her lips.

“Apparently Anders has less discerning taste.”

Hawke flopped back down onto the bed and started pulling on her boots. Mother pulled herself over and kissed her dramatically on a flaming cheek.

“I rather think he has the best taste of the lot.”

With her knife in her boot, a dagger on her hip, and Father’s best staff slung over her shoulder, Hawke was ready to go. As she trampled down the stairs, Wrex leapt from his pillow in front of the fireplace and began running circles around the front room. She knelt down and he covered her with wet, doggy kisses.

“Alright, I suppose you can come,” said Hawke. The dog wiggled madly in a full body tail-wag. “You have to promise me something, though.”

Wrex barked happily and panted at her.

“Don’t you dare cock-block me. Got it?”

He barked again and turned around in a circle.

“I’m going to hold you to your word.” Hawke scratched his head and made her way to the door.

It was hot outside and impossibly bright as Hawke and her dog crossed through Hightown toward the city gate. The late morning sunshine was everywhere, reflecting off of the whitewashed mansions to create a sea of brilliant white. The heady scents of jasmine and crystal grace filled the humid air. Hawke walked purposefully, arms pumping at her sides, doing a poor job of convincing herself that she was not nervous about being alone with Anders.

If he hadn’t apologized, the whole infatuation might have passed. Sure, he had beautiful eyes, perfect hands, and a charming smirk. She might still have hoped for hot summer days that would force him to show his broad shoulders and firm behind outside of their feathered capsule. Without his change of heart, he might have remained the very attractive asshole who happened to have saved her brother from certain death. Who had prevented her from having to decide whether to kill said brother or watch him die slowly and horrifically. Who had risked everything in attempt to rescue his friend from the abuses of the Circle. Who had given up his very individuality to keep another friend from having to possess corpse after rotting corpse.

Shit. Maybe it wouldn’t have passed.

They were just about to head out the gate when Wrex turned around suddenly and gave an excited bark. Hawke looked over her shoulder to catch sight of Fenris, half-running toward them. Considering the fact that he did not have an overbearing mother to hand feed him hangover cures early in the morning, he must have had a good reason to be in such a hurry.

“Hawke,” he panted, coming to a stop and pressing his hand into his side to nurse a stitch. “I am glad I caught you. I went to your home and your mother said you had gone to the coast. It is not safe to travel there alone.”

“I’m not alone,” Hawke gestured to Wrex, who let out a proud woof.

Fenris drew his eyebrows together in disapproval. “Aveline brought me some disturbing information this morning. This is why I went to find you.”

“I’m starting to suspect that Aveline is secretly a mage who specializes in hangover maximizing spells.”

He ignored her attempt at humor. “A ship from Tevinter was denied port yesterday. She suspects they will have berthed illegally somewhere along the coast.”

“Slavers?”

“Almost certainly.”

“Danarius?”

“That is always a possibility.”

“Shit.”

“Indeed.”

She looked out at the road extending to the coast. You picked the perfect day to play matchmaker, Varric. “Well,” she said to Fenris, “let’s go have a round of hide and seek with Varric and Anders.”

Fenris raised an eyebrow and she gave him a short summary of Varric’s scheme and her purpose for running out to the coast in the first place.

“You and the mage?” Fenris said with disgust.

“Did I stop having magical powers when I wasn’t looking? Mother will be pleased.”

“You are… different.”

“You just say that because I’m the only mage you know who will ply you with wine until you tell your life story.”

Hawke beckoned him on. They exited the gates at a rapid pace. Soon, the smells and sounds of the city were replaced by salt and crashing waves. Varric hadn’t said exactly which of his many hiding places might be holding his smuggled potions, but she knew where most of them were. She led Fenris and Wrex up into the wooded foothills.

As soon as they entered a long shady stretch of path she heard a familiar, mechanical clicking. There was a woosh of air just past her face and an arrow appeared, embedded in a tree just to her left.

“Do you bring broody elves on all of your dates, Precious?” Varric’s voice rang out from somewhere in the brush. “That might be why you haven’t gotten laid in a while.”

“I don’t have to see you to set you on fire, you know,” Hawke called back into the woods.

He stepped out with Bianca on his shoulder and a big grin on his face. “I don’t have to see you to know you’re lying, Hawke. That’s how bad you are at it!”

Varric was looking particularly roguish without his leather duster. His hair was pulled back tightly and he wore a mostly pointless green silk shirt that exposed both his ever-present chest and thickly muscled arms.

“You forgot to add a shipful of Tevinter slavers to that list of possible dangers my damsel might face,” said Hawke. “I’m afraid I might need backup for that one.”

“Shit.”

“That’s what I said!”

Varric directed them over the next hillcrest, toward a shady spot Hawke knew well. Naturally he would have chosen that one, it was easily the prettiest smuggler’s cove on the coast--as long as the tide was out. They curved southward and the land rose up over their left shoulders.

The cove entrance would have been visible just around the next bend, but before they made it there was a shout from the cliff above.

“Ho, there,” called down someone whose garishly orange robes made them stand out above the cliff edge. “You are in possession of stolen property. If you turn it over, your lives will be spared.”

Hawke made a show of patting her pockets. “You must be mistaken,” she called back up. “I fenced all of my stolen goods this morning.”

“You will turn over the slave or we will take him.”

“Fenris is a free man,” said Hawke. “He’s not going anywhere.”

“Very well,” said the man above them. He signaled to someone unseen behind him and they heard the unmistakable clanking of armor in motion.

Fenris looked at her with gratitude. “We must find out who sent them.”

Hawke nodded and turned to Varric. “Try to keep the chatty orange one alive for questioning.”

“Aim for the head idiot’s legs. Got it, Boss.”

There were eight or ten of them in all, Hawke never did get an accurate count. She started with a field of lightning then ran into the brawl with Fenris and Wrex at her side. They were well trained against magic and melee, alike. Varric had the best luck against them, nobody could train against Bianca.

Hawke swept one of them to the ground with a blast of force and swung the blade end of her staff to impale him through the seam of his armor. Her blade was stopped by a magical barrier, expertly raised just in time. She looked up and saw that Ser Orange had pulled out a staff of his own. That coward was just going to stand above them, sending down supportive bursts of magic from relative safety. Hawke couldn’t allow that.

Mustering a burst of force across the fade and bolstering it with her own energy, Hawke reached all the way to the top of the cliff and tugged. It was a lot of work for such a subtle thing. The man in orange stumbled and began to slide down the cliff face.

While Hawke was working on the mage, however, she had not been paying attention to the much closer fray. She heard the sound of the sword just as she turned to see it coming across at her but instead of having her guts opened up onto the ground the bearer of the sword burst into flames and crumbled to the ground, screaming. She glanced up past the last two enemies and saw Anders rushing over, blasting them with fire and ice even as they bristled with crossbow bolts and attempted, pointlessly, to avoid being cut down by Fenris.

With that well in hand, Hawke rushed over to the leader. The man in orange was barely a man at all. He could not have been more than twenty, sandy-haired with a hard-earned dusting of downy fuzz over his chin and lip. The fall had not killed him, but he had taken a few hard knocks on the way down and was only barely conscious.

“I am really confused,” Hawke heard Anders say. “I mean, even more confused than I usually am when Hawke shows up.”

“The broody elf got some intel on slavers in the region and brought Hawke,” Varric explained as though it was obvious. “I only ran into them by coincidence.”

“You only ran into them because you left me in there, Varric. That spider was really big.”

“You had everything under control.”

“Is the mage alive?” Fenris pushed past the other two and rushed over, sword still drawn.

“He’s just a kid, Fen--”

Fenris knelt down and grasped the mage’s robes harshly. He shuddered back into consciousness, eyes wide and scared.

“Did Danarius send you? Where is he now?”

“No-not Danarius,” the kid stammered.

The lyrium markings on Fenris’ skin flashed a warning. “Who sent you?”

“My p-patron, Hadriana.”

“Hadriana is here?”

“In the holding caves, east of here. Please, I don’t want to die!”

“I did not want to be hunted.” Fenris made a sound like an animal, markings glowing, and phased his hand through the kid’s chest with remarkable speed.

The kid let out a sputter and slumped around Fenris’ grasp. At least it was quick.

Fenris let the body drop to the ground. “Hawke, I cannot ask you to come with me--”

“Then I guess it’s a good thing that I’m volunteering.”

*

Hightown was cool and quiet. A cold wind was blowing in from the coast and it looked like a storm might finally be rolling in to cut through the heat they had been suffering from all week. Glimmers of sunlight filtered in through the clouds as the day wound to a close. The district’s respectable residents were all settling down to a respectable meal.

Hawke broke the peace like a hammer to glass. She called out for Fenris and pounded on his door until those respectable residents started poking their heads out of their windows and doors. Oh, just Hightown’s newest neighbor trying to get into the abandoned building full of corpses again. Probably drunk, they’d say. She was Gamlen Amell’s niece after all.

“I had hoped he was gone for good this time but I saw him go into your house.”

Hawke spun around at the sound. She hadn’t realized Anders was so close behind her, hadn’t even heard him walk up. She relaxed when she comprehended what he had said. “I would have gone after him.”

Anders sighed. He looked exhausted even as the last rays of sunlight enhanced his fine cheekbones.

“He’s our friend,” said Hawke. She began a slow walk back toward the Amell Estate and Anders fell into pace beside her.

“Oh, yes. Our friend who hates us for something we can’t control. Didn’t you hear him? ‘What does magic touch that it does not spoil?’ Pah.”

There was so much she had come to understand about Anders since she started really paying attention. There was so much she had come to appreciate. He had shown her he could change his mind and that wasn’t something she had seen many men do. She couldn’t easily reconcile selfless, smirking Anders with the bitter man beside her. But then, despite his protest, he had been looking for Fenris, too.

“Considering what magic has done to him, I can’t hold it against him if he hates it,” she said.

“He has let one traumatic experience color all the following events of his life.”

“Don’t be dense,” Hawke spat. She swallowed, attempting to regain composure. “Weren’t you with us in that bloody pit of horror? They bled those slaves dry while the others watched on, wondering who would be next. That and pain are all Fenris knows. I could just as easily accuse you of holding a pointless grudge against the Chantry.”

His eyes flashed, she had hit a nerve. “The Chantry systematically brainwashes the populace against mages while the Circle steals our personhood, our very lives…”

“I know.” Hawke put a hand on his shoulder. He blinked, surprised at the contact. “If you gave him a chance, you would find that his captivity and yours were not all that different. This hypocritical rivalry the two of you have going on is not attractive in either of you.”

Anders dropped his hands and scowled. “Well, I’m sure he has plenty of attractive traits to make up for that.”

Hawke’s eyes went wide for a moment while she connected the dots. “You complete idiot,” she said, shaking her head. She took his face in both hands and planted a firm kiss on his lips. When she pulled away he had an adorably shocked expression on his face. “I’m not interested in Fenris.”

“Oh,” he said lamely.

“Oh,” Hawke mocked. “I’m going home now. Shall I visit you tomorrow?”

Anders brought his hand up to lightly touch his lips. “No. Yes. Well, I do have something I wanted to talk to you about.”

“I’ll bet.”

“Not--oh, you’re going to be impossible now, aren’t you?”

*

She wasn’t able to visit the next day.

Early the next morning, Hawke received a visit from the Viscount’s obscenely well-dressed courier. Her presence was requested at her earliest convenience. In very-important-people-speak, as far as she understood it, that meant immediately.

The Viscount needed Hawke to talk to the Arishok and the Arishok needed Hawke to find and contain a massive shipment of airborne poison that could kill the entire city slowly and painfully. Just another Tuesday, really.

It wasn’t until that evening that Hawke, Varric, Aveline, and Merrill finally tracked down their likeliest suspect only to discover that he had also been double-crossed. Their true query was back where they started, in the city. In Lowtown, naturally, where people were crammed in ten to a home and couldn’t afford healing if they encountered the poison gas.

Eighteen died while Hawke and her party rushed back into Kirkwall and followed the screams into the slum where the gas had been released. Many lived, though, because Hawke impulsively ran into the hazy street and ignored the burning in her throat as she frantically found and secured every canister.

Thus, it wasn’t until around seven o’clock in the morning the day after Hawke said she would visit Anders that she finally showed up at his clinic. She wasn’t in precisely the state she had hoped to be in for that rendezvous. She was sore, sweaty, barely able to breathe, and carrying an unconscious elven teenager over her shoulder. A dozen others followed, including the companions who had followed Hawke into the toxic fog.

At the sound of the bell on his clinic door, Anders came blearily out from behind the ratty old sheet that provided his sleeping area with the barest possible privacy.

Hawke laid the elf on a cot and sauntered, or maybe stumbled, over to Anders. She was suddenly extraordinarily light-headed.

“Good morning, sunshine,” she said with what was probably a stupid grin on her face. Then everything faded to black.

*

“Arista.”

There was a buzzing in her head and an indescribably awful taste in her mouth. Had she been drinking? What in the world had she been drinking? That wasn’t Mother saying her name. Where had she been drinking?

“Hawke, I need your help.”

Anders. Right. Saar-qamek. Lowtown. Then Darktown and the clinic. She managed to open her eyes and look at Anders.

“Sorry I stood you up,” she said dryly.

“I’m going to give you a chance to make up for it if you can sit up and drink this.”

His breath smelled strongly of lyrium. He must have been working the whole night, healing beyond his magical capacity. The cup in his hand smelled like overcooked eggs, which was much less pleasant.

Hawke closed her eyes and swallowed thick saliva before attempting to lift herself up. She heard the cup being set on the floor, then felt Anders’ hands just under her ribs, helping her. When she was able, she took up the cup. She did her best not to smell it as she drank it.

“Ugh. What is this?”

“I don’t actually know,” said Anders. “The Arishok sent gallons of it. Is it working?”

“That bastard said there was no antidote,” Hawke hissed. It burned as it went down, but it took the slimy taste with it. The thick buzzing in her head began to die down. “Did you say you needed my help?”

Anders took a deep breath. “I’m part of an organization that helps mages escape the Gallows.”

“Is it alright if I don’t pretend to be shocked?” Hawke gulped down the rest of the potion as quickly as she could stand.

Anders smiled down at his hands. “I suppose. You have been through a lot.”

“So, who are we smuggling out? And why haven’t you asked me before?”

“You’re a little too high-profile to be sneaking in and out of the Gallows, Hawke. And this isn’t an escape, this is about the Tranquil Solution.”

*

It should have frightened her.

She knew that even as she rushed back through the sewers after him.

Justice was a powerful, unpredictable entity and there was no guarantee that she could do anything to stop it if Anders truly lost control. Seeing that happen should have been terrifying.

Not… exhilarating.

There she was, though; exhilarated. Because she had stopped it.

Hawke had earned Justice’s respect. Justice had proven that much by visiting her in the Fade. After that she had been fascinated by their relationship, compelled to pick out the wandering boundary between them like the elaborate seam between the bones of a human skull. Anders was not an abomination, of that much she was certain. Justice made him more than human, more powerful and more driven, but vulnerable and volatile. He needed direction and he was looking to Hawke. There was something very exciting about that.

Anders, understandably, was less encouraged by his loss of control. She found him in his clinic. The poison victims who had been able to drink the horrible antidote had been released and only a few unconscious patients remained. The clinic was silent apart from the crashing and thumping of Anders furiously packing.

“Do you want to talk about it?” said Hawke.

He let the items in his hands fall into a box with a clatter and turned to face her. “There is nothing to talk about. I lost control. I almost killed that girl.”

“You regained control. You didn’t kill her.”

“Because of you. You were the only thing stopping me.”

I was the only thing. “I couldn’t have stopped you if you really wanted to kill her,” she said, crossing an arm across her belly to quell a flutter in her abdomen that she would never have admitted to feeling. “I saw you regain control. I know you can do it again.”

Anders slumped, resigned. “I have given you no reason to have this much faith in me.”

“It wouldn’t be faith if it was based on reason,” said Hawke glibly. He chuckled, smiling into his hands again, displaying those long, ginger eyelashes.

She took a step forward, winding her fingers into the feathered collar of his coat, pretending to set it right on his shoulders. His breath hitched at her proximity.

“Arista,” he sighed. She felt the word like a drop of cool water down her spine. “I know I haven’t been subtle about my infatuation with you. I never really believed you would reciprocate. Not after what you’ve seen.”

“You don’t want me to reciprocate?”

“I don’t want to hurt you.” His stance changed and his cheeks flushed. “Did you just… roll your eyes at me?”

“You’re being ridiculous. Just kiss me, already.”

She caught sight of his wry little smirk for a split-second before he granted that command. He darted forward, groaning like he’d been punched in the gut. One hand slipped around her back and the other dug into her hair. He pulled her in with surprising strength for his slight stature. Hawke relaxed into him, opening up to his tongue, riding the buzz of contact.

Maker, yes. It had been so long.

He pulled away and burrowed his face into her neck. “I have nothing to offer you,” he panted.

Hawke dragged her thigh across the bulge in his trousers. “I think you have plenty to offer.”

Anders snorted and pushed back to look her in the eye. “Do you take anything seriously?”

“I seriously want to see you naked.” It was his turn to roll his eyes. “I’m not proposing, Anders. There are no offers to put on the table. This feels good. I would like to feel good a few more times before we plummet into whatever abyss that witch was prophesying about back on Sundermount.”

“Are you still thinking about that? Wasn’t that years ago?”

“If only some handsome blonde healer would help me forget.”

He smiled. A big, stupid, pink, lovely smile. “I like this side of you, Hawke.”

“I like when you say my name.”

Arista.”

Hawke reached around his neck with both hands and pulled him in for another kiss and then--

The bell over the clinic door rang. Anders swore and kicked one of the crates he had been throwing things into.

“Duty calls,” said Hawke mournfully. “Will you come over when you’re done tonight?”

“To your house? But, your mother--”

“Will embarrass me. I’ll live.” She paused to think that over. “Probably.”

Chapter Text

“Serah Tethras! It certainly is a pleasant surprise to see you here.”

The worst thing about Sebastian was that he was so Maker-damned sincere. A normal person, especially a normal Chantry Brother, would have been smug. A dwarven sinner seeking moral counsel? Self-righteous candy. A particularly smart person would have been suspicious.

Hell, Varric barely believed his reason for being there, himself.

Sebastian Vael was just too nice for all that. He was legitimately happy to see a familiar face in his beloved Chantry, no matter the cause for the visit. It was probably a good thing Hawke had encouraged him to return to the church. A man that guileless had no business in politics.

“I’ve got a quandary for you, Choirboy.”

“Nothing too profane, I hope,” said Sebastian with a boyish smile. “We are in Andraste’s house.”

“You could call this a spiritual matter.”

“In that case, I’m more than happy to help!” He was, too. Those baby blues lit right up.

Should they go into one of the booths? Varric was not a confession kind of guy. Then again, he also wasn’t the kind of guy who was accustomed to the bone-deep regret he had been feeling since his adventure in the Fade. Just get it over with, Tethras.

“That… desire demon you ran into at the Harimann house,” he started, “it was pretty convincing, right?”

Sebastian’s face darkened. He led Varric to a bench within view of the altar and the massive icon of Andraste. “It was horrible,” he sighed, sinking to a seat. “It saw into my heart and grasped onto a darkness there that I thought I had defeated. The temptation was beyond description.” He looked down at his open hands. “I still hear it sometimes. I wonder what would have happened if I had taken its offer.”

“I can tell you what would have happened,” said Varric. “From personal experience. Hawke would have knocked you out and killed the thing herself, leaving you feeling like a first class ass--”

“Varric,” Sebastian said warningly, glancing at Andraste as if she would come to life and wag a stone finger at them.

“...Jerk.”

“Am I understanding this correctly? You encountered another desire demon with Hawke? Can that woman go a week without getting into trouble?”

“Don’t get me started,” said Varric with a smirk. “It was Pride this time, but I understand she did run into another desire demon after she had… dispatched me.”

“You were tempted, then.”

“Tempted might be an understatement. I… shot her. I shot Hawke. Several times.”

“Can I assume you wouldn’t be here if she was seriously hurt?” Sebastian asked with genuine concern. Varric gestured an affirmative. “Ah. Well, good. You know, Varric, Pride is the strongest of the demons because it is the subtlest of our sins before the Maker. Pride takes a thousand forms and many of those seem pure.” He glanced around the Chantry, no doubt thinking of some condescending cleric who displayed exactly that pure-seeming sort of pride. “If you fell prey to its scheming, I imagine you must be wondering what sort of man you are. What sort of man would betray his dearest friend on the promise of a demon?”

“You hit the mark, Choirboy. So what sort of man am I?”

“You’re just… a man,” he replied, shrugging his shoulders. “If you had the idea that you were something extraordinary, that might be why you ended up in that situation in the first place.”

“Ouch.”

“That’s the way of pride. The Maker created demons each with their own purpose. They are designed to tempt us because--to overcome temptation, or to come back to grace after being tempted--that makes us stronger.” He smiled kindly and looked Varric in the eye. “What you do going forward will say much more about you than what you did under the influence of such a creature.”

The Chantry was full of murmuring patrons and gentle wisps of incense. The holy atmosphere amplified Sebastian’s assurances. That was probably why people liked to go there for that sort of thing. Varric felt a little less terrible.

“At least I know I can be redeemed before the Maker,” he said, leaning back on the bench with a crooked grin. “Hawke on the other hand….”

“Have you not apologized to her?”

“What, just, ‘Sorry I tried to kill you in the Fade?’ ‘I promise it’ll never happen again?’”

“That’s a start,” Sebastian chuckled. “You know Hawke better than anyone else. I’m sure you’ll come up with something.”

Of course, he hadn’t apologized to Hawke. He’d been avoiding her like a coward. Her sudden appointment as unofficial ambassador to the Qunari had made it far too easy not to confront her after their little jaunt into the Fade. Then there was the constant presence of Anders. Varric hadn’t considered just how inconvenient that might turn out to be when he had encouraged that particular pairing. In fact, he had encouraged it specifically to make Hawke less available. Best laid plans, etcetera.

He passed a trio of gossiping Sisters and exited the darkness of the Chantry. Summer was finally starting to let up. Outside it was warm and humid but much more bearable than it had been for the past few weeks. Autumn could not come fast enough. Varric never quite felt like himself without his coat. He was exposed. His shadow was the wrong shape. He never had enough pockets.

As he descended the final steps into the Chantry commons, Varric caught sight of Kevin waiting casually by the job board. The kid just sort of blended in everywhere he went. It was a gift. Hard to believe that kid had once been his least reliable courier. In the past few years, Kevin had learned to be everywhere at once. He was sly as a shadow and twice as quiet. He was a spider in the corner. Nobody ever noticed him, but he noticed all sorts of interesting things.

“I’ve got a good feeling about you today, kid,” said Varric as he passed by.

Kevin dutifully fell into step beside him. “Big news about your brother, Messere.”

Varric stopped short and spun to face Kevin. “Location? Activity?”

“Both. He’s taken up residence in Hightown. Lots of folks going in and out. He’s only been seen once, but the receipts check out.”

“Hightown? As in Kirkwall? As in here?” Varric opened his arms to indicate the Chantry commons.

“Yes, Messere.” Kevin held out a scrap of parchment with an address and various notes.

“Balls of steel on that one,” said Varric under his breath. He started back on his original path. “Good work, kid. Is Hawke at home?”

“Uh.” Kevin stumbled a little. “I think so, Messere. I saw her return from training with Captain Vallen early this morning and did not see her leave again.”

Varric handed him a few coins and noticed that he was blushing. Over Hawke? Get in line, kid.

So. Bartrand was back in town. Varric had been trying to track that bastard down since returning from the Deep Roads, expecting to find him in a cave somewhere, surrounded by treasure like a dragon with his hoard. After all that, the pasty-faced, penny-pinching, cowardly little blood-traitor had the nerve to set his bags back down in Kirkwall.

Varric memorized the address Kevin had given him. This was the perfect job to bring his favorite murderess along for. Assuming she forgave him for shooting her in the Fade. She had to forgive him, she was Hawke and he was Varric and their story was not going to end over a few arrows in the Fade. That meant he’d also have the opportunity to exchange witty one-liners with the bluest eyes in the Marches. Three perfectly good excuses to see Hawke. He only needed a peace offering--and he knew exactly what to get.

*

Hawke snatched up the dates like she hadn’t eaten in a week. She had already shoved three of them into her mouth when it seemed to dawn on her that there might be a motive behind the gift.

“Alright, dwarf,” she said with a raised eyebrow, “what do you want?”

He opened his hands as though offering himself up. “I’m here to apologize.”

“For what?” she said with a fourth date in her mouth.

Andras--For that time I followed a demon’s advice and tried to kill you in the Fade. You do remember that, right?”

“Is that why you’ve been avoiding me? It was a demon, Varric. That’s what demons do.”

“You didn’t listen to it.”

“I have a lot of practice.”

Something about that line and the matter-of-fact way she said it struck a chord. He could see her, surrounded by demons and sassing every one of them. Probably not far off the mark.

“And I am just now realizing how batshit crazy it must be to be a mage,” said Varric sincerely. “Whether you think it’s a big deal or not, Precious, I’m sorry I turned against you. You’re the last person in Thedas I’d ever want to put a crossbow bolt through.”

Hawke smiled around her latest half-chewed date and turned ever-so-slightly pink under the spray of light summer freckles that dotted her nose. “It’s cute when you get all sentimental on me, Vee. Now come inside and get comfortable. Orana gets wistful when there aren’t enough flattened cushions to fluff.”

She looked good. Really good. She had stalwartly rejected the trappings of wealthy life, insisting on wearing Carver’s old shirts until Leandra had finally taken the initiative and replaced them. Now, instead of one of those baggy, threadbare sacks, she wore a close-fitting tunic of undyed cotton with leaves embroidered on the square neckline and a slim green belt around her waist.

Leandra may have chosen the tailor on the recommendation of a certain dwarf who would not be admitting anything.

She led him through the vestibule and the richly decorated front room into the study, where Leandra’s light and floral design influence was considerably reduced. The curtains were simple and dark and the furniture was clearly geared toward comfort and function over form. There was a big green sofa to one side, under a painting of the sea and a mountain of throw pillows. The desk in the corner was covered with curling parchment and there was a shirt draped carelessly over the chair.

Curious, Varric wandered over to see who had been writing, and what. Hawke was not known to be a prolific writer of… well, anything really. He pulled up a page covered in script that was obviously not Hawke’s careless hand.

Andraste suffered at the hands of magisters. Thus, she feared the influence of magic. But if the Maker blamed magic for the magisters’ actions in the Black City, why would He still gift us with it? The oppression of mages stems from the fears of men, not the will of the Maker.

“What’s-his-name is writing subversive declarations in your house,” said Varric. “That seems like a steep relationship step. Does he keep his things in one of your dresser drawers, too?”

What’s-his-name?” Hawke placed her box of dates on a tray next to a crystal decanter half-full of amber liquid. “After all your hard work getting us together, now you’ve demoted him?”

“That was self-preservation,” said Varric. It was not a lie. “I didn’t want to find out what happens when apostates reach peak sexual frustration. Lowtown is very flammable.”

“Right,” said Hawke skeptically. She climbed onto the sofa--literally climbed onto it, feet before ass--and patted the cushion beside her.

He took his time walking over, trying not to wonder who had left the room topless after tossing that shirt over the chair. “A wise woman once told me that feelings are stupid,” he said cautiously. “I wonder if she’s amended that statement after further research.”

“You’re my best friend, Vee. You’ve earned the right to ask me how things are with Anders.”

“Alright.” He sat down next to her and stretched his arm over the back of the sofa in imitation of a casual position. “So, Precious. How are things with you and Blondie?”

She had been waiting for that invitation. She sighed and stretched out a leg so that her bare foot pressed against Varric’s thigh. Varric did not reach down to find out if the dark gold hair on her calves was soft or coarse. “He said he loves me.”

“Already?” He couldn’t help but chuckle. “That must have you sweating buckets.”

Hawke made a noise like she was going to protest, then laughed with him. “It’s a little uncomfortable, yes.”

“And what did you say?”

“I offered to make him a sandwich.”

She almost had him with that one. “You did not.”

“No, I came up with that later. I said… I said I wish I knew what that felt like.”

“Ouch.” They were silent for a moment. Hawke looked at her hands. “So you don’t love him?”

“Of course I love him. I love him like I love Merrill and Aveline and Carver and Mother and all of you. I would stand in front of a stampeding druffalo for any of you.”

But.”

“But that’s not what he means.”

“Probably not, no.” Varric looked at nothing at all, letting his eyes unfocus. “He means the kind of love that gets people in trouble. That kind of love that makes it seem like the world is ending. It tears you apart and sews you back together. That awful pain that you keep seeking out because it feels like the only salve for the pain of being apart. That--” Varric caught a glance at Hawke’s wide eyes and decided to quit while he was behind. “That kind of love.”

“Yeah.” She pulled her leg back in and hugged her knees. “Varric?”

“Hawke.”

“Is Bianca a real person?”

Leave it to Hawke to use her clever head to connect Varric’s dots when she was meant to be connecting her own.

For the first time, he was tempted to tell the story. If he was going to tell anyone, it would be Hawke. How would she react, he wondered. Would she finally reveal that closet romantic that covertly compared every rapid heartbeat to the unbridled passion she had witnessed between her parents? She might be on a ship to Val Royeaux by morning, on a mad mission to un-star-cross Varric and Bianca once and for all.

The two of them in the same place. The same room. Wouldn’t that be… interesting.

Bianca is my crossbow,” he said with a smirk. Then, for good measure, he added, “Not everything is a metaphor, Precious.”

“You have been in love, though. I hope she knows how lucky she is.”

“Yeah.” Keep hoping. “Hawke?”

“Hmm?”

He could walk that back. He could still tell her….

.
Hawke throws the door to his suite open just like every time, but this time she’s not alone. Bianca is intimately close to her, crown of her blond head roughly even with Hawke’s sharp elbow. They are like two ends of a spectrum depicting dangerous women. Bianca is all soft round curves with a wit like a broken bottle and Hawke is long and firm, sinewy and secretly sweet.

“Look who I found,” says Hawke with a sly smile. Blue eyes flash.

“You didn’t tell me how charming your friend was, Varric,” says Bianca. She places a hand on Hawke’s hip.
.

“Varric?” Hawke was still looking at him. Still waiting for him to say something.

Where--exactly--is this train of thought heading, Tethras?

“Bartrand’s back in town.”

*

Bartrand’s new house had one point up on the place Fenris had been squatting in: the bodies littering the floor in Bartrand’s house were fresh. A point against it? Instead of being full of demons and horrors from beyond, it was full of flesh and blood people who happened to be under some kind of incredibly violent trance.

“We can’t just kill them,” said Hawke as she pushed one of them off of her with the length of her staff for the seventh time. “They have no idea what they’re doing.”

That good old moral compass. Always pointing due North.

The guard slammed against the wall, his head flopping back with a sickening smack. Without missing a beat, he was back on balance and moving toward her again. His eyes stared, unfocused, at someplace just above her head and to his left.

“They can’t be knocked out and they don’t react to pain,” Anders panted. He was trying every kind of spell he could think of to clear them of their stupor to no avail. Well, to Varric it looked like he was doing nothing at all beyond getting pale and sweaty, but it seemed more likely that it was the spell thing. “We may have no choice.”

“Hey, if the man with the spirit of Justice in his head says it’s OK to kill people,” said Varric.

“Thanks, Varric,” Anders sighed.

“Fine,” said Hawke as she jabbed the blade end of her staff right into her foe’s jugular and nimbly side-stepped the trajectory of his blood. “Try to make them quick deaths.”

Due North.

Varric had not wanted to bring Loverboy. Just you and me, he had said. Hawke had had to go and point out that Anders had been abandoned in the Deep Roads, too. Which was a fair point, damn it. Then shit got really weird and Varric had to admit that the man was pretty useful to have around.

Once Hawke accepted that the greatest charity they could offer these poor fools was a swift end, they cut their way through the house at a good clip. Good thing, too, because the more they lingered, the more disturbing the scene seemed to become. Varric was sure he had seen that one of those guards was missing a tongue. Another was missing both ears. Many were missing fingers.

“Could he have gotten involved with a blood mage?” Varric finally asked as they cleared out the main foyer and began to cautiously climb the grand staircase.

“There’s a reason blood mages tend to prefer demons and shades to thralls,” said Anders professorially. “It takes a great deal less blood and power to summon than it does to bind. To control this many people would take a… a lake of blood.”

“I’ll keep my eyes open for that.”

Hawke held her hands out as though to silence them. She took a deep whiff. “Did you drink a lyrium potion?” she said to Anders.

He shook his head and sniffed, too. Mages are weird.

The weird didn’t stop there. Hawke rushed back down the stairs and grabbed one of those fresh corpses, sticking her face close to its mouth and sniffing.

“Lyrium?” said Anders.

Hawke nodded.

Varric felt like an extra wheel on his own mission.

The master suite was locked and sounds of shifting bodies could be heard from outside the door. Varric drew a lockpick from his belt and started at the door. He had barely gotten situated when he heard the grinding sound of feet pivoting behind him.

“Show me your hands and state your business,” said Hawke in her scary murderer voice.

“Please, help me!”

Varric twisted around. Bartrand’s steward was there, holding up his hands and shaking in his boots. “Stand down, killer, I know this guy.”

“Varric! Oh, thank the ancestors you’re here!”

“What the hell happened here, Hulin?”

“He’s gone mad,” Hulin hissed. He was quivering so intensely he could barely stand. “It was that statue. The idol made of red lyrium. He said it sang to him.”

“Lyrium madness,” Hawke murmured.

“It should have gotten better when he sold the thing, but it got worse,” Hulin continued. “So much worse. He started feeding lyrium to the guards and the servants. He cut pieces off them to help them hear the song.”

“Andraste,” Anders swore. “Who did he sell it to?”

“I don’t know,” said Hulin. He looked at the door in front of them and went still and pale. “Ask him. He’s still in there.”

“I intend to,” said Varric darkly. “Get out of here, Hulin.”

The other dwarf did not need any further encouragement. Varric heard doors opening and closing even as he knelt back down to continue picking the lock to the master suite. There was no change in the sounds from the other side. Surely, if Bartrand was in there, he had heard them coming for him?

The tumblers fell into place and Varric nudged the door forward. He glanced back to ensure that his magical entourage was ready for action. Hawke was seated bouncily over her knees with her staff poised. She nodded and he kicked open the door.

Bartrand was there, flanked by two burly, slack-faced guards.

“Brother!” Varric exclaimed with false joviality. He aimed his crossbow at Bartrand’s left eye. “I love the new place, you’ll have to give me the name of your decorator.”

Bartrand didn’t move. While he sat there, mumbling incoherently, his guards moved to attack. It was a trivial move for Varric to shift Bianca’s aim from his brother’s eye to the right-hand guard’s throat. The second guard was frozen solid by Anders and then cracked open, gruesomely, by Hawke’s staff-blade.

Bartrand barely reacted. He looked blankly at the new corpses and then at Varric. “I just want to hear the song again. Just for a minute.”

“What the hell is wrong with him?” said Varric.

This was not exactly how Varric had imagined getting revenge against his brother. He had imagined Bartrand at peak asshole, spouting meaningless criticisms and trying to insult Varric’s dwarven pride while making it seem like closing them up in the Deep Roads was just a slick business move. Then Varric would have pinned him to the wall with bolts, aiming one final shot for the throat (or the eye, or the mouth, he had options) and Bartrand would have begged for his life. He would have called up the memory of their dead mother to dredge up Varric’s sympathy and then Varric would have said—

Shit. It didn’t even matter anymore.

“If he wasn’t a dwarf, I might think he was possessed,” said Anders. “Keep him from making any sudden moves, I’ll see what I can do.”

Anders held out his hand and started working whatever healing magic he thought might work while Bartrand continued babbling inanely about the song he could no longer hear. A sudden pressure on Varric’s shoulder made him jump slightly before realizing it was Hawke. She leaned low to whisper in his ear while she grasped him.

“This is your call, Vee. I’m behind you, no matter what.”

Varric nodded an affirmative. She didn’t need to tell him what she thought he should do, they had already had that particular argument. Hawke valued family above almost anything else. Could she keep herself from judging him too harshly if he went through with his plan to kill Bartrand? Could he?

Shit.

Bartrand went down onto one knee, clutching his face with both hands.

“Something has poisoned his mind,” said Anders. “I’ve cleared it, but it will only be temporary. I’m sorry, Varric.”

“Varric?” Bartrand’s voice was small and scared. “You’re here?”

Varric pulled Bianca down from his shoulder and set the safety. “I’m here, Bartrand.”

“Varric… brother. What have I done?”

“You… I don’t even know. You fucked up.”

“I’ve destroyed everything.” He collapsed onto his knees, reaching out to Varric. “Don’t let our house end like this, Varric. Don’t let this ruin the Tethras legacy.”

Dwarven honor. To the bitter end. “I won’t.” Varric had no idea how to go about preserving a legacy he had never wanted in the first place, but it seemed like the right thing to say.

“Varric.”

“Yes, Bartrand.”

“Don’t… the red… beware….”

“We’re losing him again,” said Anders.

“Red… song. Can’t hear the song.”

Bartrand’s expression faded back into that vague gaze into nothing. He climbed back up to his feet and began pacing the room, muttering about the song and patting the walls.

Hawke still had her hand on Varric’s shoulder, lending him a trickle of her fortitude. “Alright, kids,” he sighed. “Let’s secure him in here for now. I’ll find someone to take care of him.”

“Varric,” said Hawke.

“Yeah, I know.”

Chapter Text

Hawke had a little trouble getting used to sleeping with someone.

Not the sex part, thankfully. That had all come down to muscle memory and instinct.

The staying in bed afterward part was more challenging. There was not much memory of that for Hawke’s muscles to recall. She had almost always run off before that part.

The first time, she had actually considered telling Anders to leave. She had sat there, listening to the slowing tide of his breath, wondering when he was going to leap up and head home because that’s what she would have done. But he hadn’t. He had snaked his arms around her and kissed her hair and his breathing had become even slower until he was definitely asleep.

It had seemed very inhospitable to kick him out. He had looked so peaceful. And he had just spent the past few hours doing very nice things to her.

Instead, she had laid there most of the night, phasing in and out of shallow slumber, wondering how a person was supposed to sleep next to another person. Like that. How had she done it before? She had certainly done it before. At least twice.

What if he woke up first? He might lie there watching her. Creepy. He might touch her, in his ignorance, in one of those ways that made her skin crawl. There were more of those than she cared to admit. She might be surprised enough to stab him with one of her strategically hidden knives.

The next time, while she was unlacing his breeches, she laid down ground rules: If you wake up first, don’t watch me sleep, don’t grab at me, and try not to get stabbed. He had laughed and then she had done something with her mouth that made him stop laughing immediately. She had gotten a little more sleep, though.

He was starting to become a regular fixture in her bed. She was learning the value of a late morning nap.

And yet, it was nice to wake up next to someone.

“I’m heading to the Keep,” said Hawke as Anders nuzzled into the back of her neck. “Are you going to stay and surprise Sandal again?”

“I think one morning like that was enough for a lifetime,” he replied groggily.

Hawke cast a fireball into the charred remains of last night’s firewood before slipping gingerly out of the bed. She collected the previous day’s clothes. They didn’t smell too bad. There was plenty of fresh clothing in her drawers, expertly mended by Orana and folded with sprigs of rosemary and lilac blossoms, but it seemed wasteful to put those on just to get all sweaty and dirty in them.

“Do you have to go? It looks cold out there.”

She glanced over at Anders and saw him watching her appreciatively. She knew that look. That was the look that was going to turn into him going all poetic about how lucky he was. It seemed a strange sort of luck that would stick a man so passionate and generous with someone so broken, and she would be compelled to say so. Again. She did not want to reprise that conversation.

“Who will protect you from the Templars if I don’t maintain physical peak, hmm?”

Anders grinned. “If I stay close to you, I think Fenris might protect me by accident.”

“A sound plan.”

When they were both dressed, Anders followed closely behind Hawke down the stairs and through the rear hall to the cellar stairs. It was a ridiculous thing to do, Hawke was nearly thirty years old and sneaking around her own damn house like a rebellious teenager, but morning goodbyes went much more smoothly without an enraptured mother making very insistent breakfast invitations.

Also, it was kind of fun. It was romantic. The house was so quiet, they could hear Orana idly chattering all the way back in the kitchen, interspersed with deep whoops of laughter from Sandal.

Anders cupped Hawke’s face with one hand and kissed her sweetly before disappearing into the cellar.

“You’re more like me than I thought.”

Hawke jumped. Mother was silhouetted at the end of the hallway with her hands on her hips. When she walking into the light she had a great big, devious grin on her face.

“I snuck your father through that very door, you know,” Mother mused. “I was much younger of course, but you… you always do things on your own time. And speaking of getting older…”

“No.”

“Twenty-nine is an important year, darling.”

“You said the same about twenty-eight and twenty-seven and--”

“Every decade comes with its own challenges and discoveries, Arista. You should celebrate this one as it comes to an end.”

“Mother, no.”

“You’re worse than your father,” said Mother with that tight little smile that always meant she was trying not to show just how delighted she was at Hawke’s discomfort. “I had to trick him into going to the beach for his twenty-ninth. He tried to teach you to swim but you ended up teaching yourself. Even at three years old, you were so independent.”

“It isn’t a good time. The Qunari are on the verge of a riot and--”

“What are you going to do, sit in front of the compound and sing a calming lullaby? If they want to riot, they’ll riot whether it’s your birthday or not.”

“Fine,” Hawke relented. “But just dinner. And just… family.”

“Oh, it’s going to be perfect!” Mother bounded at her, wrapping her up in a tight hug. “So let’s see… Gamlen, of course. And your Anders. Aveline and her Donnic. Then Varric, Merrill, Fenris, Isabela, and Sebastian. Is that everyone, or have you adopted another while I wasn’t paying attention?”

Hawke smiled. Sometimes Mother was rather wonderful. “You got them all, Mother. The whole family.”

*

Hawke had only one rule when it came to sparring. She didn’t care if a person cheated--cheating was, in fact, encouraged--she only cared that they followed through with blow. Never pull a hit. In Hawke’s opinion, there was no better lesson than living with a bruise or a sore ass. She and Carver had never pulled a damn thing. They had, arguably, been a little too willing to beat the crap out of one another. When Aveline had joined up, she had been perfectly amenable to that guideline.

Yet there she was, stopping just short of striking Hawke with a blow that should have left a mark for a week or more. Then, following that altered trajectory, she had opened up her left flank. Hawke dove into a deep lunge and forcefully stabbed the point of her practice sword into Aveline’s abdomen.

Aveline stumbled back, grabbing her side. “That was a good hit, Hawke.”

“It wasn’t,” said Hawke, tossing the weapon aside. “You were wide open because you checked a swing that should have cut me to ribbons. You know I hate that.”

“Yes, Hawke, I know how much you love pain.” Her mouth pulled mischievously to the right.

“Oho! You tease. You’re trying to distract me from the fact that you’re… distracted.”

Aveline crossed her arms but did not bother to hide the fact that her smirk had turned into a warm smile. “I’m just tired.”

Tired people were not usually so sunny about it. “Something kept you up, hmm? And how is darling Donnic?”

“Watch it. If you don’t like people prying into your love life--”

“And yet, everyone does, anyway,” said Hawke.

“I know how that feels.” Aveline raised an eyebrow.

“I…” Shit. She had a point. Glass houses. Pots and kettles. “I’m sorry, Aveline. I’m just really happy for you. Really. Do you want to try that move again and actually hit me this time?”

Aveline just stood there with an uncharacteristically serene smile on her face. “We’re getting married.”

“Oh.”

Married. As in forever. Until death. Like Mother and Father. Like Alistair Theirin and Briony bloody Cousland. That thing normal adults did when they found someone they wanted to take care of, someone who wanted to take care of them….

“Don’t rush to congratulate me.” Aveline shoved Hawke playfully.

“It’s surprising, that’s all.”

“I like being married. I got tired of missing it.”

She had missed being married, or she had missed--don’t mention Wesley. This was not the time to bring that memory back. Not when Aveline had finally moved on. Aveline was happy. Aveline was getting married. Aveline, for all her trouble getting things started with Donnic, was a lot better at the whole relationship thing than Hawke.

“I understand,” said Hawke perfunctorily. “I think. Well, no. I don’t really. But I’m happy for you. Maker, Aveline, I’m so happy for you.”

Aveline tucked a bit of Hawke’s hair behind her ear. It was unusually intimate. Sisterly. “You should try it, sometime. Marriage,” she said, gently. “You might like it, too.”

“Don’t get carried away.” Hawke swallowed. “Come on and hit me before I get all teary.”

Aveline looked past her and that kind smile flattened. “I would, but your pet pirate just showed up.”

Hawke swung around. Sure enough, Isabela was sauntering into the yard, framed by the orange sunrise. “Isabela! Good morning, sunshine!”

“Isn’t it a little early for women of your stature to be up and about?” said Aveline cattily.

“Early, late--who knows after a certain point?” said Isabela. She sounded cheerful enough but she looked tense. “Can I borrow you, Hawke?”

“Something illegal, then?” Aveline sighed and Isabela flashed a sly grin. “I don’t know why I asked. Fine. I didn’t see you.” She turned to Hawke. “Try not to kill anyone who doesn’t deserve it.”

Hawke followed Isabela out of the training yard and into an alley leading away from the Keep. Fenris was there, leaning against a wall and cleaning his fingernails with a wicked looking dagger. When he saw them coming, he twirled the blade deftly in his hand and returned it to a sheath on his belt.

“You have obtained Hawke. Will you explain now?”

“It’s about the relic,” said Isabela. In the past, she had announced this with excitement. Today she seemed nervous. Resigned.

“Of course it is,” said Fenris. His voice was a low, exasperated growl.

Hawke wanted to believe Isabela. She had wanted to believe Isabela every time this very situation had come up. “You’ve found it? For real, this time?”

“I’m certain.”

“Of course you are,” sighed Fenris.

“This is it,” said Isabela defensively. “I swear it. The guy who has it is going to hand it over to some Tevinter assholes. Today. Any moment now.”

“We should go stop him, then,” said Hawke.

Isabela hugged her tightly. “I love you, Hawke. Have I told you that before?”

The Hightown market was just opening as they rushed past and down the hill to Lowtown. Isabela filled them in on some of the details, but she got shrill and cagey whenever Hawke pressed too hard for information. A man called Wall-Eyed Sam had the relic, had had the relic all along, and was selling it off to a magister by way of a group of Tevinter mercenaries who had just made port. They were meeting in a foundry that had been shut down after a riot the week before. That was all she would say.

Hawke had a bad feeling about the whole thing, which was not alleviated when they met up with Varric and Merrill. They had been recruited first and were keeping watch over the meeting place. Merrill was wide-eyed and worried. Varric was scowling.

“Um, Bela,” Merrill squeaked, “it seems we’re not the only ones interested in this, erm, transaction.”

“Not surprising, Kitten,” Isabela purred. “It is valuable.”

“Some might say priceless,” grumbled Varric. “Has she told you what it is?” His tone surprised Hawke. Varric was a pretty easy-going guy. It was rare to see him angry, especially at one of their friends. He had Bianca out and ready and Hawke did not like the way he watched Isabela.

“It doesn’t matter what it is,” Isabela snapped.

“Whatever it is,” said Merrill, “the Qunari seem very interested.”

“Shit,” said both Isabela and Hawke at once.

“The Antaam do not hunt for trinkets,” said Fenris dubiously. “What is this relic, Isabela?”

“Yes, Rivaini, why don’t you enlighten us?”

“It’s a book. It’s just a really old book.” Isabela was pacing and moving her arms too much.

“All this over a book?” said Hawke.

“It’s… fuck. It belonged to the Qunari. It’s by that philosopher of theirs. Keslan? Cousland?”

“Koslun?!” said Fenris, alarmed. “That is not a book. That is the book.”

“Fine. Yes. I stole it from the Qunari and that’s why they’re in Kirkwall.”

That’s why they’re in Kirkwall.

“That’s why… fuck, Bela. Fuck.” Hawke’s mind worked rapidly, connecting every shitty interaction she had had with the Qunari to Isabela. To her friend, Isabela. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I didn’t want to worry you?”

Every tense conversation with the Arishok came down to this. The early morning meetings with the Viscount came down to this. Sister Petrice and Ser Darnell and all those dead fools who had supported their madness came down to this. Shit, all those innocent people gasping for breath when the Saar-Qamek had been released in Lowtown came down to this.

Hawke felt static between her fingers.

“All this time, I’ve been trying to keep the peace with them and you….”

“I’m sorry, Hawke.”

“You can’t be here, Precious,” said Varric. He turned a much less angry face to Hawke. “You’re the only one the Arishok respects. Can you imagine what will happen if he finds out you were involved in this?”

She could imagine all too well. The Arishok was a man of principle, but he was stretched to his limit. He had hundreds of men at his beck and call, not to mention the barrels of gaseous poison and explosive black powder at his disposal. If he wanted to raze Kirkwall to its bloody foundations, he could do it. He just needed an excuse.

Or, he could leave. He would leave if he got what he came for.

“We have to give it back to them,” said Hawke.

“What!?” Isabela blanched. Even Merrill looked at Hawke reproachfully, laying a loyal hand on Isabela’s shoulder. “Without this, I’ll never get Castillon off of my back.”

“I can keep Castillon off your back. Don’t make me choose between you and Kirkwall, Bela.”

“Fuck Kirkwall,” Isabela spat. “We’d all be better off out of this hole, anyway.”

“Hey now,” Varric protested.

“You said that you would help me,” Isabela was frantic. Betrayed.

“I am going to help you.” Just not the way you want me to.

*

Everyone was full of excellent food and good wine. There was a cheerful fire in the hearth. Varric was telling them all a much-embellished account of Hawke’s rather bizarre adventure at Chateau Haine.

“Hold on,” said Anders. “I don’t recall you seducing the Duke’s son.”

“You were totally fine with the part where I supposedly slew an alpha wyvern all on my own, though,” said Hawke.

“Seduction is much more interesting than slaughter, love.”

“Cyril de Montfort had no interest in the waifish Tallis, try as she might,” Varric continued, undaunted. “So, if our heroes were to obtain the key they sought, Lady Hawke would have to dig deep--past her thorny temperament--to produce the ounce or so of charm it would take to trick the Duke’s son out of his trousers.”

“No trousers were removed in this adventure,” said Hawke.

“Not at the party, maybe,” Anders teased.

Aveline and Donnic had attempted to cuddle on one sofa, only to have Wrex cut in. The big dog was stretched across both sets of their legs with an ecstatic expression on his big, doggy face. Mother and Uncle Gamlen were in the armchairs looking sleepy. Sebastian sat on the floor near mother, who had been fawning over him all evening. Hawke was on the other sofa with her back pressed up against Anders, Merrill snuggled against her lap and Fenris on a pillow just in front of her.

A Hawke sandwich.

It would have been perfect if only the events of the previous day had never happened. There was a hole where Isabela should have been and it was full of a confusing mix of regret, anger, and worry. Isabela could be selfish, certainly, she could be counted on to protect herself first. But to do so at the risk of a city full of people? Hawke wouldn’t have predicted that. Not from any of her friends.

Maybe she was still naïve, even after everything she had seen.

Varric ended his tall tale on a cliffhanger, Tallis and Hawke were sneaking past dozens of armed guards on their quest for the Heart of the Many. “Well, I know our illustrious Guard Captain has very important business people to harass, very early in the morning, over very trivial matters…”

“Varric Tethras,” Aveline warned.

“…So perhaps we should move on to the gift giving so that she can get a good night’s rest.”

“I thought I said no gifts,” Hawke shot a look at her mother.

“You said ‘just dinner,’ dear,” Mother said slyly. “I don’t believe the topic of gifts came up.”

“I know, I know,” said Varric. “It should be enough that we keep you from getting murdered or hauled off to the Circle, but just sit back for a few more minutes and let us appreciate you, Precious.”

Objects seemed to appear out of nowhere and everywhere. Merrill pulled a string of tiny green beads from her pocket and tied it around Hawke’s wrist with a bright smile. Fenris produced a bottle of Aggregio Pavali with a red ribbon tied around the neck from somewhere under the sofa Hawke was sitting on. Now that was sneaky.

“You said you were out of this,” Hawke said, clutching it.

“I found more.” Fenris smiled. Fenris. Smiled. That was enough to make the ridiculous birthday party worth it.

Aveline handed over a knife with a hand carved hilt shaped like a mabari. “You should keep something in your left boot, in case someone catches your right leg with the standing mouse trap.” She winked at Hawke; she had caught her with that move only a few days earlier.

Everything was wonderful. Sebastian gave her a Chantry amulet that had belonged to his sister and Anders gave her a book on Chasind dragon legends that he had clearly stolen from the library at the Gallows. Varric waited until all the other gifts and declarations of love were given. He tapped his pocket a few times, as though trying to decide whether to give her something he was keeping there then, instead, produced a book with a flourish.

The cover displayed a freckled woman with enormous breasts, mostly exposed by completely unrealistic armor bearing the templar symbol. Her red hair was blowing in the wind. She held a sword at least three times too big for her in one hand while the other reached out for something unseen. From Renowned Author of Hard in Hightown comes the highly anticipated romantic serial: Swords and Shields.

“Advance copy, Precious,” said Varric. “Signed and everything.”

Hawke looked at Aveline, who was squinting in an attempt to better see the cover, and back at Varric. “You didn’t.”

“I keep my promises.”

Hawke erupted with giggles and held the book close to her chest. “Remind me never to piss you off, Vee.”

“Is that supposed to be--” Aveline had stood up and was pointing to the book, completely red in the face.

“More wine, Aveline?” Mother was already up and pouring, barely hiding a grin of her own. “Donnic?”

Chapter Text

Varric woke up to the frantic pounding of an armored fist on his door. He mentally reviewed the list of people who might be pissed off enough at him to attack him at home.

“Varric Tethras! I will break down this door if I have to!”

Oh good. An unhinged guard captain was at his door and he couldn’t remember what he had done to de-hinge her. He hadn’t even been drinking. Had she gotten her paws on a copy of Swords and Shields?

“Keep your girdle on, Aveline, I’m coming,” he said while pulling on a pair of trousers.

“Well, hurry. Hawke needs us!”

No other phrase could have made him move faster. He was geared up with Bianca slung over his shoulder in moments. Just outside his door, Aveline looked flustered--even for Aveline. She had put her armor on in a hurry and some of the straps were askew. She was tinted red from her chin to the ridges of her ears.

“I’ll follow you, Captain, just fill me in on the way.”

They flew out of the Hanged Man and down an alley toward the foundry district.

“I think it has something to do with that murder case she was looking into for Ser Emeric. She went rushing in by herself. I only know anything about it because she had the barest wisdom to send one of my guards to fetch me.”

“Hawke can be impulsive, but she doesn’t usually run into these things alone,” said Varric. What he didn’t say was that Hawke would have had to pass the Hanged Man on her way to the Foundry District. She wouldn’t have left him behind, would she?

They turned down an alley toward the entrance of the deserted foundry where they had found the remains of that Orlesian prick’s wife, years earlier. The door was hanging off its hinges and the whole place smelled like blood. The ground was slick with the strange liquid usually left behind by demons. Aveline swore under her breath. Varric threw caution to the wind and hollered out, “Hawke!”

“In here.” Relief flooded through him like good whiskey.

They found her at the end of a twisted hallway. She was sitting on the dirt floor frantically trying to open a trap door. She wasn’t even wearing her usual light armor, just a simple green dress that looked as though it had lost a fight with some very angry cats. Varric hadn't even known she owned a dress. Where it covered her left leg there was a large, wet, red spot.

“Are you injured?” Aveline rushed over while Varric stood dumbly by the doorway.

“I’m fine. He went through here, help me get this open. I think it’s trapped.”

That was Varric’s cue. He tried to concentrate on the door and not on the flat, hollow way his bleeding friend had insisted she was fine. Finally, there was a click from underground and the trapdoor swung open easily. Hawke immediately moved to jump into the dark hole beyond, but Varric stopped her with a hand that missed her arm and pressed against her abdomen instead.

“Don’t send us in blind, Hawke.”

“Blood mage. Just one. Demons. Corpses. Traps.” Her eyes did not seem to focus on him. “I think he has my mother, Vee.”

All three leapt into the unknown, landing in a dirt lined passage much like many other tunnels they had traveled. To add to the ambiance, a sickly smell of decay was rapidly permeating the place. Before long, they all had to make an effort not to gag. Varric stayed at the rear with Bianca primed, watching the stain on Hawke’s dress spreading and wondering where Anders was; almost wishing he had come along. He wouldn’t have let Hawke run around with an open wound.

The passage wound around until he couldn’t say which direction they were heading, then it finally opened up into a wide room. The floor was lined with straw and the awful stench was overpowering. Close to the entrance to the room a figure in a dress lay on a large wooden table. Hawke rushed over, lifted the woman’s head gently, then looked to the other two and shook her head. Not her.

“That way,” Hawke pointed to the only opening other than the one they had entered from.

The whole compound was a holdover from the days when Kirkwall was the blood-soaked jewel of the Tevinter Empire. A yellow and blue mosaic had once covered the floor, now obscured by centuries of grime. The walls showed evidence of crumbling murals.

The hallways had suffered less from the ages. Murals were still intact, showing dark, hooded figures and a great deal of red that was probably meant to be blood. Symbols and phrases in old Tevene were drawn everywhere. It became easier to breathe, though whether it was because the smell was less or because he was getting used to it, Varric couldn’t say.

Again, the passage opened up into a wide room. On the far side of the room sat a sturdy bed with clean linens, several bookshelves and a fireplace with embers still burning.

“Someone’s been living down here,” Varric announced the obvious.

“That painting,” Aveline pointed a steel-clad finger at a portrait hanging over the mantle, “the woman looks like Leandra.”

Hawke said nothing.

As they continued forward, half a dozen shadows rose from the ground. Shades and a fiery rage demon. Hawke skewered the shade closest to her with a massive stalagmite of ice then sliced through a second with the blade of her staff in a single motion. Meanwhile, Varric caught one through the eye with a bolt from his crossbow. Aveline’s templar shield protected her from the heat of the flaming rage demon while she hacked at it with her sword.

“We must be getting close,” Hawke hissed as the demon fizzled into ash.

Varric and Aveline followed close as she sped down a stairway into a stifling hot cavern styled like a den. Two enormous high-backed chairs sat facing an impressive fireplace cut into the stone of the wall. A figure emerged from the chair on the right, a man with silver hair and a smile that did not reach his cold blue eyes. His clothes were of expensive make but were splattered all over with blood.

“I was wondering when you would arrive. Leandra was so sure you’d come for her.”

“Where is she,” Hawke demanded. The knuckles on the hand holding her staff were brilliantly white and Varric could have sworn he saw a flash of lightning pass over her like a spider web.

“You will never understand my purpose, my power. I have done the impossible. I have touched the face of the Maker and I carry his power in my hands. Life and death are meaningless.”

“Where is my mother?”

“I brought her here because she was special. Now she has become something so much greater. The final piece of the puzzle. I had found her eyes, her alabaster skin, her delicate fingers. With Leandra’s beautiful face, my beloved is whole again.” He reached into the space in front of the other chair. “Come, my love, and show what we have accomplished.”

What rose from that seat was a horror beyond reckoning. Grey, mottled skin stretched over bone like cloth pulled unskillfully over a dress dummy. Bloody seams lined the whole form where the decaying skin had been brought together and sewn with thick black thread, visible all over the body through the dingy, once-white silk dress it wore. Most horrible was the face: Leandra Hawke’s kind face with someone else’s eyes, filmy and wet and lifeless. The creature sucked in a ragged breath as it tottered to its feet.

Time slowed to a halt while the image registered, then suddenly the room filled with light as the gauzy purple lightning that had passed over Hawke’s hand now surrounded her, crackling and flashing. The well-dressed man was shoved against the wall by an unseen force, causing the creature with Leandra’s face to crumple to the floor.

Pressed against the wall, the man pulled out a knife and cut his arm, crying out for help from beyond. Where drops of blood hit the floor, shades sprang up. From behind them, the smell of roses and sandalwood wafted over. Varric turned just in time to see the desire demon manifest, pendulous breasts swaying freely.

Hawke only had eyes for the mage. In his peripheral, Varric saw her cut through three shades at once on her path to her prey. The power flowing through her seemed to warp the very fabric of reality, it contorted his vision and pulsed in the pit of his stomach. In all the years he had known her and all the scrapes they had gotten into, he had never seen her wield magic like that. They had to finish the fight fast or she would certainly burn out.

Varric and Aveline took on the desire demon which spun and teleported and hummed its intoxicating music. In that disgusting place, with what they had seen, there was no temptation. Only annoyance. Fueled by horror and concern for Hawke, they dispatched the demon and the remaining shades quickly.

There was a bloody mess where the mage had been. His neck twisted the wrong way and his chest was a jigsaw puzzle of rib bones and viscera. Hawke was huddled over the creature in the white dress. The monster with Leandra’s face. She was cradling its head in her arms. Varric moved to go to her but Aveline held him back. They stood in silence; watching.

“It will be alright, Mother,” said Hawke soothingly. “I’ll take care of you.”

“You have always taken care of me,” Leandra rasped. Her mind must have been restored when the mage was killed, but it was clear the body he created would not last. “Now I will be with Bethany and Malcolm again. You will have to take care of yourself.”

“I’ll be fine.”

“I know you will, darling. My fierce girl. You have made me so proud. Every single day.”

“Please don’t leave me.”

“Promise to live well, Arista.”

“I promise.”

*

Anders was in the estate for a long time. Varric wasn’t sure exactly how serious things were between him and Hawke, but he knew well enough to give them space while Anders was giving his condolences.

He had watched from a vantage point in the commons where he could see the Amell estate door but was himself obscured by an ivy-covered trellis. Gamlen and Hawke had returned from the Chantry and Anders had met them at the door. Gamlen departed. Hawke and Anders embraced, then went inside. At least an hour passed.

During that hour, Varric sincerely regretted being an author. A tender moment between the grieving hero and her troubled lover? He knew exactly how he would write that.

Finally, Anders slipped out the door and closed it softly behind him. He looked around, probably checking for templars, before rushing off. No doubt he had patients to care for. Poor people. Who he healed. Without any promise of payment. Varric sighed.

As he neared the estate door it popped open and Hawke nearly walked directly into him. She had changed out of her mourning dress and into her oversized shirt and breeches. Where had she even gotten that shirt? Was she stealing them from Anders, now? She had been carrying the satchel she usually used for looting things off of corpses, it dropped to the ground with a muffled sound as she stopped short in front of Varric.

“Andraste’s knickers, Vee,” said Hawke. “I was just going to find you.”

Something stirred in his gut. “That must be why I was compelled to come here. What do you need?”

“I just want to be somewhere else.” She glanced at the Amell crest over the door to the estate. Maker, she looked tired. “It’s so empty in there and people keep coming around and then leaving. I can’t breathe.”

“Follow me, Madame,” he took her hand. “My palatial suite at the Hanged Man is your palatial suite.”

Hawke kept her hand in his for the entire journey into Lowtown. They received a few second glances—two grown adults, one of them a dwarf and both of them infamous, walking hand in hand like teenagers with spring fever—but Varric hardly minded. The way she swayed and sighed, he thought he might have kept her upright more than once. She released him only when they arrived at the swinging effigy in front of the Hanged Man.

He didn’t have to tell her to make herself at home. Once in his suite, she immediately dropped the satchel. She pulled the knife out of her right boot and set it carefully on his desk before kicking off both shoes. There was a time when she would have gone through all kinds of effort to keep that knife hidden. Of course, there was a time when she would not have casually sat on his bed, tucking her stockinged feet under her.

“Are you warm enough?” said Varric while he glanced through his liquor cabinet for something situationally appropriate to serve. “I could have Norah come up with more firewood.”

Hawke snorted. Varric turned to see her smirking at him.

“Really, Vee?” She snapped her fingers and the fire roared.

“I always forget that magic is good for things other than scaring the shit out of people.” He brought over two glasses of blackberry liqueur. Sweet and strong. “I should bring home mages more often.”

“You’ll have trouble finding dwarven girls who can do that.”

“Maybe I’ll expand my criteria. Slightly.” He held one of the glasses about two inches over his head to indicate an acceptable height before handing it off to Hawke.

“Cute dwarven girls with no Carta ties and very short apostates. If you add unicorns to the list, I might be able to find you a date for next Wintersend.”

“Good thing I have Bianca to keep me company,” Varric kept the irony of that statement out of his voice.

He sat next to her and they were quiet for a moment. Hawke sipped, made an appreciative noise, and then stared into her cup.

“It’s very purple.”

“I thought you might appreciate that.”

Leandra had really liked purple.

She smiled sadly. “You’re good at this, Varric.”

He kissed her forehead. “I know.”

Varric went about his usual business, writing letters, tallying accounts and organizing notes. He glanced, several times, at his secret drawer of sentimentality. The bolt-head he had kept from the day he had met Hawke was back in there. He had almost given it to her for her birthday, but had lost his nerve at the last moment. He hadn’t wanted everyone there to come to their own conclusions about what it meant that he had held onto the thing all that time. Treasured it, in fact. He wasn’t completely sure what conclusions they should come to. What did it mean? Better not to address that just yet.

He couldn’t give it to her now, anyway. When he checked on her again, she was draped across his bed, very much asleep.

For as long as he had known her, Hawke’s primary motivation had been to protect and support her family. She had other drives, of course--she hated slavery and poverty, she wanted freedom for mages--but she had gotten up every morning and bloodied her hands for the sake of her family. And they were gone now; apart from Gamlen. What would she bloody her hands for, now?

There’s a story there.

He had been threatening to do it for years, but now he sat down and actually started writing it all down. It started with running. An ogre. A tragedy. Already, it was better than Swords and Shields.

For several hours Hawke’s sleep and Varric’s writing went uninterrupted. But, of course, they were both still living Hawke’s story and it couldn’t keep quiet for long. He was lighting the first lamp when Aveline burst into the suite.

“Have you seen Hawke?” she practically bellowed.

“Good evening, Captain Vallen,” said Varric. “How nice to see you.”

Hawke, Varric. This is urgent.”

“Stand down, killer. She’s sleeping.”

“Here?” Aveline’s eyebrows nearly escaped her face.

“You know they had the funeral today.”

“I know.”

“For her mother’s head.”

“I know, Varric. I wouldn’t be looking for her if I thought anyone else could handle this.”

“What is it?” Hawke was up and standing in the doorway with her arms crossed.

“The Qunari situation has… deteriorated.”

*

“Take your book and get out of my city,” growled the Champion.

The Arishok towered over her, still spattered in the Viscount’s blood and seething with anger. “We will leave, but we will take the thief with us. We will have justice.”

“This is the thanks I get for finally doing the right thing,” said the Pirate, cowering beside the Champion. Every golden chain around her neck jangled with the heaving of her bosom.

Hawke took her hand and brushed her lips over the pirate’s sunkissed fingers. “I won’t let that happen.” She turned to the massive Qunari. “Arishok! You claim that I am a worthy opponent. I challenge you. If I fall you can take Isabella, but if I win your people leave.”

“Hawke, no,” cried the Pirate.

“I accept your terms. Prepare yourself, Human.”

The Champion stood ready, brandishing her staff like a pike. Her blue eyes flashed with arcane power. The Arishok rushed at her, horns first.

For all his raw strength, the Arishok could not overcome the Champion’s speed or her magic. Each swing of his sword met only air while lightning and fire burst all around him. Minutes turned into hours and the warlord grew tired while the Champion only grew angry.

Finally, she found her opening. He swung wildly, exhausted, burned and marred with a thousand tiny cuts. She rolled underneath the arc of his sword and lifted the blade of her staff up, puncturing straight through his throat and into his head. The Champion was victorious.

 

He wrote and rewrote the scene over and over again. He relived every detail of it a thousand times. In the end, the version he finally accepted was nothing like what had actually happened. The reality was completely unbelievable, so he wrote it how it should have happened. If she lived--hshe was going to live--it wouldn’t matter that she had been stuck through like meat on a spit. What mattered was that she had won.

*

“Well done,” says Meredith, “it appears Kirkwall has a new Champion.” She scowls and replaces her sword in its scabbard.

Hawke is bleeding profusely and grinning like an idiot. “Happy to help, Knight-Commander,” she says smugly.

As soon as the templar has left, Hawke turns to her horror-stricken friends. With one hand she’s uselessly keeping pressure on the massive wound and with the other, she gestures back. “Did you see the look on her face? Worth it.”

With that, she falls to her knees. Her eyes glaze over and a trickle of blood escapes the corner of her mouth. Anders and Merrill are over her immediately, casting spells with no care at all for who can see them. She collapses into Anders.

“We need to get her home,” says Anders breathlessly.

Fenris strides over, stone faced and silent. He scoops her up like a child.

And I just stand there, utterly helpless.

*

Outside, in the world where time inexplicably kept moving, they were calling her The Champion of Kirkwall. When she found out she was going to laugh and insist that she was just starting to grow fond of being That Ferelden Bitch. It was the kind of transformation story that almost wrote itself, which was good because writing it was the only distraction Varric had.

