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If you really wanted something from Viscount Varric Tethras, all you had to do was send Bethany Hawke to sweet-talk it out of him.

When Seneschal Bran popped his ginger head into Varric’s office to announce that Bethany had come to see him, again, Varric stowed his latest manuscript in his mahogany desk. He wondered what cause she would champion this time. First, it had been a top-down renovation of the Gallows to create a place of sanctuary and learning for mage orphans. Then there was that new medical supply line exclusively for the Darktown clinic. And then the animal shelter in Lowtown.

Varric had never been able to look Bethany in her big brown eyes and say no, so he always pretended to put up a fight, only to sign away the requested funds with half-hearted grumbling. It didn’t occur to him that she was approaching him on behalf of other people until she asked for an extra guard rotation nearby the Blooming Rose during peak hours. Madam Lusine had asked the same for months. Either Bethany had taken up a new line of work, or she and Lusine had been talking.

If it were anyone else, Varric might have felt taken advantage of. Luckily, Sunshine was far too kind to use those brown eyes for evil. He had asked Aveline to add more guards to that area, and he had been pleased to learn that the amount of fist fights on the brothel’s front steps declined soon after. Whatever Bethany had come to discuss today, he felt confident it would be with only the purest intentions.

Bethany knocked on his office door two times before letting herself in. She was wearing a red scarf around her neck again, and its bright color brought out the richness of her eyes and dark hair. As she entered, Varric swore that the sunlight pouring through his office windows intensified, and the entire room felt a little warmer.

“Sunshine!” Varric greeted her.

“Hello Varric,” Bethany said cheerfully, seating herself in the chair directly across from his desk. “I hope you don’t mind me dropping in like this.”

“Never. I always have time to catch up with you.”

Varric spent all day in his office talking to people who wanted something from him, and most of those conversations felt like getting his molars slowly wrenched out of his mouth. Speaking with Sunshine, even briefly, lifted him up instead of dragged him down. For that, he would never turn her away.

Bethany tucked a lock of black hair behind her ear and clasped her hands on his desk, ready to introduce her newest project. “So, there are these unsightly gutters in the alienage,” she began.

Varric rested his chin in his palm. “Are ugly gutters an issue you take directly to the Viscount of Kirkwall?”

“They are when it’s due to mold. The alienage needs better drainage, Varric, especially with the flooding that comes every summer.”

“How come it’s all drainage and mold when you visit me instead of ‘Wow, what an excellent job you’re doing’ or ‘I miss seeing your rugged good looks?’”

She pursed her lips to suppress a smile. “You are doing a good job, and I do miss seeing you. But those gutters are in terrible shape, and I think I know how we could help.”

Another knock at the door soon interrupted their discussion of cleaning and repairing the alienage gutters. Varric shouted that he was in an important meeting and did not wish to be disturbed, but Bran poked his head inside anyway.

“My lord,” the seneschal said, “there’s a dwarven messenger here requesting an immediate audience. He insists upon delivering his missive to you face-to-face. I’ve told him to make an appointment and come back later, but he just won’t budge.”

Varric rolled his eyes. “Send him in.”

Bethany stood, and Varric quickly waved for her to sit back down. “It’s probably just the Merchant’s Guild nagging me to open their letters,” he assured her. “Ha, this should be good.”

A stout and somber dwarf with a long red beard strode inside, carrying a crisp scroll bound in purple ribbon. Varric glanced at the insignia of three interlocking diamonds on the messenger’s tabard and straightened in his chair with a jolt. Well, shit. He tried to appear calm, welcoming even.

The messenger unrolled the scroll with a flourish and started to read. “His Lordship Viscount Varric Tethras of Kirkwall, Head of House Tethras, Deshyr of Kirkwall to the Merchant’s Guild; and guest,” the messenger said with a slight Orlesian accent. “House Davri requests the honor of your presence at Bianca Davri’s Paragon ascension ceremony and celebration in two weeks time.”

Varric received this information stone-faced. She actually did it. Bianca would become the first ever surface caste Paragon in dwarven history. He wanted to be happy for her achievement, but given their tangled history and her family’s legendary grudge against him, he just felt nervous. Nothing good could come of this invitation.

The messenger continued, “The event will take place in the Orzammar royal palace within the Diamond Quarter. All visiting surface caste dwarves, their consorts, and their retinues will be the Paragon-elect’s honored guests and placed under her protection.”

Now Varric turned ashen. Him, go to Orzammar? He’d probably get two steps inside before someone shot an arrow through his throat. This ascension ceremony might as well be hosted in a rabid drake’s nest. Even if the idea wasn’t utter suicide, it was bizarrely out of character. When he and Bianca were young, the two of them had commiserated about how terrible it must be to live in Orzammar, trapped in a place the sun couldn’t touch. Now she wanted to celebrate her greatest achievement in its halls? What game was Bianca playing?

The messenger lay the scroll on Varric’s desk with reverence before crossing his arms behind his back and waiting expectantly. Varric skimmed the message, his heart falling deeper and deeper into the pit of his stomach as it became clear this wasn’t an elaborate prank. Bianca really did invite him to Orzammar.

Varric’s first thought was that he didn’t want to go.

His second thought was that he had no choice.

Varric was Viscount of Kirkwall, and, as much as he sometimes loathed it, a prominent member of the Merchant’s Guild. Every surface dwarf who mattered would converge upon Orzammar to celebrate the ascension of a surface caste Paragon, and he mattered more than most other surfacers ever would, so his presence would be missed. But this wasn’t just any Paragon--this was Bianca Davri. There was a time when he answered her beck and call without question, and that was before she was slated to become a living goddess among their people. What would happen if he denied her now?

Varric envisioned the intricate network of trade contacts, political alliances, and personal ties that kept his beloved city from sinking into the sea. Then he imagined Bianca—genius smith, surface caste nobility, and the love of his life—siccing her steam-powered mechanical thresher on that delicate spider web and tearing the whole thing asunder.

No, Varric could not refuse her invitation. He would go to Orzammar. The idea thrilled him as much as taking a long and arduous dump while Bran tried to slip new trade contracts for him to sign under the door. Except Orzammar was even more cramped and airless than his privy, and he’d be stuck down there for days. Days!

Bran would probably have to come along, just as he did to the Winter Palace a few months back. That’s what the messenger meant about a retinue, wasn’t it? Assistants and guards? He should definitely bring some guards. Bianca might want him around, but House Davri had sent assassins after him several times before, and it would take an enormous change of heart for them to stop now. No one in all of Thedas hated him with as much violent prejudice as Bianca’s parents.

The messenger cleared his throat, impatient for Varric’s reply.

Varric wanted this stuck-up dwarf to stew a while longer, so he turned to Bethany instead. Maybe he should bring more allies than Bran and a couple guards. Like someone who could shoot fire out of her fingertips and brighten a room with a smile.

“You want go to Orzammar?” Varric asked her.

Bethany’s jaw dropped a little, and her eyes danced between Varric and the messenger. “You’d really want me to come?” she asked.

Varric shrugged. “If I’m going to haul my ass into a dark, musty cave caked in nug shit,” he paused, chills of horror briefly overwhelming him, “I’ll need my Sunshine around to stay sane. No skin off my back if you’d rather skip it—”

“Of course I’ll go.” Her answer was so quick, Varric wondered if he misspoke and accidentally invited her somewhere fun, like the Hanged Man or something. He waited to give her a chance to change her mind, and when that didn’t happen, he addressed the messenger.

“Let the Paragon-elect know I’ll be there,” Varric said. “My seneschal will send a raven to confirm my full retinue soon.”

The messenger bowed low enough for his coarse beard to touch the carpet before taking his leave.

Varric sat in silence, stunned by what he just agreed to. He had truly been invited to Orzammar, his family’s exile wiped clean. Bartrand would’ve killed for a chance like this. His parents had killed themselves wishing for it. And it just strolled into his office out of nowhere, gift wrapped and hand delivered. He hadn’t even begun to unpack the revelation that the barriers keeping him and Bianca apart—barriers erected by her family and enforced by the Merchant’s Guild—were now lifted.

Nothing this big was ever free. There had to be a catch.

“Will you be okay?” Bethany asked, fixing those bottomless brown eyes upon his own. “You’ve never wanted anything to do with Orzammar. To go there as if you were always welcome won’t be easy.”

When the Hawkes were still struggling in Lowtown, and Bethany was a frightened teenager harboring a dangerous secret, Varric had comforted her that getting chased out from her homeland and constantly looking over her shoulder for trouble wasn’t such a bad life. An exiled surface dwarf and an apostate refugee could see each other eye to eye in that respect.

Now their positions were reversed. As a free mage, Bethany was the one who knew what it was like to get her traumas swept under the rug so the people who caused them could pretend they never happened. She understood how bitter freedom could taste.

“You’re right,” Varric said. He fought the urge to stand up and pace. His office suddenly felt too small, his chair too confining, but he didn’t want his alarm to show. “It won’t be easy, but it’s something I have to do. I’ll ask Hawke and the gang to come too; it’ll be a big adventure, just like old times. Now, about those gutters—”

She stood. “Don’t worry about those for now. You have much to arrange, and I won’t keep you.”

They said their goodbyes, and Varric pushed the invitation to the side to make room for his manuscript. Before reaching the door, Bethany stopped short and turned around, twisting the heirloom Amell ring she always wore on her right hand.

“Sorry if this is a silly question, but...do I need a date?” she asked.

Varric lifted his eyes from his manuscript. “Huh?”

“The invitation mentions bringing a guest. Does that mean we all need dates? I’ve never been to an event like this, so I’ve no idea.” She laughed nervously. “They never taught dwarven social etiquette at the Circle.”

Varric did a double take between Bethany and the scroll on the far side of his desk. “No, you don’t. I’m not bringing one. If there’s a special someone you have in mind, I can pull some strings so he can come with us. I’d just like to meet him first, see if he’s good enough for you,” he added with a wink and a crooked grin.

Bethany pinked and shook her head. “Oh no, that won’t be necessary. Thank you, Varric.”

After she left and shut the door, Varric’s smile curled into a frown, and he rubbed his brow as he reread the scroll. Bethany was right, it definitely said, “Viscount Varric Tethras of blah blah blah, and guest.” He had been so thrown by thoughts of Bianca and Orzammar, the mention of a guest had slipped his notice.

It didn’t make sense. This wasn’t an Orlesian masquerade they were talking about, but a stiff Orzammar ceremony. People would show up, cheer for the new Paragon, stuff their faces, and then place bets on some celebratory Provings. There was no need for a date. So why did Bianca’s invitation explicitly say he could bring one? Did she want him to bring one? If she did, what did that mean?

Varric stared at the scroll a moment longer before rolling it back up and stuffing it in his desk. He was reading too deeply into this shit. Bianca didn’t waste her time writing out invitations; honestly, she didn’t have the handwriting for it. This guest stuff was probably the error of an Orlesian clerk, and they wouldn’t know any better.

Though he returned to his manuscript once more, Varric’s thoughts drifted back towards Orzammar, towards family history and lost love buried beneath mud and stone. He was one of the last Tethrases alive, and soon he would become the first Tethras to return underground since the dawn of the Dragon Age.

Whatever he unearthed down there, Varric hoped he would be ready for it.

Chapter Text

Two weeks gave Varric no time to prepare for his trip to Orzammar. It would take one day by boat to cross the Waking Sea from Kirkwall to Highever, then it would take as many as twelve days on horseback to travel down the Imperial Highway to Gherlen’s Pass, if the weather was fair and bandits didn’t slow them down. To get there on time, Varric had but a single day to gather his retinue.

Varric scrambled to ask his friends to join him, but was unsurprised when none could come. Those like Isabela and Anders were impossible to track down on short notice, and others like Merrill and Aveline had responsibilities at home they couldn’t abandon for a jaunt underground. Varric still forwarded all letters from Starkhaven directly into the garbage, so Sebastian was hardly getting an invite. As for Hawke and Fenris, they already had a date planned in the Bone Pit, hacking and slashing through whatever vermin infested the place this time. Those two bonded over that sort of thing.

His final entourage was eight strong: Varric, Bethany, Bran, and four green, yet enthusiastic guards Aveline assigned as their armed escort. Serendipity, an elven drag queen from the Blooming Rose often spotted slinking out of the seneschal’s apartments after midnight, completed the party as Bran’s ‘guest.’ Varric had rolled his eyes when the seneschal begged to bring her along, but relented in the hopes that the elf would keep Bran from droning on about paperwork and politics the entire trip.

Hawke met them at the Kirkwall docks, dressed in his Champion’s cowl, to see them off before they boarded the ship. As much as Varric cherished Sunshine’s company, he felt a little guilty for roping her into this trip when none of their other friends could make it. When he said as much, she waved away his concerns.

“I wouldn’t have agreed if I didn’t want to come,” Bethany chided. “And I don’t think Garrett would ever forgive me if I ditched his best friend.”

Hawke laughed and ruffled his sister’s hair. “Don’t enjoy yourself too much,” he said. Bethany squirmed out of his reach, a flustered blush blooming across her cheeks. When she noticed Varric looking, she combed her disheveled hair back into its proper place.

Hawke put a hand on Varric’s shoulder. “And as for you, Your Dwarfy Lordship, try not to get lost. We all know how rubbish you are at navigating caves.”

“I have a book to finish and at least a dozen people to avoid,” Varric replied. “I’m not leaving my room if I can help it.”

Hawke raised an eyebrow. “Is that so? Hey Bethany, excellent news—”

Bethany whacked her brother up the back of his head as she pushed past them. “I’m getting on the boat,” she declared, ascending the gangway. “Bye, Garrett.”

Varric fiddled with the cuff of his jacket sleeve to hide a curious glance in her direction. It wasn’t like Bethany to act so curt. Travel jitters, he supposed. Hawke, meanwhile, rubbed his head and winced.

“The Circle did nothing for her sense of humor,” he complained to Varric. “Bring her back in one piece, alright?”

“I promise to keep her safe and sound,” Varric said after they shared a quick embrace, “and I always keep my promises.”

As they set sail, Varric lingered on deck to watch Kirkwall gradually shrink into the horizon. His home. His real home. Not Orzammar, regardless of what his mother used to rant during her drunken rages, or what Bartrand had bragged at his wild parties. He thought of what his parents and brother might have said if they were alive to see Varric welcomed back into their lost homeland. Bile threatened to climb up his throat.

Varric decided that the turbulent sea upset his stomach, and he retreated below deck for the rest of the journey.

They were in sight of Highever by dusk. Bethany went above deck to get some air, and when she didn’t return, Varric left his cabin to look for her.

He found the mage standing at the boat’s prow, staring forward as the ship cut through the choppy sea water. Their ship didn’t have a carved figurehead, yet Sunshine filled the role perfectly—eyes wide, mouth slightly agape, her entire being arrested with longing and anticipation. A salty breeze rushed over them, lifting Bethany’s hair prettily off her shoulders. The sight of her stirred a current of warmth and tenderness deep inside him, and he felt glad she had chosen to come after all.

It was only a pity Varric was a writer instead of an artist. He would never be able to recreate this moment and do it justice.

Varric stood beside her in amiable silence before asking, “Everything okay?”

She blinked as if waking from a dream. “Being here makes me feel like a teenager again, fleeing the Blight. This boat isn’t that different from the one my family took to Kirkwall. And that earthy scent...” Bethany closed her eyes and breathed deeply through her nose. “Ferelden. I remember when I first realized the smell of the air had changed. That’s when I knew we were truly leaving home forever.”

Varric looked out over the sea. The rocky Ferelden coastline extended endlessly before them, and the Frostbacks loomed in the distance as black silhouettes against a rich orange and red sky. Varric had ridden all over this place with the Inquisition, but standing beside Sunshine was like beholding it for the first time. It almost made him like this frigid, rainy, dog-shit country.

“Do you want to stay here while the rest of us move on to Orzammar?” Varric asked. Though it was his own suggestion, his chest tightened at the thought.

The wistfulness in Bethany’s eyes vanished as she shook her head. “No, no. Ferelden isn’t really home anymore. I was only letting nostalgia get the best of me. I’ll see plenty of the country as we travel.” She arched an eyebrow. “Varric, if I didn’t know better, I’d say you were trying to get rid of me.”

He responded with a throaty chuckle. “Sunshine, I’m just making sure this a trip you actually want to take. It’s certainly one I’d skip, if I had the choice.”

“Why don’t you? It was an invitation, not a summons. Surely the Viscount of Kirkwall can say no to a Paragon.”

Varric answered before he could stop himself. “Not to this one.” When Bethany tore her eyes away from the approaching coastline to study his face, he knew his words begged questions he didn’t want to answer. “Come on,” he said, moving to return below deck, “we’ll be docking soon.”

 


 

They spent the night in an inn in Highever and were gone before the sun rose the next morning. Varric had had his fill of horses with the Inquisition, so he hired a carriage to carry them down the Imperial Highway. It was a squeeze to fit everyone inside and quite expensive, but avoiding the ache of clinging to a knock-kneed pony was more than worth the gold.

Varric filled those first early hours of travel trying to describe what little he knew about dwarven culture. In the rigid hierarchy of Orzammar society, he explained, surface caste dwarves like him were lower than dirt. Or higher than dirt. The figure of speech didn’t really work when a surface dwarf’s greatest crime was living above the earth rather than beneath it.

“I thought you all worked together in that guild of yours,” Serendipity said with interest.

“Work together?” Varric chuckled. “That’s rich. Orzammar and the Merchant’s Guild work together only for as long as there’s profit to be made. If the surface didn’t have so much gold and good food, Orzammar would lock its doors. If Orzammar didn’t have so much lyrium, the Merchant’s Guild would throw away the key. Trust me, it’s an arrangement of convenience mutually hated by all involved.”

“And that’s why this Paragon is such a big deal,” Bethany chimed in, “because she’s from the surface?”

“Yeah,” he said, scratching the back of his neck. “There’s never been a surfacer Paragon before.”

“She must be brilliant.”

Varric looked out the carriage window and said nothing more.


 

Days spent crammed in a carriage together thawed all barriers of class, race, and circumstance. The guardsmen—Alan, Eckhard, Nicholaus, and Mark—opened up about life in the city guard barracks and recounted Aveline’s most obvious and embarrassing attempts at flirting with her own husband. Bran reminisced about the old days before the former Viscount’s untimely beheading. Serendipity lay her legs across the laps of all four guards and made them blush with lewd jokes.

For his part, Varric read passages of his latest manuscript aloud to a mostly rapt audience; Bethany fell asleep mid-reading against his shoulder. Though he teased her when she woke up, he took her silent feedback to heart. If someone who inhaled books as ravenously as Sunshine fell asleep listening to his story, Varric had some serious rewriting to do.

They played Wicked Grace for hours, first for fun, then for pocket change, then to find out who was the best at cheating, and then to teach Bethany how to properly cheat in the first place.

“What did you even learn at the Circle?” Varric asked her, gaping at her stupendously bad hand of songs, angels, and daggers. He had long dropped out of the game so he could peek at her cards over her shoulder and give advice.

“Hmmm.” Bethany watched him through the corner of her eye, a sly smile slowly growing across her features. “Magic or some such. Nothing important.”

“Any education that doesn’t teach you to cheat at cards is a waste of time. Now,” Varric lowered his voice to whisper in her ear, “I’m going to distract the group so you can draw a card from the discard pile. Don’t overthink it, just do it.”

He leaned away from her and declared in a loud, obnoxious voice, “Bran, you need any more of that special ointment? The goopy stuff you get from Darktown?”

Bran went white and almost dropped his cards on the carriage floor. “I-I don’t know what you mean.”

“I’m still in touch with the healer who makes it, so if you need more you only have to ask. I’ve just noticed you’ve been more itchy lately—”

My lord!”

The ensuing bickering left Serendipity and the guards spellbound. When Bran dissolved into an embarrassed mess and the game finally continued, Varric peeked at Bethany’s hand again. She had stolen and replaced not one, but three cards. Her new hand wouldn’t win against the Wicked Grace players at Skyhold, but here she stood a fighting chance.

“Good girl,” he whispered.

The carriage was stiflingly hot with eight people inside, yet Sunshine shivered. She also looked rosier than usual. Varric spent the rest of the game silently worrying that the damp Ferelden weather was making her ill.

 


 

Each evening, Bethany conjured a campfire with a flick of her wrist, and they made camp nearby the road. They slept in their respective tents while the guards took turns keeping watch for bandits.

Varric went to sleep with Bianca armed and ready beside his bedroll. Though he said nothing of it to the group, he fully expected assassins to creep into camp and attack him. House Davri had never given up on trying to add his decapitated head to their trophy collection, and since Varric wasn’t traveling under a false name or by forgotten back roads, it was a matter of time before a gang of hired blades caught up with them.

When they awoke every morning, well rested and unharassed, Bethany stamped out the campfire with a wave of force magic. Varric quietly stowed his weaponry, incredulous to have spent another night in complete peace.

One night, as they sat around the fire to eat, talk, and keep warm, Varric lay his crossbow on his lap to give it some much needed maintenance. As Viscount, he didn’t have the time to care for Bianca as he used to. He missed spending hours keeping his most treasured possession in sparkling condition.

While Varric applied wax down the length of the bowstrings, he hummed an old tune he hadn’t thought of in years, but still remembered as if he wrote it yesterday. A ballad of two smitten fools who believed love was enough, and that they could outsmart anyone who told them otherwise. He ached inside as his voice hit a long, tender note, then the song slowly died away until Varric only heard the campfire’s soft crackling.

Bethany settled beside him and hugged her knees to her chest. She watched him polish his crossbow for a while, resting her head in her folded arms.

“So we’ll be needing our weapons at this Paragon ceremony,” she said.

“No harm in being prepared,” Varric replied airily. He beheld his crossbow with pride and affection. “Plus there are some great smiths and enchanters in Orzammar. Daddy’s long overdue to get his favorite girl a shiny upgrade.”

Bethany lifted her head. “I don’t want to pry, but Bianca Davri is who your crossbow is named for, isn’t she?”

Varric stayed quiet and continued cleaning his crossbow.

“Why did you name it after her?”

A familiar line slid off his tongue. “Sorry Sunshine, but that’s the one story I never tell. I promised.”

Bethany nodded and resumed staring into the fire, her face unreadable as the flickering flames danced in her dark eyes. Though he appreciated that she didn’t push him to give a better answer, Varric wondered why he still bothered hiding the truth. It had been years since he and Bianca were lovers. They didn’t owe each other anything. This was a promise no one but him cared to keep.

If Varric were a more honest person, he’d admit it was cowardice. Something he learned in writing The Tale of the Champion and All This Shit is Weird was that hindsight granted perfect vision. Patterns and problems that developed in secret became clear as a sunny day after the fact. And when Varric followed the plot threads of his history with Bianca, when he really looked at the story like a reader picking up a new book, he found fault in its hopeless, idealistic hero.

Sunshine loved stories. If she heard this one, she’d probably conclude the same thing.

 


 

The closer they drew to Orzammar, the more positively Varric felt about the outdoors. By the time they reached Gherlen’s Pass, his opinion was almost glowing. Hills, camping, and riding were all still terrible, but he loved the breadth of the sky, the warmth of morning sunlight, and the caress of the wind. He wished he could bottle them up and bring them with him underground, so he could unleash them whenever his heart couldn’t take the darkness anymore. Whatever trials awaited him, Varric figured they would be easier to face with a nice beam of sunshine or a cool breeze in his pocket.

About halfway through, Gherlen’s Pass branched out into the narrower Frostback Mountain Pass. They arrived at this milestone of their journey just as the sun began to sink below the mountain peaks.

Varric slowly awoke from a nap on an exceedingly comfortable pillow. The sensation of fingers picking through his dark blond hair and grazing against his scalp lured him into a pleasant doze.

When his eyes fluttered open, he saw the silhouette of a beautiful woman bent over him, surrounded by a shining halo. A spirit, maybe. Or one of those elven deities running around disguised as regular people. Varric had seen enough otherworldly nonsense in his time, both explanations sounded plausible enough. He drifted in and out of consciousness, only blinking awake when he felt the steady rocking of the carriage start to slow.

“We’re almost there,” the ethereal beauty said in a voice of liquid gold.

His heart stuttered. That sounded like Sunshine.

Varric shot upward with a gasp. He rubbed the sleep from his eyes, and the truth hit him with the clumsy ferocity of a stampeding druffalo. Varric had woken up with his head nestled in Bethany’s lap. His head. Her lap.

“How?” was all Varric could say.

“We rolled through a ditch while you were asleep, and you fell over,” Bethany explained, sounding amused.

Varric’s ears burned deep scarlet. He covered his surprise with a good-natured laugh. “Just don’t tell Hawke. He’d feed my balls to his dog if he suspected my intentions towards you were less than wholesome.”

The Frostback Mountain Pass was guarded by two enormous statues of dwarves brandishing colossal hammers. Cliche, in Varric’s opinion. Bushy-bearded dwarves holding hammers? Like no one had thought of that before. The carriage rolled to a stop before the gates of Orzammar, a vast, boxy construction built directly into the mountain wall. Varric found the angular lines and geometric shapes of dwarven architecture incredibly ugly, and looking at the solid stone doors ahead of him, he realized he would be seeing a lot of it. Great.

As they piled out of the carriage, cold mountain air covered them in a chilled blanket, and their boots crunched upon days-old snow. A large market had sprung into existence outside the grand city gates, and the voices of merchants selling their wares echoed between the mountain peaks. It reminded Varric of Haven in the early Inquisition days, all crisp wintry air and bustling activity. Dozens of dwarves dressed in various Thedosian fashions stood at the top of the stone steps leading to the gates, waiting to be let inside. With all the surface dwarves pouring in from around Thedas, those big stone doors were left open to accommodate the crowds.

Varric observed the commotion with a growing sense of unease. Orzammar opening its doors to surfacers like this went against everything those stodgy dwarves believed in. Who got drunk and decided stuffing this many people from different cultures into a single cave was a good idea?

Their four guards hauled their luggage up the gate steps while Varric approached the gatekeepers. No one got into Orzammar without approval from the right people. He held out hope that they might turn him away at the eleventh hour. He had even rehearsed his disappointed face when he heard the news. I’m not allowed in? Shit. What a shame. Guess it’s back to Kirkwall for us.

Sadly, the gatekeepers knew exactly who Varric was, and they immediately approved his petition for entry and motioned for him and his entourage to wait amongst the other visitors. Dread pooled in Varric’s gut. Beyond those doors was Orzammar, a city built from everything he hated, and Bianca, the woman who was once everything he loved. Facing one of those things was stressful enough, but both at once...

Varric looked towards the sky and closed his eyes. He tried to memorize the sun’s warmth on his cheeks, the brisk mountain air, and the smell of pine trees all around him. He gulped a deep breath as if it were his last.

An unknown voice interrupted his trance. “By the Ancestors, is it really you?”

With a frustrated exhale, Varric opened his eyes.

A strange, gigantic dwarf stood before him. He was built like a brick shithouse, with a mop of springy black curls tied into a thick rope of a ponytail and a nose shaped like a plump gourd. His face was deeply etched with smile lines, as if he laughed loudly and often. The dwarf wore a towering backpack full of items purchased in the market, and in his hands he held a back issue of Hard in Hightown from its original serialization. A veritable antique.

He pointed to Varric’s author portrait on the back cover with a stout finger. “Varric Tethras?” the man said.

Varric summoned the easy smile he reserved for fans. “Well spotted.” He rubbed his stubbled chin and marveled at the accuracy of the years-old portrait; it took more than a busted nose, a narrowly-thwarted demon apocalypse, and some stressful years of kingdom management to beat the handsome devil out of him.

They shook hands. The dwarf had the grip of a seasoned smith, strong and rough, with thick calluses along his fingers from shaping metal. Varric’s hand looked downright dainty in comparison.

“Visiting for the Paragon’s ascension, eh?” the man asked, letting him go after one last squeeze.

Varric flexed his aching fingers and scanned the crowd of people very clearly waiting to get into Orzammar. Whoever this guy was, he didn’t sound too bright. “Uh yeah, we just got here.”

“Your timing is impeccable,” the dwarf said with a carefree chortle. “The Paragon-elect herself is just inside, visiting in the Hall of Heroes to view her new statue. A perfect likeness, though she claims it’s not very flattering. Of course, I disagree. I hope I can count on you to tell her the same.”

Varric looked back at the gates, open wide like a pair of unhinged jaws. “You know her?” he asked, sarcasm sharpening his voice.

“Of course!” The dwarf’s blue eyes sparkled with mirth. “Why, she’s my wife!”

Chapter Text

Bianca’s husband was dumber than a bucket of bricks.

His name was Bogdan Vasca.

In the time it took to walk through the gates of Orzammar and down a narrow pathway descending into the Hall of Heroes, Bogdan had spilled his entire family history to Varric with no prompting whatsoever. Once a humble smith caste family without two coppers to rub together, House Vasca now operated a trade syndicate stretching across Thedas, often dominating the Merchant’s Guild with their cutthroat negotiations and schemes. However, not every Vasca wheeled and dealed. Bogdan joked that even a family as savvy as his spawned a couple bumblers every generation, and he was big enough to bumble for two people.

So instead of attending Merchant’s Guild meetings, Bogdan contributed to the family business as the full-time husband of a beautiful genius. He helped run Bianca’s workshop in Val Royeaux, sold her machines abroad, and managed hundreds of her employees, all while funneling profits back into their respective families. Now that she was becoming a Paragon, business was sure to surge. Indeed, marrying Bianca Davri was the most lucrative deal in the history of House Vasca.

Varric listened with his mouth pinched shut until he couldn’t stand it anymore. “Sounds like you got the coin, and she got the shaft.”

Bogdan responded with a boisterous guffaw. “That salacious Tethras wordplay of yours is bracing, my friend!” He clapped Varric on the shoulder with a meaty hand that felt a little too heavy to be playful.

Talking with this guy was a new flavor of weird. Fifteen years ago, Bianca had ditched her own wedding to elope with Varric, only to back out their elopement and marry Bogdan anyway. While Varric had continued to secretly see Bianca on and off for several more years, he never expected to meet her husband, or to find him a few tools short of a forge. The icing on this weird-ass cake was that Bogdan was clueless that he had met the man who tried to break up his marriage before it even started.

Bianca had once told Varric that she didn’t fear her husband finding out about their affair—or any of her other secrets—but had never explained why. Varric now surmised that the man was too busy floating through Bogdan Land, jabbering about Bogdan Things, to notice what his wife got up to. In a way, they were well suited to each other.

Finally, they entered the Hall of Heroes. The long hall boasted a vaulted ceiling supported by shale pillars, and narrow waterfalls of pouring lava illuminated the room with a warm, yellow glow. Immense statues of the Paragons from ages past lined the walls. To Varric’s left, he saw heroes, explorers, and geniuses. To his right, warriors, poets, and kings. Each statue represented a once-mortal person, flesh and blood like Bianca, and through deed and merit alone, they had ascended to the closest thing to a pantheon dwarves would ever accept. Surfacers from all over Thedas crowded around the statue bases to read their plaques, recount their glorious achievements, and bask in the cultural history surrounding them.

Just looking at it all sent tension slithering up Varric’s spine. How must Bartrand and his parents have felt walking through this very hall, right beneath the unforgiving gazes of their Paragons, as they left their home behind in shame?

“There she is,” Bogdan exclaimed, pointing ahead of them. “Bianca wears a hood to avoid being recognized, but I’d know that backside anywhere.”

Varric looked in the same direction and spotted the turned backs of at least a dozen hooded women. He, too, used to be an expert at picking out Bianca’s shape from a crowd. Theirs was a romance practiced in shadow and protected with subterfuge. Her parents did everything possible to keep her away from unsuitable men like Varric, and since their forbidden relationship nearly sparked a clan war, there was never a time Bianca met him without her hood.

And yet, Varric couldn’t figure out which woman was supposed to be her.

Bogdan elbowed his way through the crowd to approach one of the women, who he hugged with one arm and kissed on the cheek. Huh, so that was Bianca. She hadn’t seen Varric yet, but given her husband’s penchant for vomiting every single thought in his head, she would learn of his presence soon enough.

The tension building throughout his body wound tighter by a few more degrees. Varric could not leave this hall without saying hello, but he had to do it alone. He turned to the companions he’d dragged half-way across Thedas.

The Kirkwall party stuck out like shit smeared on white silk. The city guardsmen towered over the dwarves, and they tiptoed forward in their clunky sabatons to avoid stepping on any foreign dignitaries ambling underfoot. Passerbys of all genders regarded Serendipity with unmasked fascination, a fact she appeared to relish. Bran and Bethany just looked overwhelmed. Varric guessed they had never been among the only humans in a room full of dwarves before. Boot, meet the other foot.

Varric first addressed Bran and the guards. “Go ahead of me and check on our room arrangements,” he said. He withdrew a paper from his pocket containing the address of an inn called the Silver Slug and pressed it into Bran’s hands. “It should already be reserved and paid for. If they don’t give me a bed big enough to fit two qunari, yell at somebody.”

The seneschal marched out of the room, the guards trailing behind him like a line of newborn ducklings.

Next, Varric turned to Serendipity. “I’m not paying you to be here, so I won’t order you around. Whatever you get up to, just be safe about it.” Serendipity vanished into the crowd to do as she pleased.

Lastly, Varric looked up at Bethany, who was breathtakingly keen to help in any small way. Andraste's dimpled buttcheeks, it would be much easier to tell Sunshine to get lost if she wasn’t so sweet and eager all the time.

“I’m not paying you to be here either,” Varric began, “but Hawke would make me dance barefoot on broken glass if I didn’t keep you safe, so you should catch up with the others. I need to have a private word with an old friend.”

The emotional weight behind ‘old friend’ was not lost on Bethany, and her eyebrows drew together. “Will you be alright alone? I’m not the only one my brother wants kept safe, you know.” With a conspiratorial smile, she bent down to whisper in his ear, “And someone has to distract, um, Shouty over there.”

“Shouty,” Varric repeated, looking back towards Bogdan. Despite his unease, his mouth tugged into a half-smile. “Good one. If blood starts dribbling out of your ears listening to him, just run. Trust me, no dwarf can keep up with those long legs of yours.”

Bethany nodded with a startled blink and followed him. As they moved toward the couple together, other dwarves stared and exchanged heated whispers in their wake. Words like ‘surfacer’ and ‘human’ were audible, but Varric was too busy steeling himself to notice overmuch.

When they cleared enough of the crowd to properly see the statue looming ahead of them, Varric’s stomach twisted itself into knots. Bianca wasn’t just looking at any statue—it was her own. She had already joined the Hall of Heroes. A little soon, given that Bianca wasn’t technically a Paragon yet. Probably her parents’ doing. For a smith caste family, they had always cared more about superficial appearances than craftsmanship.

