“Please Cassandra, just this once?” pleaded Josephine, her hands overflowing with satins, velvets, and taffetas in shades reminiscent of a small child’s birthday celebration. It wasn’t everyday that the Viscount of Kirkwall, otherwise known as their dear (though that was debatable) friend Varric, held a ball. But it just so happened that he was spearheading one tomorrow evening. And apparently her presence alone was not enough, at least not as she was currently. Not dressed as she was currently that is.
“I have already given you my answer Josephine, and it is no . I will not wear a dress.”
“That’s what you said last time, and the time before that. Aren’t you looking for a bit of change?”
“I have changed,” replied Cassandra indignantly, holding out a new sash in what she thought to be a striking shade of midnight blue. “See,” she waved it lightly. “To replace my old one.” Josephine sighed.
“You know, I didn’t want to resort to this but…,” Josephine paused and considered her words carefully. “I may have gotten my hands on an advance copy of the next instalment of Swords and Shields ”—Cassandra’s eyes lit up—“and I might, might, be willing to part with it on one condition.” Josephine looked Cassandra in the eyes directly, and held her gaze steady.
“...What is your price?” asked Cassandra through gritted teeth, though she feared she already knew the answer.
“I’ll give you the book if, and only if, you wear a dress tonight.” Josephine’s voice brooked no argument.
Cassandra blew hot air through her nostrils and ground her teeth together. She had not worn a dress in over twenty years, not since she was still living with her Uncle. He had been the last person to try and put her in one. Well, his servants had. And when his own dress robes as well as every dress she had, had turned up shredded to indelicate ribbons he had given up trying.
Something told her Josephine would not budge so easily.
She had to admit, the prize was a great one. There had not been a new chapter of her favorite serial in some time now. Not since Skyhold. But surely she only had to wait. The book would be published eventually and then she would have it just as anyone else. Her fingers began to tap unconsciously at her arms, crossed across her chest. She was practiced in self-denial, she was a Seeker after all. Trained to live a life without. But a small part of her, hidden far in the depths of her mind, wondered if the price was really all that much. Was wearing a dress truly that steep of a task? It needn’t be anything extravagant, or untoward.
If she really wanted an early copy of the book she could just ask Varric. Though the thought of going to him once again, and directly this time, begging him as it were for another instalment was as equally unpleasant a thought as wearing a dress in the first place. Of course if she was wearing a dress when she did it Varric might be so inclined as to acquiesce to her request.
The tapping of her fingers stilled.
What a thought indeed.
A sudden heat curled up her chest as images of the both of them in flattering finery sprung into her mind. They could commiserate with each other, knowing that neither of them wanted to wear such things at all. That they had been corralled into it to appease others. It was not altogether an unpleasant thought.
Cassandra shook her head and the surprising imagery from her mind.
“You drive a tough bargain Josephine, I will give you that. But my answer remains unchanged. No.”
Josephine’s eyes became downcast, her head lilting to the side with a dramatic sigh.
“I told him it wouldn’t work,” she muttered half to herself, her eyes pointedly not making contact with the taller woman’s.
Him? He who? She didn’t mean… But then, who else would have access to an early copy of Swords and Shields ? Did that mean then, that Varric wanted to see her in a dress? It seemed just as improbable as her ever wearing one. A prank then. But to include Josephine in it seemed unlikely.
Maybe then. Maybe .
“Fine,” the word fell from her mouth before she even had time to register it. Josephine’s eyes turned to her, sparkling with joy.
“Really, you mean it?”
“Don’t make me say it again—and no pink! Or bows—or ruffl—” but Josephine was no longer listening, gathering instead the swaths of fabric which soon engulfed her and bustling from the room.
