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aftermath of a war

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"I can take it from here, Hawke," the technician told her, pulling his kit out with steady hands. "Go on, go home."

Hawke stood from her crouch, stripping off her gloves and feeling a shiver as the anti-magic coating brushed against her skin. She stretched, feeling sore, and grimy, and unsettled. Hawke stuffed the used gloves into a pocket, then nodded to the forensics technician who'd taken over the scene, and escaped the alley -- all the while feeling her stomach churn.

Her shift had ended more than two hours ago at midnight bells, but she'd felt obligated to do as much as she could with the scene. With the forensics team's appearance, Hawke was free.

She ducked around the barricade pylon and flipped her collar up, tried to hunch her shoulders more deeply into her leathers, keep the rain from sliding down the nape of her neck and her revulsion at the murder at bay.

The rain was a losing battle, like always. Her leather armour, stylish and matte -- perfect for blending into the shadows and leaping across rooftops in the dark -- wouldn't keep out the bitter midwinter chill and damp no matter what. The ten-block squelch down muddy side streets to her four-storey walk up was long enough to ensure she'd be thoroughly soaked.

The murder made her restless and edgy. She'd never sleep, now. Irritable at the weather and herself, feeling ill at ease in her own skin, Hawke made the split-second decision to do an about-face and head to the Hanged Man.

The Hanged Man was a basement bar, barely legal, that didn't look too closely at whether you carried a staff or two blades, so long as your silver flowed and the sparks didn't.

A twelve-hour shift that ended in investigating a gruesome murder was bad enough, but Hawke's boss had informed her that she'd be saddled with a new partner next shift. That, coupled with the grisly images that refused to leave her meant even though Hawke should head for home and blessed sleep, the Hanged Man's grimy atmosphere and flowing drinks held more appeal.

She stumbled down the slippery concrete steps, banging hard into the steel door at the bottom of the stairs. A muffled voice called out, "Who is it?"

Hawke flipped her soaked hair off her face and tried not to look pathetic as she stared into the one-way window. It was just a slit in the door, but she knew someone was looking her over, sizing her up. In reply, Hawke muttered, "Come on, I'm getting drenched."

"This is a private club."

Hawke sighed, riffling through her many hidden pockets for the enchanted slip of stone to prove her identity. She finally dug her ID out of her breast pocket. "It's Hawke, let me in," she muttered, tone taking on more bite as she slapped the stone against the grate. "I'm cold."

The steel door swung open, and a skinny man -- boy, in truth -- stared at her with wide eyes. Without the steel between him and Hawke, he looked terrified. "Pardon, ser," he croaked, "do come in."

Hawke resisted rolling her eyes, just; a little afraid the kid might wet himself if she did. Hawke gave him a terse nod before striding into the bar.

The Hanged Man was, in many ways, a dank cellar with nothing to recommend it: a dozen small, sticky tables huddled around a hearth, occupied by hunched clientele murmuring to each other and drinking truly awful ale. On the other hand...

"Hawke," a melodious voice called from the sagging armchair by the hearth, "right on time, as usual."

Hawke took a brief moment by the entrance to try and shake the rain off her leathers and ring her hair out, before giving it up as a lost cause and making her way to Varric.

A dwarven news reporter who'd covered the crime blotters as long as Hawke had been on the force, Varric rarely appeared to stir from his seat at the fire. And yet any time a break happened in one of the cases in her district, he'd have the scoop before anyone else.

He also had a second mug held out by the time she reached the chair across from him. Sinking into it, Hawke took the mug gratefully, doing a quick count of the time. She could drink the one drink, and still be well outside the twelve hour window before her next night shift.

If she drank it quickly, that is. "Why, Varric, people might say you were buttering me up," Hawke quipped.

"Whatever makes you sit a little longer," he replied easily. "You know the rules."

Hawke drank deep, wincing only a little at the taste. Varric had bought her top shelf lager, at least for this place. After downing a third of the mug, she dutifully quoted, "First one's free, next one's a byline."

Unbidden, images from the last crime scene swam into her mind. Hawke shuddered, gripping the mug tight. With another swallow, she pushed the image down. "Later, maybe," she managed to croak out. "This one's bad, you don't want details."

Varric raised one eyebrow, but mercifully didn't ask. Instead, he queried, "Where's your sister?"

The Hanged Man occupied what was once a cellar and was dimly lit, the lamps turned low in deference to the clientele's preference for anonymity. One could spend sunrise to sunset in the Hanged Man and not see daylight. But thanks to her extended shift, it didn't matter what time it appeared to be in the Hanged Man -- Hawke knew the sun would be up far too soon.

"In bed, if she's smart," Hawke answered. She resisted checking the slate in her inner pocket to see if Bethany had contacted her while on shift. Her sister might work late hours for a store owner, but that hardly meant Hawke wanted to wake her in the middle of the night.

"Hawke--" Varric started to ask, but then sighed as Hawke shifted her gaze to the bar. "All right," he said. Varric raised his mug in cheers. "To not being awake at dawn, then," he told her, solemn.

Hawke couldn't stop herself from rolling her eyes that time as she clinked her own mug against his. "Liar," she answered, smiling again. "You always see dawn from the wrong side of the evening."

"Pot, kettle," Varric retorted, pointing one blunt finger from himself to Hawke as he did. "When was the last time you weren't on night shift?"

"I go where they tell me," Hawke told him, shrugging.

Varric's mouth turned down, just slightly, and he murmured, "Yeah, and you didn't at all volunteer for it." Still, he didn't say more, opting to pull his work out again and focus on that, instead of Hawke's face, attempting a semblance of nonchalance. Hawke breathed out, relaxed into her chair once more. Varric wouldn't push. Varric never pushed.

Glancing at the clock ticking away in the corner, Hawke snorted to herself. The time was, apparently, half past eleven, which couldn't be accurate morning or night. She pulled out her little slate, the enchantment set to show her the time, not her messages -- and yet there it was, the slate glowing blue with Bethany's sigil anyway.

Leaning over, Varric said, interested, "She's hacked your slate again."

"So it seems," Hawke answered. Tapping on the surface of her slate, Bethany's scrawl appeared, a query as to when she'd be home and whether she'd like to get something to eat. "She just wanted to know if I was interested in a meal," she told Varric. "Though why that required hacking in to flag as urgent..."

"Are you off, then?"

Hawke glanced around the bar once more. Absently, she catalogued the patrons: she recognized one of the men in the corner as a thief, the second man sitting with him specialized in cracking enchanted wards around vaults. The hooded figure leaning against the table in the far corner was one of Athenril's smugglers--

"Word of advice, Hawke," Varric cut into her thoughts, soft-voiced. "You're off the clock."

"And?"

"And?" Varric leaned back, and when Hawke finally met his eyes, she caught his incredulous expression. "And, go home, maybe? Go meet Bethany? At least stop thinking about work." When Hawke didn't answer, Varric added gently, "I can see you sizing up the competition. Relax, for once. Go home."

Sighing, Hawke knew he was right. With only a little resentment, she shuffled her chair closer to the fire (and so her line of sight wasn't toward any of the other patrons). "But I'd miss your lovely face, Varric," she quipped, pulling charm out of somewhere, shoving back her instinctive need to study and assess her surroundings.

Besides, in Hawke's experience the men here tonight were far too skilled to pull a job and leave any evidence -- no point in noting their meeting.

Varric waved at Norah, perched on a stool in front of the bar, then scowled when she ignored him. Hawke stood, draping her soaked leather armour over the chair to dry. "I feel a craving for oatmeal," she told Varric, then asked, "you want some?"

"I've eaten my quota of glue for the day, but thanks," he replied, pulling out his own slate. "If you can get me another ale, I'd owe you."

Hawke doubted that Norah would give her permission to go back into the kitchen and serve herself both a bowl of the ever-present (and ever-cooking) glop the Hanged Man called oatmeal, and grab a bottle of ale for Varric...but she was also pretty sure no one would do more than scowl if she tried.

After all, everyone knew Hawke, the lone detective responsible for serious crimes in this district. Everyone knew Hawke and owed her for one thing or another. Sometimes, even with wet, muddy boots and damp underthings, Hawke's life wasn't so bad.

-

Hawke woke with a groan.

"Good afternoon, beautiful." Varric's voice was amused, curling into smug, and Hawke stifled another groan. If he was this smug, she must have passed out in his second-storey suite again. Damnit.

"I'm never going to pay back these favours," Hawke muttered, sitting up to scrub a hand over her face. No shirt, either. Double damnit.

Varric's smooth voice placated her with, "Before you start panicking about your career again, you're on the couch, Hawke."

It was unnerving, a testament to the friendship that straddled their professional and personal relationship so well, that he could so easily read her concern.

So easily read it, and yet still sound so insufferably amused by her disarray.

"Pity," she managed to reply, and licked at her teeth, grimacing. She'd definitely drunk more than allowed before shift, again. "You don't know what you're missing, you know."

A glass of -- well, it was probably water -- appeared at her elbow, and then Varric backed away, arms folded. Hawke glanced at his face, and, of course: the dwarf's mouth was quirked, eyes dancing. At her look, he dared to answer, "Pot, kettle."

If she strolled into the precinct again and had to admit she'd spent the night at a reporter's squat again...

"The rest of my clothes?" Hawke asked, stretching as she rose from the couch. "And my dignity, if you've seen it?"

"Why do you think I'd have such a thing?" Varric asked. He disappeared into his private chamber.

Hawke took the brief reprieve to glance around his living area for her clothes and leathers, to no avail. "Norah has your leathers, she had them cleaned this morning," Varric called out, reappearing. "It's on your tab. You can wear one of my shirts home."

He was holding out a plain cotton garment along with her clothing, and Hawke slipped it over her breastband. This routine was becoming alarmingly familiar. "Whatever will the neighbours say?" Hawke couldn't help saying, mimicking that tart tone of voice heard only when she spoke with someone who lived uptown.

Varric's eyes held steady on Hawke as she dressed, gaze gentle, but all he said was, "If you hurry up, I'll even buy you breakfast. Well, late lunch."

Her hair was a mess, even cropped short, and as she struggled into the rest of her clothes, Hawke wrinkled her nose; her leggings smelled like smoke and ale from the Hanged Man. At least her outer leathers had been treated, so that was one less thing to do before her 4 p.m. shift. As she patted herself, her slate appeared by her elbow in Varric's outstretched hand.

Hawke looked up at him, eyes narrowed. "Not one word," she warned.

"Me?" Varric sketched out a bow, replying only, "Lunch is a bribe, if you're up to eating. I want to know what you were doing last night."

Hawke frowned, scrolling through the messages she'd accumulated through the day -- none marked urgent. Three from Bethany, all in the early hours of the morning. Two from the precinct, one from the coroner: those were copies of messages addressed to other officers. Two from informants about other cases, those could wait. One from the captain, a dire warning about being late this evening, and reminding her she was to be partnered up tonight. Lovely.

"If you're wondering why all her messages die out at ten in the morning, Bethany finally gave up and contacted my slate when she couldn't find you."

"Of course she did," Hawke muttered.

"I told her Isabela was performing tonight. You should try to come." Varric's voice took on a nonchalant tone. He glanced at his blackout curtains as he added, "I believe Isabela's exact words were 'if she doesn't show I'm going to drag her by that short hair.' So consider this your warning."

Hawke scrawled a quick reply to Bethany, promising she'd drop by, before what Varric had said registered. Then she groaned again. "I have a job," she protested. "One that requires I be working at night."

"And I completely understand that," Varric replied, soothing, turning back to Hawke. "But Isabela doesn't, because when you're off work you end up passed out on my couch, trying not to talk about work, instead of tied up in her bed, really not talking about work. Direct quote."

Hawke winced. "Usually her performances are over by the time I'm off shift," she said, voice small. Hawke heard the pale excuse for what it was: avoidance, and ducked her head, unable to meet Varric's eyes in case -- in case.

"She's supposed to be on until at least three tonight, probably later," Varric told her. He added, keeping his own voice light and teasing, "So if you don't show your face, I can't promise I'll be able to stop her from actually pulling your hair."

Varric held the door open as Hawke stumbled through, and then lead her, one warm hand on the small of Hawke's back, down the stairs back to the basement hallway that lead to the Hanged Man.

In the bar proper, Hawke waved to Norah, who made a rude gesture back before hauling her leathers out from behind the bar. "They were a mess," Norah scolded, "but done. It's on your tab, plus twenty more for the puddles and time I spent trying to dry them. Now go on."

Thanking her, Hawke shrugged the familiar leather armour on, strapping her short blades into their hidden sleeve sheaths. A shake, and they settled; Hawke felt better for being armed, trailing after Varric through the kitchen to the staff stairwell.

This stairwell was barely lit, a tunnel between the Hanged Man's kitchen and the surface. They were deep enough in the basement below-grade that she could feel the rumblings of bronto caravans in the tunnels beneath her feet. The giant lumbering pack animals hauled passenger and freight carriages miles and miles and miles, around the city and out to the docks and open highways, their stomping footfalls echoing up through the floorboards. In most of Lowtown those ever-present vibrations were a constant, evidence of the transportation carriages that people relied on to get from one end of the city to the other and beyond.

Before they exited outside, Hawke turned to face Varric, swallowing nervously. "Off the record," she started, then halted.

"Off the record," Varric reassured her.

Hawke swallowed, feeling fear pool in her stomach. She said to Varric, "It was -- it was bad. Behind enemy lines bad."

"What happened?"

That he could ask without flinching, keep his tone steady and quiet, made Hawke relax a little. She leaned against the wall, head back and eyes focused on the ceiling of the little stairwell. Mouth dry, Hawke licked her lips, and told Varric, "Someone cut up the body. Most of it is missing. I don't..."

"Hawke, that's bad," Varric agreed quietly, when it was apparent Hawke wouldn't -- or couldn't -- say more. He continued, "But you and I both know that it isn't bad enough to make you this jumpy." Hawke looked at Varric, soft mouth quirked up, head tilted, and she let out a breath. Varric asked her, "So what was it?"

Pushing off the wall, a sudden sharp movement that made Varric take a half-step back himself. "I can't get reprimanded again for being too close to my informants," she blurted, and abruptly turned away from Varric to stare at the wall.

After a long moment, Varric asked carefully, "Who can you be close to, then?"

A hissed intake of breath, and Hawke felt herself freeze, familiar anger start to take hold, the memory of what exactly it cost, being close to-- before she ruthlessly pushed it all down.

Varric cringed, immediately put a conciliatory hand up. "Aw, Hawke, I didn't mean it like-- I mean, I hear about how I'm too close to my sources all the time," Varric finally replied. "It doesn't mean anything."

Another breath, and Hawke smiled. It was tight, but she managed to say, "You always get the by-line," without any anger.

"Not always," he said, quiet. "But enough." He paused, then, with studied casualness, added, "You always closed your cases, too."

Hawke swallowed, finally nodding. Clapped a hand to Varric's shoulder, gave a brief squeeze: nothing happened, I'm sorry, let's drop it, all at once. Hawke told him, "If I can lose the new partner, I'll swing by. But this case is big, it's...off the record," she said, "I just know it's going to get a lot fucking worse, before it gets better. If it gets better."

Varric's eyebrows shot into his hairline, alarmed. "Whatever you aren't telling me, it's that bad?"

Hawke's answer was a grim nod, mouth a thin line, lips pressed together tight. She didn't know what or how or who or why, but her instincts had rarely steered her wrong, on people or cases or missions, and this one--

This one felt like it could pull the rug out from under fucking everything. Again.

After a moment in which they stared at each other, Varric reached around her and pushed the outer door open. They both squinted at the sudden flood of bright sunlight, before Hawke followed Varric back up to street level.

-

By the time Varric ushered her out of the Hanged Man, the sun was well past noon, slipping lower on the horizon. It was late enough that after he walked her out, Varric had cited deadlines and slipped away.

Two hours wasn't enough time to drop in on Bethany properly, but she could bring her sister a late lunch to make up for the meal Varric hadn't produced. Hawke glanced at the time on her slate, ducking into a quick Tevene takeaway joint -- all right, more like an early tea.

The proprietor, an older man who never said more than two words any time she'd ordered from him, slapped a bag holding two rice bowls into her hands, flatbread on top, before slipping two mango desserts inside as well. Hawke, used to his ways, handed him several silver and a nod as thanks. She balanced the bag full of food containers in one hand as she strode down the cobblestones toward Bethany's workshop.

There was a lamp on in the storefront, but no sign of Bethany, just her assistant. Dagna gave every impression of not seeing Hawke as the door jangled with the entrance chime, she was so engrossed in her work.

Mounting the staircase to Bethany's private room, Hawke hoped her sister was actually home, and that two rice bowls weren't about to go to waste.

When she called out, "Beth?" on the stairs, there was a muffled thump, and her sister answered,

"Coming!"

Grinning, Hawke waited at the top of the stairs for Bethany to unlatch the door. "Your food is getting cold," Hawke called through the wood.

Throwing the door open, Bethany scowled at her. "Wasn't I asking if you wanted to get together last night? Are you losing time?"

Hawke dumped both containers of food into Bethany's arms. As she did, she got a vague whiff of her own skin and grimaced. Smoke and ale, still, with the undercurrent of fouler odour: the crime scene last night. "Beth, can I use your shower?"

"The plumbing still isn't fixed from last month," Bethany warned her.

Bethany put out the food, got them water from her little kitchen, and pulled out the two chairs around her rickety table. All the while, Hawke counted to ten she told herself she wouldn't interfere, but...

"Beth, let me talk to your landlord."

"No," Bethany said, and frowned. "It's fine, Marian. You can't, you know you can't."

Hawke clenched her fists. "I could, it wouldn't even -- I can be charming," she tried. "You know I can. I could even hire a plumber myself, no one has to know."

Bethany smiled and shook her head. She just opened a lower cabinet, handing Hawke a towel, knowing grin in place even though her eyes were sad. "Hurry up, then," she added, as Hawke stood, tense. "You brought the food, don't let it get stone-cold."

Another moment of impotent rage, and then Hawke inhaled, trying to relax. She knew that Bethany would never let her step in, knew that Bethany worried (and rightly) that drawing attention, that even asking her landlord to fix the shower might be enough to reveal Beth's mage status, and without the protection of their former positions that would be it, Beth would be caught-- but, oh, if only--

Inhale. No. Exhale. Hawke took the outstretched towel Bethany held, trying to smile back at her sister. It might have come out more like a grimace, but, well, marks for effort, Hawke.

Hawke finally replied, "You could always warm supper up again."

In the shower, Hawke used her five minutes of warm water to try and stop shaking with rage at how she couldn't even help her sister with something as simple as faulty plumbing.

Hawke didn't bother to get dressed in her old clothes, just went to the neatly folded pile of spare things that Bethany had on hand. It had been over a month since Hawke found herself at her sister's flat, but still Beth had a set of clothes neat and tidy, ready for her just in case. Hawke thanked the Maker when she dug through and found a shirt and leggings neat enough to wear under her leathers for work.

Coming back to the table, Bethany said nothing, just pushed the food toward Hawke. Hawke ate mechanically, scooping up handfuls of rice and rolling them into the flatbread, barely tasting the spices and meat. Bethany, too, was quiet, but Hawke had a sneaking suspicion she was watching Hawke, trying to figure out what was wrong without asking.

Finally, as Bethany picked at her mango cup, she said, "I've waited all through dinner, but what's going on?"

"What makes you think anything's going on?" Hawke realized her breezy tone was a mistake as Bethany's face fell, and Hawke knew her sister deserved better, Hawke knew she hadn't been the one reaching out lately, that all of their shared meals and stolen moments together were a result of Bethany's constant messages, not Hawke's effort.

Hawke told Bethany, "All right. It's something."

Hawke stared out Bethany's big bay window -- the only good thing about this whole studio. Well, that and the relative privacy the downstairs workshop gave her. The downside: Bethany's window faced west, so Hawke couldn't ignore the orange and pinks visible in the sky above the building across the alley. The position of the sun meant Hawke was going to be late for work, if she didn't hurry.

"Is it work?" Bethany asked her.

"For the most part," Hawke admitted, and glanced at her sister. Bethany was chewing her lip, like she always did when she was hesitating or nervous. Hawke could take the easy out, leave Bethany thinking work was difficult. Since Beth couldn't ask about it, she'd be off the hook.

Sighing, Hawke added, "But not all. It's just, been a long month."

"Don't think I didn't notice you came by wearing Varric's clothing." Bethany shook her head, little smile in place. "Never mind," she said half to herself. "Should I pack you something to eat for later?"

Hawke's mind flashed again on the last crime scene; with luck, it would be a quiet night, no more calls. She could sit and quietly go through what the technicians had learned from the, the body parts that had, had--

Swallowing, this time to force down her nausea, Hawke shook her head.

-

Racing down the block, Hawke cursed her fate, the Maker, the moon and the stars, and every public street carriage that refused to stop for her. She didn't have time to pull out her slate, but if she did, the enchanted timepiece would assuredly tell her it was past four, and she was late.

Maker take it all. The captain was going to skin her alive.

Puffing in huge lungfuls of air, Hawke pumped her legs, rounding the block that led to the precinct itself. When she could see the actual entrance to the shabby little building she slowed to a walk, feeling her breath come in huge pants.

The building was dark stone and faced the harbour, the smell of the sea (and of seaweed) permeating the street outside. The stone itself showed years of accumulated buildup of grime and coal smoke. The joke among those unfortunate enough to be banished to this Lowtown district was that the thick layer of dirt was the only thing holding the precinct walls together.

Striding into the building, Hawke dared a glance at her slate, and the time. Perhaps fifteen minutes wasn't so bad?

Cullen was standing in the doorway to his office, hands tucked behind him in parade-rest fashion. Hawke sighed, and he raised his hand to gesture her over, a controlled movement, before he dropped back into the pose. Hawke knew it was an unconscious leftover from his military days, and it always signalled a dressing-down.

Fifteen minutes was, it seemed, bad enough. Hawke made her way over, nodded once, and said, "Cullen."

He would either decide to rake her over the coals for being late, or decide to let it go. Being overly respectful wouldn't help, and neither would excuses, rudeness, pleading, charm, flirtation, lies, or jokes. In the last four years as Hawke worked for him, and in different situations, she'd tried them all. Nothing had ever elicited more than a raised eyebrow or an irritated frown.

Now she didn't even bother using his title.

After a long moment studying her, Cullen shook his head, once. "Didn't I tell you not to be late?" Hawke stood, waiting, staring into Cullen's face. Cullen narrowed his eyes, but only said, "Your new partner was on time. Perhaps you'll pick up his good habits."

"What's he like?" Hawke asked before she could stop herself, then put a hand out to Cullen, immediately adding, "Never mind, I don't need to know, it'll just ruin the surprise of the next two weeks."

Cullen tapped his fingers on his desk, asked her, "Did you really used to lie for the King's secret service for a living?" With a soft huff, Cullen told her, "He's a professional. Came to us very highly recommended, from--"

"Does it matter where he came from?" Hawke interrupted, because there was no point hearing the man's biography when he'd just be gone in two weeks, and she had work to do. Scowling at Cullen, Hawke said, "What's far more important is, why do I have to deal with--"

"Hawke," Cullen interrupted, "you're the only detective I have to pair him with. You don't care who he is, fine. But do you want to stand there and argue with me? Or do you want to get to work?"

Hawke recognized the tactic, could see how Cullen was goading her into leaving it alone. Oh, she could recognize it all right, and yet was helpless against the challenge, even as a large part of her still wanted to argue -- though she knew it would do no good.

Glaring at Cullen, Hawke nevertheless asked, "Where is he?"

Cullen told her immediately, "Going through the evidence from last night. He wanted to get to work on the case right away."

So whoever the mysterious newcomer was, they were eager; eager, or efficient. Hawke amended, eager, efficient or both, which was suspicious in its own right. No detective cared that much about Lowtown, that was the primary reason she worked alone. Still, all Hawke asked was, "From the neighbourhood canvas, or the forensic team?"

"Forensics," Cullen answered, and made a sharp motion to follow him. She fell in step as he led her into the precinct work area proper. Nonchalantly, Cullen added, "He was looking forward to meeting you, getting up to speed on what you were working on. I told him the reality would never live up to whatever he'd heard about you, but it didn't dissuade him much."

That was even more suspicious; no one was eager to work with her, not any longer. Not since she'd been demoted. Hawke followed Cullen through the precinct, considering.

This early in the evening, the pen was still full of cops. A few waved as she passed, but most ignored her completely. Hawke was quite junior in terms of years of experience, and young, though higher ranked; the resentment was obvious from some of the more experienced men.

A lot of it, Hawke knew, just stemmed from the fact that she'd transferred four years ago, already a detective, and they hadn't been promoted since. The rest came from...

Hawke sighed. Perhaps this new partner was just uninformed about the circumstances of her disgrace and exile to Lowtown, what she'd nearly allowed to happen, the case she'd never solved. If that were it, she had no doubt whoever it was would find out soon enough, and that would be that.

In lieu of arguing with her captain, Hawke decided to turn the conversation back to her case. "Did they identify--" but Hawke couldn't say aloud what it was they'd found, and cut herself off. Mercifully, Cullen had come to the door to the forensics lab and held it for her.

Entering, Hawke saw two things. The first was an incredibly attractive elf hunched over an examination table. He wore a finely tailored overcoat and Hawke could spy matte-black, and expensive, armor underneath, the kind few people could afford. His gloves were fine leather, showing the same exquisite stitching. He was perfectly put together: unobtrusively dressed, but showing refinement and class.

The second thing she could see was half of someone's forearm, encased in fine red dust.

So, he'd decided to do his own examination, then. Hawke knew the same red powder coated the other body parts (likely sawn apart in haste, from the jagged edges) in the precinct's cold storage area. Cullen had released their smallest, the smallest sample--

Hawke felt her stomach churn. She pressed her lips together, forced it down, and approached the table, wary.

The elf had spared them one glance as they entered, before turning back to the forearm in front of him. He had white hair and was trim, even slender, but his poise, the careful way he held himself, suggested martial training. His face was blank, a slight furrow in his brow the only hint he was at all affected by the sight in front of him.

Cullen asked, "Anything?"

The voice that answered was deeper and richer than Hawke expected, and she looked at the elf in surprise as he spoke. He said, "I have found nothing of use. I take it from your lab technicians no one recognizes this particular substance?"

Hawke leaned over, trying to study the forearm in front of her objectively (at least the hand wasn't attached). This close, she could see condensation, see the red dust had--

"Has it hardened in cold storage, then?" Hawke asked.

The elf looked at her, and then tapped at the skin gently with a metal instrument. "This substance has hardened, yes."

"From the cold?"

The elf shrugged, finally turning away from the examination table and facing them. "I do not know. Perhaps."

"Hawke, Fenris is liaising. Fenris," Cullen said, "meet Hawke. Marian Hawke. You'll partner with her while you're working in Kirkwall, as we discussed. She's lead detective on this."

Hawke held her hand out to shake. Fenris nodded to her, looked at her outstretched hand, and kept his arms crossed. After a moment, Hawke withdrew her hand, unnerved (all right, then), and Fenris turned to Cullen again. "I would like to see the crime scene."

"Hawke can take you," Cullen answered, and with one warning look at Hawke, left the two of them in the lab.

Hawke looked down at the forearm on the exam table once more. She couldn't help the look of distaste that crossed her features, thinking about whatever fine powder was on the body parts, how -- and why -- it might harden, that--

"It disturbs you?" Fenris asked.

Hawke knew it made her look weak, after all this time on the job, to be disturbed by a case. Obviously the man was able to hide his reactions, but Hawke wasn't that good at hiding her emotions. Masking them, yes. But rarely hiding them altogether. Still--

Hawke gulped, swallowing nausea. "Something about this case bothers me, yes," she admitted.

Fenris tilted his head, studying her. Under his gaze, Hawke shifted, uncomfortable. Finally he asked, "How long have you been a full detective?"

Hawke flashed him a grin. "Seven years," she said, and felt a burst of satisfaction when he looked surprised. She didn't even know if he was a Guard detective, or something else, but couldn't help asking, "How long have you been on the job?"

Another hint of something set Fenris's features twitching before he answered smoothly, "Long enough."

Hawke turned to leave the lab, the presence of that forearm finally getting the better of her, nausea she didn't want to acknowledge making her race away. "Come on," she said to him, "we'll get someone else to stow the sample. And," Hawke added, rounding on him, suddenly angry at -- oh, everything, "word of advice. Most people in this district? When you ask them how long they've been on the job, they all say 'too long'."

Fenris just crossed his arms again, chin out a little as he replied without pause, "And yourself?"

The anger at Fenris, at his intrusion into her work, hadn't gone away. Hawke still felt it boiling in her blood the same way that the unease from that Maker-damned arm still screamed at her, flee! But one thing she'd learned -- honed in her time in the King's intelligence service and fine-tuned in her years in Kirkwall -- was the value of misdirection and guile. The basic tools of the magician, card shark, and con man: watch my left hand, ignore my right.

If she couldn't read his intentions, if Fenris wasn't transparent enough to be trustworthy, then Hawke would at least keep him off-balance enough he couldn't read her, in turn.

Varric would have been proud as she answered, "You're very attractive, for a cop." Hawke summoned a coy smile as she bowed to him, before holding the door to the lab open for him in a parody of how Cullen had held it for her earlier.

Fenris, however, just twitched one side of his mouth downward, ever so quickly, and swept out. Hawke could feel his carefully uninterested gaze even as he walked away.

-

"Where are your notes from last night?"

Hawke had a desk at the precinct, but rarely used it. Varric must have been riffling through it again, though, because her mug was missing, not to mention most of her inkwells.

Her-- "My what?"

"Your notes from the investigation last night," Fenris replied, clipped. "I would like to catch up."

Hawke leaned over, checking to see if her desk drawer was still...yes, still locked, and she jiggled it to slide the file drawer open.

Last night's crime scene etchings were still in place, though that was no guarantee that Varric hadn't gone through them, too. His only saving grace was that until she officially gave it to him, Varric wouldn't run what he blatantly stole.

"Here." Hawke handed Fenris the pictures, and the initial canvas report from the sergeant who had found the body-- had found the carca--

Hawke swallowed bile, then gave Fenris a big grin, pleased as his expression got darker and more frustrated. "I haven't even been home yet," she explained, "when would I have had time to write up a report?"

She failed to mention the reason she hadn't gone home was passing out on Varric's couch, but, details.

"You do not have any--" Fenris started, then cut himself off abruptly. After a moment, he continued carefully, "Very well. Then let us go to the crime scene."

Hawke spared Cullen's office (interior windows suspiciously shuttered) a single fierce glare. This was going to be even more painful than she'd originally thought. Not only was Fenris by-the-book, but Hawke got the feeling he'd be relentless, unwilling and unable to look beyond the law to see the reality of Kirkwall.

Never mind that Hawke found most of her leads through the Hanged Man.

"I get the feeling I'm not meeting Isabela tonight," Hawke murmured, annoyed again for no good reason. To Fenris, she explained, "I was planning to follow up on something else. But by all means, let's go visit the nightmare factory!"

As they walked back through the public areas of the precinct, Hawke spied Varric's neat ponytail leaning over the reception counter. As they walked by, she reached out to yank it. Hard.

Fenris looked behind him in time to catch Varric swat her, fingers warm as he grumbled, "What!"

Hawke felt her mouth widen into a real grin, absurdly glad to see him after dealing with Fenris. She only replied with, "Put my cup back, you con."

"You wound me," he called out as her and Fenris left, and Hawke didn't need to look behind her to be able to perfectly visualize Varric's stance, legs slightly apart, head tilted back and face mournful, hands clasped over his heart.

-

As they hit the street, Hawke pulled her slate out, intending to scrawl a few quick notes to those messages she hadn't replied to already, and to tell Isabela that if anyone was pulling her hair there better be a fun reason why.

Fenris interrupted her spiky writing to Isabela (who'd immediately answered: "you have to show up some time this year, for that to happen, sweet") by saying, "What were your thoughts from last night?"

"What?" Distracted, Hawke absentmindedly hopped the loose grate over the market sewer, eyes still on her slate.

"Last night," and well, if Fenris wasn't charmed by her demeanour, at least Hawke could claim she'd irritated him. Which was some reaction, and people were more predictable when you could push their buttons. "You took no notes," Fenris continued. "What were your thoughts?"

"I-- can't you look at the scene?" she answered, desperate. Her slate hung forgotten in her hand as Hawke lengthened her stride, then quickened her steps to a near-jog.

"I wish to know your observations."

It was a reasonable request, given the circumstances; and they were supposed to be partnered, so even more so, and yet Hawke found her mouth go dry. Stalling, she asked, "On what?"

Fenris let out one huff of annoyance and repeated, "The crime scene."

The truth was, Hawke couldn't keep partners. One thing or another would always happen, and they'd request transfers or get married and retire or get stabbed and she'd be left on her own, to investigate with Varric's help and try not to get stabbed herself. And really, that was fine, to be expected, and it made things simpler since, well, once bitten, twice shy. The last thing she needed was to vet another partner to watch her back. The city -- this part of the city -- was hers, and it was far simpler to do the job without interference from others.

Besides. The sergeant last night, it wasn't his job or his responsibility to pick up the, the bits of--

Shaking, Hawke rounded on Fenris; the swiftly-fading daylight had outlined Fenris in shadow, standing in front of the setting sun, hiding his expression. That she couldn't read him or push his buttons only spurred Hawke's anger, and she spat out, "It was dark, an hour to midnight bells."

Hawke took another breath, fists balled up, and said, "I could barely see. The message came to me because some poor junior beat cop found a fucking sawed-off foot in a gutter and no one else is even assigned to this neighbourhood. I followed a trail of that fucking ruby red dust down to a cellar. It was unlocked. I found, what, you've seen the pieces--"

Panting, Hawke glared at Fenris, angry he was forcing her to remember before she'd put enough space behind her, forcing her to recall details with a hangover still pounding dully in her temples and some undefined fear in her gut. She continued, "There was an ankle, no foot, and part of a shin. Half an arm. We don't even-- there's no ID, I don't even know if it was a man or a woman or dwarf or an elf, there wasn't enough left."

She glared, feeling sweat drip from her neck, feeling the press of her dagger sheaths against her forearms. Hawke told him, "I threw up in the street."

Her chest heaving against the tight leathers, Hawke waited for something, anything, but after a moment, all Fenris asked was, quietly, "Why?"

"Why did they-- how the fuck should I know why he cut--"

"No," Fenris said, and shook his head. "Why did you throw up?"

Hawke continued to glare, this time incredulous. "Why did I-- you're joking."

"No." Fenris continued walking, but at a slower pace than the jog Hawke had previously set. He said to her, voice even and emotionless, "You told me you have been a detective for years, and in Lowtown. You have seen horrors before. So I will ask again: why did you throw up?"

Hawke still felt chills along her skin, the rage still bright in her stomach, but grudgingly she thought about what Fenris was asking. It was the same question Varric had posed this morning, and -- blinking - - Hawke let go of some of her anger, focused instead on what she remembered of the sensation from last night, the sickness.

Her gut screaming to get as far away, as fast as possible.

"Something was just...wrong," Hawke finally told him.

"Cullen assured me you were no mage," Fenris answered, gaze still in front of him, navigating the alleyways of Lowtown easily. "And yet you had a strong reaction. It is likely a clue."

Hawke narrowed her eyes. Her pace didn't falter as she found herself asking, "Cullen assured you I was no mage?"

It was the first time Fenris looked at her since they left the precinct, but all he said was, "I do not...work well, with mages."

The tone strongly suggested that was all he would say on the subject. Still, Hawke barked out an incredulous laugh, this time wondering what, by Andraste's tits, Cullen was thinking. "Well, this won't last long," she said.

"What will not?"

Over the years, Cullen (and other supervisors) had told her that the reason she'd never get out of Lowtown was that she couldn't help but open her mouth, no matter where it led her. Usually, she couldn't even argue the statement.

Once again, it was proven right as Hawke said, "You do realize half my informants are unregistered mages."

"They are what?"

"How do you think I close so many cases?" Hawke rolled her eyes. "Having the trust of Lowtown is an indispensable resource, and that includes the mages hiding here. I scratch their backs, make sure they don't get taken in, they scratch mine, provide me with invaluable information."

It was Fenris's turn to stop walking. Hawke admired his restraint: his anger was barely visible, just a contained crackle of possible menace in his tight jaw, his downturned brow. He asked, tone quiet with restrained emotion, "And Captain Cullen allows this?"

"We have more important problems than unregistered magic, you know -- there's a murder in Lowtown every evening. Cullen trusts my judgment, the mages here running for their lives, they trust my discretion, and I do my best to make sure people don't get sliced to pieces. It's all you can do."

Throughout this, Hawke watched Fenris's face, so carefully impassive, give way to swiftly darkening anger. She glanced at the sky; it was dark too, night-time, with constant smoke from steamer ships fully hiding the stars.

Somehow, Hawke knew she'd scored a real blow, the evidence there in Fenris's tight expression, but instead of triumph suddenly Hawke was just bone-tired, her own anger draining out of her, leaving exhaustion. She began to walk again, wishing nothing more than to get this shift over with as quickly as possible.

When Fenris did not move to follow, Hawke shook her head. Aloud, Hawke said over her shoulder, "Welcome to Kirkwall, Fenris. City of chains."

--

Chapter Text

The alley was much as Hawke remembered it: dank, narrow, lamps unlit, smelling faintly of fishing bait. The night was damp, and inwardly Hawke pleaded with whatever was listening to let the rain hold off until she'd gotten somewhere warm.

Hawke cringed as a few drops of rain began to patter on the cobblestones. Of course.

"No one was around?" Fenris asked, peering around.

Hawke didn't have to think to answer, "No one is ever around in this part of town."

They were close enough to the docks that, if the wind was right and the night silent, they'd be able to hear the faint whistles from steamships and imagine the ocean's rhythmic music. Somewhere, farther into the warren of blind alleys and no-man's-land, something thumped.

