Tensions at the book club were high from the start.
Personally, Hawke didn't much care what they were called or which book they read first, so long as Cabot kept her glass full, but Dagna and Cassandra were both invested. Dorian less so, of course, he seemed like he was there purely to make fun of the rest of them, and the Iron Bull's involvement sprang from a much baser level. Hawke herself was present for reasons similar to Dorian's, although she was less interested in making fun of everyone else and more interested in making fun of one person in particular.
"We should begin with Swords and Shields!" the Seeker cried.
"Cassandra," said Dagna, "I really promise that I'm not trying to discourage you, but don't you think something a little more...well...accessible would be a better choice? Hard in Hightown is popularly considered Varric's best work, and you know we have newcomers—"
"If you are going to run this club, you must do it properly! Do not bow to what the masses would falsely have you believe!"
Actually, the part of all this that Hawke found most surprising was Varric's glaring absence. This seemed right up his alley—having gorgeous woman coming to blows because of their passion for his books. Hawke herself had never made it through one of his serials, although to be fair, she'd never tried, solely because she was spoiled; when she wanted to hear a story, all she had to do was track Varric down and ask him to tell her one.
"I'm sorry, but Swords and Shields is not the best introduction!"
"And Hard in Hightown is?"
Dagna was started to look frustrated, which was, in Hawke's estimation, entirely out of character for such a relentlessly cheerful woman. Well, Cassandra could have that effect—Hawke couldn't say that they were on entirely favorable terms themselves, what with Cassandra roughing up Hawke's favorite dwarf and all.
"Okay," Dagna said. "Okay, what about something else entirely?"
Cassandra's eyes narrowed. The Bull leaned in like he was watching some blood sport from the side of a ring.
"What would you suggest?" said the Seeker.
"What about…" Dagna tapped her lips. "The Magpie."
Cassandra reared back, rather like a wyvern going in for the kill. "The Magpie," she said. "The Magpie? I have never met anyone else who has read that one."
"It is a masterpiece," said Cassandra. "And a clear allegory for Andraste and Maferath—"
"What?" said Dagna. "It is not! It's a radical political tract disguised as a post-imperial meditation on chance versus divine decree!"
"Excuse me," said Dorian. "If I may cut in, what is this book we're supposed to be reading?"
Cassandra shot him a black look. "It's about two elves—"
"Ah," he said. "Genre romance for the niche market, say no more."
Oh yes, Hawke was going to enjoy this very much. By the end of the season, she fully expected to have enough material to double how much shit she was able to give Varric on a daily basis.
Unfortunately and to Cassandra's great frustration, it appeared that obtaining an additional three copies would take some time, since that particular novel of Varric's was out-of-print. Hawke herself was nominated to approach the author to ask if he had any spare copies or could at least expedite the process. Fair enough.
Three hours later, she and Varric where deep into a game of Wicked Grace. The stakes were high, or at least seemed so; it was possible Hawke had bet her brother in that last round. Difficult to recall. Stress played funny tricks on a person's memory when accompanied by sufficient lubrication.
Hawke was very lubricated.
"Sure you want to do that, Champion?" Varric said.
She tapped the card against the table, thinking, and then laid it down: the Song of Mercy.
"Implying something, Varric? About my ability to withstand the pressure, so to speak?"
His eyes flicked to his hand and then back up, and he reached out, took Hawke's Song of Mercy, and laid down the Knight of Wisdom. The scoundrel—Hawke was certain she'd discarded the Knight of Wisdom earlier in the game, although he'd slipped it out of the pile so sneakily she hadn't noticed in time to call him on it. Of course, if they were talking about outrageous cheating, Hawke herself held the game-ending Angel of Death in her hand, but Varric didn't need to know that just now.
He noticed her squinting at the damn Knight of Wisdom and smirked, the bastard. Still, it was good to see him back in his usual spirits; the last years had worn him down, and Kirkwall's near-destruction hadn't even been the most calamitous disaster to happen to Varric in that time. He was different here, in the Inquisition's keep—more something, and less something else.
Hawke was very lubricated.
"Hawke," he said, "I would never imply that you'd crack under the strain of facing me. Outright state it, sure, but imply? Not in a thousand years."
"And you claim you're subtle," she said.
"Me? Nah, I'm brazen as shit." He chuckled. "Although I have been known to lie on occasion."
"Only on occasion? Now that is disappointing." Hawke rearranged her hand and then reached out to draw a card. Oh, now that was useful.
"Grace," she said, and laid out her hand. Five Angels: Truth, Charity, Agony, Lilies, and Death.
"Shit," Varric said.
"Ha!" Hawke crowed. "And now I don't have to tell Carver he's been sold in servitude. Well, again." She raked the pile on the table towards her; there was more than a bit of gold there, and Varric's second-best set of lockpicks, and Hawke's first-best set of lockpicks, and the manuscript draft of Varric's next book, and a silver earring (unpaired), and a bit of blackpowder in a twist of paper that Hawke kept on hand in case of emergency. The problem was that blackpowder was hard to come by—she could achieve close to the same thing with spellwork, but it was hard to get fire to explode quite so spectacularly without assistance.
The manuscript reminded Hawke that there was something she'd meant to ask Varric. "Varric," she said, "what was it I was supposed to ask you?"
He snorted. "How the hell should I know? You tell me."
"I can't tell you, that's why I'm going to the length of—"
A shadow fell over the table. "Champion," it said, and then, with considerably more disgust, "Varric."
"Now, Seeker, is that any way to treat your favorite author?"
Hawke, occupied with sorting her take into piles (return to Varric now, return to Varric later, keep forever, keep for the express purpose of later taunting), ignored them; when she had arrived back at Skyhold to stay the winter, she'd been completely taken by the hilarity of watching Varric wind up Cassandra, but now it was simply background chatter.
Cassandra made a disgusted sound. "You might be a skilled writer, but you and your kind are reprobates—"
"My kind?" said Varric. "Are you talking about dwarves? That's a little racist, Seeker."
"No! I mean scoundrels—"
"'Reprobate.' What does that even mean, anyway? Hawke?"
Hawke, wavering between returning Varric's second-best set of lockpicks to him now or later, said, "It means we're respectable, I believe."
A choked noise from Cassandra. "It does—! No, I refuse to allow myself to be baited. Champion, you promised to ask Varric a question."
Manuscript: return immediately, or retain for taunting? Varric did tend to be tetchy when she tried to steal his drafts for taunting purposes, and not always in a fun way.
"It's always 'Champion this, Champion that' with you people," Hawke complained. "All right, yes, question, question, what was the question…"
"The book!" Cassandra snapped.
"Oh yes," said Hawke. "Varric, you don't happen to have an additional three copies of The Crow tucked away, do you? It'd be awfully convenient for your local admirers."
"The Magpie!" said Cassandra.
"Sorry, yes. What she said," said Hawke.
There was a creak as Varric leaned back in his chair. His gloves were laid to the side, so Hawke was treated to the rare sight of his bare hand stretching out on the table as his thumb tapped slowly against the wood.
"You gave Hawke—shit. You mean, out of everything I've written, your gang is reading that pile of crap? I thought you liked romance, Seeker."
"The Magpie is romantic," Cassandra said, stiffly. "Although I am displeased you never wrote a sequel when the narrative begged for further resolution."
Varric snorted. "You want to know what happens? Knight and Song run off together, and Dagger turns into a dragon. There you go. Happy ending."
"You must be joking," said Cassandra. Her rich accent was tinged with disbelief. She did have a lovely voice, really; Hawke had always wanted an accent, although she supposed if she were from Nevarra it wouldn't seem like she had an accent at all. Additionally, she thought that perhaps this book of Varric's wouldn't be so bad if one of the characters turned into a dragon.
"Why?" he said. "Not to your liking?"
"I don't...I must reflect on this," Cassandra said. "In the meantime, can you procure further copies?"
"Nope," said Varric.
"What! Why not?"
"I'm not sure what 'out-of-print' means to you, but I swear I don't have some secret stash you don't know about. Try reading a different book."
"No," said Cassandra. "I am willing to use another novel as our first selection, but if there are no further copies to be had, we will simply share mine." And then she added, only a touch grudgingly, "Thank you for your time."
No, Hawke decided, she would let him have the manuscript, but she would keep the lockpicks. Varric's second-best set was much nicer than her own first-best set. Much shinier, too.
"I can't believe the Seeker has a book group," Varric said, "although I'm not surprised that she's taking it that seriously. And what are you doing in it, anyway?"
Hawke stopped counting long enough to show him her teeth as she smiled sweetly. "Why, I'm a fan, of course," she said.
Varric looked skeptical and a touch terrified, for which Hawke was willing to take full credit.
The book club reconvened to decide which novel they should read while additional copies of The Magpie were located. Dagna brought up Hard in Hightown again. Cassandra advocated for Swords and Shields. Hawke offered several spectacular puns on Hard in Hightown, including one she was particularly proud of that referenced Scout Harding, and Cassandra made a sound of disgust.
"What?" said Hawke.
"Varric attempted a similar joke when he first met Harding," said Cassandra.
"He gets all his best material from me," Hawke assured her.
Discussion resumed. Cassandra advocated for Swords and Shields. The Iron Bull mentioned that he'd heard of something called Love in the Time of Dragons that sounded promising. Cassandra advocated for Swords and Shields. Dorian opined that ease of availability should be the determining factor, since all that tripe sounded the same, anyway. Cassandra explained that she had already procured the necessary five copies of Swords and Shields, which they would be reading while they waited for her bookdealer to locate The Magpie.
To no one's surprise, they decided to read Swords and Shields.
Hawke was rather taken with the edition provided to her, which had what looked like a dour-faced Aveline on the cover. She would have to make a point of reading it in front of Varric. It was hard to make him squirm, but she really felt she'd stumbled across a profitable line of inquiry, and anyway, she was committed to staying at Skyhold until spring and now finally had something to occupy her.
Loathe though Hawke was to admit it, she needed the time to recover. After what had happened at Weisshaupt, casting hurt; she felt like someone had turned her inside-out and scraped her hide raw.
Fortunately, an opportunity for mockery presented itself that night over supper. Varric was regaling the Bull's Chargers with a story Hawke had already heard four times; she had carefully seated herself across the table and therefore directly in his line of sight.
She timed it well. The Chargers were to a man on the edges of their chairs, completely absorbed in the story of a young woman who disguised herself and rose to the rank of chevalier in pursuit of revenge, but just as Varric reached the climax, Hawke reached beneath the table, pulled out her copy of Swords and Shields, opened it, and began to read.
"And as she tore off her helm and stared down at the lord, she—Andraste's flaming pyre, Hawke, what are you doing?"
"Reading," said Hawke. Hard to keep the book propped open with one hand and eat with the other, though, especially while keeping the cover angled so Varric could see it clearly.
"Yeah, and what are you reading?"
"I'm sorry, don't you recognize it?" Hawke said.
Varric pinched the bridge of his nose. "Could you not do that here?"
Hawke managed to smirk around half a mouthful of potatoes. "Why, it's as though it makes you uncomfortable to see me reading this lush, passionate…" Paragraph three on the second page caught her eye, and she was momentarily distracted figuring out logistics. "...This lush, passionate story about a lush, ginger warrior." The book slipped a little, and Hawke set down her fork, picked the book up in both hands, and broke the spine; she wouldn't have caught Varric's wince if she hadn't been looking for it. The good news was that it was now far easier to lean the book against a basket of rolls and continue reading while she ate her stew.
Around her, the Chargers were beginning to grumble about being denied the ending of the chevalier's tale. Hawke ignored them all, intent or at least determined to present the pretense of intentness, until a large hand, calloused, dusted with inkstains and red-gold hair, and attached to a brawny forearm, inserted itself between her eyes and the page.
Varric's voice was firm. "Don't make me tell the story about the time you thought chokedamp—"
"Right, yes," Hawke said, shutting the book with a snap. She wedged it in the basket of rolls and picked up that, her bowl of stew, and a piece of cake, and retired to her temporary quarters, where she finished dinner and Swords and Shields in privacy. Probably for the best—the story wasn't as racy as she was secretly hoping it would be, but neither was it precisely, ah, fit for public consumption.
Cassandra's book group didn't meet again until the following week, so Hawke ended up reading bits and pieces of the opening chapters two or three times in the interest of rankling Varric. She never made the mistake of getting close enough for him to directly interrupt her again; her new practice was to lean casually against a wall within his field of vision while he was occupied with some other person and then take the book out. Once or twice she waggled her brows at him purely for the pleasure of watching him roll his eyes.
By Wednesday next, she'd managed to spill stew, blood, and beer on her copy, and quite a few of the pages were beginning to tear loose from the binding. She picked at them with a fingernail while Cassandra expounded on why the Knight-Captain did not deserve her fate.
"Excuse me," Hawke said. "I don't mean to interrupt, but personally, I'm fascinated by the story's subtext."
"...Subtext?" said Cassandra, and Dorian chimed in to drawl, "Do tell, Champion."
"Well," said Hawke, "it's clearly a retaliatory fable."
"What," said Cassandra.
"Oh yes, I thought that was quite clear," Hawke said. "Why, I'd go so far as to say it's the text's entire foundation. Now, granted, there were some interesting diversions, particularly in chapter twelve"—she flipped to the appropriate page, glanced down, and then hastily closed it; perhaps best not to mention how affecting she'd found the Knight-Captain's tortured confession of love to her paramour—"never mind, let's ignore chapter twelve. Where was I?"
"You were claiming this book was retaliatory," Dorian said. "An interesting interpretation, particularly because I thought the main gist of the story was an exploration of the various ways bosoms heave."
"I liked the heaving bosoms," the Bull volunteered. "Especially in chapter twelve. Most of the armor descriptions were accurate, too."
Hawke nodded authoritatively, as if she knew a great deal about armor. "Yes, of course, I think the attention to authenticity only supports my interpretation. Did anyone else notice that particular descriptions of the Knight-Captain come up again and again? For example, her red hair, her freckles, her chiseled jaw and dour countenance…"
"The red hair does come up an awful lot," Dagna said.
"Exactly!" said Hawke. "On a metatextual level, the entire thing is one big take-that." She was trying very hard to sound erudite and literary instead of someone who had been taught to read by her mother out of An Apostate's Guide to Herbal Remedies. Bit of a stretch, probably not worth it considering the material in question, but fun for a lark.
"Yes, but a take-that to whom?" said Dorian.
"You mean it isn't obvious?" Then again, perhaps it wasn't. Hawke would have to illustrate her point. "Let's say, for instance, that you're trying to run an illegal gambling ring out of a tavern—"
"What kind of tavern?" said the Bull.
"Much less respectable than this," Hawke assured him. "In fact, exactly the sort of place where you would expect to find an illegal gambling ring. And then, purely hypothetically, let's say you have a friend who runs the city guard."
"Willing to take bribes under the table?"
Hawke made a face. "The respectable sort, unfortunately."
"Ah, got it," said the Bull.
"And perhaps she strongly encourages you to disband your illegal gambling ring—perhaps that strong encouragement even involves a night in jail. I trust you can see where I'm going with this." She leaned back in her seat, satisfied.
"Absolutely," said the Bull.
"No, not 'absolutely,'" said Cassandra. "What does this—this gambling ring have to do with anything?"
"Well, how else would you get back at the guard captain?" Hawke said. "Granted, I'm not implying she doesn't have a sense of humor, but she can be rather...what's another word for 'humorless?' Anyway, the obvious solution would be to write a florid romance with her as the main character. The idea may have gotten away from the author a little, but I still think that's the clear subtext here."
"...Surely you are joking," said Cassandra.
"Lady Pentaghast," Hawke said, with the most sincerely sober expression she had at her disposal, "I would never."
Some time later, she tracked Varric down in the library. "Varric, I believe Cassandra is mad at me," she announced.
He laughed at her, the bastard. When he managed to get himself under control, he said, "You probably brought it on yourself, Hawke. What'd you say to her, anyway?"
"It's possible I told her that her favorite novel was nothing more than a way for you to get back at Aveline for shutting down the nug-racing circle," Hawke admitted. She leaned against the wall. "You know, for all that, it wasn't horribly written."
"Thanks," Varric said, dryly. "And I'm not sure what you expected—the Seeker's crazy about that garbage."
"I rather liked chapter twelve," Hawke felt compelled to tell him. "Drawing on personal experience there, where you?"
He slid one book back on the shelf and pulled out another. "Trying to make me blush?"
"I'm not sure you're capable," said Hawke.
Varric chuckled. "You've got as good a chance as anyone," he said. "Except maybe Rivaini—she might be able to make even my ears bleed if she tried hard enough, but don't tell her that."
For a brief but intense moment, Hawke missed Isabela deeply. Or perhaps that was fatigue—she shifted her weight and leaned more heavily against the wall. Varric's sharp eyes picked up on it, of course, although he didn't say anything other than, "Game of chess?"
"I'm terrible at chess," Hawke complained.
"Yeah, I know—that's the point," Varric said. "Gives me a fighting chance." He led her to a table tucked in an alcove, where a chess board was already waiting. He'd taken the book with him; Varric was something of an enthusiast about books, although he was covert about it, probably because he didn't want to mar his debonair reputation by revealing he was secretly a dusty old fusspot who had opinions about things like binding and symbolism.
He generously let her play first and then less generously mated her in four moves, which was something of a record even for Hawke.
"Are you capable of planning more than two turns ahead?" said Varric.
"Yes," said Hawke, moving her tower and then promptly losing it to one of his chevaliers. "No," she revised. "No, possibly not."
He smirked at her and captured her other tower. "See, that's the root of all your problems, Hawke."
"Really? Because I thought my problem had more to do with all of my friends being tits," Hawke said pleasantly. She was rewarded when he laughed at her, low and warm—a real laugh, not the snorts and huffs that had become his usual, and the second one she'd gotten out of him within the hour.
She used his distraction to relocate one of his clerics. He didn't appear to notice.
"How is Rivaini, anyway?" he said. "I haven't heard from her for a few months."
"She and Fenris are still terrorizing the Waking Sea," Hawke said. "Or at least the slave-trading portion of it. There was some talk of picking Merrill up the next time they made port, although I've no idea if that ever happened." She shifted in her chair and then winced; this time Varric did not let it go.
"You should go see one of the medics here," he said, all the humor suddenly gone out of his voice.
"I'm fine," said Hawke.
He raise an eyebrow at her. "You know I'm not above force-feeding you healing draughts."
"There's nothing they can do," she said, aware she was starting to sound short.
"Whatever happened when you went north—"
"Leave it alone, Varric," Hawke said, even though she knew he would do no such thing.
The last thing she wanted to recall, though, was having all her failures thrown in her face, all that she hadn't done to stop Corypheus, all the ways she would never save Kirkwall, all the things she wanted that would remain forever out of reach—funny, that Varric was sitting here before her.
"All right, Hawke, I get the picture. Someone got out of bed on the wrong side of the bed. You aren't still hungover, are you?"
"Varric, I'm appalled," Hawke said. "You know I don't get hangovers."
"Right. I've heard that one before." He rubbed at his jaw with one hand and then moved his queen, trapping Hawke in another checkmate. She began to sulk in self-defense.
Varric smirked. "Best three out of five?"
It ended up being best nine out of nine in the end, although Hawke once 'accidentally' kicked him in the knee and flung three of his pieces out the window while he was swearing. That was round number nine, and after the unfortunate defenestration, Varric suggested they put a stop to the series. Hawke agreed on the condition he buy her a round at the bar. Varric countered by pointing out that he always bought her rounds, which Hawke thought was the entire point.
To Cassandra's dismay, her book dealer had no success in locating any copies at all of The Magpie. "We will simply have to take turns," Cassandra said. "Except you, Hawke. I have seen how you treat your books, and you will not touch any of mine."
"What?" said Hawke, offended.
"You...you abuse them!" said Cassandra. "You spill food on the cover, break the binding, tear the pages—"
"Oh yes, how terrible of me." Hawke folded her arms. "Imagine that, treating a book like something meant to be read instead of something to be kept in a glass case. And I'll have you know"—she was starting to warm to the topic—"I'll have you know that Varric himself trusts me with the manuscripts of his first drafts. Manuscript. No other copy. Why, suppose I lost the draft to Swords and Shields: Chapter Four—"
"You would not!" said Cassandra.
"Hawke," said the Bull, "I thought you won that manuscript off Varric in a game of cards."
"And?" said Hawke.
"Not the same as 'trusting' you with it, is it?"
Hawke shook her head. "You Ben-Hassrath, always reading into things that aren't there. Sometimes a nug is just a nug."
The Bull smirked at her. He really was a very large fellow, wasn't he?
"It was Varric who brought your abuse to my attention," said Cassandra. "I will not have you soiling my copy, Champion—you must find your own."
