It begins the way that most things in her life do. It begins bright and loud and all at once.
They’re remarkably gifted, the three Hawke children. That, at least, is what all of the neighbours say. Bethany, from the time that she was born, had been one of the most skilled magic-users in Ferelden, and so sweet that no one dared report her to anyone who might do her harm. Carver could wrestle a great bear into submission (although she’d never tell him as much for fear that his head wouldn’t fit into one of those silly little helmets the Grey Wardens are made to wear). And Marian—
Apart from being an above-average mage and having a phenomenal arse, Marian Hawke sees ghosts.
Actual ghosts. Ghosts with gory stab wounds in their chests and dark holes for eye sockets, ghosts who mumble and moan in the peripherals of her vision as she’s trying to buy tomatoes for whatever delicious Dalish dish Orana has decided to prepare. Sometimes she pretends that she doesn’t see them and sometimes she throws rocks at them when they’ve pissed her off enough, although the rocks typically skip right through their spectral forms and hit unsuspecting merchants or templars in the heads and so she tries to limit that, at least as much as she can.
Unless it’s Cullen, and then she almost certainly hits him on purpose.
It begins when she’s eighteen. There’s no proper explanation for it, at least none that she’s been able to find. No blood magic, no deals with demons, no attempts to contact her deceased father to ask what ingredient she’s missing in his famous Ferelden stew recipe that makes it so she can never get it quite right.
(So it might have something to do with the fact that the night before her eighteenth birthday she’d gotten spectacularly drunk, so drunk that she had found herself swearing to Carver and Bethany that she could execute a perfect backflip off of a cliff and into the ocean and maybe, perchance, she had almost drowned. Possibly. Hawke doesn’t know what the exact correlation between nearly dying and seeing dead people is so she can’t say for certain, but it seems like a more reasonable explanation than anything else).
It begins when she wakes up and there’s someone standing in the corner of her bedroom, and Marian asks them in a very calm voice what in the ever-living fuck they’re doing there, then threatens to burn them into a crisp if they don’t leave. It begins when they open their mouth to respond and nothing comes out save for a dry, hoarse screech that doesn’t seem to wake up anyone else in the home, and she realizes that the reason her visitor can’t properly reply is that their throat has a massive gash running horizontally along the middle of it.
The fact that they’re nearly entirely see-through is a bit of a clue, too.
She brings this all up to Bethany the next morning, sweet Bethany, who replies with a furrowed brow and a near-lethal amount of concern. “Oh, Marian,” she says, so well-meaning that it hurts, “You haven’t been dipping into necromancy, have you? Because Father always said—”
Hawke doesn’t mention it to anyone again.
And the ghosts, for the most part, aren’t that bad. They mind their business. They keep to themselves, passing through walls, typically disappearing as soon as she flips them the middle finger. They rarely talk. They rarely even realize that she can see them, actually. Sometimes a child will run around her ankles and Marian will flash them a smile, more out of reflex than anything else, but for the most part…
For the most part she thinks that there are worse curses that can befall an apostate than occasionally seeing people who aren’t there.
Then the elf shows up, and ignoring it all becomes a lot harder.
When she first sees him he’s standing in the study, (very) long and mostly translucent fingers brushing the spines of the dusty, moth-eaten books that line the walls, and she thinks it’s…odd.
Most of the ghosts that she encounters—and there have been quite a few, especially since the beginning of the Blight—keep to themselves. They wander around Lowtown or they talk to each other, and on the rare occasions that they interact with her they’re mostly just moaning about things that they wish that they’d done. They wish they’d drank less. They wish they’d done more adventurous things. They wish they hadn’t cheated on their wives quite so much. The usual post-mortem regrets, really.
This ghost is looking at books, which is not a thing that most ghosts do. Not much of a draw to literature if you can’t flip the pages, is there?
“If you’re looking for A Dummy’s Guide to Being Dead,” she says, “it’s just to your left. Right between The Thedas Atlas and the porn.” That’s a joke. She thinks. Hawke is at least ninety-nine percent certain that there’s no porn in the study; she should know, after all. She’s checked.
His lips twitch up at the corners, just a bit, although he doesn’t turn to look at her. He’s handsome, Marian thinks. Probably. It’s always hard to tell with dead people—it’s a bit distracting, the fact that if she stares at their stomach she can see the furniture that they are standing in front of, and the fact that sometimes there’s weird ghost-blood that pours out from their eye sockets when they look at her for too long. But this ghost, with his very pointy ears and the furrow of his brow, is almost certainly someone she would have challenged to a strip-game of Wicked Grace in a tavern after three ales. Back when he was still tangible and such.
“I was looking for the porn.” Oh. His voice is nice. Very nice. Hawke has never really considered voices a turn-on, usually far more distracted being turned on by other things, but he might just convert her. “But now that you’re here…”
“Woah. Woah. Flattering as that is, I don’t do the horizontal tango with the recently deceased. I’m pretty sure that’s illegal everywhere—well. Almost everywhere. Maybe not in Orlais.”
“Everything is legal in Orlais.”
Marian hasn’t got a laugh out of him yet, but based on the glimmer in his—almost impossibly large, really, she’s never seen anything quite like it—eyes, she’s sure she’s getting close. It’s interesting because he’s definitely dead and yet he seems somehow less dead than most ghosts do. That isn’t even to mention that he’s not freaking out over the fact that she can see him. Hear him. Talk to him.
This implies one of two things: he’s encountered others like her before (which would truly be a shock, because Hawke herself definitely hasn’t) or he knew who she was, and that’s why he’s turned up in her study on an otherwise pleasant morning.
“Now that you’re here,” he continues, “I thought I might be able to ask your assistance with a…delicate matter.”
Ah. That answers her question. “You came here looking for me? To, what, hire me?”
“Something along those lines, yes. Ghosts talk.”
“That seems a touch generous, but sure. Why not. Ghosts talk. About me, apparently.” Actually, that makes sense. She supposes word must have gotten around that The Champion of Kirkwall can see them, that she’ll often bend down to pet a dog that isn’t really there or toss a coin into the hat of a vagrant who’s been sitting at the same corner for one hundred and five years, give or take. She just can’t believe it took her so long to notice. “Well. I don’t know what you all talk about between groaning practice and guest appearances at seances, but I don’t just toss out favours left and right. Not for free.”
He scoffs. “I would not ask such a thing of you.”
“And you plan to pay me with what, exactly? Haunting lessons? Ectoplasm?”
“I don’t believe that I am truly deceased, and I believe that I know a way to remove your curse.” Hawke ignores the first part of his words—no ghost ever really thinks that they’re dead—and focuses on the fact that by curse she can only assume he means those dead people you see. She has never really thought about it before—the possibility that such a thing could be cured. “I know where to find it. The only thing that I would ask of you is that you teach me how to read.”
Which is quite possibly the most ridiculous thing she could imagine someone asking her, ghost or otherwise.
“You want me to teach you to read. That’s it. That’s what brought you all the way here.” It isn’t phrased like a question, but she thinks the disbelief in the words is heavily implied. “You, very much dead, would like the Champion of Kirkwall to tutor you in the language arts.”
The elf frowns, looking as perturbed as she’s ever seen a dead man look. “Is that truly so bizarre of a request?”
“From a ghost? It absolutely fucking is.”
“You are the only person I can possibly ask,” he huffs. “Most of the others are not as…cognizant as I, and it isn’t as if any of them can turn a page.” He places a hand against the bookshelf as if to emphasize his words, phasing right through, and Hawke thanks the Maker she doesn’t believe in that her mother and Orana went to the market, and that Bodahn and Sandal are busy doing…whatever it is that they do. She’s really not sure. She’s just glad that they aren’t there to witness this. The sight she must be, chatting with and snorting at the open air.
“Point taken. But you do know that if you have some secret text with the answers to all our problems, it would be a lot faster if I just read it aloud to the two of us. I’m not exactly known for my tutelage skills.”
