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The Respite Hollow (or, The Ice Was Cold and So Were Their Hearts Until They Fell in Love)

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Hollow (noun): the concave groove that is ground into the bottom of the skate surface; the empty space between the blade's inner and outer edges where it touches the ice.

The first time she meets him, neither of them is happy about it.

The rink has been closed for the morning, as it is every other Tuesday. It’s ostensibly for maintenance, but as Hawke happens to be the daughter of the owner, she knows it’s actually the one time she’s guaranteed uninterrupted practice hours on the only decent ice in eighty miles. She’s in a foul mood already, which doesn’t help, and the only thing that’s kept her going through a torrential downpour at the bus stop three days running, a dog determined to eat every hat she has, and back-to-back double shifts at the bar is the knowledge that here, now—these precious hours will be her time, and only hers.

Which is why opening the great double doors to the sound of blade on ice, echoing on the high white walls painted with abstract families gliding through rainbows, puts her blood pressure nearly through the top of her skull. “How,” she says aloud, relishing the annoyance, and slams the deadbolt behind her before striding towards the glass wall overlooking the ice. Her fingers are so tight around the bag with her skates they ache.

A stranger is on her ice.

He knows what he’s doing, she’ll give him that. White hair and dark skin, a black long-sleeved shirt a little loose in the waist, black leggings, black skates. No music in the rink’s speakers, but he moves as if he hears it anyway, long gestures with his arms and quick spins to a silent beat. Then a long backwards glide on the left foot, his head over his shoulder, and a shift to the outside edge—and up, arms tight to his chest through the lutz—a triple—and down again with his leg extended behind him. Effortless, as if he were on the stage of the Grand Prix and not a tiny backwoods family rink constantly on the verge of bankruptcy.

Her rink, and her ice. He doesn’t belong here, and there’s only one way he could have come through without her knowing. She scans the stands, half of them pushed in to the walls now that they’re out of hockey season, until she sees—

Ah. Varric.

As quietly as she can, Hawke makes her way through the swinging doors across from the skate rental bar and down the long, curved staircase that leads to the ice level. Not that she’s ever been particularly subtle, but luck finds her for once, and she makes it without notice all the way up to mid-rink where Varric stands, feet planted, arms crossed over his chest, as he watches the mystery skater on her ice.

She’s already got her mouth open to tell him off when the man takes off again. Only a double axel this time, the spins looser and his arms not quite so disciplined, but the landing is still clean as a knife, and he turns without missing a beat into a double-toe-double-toe immediately after.

“Hm,” says Varric, obviously satisfied, and on the ice the man moves into a series of steps without design. They’re not of any particular technical difficulty, just turns and flips from front to back as the fancy takes him, smooth transitions from one foot to the other, the inside edge to the outside to the toe-pick and back again. There is no sound in the rink but the cut of blade through ice and the soft hushing of the white spray from his skate’s edges across the rink as he turns.

His face is still as stone. That’s what catches her eye towards the end, not the artistry, not the obvious skill. He looks like Carver had at their father’s funeral: his jaw so hard the muscles jumped, and his eyes so blank she could not read them.

“Varric,” she says at last, and has the rare pleasure of seeing her eminently unflappable coach fully flapped.

Hawke,” he says, smoothing a hand unnecessarily over his jaw. “Huh. Fancy seeing you here.”

“Well, you know. Tuesday.” She doesn’t try to keep the edge from her voice. “Fancy seeing you here. I thought you were out scouting talent.”

His eyes flick tellingly between the rink, Hawke’s face, and back again. She groans just as he starts to say, “So, no shit, there I was—” before a hard cut through the ice silences them both.

The stranger has come to join them, green eyes still just as hard under incongruously dark brows. He has facial tattoos too, Hawke sees, thin white lines that course down his chin and throat to disappear into the collar of his shirt. He’s shorter than she’d thought from the overlook, though still with a slight advantage over her, and she sets her bag on the ledge of the half-door separating him from her and Varric.