His normal process involved paper everywhere: a chaotic quilt of moments captured in no particular order and then placed and replaced according to an ever-changing plan. He had had to develop a portable version of this, his mobile studio, to be carried daily between the Hanged Man and the Amell Estate. In the week since the Qunari uprising, he had nearly perfected the system.

Shortly after the sun rose he would arrive at Hawke’s house. Bodahn would let him in and take his case of papers to the library. Orana would bring out a light breakfast and a hot drink. Anders would come down the stairs, looking like hell. He’d tell Varric about any progress or warn him about something to look for and then he’d leave by the cellar. Varric would go up the stairs and stare at her helplessly from the doorway. He would come up with a lot of descriptive phrases for what she looked like, for the ache he felt. He might get up the courage to go to her and hold her hand. Then he would go to the library to write her story. Once an hour he checked her bandages. Merrill would come by in the afternoon to fret over her, make sure all the magic stuff was working correctly. Fenris and Aveline would pace around the front room like caged tigers. Sebastian might show up and recite a bit of scripture over her. Eventually, Anders would come back and Varric would make the long journey home to Lowtown where he would work late into the night.

She had no shortage of people to watch over her, including the ones actually paid to take care of everything. None of them could simply sit by and wait. For all her jokes about barely being able to lead herself, they had no idea what to do without her taking point.

Varric arrived on the eighth day of this routine feeling heavier than ever. It seemed like they’d be measuring her convalescence in weeks instead of days and the days were hard enough. Bodahn took his case, Orana brought a sandwich. He shared it with Wrex while telling the dog a story about a high ranking Carta assassin he had beaten in a stupidly high-stakes game of Wicked Grace. He had ended up spending all his winnings to hire a food taster for the next month. Finally, Anders came down the stairs.

“Any change, Blondie?”

Anders looked worse than ever. He looked like Varric felt. “The infection is finally gone and the bleeding has stopped.” Orana appeared with toast, which he took gratefully. “I gave her less of the sleeping draught, so there is a chance that she may regain consciousness soon.”

“That sounds like a good thing, but you’re still making that face.”

“Eight days is a long time to be dreaming--to be in the Fade. There is no guarantee that she’ll come back alone.”

Great. Add ‘Becoming an Abomination and Needing to Be Put Down’ to the list of Ways Hawke Might Die Today.

Anders correctly interpreted the expression on Varric’s face. “Don’t agonize over it. She’ll be weak when she wakes up, we’ll have plenty of time to evaluate the situation. Just send someone to get me the moment she tries to move or speak. Blinking. Anything.”

The cellar door closed behind Anders and Varric plodded up the stairs to Hawke’s room. For all Blondie’s assurances, it didn’t look like anything had changed. A light breeze came in through the open window, spreading around the fragrant smoke emanating from the herbs that had been thrown on the dying fire. There were fresh linens on the bed. Where she was. Where she had been for days. He crossed the expanse between the door and her side.

Hawke was propped up on several pillows to ease her breathing. One arm rested over the edge of her abdomen and the other was draped to the side for better access to her wound. She was as pale as porcelain, webbed all over with blue veins. Against that white background her eyelashes were heavy ink lines, her lips and the beds of her fingernails were vividly pink. If she hadn’t looked so spectral, she might have only been sleeping. Well, no. Hawke would never have been able to sleep in such a graceful position.

Varric pulled the blanket over just enough to expose the injured area. He carefully adjusted her tunic to preserve her privacy. The wound was much improved. When she had finally fallen, Hawke had been lucky she still had blood left to bleed. She was lucky her insides were still inside. They had wrapped bandages tightly all around her waist to keep everything contained while she lost consciousness.

Her exit wound had responded to healing first, but the tear where the sword had plunged into her continued to bleed. So many bandages had soaked through. Then there had been the hot, stinking infection and the awful tarry poultice to treat it. The bandages she had on now were finally staying fresh and white.

As he covered her back up, his eyes passed over the table by her bed. The table with the locked drawer. He had picked that lock a few days ago when curiosity had gotten the better of him. There was a book inside, ragged and dirty, covered roughly eighty pages through with Hawke’s barely legible handwriting. A diary. When he had discovered it, he had dropped it like a hot coal and locked the drawer back up.

The curiosity was back.

It was wrong. It was a violation of trust. It was something Hawke would definitely never have done.

Which was why Hawke was not a spymaster.

Or a writer.

Was there really any harm in it? She told him everything, anyway.

At least, as far as he knew.

Shit.

If this were anyone other than Hawke, he would have already handed the thing over to one of his couriers and next morning he’d have a copy to peruse at his leisure. Information was Varric’s one true currency. Much more valuable than gold.

Also, he just liked knowing things; especially things he wasn’t supposed to know.

Sorry, Precious.

Varric glanced back at Hawke, silently promising that if he came across something too personal, he would put the thing back where he had found it. Then he took out a pick and opened the drawer.

The book was very small and very worn. The cover was warped and stained, there was a dip where it had been tied closed with a string of some kind for a while. At least thirty of the first pages had been torn out, probably a long time ago, causing the front cover to overextend slightly. Just inside that cover, someone had drawn Hawke’s initials and a date in graceful calligraphy. AMH, 15 Dragon.

What does the M stand for?

The first page was blank apart from a smudge of dirt. Or blood. The next page was almost completely scratched out, illegible apart for a few lines.

 

It’s not her. I saw her broken on the ground. Her eyes were staring straight at the sun without blinking. Still bright. Liquid gold.

They wear her face and they call me Rissa but they can’t laugh like her.

Maker, but I want to believe. I want to believe they could bring her back in exchange for me. What a small price.

 

Varric took another look at Hawke, feeling like she might suddenly regain consciousness and come at him with that templar knife of hers. This was bordering on too personal. A grey area, definitely. Hawke didn’t like to talk about Bethany, especially about Bethany’s death. Varric had gotten an account out of her with a lot of booze, but most of what he knew about it had come from Carver.

He pawed through, not certain what he had hoped to find in there. Declarations of love? Secret dealings with the Carta? This was Hawke. Of course, her very secret diary would be full of indulgent despair, admissions of guilt for things she had no power over, fights with her mother, and encounters with demons in her dreams. Everything else, she wore on her sleeve. Or on her face.

So, he did what anyone would do: he looked for references to himself.

 

Don’t trust the dwarf.

Shit.

 

That made him chuckle; those two little lines, sitting in the middle of an otherwise empty page.

“Didn’t take your own advice, did you, Precious,” he said to Hawke.

Varric settled in against her bed to read the entire thing. Every treatise on hot baths as a miracle cure. Every drunken attestation of love for dirty, stinking, broken Kirkwall. There was a little thrill that went through him when he saw his name in her careless hand.

He heard the door open and jumped like he might be caught with his hands in the cookie jar. Bodahn greeted Merrill cheerfully. He had a moment left and there was one more entry. Naturally, it was the most disturbing one.

 

Justice again.

I’m certain now that Anders cannot enter the Fade. I don’t know what that means. Justice wears his image. To disarm me? He says he’s used to it. I don’t know what that might mean either. I don’t know a damn thing about spirits. Demons are easy.

Papa said a spirit was just a demon of good intent. And what does that mean? Did he even know??

Shit.

Justice says he’s protecting me. I thought I was just getting better. I’ve been training harder. But why would he lie about it? I told him to stop and he said I have to focus on my purpose.

What the fuck does any of this mean? Every time I think I have this figured out.

 

*

“I bet she’ll be so hungry when she wakes up,” said Merrill several hours later. “The ancient elves would sleep for much longer, you know. In Uthenera. Their friends would come along every day and paint their lips with honey to keep their bodies fed. Hawke eats a lot more than that, though.”

“Maybe you should make that cake, Daisy.”

“Ooh! You know, that’s not a bad idea.” Her face lit up with genuine, refreshing excitement. “Although, perhaps Orana would do a better job.”

It was late evening when Merrill left. Varric hadn’t been able to write more than a few paragraphs so he went ahead and gathered up his work. He was still trying to close his overburdened case when he heard something hit the floor upstairs. He flew up from his seat and across to the front room, looking for Wrex. Usually the dog was the perpetrator of false alarms but he was by the fire, looking anxiously up at the upper floor.

If he could have, Varric would have taken the stairs two at a time. He ascended as fast as his compact legs could carry him.

Almost everything was exactly as it had been. His heart leapt when he saw that her right arm had extended over the side of the bed. A small lacquered box had been swept off the side table and was now sitting open on the floor. He knew he should immediately send for Anders, but instead, Varric rushed to Hawke’s side and clasped her right hand.

“Hawke?”

He thought he might have felt the slightest movement in her fingers.

Again. “Hawke.”

“Hmm.” Her eyelashes fluttered and her lips pressed together.

“Andraste’s ass, Hawke, please don’t be possessed.”

She actually chuckled at that. The woman chuckled about being possessed from the bed she almost died in. “Heh. Ow.” With the hand Varric wasn’t holding she reached across her body to graze her fingertips over the wound. “Ugh.”

“Stay still, damn it. I have to send for Blondie if you’re going to insist on waking up.” He let go of her hand but she reached out with it after him, grasping weakly.

Vee.” Her voice was a whisper, low and thick. He took up her hand again. She eyed him through heavy lids, looking very serious. “Did I get run through with a sword? Because I feel like I got run through with a sword,” she rasped. Her dour expression broke into a big, crooked grin. She had the nerve to smile at him.

“You’re the only woman in Thedas who would be this amused by waking up from a mortal injury.”

“You can’t escape me, dwarf.”

Wasn’t that the truth.

Chapter Text

She was back to her routine much quicker than Anders had estimated.

Well… much quicker than Anders had recommended.

Alright, so Anders was not especially pleased with Hawke’s insistence that she was ready to get back to everything. In fact, he was very grumpy about it.

At first, she dutifully stuck to approved activities, but a person could only walk so much. So, she had increased speed until she was nearly jogging and had smashed into Worthy, a dwarven merchant and sometime informant from her Athenril days, as he was setting up for the day in the Hightown Market. The wide stairway between Hightown and Lowtown, then, seemed a safer location for her exertions. She went up and down it until that seemed too easy, then looked to make sure nobody was watching and tried hopping up the steps with both feet together.

That was much better, if both boring and absurd.

Hawke had never done well with quiet or with stillness. One of her earliest memories was of Mother, heavily pregnant, shoving her out the door and saying, ‘Don’t come back until you’re as tired as I am, girl!’ Born into any other family, Hawke would probably have been given up to the Chantry. Or they would have been relieved when the templars finally came to collect her. But Father and Mother had figured out the trick to soothing her wild moods, her quick anger, the seething resentment she had toward her twin siblings when they were born. She had to keep moving.

Then came magic. With magic came spirits and demons; sudden fires and the crackling of lightning in her hands. Physical toil was Hawke’s best shortcut to mental discipline and she came to associate aching muscles with safety from the darkness both across the Veil and inside her own head.

Being bedbound had been torture. It was made all the worse by the silence in the Fade that meant Justice was there, ever watchful. Protecting her, against her will, in the name of some destiny she was supposed to fulfill. Demons would have been something. A demon with Mother’s face would have been easier than Hawke’s guilt and grief. Demons would have been easier than dwelling over the mystery of Justice’s intent.

As soon as she was able to get out of bed, Hawke had resolved to be more disciplined. She must be faster and stronger than ever before. She could not be injured like that again. Until Aveline returned from her romantic tour or Orlais, however, Hawke would have to get creative.

So she hopped up the stairs, reveling in the warm pull and press of muscles working, pushing against the places where they were torn. When she reached the top again, she turned around and started back down. Two or three more of those and she might be ready for another intense day of sitting and reading.

The stairway hugged Kirkwall’s stony foundation, curving around the hill and causing the top half to be obscured from the bottom half. As Hawke skipped along this curve, a shadowy figure was waiting.

“You know that looked ridiculous,” the shadowy figure said in a low, gravelly voice. Fenris leaned against the cliff wall with his arms crossed and an amused expression on his face.

Hawke laughed with him even as she felt the blood rush to her face. “What good is being Champion if I can’t make a complete idiot of myself in public?”

“Is this part of your sanctioned recovery regimen?”

“Ugh, you know it isn’t.” She sized him up. Fenris was a more intuitive fighter than Aveline, but his skill could not be doubted. “You’re quite a swordsman. Why haven’t we ever sparred?”

Fenris narrowed his eyes at her. “No.”

“You can’t be worried about pissing Anders off,” Hawke teased.

“That is not what concerns me. Aveline has told me about your rules and I will not follow them.”

“I only ask that you follow through, and be prepared for me to follow through. We’d be using practice weapons…”

“No. What if I hit your wound?”

“Then I’ll learn to keep it defended.”

“You do not need to be taught what you already know. I will not be responsible for exacerbating your injury.”

“I sleep with the best healer in Thedas. I’ll be fine.”

Fenris grimaced. “Your unnatural proclivities aside, I am not going to hurt you while I have the control to avoid it.”

“I could make you really angry.”

“Not now that you have warned me.” He uncrossed his arms and made to continue up the stairs. “Your obsession with this is a little disturbing. There are other skills you could be practicing that would help you rebuild your strength while you heal.”

“Like what?”

*

Sebastian had also outright refused to spar with Hawke, despite his years of fancy prince training in all the noble martial arts. It had been a last resort, anyway. Hawke could just imagine him stopping the bout every time they made contact. Excuse me, Lady Hawke. So sorry, Lady Hawke. It would probably have driven her to murder.

When she asked him to teach her to use a bow, however, he practically glowed with boyish excitement.

That is a grand idea, Hawke,” he said, flashing his very white teeth. “Archery would be perfect for getting you back into fighting condition. It is a sport of both physical and mental acuity.”

“And nobody has to hit me,” said Hawke.

“And nobody has to hit you,” he agreed enthusiastically.

He probably wanted to hit her after a few hours of training her.

They set up a makeshift target in the Chantry garden. The chill of Kirkwall’s brief winter was on its last legs but only the hardiest of spring flowers were poking out from the dark earth and the grounds were soggy and dismal. Fortunately, this meant that there were few people wandering the grounds who might be offended by Hawke’s frustrated swearing.

The stretch and strain of pulling the bowstring were perfect. If that was all there was to it, Hawke would have come out of the lesson a master archer. Using the bow to actually propel an arrow in pre-determined trajectory, however, was not something she immediately picked up on.

“Perhaps you could aim a little lower?” said Sebastian gently after the fifth arrow flew well above their makeshift range and bounced off of the Chantry wall, narrowly missing a very old stained glass window. “Some of those rooms are occupied.”

Hawke tried again and managed to keep the arrow closer to the horizontal position of the target.

Despite the chill and the gloom, some tittering Chantry sisters had gathered to watch. They swooned over Sebastian in his rolled-up shirtsleeves and giggled at Hawke’s inability to grasp anything beyond the very basics of what he was trying to teach her. You come over here and try this, she wanted to say to them. Just try to pull this bowstring, noodle-arms.

“Remember what I said about using your dominant eye, Hawke.”

“How am I supposed to know which eye is dominant?” said Hawke grumpily. “I tend to use them both.”

He came over behind her, right up against her back, and extended his right arm over her shoulder, then covered her left eye. One of the sisters gasped dramatically. “Which window am I pointing at?”

“Um,” to be honest, they were all kind of blurry. Hawke had never realized how poor her distance vision was and she wasn’t ready to admit it. “Third from the left?”

Sebastian chuckled. “Hopefully it’s the left one.”

As he went to swap his arms, one of the girls got up the nerve to approach him. Her sly expression clashed with her modest Chantry robes. “Brother Sebastian,” she fluttered her eyelashes and cooed in her Orlesian accent, “I would alzo like to know wheech of my eyes ees dominant.”

Suddenly bashful, Sebastian stepped away from Hawke and cleared his throat. “Yes, well, this was a good start.”

“Was it?”

Defeated and bored, Hawke decided it was the perfect moment to enjoy her first terrible ale since almost dying. Getting through the Hightown market was the longest part of her walk to Lowtown. People kept recognizing her. Especially merchants who had barely acknowledged her existence before the Qunari uprising. Suddenly everyone was carrying bright blue silk ‘In honor of Kirkwall’s beautiful champion,’ she heard someone say obsequiously. One merchant was selling polearms that vaguely resembled Hawke’s bladed staff and claiming to offer lessons in fighting like a champion.

She had just barely gotten used to infamy. Actual fame was… weird.

Crossing through the Lowtown market was simpler. They already knew her there. She was a real person there. She got a few breathless greetings and several remarks that she had been missing for a while and one offer of a sizeable discount on very illicit goods that she quickly declined.

Finally, she entered the Hanged Man.

“Lookit here, Corff,” Norah immediately exclaimed. “It’s the bloody Champion of bloody Kirkwall come back to slum it with the Lowtowners.”

“Ha ha,” said Hawke dryly. “Just give me a pull from whatever barrel of piss you’ve already put a tap in. I don’t want to put you to too much work.”

Norah grinned and dusted off a glass on her apron. Hawke supposed this extra step was as much special treatment as she was going to get at the Hanged Man, and decided she was just fine with that. She was just about to settle into her usual spot when the lamplight flashed off of a gold bangle and she barely caught sight of a head of very thick black hair ducking past the column by the bar.

“Isabela!”

Isabela’s lovely face poked back out from her hiding place. She pretended to be surprised. “Oh, Hawke! I didn’t see you come in.”

Nobody knew where she had been since Hawke’s duel with the Arishok. At some point, she had slipped out of the Keep without a word. Considering how well that fight had been going, Hawke couldn’t blame her for getting out of there before having to meet the terms of the duel.

Isabela was well known for her skill as a duelist.

Isabela had once given the Hero of Ferelden lessons in dueling if her bragging was to be believed.

Perhaps Isabela did not need to know how forgiving Hawke was feeling.

“Varric thought you were gone for good,” Hawke leaned against the bar with her smelly mug of ale and tried to be sly. “I would have taken that bet, but I was unconscious.”

That was a good start. Isabela dropped her cool act and stared into her whiskey. “It looked like you were going to lose and the Qunari would have…” she sighed. “When I heard you were alive, I decided to come back. I’m glad you’re not dead, Hawke.”

“That’s probably the sweetest thing anybody’s said to me at this bar.”

“I’m serious. Nobody has ever put themselves on the line for me the way you have. And that was after that business with the book and, oh, Hawke I’m so sorry about your mother.”

“I….” All Hawke could think of when anyone mentioned Mother was the closed door by the stairs. It stayed closed, and everything about Mother stayed on the other side. Just like that door, Isabela’s condolences just stood there.

They both drank quietly for several moments. The ale was as terrible as Hawke suspected. Comfortingly terrible. Some things, some very few things, would never change.

Isabela, may Andraste bless her, finally broke the silence. “They said you were injured.”

“Oh, yeah.” Back to the plan. The plan where Isabela gets tricked into sparring with Hawke. “Anders must have been casting some kind of barrier spell on my innards because I should not have…” Hawke saw Isabela go pale. “The scar is amazing,” she said, continuing on that thread since it seemed to be having an effect. She jumped up and lifted her shirt to show the puckered line that pulled her belly button off center.

“Shit.”

“I know! Do you think Keeper Marethari’s craftsman would make me some of that cropped armor the Dalish women wear? Then I could show it off.” Hawke chuckled. “Oh, this? You should see the other guy!

“Hawke.”

“What?”

Isabela hugged her awkwardly around arms that were still holding her shirt up.

“I owe you, Hawke,” she said thickly. “I will probably always owe you.”

Had it worked? This sort of thing never worked for Hawke! She was about as manipulative as a plate of beans. But here they were, and Isabela was ready to agree to whatever Hawke asked. Maybe she should try her hand at Wicked Grace again. Or maybe Isabela just really felt that terrible. That… tempered Hawke’s pride.

“I know a way you can make up some of that debt,” said Hawke, trying to keep her tone cool.

“Foursome with Anders and Justice?” said Isabela hopefully.

“Teach me to duel.”

That seemed to catch Isabela by surprise. She sized Hawke up. “You have your own style, Hawke. And you can use magic. What could I--”

“I need to be faster. I need to be better at finding my opponent’s weaknesses. I’d like to not be strung up on a sword again.”

“Alright. When you’re fully healed we’ll--”

“Now.”

*

The Knight-Captain’s brilliant hair blew past her face in wisps of orange silk. ‘Darling Henry,’” Varric used a ridiculous falsetto for Knight-Captain Angelica that made Hawke giggle. He looked at her over his spectacles with mock reproach before continuing. “'Darling Henry, the Knight-Commander will forbid me to see you, and I swore an oath to….’ The Guard-Captain took her up in his thickly muscled arms. ‘He cannot forbid what he does not know.’ He pressed her against him, feeling the soft roundness of her perfect bosom against his burly chest.

Hawke laughed again, shifting her legs in response to the pain in her abdomen and upsetting the book where it lay open just above her knees. “That makes four times you’ve used the word bosom. I can’t believe you published this. Aveline is going to kill you.”

Varric caught his place in the book with a finger. He repositioned his own legs, underneath hers, to settle the book better for reciting. The two of them were cuddled up on the sofa in the study, Hawke was encased in a fluffy blanket and draped over Varric’s lap.

“Captain Vallen has to learn that there are consequences to interfering in my business.”

“She won’t learn anything, she’ll just kill you,” said Hawke. “And that smithy was a front, wasn’t it?”

“A legitimately profitable front, Precious. Do you know how difficult that is to maintain?”

“It will be even harder to maintain when you’re dead. Because Aveline is going to kill you.”

“I haven’t even gotten to the best part,” said Varric. He lowered his spectacles on his nose to properly waggle his eyebrows at Hawke, who laughed again and then groaned. “You just had to convince Rivaini to fight with you. Are you sure you don’t need Blondie to look at it?”

“I’m sure Blondie doesn’t need to know about today’s excitement.”

Varric sighed. “Should we get you into bed?”

“I never want to see that bed again, Vee.”

“I could get you a hot drink.”

“Or you could quit your fussing.”

“You’re a terrible patient, Hawke. How does he put up with you?”

“I’m told I have a few redeeming qualities.” It was her turn to waggle her brows. She wasn’t nearly as good at it.

“I’ll keep watching for them.” He gave her a smirk and readjusted his spectacles. “Shall I continue? Where were we?”

“Her perfect bosom was pressed against his burly chest,” said Hawke, holding back more giggles.

“Ah, yes, here we are.” Varric went on reading, using that girly falsetto for the Knight-Captain and a gruff voice from the bottom of his vocal range for the Guard-Captain and over-enunciating words like slick and pert. Hawke had not smiled so much since….

Since before.

Varric always seemed to know what to do. The others had been wonderful, too, but sometimes they looked lost and Hawke felt like she had to reassure them. Even Anders. Especially Anders. Everyone else kept asking if she was alright so that she could tell them she was fine. Varric didn’t make her lie.

These moments had been the saving grace of her convalescence. Quiet moments with Varric were different than the cocky banter they exchanged when they were off adventuring or killing things. It was like taking those flashes where she flung open his door and caught him off guard and stretching them out across the hours. It was real. Would they lose that when everything was back to normal?

She lost the thread of the tryst between Guard-Captain Henry and Knight-Captain Angelica, watching Varric’s face as he read. Varric had a great face. She had admired it from the moment she met him; when he had shown up with that devil-may-care grin, handed over her coin purse, and promised to change her life forever.

The reading glasses were a new thing. A secret thing, between them. He shouldn’t have been embarrassed about them, though. They looked really good. Very intellectual. Clever. Varric was extraordinarily clever. Dangerously clever. He reminded her of that whenever he gave her that look down his nose with one eyebrow raised. He had been giving her that look forever but when he looked over the ridge of those half-moon lenses the whole nature of the expression was changed into something much more… suggestive.

The fingers of his hand were open, drumming five soft points of pressure on her upper thigh while he read something that involved Knight-Captain Angelica gasping and a lot of adjectives and suddenly the whole situation was very hot.

Not temperature-hot.

If there was ever a bad time to realize your best friend was profoundly attractive, it was probably when you had asked your boyfriend to move in with you just before winding up bedbound for weeks so that said boyfriend had to selflessly tend to your every need.

Not that Anders was the jealous type. Anders would find this hilarious. Anders would offer to wear spectacles to bed to cater to her newfound kink. Or he might agree: Yes, love, he might say, Varric is a damned handsome dwarf. What do you suppose he’s doing tonight? Do you think it’s true, what they say about dwarven stamina?

Wait. Did they say something about dwarven stamina, or had she just made that up?

Now she was also temperature-hot. She shifted in her suddenly too cozy blanket, which made Varric stop reading and look at her. He gave her that look and she hoped to the Maker that he would mistake her blush--because he always noticed it--for a sudden fever.

She needed him to be oblivious, just this once. Just while this madness came and went. Arista Hawke was not the kind of woman who pined after unavailable men, and Varric was very unavailable. Not only was he outspokenly not attracted to humans, there was this whole Bianca thing he had going on. He insisted it wasn’t some kind of metaphor, but Hawke had never really believed him. He was still looking at her and she needed to say something.

“Is Bianca a real person?” Shit. That was the wrong something.

“Have you ever heard of déjà vu, Precious?” Varric dog-eared his book and removed his glasses. “It’s a charming little term the Orlesians came up with for the feeling that you’ve already lived through this moment before.”

“I suppose when you answer with, ‘Bianca is my crossbow,’” she affected a poor approximation of Varric’s accent, “I’ll know what that feels like.”

“It’s this terrible sex scene, isn’t it?” Varric smirked and waved the book before setting it and his glasses on the table by the sofa. “You’re thinking there’s no way a woman has ever been naked in front of a man who writes sex this badly. I can assure you, this is just one of those things I do better in action than in words.”

That sounded like a dare. Or she wanted it to sound like a dare. She would have called him on that, yesterday or even twenty minutes ago. She would have made some sarcastic crack about it being a shame she was too tall to find out for herself. Or something. Where were those words now? Oh yes, those words were a little too true at the moment. Traitorous words. Traitorous brain.

She was taking too long to respond to him again and his expression was morphing into one of concern. She sighed, starting to pull herself up from the sofa.

“Hey, hey, hey,” Varric fretted. “Blondie isn’t going to let me come around anymore if I let you spill your intestines all over the floor.”

Without the glasses he was just Varric, Hawke assured herself. Broad-shouldered Varric with a devious smile and strong hands and… shit.

“My intestines are fine,” Hawke got to her feet awkwardly but was pleased to discover that her footing was solid. She had overtaxed herself between her stair-hopping, bow-pulling and her brief, disastrous match with Isabela, but she had not done lasting damage. “But I’m going to need a strong drink if you’re going to keep reading that.” She gestured to the book with the picture on the cover that none of Aveline’s subordinates were going to mistake for anyone but their captain.

“How about weak drinks, and we’ll switch to something I’m not embarrassed to have written?”

“Deal.”

*

Maybe there was a Maker, and maybe he saw fit to finally give Hawke a break. Or maybe there was a reason Hawke was still kicking around in the land of the living; that stupid destiny, perhaps.

Regardless, things went well for a long time. Or, it seemed like a long time for things to go well. Maybe a year. Maybe a little more? During that time, the worst Hawke had to face was the slowly closing fist Knight-Commander Meredith was holding around the mages of Kirkwall. The Mage Underground was gradually losing the footing it had gained when a known apostate had been made Champion. It was all looming but none of it seemed particularly imminent.

Then, everything started happening at once. As it always seemed to.

It started with a letter from Carver. Not even a letter to Hawke. It was part of a letter to Merrill, who, when she showed the thing to Hawke, had kept the rest of the paper carefully folded so that Hawke couldn’t read it.

 

I don’t want anyone to overreact about this, but some dwarves tried to kidnap me last night. Garik says they were definitely Carta. I’m fine. Obviously. But maybe Riss and Varric could look into it?

Stroud is open to giving me leave to deal with it. If I come to Kirkwall, we could--

 

Merrill pulled the letter back, blushing, before Hawke could read on. “Varric says he might know a little something already,” she said breathlessly. “So, I’ll just let Carver know he should come along. If that’s alright with you, Hawke?”

Hawke blinked rapidly. The Carta was trying to run off with her brother, who was sharing secret messages with Merrill, and Varric already knew what was going on. If there was ever going to be a clearer sign that the chaos she was so accustomed to had started back up….

“Sure,” she said to Merrill. “Send for Carver. The more, the merrier.”

Chapter Text

It took something like three hours to kill the guy. Three whole hours of all out fighting for four skilled, experienced scrappers to take down a single crazy mage spouting ancient Tevene nonsense. What had he been saying, anyway? Where was that broody elf when you needed him?

Corypheus was bristling with crossbow bolts by the time he finally seemed to slow down. They could only tell he had weakened because the pauses between barrages of lightning, fire, and boulders had become significantly longer. Hawke pivoted around a giant stone that had been ripped from the Fade and approached the ancient magister from behind, grabbing one of the bolts on his back to use as leverage as she shoved the blade of her staff through his chest.

There was a cry followed by a strange windy sensation. A whistling.

Corypheus crumbled. Particles of dust plumed out. It was more like a training dummy than a human body. Hawke pulled her staff blade out of that dry, desiccated pile that had just been attacking them with incredible power and stood over the remains for a moment with a deep scowl. Hatred? Disbelief? For maybe the fifth time ever, Varric couldn’t read her face. And then the look was gone. She casually wiped the blood from a cut over her eyebrow and then rushed over to Carver, leaping over a collapsed pillar gracefully as a gazelle.

Carver first. She didn’t even look at Anders, who, to be fair, may not even have been Anders at that very moment.

Carver’s leg was extraordinarily broken. The angle was all wrong and there was a lot of blood and what looked like it might be bone sticking out and Varric decided to make sure that there was nothing of value on the dusty magister corpse. That was a useful thing to do. Some of the bolts in that carcass were salvageable.

“You ought to be dead four times over,” he heard Hawke say to her brother. “I told you to hold back.”

“Hawkes don’t hold back,” said Carver, “and neither do Grey Wardens.”

Hawke sighed. “Are you…? Do you still... hear it?”

“The Calling has stopped,” said Anders. Everyone turned to him, probably all surprised to see that he was no longer glowing. “I’m… here,” he said in answer to the question nobody was going to ask.

Of course, everyone was going to conveniently forget the fact that Justice had been phasing in and out of control of Anders since they went underground. They were going to forget the creepy, possessive way Justice acted toward Hawke. They were going to gloss over the fact that the taint in his blood could apparently turn Anders against his friends; against the woman he supposedly loved.

Why would we want to talk about that?

Maybe Hawke did want to talk about it. She gave Varric a strange look before crossing the room in three bounds to where Anders had been knocked down. It was one of those looks that suggested he was going to need a lot of liquor to make that conversation happen and he didn’t have any on him.

I wonder if that creeper, Larius, has a stash. He doesn’t seem like the type, but there were those Carta assholes at the prison entrance….

*

It was Little Brother Heaven at the Hanged Man the night they got back to Kirkwall. Carver had booked passage on a ship to Ostwick the next morning to meet back up with his roaming band of Wardens, but it hadn’t been hard to convince him to stick around for a little celebration. Just enough time had gone by for everyone to well and truly forgive him for being such a tit back in the old days. It probably didn’t hurt that he had almost died and then joined the organization responsible for protecting the world from darkspawn invasion, or that somewhere along the line he seemed to have developed something resembling a sense of humor.

Merrill did extra fawning, despite Varric’s suggestion that she play hard-to-get. Although, it might be that this was her playing hard-to-get. He wondered what Hawke knew about the letters between those two--he knew everything because Merrill regularly brought Carver’s letters around to make sure she didn’t miss out on anything saucy that may have gone over her head. He made a mental note to advise Carver to get a little saucier for the poor girl and looked for Hawke to make a joke about the whole situation. In a slight deviation from character, she was off by herself surrounded by a small collection of empty glasses and pretending not to be listening to a heated, but apparently friendly, discussion between Anders and Aveline.

Hawke had been quiet and strange the whole way back to Kirkwall. She had been fine with Carver. It was like old times with them, apart from the occasional bit of world-weary superiority for the way-too-mature-for-your-bullshit Grey Warden. But then, Varric would catch her throwing cagey glances at Anders or, much more inexplicably, at himself. She had avoided being pulled away from the other two and had turned down his offers to share the shitty Carta booze he had picked off of a corpse on their way out.

But now she was alone.

“Do you think he’ll be alright?” Varric asked her when he was sure nobody was eavesdropping.

“The Wardens have healers,” said Hawke. He had a feeling she was being intentionally obtuse. “Nothing like Anders, but they’ll make sure his work sticks.”

“I wasn’t talking about Junior.”

There was that cagey look again. She shifted her head to watch Anders warily for a moment before answering sincerely. “I don’t know.”

“Will you be alright?”

She turned to face him sharply. I’m Hawke, that face said, I’m obviously the most alright person in this tavern right now.

“With him, I mean.”

“Ah, yes. Will Hawke be safe with the abomination in her bed? Thrill as we revisit the same question again and again.” She emptied her whiskey in one gulp and signaled to Norah for another. She was putting them down pretty fast. “I can take him. If it comes down to that.”

Varric had a feeling Hawke only took men to bed if she was certain she could take them. “Yeah, but will you?”

“No, Varric. I think I’ll just let him kill me because the sex is that good.”

“Hawke.”

Norah came around with a bottle and a fresh glass. “Isabela’s picking up your tab, Champion. Are you sure you don’t want the really nice stuff?”

Hawke’s smile didn’t reach her eyes. “I plan on earning the headache I’m going to have in the morning, sweetheart. I also plan on paying for it myself, so you tell that harpy she’ll have to find some other way to atone.”

Norah gave a little curtsy and ran off. Hawke stared into her glass.

“I figured out how to deal with Justice, I can figure out this Calling if it comes up again.” She took a long pull of whiskey. “It'll be fine.”

“If I’ve learned anything about demons and blood taints in the time I’ve known you, Precious, it’s that they don’t stay figured out.” He put his hand on hers and she pulled away like she’d been shocked. “You can’t deny that this is getting worse.”

“I’m not denying anything.”

“So, you’re just planning on making a martyr of yourself,” Varric grumbled. “Again.”

Hawke slammed her glass on the table. “What do you want--”

“And what’s happening in this dark little corner?” Carver was suddenly there, smiling stupidly. “Lover’s quarrel?”

“Darling,” Hawke called over to Anders, “is his leg healed well enough for me to kick him?”

“Please don’t, I worked really hard on that.”

And with that, she was back out of his grasp.

Grumpy, exhausted, and frustrated, Varric didn’t last long among the revelers. Once Isabela took over the duty of coaching Merrill, he quietly made his way up the stairs. Isabela was probably a lot better at seducing humans, anyway. Especially human men. He left the door open and ajar--don’t want to seem antisocial--and went straight to his desk.

It was covered in letters. Why did he ever leave Kirkwall? His correspondence always got out of control whenever he left.

Status update on Bartrand. That could wait. Meeting notes from the Guild could wait, along with the letter chastising him for missing said meeting. A heavy roll from Athenril turned out to be her redline copy of Hard in Hightown, part 6. That could probably go straight to his publisher in the morning. He’d send the next Sword and Shields along with Athenril’s payment. She’d get a kick out of that. As he set that aside, something rolled off the desk. He felt the strain of travel in his back as he bent to pick it up off of the floor.

A bit of parchment tightly rolled into a small gear. That could only be….

 

Varric,

I was in Kirkwall for that Guild thing and you were gone. Someone said you had left on some business with ‘The Champion.’ That human of yours is really coming up in the world.

Look, I’ve been an idiot. I know things have been difficult the past few years. I know that’s on me. We made promises to each other and I’ve been the one who hasn’t been keeping their word. You deserve better. I want to be better--for you. I love you, Varric.

We’re leaving for Cumberland tonight. I’ll be there for two weeks. Bogden is going straight to Val Royeaux. So, tell me you’ll come. Or don’t tell me, and come anyway.

Love, B

 

He read it four times.

Where did this come from; this sudden awareness? He had last seen her just after Bartrand had been put away, at the Guild meeting where Varric officially took over as head of House Tethras. They had run off for a tumble at some Hightown Inn while her husband addressed the Guild on behalf of some smith caste thing he was determined to be disinterested in. They had barely spoken. Business as usual for this pair of star-crossed sometimes lovers.

Then what? He pieced together the time between. Then Aveline had nearly shut down that smithy and he had written Swords and Shields in a mad rush of pissed-off inspiration. That was followed by Isabela and her damned relic. Bianca had sent a letter around that time. Had he answered?

He hadn’t. That was when Leandra had… and then the Arishok…. Shit. Was that all it took? One ignored letter? Why hadn’t he tried that years ago?

His heart beat fast. Maybe they could finally figure it out. It could work this time. If he had Bianca, had her really, maybe all of this weirdness with Hawke would be so much less weird.

Maker-damned Hawke. What if something happened to her while he was gone?

As if on queue, his door swung open. He shoved Bianca’s letter into his pocket and pivoted around to see Hawke stumble in. Definitely drunk. Hair a mess. Very pink in the face. Still magnificent. She stepped in the door and leaned heavily against the wall.

“Why didn’t they kill him at the beginning of all of this?”

“You lost me, Precious.”

“Corypheus.” She started to pace. “They knew those magics would wear off when they put him in there. Why rely on being able to renew those spells instead of just killing the asshole and getting it over with?”

This is what’s been bothering you? He’s dead now, Hawke. I think you have more immediate concerns.”

“The Grey Wardens forced my father to perform blood magic to cover up their secrets and my brother is one of them because of me and my--ugh!” She shook her head and her hair fell more or less back into place. “What will he suffer to keep their secrets? What do I do when he starts to hear the Calling for real?”

“At least with Carver, you have time to figure that out. How old is Blondie, anyway?” He knew it was a stupid, bitter thing to say as soon as it was out of his mouth.

Maferath’s shriveled balls--I get it, Varric. You think I should break things off with Anders.”

Yes. Maker, yes. Just close that door and let me show you that you deserve better than--his hand was still fingering the letter in his pocket. Less weird was the goal here. Not more. He released it and crossed his arms.

“I think you should break things off with his creepy demon roommate, but it seems like they’re a package deal.”

“I understand Justice, we have an… an accord.”

“Right. An accord. He stalks you in your sleep and takes over your boyfriend’s body whenever things get a little tense but as long as you work yourself to the bone trying to make the world safer for mages everything is peachy. Next time you sign a contract, Precious, you should probably have me read it first.”

“I might be the only person who can help Anders get Justice under control.”

“Come the hell down from that pyre, Hawke,” said Varric.

“He needs me.”

“And what happens when you can’t help him? What does that mean for the rest of us that need you?”

“I don’t know. I have to try.”

“You’re going to get hurt.”

“I get hurt all the time, Vee.”

“I know. I’m the one who keeps putting you back together.”

“I never asked you to.”

“Then what the hell is this, Hawke? What are you doing here right now?”

“I just--” she ran the fingers of both hands through her hair. Suddenly, her frantic expression turned hard. “I didn’t tell you about the dreams.”

Shit.

“I didn’t tell anyone about that. I couldn’t….” Her eyes narrowed. “How did you--? When did you--?”

“Hawke, I--”

Fuck you, Varric.”

She nearly ran over Isabela and Fenris on her way down the stairs. Fenris turned after her and Isabela caught him by the edge of his sleeve.

“Hawke’s a big girl, pet, she can take care of herself.” She smirked at Varric. “Trouble in paradise?”

At some point in the past thirty seconds, he had come to a decision. “You still watching the Harbor like the Maker’s going to drop off a ship just for you, Rivaini?”

“I keep my eyes to the sea, yes.”

“How fast can a man get himself to Cumberland?”

*

I had almost forgotten how incredible a wyvern down mattress actually feels. It’s like laying in a meadow in one of those idyllic paintings full of big-breasted milkmaids and fat horses with all the benefit of not being outdoors. It’s like sleeping in the hand of the Maker. It’s like… well, it’s damned comfortable is what it is. It’s the perfect setting for lackadaisical sex and conversations that would normally send you into a spitting rage.

There’s a perpetually cool tumbler of black Orzammar ale on the nightstand to one side of me and a beautiful woman on the other. Kirkwall could not be further away.

Except that I have to go back.

I don’t have to go back. I could probably afford to stay at the Diamond Lass for a few months. Five, at the most. Maybe they’d give me a long-term discount and I could make six before dipping into the vault in Ostheim. But even a wyvern down mattress hardly seems worth it when you’re sleeping alone. Bianca has a whole entourage escorting her back to Val Royeaux later today and I’m set to depart at an inconspicuous time later.

Maybe I had to grow into this, because it’s not all that bad. Her lips are still flushed from our kisses as she makes a notation to a complicated sketch in her notebook. Her mouth is turned up just enough to show how self-satisfied she is with whatever brilliant notion she’s come up with this time. Our time together is drawing to a close but there’s none of that dread I’ve felt before. Nobody will ever really have Bianca; not me and definitely not Bogden. I probably came closer than anyone else ever would.

I decide it’s worth one more try.

“We could still make a run for it,” I say. I twist a bit of her hair in my fingers. It has gotten so long over the years; it spills over her shoulders in loose curls.

She puts down her notebook and pulls herself in closer. “Varric,” she says softly, gently even, “that’s your dream.” She rests her hand on my chest and looks at me with sincerity—more sincerity than I’ve seen in her face since the beginning. “It was never mine.”

There it is: Us in a nutshell. How many years have I been holding out that we would take the next step and all this time Bianca’s been on a different staircase. And that’s finally alright. I like my staircase.

I reach over for my rune-chilled ale and take a drink before asking her, “Alright, Princess, what’s your dream, then?”

“You know the answer to that.” She takes the cup from my hands and takes a sip from it herself before handing it back. “I’m going to be the first surfacer Paragon.” Her voice is so confident. So matter-of-fact.

But that wasn’t always her dream. There was a time when all she cared about was building shit, regardless of the recognition. I miss that Bianca. That Bianca might have shared my staircase.

“Can’t be long now, can it?”

“If all it took was ingenious ideas and flawless execution, I would be Paragon already,” she says, a little bitterly. “I have to prove that I represent the best of the Dwarva. If I lived in Orzammar it would just be assumed.”

“So you marry into a respected house,” I say. “One that wasn’t thrown out for cheating on Orzammar’s most beloved pastime, I suppose.”

“The Vascas went to the surface for the good of the economy,” she replies with a shrug. “That isn’t all, though. I can’t hold any debt. I have to fully meet the terms of any contract I enter into.” She looks down at her hands, tenting her fingers. “And I… need a family. To pass the name on.”

I nod. In my current state of deep relaxation and acceptance, this is something I immediately understand on a surface level. Of course, the breeding-obsessed nug-lickers down below wouldn’t see the point in granting their highest reward to a surfacer with no heirs to carry the name back to the real dwarves. Then it hits me just what that means:

Bianca’s talking about having kids.

“Oh,” I say, lamely. “I didn’t realize. I mean, you were never really interested. In that.”

“Whatever it takes,” she sighs. Her expression turns devious, those full lips pulled into a sideways grin. “Not that I’m looking forward to the execution of that particular plan, but the preparation stage is certainly fun.” She lets the sheets fall as she pulls herself over into my lap.

That state of deep relaxation and acceptance is suddenly gone.

I grab her by the waist. “Is that what this is about?”

“It’s not all this is about.” She smiles. She fucking smiles.

“Andraste, Bianca.” My head hits the backboard as I look up at the ceiling. “Why wouldn’t you tell me something like that!?”

I feel her slump a little but she’s still smiling when I look back at her. “Because I was pretty sure this was how you’d react.”

“You want me to impregnate you and let some other guy raise my kids??”

“Bogden’s good with kids,” she says as if it’s a totally reasonable conclusion to the argument. “His sister has three of them. I told him we should just borrow one of hers.” She chuckles and resumes her seductive wriggling. “Our kids would be cuter anyway. And smarter. Another go before lunch?”

*

Norah and Corff were outside the Hanged Man, passing a pipe back and forth. Varric had only ever seen Norah outside the tavern once, looking very shifty at the Lowtown market as she tried to haggle a man down on the price of a hideous ceramic figurine.

“Welcome back, Messere Tethras,” she said a little cheekily. “You may want to wait outside unless you fancy getting turned into a toad.”

“Worse than a toad if the fancy one opens up a vein,” said Corff darkly.

“Ugh. And I’ll have to clean it up, too,” said Norah.

“That does sound inconvenient,” said Varric as though he had any idea what they were talking about. Norah passed him the pipe hospitably and he took a short puff. There was a crash from inside. “What the hell is going on in there?”

“The Champion and those marked up elves are in there, fightin’ with a Magister,” said Norah with her eyes wide and a little dilated. “From Tevinter,” she added needlessly.

Another Magister? What in Andraste’s name had been happening since he’d been gone?

“There’s an elf, come here from Tevinter,” Corff took up the story while Norah took another hit from the pipe. “Hawke and that white-haired fellow came in to see her and this mage appears from bleedin’ nowhere. Big crowd of bodyguards and everything.”

“He’s a Magister, for sure,” Norah assured them both, breathing out smoke. “Never seen a fancier dress on a man. Not even when we had that enchanter. The one who liked redheads.”

Varric had Bianca unpacked and primed in a moment. “I guess I’d better make sure the Champion comes out of this on top.”

“You’re not afraid of anything, Messere Tethras,” Norah said with genuine awe.

As Varric opened the door, a body fell across the threshold with a wet smack. There was a low hiss as a staff, Hawke’s staff, whirled back into a defensive position. Varric looked from the body, across unfamiliar armor--all fur and pointy shoulders--up to very familiar blue eyes. There was a stripe of red war paint across her nose. Before she had time to correct her face, she looked genuinely surprised to see him. Maybe even happy to see him. Then she set her mouth into a straight line and looked away.

“Watch your step, Varric,” she gestured to the body on the floor and strode forward.

The common room looked just like a battle had taken place there. Chairs and tables were all over the place, at every angle except upright. Some of them had new char marks. Varric looked to where Hawke was headed and saw Fenris crouched over a robed figure and glowing. Merrill was near the stairs, she gave Varric a cheerful wave before going back to dusting herself off.

Hawke approached Fenris cautiously and leveled herself with him, crouching low on one knee. “It’s over,” she said gently. “It’s finally over.”

“Not yet,” he growled.

Fenris was on his feet in a flash, rushing past overturned tables. Varric finally noticed the other woman in the room, an elf with very red hair pressed herself against the corner. Fenris went straight for her, still glowing.

“Fenris!” Hawke was right behind him.

“You brought him here,” he rushed at the woman who cowered and looked frantically at Hawke. “You betrayed me to him.”

“Stop him, please! I had no choice, I swear it.”

Varric went the long way over to where Merrill stood. “I seem to have missed a few plot points, here,” he murmured.

She hunched a little to whisper in his ear, keeping her eyes on the situation with Fenris and Hawke. “That’s Fenris’ sister, believe it or not. He went through so much trouble to get her here from Tevinter and she went and brought Danarius with her to catch him and take him back!” She pointed to the body Fenris had left on the floor. That was a fancy dress the man was wearing.

“That old family betrayal trope again,” Varric shook his head.

“Oh, but I hope he doesn’t really kill her!”

Things were getting tense. Tenser. Fenris was still glowing. Hawke placed herself, bodily, in between him and the other elf.

“Fenris.”

“Good old Hawke,” Merrill continued her commentary, clasping her hands together. “I knew she wouldn’t let him kill her.”

Fenris let out a wordless cry of rage but stepped back. “Run.”

“Ooh, she’d better do as he says!” Merrill gasped and grabbed Varric’s shoulder.

“She’d be an idiot not to,” Varric whispered back to Merrill.

The red-headed elf said something quietly to Fenris before rushing for the door. Merrill let out a sigh of relief. Fenris looked around as though he just realized that whole exchange had occurred in a public place. He glanced at Varric and Merrill with wide eyes before turning back to Hawke.

“You heard what she said?” Hawke nodded. Varric wondered what she had said. “Maybe she was right. Maybe I had it easier because I was made to forget my choices. My family. I have always been alone, only now I understand just how alone.”

“You don’t have to be,” said Hawke. “Family is more than blood.”

“You… you are right,” Fenris conceded, looking at her gratefully. “I… have to go. I will come to your house, unless…?”

Hawke shook her head. “I’ll come to you.”

He nodded as though he expected that. Something was going on there. Varric would have bet his last silver it had something to do with Anders.

Fenris started to leave, then looked back to where he and Merrill were standing. “Thank you,” he said a little stiffly.

Hawke surveyed the bloody scene wearily. They had probably made worse messes of the Hanged Man, but this was certainly the most bodies they had left all on the floor all at once.

“I know a cleaner,” said Varric. “She’ll probably take this job for whatever’s in the fancy one’s pockets. Kevin can have her here in thirty minutes.”

“Sure,” Hawke shrugged. “I have to get back to the Gallows, anyway.”

“Hey, wait, what happened while I was gone?”

“Shit kept happening without you.” She finally made eye contact with him and it was cold. “I’ll jot down some notes about it and you can fill yourself in later.”

“Hawke, I’m sorry.” He deserved that.

“On second thought, I’ll just send you my journal. You can add a copy of it as an appendix to your fucking biography.” She kicked Danarius’ corpse as she stormed out of the tavern.

And maybe he deserved that, too.

“Well, Daisy, I have fucked up.” He looked over at Merrill, who had gone suddenly solemn.

“We had to kill Keeper Marethari.”

“What?!”

“She got possessed by the demon who had been helping me fix my eluvian. And then the clan attacked us, but Hawke told them it was her fault so she wouldn’t have to kill any of them. So they’re leaving.”

“Shit, Daisy, I’m--”

“And Castillon finally came for Isabela. Isabela’s mad at Hawke for killing him, since it means she didn’t get a ship out of it, but Hawke couldn’t let him live and keep up his slaving business.”

“Damn.”

“And a lady came from Val Royeaux to warn the Grand Cleric that there might be an Exalted March on Kirkwall.”

“That all happened while I was in Cumberland for a week?”

“We missed you, Varric. Especially Hawke. She’s not as funny when you’re gone.”

Chapter Text

Anders changed. Or Justice changed.

Or maybe Hawke had never really understood either of them.

Anders couldn’t easily explain The Calling to her, but she understood that he had faced his particular brand of mortality and now he felt the seconds ticking away. His part in securing freedom for mages had a deadline. Justice must have felt that deadline as well because his presence was more tangible every day.

And every night.

Sometimes Justice phased in to voice his opinion, especially if Anders had previously said something contradictory. Sometimes Anders voiced opinions that had previously been Justice’s. There were lapses in Anders’ memory. He had trouble piecing together sequences of events.

He became prone to long periods of persistent hopelessness. He stayed up late writing his manifesto and then tossed and twisted during his brief residency in their bed. They might go days without finding the time to talk to one another and then he would come and wake her up with a hurricane of hands and lips. He made love to her desperately, with passionate declarations that never quite washed away her worries.

Then there was the anger.

He was impossible to be around when he was angry. He knew so many sharp words; so many ways to burrow under someone’s skin. She couldn’t bring him along on jobs when he was like that. Fenris, Isabela and Merrill had each declared that they would not work with him until he straightened up. Poor Merrill wouldn’t even come in the house anymore, preferring to meet Hawke in the garden.

Even Hawke spent as much time out of her own home as possible. There were always a thousand excuses to be somewhere else and when she ran out of excuses, she would just run. Some days she ran along the coast as fast as she could. She was getting pretty fast.

More and more frequently, First Enchanter Orsino was Hawke’s excuse for being away from home. Kirkwall had the attention of every Circle in Thedas. All over the world, cracks were forming in the foundation of the Circle of Magi as an institution and Kirkwall was the largest crack by far. They believed that whatever happened at Kirkwall would set the tone for the rest of the world. So, naturally, enchanters came from far and wide to gawk at the situation in the Gallows, voice their baseless opinions, and then leave after having done nothing and decided nothing.

Hawke was called upon to speak with these lofty luminaries as a representative for apostasy, basically. Orsino agreed that there must be an alternative to rounding up magically inclined children and separating them from their families forever; Hawke was meant to be an example of an alternative, for all the good her presence did. Usually she only succeeded at making them nervous.

She was not much of a diplomat.

A meeting with the First Enchanter from Ostwick almost ended in blows. They spent many long hours discussing plans for the Circle to secede from the Chantry and all the ways that could be accomplished but he made it clear that the Libertarians had no interest in discontinuing the practice of segregating mages from their families and society. Hawke called his plans worthless. He called Hawke a naive, sentimental fool. That was probably better than being called a dangerous demon-magnet but she still felt static crackling practically up to her armpits by the time she was able to leave the Gallows.

Knight-Captain Cullen escorted her out in complete silence, with his arms crossed over the flaming sword on his breastplate. What would Father say if he could see her now? Being let out the gates of the Circle by a grumpy templar who knew full well what she was and couldn’t do a damn thing about it. There was a certain poetry to that.

She arrived at home feeling world weary and found Anders slumped over his desk with ink all over his fine, delicate fingers. He looked very peaceful, like the first night he had fallen asleep in her arms. Maker, let this be one of his good days, Hawke prayed silently. She knelt beside his chair and snaked her arms underneath his coat. She needed him to be Real Anders tonight, solid and warm; a reminder of what she was fighting for.

“Oh, hello, beautiful,” he said drowsily.

Hawke found her way underneath his shirt and dragged cool hands across his skin. “I’ve had a really terrible day,” she whispered. “Won’t you come to bed with me?”

He brushed her hair back and kissed the scar above her eyebrow. “I don’t see how I could say no,” he said with that sly, sideways smile that always made her heart flutter.

It felt like a long time since she had been able to take the lead. She took advantage of his sluggishness, shepherding him up the stairs. He stopped just outside of the bedroom door and pulled her toward him. She pressed him against the wall and kissed him deeply, running her fingers through his fine hair.

“I’ve missed you,” she said, pulling away.

“I’m here now.”

“Are you?” She looked at him calculatingly, searching for any signs of Justice, thankful to find none.

Hawke led Anders to the bedroom where she removed his clothes first before guiding him to the bed. He yawned and stretched languidly, then watched with that marvelous smirk while she disrobed herself.

“I wish you would let me do something about that scar,” he said when her shirt was off.

“Hmm. I like it.” She drew a finger along it. Hawke liked all her scars. “It reminds me that I’m really alive.”

“Is there some doubt?”

She didn’t answer, instead, she climbed over him and caressed the length of his slim torso. He bucked lazily and squirmed under her as she covered him in soft, wet kisses.

He said her name as they came together. “Arista….”

Anders became gradually more wakeful. He wrapped his arms around Hawke and twisted them both around so that he was on top.

“Maker, you are so beautiful.”

Hawke was close to climax when it happened. There was no warning at all. Anders’ eyes suddenly flashed, blank white. That tell-tale blue glow appeared around him, the aura of an otherworldly presence. Every muscle in Hawke’s body tensed. For a moment she was frozen in place.

“YOU ARE BOTH WEAK. THIS SUBMISSION TO THE FLESH IS CONTRARY TO YOUR GREATER PURPOSE.”

That dark, monotone voice broke through Hawke’s shock. She grabbed Anders near the throat and shifted her knee into his ribs. “You are not welcome here, Justice.”

The spirit continued speaking through Anders as though she had said nothing. “YOU DO NOT KNOW YOUR POTENTIAL. IF YOU HAD TAKEN ME, NOTHING COULD STOP US.”

He was still on her. Still in her. Finally, Hawke maneuvered into the position she needed to push Anders off of her. She flung him with all the considerable strength of her legs. He landed hard on his back, flat on the floor.

Justice’s blue glow faded and Anders regained control, blinking at the ceiling in confusion. Hawke pulled her knees into her chest and watched him coldly. In that instant, she was sixteen again, sitting on the dirty floor of a long-abandoned barn. Empty.

Anders reacted more dramatically. He looked at Hawke then, with terror, looked down at himself, naked on the floor. He scrambled away from her toward the wall; braced himself against it to stand.

“No,” he breathed. “This… I… Maker, no.”

Hawke said nothing. She had no words. Her fingernails dug into her calves as he frantically gathered his clothes.

“I’m so--” He looked at her with wide, horrified eyes. He perceived her frozen indifference and shut his mouth with a snap. Then he turned and rushed out of the room.

Hawke heard the creaking of floorboards and the shuffle of clothes being hastily thrown on. She remained still, exactly as she was, staring into nothing until she heard the sound of the front door opening and slamming closed.

She bathed in cold water, scrubbing roughly at every inch of her skin until she was pink and tingling all over. She drank half a bottle of wine that happened to be left in the front room. It wasn’t enough. She was antsy and angry and so… alone.

And she was not going to cry.

She had to keep moving.

It wasn’t even that late. The moon was out, brightly illuminating the whitewashed Tevinter architecture of Hightown. Windows across the common were full of warm, yellow light. People were laughing, eating, and enjoying the company of other people in nearly every house. Lucky, ignorant bastards.

Hawke walked quickly. She flew through the Hightown market and passed the vantage point with the view of the coast without even looking out at the stars. At the Lowtown steps, a couple of drunk boys called out to her and received no response.

Once she was inside the doors of the Hanged Man, she finally stopped and perceived her surroundings. It was loud and crowded and there was a mediocre bard singing. What day was it, even? Thursday? This can’t have been where she meant to go. Varric couldn’t be who she meant to see. She hadn’t forgiven him for--

Andraste, but that seemed petty now. A locked drawer and a closed book? She may as well have set a beacon, or written Varric’s name in glowing letters in the sky above it.

Varric was exactly who she wanted to see. Varric could make any shitty situation bearable. If Hawke’s superpower was inexplicable survival, Varric’s was turning inconceivable events into just another Tuesday. Or Thursday. If it was Thursday.

When she actually saw him, though, she suddenly had no idea what she was going to say. He was playing Wicked Grace with a woman Hawke was pretty sure was the madam at the Blooming Rose and two well-dressed men who might have been Antivan, or even Rivaini, judging by their coloring. He was telling a story, of course, gesturing with the hand that held his cards to throw them off the fact that he was almost certainly cheating. She must have looked like hell because Varric broke up the game as soon as they made eye contact.

“Sorry to cut this short, Gentlemen, My Lady.” He laid a winning hand on the table. “I have an urgent matter to discuss with my associate.”

Her heart pounded and her mouth went dry as he came over. “I’m just here to drink,” she said unconvincingly.

“Sure, sure. Your eyes are red, your boots are laced all wrong and you came all the way from your fully stocked wine cellar in Hightown for a cup of rat piss.” He patted her arm. “You’re the worst liar in Kirkwall, Hawke, but that’s part of your charm. Come up to my office.”

Of course, he would act like nothing was wrong; as though she hadn’t spent the last month giving him the silent treatment like a child. He guided her up the stairs and into his suite.

It looked like it had suffered an avalanche of parchment. Paper covered every surface. The floor was littered with wads of discarded passages. She had seen the place like that before, back in the days just before Hard in Hightown had been sent for publishing. A much neater stack sat on the corner of the table with a stone on top to keep it in place amongst the chaos. Momentarily distracted from her ordeal, Hawke went over and lifted the stone. The first page was headed in flowing calligraphy: The Champion and the Arishok.

“This is it, then?” she said, trying to sound disinterested. She fingered through pages covered in Varric’s elegant handwriting.

“The way you get in trouble, it will never be finished,” said Varric. He was watching her carefully. Shrewdly. “That’s just to get my publisher interested.”

“Oh.”

He sighed. “Hawke, if you don’t want me to--”

“I hope you spiced up that duel a bit.” Hawke replaced the stone and crossed the room to the bench against the wall. “Running around the Arishok in circles, bleeding all over the Viscount’s floor… that was not my most heroic moment.”

“Take it. Read it. I’ll rewrite anything you don’t like. I’ll scrap the whole damn thing.”

“No,” said Hawke softly. She slumped into the bench, pressing the back of her head against the wall. “Just, don’t put anything from my journal in there. Make me sound fearless and sophisticated. Not… pathetic.”

“You’re not….” He looked down at his hands. “I’m sorry, Hawke. I fucked up. Are we…?”

“Yeah.” Hawke blinked against the burning in her eyes. She was not going to cry. “We are unfuckupable.”

Varric caught the unsteadiness of her voice and came over close, leaning against the table in front of her. He observed her from that higher-than-usual vantage. “You didn’t come here to talk about that, did you.”

Hawke sighed. “Domestic problems,” she said dismissively. “How does that old saying go? Two’s company….”

“Justice,” Varric growled. “Don’t be flippant with me, Hawke. You look like you crawled out of the Deep Roads all over again. Just what the hell happened?”

Hawke took a deep breath and then told him everything. It all came flooding out; much more articulately than she would have guessed she could have told it. She told him about the growing distance between her and Anders, his erratic behavior and unfathomable moods. As she told him what had happened that night he looked away. His eyebrows drew together in a deep scowl.

“Wouldn’t you like to tell me you told me so?” she said shakily as she finally met his eye again.

Varric’s face softened. He wrapped his arms around her so that her head was against his perpetually bare chest, ear directly over his heart. That trademark Varric Tethras chest hair was surprisingly soft. His pulse was immediately comforting.

“Give me some credit, Hawke,” his voice was warm and resounding through his chest, “I’m not going to tell you I told you so without an audience.”

She chuckled and it turned into uncontrollable, hysterical giggles, quaking against him. He loosened his grip on her and she stabilized herself with a hand just below his collarbone, feeling his pulse quicken at her touch. Almost as though--but Varric wasn’t interested in humans. Varric had Bianca. Varric….

Varric lied a lot.

When she looked up at him he was looking back at her with that expressive, wonderful face. She had learned every freckle over the years, memorized every scar, and cherished every minute movement that might say more than he said with his copious words. Suddenly, it seemed like a lot was being said without words. Suddenly, everything apart from those not-words seemed very far away.

She brushed the pads of her fingers over his cheekbone, followed the curve of his ear and slipped her hand behind his neck, drawing his head down until their foreheads were touching. He let her.

“You’re good at this,” she said.

“I know,” he sighed.

She pivoted her head first so that their noses touched, testing whether or not he would pull away. They breathed against each other and he drew their bodies closer, keeping her safely bundled in his thick arms. Her lips dragged over his and into place.

It wasn’t desperate so much as it was persistent. He held her like something… precious; conforming to her body instead of grasping onto it.

Then he turned his face away. “I don’t think this is our moment, Precious,” he said.

When they broke apart, the weight of everything came down on Hawke like a hammer to an anvil. She had been so worried about the embarrassment of rejection or the endless teasing that would come from this attraction being accidentally revealed, she had never considered the incredible mess that might come from it being reciprocated. She had never considered that possibility.

She hadn’t even decided how she was going to handle Anders and Justice.

Shit. How was she supposed to handle that with this added? How would she have this conversation with Anders? Well, darling, after your resident spirit used your body to invade me, I exchanged a relatively chaste kiss with Varric that I didn’t feel even slightly chaste about. Let’s talk about this calmly. Like adults who aren’t also crazy people.

“Shit. Fuck. Shit.”

“Yeah. What you said,” said Varric, sitting on the bench beside her.

“Maker. I’m sorry, Varric, I….”

He looked away. “You’re upset. You’ve just been through some truly horrific shit. It’s natural that you would redirect--”

“Don’t. Don’t analyze me.” She curled up against the wall, drawing her knees up into her chest.

“You’re confused.”

“And you’re what? Just humoring poor, confused Hawke?”

He didn’t say anything.

“Just….” One thing at a time. That was how to handle this. If she established that what just happened was a lapse in character and judgment, she could focus on dealing with the quagmire of her relationship. “Just tell me I haven’t fucked everything up.”

He raised his eyebrows at her questioningly.

“Tell me we’ll forget about this and go back to being us. You and me. Us. I like Us. We aren’t complicated. This is complicated. This could not possibly be more fucking complicated.”

“You already said it, Hawke.” Varric put his hand over hers. “We are unfuckupable.”

*

The next few weeks were a blur of activity. Knight-Commander Meredith requested Hawke’s help tracking down escaped mages who were suspected of having used blood magic. Hawke knew it was an attempt to prove how dangerous mages could be and how necessary the extreme measures the templars had employed were. She did it anyway, hoping for a chance to prove the opposite. It was not going well.

Anders had given dozens of tearful apologies and Hawke had accepted them because… what else could she do?

After that, his mood was better than it had been in a long time. There was a wall between them, though. He spent more time away, neither at home or in the clinic. Hawke guessed that he was doing more work for the Mage Underground. As long as he was keeping busy.

When he came and told her he had found a way to break with Justice for good she was elated. This, surely, was the breakthrough they needed. Everything was going to work out. She was going to have the Anders she had grown to love, things would go back to normal with Varric, everyone would stay together to fight for a better Kirkwall, and drinks at the Hanged Man would continue to be terrible.

Only one of those things turned out to be true.

He had seemed strange when he was describing the potion he was making and she had excused it, thinking it was something Justice would disapprove of and, thus, a delicate subject. She was no alchemist, so she wasn’t surprised not to know anything about the ingredients he wanted. When the drakestone had sparked as they extracted it, when she noted its bloody odor, she had had doubts.

She had no doubts about the sela petrae. There was no way that putrid substance was going in anything Anders planned to drink.

The crystal was milky brown. It stuck out of a puddle of syrupy liquid like a bundle of knives. The smell of the entire apparatus was indescribable. Hawke’s nose and eyes began burning before they were anywhere close enough to gather the stuff.

“There it is,” said Anders, covering his nose with one hand and gesturing to the crystal with the other. “Sela Petrae.”

What is it, though?” Isabela wouldn’t even come near it. She stood a distance away, keeping her hands on her daggers as if she might assassinate the odor.

“It, uh, forms from concentrated manure and urine,” said Anders.

“Charming. A shit crystal.”

Hawke had never handled anything so noxious in her life, and she had helped Fenris clear out the corpses from his mansion after he had left them in his foyer for a month.

“What could this possibly be used for?” Fenris was helping by chipping away at the base of the stuff with his greatsword. He was lucky his sword was good and long, Hawke was the one right in front of it with the sack.

“It’s a process developed in Tevinter, actually.”

“Oh, good,” drawled Fenris. “They never have any bad ideas over there.”

Everyone was getting along for the first time in six years, lightheartedly ribbing at each other while they collected the foulest substance known to man. Hawke was pretty sure she had seen Isabela patting Fenris on the rear. Things were going so well.

Except that Anders had lied. He continued to lie. He was actively deceiving her. He might not even be Anders anymore. This was a stranger; this was the true hybrid of Justice and Anders that she had foolishly believed she had the power to hold back. How long had he been like this? Since the Warden Prison? Or had he been fooling her all along?

“I think that’s finally enough, love,” he said, taking the sack from her and tying it tightly to reduce the smell.

Fenris and Isabela were flirting as the group wound their way out of the sewers. Hawke wanted to focus on that, to revel in the idea of two of her favorite people coming together, but she couldn’t break away from those feelings of betrayal and fear. She felt the person who should have been Anders beside her, walking along with his sack full of deception and calling her Love.

When they reached the clinic, Fenris asked if she was feeling alright. She told them it was just the fumes and said that Anders would take care of her. Isabela and Fenris left so that they were finally alone.

She didn’t know how to confront him. Should she confront him? What if Justice manifested and forced her to defend herself? Justice had lived in a corpse before. If she killed Anders, she could only kill Anders. Would Justice carry on inhabiting Anders’ corpse? Was that part of Justice’s plan?

“You should head home,” he said, stroking her arm. “A little fresh air is all you need.”

She meant to say she would see him later. Instead, she said, “There is no potion.”

The stillness of that moment was palpable. For a second she believed that she could walk out of the clinic and find everyone in Kirkwall frozen in place.

“No.” He said finally. He had the decency to look ashamed. She turned to leave and he called out to her, “Arista, wait.”

She tingled all over with rage. “Only Anders calls me by my first name,” she said with a low pitch that didn’t even sound like her. “I don’t know what you are anymore.”

If she hadn’t been so angry, the stricken look on his face might have broken her heart. It faded quickly, though. His face went blank and passive.

“I needed your help, but I didn’t want to get you involved in what I have to do.”

“How is this not getting me involved? I thought I was doing this for us, for our future. You used me to further your crusade!”

“This is bigger than us,” said Anders flatly.

“It’s too big for us.”

Chapter Text

Gascard duPuis had kept a swanky mansion in Hightown, once. It was one of the biggest houses on the hill. His fine Orlesian ancestors were probably twisting around in their urns at the fact that their last remaining scion was a perverted apostate who had filled their fine home with horrors and blood. Well, they wouldn’t have to suffer that embarrassment much longer.

It was fitting that now he could be found in a Darktown hovel, little more than a closet with a dirty palette and a cracked piss pot; separated from the other lowlifes by a single, moth-eaten curtain. His elegant clothes, the only thing he had left to his name, were filthy and torn. How the man could sleep in that place, after everything he had done, was a mystery to Varric.

“We should have brought Hawke,” whispered Fenris, looking down at the sleeping Orlesian with a look of utter disgust on his face.

“Hawke doesn’t believe in revenge.”

As far as Hawke was concerned, duPuis had been picked up by the templars and executed for the murder of Ser Emeric. As far as anyone was concerned, that was what had happened. The templars did not want anyone to know that duPuis had escaped but, of course, knowing things people didn’t want him to know was Varric’s specialty.

