A low thunk echoes up the cliffside. His first guess is that it is the sound of an abandoned cart or something being blown against the rocks. But after a few moments of stomping along the windy coastal path, sore-footed and exhausted, Varric realizes the sound has a regularity that it is too patterned to be natural, and that is what captures his attention.
He squints through the sand blowing past his face. He makes a silent prayer to the Maker and then peers over the edge of the cliff, wondering vaguely if he might be able to harass someone in the Viscount’s Keep to build a dwarf-sized railing out here to prevent untimely accidents. There—he spies a small figure some ten meters below him, arms moving rhythmically. The thunk is the sound of a shovel striking ground. He looks away before the vertigo overwhelms him.
“Hawke!” he calls, squeezing his eyes shut to protect himself from both dizziness and sand. “Hawke!”
There’s no response, but he wasn’t expecting one. Of course, Hawke demands his time whenever she likes, but she only replies when she wants to.
Varric marches along the path to the fork in the road and takes the right turn, leading him to a steep set of human-sized wooden stairs that travel down the cliff. At least there’s a railing here, but—he presses on it and the wood rocks back on its foundation, creaking. Wonderful.
“The things I do for her,” he mutters to Bianca, and takes the first step.
By the time he reaches the bottom, Hawke has dug herself a hole up to her waist. She doesn’t look up when he trudges his way over.
“You missed our standing appointment,” he says as he reaches her. The wind isn’t so bad down here, but something foul hits his nose—probably the scent of dead animals, as the Bone Pit dragons occasionally travel as far as the Coast to hunt for game. “Y’know, a weekly ‘are you still alive’ check-in only works if all participants agree to show. Otherwise those that do show up tend to, y’know. Worry.”
No response. Figures.
“By the Stone, Hawke. I’ve been looking for you for three hours out here. I’ve got a pound of sand up my ass. Aveline has the others searching the Coast and Sundermount. Do me the courtesy of telling me what in the Maker’s name you’re doing out here. And what in the Void is that smell?”
She stops shoveling. Doesn’t look at him, but she points to a mound of something behind her, which he had not noticed until now. Whatever it is, it is covered by a white sheet stained deep brown. Flies are buzzing around it, and Varric has a sinking feeling, and suddenly he knows what’s going to happen before Hawke even waves her hand. The sheet flies off and crumples in a pile a few meters away.
He finds himself staring at Pup’s huge, brown, lifeless eyes. A large, ugly tear in the poor beast’s chest leaves a bloody mess of intestines trailing out from his stomach. The ground around him is stained reddish-brown, blood soaking the dirt.
“Andraste’s ass,” Varric breathes. “What happened?”
“High dragon.” Hawke turns back to her pit emotionless, still not looking at him. “We’re going to have to take care of that one eventually.”
Varric nods mutely then finds the strength to sit down on a nearby rock, flat and broad and thankfully just the right height. His legs are wobbling from the long hike, or maybe the shock of Pup’s corpse lying three meters away, or maybe just relief at finding Hawke unharmed after nobody had heard from her in two days.
He comes up with a few options of things to say, but each are attempts to lighten the mood, and none of them seem appropriate. He chews a lip. When he was younger, his mother was forever reminding him that silence was always an option, that he did not have to speak constantly, that she would still remember he was there even if he was drawing quietly in the room next door—but that was never how Varric operated. With Bartrand for an older brother constantly starting fights to prove his worth and heritage, Varric had learned early to speak to relieve tension, to calm nerves and soothe tempers, including his own.
None of that would be welcome now, he suspects. Hawke does not like being handled, and she has a certain ear for when she knows he’s trying to do so. Hawke also particularly enjoys being angry—thrives on it, really. His job now is to not let her misuse that anger, and whoever is closest is always the best target.
Questions crowd his brain, and he nearly breaks and voices them, desperate to fill the silence. Don’t Fereldens burn their dead? Why not make a grave with magic?
The shovel strikes the dirt, and he thinks that that one does not need answering. Something about the weight of the tool, the labor of the effort, matching the weight you feel when a loved one dies. The loss you have now that they are gone.