Varric wished this reunion would take place somewhere else. If one thing was more nerve-wracking than one Bianca, it was two of them.

Bianca turned. Varric put on a demon-may-care grin as he became reacquainted with her face. No big changes since Valammar. Same fair cheeks, quick-witted eyes, and smile guarding a cryptic secret she’d never share. She looked happy to see him yet unsurprised, as if this was just another one of their secret meetings from years past.

Bethany deftly lured Bogdan away with a question about his anvil collection, leaving the two ex-lovers alone in the shadow of her statue.

“So,” Varric said, “Paragon Bianca.”

Bianca smirked. “Oh, don’t you start.”

Varric held out his arms, and she stepped forward to meet him in a short embrace. For the first time he could recall, the vexatious spark that sprang to life whenever they were in the same room stayed dead, and calling Bianca an old friend didn’t feel like a bald-faced lie.

“It’s good to see you, Varric,” she said as they parted.

“And it’s good to see you,” he said warmly. “How long have you been underground?”

“A month.”

Varric’s eyebrows hit the ceiling. “A whole month! Is the Stone serenading you yet? Have you acquired a taste for overcooked nug meat?”

Bianca wrinkled her nose. “Great Ancestors, no!” Her lips quirked in that wry way that suggested she was in a teasing mood. “I haven’t been able to stand the smell of boiled nug since that stew you made me.”

“Made us. I ate it too. I got sick as a dog, too! Can’t you find it in your heart to forgive me for one bad meal we suffered together, what, fifteen years ago?”

Sixteen. And nope, never.”

They both chuckled, but when the laughter dried up between them, Varric searched for something else to say. He couldn’t remember the last time they met in such a public place, and he knew for a fact that they had never before hugged in front of other people. Strangely, seeing each other out in the open didn’t inspire the elation it used to.

“Your statue looks impressive,” he finally said.

Bianca tilted her face upwards. “I suppose it does.”

The two of them stared up at Bianca’s statue. She was larger than legend, raising a smith’s hammer over her head in one hand and clutching a sickle in the other. The Davri Mechanical Thresher must be too complicated to carve out of stone, so the sculptor gave her a sickle as a nod to the invention that would make her a Paragon.

A crossbow would have been more fitting, but Bianca’s involvement in perfecting her namesake was their oldest and most closely guarded secret. For both of their safeties, it had to stay that way.

Despite what Bogdan had claimed at the city gates, Varric agreed that the statue looked unflattering. Bianca’s face was chiseled with a half-grimace, like she had looked straight through the viewer and found them lacking. Those rigid stone eyes resembled the real Bianca the longer he looked into them.

“When I heard you were becoming a living Paragon, I didn’t realize you’d also become so, so...” Varric frowned as he sought the correct word.

“Famous? Respectable?”

Storied,” Varric finished. “Statues and ceremonies were never your style. You’ve always liked keeping your head down, putting that brain of yours to use. It’s your machines you show off, not yourself.”

“People change,” Bianca said soberly. Her face softened, and she touched Varric on the arm. “Listen, while I’ve got you alone, I wanted to say that I’m happy for you. It’s past time for you to write a new song.”

Bianca watched his face closely to analyze his reaction, but Varric couldn’t follow what she meant. What was she happy about? What new song? She couldn’t mean the song he wrote about them all those years ago, could she? He schooled his expression into something friendly and untroubled to hide his confusion.

“You know me, always writing something new,” he said.

Her eyes drifted over Varric’s shoulder, and he turned to see what had captured her attention. It was Bethany making awkward conversation with Bogdan by one of the lava fountains, and probably charming the ponytail off him, too.

“When I read your book, I thought something might be there,” Bianca said, still watching her husband converse with Bethany, “but you never mentioned it to me, so I assumed you were just blowing smoke again.” With a small snort, she added, “That paragraph about her boobs definitely threw me off.”

Varric cringed. “Right. That one.”

Literarily speaking, one of Varric’s bigger regrets (pun shamefully intended) was giving Bethany enormous breasts in the prologue of The Tale of the Champion, never to mention them again for the rest of the book. It had seemed like a good idea at the time. Boobs sold books. Since Isabela didn’t show up until chapter four, someone had to pick up the slack. It wasn’t like Sunshine had been the only one to get an exaggerated makeover; Varric had written so much about Hawke’s rippling muscles, he could recite several passages in his sleep. No one would ever remember a single measly paragraph in the prologue anyway.

Nobody except Bianca.

“You should’ve seen my mother’s face when she heard,” Bianca said with an amused shake of her head.

They watched Bogdan gesture a little too closely to the streaming lava fountain as he blathered on. Bethany yanked his hand away in a panic before he got burned. Varric would have laughed, if only he didn’t feel so off balance.

“Heard what?”

“That you were bringing a girlfriend to this circus. A human one. Seriously, she looked like all her birthdays had come at once. Anyways,” Bianca said, her blue eyes meeting his thunderstruck brown, “if you won’t pony up and introduce us, I’ll just do it myself.”

A thousand shrill bells rang between Varric’s ears. Bianca left him to meet Bethany, but he remained too stunned to move or speak. His conversation with Bianca echoed in his head, with words like ‘new song’ and ‘something there’ and ‘girlfriend’ roaring like raging archdemons and drowning out all else. Someone had made a serious mistake, but who? When? How?

Varric remembered that buttoned-up dwarven messenger delivering an invitation to the Viscount of Kirkwall—and guest. He thought of himself, almost immediately turning to Bethany and asking if she wanted to join him on his blighted adventure to Orzammar. And then he recalled the messenger leaving the room right before Varric and Bethany had agreed that neither of them would bring dates.

That messenger must have skipped along to House Davri and blabbed that Bethany was Varric’s date to Bianca and her gossip-mongering parents. He should’ve paid more attention when Bethany pointed out the date thing in his invitation. He should’ve been more clear when Bran sent a raven with the final list of his retinue to Orzammar. This was a trap of Varric’s own making—and Sunshine was walking right into it.

He moved to rescue Bethany from this situation before it escalated, but it was too late, the women were already talking and shaking hands.

“It’s so wonderful to meet a Paragon,” Bethany said. Her smile was all dimples and sunlight. “I’m Bethany—”

“Hawke, the same from The Tale of the Champion.” Bianca said, craning her head upward to look Bethany in the face. Varric found something deeply unsettling about watching two very different pieces of his life collide. “I’m a longtime fan of Varric’s books. I know the focus is on your brother, but it read to me like you endured your own saga, too. And all of it true.”

Bethany demurred. “Well, not all of it. Varric definitely exaggerated some things.”

Bianca very clearly glanced at Bethany’s chest. “A couple things!” she said with a teasing smirk. Bethany’s gentle smile slipped a little as she tried to laugh along, and Varric felt lower than the scum mucking up those gutters in the Kirkwall alienage.

“I was just telling Varric how happy I am for the two of you,” Bianca continued. She looked at Bethany like she was dismantling a complex puzzle piece by piece. If there was one thing she loved more than crafting things, it was prying them apart.

Bethany’s mouth fell slightly open, then she forced it into a close-lipped smile. “That’s, um, a kind thing to say,” she stammered out. “So, have you ever visited Kirkwall before?”

The bells ringing in Varric’s head transformed into howling sirens. Everything was flying out of control so fast.

Just as Varric opened his mouth to speak, a heavy hand fell on his shoulder and yanked him away. It was Bogdan, no doubt trying to corner him into another conversation he didn’t want to have. The tension in Varric’s back and neck stretched even thinner.

The Hall of Heroes swarmed with people now, pushing and shoving to get a better look at the Paragons or make their way into the glorious thaig of their ancestors. The longer Bogdan blocked Varric’s path, the more people shuffled around them, the further away Bianca and Bethany seemed to drift.

“Bold choice, bringing a human woman here,” the larger dwarf began to say, “but I see how you could not leave her behind. Nubile, is she?” Bogdan waggled his eyebrows.

Varric had felt a little sorry for Bogdan, being an oblivious cuckold with a big rock in lieu of a brain and all, but that sympathy crumbled into dust the second he leered at Sunshine. Bianca could wait. Shouty needed sorting out—immediately.

Varric forced a jovial laugh, as if he and Bogdan were two best friends sharing a drink at the Hanged Man, then he leaned forward and dropped his voice to the blackest depths of the Deep Roads.

“Normally, anyone who talks about Bethany like that gets a kiss on the cheek from my crossbow—” it took some restraint not to utter his weapon’s name, “—but since your wife is a friend of mine, I’ll let you off with a warning. Keep your comments to yourself and your eyes on her face, and we'll have no quarrel.”

Varric leaned away again, his cheery smile back in place. No one watching could tell just how much he wanted to shove Shouty down a mine shaft and seal the entrance.

But Bogdan heard only a single word Varric had said. “A crossbow, you say?”

With a withering sigh, Varric pinched the bridge of his nose. Figured that someone who talked so much listened very little. If his composure was a bowstring, it would be pulled taut, ready to snap.

Bogdan shrugged off one of his larger bags and reached inside. “I’ve had mine only a few months.” He withdrew a long contraption of wood and metal and held it with reverence and care. “A gift from my wife to celebrate our fifteenth anniversary,” Bogdan explained with pride. He flicked a switch, and the device unfolded its four limbs with a satisfying click, transforming into a sleek repeating crossbow made of jet black wood. “Bianca won’t let me participate in Provings, but imagine how well it would perform! Perhaps you can help me convince her.”

It took one look at the weapon for Varric’s last strand of calm to break in two.

Varric had thought he was ready. He had foolishly believed that just because he felt no pain seeing her again, that there was nothing left to feel. Seeing a crossbow identical to his own clawed his oldest scars wide open. Bianca the crossbow, his signature weapon, a keepsake he had lied and killed to protect, had a twin. A superior twin, judging by the design improvements on the trigger mechanism, the platinum embellishments, and its four lyrium-imbued runes.

Bianca didn’t just break her promise and craft a second repeating crossbow. She built Bogdan a better one.

The beginning notes of an old and familiar song dripped across Varric’s thoughts. They mingled with the din of laughter and conversation surrounding him, swelling and twisting the melody into a tune he didn’t recognize. It felt like someone had stolen something from him. It felt like a loss.

There was no air in the room. Or maybe there was, but his throat was too clogged to breathe any of it. Sweat beaded along Varric’s hairline. He ignored Bogdan’s unending chatter as he searched for a way out of this blasted hall, but all he could see were dozens of ageless Paragons staring down at him with pity and contempt. Like the Stone had come alive to watch him fall apart at the seams.

Varric flinched when someone touched his shoulder. It was Bethany, oozing politeness as she addressed Bogdan.

“I’m exhausted,” Bethany declared. She gave his shoulder a gentle squeeze. “Forgive me, but I must steal Varric away so we may settle down for the night.”

Bogdan threw his head back with a loud bray. “Your lady demands your company! I wouldn’t keep her waiting!” A fierce wave of nausea swept over Varric. Everything about Bianca’s husband, from his bombastic voice to the crossbow in his hands, rattled him. He wanted to scream, but for once in his life, he could not make a sound.

Bethany took Varric’s hand and laced their fingers together. He nodded to her wordlessly and let her lead him away from the Hall of Heroes.

Chapter Text

Varric awoke the next morning with a hard-on. This wasn’t altogether unusual for him, for he had woken up this way every so often since before he sprouted his first chest hair. The problem was that Bethany Hawke was asleep right beside him, and he didn’t want to add any extra awkwardness to what was already a shit situation.

Last night was a blur. Varric remembered walking from the Hall of Heroes to the Silver Slug with a feeling of unreality, like he was watching from the outside as a spirit traveled in his boots. It must’ve been a friendly spirit, because it had guided him safely to the inn, moved his lips to order Bethany and himself some food, and gotten them settled in their room.

Yes, their room. The innkeeper had heard the Viscount of Kirkwall intended stay in the same room as his human lady friend, and she saved her last and largest room for the ‘couple.’ Who told her that? Impossible to say. Gossip spread fast in Orzammar.

The only sharp word Bethany had uttered the whole night was to admonish Varric for trying to pass out on the floor when the bed was spacious enough to share. They had undressed and went to sleep with the unsaid agreement that they would talk everything over in the morning.

Now that morning had arrived, an entirely new problem raised its unwanted head.

Varric had been fond of Bethany ever since the moment they first met, and through hardship, rebellion, and war, he had maintained a long game of making her smile through charm alone. He liked to think that after twelve or so years, she played that game, too. Their dynamic was good, something worth protecting. And if she rolled over and saw an old and trusted friend of hers sporting an erection like a Darktown pervert, that dynamic would go up in instant flames.

Losing the good opinion of any of his close friends was the same as losing a limb, but to lose Sunshine? His chest ached just thinking about it. And if Hawke ever found out? Varric would be dead to two of his favorite people—or, knowing the Hawkes, just simply dead. No boner was worth that sacrifice.

Varric rolled on his side to face the outside of the bed. The soft sighs of Bethany’s breathing behind him soothed his thoughts until he fell into a light doze.

When Varric woke again, he was relieved to find that his dick had simmered down. Good. Now it just had to stay that way until he got back to Kirkwall, where he could go back to sleeping in solitude at the Viscount’s Keep. Back to a big bed all to himself, in a large and silent room no one ever visited but the occasional mage—maid. He meant maid. As in that elderly elven lady who dusted his bookcases and changed the sheets. Not mage, as in the friend resting innocently right next to him.

Varric sat up and rubbed the sleep from his eyes with a frustrated sigh. Maker’s ass, his thoughts were all over the place.

Bethany stirred with a long and indulgent stretch, a quiet moan escaping her as she extended her arms over her head. Her dark hair was mussed, with a long strand falling over her face, drawing Varric’s gaze from her closed eyes down her nose and to her slightly parted lips. Varric became aware of his own staring and busied himself with his manuscript, which currently existed in a loosely-bound collection of papers on his bedside table.

Eventually, she opened her eyes and sat up. “Morning,” he murmured without looking in her direction.

“Good morning.” Bethany yawned and peered around the room. She had gone to bed in an oversized men’s shirt, and she wiped her eyes with a baggy sleeve several inches too long. “Is it morning? It’s hard to tell without sunlight trickling through the window. The sky, the sun—they really aren’t out there.”

Varric couldn’t resist replying, “The only sunshine in this shit city is you.”

True to her nickname, Bethany’s face lit up brightly enough to illuminate all of Orzammar.

Their room didn’t have real windows, but panes of tinted glass built into the rock and framed with shutters and curtains to give the illusion of them. The Silver Slug catered to wealthy merchants visiting from the surface, so the rooms were decorated to resemble a high-end Fereldan inn. They slept in a four-poster bed with a sweeping canopy of scarlet fabric, and a round table with matching chairs was situated in the corner for meals and meetings.

It was cozy, intimate. A perfect space for a couple to stay in. It was only too bad the couple who stayed there now were never supposed to bunk together in the first place.

“How are you feeling?” Bethany asked him.

Varric leaned his head against the headboard and closed his eyes. What happened in the Hall of Heroes was abstract to him, more like a story he heard secondhand than his own lived experience. He recalled the black crossbow unfolding and the flash of recognition that seared through him like a molten blade. The confusion blended with betrayal. How could he even begin to explain that moment without also dredging up the past?

“I don’t know,” Varric finally said. “I’ve never locked up like that before.”

“I have.” Bethany gathered their patchwork duvet in her arms and pulled it towards her chest. “It used to happen in Lothering. I’d see a Templar walking where I didn’t expect them, and suddenly the whole world was a vice squeezing the very life out of me. Father taught me breathing exercises to stay calm and in control.”

“Did that work?”

“It helped me cope.” That seemed a diplomatic answer, but Varric supposed it was the best he could hope to get. Most ills could only be managed, never cured.

There was something else weighing on his mind, something just as disconcerting as a panic attack and as embarrassing as morning wood. He almost didn’t want to bring it up. If it was awkward for him, it must be twice as uncomfortable for her.

“Last night, did you notice some confusion about—” Varric gestured between the two of them.

Bethany sank into their quilted bedding and avoided looking him directly in the eye. “I did hear some comments about the two of us.” When he swore under his breath, she hastily added, “If I did or said something to suggest—”

“It’s not your fault,” Varric cut in, “it’s mine. I wrote ahead to let Bianca know who I was bringing to her big party. She jumped to conclusions, I did my best impression of a brain-dead nug, and now we’re here.” He rubbed his neck with a ragged sigh. “I’m sorry, Sunshine, I’ll fix this. I’ll just explain that this is all a misunderstanding.”

Bethany looked pointedly at their discarded clothes on the floor and the rumpled bedding, then met his eyes once more. “That will take a lot of explaining,” she said. “Besides, gossip thrives on denial. We might as well scream at the sea to stop the tides.”

She had a point. The rumor mill had been spinning since before they even left Kirkwall, and it would take considerable effort to stop its momentum now. After his episode last night, Varric didn’t think he had it in him to both fight gossip and survive the perils of Orzammar high society. Not that Orzammar had been all that perilous thus far.

The suspicious lack of assassination attempts worried Varric more than the gossip. House Davri wasn’t in the business of forgiving and forgetting, and yet no one on their payroll had pulled a knife on him yet. They had countless opportunities to do so. It was like they had given up on getting revenge on the man who dared lure their daughter away from the life they picked out for her. There had to be a reason they dropped their vendetta so suddenly.

Looking at Bethany, still adorably disheveled in the bed they shared, Varric thought he might know what it was.

“What if we played the part for a day or two?” Varric paused, surprised by his own suggestion, but as he kept talking, the wisdom of it became more obvious. “It would give us less grief than trying to correct everyone’s mistake, and between you and me,” he lowered his voice, “some unsavory characters might leave us alone if they think we’re spoken for.”

Bethany’s eyes became so big and deep that he almost fell right into them. “Sure,” she said, sounding oddly cavalier. “Why not? It’s only two days. We’re hardly the guests of honor. Everyone will forget about us once the new Paragon parades through the streets.”

“Exactly. It’ll be almost the same as going as friends.”

“Almost the same,” she agreed with several hearty nods. Her smile faltered, and she looked at him like she had come to a decision. “But before we do this, I need to say something to you.”

Varric sat up and gave her his full attention.

“I won’t ask you break your promise to Bianca. I just want you to know,” Bethany inhaled sharply as if to gather courage, “it’s not pleasant to be made fun of by someone who knows everything about me—because she read it in your book—when I don’t know the slightest thing about her. I’ll pretend to be whatever you like, that’s fine, but I’d rather do it knowing I won’t get pushed around by someone I can’t push back. If I’m in your corner through this, will you be in mine?”

His cheeks burned like they had been bitten by a harsh and stinging sea wind. “Of course,” Varric replied. He let his usual veneer of roguish charm fall away to speak with utter seriousness. “No one is pushing you around on my watch. You have my word on that.”

Bethany relaxed. “I’m glad to hear it.” Those pretty eyes drifted down and widened when they landed on his chest; Varric had gone to bed last night in only his breeches. “Oh! Should we take turns waiting outside the room while the other changes clothes? Except that won’t work if we’re supposed to be, um, together, will it?”

Varric got out of bed and turned away. He said over his shoulder, “Don’t worry about it. I’ll sit tight while you get changed.”

He stared at the wall and tried to ignore the sound of rustling clothes. Fabric gliding over skin, straps snapping into place. Varric remembered Bethany’s stern words and felt vile for even noticing. Maybe talking would steer his mind in a different, less traitorous direction. He could lighten the mood with a boast—Sunshine, you have no idea how many randy Orlesian widows would kill to date me for a day—but such posturing sounded empty, even to him. She needed to hear his gratitude, not his ego.

“I know I said it once already, but I like to improve silence with my dulcet tones, so I’m saying it again anyway. I’m sorry you got dragged into all this.” Varric made a vague gesture around the room and towards himself. “You wanted to bring your own date and instead got saddled with me. I’ll make it up to you when we’re topside again. I’m thinking something to the tune of two bottles of a good Fereldan vintage, your name in the acknowledgements of my next book, and maybe a Mabari puppy since Hawke is still hogging the family dog.”

“Varric, you don’t need to get me any of those things,” Bethany playfully chided, her voice once again warm and cheery. “I never planned on inviting my own date. I asked only to make sure turning up alone wouldn’t reflect badly on you.”

“Uh, have you seen the people I associate with? You’re paragon of grace and kindness compared to the rogue’s gallery that makes up my friends. If anything, I reflect badly on you.”

“But when we went to Chateau Haine all those years ago, I remember feeling awfully embarrassed and unprepared, showing up in my Circle robes like that.”

“Sunshine,” he said with a long drawl, “I remember those robes, and they aren’t half the eyesore you think they are. Maybe on other people, but not on you.”

“Let’s see if this will do.”

Varric turned around, expecting to see Bethany wearing her usual cream tunic, or even something akin to her former Circle uniform. Instead, she wore a fine periwinkle blue dress cinched with a gold underbust bodice that accentuated her figure. Varric knew what an ‘underbust bodice’ was thanks to Swords and Shields, in which he included at least one such bodice getting ripped off its owner in a fit of passion. Varric hoped the elegant garment Bethany wore now would not suffer such a fate. Some things were too beautiful to ruin.

“So?” Bethany asked, smoothing her long skirt. “Is this okay? It’s not my best dress—I’m saving that for the ceremony tomorrow. I just want to look presentable.”

“This won’t work,” Varric said with a solemn frown.

Bethany blanched and looked down at her dress. “What’s wrong?”

“No one will ever believe a beautiful lady like you would be caught dead dating street scum like me. It’s too implausible.”

She shook her head with a small laugh and threw her pillow across the room, hitting Varric square in the face. “Maybe if you were dressed, people would find it easier to believe! Go on, I’ll turn around.”

As Varric tugged on a clean shirt, she asked, “Speaking of being believable, should we agree on a story? Anyone who has read your book about Garrett might wonder how you got together with his little sister.”

Varric glanced at Bethany, who dutifully faced the wall with her hands clasped behind her back. He was absolutely right—no one would ever believe someone as lovely as Sunshine would fall for a curmudgeonly dwarf. To give this nugshit relationship the legs to stand up to scrutiny, they needed to devise a solid backstory. And the best stories, Varric knew, were based on a glimmer of fact.

“Just tell them a half truth,” he said. “We’ve known each other for years, always liked each other, and finally made our longtime flirtation official.”

“That is close to the truth.” With a cheekier tone, Bethany added, “And if they press for more details, we could always say it’s a story we promised not to tell.”

Varric lost his balance trying to put on his pants and fell over.

By the time Varric finished getting dressed, they had worked out the plot of their fictitious romance. Last Summerday, Varric had invited Bethany to the Viscount’s Keep for a private lunch, just the two of them. The spark between them grew into a flame, and long story short, the two lovers had dated discreetly ever since. Why the secrecy? To avoid Hightown gossip, of course! If Bran asked any questions or challenged their account, Varric would just say that he had been sneaking out of the Keep right under the seneschal’s nose. That would shut him up.

They even devised a few anecdotes they could share to truly sell the act, like idyllic picnics on the beach, stolen moments on the Keep battlements, and secret deliveries of expensive gifts. Sunshine had a flair for romance, Varric was a master at making shit up, so together they crafted some very charming lies.

When innkeeper delivered their breakfast, they each received plates of buttered toast made of lichen bread, a cheese spread, and scrambled eggs mixed with sauteed deep mushroom. A single whiff of the mushroom’s sickeningly sweet, tarry aroma made Varric’s mouth water. Something about vaguely poisonous fungi that grew in the armpit of the Deep Roads smelled absolutely divine to a dwarven palate, and he devoured them in short order. His good feelings towards Orzammar cuisine soured when he tried the lichen toast, which was dark grey in color and grittier than bread had any right to be.

Bethany quietly picked the mushrooms out of her eggs and arranged them in a neat pile on the edge of her plate. When she noticed Varric looking longingly at them, she traded her mushrooms for what was left of his toast, as well as half of his cheese spread.

“Will we need to kiss at all?” she asked, casually applying a dollop of cheese to her toast with a butter knife.

Varric chewed his food for a long time to prepare his response. “Sunshine, if I put my hands on you, Hawke would jump out of the shadows and shiv me between the ribs.”

She shot him a look that was half searching, half amused. “You do know my brother isn’t omniscient, don’t you?”

“I value my life too much to risk it.”

As they finished eating, Varric considered the thought more seriously. No one liked getting kissed out of the blue by someone they didn’t want. At least if they talked about it, Bethany could be spared the ‘out of the blue’ part.

“No one will force us to kiss at knifepoint,” Varric said, “but if it comes to that, I’m counting on you to lean in first.” He stared across the table at her with a deadpan expression. “Truth is, I just can’t jump that high.”

Bethany snorted, and her hand flew to her mouth to suppress a fountain of giggles. The sound of it was healing, almost enough to dispel the worries hanging over Varric like an executioner’s axe. A girl as sunny as her really shouldn’t be friends with a guy as shady as him. She definitely shouldn’t be dating him, even in the phony sense. When that axe blade eventually fell, Varric resolved that Sunshine wouldn’t get caught in its path. She deserved better than that.

When Bethany spoke again, she was breathless. “Generally, I only kiss men who leap into my arms first,” she said, beaming from ear to ear and wiping her teary eyes, “but for you I’ll make an exception.”

Varric tipped a phantom hat in her direction, bowing his head slightly to hide his own wild grin. “My crumbling knees thank you kindly.”

Their relaxed morning came to an abrupt halt when Seneschal Bran breezed into the room, arms full of papers and chin set at a pompous angle. He informed Varric that a few men from the Merchant’s Guild were waiting to speak with him, for they had been trying to meet with the Viscount of Kirkwall for months and had been ignored at every turn. Here in Orzammar, they had Varric cornered.

Bran wasted no time converting the bedroom into a makeshift office, shoving clothes under the bed and slapping various scrolls on the same table where they had just finished eating. When he tried to touch Bianca, Varric swooped in to pick up his crossbow himself. Holding the weapon triggered a hollow, sinking feeling in his chest, and he gladly stowed it out of sight.

Bethany took this as her cue to leave. “I’ll see what Serendipity has planned for the day,” she said.

The seneschal regarded her with a faint sneer as she left. The rumors about their relationship must have reached Bran’s ears, and whether he believed them or not, he clearly did not approve.

A couple hours later, after the Merchant’s Guild busybodies finally left the inn and Bran disappeared to find lunch, Varric emerged from his room. He stopped short when he realized his guards were not posted outside. They must be watching over Bethany and Serendipity, he reasoned. He wandered down the hall to the room Bran and Serendipity shared and pushed the door open.

Within, Varric found all four guardsmen in various states of undress, playing a game of Wicked Grace on the floor. Serendipity, fully-clothed, sat in a lazy side-split. Missing among the discarded pieces of clothing, playing cards, and half-naked men was Bethany Hawke.

Varric met the sight with a furrowed brow. “Where’s Sunshine?” They looked up from their game with blank faces. Mark, the blond guard with the square jaw, tried to shield an exposed nipple from view with his cards. “Well? Wasn’t she with you?”

Serendipity placed a card facedown on the floor, completely nonplussed. “Bethany did not find Wicked Grace with these strapping young men enticing, so she left to go on a walk,” the elf said. “She said she wanted to clear her head.”

“By herself? None of you knuckleheads with armor and swords thought to go with her? Like I’m paying you to do?” Varric’s deep voice rumbled dangerously in his throat. “Aveline is going to have your hides when we get back.” The guards received this news like a death sentence. Good. Once they returned to Kirkwall, Varric would enjoy watching their captain scream at them to within an inch of their lives.

Varric returned to his room to get his coat and set out to search for Sunshine on his own. Obviously, the men he borrowed from the city guard weren’t up to the task. He grabbed his trusty Bianca without second thought on his way out. He could entertain tortured feelings about two-of-a-kind crossbows later.

He left the Silver Slug and began his quest to find sunshine in a city of shadows. As he strolled down the paved street, Varric felt a prickling up his arms and neck, like he was being watched. Nothing seemed amiss, yet he picked up his pace.

The faster Varric found Bethany and brought her home safe and sound, the better.

Chapter Text

Bethany found it so strange to explore a city with a ceiling.

The night before, the dim street lamps had created the illusion of an endless black void floating above the Orzammar streets, like a starless night sky. Now that it was ‘day’ and the lamps were fully lit, the stone canopy stretched in all directions. It looked so close in some light, Bethany thought she might be able to reach upwards and graze her fingertips against the bedrock.

Looking down was just as fascinating as looking up. A remarkable amount of lava bubbled beneath the thaig, perfectly visible from the Diamond Quarter pavilions overlooking the Commons. Like Kirkwall, the neighborhoods in Orzammar were arranged so that the wealthy and powerful lived at a higher elevation than the rest, to symbolize their status and protect themselves from the dangers lurking below. Hightown nobles fretted about flooding. Did Orzammar nobles fear the same thing?

Bethany continued wandering the Diamond Quarter, focusing on anything even mildly interesting to distract herself from the hectic emotions wrapping around her heart.

The love story she and Varric had concocted together sounded...nice. It was too quiet and mundane for a proper romance serial, but that was what made it so sweet. Two people caring about each other so well and for so long that their fondness gave way to passion and love. It was, as Varric said, close to the truth.

Perhaps a little too close.

A warm ache flashed across the palms of her hands, and it traveled up her arms and settled in her breast. Bethany bit her lip and did her best to stamp those feelings out.

Bethany silently thanked the Maker for keeping her brother in Kirkwall. She got enough of his comments and insinuations at home. Off to the Keep again? What are you petitioning our dear Viscount for this time, a cuddle? A kiss? A cheeky finger? Ouch, Bethany, it’s not polite to throw things!

Her footsteps slowed, and she absently twisted her grandmother’s ring. Perhaps she should be cursing the Maker instead of thanking Him. Parents dead and gone. A dear twin brother slaughtered before her eyes. Her youth stolen, squandered in captivity. And now? A dear friend forced to feign love where he felt none. This latest stumbling block did not compare to losing family and freedom, but while those old hurts had long scarred over, this new one seethed anew every time she remembered the scheme she thirstily agreed to.

Finding thin excuses to visit the Keep and flirt for half an hour was a harmless indulgence. Pretending Varric loved her when he didn’t—that Bethany’s feelings were reciprocated when they weren’t and never would be—was a cruel trick of fate.

During her walk, Bethany noticed a stream of dwarves clamoring to enter a set of grand double doors. She followed them into some kind of library with curved shelves made of blue grey stone and stocked full with scrolls, books, and stone tablets. An enormous brazier illuminated the entire room with flickering light. Once inside the main chamber, she had a perfectly good view of the excitement, being just tall enough to see over the crowd.

A studious dwarf with a braided beard wrote carefully upon a mineral slab with glowing ink. Directly behind him, an older dwarven couple dressed in formal robes quietly cried their eyes out with happiness. Bethany didn’t understand what she was witnessing, yet she was fascinated all the same.

“Pathetic, isn’t it?”

Bethany jumped out of her skin, clapping a hand to her mouth to quiet a startled gasp.

Bianca Davri had materialized right beside her like a furtive ghost.

“Sorry,” Bianca said sheepishly. “I saw you walk in and thought I’d say hi. Varric not with you?”

When she recovered from her shock, Bethany replied, “He’s busy with work.”

“He’s not sick? You two left so suddenly last night, I thought something happened.”

“We were only exhausted from our journey and needed rest.” Maker’s breath, Bethany had not expected to see the future Paragon again so soon—and all by herself! Again! Varric could keep his secrets if he wished, but it felt unfair that she kept meeting one face-to-face while he was elsewhere.

Bethany did not travel all the way to Orzammar to make enemies, nor did she expect to make friends, but for Varric’s sake, she’d try to make nice.

“Do you know what’s happening here?” Bethany asked. “I just walked in, and I’m a little lost.”

“The blubbering people over there are my parents,” Bianca explained, “and this place is the Shaperate. It records everything and everyone of value in dwarven society in the Stone. It’s where our history lives, and where the Ancestors and Paragons live on. My entire life is going to be written down after the ceremony tomorrow, but today they’re adding my parents’ names to the records. It’s, uh...”

The woman—Bianca’s mother—stifled another sob and clutched at her chest, to the obvious annoyance of the dwarven scribe.

“...a huge deal,” Bianca continued, now speaking through gritted teeth. “Surfacers aren’t ever included in the Memories, so they’re a little weepy about it.”

“You don’t sound so thrilled.”

Bianca crossed her arms and dipped her hood down to hide her eyes. “Most Paragons are too dead to watch the Shapers boil their lives down into a few flowery lines. Kinda envy them.”

Bethany ruminated on that thought while they watched the Shaper continue his writing. Here Bianca was making history, becoming a legend in ways other people could only dream, and she didn’t even want to be a part of it.

Stories change with every telling—and with every storyteller. Once she became a Paragon, Bianca’s story would be told by the Shaperate and evolve without her. She could only shut up and look grateful as the scribes picked through her memories, plucked out the parts they disliked, and twisted the rest. A statue in the Hall of Heroes must be easier to stomach. Statues never change, and no matter how much time passed, Bianca would always recognize herself in its design.

While Bethany did not have a statue, she did have a story. Sort of—it was technically Garrett’s story. Bethany just made brief appearances whenever her brother needed to remember the meaning of family. Still, it was common ground she and Bianca shared outside of knowing Varric. Maybe it would provide her some solace? Thaw her frosty personality a little?

“I don’t enjoy reading about myself either,” Bethany said. “My most wretched memories are preserved in Varric’s book. I can’t even make it through the first chapter without putting it down and reading something else.” Carver’s chapter, she thought. “Even so, there is this clarity I feel by the end. Like I survived those dark days for a reason, and it’s no accident that I’ve become the person I am today. A person I truly like.” Bethany briefly shut her eyes and smiled to herself. “Sometimes it takes an outside point of view to grasp who you really are.”

Bianca kept her hood tilted down to hide her face, but her shoulders caved in. The dwarf looked small and uncertain, lost among a swarm of dwarves celebrating her life without even knowing she stood beside them. She finally looked up, a mask of chilled serenity slipped over her features.

The Paragon-elect swallowed back a scathing laugh. “If I was a character in one of Varric’s books, I don’t think I’d like me very much.”

Bethany did not know how in the Void to reply to that.

They stood side by side and watched the Shaper continue his steady work for some time. Eventually, Bianca offered a small wave of farewell and rejoined her parents. Bethany pushed her way out of the crowded Shaperate, more frustrated than when she first entered it.

Varric didn’t have to break his promise and spill their story for Bethany to guess it had to do with love. Whether that love had endured or dwindled, she would likely never know. She had no right to know. It was none of her business. And yet, she wished she knew something that might help her better navigate these flummoxing encounters with Bianca herself.