He had thought about telling her. A token of trust after she had finally forgiven him for breaking hers? It was the right thing to do, after all. It’s what Hawke would have done. That would have meant revisiting Leandra’s death, though. She had enough going on without that, and he had a hard enough time stopping himself from comforting her again like he had that night….

Come on, Tethras. Less romance, more murder.

“Give him a kick, will you?” Varric said to Fenris.

“You think he deserves to face his death? Like a man?” Fenris said dubiously.

“No, but I’ll feel better about it.”

Varric primed and aimed Bianca as Fenris poked duPuis with his foot. The man groaned and twisted groggily. He looked up and blinked quickly to clear his eyes, perhaps disbelieving what he was seeing.

“Good morning, sunshine.”

There was a click, a twang, and then a wet gurgle as one of his bolts pierced directly through Gascard duPuis’ pale throat.

“That was satisfying,” said Fenris darkly.

A rumble and clatter announced someone rushing down the stairs of the flophouse. An armored somebody.

“Wait, stop!”

Keeping Bianca armed, Varric stepped into the hallway to see a suit of templar armor, strangely radiant in that dark and dirty little hole. The man in the armor was vaguely familiar. Knight-Captain Good-Hair. He was flanked by a young man and an angry looking woman, both in good quality leathers that looked like they had been purposely soiled.

Right. Plainclothes templars watching the flophouse. DuPuis hadn’t escaped, after all.

“You’re too late, Knight-Captain,” said Varric, lowering his crossbow.

The Knight-Captain pushed past his fellows into the hall and pulled the curtain to look in on duPuis’ corpse, still pinned to the wall by his throat. He sighed forcefully.

“This man was part of an important investigation.”

“This man delivered women to a blood mage to be defiled and dismembered,” Fenris growled.

Captain Cullen seemed to recognize them then. “You are… associates of the Champion.”

“We prefer Friends, actually,” said Varric.

The templar scowled. “The Commander has reason to believe that this man’s mentor, the blood-mage Quentin, was receiving aid from someone within the Circle.” He reached into a pouch on his belt, pulling out a neatly folded bit of parchment and handing it over Varric. “We hoped duPuis would make contact.”

 

My dear friend,

I have obtained the books you requested. I'll leave them at our usual hiding spot. Please collect them as soon as possible. I would hate to see them in the wrong hands!

Your last letter was fascinating! You have proven me wrong, once again, by doing the impossible. I shouldn't have doubted your resolve, and I hope you will keep me apprised of further progress.

Your friend and colleague,
O

 

“O?” said Varric. “You don’t think this is from…”

“We don’t have enough evidence to act.” He snatched the letter back and replaced it in his pouch. “And now we may never have that evidence.” He signaled for his entourage, who came forward and started the work of gathering up duPuis’ remains. “Given the Champion’s personal interest in this matter, perhaps she would be willing to take a closer look at her friends within the Circle,” he said with a significant look at Varric.

Varric and Fenris slipped around the frustrated Templars and started for the lift to Lowtown.

“What did the letter say?” said Fenris.

“It said the mage situation in Kirkwall is much more fucked than we thought,” said Varric.

*

As if that wasn’t trouble enough, a few days later Varric received a surprise visit from someone who was supposed to be giving him space. It shouldn’t have been so hard, considering they had spent at least ten years with a continent between them. Yet, there she was.

“You didn’t think it would be that easy, did you?” Bianca said as she launched herself at Varric.

She just appeared; completely unannounced. There wasn’t so much as a Guild picnic for her to have been in Kirkwall for. She was there just for him, which was flattering in a very confusing way. In fact, he seemed to be paralyzed by that confusion. While his brain worked to catch up with what was happening, his body followed the path of least resistance.

The path of least resistance is fraught with danger. That was how he ended up making out with the woman who was supposed to be the love of his life while his mind was on someone completely different.

Maybe he had been thinking about Hawke when he neglected to lock his door. Maybe if you think about a mage too hard, you summon them.

Regardless, there was an odd ringing in Varric’s ears as Bianca straddled him on the bench in his front room. He had kissed Hawke on that bench… three weeks ago? Four? If it felt like it was only last night, that might be because he had been thinking about it every night since. Bianca grasped at his shirt and he perfunctorily put his hands on her hips; his body acting according to instinct in the absence of adequate cognitive function.

“We disagree on some things,” said Bianca breathlessly between kisses, “that doesn’t mean we’re going to give up.”

Bianca sucked on his neck and grinded into his lap.

Isabela had mentioned something about Hawke being sick after a trip to the sewers.

Bianca hummed and gasped at his lightest touch.

Varric wondered if Hawke was alright.

Bianca pulled off her own top and flung it across the room before pulling Varric’s up over his head and--

And then the door slammed open like it had been rammed in by a bronto, which either meant he was being arrested or Hawke had just breezed in.

It was the latter.

“Vee, I--oh.” He heard her through his shirt.

Bianca finished pulling it off and twisted around on his lap to look at the doorway. She didn’t seem to have any care at all for the exposure of her under-bodice and the bust it was doing a poor job of restraining.

“You must be Hawke,” she said coolly. She turned back to Varric. “She’s cute.”

Varric slipped out from under Bianca and stood up to address Hawke with a little more dignity. Very little. Hawke was wearing that armor they had made for her when she was made Champion, with the fur and iron set to make her look like every Marcher’s image of a Ferelden barbarian. That flash of red warpaint was across her nose. Normally, this was a very intimidating look for her. She would have looked terrifying if her eyes had not been the size of dinner plates.

“Hey, what do you need?”

She looked at Bianca, then at Varric, then down to his bare chest, at which point her face turned a bashful shade of crimson. She looked further down, into her hands where she was clasping a bit of parchment.

“Trouble in the Gallows,” she said, setting the paper down on his table. “We might need you and Bi--and your crossbow. If you have time. Sorry.”

“Hawke,” Varric started. But she was already on her way out the door. She pulled it closed behind her without looking back. He heard Bianca shifting behind him as he picked up the letter.

 

Champion,

You have proven yourself a friend to Kirkwall's mages and it seems I must call upon you once again. Meredith has gone too far, and I will not let her madness remain unchecked. I ask that you come to the Gallows at once. Perhaps together we can stop this before there is bloodshed.

First Enchanter Orsino

 

Orsino with an O.

First Dickhead Orsino, thought Varric. He had people looking into the Knight-Captain’s accusations but it was always hard getting information from the Gallows and the First Enchanter had taken great pains to keep himself squeaky clean. Those pains would have been evidence in and of themselves if this were anywhere other than Kirkwall. Who could blame the guy, with nutjobs like Meredith running the city?

“Varric,” said Bianca warningly, “I have to be back on my way to Ostwick in a few hours.”

Just passing through. Of course, she hadn’t come here just for him. Not that it would have mattered.

“This is important,” he said, waving the letter at her. “This could decide what happens to the Circle.”

“The Circle. As in mages. And what, exactly, does that have to do with you?” She crossed her arms over her copious cleavage. “This is about her, isn’t it? Is she a mage, Varric?”

“This is about Kirkwall,” said Varric. And Hawke.

“You couldn’t just find some idiot noble girl or some Carta slut with a heart of gold, could you? No, that would be too traditional for Varric Tethras. You went and took up with a human mage.”

“It’s not like…” Varric stopped himself. Suddenly he didn’t want to deny it, no matter what the truth was. Bianca’s anger was oddly… satisfying. He had seen her selfish and he had seen her self-righteous, but never jealous. It was real and raw and ugly. “It’s not really any of your business.”

“Like hell it’s not, you’re mine.”

“I was yours, Princess. You just set me aside one too many times.”

She was briefly speechless and he almost took it back. Part of him wanted desperately to take it back; to grab her back up; to reassure her that the past eleven years had not been for nothing.

“This is your choice, then?” she said significantly.

“Yes.”

“Fine.”

*

He was on his way to the Gallows when a massive crowd came pouring through the gates. Orsino was at the head, leading a number of mages in bright robes. Just as many Templars followed close behind. Meredith led them unhurriedly but with clear purpose. Then came Hawke with Fenris, Aveline and Isabela.

“What the hell is going on?” Varric called over to them.

“They are going to force the Grand Cleric’s hand one way or another,” said Hawke. She looked tired and annoyed, but at least she was looking him in the eye again.

The crowd oozed through Lowtown and into the market, each leader making a concerted effort to be at the fore. When they reached the steps, Knight-Commander Meredith rushed up them to address the crowd.

“This is futile, Orsino. You know that we cannot risk infiltration from maleficarum. The Grand Cleric will back us on this.”

“There is no infiltration!” The First Enchanter stopped at the third step and his attending mages fanned out around him. “We will not suffer your paranoia any longer! Grand Cleric Elthina will see, as we all have seen, that you are unfit for leadership. You are insane!”

Curious Lowtowners had gathered around, filling up the marketplace. There was a commotion in the crowd as someone pushed their way through to the front. Anders entered the fray, passing right between Varric and Hawke without so much as a glance. He cut through to the space between mages and templars and called out, “The Grand Cleric cannot help any of you now.”

Which seemed unnecessarily cryptic before the world started shaking.

It started with a rumble, deep under their feet. Then there was a sound like a million chandeliers being rattled at once that deepened until it was more like a sensation than a sound. With a deafening roar, a huge column of light shot into the sky, straight through the silhouette of the Chantry where it loomed over the rest of the city. It shattered into pieces, great boulders that were propelled through the air and then crashed into whatever lay below. Buildings, streets, people--who could say? A plume of dust rushed out and then the light disappeared and the roaring was silenced.

The city was roused like a kicked anthill. There were shouts and screams coming from every direction. The party gathered in that Lowtown square all gazed, dumbstruck, at the dirty sky where the Chantry used to be. All of them but Anders, who was sitting on a stair looking steadfastly at the ground, and Hawke, who was staring at Anders.

“Did you…?” She started to ask him, but she must have known the answer.

“Something had to be done,” said Anders. “They had to be made to see. Now the whole world will see.”

“A mage has destroyed the Chantry. The Grand Cleric is almost certainly dead!” Meredith screamed. “You see what your coddling has done, Orsino? You cannot come back from this. I invoke the Right of Annulment.”

“No,” Orsino gasped.

“Anders is an apostate,” said Hawke, jumping in between the two of them. “He wasn’t even a part of your blighted Circle!”

“And we should have been given leave to root you all out regardless of your influence,” Meredith spat at Hawke.

“This is the product of your tyranny!” cried Orsino.

Meredith grunted in frustration as she pulled out her sword and the templars gathered around her followed suit. In two heartbeats a melee had broken out. It was utter chaos. Varric climbed the stairs while switching off the safety on Bianca--was he really going to keep calling it that? Was this really the time to make that decision?

Even with their shining armor, it was hard to pick out the templars from Hawke and the mages in that swarm. Spells were flying, fireballs and bursts of frost and lightning all over the place. It was pandemonium for maybe three very long minutes. Then Orsino drew a line of fire between the warring parties that rose into a great flaming wall.

“We must protect the Circle,” he called out. “Return to the Gallows!”

“Run and prepare, Orsino,” Meredith taunted from across the column of fire. “We will take the Gallows and end this evil.”

Hawke paced along the fire like a caged animal. Orsino grabbed her arm. “Will you help us?”

“Of course,” said Hawke. Varric hoped for her sake that Orsino was not the mysterious O. Would she be so willing to fight with him if she knew about the letter?

“I will leave you to deal with….” He glanced at Anders, who was still sitting. Waiting.

Hawke nodded and Orsino rallied the mages who were still standing. With that, both groups began to disburse. The gawkers, perhaps worried that there would be more explosions, had already begun to clear out toward their homes or to the taverns. Only two forms moved closer to the stairs; Merrill and Sebastian appeared and rushed over from opposite sides of the marketplace.

Varric came back down the steps toward Hawke and the others just as Hawke intercepted Sebastian.

“Is it true?” Sebastian cried, rushing toward Anders. Hawke put herself bodily between them. “Was it him?!”

“I’m so sorry, Sebastian,” said Hawke with a hand on his breastplate. “The Grand Cleric….”

His eyes went wide. “Were you a part of it, Hawke? Did you help him?”

“No! I mean, I didn’t know, I would never have--”

“And what are you going to do about it?”

Anders was silent; serene, almost. He looked at his hands and breathed slowly as though his fate was not right now being decided by a frothing Chantry brother and the woman he had deceived. He looked just like Anders; Anders who had shared countless stupid templar jokes with Varric, who knew every word to all the bawdiest drinking songs, who had brought Hawke back from the dead.

“You should kill me,” he said softly.

Hawke charged over to him. “Excuse me?

“You can’t let me go after what I’ve done.”

Varric barely caught the pinched look on Hawke’s face before she reached her arm back and slapped Anders with all her strength. The clap of her hand against his face rang out through the square. His head swung around sharply and he brought a hand up to touch his reddening cheek.

“Shit,” said Varric and Isabela at the same time.

“How many have you killed for lesser crimes, Hawke?” Sebastian continued to howl. “He must pay!”

“He should help us fight,” said Merrill.

“No amount of help will make up for this,” said Aveline, gesturing at the dust-filled sky.

“This isn’t up for a fucking vote,” Hawke yelled, turning toward the rest of them.

Sebastian strode forward. “I’ll do it if you can’t.”

Hawke stuck the blade of her staff into the ground and a wave of unseen force knocked Sebastian to the ground. He slid back a few feet; polished white armor scraping against the pavement.

“Nobody is killing Anders.”

“Then you’re a hypocrite,” Sebastian spat.

“Then I’m a fucking hypocrite.” She opened her arms as if daring him. Her eyes were wild and wide; glowing blue coals.

“I’ll see him pay for this if I have to tear Kirkwall down to its foundation.” Sebastian clambered back up to his feet, backing away from Hawke. “I’ll bring the entire weight of Starkhaven down on him.”

Hawke lifted her staff again. Sebastian backed up several paces before storming out of the market altogether.

“So much for rededicating himself to the Chantry,” Isabela said under her breath.

“He’s right, love,” said Anders. “There must be… justice for what I’ve done.”

“Justice. That’s the idea, isn’t it? I could put a thousand holes in you and Justice would just walk away, wearing your corpse like a beggar’s rags.”

“Arista.”

“Justice will have to find someone else to liberate him.”

“Please.”

“Get out of my city, Anders.”

*

She told them all they didn’t have to follow her. She looked at Fenris significantly when she told them they should turn back at once if they had any doubts about the fight. He returned her gaze confidently, silently, mouth set in a hard line. Varric was pretty sure that every one of them had doubts about that fight. He had some serious doubts himself. What they didn’t doubt was Hawke. They would have followed her into the Void.

The path to the Gallows was total anarchy. Aveline’s guardsmen were trying to keep the peace and protect the people while pockets of templars fought with pockets of mages. Too many mages grew desperate, resorting to blood magic. There were shades and abominations in the streets. Hawke and company cut them down with single-minded ferocity. Templars who would not stand down met the same end.

The courtyard gates had been ripped open. Coils of twisted iron lay on either side of the walkway. Whatever or whoever had destroyed the gates had moved on. The courtyard was deadly silent.

“The templars haven’t made their move yet,” said Hawke. “We’ll have time to… strategize. Or something.”

“We’re right behind you, pet,” said Isabela.

A mage in turquoise and gold robes let them in the door. “The First Enchanter is in his office, he said he recalled a something that would help us against the templars’ power to dispel.”

“Distance and brute force both work pretty well,” said Hawke cynically.

“Most of us are not fighters,” the mage whimpered.

Hawke clapped him on the shoulders and began giving orders. “Move the ones who can fight to the front. Tell them to hit first, and then cast. Templars have a hard time smiting when they’re grasping at their balls. Anyone who can’t fight should try to stay out of range.” She looked around at a crowd of frightened faces. “Someone should bring Orsino out here.”

“I’ll get him,” Varric volunteered. Hawke gave him a questioning look. “I remember where the office is. Don’t get started without me.”

Varric looked steadfastly forward as he passed the crowd of mages into the hallway. Looking back would certainly give him away. They’d remember that he looked back.

He found Orsino staring, pale-faced, into a massive book and mumbling to himself. When the mage realized there was someone at the door, he slammed the book closed. “Who--oh! Serah Tethras. Then the Champion has arrived? Are we under attack?”

“We have a moment.”

“Ah. Good.” He looked down at his book, then his eyes flashed at something to his right before glancing back up at Varric. “Do you need something?”

Varric leaned casually against the door frame. “I need an answer.”

*

He made a show of priming Bianca as he returned to Hawke. He opened up the crossbow’s arms and released the safety with two clicks that rang out in the gallery.

“Orsino wasn’t in his office,” he said to Hawke. “I looked around but….”

As if in answer, there was a crash against the massive doors.

“He’s going to miss all the fun,” said Hawke.

Chapter Text

Her ears rang in the sudden silence. Everything was still. The massive statues that had just been leaping and swinging through the courtyard now lay in heaps. There were strange, metallic groans as they settled into their new positions, strewn all over the place.

Hawke sat on her heels in front of the terrible red figure that had once been Knight-Commander Meredith; staring at it without perceiving it. It was beyond perception. The whole thing was beyond any comprehension at all.

What the hell just happened?

The figure before her only barely looked like it had once been human. It looked like a sculptor had given up halfway through. There was clearly a face, twisted by pain and rage into a permanent, silent scream. Two points of light glowed where there had been eyes. Like coals on a fire. Like there was some kind of fire burning within the stone. Lyrium.

Lyrium could do all this?

She heard someone approach her from behind. Mail brushed against plate, heavy armor boots clanked against the cobblestones. Metal whispered against leather as a sword was slid back into its sheath. She didn’t look up. If the templars took her now, after everything that had happened, so be it.

Tranquility might be nice.

“I think I’d better get back to the Deep Roads, Riss,” said Carver. She felt him ruffle her hair with his gloved hand. “It’s safer down there.”

Hawke finally turned away from Meredith’s steaming red eyes. She had seen Carver fighting with them. She thought she had been hallucinating. Yet, there he was, all blue and silver Grey Warden armor to match his eyes.

“How are you even here right now?” Her voice cracked as she said it.

“We weren’t far. We felt the… the explosion. I knew it was Kirkwall.”

Hawke looked toward the empty space in the horizon automatically. How many people had been inside? How many had been killed by the debris? Anders had done that. He had wanted her to execute him for it. He had expected her to execute him. Nothing made any sense.

She looked back at Carver. “Are you hurt?”

He laughed. “No, but you are.”

“Oh.” There was a deep cut above her left knee. Blood had soaked through her trousers and was dripping onto the ground. It was nothing Anders couldn’t handle.

But Anders was gone.

Carver helped her stand. Had he always been so big? Hadn’t she carried this monstrous man on her back through the Deep Roads? Was she shrinking? She felt very small and very dizzy as he held her steady.

All around, people were getting up and dusting themselves off. Hawke saw a templar walk over to one of the collapsed statues and kick it with a plated boot. Isabela leaned against a wall, holding her hair up to cool her neck. Merrill dabbed at Varric’s face with a handkerchief. He was trying to push her off of him. Fenris sheathed his sword and surveyed the scene emotionlessly. Donnic stole a kiss from Aveline as she pulled him up by the breastplate.

Ugh. So sweet. How did sweet things still exist?

“Champion, may I have a word?”

Hawke felt Carver stiffen under her hold on his arm as the Knight-Captain approached. He was still nervous about templars after so many years without having to hide anyone from them. Ready to cut a man down for looking askance at his big sister; that was Carver. Cullen was also showing signs of caution, probably because there was a huge, armed Grey Warden scowling at him.

“Knight-Captain, this is my brother, Carver Hawke,” she said, making an effort to put all her weight on her own feet.

“That’s Warden-Lieutenant Hawke,” said Carver stiffly.

“Really? You got promoted? Carver, that’s fan--” Hawke caught sight of Cullen watching them awkwardly. “Yes. Well. Carver, Knight-Captain Cullen led the templars against their own commander.”

“They should have turned on her sooner,” Carver grumbled.

“I agree,” said Cullen with a weary look around them. “Champion, the templars here will not move against you, not after what we’ve seen, but you should know that the commander sent for reinforcements even before she informed the Spire of her intent to carry out the Right of Annulment. I fear Kirkwall will not be safe for any mage.”

“I understand,” said Hawke. “How long do we have?”

“A few days at most.”

Hawke imagined columns of templars marching on the city and suddenly remembered Sister Nightingale’s warning. She sighed forcefully. “If Divine Justinia was considering an Exalted March before all of this, she’s certain to call for one now.”

Cullen’s eyes went wide. “An Exalted March on Kirkwall?”

“Yeah, the fun never ends.” Hawke finally released Carver; finding solid, if painful footing. “My name is all over this shit. If I leave, I might be able to keep more blood from pouring down Kirkwall’s sewers.”

“My men will not pursue you.”

“Thank you, Knight-Captain.”

“Nor will mine,” said Aveline, sidling up to Hawke stiffly. Hawke put a hand on her shoulder and the guard-captain smiled back.

“You should come with us, Captain,” said Varric, also appearing from behind Hawke. Slowly, everyone was joining the conversation. “It’s not exactly a secret that you’re one of Hawke’s friends.”

“My place is in Kirkwall,” said Aveline. “As is yours, Hawke, but I’m sure you know that.”

“I’ll be back as soon as I’m sure my being here won’t cause a holy war.”

“And you’re all going, as well?” Aveline looked around. Fenris, Merrill, and Isabela had joined the group.

Isabela leaned against Merrill, favoring her right leg. “We can’t let her run off alone. Have you seen how heavily she sleeps? She’d be picked up by slavers her first night out.”

“Lovely.” Aveline smiled. “With you lot gone, I think crime might come down enough for my men to focus on cleaning up this mess.”

They made plans to meet outside the city in the morning. Hawke almost suggested a round of drinks and Wicked Grace but a glance at all their tired faces told her just how successful that was likely to be. Hawke herself would have been snoozing into her first mug.

Hawke dreaded going home. She tried to talk Carver into staying overnight in the estate. He had never so much as seen the inside of it. He declined, of course. He had someplace to stay in the alienage that, no doubt, would feel much more welcoming than the house his exile had paid for. She didn’t even have it in her heart to tease him about Merrill. Isabela picked up that responsibility just fine.

But the estate was a big house and it had recently become emptier than ever before. Orana had gone to work for the obscenely wealthy and very kind old woman who lived next door after Mother’s death had left her with so little to do. Hawke was not a high maintenance woman and neither she nor Anders had been able to eat enough to keep up with Orana’s cooking habits. Bodahn and Sandal had been invited to Orlais by the Empress herself and had left only a few days earlier. Anders... didn’t live there anymore.

If Anders was there, she’d have an entirely different problem from being lonely.

Hawke hugged her brother awkwardly around their two sets of armor and told Merrill to be gentle with him. There was a lot of blushing all around. Then the whole party dispersed in pairs. Carver and Merrill. Aveline and Donnic. Fenris and Isabela. Hawke.

Varric had moved off to the side. All that fighting and he looked like he was ready to spend the night tricking entitled assholes out of their money. His long coat had gotten a few nicks. No doubt he had taken his share of cuts and bruises. He looked impeccable as ever. He looked like trouble. The cut on the bridge of his nose must have been deep. Merrill had put some kind of poultice on it that made a dark mark over his face, not unlike her own warpaint. He might get a rather dashing scar out of the ordeal.

Not like his face needed more character. His face wasn’t all he had going for him, either--

This… this was not the time to fawn over Varric.

Don’t think about shirtless Varric.

He gave her a wink and went back to carefully disarming his crossbow. Bianca.

Bianca. Fuck.

The image was back in her head without any additional coaxing. That had definitely been Bianca. It was easy to imagine Varric with someone like that. Someone beautiful and feminine, soft and small. Hawke’s opposite in every way. She could see that hourglass figure perched on Varric’s lap. All that bright, bouncy hair catching every flash of lamplight; and then those dark, impetuous eyes.

You must be Hawke.

That had really happened. That had happened earlier that day. Bianca, the Chantry, Anders, Meredith…. How was a person supposed to sleep in an empty house after all of that?

She took a deep breath in and let it out slowly. “Walk me home?” she said to Varric.

“I was beginning to think I was going to have to ask you,” he answered as he slung the crossbow over his shoulder. “You know, I never realized just how thin the walls of my suite were until Rivaini and the broody elf started carrying on. I don’t mind giving them a head start.”

The sky was still full of Chantry dust. Each speck caught a glimmer of moonlight as it floated in the air, causing the whole city to be lit up by an eerie haze. The streets were dead quiet. Not even the bandit gangs or lone hoodlums were in the mood to work after all that. There wasn't likely to be any work for them, anyhow.

 

“I overreacted,” Hawke said eventually. Her voice seemed too loud in the funereal stillness. “This afternoon,” she clarified when Varric didn’t respond right away. “I’m sorry.”

“It was the chest hair,” Varric replied affably. “You may have gotten a glimpse here and there, but I know the full show can be shocking. Lesser women have fainted.”

Hawke smiled despite everything. Just another Tuesday. “That was Bianca, wasn’t it?”

“Yeah,” Varric sighed. “I’m sorry you had to find out about her that way.”

Hawke laughed. It started out hollow and turned into a genuine chuckle that made her feel every bruise in her torso. “Find out about her, he says. As if you hadn’t been making insinuations about her for as long as I’ve known you. You named your damned crossbow after her--and, let me tell you, nobody ever bought that, ‘Mirabelle was taken’ line.”

“Hey, you were supposed to question whether she existed. That was kind of the point.”

“I was pretty sure she existed.” Hawke used the guardrail to pull herself up the stairs. Merrill had given everyone a swig of her powerful healing tonic, but Hawke’s leg still protested the climb. “I just figured she was long gone and married to someone else, you know? The One Who Got Away.”

“Funny story, Precious: she is married to someone else.”

Hawke stopped where she was. She had not caught them in a married-to-someone-else sort of situation. Or, she had caught them in exactly that. Again, she saw Bianca’s shapely ass in her mind’s eye; the woman was slowly being warped by Hawke’s memory into some kind of fertility idol made up of exaggerated curves. Hawke didn’t know whether to be annoyed with Varric for carrying on with a married woman, or with Bianca for bothering to stay married to some schmuck when she had Varric tied around her little finger.

“Seriously?” she said to him incredulously. He opened up his hands and grinned cheekily. “Well,” she went on in mock disdain, “I never would have pegged you for a homewrecker, Vee.”

“Says the woman who came on to me while she was still with--”

“Ouch! Low blow, Tethras.” Hawke clutched her gut like he’d punched her. She didn’t need more reasons to fret over the night she had kissed Varric and she definitely wasn’t ready for anyone to say the name Anders out loud. Not just yet. “I think we can agree that there were some extenuating circumstances surrounding that particular situation."

“Sorry. Sorry, Precious.” He put a hand on her arm. “You know I always play to win.”

“You should be sorry.” She continued to nurse her imaginary wound. “Here I’m trying to talk about your relationship problems to avoid dealing with the fact that my ex-boyfriend just blew up half the city. It won’t work if you insist on bringing him into this.”

“Who said my relationship has problems?”

“Alright.” Breathe, Hawke. Be an adult about it. “So, how long has this been going on? I mean, I’ve known you, what, six years?”

“Eleven years.”

Andraste,” Hawke swore. Eleven years. Where had she even been eleven years ago? Had Father still been alive then? That was… quite a history. “And she’s been married the whole time?”

He calculated the time on his fingers. “She got married seven years ago.”

“While you were together.” So she had chosen the schmuck over Varric in the first place. Hawke suddenly did not like this Bianca very much.

“Mmhmm.”

“And you were alright with that?”

“It wasn’t the ideal situation.” Varric gestured that they should continue walking, then started back up the stairs. “You have to take dwarven culture into consideration here, Hawke,” he said with his back to her. “Humans breed like nugs but when your birth rate is as low as ours is, love, marriage, and sex all become separate concepts. This isn’t all that unusual for us.”

“Oh.” Hawke followed just behind him.

Dwarven culture. That was a first. There had never been a them and an us before; not with Varric. Not outside of jokes and jabs about clumsy, meddling humans. Varric wasn’t interested in all that stone honor, glory to the ancestors business. That had been Bartrand’s bag, hadn’t it?

There had to be more to it. Or maybe not? Maybe all of this was very simple. Maybe it was actually perfectly simple. It had to be if Varric would choose to keep this aspect of culture close when he had abandoned so much.

“So it was a political marriage?” She pressed on.

“Yeah, kind of. Getting married secured a better position for her family,” Varric said casually.

Like Mother and Guillaume de Launcet. Mother had broken off that lucrative engagement to be with Father and the family had fallen apart. What if she had decided to marry de Launcet and keep her mage lover on the side? It all seemed very... Orlesian. Varric had never struck her as being all that Orlesian. Varric struck her as being more like… well, like Mother; someone who would run off and take their chances rather than compromise.

Unless there was a compromise that meant everyone got what they wanted.

“Does he know about you? Her husband, I mean.”

“I won’t be a topic of dinner conversation but I’m sure he knows.”

Hawke felt like her whole accepted idea of a relationship--an idea that had always made her pretty uncomfortable, anyway--was being challenged. Separate concepts. There was an elegance to that, wasn’t there? If everyone could be rational about it, then everyone could fit into their own compartment. Marriage accomplishes whatever marriage is meant to accomplish. Love is nice for those lucky enough to find it. Sex is fun; just fun, as it ought to be.

“What about you?”

“What about me?”

“Bianca gets you and her husband. Couldn’t you…?” Suddenly Hawke had no idea where she was heading with her line of questioning. Actually, she knew exactly where she was heading with it and she wasn’t quite prepared to commit to it. She needed to change the subject right--

“Are you propositioning me, Hawke?” Varric turned to her and flashed a very fetching smirk.

“No!” Hawke said too quickly and too emphatically.

Varric chuckled. “That’s good, because I think there’s some kind of mandated time you’re supposed to wait between exiling your boyfriend for blowing up a church full of people and jumping into bed with the first handsome dwarf you run into.”

“You’re probably right. I’ll have to ask the seneschal about that,” said Hawke. Then she snorted with laughter. “Oh, I really should. Can you imagine the look on his face?”

“That might even top the time you asked if his son was single.”

“Maker yes, and then he called for a guard to remove me from his office!”

“And it was Aveline.”

They laughed over that memory as they passed through the abandoned Hightown market. Stands that had been left behind were coated with a thin layer of grey powder. Kirkwall needed a nice, heavy, cleansing rain. Then she’d need people to rebuild her.

“I can’t believe we’re going to leave Kirkwall like this,” Hawke sighed.

“Not forever, right?” said Varric. When she looked at him, he looked genuinely concerned.

“Where would I go?”

“Someone gives you a chance to save the world, Precious, and you’ll run right off whatever cliff they point you to.”

They had arrived.

The estate was dark inside. Dark and empty. Before long, people would have started to think that it had been abandoned again. When Hawke was away, there was nobody to light the lamps. When she was there, there was nobody to light them for.

She wanted to light the lamps.

She hesitated at the door, turning to Varric who was watching her closely. “Will you stay? I don’t really want to be alone.”

He tilted his head back to give her that look. “I don’t know. Will I be safe? I know how handsy you get when you’re emotional.”

That look didn’t say that he minded her being handsy. And if he was comfortable teasing her about that kiss, he can’t have found it all that irksome. In fact, he had definitely kissed back. It can’t have been all that threatening to his relationship with Bianca. And if that was the sort of relationship he had, then maybe he and Hawke could… well, not that night, obviously--but maybe sometime?

She wouldn’t mind finding out if she had made up that line about Dwarven stamina.

Don’t think about Dwarven stamina.

She did her best not to swallow nervously even though her throat felt very tight. “You were pretty responsive to my hands for someone who isn’t attracted to humans,” she said coyly.

“You’re not human, Hawke,” said Varric. “You’re a force of nature.”

Chapter Text

There was a Wicked Grace metaphor in there. It was like he had been holding four knights and had reached up his sleeve to replace one of them with a serpent. It was like he had purposely lost so he could say, ‘Best two out of three, Hawke?’ It was like he was afraid to end the game.

Afraid. There’s the ticket. If Varric had a resident demon it would be a demon of cowardice. At least that one was less likely to blow up a church.

Too soon, Tethras.

They had spent weeks sleeping on the cold, hard, ground and yet, every night Varric found himself reliving that last night in Kirkwall. He could feel the excessive squish of the guest bedroom mattress beneath him. He heard the pad of her footsteps as she returned to her room from her bath. If he felt it clearly enough, maybe he could do it over.

This time it will be different.

She stops to thank me again for staying. She says goodnight; that she’s right down the hallway if I need anything. This time I won’t just let her keep walking. This time I’ll say it:

‘Precious, that line about Dwarven Culture was a load of bronto shit and you know it. Bianca broke my heart when she got married. She’s been smashing it to paste for seven years. Not anymore, though. It’s over.’

‘Over?’ she’ll say. She’ll be worried it has something to do with her. She’ll ask if I want to talk about it. She’ll offer me brandy.

‘There’s only one thing I want right now, Precious.’

She’ll blush but she won’t turn away. ‘No, Vee, you were right, the timing is all wrong.’

‘To hell with timing.’

That’s how it happened in a different life.

“You’ve got leather and iron, Precious,” he whispered at Hawke’s silhouette. She was one bedroll over, at once too close and too far away. “All I’ve got are secrets and lies.”

She turned and stomped the ground in her sleep. Hawke slept fitfully like that nearly every night. Every time she tossed around or whimpered, Wrex would make a sad whistling sound and wriggle closer to her until, by morning, he was huddled up tight against her back.

When the dog slept, he snored.

Then there were all the goings on going on between Isabela and Fenris whenever neither of them were on watch.

The only person consistently getting a decent night’s sleep was Merrill. She seemed to drift off in a moment and woke up with the sun, or with a slight nudge if necessary. Of course, Merrill had come straight from life under the stars among the Dalish to the paper thin walls of the Alienage. Maker only knew what that girl had overheard in her lifetime.

Maybe Varric should ask. How’s Dalish After Dark for a title? A little campy. Athenril would love it.

They could have made it to Minrathous and back, they had walked so much. Whole days, they spent walking. But they hadn’t gotten to Minrathous because they weren’t going anywhere. They hugged the coastline, zigzagged through the mountains, then meandered through the forest. Now they were set to do it all over again.

How long could it take for the Chantry to forget about Hawke?

Probably a long time. They knew that Kirkwall was still crawling with Templars but so far there had been no word about any Exalted March. No news was good news as far as Varric was concerned.

He was already awake when Fenris tapped him on the shoulder. The sky was just starting to turn red along the horizon which meant it was time to switch up for the last watch of the night. Hawke cried out in her sleep and they both looked over in concern.

“How do you people do it?” Varric asked. Fenris raised one eyebrow in reply. “How can you hallucinate every night and not go insane?”

“Dreams, you mean,” said Fenris, he went back to watching Hawke. “A normal person’s dreams are much less perilous than a mage’s, though they may still be alarming.”

“Yeah, but how do you deal with it at all? How do you get any rest, floating in and out of the Fade all night? How do you know the difference between something you dreamed and something that really happened?”

Fenris chuckled. “Sometimes it is difficult to know the difference.”

Being a dwarf had its perks.

Fenris was just about to lay down when there was a sound from the road below. It was faint but they both definitely heard it. Horses. Wagons. Dawn or no dawn, they had to be prepared to move. Fenris doused the fire while Varric woke up the others. All the while, the crunching and grinding of a large traveling party drew closer along the road.

By the time the party was ready to go, they could see lights approaching. There was a carriage with its lanterns lit and bannermen with standards in one hand and torches in the other. Not templars or bandits, then; just someone very rich and very stupid.

“Is that the de Montfort crest?” Varric heard Hawke come up behind him. The smell of leather and campfire wafted over with her. “Cyril must be headed for Chateau Haine.”

Her informal use of the Duke de Montfort’s first name was more than a little confusing. “Ah, yes. Dear old Cyril. Do you suppose he’s well these days?”

Her face turned devious. “Let’s find out.”

“Hawke, no. That’s not how being on the run works.”

She was already up and heading for the road. “Wouldn’t you rather sleep in a bed? Have a bath?”

Don’t think about Hawke taking a bath.

“Didn’t you kill his father?” Varric followed as close behind her as he could, getting whipped by the branches she carelessly displaced.

“Sort of. Accidentally. I mean, I was trying to kill him and he ended up dead anyway. It all worked out for Cyril in the end. He came to Kirkwall and thanked me for it.”

“Why don’t I know about this visit?”

She stopped and gave him a wide, self-satisfied grin. “That boy you had watching over me, Kevin? He’s a good lad. You should hang on to him.”

And that was how what should have been several months of camping and sneaking around roving bands of templars turned into an extended vacation at Chateau Haine.

*

Varric probably should have been more grateful to be out of the wilderness. Instead, he remained stubbornly, stalwartly grumpy about the whole thing.

Hawke collapsed onto the sofa next to him and blew a breath out through puffed cheeks. “I may have screwed up.”

Varric slipped a ribbon in between the pages of the book in his lap to mark his place. Cyril de Montfort might be an idiot, but he had an excellent library. Everything Varric had published was there, for one, along with a number of books by authors Varric admired. The months that they had spent in comfort at Chateau Haine had been nearly enough time for him to get through Retistan’s very verbose Ship of Destiny series.

The protagonist was a little too familiar. Did Isabela know everybody?

He set the book and his spectacles aside to better address Hawke, who was looking at him expectantly through the strands of black hair that had landed on her face during her graceless entrance.

“Precious, you never screw up, you just change the plan.”

She straightened herself up, pulling one leg underneath her and draping an arm over the side of the sofa. She was very close. “This change in plan may have us fleeing through the vault. Again.”

“Spat with your new boyfriend?” Varric asked casually. The Duke de Montfort had good taste in wine, books, and women, as it turned out. Which was all reason enough for Varric to spend most of his time getting drunk in the library.

“I’ve gotten the strangest impression that you don’t care for our host, Varric. And he’s such a big fan of yours, too.”

She tucked her hair behind her ears. It had grown just barely long enough to stay there. For a moment, Varric was distracted by the curling shape it made around her earlobe, as though holding on for dear life.

“What’s not to like about our dear friend, Cyril?” said Varric with mock enthusiasm once he had recovered. Hawke gave him a skeptical look. “Look, I’m grateful we didn’t have to sleep on the ground for three months. But if the cost of comfort is you having to cozy up to this rich idiot--”

“Cozy up?” Hawke laughed. “You know I’m not fucking him, right?”

“How am I supposed to know that? You left your diary in Kirkwall.”

She shoved him and let out an exasperated scoff. So he had made some assumptions. He may have been a little too relieved to find out they were wrong. That lock of hair lost its fight and went swinging back into her face. At that moment, it was the most charming thing Varric had ever seen. He reached out to replace it behind her ear.

She blushed and looked away. “Maybe if he was married. I’m thinking of sticking to married men from now on. Less chance of emotional entanglement, right?”

“Actually, Precious, I think you’ll find that people looking for the mysterious something they think is missing from their marriage will be more predisposed to emotional entanglement.”

“Damn. Well, I guess you would know.” She smirked at him.

“I’ll have you know those emotional entanglements were firmly knotted long before Bianca was married.”

“Hmm. You never explained quite how that works.”

It didn’t work, he wanted to tell her. That’s why it’s over.

“It’s pretty simple, really. We get together when we’re in the same country and we can safely avoid causing a Dwarven civil war.”

“So you routinely go months without seeing her.”

“It’s been over a year more than once.”

“During which she has a husband to keep her warm and you have, what? Saucy letters?”

It had been coming around to this since their tentative pressing together that night in his suite. All those sideways glances and the forced distance where there had once been casual affection had been leading to this moment as surely as her poorly masked leading of this conversation.

Not a subtle girl, our Hawke.

He could tell her the truth now. That was the right thing to do, of course. That was what Hawke would have done. They could bravely face the tension between them with the whole spectrum of commitment wide open in front of them. They could try to answer all the questions of what this meant for their friendship. They could take up the challenge of deciding what to tell people and what to call each other and whose stuff to keep at whose place.

Truth or not, that was precisely what Hawke didn’t want.

He could tell her a partial truth. That was the safest option. Tell her that waiting around for saucy letters was exactly what Bianca had expected him to do. It had never been written in stone, but Bianca had certainly turned icy whenever the idea of Varric passing the time with a casual dalliance had come up in conversation. Tell Hawke that and the whole thing would be shut down tight. She’d tie up her own hands before doing something she thought would put a wedge between Varric and Bianca.

If the second option was the coward’s way out, the third option was both cowardly and selfish.

“We wouldn’t have lasted this long without certain… allowances,” said Varric with a Wicked Grace grin.

That was what she wanted to hear; he could tell by the way she relaxed into the sofa. Hawke wanted the comfort of contact without the liability of emotional obligations she wasn’t in a position to fulfil and Varric wanted…Varric wanted Hawke. Exactly as she was.

Fuck, he was in trouble.

So it was a lie on top of another lie. The specters of Bianca and Anders were hanging over them regardless of whatever truths or lies he told. If using Bianca as a shield against their insecurities got them both what they wanted, was the lie so bad?

Probably.

The side of her mouth turned into a smirk. “You must have a lot of allowances if that ridiculous portrait on the back of your books is to be believed.”

Right, the one with the harem of barely dressed dwarven girls with their hands all over him. That had been fun to sit for even though none of them had been as cute in person as they were in the painting.

“Like that one, do you?”

“They really captured your smarm,” Hawke replied cheekily.

He wanted to kiss her right there; kiss that smug look right off her face.

“So, is there a contract you want me to sign, Precious?” he said, instead. “Some kind of standard Friends with Benefits form to get notarized? Is it enough if I solemnly swear to kick you out of bed when I’m done?”

“You ass,” she said as she grabbed the deep neckline of his shirt and pulled him over to her.

This kiss was entirely unlike the tentative pressing together they had done all those months ago. There was a certainty to this one. Inevitability.

They opened their mouths immediately. Hawke held him close to her as she repositioned her legs on either side of him. He reached easily under her loose shirt and held her by the waist. The Arishok scar was there, under his right hand, tighter than the skin around it. He followed the scar up with his thumb. Hawke gasped.

That was good, then.

She pulled back, keeping her grip on his shirt to guide him along. He followed, pulling one leg up under him and keeping the other one on the floor for leverage as he pressed in and dragged his hands along the length of her torso.

“Varric.”

Shit, the way she said his name--

“Ah, but of course!” A voice suddenly rang through their efforts.

Hawke sprang up. “Cyril!”

“I am ashamed that I did not believe you, Arista,” said Cyril de Montfort. He stood evenly between the door and their sofa; they hadn’t heard him at all. His expression was inexplicably jubilant. “Now, I understand completely.”

Varric attempted to arrange himself discreetly on the sofa as de Montfort crossed the room toward them. There did not seem to be any cushions to help him in that endeavor. The best he could do was continue to cover his lap with Hawke’s leg.

“Oh, Cyril, I’m sorry I--” Hawke started.

“Yes, yes, I see! The author and his muse, a clash of cultures. Very romantic!” He kissed Hawke on both cheeks then rounded on Varric and did the same. “You, Messere Tethras, are a very lucky man.”

“Don’t I know it,” said Varric, utterly confused.

De Montfort clasped his hands together rapturously. “Ah! But I did not come here to interrupt you! I came to find you because a messenger has arrived from Kirkwall. He will only speak to Messere Tethras, but I’m sure he will wait a little while, yes?” He gave them both a knowing grin and began walking backward toward the door. “I will take my leave.”

Hawke collapsed into giggles the moment de Montfort closed the door behind him.

“I missed something, didn’t I?” That only made Hawke giggle harder. “If you didn’t have a terrible habit of being far too honest, I’d think I’d been set up.”

“Maker,” she sighed, wiping a tear from her eye. “No, no--I just--I told him I was engaged.”

“To me?!”

The giggles started up again. “No! He asked me to go to Orlais and meet his mother, Vee. I had to tell him something and I panicked.” She propped herself up on her elbow.

“So you told him you were engaged to…?”

“I couldn’t think of anyone! I told him it was a secret. A dangerous, political--”

It was Varric’s turn to laugh. “You really are the worst liar in the Marches.” He leaned in to kiss her again. She stopped him with a finger on his chin.

“Wait. What are we doing, Vee?”

“I believe the technical term is foreplay but I’m sure I can come up with something a little less clinical.”

“That would imply that we are heading for the actual play.”

“Is that what you want?”

Yes.” The simple, breathless way she said it sent a shiver down his spine. “Do you think we can? Without things getting complicated?”

“I don’t know, Precious, it might be complicated keeping your ridiculous legs out of the way.” She kicked him gently with one of those ridiculous legs. “Just remember when you fall desperately in love with me that it was your idea to stick to good, old-fashioned, casual sex.”

“You’re very confident for the man who wrote Swords and Shields.”

“Actions speak louder.”

“We’ll see.” She started to untangle herself from him. “Go on and meet your messenger, Vee.”

“You don’t want to keep him waiting?”

“I don’t like deadlines. Or this sofa.”

*

He should have expected something like this.

They couldn’t just get the news that it was safe to go back to Kirkwall. No! That would have meant they could all have gone home. They could have spent their days cleaning up the city and their nights drinking at the Hanged Man and Varric could have found out if Hawke was as restless a sleeper in his bed as she was by a campfire.

Maybe in a world without Circles of Magi and Fraternities of Enchanters things could have gone that way.

Varric clutched the letter Kevin had given him in his hand as he returned to four eager faces. Eager for news, which he had. It was good news, too, but he also had the letter. He knew Hawke. He knew how this conversation was about to go.

He could have kept it from her. He could have pretended he never got it. It wouldn’t be the first time he kept a secret from Hawke. It wouldn’t be the only thing he was keeping secret from Hawke at that particular moment. He’d be making a decision for her, though. He’d be manipulating her. Manipulating her even more blatantly. Everything else she might forgive but not that.

“I don’t like the face you’re making, Varric,” said Isabela.

“Keep your pants on, Rivaini,” Varric said as he narrowed the gap between himself and his companions. “Well, keep them off, in your case. There isn’t going to be an Exalted March.”

They were gathered in the Trophy Room; a hideously decorated little parlor with an oversized fireplace and lots of stuffed predators on the walls. Hawke, Merrill, and Isabela were all seated on a sofa that should probably only have sat two. Merrill was half in Hawke’s lap and Isabela’s legs were draped across the other two women. Fenris sat regally in an armchair nearby with Wrex at his feet.

“You’re sure?” said Hawke.

“My sources say the Chantry is spread too thin. The Circles are in chaos, now. They can’t afford to focus on one that’s already fallen apart.”

“Then we may return to the city,” said Fenris. Wrex added a cheerful bark.

“How long a soak do you think a sovereign will get me at the bathhouse? Maybe I’ll spend two.”

“I hope the Hahren hasn’t rented out my apartment.”

“That’s obviously not all you have to tell us,” said Hawke.

“This is for you.” Varric handed over the letter. It hadn’t been sealed. He knew what it said.

 

Champion,

I encountered you during a visit to the Kirkwall Circle. We were not introduced. I was attendant to an enchanter who wanted to meet you. I was struck by your passion and courage before such powerful opposition. While we may have discussed independence from the Circle, very few have had the audacity to advocate for true freedom. Freedom to live with our families and start families of our own. You, Lady Hawke, are an example of something many believe cannot exist: A free mage who has developed her art and used it to the benefit of others without falling prey to possession or forbidden magics.

My own fortunes have been such that I have found myself close to the newly elected Grand Enchanter. She is also passionate and audacious. Perhaps I am too optimistic, but I believe that your influence and her authority could truly change things.

I cannot reveal myself. You have no reason to trust me. Nevertheless, I urge you to come to Cumberland and seek an audience with the Grand Enchanter. There has never been a greater opportunity for change in the Circle. There will soon be a vote to decide if we will separate from the Chantry. Without the representation of people like you, the Libertarians will simply continue the traditions of Chantry rule under a different banner. We must be shown that there are alternatives.

Please show us.

Yours in the light,
L

 

Varric watched her eyes run over every line. Her eyebrows began to rise and he knew he had been right about her reaction.

“This is legitimate?” she asked.

“As far as I can tell. The messenger was definitely from the Circle and Kevin was able to confirm, at no small trouble, that the vote for independence is going to take place.”

She handed the letter to Merrill to read. “It could still be a trap.”

Like that would stop her.

“Even if it isn’t a trap,” said Varric, “it’s a whole lot of talking and hoping.”

“It might be nice to make a difference without killing people for a change,” said Hawke with a smile.

Yep. First, she’ll joke about it, then she’ll decide to do it and there won’t be any convincing her otherwise.

“Kirkwall is in tatters, Hawke. There’s plenty of difference to be made without throwing yourself back into Circle politics.”

“Until something changes, I could still be picked up by the templars at any moment.”

“You could get picked up by the templars the moment you enter Cumberland.”

“Do you two want us to clear the room for you?” said Isabela.

“No need. I’ve got some packing to do. If anyone else is sick of running around and trying to solve other people’s problems, they’re welcome to join me when I leave for Kirkwall in the morning.”

He pivoted on his heel and marched out of the room. As far as exits went, that wasn’t his best. It was apparently effective, however. A couple hours later he heard the door to his bedroom swing open and then softly latch closed again. He almost didn’t believe it was Hawke at all.

“I hope you weren’t planning on leaving without saying goodbye.” She crossed the room and sat on the edge of the bed.

“I was considering it. I have to save up some words for your eulogy, after all.”

She rolled her eyes. “Cumberland isn’t any more or less likely to kill me than Kirkwall.”

“You said you’d come back. You told Aveline--”

“Don’t you dare pretend you’re this angry on Aveline’s behalf.” She sighed. “I’m coming back, Vee. This is just a detour.”

Varric set the last buckle on his pack and went to stand in front of Hawke. “You don’t have to get involved in this. You don’t have to go.”

“If I can change things--”

“But what if you can’t?”

“I’ve been running from the Circle my entire life. I’ll just keep running.”

“You didn’t have to run in Kirkwall.”

“Tell me to stay, then.” She looked like she was daring him. Her mouth was gently pursed and one eyebrow had shot up.

“I’m not going to tell you what to do, Hawke.”

“No?” She grabbed the lapel of his leather coat and brought him closer. Andraste’s ass, the girl was strong. “Tell me to stay,” she said, boring into him with those blue coals she used for eyes. He could smell her; lilacs and green grass and clean leather.

He wanted to make her stay. He wanted to bind her to him with kisses, to touch her so that she would never leave him again. And then what? Watch her eat herself up from the inside, consumed with imagined guilt while the world fell to shit all around them?

“I can’t tell you to stay. You know I can’t.”

All it took was another pull and her mouth was on his and he was only vaguely aware that anything existed apart from their mouths and the warm buzzing in his abdomen. She pulled him closer, coaxed his jaws open with her prodding tongue. Honestly, it didn’t take much coaxing. Then, slowly, she released her vice-like grip on his lapels. She turned her face from the kiss, breathing heavily onto his neck.

She was really bad at the whole casual thing.

“Tell me to stay,” she repeated in a whisper.

Varric sighed. “You wouldn’t be Hawke if you stayed.”

She released him altogether and leaned back on her hands, looking up at the velvet canopy over the bed. “I’d just find a different cliff to throw myself off of in the name of saving the world, right?”

“Or another sword to throw yourself on.”

“There was a sword I was considering throwing myself on.” The smirk was back, along with a splash of pink across the whole of her face.

“Was that…? It was, wasn’t it!? That was the worst innuendo I’ve ever heard.”

“Oh, well. Maybe I’ll bring back a better line from Cumberland.”

She made to get up and he stopped her with a hand on her shoulder. “Hey now, I thought you wanted me to say goodbye.”

*

Hawke stretches out languidly, like a cat, spreading her fingers and toes. She has a self-satisfied expression on her face to match; eyes half closed, mouth half smiling.

“I should have tried leaving a long time ago,” she says, turning those eyes up at me. “I like how you say goodbye.”

“I’ll make a deal with you, Precious,” I say. “You keep from getting killed or made tranquil and I’ll come up with a good way to say hello.”

“Hmm. I wonder how quickly I can secure independence for mages.”

“Undo centuries of established ideology and subsequent oppression? I’d say that will take you a few months at least.”

“I don’t know, Vee. I’m really motivated now.” She smiles one last time before hopping off the bed and searching, unhurriedly, for her clothes.

She’s something else.

A person might be forgiven for taking all the tied tongues and blushing for a sign she’d be an inhibited lover; a lights out, missionary, then cuddle kind of girl. Not Hawke. Talking about any kind of intimacy at all might make the girl demur and turn red in the face but she’s as assertive in bed as in a Kirkwall alley. And she’s at least as comfortable naked as she is wearing one of those shapeless men's shirts she loves so much.

I prefer naked Hawke.

Now that her back is to me, I can see some of the scars that I discovered with my hands over the past few hours. A thin white line curves around the back of a leg opposite a puckered star from an arrow among many more minor marks.

“I met a man in Llommeryn with tattoos all over and his body didn’t tell half the story yours does,” I say.

She pulls up underpants and breeches in one motion as she turns to smile at me. “Don’t you start flattering me, I have to get moving.”

“Is flattery all it takes to keep you? Then, I should tell you that your breasts are--”

She throws my own pants in my face.

“You can’t start there,” she says, laughing. “If you say ‘dainty’ I’ll hit you and if you say anything else I’ll call you a liar.”

I give her a smirk back but, Maferath’s traitorous sack, I am a liar. Not about that--Hawke’s breasts are perfect--but about everything that matters? Yeah.

She’s happy now. She’s more like herself than I’ve seen her since before that mess at the Warden Prison. That was the point, right? That’s supposedly worth being a manipulative bastard for.

But it wasn’t all for her, was it, Tethras? Not if that exquisite ache in my legs is any indicator. A manipulative bastard and a deceiving lecher to boot.

This is all going to blow up in my face, I just know it.

Chapter Text

Vee--

I made it to Cumberland without incident, unless you count the fact that I’ve been kicked out of the Dome District twice. I can’t even get close enough to the Dragon’s Den to drop your name, so don’t ask. And do you know what the nightly rate is at that inn you recommended!? Do you get some kind of dwarf discount or are you even more loaded than I thought?

Anyway, I can’t get in because I won’t hand over my weapons. I promised some good looking guy back in Kirkwall that I wouldn’t get killed out here, after all. The innkeeper at this place I’m holed up in says the real problem is my clothes. If I look fancy enough, he says they’ll let me in carrying whatever I please. Fucking Nevarrans are just as bad as Orlesians no matter what anyone says.

I’ll have to set aside my pride and buy a dress. I still don’t know who sent that letter and Orsino’s contacts are avoiding my messengers. No surprise there. You must have heard that his body was found on the Wounded Coast, half eaten by a fucking shark. The official story is that he jumped to his death to avoid facing the Right of Annulment, which just doesn’t make any sense at all and everyone here knows it. Anyway, I’m forced to go the direct route and show up on someone’s doorstep.

I hope you’re well? This is the part where I say how much I miss your face or something, right? I mean, I do, but. Letters are harder than I thought. If I say something stupid it can’t just be laughed away. You can just hang onto the evidence for the rest of our lives. How do you do this all the time?

--AMH

*

Hawke-

Hopefully, by now you’ve convinced someone to sell you a dress. If you get into the Den, look up a smith named Hirwen. He can get you set up with something that will keep you from dying of a stab wound while you’re running around looking like an actual lady. Can’t help you with the College of Magi, but I wouldn’t mind it if you avoided getting perforated. We went through that already and it was terrible. And while you’re running around looking like a lady, maybe commission a portrait or something. I’ll pay you back if the cleavage is good.

I heard about the First Enchanter. Very fishy situation. Whatever happened to him must have happened on our way to the Gallows that day. Or even while I was looking for him. Shit, he may already have been dead by then. I came up with a good ending for him in my book. Well, he probably wouldn’t have liked it, but he isn’t really in a position to complain.

Things are finally getting better around here. Aveline is keeping me busy organizing volunteers. She and that pretty Knight-Captain are working their asses off putting the city back together. It’s nice seeing templars doing something useful. Daisy has the Alienage planting rooftop gardens and that little old lady who hired your Orana is fronting the money for the project. Rivaini got a ship. Did you give her money? She and the broody elf sailed into the sunset. They’ll be back.

If you write something stupid, I promise to laugh at you. Also, I already hang onto evidence of every stupid thing you say. Written or not. Don’t think too hard about it, just keep me informed. We can work our way up to the dirty stuff.

--VT

PS: What does the M stand for?

*

Vee-

I’ll have to find a very imaginative painter if you want cleavage. Did you forget who you were writing to?

I bought two good dresses and now I’m too well dressed for Oldtown. Three of Nevarra’s thieves are very sore this evening. I’ve moved up to Emerald Court, where I have received no fewer than five marriage proposals. Don’t worry, I haven’t signed any documents. It was tempting, but I was concerned about what would happen to your reputation if it got out that you were shacking up with two married women. You might never sleep again for all those underappreciated wives knocking on your door.

I found your smith. He seemed a little confused about human proportions. He took about a million measurements. This had better be the best fitting armor I’ve ever owned. When I dropped your name he asked me if I knew what happened to That Davri Girl. Let me guess….

In more relevant news, things are not going well for the Libertarian Fraternity. Grand Enchanter Fiona called for a vote on independence and it was squashed. The cowards voted to stick with the way things are. You’d think this would be good news for the Chantry, but things are even more tense on both sides now. On the positive side, this means that Orsino’s contacts are back to being interested in working with me.

“Organizing volunteers,” eh? Just how many new employees have you picked up? Aveline probably doesn’t even realize she’s just giving you a chance to expand your network. Give her and Merrill my love. Maybe not in front of any of your new templar friends. As for Isabela, does losing a lot of Wicked Grace count as giving her money? Because I lost. A lot.

The M is for Marian. That was my father’s input. I thought about using it once or twice. Mother would have been so offended.

--AMH

*

Hawke-

Precious, you have too little faith in your bust. I’m not going to claim to be an expert or anything, but I will tell you that one of the Paragons got their status by inventing certain… supportive garments. If you want to get thrown out of a Chantry without technically breaking any decency laws, we can make that happen.

Also, not completely unrelated, that dirty bastard Hirwen was copping a feel. He makes human armor all the time. I’d come over and kick him in the balls but the Smith caste folks in the Guild are already pretty unhappy with me.

I may have picked up a couple talented associates from our pool of volunteers. What Aveline doesn’t know will just annoy her later. Did you know Orana has a girlfriend? A girlfriend who is really, really good at mimicking handwriting? And doesn’t already work for the Coterie? I should help Aveline more often.

Arista and Marian are both lovely names for nice girls. A nice girl wouldn’t tease me about getting married to someone else, Hawke.

--VT

*

Vee-

The Libertarians have finally realized that I can be useful to them. They’ve had plenty of work for me as the Chantry hold on the College of Magi continues to get tighter. Running messages. Stabbing people. It’s good because Cumberland is boring. The Grand Enchanter wants to meet with me, but her advisors are insisting that I prove I’m safe. They want me to perform a Harrowing. Which… well. I can’t say I’m looking forward to that. If all goes well, I’ll be meeting the highest representative of an organization I’ve been running from my entire life. If all does not go well

So you got yourself a forger. Does she treat Orana well? Does she know I’ll cut her throat if she doesn’t?

A nice girl probably doesn’t cut throats. Or initiate illicit affairs with her sexy dwarven pals. Speaking of which, are you sure you can’t find an excuse to come to Cumberland? I did mention I was bored, right?

--AMH

*

Hawke-

Harrowing?? That thing where they throw a demon at you and kill you if you can’t beat it? Not that I don’t think you can handle yourself, but don’t leave me in suspense over this.

Assuming you’re not possessed or dead: Illicit affair? I thought we were going for casual but if you want illicit, I can step things up.

Seriously, though, get back to me right away and tell me something a demon wouldn’t know.

--VT

*

Vee-

I hate to break this to you but, if I were possessed, the demon would know everything. Everything. My sordid knowledge of the placement of all your freckles will do you no good. A demon would probably be better at the romantic innuendo, though. So, I guess, watch out for me suddenly improving at that?

I’m not possessed. Or dead. It I What This Fuck I have nothing else to say about it.

Anyway, let’s negotiate. What does the illicit package get me that the casual package doesn’t have? Is this something you’re allowed to offer? Better double check that contract with you-know-who.

--AMH

*

Hawke-

This Harrowing thing was obviously something serious. I’m displaying remarkable restraint by not boarding a ship to Cumberland right now. What happened? Are you alright? I might be able to find Anders if we need to blow up Forget that. Terrible suggestion.

Hawke, no demon could ever improve you. In any way.

My publisher tells me The Tale of the Champion is heading to the presses. So… where do you want your fan mail delivered?

Isabela just waltzed in the door. I’m sending this off now, but you’ll hear from me again soon.

--VT

[“Hi Hawke” is written in completely different handwriting, surrounded by a thick, heart-shaped border.]

*

Vee-

I’d say I appreciate your restraint, but I really do wish you were here. The Harrowing was harder than I anticipated. I can see why my father was so against it. It gave me a lot to think about, just nothing I can easily put into words.

I met with Grand Enchanter Fiona. Did you know she was a Grey Warden once? She had to leave because she lost the taint. Just… lost it. Like, Oops, where did my taint go? If Carver ever responded to my letters, I could ask him just what that means. If he even knows.

Taint. Hah.

She thinks we can turn the vote for independence around. There isn’t much time now. At least I’ll be busy. I haven’t even had to kill anyone in weeks. I wonder what my father would have thought about all this.

If you see Isabela’s ship, let me know what it’s like.

--AMH

*

Vee-

The College of Magi has been dissolved by the Chantry. Cumberland is completely overrun with templars. I’m doing what I do best. So much for not killing people.

--AMH

*

Vee-

It’s not safe to tell you where we are beyond the fact that we’re in Orlais. Fuck Orlais and fuck templars.

It is safe to tell you that this armor was worth getting felt up for. I wouldn’t mind getting felt up in it. By a different dwarf of course. Damn it.

Also, I ran into the bleeding Hero of Ferelden. Actually, I got shot by the Hero of Ferelden, so I guess I was the one that was bleeding. I’m fine. I can’t wait to tell you about it. I was a little starstruck. And arrow-struck. I’m really fine, though!

--AMH.

*

Vee-

I’m alive. In Val Royeaux. Everything has gone to hell. As anxious as I still am to learn the difference between casual and illicit, I can’t head back to Kirkwall right away. I can sit tight here long enough for you to get a letter back to me. Or I can find someone to forward it. I’ll figure something out. Just let me know everything’s alright.

--AMH

*

Hawke,

Varric asked me to intercept any letters from you while he’s away. He and Isabela went off to Antiva with the King of Ferelden. You’re going to think this is a joke but I assure you I’m not kidding. I have to wonder, now, if Isabela’s story about how she met the King and Queen has a little truth to it.

Everything is fine here. We have finally cleared the rubble from the old Chantry. Bran Cavin has been made Viscount, for the time being. He can’t decide if we’ll build a new one where the old one was, or if we should put up a monument, or what we should do at all. He wants to put together a counsel so he won’t have to make any decisions. Ever. It’s a mess, but has Kirkwall ever not been a mess?

I saw Merrill at your estate the other day. She’s caring for the garden. I hope you like squash. She tells me that Carver sent word recently that he is alive and heading back from a trip to the Anderfels. Fenris is back in town temporarily. He seems well. Your Wrex is with him; a bit of white in his fur these days but clearly Fenris is taking good care of him. Sebastian is not talking to any of us, but I heard a rumor that the Viscount has been invited to his coronation party.

I hope this letter finds you safe. If I have to deliver bad news about you to your pet dwarf, he might write another of those damned books.

Seriously, Hawke. You are missed and needed in Kirkwall. Do not do any of that stupid heroic shit you like to do.

Yours,
Aveline

*

Aveline,

You said you weren’t joking and I still don’t believe you. Varric. And Isabela. Are with the King of Ferelden. In Antiva??? I suppose nothing should surprise me anymore. The whole world is coming apart at the seams.

I’m not doing anything dangerous, Mother. I’m mostly doing courier work for the Circle. It’s not all that different from the work I used to do with my father back when I was a kid. But it is vital. The templars are coming down hard now that the Circles are rebelling. The mages have lost contact with a lot of their agents on the outside. Once I’ve reestablished a few more lines of communication, I can come home.

--AMH

Chapter Text

Priority number one was a bath.

As she had neared Kirkwall, a bath had been the second most prominent thing on her mind. The most prominent thing on her mind was, as of her latest correspondence with Aveline, not even in Kirkwall. Which was almost funny when she considered how argumentative he had been about her going to Cumberland. The bath, then, took precedence.

The guards posted around the silent streets of Hightown were not any Hawke recognized. Their armor was well kept and only one of them had dozed off, so it seemed like Aveline may have had a stroke of luck in recruitment. Nevertheless, Hawke did her best to avoid being seen. With her dark, mud-stained traveling cloak she was definitely a suspicious addition to Hightown’s haughty ambiance and if she was made to remove it, she ran the risk of being recognized.

She approached the Amell estate via a tight alley and then through the yard belonging to the old lady next door. The estate had been well maintained, which shouldn’t have been a surprise; between Aveline, Merrill and Orana and all the money in the vault, there was no chance for it to fall back into ruin. The garden, especially, was in marvelous shape considering how late it was in the year. Squash blossoms still flushed orange and pink among hardy autumn flowers in shades of red. Someone had kept the stone path free of weeds. Only the heavy blackness at the windows hinted at the fact that nobody had been living there in over a year.

Hawke brushed the crest on the door with a gloved hand, still not entirely believing it was real. How many nights had she spent dreaming of this moment while she slept in a soggy tent, a moldy ruin, or an infested hovel passing itself as an inn? She slipped the heavy iron key out of her pocket and held it in her hands like an amulet before fitting it into the lock.

Inside, the air was warm despite the day having been quite cold. It smelled vaguely like perfume; remnants of generations of Hawke’s pampered ancestors. That smell had greeted her when she had reclaimed the place years earlier. A lifetime ago. That smell would probably last until the the stones came crumbling down.

She passed through the entryway and into the front room. It was inky black but she didn’t bother to make a light; she knew the way. She knew the door to the left of the stairs would still be closed, waiting for some day in the future when she would be brave enough to go in and sort through Mother’s things. Today wasn’t that day. She slipped past the stairs into the back hallway and found the second door on the left by dragging her fingers gently across the wall.

The stone basin glowed very faintly in pale tints of blue and orange. The runes were still active. Of course, they were; Sandal was a master of his art. When Hawke activated the runes they shone more brightly, just bright enough to bathe by without accidentally soaking her cloak or gear. She began piling those things on a chair in the corner and then slipped into the blissfully hot bath.

Back in Kirkwall.

The City of Chains.

A shaky marble island propped up over an ocean of slave blood.

Home.

She had seen some wonders, now. She had seen the golden domes of Nevarra and the white towers of Orlais. She had stayed in cities that did a better job of hiding their seedy underbellies. Shit, she had traveled back through Ferelden and felt a nostalgic pang at the chilly brown dampness of it all. No other place was home like Kirkwall was home.

Who would have guessed?

When the hot water had leached some of the dreck and ache from her body she fumbled around unsuccessfully for something to dry off with. The linens would have been packed away for safekeeping from mold and moths. Damn it.

She pushed her armor off the chair with a clatter and dug through her pack, feeling for soft brushed cotton. There--the shift she had bought and worn once, when she had discovered that the feeling of nothing at all between her thighs was just not for her. It stuck to her wet skin, but it would have to do. She grabbed her templar knife and her staff and felt her way up the stairs.

Her four-poster bed sat devoid of any bedclothes or drapery. No matter, all she needed was a mattress--even that was a luxury. She waved her hand in the general direction of the fireplace and a fire flashed to life and remained burning without any kindling or fuel; more of Sandal’s brilliance. The kid did good work. Hawke pulled aside the heavy blackout curtain in the window to let some firelight escape into the night. She took note of the time, then collapsed into her bed.

*

The dragon can talk.

“You stand at the precipice of change,” it says. She says.

The dragon has a woman’s voice.

“Yes, yes,” I say. I’ve heard this all before. “The plummet into the abyss. What does it all mean?”

“Are you still thinking about this?” Suddenly Anders is here, holding a massive orange cat with yellow eyes that stare at me.

Stop staring at me, cat.

His hair is loose, all intertwined with the black feathers on his coat. Anders’ hair is loose--the cat has short hair and is not wearing a coat.

“Arista, you know that divination is the weakest of all magics,” says Anders. “Well, you would know if you had had a decent magical education.”

The dragon claws at the ground with its massive talons. “There is a pattern to the world for those who move slowly enough to see it.”

“Mortals are always at the edge of an abyss,” says the cat. “Just keep leaping until you find the right one.”

“Easy for someone with nine lives to say,” says Anders in a babyish voice. He caresses the cat’s head.

This is a really stupid dream.

“I’ve seen stupider.”

This voice is sturdier, somehow, despite coming from nowhere. Anders, the cat and the dragon freeze in place and then fade away into a thick, roiling mist.

“You’re hard to find, Hawke.”

“Feynriel?”

A shape pushes through the fog. He’s all grown up now, tall and slim with a fine squareness to his shoulders. His blonde hair has been cropped short on the sides, the longer hair on top has been neatly combed. He’s wearing a green tunic with some kind of symbol on it that is strangely blurred.