Varric understands why she needed to be alone for something like this, and feels suddenly worse for having come. Wonders if it is not too late to leave. And even knowing Hawke likely doesn’t want him here, he can’t bring himself to stand up and walk away, thinking that it would violate some unspoken term of friendship.
She doesn’t normally care about those things. He does, though. When his mother had died, Bartrand had missed the funeral for the bottle. Varric knows what it is like to bury a loved one alone.
“I need that rock you’re sitting on,” she says eventually. He moves to stand up, but she shakes her head. “Not now. When I’m done. As a gravestone.”
He watches her dig until the sun goes down.
Varric takes her back to the Hanged Man.
She says no.
The lanterns are dimmed and the noise from the lower floor is quiet, save for the occasional cheer or infrequent bark of laughter. She is asleep on his bed, hogging both of his blankets and all three of his pillows. He is at his desk across the room, trying to find the language to describe another day with Hawke, wondering if he should be attempting to put this one into words at all. An all-too-common situation for the both of them, he muses.
Stuff like this—the personal stuff, the stuff she’d kill him for sharing, it doesn’t go into the stories. It was a personal policy of his long before he met her—since he met a woman named Bianca, in fact—and Hawke has never asked him not to share it, he has simply refrained. He’s honored that she’s felt she never had to ask.
But there’s a difference between the stories and the Stories: the ones he tells to others, and the ones he keeps for himself. He writes those down not for posterity, but to put into words the life he has lived, the lives he sees others living, to navigate the complexities of his most meaningful connections as he grows older and more forgetful. And Hawke is the most complex life he has ever seen, with the most bafflingly magnetic personality propelling her forward. Still, for all the years he’s known her, he hasn’t learned all the tricks to predicting some of her reactions: what inspires laughter, what brings anger instead, or moodiness.
He’s thinking about writing a book, is the thing. About all of this. It’s just a thought. He thinks she would hate it. But he’s been wondering lately—wondered it as he described Carver’s sunken, bloodshot eyes; and again as he catalogued Leandra’s fate in as few gruesome details as possible—he’s been wondering if she would even care at all. She doesn’t seem to react to much, these days.
Varric sighs down at the blank page and puts his quill away, then extinguishes the lantern by his writing desk. There’s a sluggish breeze drifting through the window, but the night is hot, so he takes his shirt off before heading for the bed. Nudges her over—humans are bloody heavy, and Hawke sleeps like the dead—and crawls onto the side, electing to ignore the fact that she is taking up three-fourths of his mattress and one wrong movement in the night would send him tumbling over onto the floorboards.
Stars twinkle at him from the open window. Footsteps in the hallway sound as patrons head to their rooms. Somewhere outside, he hears the distant howl of a lone mabari.
“Next time I’m missing, don’t find me,” Hawke mutters.
He exhales heavily through his nose.
“I mean it. Even if I said I’d be somewhere and I’m not.”
“Kind of defeats the purpose of those weekly get-togethers that, need I remind you, you yourself asked me to start keeping,” he murmurs. “Getting a few mixed signals here.”
“I said at the time I reserved the right to change my mind.”
She takes a pillow from her side and shoves it between them, a barrier. He grabs it and stuffs it under his head. “Hawke,” he tries. “I worry. It’s who I am. If you want me to stop… checking in, I will, but you know I’ll just have someone else tail you instead. Even if you never speak to me again.”
“Varric,” her voice says coldly in the dark, “if I wanted to disappear, all the spies in Thedas couldn’t find me.”
He looks over. She’s a large, unmoving lump on the other side of the bed, back facing him. Her pale hair shines dimly in the dark; he has a sudden, overwhelming urge to touch it, twine it in his fingers, but he stops his hand. They are close, but—not like that, not like he has wondered, maybe, in another life...
“Will you stay in Kirkwall?” He silently prepares himself for any answer she might give.