“I said I know where the text is. I do not have it.” He pauses. “Yet.”
“Well, that’s awfully convincing.”
“It is in Tevinter.” He spits out the name of the Imperium like a curse, Fucking Shithole Tevinter, and Marian can’t exactly blame him for it. She says it exactly the same. “Once I know what I am reading, I am certain that I will be able to solve both of our problems.” He steps forward, placing a hand over where his heart would be, and it’s hilarious but it’s also so fucking sincere that Hawke can’t even laugh at him for it. It would feel too cruel. “I swear it.”
All in all, it’s likely the least tempting proposition in the history of propositions. Teach a dead person to read, maybe-possibly get rid of her weird superpower. She’s not even sure she wants to get rid of the curse—there are still things she wants to do. People she’s waiting to see.
“And you plan on flipping the pages once you’re there…how, exactly? Because there’s no way the ever-living fuck that I’m going to Tevinter with you.” Not in a lifetime.
His brow furrows. “I have a plan,” he says, and she has no reason to trust him. “Your presence will not be necessary.”
Even so, things have been quite quiet since the Qunari left and her house got upgraded from a crumbling cabin to a mansion. The food is better and the clothes smell like lavender, sure, but Marian’s getting quite tired of parties with nobles and favours for nobles and nobles trying to lure her to their creepy swinger parties. The last one wouldn’t be so bad, not at all, if she wasn’t convinced that they were performing blood sacrifices between all the mediocre rich-person sex.
Teaching a dead elf with a very attractive voice how to read doesn’t sound like a blast, but the longer and harder she thinks about it the more that Hawke realizes she is so, so fucking bored, and it sounds a hell of a lot better than listening to Bodahn tell her another story about everything the Hero of Ferelden ever bought from him.
“Fuck it. Fine,” she says, and he doesn’t smile or thank her, just looks smug, and somehow she thinks that’s better. Gratitude makes Marian uncomfortable, but general asshole behaviour? She knows how to handle that. That’s essentially her bread and butter. “But I get to choose the books.”
He quirks an eyebrow.
“As long as it’s not porn,” he says.
Hawke is, admittedly, a little disappointed.
His name is Fenris.
He doesn’t know how he died.
He was a slave in Tevinter. He thinks. He knows that he lived there and that he, in his own words, fucking hated it, and he doesn’t really tell Hawke anything more than that. She doesn’t press, either. Marian can admit that she has the social skills of a particularly uneducated mabari, but even she knows that pressuring someone to share more information about their past slavehood would very much be a dick move.
They don’t really talk much. Fenris doesn’t talk much. As they make plans for their first lesson Hawke prattles on about the first ghost that she ever saw and the worst ghost that she ever saw (the old man with the half bashed-in head that had followed her down the street screamed at her for three hours, at least), Anders’ terrible new haircut that Merrill had given him, how if she ever told Varric that she was helping a very handsome elf ghost learn how to read then he most definitely would insist on writing a book about it.
Fenris doesn’t really reply. He just looks at her, really looks, face hard and flat as a translucent face can be, and when the front door slams open and she hears Sandal, his voice echoing through the stone walls like a drum, Fenris disappears so quickly that she almost doubts he was ever there to begin with.
This shit is way weirder than anything she could ever make up.
“I thought we could start with this.”
She places the book between the two of them, dust-covered and certainly a little rough around the edges but legible, and simplistic enough that she’s sure it’ll be a good starting off point. Fenris doesn’t look so convinced, eyes narrowing as he attempts to make out the title.
“And this is…”
Marian points at each word on the front, slow and steady. “Cats. Of. Thedas.”
“You want us to read a five-hundred page list of cats?”
“No. I want you to learn how to read an encyclopedia about cats while I sit here flipping the pages on cue. It’s a children’s book, I think.” There are multiple colourful drawings in it, at least. “No pressure, though. We can switch over to The Lusty Qunari Maid if that’s more to your liking.”
Fenris, for his part, does not look amused. “I thought we established that there would be no porn,” he says, and Hawke gasps as if this affront has offended her personally. It has, actually.
“The Lusty Qunari Maid isn’t porn! It’s a tasteful, mildly sexy romance. There is a distinct difference.”
“The difference being…?”
“Leandra has read it. Are you really accusing my mother of reading porn? Maker, you’re a sick elf.”
Most of their first lesson goes like this. They make it through the first sentence of the first page of the book before Hawke realizes that maybe it’d be a better idea to start with the alphabet, and then that’s where they spend the next three hours of their time. She hasn’t found herself focus this much outside of combat in…ever, probably, and it’s kind of nice being able to really put her mind to work when she’s not using it to blow someone into a million tiny little bits.
Fenris is clever, at least. He’s easily frustrated but he’s a better student than she’d expected, and Marian thinks that she’s not so bad a teacher herself. Kind of. He learns how to identify of most of the letters even though Q pisses him off, and she can’t really blame him for that—it really is an utterly stupid shape.
It’d be easier if he could write, but he can’t hold a quill. He can’t do much of anything other than sit there, and at one point Hawke stands up to grab a glass of water and when she does she offers him one as well, and Fenris stares at her for about thirty seconds before she begins to laugh so hard that she thinks she might throw up. It isn’t funny. It really isn’t, but it’s so absurd that it almost makes up for it.
“I’m glad that you find humour in my situation,” he says, voice so dry that it practically crackles in the air. She loves it.
“In our situation, actually. I’m offering water to a dead person that I’m teaching how to read. It’s objectively hilarious.”
“It is not.”
“Fenris. Come on. You can laugh,” she says, “I promise it won’t kill you.”
“On account of you already being dead,” Hawke elaborates, just in case he’d missed it the first time.
His lips curl up at the corners, and if she narrows her eyes—if she squints just enough, she might be able to consider it a smile. Maybe.
Marian will count that as a victory.
They get along surprisingly well, her and her new ghost-student.
That is to say that she and Fenris are absolutely nothing alike. This doesn’t even include the differences in their states of being, the fact that she is unfortunately constrained by gravity and the properties of matter and Fenris is able to walk through walls. She can get drunk; he can inspect the labels on the wine bottles in her cellar and proclaim that all of them are shit.
She’s never met anyone quite like him before, either living or dead. It makes her feel out of her depth, a sensation that Hawke very much is not used to. At every other point of her life, she has been completely at ease, to a degree that has nearly gotten her in a boatload of trouble on more than one occasion.
Fenris, even ghost-like, moves through the corridors of her home like he’s stalking his prey. As he reads he makes snide comments under the breath that he doesn’t have that cause her to crack up laughing, and if her mother weren’t already used to her oddities Marian is certain that she would have found herself thrown in an institution long ago. He’s snide and funny and clever, very clever, and she spends far more time than she would like to considering how he might have been when he was alive.
She asks him this once and he grins, sharp and unamused.
“If I ever remember,” he says, “you will be the first to know.”
At the end of every single week Hawke gets piss-drunk at The Hanged Man with the most obscenely mismatched group of assholes that the universe has ever seen. It’s one of the only things that she has to properly look forward to, and she thinks that if the Maker exists then he must be absolutely rolling with laughter at the sight of them.
A blood mage, the long-suffering Captain of the Guard, an ex-Warden-slash-healer, a promiscuous pirate, a beardless dwarf, a Very Religious Prince, and an asshole who sees ghosts walk into a bar.
There’s a punchline there. She just has to find it.
She gets drunk and drunk and drunk enough that she can ignore the cat that’s curling around her legs or the man at the bar trying to pick up mug after mug, hand slipping through each time. When Marian drinks it almost starts to feel as though she’s normal; everyone looks blurry and anyone could be see-through. Determining who has a pulse and who is wandering around with Unfinished Business becomes both impossible and unnecessary. She’d much rather focus on whatever bizarre tale Isabela is spinning.
When she’s drunk she doesn’t have to think about her father, or Bethany, or where Carver is and when he’s (if he’s) ever planning on coming home.