What had she done, whined Cassandra silently to herself. She stood, back to the corner, and surveyed the room. Guests milled about, glasses in hand throughout the hall which had been decorated in sweeping banners of red and gold with garlands to match. Music echoed throughout the space, unobtrusive but not so unforgettable as to put people to sleep. Admittedly she had expected a bit more fanfare for an event tied to Varric but then again, she doubted he had had much say in it at all. Surely he had more important things to be doing with the restoration of the city than to be picking table runners and centerpieces. Besides, it was probably a good thing that the event was turning out to be more subdued than expected. The more boring it was, the earlier people would leave and the less time she would have to spend hiding from everyone. And she was hiding, she was most certainly bold enough to admit it. But not bold enough to let them see her in this...this monstrosity of a dress.
She only had herself to blame really, she was the one who had agreed to it after all. That didn’t mean she couldn’t still complain however, and she was apt to do just that.
Though the color was agreeable, a deep midnight blue to match the sash that she herself had picked out, that was as far as her compliments could go. The length was long enough that she had to wear heeled shoes which pinched her feet and hindered her ability to run. A skill that Josephine was certain she would not need this evening but Cassandra remained skeptical. The sleeves fit no more tighter than her leathers but the satin fabric had far less give, and strained against her biceps with even the simplest of movements. She had managed to argue Josephine down from a ballgown to something with a more simplistic cut but even still she felt more confined than when wearing her thick and heavy armor.
More confined and yet somehow more exposed, a combination that spelled disaster for any warrior, and therefore as to why she was hiding. It wasn’t just that her ability to escape a situation was now drastically reduced, but also because any retreat would leave her immediately vulnerable. Though a simpler cut had been reluctantly agreed on, Cassandra had lost the battle that was the back of the dress. Or really, the lack thereof.
Hence the corner.
A high neck, long sleeves, and a floor length skirt that skimmed across her broad hips in no way made up for the expanse of skin that was showing across her bare back, and in no way made her feel any less exposed. She was not ashamed of nakedness, she was a soldier after all and nudity was as common an occurrence as any in her line of work but that did not necessarily mean that she was comfortable with parading herself about. She would have felt less exposed bathing with a full regiment than she did now, dressed in some farcical attempt at civility in a room full of people who ate social faux-pas for breakfast.
Cassandra turned her focus to the light at the end of the tunnel, one early edition of Swords and Shields , and pulled herself back further into the corner.
It was a decent spot to camp out in, she had to admit. Up on the easement that ran around the edges of the hall below. It afforded her a fairly comprehensive view of the floor beneath as well as the stairs that led up to her. The evening was still early and people had yet to grow tired of the near constant mingling that was occurring beneath her feet and as such she had the perimeter nearly to herself, if one didn’t count the guards posted at even intervals. She knew better than to discount them, but they at least knew enough to not bother her and so she afford them the same courtesy.
From below the music ceased and the murmurs of the crowd grew silent, Cassandra craned her neck to see further over the railings edge.
A parade of guards in pairs of two and dressed in heraldry marched into the room, parting the guests into neat halves.
Cassandra reluctantly peeled herself away from the wall and stepped up to the railing as the guards with precision, stopped and split forming two lines with a pathway between. In walked two familiar faces, neither of which looked particularly pleased to be there though she doubted that most people would be able to tell.
The taller of the two, with her silver-capped horns was of course the Inquisitor. She nodded respectfully to the crowd and there was a smattering of claps in return, perhaps quieter than to be expected but this was Kirkwall after all and there were still wounds to be healed. Cassandra’s hands gripped at the railing and her body pressed forward unconsciously to get a better look at her shorter companion.
She had not laid eyes on Varric in over a year, not since parting at Halamshiral when their journeys had taken distinctly different paths. He looked not dissimilar to as he had then, as broad and boastful as ever. His hair gleamed in the warm light of the braziers and chandeliers of the hall, casting him in honeyed hues that only accented the red-gold strands. The soft lighting bounced off the metal accents of his velvet coat, buttoned-up in a manner that even she had to admit was most unbecoming of him and his greatest assets.
The crowd of guests on his side of the room responded with more vigor to his presence than that of the Inquisitor, and though she expected him to encourage the adulations he merely smiled and waved as was all that was required.
