An unfamiliar sound from a familiar source was what woke Hawke up that night, her eyes blinking at the dark ceiling in the brief seconds of waking confusion. The lingering smell of incense and candles still kissed the air, the unmistakable scent of Isabela’s room in the Hanged Man. More blinking. She didn’t mean to fall asleep.
Hawke heard the same sound again, clearer, like a sudden bolt through her chest. A whimper. She turned to her side, as if facing the sound would somehow enhance her vision, that she could see rather than feel Isabela jolting beside her. Whatever assailed her dreams took hold of her, Isabela’s breathing fast and uneven. Hawke listened uncomfortably, unsure if she should intervene. When she heard a sharp inhale, Hawke’s hand made her mind up for her, reaching to shake Isabela awake.
She felt Isabela’s muscles tense into action, lightening quick as Isabela’s hand darted under her pillow, instinctually grabbing the hidden knife she kept there.
“It’s just me!”
Though she didn’t move her hand away, Hawke’s voice was enough to freeze her in place. Hawke waited for her to move again, to roll over and pretend nothing happened. Yet she seemed adamant at keeping her hand on the hilt of the blade, unmoving and breaths heavy.
Her name seemed to snap Isabela out of her reverie. Hawke felt Isabela's arm withdraw, the bed dipping beside her as Isabela moved to sit at the edge of the bed. Only the faint outline of her hunched form could be made out in the dark. Isabela coughed, muffling the noise in her arm.
Reaching to the night table, Hawke passed her cup of water to Isabela, who drank it with the urgency of a fish out of water. The sound of wood on glass thudded through the room, the strange silence that followed feeling like a wedge between them. Hawke never thought she’d wish for the boisterous noise of the bar downstairs.
Hawke could hear Isabela rubbing at her face as her earrings tingled. “Don’t worry about it.”
It was too late for that. Hawke played with the frayed hem of her pillowcase.
“Normal?” Isabela finished Hawke’s question. “Who doesn’t have nightmares once in a while?”
“Seems like it’s more than that. Not to sound like an ass, but you look tired lately.”
“You mean I look like shit.”
“You never look like shit.”
“You never look like shit,” Isabela echoed, imitating Hawke’s airy voice too well. “Truly the most romantic thing I’ve ever heard.”
“I’m not wrong,” Hawke shrugged.
Minutes crawled by as Isabela sat statuesque, Hawke’s eyes slowly adjusting enough she could see the faint curl in Isabela’s hair, her gold earrings glinting off the small sliver of moonlight.
In all the years Hawke had known Isabela, she never knew her to be worried. In fact, she had an irreverent ease about everything, even when—especially when—it was inappropriate. Lately that’s all Isabela seemed to be: tense, uneasy, bags under dull eyes that lacked the cunning Hawke usually saw in them. And now, to be around while Isabela struggled to hide her nightmares, Hawke felt like she was intruding.
“I’d better head back home. Didn’t mean to fall asleep.” Hawke was ready to leave the comfort of the oversoft bed before Isabela stopped her.
“You’re already here.” Her words were slow, like she was still making up her mind as she said them.
“I can not be.”
Isabela huffed. “You want to stay. So stay.”
“Let’s not play this game.” Isabela’s voice was soft and tired. “Just—stay.”
Hawke swallowed. “Alright.”
Sighing deeply, Isabela fumbled around her night table, Hawke hearing the strike of the match and seeing the flame that followed, the light of the candle cutting the darkness. Isabela fell onto the bed, taking her tattered quilt and wrapping it around her. Hawke could feel Isabela’s breath on her cheek, calmer now. She turned on her side and cautiously reached out a hand to Isabela’s shoulder. There was no reaction to the touch, her expression indifferent, lips taught in thought. Drawing her hand away, Hawke pressed her teeth together, trying to chew back words that were better swallowed.
“So. Are you going to tell me what’s been eating you?”
To her surprise, Isabela laughed. “You spent all that time between my thighs earlier and still don’t know?”