She wonders what Fenris does when he’s not ghosting around her house.
She doesn’t mean to, she just…
She’s drunk, and she thinks about Fenris.
“What do you do when you’re not here?”
He frowns, narrows his eyes and leans closer to the pages. “Is that truly what the next sentence says?”
Marian sighs, slamming the book between them shut. It’s week two and they’re still on Cats of Thedas, but at least they’ve past domestic housecats and entered the chapters about all of the ones that could rip their throats out. It’s quite interesting, actually, even though most of her attention is spent on the diagrams. She hadn’t known that wildcats can have so many teeth.
“Consider this a break. I’ve been seeing ghosts for…” How long has it been? Too fucking long. “I’ve been seeing ghosts for a long time, and you’re the only one I’ve been able to ask about this sort of thing. I can’t help being curious.”
“I promise you, the answer is much less exciting than what you think.”
“Still an answer, though.”
She’s getting better at this: making him smile. Hawke isn’t sure if she’s getting funnier or he’s just dropping his walls more than he had before, but then she doesn’t really think that it matters because it’s working. A victory is still a victory even if it happens almost entirely by accident, isn’t it?
“I don’t know,” he says, after a moment. “Prior to all of this, I used to spend the majority of my days wandering Lowtown, attempting to find a resolution to my problem. The slight sense of entertainment I used to feel during those walks has long since worn off, however.”
“Clearly you’re going to the wrong parts of Lowtown if you’re getting bored,” she scoffs. “Come to The Hanged Man on a night when Isabela insists on doing a dirty poetry reading and you’ll understand.”
“I will…keep that in mind.” They both know that he won’t, but it’s nice that he pretends.
Even so, Marian’s curiosity is far from sated. “So you just do what, then? Disappear into the Fade? Sit in the corner by the fireplace? Slip into bedrooms and watch people have sex?”
Fenris shakes his head. “It is not that simple. It’s more the opposite of going somewhere, really—more like ceasing to exist, at least for a short while. I can control when I come back, I know that much, but the rest…” he shrugs, casual as if they are discussing the weather. Hawke appreciates that about him, at least. If she was being haunted by Anders she’s sure that his ghost would be in the corner reciting soliloquies and crying. “It is like a void. Being both here and not. I can’t think of another way to describe it.”
She considers that for a moment. Being, but not being. In the middle of something and not. Hawke isn’t particularly keen on the thought—she quite likes existing, completely and entirely, and she doesn’t want to consider what it would be like to just not be. Thinking about it too much gives her a headache.
“Sounds like shit.”
“Better than being dead for good, I should think.”
“Is it really, though? I expect you’re at least a little curious about what the afterlife might be like. If such a thing even exists which, honestly, I’m still not entirely sold on.”
“If it is real or not is of little consequence to me,” he says, and he sounds more bitter and angry than Marian has ever heard him—which is saying something, really, because bitter and angry seems to be Fenris’ default. “I have no interest in seeing it any time soon.”
That, at least, they can agree upon.
Marian Hawke used to believe in the Maker.
She used to believe in a pleasant afterlife, that good things happen to good people, that she’d see her father again and that one day they would all be together.
Then her home had been overrun with darkspawn and she’d watched her little sister die in front of her eyes, broken and bloodied and bruised, and she’d lived in poverty in the slums of an unfamiliar city just trying to survive, trying to help her mother as much as she could, and she’d seen her brother dead and dying from the blight, had seen everything that she cared for crumble into ash and dust—
From the time that she was eighteen and she spotted her first spirit, Marian Hawke had sat up and waited from sunset to sunrise, staring at the corner of her room, afraid to blink. She’d seen ghosts with beetles crawling from between their teeth and ghosts with crossbow bolts decorating their temples like crowns.
She’d seen all of this, and she still hasn’t seen her father. She still hasn’t seen her sister.
Marian Hawke doesn’t believe in much of anything anymore.
“Were you a solider?”
“I do not know.”
“You’re wearing armour. Fancy armour. Nicer than anything I’ve got, and I’m the fucking Champion of Kirkwall. That doesn’t seem fair, does it? And it definitely doesn’t vibe with the backstory that you’ve provided me.”
“Say what you will about The Imperium, but their craftsmanship is unparalleled.”
“I suspect it might have something to do with the slave labour and the threat of imprisonment or death at the hands of a Magister that would accompany a subpar product.” Marian chews at the end of her quill, considering. “Still, it’s rather nice armour for a slave to be walking around in. Are you sure that’s what you were? I’ve never seen any slaves that look like that; not that I’ve seen many slaves to begin with, I swear.”
He sighs, unable to actually exhale air but somehow making the movement seem convincing. “I do not know, Hawke.”
“But somewhere in there,” she says, and she taps at her own forehead to demonstrate her meaning, “you must. Do you think you died in battle? I don’t see any stab wounds on you, though. Maybe you tried on the fancy armour and it was so heavy that it crushed your little bones.”
“I’ve been told.”
“Can we resume reading? I’m struggling to make it past this line. It is this letter Q again. Complete nonsense.”
“You’d be a shit soldier, though. Far too whiny.”
“This line of conversation is absurd. You are to be guiding me through my attempts to uncover effective strategies for scaring off mountain lions, not pondering my cause of death.”
“See?” She prods a finger in his face, grateful that he doesn’t have proper teeth—he looks half-tempted to try and bite it off. “Whiny. If I were your commanding officer I would have your arse for that. Well. Among other things,” she waggles her eyebrows at him, and yes, definitely a good thing that he’s incapable of causing her any physical harm.
“If I weren’t already dead,” Fenris says, and Hawke notes with pleasure that he sounds more amused than anything else, “I might be so bold as to say that you would be the death of me.”
“You would hardly be the first.”
And that’s the gist of it, really.
He’s a fast learner. Faster than she had expected him to be. He has trouble reading the word leopard and it takes him about ten minutes to get through a page but still, it’s only been four weeks and he’s advancing well beyond where she had expected a dead elf from Tevinter to be in such a short period of time. Hawke isn’t sure if this speaks higher to her teaching skills or his own intelligence, but she likes to think it’s a little bit of both.
Although she doesn’t do much herself. Not really. She just turns the pages and helps him make out certain words when she catches him pausing for a little bit too long. Most of the time Marian just drinks and watches him, watches the way that his hair hands in his eyes and thinks—
He would look quite nice in the sunlight. It’s difficult to tell, spectral as he is, but his hair seems light and his skin seems dark, and she imagines that if he were to stand in the streets of Kirkwall that the rays of sunshine might reflect off of him until he glowed. What a sight he would be, a shiny elf in the middle of the Hightown market, trailing behind her as he grumbled about the soreness of his feet or the idiocy of her plans with just enough fondness in his voice so that she could tell he didn’t really mean it.
Carver would like him, she thinks. Varric, too.
Anders would fucking hate him.
It’s a shame, she thinks, that they’ll never know.
“Geeze, Chuckles. You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
Marian snorts, unladylike as ever. “Have been for about a decade, now that you mention it. Might even be falling in love with one of the more Elfin ones of them. I’m teaching him how to read—it’d make a great novel, don’t you think? The rights are all yours, if you want them.”
Varric laughs. Of course he does. He always finds her funny when she’s being honest. This is her favourite kind of truth, the kind that is so absolutely insane that the bestselling storyteller can’t even imagine it being slightly grounded in reality. At the very least if he ever finds her out he can’t say that she never tried to tell him.
“I don’t know where you find half of the shit that pops into your head,” he says, “but I’m telling you, if you ever tire of being a blood thirsty adventurer—”
“Impossible, but go on.”
“If you do, you’d have a hell of a career in storytelling.” They settle into a comfortable silence, her feet kicked up on his table, his eyes boring into the back of her skull from where he sits at his desk. The two of them have been spending less time together than usual lately, most of her free, death-less days spent helping Fenris, and Hawke is sure that he has questions; his feelings aren’t hurt, she knows Varric far better than that, but he also knows her far better than to think that nothing is wrong. “You look like you haven’t slept in weeks, Hawke.”