He looked tired.
Cassandra felt a pang of regret burrow deep into her stomach. He had not indicated as such in their correspondence, but maybe she had been remiss in her attentions. Maybe she had missed the subtleties of his writing, or maybe he had not felt comfortable enough to express it to her. They had grown closer since leaving Skyhold, to that she was not oblivious but maybe they had not progressed as far as she had thought.
Her arms released the balcony’s edge and curled protectively around her middle, her brow furrowing with doubt. Cassandra scanned the lower level once more, her eyes lingering on the unmistakable form of Varric before returning to her corner in rumination.
“So that’s where you’ve been hiding,” drawled a familiar voice, and Cassandra’s stomach clenched violently. With a steadying breath she lifted her head and met the glittering eyes of one Varric Tethras, Viscount of Kirkwall.
“I was not hiding,” she assured, though her reply sounded paltry even to her. Varric hummed in response and raised an eyebrow. “Fine,” she conceded. “I was hiding—but you cannot blame me for it.” The expression on his face changed into a familiar grin, and she was struck by the unfamiliar grey at his temples, a marked signal of the slow creeping passage of time. Once again she was overtaken with a feeling of unease, as if she had missed something altogether.
“You’ve got me there Seeker. If I could get away with passing Bran off as me for the night… or every night, I would.” Varric snagged two glasses of a passing tray and held one out to her. Cassandra took the delicate stem from his hand, her fingers grazing his unavoidably yet she did not miss the hint of a smirk at their touch. “But duty calls, or some bullshit like that.”
“That almost sounded halfway responsible, Viscount,” she laughed and he smirked in earnest.
“I’ll drink to that.”
He raised his glass to her and she to him before downing its contents in one go. The alcohol was bubbly but not too strong, with a subtle hint of lemon. She decided she liked it despite the sudden feeling of lightheadedness it produced.
“Heck, I’ll drink to anything that gets you to dress like that.”
Cassandra choked indelicately on the last mouthful of her drink but did not miss the way Varric’s eyes traced down her body and back up, the smirk never leaving its place. She flushed with a sudden heat that had nothing to do with the alcohol. “Where’ve you been hiding this little number?” he asked, stepping closer into her personal space and taking advantage of his sudden feigned interest in her clothing to look about her person even more thoroughly.
Cassandra inhaled sharply at his sudden closeness and found that despite the changes in his appearance he still smelled exactly as she remembered, of smoke and parchment. An abrupt sensation of comfort and safety passed over her.
“Per—perhaps the same place you’ve been hiding this,” she stumbled through her words suddenly feeling off kilter in a way that only Varric had ever been able to do to her, and flicked a tine of the crown that rested on his head. Perhaps with a bit more force than she had intended as the sound of her nail biting against the steel resounded between them.
For just a moment a fraction of the light in Varric’s eyes dimmed and he reached up to adjust the crown, managing to only push it even more askew. Cassandra frowned.
“Let me,” she offered and handed him her glass. Lifting the crown from his head Cassandra found the very weight of it surprising. Holding the band in one hand, and feeling the steel press sharply into her palm, she did her best to smooth Varric’s hair back against his head. She felt him shudder beneath her touch and nearly stilled unsure of what to do before continuing with her ministrations almost clinically. Cassandra wended a particularly errant strand back behind Varric’s ear and replaced the crown, adjusting the balance just right until it lay evenly across his brow.
Stepping back she found Varric’s eyes closed and his forehead creased with tension. An apology formed on her lips for her forwardness just as his eyes opened slowly the same light from before returning.
“Well you certainly have a softer touch than my Steward. Maybe I should hire you.” He absentmindedly touched the crown, displacing it again and Cassandra rolled her eyes.
“A soft touch you say?” she queried back at him with a disbelieving tone.
“I mean it’s not like you can hide a sword in that dress.”