"Couldn't I read over your shoulder?" Hawke suggested.
"No," Cassandra said.
"Ask you to read it to me?"
"Do I look willing to read to you as though you were a child?"
Hawke squinted. "No," she decided. "No, definitely not that."
Well. No matter. She'd just have to figure out some way to get her hands on the book, and she did have Varric's first-best set of lockpicks.
She really hadn't planned to do anything about it as immediately as that night, though, but sleep was—oh, look, there was the door to Dagna's quarters. Excellent. The hallway outside was deserted, too, although it might not be for long; Skyhold was populated enough that even so late at night, a wanderer wasn't out of the question.
If Hawke were half the mage her father had been, she could have done something tricky with the Fade and slipped into and out of Dagna's room as softly as a breath of air. As it was, she had to kneel down in front of the door and go to work with Varric's lockpicks. This she was better at; in less than a minute, the latch opened, and Hawke was inside.
Dagna, thankfully, was a sound sleeper, although Hawke figured she had two hours at most before the book would need to be returned to the Arcanist's room. There was something illicitly delightful about holding the very item Cassandra had denied her, and she had a brief vision of scrawling her name on the inside of the cover. No. No, best to resist those urges.
The thing was that Varric was actually good at what he did, even when he wasn't trying. Hawke wasn't completely unbiased, of course, but there were occasional sections of Swords and Shields when even she managed to set aside her cynicism long enough to be swept away by the story. Of course, then she always snapped back to picturing Varric bent over his desk, writing angrily about the sweet yearning his Aveline stand-in felt for her lover; it was an image that never failed to amuse.
Hawke was an unlikely audience for romance. Oh, she didn't doubt that it existed—her parents were proof enough of fairy tales, even if their ending was unhappy—but there was something so absurd about the whole...the whole love debacle. It was gaudy, even crass, or else private and painful—anyway, she hoped this new book had more dragons in it.
She opened the front cover. Chapter One, said the first page.
Knight first noticed the woman because she was standing in front of him. He found it rude and told her as much.
"Terribly sorry," the woman said. "Strange etiquette you have, I hadn't realized that me standing here reading the Chantry Board broke some kind of social compact."
"Your head was in the way," Knight said.
"I'll just remove it, then," said the woman. She did step aside obligingly, although not before first ramming an elbow into his side.
Knight narrowed his eyes and studied her. Elf, in want of work, big mouth, carried herself like she knew what she was doing (although whether she could back it up was open to debate)—and he was looking for someone disposable to take on his latest job.
"You know," he said, "if you need coin, I might be willing to hire you."
"I don't do anything with children or animals," the woman said immediately.
Hawke was already liking this better than the last book.
She decided to tell Varric as much the next day. Unfortunately, he was absorbed in his correspondence; when Hawke sat down on his low desk, he didn't even look up from writing.
"Do you ever get tired of that?" Hawke asked, and picked up his inkpot.
Varric took the inkpot away from her one-handed, his quill still in motion. "Not yet," he said.
"My fingers always cramp," Hawke said. "Mother used to say I needed to practice more. Of course, she also called my handwriting 'appalling,' which isn't the best motivator."
"Hawke, much as I hate to sound like your mother, your handwriting is pretty appalling." He reached the end of a line and started to grope through the piles of letters on his desk; Hawke noted he was wearing his gold-rimmed reading glasses, something he was usually too vain to do in front of company. "Here," he said, and dropped one of the letters in her lap. "Junior says hi. You might want to write him back, he's starting to get wound-up. If you don't convince him to stay in hiding, he's going to march off to storm Weisshaupt himself."
Hmm. Hawke looked down at the letter, recalled what had happened to the Wardens at Adamant, and then decided she didn't want to think about any of that, at least until she was by herself. She put the letter in a pocket and promptly forgot about it. Varric was writing again—annoying, was what that was; he rarely ignored her, and Hawke hated it when he did.
She drummed one of her heels against the ground. "You know," she said, "you aren't completely awful at this whole novelist business."
"Thanks," Varric said.
"I liked how Knight only hired Dagger because he needed someone to take the fall for him, but then she ended up saving his sorry hide," Hawke said.
"Is he with the Crows? He's with the Crows, isn't he? I hope she extorts him for part of the bounty, Maker know she deserves it."
Varric took off his glasses, tossed them on the desk, and sat back in his chair. "The Seeker," he said, "told me that you couldn't find enough copies of The Magpie."
"Oh, we're sharing hers," Hawke said. "I read the first four chapters last night. It's a real swashbuckler."
"I—shit." Varric closed his eyes and snorted. "Trust me, Hawke, you don't want to waste your time on that garbage, there's a reason it's out-of-print. Here, why don't you read…" He ducked under his desk, where there were several tall piles that made Hawke think the library had migrated from the tower to the dark spaces beneath Varric's furniture. "Try this," he said, and handed her a book.
There was a dragon on the cover.
"Love in the Time of Dragons," Varric said. "Much more to your taste. I made a fortune on it, too—there's even a Tevene translation."
Hawke did like dragons.
"And you do like dragons," Varric added.
"I do like dragons," she agreed.
She flipped it open and landed in the midst of a rather flowery renewal of vows that seemed to involve the recitation of poetry. Actually, there was quite a lot of poetry, pages and pages of verse, and all of it about lovers.
"Oh," she said. "It's a romance."
"Come on, Hawke, you finished Swords and Shields—"
"Yes, but there was a lot of charging around with pointy things in that one. Anyway," Hawke said, and dropped Love in the Time of Dragons back on Varric's desk, "you know love stories aren't for me."
Varric gave a dry chuckle. "Right," he said. "I've noticed."
"Actually," Hawke said, brightly, "that's one of the things I've enjoyed most so far about The Magpie—giving Knight the childhood sweetheart and all. Excellent decision, making it clear there's no chance of romance between Knight and Dagger."
"No," Varric said. "No chance of that."
"Pure adventure," said Hawke. "That's what I like."
"Yeah. I know," said Varric.
"Well. Good," said Hawke, satisfied that her point had been made. She was starting to think she'd lost the goal of this entire exercise, which was to needle Varric, not further inflate his ego. Part of the problem was that she still hadn't quite figured out which characters represented whom; she had an inkling that Dagger was a stand-in for Isabela, but the problem was that Dagger was an elf when there weren't all that many elves in Varric's circle of acquaintances. Unless he was using someone Hawke didn't know?
Varric had, in the meantime, picked up his quill and resumed his letter.
"That must be an important letter you're writing," Hawke said. "Who's the lucky recipient?"
"Bianca," said Varric.
Bianca. Of course. "Oh," said Hawke. Did her voice sound forced? Odd. Must be something to do with the altitude. "Right, she's doing well?" Before Varric could answer, her mouth ran him over. "I do hate to cut our visit short, but I think I hear someone calling my name. Probably Dorian. Knows all kinds of tricks, does Dorian—"
Varric was giving her a funny look as she backed out of the room, but frankly, Hawke couldn't bring herself to care. Honestly, that dwarf, trying to corner Hawke and monopolize her time like she didn't have anything better to do. She had plenty to do, mountains to do, all sorts of important Champion business to complete, and shame on him for doubting it.
She spent most of the next four days trying to figure out how to breathe fire.
In theory, it shouldn't have been terribly difficult. Hawke was an old hand with fire magic and could make it do all sorts of interesting things; she didn't even have trouble summoning it without the focus of a staff, which was beyond many mages. The problem was learning to shift her locus of concentration from her hands to her mouth. There was probably a book in Skyhold's library that could help, but she had long ago determined that there was only so much trust that could be put in books.
By the time the club reconvened, she felt she'd made decent progress, and her tongue was finally beginning to feel less burned.
"Okay, everyone," said Dagna. "By now we should all have read chapters one through four—"
"Except the Champion," Cassandra said. "Hawke, what are you doing here?"
Hawke cocked a brow. "Why, Lady Cassandra, I'm here to discuss the striking passage in which our heroes make their dashing escape."
Cassandra's eyes narrowed. "You're guessing at what happens."
"Am I?" said Hawke. "Or do I know that Dagger and Knight escape the Deep Roads after a narrow encounter with Darkspawn, wherein Dagger reveals she's secretly a runaway from the Circle?"
"How do you know that?" Cassandra demanded.
Hawke inspected her nails. "Oh, I have my ways," she said.
There was a sound that might have been Cassandra grinding her teeth.
"That's great, everyone's caught up!" said Dagna. "If we're all good with it, I thought we could start by going around in a circle and reading our favorite part out loud, just to get a feel for the rhythm of the story. It can be a scene that you thought was funny, something that struck you about the characters, interesting development of the novel's world...anything! Here, I'll start."
Dagna read a particularly accurate description of Knight's first sight of the Deep Roads before passing the book to Dorian, who chose a clever bit of dialogue. The Bull picked the sequence where Knight tricked Dagger into revealing she was a mage. Cassandra, after a hard stare at Hawke, shared the part where, after the heroes had barricaded themselves in a treasure chamber to escape the Darkspawn, Knight told the story of his lost sweetheart, Song.
Cassandra passed the book to Hawke only after encouragement from Dagna and even then with visible reluctance. "I am watching you, Hawke," she said.
Fortunately, Hawke knew precisely the passage she wanted. It was in the middle of a fight scene, right after Dagger had set all the Darkspawn on fire.
Hawke cleared her throat and read: "'Shit shit shit!' said Knight. 'Shit shit shit, what the shit!'"
The Bull laughed. Cassandra made a noise of disgust.
"Is there something bothering you, Lady Cassandra?" Hawke said. "Or something caught in your throat, perhaps."
"I do not see why Varric idolizes you," Cassandra snapped. "The woman he described was brave, noble, a protector to her family, a champion of the downtrodden. You—you are petty and vulgar, a champion only of sloth!"
Hawke didn't think this was precisely fair, since Cassandra and the Chargers had been off in Ferelden during that business at Adamant, but neither did the assessment bother her; she'd always known she didn't live up to the picture Varric painted of her.
"Petty and vulgar?" she said. "Why, Lady Pentaghast, you'll make me blush!"
Cassandra snarled, snatched her book from Hawke, and stormed away.
"...Okay then!" Dagna clapped her hands together. "Maybe it should finish early tonight. Don't forget to read chapters five through eight."
"It was just beginning to get interesting, though!" Dorian protested. "Much more dramatic than anything I've read in the book so far. Will the sheer force of the Seeker's vitriol cause her to burst into flame? How far will Hawke go to get a rise out of Lady Pentaghast? Find out in the next installment!"
"Hey," said the Bull. "Not that this isn't a decent show, but the book's pretty good, too."
"You'll forgive me if I don't trust the opinion of a brainwashed, uneducated lout," Dorian said, but he twirled the end of his mustache and batted his eyelashes at the Bull as he said it.
"Brainwashed, sure," the Bull said. "Lout, I'll give you. But uneducated? I'd bet that I speak more languages than you do."
"Than me? I received the finest education Vyrantium had to offer. Why"—Dorian smirked—"I daresay I can do things with my tongue that would astonish even you."
Hawke wished they would fuck already. Get it out of their systems. Only thing to be done, really.
She stretched languidly, arms over her head, cracking her neck first to one side and then the other. "Well, I'm off," she announced. "Good meeting. Looking forward to the next one."
"See you later, Hawke," said the Iron Bull, and away Hawke sauntered; there was a swing in her step that manifested in the area of her hips as she stepped from the warm tavern to the cold air of the courtyard. It was dark outside already, although the hour was not late, and while most of the bailey had been swept free of snow, enormous drifts had still collected against the walls of the keep.
Perhaps it was time for a nap, Hawke reflected. She did have that slothful reputation to keep up, after all. At least Cassandra had been accurate—were Hawke to manifest a demon, it would almost certainly be a demon of sloth. Or, well. Pride. Hunger, maybe. She really was accomplished at any number of sins.
And there was despair—
She tripped on the last step leading up to her bedroom and caught herself up on the wall. Despair? Ha! No, it was sloth for Hawke, and perhaps hunger, provided it was close to supper.
Was there a bluster demon? That'd be Varric, through and through. Or a curiosity demon—Merrill, definitely. Carver would be a complaint demon, of course. Oh, that was good, she'd have to remember it for the next time she saw him.
Hawke had been given a very small room that more or less amounted to a closet with a cot inside. It was drafty and cold, with one luxurious but unwelcome glass-paned window that seemed to emanate frost like Madame de Fer. Fortunately, Hawke had connections that had ensured there were a number of thick blankets and furs piled on the bed—Varric was a man who liked his creature comforts, and he could always be counted on to have decent-quality bedding.
Outside the window, snow was falling. Hawke stripped to her smallclothes and dived under the covers without bothering to light a candle or do anything other than latch the door. She was asleep within heartbeats and dreamed not of snow but of a hot wind that blazed against her face and hands, that stole the breath from her lips, that washed all color from the world save red.
She shielded her face against the blowing sand and planted her foot in the barren earth, digging the heel in to gain traction and then bracing herself for another step. There was nothing but the wind, no sound but the howling, no sensation but heat; and as she forced her way headlong towards the great fortress that towered above, she passed bodies spread like fallen coins beside the road. Sometimes she glimpsed their faces from beneath the shelter of her arm. She knew them all: here was Father beside Bethany; there Mother with Carver; next Aveline and her husband, who had died by Hawke's own hand; then Fenris and Isabela, Uncle and Anders, Merrill and Varric and Varric and Varric and Varric…
Hawke woke with one hand clutching her throat, and she coughed and choked and managed to grab the chamberpot just in time to be sick in it. Nasty thing, nightmares—and she'd been so tired, too.
Well, nothing for it. If she'd been smart, she would've had a lick of something to warm her down at the tavern before going to bed, but she was awake now, and there was no reason not to make use of the time. It wasn't even terribly late; she could see the glow of torches from the stable and from Knight-Captain Cullen's—er, Commander Cullen's—office across the way.
She rinsed her mouth out, dressed in the dark, and, furtively, deposited her chamberpot outside Madame de Fer's door. Surely even Lady Vivienne went on a bender every now and then?
It was Dorian's night for the book, but Hawke didn't have to bother with stealth or even the lockpicks; his room was open, and he was absent—probably off riding the Bull, good for him. Hawke had to respect a man who was so willing to commit to the most obviously terrible invitation to bed, particularly when it riffed on his own name.
She wasn't in the mood to sprawl out in Dorian's armchair or return to her own bed-closet, though. The Great Hall was out, not much light there, and the library was too cold without any of those deliciously large fireplaces that could be found elsewhere in Skyhold. No, there was only one place that would do, and that was Varric's suite.
He was still out himself, but Hawke let herself in, courtesy of her lockpicks. The fire was lit but banked, and she went around the room and pinched the wicks of the candles between her fingers; at her touch, little flames sprang up and began to blaze away merrily. There were candles everywhere, much as there had been in Varric's rooms in Kirkwall. He was often up late writing, and Hawke had told him more than once that he would someday knock over a candle and set all of his papers on fire.
His bed, half-hidden behind a screen, looked inviting, but there was something that stopped Hawke from climbing into it. No telling what it smelled like, after all. Certainly Varric—well, anyway, there was a decent sofa beside his desk. Hawke stretched herself out, propped the book open on her stomach, and began to read.
Outside of the city were some old ruins—not much more than big piles of rubble, but a Dalish clan had set up a semi-permanent encampment there, and some of the younger elves came into town to trade or gamble or drink. Knight was surprised to learn that Dagger was friends with one of them, but then he met Serpent, and he wasn't surprised at all.
"Oh, she's a pretty thing," Serpent said, staring over the rim of her mug at the barmaid. "Waist like a reed, hips like a boat. I wonder if she's into the whole exotic foreigner thing? Worldly traveller? She looks like she'd appreciate a worldly traveller."
"And what's one small affair to your marriage?" said Dagger. Her face was flushed, and her hair was falling in messy tendrils around her face, obscuring the fading black eye that was a remnant of last week's bar fight.
Serpent sighed. "Marriage. What was I thinking? Still, it's a waste, letting her go to bed all by herself. Knight, you up to the job?"
"Oh," said Dagger, "you hadn't heard? He's pining away for his one true love—"
Knight winked at her. "At least I'm not wasting away with the Orlesian Disease."
Serpent shouted with laughter; even the tattoos on her face creased with joviality. At the next table, someone muttered an aside about filthy, savage elves.
"So," said Serpent, draping a companionable arm around Dagger's shoulders, "I have this one's story—Dalish exile picked up by the templars turned Circle runaway—but I have yet to hear about you, the dashing partner-in-crime."
"You told her?" said Knight.
"Oh, it's all right," said Dagger. "Her husband's an apostate, too. We could start a club!"
The sound of the lock turning pulled Hawke out of the story; Varric came in, hung up his coat, and started bitching.
"What the hell Chuckles thinks he's doing with the Kid is beyond me," he said. His voice was all grouchy. "So he's a spirit! He wants to learn to be human, I say let him be human. Or mortal—whatever."
Ah. Varric had apparently adopted another wayward project. "Mmm, yes," Hawke said. Now that she'd gotten further into the book, it was clear that Dagger was a sort of female version of Anders, being a Circle runaway and all. She tried to picture a womanish Anders with pointed ears and couldn't quite conjure the image.
"He doesn't have any clue how to get back to the Fade, anyway, and he's gotta learn how to look out for himself." Hawke made agreeing noises while Varric warmed his hands over the fire. "And Chuckles—something is up there. Trust me, I know crazy when I see it, and all that Fade shit does is screw with your head."
"Mmm," said Hawke. "Fade shit, absolutely." Uh-oh—she'd gotten a speck of something on page one-hundred thirty-seven. It wouldn't go away, not even when she spit on her thumb and rubbed at it.
"Besides," Varric added, "the Kid should get to figure out what he wants to be without anyone telling him one way or another. He doesn't need Chuckles pulling the mystic wiseman act when he can barely figure out how to tie his boot laces."
"Boot laces. I agree," Hawke said. Maybe that glass of brandywine Varric was pouring would be for her? Hawke certainly hoped so.
Halfway through the pouring act, Varric stopped and turned around. "What are you doing here, anyway?"
"I'm surprised you have to ask," said Hawke. "I'm reading, of course."
He groaned. "Hawke, do you have to do that in front of me?"
"Yes," said Hawke. "Is that mine?"
"What, this? No," Varric said, but as soon as he'd finished topping the glass off, he carried it over to Hawke. "Never say I don't get you anything," he added dryly, when Hawke grabbed it and took a swallow straightaway.
Hawke moved her legs to make room for him, and Varric sat down and scrubbed his hands over his face. "I thought you'd gone to bed," he said.
"I've decided I no longer need to sleep," Hawke said. Although she'd only just had the idea, it was rapidly gaining both clarity and appeal. "Think of how much time I waste, sleeping every night!"
"We're contrasting this with all the time you waste while awake?"
Hawke took another sip of the brandy and magnanimously didn't jab Varric in the thigh with her toes. "It's a secret mage technique," she said. "You wouldn't understand."
"You say that about everything."
"Yes," said Hawke, "because it isn't for me to share the private and incredibly powerful knowledge passed down from mage to mage throughout the ages. Certainly the information isn't fit for a dwarf to hear."
"I'm not going to cry myself to sleep over missing out on some weird magic shit," Varric said. "No offense."
"I'm highly offended," Hawke said. "If I had the energy to move…"
"Uh-huh. Sure, Champion." He tipped his head back and pinched the bridge of his nose; Hawke recognized it as the sign of an impending stress headache, not that he liked to admit he got those, either. She still wasn't entirely accustomed to the new scar that licked down his face.
"Varric," she said.
"Do dwarves truly not dream?"
"...Shit, Hawke, I don't know." He cracked an eye open to look at her. "When I'm asleep, I'm asleep."
"Maybe you do dream, and you just don't remember," said Hawke.
"I'm fairly certain I don't hallucinate on command."
She let out a dramatic sigh. "I shouldn't have expected you to understand," she said. "My fault entirely for expecting too much."
"You mean you don't blame me for not understanding something I have no personal experience with?" He smirked. "Thanks."
"On second thought, I do blame you," said Hawke. "You should make it up to me."
"How am I supposed to do that?"
"Well, for starters," said Hawke, and she held out her empty brandy glass.
Cassandra was surprisingly welcoming at the next auspicious gathering of the book group—that was, she only glared at Hawke rather than punching her in the face. Varric had once or twice implied that Cassandra was something of a fan of Hawke's, but by this point it was clear he was having Hawke on.
"So," said Dagna, "what did we all think?"
Hawke cleared her throat delicately. "Can we talk about the author's portrait?" she said. The Bull, who was holding their shared copy of the book, obligingly turned it over so they could all see the picture of Varric on the rear cover. "How many times do you think he sent the mock-up back? 'Sorry, needs more women fawning over me, try again.'"