Anyone so important to Varric that he named his precious crossbow after her must be someone more than worthy of friendship and good faith. Bethany just...needed some help seeing it. 


 

Bethany left the Diamond Quarter altogether and descended into the Commons, where she peered through storefront windows and booths along the thaig’s crescent-shaped boulevard. Most were modest shops selling fine dwarven crafts, the kind merchants shouted about in the market square back home.

One stall had a pen of half a dozen floppy-eared nugs napping in an adorable pink heap. Bethany cooed over the animals until the seller boasted that his nugs were the juiciest in all of Orzammar. They were food, not pets. She hurried away, too distressed to look at the poor things any longer.

The sound of laughter and bawdy singing echoed down the street. Bethany followed the noise until she found its source—Tapster’s Tavern. She wandered inside. Tapster’s was more compact than the Hanged Man, and its tables and chairs were several inches shorter, but it had the same lively atmosphere that felt like home.

The bartender, a gruff woman named Corra, stared her down for a long time before explaining that the tavern stocked fifty-two types of ales, seventeen types of mead, and a dozen imported wines. Bethany stammered that she needed a moment to choose, and Corra rolled her eyes before moving on to other customers.

It was only early afternoon, yet the place was in full swing. A cluster of nicely dressed dwarves talked animatedly with pointed hand gestures and low voices. On the other side of the room, dwarves with soot streaked on their hands and boots covered in light blue dust laughed uproariously at a joke as dirty as their clothes. While Tapster’s attracted all kinds of clientele, everyone stuck to their own corners, their own kind. No one dared approach Bethany. They merely watched her, stealing glances in between swigs of ale with thinly veiled suspicion.

Bethany slid into an open barstool, angling her body to keep a wary eye on her surroundings.

Two men in the lowborn corner of the room lurched to their feet and raised their black tankards in the air. “May you always come more than you go,” they crooned in drunken unison. They kissed each other deeply, clanked their tankards together, and then threw their chins back for an endless swig.

“Oh—oh my,” Bethany murmured with wide eyes.

There was a snicker behind the bar. Corra filled another tankard with a spark of amusement in her eyes. “That’s what we call the sagh duim,” she explained. “Old dwarven phrase. Means something like, ‘a toast between old friends.’”

“I’ve never seen a toast that friendly before. They kiss because—?”

“Kissing is for courage.”

“On the surface, usually drinking is for courage.”

“Only because your surface spirits are weak as water.” Corra sounded so sure of herself, Bethany could not argue the point.

What an intriguing drinking cheer. Bethany had to teach it to her friends when she got back home. They would absolutely love it. She could see it now—Aveline turning as red as her hair as she tripped over the toast with Donnic, Isabela crowing the words to the rooftops before locking lips with a willing victim, Varric sliding into the seat beside Bethany and speaking the words with that silvery voice of his, then leaning in to—

Bethany recoiled from the thought like an apprentice caught reading erotica in the library.

It was time to try one of those fifty-something ales on tap. Give herself a real reason to blush from head to toe.

She waved Corra down just as another dwarf left a colorless tankard streaked with dark liquid droplets on the counter. The cups the dwarves drank from weren’t made from black glass or metal—it was the ale that was black as pitch.

When Bethany remarked upon the strange color to Corra, the bartender grinned. “What color is your ale topside?” she asked, jerking her chin towards the ceiling.

Bethany thought for a moment. “Light or dark brown. Sometimes a little yellow.”

“Yellow? Like piss?”

“Now that you mention it, some of it does look and taste like piss, yes.”

Corra snorted and reached below the bar. Despite her abrasive welcome, she seemed to have finally warmed to Bethany. “Only served a handful of humans in my time, and none of them could handle a full pint of dwarven ale. You don’t look the type to hold your ale anyway, so I’ll serve you the black stuff in this.” She withdrew a small metal thimble and slid it across the counter.

Bethany examined the thimble between her thumb and forefinger. Was Corra serious? Black dwarven ale couldn’t really be so potent, could it?

A presence filled the barstool beside her, and then a familiar voice Bethany had been trying not to think about drifted in her ear.

“Sunshine, if you insist on drinking fermented fungus juice, I’m not letting you do it alone.”

Varric Tethras was at her side, smiling like he had been there all along.

His chest glistened where his shirt fell open, and Bethany watched it rise and fall for a moment, remembering the surreal morning they had shared waking up in the same bed. She asked how he managed to find her, and when he responded that he only had to “follow the light,” she gripped the seat of her barstool to keep from floating away. There was nothing ever serious behind Varric’s flirtatious banter, she reminded herself. He flirted with everyone. She wasn’t special.

Thankfully, Varric was too enamored with Tapsters to notice her fluttering. “I didn’t expect to find you in a wicked den in iniquity,” he said, looking around the room, “but I’m glad I did. This is my kind of place. I could get so much writing done here.”

A trio of drunk men raised their voices for a slurred song. Others jumped to their feet, knocking their chairs to the floor, to join in. The room grew merry and loud, and Varric released a happy sigh. He had lived in a tavern for a decade and likely felt quite at home amidst all the laughing people and commotion. Maybe that was why he looked so pleased whenever Bethany visited him at the Viscount’s Keep—because it was quiet and he was starved for company.

“The next time you go exploring, take someone with you,” Varric said, tracing the wood grain of the battered counter. “Orzammar is just as dangerous as Kirkwall, but with no dawn to chase the shadows away every morning. I know you’re armed,” he eyed the staff strapped to Bethany’s back, “but I’d feel better if you weren’t alone.”

“I wasn’t alone the entire time,” she said, sheepishly tucking hair behind her ear. “I actually ran into Bianca at the Shaperate. She was with her parents.”

Varric responded with a single, caustic laugh. “All the more reason to have a friend at your side. You don’t want to meet that old biddy and her crank husband in a dark alley. Trust me.”

As Corra reappeared with two thimbles of black dwarven ale, the energy in the room shifted. The dwarves so keenly focused on keeping to themselves quieted their conversation, and the singing spiraled into silence. The spectacle of a human and a beardless surface dwarf drinking from tiny thimbles was too bizarre to ignore. All eyes were on them now.

Loud enough for the all the eavesdroppers, onlookers, and more to hear, Corra declared, “For Princess Piss—” nearby patrons hooted as Bethany accepted the black ale and raised it high, “—and her sun-touched prince!” Several dwarves roared with laughter, and Varric made a vulgar gesture towards Corra before taking his thimble.

Bethany froze. She almost initiated the drinking cheer she saw earlier—May you always come more than you go—but when she heard the innuendo hidden in those words, her mouth clamped shut. Their eyes met, and something sharpened in Varric’s gaze. His head tilted to one side slightly, his eyes dropping to her mouth, and she tilted her face the other way on instinct. Her heart galloped against her ribcage. She waited with baited breath.

Varric just smiled and touched his thimble to hers with a gentle clink.

“To stealing, cheating, and drinking,” he said. “May you steal hearts, cheat death, and always share a drink with me.” With a wink, his thimble went bottoms up. 

Following his lead, Bethany squeezed her eyes shut and downed her thimble of black ale. When the drink first hit her tongue it tasted suspiciously smooth, but as it slid down her throat, she was overwhelmed by a sour burning in the back of her mouth that raged all the way down to her stomach. She puckered her cheeks and gripped the bar to hold steady amid a wave of drunken cheers.

Bethany opened her watering eyes and looked at Varric, who now wore his now-empty thimble like a finger puppet.

“That was foul,” she said thickly.

“I guess it tickled,” he replied, flicking the thimble off his finger. “Let’s settle up and get out of here.”


 

The only thing worse than the flavor of dwarven ale was the aftertaste. Its scorching bite remained in Bethany’s mouth long after they left Tapster’s, surging back with vengeance everytime she thought her suffering was over. Still, it distracted her from more uncomfortable thoughts, like whether she was seeing what she wanted to see back at the tavern, or if there really was something more stirring in Varric’s eyes. Either way, the moment was gone, and Bethany only had the lingering taste of black ale to show for it.

They wandered towards the lava pool and leaned over the railing to watch it bubble. Balmy waves of heat wafted upwards from the sea of molten rock. Bethany’s face was consumed with a sweltering flush, though she couldn’t know if the cause was the dwarven ale, the charged moment at Tapster’s, the lava, or a dangerous mixture of all three.

Bethany stepped away, hoping to cool off away from the oppressive heat. Her breath hitched and her body warmed anew when she noticed Varric had not been looking at the lava at all, but at her.

“What is it?” She rubbed the dry ends of her hair between her fingers.

Varric cleared his throat and coughed into a closed fist. “I was just thinking,” he said, “that your brother would punt me into that lava if he knew I lost track of you for so long.”

Perhaps the dwarven ale had loosened her tongue, because Bethany reacted with an irritated squawk. “Why do you keep talking like that?”

“Like what?”

“‘If I blink at you twice, Hawke will push me down the stairs, tear out my spine, and beat me over the head with it!’”

Varric looked at the ground and scratched his neck. “Uh, do I really say that kind of thing a lot?”

“Yes, you do! You make Garrett sound like a tyrant who murders anyone who breathes near me, when really he’s the one encouraging me to chat up the fancy men he finds.”

They meandered down a side street. While most of Orzammar curved around the lava sea, a network of wide tunnels also extended deep into the rock. The stairs to the Diamond Quarter must be somewhere nearby.

“Hawke find you a lot of fancy men?” Varric asked, casually adjusting his jacket sleeve.

Bethany’s eyes flicked towards him in a sidelong glance. “None that I like.”

The dwarven ale had surely worked its black magic upon her. Bethany had the confidence to voice almost any thought, to ask any question. Unfortunately, she needed more than thimbleful of ale to ask the question burning a hole in her heart, so she settled for something safer.

“What did Corra mean when she called you sun-touched?” she asked. “Was she flirting with you?”

Varric snickered. “Far from it. Truth is, dwarves down here don’t like the sun too much. She was making a joke at my expense because I’m from the surface.” He shrugged. “I guess she thought being called what I am would hurt my feelings. Eh, I’ve been called worse.”

“Are you saying it’s a slur?

“Maybe to a dwarf with thinner skin. I wear it more like a heroic epithet.” Varric paused and traced his hand from left to right, like he was reading his own name written in the stars. “Varric the Sun-touched, Viscount of Kirkwall, Deshyr of Kirkwall to the Merchant’s Guild, Head of House Tethras, uh...I’m missing something.”

“Celebrated author?”

“And celebrated author!” He looked up at Bethany and shrugged. “See? It’s just another name to add to my growing list. Nothing to take personally.”

There were slurs for mages too, like robes. It was literal and childish, yet it felt like a slap to the face whenever Bethany heard it. Sun-touched sounded romantic for an insult, and an immature piece of her envied Varric for it.

The lane narrowed. Lamplight grew sparse. Varric grumbled that Orzammar should have street signs for people who couldn’t ask rocks for directions, and that he ought to have bought a ball of twine to match Daisy’s. Bethany enjoyed his company so much, she didn’t really care how hopelessly lost they were.

“I think I’d like a heroic epithet, or a title,” she mused, clasping her hands behind her back.

“Why?” Varric asked. “You already have one.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Princess Piss?”

“I stand corrected, you’ve got two. I’ve been calling you Milady Sunshine for years.”

“I was hoping for something a little more majestic.”

“Of course, a name befitting your glorious legend. Lucky for you, I write legends for a living. Bethany the Boundless. Bethany of the Brilliant Dawn. Don’t actually use those, I need to sling shit at the wall before I can spin gold, bear with me while I get the bad ideas out. How about—”

The sound of strange footsteps creeping up from behind wiped the grins off their faces. Now quiet, Varric and Bethany turned and saw four scrawny dwarves in dark, raggedy cloaks, each sporting large black tattoos across their cheeks and foreheads. There was something feral about them, hungry. Whatever they wanted, it wasn’t a friendly conversation.

One dwarf stepped into the light. His entire face was covered with a skeletal tattoo, like he had just rolled out of the grave. “Looks like him, doesn’t it?” the dwarf said, examining a torn piece of paper. “I think we finally found our man, and a little extra, too.” He dropped the paper to the ground. It was Varric’s author portrait, ripped from the back cover of one of his books.

Running into assassins and bandits while minding her own business was par for the course in Kirkwall. Bethany felt unsurprised it happened here, too. She didn’t even feel that frightened. What was there to fear from four fidgety men who looked like they hadn’t eaten in three days?

Varric held up his hands in a show of surrender. “Listen,” he said, “I find no joy in killing casteless dwarves who are just trying to earn some coin. Let me know what they offered you, and we can work something out.” His right hand hovered over his shoulder within reaching distance of his crossbow.

The dwarf sneered, “No point in bargaining when we’re gonna take all your gold anyway once you’re dead.”

“So compromise is off the table? Shame.”

Varric grabbed his crossbow by the stock and whipped it over his shoulder. It smoothly blossomed like a lethal flower, all four limbs extended, bowstrings taut, and barrel loaded. Bethany followed suit and took hold of her staff.

Wearing fiendish grins, the assassins reached into their cloaks. They withdrew four identical crossbows and engaged them one after another, unfurling the weapons to their full power with sharp, consecutive clicks. Bethany recognized their design at once. How could she not, when Varric had carried one around with him everywhere throughout their entire friendship? How could this be? Bianca was supposed to be one-of-a-kind.

Beside her, Varric swallowed.

“Shit.”

Chapter Text

Bethany and Varric stared down the barrels of four repeating crossbows—four different Biancas. Tense silence fell over the alley. No one moved a muscle, save for their eyes shifting from face to face, waiting for someone else to act first.

The warmth of the Fade pooled in Bethany’s right hand. She held her breath.

The silence was broken with the snap of a crossbow string and the click of a trigger.

Bethany flung one arm upward. A wave of force magic rolled towards the assassins, swatting four bolts out of the air. The assassins stumbled as the spell forced them their knees, but only briefly; dwarves possessed a natural resistance to magic. She and Varric took full advantage of this slim opportunity to sprint out of the alley.

Crossbow bolts whizzed past her ears. Bystanders ducked into their own homes or dove for cover. Bethany breathlessly searched for an escape, anything at all amidst all the slamming doors and windows, then Varric grabbed her wrist. He pulled her towards a shadowy building built into the cavern wall. They hurried inside and shoved the door shut behind them.

The closed door offered no safety. A dozen bolts pummeled the dry wood, reducing it to mere splinters. Crossbows were more powerful than standard bows and arrows. They would become crimson pin cushions if they weren’t careful.

They found themselves in a dimly lit stockroom, not unlike the sprawling warehouses clustered near the Kirkwall docks. It was a gigantic space that smelt like a cellar, with a pyramid of wooden crates and rows upon rows of stacked barrels. This wasn’t an escape route, Bethany realized, but a better battlefield. A place they could hunker down and take cover while they picked off the enemy one by one.

Varric whistled to Bethany and gestured for her to walk ahead of him with a jerk of his chin. As they ventured deeper inside, he watched their backs with Bianca at the ready. He reached into his pocket and scattered some caltrops here and there, then crouched behind some crates. Bethany hid behind a stack of barrels tall enough to hide both herself and her father’s long staff out of sight.

Most barrels had geometric fire symbols stenciled into the wood. Bethany wondered if that meant the same thing in Orzammar as it did on the surface—that they were extremely flammable.

“Come on, baby,” Varric whispered into the grooves of his crossbow, “Let’s show these knockoffs what happens when they shoot out of their league.”

What remained of the door opened with a squeal. Bethany heard the stamping of boots on wooden floorboards.

“Fan out,” the leader said. “They got nowhere to run.”

Bethany gripped her staff and stood with her back flush against the barrels. Her heart thundered so loudly, she feared their attackers would hear it and immediately riddle her with arrows. She was no stranger to combat, but she had never expected to have a crossbow like Varric’s pointed in her face, let alone four of them. It felt jarring. She squeezed the worn grip of her staff until her knuckles went white. After all she had survived—Blights and mad templars and resurrected magisters—Bethany Hawke would not die by a crossbow bolt to the chest.

Plodding footfalls creeped closer on either side of Bethany’s stack of barrels. To her right, she heard a sudden cry of pain and the sound of a man hitting the floor. An assassin must have stepped upon a set of stinging caltrops.

Varric jumped out of hiding to fire his crossbow, instantly silencing the assassin. He dropped back into the shadows and moved out of sight to take up position elsewhere.

With the first assassin taken care of, Bethany felt bold enough to act. She slipped into the open and swung her staff in a practiced arc. A flash of freezing magic shot forward and hit the second assassin in the torso, engulfing him in a chunk of ice. The dwarf was frozen solid with a ruthless expression that had only just transitioned into shock.

Two down, two to go.

The sound of two men scuffling echoed against the walls. Bethany flitted through the maze of crates towards the sound.

She saw Varric and the third dwarf wrestling in the shadows. The assassin didn’t appear to know how to use a crossbow at such close quarters, but his quarry was not so inexperienced. A long blade shot out Bianca’s wooden frame, and Varric ran the assassin through with a single clean motion. The assassin crumbled onto the floor with a curdled gasp.

Varric beheld his crossbow’s blood-coated bayonet with smug satisfaction.

“Don’t play with fancy toys if you don’t know what their buttons do,” he said. The bayonet retracted inside the crossbow’s body, and he ran an affectionate hand up and down the stock. Nodding to Bethany, he swaggered out of their cover and into the light. She followed. There was only one enemy left, and even with a dangerous weapon, he was outnumbered and outmatched.

“Hey Bone-face,” Varric called, “You want to make that deal with me now?”

The dwarf with the skeletal tattoo stood in the fractured doorway. He glowered and tilted his chin down until the shadows filled his eyes and gaunt cheeks, and his face truly resembled a menacing skull.

“Eat shit, sun-touched scum,” he growled through bared teeth. He withdrew a glass grenade full of orange-red liquid from his tattered coat pocket and tossed it into the room. The dwarf immediately turned on his heel and ran.

The flask sailed through the air. Time suspended. Bethany watched its slow arc with wide eyes. They were surrounded by crates and barrels stenciled with fire symbols, and as the grenade neared its destination right at their feet, her breath flew out of her. When that glass shattered, the entire room and everything in it would go up in flames.

Her heart thudded. There was no time to move. No time to run. Every drop of magic inside her rushed forward in a surge. Beside her, Varric opened his mouth to shout something, but she couldn’t hear him over the Fade’s bellowing in her mind.

The flask smashed against the floorboards. Hot air whooshed outwards, and the beginning of a combustive fire crackled at the center of impact.

Bethany wound her arms over her head and shoved all the force magic she could summon at the budding explosion. Gravity twisted and turned under her will, sucking air away while trapping the flames close to the floor. The fire strained and screamed to burst free from her grip. Noxious smoke stung her the back of her throat and tongue. She screwed her eyes shut and tried to imagine pressing the air out of a much smaller fire, squeezing and squeezing until it had no strength left to burn.

The explosion seemed to grow within Bethany’s constraints, and she felt her grip cracking from the pressure. Biting her lip, she layered even more of her magic around the fire. Letting even a single spark free could ignite the flammable cargo, and they would be done for.

Just as suddenly as the fire began, it shrank into the ground and vanished among shards of broken glass.

The room stank of chemicals. A thin layer of soot coated Bethany arms and face, and the smell burrowed its way into the fabric of her clothes. She slid her staff back into its holster and exhaled a ragged breath.

Varric signalled that he had survived with a fit of coughing. “Andraste’s ass crack,” he said, sounding hoarse and giddy. He wiped his forehead, smearing a streak of soot across his skin. “I thought that was it for us. I thought—shit, Sunshine! You saved our asses and I don’t even understand what you did.”

“I just,” Bethany was so breathless she could hardly speak, “smothered it like a campfire.” She swayed where she stood, the significance of what had just happened dawning on her in a rush. They were alive. They were alive!

“We did it!” she exclaimed. Bethany stumbled in Varric’s direction and bent down to give him a clumsy hug. She practically fell into his embrace, burying her head in the crook of his shoulder.

Varric wrapped his arms around her with a chuckle. “You did it,” he said, sending her stomach into a jubilant backflip. He gave her a squeeze, and Bethany sighed, completely at home. He smelled of an intoxicating combination of salt, smoke, and something else she couldn’t quite define. Something earthy and warm. A recently extinguished candle, or a well read book.

Remembering herself, Bethany pulled away. She was acting rather embarrassing, falling all over him after a mild brush with danger. Garrett would tease her for weeks if he witnessed her behavior.

“So,” she said, clearing her throat to salvage even a little dignity, “it appears someone in Orzammar doesn’t like us. I wonder who it is, and why.”

Mouth pressed in a grim line, Varric strolled over to the dwarf he had downed with a well-aimed crossbow bolt through the heart. He took the assassin’s weapon out of his slack arms and inspected it, pulling and tweaking various knobs and pins with a frown. Whatever he was looking for, he didn’t appear too happy with what he found.

“I don’t want anyone stumbling upon these crossbows,” Varric said. “We should take them, chuck them into the lava. That’s probably littering down here, I don’t really care. They’re just too dangerous to leave lying around. Shit, they shouldn’t even exist.”

Bethany quietly wondered what he meant by that. “One of them is frozen solid. I’d melt the ice, but—” She stared down at her hands; the magic stirring beneath her skin had quieted to a faint hum. Containing the fire depleted her mana more than she realized.

“Take it easy, I’ll handle that one. You grab the one in the back over there.”

They split up. Bethany only half-remembered where her target would be. It was so dark, and without adrenaline sharpening her senses, navigating through identical rows of crates and barrels confused her. The warehouse became dead silent, save for the echoed chipping sounds of Varric hacking away at the ice.

Eventually, she found an oblong bloodstain sunk into the floorboards. Varric had gutted an assassin with Bianca’s bayonet around this spot, though Bethany didn’t quite see where the assassin or his crossbow had fallen. An uneven smear trailed straight down an aisle shrouded in shadow. Bethany followed it with quiet footsteps. She squinted until her eyes adjusted to the utter blackness.

A figure sat slumped against the wall at an unnatural angle. It wheezed softly, and as she drew closer, the wheezing quickened into a low cackle. The assassin had not succumbed to his wounds after all.

Bethany could just barely make out the shine of his eyes, the gleam of his crossbow’s metal limbs, and the quivering of its bowstrings. Just as her pulse raced to a gallop, she heard a faint click.

Agony blew through Bethany’s right thigh. She cried out and crumpled against a nearby stack of barrels, clutching at the metal rings and dry wood for support. She looked down at her leg through streaming eyes. A sticky plume seeped through the satiny fabric of her skirt. At its center, a crossbow quarrel embedded deep in her flesh.

A second bolt soared passed her from the opposite direction and punctured the assassin’s throat. He gurgled one last time before falling silent for good.

“Hang in there Sunshine, I’m coming!”

Her skin felt doused in ice water, yet scalding hot underneath. All of her nerves screamed in discordant unison. Bethany reached for the bolt in her leg. A single touch sent a new wave of pain blazing through her until she could barely stand.

“Don’t touch it,” Varric said, appearing at last. “It’ll bleed less if it stays in.” He slid an arm around Bethany’s lower back and gently helped her lean on his shoulder. Fitted neatly against his side, she realized she was shaking.

Together, they hobbled out of the warehouse, her injured leg dragging a wobbly line in the dirt behind them. Varric repeated the same three assurances—that the wound wasn’t that bad, any doctor worth their salt could remove an arrow like that in their sleep, and Hawkes were made of stronger stuff than mere wood and metal—over and over. They were meant to reassure himself as much as her. It was hard to think straight through all the pain, but Bethany at least felt certain of that.

The line between awake and asleep blurred. Bethany’s eyes drifted closed, and a warm, earthy scent enveloped her. When they briefly fluttered open, Varric was carrying her in his arms.

She was too disoriented to mark the moment she passed out a second time.


 

Bethany awoke with a pounding headache, propped up in their bed back in the Silver Slug.

Her mind felt fuzzy, confused. How did she get here? It was like someone took her memories from the last few hours and folded them in half. Bethany went from limping in a dirty street to laying down in a warm bed in an instant, with little recollection of what transpired in between.

The sight of her bare legs jolted Bethany wide awake. Half of her dress was missing. Almost all of the skirt and underlying petticoats had been crudely cut away, revealing stormy bruising darkening her right thigh, an improvised wooden brace fastened to her leg, and an angry maroon slash stitched up with black thread. Someone had treated her while she was unconscious, and they shredded her clothing to reach the wound.

That mysterious someone succeeded; the crossbow bolt was removed. Its bloodied shaft and barbed tip now lay on the breakfast table in two pieces, right beside an unusually silent dwarf.

Varric did not notice she was awake. He stared forlornly at a wad of blue fabric in his hands—the bloodied tatters of her dress. He unraveled one scrap of cloth, and his forehead creased deeply as he traced his thumb over a rusty stain.

Bethany shifted in the bed to try and cover herself with a blanket. Pain wound up her leg, and she sucked a sharp breath through her teeth. Varric’s eyes snapped straight to her. He jumped to his feet.

“Bethany! Stay put until the doctor has another look at you.”

Varric shot out the door and dragged a dwarven doctor by the collar back into the room. The doctor grumbled about having a renowned great-uncle and deserving more respect before checking Bethany’s pulse and breathing. He explained that the bolt had fractured her femur. The sudden physical trauma and blood loss had sent her into shock, hence the fainting.

Satisfied that the worst of her shock was over, the doctor applied an elfroot ointment and bandage. He instructed her to keep her leg wound clean and remain on bedrest for six weeks. Bethany pretended to listen; with a little food and rest, she’d have the magical strength to heal herself.

The doctor tried to give Varric a small green potion “for the nerves,” only to be shushed and have a coin purse thrust in his hands. Varric then shepherded the doctor out as roughly as he brought him in. As he shut the door, leaving them alone once more, his shoulders collapsed forward, and he jerked a hand through his hair with a heavy sigh. He looked more drained than she had seen him in a long time.

Bethany finally found her voice. “What happened while I was asleep?”

Varric sat at her bedside and filled in the gaps in her memory. He had carried her back to the Silver Slug, and then dispatched Bran to scour the thaig for a competent doctor. The guy the seneschal found was an asshole who charged too much, but he knew his stuff. He avoided describing how the doctor had removed the quarrel, though Bethany put it together on her own; arrows typically created slim punctures in the flesh, but the wound she bore was oblong, like it had been widened. She silently thanked the Maker for keeping her asleep during the ordeal.

Afterwards, Varric had grabbed one of the Kirkwall guards and returned to the warehouse to dispose of the crossbows once and for all. Bone-face and his weapon were still at large.

When he finished, Varric’s gaze drifted past the frayed ends of her ruined dress down to her battered and swollen thigh. He grimaced and looked away.

“Oh Sunshine,” he said, his voice tight with misery and regret, “I should never have brought you here.”

Muffled shouting on the other side of the door startled them. It sounded like the guards stationed outside were trying to deny someone entry as politely as possible, only to become flustered when it didn’t work. As Varric stood, a familiar voice rang over the others with stinging clarity.

If he’s hurt, I’m going to see him. I’m a Paragon. You can’t stop me. Let me through!”

Bianca pushed open the doors and stumbled inside their room. She almost ran to the bed, but stopped short when she saw Varric standing up, hale and whole.

She reddened. “I heard you were searching for a doctor and I thought...I’m glad you’re both okay. What happened?”

“You tell me.” Varric picked up the crossbow bolt, still stained dark from Bethany’s blood, and tossed it at Bianca’s feet. She paled at the sight of it. “Found it in Sunshine’s leg. Ripped through her like a cheap undershirt. She’s lucky the duster pulling the trigger was a bad shot.”

“Lucky,” Bianca repeated softly. She looked up at him, disbelieving and horrified. “You think I had something to do with this?”

Varric crossed his arms and spoke with careful control. “I think your parents want me dead and that you’re the only smith alive who can build a crossbow like mine. After all these years, I’ve never seen another like it. I’ve been in Orzammar for a day, and now I’m up to five. Can you explain why that is?”

Bianca’s head jerked backwards. “What exactly are you accusing me of? I haven’t shared that design with anybody. I’ve only ever built two—”

“One more than you told me about,” he sniped.

“—and the schematics are in my vault, back in Orlais. As for my parents, they won’t touch you here. I’ve already seen to your protection, just like I always have.” Bianca took a deep breath to reign in her frustration. “Your crossbow is hardly a secret, Varric. Someone must have figured out how to make one of their own. All discoveries come to light sooner or later, that’s just how science works.”

Varric clenched and unclenched his hands. His entire body wound up like a spring. “Are you seriously trying to pin the blame on science?”

“I’m not blaming anything. You’re twisting my arm for an explanation, and that’s the only one I’ve got.”

“Maybe what’s-his-name showed off his shiny new weapon to the wrong person and they copied it.”

Bianca’s expression hardened with defiance. “No. Bogdan’s careful.”

“Yeah, he just screams discretion.”

“Now I came here because I thought you were hurt—”

“That’s a first. Usually you don’t think of me at all.”

At this point, Bethany felt sure they had forgotten she was still in the room. She wished her leg hurt a little less so she could tiptoe out the door and leave them to their quarrel in private, but she was stranded, frozen stiff on the bed, eyes darting between them as their bickering grew more heated.

Varric accused Bianca of being a spoiled brat who wouldn’t know a consequence if it smacked her in the face, she shot back that he was a sad fantasist who couldn’t let go of the past, he said she stabbed him in the back more than Bartrand ever did, she said he must be snorting red lyrium to believe she’d betray him after all they’ve been through together. They knew exactly which weaknesses to attack, exactly how sharply to twist the knife, to provoke and hurt with greatest effect. It was hard to watch.

Maybe Bethany could carefully roll off the bed and hop away? Or crawl? Or, failing that, hide underneath her blankets until it was over? They couldn’t argue forever—could they?

“Why don’t you blame me for something I actually did,” Bianca spat, “instead of fabricating a bullshit story to be mad about?”

“Fabricating?” Varric replied, his voice rising in a furious crescendo. “Does Bethany’s mangled leg look fake to you?”

Now that they were dragging her into their squabble, Bethany had had enough. She interrupted them with a shrill cry. “Just shut up, the both of you!”

They stopped shouting, the spell woven from their antipathy and anger broken.

Bianca fixed her eyes upon Bethany. “I really am sorry about your leg,” she began, before pausing; she chewed her cheek, mulling a thought over in her mind before speaking it aloud. “I never properly thanked you for the chat in the Shaperate. It gave me a lot to think about.”

Sending Varric one last look of pure venom, Bianca stormed out.

Chapter Text

Bethany winced as the mottled skin surrounding her wound knitted back together. After an evening of rest and a good night’s sleep, her magic had swelled from an exhausted trickle to a gushing river, allowing her to finally mend her leg. The trouble was, there was a lot to heal.

The bone took all morning to repair. Eventually her fractures fused back together, her bruises faded into an ugly mixture of yellow and brown, and the misshapen gash in her skin calmed into a pink and tender crater. Bethany picked out the stitches. While it would ache and scar—she never could work miracles like Anders—at least she’d be strong enough to attend the big ceremony.

She sighed. It was going to be a long day.

Varric shouldered through the door with plates overflowing with food, and she quickly smoothed her skirt back over her legs. He had been reserved since the argument with Bianca, scribbling in his manuscript and writing letters while Bethany rested. The quiet night and morning must have done him good, because he smiled with the shine of a thousand gold coins and delivered a belated breakfast right to her lap.

Most of the food was the same as before, only this time Bethany’s eggs had no deep mushrooms in them, Varric’s had double the amount, and their slices of lichen toast were replaced with small baguettes, just like the ones sold in Kirkwall. If they were imported to Orzammar, they must have been expensive.

“I didn’t mind the toast yesterday,” Bethany said as Varric settled beside her.

“I know, but can yeasty moss do this?” Varric broke off a piece of his baguette with a satisfying crunch.

Bethany laughed and cracked open her own bread. “Fair point.”

“How’s the leg?”

“All mended now. You can’t even tell I was injured at all.”

Varric nodded, but with a tight expression that showed he did not believe her. As they ate, he seemed preoccupied with more than chewing his mushrooms.

“Later,” he finally announced, “I’m going to tell you about Bianca.” He casually returned to his meal.

Just yesterday Bethany had hoped to learn more about their story, but now that he was surrendering it to her, she only felt annoyed. “You shouldn’t share that with me just because you feel guilty.”

“Guilt has nothing—” Varric caught her skeptical look and cut himself off. “Okay, guilt has a little to do with it. Sunshine, you were right. It’s not fair to leave you in the dark when Bianca and anyone else who read my book knows your history, especially now that my past has bitten me in the ass and stuck an arrow in your leg. If it happens again,” he frowned, “you deserve to at least know why. Let’s just get through this ceremony first.”

They finished eating by the midday bell. Bethany washed up and changed into her formal dress while Varric rounded up the rest of their party. Her gown for the ascension ceremony was fashioned from bold wine red fabric, with a tight bodice and full skirt that glided across the floor with her every step. The décolletage, decorated with an embroidered brocade trim, fell just off her shoulders, and her sleeves were made of a light tulle cinched to her upper arms and wrists with pearl buttons.

Bethany briefly worried over her bust—it was positively brimming—before deciding she did not care. Varric’s book already painted her as bosomy, to put it mildly. Why not show Orzammar that the truth was better than fiction?

She emerged from their room and met the others outside the Silver Slug. The group had just shared a big laugh as Bethany came into view. When Varric saw her, he froze and fell into a happy state of shock. Serendipity complimented her style, and as Bran attempted to do the same, Varric cut in front of him.

“Sunshine!” He took her hands and looked her up and down with stunned reverence. Bethany felt her cheeks change color to match her gown. “You’re a vision! The crusty nobles at Bianca’s party will keel over when you show up. Not that I’m complaining. If everyone drops dead at the sight of you, we can go home early. I only wish I wasn’t so underdressed.”

Varric gestured to his own outfit—an unbuttoned tailcoat overtop a peacock blue shirt embroidered with golden thread. Bethany raised an eyebrow when she saw it was buttoned to the neck. Not so underdressed after all.

He held out his arm. Feeling warm all over, Bethany took it. Now that they were appearing in public at an official function, the lovers act was on.

“Never seen you in this dress before,” Varric said as they walked through the Diamond Quarter. “I thought you’d bring that Orlesian gown with the big hoop skirt.”

“I left it behind because I worried it might be too wide,” she replied.

“Too wide?”

“To fit through the doors. I thought everything would be small in Orzammar. Dwarf-sized.”

Varric chuckled, a smooth sound that warmed her like a spoonful of brandy. “Careful, Sunshine. Small and dwarf-sized don’t mean the same thing. You’ll offend somebody talking like that in this town.”

“What about little, tiny, or short?”

“I could write a textbook about the nuances of those terms.”

“Then you must educate me on the differences,” Bethany shot him a teasing smile, “when all the festivities are over.”