“You said this would be private,” the stranger says without preamble. His voice is deeper than she expects, faintly accented, smooth and heavy even through the veneer of irritation, and Hawke feels her own annoyance rise once more.

“Did he?” she offers, sweet-over-bitter as she’s learned surviving her mother’s society parties. “How interesting, as this isn’t his rink to offer.”

“Now, Hawke, as your coach—”

Varric,” she very carefully not-whines. “As my coach, you should know it’s the only time I get the ice!”

The stranger’s eyes flicker. “This is your facility?”

He says facility like another man might say cockroach, but this close Hawke can smell the cold metallic tang of the freshly smoothed surface, and she suddenly wants nothing more than to be out there herself, intrusion be damned. She toes her sneakers off, stretching briefly to put her palms flat on the floor, and then pulls her skates from her bag. White leather, old and cracked—nowhere near the hideously expensive works of art the stranger wears, but it’s been a long time since things like that bothered her. She knows what she can do, anyway.

“Yes,” she says, attention on her laces. “Well, my family’s. Hawke,” she adds belatedly, and sticks out her hand from her crouched position to shake.

He pauses, an odd tension in his full mouth she can’t quite parse, but takes her hand. His palm is warm and rough with calluses. “Fenris. I saw you at nationals.”

Fenris. The name is familiar, but she can’t place it. “Did you? When?”

His silence is answer enough. Hawke’s gaze slides to Varric, not quite accusing, but she has a sudden, nagging suspicion she knows what this is. “Hawke,” he wheedles in answer, palms spread placatingly.

“Varric Tethras has been my coach for six years,” she says instead, still looking at Fenris, “and sometimes he doesn’t know when to leave well enough alone.”

“I begin to understand myself,” he says slowly. “I was looking for—he saw me standing outside. He said there would be no audience, but I see now that this promise was not his to make.”

“Any day but today, it would have been.” She stands, shaking out the weight of her legs with the skates on, and pulls open the door to the rink. “Look, I’ve never been one to mind sharing the ice with a handsome man, so if you don’t mind me playing a little music…”

He coughs into his fist, a faint flush coming high to his cheeks. Interesting. “I have no desire to intrude.”

“I asked him here for a reason,” Varric interjects, and Hawke pauses with one skate still on solid ground. “You said you were thinking about getting back into the scene.”

“You blasted—thinking! Considering! Pondering very thoughtfully, and certainly not committing to anything!”

“I do not skate pairs,” Fenris adds, shoulders high and tight. “And you told me it was an instructing job. I had no intention of coming here for an audition.”

“Come on, you two. Don’t you trust me?”

“No,” they say together, and as Hawke at last pushes through the door onto the ice proper, Fenris steps off it, away from her.

“Excuse me,” he says again, more curt. “I’ll be out of your way.”

And before she or Varric can say anything in response, he’s slipped his guards over the blades and disappeared into the far door.

There’s a long, pointed silence. Hawke does a few loops in place, more to break the quiet than anything, then looks at Varric. “Well?”

Varric sighs. “Look him up,” he says, and folds his arms over the top of the door to the rink. “Keep an open mind, and tell me what you think.”

“You said my mind was so open last week it might fall out.”

“Yeah, well.” He gives her a crooked smile. “Have I ever steered you wrong before?”

It’s a loaded question and they both know it, so instead of answering Hawke pushes off the wall. Varric hits the broken lock to the sound system’s cover until it pops open, and soon enough the strains of an old, jazzy trumpet begin to float through the arena. Good enough for a Tuesday, especially now that she has the ice to herself.

Odd, then, that she keeps thinking of Fenris long after he’s gone.

Fenris. That’s where she knows him, she thinks, watching the World’s standings flash across her tiny phone screen. He looks much the same, even three years younger in the video and with his hair much longer; he still keeps his brows low and hard, and his green eyes still warn everyone away, even the cameras. He’d skated for Italy then—that explains the accent—and as she watches him stretch before his long program, his thin, grey-bearded coach massages his shoulders and whispers something into his ear.