“You’d be surprised,” she deadpanned and Varric’s wide eyes snapped to hers, his grin telling her that she had inadvertently challenged him to yet another exploration of her person. She sighed halfheartedly. “That was not an invitation, Varric,” she said pointedly but his eyes were already roving. Where his earlier attempts had been nothing short of lascivious he was clearly merely trying to rile her up this time as he studied her, his hand coming to his chin in assessment. He began to circle her, stopping to lean and take her in from all angles with exaggerated appraisal to the point that she was on the verge of yielding laughter until a long low whistle sounded behind her and she remembered why she had squirreled herself away in the first place.
Cassandra’s back shot up, ramrod straight and she whirled around to face Varric once again. He was looking at her with lidded eyes, his mouth still frozen in a now silent whistle. Cassandra looked away and fought the urge to cross her arms. She would not be made to feel even more uncomfortable by this man than she already was.
“Maker Seeker, I’m not saying what you normally wear isn’t effective and all. But I think we would have defeated Corypheus a lot sooner if you’d gone into battle wearing this.”
“Don’t be ridiculous Varric—”
“Hey, no really listen. You walk out, flash the enemy a little of that back, stun ‘em, and we come in with the ol’ one, two. It’d be worth a shot. Just sayin’.” He raised his hands in a tried and true posture of supplication that said, don’t kill a man for trying and she felt herself give way to his antics with a slight smile. Varric noticed it instantly and smiled in return, returning his hands to his sides.
“You look good Cassandra,” he said without a hint of cynicism and she could not take the sincerity written in eyes, casting hers downwards as she felt a blush bloom across her cheeks.
“Thank you, Varric,” she replied with just as much sincerity despite her discomfort. “You do not look half bad yourself.”
“Not half bad, huh? I’ll take it,” he said with a shrug and stepped forward reaching for her arm. Reluctantly she let herself be steered away from the corner she’d been hiding in, Varric’s hand on her elbow. “If you’re so inclined to keep all of this to yourself, which for the record I think is a sin against Andraste, I happen to know some grade A, Bran-proof hiding spots.” At his words, Cassandra relaxed in Varric’s guiding touch.
“But I’ve got to ask, why?”
“Why? Why what?” Why hide? She was not sure she was ready to show that kind of vulnerability to Varric, as kind as he’d been already.
“Why dress up at all, if you obviously didn’t want to?”
She almost said, Because you wanted me to , but stopped herself. Was he testing her then? He knew the answer already. She had done it for an advanced copy of his book, that was his scheme was it not? He knew, that she knew, that his book was on the line, but did he know, that she knew, that he had been behind it?
She didn’t know how to answer.
She was granted a reprieve as Varric pulled her into an adjoining hall and guided her to a particularly grotesque tapestry depicting one of the more gruesome Exalted Marches. Varric eyed her displeasure and nodded.
“Yeah, not my first choice of décor either. Fun fact, this one used to hang in my chambers before I made them remove it. But now it hides this!” He swept the offending tapestry to side with his free hand, revealing a doorway behind it. “Turns out, people are less likely to find hidden doors when they don’t even want to look at what’s covering them.”
“Ingenious,” she mustered as a response.
Varric opened the door and ushered her through to the balcony on the other side. There was nothing spectacular or momentous about the balcony, merely that it was safe from prying eyes given its covert entrance and position between two stately trees. She had never thought of Varric as someone who needed places to steal away to, and coincidentally felt honored that he would share with her as such.
Cassandra looked to the moon rising above them, and the torch-lit grounds below, the natural chirping of the evening crickets a more welcome sound than the music previous.
“You didn’t answer my question,” said Varric knowingly as he sidled up next to her, not quite touching her side as he rested his forearms against the stone railing. A chill went up her back which she didn’t even try to blame on the evening air.
She was not a woman that shied from the truth, no matter what it brought.
“For the book of course,” she answered evenly. Not a lie yet not quite the whole truth.
“The book?” Varric turned to her confusion written plainly across his face. Had she insulted him by not stating the truth fully? Had she ruined something that had not even begun?