His footsteps faltered, but only for a moment before his surprise gave way to curiosity. “Sure,” Varric said with a lopsided smile that promised more than a pedantic discussion of words. “I’ll teach you a thing or two.”

The royal palace proved Bethany’s assumptions wrong. The doorways were more than wide enough to accommodate an Orlesian hoop skirt, and the ceiling extended so high, not even a qunari could dust the chandeliers without a step ladder. In a place as cramped as Orzammar, it must be a sign of great wealth to have so much useless extra space. The sounds of conversation and footsteps on the marble floor echoed emphatically off striated walls as people funneled inside.

The Kirkwall guards were turned away in the vestibule and sent back to the inn. There was more than enough security within the palace, a terse dwarf in royal regalia informed them.

They soon saw that security in action when raised voices echoed down a side corridor. A door swung open, and a palace guard yanked a noble with an untucked shirtail and no shoes out of the room. A woman in rumpled skirts followed.

“Keep out of the Paragon’s quarters, you noble-hunting nug-humpers!” the guard exclaimed. Dozens of guests watched with silent judgement as the couple hurried away. Bethany and Varric shared a befuddled glance before moving on.

Palace guards opened an ornate set of doors, and a puff of grey smoke wafted out. Bethany muffled a small sneeze into her sleeve as they stepped through the threshold. The thin haze dissipated, unveiling the throne room in all its splendor. Granite pillars with sharp, geometric moulding carved right into the stone held up the vast cave ceiling. Four violet banners bordered with silver velvet and embroidered with the Davri three-diamond insignia hung along the back wall and extended to the polished floor. An exposed stream of lava creeped down on wall beyond a metal grate, and enormous braziers burned fiercely to fill the expansive room with light.

A boxy statue of a dwarven king raising a hammer above his head loomed over dozens of ceremony guests conversing in tight clusters, sipping on cocktails and smoking pipes. Those without a drink in their hand visited large casks stationed along the wall to remedy the problem. Whatever this ascension ceremony entailed, it hadn’t started yet.

As for Paragon-elect Bianca Davri, she was nowhere to be seen.

A herald announced their entrance. “His Lordship Viscount Varric Tethras of Kirkwall, Head of the noble House Tethras, and Deshyr of Kirkwall to the Merchant’s Guild! Lady Bethany Hawke—”

Bethany’s heart skipped a delighted beat.

“—sister to the Champion of Kirkwall, and concubine to the Viscount of Kirkwall!”

She deflated. Varric groaned like a cranky rooster died in his throat.

Serendipity wandered off on her own, causing Bran to abandon his viscount and chase after her. Meanwhile, Varric became rigid and quiet—just like in the Hall of Heroes.

Bethany dipped her head to whisper, “Copper for your thoughts?”

“My thoughts are worth thirty silver at least.” His tone was distant, as if he were speaking from the opposite end of a dark tunnel rather than right at her side. “If the dice fell a little differently, I’d be one of these idiots. Living in a tomb, guzzling fungus juice, breathing the same stale air as my ancestors. Makes me wonder what they missed so much about this place.”

“You mean your family?” Bethany asked. Varric answered with a nod, and she continued, “I understand. Mother tried to hide it, but she missed her old life, too. I sometimes wonder how my life would have changed if she never left Hightown, or if I was born a real Amell instead of an apostate.” She touched his arm with her free hand and gave it a comforting squeeze. “But, if my mother didn’t run away from Kirkwall and your father didn’t get run out of Orzammar, our worlds would never have touched.”

Varric let the thought simmer as they collected some drinks—a whiskey for him and a warm goblet of spiced wine for her. “You’re right,” he said, confidence returning to his voice. “The two of us got some shit deals, but if suffering through it allowed us to meet, then it was more than worth it.”

He unlinked their arms so he could rest his hand on her waist. Bethany’s stomach dissolved into fluttering butterflies, and she prayed to the Andraste herself that he could not feel them. They shared a sideways glance and a deep breath.

Time to enter the fray.

Varric first introduced Bethany to a parade of people he knew from the Merchant’s Guild, who were all eager to meet the secret human girlfriend he had hidden from them. These surface dwarves boasted smatterings of freckles and deep wrinkles from years spent in the sun, and their glittering piercings and silken clothes put their wealth on shameless display. However, there was a shiftiness to them, a tension they couldn’t shake off, even around each other. The Merchant’s Guild was a cutthroat organization, and every one of its members protected themselves with a thick hide of mistrust beneath the fancy attire.

The guildsmen complimented Bethany on her beauty, and then congratulated Varric for making such a brazen statement before the entire noble caste, right in the heart of their own palace. “Just because us surfacers are drinking with the deep lords doesn’t mean we’re leaping into bed with them,” one man joked. The comment was met with sensible chortling.

Varric could argue with the term as much as he liked, but there was no denying that dwarves on the whole were small. Standing in a room full of them, seeing straight over the tops of their heads as they drank and laughed, Bethany couldn’t define ‘dwarf-sized’ as anything else. It felt refreshing to experience a tall person’s point of view for once instead of being towered over by meddlesome older brothers, detached city guardsmen, and sinister templars.

Once the novelty wore off, anxiety gnawed at her. Being among the tallest in the room was so exposing. Everyone could see her. Bethany tugged at her neckline, sucked in her stomach. She reached up to fuss with her hair, then Varric caught her hand midway and laced their fingers together with practiced ease, running a calloused thumb over hers in gentle strokes. A reminder that though he was stuck talking business with these strangers, he hadn’t forgotten her, and he certainly hadn’t abandoned her.

With a soft roll of her shoulders, she banished the sensation of strange eyes scraping over her to the back of her mind. Enough of these nerves. Time to show these people Lady Bethany Hawke, sister to the Champion of Kirkwall, survivor of the Kirkwall Circle of Magi, would not be cowed by a few self-important dwarves.

“Some mealy-mouthed lord gave me this, er, flavorful ale,” one surface dwarf said to Varric, holding up a cup of steaming red liquid. It smelled foul. “Try it—put some hair on your chest.”

Varric declined with a wave of his hand. “If I put any more hair on my chest, I’d risk scaring Sunshine away the next time I took off my shirt.”

Bethany saw her opportunity and pounced. “It takes far more than a little hair to scare me off,” she said. All the men looked up at her, surprised she had spoken at all. “Besides,” she continued, fixing her gaze upon Varric’s chest like she was undressing him with her eyes, “I like a man with a bit of a pelt.”

Chortles abound. Varric laughed loudest, and though he did not say anything outright, the creases around his bright eyes exclaimed that he greatly approved.

This interaction kicked off a gauntlet of chitchat, flirting, and theatre. Pretending they were dating entailed far more than just standing next to each other looking friendly. It was the light touches on Bethany’s waist, the tender note that slipped into Varric’s voice when he spoke her name, the admiring glances they shared when they knew other people were watching. The small hallmarks of a couple who were deeply in love and wanted the world to know it.

Utterly fake, all of it, and yet Bethany leaned into the act, eager to feel that rare and wondrous rush only good flirting could provide. It helped that Varric was game to give as good as he got—and then some extra. Her nerves were not entirely gone, but dwarven politics was far easier to bear with wine on her lips and Varric’s husky voice in her ear.

The Merchant’s Guild members proved quite pleasant and sociable—unless someone brought up their finances, which caused them to clam up, change the subject, or excuse themselves to make a quick escape.

Surface dwarves much preferred to discuss other people’s money. “We’re taking bets on how much the Davris paid to finance this spectacle,” a lady from Amaranthine told them in hushed tones. “Those Orzammar snobs wouldn’t have promised their votes without getting something in return.”

To Bethany, Varric explained, “You can’t become a Paragon without the Assembly’s unanimous approval. That’s why there are so few of them. Dwarves can’t agree on shit.”

“Aye, I’ll drink to that,” the lady said, raising her glass of black ale. “Think they’ll really rechristen themselves House Bianca?”

“Probably. Part of the whole Paragon deal is stamping your name on everything and riding out your own legend. What most people don’t know is that Paragons can name their house whatever they want, not just after themselves. That’s how House Tethras got its name, actually.”

The lady rolled her eyes like she had heard this all before and didn’t believe a single word of it. “You want in on this bet or not?” she asked. Varric declined; he said he had wasted enough money just traveling to this dump, and he wasn’t going to gamble the rest away on something he couldn’t care less about.

Eventually, curious members of the Orzammar noble caste approached Varric and Bethany, eager to chat for their own reasons. After a lifetime underground, dwarven nobles had a sallow tint to their complexions, and there was something rigid, yet relaxed in their carriage, like they were at complete ease with their lot in life and felt no hurry to change. Some nobles sported what looked like one hundred buttons on each starchy sleeve of their elegant dresses and tunics, and others proudly wore gold-plated pins denoting their noble house.

Orzammar dwarves were less interested in mercantile affairs than in personal ones. One noblewoman inquired what Bethany’s parents thought of their ‘match.’ Bethany tried to explain as gracefully as she could that her parents died long ago. Varric offered that his parents were also super dead and thus had no opinion on the subject either. Those answers snuffed that conversation out in a hurry.

A middle-aged nobleman with shiny golden rings braided into his chestnut beard asked if Varric took constructive criticism. “My editor does,” Varric replied. Undeterred, the nobleman said that the next Tethras novel should have a ‘dwarva’ protagonist, a hero with honor. Not someone like that Hawke, who skulks in the dark with his uncouth friends terrorizing his betters. Perhaps this character could be noble caste, with silky red gold hair flowing from his strong chin. Wouldn’t that be something?

“I don’t know what’s more hilarious,” Varric said to Bethany once they got away, “the idea of writing a book set in Orzammar, or the concept that any of these pampered shitwhistles have honor. It’s all bluster. At least the Merchant’s Guild doesn’t bother with lofty bullshit before they doublecross you.”

Next, an elderly couple cornered them beside a small alcove embedded with glowing blue-green crystals. Lord Arenvold of House Helmi, a noble with a coiffed grey beard and a face speckled with liver spots, politely questioned Varric about his viscount duties in Kirkwall. Lady Daria Helmi, his sharp-eyed spouse whose skin took on a green pallor in the blue light, focused on Bethany’s background.

“You’ve known each other for more than a decade and only just started courting?” Lady Helmi asked her with brusque interest. She took a long drag of a tapered pipe carved from bloodstone and exhaled a thin stream of smoke. “Is that normal on the surface?”

Bethany now felt glad to have a vast height advantage over everyone else in the room. Answering awkward questions felt much less daunting when her interrogators had to stare up to meet her eyes.

“A lot has happened on the surface in the past ten or so years,” Bethany said. “When you’re busy surviving rebellions and wars, there’s not much time or opportunity for courting.”

The Helmis tittered amongst themselves briefly. “You will need an heir to secure the viscountcy in the long term,” Lord Helmi remarked to Varric. Bethany stiffened; when they had devised their romantic backstory, they didn’t think that far ahead. What the noble said next only made things worse. “And you really shouldn’t limit yourself to one concubine if you truly mean to preserve your family’s legacy.”

Bethany could not help sounding shocked. “Limit—? Do dwarves typically have several partners?” she asked. She thought of Varric’s author portrait, featuring his trademark smirk as three or four women fawned over him, and her heart plummeted like a stone dropped down a bottomless well.

Lord Helmi shared an unabashed look with his wife and chuckled. “It appears I’ve scandalized the human! Marriage is first and foremost a political or economic union in our caste. It’s not unusual to keep concubines—especially when a noble has yet to produce any heirs of their gender. Of course, keeping concubines means we must endure noble hunters scratching at our doors—”

The old couple proceeded to grouse in long-winded detail about ‘noble hunters,’ or dwarven commoners who begot children with nobles in the hopes of rising beyond their birth caste. An irksome necessity given the thaig’s worryingly low birthrate. All dwarves had their role to play in Orzammar, the Helmis claimed. That was why the caste system worked. Yet, it was still so awkward to see their brethren sneaking off with commoners at every large event—even at this Paragon ascension ceremony! Yes, one of the Aeducan cousins was caught earlier searching for an unoccupied room with a mining caste girl for the very purpose!

Bethany wondered if the Helmis were trying to shock her again, or if this noble hunter business was truly how Orzammar’s elite kept from dying out. If the caste system ‘worked,’ it must not work for everyone, in her opinion. She hazarded a glance towards Varric, who wore the placid smile of someone who had quit paying attention several minutes ago.

“We knew Andvar and Ilsa,” Lady Helmi admitted to Varric, growing misty-eyed, “before they...left us. Bartrand used to play with our own children. Such a sweet little boy. We were so sad to hear what became of him.”

Varric tensed and narrowed his eyes. “Funny. They never mentioned you.”

“If I may speak plainly,” Lord Helmi said, as if he hadn’t been outrageously explicit throughout the entire conversation, “it wasn’t long ago that House Tethras was one of us. It could be so again. The king is open to welcoming surface houses back into the fold, but he’d be more amenable if you had an heir.” His gaze slid towards Bethany briefly. “A dwarva heir. Your family’s name could mean something again. It’s what your parents would’ve wanted.”

A deep red pall swallowed up everything in Bethany’s sight. Heat coursed throughout her body so quickly, she almost shook.

“Excuse me,” Bethany blurted, “but I’m not familiar with your family. Does House Helmi have any royalty among its members?” The Helmis blinked at her. “Hmm. Well, Varric is the Viscount of Kirkwall as well as the head of his house. The title may be different, but his status is on par with that of a king. Is anyone in House Helmi published? No? One of the most popular authors in Thedas is in House Tethras. I’d say the number of people who know the Tethras name outnumber those living in Orzammar.”

Lord Helmi looked to the only Tethras present for help. Varric primly sipped his whiskey and said nothing.

Bethany was not done. “What was House Helmi up to when Corypheus opened the Breach? Varric was fighting him, because saving the world at the risk of his own life was more important, more honorable, than preserving House Tethras. His family name means something with or without heirs—though I can assure you we have that issue very much in hand, thank you.” She straightened to loom over the dwarven couple one last time. “Save the sanctimonious concern for a house that actually needs it, starting with your own.”

The Helmis stood stock still with identical expressions of horror. Bethany turned to tell Varric that they were leaving immediately, but paused when she noticed him gaping at her, too. Only instead of humiliated, he looked...starry-eyed. Like he had just witnessed a miracle, and blinking or talking would cause the vision to vanish too soon.

Finally, Varric seemed to remember himself. He gave the Helmis a curt nod before taking Bethany’s arm and escaping to the other side of the room.

When they were a safe distance away, Varric gave her a slow round of applause. “Sunshine, why didn’t you tell me you could bullshit with the best of them? The thing about my legion of readers outnumbering Orzammar was just,” he kissed his fingers, “perfect. Even I almost believed you. Who taught you to lie like that?”

Bethany mustered a smirk to match his, though the confidence behind it dimmed fast. “I might have followed your example,” she said.

“Ah, of course, you learned from the master. I confess I am curious about these heirs you mentioned. Know something I don’t, Sunshine?” Varric threw her a cheeky wink. She took a long sip of her spiced wine to hide her flush.

As they continued mingling, Bethany quietly retreaded their conversation with the Helmis. What horrid people, bringing up Varric’s family like that, then disrespecting them both under the guise of doing them a favor! She did not regret what she said, but her heart shrank remembering Varric’s reaction. Bethany ought to feel pleased she impressed him with the nonsense she spouted; he peddled lies like gemstones made of colored glass, so brilliant and captivating when they caught the light, but likely to shatter if placed under pressure. Of course he’d assume Bethany’s words were pretty falsehoods—even if she’d spoken a truth as unbreakable as a genuine diamond.

It took the truth to fool a liar, and a lie to fool strangers, but what did it take to fool herself? Bethany didn’t know how, but she had a terrible feeling she’d find out.

Varric struck up a conversation with a couple he knew from the Merchant’s Guild while Bethany hovered beside him. He was in his element, charismatic and animated, with a willing audience eager to hear a tale taller than the highest mountain peak. This time, it was the story of how Varric had snuck out of the Keep one night to rendezvous with his fair Sunshine without his assistants and guards realizing he was gone.

He spoke with the effortless command of an experienced storyteller, yet his voice also sounded low and inviting, like every word was a secret he only shared with his closest friends. His hoop earrings glinted in the palace’s crystal light, igniting the fire and gold of his hair and eyes. Bethany studied his face, fascinated by the way his cheeks hollowed out as he talked, the small half-smiles hidden between his sentences, the movement of his eyes darting between his audience’s faces.

When Varric’s gaze strayed in her direction, his expression went slack as he lost track of his own thought, then shifted into a genuine grin that made Bethany feel as though she held an entire sky inside her ribcage. A nagging voice in the back of her head reminded her that this was all a part of their act, too. Only a fool would be melt inside over a look they knew to be a lie. And yet, warmth coursed through her anyway until Bethany felt radiant inside and out, and that nagging voice quieted to a faint murmur.

Falling a little for a lie couldn’t be so bad when it made her feel so good. Might as well enjoy the attention, as fleeting as it may be.

“Where was I?” Varric said, closing his eyes briefly to remember where he left off. “Right, so my foot was stuck in there, I’m panicking, the sun’s going down, and a hungry mabari was hot on my trail…”

Chapter Text

Bethany took an inattentive sip of her spiced wine, wrinkling her nose and gagging when she tasted only cold dregs. She spat it back into her glass in as subtle a manner as she could, then straightened and put on a face she hoped could pass as blase and sophisticated. Luckily, no one had seen her do this except for Varric, who would take the indiscretion to his pyre, and a big dwarven statue, which wasn’t much of a talker anyway.

Thanks to Bianca’s continued absence, the ascension ceremony crawled to a tedious standstill. Ceremony guests shifted between their feet and glanced towards the door, clearly wondering when the grand event would start, but too polite to complain just yet.

Except for Varric, who didn’t care much for good manners, and cared even less about people knowing it.

“Can’t they send in a juggler caste guy to break up the monotony for ten minutes?” Varric asked no one in particular. “Or is all this endless waiting Orzammar’s idea of a party?” He looked searchingly at the marble flooring, the restless dwarves whispering into their ale, and the boulder of a throne sitting empty. No jugglers were forthcoming.

Bethany stifled a giggle behind her hand; Varric truly did not know how funny he sounded when he was this grumpy.

He continued, “Bianca would do this. Gather the most wealthy and powerful of our people in one spot, promise us a day of high-class pageantry, and then leave us all hanging until she deigns to show up. If she shows up.”

“Would she really not attend her own party?” That would be like a queen not appearing at her coronation, or a goddess refusing to take her throne in the heavens.

“If she had somewhere better to be.”

The throne room doors opened with a low crack. Every head in the room turned, hoping to see the Paragon-to-be at last. Light scattered and illuminated the thin haze of pipe smoke curling in the rafters and along the floor, and the guests standing closest to the door jumped back to give the new arrival a wide berth. The room’s murmuring picked up as the individual stepped through the crowd, only to die out once everyone recognized who it was.

Bogdan Vasca.

“House Davri thanks you for your attendance and for your patience!” Bogdan’s voice boomed loud enough to shake the stone pillars. “The ceremony will begin once the Paragon-elect completes her final preparations!”

After a beat of silence, guests turned back to their cliques to gossip and nurse their drinks. Bogdan turned to leave, but then spotted Varric and Bethany by the big statue. His face split into an exuberant grin.

“Shit,” Varric muttered, spinning in place to find someplace to hide. It was no use; Bianca’s husband strode towards them in a one-man stampede, his thick ponytail bouncing behind him.

Varric eyed the joyful mass hurtling towards them warily, though Bethany saw no need for it. Their encounter in the Hall of Heroes had left her with the impression that Bogdan was dim, but sweet. He had a glorious laugh that rallied the entire room to join in, and though she would not trust him near sharp objects or boiling lava unsupervised, Bethany liked him. It was nice to talk to someone in this bloody runaround shite of a city that didn’t obscure his words in three layers of condescension or subtext.

“What’s shaping, my friends!” Bogdan exclaimed. He shook their hands in his great paws. “I’m delighted you two made it. Especially you,” he said, turning to Bethany. “I heard you had a grievous injury yesterday, yet here you are, dazzling as ever. Humans are so resilient! Truly incredible. I hope your injury hasn’t hurt you much.”

“It hasn’t troubled me at all,” she replied. Not entirely a lie; her injury twinged occasionally, but unless the ceremony included running laps around Orzammar, she would be alright. “I honestly find the mingling more challenging, but with Varric’s help I can manage.”

Bogdan looked sympathetic. “Overwhelming isn’t it, meeting all these people at once?”

Bethany relaxed. “Oh, you’ve no idea.” After hours of socializing, Bogdan was the first person to ask how she fared in the middle of this whirlwind. The tiny moment of concern touched her more than she expected.

Varric spoke up with a distinct grumble. “Sunshine would be in better shape if she didn’t have to stand around waiting for the show to start.”

“Ah,” Bogdan said, eyeing the throne room entrance. “Yes, the waiting. You see, the reason I came here in the first place was,” he leaned in and whispered behind his hand, “to stall. Bianca always suffers a bout of stage fright before these things. She needs some extra time to, you know. Ready herself.”

“For what?” Varric asked. “She’s not tap-dancing for us, is she? What exactly happens at this ceremony?”

Bogdan was delighted to explain.

Most dwarves became Paragons after they had already returned to the Stone, and it usually involved several years of drawn-out debate and a quiet vote behind closed doors.

Living Paragons like Bianca, however, met their destinies with glorious fanfare. Having already debated her nomination at length, the Assembly would conduct their final vote at the ceremony for all to see. The king would then recognize Bianca’s ascension, and the Shaperate would formally induct her into the Memories as a full-fledged Paragon. A feast would commence immediately after, where they would enjoy food and dancing until they could eat and dance no more!

Bethany lit up. “I didn’t know there would be dancing!”

She had loved dancing ever since she was a little girl, though living as an apostate and then as a Circle mage had robbed her of most chances to do it. What kind of dancing did dwarves do? Quick-footed reels? Slow waltzes? Bethany would need a partner for either of those—probably Varric, if he was willing. His face seemed stuck in a disgruntled frown just now, so she couldn’t tell if he would be in any mood for dancing later. She tried not to feel too disappointed.

They listened quietly while Bogdan breathlessly described the wondrous feast awaiting them. It felt refreshing at first, since they had talked non-stop since arriving at the ceremony and needed a break, but when Bethany eventually tried to offer her input, she couldn’t get a word in. Varric didn’t even try talking to Bogdan. He just kept glancing at the door, sighing every so often with thinly veiled irritation.

“I don’t think I’ve seen Bianca this nervous since we married,” Bogdan mused, stroking his dark beard. “To be truthful, we were both shaking in our boots at the altar. We had never met before our wedding day--that is how it is done in families like ours.”

“I’m sorry,” Bethany found herself saying. She fiddled with her family ring and thought of how betrothals changed lives, even when they were broken.

Bogdan scoffed, “No need to apologize! A marriage may be arranged, but true love is forged. The day we married,” his voice cracked and he wiped away a tear with a meaty knuckle, “I swore I would do whatever it took to support my wife, through wealth and poverty, sickness and health, from the pavilions of Val Royeaux to the tunnels of Orzammar! Fifteen years on, I cannot imagine devoting my life to anyone else.”

Bethany sniffed and placed a hand upon her chest to calm the wistful ache growing where her heart beat. To find love was to glimpse the Maker. Such a precious, beautiful thing, and so so rare. That love like that existed at all was proof that there was hope for this merciless, wretched world yet--even if some people would never have the opportunity to experience its full glory themselves.

During this exchange, Varric had gradually drifted apart from the group, scowling into the depths of his whiskey until he had lurked several feet away. He had also undone the top button of his collar and looked a little sweaty; perhaps the room was too stuffy for him? Or he felt ill?

Bogdan noticed Varric had gone and migrated back to his side. “I’ve spoken enough about Bianca and myself,” he said, throwing an arm around Varric’s shoulders, to the other man’s chagrin. “Tell me Tethras, when can I expect an invitation to the wedding? I recall that your cousin married a human, too. Runs in the family, eh?”

“Thorold and Maevaris never got around to tying the knot,” Varric answered evenly, “and we haven’t either.”

“Oh.” Bogdan was at a loss for words, a state of being he clearly found uncomfortable and perplexing. Bethany worried that maybe he had seen through their ruse somehow, but then he summoned forth an awkward chortle.

“I don’t see what you’re waiting for. Women like this,” Bogdan gestured towards Bethany, “don’t come around every Age, and they won’t wait an Age for you either. Strike while the iron is hot, I like to say! Have you considered honeymooning in Val Royeaux?”

An invisible rift twice Bogdan’s size expanded between all three of them. While Varric dodged more questions about their supposed nuptials, Bethany disengaged from the conversation, if only to shield herself from a wave of hurt she sensed coming her way.

Sly jabs about bearing heirs didn’t sting as much as Bogdan’s earnest urging that they marry. The cheerful dwarf struck a nerve Bethany thought had scabbed over years ago. Once her magic had manifested and her family and freedom began to dwindle, girlish desires like falling in love and getting married had drifted further and further into the realm of fantasy. It was not impossible—Bethany’s existence was evidence of that—but she had seen firsthand how hard it could be, the mountain of sacrifice it required, the constant risk. A cost too steep for anyone she loved to pay.

It had hurt to accept that something so ordinary could be so impossible, and to watch from afar as others her age paired off and started families, but as with every other challenge the Maker had thrown at her feet, Bethany put on her sunniest smile and got used to it.

She thought she had made her peace with all this. What did it matter if the only wedding ring she’d ever wear was an heirloom from her grandmother? Bethany was alive, free! Her friends were safe, her brother happier than she had seen him in years, and her home on the upswing after so much bloodshed and turmoil. The long night was finally over. Who was Bethany to watch the sun rise and wish for more?

When Bethany felt ready to talk to Bogdan again, the large dwarf was already saying his goodbyes. “I’ll check on the wife, see if she’s ready to make her grand entrance,” Bogdan said with a wink. He left them by the throne and disappeared into the crowd.

Varric massaged his temples and sighed. If his patience had worn thin just waiting for Bianca, chatting with her husband left it in tatters. “We’ve got a problem,” he said, keeping his voice low and discreet.

Bethany glanced towards the entryway just as Bogdan slipped back through the doors. “Do you think he’s onto us?”

Varric gave her a curious look. “Onto us? We could trick Bogdan into spelling his name with V if we wanted to. No, the problem is that we’re fooling everyone too well. At the rate we’re going, the entire Merchant’s Guild will expect an invitation to our nonexistent wedding--especially if Shouty never shuts up about it. We’ll need a break up story to head off the rumors before gifts start piling up in my office.”

Bethany’s tongue felt too thick to fit in her mouth. “That makes sense. We wouldn’t want people to think we were engaged or anything.” Suitors weren’t exactly banging down her door with proposals, but could the very idea of marrying Bethany truly be so awful that Varric could not even pretend for one day? Varric, who would lie that his mother was half-dragon prostitute covered in fur if it meant he’d get free beer?

“It’s not--” With a frustrated sigh, Varric shook his head and rubbed the nape of his neck. Bethany had seen him do that quite often since coming to Orzammar, like simply being in the thaig caused him literal pain. Or maybe it wasn’t Orzammar, but proximity to her that burdened him--just like she burdened her own family in Lothering, and then in Kirkwall. The Circles may be abolished, but some things never changed.

“Hey.” Varric touched her forearm, gently running his fingers down her tulle sleeve before dropping his arm to his side. “You’ve got a good thing going in Hightown, a whole life you’ve built all on your own. I don’t want dwarfy shit to follow you to the surface and complicate it.” More brightly, he added, “I promise dumping me will be just as thrilling as dating me. A rare few women have had the privilege, actually.” He smirked like this was a point of pride.

Bethany rapidly blinked. “I’m dumping you?”

“Of course,” he replied, now wearing a wily grin. “No one would believe for a second that it’d happen the other way around.”

With no one else to meet and no more hands to shake, they searched for Bran and Serendipity. They found the couple nearby one of the large House Davri banners. The elf entertained four different admirers with a tale of a dragon supposedly hidden underneath the floor tiles of the dwarven throne room, waiting to be unleashed. All it would take to release it upon the party was a few stray footsteps on some secret pressure plates. Her admirers looked uneasily at their feet, fearful that they might be swallowed whole at any moment.

The seneschal, meanwhile, had taken down the names of at least six Merchant’s Guild members who wished to meet with the Viscount upon his return to Kirkwall, as well as a noble prattling on about the Deep Roads. Something about an expedition.

Varric asked to see Bran’s notes--then tore them up. “After yesterday’s ambush, I’m not doing any more business in this pit,” he said, tossing shredded bits of parchment to the floor. “None. None, Bran. None.”

Bran whined, “But sir—”

“They can make an appointment like everybody else.”

The seneschal looked pointedly at Bethany, who blushed and studied her fingernails. “At least speak with that Hirol fellow,” he finally said. “He is keen to talk to you, and as an Orzammar noble, I don’t think he can make an appointment.”

Varric considered this. “I know that name. Which one is he?”

Bran pointed out Lord Pigrin Hirol, a slimy little man who frequently sipped one of those red drinks that wafted a peppery trail of smoke. They didn’t have anything better to do, and the ceremony did not appear any closer to starting, so Varric and Bethany decided they would speak to this man to pass the time.

Lord Hirol appeared pleased to finally get his audience with the Viscount of Kirkwall, but was caught off guard when Varric knew of him already.

“Finally!” Varric exclaimed. ”Somebody whose ancestors I actually want to talk about.”

Apparently, House Hirol was currently working to reclaim the abandoned Kal’Hirol from the darkspawn—again. Lord Hirol spoke of the frequent expeditions with pride, for the thaig was once a prosperous center of learning where their culture’s greatest inventions originated. When Bethany asked what kind of inventions he meant, Hirol shot her an annoyed look and listed off something about improving golems, a method of storing refined lyrium, and a spicy ale recipe called Hirol’s Lava Burst. Innovations dwarven civilization had relied upon for centuries, he boasted, even if the surface was too ignorant to appreciate them.

“Darkspawn swarmed the tunnels anew once the Breach opened,” Hirol said with a note of lament. “We’re still trying to regain the ground we lost.”

“If you’re looking for funding from a well-connected investor, then you’re talking to the right person,” Varric said.

“It’s not funding we need, but weapons. Something that will turn the tide for us.” Lord Hirol fixed his beady gaze upon Varric. “If you wish to help, it would do me a great favor if you could speak with Bianca Davri and remind her to keep her promises, lest I’m forced to break mine.”

Though the light in Varric’s eyes shifted, his expression remained friendly. “This sounds like something you ought to discuss with the Paragon.”

“She’s no Paragon yet.” Hirol spat out the word. “Plenty Merchant’s Guild rumors make it to Orzammar. If anyone can convince her to see sense, it would be you. My expedition—my family’s legacy—depends upon it.”

Varric shrugged. “Not sure what rumors you’ve heard, but they’re off the mark. Sorry, can’t help you.”

They held each other’s gaze for a long moment. When it became clear Varric would not budge, Hirol took an enormous gulp of his drink and smothered a cough as he swallowed it down. “You may have wealth and power on the surface, but down here all stone-blind stand on loose sand—even your would-be Paragons. If your lot closes ranks, we will too.”

With that, Hirol slunk away.

“What was all that about?” Bethany asked as they watched Hirol go.

Varric replied with another unruffled shrug. “My guess is he’s fishing for something. Dwarves always are.”

The throne room doors opened once more. Everyone ignored it at first, but as an astounded wave of gasps cut through the din, a swift hush fell over the crowd. Varric and Bethany turned just in time to observe Bianca Davri’s grand entrance into the hall.

In their past encounters, the Paragon-elect had worn a plain jerkin designed to garner as little attention as possible, as well as a hood to hide her face. Today, she looked like a glimmering ornament. She wore a form-fitting gown as bright blue as a lyrium crystal and embroidered with silvery thread that glinted in the light. Without her hood, Bianca’s head was exposed, revealing a mousey brown bob with beads woven into the front locks.

Despite her elegance, there was something stilted in Bianca’s gait, a hollowness in her otherwise pleasant expression. Dark shadows weighed down her blue eyes. Her hands, pale as death, held bunches of her chiffon skirt in each trembling fist. She reminded Bethany of apprentices fitted into their Circle robes for the first time--like her clothes fit her body, but chafed against her soul.

Bogdan bounded after his wife, grinning from ear to ear with pride, and a couple Bethany recognized as Bianca’s parents—Endrik and Maris Davri, Varric supplied—followed close behind. Endrik glowered like he had just walked out of a slaughterhouse and couldn’t get the smell out of his nose. Bianca took after him, though their shared features looked better on her. Her mother Maris might’ve been beautiful once, except there was something vulturous in her frosty eyes, her pallid skin was almost translucent, and her every movement was made with purposeful calculation.

Yesterday, Varric had said Bianca’s parents wanted him dead. Seeing them now, Bethany believed him.

Shapers of various ages and beard length tried to ferry Bianca and her family towards a raised platform. That must be where the ceremony would take place. As the Davri procession walked through, Maris briefly cast a haughty look across the faces in the crowd. Her eyes locked on Bethany. Betraying no emotion, Bianca’s mother left her family and headed straight towards them.

Bethany gasped and stooped to hide behind a cluster of dwarves. She forgot that being the second tallest person in the room made her an easy target, and now trouble was coming their way.

“What is it?” Varric asked. “You have a better view of this nonsense than I do.”

“Bianca’s mother—”

As if summoned by the mention of her name, Maris swanned into view, her predatory eyes scraping over them both. Varric emptied his whiskey in a single gulp. “Bethany Hawke!” she exclaimed, her voice both cloying and sharp. “I’ve been so eager to meet you since I heard you were coming. You’re just as pretty as Bianca said you were.”

Bethany extended her hand out of habit, just as she had so many times that day, but rather than shake it, Maris snatched her right wrist. Her fingers were as cold as the Void, and her grip twice as crushing.

“Your wedding ring is on the wrong hand,” Maris observed matter of factly.

Bethany went red as three emotions overwhelmed her in quick succession: first, the rage of an already exposed nerve getting stung in such a public and humiliating way; second, the powerful urge to slap this awful woman with enough force magic to send her rocketing to the surface; and third, the realization that anger was exactly the reaction Maris Davri hoped for, and though it would be difficult, Bethany could not give this bitch the satisfaction.

“It’s a family heirloom,” Bethany replied through gritted teeth.

“Yes, of course. The age shows.” Maris released her wrist and ignored Bethany entirely. “And, you!” she exclaimed to Varric. “You’re here. I didn’t think you’d come.”

The invisible rift wedged between them evaporated instantly. Varric moved in front of Bethany at an angle, shielding her from Maris with his own body, then circled an arm around her waist. A ripple of warmth coursed up her torso.