Fenris’s face doesn’t move, save a flick of his eyes to the cameras, but she sees one hand curl into a fist. Then he’s out on the ice, the commentators preemptively exclaiming over his natural talent, raw power, exciting new blood in a staid, jostling pack of mediocrity. He’s in white and grey this time, ostentatious with sequins and sheer tulle over his chest and back—somehow, she doubts the costuming was his choice—and then a hard concerto chord plays and he’s off.

He's good. He’s very, very good.

His quad lutz is flawless, his edges smooth and sure; one of the commentators holds her breath during a breezy triple combination and is teased by her fellows for it. He’s flexible, too; one of his toe spins is so flat, his forehead hard against his own extended leg, that she can see the outlines of his muscled back through the costume. The single significant error he makes is an under-rotated salchow that barely survives a two-footed landing, but even then he’s fluid as he steps out of it into the footwork section. It’s a superb performance from the start and it gets better as he goes along, the piece by Biret driving him hard into the finale. He’s spinning so fast his white hair whips into his own face, and then—

It's over. One hand above his head, one over his heart, his head bowed. The crowd roars, roses and stuffed animals raining onto the ice. But…

Hawke pauses the video, then backs it up a few seconds. The bus lurches through a stop, the rain sliding sideways down her window, and she shifts her jacket's hood more comfortably around her knotted hair until she can cover her cold ears again. She taps play, then brings the screen a little closer.

Even as he heaves for breath, he looks furious. A cold anger, though, not some sudden temper—is this because of the stumble?—but no, surely not. Any skater in the world would be proud of a performance like that. She props her chin in her hand, but…there’s no other word for it. Even the announcers comment on his obvious displeasure, and after a single short bow to the judges he leaves the rink without collecting any of the offerings still being thrown his way. He sits stiffly in the kiss-and-cry booth next to his coach, who wraps a thin, pale arm around his shoulders as they wait for the score. He does not speak to the cameras, does not thank anyone watching at home. The man beside him gives a coy little smile, nothing else.

Danarius, one of the commentators informs the audience. The legendary coach who plucked the ingenue from the streets of Italy, the diamond in the rough snared by his sharp eye, molded into a force of nature from the kindness of his heart. He squeezes Fenris’s shoulders a little more tightly and leans in to whisper into his ear.

It's just for an instant, almost too fast for the little screen to show, but the cold anger in Fenris’s face drops to fear.

He’s a late skater and his score is more than high enough for silver, but as they read off the individual components his fear slips back to anger. Danarius stands, smiles, waves; Fenris closes his eyes, and all at once Hawke remembers this next part from the news, from the gossip she’d cajoled from Varric while she’d been in the hospital. He’d won the silver at Worlds, and less than a month later he’d vanished from the scene entirely. No Grand Prix Final, no national competitions—not even so much as a glimpse at a local skating rink. Danarius had made Italian headlines begging for news of his student’s whereabouts—they’d said kidnapping, or ransom, or insanity—but as months passed with no changes, the story had faded into background noise and Fenris had been forgotten.

Until today, when he’d showed up at her rundown rink looking for a job.

“Varric,” she says aloud, and lifts her head to look out the bus window into the steady grey rain, “what in the world have you done?”

The lock on his apartment door is loose as a tooth, but Fenris throws the bolt anyway. He adds a chair under the doorknob for good measure, and checks again that the blinds are drawn and have not been disturbed, and when he’s satisfied that all is as he left it he pulls his laptop from under the mattress and sits cross-legged on the floor. It’s as shabby as the rest of the one-room apartment, the keyboard slowly dying and the screen cracked, but it’s one of the few things he owns outright and he’s determined to make it last. The money he stole from Danarius can only stretch so far, and he’s running out of time.