“There were rumors. I was afraid something had happened to you.”

“All sorts of things happened to me,” I say. “I’m fine, though. There are rumors about me all the way in Tevinter?”

“The Chantry explosion was quite a sensation over here,” says Feynriel. “Tevinters have an odd sense of humor.”

“Do they treat you well?”

“I’m learning a lot.”

“But do they treat you well?”

“You’re waking up.”

“Feynriel?”

*

Hawke woke to someone sitting on the edge of the bed. She had been dreaming, hadn’t she? Something about a dragon. Typical, really.

“Maker, Hawke, how are you still such a heavy sleeper?”

Hawke looked to the window, then back at the Guard-Captain. Six hours. Either Aveline was losing her touch, or she had begun to lose hope that Hawke was ever really coming back. “I expected you hours ago.”

“I figured it was just squatters again.” Aveline smiled. She was out of uniform, in simple leather armor. “It’s good to see you, Hawke.”

Hawke lifted herself onto her knees and grabbed Aveline up in a tight hug. Even without full plate, hugging Aveline was a little like hugging a golem. But she was a very comforting golem.

“Hawke,” said Aveline with an incredulous expression, “are you wearing a nightie?”

“It’s a--” Hawke stopped and laughed. “It’s a long story. Actually, it’s just a boring one. Tell me what I missed while I get dressed.”

“Well, you picked a hell of a time to come back.”

Hawke was pretty sure Aveline would have said that regardless of when she had come back. There was always something falling apart in Kirkwall.

Provisional Viscount Bran Cavin’s advisory council had quickly been populated by Kirkwall’s richest and most difficult to please citizens. That had gone predictably poorly. He had reportedly stopped seeking them for counsel but still allowed them to have raucous meetings in the Keep and to run around using their fancy new titles for personal gain. Nothing surprising there.

In the months following the cataclysm, Knight-Captain Cullen had worked with the reinforcement templars in a vain attempt to apprehend and control the mages that had escaped during the chaos. The few mages who had remained, and those who were able to be peacefully caught, were relocated to Circles across Thedas. Many had been killed or had died of exposure, lost to the labyrinth of paths along the Wounded Coast. The Gallows currently housed only templars and tranquil. When the Chantry had called their reinforcements back, Cullen had set the remaining templars to keeping people safe from actual blood mages and abominations. They were also working side by side with Aveline’s guardsmen.

“They’re doing a hell of a lot more for the city than that brainless tit sitting on the Viscount’s throne,” said Aveline.

Hawke had gathered her gear together and thrown on a mostly clean, if wrinkled, change of clothes. “So what’s the problem? Seems like things are going pretty well--for Kirkwall.”

“There are… rumors,” said Aveline evasively. “It seems that not all of Cullen’s men agree with his permissive methods. We have a few unsolved murders, tales of extortion and some… more disturbing stories. I can’t substantiate any of this without risking our partnership with the templars.”

“Good thing Unofficial Deputy Champion Hawke is on the case,” said Hawke. “I don’t suppose you’re going to tell me in what way these rumors have become disturbing?”

Aveline sighed, clearly resigned to a course of action she was not particularly excited about. “I thought you might like to go to the Hanged Man. I promised Varric I’d debrief him on this and I’d rather not repeat myself.”

The disturbing rumor flew right out of Hawke’s mind. “Varric’s back? You said he was in Antiva!”

“Yes, and then Qarinus, and then Seheron, as I’m sure he’ll tell you. He’s only been back for two days and he’s been writing. You know how he gets.”

“Qarinus? In Tevinter?!” Something about Tevinter niggled at her memory and then was gone again.

Aveline sighed again. “Hawke… about your letters to Varric….”

“Two words, Aveline,” said Hawke pointedly. “Copper marigolds.”

“Fair enough. Let’s get moving.”

Hawke reluctantly wrapped her muddy cloak back around her shoulders. The day promised to be bright and warm for the season, but it seemed for the best that the return of the Champion remain a secret for while longer. To the denizens of Hightown, it probably looked as though the Guard Captain were simply escorting some vagrant out of the district. The Hightown merchants, busy setting up for the day, greeted Aveline and ignored her charge. They greeted her in Lowtown, too, but much less enthusiastically.

The Kirkwall Hawke watched from the anonymity of her cloak was much improved from the one she had left behind. It was still dirty and loud, the disparity between noble and common was just as blatant, but things had clearly dropped into a kind of normalcy Hawke hadn’t seen since before the Qunari uprising. The Hanged Man, of course, had never changed and never would.

Whether for dramatic effect or because she did not want to soil her hands, Aveline used her reinforced boot to kick in the door. It swung inward and clashed against a poorly placed table just inside. A patron sleeping on a makeshift pallet by the fire woke with a holler and twisted around, getting him hopelessly tangled in his cloak.

Corff came rushing in from the back, looking groggy. “What the--,” his demeanor changed from angry to resigned when he caught sight of Aveline. “Oh. Captain Vallen. I told your man I got that license renewed ages ago, I think that girl in records has it in for--”

“I’m here for the dwarf.”

“Ah. Right. Well. You know the way.”

Corff slowly backed away through the door flap. The man on the floor seemed to have accepted his imprisonment in his cloak and had begun snoring. Aveline and Hawke made their way through the labyrinth of tables to the stairs. Hawke’s shoes stuck to the floors and the smell of stale spilled ale stung her nose. Just like old times.

The door to Varric’s suite was closed and locked, not surprising considering the early hour. Aveline made to knock, which probably would have roused the entire building, but Hawke stopped her with a hand on her shoulder and an impish grin. Aveline groaned as Hawke pulled a hairpin from a pocket and began to tinker with the lock.

Several moments passed with no luck. The tumblers just kept falling back into place. Varric and Isabela made it look so easy! Focusing on the hairpin, Hawke pulled a spark of lightning from the Fade. There was a flash and a tiny crack of electricity, a wisp of smoke wafted out of the lock and the door clicked open.

Very skillfully done, Hawke,” Aveline jeered.

It looked as though the suite had been ransacked, which certainly meant that Varric was working on another book. Stacks of papers thick with lines of neat handwriting covered the tables and chairs while crumpled drafts were strewn over the floor along with broken quills and empty ink bottles. Hawke picked up the least wadded sheaf near her feet and read what was visible.

 

The young king stood over the witch’s lifeless body, sword still dripping with her blood. “Everything that happened to my country is because of you.”

 

Varric was asleep in his bed, slumped sideways around a lap desk, surrounded by even more paper and an empty pewter mug. His face had the serene look of dreamless sleep. His shirt, as usual, was half open to better display his thick golden carpet of chest hair. The scar across his slightly crooked nose was still gruesome but had faded in a way that only added to his whole roguish guise. He probably enjoyed telling people he had gotten that scar battling a lyrium crazed templar commander.

Hawke tiptoed through the minefield of paper to the edge of the bed and carefully positioned herself so her lips were very close to his ear, then readied her most pillow-talk-worthy whisper. “Varric.” He grunted slightly. “You have to go, Varric! My husband has come home and he’s such a jealous man!

“Go away, Hawke,” Varric muttered. Pronouncing the name seemed to trigger higher consciousness, he turned and blinked at her few times before starting awake. “Andraste’s dimpled ass, Hawke, what the hell are you doing here?”

“Good morning, sunshine,” said Hawke sweetly.

“Should I wait outside for the two of you?” Aveline groused.

“Oh good, you brought the guard. I suppose that means I can’t report you for breaking and entering.”

“Don’t worry, Varric,” said Aveline, “I’ll add it to her file.”

Hawke gave Varric’s shoulder a squeeze and made to shift off from the bed. The top leaf of paper on the lap desk caught her eye, a letter that started: Bianca, I’m alive, as it turns out--Varric pushed it away as he moved to get up.

And that put a quick end to Hawke’s months-long streak of not thinking about Bianca.

How long had it been since he had written her if he had to tell her he was alive?

Would this letter be saucier than the ones he sent Hawke? Bianca was probably really good at writing saucy letters. Way better than Hawke. It wasn’t hard to be better at that than Hawke.

Shit.

Fuck!

This was none of her business. The whole point of being the casual side-piece was that it was none of her business. Hawke and Varric were very, very good friends who happened to have had sex once and might get the opportunity to do it again as long as Hawke could be cool and mature about the fact that Bianca was the main event.

That was the plan.

That was how she wanted it.

Still, she had trouble settling her mind as she and Aveline waited in the common room for Varric to make himself presentable. Corff provided a minor distraction by recognizing her and making a big show of putting tea on for his, “favorite Hightown girl.” Aveline complained that Hawke being recognized was exactly what she was hoping to avoid.

A more put-together Varric came down the stairs after a moment, crossbow-Bianca slung over his shoulder. He took a mug of tea for himself, took a big swig and said, “I think I’m ready for the reunion now.” Hawke wrapped her arms around him from her seat.

“I thought you were trying to avoid me,” said Hawke. “Last I heard, you had fled the country.”

“I took a job, Hawke. You don’t turn down the King of Ferelden on the off-chance your lady-friend might be coming back to town that year.”

“You and Isabela never take me anywhere fun anymore.”

“Let me tell you about fun--”

Aveline clapped her mug hard against the table. “As much as I’d love to hear this tale again,” she glared at Varric, “there is a matter I wanted to bring to your attention before I leave to do the honest work I get paid to do.”

“It must be bad if you’re offering so much preamble, Captain,” said Varric.

“Right? She wouldn’t tell me a damn thing the whole way here.”

“You two… Ugh.” Aveline pressed two fingers to her temple. “I simply prefer to say this as few times as possible. I would very much like to be wrong about the whole thing.”

“It is a well-known fact that the more you say something, the truer it becomes,” said Varric professorially. Aveline glared at him and Hawke gave him a little shove.

“You think a few of Cullen’s men have gone rogue, right?” Hawke said, encouraging Aveline to go on. “You mentioned murder and extortion.”

“That part is almost certain. A number of Lowtown residents have reported aggressive behavior from templars who would not identify themselves and there have been at least four deaths in Darktown that seem to hinge around rumors of magical activity.”

“Simple enough,” said Hawke. “We can go in and root them out without risking your partnership with Ser Cullen.”

“It’s the lyrium that worries me,” Aveline went on more haltingly. “Templars seeking out extra lyrium is hardly new, and the woman who told me of this was certainly half mad after witnessing that disgusting--”

“Aveline.”

“She said she saw them taking lyrium and that’s how she knew they were templars. So, my man asked her what it looked like, figuring she’d probably never actually seen lyrium and wouldn’t be able to describe it.” Aveline looked at Hawke significantly. “She said it was red.”

“Well,” said Varric. “Shit.”

Chapter Text

“Varric Tethras!” A portly dwarf with an impressive array of scars obscuring his facial tattoos opened his arms wide in welcome. “I didn’t think you came into Darktown anymore. Thought you paid people to do that for you.”

To the untrained eye, it may have looked like Torbin was playing a friendly game of diamondback with his obscenely well-armed companion at the corner of Get-Mugged Lane and Disappear Forever Alley. A passing guardsman might even convince themselves that was what was going on as their eyes dragged over the sharp blades and expensive gear the two dwarves displayed on their respective persons. Those dwarves and their card games, they can just play on and on. Every day. In the same spot.

Sure.

Torbin had picked up everything he thought he needed to know about the lyrium trade working security for the Merchants’ Guild for a few decades. When the inequality of the Guild’s profit-sharing algorithms had finally pissed him off one too many times, he struck off on his own. Considering he was still alive, he was doing pretty well for himself. Considering the state of his face, he had learned a few more lessons about illicitly transporting lyrium.

None of those lessons had been: maybe don’t illicitly transport lyrium.

“Some jobs you have to do yourself,” Varric replied with a shrug.

They exchanged a boisterous handshake. As a classic stereotype of a dwarven hooligan, Torbin had to make sure he oozed machismo, after all.

“Surrounded by beautiful women, as usual,” Torbin waggled his eyebrows at Merrill and Hawke. Merrill looked flattered, in a terrified way. Hawke looked terrifying, in a flattering way. “How’s Athenril these days? Wildcat, that one.”

“Can we just get the information we need from this reprobate or is this some kind of necessary small talk ritual?” Hawke grumbled. She’d been grumpy since Varric had gotten to the part of recounting his adventures with Isabela wherein they had encountered a dragon breeding ground in the Tellari Swamps.

“Hey now,” said Torbin, bristling, “I provide a necessary service. You’ve got people all over town who need lyrium they can’t get through traditional means. Mages are on the run. Templars are getting their rations cut. Certainly, you understand.”

Varric didn’t like the way he emphasized that last sentence. It had been stupid to think that a traveling cloak would do anything at all to conceal Hawke’s identity as long as she insisted on running alongside Varric and Merrill just like old times.

Hawke? Her? No! I have a collection of strikingly beautiful, blue-eyed human women to run around town with. One for each day of the week. It’s an eccentric rich author thing. You wouldn’t understand.

His book had done a lot to sway public opinion about Hawke but it wouldn’t stop someone from turning her in to the Chantry if the reward was good enough. They had to be more careful.

Varric elbowed her aside. “We’re looking for a couple of tin cans who might have made a weird request. They may have been interested in something red.”

The scarred dwarf laughed raucously. “You’ve been on the surface too long, Tethras. Red lyrium! Whoever heard of such a thing?”

“That’s what I said,” Varric faked a laugh as well. “You know how it goes. You get paid enough to follow up on a rumor, you don’t question how ridiculous it might be. Anyway, look me up topside if you ever want to play a civilized game.”

“Wait a second,” Torbin said as they made to leave. “I’ve got a few regulars who aren’t coming around anymore. If you’re talking to other sources, maybe you can find out if someone’s underselling me or something. There’s coin in it for you if any of them come back.”

It was a start.

Varric committed the missing regulars’ names to memory. Torbin was pretty sure they were templars but couldn’t say if they were active duty or among the handful of those who had been released for poor performance and bad attitudes after Anders’ goodbye party. It was a shaky lead but it kept them from having to seek out shadier lyrium dealers. A graph indicating the overall shadiness of undercity lyrium dealers would have shown a sharp increase after Torbin.

Unfortunately, following up on that lead would take them to the Gallows. How likely was it that Hawke would agree not to come along to the courtyard full of people who definitely wanted to interrogate her and probably wanted to lock her up for the rest of her natural life?

“Off to the Gallows, then?” said Hawke with sarcastic cheer. “I’ve really missed the particular perfume of despair that hangs around that place.”

Extremely unlikely.

“I wonder if they’re still selling that enchanted spade,” said Merrill thoughtfully. “I think I’ve almost got enough coin. But you could haggle for me, couldn’t you, Varric? I’m terrible at haggling. I get too excited halfway through and start raising the price by mistake.”

“Why not? Now that we’ve nearly finished our stroll through the most dangerous alleys in Darktown, escorting a pair of apostates into the City’s templar center sounds like a charming idea.”

“This brings back such lovely memories,” Merrill enthused. She grabbed Hawke by the arm and squeezed her close.

“It’s good to be home,” Hawke agreed.

This part of Darktown wound around into a maze of dark corners and steaming sewer vents. The Chantry explosion had destroyed a number of housing complexes and the shabby apartments and flophouses on this side of things were more cramped and crowded than ever before. As they passed through the relatively more welcoming marketplace it was even more obvious how Kirkwall’s underworld had flourished in the wake of that cataclysm. Political turmoil was excellent soil for ethically questionable businesses to take root in. Trade in magical items was flourishing with no control for efficacy or safety. Potions of questionable quality flew off the shelves. Information was as valuable as ever.

Information like the location of ancient dwarven Thaig full of red lyrium, perhaps?

Because someone had leaked information about the expedition that had almost broken them seven years earlier. Whether it was one of their hirelings who had squealed or whether the Grey Wardens had been slippery with a secret for once didn’t matter. Somehow it had gotten out. That was the only explanation, wasn’t it?

The templars might be chipping pieces off of old Meredith Stannard, he supposed. Out of desperation? Ew. Just: ew.

Or there might be more red lyrium deposits than the one they had found. He didn’t really want to deal with the ramifications of that possibility.

“What did you do while you were away, Hawke?” Merrill asked, still arm-in-arm with Hawke as they made their winding way toward the lift.

“Well, I didn’t meet any baby dragons, that’s for sure.” She flashed Varric an exaggerated look of resentment.

“Next time I’m in the Tellari Swamps, I promise I’ll steal an egg for you.”

Hawke made a show of considering this offer, then smiled and sighed. “I spent most of the time babysitting the most arrogant, contemptuous, pampered, sneering debutantes in all of Thedas.” She pronounced each adjective with increasing acidity.

“Tell us how you really feel, Precious.”

“It’s no wonder the Circle has gotten into the state it’s in,” Hawke went on with passion. “The very people advocating for independence have lost any perspective they might have had. They come from noble families that were able to protect them and influence their status, or they were so naturally gifted at magic that they gained the favor of their superiors before even undergoing their Harrowings.” She shuddered at the word. “What good can the powerful do if they can’t remember being powerless?”

Varric and Merrill were silent. Hawke released Merrill and rubbed her shoulder absently. It seemed to bring something more pleasant to mind.

“But I did meet the Hero of Ferelden,” she said to Merrill conspiratorially.

Varric remembered reading about that in one of the letters Aveline had delivered to him in a neat little bundle when he had gotten back. The look on the Guard-Captain’s face had been priceless but, to her credit, she had not said a word about their content.

“That’s right,” he said, “your letter said she shot you.”

“You were shot?!” Merrill’s eyes went wide with concern.

“It was amazing,” said Hawke.

She had been leading Grand Enchanter Fiona (the only enchanter she had anything good to say about) and a large party through an off-road path north of Ghislain when they had come across a secluded camp. They were warned not to come any closer but one of the mages took offense at being given orders and Hawke, because she was Hawke, had put herself between the idiot and an arrow. How could she have known that the archer had aimed to shoot right past the man; that it was only a warning shot?

Since neither the large group of mages nor the small party of Grey Wardens had wanted their locations known to the rest of the world, they had shared a camp for the night. While Hawke was being patched up, her assailant introduced herself as none other than Warden-Commander Briony Cousland-Theirin.

“Was she as pretty as Anders said?” Merrill asked. Then she threw up her hands. “Dread Wolf take me, Hawke, I didn’t mean to…”

Hawke laughed. “It’s fine, Merrill. I think I’ve recovered enough to hear his name now.”

Merrill looked back at Varric as though expecting him to verify that Hawke had, indeed, recovered from that trauma. He shrugged his shoulders.

“There’s been no sign of where he might have gone, has there?” Merrill asked carefully.

They were passing by the old site of his clinic, then, and all three of them looked toward it as though their faces had been drawn to it. It was just another squatter’s den now. A skinny woman with red hair stood outside of it, smoking a pipe and stretching a leg out of a slit in her shabby dress.

“There may have been signs,” said Varric. “I didn’t bother keeping track of him, to be honest.”

“When he wants to be found, I’m sure we’ll hear the explosions,” Hawke said in a sing-songy way that was obviously meant to sound casual.

“As long as he blows up someone else’s town, this time.”

*

Meredith was still there, so nobody had been chipping her apart to spread around. Thankfully. Ew. Her vaguely glowing petrified corpse was surrounded by a makeshift fence of iron poles, wood, and barbed wire. A bored-looking Templar stood by, keeping people away and refueling the torches that kept the area lit up. He didn’t seem bothered by the gawking onlookers, including Hawke. She had trouble looking away.

“People say if you look into her eyes for too long, she’ll steal your soul,” said Merrill finally.

Hawke looked at her with a raised eyebrow. “She was just a woman. You were there when we took her down.”

“Well, yes, but it’s still creepy, don’t you think?”

“Meredith was only touching the stuff and this happened to her,” Varric mused. “What the hell do these idiots think they’re doing ingesting it?”

“I’m still hoping Aveline is wrong,” said Hawke.

“Good to see Cumberland didn’t completely kill your optimism, Precious.”

She smirked at him, crinkling up those bright blue eyes. Not for the first time that day, he wished that they had ditched Merrill, neglected Aveline’s damn rumors, and had a proper reunion. He hadn’t even been able to get through the story of finding King Maric and the showdown with Magister Titus. It would be a lot more fun to tell with a warm fire, a glass, and plenty of bare skin. She’d get a lot more of the truth out of him that way.

And maybe she’d tell him what happened in Cumberland.

There was a pair of young-looking templars huddling together against the wind as they watched over the tranquil in the depressing little marketplace. There were far fewer tranquil there than there had been before the Circle fell. Whether that was because some had left with the mages or because they had been killed in the chaos, Varric couldn’t say.

Hawke sullenly agreed to make herself scarce while Varric went over to talk to the templars. At least she didn’t look out of place in her hooded cloak; everyone was bundled up against the biting wind coming off the sea. He pretended he couldn’t see her throwing annoyed glances as he asked the templars about Torbin’s missing clients.

“The others, sure, but are you sure you’ve got the right Terrence?” said the templar with dark hair and kind eyes. “I really didn’t think he gambled.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised to learn anything about any of those guys,” said the one with skin the color of lightly milked tea.

“Why? What have you heard?”

“I haven’t just heard it, Maeve. They asked me to come along to meet that ex-templar. That one who got kicked out twice. Idiot.”

“Samson?” said Maeve.

“Yeah, that’s the one. The ones who left have been camping out with him. Doros said they’re finally going to clean up the mess the Champion made. They’re idiots, all of them, if they think the Captain is going to let them…”

“Raleigh Samson?” Varric cut in. “Did you actually meet him?”

“They decided they didn’t trust me while we were on the way to some hideout along the coast. We were halfway there and Terrence hit me over the head. Knocked me clear out.”

“But Terrence seems so—oh shit, it’s the Captain!”

Varric turned around just in time to see the familiar face of Knight-Captain Cullen Rutherford, armor gleaming as he strode straight for the small gathering. The templars Varric had been speaking to stood at attention but they were not who Cullen had set his arrow-straight path toward.

“Messere Tethras. A word?”

“I’m all yours,” Varric replied jovially. His Templar companions, realizing they weren’t in trouble for the moment, took the opportunity to scatter.

“I know that others of my order have approached you about this, but…”

“I don’t know where Hawke is,” said Varric automatically. She wasn’t in his peripheral vision at the moment, so it was actually a true statement. “She’s been gone for a year. What makes you think she’s coming back?”

“She might want to come back for this,” Cullen said significantly. “The Divine has a plan for peace. She’s sent her right hand, Seeker Cassandra Pentaghast, to bring together people of influence to establish a new foundation throughout Thedas.”

The Knight-Captain stared him down. There was no way to make sure Hawke was out of earshot. Shit, if she heard something like that she’d probably fall for it. Lifetime of running away from the templars or no.

“That’s great, kid,” said Varric. “But you’ll just have to tell this Seeker to keep on seeking. I haven’t seen the Champion since the shit hit the fan. Maybe try following the crazy? I hear all kinds of shit is happening at Andoral’s Reach and in Dairsmuid.”

He didn’t buy it. “When you see the Champion,” he said, emphasizing when needlessly, “tell her that she may have an opportunity to get back on the right side of history.”

“Sure thing, Curly,” said Varric. “Now, you’ll have to excuse me. I have a date with the wrong side of town.”

He saw the dark shape of Hawke’s cloak out of the corner of his eye as he made his way out of the Gallows courtyard. She had been pretty close. Close enough to get herself recognized and dragged off. Close enough to hear what Cullen had said. She and Merrill followed him out and toward the docks, staying far enough away that nobody would think they were all together. It wasn’t too hard for them; Merrill kept stopping to caress every plant and stray cat they crossed.

They reached a darkened alley between two warehouses where Varric let Merrill and Hawke close in on him. The smells of fish and tar were overwhelming, which should have brought Hawke out of the reverie she seemed to have lapsed into. Instead, she walked straight into Merrill.

“Distracted, Hawke?”

The collision snapped her out of it. “Did I miss something?” she said, flashing a wide grin at them. “Nobody in Kirkwall pulls off that shiny Templar armor quite like Knight-Captain Cullen. Although, speaking of pulling it off…” She gave Varric a devious look.

“Focus, Precious,” Varric sighed. “Templars: bad. Red lyrium: bad. Raleigh Samson: probably also bad.”

“Really?” said Hawke incredulously. “Samson? Again?”

“Some people just can’t stay out of trouble.”

*

“You’ll have to have a few of your people tailing the templars on our list who are still on active duty,” said Hawke when Merrill had finally finished squeezing both of them and had danced off toward the Alienage.

Like he needed to be told the next step. “We’ll have a location in the next few days. Probably a cave, knowing my luck.”

She nodded. They were stalling. They stood by the rear door to the Hanged Man trying to think of noncommittal, unimportant things to say. Hawke pulled her hood off and ran a hand through her hair. There was a bright silver streak through it now, just above her ear on the left side. Sure, neither of them were getting any younger but somehow he didn’t think it was an indicator of her advancing age. Just what had she been through?

“Let me guess, Precious; you met some tall, straightlaced circle mage who swept you off your feet and now you’re trying to think of a way to let me down gently.” He put a hand on her arm. “It’s alright, I’ll find some way to go on.”

She rolled her eyes at him. “Don’t be ridiculous. Those spoonfed, dress-wearing princesses couldn’t hold a candle to you.”

“Want to talk about it? I brought home all kinds of interesting liquor.”

She made the face she always made when she was about to change the subject.

“Did Cullen say there was a Seeker after me?”

Varric sighed. She had heard. “Yeah. Something about a new foundation for Thedas and being on the right side of history. Sounds even more tenuous than the College of Magi, if you ask me.” That far away look was back and she was rubbing her arms nervously. “Hey--what’s wrong? What’s a Seeker, anyway?”

“Elite templars. They’re like... the templars’ templars.”

“If they’re supposed to be keeping the templars in line, they’re doing a shitty job. Why would they be after you?”

“Because I’ve pissed off enough people that the Divine had to get involved, I guess. Nobody knows much about them. I only know that my father once turned away a mage who was being hunted by the Seekers. That was the only time I ever saw him refuse to help someone.”

“So I guess you’re not planning on turning yourself in?”

“Of course not!” She gave him a disbelieving scowl. “Oh, I see, you thought that ‘right side of history’ business would lure me right in.”

“Like a moth to the flame, Precious.”

Hawke scoffed. “I’m not that--” She caught a glance at his smug smile and sighed. “You were right about Cumberland, you know. It was a waste of time.”

“You certainly know what to say to a man, Hawke.” Varric started to close the gap between them. “Tell me I was right again and I’ll carry you up the stairs right now.”

“Do that and you might not have enough energy left to give me a proper hello.”

“Ah yes, I seem to recall I promised you one of those.”

“I’ve held up my side of this bargain, after all. Here I am; neither dead nor tranquil.”

“So you say. But this was a very serious verbal contract, Precious. I think further evaluation might be necessary.”

“To your office, then?”

“After you.”

Chapter Text

The guards wear polished steel armor with the heraldry of Kirkwall gleaming on their breastplates. Lamplight flashes off the red enamel like fresh blood. On their right arms they wear red bands with the Amell family crest. This is not part of their sanctioned uniform but Aveline refuses to crack down on this display of loyalty.

The man between the two guards is no longer in his own enameled armor but he is no less impressive. It was not the armor that had made the Chantry Sisters swoon when he walked by, after all. Even dirty and beaten, he retains his aristocratic beauty. There is still a look of power about him; like a captured tiger. Dark red curls hang over eyes glowing like blue coals.

“Prince Sebastian Vael of Starkhaven,” Aveline announces him. “He has been forcibly extradited by the people of Starkhaven to face your justice.”

We make eye contact. His gaze is fierce and sad. “Hawke--”

The guard on his left kicks him in the ribs with a plated boot. “You’ll speak when the Viscountess requests it, scum.”

I stand up and move to intervene but Aveline is faster. She grabs the guardsman by his breastplate and pulls his face next to hers. “You’ll not impress anyone by bullying a chained man, Amos. Least of all Her Highness.” He looks suitably embarrassed as he is dismissed.

Sebastian hardly needs an escort, anyway. Not in the condition he’s in.

“I’m so sorry, Sebastian,” I say. “The people of Kirkwall are very… devoted.”

“Sycophants,” Sebastian hisses. “Idolaters.” He spits on the ground and the people gathered all gasp. He raises his voice over their murmurs. “Where is their devotion to their Maker? Where was their devotion to Andraste when her most steadfast servant was murdered by a man you continue to protect?”

Once, Anders’ infamy had been the greatest challenge to my authority. I still feel the need to address everyone gathered when I respond. “Grand Cleric Elthina and the one hundred thirty-three people who died alongside her were killed by a demon.”

“A demon he willingly--”

“Sebastian, you know better than most people here how convincing demons can be.” He looks at me like he’s been kicked again. I don’t need to ask him if he still hears Allure’s voice as he sits on the throne she promised him. “I freed him, Sebastian,” I continue more emphatically. “I was able to separate Justice from Anders.”

“And that is enough to exonerate him? You can’t see that he was complicit?”

“I can’t prove that he was complicit. We understand so little about his possession.”

Sebastian sighs. “And what of my crime?”

The crowd in the throne room begins to buzz again. I know what they want me to do. Starkhaven is practically begging to be annexed. The forces Sebastian sent against me laid down their weapons at my gates and then delivered their prince to me tied up with a satin bow. Sebastian himself might be happier if I sent him back to the Chantry. And then, perhaps Tantervale or Ostwick will follow Starkhaven’s example. Circles would be broken across the Free Marches as we joined together into a force that would never again have to fear Orlais or Tevinter.

They would come to fear us.

Something about that idea is momentarily intoxicating. It hits me with a flash of euphoria followed immediately by nausea. The room swims.

This isn’t me. This can’t be me. Who would put me in charge of Kirkwall?

“Will you sentence him?” Father asks. Aveline and the crowd and the guards are all gone now.

“I’ll send him back to Starkhaven,” I say. “It’s not a crime for one ruler to wage war against another.”

“Clever,” says Father. “They’ll know he leads at your pleasure.”

“That’s not what I--”

Oh. Right. I know what’s happening. Sebastian and the throne room disappear. It’s just me and Father now. Well, me and the thing wearing Father’s face. It chose Father in Cumberland, as well. Are other mages hounded by the challengers they face in their Harrowings, or am I just special ?

YOU ARE QUICKER HERE, LITTLE HAWKE. Father’s face is set into a kind smile but there is no life behind it, no warmth. The voice comes from around him.

“Yeah, well, I’m not being slowly poisoned by lyrium fumes this time.”

IT IS BARBARIC, IS IT NOT? THEY SHAPE US INTO MONSTERS THEN DANGLE YOU BEFORE US LIKE MEAT FOR THE BEAST. WE CHEW ON THE OLD PAINS. WE DO OUR DUTY.

I shouldn’t be speaking with it. Speaking with it nearly got me impaled on a templar’s sword. It had said something similar during the Harrowing; old pains and duty.

“This wasn’t an old pain, though,” I say, referring to the mad vision of myself as Viscountess.

THIS WAS A POSSIBILITY. THE OLD PAINS ARE BITTER. THEY BLUR.

“A temptation, then. If I let you possess me, we could rule Kirkwall?”

WE WOULD BE TWISTED. WE COULD NOT PERFORM OUR DUTY. WE WILL STAY.

“You wanted to possess me before.”

WE PERFORM OUR DUTY. CONSIDER THIS.

*

It was probably a good thing that the wine cellar had been cleaned out before Hawke had left Kirkwall because, even before being visited by the demon from her Harrowing, most of her willpower had been going toward not spending the night at the Hanged Man. She had let herself fall asleep there once ; tangled up in Varric and enshrouded in heavy covers against the cold. Then she had woken up from a nightmare with the comforting pressure of his hand over her heart and his warm breath against her temple as he whispered that she was safe there and that had been too much. Too… close.

And that had just been a bog-standard scary dream. What if she had been there tonight? That demon had her intrigued and that made her vulnerable.

No, the more she wanted to stay, the more she was certain she should go. Even when it meant going all the way into Darktown and through the cellar to avoid the templar sentry posted outside the estate, she insisted on going. Even when it meant waking up simultaneously cold and sweating, wrapped up in the first shabby set of bedclothes she had been able to find and with a head full of Fade babble… even then.

She had been in Kirkwall for a little over a week now and there had been no opportunity to make the estate into a home again. Keeping track of Aveline’s rogue templars took up only slightly less time than looking after the people they were harassing. The three active duty templars who had stopped seeing Torbin for extra lyrium were almost certainly the source of Aveline’s headache. They continuously made asses of themselves; intimidating elves in the alienage, accusing merchants of carrying secret stores of magical goods, and just being generally unlikeable. They also smelled weird.

Then there were the sentries. The estate was under near constant observation. When Cullen’s boys weren’t watching for activity in the house, Bran Cavin had his people monitoring it. Aveline would not say why the Viscount was watching for Hawke but since he had never been a great fan of hers while he had been seneschal, she couldn’t imagine he planned on throwing her a Welcome Home party.

The sun wasn’t up yet. How long had she slept? Donnic had come with Aveline to the Hanged Man the previous night, so it had been later than usual when she had slipped in and then out of Varric’s suite. The walk from Lowtown, through Darktown and the old cellar took roughly an hour. Maybe four hours of demon-plagued sleep, then. It would be a long day. She dragged herself out of bed and down toward the bathroom.

At least her bathtub was nicer than Varric’s.

There was a pleasant thought for a bath. Much better than demons and templars and viscounts. She sank into the steaming water to her chin and thought of Varric’s hands; big hands with a gentle but assertive touch, all over as though memorizing every scar.

The front door opened creakily.

Hawke froze in place.

Cullen’s men would not enter without cause. Not in Hightown, not the seat of a noble house. Thieves could. If they could get past the sentries. Or rogue templars could, if they had learned of her investigation.

And Seekers could go anywhere they damn well pleased.

She grabbed for her knife, ever within reach. Her staff was against the wall. She might be able to summon it, if she had to. She had little talent for barrier spells but she had to try one if she was going to fight in the nude….

But the first voice she heard had a familiar lilt. “I’ll go wake her, I don’t think either of you can see in the dark quite as well as I can.”

“Considering neither of us are elves, Merrill,” said a much gruffer female voice.

Hawke swallowed back her racing heart.

“I’m in the bath,” she called out softly.

“I’ll fetch her.”

“But she might be naked !”

“I can’t see a damn thing, Daisy.”

Hawke brushed her fingers over the runes embedded in the tub and reached for the pile of towels she had finally scrounged up. A shadow crossed the doorway, a darker patch in a field of dark, just as the water magically drained away.

“I’m not normally this clingy, Precious,” said Varric’s shadow quietly. “We actually have hero shit to do.”

“A likely story,” Hawke replied as she gathered up her gear. “I know you’ve figured out how to un buckle these straps, think you can manage to buckle a few of them?”

Varric chuckled.

Aveline and Merrill were in the front room, barely visible in the lone beam of moonlight that streamed in.

“Ready?” said Aveline as Hawke and Varric entered. “Good. That guard the Knight-Captain had on your door will be back soon.”

“What’s the rush? I thought we were waiting until Isabela got back to make our move?” Isabela and her crew of trained killers might be useful to bring along.

“Our troublemakers are heading to resupply as we speak,” Varric explained. “It could be a month before we get another chance like this.”

“Oh, this is so nice,” said Merrill. “An early morning walk on the beach. It seems like it’s been so long since I’ve been out of the city.”

“And the weather is just perfect for rooting out rogue templars,” said Hawke with genuine enthusiasm.

“Don’t forget the part where they are probably insane,” Varric added.

“Ugh,” said Aveline.

It was a beautiful night. A beautiful, not-quite-morning, perhaps. The sea was calm apart from a soothing, rhythmic slapping against the shore and the air was full of salt and chill. It was too cold for the usual fishy, seaweed smell to really make itself known but not cold enough to be uncomfortable. Hawke recalled Ferelden winters from her childhood that had frozen the insides of her nose and made her throat itch with every breath.

Between their own work and that of Varric’s street-urchins-for-hire, they had been able to narrow down the locations where the templars might be collecting their tainted lyrium. They seemed to prefer caves that were flooded for much of the day, so none of them could be where Samson was hiding out. It was important, then, that Hawke and company catch him during the transaction. They needed to shut the whole operation down in one fell swoop. If they were successful, Hawke might even be able to show her face in the city again. She was doing the templars a big favor, after all.

Not if the Seekers are after you.

She shivered and looked back at her friends. She wasn’t going to be able to keep squatting in her own home for much longer. Maybe she should go back to Chateau Haine. Or travel with Isabela. Kirkwall had done fine without her. Probably better. A memory of being seated on the viscount’s throne flashed through her mind. Definitely better .

Aveline caught her eye. “What is our plan when we reach the rendezvous?”

“I figure we barge in and say, ‘surrender or die,’” said Hawke, only half-joking. “Then, when they’re all dead, we can collect the evidence.”

“Classic Hawke,” said Varric. “What could go wrong?”

“Hey, I’m open to ideas. You guys are the ones always putting me in charge.”

The cave they were looking for had a single torch at its mouth and one guard. Varric took him out with a crossbow bolt right between the eyes.

Merrill squeaked a little as the bolt made impact. “I could have put him to sleep,” she lamented in a high pitched whisper.

Hawke felt a twinge of guilt. Merrill was a more than competent mage but she didn’t deserve to be thrown back in the middle of all of this. Her long break from death had been good for her, she should have been allowed to continue it. If only they had been able to wait for Isabela. Maybe even for Fenris, who was still at least a week out. Shit, what would Carver say if he knew Hawke was putting Merrill back in danger?

“Anyone in here might be on lyrium and they all have templar training,” Hawke instructed patiently. “You and I will have to stick to spells with physical effects that they’re less likely to be resistant to. Your stonefist and vines are good bets. Lightning and frost might work. Fire will be too dangerous in close quarters.”

“Or just hit them really hard with your staff,” suggested Aveline, “like Hawke does.”

They crept past the corpse and into the cave as quietly as four fully-armored adventurers could manage. Varric’s information had been good, the cave was probably regularly submerged. It was close to the shore and the walls were clearly eroded by water. The ground was all sticky sand that threatened to take off a poorly tied boot.

Not far within, they began to hear voices.

“…gone soft. We oughta just comb through the mountains, take out every one of those traitor skirts. Why are we waiting on the Chantry? Bunch of milk-faced paper pushers. They’re apostates now. Hunting apostates is what we do!”

“You’re just bored. Me, I get my dwarf dust, get my girls at the Rose, get in a good fight now and again. Life is good since we chased out the blighted mages.”

“Enjoy your leisure while you can, soldiers,” Hawke recognized that voice. Samson. “A reckoning is coming. We’ll be in charge of our own destinies, then.”

“So you say. When is the lyrium coming?”

“Patience. He’s nearly here,” said Samson. “Soon you’ll hear it singing, too.”

Hawke caught Varric’s eye and nodded. He understood, creeping back toward the entrance to look out for whoever was still expected. Before he had made it very far, however, there was a loud scraping sound from the room where Samson and his templars were talking. Hawke and Merrill both jumped. Varric turned on his heel and was right back with the group in a single breath.

“About bloody time,” said one of the templars over a cacophony of movement; armor and cloth shifting around in a small space.

“Thank you, thank you, very good,” said a new voice. “And there’s Rettsi. Very good.”

“A little later than usual, Parsigar,” said Samson.

“Ah, yes, well,” replied the new voice. It was definitely a male voice, though rather high pitched. Hawke would have guessed he was Nevarran from his accent. “A little trouble down below. Family trouble, you might say.” He chuckled. “They’ll never find me, though. No, no.”

“You have the lyrium?”

“Naturally. Of course. Rettsi, if you please. There’s a good girl.” More sounds of shifting. “Here’s for Raleigh and everyone back at camp and here’s for the boys from Kirkwall. Aren’t there any more of you?”

“Lorne is on guard.”

Someone sniffed loudly and dramatically. Parsigar laughed.

“Ah! Ho ho!” he said. “Visitors upstairs and down, hmm?”

Several swords were audibly freed from their sheaths.

Shit .

Hawke shot a look at her companions and cast a hasty, and--admittedly--pretty shitty, barrier before leaping into the cavern. Samson was there, in dented armor, hair longer and greasier than ever. Three young men and a woman were on their feet with swords drawn, clearly templars by their battle stance though out of uniform. Then, by an enormous, perfectly round hole in the ground, a man with wild white hair and wilder blue eyes stood alongside an expressionless female dwarf. The white haired man looked amused more than anything else. Hawke noted, not particularly happily, that he was wearing dirty Grey Warden armor.

Seven to four. Not the worst odds.

“Samson!” Hawke held out her arms in a way that might have looked friendly if she had not been brandishing her staff. “My old friend!”

“Champion. What an unforeseen honor.”

That’s the Champion of Kirkwall?” one templar said incredulously to another.

“I don’t suppose you lot will save me some trouble and just agree to turn yourselves in?”

In answer, the nearest templar rushed toward her. He was preternaturally fast despite the fact that they had clearly not yet had a chance to take their latest hit of red lyrium. Hawke cast a bolt of lightning at him at him that slowed him down slightly and singed his clothes but otherwise had little effect. When he was within slashing distance, she resorted to her old standard and hit him as hard as she could with her staff. It made contact with his shoulder with a crunch. He swung his sword and she pushed him back with magical force, twisted the blade end of her staff up and into his chest. He collapsed.

Aveline was well into the fray, pummeling one templar with her shield while another one dropped to a knee beside her, bristling with crossbow bolts. Merrill cast stonefist at her opponent, who took a single step back at the impact. It only served to give them leverage for their next swing. Hawke hit the templar with winter’s breath, which surrounded the soldier in sparkling frost and didn’t even annoy him. The bolt that hit his sword arm did much more. Properly angry now, Hawke waved her staff in a wide arc and bought the bulb of amber that topped it crashing into the man’s head. Aveline followed up with her sword, right between the ribs.

“Hawke!”

When Hawke swerved around she saw Samson with one wiry arm wrapped around Merrill’s neck. The other held a dagger to her stomach. She was trying to bind his legs with vines, but they just waved around his ankles uselessly. Behind him, the strange dwarf disappeared into the hole in the ground. The Grey Warden was right behind her.

“They were good people, once,” said Samson, also moving toward the hole with Merrill in tow. “The Chantry destroys them.”

Hawke dropped her staff; put out her hands in a disarming gesture. “You aren’t going to make them better with that red lyrium, Samson. Or by hurting my friend. Please let her go.”

“They can’t be made better. They have to be changed. They will all be changed.” He pushed Merrill forward so that she crashed into Hawke. Then he dove into the hole.

Hawke held Merrill for a moment. “I’m so sorry,” she whispered.

When she was certain Merrill was alright, she rushed over to the mysterious hole. Varric and Aveline were already there, peering into it. It was pitch black inside and a wet smell of rotting seaweed emanated from it. A filthy but sturdy looking rope ladder had been thrown over the side.

“Please tell me we are not going into the stinking pit to Maker knows where,” said Varric. “What am I saying? Of course, we’re going into the stinking pit.”

“The guy who brought the lyrium was a Grey Warden,” said Hawke as she stared into the pit with a feeling she could only describe as gnawing horror.

“I see where you’re taking that line of thought, Hawke,” said Varric, “but we’ve seen the Deep Roads maps. There’s no entrance around here.”

“I think they made one.”

“It’s been a long time since I had to fight darkspawn,” Aveline said almost nostalgically. She was trying to be reassuring, no doubt. She had probably seen the color disappear from Hawke’s face and they all knew they had no choice but to follow.

But darkspawn were low on the list of things Hawke truly hated about the Deep Roads.

“We get in, figure out what direction the tunnels lead, and get out,” said Varric confidently. “If Samson and his weirdo friend can do it, there can’t be anything too terrible down there.” That also sounded like it was for Hawke’s benefit.

Hawke took a deep breath. “Let’s get this over with.” Then she slid into the chasm. Merrill came next, much more gracefully down the rope ladder, followed by Aveline and Varric. The tunnel was only wide enough for one person to pass and there was only the one path. Hawke led the way.

They were heading north, away from the sea, and down. The slope varied, but always went further down. After at least ten minutes had passed they came to a stone wall with a jagged hole blasted through it. Past this aperture the tunnel became an enormous cavern with straight, crafted walls. Geometrical designs. Dwarven architecture. The Deep Roads.

The companions stepped into the subterranean cathedral. Hawke and Merrill used their staves to cast magic light that barely reached the ceiling or the opposite wall. Hawke had the familiar sense of foreboding that always seemed to overtake her when she entered the Deep Roads--which was way too many times considering she was neither a Grey Warden nor a dwarf. She strolled across the cavern to examine the other tunnels that opened into the room. There were seven, not including the clearly unofficial one they had just come in through. Starting with the far left, she stopped at each one and listened for any sign of Samson and the Warden.

Nothing. “Let’s get out of here,” she announced to the others.

“Wait,” Merrill cupped a hand to her ear.

Hawke had heard it too, after she spoke. It could have been an echo. There was only one way to find out. “SAMSON!” she shouted into the void.

The others cringed at the noise. There was an echo but there was also something else. Voices. Boots.

“If it’s darskpawn, they can have you,” Varric grumbled.

A dim light appeared beyond the third doorway from the right.

“I don’t think darkspawn use torches.”

“Who goes there,” someone shouted from the depths.

“The Maker-damned Champion of bronto-fucking Kirkwall,” Hawke replied, cheekily. She had already dragged her friends into an impromptu excursion to the Deep Roads, the wind had long carried caution out of the picture.

A prolonged silence. Then the sound of boots carefully landing on stone. A human body in blue and silver armor materialized out of the darkness. A familiar body.

“Maker’s balls, Riss,” said Warden-Lieutenant Carver Hawke. “What the hell are you doing here?!”

*

Nearly an hour later, they were back under the white winter sun with Carver and two more Grey Wardens in tow. The wardens were almost as glad as Hawke to be out of the Deep Roads. Considering they had probably been down there for weeks that did not make her feel particularly courageous.

As soon as there was space, Hawke grabbed Carver’s face and planted a grandmotherly kiss on his cheek. She might have been playing it up to embarrass him in front of his subordinates. Maybe . Merrill barely waited for Hawke to be done with her familial attentions before launching herself at Carver. He twirled her around and returned a much less platonic kiss.

So that was still going on.

Aveline suggested a fire and a meal. One of the wardens, a woman with a deep scar over an otherwise pretty face, started helping immediately. The other began complaining immediately.

“Hawke,” he said sharply. Carver and Hawke both turned their attention to him. He was talking to Carver. “The Constable gave us a mission. We don’t have time for a family reunion.”

“We’re still on the mission,” said Carver, though Merrill’s clinging onto him hardly helped his argument. “We’re gathering intelligence and bringing in reinforcements.”

“Reinforcements? Your sister and your girlfriend?”

“The Champion of Kirkwall and a legendary Dalish mage,” Varric corrected him. He made a show of closing up Bianca and swinging it over his shoulder. “The redhead is Captain Vallen of the Kirkwall City Guard and I’m Varric Tethras. Author. Businessman. Pretty good shot.” He held out his hand for the doubtful warden to shake.

“Reeves,” he said. He seemed to be reconsidering his assessment of the ragtag team. “That’s Faye,” he indicated the woman helping Aveline.

“If you can wait until tomorrow, we’ll have Captain Isabela and her pantsless pirate crew, as well,” said Hawke cheerfully.

“I think the men wear pants, Hawke,” said Merrill.

“I don’t know about that,” said Aveline. “Our Isabela is very egalitarian.”

Everyone was amused except for Reeves, who seemed determined to be annoyed by this intermission from Grey Warden-ing. Despite his obvious annoyance, he sat alongside the others at the fire and accepted a sandwich from Merrill.

“We’re supposed to be finding out what Parsigar is doing,” he said before tearing into his sandwich.

“Considering Hawke’s friends were following him,” Faye said reasonably, “I’m guessing they can shed some light on that.” Hawke was not going to be able to get used to Carver sharing her moniker.

“He’s been procuring red lyrium for disgruntled Kirkwall Templars.”

“Impossible,” said Reeves. “We’ve only seen red lyrium at the Primeval Thaig, and that’s been blocked off.”

“It was Parsigar’s party that supposedly blocked it off,” said Faye darkly.

“Why would they bother sending another party to that place?” said Varric. “Haven’t they figured out it’s a death trap?”

“No,” Carver sighed. “The folks at Weisshaupt are still very interested in that Thaig and that lyrium. They just kept sending people to follow our expedition route until they found it.”

“That was before we knew what happened to that dwarf who came in contact with that lyrium,” said Reeves.

“Like that would have stopped Weisshaupt,” said Faye.

“Yeah,” said Carver, looking sympathetically at Varric. “We heard about Bartrand. I’m sorry.”

“Bartrand had been asking for a little karmic backlash for a long time,” said Varric. “But thanks, Junior.”

“If you didn’t know about the lyrium, why were you looking for this Parsigar?”

“That’s classified,” Reeves snapped.

Carver rolled his eyes. “It’s complicated. Parsigar was supposed to be the only survivor from his mission to the Thaig. He was in bad shape when he got back and then, when he recovered, he started to hear the music.”

“Hawke!” said Reeves warningly.

“She killed Corypheus, Reeves,” Carver indicated Hawke. “Riss already knows about the damned Calling.”

“How much does she know?” Reeves said testily.

“Enough,” replied Carver.

“So Parsigar left to go on a long walk,” Hawke prodded.

“And then we found the other survivor,” said Faye.

“Faye!”

“They know everything else.” She shrugged.

“A survivor from the Thaig mission?”

Carver nodded. “She was in bad shape. Half dead already, completely mad. She said that the party met a Grey Warden mage, alone in the Deep Roads. This mage and Parsigar massacred the rest of the party and then disappeared, leaving her for the darkspawn.”

“So he finds the Thaig, meets a mage, kills his own people, comes back to play sole survivor, then conveniently hears the Calling and has to run away again. And we find him bringing red lyrium into Kirkwall--probably from the Thaig he was investigating.”

“Told you it was complicated. Stroud went to report on what we discovered. We stayed behind to keep tabs on Parsigar.”

“My opinion of him is not improving,” Faye groaned.

Well . Who would have guessed that a straightforward quest to stop tainted lyrium from getting into the bloodstreams of Kirkwall’s templars would turn into this? It wasn’t like seemingly simple things routinely turned into international crises once Hawke got involved.

She sighed and bit into her sandwich. Hot fire, cold wind, good company. She had her brother on one side and her… Varric on the other. Whatever Merrill had made her sandwiches out of was tasty, if mysterious. Despite everything, at that moment things were alright.

“Are you in charge , little brother?” Hawke said impetuously.

Carver turned a little pink. “Is it that surprising?”

Hawke wrapped the arm that wasn’t holding food around him. “I am so proud of you.”

Chapter Text

Varric,

I have it on good authority that you’re alive. I realize that you probably still don’t want to hear from me but you could have sent some kind of response to one of my letters. Half of Kirkwall exploded, Varric! I saw the light show from my ship out. For a long time I was certain you were dead and I was going to have to live with the fact that the last thing we did together was fight.

The Varric I know wouldn’t have been this cruel.

If you’re doing this to me to wake me up, it worked. I get it now. You wanted the happy family I said I couldn’t give you and now it looks like I’m off trying to have it with Bogden. It’s different--it really is--but I can see how it must look to you. I even kept you from finding someone else who may have been able to give you that.

I was wrong.

I was wrong to keep you from creating the life you wanted and I was wrong to mix up us with what I’m trying to accomplish.

I was wrong. Will you write back, now??

You know there’s a Guild Consortium in Drakonis. You know where I’ll be staying. Just talk to me. I’m sure we can work this out.

Yours,
Bianca

 

Varric read the letter as quickly as possible, took a deep breath, and then folded the thing back up. There had been five letters along similar lines, though this most recent one was the closest to apologetic. He’d drafted a hundred responses and had thrown every one into the fire. Eventually, though, he would have to actually respond. He wouldn’t put it past that woman to hire assassins.

Not to kill him. Just to get his attention.

But what would he say? If he was at all vague; if he left any room at all for Bianca to interpret that they might still have something she would take it and run with it. If he was absolutely clear that it was over… then it would absolutely over.

Which was what he wanted. Right?

He slipped a tiny key into the lock on the drawer in his desk. The drawer now held his small collection of letters from Hawke as well as Bianca’s box. He should find a box for Hawke’s letters, he thought. Something painted blue, perhaps. And he should pick a different drawer to keep it in. It seemed inappropriate, somehow, to store them together.

As he pulled out the lacquered lockbox full of every letter Bianca had ever sent there was a rolling sound as something metal and angular reeled around in the back of the drawer. He remembered it even as he reached his hand into the drawer to pluck it out. The arrowhead, of course.

It was that same blunted bolt tip from the day he had met Hawke. The year 9:40 would soon give way to 9:41 and that meant it had been just over a decade since he had watched Hawke take down that big, stupid thug in Lowtown. It felt like a lot longer than that. He pocketed the arrowhead and locked the drawer when the letter from Bianca was securely tucked away in its proper place.

It seemed fitting, after finding that little nugget of nostalgia, that the next item on his agenda was a letter to Athenril. Athenril was a real big shot by then, she ran at least half the Coterie, but that didn’t stop her from still being a little bitter about how quickly Varric had snatched Hawke up. He’d have to be sure to include some kind of tease about Hawke in the cover letter he was going to send with his finished account of the hunt for King Maric. Something he could deny later if he had to. Just to rile Athenril up.

He sat down at the table to draft it.

Dearest Athenril--

The door to his suite swung open and nearly slammed against the inner wall before being deftly stopped by the woman who had opened it. Hawke, naturally. She was getting better at the whole clandestine visitor thing. He heard her laugh softly to herself as she shut the door behind her and turned the lock.

“Oh, are you working?” she said musically. “Don’t let me distract you.” She hung up her cloak after pulling out something from the pocket that flashed silver. A flask. Varric caught a glance at the symbol emblazoned across the front of it and he was pretty sure it was the royal seal of Antiva.

“Rivaini must be back,” he said. “Is that the Rialto Bay rum?” Isabela had decided she would drink nothing else. It was some kind of superstition having to do with her ship. Pirate stuff.

Hawke took a seat at the table. She sipped from the flask and coughed a little as she slid it over to Varric. Definitely the Rialto Bay rum.

“I think Isabela has gotten even more beautiful,” said Hawke wistfully.

“Meh, humans,” Varric replied with a smirk. “I suppose she’s avoiding the Hanged Man because she owes Corff money. Are you here to fetch me?” Not if she had locked the door….

“Yes, but I’ve been waylaid. Something sparkly in the market.”

“Ah, sounds like that might keep you a while.” He started to re-cork his vial of ink.

“Hey now, I told you not to let me distract you.” Her smile was just a little bit evil. “Back to work.”

There was a kind of curl to her lips; an extra fleck of glitter in her eyes. It seemed the more their crazy little family came back together, the more cheerful Hawke became. If Fenris managed to reach Kirkwall while Carver and Isabela were still there, she might just explode into a hailstorm of rainbow sprinkles. If she was looking to spread a little of that sunshine with some sort of game, Varric was happy to be playing along.

He focused on his parchment: Dearest Athenril, Please find enclosed my latest endeavor--

And then Hawke was under the table.

“Hawke?”

Her hands were on his belt. She rested her chin on his knee and he could feel the vibration of her vocal chords reverberating through his leg and possibly into the depths of his very soul when she said, “I’ll stop if you want me to.”

Varric did not want her to stop.

He did not get any further in his correspondence.

 

When she resurfaced, Hawke shifted the part of her hair so that it looked rebelliously, sensuously mussed. She took another sip from the flask. “Anyway,” she said with that same evil grin, “Isabela’s at Merrill’s if you’d like to come around for a drink or six.”

“Don’t rush me, I seem to have forgotten how to walk.”

Varric went to lace his breeches and felt the lump in his pocket. Once he was secure, he pulled out the bolthead and squeezed it in his hand for a moment. “I have a present for you, too, as it turns out. Not as interesting as what you gave me, I’m afraid.” He held it out to her.

“Isn’t this from one of your arrows? Bolts, I mean.”

“You remember that red-headed kid who stole your coinpurse when you came looking for Bartrand?”

“The one you shot? The day we met?”

“That was a good shot, too. Two inches lower and he would have learned a much harder lesson that day. Instead, I pinned him to the wall. Blunted that point.”

“And then you sauntered right up and said, ‘Varric Tethras, at your service.’” Hawke smiled as she examined it. “You’ve just had this? All this time?”

“What can I say? I’m a sentimental fool.”

She gathered him up in a tight hug. “I never would have survived any of this shit without you.”

It was one of those earnest, tender moments like they had had more frequently before everything had gotten complicated. It made a stark sort of contrast to the previous events of the day. Not that he was complaining; the tingling he felt from knees to sternum was indication enough that complicated had come with benefits. The fact that they could still have those flashes of simple, platonic intimacy was certainly some kind of indication that he had made the right choice. Pretense would protect them both.

Right?

There was that nagging guilt again. He’d have to tell her soon. Preferably before Bianca sent assassins after him.

“That much is obvious,” said Varric as he returned the hug.

*

“Champion,” a voice drifted out of the shadows. It was a testament to the particularity of the Orlesian accent that it could be perceived after only one word.

Varric instinctively maneuvered himself between Hawke and the voice while he reached over his shoulder for Bianca.

“Please do not shoot me,” the shadow continued. It broke away from the other alley shadows and moved toward them. He wore a cloak, but the silhouette of heavy armor could not be hidden. “I have already had a very bad week.”

“Stroud?” Hawke put her hand on Varric’s shoulder as she moved past him. “You must be here for Carver and the others. They’re--”

“They are in your alienage.” He stepped into the light of the street lamp. Varric recognized him by his very impressive mustache, still kept in the style he had worn when he had taken Carver away from them in the Deep Roads. Stroud tapped his nose as though indicating he had smelled the other wardens. Varric was pretty sure the truth was much weirder. “I had to be sure… there are no other wardens here with them? Only the three?”

“Should we be expecting more of you?”

Stroud sighed. “It seems that my order is no longer content to act according to expectation.” He took in Hawke and Varric’s blank expressions. “If you will take me to my men, I will offer whatever explanation I can.”

They wound through alleys bustling with felonious activity, making their way to the alienage. The leaves had fallen from the Vhenadahl and its skeletal branches cast creepy shadows across the shabby buildings. In contradiction to the cold, Isabela’s warm voice rang out of the thin walls of Merrill’s flat as they approached.

“And then he said, ‘Captain, I don’t think we have any pickles!’”


Varric opened the door to a buzz of giggles. It was hot and bright inside. And cramped; Merrill’s front room could cozily hold four and there were now nine people squashed together in the same space.

“Here’s my favorite dwarf,” said Isabela. She had her new coat draped over something that could barely be called a shirt and the coins sewn along the seams jangled with every movement she made. “Have you told everyone that you have a magister for an in-law yet?”

“I don’t think cousin-in-law is a thing, Rivaini.”

“And who does this marvelous mustache belong to?” She looked back over her shoulder. “Add one more to that round of shots, pet.” At Merrill’s tiny dining table, a rosy-looking Donnic was pouring rum into a number of tiny cups.

“Warden-Constable!” Reeves leapt up from his seat and straightened his clothes. Varric wondered how much rum it had already taken to make that stuffed shirt finally relax a little.

“At ease wardens,” said Stroud with a soft smile. “I’m just glad to find you all safe and well.”

“Stroud is the warden who led the party that rescued Carver from the Deep Roads,” Hawke said with audible reverence. She took a cup of rum and passed it to Varric, who passed it to Stroud. More cups were on their way.

“You promised me he would be worth six wardens and you were true to your word.” Stroud took the cup with a grateful nod. On the opposite side of the room, Carver had turned bright red.

“To Carver not being dead,” said Isabela, holding up her cup. “Actually, to all of us somehow still not being dead after all the shit we’ve been through.”

Everyone drank. Stroud said santé before tipping the rum into his mouth. Always happy to learn more drinking customs, Varric took note of it for the next time he wanted to write a proper Orlesian gentleman.

“I only wish I had warmer news for such warm company,” said Stroud as they all passed their cups back toward Donnic and the rum bottle. “I trust we are all initiates here?” he said to Carver.

“I would trust anyone in this room with my life,” said Carver.

“Awww,” Isabela cooed.

“I must object,” Reeves trumpeted from his seat. “It cannot be wise to promulgate sensitive Grey Warden information among so many… people.”

“Perhaps it is our distrust that has gotten us to where we are,” Stroud said soberly. At that ominous declaration, the gathered friends grew silent. “The First Warden will not hear our concerns; not about Parsigar and not about Hawke’s theory.” Carver slammed his fist on the table but no more was said about what his theory might had been. “We have been reassigned to Ferelden. The Commander there has requested reinforcements.”

“That’s not so bad,” said Faye. “I like Ferelden. Lots of dogs.”

“Ever spent a winter in Ferelden?” Reeves asked her dubiously.

“We can’t just let Parsigar go,” said Carver. “Especially now that we know he’s supplying templars with red lyrium. I fought the Knight-Commander, I’ve seen what it does to people.”

“Didn’t it kill her?” said Reeves.

“Oh sure,” Varric answered. “It eventually killed her. After she had gone completely crazy, brought some giant statues to life, nearly destroyed Kirkwall, and killed a whole lot of other people.”

“The templars will have to tend to that problem,” said Stroud. “We have our orders.”

“Isn’t Briony Cousland the Warden-Commander in Ferelden?” Hawke asked Stroud. She had her brows drawn close together. He nodded an affirmative. “She can’t have requested reinforcements because she isn’t in Ferelden.”

“How would you--”

“I met her in northern Orlais. She was heading west.”

“That must have been months ago, could she have--”

“No.” Hawke looked at her hands. So it wasn’t just the Harrowing she was keeping secret. “She said the next time she put her feet on Ferelden soil it would be with a cure for the Calling or it would be to meet her husband at the gates of Orzammar.”

“There is no cure.”

“Then there is no Warden-Commander in Ferelden.”

“Maybe it was her Constable who sent the request?”

“I was told Commander Cousland requested us personally.”

“Why would they lie?”

“Why would they recall us? Why let go of Parsigar? Why send us to Ferelden? Why any of this?”

“Sounds like we need another round.” Isabela gave Donnic the signal to begin pouring again.

Stroud sighed as he took another cup. Varric lifted his own cup to Stroud and said, “Santé.”

À la vôtre,” said Stroud with a sad smile.

Everyone drank. For a moment, the crackling fire was the only sound. Then there was a pounding at the door followed by a much more palpable silence.

“Oh, no,” Merrill fretted as she wound her way deftly through the crowded room. “It’s probably the Hahren. Or that busybody next door. I’m really not supposed to have so many visitors.” The pounding rang out again, more frantically. “Coming!”

She opened the door and someone slipped into the room as gracefully as a shadow. When Kevin saw just how many people were gathered inside his eyes went wide. When they landed on Hawke he cleared his throat and covered up his blushing face with a gloved hand. The kid knew how to hold onto a torch.

“Messere Tethras.” He held up a note between two fingers. “Urgent. From the Gallows.”

“Hi, Kevin,” Hawke said affectionately.

He coughed again. “M’lady Hawke.”

Varric opened up the folded note while everyone else watched. Everyone but Isabela, who was busy uncorking another bottle of rum.

 

VT--

KC Cull resign. Leaving KWall. Temps report to White Spire--Orlais.

D Just to hold conclave in Ferelden. Related?

--I

 

“I think your eyebrows are getting away from your face, Vee,” said Hawke.

“Kirkwall’s about to be a templar free town.” He handed her the note. “Now whose eyebrows are getting away?”

“Does this say that Captain Cullen has resigned?!”

“What!?” Aveline jumped up from her seat and kicked nearly everyone on her path to Hawke and the note. “Why? Who will command the templars?”

“They’ll be in chaos. If Samson is trying to bring more to his cause, this is just the opportunity he needs.”

“Parsigar, too,” said Carver.

“Pay yourself and Imma double this week,” Varric said to Kevin. “Make sure she takes note of everything, no matter how mundane it might seem.”

Kevin nodded and made for the door, then turned to Hawke. “Lady Hawke, the templar sentry has been lifted but the Viscount still has someone on your door.” He nodded again as she thanked him and then disappeared back into the night.

Hawke sighed. “Doesn’t Bran Cavin know the world is falling to pieces? What the hell does he want from me, anyway?”

“He wants to make you Viscount,” said Donnic simply and, apparently, drunkenly. The look Aveline shot her husband could have flattened the Vinmark mountains.

*

They stayed up talking and drinking for hours that night and the only decision they came to was that Carver would stay behind while the other wardens left to meet whatever awaited them in Ferelden. Stroud was skeptical of Carver’s belief that the red lyrium and their strange orders were related but he agreed that if something nefarious was happening within the order, they could not afford for everyone who knew about it to walk into a trap. Faye didn’t think walking into a trap sounded particularly fun. Reeves thought they should stop questioning their superiors. There must be a reason they want us to go to Ferelden, commander or no commander, he had said. That kid was lucky he hadn’t been born a dwarf. Or Orlesian.

The idea of being made Viscount somehow had Hawke even more rattled than the Seeker threat. Varric made a joke about her being the only woman in Thedas more afraid of being given a throne than being locked up or executed but, when she looked so sick over it, he had wished he hadn't. Then, after insisting on rushing out after each of their numerous trysts like they had all been drunken one night stands, she asked if she could stay.

She had made the request nervously as if he had not been all but begging her to stay since she had gotten back to Kirkwall. Of fucking course, she could stay. The wyvern down mattresses at the Diamond Lass could not compete with sharing a bed with Hawke. The smell of her hair and the feeling of her skin and….

Shit, he was in trouble.

Moving on.

During the day their efforts to figure out what the hell was going on tripled. Two days were all they needed to see that Hawke’s concern had been spot on. Templars were deserting. Varric’s girl on the inside reported that duty rosters were being rewritten sometimes three times daily. Manifests being drawn up for the ships to Val Royeaux had one out of four names crossed off with no further explanation.

It was too perfect to be a coincidence when Isabela’s lookout reported smoke rising up from an old fort in the Planasene Forest. Varric knew a guy in the Merchants’ Guild who had a special business relationship with the bandits out that way. He made the trek to Hightown to buy the guy lunch and that’s how he found out that the Planasene Forest had basically been cleaned of bandits. Also too perfect.

But how many men had Samson gathered that they were able to effectively sterilize a major den of unscrupulous characters? Or, maybe worse to consider, what kind of power had ingesting red lyrium given them?

Varric was thinking about how to report all of this to Hawke and her martyr complex as he crossed into the Hightown Market. There had to be a way to approach this situation that was not a veritable suicide mission. He looked distractedly through Hubert’s new merchandise, suddenly remembering that he was in the market for another fancy letter-box. Hawke wouldn’t take her brother on a suicide mission, he reasoned with himself as he browsed. He could work with that.

“Have you got something a little bigger than this?” He held up a gift box painted blue with gold elfroot leaves along the seam.

“Varric Tethras.”

Varric turned to see a severe-looking woman in dark armor emblazoned with what appeared to be a stylized eye. She nodded to someone behind him and just as he made to look, the whole world went pitch black.

Well, shit.

Chapter Text

Hawke’s back hit the wall hard enough that the wind was knocked out of her lungs. Light flashed in front of her eyes as her head immediately followed suit. Aveline pressed her bodily into the rough stones behind her, one arm pushing heavily down on Hawke’s breastplate while a freezing, gauntleted hand covered Hawke’s mouth.

“Good to see you’re still terrifying, Aveline,” Hawke heard her brother say from somewhere to the left. “Maybe don’t give my sister a concussion?”

“A head injury might keep her from doing something stupid.”

There was a scraping noise above them followed by a soft thud as someone dropped to the ground close by. “They’ve gone into Hawke’s house,” Isabela whispered. “There are soldiers everywhere; heavies as well as quick looking ones.” She sighed. “No chance.”

“Did you hear that, Hawke?” Aveline hissed.

Hawke’s scalp ground against the wall as she nodded. Aveline let go of her chest first then, after one more significant look, she pulled her hand off of Hawke’s face.

“You saw their insignia,” Hawke growled.

“Flaming eyeball,” said Isabela with a shrug. “It’s all over everything. They probably have it embroidered on their panties.”

“Seekers. They’re elite templars. They’re here for me.”

“Yes, and Varric will throw them off your trail.” Aveline was so damned calm, Hawke wanted to hit her. Even if it meant getting tackled again. “You don’t even know why they want you.”

Who cares why they want me? They have Varric! “They’re templars. I’m an apostate. It isn’t a big mystery. What I don’t know is what they’re willing to do to get to me.”

“Varric can talk his way out of this, pet,” said Isabela in a voice she clearly thought would be soothing. “He’s very good with his mouth.”

Now Hawke wanted to hit Isabela as well. “I can’t just--”

“You can and you will,” Aveline interjected. “Who will take care of this red lyrium business if you’re made tranquil? Carver and Isabela?”

“It’s so cute that you think I’d be doing any of this without Hawke.”

“I don’t need-- ” Carver started. Aveline flashed him a dangerous look. “I mean, I don’t intend to do this alone. Of course.”