“Your Lordship,” Varric articulated.

“Excuse me?”

He smirked. “I’m the Viscount of Kirkwall, remember? It’s ‘Your Lordship,’ not ‘you.’ Status and titles are important. There are a lot of nobles in here who’d knot their knickers if you called them the wrong one.”

Maris stared, her face inscrutable as a blurry reflection on the surface of a glacier. She hummed a little to herself. “Amazing, isn’t it, how far one can go when they make the right choices? Bianca had many opportunities to stray, but she always righted her path when it mattered. Now she’s a Paragon! Endrik and I are just so proud.” Bianca’s mother shifted her features as if she was emotional, but no tears fell. “Enjoy the ceremony, Your Lordship.”

Satisfied that she had made the impression she wanted, Maris flounced off.

The crowd swelled towards the platform. Snippets of conversation floated around them, most of it about ‘voting’ and ‘tradition'. There was an electricity in the air, a shared anticipation that something was about to happen. But there was something else too setting the room on edge, something darker. The feeling, intangible as it was, sent goosebumps crawling up Bethany’s arms.

Bianca finally made it onto the platform, and a couple surface dwarves let out a long whoop that grew bigger and bigger as more surfacers joined in.

“Smell that, Sunshine?” Varric asked in a low voice. “That’s the moldy, nauseating scent of bullshit. And that sound? A roomful of dusters falling for it. Something’s not right.”

“Any idea what it might be?” she whispered.

“No, but I know who’s in the middle of it.”

Bianca raised an arm to give the crowd a wave, eliciting another round of hooting cheers from surfacers and detached applause from the nobles.

Varric unwound his arm from around Bethany’s waist and took both of her hands in his. He stared down at them, then met her eyes. “Everyone will be focused on the ceremony, so it’s the perfect opportunity to sneak away and search the Paragon’s suite.” He hesitated. “I’ll be back before it’s over, you won’t even notice I’m gone. Bran and Serendipity will keep you company.”

“I thought Orzammar was too dangerous to go anywhere alone.” The corners of Bethany’s mouth twitched. “Or is that only when I do it?”

She imagined the gears in Varric’s head turning slowly as he rethought a few things. “Your dress is a little too swishy for sneaking,” was his last lame attempt to convince her to stay behind.

Bethany dropped his hands and picked up her skirts. “We’ll see about that.”

Chapter Text

A lone palace guard softly whistled to himself outside the Paragon’s suite. The faint sounds of chatter and applause vibrated through the palace’s thick walls, but otherwise the place was deserted. Quiet.

Out of nowhere, a vase at the other end of the hall toppled over and shattered. The guard drew his sword and rushed away to investigate the noise.

Varric and Bethany peeked around the corner and watched the guard leave. Her full skirts may have been too ‘swishy’ for stealth, but a small telekinetic spell more than made up for it. She shot him a triumphant ‘I told you so’ smirk, which he received with a ‘Remind me never to doubt you again’ smile.

With the coast clear, they hurried to the door. Varric wiggled his jacket cuff. A set of lock picks on a small ring slid out of his sleeve and right into his hand. He made quick work of the lock and they slipped inside.

The Paragon suite was bigger than the entirety of Tapster’s, with enormous sculpted columns on either side of a four-poster bed and fine furniture nestled snug against the walls. It was adjoined to an equally large room through a door and short hallway, though they could not tell what lay beyond.

Bethany moved forward, but Varric caught her by the arm. “Careful,” he cautioned. “There might be traps.”

Traps? Whatever for?”

“To keep intruders like us from ransacking their room. You don’t make it far in the Merchant’s Guild without a healthy dose of paranoia. Problem is, Bianca is leagues smarter than the entire guild put together. Who knows what world of pain she’s cooked up for the unlucky bastard caught touching her stuff.”

Varric tiptoed forward, testing various tiles for pressure plates and checking for trip wires until they safely crossed the room.

The room looked like Bianca had left in a whirlwind; her plush duvet sat in a clump on one side of the bed, discarded gowns and smallclothes spilled out of a trunk and onto the floor, and assorted clutter consumed almost every surface. On further inspection, Bethany discerned the Paragon-elect had not been alone. Upon an ornate dressing table with a swan cartouche spreading its ivory wings atop the mirror sat an empty wine glass bearing a dark red lipstick print — the same shade Maris Davri had worn to the ceremony. Mother and daughter must have prepared for the ceremony together.

“What exactly are we looking for?” Bethany asked. She examined a gilded hairbrush and noted the mousy brown hair caught in its teeth.

“Anything to do with me, crossbows, assassins. Anything weird.” In the mirror, Bethany saw Varric pick up a man’s sock off the bed and drop it to the floor with a contemptuous snort. He approached a dark brown writing desk polished to a shine, then tried pulling open a drawer. “Should’ve expected this,” he said, more rueful than impressed. Bethany left the dressing table to peer over his shoulder.

Strange black contraptions had been soldered to the wood somehow, sealing the desk drawers shut tight. The locks sported small dials and pins they could turn and press, sort of like a puzzle box. Bianca had taken measures to secure her belongings after all.

Varric took out his lockpick set and swung them around his finger once before taking one in hand. He inserted a lockpick between the grooves of one device to force it open. It broke in half with a sharp snap! He held his broken pick level with his nose, slowly exhaled through his teeth, and then chose another to try again.

Meanwhile, Bethany searched underneath the pillows and mattress. At the Circle, she had kept an entire collection of Isabela’s naughty booklets hidden above the slats of her austere bed. It had taken the templars years to sniff it out. However, here she found nothing. If Bianca felt it necessary to conceal her personal effects, she clearly used more sophisticated hiding places.

She moved onto a pile of ratty books on the bedside table, all of them Tethras novels in varying condition. Judging by the deep imprint in the mattress, this was Bogdan’s side of the bed. “You have a fan,” Bethany said. Varric snorted again and continued prodding a lock.

Beneath the stack of books, she found a loose bundle of personal letters. Unlike his wife, Bogdan hadn’t hidden or locked away his correspondence. As she began unfolding and reading them, Bethany heard another lockpick snap in half, followed by a smothered curse.

Most of the letters were cut and dry sales reports, but a personal letter from Bogdan’s mother gave Bethany pause. 

Is it true that Bianca still drinks her tea with witherstalk? Fifteen years and no heirs. It’s unheard of. You two need to remember your responsibilities to your houses—especially House Bianca, once it’s formed. To be frank, Bianca doesn’t have many years left to fulfill her duty—

Bethany’s face burned. Oh Maker, she should not be reading this. None of her business, this was absolutely none of her business...

“Anything good?” Varric asked over his shoulder.

“No,” she squeaked, shoving it into the bottom of the pile. “Nothing relevant.”

Bethany searched for something else to occupy herself, something less invasive, and spotted a dark briefcase leaning against the wall. She heaved it onto the bed and tried to undo the clasps, only to discover another custom lock soldered into the wood.

“Think you can unlock this one?” she asked, looking to Varric.

Varric’s quest to open Bianca’s desk had gone miserably. He joined Bethany by the bed with his last intact lockpick, already resigned to failure. However, after a few tense moments of tinkering with the lock, they heard a satisfying click.

“Insufficient skill, my ass,” Varric said. He wore an almost boyish grin that transported Bethany back to the Hanged Man, back before the Chantry explosion, the Gallows, the expedition, everything. He removed the lock and undid the clasps, pausing for dramatic effect. “Let’s see what Bianca’s got to hide.” He flipped the lid.

Varric’s face drained of all color.

Within, a pitch black repeating crossbow lay nestled in silky fabric, folded up in its resting position. Bethany had briefly seen it in the Hall of Heroes, but in all the chaos of their arrival to Orzammar, she hadn’t recognized it for what it was—yet another Bianca.

“It’s just like yours,” Bethany observed with astonishment.

“No,” Varric said, sounding hollow. “It’s better than mine.”

“Bianca made your crossbow—” it was a statement, not a question, “—and she made this one. Do you think she built the others? The ones that attacked us?”

Varric looked everywhere but at the crossbow in front of them. “What other explanation is there? I don’t want to get into the details, but the gist is that Bianca vowed to never build another repeating crossbow, and I vowed to never reveal who crafted mine. One of us broke our promise, and I know it wasn’t me.”

The black crossbow was shiny and smooth, like it was made from volcanic glass rather than stained wood. Much more elegant than the weapons those thugs had wielded. Interesting blue markings carved into the stock gently pulsed like a heartbeat. Runes.

“Are those lyrium runes?” Bethany asked. Varric merely stared at the crossbow, his face frozen in a grimace. “Varric? Is something wrong?”

Varric started, shuffling backwards a step or two. “What? I dunno. We should move on. I think we’ve seen enough in here.”


 

They continued on to the Paragon suite’s second half. Varric spotted several traps throughout the narrow hall adjoining the two rooms, including a small caltrop trap, an alarmed tripwire, and an elemental mine. He possessed sufficient skill to disarm most of them, but after struggling with the tripwire for several nail-biting minutes, they decided to just step over it for the time being.

The next room was a mirror image of the one before it. Same enormous bed, nice furniture, and cavernous space too big for any one dwarf to live in. Clothes too loose around the waist for either Bianca or her husband lay draped over a loveseat, as well as heeled shoes so tall and impractical, Bethany could not imagine the future Paragon ever wearing them.

It’s an in-law suite, Bethany realized. Maris and Endrik Davri stayed here. Sharing a home with one’s parents wasn’t so odd, but adjacent bedrooms with an adjoining hallway? A detailed picture of Bianca’s personal life took shape in her mind. An uncomfortable picture. Bethany envied the Paragon-to-be for a few things—things that made her heart ache terribly enough to slay her from the inside—but her suffocating family was not among them.

Unlike Bianca’s own bedroom, nothing in the in-law suite was locked. They eagerly ransacked the desk, pulling out the drawers and dumping their contents wholesale on the floor. Sitting side by side, they sifted through bills of lading, personal letters, and crumpled notes for anything interesting. Much of it was written in cipher; “Merchant’s Guild thing,” was Varric’s short explanation. Bethany found snooping through someone else’s mail much easier this time around; Maris Davri was a despair demon in dwarven skin two sizes too small, and her husband wasn’t much better. Bethany could ill afford to waste her compassion on people who did nothing to earn it, especially if those same people wanted Varric dead.

Searching was quiet, tedious work that yielded very little, up until Varric exhaled a dazed, “No shit.”

Bethany paused her own reading. “What is it? You find something?”

“Yeah, but not what we’re looking for.” Varric rubbed his forehead and reread the letter. “Apparently, Bianca’s moving her workshop from Val Royeaux to Orzammar, and laying off all her employees to do it. Her dad wrote to the Aeducans that it’s all arranged. I’m just...it doesn’t sound like something she’d do.”

“Do Paragons have to live in Orzammar?”

“No idea. She’s the first to ever come from somewhere else.” He stared at the letter, then shook his head. “Nevermind. Not my circus, not my brontos.”

They next discovered a communication from House Vasca congratulating Bogdan and his in-laws on the purchase of a lyrium mine. Previously owned by House Helmi, the mine was sealed shut due to a deep crawler infestation. When the ascension ceremony was over, the new House Bianca would be commissioning Legion of the Dead, Grey Wardens, and anyone who’d take the coin to clean the place out so operations could resume. Bethany joked that it was the sort of job Garrett would jump on. He had a passion for pest control, especially when the pests were as large as horses, if not bigger and covered in scales. 

But Varric worried over the implications of this new information too much to laugh at any jokes. “If they’re investing in lyrium and moving their business out of Orlais, Bianca really is here for good.” He stared straight ahead, his amber eyes drinking in nothing as he thought aloud. “Is this how she clinched her nomination? Uprooting herself, moving someplace she hates. Is this Paragon stuff really worth it?”

His questions hung in the air, unanswered.

While Varric continued reading letters, Bethany moved on to a closet carved into the wall and rifled through various pockets. It shocked her how many small pouches were hidden in skirts and jackets—and how many of them hung heavy with coins! These people have never been poor, Bethany thought with a scowl. Leaving random pieces of gold in their clothes, and probably forgetting they were even there, too. One pocketful of change to the Davris would’ve fed the entire Hawke family for a month in their Lowtown days.

Bethany extracted a wadded up receipt and gave it a cursory glance. Her eyebrows shot up. “Varric! I’ve got something.”

“Another letter? What’s this one about?”

“It’s not a letter, but it’s about you.”

She found a receipt for an annulled assassination contract: House Davri had paid a substantial sum upfront to the Antivan Crows for the expedient death of Viscount Varric Tethras of Kirkwall. However, the contract was canceled and the price refunded a month ago, minus a security deposit.

When he finally got a hold of it, Varric honed in on the gold amount scribbled at the bottom. “Five thousand andris?” he exclaimed. “In Antiva, five thousand andris is known as a ‘bastard.’ They paid extra just to insult me one last time!”

“But they didn’t pay. They canceled.” Bethany looked at him thoughtfully. “The men who attacked us didn’t strike me as Crows.”

“No,” Varric agreed with a frown, “they were just casteless thugs. None of this adds up.”

A quick rummage through the same jacket produced something else: a letter. Bethany examined it and nearly went cross-eyed trying to make sense of the words. “Maker’s breath, is this gibberish?” she said.

Varric looked over her shoulder and immediately rolled his eyes. “No, that’s Bianca. She’s not exactly a paragon of penmanship. Give it here.” He held the letter carefully between his thumbs and forefingers, squinting at the scribbled handwriting. “This would be easier with my spectacles, but I think I can make it out…”

He read the letter aloud.

Mother,

Did you really think I wouldn’t find out about this?

Don’t bother writing the Crows, I already called them off. Let me put this in the plainest terms possible: There is no House Bianca without me. You piss me off, the little empire you’re building on my back goes down, too.

You got everything else you wanted. Just leave him alone.

The words fell over them both in a fog. “That settles that,” Varric said, though ‘settled’ was the last thing he sounded like. “When Bianca said she protected me, she was...telling the truth.” He refolded the papers and stuck them back inside the jacket’s pocket, his expression as unreadable as a Merchant’s Guild cipher.

They shuffled towards the hall leading back into Bianca’s room in silence. Snooping through the Paragon’s suite had exonerated the Davris, not proven their guilt. Who sent those assassins? Where did they get those crossbows? Bethany thought solving mysteries was supposed to answer questions, not create new ones.

“What now?” Bethany asked Varric. She lifted her skirts to ready herself for clearing the booby trap still extended across the threshold.

“Bone-face is still out there,” Varric said. He stepped his right leg over the trip wire. “Tracking him down might give us a lead, though I’m not—”

As he brought his other foot forward, the toe of his boot caught the wire.

AU-OOOOOOOOOOOGA!

Varric jumped back over the wire to stop the alarm’s bone-shaking shriek, but the damage had been done. They heard the crash of a door opening, followed by an unknown voice shouting, “Ass of my ancestors, what is that sound? Someone in here?”

They dashed back into the in-law suite before they were seen. In what felt like half a heartbeat, Bethany searched for an escape. The door? Not enough time to pick the lock. Under the bed? Too low to the ground for either of them to fit. The closet? It would be a squeeze, but what other choice did they have? They leapt inside and closed the door just as the alarm blared a second time.

As Bethany’s vision adjusted to the darkness, she felt the fabric of her dress rumple where it brushed against Varric’s tailcoat. The closet’s lower ceiling forced her to stoop down, causing their breaths to dangerously mingle. Andraste’s flaming petticoats, of all the ridiculous positions to find herself in! Crammed between half a dozen musty coats with Varric! Not even sharing the same bed thrust them into such close quarters.

On the other side of the closet door, steel-toed boots scuffed against the carpet. They would be discovered at any moment, and who knew how hostile the person on the other side of the door would be. How would they explain themselves? For what reason did two people have for sneaking into a bedroom, let alone the Paragon’s quarters? Though now that Bethany thought of it, a noble-hunter couple had already been caught doing the same thing earlier...

“I hope you have a good lie in mind,” Varric murmured.

Bethany replied with a sharp intake of breath. She did have a lie in mind. The same one they had been telling everyone all day.

She could not speak her plan aloud. Talking would give them away too soon. Instead, Bethany reached out in the darkness to trace her fingertips along his stubbled jawline. Varric stilled, surprised to feel her touch, before leaning into it. Her index finger lingered on the cleft of his chin a moment before tilting his face up. Even in the dark, she saw his eyes go wide.

Bethany grasped his jacket by its lapels and kissed him.

Varric, a dwarf who made his dishonest living shooting at the hip, understood her plan instantly and returned her kiss without delay. He cupped the back of her head and pulled her down to give his mouth greater purchase on hers, the mustiness of Maris Davri’s clothing buffeted away by hot, whiskey-laced breath and ravenous lips. Heart hammering in her ribcage, Bethany pressed against him, torso to torso, with far more fervor than Varric seemed to expect. His back thumped against the closet wall. A fiery pressure built inside her, magma kept locked in Bethany's heart bubbling upward in a desperate bid for freedom.

However, she did not allow her passion to surge to the surface, no matter how dizzying Varric’s scent, how piping hot and eager his mouth. This kiss wasn’t for her, or even for him. It was for the benefit of whoever stood on the other side of the door. An act, just like everything else. The fluttering in her breast twisted into an ache, a pang for what felt so real yet would always be a lie, and she squeezed her eyes shut. After lying to everyone at the ceremony, this kiss would be their most convincing performance, however briefly it lasted. Bethany would make sure of it.

But the kiss lasted.

And it lasted, and it lasted.

The original purpose of the kiss slipped away from her, and Bethany found herself parting her lips to—

The door swung open, flooding the closet with a blinding light. “More of this?!” a palace guard exclaimed with abject disgust. “Get out!”

The guard ripped Varric from her embrace and dragged him into the open. Bethany stumbled after him before she got the same heavy-handed treatment. The guard gaped with unmasked surprise when a human woman stepped out of the closet instead of a dwarf one; not quite the noble hunter he expected.

As the guard shepherded them out of the Paragon’s suite, Varric tugged at the opening of his jacket, straightening it roughly. He spoke with a haughty scoff. “Serah, you realize you interrupted the Viscount of Kirkwall in the middle of a private conversation.”

The guard growled, “Your privates can converse somewhere else!”

Meanwhile, Bethany subtly fanned herself to keep her cheeks from transforming into flaming tomatoes. The kick of adrenaline from their kiss subsided, leaving only panic. Sharp, flustering, all-consuming panic. What was she thinking?! A million ways to get out of that tight spot and she picked the most selfish one. Bethany cleared her throat and offered Varric her arm to prepare for their reappearance. She feared he might refuse, being too embarrassed to touch her again, but he took it and continued on as if nothing untoward had happened.

She put on a stiff smile. Right. As far as anyone else knew, they were a real couple. Bethany had to follow Varric’s cue and act natural. Pretend kissing the man she was pretending to date had not thrown her heart into an emotional spiral that had yet to hit the ground. Later she could figure out what to say about the kissif she should say anything about itbut for now she could only carry on.


 Varric and Bethany entered the palace vestibule seemingly as collected and refined as when they first arrived at the party hours ago. Muffled cheering reverberated through the throne room doors just as it did when they left, only now there was something...off about it. The three of them stopped short and listened.

No, that wasn’t cheering. That was screaming.

The guard ran ahead and pushed open the large doors.

The furious noise of a hundred clashing voices hit them in a gust of sound. Smoke wafted out, and when it cleared they saw a crowd of agitated dwarves heckling the nobles on stage, waving their tankards threateningly to punctuate their words. Up on the dais, a red-faced Endrik Davri chewed out a frail Shaper, who looked like he might collapse beneath all the yelling. The officious ascension ceremony had derailed into a shouting match, and it was in danger of snowballing into an all-out war.

Bethany could barely hear Varric when he wondered aloud, “Did everyone get drunk without us?”

A noble she recognized as Lord Hirol stood in front of the Davris and screamed at the top of his lungs. “You surface dwarves bask in the sun, clad in human fashion, lying with your human lovers,” several heads instantly swiveled in Bethany’s direction, “and you think we’d accept you? Stone does not bend. It does not change. You’re so far from our Ancestors, you don’t even have the right to call yourselves dwarves! We won’t take a Paragon from you!”

Bianca’s father shouted back, “We already got the votes you duster, it’s too late!”

“Not anymore,” Hirol said. “House Hirol votes no!”

“You can’t just change your vote!”

Another noble stepped forward. “House Harrowmont also votes no! If we throw out our traditions, we’ll have nothing left! Nothing!”

A surfacer in the crowd exclaimed, “If not for the Merchant’s Guild lining your pockets, you’d all be paupers stuck in a hole, splashing around in your own shit!”

Half the crowd jeered. Lord Hirol shouted at anyone listening, “Show your betters some respect!”

“Show your Paragon some respect!” Endrik shot back.

All eyes turned to Bianca, still trapped on the dais in her shimmering gown and gripping Bogdan’s arm for support. Lord Hirol stalked towards her, bristling with each step. Resigned to speaking with him, Biance gestured for her husband to stay put while she met the nobleman halfway.

The room quieted. Bianca said something to Lord Hirol, though it was too soft for anyone but Hirol to hear. Just as quickly as the noble had started quaking with anger, Lord Hirol noble adopted an air of calm. He briefly smiled.

Then he spat in Bianca’s face.

A crescendo of fury resounded through the throne room. Bogdan launched himself at Lord Hirol and tackled the noble to the ground in a blur of motion. He hit Hirol several times, his fist becoming bloodier each time he raised it for another punch, until four men latched onto his arms and shoulders to pry him away.

Ceremony guests shoved at each other in an unruly mob. No one had been permitted to bring weapons into the palace, so the dwarves improvised with fists, broken bottles, discarded waiter’s trays, and even their shoes. A cask of dwarven ale broke open in the madness. Several dwarves slipped in spilled ale and continued their fighting on the floor, wrestling in the foaming liquid and staining their clothes black.

When Lord Helmi appeared on the platform to calm everyone down, Maris Davri appeared and removed a sharp pin fastening her coiled bun. As her thin hair unwound over her shoulder, she thrust the pin at Helmi, tearing the sleeve of his doublet and drawing blood.

Varric edged away from the scene. “This seems as good a time as any to go. Shit, Bran and Serendipity!”

Bethany stood on her tiptoes and scanned the chaos. From her vantage point, the entire room was a sea of bobbing heads and fisticuffs. She spied Bran cowering near the wall, waving a bottle of wine around like club to ward off any attackers. Serendipity stood by him, remarkably collected as she kicked an advancing dwarf in the ribs.

They wove through the chaos, ducking to avoid a flying slipper here and narrowly dodging a charging dwarf there. When they made to their friends, the seneschal’s ruffled doublet boasted dark armpit stains and Serendipity huffed from the exertion, but they were unharmed. They were Kirkwallers, after all. No one lived there long without learning how to hold their own in a scrap.

Just as the group prepared to fight their way back out, a deafening voice roared over all others.

“ENOUGH!”

A regal dwarf wearing a large crown and a full set of armor stood on the platform. He paced side to side like a predator, curling his lip with distaste. The fighting and yelling petered out. The only man who could silence so many angry dwarves at once, Bethany knew, was the king.

“Scrabbling about like animals on this historic day. It’s unbecoming,” the king said with a rueful shake of his head.

No one dared to talk back to him.

“If there is a quarrel to be settled, we shall settle it the dwarven way,” the king said. He extracted a sword from his scabbard and thrust it in the air. “With honor!”

The room erupted in exultant cheers that shook the entire mountain. The dwarves of Thedas chanted a single word over and over until their voices mingled into a deafening wall.

Proving.

Chapter Text

“Do people actually die at these Provings?” Seneschal Bran looked about the crowd steadily migrating towards the Proving Grounds with an appraising eye, as if to pick out who among them might be dead in two hours’ time.

“Sometimes,” Varric answered, “but Orzammar wouldn’t get very far if its citizens kept slaughtering each other. We’ll see just enough blood to make the show worthwhile. Maybe some light gore, if they want to impress us surfacers.”

Bran wrinkled his nose. “I don’t think gore is very impressive.”

“No one cares what you think, Bran.”

The grand Orzammar arena loomed large ahead of them, an enormous column of rock that rose up from the middle of the lava sea and merged seamlessly into the cave ceiling. Colossal figure reliefs of dwarven warriors carved into the stone stared down their noses, watching in silence as spectators from all castes filed across the bridge leading into the stadium, their excitement drowned out by furious drumming resounding within the arena walls.

Returning to the site of House Tethras’ great disgrace should make Varric feel something. However, after the emotional cyclone of reading how much his dead Viscounty ass went for in Antiva, learning that Bianca had protected him from assassination, triggering a scary trap that traumatized his ear drums, locking lips with his best friend’s little sister, and then walking into a drunken riot, all in the space of an hour, he had a hard time feeling anything about a stupid building. So what if his dad fixed the Provings and got the whole family kicked out of Orzammar. Varric had too many irons sizzling in the fire to care.

“I hope it isn’t bloody.” Beside him, Bethany was a lovely storm of red fabric, her skirt fluttering behind her as they crossed the pavilion. “Fighting isn’t my kind of sport,” she said to him.

The elegant figure Bethany cut in that dress was gorgeous before, but since the incident in the Paragon’s suite, Varric found her sort of alarming. It was like a relentlessly pretty oil painting had stepped out of its frame, and now it followed him around, shooting him occasional come-hither eyes. Tempting as it was to go thither and submit fully to this masterpiece of a person, he understood that Bethany was merely acting her ass off on his behalf—and doing a damn good job of it, too.

Except, did Bethany have to kiss him like that? Grabbing hold of his jacket, pinning him to the wall, covering his mouth with hers like their lives depended on it; which, to be fair, felt true at the time. Did Varric really have to kiss her back like that? Grasping her waist and reeling her in until they were wholly intertwined. The moment their lips touched, his blood caught fire, his brain shut up, and his instincts took over. If not for the guard prying them apart, Varric would stayed there forever, rapt in Sunshine’s kiss.

Varric shook his head to dispel the recollection before it took firmer hold. Only a sucker swooned over a contrived, last-gasp effort to get out of a tricky situation, which was all that kiss was. He knew that. She knew that. There was nothing else to really say on the matter.

Once inside the Proving Grounds, they climbed the steps and walked the curve of the arena towards a section reserved for the Paragon and her guests. Varric scanned the growing crowds rumbling in the seats below, his breath stolen in awe. He had seen armies before—humans, demons, templars, mages, and everything in between—but never dwarves in numbers like this. Many ceremony guests peeled away from the group to purchase tankards of ale from cute entrepreneurial barmaids. They must make a killing during events like this, flashing their dimples while topping spectators off with over-priced ale.

Varric’s eyes landed upon a private box on the other side, where lamp light glinted off a blindingly golden helmet. That must be King Bhelen settling down to enjoy the Provings. While Varric withheld his opinion on Bhelen’s ideals and ruthless methods, he did openly question the king’s choice in hats.

“Royalty just loves its ugly headgear, doesn’t it?” Varric said to Bethany, pointing out the king. “Supposedly, Paragon Branka crafted that crown in the Deep Roads moments before leaping to her death.”

Bethany squinted in the king’s direction. “How morbid. It must be painful, wearing something that heavy everyday.”

“Eh, I bet he’s got a sturdy neck hidden behind that beard. Most dwarves do.”

Her gaze moved away from the king and settled upon Varric’s own neck, drifting down to his clavicle, before slowly lifting back up to meet his eyes. It took everything in him to suppress a thrilled shudder. After a moment of sustained eye contact, Bethany pinked and looked away.

“Now that I think of it, you never wear your Viscount crown,” she said as they continued walking, a skittish tremble in her voice. “Why is that?”

“I’ve spent years cultivating my image as a suave, open-shirted storyteller. That piece of junk would just ruin it.” As they approached their seats, Varric linked his arm with hers. “You should try it on when we get back home.”

She balked. “Me? Is that allowed?”

“It’s my crown. I could shove it up my ass if I wanted to. You have the right shaped head to pull it off, is all.”

Bethany had the right shaped head to pull off any tiara. If anything, the pointy black thing Varric sometimes wore was too ugly for her. She deserved something shinier, encrusted with sparkly gems. He fancied the idea of buying her one, but could not think of a decent excuse to justify such an extravagant gift. The only reason anyone got a crown these days was to become a monarch. Or to marry one.

Sunshine was on eyelash-batting terms with one blueblood, and he could easily introduce her to another. Marrying into royalty wasn’t entirely out of the realm of possibility for her. Though the idea of Bethany pairing off with any of them bothered him, Varric could not deny that she would do well as a princess or a queen.

They finally sat down. An announcer proclaimed that Bogdan Vasca, husband and champion of Paragon-elect Bianca Davri, would represent her house in the arena. By his own request, he would fight without the aid of a second.

Varric glanced down a few rows, where he spied Bianca sitting in a private box, gnawing at her fingernails. She was nervous. Well, it was a Proving to decide the fate of her Paragon nomination, featuring her husband in the starring role. Of course she would be nervous.

Time ticked by. Varric bounced his leg and fidgeted in his seat. Call it a moment of weakness, but he had felt a pinch of respect for Shouty when he leapt to Bianca’s defense at the ceremony. It didn’t sit well with him that Bogdan’s reward was to risk life and limb in the Provings. Varric brushed off the possibility to Bran, but death was always on the table whenever dwarves brawled. Even armed with a state-of-the-art crossbow, Bogdan could get killed.

Worry nagged at him. It was stupid. Varric didn’t even like Bogdan. Several years ago, he had even wished that the man would drop dead and quit complicating his love life. He ought to relish the possibility that the burly, obnoxious obstacle that stood in his way for so long might soon be booted into the afterlife, but he could only see Bianca watching from the stands, her heart stuck in her throat.

Varric did not care what happened to Shouty, but he did care about Bianca, and for some reason that still escaped him, she cared about her blockhead husband. Bogdan’s death would devastate her—especially if he died in her name.

He stood up. “I need to handle something before the Provings start,” Varric said to Bethany. He silently cursed his own soft-heartedness.

“Shall I come?” Bethany asked. “Orzammar isn’t safe alone, remember?”

Varric’s first instinct was to protest, but he thought better of it. “If you wouldn’t mind. You have a calming influence on me. Where I’m going, I’m gonna need it.”


 

Varric already complained of Orzammar’s stench, but nug shit smelled like redolent roses compared to the body odor, gristle, and volcanic fumes clogging the arena’s inner passageways. The walls themselves seemed to sweat as warriors put on their armor and drank flagons of ale before their fights. He wanted to retch with every breath.

It took some asking around to find the Paragon-elect’s champion. They eventually found him in what appeared to be an armory, applying fresh wax to his crossbow’s strings with methodical strokes.

Bogdan had changed into a sleeveless leather hauberk held together with metal studs. His exposed biceps were larger than Varric’s skull. Probably the product of thwacking anvils with giant hammers for fun his entire life. However, it would not be a hammer Bogdan took into the arena, but a crossbow. If he was going to emerge with all four limbs intact, he might need some friendly pointers from someone who actually knew how to use one.

Varric hesitated, struck by the stony calm in Bogdan’s eyes. He did not realize Shouty was capable of concentrating on anything, let alone with such a cold-blooded stare.

Bogdan looked up just as they crossed the threshold, his focused expression transforming into a welcoming grin. “Varric Tethras and Bethany Hawke! What an unexpected pleasure!”

“We just came by to wish you good luck,” Bethany said. She and Bogdan beamed at each other with a radiance that suggested they had become firm friends. Varric clenched his teeth as bitterness caught fire in his stomach. “Are you nervous?”

“Not at all!” Bogdan exclaimed. “I welcome the chance to prove myself before all of Orzammar. It’s difficult to fear anything with this,” he lifted his weapon, “on my side.”

Looking at the black crossbow made Varric want to crawl into a hole. That he was already in a deep, muggy hole only worsened the feeling. He couldn’t quite pinpoint why it made him feel this way, or why his lungs quit working right when he spent too much time with Shouty, but he knew that if he was to breathe easily again, he needed to get this over with.

“So, uh,” Varric glanced at Bethany for a reminder of what patience looked like and tried to follow her example, “I’m something of an expert in this kind of weapon. I have one myself. It’s not as advanced—”

“An antique, is it?” Bogdan asked, his eyes widening into two shallow puddles. “The kind you have to crank every time you reload? That’s the beauty of my wife’s invention here, it doesn’t require cranking and can fire a dozen arrows in a single second. You would be surprised at how quick it is.”

Hundreds of snarky comments threatened to shoot out Varric’s mouth. He sucked in his lips to keep them at bay. “I’d like to see you use it,” he said with some effort. “A private demonstration, before it gets dirtied up in the ring.”

“Of course!”

Bogdan nearly gave Varric a heart attack when he waved the thing around like an excited kid. He instantly thought of Sunshine’s ruined dress, her leg bruised and caked with blood. Didn’t this idiot know that crossbows were dangerous? Eventually, Shouty held it in position and pointed it towards a mannequin made of wood and straw.

Varric strained to peer over Bogdan’s massive shoulder. “How much hands-on experience have you got with this?” he asked, knowing that the answer would give him hives.

“I’ve spent many nights putting it through its paces. My wife set up a shooting range near our home just for target practice.”

“So you’ve never hit a moving target before? Or a person?”

Bogdan laughed. “Of course not! They don’t just let you shoot people in Val Royeaux. You writer folk have such comical ideas.”

Varric exercised heroic self control as he advised Bogdan to widen his stance and bend his knees. The crossbow’s kickback would pummel his torso into a bruised pulp if he wasn’t loose enough to move with the recoil, yet sturdy enough to stay on his feet. He explained what some of the weapon’s knobs did and how Bogdan could adjust them to increase his rate of fire, shoot further, or put more power behind each bolt. Surprisingly, the larger dwarf did not often interrupt or talk over him. Maybe Shouty didn’t have a deathwish after all.

There was something peculiar about the way Bogdan held his weapon. When Varric held his own crossbow—the original crossbow—it looked like an extension of his arms, a piece of his own body. Man and machine harmonized in the most perfect way. Bogdan stood in the right stance, he gripped the correct places, yet he and his crossbow possessed no synergy, no poetry. It didn’t look right.

Varric couldn’t articulate any of this, at least not in monosyllabic words Shouty would understand, so he kept it to himself. Not everyone could be a natural.

There wasn’t enough time to share all the tricks of the trade, so Varric just taught Bogdan one—the pinning shot. Nailing someone to the wall ended a fight much faster than killing them. With a sharp twang, Bogdan loosed a quarrel at the target, which buried itself in the mannequin’s wooden head right up to its black fletching.