“And because it is what you...what you wanted?” Her statement became a question as Varric stared at her blankly with no knowledge or understanding of what she was talking about. A tightness spread across her chest as she tried to step backwards away from Varric’s questioning form, but her heel caught in the length of her dress keeping her rooted to the spot lest she sunder the dress entirely.
“What I wanted?” He looked at her incredulously. “Don’t get me wrong,” he added quickly, seeing panic slip into her features. “This...all this”—his hand ghosted along her side—“yes,” he finished ineloquently. “But I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Cassandra breathed deeply, promising to return to what Varric had just potentially confessed to if she did not die of embarrassment first.
“Then you did not tell Josephine that if I wore a dress you’d give me an advance copy of the next chapter of Swords and Shields ?” she asked expectantly but already certain of the answer. Varric laughed in disbelief, his face contorting in anticipation of a punchline as if she was telling a joke. When she said nothing of the sort, he paused in thought.
“Okay, one...didn’t know that was an option. And two, kinda wish I’d thought of it first. But Seeke—Cassandra...you only had to ask.” The tightness in her chest eased, though she still hoped that the ground would open up and consume her. “I mean, I thought about it—telling you that you could have a copy if you came by, that is. Not the whole dress...thing. I...I wanted to see you again but it felt, I don’t know...exploitative? Selfish? Now in comparison…” He waved a hand in the air and she understood perfectly.
They had a history of bad blood between them. One that had waned slowly but surely over the course of their time at Skyhold. One that had felt finally erased when last they met at the Winter Palace. This had felt like a step back, pushing against the balance they had begun to create between them. Cassandra hoped that Varric would not hold it against her, that she had believed he’d had a hand in it at all.
“Then if not you, who?” That he had not initiated this stood, but someone else had.
“The only people who have an advanced copy are my editor and…” Varric trailed off mid sentence and a look of realization turned into a look of sudden apprehension.
“And?” urged Cassandra, trying to retain a modicum of patience.
“Well, you see Seeker...the next book is set in a place that I don’t have a whole lot of experience with so I may have consulted someone about a few specifics such as architecture, and flora, and the like—”
“And?” she asked again, unable to keep the expectancy from her voice.
“And that consultant was...,” he all but whispered the name to himself so low she couldn't hear and Cassandra leaned closer, invading his space far more casually than even he had done to her.
“Who?” she deadpanned, a creeping suspicion settling within her.
“Dorian,” Varric coughed, and she had to bite back a scream in response.
“I should have known!” she bellowed. “How could I have been so blind—I’ll kill him—I’ll—”
Cassandra tried to move, to pace as was her ilk and found herself caught up in the skirts of her dress. She kicked fruitlessly at the fabric that swam around her calves letting out a cry in disgust and muttered obscenities the likes that even Varric had never heard at the offending clothing. A misplaced step saw her heels catch on the silken fabric of the dress and Cassandra felt the world slip out from under her. The sensation of falling was short lived as wide, warm hands wrapped around her, catching her. Varric pulled her close, sandwiching her between the strength of his chest and arms and she could do nothing but blink in response to his face held close to hers.
“Gotta say Seeker, I’m liking this dress more and more.” He smirked and her anger left her. There would be time and then some to curse Dorian.
“Maybe it’s not that bad,” she responded quietly, her eyes dipping to his lips. Varric hummed in response and Cassandra’s hands found their way to the back of his neck. She lifted her head to his and captured his lips with a kiss. Varric returned in kind.
As his mouth pressed against hers, hot and insisting, her fingers wound through his hair pulling him towards her. Her fingers grazed something hard and cold and Varric’s crown clattered unceremoniously against the stone. Together they turned to look at it, cheeks flushed and lips swollen. Cassandra took the momentary reprieve to ask a question that still burned inside her.
“Can I still have a copy of the book though?” Varric laughed lowly, and she felt the rumble reverberate through her chest.
“Can I have the dress?” he countered, playfully.
Cassandra kissed him again.