As they approached, Hawke studied the faint shimmering line of the police barricade, the crooked rune-posts placed across the mouth of the alleyway to ensure the barricade would hold. It was a cheap and easy method to keep residents from traipsing around the crime scene, the translucent spell a fast fix for cash-strapped police precincts.

Fenris surveyed the barricade with distaste. "They use enchantments for this in Kirkwall?"

This was definitely going to get old, fast. Hawke said, "It's cheaper than manpower, and we don't have the gold or the guards to do otherwise."

Hawke could already spy where some enterprising city resident had mangled the outer barricade, the runes on the left-most pole scratched illegible and the spell flickering. Holding out her arm, Hawke nodded to the break. "Come on, someone has already made us an opening."

"Then the scene has been compromised."

Hawke ducked through the line, feeling the brief shiver as the spell passed over her waist. The spell should give anyone who touched it an electric shock, and then render them unconscious if they didn't lay off. Fenris came behind her, shuddering as the magic brushed his clothed skin, wiping his hands on his coat as if he'd touched something unclean.

You lucked out this time, Hawke. He can't even stand to touch the magic that the department uses. Cullen must be punishing you for every single time you were late all at once.

"There were no carriages as you approached?"

Hawke made a show of paying attention, turning her head toward Fenris. "None, though these alleys rarely see carriages or horses." Demonstrating just why this part of town was nicknamed the warren, Hawke stretched her arms out on either side of her; her fingertips touched the stone of the buildings on either side of them. She told Fenris, "Mostly foot traffic here."

Fenris moved slowly, farther into the alley, head moving side to side as he surveyed the ground. Without looking at Hawke, he asked, "No one heard anything?"

"No one did, no one will," Hawke told him.

He didn't comment further, suggesting that (despite his refined appearance and disdain for magic) Fenris might have more than a passing experience with police work in downtrodden neighbourhoods. Instead, he turned back to face the street. "This alley is mostly housing units, yes?" Hawke nodded yes. "Elven?"

"No, mainly refugees in this area. A mix, but for the most part human businesses."

Fenris didn't answer, instead looking up toward the roof line. He said, "These buildings are not so tall that one could not climb from the roof to street level, are they."

It didn't sound like a question, but Hawke enjoyed his snort of irritation as she answered. "I've done it many a time. There are enough fire escapes and emergency ladders, I've done it well away from sober, even."

"Let us move on." Fenris headed farther into the alley, which Hawke knew was a dead end. No one stirred in the apartments above them, and no lamps were lit. That was normal for most of her district. Blackout curtains were common, hiding residents from view, and come sundown the narrower streets often felt like a ghost town.

It didn't mean people weren't at home, only that they wouldn't acknowledge you, should you knock.

"This was the first piece of evidence that was discovered?" Fenris asked her. He was crouching within the second police barrier (a thicker, more opaque spell, the inner barrier looked like a sheer curtain and hadn't been tampered with), scrutinizing a puddle as if it held the secrets of the universe. In reality, other than the faintly glowing cone signifying a discovery, the puddle Fenris was examining showed nothing.

Still, Hawke nodded, shuddering as the warning sensation of freezing ice hit her as she stepped through the inner police barrier. "That was the foot," she replied.

Fenris stood, brushing his hands together again as he stepped away from the magical barrier. "And the rest?"

Hawke did not want to do this. "The cellar."

He studied the door a few feet away, innocuous enough. Dark metal, slightly rusted, leading to a dingy basement that, given its location and proximity to the docks, any person (or officer) would assume smelled of fish.

Hawke knew this was not true. The basement smelled nothing like fish.

"Why did you go in?" Fenris asked her.

Hawke shrugged, "There was a trail."

"Blood?"

"No." Hawke looked out at the street, as if the view could erase last night's scene from her memories, then turned back to watch Fenris take etchings of the door. Hawke told him, "It looked like it might have been, but no. A few splotches of red dust, mixed with the water."

He turned to stare at her sharply. "Did you dispose of it?" Fenris demanded.

Hawke was taken aback: that wasn't her job, nor was it procedure. "The technicians would know?" she offered, knowing nothing else. After a moment, she asked, "Why would you think I had?"

Fenris frowned, looking away from Hawke without answering, making a note on his sleek black slate. The slate looked brand new, elegant and expensive like everything about him. Fenris caught Hawke watching as he slipped it back into the pouch on his hip. The colour, possibly the material of the pouch itself, matched the glimpses of dark armour she'd gotten from under his thick coat.

"And then you went into the basement?..." he prompted.

Hawke took two steps toward the door, then hesitated. Focusing into the middle distance, she went back to the previous night, recalled the order of events. Fenris's quiet gaze gave her time to think, and while it was unnerving, Hawke was relieved when he pushed no further. "I think," Hawke said thoughtfully, "that's when I sent a message to Cullen to get more people out here, keep everyone out, put out a wide perimeter."

"Why?"

The query was mild, but something flickered in Fenris's eyes as he snuck a glance at her, something dark.

Hawke scowled. Did he think she was too untrustworthy to make such calls? No one else worked this district, no one else would even care if they found a severed foot in an alley. People disappeared all the time in this part of--

Hawke shrugged, scowl cleared and expression nonchalant, and cracked, "I suppose I missed him." Fenris's frown got darker, and Hawke shuddered involuntarily, remembering the creeping sensation of the alley last night. Refusing to back down from his stare, Hawke allowed, "An ounce of prevention is worth more than a city-wide disaster. I'm not willing to make that mistake again."

A hard-won lesson.

"Hmmm." Apparently satisfied with that, Fenris reached out to grab the metal door. Without any further commentary, the elf disappeared down the concrete steps. As he descended, the heavy boots he wore made surprisingly little noise -- he'd been trained, and trained well.

Usually this would have put Hawke on edge, distrustful, suspicious; as it was, her nerves were already singing warnings about the crime scene and had no attention left to devote to Fenris or his true intentions. In truth, right now Hawke didn't care who or what he was. It took everything for her to unclench her jaw, release the tension in her body enough to move.

Hawke inhaled, one long breath, steeling herself -- then followed.

-

The lamp at the bottom of the stairs was unlit, and would not light. Hawke knew this (she'd attempted it, descending these stairs last night), though Fenris wouldn't.

Hawke was cold and tired and still hungover, so in order to try and avoid more sniping she slipped ahead of Fenris and raised her own light aloft. The metal contraption, similar to a spyglass with a rune inscribed on the inside to light up the darkness, illuminated the dank cellar well enough, though the corners of the room were swathed in shadow.

He scowled at her thin tube, but said nothing and stepped farther into the basement. Hawke took that opportunity to look around, search the dim room for anything else that might be here.

The floor felt tacky underfoot, and Hawke grimaced, not wanting to imagine what was below her... and then, peering down at the concrete floor, Hawke swallowed nausea once more.

"Fenris," she called out, quiet.

To his credit, he came back to where she stood immediately. "What is it?"

Hawke crouched down, moving her light closer to the floor, illuminating the area at her feet. The floor glowed sickly, incandescent red, patchy little gobs of red like blood spatter, only it wasn't blood spatter, it was more--

"Was this here last night?"

The practical, ever-professional part of Hawke's mind raced ahead, thinking back to old cases, thinking back to the illegal magic she'd witnessed or shut down. The rest of her mind was blank with horror, staring down at her feet, and the red dust now stuck to the concrete like melted candy, like lollipops.

She shook her head.

Fenris asked quietly, "You are sure this was not here last night?"

At another time, Hawke would be offended at his question, but her focus would not be drawn away from the red substance, her gaze locked on the dim floor and its red coating. She wanted to reach out and touch it, Hawke realized. She wanted to find out what it felt like. The texture. Was it smooth? Silky? Part of her was desperate to know.

Dimly Hawke noted this as unusual, even alarming, but she couldn't avert her gaze.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Fenris pull out his slate and tap furiously away at it. Hawke felt herself lean forward, a tiny motion, eyes roving over the tacky candy substance, dust hardened just like the dust on the forearm at the lab.

She was shocked out of her trance by Fenris putting one gloved hand on her shoulder; feeling his hand on her, squeezing, Hawke shivered, and tore her eyes from the floor to look at Fenris.

He was watching her carefully, staring into her eyes. After a moment, Fenris released her and said, "We should get as many pictures as we can for comparison." His voice was smooth and deep and lacking in emotion. Deliberate. "Then we should get out of here."

Mouth dry, throat thick, Hawke managed to stand, and exhaled a shaky laugh. "That, I agree with."

Hawke swallowed, shuddering once more, and managed to get a steel grip on her emotions. Looking down at the red substance on the floor, testing herself, Hawke was grateful to find it held no more intrigue for her. Horror, yes; her stomach still threatened to crawl into her throat. But the rest, the gripping fascination, was gone.

In that case, it was time to work.

Hawke nudged her light, coaxing as much illumination out of it as she could as she tilted it to shine throughout the room, before placing it on a high shelf. The basement was still dim, but at least they could see into all corners. The crate where she'd found the rest of the body parts--

Her stomach continued to roil.

Hawke shoved the nausea away and pulled out her slate to begin taking etchings. She started with the crate just to prove that she could, clinically ensuring the etchings would highlight any relevant details: the inner lid, the scratches on the locking mechanism.

With the basement better lit, Hawke was gratified to see that most of the floor was free of the, the substance. She had been standing in a slight depression in the floor, and kneeling down again, Hawke realized that the floor shone with a hint of wetness.

Water.

Glancing at Fenris, busy on the other side of the room, before she could question the impulse, Hawke took out one of her tiny throwing knives and pried a sliver of the hardened substance from the floor before dropping it into an evidence bag tough enough to withstand the blade. Swift and casual as anything, hands barely shaking, she slipped the bag into her pocket and stood once more, eyes roving the room.

The dust on the crate lid hadn't...congealed. The dripping water hadn't touched the crate.

Hawke pursed her lips, looking from Fenris (absorbed in his task) to the crate, and decided to dare it. She took another evidence bag from her pocket, turned it inside out, and leaned over the crate with her slate in one hand, bag safely tucked between two fingers. The click of Fenris's slate recording etchings did not abate as Hawke carefully gathered some of the fine red powder onto the plastic, then quickly sealed the bag.

Hawke looked at the baggie in her palm, then put that into a second evidence bag before stowing it in her pocket.

It probably wasn't enough for Bethany to do much with it, but perhaps someone else would have better luck -- or at the least, know who to ask. Her instinct was to tell Fenris it was time to leave, too long on her own to cede control to another, but, well. In order to ditch him in time to see Isabela, she'd try another tack.

"Have you seen enough?" Hawke asked, stowing her slate in its usual inside pocket.

Fenris stood and stretched, and even under his heavy coat Hawke got a glimpse of muscled shoulders. He turned to her, nodding. "I believe so. You did a thorough job last night, and the forensic technicians captured enough."

Hawke inwardly rolled her eyes, but kept her face friendly and replied, "Then let's get back to the precinct. Cullen will probably want to know about this."

"After you."

It was the most cordial Fenris had been with her, and Hawke kept the disdain from her face through force of will. Of course he'd be more polite and friendly only after she allowed him to be in charge.

Hawke froze momentarily, replaying her last thought; it was bitter, even for her, full of a sour anger, a resentment, that was foreign to her. Her nerves were on edge, gut instincts screaming flee; her inability to read Fenris at all was irritating, to be sure, but what about his impassivity had set her off so thoroughly?

What about him made her feel like she was back at the Chantry, three years ago, wishing desperately she could just plunge the blade in, hating herself and the man in front of her, because she could not?

"Hawke?" Fenris called out. "You are-- are you here?"

The question was innocuous, on its own, but something in his eyes -- concern? Fear? Danger? -- showed that Fenris had noticed the effect the red substance had had on Hawke. It might have been a moment, only, but something in her still felt...foreign.

Hawke shook her head, hard, once, and looked over to where Fenris had one foot on the bottom step of the stairs up to street level. At the precinct, she'd found him attractive, and annoying, in equal measure, but nothing so...poisonous.

Feeling a cold chill on her skin, Hawke glanced down at the wet floor of the cellar. At the candy red...something.

"Send a message to Cullen," Hawke told Fenris, voice low, taut, without raising her eyes. "Have him keep the building -- no, the entire street -- quarantined until we can clean this up."

Either he'd started to suspect something, or he read Hawke well enough to sense it, but Fenris didn't comment or argue. A moment's tapping, and Fenris said, "Done."

Hawke tore her gaze from the floor, and forced her feet to move; with one last shudder, Hawke followed at Fenris's elbow out into the street.

-

"You're sure? It reacts to water?"

Hawke narrowed her eyes at Cullen but waited for Fenris to speak. The timepiece on the wall -- a mechanical thing, Cullen's one personal allowance in his tiny office -- said it was past ten, and she should write up last night's investigation to placate Cullen, but, priorities.

Fenris glanced to Hawke, before telling Cullen, "Hawke was sure."

Hawke bristled inside, but kept her annoyance hidden as she flicked a hand, flashing Cullen a cheeky grin. "You know me," she told Cullen. "I'm not even sure what I'm having for tea."

"Hawke," Cullen warned. He steepled his fingers, eying her, but then just shook his head, and rolled his eyes in an exasperated fashion. "All right, you know I believe you. I'll quarantine what we've got. You two, get out of here and back to work," he told her. "But I expect something to explain your hunch by tomorrow morning."

"You always get something," she answered, flippant.

Cullen hesitated and bit his lip. "Give them my regards," he told Hawke, awkwardly.

Instead of the answer she should have given ("I will," or even better "who?"), Hawke replied, "I'll make sure not to mention to Varric you still don't have his two sovereigns yet, shall I?"

At this, Cullen pursed his lips, looking affronted. "It isn't my fault he wouldn't accept Orlesian royals!" Hawke opened her mouth to retaliate, since the standing Wicked Grace game tradition was Kirkwall gold only (especially given the difficulty in explaining away foreign currency in Lowtown), when Cullen continued, "Take Fenris with you."

Hawke snuck a glance at Fenris, whose face was as impassive and stoic as ever. She pictured him in the Hanged Man, looking around with that expression of faint distaste, as if he smelled something offensive; to be fair, in that bar, a likely prospect. She pictured the affront to his professionalism when he realized that Hawke felt no need to separate business from pleasure, and that she regularly drank with the press.

She pictured his reactions to Isabela on stage, and that alone convinced her Cullen might not be completely insane. Being faced with Isabela -- pirate extraordinaire, jewel thief, jazz singer -- might be the very thing needed to cement their partnership. Or snap it.

At least the trial would be over, one way or another.

Fenris asked Cullen, "Where are you intending we go?"

Cullen actually quirked a smile, a smug expression much better suited to Varric's face than the usually solemn captain's. He said to Fenris, "The bar where Hawke actually gets her work done. I need a moment with Hawke, if you would."

Hawke crossed her arms over her chest, slouching easily, as Fenris nodded politely to the captain and left his office, closing the door quietly behind him. Cullen eyed her up and down, actually moving his chin to do so, before asking sternly, "Can you do this?"

"Do what?" Hawke asked, deflecting.

Cullen pinned her with a glare. "Fenris is your liaison, and I have it on good authority that he's a more than capable detective. Don't lose him. And for Andraste's sake, Hawke, try to get along?"

"I get along with everyone, so long as they aren't mysterious, suspicious strangers who just happen to show up from--"

"Here's a thought," Cullen interrupted, "why don't you ask him? Get to know him, rather than interrogate me about it. You didn't even want to know, earlier."

Hawke glared right back at Cullen, but Cullen did deserve her respect, and she knew it, so she kept her voice low (if not totally free of bite) when she replied, "Did you know he can't stand magic?"

Cullen slumped forward, rubbing a hand over his forehead in a long-suffering gesture. Without looking up, his voice holding faint tone of warning, he asked her, "Did you know that you're being insufferable just because you can? Just, please don't screw this up."

"Me?" Hawke scowled, trying for outraged but unable to keep her face still as she shook her fist at him. As Cullen looked up at her once more Hawke felt her mouth twitch, giving her away. "That you would even suggest such a thing!"

Railroading right over her protestations, Cullen said, "He's to go with you, everywhere."

Hawke dropped the charade and her hand, looking out Cullen's window at Fenris's face (faint irritation as he stared out at the officers' desks in their open area), then Cullen's (promising retribution if she didn't listen).

"Really," she said flatly.

"I want someone to watch your back, Hawke, and I don't have anyone else." Cullen said, and the concern was evident in his tone. That didn't mean Hawke had to like it, nor follow-- no.

Cullen's eyes narrowed, as if he could see Hawke picking and discarding options, and finally coming to rest on resigned acceptance. There was no way she could dodge the elf and not have Cullen find out.

Twisting her mouth up in a moue of irritation, Hawke told Cullen, "My back is fine. He's, he's impossibly blank-faced, he hates magic. I don't know his qualifications or his background. There's no way he's going to be anything but a hindrance to--"

"He's good, Hawke, maybe as good as you. Andraste forbid someone successfully push aside their emotions to do the job, that isn't you," Cullen snapped. With visible effort, Cullen inhaled, a long breath. Closing his eyes, he exhaled again, and said, "Hawke, please. No one knows his face, and I trust the captain that vouched for him. Fenris will be of assistance, that's why he's here."

Hawke felt the fight drain out of her, and she shoved down her annoyance, her irritation, and the rest in the face of Cullen's accusation. Still... "I can do the job solo," she tried. "You know I can, I've proven that I can."

Gently, Cullen said, "That doesn't mean you always have to, Hawke." He sighed again, and then told her, "You have a long leash -- which only means more rope to hang with."

He waved at Fenris, who re-entered the office. Cullen told him, "Hawke's lead on this, as I said, but you'll work together."

She chewed her lip. Fenris didn't approve of magic, nor would he touch it (or her). She told them both, "I don't like this, but that's that, I suppose. Let's try to keep the riff-raff from finding out you're a cop as long as possible."

Fenris said, annoyed, "You know this district, and I have agreed to follow your lead, Hawke."

Perhaps it was the way he kept his arms crossed, dis-inviting touch, while leaning into her space to speak; perhaps it was his eyes and expression, perfectly composed throughout her protests (Hawke prided herself on being able to rattle people, after all); perhaps it was the way he said her name, frustrated yet deep and melodic...

No. Hawke wasn't going to start thinking like that. The rule was she kept her attraction firmly centred on people she could read, who couldn't get the better of her. And while Fenris was-- no.

Down that road led to getting stabbed in the side because she dropped her guard thanks to a pretty face and a mournful expression, asking her to use her skills to help him--

No. Doesn't matter, Hawke. Keep your head in the game.

Hawke shrugged and told them both, "Fine. But I want it on record I didn't think this would turn out well from the beginning."

Cullen actually smiled as he dismissed them and said, "Noted."

-

The closer they got to the Hanged Man, the more reluctant Hawke felt. Bringing Fenris into such an establishment might, on its own, be enough to provoke him to try to close it down. Having him there on a night when Isabela was performing, when Martin would be selling, not to mention most of Hawke’s friends and contacts, and...

"You are distracted," Fenris commented.

Hawke scolded herself, trying to feign the ease that usually came naturally to her. She said, "Contemplating the case."

It was a calculated risk, since she was doing nothing of the sort and if he pressed her on her thoughts again, Hawke would be left foundering -- but instead, Fenris let out a guffaw. "That is entirely untrue."

Unnerved at how easily Fenris had read her, Hawke stared at the cobblestones in front of her, dodging puddles and piles of unidentifiable mud. If only avoiding his questions could be so easy. It was raining again (of bloody course), and she was beginning to feel a familiar sensation, water dripping off her wet hair and down the back of her neck where the ridiculous collar of her leathers didn't quite catch it.

"What is it?" Fenris asked again.

Hawke rounded the corner, nimbly hopping over the small lake gathered in the depression of the cobblestones, then turned to face him. "This is not, strictly, a legal establishment. They don't much like the guard or detectives."

There. She'd given him his first piece of blackmail material.

"I gathered that, when you expressed the desire to keep secret my attachment to the precinct," Fenris replied, eyebrow raised.

Hawke was taken aback. In lieu of any more appropriate response, she descended to the Hanged Man's steel door, pounding twice. As the voice behind the door called out, she said, "Let me in, it's Hawke."

The muffled voice (unidentifiable as always through the Hanged Man's thick steel and thicker magical wards) replied, "What about him?"

Hawke was about to vouch for Fenris when he stepped forward. Holding up two Orlesian royals, he answered smoothly, "A friend recommended me your club. Surely you would oblige me."

The bouncer only grunted and asked, "Which friend?"

Waiting, Hawke didn’t interfere; curious, if she admitted it to herself, to see what Fenris would do. Part of her expected him to pull out his official badge to gain access, as she had the night before. Instead, he raised one eyebrow and answered calmly, "You do not expect me to answer that, do you?"

After a moment the outer door swung open, and ever polite, Fenris gestured for Hawke to precede him down the stairs and into the dingy hallway leading to the underground club.

Once they were out of earshot of the bouncer and making their way through to the basement bar, Hawke tugged on Fenris's elbow (and didn't miss how Fenris stiffened at the unexpected touch). When she dropped his arm, though, all he did was turn, waiting for her to speak.

She could hear the faint tones of Isabela's vocals through the walls. Grudgingly, Hawke told him, "Nicely done."

Fenris surprised her as he quirked a genuine grin, saying, "As I'm sure you've concluded, I was not always a detective." As he opened the inner door to the Hanged Man proper, he added, "After you."

Isabela was mid-chorus, wearing a white low-cut gown more suited to the bedroom than the stage, leaning against the piano, her sultry voice a counterpoint to the sad melody being played masterfully by one of Isabela's crew-mates (who, if Hawke's memory served, also threw a mean right hook).

Hawke put her arm out, pausing them both at the back wall near the entrance, as Isabela began to sing the last verse. Fenris waited obediently, leaning against the wall, arms crossed. Hawke watched him, not Isabela, studying his nonchalance as he focused his attention on Isabela and the small stage.

Fenris gave every appearance of being perfectly at ease, coat wrapped tight, neither ogling Isabela nor uncomfortable by her performance. Completely under control and poised. It was a little infuriating, less reassuring than it should have been.

Of course, there wasn't any obvious magic or staves yet, so Hawke would reserve judgment.

As Isabela finished the song, she crooned to the crowd, "I'm in dire need of a drink. We'll continue this in fifteen."

House lights up (or, well, wall lamps lit once more), Hawke made her way to Varric's table, fuller than it usually was with--

"Sister!"

Perhaps it was for the best that Isabela was performing. At least with her singing it would be too loud for Fenris to interrogate Bethany.

Varric kicked out Hawke's usual chair, next to him; instead, Hawke gestured for Fenris to choose his own seat first. She didn't fail to notice that he chose the other seat against the wall, overlooking both the entrance and the stage. She took the seat Varric proffered, sinking into it with a sigh of relief.

Varric's raised eyebrow suggested he hadn't missed Fenris's choice either, but he didn't say anything.

Isabela, showing either incredibly astute or incredibly horrible timing, chose that moment to come and perch on the arm of Bethany's chair. Coincidentally, that put her nearly in Fenris's lap as well. "Is that the mythical Hawke, come to grace us with her company?" Isabela asked, eyes wide.

Hawke frowned. "It's been less than a month. Hasn't it?"

Bethany carefully wrapped one arm around Isabela's waist as Isabela leaned toward Fenris, quite obviously looking him up and down. Not bothering to even look at Hawke, Isabela retorted, "Six different performances. Never mind, this one is delicious, I'll take him as your apology. Wherever did you find him?"

"His name is Fenris, and Isabela, please," Hawke tried, inwardly sighing. "He isn't some hat I tried on."

The other woman looked at Hawke, curious, but Hawke really had no explanation for her or the table where she'd "found" Fenris. Hawke had no desire to explain they were working together because it would inevitably lead to questions about her previous partners or cases. And while Hawke had no hopes whatsoever that she could prevent Isabela from saying whatever the singer had on her mind, Hawke could still try to stop her.

Hawke was still trying to decide whether making a joke of it would cause things between her and Fenris to lighten or become much worse, when Fenris took the decision out of her hands; he answered, voice dry, "I was in the haberdashery, clearly."

Internally Hawke admitted, point to Fenris. Isabela agreed, chortling. "I like this one."

Varric slid into the conversation as if he hadn't been busily scrawling out something on his slate. "Did Curly manage to cough up the gold he owes me, Hawke?"

Hawke groaned, dropping her head into her hands. She was on the clock and needed to talk to Bethany before the red substance still tucked into her pocket burned through the leather (Maker alive, it had better not do that). "You know I don't get involved in other people's debts," she replied to Varric, muffled.

Isabela leapt off Bethany's chair, pointing across the room. "Martin!" she called out, and when Hawke turned -- yes, there was Martin just entering, hunted look on his face as Isabela stormed over, yelling, "You owe me money."

Bethany rolled her eyes, readjusting her collar where Isabela had flipped it around. Hawke looked her over quickly, but nothing appeared to say "mage." The enchanted chainmail was well hidden by her tunic, her staff nowhere in sight. Bethany preferred the hidden protection of under-armour these days, and tonight Hawke was grateful.

Perhaps Fenris needn't know Bethany was a mage, at all.

"And what exactly do you do-- Fenris, was it?" Varric asked.

He gave every show of being friendly and having no ulterior motive, but Hawke's eyes narrowed, mouth pursed; Varric had seen them at the station, and had heard her just last night bemoaning a new partner. Varric, alas, ignored her.

She wanted to interrupt, but instead Hawke waited, allowing Fenris to explain as much or as little as he chose. After a moment, Fenris answered, "I am between employers at the moment."

"Are you now," Varric said, intrigued -- but Hawke held up a hand, and Varric acquiesced, grin rueful. "All right, all right, I'll lay off." Turning back to Fenris, Varric said, "The most important question, then: do you play cards?"

Hawke was beginning to regret introducing the two of them when Fenris leaned back, tilted his head, and replied, "Do you cheat?"

-

Isabela, good as her word, sang until after one a.m., at which point she came back to Varric's table and moaned about her parched throat, her exhausted limbs, her--

"We get the point, Isabela," Hawke said, rolling her eyes.

"Hmm, do we?" Isabela asked, as she leaned over the back of Bethany's chair. Hawke, sitting directly opposite, got a marvelous view of her chest, and rolled her eyes again as Isabela blew her a kiss.

"Are things still tense at work, Hawke?" Varric asked, trying (though failing) to direct the conversation away from Isabela's needling.

She didn't look at Fenris when answering, though it took effort. Throughout the last three hours he'd been mostly quiet, taking in the atmosphere as Isabela performed and Bethany and Varric discussed business (something Hawke generally tuned out).

Fenris had also refrained from admitting he was a detective. Hawke knew it was masterful dissembling, which piqued her interest even as Hawke tried to ignore her feeling of intrigue. With a deft sleight of hand, Fenris had given her friends the impression that he was either a bodyguard-for-hire or a smuggler: a few offhand comments regarding uncomfortable ship voyages, hinting at cargo holds, a request as to where Varric would advise he get a sword sharpened.

Hawke was, despite herself, impressed with his guile. However, his ability to lie threw her off her own game, made her more suspicious even as her gut instincts had started to relax around Fenris. The juxtaposition of knowing he was a far better liar than Hawke had suspected, with the simple fact that she'd started to like him, started -- Andraste help her -- to even trust him a little...

Because of it all Hawke was feeling unsettled, off-balance, when Bethany followed Isabela to meet her band and left her alone with Fenris and Varric.

"You've got about five minutes before Isabela comes back to admonish you on your choice of clothes, Hawke. Spill."

It was all too familiar, too sudden, to let Fenris see her in her natural habitat, and Hawke, suddenly the centre of Varric's attention, balked. In one evening, she'd put Martin, Isabela, herself, even Bethany at risk by bringing him--

"The phrase is 'off-the-record,' correct?" Fenris asked.

Varric turned to him, all hint of playfulness gone, that sharp gaze Hawke knew as Varric's "on the trail of a story" look. "It is," he allowed.

Hawke shook her head. "You don't want this one, Varric. Trust me."

"Hawke, I'm not about to leave you hanging on this," he argued.

"We can't--" and then, Hawke realized she'd given Fenris away; even Varric had probably guessed, and even if Fenris had left an opening, she'd been the one to slip. Damnation. And another point to Fenris, as he didn't comment, just shook his head once. Hawke gripped her glass tight.

"Nicely played," Varric said to Fenris. He actually sounded impressed, moreover, which threw Hawke even more.

"I'll make you a deal," Hawke said to Varric, trying to regain her footing. "We'll make you a deal," she amended, gesturing to both her and Fenris. "Exclusive. You can have it all. But not until we're done. I can't keep remembering to say 'off the record.'"

Varric snorted, but his eyes were gentle as he told her, "Obviously, since you couldn't even keep the elf's badge a secret for one evening."

Hawke said, far firmer than she felt in the moment, "Agreed?"

Varric studied them, and after a moment, gave a slow nod of agreement. "Agreed."

Fenris spoke up, leaning forward. "There is no guarantee you can ever print it," he warned.

"Hawke's told me it's bad," Varric answered. He waved at Isabela and held up his hand, three fingers: three more ales. "I've been thinking about focusing more on fiction, lately. It'll be fine."

Isabela made a rude gesture back at Varric, but she turned to lean over the bar, calling to Norah. Hawke could see Bethany, beside her, shaking her head in amusement from across the room.

"Varric," Hawke warned.

He nodded again and replied, "I won't print what you don't want." Sounding hurt, Varric said, "You know me, Hawke."

"Nothing on this case," Fenris said, all hint of joking long gone.

Varric took the implicit warning in stride, skeptical expression obvious. "This isn't my first Grand Tourney, you know," he informed Fenris. "Ask Hawke how we met. Better yet, ask her about the best story I never told."

Hawke sat up, alarmed. No, it most definitely hadn't been a good idea to introduce these two to each other, not least of which because it was unlikely that Hawke's career would last through the experience. "Please don't," she said.

"I'm kidding, Hawke," Varric said, as Bethany and Isabela came back with a round of drinks. To Fenris, he said, conspiratorially, "I'll lend you my serial instead. It's a much better story, about Hawke's rise to fame, and even half-true!"

"Andraste's tits, Varric, are you still going on about Hawke's biography? She stopped the viscount's assassination seven years ago! New material!" Isabela hooked her foot around a chair at a nearby table, coincidentally showing off her smooth, dark leg from under a long slit up her gown, then sat backwards in said chair, straddling the back and arms crossed.

"You became detective around the same time, correct?" Fenris asked Hawke.

Of course Fenris would put two and two together. It wasn't even that difficult to connect those dots, not with Isabela's big mouth.

Hawke glanced at the timepiece on the wall and then -- when it still stubbornly insisted the time was eleven, which still wasn't possible -- pulled out her slate.

Nearly two a.m. She was technically off-duty at midnight but had nothing to show for it aside from Isabela's very beautiful self no longer being miffed at her. Not good enough for Cullen. She'd have to catch Martin before he left, trail Bethany home to get rid of this Maker-damned shard of--

A message beeped in, one she'd missed earlier, and Hawke tapped at her slate. It was a contact she had in the alienage, the mostly elven district of town. Few elves who lived there trusted Hawke despite her reputation, but Arianni knew and trusted her, at least enough to pass on occasional information and gossip. She knew the woman to be practical, not prone to hyperbole, so her alarm came through even in the one-line message:

Hawke, I have something for you

The stark message, without a greeting or salutation or mention of Arianni's son, meant a visit to the alienage had jumped to number one on Hawke's to-do list.

But Arianni tended her stall during the day, so the middle of the night was no time to reply. Hawke set herself a reminder and put the slate away without checking the rest of her messages.

"Close enough," Hawke muttered, deciding that she could officially consider herself off-duty and therefore drink without guilt. Not that she was ever really off-duty (or ever considered "on-duty" a reason not to relax and give her informants the visible reassurance she wasn't approachable); but Cullen couldn't reprimand her for drinking except between the hours of four p.m. and midnight.

"First one's on me," Varric murmured to her, too quiet for the rest of the table to hear. "No strings. You look like you could use it."

Isabela had, in the interim, called over a few of her shipmates to the next table and was holding court over a raucous game of modified Diamondback.

Hawke just nodded, grateful, though she knew Bethany hadn't missed the exchange. To avoid her sister's questioning look, Hawke stood, intending to have a quiet word with Martin.

She was surprised when Fenris also rose, asking only, "Hawke?"

Trying to be surreptitious, she held a hand out, meaning: sit back down. "I'm just going to check with a contact," she told him, and made her way over to Martin, unsettled by the feeling of Fenris's eyes watching her walk away -- unsettled, and unsure of what the weight of his gaze really meant.

-

"Well, it isn't anything I've heard of," Martin said, after Hawke gave him a vague explanation of the properties of the red substance sitting in her pocket.

She didn't do anything as indiscreet as pull it out in the bar, of course, but still Martin seemed to know something was wrong. Hawke said, striving for nonchalant, "Do you know who I might ask?"

"Might try an alchemist?" he said, shrugging. Hawke had brought over a pint of the best ale the Hanged Man had on offer, which wouldn't be enough payment for the information, but would suffice for the time being. Martin continued, "I can send a message tomorrow, see if someone'll talk. Reaction to water like you describe isn't anything I've seen, so my guess is magic -- but what kind, that isn't something I want to know, honest."

"My thanks," she told Martin, knowing as she did that it sealed it: she owed him a favour, now. The man nodded, drinking, and Hawke could see he knew it too. It bothered her less than maybe it should have, since Martin was a well-known dealer in poisons, drugs, and other toxic creations. He did have a retailer licence and controlled substance permit, though whether it meant he only sold to those who were allowed to buy...

Instead of going back to Varric's table, Hawke went to the bar to order herself a stronger drink than ale. She leaned against the dark wood, bumped her hip against Varric's side when the dwarf came to stand beside her, patiently waiting for Norah to fill four more mugs.

Hawke, being far less patient, simply hoisted herself over the counter, legs dangling in the air, to grasp a thick bottle with murky contents, and a glass. She flipped two silver pieces onto the bar, slapped Varric on the back, and poured herself a generous shot.

"Well, that's one way to ensure service," Varric drawled, as Hawke slung back the drink.

It burned all the way down, and she poured out a second, fuller glass before stoppering the bottle. Taking a sip this time, Hawke leaned in, facing him. "I'm all about results," she told him.

"Hmm. Is that why you got saddled with tall, dark, and irritated?"

Instinctively, Hawke looked to where Fenris was sitting with Isabela and Bethany. "Cullen said it was to 'watch my back', but I think this might be his attempt at punishment week," she confessed.

"So he is the partner Curly threatened you with." Varric eyed their table, then offered, "At least he's good looking," before stealing her glass to sip. Off Hawke's dark look, Varric cajoled, "Come on, he seems harmless. Very polite. Surprisingly unshakeable, but that isn't a bad thing."

"He's anti-magic," Hawke blurted, then shook her head. She hadn't meant to discuss her new partner with anyone. Though Varric had a way of ensuring she talked, regardless of what she wanted.

Varric whistled. "What's Cullen thinking? This is Kirkwall."

"I know," she replied. "And I'm not allowed to lose him."

"So basically, you're screwed?" Varric asked, then grinned, wicked, adding, "And not in the fun way."

"If sleeping with the press is bad news," Hawke told him, suddenly exhausted, "then sleeping with a partner who can barely tolerate me would be so much worse."

"So what you're saying is I'll be prying your face off my pillows yet again."

Hawke took her glass back from Varric's hand, feeling the warmth of his skin shiver in her fingertips and down her arm to the nape of her neck; feeling the warmth from the liquor spread through her chest and stomach. As tempting as it was to go upstairs to Varric's and pass out, she still had that shard of whatever-it-was in her pocket. "Next time," she promised.

Varric dug around in his coat, emerging with some silver coins and a handful of lint. As he rummaged through the handful of change, he said, "Always promising, never delivering, Hawke."

Hawke reached over and squeezed his shoulder. Varric -- proving once again that he did know exactly what to say to make her feel better -- pointed at the bottle she'd put back, said only, "Grab that," and dropped the coins on the bar.

As she leaned over, Varric proved that he also knew how to say exactly the wrong thing by commenting casually, "He also looks like he'd be good in bed, so if you do accidentally trip and--"

"Varric!" Hawke sputtered. "Stop. Please."

He looked behind him, smug smirk plastered firmly in place, and shrugged one shoulder. "Should I start the pool?"

Hawke didn't deign to answer that, deciding swiftly that listening to Isabela's more ribald suggestions and lewd remarks was preferable to Varric hinting that Fenris would be good in bed. Especially when he said it in that suggestive manner, given she'd been all-but nude in Varric's squat just this morning.

"You're terrible," she muttered as Varric passed her on the way back to the table. The low-level simmer she felt around Varric was a comfort, an easy feeling that their camaraderie made pleasant. It was hard enough to focus around Fenris, who threw her for such a loop by being, so forcefully, not what she expected at every turn. This, this was going to be--

"Well I'll be damned," Varric interrupted her thoughts, halting in the middle of the floor.

The Hanged Man, to be fair, was not the most populous of bars at the best of times, though owing to Isabela's performance tonight it had been fuller than usual. There were more spacious, more private (not to mention cleaner) speakeasies across Kirkwall, where this particular patron's entrance wouldn't have stood out.

Hawke looked to where Varric's attention was, and she froze, staring. Her mind blanked and she nearly dropped the bottle she was carrying.

Nearly, of course, because some things took priority even over Anders showing up after years of silence.

He wasted no time, taking only one quick moment to survey the bar before coming over to where Hawke and Varric had halted. "I have something you should see," he said, voice low.

"And a good evening to you too, Blondie," Varric said, false joviality making Hawke cringe.

They had never been as close as Anders wanted even when they were friends, Hawke's reticence stemming partially from the darkness that lived beneath the mage's skin, and partially from their wildly differing priorities. His transgressions were such that Hawke had written him off for good, allowing no contact. What Anders had intended to do, and that he'd unwittingly lured her into becoming a part of it, was the last straw.