“Easy!” Bogdan crowed. He performed the sickeningly familiar motion of closing up his crossbow and sliding it into its holster between his shoulder blades. Just watching him made Varric feel the ghost of his own Bianca resting on his back. “I’ll have this Proving completed in no time.”

“It’ll be easier to watch knowing you’re prepared,” Varric replied. It would still be like watching a giant toddler enter a deathmatch against a dozen bloodthirsty ogres, but at least if Shouty actually died, he wouldn’t feel torn up about it. He did what he could to help.

“There’s no need for concern,” Bogdan said with a broad smile. “The Ancestors have chosen Bianca, and Bianca has chosen me. I will not fail. This Proving is a foregone conclusion already written in the Stone.” He put his arm around Varric’s shoulders. “I do appreciate you coming down here. Does my confidence good to know I have friends rooting for me in the stands.”

This buddy-buddy stuff had gone on long enough for Varric’s taste. “Great. Good luck, don’t die, see you at the party later.” He wiggled out of Bogdan’s grasp, and they left him to his preparations.

As they journeyed back to ampitheatre stands, Varric made a conscious effort to breathe through his mouth. There was no such thing as fresh air in this damned thaig, but literally anywhere else would be an improvement. Sunshine strolled through the humid halls seemingly immune to it all, a picture of loveliness amidst filth and chaos.

Varric’s eyes traced the brushstroke of her smile. He recalled her lips catching his in the dark, the sweet taste of her melting in his mouth. His pulse quickened. Would they kiss again? Would she even want to? Maybe if he was a different sort of person, one with fewer scars marking him up and less baggage weighing him down. The kind of person women kissed in broad daylight, not hidden away in shadow.

A wistful pang unbecoming of a suave, open-shirted storyteller ran through him. Varric let it course around his heart until even his skin stung from the heat. Serves him right for indulging in wishful thinking, a habit more ruinous than drinking or gambling, in his experience. Especially when said wishing involved a friend doing him a Titan-sized favor.


 

They returned to their seats beside Bran and Serendipity with time to spare before the Provings. Bethany sat down, carefully tucking her delicate skirts underneath her in a fluid motion of grace and beauty that didn’t fit their gritty surroundings. He almost moved to do the same, but he had more business to settle before he could finally relax and enjoy the show.

“There’s one last thing I’ve got to do,” Varric said. He looked down several rows at the back of familiar brown hair, woven with lustrous beads that had grown dull in the arena’s smog. “Apologize to somebody who’s rightfully mad at me. Be right back.”

“Good luck,” Bethany said as he took his leave.

For being the guest of honor, the Paragon-elect’s private box was surprisingly empty. The Davris and their inner circle had migrated elsewhere to drink and socialize with Orzammar’s upper crust. Only a couple guards milled around nearby, clearly more enamored with the action below than watching their illustrious charge. Bianca sat alone in one of the front benches, her arms and legs twisted in tight knots. Varric slid into the seat right beside her. Down in the arena, two older warriors in thick metal armor smacked each other with clubs.

Bianca watched him through the corner of her eye. “Come to congratulate me on my impending widowhood?” she asked without an ounce of humor.

“Actually, I just talked to Bogdan.” Varric said. The stupid shirt he wore felt too tight around his neck. “Gave him some pointers on how to shoot straight. Thought it might help.”

“Oh.” Bianca uncrossed her arms. “Thank you. I know you don’t think much of him, and I know he’s an incorrigible dumbass, but,” she laughed under her breath and shook her head, “he’s my dumbass, and I’d rather keep him around.”

“You’re moving to Orzammar together. Figured you wouldn’t want him dying on you so soon.” Apart from quizzically tilting her head in his direction, Bianca didn’t question how Varric came by that information.

The two of them eased into a familiar mode of conversation. Hushed tones, no eye contact, minute gestures at most. The kind of talking reserved for two people who could not afford to be seen together, let alone overheard. Dusting off this old skill came more naturally than Varric expected, like putting on an old pair of boots that were his favorite until the sole wore away. He wondered if she felt the same.

Bianca looked forward and observed the brawl taking place in the arena below. “It’s been so difficult, Varric,” she said. “So difficult. Parties, politics, Provings—I can handle those things separately, but all of it at the same time?”

“Don’t forget the plagiarism,” he said. The telltale snap of a crossbow string twanged in his head, as well as Sunshine’s pained cry.

She grimaced. “I wish I could, Varric. I really do.”

They became quiet, lost in their own thoughts. “Do you think it’s the Carta?” Varric eventually asked, keeping his voice low. “You think they finally got their hands on a repeating crossbow after all these years?”

“We’d be dead already if it was,” Bianca replied. “No, something else is going on. I almost wish it was the Carta. It’s easier to fight the enemy you know than the one you don’t.”

Varric ran a finger along his collar to keep it from strangling him. “I shouldn’t have yelled at you yesterday.”

“We both said some unfair things,” she said, offering a small smile. Bianca rarely apologized out loud, but Varric knew her well enough to see it when it was there. He exhaled, relieved to have at least tied up one loose end during this convoluted shit show of a day. “You’ve always been so protective. I don’t expect you to keep a calm mind when someone you love is injured.”

Varric felt vaguely pleased that the whole lovers thing with Bethany had fooled Bianca, the one person who could’ve called them on their lies, but that feeling of accomplishment was short lived.

“It wasn’t just that.” Varric studied her face to discern if Bianca was being deliberately obtuse. “Do you really not get it?”

“Get what?”

“That finding out about the thing you built for Bogdan hurt? Do you really not understand how that might upset me?”

That’s why you’re so spitting mad?” Bianca ran her fingers through her hair. “What am I supposed to do? Ask you for permission whenever I want to craft something of my design, using my parts, on my own time?”

“Technically, it’s not your design.”

She threw up her hands. “Right, I’m just the idiot you commissioned to finish it for you when nobody else could. I don’t see where this is coming from. I promised you I’d keep a secret, not tie my hands behind my back for the rest of my life.”

They had arrived at the edge of some emotional, bitter territory, yet Varric stormed right inside. “You tied your own hands behind your back when you caved and got married.”

He expected her to fire back with a barb of her own, something slow and venomous that would enter his bloodstream and haunt him for weeks, but Bianca just chewed her cheek, thinking. Historically, this was worse, for she was an incredible thinker, and whatever occupied her thoughts now would be far more damaging than an off-the-cuff insult.

“You ever feel guilty?” Bianca asked. “Sneaking around behind Bogdan’s back. That ever bother you?”

Varric almost said something like, ‘Yeah, it bothered me that we couldn’t openly see each other because of your controlling family,’ but that wasn’t what Bianca had asked him. Did Varric feel guilty being a secret third party in the middle of someone else’s marriage? Did it bother him knowing that each time he and Bianca arranged to meet, they risked hurting someone who had done them no wrong?

Well...no. It didn’t. They had lived out the quintessential star-crossed romance, moving earth and sky to see each other in spite of all the rules. The two of them versus everyone else. Whether it was right or wrong was beside the point. Wasn’t it?

“You’re wrong if you think I don’t understand consequences,” Bianca said. “I’ve lived with the consequences of my choices for fifteen years. And Varric, you’re dead wrong about something else.”

Bianca finally turned to look him in the eye. Her features settled into an impenetrable wall that yielded for no one.

“I didn’t build that crossbow for him,” she said, sounding every inch the Paragon she was destined to become. “I built it for me.”

Varric opened his mouth to ask what that meant, but a thundering crescendo of drums and trumpets drowned out his voice. Bianca straightened and peered into the arena, her face a map of apprehension. The main event was about to begin.

Bogdan trundled into the ring, holding the black crossbow like one might clutch an ungainly baby they didn’t want to drop. Varric rushed to return to his own seat; if Shouty tripped and fell on his own bayonet the second the fight started, he didn’t want to miss it climbing over rowdy spectators.

He had just settled back down beside Bethany when a thickly-built warrior wielding a nasty double-bladed axe stepped into view. Bogdan’s first adversary. Cheers rippled through the stands, and the warrior threw his head back to howl a roaring battle cry.

A crossbow bolt shot the warrior through the throat mid-scream and pinned him to the back wall. The warrior thrashed, choking on his own spurting blood, when another quarrel penetrated his forehead right between the eyes. He then hung limply, dead.

It happened so fast, Varric could only react with a horror-struck, “Shit!” He immediately glanced towards Bianca’s row and caught her flinching with her entire body. The bleachers erupted with deafening noise that reverberated off the cave ceiling until the stone blocks supporting their seats, the very arena itself, quaked from the sound.

Bogdan raised his fist towards the stands and beamed like the sun when spectators screamed for more. More blood, more entertainment. All of the violent energy from the ceremony spilled forth in a font of noise, a Titan’s bellow that could wake the dead and shake the living. New fighters poured through the doors. One archer pulled back an arrow, but a crossbow bolt shattered her kneecap before she could let it fly. As she crumpled to the ground, another warrior leapt over her, sword drawn. Before his feet touched the ground again, three quarrels penetrated his armor and plunged into his flesh. The warrior fell after getting struck a dozen times. Blood pooled on the arena floor tiles, staining the stone a rusty red.

Bile coated the back of Varric’s throat. Was this what his friends saw whenever he used Bianca? Did he look like Bogdan, proud and brutal, as bodies hit the ground, too helpless to fight an enemy they couldn’t touch? Varric had always thought he looked heroic and daring in battle, but from the outside, wielding a repeating crossbow looked skilless, cheap. Cruel.

This was why it had been so important to ensure his Bianca had no sisters. This was why whenever the Carta came knocking, Varric lied rather than give up either Bianca. Secrets like this killed when they got out. He always assumed he would be its only casualty, but he wasn’t even the first.

Shit. Varric wrenched his eyes away to check on his friends. Bran and Serendipity watched the fight equal parts fascinated and disapproving, but Sunshine looked ghostly pale, like all the light had drained out of her. Her right hand clutched at her thigh where her wound would be everytime Bogdan skewered another opponent. A new horror crawled all over him. If Varric saw himself as the man pulling the trigger, Bethany saw herself as the one taking the bolt.

Another fighter met their death. Hundreds of onlookers bellowed. The noise pressed against them in all directions until it became difficult to form a coherent thought, let alone voice one. Varric threw an arm around Bethany and pulled her close. She folded into his embrace, a flower retreating into its bloom during a storm, but it was too late to shield her from the carnage unfolding below. It was far, far too late to undo the damage Varric had caused sticking his busted nose where it didn’t belong, teaching Bogdan the exact skills necessary to enable a bloodbath, just to satisfy his uncomfortable feelings. To think he had entertained thoughts of kissing before subjecting Bethany to all this...

Varric had promised Hawke to keep Sunshine safe, but if he really wanted to protect her, he should’ve just left her behind in Kirkwall.

They remained together until the Provings ended, until spectators leapt to their feet in a joyous bellow to declare Bogdan champion.

Bianca’s ascension was assured.

Chapter Text

Everyone left the Proving Grounds in good spirits, save for the Kirkwall party. Everyone else was also as pissed as a pandemonium of rowdy, foul-mouthed parrots. Varric assumed those two things were related.

Guests who had tried to rip each others’ beards out earlier joked and laughed like old war buddies. They talked animatedly of the Provings, compared bruises and scrapes from the throne room riot, and constantly hugged each other with an exaggerated friendliness only happy drunk people possessed. Dwarves revered the outcome of Provings as the will of the Ancestors, so surfacers and nobles alike now agreed the ascension ceremony could continue as planned. All it took to smooth over a cultural conflict Ages in the making was the needless, violent deaths of several people.

“I hate dwarven politics,” Varric said to his companions.

Their rambling procession snaked through the Diamond Quarter and into the palace, where a pair of straight-backed guards opened the throne room doors wide to allow guests reentry. It was like they had never left; the floor had been scrubbed to a sparkly sheen, the banners carrying the House Davri insignia pressed and rehung, and the broken cask of dwarven ale replaced with a fresh barrel. However, as Varric stepped across the threshold, he felt the crunch of ground glass beneath his shoes and smelled the faint stench of spilled alcohol. Orzammar had tried to sweep its unbecoming conduct under the rug, but it left a residue of its dishonor behind.

Of course, few attendees seemed to care about those details. Maris and Endrik Davri ascended the dais once more, all smiles as Orzammar’s elite tripped over themselves to make nice with the Paragon-to-be’s parents. Even Lord Helmi, whose shirt still sported a jagged, blood-stained tear, shook Maris’ hand and sang her daughter’s praises loudly enough for the entire room to hear. At least, until Bogdan showed up, boasting to the mountain peaks about his grand performance to anyone who would listen.

The only other dwarf present who recognized the sham happening around them was the woman it was all for; Bianca huddled on her own off to the side, wearing a thousand yard stare that no amount of alcohol could wash away.

“I really hate dwarven politics,” Varric said again, more darkly this time.

“So do I,” Bran concurred.

“Me too,” Bethany said.

“Eh, I’ve seen worse at the Rose,” Serendipity said with a shrug. “And in Antiva, for that matter.”

Varric made a mental note to ask the elf several questions about her life when he had the chance. He sniffed a story there and wanted to hear it.

After its turbulent start, the ascension ceremony came to an anticlimactic close. The Shapers said some stuff Varric didn’t pay close attention to, most of it in the old dwarven language. The heads of each noble house raised their hands in favor of the Paragon’s nomination, including Lord Hirol, whose face now resembled a smashed up grape. They repeated ‘honor’ a lot. King Bhelen pronounced his support and placed a metal wreath on Bianca’s head. Finally, the Shapers gathered in a small choir to moan a refrain supposedly sung by the Stone Herself to complete the ascension.

Bianca stood stiff as a statue the entire time, enduring her moment of triumph more than enjoying it. Her rigid expression only softened when Bogdan appeared at her side and placed a comforting hand upon her shoulder. The Provings, gruesome as they were, hadn’t completely soured her sentiment for Shouty after all.

Varric glanced at Bethany to check how she fared. Though quiet and somber since leaving the Provings, her cheeks slowly returned to a pretty peach. Not even the tempest of blood could dim Sunshine for long. Unfortunately, a touch on the shoulder would not be enough to repair the damage Varric feared he had done.

He should’ve taken her to Orlais, not Orzammar. That place had its own quagmire of political bullshit, but it was probably closer to the experience Bethany had expected when she agreed to this caper. A night of fine dresses, romantic waltzes, and courtly intrigue, not of inebriated dwarves and gladiator fights. More Hightown, less Hanged Man.

Varric’s throat thickened a little bit. He coughed before it could grow.

The Shapers finished their toneless droning. The throne room transformed in a flurry of movement as servants set up long wooden trestle tables and chairs with stunning efficiency. Varric, being a monarch of sorts, got seated at the high table nearby the guest of honor, her family, and the king. Dwarves treated seating charts like commandments handwritten by the Ancestors, so there was no negotiating a new seat in a less high profile spot. A steward shepherded Bran and Serendipity to a table on the opposite side of the room to sit amongst guests of equivalent rank and status. Varric feared Bethany would be spirited away from him as well, and he exhaled with relief when she took the chair to his right.

Then Bogdan occupied the chair to his left.

“My favorite author and friend!” he brayed. Shouty kept talking as servants reached over and around him to set down platters laden with food. “We just keep getting thrown together, you and I.”

Varric tried to shapeshift into a big grey rock through sheer force of will. It didn’t work.

“Yeah.”

“Your advice proved most invaluable. That pinning shot of yours did end the Provings quickly, just as you said! Bianca’s ascension is as much thanks to you as it is to me.”

“Yeah.”

“When the dancing starts, I shall be out of my element. Bianca says I have the grace of a drunken bronto, haha! But I have every confidence you’ll do well. Small people are so quick on their feet.”

“...yeah.”

A bell signalled that the feast had begun, and Bogdan got too busy stuffing his face to talk anymore.

It was an impressive spread. Savory pastries imported from the surface sat beside salted bronto flank and pottages made from shredded meat and moss. Servants poured an array of ales and wines into their tankards, topping guests off before they even finished their first glasses. The pièce de résistance was an enormous nug slow-roasted over a spit and stuffed to bursting with deep mushroom, then splayed out on a bedding of vegetables and drizzled with an herb vinaigrette. Varric didn’t even like nug meat much, yet his hand dropped to his stomach to quell its hungry growling.

However, Bethany took a single glance at the nug and turned green. Varric thought Fereldans were only obsessed with dogs, but Sunshine apparently had a fondness for nugs—the living kind, not dead ones roasted to a golden brown crisp. He settled upon a meat pie and some soup, both of which still featured nug meat, but without the floppy ears and fingery paws. Bogdan claimed an entire nug haunch for himself, and in true dwarven fashion he tore the meat from the bone with his teeth, dribbling crimson juices into his beard and between his fingers.

They didn’t drink much, but everyone else hit the bottle with shameless abandon. Varric got the sense that his fellow surface dwarves were testing how far they could push the Orzammar nobles past the brink, while the nobles dug in their heels to prove they were as immovable as the Stone they revered, even if it meant stooping to merchant caste levels of sloppy. Normally Varric would join them, but after the Provings he was in no mood for drunken revelry. As a result, dinner became a noisy, tedious affair that made him yearn for the quiet of the Viscount’s Keep.

King Bhelen declared today’s Provings the most exciting he had seen in years.

“I’ve never seen a crossbow so efficient,” the king said, leaning back in his seat with a sloshing tankard of ale in his hand, “though I would expect nothing less from a Paragon of your genius. I’d love to outfit some of my warriors with them, or even my son once he is old enough.”

At the head of the table, Bianca speared a piece of meat with her fork. “It’s not for sale,” she said.

The king set down his drink. “Really? Rumor has it House Hirol has already ordered several dozen.”

A klaxon boomed in Varric’s head. He had difficulty eavesdropping with Bogdan’s enormous mass separating him from the conversation, but with some straining he caught Bianca’s response.

“Lord Hirol spat in my face. I’m not doing business with him anytime soon.” She didn’t bother couching her refusal with politeness or charisma, probably because she no longer had to; Paragon Bianca inhabited a caste of her own, far above the king and equal only to a handful of long dead heroes. If she told Bhelen to go tickle his Ancestors’ tenders, he’d have no choice but to comply.

“I had wondered about that,” the king said. “Hirol doesn’t act out unless he wants something and can’t get it. His defection could be—”

Shouty chose this moment to bellow as loudly as an Abyssal High Dragon, “Why all this talk of business? Tonight is about Bianca, our living Paragon! Let us leave petty disagreements in the past and have a toast!”

“Well said,” Bhelen agreed. He stood, and raised his tankard in the air.

Everyone quieted as the king indulged in a winding speech about people coming together, Bianca leading their culture into the future, the possibility of a dwarven civilization without stratum, and other shit like that. For a man who had never clapped eyes on the sky before, Bhelen was pretty good at building sprawling, fantastical castles in it, to the obvious chagrin of the nobility, who awkwardly coughed and nursed their drinks during the king’s more radical talking points. Varric mostly enjoyed Shouty’s silence, for even his mouth wasn’t big enough to interrupt the king’s big toast.

“There really is nothing worse than a dwarf who doesn’t know when to shut up,” Varric whispered to Bethany with a scowl.

Bethany coughed, dropping her fork and clapping a hand over her mouth. Varric swiveled in his seat, afraid she had choked on something, but as her shoulders jumped up and down and her eyes lit up, he realized she was giggling—at his expense!

“Excuse you, Sunshine,” Varric hissed, “I’ll have you know that I do know when to shut up—”

She smothered another firecracker snicker into her hand.

“—I just choose not to because people actually like hearing me speak. There’s a difference!”

The king finally quit his rambling and the feast continued on, wisps of laughter fading into the background as guests resumed their dinner.


 A long, reedy musical note soon cut over the sounds of clattering cutlery and discussion. While guests had enjoyed a dessert course of crispy fritters topped with honey, several fungus-based puddings, and buttery cheesecakes, a small group of musicians had settled in a corner. Two fiddlers tuned their instruments with drawn out strokes of their horse-hair bows. Another musician unpacked a five-string lute from a battered suitcase, fretting her fingers up and down the instrument’s neck the test the pitch of each chord. Dinner had not officially concluded, yet guests began to rise from their tables anyway for a better view.

The lute player plucked a circular melody on metallic strings. The tune repeated a few times, each repetition slightly faster than the last, while percussionists slowly joined in with their own quickening beat. As the music coiled in a tight spiral, the fiddlers rested their instruments on their shoulders and kicked off a frantic reel.

The room’s energy pivoted in an instant. Couples abandoned their seats, joined hands, and then sashayed across the throne room. Dwarves of differing castes locked elbows and spun round and round with glee. Music surrounded them, its jaunty tune weedling its way into Varric’s consciousness until his heart picked up to match the beat. Even the most uptight nobles clapped to keep time.

Varric absolutely despised Orzammar, but even he had to admit the thaig had excellent acoustics.

Bethany picked at her food and fidgeted as she watched the happy chaos slowly overtaking the party. She tapped her foot with the rolicking beat and tightened her fingers around her skirt to keep her hands from clapping of their own accord.

“You like this?” Varric asked her. “I didn’t think they played anything so upbeat in Hightown.”

“No, but we used to dance like this back in Lothering every Summerday,” Bethany said. Her face crumpled a little, and she absently rubbed her forearm. “Well, other people did. I never worked up the nerve to join in because….you know. Apostate.” Her brilliant brown eyes followed dancers to and fro, and she chuckled when a couple revelers spun around so fast they fell to the ground.

Varric looked towards the dance floor, and then back at Sunshine again. He got up and stood before her. “Milady Sunshine,” he said, extending his hand with an exaggerated bow, “may I have this dance?”

Bethany briefly appeared startled before adopting a more grandiose expression. “My proper title is Princess Piss,” she rose and accepted his hand, “but you may.”

He slowly pulled her away from the feast and into the mayhem. “I know princesses outrank ladies, but we really need to come up with a better title for you.”

She followed him, wearing a coy smile. “I’m sure you’ll think of something.”

They found a patch of dance floor that wasn’t slick with spilled beer. Varric took her right hand in his left and slid his other hand along the velvety fabric at her waist. Bethany straightened as if electrified. He almost dropped his hands to afford her more space, only she stepped even closer to give him an easier reach.

“So,” Varric began. He looked up at her, and his mouth ran dry; Sunshine looked really pretty from this angle. Well, she looked pretty at every angle, but there was something about this particular moment, standing still in the middle of a festive throng, entwined in a close embrace, that stole the breath in his lungs, the words off his tongue.

He hastily cleared his throat. “So,” Varric tried again, “don’t worry about what everyone else is doing. Keep your eyes on me.” He initiated a simple two-step to get them started, leading Bethany with his body rather than his arms just as Bartrand had taught him as a teenager—one of the only good pieces of advice his older brother ever gave.

“Alright,” Bethany agreed, curling and uncurling her fingers before resting her left hand upon his shoulder. “Eyes on you.”

Dancing felt awkward at first, all shuffling feet and rigid movement born from uncertainty and nerves. As the fiddler’s tune wrapped around them, drawing them into its tight, unceasing spiral, their tentative footsteps caught the rhythm. Bethany’s grip on his shoulder loosened. Varric’s touch on her waist became feather-light. The music picked up. Little by little, step by step, they danced less like two friends muddling through a free-for-all and more like two halves connected with string, rising and falling in complete harmony.

Feeling bold and a little risky, Varric gently lifted his left arm to prompt Bethany to twirl. She gracefully ducked under his arm and spun out with ease. He reclaimed her hand, blood pumping hot under his skin.

The music got faster. Varric quit trying to remember the dance steps his brother taught him and made shit up on the fly. Bethany followed his every cue, mostly without mistakes. They bumped into a couple people and trampled on some feet, but the rhythm demanded they keep moving, moving, moving.

And then, the song changed. The fiddling slowed, its tantalizing notes caressing Varric’s thoughts in sweeping curlicues. Bethany twirled away from him, her skirt fanning out and then wrapping back around again like a rose opening and closing its bloom. She glanced back at Varric over her shoulder, her eyes smoldering coals that burned right through to his heart. They circled each other, never breaking eye contact.

“I confess I didn’t think dancing would go this well,” Bethany said, “considering the height difference.”

Varric scoffed, “Did no one ever tell you dwarves are just tall enough to show humans a good time?”

Her eyes gleamed like whiskey left on a sun-bathed windowsill. “I’d rather be shown than told,” she said, a low-pitched edge creeping into her voice.

“That so?” Varric reeled her in until they were chest to chest. They swayed as the fiddler played a long, languid note.

No one else kept pace with the slowing music, for no one else heard the song that now rang in Varric’s ears. His was a melody of daybreak, of smooth hands holding his calloused fingers, and a winsome smile that captivated all who saw it. Music that could sing the sky down, if his heart had the strength to carry the tune. Hearing a new song after humming an old one for so many years should be impossible, yet there it was, plucking away in the background while the person who meant the most to him tripped the light in the most fantastic way.

The musicians ended their set with a hectic finale, and the room erupted in cheers and applause. While everyone else shouted for an encore, Varric and Bethany just stood there, eyes locked. Breathless and flushed, Sunshine broke eye contact first to glance at his mouth. The smug bastard in him couldn’t help grinning. He could hear their song stirring inside him, begging to be written. It goaded him on, told him to throw sense to the wind and take what he so desperately wanted.

A surfacer who had a few too many bumped hard into Bethany, and she stumbled right into Varric with a small shriek. The song percolating between them screeched to a stinging halt. When he caught her in his arms, her black hair tumbled over her shoulders in a silky cascade, sending a faint scent of honey and laurels wafting over him. Sunshine regained her footing and pulled away with a small laugh. As the space between them expanded again, her absence left Varric cold, wanting.

Bethany tucked a lock of hair behind her ear and leaned forward to whisper in Varric’s ear. “Sorry, but my leg is bothering me,” she said. Her breath tingled upon his neck. “I think I’ve put too much strain on it. Can we sit for a while?”

Varric glanced over his shoulder towards the door. “I’ve got a better idea. Let’s get out of here, give your leg some actual rest.”

To his own credit, Varric tried to be a polite guest and say goodbye to the lady of the hour before they slipped out, but as he scanned the room, he could not find the Paragon anywhere. Typical. Bianca always left parties heinously early. Some things never changed.

Amidst all the dancing dwarves, Bran swayed with Serendipity, who rested her cheek on his shoulder with her eyes closed. Varric left them be. Weird couple. Kind of adorable, but weird. They ought to have fun on their own without Bran tripping over himself to serve a Viscount who didn’t really want his attention. Besides, there was only one person Varric wanted to spend time with tonight, and it sure as shit wasn’t Seneschal Bran.


 The Diamond Quarter streets were blissfully deserted and still. The lamps had dimmed for the night (or whatever passed as nighttime underground), and their low light was warm and soft, hushing the vibrant purple of the cobblestones. Though the walk between the palace and the inn was brief, Varric dragged his feet, reluctant to hasten the night’s end. Their performance had reached its final act, and though he knew it to be selfish, he wished to enjoy it a moment longer before reaching the epilogue.

“Sunshine, we did it,” Varric said to Bethany. “We came to Orzammar, we attended the big party, and tomorrow, we’re going home. It’s finally over.”

Bethany fiddled with her ring and watched him through the corner of her eye. “I don’t wish to spoil the moment,” she said, “but aren’t you worried we’ll be leaving behind unfinished business?”

Varric studied the purplish bricks lining the street. “Kirkwall is waiting for me. Hawke is waiting for you. We can’t stay to tie up loose ends. I’ll keep an eye on things from home, see if I can send anyone to take care of our unfinished business for us.” He chuckled and elbowed her gently on the arm. “Maybe Hawke will take the job.”

She laughed. “If he does, I’m sitting that one out. I think I’ve seen enough of Orzammar for a lifetime.”

He frowned. “Hang on a second.”

With slight hesitation, Varric took her hand and clasped between his. His skin caught fire at her touch, and he did his best to not let it show on his face. There was something he needed to say, something he should’ve said over and over throughout this entire ordeal. Swallowing hard, he met her eyes.

“Thank you,” Varric said. “You’ve stuck by me through a lot of shit you did not sign up for. I wish I could say you at least had fun, but we both know this experience fell just short of torture.”

Bethany made a face. “What? That’s not true!”

“You got shot.”

“Fine, that was a low point,” she conceded, “but there were high points, too. I don’t regret anything.”

Her words somehow lulled Varric into a dreamy haze and thrust him into the waking world at the same time. The song strummed back to life. When he finally found his voice, he spoke without thinking.

“Bethany Hawke, you’re incredible. I hope you know that. I definitely know it. I’m never going to forget what you’ve done for me.”

Sunshine parted her lips like she might respond, but nothing came out. They stared at one another for a loaded moment, then she mustered a stunned nod, and they continued walking.

The Silver Slug taproom was empty when they arrived, for most of its patrons were partying at the palace or sleeping in their beds. Before heading upstairs, Varric approached the bar and asked the innkeeper for their finest alcohol available and two glasses. Price was no concern. The innkeeper hurried to get some bottles from a stockroom.

“What’s this for?” Bethany asked.

“To celebrate surviving that blighted ceremony,” Varric replied, claiming a barstool. “We’ve earned a quiet drink on our own. Think of a good toast for us, I’ll be right up.”

Sunshine beamed and left him at the bar in a flutter of skirts.

The innkeeper presented Varric with two choices—Golden Nug, a white wine typically mixed with a splash of brandy and garnished with Royal Elfroot, and Valenta’s Red, known fondly as the Paragon of Ales. Varric had heard nothing but ‘Paragon this’ and ‘Paragon that’ for days, so he purchased the bottle of Golden Nug and headed up to meet Bethany.

Varroc held the neck of the wine bottle in one hand and the stems of two wine glasses in the other as he ascended the steps to the inn’s upper floor. He did not think much of it when he saw their room unguarded. In fact, he felt glad for it. If those guardsmen were good for anything, it was getting lost when Varric wanted privacy.

Varric shouldered the door open, then stopped dead in his tracks. Bethany stood tensed in the middle of the room with clenched fists. He nearly dropped the wine on the floor when he saw what—who—she was staring at.

Bianca sat on top of their breakfast table with her namesake balanced over her knees, loading it with fresh bolts. She had ditched her Paragon vestments and wreath to wear her usual hooded jerkin, though the air of exhaustion she exhibited at the ceremony lingered. She glanced up from her work to acknowledge Varric’s presence.

“So the party’s finally over,” Bianca said. She twirled a bolt around her fingers with easy grace before threading it into the crossbow’s barrel. “Good. I was just getting bored.”

Chapter Text

Varric thought his days of discovering Bianca Davri lying in wait in his bedroom were far behind him. Not quite the fun surprise it used to be. With a heavy sigh, he crossed the room right between the women to set the Golden Nug and wine glasses on his bedside table; it would be a while yet before he and Bethany could enjoy them.

“I like the dress,” Bianca said to Bethany. “Red’s a Hawke color. It suits you.”

Bethany crossed her arms over her chest. “What are you doing here?” she asked.

“I need to borrow your boyfriend for a quick errand.”

Bianca set her namesake aside and hopped off the table. She rolled her shoulders and ran a finger along the strap securing a short bow and quiver to her jerkin. The guardsmen vanishing just as Bianca appeared, fully armed and ready for a fight, couldn’t be a coincidence. Varric guessed they were sleeping off a sedative in their room down the hall. When it came to her ‘errands,’ Bianca didn’t risk outsiders sticking their noses where she didn’t want them.

“Remember the little deep lord who spat on me?” Bianca asked him. “Had a chat with him while you two got footloose. Hirol said some casteless guy with a big skull tattoo offered him crossbows for his expedition, but the deal sank. Then he got the bright idea of ruining my ceremony to convince me to make them for him.”

“Guess he didn’t foresee getting his face rearranged instead,” Varric replied.

Her mouth twisted into a fond smirk. “Guess not. Anyways, Hirol claims they’ve set up shop in an old mine in the Deep Roads. Not the most reliable information—he was pretty plastered—but it’s the best we got.” Bianca raised an eyebrow, both an invitation to follow this tantalizing lead and a dare to refuse it.

Foisting his problems onto some other asshole had been a nice idea, but the same silken threads that had originally pulled Varric to Orzammar seemed intent on keeping him here until this business was settled. If he wished to drink fancy wine and search his squishy dwarf feelings for a song, he had to first visit his least favorite place in Thedas.

“The Deep Roads,” Varric grumbled, shrugging off his tailcoat. “It’s always the Deep Roads. Why can’t shady weapons rackets base their operations out of big libraries or pretty meadows?”

Varric put on his trusty duster, then checked the pockets to ensure they still carried the ammunition, potions, and other sundries that kept him from dying. With a practiced flick, he popped the top buttons of his fancy shirt to finally give his chest some air. No way was he going on a late-night, underground mission all trussed up like a Wintersend ham.

“I age ten years every time I even think about the Deep Roads,” Varric said, reclaiming his crossbow. “This shit is draining my youth, and I don’t have much left to begin with.” Since Bianca took the liberty of loading it for him, he folded the weapon into its resting position and slung it over his back. “By the time this is over, I’ll be a withered old man.”

Bethany looked back and forth between the two dwarves. “You’re just going to nip down the Deep Roads? Just like that? Well,” she said, moving to undo the shiny white buttons securing her dress sleeves, “I’m coming, too!”

If journeying into the Deep Roads made Varric feel ten years older, the thought of Sunshine entering those tunnels threatened to send him to an early grave. Bethany coolly announced that she would be changing into more suitable attire, and she would be very cross if they left without her. Varric shuffled out of the inn with Bianca, a sense of foreboding curling in the pit of his stomach.

The Diamond Quarter’s soft, intimate ambiance felt far less enchanting this time around. Bianca crossed and uncrossed her arms, reached into her hood to scratch her head. She looked towards the inn door, perhaps hoping for Bethany to appear and end this awkward waiting. Varric kept his hands in his pockets, quietly willing time to flow a little faster. He tried to think of a clever or carefree quip to fill up the silence and came up dry, leaving him with an unusual sense of loss. He and Bianca used to converse for hours about anything, everything. When did that change?

“You’re leaving tomorrow, right?” Bianca asked.

Varric scuffed the toe of his boot against the ground. “Kirkwall is like a misbehaved dog. It’ll shit on my doorstep if I don’t get home and give it attention,” he said.

“So this is going to be the last time we’ll see each other for—for a while, isn’t it?”

He shrugged. “That’s how it usually works.”

Everything went quiet again. This deep underground, they didn’t have the benefit of wind or birdsong to distract from the overwhelming silence. She tugged at her sleeves to better cover her hands, crossed her arms again, tapped her foot. Her restlessness finally got the better of her.

“I wasn’t completely honest with you at the Provings.” Bianca tilted her hood to shield her face from view. “Do you remember what it was like, when we met? What I was like? No reputation, no obligations, no marriage. I was just an untested smith, and the world an enormous puzzle at my feet, waiting to be solved. A nobody who could jump into any adventure I wanted, damn the consequences.”

