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He had to admit, he wasn’t completely sure how he ended up out here.

The Seeker practically kidnapping him out of Kirkwall had started the whole thing. But the turns beyond that were frankly unbelievable. The Conclave getting blown to hell, the demons rolling down the mountain, the rifts in the air, and now he’s back-to-back with some taciturn elf, doing what he can to avoid the end of the world.

At least, if the world ends, he’ll be one of the first to go, standing under the epicenter as he was. He’d hate to have to stand around and watch it happen.

He took a second to reload Bianca when there was a lull, knowing full well there were far more demons on the mountain than he had bolts. The grumpy bastard he’d ended up with – if he survived this, he was calling the prick Chuckles, just to be an ass – definitely had his shit together. They were alone on this patch of earth because they were the only two who had survived this long, and not due to any particular interest. He made a conscious effort not to look at the bodies lying around; the demons didn’t leave much behind, so every corpse on the ground was someone he’d been laughing with just a few hours ago.

When the Seeker plowed into the fight, he was equal parts relieved and aggravated. The last thing he needed was the Seeker deciding he owed her a favor. He kept his eyes resolutely to the turning battle in front of him; the longer he could pretend she wasn’t there, the happier he’d be.

She hadn’t come alone, he could see. There were at least two shields swinging around him and Chuckles, but without knowing which was the Seeker he opted to just ignore them both.

They hit another lull, and he expected the Seeker to order them back to Haven.

What he didn’t expect was for Chuckles to grab the newcomer by the hand and then use that hand to throw a stream of green fire into the rift. The muffled explosion that followed, signifying the closing of a hole in the sky, was a welcome surprise.

He should have been listening to what Chuckles was saying to the Seeker and the newbie, but the Seeker’s warrior companion had just turned, and his mind shut off.

Same height. Same build. Andraste’s ass, same hair cut.

She was too dark; hair was nearly chestnut and her skin showed too much time in the sun. And her nose was just a tad too narrow. Actually, there were probably a dozen tiny differences; the more he looked the easier it got. The biggest hangup were the eyes – he never thought he’d come across that precise color of turquoise again. The shape was slightly different, though, so he could get over it.

But Varric Tethras would never forget that the first time he laid eyes on Malika Cadash, he thought she was Bianca Davri.

 

*

 

Varric had a lot to recommend him, aside from being the only other dwarf around besides Harding. He was dry. He was sarcastic. He was funny as hell. Malika adored him instantly.

Solas warmed up more the longer you talked to him. The Fade was fascinating – and if she was going to have something on her hand that linked her to that alien dreamworld, she wanted to know as much about it as she could. The more she asked him about it, the happier he was, so they got on well, fast.

Cassandra and Cullen were always good for a spot of training, as was Blackwall once he signed on. She spent more and more time with Cullen as she saw the lyrium madness on him; she saw too many Templars while she was with the Carta to not know what he was dealing with, and he appreciated her knowing without having to be told. If Cullen was busy, though, Cassandra was always available for a nasty little spar, and Malika loved her for it.

Leliana was fucking nuts. Josephine was the worst kind of naïve: the kind that thought it was worldly. She could navigate the Game, but Malika was pretty sure the Antivan was so good with politics because of positioning and a willingness to bend over backwards to get along with everybody more than any level of guile. Leliana at least was willing to rock the boat, even if she was bailing it out with a 5 gallon bucket of crazy. Vivienne didn’t seem much better.

Bull and Sera and Dorian were the best. And if any of them had been a dwarf, she might have looked at them twice. But frankly she was convinced the qunari would tear her in half, and the elf didn’t have the parts and pieces Malika was interested in. Ditto for Scout Harding – even if she was just cute as a button. Which was the same problem Dorian had with her.

So while Malika watched Dorian and the Bull fall for each other, and Blackwall tear himself apart longing for Josephine, Malika threw herself into her work and considered herself blessed five times over for being thrown into this maelstrom of insanity with a pack of people she could honestly consider friends.

And as much as that half-ass smirk of his warmed her heart, it was pretty plain that Varric Tethras was untouchable.

 

*

 

“Watch it, Pops, you almost put that one in my back!”

Malika had pulled all the demons from the rift into a tight circle around her, spinning quickly with shield and sword to keep all of them intent on her. Dozens of paces away, Varric and Sera shot wooden death into the melee while Dorian rained down fire and ice. The system was pretty fool proof, as long as none of the monsters lost interest in her and charged her team. And none of their spells, bolts, or arrows missed their targets.

“That one was Buttercup, Kiddo. You’d think you’d know the difference by now.”