The last time they'd spoken, Hawke had told him in no uncertain terms that their connection, however tenuous it had become, was over. She'd held a knife to his throat and told him she'd kill him the next time they met.

Sorrowful, repentant, guilty -- and yet, still convinced he was right -- Anders had not attempted contact all this time.

Anders didn't even look at Varric, saying to Hawke, "I know we didn't-- I wouldn't have come if I didn't think someone really needed to know. And I didn't know who else to come to."

She swallowed, crossed her arms (a difficult feat with the liquor bottle still dangling, but she needed the bravado, the defense). "And whose fault is that?" she snapped, before grinding her teeth. "You used my badge to try and destroy everything I--"

Hawke managed to halt her speech, feeling her knuckles ache as she clenched her fists. She wanted to go for her hidden blade, but it would be three years too late. Anger, as good as it might feel, would not make this conversation easier. Hawke knew Anders would not have risked her wrath -- would not have risked her doing something foolish and lethal -- unless he felt the circumstances were dire.

Hawke looked down at her feet, and bit out, "All right. Talk fast."

It wasn't wise, and Varric's disbelieving snort said he agreed with the sentiment, but Anders's face cleared, relief visible. "I have a patient you should see," Anders told Hawke without preamble, voice low. "He's unconscious for the moment, but I can't guarantee for how long. I'd advise, if you would, to try and meet him before tomorrow afternoon."

The request was reasonable, and on the surface made sense. Anders ran a by-donation clinic in the worst district of the city. There was no police precinct, no police presence at all. He tended to get the worst hard-luck cases, those unable to pay. And those for whom regular health care would simply mean too many questions.

It would mean yet another early morning visit on too little sleep, but Hawke gave a brusque nod, addressing the information rather than all the rest of it. "My partner and I will be there before noon. Keep him sedated if you can."

"Your partner?" Anders looked surprised, eyes flashing dark, and for one moment as if he were about to argue -- but then looked away, shame obvious, and simply shrugged. "I'll see you then," he answered weakly; with one more glance toward Varric, he ducked out the door.

"Andraste's flaming knickers," Varric said, when the door swung closed again.

"Indeed," Hawke replied. There really was little else to say.

"You know, I'm surprised they let him in," Varric commented. Hawke could tell he was trying for his usual cool, but failing. He added, voice tight, "I'll have to talk to them about upping security."

Hawke knew, looking at their table, that both Isabela and Bethany had seen Anders come in. Damnation and -- Hawke sighed, feeling two pairs of eyes boring into her, no doubt waiting for an explanation of why the mage she'd banished had turned up at the Hanged Man.

Fenris was standing yet again, hands at his side, but stance shifted slightly forward: a subtle but efficient fighting stance.

Make that three pairs of eyes.

Hawke dug the stopper out of the liquor bottle with her teeth, deciding that being hungover for the next day's worth of investigation couldn't be worse than facing the questions that were about to follow, sober.

-

Chapter Text

"You know I'm not one to scold," Bethany said, and yet Hawke just knew her sister was going to prove that statement wrong.

It was morning. Morning-ish. Was it? Hawke squinted, feeling her tongue, fuzzy in her mouth, the dim pounding of her head, the vague chills from too little sleep and too much -- well, the label on the bottle had claimed whiskey, but Hawke was doubtful.

She shielded her eyes from Bethany's window (unshaded, was there no mercy in the world?) and sagged back against Bethany's couch. "What did I drink last night?" she muttered.

Her sister clucked her tongue, but when Hawke risked a look, Bethany was smiling. "I think the question is, what didn't you drink?"

The Hanged Man. Fenris, her reluctant shadow. Varric. Anders-- Anders.

Right.

Varric bought her the bottle, at least some of which Isabela managed to drink. Hawke, even inebriated, must have had enough sense to walk Bethany home, because here she was on the--

"The shard, my, Bethany, I need my leathers, my coat, where--" and Hawke stood, headache forgotten as she looked around, desperate to find the evidence bag. How could she have left those until--

As she paced past where Bethany stood, her sister reached a hand out to grab her arm. "Relax," Bethany said, "you gave your evidence to me last night, after I promised to put it in the most secure, and watertight, container I had. It's in my workshop."

Hawke halted, feeling her head spin slightly; she closed her eyes, and the world righted itself. That was going to be a problem soon, but nothing for it. She licked the roof of her mouth, and, yes, tongue still fuzzy. "Right, and the dust as well."

Bethany gently pulled Hawke to her little kitchen table and pushed her to sit down in one of the chairs. "In another secure container," she reassured Hawke. "Once I could translate the slurring, you were quite insistent." Frowning, Bethany added, "It's a strange substance, I could feel...something, but you told me to isolate it, so I locked it safely away."

"Thank the Maker for small miracles," Hawke muttered, letting her body sag as the hangover kicked up again. Her stomach, never the strongest thing first thing in the morning, threatened dry-heaves all over Bethany's kitchen.

Bethany's voice was warm as she said, "Try this," and a small potion vial appeared in front of Hawke. The liquid in it was dark blue and viscous, like oil, and the least appetizing thing Hawke could imagine swallowing right now. But she trusted Bethany, and so downed the whole thing in one go. The potion was thick, oily, and tasted a little like how a Ferelden bog smelled: earthy, full of ferns and rotting vegetation, mossy. It slid down her throat like raw egg, and Hawke gagged as she fought to swallow.

Sputtering, Hawke complained, "That's revolting."

This time, a cup of tea appeared in front of her. "Drink it all," her sister warned.

Gulping tea to try and wash her mouth out, Hawke wrinkled her nose. Still, her head cleared, whatever magic in the vial strong enough to settle her stomach and the chills along her skin. The exhaustion remained, but at least Hawke no longer felt the vague flu-like symptoms that generally heralded a truly horrible hangover. "Thanks, Beth," she said, and sipped her tea.

"Normally I wouldn't have woken you on so little sleep, but you insisted," her sister told her.

Feeling better, but still not particularly awake, Hawke didn't turn to investigate the clattering noises Bethany was making until her sister dumped a plate in front of Hawke, with eggs, toast, and a little butter.

"I have to be somewhere before noon," she explained to Bethany. Drinking the hot, strong tea and picking at her food, Hawke felt more and more alert, her mind less cottony, senses sharper. Slowly, the fog of exhaustion rolled back. Thank the Maker for that, too, since she'd be venturing back into the worst district.

Thinking about what she had to do and how little time she had to do it, Hawke knew she'd have to get ready for the day at Bethany's a second day running. It was no problem, as Bethany kept enough of her things and ensured her clothing was laundered, but still--

"You should send your friend -- Fenris? -- a message," Bethany informed her. "He asked me to ask you to do so, once you woke."

"Did he," Hawke replied.

Bethany's expression didn't flinch, didn't waver, but Hawke knew her sister was laughing at her as she said, "He was most insistent I convey the message. Given your lack of coherence as he walked us home, I think he was concerned you would forget."

"He didn't find out you were a mage, did he?"

Bethany blinked, and Hawke saw her hands clasp together on the table. "I don't think so," Bethany replied.

"It isn't-- he isn't fond of magic, it seems," Hawke explained, lamely. "I'd just rather try and finish...our business, get him out of my hair. I know you're careful, but it only takes a word in the ear of an overly-zealous magistrate--"

Hawke cut herself off, at her sister's familiar expression: wistful. Sad. Inwardly, Hawke swore at herself: it was her fault Bethany didn't have the protection of a noble family anymore. It was her fault that they couldn't live in Hightown and pay the right people to look the other way.

It was on Hawke's head, her decision to throw away the life they'd carved out, to put Beth in danger, to throw away her title and her career...and all for the life of a man who--

She told Bethany, "I've done everything I can to make sure no one connects us. I'd rather Fenris didn't have anything on you, is all."

Bethany looked sad as she said, "He didn't seem a fool, sister."

Hawke stood and grabbed her teacup and plate to put in Bethany's sink. Growled, "I never should have brought him last night."

And hang Cullen, she thought to herself. Leaning over the sink, Hawke closed her eyes, breathed in, and out, and in again.

Bethany brought her own dishes to the sink and reached around Hawke's frame to start the water running. After a moment, Bethany nudged Hawke's shoulder with her own. When Hawke turned, Beth told her, "I know you do everything you can to protect me, Marian. So stop worrying."

Hawke gritted her teeth, said quietly, "I could be doing more, if I hadn't given up the title, if I had--"

"You forget," Bethany told her, as she turned on her tap to begin washing the dishes. "I was there, too. I let you lie to the magistrate, I watched my own sister give up her career, take the blame for someone else, and I did nothing. Do you blame me?"

"It was my mistake, and mine to fix, and--"

"Marian." Bethany nudged her with her shoulder gently, looked up at Hawke as she scrubbed. "You fell on your sword." Hawke barked out a laugh, and Bethany nudged her again, harder. "Twice, I might add," Bethany said. She chuckled, added, "Besides, I rather like being Lady Amell. Even if I don't get to live in the fancy house."

Hawke closed her eyes, and said, "I should have killed him. If I'd just--"

"I wish you'd leave it," Beth replied softly. She abandoned the soapy sink, gently gripped Hawke's shoulders with damp hands. "You're my sister, I know the weight of what you've done. Do you think I want you to carry this, too?"

Hawke sighed. She couldn't look Bethany in the eye, but tried, "You'd be safer, if I were still holed up in Hightown throwing balls and courting young handsome things."

Bethany scrubbed their breakfast away, and said easily, "You weren't allowed to work and be Lady Amell, Marian. Tell me you were happier." When Hawke said nothing, Bethany added, "Besides, from the looks of last night, you've still got the young handsome things, sister."

Hawke sighed, this time in irritation, as Beth reminded her she had to meet her partner this morning. "He's insufferable," Hawke told Bethany. "And even if he weren't, he hates magic, not to mention he's completely off limits. So please, don't go there."

Bethany's voice was light as she replied, "Well, at least he didn't smite anyone. And he was very polite." Her voice took on a teasing tone as she told Hawke, "From where I stand, that puts him head and shoulders above the other men you've been interested in."

"I'm not!-- Really, Beth," Hawke glared at her sister, then decided discretion was the better part of not getting into this right now with Bethany.

Not to mention, she was already running late. Hawke glanced at Bethany's timepiece, cursing internally. They couldn't have got to sleep before six, and here it was, nearly eleven and she had to go into Darktown and face Anders, of all people.

"I have to get going, Beth," Hawke said, scrubbing at her face. "I'm just going to duck into the shower, and then I've got to--"

She halted, tried to cover it up by whirling around and grabbing a towel and her bathing things from the cabinet. Bethany apparently wasn't convinced, as her sister said, "You have to go to Anders' clinic? Is that all?"

"It's nothing. It'll be nothing," Hawke amended, striving for casual.

"Marian--"

Beth's tone was sympathetic, worried, concerned -- and well she should be, Hawke knew. The case came first, however, and Hawke told her, "I, not now, okay? Please," Hawke pleaded. "I know, all right? Whatever you're going to say, believe me. I know it. But he said he had information. This one, this is the job."

Bethany nodded at her, eyes wide and sad again, but she let Hawke escape into the shower without another word.

-

The shower helped Hawke's desperate exhaustion, as did the second cup of tea Bethany pressed into her hand, flavoured with honey and lemon the way Hawke liked it. She hugged her sister, hard but brief, then fled down into the sunny street, promising herself she'd make up her abrupt departure to Bethany later.

Once down on the street, Hawke, from habit, turned toward the main thoroughfare that cut through Lowtown and led farther down into the district where Anders' clinic could be found. She was already three blocks away from Bethany's workshop, her pace brisk, when thoughts of Fenris came back to mind.

Hawke swore softly and ducked under an awning to fumble her slate into one hand, tea still clutched firmly in the other. Carefully balancing her slate in the crook of one elbow, Hawke scrawled out:

am ready to face day. headed to darktown. meet me at corner of market and foundry outside aldolpho armoury.

Short, to the point, and it conveyed all necessary information, and yet Hawke hesitated before sending it. Finally, huffing to herself, she added:

can't promise I'll be awake, but will wait for you. be armed and inconspicuous.

With that, Hawke sent the message before second-guessing the wording or terseness of the missive. It was how she always communicated via slate, and Fenris would either be offended and perhaps ask for a transfer (Hawke, you can always dream) or get used to it. His own speaking style was rather abrupt, anyway.

As she set off again, Hawke let her mind wander, easily side-stepping the several vendors trying to convince her that tulle was in fashion at court in Orlais, so wouldn't serah like some, discounted of course? Or this lovely brocade, all the rage up north, just a slight tear and so quite reasonably priced! Oranges, fresh from the northern climes, the day's catch, day-old bread for mere coppers, messere, I've something special for--

"And you're going to walk past without saying hello, then?" a cultured voice called out.

Hawke's feet veered toward Lady Elegant's shopfront, where she was rearranging her wares in the open-air window. "Never, ser," Hawke replied. "You're the sole reason I come to this market."

Elegant graced her with a knowing smile as she asked, "You're telling me you aren't interested in last year's Orlesian fashions?"

Hawke reached out a steadying hand as the other woman leaned over to open the shutters in front of the shop. "I wouldn't even be interested if they were this year's fashions, Elegant, you know that," Hawke admitted.

"My thanks," Elegant replied, and then tutted. "Truly, Hawke, you and I both know that your rank as detective, not captain, is only due to your thorough lack of interest in assuming a higher status."

"You sound like my mother did, convincing me that all I needed to marry was the right colour dress," Hawke replied.

The stab of pain when discussing her mother had faded over the years, become an ache that Hawke could ignore and work through. Elegant, Hawke's friend of many years, simply squeezed her hand and tugged her inside the little storefront. "Come, Hawke, I have some new things for you."

They bartered for a few minutes, Hawke agreeing to try a new tonic for fighting stamina and putting some money aside for a few tonics for Anders, as payment for the information -- if it panned out. If it didn't, Hawke could pick up them for her own use.

"Actually, Elegant," Hawke said, after paying, "if I forwarded some information to you, would you be able to do some research for me?"

The other woman arched one finely shaped eyebrow, but nodded. "Depending on the length of time, I'll bill you."

"Noted," Hawke replied, tapping on her slate to send Elegant a brief summary of what they knew about the red dust. Being primarily interested in herbal remedies, Hawke didn't think that Elegant would be able to dig up much, but it couldn't hurt. As she was scrawling out the notes, though, her slate flashed with an incoming message from Fenris, saying only:

I am here.

"Elegant, I have to run, I'm late to meet someone." As Hawke strode off back through the crowds, she cursed her luck as, once again, she was late to meet her partner.

The armoury Hawke had told Fenris to meet her at wasn't anything special at all, but the corner of Market Street and Foundry Row was the last large meeting of avenues before the alleyways started to curl back in on themselves, stumbling downhill into the depressing mire that was the district of Darktown. She didn't want Fenris going farther than that on his own, not knowing how long he'd been in Kirkwall, nor how capable he was of fighting solo. A lone stranger, even one with a sword (even one with a sword who visibly knew how to wield it) would not last long without being attacked.

"I'm sorry, I'm late again," Hawke puffed out as she scrambled across the lane to where Fenris was standing. "I got caught up in a discussion."

"More of your contacts?" Fenris asked.

Hawke's first reaction was to bristle, but peering into his face she realized he was curious, not angry, and so she quashed her irritation and told him, "An herbalist I've been acquainted with for some time. I sent her some of the information on the substance we found. It likely won't pan out, but it's worth a shot."

As they began to walk, Fenris allowing her the lead, he asked, "Is it wise to let details of the investigation out in that manner?"

Hawke shrugged, checking the time on her slate: not quite noon. "I don't know how else we're going to find out anything about it, the lab techs were stumped. Plenty of my contacts work..."

As she struggled to find a good way to frame the answer that wouldn't suggest he turn her informants in, Fenris supplied, "Outside the legal sphere?"

"Ah, yes." Hawke held up a hand (signalling "halt"), listening, before she descended the steps that led to the Darktown alleyways entrance. Often, people would settle themselves at the entrance, just out of sight. While she could take on most threats, Cullen would kill her if she got attacked just for being careless. "All right, come on."

Steeling herself against the ever-present smell, Hawke shoved the gates open and ducked inside the district.

-

Darktown was thus called, so the story went, because it was built under the remnants of the town itself, so even at high noon the sun never reached the shadowed streets below. The reality, of course, was more mundane than the fairy tale: While parts of the district were in fact underground, most were simply roofed over, buildings narrow, with overhangs and awnings all tilting together so they blocked out the light.

The winding paths, most barely wide enough for two abreast, did little for the feeling of overcrowding, the lack of space pressing down with every step. The smell of damp earth, too many desperate people all shoved in small spaces, and the hint of coal and smoke from the shipyards in the next district over made the entire place an assault on the senses. Hawke, quite frankly, loathed it.

She kept a brisk pace, head down, shoulders hunched, but alert -- and was gratified to see Fenris (wearing a shabby coat and the same hood) do the same. His matte-black armour was just visible under his coat sleeves, for which Hawke was grateful. She couldn't see a sword, and sent a brief prayer to the Maker that he had heeded the warning in her message and actually brought it.

"This is a thoroughly unpleasant place," Fenris muttered to her as they wound deeper into the district, bypassing the worst of the crowding simply by choosing the dimmest, most dangerous alleys.

"You noticed that, did you?" Hawke replied, on edge. A scrape against stone, one building over; Hawke slowed, listening, but it sounded again, farther away. She cautiously paced herself to allow the sound to grow fainter, then -- finally within sight of Anders's clinic -- it disappeared. Their badges meant nothing in Darktown, except that should they end up dead, whoever responsible would take more care to hide the bodies.

"This is our destination," Hawke said, looking left and right before approaching. She did not want to do this, wanted to do this even less with a new partner, one who did not approve of magic. Her tolerance ended somewhere near Anders' front door, and a large part of Hawke wanted to rip the mage's head clean off -- but Fenris's tolerance stopped somewhere inside the precinct holding cells, she'd wager, and that would get them nowhere.

Too late for that. Own it. Move on, Hawke.

"You are hesitating," Fenris told her.

"This is," and Hawke sighed. "I don't want you in there," she said. "But you can't wait outside. So I would consider it personal favour if you just..."

"You trust me so little?" Fenris asked, a flicker of something -- anger? disappointment? -- on his face.

Hawke couldn't explain how little she trusted anyone, even if she wanted to: it was a subconscious fear, stemming from finely honed survival instincts. A spy's motto was, "trust, but verify", and though she hadn't officially worked intelligence since coming to Kirkwall, the city of chains kept reaffirming it -- over and over.

Beyond that, something deep in the pit of her stomach told Hawke that this was not a normal case of murder and smuggling. Anders' involvement unnerved her, but even before that something about the crime scene, something about the crime itself, had her jumping at shadows.

Had her nerves on edge, her head aching and throat dry...her skin prickling out "danger", when there appeared to be none.

Hawke hadn't lived this long by ignoring her instincts. Something was wrong with the magic in this case. With the case.

Still, they had a job to do. She pulled the clinic door open, heard the jingle of the bell deeper in the basement, and said to Fenris brusquely, "Come on. The quicker we deal with this, the quicker we can leave."

She heard Anders call out from the back room, "I'll be right with you!" and reached behind her to throw the lock on his door. Fenris, watching her, sent her a questioning look, but Hawke just shook her head once at Fenris, before stilling her face and turning her gaze to where the mage would appear.

Anders emerged from the back, looking even more haggard than the last time Hawke had seen him before the bar. That was saying something since the last time she'd laid eyes on Anders, it was to tell him to get out of her life, his sooty face ashen, the ruins of his betrayal evident from the plaster dust coating his clothes and one chantry pillar in ruins. Hawke had been furious, ready to kill the man, had the blade out; but for whatever reason she couldn't follow through, and instead she'd bitten out, tone icy, an order for him to disappear.

Then she'd taken the fall, covered up his involvement. Told everyone she didn't know who was responsible.

That Anders looked worse now, in his own home, made Hawke wonder for a moment what he'd been doing; then she clenched her jaw, staring at him, and blanked her mind.

Anders stared back at her for a moment, then he ducked his head, mumbled, "I'll -- give me a moment, and I'll be with you." He turned his back to her, bending over the tiny counter, and shuffled some paperwork before coming to stand in front of Hawke, a piece of parchment in his hand.

"He's gone already, Hawke," Anders told her.

"Fuck," Hawke cursed. She was doing so well at ruining this case, perhaps Cullen would take it away from her and she'd lose Fenris all on her own.

"I'm sorry," Anders said, "he was gone when I woke up this morning. The draught wore off, somehow. I would have sent word, but I had no way to..."

Anders trailed off, and Hawke fought to keep her face blank. She could feel her teeth grinding, and suspected her anger showed, because Anders held out the piece of parchment and said, "Here are my notes, perhaps you can get something from what I recorded. It was a strange wound, magical in origin. I've never seen similar, which is why I came to find you."

Hawke took the parchment and handed it to Fenris without looking at it, pacing to the dingy front window, staring at the fog of dirt on the glass. She was shaking with rage, Hawke knew, lungs straining against it, mind blank, circling around the screw-up. Furious.

"His wound was infected," Fenris said. Hawke turned, his calm, unruffled voice bringing her back to herself. Continuing, Fenris slowly scanned the document, and said, "A growth below the skin, which could not be treated through surgery."

"He refused," Anders explained, voice a little stronger, eyeing Fenris. "I wanted to cut it out, but any time I tried he screamed with pain. I'd hoped to try again this morning once the infection was down, which is why I originally put him under."

"Who was he?" Hawke asked.

Anders went back to his counter and began to roll bandages, though watching him, Hawke got the feeling he was just looking for some way to occupy his hands. Hawke understood the feeling. Standing in front of Anders, having a normal conversation--

Anders replied, not looking at her, "He had rope calluses, tanned skin. Wouldn't give name or affiliation. Or pay me," and he snorted, "though I expected as much. Carried himself like a sailor, except for the lack of tattoos, and the tumour in his forearm."

Well. Not entirely normal.

"You write the wound was an unusual colour. How?" Fenris asked.

Hawke, still thrown by the flare of her emotions -- the guilt, the jarring sensation of having gone back in time four years to before Anders' crimes -- was thankful for Fenris's unshakeable calm. Anders, either suspicious of her partner or feeling defensive still, replied by asking, "Who are you, again?"

The anger came back, full force but without the guilt, and Hawke snapped, "Anders."

It was nothing, a cold touch of frost in her tone, but still Anders turned his head as if he couldn't bear to look at her. He'd yet to meet her eyes, but at least he answered, "The flesh around it was unusually pink, bloodied, though not seeping."

Hawke let those words sink in, their meaning... and all thoughts of anger, guilt, and Anders' betrayal suddenly dropped away as Hawke felt that familiar shiver of fear slide up her spine. "It looked bloody, but wasn't, you say?" she asked, mechanically, just as Fenris said,

"It was redder than normal," and the two of them stared at each other, a jolt of comprehension, a frisson of dread, passing between them.

Hawke turned to Anders, finally looking him in the face, uncaring of his betrayal or fear or guilt or the desperation, the attempt Hawke knew he'd make to try and earn her forgiveness, if she'd only let him. She ignored the creeping horror in her gut and clawing at her spine, shoving it away. Her anger and guilt and shame were shoved back in the mental box she kept them in, all of it subsumed by the chase, her professionalism taking over.

All that mattered was finding that sailor.

"I want you to sit with a sketch artist," she demanded, slate already out to message Cullen, to get someone to meet Anders at the closest safe harbour to the Darktown gates, then shaking her head and sending a message straight to an elven friend of hers who was good with charcoals to meet him at the top of the ladder from the clinic.

"Hawke, I--"

She stared at Anders, fierce, and said, "You owe me."

It did the trick, as Hawke knew it would; Anders slumped against the counter, as if invisible strings had been cut -- and at that thought, Hawke nearly laughed out loud, pain behind her breastbone sharp as a dagger to the ribs.

Anders nodded, hand over his eyes. Seeing her slate light up with confirmation of the meeting from her contact, Hawke told him, "Someone will meet you, top of the ladder. One hour."

Hands shaking, Hawke threw open the latch to his clinic and fled through the winding alleys as if all the demons of the void were at her heels.

-

Emerging from the Darktown gates, noises from the docks louder and smell of the sea finally stronger than the smell of the grave, Hawke slowed down. She mounted the steps at a leisurely pace rather than the near-run she'd held Fenris to on their way out of Darktown.

At the top of the stairs, Hawke finally stopped altogether and turned to Fenris. Already, she was grasping at straws, trying to think of anything that might explain the trip to the clinic, but anywhere she could start included dangerous eddies and possible hurricanes of explanation that could bury her career. For a second time.

"You've known the healer awhile, I take it," Fenris started.

It was an easy beginning, and Hawke gulped air, grateful for the graceful way he allowed her an opening without demanding answers. "Yes. Thank you for, rolling with it, I suppose."

After a long pause, Fenris told her, "It would get us nowhere in the case if I were to step on your toes with your informants."

Hawke nodded, heart sinking for no reason. Of course, the case. To Fenris, her discomfort was simply a barrier to efficiency, Anders nothing more than a potential source of information.

How pleasant it must be, to live in such black and white terms, Hawke thought bitterly, and snorted to herself.

A fog of exhaustion was settling back over Hawke's brain, adrenaline from the discovery at Anders' clinic fading, the familiar all-consuming anger from the encounter leaving her wrung out and dry. Hawke blinked several times and began to move once more, this time in the direction of the alienage, hoping to catch Arianni before the market day became too busy to speak.

"An elven woman I once did a favour for has a potential lead I want to follow up," Hawke explained, firming up a plan in her mind. "I don't know that it's related, but Arianni is practical. For her to show concern means I want to find out what's going on."

Fenris was quiet for a moment, and Hawke risked a look behind her. Had she taken too many liberties? He simply looked thoughtful, and when Fenris noticed her look, said, "The alienage is not your district."

"Not technically, no," Hawke replied, frowning. "But precious few people tend to care if a poor elven child goes missing, and when I caught wind of--" Hawke broke off, shrugging. "Never mind. Suffice it to say, I did her a favour and now some of the district's residents don't shutter their windows at the sight of a detective."

Standing in front of the little archway heralding entry to the alienage, Fenris stopped Hawke with a brisk motion of his hand. He glanced to her, then looked away. Hawke waited, trying for patience, until finally Fenris said, "Few would connect a disappearance from the alienage to another crime."

Hawke smiled, grim. "Few would care, you mean." Fenris nodded, and Hawke thought he looked hesitant. "Well, Fenris," Hawke told him, "the rhythms of Kirkwall, city of shit as it is, tend to mean that whatever danger is poised to strike, for better or worse the alienage feels it first."

Hawke watched as Fenris nodded once, but all she did in response was lead him into the district.

-

"You're sure? He's been missing for over a week?"

Hawke felt her stomach drop as Arianni nodded, frown in place as she rearranged her wares. "I would not have messaged you if I weren't sure," she told Hawke. "The alienage is tense enough without unnecessary visits from well-meaning detectives."

"Of course, my apologies." Hawke surveyed the alienage's little market; it was smaller than Lowtown's main bazaar, the stalls smaller, the fruit a little overripe, cloth drab and practical. The walls close, every inch of space used. Yet other than those nearest to her, most of the residents appeared cheerful and easy going. Gone was the constant yelling, the one-upmanship that permeated every space of the main market. It was refreshingly communal.

Except, of course, when the elves came near enough to identify her. Then the smiles disappeared, closed-off expressions apparent, and the shoppers would move on past Arianni's stall without even glancing at what she was selling.

"It isn't you," Arianni reassured her as yet another woman ducked her head away, hurrying past where Hawke and Fenris stood.

Hawke knew that. It was simply what she represented, who she worked for, and it was slowing Arianni's business. If there was more information to be found about the missing teen, they had to work quickly. "I know it's a long shot, but do you think the boy's mother would speak with us?"

Arianni looked doubtful when she told them, "Her house is two streets over, on the corner," and she pointed. "I would go with you, but," and here Arianni shrugged, voice and face resigned. "I'm still Dalish to most of the elves around here," she finally said.

Meaning, even though Hawke would likely get a door slammed in her face (if the woman was even willing to open it), Arianni would receive a similar reception. An idea came to Hawke then, and she turned to Fenris. "Do you think you might have better luck alone?"

"If you are not able to charm the woman," Fenris replied without hesitation, "it seems unlikely that I would fare better."

"I just meant--"

"Because I am an elf?" Fenris finished, eyebrow raised.

Immediately Hawke felt foolish, and then annoyed for feeling foolish. It was a reasonable assumption that if the woman was suspicious of humans (a suspicion that was always well founded), then Fenris might make a better first impression.

Fenris shook his head, watching Hawke, small smile playing on his lips. "I am not from Kirkwall," he explained. "And obviously so. Given the suspicion and fear here, I doubt I would be met with more friendliness. There is at least a chance she's heard of you."

"All right," Hawke relented. Turning back to Arianni, she pulled out her slate. "In case she refuses to speak with us, can you give me anything you know about the boy's disappearance?"

Hawke noted everything Arianni remembered, both about the young man who'd disappeared as well as the men who'd been seen with him just prior. The way Arianni described them, Hawke would bet money they were ex-Templars. You couldn't hide the walk even if you weren't wearing the uniform.

At the same time she kept half an eye on Fenris, who stood quiet, studying the huge tree in the centre of the market. Hawke couldn't remember what the elves called it, but she knew it stood for the history and glory that had been lost with their empire.

Moving to stand beside Fenris, Hawke said in a low tone, "I like the tradition."

Fenris snorted. "It is a waste of space in such a crowded district."

Hawke shrugged, determined not to let her partner throw her off, regardless of what Fenris said. "Shall we go and see if this Salla will speak with us?"

"Likely an exercise in futility," she got in response, but still Fenris fell into step beside her. "I suppose it is beautiful, in its way," he added.

Hawke was trying to avoid the numerous puddles in the dirt track of the laneway, so only made a questioning noise.

Fenris said quietly, "The vhenadahl," and Hawke was left with the distinct impression that Fenris, while speaking of the tree, intended to speak of something more.

-

Hawke was completely unsurprised when the woman, Salla, closed the door in their faces the moment Hawke mentioned her son.

"Well, she didn't slam it," Hawke joked, trying to look on the bright side. The woman hadn't been friendly, but she did greet them. However, the fleeting glimpse Hawke had of her expression before the door closed was fear, not anger. Fear that Hawke suspected was borne from something other than their visit.

Fenris seemed content to follow behind Hawke as she made her way back to central Lowtown, back through the clothiers and weapons vendors, the yelling and din and mass of people. The noise pounded through Hawke's tired brain, her temples ringing in faint time with her own pulse the farther they moved into the market.

"A moment," Fenris said. Hawke turned as Fenris ducked into a low doorway. Uninterested in anything but a brief respite from the crowds, Hawke pressed herself against the stone of the building, not even caring that the damp stone would probably stain her leathers with soot. At least her hangover was still gone, small mercies.

After a few minutes, in which Hawke watched two small children steal several apples and a loaf of bread from the stall opposite, Fenris re-emerged with two small ceramic containers. He held one hand outstretched to Hawke, and when she did not take what he offered, Fenris said, "It is only coffee."

"What?"

Again he held out the small cup to her, and curious, Hawke took it. "I assumed you would prefer sweetened," Fenris said, as she took a careful sip.

It was strong and hot, and Hawke sipped again, tasting the honey swirled around in the thick liquid. She closed her eyes to better examine the taste, and opened them only when Fenris, voice hesitant, explained, "It is a northern drink. I happened on the cafe here, my second night in town."

Northern. Hawke looked at the shop, trying not to be obvious about studying it, but there was no sign, no affiliation. No obvious hint as to what the storefront hid at all. But... northern, and hot, and Hawke -- in that flurry of mental activity Cullen encouraged on cases, the mental leaps that Varric made fun of without fail, yet admired nonetheless -- realized what she should have known, with Fenris's faint accent.

"Tevinter?" she asked, keeping it light, focusing all outward concentration on the coffee (it did deserve scrutiny, a rich, bitter flavour).

Fenris blinked once, his careful mask shifting in place ever-so-carefully, but all he replied was, "Indeed."

Hawke waited a few more moments to see if he would speak further, but when it was obvious he was content to watch the crowd and stay silent, she said, "Thank you."

Fenris nodded, gesturing for her to walk on, which she did -- much more carefully, so she didn't spill any of her drink. "It will help your headache and exhaustion," he told her.

Immediately, all sense of goodwill the drink had given her fled; Fenris thought she wasn't able to keep up. Hawke inhaled, stowed the now-empty coffee cup, plastered a coy smile on her face, and instead of unleashing the anger, quipped, "If it cures a headache that follows the action to be had during a night at the Hanged Man, I may be here daily."

Fenris did not answer for a moment, in which Hawke mentally tallied a point to herself. However, after a few more steps Fenris said, "I did walk you home this morning, Hawke," and Fenris's voice was warmer than before, deep tone easy. "I believe you've shown me what you get up to most nights."

Trying to keep up the game, score further points in the inane tally in her head she had going between the two of them, Hawke began walking again as she replied with a laugh, "Most nights I end up at Varric's, not my sister's."

She heard Fenris actually stumble, behind her. Hawke couldn't help but grin, pleased that she could (for once) put him off-balance, instead of the other way around. As he continued to stay quiet, Hawke began whistling, a particularly graphic tune that Isabela had taught her, one her sailors liked to sing when particularly drunk.

The good mood lasted her all the way through Lowtown, Fenris quiet and moody at her elbow.

If the elf was thrown so easily by discussion of her and Varric having an affair, he wouldn't last long. That was the least of the rumours about her.

No matter that she'd insinuated that she was sleeping with a member of the press, true or not. No, you didn't think that one through all that well did you, Hawke. Cullen knew Varric well enough to leave it alone, but anyone wanting to derail Hawke's career knew she and Varric were close enough that rumours of leaks, of information passing hands, would be damaging.

The longer she thought about it, the more irritated with herself she got. The brief satisfaction of verbally gaining the upper hand would probably cost her much more with Fenris later. It could lead to further reprimands, if he chose to press the issue with others.

It was this thought that made Hawke say, as they found themselves nearing the main market square, "I was joking, about Varric that is."

"Hmmm."

It appeared Fenris was in an even more reticent mood than usual, and Hawke sighed, fumbling for an explanation. This was why she preferred to work alone. Still she said, "I mean, I do tend to pass out on his couch more often than I'd care to examine, but there isn't anything you need report, going on."

At this, Fenris surprised her by touching her shoulder -- only the second time he'd touched her at all. "You seem determined to think the worst of me, despite our partnership," he told her evenly.

"I know very little about you, other than you don't like magic," Hawke replied, without thought.

"I--" he started, and Fenris sighed.

Hawke made to turn away, not wishing to get into an argument on a public street -- not wishing to get into this argument at all, truth be told, but certainly not when she was so tired and drained already, with no drink handy to smooth the edges off. Fenris, however, reached to gently grab her elbow and said, "Come."

He led her to an alcove, hidden from the busy street. Hawke, trying to salvage the day and stave off whatever explosion might be coming (trying to prove to herself she wasn't interested), started to say, "Never mind, Fenris--"

Fenris rolled up the sleeve of his coat and carefully undid the buckles of his gauntlet. Hawke watched as he pulled off the gauntlet, then the thin silk underlayer, and held out his hand. Thin white tattoos spiralled up his forearm, and -- Hawke couldn't help but lean closer, to see -- they glowed faintly, luminescent.

His bare hand pulled the collar of his armour out of the way just far enough she could see the same luminescent tattooed lines curling up the base of his throat.

"Lyrium," Fenris rumbled, a hint of something dark in the tone. "As we lack time for the long version: the tattoos were a magical experiment that was not my choice, and painful beyond telling. Interaction with magic sets them off. It is...unpleasant."

Hawke looked at Fenris's face as he slid on the silk underglove, then rebuckled his gauntlet and settled his coat once more.

"If they're all over your skin, whoever owned your debt," Hawke said quietly, "is missing a fortune."

She deliberately chose not to inflect the statement as a question, give any hint in her tone she expected Fenris to answer or explain. Her mind had added up Tevinter with forced magic and come to indentured servitude, which meant that "unpleasant" was probably the understatement of the year. That much lyrium, moreover, would never have been allowed outside Tevinter -- that it was embedded in a living soul would not have mattered.

Fenris started, once, but nodded. He told her, mouth quirked upward, "Cullen may have underestimated your true skill," he admitted. "Charming and deadly," he said to her, "I had heard. Often. From anyone who spoke of you. Brilliantly intuitive, I did not."

"He doesn't like to encourage me," Hawke quipped.

"Few would perceive one's life story from a few inches of lyrium," Fenris said, shrugging. "It is far more impressive than skill with a blade."

Unsure how to respond, Hawke decided to fall back on the only defence she knew how to wield, and said, "At least they're attractive, add to your allure."

Fenris actually chuckled, shaking his head. It was, in hindsight, an unforgivably insensitive response to his explanation, Hawke realized, even if he didn't seem offended. Still, to make light of his subjugation--

Ah, he was laughing, at least, so Hawke shrugged. When in doubt, lead with humour. Watch my left hand, ignore my right, Hawke thought. "Anyway," she continued, "if Isabela got wind, you'd never hear the end of it. She adores tattoos."

"Does she?" he asked, and Hawke swallowed, the skip of her heart an annoyance, the heat in her stomach moreso. It was a diversion, nothing more, trying to throw Fenris off his game while staying firmly indifferent herself. Nothing more.

Fenris tilted his head before asking, "And do you?"

Hawke coughed a laugh and spun on her heel to make haste back into the thick of the crowd. Point to Fenris, she thought glumly, and with every step attempted not to picture his tattoos, and how far they spread over his dark, smooth skin.

In her mind, she could clearly hear Varric laughing at her.