“I haven’t. Every time I close my eyes I think about that spider from last month. You know the one,” she says, and she shivers only a bit dramatically. “The one who practically vomited acid all over Merrill and me? I’m telling you Varric, I can still smell it in my dreams.”
“You don’t have to tell me.” He’s using his serious voice. Hawke hasn’t heard it often in all of the years that she’s known her best friend, but she knows it enough to know that it frightens her. It reminds her that he can see right through all the bullshit she spews at him—and that bullshit is a lot. “You really don’t. But you also don’t have to go it alone, Hawke. You should know that by now.”
“I do,” she says.
“I just…” she pauses, considering her next words carefully. Carefully as she can, anyways. “Do you think that it’s possible, that someone can be both dead and not? And before you answer,” she holds up her hands, “no, I’m not drunk. Yet. I promise you, this line of questioning has a legitimate purpose.”
“Aw, don’t go getting all spiritual on me, Hawke. Blondie and Choir Boy already have that area more than covered.”
“I’m not! I’m asking for a…friend.”
Varric raises an eyebrow, both amused and concerned. He thinks she’s going crazy. She might be. “Is this about Bethany? Because if you want to talk about her—"
“Just answer the question, Varric.”
He shrugs, helpless. “Hell if I know, Marian. I try not to think about the logistics of death too much; focusing on being alive is a lot more interesting. But if it helps,” he says, and she leans forward in her seat just a little, “I’d say that this world is fucked up enough for it to be possible. Dead, undead, living—the difference probably isn’t as black and white as we might think. Hence why I don’t bother thinking about it at all.”
“Right. That makes sense.” It doesn’t, actually, but she’ll go along with it. It’s better than him tossing her out on her arse. “Thanks, Varric.”
“Who’s the friend?”
“I already told you.” Where is Fenris at right now? Somewhere in the in-between, possibly. Marian wishes he were there just to see the look of affectionate annoyance on Varric’s face. That might get a proper laugh out of him. “It’s a dead elf that I’m teaching how to read. I swear, sometimes I wonder if you even listen to me at all.”
“Yeah, yeah,” he sighs, long-suffering, turning back to the parchment on the desk before him. “Keep your secrets, you wench. And tell your ghostly loverboy that sometimes it’s better for dead things to stay that way.”
“I plan on it,” she says. Keeping her secrets, that is. Hawke is pretty sure she doesn’t have any other choice.
Coming home is horrible.
She stands outside the door, hand raised to knock, the barometric pressure of returning molding her actions into some sort of misshapen, off-beat dance. Her hands don’t seem to work right. There’s an unsteadiness to her walk—is it injury? Fear? Does it matter? She can’t remember her father’s face. Most nights she can hardly manage to remember her own.
We left Carver in the Deep Roads, Mother. But don’t worry. Your son isn’t dead, not yet. He’ll be a Grey Warden. Aren’t you proud of him? Isn’t this a good thing? Don’t cry, Mother. You still have one child left.
It would be easier if Bethany were here. She closes her eyes and tries to will her little sister into existence: there is her dark hair, there is her tawny skin, the expanse of freckles along her collarbone. There are the flecks of green in her left eye. There is her staff, her hands, there is the crack of her neck, there is the slump of her body on the ground, there is the blood—Maker, she hadn’t known that one small person could have so much blood, and there is—
It’d be easier if Bethany were here.
Coming home is fucking awful.
It’s at the beginning of their fifth week together that Fenris notices it.
She catches him staring—long, hard staring, expressionless as ever, focused on her staff in the corner. It’s a new one and, in her modest opinion, quite beautiful. It’d cost her a pretty penny too, and even though Hawke knows it’s a bit gaudy to brag about owning expensive things she also feels as though sometimes expensive things deserve to be bragged about. She hadn’t spent all of that gold just to pretend as though she’d picked the staff off of a corpse by the mines.
She should have known better. A slave from Tevinter; she really should have known. But she didn’t and she doesn’t, so there’s nothing stopping her from running her mouth like the unmitigated arse that she is. It’s a miracle that it didn’t happen sooner, really. It’s a Maker-born miracle that the two of them have survived (metaphorically speaking, of course) in one another’s presence for so long without it ever coming up.
All good things, as they say.
“I know what you’re thinking,” she begins, “and I swear, the resemblance is not intentional. I hadn’t even noticed it until Isabela pointed it out, dirty little freak that she is, but I swear that it’s only visible when you look at it from a certain angle. Mostly.”
“It is not the…phallic resemblance that concerns me. Do you ever listen to yourself speak?”
“Not really.” She blinks. “Well then. What is it, exactly?”
“I did not know you were a mage.”
At the moment it seems almost comical. Marian Hawke, not a mage. Even the templars know that she is one, furious as she knows it makes them—she’s practically waved her staff in Cullen’s face, juggling it about like a fancy prop, and the poor tin can hasn’t been able to do a thing. Perks of being rich, she supposes.
“Am a mage. Present tense. And, I mean, seriously? You knew that I can see dead people, possibly the biggest secret in the history of my life, but you didn’t know that I can shoot little sparks of fire from my palms?” He eyes her hands skeptically, and she laughs. “I thought that you said ghosts talk. I find it hard to believe that at no point did anyone ever mention to you—myself included—that I’m at least somewhat arcane-inclined.”
“I had more pressing matters on my mind.” He actually sounds offended, which is both ridiculous and, in fact, more than a little annoying. “What I thought were more pressing matters, at least. It appears that I was mistaken.”
Marian can’t help it: she scoffs at his words, at the severity with which he speaks them. Was he some sort of Tevinter-style mage hunter? That would make the most sense, given his fancy armour and his apparent distaste for people like herself. A distaste that stings, perhaps more than it should. She’d thought the two of them were friends, or at least friendly. She hadn’t thought he’d look at her with an expression indicating that he was concerned she’d blow the entire house into bits.
So, naturally, she makes a joke of it all. She can’t think of anything else to do.
“Settle down there, Knight Commander. It’d be pretty hard for me to cause your ghostly being any harm. Pretty sure you need to be corporeal for my spells to do damage.”
She expects him to look sheepish, amused.
He is decidedly…not.
“You would be surprised.” There’s venom in Fenris’ voice. She can practically feel it scalding her skin. “I’ve seen mages do things far worse than wound the dead.”
“Then it’s a good thing I’m not mages. Just, you know, the same woman who’s been taking time out of her busy schedule to help you for the last month. Something akin to a friend, I’d thought.”
“Friend?” He practically spits the word in her face. “Or a tool that you can use for your personal gain?”
“First of all, you approached me first, you ungrateful fucking—”
“Please, spare me the sermon. I’ve heard it hundreds of times. Not all mages are the same, they say,” and Hawke is tempted to ask who the fuck they are and also to assert that, well, they’re fucking right. “And yet time and time again all evidence continues to point to the contrary. If there is a person on this planet who has been touched by magic and remained unspoiled, then I should very much like to meet them.”
It’s all very quiet.
It’s all very still.
She should have something to say. A rebuttal, maybe. Something witty or sharp or funny, something to deflect whatever hurt his words had caused. It’s right there in her quiver, a barb on the edge of her tongue, ready to be fired, and yet she can’t manage to let it loose.
For the first time in her adult life, Marian Hawke is taken aback. Stunned into a silence that permeates under the layers of her skin, running a shiver up her spine. Maybe it was foolish of her, thinking that she knew this ghost who had been in her life for less than a handful of weeks. Marian is a great many things—caustic, sardonic, obnoxious as anything—but she isn’t sensitive. She isn’t easily wounded, certainly not by words, certainly not by things spoken in anger.
Maybe that’s why what Fenris says cuts through to her core so deeply. He says it with such sharpened resolve, and as it slices through her gut she finds herself thinking that she wasn’t aware she was capable of being hurt at all.
