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Flour, Ink, and Salt

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Astoria literally could not believe this guy.

She’d already had the shittiest week. After her apartment complex in what could only be called Haven’s elvhen alienage (despite alienages being banned and human cities became desegregated, de facto segregation took affect when most elves could not afford the lofty prices for the better neighborhoods, and unofficial alienages returned) became condemned after the 3rd floor fire, she was currently living in the guest room that belonged to her best friend’s partner (Girlfriend? Wife? Merrill had never actually specified) in an oversized townhouse in a very overpriced neighborhood (it was, Astoria supposed, one of the benefits of dating humans, not that Astoria would ever admit to knowing), where she’d had the cops called on her three times already for “suspicious activity” when entering the townhouse after work.

Then, of course, her hand sanitizer exploded in her bag, ruining her sketchbook full of drawings for her clients. Astoria was out thirty royals just to replace the large sketchbook, not to mention countless hours copying and re-drawing each design.

And now, this asshole on the subway sitting next to her was manspreading.

Since he was a human, and since Astoria’s ears were long and pointed, not to mention the light grey vallaslin that slashed and cut across her face, all she could do was pull her bag closer to her chest, squeeze her legs together, and make herself as small as possible. She buried her nose in the large scarf wrapped around her neck and face, and tried to ignore the fact that the guy’s knee was practically taking up half of her own seat.

The woman, human, sitting across from her gave her a look of sympathy. Astoria closed her eyes. You don’t get it, she wanted to say, if you were in my place, you could speak up to him, call him out. You wouldn’t get in trouble, you wouldn’t get hit, or yelled at, or get pulled aside by security for being assaultive. She didn’t say it. The pulse of frustration felt like needles behind her forehead.

“Excuse me, sir, but you’re invading her space.”

Astoria’s eyes shot open. She looked up to see a tall blonde human standing with his hands on his hips in front of the manspreader. Panic flared in her belly as her eyes flicked between the tall blonde and the human sitting next to her. Her muscles tightened, ready to flee at the slightest raise of his hand. She braced herself for the words. Bitch. Rabbit. Knife-ear. He looked at Astoria, his brows pinched and a scowl already pulling at his nose. Immediately she looked down at her lap.

“I don’t think she minds, do ya, darling?” Said his gruff voice. She could tell he was a Marcher just from his accent. The Marchers she ran into were especially ignorant to the Dalish. Astoria didn’t move her head. When the fuck is my stop. The train car rattled as the track curved around a bend.

“Sir I’m going to ask you to give the woman her space.” The tall blonde’s accent was Ferelden.

“And what if I don’t?”

The train car shuddered as it came to a stop. Astoria couldn’t stand up any faster, and was practically running out of the subway station and up the escalator to the street level. Her heart pounded in her chest, and she looked over her shoulder every other second, making sure neither human had followed her.

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The exact moment that Astoria entered the tattoo parlor and slammed the door behind her, every ounce of stress fell away. Her limbs moved with the grace of a ballet dancer as she hung up her overcoat, scarf, and sweatshirt on the coat rack by the back door. By the time she’d finished undressing, Astoria was only wearing a loose sleeveless black shift for a dress.

Despite the temperature outside barely getting above freezing on a good day, the temperature inside Charger’s Tattoos and Body Piercing was consistently a balmy eighty degrees Fahrenheit. Astoria blamed it on its occupants – the Iron Bull was used to the heat of Par Vollen and Seheron much further north, and Krem and Dorian were both expats from the Tevinter Republic. Isabella was born in Rivain, and never wore much in the way of “long sleeves” or “real pants” anyway. Josephine was Antivan. But Josephine was also Josephine – nothing seemed to bother her. Astoria did not mind the heat as much as she had first expected – the Lavellan Clan's reservation in the United Free Marches experienced rather temperate weather, and she lived outside for most of her childhood anyway. Merrill, on the other hand, came from the Sabrae Clan's reservation in the Eastern woodlands of Ferelden, and loved the cold. She didn’t do too well when Dorian sometimes inched the temperature gauge higher than seventy-five.