-

Hawke wanted a direction, a compass point leading her to progress with the case (and away from Fenris and his startling confessions), but all she had was her slate, blinking a message from Bethany about dinner, and no current leads.

The lab technicians still hadn't been able to identify the body. It might have been an elven boy, but also could have been anyone.

"What is our next move?" Fenris asked her, stoic. He had positioned himself at Hawke's shoulder, arms crossed, face and body still. Waiting for her word.

If only Hawke knew what the next move should be.

Hawke started moving through the Lowtown crowds once more, thinking. She could check on Bethany, but that would require a more candid discussion than she was willing to have with Fenris, especially on the heels of The Tevinter Discussion. She could go back to Elegant, see if she'd found anything, but it was unlikely in less than a day and with no messages. She could bother Martin, if she could find him. There was a chance more information could have come through the precinct.

If the sketch from Anders' description of their maybe-a-sailor was complete, perhaps a visit to the docks, at sunset, would yield some information.

She could try simply walking through the marketplace for a while, check in with those who might pass her information, ask about any Templars causing a stir...but that seemed a little too desperate (not to mention high risk, if said men were actually involved in the disappearance of that elven teenager).

"Hawke?"

Hawke paused, realized she was chewing her lip. "I don't know," she admitted to Fenris. "Everything seems to hinge on either identifying the victim or that substance."

"Perhaps the lab has had some luck," Fenris offered.

If nothing else, maybe Cullen would let her sleep on the settee in his office. "Precinct it is, then," Hawke replied, cheery, and mentally fortified herself for another long day with less sleep and even fewer results.

Chapter Text

Of course it started to rain again.

Hawke hunched her shoulders and -- in vain -- attempted to tuck her collar (stylish, oh so stylish, and good protection from arrows, but shite against the elements) closer to her nape. It was drizzle rather than true droplets, but that did nothing to protect her from moisture seeping in between her leathers and down the back of her neck.

"You know, I believe it has rained in Kirkwall at least once per day since I arrived?" Fenris commented. It sounded friendly enough, at least insofar as a complaint about the weather could be. Hawke couldn't really find fault in the sentiment. It always rained in Kirkwall.

She shivered, another large drip finding its way from the roof they were passing under down her leathers. "I wish I could say that fact surprised me," Hawke replied, wry, "but truth be told..."

"You are telling me there is nothing to look forward to, weather-wise, in this city?"

Hawke turned, by habit, into the long winding laneway that led to the precinct, tucked on a side street almost at the docks. What Fenris said sunk in, and Hawke tried to sound amicable instead of surprised as she replied, "I didn't know you planned to see more of Kirkwall, once this is over."

"No doubt you would be glad to see the back of me," Fenris answered.

It wasn't even that he said it that made Hawke wince; no, it was the matter-of-fact way he delivered the statement, as if it were so obvious as to be beyond doubt. Worst of all, it was true. He'd read her easily, discerned her silent plea for something to pull him away, out of her orbit.

Hawke laughed, to fill the awkward pause and try to cover up that she didn't know how to react. Said, "If it makes you feel better, in the summer the winds from the stagnant inlets mix with smoke from the steamers and lower caverns residues to produce a most unpleasant humidity. And next month it's likely to snow."

"And here I thought Wycome was interesting."

Hawke made a noncommittal noise, thinking over this new piece of information: Fenris had spent time in Wycome, so he wasn't a newcomer to the Marches. Might not actually be a newcomer to Kirkwall. Hawke doubted he'd been in the city long, however, since she heard about most interesting happenings. An attractive new detective, even one not stationed in Lowtown, would have filtered to her ears sooner or later.

"I suppose Kirkwall would be rather dull after Wycome's festival season," Hawke commented.

She shivered, as more rain slipped beneath her collar, and stole a glance at Fenris. She'd meant the casual comment as a subtle prompt, and now Hawke waited to see if Fenris would take the bait.

However, all he would say was, "Festival season is the worst time of year to be a detective."

Fenris kept pace with her easily, muscular length of him at her shoulder. He kept just far enough away that their arms wouldn't brush each other casually, but close enough Hawke could sense him in her personal space. It spoke of long familiarity with following at someone's elbow; and Hawke grimaced, resolutely not speculating on how Fenris had learned it.

"Well, if you're working instead of enjoying the wine," Hawke finally replied. She shrugged, more to herself than Fenris, and lapsed into silence; no way to probe further without the chance Fenris would catch on, nor the chance he'd ask questions in return. Questions Hawke would not answer.

No, her curiosity was a distraction -- worse, a liability, exhaustion making her careless. Cullen had vouched for his competence, and right now nothing else mattered. Whatever he said, Fenris would go back to wherever he came from soon enough. Hawke picked up her pace, lengthening her stride so she was half jogging through Lowtown.

Her feet walked the path to the precinct, feeling more and more haggard the farther they went, lack of sleep catching up despite the coffee Fenris promised would combat the exhaustion. Hawke pulled the door to the precinct open, heel catching on the step, stumbling into the building gracelessly.

Cullen was sitting in his office, door (and shades) open; he looked up in surprise when they entered. Clearly he hadn't expected to see her this evening. "Can't I be on time?" Hawke asked him.

He did not hesitate in replying, "No." Cullen looked her up and down, gaze sharp, and added, "You look terrible."

"Why thank you, Cullen, it's good of you to be so kind."

He did not relent, asking, "What have you gotten yourself into?"

Hawke sank onto the settee in Cullen's office and was bemused when Fenris did the same. The move put the two of them closer than she liked, the settee being a fancy (and tiny) Orlesian thing. "I was awake earlier than usual," she told Cullen. "It's fine."

"Has there been any progress?" Fenris asked the captain.

Cullen shook his head, said, "Nothing yet. I devoutly hope you two got somewhere, because we most definitely have not."

Fenris looked to her, then told Cullen, "Perhaps. I will see if the lab has the research I requested."

Once Fenris left, Cullen stared at Hawke, hard. "So tell me," he said.

"It's nothing," Hawke protested. She let her head fall against the stone behind her, felt her eyelids try to close. "He's a little infuriating, and the case is most definitely infuriating, but I was up before midday, that's all."

"There's nothing else going on? You look--"

Cullen cut himself off, but Hawke heard what he hadn't said: she looked desperate, haunted. Hawke closed her eyes, limbs sagging, giving in to her need to relax. Still, she told Cullen, "I have a sketch that might lead somewhere, a few avenues for the substance, but it's slow going. I got four hours sleep, at most. Damn him, anyway."

There was a pause, in which Hawke sat up and opened her eyes to find Cullen, poleaxed and wincing at the same time. "Please tell me the reason you didn't sleep wasn't your partner," he said. As Hawke opened her mouth to protest, Cullen held up a hand and interrupted with, "No. Never mind. I take it back. Don't tell me."

"I was working," Hawke snarled.

"It was a joke," Cullen said quietly. He sighed, gathered up several parchments from his desk and a pen, and stepped to the door. Back turned, he said, low, "Make sure you know what you're doing," and closed the door behind him as he left his own office.

Hawke sank down immediately, curled on her side, and tucked her face away from the dim light filtering into the room. She wasn't sure Cullen had meant for her to sleep, but leaving and closing the door was enough implicit permission that she would absolutely take advantage of the situation.

Hawke also wasn't certain whether Cullen was warning her off being reckless with Fenris or the case, and that unpleasant thought (which one did she want it to be? Why would he even bother mentioning Fenris, since clearly nothing--) followed her into sleep and lead to tense, confusing dreams, none of which she remembered upon waking.

-

Indistinct voices filtered into her brain first, the muzzy dialogue infiltrating some dream of grey, dark forests spread out beyond the sea, rainclouds gathering angry on the horizon, distant booming rumble of continual thunder shifting into muffled words, tone low, she knew that voice, if just--

"You wake her on your own risk, Fenris, she tends to bite," came through, sharp. Hawke pried open her eyes, yawned, and tried to focus.

Cullen's office, right...she'd snuck a nap, and now two blurry figures stood in the doorway.

Hawke sat up, nearly falling off Cullen's settee. Rubbing her eyes, she quipped, "This thing is too short, Cullen."

"Oh, you're awake," she got in return, and Cullen came into the room to bend over his desk.

"Apparently so," she answered, sour. Stretching, Hawke felt a little self-conscious as Fenris, still in the doorway, watched her. She stood, let her torso fall to her thighs and grabbed her ankles, trying to work out the knot in her lower back.

Fenris tilted his head away but cut his eyes back; interesting. Hawke stopped herself from smirking with effort. Maybe showing off a little, she performed a few of the more complicated stretches that normally were only a part of her lengthy training routine, and was gratified to see Fenris's gaze follow her legs as she sank to the floor, reaching for her toes, then stood again.

Point to me, Hawke thought; then, as Fenris turned back to Cullen, she shook out her limbs and thought, maybe not.

"Did forensics have anything new I can use to justify keeping the crime scene isolated?" Cullen asked.

"They have confirmed your lab's research into everything this particular substance is not," Fenris told him.

"Hawke, what is your next move?"

Wincing, Hawke shook her head. She didn't have a next move, not that she could admit that to Cullen. Trying to sound more optimistic, Hawke said, "I still have a few queries out. We'll see where they lead."

Cullen's deep frown was well deserved, though it didn't make Hawke feel less guilty. Her nap had been ill-timed, and Fenris managed to keep working. She should have kept at it, no matter how much clearer she felt now.

"All right, you two," Cullen said, "time to pound the cobblestones, I suppose."

"Are you getting pressure?" Hawke asked, gut sinking.

"No," Cullen answered, but it was too quick, and his eyes darted away from her as he said it. Hawke's own eyes narrowed, and she crossed her arms. After a moment, Cullen looked up again, sighing. "Fine, some. The seneschal has taken an interest in the precinct lately, I had to take a meeting at the Keep. I don't want to hazard a guess as to what's really going on there, given the last time he intervened was your transfer. Consider this a warning."

"For?" Hawke asked.

Cullen answered quietly, "Hawke," but it was enough, and Hawke flinched.

Cullen, too, had stood in the courtyard of the chantry four years ago, watched her pleasantly lie through her teeth to the magistrate responsible for overseeing her operation, watched her throw away the keys to the city, her title, her fortune and her name, all for a mage who did nothing to earn her loyalty except extend his friendship, which she -- more the fool -- kept as precious.

Even as the full depth of his betrayal lay in little pieces of diffused explosives, all around them. Her mistake. Her responsibility to fix.

Bile rose in Hawke's throat, thinking about Anders just this morning, even more a shadow than before. She nodded, once, shortly; swallowed, throat thick, and was surprised to blink back tears.

The nap hadn't cleared her head enough, it seemed. Damn it.

Cullen's voice was considerably gentler when he continued, "Guard Captain Vallen asked after you, you know."

But the obvious kindness in his tone, not to mention the bittersweet stab at hearing Aveline's title -- her own career in shambles as Aveline's star continued to rise -- was too much.

Hawke muttered an excuse, grabbing her things, anything to get a little distance from Cullen, who'd stubbornly kept her on even after -- and she fled.

-

Hawke had little notion of where she was headed, only that she needed air, needed to be away from Cullen and his gruff concern-- but as she found herself turning out the precinct door in the direction of the Hanged Man, she halted, surprised. It was simply a stressful day, Hawke tried to reassure herself, doubtless she'd search out the familiar, the habitual, to try and think, regain some equilibrium.

More surprising was the elf who stood, silent, at her back. "Oh," Hawke said, stupidly, then laughed, her tone sharp. Of course, he was in the doorway, probably had to step out of her way as she bolted from Cullen's office. Wonderful. Today was turning into an even better day than yesterday, and she was still at least two hours from the beginning of her shift, judging by the pink-tinged sky.

"Your captain told me I was not to leave you alone," Fenris told her, and if Hawke didn't know better, she'd think he was apologetic.

"It's times like these I wish I smoked," Hawke said, forcing lightness into her voice. "Something to do with the hands, something to make you appear as if you were--" and here she choked off the words, shook her head, a snapping motion to one side before she halted the movement. No need to let the mask slip.

No, Hawke couldn't let the mask slip. Hawke said, "He did, did he."

"Before he introduced us." Fenris did not look at her, instead stared at the colourful sky, and Hawke was grateful for the illusion of privacy it afforded as she tried to pull herself together. He continued, "It was one of the conditions he had for my transfer."

At this statement, Hawke was intrigued despite herself. All Cullen had told Hawke herself was that she'd be assigned a new partner from out of town, she wasn't to pull any of her "usual shit," and to stop complaining. She hadn't even considered that Cullen might have issued instructions to Fenris, too.

"One of?" she couldn't help asking. "What were the others?"

"Until you asked about Tevinter, I did not know he had not told you even where I was from. I apologize for that."

Hawke looked up at the sky, feeling some of the tension slip away, the knot in her stomach from the veiled warning about the seneschal ease a little. "I've been through partners at an alarming rate," Hawke offered. Fenris had apologized, so she felt like she should give him something, even if it did mean more ammunition. "It wasn't worth knowing when you'd be gone in a few weeks, I suppose."

Fenris was quiet, so Hawke snuck a peek at him. He was no longer calm, impassive. Instead, Fenris's face was dark once more. Seeing her look, he turned toward her face-on and asked with a hint of anger, "You think I would not stay?"

"Come now," Hawke replied, smiling, though the expression felt stretched thin. "If Wycome won't do, you can't tell me you don't have more attractive offers than Kirkwall. Perhaps places with sunshine." Unable to face him, Hawke resolutely turned away from the Hanged Man and instead began striding in the direction of the docks.

Hawke, despite herself, was getting used to Fenris's quiet gait beside her, and she was grateful she could hear his footsteps behind her, and then annoyed at herself for feeling grateful he followed her, still.

Fenris replied, "Did your last partner get married, stabbed, or cold feet?"

"Where did you hear that?" Hawke asked, swallowing against the sudden lump of guilt and shame in her throat.

Beside her, Fenris answered, "The Hanged Man. You and Varric spent rather a while listing all the partners you've had since a Captain Vallen, and all their untimely demises." Fenris snorted, then added, "I believe it was something to do with a bet on how long I'd last, but by then I could not follow the conversation."

Drained, Hawke snapped at him, "Does it matter?"

"It does to you," Fenris answered. He kept his voice soft, his footsteps steady beside her. "That much is apparent."

"I...do you know, I can't remember?" Hawke replied, and laughed harshly. "Promoted, perhaps? It's been several months since Cullen saddled anyone with me. I'd thought he'd finally accepted that I work better alone."

Another lengthy pause, but Hawke didn't dare to look at Fenris this time. His body language seemed more relaxed, but Hawke stared at her boots, didn't examine him save out of the corner of her eye. Finally he answered, "Then I apologize again, as I asked for the assignment."

Hawke gaped, foundering, completely unable to reply. Her reputation was not so tarnished that no other cops would work with her. Those who remembered her from her brief blaze of glory knew her, not the rumours. There was a place at their table, should she wish. Still, in the four years since she'd been transferred out of Aveline's precinct (since she'd given up being Aveline's partner, since she'd deliberately sabotaged her investigation to keep Anders free) no one had stuck for more than a few cases, at best a few months.

Even among those who still trusted her judgment, none would request to work with her.

Hawke took a breath, fighting for outward calm after Fenris's admission he'd asked to work with her. With effort, she shoved back her incredulity, pulled herself together and tried to chuckle. "That was an ill-advised decision," she told him.

"Was it?" Fenris asked. "I came to Kirkwall pursuing a group of smugglers the Wycome guard tracked from Tantervale through the Free Marches. We are making progress." He smiled at her, warmth in his face evident to Hawke in the curve of his lips.

Hawke narrowed her eyes. "You what?" she asked.

Fenris paused, glancing around himself before gesturing to an alley to their right. Hawke followed him into the shadows, leaned against the stone, waiting. He answered readily, voice quiet, "My original case was related to shipments flowing out of Wycome's port. The guard there did not know much, but I was...uniquely suited to the assignment." Holding up one hand, Hawke surmised Fenris meant his lyrium tattoos were a help in the pursuit. "I lost them in the wilds. Whether your case is related or not I cannot say, but what leads I had suggested Kirkwall might be their next port of call, and so I came here."

Hawke muttered, "And this wasn't information that might have been pertinent to my investigation?"

Fenris held a hand out. "There is no evidence that the two are related -- it is possible, but there is no guarantee. I left Wycome because we could find no information there. We only knew that mages were a part of the outfit, which suggested magical items, perhaps spellwork, rather than gold or gems." He paused, then told Hawke, "You did not ever ask, so I thought you were aware, and considered my information useless."

Hawke gulped, and had to turn away. "It would have been better to tell me, Fenris."

"And when," he countered, "should I have done that? Before or after the murder? I asked Captain Cullen to keep me apprised of any cases involving dangerous magics, because that was my original assignment, and that is where I am most able to assist." Fenris reached a hand out to where Hawke's arms were folded, fingers gripping her own elbow tightly, then let his arm fall without touching her.

Fenris looked out toward the street, and murmured, "Partnering with you was a side benefit I had not anticipated, but perhaps..."

Her slate's chime made Hawke pull the stone tablet from her pocket: her contact had come through with the etching of Anders's patient. Shaking her head, Hawke told Fenris, "As much as I'd like to keep arguing about this, we should head to the docks, and there's little time before dark."

After a long moment, Fenris shrugged, and told Hawke, "No one has been stabbed. We can call the day successful enough so far."

"Give it time," she muttered, and hoped that -- as she said the words and rounded the corner, seeing the first masts appear -- they weren’t prophetic.

-

Hawke knew that attempting to wring anything out of the harbourmaster would be futile, and since she was light on coin, Aden, the deputy, wouldn't be likely to speak. Still, showing him the etching of the sick sailor might spark something. It might be more fruitful than simply threatening the man, at least.

"This is wise?" Fenris asked, clearly dubious.

Hawke tilted her head so she could see around the corner, and yes, Aden was still at his desk, likely forging the books now that the harbourmaster was not in attendance. Hmm. Two ways this could play, though whether Fenris would be amenable was the question.

Hawke made the snap decision, pulling her head back and staring at Fenris. "We either bribe him," she told Fenris, "or we threaten to expose whatever it is he's doing to the manifests."

Fenris looked even more dubious. "Does this not expose the investigation to further scrutiny?"

Hawke had to blink, surprised he hadn't vetoed the idea outright -- though despite appearances, Fenris was not completely by-the-book. And it was a fair point; it would expose the investigation. Aden was far too fond of gold to be reliably quiet. He might provide them with something now, yet the moment someone else appeared with money, he'd reveal that Hawke had been asking. Still. "Do you have a better idea?" Hawke asked.

Fenris frowned. "What kind of man is this--" and he paused, waiting.

"Aden."

"This Aden," Fenris continued.

Hawke sighed, glancing at darkening sky. They only had a few minutes before it was completely dark, and the docks became far more dangerous than Hawke wanted to risk. "Greedy, mostly," she told him. "Not particularly brave, relatively disloyal."

"Will he know I am a detective?"

Hawke considered, then had to say, "I doubt it. You convinced Isabela well enough, who is considerably smarter than he is."

Fenris chuckled at that, and began to edge his way toward Aden carefully. Hawke watched as his gait gradually shortened, one hip canted slightly off, and he affected a shuffling limp ever so slightly. It threw his body language off, instantly hiding his ever-ready fight stance as well as his natural appeal.

Hawke told herself sternly it wasn't the time and tried to look casual, pulling out her battered slate to fiddle with as Fenris had a short conversation with Aden.

After another moment, Fenris returned to her, walking past unhurriedly enough to allow Hawke to keep pace. She shrunk into her coat collar, hoping Aden couldn't recognize her from the back, and followed Fenris down to the next set of warehouses. Only then did he relax out of the posture.

"That was unusually well done," she commented.

"Unusually?" Fenris's voice was quiet, pitched low so it wouldn't carry, yet he sounded irritated as he asked, "Have I not proven my capacity yet?"

Hawke glanced around: a crowd of men on the next corner, jostling each other -- fishermen done for the day, perhaps dock workers headed for one of the many illicit gambling dens or speakeasies tucked in among the shipping warehouses. Two women, one she recognized from the Rose, another from Athenril's employ, were making their way toward the main thoroughfare out of the district. She listened, but couldn't hear anyone else around them.

Satisfied they were safe for the moment, Hawke shrugged. "Most people aren't that adept at hiding their body language."

Fenris frowned at her. "There have been times when disguising my nature was necessary. I became adept through no choice of my own, but I am well able."

"I didn't mean to imply--" and Hawke cut herself off, frustrated. Deciding to avoid the argument, Hawke asked, "What did Aden tell you?"

"After persuading him that the man we're looking for owes me, he allowed that someone fitting that description might have spoken to a merchant in the area last week." Fenris looked away from her, eyeing the group of men gathered nearby. Hawke didn't recognize any of them, but they smelled of fish and walked with the heavy pace of those more used to swaying decks than sturdy cobblestone. Still, if Fenris could assume a completely different stance, they could as well.

She asked, "Did Aden mention which merchant?"

"No, but he looked at the warehouse near the eastern gate as he claimed ignorance," Fenris told her, and smiled. "Either no one has told him how to dissemble, or he was fearful enough to forget how."

And with Fenris's acting skills, Aden hadn't been afraid of him. It was suspicious enough to merit investigating the lead. Hawke looked at the sky. Her slate confirmed what the horizon told her: they'd best be leaving, and soon, or risk the docks at night. "I think I've had enough of this district for the time being," Hawke told Fenris in a low tone.

Across the street, Hawke watched two of the fishermen as they started to stroll down the lane toward her and Fenris. As she started to walk toward the gates, the men stopped, leaned against a wall, and laughed to each other. One lit a cigarette, and both of them seemed to have no cares in the world save a bottle of what looked to be very poor whiskey.

Hawke shivered, stride lengthening despite herself, pacing with her gaze down toward the gates. She didn't have to turn her head to watch the two. A storefront window, long shuttered, reflected the pair, bottle forgotten and eyes on her and Fenris.

"Damn," she muttered.

Fenris simply nodded. "I see them."

She didn't break stride or linger on the reflection of the fishermen watching her and Fenris leave -- but only years of training, and longer spent living in Lowtown, made the deception possible. Beside her, keeping pace, Fenris was a tightly curled spring, expression ferocious, teeth nearly bared; but his steps, perfectly timed with hers, made no noise on the pavement and his spine showed no outward tension. He didn't falter, didn't flinch, even after they'd passed through the gates and back into Lowtown proper.

"What is the plan?" Fenris asked.

Hawke continued to walk the Lowtown streets, dodging slippery grates and puddles while feeling her limbs shake from adrenaline. "I don't know," she replied.

Fenris was fierce as he whispered, "We should go back to the precinct before they make a move."

"No," Hawke replied, shortly.

Fenris halted in his tracks, and Hawke doubled back to where he stood. "What would you have us do?" he hissed.

Hawke leaned in, trying to relax her torso enough to appear flirtatious, rather than angry -- at least, to passersby. "Either," she said quietly, smile easy, "those men know who I am, or they don't. If they don't know I'm a detective, if they were just watching Aden and made us that way, then there's no reason to lead them straight to the precinct. If they do know I'm a detective, then I don't want them to know we made them."

She put a hand on Fenris's elbow, careful not to actually hold it, but to give the illusion of entreaty, and softened her stance toward him. Leaning in farther, she murmured in his ear, "There's no advantage in showing our hand to those watching when we don't know the stakes."

She could feel Fenris, rigid in her grasp, and was shocked when he gripped her hip and pushed her gently against the brick wall, leaning in to mimic her earlier intimacy tenfold. His lips on Hawke's neck made her shiver, this time in want. She forced her breathing to stay even, forced herself not to push into his grip even as her hips strained to do so.

Fenris's hot breath made her shudder as he replied into her throat, "If they slit your throat and drop your body down the sewers, it would benefit Cullen to know where you picked up the tail. That would be the advantage."

Opening her eyes, Hawke was astonished and a little angry at herself to find she'd been so wrapped up in Fenris's touch that she'd closed them. Letting her half-slitted eyes drift across the sparse crowd on the street in front of her, she couldn't spy the two sailors. "I don't see them," she whispered in Fenris's ear.

"That does not mean they are not there," he growled. Hawke felt another ripple go through her, as Fenris still had his face buried in her neck; she stifled a gasp. "Rooftops, behind you. Someone is watching."

"Elven, or human?"

At this, Fenris pulled away from her neck, though did not move his body away from hers. A scant finger-width was between them, an invisible barrier neither of them seemed willing to cross -- imperceptible to others, but there. A quick flick of his eyes upward, then Fenris murmured, "Elven, I believe. It is too dark to see well."

Hawke sighed in relief. "Probably one of Athenril's," she told him. "A smuggler. This is her area of town. I know -- I knew her. Relatively safe, I'd call it."

A long moment went by, and Fenris took one half-step away from her, dropping his hands to his sides. Hawke took a shaky breath, stood up straighter, tried to brush off the-- the what? She didn't--

"Then we should move on," Fenris said, and turned away.

Of course, yes. All an act, a sham. The same kind of sham he pulled on Aden not a half-hour ago. Hawke tried to settle her racing heart, nodding sharply, not that Fenris could see her. "By all means," she replied. "Do lead on, ser."

"You are quite the wit," Fenris said, dry, as he began once more to move through the scant Lowtown crowds in a cautious stroll. Hawke followed, bristling, ready to refute whatever it was he was going to say, but then he asked, "Do you take nothing, no danger, seriously?"

Unaccountably stung, Hawke answered, "Why should I? Nothing so far has warranted it."

"We have twice today stepped foot into a district where you were concerned about being stabbed," Fenris said to Hawke, tone conversational as he easily sidestepped a pair of workmen, weaving to their left and staying out of the glow of the streetlights. "That does not warrant it?"

"You do realize that I live in a city where simply setting foot outside brings with it both rain and the possibility of being stabbed."

"Hmmm." A moment passed, and Hawke believed the matter dropped until Fenris added, "In fact, I believe the only time I've seen you show real fear was when Cullen mentioned the seneschal."

Hawke winced inwardly; point to Fenris for noticing, though hopefully not because he knew why. She was not looking forward to having him know how she'd tanked her career.

Trying to steer Fenris away from questions about the seneschal, Hawke said, "I was positively dour at the crime scene."

Fenris did not hesitate in retorting, "You attempted to cover up your revulsion with sarcasm."

They were nearing the main market square for Lowtown, which meant any tail would either have to get close enough to see which route they used out of the district, or find them again nearer to their destination. Hawke let herself relax a little more. It would be easier to sense trouble in these familiar streets, and hopefully they would find less of it in the more populated areas.

She stopped, checking her slate once more: nothing new from work, though several messages from both Varric and Isabela threatened bodily harm if she did not come by the Hanged Man by midnight. Given the two of them had copied Cullen on several, to which Cullen had (wisely) said nothing, Hawke was fairly certain she wouldn't get out of meeting her regulars tonight.

"I cover up a multitude of sins with sarcasm," she replied to Fenris absently as she tapped out a quick message to Varric. "Why would revulsion be any different?"

am working, you lout. also still have tall dark and irritating with me, may have busy night. not drinking all your liquor, mores the pity

An answer came from Varric almost immediately:

Have you tripped yet?

Lovely. Hawke scowled at the slate, slinging it back into her pocket without replying. (Was that jealousy or interest? Could she even discern the difference, in Varric, anymore?) She turned toward the Hanged Man. Perhaps Fenris would consider it a dereliction of duty to go to a speakeasy so early in the evening, and she could pass out on Varric in peace.

Turning down the laneway toward the Hanged Man, however, Fenris only asked, "The bar again, is it?"

Hawke would have replied, but rounding the corner put her in view of Bethany's shop-front: long closed by now, but a splash of fear went down her spine as she saw an unfamiliar horse tied up outside. Hawke could tell it was tended to with care, well-fed, recently groomed. The horse was sleek and strong, a breed to be trained as cavalry, not as a show-mount for nobles. That meant a wealthy, and dangerous, visitor.

It could have been a patron, someone interested in the little trinkets Beth sold, or even the more interesting merchandise she designed, runes and magic and mechanical wonders that her and Dagna pieced together.

It could have been, but no wealthy customer would tie their horse up out front, where someone might recognize it and take note.

"Yes," Hawke answered, mind already racing. She didn't recognize the horse, which meant it wasn't Aveline's or Bran's. Nor was it one of the palace guard because the saddle was plain. The tack didn't identify rank or affiliation, which-- "I'm simply headed to a night of drinking and debauchery, so this is my stop."

She dug through her pocket for Beth's spare key, paying little attention to Fenris as he continued to follow her to Bethany's shop. She should have known he wouldn't be put off so easily.

Glancing at him, then at Beth's door, Hawke sighed. "Fine," she muttered. "Come on, then."

Fenris studied her a long moment, but then simply nodded.

-

It wasn't an official visit.

It wasn't even a Templar, which meant Bethany had time to disappear, could defend herself even if someone attempted to bring her in on charges of illegal magic. It didn't matter, none of that mattered, as Hawke was a half-second away from slitting the man's throat, blood boiling and vision hazy as he inspected Bethany's mechanical wares.

Bethany wouldn't even be vulnerable, if Hawke hadn't given up the family name--

Shame and guilt churned in Hawke's stomach, and it swiftly changed shape to rage as the man picked up one of the little clocks on Beth's front display.

None of the items visible were enchanted, and none of Dagna's work would be on the ground floor, safely locked in Bethany's basement vault. Still, to have anyone sniffing around her sister's shop, picking up a clever watchband, then a kitchen faucet design meant to allow for more even flow of water...

Bethany stood behind her counter, serene on the outside. Hawke, beside her, could see her hands shake.

"You understand, I only mean to follow up on certain questions," the man said. Hawke hadn't caught his name, too intent on forcing her rage down, and she didn't care who he was at all. Whoever he was, she could leap over the counter quick enough to slit his throat, before he could take Bethany--

Hawke breathed in through her nose. Kept her body still.

Beth wouldn't thank her for killing the man. Not if they could get rid of him with words.

"Oh?" Bethany replied, chin out, mouth smiling, but her gaze was distant, even a little bored. It was a perfect mask: someone who knew she was more important than the questions, the insinuations, without having to spell it out to someone as unimportant as her visitor. Hawke marvelled at Beth's acting skill, as she clung to what little composure she could. It wasn't often Hawke saw her sister dissemble, but Beth was a master.

The man actually took a half-step back, and Hawke watched him unconsciously tilt his head in a more deferential pose. To Bethany, he said, apologetic, "It's routine, of course. But, a follow-up had to be made."

Bethany asked him, "And whose questions were they, exactly?"

"I do apologize for the inconvenience, Lady Amell, but I'm afraid I don't have that information," the man replied. "A few more questions about your wares to ensure a complete report, and I'll let you to get back to your evening. I wouldn't want to have to trouble you again."

Hawke had to tune him out, focused on anything that wasn't his face, to keep herself from leaping over the counter and choking him with her bare hands. Beth could handle this. Beth was handling this. If Hawke killed this man, she'd just bring more ruin down on her sister...

Hawke's gaze, desperate for distraction, lit on Fenris, his back against the door and his expression once again stormy. She counted to ten in her head, then did so again in Orlesian. Tried to remember Dagna's lessons on ancient dwarven dialects, but couldn't get past four.

She wondered if Fenris would teach her how to count in Tevene; studying him (eyes resolutely avoiding watching the investigator), Hawke wondered how she might even go about asking. He raised an eyebrow at her, arms crossed, and Hawke followed the faint line of white down his chin, let herself take in his open collar, the tattoos that curved down the length of his throat.

She couldn't see the rest of his skin, and Hawke let her thoughts drift, let her mind speculate about what his tattoos might look like under his armour. Let her mind snag on anything that could be a diversion from the inspection. The armour plate, whatever he wore under that tight coat, was form-fitting, that much she knew. Everything about him was narrow, and--

Even his face was narrow, now.

Hawke turned her head, feeling a blush, face hot, as she realized that Fenris was glaring at her. Well, at least he'd given her a distraction, and in the meantime the man had left. Bethany was sagging behind the counter.

Hawke did not miss Fenris throwing the bolt on the door.

Still, Bethany was the most important thing, and Hawke put both her hands on Bethany's shoulders, squeezing. She tried to offer support without revealing too much, hoping against hope that Fenris wouldn't catch they were both overly concerned.

Unlikely. Possible, but unlikely. Still. "Are you all right?" Hawke asked Bethany.

"Oh, of course," and Bethany chuckled, voice wavering. She put a hand over her mouth, trying to stifle the nervous laughter, and added, "I nearly passed out when he said 'Lady Amell.'"

"Yes," Hawke replied, not looking at Fenris. "I caught that." Using the title -- Bethany's title, now, not that it could protect her anymore -- could have been what it was at first impression: a city official realizing he was angering someone with power, the investigator's attempt to placate a noble.

It could be, but Hawke knew it wasn't. It was a sign someone had taken notice of her sister, someone knew who she was. He'd used Bethany's title and -- whether the investigator knew it or not -- it was a subtle warning to Hawke that someone could use Bethany against her, that Bethany's title was a risk borne from Hawke's failure...that Bethany carried Hawke's shame because Hawke couldn't bring herself to give up her loyalty even after--

Maker take Anders, anyway, Hawke thought, and sighed. She'd have to check on the estate paperwork again, see what she could dig up about who'd gone looking through her affairs. It couldn't be a coincidence someone was snooping around Bethany's shop, not after all this time.

Hawke didn't believe in coincidences. Not when the seneschal was poking around.

She pulled Bethany in for a quick hug, felt her sister still shaking. "You're really all right?" she murmured.

"Simple adrenaline. It's fine, sister," Bethany reassured her. Stepping away, she took in Fenris and tapped on the counter. "What brought you to me?"

"My innate sibling sense went off, I knew you could use my glowering face," Hawke replied.

"Marian," Bethany said.

Fenris spoke up, though he did not move from his pose at the door. "I believe your sister was concerned about your visitor. But since we are here, perhaps Hawke could ask if you've discovered anything about the samples she illicitly brought you last night."

Hawke sighed inwardly; point to Fenris. Two, if she were to be accurate: for noticing the initial theft of evidence, then for covering so smoothly for nearly two days.

Fenris was unreadable now, all trace of discomfort either hidden or gone, a polite wariness in place. "As we are here already?" he pointed out.

Bethany had gone pale, glancing between the two of them, but Hawke just waved her arm. "Oh, go on," she answered, irrationally annoyed. If the man intended to turn her in, he probably wouldn't have let them know he'd seen Hawke's deception.

She added, "He's insufferably good at my job."

"Well." Bethany looked reluctant, but told them, "Da-- er, one of my assistants did find something. I was going to send you a message later tonight once I'd confirmed it, if I didn't see you at the Hanged Man."

She wrung her hands, Hawke noticed, an unconscious gesture. The knot in Hawke's stomach tensed again, a tiny pool of dread.

"What is it?" Fenris asked impatiently.

Bethany gave him a black look and turned to Hawke as she said, "I don't know how, or why it's doing what it's doing. I don't even know if I believe it myself. It doesn't seem possible."

Hawke felt the hair on her arms stand on end, skin chilled, as Bethany said, "It's some kind of lyrium."

-

"Another!"

Hawke laughed raucously, slapped her thigh, and threw back the shot, her eyes watering a little before she slammed the glass rim-down onto Varric's narrow table.

Wiping her lips off, Hawke felt her leg twitch; she stretched out, knee bumping against Varric as he stood to get another round. Varric's hand, warm and familiar, set on her shoulder to steady her, but it was Fenris's low voice from her left that asked, "Are you well?"

She couldn't look him in the eye, stared at the blurry floor beneath her feet instead of Fenris's face -- but her voice was even as she replied, "Why wouldn't I be?"

It was all she could say.

"I for one, think she looks more than fine," Isabela said, leaning over the back of Hawke's chair. Hawke felt the room spin around her as Isabela's weight threw off the chair's balance, and Hawke shook her head to try and right her vision and sense of equilibrium. Feeling her head slosh only made things worse, left her dizzy and spinning, and Hawke tried unsuccessfully to right herself.

In doing so, she accidentally looked toward Fenris. The elf was frowning, had been frowning since they'd left Bethany's workshop and Hawke had run straight here. Hawke could read his distaste (come now, Hawke, he's drinking at the Hanged Man, the disgusted face is well deserved), but he hadn't said a word to her about the case since she'd shut him down, leaving Bethany's.

However, despite the whiskey bottle in front of Hawke and various tankards of ale, Fenris had stuck to watered-down wine, and had drunk slowly. He'd even successfully avoided Isabela's attempts to get him drunk.

What he hadn't done was force Hawke to go straight to the precinct, which was a surprise. Hawke had assumed he'd demand it, or something to the effect. Actually, he hadn't commented on her decisions this evening at all, not since they'd heard about the lyrium--

"Don't you think?" Isabela was saying. Hawke blinked back into the conversation, where Fenris looked even more irritated. Hawke hadn't thought that possible, and yet.

"Think what now?" Hawke asked, trying to pay attention. Was he irritated at Isabela, or the case? That she was drinking instead of--

Isabela came around the chairs, opting to sit on the table in front of her and Fenris. Her gown this evening was far too short for modesty, slit up the side and just barely revealing one knife sheath strapped to her outer thigh. She leaned forward and said again, "Why, that you look far better than fine. Fenris here was just going to agree with me."

Hawke wouldn't look to Fenris, because his watchfulness -- concern, disgust, annoyance, fear? -- whatever it was, it was too much to bear, not with-- not--

"Please stop talking," Hawke replied, shoving Isabela's knee; Hawke forced herself to laugh, and it only sounded a little bit brittle.

Isabela ignored her -- no surprise -- leaning toward Fenris (who did a credible job of staying still while putting distance between himself and Isabela). "Don't worry about the dwarf," Isabela told him, waving to the bar where Varric was currently negotiating with Norah. "I don't think they're sleeping together."

Isabela looked down to her nails, flicking imaginary dirt out from one in what Hawke imagined was an attempt at casual. "Not that I haven't tried," said Isabela.