His H and W keys no longer work, which proves a frustrating barrier to his search for a few minutes, but soon enough he hits on the appropriate combination of “nationals,” “pairs,” and “fall” that he finds what he’s looking for. The video is poorly done, professional news coverage interrupted by homemade splash screens that proclaim “OMG!! Horrible ACCIDENT at NATIONAL skating competition!! GORY!!!!!” and subtitles that describe the exact actions taking place in the video, but it’s enough. His memories can fill in the rest.

Danarius had wanted him to watch the pairs event. One of the men had also been performing in the singles skates, and Danarius had wanted Fenris to study his technique on a particular entrance to his axel. He’d missed the beginning of the program, hadn’t caught the favorites’ names, but he remembers watching the woman in gold—Hawke—laugh as she’d skated out with her partner. She’d caught his eye and winked, then spun her way to the center as her partner had come up behind her and put both hands on her waist in their starting poses.

A tall, slender man, sandy hair tied back in a short tail, a long nose over a downturned mouth. He’d been older than most of the competitors, this Anders, but talented, and he’d skated well with Hawke. They’d been halfway through the long program, maybe a little more, when Hawke had gone up for a lift. A risky one, a backwards one-handed entry and both her legs extended high into the air behind them, but Fenris had seen them in practice before and it had always been smooth, then, unshaken.

Then Anders’s skate had caught. The video helpfully pauses, zooming in on the blurry footage to point out with garish circles the little three-inch glass rod sliding under his toe-pick, then zooming out to add blocky arrows to all the other rods scattered across this section of the ice. One of the frozen crowd in the background has both hands over her face in horror.

Fenris stops the video and closes the laptop, dropping the room into darkness. It doesn’t matter; the images play for him anyway. Anders trips, landing hard on the outside of one knee. His elbow dislocates as he tries to twist, to break his partner’s fall, but her momentum carries her too far in the other direction, and Hawke plummets ten feet face-first onto the ice. One arm crumples horribly under her, and then she doesn’t move.

The crowd had been so silent his ears had rung. They’d stopped the music too late, and it had echoed its cheerful guitar into the silence like a broken promise. Then Anders had screamed, scrabbling over to Hawke on his knees, one hand still limp, and everything had exploded into chaos. He remembers the medical team loading her onto the cart, the shoulder of her gold costume torn open, black hair come loose around her unconscious face covered with blood, Anders limping next to her with his fingers just as red; he remembers the crowd being herded out of the arena so roughly it had nearly started riots; he remembers one of the competition organizers in a three-piece suit plucking a little glass rod from the ice, his face white with shock.

He remembers catching Danarius’s eye across the rink, a single point of silence in the pandemonium, and watching him smile in unspoken answer. It had been slow. Triumphant.

And then all that had been left was a smear on the ice, wet and shining and scarlet.

Abruptly, his phone buzzes in the dark, and he startles hard enough the laptop slips off his knee. There aren’t many people who have this number, and fewer of them who should, and when he sees it’s unrecognized he almost deletes the text without looking. Still, just in case—

Hey, is this Fenris? This is Hawke from earlier.

He blinks, utterly thrown. It’s pause enough, though, and she continues for several more messages without interruption.

From the ice rink, I mean. I hope it was as memorable for you as it was for me or this’ll get awkward quickly. ;)

Varric gave me your number. Sorry about him. Sometimes he likes the idea of seeing how something will play out because he’s sure he knows best. Don’t let it get to you.

(He usually does. Don’t tell him that. Obviously not this time though)

Listen, I’m texting because he said you needed a job. I do need an instructor for the 10-14yos & he knows that. I have work when they’re out of school and it’s hard to get them in.

I can see you starting to type and deleting it. Haha. Don’t do it if you don’t want. Just thought I’d offer.

Hello? Is this the right number?

If this isn’t Fenris but you’re pretty and single I’m not doing anything tomorrow night ;)

Fenris pauses, his thumb hovering over the keys. The money won’t last forever. He can’t stay here long, not with someone who knows who he is in the same city, but the money won’t last forever, and he…

Her nose is scarred, now, a stripe across its bridge from where she fell.

This is Fenris. I will take the job.