She’d hardly had time to prepare.
“Well then,” she begins, ashamed of the way her voice wavers, ashamed of the way she seems to be falling apart at the seams. “Well then. I suppose that settles that, doesn’t it?”
It doesn’t matter. What she has to say—it doesn’t matter in the slightest.
By the time she says it, he’s already gone.
She keeps waiting for Fenris to show up.
Things only get worse from there.
Leandra Hawke dies in her daughter's arms.
Bitter red and bloodied, equipped with arms that aren’t hers. Legs that aren’t hers. Hands that aren’t hers. Marian’s mother, beautiful and proud and entirely herself, dies in someone else’s body, and she gets there too late to do anything about it. She can’t do anything other than hold her mother until she takes her last breath, hold her for a little while after that, sit there in her room at the end of it all and think that the house is too quiet, the house is too big for one person, Kirkwall is too—
Bethany isn’t buried in Kirkwall. Her father isn’t buried in Krikwall. Her mother is buried in Kirkwall with a ceremony that is too cold and impersonal, with people in attendance who hardly know her at all. People who’ve never seen Leandra as anything other than an ex-socialite with a famous daughter and a family that had half-fallen to pieces.
Gamlen cries. She hadn’t known him to be capable of such a thing.
Carver comes to the funeral. She grips him so tightly that her knuckles start to bleed. She memorizes his smell. It’s been muddled by the musk of the city but it’s still there, hidden beneath all of it: earth and smoke, gravel and dirt under her feet, the sun beating against back and beads of sweat dripping down her shoulders. Her mother, alive and well, greeting them at the door when they came home. Her father, serving them dinner. Bethany across the table, smiling at a joke neither of them have told yet.
She weeps into his shoulder like a child, a high-pitched wail, desperate and keening, holding him as if to keep him grounded onto the earth. Keep herself grounded, perhaps. Hawke can hardly tell the difference anymore.
Carver is here.
Carver is all that she has left.
“I am with you, Sister,” he says, and he says it so kindly that Marian begins to wish it was her in the ground. Dying would hurt less. “Remember that I am with you.”
She’s all that he has left, now.
“I’m with you too,” she says. “I’ll always be with you.”
She just hopes that she’s right.
Sleep eludes her after that.
Hawke sees nothing but ghosts.
She sees templars and mages and bandits. She sees foggy outlines of people that she’s killed, faces and names that she hardly recognizes, which brings a taste of copper and bile to her mouth. Sometimes they swear and spit at her, sometimes they look at her with so much hatred in her eyes that she struggles to remember why she had taken their lives in the first place. They’d tried to take her life first, she reminds herself. She didn’t have any other choice. She had never had any other choice.
Hawke sees ghosts. Not just when her eyes are open, either. She sees them when she’s lying in bed, when sleep overtakes her and she really can’t see anything at all. They whisper in her ear and claw at her throat. They follow her to the market, always two steps behind. She’s never been haunted quite like this. She’s never woken up like this, before the sun has gone up, covered in a cold sweat and panting as if she’s forgotten how to breathe. Nothing has felt like this before. She hopes that nothing feels like this ever again.
Marian doesn’t see her mother. She doesn’t see her sister. She doesn’t see her father. She hopes that this is because they’ve moved on, that this is because they are happy and free from the constraints of this absolute shit world, but there’s a horrible piece of her that feels as though this isn’t the case.
Hawke sees ghosts.
She lives with them every fucking day.
She can’t remember the last time she saw him.
Everyone is gone.
Everyone is gone, until they’re not.
Her mother has been gone for eight weeks when Fenris comes back.
She finds him sitting in her bedroom, awkwardly positioned at the foot of her bed with a look on his face as if he can’t remember how he wound up there in the first place. They stare at each other, suspended in time, and all that Marian can do is hold her breath and hope that she isn’t the first to break the silence.
“I was cruel,” he says, “and unfair. I was too wrapped up in my feelings to have considered your own. My personal biases are not without reason, but I should not have taken them out on you.”
“You shouldn’t have,” she echoes. “Fuck your reasons. I had done nothing to deserve that.”
“I was taking time out of my life to help you. I don’t need your fucking apologies. I’ve been living like this long enough; I can handle forever.”
“I know, Marian.” Fenris shifts in his seat, which is an odd enough sight—is he even properly sitting? Is his positioning uncomfortable? Such a thing seems impossible, but then she’s done as much as she could to keep the world of the dead a mystery. She supposes that they way that they sit should be no exception. “I know so many things now. Hawke, I…I’ve remembered.”
“Remembered what? Remembered your fucking manners?” God, she sounds like her mother. Minus the swearing, of course. Leandra would rather cut her tongue out; the cursing is entirely her own. “This apology tour is great, it really is, but I’ve got a lot more going on right now than your weird little vendetta, Fenris. Go find someone else to read you the chapter on the sabretooths. I’ve got better things to do than try and convince a dead bastard of an elf that I’m not going to try and turn him into my personal pet demon.”
“I’ve remembered Tevinter, Hawke.”
“I’ve remembered who I was.” He shifts over on the bed as if making room for her, which frankly is hilarious because she could just sit right on top of him and sink right through. Their whole situation is comical, really. There they stand, a ghost and the only person in the world who can see him, and she’s so fucking tired of the dead who linger and the dead who don’t that she’s attempting to kick him out of her house. “I should like to tell someone about it. Tell you about it. If I could.”
“How fascinating. Maybe you can tell it to the ghost with the empty eye sockets who hangs around the docks; she’s always moaning about how lonely she is. Perhaps another broody prick is exactly what she needs before she steps into the light.”
“Marian,” he says, begs, pleads. “I shouldn’t have left.”
“You shouldn’t have,” she agrees. “At least we both agree on that.”
“I would like to stay. If you’d have me, I should like to remain.”
There’s no reason for her to forgive him.
Marian Hawke, bruised and bloodied, the sole survivor of a battle she’d never intended to fight. Why should she allow him to remain here? She’s already got what she needs. She may not have a family, but she has a rag-tag group of arseholes waiting for her at The Hanged Man with stories of her mother, stories of love and light, and she’d like to drink with them and laugh with them and remember all of the things that could have been before all of the things that were had occurred. She has no want for anything else, certainly not for someone who had insulted her very being and then fucked off without a word.
And yet a problem remails. When she closes her eyes and pictures this pseudo-family, imagines them gathered around the table together with a deck of cards and pitchers of ale, there is always someone in the corner. Has been, for weeks now, with his narrowed eyes and pointed ears and a glimmer of amusement in his otherwise serious face. There, somehow tucked to the side and right in the forefront of her vision at once, as if he had been there all along.
There’s no reason for her to forgive him. She doesn’t, not really, but she still sees him—painted in the forefront of her vision like wisps of smoke from the fireplace, his presence in her life so tenuous that she is afraid to blink for fear that he will disappear entirely. For however angry with him she is, for however deep the scars of his rejection have been seared into her skin, she cannot bring herself to ask him to leave. For however much she wishes she could hate him, Marian cannot imagine feeling anything but relief at the very sight of him.
“I can’t listen to your story now,” she says, but holds up her hand to stop him from speaking over her. “Not now, but later. I have to go to my uncle’s house. We’re to be going over my mother’s last will and testament.”
“You’re more than welcome to come.” The surprise on his face mirrors her own. She hadn’t meant to invite him. It slips out without any prompting whatsoever. “I can’t talk to you while you’re there, obviously, but it would be…nice. To know that someone else is there.” It really would be nice, she thinks.
To not be alone.
His lips curve into a smile. It is unlike any that she’s seen from him before. It is bold and bright and it takes up the entirety of his face—his eyes wrinkle at the corners, his cheeks dimple in such a way that she’d never known ghost cheeks to be able to do. She wants to commit it to memory. Such a thing won’t be difficult, Marian is sure. Like rays of sunlight, it’ll burn itself onto her retinas long after she has turned her face away.