It was near one a.m., Hawke knew, more than an hour of sustained drinking since they'd left Bethany's, and still this was the longest evening ever. She dropped her head into her hands, letting the world spin (all right, that last drink might have been too much, too quickly, but what else was there to do, what could she do, was there anything they could--).

Hawke didn't expect Fenris to answer, but sure enough he did, replying to Isabela, "If you must know, Hawke looks two steps from a noose no one else can see. I was trying to be polite and not mention it."

Of course. Hawke stood, deciding some cold water and a few minute's peace in the privy might salvage something of the night. Might let her pull herself together enough to...to get on with it.

With something. Andraste knew what.

She waved to Varric as she made her escape from the table, and only after several paces realized that Fenris was following.

"This isn't a group adventure," Hawke said, gritting her teeth. Watching the elf stare at her while drinking was bad enough. His eyes meant she couldn't quite erase the knowledge that somewhere in the city there was--

No, Hawke, best not go there.

"I am to accompany you," Fenris replied. "If you insist on the Hanged Man, rather than the precinct, then here I am."

"Why Fenris, I wouldn't have pegged you to like it in public," Hawke answered, sliding a hint of flirtation into her manner. She added, "The privy isn't my first choice, but I'm willing to try if you are."

He huffed, annoyed, and wheeled around on his heel to return to the table.

"I'm going to pay for that later," Hawke murmured to herself, stumbling along the wall and just barely avoiding Martin's table (he glared, but, nothing for it Hawke, just keep moving toward the sinks and you'll be--)

The door latched with a click. Hawke, finally hidden from prying eyes, leaned heavily against the stone basin. The water flowed at her touch, the magic in the pipes strong even though the rest of the tiny, dank room reminded Hawke a little too much of military life: provincial postings with naught save two latrines in the middle of camp.

Sitting on the bench as quickly as she could, Hawke blinked and tried to sober up. After a minute, she felt a little better, and wobbled to her feet. She ran her hands under the cold water, splashing enough onto her face so that it dripped beneath the stiff leather of her collar, ran down her forehead, and dripped off her nose.

"Get it together," Hawke muttered to her hands, sopping wet and shaking slightly against the cold stone of the basin sink. Fisting her hands, she scrubbed at her cheeks, trying to wake herself from the nightmare thoughts that clamoured for attention.

Lyrium. Corrupted.

Hawke shuddered, and it had nothing to do with the chill under her collar or the draft from the open window. Drinking hadn't lessened any of her dread, hadn't numbed it down. She couldn't shut it out.

There was nothing for it, she and Fenris were going to have to go back into work. Cullen, familiar as he was with lyrium withdrawal and the underworld smuggling thereof, would be livid they hadn't reported back directly.

Hawke didn't want to bring this to him (what good will it do other than get him killed, Hawke?), but after an hour of desperate drinking she still didn't have a way to keep him -- keep them all -- out of it, so there it was.

Leads were disappearing like smoke in the wind, mist burning off with the first rays of sun. And wasn't that an apt metaphor, burning.

"Get. it. together." Hawke gritted her teeth, stretched the skin around her eyes as she peered into the tiny mirror hung on the privy door, then took a deep breath. Once more into the breach. Hawke opened the privy door--

The knife was so razor sharp and thin, the pain barely registered. It nicked the under-metal of her oh-so-stylish chest piece, sliding against the edge to bury itself (not to the hilt, small mercies) in the soft flesh of her shoulder. Maker's balls but that hurt, it was, she was--

Hawke slid down the wall, vision blurry -- oh, poison. She had the presence of mind to cry out, instinctively lashed out with her foot. Oh good, the poison hadn't yet affected her legs.

The smudged shadow in front of her yelped as an audible crack sounded. Good. She'd probably hit the knee hard enough to snap something.

Stumbling, the shadow disappeared, and Hawke had just enough time to realize she was alone in the hallway leading to the Hanged Man's privy. She had very, very little time to find an antidote to whatever she'd been stabbed with before her body seized completely.

Thoughts smashed together like the worst trip, and her knees folded, buckled, crashing her to the floor. Hawke mumbled nonsensically, "This is inconvenient," before she found herself unable to keep conscious any longer.

Her last thought was of Varric's taunting when he found out that someone had managed to get the jump on her on the way out of the lav.

Chapter Text

"Is she stirring?"

This was the worst of hangovers. Hawke groaned. This habit was more than a little inconvenient. Perhaps it was time to give up the drink.

"I think it's wearing off," came another voice, closer.

Hawke tried to sit up and was alarmed to find herself bandaged from shoulder to ribcage, and naked from the waist up otherwise. She opened gluey eyes to stare at the smears of colour all around her. With effort, they resolved themselves into the blurry faces of Varric and her sister.

"Ah," Hawke croaked.

"Eloquent as ever," Varric said, peering into her face. "At least you aren't dead yet."

"Why am I bandaged?"

Varric guffawed, face relieved, even amused. Her sister, at the foot of the bed, was not. "Because you took a knife nearly to the neck, dear sister."

Hawke could hear the concern beneath Bethany's tart voice. Even with Beth's arms crossed over her chest, Hawke knew her sister's fingers were shaking. There was, however, nothing Hawke could do about it right now.

Trying to pull herself upright while keeping her dignity (and the sheet wrapped around her bare chest), Hawke grimaced at the sharp pain in her shoulder. "That is an odd place to be stabbed," she hissed through the pain.

Bethany rolled her eyes, but came around the bed to lay her hand over Hawke's shoulder; her soothing healing magic dulled the ache. Hawke nodded at her, trying to convey her apologies with a look. "It'll take two weeks to reknit the tissue," Bethany warned, but the anger was gone.

Feeling more herself, Hawke looked around. They'd dumped her in Varric's room again. Sensible, given his suite was above the Hanged Man. Not that she could remember anything about the previous night past annoyance, and a brief moment of noisy delirium.

"How long was I out?" Hawke asked. Sunlight shone through Varric's blinds, but the cottony feeling in Hawke's head meant it could have been anywhere from a few hours to a day and a half.

"Maybe fourteen hours? It's about 3 p.m."

Hawke swore under her breath. Reaching for her slate, she felt her shoulder and arm seize up again, and she hissed out in pain, "Maker's breath!"

Varric handed her the slate, one eyebrow raised. "Are you trying to pull the stitches your sister so carefully put into you?"

Hawke let her arm fall, dropping the slate to the bedcovers. Lifting the edge of the bandage wrapped around her collarbone, she was surprised to see a long, jagged wound, neat stitches running from her bicep, around her collarbone, and down near the outside edge of her breast. "It didn't feel that bad last night, or that large a wound," she told them, surprised.

"It wasn't," Bethany replied, arms crossed, lips pressed together. "They had to open it up to stop the poison."

Studying the wound, Hawke could discern the original hole in her shoulder...and the torn flesh of her arm and chest, where someone had lengthened the cut considerably. In both directions. It would become a magnificent scar.

"Opened it up with what?" Hawke answered, aghast, "A butter knife?"

"Very nearly." She glared at Varric, who put up his hands, conciliatory. He explained, "One of Isabela's throwing knives. There wasn't a lot of room for finesse."

That meant that Isabela and Varric were the ones to bring her to Bethany, but for suture only. "Ah," Hawke answered. She didn't quite know what else to add, instead choosing to raise an eyebrow at Varric.

"Let's just say, it wasn't pretty," Varric told her. He sat on the edge of the bed beside her and patted her knee. "It's a good thing Isabela recognized the symptoms in time, so we were told."

Hawke closed her eyes, thinking back. She told them, "It all happened so fast. I don't really remember anything."

"That won't make Broody very happy." Bethany snorted, and Hawke looked at Varric, bewildered. He shrugged and explained, "Your elven shadow, never smiles? He was pretty pissed off you got hurt. Hearing you don't know who did it won't help."

Hawke froze, bits of the evening coming back to her now that she was awake and the ache from the wound had dulled. Bethany's workshop, drinking, drinking to forget the lyrium, the privy. Fenris.

The lyrium.

"Fuck," she said, and collapsed back onto the bed.

"Pretty much," Varric agreed.

-

Bethany flat-out refused to allow her to go in to work, and told Hawke Cullen had already said she was to stay home. Varric agreed, but he only sighed when Hawke got out of bed anyway. He stayed quiet while Hawke carefully got dressed, wincing as the stylish underclothes rubbed against her bandage -- but held her jacket out for her after she finally got the breast-band and stays settled properly.

Reaching her arm out, the hard edge of her under-armour brushed against the bandage again, jarring her stitches and forcing a huff of air through her nose. Gritting her teeth, Hawke put her arm through her leathers anyway.

"Some lambswool will keep the bandage away from your steel underthings, you know," Varric told her quietly.

She took a look at him properly, studying his face...and then felt ashamed. Bethany had done more than enough scolding, her frightened look when Hawke first woke enough of a deterrent that Hawke was close to asking for a transfer off the case. Varric's concern, wrapped carefully in nonchalance, was easy to dismiss.

But it was there nonetheless, and no less strong because it was quieter. She'd frightened him, something she hadn't managed to do since--

"Did Anders at least give you something?"

That was right, Hawke hadn't told him what had happened when they'd ventured into Darktown. Wincing as she laced up her leathers (the stitches pulled, but not as badly as getting them on to begin with), Hawke replied, "Yes and no. The lead seemed real."

Hawke leaned toward the mirror, examining her reflection. She looked awful, face ashen; poison would do that to a person. She heard Varric come up behind her. He put a hand on the small of her back, and she leaned against it without thinking.

Looking at her in the mirror, Varric moved his hand to the nape of her neck and said, "You scared us."

This close, she could feel the tremble in his hands that was never visible, could feel his skin against her own where her leathers didn't cover. Could feel his fingers, trembling but warm, run down her back and up again.

A frisson of heat went through her at it, familiar and new like always. Hawke swallowed and, following his lead, said to his reflection, "I've been stabbed before."

His fingers stopped moving. Hawke readied herself to step away when suddenly Varric pressed his hand against her, fierce, gripping the collar of her leathers as if he needed to in order to stay upright. To the mirror he said, "Your unhappy shadow nearly tore the bar apart." A careful beat, and then, voice a little lighter, Varric teased, "Are you sure you haven't slept together yet?"

Hawke's shoulder muscle ached, a dull pain she instinctively knew meant it would be days before she could climb up fire escapes or down ladders carelessly. It would be weeks before she'd have a full range of motion back in the shoulder, if she ever did. Her head pounded dully, the memory of a migraine rather than the full effect, and her entire body felt like one large bruise.

Yet even so, as Varric stared Hawke felt the pain melt away, and she was suddenly desperate for Varric's hands on her, his warm calluses on her skin, his voice in her ear, murmuring encouragements as she fought with the clothes she'd just painstakingly put on.

In her mind, Hawke could see it play out, the careless tumble they'd take to bed, the panting -- even the sharp jab of pain she'd feel when both of them forgot her stitches, the quick laugh she'd give him. Hawke's face was turning pink, she knew, and her breathing had sped up -- but all Varric did was watch her reflection, somehow able to meet her eyes now that they weren't facing each other.

Hawke swallowed, frantic, tried to push the heat, the desire down, because this was no time nor place, and anyway, it--

She swallowed again and said inanely, "I was stabbed, not tripped."

It was the right thing to say, because Varric's grip eased, his hand careful on her uninjured shoulder. Hawke wished she wasn't wearing her leathers, wished that her shoulder was bare.

Varric pressed against her uninjured side, and Hawke could feel heat pool between her legs, unbidden. He replied, "Could have fooled me."

"I--" and Hawke licked her lips, blood pounding in her head; she couldn't, it was-- she turned toward Varric, pulled him around, sank into a crouch so that they were at eye level and instinctively opened her knees so he would fit between them.

Her hands were shaking with want, but still she kept her elbow locked, stopped herself from reeling him in, one palm on his hip and her injured arm tucked against her side.

"Damnit, Hawke," he murmured, but fondly. They stood close, but not close enough, but Hawke refused to pull him in until -- this was declaration of, of something, her intent or her pounding heart. Hawke noticed Varric wasn't looking at her, not in the eye; his eyes, drawn down her collarbone and neck to--

Well, she could work with that.

His hand came up to her uninjured ribs, clever fingers finding the half-inch between the catches where the soft leather of her armor was closest to skin.

Suddenly mischievous, Varric glanced behind him and then leaned closer. He leaned in, mouth tantalizingly close to her earlobe, breath hot and liquid against her ear, just like Fenris when he'd--

Maker alive.

Hawke wanted to lean into Varric, but the crouch made it impossible, wanted him to plant himself exactly where she needed him to touch her, but he hovered just out of reach.

It was only a few moments, but then Hawke realized he'd undone one of the clasps on her armour and snuck two fingers inside, just barely brushing the underside of her breast, careful not to move the armour around.

"I bet you'd look glorious on top of him," he whispered in her ear.

Hawke nearly toppled over in her desire to get him where she needed him to be. Clumsy in her haste, she pulled him flush against her body and nearly fell over backwards.

After her balance returned (Varric holding her so she didn't fall), so did her thoughts, and what Varric said registered. "Are you really saying that," Hawke replied -- trying to sound irritated, but mostly breathless -- "now?"

Varric backed off, and Hawke nearly moaned. Wouldn't he take pity on her already?

"What can I say?" he replied, nice and casual; but Hawke could hear the deep tone, the thick quality of his voice that meant he wasn't quite as unaffected as all that. She was grateful to know that, grateful that she wasn't the only one so desperate...but then he winked, let her go altogether, and murmured, "I like to watch. And I bet you'd be incredible to watch."

With Varric backing off, one pace, then two, Hawke took a few breaths in, then just sank to the floor beside her bed and sat down, legs akimbo as she tried to calm down. "That was maddeningly unfair," she complained.

"Who ever said I played fair?"

She glanced at Varric. Some of the desire had fled, and now that she was thinking straight (or, well, moreso than before), Hawke was embarrassed at the naked heat she hadn't been able to keep under wraps. Her good hand snaked up to tug on the back of her hair, absently, and out of the corner of her eye she saw Varric cross his arms.

His voice was still quiet and easy, but Hawke knew it for a lie when Varric asked, "Buyer's remorse? Already?"

"What?" Hawke replied, startled. "No," she said, studying where he leaned against the far wall, casual as anything. A flicker of heat returned, and Hawke felt her cheeks heat up again. She explained, "Frustration," and hoped he wouldn't dig.

The tension left Varric's jaw as he told her, "Time and place, beautiful."

It was only a tiny hint of frustration, but that she could hear it at all -- that he let her hear it -- was gratifying beyond measure. Hawke suddenly felt a rush of affection, not desire, and she let her head drop back onto the bed. Talking to the ceiling, she told Varric, "You know, I thought it would never be the time or place."

"Well, you were stabbed, for one," Varric replied. His voice had a reflective quality, one Hawke was afraid would disappear if she sat up to see his face. "And we didn't have a healer this time."

"Bethany's here," Hawke said.

"And she was pretty sure you weren't going to make it last night, so cut a dwarf some slack," Varric told her. His voice was tight again, quiet, but he continued, "I was gonna have to watch you die, so forgive me if I'll take what I can get."

At that, Hawke did sit up, wanted to say...something, but Varric held a hand up to her gaze. Instead, she rubbed her face and asked the first thing that popped into her head. "What would Bianca say?"

The moment it left her mouth, Hawke cringed, but Varric just laughed, eyes crinkled, for real. "Probably 'finally,'" he told her.

"Really?"

"Really," Varric answered, and his gaze was warm. "You've met the woman." He shrugged, looked away. "Absence might make the heart grow fond, but it's shit for anything else. You know?"

Hawke nodded, since she'd heard about their disastrous courtship and the explosive end to it. The last time Bianca had been in town was years back.

She stretched, careful of her wound. "Bianca always was an intelligent woman," she commented, thinking about it. She'd been with Isabela a handful of times, but she'd bet that Isabela had relayed the details to Varric each and every time, blow-by-blow. Isabela was an easy sea, a summer storm, Varric the waiting shore.

"So are you going to finally put the elf out of his misery?" Varric asked. "And could I be the first to put in a request to be there?"

"I caught that," Hawke told him, eyebrow raised. "But I'm not going to sleep with my partner. I don't actually sleep with all my friends, you know that."

"Hmmm," he answered with a small smirk. "Shame."

"You're impossible," she said, mock-affronted. Using the bed, she pulled herself upright again, grabbed her abandoned slate with her good hand and tucked it into her belt pocket. "And I'm going to be late. Again."

She moved toward the door, but as she passed Varric he reached for her hand. He squeezed her palm once, hard, and -- unable to meet her eyes -- told her, "Be careful. For me."

-

Cullen was not pleased to see her, and greeted her with, "Go home, Hawke."

Of course. Hawke moved into his office and closed the door behind her. As her stitches pulled, she grimaced, but said to Cullen, "Don't you want to hear what happened?"

"Fenris already gave me a report."

Hawke gritted her teeth, trying to keep her face calm. "And you don't want to hear what I have to add?"

Cullen watched her for a moment, then asked bluntly, "Do you have anything to add?"

"I need to work," she gritted out.

"And I need to know my detectives aren't going to keel over in the field." Cullen's face softened, and he continued, "I know it's hard to be benched, but--"

"I was stabbed, not hit over the head," she interjected, angry.

"--but I can't have you out there," and Cullen waved his hand. Presumably to encompass the entirety of Kirkwall.

"And what am I supposed to do in the meantime?" Hawke asked. Oh, she wanted to fold her arms, but that would pull her shoulder. "Sit at home and knit?"

Cullen looked away, but said, "You might not hold your title anymore, Hawke, but if something were to happen to you...Maker's breath, I know this case is serious. I believe you when you tell me you can find who's responsible. But I had the seneschal's aide in here again, asking after your welfare. What am I supposed to do?"

"Did Fenris tell you what the substance was?" she forced out. What she really wanted to do was pick up Cullen's desk and throw it at him, rage at him about her so-called nobility, the use, the misery, it had brought her...but that would pull her stitches too.

He looked at her, waiting.

Hawke's stomach plummeted at Cullen's shock, his horror, when she said, "Lyrium. Corrupted somehow." His face contorted into revulsion, and her anger melted away. She said, "So he didn't tell you."

"No," he said, and this time the anger was all Cullen's, "he didn't."

"Perhaps he doesn't trust your face as I do," Hawke replied. "Or perhaps he didn't trust my source."

"Are you sure?" Cullen muttered, running a hand over his face wearily. "That it's...it can't be anything else?"

Hawke felt a stab of sympathy, her gut churning as she watched Cullen's face. She knew the man had demons, knew that Templars all did and that his, as an ex-Templar, were banished through force of will alone. She knew, too, about past hauntings, how much worse the work could be when you came across the ghosts of things that reminded you of what you'd done. The shame of it. Cullen's could be summed up by a simple substance, harmless to mages but a leash to others.

Because of it, and because Cullen had protected her sister, had shown he wouldn't threaten Bethany's freedom, Hawke answered honestly. "Bethany was quite sure."

"Damnit," he swore softly, and pushed the chair away from his desk.

"At least the poison on the blade last night was normal, everyday horrible," she commented.

It was a calculated maneuver, intended to pull Cullen from whatever nightmare that held sway over him right now -- but it did nothing to prevent him from scowling at her once more, saying, "Yes, about that."

Hawke sighed. "Fenris didn't mention the poison either, did he."

Cullen eyed the door. "I'm going to have to have a discussion with him."

"Perhaps he didn't know that you knew Bethany?" she offered. "She was the one who stitched the wound. I assume he was there for that part."

The more Hawke thought about it, the stranger it seemed that Fenris had left her alone last night, after his previous insistence on staying by her side. Perhaps it only counted while they were investigating. Or perhaps, like Varric, he didn't think she'd live.

Unlike Varric, however, Fenris had left her to it one way or another.

"He stormed in here this morning. Didn't say two words to me other than, 'Hawke was injured, but will pull through', and something about research. Though now I understand why he asked for a list of places one could buy poison." Shrugging, Cullen told her, "You might not want to admit it, but he's doing a damned sight better job of watching out for your welfare than you ever did."

Hawke winced, and said quietly, "You're not the first person to tell me I've assumed too little of Fenris." She lowered herself gingerly into the chair opposite Cullen's desk, and relaxed back into the seat with care. "But Andraste, Cullen, he -- he's impossible to read."

"Only to you, Hawke," Cullen said with amusement. "Now, anything else you want to tell me about the attack? Do you remember anything?" Cullen asked.

Hawke rubbed a hand over her face. "No. Well yes. A shadow, trying to kick said shadow. So no."

Cullen's voice was concerned as he offered, "I could pull someone to tail you, perhaps--"

She held her hand up, the good arm, and shook her head, good humour restored. Cullen was too soft-hearted, despite the tough shell: he'd forgotten that she'd been an intelligence officer in the army, as well as worked for smugglers in Kirkwall before being hired by the precinct.

"I'm embarrassed," Hawke admitted. "That someone could get the drop on me so thoroughly. It was an amateur's move, drinking to forget," she told Cullen. Swallowing against the lump in her throat -- shame, guilt, the usual -- Hawke said, "You know me. When in doubt, apply Hanged Man."

"You aren't made of stone, no matter how hard you try to make others think so," Cullen said kindly.

Hawke shrugged, easy grin in place. It was what got her through the days, what had made her good in intelligence, that easy charm. It had made her an effective smuggler, as well. She could play bait so well that a second person could ensure whole shipments got through untouched.

Here, it was the mask that meant others stayed at arms' length. Those officers who didn't know her thought the vacant smile was all she had in her. They watched her drink with mages and brigands, and thought her unprofessional, unbefitting a detective. Those who did know her, remembered a time when she forced the city to bend to her will through sheer charisma, remembered her as a titled noble, remembered her as a conquering armada, dashed on the rocks too soon.

"Hawke?"

"Remembering glory days gets you nowhere," she told Cullen, trying to project a lightness she didn't feel. "Besides, I'd rather be made of treacle tart than stone," she added. "Much sweeter, and it gets stuck in your teeth so you taste it for days afterward."

Cullen blinked at her and said, "That's a terrifying thought," and then added, "You aren't going to go home, are you."

Hawke put a hand to her chest, eyes wide. "Me?" She dropped it, shrugging again. "I'll stay inside," she allowed. "My shoulder hurts like a bronto stepped on me, and as reckless as you think me, I've no desire to make it worse."

"There are a few cold cases that Fenris pulled yesterday, they might shed some light," Cullen replied, handing the files over. "Not the most thrilling of tasks, but the way your mind works, well. You might see something he missed."

Hawke took the parchment, rifling through the papers, skimming the summaries. She asked, "Did they pull the evidence?"

Cullen scowled, face thunderous. "What evidence? The officers on the scene in two of the three cases found 'yet another dockside mess.' We're lucky they took etchings of the victims' faces."

Hawke growled. Sure, she might spend a lot of time in the bar, but she always tried to do right by those who'd died, however she could. From Cullen's description, she'd be lucky if any trace evidence swabs were done, much less stored properly. Still, it would give her something to go over while her mind worked on the bigger picture. She flipped through the top file, recognized the warehouse district, and started chewing her lip.

Thinking of Aden's merchant, she asked, "Can I borrow someone? I might have something."

Cullen nodded. "If, and I repeat if, there's a reason. No sending the rookies to the docks at night just to satisfy your curiosity."

By the time Hawke pulled enough information together to send anyone out, it would be past sunset, and the docks were too high a risk at night for a lone officer. Hawke nodded, because if anyone got wind she was looking into something, and it turned out to be related...

"I'll be careful," she promised Cullen. "No need to put someone else in danger."

Her slate buzzed and, absently, she pulled it out to check it. Cullen didn't stand on ceremony, and it could be important. Checking her messages, Hawke saw she had several from Fenris (the results of his overnight analysis of her poisoning and a query about her well-being, time-stamped from after her entrance to the precinct), two from Isabela (both explicit and featuring Fenris), one from Arianni (a request for news), one from Elegant (her research turned up nothing, and an apology), one from Martin (again, nothing), and the newest, from Varric:

I'm trying to work on my column and all I can think about is you with nothing but your stays on. Andraste help me.

Hawke felt her cheeks go scarlet with desire, not embarrassment. Again. She tapped out a reply as quickly as she dared.

now thats all i'll think about too. thanks

The answer came immediately:

It's your fault. And now I know what it looks like to see you cut out of them, it's worse.

Hawke frowned, thinking...oh, but he'd been there when Isabela had leeched the poison out, and he'd been there when Bethany had stitched her together again. Varric had, of course, seen her unclothed before, they couldn't drink together that frequently and not end up half-undressed sometimes. But he'd watched, last night, afraid, maybe desperate--

kinky. hope it wasnt attractive last night


Not until I started thinking about it just now.

Dropping her slate, because nothing good could come of messaging Varric in front of her captain, especially not when she couldn't control her reactions, Hawke said to Cullen, "I should probably get out of your hair."

Cullen waved her off, and as Hawke moved toward the door, she halted, suddenly terrified of what she was about to say. "Cullen," she started, hesitant. She couldn't do this facing him. Couldn't believe that after all these years and miles, she was considering doing this at all.

Still, Hawke gulped and asked, "If, theoretically now, one of your detectives was too friendly with a member of the press. If, say they were sleeping--"

She heard him groan, and Hawke couldn't help but dare a look behind her. Cullen sat, head in his hands; he looked up at her with a pained expression and said, "Hawke, for the love of the Maker and all His children, stop talking. I don't want these details. I'm not in on the pool betting on your sex life. I never was. So by all that's holy, go away."

Well, that was unambiguous, not to mention a bit alarming (there was a pool? Moreover, someone had asked if Cullen wanted in on it?). With a purely internal wince, Hawke made her escape.

-

First order of business was to put someone on the warehouse merchant. Their only current lead was the mysteriously injured sailor, and Hawke had no other way to track him. Usually Hawke wouldn't risk spooking his accomplices, but the poison she'd been dosed with was common enough, and blindly turning over more rocks would just alert those involved.

(Hawke knew looking into the poison would be a wild goose chase; there were far too many places to acquire such goods in Kirkwall.)

Sergeant Brennan was subdued as she agreed to tail the merchant, glancing at the sketch only once before tucking her slate away. "If I spot him?" was all she asked.

The real question. Hawke darted a look at Cullen's office, then said quietly, "Send me a message. Only me. Don't engage, don't be seen. Information is the priority, and I need you alive to report in."

Brennan, Hawke knew, was a good cop: smart enough to understand discretion and cynical enough to approve of it. So Hawke wasn't surprised when all she answered was, "I'll follow, if I can," and headed out to her rounds.

Hawke spent another hour at her desk, sifting through pictures and documents, shoddy police work at best and criminally negligent investigating, at worst. The officers of record had all moved on. Either way, the cases were well and truly cold. In one, the victim (clubbed over the head) hadn't ever been identified.

Poor sod. She etched it all, running her slate over each picture and report carefully, to imprint it in her slate's memory, allowing her to recall the information.

Hawke knew that the department would consider it a colossal waste of time -- but wanting to spend the time, anyway. The officers hadn't bothered to do it when the murders were fresh, so someone should spend the time to carefully catalogue all the evidence, scan in each picture. Even if it wouldn't go anywhere, the victims deserved that much of her.

Finally, the pathetically thin folders of evidence were all catalogued, stored, and saved according to their file numbers. Hawke had it all saved to her slate as well, which meant now she could sift through it at her leisure. And not at her desk.

She tested her shoulder carefully. It was sore, but slow movement elicited no unexpected stabbing pain, and no telltale throbbing to indicate torn stitches.

There'd also been no sign of Fenris in the hour she'd spent at her desk, even though he had seen her come in (his message had told her that much). Hawke tried to brush off his absence as irrelevant. It wasn't like she could help him with the active part of the case, and -- she reread the message he'd sent her. His messaging tone was much like his speaking tone: halting, careful, impossible to read. Was he uncaring, or--

Hawke brushed the question off before she'd finished asking it, irritated with herself for wondering; irritated with the whole mess.

Waving at Cullen, she made to leave, careful to avoid collision with anyone or thing. If nothing else, the controlled madness of the Hanged Man might jolt something loose, and it would give her a more comfortable chair to sit in. Even if she wouldn't drink (last night had made Hawke rather a little gun-shy about inebriation), the noise would be comforting.

As she reached the door, however, Cullen appeared as if by magic. "Hawke," he warned.

She sighed. "I'm just heading to the Hanged Man. It's too quiet in here."

Until she said it, Hawke hadn't really analyzed her motivations (too wary of Varric's face appearing, if she did). But it was true. The precinct was too quiet, too serious, for her to be able to focus. It was like the intelligence headquarters in Ferelden had been.

"Sergeant," Cullen called out.

"Cullen, I don't need a babysitter."

As the sergeant came up, Hawke glared at Cullen, who ignored her and simply told the sergeant, "Go with Hawke, then get to your post."

The sergeant, a woman named Melindra, snapped off a salute and held the door for Hawke. Hawke sighed inwardly, but knew that protesting would just cause more commotion. When Cullen had that face, it was best to simply get on with things as quickly as possible.

And, really, Cullen's tolerance of her trips to the Hanged Man would probably not extend to her slipping the leash.

At least it was only a few blocks, and then the woman could get to whatever it was she was supposed to be doing in peace. "Let's get this over with," Hawke muttered, and started walking.

"No offence," Melindra replied after a moment's thought, "but he says do it, I do it." She darted a glance to Hawke, face stern, but added, "We none of us go out alone, when injured."

They made the trip with little fuss, Hawke content to stay silent and the sergeant saying nothing at her right -- along her injured side. Hawke wondered how far news of her injury had spread already.

Melindra left her at the steps, and Hawke waited for her tension to ease as she faced the speakeasy. Since she'd left Hightown three years ago -- left her status and manse, taken her social and professional exile to Lowtown and forced Bethany into a Lowtown flat -- the bar was the only place in the city that really felt like home. It was the only place that Hawke didn't feel the judgment of someone: her fellow officers for her unorthodox investigative techniques, her neighbours for her odd and irregular hours, her friends and family for...well, she judged herself just fine for everything she'd thrown away after the aborted explosion, even when they wouldn't.

Things might have been rocky, but the Hanged Man stayed steady: steadily revolting ale, completely uninterested clientele, bartenders that cared not at all who or what she was.

As she entered, however, Hawke still felt her senses on high alert, her subconscious aware of every sound, mind absently conducting a threat assessment of the room.

Well. All right. So the Hanged Man wasn't quite the haven of safety it once was. It still had some things going for it.

Hawke took a breath, then made her way to the fireplace where Varric sat. His presence, at least, was a comfort when the bar itself was not.

Varric was entrenched at his usual table, and he didn't look up as Hawke planted herself gingerly by his side. All he said was, "Ohh, no."

Hawke thought she probably should have felt a pang of hurt, but really, it was such a normal reaction that she felt herself relax more. Without thinking about it too much, she allowed herself to draw one slow finger across the nape of Varric's neck, and was pleased when his hand froze atop his slate.

"Come now," she replied, voice throaty, pitched so only he could hear her, "that's no way to greet a friend."

In a strangled voice, he replied, "How am I supposed to work with you sitting right there?"

Laughing, Hawke sat back. "For the sake of your readers," she explained. Still, Varric hadn't moved, and she studied him. "Am I really that distracting?" she asked.

Varric glared at her, dropping his slate onto the table and grabbing his ale mug. As he drank deeply, Hawke could feel her mouth turning up into a wide grin, and she said, "I'll take that as a yes."

"Bloody hell, yes," he finally admitted. "And I'm already late."

"What are you working on?"

Hawke shifted in her armchair, trying to find a position that didn't rub against her shoulder, as Varric replied, "Daily docket reports, though Maker knows no one reads them. I write them and I don't even read them."

"You don't actually sit in on docket day, do you?" Hawke asked. Half of the officers called didn't sit in on docket day, the crimes so petty that people pleaded out, paid a fine, or wandered away. There was a rumour docket day was a punishment assignment for the presiding magistrate of the week.

It was definitely a punishment assignment for the precinct representative. Hawke had been sent more than once when Cullen was especially irritated with her.

Varric scowled at his slate. "I usually pay someone to take notes for me."

"Doesn't your family own a bank, or some such?" Hawke asked, teasing. "Why worry about being late with a column that no one, including your editor, will read?"

The glare on Varric's face made her laugh even more, though it moved her chest enough to pull against her stitches. Hawke looked around the room. Martin was in attendance again, Varric had his crossbow...that was interesting.

Usually he didn't bring his crossbow to the bar with him.

Hawke decided she was safe enough despite her instincts and started unclasping her outer leathers to shrug them off, sighing in relief to be in her thin under-tunic and the armored stays below.

"You're killing me, Hawke," Varric told her.

"We could get it over with, you know." He gave her an incredulous look, and Hawke kept her poker face through force of will. "Break the tension, so to speak. For your readers' sake."

"Honestly?" Varric looked away. "I don't know why I bother with the paper anymore." It took Hawke a moment to remember what it was she'd asked that he was answering.

"Anyone could write what I do," Varric added. "And the pittance per word they pay me doesn't even buy your drinks, never mind anything else."

The bitter note in Varric's voice was surprising, and Hawke wished she hadn't brought it up. Trying to cheer him up, she replied, "To be fair, the cost of my drinking is probably more than the rent for your rooms upstairs." A pause, where Hawke affected a thoughtful face, and she told him, "It might actually amount to more than the property tax on my house."

He laughed, looking at her once more. "Fair point." He tilted his head and pointed out carefully, "Someone might ask a similar question of a Lowtown detective who owns one of the nicest manses in the city, but lives in a one room squat near the docks. But that someone wouldn't be me."

That stung, even though she knew Varric had said it as diplomatically as possible. It stung, but it was no fault of his.

Hawke took a breath, and replied, "And that someone might answer, you can have the manse, the balls, the respect and all of it -- but then they don't want you to work, because it's too dangerous, it isn't "proper". You can have the title but it's as much a prison as anything." A pause, and then Hawke forced herself to say, "And if someone's sister isn't safe there to live there, is too exposed to scrutiny, then what good is a house?"

Varric's face softened, looking at her, and he nodded. Then he told her, "At least it has a nice garden for parties," and feigned concentration on his slate once more.

Hawke was grateful, and pulled her own slate out to tap out the occasional note about the cold cases. It was a cop-out, to begin, as Hawke just wanted to end the conversation, but soon enough she was pulled into puzzling the cases out. She couldn't figure out why Fenris had pulled each of these murders from the docks (perhaps they were linked to his information from Wycome?). All were within the last six months, true, but nothing connected them together aside from vague proximity. As in, all happened within ten blocks of the harbourmaster's office.

But if Hawke considered every crime that was committed within that radius to be connected, she'd have a conspiracy wall only slightly smaller than the viscount's keep.

Hawke finally came across the connection while reading descriptions of the crime scenes: in each case, the officer first on the scene had noticed some weird "forensic evidence" or "biological sample" or other unidentified substance near, but not on, the body.

However he first found it, point to Fenris, Hawke thought. There was no way to be sure that these unidentified substances had anything to do with their murder, since the responding officers had given no thought to collecting samples or even etchings, but...

"You're tapping your foot, beautiful," Varric's voice broke in.

Hawke stilled her leg, sighing. These cases, without more information, were mostly a dead end as well. "I don't even know what we found that made me a target," she admitted. "It's infuriating."

"Walk me through it."

Hawke frowned at him. "I can't."

Varric wasn't looking at her, still focused on his slate (this time with his full attention, rather than faking it). "I've already promised not to print it," he pointed out.

"It isn't that," she said, and Hawke paused, unable to figure it out herself. It wasn't Varric's connection to the press. He'd proven himself trustworthy: off the record was off the record, when it counted. After all, in all his days working at the paper and publishing crime serials on the side, he'd never printed what really happened the night Anders had nearly blown up the--

She was balking at discussing it, not with Varric. With anyone.

Hawke realized that her intelligence training was overriding everything, keeping her from saying anything aloud in case it gave person or persons unknown a chance to overhear. It was an ironclad rule: when scouting deep into enemy territory, say nothing aloud.

That was why she didn't trust the Hanged Man anymore.

"Something on your mind?"

Varric's question was deceptively casual, just like everything about him, but Hawke was reminded of her utter inability to best him at cards. This time, when she cut her eyes to Varric's face, he was watching her, and (though no one else would be able to see in the dim light) Hawke could tell his jaw showed tension.

"A great many things," she answered. There were maybe a dozen people in the Hanged Man's main rooms tonight, though more would likely show if Isabela were in town. At least half of those in attendance she didn't recognize. Half were strangers.

And she'd marked all of their positions before sitting down, not just the strangers. Marked their positions, and calculated assassination protocols for each one. Something she hadn't done instinctively, subconsciously, as easily as breathing, since the war.

"You look like a Ferelden fox in an Orlesian army barracks," Varric said quietly.

Startled, Hawke looked at him. "I feel like a rabbit," she confessed. "At least the fox is on the chase."

"And you aren't?"

Hawke didn't need to look around the room to know that Norah was at the bar, that the four men sitting at the table closest the stairs were sailors. The two women closest to them were from the Rose, she knew one of them, she'd been Hawke's informant, for a brief time. The man in the hood at the bar was one of Athenril's, or at least he wore the garb and her insignia.

Her eyes had catalogued everyone by second nature before she'd even sat down with Varric -- catalogued, and catalogued each knife throw, each vial of poison needed.

Her slate chirped and Hawke pulled it out, more to keep up the casual ruse than anything.

You know what else your manse has?

Hawke arched one eyebrow at Varric. He shrugged, downed his ale, donned his coat and then stood -- crossbow in hand. "Security," Varric told her, and Hawke shuddered.

-

She didn't want to go until Bethany came by, but when Varric pointed out that Bethany would then be walking Lowtown by herself, Hawke acquiesced. She tapped a message to Beth to stay in, and followed Varric out.

