“Two sturdy oaks I mean, which side by side,
Withstand the winter's storm,
And spite of wind and tide,
Grow up the meadow's pride,
For both are strong
Above they barely touch, but undermined
Down to their deepest source,
Admiring you shall find
Their roots are intertwined
-- From "Friendship", Henry David Thoreau
The Wounded Coast, at night, was quiet.
(Well, when it wasn’t being raided by bandits or mercenaries, of course -- but it seemed that tonight the bandits and mercenaries were taking some much-needed beauty sleep for once.)
The climb to The Bone Pit was long, and the party had stopped for a moment to catch their breaths. Hawke rested against a stray boulder, his legs sprawling out across the dirt. Through half-lidded eyes, he surveyed his companions. Anders tended to a chip on his staff; Aveline stood vigilant over the path they’d just come from.
And Varric . His broad form was at the edge of the of the road, where the land broke off into jagged cliff face. Sea breeze made stray strands of hair flutter around his ears. Moonlight bathed him and Bianca in silver. Hawke couldn’t pull his eyes away.
Varric turned slightly, and Hawke could make out the contemplative expression on his face. Concentration creased Varric’s forehead, and those lips, so often quirked in a playful smile, were resting in a thoughtful line. Hawke wondered what he was thinking about -- perhaps he was trying to figure out how he would describe this scenery in his next book? Or maybe he was forever worrying about Bartrand. As irreverent and tongue-in-cheek as Varric usually was, Hawke knew he worried. Varric always worried.
The thought made tenderness burn in Hawke, so poignant it constricted his chest. He was suddenly choked by the urge to go over there and kiss him, to press his lips hard against Varric’s over and over, to make Varric feel what he was to Hawke, to steal away Varric’s beautiful words for just once.
But that would never happen. Hawke knew that. Varric had made that quite clear, years ago.
Varric had been in his room at The Hanged Man. He always was. Good old, reliable Varric.
“Hawke!” Varric quirked a grin when he looked up from his writing and spotted Hawke lounging against the doorway. “Not too big for us little people now that you’re all fancy up in Hightown, huh?”
Maker, that smile . Hawke could never help grinning back when he saw it. “Hey, don’t blame me that you spend your earnings on keeping this little suite,” he teased, gesturing around the room.
“What can I say? The proximity to loose tongues and cheap ale makes it prime real estate.”
“Ah, and that’s where the rest goes, doesn’t it? Between your rent and your ale tab, you’re single-handedly keeping this place in business.”
Varric laughed. “Well, what’s one more, then? You got the time to join me for a drink?”
“For you?” Hawke chimed. “Always.”
One, of course, became two, which became five. The fire burned to embers as they talked, and Hawke felt the tension he’d been carrying drain away, washed off by alcohol and Varric’s company. His shoulders relaxed; the persistent ache in his back dulled.
Later, Hawke wouldn’t even be able to say what it was they talked about -- just anything and everything. Varric had always been skilled with words, and he had a way of coaxing both jokes and honesty from Hawke in equal measure. Hawke could lay his heart bare in front of Varric, and Varric would just quirk that smile and shake his head and say something like: “Heroes never catch a break, do they?”
Hawke’s tankard was empty again -- how did that happen? -- when Varric abruptly guffawed. “Hawke! I can’t believe I forgot to tell you. Come here; I have to show you what I found the other day.”
Hawke clumsily clambered to his feet and went around to Varric’s side of the table, where Varric was shuffling through some papers.
“I was checking up on Merrill, and I saw a merchant peddling some art down by the alienage. Turns out, his most recent line is portraits of our newest face in the nobility.”
Varric flourished a sheet under Hawke’s nose. On the paper, there was a sketched likeness of a rugged, dark-haired man, with broad shoulders the size of a bear’s and a stoney, tortured expression on his face. A streak of red was splashed across the bridge of a long, crooked nose. The pencil strokes had been made with reverence, and white light suffusing from behind the figure’s head gave him an aura of divinity, reminding Hawke of the icons of Andraste that covered the Chantry.
“I just had to get it,” Varric continued, grinning widely. “Thought you might want to be true to your new status and sleep under dozens of portraits of yourself, all smiling creepily down at you.”