A shade exploded into nothingness next to her, the space it vacated immediately filled by a rage demon. They could smell the rift on her; as long as she kept them distracted from what was actually killing them they were almost too eay to control. It wasn’t as easy in groups of men or wolves, and forget mabari; but demons were almost too easy to herd.

“Wot? It bloody well was not. Might as well blame it on Dorian if you’re going to just lie about it.”

The demons on (what was currently) her right side suddenly all froze solid, and Malika quickly bashed several into ice cubes before they could thaw.

“Please leave me out of this,” the Tevinter’s voice called from the opposite side of the battle as the two rogues. “As lovely as your little family disputes are, I really don’t have a place in them.”

The last demon exploded with a little pop of green ooze, and Malika threw her shield arm into the air, the anchor on her left palm flaring to life as she closed the rift directly above her head. Another muffled explosion, some quickly evaporating green droplets, and the rift was sealed. She sheathed her sword but cast a critical look over her shoulder before slinging her shield onto her back.

“There’s no fletching popping out of your armor, Miss Cynical,” Varric said as he trudged over to her. “Bianca would give you a through-and-through, even with that ridiculous plate you insist on wearing.”

“Ah, so you’re saying I should watch for the fletching in the front, Old Man?”

“I’m always a fan of fletching in the front,” Dorian chimed in as Sera called “Get it? Because man-parts!”

Varric and Malika both rolled their eyes before laughing. Less than a minute before, an had arrow whizzed off her armor while she was surrounded by a veritable horde of demons, and here they were making (very poor) innuendo about puncture wounds.

“You crazy bastards are the best part about this job,” she said, settling her gear in place.

“I know my father, thank you very much,” Dorian scoffed. “Honestly, you even met the man.”

Another eyeroll, and she led them off to find another fight. Or maybe establish a new base camp. Or perhaps claim a keep, or clear out a cave. The fights ran together, the missions blurred. But every night, whether in her rooms in Skyhold or in a tent in camp or laid out under the stars, Malika looked at her friends and counted herself blessed.

 

*

 

“You ever going to settle on a nickname for me, Tethras?”

They were sitting on either side of the fire in the Skyhold great hall. The place had mostly emptied for the night, and she had idly thrown down a deck of cards when she pulled out a chair and dropped herself down to sit next to him some hours after dinner. They spent enough time in the field together she could read all his tells, and she knew damn well he could read her like a book, so any game they played was an exercise in futility. They did it anyway.

“I could ask you the same thing, Cadash.”

She laughed. “I’m not the nick-namer.”

“And no wonder, if that’s the kind of moniker you come up with.”

“You’re just bitter because you’re so damn old.”

“Just how old do you think I am?”

“According to you, too old to sleep on the ground. Too old for rifts tearing open in the sky. And too fucking old for politics. That makes you pretty damn old.”

That pulled a laugh out of him. “I deserve that.”

“I’m starting to get jealous. You even have a nickname for Hawke.”

“Waffles and I were friends for years, Kiddo. You’ve only got a couple months under your belt. It’ll come in time.”

Malika rolled her eyes. “I am the only one in the Inquisition you don’t have a name for, Varric, don’t give me that shit.”

“Well, your Inquisitorialness, maybe you’re just too damn special.”

There was something in his tone that caused one of her eyebrows to lift, and Varric’s eyes seemed to suddenly become far too interested in his cards.

“You don’t have to pretend, Varric,” she said softly.

His eyebrows drew together, but he didn’t look up.

She sighed, kicked her feet onto the low lip of the hearth and crossed her ankles. “There’s only one reason a man names his crossbow after a woman, introduces her to everyone, and never explains why. Especially when that man isn’t just any old storyteller, but a published author. Unless you’ve got a dagger somewhere named Malika, I’m comfortable saying I’m not that damn special.”

Varric laughed, more an amused exhale than ought else. “Got me figured, do ya, Kiddo?”

Malika shrugged. “It helps that I know who she is.”

That shook him. He fought to hide the reaction – they were still playing cards, after all – but she read it easily.

“Relax, Old Man. Your secret’s safe with me. But with how many times they put hits out on you, you should have figured somebody would put two and two together.”

He shook his head slowly. “It’s the one story I never tell.”

Malika shrugged, played her hand. “I’d never ask you to.”

Varric glanced at her cards – she’d won, no surprise – and threw his lightly next to them on the table. “I think I’m done with cards for the night.”

Malika nodded, scooted back her chair.

“Thanks,” he said softly as she was walking away. Malika waved a hand at him, but didn’t turn around.

 

*

 

It was hard to admit she held a candle for a man some 10 or 15 years her senior. Harder still when it was painfully obvious he carried a torch for someone else. But the cards were all out on the table, as far as Malika was concerned; she knew who Bianca Davri was and knew just enough of Varric’s history that it wasn’t hard to piece together the tale. The five or six times the Davris had put a price on Varric’s head told Malika that the relationship hadn’t ended, regardless of what her family – or her husband – had thought of the situation. Malika had no desire to be the other woman to the other woman’s other man.