Their quiet stroll could have taken place on one of any number of evenings before Anders had ruined the peace for good, Varric making sure that she returned home safely, Aveline waiting for a message that she'd be on patrol the next evening--

"Do you keep in touch with Aveline?" she asked Varric abruptly.

He chose to answer the question rather than comment on her asking it, deftly bypassing a pair of drunken sailors who had missed the dwarf at her side. "I still play cards with her husband on a regular basis," Varric allowed. "So, yes and no."

"Is that so?"

"I try not to let her know how much Donnic owes me, it's better for everyone," he said, and Hawke's heart lifted. Another pause, then he asked, "Do you keep in touch with Aveline?"

Hawke chewed on her lip as they mounted the stairs to the more prestigious neighbourhood where her mansion was located. As she did, she could smell the salt and smog tinge of Lowtown give way to the cleaner taste of the sea and mountains; 'Hightown' being a literal description of the districts that sat above the rest of the city, out of the dank.

"Yes and no," she replied. Aveline sent her messages, to which Hawke occasionally replied, fending off invitations to meals and pretending she was simply swamped with work -- instead of wracked with shame.

"What colour are your smallclothes?" Varric asked, as calm and smooth as if they were still discussing friends who were now out of Hawke's reach. Hawke tripped up a step, and inwardly cursed her carelessness.

Despite the heat in her, she answered lightly, "You saw them this morning." Swallowing her pride, she added, "And if mere mention of them is enough to make me trip, you'd best see them again soon."

Varric laughed, a deep chuckle, as they turned from the stairs and faced the wide boulevard that lead to her front door. "The lady is as suave as ever," he quipped.

"I was being serious," she grumbled. Her desire was immediately tamped down by anxiety as she faced the gate to her mansion. The fence and gate were overgrown with vines, but that meant nothing: she'd done all the landscaping in the private back garden, letting the front grow tall for privacy. The brickwork looked fresh, and she knew Bodahn had ensured all the cracks were mortared last spring. She'd seen the bill.

Varric said, "Back gate? To avoid being seen?"

Hawke nodded, staring up at the manse. The windows were darkened, curtains drawn, visible even from this distance. Hawke felt her stomach churn and answered, "Maybe we should have gone in through the cellar."

"Probably," Varric said. They were still moving slowly, looking for all the world like two young lovers out for a late evening stroll -- except for Varric's crossbow and her professional leathers. Both of them instinctively ducked from shadow to shadow, moving in sync, so to a casual observer, it was all natural. She hoped.

"Too late for that now," Varric said. "Besides, I don't relish wandering Darktown when you can't hold a blade or a throwing knife."

"I could still hold one throwing knife," she protested.

He went easily when Hawke tugged him around the block and through the neighbour's garden gate. They ducked, carefully moving through the flower beds, then came to the wall between her back garden and the next.

Their quiet entrance was hampered by the eight-foot stone wall that, if she had two arms, she could easily climb. Now...

"Didn't think this one through, did we," Varric said, rueful.

"There was a rope ladder on the other side," she whispered. "But to get it, one of us has to get to the top." Varric rested his crossbow against the fence and had started unlacing his boots, when Hawke squeezed his bicep. "Don't be ridiculous," she breathed into his ear, "you'll just fall and crack your skull before I've had my way with you."

As quietly as he could, Varric murmured back, "And you'll start bleeding through your stitches."

"Probably I won't," Hawke whispered. Doubtfully, she looked at the wall, trying to pick out the handholds that had been in the stonework previously. Of course, it had been four years since she'd snuck into her own manse.

Four years since she'd even been in the manse at all.

With that grim thought, Hawke dropped her belt and her outer leathers, assuming that it would be easier to keep her arm steady and her shoulder from shifting if she rewrapped it into her outer leathers without the stiff metal under-armour hampering her flexibility. Varric watched the neighbour's house, not her, as she divested herself of all but her breast-band, then dumped the rest in his arms.

"I was looking forward to getting you out of those," Varric complained quietly.

"Help me back into this," she told him. With effort, they got her shoulder back into the outer vest of her leathers. Her stomach and chest, half bare, started to goose bump over. Hawke could feel the wind, bitterly damp. Still, nothing was rubbing on the bandage. Even if she couldn't put any weight on the arm from above, if she kept her bad arm at chest height and used it to brace herself while she pulled herself up with her good arm...

"When you injure yourself, I'm tying you to the bed," Varric threatened.

"Promises," she whispered back, and started to climb.

The first few feet weren't so bad, and Hawke got into the rhythm of it: held herself with her good arm, balanced her lower half with the injured arm, and pushed up with the purchase her supple boot soles gave her on the stones. Only once did she think she'd fall and crack something; though when she got to the top and found the rope ladder, Hawke nearly cried in relief.

She threw the ladder down for Varric to scale the wall, then tugged it up with her good arm and tossed it, ungainly, over to the other side. They clambered down quietly, and when Hawke swayed a little on the ground, Varric wrapped an arm around her bare waist.

All he said, however, was, "You're bleeding."

Hawke looked down, and sure enough, there were spots of blood on her bandage. "Only a little," she said. When he tightened his grip on her, she added, "It could have been from earlier."

They'd reached the back door. With trepidation, Hawke slipped her solid brass key into the complicated lock. Several clicks sounded, and she put her palm to the plate beside the doorknob, the enchanted lock shivering into place at the touch of her hand.

"Home sweet home," she said to Varric, only a little bitter. He chose not to answer, simply gestured for her to precede him, and they slipped inside.

Chapter Text

"Wow, Hawke," he said.

Hawke knew Varric wasn't going to let her get away without commenting at all, but her vague hopes he'd leave off the hard questions until the next day were dashed as Hawke watched him do a slow turn in her mansion's kitchen.

"The maintenance crew does come in once per season," she told him, trying to put this conversation off.

It was true, even; Bodahn had set up a deal with a trustworthy associate to ensure that once per quarter the mansion was cleaned top to bottom, any pests or problems were dealt with swiftly, and the like. Orana supervised, and Hawke's vast estate accounts paid for it all. Somewhere deep in the Keep's records the transactions got recorded, should she care.

"Seriously, Hawke," Varric repeated. "I knew you'd moved out, but..."

There was no firewood for the large fireplace, as it would attract spiders, and no provisions in the pantry. Hawke looked around the dark kitchen, recognizing vague shapes in the gloom: the wood stove, her kitchen table, the ice box. All the furniture was draped with oil cloth to protect it, and the eerie sense of the room (once a cheery kitchen full of food and light and warmth) reminded her of a tomb.

Hawke shivered, feeling the ache in her stitches and the pull in her shoulder. Perhaps this wasn't the best idea.

Varric, meanwhile, was rummaging through one of her drawers, emerging triumphant with the stub-end of a candle and a box of matches. "How do you want to do this?" he asked, oddly gentle.

Swallowing, Hawke tried desperately to remember what tidbits of information Orana had told her about the manse, whether any of the rooms were habitable, or if every single bedroom and parlour was put away, uninviting. "I think Orana keeps a guest room and the small parlour livable."

Truthfully, Hawke had no idea if that was the case, or whether she and Varric were in for a more unpleasant night than passing out in the Hanged Man. "Well, the security still works here," Hawke muttered, mostly to herself.

"I'll give you two options, beautiful," Varric told her, holding the candle aloft. "One: I undress you, re-bandage that shoulder, then we tell your sister and your partner where you're hiding so they don't think you've been dumped in the water. Two: we drink until we pass out."

She couldn't help it, the matter of fact way he announced it made her relax, and so Hawke answered, "Business as usual, then."

It shouldn't feel like a risk. They'd danced around each other all day, and for years before that. Varric was her solid ground amid the ever shifting sea that was Kirkwall -- but still Hawke's heart sped up as she added casually, "I notice none of my options include having my way with you."

"Once I know your stitches will hold," Varric replied, eyes and voice warm.

Taking off her outer leathers made Hawke wince. The flickering candle didn't help matters, and twice she caught the edge of her bandage on the hooks and clasps of her armour. Finally in nothing but her breast-band and the bandage from the waist up, Hawke stared down at herself: nothing looked too out of place, though a faint ache in the muscle of her arm suggested that something had pulled.

"I'll be back," Varric called over his shoulder, taking a second candle with him out the door into the manse proper. Hawke sagged against the kitchen bench, suddenly exhausted, pressure in her sinuses and foggy sight all indications of too little sleep, too little calm, too much of, oh, everything else.

"You've made a right fuck-up of everything," she muttered, reaching with her good arm to try and undo her breast-band without tugging on her stitches.

She didn't want to bother, but Hawke knew the bandage had to be changed before she slept, any damage repaired as best they were able. The candle that Varric had left on her kitchen table flickered, creating shadows, some hidden draft sweeping through her kitchen and whispering over the oilcloths.

"I hit pay dirt!" came Varric's voice. Hawke turned to the kitchen entry, where she could hear Varric mumbling to himself. When he re-entered the kitchen, he was carrying several things: more bandages and candles, and...

"Did you have to raid my best vintages?" Hawke asked, attempting a light tone. The rasp in her voice was obvious even as she said it, and she dropped the arm that had been fumbling with her underthings, too tired to continue to fight her clothing.

Varric tilted his head, studied her for a minute and then sighed. Dumping his load onto the kitchen table, he first set several candles into holders, then muttered, "This is not how I envisioned this."

Varric repositioned Hawke so she was sitting crosswise on the bench, then stood in front of her. The first touch on her side was soft, and Hawke leaned forward, bowing her head so he could reach her breast-band and the bandage. "Me either," she admitted.

"Come on, don't fall asleep on me yet," Varric told her, unwinding the cloth carefully. Hawke let out a hissed breath, and she bit her lip as the band snagged on the worst stitch. "Sorry," he added. "Damn, it's pulled."

"How badly?" Hawke asked him.

A light hand on her back, warm like always, gently squeezed the shoulder that wasn't hurt. Varric told her, "Not too badly, only a few stitches. You can leave it until morning, unless you care about the scar."

As Varric carefully cleaned her stitches (and probably using her best liquor to do it), he trailed his fingertips over several other scars along her shoulder -- and then two fingers paused, briefly, at the spot near Hawke's lower spine where the qunari assassin's sword had almost killed her, the night she'd saved the viscount.

Nearly eight years ago, now, and still that scar was stark white against her skin.

She murmured, "If it isn't as bad a broadsword through the gut, the scar just adds character."

"I'm going to rewrap you," Varric warned, and carefully pressed fresh bandages around her wound, winding cloth up around her shoulder and arm.

Hawke let out a sharp breath as Varric tied off the bandage, then nodded. "That's it for me, I'm afraid," she told him, trying to summon the playful banter that usually was effortless. "Unless you want to peel me off the table in the morning."

Varric didn't answer, and Hawke turned to see him staring at her. She raised an eyebrow, but all he did was shake his head and say, "The guest room on this floor is made up."

Making to stand, Hawke reached for her leathers, but Varric beat her to it. He handed over her light undershirt only, picking her leathers up himself. "Are you going to clean them, too?" Hawke tried to ask, but exhaustion pulled at her once more, and she ended up yawning at the end.

Varric held out his hand, and, scowling, Hawke nonetheless took it, leaning heavily on him as she stood. "You'd better unlock your slate for me, too," he told her as he led her out of the kitchen and into the back guest room.

The room was cold and dank, but Hawke sank onto the bed anyway, grateful that there were plenty of blankets. She watched as Varric deposited her armour on the chair next to her side of the bed, then countered, "And have you send Cullen dirty messages? I think not."

Varric disappeared for a moment, reappearing in the doorway with several candles in his hand. These he deposited carefully on the end tables before he faced her again. One hand outstretched, he told her slowly, "I think we're past that."

Hawke swallowed, ashamed. "I know," she said to him, reaching over to slide her slate out of the pocket of her leathers. Fatigue made her clumsy and Hawke almost dropped the thing before Varric took it from her fingers.

"I'll stay up for a bit, keep the fire going, make sure no one's peering in your windows," Varric told her, and turned away. Hawke watched him as he poked around in the fireplace, pulling wood from the covered wood box (the lone stocked box in the manse) and lighting tinder with a magic firebox pulled from his long duster. He moved a few more logs around as the wood caught.

Hawke took in Varric's hunched shoulders, his crouch, and quietly slid her boots off. Climbing under the blankets, she shivered. The blankets were thick, but chilled, and the fire would take time to warm the room. "You could come to bed, too," she offered.

"In a bit," he told her.

"I'd be warmer," Hawke tried.

Varric just grinned at her and pulled the dressing table chair over to the fire grate. He sat, held up her slate. "How do I get in?"

"It's just a date," she muttered.

Varric chuckled, tapping away at her slate for a few moments, before the grin slipped off his face. "Hawke--"

"Not now," she replied, closing her eyes so she didn't have to see Varric's sympathy, knowing it would be too much. Hawke couldn't handle his gentle concern, not with her exhaustion. "Please," she said to Varric.

Hawke was grateful when he stayed quiet, and she let the memory slip away. It was obvious from how he'd said her name that he'd guessed her passphrase, the date heralding access to her slate and messages -- not to mention a good chunk of her life -- that just happened to be the same day Cailan lost Ostagar, and she'd started the desperate run north.

-

Hawke woke to the faint chime of her slate, insistently alerting her to messages despite the fact that the thing was silenced, and -- though no, Varric had used her slate before she'd collapsed into bed.

Struggling to sit up, Hawke tried to pull herself out of the blankets, to no avail. Quiet snoring came from the other half of the bed. Hawke stopped flailing around, worried she'd woken him, but Varric slept on.

Her slate continued to chime. Carefully, because of the stitches and persistent aching of her shoulder, Hawke leaned over to the night stand where...yes, Varric had deposited her slate the night before. Some time between Hawke passing out and him deeming it was safe to sleep.

The continual chiming came from Bethany's sigil, of course, because no one else knew the enchantments on her slate well enough to break in and change them (Bethany had written half of them, so of course she could alter them at will). The first few were concerned, then more abruptly concerned.

The last two messages Bethany had sent were the most worrisome, just,

Where are you? Please

Followed several hours later by,

I have a scowling, extremely agitated addition to my workshop who'd very much like to know where you are, dear sister.

The implication, that Fenris had visited Bethany when he couldn't find Hawke, was alarming -- as was the timestamp on the message, since Bethany had been trying to reach her most of the morning. The message about Fenris, thankfully, was only an hour old, so Hawke scrawled back a quick,

am fine, with varric

Instantly, she received Bethany's reply:

I know that. Varric told me that. That's ALL HE TOLD ME, COME AND PICK UP YOUR PERSONAL EFFECTS.

Hawke winced, and Bethany quickly scrawled out another message:

Are you actually all right?

Relative question, Hawke decided, and answered the face of it.

nothing pulled last night, and I slept better than I have in

Wincing, Hawke scratched that out, sending,

nothing pulled last night and i slept well so yes. how badly is my package ruining your morning? will I have to hide bodies?


He's very concerned. And very polite. We're fine.

Hawke blinked. She hadn't expected that. Before she could ask exactly what Bethany meant (was she defending Fenris? Were they actually getting along?), Bethany sent her:

You aren't going to tell me where you are right now, are you. Or what's going on.

Another relative question, with relative truths. Wanting to give Bethany reassurances warred with Hawke's own caution, and finally caution won.

no. but safe. will somehow arrange to get my property out of your shop asap.

Hawke could hear Bethany's voice, concern and affection always so obvious, in her simple, two-word reply:

Be careful.

Stretching, Hawke yawned, contemplating the time. Scrolling quickly through her messages, she saw the two Varric had dutifully sent to Bethany and Fenris, and was gratified to note that his wording was as vague as her own. "Well done, Varric."

"I might be a simple reporter now, but thanks to my family I learned a thing or two about corporate espionage, beautiful."

Hawke shifted to look over at Varric, who was relaxing back on his pillow, one arm behind his head, peacefully studying her. "I didn't mean to wake you," she said, apologetic.

After a moment, he pulled himself up to lean against her headboard and shrugged. "How are you?"

"Been better," she quipped. Feeling the ache in her shoulder, Hawke was relieved to note it wasn't the hot piercing ache, the throb, that tended to be prelude to infection -- and added, "Been worse."

"You know," Varric commented, "I always thought waking up next to a beautiful, inspiring woman would mean I had an exciting night."

Hawke stretched again, feeling the pull of newly knitting muscle before relaxing against the headboard. She stared at Varric, realizing the dwarf wasn't wearing a shirt and the blankets had fallen away to reveal his muscled chest, his broad shoulders. She felt her face get hot, skin flushed; she replied, "You scaled a wall. That's exciting."

"I did at that," he murmured.

Mindful of her arm, Hawke leaned over and was pleased when she could hold herself up without weight on the shoulder at all. "You could have a much more interesting morning," she told him.

"Hmmm," Varric replied, but made no move toward her other than to tilt his head to the side, waiting.

Briefly, Hawke considered their positions. Varric lay on the same side as her damned injured shoulder. Glancing down, she saw one of his hips under the blanket, and realized that while she'd passed out in her leggings waist-down, obviously he'd taken the time to remove his outerwear. His hip was bare, the strip of his underclothes just barely visible under the blanket.

Hawke swallowed, mouth quirked to one side, then shifted again so she was pressed up next to his reclining side. Varric's face slowly broke out into a grin, but he still refused to move. Hawke glared down at him before she lifted herself up and rolled on top of him, knees on either side of his waist, to plant her good arm on his other side, leaning down to his mouth.

The first press of Hawke's lips to Varric's was a searing brand, his mouth teasing and insistent. One of his hands snuck up, and Varric ran his fingertips against her bare ribs.

Each touch made Hawke's skin tingle, her body sing out with want. She couldn't keep track of Varric's hands; one finger pressed against her leggings, just grazing her clit above her clothes, and Hawke moaned aloud.

She broke off the kiss to mutter against Varric's mouth, "You have an unfair advantage right now, damn this arm."

Stroking his finger against her clit, Varric's other hand slid up the nape of Hawke's neck and through her short hair to grip the strands; Hawke moaned again. He bit her bottom lip, then answered, "Just the way I like it," before kissing her once more.

Varric's damned hands were everywhere and all Hawke could do was press against his bare chest, legs open and knees wide, grind herself against his hand which was delicious, but if he'd only press harder, she might--

The insistent cheeping of her slate made Hawke break off, gasping, and she choked out a quick laugh as Varric growled out a curse.

"That can only be Bethany again," Hawke explained, still panting, skin tingling and wanting nothing more than to press herself against Varric and take the pleasure they'd been so close to finally getting.

Varric had his eyes closed, and his cheeks were red; he groaned, "Does she hate you? Me?"

"She-- possibly. Fenris showed up at her shop around noon, and hadn't left when I messaged her just now," Hawke said. Varric moved his hands from her body, letting one arm flop down to the bed and throwing the other over his face.

Hawke, still chuckling, clambered off him and scooped up her slate in her good hand. "When this case is over..."

"There'll always be another one," came Varric's muffled response, arm still slung over his face.

"Maybe," Hawke allowed, frowning. She looked down at her slate: Bethany, as predicted, with another warning that Fenris wished to meet, wanted information; what did Hawke want Bethany to say? Hawke chewed her lip, trying to come up with an answer. It was foolish, perhaps, to not trust her own slate, but--

"Who are you going to send to fetch your elven shadow, then?" Varric asked. He leaned over her shoulder, peering at her slate, and the contact made Hawke relax against him. Seated, they were much closer to the same height.

She thought about the question as she turned. "You think it's wise to bring him here?"

"To the manse?" Varric studied her, then asked, "You don't?"

Hawke picked at the blanket, unwilling to meet Varric's eyes. The loose thread frayed under her hand, and Hawke pulled, watched the knit blanket pucker as--

Varric's hand closed gently over hers, but still Hawke couldn't look up. "I think," Varric told her quietly, "that I saw his reaction when you were poisoned. I watched him as Isabela and Bethany saved your life. There are worse ideas."

Hawke startled at that. She'd been unconscious for those hours, for the treatment of her wound and all the rest of it, waking only once the injury was healed enough to joke about it. "I thought he'd washed his hands of my life," Hawke said weakly.

Varric let go of Hawke's hand, shuffled around so they could both recline against the headboard and Hawke could re-settle her injured arm. "You're going to need to put that back in the sling, if you're not careful," Varric warned.

When Hawke scoffed, Varric just rolled his eyes. "Your partner hates inaction nearly as much as you, Hawke," he finally said. "He stood against the far wall as they tended you, then disappeared when Bethany said you'd survive...and proceeded to send me message after message demanding updates on your well-being. Loyalty, professionalism, or what, I'm going to guess he spent the entire time you were unconscious trying to find the guy who stabbed you."

"I didn't realize," Hawke murmured.

"I don't think he intended you to realize," Varric countered. "Let me ask you something else: he's been with your sister all morning, and you haven't threatened to kill him once. Obviously some part of you believes he can be trusted, otherwise you'd already be halfway to Bethany's shop to dump his body in the sewers."

Hawke rubbed her palm against the blanket, thinking. "He walked Beth and I home, that first night," she admitted to Varric. "Shite-drunk me thought it was a fine idea."

Varric gripped her knee, suddenly, and Hawke leaned against his side; he said softly, "I know you don't trust your instincts for people anymore, Hawke, but--" As she shifted, uncomfortable, Varric just wrapped his arm around her waist, fingers clutching at her hip as if she might pull away. Varric's doubt, the apprehension in his gesture -- as if he believed she'd pull away from him -- made Hawke's heart sick.

"I suppose I don't," she replied, voice rough. She swallowed against the lump in her throat, nudged Varric gently with her shoulder -- tried to show her feelings, with her body if not her words. "Anyway," and Hawke licked her lips, blinking hot tears away, forcing herself back to composure with a slow exhale--

"Anyway," Hawke told Varric, "I already told Cullen I wanted it on the record that pairing Fenris and I together was a bad idea. Whatever happens now is, technically, his fault."

Varric told her gently, "You already trust him, Hawke, you might as well let him in. So, what's the plan?"

Hawke chewed her lip, thinking. "I could send for Orana. But someone might see her coming into the manse, and know we're here, and then there'll be no way to give anyone watching the slip--"

Hawke cut herself off. Part of her knew it was ludicrous to be suspecting everyone in the city of having eyes on her. The sensation of being watched, the creeping spine, the flickering eyes: Hawke knew the symptoms, had chased them over half of Ferelden before landing in Kirkwall. Part of her knew it to be paranoia, left over from a time long gone of intelligence work.

But, trust in people aside, her professional instincts were rarely wrong. And Varric was nodding, face set in a frown, as he agreed, "And if she's followed, what's the point in hiding out here?"

So it wasn't unfounded paranoia. Or if it was, it was catching. Hawke honestly wasn't sure which was more frightening.

"I'm trying to decide what I would have done while I still worked Intelligence," Hawke allowed, carefully. "To slip someone into the manse in broad daylight, without a tail catching on." They rarely talked about her work for Cailan, Varric mercifully willing to leave it in the dark most days.

"What have you come up with?"

"Orana's here to garden. Orana's here to change the candles. Orana's here, and brings Fenris as a workman to clean the gutters, and she happens to have lunch for us." Varric waited, eyebrows raised, and Hawke sighed. "I know, none of them work. I'm out of practice."

Varric cleared his throat, then looked away. "What?" Hawke asked.

Resolute, he turned to her, sitting up. "You're not out of practice, Hawke," he told her, gently. "You're actively ignoring the obvious hidden entrance in your cellar."

Her stomach clenched up, fear clamouring, but whatever protest she might have made died as she actually took in Varric, head tilted down, staring at his lap as if he still expected her to scream at him, push him away.

Maker damn Anders to the void, Hawke thought savagely. Her split-second decision to spare his life had left far too many hidden land mines in her own, ones Varric -- of all people -- did not deserve to trip.

Hawke rubbed her mouth, pushing thoughts of Anders away. Hands still shaking a little, she gripped Varric's palm in both of hers as she told him, "You're right. No one will see them if Bethany sneaks in through the security lock in the sewers. And this early in the day, she and Fenris will be safe enough on the trek from Darktown to the entrance."

"Hawke--"

She squeezed his hand again, shaking her head. "I don't have to like it. That isn't your fault."

Varric's face was grim, and Hawke knew they shared the same memory, of smoking ash and the smell of cinders, one column of the Grand Chantry near collapse -- but oh, it could have been so much worse -- when he answered, "No, it really isn't."

-

Hawke paced her kitchen, before finally sending to Bethany,

how do you feel about a field trip to the sewer grate

Instantly, she received:

So that's where you are. You are going to owe me so much Marion, you have no idea. Weeks of free meals. I expect to drink for free for the next six months.

Hawke's stomach began to churn with guilt, even though the teasing meant Bethany wasn't truly angry. Before Hawke could reply, right on the heels of the first message, Bethany sent,

he can fight, right? I'm not going to end up defending some Orlesian noble that thinks he's a decent swordman because he won a few competition bouts?

Hawke chuckled.

whatever he is he isn't noble. Id' bet he's able with the sword. but stick to shadows anyway, two of you isn't great odds


I'll grab your smaller packages as well, and meet you as soon as we're able. And we'll be careful.

Before she could think about it, Hawke scrawled out,

i'm sorry to drag you into all of this

Hawke couldn't help but smile, as Bethany sent to her,

Don't you dare. I'm glad you're finally letting me help. See you soon.


-

"Only for you, sister," came Bethany's disgusted voice, floating up the stairs from the wine cellar like a particularly reassuring dream. "The mud, the smell. Only for you."

Hawke felt some of the tension curled in her stomach release: if Bethany were this annoyed, the trip through Darktown couldn't have been too perilous.

Her welcoming voice was quickly followed by a gruffer one saying, "I do not think I have seen so much of the worst parts of a city my entire career, before I met Hawke."

Varric chuckled, glancing at Hawke, who rolled her eyes in response.

Waiting for Bethany had been murder, even though Hawke knew Bethany was capable, and Fenris too. Hawke had attempted to work, sending several vague messages to Cullen, requesting files, and sending a message to Arianni, apologizing for the lack of news. Her heart wasn't in it, though, and eventually she'd taken to pacing a square around her kitchen (one of the few rooms with a fireplace, yet no window to give them away).

Varric, being wholly unhelpful, had simply dragged some wood in from the parlour, put his feet up on the warm stove grate, and ignored her. His only concession to her anxiety was to move his chair when she started stepping over his legs in her pacing.

Bethany didn't reply to Fenris. Hawke hopped up onto her kitchen table and crossed her arms. As Bethany appeared into her view from the hole in the cellar, Hawke said, "Where have you been? I sent you that message over two hours ago. Two sets of bells, young lady."

As Bethany reached behind her to pull Fenris out of the grate, Hawke noticed he took her hand without hesitation, though the touch didn't linger. Hawke relaxed even more; she'd been hesitant about her sister and Fenris travelling together, especially while vulnerable. But it seemed nothing had happened.

Straightening herself out, Bethany replied, "We ran into some trouble."

Immediately, all of Hawke's worry returned full-force. Teeth clenched, she demanded, "How much?"

Fenris brushed off his long coat, ineffectively trying to remove the dust and mould from the tunnels. The two of them came fully into the kitchen, but it was Fenris who said, "Carta, I believe."

Bethany frowned, glancing at him, then looked at Hawke. Most people, looking at Bethany, didn't know (and wouldn't believe) that she had made Hawke's work for Athenril that much easier, that Bethany was the one, more often than not, who brought the goods through. How different was it, really, smuggling yourself through the world and avoiding registration? A case of fine wine, stolen silks -- child's play after that.

Bethany added, "Not your typical Carta, though. Marian, I think they were--"

"What do you mean, not typical Carta?" Fenris asked, and frowned. "They appeared typical to me."

Hawke and Varric shared a look, but while Hawke knew the dwarf was listening, she simply nodded once for Bethany to continue. Hawke shrugged as her sister explained, "The Carta working in Kirkwall wouldn't attack first. You, perhaps, but not me," Bethany added apologetically.

"We've had run-ins with the Kirkwall Carta before," Hawke interceded. Best try and make them her connections, not Bethany's, though Fenris was already frowning, studying her sister and ignoring Hawke.

Bethany sank onto the bench, slumping against the kitchen table. Dropping her head onto her folded arms, she handed two little containment pouches to Hawke-- oh, good, Bethany had managed to isolate the samples from the crime scene for transport. Hawke took them, stowing them in the inside pocket of her leathers.

Bethany said, muffled, "It's fine, Marian." She sat up, rubbing her hand over her face, then explained to Fenris, "I've bought supplies for the shop through the Carta, so we've had dealings. The arrangement -- I wouldn't call it amicable, but usually the Carta wouldn't risk killing a paying customer."

"But would they associate your face with your title, or your unregistered mage status?"

Hawke swivelled her head to stare at Fenris, who only raised one eyebrow at Hawke, as if to silently ask whether Hawke would refute it. Hawke couldn't help it, she felt herself tense up, even if Fenris's question was innocent on the surface. Varric, she noticed out of the corner of her eye, had also sat forward, crossbow at his elbow.

Bethany, however, didn't start, or look particularly worried or afraid, she just held one hand up to Hawke. She said to Fenris, voice tired, "Both. These days, probably the title. I've always done my best to stay under the radar, but being Lady Amell, it's...it's harder. Still, the Carta never made it an issue before."

Varric spoke up for the first time. "How many?"

Fenris chewed his lip, "Five. No, seven. They wore no recognizable insignia." He glanced at Bethany, and told them, "None survived."

Leaning back in his chair once more, Varric sighed. "So a scouting party, and they weren't wearing the Kirkwall colours. Damnit, if there's one thing I hate, it's factional bullshit."

This was unraveling, and fast. Hawke's heart sped up. Oh, it might have been mere coincidence, a rival Carta clan trying to gain more territory, an unconnected event that happened to be at the same time as another unexplained incident. But every instinct she'd honed in the King's service, every gut feeling sharpened in Athenril's employ, was singing out fight or flight.

Preferably flight.

Hawke grimaced and said slowly, "If this were a job? Right now would be the time when I'd dump the cargo and run."

Varric snorted. "No kidding."

At this, Fenris scowled. Leaning forward, he said to her, "We cannot abandon this case, not when--"

"I didn't say I was going to stop working the case," Hawke interrupted Fenris. "Only that, if this were a job, I'd drop it. There are some things that just aren't worth it."

Varric crossed his arms, sighing, and Bethany sat up, looking wary. After a moment, Fenris nodded, his face relaxing and stance once again loose. "Fine," he said. After a moment, he admitted, "I understand the sentiment."

"I hate to be the one to ask the hard questions, but if you aren't going to drop it, what's your next move?" Varric asked. 

Hawke was thinking furiously, mind racing. Aloud, she muttered, "Outside Carta changes everything. Before, I couldn't tell who the major players were. If it was just paranoia. But if those cold cases and the Carta are tied into it, we're running out of time." Hawke stopped, turning to Bethany. "We need to test--"

Hawke suddenly couldn't speak, snapped her mouth closed. Bethany was the perfect person to further test the corrupted lyrium, but if what they suspected about the substance was true, to do so would put Bethany at terrible risk, would be more than -- no.

No.

"Never mind," Hawke said, her tone grim. An idea shot through her, a spark of inspiration so appalling, so unthinkable, she could be back in the command tent at Ostagar, being given orders so terrible they could only be uttered in the middle of second watch, camp full of shadows, the fires all out.

Beside her, Varric stared. "Hawke..." he started, uncertain.

A headache began to form behind Hawke's right eye. Not even Bethany knew all the details of what she'd done in Cailan's name, couldn't fathom what she'd just thought to do. Varric, staring at her in concern, didn't want to know. More than that, Hawke didn't want him to know, and she'd fight to keep them both away from it, keep it to herself.

Some burdens, you carried alone. To the grave. This was hers.

"I've got a favour to cash in," she said, trying to keep her voice from breaking. "I'll meet you back here later, if I can. Bethany, please stay here. Keep the security up."

Fenris simply gestured her toward the cellar, and the ladder to Darktown. "I will go with you," he said, and Hawke had too many other demons to fight to argue the point.

They were down the ladder and into the tunnels underneath her manse when Fenris spoke again, shocking Hawke completely. "If the healer is to do this," Fenris said quietly, "it must be done without delay."

Hawke slid to a standstill, mouth agape. After a moment, she choked out, "How did you know?"

They were still in the part of her cellars within the mansion's security grid, the magical barriers glowing faintly in the dark. The grid of runed protection ran through her cellar and out into the dank dark, an Amell handprint required to deactivate the wards, so there was no real need to worry about attack. Not yet.

Fenris glanced down the tunnel, then finally ran a hand through his hair. Very slowly, he turned to her, and -- gaze piercing, dark -- replied, "You do not know everything about me, Hawke, nor I about you...but I recognize the weight you carry. I know that some things cannot be forgiven. Or forgotten." 

Hawke's feet began to move again, the double pace of a war march, without thought. The one-two-one-two got them through the squelching mud to the second layer of magical wards, where she finally asked Fenris, "What can't you forgive?"

She didn't look at him as she asked, couldn't face his expression. Fenris surprised her again by laughing harshly, then biting out, "Who said I was the one to forgive?"

Hawke shuddered, a full-body thing that made her gut roil once more, then took a breath, shoving her guilt away. Hand shaking, she pushed her palm against the magic stone that would allow them out of her manse's final security barrier.

Stepping through the sewer pipe into a Darktown alley, Hawke managed to regain her composure, mind and instincts sharpening, emotions locked down. She told Fenris, "I'm going to rely on you to keep anyone from getting to Anders." 

Fenris coughed once as he stepped through the magic, then brushed his hands together briskly, shuddering.

Hawke looked at Fenris over her shoulder, and behind him saw her security come back up, the faint flicker of the magic reassuring: her manse was secure. She felt her mouth turn down, her eyes narrow as she stared at the barrier. Her hands clenched, then relaxed, thoughts snapping into focus as she felt her professional mask settle, mind racing ahead (the Carta, had someone managed to infiltrate them? Were they really so stupid to be smuggling corrupted lyrium? Were the smuggling for someone else--).

Fenris watched her, as Hawke pulled herself together. After she took a breath, he asked, "And where will you be?"

Holding Fenris's gaze, Hawke said evenly, "I'm going to watch Anders." Turning back to Darktown, she muttered, "Some things can't be forgiven."

-

Anders, of course, refused. Hawke didn't let him.

For two hours she stood, knives at the ready, watched him pull out the demon under his skin, watched him fall...all to do her bidding, to investigate her evidence. Fenris stood beyond the doorway, sword out and silent as the grave, and waited.

"It will be some time for the results, maybe a day. Though there are other tests I could run," Anders finally said, dropping his hands in exhaustion. He sank onto his stool, eyes looking normal, face ashen. Hawke didn't put away her weapons. He added, "Without Justi--"

A chopping motion from Hawke cut him off mid-word. "If you're done with the magic, we'll take our leave," she bit out.

Striding to the door, Hawke called out, "Try not to let the Carta execute you before I get your information." She pulled open the clinic door, stepping through, and allowed it to bang closed without another word.

Fenris fell in beside her, but when Hawke leaned against the outer wall, knees trembling (Anders had done it, they were done), he paused, then came back to stand in front of Hawke. Peering into her face, Fenris studied Hawke, then put one hand on her shoulder, and told her seriously, "Say the word, I will stay guard."

Hawke inhaled, then shook her head. Standing up carefully, Hawke made sure the motion didn't shake Fenris's hand off, and she told him, "He's done the worst of it. It's just Carta, now."

He watched her, brow furrowed, but Hawke could see his concern for her in the way he stood, using his body to shield her from the alley, the way he'd left his palm on her shoulder. Her good arm. The way Fenris continued to hold her gaze, even though he said nothing.

Because of that, Hawke nodded, and slowly reached a hand up to place over his. Squeezing once, she said, "We have to speak with Cullen."

Fenris backed away from her, hand falling, and Hawke gave him a thin smile -- as much as she could muster -- which he returned warmly, before gesturing for her to lead.

Hawke raced through Darktown, Fenris at her shoulder, and her instincts sang out danger with every move. Footsteps, two alleyways over. Pebbles falling into a pit the next block over. An indistinct scrape over stone. Laughter, from--

Fenris kept blessedly silent as they took their leave of the district, keeping pace with Hawke as she ran.

Chapter Text

"Where in the void have you been?"

Hawke grimaced and pressed her shoulder blades against the inner wall of Cullen's office-- no good, the window was too close, too many opportunities for lip reading. Too exposed.

Fenris, she noticed, had put himself in the only corner that faced Cullen and the door, though, so clearly the feeling of being cornered wasn't just her paranoia. Hawke answered, voice terse, "Working."

Cullen scowled. "Bullshit," he snapped, showing real anger. "I couldn't reach you for the last twenty-four hours. And Fenris said nothing."

Hawke felt her shoulder itch, her skin crawl as she watched the pit outside Cullen's office. "I thought you wanted me to go home and rest, anyway," she tried.

"Go home, yes," Cullen said sharply. "Not disappear. I thought--" Cullen broke off, shaking his head. Turning to Fenris, he ordered, "Next time she tells you to keep me in the dark, don't."

Fenris raised an eyebrow, crossing his arms. "I only became aware of Hawke's whereabouts this afternoon," he replied.

"Cullen," Hawke interrupted, desperate. "Could we--" She cut herself off, eyes darting around: to the officer pouring himself tea at his desk, to the chatting pair near the door, to-- "It would be nice if we could move this along."

"Not until you promise not to disappear again," Cullen answered.

Apparently Cullen wasn't going to let it go. Hawke sighed, "Cullen--"

"Your word," Cullen demanded. Staring at Hawke, mouth in a frown, he finally told her, "Forget my concern for the moment, if you have to. Ignore my worry they'd dumped you in the water. Fine. I just, I can't put off the seneschal if I don't even know whether you're still alive."