"Look, you can see a nipple on this one," said the Bull.
Dorian leaned closer. "Why, you certainly can," he said. "And doesn't it seem as if the one here has her hand shoved down the front of Master Tethras's trousers?"
Cassandra began to grind her teeth. "Moving along!" Dagna sang out. "Does anyone besides Hawke have something they want to mention?" A majority of the group continued to be absorbed with examining the potentially visible nipple on the woman swooning over Varric in his author's portrait. Dagna rallied. "How do we all feel about the romance between Knight and Song?"
"I think it's very sweet," Danga said, by now sounding a touch desperate. "Very understated, too. It's really important to Knight's development, though—"
"It is not!" Cassandra snapped.
Three sets of eyes swerved from nipple to Seeker. Cassandra flushed, although probably from rage and not shame. Hawke understood; her own reserve of shame was also somewhat underdeveloped.
"I do not mean to insult your reading, Dagna," the Seeker said. "The first time I read The Magpie, I shared your views. But this time, I have…" She hesitated. "I have revised my opinion. Song is no more than a childish dream; her presence is what prevents Knight from finding a true resolution."
"Song is Knight's dream!" Dagna countered. "Um, sorry, not that I think you're—but it's pretty explicitly stated on page one-hundred twenty that she's the only reason Knight has to live."
Cassandra was on her feet. "This is a clear example of an unreliable narrator! If you refer to page ninety-six, for instance, the text clearly implies that it is Dagger and not Song who is the most important person in Knight's life!"
Dagna was up and out of her chair, too. "You're reading things into the book that aren't there, Cassandra—I mean, that's fine, but you're wrong. The entirety of chapter seven backs up my theory."
"It does not!" Cassandra snapped, and then she rattled off a string of page numbers and quotes that Hawke frankly didn't care enough to register. She caught the Bull's eye, held up all ten fingers, and then pointed to Cassandra.
He sat back in his chair, squinted at Dagna, and then gave her a thumbs-up. Excellent. Dagna was tiny and fierce and certainly not to be reckoned with, but in a fight, Hawke's money was on Cassandra any day of the week.
Unfortunately, Dagna managed to extricate herself from the argument before it came to blows. Smart woman. "We all have our own interpretations, and that's okay," Dagna said.
"Yes, but my interpretation is the correct one," said Cassandra.
"We'll agree to disagree. Why don't we let someone else have a turn?" Dagna slid back into her seat on the bench and took a sip of her ale. "Dorian? Bull?"
"Yeah," said the Bull. "Actually, I have a gripe. That fight scene, the one in chapter eight? Completely unrealistic. Pulled me entirely out of the story."
Dorian took the book from him and began to flip through the pages. "That's a legitimate criticism," Dagna said. "What about it bothered you?"
"The move Dagger uses," the Bull said. "Mages don't fight like that. I've gone up against enough of them to know."
"It does seem rather unrealistic," Dorian said. His brow was creased as he studied the relevant passage. "I can't do this. Nobody can do this."
Hawke, who had been reading the paragraph upside-down, said, "Don't be ridiculous. I can."
The Bull snorted. "A good try, Hawke."
She looked up at him. "I'm perfectly serious."
"Huh. You willing to prove it?"
"Ten sovereigns says I can take you down," Hawke said promptly.
The Bull's face slid into a toothy smirk. "You're on."
"What?" said Dorian. "Does anyone actually think this is a good idea?"
"Training yard, five minutes," said Hawke. "Bring backup—you'll need it."
"Champion of Kirkwall? More like Champion of Sloth Demons!" said the Bull.
"Sorry, are we borrowing Cassandra's comebacks now?"
"After I read Varric's book about you," said the Bull, "I thought you'd be taller."
Hawke planted her hands on the table and leaned forward. "Did you get that belly draining your enemies of blood, or draining barrels of beer?"
The Bull narrowed his eyes. "Five minutes, Hawke."
"Five minutes, Iron Bull," said Hawke. "...If that's really your name."
"That supposed to be an insult?"
"No," said Hawke, and then, satisfied that she'd left her audience thoroughly confused, she turned around and strode outside.
Her staff was wrapped in cloth and hidden beneath the bed; she hadn't had much use for it in the past months, but the weight was comforting in her hand. She gave it a few experimental swings, taking out the candle on her nightstand, and then braced it over her shoulder. Oh yes. This was going to feel good. She took the steps back down to the Great Hall at a jog and only narrowly kept herself from bolting through the middle of the crowd.
"Where are you going with that?"
"Varric!" said Hawke, executing a neat spin and doing her best the hide her staff behind her back. "Good to see you. Must be going now, things to see, people to do. Until later!" She was out the door and in the bailey before he could utter a word of protest. The Bull was waiting in the lower yard; Hawke slowed herself, caught her breath, and swung her staff up and across her shoulders, where she draped her arms over it.
When she sauntered forward to meet the Bull, she was wearing her best smirk. Oh yes, she thought happily; it had been much too long.
A small crowd had gathered on the yard's perimeter and on the steps leading down to it, and money was being passed from hand to hand. She had her reputation, but most of the people here had seen the Iron Bull in action, and that was an impressive sight indeed. Hawke almost wished she'd hadn't shaken Varric off; if he were here, he'd be fleecing the naysayers for all they were worth.
The Bull was carrying his enormous war hammer, and for only the shortest breath, he stopped where he stood as he caught sight of Hawke's staff.
"You fight with that?" he said.
Hawke spun the thing off her shoulders overhand and planted it blade-first in the ground. It was a dangerous-looking staff—more a polearm, really—with the blade only a little less than half the length of the haft and counterbalanced by a fist-sized orb that was a peerless locus for magic.
"Problem?" said Hawke.
The Bull let his hammer fall to the ground; Hawke felt the quake shudder through her feet.
"Nope," he said, and then he closed on her.
The bastard was fast, Hawke would give him that. He clearly expected her to fall back—no one, mage or otherwise, would be stupid enough to let themselves be caught head-on in close-range. Hawke, however, lived to defy expectations.
He was less than arm's-length from her when he realized she didn't plan on moving, but his hammer was already in motion, soaring down from above towards the spot where he thought she'd be. If she'd really wanted to hurt him, she would have braced her staff on the ground and aimed the lance at his ribs; but this was a demonstration fight, so she simply ducked under his swing, punched him hard in the nose, and slid around his side to clobber him in the back of the head with the counterweight of her staff.
The Bull swore in Qunlat, and Hawke laughed.
"Nice," he said. "You won't get away with that twice, though."
Hawke was watching his chest, and she saw him tense a heartbeat before he whipped his hammer overhand. She dodged, and somehow—Andraste's tits—he pivoted around the hammer and snapped off a kick; Hawke, who was moving in the opposite direction and met his kick with the full force of her momentum behind her, took the blow in her side.
Something tore loose. Hopefully that was the linen bandage beneath her clothes and not anything else—skin, for instance, or organs.
She did know how to fall, at least; she landed on her shoulder and rolled with it, coming up on a foot and a knee and a hand like some strange three-legged beast. "The Iron Bull?" she called. "Are you sure the Cotton Bull isn't more appropriate?"
It was his turn to laugh, and Hawke wasn't about to let his distraction go to waste. She swung at him, and he caught her blade against his forearm; it bit deep. Red beaded along the the edge and rolled down the blood channel of her staff.
"Good," the Bull said, and then the hammer was flying at her again.
She wasn't strong enough to block and hold his blows, but she could deflect—right, left, left, left again, her arms starting to ache with the strain. "What, no magic?" he called.
"Well," Hawke said, between breaths, "if you insist," and she sent a line of fire racing towards his feet. He danced back, and when he was off-balance, Hawke thrust two-handed at his groin. His garish trousers ripped clean through high on the inside of one thigh.
"Sorry," said Hawke, "did I miss?" He grabbed for his hammer and found the haft slick with ice. "You're decent, I'll give you that, but you're no Arishok," she added, and she pressed forward again. He wouldn't give ground, and there was simply so much of him that a lot of her usual tricks wouldn't work. Her vision was swimming oddly, too.
"You're decent," said the Bull, "but you're no Arishok, either." He'd given up on his hammer, but he was just as dangerous unarmed—maybe more so, since he wasn't advertising his moves so obviously without the hammer's weight. "How'd—fuck." He fell back and spat blood. "How did you kill him?"
This was going to hurt.
"Oh, look!" Hawke pointed at the sky. "A dragon!"
"Does that ever work?" asked the Bull.
"No," said Hawke, "but this does."
No armor, and not as limber as she had once been; but when she swiped at his abdomen and he stepped back, he compensated by bringing his head down and within her reach. Hawke was ready. She grabbed his horn and sent a shock of lightning through him that brought him to his knees.
Here was the tricky part. Hawke managed to coax her stiff body into a flip up and over his head, using his horn like a tree branch; with the Arishok, she had used the force of her arc to drive her staff point-first through the back of his ribs. Since she didn't care to leave the Bull seriously maimed, however, she did the next best thing and breathed a gout of fire hot past the side of his face.
"Uncle?" said Hawke.
The Bull heaved. "What—"
Her feet were braced against his back; Hawke shifted her grip at the base of his horn and pricked his spine with her blade. "Uncle," she said. "You're supposed to say—" Ooh. She was dizzy. Probably too many acrobatics.
"What...uhn...what does that..." The Bull broke off; a shudder went through him, and he fell forward on his hands. Hawke followed him down, thinking she had him, and then her fingers went numb.
"She's asking you to yield," said a familiar voice. There went her feet. Interesting. The world tilted strangely, but Hawke's body refused to respond. Perhaps she was very drunk?
The Bull grunted. "I yield."
That was good, that was supposed to make Hawke happy. The world tilted again and then went away; when it came back, Hawke was looking at the sky. One of the clouds looked like a nug.
"Hawke? Hawke, talk to me."
Quite a lot of her body hurt, and she wished the numbness would come back.
Was that Varric? His face was above her.
"Hello, Varric," she said, and reached out to touch him.
"Marian—shit. What were you thinking?" His hands were pressed against her side.
"I won ten sovereigns," she told him.
"Yeah? Was that worth it?"
The new scar across his cheek was creased with displeasure, and Hawke laid her palm over it. There; much better. He wasn't allowed to have scars that she didn't know the story of.
"Worth what?" she asked.
"Never mind, Champion," said Varric, "just keep talking," which was ridiculous, Varric was the one in charge of the talking.
"I believe I might faint now," said Hawke, and she did.
"I had not realized the Champion was previously wounded."
"This is going to be a first, Seeker, but for once I'm not holding that against you. I only found out because she couldn't get the bleeding to stop on her own."
"She isn't a healer?"
"Not much of one, and as far as I can tell, she didn't walk out of Weisshaupt—more like crawled out."
"And she will not discuss it."
"Shit, you try getting anything out of her when she doesn't want to talk. She doesn't like to let on when she's hurting. Or that she's capable of being hurt."
"Yet she defeated the Iron Bull anyway—"
"After everything I've told you, you still doubt her?"
"When I met her, she seemed very different from the hero of your stories. Perhaps she is not so different as I first believed—but don't look so pleased with yourself, Varric. She is still a ridiculous woman."
"All part of the package."
"And it was a moronic idea, trying to fight in the condition she is in."
"What, you think I'm going to argue with you? I never claimed she made good choices."
"No. You only claim that she is brave and witty and beautiful. I have read your books. It was not apparent to me at first, but now that I have seen you with her, I wonder that anyone could miss it."
"Do not insult me by feigning ignorance, Varric. Even The Magpie—it is apparent that the characters are stand-ins. The way you describe the elf woman—"
"Every major character in that book is an elf, Seeker."
"Except Captain Angel."
"Yeah, okay, except him."
"And you know of whom I speak. Your protagonist may not understand himself to be in love with her, but you—"
"You do know these are just stories, right? Despite Hawke's crazy conspiracy theories, not every character I write is based on someone I know in real life. Don't get me wrong, Seeker, I like what I do, but it's also a quick way to generate revenue that doesn't involve slogging through a field of mud to fight undead corpses."
"I wonder if even you believe the bullshit that comes out of your mouth. Am I really meant to believe that your lavish descriptions of the apostate are mere coincidence?"
"Andraste's hairy ass—"
"—You can believe whatever you want. Hawke's a friend and a hell of a good time, but I've written a lot of stories, Seeker, which means an occasional superficial similarity to someone real is unavoidable. Come on. Do you honestly think everything I write is wish-fulfillment?"
"I think you write nothing else."
"Shit, you even met Bianca."
"Is that your argument?"
"This isn't an argument, this is you and your crazy delusions running into the painful wall of reality. Not that you're the first fan I've had who thinks they know better than I do what I mean—"
"I have, as you say, met the smith. If this is intended to convince me that I am wrong, you'll have to do better. I am not saying you will not always be in her heart, but she has her own life now, and her work will always be what is most important to her."
"What are you saying, Seeker?"
"I'm saying that it is clear to anyone with sense what is most important to you."
"Do we have to have this conversation?"
"Yes. You will not leave Hawke, and I intend to take advantage of that. Does the smith expect you to wait for her forever while she goes home to her husband and hearth?"
"If I tell you what you want to hear, will you go away?"
"I do not think she does. She is not so selfish as that. But you—you are trapped. Only in your stories can you be free to pursue the one you truly—stop laughing!"
"Seeker, I should ask you to ghost-write for me. You're better at coming up with this crap than I am, and I have a decade and a half of experience under my belt."
"...Fine. I can see you will refuse any counsel I offer."
"I can't deny that it's hilarious to watch you give advice. Keep it up, maybe you can start a new career when all this shit is over with."
"You are infuriating."
"Thanks. And Seeker?"
"It's only ever one-sided between a writer and his inspiration."
"I didn't think—is she stirring?"
"She's been drifting in and out. Sometimes she wakes up long enough that I can pour some water down her, but she never remembers what's going on. The healer said it might be another day or two. Hawke? Are you awake?"
"Don't shout at her—ah, nevermind, she's still out of it."
"You know, Varric, this does explain one mystery."
"And what might that be?"
"In The Tale of the Champion, I wondered why everyone Hawke met was attracted to her. Now I know it to be a clear case of authorial bias."
"Still delusional, Seeker."
"Perhaps. Perhaps not."
The world went away again.
The first thing she became aware of when she woke up was the pain in her hand. The knuckles felt bruised—Hawke knew that feeling all too well—and her palm was scraped raw. The next thing she noticed was how dangerously fatigued she felt when she opened her mana channels and reached for that familiar well of power; it usually felt like she was trying to hold light, but now it felt as though she were pressing a psychic bruise. Not so much a good idea, then.
She cracked open first one eye and then the other and had to blink rapidly to clear her vision and force the world into focus. Ceiling. Excellent. So helpful.
It took a bit longer to work up the energy to roll to her side, and she had to stifle a groan when she did; her body was achy and overused, and the gash along her ribs felt fresh, although it was by now months old. The view, however, was at least more informative. Fire, screen, desk, candles—oh. She was in Varric's bed.
The dwarf in question was seated in front of the fire, thumbing through a familiar-looking book; his legs were outstretched and crossed at the ankle, and his hair was loose about his face. He hadn't noticed that she was awake, which made Hawke think briefly but furiously about the best way to use that to her advantage before concluding that in her current state, she cared far more about having his attention than she did about expending her small reserves on startling him for her own amusement.
"Varric," she said.
He started anyway. "Shit!" The book snapped shut on his thumb, and he yanked it away and shook his hand. "You're awake."
"Yes," said Hawke, who was still feeling muddled, although she didn't care to admit it.
"How're you feeling? Hang on, the healer gave me some stuff for when you woke up—" He vanished from her field of vision and then reappeared several seconds later carrying an assortment of bottles and bandages.
"Varric," said Hawke, "I'm in your bed."
"Yeah, well, this seemed better than putting you back in your broom closet. Someone had to keep an eye on you. Move over." The bed was close to the ground, and he sat down on the edge of the mattress and began to arrange the bottles on the night table. Hawke fought to keep her eyes open.
"How long?" she asked.
"A little over a day. Here, sit up." He let her brace herself against his shoulder while she struggled upright, and then he shoved a couple of extra pillows behind her back to keep her propped that way. After that he forced a foul-tasting tincture that probably contained elfroot down her throat. Hawke coughed and glared at him, but he seemed to find her disgust amusing.
"You're far too pleased about this," she told him. "Sitting there all smug like I didn't earn this wound defending your honor—"
"You re-earned it trying to win a couple of coins off of Tiny. Might want to think twice about making bets with giant, bloodthirsty qunari the next time you get bored."
"Yes," said Hawke. "Well."
"Uh-huh. 'Well' is right."
"Look, I really think the important point is that I won," said Hawke.
Varric had a peculiar way of tilting his head when he looked at her; she was more used to seeing the angle from above, when his chin would tip up and to the side as he squinted at her, but even when they were level with one another, she recognized the habit and the sentiment behind it. He was probably thinking she was crazy, or that she deserved what had happened to her, or both.
"Here," he said, and popped the stopper on another bottle. "Bottoms up." Hawke scowled ferociously and swallowed down three mouthfuls of a concoction even fouler-tasting than the last.
"Ugh," she said. "What is that? It's disgusting."
"The Inquisitor scraped it off the bottom of Skyhold," Varric said. "Have you been down to the undercroft where the waterfall is? There's all kinds of medicinal slimes down there—"
Hawke tossed the bottle at him. It bounced off his shoulder, and he smirked at her.
"Ha ha," she said. "I suppose you think you're funny." She was about to say more, but an enormous yawn rose out of her; even this small bit of interaction had worn her out.
When she was finished yawning, Varric put his hand on her forehead. Leandra had done that, and Malcolm; Anders had done it, too, particularly when Hawke had come down with rose colds. There was something different about the tenor of the gesture when Varric did it. Hawke often felt that people overestimated the differences in size between dwarves and humans, because, for all that she had a head on him in height, Varric's hands were enormous.
"Can you keep down some water?" he asked.
"Mmm, well, I suppose we'll find out if I vomit all over you," said Hawke, but she accepted the glass of water he handed her and drank it down faster than she probably should have. Fatigue was crawling over her, although the very last thing she wanted was to fall asleep again. When she was finished, he took the glass from her, set it aside, and then dragged one of the armchairs over from the fireside to the bed. Hawke watched with both interest and heavy eyelids as he sat down and retrieved his book from where it had become wedged between the arm and the seat.
"Maker's rump," he said, and then he cracked open the book and looked at her expectantly. "All right, Hawke, where were you?"
Hawke had scooted down so she was once again nearly horizontal, and it took her a few ticks to catch on to what was happening. "Varric," she said, "what book is that?"
"This? An Apostate's Guide to Herbal Remedies," said Varric.
Hawke narrowed her eyes. It was difficult to make out in the candlelight, but yes, she was certain that he was in fact holding a copy of The Magpie.
"Does it belong to Cassandra?"
"Come on, Hawke, you know the only reason she'd let me near one of her books is to sign it. Do you want me to read to you or not?"
Oh. Was that what was happening? She felt like she was missing something important, but frankly that wasn't an unfamiliar state—Hawke was often missing something important, usually her sense of propriety.
Right. Varric had asked a question.
"We were…" she murmured. It was hard to remember where she'd left off; reading in stolen snatches did that. Knight and Dagger had met up with their Dalish friend, and then Knight had told Dagger about his plan to buy his sweetheart's contract from the Crows. "Song," she said. "Song was passing through on a job, and she stopped to see Knight, and they were all sitting around playing cards."
Varric thumbed through the pages until he arrived at a place a little less than halfway through the book. "Shit," he said. "I can't believe I'm doing this. All right—"
"And what about you, love?" said Song. "I know this knucklehead's story, but for all he talks about you, he never says a thing worth hearing." Now that they were out of the roar of the tavern, Knight could fully appreciate the throaty purr of her voice; the sound was more familiar to him than any other, except maybe the noise of his own mouth flapping.
Dagger topped off both her tankard and Song's with a crooked, close-lipped grin. "Oh, you know the story. Too many mages in my clan, I ran away before they could oust me, the templars dragged me to the Circle, I ran away before they could make me tranquil—" She winked. "General theme of running away there."
"I didn't know you were Dalish," Knight interrupted.
"Only for about six years," Dagger said. "More of a fluke than anything. The general feeling was that my sister and I were always odd birds—"
"You have a sister?"
"Oh, well." Dagger tipped her tankard back and looked down into it. "Not anymore. I heard most of the clan was slaughtered a few years ago. I like to think she's still alive out there. Sweet lass. Used to eat mud if I told her it was cake, but sweet."