“What -- that’s me? Varric, what stories have you been telling?!”
Varric chuckled. “Oh, nothing much. Just regaling tales of how Hawke, lost, rugged refugee climbed the ladder of the city with wit and courage and sheer brute force -- and tackled a few thousand darkspawn single-handedly along the way.”
Hawke groaned. “I blame you for everything .”
“What, you don’t like it? I thought it was a very dashing likeness.”
“What even is that on my nose?” Hawke protested. “Am I supposed to be painting myself with the blood of my enemies or something?”
“That much was all artistic license,” Varric insisted. “But I thought was a very clever idea. I might just borrow it for my stories -- ‘And when the battleground was finally still, Hawke knelt on the earth and ran two fingers through the still-warm blood spilling from his foe. He drew a ragged line across his nose. A reminder of the mortality he faced’.”
“Maker, Varric, you’re disgusting. ”
Varric threw back his head and laughed -- and Hawke found himself suddenly entranced by the way the movement bared Varric’s chest, the way the gold chain trembled at his sternum. And then Varric was grinning up at Hawke again, his eyes sparkling, laughter lines emphasized by the dim light of the dying fire.
Hawke felt a tangled mess of longing and desire and awe and a dozen other things he couldn’t name suddenly surge within him. Before he could even think, he was leaning forward, eagerly chasing the first touch of Varric’s lips against his.
But then there were hands on his chest, holding him back.
In Hawke’s inebriated state, the meaning didn’t even register. He made a small sound of protest and pushed against the resistance. But then Varric spoke, in a gentle, pitying tone that cut right through him.
Hawke froze. When his sluggish mind caught up to his ears, he recoiled sharply, so fast the room spun. His chest was cold where Varric’s hands had been.
Varric was looking up at him with sympathy in his eyes. That was almost worse than the rejection itself. Hawke looked away, shame burning in his face.
“Varric, I’m s’ sorry.” How had he not heard the slurring in his voice before?
“Hey. It’s okay. I just don’t feel that way. Maker, I’m sorry. Maybe I should have said something ages ago, when I first noticed you looking at me.”
“Yeah. Don’t worry; you weren’t obvious. But I had an inkling.” Varric gave him a small, rueful smile.
Hawke swallowed hard against the lump in his throat, and forced himself to smile back. “‘Course you did.” He took a step back. Another. Putting a safe distance between himself and the lips that still tempted him every time they twitched upwards.
Varric let out a slow breath. “It ain’t you, you know. Shit, I can’t say how much I care about you. I could kiss you, and it would be no skin off my nose. Hell, maybe it’d even be fun. But it wouldn’t mean to me what it means to you, and that ain’t fair. To either of us.”
“No, I get that,” Hawke said, pushing some joviality into his voice. “Hey, who’d’ve thought that the big hero in your stories can’t hold his liquor, huh?”
But Varric didn’t laugh. “Hawke, listen. I don’t feel that way -- for anyone, really. It doesn’t click for me, doesn’t matter if they’re the most beautiful woman in Thedas or the most dashing hero.” Acknowledgingly, he tilted his head toward Hawke. “I’m just not built that way.”
What was Varric trying to say? Hawke’s brow furrowed as burning shame gave away to confusion. “No one?”
“No one. Never had the desire to step foot in a brothel or court anyone, save for maybe book research. There was one time I thought that maybe…” Varric shook his head and trailed off. “But no. I wasn’t meant to live the romances, only write them. And even then, I kind of suck at it.”
“I don’t know about that. My mother cried over Swords and Shields at least three times.”
That brought a real smile to Varric’s lips again, but he didn’t quite laugh.
“So, you’re just above temptations of the flesh?” Hawke said with forced casualness, sinking back into his seat at the opposite side of the table. “Well, that explains where you find time to write all these books.” While he still didn’t quite understand what Varric wanted him to get -- a rejection was a rejection -- through the haze of drunkenness and embarrassment, Hawke could tell this was important for Varric to talk about.
“Hah - hardly. Food and drink still’ve got me wrapped around their metaphorical little fingers,” Varric said wryly. “But Hawke, I want you to understand that I care about you, a lot. There might not be an ‘us’ in the way you were hoping for, but there’s a different kind of ‘us’. Maker, you’re probably the most important person in Thedas to me.”