“I should very much like that,” he says, and she believes him.
Eventually he does, in fact, tell her who he was. What happened to him.
The lyrium tattoos. The burns that remained once the pain subsided. The scars that burrowed even deeper. Leto. He tells her about all of the times that he almost escaped and all of the times that he should have died and she listens, a glass of wine clutched between her fingertips, never taking a sip.
The tale of Leto is tragic. The tale of Fenris is even worse. She understands it now: why he was angry. Why he was frightened. Why he left. She doesn’t like it, that he’d seen her and made an unconscious correlation between herself and suffering, but at the very least Marian understands.
It’s very hard to not hate the thing that’s twisted you into what you are.
That’s the start of all of it, really.
The start of the important bits.
It takes them time. Steps in the right direction. Moving towards something that neither of them are willing to identify. They’ve moved on from Cats of Thedas, mostly because after he’d left Hawke at chucked the tome into the fire in a drunken fit of rage. Not her finest moment, admittedly.
He eyes the new book that she has placed between the two of them with derision, armored hands hovering wearily above its pages as if he might try to shove it away from his person. She would like to see him try.
Actually—actually no, she wouldn’t like that at all. This is a signed copy from the author herself, one that Hawke had stood in line for hours to get. The last thing that she needs is for Fenris to somehow become corporeal for just enough time to be able to cast one of her most prized possessions into flames. She’s not sure that she could handle yet another loss so massive.
“You cannot do this to me. You cannot.”
“We agreed, Fenris. You’re the one who had an anti-mage tantrum the last time you were here. We both determined that I’m well within my rights to choose our literature for the day.”
“That is true. Our initial agreement also concluded that we would not read anything of this ilk.”
“Well. Terms have changed, as it seems.”
“Changed, indeed. The Lusty Qunari Maid? Truly, Hawke, I thought that you had just been making that title up to annoy me.”
“That does sound like something I would do, doesn’t it?”
They grin at each other, and suddenly this feels like the start of it all over again—except it’s the start of something different, like they’ve stepped into another story altogether. It doesn’t last long, only flickers in the dark, but there’s a newness to the way he looks at her, to the air between the two of them, that leaves pinpricks on her skin and sends shivers down her spine.
And still, she knows. Even if they were to start something out of nothing, something more than reading books and combative flirting, what then? Hawke will age and grow and die, and Fenris will go find his weird text in Tevinter and pass on peacefully into the nothingness that awaits him. What future could they possibly have?
Marian is not one to think of futures. She’s not one to think of relationships, period, much more likely to consider a tousle in the sack and a prompt goodbye the next morning. But she can’t have that kind of tousle with Fenris, and she doesn’t want to say goodbye to him. That’s where all of the trouble lies. It seems that the only thing necessary for Hawke to get over her commitment issues is the promise of a tragic ending. Angst, one hundred percent guaranteed.
“Are you not even going to applaud me for reading a Q—word without your assistance? I’m wounded, Hawke, truly.”
“Fenris,” she says, leaning forward, placing a hand atop his; the only thing she feels is coldness accompanying the knowledge that she could pass right through, but she stops her movement at just the right moment so that an outside observer might see it hovering in the air, resting over a space where something should be. Something is. “Fenris. For the love of Andraste, are you making a joke?”
He looks at their hands, back to her face again, and smiles.
“I suppose you’ll never know.”
The Lusty Qunari Maid isn’t really about sex, despite the highly misleading title—chosen to sell more copies, no doubt.
There’s hardly any of it in the book at all. She’d meant what she’d said to Fenris all those weeks ago, swearing to him that the book was an entirely tasteful romantic novel with only a mily amount of sexual content. There’s no use of the words throbbing member, disappointing as that may be. There’s nothing to wound his delicate sensibilities, at least not so far as she is able to tell.
It is, however, a book about a love that is doomed from the start. It is a book about two people determining that they love each other so much that they cannot imagine putting one another through the agony of being together; they love each other so much that the only appropriate recourse is to let each other go. Bethany had been furious with the ending, calling it a ridiculous disappointment, but Marian had thought it to be quite beautiful—there is something so real, she had said, about tragedy.
She wouldn’t make Fenris read it if she didn’t know that he would like it. As they sit together she watches his face carefully, eyeing his reactions with the same scrutiny Anders uses when making one of his Totally-Not-A-Bomb potions.
His brow furrows. His eyes widen. He looks awed, and pleased, and saddened, and every mix of emotions between. When she returns from using the washroom or fetching some water she stands in the doorway and watches him, careful not to alert him to her presence. He’s read through at least five pages in her absence. Fenris is good, she realizes, his eyes scanning the page, enthralled by every word. Fenris is a proper scholar, really. He’ll figure it out for himself soon enough, and that’ll be that.
It’s best that she prepares herself for it now, or else she’s not certain she’ll recover.
It’s best that she lets him go.
But it is a bit terrifying, really, how quickly they fall back into it.
How quick she falls back into him.
They’re gathered around the table, this rag-tag group of hers, drinking and laughing and groaning as Isabela tells yet another (almost unbelievably) bawdy story from her time at sea. It’s home, or the closest thing that Marian has to it anymore, even if it smells like mildew and involves a drunk pirate talking about…whatever the fuck it is she’s talking about.
“And so the ship is sinking,” she says, arms spread out wide, “and the crew is panicking, but I still haven’t noticed because the Ambassador is doing this sort of twisting, spiraling thing with her tongue that’s got me—” Aveline throws a napkin with remarkable aim, knocking Isabela right in the forehead, and she grins. “Well. Apparently some of us are too sensitive for the details, so I’ll skip past all the good bits to get to the action. The other sort of action, I mean.”
“I don’t understand. How could a tongue be enough to distract you from nearly drowning?”
“Aw, Kitten. I’d be happy to come over later if you want a demonstration.”
“Andraste preserve me. This is why you all need to be attending service each week.”
“Chin up, Choir Boy. At least she’s not telling the story about the triplets.”
“Varric,” Aveline snaps, serious as Hawke has ever seen her. “For the love of the Maker, do not remind her about the triplet story.”
“Oh, I don’t think I’ve heard that one!”
“Daisy, it’s really not a story you want to—”
“The triplets. Oh, that one’s fucking fantastic!”
From there it all descends into chaos, as it usually does. Hawke sips her drink and watches, unusually quiet; she wants to memorize this moment. Preserve it in amber and keep it on her shelf. These people that she loves so dearly—even Sebastian, looking a little bit like he might vomit. Aveline, rolling her eyes so hard Marian is a bit concerned they might stick in the back of her head. Anders, hunched over his parchment, only looking up once every few minutes to make some snide comment or catch her eye and grin.
Look at these people, his glance seems to say. Look at this utter disaster of a group we’ve allowed ourselves to love. How lucky we are, it seems, to have found each other.
Cold air tickles the back of her neck. “Is it terrible that I want to hear this triplet story?”
Hawke suppresses a laugh in her hand, trying not to make her distraction obvious. This is where the picture has completed itself: Fenris, finally accompanying her to The Hanged Man after endless needling and the promise that she would never ask him to do so again. If he weren’t see-through, he would look as though he belonged there. He would look as though he’d been there all along.
“It’s really not all that scandalous,” Hawke mutters below her breath. “Well. By Isabela’s standards, I mean. If you want to hear something really nasty you’d need to get her going on Chantry sister she met in Ferelden—I swear, if she was clever she’d write all her stories down and sell them at The Blooming Rose. She’d make a killing.”
“Why am I not surprised that you’d want to encourage one of your friends to write smut?”
“Because you know that I’ve got good business smarts. I’m telling you, she could—”
“Talking to one of your ghosts, Hawke?”
The table has turned to stare at them—stare at her, specifically, and what she supposes looks like an empty space beside her. Fenris, for his part, looks a little bit sheepish, embarrassed to have been caught, even though she thinks that’s quite stupid because nobody has caught him at all. They’ve caught her, talking to the space where he should be like a lunatic. The humiliation is entirely her own.