Knight stared at her, hard, but she was either refusing to meet his gaze or unaware of his scrutiny. Song, fortunately, was a better conversationalist than they were, because she broke in with, "I'm sorry to hear that, love. It's always hard to lose family. I'm glad you stuck around long enough to watch Knight's back, Maker knows he can't take care of himself."
Dalish. Knight's mind was a thousand leagues away, spinning out the possibilities. He and Song had grown up together in an alienage, and except for some minor dealings and his recent association with the encampment outside the city, he'd had little to do with Dalish elves; but with patience and coin and a knack for asking the right questions, he had a shot at finding out the fate of even a possibly dead woman.
He sent out three runners the next day, and within a matter of weeks he knew—
"Hawke? You asleep?"
Hawke made a noise that might have passed for yes or no or please let's not talk about sisters. She couldn't tell if it was the particular content of the scene or hearing Varric read his own story aloud, but there was something nearly unbearable about listening to him—and anyway, it was keeping her from sleeping.
What was the line? "I like to think she's still alive out there." He hadn't thought about what hearing that would stir in Hawke; after all, Varric had never met Bethany. Maybe he'd been writing about Bartrand, that was always a possibility, but even more likely was that it was mere dramatic license, and balls. She really was exhausted if she was letting her mind run away this much. Hawke was normally much better at keeping everything locked down and out of sight, even from herself.
"I'll take that as confirmation," said Varric, much more quietly. His voice was little more than a rumble, and Hawke didn't dare crack open her eyes enough to look at his face. "You know, if we can avoid me ever reading this book to you again, I would take it as a personal favor from Andraste. Not that it means anything to you, sweetheart, but it's a little much for me to handle." He sighed and then fell into a silence that was punctuated only by the occasional turn of a page.
The last thing Hawke thought before she did fall asleep was that she hadn't realized how much he minded her teasing. He never had before; the ridicule between them was a friendly constant. Varric was funny about his stories, though. She could never tell which ones he thought were spectacular and which ones in the aftermath he hated.
It was another day before Hawke was in her own estimation well enough to be up and out of bed. Unfortunately, there was some dissent about whether Hawke's estimation could be trusted, which resulted in a small skirmish conducted entirely in verbal gauntlets flung across the width of Varric's suite.
"I'm perfectly fine—"
"Hawke, you can't stand upright without wincing."
"Look," said Hawke, "your concern is appreciated, if delusional, but I assure you that I'm more than capable of moving about unassisted."
Varric cast his eyes skyward. "'The dwarf was beginning to suspect he was cursed to spend his life surrounded by reckless idiots.'"
"The dwarf is beginning to sound like my mother." Hawke straightened and did her best to prevent a pained expression from ruining her argument. "You are aware that I can't stay in bed forever? I'm going to have to get up eventually—"
"Stress on 'eventually' there, Champion." He sighed, pinched the bridge of his nose, and dropped heavily into the chair in front of his desk. His face was lined with exhaustion, and while he didn't quite look disheveled—Varric often appeared rakishly ruffled but was rarely unkempt—he did seem very much like a man who had spent the past three nights sleeping in a chair.
"I know that that wound of yours isn't normal," he said. "Even Fiona's healers aren't sure what to make of it. They have assured me it isn't the taint, not that that makes me feel any better, but the fact that it's so slow to heal proves that you didn't go to a garden-variety bloodletting."
I made it back to you, didn't I? Hawke swallowed down. It wasn't easy to win an argument with Varric, but it could be done; in fact, Hawke was the only person in the past decade to have any consistent success at it. Appeal to logic, she reminded herself.
"Varric," she began. "I promise on everything I hold dear, on my brother, on chocolate, on dragons, on my dog, that I won't be attempting to thwart even a very small qunari invasion until I am completely well again." (Varric's lips twitched.) "And surely you want me out of your bed." (Varric snorted.) "It isn't healthy for a man of your age to be sleeping in an armchair every night. And, eurgh, have you smelled me lately? I smell worse than a Ferelden swamp, and you certainly don't want to shoulder the burden of helping me bathe." (Varric choked.) "I'd wager I can even managed to feed and dress myself—Varric? Varric, are you all right?"
He pounded on his chest a few times and managed to force out, "Fine. Just—mm—swallowed the wrong way. That's, uh...that's definitely an argument." Hawke noted he did not use the word 'compelling.' Time to break out the big trebuchets.
"I don't like bringing up such a delicate topic," she said, "but my book group does meet today."
"...Are you serious?"
"Can't miss it," Hawke said cheerfully. "Must be off." She released her grip on the bedpost and lurched toward the door; while it wasn't her most graceful attempt, she did manage to exit without hanging on to anything other than the desk, the armoire, and, briefly, Varric's shoulder.
She was only a few steps down the hallway when she heard Varric swear. "Andraste's frilly knickers. Hawke, at least let me help you get to your room." There was further grumbling, too low for her to make out, and then his door slammed shut. Hawke snatched her hand away from the wall before he could catch her holding on for support, although it was possible that by this point the charade was up.
"I know how to walk," Hawke protested.
"Sure you do," Varric said. "But let's say you hold on to me for balance—that's not really the same as being unable to make it back by yourself, is it?"
"Well," Hawke said. "Possibly not."
"Which means your ability to deal with enormous flesh wounds by yourself remains unthreatened, and I get go on my way without worrying that you accidentally missed a step and knocked yourself out."
"You'll speak of this to no one?" Hawke said solemnly, and Varric smirked.
"Just you, me, and your adoring fans."
"So long as it's only the adoring ones," she said, and she allowed him to take her by the wrist and drape her arm over his shoulder. Hawke had resolved to refuse further aid, but after a few steps, she had to admit the going was easier with his help. His head came approximately to her shoulders, which put him at a good height for leaning upon, and, as she had discovered during the frequent drunken sojourns of her past, he was both broad and sturdy enough to support her should she stumble.
She wasn't limping, nor was her wound infected—well, at least not any longer—it was just that her acrobatics against the Bull had reopened the stitches that marched in crooked lines down the entire right-hand side of her torso, clean from her armpit to her hip. Varric had been correct, too; the wound was not merely physical in origin, and Hawke, an indifferent healer at best, had struggled to staunch the spiritual damage that had been inflicted.
It had almost been enough to force her to break her last vow to her father and fall back on blood magic again, but even in the most dire moment, she couldn't bring herself to profane that promise.
After the second flight of stairs, they stopped to give her a breather. Hawke leaned heavily on Varric, not that she needed to, mind, and he shifted and took her weight easily. Marvelous thing, dwarf stamina—Hawke would know, being something of a paragon of stamina herself.
"Sure you want to try a bath?" said Varric.
"Well, I can't go to the meeting reeking of sweat and piss, Dorian will have me thrown out," Hawke said. She started forward again at a more sedate pace; one more flight to go. "I've never met a person who smells that nice. Maybe it's an illusion. Olfactory magic." Dorian really did smell wonderful, crisp and tart, even if Hawke preferred something a bit earthier herself. "And have you seen that jawline?"
"All right, I hear you, Dorian puts the rest of us to shame."
"Except me," Hawke added. "I smell like sunshine, probably. Daisies. Glory? Can a person smell like glory? I expect I can, just ask my adoring fans."
"Sorry to break it to you, Champion, but you mostly smell like beer or smoke when you aren't smelling like sweat, piss, or blood. Trust me—after all, you only have adoring fans because of my help."
"'Help' is such a strong word." She paused on a step, blew out her breath, and took another. "And smoke, really?"
Varric grunted. "All the fire. Or...maybe not smoke. You know how the air smells right before a storm? Like lightning."
"Well, that's no fun at all. It's hardly dashing of me to smell like I'm either going to smite someone or corner them into a drinking contest." Like lightning? What was she supposed to make of that? It must have been poetic license; she had never known anyone who took as much poetic license as Varric.
"Not dashing, maybe, but accurate," Varric said. "Tub in the room sound good? It'll be easier than hauling you down to the springs."
"You make me sound like a sack of nugs," Hawke complained. "I suppose I can settle for a tub in my room." Somewhat more reluctantly, she added, "I'll need someone to draw the water and heat it, though." She wasn't up to doing it herself with magic.
"Tub, water, heat. Got it. Does that room of yours even have the space for a bathtub?"
"If I splash too much, I get the sheets wet," she was forced to admit. They halted outside her room—closet, rather—and Varric tipped the door open. He settled Hawke on her cot, told her, "Wait here," and vanished into the hallway again.
Hawke spent the duration of his absence trying to unlace her boots. She'd gotten them on, after all, which meant she should be able to remove them, surely. It took a few moments of straining, but she was finally able to kick one of them off; it fell off the end of the bed, as far out of reach as Par Vollen. She was contemplating the second boot when Varric returned.
"It's your lucky day," he said, and dropped the tin tub he was carrying to the floor. It was one of the nice ones, with runes etched on the bottom and alongside the interior of the rim. Tubs like that were dreadfully expensive—Hawke knew, since she'd bought one for Mother back in Kirkwall—but incredibly useful; the runes would not only draw water but heat it. Skyhold had half a dozen of them, and they were in constant demand.
"You okay from here?" Varric said.
"I believe I can manage to bathe myself," Hawke said, dryly. "Of course, you're welcome to stay and watch, but there will be a charge for the show—"
Varric grinned at her. "Champion, we both know I couldn't afford you," he said. "I'll be back to check on you, don't drown in the meantime. Maker knows I don't want to have to be the one to break that news to your brother."
Hawke waved a hand at him, more concerned with getting her feet under her than banter; he shut the door and left her with the tub, the cot, the night table, and an approximate square foot of floor for maneuvering purposes. Wonderful.
She levered herself upright. Unfortunately, in the process of standing, she overextended, recoiled, banged her shin against the tub, and ended up barking, "Shit!"
From outside, an answer: "Hawke? You okay?"
"Fine! Don't come in!" she called back.
"Need some help?"
"As generous an offer as that it—" She broke off to grunt as she kicked her other boot off. "No, thank you." Her thick linen shirt was large enough that it came off easily; the undershirt was a bit trickier and involved some careful positioning of limbs and head to avoid pulling on her side.
Varric's voice was muffled by the door. "Whatever you say. Actually, it's a long walk downstairs—maybe I'll just sit out here and keep you company."
Trousers. Hmm. She worked them over her hips and then sat down to pull them off the rest of the way. If she'd been smart, she would've filled the tub before undressing; the air was cold enough that her nipples had tightened, and gooseflesh had broken out all along her arms and breasts.
She knelt slowly and with care and arranged her fingers on the activating rune; the entire subsequent chain of marks lit up with a soft glow, and water began to pool along the tub's bottom.
"Were you planning on reading to me, then?" she called.
"Sorry, that was a one-time-only offer." There was some kind of clattering sound and then Varric's voice again, this time a little nearer. "Did you know that the room next to yours is an actual closet? I found a stool. Brooms, too."
"Planning on sweeping under my bed?" She shifted her fingers to the rune for heat. Whoever had made the tub did good work; the runes were warm and open beneath her touch, despite what must be frequent use.
"Scrubbing your windows," Varric suggested.
"Laundering my sheets."
"Swabbing your decks."
"Beating my rug?" Hawke tried; she was rewarded with a chuckle.
"That's a good one. I should take notes—Cassandra keeps harping on me about that romance serial. I keep telling her I can't continue it until you give me back my manuscript, but that woman won't take no for an answer."
Hawke gritted her teeth as she slid into the water. Her side really did look as though a beast had chewed on her; the sutures along her ribcage made her look like she'd had to have her insides sewed back into her. The heat felt magnificent to her sore flesh, though, and even better to the overtaxed muscles of her limbs and back.
"Oh no, I'm drowning!" Hawke called. "Probably because I slipped and hit my head. Blood! Blood everywhere!"
"Ha ha," said Varric, and then he added something inaudible. About cheese, maybe? Blackwall?
"Crack the door, I couldn't hear that," she said.
A pause, and then the door swung open a discreet inch. "I said, you don't get to die in a bathtub."
"Not dramatic enough?" She sunk lower into the water, as deep as the tub would allow; the water was lapping at her collarbones, and she was forced to draw her knees up. Her toes curled under in pleasure as the tension began to seep out of her shoulders. Varric's voice helped.
"By now, I might as well make you immortal."
"I was...mmm, I was hoping for something with dragons." She rubbed a hand idly along her belly and watched the water ripple in response.
"And then the dragon tripped and fell on the Champion of Kirkwall, who met her ignominious end squashed flat under one ton of tail."
"Lovely," said Hawke.
"You did want dragons."
"I was thinking more something along the lines of—oh, I don't know. And then the Champion and the dragon allied themselves against the invading qunari horde."
"It's always invading qunari hordes with you."
"Yes, I believe a person should stick to what they know they're good at," said Hawke. "Although feel free to make it an invading Tevinter horde when you write it up, if that's more your fancy." Her hand continued its smooth glide downward, and she let her chin fall forward against her chest; it stretched all along her spine in a way was achingly good. The bath made her feel like someone had come along and removed the mountain she had been unwittingly carrying on her back for months, for years. (The mountain's name could only be Sundermount, of course.)
"Vints, huh?" Varric chuckled again. "That's a new one. As the Champion's eyes met the dragon's and the foul stench of spilled blood licked through the air, they came to a wordless understanding: against the magisters and their demons there would be no victory. They turned together to face the conquering horde—I'm not sure I like that, Hawke. It's hard to shove 'horde' and the country that produced Dorian into the same sentence."
"Mmm," said Hawke. "What happens next?" Her knees parted and fell against the tub's sides.
"Oh, the usual. An improbable escape, the Champion scorching the earth from the back of her mighty dragon, close calls, daring rescues, high adventures—no true love, not unless it's the Champion's love of puddings. She's more the love 'em and leave 'em archetype. There might be some slapstick involving her brother, it's hard to say what fits the tone in a first draft."
"Sure." There was a thump that might have been Varric tilting his stool back so he could lean against the wall. "If it's a tragedy, you don't want to interrupt the downward spiral of anguish with cheap humor. Romances can go either way. Now, an adventure story—there's always room for comedy there, particularly if you have a plucky sidekick."
Hawke's hand landed between her thighs.
"Not that I'm calling myself plucky," Varric added. "That was aimed at Junior, in case you needed the footnote. I've always thought there was coin to be had in a book about the Wardens. Fiction, of course. People are fascinated by them. You play up that Calling crap, and you've got a bestseller on your hands."
"Let's—ah. Let's not talk about my brother," Hawke suggested.
"Yeah, a small dose goes a long way with that one. No offense intended, Hawke."
"None...nng. None taken," said Hawke, and she slid a finger into her cunt.
"Did I ever tell you about the time Rivaini and I got hired by the King of Ferelden?" said Varric.
Hawke let out a breathy and quickly truncated moan that might have passed for a response. The bath was warm, but between her legs was more warmth still; a second finger joined the first. Experimentally, she dragged both fingers out to just the tips and then thrust them back inside.
"No shit," Varric said, "there I was, drinking in a pisshole of a tavern in Ostwick, when Rivaini sidles up to me. She was wearing this coat that made her look like an admiral in Empress Celene's navy and a look that made me think she wanted something. Now, keep in mind, the last I'd heard put her and the elf running a cargo blockade—Hawke? Lot of splashing in there, you okay?"
In one blinding snap, Hawke's focus widened from the electric potential of pleasure in her body to what she was actually doing, and she jerked her hands back to the sides of the tub. "Fine!" she said, voice more than a bit thin. "Fine, absolutely fine, just…" She cast about for an explanation. "Scratching an itch."
"I'm not cleaning up any water you get on the floor." A considering noise; he might as well have said, Where was I? "Rivaini and her elf had been running a blockade out west, but somehow she tracked me down to ask me along on her latest job. Naturally, I was suspicious. Not that I'd put anything beyond her, but why in the Maker's name would a king decide she was the best choice to help him out?" Hawke stopped listening to his words, something even she occasionally had to do in self-defense; the sound of his voice was more than enough, and by now she knew his rhythm by heart, knew from tone and cadence alone when he was winding her up, when he was distracted by an aside, when the situation was getting tense and when resolution was at hand.
If she leaned to the side and craned her neck, she could see the edge of his arm through the crack in the door. He wouldn't have looked, of course. Varric presented himself as a scoundrel extraordinaire, and it was true—his jokes were the filthiest, his smirk the most roguish, he didn't walk so much as saunter, and his lies were gilded gold. He tricked people into thinking he was honest because he was open with them, because he told them up front that he was a liar, and they laughed and let themselves be lulled; but Hawke had never let herself fall for the trick.
It was true to a point—because Varric was also indisputably a good man, and certainly a better person than Hawke herself. He never would have looked, and somehow that made what Hawke had almost inadvertently done all the worse. She didn't believe in guilt (who had the time?), but there was definitely a tinge of something beneath the black amusement she was feeling. Regret? Was this regret?
Clearly what this meant was that it was time to pick up some friendly stranger for a night of fun. She was tense, release of tension was necessary, Varric had happened to be in proximity when she drifted into contemplation of release, et cetera. Yes, a friendly stranger sounded about right. Maker's breath, had it really been years since her last rough-and-tumble? Well, she had been busy, what with the fugitive nonsense and all.
Hawke liked sex. She liked it with woman, she liked it even better with men, she liked it best of all with people whose names she didn't know and whose faces she wouldn't see the next day. Anonymity had been her policy for her entire adult life; occasionally there had been a face among the crowd she would seek out more than once, but those assignations were rare and always established on the conditions of brevity and an avoidance of attachment.
It wasn't that she was against the idea of love, but nonsense like that seemed best left to other people. Hawke hated bending her life to accommodate others, and anyway, she was firmly against nonsense. An absolutely no-nonsense person, that was Hawke.
Somewhere, Mother was laughing.
She cast about for soap while Varric finished his story, scrubbed herself while he started a second, and launched herself out of the tub and into the chilly air to dry as he began a third. No, wait—this wasn't a story but rather a running commentary on the constituents of the Inquisition.
"And the Seeker—she's more stubborn than the rest of them put together. Can you believe that in Orlais, they're actually talking about making her the next Divine? That won't ever happen, they'd have to drag her away from the Inquisitor's side with an entire army of horses, but the fact that they're considering it…" Hawke didn't have to see him to know he was shaking his head.
"Come on now, Varric, we all know you really like her," she said. Hm. No towels. Hawke dragged one of the thinner sheets out from under the mass of blankets on her cot and wrapped herself in that instead. "I don't suppose you want to dump my bathwater for me?"
"Hawke, you know I'd love to"—lie—"but that seems like a job for someone big and strong and not me. I have this terrible pain in my chest, and I know you'd feel awful if you made me strain something. No, I agree, you'll have to find someone else."
"How unfortunate," said Hawke. "I suppose it'll just have to stay here. It would be a shame if your manuscript of Swords and Shields Part Ninety fell into the water, but we all have to make sacrifices."
There was a pause, and then Varric said, "Are you decent in there?"
Hawke dragged one of the thick furs over herself. "Be serious," she said. "Am I ever decent?"
The door swung open. "You're decent at getting your way," Varric told her, and then, with much fuss and many muttered curses, he picked up her tin tub full of bathwater and hauled it out into the hallway. Hawke wondered if he was really going to carry it all the way to the privy and dump it down the sewer grate, and then there was a distant splash followed by some muffled expletives. Ah. He'd found the window in the hall, then.
She was still damp when she pulled on her clothes, and after they made their way laboriously down to the Great Hall, Varric made her sit in front of one of the fireplaces until he was satisfied she was warmed through. Hawke would have chafed at the fussing and at the way he occupied himself for the duration of her roasting by flirting with one of the Inquisition scouts, who blushed prettily at the attention, if she hadn't been so grateful for the respite.
And then they made their slow way through the yards to Cabot's tavern, which was as comfortable as any tavern could be on a cold, snowy evening. The tables were all full or nearly so, the ale flowed freely, and good cheer and camaraderie were in abundance but not so plentiful as to prevent the possibility of a friendly argument or fistfight. Hawke felt entirely at home.
Varric left her beside the table where Dagna, Cassandra, Dorian, and the Iron Bull were already seated. Hawke slid into place next to Dorian and opposite Cassandra, but Varric was back moments later, carrying a chair with a back and a cushion attached to the seat. He looked pointedly at Hawke.
"Oh, fine," said Hawke, and she transferred her rear to the proffered chair.
"I must admit, Champion," said Dorian, "we're all rather surprised to see you here. We thought you'd still be recovering from your recent exertions."
"What, and miss book club?" said Hawke.
"We would have waited for you—" Cassandra started to say, but then something astonishing happened. "Varric. What are you doing?"
Varric, who had taken Hawke's place on the bench, raised his brows. "Sorry, Seeker, am I not allowed?"
Cassandra's eyes narrowed; Hawke, who would normally have leapt to Varric's defense as obtusely as possible, couldn't find that previous animosity in herself. Actually, Cassandra's suspicion seemed entirely excusable, since it was clear Varric was up to something.