“Astoria, your ten ‘o’clock appointment is here!” Josephine’s smooth voice called through the hallway into the annex entrance. Astoria sighed, pulled her sketchbook out of her bag, ran her hand through her short-cropped brown hair, and padded in her heavy winters boots out to greet the client.

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The ten ‘o’clock client left at five minutes to one with his full sleeve tattoo completely outlined. He’d requested a design inspired by the Blights: griffons, burning skies, grey wardens, an Archdemon (Dumat, he had specified), and darkspawn in battle. Astoria worked tirelessly to come up with a design that appeased him, and set up three separate appointments: the outline, the coloring and shading, and the touch-ups that would be required for a piece this big. When she asked if he had a family history of Grey Wardens, he’d shrugged. “They were just sick as hell! If all seven Old Gods hadn’t already all been killed I totally would join the Grey Wardens!” Astoria was tipped 100% for a two hundred royal outline job, so she really didn’t care if he wore Grey Warden pajamas to bed with that much extra coin in her purse.

She checked in with Josephine – her one-thirty appointment hadn’t arrived early, so she climbed up the narrow staircase to the third floor of Charger’s.

The first floor held the main waiting and reception area, where the artist’s more popular designs hung framed and display cases showed an array of body jewelry. The annex in the back was a converted sunroom/mudroom and had a sizable room sectioned off for Isabella and Josephine’s body piercing room.

Upstairs were the main studios. The second floor held four rooms: Astoria’s, Merrill’s, the Iron Bull’s, and Krem’s studios, each decorated and arranged to their own comfort and desires (There was no elevator; to comply with the FDA (Fereldens with Disabilities Association) anyone could request a tattoo to be done in Josephine and Isabella’s body piercing room on the ground floor, but it required a lot of time to move their equipment).

The third floor was just for the artists. Dorian ran the books, and his office took up nearly half of the third floor, with windows facing both the street in front and the alley behind the shop. The rest comprised of the kitchen, two massive and severely beaten-up sofas, and a bathroom complete with a tub and shower (more often than not, some of the artists in residence would spend the night at Charger’s should their respective partners kick them out for a domestic argument). Dorian was in charge of the decoration of the third floor, as it was his studio. Despite the beaten-up state of the sofas, they were beautiful and fashionable in their own way. The ceiling, tall enough to accommodate a massive Qunari, was draped in little white Satinalia lights. He’d painted the walls a deep forest green, and hung sheer white and heavy maroon velvet drapes over the windows. Original wooden floorboards from more than an age ago were heavily policed by Dorian (“Cremisius Aclassi if I see you wear those Maker-forsaken boots on my floors one more time I will kill that awful cactus of yours. Bare feet only!”), and the small kitchen had pretty black tile countertops and a matching backsplash that Dorian himself installed.

Astoria walked directly towards the fridge and surveyed the meager pickings. She finally settled on reheating last night’s leftover noodles and curry, a banana, and one of Isabella’s fancy sodas in obscure flavors.

She’d just begun eating when Merrill bounced up the creaky staircase into the lounge.

“There you are!” She exclaimed, flouncing across the room to the sofas. Her light yellow sundress covered her torso and butt and left her legs, chest, and arms well exposed. Stark black, green, and red tattoos stood out like angry lines against her light brown skin. Astoria remembered that night three years ago, coming in after hours when Dorian and the Iron Bull had finally locked up to finish Merrill’s body vallaslin. The Charger’s owners turned a blind eye towards the act, completely refusing to address it, while knowing full well that it was happening. As soon as she’d finished Merrill’s, Merrill had begun on Astoria’s back, using the traditional Dalish tattooing tools to slowly chisel out the light grey ink into the marks honoring Dirthamen. Dorian said nothing when she came in the next morning bearing new light grey tattoos against her chestnut brown skin.

“Here I am?” Astoria said, chewing through rice noodles, tofu, and yellow curry.

“Josephine’s on the phone with a client. They want an appointment for tomorrow and you’re the only one with an open space.” Astoria didn’t know how Merrill could sustain her spunk, especially since the elf already had an eight-hour session that morning and had accidentally awoken Astoria when she left Hawke’s townhouse at five ‘o’clock.

“Sure, yeah I’ve got about an hour and a half. What does the client want?”