“As a matter of fact, I am,” she says, playing it off as if it’s a joke. And why shouldn’t she? They’d never believe her anyway. “He’s rather interested in hearing Isabela’s triplet story, but I was just telling him that she should be enterprising and turn them into novels instead.”
“Oh, I like that. Why give out the goods for free when someone sucker will pay you for them?”
“You have ghosts, Hawke?” Merrill sounds horribly concerned, bless her heart. Although it is a bit strange, hearing the blood mage be concerned that she might be seeing spirits.
“Tons of them, apparently,” Varric says, shooting her a sharp grin. “She’s even got this one that she’s teaching to read.”
“Taught to read.” She sees Fenris smiling out of the corner of her eye, and Marian is grateful that he’s not bothered by the idea of them knowing of his existence. Even if they think it’s a joke. “He’s doing quite well on his own, now. We’ve practically finished The Lusty Qunari Maid, and I think he could tell you everything there is to know on the feeding habits of a domestic housecat.”
Anders scoffs. “What would a ghost know about cats?”
“This isn’t just any ghost, Blondie. You see,” Varric leans forward on the table, and Hawke knows—with a curling in her gut and a tightening of her throat—she knows exactly what he’s about to say, “our Champion here is in love with this one.”
The table laughs. All of them, Sebastian and Merrill and Aveline, even, hiding her mouth behind her hand but still chuckling at the idea: Marian Hawke, great Champion of Kirkwall, in love with a ghost that she’d taught to read. And it is hilarious, isn’t it? What a funny thought, that a woman touched by so much death, a woman who deals it out practically every fucking day, would find herself yearning for someone that she can’t even touch. Honestly, if it wasn’t her own tragic story she would have found it a perfectly comical form of irony.
But it’s hers, and it isn’t.
Funny, that is.
She turns around to tell Fenris as much, the words already resting on the tip of her tongue. I’m so sorry they’re drinking he doesn’t mean that please don’t leave again I swear—.
He’s already gone.
“I have to go.” She pushes herself up from the table, a little unsteady, shrugging off the supportive grip that Aveline offers her. “I’ve got to—fuck. I’ve got to go.”
Do they call after her? She’s not sure. She imagines that they must, guilty and confused, but Marian is hardly paying attention. All she can think about is that she just got him back; all she can think about is that she hasn’t said goodbye yet. She hasn’t told him that she’ll miss him. She hasn’t told him that she hopes his afterlife is a lot better than the catastrophe that his life-life had been. She hasn’t told him what she thinks of him, which is…it’s something she doesn’t want to say, but it’s something that she needs to.
Marian Hawke stumbles through the streets of Kirkwall well-past midnight, calling out the name of a dead man who seemingly doesn’t want to appear. She presses her hands against the stone walls of the city and wonders if he’s been there. She stumbles through her front door and wonders if she’ll ever see him again.
The house is quiet.
The air is still.
She should have seen this coming, really.
Or—okay, maybe she couldn’t have seen this coming at all.
He’s in her bedroom again. This is the second time that Hawke has found him there, and yet somehow it is entirely different than the first. This time he stands in the corner as if he’s afraid to move, stock still and staring at her like he’s worried that she might be the one to vanish into thin air, leaving nothing but a memory behind. As if she could, even if she wanted to.
“Was that true?” he asks.
There’s a lot of answers that she could give.
No, Varric’s just an asshole storyteller and he likes to turn everything into stupid dramatics even when they shouldn’t be, even when there isn’t anything there to dramatize about, you don’t have to worry about it at all.
I mean, I did say that to him, but I said it as a joke, right? Just something to fuck with his mind a little bit since he wouldn’t stop asking questions. Who would be stupid enough to fall in love with a dead person? No offense, but certainly not me. You know, intelligence is one of my only redeemable attributes. It’s about all I’ve got going for me.
I meant friend-love, you know? Very impersonal. Very unromantic. Familial, one might say. I say that about everyone. I even love Carver, despite everything telling me what a shit idea that is.
None of those quite seem to fit.
“I said it ages ago. Before you left,” Marian clarifies, and then pauses—half-truths feel wrong. Lying feels wrong. After everything, after all of it, she supposes that he deserves some honesty. “It’s true,” she says. “Yeah, it’s true. Fuck knows why, annoying as you are, but it really is.”
They stare at each other. He stares at her; she casts her gaze away, looks towards her bed, shucks off her shoes and her robes that stink of ale. If Fenris watches her she tries her hardest not to notice; Hawke isn’t stripping naked in front of him, she isn’t that much of an arse, but she figures that she’s bared more than enough of herself already. Some shoulders and thighs shouldn’t make much of a difference. She doesn’t know what she thinks is going to happen. She really just wants to sleep.
If he were a man, with flesh and bones and body mass, the bed would shift under his weight. There would be an indent where he lay. The fabric would adjust to his form and she would feel it, his warmth beside her, the heat of his fingers as they reached in front to grasp her hands in his own.
If he were alive, she would feel all of it.
Marian Hawke fucking hates seeing ghosts.
“You have led me to the strangest of places, Hawke,” he says, and she furrows her brow at his words. She hasn’t brought him anywhere other than here. “A ghost, a former slave to magic in all its forms, in love with a mage who happens to be very much alive?” He scoffs. “How utterly foolish we were, to imagine that this might end in any other way.”
“Like children,” she agrees.
“I have to go. In the morning, I have to—” he presses his hand to her cheek. If she closes her eyes she can imagine it, gentle as anything, feather-light and breaking her heart in two. “Marian. You know that I don’t want to.”
“Don’t want to return to Tevinter? By the gods, I can hardly imagine why not.”
“Don’t want to leave you,” he corrects, although she can hear the laughter in his voice. She’s finally done it, she thinks. She’s finally caused him to crack. She only wishes it hadn’t taken this long. “If I could, I would stay with you until this world crumbled into ash.”
“And yet,” he echoes.
“Whatever version of the afterlife you end up in,” she says, shifting closer to him, close enough that the cold air of his aura trickles down her spine; it’s the sweetest thing she’s ever felt, “I hope that it’s shit, and I hope you spend the entire time wishing that you’d been clever enough to stay with me.”
“I’m sure that I will.”
“I hate you.”
“I’m never going to love anyone else, you prick.” He chuckles, and she swears that she can almost feel his breath against her cheek. Almost. “You’ve ruined me for living men. None of them can pass through walls.”
“I think that might be the sweetest thing you’ve ever said to me.”
“Don’t get used to it.” He can’t get used to it, though. He cannot, because he’ll be gone soon and he won’t have anything to be used to at all, which is a fatalistic and tragic thought and as such Hawke refuses to have it. “I’m going to miss you. I’m really going to miss you. How awful is that?”
“Perhaps it will not be so long. Stranger things have happened, after all. At least, stranger things have happened to the two of us.”
Her eyes are beginning to flutter shut. Hawke hopes that she dreams of him when she falls asleep. She hopes, pathetic as it may seem, that she’ll be able to stay there forever. If this is the last bit of time that she has to spend with him, she never wants to leave it.
“I’ll see you on the other side,” he says.
“I’ll be the one covered in ogre guts.”
“I don’t doubt it.”
She wakes up the next morning. Of course she does.
Fenris isn’t there.
She waits until the end of the night, tired and angry and alone.
Fate is one cruel fucking bastard.
Life continues on, though.
Hawke kills dragons. She gets the Bone Pit in working order, again and again and again. They make a decent amount of money off of this endeavor, money that she doesn’t need because she’s the fucking Champion of Kirkwall, and so she gives it to Orana and Bohdan and the children who live in the slums, begging for scraps at the feet of the rich.
This isn’t out of the kindness of her heart. It’s because she’s so fucking sick of looking at it, this money flecked with blood, and seeing her reflection in the ever-shining surface of the gold.