Hawke swallowed and shoved away the memory of lying to the seneschal's face, to everyone, about her investigation into the chantry explosives, the near-miss that could have taken out four city blocks. Cullen had backed her up then, had done what he could to protect her badge.

He'd lied himself, and most importantly, had protected Bethany since. So Hawke nodded.

Cullen relaxed and said, "Thank you. All right. I'm really, very glad you aren't dead. Now, what did you find?"

Hawke, still a little strained, replied, "I might have something for you by tomorrow, I'm going to check in with Athen-- with another contact when I leave here. But from what we found out this morning, I don't know if she'll have anything."

Cullen blinked, actually took a half-pace back, and sat behind his desk. "All right, Hawke," he said, raising both hands. "Start from the beginning."

"No," she replied. She glanced over to the door; it was open, another mistake. Couldn't really close it, though, too obvious. Had she been so jumpy in the precinct yesterday? Was it only yesterday? The arm wound wasn't so-- no, it was the Carta, they meant that something far bigger than she'd originally--

"Hawke."

She looked back to Cullen and said, a little apologetic, "Plausible deniability."

There was a moment when Hawke was a little afraid that Cullen wouldn't leave it, that Cullen wouldn't trust her and leave well enough alone. But then he pursed his lips, looked from her to Fenris, and asked, tone serious, "Are you in too deep?"

"Too deep?" she joked, hand to her chest. "Me? Please."

Cullen studied her. "You can't win every time," he reminded her, and even though it was gentle, even though she owed him, Hawke reeled and snarled back,

"You think I don't know that?", and spun on her heel to leave.

Cullen's quiet pleading floated out as she made to exit; he called out, "If you are in too deep again, be careful."

Hawke felt the creeping sensation of eyes watching her, detectives and sergeants alike, as she and Fenris strode for the exit. Feeling contrary, wild, Hawke called over her shoulder fiercely, "I know how to swim."

It wasn't true, of course, and as they hit the street, the familiar sounds and smells of Lowtown at dusk felt sinister, strange. Foreign. Hawke knew only that she had nowhere to turn, no safe harbour that wasn't a dwarf sitting in her kitchen.

It was Fenris who asked quietly, scanning the market crowd, "You told Cullen you were going to speak to a contact. Will they have anything of use?"

Hawke didn't want to open up that line of questioning, but if there was another Carta faction at play in Kirkwall, Athenril might have a taste of it. The question was, would she be willing to deal? Hawke frowned, thinking. If she could give something in return...

"Perhaps," Hawke decided, turning toward the main thoroughfare that led to Hightown and Athenril's townhouse. "If I can convince her it's worth it."

"And how will you do that?"

In Anders' case it was a matter of leverage, and Hawke's stomach curled in self-loathing at that. But in Athenril's case... "Pragmatism," she told Fenris.

And enlightened self-interest, Hawke thought, but didn't voice it aloud.

-

Fenris walked at her elbow, easily matching her military double-gait like he had in Darktown. It was a feat for someone who came from the furthest point on Thedas to Ferelden as one possibly could. After a moment, in which Hawke found herself ducking her chin to hide her scanning gaze-- there, on the rooftop, and there, behind the stall...and most distressing, there, in the warehouse doorway.

"Are we being followed?" Fenris asked, voice pitched low.

"It's a distinct possibility," Hawke admitted.

She ducked behind an armoury, mostly to test the waters than for any real hope of losing them, and started jogging down the alley. No one appeared at either end, but that just meant whoever it was didn't want to give away their hand.

"Luckily, I have an alternate route," Hawke told him, swinging herself onto a fire escape and scrambling up the rungs to leap-- 

Fenris was there to catch her and heave, left foot first, when Hawke's bad shoulder gave out in the effort of pulling herself onto the roof. Hawke recovered, using Fenris's heft to scramble up to the roof, albeit less gracefully than normal. She leaned down and offered him her good arm, and pulled as he jumped up the last few feet to the roof itself.

Fenris watched her, long enough that Hawke felt self-conscious. "What?" she snapped.

"Your arm."

"What about it?"

He shrugged, turning away. "Obviously you are fine," he replied, "so which way do we head from here?"

Hawke had suspected, before, that his unnerving watchfulness was intended as concern, but hadn't truly believed it, until now. She blinked, swallowing down her questions (not the time, so very not the time--) and surveyed the rooftops.

Athenril's townhouse was several blocks away, but the benefit to the rooftops was that few Carta members would be comfortable so far above ground, and the few that were Hawke could sniff out easily. "This way," Hawke told him, and began a careful run along the eaves.

The downside to traversing the roofs instead of the alleys, they found at the next major street crossing. As they jogged, the buildings got steadily taller and taller, structures slanting ever-upward as one got closer to the viscount's keep and the chantry itself. Most of the buildings and warehouses in the lower neighbourhoods were attached to each other all higgledy-piggledy, making it easy to find a route through.

Here, however, was the dividing boulevard between Lowtown's main market square, and Hightown's first residential district -- roofs separated by an entire block of empty space.

Hawke, in her smuggler days, would approach from the other entrance to Hightown, but Athenril's private docks were closed to her these days, and so the boulevard stood as a barrier.

"There used to be a pulley system," Hawke murmured, scanning the surrounding buildings for the telltale mechanisms that might bridge the gap. Finally, two buildings away, a glint of metal suggested an alternative route across. "This way," she said, scrambling up, then down the roof and hopping to the building beside Elegant's shop.

"What are we doing?" Fenris whispered. 

Hawke glanced to him; in the dark, his light hair stood out, and she gestured for Fenris to raise his hood in the hopes it might hide him. Drawing her own hood, Hawke replied, "There used to be several shortcuts we used to get from building to building, I think this one's still functional."

"And it will get us across? Safely?"

Hawke took a breath, deciding not to answer. She started the careful climb up to the second roof of this building, tucking her bad arm up against her chest, and pulling herself up with her good arm and feet. Only when she was at the top and crouching on the tiny awning did Hawke lean down and toss the rope ladder to Fenris.

Thank Andraste the rope ladder was still there. Point to Athenril, for keeping the system functioning all this time. Fenris scaled the wall much faster than Hawke, to her chagrin. After he was perched beside her, pressed against her good side, Hawke pulled the ladder back up.

The mechanism was fairly simple: it would secure a tightrope between rooftops, and Maker-willing, Hawke would be able to walk across. "How's your balance?" she whispered, winding the rope and securing the close end of it.

Fenris leaned over her shoulder, watching, as she winched the heavyweight rope across and the click sounded, signalling the other side securing. "I will manage," he murmured in her ear.

Hawke stood, precarious, on the edge of the awning, and leaned down to snap her belt to the tight rope. "If you have a buckle, that works best," she whispered. Then, arms outstretched, she began to carefully pace across.

The sun was down, thankfully, which meant their silhouettes shouldn't be too visible against the dark sky. Hawke stared down at the people on the boulevard, those few shoppers still in the market square. The torches in this lane were dim, which was why Athenril had chosen this particular crossing. Still, Hawke felt dearly exposed, putting one foot in front of the other on the tightrope. Wanting to duck out of sight as quickly as she could, Hawke leapt the few feet to the other roof.

Turning, she saw Fenris on his hands and knees beginning the crossing, either unwilling or unable to cross while standing. It was a foolhardy trick, perhaps, but one Hawke never tired of: standing, three storeys up, looking down at the city beneath her feet.

Fenris made it across and stood, brushing his hands off. "How do we undo the mechanism?" he asked.

Hawke shrugged. She could unclip the rope, but without the key on this side, there was no way to re-winch it, and a good possibility it would dangle into the street. "Better to leave it," Hawke said, already making her way up and over to the next building over. "Someone else will put it right."

Athenril's townhouse was in sight, two streets over, when Hawke's gut flipped unpleasantly. She paused, scanning the area, looking for the threat. Hawke wasn't initially sure what had set her instincts off, but -- there, down in the street.

Immediately, she dropped to her stomach, wincing only a little at the gravel on the rooftop cutting into her palms.

Fenris did the same, though he whispered, "What is it?"

"I'm not sure," she said, and scanned the street below to find the target. She pointed at the closed market stall that just happened to be two doors down from one of the merchant's guild's offices. The man was barely visible, and from up here Hawke wasn't entirely sure he was dwarven, much less Carta.

Fenris produced a pair of collapsible binocs from a pocket in his coat, taking a quick look before handing them off to Hawke. With magnification, she still couldn't see his face, but the armour was Carta, and not Kirkwall.

"That was the insignia," Fenris said, though Hawke already knew it. She handed the binocs back. She didn't think the man had seen them, but it wasn't guaranteed, and if they moved he would most definitely see them.

Hawke inhaled, eyes fixed on the street. "Two options," she murmured. She hesitated -- because this was an Intelligence agent's protocol, not a cop's -- then said, "One, I throw a knife before he can report back that he's seen us."

Beside her, Fenris frowned, brow furrowed and eyes narrowed as he stared into the street, but there was no sign of disgust or horror at her suggestion of assassination. Of cold-blooded murder. Instead, Fenris looked as if he were thinking it over.

Eventually, Fenris asked, "What is our other choice?"

She craned her neck behind her, calculated distances, listened for foot traffic in the main boulevard a half-block away. "We wait here, try to follow him."

Fenris took another look through his binocs. "He does not appear hurried, or overly concerned. He is waiting."

The problem, Hawke thought, grim, was that they didn't know what he was waiting for. Fenris took one more look, then without facing her he asked, no hint of hesitation or reluctance in his tone, "Are you sure you will hit him?"

Maker's breath. Usually, of course she would. As Hawke raised her arm, testing it, the stitches in her shoulder pulled, and the faint twinge of pain was enough to--

"Maybe. Probably."

"Then I would wait. Unless you have a crossbow handy," he added, and glanced at her to offer a small smirk.

Hawke was saved from answering by scrabbling one building over. It caught the attention of the man below them, who stepped out from the awning and scanned the sky. Hawke already had the knife in her hand, when he ducked around into the alley. "Blast!" she hissed, but the moment was gone as he disappeared.

"He might not have seen us," Fenris said, reassuring.

"He might have," Hawke replied.

Hawke stood, began to make her way toward Athenril's again, and Fenris easily kept pace with her leaps over the eaves. If they could just get some distance. Whichever of Athenril's had given them away, she'd strangle once she-- but no, Athenril wasn't a friend, was a carefully guarded secret, nothing more. They rarely spoke.

She and Fenris finally made it to Athenril's, where Hawke dropped down to the second-storey balcony. The elven guard there instantly pressed a sword out to her neck. "I'm glad to see security hasn't changed," Hawke said, holding her hands out, showing she wasn't a threat.

The guard said nothing, and the sword didn't move.

"If you wouldn't mind, I'd like to speak to your boss," Hawke tried again. "I promise, she'll be pleased to see me."

"Oh, let her come in," a voice said from inside. "What's the worst thing that can happen?"

As the guard dropped his sword, Hawke crossed her arms and kept her face a pleasant mask. They hadn't been killed on sight, so things were looking up.

Perhaps Athenril wasn't involved.

The woman of the hour opened the balcony door, a bow in one hand, but pointed at the floor. "Never thought I'd see you come in this door again, Hawke," said a smiling Athenril. "What can I do for you?"

Hawke gulped, and stepped inside.

-

Two guards, both elves, stood with weapons ready at each of the entrances to Athenril's room. Athenril herself discarded the bow when Hawke followed her in, but Hawke had worked with the other woman long enough to know the elf never stood unarmed, any time or anywhere. And like Hawke, Athenril favoured throwing knives.

Hawke's mind calculated a counter to the risk of a thrown knife: the settee, the balcony, out the window and down the fire escape. She grimaced, and tried to focus on the task at hand. Her intelligence training continued to catalogue the room, worked the threat assessment, but the forefront of her mind was once again directed to convincing Athenril to assist.

Hawke didn't want to do it, afraid Fenris would disapprove, but...carefully, Hawke pulled out an evidence baggy from her inner pocket. The one with the chunk of red lyrium in it, as Anders still had the dust. Holding it out to Athenril, she heard Fenris inhale, his breath harsh, but she kept her eyes on Athenril.

As the other woman reached a hand out, Hawke moved the bag back a little; not so much that Athenril couldn't see the contents, but enough to signal she wouldn't let her take it.

"I see," Athenril murmured, but leaned forward, squinting, and dropped her hand.

"Ring any bells?" Hawke asked her. She continued to watch Athenril's face, didn't miss when her eyes glanced over to her guard for a split second. Hawke heard one guard duck out of the room, but kept her gaze on Athenril.

After another long moment, Athenril stood up, took a step back, and crossed her arms. Tilting her head, she smiled at Hawke, just barely showing teeth, waiting. When Hawke didn't flinch, she shrugged and dropped her arms. "I might have heard a rumour," she admitted.

"Might have?" Fenris growled. He stood behind Hawke, close enough Hawke could feel his breath on the back of her neck. Instead of a pleasant turn, it suddenly made her feel hemmed in, caged. But to turn, to step away, would show to Athenril that all was not well, and she couldn't risk the vulnerability.

Athenril made a sharp gesture to her second guard, who left without a word, closing the door behind him. Hawke knew they were now alone in the room. Only then did Athenril sit down and pick up the bottle of brandy on her side table. "Drink?"

Hawke slipped the evidence back into her pocket, crossing the room to the cluster of armchairs. At Athenril's gesture, she sank into the one opposite the other woman. "Thank you, no," Hawke replied.

"That's right, you probably won't be drinking any time soon, will you?" Athenril replied, that little smile still on her face.

Fenris, Hawke noticed, had not come to join them. He was standing, arms crossed, near the still-open window. His voice, still a growl, came to them as he said, "If you know anything of--"

Athenril didn't look to him, keeping her gaze on Hawke, and the smile dropped off her face as she told Hawke, "I only heard a rumour, calm down."

"And what is it you heard?" Hawke asked.

Athenril picked up her glass, sipped, then replied, "Enough to notice you're favouring your weak arm. I was glad to hear someone found you the antidote."

It was folly to have hoped that news of Hawke's injury hadn't made it through Lowtown, not when it had happened in the Hanged Man and probably every regular knew it. The precinct had known, and Athenril was familiar enough with Hawke's body language to see the tightness in her shoulder that so many others might have missed.

Hawke shrugged and replied, "A minor setback."

"I heard it's lucky you didn't lose the arm altogether."

Behind her, Fenris sucked in another sharp breath, but Hawke simply nodded; it was mostly true. Still, she told Athenril carefully, "Anything that doesn't kill you."

"True." Athenril put the glass down and folded her hands in her lap. To all appearances she was perfectly collected, but Hawke could see the hidden tension around her eyes. She said, "A few months back, a rather brusque gentleman made one of mine an offer: cargo routing, more money than you could count. They needed someone who could move goods on the surface, if you catch my drift." Athenril added, "Thankfully, my man wasn't stupid enough to accept."

"And they dropped it?" Hawke asked, skeptical.

"I got no details of cargo, times, dates, or faces." Athenril shrugged and continued, "The deal was through a third party, a particularly dense mercenary I wouldn't trust farther than you could throw a bronto. After that, we had no more contact."

Hawke leaned back. "Come now," she coaxed, "surely that's not all you'll leave me with."

Athenril put her glass down, dropping her careless tone, face hardening into the inscrutable mask she wore while negotiating. "After I politely turned the job down," she started, "several of mine noticed more traffic. It seems they found a route after all."

Hawke hesitated only a moment before prompting, "Carta?"

Athenril nodded. "Escorted by others. Others who should be wearing heavy armour, if you get my drift."

"So it is Templars," Hawke hissed, "Maker take it all."

"I wouldn't hazard a guess," Athenril drawled. She sipped her brandy. "We know when to duck out gracefully."

"You've lost ground to them, then?" Hawke asked, startled and all too alarmed.

Athenril frowned briefly, then smoothed her face once more. "Some," she allowed, then waved a hand, adding, "Oh, nothing so important as to be noticeable..."

She trailed off, and Hawke finished grimly, "Unless you're paranoid about caution and too smart to show it."

"True again," Athenril allowed. She sighed, looking away from Hawke. "My people are careful enough that they haven't been targeted."

A pause, then Athenril stood. "I'll give you what I know," she finally told Hawke, moving over to her desk, "but only because I know you're good enough to find it without me." She fiddled with the underside of her desk, leaned over, and when she stood once more a file was clutched in her hand.

She handed the papers to Hawke, who stood and told Athenril, "Thank you."

Athenril smiled again, sharp and unhappy. "Don't thank me," she replied. "They've already tried to kill you once." Leaning forward, Athenril suddenly hissed, "If I were you, I'd get out while you can."

Hawke grimaced, shaking her head. "I can't," she said.

She didn't say it aloud, but she knew that Athenril knew that Hawke didn't back down; and there was nothing more to be said.

Hawke stepped away and gave Athenril a slow nod, which Athenril returned. Hawke turned around, gesturing for Fenris to precede her out the window.

Hawke's foot was already on the window ledge when Athenril's voice called out, "Listen. If you ever need a way out of the city for you or your family, well. You've got the coin for it."

Athenril didn't specify how much, because the answer would be 'whatever she could carry'; she didn't refer to Bethany by name, either, which Hawke appreciated. Hawke knew if Athenril was offering, the deal would be solid. That she had an exit hatch for Bethany made Hawke breathe easier.

For that reason, Hawke was sincere as she answered, "Yes, I do," before dropping out the window onto the dark roof below.

-

Fenris was quiet for several minutes as Hawke, deep in thought, swung and climbed over the roofs of Athenril's area of Hightown. She kept to the shadows as much as they were able, but a full moon and the night market one block past the Rose made it difficult. Finally, crouching on the overhang of a residential block and out of roof altogether, Hawke stopped, eying the ground below.

"We are going to have to get back to street level, are we not?" Fenris asked, voice low.

Hawke nodded, unsurprised that Fenris recognized that the relative anonymity of the rooftops had given way to too much visibility, thanks to the marketplace. "If you are able to blend in with the evening revellers," she replied, amused, "then yes."

Fenris glanced down, shrugging. "We are not dressed for the occasion."

"They will hardly notice," Hawke countered.

"They will notice," Fenris argued, but nonetheless, he began to make his way to the fire escape on the darker side of the building.

No torches were lit in the alley where this fire escape lay, which was the only blessing Hawke could count on. The night market was in full swing, vendors crying out, ale and meat pies doing a brisk trade. Music from the Rose spilled out into the street, bawdy tunes jarring with the brisk trade language, the yelling and raucous calls of men too drunk to be wary.

The din was good cover for her and Fenris, true, but Hawke knew that only meant anyone targeting them would have just as easy a time of hiding. That no one would notice a knife between the ribs in such a crowd before the assassin slipped away.

The fire escape didn't go all the way to the ground, because that was inviting the worst kind of amateur thief into your bedroom window. Hawke swung herself down onto the cobblestones, letting out only a quiet gasp of pain as her shoulder tugged. She could tell a stitch had pulled, and hoped that the bandage would soak up most of the blood before Bethany could fix it.

"You are all right?" Fenris asked, once he too had made it to the ground.

Hawke shrugged, testing the shoulder: the small ache meant that most of the stitches had held, and so she could still fight. "Been better," she told him, crooked grin in place. "Been worse."

Fenris did not reply, only studied the crowd. "What are we to do?"

Hawke's leathers were muddy and well worn. Fenris's dark cloak, at least, would do little to draw people's attentions. Still, they were too well armoured to be merchants, too sober to be soldiers, too well garbed to be low tradesmen.

"Let's do this quickly, shall we?" she murmured, offering her arm to Fenris. "The faster we get out of here the better, quite frankly, I'll feel."

Fenris did not take her arm. Instead, he wrapped one hand carefully around her good elbow with a bow, and extended a hand for her to precede him. "They will all have their eyes on you, anyway," he said, after she stared at him a moment.

With a quick tug, Hawke began to move, plastering a grin on her face and slapping shoulders. A few merchants she knew by sight and reputation tried to catch her attention, and she called out, "Sorry, no time!" and "Yes, next week of course!" and "Lovely, but not today!"

They seemed cheerful enough, allowed her to pass with a quick slap to her back, a clutch of her hand. No one had stabbed her, at any rate (though her wounded shoulder was throbbing from being inadvertently bumped so often), so things were looking up.

"Where is our exit?" Fenris leaned to whisper in her ear, as Hawke tried to slide her way through a throng of mercenaries, all drinking a steady trade at the ale cart.

Hawke's gaze darted from one side of the square to the other. The steps to Lowtown were dim but lit, and there were no ladders back up to the roof in this neighbourhood save the one they'd descended before.

The gates to most of the residential districts were guarded and locked -- oh, she could request, even demand passage, at least toward her own estate. But then one of the sergeants would know she was in the area, and the news would filter through to people, and the seneschal may get wind, and the Carta might hear and know where to attack, and there was no point in attempting to stay undercover if she were to announce her location to one and all.

"The Rose," she told Fenris, twisting herself up to lean against him. At a glance, she hoped that the reply would look like an intimate caress, a sweet nothing in his ear. She added, pressing against him (as someone knocked into her), "Lusine, the proprietor, is discreet and asks no questions, and the kitchen lets out into the cellars."

Fenris steadied her, both hands gripping her waist as the crowd surged against her, but leaned in to say, "We would do better to disappear somewhere less likely to promise another knife to the ribs, would we not?"

"There isn't any other way," Hawke said, and pulled away from Fenris, out of his grip. A flash of annoyance lit upon his face, and then he moved toward her, walking her through the crowd and against one of the many columns that held up the balconies attached to the Rose.

"I do not wish to see you stabbed a second time, Hawke," Fenris whispered. One of his palms rested against the column near her head, his thumb just brushing her ear. She could feel the weight of his short sword against her hip as he shifted from one foot to the other, but his voice was steady as he added, "And I am not well armed."

"We could book a room and attempt to renegotiate the roofs," Hawke allowed. It would be a difficult journey from here to her manse if they wished to avoid notice...not to mention that they'd still have to navigate over the neighbours' garden wall to the back door as she had the night prior with Varric.

The route through Darktown would be less exposed -- there was little chance anyone would see them -- though the chances of attack were significantly higher. Clambering over Hightown roofs carried with it a much higher chance of being seen, but less risk of attack. If they wished to continue the anonymity of the mansion, if Hawke wished to keep their location a secret from those they hunted...

Well, either option would be better than her front door.

"I don't like the route," she finally admitted. "The odds of being killed by Carta are lower, but noble estates are always guarded, which poses a hundred other risks."

Fenris crashed into her, as a drunken man jostled him -- the man wore the garb of a cement worker, but the tan lines on his face and arms, the red of his ears, the calluses he showed on his hands suggested a seaside hobby, if not vocation. Hawke started, and Fenris tucked himself more firmly against her, shielding her from the crowd.

The incident might have been simple clumsiness from yet another man intent on imbibing for the evening, a man who'd been to sea in the past and yet kept the tan lines from working outside. But Hawke swallowed nervously, heart pounding.

She flashed a desperate glance at Fenris, because the thought that a sailor could be camouflaged, in Hightown where no ship's crew worth their salt would set foot--

"Let us leave. With haste," Fenris growled. Hawke grabbed his hand, careful of his gauntlet, and pulled him through the doors of the Rose.

-

Negotiating a room for herself and Fenris was easy, though Viola scowled and charged the rate for strangers. No matter, when Fenris pulled out another Orlesian royale, though it still stung, absurdly, that Hawke was no longer considered a preferred customer.

When Hawke had been in her employ Athenril had done brisk trade in and near the Rose, in a careful dance around the coterie's interests. It was not uncommon for men and women of every stripe to mix business with pleasure in the discreet, well-appointed rooms. Several of Hawke's shipments in her earliest days in Kirkwall were deliveries for Lusine: silks, crates of wine and fine spirits, given in trade from Athenril for the Rose's continued hospitality and assistance.

"The wonderment of all people, I suppose," Fenris said, sitting gingerly on the bed, "is that everyone is the same with no clothes on, and will pay for the pleasure. No matter their status or wealth."

Absently, Hawke replied, "And pay handsomely, here," then she blinked, looking properly at Fenris. "Did you just make a joke?"

They were on the third floor of the mansion that made up the Rose, in a small well-kept room. Hawke, once upon a time, had paid monthly for the exclusive rights to such a room. In her smuggling days, the Rose was often her last port of call before falling into an exhausted sleep through the day.

"Would I joke?" Fenris asked, contemplatively. Hawke eyed him, but the man gave nothing away. "How are we to reach the roof?"

And that was the question, wasn't it? Hawke examined the window. It swung out, which wasn't ideal, but Viola had put them in a back bedroom facing the inner garden, rather than the street. The only eyes on them would be those partaking in the illicit pleasures the inner garden had to offer...and unless a spy specifically came looking, Hawke was fairly certain none of the lovers or their escorts would be looking up at their window.

The problem was how to climb the building to reach the roof above.

There was a balcony off a room down the hall, but it was too far from their windowsill to be of use. If she'd had her crossbow, they might have been able to swing a line up to the eaves, but without it, few options presented themselves.

"I think I'm going to have to scale the brick," she murmured, keen eyes already picking out the easiest route. "Here, at the corner of the building so I can reach the stone half of the eaves. I'll throw a line down to you."

"No." Hawke swivelled to glare at Fenris, who was already removing his gauntlets and silk under-gloves. Reaching down to unbuckle his matte-black boots, Fenris added, "Your shoulder will not take the strain again tonight."

"I can--"

"If you tie a line so I do not plummet to my death should I fall," Fenris continued, railroading right over her, "I would appreciate it."

Hawke wanted to argue, wanted to point out her years of climbing experience versus his-- but what did she know about him? Perhaps he'd free-climbed mountains before. To scale the brick without a safety line would have been foolish, but she hadn't even considered it. It would have been yet another risk she took simply because she could.

To cover her surprise, Hawke did as he requested and tied a line to the metal grating over the fireplace, bolted to the stonework. Fenris clambered out the window, murmuring, "My thanks." Hawke watched as he began climbing almost as effortlessly as she could have with no injury.

Fenris made it up to the roof, threw her a line, and pulled her up with no sign of struggle at all. It was yet another thing about him Hawke didn't know what to do with, and so she led him back across the eaves to her neighbour's garden in silence.

Hawke gestured to the eight-foot wall between them and her garden, and was completely unsurprised when he scaled that, too, without breaking a sweat. Hawke followed him to her back door, leaning around him when the door panel, that metal square of steel engraved with faint runes, required her palm print, her proof of blood.

She did not miss how he leaned away from the runed lock as it clicked into place, magic shivering across her palm.

Inside, Hawke was relieved to see that Bethany had taken her plea to stay put to heart. Despite the late hour, her sister was in the kitchen, humming to herself as she tinkered with the wood stove. Hawke couldn't tell if she was re-stoking the fire, or attempting to increase the output of the heating elements through runic magic, but whatever, Bethany was hardly the one in her workshop to make the explosions.

Bethany greeted her with, "Varric's gone for a while. I stayed here." A pause, and then she added, "I sent a message to Dagna."

At second glance, Hawke saw her back was stiff, her neck curved. That Bethany didn't turn to greet her made Hawke's heart sink. The fire spat, crackled, and Bethany added, "She'd fallen asleep in the workshop, of course, but she agreed to close up for me."

A gulp, and Hawke clenched her stomach and forced out, "I-- give her my gratitude as well, please."

Finally Bethany stood, turned. Her face was rueful, free of the blame Hawke knew deserved to be there. "Well, I told her you'd pay her overtime," Bethany offered, and, oh, Hawke knew she didn't deserve Bethany's quick forgiveness, didn't deserve her sister's easy acceptance that yes, yet again Hawke had dragged her into a mess Hawke couldn't clean up.

Unable to face her sister any longer, Hawke pulled out her slate and scrawled a quick message, muttering, "I'll let Bodahn know he has to deal with it."

Bethany sat at one of the kitchen benches, and Hawke sank down across from her, too weary to dissemble. From behind her, Fenris's bass voice rumbled, "If there is nothing else, I should head back to sleep before we continue the hunt."

"Fenris," Hawke began. The elf turned to face her, framed in the doorway to the kitchen. To see him there, so incongruous as to be disconcerting, and yet so at ease that Hawke couldn't imagine him being anywhere else...

When still she said nothing, Fenris asked, "What is it, Hawke?"

Her shoulder ached, and Hawke absently rubbed the spot on her leathers where, no doubt, the stitches had pulled. Her shoulder ached, her gut was empty and painful, and her head ached from too little sleep.

Hawke shrugged, opened her mouth to retort, something light, something in keeping with her usual demeanour. Nothing came out.

She'd put them all in terrible danger, Hawke knew. Templars, Maker damn them. Hawke turned away, let her body sink into a defeated curve, leaned both palms on her kitchen table-- her kitchen table, as if she could simply waltz back into her former life with no consequence.

"Hawke?" Fenris asked.

Refusing to look, Hawke replied, "Nothing."

Fenris took one more unrevealing look at her, then disappeared out the back door.

Bethany, of course, refused to allow her to sulk, and gave Hawke a handy distraction in the form of pulling out all her stitches. She carefully threaded her needle and started redoing her work. "Honestly, Marian, only you could manage to undo this many--"

Grumbling all the while, Bethany briskly washed Hawke's wound, then fixed up the stitches and re-wrapped her bandages. "If you won't rest, at least tonight, Marian," Bethany warned, "I'll sedate you."

Hawke knew her sister would make good on the threat, so she retired without too much protest.

Banished to the guest bedroom, cup of tea in one hand and handy slate in the other, Hawke tried to relax enough to get some rest. She knew the manse was a temporary shelter. Very soon, her neighbours would notice people coming and going, and once that happened, she'd have to move on -- to keep Bethany out of the public eye, never mind the Carta shadows she might pick up. Hawke also knew that the longer she put off leaving, the angrier Cullen would be once she reported to him again.

If she reported to him again.

Hawke twisted on the bed, another stab of pain -- wholly physical, at least -- putting into sharp relief her inability to leave well enough alone. Her shoulder felt like it was on fire, but Bethany had promised that would ease with time. If she could rest.

But Cullen wouldn't wait, and neither would the questions racing through her mind: what had she found that warranted the attack? What did a lowly sailor, an elven teenager, and Athenril's lost territories (after a brief glance at Athenril's notes, nothing more than several dockside warehouses, none in good repair) have in common?

Maker alive, what would drive Templars to risk everything to traffic in tainted lyrium?

Are you resting?

Hawke's slate lit up with Varric's message, and since she was doing nothing but staring blankly at a map of the docks on its smooth surface, she tapped out a quick reply.

at the least, am horizontal. define resting

He wouldn't like it, Hawke knew. Sure enough it was less than a minute before Varric's reply came, in more of a scrawl than his usually neat writing allowed:

Resting: when you don't move your arm around and pull your stitches.

Either he'd been pestering Bethany for information, or Bethany had heard Hawke moving and asked Varric to try and knock some sense into her sister. Hawke sighed. Either was likely. She had no answer for him, because -- thanks to the sling around her arm, tying her elbow tight against her ribs -- she was not, in fact, moving her arm. That she couldn't move her arm made her restless, and her body couldn't keep still despite the bone-weariness that kept threatening to shuffle her off to sleep.

I was mostly joking, Hawke.

Hawke stared at her slate, wishing she knew what to say to Varric. A hundred times a day she ignored his messages as irrelevant; why now were they suddenly precious?

Hawke?

She closed her eyes. Knowing why wouldn't change the fact that unless she stepped up her game, they were all in danger of the knife in the ribs that almost took her out of commission for good.

And Varric, unlike Hawke, didn't wear chest armour.

Suddenly furious at herself, she scratched out:

dont tell me, youre still at the hanged man just waiting for someone to find you

Usually, when Varric intended to reply to her, she felt the tingle of magic the moment after she sent her own message off. He was a quick writer, and could throw out line after line while she stuttered along with her own stylus. This time, however, no tingle in the slate suggested his impending message.

Hawke sighed, let the slate fall to the bed, and rubbed her eyes with her good arm. Writing while one's arm was incapacitated was difficult, but not impossible.

There were so many follow-ups to her message: be careful, and what are you doing, you idiot, and don't you dare make yourself bait for me, and please, i need you to not end up in the river -- but Hawke would send none of them, a failure in and of itself nearly as complete as her failure on this case.

Instead, she sent a message to Cullen requesting a lunch meeting, and resolutely went back to her map of the docks. Something in Athenril's notes would make sense, she could feel it in her gut, intuition tingling and fight-or-flight response pumping adrenaline.

If she could just shove her muzzy brain into seeing it.

Chapter Text

Cullen wouldn't let her come to the precinct, and Hawke wouldn't let him come to the manse, so the next afternoon they were meeting at one of the many cafes dotting Hightown's market boulevards. It was a gamble, Hawke knew, not least of which because they could never talk freely in a place like this, but also because the more time Hawke spent in Hightown the more likely people might think about why she was there.

Hawke glanced over to where Fenris leaned, his matte-black armour and hood keeping him in shadow where he waited for her. She'd refused his company at the table -- too obvious, too open -- though he had readily agreed to shadow her when she'd sent him a message that morning. Now, Fenris held his body still, eyes scanning over the square, and every few seconds Hawke could feel his gaze land on her.

Shifting in her chair, Hawke ducked her head. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Fenris still hadn't moved. Hawke concentrated on Cullen's form moving across the square, instead, watching him as he approached.

"I see you've ordered for me. Again." Cullen swept into the dainty chair opposite Hawke.

This particular cafe preferred bistro-style tables on their patio, but had an unobstructed view of the rest of the market square. Hawke felt far more comfortable with a solid wall at her back, thank you.

Fenris, positioned along the opposite wall, helped immensely, though she didn't like to examine why.

"Are you really going to tell me you wouldn't have ordered biscuits and tea?" Hawke teased.

Cullen rolled his eyes and asked, "Am I that predictable?"

A flash of silver caught her eye, and casually she turned her body, glancing over: ah, the swordsmith, demonstrating the beauty in his wares. His customer, a shorter man, had the signs of a broken nose, hastily set--

"Hawke."

Hawke blinked back into herself and shook her head. "It's been a long few days," she muttered.

She had a cup of tea in front of her for show, but left it on the table. The rule in Intelligence was never eat or drink something you didn't pour yourself, and right now...

"I have something for you," Hawke said, reluctantly.

Cullen's gaze sharpened. "And?"

This was the tricky part. Hawke winced as she shifted around in her chair and inadvertently caught her elbow. The shoulder still wasn't healing as quickly as it ought, Maker damn it. The roofs, last night, were probably a bit much.

Hawke inhaled, frowned, and finally told Cullen, "And I'm not sure that giving it to you won't result in your untimely death by bronto carriage."

"Let me be the judge of that," Cullen reassured her quietly. "I'm not so easy to kill, after all," he added.

"Don't I know it," she replied. Glancing around once more, Hawke pulled out her slate -- the parchment from Athenril's was too obvious, too noticeably an exchange of information. Her slate, however, held a map marked with Athenril's notes, plus the details on the body. Handing it over to Cullen, Hawke said, "We're missing a few pieces, but it may be enough to start with."

He studied her slate for a long moment, squinting at the map of the docks, the obscure notations she'd made against each warehouse where Athenril had caught people moving crates: unknown crates, unknown people. Finally, he asked, "And the information's good?"

A shrug, and Hawke replied, "It's bad for business."

"Yes, and Athenril's goes a long way toward keeping the nobles up here fat and happy." Athenril's goods were prized among those of the Hightown elite wishing to show elegant taste and refinement without breaking the bank, so Hawke knew Cullen was right.

Cullen dropped her slate onto the table with a clatter and ran a weary hand through his hair. Sighing, he told Hawke, "I wish she'd mentioned it sooner."

"When?" Hawke asked him. She leaned forward, face set in a pleasant smile she didn't feel, and murmured, "Before we found the body? She's put together scraps and suspicions. It wouldn't have prevented the murder."

Cullen looked away, into the market square. The lines on his face spoke of deep exhaustion, and immediately Hawke felt guilt squelch up her gut; of course Cullen cared that there were likely more murders out there, never to be reported, never to go noted at all. Having no answers, no recourse, wasn't a reason to take her frustration out on him.

Without looking at her, Cullen said thoughtfully, "If the information is good, then we're looking at nearly two months of weekly shipments. Yes?" Hawke nodded, not that he paid her any mind. He continued, "They've carved themselves out a nice piece of the docks, and if you're right about Sulla's boy..."

That was the key, of course: there was no way to know if the dismembered body in the cellar was the elven teenager or not. Nothing remained of him large enough to identify, there were no discernible marks, or tattoos. And yet, something in her gut, some instinct, said it was him. Not that they'd ever find evidence to prove it.

"What are you going to do?" Hawke asked. She didn't want to defer to Cullen. Part of her wanted to bird-dog this all the way back to, oh, wherever these bastards came from. Fenris's involvement in Wycome suggested Minrathous. Templar involvement suggested Val Royeaux-- and Hawke shuddered.

Part of her wanted to grab Bethany and get on the swiftest clipper to Rivain.

Cullen turned back to face her and said, "I have to tell the seneschal something." Hawke made a face, and he narrowed his eyes. "This isn't about my career or your career, Hawke," he warned. "Whatever is happening, the viscount needs to know. Maker knows he isn't stupid."

"Just ineffectual," Hawke muttered, leaning back. She crossed her arms over her chest, tilted her head and watched Cullen. "And when he asks how you found out? What then?" she challenged.

Cullen stood, tugging on his coat to take his leave -- food untouched. "He won't ask," Cullen told Hawke. His tone was resigned, rather than reassuring, but it was enough to know Cullen would keep her, and more importantly Bethany, away from it.

"Tell Bran, lots of love," Hawke replied, hoping the scowl on her face was strong enough, defiant enough, to mask the fear that had taken root in her heart.

Across the square, a man called out as one of his workers dropped a crate, and the slap of wood against stone made her jump, good hand halfway into her sleeve for the throwing knife tucked there. Cullen watched her, waiting, as Hawke tried to settle her racing heart, dropped her hand, and surreptitiously watched the two workers.