"I did not say that," said Cassandra. "Your prior behavior makes it clear that you disapprove of us, though. I wonder what made you suddenly change your mind. Are you so concerned that you feel you must monitor our discussion?"
"Me?" said Varric. "Seeker, you misunderstand—I'm only here for a drink and to make sure the Champion doesn't topple out of her seat."
At this remark, everyone turned at once to look at the Bull. The Bull, a stranger to shame, merely smirked and raised his glass in a toast.
"Okay then," said Dagna. "I don't know about everyone else, but I'm hoping we make it through tonight without any cage fights."
"That was no cage fight," said the Bull. "That was a friendly wager."
"I shudder to think of your unfriendly wagers," said Dorian.
Cassandra cleared her throat. "Perhaps the Champion would care to start."
"I do like to take the bull by the horns," said Hawke. There was a brief pause during which her audience contemplated her wit—or so she imagined—and then at the far end of the table, the Bull threw his head back and roared with laughter. Even Cassandra's lips twitched, so infectious was the sound; infectious, and a little alarming. Hawke half-expected the roof to cave in.
"What to say about this chapter…" Hawke tapped a finger thoughtfully against her chin. "Varric? Any suggestions from the author?"
"Nope," said Varric.
"Right," said Hawke. "Cassandra, you go ahead. Might as well let you get it out of your system."
Cassandra was indeed full to bursting with opinions about the part they'd read most recently. "I do not know how you could continue to support the relationship between Knight and Song!" she said; this was clearly directed at Dagna. The rest of the table collectively settled into their seats and signaled for refills. "Perhaps at one point Knight and Song were best suited for one another, but their love was the love of young people, an ideal of love rather than a love that has been tested. Dagger is clearly the companion of Knight's heart. The entire interlude where they confront the father of Queen's child is little more than a treatise on the unpredictability of true love—how it grows despite our intentions in the most unexpected and startling ways!"
It did not escape Hawke's notice that there was a small flower tucked behind Cassandra's ear of precisely the kind she had earlier observed Inquisitor Lavellan clipping in the garden.
"I once thought as you do," Cassandra continued. "But recent events have forced me to reconsider my interpretation. Dagna, surely you can't remain blind to the true meaning of the author—"
"Hey," Varric interjected.
"Ugh. Very well, to the true meaning of the story, which even the author himself may not see. What Knight and Dagger feel for one another is subtle, yes, and surprising, and founded on friendship rather than courtly love, but I assure you all, it is real."
"I agree," said Dagna.
"No, no, consider the exchange when they are comforting Queen over her pregnancy—wait. What did you say?"
Dagna grinned. "I said that I agree. It took you a while to get it through my head, but you're completely right—once you're looking for it, the subtext is pretty obvious."
"Oh." Cassandra blinked and lowered herself back to the bench. "Well. Good."
Dorian, who had alternated between making tormented sounds and playing footsie with the Bull during Cassandra's impassioned monologue, rolled his eyes. "If we're finished with the more tedious aspects of the text, and I am required to add that both of you are inflating what is really a very minor storyline, there are more interesting viewpoints to consider. For instance, do you know what would make this book better?"
"More dragons," Hawke and the Bull said in unison.
Hawke looked at the Bull. The Bull looked back at Hawke. Broad and identical grins split across their faces.
"A sequel," Cassandra said. "This story begs for continuation. Varric, I implore you to tell us what happens to Knight and Dagger. I know that she loves him—"
"If there has to be a sequel, let's make a sequel without any romance, thanks," said Hawke. "And I think it's pretty clear that Dagger isn't in love with anyone, which means that nobody will miss her when she takes to the road as a dragon-slayer for hire in the next book."
"I never said there would be a next book," said Varric. He'd swiped Hawke's ale and was now drinking deeply from it.
"See?" said Hawke. "Varric agrees with me."
Cassandra smirked. "I wonder, Champion, why you're so insistent on this topic—"
Varric snorted. "Mafereth's ass, is this what you five do at every meeting? Sit around and argue about the deeper meaning of a pulp novel I shit out in a couple of weeks?"
"Don't be so hard on yourself," said the Bull. "It's not that bad. Even the Vint here hasn't been able to keep his nose out of it."
Dorian smoothed his mustache. "Excuse me," he said. "Let me assure you that I remain immune to the thrills offered by prose written for the unwashed masses."
"You were up until dawn reading it," said the Bull, who did not otherwise offer an explanation for how he knew about Dorian's nocturnal habits.
Dagna set a comforting hand on Dorian's shoulder. "We won't tell anyone, Dorian," she said.
"Spectacular," said Dorian.
"Especially if you make sure I get that shipment of silverite ingots I need before we really get snowed in," Dagna added.
Dorian's jaw dropped. "I—are you blackmailing me?"
There was a chorus of responses, including, "Yes," "No," "If she won't, I will," and, "Hawke, stop." Dorian groaned with musical precision and waved a hand for the discussion to continue without him while he gathered up the shredded memory of his dignity.
"So," said the Bull, "who's the magpie?"
Hawke, full of her newfound affection for the Bull's keen delight in gambling and impeccable taste in dangerous beasts, thought this was an excellent question. "Does it have to be one of the characters, though?" she said. "Couldn't it be symbolic?"
"It's Knight," said Dorian. "He's the protagonist, the book is called The Magpie, ergo Knight is the one to whom the title refers."
"I always thought it was Song." Dagna shrugged. "I've been changing my mind a lot about this book, though, so I'm open to a different interpretation, but she's always the one just out of reach, kind of like...oh, a bird flying overhead."
"It's Dagger," said Cassandra. Varric choked on his beer.
"I'm telling you"—Hawke broke off to thump Varric on the back as hard as her stitches would allow—"it's metaphorical. When you think of a magpie, what qualities come to mind?"
"They like shiny baubles, don't they?" said Dorian. "Or is that some other bird?"
"That's jackdaws," said Dagna.
"No, I was certain it was magpies—"
"Bad luck," said the Bull.
"Witchcraft," Dagna contributed.
Cassandra's voice cut through the chatter. "They grieve."
There was a brief pause. "Well," said Hawke. "I wasn't going for anything quite so tragic." Although trust Cassandra to go for that interpretation—Hawke was beginning to appreciate how darkly lush the Seeker's sensibilities could be. "If I recall correctly, they mate for life, don't they?" She turned to Varric, propped her chin on her fist, and batted her eyelashes at him.
"Nice try, Hawke," he said, dryly. "I'm going to need a lot more to drink before that'll work, but you're welcome to keep trying. Feel free to offer bribes and favors."
The Seeker leaned across the table until her elbow pressed against Hawke's; Varric was beginning to look distinctly cornered, and Hawke was delighted to note that Cassandra wasn't above a bit of fancy teamwork in the name of making Varric sweat. "And what about threats, dwarf?" Cassandra said.
Hawke tilted her head to the side and whispered, "This is all talk, correct? Because I won't lie and pretend I don't appreciate this side of you, but if you're actually planning on roughing him up again…"
"There will be no lasting harm," Cassandra murmured back. "I swear it on my honor."
"Good," said Hawke. "Excellent."
"I can hear you, you know," said Varric.
"Then you know that we are willing to go to great lengths to get a straight answer from you," said Cassandra. "To whom does the title refer?"
"Or to what," Hawke added.
"To whom or to what does the title refer?" Cassandra braced her hands on the table, and Hawke leaned against her chiseled shoulder. She really was a good-looking woman, was Cassandra—handsome, even striking, if not at all Hawke's type. Still, it was fun to watch the way Varric's jaw tightened at this new collaboration. "Thank you, Champion," the Seeker added.
"Please, Lady Pentaghast," said Hawke. "Call me Marian."
"Marian. You must call me Cassandra. We are peers, are we not?"
"Why, Cassandra, we certainly are." Hawke tipped a wink at Varric, and he rolled his eyes and drained the last of his ale. "And comrades-in-arms against the abominations of the world," Hawke continued. "Filthy things, abominations."
"Indeed," said Cassandra. "So. Dwarf. What is your answer?"
Varric belched into his fist; Cassandra made a disgusted sound, which in Hawke's estimation was Varric's intention all along. "I don't know if you're ready to hear the explanation, Seeker," he said. Ah, he'd caught on, then—Hawke was less invested in victory than in the game for the game's sake.
"I am more than ready!" said Cassandra, who wasn't entirely sober herself. The flower behind her ear was beginning to list charmingly. Hawke reached out and tucked it back into place.
Varric held up his hands. "All right, all right—if you're sure."
"I am certain!" said Cassandra. Hawke grinned. Imbibing only rendered the Seeker more declarative.
"There I was," said Varric, "in the middle of the night, racing to meet my deadline. It was pitch black except for one candle—no, wait a minute. Actually, it was day. I had my window open so I could see the street—or was it raining?" He contemplated the bottom of his empty tankard.
"Well?" demanded Cassandra.
"What? Oh, right," said Varric. "Anyway, I had my window open, and wouldn't you know it, this big black-and-white magpie flies in and steals my list of potential titles. I had to come up with something to call the book, and I figured the bird might as well give back a little something for what it stole."
Cassandra made a sound of disgust. "That is absurd," she said.
"Also," Hawke pointed out, "the Hanged Man doesn't have any windows that look down on the street. It doesn't have much by way of windows at all."
"Yeah, the prison-like feel really adds to the rustic charm," said Varric.
Cassandra slammed her fist on the table; every candle, plate, cup, and mug leapt in response. "This does not answer my question in the slightest!"
"Sorry, Seeker," said Varric. "If you want a pretty story, you'll have to ask the Inquisitor."
"The Inquisitor is unimpeachable," Cassandra said. "And if I want pretty stories, I will continue to ask you."
Hawke's initial shock rapidly blossomed into glee. "Varric! She thinks your stories are pretty!"
"Thanks, Hawke, I heard."
"They are pretty," Cassandra muttered, her posture defensive.
"Not that watching you bait the dwarf isn't funny," said the Bull, "but can we get back to the dragons?"
"Yes, let's," said Hawke.
"I can speak about dragons." Cassandra was beginning to list in her seat, and her accent had thickened to nigh-incomprehensible levels. "I am descended from a line of valiant dragon-slayers."
"No!" said Hawke.
"Yes," said Cassandra.
"Barkeep? Another drink," said Dorian.
After that, an odd thing happened: Hawke and Cassandra became friends.
Hawke wasn't sure what to make of this, and her initial enthusiasm yielded to a brief bout of trepidation before she decide to simply go with it. Cassandra was in many ways Hawke's exact opposite: she was forthright, honest, faithful, devoted, excellent with a sword, perhaps a touch sanctimonious but so unburdened by hypocrisy it was impossible to blame her for it, driven by a peculiarly selfless ambition, and so on and so on. Hawke's primary concerns other than keeping her family safe were playing cards and poking at things with sticks. And, yes, all right, perhaps she'd grown enough in the past few years to admit that she didn't want strangers to have to die horrible deaths or the world to end or anything like that.
And there was Kirkwall, but she'd made a mess of that, so much so that she was beginning to think it would be better for everyone if she never settled in one place for that long again. Of course, there were things about Kirkwall she missed; Aveline, for one, and the dog, although the dog didn't necessarily have to be paired with Kirkwall. Rabbit was off with Carver right now, and Maker only knew where they'd taken themselves. Somewhere far from the Wardens, hopefully.
Oh, yes, there were things she missed about Kirkwall. The stench, definitely. The enormous statues of chained slaves that were everywhere, who wouldn't miss those? Gamlen's hovel. Gamlen. The Hanged Man. Her mother. How no matter where you went in the city, you could always, always hear the calling of the gulls.
Mostly the dog, though.
Driven by the memory of Rabbit charmingly fetching her decaying birds and sticks coated in drool, she went down to the stables in the hopes of finding a smelly beast or two that might alleviate what was surely a temporary bout of insanity rather than true homesickness. Varric was busy—something about Bianca. Good for him.
Regrettably, however, there were no dogs of any sort in the Inquisitor's stables. There were horses, although hardly enough for the entirety of Skyhold's permanent residents (Hawke assumed the rest were stabled with the main camp of the soldiers further down the mountain's flanks), and there was great antlered thing that the Inquisitor favored. Hawke had never learned to ride and consequently tended to avoid most animals larger than she was; what interested her more than the horses was the faint mewing that suggested the presence kittens.
She wasted a few minutes poking through stacks of horse-blankets and piles of swept wood-shavings before deciding that the mewing originated from a higher point. Upon looking up, she discovered rafters, a loft, and a pair of boots dangling over the edge of the loft. An exploratory expedition up the ladder leading to the loft revealed that the boots belonged to Cassandra, who was reading beside what was indeed a litter of kittens.
Hawke sat down next to her, breathing more heavily than she should've been after simply climbing a ladder. Cassandra turned a page. Hawke coughed. Cassandra turned another page. Hawke picked up a kitten and set it on top of Cassandra's book. Cassandra looked up.
"Cassandra!" cried Hawke. "Fancy meeting you here."
Cassandra quirked an eyebrow. "Hello, Marian," she said. "Somehow I think our meeting was not a coincidence."
"Would you believe that I actually came out here looking for dogs?" said Hawke.
"Ah," said Cassandra. "Varric was busy."
"No! Well, yes." Hawke looked down at the kitten nosing against her thigh; it first tried to wedge herself under her leg and then became fascinated by the edge. She thought she was going to have to redirect the creature before it fell from the loft, but it backed away of its own accord. Much as she wanted to be cross at the implication that Varric's availability dictated her own schedule, it was impossible retain anger in the face of kittens.
Hawke snorted. "Pleasure." Another kitten started trying to scale her back. "I really did want to see the dogs, though. I have a dog, you know."
"I do know," said Cassandra. "I have read The Tale of the Champion."
"My dog's in that?" Hawke said, unaccountably delighted.
"Yes. You have not read it?"
"I lived it," said Hawke. "Anyway, Varric doesn't like it when I editorialize."
Cassandra set aside her book—it was, Hawke saw, her copy of The Magpie—and began to scratch the ears of the kitten in her lap. "You weren't curious?"
"Oh, now, I didn't say that. But I suppose I trusted Varric enough not to say anything too dramatically offensive—he didn't give me warts or anything, did he?"
"No," said Cassandra. "As a point of fact, nearly everyone the Champion meets become infatuated with her. I have always wondered why."
"And now that you've met me, you don't have to wonder," said Hawke, who suffered from no illusions about her own magnificence.
"Yes," said Cassandra, and her lips twitched. "Now that I have seen you with Varric, I do not have to wonder."
"Speaking of that, you wouldn't happen to know anyone in the market for a good romp, would you?"
"Yes. A romp," said Hawke. "You know—rolling in the hay, storming the Chantry, sweeping under the bed…?" Maker, for someone who had such lewd taste in literature, the Seeker really was very dense. "Fornication," Hawke added, since clearly her point wasn't getting through.
Cassandra jerked back, and her face lit up like a fireball. "Champion! Are you propositioning me?"
"Me? Why, Cassandra, I'm flattered—but no, of course not, I know better than to think you'd stray from your lady-love." Hawke winked.
"I am not—! We have not—!" Cassandra's splutters gave way to a deflated sigh. Her dejection was sort of adorable, really, in the same way that baby dragons were adorable. It was a way that left you acutely aware that the dejection didn't make the thing any less capable of biting off your head. Hawke thoroughly approved.
"Is it really so obvious?" said Cassandra.
"Yes," said Hawke.
"Even to you?"
"Well, I don't know what that means," said Hawke. "Is it because I've never been in love before? I like to think I still know it when I see it. Of course, I thought that about quicksand, too, but the last time I was in a bog—" She shook her head. "Up to my neck before I knew it."
Cassandra gave her a strange look. "You've truly never…?"
"It's quite a lot of fuss," said Hawke. "No, I'm meant to be free as the wind, sowing my wild oats where I will. Or is it reaping my wild oats? I'm really not much of a farmer."
"If that is what you believe," said Cassandra, somewhat nonsensically. She looked down at the kitten that was purring in her lap. "I...that is to say, Inquisitor Lavellan...she is not…"
"Not what you expected?"
"She is wonderful," said Cassandra. "But—no, she is not what I expected. I am unsure if my advances would even be welcome."
"Would you like some advice?" said Hawke. "You can say no, I swear I won't even try to get you to smoke strange herbs in retaliation."
"I would very much like advice," said Cassandra. "Provided we do not speak of this in front of the others."
"All right." Hawke swung her legs through the air while she thought. She was wearing several layers of shirts obtained from the quartermaster beneath a surcoat obtained from the apostate who lived in the Inquisitor's garden, but even those weren't enough to protect her from the nip of the chilly air. It occurred to her that, possessing neither wisdom nor hubris, she wasn't terribly suited to handing out advice; but neither did she think Cassandra's advances were, in the Inquisitor's eyes, unwelcome.
"Be bold," she finally said. "That sounds sort of wise, doesn't it?"
"'Be...bold,'" repeated Cassandra. "That is all you have to tell me?"
"Look, Cassandra," said Hawke. "You've already abandoned everything you know for this cause. You've left behind the Chantry, you've left behind the Seekers, you've—let's not forget—even roughed up my favorite person in the name of your grand quest, which is something I'm choosing to overlook partly because you seem like a decent sort and mostly because I suspect you could crush me between your muscular and frankly rather shapely thighs. Where was I? Oh, right. You've already done the hard part. You convinced a woman who was formerly your prisoner to leave behind her entire world and devote the rest of her life to saving the world with you."
"Make your point."
"Sometimes, when you stand on the edge of an abyss, the only thing you can do is throw yourself off the edge," said Hawke. "I'm not saying it's the smart decision, but sometimes it's the right one. Trust me, I specialize in decisions of that sort."
"Stupid decisions—that is what you mean."
"Yes, fine, stupid decisions." Hawke patted Cassandra gingerly on the back. "Cheer up. What's the worst that can happen? Also, and again, I don't have a deep well of romantic experience to draw upon, but she's giving you flowers, which I believe isn't exactly a platonic gesture."
"Perhaps you are right," said Cassandra. Her shoulders started to draw back, and her spine was once again infused with that familiar grim determination. "I must be bold."
"There you go!" said Hawke. "Let her sweep you off your feet! But make her work for it. Tell her she can't just stop giving you flowers. No, she has to escalate—I'm thinking chocolates. Ten percent of the cut for me, of course, since I helped you along the road to bliss."
"Five percent," said Cassandra. "And you may borrow The Magpie from me without sneaking into anyone's quarters."
"Seven percent," countered Hawke.
"Seven percent, and you only eat while reading Varric's copy," said Cassandra.
"Done," said Hawke. "Make sure she keeps you well-supplied, though—I eat a lot of chocolates."
"Of that," said the Seeker, "I have little doubt." She cleared her throat. "'Favorite person?'"
"Figure of speech. Although I suppose I can admit I'm slightly fond of the bastard," said Hawke. She picked up a piece of straw and poked the kitten that was now sitting on her shoulder. "He's a good man, really."
"Yes. Although you did not hear so from me," said Cassandra. "Champion—Marian. Have you not considered that Varric perhaps has...feelings? About you?"
"Oh, Maker's balls, yes," said Hawke. "All sorts of feelings, I imagine. Exasperation, occasionally, but his primary feeling seems to be that of amusement. You know that every time I end up in a spot of trouble, he's there to laugh at me? And then I have to hear about it for years. 'Hawke, remember that time those mercenaries tried to kill you? Wasn't that hilarious?' Maybe the first forty times it was, but after that, the joke gets a little tired."
Cassandra was going red again. "Feelings for you," she corrected.
Hawke was struck dumb for one blazing second, and then she laughed. "Ha! Oh, that's a good one. No, it's mostly the amusement, I think. Honestly, it's a wonder he isn't more fond of Carver—there aren't many sources of entertainment more reliable than my brother. Do you know that when he was little, I convinced him he was a puppy? He dropped down on his hands and knees right in the middle of the Chantry and started barking at the Revered Mother. Our mother was mortified. Some of my best work, in retrospect."
"Older siblings," said Cassandra. "They were put in this world to torment the good and the holy."
"Younger siblings," said Hawke. "Are you all so stuffed full of self-righteousness?"
Cassandra smirked at her. "We learn it from our elders," she said, and Hawke laughed again.
"All right, all right," she said, when she had caught her breath; her side was starting to ache again. "But really, about that romp—you're certain you can't think of anyone who'd want to spend a night with the gorgeous, witty, dashing Champion of Kirkwall?"
"Perhaps one," said Cassandra, "although upon reflection—no. I think not."
"Woe," said Hawke. "Despair. Ah, well, I suppose I'll have to go beat the Chargers at cards again. It's a rough job, but someone has to clean them out; I've noticed they get cocky otherwise."