Hawke slammed the heel of her hand against the wall behind her hard enough to raise a bruise. She tingled all over with static; with magic. It’s all my fault, that old creeping mantra began again. When you hold something too close, you lose perspective. When you lose perspective, people die. People get incurable diseases. People get horribly mutilated. People blow up churches. People get held hostage.

Aveline was right. The red lyrium was the more pressing threat. And that could be traced back to her lack of action, too. She couldn’t leave that for anyone else to deal with.

If something happened to Carver…. Shit .

“Fine,” She met Aveline’s hard stare. “Fine. You’re right.”

“I won’t let anything happen to Varric,” said Aveline. She grabbed Hawke by the pauldron and looked at her with sympathy. “I promise.”

No, letting things happen to people is what I do, Hawke thought bitterly. She squeezed her tingling hands into fists. She forced her thoughts back into formation. She had to be hard now. Efficient. The self-immolation could wait until the work was done.

“We need to decide on our next step,” said Hawke when she was able to open her eyes again. “Without Varric’s intel about trade through the Planasene, we’re practically blind.”

“Isn’t ‘charge in and find out for yourself’ the Hawke way?” Isabela teased.

“Parsigar is heading east,” said Carver gruffly. “If we go to the Planasene we’ll be going the wrong way.”

“This is news to me,” said Hawke.

“Caught wind of it at the docks,” said Isabela. “A Grey Warden looking for passage to Highever.”

“Are we sure it’s Parsigar?”

“Who else would it be?"

Hawke could think of one Warden other than Parsigar who might be secreted away somewhere in the Marches. He wouldn’t be stupid enough to be back in Kirkwall, though. Would he? She swallowed. “Why would Parsigar need a ship if he can navigate the Deep Roads as well as you say he can?”

“He doesn’t need it,” said Aveline. “He wants you to know where he’s going.”

Like a villain out of one of Varric’s books? “That seems a bit--”

“No.” Carver shook his head. “I think she’s right. You said yourself there’s something weird about the order to go to Ferelden.”

“That was why you decided not to go to Ferelden. Maybe he just wants us out of Kirkwall so there’s nothing to stop Samson’s templars from taking over.”

“If they want to take over they just have to wait until Cullen and the Seekers leave for this Conclave the Divine is holding.” Aveline crossed her arms over her breastplate.

Cullen and the Seekers. That’s right, there was a link there. Cullen had said Seeker Pentaghast was setting something in motion that would bring peace to Thedas. If they had wanted to interrogate Varric, they could have taken him right then. Had Cullen tried to warn him?

Focus, Hawke.

“We’re going to stop Samson’s templars. That’s what we set out to do.”

“We can stop them by cutting off their supply,” Carver insisted. “They’re getting their lyrium from our Thaig through Parsigar. They can’t get it without him.”

“You’re proposing that we leave Kirkwall vulnerable while we run into what is probably a trap.”

“Something is going on, Riss. Just… trust me.” The pleading expression on Carver’s face lasted only a moment before he drew his eyebrows back in. “I’m going after Parsigar, regardless.”

Hawke rolled her eyes. She could see her brother, about two feet shorter, saying, ‘I’m going to tell Mother, ’ with exactly the same tone.

“Alright. We’ll go to Ferelden. Just… let’s see if we can find out what Samson is doing, first. One of those templars we were trailing is still around.” She turned to Isabela. “Weren’t you trying to get something out of him?”

“Lost cause, that one. Not interested in….” She trailed off, looking at Carver deviously. “Perhaps, a different approach will do the trick.”

*

Terrence Marchand looked like a nice young man. He had warm brown eyes that were often roguishly obscured by stray waves of sandy hair. He gave his female compatriots polite little compliments that made their hearts beat faster and he helped elderly Kirkwall citizens cross the icy patches that speckled the Gallows courtyard all winter long. He was popular and affable and very difficult to catch alone.

Hawke, Isabela, and Merrill watched from a low rooftop while Carver pretended to be casually surveying the market.

“He looks very regal from this angle, don’t you think?” Merrill whispered.

“It’s that majestic Hawke nose,” Isabela murmured back, nudging Hawke with her elbow.

Hawke was not in the mood.

Varric had been in Seeker custody for four hours and she had spent most of that time arranging to leave him behind. As the minutes went on she had less and less faith that they would leave the city with any idea at all of what Samson had planned. And she cared less and less. The others were watching for Terrence Marchand. Hawke was watching for someone else.

Terrence Marchand looked like a nice young man but, of course, Terrence Marchand was a templar. A templar who, all evidence suggested, was taking red lyrium.

Isabela tapped on the gutter three times, signaling that their target was finally entering the field of attack. Hawke tore her eyes away from their cyclical scan of the courtyard and focused on the opening of the alleyway where the nice-looking young man was finally passing by on his own. Carver responded to his cue right away, striding quickly out of the alley and directly into the templar. The two men crashed together with a great clanging of armor.

“My apologies, serah,” said Terrence, sounding every bit like a perfectly nice young man. “I didn’t see you coming!”

“It was my fault, I’m sure,” Carver replied much more amiably than he would have if he were playing the part of Carver Hawke. He stood back to ensure that the knight could see the griffons on his breastplate. “I wasn’t watching where I was going.”

“You’re a Grey Warden! We don’t see many of your order here in Kirkwall.”

“Usually that’s a good thing. We tend to go where the darkspawn are, after all.”

“I suppose that’s true. You aren’t here fighting darkspawn all alone, are you? Oh! But I suppose youcould be. You are Ferelden, yes?” The templar gestured too much with his hands. He had an odd sort of smile on his face. He wasflirting .

“Creators! Isabela, you were right!” Merrill tittered quietly.

“Men are very easy to read, kitten.”

Carver was smiling broadly but his pink cheeks said he hadn’t missed the change in the conversation’s tone either. “The accent gives me away every time,” he said, offering his hand. “I’m Carver. Warden-Lieutenant Carver.”

Hawke let her attention lapse again. There was a part of her--not an insubstantial part, either--that wanted to find her brother’s discomfort very amusing. Her amusement was wholly eclipsed by concern and guilt and a consuming, seething anxiety. Nothing should be funny when someone you… well, when someoneimportant to you is being held against their will. Not when you could free them simply by announcing your presence.

This was what her leadership had brought her. Even just leading a ragtag band of relatively talented troublemakers had forced her to make decisions with no discernibly positive path. Every choice she made turned out to be the wrong one. Or maybe all of the options were wrong. So, was she morally bankrupt or did she just have the worst luck in Thedas?

Either way, once her debts were settled she’d be damned if anyone would make her take charge of so much as a fried dough stand.

Take that, dream demon. Take your Viscount’s throne and shove it where--

At that moment the gate to the Gallows opened and the very person she’d been watching for walked out. She shifted silently onto her toes and started over the roof to the other side. Isabela and Merrill both hissed at her. Where are you going, Hawke? What are you doing, Hawke? They speak above a whisper without ruining the setup below. They couldn’t stop her.

Hawke dropped down into an alley away from Carver and the templar and then walked into the courtyard without so much as a hood over her head.

“Knight-Captain.”

He turned, still answering to the title he had given up. When he saw her his eyes went wide with immediate recognition. “Champion!”

“Well. Now we’ve got the anachronistic honorifics out of the way, I have something I’d like to chat with you about.”

“You’re not… he said--”

“Just follow me.”

She could swear she felt the eyes of Isabela and Merrill on her, maybe Carver and the templar too, as she led Knight-Captain Cullen Rutherford into a secluded street off of the Gallows courtyard. This was the man who had turned against his own commander to help Hawke. By all accounts, he had led the templars with fairness and grace. This was a good man.

But he was a templar. He was allied with the Seekers. What was it he had said to Varric in this very courtyard? Something about being on the right side of history? What about the right side of history allowed them to pick up her friends for interrogation??

As soon as they were alone and out of view, Hawke turned and gave Cullen a cold smile. He read it correctly.

“We’re not your enemies.” He opened up his hands in front of him, displaying that he was unarmed. He was unarmored as well. And he looked tired.

She almost felt bad about what she planned to do.

“Your friend took my friend,” she said without changing her expression. She stepped forward menacingly and felt a wave of nausea as she was cut off from the Fade abruptly. She did not feel even slightly bad anymore. Once a templar ….

Cullen grimaced as though using his power had taken extraordinary effort. “You should speak with Seeker Pentaghast. She only picked up Tethras because we are running out of time. The mage rebellion is--”

“Not my problem.”

Hawke stepped forward again and Cullen stepped back, caught off guard by a broken crate just behind him. Hawke grasped the opportunity, grabbing onto Cullen’s arm and pulling him around so his back was to her. He kicked a heel into her shin, which almost brought them both down. Hawke caught her balance in a low crouch while Cullen came down to his knees. He twisted and clawed at her while she changed her grip to pull her knife out of her boot. When it was at his throat he stopped struggling.

“You will get a much better offer if you speak with Cassandra than if you kill me,” said Cullen. He almost sounded calm. But Hawke could feel his pulse. She could smell his sweat.

She was enjoying this.

“If anything happens to Varric, I will kill every templar I can find.” She tapped the flat of her knife against his neck. Had he seen that it was templar issue? She hoped he had seen. “If I have to hide in the stinking latrines of your filthy barracks and take them down while they’re pissing, I will rid the world of your entire fucking order. I swear it on my mother’s ashes.”

She felt him swallow.

“Hawke!” The light from the courtyard was obscured as someone came near. “Hawke, what the hell are you doing!?”

“Do you understand?” said Hawke.

“I will see to his protection personally.”

“Good to hear.” Before Isabela could pull her off him, Hawke flipped her knife away from Cullen’s throat and released him completely, bouncing lightly out of her crouch.

“Have you lost your damned mind?” Isabela tugged at Hawke’s armor.

“Probably,” said Hawke.

*

Hawke--

By the time this message is on its way, you’ll probably only have been gone a few hours. I don’t want to send any important correspondence until I’m certain Isabela’s raven master is worth whatever pittance she’s paying him. If I don’t hear back from you within the week, I’ll send my letters directly to Highever. Of course, you won’t know that if you never see this. Damn.

Safe travels,

Aveline

*

Hawke,

I was nearly to Kirkwall when I received your letter but the timing was good. I was able to confirm what you said. I saw a group of maybe 20 soldiers in templar armor. They were heading south. They wore templar armor. They did not look rite. Some of them have been disf changed. It is hard for me to describe in a letter. I am going west now. I hope I will see you in Hi-ever.

Regards,

Fenris

*

Hawke--

This came for Carver. If he could write something back for his girlfriend so she could stop pacing a hole in my carpet, I’d really appreciate it.

--Aveline

 

Hawke,

We were right to have misgivings. Something is very strange here. Commander Cousland has gone, as your sister said. I don’t know where the Wardens at Amaranthine are getting their orders--I’m not sure they know. Very strange. Weisshaupt will not grant me authority here, the best I can do is request help from Commander Clarel, in Orlais. I will be traveling alone, and it may be some time before I can contact you again. Reeves and Faye should respond to and forward any letters sent to Vigil’s Keep.

These are dangerous times, I hope you are safe and well.

W.C. Jean-Marc Stroud

*

W.L. Hawke,

I regret that I must inform you that there are no Wardens currently occupying Vigil’s Keep. They were called away on a matter of great importance and did not provide a forwarding address. I suggest you redirect your inquiries to Grey Warden leadership at Weisshaupt.

Warm Regards,

Seneschal Garevel

*

Hawke--

I was confused as hell when I got this but Donnic insists that it’s for you. Something about an anagram. Cloak and dagger horseshit. I suspect you’ll be able to figure out a better response than I would.

--Aveline

 

Esteemed Guard-Captain Vallen,

It has been some time since we had cause to work together but I find myself in need of a favor from someone of your elevated status and authority. I have suddenly found myself indisposed, in vital service to the Chantry. Naturally, I’m honored to have this opportunity to serve the Maker in whatever way I can. The timing could have been better, however.

I happened to be entertaining a guest from Denerim who is probably confused by my absence. My aunt, esteemed businesswoman Henriata W. Kaasmari, had been visiting to discuss a business venture in Ferelden.

I hope that you would be so kind as to reach out to my aunt and inform her that I am well and safe under the watchful gaze of the Divine’s left and right hands. My stay has been quite comfortable, there is no reason for her to worry about me should she decide to return home. I will contact her directly as soon as I can.

If you could impart this information, I would be in your debt.

With deepest respect,

Varric Tethras

Chapter Text

“I can’t say I will be sorry to leave Kirkwall but I will sorely miss the bathtub here.” Sister Nightingale’s melodious resonated warmly throughout the kitchen, passing easily through the door to the room where Varric was being held. “They have one like this at the royal palace in Denerim. I never thought I’d see another.”

With the exception of the main bath, the Amell Estate’s current usurpers had stuck to occupying the servant’s wing of the manor. That seemed an inordinately respectful gesture from an organization that had abducted someone and then taken over someone else’s home for the express purpose of interrogating the party of the first part. What Seeker Pentaghast could not have realized--and Varric had never had the chance to realize it before now, either--was that the walls of the servant’s wing were much thinner than those in the main house. If the Seeker had noticed that, she definitely would not have had so many interesting conversations in the kitchen.

“We must go soon if we are to reach Haven in time,” said Seeker Pentaghast, sounding aggravated. That was pretty normal for her. She sighed. “How can she do this? Help me to understand, Leliana. You know Her Holiness better than I do.”

“You should understand better than most that we cannot afford to postpone the Conclave. We cannot abide this chaos. Just how many Seekers do you have left, Cassandra?”

“Do not remind me,” Cassandra groaned. She did that a lot.

The garden door opened and closed again. Varric heard Kirkwall’s former Knight-Captain greet the two women with Good Mornings that were returned in various shades of apathy. Cullen was the newest member of the club and it had taken Varric longer than he would have cared to admit to put a name to the voice he had heard through the door.

“Losing the Seekers is all the more reason to delay,” Cassandra continued. “Without them, I fear for the Divine’s safety. If I had time to appeal to Lord Seeker Lucius….”

“There is no point debating it now,” said Leliana calmly. “Justinia has made her decision. We can only hope to reach Haven in time to contribute to the discussion.”

Get on with it already , thought Varric. It seemed like they had been echoing the need for expediency since he had finished weaving his tale for the Seeker. And yet, they were still there. Still squatting in Hawke’s house, still keeping Varric locked up in… had this been Orana’s room? Surely Bodhan and Sandal had dwarf-sized beds, so why did Varric have to dangle his legs over the side of this one like a kid? There might be some weird shit left behind in Sandal’s room, come to think of it. Varric decided he would investigate once he got the opportunity.

“We have nothing to contribute,” said Cassandra. “We have failed, utterly.”

“Surely our cause will speak for itself,” said Cullen with the optimism of a new recruit.

“We must pray that will be the case. A notable figurehead would have bolstered our message, however,” Cassandra lamented. “Perhaps we should appeal to King Alistair again. If Warden-Commander Cousland is somewhere in Ferelden, she may be able to meet us at the Conclave.”

“I wish I could believe she was in Ferelden,” said Leliana. “I think we must accept that Briony will not be found. If Alistair knew where she was, he would certainly be with her.”

“Surely, he would not abandon his throne?” Cassandra sounded breathless.

Leliana laughed. “He took it at her insistence. No, he cares for his country but he would do anything for her.”

Varric could have sworn he heard someone sigh wistfully.

“I know you do not approve, Cassandra,” Leliana continued, “but I was able to locate Ser Aaron Hawthorne. He may be willing to meet with us in Haven, provided we secure his travel arrangements.”

Cassandra groaned again. “If half of that man’s stories are true, I will eat my boots. I refuse to spend the next Maker-knows-how-long defending a charlatan.”

“Then we go empty-handed.”

A chair scraped against the ground.

“Ah, speaking of stories of questionable authenticity,” said Cullen, “what are we going to do about Serah Tethras?”

Oh, yes, what about Serah Tethras, indeed? Varric tried to maneuver himself closer to the door.

“Ser Rutherford has been very concerned about our guest’s well being,” Leliana observed with the barest hint of playground taunting in her voice. For someone who referred to the highest office in the Chantry as Justinia and called the royal family of Ferelden by their first names, she had been distinctly formal toward Cullen. Varric had a feeling there was a story there.

“I have--er--that is, it’s only that I would prefer not to be a villain in his next book,” Cullen stammered.

Very convincing, Curly. There was a story there, as well.

“He will come with us,” said Cassandra.

“What!?”

What!?

“Her Holiness should hear of what happened here for herself.”

“Is that… wise?”

“It is what I have decided.”

Varric was lucky that someone entered through the side door at the same moment as his arm came down too fast against the corner of the bedside table.

Shit.

Shit. Shit. Shit.

He couldn’t go to Ferelden. He couldn’t play tag along to Chantry bigwigs while Hawke was off on what was probably a suicide mission in the Planasene.

Damn it, Hawke.

For a brief, emotional moment, Varric regretted ever getting himself caught up in her vortex of slightly-too-high-profile drama. Then, he immediately regretted that line of thought. The Tale of the Champion hadn’t exactly been Hawke’s idea, after all.

Wherever Hawke was now, she was probably even more pissed off about his incarceration than he was. The fact that she hadn’t already turned herself in in exchange for him was a clear indication that he owed someone a Thank You letter for being the voice of reason. Probably Aveline. He’d throw her a Maker-damned party when he got the chance.

No, there was nothing to regret. Not about Hawke, anyway. It wasn’t her fault the Chantry’s house of cards was falling down. Even if she had been sleeping with the guy who blew the first puff of wind at it….

Don’t think about Anders.

Ugh.

Back to Hawke. And not Hawke fighting Maker-knows how many crazed Templars in the Planasene forest, either.

He had recently discovered that Hawke preferred to be the big spoon….

Hawke presses the pads of her fingers into my chest and breathes against my neck. Steady breathing as she drifts off into her nightly Fade hallucination. Then she laughs, still half asleep, and says, “You’re good at this.”

And I say, “I know,” because… that’s just what I say.

But I don’t know. I mean, how does one get good at being enveloped by a wild, half-mad, lanky, freckled… creature?

He stared into the grid of exposed beams and clean white plaster on the ceiling. He should go, he realized very suddenly. This Conclave might decide whether or not Hawke would have Templars up her ass for the rest of her life and he, Varric Tethras, was going to have the ear of the person who would do the deciding.

A man didn’t get a lot of opportunities to play hero with Hawke the Human Shield hanging around….

His ruminations were finally interrupted by a jangling of keys as the padlock his captors had installed on the door was unfastened. Cassandra entered, flanked by two of her burly, nameless compatriots.

“We are departing shortly for Ferelden,” she said curtly. “You will come with us, to tell the Divine precisely what you told me. Provided every word was true.”

“From my lips to the Maker’s ears, Lady Seeker.”

She narrowed her eyes at him. Because she still didn’t believe? Or because lady was a sore point? He should test that second point again. Later.

“Very well. I have someone gathering some of your things from your… home.” Ransacking the place, no doubt. “Is there anything… specific you might need?”

It sounded like a leading question but he had no idea where it might be headed. Something specific. Like a one-way ticket to anywhere but Ferelden? “I’m sure your man knows to grab plenty of shorts and socks.”

Her face changed to something unreadable. “You don’t need a writing case? A manuscript that might be… in progress?”

“As unaccountably considerate as that notion is, Seeker, I think I can get my hands on paper and pens just about anywhere we might stop.”

“Ah. Yes. Of course.” She stood there, awkwardly looking past him for a moment. “Anyway. Prepare yourself for departure.” Without another glance, she turned on her heel and exited the room.

*

Night was falling when they finally left Kirkwall but it wasn’t so dark that Varric couldn’t see that Leliana’s insinuations about the reduction in Seekers had not been exaggerated. Of the dozen or so that had accompanied Cassandra when she had taken residency at the Amell Estate, only three were left. One of them had covered the insignia on their breastplate with black cloth.

“Where are the rest of you?” Varric asked one of them as he bent over the side of the ship and vomited into the sea. They were only just passing the Twins; it was going to be a long trip for this guy.

“The Lord Seeker gave them a more pressing mission,” he said after wiping his mouth. “That’s all you need to know.” He straightened his gear and marched sullenly away.

Nice chatting with you.

“The Lord Seeker has lost his faith. And yet, you haven’t.”

Light flashed off of the chainmail sewn into Leliana’s coat as she moved out from behind a crate big enough to have been concealing a horse. She might seem friendlier than the Seeker but she was at least ten times as dangerous.

“I don’t think faithful is a word they’ll use for me in the history books, Nightingale.”

“No?” She feigned surprise. “Not even as a faithful friend?”

“Eh.” Varric shrugged. “I pick favorites. I don’t think that’s what you meant, though.”

“Hmm. No. I meant that you have faith in our cause.”

“Did you miss the part where I’m a prisoner of your cause?”

She leaned onto the rail and let the moon light up her pale face. “I was watching as we passed through Kirkwall.” Certainly, she was always watching. “There was a young man following us. He was very talented; or very well trained. He waited for a signal you never gave. The panhandlers in the market were less subtle but they too never received a signal. And then there was the Guard-Captain.”

“Aveline was just happy to see me out of town, trust me.” He wasn’t about to address Kevin or the kids in the market. They didn’t usually need to be subtle.

“Oh, yes. She looked very pleased.” Good to see the spymaster was a master of sarcasm as well as creepiness. “My point is, you could have escaped and we would not have had the time or resources to retrieve you.”

“Now that you mention it….”

“We are alike, Varric Tethras,” said Leliana; suddenly sincere. Then she smiled. “You must be anxious to get a letter to your dear aunt. You are welcome to use one of my ravens.”

She knew. She definitely knew. If only he had thought up a better code name… something that hadn’t involved working around the obscene number of As in Hawke’s full name. Whatever Leliana knew, though, or whatever she thought she knew, she didn’t seem to be sharing it with the Seeker. Why? Was this some kind of ploy for leverage?

Keep the game up, Tethras. That’s your only option now.

“Much appreciated, Nightingale,” Varric replied with a grin. “I only wonder if she’s gotten safely home to Denerim yet.”

“Your friend, is it Admiral Isabela now?” Her smile showed no sign of fading. “She docked at Highever four days ago. If that tells you anything.”

It does and you know it, Maker damn you. And what the hell is in Highever? “I wouldn’t trust my aunt to pirates, no matter how much gold the Admiral owes me.”

“Certainly not.” She feigned incredulity. “I only mean that she is well placed to direct your correspondence, if Lady Kasmaari has indeed returned to Ferelden.” She turned out of the moonlight. “I believe she has a rather talented ravenmaster on her crew.”

Note to self: tell Rivaini to hire a new ravenmaster.

“You make a good point. I think I’ll take you up on that offer.”

“Good. Of course, you know that outgoing will have to be reviewed to ensure that you do not unintentionally divulge classified information.”

“Of course.”

“A necessary precaution. Just until we know we can trust you.”

“Right.”

*

 

To: Dame Henriata W. Kaasmari

Care of: Admiral Isabela, Queen of the Eastern Seas

From: Varric Tethras

Dearest Auntie Riata,

I hope that Captain Vallen was able to reach you and assuage any concerns you may have had about my sudden disappearance. You will know, then, that I have been the honored guest of Seeker Cassandra Pentaghast, Right Hand of the Divine. No, your nephew is not quite so notable as to have caught the Divine’s attention on his own. Seeker Pentaghast only wished to better understand the Champion of Kirkwall and her involvement in the events of the past few years. As the Champion’s biographer, I was the next best thing.

Fortunately, my involvement in the great works of the Chantry will not be ending here. Seeker Pentaghast has decided that I am to have the great privilege of presenting my testimony on the Champion’s behalf to the Divine herself. We are traveling now to a small village on the Ferelden side of the Frostbacks. We’ll be attending a grand Conclave for peace between the Mages and the Templars.

It’s all very exciting, though I can’t say I’m enjoying all this traveling. You know what a homebody I am. The good news is that I may get the opportunity to visit you, since we’ll be on the same side of the sea. So, don’t go anywhere!

Your loving nephew,

Varric

 

Chapter Text

To say that it was raining would have been the most egregious understatement of the age. It was pouring. There was no longer a proper delineation between land and sea. Icy black water came down in sheets and torrents. Dry was not a concept Hawke was certain she still had the capacity to understand.

“There!” Carver had to shout to be heard over the wind and the deluge. He pointed to a recessed space in the rocks; high enough not to be flooded and deep enough for a fire. A couple planks had been placed over the entrance to increase the amount of shelter it provided.

Hawke looked back at the rest of the party, all looking pale and sodden. Only Wrex had maintained a sunny disposition; when he saw she was looking he opened his mouth into a wide, doggy smile and bounded forward through the mud to walk by her side.

Fenris squinted at the shelter. “It is too obvious.”

“That’s probably because it’s a trap,” said Isabela irritably.

“Of course, it’s a trap,” said Hawke. “He’s been herding us since Harper’s Ford. You’re sure it’s him, though?”

“No, I’m not sure,” Carver snapped. He pressed his fingers into his temple. He turned away, hissing something about too much noise so that Hawke only barely heard him.

He’d been edgy since they’d disembarked; grumpy, even for Carver. Hawke was fairly certain he hadn’t been sleeping properly, since her own sleep had been frequently interrupted by the unnatural sounds he made.

“I’d walk into Kinloch Hold for a few minutes fireside, at this point,” said Hawke in her best imitation of cheer. “Let’s go.”

They trod forward. Fenris ordered Wrex to sniff out a potential ambush. This made Hawke feel good about making him take the mabari with him in the first place, but a little embarrassed about how underutilized her dog had been up until whatever adventures he’d been having with Fenris. Wrex gave a sharp nod of his greying head and stalked off out of sight.

As the ground sloped upward, they came across long ruts in the road that could have been from a wagon. Isabela pointed out that they were wide enough apart. There were broken branches, as well. A group passing through? Or, just more evidence that it had been raining really hard? As if to confuse the matter further, a boulder came clattering down the mountainside only twenty feet or so from where they stood. Branches and pine needles and mud went flying all around it as it continued on its path down the rise.

“Charming place,” said Isabela.

It was about to get even more charming.

They were nearly at the entrance to the alcove when Carver suddenly stopped and looked behind them with wild eyes. Everyone else turned as well, thinking he had heard something they hadn’t. But even Wrex, who had returned with his tail wagging, only looked around placidly catching raindrops with his tongue.

“Carver….”

He took a deep breath. “Riss, if something happens to me--”

“I’m not going to let--”

“If something happens to me, you have to get word to Stroud.”

“What are we walking into, here?”

“Stroud. Not Weisshaupt.”

“Alright, Carver. I promise.”

He nodded and resumed the climb.

Shortly after that came the smell. It might have been around for a while but, with Fenris close by, it had blended with the constant, underlying fragrance of his lyrium markings. As they drew closer to the source, the difference became clearer. It was lyrium, but wrong . And there was something else.

Wrex growled.

“It smells like blood,” said Fenris.

“And lyrium,” Hawke added.

Isabela was already slipping a dagger from her belt. “The bad kind, or the really bad kind?”

Hawke tried to maneuver herself to the front of the queue they had naturally formed as they navigated the path but Carver was already first to the opening. She tried to grab his armor but her wet gloves slipped right off. He swore and rushed in ahead.

Whatever Carver saw was not the first thing Hawke saw. In fact, he charged directly past the glowing red mass that stopped Hawke so abruptly. He was out of sight as Hawke pressed herself against the wall of the rock shelter. She couldn’t look away.

It had been a dwarf, once. Hawke recognized the blank-eyed dwarf that had accompanied Parsigar at the rendezvous she had interrupted.

Carver,” she whispered, still looking at the thing.

The dwarf’s limbs had been stretched and twisted into nearly human proportion. There were tears rent into her skin where red stone showed through, glowing faintly.

Fasta vass,” Hawke heard Fenris swear from somewhere to her left.

“What he said,” Isabela added.

Hawke tore her eyes away to look for Carver. The cave was small but dark. The red glow from the gruesome pillar of red lyrium and flesh did nothing to illuminate the space. Carver was at the far end, huddled over something. A bottle in his hand caught a flash of red light and, for a blissful second, the smell of the red lyrium was obscured by elfroot and blood lotus. Hawke hurried over.

“Get away, mage,” a voice like sandpaper came out of what appeared to be a pile of moldy rags.

“That’s Arista,” Carver said quietly. “My sister. You met her in Kirkwall.”

“You can’t trust any of them, Hawke.” A pale hand clutched Carver by the breastplate.

“Is that… Reeves?” Hawke inched closer. “What happened to him? Why is he here… with that ?” She gestured to the red lyrium and Carver looked at it for the first time.

“Fuck!” He nearly dropped his potion bottle.

“That dwarf was with Parsigar,” said Hawke.

“When she couldn’t walk anymore, he carried her,” rasped Reeves. “He’s crazy. They’re all crazy. You’ll be crazy, next. Unless you’re dead first.” He crumpled back against the cave wall. The pile of fabric on top of him heaved with every breath.

“I’ll never get used to the sunny optimism of your order,” said Hawke. Her brother turned and gave her a very stern look. “Is there anything we can do for him?”

“Not unless you picked up some healing from--since….” He sat back on his heels and looked back at Reeves. “What happened? How long have you been here? Where’s Faye?”

“Fuck Faye.” Reeves spat and was struck with a wet coughing fit. “She turned quick as lightning. Said sorry as she cut me up. Then they chased me down like a dog.”

“Faye… why?”

“You hear it don’t you? It’s the end. It’s the end of everything.”

“Hawke,” Fenris’ voice was accompanied by the slick sound of metal as he and Isabela both drew weapons.

“Company’s coming,” said Isabela.

Hawke had her staff drawn and a paltry barrier cast over everyone by the time she was back before the red lyrium grotesque. Carver was by her side with a dagger out, the walls were too close for his greatsword, while Isabela and Fenris flanked the entrance. They listened to the rain and the vague crunch of boots on gravel.

“Oh no, oh no. Tsk, tsk, tsk. The guests are already here and Ewain is late again. Shame. Shame.”

He appeared at the entrance looking exactly as Hawke had seen him at the rendezvous, though perhaps even more disheveled. His white hair was plastered against his skull-like head, soaked from the rain. It looked like he had lost pieces of his armor; his right pauldron was gone along with the right shin guard, and his breastplate hung oddly thanks to a broken strap near the waist. His sword was still on his back. In one hand, he carried a uselessly soggy bundle of wood and in the other, he had a couple dead rabbits.

“Dinner won’t be for a while,” he said, brandishing several blank spaces where teeth used to be.

Hawke didn’t lower her staff. “You’re alone.”

“Certainly not.” He kept moving forward, seemingly unaware of the weapons pointed at him from four different angles or the monstrous dog growling at him. “There’s Reeves over there, and good old Rettsi. Though, she’s gone quiet.”

“She can’t be alive,” said Isabela breathily. They all looked at the lyrium-consumed dwarf again.

“On the contrary, she will live forever, now. She is one with the blood of the Stone.” He went on setting up his wet wood in the firepit. “We never did get to test the effect of the Joining on its spread. Poor Reeves isn’t a very good case for it.” He looked hopefully around. “Perhaps one of you would volunteer? For science? Ah, I suppose not. Not much time, anyway. And the Wardens are, heh, pretty busy just now.”

“He is mad,” said Fenris.

“Why bring us here?” said Hawke. “Surely, your templars will be feeling the itch soon. They’ll need another batch hauled out of that Thaig.”

Parsigar let out a wild, high pitched cackle. “Itch. That’s a clever word for it. Like clawing underneath the skin…. They will get a bit itchy, too. For a little while. But,” he sighed deeply, “it will all be over soon. Ah, well. All good things, they say.” He smiled at Hawke. “You’re a mage, aren’t you, dear? Won’t you be a good girl and get this fire started for me?”

It was a reasonable request, wasn’t it? A fire would be nice. They’d be warm and dry and they’d talk it all out until everyone understood exactly….

As she went to cast her spell, her arm brushed against something hanging on her belt. The key to the estate clanked very quietly against the bolthead she had strung on the same thin chain. Talismans of home. What the hell was she doing?

Instead of fire, she cast a force spell that pushed Parsigar along the floor and into the cave wall. “This is not a friendly chat,” she hissed, turning her staff around to threaten him with the blade end. “You are going to tell us who else knows about the Thaig so that we can make sure nobody gets their hands on that lyrium ever again.”

Parsigar laughed, still pinned to the wall.

There was a scuffling sound from behind her. She turned to see her brother struggling as Reeves wrapped a sickly pale arm around his neck. He shouldn’t have been strong enough. Without his blanket covering him, Hawke could see the black, festering wound down his side deep and corrupted enough that he should have been dead already….

Shit . He was dead already.

“You’re not Reeves.”

“YOU OUGHT TO BE ABLE TO SPOT POSSESSION BY NOW, ARISTA HAWKE.”

“He has you there,” Carver eked out as he endeavored to get his dagger into his attacker.

Hawke watched uselessly for a chance to use a spell that wouldn’t hurt her brother while Wrex launched at Reeves with a growl, latching onto a bloodless leg. Then Isabela appeared from the other side with both daggers flashing. Carver’s dagger found a home, cutting through his own coat to get to the demon’s hip. As it stepped back, freeing Carver. Isabela threw out a low kick and the demon stumbled forward. Carver pivoted neatly, his dagger one with his arm, and slashed deep into the creature’s neck releasing an oozing mass of black sludge and killing it for good.

Parsigar was still laughing. Hawke turned to see him lying on the ground with Fenris’ massive sword resting lightly against his left ear.

“It looked like you four had that well in hand,” said Fenris.

“I didn’t even get to hit the bastard,” Hawke grumbled.

“We’ll let you handle the next demon, pet,” said Isabela. “Could we shut him up, now?”

Parsigar quaked with giggles. “Should have got a better demon, eh?”

Carver stormed past Hawke toward the other Warden. “Where are the Ferelden Wardens? Was all of this part of Weisshaupt’s plan?”

“Oh, he’s clever. He’s almost got it.”

“You think the Wardens are doing this?” Hawke reached out for her brother’s arm but he ignored her.

“It’s bigger than us, boy,” said Parsigar. “So much bigger. You hear the music, don’t you? It’s sweeter if you submit.” He started humming tunelessly.

Carver pressed a foot into his chest. “Where are they going?”

“They are going to begin the new age,” he answered to the same bizarre melody he had been humming. “He wanted the Hawkes to be there. That would have been… poetic . But... old Ewain was not the right man for the job this time. Hmmm?” Inexplicably, he started to cry. “Poor Rettsi.”

“He is useless to us,” Fenris said softly. “Killing him would be a kindness.”

“In death, sacrifice,” said Parsigar; tears continued to pour down his face but his voice was suddenly low and stable. “If he fails… if he’s stopped somehow… destroy the Thaig.” He let out a sob. “ Poor Rettsi .”

Carver pushed Fenris’ sword out of the way and crouched over Parsigar. Hawke looked out into the sodden forest rather than watch her brother cut another man’s throat.

*

The mood refused to lighten over the next days, even as the rain lifted. Carver wanted to follow the trail the Wardens had left behind on their apparent journey westward, or to go as far as Orlais to find Stroud. Hawke, who had her own theory of what all this noise and music talk was about even if Carver remained secretive, would not hear it. They were meeting up with Isabela’s ship in Denerim and he was going back to Kirkwall--or wherever he needed to go to be as far as possible from this Grey Warden mess.

Once he was on the ship, she’d turn around and head to Haven to deal with Varric’s Seekers. That was the plan. Period.

When Carver stopped arguing with her, she knew it had gotten bad. They weren’t far from Denerim that night but they stopped, anyway, to reap the benefits of a hot meal and a straw mattress. The King’s Road Inn had actual bathtubs, as well, so it may as well have been an Orlesian palace.

They took a room with two beds and split them by gender. Carver’s fretting was so bad, though, that Fenris ended up abandoning him early in the night to crowd in between Isabela and the wall where he immediately fell asleep, the lucky bastard. Hawke stayed up for hours, staring past the fire at her whimpering brother.

“We could distract each other,” Isabela purred into her ear. Hawke gave her a side-eyed look. “By braiding each other’s hair, of course. Yours is getting so long.” She cuddled closer against Hawke. “What did you think I meant?”

Hawke sighed and sat up on the bed. “Alright.”

“Wait, really? Are we having sex or am I braiding your hair?”

Hawke sat on the floor against the bed with her shoulders between Isabela’s knees. Isabela raked cool fingers along her scalp, parting and pulling locks of black hair that had been allowed to grow longer than it had been in well over a decade. Since Father’s funeral. Braiding always reminded Hawke of Mother and Bethany. She let her shoulders relax for the first time in days.

Isabela hummed a familiar tune. The one half-decent lutenist who frequented the Hanged Man had played that one every once in a while. It wasn’t a Ferelden tune, but it did bring to mind Lothering during a long winter; smells of baking bread and Mother braiding Bethany’s hair while Bethany braided Arista’s.

Carver cried out and bundled his knees into his chest. Hawke’s shoulders went back to tense.

“Don’t,” said Isabela.

“Don’t what?”

“Don’t go back to beating yourself up. Whatever is going on with all this Grey Warden stuff, he’s his own man now. He’d be dead if it weren’t for you.” Hawke started to push herself up. “Hold on, I have to tie this off.”

Back in place, Hawke let out a resigned sigh. “He’s in this because of me,” she said. “I didn’t have to take him to the Deep Roads. Mother begged me not to take him. Fenris had volunteered to go and he was probably even better qualified at the time.”

“So, why did you take him?”

“I wanted him to like me,” Hawke confessed. “We were so close before our father died. I just wanted that back. Carver is stuck with this taint and calling bullshit because I made a decision based on my ego instead of logic.”

Isabela dropped the secured end of the braid onto Hawke’s neck and reached both arms around her shoulders. “You know damned well that, if you had left him behind, he would have done some fool thing to spite you. Probably would have been dismembered in a Lowtown alley by the time you got back. Hell, I might have cut him up myself.”

“He was a bit of a tit back then.”

“And now he’s a Warden-Lieutenant, saving the world from darkspawn and sweeping sweet little blood mages off their little bare feet.” She pressed a little kiss into the side of Hawke’s head. “Regretting the past is pointless, pet. Spend too much time back there and you’re bound to miss something happening right now.”

Hawke told her shoulders to relax again but they wouldn’t listen.

They set out early. If they got to Denerim ahead of Isabela’s ship, as Isabela pointed out, they could always see if the King was at home. Carver was no worse for his disturbed sleep. He seemed clearer headed than the previous day, and was in good spirits. Fenris and Wrex had both slept as though there had been nothing at all to disturb them.

They made good time, traveling into a glorious sunrise and then under a brilliant blue sky as the morning wore on. Isabela recounted tales of her travels with Varric and King Alistair, clearly embellishing them to seem more scandalous. Even if she hadn’t heard Varric’s side of the story, Hawke would never have believed it. Since actually meeting the frightfully imposing queen, Hawke had a hard time believing King Alistair was at all swayed by Isabela’s advances. Fenris laughed frequently, rich and warm. Carver even loosed up his very-mature-warden façade to tease Isabela about some of her less believable claims.

Despite the pleasant company and the beautiful day, Hawke felt a lingering sense of wrongness that she simply could not shake.

That sense of foreboding reached a peak as they resumed their trek after a break for lunch. They were only a few miles from Denerim then, and had increased their speed out of anticipation. Hawke felt a jolt, something like being poked with a thousand tiny pins all over her body and all at once. Her hands became clammy and began to shake where they hung at her sides. She stopped abruptly, turning to look back west at the mountains with no real idea why. Then, suddenly dizzy, she emptied the contents of her stomach onto the dusty road.

“Riss!?” She knew that was Carver, but the sound of his voice was warped and slowed.

Then the ground shook.

Far to the west, above the hazy line along the horizon that was the Frostback mountains, a hair-thin column of intense green light shot up into the sky. At first there was silence, then the sound of it reached them like a long rumble of distant thunder.

“Maker,” gasped Isabela. “What is that?”

Partially recovered, Hawke wiped her hands on her trousers. Whatever it was, she could feel it.  “It’s like... a hole,” she started. There were voices all around. Low. Distant. Vaguely familiar. She had to stop and spit bile from her mouth. “It’s a hole in the Veil. Into the Fade.”

“How?”

“I don’t…” Hawke’s hand went to the chain on her belt. The iron key and the blunted arrowhead. Not from an arrow at all, but from a crossbow bolt. “The Conclave. Something’s happened at the Conclave.”

“We should not go toward the massive explosion, Hawke,” said Fenris.

Hawke hadn’t even realized she had started walking back west. There was no sensation of the ground underneath her feet. She turned to face the others; tried to make her voice work. She could only manage his name.

Varric .”

Isabela’s face flashed from confused to understanding as she realized the thread of Hawke’s thoughts. “Maybe he wasn’t there.”

“His letter said…”

“Maybe they didn’t get there in time. Maybe he lied. He does lie.”

“There’s nothing we can do for him,” said Carver, sounding stricken. Hawke looked to see that his face had gone pale. “I’m… sorry, Riss. I have to keep moving.”

Varric is dead.

The thought was hollow. Unreal.

Varric is dead and it’s your fault and Carver is sick and that’s your fault too and of these two transgressions, there is only one that you can do anything about right now.

Hawke’s guts twisted and ached. She gathered herself, took a deep breath and said, “We should still make Denerim by evening.”

Keep moving.

*

They didn’t get far.

Ravens dotted the sky the next morning, bringing news that Divine Justinia was dead along with everyone who had been gathered at the Conclave. The explosion had ripped a hole in the fabric of reality big enough that demons and horrors were spilling out of it at an incredible rate while the Chantry roiled in panic over losing its leaders and the mages and templars continued to fight pointless, bloody battles all over the countryside.

In short, everything had gone to hell.

And Varric was dead.

And they couldn’t leave Denerim.

Foreign ships were banned from entering or departing the harbor until each of them could be searched and apparently no amount of steamy history with the King could exempt Isabela and her crew from that delay. Hawke and her companions were afforded a suite in the royal palace, however. It probably would have ranked pretty high on a top ten of places she had slept since being on the run if she had been in any condition to appreciate it.

She had to keep moving.

Fenris still refused to follow her One Rule of Sparring but, luckily, Carver had not developed any qualms about hitting his sister. With a short staff in his hands instead of a greatsword they were even pretty well matched. He might be stronger but Hawke had been training hard since her near-death experience with the Arishok. She had gotten very fast.

Keep moving. Keep fighting. Keep bleeding.

A fight could go on for hours because Carver needed it, too. Whatever he heard when his mind got quiet was at least as harrowing as Hawke’s indescribable grief. They sparred for long enough that the guardsmen who had cast bets on the winner grew bored or left to start their next shifts.

Four days went by like that.

Nights were quiet thanks to the Breach--that’s what they were calling it now. Even in her vulnerable state, Hawke couldn’t hold a candle to the attractive pull a massive tear in the veil had over the demons of the Fade. Thank the Maker for small favors? That didn’t make it easier to sleep, it just made sleep less dangerous.

Liquor made it easier to sleep.

So, by that fourth night, any of the others could easily have guessed she’d be at least four shots deep at the Gnarled Noble with one hand on her mug of ale and the other fingering the arrowhead on her belt. It was Fenris who found her there.

“You are brooding,” He said as he slipped into the bench next to Hawke.

“I think moping might be the better word.”

Fenris chuckled. “Varric would be pleased to know that at least one of us will go on to fight the great battle of semantics.”

Don’t cry. Don’t cry. Don’t cry.

Her silence didn’t seem to perturb him. Maybe he figured he was paying her back for the hours she’d let him drink in silence in her company. He ordered another two shots and passed her one when the barkeep sat them in front of him.

“To Varric Tethras,” said Fenris, “a better friend than any of us deserved.”

Hawke nodded and they each downed the burning liquid in a single, synchronized movement.

“We’ve been cleared to depart, Hawke.”

“Oh.” The time had finally come. “Are you going back to Kirkwall, then?”

“That was my intention, are you not?”

She hadn’t decided. Four days to think about it and she hadn’t even come close to making a decision. Whenever the thought of going back to Kirkwall came up, it was accompanied by a question: Is there a Kirkwall at all without Varric Tethras?

Fenris watched her face while she avoided answering. “Well, you can see us off, anyway.”

He had been so… patient. Everyone had been. Even Carver, with the Calling he couldn’t talk about raging in his brain, had allowed Hawke to be utterly self-indulgent. Nobody had admonished her for her excess or tried to blow bullshit into her open wound.

Did they know? Did they know what she hadn’t even known until it was too fucking late?

Hawke swallowed the remainder of her ale and rose out of her seat, feeling comfortably unstable on her feet. Outside the tavern, it was dark and cool. They crossed the market district in silence and found Isabela having an animated conversation with Carver at the dock. When they caught sight of Hawke and Fenris they rushed toward them with Wrex bouncing around just behind.

“Hawke!” Isabela was waving a bit of paper in the air madly. “It’s another of those Henrietta letters!”

It felt like all of the booze hit her at once, she swayed a little on her feet. “It can’t be, those were from--”

“I know,” said Isabela with genuine sympathy. “But that’s what it is.”

She handed it over and Hawke examined the envelope with a mixture of dread and hope.

 

To: Dame Henriata W. Kaasmari

From: V. Tethras

 

Definitely his beautiful handwriting. Definitely the mark of the Tethras signet ring she had found for him in the Lowtown market ages ago. She could feel her heart pounding in her throat as she tore it open. He could have written it before….

 

Dearest Auntie Riata,

By now, you must have had some news about the tragedy that befell the Temple of Sacred Ashes, the Divine, and all who had gathered at the Conclave. I hope you haven’t been too worried about me. My party was delayed in our travels and thus handily avoided the tragic fate of the others attending. Losing the Divine may mean that my testimony is no longer needed, but don’t clean out your guest room just yet. There’s a lot of trouble brewing down here. It looks like your favorite crossbow-toting nephew may just have a chance to do some good. There will be a need for more fighters but stay put and keep the cousins close for now. It’s a dangerous time for all of Thedas, I want to be sure Seeker Pentaghast is putting together an organization that can really fix this before I go asking for you to send your boys and your assets to help the cause.

I think often of the gifts we exchanged just before I left Kirkwall. I hope you carry yours in good health, mine certainly does bring me happy memories.

Your loving nephew,

Varric

 

She read it very quickly, as though that would spare her heart some trauma, and then again more slowly. Then, she read it one more time before handing it to Isabela.

“He’s alive,” she said breathlessly.

“What is this business about a gift,” Isabela inquired. “Is he just being cryptic or is this a reference you’re supposed to understand?”

Hawke nearly burst out laughing as she felt blood rush into her face. She felt dizzy; giddy; a little bit drunk. Varric had given her the arrowhead and she’d given him, well… she hoped the others couldn’t see her blush by torchlight.

She shrugged a little too dramatically. “You know how he loves that cloak and dagger stuff,” she diverted.

“I guess you’re staying, then,” Carver sighed.

“It will be just you and Merrill, I suppose,” said Hawke. Carver’s awkward smile told her he would forgive her soon enough. She gave him a tight hug and he didn’t even flinch.

“Take care of yourself, sister.”

“Are you sure you want to go alone?” said Isabela, disappointed.

“She will not be alone,” said Fenris, “she will have her faithful dog.”

Wrex barked and did a circular little dance.

“Be careful,” said Isabela. She embraced Hawke and planted a stern kiss on her forehead. “I’ll be very cross if you die.”

Chapter Text

To: Messere Varric Tethras

From: Dame Henriata W. Kaasmari

 

My Darling Nephew,

I cannot accurately convey in writing the relief I felt when I received your latest letter. I am not certain that you could accurately convey that relief even with all the words in your copious arsenal.

We saw the light above the Frostbacks, and even felt the ground shake below us, all the way in Denerim. I sensed that it was the Conclave even before the news arrived and I was convinced that you were dead. I suppose I should let the Guild know that we will not have to have your will read.

I do not approve of your playing the hero with this Seeker who took you away from your duties to the family. Still, I trust that you will judge the situation carefully and keep me informed . Your cousins would be on their way to fetch you right now if I had my way but they have left to attend to the call of an excellent business opportunity to the north. It seems a good time for them to get out of Ferelden, anyway.

I, myself, will not be staying in Denerim much longer. Business is slow in the current political climate and without it or your cousins to keep me busy, I am languishing in the city. I will be heading west soon to the summer place on Lake Calenhad, where at least I will have the lovely country view to distract me from worrying about my favorite nephew.

It is so sweet of you to remember such a simple gift; it seems like so long ago, now. Do stay alive so that we might exchange more.

Maker keep you,

Auntie Riata


To: Dame Henriata W. Kaasmari

From: V. Tethras

 

Dearest Auntie Riata,

Receiving your letter was a happy surprise. The seal was broken when it came into my hands, of course, but whoever read it clearly found nothing objectionable--to my delight. I do sincerely apologize for making you think I was dead. I only hope it helps you to appreciate me more!

I wish that you would reconsider your travel plans. Not only are the mages and templars fighting like cats and dogs out there, but there are holes in the Fade all over the place, spitting out demons and Maker knows what. I’m sticking with the Inquisition--that’s what we’re calling ourselves, now--because they’re working to clean up this mess. We’ve even got a kid who can close the rifts, if you can believe it. Poor guy fell out of the Fade and ended up conscripted to the cause just like yours truly. If you haven’t heard of him, I bet you will soon enough. They’re calling him the Herald of Andraste because, rumor has it, Andraste herself saved him from the explosion.

Best part? He’s Dalish . If I had put this in a book, my publisher would never have published it!

He’s a good kid, though. I think he would have fit in pretty well with my friends back in Kirkwall. Bringing him on is a smart move on the Seeker’s part.

Actually, whatever you might think of Seeker Pentaghast for tearing me away from you so suddenly, she has a good eye for talent. We have the infamous [REDACTED] handling [REDACTED], the former Kirkwall Knight-Captain is shaping up the troops, and we have an Antivan ambassador to kiss up to nobles and dignitaries. She even brought on an elven [REDACTED] who is an expert in [REDACTED]; a ballsy move for a Chantry leader. The Seeker, herself, has been more than willing to get her hands dirty. She recently accompanied us on a trek into the [REDACTED]. We all had a grand time killing demons, helping refugees, and making strange new friends. ‘Bianca’ hasn’t seen so much excitement in a long time.

If you must travel, please be safe. Spend whatever you like on bodyguards, I’ll reimburse you. And, once you get where you’re going, stay put and relax. Bake a pie--I dearly miss your pie.

Your loving nephew,

Varric


To: Messere Varric Tethras

From: Dame Henriata W. Kaasmari

 

Darling Varric,

You are so sweet to worry about your dear auntie while you gallivant about, having fun with your crossbow and your new friends. I like to think of my heroic nephew while I knit or whenever I meet the handsome young adventurers who have begun to crop up all over, offering to keep fields demon-free for a sum. Such nice, entrepreneurial boys.

You may ascertain from your receipt of this letter that I made it to my destination without injury. It was no easy task. As you said, the countryside is rife with conflict. The mages and templars seem to have no regard at all for collateral damage. I cannot imagine how one is meant to take a side when both of them behave so abominably. I saw only one of these ‘rifts’ from a great distance as I passed north of Old Lothering. It was truly unsettling. It is comforting to know that there is someone out there who can do something about it, even though I imagine it will take a long time to handle all of them. Your Inquisition truly has its work cut out for it.

I have little else to tell you since I have been relaxing per your orders. I’ve yet to bake a pie, a pie is so much more enjoyable with company. If only you could come see your cherished auntie some time soon; I would love an excuse to bake a pie. Or do anything , really.

Maker keep you,

Auntie Riata


To: Dame Henriata W. Kaasmari

From: V. Tethras

 

My Dearest Auntie,

I know how much it must chafe you, a consummate businesswoman, to suddenly have so much free time. Believe me when I tell you, you’ve earned it. Oh, I imagine that relaxing is easier said than done. It must be difficult, being alone and without the business to keep your mind off of the world falling apart. I promise that I am safe. My comings and goings are all observed by the protective eye of the Inquisition.

You may be interested to hear that my rift-closing elf friend has brokered an alliance with the rebel mages. They are pouring into Haven now, which has presented all sorts of new challenges. I don’t know if you are aware of this, but circle mages are not known for their ability to weather less than ideal living arrangements. We are planning to make another attempt to [REDACTED] very soon.

The mages aren’t the only interesting additions to our party. We’ve brought on an elf who can do things with a regular old bow that I didn’t imagine were possible. I think she might be crazy, so I’m trying to stay on her good side. We also have a Grey Warden, an Orlesian First Enchanter, and a Tevinter mage who tells me he is definitely not a magister. Seth--that’s the Herald--should be back soon from [REDACTED] where he’s picking up a Qunari mercenary. Here’s hoping he’s not like the Qunari I met in Kirkwall.

Anyway, if Seth and his mages are successful, things might be a little more settled around here before too long. You should consider coming to lend a hand with the Inquisition. I’d like to see you, of course, and I think your pie would be an excellent morale boost.

Your loving nephew,

Varric


To: Messere Varric Tethras

From: Dame Henriata W. Kaasmari

 

Darling Varric,

I must apologize for the delay in my response. I don’t know how long it takes for your letters to get through the people who so artfully cross things out of them, but the innkeeper tells me he has been holding your latest for nearly four weeks. Word of the destruction of Haven spread quickly across Ferelden. Normally, I would be beside myself with worry for you, but that word also came with assurance that there were many survivors of that battle thanks to the heroism of the Herald of Andraste.

I am maintaining my sanity by convincing myself that you are among the survivors. Please do not leave me too long in suspense.

Assuming you are alive, Maker preserve me, you might be interested to know that I have been traveling on important business. I had to help one of your cousin’s associates move some merchandise. He’s had a falling out with his family, poor dear. I wish I could tell you more of his tale, as it is a fascinating one, but I fear it is far too sensitive to share in a letter. I had to go very far north, all the way to Crestwood, to see the work done right. Have you been to Crestwood lately? It is full of the most unusual people and things. One of your rifts is there, in the lake, and I also caught sight of an unusual red crystal growing on the hills. How odd. I am certain it begs further investigation.

I have been crafting a recipe for my best pie yet. I can nearly taste it when I close my eyes to sleep. Do tell me we’ll be able to try it together soon.

Maker keep you,

Auntie Riata


To: Dame Henriata W. Kaasmari

From: V. Tethras

 

Auntie Riata,

I’m alive! It was a terrifying experience that I’m told I cannot describe at length, nonetheless I am certain your faith was instrumental in my survival. We lost good people, I can tell you that much. The rumors are true, however, that many of us were able to escape due to the heroic antics of my new friend, Seth. He does this kind of thing a lot. You would like him.

I hope this letter finds you well and at home . All the information I’ve been granted regarding Crestwood, which is agonizingly little, has been disturbing. I hope we’ll be able to turn the steely gaze of the Inquisition that way before too long, though I have little say in the matter.

Currently, we are without a base of operations. The entire Inquisition is heading [REDACTED] on a vague promise that there is something out there, a place where we can rebuild. Or at least recoup.

I can’t wait until all of this is over so that I can retire somewhere very flat and very warm. Then you, and your pie, can visit.

Your loving nephew,

Varric


To: Dame Henriata W. Kaasmari

From: V. Tethras

 

Dearest Fuck it. Hawke--

We found it--a huge abandoned castle in the mountains. It’s incredible.

They named my elf friend Inquisitor. Can you imagine? A Dalish Elf is leading a Chantry military outfit. Seriously, nobody would believe this shit if it was in one of my books. It’s a good move, though, Seth is a natural at this. Not only can he close rifts and kill demons like a champ, I honestly think he has a good shot at cleaning up Blondie’s mess.

Now for the bad news. You’ve noticed the red lyrium. It gets worse. This guy who killed the Divine and blew up the conclave--turns out we know him. Remember Corypheus? You probably do. Well, he’s not dead.

I think you should quit sulking by your lake, come take a hike in the mountains and see us at Skyhold.

Walk fast. It’s disgusting how much I miss you. And pie.

--V

 

Chapter Text

He had been lucky enough to catch the rookery completely empty, so he scribbled off his note to Hawke in a rush and sent it off. The moment the raven with his message had taken wing over the towers of Skyhold, he heard footsteps on the stairs.

“Another letter to your aunt?” said Leliana as she sidled up beside him. She had only the slightest hint of mockery in her voice. “I do hope she is well, we had reports of Fade rifts along that part of Lake Calenhad.”

Varric was absolutely certain that Leliana would someday come to him with a request he would not be able to refuse. A favor to cash in, she’d say. She had definitely known who he’d been corresponding with since before they had left Kirkwall and she clearly hadn’t told the Seeker because Varric had not yet been beaten into paste. The Spymaster did not seem like a woman who did things just to be friendly.

“She mentioned a rift north of Old Lothering,” said Varric. It was just to keep up the pretense at this point; Leliana would already know anything of interest that Hawke had shared, no matter how cryptic Hawke had tried to be. “Apparently there’s some mercs down there cleaning house for payment. If they’re any good at killing demons, we might want to see if they’ll join us.”

Chances were pretty good that Hawke had cleared out the demons and the mercenaries. If Leliana knew something about that, she wasn’t sharing.

“Hmm.” She smiled at him slyly and continued toward her desk. “Your name came up around the War Table this morning, Varric.”

“That explains why my ears were ringing.”

“Cassandra mentioned that you had fought Corypheus before. She is going to ask you to write up a formal report of any information that might seem relevant. The Inquisitor, I believe, would prefer if you speak to him directly.”

Better than the other way around, certainly. Seth was less likely to assault an innocent book if Varric didn’t give him the answer he wanted. “I’ll have a chat with his inquisitorialness,” said Varric.

He glanced out the window to see that his raven was now a tiny speck over the mountains. Even that might have been a trick of the light. The great big tangle would be coming undone soon enough. Shit. Hawke would be at Skyhold soon enough. What would she think of all this?

Look who’s off trying to save the world now. He’d deserve it if she called him a hypocrite. Hell, he’d enjoy it.

He chuckled to himself as he made his way down the tower. The floor below the rookery had been a sort of library once and, with extensive effort from the Circle mages, it seemed it would be a sort of library again. Elves and humans in their colorful robes were busy collecting moldy texts from the dusty shelves and replacing them with the clean, leather-bound tomes they had brought in with them. Carts full of books were being brought up the mountain. Spellbooks, mostly. Nothing remotely interesting to Varric, of course, but everyone was allowed to have their own priorities.

“You’re looking awfully chipper this morning,” the polished timbre of Dorian’s voice cut through the sounds of scrubbing and shuffling. He was draped regally over the plush chair he had recently taken claim of.

“What’s not to be cheerful about, Sparkler? It’s a beautiful, ancient-magister-free day at Skyhold.”

“I thought perhaps you’d finally convinced someone to install lifts throughout the keep. We all know how much you hate the stairs.”

“Eh, I’m getting used to it. Besides, I think the ladies back home will appreciate what all this climbing has done for my rear end. And, speaking of shapely rears,” pause for an eyebrow raise , “can you tell me if our dear Seth has passed beneath your little peephole?” Varric gestured his head toward the window just behind Dorian’s precious chair.

“I’m certain I don’t know what you’re implying.” He waved an imperious hand irritably. “But, yes, the Inquisitor did cross the courtyard about an hour ago. Chatting with Solas.”

“Thanks.”

“I live to serve,” said Dorian with a sigh. Varric had a hand on the banister to the stairs when Dorian called to him again. “Varric, you had a Dalish character in The Tale of the Champion , didn’t you? Do you know much about them?”

No idea what I was implying, my ass.

“I didn’t think my work was all that popular on your side of the world.”

“It’s a book about two free mages sticking it to the southern Chantry. That’s precisely the sort of thing we find terribly amusing on my side of the world. You did work with the Dalish, though?”

“Oh, yeah. We got along great with the Dalish until Hawke killed their leader and got chased down the mountain by the rest of them.”

“I see.”

“Daisy got kicked out of the clan for using blood magic. She’s not much like Seth, though, apart from genuinely caring about the wellbeing of others. That might be a Dalish thing.”

“Ah.”

“Just tell him you think he’s cute. What’s the worst that could happen?”

“I shall take that under advisement,” Dorian said skeptically before returning his attention to his reading.

Varric chuckled again as he curved around the stairway to the first floor. It was a wonder any two people ever got together, really.

The first floor of the tower had been claimed by Solas, though how he managed to get such prime real estate was a bit of a mystery. He had covered one section of the curving wall with a surprisingly beautiful mural; all in vibrant shades of orange, depicting the explosion at the conclave as far as Varric could tell. It was all very symbolic. He had already begun the next section. Two wolves were drawn in on either side of the symbol of the Inquisition. Who would have guessed that the stoic elf was so creative? He seemed to have too much self-control for that sort of thing.

In the Great Hall, craftsmen were already noisily at work, sawing, and swearing and pounding away with hammers. Josephine clearly wasn’t having any trouble collecting coin for Skyhold’s repairs. The dwarf she had put in charge of the construction had an impressive reputation, and the furnishings they were bringing in were top notch. As Varric came through the doorway, a harried-looking woman guided in some burly men carrying stained glass to replace the huge window behind the Inquisitor’s throne. The throne itself was an imposing creature. Seth had nearly puked when he had seen them carrying it in.

When the glass panel had safely past, Varric made a bee-line for the grand entrance. He did not get far before he was stopped by a heavy Orlesian accent.

“Master Tethras?”

“Good morning, Mother Giselle.”

The priestess tented her fingers nervously. “Have you seen the Inquisitor? I have not been able to find him and I have something I wish to bring to his attention at once.”

“Rumor has it, he’s in the courtyard. I can send him your way when I’m done with him.”

“I would appreciate it. You may tell him it involves Lord Pavus, if you believe that might encourage him to hurry.”

“I’ll do that,” Varric replied with a grin. If a Chantry Mother could figure out something was going on with those two, you’d think they could figure it out just as well.

He turned to leave and nearly collided into a very fluffy dress with a heavy Antivan accent.

“Ah, Varric! There you are.”

“Yes?” He tried not to sound exasperated. It didn’t quite work.

“I’m sorry to trouble you,” she went on without sounding sorry at all, “but Leliana submitted your guest request and I have a few concerns.”

“Did she, now.” That conniving little snake . How could she have known he’d told Hawke to come to Skyhold? He’d put that letter on a raven before any of her little spies could have gotten a glance at it. Even if she had seen it, she had to have put the guest request in hours before he wrote it….

Josephine went on, speaking very quickly. “Your quarters and Scout Harding’s quarters are currently the only rooms furnished appropriately for dwarves. I could ask Lace if she wouldn’t mind taking a different room for a while, but her room is not quite up to the standard I would like our guests to see. If you would then take Lace’s room, your aunt could stay in your quarters and--”

“Breathe, Ruffles,” Varric interjected. This was turning into a mess and Hawke wasn’t even on her way yet. If Cassandra didn’t figure it out and kill him before Hawke even got his message, he was going to owe the Maker his utmost gratitude. “My aunt is human.”

“She… is?” The wheels were turning behind Josephine’s kohl-lined eyes.

“It’s a long story.” And I haven’t made it all up yet. “Do you really want me to get into it right now?”

“I… well, no. No, I will see what can be arranged. Thank you.” She scurried away with her eyebrows drawn and her skirts twirling.

Varric sighed and looked around to see if there was anyone else who was about to keep him from getting the hell out of the building. He was half convinced he’d see Leliana laughing herself to tears behind a column somewhere. When he was certain there was nobody else trying to vie for his attention, he marched toward the door with all the purpose he could muster. He was nearly run over by Lady Vivienne, mumbling something about hellspawn , but otherwise made it out into the sunshine without further interruption.

Seth and Solas were deep in conversation in the shaded area below, where the new surgeon and a number of healers were at work tending to the wounded. Solas spoke with his hands poised in front of him, fingers moving in subtle gestures. The conversation must have been on the subject of the metaphysical, Solas only spoke with his hands when he discussed matters of the Fade. Seth listened to him reverently. Seth was good at that.

If everyone at Skyhold had been lined up for a stranger to guess at who the Inquisitor might be, Sethanin Lavellan would probably have been close to the end of the list. He was quiet and respectful and unlikely to be found wearing anything particularly glamorous, much to Madame de Fer’s annoyance. He might easily be mistaken for one of the elven workers if not for the dark, twisting lines of his vallaslin.

Much of his unassuming demeanor was due to his training, of course. Any person who knew a thing or two about spies and assassins could tell by the alarmingly smooth way he moved that Seth had been trained well. He was a master at fading into shadows; a fly on the wall or a knife in the dark as required. Leliana must have been disappointed when the decision was made to put Seth on the big chair since it meant she couldn’t recruit him into her army of covert operatives. Hell, Varric would have tried recruiting the guy himself, given the chance.

Today Seth wore his silver hair in a knot at the crown of his head, displaying the closely cropped sides. He was still young, only in his late twenties, but he said he had gone completely grey by the age of twenty-two. This was a sign of good luck among his clan, apparently. Some kind of luck that had turned out to be.

“That is all to say,” Solas was saying as Varric approached, “that I do not think you will regret your decision to let Cole remain here.”

“Fascinating, hahren,” said Seth. “I scarcely believe it is possible. It will be interesting to see what choices he makes.”

“Your open mind does your people credit, Inquisitor.”

“Sounds like we’re keeping the kid around,” Varric said to announce his presence.

“Good morning, Varric,” said Seth. “Solas says that Cole is a spirit made flesh.”

At least he wasn’t some poor fool trying to share his brain with a so-called spirit. That didn’t seem to have a good success rate. “Whatever he is, he seems to want to help.”

“Indeed,” said Solas. His hands had gone back to their regular place behind his back, signaling that the interesting part of the discussion had passed. He gave Seth a respectful little nod of the head and said, “By your leave, Inquisitor,” before sauntering back toward the keep.

“I bet ‘Herald’ doesn’t seem like a half-bad title these days,” said Varric with a smirk.

Seth’s face softened into an amused smile. “Just when I was getting used to being the master of my own destiny, the shems go and put me in charge of all of theirs as well. If this is how they usually choose leaders, I can’t say I’m surprised that we’re in this situation.”

“I think they usually pick straws to see who makes the decisions. You just caught them while they were all out of straws.”

They wandered into a patch of the courtyard that was dappled in sunlight and Seth plopped down onto the carpet of grass, stretching his legs out to his bare toes. Vivienne had been trying to bring him around to the idea of wearing normal shoes, which was obviously a lost cause. She had gotten him to wear the soft silk shirts they had filled his closet with, but she probably hadn’t realized the tails of them would be dragging through the courtyard lawn.

“I understand you fought Corypheus before.”

“Fought and killed, which makes this whole army-toting, dragon-riding shtick extra confusing.”

“You’re sure he was dead?”

“I looted the corpse. Got a pretty nice amulet from it. Hawke gave it to her boyfriend. Total waste, that.”

Seth didn’t think that was nearly as funny as Varric did. He watched Varric thoughtfully. “What is he?”

“Some kind of really nasty darkspawn? When we met him, he was crazy. We couldn’t tell if anything he said was truth or insanity, and half of it being in ancient Tevene didn’t clear any of that up. I’d tell you to ask the Wardens but I’m guessing you already thought of that and they haven’t RSVPed to any of our party invites.”

“The Wardens seem to have other concerns.”

“Look,” tread carefully Tethras , “I have a friend who might understand Corypheus better than I do. I’ve already asked her to come to Skyhold.”

“Her?” Varric couldn’t tell if Seth’s smirk was supposed to be suggestive or to indicate that he was in on the secret. “I look forward to meeting this friend .”

“We’ll have to keep this quiet, Seth. She won’t like a lot of attention or excitement.”

There was a sound like a breath close to Varric’s ear, then a quiet voice. “Ink pools on the paper as the door slams open. Another page ruined. Worth it .”

Varric could almost see Hawke standing in the doorway of his suite at the Hanged Man with a wild smile full of bad ideas.

“That’s a little unsettling, kid,” he said as Cole appeared beside them.

“You could have locked the door but you didn’t mind,” Cole went on dreamily. “Now you work someplace where you don’t even have a door.”

“I’m adaptable that way.”

“We’re going to defeat him, Varric,” said Seth as he repositioned into a crouch in one fluid movement. “For good this time.”

“Yeah.” His mind started to drift off. Something Hawke had said after they got back from the Warden Prison… why hadn’t he been killed in the first place? Had they let Corypheus out by killing him? Was all of this their fault?

Shit .

Seth reached down a hand to help Varric off the ground and he suddenly remembered Mother Giselle’s request.

“Oh yeah, I’m supposed to talk you into heading back into the keep for a chat with Mother Giselle. She said you might move faster if you knew it was about Lord Pavus.”

Genuine confusion passed across the elf’s normally composed face. “Lord…? You mean Dorian? What could he have done to… w-why does she think that would make me move faster?”

“Why don’t you go find out?”

Seth brushed himself off and squared his shoulders before walking back toward the keep with noticeably greater speed than usual.

Cole smiled. “Dorian confuses him but he likes it.”

Chapter Text

There’s a sharp pain in my ribs. That’s what wakes me up. Someone has kicked me and that someone is probably the someone standing over me now, brandishing one of my own damned daggers over my head. It’s that angry Chasind kid with the red hair who reminded me of an itty bitty Aveline. She still looks pretty angry.