“Josephine didn’t say. It’s the girl’s first tattoo, though. Something about her wrist? And forever…”

“By the Dales, she didn’t say infinity tattoo did she.”

“Oh yes! That was it.”

“Ugh.” Astoria shoveled more noodles into her mouth. “Fine, Josie can book me, but I won’t be happy about it.”

“Great. Oh, and your one-thirty appointment just came in. He’s pretty, too,” Merrill added with a wink, and smacked a kiss on Astoria’s forehead. She watched the other elf descend down the stairs and groaned. Pretty, huh? He better be an elf, she thought. No way in hell was she dating a human again.

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Anders had been nice to her, after all. He was nothing but pleasant during the four months they were seeing each other. But his life revolved around his clinic, his cats, his manifesto, his political intrigue, and his crusade. In everything he had devoted himself into, every fact that was stored in his brain, he seemed to ignore two major things: Astoria, and elves. Anders wasn’t racist, but his crusade did not include the rights of elves, and he failed to see how Astoria faced discrimination every day for her physical features rather than the hidden features he so rallied for. He spent days without answering phone calls, and Astoria had to walk all the way to the roughest human neighborhood to see him at his clinic, where he would be treating patients as normal, as if he didn’t also have a girlfriend he should be minding.

Not every human that Astoria dated was the same as Anders, but they were still ignorant to the fact that Astoria was an elf in a human-ruled world.

“I don’t see your ears” one human lover told her, “I don’t see an elf. I see Astoria.”

“Well, I’m also an elf, so fuck you.”

When she moved from the Lavellan reservation to attend college, the human boys at Redcliffe University would try to sleep with her to check “fucking an elf” off of their bucket list. There weren’t a lot of elves in the dating pool at RU. She dated a dwarf named Lace for most of her college career, until graduation, when Lace moved to Crestwood for whatever job Astoria didn’t know, and Astoria moved with the flow of available jobs into Haven.

It’s been four years since she came to the small city, full of stout old buildings and tall shiny new ones, since Astoria looked up at the Iron Bull in her first interview and knew that Chargers was where she belonged, in a two hundred year old building that likely had actual skeletons under the cellar and thick stone and mud walls that trapped heat like a sauna. She fell in love with the way the stairs creaked, how light filtered through the ancient and slightly warped diamond window grids, and the way the exterior walls blocked the city noise. She fell in love with her coworkers, her friends, the people whose souls were also intertwined within the old building. Her old apartment back in the alienage, what she had used for a home for the last four years, had nothing on Chargers. She had fallen in love with Chargers and in that love, found no need for finding any other kind.

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Her one-thirty appointment was not an elf, but a human, and he was certainly pretty.

Astoria cursed at her foul luck.

(In her Clan, she had always been encouraged to date, sleep with, and marry elvhen men as so to keep her bloodline strong. Her genealogy dictates her to hold the position of First of her Clan, a position that she had trained for until leaving for university. Astoria intended to study Law and Politics, and halfway through her first year switched to Art, Design, and Lettering, severely disappointed the Keeper, and decided to not return to her Clan by graduation. She still sent money to her younger sister, the new First, every month.)

The guy’s name was Rylen, he already had tattoos (the most obvious being those on his face – Astoria recognized them as a Starkhaven design), and had the most melodious voice imaginable. It was similar to the accents of many of the Dalish clans. It reminded her of home.

He was getting a tattoo covered up, Astoria found out. He wanted it completely covered, changed into a geometric design of perpendicular bars extending up his forearm and wrapping around his quite defined muscles. Astoria asked to see the current tattoo. She tried not to show her panic when Rylen rolled up his sleeve to reveal the insignia of the Templar Order: the flaming sword.

“I’m not part of them anymore,” Rylen said softly with his sweet Starkhaven accent, knowing exactly what Astoria was feeling. “I’m ashamed to have it. It’s why I wanted to cover it up.”

Astoria nodded. Forced a smile. “It’s good to recognize change within your life.” He presented himself as an ally, a changed man. Astoria still saw the flaming sword.