Just thinking about it hurt her head.

“I’ve got a confession,” Varric said one night in camp, as they sat by the fire and listened to Dorian’s snores and Sera’s inevitable giggles as she talked in her sleep.

“Oh?” Malika quirked an eyebrow at the other dwarf. “This should be good.”

“I read you wrong, that first day on the mountain. It’s bugged me ever since. Got to tell you about it so I can move on. Pay penance, as it were.”

“Read me wrong?”

Varric nodded. “I saw the shield, Saw the Carta written all over you, even if you didn’t have the face ink. I wrote you off as a thug and a bruiser. Usually its rogues that run the Carta, and anything with a shield is just that. But it put me behind the curve, and its why you don’t have a name. I'm still trying to catch up from a bad start.”

“Varric, I honestly don’t give a shit that I don’t have a nick name. It’s just something for me to harrass you with.”

He snorted. “Like you need another target. I can’t walk across a room without you finding something to harrass me with.”

“What can I say, I strive to emulate my elders.”

He laughed then. “Betters, more like.”

“Keep dreaming, Tethras.”

 

*

 

“I’m sorry, Varric. I have to say it.”

“No, Cadash, you really don’t.”

They were flanking the fire in the great hall again, but the tension this time was palpable. His arms were crossed over his chest, hers were gripping the place her sword should have been hung from her belt; both of them had their feet planted like they were preparing to fight.

“Damn it, Tethras, she’s a fucking bitch.”

“Are you done?”

No I’m not done. She’s the reason we’ve got red lyrium popping up like nugs after a Blight all over the damned map. She blamed you for it. And then she had the gall to threaten me after I bent over backward helping you fix her fuckup. But I could forgive her all of that if she didn’t treat you like shit.”

He took two steps toward her, then, angry strides with clenched fists.

“I didn’t ask for your fucking opinion, Cadash.”

“Bullshit. You asked me to help you fix this fuckup, you get my opinion in the mix. She’s moved on, Tethras. She chose her family over you. She shows up just often enough to keep you fucking enthralled, to make sure you’ll jump if she crooks her pinky finger. And you’re smarter than that. You carry that fucking crossbow around because it’s the only piece of her she’ll ever let you have, and instead of the fuck-you it was meant to be, you treat it like some kind of fucking gift. She’s shit, Varric. The whole thing is shit.”

“Fuck you, Cadash, we’re done here.” Varric turned and walked away.

“How many times has she said that to you, you dumb bastard?”

Varric acted like he didn’t hear.

Malika stormed up the countless stairs to her rooms and slammed the door, taking childish delight in the act.

It was one thing for Varric to be in love with a woman who was married to some other man. It was something else entirely for Varric to be in love with a woman who only existed in his memories – the real Bianca Davri was no where near as good as the story in Varric’s mind.

 

*

 

“She looked like you,” Dorian said a few mornings later, over tea in the garden.

“Bullshit,” Malika scoffed.

“No, really. I mean, she was a poor imitation, but the likeness was real. I was going to ask if you were related, but the longer I looked the greater the differences seemed. At a glance, though, you were light and dark copies of each other.”

“I don’t see it.”

“Well of course you don’t see it, you’re half blind. I don’t know how you function in the daylight, your poor dwarven eyes must be boiling in your sockets.”

She laughed helplessly. “You say the most half-cocked nonsense.”

It was Dorian’s turn to scoff. “All of my nonsense is full-cocked, thank you very much.”

They both laughed, then, and the conversation turned. But in her head, she couldn’t help but wonder if Varric had ever thought the same.

 

*

 

She hadn’t seen him once in three weeks. She’d taken Solas with her to the Forbidden Oasis with Dorian and Sera, and while he was perfectly capable in a fight, the dynamic just wasn’t the same. His near constant altercations with Sera drove Malika to distraction. She would have preferred even an angry Varric to this.

When she got back to Skyhold, she said as much.

“I know I pissed you off. I won’t tell you I’m sorry, because you wouldn’t buy that. But shit, Varric, the trip was miserable without you.”

The dwarf grinned at her, and if not for the strain around his eyes she would have believed all was forgiven. “Watch it, Stones, you might hurt Chuckles’ feelings.”

“I don’t think Solas would go back out with me and Sera if I paid him.”

“Fair enough. Anything except admit you missed me.”

Malika shook her head. When she spoke, it was in a tone pitched for only Varric’s ears in the busy hall. “I have no problem admitting I missed you.”