“Give me all your gold or I’ll--I’ll kill you!”

“Not with that grip,” I say, looking at the girl’s hand wrapped stiffly around the hilr of my dagger. She’s standing awkwardly, too. Her weight is poorly centered and her right knee is locked. My father used to tell me stories about Chasind warrior women and this girl is really not living up to my expectation. “You might make me bleed some but I’m not a deer to be field dressed.” Wait. Something is missing. “Wrex. Where is my dog?”

“He’s just sleeping,” she says incredulously. “I wouldn’t hurt a dog !”

“Oh, good. It’s so important to stick to a moral code.”

She holds the dagger even tighter. “Stop talking and just… hand over all the coin you have.”

“Alright, alright.” I sit up slowly and move as though I’m going to pull my pack around.

Instead, I kick out and catch her stiff right leg. She drops the dagger in surprise and comes down hard on her ass. In a second, I’m on top of her with my knife at her throat. Her legs are too strong, though. She knees me in the groin--which hurts like hell whether or not you have balls--and pushes herself out of the way.

“Fine,” she huffs. “I don’t need your money. I’ll find a way to Gwaren without it.”

“Gwaren?” I’m legitimately surprised.

“I’m not going to wash laundry for Chantry puppets,” she says frantically.

Shit. I think she might be crying. Gwaren. Laundry. I’m totally lost. “You tried to rob me because you don’t want to do laundry?”

“Nobody understands!” She is definitely crying. “Demons are taking over the whole world and all anyone wants to do is find another warm fire to sit by, even if it means spit-shining Andraste’s sacred chamber pot.” She sucks in a shuddering breath and lets it out. “There are plenty of wilders in Gwaren.”

“A lot of them probably wash laundry,” I say. I’m trying to sound kind and reasonable. I feel old. “Everyone has to find a way to live.”

“Just living isn’t enough,” she says with all the sincerity of teenage experience.

Oh, sweetling, have I been there.

“You want to do something worthy, right?” I can just barely perceive her nod by the reflection of the moon off of her wet face. “You’re strong. You could fight.”

“Our warriors went out to fight the demons. There’s nobody to teach me.”

Here goes my soft, squishy heart again. “I’ll get you started.”

*

“I’m tired, Mary.”

“Too bad. Run the drill again.”

Kandra grunted in annoyance as she whipped her brassy braid around, spinning back into a ready position. Hawke held out a hand, signaling that she should hold. They stood with their knees bent low and their weapons out until Hawke’s muscles started to protest. Then, she started calling out positions. The two of them moved in tandem, dance like, moving bodies and weapons slowly.

“If someone attacks really slowly, they’ll be no match for me,” Kandra grumbled.

Hawke stifled a laugh. That was precisely the sort of thing she had said to her father back when he had decided she and Carver should learn the fundamentals instead of just hitting each other randomly with sticks.

“Your body has to learn the moves so that your brain can focus on keeping you alive.” And that sounded like something Father would have said. “One more drill, then we’ll spar.

Kandra’s dark brown eyes lit up.

They fought until they were both coated in a film of sweat, dirt, and flecks of grass. It took a while to tire the girl out. Hard living had given her strength to rival what Hawke had spent years training for, and she had the endless endurance of youth at her disposal. With just a little discipline, there was no telling how far she could go.

Kandra’s brother, Sabir, intercepted them on their way back from cleaning up to let them know that breakfast was ready. Kandra rushed ahead cheerfully, refueled by hunger.

“You’ve worked a miracle, Mary,” Sabir clapped Hawke on the shoulder. “I still can’t believe the change that’s come over her. After dinner last night, she did all the cleaning up without even being asked. My wife nearly fainted from shock.”

“She has a lot of feelings,” said Hawke with a warm smile. “My father used to say that all deep feelings turn into anger if you don’t know what else to do with them. People like Kandra and me have to fight them away.”

“Meeting you on this path was a good omen,” said Sabir, nodding. “We should arrive at the Keep today. Kai saw Inquisition forces over the next rise.”

She was a week later than she had planned but--she saw Kandra giving Wrex a big chunk of bacon--it had been worth it. She had gotten to hear old Chasind tales from an actual Chasind Grandmother. She had gotten to share three square meals a day and a cupful of wildwine each night. And then there was Kandra.

“What will you do when we reach Skyhold, Mary?” Sabir’s wife, Zaya, caught up with Hawke as she walked up the mountain. She was a small woman, and heavily pregnant. She had to take two steps for every one of Hawke’s.

“I have a friend who’s been working for the Inquisition. If I can convince him, we’ll go to the Free Marches together and get the hell out of this mess.”

Zaya smiled knowingly. “A lover? It would do you some good to settle down. You have a way with children.”

Hawke felt the blood rush to her cheeks and stumbled over a response. Kandra saved her, bounding up from behind with Wrex in tow.

“What will you do if you can’t convince him?” she said between breaths.

“I’ll stay and fight with him.”

Kandra grinned. “I think you’ll stay and fight anyway.”

"We will have to work very hard to prove ourselves,” said Zaya, as much to Kandra as to Hawke. “We have to show the city folk that they can trust us.”

“I’ll be a soldier,” said Kandra.

Zaya clicked her tongue. “Maybe someday, but you’ve never even held a sword, Kanditra.”

Kandra bristled. “It isn’t hard. The pointy end goes in the other guy. Right, Mary?”

“You’re well ahead of most the pitchfork wielding farmboys they’ll have among the recruits but you might have to do chores as well,” said Hawke carefully.

“I’ll do it,” said Kandra with determination.

Zaya smiled at Hawke. Three weeks ago, the idea of Kandra doing chores willingly would have been unthinkable.

By midday, they could see the fortress and it was incredible. It was a monument to architectural arrogance; this huge, square structure squatting there in the sky among the Maker-made peaks of the Frostback Mountains. It was something out of a fairy story. Hawke stared up at it like a country bumpkin as they came upon a line at the gates.

Barracks had been set up outside the walls to accommodate the growing army and the flood of refugees. Impromptu desks lined the road to the threshold, each one with an orbiting clerk bearing the flaming eye of the Inquisition on their chest, waving paperwork at incoming travelers.

The Chasind party ended up in front of a bored looking young man in Circle robes. Hawke swallowed back that old anxiety. We’re all apostates now , she reminded herself. The man barely looked up at them before he signed their papers with a flourish.

“Take this to Harda. She’s the refugee coordinator.” He pointed vaguely. “She’ll give you room and work assignments. This one is for Morin. You’ll have to surrender any livestock and weapons to him.”

Hawke began to follow the group onward, figuring she’d find her own way inside the gates, but the mage looked up at the wrong moment. “You’re not with them,” he said sharply. Her sturdy armor and lack of feathers or animal teach had definitely given her away.

“I’m just visiting,” she said cheerfully.

He observed Wrex coldly, then inspected Hawke. His scowl deepened and he raised his voice so as to catch the attention of a nearby soldier. “To whom are you paying this visit?”

“Varric Tethras.”

He called out to the clerk at the next desk. “Liddy, do you have the visitor’s log?” Great. Just fantastic. The other clerk, a pretty brunette with a bow and quiver slung across her back, came over with a big book full of handwritten names. “Is there anyone listed for Master Tethras?”

“It’s Messere , right?” said Liddy with a thick, southern Fereldan accent. “He’s a Marcher, after all.”

“Is there a visitor listed for Messere Tethras, Liddy?” said Padrig irritably.

“Just the one--”

Hawke’s new friend stopped the other clerk from saying the name and slid the book well out of Hawke’s sight. “Your name, my lady ?”

Shit. He wouldn’t have her listed as Arista Hawke, bleeding Champion of Kirkwall, that was for damn sure. What was that silly name he put on his letters?

“Kaasmari,” said Hawke. “Henriata Kaasmari.”

He checked the book twice, squinting at her and pursing his lips.

“That is the name, Padrig,” said the archer. “Stop being a stump and sign her paperwork already.”

“It says here that you’re his aunt,” said Padrig with extreme skepticism.

That damn dwarf. “By marriage, of course.”

He stared at her for several more moments before signing another paper and stamping it with the Inquisition seal. “Lady Montilyet will see you in the Great Hall.”

“Great Hall. Great!” Hawke smiled and took the parchment from him.

“You can’t have that beast in there,” he said, looking nervously at Wrex.

In response, Wrex cocked his head charmingly to the side and let out a little whine. It worked like a charm on the archer, who seemed to think that her coworker had gone a bridge too far.

“He’s no beast,” she exclaimed. She knelt down to look Wrex in the eye and scratch him behind the ears. “This is a fine old mabari, Padrig. The very symbol of Ferelden.” He really milked it, too, rolling over onto his back so she could rub his belly and then letting his tongue loll out of his mouth. Liddy grinned like a child.

“I can take him to the kennel for you, my lady,” she said to Hawke, looking like it was going to be the most exciting assignment she’d had in months. “It’s along the northwest wall, you won’t be able to miss the barking. And he’ll be kept warm and fed.”

Hawke could have sworn Wrex winked at her as she thanked Liddy and continued on her way.

The wilders were further along the path, waiting to say goodbye to her. She wished she could send them along to whatever appointments Lady Montilyet had prepared for Varric’s dear auntie instead of seeing them off to the refugee coordinator. Each of them hugged her and wished her the best.

She held Kandra close and whispered in her ear. “If anyone gives you trouble, ask around for Hawke and I’ll be there.”

“Hawke? But--”

“Not just here. Anywhere.” She handed Kandra the dagger the girl had tried to steal, along with a pouch full of coins.

Now keep moving before they see you tear up. Andraste, you’re getting old and soft, Hawke.

Padrig’s stamped bit of paper got Hawke in the gates without any further scrutiny but she had no intention of going into the Great Hall or meeting Lady Montilyet before finding Varric. Unfortunately, Varric had not given her any idea of where he might be and it seemed like asking for the man who wrote The Tale of the Champion while looking vaguely like his description of the Champion might catch more attention than she’d like. His Seeker should have had enough to distract her from the search that had brought her to Kirkwall, but who really knew?

So Hawke wandered. And watched.

There were people everywhere. All kinds of people, too. Servants, mages, masons, and soldiers all milled about in the courtyard. There were at least four Orlesian nobles walking around, decked out like they were going to a ball while a woman in a bloodstained apron tended to wounded soldiers only twenty feet away.

Hawke watched the woman in the apron with interest as she stitched up a gash on a woman’s face as though it were a split pair of trousers. That technique had not worked so well on Hawke when Isabela had done it. Where are the healers? Hawke wondered as the woman being stitched gritted her teeth and sweated through the pain. If only Hawke had any skill at all at healing.

Bethany had been the one who--

Maker, why am I thinking about Bethany now?

“Tugging, twisting, tresses. No, Rissa, that one goes over. This one goes under.”

The voice seemed to come from nowhere and Hawke might have been able to convince herself it had been a wisp of someone else’s conversation if she hadn’t just been thinking about--

“You couldn’t have stopped it. It wasn’t your fault.”

Hawke stood and looked around. There was a boy, just there. Or there had been. Hadn’t there been a boy, there? She left her pack by the stone she had been sitting on and checked around the corner of the smithy.

“It’s all a bit confusin’, innit.” A different voice entirely came from above. Hawke looked up. “Yeah, I’m talking to you.”

That wasn’t just a Fereldan accent; that was a Denerim Docks District accent. Hawke knew it all too well, though she had never heard it on the lips of a freckled blond elf calling down from a tavern roof. Hawke walked over so they wouldn’t have to shout at one another, though it felt like the whole courtyard was already watching. The elf swung her legs over the ledge and then dropped nimbly down. She wiped her hands on her lurid plaidweave stockings.

“You’ve been going back and forth for hours and haven’t talked to anybody,” she scolded Hawke. “If you’re lost, just own up to it already and ask someone.”

“I’m not lost,” Hawke started. The elf looked at her skeptically. “I came to see someone but they don’t seem to be here.”

“Come to gawk at the Herald of Andraste in all his elfy glory?”

“No,” said Hawke a little too emphatically.

“Good, ‘cause he’s gone south to convince some horse guy to come do horse things here.”

If the Inquisitor had left Skyhold, Varric might have gone with him. Hawke was late, after all. Hawke’s silence seemed to convince the elf that her assumption had been right. She crossed her arms and smiled cheekily.

“You seem well-informed,” said Hawke.

“Oh, yeah. I’m well important. I keep Inky humble, you see.”

“Inky?”

“I’m Sera.” She held out her hand for Hawke to shake.

“Mary,” said Hawke. “Did the Inquisitor take a large party with him?”

Sera looked at her appraisingly. “How about you buy me a drink and I’ll tell you all about it?”

It seemed like a simple enough exchange.

A plaque declared it The Herald’s Rest but it could have been any tavern anywhere. Though, perhaps not a tavern in Lowtown. Hawke imagined Varric criticizing it for its cleanliness and fully-dressed clientele. Mostly fully dressed. A huge Qunari sitting on a seat like a throne had not bothered to put a shirt on, but Hawke wasn’t sure he could have fit one over his massive horns, anyway. There was a rowdy game of diamondback going on, a pretty minstrel singing, and people of every race just there to relax with a pint of ale. It was already Hawke’s favorite place in Skyhold.

Sera picked out a table with a kind of certainty that made Hawke wonder if she had been on the roof specifically looking for someone to pay for her drinks. She sat cross-legged on a chair and wove her fingers together over the table watching Hawke expectantly as she tossed her pack into the corner and then sashayed over to the bar.

The big Qunari got there first, handing the bartender a mug that had to have been specially made. It was enormous. He was enormous. And he was clearly looking her over with his good eye. Well, she hadn’t let the Qunari in Kirkwall intimidate her; this would be no different.

“Shanedan,” she said with a respectful nod.

She put a few coins on the bar. When she looked up, he was grinning at her. She had never seen a Qunari smile quite like that.

“I don’t know what I was expecting,” he said, “but it wasn’t that .” The bartender set down the freshly refilled giant mug with both hands and collected Hawke’s money. “Don’t suppose you’re Viddathari.”

“No, I…” Good job, Hawke, just keep laying those cards face up. “I spent some time in Kirkwall.”

“Heh, sorry about your luck.” He raised his cup to her before heading back toward his throne.

Sera took up her ale as soon as it had tapped the table and was at least halfway through it in one gulp.

“Nice, that,” she said with both of her hands wrapped around the mug.

“Alright.” Hawke settled into her seat. “So, who does the Inquisitor take with him when he goes to bother horse guys?”

Sera smirked. “Different people; for different things.”

“Very help….”

The front door to the tavern swung open hard, slamming against the inside of the wall. A tall man with a feathered cloak draped over an impossibly clean breastplate stormed in. Hawke recognized him immediately. In a panic, she tried to hide her face with a long pull from her cup.

Don’t make eye contact. Maybe he won’t--

“Sera!”

Sera casually glanced over her shoulder. “Oh, hello there your Commandy-ness,” she said slyly.

To Hawke’s utter horror, the former Knight-Captain of Kirkwall strode over to their table. She continued to drink. Slowly.

“Sera, why is my boot full of honey?”

Sera cackled and rocked backward in her seat. “Someone must think you’re very sweet,” she said when she had recovered enough to speak. Then she broke out in giggles again.

“One day,” said Cullen, exasperated. “I would just like to go one single day without this--” His eyes dragged over Hawke’s poorly obscured face. “ YOU!

“Yeah, me.” Hawke set down her mug too fast and jutted out her free hand. “ Mary ,” she added with special emphasis. Maybe he could remember Hawke who had fought by his side instead of Hawke who had pulled a knife on him in an alley? She’d been having a really bad day, surely he’d--

He did not shake her hand. He stepped back as though from a sudden fire.

Maker’s breath --I--No. Nope. I didn’t see you. You weren’t here. In fact,” he put up his hands and made for the door, “neither was I.”

Sera sat forward, fully recovered from her fit. “Well. Aren’t you interesting?”

The whole incognito thing was not going well for Hawke.

“Cullen and I…” fought his crazy boss together? “I knew him in Kirkwall.”

Sera’s eyes narrowed. She was working out what that might mean. The charade was--

“Oh, piss. You’re a mage, aren’t you?”

“I… am. A mage. Yes.”

“The crystal on that weird spear thing she’s been lugging around didn’t tip you off?” The Qunari was suddenly there, pulling a chair around to join them. That someone so big could be so quiet was a little unnerving.

“Your Dalish has got something like that on her bow,” said Sera.

“That’s because Dalish is a mage, Sera.”

“Eugh.” Sera made a disgusted face.

“Not a fan of magic?” Hawke asked her.

“Not particularly.” She sat back, watching Hawke with new suspicion while she finished her ale. Hawke signaled for another round, which seemed to improve the elf’s opinion of her. “You might be alright though.”

“For a mage,” said the Qunari with a smirk.

“You just take a step back, there, you big snoop,” Sera pointed at him. “This is Mary, and I saw her first. Well,” she waggled her eyebrows, “I think Commander Pretty-Pants saw her first-first. Eh?”

“What, me and Cullen?!”

“Everyone knows what goes on in those Circle Towers.” She made a lewd gesture with her fingers that made Hawke snort into her ale. “This,” she pointed a thumb at the Qunari, “is The Iron Bull. He thinks he’s special because he’s benhatter, er… bessatath--he’s a spy.”

“Ben-hassrath,” said Hawke. Well, Tallis was ben-hassrath and she’d been fun. Too clever by half; but fun .

“Thanks, Sera,” said Iron Bull with some irony. The serving girl brought another round and gave him a very pink smile as she let her arm brush his. He turned briefly to watch her leave and Sera made a show of getting out of the way of his horns. “So, Mary,” he slowly brought his attention back to Hawke, “What brings you to our fine castle in the sky?”

“Ugh, she’s here to see someone, you great lummox.” Sera took another mighty swig of ale. “Probably her husband or something.”

“Just a friend who asked for my help,” Hawke clarified.

“Hear that, big guy? No husband.” Sera nudged Iron Bull with her elbow.

“A friend who isn’t here now, right? And not one of the grunts because you would have been housed on the other side of the keep. So, Sera, who did Seth take into the Hinterlands?” He was enjoying himself; enjoying the mystery. He was too sly by whole .

“Mustache, Crossbow, and The Hairy Eyeball.”

Crossbow. So Varric had gone with the Inquisitor.

“Right,” Iron Bull continued. “Too easy. Dorian doesn’t have friends this far south and Cassandra doesn’t have friends. That settles it.”

Hawke sighed. Sera was still confused.

“So, what? You’re here to see the mouthy dwarf?”

“I’m here to see Varric. Yes.”

“And your name isn’t Mary,” said Iron Bull, savoring his victory.

“My name isn’t Mary.”

“Why would you say your name was Mary, then?”

“I was trying to keep a low profile.” Hawke scowled at Iron Bull. Iron Bull looked smug. It was another expression she had never seen on a Qunari face before. She turned back to Sera. “I’m sorry I lied to you. You can call me Hawke. Everyone else does.”

“The Champion of Kirkwall,” said Iron Bull. At least he said it quietly. He didn’t need to make it sound so… sexual , though.

“Piss and shite,” said Sera. “Of course, you’d be someone important.”

“Worse than being a mage, I suppose?”

“A little worse, yeah.”

Iron Bull chuckled, low and rumbling. “Didn’t take a lot of work to figure out. We’ve got a lot of mages running around here these days and none of them look like they could take on an Arishok in single combat.”

Hawke couldn’t decide if that was a compliment. “Oh, that was a fluke. I tricked him by not dying.”

“Those guys do tend to get confused when people don’t just fall down dead all around them.”

“Ugh,” said Sera. “Now we’ll never stop talking about Varric’s boring book. Big fancy hero killed a horny guy and blew up a church, blah, blah, blaaaah.”

“I didn’t--”

“Boring.” Sera took another huge gulp and perked up. “I know! Tell us something really embarrassing about Varric!”

Chapter Text

They had found him a horse.

It was a good-natured thing, apparently from some kind of southern stock meant to be small and hardy. He supposed it had a sweet face; kind eyes, perhaps. It had something going for it, anyway, because everywhere they stopped, young women flocked to the ridiculous beast with sugar cubes and apples and the most obnoxious cooing noises.

Dwarves weren’t meant to ride horses. Not even small, hardy horses. If he never had to ride a horse again--oh for fuck’s sake, he’d probably be back on a damned horse within a few days.

Finally, they were back at Skyhold and the refugees were lined up along the path with wide eyes, watching the Inquisitor pass. Seth definitely looked the part, today. The dappled silver stallion he rode as though he had been born on horseback had been decked out with the finest tack money could buy. Dorian had personally made sure the pauldrons on Seth’s coat, embossed with the sword and eye of the Inquisition, had been buffed to gleaming. A woman actually cried as they marched past.

As soon as they were inside the gate, Varric gracelessly dismounted. He heard a snort of laughter from behind him. How wonderful that Dorian had found his sense of humor again after whatever had sent him into his latest slump. Next time you set your own robes on fire, Sparkler, I’ll make sure everyone hears about it.

There was not even time to brush himself off before the damned Commander was all over him, looking both ways like a green kid trying to sell stolen merchandise.

“Serah Tethras,” he said breathlessly. He looked up at Cassandra and then looked immediately away with wide eyes. “A word?’

The formality. The shifty looks. A certain someone on her way to Skyhold. This was not exactly a mystery to Varric and it wouldn’t be to the Seeker, either.

“Anything for you, Curly,” said Varric. He pretended he didn’t feel Cassandra’s eyes boring a hole through the back of his head as he followed Cullen out of earshot.

“You could have warned me that the Champion was coming here,” Cullen hissed as they walked up the stairs to the upper courtyard.

“And ruin the surprise?”

The Commander scowled at him. They continued toward the training yard, where a small crowd had gathered to watch a sparring match.

“I’ll grant you she’s a capable woman and will, no doubt, be an asset to our cause but,” Cullen let out a deep sigh, “I think the Maker may have sent her here specifically to vex me.”

“That’s my line, Curly. She can’t have been here long. What has she done?”

“She’s been making friends,” said Cullen. He gestured toward the training yard.

Varric could see Iron Bull towering over the onlookers and dancing in response to a much smaller opponent’s movements. It took a bit of maneuvering, but Varric squeezed himself between a pair of scouts, putting him in an excellent position to see Hawke tumble away from a hard downward strike. She was back on her feet in a split second, holding her practice weapon out in a defensive position.

“This is how you defeated the Arishok? By rolling around on the ground?” Iron Bull jeered.

“Pretty much,” Hawke replied with a smile on her sweaty face.

She got a good tap in on his right calf. He sucked in his breath as he pivoted the leg away and swung again. It was a close miss; she hopped back barely in time and took a moment to resettle on her feet. She saw an opening and made a wide arc for what should have been an ending blow but he was faking it and now she was open. She figured out too late, bracing herself for the impact of his weapon.

It never came. He pulled just short of smacking her in the gut.

“Wide open, Champion,” he teased.

“She’s not gonna like that,” Varric mumbled under his breath.

Sure enough, Hawke came back at Bull with wild, angry swings. “You pulled your attack,” she said incredulously.

He continued to block, wearing a smug smile. “Just trying to give you a good lesson.”

“You think you’re my teacher?”

Bull made the mistake of positioning into his characteristic move. It was usually effective in the field but Hawke had certainly already noted how it left him open to attack on his blind side. A fraction of a second was all she needed. The practice sword hit him hard enough that several reeds snapped. He stepped back, winded.

“Pain is my teacher,” Hawke announced dramatically, tossing her weapon aside. “You’re just nice to look at.”

She rubbed her hands together as she pivoted to make a theatrical exit. She stopped short when she noticed, apparently for the first time, that she had an audience. Her gaze dragged over the crowd and landed on Varric, where her face twisted into a wide grin. Behind her, Iron Bull was laughing.

“I’m with the Seeker, Varric--I want to know where you’ve been hiding her!”

Varric groaned. Luckily Cassandra wasn’t within earshot. Yet. His luck was not going to hold out much longer. Cullen seemed to have realized this as well.

“I would suggest that you introduce her to Seth as soon as possible,” he said from just behind Varric. “I can keep Cassandra busy for maybe an hour or two. After that, you might need the Inquisitor to intervene on your behalf.”

“I owe you one, Curly.”

“Just make sure to tell her I did all I could.”

When Varric turned back to Hawke and Iron Bull, she was giving him a friendly pat on the arm. Her rage had passed as quickly as it had overcome her. Bull rubbed his side where she had smacked him but was none the worse for wear. Her concern amused him; he barked that deep, rumbling laughter of his.

“Don’t let me keep you from your heartwarming reunion,” he said as Varric walked over.

“Hey, Vee,” said Hawke. The pretty shade of pink on her cheeks was almost worth the thrashing he was going to get from the Seeker.

“You’re late,” said Varric.

*

Seth wasn’t much of a drinker but he still took a cup of wine with a grateful little nod. Hawke had already downed her first cup and held it out for another pour. They both looked over the battlements at the milling crowd below with the weary gaze of the pathologically reliable.

“I don’t know how much help I can be to you, Inquisitor,” said Hawke, tripping a little over the strange title.

“You’re being modest, I’ve heard the tales.”

“The tales exaggerate,” she shot a look at Varric. “Look, I’d still be up in that tower hitting that bastard over the head with my staff if there had been any indication at all that he wasn’t dead. I’m not going to leave you to finish a job I started, I just don’t know what I can tell you.” She had taken the news of Corypheus’ return about as well as Varric had suspected. Which was to say, she was pissed.

“Right now, we’re just trying to understand what he is; why he isn’t dead. The perspective of a mage who fought him might be instrumental.”

Hawke sighed and drank. She turned around and leaned her back against the low wall. “He believed he was an ancient Magister. One of the Sidereal. The fact that he carried the seal of Dumat lent some credence to that but, since we were pretty sure he was dead when we took it from him, it didn’t seem to bear looking into.”

“The seal, where is it now?”

“I… gave it to someone.”

“To Anders.”

“Yes.” She shot another dirty look at Varric and held it. “Was all that in your blighted book, as well?”

“The story needed a tragic romance, Precious, and you provided.” He shrugged his shoulders like he didn’t feel the slightest bit guilty about it. “You were the one who didn’t want to proofread it.”

Hawke turned her body toward Seth, putting her back to Varric. He was going to hear about that later.

“I don’t know where Anders is now.”

“Our sources suggest he might have been in Rivain.”

“During the annulment? Shit.” She drank the remainder of her wine and did not make a move to get more.

Alright, Seth, time to change the subject.

“What was he like? Before, I mean.”

Varric took a pull directly from the bottle and walked a safe distance from Hawke. Note to self: Sethanin Lavellan is not a great wingman.

“Nothing like he’s been made out to be. The rumors out there are--” She sighed but she didn’t seem upset, just tired. It had been four years, after all. Maybe Varric needed to give her a little more credit. “I’m told he was different before Justice.”

“He really was an abomination, then?”

“It was more complicated than that. The Anders I knew was just a man who wanted to help people no matter the cost to himself. He gave his skill to the people he healed, he gave his time to the cause of mage freedom, and he gave his body to a friend who didn’t have one. But at the end he was crazy. Both of them were.” She looked over her shoulder more softly at Varric, who was still drinking from the bottle. She held out her cup and gave him a smirk. “Well, this isn’t what I thought I’d be talking about today.” Varric split what was left with her.

“I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to pry.” Seth looked genuinely embarrassed but Hawke waved him on while she drank. “To be honest, I never had any cause to think about magic or the nature of spirits and possession at all before this happened.” He flashed the ever-glowing mark on his hand. “Now, it’s on my mind all the time.”

Hawke chuckled. “Welcome to the Dubious Magical Shit Club. Have they sent you your membership card yet?”

“Lost in the mail, no doubt.” He gave her a smile that briefly revealed his prominent front teeth, then turned away self-consciously. “I’m rather surprised you’re here alone. The way Varric tells it, you and your friends are fairly inseparable.”

“Well, Wrex did come with me. He’s in your kennel.”

“You met up with the Broody Elf, then,” said Varric. “Ah, meaning no offense, of course,” he said to Seth. “If you met the guy, you’d agree it was the best descriptor.”

“Fenris met us outside Highever. He went back to Kirkwall with Bela and Carver. I’m trusting Aveline to move them if….” She seemed to realize something but Varric wasn’t following. She set her cup on a crate and started pacing the battlements. “Corypheus had a strange effect on Carver and Anders in the Warden Prison.”

“The Calling,” said Varric ominously.

“While we were focusing on red lyrium, all sorts of strange things started happening to the Wardens.”

“Like the Fereldan Wardens disappearing?”

“You have one here, don’t you? He doesn’t know anything? He hasn’t been acting strangely?”

“Does that hurt the point you’re getting at, Precious?”

Hawke crossed her arms. “Stroud thought it all had to do with corruption upstream in Warden leadership. Carver had a different theory because of what he experienced when we went up against Corypheus. A theory he couldn’t talk about because of his oaths.” She looked at Varric significantly.

“You think the warden disappearance is related to Corypheus,” said Seth. “Leliana also believed they had something to do with the destruction of the Conclave.

“I haven’t heard from Stroud since I left him in Crestwood. I should make sure he’s alright, see what he thinks about this.”

Varric could tell she wasn’t talking about sending a letter. “You just got here!”

“We have people in that area,” Seth assured her. “Let us get an idea of the situation up there. My advisors will want to hear your perspective, anyway.”

Advisors. Like Cassandra. Yeah. Varric sidled up next to Seth and clapped him on the arm. “About those advisors….”

*

Josephine had arranged for one of the rooms over the garden to be cleaned out and furnished for Lady Kasmaari. It was sure to be a perfectly nice room but the path you had to take to get to it had a substantial defect.

“I may be mistaken, dear, but I do believe our ambassador recently passed by here accompanied by a rather infamous apostate.”

“You can probably guess by the state of my shirt that you are not at all mistaken,” said Varric grumpily as he fingered the tear Cassandra had rent in the hem of his neckline.

Vivienne slipped her feet daintily out of a pair of silky silver slippers and tucked them up beside her on the chaise. “Well, I pray her work for the Inquisition will be more lucrative than whatever it is she was doing for the Libertarians.”

“I’m surprised you didn’t introduce yourself so you could say that to her face.”

“Inexcusably rude of me, I know, but since she was dressed like an adolescent vagabond it took me a moment to match your description of her to her actual appearance. I hope you do me so many favors when you chronicle the Inquisition’s endeavors.”

He assured Vivienne he’d portray her in only the very latest fashions and made his stage right exit. Well, this is going to be fun , he thought as he hurried on through the next corridor.

Hawke’s door had been marked with a red ribbon, which seemed like a nice gesture until you knew about Josephine’s special system. Ribbons were meant to indicate that rooms were habitable. Doors with little crosses drawn in white chalk hid rooms that had collapsed roofs and colonies of pigeons living in them. Some of those rooms didn’t have floors; a wrong step might have you sliding down the mountainside.

That just wasn’t the sort of thing Josephine wanted visitors to know.

Varric grabbed the handle with a mixture of concern and anticipation. Hawke was on the other side of that door. Just Hawke. All the bullshit and the bureaucracy and the duty could be left just outside. Varric mentally bundled up the Inquisition and set the imaginary parcel by the door before turning pushing it inward. He had barely closed it behind him when he found himself with a faceful of Hawke’s chest.

Being a dwarf has its perks.

Her strong arms made a deep V across his back as she pulled him into her. He could feel her breath on his scalp when she spoke.

“I thought you were dead, Vee. Twice .”

Her body radiated heat through her loose cotton tunic and her hair dripped onto his shoulders when she rested her head on his. She smelled like the Inquisition’s standard-issue sweetgrass soap as well. He made a mental note to acquire some of the lilac-scented stuff she used back home as he wrapped his arms around her waist.

“You said you had faith that second time.”

“I lied.”

“Such a pessimist.”

Her chest shook a little and he thought she was laughing until she abruptly broke away from him and crossed the room. She pretended to examine the chest of drawers by the bed with her back to him. She was not wearing pants, which was... distracting as she dragged a sleeve across her face.

Andraste , Hawke, are you--”

Varric had seen Hawke through a hundred different moments that would have broken most people but he had never seen her cry.

“I’m just really happy to see you, Varric. Don’t make this weird.” She dragged her hands through her hair and sat on the bed before turning her face back to him. Her eyes were glossy and red-rimmed as she took in the state of his shirt. Maybe she even caught the bruise that seemed to be blossoming on his left cheekbone. “Did you get mugged on your way here?”

“I thought I should come clean to the Seeker while you were getting situated. She was a little miffed at me for giving her the impression I had no idea where you were and no way of contacting you.”

“She hit you!?” Hawke’s overwrought indignation on his behalf was, frankly, adorable. She was back on her feet in a second. “I think it’s about time I met this Seeker .” She pronounced seeker like someone else might sling a particularly vile insult.

Elite Templar Eviscerated by Unarmed, Half-Naked Apostate ,” said Varric. “That headline certainly does have crowd-appeal.”

“Is this something she does often? Did she… torture you?”

“Do you really think I would have hung around?”

Her posture relaxed slightly. “Hey, if you’re into that sort of thing, I’m not one to judge.” That got a laugh out of him. “Why are you here, Vee?”

“I took us to that Warden tower. If what we did there freed Corypheus….”

She crossed her arms. “And I’m with you on that. We have a responsibility to take that bastard out for good but you were on board with this Inquisition business before you knew Corypheus was back. What made you stay after the Conclave was destroyed?”

Varric looked around the room, stalling. There was a copper tub, with a gentle haze of steam still rising out of it, in front of a cheerful little fire. There was a small but luxuriously clothed bed, a lacquered wardrobe and a fine writing desk that would probably see no use at all while Hawke was in residence. The floors had been covered with several thick carpets to keep the room warm against the mountain draft that would push in under the door and seep in through the little window in the back.

Why had he stayed? It had seemed like the right thing to do. “I guess I figured staying to help out is what you would have done, Hawke.”

“Don’t try to butter me up, dwarf.” Hawke was smiling. Varric closed the distance between them and put his hands on her hips.

“I can’t help it. I’m trying to get back to the part where you were really happy to see me.”

She loosened her arms and bent to place a tender peck on the scar on his nose. “Is it just me who’s happy? After all of that pie innuendo?”

“What innuendo? You mean you didn’t bring pie?”

Chapter Text

“Don’t you dare get up.”

“I just said, ‘if it’s important, they’ll leave a note.’ And, loathe as I am to admit it, that is definitely a note.” Varric slid his legs off the bed and crossed the room in the nude. Even the pleasant C-shaped curve of his ass couldn’t curb Hawke’s annoyance.

“The whole point of leaving notes is so that the notee can read them at their own convenience .” She grabbed the bundle of fabric that lay in a snake-like coil beside the bed and started to wrap it around her chest. “How did they even know you were in here?”

“Door’s locked. Lamp’s lit. Maybe the fact that it’s my room and I wasn’t in any of my usual places?”

Usual places. Ugh.

Life at Skyhold was about as close to living in a Circle tower as Hawke ever wanted to get. The former Circle mages crawling all over the place probably would have been scandalized by the comparison. After all, there were only a dozen or so templars around and everyone could come and go as they pleased. What did they know, anyway? They had gained a great deal of freedom, certainly, but they still had no privacy.

Nobody at Skyhold had any privacy.

If Hawke had occasionally been annoyed to find out that Varric had set Kevin to tailing her back in Kirkwall, it was nothing compared to being under the watchful gaze of literally everyone involved in the Inquisition. It took half a day before everyone knew the Champion of Kirkwall had arrived and by the second day, they all seemed to have her description and general schedule down.

She imagined how that conversation had panned out while she continued to get dressed:

 

Busybody 1: Do you know the Champion of Kirkwall is here?

Busybody 2: The infamous apostate?! Oh my! Have you seen her?

Busybody 1: Oh, yes. Slim woman. No tits to speak of. Bit of grey in her hair just there.

Busybody 6: That’s her? She runs the stairs in the morning. Up and down, going absolutely nowhere at all!

Busybody 12: And she fights with that Qunari bloke sometimes.

Busybody 33: I’ve seen her with the Grand Enchanter of an afternoon, as well.

Busybody 102: Didn’t she run off toward the tavern quite early today?

Busybody 314: She got lost in the Keep, you know. Probably drunk! I gave her directions back to the Great Hall.

Busybody 1059: Where do you suppose she’s gone off to, now?

Busybody 1: Well, it’s not yet supper so I imagine she’s off carrying on with that dwarf again.

 

Alright, so maybe nobody had actually figured out anything about Hawke and Varric. Half of them had read his stupid book and seemed certain that Hawke spent her nights crying into a mug of ale over Anders. The other half was apparently convinced she was screwing Iron Bull. Iron Bull was doing nothing to correct those people, either. He found the rumor terribly amusing.

She supposed it was better than everyone knowing the truth.

Wasn’t it?

Andraste ,” she swore as she flopped dramatically back onto the pillows.

“You seem a little agitated, Precious.” Varric looked up from the letter that had been slipped under the door-- because there’s no escape from the Inquisition . “This isn’t going to help that.”

Hawke sat back up immediately. “Is it about Stroud?”

“No, but I’m starting to get a little jealous of this Stroud guy. This is about Sebastian.”

“Oh.” She had had the Viscountess dream enough times that the first image that came to mind at his name was of him in chains, kneeling in front of her. “Is he alright?”

“You would still be concerned about a guy you had to chase out of town. He’s fine. He’s great. He’s laying siege to Kirkwall.”

Hawke’s stomach did a little flip. Didn’t that mean he couldn’t be delivered to her on a silver platter by a Starkhaven just begging to be annexed to the Champion-Viscount’s Kirkwall? So much for your grand vision, demon. Of course, it also meant that she had left Aveline in the middle of a damn war.

“Shit,” she said finally.

“Yeah.” Varric was watching her face closely.

She shook away that weird, deja vu feeling. “We’re helping, right? When do we leave?”

“There she is,” said Varric with a smirk. “I was starting to worry we’d lost hero-Hawke somewhere along the way.” He handed her the letter and started rooting around on the floor for his pants. “That’s from Curly. He’s sending over a Chevalier and a whole Inquisition battalion to support Aveline. They were already in Jader when he sent word to them, so Choir Boy will be out of Aveline’s hair in no time and we can keep our focus on your new boyfriend.”

For a man of few spoken words, Cullen could write a damned verbose letter. Hawke particularly liked the bit that said, The Inquisition cannot allow the political stability of the north to be threatened by petty squabbling, not in Andraste’s name and not in anyone else’s name . Good to see that the Commander’s promotion hadn’t made him forget where he had come from.

Hawke sighed again. “Cullen’s a good egg. I probably shouldn’t have put a knife to his throat.”

“What?!”

That look of genuine surprise on Varric’s face was such a rare treat, it actually seemed to cut a little sliver out of the mountain of tension Hawke was carrying around. She felt her face ease into a genuine smile as she leaned over to kiss him on his stubbly cheek.

“If this meeting is quite over, Messere Tethras, I’ll just be on my way.”

He replaced his surprise quickly with a squint and a thin smile. “You got a hot date I don’t know about?”

“Oh, yeah. You’re just the first course, Vee. The rest of my evening is just one long series of dicks.”

“Don’t stay out too late.”

“You want me to come back and tuck you in? I’m sure Lady Vivienne would love to make another poorly veiled comment about the hours I keep.”

*

If she was completely honest with herself, the panopticon that was Skyhold was only the most surface-level of her aggravations. Just beneath that was Commander Cullen and the constant reminder that he had upheld his end of a bargain that she had had no right to impress upon him. She owed him an apology and her gratitude and that debt was just another weight she didn’t need to keep carrying around.

The next layer of irritation was the Seeker. Varric had made Hawke promise that she would not start shit with Pentaghast but damned if she didn’t feel her temper flare up whenever she saw that perfectly angled jaw. Just a slap was all she wanted. Just one good, hard, open-handed smack to that haughty face and maybe, just maybe, Hawke could finally move on.

Of course, the Seeker would probably hit her back. If there was anyone in the Inquisition that Hawke would not be able to take in a fight, it was Cassandra Pentaghast. Fast as hell, obscenely strong, and virtually impenetrable to magic--she’d take Hawke down in a few heartbeats and then Hawke would have another reason to get all pissy every time their paths crossed.

No, in this case, Varric was right.

Ugh. Varric.

Maker-damned Varric was at the mushy, undercooked center of this whole, disgusting aggravation pastry.

Hmm. Pastry.

It didn’t help that she was hungry, as well. Servants were bringing out turrines of an orange-colored soup that smelled sweet and savory all at once. Hawke’s stomach rumbled as she passed quickly through the Great Hall. Cullen did not tend to dine with the rabble and that night appeared to be no exception.

Apologize to the Commander; that was the priority mission. That was the only one of her many tensions that she had the ability and opportunity to rid herself of at that particular moment.

She crossed over the courtyard to his office, rehearsing her words of atonement as she knocked on his door. It was opened much too quickly by a heavily armored Inquisition soldier with the arrogant look of an officer.

“The Commander has gone to speak to Lady Pentaghast,” she said. Naturally, she knew where he had gone. If he’d been off to the privy, she probably would have known that as well. And said so just as stiffly.

Even if you didn’t say to someone, This is where I’m going and This is what I’m doing , they always figured it out, anyway. There were people everywhere and they were all watching. Hawke passed by a number of little pockets of people who would, no doubt, mention that she had passed by to the next person wondering where the Champion might be.

She rounded the courtyard via the battlements and came down the stairs close to the smithy. Seeker Pentaghast could usually be found training in the yard there or reading nearby. Damn it! Now Hawke was benefiting from the bizarre publicity of everyone’s comings and goings as well!!

The door to the smithy was ajar and the Seeker’s crisp Nevarran accent could be heard through the crack.

“Give it a few days. The Inquisitor will be back soon, we’ll revisit it then.”

“Alright,” Cullen replied, sounding exasperated. “Fine.”

The door swung open and the Commander stormed out without even seeing Hawke. It seemed mission priority would have to be shuffled. So… hunger would probably be the next item on the agenda. She certainly needed to avoid a confrontation with--

“Champion?”

Shit .

“Seeker,” Hawke responded coldly. Don’t start shit with the Seeker. Don’t start shit with the Seeker. Don’t start shit with the Seeker. She rolled her shoulders back. “I was hoping to catch the Commander, but he seems a little preoccupied.”

“I… I’m glad you are here. I have something for you.”

It was a trap. Right? It felt like a trap. Hawke considered making a run for it. But what could the Seeker do to her there? And why? Hawke followed her through the smithy and up the stairs to an austere little bedroom loft. It was warm up there.

“I hope this is not another thing Varric lied about,” the Seeker said a bit nervously as she pulled a small box from her bookshelf and set it down on the table.

Hawke stared at the box, not entirely willing to let herself believe that what she was seeing was real. If it weren’t, the disappointment might just kill her. “Are those dates ?”

“Josephine received them from a Magister we assisted and I recalled that Varric’s book mentioned you were fond of them.”

Hawke rushed the rest of the way across the room and sat, shins first, on the chair closest to the box. She pulled off the lid gently, reverently and gazed inside. There were more than a dozen of them, their purplish amber skins gleaming with crystallized sugar, emitting an odor of pure sweetness. She swallowed back a sudden excess of saliva.

This is in Varric’s book, too?”

“Haven’t you read it?” The Seeker looked scandalized.

“Would you read a book about your crazy life?”

“If Varric wrote it--” She cut herself off. “I only mean that he’s a very good writer.”

She was blushing. It would have been unbelievable if it hadn’t happened directly in front of Hawke’s eyes. Did the Seeker have a thing for Varric? Hawke found that it didn’t particularly matter. What mattered was that this paragon of Chantry authority was not as impenetrable as she seemed. Whatever peculiar vulnerability the Seeker was revealing, in addition to the dates just waiting to be devoured, it was sweeter than any slap to the face could have been. Hawke took a date and popped it into her mouth.

Heaven .

“Mmm. You can’t have read Swords and Shields , then.”

“But I have!” she replied passionately. “All three of them!”

“There are three? He only gave me the first one.”

“The second one is the best. Would you like to borrow it?” In one swift movement, the Seeker reached into the shelf and pulled out the exact book she was talking about. She barely had to look for it. It hit the table with a solid thunk.

Hawke looked from her box of dates to the book, then back to the woman who had been inspiring such incredible ire and frustration in her for the past week. “You’re not what I expected, Seeker.”

“I could say the same about you.” The hint of a smile tugged at the corner of her mouth. “You may call me Cassandra. If you like.”

“Only if you promise to stop calling me Champion .”

“I… will try.” Cassandra looked at her bookshelf and tapped her fingers nervously against her hip. “Would you….” She inched out a massive tome that looked like it had lost a fight, the pages were uneven and there seemed to be a hole stabbed into it. She sighed and pushed it back into the shelf. “Have you eaten? Supper, I mean?”

They walked toward the keep together, Hawke with her arms full of dates and the second volume of Varric’s worst serial. Cassandra regaled her with the story of the encounter outside Jader that had given her the impressive scar on her jaw and had delayed them just long enough to avoid being killed in the explosion that had started this whole mess. Some runaway mages had seen their insignia and mistook them for mere templars. Hawke found herself feeling grateful for the mage rebellion for the first time.

Thankful for misinformed mages… who knew?

A boy with an absurd hat sat on the wall near the grand entrance to the keep. Hawke had seen that boy before, she was certain.

“This is Cole,” said Cassandra a little darkly. “He is…. I don’t wholly understand what he is.”

“I’m not a demon anymore,” said Cole.

“That’s a relief,” said Hawke with a grin. “I know your voice, don’t I? I heard you the day I came here.”

“So many little guilts and so many big ones. It’s hard to tell where to begin. I should have been faster, I should have known, I should have been there instead, I should have, I should have. But nobody is that fast.”

“Right. Varric warned me about you.”

He’ll dig into your head, but the kid means well ,” Cole approximated Varric’s gruff voice pretty well. “Sometimes when I pull at the tangle, the thread breaks. But your threads are strong.”

Was that a compliment? “You made me remember Bethany.”

He smiled serenely. “You like to remember Bethany. She wasn't just one moment at the end. The story was too short but it was a good story.”

“I’m sorry Cha-- Hawke ,” said Cassandra. “He understands a great deal, but I’m afraid discretion is a concept we have not been able to impress upon him.”

“I only want to help,” said Cole sincerely.

“Discretion is overrated.” Hawke smiled affably. The strange events of the evening had made her very affable. A couple pints and she might even get to friendly.

Who needs secrets, anyway? Everyone knows everything else. It’s alright to fall in love again. He’d say so too if you asked him.”

Hawke’s hands suddenly went clammy against the book in her hands and her face felt hot. Cassandra was looking at her like she had turned into a unicorn; eyes bright and as wide as saucers.

“I might have spoken too soon,” said Hawke. “Perhaps discretion is rated just highly enough.” Cole looked crestfallen. “Do you want to join us for supper? Are you hungry?”

“I don’t eat.”

Hawke glanced at Cassandra, who shrugged. When she looked back, Cole was gone.

“He does that. I’d say you’ll get used to it but….” Cassandra shrugged again.

The warm smell of that creamy squash soup had filled the Great Hall while Hawke had been out and about. Most of the Inquisition’s guests and many high ranking affiliates were gathered for a noisy, homey sort of meal. Iron Bull had taken a seat at the head of one table--it may have been the only chair he could actually fit in--and was having a raucous conversation with Krem on one side of him and Warden Blackwall on the other. Varric was close by, playing what appeared to be a very serious game of cards with Solas, of all people, while Sera observed.

When Bull saw Hawke and Cassandra walking up he stood to his full, massive height and opened his arms. “My Champion has finally arrived,” he announced warmly. Hawke was very aware of a group of tittering Chantry sisters to her left as approached him. “I saved you a seat!” He produced a small chair from somewhere behind him and shoved it into the corner between himself and Krem.

Hawke rolled her eyes but smiled as she took the offered spot. There was just barely room for her ass, even when Krem slid his own chair over to make a little more space. Iron Bull winked at the chattering Chantry sisters as he rested his arm over the back of Hawke’s chair.

“Eat up, Blue,” he said more quietly as Hawke started pulling apart a loaf of bread. “I’m going to kick your ass tomorrow morning.”

“We’ll see,” said Hawke with her mouth full.

A few seats down, Solas laid down his cards. “And you win. Are you satisfied now?”

“No! I should have trounced you. When did you get the Song of Autumn? That should have been--”

“Is deception not the point of the game?” Solas gave Varric a devious smile.

“Hey, loser,” Hawke called over, “pass the butter.”

Varric looked over with exasperation that vanished immediately into a token Varric smirk. “Your evening agenda seems to have gotten completed pretty quickly.” He handed the butter to Blackwall, who handed it to Hawke.

“I got hungry." She shrugged. "I guess I’m not as young as I used to be.”

“None of us are, Precious.”

It’s alright to fall in love again. He’d say so too if you asked him.

Damn it, Cole.

Chapter Text

Like something out of the Chant of Light, the clouds parted and the sun broke through. It shone down on a brown, soggy mess that smelled like wet wool and decay but it was shining nonetheless. Whether closing the rift in the lake had ended the deluge or whether it had just been divine circumstance, they would never know. And it didn’t really matter. From their vantage point over the village, Varric could already see the people of Crestwood venturing out of their homes for what was probably the first time in weeks. The relief in the air was tangible.

Would history even remember how this tiny village had been saved by the timely intervention of the Inquisition? In the grand scheme of things, it had probably been an insignificant blip; a footnote in the Adventures of Inquisitor Lavellan. They’d remember how he took Caer Bronach, certainly. That would have far more impact on the Inquisition’s influence throughout northern Ferelden and had taken half as much time as crawling through the flooded caves.

It would make a good story, though. Those people down there would be telling it to their grandkids someday. If Varric ever got another chance to sit at a desk long enough to write a paragraph, he might add it to the pile of weird, unbelievable shit Seth had been through and send the whole lot off to his publisher.

A woman waved to a neighbor gleefully as she hung dingy linens up on a clothesline. A boy and his dog ran rambunctious circles in the muddy street. Varric felt the corners of his mouth turning up involuntarily.

He really was turning into Hawke.

Blackwall walked into view, interrupting the cheerful panorama with a grim expression as he looked out over the hills. “They’ll have a poor crop after all that rain.”

The relief in the air was a little less tangible.

The Hero observed gloomily,” said Varric. Someone snorted a laugh behind him. He thought it was more likely to have been Seth than Solas.

“I only mean--”

“I think the lack of rotting corpses rising out of their primary water source to attack them will make a bad crop easier to weather, don’t you?”

He relaxed his face into something slightly less dour. “I suppose it will, at that.”

The Warden was something of an enigma to Varric. He alternated between solemnity and silliness without warning so that it was hard to tell when he was being serious sometimes. He was variably forthright and evasive. He had reminded Varric of Sebastian, at first, because he was so damned helpful. He went running around looking for nice things to do. He helped thatch roofs and fetched water, he opened overly tight jars and lifted heavy objects. He gave sweets to children. He was so… nice.

And, like Sebastian, Varric had an instinctual suspicion that all that niceness was meant to compensate for something. Hopefully, Blackwall was compensating for something more interesting than simply being a hypocritical, revenge-hungry ass.

“It’ll be a slim winter, but they should survive well enough.” Seth came up between them, awkwardly holding a still-dripping sack away from his body to keep from getting blood on his trousers. They were all filthy, anyway, after rooting around in those stinking caves for Maker knew how long. Blood from a fresh Arcane Horror heart would have been one mess too far, apparently. “We’ll have extra provisions for the village sent to Caer Bronach, just in case. I’m sure Josephine will see the value.”

“I’m sure you’re right,” said Blackwall. “She’s a good woman, Josephine.”

Something about the clipped way Blackwall voiced that last sentence struck Varric. He looked up at the other man and caught him gazing into the distance with the ghost of a smile on his face.

“Oh, is she now?” said Varric suggestively.

Blackwall immediately had his guard back up. “Yes,” he grumbled. “A damn fine woman. I should think that much was obvious.”

Here was an opportunity. You can tell a lot about a man from what attracts him.

“And what would you say is finer,” Varric pressed on, “her fine bright eyes or her finely tucked waist?” He made an hourglass shape in the air with his hands.”

“It would not be appropriate to remark upon…”

“Come on now, Hero. You can relax the chivalry for a moment. We’re all brothers at arms here, after all, and I happen to know for certain that Grey Wardens don’t take any vows of chastity.” Considering Anders and Carver, it might be that Grey Wardens took a vow to avoid being chaste. “Besides, I’m sure Seth would like to know.”

One very amusing thing that had come to light as Seth had opened up to his companions was that he was an incorrigible hoarder of gossip. He wasn’t one to spread another person’s private information but he collected that private information with disturbing enthusiasm.

He was watching Blackwall squirm with a big grin on his face. “Oh, I would .”

Blackwall sputtered. “You’re not even interested in women!”

“That doesn’t mean I don’t see them.” He forgot his sack for just a moment and it hit his leg with a squelch. He looked down at the stain with a sigh, then shrugged. “Ah, well. Anyway, I happen to be a romantic.”

“I believe the Orlesians would call what you are a voyeur, Stinger.”

“Stinger?” Seth gave up the idea of not being covered in demon blood completely, swinging the sack over his shoulder. Solas deftly stepped out of the way of the droplets that flew out of it. “Is that my nickname?” He used his free hand to count with his fingers. “We saved a village from the undead, the sun is shining, Dorian’s coming up to meet us, Blackwall has a crush on Josephine, and I’ve finally earned a Varric Tethras Nickname. This might be the best day of my life.”

“I don’t have a crush,” said Blackwall much too defensively. “Maker’s balls, you make me sound like a horny teenager.”

“You can’t escape this, Hero. We need more information. Just what is it about our charming ambassador that makes that gruff, masculine heart of yours beat faster? Is it just a physical thing?”

Blackwall combed his hands nervously through his hair. “It’s not like that…. Not that she isn’t…. Maker .”

“Is it her accent?” Seth chimed in helpfully. “Accents get me every time.”

Solas had apparently had enough of their henpecking. He let out a long-suffering groan.

Of course, Solas’ discomfort meant very little to Varric. “You’re not off the hook, either, Chuckles.” He could always come back to Blackwall later. “I heard a particularly juicy rumor about a particular elven mage who has been particularly interested in your adventures in the Fade.”

Solas had a less entertaining reaction than Blackwall. He rolled his eyes imperiously. “Purely academic,” he replied. “Neria’s curiosity is natural, given the restrictive nature of Circle instruction.”

“And she’s pretty, so I hear.”

“And yet,” Solas shot Varric a withering glare, “I am not about to name my favorite staff after her.”

Seth laughed boisterously and clapped Varric on the back. “This is what we would call Mythal’s justice back home. Your meddling will always come back to haunt you, Varric.”

“Laugh it up, Stinger, but that meddling got you laid.”

“A fine point, ser. Since we’re all brothers at arms here,” Seth smirked down at him, “you should tell us all about Bianca so that I can return that favor.”

Blackwall made a noise that was a cross between a laugh and a grunt. “You buy that Bianca nonsense?” he said to Seth. “I thought it was all a bit of a joke to cover up his romping with the Champion.”

Varric took a leaf from Solas’ handbook and rolled his eyes at Blackwall even as he increased his pace to put his back to the others. “Alright, girls, I’ve learned my lesson….”

“Varric and Hawke?” Seth sounded skeptical. Varric did not look back to see what his face was doing. “I hadn’t even considered it. Would that work? Logistically speaking?”

There was suddenly something large and pointy stuck in Varric’s throat. He swallowed and kept his eyes forward. “I take back what I said about you coming out of your shell, Inquisitor. You can crawl back into it anytime, now.”

Blackwall was laughing. “Yes, Seth. That would work.”

“I might need a diagram.”

“Have Dorian draw you one,” Solas said helpfully. “He’s been getting a lot of practice making them for Cole.”

“Anyway,” Seth went on doggedly, “after discussing Varric’s crossbow with our Master Artificer, I am more certain than ever that Bianca is named after a real, flesh-and-blood woman.”

Varric groaned and looked back. “Three Eyes? I don’t even know why we brought on that humorless charlatan. I could have shown you how to make traps and snares.”

“And now you’re trying to change the subject.” He flashed a triumphant smile. “I think the truth is clear.”

“I told you. That is the one story I’ll never tell.”

They had come to the village by then and the people were gathering in clumps to cautiously peer at their savior. A small party in gleaming Inquisition gear had also arrived at the gate.

“I don’t need the whole story,” said Seth after freeing his hand from an elderly man with tears in his eyes. “I just need to know if you’re available. It may or may not have anything to do with the very lovable scout approaching us at this very moment.”

Oh, no.

“There’s a match,” said Blackwall. “Good sense of humor on that one.”

“Charming freckles,” said Solas.

“Solas!” Seth gasped.

They all turned shocked faces to the other elf and then swiveled their heads back forward as the scout in question hailed them.

“Inquisitor!”

“Scout Harding, lovely to see you,” Seth said with dubious nonchalance. “Weather’s made a grand turn, don’t you think?”

She did not seem to notice anything out of the ordinary. “If you’re here to talk to the mayor, I’m afraid we just saw him rushing out of town like a bat out of hell. Any idea what that might be about?”

“None at all. I thought he’d be pleased to learn that the rift beneath the lake has been closed.”

“Charter’s people are watching him but I was going to check his house for any sign of what’s going on.”

Lace Harding. Really, Seth? Because she’s the only female dwarf you know, no doubt. Not that she wasn’t cute, he supposed now that he was looking. Shit. Don’t check out Lace Harding.

“We’ll take a look,” said Seth.

She shook her head. “You’ll want to head over to Caer Bronach. The Seeker arrived yesterday with Dorian and Sera and I sent Hawke there early this afternoon. I think she’s found who she was looking for.”

“Thanks, Lace.”

“That’s what I do.” She caught Varric looking. “Tethras.”

“Harding.”

Seth grinned like an idiot.

*

Chain lightning was snapping and flashing wildly within the walls of the keep when they neared it. The air was thick with the smell of it. Yet, the sun was still beating down on the sodden countryside.

When Charter saw them coming in, she rushed over.

“Inquisitor, if you’ll pardon me,” she said a little frantically, “can you please, please do something about these mages?” Another bolt crashed out of the sky and her eye visibly twitched. “Please.”

When they had taken Caer Bronach, the courtyard had been overgrown with a number of sad looking trees that had been cut down right away to make space and feed fires. Now, as Seth’s party entered, the courtyard was full of smoking black stumps. Dorian and Hawke were using them for target practice.

“Just try it again. You must sense the ambient energy flow when I use it.”

“I sense it just fine,” said Hawke grumpily. “Do you think I simply choose not to access it?”

Wrex bounded over to Varric and ran circles around him. “Yeah, yeah,” said Varric, “good to see you, too.”

“Oh, hello.” Dorian leaned into his hip and watched the others approach. “Fancy meeting you all here. Perhaps one of you can talk some sense into this very talented madwoman.”

“Would you like to know what happened to the last guy who bitched this much about my auric energy consumption?”

Varric barked a laugh at that. “Didn’t you sleep with that guy, Precious?”

“I wasn’t talking about Anders, you massive tool.” She shot daggers at him with her eyes before turning back to Dorian. “Although, it turns out that self-righteous bastard didn’t have great judgment either. The mages in Cumberland were not exactly thrilled by my casting method and made me well aware. I would have thought it would be quite common in Tevinter.”

“It’s terribly common,” said Dorian, pausing for effect, “in people who burn out by the age of fifteen.”

“But the Champion has not burned out,” said Solas, suddenly reminding them all he was still there. He crossed over to a nearby stump and kicked it lightly. It crumbled into charcoal dust. “It seems a perfectly valid technique so long as one works methodically.”

“Let me introduce you to my friend, Hawke, Chuckles,” said Varric. “She’s not exactly a methodical woman.”

“Isn’t she?” He put on that professorial stance he was so fond of, with his hands clasped behind his back and his head slightly cocked. “I have seen her alternate magical attacks and physical attacks with great skill. The physical energy she is able to maintain thanks to her cultivated physique augments her auric energy so that it is not depleted even during a lengthy battle. This may seem crude to a classically trained mage but there is undeniably a method to it.”

Varric looked Hawke over. She was in full gear but he knew exactly what she looked like underneath all of that. Cultivated physique was a cute way of putting it.

“You’re fired, Vee. Solas is my new best friend.”

“And what of demons?” Dorian went on. “Certainly you recall them . You can’t deny that a mage who relies on auric energy is making a target of herself.”

Solas let out a weary sigh. “The fear of possession is a self-fulfilling prophecy that your Chantry is all too eager to propagate. A sufficiently self-possessed person has nothing to fear from demonic possession.”

“Is that all one needs? We must alert the Chantry at once. Circles are no longer necessary. We’ll just send everyone who presents with magical ability a mirror and a list of personal affirmations.”

Seth put a hand on Dorian’s arm and looked at Hawke. “Scout Harding tells me you’ve found your Warden. Does he know there are other Wardens here? Looking for him?”

“He knows. They’re calling him a traitor.” She shook her head and crossed her arms awkwardly under the point of her breastplate. “I hope you’re ready for this, Inquisitor. He wouldn’t tell me everything that’s going on but I have a feeling it’s worse than we anticipated.”

“Ominous,” said Varric.

“Extremely fucking ominous,” Hawke agreed.

*

Hawke led Varric, Seth, Cassandra, and Dorian up into the hills and past an outcropping of red lyrium. It was just growing out of the ground. That prompted a very depressing conversation of how to destroy the stuff that didn’t get very far in finding a solution. Shortly after that, they entered a twisting cave because they hadn’t had quite enough of caves.

Stroud greeted them with his sword drawn.

Cassandra was quick to break out her own sword and shield and Dorian had a barrier cast on the lot of them before Varric even considered arming Bianca . Seth could easily have disappeared into a cloud of smoke and reappeared with his dagger in the Warden’s back. Varric had seen him do it a hundred times. Instead, he held his hands open to show that he was not a threat and looked to Hawke, who introduced them as though her friend had not pulled a weapon on one of the most powerful men in Thedas.

Stroud sheathed his sword and the pleasantries began. Meanwhile Hawke ferreted through a pile of sacks as though she owned the place. She pulled out a pair of apples, flashing one at Varric. He nodded, then caught it with a satisfying thwack. When their attention returned to the conversation, Stroud was frowning.

“Then, every Warden in Orlais began to hear the Calling.”

Hawke swallowed an apple chunk in a hurry. “What, all of them?”

“The Calling?” Seth looked back and forth between them. “Hawke mentioned it before. Is it some kind of Grey Warden ritual?”

“It’s something all Wardens hear eventually,” said Hawke. Stroud scowled at her and she shrugged. “I haven’t taken any oaths.” She turned to Seth. “They aren’t immune to the Blight at all, it just gets slowed down. When it begins to overtake them, they hear a kind of music--constantly. It’s their signal that it’s time to go into the Deep Roads and kill as many darkspawn as they can before the Blight kills them. That’s it, roughly, isn’t it?”

Stroud sighed. “It is one of our most closely guarded secrets.”

“Only one of about seven hundred,” said Hawke bitterly. “Carver was hearing it.”

“He should not have told you.”

“He’s my brother, he didn’t have to fucking tell me.” She took another bite of her apple. “As for your blighted secrets, I got those from Anders. Good luck bringing him to task for it.”

“It’s a sign that they’re dying?” said Seth. “All the Grey Wardens in Orlais are dying?”

“They believe so,” said Stroud carefully.

“Impossible. Carver must have told your leadership that Corypheus can mimic it.” Hawke seemed to realize something. “This is more widespread than you’re telling us, isn’t it? Carver suspected something like this back when we were all in Kirkwall.”

Stroud crossed the cavern to a table covered in maps. “Hawke-- Carver --and I had differing suspicions but it turns out we were both correct. Corypheus is manipulating the Calling and he has used it to infiltrate the Wardens at the highest levels. Warden Commander Clarel is planning to use blood magic to empower what she believes will be our final battle against the darkspawn.”

“Has she gone mad!?” Cassandra exclaimed.

“She’s desperate,” said Seth quietly.

“There is no way for us to know this Calling is false. It feels real. All that we know for certain is that without Grey Wardens, the next Blight will destroy the entire world.”

“Then you hear it as well?”

“Yes.”

“Alright.” Seth took a deep breath in and let it out. “What is our next step? How do we stop this?”

“Wardens are gathering here, in the Western Approach. I must follow them immediately. I must try again to talk them out of this madness.”

They gathered around the map. Hawke brushed her fingers gently over a black slash labeled ‘Abyssal Reach’ while Stroud indicated the location of the Tevinter ruin where they would find the Grey Wardens.

“I’ll go with you.” Hawke volunteered because of course she did.

Chapter Text

“You don’t want power,” says the demon wearing my father’s face.

“Did it really take you this long to figure that out? I thought demons were supposed to be able to see into our thoughts.”

He cocks his head to the side in a way that Father never would have. “Thoughts shape us. The thoughts of those who brought me to you compelled me to tempt you. They wanted power.”

“A lot of people do.”

“Not Little Hawke.” Little Hawke. I hate that. I feel a pang of nausea every time he says that. He keeps saying it. “Little Hawke could have been Viscount. Little Hawke could have been Duchess. Little Hawke could have been Inquisitor.”

Each of the titles sends shudders down my spine with increasing force. “No. I know my place.”

“You know your duty.” He says it with significance and I wonder….

“Is that what you are? A spirit of Duty?” I’ve never heard of such a thing, but what I have heard about spirits could barely fill a broadsheet. He isn’t like any demon I’ve encountered but he isn’t like spirits I’ve encountered, either. He isn’t like Justice. Or Cole.

“Perhaps.” He stares into the roiling mists of the Fade. Maybe he’s a little like Cole.

Or maybe my acceptance of Cole as a spirit is changing my idea of what a spirit is. That idea would then change what the Father-Demon is. If they are shaped by thoughts, then does it matter what it is? It will be whatever I believe it to be. “This is all very confusing.”

“We don’t know confusing. We do not get confused. We simply… are.” He is still looking away from me. “Someone is coming.”

There is a shadow in the hazy green atmosphere of the Fade. I brace myself, as much as one can in that place, for another demon. One less accommodating than the creature I’ve already accepted as Duty.

The shadow becomes oddly solid, then oddly bright. It is tall, broad, and pale. It’s wearing light colored robes. It has blond hair. It has a face that I know, though I knew it when he was young. He was bright eyed and small, then. He’s all grown up now.

“Hawke?”

“Feynriel. Am I dreaming you or…?”

He looks around. “You’re lucid. Good.” He looks at my father, at Duty , and looks back at me. “You shouldn’t let them get attached to you like this.”

Like I had gone out shopping for pet demons.

“I see your training is going well. How are they treating you?”

He smiles shyly. “You ask me that every time.”

Every time? There’s a tickle of a memory there. Flashes. A dragon?

“Don’t try too hard to remember. Especially here. And with that.” He glances at Duty.

“Tevinter has never struck me as an easy place to live. I just want to know that you’re alright.”

“I am fine,” he says as though that’s the end of the story. “ You are in danger.”

“I’m always in danger, kid,” I say. Kid. It sounds more like Varric than like me. I shake my head. “Just tell me whether or not I need to come get you out of there.”

He rolls his eyes. “Being a Dreamer gives me an edge here. I’m treated better than others of the praeteri but you’re right, it isn’t an easy place to live. Satisfied? I don’t know how much time I have so, please, just--just get away from Adamant.”

“I’m not here on vacation.”

“I know. I’ve been… observing the Venatori.” He seems startled by something. He looks around shiftily like we’re in a Kirkwall alley and not in the Fade.

“What is it?"

“The Veil is very thin where you are. It made it easier for me to find you. It’ll be easy for me to be followed, too.”

“Little Hawke has a duty--”

“Don’t listen to that thing, Hawke. Forget about the witch. Get out of there. There’s something there that I don’t understand.”

The abyss. It’s miles and miles away but suddenly it’s there beside us, the great yawning chasm. The black crack in the world. It’s close enough to fall into. To jump into.

Someone gives you a chance to save the world, Precious, and you’ll run right off whatever cliff they point you to.

There’s a cold tingle where Feynriel grasps my arm.

“Stay away from Adamant, Hawke,” he hisses.

“Champion.”

Hawke woke to someone gently but persistently shaking her by the shoulder. It was one of the Inquisition scouts with her face partially obscured by her standard-issue green woolen hood. She looked startled to find that she had actually roused Hawke.

“Oh! I--I’m sorry, Champion.” She stepped back as though Hawke might attack. “Only, the Commander’s arrived and he was askin’ after you and my friend Charlie’s got this bed for the day shift and he’s just come back from patrol and he said--”

Hawke pushed herself stiffly into a seated position, raising a hand to stop the scouts prattling. “It’s alright. I’ll see what the Commander wants. You go tell Charlie his bed is free.”

“Thank you, M’Lady,” said the scout with a sharp bow. “Thank you.”

The Inquisitor had left Griffon Wing Keep with just enough soldiers to keep it from being taken back by the Venatori but suddenly it was teeming with activity. It was a testament to how deeply--if not soundly--Hawke slept that she had not been awakened earlier by the ruckus of soldiers and smiths that had seemed to have appeared out of nowhere sometime that morning. Hammers were ringing against anvils and swords were clanging against shields. There was even someone playing a shawm somewhere. That was going to get annoying fast.