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Two hours with Rylen in her chair turned into two hours of conversation about the Free Marches. Rylen was technically the only “real” Marcher of the two of them, as the Lavellan reservation is recognized as sovereign to the Clan within the United Free Marches. But with the bond of shared homeland geography and similar accents, that of the Dalish slightly more rounded and higher pitched than that of Starkhaven, Astoria found herself more and more at ease with the ex-templar. Each flame embarking from the blade became a plain black bar – four in total – and the sword itself a long black bar extending up his right forearm, encircling his elbow. Rylen was pleased.

“I’ll say that’s no more than a hundred royals,” she told him as she finished wrapping his arm in the clear plastic bandage. Rylen gave her a quizzical look. He must have known that she was undercharging him – she typically charged a hundred per hour, and he’d been there for two. “It was…nice talking to someone who knows home. Even if it’s not my home, it’s…close enough.”

Rylen grinned. “Please, I think I sustained most of the enjoyment here. My mates don’t exactly appreciate me droning on and on about the Marches. I never get to talk this much.”

Stop thinking humans are attractive, stop being attracted to humans, stop thinking humans are attractive…

There was a knock on the doorframe to her studio. Astoria swiveled in her chair to see Krem leaning in, dressed in a pair of denim cutoffs and a tank top that read “SUNS OUT GUNS OUT” in large block letters. He held the cordless phone in his hand, and the “mute” button was lit up.

“Hey Astoria, Josie’s got a former client on the phone with some questions about a tattoo that’s blistering? Says he doesn’t know what to do.”

“Ugh.” There was a reason she sent each client home with careful instructions for tattoo care. “Alright, hand it to me.” She turned to Rylen. “Thank you so much for coming in! I had an amazing time talking to you and poking your arm.”

“No, thank you, Miss Lavellan.” Rylen gave a short bow. Astoria blushed furiously.

“Of course. Krem, can you ring up Rylen? Just a hundred.” Krem gave her a look – she was really undercharging the guy – and he handed her the phone, and waved Rylen out of the studio and down the stairs.

When Astoria finished the call with the client, she scampered down the stairs to the reception room. Josephine and Krem were chatting, but Rylen was gone. Astoria returned the phone to its receiver.

“Oh, hey,” Krem waved her over, and she followed. “Rylen’s tip.” There were a hundred royals, all in twenty-note paper bills. Astoria cursed in elvish. “Also, I got his number, so he’s totally mine.”

Astoria cursed again. Krem smiled and waved the sticky note with a phone number written in a rather sturdy hand.

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Rylen shuddered as he stepped from the intense heat of Chargers out onto the frosty Haven air. Despite his long sleeve shirt and well insulated down coat, he was always cold in Haven. Delrin had promised the weather would warm up once spring took hold, but it was now halfway through Cloudreach and still a few frozen snowflakes fluttered down from the sky. At least the river was no longer frozen solid.

His hands shoved into his pockets, Rylen made his way down the street to the coffee shop on the corner of the old cobblestone path. Cars rarely drove these streets, and people instead favored to park in garages in the more modern sectors of town and walk or bike through the ancient streets and alleys. It was reminiscent of the borough he’d grown up in in Starkhaven.

He missed Starkhaven. His home, his family, the culture and the food all called to him across the Waking Sea. His talk with Astoria had made him slightly homesick, missing the days of his youth, before he’d joined the Templar Order. Even though he left of his own accord, he couldn’t return. Not yet. Not until he was done healing.

He felt his phone vibrate as he pulled open the door to the coffee shop. He wondered if it was Krem already – the man was attractive, charming, and persistent. The thought of him already texting him made Rylen’s stomach jump in excitement.

Though, when he pulled out his phone, the text hadn’t come from Krem.

[3:45pm – From: Cullen R] Just signed the lease. The place is ours. [picture attached]

Rylen tapped on the link to open the picture. It was a picture of Delrin with his thumbs up standing in front of the little storefront. Cullen stood next to him, his hands in his pockets and his shoulders square as a soldier’s, but the smile on his face was more relaxed than Rylen had seen on him.

Another text came in, vibrating his phone.

[3:46pm – From: Unknown] Drinks tomorrow night? – Krem

Rylen smiled. Good things were happening.