It took them a week to walk out of the Deep Roads.
There was no daylight, only the reddish glow the walls gave out, but Varric, surfacer or not, still knew exactly how much time had passed. For the first two days their rumbling stomachs kept count of the hours as well. Once they'd shared the last bites of cheese and bread and licked all the crumbs from the seams of their packs they did their best to ignore hunger pangs.
They had water, scant and of dubious quality, seeping down the walls here and there. They tried to gather some into their flasks but always ended up shamelessly sucking moisture right off the stone, stood in a row in placid delight like cows at a salt lick.
Hawke hadn't been this happy in over a year.
Even the crushing weight of her pack was just another reminder that the expedition was a success. She was going home, laden with treasure. She'd made her family wealthy, and they were going to forget all the misery of the last year. They'd leave Gamlen's shack, that tiny room where all three of them had quietly wept into their pillows for months after Carver's death. Hawke would grease some wheels, and Mother would have her title back. They'd move into a fancy Hightown mansion, away from snooping templars, and Bethany would be safe. Everything would be right again.
Whenever they stopped to rest Varric and Anders took turns telling stories. Anders told them how he'd met Justice in the Fade. The tale was rambling, full of holes, bizarre and outlandish, and it rang horrifyingly true. Varric's stories were smooth, with just the right beats in all the right places. Hawke could tell he wasn't quite pulling any of that out of his ass on the spot: he had to be fleshing out the ideas he'd had for a while. She suspected he was liberally adding dragons just for her.
Hawke and Fenris slumped against the opposite wall and listened. She was too tired and thirsty to talk much, and Fenris was, for the most part, a quiet man. Hawke curled her arms around her cramped stomach and watched Varric's easy, cocky grin, traced the lines of Anders' face with her eyes: his perfect nose, his cheekbones. She stared at the lyrium dots on Fenris' feet, they way they shifted a little when he flexed his toes. She wondered what it would feel like to touch them - what would it feel like for him if she touched them.
When they could no longer walk they slept side by side on the stone floor. They had no bedrolls, no blankets, only gold and gems for pillows. Fenris kept his armour on and put himself at the fore.
"I was a bodyguard," he said when she suggested they take turns. "I will sense danger in my sleep and I will wake. Which of you can promise the same?"
So Hawke guarded the direction they came from, in case any nasties had hid in a dark nook while they'd walked past. She lay with her hands on her daggers, her scarf folded under her head. Anders slept between her and Varric, in the spot they'd decided would be safest. They could take the first hits, as long as he was there to mend their wounds a heartbeat later.
On the third day they only napped a couple of hours before waking to Anders' hoarse moans.
"Just when I thought he couldn't possibly get more annoying," mumbled Fenris. His breastplate scraped against the stone floor as he turned over.
Hawke touched Anders' hand where it restlessly clutched at his cape and gently shook it until he quieted, opened his eyes and blinked at the stone ceiling.
"It's a dream," she promised, like she'd done so many times when the twins were little. Like she'd done all that week she and Carver had spent walking home from Ostagar. "Anders, it's just a dream."
"Darkspawn," Anders said. "Grey Warden dreams. Darkspawn - it's fine. They're not near."
They all settled down. Edges of stone paving bit into Hawke's back again, over the bruises from the previous night, and she relaxed into the pain. She was starving, exhausted, thirsty, and she'd not changed her clothes in days. She didn't simply stink, she was getting crusty. But she was going home, triumphant, and she was lying next to three of Kirkwall's finest men. She couldn't complain, really.
'Sis, admit it,' Bethany had said. 'You're leaving me behind because you want to staff this whole treasure hunt with men you fancy.'
They'd been having a farewell drink in one of the smugglers' haunts. Funding the expedition had cleaned them out: they couldn't even afford The Hanged Man.
'Lies!' Hawke protested. 'Not just men!'
Aveline couldn't get leave and Isabela had flat out refused to spend weeks underground. Merrill, already shaken up enough by her city adventures, had quietly paled at the suggestion and Hawke decided to spare her.
'Anyway, all my hopes have been dashed already,' Hawke said and waved for another drink. 'Turns out Varric has someone.'
'Probably Bianca, yes. I'm not one to judge.'
The first time Hawke and Varric got drunk together at The Hanged Man she'd climbed into his lap and suggested a dash upstairs for a tour of his bed and some rogue on rogue action. And, oh, she didn't stop there. It was the first time she'd let her guard down in this shithole of a city and once she started she couldn't shut up. She told Varric he was the most charming scoundrel she'd ever met, she'd bet his silver tongue was good for many things, she was keen to see if all the hype about the dwarven men was true, he had the only real smile she'd seen in Kirkwall so far, she'd been thinking how his muscles would roll under her hands while his smoky voice whispered filthy things in her ear.
Varric laughed warmly, let her pet his chest once and told her he was already in a relationship - a complicated and twisted one, but there you go, Hawke, sorry, my friend.
'What about Anders? He's nice,' Bethany drawled with a drunken grin.
'He is. I did ask, he said no.'
Anders had the same Fereldan good looks as all the boys Hawke had chased back in Lothering: tall, honey-blond, with a sharp jaw and a proud nose. Her other conquests had been young, more pups than men - most Fereldan farmers married and settled down by twenty-two or so. Anders was at least thirty, his face and body age-hardened, lean, his golden eyes clever, soft and kind. He was an apostate, a Grey Warden, a hero and a healer, aglow with the Fade's fire. Of course Hawke had pounced at once.
