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To Clear the Air

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The snow that blanketed the streets of Lowtown hid a multitude of sins -- trash, broken cobblestones, two refugees huddled in a doorway, the bedraggled First Day decorations hanging from the windows. But Isabela barely noticed the chill in the air and the snowflakes landing in her hair: between the half-empty bottle of brandy in one hand and the other pulled through Hawke's arm as the two of them tromped together from one bar to the next, Isabela was warm all the way through. Hawke had dragged her through half the drinking establishments in the city, and now they stood before their last stop: the Hanged Man. It was comforting, loud laughter, broken chants, and smell of sour ale like scenting home in the air, but as they approached the door, Isabela found herself balking. The others would all be in there, laughing and drinking and toasting the incoming year. But she wanted to keep Hawke all to herself, just for a moment longer.

"Let's go somewhere else first," she said. "I know the perfect pub down by the docks."

Hawke turned, eyebrow raised. The snow dusted her dark hair and glittered in the light of a nearby lantern. "We just came from the docks."

"I know, but--" Isabela searched for a good excuse other than the rare opportunity to be alone with Hawke, so often surrounded by friends, petitioners, hangers-on. Especially now that she was living with her mother in Hightown and getting to make a name for herself. "I want to keep walking in the snow," Isabela finally said. "When was the last time you saw a snowfall like this?"

"It's been awhile," Hawke agreed. She grabbed the bottle from Isabela's hand and took a swig. "All right. Lead on, then."

Isabela swung Hawke around to head back down the stairs toward the docks, weaving through the fresh snow, trying to match her steps the prints she had left on the way up. "It's not too far," she said.

Hawke grinned at her. "I thought you wanted the walk."

"I do." Isabela drew closer into Hawke's side. "But the wind is starting to pick up. I might need some help staying warm."

She raised an eyebrow at Hawke in a playful leer, and Hawke laughed. "Have you thought about getting a cloak?"

Isabela shrugged. "Gets in the way if I have to fight. Never know who will be out, even on a night like this."

"Drunken bandits?" Hawke winked. "I think I could take them."

"Of course you could," Isabela retorted. "But tomorrow is First Day. Even you need the occasional day off." She held her hand out, and Hawke gave her back the bottle. She took a long drink, the warmth from the liquor spreading through her belly and up into her chest. "Mmm," she said, wiping the stray droplets from her mouth. "Nothing like Antivan brandy." They were at the bottom of the steps now, and she stopped to look around, swaying a little in the cold breeze coming off the water. "This way," she said, gesturing with the bottle. They tramped through the snow together, then turned in through the doorway.

Inside could not have been more different from the frozen city. The tavern was crowded, mostly with sailors and dockworkers. Some sat at tables, others leaned on the bar, but the majority crowded around a singer with a lute, who was playing a bawdy tune while the men shouted along. Isabela grabbed Hawke by the hand and pulled her through the crowds, then plunked them both down at a corner table before waving over a bartender.

"You got another one of these?" she bellowed, waving the near-empty brandy bottle in the waiter's face.

"Yeah, sure," the man said. "I'll be right back."

Isabela lifted the bottle to hear ear and shook it. "Time to kill this dead soldier before another takes the field," she said, then drank a few swallows before handing it to Hawke. "Bottoms up."

Shaking her head, Hawke took the bottle. "You are a terrible influence."

"That's the plan, anyway." Isabela bumped Hawke's shoulder; Hawke laughed, then tipped her head back to drain the bottle. "Is it working?"

Hawke lifted an eyebrow and looked at her, a sparkle in her bright blue eyes, and then she threw the bottle across the room and into the fireplace. The flames leapt up, blue from the last few drops of brandy. "Does that answer your question?"

"Maybe," Isabela said with a laugh. The bartender returned with a fresh bottle, and Isabela flipped him a couple of sovereigns before returning her attention to Hawke. "So tell me," she continued as she pulled the cork from the bottle and poured the amber liquid into two fresh glasses, "new year, new start? Anything to confess before First Day dawns?"

Hawke picked up her glass and frowned into it. "I don't know."

"Aww, c'mon." Isabela bumped Hawke, shoulder to shoulder. "You can tell Auntie Isabela."

For another long moment, Hawke looked into her glass, swirling the brandy up the sides. Then she tossed back most of it in one long gulp. "Bethany," she murmured as she set the glass on the table. "I miss her. The Gallows are so close, but they might as well be the other side of the world. And I can't stop thinking that-- that it's my fault for leaving her behind. If only I'd defied Mother and brought her along, then maybe she'd still be safe-- maybe she'd--" Hawke shook her head again and lowered it into her hands.

Isabela wanted to put her arms around her, pull her tight, kiss the lines off her face. She contented herself with laying an arm over her shoulder. "You did what you thought was best. And what if you had taken her? She'd have been trapped down there with the rest of you. What if something worse had gone wrong?"

Hawke snorted. "Then I'd be blaming myself for that, too. That's how being a big sister works."

"That's the silliest thing I've ever heard." Isabela leaned her temple against the top of Hawke's head, and with a sigh, Hawke snuggled back. "But I suppose you wouldn't be you, otherwise."

Hawke chuckled, then turned around to look up at her. "How about you? Anything you'd like to get off your chest?"

"I'd rather talk about the things I'd like to get on my chest," Isabela replied, leering again, and Hawke laughed, more genuinely this time. "No, nothing. I'm an open book."

Hawke snorted. "Ah, a lie, the perfect way to respond to my true confession." She cocked an eyebrow, and Isabela stared back. "Seriously?"

Isabela shrugged. "I am what I am, Hawke, you know that." But for the matter of a particular missing relic, and the truth of why the Qunari were still camped out not fifty yards from here. But drunk as she was, she sure wasn't going to spill that story to anyone. Even if it was tempting to come clean, lured by the honest trust in Hawke's brilliant blue eyes. She blinked a few times and looked away. "Huh, look at the time. Guess we really should put in our appearance at the Hanged Man before midnight."

"And before Aveline sends the guards out after us," Hawke agreed. She stood, carefully, and lifted Isabela to her feet. "Let's go." And they went back out into the snow, leaning on each other the whole way home.