"Cockiness," said Cassandra. "I'm sure you are most unfamiliar with that trait."
"And Varric said you didn't have a sense of humor!" said Hawke. She swung herself onto the ladder and was pleased when her body didn't protest too strongly. At this rate, she'd be in fighting form well before spring. Perhaps it was time to start thinking about the road again.
"Champion?" Cassandra called, after Hawke's feet were firmly on the ground.
Hawke looked up. "Yes?"
"Thank you," said Cassandra. Hawke winked; in response, Cassandra made a sound of disgust, but Hawke couldn't help but notice that the Seeker didn't sound quite as entirely disgusted as she had in the past. Well done, Hawke told herself, points for you.
And she had that, at least, when everything else went to pieces.
Hawke had made no solemn vows not to eat while reading Varric's copy of The Magpie, so she felt she was perfectly in her rights to enjoy the remaining seven percent of a box of fancy Orlesian candies while she caught up on the latest chapter. Varric, unfortunately, did not agree.
"Hawke, do you have to smear chocolate all over my book?"
"Yes," said Hawke distractedly. Things were just starting to get really good—the handsome-but-evil head of the city's guard, Captain Angel, was planning on sacking the Dalish encampment; Dagger had just discovered the dastardly plot; and Knight was caught between helping Dagger save Serpent and the other Dalish elves and taking an assassination job that would finally net him enough money to buy Song's contract from the Crows. Also, there had been a mention two hundred pages earlier of a farmhouse that looked like it had been burned down by a dragon, and Hawke was still hoping that seed would come to fruition.
"No plans to share?" said Varric.
Hawke tore her eyes away from the page and looked down at her box. There was one ginger cluster remaining; she crammed the whole thing in her mouth, and then, around a mouthful of spiced chocolate, said, "Sorry, nothing left." Varric picked up his inkwell and hefted it like he was going to throw it at her. Hawke, feeling totally unthreatened, returned to her reading.
"You know," said Varric, "if I had known that that would get you to sit still, I would've started giving you advance review copies years ago."
"Mmm?" said Hawke.
"Which reminds me—how're you feeling?"
"Mmm," said Hawke. Knight and Dagger were having an argument; Knight was claiming it was none of their business what Angel was planning to do to the Dalish, and Dagger was claiming Knight could stick it in his ear.
"Up for a game of cards?"
Hawke settled a little more resolutely into her armchair as a defensive measure. He'd stoked the fire until it was roaring; her toes were warm, as was the rest of her; and Varric had more than enough libations in his quarters to keep her provisioned for at least another hundred pages. And—and—he'd let her have his book without more than a few wry remarks, which was a privilege not to be taken for granted.
"I'm going to take that lack of response to mean, 'No, Varric, but thank you. Actually, while you're up, could you top off my glass? Maker's balls, it's cold out there.'" He did a passable imitation of Hawke, but she kept her eyes fixed to her story so as not to give him encouragement.
Not that he needed any; he could keep up both ends of the conversation just fine by himself. "You're right, Hawke, it's colder than a deep betrayal in a dark cave out there, to coin a phrase. Ha, that's pretty good. I should write it down. All right, all right, don't give me that look, here's your whiskey." He switched back to the Hawke voice. "'Thanks, Varric. Have I mentioned how handsome you're looking today?'" His own voice again, slightly over-enunciated for effect: "You haven't, Champion, but now that you mention it…"
"Go away," said Hawke. "I'm reading."
"Hawke," said Varric, "I want you to remember this moment when you hear about how I froze to death on my way back from the tavern. 'If only he'd brought along a friend who could throw fireballs,' they'll say." Now he sounded inexplicably like Anders lecturing someone about mages' rights. Hawke supposed after the first hundred hours of lecturing, that particular tone was branded into the listener's soul.
She propped her book up on her knees, blocking Varric entirely from view, just to see what he'd do.
"Okay, I get the message." He stomped around the room, putting on his duster and gloves and scarf; it was cold enough that even Varric's vanity yielded to practicality. "Some business partnership this is, Hawke, leaving me to clean out the Chargers all by myself."
"Watch out for Stitches," Hawke said. "He starts rubbing his chin when he's got a good hand."
"I guess I'll let the partnership stand," said Varric, and he threw open the door and let in all the cool air from the hallway. Hawke was not pleased.
"Go away!" she said again. "And don't try to bluff Dalish—Varric, did you hear me?"
The door slammed shut, but then she heard a voice call, "No bluffing the elf, got it!"
Hawke snorted. Varric could never resist bluffing. She took a sip from her glass of whiskey, which had not only been refilled but now had a decanter sitting beside it, and resumed her story.
"You're going to get yourself killed for something that's none of your business!" Knight snapped. He was livid, and if there was one thing he hated, it was losing his calm. Assassins didn't get angry, they got even; but right now it was all he could do to resist picking up his inkwell and throwing it at Dagger's head.
"Better to die doing something than live doing nothing!" she retorted. Her dark hair was falling in messy slashes across her face, and she scooped it out of the way. The air was beginning to crackle with the force of her temper. "There will be other jobs—"
"None that pay this much!" said Knight. "I take this offer, and Song will be free that much sooner!"
"I can't believe I'm saying this," Dagger said, and then the most incredible thing happened: she dropped to her knees. "Please. I'll pay you, I'll help you however you like—Knight, if it will make you happy, I'll trade myself to the Crows for Song, but please. I need your help, and I can't...I can't watch them die."
Knight's entire reputation was founded on one trait: loyalty. He didn't turn traitor, and he didn't walk away. It was loyalty that warred in him now, the old against the new.
"Dagger…" He was excruciatingly aware of what she expected him to say, but in the end, he settled on, "They aren't my people, and they aren't yours."
She looked up at him. "So that's how it is."
"That's how it is," he said.
"Right," Dagger said. "Not much else to say, is there?" She stood up, wincing a little as her knees straightened. "Have a nice life. You deserve that—I mean it, really. All my best to you and Song." She tipped him one last wink, and then she was gone, vanished out the door and out of his life.
Knight stood for a long time, feeling the new edges of her absence, and then, slowly, he started to pack for his trip. He couldn't escape the feeling that he'd made an inalterable mistake. There were no two ways around it, though—Serpent and Brand and the rest, they were decent people, but they'd dug their own grave by getting caught up in the feud with Captain Angel and the rest of the guard. Angel might have been a piece of shit, but he held the power in the city, and the last thing Knight wanted to do was get himself further entangled.
Because, in the end, weren't entanglements what he worked to avoid?
He started when someone knocked at his door, and for half a heartbeat he thought it was Dagger, returning to apologize, to say she'd be coming along with him, to say—to say—
He yanked opened the door.
"Uh, messere?" said the lass standing there. She was tall even for a human, but her shoulders were stooped deferentially and her face marked her as practically an infant. "Message for you."
"What is it?"
"The Dalish, messere." Knight stared blankly at her. "The, um, the Dalish woman? The mercenary's sister?"
"Dagger's sister?" he said.
"That's the one, messere. She's in Ayesleigh. I have a letter here for her sister, another from the agent that found her—oh!" The lass gaped when Knight dropped an entire sack of silvers in her hand and snatched the letters away. "I'll...shall I be off, messere?"
"Yes," said Knight. "With my thanks—I'll remember this." He wasn't even out of the hall before he'd slit open the letter from his agent, who was really no more than an old friend that owed him a favor. His eyes flew across the page: In good health and cheer...living with her family on the coast...wishes to be reunited with her elder sister...message enclosed. The second letter he did not open; that was for Dagger's eyes alone.
He looked at his open bags, the map laying on the table, and wondered what he was doing. He could give her this, he realized; he could give Dagger back her sister. He could leave now and find her, keep her alive, give her everything she never dared to want. He could join her cause; he could give her back her sister.
Hawke shut the book with a snap. "Well, that was a downer," she said to the empty room.
The room didn't deign to respond. "I think I'm going to go get very drunk now," Hawke announced. Not for any particular reason, mind, but she was starting to think she'd been crazy to refuse Varric's offer of cards in favor of reading. Reading, ha! Stories never got you anywhere. Good coin, the kind of coin a wealthy mercenary band like the Chargers tended to drop in pursuit of entertainment—now that was quite literally the currency of the realm.
What would a story buy you? Hawke asked herself. Nothing. In the end, stories were worth less than shit; she'd built enough castles in the sky to know.
It took her a bit of effort to assemble the outerwear required even for a short trip across the yards; she borrowed liberally from Varric without bothering to ask herself the wisdom of doing so. Down the stairs, through the hall, out the door, and into the tavern she went. The whiskey certainly helped fortify her against the howling wind, and anyway—night like tonight, an early start had to be a boon.
She tumbled through the door and flung herself onto the stool beside Varric. Before he could open his mouth, she confiscated his tankard and said, "Bottoms up."
"Hawke," Varric said. "Changed your mind after all?"
She wiped the foam from her upper lip and smirked at him. "Hmm, let me think about it. Dusty old book or this really terrible ale? Not much of a competition."
"The author is offended."
"The author should order me another round," said Hawke.
"Sure you shouldn't take it easy there, Champion? Those healers have you drinking all kinds of weird shit."
"Thank you, mother, but I'm quite capable of handling myself. Grim? Stitches? Something for the rest of you? Drinks are on me tonight."
That earned her a roar of approval from the Bull and the Bull's company and even from Krem, who was a harder sell than the rest of the lot, probably because he was the only one among them who could spell 'frugality.' Their jocularity was counterbalanced by the disapproving way Varric was studying her; he rarely looked her in the face for so long, but right now it almost seemed like he was searching for a sign, a thought...something.
"And for my faithful chronicler?" said Hawke.
"Whatever you're having," he threw back at her.
Their relationship was like that sometimes; conversations went hard-edged and fraught without Hawke ever having a clear understanding of why. It made her angry, which made her barbs all the sweeter. She flirted with the barmaid who took their order for no other reason than that it made Varric's brows draw together in disapproval; when their matching small glasses of strong liquor arrived a few minutes later, she threw back the contents of hers and awarded Varric with a smile so saccharine she almost gagged on it.
The rest of the evening was little more than a blur. There was a point where Krem led her in a very slow and stately dance to a rendition of Nightingale's Eyes; there was a point where she balanced salt cellars on the Bull's horns; there was a point where Dorian, who had turned up late, said, "How are you doing that?"
"Doing what?" said Hawke.
"That," said Dorian.
Hawke looked down. Her hands were cupped over the table, drawing ice from the air; out of the ice a tiny dragon reared its head and breathed a little lick of flame at Dorian. She yanked her hands back, and the thing vanished.
"Practice?" said Hawke. "Wishing very hard?"
"You know, the degree of control it implies is rather remarkable," said Dorian. "Would you care to share this bottle of...of...actually, I'm not sure what it is, but it smells like it could strip paint."
Hawke thought for a moment and arrived at a conclusion. "Yes," she said. "Yes, Dorian, I would love to share your bottle."
"Superb!" said Dorian. If the night before that was a blur, the night after Dorian cracked open his mystery bottle was merely impression. Varric watched the whole affair from his corner; he drank only ale in spite of his earlier promises and for once couldn't be coaxed into telling them all some magnificent story. Hawke was distantly aware that he wasn't disapproving of her drinking and raucous behavior so much as her determination to abuse herself while she was still healing, but in her opinion, an evening like this was exactly what she needed. Songs were sung; lies were told; bonds of fellowship were sworn; and Hawke and Dalish took a blood oath that they decided to call an apostate's pact, despite Dalish's continued insistence that she wasn't an apostate.
It was late when the tavern began to empty, but eventually even the mercenaries trotted off to the sweet arms of slumber. Hawke sat alone on a bench, her head down as she drew patterns in the spilled salt and beer on the table. Dorian's empty bottle was nestled between her thighs; the world was just beginning to transform from pleasantly fizzy to depressingly nauseating.
"Well, Hawke," said Varric. "Ready to say uncle?"
Hawke mumbled something into the table that she intended to mean, "My uncle is a tit."
"Yeah, that's what I thought. Seeker, can I get a hand over here?"
Someone began pulling on Hawke's arms. Hawke resisted this on principle and plastered her elbows into her sides, but the someone was persistent, and she was pulled to her feet before she could tuck and roll under the table.
"Watch her side—"
"I am watching her side!" A crash; Hawke laughed. "Shit. Don't step in the broken glass."
"Easy, Hawke," Varric said, and Hawke swiveled instinctively towards his voice. "There we go. Up and over—whoa. Legs not working too well?"
Varric's neck smelled nice—not at all like sweat or vomit or yeast, which was a welcome change from the rest of the bar. "Hello," said Hawke.
"Hi," said Varric.
"She is completely soused," said the person who wasn't Varric.
"Yep. You've probably noticed by now that she doesn't do things halfway. Come on, Hawke, upsy-daisy." Hawke yielded obligingly when Varric guided her off his shoulders into something resembling an upright position.
"I would not suggest we leave her here for fear you might ambush me with your crossbow, but are you sure she—"
"She'll be fine, Seeker. She was just blowing off a little steam. Straight ahead, Hawke, the door's right in front of you, even you can't miss it—whoa there, wait a second. I know it's cold, but you're not spending another night on a tavern floor."
Hawke scowled at him. It was freezing outside and warm inside, and clearly Varric had...Varric was...what was Varric, exactly? Clearly she was thinking too much; her stomach gave a lurch, and she made it through the door just in time to vomit spectacularly on the path outside.
A sigh. "Wonderful."
"And here I thought the two of you were finally settling your differences."
Hawke gagged again and then breathed heavily through her nose; someone closed her fingers around a glass of water, and she rinsed out her mouth and spit the contents out as far as they would go. Oh, look at that—nearly to the lower yard. She cackled.
"I respect her," said the person who wasn't Varric, "but perhaps not enough to allow her to empty her stomach onto my shoes. Is this a frequent occurrence?"
"Not really," said Varric. "I've only seen her this drunk once—no, wait. Twice. The first time was on a dare, and the second time was...well, I won't get into that. Feeling better? Give me a nod, Hawke."
Hawke managed to quiet herself down enough to nod, but then she started laughing again.
"Nice to see you can still amuse yourself. Let's get you to bed. I don't really feel like freezing my ass off out here while you cackle to yourself over how far you can spit." Varric draped Hawke's arm around him, giving her something to lean against, and after a moment, a person Hawke blearily identified as Cassandra took her other elbow. Off they went through the dark and snow, like some strange six-legged creature escaped from a nightmare.
Would Varric recognize that reference? Dwarves didn't dream, after all, which meant no nightmares, either. Hawke would give much to be free of her nightmares, and even more to be free of the terrors that followed her in the waking day. Well. That was maudlin. And she'd always prided herself on being a happy drunk, too.
"Steps," Varric said. "Hawke! Steps!"
Steps required more coordination that Hawke thought was really fair at this point, but after a brief struggle with her limbs, she managed to direct first one foot and then the other in the discipline of stair-climbing. At the top of the stairs was the Great Hall, which was both warm and empty; Hawke sort of wanted to shout to see if her voice echoed, but then her eyes were caught by something sitting on nearest table. She shook off Varric and Cassandra and made a controlled fall in the direction of the something.
"What is she doing, Varric?"
"You think I know?"
She had to pick it up and turn it around; it was small enough that it stood easily in the palm of her hand, and Hawke realized it was the figure of a dog, made out of thin silver wire cleverly twisted around itself. Even in such a small representation, the short ears and the bulk of the dog's shoulders were unmistakable. It was a mabari.
And all Hawke could think was that Bethany would have loved this. The figure glinted in the firelight, and whoever had crafted it had done so with a fine eye for detail; the mabari's character was clear in the angle of its head and the wide spread of its feet. Bethany had collected baubles like this, and it had become second nature for Marian to trade a few coppers for a wood-carving or an amulet every time she went to the market. A decade hadn't been long enough to break that habit.
Varric snorted. "It's shiny. Of course it is. I swear, she really is a magpie."
"...What did you say?"
"Shit. Cut me a break, Seeker. It's a figure of speech." Varric caught up to her and wrapped his arm around her waist again. "You good, Champion?"
"I knew it," said Cassandra, although what she knew Hawke couldn't remember. Her fingers closed around the little dog; she hoped the person it belonged to wouldn't miss it. "I knew it! All the obfuscation, all the—all the lies—"
"You know, I think I can manage from here. Isn't it past your bedtime?"
"Very well, I will allow you to maintain your pretense. I do not believe this farce will last forever, though."
Varric grunted and then said, "It'll last as long as I need it to."
"Yeah, yeah. Thanks for the help."
Hawke tilted her head back to stare at the ceiling. Her mouth tasted awful, and she wondered if it would be uncouth to spit again.
"Varric," said Cassandra.
"You should know—I am eager to revisit your book now that I have a deeper understanding of your inspiration." Hawke still didn't have any idea what Cassandra was talking about, but she thought the Seeker's voice sounded uncharacteristically wicked. "Yes, I am most eager."
Varric groused something back that Hawke didn't bother hearing, and then he started a slow march up even more stairs. Where had all these stairs come from? Hawke didn't recall there being nearly this many stairs in Kirkwall, although Kirkwall was a literal pit, so perhaps her memory was playing tricks on her; it sounded like the sort of uncooperative thing her memory would do.
"Mafereth's grody ass, you have no idea how glad I am that you won't remember any of this in the morning," said Varric. (Hawke nodded.) "The last thing I need is the Seeker gloating about how she was right all along. She's going to be insufferable. If she was any less transparent, I'd probably have to have her bribed into silence." (Hawke nodded.) "Not that any of this makes me any more comfortable that you're reading that book. You could have chosen any of the others, but no, you had to pick the one novel that makes it blindingly obvious what an idiot I am." (Hawke nodded.)
"Landing," Varric added. "Careful, Hawke. Who am I kidding, you don't know the meaning of the word. Shit, do you know how much easier life would be for your friends and relations if you did?" (Hawke shook her head.) "Which reminds me, I've got some paperwork you need to sign. I'm shifting some of your earnings into real estate. Let it never be said I don't take my duties as personal chronicler and financial manager seriously." (Hawke nodded.)
Varric leaned her against the wall as he opened his door, and then he hauled her inside. Hawke was beyond helping; the last flight of stairs had taken the wind out of her, and her brain felt fuzzy and slippery at the same time. The bed looked nice, and she aimed herself at it and went into another controlled fall.
"And that's about what I expected," Varric said. "Let's get your boots off, at least." He tugged at her feet, and then he unclasped her fingers from around the dog figurine. "Huh. I saw the Kid with this earlier. Maybe you were meant to have it, Hawke."
At the sound of her name, Hawke lifted her heavy eyelids and peered beneath them at Varric's face. He was rubbing one hand through his hair, and his stubble was coming in thick—something that had always fascinated Hawke, because his coloring was fair. He looked tired. She thought about rolling over and inviting him to join her, and then she thought about Bethany, and then sleep washed over her. She was gone.
Hawke woke the next morning with her mouth dried shut and the most disorienting feeling of lightheadedness. She didn't have a headache, which was largely down to hereditary good luck, but she'd slept so deeply and in such an odd position that her body cramped when she tried to move.
She was in Varric's room, of course, because Maker forbid she be left to sleep in her own bed after a night of fun. Had he been this overbearing back in Kirkwall? Hawke honestly couldn't remember. There was a pitcher of water beside the table, and she guzzled it down without bother to transfer the contents to a glass. Varric was absent, probably off on important Inquisition business, so she trotted down the hall to visit the privy and then returned to make use of the towel and the bucket of water beside Varric's desk.
Hawke hissed when she peeled her shirt away from her side. She was finally healing, but the skin along her flank was still red and raw; she rinsed it gently and then wiped her face and the back of her neck. Her mouth tasted revolting. Fortunately, Varric had a few cloves tucked into one of his desk drawers, and Hawke chewed on them and spit them out the window. Good enough.
All of this she could have done in her own room, but she was—all right, she was waiting for Varric. She ought to thank him, after all, and more than that, she was seething. She was excellent at covering it up, of course, Hawke cared as much for anger as she did for soppy displays of grief or affection, but it was there, leashed as deeply as the power that marked her and simmering right alongside.
It wasn't long before Varric returned. He stopped when he saw she was up, and something in him went tight. He'd always been entirely too good at reading her. "Hawke," he said.
"Varric," said Hawke. "I suppose I should thank you—I hear that's the appropriate response after spending the night in a gentleman's bed. Shame about the unwashed human smell all over your sheets now, you might want to think about burning those."
"I'll take it into consideration," he said. He had Bianca with him—the crossbow, that was, not the woman, although these days Hawke rarely bothered with the distinction—and he laid her down on his desk and took off his duster. Had he been out hunting? Now there was an image: Varric as a hunter, bitching and moaning as he skinned his kills. Even Hawke couldn't picture it.