Varric did remember, because he had once felt the same. Youth had a way of convincing people that they were invincible while blinding them to the unwelcome truths waiting to screw them over while their backs were turned. That was the lesson he had learned again and again being with Bianca, and then tagging along with Hawke afterwards: there was no such thing as an adventure without consequences.

“That’s why I built the new crossbow,” Bianca continued. She snickered a little and slapped her palm to her forehead. “Great Ancestors, it sounds so idiotic out loud. As if revisiting an old project could bring back the glory days! I wanted to feel free and fearless again so badly, I convinced myself it might actually work. Crafted my own fucking crossbow for nostalgia’s sake, because making something new always fixes the old.”

Varric glanced towards the door to ensure they were still alone. “If you made it for yourself, why’d you give it to Bogdan?”

“Because it didn’t work. When I held the finished product in my hands, I felt nothing.”

“Oh.” His innards squirmed. “I didn’t know.”

“I didn’t either.” Bianca finally turned to face him. Her eyes, so full of both fire and ice in their youth, resembled clouded panes of glass. Haggard. Hollow. “That the crossbow would upset you, I mean. You were right when you said I didn’t think of you. While building it, I only thought of myself.”

Varric took a deep, pained breath and closed his eyes. “For what it’s worth,” he said, “I only thought of myself, too.” The curse of hindsight was watching a puzzle piece itself together with a dropped jaw. Varric should’ve seen it. Bianca Davri, genius engineer who thrived in the dark, thrust into the light and pinned down like a bug for all to gawk at—he should’ve seen it! Instead, he clung to his own pain and bitterness until it blinded him.

Nothing had changed Varric’s life more drastically than bringing that unfinished crossbow prototype to Bianca all those years ago. It became a piece of him, a piece of them. When he discovered it had been replaced with something shiny and new, it felt like a fragment of himself had been cut off and thrown away. He lashed out without considering her motivations might not have involved him at all.

Bianca was far from blameless, but there was no ignoring one truth: It was Varric’s own fault for connecting his weapon, his ex, and his own self-worth in a web of frayed nerves.

There was much they needed to discuss, apologies to exchange and old wounds to sew up, but they didn’t have the chance.

“Here I am!”

Bethany breezed through the inn door. Dressed in a light chainmail shirt and leggings layered beneath a sturdy leather bodice, she looked like a different sort of portrait now, like a smiley battle mage en route to war. Stunning, but steeled.

“Great!” Bianca said, her voice full of confidence and energy that almost sounded genuine. She strode forward and motioned the others to follow. “We’re taking a shortcut through Dust Town. It’s, uh, quaint.”


 

The slum was a pile of rubble where the desperate and the outcast tried to carve out a home. The ruined stone shacks and toppled statues suggested an illustrious past long forgotten by the rest of the thaig, which had left them behind and scrubbed their names from the Stone as the city expanded upwards. A rare few dwarves milled about the streets, speaking to one another in hushed tones, weapons brazenly displayed on their belts and backs. One casteless woman sitting on a crate whittled at a piece of wood with a chipped pocket knife. She looked up at the newcomers, revealing a dark casteless brand inked across her cheekbones, and gripped her knife like she’d shank them if they got too close.

Quaint? Varric thought to himself. More like ‘ramshackle,’ ‘derelict,’ or ‘shit hole.’

Bianca led them down a narrow alleyway. A couple huge crates were stacked atop a trap door that, according to Bianca, led right into the Deep Roads. Bethany’s hands glowed blue, and with a single pushing motion, she slid the crates off the trapdoor as if they weighed nothing. They flipped open the hatch and climbed down a slippery ladder into the darkness.

When Varric’s boots touched solid ground again, gooseflesh rippled across his skin; the temperature dropped considerably without volcanic vents blasting hot air into the tunnels. He almost missed Orzammar’s swelter. Luminescent mushrooms and fungus crawling along the walls lit the way forward, though they didn’t reveal much. That was another reason he despised the Deep Roads—in addition to the slog of hiking through endless tunnels and fighting darkspawn around every corner, its plainness bored him. Nature on the surface sucked, but at least it looked pretty.

Bethany slid down the ladder after him, stumbling a little through her landing before straightening upright with her chin in the air.

Varric frowned. “Sunshine, your leg—”

“Is fine!” Bethany finished, tucking her dark hair behind her ears. She put her hands on her hips and squinted through the darkness. “So, do we know where we’re going? Do we even know where we are?”

Taking a frayed map out of her pocket, Bianca quietly explained that the mining caste had charted the lyrium-rich portions of the Deep Roads with impeccable precision, speaking with such authority that Varric wondered if that sliver of vulnerability he witnessed outside the inn had been a stress-induced hallucination. She unfurled the map and traced her finger along its lines until she landed upon a square picture of a blue crystal. Their destination.

They journeyed through the tunnels at a quiet, brisk pace. Dawdling spelled death in the Deep Roads, as did superfluous noise. Deep crawlers in particular used sound to stalk their prey, and though Varric couldn’t quite recall why he felt so certain that they nested near lyrium mines. Probably heard a noble mention it at dinner.

As they entered a large cavern excavated by the mining caste and marked with torches, the Paragon’s steps grew unsure. She scrutinized their surroundings more intently and muttered under her breath.

They followed a railway that wound towards what appeared to be a mine entrance. A sign emblazoned with three interlocking diamonds hung over the threshold.

Varric shivered again, but not due to the cold. “You know this place,” he said to Bianca.

While Bianca did not deny it, she stared at her own family insignia like its presence flummoxed her. “This can’t be right,” she said. “There’s nothing here. The mine is sealed due to spiders or something. That’s how Bogdan got it so cheap.”

A prickle of recognition scuttled down Varric’s spine; he had read about that in the Paragon’s suite. At the time he took it as another sign of House Davri consolidating its power in Orzammar, but now...

The heavy metal door blocking the central entryway stood ajar, and the dirt path looked littered with boot prints. Recent ones. Not entirely out of place, if the Davris were trying to get the mine up and running again, but judging by Bianca’s confusion, the place should be deserted. Varric clamped his mouth shut before the famously portentous phrase ‘I have a bad feeling about this’ escaped his lips.

“I bet Hirol thought sending me on a wild nug chase to my family’s own mine is hilarious,” Bianca said, shaking her head.

“Let’s take a quick look inside,” Bethany suggested. She leaned into her staff to take some weight off her sore leg. “We’ve already walked all this way. May as well.” They pressed onward.

The mine entrance was dug wide to accommodate carts of excavated lyrium crystals, yet they moved in single file, with Bianca leading at the front, Bethany hugging the wall in the middle, and Varric watching their backs. The flickering of torchlight up ahead lit their path. If there were torches burning, someone must have come through recently.

The shaft opened up to an enormous central chamber. Wooden scaffolding extended along the chamber walls, reaching up support the stone ceiling. A little shack sat snug against the wall, like some makeshift office, and pieces of equipment common in a smith’s workshop were arranged beside a desk large enough to rival the Inquisition war table. Varric spotted a handsaw, some polish, one of those clamp things carpenters used to hold their projects in place while they sanded them down. The table was covered in loads of little metal components he couldn’t recognize—save for bundles of thick, metal twine that looked suspiciously similar to uncut bowstrings.

Hirol’s drunken tip had been dead on.

Bianca looked dumbstruck. “What’s all this?” She staggered out of the entryway, walking in a haphazard circle as she drank in the enormity of her surroundings. The tables, the tools, the unfinished weapons. “It’s an actual workshop. All these crossbow components...wait. Are those—?”

She rushed to the large table and held up a large swath of vellum, the type of thin paper engineers used to plot out their inventions. Varric didn’t have an eye for this type of thing, but even he recognized those scribbles of a repeating crossbow still yet incomplete. Yes, he knew that drawing very well, though it had been many years since he had last seen it with his own eyes.

“I drew this diagram at the Hanged Man,” Bianca said. Her tone started nostalgic, but as she continued, the fondness curdled into horror. “Don’t you recognize them? They’re our original blueprints. But I left them in my vault, all the way in Val Royeaux. I don’t understand.”

“Maybe your parents stole them?” Bethany offered, casting a concerned glance in Varric’s direction. It was sweet of Sunshine speak with such optimism, to give Bianca one last shred of hope that things weren’t as bad as they appeared, but they all knew where this story was headed.

“No, it couldn’t be them.” Bianca’s voice turned to ice. “There’s only one other person with access to my personal vault.”

The weight of Varric’s crossbow felt heavy enough to drag him into the depths of the earth. Of all the pain their shared secret had caused, this moment ranked among the worst. “When Bartrand double-crossed me, I didn’t want to believe it either,” he said gently. He tried to touch Bianca’s forearm, but she squirmed away.

“Bartrand was not married to you. He didn’t take your most personal, precious things...” Her voice extinguished in her throat, but her fury had only just caught fire. Bianca picked up one of the crossbows and scrutinized it. “The limb measurements are wrong. The weight’s uneven. See how rough this wood is? He didn’t sand it down at all. And the soldering...half-assed, all of it.” Bianca dropped the crossbow to the ground with a loud clatter. “He’s made a mockery of my work, and for what? Greed?”

“Love.”

All three of them turned around.

Bogdan Vasca stood at the other side of the room, his black crossbow sitting in its resting position upon his back. “I was going to tell you what I’d done,” he said, “once your ascension was complete. Then you’d see that I was right to do it!”

Varric moved towards Bethany, his hands itching to unholster his own weapon. He doubted this confrontation would end with pleasant conversation, and whatever happened next, he wanted to be ready.

“You’ve been so unhappy these past few years. I couldn’t just do nothing,” Bogdan said to his wife. “You needed a new purpose! New wind in your sails!” He reached over his shoulder to retrieve the black crossbow. It unfolded easily as he brought it down in front of him. Now that Varric knew the story behind it, it was obvious that the black crossbow had never been designed for Shouty’s use. The stock was too short. Bogdan basically folded his bulky arms in half just to hold it.

“Except Orzammar was never going to make you a Paragon,” Bogdan continued, his voice growing serious. He strolled forward, his crossbow’s deadly limbs gleaming in the faint light. “Not unless we gave them something. When you gifted me this beautiful weapon, I knew this was exactly what we needed to get the last vote. I thought of making copies of your blueprints and sending them along—”

Bianca winced. “Oh, Bogdan, no…”

“—but Hirol wanted dozens of weapons as soon as possible, so I agreed to craft the weapons myself. Everyone forgets that I’m a smith. I don’t have a head for invention, but I can build anything with the right instructions. I needed some help to get the operation up and running, of course.”

Another emerged from the shadows behind Bogdan, armed with his own repeating crossbow and sporting a dark skull tattoo. Bone-face caught Varric’s eye and grinned.

“But even then, I couldn’t craft them fast enough to Hirol’s satisfaction!” Now, Bogdan looked a little regretful. “His display at the ceremony was unfortunate, but I dealt with that too. The important thing is, we’ve done it! We’ve fulfilled your destiny, together!” The couple now stood face to face, Bianca flanked by Varric and Bethany, and Bogdan by his two thugs.

“I didn’t seriously want to be a Paragon,” Bianca said. “I never—you never asked me!”

“Bianca,” he said her name with pity, “from the beginning of our marriage, I’ve known what kind of person you are. You need someone to take care of you, to make the choices you don’t want to. That’s what I did. It’s what I’ve always done. That’s why you always come back to me, no matter where you go or who you’re with. You need me. You might not think you do, but you need me!

Varric’s blood ran scorching hot across his cheeks—both sets of them. So much for Shouty being an oblivious cuckold.

“Bogdan,” Bianca said, her voice shattered like broken glass, “the stuttering gear keeping us from being happy, the flawed cog in the machine, is me! It can’t be fixed with a big party and a fancy title!”

“You’re upset. I understand, but I vowed to do what was best for you no matter the cost. That is what I intend to do.”

Then, Shouty did something that left Varric speechless: he hoisted Bianca up and flung her over his shoulder like a doll. Her bow fell to the ground, and all of her arrows fell from her quiver. Bianca squawked and thrashed helplessly, raining blows against her husband’s back, but her small fists glanced off him like insignificant pebbles.

Varric unfurled his crossbow in an instant. “Hey! What are you doing?!

Bogdan snapped his fingers towards Bone-face and pointed to Varric and Bethany. “Take care of them, and finish—”

His orders cut off when an invisible force smacked him into the wall. Bethany’s magic crackled across her staff, and she screwed up her face with exertion to hold Bodgan still, her hair whipping around her in an angry black torrent. It must take a lot of mana to power through a dwarf’s natural resistance to magic, and Sunshine wasn’t pulling any punches.

Bone-face raised his crossbow and pointed it straight at her. Not again. Varric tackled Sunshine out of the way as several bolts flew towards them, narrowing avoiding their sharp barbs. As they fell to the ground together, he heard Bogdan sag to the floor with a grunt.

Bethany tried to rise, and she winced when she put weight on her right leg. After tromping through Dust Town and the Deep Roads, the pain must have gotten worse. With a little of Varric’s help, she struggled upright and readied another spell.

“Head to the exit,” he said to her. “We’re getting out of here. All three of us.” She nodded silently before unleashing a Winter’s Grasp upon Bone-face, enveloping the dwarf’s crossbow as well as his arm and shoulder in an icy cage.

In all the madness, Bianca wiggled free from her husband’s grip. Bogdan, too, straightened upright. The size difference between the couple took on a sinister light. Bianca might be a living Paragon, a dangerous one with the right tools and weapons, but without them she was still a mortal woman made of flesh and bone.

Varric raised his Bianca to protect its namesake. He shot a couple bolts in their direction to give Bianca the room to escape. It did not surprise him much when Bogdan quit grabbing at his wife to instead focus the fancy crossbow that started this mess on him. They exchanged shots, holding their breath to aim and fire another bolt, then letting it out in a rush to dodge. Varric’s vision became as narrow as the mine tunnels. He had never dueled another crossbow before, but as the Provings had demonstrated in bloody detail, it took only one miscalculated step to meet death head on.

A maniacal cackle filled the room. Bone-face extracted another one of those nasty grenades from his pocket with his unfrozen hand. Casteless dwarves had a rough lot, but this particular one was clearly unhinged. Varric dragged his attention from Bogdan to shoot him before he threw it. His bolt was true, impaling Bone-face in the neck, but as the dwarf’s hand grew limp, the flask fell.

The grenade shattered. Flames rose up in a swirl of heat, catching the wooden supports holding the ceiling aloft. The earth groaned in protest. Thin streams of dirt sprinkled over their heads. Everyone froze in place.

Large stones fell from the ceiling, and a plume of dust choked the air. Varric tucked his crossbow under one arm and covered his mouth and nose with the sleeve of the other. He started running away from the falling rocks towards the exit.

Bethany stumbled. She grasped her right leg and tried to limp onward with the aid of her staff—too slow to escape the cascading rocks.

Hacking up dirt and lyrium dust, Varric sprinted back towards the rockslide. He dropped his weapon to the ground to help her back to her feet. The earth rumbled more, and he suffocated with the fear that everything was falling down too fast, there might not be enough time to get out. Not both of them.

GO!”

Varric shoved Bethany with all his strength. Just as she staggered forward, a shower of stone came down between them.

He dived out of the way and hit the ground face down, where he stayed until the rumbling stopped, and the main chamber blinked out of sight.

Chapter Text

On Varric’s list of experiences he was sick of having, earth-shaking explosions were right at the top, just below random trips to the Fade. Oh yeah, and getting trapped underground against his will. The Maker must have run out of ideas years ago to keep throwing the same old shit at him over and over. At least the spider-infested lyrium mine part was new.

A cloud of fine brown dust with flecks of bright blue settled in the air. Varric heaved himself off the ground and ignored the gnawing ache in his back and neck as he took stock of the situation. There was a new wall of rubble separating the tunnel from the central chamber. Last he saw before rocks tumbled from the ceiling, the women had scrambled out of danger. That was something. Getting buried alive—again—felt a little less bleak knowing the people he cared about stood a chance.

Sadly, someone Varric cared very little for wound up on his side of the cave-in. Bogdan stirred with a rumbling groan. He got to his feet and reached over his back for the black crossbow, and his eyes widened with surprise when he found nothing. Varric reflexively reached for his own, only to realize it was missing, too. He vaguely remembered dropping it to help Bethany escape. An inconvenient turn of events, but not one he regretted.

So he and Bogdan were both disarmed and trapped in a dark tunnel together. This must be the part where they set their differences aside and worked together to survive. Lovely.

“By the Stone,” Bogdan said, placing a hand on the rubble wall. He tilted his head as if to listen, and then shook his head with a frustrated sigh. “Can’t hear anything. There’s no getting through this wall, even with charges. We’ve a better chance breaking through a sealed emergency shaft.”

“This place is full of deep crawlers, isn’t it?” Varric said. He turned his back to Bogdan and peered down a dark hall, illuminated only by the faint blue shine of lyrium veins. “We better keep quiet so they don’t hear us.”

“Yes,” Bogdan replied, his voice suddenly closer than Varric expected. “We should.”

A large hand clapped over his face, completely covering his mouth and nose. Varric’s voice muffled as he cried out in surprise. Before he could wrestle free, a muscular arm wrapped around his torso to constrict his arms and chest, tightening like a vice.

Unable to expand for even the shallowest of breaths, Varric’s lungs burned from the inside out. Black spots dotted his vision. He thrashed his arms and kicked his feet, and his terror spiked when he realized his boots had lost purchase on the ground. Bogdan lurched to the side and braced his torso against the cold cavern wall. With this newfound stability, pressure on Varric’s chest and face doubled.

Bogdan was smothering him with his bare hands.

Varric’s mind went blank, yet somehow raced at the same time. His thoughts scrambled apart like a bagful of glass marbles spilled on the floor. In the short moments those marbles clattered back together, they voiced a single instinct—I’m going to die.

Every breathless second stretched into an eternity. The world gradually lost its sharpness. Blood pounded between Varric’s ears, a desperate reminder that though there was still some life left in him, it faded fast.

Varric strained uselessly for the knife clipped to his belt, then the various traps and tools in his duster’s many pockets. All of it, just out of reach. In his struggle, a cold sliver of metal slid against his right wrist. Varric shook his arm to tease the object out.

The final lockpick in his set slipped out of his sleeve. Varric took it in his grip. He didn’t really have a plan. Just an overpowering desire to do anything it took to be able to fill his lungs one more time.

Varric stabbed the lockpick into Bogdan’s forearm as hard as he could. When Bogdan didn’t loosen his hold, he pressed it in further with a sharp twist. Shouty cried out in pain and fury. They both lose their balance and tumbled to the floor.

Pressure released from his chest. Varric gasped for air; his throat felt lined with pieces of broken glass doused in Antivan fire. He rolled into his side and saw Bogdan on his knees, tearing the lockpick from his meaty forearm. Bogdan whipped his head around to search for Varric, then froze.

The black crossbow lay buried in a small layer of rubble on the opposite side of the cavern, two of its sleek limbs extending upward from the dirt. Varric was faster than Bogdan, but even if he got to it first, his chances of survival were slim; mountains can’t be leveled with mere arrows, especially ones who could easily wrestle the weapon out of his arms and turn it against him. No, if speed was Varric’s only advantage, he had to put it to better use.

Varric heaved himself to his feet and rushed into the darkness without looking back.


 It did not take long for Varric to become completely lost.

Or he thought it didn’t take long. The tight, pitch black tunnels robbed him of all sense of time or direction. Even once his eyes adjusted to the low light emanating from raw lyrium crystals, Varric couldn’t distinguish one lumpy rock wall from the next lumpy rock wall. He could be wandering in circles for all he knew.

Shouty had mentioned something about emergency shafts. All Varric had to do to escape was learn what an emergency shaft looked like, find one, and then break it open—without running into deep crawlers, Bogdan, or both. Easy peasy.

Varric briefly leaned a shoulder against a wall to catch his breath, then pushed off to keep going.

This felt different than wandering Bartrand’s Folly during the expedition over a decade ago. Varric had been younger, a little more daring, and most of all, Hawke and company were right there with him. Laughing in the face of prolonged, agonizing death was easier with friends at his side. Bickering friends, but still.

This time, there was no Hawke. No Sunshine, no Bianca. Nobody. Just Varric, darkness, and overwhelming silence.

This mine could run miles in a thousand directions. There was no telling which way would lead Varric to open air and which would take him deeper into the pit. If he died here, would anybody know? Would they ever find him? What would happen to Sunshine and the others? How would they ever get home?

Orzammar-born dwarves wouldn’t get screwed over like this. Their ‘Stone sense’ would kick in and they’d just ‘hear’ their way out, whatever that meant. Varric had always dismissed Stone sense as mere hokum, but now he wondered if the fuddy-duddy dwarves who annoyed him so much knew something he didn’t.

As Varric wandered further, he slid his hand against the stone wall, face stuck in a contemplative frown. He was surface caste—stone-blind, sun-touched, whatever. He did not possess a Stone sense because he never lived underground long enough to grow one. However, his parents and brother were true Children of the Stone once. Maybe the ability to hear his way out was buried inside Varric somewhere, dormant. Maybe, if he asked the Stone nicely enough, he could wake it up.

An aura of blue light shone through the dense shadows up ahead. Varric broke into a jog to find the source.

An artery of lyrium pulsed in the rock, shallow enough for the blue color to almost glow white. It beckoned him forward, a shining beacon in the shadows with something to tell him. Something to sing.

Varric rubbed his mouth and paced, shaking his head at himself. It was a stupid idea. A stupid, idiot, desperate idea. He ought to feel too embarrassed to even consider it. Instead, he tried bargaining with an entity he couldn’t see or hear.

If the Stone got Varric out of here, he would be a good dwarva. He’d live underground, marry a nice girl from the right caste, and make dwarfy babies. He’d grow a beard long enough to reach his navel. He’d be the man he was supposed to become, if fate hadn’t intervened and banished his family to the surface before Varric could become anything. He’d change his whole life in exchange for one whisper, one sign.

Varric hesitated before placing his palm on the rock. He closed his eyes and listened.

He waited.

And he waited, and he waited.

As the silence dragged on, his hand clenched into a fist and trembled. He remained a while longer, hoping against hope, until the silence grew too damning to ignore. It could only mean one of two things.

Either the Stone knew Varric lied, or She did not want him.

He lifted his hand from the rock and turned to leave.

Then, Varric spun round and slammed his fist into the wall with all his strength.

“Fuck!

The word echoed down the tunnel walls in a malevolent chorus and bounced between Varric’s ears as he moved forward once more, rubbing his scraped knuckles.

Born in the sun, dead in the dark. There was a grim poetry to it. In a shitty, ironic way, Varric got a taste of both dwarven worlds.

Lucky him.


 

Eventually, globs of spider silk started appearing on the tunnel ceilings and walls. Not a good sign. Varric slowed his footsteps and tried to quiet his breathing. He got pretty good at sneaking around danger with Hawke, as well as during the Inquisition, but he had fallen out of practice sitting on his ass signing official documents and the like in the Keep.

Thankfully, muscle memory was an amazing thing. When Varric spotted a deep crawler stuck on the ceiling like the creepiest chandelier ever made, he crept by without disturbing its slumber.

After some more walking, a strange husky murmuring echoed against the walls. It rose and fell, like a voice, a song. Varric put a finger in his ear to clean it out. What had Bartrand said? I just want to hear the song one more time. The lyrium’s song was supposed to be...prettier than this. Alluring. He continued listening, frowning as the song transformed into a low-toned hum. No, a chuckle.

Varric’s mouth went dry. He knew that voice, and it wasn’t lyrium.

A crossbow bolt pierced the leather sleeve of Varric’s duster. The force of it knocked him into the wall, and he screwed his eyes shut as a lacerating pain overwhelmed all senses. His labored panting quickened until he was hardly taking in any air at all. Varric struggled to rise, but agony seared through his arm anew, causing him to crumple with a harsh, half-stifled yell.

His vision strobed in and out of focus. The quarrel’s midnight fletching stuck out from his right shoulder. Beneath his coat, a sticky dampness spread over his shirt sleeve and skin. The arrow had punctured his muscle and plowed right into the rock, pinning him to the cavern wall.

Varric grit his teeth, gathered enough spare wits to think through the pain. Pulling an arrow out was like uncorking a bottle of champagne. He’d paint this whole damn cave red without plugging up the hole in his arm—not to mention that the tapered barb would shred his muscle and tear open an artery on the way out. His best chance was to break the shaft off where it met the wall and leave the rest in his body. If it was a meatshot, his arm may even be somewhat functional.

A second crossbow bolt flew out of the darkness and secured his pant leg to the floor. As Varric reached with his uninjured hand to yank it out, a third bolt caught the fabric of his jacket cuff and fastened it firmly to the stone, too. Though neither of those shots hit flesh, they immobilized him.

Trapped. Wounded. And soon?

Dead.

Bogdan strolled into view with the same lazy confidence he showed in the Provings. His ponytail had come undone, letting his black curls fall freely over his shoulders. That ought to have been a hint in retrospect; bad guys usually had nice hair.

“It was cute when you came to visit me in the arena and teach me how to shoot my crossbow properly, as if I hadn’t already trained with it on my own!” Bogdan said, kneeling down beside Varric. “But I must give you some credit. You taught me something new.”

The black crossbow’s extended bayonet traced across Varric’s neck, too gently to break skin, but firmly enough that if he so much as swallowed too hard, it would surely draw blood. The bayonet skimmed over his jaw and settled on his cheekbone. Varric remained silent and defiant as Bogdan pressed the point slightly, causing blood to finally bead upon the blade.

“How did you put it the day we met? A kiss on the cheek?” The large dwarf smirked and retracted the bayonet. “Writers come up with such clever turns of phrase.” He kissed his hand and leaned down to pat Varric twice on his bleeding cheek, all the while indulging in that brawny chuckle of his.

Varric searched his memory for what Shouty was blabbering about—

Anyone who talks about Bethany like that gets a kiss on the cheek from my crossbow.

—and his very soul iced over. His heart threatened to bounce up his throat and leap out his mouth with its panicked beating. He tugged at the bolts pinning his left arm and leg, but both held fast to the rock. Struggling at all irritated his wound, causing it to throb miserably in protest. Bogdan laughed from deep in his belly watching his prey flail like a speared fish, then rose to his feet.

Varric slumped, chills trickling down his back and forearms as grim reality set in. A crossbow bolt through the cheek would hurt like every hell rolled into one, but it wouldn’t kill him. Not outright. Bogdan would probably leave him to his suffering until he bled out—or until the spiders found him and finished the job. Not a pretty picture from any angle.

The Stone didn’t give a shit about him, but maybe the Maker would listen. Varric tipped his head back against the wall and imagined a clear blue sky with fluffy white clouds in the place of the drab stone ceiling.

Hey, you up there? It’s me, Varric. Thanks for the never-ending shit slide. Do me one last favor and bring Sunshine home safe. My credit’s pretty bad in the cosmic sense, but hers is as good as gold. Take care of her and she’ll do great things.

In the imaginary sky above him, the sun peeked out from behind the clouds, blinding him with its radiant light. Several sensations washed over him. Gentle fingers teasing through his hair. Lips landing on his in the dark, urgent and wanting. Red fabric rippling in a brilliant bloom.

Varric blinked, and the dreary world as it was flooded back. The throbbing from his wound dulled, and the thick fog in his head cleared. With that sweet, sunny clarity came the inkling of a plan. A hundred-to-one shot, but one he had to take, even if it was doomed to miss.

Death may be a trigger finger’s twitch away, but Varric fucking Tethras wasn’t about to let go of this mortal coil without getting in a few final words first.

“Why’d you send those assassins after me, anyway?” Varric asked. If Shouty really wanted to shoot him in the mouth so badly, he’d give him a moving target. Make things more interesting. “I wouldn’t have cottoned onto your little crossbow operation if you didn’t tip your own hand. Pretty stupid, don’t you think?”

“It was a risk,” Bogdan said. He took his time threading fresh bolts into the crossbow’s firing chamber. He wanted to draw out this experience, to revel in his victory. “I wasn’t going to trouble with you at all, but then we met in the Hall of Heroes, and I saw...” Bogdan glanced up at Varric briefly and shook his head. “I just didn’t like you. Simple as that.”

“Simple as that,” Varric repeated. “You ruined your own scheme and probably risked your marriage just because you didn’t like me. I feel honored.” A brief grimace crossed Bogdan’s face when he mentioned ‘marriage.’ A few things clicked together. “Oh, I get it now. You saw me with her and decided to throw all sense to the wind just get rid of me. Except it didn’t work because, well, small people like me are fast on our feet. Good at wiggling out of trouble.”

Pinned to the wall, trapped and bleeding, words were the last weapons Varric had left. Clowns like Bogdan were often immune to cleverness and manipulation, being too thick to pick up on those kind of subtleties, but he had a weakness. An ingenious, beautiful weakness Varric once shared.

“It must burn you up inside knowing your wife kept screwing the guy she left you at the altar for,” Varric said. “For a long time, too. When did you find out?”

“I always knew,” Bogdan said, refusing to waver from his deadly preparations, “but it never bothered me because in the end, she chose me.”

“Bet it was easier to convince yourself of that when I wasn’t around.”

There was poking the bear, and then there was stabbing it repeatedly to test how loudly you could make it roar before it mauled you to death. Varric wanted Shouty to roar so loud, people could hear his voice booming all the way in Kirkwall.

“I don’t know what you plan to prove killing me like this,” Varric piped up when the other dwarf didn’t answer, “but Bianca won’t give a shit. All she’ll care about is the fact that I’m dead and it’s your fault. Maybe you haven’t noticed after ten years of marriage, but she’s protective of the people she loves.”

Fifteen years!” Bogdan snapped. “We’ve shared fifteen years!”

Varric settled back against the tunnel wall as if it were his favorite barstool at the Hanged Man. “Oh, I know. I didn’t include the first five. Figured she spent enough time sneaking off to see me that they didn’t really count.”

Bogdan’s ears burned hot as magma. “You don’t know anything about our marriage!” he bellowed.

A shadow crept forward in Varric’s periphery. He resisted the urge to flick his eyes towards the movement and kept his gaze fixed on Bogdan. His breathing shallowed. He pressed himself against the wall, willed himself to melt into the stone. Bit of a contradiction, trying to provoke one enemy while erasing his breath to hide from another.

Bogdan noticed none of this, choosing instead to continue yelling until his words blurred together in a stream of emotion.

“I never chose to marry, but I did choose to love my wife. I did everything in my power to make her happy, spent years proving myself, but it didn’t matter. Because of you, I was set up to fail. I never stood a chance!”

The bolt in his arm surely impaled his sense of sympathy, for Varric replied with a caustic laugh. “I never stood a chance either!” He leaned forward as far as his injury allowed. “None of us did! All three of us are pinned by forces too big to fight. Call us selfish and thoughtless, but Bianca and I weren’t snickering villains bent on hurting you. We were just a pair of smitten fools trying to save ourselves. It just,” genuine remorse sank its claws into Varric’s chest, “never worked out how we hoped it would.”

That ghastly shadow upon the ceiling slinked closer until Varric could make out its slender legs. A bead of sweat dripped down his nose and left its salt on his mouth. So close.

Bogdan huffed and ran his fingers through his unruly hair. “Enough of this stalling,” he said, readying his crossbow once more. “The end of your crooked path lies death, and death alone.” He closed one eye and looked through the crossbow’s sights.

Varric stared forward. If his plan went to shit, if his destiny was to get shot in the face in a dark cave all alone, he would not flinch from it. He didn’t dare hope things might work out, that he might really brush death this closely and survive.

“When you breathe your last,” Bogdan said, wrapping his finger around the trigger, “the Ancestors will not be watching.”

An ominous clicking sound dripped from above.

Bogdan looked up.

A giant deep crawler dropped from the ceiling and encircled the dwarf with its legs. He fought to throw it off his back and dropped the black crossbow to the ground in the struggle. The spider sank its fangs into Bogdan’s neck and began to feed.

There’s my cue. Varric yanked on his pinned cuff again, throwing his entire body into the motion. He freed his left arm at the cost of ripping his duster sleeve, then he quickly tore out the bolt holding down his leg. Pain pulsed from arrow skewering his right bicep. He grasped his injured arm and breathed deeply through his nose to prepare himself for what he had to do next.

Varric thrust his shoulder forward. The meat of his arm slid a couple inches down the arrow shaft. Blood leaked out both ends of his wound in an excruciating throb, and he bared his teeth and shut his eyes before thrashing his body sharply to one side. The bolt snapped. With nothing holding him against the wall, Varric dropped to his knees, panting and drenched in sweat and blood, but free and alive.

Bogdan lay still on the ground, eyes fully open and his skin grey as a tombstone as the spider wrapped his body up in a sticky bundle. The hairs on the spider’s legs rippled, and the beast turned towards Varric, its next victim.

Varric snatched up the black crossbow and fired at the spider, impaling a bolt right in the middle of its zillion eyes. The creature reared back with a screech. He turned a knob to activate the weapon’s lyrium runes to put this thing down as fast as possible, and shot three more bolts. The moment the barbs hit the spider’s flesh, its body was engulfed in bright blue flames. It collapsed on the floor in a smoldering heap.

Well, shit. Bianca really didn’t skimp on the bells and whistles when she built this thing.

Even without the runes, the black crossbow was an impressive piece of engineering. It fired smooth as silk and quiet as the night, and it felt incredibly light in his hands, easy to aim and shoot even with an injured arm. Bianca truly outdid herself. After years of sharpening her skills, she figured out how to improve an already perfect machine. The only problem was that it was too small, built for more delicate hands. It wasn’t his. It would do for now, but Varric would be happy to get his own—his Bianca—back in his possession.

Varric knelt by Bogdan and searched his pockets. Given the deep crawler’s shrieking death wail, it would only be a matter of time before more spiders came crawling out of the dark. Might as well grab what he could before moving on. He found some additional ammo, a couple elf root potions that he eagerly guzzled, as well as a wrinkled map of the mine. Shouty had known how to escape, but had chosen to chase revenge instead. His choice, his loss.

Before leaving, Varric stood over Bogdan’s looted corpse. “I think we would’ve had a lot to talk about,” he whispered to the dead man, “if we actually tried talking. It’s too bad. We wanted a lot of the same things. I’ll do what I can to help Bianca. Not sure how, but I’ll do what I can.”

Leaning the black crossbow against his good arm, Varric left Bogdan behind and ventured through the tunnel.

Chapter Text

“No, no, no, no, no!”