'But he likes you, I'm sure. What did he say?'
'That he'd only break my heart,' Hawke rolled her eyes and downed her drink.
'What does that mean? Is that because he might get captured, and then... I don't even know what they'd do to him, do you think…'
'No. Nobody will get captured, not on my watch. No, I think he meant he's a heart-breaker. As in, a huge slut.'
'See, you're perfect for each other!' Bethany yelled, and for one moment Hawke could see a shadow of Carver in her face, in the way her eyes crinkled with mischief, the way she bared her teeth to laugh.
'Oh, fuck off,' Hawke said, struggling to push the words out through the lump in her throat. 'He's being polite, he's saying it's not me, it's him. Whatever the reason, he said no.'
And then there was Fenris.
'He called me a viper, remember?' Bethany said.
'He's afraid of you. Come on, we grew up listening to people badmouth mages.'
'But they didn't know I'm a mage. He does, he says this to my face.'
'I didn't think you minded. You're always nice to him.'
'I'm nice to everyone! I'm the nice one, you're supposed to be--'
They used to have it down to a fine art. Bethany was the nice one, Carver was the scary one, or, if they were going against their parents, the annoying one. Marian was the sensible one. After the twins had softened up the opponent with their hot and cold onslaught she'd step in and suggest what would seem a reasonable compromise.
Now everything was out of whack.
'He won't betray us,' Hawke said. 'So I say let him rant if he must. I'll talk to him, but I don't want to push yet. I want to give him time to get used to us.'
'Right. You know, Mother would absolutely die if you slept with an elf.'
'We're not... Ah, I don't even know! I get so confused when I look at him. He's so beautiful, his face blinds me, it’s like staring at the sun!'
She couldn’t see his face now, just the back of his head, his bright hair shining like a halo in the gloomy tunnel. She could feel the warmth radiating from Anders' side over the hand's breadth of space between them.
"This is nice," she said.
"Hawke is delirious," chuckled Fenris. "Healer, is there hope?"
"Nothing a hard trek tomorrow won't cure," said Anders.
"I mean," Hawke said. "We found treasure. And we're together. Nice."
"It's good to have friends again, I agree," Anders said. "This would be nicer if we had food and I wasn't claustrophobic."
"Are you? Why didn't you say?"
He kept his eyes shut and didn't answer.
On the fifth day Anders stopped sleeping altogether. A horde of darkspawn was close - right beneath them, he said, in other tunnels below. According to their maps there were no passages for the monsters to get here, but Anders was still assailed by their dreams. He spent the nights reading the grimoire he carried in his belt pouch. He had pencil at the ready and sometimes would scribble long notes in the margins, but mostly doodled sketches of cats. For all Hawke knew that too was arcane research - she hadn't the faintest about how Circle magic worked. Bethany knew about five reliable spells Dad had taught her, and everything else she tried wicked her mana dry and fizzled out.
Their hunger had gone from a painful need to a resigned foggy numbness and they were once again ready to talk about food. Now it was no longer a tease, more like a prayer, a pure, transcendent experience.
"Roast mutton," she said. "Whole leg just off the spit."
"Crackling and sizzling," Varric chimed in. "Dripping drops of golden fat. Warm steam streams up when you cut into it. Sprinkle it with garlic and rosemary and the flavour changes, so rich you can just taste it. Or, beef and ale pies!"
"Oh yes," she said. "Flaky soft crust, huge chunks of meat. And carrots, must have carrots."
"Depends on the ale, Hawke. Some sweeter brews call for turnips instead."
"Fried fish!" she suggested. "River trout, stuffed with thyme--"
"Ugh, no fish," said Fenris. "How about some apple pies? I like those they sell at the docks."
"They're rubbish," she said. "Fereldan apple tarts are the best. Bethany will make some when we're back, I promise you'll lose your mind. Anders, back me up, Fereldan apple tarts are the best, right?"
"The way my mother used to make them, yes," Anders said. "Those travesties they peddle at Denerim markets - no. I can't remember how they're supposed to taste, though, it's been a long time."
"No tarts in the Circle, then?" Varric asked.
"Oh, plenty, how else do you pass the time? But no pastries. The cooks are Tranquil. The food is edible, but that's about it."
"No wonder you had to escape that hellhole."
"Yes, clearly, barred cells and sadistic templars are just a minor inconvenience, it's the lack of fine cuisine I'm really fighting against..."
Eventually they smelled fresh sea air and soon staggered out onto the surface - four pale, starved wraiths, each carrying a huge sack of gold. Sunlight hit her face, flooded her sight, and the sensation was deeply nourishing, almost as good as biting into a warm loaf of bread.
She made it back to Kirkwall with her usual impeccable timing. A few minutes later – and she'd have missed seeing her oldest recurring nightmare brought to life. Bethany was surrounded by the templars, surrendering to them, begging Hawke not to interfere.
And she was right. Even in that terrible moment, half-blind with rage, Hawke knew: they still had a lot to lose. So she stepped back and let her sister be taken to the Gallows.
After that nothing made much sense to her for a while.