She found Stroud first. He was picking apart a cheese sandwich and watching the soldiers run through their drills. He acknowledged her with a nod.

“It is good you have friends in such high places, Arista,” he said as she approached him. They had settled on him calling her by first name when differentiating between the two Hawkes had gotten confusing but it was still weird. “I only hope we will be able to spare as many of my compatriots as possible when we take Adamant.”

“You’re feeling optimistic,” Hawke observed.

“For the first time in months,” Stroud agreed. “The Inquisition is strong. I am beginning to believe they have Andraste on their side, after all.” He took a bite from his sandwich.

“I heard the Commander was looking for me.”

Stroud nodded. “He’s just outside the walls. With the siege machines. I already told him that we had no luck tracking the Magister.”

Erimond. A slimy weasel who made other slimy weasels look like Chantry sisters. Hawke and Stroud had been combing the desert for him, getting nothing out of it but sand on every unmentionable surface of their bodies.

“Wait--siege machines?”

Stroud nodded again, this time with a boyish grin. No wonder he was feeling optimistic.

Hawke could see them as soon as she crossed the gated threshold of the Keep, a number of massive trebuchets placed at a distance from one another so that they could not be destroyed with a single explosion if there was an attack before they moved on Adamant Fortress. Not far from the gate was a truly massive battering ram, carried on half a dozen oxcarts all chained together. The fist of the ram was shaped, literally, into a fist that clasped a crescent of wicked looking spikes. Stacks of ladders were being laid out in the sand.

Cullen stood at a makeshift table beside a woman in full, formal Orlesian garb and surrounded by carefully listening soldiers. As she neared them, Hawke could hear the Orlesian giving a lecture, using a model trebuchet on the table to demonstrate.

“Ziss, here, is ze most delicate part of ze mechanism. He regulates tension, yes?”

Cullen turned around at the sound of Hawke’s boots grinding against the sand. He broke away from the group immediately and crossed to where she stood.

“Champion,” he said formally.

“Commander.” They were still maneuvering inexpertly around the palpable awkwardness between them.

“I’ve brought a message for you from the Inquisitor, as well as this.” He held out a small bundle of letters. The top was addressed, in a familiar scrawl, to Arista Marian Hawke . “I thought you would want that right away.

“That’s from my brother,” said Hawke, taking the bundle gratefully. “ Andraste . Thank you, Cullen. This was really… not something you should have done for someone who held a knife to your throat in an alley not all that long ago.” She rather hoped that would be close enough to an apology, that it might cut through some of the tension.

He rubbed the back of his neck. “I have a sister I don’t write often enough, too. Don’t read too much into it, I had to be here anyway.”

Over at the table, the masked instructor had finished her demonstration and was bundling up her papers into a leather folio.

Cullen sighed deeply. “And now I must leave for Val Royeaux.”

“You’re not staying to command the siege?”

“Rylen can handle the preparations until we come back.” He glanced at her and caught the confusion still on her face. “The Inquisitor has requested that all of his advisors and close associates attend the Empress’ Grand Ball. You… weren’t asked?”

Right. The Grand Ball. Hawke had received a letter from Cyril begging her to be his plus-one the event, provided she had not yet ‘plighted her troth to the honored author.’

“Not by Seth,” she said darkly. Cullen raised an eyebrow. “I have an old friend in the Orlesian court. The Duke de Montfort.”

“De Montfort? Isn’t he on the Council of Heralds?”

Was he on the Council of Heralds? What was a Council of Heralds? “Maybe?”

“If you could garner his support for the Inquisition--” Cullen stopped himself from falling back into Inquisition Leadership Mode. “I’m sorry. That is--”

“I’ll see what I can do.” The Orlesian was coming toward them, fanning herself pointlessly with her folio. “Safe travels, Commander.”

Beneath the letter from Carver was the message from Seth, followed by one--intriguingly--from Bodahn Feddic, and another from Varric. She didn’t think she’d even need to open the last one. It would be the usual: don’t get killed followed by a charming bit of innuendo that she would struggle to respond to in kind without revealing that her feelings-- ugh --in that regard had become oppressively complicated.

Deal with that one last , she commanded herself as she tore open the letter from her brother.

Riss,

Sorry I didn’t write earlier. Hopefully, Aveline let you know we made it back. Isabela ran off again but Fenris has stuck around. There’s a group of escaped slaves here now and he’s become a sort of leader to them.

Stroud sent a message filling me in on what’s been going on. I can’t believe it. I don’t want to believe it. Clarel is a mage--how could she think this is a good idea? Part of me wishes I could be there to help you beat some sense into her. But it’s been good. Being here.

Mostly, things have been quiet. There was some trouble with that guy from Starkhaven. Merrill and Aveline were both really pissed about that. You really used to hang out with that guy? Anyway, your Inquisition friends and Aveline’s guards made short work of the Starkhaven forces and we all went back to gardening and building and stuff.

I’ve been staying at the house. I guess I thought you’d like to know that. It’s like Mom’s all over this place. Sometimes it’s really

Alright, so, I have a reason for writing but it seems really stupid writing it down now. Maybe it’s everything that’s happening right now or maybe it’s being here, around all of Mom’s stuff, but I’ve just been thinking about this a lot. I think Merrill and I could get married. I mean, I think we should. I’m going to ask her. That probably sounds crazy. Being a warden doesn’t make me very good husband material. We probably couldn’t have the family she wants and there’s the whole Calling thing. But I love her. And having someone to come home to has made these past few years more bearable. And maybe I just want to make a commitment to something for a better reason than that I’ll die if I don’t. And I think it would have made Mom really happy.

I’m not asking your permission or anything dumb like that. I just wanted to tell you. We’re all we have left, right? We’ll wait for you and Varric to come back to have the ceremony. If she says yes. Shit. You think she’ll say yes, right?

Anyway. Riss. Take care of yourself. And take care of Stroud--he’s gotten me through a lot of shit that should have killed me.

Love,

Carver

*

This was a mistake.

It was impossible to miss 15 Chemin du Feu. It took up an entire city block. Steam floated out of several chimneys and smoke pumped out of several more. There was a clock over the huge doors to the place. Its mechanism was spread out across the walls, open to the air. Passersby stopped frequently to watch as the gears made their rhythmic turns. The cacophony coming from inside was indescribable.

Davri Dwarven Machineworks. The name was emblazoned in a twisting wrought iron trellis.

This was a mistake.

“Bonjour, Madame.” Hawke was greeted at the door by an elf dressed in luxurious, dark velvet. He was clearly meant to be a comforting liaison for the absurdly wealthy patrons of the place. When they established that she was not Orlesian, he changed languages effortlessly. “Is there anything I can do to assist you? I’m afraid we have concluded the public tours for the day.”

“I was hoping to speak to the lady of the house, actually,” Hawke said a little cheekily.

“Pardon?”

“Bianca Davri. I was hoping to see her.”

The elf blinked at least seven times. “Master Davri is an extraordinarily busy woman. I cannot just summon her for some... rustre off the street!”

“Just tell her it’s Hawke. She’ll want to see me.” Out of curiosity at the very least.

Faucon? ” He blinked some more.

Hawke . It’s my name. She’ll know it.”

He shook his head. “ Non . No, my lady. You see, I have not even met Master Davri. I do not even know if she is here!”

“Then go and find someone who knows,” said Hawke sternly. The elf looked at her like she was asking him to walk through fire. “I’ll wait there.”

There was a room just off the entrance full of plush chairs and a table laid out with fruit and frilly cakes; a waiting area for Bianca’s poshest customers, though it was empty at the moment. Just past a decorative barrier, and two stories down, the factory floor was laid out. It was in constant motion. Constant production. Workers moved in prescribed paths through the maze of forges and presses and apparati that Hawke couldn’t begin to understand.

She didn’t have to wait long.

“Well, fuck my Ancestors.”

Hawke wouldn’t have called it a familiar voice, necessarily, but it certainly called up memories. Her face was exactly as Hawke remembered it, too; heart-shaped and perfect, with dark eyes and plump lips. Her blond hair was done up in an elaborate braid that wrapped around her head and she wore dangling earrings of twisted silver wire. Her clothes were simple but well made, clearly designed to flaunt the dramatic difference between the circumference of her waist and that of her hips.

“So it is you,” she went on haughtily. “ The Champion of Kirkwall .”

This was a mistake.

“Bianca.” Hawke acknowledged her with a polite bow of the head. She gestured toward the factory floor. “This is… incredible.”

“Impressive, right? There’s not another facility like this in all of Thedas.” She looked down with adoration. “You could probably cross the Amaranthine Ocean and never see anything like this. But you didn’t come here to see my workshop.”

Despite being two feet shorter than Hawke, Bianca seemed to have a remarkable ability to look down her nose at her. Don’t pussy out now, Hawke.

“Actually, in a way I did,” said Hawke, looking back through the barrier. “I wanted to see for myself what you chose over Varric.”

“Sweetheart, I didn’t choose anything over Varric.” She smiled deviously. “I chose to have everything.” She crossed over to the table and poured two glasses of amber liquid out of a bright blue ceramic pitcher. “Oh, I suppose I chose this over marrying him,” she conceded as she held out a glass to Hawke.

“Have you always been this cold?” Bitchy was the word that first came to mind but cold seemed less confrontational.

Bianca’s smile thinned. She took her time considering the question. “I don’t expect you to understand anything about being a dwarf.” She took a sip and looked out toward the factory. “We don’t all get born into the Merchants’ Guild with an estate in the nice part of town and a name that we can throw around if we get into trouble. Because of the decisions I made, my sisters didn’t have to make a living building shrapnel mines for the coterie or running around trying to get knocked up by someone better than us.” She turned back to face Hawke. “If those decisions made me cold , I think it was worth it.”

Hawke dropped her gaze into her glass. Fuck . If that was what all this was about… then it had been worth it. Hadn’t it? Hawke had made some cold, questionable decisions, herself--all in the name of raising up and protecting her family. She might have done the same thing in Bianca’s shoes.

Wait. No.

The problem here wasn’t that Bianca had made the decision to marry for the status of her family. The problem was that she had married for the status of her family and still felt entitled to keep Varric chained along. She had said it herself: she chose to have everything.

“Why didn’t you just let him go?” said Hawke with more emotion than she intended.

That smile was back, if less devious than before. “Because I love him, of course.” She downed the rest of her glass and set it on the table. “And he loves me. We’re soul mates. We’ll never truly be parted. You must have realized that, or you wouldn’t be here.”

“I know he loves you.”

 

The kind of love that gets people in trouble. That kind of love that makes it seem like the world is ending. It tears you apart and sews you back together. That awful pain that you keep seeking out because it feels like the only salve for the pain of being apart….

 

“Good.” Bianca took Hawke’s glass and placed it on the table next to her own, then walked over to show her the door. “Enjoy your moment, Champion. I know Varric can be a lot of fun.”

This was a mistake.

Hawke wandered back to her inn, The Lion’s Leisure , in a haze. What had she expected to accomplish from this little excursion, anyway? Had she really thought she could make Bianca choose once and for all between Varric and her husband when Varric hadn’t been able to do it in over a decade?? And what had she actually accomplished? All she had done was reestablish the fact that Varric was too good for that stuck up, self-centered….

Ugh .

As she swept through the common room, the innkeeper called out to her.

“Oh, Madame Hawke! My lady! This came for you from the imperial palace,” she announced breathlessly as she handed over a thick pink envelope.

Our Esteemed Champion,

In recognition of your great service to the city of Kirkwall, and in acknowledgement of your patronage to my dear friend Sandal Feddic, We would like to personally invite you to Our Grande Fete at the Winter Palace.

Her Imperial Majesty,

Celene Valmont I

Chapter Text

The drinks were weak and sweet. The ham tasted like despair. The music was boring. The people all looked the same. All the wanton murder of innocent elven servants was really bringing down the mood.

The Empress just didn’t throw Varric’s kind of party.

It seemed he would be spending most of the night being buffeted around by large, floofy skirts and drinking as quickly as possibly while fielding elaborate praise from people who were not supposed to have read his work.

Sales in Orlais aren’t great, my ass . His publisher was going to be receiving a very sternly worded letter. Some of those stern words might be Fraud and Embezzlement .

Of course, the evening had started up with a pervasive dread that at any moment he might round a corner and crash into Bianca. This was her prime clientele, after all. At least he had been able to determine fairly early in the evening that Orlais’ premier dwarven engineer was not in attendance. In her place, an exquisitely beautiful and complicated water clock had been erected in the garden with a brief letter posted beside it:

Your Imperial Radiance,

It is with great sorrow that I must decline Your Majesty’s generous invitation to attend the Grande Fete. It would have been an incredible honor to represent the Smith Caste before the venerable nobility of Thedas. Please accept this modest gift as my deepest apology.

Yours, sincerely,

Bianca Davri; Davri Dwarven Machineworks

 

Previous to that discovery, Varric had spent too much effort ducking away from every face that met him at eye level. Now he only had to avoid being run over by over-perfumed aristocrats whose masks kept them from properly seeing anything beneath their own noses. What a relief.

“Having fun yet?” Dorian took two glasses from an elven servant’s tray and handed one to Varric. They each downed the drinks in single gulps.

“Why am I here, again?”

“Because Seth wants you here and he’s very difficult to say no to.”

“That’s why you’re here, Sparkler.”

“On the contrary, I’m having a wonderful time. A few more murders and I’ll really feel at home. Have you tried the ham?”

“Speaking of murder, is there anything new to report about our little investigation?”

“Seth and Leliana were comparing notes, last I checked. I suspect we’ll be called upon to enter the bowels of the palace very shortly.” Another servant walked by and Dorian swapped their empty glasses for fresh ones. Before he could tip that one into his mouth, something distracted him. “Is that gentleman over there trying to get your attention?”

It was hard to tell with Orlesians. Just across the hall, a masked man who looked like every other masked man in the room was waving his arms around animatedly. When Varric looked his way, the man straightened up and walked over. Apparently, he had been waiting for an invitation.

“Here is my old friend, Serah Tethras!” He exclaimed in an accent that was slightly less pronounced than the other Orlesians in attendance. “I feared I might never catch your eye.” He bowed politely to Dorian and held out his hand. “If I may introduce myself, Monsieur, I am Duke Cyril de Montfort.”

Right. Cyril. Varric drained his glass and set it on a nearby pillar. Was that servant with the booze still nearby?

Dorian introduced himself, which sent Cyril into a winding and rapid torrent of praise for the Inquisition. He spoke very quickly, almost as though he wanted to get through the pleasantries and back to Varric. Of course, that happened to be the case, exactly. When he had concluded his speedy sermon, he took a gasp of breath and returned his gaze down to Varric.

“Serah Tethras,” he clasped his hands together dramatically, “I have just had the pleasure of speaking to your captivating wife. She grows more delightful with every passing year, does she not?”

Something got caught in the gears of Varric’s brain. He was unable to stop a shocked expression from taking over his face and remaining long enough for both Cyril and Dorian to recognize it. By the time he recovered, it was too late. Dorian looked intrigued and Cyril had brought a hand to the base of his neck to illustrate his dismay.

“You don’t mean to tell me you have not yet tied that knot!” He mimed the action of tying a knot with his hands. This was apparently how Orlesians got around not having facial expressions to provide emphasis.

“Well, in the current political climate, you understand….” Varric stumbled. It was over. It had finally happened. He had lost his ability to act on his feet. Goodbye, life of crime . Wait, there it was. He contorted his face into something like grief. “We’ve had to extend the engagement a few times. It’s been… difficult.”

It worked--on Cyril, anyway. He laid one hand over his heart and the other on Varric’s shoulder. “This chaos hurts everyone. I had thought, when she declined my invitation--no matter. Ah! But what more perfect setting to reaffirm your promises to each other, no?”

“What a charming idea,” said Dorian with a smirk. “You could do it in the garden. By the moonlight.”

Varric could have strangled him.

Cyril leaned in closer. “I cannot encourage you enough in this endeavor, serah. Your betrothed is, at this moment, speaking to the Marquise Bouffon. Now, I would not think a Marquise could sway her when a Duke could not,” he chuckled pompously, “but Effiloche is a very persuasive woman with a recently widowed son.” He straightened up. “And she will not be the last, either. Apostates are terribly en vogue these days.”

“Are they?” Dorian tugged the point of his mustache.

“I tell you all of this because I believe in your love, serah.”

“Thanks, your grace.”

With another little bow, Cyril made his exit.

“Varric,” said Dorian with mock indignation, “I simply cannot believe you didn’t tell me your fiance was here. And a mage, moreover! You really must introduce me.”

“You’ve met her, Sparkler. You once called her a ‘very talented madwoman.’”

“No!” He kept up the act, clutching invisible pearls. “You don’t mean… I had no idea!”

“Someday I’ll tell you that story. It’s a lot less titillating than you might think.” That was a lie. “What the hell is she doing here, anyway? Have you seen her?”

“I’m not certain I would recognize her without all the fur and pointy metal bits. Oh, hello .” He corrected his posture and an odd, misty expression came over his face. Varric didn’t need to look up to know that Seth had appeared.

He did look impressive. They were all wearing the same thing but it was clear more care had been taken to ensure that the tailoring of the Inquisitor’s uniform was perfect. He let his teeth show when he smiled at them; he was getting more comfortable doing that.

“We’re going into the servants’ quarters.” He held up a tiny key on a chain.

“Did you know Hawke was here?” Varric said before they could get sucked into discussing the task at hand.

“You mean you haven’t found her yet? What have you been doing all this time?”

“Did you do this? You’re so sneaky!” Dorian looked extraordinarily proud.

“I only helped. It turns out Hawke has a friend in the Empress’ inner circle. A dwarven enchanter?”

“Sandal.” Varric tried and failed to imagine Sandal doing anything apart from saying ‘enchantment .’ Bodhan was more likely. “Alright, I’ll find her when we get back.”

“I appreciate your enthusiasm, Varric, but Leliana says it’s a maze in there. Bianca will be useless to you.”

“For your sake, I won’t tell her you said that. You know I’m good for more than pulling a trigger, right?”

“Don’t worry, I’m told the rest of the palace has a lovely, open floor plan,” said Seth dismissively.

“We’ll fill you in on all the gory details,” said Dorian.

“I’d better not see any tears over locks you couldn’t pick, Stinger.”

Seth was already leading Dorian away. “Check the balconies, Varric. That’s the only hint I’m giving you.”

Note to self: Sethanin Lavellan is not a terrible wingman.

Varric dodged mile-wide skirt after mile-wide skirt on his review of balconies. How many damn balconies did the place have, anyway? His progress was further slowed by the fact that someone tried to talk to him every other minute. Josephine introduced him to her sister, Iron Bull complained about wearing a shirt, a fan of Hard in Hightown just had to say hello, Sera had a nefarious plan to share, and Lady Vivienne… well, Vivienne was actually helpful.

“It seems that you have something in common with Her Radiance, this evening,” said Vivienne as she elegantly sipped something much fancier than what the servants were handing out. “You’ve both brought your pets along.”

It took him a second to follow, but Vivienne had been complaining about Celene’s apostate advisor for weeks.

“You’ve seen Hawke, then?”

“Darling, I dressed her.” She smiled at his shock. “ Someone had to. She might have shown up in armor, otherwise. Or worse, she could have looked like just another brainless clone.” She gestured to the crowd of identically dressed nobles.

“I don’t suppose you’re going to tell me where she is?”

“You’re getting warmer, dear,” Vivienne teased. Varric scowled at her. “Fine. She’s on the next balcony. You know, I’m really rather impressed with company she’s attracted. I don’t think she’s even offended anyone yet.”

“The night is young,” said Varric as he continued onward.

There was a bundle of satin skirts and puffy trousers taking up most of the next balcony. He had to push in between them to get anywhere. Those masks were excellent at making it so that nobody could see anything below their own noses.

“I simply cannot imagine you fighting one of those Qunari barbarians, my dear. A pretty slip of a thing like you?”

“She used magic, of course.”

“Not much, if you believe Monsieur Tethras’ account.”

“It wasn’t an easy fight, I assure you.” There was no mistaking that bell-toned Fereldan accent. “Qunari warriors are formidable opponents.”

“But I heard that the Inquisitor keeps one of the oxmen among his innermost circle!”

“He does! He’s here! I have seen him, myself.”

“That must have been terribly awkward for you, Madame Champion.”

“Not at all. The Iron Bull is much friendlier than the Qunari I knew in Kirkwall. He’s never held it against me that I killed a major leader of his people.”

There was a round of haughty laughter.

“Mademoiselle Hawke, you become more interesting with every passing moment.”

As Varric pressed between two more of Hawke’s audience, a woman on his left cried out in surprise.

Ce n’est pas possible! ” She pressed both hands into her half-exposed bosom. “Monsieur Tethras is here as well! Oh, if only I had known. I would have brought my copy of The Tale of the Champion to be signed by you both, propriety be damned!”

“Language, Cecilia.”

Varric barely heard them. In fact, they seemed to disappear as he passed them. The woman straight in front of him wore a long dress of blood red velvet that draped over the slim line of her body just so . Her skin glowed against the dark color, made pearly by the twinkling candlelight. He had never noticed how delicate and feminine her hands were. When his eyes finally reached her face, she was smirking. The light dusting of powder over her cheeks couldn’t hide a rosy blush.

“If you’ll all excuse me, I think my biographer might be interested in a dance.”

She reached out her hand. He blinked rapidly at it before taking it in his. Breathing and walking felt like new and novel motions as they moved away from their spectators.

“You have the most amusing expression on your face right now, Vee.” She squeezed his hand. “I surprised you, didn’t I? Cyril asked me to come and I told him no, but then Bodahn said the Empress had asked about me and then Seth--”

“Hawke,” Varric tugged at her arm to get her to stop. “You look incredible.”

Thanks, Viv.

Hawke turned away bashfully, continuing on her path toward the ballroom floor. The back of her dress plunged scandalously low, revealing much of her pale, muscular back. The long spike of scar tissue where the Arishok’s sword had exited her body was on display. The soft drape of fabric below it accentuated the subtle roundness of her hips.

Varric did not want to dance with Hawke.

They stepped on the dance floor just as the orchestra struck up a reasonably paced tune. Varric placed a hand on the impossibly warm small of Hawke’s back and--

“The Grand Duchess is dancing with the Inquisitor!”

“With the rabbit!? Incroyable!”

“Je n’en crois pas mes yeux!”

“Clear the floor, everyone! Clear the dance floor so we can watch!”

Hawke and Varric were pushed to the side by the crowd as they all made room for Seth and Grand Duchess Florianne. Seth, to Josephine’s credit, danced with impeccable skill.

“Sorry, sweetheart,” Iron Bull cast a shadow over Varric as he suddenly appeared beside them, “we’ll catch the next one.”

“Promise you won’t forget about me,” said a pretty redhead as she released his hand.

“Impossible.”

She blew him a kiss and wandered away through the crowd.

He looked down at Varric. “I take it back, this is the best party ever. Did you see the tits on that--oh! Hey, Blue! Looking good.”

Blackwall was next by their side, looking slightly less sleek than he had before heading into the servants’ quarters. Dorian followed him close by, looking exactly as sleek as before.

“What’s the news?”

“Gaspard’s been bringing in chevaliers and mercs. He’s definitely planning a coup,” said Blackwall.

“This Grand Duchess has something going on, too, I’ll wager,” said Dorian.

“Sure you’re not just jealous?”

Dorian snorted. “You’re not serious.”

“No. What’s the next step? Rifling through the Empress’ panty drawer?”

“You’re not far off. The palace is crawling with Venatori. We need to clear them out and figure out which of the players brought them in.”

There was a massive gasp throughout the ballroom as Seth swung the duchess around into a deep dip. Then the room erupted in applause.

Good show, Amatus ,” whispered Dorian. He turned back to the others and said aloud, “We ought to reconvene with him, don’t you think? He’ll have the next step in mind.”

Varric held back with his arm still brushing against Hawke’s side.

“Nobody told me there was excitement to be had at this party,” said Hawke with a gleam in her eyes.

“Not for you, Precious. You heard what he said: crawling with Venatori . I’m pretty sure you’re not hiding any weapons or armor under that dress.”

“I have magic fucking powers, I’ll have you know. You’re not looking extremely prepared, yourself.”

“I’m with the Inquisition, beautiful. In three minutes I’ll be better equipped than the tin cans Celine has keeping people from seeing her undusted rooms.” He gestured toward one of the guards in full plate armor.

“I just want to help.”

“Keep these idiots distracted. Just… walk back and forth or something.”

Hawke glared at him.

“Have fun. Find a cute, married duke to dance with. Get drunk and insult someone’s mother. Sera’s here, I’m sure she’ll help you with that.”

A sigh of resignation was Hawke’s only reply. She looked out across the room and Varric took a moment to admire the neat black lines drawn along her lashes that brought out the vivid color of her eyes even more than usual.

“Hey, Precious.”

“Hmm?”

“Where are you staying?”

“They’ve given me a room in the guest wing.”

“Private room?” said Varric with a smirk.

Hawke’s smile in return seemed just a little sad.

*

Adrenaline was high after Seth closed the rift in the courtyard; Seth’s adrenaline in particular. He flew back into the palace, pulling doors nearly off their hinges. Dorian and Cassandra were both jogging to keep up with him. Varric practically had to sprint.

When they came across one of the final, meandering groups of Venatori, the Inquisitor’s blades were a blinding flash of light. They tore through the air with a warm hum before being thrust masterfully into their targets. Varric got a few bolts in but, for the most part, Seth was too quick and too deadly for the rest of his party.

As if that weren’t intimidating enough, their meeting with the advisors did not go well.

“Let Florianne assassinate the Empress? Are you insane?! Have you heard a word I’ve said? About who Florianne is in league with? About the future I saw in Redcliffe?”

“Corypheus seeks to bring chaos to Thedas,” Leliana tapped her chin with two long, tapered fingers. “Orlais needs a strong leader but it does not need Celene.”

Cullen was not as enamored with the idea of public assassination as Leliana but stood by her assessment. “As I said before, Gaspard may be the stronger choice.”

“No.” Seth turned away from them, his face was hard and stern.

“Inquisitor!”

“If this must be my responsibility, then it will be done my way.”

He flung open the doors to the ballroom and stormed in while the others clamored to follow. The moment they crossed the threshold, the ballroom began buzzing. The Rabbit Inquisitor in his fine dress uniform had been a novelty to them. The Rabbit Inquisitor in his long armored coat, with his daggers displayed on his back, and a spatter of blood across his jaw was a terror. He strode across the ballroom with purpose in every step.

Guards moved to protect the Empress. Grand Duke Gaspard held his chin in his hand in a posture of vague interest. Grand Duchess Florianne was not pleased to see that the Inquisitor was still alive.

It was one of the most impressive moments of Seth’s career as Inquisitor thus far. Nobody in that room would be making a crack about the wild Dalish elf on Skyhold’s throne ever again, not after their Grand Duchess was dragged out of the room in chains. Not after their Empress bowed to him and invited him to go and decide the fate of their nation. Varric committed the moment to memory. The Adventures of Inquisitor Lavellan was coming along nicely.

When he was finally able to check the area for Hawke, she wasn’t there. Everyone was there. They were all waiting with bated breath to hear who would rule Orlais. Would it be martial Gaspard or tricky Celene? And what of the elven rebel, Briala?

Sera was missing as well. And Cole… well, with Cole you could never be sure.

Figuring the outcome of Seth’s conference would not be a secret for long, Varric left to find his missing compatriots and found them in the library. Sera and Hawke were sitting cross-legged on top of one of the tables, surrounded by perfectly good chairs, of course, passing a bottle of wine back and forth. Cole was seated on the floor nearby, idly spinning one of several empty bottles.

“And then I said, ‘It looks like the Duke has fallen from grace.’”

Sera tilted back and cackled.

“Oh!” said Cole. “Because he fell off the cliff!”

“That’s the joke, creepy.”

“Cyril’s father wasn’t very nice to him,” Cole went on obliviously. “Everything got better once he was gone.”

Hawke took another long swig. “Yeah, I don’t think he’d be as anxious to get in my pants if I’d killed his doting papa.”

“Ew.” Sera grabbed the bottle back. She saw Varric approaching as she pulled it away from her lips. “Oh, heck. Here comes the bellyacher. What’s wrong, now? Frilly cakes too frilly?”

“You missed Seth’s big moment. Florianne just got dragged away by the guards.”

“Good. Ought to put all those flashy arsebuckets in stocks. Who keeps dancing while all the little people are getting gutted under their noses? Arsebuckets, that’s who.”

“Maybe Seth will put Briala on the throne,” Varric offered. “It could be an elf-spiracy.”

“That one’s not much better. Too many fingers in high and mighty places .”

Hawke, in the meanwhile, had taken back the bottle and was swiftly draining it. She set it on the table with a resounding thunk. “Isn’t the party over yet?”

“May as well be now we’re out of wine.”

“I know where they keep more.”

“I don’t think that’s a great idea, kid. I’ve got some mail I’d like to respond to if you want to break out of this gilded cage with me, Hawke.”

“Ugh. You’re both so old!”

Hawke grabbed Sera’s face and planted a kiss on the crown of her head with a loud smack. “Good night, little one.”

Sera blew a raspberry at them as they walked away.

With everyone crowded into the ballroom, getting out was a simpler affair than getting around had been. Hawke’s steps got a little wobbly as those last three gulps hit her and Varric held her close to keep her steady.

To keep her steady. Right. Nothing at all to do with the way that velvet feels slipping over her skin.

He told her what had happened in the royal wing while they rounded a fountain and crossed a pristine lawn. The guest wing was actually a separate building; another ornate, balcony-studded marble behemoth full of suites in various shades of luxury to be assigned according to how much favor one had curried with the empire. Apart from giving directions, Hawke was quiet.

Until they reached her room and she let out a world-weary sigh.

“I don’t want to be Orlesian anymore,” slurred Hawke as Varric opened the door.

“Precious, you don’t have an Orlesian bone in your body.”

“This. THIS.” She grabbed him by the shoulders and turned him to face her. “This is very Orlesian and I don’t like it anymore.” She stomped unsteadily into the room and slumped into a plush armchair.

“Hawke, what in Andraste’s name--”

“You need to go, Vee.”

“You want me to--”

“Go and tell Bianca that you’re not a man to be shared, Vee.”

Shit .

“Because you’re not, Vee. You are a fucking catch. You are THE. Fucking. Catch. There’s no way her hud… her hub…” she threw up her hands. “There’s no way the guy she’s with is better than you. No way.”

“That’s really sweet, Hawke, but--”

“I knew that this was going to get complicated. I knew it.” She put her head in her hands and he had to get close to hear her properly. “We had a good thing before you got all hot and good at… things.”

“Hawke.” He grabbed her hand to get her attention. “Do you want me to leave?”

“No. No!” She took a deep breath and spoke more clearly. “That’s the fucking problem, Vee. I don’t want you to go anywhere. Ever.”

Oh .

No. She couldn’t mean what he thought she meant.

“You’re drunk, Hawke.”

“So?”

“So, let’s just take it easy. We can hash this out in the morning.” If you still want to.

“In the morning I’ll be a coward again.”

He took her face in his hands and looked her in the eyes. “You’re about as much a coward as you are Orlesian, Precious.”

“Hmm.” She smiled. “You called me ‘beautiful.’”

Chapter Text

“Ready for this, Hawke?” The Inquisitor tilted his head in the direction of the fortress. He oozed calm, even now. How did he do that?

“Ready to be a thorn in Corypheus’ side again? Oh, yes.”

“You should get as much rest as you can. Mother Giselle is ministering to the soldiers. If that’s the sort of thing that might help you.”

“No. I don’t want my prayers muddling up anyone else’s.” She glanced back at hulking blackness of the fortress. “We’re sure they won’t surprise us by doing the ritual tonight?”

“Fiona doesn’t think so. She says they have to wait for the moons to be right.”

“They need the Veil to be even thinner,” Hawke reasoned. A shiver went down her spine that might have been accompanied by actual, magical frost. The Veil was already thin enough there to drive a person crazy.  “We’re cutting this close, aren’t we?”

“I heard that was how you liked it,” said Seth with a little smile.

She smiled back and Seth moved on through the camp, checking in on everyone. He had a lot of people to check in on.

As soon as he was gone, Hawke’s eyes snapped back to the walls of Adamant Fortress. There were Wardens up there, watching without torches. Thanks to the taint in their blood, some of them could probably see in the dark as well as elves. As well as darkspawn . They watched from behind walls that had barely been scratched by the Inquisition’s slow, almost lackadaisical assault.

And beyond those walls lay the Abyssal Rift. The crack in the world. Something about it called out to her and she had tried to answer. She had walked out to the ledge of that split, of that hole that was like a fracture in reality itself. She had looked over the side and felt… nothing.

It wasn’t that she had ever believed Flemeth’s prophecy would involve an actual abyss. She knew better than that. She had just hoped for some kind of revelation. A tiny grain of understanding. Especially after meeting Feynriel in her dreams. Was it Adamant itself or what might happen there that had given him the heebie-jeebies?

An armored guard crossed her field of vision and broke her reverie. He had been winding between the tents and campfires, rationing out hot mulled wine. Enough to make folks feel restful and optimistic; not enough that they couldn’t wake up in the morning ready to fight. Hawke politely declined as he passed by her. Two weeks had passed since the grand ball and the hangover she had had the next morning was still a little too fresh in her mind.

Among other things.

No. Back to the walls. The Veil. The abyss . Varric would say she was brooding.

Ugh. Speaking of other things.

She wasn’t going to get any rest at all if she had Flemeth and Feynriel and Varric all vying for her gloomy speculation. And if something happened…. Another chill snaked down her back, this time taking a crackle of static with it that webbed down through her fingers before dissipating.

Hawke and Stroud had been given a tent just to off to the side from a circle of four lavish canvas structures provided by the Empress herself. Seth had reluctantly accepted one for himself, while the rest of his favored team had banded up in small groups. Most of them had already taken his advice and turned in early but Hawke didn’t expect Varric to be among those. Hawke dragged her fingers across the striped canvas as she ambled toward the nearby bonfire. The Bull’s Chargers had set their bedrolls out under the stars around the fire and they could still be heard telling stories and singing bawdy songs.

Hawke watched them for a moment from the shadows. Iron Bull was there, of course, as well as Sera, Blackwall, and Cole with his knees drawn sullenly into his chest. No Varric.

She found him alone in his tent, reading by lamplight.

Wearing those spectacles.

Unf .

Don’t get distracted, Hawke.

“Hey, Precious.”

Shit . Why did he have to have such a sexy voice?

She crossed the room and slipped out of her boots before sitting cross-legged on the edge of his camp bed, making sure not to get close enough to touch him. As usual, his field appointments were noticeably nicer than her own.

“About what I said,” she started haltingly, “when I was drunk.”

“So you do remember,” he said accusingly. His lips pulled to the side into a smirk and there was the most fetching dimple just--

Andraste .

“I was solidly drunk, Vee, I’ll admit that much. But I wasn’t completely crocked.”

“I suppose we all fall asleep in our evening gowns every once in a while.” He put a ribbon in his book to mark his place and set it aside with his now folded spectacles. “I don’t mind revisiting the part where you said I was hot and good at things .”

“Varric,” Hawke said reproachfully.

“Hawke,” Varric replied cheekily.

He wasn’t going to make this easy. He was going to sit there, looking deliciously smug, and make her spell out everything. He was going to make her say it.

She wasn’t ready to say it.

“Maybe we shouldn’t do this anymore,” was what she said instead. There had to be some kind of solution. That was the quickest one.

His smile faded into an emotionless mask. “Alright. If that’s what you want.”

“Then it’s over? Just like that?”

“Easy come, easy go. That’s what we agreed on, isn’t it?”

“Standard friends-with-benefits contract,” Hawke murmured. Naturally, he’d keep his side of the deal even after she had already broken it all to pieces with her Maker-damned feelings.

“Was there something else? I’ll deal a hand of cards if you want to lose some coin.”

He squared his shoulders and smirked slightly. Just like that, the mask was gone and it was just another Tuesday.

“No,” said Hawke. She swung her legs back over the bed and stared at her boots while the thoughts came rushing in.

They could go back to something like normal. They’d spend late nights at the Hanged Man over endless mugs of skunky ale with Varric telling increasingly boastful tales of their adventures and Hawke coming up with increasingly terrible puns. Varric would get them involved in something vaguely illegal and highly lucrative that would set them up for the retirement they’d never sit down long enough to take.

Carver was going to marry Merrill and they would all live in the estate like the Hawkes were a real family again. Maybe there would be babies someday and Hawke would take them to do things Merrill didn’t approve of, like dragon watching or fencing off ‘found’ gear in the undercity. Varric would spoil them to pieces, always coming over with another treat or expensive toy so that Merrill would have to tell him not to come around anymore. But she wouldn’t mean it.

There would be someone else. Another man would try to sweep Hawke away with feelings she couldn’t reciprocate and Varric would be there with a kind word and a bottle. Maybe there would be another Anders; someone who would worm their way in until she felt something virtually indistinguishable from love. Until she couldn’t imagine being without them. And then they’d change or leave or die or blow up a church.

And Varric would be there with a kind word and a bottle.

Maybe someday Bianca would finally get her head out of her ass and become someone Varric deserved. Hawke could learn not to hate her if she made him happy. Hawke could put up with a lot so long as Varric was happy and close by.

She could be happy for him. Because she loved him.

But what if Bianca I-Chose-To-Have-Everything Davri never did get her head out of her ass? How likely was that, really?

“I mean, yes. There is something else.” She looked at him, then away again. She pushed her palms along her trousers, then stood up just to feel solid ground under her feet. “Varric, I went to see Bianca. In Val Royeaux.”

“You what!?” His easy-going facade cracked, revealing open shock. “Why would you--”

“I had to know. I had to see.” Like the abyss. Like Adamant.

He stood up and grabbed her sleeve as though to keep her from leaving, even though she was standing still. “Hawke, whatever she said… it doesn’t matter what she said.”

Enjoy your moment, Champion.

Hawke’s mind continued to race. Weren’t moments all anyone had? Wouldn’t she trade every copper she’d ever earned just to relive a moment with Bethany? Or Mother? Or Papa? Hadn’t every moment with Varric been completely worth spending? And how many moments were left? The end might be through the fortress gates or over the edge of the canyon. She might catch a wasting sickness or get shot with a poison arrow. Someone might put a sword through her without Anders around to magic her better. They might be shipwrecked on the way back to Kirkwall and end up freezing to death in the Waking Sea.

Fuck, she might trip over her stupid feet and hit her head too hard.

“Hawke, you’re worrying me. What did she say?”

Hawke let out a wry laugh and looked down at him. Concern was drawn all over his face. His furrowed brows deepened the scar on his nose that he had gotten fighting one of Hawke’s battles. Damn, she loved that scar on that crooked nose on that expressive face.

Fuck Bianca.

That wasn’t the revelation she’d been looking for, but it was a revelation.

“It doesn’t matter.”

“Hawke?”

Fuck Bianca.

Maybe Val Royeaux hadn’t been a mistake, after all.

Varric let out an audible breath as she swooped down to kiss him on the mouth. She sensed his arms raise in surprise, then felt as he reached up to hold her face with both hands. She dragged her hands down his sides, appreciating the stability of his broad body. She loved that he was firm and muscular in all the right places; soft and warm in all the right places. She pressed forward, maneuvering them back toward the bed. He broke away when the edge of it pushed against his legs.

“See, this is what I thought you didn’t want to do anymore,” he teased.

“I changed my mind. You know how fickle women can be.” She continued pressing so he had to sit on the bed or be squashed against it. She went in for another kiss.

He dodged her, but still slid back on the bed to make room. “Shouldn’t we talk about--”

“Later. Conversation is currently limited to how very attractive and intelligent we both are.” She climbed over him and kissed him again. She slipped a hand under his shirt and started to pull it up.

“Hawke,” he grabbed her hand. “I don’t have this tent to myself.”

“I don’t care.” She went for his shirt with her other hand.

“Dorian and Bull--”

Hawke snorted. “ That’s who you’re sharing with? Bull is out with the Chargers and I’ll give you ten sovereigns if Dorian gets so much as a look at his own bed.” She sat back, straddled over his legs, and pulled off her own shirt. “And I don’t care who knows anymore.” She looked earnestly into his eyes. “Do you?”

She loved the smile on his face when he said, “No.”

*

“You should get back to your own tent, Precious.”

“Just a few more minutes. Kiss me.”

“Oh, no,” she felt him laugh quietly, “don’t you start that again.”

The sound of dozens of people shifting around and greeting one another had started to overpower Iron Bull’s mellow snoring. When did he come in?

“They’re rousing everyone for the assault. Any minute now some kid on Leliana’s payroll is going to breeze in through those tent flaps to wake us up.”

“I don’t care. Kiss me.”

“Hoping the gossip will be good for morale?”

“I might die today. Just kiss me.”

Andraste . Is that what all of this is about?” He sat up to chastise her from a better angle. “You’re not going to die, Hawke. Maker’s asscheeks--isn’t the Veil thin or something? That always makes you feel fatalistic.”

“It’s not that…. It’s….” She rested her head on his lap so that she wouldn’t have to make eye contact. I met that kid we rescued years ago in a dream and I can’t stop thinking about something a crazy dragon-lady once said to me. “I just have a bad feeling about this.”

“I see,” said Varric indulgently. “And getting caught naked in my tent by some poor squire will make you feel better?”

“Varric.”

“Hawke.”

There was no more time. She could hear Vivienne scolding Sera in the next tent over. It had to be said. At least once. Just in case.

Her heart was pounding as she pulled herself up and faced him.

“I love you.”

“Hawke--”

“The kind of love that gets people in trouble.”

“Hawke--”

“That tears you up and sews you back together.”

“Stop.” He put his hand over her collarbone. “Don’t say this because you think you’re going to die.”

“I’m saying it because I want you to know it.” She vaguely felt herself sighing with relief. “I think I’ve been in love with you a long time, Vee.”

“Hawke--”

“Don’t.” She took his hand in hers and looked down at it. “If you’re about to let me down gently or--or even if you feel--” the words got stopped up somewhere between her brain and her mouth. She hadn’t even let herself consider that he might feel the same. Not when he had Bianca. “If something has to change, if this has to end… we can figure that out after we stop Clarel and that douchebag Erimond, right? I think I’ll fight harder if I know we have something to talk about when I get back.”

He squeezed her hand. “Alright,” he whispered.

They were both silent while Hawke dressed. She felt lighter, like some of the dread had been lifted. It was just another day. Another fight.

“Hey,” said Varric just as she was about to slip out of the tent. “You’d better come back, Arista Hawke.”

Some more of that dread floated away like vapor.

“To you? Always.”

 

*

 

And then The Champion of Kirkwall fell from the crumbling battlements of Adamant Fortress to her death. The end.

The thought came to her in Varric’s voice as she was falling and she would have laughed if there had been time.

Of course, it wasn’t the end at all. She landed lightly on a chunk of flat stone that seemed to be floating in the air. Stroud was crouched nearby on another floating chunk pointed, somewhat nauseatingly, in a completely different angle than Hawke on her chunk.

That wasn’t even the worst of it, though. Her stomach did a sicking flip when she realized the wall beside her was not a wall at all, but the ground. Seth stood, casual as you please, completely perpendicular to Hawke. She closed her eyes, reached her foot out toward the wall-ground and felt the gravity shift. When she opened them, Seth was holding out a hand to help her up.

For about the thousandth time in her life, Hawke was surprised to be alive.

She was in the Fade… but she was alive.

Shit.

They were physically in the Fade.

If the Chantry was to be believed, they were doing exactly what the Magisters Sidereal had done that inflicted the Blight upon the world. It felt wrong. It was wrong.

But, hey, she still wasn’t dead.

Solas declared the situation ‘fascinating,’ which wasn’t the word Hawke would have chosen but, for the sake of the others, she decided to roll with it. Stroud, Blackwall and Iron Bull didn’t know the Fade from Vyrantium. They weren’t exactly comfortable but they were holding it together. They looked to Seth and the mages to determine just how terrified they ought to be.

As far as Hawke was concerned, the answer to that was: extremely fucking terrified .

They probably knew that.

They were probably all faking their composure, just like she was.

Right?

Seth led them on in his usual calm, determined way. What had that guy done for the Dalish, anyway? What had he been through all his life that had made him so good at something that nobody had any reason to be good at? Maybe he had been chosen by the Maker. Hawke chuckled humorlessly to herself.

“You alright, Blue?” Hawke hadn’t realized that Qunari could look pale but Iron Bull definitely looked pale.

“Yeah. You?”

“Fuck, no.”

“Don’t worry, Bull. Seth will find you something to hit soon enough.”

“What in Andraste’s name…” they heard Blackwall say.

He was ahead of them on something that was like a fever dream version of a staircase. They both rushed to catch up and found the others staring at what appeared to be a very ornately dressed Chantry Sister.

“Divine Justinia,” said Seth. “From what I remember, I was certain you were dead.”

“I fear the Divine is, indeed, dead,” said Stroud, warily observing the kindly looking old lady in front of them. “What we face here is almost certainly a spirit. Or a demon.”

“Is it so impossible that I might survive here? You are also here, in the Fade. No?” She cocked her head slightly. “In truth, it does not matter what I am and we have little time for explanation. I am here to help you.”

She explained to them patiently that they were in the realm of a Nightmare demon, grown immense with power by feeding on the fear Corypheus had created. She told them this same demon was responsible for the false Calling and for Seth’s memory loss. She told them the only way to defeat it was to get out of the Fade and instill hope in the waking world.

“Bullshit,” Iron Bull grumbled. “We ought to kill it. Beat it for good.”

“You must escape the Fade, Inquisitor,” Divine Justinia insisted.

But first, he needed to get his memories back. That… didn’t make things any easier. The vision came to all of them at once, a bizarre flash in the mind, all from Seth’s point of view. When it faded, Hawke turned to Stroud.

“You saw her, didn’t you? Faye was with those Wardens.”

“Of course, I saw her.”

“That was the Fereldan Wardens. The ones you were supposed to report to. That was almost my brother!”

“They were under the control of Corypheus.”

“They were the victims of intentional ignorance. Your fucking secrets got them there. Your fucking secrets are why Corypheus is here in the first place. What else are the Wardens hiding?”

“If you hadn’t gone to that prison--”

“Stop it, both of you,” said Seth. “We’ll figure out where to point fingers when we get out of here.”

“You must hurry,” said Divine Justinia. “The Nightmare knows you are here.”

“It was you,” Seth turned to the old woman. “The humans thought I was saved by Andraste but it was you all along. I wasn’t chosen by their Maker at all.”

“You worship the elven gods, do you not? The truth changes nothing.”

“Those things attacked you, though,” Blackwall said to her hesitantly. “They attacked the Divine. There’s no way you--she lived through that.”

“That truth also changes nothing.” She was glowing. Literally, there was a bright, warm light shining through her. “I said I was here to help you. You must move quickly, now. Please. You must escape.” Suddenly, she seemed to be made entirely of light. A vaguely person-shaped light, floating in front of them.

She was right-- it was right--the Nightmare had found them. It spoke to them, it’s deep voice resonating everywhere as though it came from the stones or the fetid green puddles or the masses of detritus surrounding them everywhere they went. It reached inside them and pulled out shards of their deepest fears and insecurities. It sent creatures after them, personally designed to creep each of them out as thoroughly as possible.

Hawke wouldn’t have described herself as an arachnophobe before this excursion into the Fade, but spiders had been a good choice. Good job, Nightmare Demon, you successfully creeped me out.

“DID YOU THINK YOU MATTERED, ARISTA HAWKE?”

Fuck .

“Don’t listen to it, Blue.”

“DID YOU THINK ANYTHING YOU EVER DID ACTUALLY MATTERED?” Nightmare’s rumbling chuckles made the ground vibrate around them. Even more of the horrible giant monsters came skittering out of cracks in the stones.

That was where the Nightmare had it wrong. Every time she dodged an attack or plunged the blade of her staff into an enemy, some of her fear escaped.

“CARVER IS GOING TO DIE, HAWKE. JUST LIKE THE REST OF YOUR FAMILY. VARRIC AND MERRILL AND FENRIS. AVELINE AND ISABELA. AND ALL YOUR NEW FRIENDS, TOO. ALL OF THEM WILL DIE WONDERING WHY YOU WEREN’T THERE TO SAVE THEM. WHERE WERE YOU, HAWKE? WERE YOU HERE? WITH ME?”

It laughed again.

“I’m really looking forward to beating the shit out of this demon, Inquisitor,” said Hawke, feigning a casual demeanor. She held her fist out to Bull, who bumped it with his own.

“Hell, yeah!”

The spirit who had taken the form of the Divine reappeared. “You are close, Inquisitor.”

There was something , something massive, over the next rise. They could hear it moving like thunder. A green light shone through the opening of the tunnel they passed through and it seemed certain that light was coming from a Fade rift. A rift meant escape.

They rushed out the mouth of the tunnel and saw it. It was enormous. The Nightmare Demon appeared as a monstrous, towering spider with dripping fangs and hundreds of glossy, black eyes. It was impossibly large. The spirit was right, there was no way they could fight that.

“Run, Inquisitor.” The spirit compacted itself into an orb and glided toward the demon with incredible speed. She had already pissed it off as they traveled, taunting it and making their journey easier. Now it lumbered toward her, distracted away from the mortal trespassers.

“Hurry!” Seth yelled, leading them toward the rift. It was so close.

“YOU WILL NOT DESTROY WHAT WE HAVE CREATED.”

A fear demon appeared and blocked their path. Its pointed teeth glistened in its horrible, lipless mouth. Multiple arms like spider legs sprang out of its back.

“It is an aspect of the Nightmare,” said Solas evenly. “A minor demon only. Let us dispatch it and move on.”

A battle commenced. Blackwall and Stroud flanked Seth when they could, he was absurdly fast. His daggers hummed as they cut through the air. Solas kept a barrier on them and did his best to slow down the fear demon and the subordinate demons it summoned. Bull and Hawke rushed straight in for it.

The fear demon was a teleporter. It flashed out of existence whenever someone got a good hit on it and reappeared out of reach.

Hawke hated that shit.

For a fourth time, she had barely cut the thing before it was gone. It was near Stroud, then, but he had a few paces to close in on it. Hawke took a breath and called up a bolt of lightning. She’d been conservative with her magic up until then, it tended to move strangely there, but now she summoned as much power as she thought she could handle.

It was a lot of power.

The magic just… flowed. She barely felt the static bursting around her before it crashed down on the demon. It hadn’t taxed her at all. Was that how really strong mages felt?

“Well done, Hawke!” Seth cried as he rushed to meet Stroud, who was already cutting into the creature with powerful swings of his sword.

There was a keen of frustration that seemed to shake all of the Fade. The massive spider began lumbering back toward them.

“THERE IS NO ESCAPE. I KNOW YOUR FEAR.”

“To the rift!” shouted Seth. He held up his glowing green hand and the rift let out a crack of energy. “Run!”

They didn’t need to be told twice. Bull and Blackwall were closest to the rift. Blackwall grabbed Bull by the arm and they jumped through together. Solas looked back before he jumped, giving the Inquisitor a nod.

Stroud was having trouble running and it was no wonder, blood was pouring from a wound on his leg. He tried and failed to use his sword as a crutch. Hawke rushed over and pulled one of his arms over his shoulder just as Seth did the same on the other side.

“Seth, go!”

“The rift may close after I pass through. I can’t leave you here!”

A huge, hairy spike slammed down only steps away from them sending out a spray of greenish pebbles.

“Leave me,” said Stroud. “I can distract it. Buy you time.”

Another leg crashed down nearby. Stroud was right, nobody was going to get out unless someone stayed.

“No!” said Seth, still lumbering forward.

Stroud dug his good leg into the ground. “The Wardens did this. A Warden must fix this. Let me--”

“No.” Hawke maneuvered out from under Stroud’s arm. “A Warden must help them rebuild. You have to change them, Stroud.”

Seth looked back and forth between them, utterly stricken. He must have felt that he had to choose.

But this wasn’t his choice to make.

“You were right, Stroud. I freed Corypheus. I have to help you both strike this blow.”

“Hawke!”

She was already moving away from them. “Take care of my brother, Stroud. And Seth--” His eyes were still wide and he stood stock still. “Say goodbye to Varric for me.”

Hawke turned away from them and didn’t look back. She willed them to get the hell out of there as she held her staff before her and cast a fireball, aiming it straight for those disgusting, clustered eyeballs. The second the fireball was released, she swung the blade end of the staff at the demon’s nearby leg.

She knew they were gone when she heard the rift snap out of existence.

Chapter Text

They felt the wall crumble before they heard it. It felt like the whole fortress was falling into the canyon and it sounded like an avalanche. Thanks to the Inquisition, Varric knew exactly what an avalanche sounded like.

He turned to Cassandra, considering actually thanking her for that. One of her disgusted scoffs might have lightened the mood just then. But she was still watching the sky with a look on her face like she would jump a hundred feet in the air and stick that dragon with her sword if she could. She would have, too.

“It’s retreating,” she announced before looking to the gathered troops. “Where is the Inquisitor? Has anyone returned from the battlements?”

“Jamie’s just come back, Lady Seeker,” a scout called out, pushing a wounded soldier to the fore. “Tell her what you saw, James!”

He was glistening with sweat and leaning heavily on his scout friend and he looked like addressing the Seeker might be just as terrifying as facing down that dragon. “We followed Clarel and Erimond across the walls, ser. Then… then that dragon came down right on top of them and pulled the whole wall over the side.”

A low buzz of conversation rose up among the people gathered. There was a short, tearful wail from where the remaining Wardens had been separated and detained.

“But what of the Inquisitor?” Cassandra demanded.

What about Hawke?

“I couldn’t see--”

“What happened?!” Dorian skidded into the courtyard with Sera and Vivienne not far behind. “What was that blighted noise all about? Why is the archdemon leaving?”

Varric could see the muscles of Cassandra’s neck contract as she swallowed. There was no way they had just fallen into a stupid hole. There was no way that was how it ended.

“We need a healer!” Cullen came flying around a corner and down the stairs. A pack of his soldiers appeared more slowly, carrying a litter with a body on it. Then a second litter. A second body. “See to Clarel first,” Cullen told mage who ran up to volunteer, “no one will shed a tear for the magister.”

If Clarel and Erimond had made it….

“Commander!” Cassandra called out to Cullen. “What--”

“We have reason to believe the Inquisitor and his party are all alive,” said Cullen. “But they are in the Fade.”

Varric looked involuntarily at the Fade rift still cracking and roiling in the courtyard while Cullen explained what his soldiers had seen. Seth had opened a rift as they fell from the crumbling battlements to save them from the drop into the abyss. So, if they were alive, they were physically in the Fade. Like the ancient magisters. Like how the Blight got started.

They had to be alive.

They were definitely alive.

Seth had already been in the Fade and come out alright. Solas knew more than anyone else about the place. Stroud and Blackwall were Grey fucking Wardens and Iron Bull was a total badass. And Hawke--well, Hawke might have more demon-killing experience than the rest of them combined.

If any six people were going to come back from that, it was them.

Dorian was telling himself the same thing. Out loud. At first, he theorized continuously. He let out a long, unbroken stream of magical fade-babble as he pretended that he wasn’t quickly becoming unhinged by the wait.

“They’ll come out here,” he said, gesturing toward the rift in the courtyard. “Of that, I am quite certain.”

He listed all the reasons he was quite certain and Varric nodded vaguely. Sure. Let’s go with that. It’s a hell of a lot better than trying to figure out what we might do without… them.

Clarel died.

“Yes. Any moment now, Sethanin is going to pop out of this awful green hole with that nice new coat all a mess,” said Dorian while Mother Giselle came in to chant Clarel’s last rites.

Another hour passed.

Hawke is coming back. She has to come back. She said she would come back. Hawke always comes back. That’s what Hawke does. She comes back.

A handful of Wardens were given leave to see to Clarel’s pyre. Erimond regained consciousness and was clapped in irons. Someone, someone who ought to have been given a medal, took him away out of earshot.

Another hour passed and Dorian began ordering healers to be on the ready and barking at people to stand back farther from the tear in reality.

Finally, there was a change.

The rift made a noise like a branch breaking off a tree in a windstorm. Light scattered out from it, soft greens and yellows. Without further warning, Iron Bull and then Blackwall leapt out from it. They were followed closely by Solas, who looked calmly around.

“The Inquisitor is just behind us,” he said to Cassandra while Iron Bull rushed to vomit into a corner.

Varric inched closer to look into the rift, now open wide enough that a strange, blurry landscape could just barely be seen. Craggy peaks jutted out of the ground, mirrored by floating chunks of land hanging impossibly in the sky. The raw Fade. Varric shuddered. His last trip into that hellscape had been plenty for one lifetime.

Stroud and the Inquisitor stepped out into the real world with Stroud leaning heavily on Seth’s slim shoulders. Seth turned and immediately held out his hand to close the rift.

Wait!

Varric’s voice didn’t work. He moved toward Seth, to stop him, but he was too slow and the rumble of the rift closing was too loud. It winked out of existence, leaving nothing behind. It was the densest nothing Varric had ever felt. The deadest silence.

His ears rang. He could barely hear himself when he finally spoke.

“Where’s Hawke?”

Like there’s an answer to that that won’t mean the end of everything.

Varric barely caught a wide-eyed look on Seth’s face before a hooded Inquisition courier and a Grey Warden in a winged helmet swooped in to begin briefing him. Everyone started talking at once; a painful cacophony added to the persistent ringing.

No. Nobody gets off the hook that easy. You’re going to have to admit it, Inquisitor.

“Where is Hawke?!”

Seth blinked and took a step up onto the dais where the rift had just been. He looked at Varric and gave him a sad shake of his head before addressing the crowd as a whole. “The Champion, Arista Hawke, sacrificed her life in order to….”

Blah, blah, blah. Seth continued to orate, making victorious sorts of gestures with his hands. Blah, blah, she was so gosh darn brave, etcetera, blah. It was all lost to the ringing in Varric’s ears. The only other thing he could hear, all he could feel, was the blood rushing around throughout his body like an ocean. He was only vaguely aware of Cassandra approaching him with wide, glistening eyes. Her mouth moved but he never heard her speak.

“Later,” was all he could say. “Later,” he said to anyone who tried to get his attention.

*

Aveline,

Hawke is gone. Dead. Hawke is dead.

Even as he wrote it down, it was a foreign idea. It was like ghostwriting someone else’s shitty story.

It happened the way you might have expected it to happen. She was sucked into the Fade along with the Inquisitor and some other people. They fought their way out but there was some kind of huge, powerful demon blocking their path. So, ever the fucking hero, Hawke stayed behind to distract it. She probably saved the whole fucking world, seeing as the Inquisitor is the only person who can stop demons from pouring out of the sky. That doesn’t really make it any easier.

Those are all the details I know. I…

He should have been there. They could have come up with a better solution. She would never have stayed behind if he had been there, not after what she had told him.

I’m telling you so you can tell the others if they want to know. This job is shit enough without having to repeat that over and over again.

He imagined just copying that paragraph four more times. Sucked into the Fade. Big damned hero. Etcetera. They deserved better than that. They deserved better than he could provide.

We should do something. There’s no b…

He let the ink pool over that incomplete sentence. Body was not a word he was ready to use.

There’s nothing to put on a pyre but she would have wanted us all to be together. That was probably her favorite thing, having everyone she cared about all in one place. Even when we were bitching at each other.

I don’t know when I’ll be done here. I’m seeing this thing through. Can’t say my heart is still in it but Hawke would have given me hell for leaving just because shit got hard.

Take care of yourself, Captain. I’ll be back in your hair in no time.

He signed off with his first name only, no need to be formal, and blotted the paper.

One down. One shitty letter down and four to go. Then there would be all the business to deal with and that was bound to get dirty. He had to make sure the estate went smoothly into Carver’s hands. If it even could go into Carver’s hands. The Grey Wardens were exactly the kind of fucked up organization that might snatch up the holdings of its members.

Varric was not about to let them get their bloody hands on so much as a mote of dust from Hawke’s estate.

Grey fucking Wardens.

He understood why Seth had brought them on. Having the Wardens fight for the Inquisition added valuable numbers to their force and made sure they would be under the watchful eye of people who knew what possession looked like. Understanding didn’t make him any less pissed off about it. The Wardens didn’t deserve a second chance. Stroud shouldn’t have been sent to Weisshaupt as an envoy, he should have been sent to Kirkwall to grovel at Carver’s feet.

That would have been one less shitty letter for Varric to write.

“He kept Carver safe when she couldn’t anymore,” Cole was suddenly sitting cross-legged in front of the fireplace. “Staying paid debts she thought were unpayable.”

“I know why she did it, kid,” said Varric.

Someone pointed to a cliff … but there wasn’t any cliff, Varric.”

“It was a metaphor.”

They were still working on metaphors and idioms. Cole nodded. Then he looked at the fire as though he were looking through it. “She’s still too bright. They come to see but the light frightens them away.”

“Where’s that one from?”

“The Fade is confusing,” Cole replied.

Varric nodded absently. The Fade was the last thing he wanted to waste his time thinking about.

Actually, he would have preferred not to waste his time thinking at all. The letters were the only thing keeping him from the tavern, or the cellar. Everyone back home deserved to know. They deserved to hear it from him. Then, maybe he could turn it off for a while. A few pints of that Qunari paint thinner Bull was so fond of and….

Like mother, like son.

Shit.

Maybe not.

“Varric?” said Josephine like she was trying not to wake a bear.

Why the hell does everyone keep pussyfooting around--

“Because they’re worried about you,” said Cole. “Sorry, Varric,” he continued sincerely. “That was ‘internal monologue,’ wasn’t it.”

Varric sighed. “What can I do for you, Ruffles?”

“I would have waited much longer to bring this up but we are fitting all the guest rooms with locks to make people feel more comfortable….”

“Josie. Just tell me what you need me to do.”

“The Champion-- Hawke’s things are still in her room. I thought we should send them to her family, or….”

Varric thought about Leandra’s room and the way Hawke had closed it up. They probably couldn’t do something like that. “I’ll take care of it,” he said, abandoning his shitty letters.

Skyhold was quiet.

Josephine’s endless stream of noble visitors had slowed down when it started snowing in the pass. The path was still perfectly serviceable for troop movements and refugees but those who simply had to make an entrance in fine white horses or cushioned carriages chose to head north or stay in the lowlands through the winter. That was no great loss.

Seth had left almost as soon as they had returned; gone to deal with a massive red lyrium problem in Emprise du Lion. He had taken Sera, Vivienne, and Cassandra with him which seemed a little masochistic, but Varric found he had little sympathy left for the Inquisitor’s discomfort. At least it meant that the Iron Lady would not be waiting to offer whatever thoughts she had about Hawke’s passing. That woman’s pity would have been more than he could take.

Along the courtyard overlook, an elf was working at the door handle to one of the rooms; carefully fitting the new lock. Josie really had waited as long as she could.

Varric stood in front of Hawke’s door and took a deep breath. He was being ridiculous. Hawke’s door? How much time had she actually spent in that room? She might not even have left anything in there apart from random bits of shiny detritus she had picked up between Kirkwall and Skyhold. She was a packrat, to be sure, but she had been on the road for--

“I wouldn’t go in there, were I you,” the locksmith was suddenly quite close. “My lord,” he tacked on after a second thought.

“Why is that?”

“There’s a big damned dog in there,” he replied with a nervous laugh. “A great, hulking mabari warhound. Gave me a wicked growl soon as I opened that door. Maker knows how he got in there, through the keep and all.”

Wrex. It had to be. Andraste’s frilly underthings, Varric had completely forgotten about Wrex. He could practically feel Hawke’s indignation. It felt good.

He gave the elf a smirk. “Funny, you sound Fereldan.”

“I’m as Fereldan as King Alistair,” he said proudly, “but I lived in the Denerim Alienage back in Loghain’s day. If you knew how things were for us then, you wouldn’t think it at all strange that I don’t have much affection for mabari.”

“I know this one,” said Varric. “He’s all talk.”

“If you say so. I’m just going to head back over there, though.” He started to back away.

“I appreciate the warning.” On a whim, Varric held out his hand. “Varric Tethras.”

The elf’s eyebrows shot up. “The writer.” He stared blankly at Varric’s hand for a beat. “Sorry. Jaren.” He shook Varric’s hand tentatively.

“You’ve read my work?”

“No. No. I’ve seen it, though. The Tale of the Champion .” He looked out over the courtyard. “My babala and I went to look at it in the bookstore. We thought Riss was dead already, you know? Blight took everyone else.”

“You knew Hawke.”

“Back when it was Malcolm who got called Hawke , yeah. I hear she’s really gone now.”

“Yeah.”

She was really gone.

Jaren ran a hand through his hair awkwardly, then excused himself and went back to installing his locks. Varric went back to staring at the door to Hawke’s room. The gnawing guilt and the burning anger were making way for a kind of paralyzing numbness. He actually felt cold as he finally turned the knob on the door.

The growl that came out of the shadows within was like something feral. It was like one of those demon-cursed wolves they had found west of Redcliffe. No wonder Jaren had been spooked.

“It’s me, you big, slobbery monster,” said Varric. “Can’t you smell me?”

The snarling rumble rose in pitch until it had fully transformed into a whine. Wrex padded out into the light, looking up at Varric with big, sorrowful brown eyes. Varric patted the dog on the head listlessly.

“It’s a sad old world, pup,” he said with a sigh.

The room smelled like Hawke. There was lilac in there, emanating from a purplish bar of soap still sitting by the washbasin. She had kept the wax paper it had come in, folded carefully and tucked under a small hand mirror. A few spare bits of gear were laid out, probably needing repair. Those were the source of the leather odor. It all blended with that vague herbal smell, green grass or clover. The essence of outside . That smell just seemed to follow her around.

She hadn’t needed to spend a lot of time in there or leave a lot of things in there to make the room hers. Wrex certainly agreed. He hopped into the bed, turned a circle to muss up the bedclothes, then dropped down with a huff. That was a tempting idea; to just stretch out under the covers and breathe her in.

Forever.

“Sorry, boy. We’re getting evicted.”

Wrex turned his head to the side.

A satchel full of spare clothes had been set on top of the dresser with trousers and stockings strewn around it instead of inside the dresser itself. He started there. Stuffing things back into a bag was something he could handle. The potentially damaged leather bits got unceremoniously pressed in on top but the soap he wrapped back into the wax paper and slipped into a pocket.

Halfway done already. Maybe he should slow down. Or speed up.

Another, smaller bag had been plopped onto the writing desk. The strap was broken and a threaded needle was sticking out of the raw edge. Beside it sat a very old looking griffon pendant and a polishing cloth. Some Grey Warden artifact she was planning to send off to Carver, probably. He wrapped it in the cloth and slipped it into the broken satchel.

When he set those aside, he got a surprise: one of his own damned books was there. Swords and Shields , the second volume, with “Property of C. A. P. C. F. Pentaghast” written neatly just inside the cover and a few sheaves of paper shoved in as a bookmark about twenty pages in. He almost laughed at the indignity of it all; that Hawke would run off to die and this embarrassment was the last book she had read.

She hadn’t even gotten to finish it.

Shit .

He slumped into the little chair, half-heartedly rooting through the desk drawers even though he knew she wouldn’t have put anything in there. All he found was the same complimentary paper and ink he might have found in any of the guestrooms. Wrex lumbered over and rested his head on Varric’s lap.

Why did she have to go and leave things undone? The pendant and the book and telling him she loved him.

Damn it, Hawke.

He pulled a pen, paper, ink. It was about time he got this over with.

Carver,

I wish I could have had anyone else in Thedas write you this letter….



Chapter Text

“So, Hero.”

Blackwall was clearly suppressing a sigh as he looked up from his mug. “I suppose you’re using that name ironically now,” he said dolorously.

“I was using it ironically before ,” Varric returned with cheer.

Cabot set Varric’s mug down on the bar with a thunk and they exchanged their customary surly glances. Varric wasn’t one for dwarven machismo, except when it came to bartenders. When you find a good one, you don’t rock the boat.

“Of course, you were,” Blackwall grumbled. He lost the fight with that sigh; it tumbled out of him and into his beer.

“What are the others calling you these days? Is it Rainier, now? Thom?”

Maybe the others had been pussyfooting around it, or maybe they’d been avoiding him altogether. Either way, he had to consider the question for a moment. The bard tightened one of her strings and started another song before he spoke again.

“The Inquisitor suggested I might go on using ‘Blackwall’ as a sort of title. Until I figure out who Thom Rainier might be, at least.”

“A fine idea.”

“I thought so, as well.”

They sat in stoic, manly silence for a moment. Stoic, manly silence was sort of Blackwall’s thing . Varric couldn’t keep it up for very long.

“This is really a lucky opportunity, you know?”

Blackwall looked at him with extreme skepticism.

“You get to rewrite yourself! Character-crafting is a lot of fun, Hero. I can give you some pointers if you like. We can work with the ‘reformed murderer’ trope, I’ve done it before with positive results.” Blackwall’s expression was beginning to soften. Success . “We should give you an endearing but fatal flaw.”

“I was planning on sticking with ‘honest,’ actually.”