He met her eyes then, unreadable for the first time in months. “Let me get packed, Stones, I’ll be ready to leave whenever you are.”

 

*

 

Varric resolutely refused to explain why he’d settled on ‘Stones’ for Malika’s nickname. She was so relieved he had agreed to come along that she decided she just didn’t care. The rough anger in his tone when he’d called her by her surname was easier to forget with a new name on his lips. And unlike all the others, this one stuck. Dorian had a dozen theories for it – stone sense! testicular fortitude! hardheadedness! – but Varric kept his peace. The dwarf had a hundred stories for how he found his crossbow, but not a one for how he’d named the Inquisitor.

They fought their way through the Emerald Graves and Emprise du Lyon, through Adamant and the Temple of Mythal. He stood with her when the Breach reopened over the ruins of Haven and it was his crossbow bolt that took down the false archdemon. He was the first to her side when the Elder One finally fell, the first to know Solas had left, the first to congratulate her on her success.

He was the first to lift a mug to her name in the endless celebrations at Skyhold. He was the first to shake her hand when she entered the hall.

And, when it became clear Cassandra was the next in line for the Sunburst Throne, he was the first to leave her.

 

*

 

“Last chance to talk you out of it, I suppose,” Malika said to him when he came up to her tower for the first and last time, to say goodbye.

“You are welcome to try,” Varric laughed, “but I should warn you about the low chance of success.”

She grinned at him. “You said something similar when all this started. Said we’d need a miracle to combat these holes in the sky.”

Varric’s smile faded. “Lucky thing we got one, then.”

She felt her own mirth fade. “Varric…”

“Look, Stones. I never meant to leave Kirkwall. I sure didn’t mean to get swept into this clusterfuck nightmare. And I’ve stayed as long as my conscience required. We saved the world. I’ve got a table in the Hanged Man with my name on it and about a dozen books to write.”

She met his gaze evenly, and drew a long breath. “After everything else that’s happened, this should be easy.”

Varric shook his head. “You don’t have to…”

“Actually, yes. Yes I do.”

She rose from her desk and crossed the room to him. “You and I both know what I’m going to say. And you know I have to say it anyways.”

Varric set his shoulders, nodded once.

“I love you, you stupid bastard. I want to understand, but I don’t. And that’s alright. I told you I would never ask, and I never will. But before you run off to the Free Marches, you needed to hear it once, from me.”

“I’ve heard it from you a thousand times, Stones,” he said softly in reply. “You never had to use those exact words.”

She swallowed against the sudden lump in her throat. Nobody read her like Varric.

“Can I ask… since it’s about me, and there’s nobody else here?”

“Why Stones?”

“Yeah.”

He smiled lightly. His eyes closed for a minute as if he was considering what to say. She stood quietly, waiting.

Finally, he crossed the few paces that had separated them and slowly lifted a hand to her face. He cupped her cheek with his right hand and rubbed a thumb over her eyelid, as it had fluttered closed with his touch. “Because turquoise was a shitty name. And that was all I could ever think of when I saw you.”

Her breath caught in her throat, and she had to swallow again.

“Another story I won’t tell,” he said with a quiet laugh, and turned to leave.

“Okay, so I lied,” she said, taking an unconscious step toward him as he walked out of her life. “Varric, why-“

“Don’t…” he said, stopping. “You don’t have to ask. Not you.”

He walked slowly to the banister as he spoke, and she cursed her feet for being somehow nailed in place, for not chasing after him, for being enraptured by his words. “I made a promise, once, a long time ago. Regardless of whether or not she held up her end of the bargain, I’m not the kind of man to break a vow. Not that one. Maybe I should have thought ahead – maybe I should have been smarter than that.” He echoed her words with no malice. “But I wasn’t. And everything you said about her, about me – it was all true. Every damn word of it.”

He had his foot on the first step, now, and she was still helpless to stop him. “It doesn’t mean anything, I know. But you were right.”

He paused, looking at her from across the room, capturing her likeness for the last time.

“I thought, once, you looked like her.” He said, a bit wryly. “I was wrong in that, too.”

Something about that admission broke her free from the floor, and Malika strode across the room to him. He stepped up to meet her, wrapped his arms around her waist as she grabbed the open collar of his shirt and dragged his mouth to hers. She let herself get lost in his lips, the feel of his arms around her, the tickle of his hair against her palms as she ran her hands up to his neck. For one shining moment, she could pretend.

She broke off before he could, as soon as she felt the shift in his hands. She took a quick two steps back, reclaiming her space before he could pull away. He smiled at her, that broken half-smirk that she so adored. She expected a smart ass comment, some flippant final word so she would remember him with laughter in his eyes. But all she got was that smile, and then he disappeared down the stairs and out her door.