"You doing okay?" he asked.
"I," said Hawke, "am splendid." She decided that perhaps she didn't want to fight after all. No, Varric was going to be Varric no matter what Hawke said, and anyway, she'd be back to the road before long; maybe a little distance was what they both needed now. Hawke wasn't sure when the intimacy of their friendship had turned cloying, but she suspected that she was the one who'd changed. After all, two years of freedom and the vagabond life had only strengthened her distaste for chains of all kinds; and after spending a significant portion of her life keeping her family together, it was grand to finally have nobody to look after but herself.
"Good," said Varric. "That's good. Actually, there was something I wanted to talk to you about—"
"Oh?" said Hawke.
"I have some paperwork you need to sign. Concerning your accounts." Varric kept track of her investments and had since they'd come back from Bartrand's expedition; Hawke had no experience with large sums of money except in that she'd often fantasized about buying expensive foreign chocolates.
"Can't you forge my signature?" said Hawke. "Surely you've forged my signature before. I feel it would save us both a great deal of trouble, and Varric, you know how much I hate trouble."
He didn't so much as crack a smile. "That's a new one," he said. "I'll dig the contracts out and give 'em to you over dinner."
"Lovely," said Hawke. "If you'll excuse me, I have to see a dog about a man—"
"Hawke. There's something else."
"You know," said Hawke, sensing a serious conversation was approaching, "I have a very strong feeling I'm not going to want to talk about this, so why don't we just skip over the part where you attempt to make me say words and I attempt desperately to escape? It would save a lot of time, and I am feeling peckish."
Varric folded his arms. "Nice try."
"It is possible that what we're about to discuss isn't any of your business?"
"I'm making it my business," said Varric. "Look, Hawke, I'm not trying to pull any of that touchy-feely crap, but you've been...a little off lately."
"Varric," said Hawke, "I've always been a little off."
"All right, I'll give you that. But seriously, you came crawling back to Skyhold looking like an ogre chewed on you—" Hawke flinched; she couldn't help it. "Sorry. Bad choice of words. My point is that you can't keep carrying on like this. You have to cut yourself a break."
"Thank you, father"—now it was Varric's turn to wince—"but let me assure you that I'm perfectly capable of looking out for myself."
"Now, now, I'm not arguing with that, you're the most capable person I know—"
"I'm sensing a slight discrepancy between your words and your actions," said Hawke. She leaned against the desk; in her current state, she was having to work hard to play herself off as irreverent. "There's a word for that…what was it again?"
The thing was that she'd known this conversation was coming. Varric was going to mother-hen her, Hawke was going to resent him for trying to tell her what to do no matter how good his intentions were, and the whole camaraderie was going to fall apart. Once upon a time, she'd enjoyed his fussing; when she was upset and trying to hide it, or wounded and trying to hide it, or had just had a truly shitty day, it had often been only Varric's ministrations that kept her together enough to get out of bed the next morning.
The older she'd gotten, though—no, that wasn't quite right—the longer she lived with Varric's friendship, the more unbearable it became.
"What, calling me a hypocrite already? I'm hurt, Champion," said Varric. His face was starting to take on a mulish cast. Oh, certainly Varric seemed like a dwarf apart from the rest, but when it came down to it, he displayed every ounce of stubbornness and more that his people were known for. "All I'm saying is that between Corypheus and whatever happened at Weisshaupt, your head has to be a tangle—"
"I don't want to talk about Corypheus," said Hawke. "He's found someone else to cackle at and...and...demand body parts from, and frankly the Inquisitor seems far more able and willing than I am to throw herself into the fray."
"You can't make this go away with one-liners—"
"And you smothering me isn't going to magically make me better!" said Hawke. "Oh, I'm sorry, did that hurt your feelings? I suppose it's hard to face reality without one of your pretty lies to gloss over the problems, but if I'm broken, Varric, there's nothing you can do to fix it, so why don't you just leave me alone." She was aware that under any other circumstances and with any other person, her response wouldn't have been nearly as vitriolic, but her heart was hammering like a smith at the forge; she couldn't hide enough of herself to think.
"So you can pretend away everything that happened to you, Hawke?" said Varric. "Is that it? I can't decide if the reason you keep abusing yourself when you're still healing is because you think you deserve it, or because you're just that careless!"
Hawke laughed in disbelief. "Me? Careless? Oh, that's rich." Fuck him very much for being as adroit as he was at reading moods—probably came from growing up with an alcoholic for a mother—and fuck him even more for being blind where it counted. She was on her feet and shooting straight for the door before the echo of her laughing scorn had died.
"Don't you walk out of here—"
"Move, Varric," Hawke snapped, "or I won't be held responsible for my actions."
He sneered at her; his face was very close, close enough that Hawke could pick out the gold flecks in his eyes. "You're running away from your problems again," he said.
"And you're trying to avoid thinking about own problems by worrying over someone else's," Hawke retorted.
He held her gaze for a fraction of a moment that spun itself out infinitely; and then he snorted, shook his head, and stepped out of the way. Hawke bolted.
"Don't come running to me the next time you need help!" he shouted after her.
Hawke spun on her heel. "Same to you," she snapped, and then she dipped into a low bow. "It's been a such a pleasure, having this conversation with you. I hope you have a lovely time playing second-fiddle in your own life."
Varric slammed the door in her face. Well, it was possible Hawke deserved that one. Now she was starting to feel like she had a hangover—an argument hangover, really. And she was still peckish, too.
Breakfast didn't taste nearly as good when it came seasoned with ire and served with a side of grief, but Hawke managed to shovel down three servings of potatoes anyway.
And something still held Hawke back, something kept her from leaving Skyhold; the snow was deep and the cold biting, yes, but she'd been through far worse. Maybe it was nothing more than that the book club hadn't quite finished reading The Magpie yet—Hawke was a sucker for a decent resolution, after all.
She and Varric managed to behave civilly if they were thrown into close quarters, but they rarely spoke and never sought each other out. Varric appeared to be occupying himself with his own business; he was caught up with the Inquisition, after all, and damn what happened to Kirkwall. (Hawke was aware it was the height of hypocrisy to resent him for that when she herself hadn't set foot in Kirkwall in years, but it was easy to divert the blame, less so to shoulder it herself.) Hawke spent more and more time alone as she poured over books about blood magic and the Taint and dreamed up increasingly elaborate scenarios for all the ways her little brother could repay her.
Cassandra appeared to be the only one who noticed anything was amiss; she was constantly casting slantways looks at Hawke, as though she thought everything would be revealed if she caught just the right angle of Hawke's face. Out of desperation, Hawke starting striking up conversations about dragon-hunting, the outmoded ideas of the Chantry, Swords and Shields, and finally the weather. Cassandra was an uneven conversationalist at best, but she kept seeking out Hawke's company, and that was...well, it was something.
"Champion," said Cassandra. "Do you have any plans tonight?"
"I have not only plans, but also a number of plots, schemes, and devisings," said Hawke. "It's going to be a very busy evening."
Cassandra snorted. "I take that to mean you are going to sulk in this corner with a book again."
"It's a round library," Hawke pointed out. "There are no corners."
"This...nook," Cassandra amended.
"I'll allow it."
Cassandra's scowl was magnificent. "There is to be another game of Wicked Grace tonight. The Inquisitor has insisted I attend in her absence because she believes I need to...ugh. 'Take a break from this nonsense.'"
"Good for her," said Hawke. "Did you tell her you'd be happy to take a break in her bed?"
"No," said Cassandra.
"Would you like me to tell her that for you?"
"Let me know if you change your mind," said Hawke. "And what was this about a game of cards?"
"Varric will be there, but we…I would appreciate it if you would attend anyway," said Cassandra.
Hawke waved a hand. "Oh, he's just being a bit of a bastard right now. Or maybe I'm the one being a bastard? Difficult to recall. Anyway, you know there's nothing I like more than a night of winning shiny coins from gullible people—count me in."
"Good," said Cassandra.
"You just want me along to distract everyone from how bad you are, don't you?" said Hawke.
"That is not—!"
"Ah, they've been teasing you about your lady-love," Hawke divined. "Say no more. Why, if there's one thing I'm good at, it's using humor to deflect awkward situations. Well, that and fighting off invading hordes. It's a mixed skill-set, I'll grant you."
"Thank you," said Cassandra, but Hawke decided there was real gratitude beneath the asperity. She had a feeling that Cassandra would get along well with Fenris. Now there was a picture—Cassandra and Fenris making identical noses of disgust while Isabela played the debauched sea-captain. If Varric were here, he'd laugh.
She hoped Ambassador Montilyet wouldn't be playing, though—there was a card shark. Even Hawke, talented at bluffing as she was, couldn't quite be sure of taking on the Ambassador and winning.
As it turned out, Ambassador Montilyet was indeed absent. The party gathered in a room deep in the keep's bowels was comprised of Cassandra, Krem, Dorian, Dalish, Commander Cullen, and—of course—Varric, whose hands stuttered in shuffling the cards when he caught sight of Hawke.
"So!" Hawke said brightly. "Orlesian Grace, then?" Wicked Grace in its most basic form was a game for two players, but there were plenty of variants for parties like this; the deck Varric held looked thick enough for seventy cards instead of the usual forty-nine, which meant Orlesian Grace was indeed tonight's game.
There was an empty seat between Cassandra and Dalish, and Hawke slid into it with a wink at the latter. Dalish's smile was sharp enough to cut its owner; ah, Hawke thought, there would clearly be no mercy tonight.
Varric dealt. Upon picking up his hand, Cullen groaned.
"Why do I let myself be talked into these things?" he said.
"Because we must present a unified front," said Cassandra as she rearranged her cards.
"And not everyone got to see the full show, if you know what I mean," said Dalish. "The full show."
"Yes, thank you, we all know what you mean," said Cullen.
"You were naked," Dalish added, in case Cullen hadn't picked up on that.
Hawke played conservatively at first; Dalish and Krem were both known to her, as was Dorian, who had a tendency to become lost in thought while he stared at his hand, but Cullen and Cassandra were complete unknowns. Fortunately, Hawke didn't think either of them were threats. Cassandra kept forgetting the hand values, and Cullen, apparently afraid of a repeat of the nudity incident, consistently folded before things could get interesting.
And then there was Varric. They'd played as partners in Diamondback enough that Hawke knew all his tells—the twitches and nods and thoughtful noises that would be inscrutable to anyone else. Once she had a better lay of the land, she went after him with everything she had.
"I call," said Hawke.
"Pair of Songs," said Dalish.
"Spring flush," said Varric, laying down his cards to reveal four Knights: Dawn, Roses, Spring, and Blood. He lifted a brow. Hawke was the only one left in the round, and she was twisting her finger through a lock of her shaggy hair like she was nervous.
Which she wasn't, of course. "Fade's run," she announced, and showed her three Queens and four Daggers.
Dorian cleared his throat. "Another round?"
Hawke raked in the pot. "Oh, absolutely. I'm feeling lucky tonight. How about you, Varric?"
He leaned back in his chair. "Do I look like I need luck, Hawke?"
"My mother taught me it's impolite to comment on another's appearance if I don't have anything nice to say."
"You never listened to a word Leandra said in your life," said Varric.
"Right," said Dorian. "My turn?"
Dalish and Krem started working against the rest of them before long. Hawke didn't think they'd planned it beforehand, but they were picking up on the tension; more than once, Hawke pushed the game one way or another—folding to let Cassandra win when it seemed like she had a good hand, bluffing her way into bigger pots, calling Varric out when he was holding too many cards or too few...cheating was part of the game, of course, and Varric did it well, but not so well that Hawke didn't notice.
"There are too many cards in this deck," Cassandra announced at one point.
"Three extra suites in a deck for this many players," said Krem. "Good job remembering what all the hands are. Half the time I'm convinced Dalish here is making up her wins."
"Krem, we both know I absolutely would do that," said Dalish.
"I never make anything up," said Hawke. "Unlike some I could name."
"Challenge, Hawke," Varric announced lazily. Hawke scowled and counted her cards out on the table; she was holding ten, three more than the legal seven. Her skill at sleight-of-hand meant that nobody should have noticed. Also, she was feeling a bit sore through the shoulders, and she very much wanted to throw a glass at Varric's face even though she'd won the biggest purse of the evening. It was that sort of night.
Cullen retired before much longer, as did Dorian, who cited some "pressing research," which Krem remarked was similar to the excuse his boss had given for not attending. Cassandra dropped out, too, apparently content to watch.
"Last game?" said Krem, cutting the deck.
"Oh, well, if you lightweights can't keep your eyes open any longer," said Hawke. Her fingers were steepled, and she was squinting hard over her hands in Varric's direction. The bastard had taken her for five sovereigns in the last round, and he was looking particularly smug about it.
Cassandra leaned towards Hawke and murmured, "What are you looking at?"
"I'm looking at the world's only professional younger brother," said Hawke, loud enough that everyone could hear her.
Varric didn't even look up. "That's pretty funny, coming from the only woman I've met who tripped and fell into being a legendary hero," he said. "How's Kirkwall these days, Hawke? Still under siege?"
"Like you would know any better," she said. "How long's it been, Varric? Three years? Four? I'm in." She tossed two coins into the middle of the table.
Dalish sighed. "Well, life has dealt me a poor hand, but I suppose it's my job to play it through."
"You just want to see if these two tear each other apart now or later," said Krem.
"What does this mean?" said Cassandra, pointing at one of Hawke's cards. "Is this good?"
Hawke grinned. "No telling now. I'll explain it afterwards."
"Hn," said Cassandra.
Varric and Krem bought into the round, and then the real fun began. Hawke drew, discarded, drew, discarded...glanced around the table...and drew twice.
Eight cards. She fanned them out, careful to keep two of them lined up, and caught Varric watching her. Shit. Had he seen?
"Do we stand a chance?" said Dalish. "Or is it defeat for the Chargers?"
Krem shrugged. "We'll let the Chief foot the bill if we both lose," he said, "and if one of us wins, well, we'll have to rely on each other's generosity."
Varric's gaze twitched from Hawke over to Krem, who was tipped back in his chair, his big shoulders held lose and easy. Hawke held, appropriately enough, the apostate's hand, plus the Angel of Death, which was decent enough but only legal if she was undercutting another player. In other words, she couldn't call.
"So, Varric," she said, grasping for anything that would distract him. "How's Bianca these days?"
"Why so interested?" he shot back.
"Idle curiosity," said Hawke. "Her marriage is well?"
"I open," said Krem.
"It's been a while since we talked," said Varric. "I didn't want to drag her into this shit."
Oh, that hurt. "Seems to me that she's already involved," said Hawke, who actually quite liked Bianca, except for the part where she'd broken Varric's heart. There was much to be said for a woman who was a brilliant smith and charming to boot. "I'll raise," she said, and shoved a stack of coins into the pot.
"Now that's interesting," said Dalish. "Hmm."
"What was your mother's advice again, Hawke?" Varric smirked at her. "Don't say anything if you can't say anything nice, that was it."
"That's lovely, bringing my mother into it," said Hawke. "How did your mother die, exactly?"
"At least my mother didn't think I was responsible for my sister's death," said Varric.
"I'm out," said Dalish. "Too rich for my blood."
"And at least my brother never hated me so much that he left me down in the Deep Roads to die, isn't that right, Cassandra?" said Hawke. Her mouth was running itself, flinging back insults in a pleasantly disinterested tone, but the worst part was that she couldn't tell if he was going to challenge her for cheating, or if he was trying to distract Krem—
Had Dalish dropped out because she thought Krem had a better chance of winning? Was Varric trying to let Hawke win? Or were they simply bleeding each other because they could, because they were angry—and make no mistake, Hawke was still livid with him. There were years of simmering tension behind the words she flung, and it hurt her to say those things as much as it lanced her wounds.
"You want to talk about brothers, Hawke?" Varric said. "Or do you want to play?"
She tapped a copper on the table. "What do you think?" she said. "You're the one who knows me so well, after all."
His eyes flicked to the copper in her fingers. He'd stripped off his duster hours ago—the room was stifling, between the fire and the candles—and his sleeves were pushed back to reveal his forearms. Hawke, who only just now realized she was wearing one of his shirts under two other layers of clothing, thought longingly of the freezing weather outside.
"I call," he said.
Hawke laid out seven cards and then an eighth, face-down. "Apostate's hand," she said, and then, just before Krem showed his cards, she flipped over the Angel of Death.
"Game over," she said.
"Divine's balls," said Krem. "How'd you end up with that?"
"She cheats," said Varric.
"You approve of cheating," said Hawke, scooping her winnings into her purse. "In fact, if you didn't stack the deck at the beginning of the night, I'll eat Cole's hat—"
Cassandra groaned. "Enough!" she said. "I can't listen to the two of you bicker any longer. Marian, if you must provoke him, please do so in private."
"Mmm, tempting." Hawke stood up. "I think at the present time I'm more interested in something to eat. Cassandra?"
"It's late," said the Seeker.
"Not too late for waffles, though. It's never too late for waffles."
"...Yes," said Cassandra. "All right."
"Excellent," said Hawke. "Dalish, Krem, always a pleasure. Varric—"
He looked up at her.
And Hawke...hesitated. She'd meant to tell him to go rot in a pit, or something equally dismissive; but instead she settled on, "Let's not do this again."
And then she took Cassandra and her earnings and went to pester one of the cooks into making waffles. Cassandra was at first skeptical and then approving, and although she tried more than once to bring Varric's name into the conversation, Hawke diverted her with syrup, whipped toppings, and a story about pirates. If she could help it, Hawke never wanted to think about Varric again—and she was very good at not thinking about what she most wanted to avoid. Very good.
"Tomorrow is the last meeting of the book group," said Cassandra. "I do not think we will have the time to read another novel. Not this year, at least."
"Dreadful," Hawke agreed. "Places to see, people to do."
"Have you read the last few chapters?"
"Not yet," said Hawke, cutting into her third waffle. "I...might have to borrow your copy again. Do I have to swear an oath, sign my name in blood, that sort of thing?"
Cassandra's expression was as close to amused as Hawke had ever seen it. "Do not read it near waffles," she said.
"I can do that," said Hawke.
"That remains to be seen," said Cassandra.
The book club convened for the last time the following afternoon. Cabot gave them all a free round of drinks; Hawke ordered apple cider and drank it slowly. One year in Kirkwall, an enormous shipment of apples had been tied up in a dispute between a merchant and a ship's captain, and the captain, irate, had thrown open his hold and let everyone in the city take as many apples as they could carry. Bodhan had hauled away a crate of them and made a pressed apple cider with mulled spices, and Hawke's whole house had smelled like apples for weeks. After that, Hawke could never drink cider without thinking of the autumn of apples in Kirkwall.
"And here we are," said Dagna. "I thought we could read the last page or two together, if everyone's okay with that?" There was a general murmur of consent. "Cassandra," Dagna asked, "would you like to do the honors?"
Cassandra jolted in surprise. "I...of course," she said, opening her copy of the book and clearing her throat. "Perhaps just the final scene, if that is agreeable," she said, and then she began to read.
He was still bleeding when he reached the Dalish camp and found there was nothing left.
Angel's men had set the aravels on fire, and now all that remained of the vessels were broken piles of smoldering wreckage. The clan's halla had been slaughtered, and the carcasses were spread from the river all the way to the edge of the clearing. The sight affected him more than he thought it would; blood had stained their white coats to red, and their long, spindling legs were twisted and broken beneath them.
There were other bodies, too, soldiers and elves alike; not enough to account for the entire clan, but more than enough to speak of a massacre. Knight went among the bodies. If he were a good man, the sort of man Dagger thought he was, he would have given them funerals, but instead he simply turned them over so he could look at their faces. At each corpse, his throat tightened. At each corpse, he became more certain that the next body would be Dagger's, or the next, or the next, that he would come across a head of shaggy black hair—
But there was no sign of Dagger on that field. The only story he could read in the destruction was one of narrow escape; either Dagger had gotten to the Dalish in time to warn most of them, or she had stayed behind to delay Angel and his soldiers. She was with the surviving Dalish; she was Angel's captive. There were no other possibilities.
Knight still had the letter from her sister, but he couldn't help but think this was a sign. An omen, maybe. He'd told her to leave well enough alone, and she hadn't listened, and fuck her anyway for putting herself in danger.
He dropped to his haunches and sighed. After a while, he pulled out a map and a bag of coin; enough coin, maybe, to set free someone being held against her will.
Song was waiting.
There was a moment of silence. It was less reverent and more stunned, in Hawke's estimation, and then none of them could hold their tongues any longer.
"That," said Dorian, "was a terrible ending. What a hack job!"
"You see why I am angry Varric won't write a sequel?" said Cassandra.