She is quiet for a while. He supposes it was a dumb question. But a fair one: Meredith’s and Orsino’s war is threatening to consume the city, and he thinks often that if Hawke does not find a way out of its vortex, it will take her with it.
“I have nothing left here for me,” is all she says, and he supposes that answers what he was really asking, anyway.
He understands something died today inside of Hawke, something more than Pup. Sometimes the parts of you that go when you lose someone don’t come back, no matter how many holes you try to fill in with distraction and companionship. Maker knows he’s tried.
So he doesn’t mention her house, her riches, her fame. Their friends. Him. He says quietly, “Goodnight, Hawke,” and rolls over to leave them both to their restless, lonely sleep.
Fenris is in the garden behind his estate when Varric arrives with a bottle of brandy dangling from one hand and a question still forming in his mind. Calling it a garden is, of course, a formality: Some former owner clearly had plans for this green space in the middle of Hightown, but the towering walls of the neighboring homes block out nearly all sunlight except the midday light, making any but the most dedicated efforts rather pointless. The place looks long forgotten by human hands; Varric suspects nothing green has flourished here since the turn of the century but vines and crabgrass.
The elf is kicking dirt over a large mound underneath the branches of a sagging, poorly willow in the back corner of the yard. He brushes dirt from his hands and wipes off his trousers, then turns and catches sight of Varric. He eyes the bottle but only raises an eyebrow in greeting.
“Missed you at the Hanged Man for Wicked Grace night.” Varric takes a seat on the back porch.
“I was preoccupied.”
Varric hesitates. “Is that what I think it is?”
Fenris nods to the corner of the yard where a skinny, spotted mabari rests in the shade of the house, curled in on a tiny, nesting newborn. Her shallow breaths come in snoring wheezes.
“She all right?”
“She is exhausted, understandably. But she did well.” Fenris glances back to the dirt mound, maybe unconsciously, but Varric catches the look and puts two and two together. “Five in total. He was the only one to make it through the night.”
Varric looks back at the dirt with new, solemn appreciation, nodding slowly.
“Why are you here?”
“I came to trade you.” Varric holds up. “A bottle for the little guy.”
Fenris looks to the bottle, then back to the puppy snoring away in his mother’s lap. “He is far too young to be weaned.”
“No problem. Didn’t think she’d go into labor so early. I was prepared to pay in advance. That is, unless you want to keep him.”
Fenris exhales and after some thought, takes a seat next to Varric and grabs the bottle, yanking the cork out and taking a swig. “This is awful,” he declares, but makes no move to give it back.
“You take the fun out of this every time. Come on, have a guess.”
The elf sucks on his teeth, considering. He smells the rim, eyes closed. “Ferelden,” he says eventually. “Honeysuckle… Denerim?”
“Highever,” Varric says, impressed. “It’s brandy from the West Hills. Nice guess.”
“You are lucky I have neither the time nor energy to care for a second mabari. One pup is worth more than whatever swill you find from Corff’s storehouse,” Fenris says, but still takes another drink. “Whom is the dog for?”
Varric considers bluffing—Who’s to say it’s not for me? he could ask, but Fenris would probably counter with, The closest thing to a pet you will ever own is that crossbow, which would just hurt Bianca’s feelings, and besides which, he wouldn’t be entirely wrong.
He comes to the awful, unsettling decision to tell the truth. Fenris will find out eventually.
“Hawke,” he says, and stops. Tries to find the quickest way to put this that won’t reveal too much, that will still do justice to the loyal companion that they have known and loved for nearly on six years. A part of their rugged, motley family, that dog was. “Pup didn’t make it out of a fight on the Coast.”
He meets Fenris’s eyes in understanding. The elf’s gaze flicks back to the sleeping beasts.
“You needn’t have traded me,” Fenris says after a moment. “You brought her to me all those months ago. I owe you.”
“Don’t think on it. She was injured and needed a quiet place to recover. I thought she might keep you company until she was back on her feet. I didn’t actually expect she’d like this place enough to stick around, what with your house still decorated with slaver blood and demon ichor.”