She loves this city. She loves the stink of shit and the salt from the ocean that wafts along the breeze, reminding her why she’s there in the first place. She loves going to Merrill’s house for tea, eating biscuits in the sitting room-slash-kitchen. She loves stretching out across Ander’s lap as he reads to her from his manifesto. She loves drinking and reminiscing about Ferelden with Aveline. She loves the gentle timbre of Sebastian’s accent as he preaches, cutting through the dark of her days. She loves listening to Isabela talk about all of the things that could have been, should have been, probably would have been if Hawke had been there with her.
She loves writing letters to Carver, longer than they should be, probably long enough that he’s not bothering to read all of him. How’s it going, Master Warden? We’re all very proud of you. Gamlen nearly teared up at the mention of your name at dinner the other night. You’ve truly become a family legend.
Marian loves her uncle. Her dog. They sit at her mother’s grave and it’s—it isn’t right, not exactly, but at the very least it is something where nothing should be. She doesn’t think she could ask for anything more than that.
“What was he like?” Varric asks, as he rests between her legs, back to her chest, and she twists his hair into intricate braids. They’re the same kind of braids she used to give Bethany. Whoever the gods above are, they seem to have a sick sense of humor. “Your ghost. I’m sorry I didn’t get to meet him.”
She loves Varric. She loves the rasp that accompanies his words and she loves the way that he loves her, aimless and without compromise. Hawke wishes that he would have met Fenris; she’s certain that he would have loved him too.
“Ridiculous,” she says, after only a moment. “Dramatic and whiny and utterly insufferable. A complete fucking piece of work. He once told me that he thought The Lusty Qunari Maid was, and I quote, endearing but overrated. Can you imagine such a thing?”
He laughs, the sound reverberating through her ribs, down to her core. “Impossible.”
“And yet he existed. I’m sure he did. You know me,” she says, and takes a sip of her drink as if to punctuate her words, “Maker knows I would only find myself falling for someone who would make everything as difficult as possible. And fuck if he didn’t do everything in his power to turn my life into a living hell.”
“He sounds like an asshole.”
“He was.” Marian pauses, twisting a lock of hair between her fingers. “You would have loved him.”
“I’m sure I would.” Varric extends his hand up and she drops his hair, just for a moment, to tap her glass against his own. The sound echoes through the room, ringing like a bell. Hawke wonders how well he knows this: what it’s like to yearn for someone who may as well not exist at all. Someone who may as well not have ever existed in the first place. “If you loved him, I’m sure I would.”
They drink long into the night.
Life continues on.
One week and two days after Fenris disappeared from her life entirely, Marian stops seeing ghosts.
The streets of Lowtown are nearly empty. No one wakes her up in the middle of the night, shrieking about everything they’ve never done but wished that they had. No mothers wail for their children. No children play tag in the more dangerous alleyways.
Her mother never appears in her bedroom. Bethany never appears in her bedroom. Her father never sparks into existence, clutching her tight, whispering into her hair that it’s alright, that he’s there, that he’s proud of her, that she’s done everything that she could and none of it is her fault—this was the way that it was always meant to be. If her father had said it, she might have believed it.
But he doesn’t say it. He doesn’t appear, and neither do the cats that twist around her legs, the mice that they chase, the children with the hollow cheeks and the pale faces who sing songs of peace and joy just outside the Chantry doors.
She’s dreamed of this day for ages. As much as Marian has pretended that the ghosts don’t bother her, that they’re just another part of her life—she’s imagined what it would be like to live without the fear that someone would crop up beside her while she was trying to wash her nether regions. This is what she had wanted, isn’t is? The is what she had been aiming for all along: the gentle peace of absolution.
Fenris has done what he had set out to do. Fenris has accomplished his goals. Fenris is gone, and all that she has left is an aching in her chest where he used to exist. The only proof she has of his existence is the invisible wound that he has left behind.
Everything is quiet and calm.
Everything is gentle.
Everything is as it should.
She nearly falls in battle, at least a few times.
Not on purpose. Marian isn’t suicidal—she would never give her life for the ghost of a man.
It’s just more peaceful than she thought it would be. There’s just less fear than should exist. Maybe her family is waiting for her. Maybe Fenris is there, smile on his face, waiting for her to come to the place where she has always belonged. She should have been dead a long time ago, after all.
She never dies, though.
Hawke has never been much good at doing what she is meant to.
It takes weeks.
She stumbles into her home at quarter-past eight in the evening. There is blood running down from a gash in her forehead and blood running down from a wound in her side—but she’s alive, isn’t she? Almost painfully so. Each breath that she takes is a reminder: she won’t be making her way out of here any time soon.
Bohdan is there to greet her at the door, as he has been ever since her mother had passed. He seems anxious, fidgety and out of sorts, approaching her with a tremor that would be impossible not to notice. He fidgets and stumbles towards her, hands looking desperate to find anything to cling onto. This isn’t entirely unusual; what is unusual is the way that he is looking at her, with fear in his eyes, hands trembling as he attempts to remove the bloody cloak from her shoulders.
“It’s spider blood,” Hawke says, as if this would somehow be more soothing. “Giant fucking spiders, but ones that definitely deserve to die.”
“I don’t doubt it, Mistress.”
“You look like you’ve seen a ghost, Bohdan.” Her own words cause a laugh to bubble up, escaping from between her lips before she can stop them. Gods, when was the last time she had done so? “I assure you, no one that I’ve killed as of late has been one of our personal acquaintances.”
He leans towards her, as concerned as ever, and Marian begins to wonder if perhaps she’s misjudged Bohdan all along—if perhaps he’s a lot more bothered by her extracurricular activities than he has previously let on.
“There’s a gentleman in your bedroom,” he whispers, voice alight with panic and concern, which is very much not the answer that she had expected. “I had tried to tell him to wait downstairs, Mistress, but he’d started to glow and I wasn’t certain what I was meant to do.” Her brow furrows. No man that she’s known has ever glowed. No living man, anyways. “He said…oh, goodness. I don’t know if I should say anything further.”
Her hand reaches over her shoulder, back towards her staff. “You most certainly should.”
“He said…he said that his plan worked. And he said that the ghosts of the dead don’t look so different from the ghosts of the half-living. Mistress Hawke, I swear, I never meant to let such a person into your quarters, but I have Sandal to protect and I thought that perhaps—”
She’s halfway up the stairs before he can finish his sentence.
He waits for her on the foot of her bed, mattress indented from the weight of him, gripping the sheets between his fingers as though he’s afraid that letting go might cause him to disappear entirely.
Here are the things that Marian knows:
His hair is white. His eyes are green, so fucking green that she thinks her seasonal allergies might flare up just from looking at him and Maker, is such a thing even allowed? His skin is the colour of tanned leather, leather like the armour that he’s wearing, the same armour that he had been wearing before. Not soldier’s armour, she realizes. Mercenary’s armour, maybe, the equipment of someone who had escaped something that they were never meant to.
And he looks startled when she walks in. He looks as though he hadn’t been expecting her at all, which is hilarious because—well, because this is her room, her house, and it’s the edge of her bed that he’s sitting on, and it’s her sheets that he’s clinging to as if to keep him anchored to the rest of the world.
She can’t see past him.
Literally. She looks at him, completely opaque, and realizes that she cannot see anything else that his form might be blocking.
“I told you that I had a plan,” he says, nervous as a child asking their crush to dance. “I told you that I would see you on the other side. It is not my fault that you didn’t realize whose side I meant.”
“You’re an asshole,” she snaps.
It’s only two steps. Three or four for anyone else, maybe, but Hawke is six-foot-something and she’s never been known to take her time when it comes to something that she wants. She’s never been known to hold herself back, and Fenris won’t be any sort of exception.
Not to this rule, at least.
Marian Hawke doesn’t see ghosts anymore. This is okay, she thinks.
As Fenris could attest to, her talents lie elsewhere.