Hawke laughed too, relieved that Isabela hadn’t shut down the question completely. “Besides me.”
Humming to herself, Isabela curled closer to Hawke, her hand resting just beneath her chin. “It’s silly.”
Isabela traced her fingers down Hawke’s jaw to her neck and ran a thumb over her throat, leaving Hawke to hold back a shiver as Isabela made small circles across her skin, like drawing a rune for some sort of spell.
“Do you ever feel like you’re cursed?”
Honey brown eyes looked into Hawke’s. There was something deep and silent in Isabela, enough that Hawke could feel it crawling in her own spine, something close to being clutched.
“Cursed,” Hawke said slowly, letting the consonants linger on her teeth. “How would I know?”
“It’s not just in the way that nothing’s going right, or the bullshit my mother would do. I mean in the way that you can feel it. Like something’s following you and you can’t see it.”
Closing her eyes, Hawke focused on the invisible patterns Isabela continued to paint, fingers spread across her chest. Cursed. If anything, it was Hawke’s entire family that seemed to have caught it, branches ripped off and thinning in a storm that no one prepared for. The closest thing to a curse she’d seen was down in the deep roads, red lyrium spread in the old dwarven rocks like drops of blood, and the idol that captivated Bartrand in an instant.
“I don’t know,” Hawke said. “Things have gone bad for me but it’s not...uncommon.”
Isabela’s hand tensed on Hawke’s chest. “Being in Kirkwall’s going to curse you whether you like it or not.”
Hawke felt down Isabela’s ribcage to the curve of her hips, tilting her head down and frowning. “Figuratively or?”
“Having a pair of eyes.” Isabela took her hand away and tucked it under the pillow. “Look around, Hawke. It’s all gone to shit. Templars, mages, the qunari…”
“I don’t know if that’s a curse. Sounds more like the perfect storm,” Hawke said.
Shifting, Isabela locked their ankles together, her eyes intense and staring off beyond Hawke. “And you’re going to be caught up in it.”
“We all are.”
Isabela shook her head. “You especially. There’s nothing you don’t get involved in, whether you mean to or not. You just have to stumble ass backwards into everything. You’re so…”
She leaned forward, pressing her forehead against Hawke and closing her eyes with a heavy sigh. “You’re you.”
There wouldn’t be more elaboration. Isabela could be so cryptic, full of half answers and trailed off sentences. Even now Hawke sensed a thought unfinished from Isabela, something she wanted to say but couldn’t. Perhaps there weren’t any words for it even if she could find them.
“You never told me why you’re cursed,” Hawke said gently.
A dead end. Hawke slid her hand up Isabela’s back, her attempt at consolation, and a small hope she could get an answer. “If I can help…”
Isabela laughed too harshly, her ankles unlocking from Hawke’s. “You already are.”
Suddenly it clicked.
“It’s the relic.”
Isabela’s breath lodged itself in her lungs, wind knocked out of the sails, the air halting around her. “What?”
“The relic. You’ve been looking for years. It’s starting to get to you.”
The next breaths from Isabela were cautious, and curiously, ones of vague relief. Collecting herself, she rolled out of Hawke’s arms, settling on her back and facing the burning candle, wax pooling in its brass holder.
“I’m being hunted, Hawke. Every day I don’t get the relic means it gets worse. I’m running out of time.”
“You don’t know that.”
“Trust me. I’ running out of time.”
Hawke bit her lip. Despite how much she helped Isabela to find the relic, she knew little about it. All she knew was that it was important enough that it being lost meant Castillon would always be at her heels.
There was more to it, she knew. There was always more when it came to Isabela. As much as she insisted she didn’t know what the relic was, Hawke knew better. Isabela never went into anything without knowing the stakes. Soon Hawke learned to stop asking questions. Part of it was fear of evoking Isabela’s ire. Another, and perhaps the true reason, was that in her heart of hearts, Hawke wasn’t sure she wanted to know.
“Castillon—exactly how bad is he?”