“Clearly, she hasn’t been ‘sticking around’ the manor often at all, as she fell pregnant almost immediately on recovery,” Fenris says, one brow raised.
Varric waves a hand. “Poor girl was out enjoying herself, making up for lost time.”
Fenris rolls his eyes and passes the bottle over.
On a cool, balmy day in Firstfall, Varric carries a small bundle in his coat up the long trek to Hightown, where Bodahn waves him inside from Hawke’s front door.
“Glad you’ve come, messere. She’s been unwell today…”
“What kind of unwell?”
“Injured yesterday, she was. Your healer friend was over this morning checking in. Says she’ll recover, but bedrest is of the utmost importance now.” He glances nervously up the stairs. “She isn’t seeing visitors, but I suppose an exception can be made…”
Varric takes that for as much of an invitation he is likely to get, and starts trudging up the steps, careful not to jostle his delicate package.
In the master bedroom, Hawke is lying underneath the deep burgundy bedspread. Her left arm, lying over the covers, is wrapped stiffly in white dressing from shoulder to elbow. A roaring fire is crackling in the fireplace. Her eyes are closed until he enters the room. When he steps inside, she sees who it is, and then turns her gaze to the wall, where a clutter of objects lie in a pile: shining dragon scales; a bag of gold; her staff; a dusty, but usable, set of silverite armor.
“I see you took care of that high dragon.”
“I said I would.”
“You didn’t say you would do it alone.”
“I wasn’t alone,” Hawke says, but does not elaborate. I didn’t ask you to come, is the message, and he reads it loud and clear.
“Hawke,” he tries, but can’t go on.
She glances his way, just for a fraction of a second, and then trains her gaze on the ceiling.
He moves to sit on the side of her bed, facing one of the tall windows looking eastward. He looks out and tries to imagine waking up to this pristine, stately Hightown neighborhood every morning and going to sleep to it every night, and finds that he can’t. Then he remembers how Hawke had bought this house for her mother, and whatever semblance of her old life that could have been restored with its reclaiming; then he thinks about how everyone that her efforts were meant to support is no longer here to see the fruits of her labor.
Varric sighs and takes the bundle out from his cloak. The little guy has been blessedly silent all afternoon, but he suspects—yup—that it is because he is fast asleep.
Hawke stares at him as he lays the spotted puppy on the blanket next to her. His paws curl and nose twitches, but his eyes don’t open.
She swallows. “What’s this,” she says, but it comes out like a whisper.
“You don’t need to tell me everything, or meet up anymore,” Varric finds himself saying. “Maker knows I haven’t been the most reliable at keeping my appointments, either. But no matter if you stay here, or leave the city altogether, if you find yourself needing company… I don’t want you to be alone,” he finishes lamely.
Hawke looks to the dog, and then looks to him, putting his words together in tandem with this unexpected gift. “You’re the most reliable person I know,” she says quietly.
“I think we both know that’s not true. I’m just saying—whatever you need, I get it. Distance. Time. A vacation. A new city. No hard feelings.”
“Varric—that’s not it,” she starts, but doesn’t elaborate. She’s staring at him wide-eyed, as if she’s trying to say something else, but can’t find the words. Maker, does he know the feeling.
He clears his throat. “Well, ah. Little guy’s house-trained. Although you might not want to come around my place for a while, it’ll take some time to replace the floorboards and get rid of the smell.”
“Your place always smells like alcohol anyway,” she mutters. “Mabari piss would be a nice change of pace.”
“We’ll switch rooms for a week and you see how you like it, then.”
Something brushes his fingers. He looks down to see her hand, reaching for his own. Before he can think about it too much, he weaves his fingers through hers.
“Thank you,” Hawke tells the bedspread, and Varric nods.
Her other hand reaches for the mabari, stroking its soft, velvet ear. Watching its small body breathe in, out; up, down; alive. She closes her eyes.
The little guy will grow up to be a fierce hound one day, naturally, and Hawke will have her mabari, as he has put to words. Nobody outside this little story will be the wiser.
He squeezes tight.