“That probably says that you need to find better people.”
“Hey. I mean it.”
What did Varric want Hawke to say? That Varric was important to him, too? He had just made a complete fool of himself making that painfully obvious. Hawke blinked hard, struggling to think. “Thank you for telling me,” he said finally.
Varric gave him a sidelong look, as if that wasn’t exactly the answer he was looking for. But he nodded. Then he leaned forward, pressing his forehead into one hand, and said: “Shit, I’ve never told anyone that before.”
A snarky response was on the tip of Hawke’s tongue -- ‘ Really, you don’t tell every pretty face they’re the most important person in Thedas? Aw, I feel special.’ -- but for once, he choked it down. “About not living the romances?”
“Yeah, that. Means a lot that you listened. Thanks.”
“It’s the least I can do after you didn’t kick me out on my ass for being an idiot.”
“But that’s my point, Hawke. You weren’t.”
Hawke frowned, trying to puzzle out what Varric meant.
Varric watched Hawke silently for a moment, and then said softly: “Hey. You okay? Really.”
“I’m fine. I’ve got something of a thick skin, you know.”
“Right,” Varric said, in a tone that said he didn’t believe Hawke at all. “Look, if you need to go for a bit, I understand. Just don’t stay away, okay?”
But Hawke couldn’t go. It wasn’t even about his pride -- although no way was he going to slink back to Hightown with his tail between his legs because Varric had said ‘no’. It was that leaving would mean accepting that something had changed between them. Nothing had changed. Hawke had felt a lurch in his chest the very first time Varric had emerged in Hightown, slinging Hawke’s stolen purse back as he twirled a bolt between his fingers. That lurch had never really left, growing into a deep ache that was entwined with his friendship with Varric down to the roots.
Sure, maybe the ache was sharper now, maybe his stomach was all twisted up into queasy knots, maybe he felt dizzy with shame and ale, but leaving now meant the ache had won.
“I’m not going anywhere,” he declared finally.
Varric gave him a slight smile. “Well, good. I bought the last round, and it’s your turn now.”
“Hey, if we’re having another round, I can’t be held accountable for maybe possibly definitely trying to burn that awful drawing.”
And at that, Varric finally laughed.
On the Wounded Coast, three years later, Hawke still felt that ache. But it didn’t hurt anymore.
Varric swept his coat under himself and sank, cross-legged, to the ground. He slung Bianca across his lap and leaned back.
Hawke climbed to his feet. The movement made Aveline look back over her shoulder, and he flashed her a patented “Don’t Mind Me” lopsided grin. She responded with a look that plainly said she never underestimated his ability to get into trouble, but turned back to watching the path.
Hawke walked over to the edge of the cliff and sat down beside Varric. Their knees bumped as he settled on the ground. Varric looked up, smiled, and did not move away.
Varric turned back to the cliff, and Hawke saw that small lights were visible across the bay, where Kirkwall was spread out as a dark, ragged line across the ocean.
“Shit’s brewing down there,” Varric commented. “I can feel it. The tension’s tighter than Bianca at full draw. Something’s going to snap.”
“It’d be great if trouble would just go away for a bit,” Hawke said dryly. “Doesn’t trouble ever want to take a vacation?”
Varric snorted. “Nah, trouble just follows you like some lost, badly-behaved puppy.”
Hawke shrugged a helpless agreement.
Hawke understood now what Varric had been trying to say, that night Hawke had tried to kiss him. Varric hadn’t been rejecting him. He’d been offering compromise. The nuances of their feelings were different, but when Varric looked at him, Hawke could see the love gentling the hard lines of his face.
The past three years had been an exercise in learning the steps of this dance between them. Their relationship might not look like what Aveline had with Donnic, might not be what Hawke remembered between his parents, but it was… right.
“Well, as long as I’ve got my trusty dwarf by my side, what’s the worst that can happen?” Hawke said finally.
“Ugh, did you really just say that?! Are you trying to jinx us?”
At the scandalized expression on Varric’s face, Hawke burst out laughing.
The ache had never gone away, no. But it’d become something welcome, a familiar comfort. It was Varric , and it was always there, because Varric was always there.
Hawke didn’t need a kiss to know that.