Isabela folded her hands over her bare stomach, still looking at the candle. “I’ll get a knife between my ribs if I’m lucky. But I won’t. He’s going to take his time with me.” She turned her head towards Hawke, her face drained of blood. “I don’t know about you, but that’s not how I plan on going out.”
“You have a plan for that sort of thing?”
Isabela scoffed. “Don’t tell me you don’t!”
“I try not to think about it.”
“But you do anyways,” Isabela said, curling on her side, clutching the blanket up to her face like she was excited to hear gossip at a sleepover. “What do you imagine?”
Hawke knew Isabela was changing the subject. Hiding her disappointment, Hawke rifled through all the scenarios she’d thought of over the years. Those thoughts used to entertain her. It was an exercise that she could separate from the grim theme of it all. It was impersonal, somehow, despite it being her own end she imagined.
“I used to think about it a lot. Maybe I’d do something heroic and brave. Sacrifice myself or something. Some silly thing like that.”
Hawke laughed at herself. Old Chantry tales of heroism and Andraste’s sacrifice used to be inspiring, a true test of will and faith. Fading away to sleep only to never wake up seemed so anticlimactic. A waste. Hawke wished she could be young again, able to romanticize death as unknowable and far away.
“After Ostagar? People who can look at death as some heroic opportunity amaze me.”
Isabela blinked. “You never talk about Ostagar.”
It was Hawke’s turn to roll on her back. She stared at a spiderweb she hadn’t noticed before. That she couldn’t see where the spider had crawled off to made her feel uneasy, scratching her arms at imaginary tingling.
“There isn’t much to say. People died and it was all bloody and horrible.” She scratched at her scalp. “I had this...image of what dying was supposed to be. Seeing it like that made me think about how…”
“How death is real?”
She looked at Isabela, her eyes poking out from the blanket.
Isabela pulled the quilt off of her face, tucking it under her breasts and placing her hand on Hawke’s pillow.
“I used to think I’d miss out on some quintessential human experience if I didn’t feel myself dying.” Hawke stared at Isabela’s hand. “Now I think I’d be happy to fall asleep and not wake up.”
Isabela inhaled deeply with a far off smile on her face. “You know what I imagine?”
“I have a big party on my ship. I have all the whiskey and ale I could ever buy, and I hold an amazing game of Wicked Grace. I get so drunk I don’t remember the night at all. Maybe I wake up beside a stranger, or…” she smiled. “Then I kick everyone off, bright and early, while they’re still nursing their hangovers. I hoist the anchor and leave.”
“Where would you go?”
“Nowhere. I sail and sail until I can’t anymore.”
Hawke jutted her jaw. “A burial at sea.”
“The only way for me to go.” Isabela reached over to Hawke’s face, moving her hair from her eyes. “Maybe I’d become a ghost that haunts the seas. A tale sailors whisper about.” Her voice dropped, low and gruff. “I swear I saw ‘er! The Queen of the Eastern Seas!”
She laughed, amused at whatever imagine she painted for herself. Hawke chuckled back, imagining what it’d be like for her ghost to scare some poor sods off their ship. It was hard to think of Isabela growing old. She seemed so immortal, where even the passage of time couldn’t touch her.
“It’d be your turn to give out the curses,” Hawke said.
Isabela’s smile faltered slightly, and she quickly corrected it with an even bigger grin. “I’ve cursed enough people.”
Her leg slid over Hawke’s, pushing herself up to straddle her waist, placing her hands beside Hawke’s head and letting her hair create a curtain around them.
“Am I one of them?” Hawke asked, curling her leg up and reaching to caress Isabela’s thighs.
“Hmm. Maybe.” Isabela’s words were distant, her eyes hooded and hands inching down Hawke’s chest and over her breasts, resting on her ribs to count each of them with her fingers.
“We’ll be cursed together then,” Hawke said, watching Isabela focus in the fading candlelight that shone on her face.
“Now that,” Isabela said, bending down to kiss Hawke in the crook of her neck. “Is the most romantic thing I’ve ever heard.”