Bethany hobbled over to the wall of fallen rock, a stab of pain running up her leg with every faltering step. Upon reaching the wall, she scrabbled at the stone with her bare hands. Dirt gathered under her fingernails. Stray chunks of soil and pebbles came free. However, the wall itself remained immovable, solid. With a sharp pulling motion, Bethany thrust force magic at the wall and willed it to crumble. A few heavier rocks jostled free near the ceiling. She staggered backwards to avoid getting struck, falling right on her arse in the dirt.

She struggled back to her feet, her eyes hot with tears. Stupid, stupid leg! Its muted ache had grown progressively worse throughout the evening, but Bethany kept it to herself because she refused to be left behind. It should’ve been her trapped behind the wall, not Varric, the Viscount of Kirkwall! He and the thousands of citizens who depended upon him shouldn’t pay the price for her stubbornness.

Maker’s bloody breath! Bethany should have known better. Just because the Circles had dissolved didn’t mean her existence carried no more risk. Instead of remembering that, she indulged in fantasies of dancing and romance as if she were normal. As if daring to want something didn’t always bring an avalanche of consequences upon her head—and the heads of anyone who got too close.

Bianca merely stared at the collapsed tunnel, frozen in complete disbelief.

“Aren’t you supposed to be a genius or something?” Bethany snapped. “Help me!”

Heat flickered around her fingers. Adopting a wide stance, Bethany wound her arms from left to right to build a blistering orb of fire magic between her palms. If the wall was too thick to tear down, she’d blast her way through.

Bianca appeared at her side. “Don’t!” she shouted, jerking Bethany’s elbow.

Bethany lost her focus, her conjured flames snuffing themselves out. “What are you doing?” she exclaimed, her voice sharp and hoarse.

“This mine is bursting with raw lyrium. Chuck a fireball at it—” Bethany tried to wrench her arm away, but Bianca’s grip remained firm. “—and you’ll get us all killed!”

“Do you have a better plan?!”

“No.” Uncertainty etched deep lines in the Paragon’s forehead. “Not yet. I—I need to think.” Bianca finally let her go, then reached into her pocket to extract a small vial of bright green liquid. “Here. You need it more than me.”

Bethany took the vial and sniffed it, immediately recognizing the sweet grassy scent of royal elfroot. She drank it down, the cool liquid sending a font of warmth tingling through her body, eventually numbing her aching leg and calming her panicked heartbeat.

The clandestine workshop was in shambles. Several pieces of equipment were tipped over or half-buried in rock, and the shanty that served as an office boasted a new hole in its ceiling. Crossbows lay everywhere, both whole and in pieces. Among them was Varric’s own crossbow, discarded in the mayhem—how was he to defend himself without Bianca?!

Meanwhile, the other Bianca stooped down to pick up a stray rock and approached the wall. She began to draw curved shapes and thin numerals directly into the stone, muttering to herself about ‘burst pressure’ and ‘heat capacity ratio;’ this must be what Bianca meant when she said she needed to think.

Bethany could not think, not without tumbling down another spiral of frustration and worry, and she couldn’t wait for Bianca to calculate a solution either. She had to do something.

As her eyes fell once more upon Varric’s crossbow, Bethany knew what she must do.

The women got to work separately. Bethany gathered the half-finished weapons strewn about the workshop and fashioned them into a makeshift pyre. Bianca scrawled equations across the wall, often swearing and angrily crossing things out. Their tasks didn’t intersect until Bethany threw a stream of fire upon the crossbow pile. The wooden stocks kindled instantly. They had come into the Deep Roads to shut down this crossbow operation, and if Bethany didn’t see their mission through, all this pain and effort would be for nothing. She just hoped Varric would live to see it done, too.

Bianca wandered over with several thin scrolls tucked under her arm. “Don’t forget these,” she said. She withdrew one of her scrolls and allowed it to unroll, revealing faded crossbow schematics and notes written in her distinct handwriting.

Bethany frowned. “But aren’t those—”

“They are.” Bianca smiled, but there was no happiness in it. Just a quiet resignation. “Should’ve burned these years ago. Most of my mistakes are beyond fixing, but at least I can do this.” She tossed the blueprints upon the crackling pyre. Their secrets blackened and curled into ash.

A plume of smoke wafted upward. Bethany trapped it down near the floor using a cage of force magic, easily controlled with a flex of her fingers.

Bianca watched her spell with interest. “That’s cool. How are you doing that? With a barrier?”

Bethany quickly explained that force magic allowed her to manipulate gravity and perform telekinesis. Her spells pushed the fire down and sucked the air up, preventing the flames from growing outside her invisible boundaries, but enabling it to burn for as long as she wished. The Paragon listened politely, but as Bethany’s explanation neared its end, her eyes bulged.

“Can you do that to a bigger fire? Or an explosion?” Bianca asked. She pinned her gaze on Bethany like the entire world rested on her answer.

The corner of Bethany’s mouth twitched into a smirk. “I can, and I have.”

Without another word, Bianca hurried back over to the wall, picking up a new rock along the way. She drew a new diagram with frantic strokes: sweeping lines showing the lyrium riddled throughout the cavern, jagged flames budding in the center, arrows darting in and out to show the flow of air—or rather the lack of it.

Bethany’s heart lifted. This situation might not be so grim and hopeless after all.

Bianca put her hands on her hips and admired her handwork. “I can with work this,” she said, once again sounding the unshakable engineer Bethany had met in the Hall of Heroes. “We might still get massively cremated, but I can work with this.”


 

The abandoned mine-turned-weapons-racket-headquarters contained many helpful supplies, once they knew what to look for.

Within the half-collapsed shack, Bianca dug up some dwarven explosives, a long reel of fuse line, and a crooked but functional detonator. Bethany found some maps of the mine marking the locations of rich pockets of lyrium, as well as thin walls that miners once used as emergency shafts. Any patch of rock would risk upsetting the fickle strands of lyrium running through the stone, but unless they truly wanted to ‘get massively cremated,’ they were best served avoiding the bigger veins.

The exact spot they decided upon rose three feet above the ground. Bianca prepared the site with a pickaxe and much vexed mumbling.

“Dust to dunkels, I’m gonna skin Bogdan alive when I get a hold of him.” Bianca swung her pickaxe and buried its blade into the wall. “Of all the bullshit, bronto-brained stunts he could’ve pulled.” With a small grunt, she twisted the pickaxe to carve a thick gash in the rock. She braced a boot on the wall and yanked the pick from the stone, almost toppling over in the process.

Bethany rolled some nearby rubble out of the way using telekinesis. “How can your husband orchestrate this plot without you noticing?” she asked. “You must have suspected him.”

Bianca slammed her pick into the rock. Another twist, another huff, and she dislodged enough earth to leave behind an oval divot. Dropping the pickaxe, Bianca withdrew the charges from her pack and began attaching the fuses.

“You want to know something, Sunshine?” Bianca said, articulating the nickname like it belonged to an unfamiliar language. “Hindsight’s a bitch. Everything is obvious once you have the right information and the wisdom to understand what it means. I should’ve suspected Bogdan. I should’ve seen the clues, but ...” Her face twisted, but she turned before Bethany could catch her expression. “I trusted him and I missed everything. Now that I finally know, it’s too late.”

Those last words repeated in a soft echo throughout the cavern: Too late, too late, too late.

As the echo faded into a faint whisper, the Paragon briskly bundled the charges together with wire and wedged them into the crevice she had carved. She trailed a long fuse to the levered detonator nearby Bethany; though the fuse line was certainly long enough to snake around the cavern corner, far from the blast radius, Bianca set it up out in the open. Perhaps she wished to stand beside Bethany when the time came, so that whatever happened next, neither of them would bear it alone. A gesture of grim solidarity before they held their breaths and put their lives—and the lives of those they loved—in the Maker’s hands.

Her gaze darted down to the first and last repeating crossbow, folded up at dwarf’s feet. Seeing both Biancas in one place without the man who bound them together felt perverse, like the world stuttered and spun the wrong way. Bethany cleared her throat and ran her hand along her staff’s wooden grooves; she had to focus, not dither about crossbows and the dwarves who loved them.

Bianca wrapped and unwrapped the fuse line around her fingers. “I don’t hate you,” she said. “If I haven’t been a perfect picture of congeniality, it’s because you weird me out.”

Bethany rolled her eyes. “Right, that clears things up.”

“Remember what we talked about in the Shaperate? About stories? Well, you were my favorite character.” Bianca kept her voice low and deliberate, perhaps to mask the embarrassment taking root in her features. “Varric’s a liar, so I figured the real you would be different. When we met, I kept looking for the big flaw he scrubbed out of his book, but there isn’t one.” Bianca laughed bitterly. “All that shit you went through, and you really are that nice. It’s surreal.”

Though Bethany balked at the suggestion that she could be anyone’s favorite character (did Bianca skip the chapters about Fenris?!), she understood what the Paragon meant when she said their meeting felt surreal. It had been strange for her too, meeting the legend behind Varric’s crossbow in person. She walked into that first meeting without knowing anything about Bianca, but even if she did have some idea of who this mysterious figure from Varric’s past was, she would never have expected what she found.

Paragons were supposed to be as close to godhood as a dwarf could get, but Bianca Davri was just another person. All of them were.

“I actually didn’t spring to life perfect or nice, you know,” Bethany said. Though her words were terse, she felt tired rather than angry. “I’m not naturally this big beam of sunshine that exists to make everyone else feel better. It’s hard work, smiling through the pain, moving forward when everything else is bent on dragging me back, getting nothing in return for it.”

“You got Varric. That’s not nothing.”

Bethany swallowed a thick lump; she had forgotten than Bianca truly believed they were together. The whole fake-lovers scheme sounded so silly now. Pretending they were in love just to avoid irritating people and rumors, coming up with little stories to cement the act. She suddenly had a morbid thought: If Varric died, would Orzammar and the Merchant’s Guild treat her as his widow? She could imagine Varric’s chuffed response: Didn’t I tell you we were great at this? That’s the mark of a good liar, Sunshine—when our tall tales outlast us.

But the idea of maintaining this ruse she had enjoyed when he wasn’t there to enjoy it too just made Bethany feel ill. She had no claim to him in life, and she certainly didn’t have one in death. This lie had gone too far.

“No, I didn’t,” Bethany said. She offered a limp shrug. “Everyone already decided we must be together, so Varric suggested we play along. He thought we might be safer that way.”

Bianca sounded gobsmacked. “You’re kidding me. So the dancing, the flirting, the touching—it was all a lie?”

Bethany stared forward at the rock wall, the stalactites jutting from the ceiling, and a thin cloud of dust speckled with light blue flecks. Pulling off this scheme would take luck and skill—skill she did not have, and luck she’d never get.

“It’s not mutual,” Bethany finally replied. “I’m tired of waiting. Let’s do this.” The emerald sheen of her barrier rippled around her. She widened her stance, and held up her staff to ready her spell. Would she get any warning before Bianca threw the switch? Bethany hoped not; she didn’t want to freeze or tense up when the moment arrived.

Instead, Bethany thought of dancing, of a kiss in the dark, of a mouthy dwarf looking at her like tearing his eyes away would kill him. Even though Varric had no real feelings for her—she had avoided voicing that conclusion even to herself because she hated that it could be true, but like their original lie to Bianca, there was no point in pretending anymore—the world needed him, and in this moment, he needed Bethany. She would not fail.

Behind her, Bethany heard a clicking sound of a lever being pushed. Her hands flew up.

The explosion blew outward and consumed her senses before she could mark when and where it began. Her barrier dissolved instantly, allowing a storm of dust to fly up her nose and into her mouth. Bethany hacked into the crook of her arm, her eyes stinging as she squinted forward. Her tendrils of force magic shot forward and wrapped around the apex of the fire. Adrenaline sharpened Bethany’s senses; she could feel the combustive air straining from the inside of her walls, the raw lyrium pushing against the outside, the rocks and debris falling at random. A swirling blue glow penetrated through the thick dust cloud.

A large piece of rock flew out and struck her on the right thigh. Bethany gasped in pain. Her injury flared with enough agony to be fresh. As her right leg gave out and she crumpled, she felt arms grabbing hold of her waist and arm to prop her up. Bianca hugged Bethany’s side to keep her from losing balance or falling before the spell was complete. A hot gust of dirt and smoke rushed over them and blew black her hood, causing the beads in her short hair to clatter together.

Enough of this. Bethany drew upon the Fade. Gravity surrounded the rock wall stilled, particles of dust and lyrium floated in the air as if weightless for a pregnant moment; then with a single thought, Bethany commanded gravity to return with double its normal force, slamming the explosion down as if the Maker was smothering it with His fist.

The rumbling ceased. The lyrium quieted. The fire vanished in a swirl of smoke, and the mine grew peaceful once again.

They didn’t react at first. Bethany remained rigid as a statue, her vice-grip on the air itself unmoved, and Bianca stayed glued to her side. The silence sank in. They looked at each other and sprang apart. Bianca made a show of brushing dust off her coat and pulling her hood back over her head, while Bethany rolled out her shoulders and felt her heart rate calm to an even beat.

“Look,” Bianca said, nodding towards the wall. “We made a hole.”

The hole was wide, tall as the ceiling on one side and about Bianca’s height on the other, and lined with jagged rocks like rows of teeth. Not the neatest opening, but for an emergency escape route it would do.

“We did,” Bethany agreed. She rubbed her brow with the back of her knuckles and released a breathless laugh. “That wasn’t so bad.”

Bianca snickered. “Yeah, we should do this more often, make a girl’s night out of it. See anything?”

“No I—wait, listen.”

Bethany stepped towards the hole and tilted her head. Footsteps, footsteps coming closer. Her heart picked up with excitement, but then the footsteps sped up into a stampede of sound. She paled. Varric and Bogdan didn’t have that many feet.

“Here comes the welcome committee,” Bianca said, engaging Varric’s crossbow.

Four deep crawlers skittered into view. The beasts were as large as Fereldan Forders, with horribly engorged thoraxes and endless thick, hairy legs. Still flush with adrenaline, Bethany summoned her force magic to create a small vortex that slowed the spiders down. Bianca let loose several quarrels. With each recoil, the crossbow almost leapt out of her arms.

“Bianca, you really are a hefty girl, you know that?” the Paragon said to her namesake with a smirk.

As Bianca readied to fire at another deep crawler, a crossbow bolt whizzed out of the darkness. It struck the spider in the thorax, and then a second bolt sank into its abdomen. Bethany’s mouth ran dry. She stared at the tunnel, heart thumping in her chest so hard it drowned out all sound.

Varric emerged through the cavern opening, running faster than Bethany had even seen his short legs carry him, the tails of his duster flying behind him.

Her face split into a jubilant grin. Their improbable, dangerous plan had actually worked! Varric lifted his crossbow—Bogdan’s weapon, she realized with a start—and fired several bolts into the tunnel. Wretched screeching echoed, signaling that he was far from alone. More spiders barreled down that tunnel, and they’d pour into the central chamber at any second.

Panting, Varric looked to Bethany and took note of her stance, the glow of magic on her hands. “Sunshine, tear it down,” Varric urged. His voice sounded unusually hoarse. “Hurry, before we get swarmed!”

“Wait!” Bianca exclaimed, running forward. “Bogdan’s still in there. If we seal it now--”

“He’s not coming.” Varric avoided looking Bianca directly in the face. “I’m sorry. He didn’t make it.”

The Paragon stared at him, once again too stunned to speak.

Varric threaded another bolt into the black crossbow. “Sunshine! Do it now!”

Bethany nodded. She drew upon the last of her mana, inhaling deeply as the lyrium’s swan song rose in her blood. Her hands and eyes lit up blue to match the veins glowing within the mine. It had taken a controlled explosion to break the wall down, but to build it back up required the raw strength only force magic could provide. With a twirl of her father’s staff, she sent a wave of force magic towards the rows of stalactites growing from the ceiling and willed them to snap and fall.

Rocks piled up quickly, squashing a charging deep crawler and filling the tunnel entrance. When the stone stopped crashing down, Bethany breathed out and lowered her arms.

A calm settled over her, then a spike of excitement. She spun in place and saw Varric staring at her, his chest rising and falling as he finally caught his breath. His lazy, over-confident wave was enough to send her running.

“Varric!”

Bethany tumbled into him and threw her arms around his neck. Feeling him here safe and whole, smelling of sweat and smoke, was enough to make her feel like flying. When he chuckled, his voice ignited a deep want inside her, an instinct to hold and protect this man from anything that came for them.

She drew away from him and cupped his cheek, staring into his eyes. Something pulled her face forward, but at the last second it darted to the side as she embraced him a second time, their cheeks pressed together and limbs intertwined. Varric could doubtlessly feel the erratic pounding of her heart as they stood chest-to-chest, but he was kind enough not to joke about it.

As she hugged him tight, Varric let loose a small groan. That’s when Bethany noticed the arrow sticking out his shoulder. When did that happen?

Elsewhere in the room, Bianca ran her palm along the new stone wall. “Bogdan,” she breathed in a miserable whisper. She looked back at Varric and Bethany, her eyes blotted and red. “What happened in there?” she asked. “How did he—?”

“Spiders,” was all Varric said.

Bianca wiped her nose, faced the wall once more. She looked as still as the stone surrounding them for a long moment, then a hitched sob cut through the cavern. Varric moved to her side and drew her into a one-armed hug. The two of them fit together neatly as Bianca fell apart, dissolving into gasps and whimpers as she mourned the husband who had both betrayed and loved her.

Bethany wandered back towards the mine entrance to give them some privacy, frowning as she quelled the insecurity worming into her thoughts. Bianca was grieving. She needed a shoulder to cry on, someone who understood her, and of the two available people nearby, that person was obviously Varric. Still, she hugged her elbows and wondered if this was where their Orzammar adventure had headed all along. If the romance everyone knew about but never spoke of outside of cryptic comments and innuendo would finally find a happy resolution--one that didn’t include an unwelcome human tagalong...

She left them alone for a time, heading back only when Bianca’s cries quieted into soft sniffles.

“Want me to do it?” she heard Bianca say in a wrung-out monotone. “I’ve pulled arrows out of you before.”

Varric sighed. “Just get it over with.”

Bethany arrived just in time to witness Bianca easing the bolt out of his muscle at a slow, but consistent pace. Varric choked back a grunt, flexing his left fist open and closed to distract himself from the pain. That they had decided to do this now, in the bleeding Deep Roads, was absolutely insane. Were all dwarves like this? Or did Varric and Bianca just take leave of their senses whenever they spent too much time together? If the latter was true, it would explain a few things.

Once she plucked the bolt from Varric’s sleeve, Bianca tied a handkerchief directly over the wound, and gave him another vial of royal elfroot potion, which he drank with a grimace. “Varric, one last thing.” She leaned to one side to shrug his crossbow off her back. “Here. Been holding onto it until you got back.”

Varric set down the black crossbow and eagerly accepted his own. He picked it up like it weighed nothing, turning it in his hands and examining its parts like the gestures were engraved on his bones. He slid it into its holster with a theatrical flourish and then dusted his hands.

Bianca had already started walking away. “Guess we’re done here,” she said.

“Huh?” Varric looked between the Paragon and the black crossbow in the dirt. “Bianca, wait!” But she just kept walking like she hadn’t heard him. He shared a confused, worried glance with Bethany, scooped up the black crossbow, and hurried after her.


 

The journey back to Orzammar was quiet, but quick-paced. Bianca did not seem interested in talking, no matter what Varric or Bethany said, choosing instead to charge forward almost recklessly. Any stroll through the Deep Roads was treacherous, but Bianca hurried forth, scrambling up rock slopes and walking along the edges of deep crevices, almost like she hoped she would slip and fall.

“This isn’t good,” Varric whispered to Bethany once the ladder leading back up into Dust Town came into view. “She’s too quiet.”

Bethany leaned down to whisper, “What does Bianca normally do when she’s…” Bereft? Anguished? Emotional? “...like this?”

“I don’t know,” Varric replied. Even in the dark tunnel, he looked a little pale. “I really don’t know.”

Bianca did not let up her pace until they had returned to the front door of the Silver Slug. She put her hands on her hips and sighed. “See? I got you home safe and sound. Told you it would be a quick errand. Get some sleep you two.”

“You’re just going to drop us off and go?” Varric asked incredulously.

“I’ll see you around.” Bianca tugged her hood down to cover her eyes and slunk into the shadows.

Varric watched Bianca go, worry written all over his face. He remained frozen with indecision, but when he finally looked up at Bethany, she already knew what he would say.

“I’ll be back soon,” Varric promised, taking her hand in his. The gesture had become quite familiar one to them over the past two days, though its meaning changed each time. This time, it felt pleading. “There’s nobody to look out for her anymore, you know? I just want to make sure she’s not gonna pull a Branka or do anything rash.”

It took Bethany a moment to place what ‘pull a Branka’ meant. “Oh. Of course!” she replied. “Do whatever you must, and take all the time you need.”

He stared down at her hands for a heavy moment. Then he lifted one to his lips and kissed her fingers. “Wait up for me,” Varric said. “Sunshine, we’ve got a lot to talk about.”

Bethany met his gaze and held it for a long time. He turned on his heel and ran after Bianca.

 

Chapter Text

Varric trailed Bianca for a while before he cottoned on to where she was going. What did she expect to do or find there? Nothing dangerous, he hoped.

The Hall of Heroes was left unguarded. Varric supposed the usual contingent of guards were rerouted to the palace to corral drunken ceremony guests with a penchant for property damage. With no one around to stop him, he slipped into the Hall unseen. He ran a thumb under the thick leather strap fixing his crossbow holster to his back; sneaking around with two repeating crossbows was far more difficult than carrying one. Their combined weight pulled uncomfortably on his back and bundled tension at the nape of his neck. He adjusted the straps to give himself some relief, and finding none, he pressed onwards.

In the emptiness of night, the Hall of Heroes reminded Varric more of a mausoleum. When the place was full of people, he could look at all the Paragons and envision them as heroes basking in their legends. Without the bustle and chatter, the Paragons just looked like statues. Statues of the long dead. Despite his light footfalls, Varric’s footsteps sounded like thunderclaps amidst the silent stone.

Bianca Davri stood alone before her stone counterpart. Varric was struck by how small she looked with all the statues towering over her. Even her own likeness, raising a sickle above its head, threatened to strike her down where she stood. If stone really could come to life, they would be royally screwed. Unfortunately, theirs was not that kind of story. If a fight were to happen here, tonight, it would be the raw and frustrating clash between two people who could never quite fit their rough edges together. Smashing evil statues to pieces would be far easier and more satisfying.

Varric joined Bianca at her side. The weight of two repeating crossbows hanging down over his shoulder blades kept him still, rooted to the ground. They were quiet for a while, waiting for the other to speak first. Eventually, he took the initiative to ‘break the slate,’ as dwarves often put it.

“Didn’t realize your statue was nearby the renowned and rhymey Paragon Seuss,” Varric said, gesturing with his chin to the monument rising off to their left. The figure depicted an older, stout man with a trim beard and oblong spectacles, holding a scroll ostensibly containing the paragon’s many limericks. “I wore out his poetry book reading to my mother as a kid. ‘Do you like fried mush and nug?/I do not like them Mr. Klug.’”

Bianca chuckled, but there was a hollowness to the sound. “Did he write ‘Nug Pancakes’ too?” she asked. “Bogdan liked to sing that to me whenever someone served me nug. Made me laugh, even if I hated the stuff.”

Varric rubbed the back of his neck, the strain of the crossbows on his back sending a sharp ache between his shoulder blades. “I don’t think Seuss wrote that one.”

Bianca returned her attention to her own statue. A shadow crossed over her face. She looked so tired, so worn. Perhaps age had finally caught up to her and Varric had only just noticed. It certainly had caught up to him.

“It’s my fault, isn’t it?” she said in a whisper.

Varric replied hastily, “No, the spiders got him because of me.”

“But I’m the reason this whole disaster happened in the first place. If I was a better wife and partner, Bogdan wouldn’t have done any of this.” Bianca wiped her nose against the back of her sleeve. “The worst part is that I want to beg his forgiveness and chew him out, but I can’t do either. I’m alone with the blame.”

Varric fell silent, for he knew platitudes like ‘You’re not alone’ or ‘You couldn’t have seen this coming’ were as weak as watered-down wine. He heard it all when his mother wasted away, when Bartrand died in deranged agony, and they never offered him a single ounce of comfort. Wounds this big couldn’t be soothed with words. That of course put Varric had a distinct disadvantage, but he couldn’t turn his back on her now. Not after everything they had been through.

“Bianca,” Varric said, “Are you okay?”

“No.” Her crystal clear blue eyes fixated on the statue. “I’m afraid.”

“Of what? Your parents?”

“I’m scared of this.” Bianca pointed at her statue. “Living here, being a Paragon, everything. My whole life I’ve worked for this, and now it’s here, every fiber of my being is screaming for an escape. I can’t do this. I can’t be this. Both you and Bogdan were right about me. I never wanted statues or fame. I just wanted the freedom to solve puzzles and create things while someone else handled the details. I thought I achieved that, but instead I’m more trapped than I ever imagined.”

The comforting smile Varric wore grew hard as he clenched his teeth. If he earned a sovereign every time someone lamented the unintended consequences of their actions, he could pave the streets of Lowtown with solid gold. No experience was more universal than the simple regret of making the wrong decision. He literally wrote the book on it--twice! However, there remained a stark difference between blazing your own trail against the odds and taking the carrot dangled before you for a price. Varric picked one. Bianca picked the other.

Bianca dragged her eyes away from her statue to look Varric in the face. “What if we ran away together like we had planned? You ever think about that?”

Hearing those words had the same effect as yanking Varric’s heartstrings and holding them taut almost to the point of breaking. He had cherished that impossible fantasy for an embarrassingly long time, but the thought of it now left him with a confusing blend of emotion he couldn’t neatly define. Grief over dreams never realized. Anger with a world intent on thwarting him. Frustration with the woman who ought to understand his situation better than anyone, yet always missed the mark in some crucial way.

“Not anymore,” Varric eventually replied.

The tension he felt intensified when Bianca asked, “Do you think we would’ve been happy?”

He rubbed the inner corners of his eyes to dispel the heat pooling behind them. “It doesn’t matter,” Varric gritted out. He avoided Bianca’s gaze, instead scanning across the faces of nearby paragons. If any of these dead has-beens could secretly spring to life and step off their platforms, this would be a convenient time for them to do it.

Bianca huffed, “You’d think that after I spilled my guts out to you that you’d give me the decency of a straight answer.”

His frustration shattered against the chamber walls. “Bianca! We’ve agonized over this question for fifteen years and it’s gotten us nowhere. We have to stop.” The aching between Varric’s shoulder blades spiked sharply, so he unloaded both crossbows onto the stone floor with a weary sigh. He had done his best for as long as he could, but he was just too old and too tired to keep carrying this stuff on his back all by himself. “Don’t you see?” he said, straightening once more. “Our paths have diverged too far apart to ever come back together again. We can’t keep pretending otherwise.”

For the third time that night, Bianca looked truly shocked. She blinked and shuffled backwards, tearing her eyes off of him and reaching into her hood to fiddle with the beads in her hair. The soft rushing sound of the lava oozing down a nearby fountain filled the room as the silence between them grew.

“I—I know,” she stammered out. “I’ve known for a long time. We’re old and settled and there’s nothing new left to discover anymore. Our lives are set in stone.” Bianca hugged her own torso. Her next words were so quiet, Varric almost didn’t hear them. “Sometimes I just wish it wasn’t too late. That after all this pain and grief, there was still a chance we could actually win.

Varric walked away and rubbed a hand down his face. He really didn’t know how to gently explain to her that becoming a Paragon, living in Orzammar, being with him—all of these ships had sailed long ago, and no amount of reminiscing would change that. They could shackle themselves to nostalgia and stare backwards for the rest of their lives, or they could train their eyes on a new horizon and walk towards it, step by step, mile by mile. To keep going in spite of life’s hardships and disappointments, to refuse to lie down and die when the world demanded it, was winning.

He looked towards the arched doorway leading up to the surface. It looked like a pitch black vice, but if he squinted, he could almost convince himself that a pinprick of sunlight shone through it. Beyond that small droplet of light lay an entire world full of opportunity and second chances, a world he would never have seen if his family hadn’t made their mistakes and carved out a new life above ground. That was why most dwarves came through the Hall of Heroes, right? To follow that light and search for a second chance Orzammar could never provide?

“It is too late for us, and for Bogdan,” Varric said, looking back towards Bianca, “but it’s not too late for you. The Frostbacks are just through that door. Leave now, and you’ll get a headstart before anyone shakes off their hangovers.”

She dropped her jaw and looked between him and the doorway. “Leave? Do you think that would undo everything?”

He smiled a little sadly. “I’m pretty sure Orzammar has a strict no take-backs policy on Paragons. Still, that doesn’t mean you have to hold court like one. You’re a living Ancestor. You’re the highest caste person in this entire shit mountain. Who can tell you no?”

Bianca considered this quietly. “My parents would try, but there’s nothing left they can use to manipulate or punish me into doing what they want. Bogdan would too, not that he can do much about it now.” Her voice warbled when she said her husband’s name, but as she continued thinking, a slow grin spread across her features. “So...nobody. There’s nobody left who can tell me what to do. Not even you.”

Varric held up his hands in surrender. “I value my life too much to attempt such a thing.” He thought of saying something about Bogdan, maybe revealing some of what her husband had said in the tunnel. That would just serve to upset her; she needed to grieve in her own way. The hardest part of all this that though he knew it wasn’t his responsibility anymore, his instinct to help Bianca had not gone.

“Alright. I’ll go,” Bianca said. “New life, new me. But what should we do with these?” She looked down and nudged her toe towards the repeating crossbows. “They’re the last ones. Could save the world a lot of trouble if we dump them.”

That was the one thousand sovereign question. So long as the crossbows existed, there was a chance some unsavory character would get their hands on them and use that knowledge to kill. Bianca must feel some guilt over all the death they had wrought. Varric certainly did. Yet, Varric couldn’t find it in him to part with the weapon that had stayed steadily at his side all these years. It meant too much. Morbidly, he kind of fancied carrying it right into his own funeral pyre.

“I’ll take the one built for me,” Varric scooped up the black crossbow and held it out to her, “and you take the one built for you.”

When her icy eyes defrosted and she broke into a grin, Varric knew this was exactly what she had hoped he’d say.

Bianca swung the crossbow onto her back, slid it into place. She rolled her shoulders to get used to the weight. The black crossbow had literally been made for her, yet Varric still felt surprised at how perfect and natural it looked in her hands. Like two halves of a whole finally joined. He wondered if she would name it and what that name might be. She would never tell him either way.

She briefly rifled through her pockets to quietly take stock of what belongings she would bring into her new life. “Is your shoulder still bothering you?” Bianca asked him as she found another royal elfroot vial in her pocket.

Once he holstered his own crossbow upon his back, Varric tried to flex his right arm, only to be swiftly rewarded with an uncomfortable pang. However, he wouldn’t take one of Bianca’s last potions right before she headed out into the unknown, so he brushed her off with a smile. “It’s nothing Sunshine can’t zap away when I get back,” he said.

Bianca stowed the vial with a frown. “Right, Sunshine.” She crossed her arms, a playful accusation hiding in her features. “I know what you’re like when you’re in love, but I had no idea you could fake it so well. I’m impressed.”

Masters of deceit do not typically feel hot under the collar when their deception is discovered, but something about this particular falsehood sent Varric’s heartbeat galloping. Did Bianca find out he wasn’t in a real relationship with Bethany? How long had she known? What did she think of it?

However, masters of deceit also didn’t let on when their minds were in a helter-skelter tumult, so Varric shrugged as if Bianca had said something dreadfully mundane. “If they made paragons out of liars and cheats, I’d have a statue right next to yours.”

“A little mean,” Bianca said, turning back to her statue, “pretending you’re in love with someone who loves you.” Her eyes slid towards him in a sidelong glance. “Or pretending you’re not in love with someone when you truly are. Either way, Bethany’s too nice for this shit.”

Varric opened his mouth to deny whatever it was she was accusing him of, then closed it again. She was right--Bethany was too nice for this shit. He would have to do something about that, and soon. He just didn’t expect Bianca to be the one to tell him so.

The Paragon stared at her stone counterpart, hatred and disgust radiating out with her every breath, then looked towards Varric just over his shoulder, where the wooden stock of her namesake now rested. She seemed finally at peace with that portion of her legacy, ready to leave it in his hands.

“Guess I’m off,” Bianca said.

“Guess so.” Varric hesitated. “Come on, get in here.”

She rolled her eyes and stepped into his arms for a hug.

The most frequent lie Varric and Bianca had told each other over the years was ‘farewell.’ No matter how bitter their parting, they had somehow always circled back to ‘hello.’ Now, there was a finality to their embrace that had never been there before. Varric felt the truth of it keenly, and he was certain Bianca felt it, too. There would be no reunion. They had just said goodbye for the last time.

Bianca squeezed him once more before letting go. The weight of their history, all those tangled feelings and memories, lifted from Varric’s shoulders. He likened the feeling to reaching the conclusion of a good book. Endings, even tragic ones, briefly convinced the reader that shit happened for reasons that eventually made sense. They also inspired a relief that the story was finally over, and the reader could discover something new to read.

It was past time for them both to discover something new.

“You better go before someone misses you,” Bianca said with a springy note in her voice. She had looked so tired and beaten down since Varric arrived in Orzammar. With freedom and a new life within arm’s reach, she appeared lighter than air.

Varric chuckled, “You better go before you forget what the sunlight feels like. You’ve been stuck underground long enough.”

Shooting him one last smirk that said twelve things but only fessed up to three, Bianca turned her back to Varric and stood before the mouth of the tunnel. Her shoulders rose and fell as she took a deep breath and released it in a sharp huff.

Bianca turned her head slightly as if she might look back on last time, but thought better of it. With her chin held high and eyes forward, she walked through the tunnel and disappeared into the shadows.

Varric stood alone in the Hall of Heroes until he could no longer hear her receding footsteps. Until she was truly gone. A nostalgic piece of him wanted to chase after her. He supposed it always would. But he was a different man now, living a life he’d call a contrived and unbelievable story if he hadn’t lived it himself. With his work, his books, and his friends, Varric had no need to retread the past.

Some elements of his story remained up in the air—most specifically whether the beautiful lady mage would fall for the curmudgeonly dwarf after all the shit he dragged her through. Varric leaned towards ‘no,’ but more unlikely things had happened to him, so he might as well wait and see.

Before leaving the Hall, Varric peered at Bianca’s statue. The longer he stared at the stone face, the less it resembled its subject. Seemed unfair that this monument to House Davri’s pride would sit here for centuries while the Paragon herself vanished. Bianca would kick herself later for not smashing it into pieces when she had the chance.

Varric touched his hand to the statue’s cold granite base. This wasn’t his loose end, but he’d tie it up for her. One last favor, for old time’s sake.