"Wait, this is it?" said the Bull.
Hawke swallowed another mouthful of apple cider. She wasn't any less outraged than the others, but she'd already been so mad at Varric for so long that this hadn't done anything to increase her frustration. He'd done her a favor, really—otherwise she'd have to track him down and sit on him until he revised the ending.
"Stones, Cassandra," said Dagna, "I don't know how you stand it. When I thought that Knight and Song were meant to be, I was kind of upset about the ending, but now it makes me want to eat an entire chocolate cake and cry."
"That was...similar to my reaction the first time I read it," Cassandra confessed. "Although not knowing Dagger's fate is what I like the least, but yes, the implication that Knight abandons his friends to seek Song is distasteful."
"And the dragon never showed up," the Bull added. "You don't promise a man dragons and then fail to deliver."
"Maybe Dagger and her Dalish cohorts are slaying the dragon," Dorian suggested. "They must be off somewhere, and selling dragon parts would make them enough money to scrape together a living."
"That assumes Dagger isn't Captain Angel's prisoner or worse," said Dagna.
"How much do you think it would take to bribe the dwarf into writing another one?" said the Bull.
Dorian snorted. "You really think he can be bought?"
"Everyone's got a price." The Bull shrugged. "We just have to figure out his."
"You cannot force inspiration," said Cassandra. They all turned to look at her, and she flushed under the group's regard. "Yes, very well, I am aware of the hypocrisy, since I have demanded further sequels, but a story like this…"
"Seriously?" said Dagna. "You know he had something else in mind when he wrote this. He's got to be sitting on a draft or something."
"Who's sitting on a draft?" said a familiar voice. Hawke turned around. Oh, wonderful; Varric had come up behind her.
"You!" said Cassandra. "You did this!" She thrust her copy of The Magpie in Varric's face.
"Yeah, Seeker, that's why it has my name on the cover," Varric said.
"What I believe Lady Pentaghast is trying to express," said Dorian, "is her dissatisfaction with the ending."
"Why, is something wrong with it?" Varric pulled away from Cassandra and circled around to the head of the table; there wasn't a chair, but he set his tankard down and leaned against the wooden post there.
"Yes," said Dorian.
"Everything," said Cassandra, who managed to pack as much passion into that one word as most poets did into entire epics. Hawke was impressed.
Varric sighed. "Ah, fans. Always thinking they know better."
"What happened to Dagger?" the Bull said.
"I told the Seeker here," said Varric. "She turned into a dragon."
"You were joking, surely!" Cassandra said. "I no more believe Dagger turns into a dragon than I believe that Knight and Song run away together—"
"Wait, really?" said Dagna. "That's what happens?"
Varric took a sip of his ale. His eyes were twinkling; Hawke still wanted to hit him. "What's the matter with that? I figured Hawke here would like the dragon part, at least."
"The matter?" said Cassandra. "The matter? The matter is that Dagger is clearly in love with Knight!"
"She's right. I hate to be a critic"—the Bull snorted, and Dorian shot him a sharp look—"but the natural resolution is clear, Varric. By the Maker, man, have you no sense of romance?"
Varric appeared to think about it, and then he said, "Nah. Come on, Knight and Song."
"No," Cassandra said. "Dagger is clearly in love with Knight."
"Sorry, Seeker. You can say it as many times as you want, but that doesn't make it true," Varric said, and then he looked straight at Hawke. "Anyway, Hawke agrees with me, don't you? Knight and Song, a match made by fate."
Hawke's heart was running a race against itself. She should...she should laugh, she should bite her tongue; there were a thousand things she should do, a thousand responses she had trained into herself for all the times he looked at her.
"No," Hawke said.
"...What?" said Varric.
"I said no." Hawke's knuckles were white, and her fingers ached from how tightly her hands had closed on themselves. "No. Knight should have ended up with Dagger."
"That's not what you said before—"
"I lied," Hawke said. She was close to the precipice.
Varric looked stunned; the cocky slant of his mouth had given ground to slack astonishment. "Shit, Hawke, why would you do that?"
"Because," Hawke snapped, "there isn't anything worse than knowing that the man you've loved your entire adult life is in love with someone else!"
Something broke over Varric's face, but Hawke wasn't staying around long enough to figure out what it was. They were all staring at her, Dorian and the Bull, Dagna and Cassandra, Varric, of course Varric, Varric who wrote his silly stories because all he wanted was to give everyone their happy endings. Well, there was no happy ending in this story, was there? He hadn't given a happy ending to Hawke. It was fine, that was fine; Hawke made her own endings.
"I'm not saying that it wasn't a good effort," said Hawke, "but it wasn't my flagon of ale, if you know what I mean. Oh, look at the sun—time to be off." They were indoors; thankfully, nobody pointed this out.
They called after her, but she was out the door and climbing the steps to the keep proper before anyone could stir themselves to action. Hawke did love to make an exit. This didn't top the time she'd dared Carver to launch her from the old and thankfully small trebuchet that was rotting in the miller's yard in Lothering, but it had to be a close second. Or third, maybe—Kirkwall burning had been terribly dramatic.
If she went north to Jader, she could be in the Vimmarks soon enough. No sense wasting time on any more errands for the Wardens, not when there was a chance Corypheus's prison might hold the secrets she sought. And anyway, it was freezing this far south; Hawke thought a nice, sunny beach definitely sounded preferable. There weren't many beaches on the way to the Vimmarks, but a woman had to have a dream.
The trick was not to think about why she was leaving.
Most of her travelling gear was still packed and stowed beneath her bed; she would need food, but the Inquisition kept its larders well-stocked with bundles of provisions for the road, and she doubted they would begrudge her one or two of the same. She wouldn't have the time to send a letter before she left, but there were half a dozen trading outposts between the Frostback Mountains and Orzammar, and certainly one of those would have the means for her to write to Isabela. Luck, sunshine, and a fair wind were all Hawke needed.
She was lacing her boots when she realized that her staff was still in Varric's room. Now that was a bother; he was, hopefully, still tucked away in the tavern with his adoring fans, but Hawke would really prefer to avoid interacting with him. She crept down a back staircase and then through the hallway to his door and was pleased to find that when she knocked, nobody answered.
Her staff was leaning against the mantle—rather dangerous spot to have left it, that close to the fire and all, but it hadn't suffered for the neglect. Escape was beginning to look more and more possible. She closed her fingers around the wooden haft, and at that moment, Varric said, "Going somewhere?"
"I thought it was time to collect this from you!" Hawke said, brightly. "I appreciate you storing it for me, but it's really just gathering dust here—"
"Good try," Varric said. "Care to tell me what that outburst back in the tavern was all about?"
"Which one was that again?" She was playing stupid with all her might; small chance that it would work now, but she was long accustomed to falling back on obtuseness to cover what she felt most keenly.
"The one about how terrible it is to...let me think, what exactly did you say? 'There isn't anything worse than knowing that the man you've loved your entire—'"
"Right, that one," said Hawke, who wasn't sure she could listen to Varric fling her own words back at her. "Basic disagreement with the text, you know how these things go. You've heard about 'death of the author,' I'm sure? Not that I want you dead." Maker's rear, what was she talking about?
"Really?" Varric folded his arms; Hawke, who had spent years training herself not to notice what this did to his chest and biceps, felt herself flush. "Because it sounded like you were speaking from personal experience."
Hawke laughed wildly. "Oh, come on," she said. "You know love stories aren't for me. And anyway, we both know the only person I've ever loved is myself. And who can blame me? I am incredibly dashing—"
"That joke's only funny when you tell it to other people, Champion. No, for the first time, I think I've got a pretty good idea of what's going through that head of yours."
Shit, he was going to say it. He was going to say—
"You've got...feelings. For me," Varric finished.
All right, that wasn't as bad as it could have been. Hawke scoffed reflexively. "You do like the sound of your own voice. Fine, fine, I'll play along—Varric, you know it never would have worked out between us! Awfully sorry. Now, if you don't mind…"
"Sit down," Varric said.
"Sit down," he repeated. "I still have that paperwork for you to sign. It'll be a damn sight easier to have you sign it now than it will be to chase you all over Thedas."
Hawke was caught off-balance. It wasn't a feeling she liked. "I…" He pulled out a chair for her in front of his desk. "All right. It won't take long?"
"Just a few minutes," he said, and then he settled in across from her. Hawke narrowed her eyes at him; she wasn't sure if she should read this sudden acquiescence as acceptance or as trickery. It was probably too much to ask for the former, but Varric really was doing her a favor in managing her family investments. Hawke had grown up thinking that ten sovereigns was an unimaginably large sum, and now she had thousands to her name, the product of the initial trip to the Deep Roads and her income as Kirkwall's champion. She didn't particularly care about the money, but there was still a slim possibility that Carver would have children someday.
"First things first." Varric took out a large stack of papers from a bottom drawer and fanned it over his desk. "I know you like to give away a certain percentage on an annual basis, and this year I took the liberty of donating that percentage to the Inquisition's efforts. Ruffles wants it done all official, though, which means you'll need these. Sign the top one first."
Hawke obediently scribbled her name at the bottom of a handwritten contract.
"Great," Varric said. "Next item of business: reprieves. I said some nasty things about your mother, and believe it or not, Hawke, I do know you hate it when I hover." He paused to take a note and then said, "I apologize. That was shitty."
"...What?" said Hawke, and then, because it seemed like the thing to do, added, "If we're spreading the blame around, that remark about Bartrand was uncalled for. I was…a bit of an ass."
"Apology accepted," said Varric. "There, that wasn't so hard, was it? Now, I recently transferred some of your holdings in Orlesian businesses over to Antiva—the civil war really screwed with Orlais' economy. See what you think about this." He brandished another piece of paper at her.
Hawke blinked down at the dense jargon. "Do I have to sign anything?"
"Nah, but now I can honestly say I showed you the terms. It's already taken care of—you probably don't remember, but I had the paperwork drawn up allowing me to act as your legal proxy in Orlais years ago. Hang on, let's see...right. Logistics."
"Logistics?" said Hawke.
"It seems safe to say that for the time being, we're not going to be able to live in the same place, but I'd like an assurance that as soon as our various responsibilities allow, we'll be cohabitating. In the meantime, you're going to have to hold up your end of the letter-writing. I want at least a page in response to every letter I send you. How's that sound?"
Hawke had been confused for long enough by now that her natural instinct to bluff was kicking in. "Does the page have to be about anything in particular?"
"For all I care," said Varric, "you can write me a page on your favorite bawdy jokes."
"I suppose that's acceptable," said Hawke.
Varric scratched something down on his slip of parchment. "Sounds good. What was next? Ah, here we go. You and I have some joint holdings in a Nevarran investment group. They're doing well enough that I thought I'd transfer the interest payments from these loans"—he shoved another sheaf of papers across the desk—"and maybe a little extra besides."
"At the bottom," Varric said. "Don't forget to date it. Right—up next is involvement. Monogamy okay? Keep in mind that we're both going to be travelling."
All the air went out of Hawke's lungs. She felt like she'd been kicked by a bronto, a catastrophe for which she had a very real basis for comparison. Brontos were bastards.
She swallowed. "Bianca?"
Varric's lips twitched. "Bianca and I haven't been together in years, Hawke. She has her work and her husband—who, despite the impression I may give, is a good man—and in case you haven't noticed, my life revolves around someone else."
Hawke's voice came out strangled. "Oh," she managed. It wasn't a terribly debonair thing to say.
"Here, take a look at this," said Varric. "These are the real estate opportunities I was talking about. Even when you take a property manager into account, the rent makes for a decent chunk of change. You'll need to initial here...yeah...and there. That's good, Hawke. Where were we?" He shuffled through his papers. "Conflict. This one's important, pay attention."
The best Hawke could offer was that she was no longer thinking about throwing herself out the window in a bid to flee, and she told him as much. "Yeah," Varric said, "that's why this one is important. My condition is that you don't get to laugh it off every time we fight. No running away, either." He looked at her expectantly, pen posed over the paper.
"If we have to discuss it—yes, all right, I get the point—then you don't get to smother me," Hawke said. "Under duress, I'll admit that I'm not always the fastest to...grasp emotional conflict, and occasionally I need time to think it over. And…" This was a joke, wasn't it? It had to be a lark, just one more grand tale Varric was spinning to smooth things over. "And you should bring me chocolates when you make me angry. Or cake. Or pudding."
Varric chuckled to himself as he wrote. "You're something else, Hawke," he said. "Cake. Stick with me, we're almost done. This is just some legal nonsense related to taxes, but they want your signature and a thumbprint. Don't spill ink all over yourself." He waited while Hawke dipped her thumb in ink, blotted it, and then pressed it to the paper. "There we go. We're on reciprocity. I'm going to keep the basis in here—camaraderie and so on—but the primary mutual sentiment seems to be love."
Hawke tried to rally and failed. "What?" she said.
"Oh, come on," Varric said. "I think I can be forgiven for not noticing what was going on with you—you play your cards pretty close to your chest—but you're telling me I wasn't obvious? I wrote an entire book about how I'm in love with you. Actually, two books. Come to think of it, there might be a couple more that feature a dashing apostate for the heroine."
Hawke made a sound that in a charitable account might be compared to the noise a horse would make as it drowned in a bog.
"This is priceless," Varric said. "I don't think I've ever seen you struck dumb before. If you don't mind, I'm going to skip ahead to the next part. There are a few subclauses here that need to be addressed depending on your response to the topic at large, which is fornication. How do you feel about sharing a bed?"
Fortunately, Hawke's mouth was well-practiced in functioning without oversight from her mind. "Yes," she said.
"Sex? With me," Varric added, as though Hawke were capable of thinking about sex with anyone else.
"That," she said. "Yes, that. Definitely that."
"Anything you'd like to specify?" he asked. "Favorite positions, unusual proclivities…?"
Hawke's imagination immediately catapulted her into a vivid rendering of all the possibilities; Varric on top of her, Varric below her, Varric putting his mouth to all kinds of uses, Hawke putting her mouth to all kinds of uses, hands, kissing, and the difficulty of fitting one human and one dwarf into a bathtub all flashed through her mind.
She swallowed. Varric swallowed at the same time.
"Uh, right. I'll leave that clause open-ended," he said. "Wait, almost forgot about this. Aveline's been complaining about the equipment Bran's provided to her trainees. I told her we could take care of it. I set up an account she could draw from, and you and I can count it as a tax write-off. Write your name here—and sign here—and here. Hmm. That brings us to the last item."
Hawke dragged herself back from calculating the internal volume of a bathtub. "Which is?"
"Duration," Varric said. He bent his head and ran one hand over his hair; Hawke suddenly realized that he was nervous. "I know we're both unpracticed when it comes to romance in the long term, so all I have to rely on is my gut instinct. Does a lifetime seem too short?"
The quill Hawke was holding cracked from the force of her grip. For the first time in an age, her panic was receding, although the disbelief that clouded over her hadn't entirely cleared. "A lifetime?" she said. "Varric, I...ha! Yes. If I'm supposed to be playing along, then yes, a lifetime sounds like a good start."
"You think I'm playing?" he said. He was scratching on his paper as he talked, and he wrote something at the bottom with an elaborate flourish before he flipped the whole thing around so she could read it. "Last signature, Hawke."
Hawke glanced down at it and then back up at him. "Are you serious?" she said.
He looked at her with a steadiness that cut straight through her. "You're under no obligation to sign," he said. "Your choice."
She looked down again. It still seemed like a joke, but there, detailed in Varric's florid handwriting, was the contract they had laid out together. In plain words, it stated that Hawke loved Varric, and that he loved her in return; that they intended to have a life together despite any invading hordes, abominations, monstrosities, or stupidity that might interfere; and that that life would include card games, letters, appropriate conflict resolution and/or cake, the continuation of their existing financial partnership, a serious but non-binding discussion about marriage and children, an intriguing number of sex acts, and at least one annual drinking contest.
It was, quite literally, the stuff of Hawke's wildest dreams—her most hidden dreams, the dreams she had never thought would come true—and frankly she would have continued to believe it was nothing more than an elaborate prank if not for one thing: at the bottom of the page, Varric had written his name.
"You signed this," Hawke accused. "You never sign anything accidentally, not after you were stuck with twelve crates of purebred show nugs."
"Don't remind me," Varric said.
"One of them tried to hump your foot," Hawke said. "It was hilarious."
"Is there some part of 'don't remind me' you have trouble understanding?" Varric said.
"You're the one always telling me I was dropped on my head as an infant," said Hawke. "I still don't believe Mother told you that was true. Also, it appears my quill is broken."
Varric offered her his; it was warm from his hand, and Hawke's fingers dragged across his skin as she took it from him. She scratched a couple of lines on a bit of scrap, set the quill to the contract, and signed.
"I never should have let you start talking," she said. "If I hadn't let you start talking, I would be halfway to Jader."
He was grinning outright. "You don't want to go to Jader," he said. "If you'd wanted to go to Jader, Marian, you would've left three weeks ago."
"All right, maybe," Hawke admitted. "Can we do sex now? Or maybe not yet, on second thought. Yes? No? Your feelings? I'm in favor, but dinner might be a good idea."
"I'm wrung out," Varric agreed. "I can probably bribe one of the servers into delivering food to us here."
"Cards in the meantime?" said Hawke. She was happier than she could ever remembering being, so happy that it was hard to connect the feeling bursting in her with the more everyday sort of happiness. "You could try winning your manuscript off me."
Varric stood up and came around the desk. Hawke watched the procession with interest. He had the shadow of a beard on his chin, and his hair was just slightly out of place; she was so busy watching him that she was taken by surprise when he slid his hands up her neck and kissed her.
When he pulled away, Hawke groaned in protest. "Keep it," Varric said, and then he left to order dinner.
She pulled herself together long enough to shove a table between the armchairs positioned in front of a fire, and then she unlaced her boots and kicked them off. Her stockings were thick and woolen and therefore ample protection against the cold stone floors, and there was a soft rug laid out in front of the fire besides; Varric hated having cold feet.
Varric was back a few minutes later with a jug of mulled wine, and he poured for them both while Hawke shuffled the deck. The table was barely large enough to hold two glasses and the cards.
As soon as she picked up her hand, Hawke burst out laughing.
"Something funny?" Varric said.
"You," said Hawke. "You complete scoundrel. I didn't mean to blurt out any of that, you know, and somehow an hour later I've already discussed marriage prospects."
"I can't say the blurting didn't take me by surprise. I wasn't sure I'd catch you after you ran off, and then I almost ending up shouting, 'Look, a dragon!' and tackling you to the bed."
"It probably would've worked," Hawke said. "Dragons. My one weakness."
"Didn't I once see you try to trade your brother for a box of brass rings?"
"Dragons and baubles," Hawke said. "My two weaknesses."
Varric snorted and started sorting his hand. It was possible that in shuffling, Hawke had slightly stacked the deck in her own favor.
Hawke cleared her throat. "So, Varric. The Magpie. About that sequel…"
"I thought love stories weren't for you," he said. "Shit. Did you stack the deck?"
"No," Hawke said. "And I may have been lying. About the love stories, that is."
He discarded; beneath the table, Hawke's toes settled comfortably on the tops of his boots. "Don't tell the Seeker," he said, "but I wrote the sequel a couple of years ago."
"Really? What happens?"
Varric rolled his eyes, although he couldn't quite erase the way his mouth pulled upwards at the corner. "What do you think happens, Hawke?"
Hawke laid down her Angel of Lilies and picked up Varric's discarded Brand of Hope. "Does Knight find Dagger?"
"Knight finds Dagger," Varric said, "and breaks her out of Angel's jail."
"And then what?"
"They fight the dragon."
"And then what?"
"They send the money from the dragon's hoard to Song," he said, "so she can buy her freedom, and she becomes a famous swordsmith."
"And then?" Hawke asked.
"They find the Dalish and raise an army to march on Captain Angel."
"And after that?"
Varric picked up her hand and pressed a kiss to the center of her palm. "And then, shit, I don't know," he said, which contrasted magnificently with the low rumble of his voice and the way his lips moved over her skin. "Knight probably makes love to Dagger in front of a fire."
"'Makes love?'" said Hawke.
"What, you'd rather have me say that they screw like nugs?" He made to set her hand down, but Hawke curled her fingers over his.
"It's just a bit…flowery."
"You're in a contractually-binding relationship with a writer," Varric said. "What did you expect?"
"All right, I'll allow it," said Hawke. "I do have one other question."
"What's that?" he said, and he used his free hand to brush her dark hair out of her face. Even that simple gesture was enough to stun her. Were he an archer and her body his bow, he couldn't have drawn her with any more finesse; she felt strung between his hands, taut and anticipatory although he'd hardly touched her.
She took a deep breath and asked, "Does Dagger actually turn into a dragon?"