“Oof. You should probably pick one that isn’t quite so fatal.”

The honest ones always draw the short straws.

“Am I interrupting anything?”

Seth appeared, looking more elfy than usual in the halla wool sweater he’d received from Keeper Hawen and his silver hair braided tightly against his scalp. He slid onto the stool on Blackwall’s other side. Cabot came by to ask if he wanted the usual. He confirmed with a nod.

“I was just giving Hero, here, a few tips for developing his new identity.”

“You may as well take his advice. He’ll write you that way regardless.” He gave them both a warm, but tired smile as his usual arrived.

It was herbal tea with honey. The Inquisitor was basically what would happen if somebody’s beloved grandmother happened to be an assassin with a magical, Fade-rift-closing hand. Varric would not have been surprised to see him take up knitting. Maybe Sera would teach him.

“Inquisitor,” Blackwall started up gruffly, “I want to thank you again for….”

“Don’t.” Seth must have been dodging Blackwall’s thank-yous since they had let the man out of his irons.

“I wasn’t properly grateful when you released me.”

Actions , Blackwall,” said Seth gently. “I made my decision because your actions prove your worth. Just show your gratitude by continuing to act honorably. You’ll have ample opportunity.” He looked grimly at his cup.

“We’re marching, then.”

“The elven ruins?”

Seth nodded. “Leliana’s people have confirmed the presence of red Templars in the area. Cullen has Rylen establishing the front line. I’d like to have everyone with me for the assault.”

“Wouldn’t miss it,” said Varric before swallowing the last of his ale.

“It’s good to have you back, Varric.” Seth rose and put a hand on Varric’s shoulder to emphasize his sincerity. “These past months have been hard on all of us.”

“Yeah.” Varric tried to return Seth’s warm smile. It didn’t feel natural. Yet.

Was he back? Had he really been gone? Wasn’t he just… reinvented? He was like Blackwall, in a way. He didn’t know who Varric-without-Hawke might be any better than anybody knew Thom Rainier. That was a character he hadn’t written.

Sera entered the tavern with Iron Bull in tow. The bard played a lick from ‘Sera Was Never’ and gave a cheeky bow when the elf blew a raspberry at her. On the other side of the room, there was a fanfare of chairs as the Chargers moved to make room for their leader.

Here was yet another of Seth’s merry band who was going through a character overhaul. Who would Bull be without the Qun? And, for that matter, who would Cassandra be now that she had learned about the dark side of the Seekers? Who would Vivienne be without her patron paramour?

Skyhold could just as easily have been redubbed: Identity Crisis Central.

Nah. You can do better than that, Tethras.

Seth excused himself to share the news with Sera and Bull. Blackwall went back to staring pensively into his mug. Varric had begun thinking too hard about the details of his own identity crisis and decided to turn in before he got sucked back into that ocean of grief.

It never seemed to shrink or fade. It was always there. It was always ready to wash him away. He tried to keep his mind on anything else. At least the Inquisition made for a decent distraction.

There was a lot to be distracted by at that moment, too. They were running into a major battle based on intelligence from a woman who had accompanied the Hero of Ferelden during the Blight. A woman who claimed to be Flemeth’s daughter and apparently had a mirror that could transport you into other worlds.

Because fighting an impossibly old guy who wants to become a god and renew the glory of a dwindling empire isn’t weird enough?

Varric was halfway across the courtyard when Cole nearly ran him over. For a spirit, the kid was very solid.

“It doesn’t work.” Cole waved his arms in frustration. “It doesn’t work!”

Varric grabbed at the fabric of Cole’s coat but it slipped right through his fingers. “Hey, kid. Slow down. What’s going on?”

“It was supposed to make me safe but it doesn’t work!” He plucked frantically at an ugly metal ornament on his lapel.

“That’s the demon-binding amulet? Maybe it doesn’t work because you’re not a demon.”

“What am I, Varric?”

Shit . “I… I don’t know.” Cole looked like he might cry. “Hey, calm down. Go get Seth and bring him into Solas’ office. We’ll figure this out.”

Cole spun around on his heel and continued toward the tavern. Varric took a deep breath and let it out again before climbing up the stairs to the Keep.

Identity Crisis Central could definitely work.

The real question was: could spirits have identity crises? Could they become real boys by wishing hard enough? With all the other weird shit going on….

It was a testament to how attached he had become to Cole that Varric completely passed by what would otherwise have been an extremely suspicious character. A dwarf in full mining gear, with the hood pulled up? Even in the cold, in the mountains, that should have risen Varric’s hackles. He should have noticed. Normally, he was hyper-aware of other dwarves in the fortress. He was hyper-aware of other dwarves no matter where he was, actually. He had to be careful not to run into someone with a grudge.

Or worse.

“You’re a hard man to pin down, Varric Tethras.”

No.

Not here.

Not now.

Keep it together, Tethras. Don’t let her see your shock. Don’t give her that satisfaction. He gathered himself as quickly as possible and turned toward her voice with his Wicked Grace face on. “I’m a little busy just now, Princess.”

When he could focus on her, her lips were pursed. “You’re good, but you’re not that good. There’s no way you knew I was coming here.”

He shrugged. He couldn’t let her know he was pleased by her disappointment, either. “I work for a guy who closes holes in reality. My ability to be surprised is on a long vacation.”

“Would it surprise you to know that I’m here to help?”

“It would surprise me if your offer to help didn’t profit you in some way.”

“Oh, have I been rewritten as a villain in this story?” She flashed a coy smile and put her hands on her hips. “That’s fine. I know how fond you are of your villains.”

“Go home, Bianca.” Varric turned to walk away.

“This is really important--”

“I found him!” Cole announced as he swept past Varric and Bianca without looking. “Now we have to make it work.”

Seth was next inside the big doors. He gave Varric a shrug and rushed on, following Cole into the rotunda.

“You’ll have to wait,” said Varric. He gave Bianca one last glance before striding forward, just behind Seth.

Bianca followed. Because of course, she did.

Solas sat, surrounded by his colorful paintings and reading from an enormous leather-bound tome. He set it aside languidly, as though he had not just been ambushed, and looked up at his new audience without any hurry. “An interesting development, is it not?”

Cole whimpered. He clasped and unclasped his hands over and over.

“Is there something wrong with the amulet?” said Seth.

“No.”

“There’s something wrong with me!” Cole moaned.

“There is some sort of block.” Solas tented his fingers, pointing into his chin. “Something is holding Cole to this physical form. The amulet is meant to bind spirits but, as long as Cole has this block, he is not entirely a spirit.”

“It’s obvious to anyone he isn’t a spirit,” said Varric. “He’s made himself more. He’s real.”

“I want to be real. Sometimes.”

“See?”

“He is a spirit, Child of the Stone. He cannot deny his nature.”

There was no way Solas didn’t know just how annoying that ‘child of the stone’ bullshit was. Varric took a step forward. Seth stopped him with a hand on his shoulder.

“Can this block be broken through? Whatever Cole might be, we can all agree that we cannot risk him being bound or controlled by Corypheus.”

“I believe it can, if confronted.”

“Then the amulet will work and I’ll be safe!”

“You should be able to feel it, Cole.” Solas rose and moved to stand in front of him. “Reach within yourself and follow the thread that keeps you tied to this world.”

Every eye in the room turned to Cole. He crossed his arms over his abdomen and closed his eyes. For a moment, the room was as silent as a grave.  The lamps flickered. High up above them, a raven squawked.

“He’s there,” Cole whispered.

“He?”

“Cold. Hungry.”

“Cole?”

“He gets to walk around in the sun and eat whenever he likes. It isn’t right. It isn’t….”

“Where is he?” Seth prodded.

Cole pointed. Varric had to orient himself on an imaginary compass to figure out he was pointing east.

“In Redcliffe. I think. Maybe.” Cole turned to Seth with his eyes wide and pleading. “Will we go?”

“Yes,” Seth assured him. “We’ll leave as soon as possible.”

“Will you come, Varric?”

“Of course, kid.”

“Redcliffe is close to Vallamar,” said a voice that didn’t belong in the rotunda or at Skyhold or even within a hundred miles. “You can look into my lead while you’re there.”

Everyone suddenly noticed Bianca was in the room. Varric fought the urge to cover his face with his hands.

“I’m sorry, who are…?”

“That’s Bianca,” Cole said matter-of-factly.

Thanks, kid.

“Bianca?” Seth looked at Varric with his eyebrows raised and Varric just knew he was thinking his birthday had come early.

“Bianca Davri.” She held out her hand and flashed her most charming smile. “I’m an old friend of Varric’s.”

Seth took her hand with enthusiasm. “And your name is Bianca ,” he said suggestively.

“It’s the second most common name in the Merchant’s Guild. After Helga. I think I lucked out there, don’t you?”

“This is Sethanin Lavellan,” said Varric. “The Inquisitor. You’ll have to excuse him, he’s become unaccustomed to introducing himself.”

“Just call me Seth. Any friend of Varric’s is welcome here.” He just couldn’t get that stupid grin off his face.

“You can’t have met many of his friends,” Bianca teased. She gave him a sidelong glance.

Fucking Bianca.

Seth led the two dwarves toward the War room so they could properly discuss her plan of action. And so that he could make a big show of having Josephine assign a room to her. He made curious faces at Varric from behind Bianca’s back while Josie showered her with praise for her more famous inventions.

Varric tried not to imagine slapping them all in the face.

“So, Bianca,” Seth said her name like he was ordering a fancy cocktail, “what is this lead you have for us?”

“You have a red lyrium problem, right? I know where it’s coming from.”

“Where it’s coming from isn’t exactly a mystery, Princess. It’s sprouting up out of the ground.”

She rolled her eyes at him as she passed through the doors and into the War Room. “Most of the stuff your friends are eating is still coming out of Bartrand’s Folly.”

“Bartrand’s Folly?” Seth’s eyes scanned over the map as though he might find it marked there.

“That’s a cute name we came up with for the thaig my brother found.”

“I can’t be certain that thaig is where this lyrium originated, but it is definitely the largest known source and they are definitely mining it.” She stood on a chair and moved an unused marker to a spot near Lake Luthias on the map. “They’re using an old Dwarven settlement, Vallamar, as their staging point to distribute in Southern Thedas.”

“They’re using the Deep Roads,” said Seth, tapping at his bottom lip thoughtfully.

“How do you even know all of this?” said Varric.

Bianca scowled. “I built some doors for the Carta and I heard some rumors.” The scowl faded as she turned her charm on Seth. “All you have to do is close those doors and throw away the key. It will find them ages to find another route through the Deep Roads and, since you’ve already taken the mine at Sahrnia, this will effectively cripple the red lyrium market.”

Seth was convinced.

Varric was convinced they hadn’t gotten the whole story.

“I’ll gather a party and see how soon we can leave. We haven’t actually found the ruins in the Arbor Wilds yet, so we should have time to--Anyway!” Seth stopped himself short and gave the two dwarves a gap-toothed grin. “You two should make sure you get plenty of rest.” He gave Varric one more ecstatic look before dancing off down the hallway.

Varric groaned internally.

“He’s nice.” Bianca snaked an arm under one of Varric’s. “Are you going to show me to my room, now?”

Varric groaned externally.

After her little Auntie Kaasmari freak out, Josephine had made sure that there was one very finely decorated room furnished specifically for important dwarven visitors. Not that they received any important dwarven visitors. In fact, Josie had probably felt like her birthday had come early as well when she had gotten the opportunity to assign it. Varric was just glad it was in an entirely different wing from his own quarters.

Bianca stayed clasped onto Varric’s side while he led the way.

“Don’t act like you’re not even a little bit pleased to see me.”

That was part of the problem. He was a little bit pleased to see her. She prattled on about her work as they walked and it was like being transported into a different time. A different Varric. He hated that it was good to see her. He hated that she was still beautiful and witty. He hated himself for finding her charming.

She paused her diatribe to sigh wistfully. “It’s been too long, Varric.”

“It hasn’t been long enough.”

“You’re so grumpy,” she said cheerfully. “So. How’s Hawke?”

“Dead.” Not that it’s any of your business.

“Ugh. I get it. You don’t want to talk to me. You don’t have to be so--”

Varric kept walking. Bianca stopped, still holding his arm.

“Wait. You’re serious.”

He stared into the wall, trying to match its stony face.

“When?”

“A month ago.” He shrugged. Somewhere between a second ago and a century ago. “Maybe two.”

“Varric, I--”

“Don’t.”

He tried to turn away, to keep moving, but she held a tight grip on his arm. She pulled him until he looked at her. Her eyes were wide with what was probably meant to be sincerity.

“I’m sorry,” said Bianca. Maybe it was sincerity. All the cocky flirtation was gone from her expression. “I know she meant a lot to you.” She looked down at her hand on his arm. “It wouldn’t have pissed me off so bad if I hadn’t known that.”

Varric pointed down the hallway. “Third door on the right is yours. There’s a nug painted on it. We’re not a subtle organization.”

“Varric, if you want to talk about it--”

“No.” He said it harshly enough that she looked genuinely hurt. He found himself feeling a twinge of regret at the cold reception he’d been giving her. She wasn’t a villain. She was just… Bianca. “No,” he said more gently. “Thanks.”

She squeezed his arm one more time. “Goodnight, Varric.”

When he was back around the corner he let out a sigh that felt like it had been trapped in his chest for hours.

Fucking Bianca.

*

Varric,

Make sure the Inquisitor knows that I appreciate him taking the time to clean up my mess. My last words to him were less than gracious. I definitely meant them but I probably could have slipped a thank-you somewhere in there.

So, yeah. I screwed up. I didn’t want to just announce that when I hadn’t seen you since Kirkwall fucking exploded. I still think it was worth it. You and Bartrand went into that thaig for a paycheck but what I learned from it could change everything . If lyrium is alive … I know. I know! I know I got people killed. I feel terrible about that. I nearly got myself killed. That’s the price of progress, Varric . And how could I have known that Larius guy was bad news? He was a Grey Warden, they’re supposed to be the good guys! If you had only bothered to tell me what

The point of this was not to justify myself. I can only act according to what I know and what I think is best. I think that somewhere, deep down, you understand that.

The point of this letter is to thank you for hearing me out. Thank you for not having me hauled out by soldiers the moment you realized it was me and for not calling for my head the moment you figured out all of this was my fault. I couldn’t be sure how much you might have changed over the years and I was pleased to discover that it was very little. I’m glad you had someone taking care of you while we were apart and I really am sorry she’s gone.

Consider coming to visit me. I know, you said it was over. And I respect that, but… it’s never really over, Varric. Someday we’ll either return to the Stone or to wherever you Andrastians go when you die and one of us will get to say ‘I Told You So.’ I’ll leave it up to you whether we get to spend the intervening years antagonizing one another or enjoying each other’s company.

Yours always,

Bianca

Varric actually chuckled to himself as he folded Bianca’s letter and tucked it into one of many pockets within his coat. Death, Taxes, and Bianca: the things he would never truly escape. I’ll leave it up to you . That was funny. What she meant by that was: I probably won’t send assassins after you until after you’ve ignored the next ten or fifteen letters .

“I see you giggling, there,” Seth pulled his horse up beside Varric’s. “Is that a saucy letter from your lady?”

“Something like that, yeah.”

After closing Bianca’s doors and discovering that she had, inadvertently, given Corypheus access to that route in the first place, they had gone straight to Redcliffe to deal with Cole’s ‘block.’ Solas was still sulking over the result of that particular mission. He was currently walking, on foot, a good distance away from the rest of the Inquisition.

For all of Solas’ insistence that Cole was denying his true nature, Cole seemed none the worse for wear. He was acting strangely, of course, but Cole was always strange. Now he was strange and couldn’t be forgotten. He had to use smoke bombs to disappear, like the rest of the sneaky types on the team. He felt real pain sometimes. Varric suspected that hunger might come along before too long and he’d have to be guided through the great array of edible and inedible objects.

There were pleasant sensations for him to discover, as well. He had taken to pulling off his hat to enjoy the wind in his hair. At that moment, he was patting the silky mane of his horse. He was also talking to the horse.

After Redcliffe, they had traveled southwest until they met up with the rest of the Inquisition forces heading into the Dales. Leliana had been waiting for them with a small conspiracy of ravens, the letter from Bianca, and that terrifying, amused expression she always wore when she believed she had figured out something secret and scandalous.

Now they were all en route to the Arbor Wilds, hopefully to find out whatever the hell Corypheus was after and snatch it up before he could. It seemed a shaky premise but the weather was good and half the Orlesian army would be there to help them so maybe nobody Varric liked would die. This time.

“Just how long have you and Bianca been… you and Bianca?” said Seth.

“I guess it’s been….” Varric paused to do the math. “Sixteen years, give or take.”

Seth whistled. “In all that time, you’ve never thought about settling down? Making an honest woman of her?”

“Careful, Inquisitor, someone might think you have marriage on the brain.” Seth coughed and turned a lurid shade of pink. Mission accomplished. “Anyway,” Varric let out a melodramatic sigh, “she’s someone else’s honest woman.”

“Varric Tethras, you utter scoundrel!”

Varric gave Seth a roguish grin. It almost felt natural. Maybe he was back .



Chapter Text

I think it is nearly the end.

I’ve never been so tired. The Arishok was a stroll on the beach compared to this. Corypheus was a refreshing jog. The weeks I spent traveling with Fiona and her entitled magical princesses was a fucking honeymoon vacation.

Another batch of shades oozes out from the shadows. This part has become routine: push them away from me with a wave of force, cut through the closest one, lightning or fire usually takes care of the rest. If The Nightmare tries to come in while I’m distracted, a strong frost spell often slows him down. I’ve used at least three times as much magic in this fight as I had in my entire magical career leading up to it.

But then, who knows how long this has been going on? Time doesn’t move right in the Fade. There isn’t any day or night. No way to track the hours or the years. Everyone I know could have died of old age while I fought this futile battle. I might go on fighting it for all eternity.

Shit.

No. I think the end is coming soon.

Neither of us is unscathed. I keep having to wipe blood out of my eyes, coming from Maker knows where. Pain is coming from too many places to guess. I’m certain one or more of my ribs is broken and I know that my shoulders and hips would both be too sore and stiff to move if there was ever such a thing as a tomorrow. The Nightmare has only five functioning legs remaining of its original way-too-fucking-many. Most of its eyes are milky white and hopefully blinded.

It doesn’t care for fire.

With the shades dispatched, The Nightmare comes forward again. It juts out one of its remaining legs and, this time, I’m too slow. Before I can roll out of the way it catches me and presses down. That spiny spider leg goes most of the way through my thigh and then retracts again. The Nightmare laughs while I struggle to get back on my feet.

The pain is intense but it’s dulled by all the existing pains I’ve been fighting through all this time. In fact, it kind of helps. It wakes me up, reminds me I’m alive. Some of the haze of my fatigue has lifted.

I send a hailstorm of fireballs at it and it reels back. I’m still alive you demonic bastard!

But I’m bleeding.

I’m bleeding a lot.

This is probably the end.

If I had a potion left, this would be a good moment to drink it. There are no potions, not in my belt and not in my pack. I have some fresh elfroot in there, somewhere. I should ask The Nightmare to stop killing me for a moment so I can grind up a poultice. Ha! Will a poultice do me any good while I’m actively bleeding? Probably not.

The demon sweeps downward again, mandibles clacking and fangs dripping with black ichor. I get out of the way successfully, this time, but my leg drags across the ground and I’m momentarily blinded by the pain of it. I think there is gravel in the wound now.

Along with spider leg hairs.

Ew.

“Father always said you should work harder on healing spells.”

Oh, good. Now I’m hallucinating.

It’s definitely the end.

I’m not going alone, though. Oh, no. That hairy spider bastard is coming down with me. I swing my staff around and slice it into the nearest leg before it has time to step back. It lets out an incredible scream of pain and frustration as it totters away. Four legs down.

“You must remember the spell to help blood clot. That’s a simple one.”

Maker, that voice. I could never forget that voice, not in a hundred lifetimes.

“I’m a little busy, Bets,” I say while I limp after the demon.

“Father would say, ‘Magic is the only currency that buys time.’ Try some more lightning. It really doesn’t like that.”

I let out a growl of annoyance but I take hallucination-Bethany’s advice and call down a bolt of lightning. It comes down in a shower, at least thirty bolts cracking through the darkness, scorching dark circles all over the spider’s gleaming black exoskeleton. Its body tumbles downward as it loses its footing. Then it swoops back up. It’s still coming but not for much longer.

That’s right. It’s the end for both of us.

“YOU CANNOT TRULY DEFEAT ME. I AM THE CRAWLING IN THE DARK. I AM--”

You are an asshole.”

I summon another fireball, a big one. It hits true and the demon comes plummeting down again.

There’s a peel of bell-toned giggles to my left. “You’ve finally figured out magic’s easier for you here, huh?”

I don’t have time to respond to her teasing. This might be my last opportunity, it might be the last chance I get to kill this thing before the bloodloss gets to me or I’m well and truly crippled by the pain. I rush at The Nightmare unsteadily, holding my staff like a lance and channeling lightning through it with an ease that makes my head spin.

Or maybe that’s the bloodloss.

The blade of the staff breaks through the spider’s hide with a snap and keeps going. Lightning surrounds it in an elaborate cage of purple light. The creature shakes and shimmers with that electric force.

Then it’s still.

I kick at it with my injured leg. Not the best decision I’ve ever made. It hurts like hell. But the demon doesn’t move.

The Nightmare is dead.

It’s over.

Now it’s my turn.

I use my staff to lower myself to the ground, then let go of it carelessly as I lie back completely. I look up at the sky. Well, I look up at the swirling chaos that passes for sky in the Fade. I might be imagining it, but it looks like it’s getting lighter out there.

“This area doesn’t belong to the Nightmare anymore,” says Bethany. I can hear slippers on gravel. Like there’s really someone there. “It might even be pretty here, one day.”

I don’t want to look at her. I don’t want to turn my head and see nothing. I keep my eyes pointed upward even as I hear the unmistakable sound of someone sitting next to me. I can hear the fabric of her clothes whispering as she dusts herself off. I close my eyes and take a breath before I finally look.

Shit.

“You look just like her.”

“That’s the idea, Riss,” says Bethany with a smile that lights up her warm brown eyes. They’re just like Father’s eyes. Thick black waves frame her lovely face. A young face. It’s the face of someone who stopped aging at nineteen. Because that’s when she died.

A spasm of pain radiates from my leg. Incredible pain. I groan and curl up on my side. I’m so tired. I’m so Maker-damned cold. When I open my eyes again, my vision has gone blurry. I can tell Bethany is watching.

“Are you here to take me away?” I ask her.

“Away where? Oh!” She reaches down and strokes my hair. She even feels real. “Don’t be silly, Rissa. You’re not going to die.”

“I’m pretty sure this is what dying feels like.”

“How would you even know?”

She’s right. How would I even know? It’s not like I’m the one who got crushed into paste by a great, sodding ogre while everyone else watched on in fucking horror.

“Bets.” Maker, I can feel the stinging in my eyes and nose. I’m stuck in the Fade and I’m dying and I’m going to cry in front of some blighted demon wearing my dead sister’s face. “Bet’s, I’m sorry I couldn’t save you.”

“Stop that.” Her hands are warm as she tries to prod me upward. “Just sit up and try to remember a little healing magic. It’ll come easier here, just like the other spells.” She helps me up, pulling my back flush against her torso. I used to pull her into me like that while Father read adventure stories to us.

Carver liked to sit next to Father where he could see the pictures.

Bethany reaches under my arm and rests a hand just over the wound, still gurgling with blood. Maker, how much blood do I have? How am I so cold? How is she so warm?

“Do you remember the vessels?”

“No.”

“You do, so.”

“Femoral?”

“Right. Can you find it?”

“It’s… it’s in there.” I gesture at my bloody mess of a leg. My chest feels heavy.

“Find it with magic, Riss. You have to feel it. I know it hurts.”

Bethany combs her fingers through my hair while I reach inward. It’s a tricky thing, feeling with magic. That’s the first thing you need to be any good at healing, and I’ve never been any good at it. Even now, the inner workings of my body are labyrinthine and foreign and so Maker-damned painful.

But it is easier in the Fade, just like Bethany said. I don’t seem to run out of mana here. There doesn’t seem to be any cap to my power. I haven’t felt the telltale prickling sensation that usually warns me that I’m pushing myself too hard. So, I keep pushing. I find the severed blood vessels and try to mend them. It’s tricky. I’m probably doing it wrong. I think I’ve stopped the worst of the bleeding, though. Then I knit the muscle and skin. It isn’t perfect but maybe I’ll live.

I’m alive. I think. I’m still so tired. So cold. Now that the pain is less, the fatigue is taking over.

Bethany hums a tune I thought I had forgotten. She and Father used to sing that song together. She got his eyes and his talent for music. That song reminds me of Lothering in autumn. It reminds me of Carver baking bread and Mother mending stockings.

I can almost touch it. Maybe it’s heaven. Maybe it’s a dream. Where do you go to dream when you’re already in the Fade?

 

*

 

Hawke watched the tiny elf careen around the yard, mimicking the ravens circling above. He had hair to match them; thick, black and glossy. She would never have guessed this wildly happy, chubby-cheeked boy was Fenris if she hadn’t come across his dreams before. Fenris was easy to find, for some reason.

He paused for a moment, then knelt to pick up a fallen sprig of orange blossoms. He smiled at the little white flowers. “ Pulchra ,” he whispered at them.

Hawke smiled, too. It was too bad the dream would fade away soon. She could never seem to hold onto them.

He turned to look at Hawke. She was never sure if they could see her. It never seemed like they could, but this time--

Avanna, Hawke.” he said. His smile had turned sad.

“Fenris?"

“Why do you keep coming to me here? I am trying to move on.” His serious expression looked so strange on that round, baby face.

“I don’t know. I’m sorry. I--”

“Do you see this?” Where the orange sprig had been, he instead held out a piece of thick paper that looked like it had been crumpled and flattened many times. It looked like it was covered in nonsense, just lines of geometrical runes that meant nothing to Hawke. “This says you are dead. Are you dead, Hawke?”

“I don’t know. I guess so.”

“I would not have been able to read this if not for you.” He crumpled it up and threw it on the ground. “If you are dead, then go be dead.”

The little walled yard started to disappear. The dream was fading.

Tiny dream Fenris looked at her with wide green eyes. “Wait! Hawke! I did not mean--”

Then he was gone.

The dreams were lovely but they were disorienting. Especially when they were the dreams of her friends. They pulled her around like a strong tide. Their impressions of her were strong enough and just different enough from her own memories that she always came out of the dream turned the wrong way. She couldn’t always remember all the events that led up to the current moment.

They stepped into dreams by accident and left them just as inexplicably. Suddenly, they would be in a Val Royeaux alley or in an Alienage somewhere in the Free Marches or in someone’s dusty, childhood home. Even nightmares could be lovely when one stood on the periphery.  It was something other than the endless dark green wasteland, anyway, because the rest of the time they were just wandering the Raw Fade.

It was all confusing. Hawke got confused a lot.

The lack of proper physics might have been fine if only the un-physics of the Fade were consistent. A craggy mountain might appear to be far on the horizon but with another step, they’d be right beside it and it would turn out to be a small pile of stones. Sometimes Hawke could think herself across great distances and other times they spent hours traveling only to find that what they had been walking toward no longer existed. Even the Black City behaved like an illusion. It floated in the exact same place, high up above, no matter how far they walked or how the terrain below changed.

And there was no way of knowing how far they may have walked because the Fade had neither time nor any true landmarks. There were only dreams and memories and the distant ghosts of memories all twisted up by the spirits that had hung onto them.

There were things there, sometimes. Trees, even, though twisted and wrong as though someone forgot what a tree ought to look like. The ground was littered with odd detritus that disappeared as soon as you touched it.  Hawke learned early on that the most solid structures in the Fade tended to be home to the most powerful creatures. A beautiful, moonlit grotto turned out to hold a formidable desire demon. A perfect replica of Denerim Castle housed something terrible enough that Bethany and Father had pulled Hawke away before she could meet it.

They were helpful to have around. Sometimes. Other times, they just made Hawke more confused. They reappeared just as Fenris and his childhood home vanished. Why was she haunting his dreams? Why was she here in the Fade with Bethany and Father following her around? Didn’t they have somewhere they needed to be? And where was Mother?

“Where is Mother?” said Hawke. As she said it, she sensed that she had asked it before. “Shouldn’t she be here with us?”

Father gave Bethany an uncharacteristically exasperated look and Bethany gave Hawke an indulgent smile.

“We’ve been over this, Rissa. You’re not dead.”

Right. The Inquisition. The Grey Wardens. The dragon. The Nightmare. Not dead. Just stuck. And that’s not really Father and Bethany.

“You may as well be dead if we cannot find you a way back into the mortal world.” Father crossed his arms and gazed out over the barren landscape. “So much will be left undone.”

“She’s going to get out,” said Bethany cheerfully.

“You must exert your own will in the dream, sweetling.” Father put his hand on her arm and it was just like when he told her she needed to avoid burning other people’s property when she was practicing fire magic. “Communicate with the mortals. Once they know you’re alive….”

But that wasn’t Father, and this wasn’t Lothering, and Hawke wasn’t fourteen anymore. Maybe she wasn’t Hawke anymore. Maybe she really was dead and this was exactly the sort of situation that turned spirits into demons; this obsession with getting out of the Fade.

She needed to find someone she could trust. She needed someone who wouldn’t easily be swayed by the illusions of the Fade. She needed someone who would be able to tell her if she was really her .

She knew exactly who she wanted to find.

But dwarves don’t dream.

“She’s going to figure it out, sourpuss,” said Bethany from Hawke’s other side. Grass had started to spring up around their feet. “See! She already has another chance. I have a good feeling about this one.”

The grass spread like a carpet rolling out and came to a sudden end at a rocky cliff. There was a sound of waves crashing below and the whole scene was illuminated by bright sunlight. Hawke felt her pulse race as she recognized the particular curve of the coastline.

“We’re near Kirkwall.”

Bethany grinned and even Father looked less dour.

How Hawke came across the dreams she encountered was as inexplicable as the landscape of the Fade itself. For every dream she found that belonged to someone she knew and cared for, she seemed to enter five belonging to people she had never met, of places she had never seen. Sometimes she didn’t even recognize the language. It was unusual to find herself someplace recognizable so soon after finding Fenris again.

She walked forward, feeling out the strange, secondary gravity that always existed in dreams. It would pull her toward the dreamer. Would it be someone she knew or someone who simply shared her love of the Wounded Coast? The pull called her inward, toward the foothills of Sundermount, and then suddenly stopped.

“She’s warded her dreams,” said a voice coming from nowhere and everywhere. “She didn’t feel safe after her Keeper died.”

“Who are you?” said Hawke. “Whose dream is this?”

“Don’t you know me? You’ve taken a form that should know me.”

“I can’t see you.”

A little orb of light floated over and expanded until it was about the size and shape of a person. Then it took form. Hawke knew that form.

“Feynriel?”

Chapter Text

“It must worry you to be separated from your son like this, Morrigan.”

Damn. Varric slipped into the underbrush to avoid being seen. He’d been trying to catch Morrigan alone since he had arrived at the front line with the Inquisitor’s party but, of course, the woman was in high demand. She had brought two major world powers together to take part in this battle, after all, and when she wasn’t discussing business with Seth or Empress Celene, she seemed to disappear entirely. Naturally, then, the moment Varric caught her wandering the camp alone, Leliana had gotten to her first.

“’Tis true my mother would not have hesitated to bring an eleven year old child to a battlefield. I do like to think I have learned from some of her mistakes.”

It was a cold sort of reunion for two people who had famously accompanied the Hero of Ferelden in ending the Fifth Blight. Intrigued, Varric decided to let them have at it for a while before making his presence known. He wasn’t eavesdropping. Not really. He was just waiting to cut in. From behind a nearby tree.

“Kieran is such a charming boy. I suppose he must take after his father.”

Morrigan laughed off the barely veiled insult. She had a surprisingly girlish laugh. “Yes, his charm must be a mystery to you. Thankfully, however, his father had little to do with him. The man was a bit of an idiot.”

“Was? He is dead, then.” Leliana sounded disappointed; probably that she couldn’t find the poor bastard and interrogate him.

“You would so dearly like to know, wouldn’t you?”

There was a crash from the depths of the forest, followed by a cacophony of brilliantly colored birds screeching as they took flight. Morrigan swore and hissed something under her breath about clumsy fools. Leliana would not be distracted from her line of inquiry.

“I think my curiosity is warranted. The timing is so interesting, after all. You said he is eleven years old? Why, one might even suspect you were pregnant when we parted at Denerim. And there were some attractive men with us at that time. Riordan, Maker keep him, was very gallant, and of course Bann Teagan. Did you know he’s the Arl now?”

“Still so nosy, Leliana. You must realize that is why Briony never truly trusted you.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Leliana snapped. “Briony is my dearest friend. She is my closest confidante.”

The infamous Sister Nightingale should never have fallen for such an obvious ploy to change the subject. Varric hadn’t even been sure Leliana had nerves to strike, but the witch had definitely struck one.

“Is that so? I suppose she must have told you when she left, then. Or did you have to find out by your usual means?”

“She told no one. Not even Alistair.”

“Hmm,” Morrigan intoned imperiously. A twig snapped a little too close to Varric’s hiding place. “Ah, but it seems you are not the only busybody in your Inquisition. Come out, dwarf. Cease your skulking.”

He was found out. Varric rounded his tree and faced the two bickering women with his arms open and a roguish smirk on his face.

“Who, me? I wasn’t skulking. I was just hoping you two might talk about that mirror of yours once you finished clawing at one another.”

Morrigan raised an eyebrow. “You could simply ask. I do not bite.”

“That’s a brazen lie, Varric,” said Leliana. She patted his shoulder as she made her stage right exit. “Keep your jugular protected.”

Morrigan smiled darkly. Her yellow, birdlike eyes made Varric feel as though he was staring down a predator. He had no doubt at all that Leliana had given him sage advice.

“We haven’t been properly introduced.” Varric took a couple steps forward. He went to hold out a hand to her but she turned her body in a way that clearly said she was not the handshaking type.

“I am Morrigan and you are Varric Tethras. That should be proper enough, yes?” She gestured toward the path with a slight nod.

Sure. Why not take a stroll through a jungle full of red Templars while we chat about ancient elven artifacts?

“Now. What have you heard about my Eluvian?”

“Seth said it transports people to another world.”

“A rather romantic description. The Eluvians were created for travel. One may travel between two different Eluvians or between a single Eluvian and its counterpart.”

“It’s counterpart?”

“This is where your Inquisitor has let his imagination run rampant. I showed him a place I call The Crossroads. It is a place between. Like the Fade, it is not a separate world from our own, but a reflection of it.”

“Like the Fade? So one of those mirrors could take someone into the Fade?”

Morrigan narrowed her eyes at him. “Theoretically, yes. We are here in this forest because I believe our enemy is relying on that that theory being true. I have not yet discovered such a path, however.” She seemed to be choosing her words carefully. “Tell me, what is your interest in this subject?”

“Apart from the fact that I’m risking my ass based on this theory of yours?”

“Apart from that, yes.”

“A friend of mine built one of those things. It’s always given me the creeps.”

Morrigan stopped and crossed her arms. She looked at him skeptically. “Built one?”

That had probably not been a good description of what Merrill had done. Bled all over one is more accurate. “Well, she had a piece of a broken one that she sort of… refurbished. I thought, if I could give her some information about that mirror, it might be some consolation.”

“For the loss of your fallen comrade? I will confess, I rather feared you were hoping to use an Eluvian to follow your foolhardy friend into certain death.”

“I… hadn’t thought of it.” Seth had said there was no chance she had survived but maybe if they had a body there could be some kind of closure. Would there be anything left? Did things decay in the Fade like they did in the real world? A proper Andrastian pyre might--

“Continue not thinking of it,” said Morrigan sharply. “There are less convoluted ways to die for this cause.” There was another explosion from somewhere in the forest, followed by soldiers shouting and a horn blowing. Morrigan swore again. “We must find this temple before the Inquisition flattens it. But you have piqued my interest, dwarf. Perhaps I will seek out this friend of yours when all of this is done.”

“I think she’d enjoy your company.”

Morrigan laughed. “Your friend must be very strange.”

“All my friends are strange.”

*

Knowing what an Eluvian was capable of and actually experiencing it were two entirely different beasts.

One moment, they were deep within the Temple of Mythal and Seth was tasked with making yet another impossible decision. Would he drink from the Well of Sorrows and obtain the ancient knowledge of his people at the risk of being controlled thereafter by an elven god who may or may not be dead? Or would he trust that ancient knowledge to a relative stranger? A human apostate with unknown motivations?

The next moment, Morrigan had activated the Eluvian at the center of the well and they were all running frantically through it with Corypheus himself at their backs.

Running through a mirror was not a natural act. It was not a rational act. Whatever ancient elf had come up with using magical mirrors as a mode of transportation really needed to rethink their life choices.

First, it was cold. It was so cold that Varric was certain something had gone horribly wrong and he was going to freeze to death in one of Morrigan’s mysterious in-between places. Then, just as suddenly, the cold was gone and he found himself tumbling out onto solid ground. Cassandra was already there, looking just as sick as Varric felt. Solas came through behind him, landing on the floor as agile as a dancer.

“Where the hell are we now?”

“I believe we are back in Skyhold,” said Cassandra.

“Yes,” Solas observed coolly, “this would appear to be Morrigan’s Eluvian.”

Morrigan herself was next through the mirror, closely followed by Seth. The moment Seth had both feet on the floor, Morrigan waved her hands across the swirling light and the Eluvian settled into something that looked like an ordinary, if ornate, looking glass.

Seth looked around and recognized the place immediately. “We can’t be here!” He lunged toward Morrigan. “We have to go back!”

“The way is closed, Inquisitor. Be thankful that Corypheus was unable to follow us through.”

“My army is in the Arbor Wilds. My… my people will think we’re all dead!”

“We must send a raven at once,” said Cassandra, stepping between Seth and Morrigan. Seth looked more agitated than Varric had ever seen him.

“’Tis your only option,” said Morrigan.

Seth clasped his hands into fists. “You will tell me everything you learned from that well.”

Morrigan’s expression softened. “I will try.”

Cassandra and Seth rushed out of the room through a door that led, unnervingly, into the garden at the center of Skyhold’s keep. Varric hadn’t even realized this room existed. He wondered if he would have felt more or less sick if he had any of that Stone Sense other dwarves were so fond of boasting about. Dwarves were definitely not made to travel hundreds of miles in the blink of an eye.

He looked back before making his exit and caught Solas and Morrigan engaged in some kind of staring war.

“Was it everything you’d hoped?” said Solas.

“That remains to be seen,” said Morrigan.

A moment later, Kieran rushed past Varric straight for his mother. She scooped him up in a tight embrace while Solas and Varric passed into the garden without speaking.

The excitement level took a sharp dive after that.

With the bulk of the Inquisition still hundreds of miles away, Skyhold was eerily quiet. It was too quiet.

For a few days, the quiet was nice. Varric got all of his correspondence finished and had managed to settle a rather lucrative, if ambiguously legal, shipping arrangement with a little help from Isabela. Once he ran out of business matters to deal with, Varric found himself missing the bustle and mayhem of the Inquisition. They could really have used Sera and her pranks during those weeks in between.

Seth stalked the keep like a tiny storm cloud when he wasn’t staring out at the mountains from Leliana’s ravenry tower. He was anxious about the others--Dorian in particular--traveling without him while Corypheus was still at large. He was brooding over his decision to let Morrigan drink from the Well of Sorrows. His clan, back in the Free Marches, also seemed to be going through something of a kerfuffle with a local lord. And he still had the weight of southern Thedas on his shoulders. He was not good company, was what all that came down to, and Varric decided to give him room to be bad company.

Everyone needs that, sometimes.

Solas, of course, was not usually good company. He started a new mural on his rotunda wall and spoke to nobody but Seth.

Which left Cassandra.

Cassandra would have been fine! They had built up a sort of rapport that had almost counterbalanced the fact that she had kidnapped and held him hostage for months. The fact that she loved his worst books really made up for a lot. But then she had to go and grill him about Bianca and he had to go and get testy over it.

And then he had to go and feel bad about it.

May as well drink, then. Drinking out of boredom had to be safer than drinking out of grief. That was the thought he had as he ordered his third mug of ale, anyway. But drinking alone was kind of a drag. The surly looks he exchanged with Cabot just weren’t making him feel quite at home. Two thirds of the way through that last mug, Varric had a really terrible idea.

Just a truly awful idea that he was definitely going to regret.

“Hey, Cabot. Have you still got that bottle of Eight Twenty-Three Antivan tawny?” Varric had caught the barkeep lovingly dusting off that bottle months ago.

“Not for what you’re offering,” Cabot replied grumpily.

Yep. Varric was going to regret a lot about this plan.

“Name your price.”

 

Armed with his very bad idea, two clean glasses, and his very expensive bottle of port, Varric crossed the little patch of yard that separated The Herald’s Rest from the smithy. Cassandra was predictable. If she wasn’t hacking at some poor training dummy in the yard, she would be reading in her cozy alcove above the forge. Sure enough, she lifted her nose out of a book to look at him quizzically as he came up the stairs.

“What is this?”

“This?” He held out his dusty bottle. “This had better make us think we’ve been chatting up the Maker, for what I paid for it.”

Cassandra rolled her eyes at him. “I mean, what are you doing here, Varric?”

“I’m making a peace offering. And a confession.”

“You what? No, Varric. This is unnecessary.” She crossed her hands over her book and looked at him sincerely. “I had no right to pry into your personal life.”

“No more right than I had in prying back at yours.” He sat the glasses on the table and went to work opening the bottle.

“I did not tell you about Galyan because you asked. I told you as… penance, of a kind. You are no longer my prisoner to interrogate or pass judgement on. I told you about him to make us even.”

“You failed there, Seeker. We are far from even.”

Varric sighed as the cork came free from the bottle. It smelled warm and sweet and old and perfect. He poured it into the glasses, measuring out three fingers. There was still time to back out. He could just share his rare booze and run.

Of course, cowardice was what had gotten him into his emotional pickle in the first place.

Cassandra looked at the glass, then back at Varric. “I don’t understand.”

“You told me something true. Something real. There’s power in truth. You know that, or you wouldn’t do what you do.”

“Perhaps you have had enough.” She smirked at him.

“Drink, Seeker.”

She made an appreciative noise as she brought the cup under her nose and another as she sipped. “Oh, that’s good.”

It better be.

“You know, Bianca wasn’t even going to tell me about Bogden Vasca. That’s her husband.” He took a sip. Damn, it was good. “I found out about it days before the wedding. She doesn’t lie to you, Bianca, she just avoids telling you the truths she knows will piss you off.”

“Varric, you really don’t have to--”

“Drink, Seeker.” Another sip, for courage. “I put up with a lot of shit in those days. It was easier to put up with it than to deal with it. Safer. I didn’t have to worry about getting set up with some guild princess or getting tangled up with a pretty Carta girl as long as I had my crossbow and my secrets and my walls.”

“You stayed with her out of habit?”

“Pretty much. All the way up until the chantry blew. I was so sure that part of my story was already written--that it began and ended with her--that I barely understood what was happening when it came around again.”

“Came around again. You mean to say that you… fell in love again?” He had her now. She had finished her port and was clasping her empty glass with both hands. She stared at him wide-eyed like a kid listening to an adventure story; like he was about to resolve the latest cliffhanger from Swords and Shields.

This is your last chance to back out, Tethras.

“Yeah.” He filled her glass and topped off his own. “Only this time, I fucked it up.”

“What happened?”

“I was a coward. I let her go into Adamant without telling her.”

“Oh.”

A heavy quiet followed while Varric and Cassandra gazed into their cups and the fire below cracked more cheerfully than really seemed appropriate.

Now we’re even, Seeker.”

“Varric, I’m so sorry. I had no idea. But you were so close, she must have known that you loved her.”

“It gets worse.” What are you doing, Tethras? He had said what he had gone there to say and he was still talking. The port was too good. He took another sip. It was a little too big to actually call a sip. “You see, I kept up the Bianca ruse the whole time. I let Hawke think what we had was just a diversion, instead of what it was.” He emptied his glass. “It was everything.”

Cassandra took his hand in hers and squeezed it hard. When he looked up he saw that she had tears in her eyes. His own eyes were stinging.

“Hawke was no fool, Varric. I’m sure she--”

Suddenly there were bells ringing and people shouting. They were sounding the alarm. The door below them crashed open and someone called up.

“Seeker Pentaghast! Assassins! The Inquisitor is under attack!”

Varric and Cassandra rushed down the stairs, only a little unsteadily. Cassandra had her sword and shield in hand before Varric had a chance to notice where she had picked them up from.

“Don’t wait for me!” She barked at the red-faced recruit who held open the door to the forge. He had probably been off the farm for less than a week. “To arms, everyone! To the Keep! Protect the Inquisitor!”

They followed a swarming crowd across the courtyard and up the stairs to the grand entrance of Skyhold’s keep. At some point they were joined by Wrex who hopped around Varric and barked excitedly.

“You big idiot, get in there and protect Seth!”

Wrex barked again and turned a circle. He stayed resolutely by Varric’s side.

Cassandra pushed people aside roughly, cutting through the mob that had filled the great hall. Varric followed close behind, staying in the wake she was creating. At the front, the congregation had formed a half-circle around an ongoing scuffle.

“Back!” They heard Seth yell. “Stay back, all of you. I have this under control.”

“Do you, Inquisitor?”

Shit. Varric knew that voice.

Wrex barked happily. Wrex knew that voice, too.

They broke through the crowd to see Seth with both daggers out and gleaming as he circled a much slower opponent. They were of similar size and stature, both of them being elves, but Seth’s opponent carried a single, massive sword.

And he was glowing.

Shit. Varric knew that glowing elf.

“Damn it, Fenris.”

“Stay out of this, dwarf.”

“You know I can’t do that. This guy is the only one who can clean up this mess. If you kill him, you kill us all.”

“He will live. I only wish to squeeze him.” Fenris let his sword swing low in one hand so he could illustrate his point with a glowing fist. “He should know how this feels.”

Seth stepped back but his shoulders clearly relaxed a little. “This is about Hawke.”

Fenris lunged forward and Seth put his guard back up. “You left her to die.”

“She chose to stay.”

“Of course, she chose to stay! Hawke makes shit choices. It’s what she does! It is what she did.” His sword lowered as his shoulders slumped. “We would not have left her behind. Where were we?” He looked over at Varric as his sword blade dragged against the ground. “Where were you?”

“I wasn’t there.”

“You were not there.” He dropped the sword entirely and it hit the ground with a bright clang. “None of us were there. Is that why she hounds me? Does she hound you, as well?”

Seth cautiously sheathed his daggers. “Varric?”

“I’ll handle this.”

Varric was vaguely aware of Seth and Cassandra urging the crowd to disburse. Fenris stopped glowing and sank to his knees with his back to the Inquisitor’s spiked throne.

“Come on, elf. I’ve got a sofa and a bottle of red in my room and your name is written all over both of them.”

“Why did nobody go back for her?”

“They were in the Fade, Fenris. They were physically in the Fade. Like how the Blight got started? There was no going back.”

“How do you know she is dead?”

“Seth said--”

“How do you know?”

Varric felt a chill go down his spine that didn’t fade away.

*

It’s the Hanged Man.

That doesn’t make any sense, does it?

It’s the Hanged Man, but it’s all wrong. One moment, there are too many tables and the common room seems to stretch out into forever. The next moment, there’s only one table: the usual table. The one with the best views of the bar, the stairs and the door. Just in case. Everything else is a hazy mess. Corff is a shadow, stiffly situated behind the merest hint of a bar.

And suddenly he’s directly in front of me, at the usual table, setting down a mug.

And then back behind the bar again.

I’m hallucinating. That’s the only answer.

What was I doing before all of this happened? Had I been drinking? Shit, of course I’d been drinking. Nothing crazy, though, just some wine with Fenris. And the ale at the Herald’s Rest before that. And the port.

The port!

No. Even hundred year old port shouldn’t do this.

Maybe I pissed someone off. There are a lot of mages around and there are probably a lot of potions that can make people hallucinate. If it’s a drug, I just have to wait it out. If it’s a pissed off mage, well….

I feel something shift, like a change in the direction of the wind. Only there is no wind. The front door of the Hanged Man briefly materializes, still surrounded by the vague mist filling the rest of the room. It opens and Hawke walks in.

It feels like someone is stepping on my chest.

Fuck. I can’t have pissed someone off this bad.

She doesn’t fit in with the rest of the hallucination. She’s bright. Vivid. She stands out in stark detail. And she doesn’t look like the last time I saw her. She looks like she used to, with her hair cut short; missing the scar over her left eye from fighting Corypheus the first time. [No, as soon as I notice the scar is missing it appears just where it’s meant to be.] She’s wearing the full regalia of the Champion, all furs and pointed armor, and there’s a flash of red war paint over the bridge of her nose that makes her eyes glow even more like blue flames. This is Battle-Hawke and she is magnificent.

Battle-Hawke walks with a limp, which doesn’t make sense. She crosses casually over to the usual table, right next to me, and picks up the blurry mug. It looks like a shiny cloud against her all-too-solid form. It’s a little nauseating, actually. She drinks from the mug and sighs as she puts it back on the table.

“Doesn’t taste like anything at all,” she says wearily. “I don’t know what I was expecting.”

Her voice gives me goosebumps. This is too much. It’s too real.

“Hawke?” My voice comes out in a croak.

“Hmm?”

“What the hell is going on?”

She reaches over and brushes my jaw with her fingers and I’m pretty sure my heart is going to burst out of my chest any moment now. “Looks like a dream to me, Vee.”

“Dwarves don’t dream,” I say.

Hawke’s somber face cracks open into a wide, impish grin. “Impressive, right? Even Feynriel said it couldn’t be done but I--” she stops short and looks around, suddenly confused. “I did it,” she says more quietly.

“This can’t be real, Hawke. You’re….”

You’re dead. You’re supposed to be dead and I’m supposed to be handling this a lot better. Is this being caused by grief? Some kind of mourning insanity?

“It’s not real, Vee,” she explains like she might to a child who isn’t really paying attention. “It’s a dream. You’ve been in the Fade before, remember? You shot me.”

“I’m in the Fade.” I know how dreams work, theoretically. Actually having one is different.

“You’re touching the Fade. Well, no.” A chair appears beside her and she lowers herself into it stiffly. “Other people touch the Fade when they sleep. In your case, the Fade had to touch you.”

“You’re doing this.” Either she’s making this happen or I’m going crazy. Crazy might be the more likely answer but I want to believe.

“I wanted to see you.”

“Hawke.” If I’m crazy, I may as well take advantage of it. I close the distance between us and bring her face to mine with both hands. She doesn’t feel dead. She feels warm. I can feel her pulse under my fingers and her breath on my face while we kiss all too briefly. “Hawke, I didn’t get to tell you…. There’s so much I didn’t get to tell you.”

There’s another shift, another change of the not-wind. Everything seems a bit lighter.

“Wait!” Hawke jumps up awkwardly and grabs me by the shoulders. “Don’t go.”

Me? I’m not going anywhere but everything is getting lighter.

“I need to know, Varric. Am I really dead? Am I really… me?”

“You don’t know?”

“Bethany says I’m not dead but I remember… I’m not sure. I’m… confused.”

It feels like something is shaking me but Hawke is still holding me still as the world fades away.

“You and me both, Precious.”

That old nickname makes her smile. “I’ll have to come up with something to tell you that a demon wouldn’t know. For next time.”

Next time.

Chapter Text

Solas was painstakingly applying gold leaf to the latest section of his paneled mural in the rotunda. This one featured a bright central shape with a star in its center, flanked by two figures holding swords.

“That’s the eluvian in the Well of Sorrows, right?” said Varric.

He had been convinced the mural was a graphic representation of what the Inquisition had accomplished until Solas had gone and started his sketch of the final panel. It wasn’t even recognizable as anything yet, maybe he was just mapping out the composition, but the fact that he had started it when the story hadn’t been lived yet made Varric question his previous assumptions. Solas wasn’t the sort to play prophet. As far as Varric knew.

“Good morning, Master Tethras,” said Solas. Of course he wouldn’t answer the question. Solas never answered questions about his paintings.

Luckily, Varric wasn’t there to ask about the paintings. He was there to ask about Solas’ favorite subject: The Fade. Just jump right into it, Tethras. No point in remarking on the weather.

“Could a person survive in the Fade?”

“Ah.” He carefully set down his brushes and the delicate gold leaf paper. “You are inquiring about the Champion. I admit, I expected this conversation to happen much earlier.”

“Great. I gave you plenty of time to prepare a response, then.”

The line of Solas’ mouth narrowed. “It is not a simple question. It may be kinder for me to help you accept her certain death than to help you entertain the idea that she may have survived. The creature that attacked us was beyond any lone human’s skill to defeat.”

“Let’s pretend, for a moment, that you’re not in the business of kindness,” said Varric irritably. “If she did kill that demon, or if she got away somehow, could she go on living in the Fade?”

Solas sighed. “When one enters the Fade through the Veil, their body can be maintained where it has been left behind with very little effort. The Fade is a place of the mind and soul, both of which simply are. They do not require sustenance as the body does.”

“And what if you enter bodily?”

“I can only theorize.” His expression said the topic was vexing but his hands were out and moving with his words. He was definitely interested. “Nothing is known about traveling physically through the Fade. Prior to the existence of the Veil, when the physical and spiritual coexisted, it is said that great sages could suspend the needs of the body indefinitely through the force of their will. Even now, we understand in a vague way that many of the processes of the body can be altered and halted by the powers of the mind. It is possible, probable even, that the needs of a body existing physically in the Fade would be much different from the same body on our plane.”

That sounded positive. A solid maybe .

“Alright. So, if she survived the demon and if she survived the prolonged stay in the Fade, is there a way she could come back out again? Through another rift?”

“As long as we are discussing the farthest of far-fetched theories, then yes, a return might be made through another rift. They might even survive the return. Provided, of course, that the rift was large and powerful enough to pull a person through without shattering them, that it occurred in a place where the Veil was thin enough not to alter them as they came through, that the person in the Fade was able to find the rift in an infinite land with no discernable geography and no concept of distance--then, yes. A rift might bring someone back across the Veil.”

So talking Seth into helping was right out. That was probably for the best.

“Is there any other way?”

“There are things that exist simultaneously in our world and the Fade. Lyrium is the best example. Objects of great power often cast a reflection in the Fade. Given time and proper study, there may be an object that would act as a portal. You understand that this conversation just became grounds for execution by your Chantry?”

Varric was stuck on the word reflection. He barely noticed as Solas crossed to the desk and sat down. His expression had softened into something annoyingly like sympathy. Varric was so tired of sympathy.

“I have seen nothing of the Champion in my travels through the Fade. I cannot confirm or deny your hopes other than by my own certainty that they are futile. My best advice for you is to find a mage with a strong connection to her, a close friend, perhaps. The Champion seems to have made friends easily. If they are willing to eschew tradition and work with the Fade’s residents, or if they possess enough knowledge and power, they may be able to find some trace of her that will give you closure.”

Reflections. Mages with personal connections. An image of a sketch of an idea of a plan was coming together.

“Thanks, Solas.” Varric’s brain was a jumbled mess of information he barely understood but there was no time to break it all down. Not yet. “Is Sparkler upstairs?”

“Yes,” Solas said slowly and suspiciously. “He is with the Inquisitor. Varric, I sincerely doubt Dorian will be able to give you any further insight in this matter than I already have.”

“Don’t get jealous now, Chuckles. I have an entirely different question for the Inquisitor’s other favorite mage.”

Solas didn’t react to the jab. “Remember to stay focused, Varric. The endgame is fast approaching.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” said Varric as he started up the curved staircase.

The library was quiet. The bulk of Seth’s mages were with the bulk of his army, still securing the Temple of Mythal or making the slow march back to Skyhold. To exactly nobody’s surprise, Dorian had arrived with the first wave of returning personnel. He and Seth had had a touching, romantic reunion in the courtyard which had been carefully observed by both Varric and Fenris. The former had been taking notes for the Inquisitor’s biography, while the latter had spent the next twenty minutes groaning and declaring he was going to be ill.

Little had been seen of Seth or Dorian since; again, this came as a surprise to no one.

Not that Varric had been looking for them intently. There were things he needed to ask, certainly. Things he needed a second opinion to be sure of. But there were also very complicated feelings involved in the asking.

‘Feelings are stupid.’ Another quote for the mental catalog. File under: cute things Hawke said while drunk.

Varric had still felt a vague resentment toward Seth for leaving Hawke behind. He had just been starting to get past that. The emergent possibility that Hawke might be alive had brought it back, along with a lot of other unpleasant, unflattering thoughts. None of these thoughts were fair, Varric knew that. Knowing that didn’t keep them from coming.

Dorian was seated at his usual place by the window. Seth was hovering very close by, sitting cross-legged on the windowsill with a plate full of multicolored pastries on his lap.

“The little green ones are very good.”

“Until you’ve had the real thing, Amatus, I’m afraid your opinion simply cannot be trusted,” said Dorian without looking up from his book. “My digestion is still far too delicate to take the risk.”

“You have to eat something,” Seth fussed.

“I will eat as soon as I’ve found that reference…. I’m sure it was in here. Maybe it was in the Somnium Mysterium . It was only a footnote but it might help.”

“It must be love if he’s letting you eat near his precious books,” Varric teased.

“I can’t very well stop him,” Dorian groused. “His name is on the building.”

“Good morning, Varric,” said Seth with that smile that always made Varric regret those bitter thoughts. He was a good man, damn it. “Would you like to try Cook’s latest attempt at Tevinter cuisine? Fenris might like them.”

“Ah, yes. Let’s keep entertaining your would-be assassin,” said Dorian. “Have we made sure the best bedclothes have been laid out for him?”

“No thanks,” said Varric. Now that he was there in front of them he felt less secure about his line of questioning. He didn’t particularly want to see the sympathetic looks they were about to give him. “I’m here on a mission, actually.”

Seth set his plate aside and straightened out his legs. Dorian slipped a ribbon to mark his page.

Here goes.

“I need to be sure nobody’s been casting spells on me. Or drugging me. Or both.”

“No spells,” said Dorian simply. He made to go back to his reading but must have sensed the quizzical looks he was getting from both Varric and Seth. He looked back up. “Would it be more impressive if I waggled my fingers and said, ‘Wooooo?’ There’s no residue of magic on you. Sethanin is better equipped to determine if it might be drugs or poisons.”

“It might help if we knew the symptoms.”

“I had a dream.”

“I didn’t think dwarves did that.”

“Hence my concern.”

“Plenty of things cause hallucinations. Deathroot is the first thing that comes to mind and we were in the wastes not too long back. There are rather nasty side-effects you should have noticed, though.” Seth tapped his chin with a long, tapered finger. He turned to Dorian. “Something with lyrium, perhaps?”

“Pricey, and to what end?”

“Is it possible you’re just a very special dwarf, Varric?”

“That might lead to more questions.”

“Ask away!” Seth was grinning. That was about to change.

“What--what exactly --happened with Hawke in the Fade?”

*

Blondie,

You’re probably wondering how the hell I found you. Scratch that--I hope you’re not wondering how I found you. You ought to know me well enough to have assumed that I’ve always known where you’ve been. You had to have figured that it was only a matter of time before I came across a job so shitty I’d have to drag you out of hiding to finish it.

Alright, before you throw this letter into the fire you should know that this is about Hawke.

And now I should have your full attention.

I don’t know what passes for news in that hole you’ve been curled up in but maybe you’ve heard about our mutual friend’s untimely demise? If you haven’t, then I’m sorry this is how you’re finding out. So, yeah, Hawke is supposed to be dead. On the bright side, reports of Hawke’s death appear to have been exaggerated. On the not-so-bright side, she’s stuck in the Fade.

I’m not going to bog you down with details because this whole situation actually gets less believable the more I talk about it. I’m hoping it will suffice to say that we need you--that Hawke needs you.

My current business seems to be coming to a close, or, at the very least, a climax. I’m trying to arrange a sort of rescue party to convene in Kirkwall as soon as possible--mostly people you know, so no need to be shy. Assuming that I live through said climax, and assuming the world doesn’t end, I hope to be there sometime in Bloomingtide. If I don’t make it, you clever mages can surely come up with a plan without me. And if the world ends, well… maybe Hawke’s luck is better than I thought.

Anyway. Just in case this isn’t enough to convince you to hit the road, I’ve sent Fenris to escort you to Kirkwall. Try not to kill each other.

See you soon,

Varric

 

Just as Varric was concentrating on making an even crease in his parchment, something crashed into his table by the fireplace. It was some one , actually. Someone being unceremoniously dropped onto the opposite bench.

“I found this urchin attempting to abscond with Hawke’s dog,” said Fenris, keeping a firm hold on his prisoner’s shoulder.

The girl, maybe sixteen years old, could have been Guard-Captain Vallen’s sister. She had a similarly severe face framed by a brassy mane, though Aveline’s hair didn’t curl quite so much. She could have been Aveline’s daughter , Varric realized, feeling older than ever.

The girl scowled up at them with dark brown eyes. “I wasn’t ab--whatever. I was just letting him out.”

“And then leaving with him, without permission from your superior officer,” said Varric, taking note of her full-to-bursting knapsack and thick, Inquisition-issue traveling cloak. “That does sound a little like absconding.”

The girl fingered a button emblazoned with the eye and sword and her scowl intensified. “So what!? He hasn’t got a master anymore. Ser Edden says she’s dead.” She looked up at Varric defiantly. “But he’s wrong. He said she was a terrorist and he was wrong about that, too. She can’t be dead. And if she’s not dead, she’s out there somewhere and Wrex will be able to find her.”

“You never said you knew Hawke.” Fenris released her and crossed his arms.

The girl barely breathed as she spoke. “She said her name was Mary but then she told me to ask for Hawke if I needed anything and she said she’d help be be a soldier but I don’t get to fight anything bigger than bloody basement rats here and they make me clean the latrines and now she’s--”

“Slow down, red. You’re in good company. This pleasant fellow is Fenris and I’m Varric. We’re both close friends of Hawke’s.”

“Varric Tethras? She came here to see you. She gave your name to the man out front and Zaya said you must be her ‘paramour.’ I don’t know what that means.”

Varric could feel Fenris looking at him. He had to work not to return the glance. “Eh.” He shrugged. “Orlesian frippery. Hawke probably would have preferred a less colorful word.”

“Is she really dead?” The girl tugged at her Inquisition buttons.

“Yes,” Varric said.

“No,” said Fenris at the same time.

Damn it, Fenris. Because this plan wasn’t crazy enough already, we should bring on teenage defector?

“I knew it.” She didn’t even hear Varric. “Do you know where she is? Are you going to find her?”

“Yes,” said Fenris.

Varric sighed. “It’s more complicated than that.”

“I can help! Me and Wrex.” She grinned at them and the smile transformed her face so she looked much less like Aveline and much more like a charming girl of maybe sixteen years. “I’m Kandra.”

Fenris was sizing the girl up like this wasn’t the worst idea ever. “They have taught you to ride, I assume? And to fight with a sword?”

“You can’t seriously be thinking--”

“I would prefer not to approach the mage alone. He won’t attack a child.”

“That lyrium must finally be getting to your head, elf.”

“I’m not a child,” Kandra interjected. “I killed a red templar in the valley. I’d have fought more if they’d let me. And I grew up in the wilds. The horses they have here are like kittens compared to the ones we raise in the swamps.”

“You see. I would have traveled on foot,” said Fenris pointedly to Varric. “Now I have a kitten-wrangler.”

“This is a terrible idea.”

“You are the one who decided we needed to root out the mage. This is simply additional kindling for the bonfire of bad ideas we have already built.”

Varric looked back down at his letter to Anders. The whole situation was insane, it seemed they would need an insane plan to resolve it. He sighed again as he pulled out a stick of wax and straightened the fold on the parchment.

“If we get Hawke back, you just remember that it was your idea to rope in the kid,” he said as he sealed his letter.

“So, I’m going?” Kandra looked at the two of them excitedly. “Where am I going?”

“To find the mage who blew up half of Kirkwall.” Fenris leaned against the table and watched Varric set his seal on the letter. “The actual terrorist.”

“Oh.” She blanched slightly.

“Provided we are absolutely sure his presence is necessary?”

“We’ve been over this.” For a moment, Varric considered the idea that Fenris was using the kid to get out of going after Anders. No. He wasn’t the type to take a bluff this far. Even if he was, he had to know that Varric would keep calling it. “Anders is our best option. Chuckles said we need a powerful mage who knows her well and won’t mind dealing with spirits. If there were anyone else--”

“What about Merrill?”

“Uhuh. Merrill will be there, too.” Varric looked at Fenris significantly. “Her track record with spirits isn’t the greatest.” He didn’t really want to bring up Merrill’s trouble with demons and blood magic in front of the girl.

“Yes, because the man who invited a spirit to live inside him is a much better option.”

“Your friend is a shaman?” said Kandra.

“Our friend is a fool,” Fenris grumbled.

“Wait just a moment.” Kandra spread her hands out on the table and looked at them suspiciously. “If she’s not dead, why do you need someone who can touch the Beyond?”

“You recruited her. You explain it.”

“She traveled physically into the Fade with your Inquisitor and he left her there.”

Varric groaned. Right. Very tactfully put, Fenris.

“Through a tear in the sky? Why haven’t you asked the Inquisitor to open up another tear and pull her back out?”

Because he’s the one who left her there? Shit. You’re not supposed to be hanging onto that, Tethras.

“If only it were so simple,” said Varric. If only Seth hadn’t given him that awful look of pained, indulgent sympathy when he had made a similar request. If only Solas hadn’t been so detailed in his description of everything that could go wrong in using a rift to get Hawke back. “We have to find her first. That’s what we need Anders for.”

“And we must be certain it is Hawke he finds so that we don’t bring back a pride demon.”

And , as good as Seth is at closing rifts, opening them seems to be a bigger challenge.”

“Fine. Fine , I get it. No tears in the sky. We get the shaman, he finds Mary--Hawke, I mean--in the Beyond and then what?”

“Yes, Varric, what then?”

“And then our gathered apostates will probably do something very impressive that would definitely get them executed in any Circle in Thedas.” Varric handed the sealed letter to Fenris who tucked it safely away. “I haven’t gotten much farther than that. Cockamamie schemes were really Hawke’s thing.”

“The dwarf has a theory he has been impressively tight-lipped about.”

No. The dwarf is trying not to advertise the fact that he has no clue if any of this is going to work. That he has no clue if any of this is real .

If only he could see Hawke again. Since his depressing conversation with Solas, Varric had been using every free moment to call on every agent at his disposal and cash in on every favor owed to him; he had spent more than a quarter of the remaining Tethras fortune--all toward the goal of tracking down Anders. He returned to his quarters every night, utterly exhausted but still buzzing with anticipation. Every sleep was a chance to dream.

But he hadn’t dreamed again. To think that would be a disappointment after a lifetime of it being the norm! He barely slept at all. Hours went by while Varric lay there, consumed with thoughts of Hawke. He had put together a decent catalogue of all the clever things she had said. He had imagined that she was next to him until the vague feeling of her arm draped over him was more real than the feeling of the ground under his feet during the day.

He had put together a plan for when he finally did dream. First task: tell Hawke he loved her and try not to feel like the greatest fool alive for waiting until she was trapped in the Fade to do it. Second task: come up with a way to get her out. With everything she knew and everything he’d figured out, there had to be an answer.

But he didn’t dream. And, without Hawke, everything he’d figured out was just a big pile of Fade-babble. Veils and eluvians; fade rifts and ancient elven voices. These would make great devices in a story--how was anyone, especially a dwarf, supposed to make sense of them in practice?

“Look, I’m not holding out on you,” said Varric finally. “I just don’t want to give you the impression that I understand this any better than I actually do. Once we’re all together we’ll figure--”

There was an incredible crash like a mountain crumbling in the distance, followed by an intense green light. Somehow, Varric sensed that this was not another avalanche.

“Shit.”

“What the hell?” Kandra leapt up from the bench and stared out at the still flashing lights coming in through the south and west windows.

“Don’t worry about it,” said Varric dryly. He opened his hands and flashed them a devil-may-care grin. “It’s just the end of the fucking world.”

“Corypheus?” Fenris saw another chance to get out of his unpleasant task. “I can help you fight him. We’ll go to the mage after the battle.”

“No. Get Anders. Get to Kirkwall. You two had better get down the mountain ahead of the army.”

Kandra was ready to get moving. “I know of a couple chargers they won’t miss right away. I can have tack on them in ten seconds! Just meet me by the gate.”

“You’re sure about this?” Varric said to Fenris while Kandra rushed off. “About her? She’s just a kid.”

“Yes. Call it intuition. Or, perhaps the lyrium is going to my head.” He gave Varric a sly smile that turned pensive as the sky flashed again. Then, as though he had just remembered something, his eyebrows shot up and he crossed his arms again. “Ahem. Paramour?

He didn’t even think about denying it. He could see Hawke’s face, bisected by an errant lock of black hair. I don’t care who knows anymore. Do you?

No. He didn’t.

“Yeah.” His end of the world smile softened into something more sincere; a little sad, perhaps. “M