Silks. They were unloading silks for Jean-Luc, nothing more. The one hauling the goods had a tattoo on his face, a line of black running from temple to chin, and Hawke stared in that direction until the man was long gone, down the steps to the docks.

"Hawke," Cullen said, low and urgent, concern written on his face as he leaned in to speak quietly to her, "you cannot do this. Not alone. Not again."

She shook her head, not even sure what she was refuting, since she knew it was true: last time she'd done this alone, Hawke had lost everything -- title, name, reputation -- thanks to her own blind faith in Anders, her own stubborn loyalty destroying her...and had nearly lost Beth as well. Only Cullen's intervention had kept her sister free, after Hawke had ruined everything.

Still, she couldn't put Cullen in the path of it again.

"I know," she told him. Couldn't look at him, in case he saw the lie. Instead, Hawke stared into her lap; one hand kneaded the other, and her hands shook.

-

As Hawke left the Hightown market, Fenris fell into step beside her.

"You are moving stiffly," Fenris remarked, as if it were of no more consequence than the weather. He glanced around them, interested, as Hawke led them in the direction of her manse rather than to the steps heading down to Lowtown.

A brief grimace, and Hawke resettled her arm. "It isn't healing as it ought," Hawke allowed.

"Your sister did a tidy job," he replied. Fenris paused, then added, "It is likely you put too much strain on it, last night."

Hawke felt a flash of anger in her chest (there was no need for Fenris to point out her folly), and then Hawke smirked, let the noise of Hightown's wealthiest brushing shoulders with her stained, unwashed leathers cheer her up. "Bethany does what she does, and I do what I do," she replied. Hawke glanced around them, and said, "I need to do some scouting."

Fenris stopped moving, and Hawke turned to face him. He wore an obstinate frown, arms crossed. Inwardly Hawke sighed. This wouldn't be easy. Fenris asked, "Cullen said we should not do this alone, did he not?"

"What's this 'we'?" she shot back, and gestured sharply for him to follow. They had to get off the street. Hawke had no doubt there would be eyes on them soon, if there weren't already. They had to get out of view quickly.

Fenris scowled, but didn't argue as she lead them back around to her garden wall, scanning the surrounding area before ducking into the alley. She couldn't see anyone; that didn't mean they weren't there, but her instincts told her that the eyes on them had stayed behind in the market's crowd, rather than give themselves away by following to the deserted street.

"Hawke--"

Pulling out her slate, Hawke tapped a quick message out to Bethany:

open the garden gate?

Hawke stared down at her message, but Bethany didn't reply. She looked at Fenris, who was staring at her thunderously. Hawke sighed, and told him, "I'm not quite so dim as to try and scale the wall again. The gate opens from the inside."

Fenris's face relaxed, and he hunched his shoulders as he looked away from her. Stiffly, he replied, "You would not. I am able to--"

"Oh for Maker's sake, Fenris," Hawke grumbled. She shoved her slate in her pocket, tapping her foot and glaring at the back garden wall. She said, "I'm not an invalid, nor am I helpless."

"You nearly died scant days ago, Hawke," came Fenris's voice. She nearly jumped, shocked, when she felt his hand on the back of her neck. Gentle, missing his gauntlet, Fenris's palm was warm and comforting against her nape, and Hawke relaxed into his touch.

It was easier, facing the wall instead of Fenris, for Hawke to admit, "It wasn't the closest I've come to dying."

"It was the closest I have seen you come." His hand slid down, to rest in the small of her back, and Hawke shivered; it was the same place Varric had touched her, the day after she'd been stabbed.

Hawke heard footsteps behind the tall stone wall, and yet didn't step away from Fenris. The gate opened, and Orana peered out into the back lane, before allowing the heavy iron gate to swing open just far enough to allow Hawke and Fenris inside.

Her back garden was not so big, nor so remarkable. It was barely thirty steps from the back gate to her kitchen door. Fenris kept his palm at her back, the whole way.

-

As they stepped into the kitchen, Orana clucked her tongue. She pointed at Hawke, and brandished a towel, saying, "Oh, mistress, you'll get mud all over the floors I just cleaned."

Hawke gritted her teeth (she hadn't wanted Orana in harm's way, why would Bethany call her), but kept her smile in place -- a real smile, even, as she hadn't seen the elven woman in months. "You know me," she replied lightly, "mud everywhere." A pause, and then she added casually, "You haven't seen my sister around, have you?"

Orana was already bending down to wipe the puddles off the kitchen floor, tsking under her breath. "Boots off," she said, standing up and stepping back as she shooed the two of them through the kitchen into the front foyer beyond.

It wasn't that Hawke wasn't glad to see Orana, nor smell the scent of baking, or feel the difference -- the windows were open, she realized dumbly, Orana had let loose the shutters to bring in a breeze. Hawke hadn't noticed how musty the house had been. Her stomach grumbled, pointing out that the only thing she'd eaten in over a day was a piece of hardtack bread before she'd met with Cullen, and it sat heavy in her gut, the vigilance required to maintain cover and keep her senses sharp roiling with bile.

But, oh, the windows were open, nothing but sheer gauze between the house and any manner of projectile. A crossbow bolt, a thrown knife, even a vial of airborne poison, all could--

Orana tilted her head, eyes at her feet, but she said, "Please, my lady, the wards and lines are still set. Lady Bethany took care of it before she left."

Hawke slumped a little in relief, looking around. Few candles were lit, the light from the tall windows enough to illuminate her front hallway. Drop cloths covered most of the furniture still, and Hawke was glad to see them. She could not get too comfortable here, Bethany's freedom depended on them staying out of view. Still, the bench near the front door was uncovered, and -- giving in -- Hawke sat to remove her boots.

Fenris wore a sleek kind of half-sandal today, buckled in the same manner as his heavier armoured boots, but with heel and arch bare. He sat beside her and unclasped them carefully. "I did not know you were in the business of slavery," he murmured, quiet enough that Hawke was fairly certain Orana wouldn't hear.

Already exhausted simply from being back in the house, Hawke snapped, "I did her a favour." Let him assume what he would.

A small smile, and Fenris answered, "Is there anyone in this city you have not done a favour, Hawke?"

"Varric," she replied, and then started. She snarled at herself for dropping her guard -- this was only her manse, it was hostile territory. The nobles of Hightown were the first ones calling for her head, three years ago, and abandoning her title and estate was the least punishment allowed.

Hawke was saved from Fenris's reply by Orana, who came in and scolded Hawke in her gentle way. "Come and eat, you must be ready for tea."

Knowing that Orana would fret unless she complied, Hawke meekly submitted to the shepherding, allowing herself to be herded into the kitchen. At least they weren't being forced to eat in the formal dining room.

"Did Bethany say when she'd be back, Orana?" Hawke asked, as she settled onto the kitchen bench and accepted a cup of tea. Beside her, Fenris did the same, thanking Orana gracefully in Arcanum, which made the woman blush and curtsy.

"Lady Bethany said she'd be back before the dinner bells, ser," Orana told her, and then added, "so I should air out her rooms. Shall I--"

"No, that's," and Hawke swallowed. "I've been using the guest room down here, that's fine."

She knew Orana would expect her to take up the main suite once more, but Hawke couldn't bring herself to go into the room. Not when the reprieve would be so short, and the loss of her home all the more painful for using her old room, her old comforts.

"If you wish," Orana replied, but her tone meant she didn't approve.

Hawke answered, as firm as she dared, "I do, Orana. I don't want to make more work for you and Bodahn when we have to close up the rooms again. The back guest room is fine."

The woman left with a bundle of rags and a bucket, presumably to air out Bethany's room. Left alone with Fenris, Hawke applied herself to the cakes and sandwiches rather than engage him in conversation.

Fenris, however, had other ideas. "She is a very devoted servant."

Hawke ignored him, hoping that would be the end of it. She didn't know the details of Fenris's own past, other than he had experienced pain (and likely captivity) in Tevinter. He'd picked up on Orana's past, so whether he'd been a detective or not in Minrathous, something meant he could see her body language, deferential after even all these years.

He chewed thoughtfully, adding, "You have done her a service, it seems. She'll almost disagree with you."

Hawke choked as she laughed, swallowing awkwardly before replying, "Oh, she'll disagree with me when she thinks I'll listen."

"Then you may have saved her life," Fenris answered seriously.

It was strange; but Hawke knew it, or could see it when she thought about it. Orana had bloomed, first under her mother and then Bodahn, their careful kindness and steady presence enough to give her breathing room. Hawke, too abrupt, too dangerous to be a comfort, had tried simply to stay out of the way.

"Orana has made a great deal for herself since coming to Kirkwall," Hawke finally replied. "She's had a business in the alienage, since--" and, oh. Always this sting, everywhere in this house, even if abandoning her title, abandoning her career and comfort and security -- was nothing compared to keeping Bethany free.

Hawke finished, determined to sound casual, "Since we had to leave the mansion."

"What does she do?"

"A little of everything," Hawke said, "but mostly catering. The nobles like exotic food, as long as they can brag about liking it, and she's a fine chef." Hawke chose another sandwich, and added, "I really had nothing to do with it."

Fenris put his own sandwich down, piercing gaze trained on Hawke; she met his eyes, and was astonished to see admiration on his face. "You offered her safe harbour, Hawke," he told her. "That can be everything." Fenris dropped the stare, turning back to his food. "It took me several years to believe it, but when I did..."

Fenris broke off, shrugging. Hawke didn't know what to say, but finally offered, "It can be a hard thing, to find solid ground after running for so long."

"In that, we are agreed," Fenris admitted.

Hawke knew the flight of someone desperate to leave a hostile Minrathous was nothing like the voluntary recruitment of a scout into the army. She'd been old enough, wise enough moreover, to know what that recruitment would mean: days without sleep, spending her time along the ceasefire slipping carefully between the cracks. Weeks with no word from home, no news of Bethany's freedom.

She'd killed her first man at eighteen, not even a darkspawn agent: an Orlesian, tagged for sending coded messages to Val Chevin. It hadn't been her call, but Hawke had chosen time and place and method, had slipped the poison in the man's wine.

To drop that caution, to let that mask fall -- she hadn't in the desperate flight from Ferelden's crumbling front. She hadn't in employ to Athenril; she'd liked the woman well enough, but hadn't trusted her an inch.

"So why is it you have never done a favour for Varric?"

Fenris's voice broke through Hawke's distraction, and she sipped her tea to give herself time to answer. Her traitorous brain, however, had other ideas, and she was speaking before she even realized what would come. Hawke said, "He's the only person who's never asked."

"He has never asked you for anything?"

Hawke shrugged. There'd been business proposals, of course, and several quid pro quo tips over the years. Varric had been a steady guest in the manse for the few years they'd lived here, too. "I suppose you could call one thing we did a favour," she replied, slowly. "But it was something I would have done anyway."

"Yet another mission to do good?"

Hawke narrowed her eyes, done with tea. If she didn't get out of the manse and back onto the street, nothing would get done. The Carta would have people watching her house, spies well-trained enough to see the lights in the windows. She'd have to go out the sewers and into Darktown.

Fenris stood, watching her. "Hawke?"

Remembering his question, Hawke smiled, expression dangerous. "Some things can't be forgiven," she told him. "And it was my payment, as much as Varric's, to give."

She collected her boots from the foyer, carrying them in her hand rather than lacing them up in the hall in deference to Orana's mop. Fenris copied her, following her back to the back pantry without comment.

Hawke opened the trap door down to the sewer tunnel with difficulty, her arm in the sling making it even more difficult to maneuver. Glancing at Fenris, she could see in his face that he would say nothing. Because of it, Hawke grunted, and gestured in frustration for him to go first. This damnable arm had to heal, and quickly.

Fenris raised his eyebrows, surprised, but began descending the ladder. When they were both in the tunnel, Hawke flicked the lever to reset the traps and the trapdoor, then followed Fenris down the tunnel through the muck.

His voice in the quiet damp was startling as he said, "Wycome was the first place I felt at home." He glanced behind himself, at Hawke's face, and she stumbled to see the openness in his expression, the anger and fear and-- hope. "I am glad it is not the last."

-

Hawke didn't want to stop, but Anders had said a day, and they were right by the clinic. The mouldy smell of Darktown gave Hawke a headache on a good day. The food she'd eaten twisted in her gut the longer she smelled Darktown's unique combination of wet concrete and stone, mildew, and shit.

The enchanted lantern above Anders' door was lit, meaning there'd be the usual dozen patients waiting for service. Hawke felt a stab of guilt for taking the healer away from these people, those who had nowhere else to turn, but her anxiety over the lyrium was stronger.

The bell chimed as the two of them entered, but Anders was nowhere to be seen. A young woman manned the front table and was arguing loudly with an older, stooped woman over something.

"Should we intervene?" Fenris asked her.

Hawke studied the scene. The women were angry, true, but the volunteer didn't look cowed or cornered, and the argument seemed unlikely to erupt in violence. She shook her head. "Not unless the girl can't handle it."

"By then it may be too late," Fenris replied, but he showed no inclination to move, staying at Hawke's side. She'd positioned herself against the far wall, standing, while most of the patients were sitting or lying on makeshift benches and chairs. Many, she knew, didn't have the energy to stand long enough to wait.

The girl behind the counter finally saw them and waved them over. "We aren't open for healing yet, but he's in the back," she told them curtly, and was already waving someone else -- a mother and two children -- to her.

Hawke steeled herself and swept silently into Anders' back room, the barrier curtain making her shiver. Fenris grunted as they went through, and Hawke realized that it had given Fenris a sharp shock.

Anders was sprawled out on the tiny cot, snoring softly. Around the room were detritus from his research, discarded parchments, several filthy cups and saucers, along with a containment apparatus. Hawke swallowed, nervous, and strode over to shake the mage. That he'd felt the need for further containment didn't bode well for anyone.

The first glimpse of his eyes were too blue, too wild; and Hawke reared back, hand at her sheath-- when Anders sagged, rubbing at his face. Hawke relaxed, hand dropping but fingers still twitching, until Anders asked, groggy, "What's the time?"

"Past five," she told him. "Do you have anything for us?"

Anders sloped over to his worktable, shuffling aside several implements -- surgical or gardening, it was hard to tell. "I think so," he muttered, "though I wish I didn't."

Ice wrapped around Hawke's spine, goose bumps rose. That had been Bethany's reaction, too. "What?"

Anders came over to her, handing her several sheaves of paper. The top one had diagrams on it, but Hawke didn't recognize anything other than a bone. The terminology was unfamiliar, as well. She looked at Anders, mouth thin, asked again, "What is it?"

He sank back down onto the cot, staring at his hands. "I tested the results five times, just to be sure," he replied, "first with the inert dust and then with rodents." A shaking hand waved at the containment apparatus. "You're going to want to take that with you."

Unwillingly, she looked at the metal box. It was enchanted, she could tell from this distance. That she could tell, when she had no connection to magic whatsoever, meant it was incredibly heavily enchanted. Not asking wouldn't help, and so she forced her mouth to form the words, dry throat working before she choked out, "What's inside?"

Anders shook his head and ran a hand through his long, messy hair. He was tired, Hawke knew, tired and seeing some terrible nightmare; his eyes were dark and the hollows of his cheeks, shadowed. I did this, she thought, then -- angry, burning with it -- good.

Finally, he looked at her. "Two rodents," he replied, voice flat and toneless. "At least, what's left of them. The rest is that lyrium. Blighted lyrium."

There was an awful pause for the implication to sink in (lyrium and Blight, lyrium and the Blight, Andraste on her throne, what were they going to do), in which Hawke sucked in a breath between her teeth, whistled, and Fenris swore behind her, the musical language of Tevinter guttural and fierce.

"Do what you want, Hawke," Anders told her, and handed her the box. It felt so light, for such a burden. Another shaky breath, and he laughed, wild. "Are we even, yet?"

Hawke gulped. It was ridiculous to think that she could feel the box pulsing in her hands, awkwardly holding it between wrapped wrist and good arm. It was more ridiculous, however, to think that she and Anders would ever be even; why did she even come back here? Ever come back here. They'd never--

"We should deliver that to the precinct," Fenris said from behind her, and put a hand on her shoulder.

Hawke swallowed and tried to gather spit in her mouth, dry as a bone. Glancing behind her, she nodded at Fenris. She nudged against his hand: something, acknowledgment of his concern when Hawke couldn't express her gratitude out loud. Refused to look at Anders or answer Anders. Hawke would give him nothing more.

Anders wouldn't look at her, either, just gestured to the box, and said, "I don't recommend opening it any time soon."

-

Once they were topside, Fenris offered to escort their package and her original evidence baggy to the precinct. Hawke debated with herself for a moment: on the one hand, she'd be glad to be rid of whatever Anders felt too dangerous -- Anders, of all people, felt it too dangerous -- to keep. On the other hand, handing over the box felt like cowardice.

Her mind was made up by the warmth of her slate in her pocket, signalling messages she'd been ignoring.

"I'll walk with you to the Hanged Man," Hawke said instead. She kept the box in her arms, rather than surrender it to Fenris. No need for both of them to be hobbled, and much as she didn't want to admit it, with her shoulder burning she was the liability in a fight. He nodded, saying nothing on the decision, for which Hawke was grateful.

It was late enough that Lowtown was relatively quiet, most windows shuttered for the evening. Here and there noise from a tavern spilled into the alleys, but Hawke subconsciously catalogued and ignored it all as harmless, much like she ignored the bootfalls moving away from them, the everyday noises of Lowtown at night.

She ducked instinctively, twisted around, but it wasn't until she'd dropped the containment box and had her blade in her hand that Hawke consciously realized they'd been ambushed, men ducking out of the nearby doorway. Fenris, she was pleased to note, had his small sword out and was at her back in a fighting stance.

There were four of them, dressed in tattered pieces of ill-fitting armour -- and that, more than the sneers, more than the grime and swagger, made Hawke relax: this wasn't Carta. No Carta member would wear a piece of under-armour that didn't fit, not in Lowtown or anywhere else, no matter how undercover they were.

"This is exactly what I don't need right now," she announced. Nodding to the four-- there, that one, the one with the largest snarl, he thought himself the leader. "I'm happy to take you down, gentlemen," Hawke called out, "but I have a schedule. So if you wouldn't mind..."

Fenris stepped slightly ahead of her, covering her injured shoulder. Without taking his eyes off the group, he asked warily, "Hawke? What is this?"

At her name, the two in the back looked at each other, and in the dim lamplight Hawke saw stirrings of alarm in their faces. Ah, those two had heard of her. Good. "It's all right," she said, loud enough for the group to hear. "We're just being mugged."

"Are you daft?" said the leader, and then, "Who in the hell are--"

"It's Hawke," one of the ones who recognized her hissed. "You bastard, we're never going to win against--"

The leader charged at Fenris, making quick work of any discussion, and Hawke sighed as she carefully disarmed the two on her left. A quick pivot and a vicious kick to one's knee, another sharp jab with the blunt end of her blade, and they were down, moaning or unconscious on the ground. Fenris, meanwhile, had broken the leader's blade arm and had him on his knees, arm bent up at an unnatural angle, forcing him still.

Hawke pivoted to catch the fourth -- the one who'd known of her -- only to catch a glimpse of him pounding pavement the other direction. On another day, she'd give chase. Tonight, she had more important things to do.

Hawke stepped toward the two thugs on the ground near her feet, and kneeled down to peer at them. "I don't recognize these. Must be new." The leader, predictably, spat, trying to hit her boots. She scoffed, standing and brushing her knees off with one palm. "We'll tie them and leave them for a constable."

"Is that wise?" At a protest from the man below him, Fenris twitched his arm, and the leader howled in pain.

Hawke was already pulling cord out from an inner pocket. She wrapped the leader's hands and feet, tight, and Fenris let his man go. The man slid down onto his side, panting in pain, face against the dirty cobblestones. His growled out, "You'll pay for that," but Hawke knelt down, gripped his broken wrist, and ground her thumb into the break, earning yet another howl.

In an even voice, Hawke told him, "Next time I'll take your balls. The time after that? I won't be so nice." Looking at the leader, Hawke allowed her mask to tighten, let a glimpse surface of the woman she'd been behind enemy lines. "You have no idea," she told him, and pushed once more upon his wrist before standing.

Calmly, she said to Fenris, "I'll send a message to the precinct about this lot. You get that," and she pointed to the containment box, "somewhere safe."

Fenris's expression was stoic, and didn't flinch or move or twitch at Hawke's actions. He nodded curtly and replied, "I will see you later."

She nodded back, keeping herself upright and stiff, then as Fenris picked up the containment box, Hawke pulled out her slate, turning toward the Hanged Man.

-

The Hanged Man at this hour was full of workmen, quietly drowning their sorrows or raucously celebrating their successes. A quick glance around the room confirmed that none of Hawke's close friends were in attendance, but that wasn't particularly surprising. Bethany should be at home-- Bethany should be at the manse, by now, work day finished. Isabela had done a runner up the coast the morning after Hawke had been stabbed.

Isabela didn't do well with strong emotions or attachments, and Hawke's near-misses reliably sent her fleeing once the danger was passed.

Varric should have been sitting by the fire as always. Instead, two of Athenril's occupied his table, talking in low voices. Their body language, however, didn't suggest planning a heist or job, so Hawke nodded to them and chose not to intrude.

She sat at the bar, in the corner closest the kitchen entrance, because it was the only stool that offered an unobstructed view of the room. With her back to the wall, the door on her left and the bar on her right, her bad arm leaning against the dull sheen of the wood, Hawke felt more secure.

"The usual?" asked the bartender -- a new kid, Hawke thought, though not so new that he didn't know her preference of light ale over dark, because it was less likely to have mud in the glass.

Still. Hawke shook her head and said, "Just some oatmeal, if you would." She'd be able to drink again here one day, Hawke knew. It was just a matter of time and distance; every time something happened that caused her to swear off drink or field work or thievery or cliffs or the entirety of the coast or all of bloody Darktown...Hawke stepped right back in it, with enough time.

The bartender put her porridge down without comment, even handing her a cup of milk for it with a sly wink. For the effort, she flipped him an extra gold piece, which he caught easily and slid under his sleeve.

why arent you at your usual table?

True, it hadn't been a typical week, and everyone was thrown, but Varric hadn't missed more than a few days in the Hanged Man while actually in Kirkwall in years.

Do not tell me you're at the bar, Hawke.

Hawke blinked, searching for a retort, but already the sigil glowed warm. Varric wasn't waiting for her to reply.

Never mind, of course you are.


shouldn't I be

Instead of responding to her, Varric sent:

Your shadow looks especially troubled today. What did you do, refuse to sleep with him?

She sighed, answering:

for the last time i am not contemplating sleeping wiht him unless you ask very nicely. are you at the office?

Hawke waited, but Varric didn't send anything in response, and she grew increasingly impatient. It had only been a day since she'd woken up with him, but Hawke already felt the loss, wanted him sitting by the fire, one piece of something normal amid the chaos and paranoia that was Kirkwall.

Suddenly melancholy, heart wrenched, wondering if they'd even get one night together before the Carta managed to get a lucky hit, Hawke sent:

youd better be at my house when i get back tonight

Not that Hawke knew what time that would be. She was sitting in the Hanged Man because if any of her informants had more for her, they'd look for her here first, and sitting around in her mansion while the Carta and Templars and whoever else was involved slowly closed in made her feel as if she was drowning.

Better to give them herself as a target than lead them to Bethany.

Still nothing from Varric. Idly, Hawke stirred her porridge, eating a few disgusting spoonfuls before scratching out:

fine, youre angry i went to the bar. come and join me

Nothing.

if i go home will you she started to scrawl, and then, erasing it, we're going to have an hour to ourselves whatever else is and then she erased that, too, knowing that it wasn't true.

Finally, Hawke sent:

when i get home tonight youd better be unclothed

and sighed, flipping her slate over in her hands. Brennan hadn't reported anything, and aside from sending her a veiled warning, Cullen had nothing. Fenris had gone to deliver their findings.

While Hawke should care about the properties of Blighted lyrium, something deep in her simply wanted to flee the entire thing. Part of it was finding the body pieces, she knew, seeing the lyrium at the crime scene and feeling the ill effects -- feeling it call out to her, Maker. And obviously knowing that the lyrium was actually growing, growing in the flesh of--

Hawke shoved the bowl of porridge away, revolted. Nothing about that stuff was good news, and if she never saw it again it would be too soon.

Sorry, news at the precinct.

Hawke scrambled for her stylus, sent:

whats going on

Varric was sending more, and Hawke was already standing as the words appeared on her slate.

You'd better come to the station, I just saw Curly book someone.

It wasn't unlike Cullen not to notify her, Hawke told herself as she dumped a handful of coins on the bar in payment for her half-eaten meal, waving to Norah so the server could collect them before a patron did. Still, running out of the Hanged Man, Hawke cursed Cullen. Darting out of the bar and up the stairs to street level, Hawke scratched out a reply in shaky letters.

are you sure and who saw

Of course Varric was sure. He wouldn't have told her otherwise, but worrying about how many people in the precinct knew the details of this particular case was enough to have her feet pounding pavement, dodging market stalls and carriages and people milling around the sidewalks, good hand grasping the hilt of her curved blade as she raced through the dark streets.

Her head was still pounding, too many nights on high alert, too many hours spent feeling trapped in enemy territory. She hadn't felt this cornered since scouting through darkspawn camps, alone, deep within enemy lines and too wired to sleep for three days.

That week, Hawke had nearly slit another scout's throat as she unexpectedly came into a friendly camp: the sentry, aware that Hawke was army but not how long she'd been in the field, had approached as if Hawke were just another soldier.

A block from the Hanged Man, a door slammed in the distance, and Hawke twisted around wildly, throwing knife in hand. Senses primed, she knew the Carta uniform, the armour, even as whoever was wearing it disappeared up a set of back stairs.

Heart pounding, she continued to make her way to the precinct, every second step expecting another knife to the ribs. This time, she knew, they wouldn't miss, because this time they knew where the gaps were in her armour.

Varric's reply pinged out just as she spied the door to the precinct.

Curly said to make myself scarce so I'm taking off. I'll see you at home, beautiful. Without clothes, as requested.

The sudden rush of heat warred with the sour tang of adrenaline, and Hawke slowed to a brisk walk, suddenly dizzy. Two city guards stood outside the front entrance to the precinct, and the silhouette of another on the roof across from the building gave her pause.

Whatever was going on, Cullen should have sent her a message. That he hadn't, made Hawke's nerves sing out.

-

The first foot inside the precinct, and Cullen had been waiting for her: he gestured, serious enough Hawke obeyed without complaint and followed him into his office. She murmured, voice angry but low, quiet enough it wouldn't be heard outside his office walls, "Why didn't you call me in?"

Well, unless someone had put a listening device in his clock, or in a desk drawer, one that worked passively and transmitted sound to a nearby receiver, some new rune that--

No. Probably only Dagna and Bethany would have that ability.

Cullen stood, rifling through files on his desk, various scrolls and letters. None were her work, Hawke knew, because they were too neat. He told her carefully, "I wanted to be sure before I sent for you."

"Sure of what?" Hawke countered, but something wasn't right. Cullen was angry, she realized, but not at her or she would have heard about it straight off. Cullen got angriest when he felt helpless. He wouldn't give her details, so perhaps she wasn't the only one considering the possibility of surveillance.

"Someone is following up on the details. Those we can verify," Cullen said, and handed her a file. "Why don't you catch up, and we'll begin."

What they'd begin, Hawke noticed he didn't say. What details they were following up, who was in interrogation and why, Cullen said none of these things out loud. Hawke looked at the pages in her hand, and saw it was the original copy of the arresting guard's account. Skimming the first page, Hawke's eyebrows raised.

Apparently, whoever they had in interrogation had waived the right to representation, hadn't even asked to consult a magistrate, he'd just confessed.

Instead of all the questions Hawke wanted to ask (who was this, what ridiculousness meant Cullen was buying it, how could this possibly be legitimate), Hawke snapped her mouth closed. There it was, at the top of the second piece of parchment: "turned over to the authority of the city guard by a Templar lieutenant."

Cullen knew when she'd reached that point. He smiled, mouth twisted in a sardonic expression, and said, "I'm going to get something to eat. I'll see you when we have confirmation of his story."

Hawke didn't bother asking what they'd have, because it was obvious, even from the summary presented in paper and ink in her hands, that it was one pile of nug shit.

-

Hawke watched the man, slumped over the table like his strings had been cut, limbs akimbo and lifeless. His head lolled, though she didn't know if it was exhaustion or something more insidious, more dangerous, like blood magic.

"How are you going to handle him?" she asked Cullen.

"Still formulating a strategy," Cullen replied. He stood beside her, at parade rest as always, studying the fool in interrogation.

Behind the enchanted glass, the man didn't move. Too weary, or too beaten, Hawke couldn't say. Something about the tableau screamed at her instincts. That he was far too accepting, obviously, but something deeper tugged at her, and she was distracted.

"A sergeant followed up on his credentials, his name, and the story checks out," Cullen offered. "Former Templar, kicked out in disgrace. Recent arrival to the city, no connections, no known associates, no career or family to speak of. Said it was random."

"So this man -- alone -- butchered a boy, hacked him into little bits, and disposed of all but the five pieces we have in our evidence freezer? For the thrill?" Hawke asked. She put every ounce of skepticism into her voice, but it was unnecessary. Cullen merely glanced at her, a ghost of a smile.

"It does strain credulity, doesn't it?" he answered. Cullen hadn't shifted an inch from the time Hawke strode into the viewing chamber until now. Coming to life, Cullen shrugged his shoulders, settling his coat on his broad back before saying, "But his details fit what's on record. I suppose one of us had best get his full official statement."

"I can--"

Cullen shook his head, finally turning to Hawke. "I want you to observe," he said. He raised a hand, placating, adding before she could argue, "I don't want him to see your face."

It was galling to think she wasn't even allowed to question her own suspect, but-- "Make sure you ask him how he met Sulla's son," was all she said.

One raised eyebrow. "You think he'll answer?"

Hawke turned back to interrogation. She knew the enchantment on the window meant that while she could see everything, their suspect would see only smoky glass. "Probably not," Hawke replied absently.

Something was still off about the man. He was sitting at the table, head down on his folded arms, body slumped, posture defeated. Cullen had left him in the room for an hour, but already he'd ceded the battleground without a fight. In Hawke's experience, individuals who were capable of, much less enjoyed, butchering people -- even those who'd confessed to it -- would not be broken after only an hour.

Hawke added, tapping her finger against her elbow, "I want to know how a man with no known associates met an elven teenager who never left the alienage."

Cullen whipped around, gaze sharp. "You think they're using the alienage to move goods."

It wasn't a question, but still Hawke paused. "No," she admitted, then amended, "Maybe. None of these connections make sense. Templars and elves? Goods don't flow through the alienage marketplace, the Carta doesn't do business there."

A growl from behind her, low and gruff, came out of nowhere, and Hawke startled, but didn't turn. Her instincts had registered the other man in the room, but subconsciously, so Fenris's words were a surprise.

"It is where coin is exchanged if you are in the business of slavery, Hawke," Fenris said, voice quiet and very dangerous. "It is where one can find those in Kirkwall who deal in people no one will miss."

A charged pause, and Hawke felt tension sing along her spine, muscles tight and adrenaline shoot through her limbs. Fenris was angry, she knew from his tone, angry and taut, and her own body tensed in response.

Cullen rubbed his face but replied, "That explains Carta, but Templars?"

"These are ex-Templars," Fenris replied, and shrugged. "Are they not?"

"Are they?" Cullen asked.

Hawke had watched the man through the glass during the exchange. He looked, for all intents and purposes, fast asleep. She knew better, had spent enough time in the King's army with all manner of poisons and remedies to encourage truthfulness, to relax the mind, to confuse the senses. She knew how to wield a sharp knife, carefully and ruthlessly enough that it was rare anyone wouldn't give up their secrets before she drew near, stiletto in hand.

This man would not speak any secrets other than those he'd already released, no matter the technique.

"Something about him," she told them, slowly, "he won't tell us anything important." His neck was relaxed, she realized suddenly, and that was it: he knew what would happen. He knew his fate, and all they could do was watch it play out.

Finally it twigged, what she'd picked up on but couldn't describe; he had a runed cuff on, just barely visible under his sleeve.

Hawke turned to Cullen and Fenris, eyes narrowed and mouth thin. Hawke said, "Fenris, you were tracking mages smuggling goods through the Marches." She turned to watch their former Templar, whose hands weren't shaking and who wore a cuff she'd bet all her gold came from Tevinter.

Still, Hawke's voice was steady when she asked them, "So where's the one city in the Marches that Tevinter mages and Templars could do trade in misery and lyrium?"

Chapter Text

Hawke couldn't bring herself to watch the entire interrogation.

The point at which Cullen made the man break down into tears, hands shaking and desperate and yet giving no information away, she made her escape.

Despite the feeling of being watched, Hawke sat at her desk, no idea what else to do, and pulled her slate out for lack of any better ideas. At the least, checking it would give her a chance to scan the room for anything out of place. No doubt they were under surveillance, and she didn't recognize half the guards milling around. Though whether that was because Bran had sent some of the Keep's fine defenders down to the muck, or something else...

Elegant had sent her a message, a plea to have Hawke over to dine this month. Hawke hesitated, then resolutely ignored the message. She'd go see Elegant, but later, once she knew that whoever was following her wouldn't know.

Bethany had also sent her a message, a simple:

are you going to be back in time for supper?

Hawke sighed and tried not to feel guilty as she replied:

probably not


It's fine, I've already eaten. I was just checking if I should leave the food out

Bethany's immediate response made Hawke feel even worse. At least her sister was at home, fed, and (hopefully) soon to be asleep behind warded stone walls. Another message came through, Bethany's tight, careful script messier than usual, as if someone had jostled her arm.

Varric says if you aren't home by midnight bells, he's going to sleep.

And Varric would, too.

Hawke stood, stretching, and glanced into Cullen's office to where his meticulous timepiece ticked away in near-perfect sync to the chantry's chiming bells. A little over an hour before midnight. Hawke scowled. She would never make it back to Hightown unless she left now. Even then, to make the trek on foot would be near enough an hour, and the bronto caravans under the city would be no faster, this time of evening--

"Hawke," Cullen called as he made his way across the precinct floor.

Hawke obediently followed Cullen and Fenris into Cullen's office, closing the door behind her. Only then did she ask, "How much of a waste of time was it?"

It was Fenris who spoke, and to have him speak over Cullen was assertive enough, impatient enough, from the usually-staid Fenris that Hawke blinked. He said, "He said nothing, but it was not a complete waste."

She turned to Cullen, who looked a thousand years old, sitting behind his desk and shrugging out of his heavy coat. "He was a Templar recruit, not that he'll admit it outright," Cullen told her. "Implied it was all about the money to buy lyrium." A beat, and Cullen added, "He readily confessed. Signed, sealed and delivered, so they say."

Hawke's mouth twisted, and she replied, "Ah." A look behind her showed the unusual number of guards hadn't diminished, so instead of the questions she had, all Hawke said was, "I have to be home within the hour."

Cullen would either send her whatever information he had, or pass it on now. There was no other way, at this moment, to find out what he truly suspected without someone overhearing. As much as Hawke wanted the information, her paranoia wouldn't let her ask.

"I want you to take a carriage," Cullen told her.

"I'll be--"

"Hawke." Cullen held his hand up. He looked over to Fenris, then asked, "Where are you staying?"

The elf looked uncomfortable. "I have a room, it is safe enough. Few people know of it."

"Hawke," Cullen interrupted, and oh.

Hawke resented being forced back into Hightown nearly as much as she'd resented being forced out of it, resented needing to put Bethany at risk to do the job...as much as she resented her lack of social standing making it impossible for her to help Bethany, either. Cullen knew all of this, knew that she'd rather chew cut glass or swallow boulders than crawl back to the nobles, tail between her legs.

And that asking her to shelter Fenris, someone who hadn't seen her there in her better days, someone who wouldn't understand the pain it caused her and Bethany both, to spend time in the manse, knowing they'd have to leave it--

"I don't have anyone else who can keep him safe enough to send him back to Wycome in one piece, Marian," Cullen told her. "And he's already been inside."

Hawke gritted her teeth and glanced at Fenris, who stood as impassive as ever, only a hint of trouble on his face in the tightness around his eyes.

"You know I wouldn't ask if I did," Cullen urged, looking drained. Hawke winced as Cullen rubbed his eye again, shoulders sagging.

Hawke wanted to say you owe me, wanted to refuse the offer -- but she knew that if Cullen asked her for favours for the next five years she'd still owe him every single day, a debt without price, one she could never repay. Bethany's freedom was worth every cent, every breath, every drop of blood Hawke could give and then some; so all she said was, "Well, Orana will be pleased with a guest."

Part of her was surprised Fenris wasn't arguing, but she suspected that he'd already tried, since the set of his features was resigned, rather than accepting.

Hawke felt a sharp tug in her lungs at that. She didn't know Fenris, per se, though she had started to trust him. Would put him at her back without pause, and even more telling: Hawke would let up her guard with him standing there. They might not have spent much time together, but Hawke didn't want to think her charm was so far gone Fenris didn't want to spend time with her.

How Fenris managed to give off the air he merely tolerated her presence most times, when he'd shown a deep well of concern at others -- that ability to throw Hawke off her game was one of Fenris's least appealing yet most intriguing qualities.

"Go home, then," Cullen said, passing her a folder without comment. As an afterthought and without looking at her, he added, "And put that away before you do."

Hawke, without looking at her hands, carefully tucked the folder and its contents into the inside lining of her leathers, shifting her good arm enough so the pages sat naturally against her ribs.

-

Getting a carriage to stop was laughably easy. There was one parked outside the precinct when Hawke and Fenris emerged, which made her suspect that Cullen had called for it before he'd summoned her into his office.

Fenris said nothing, but offered an extra gold piece to the driver before Hawke could pull out her change, glaring at Hawke as if daring her to disagree. Instead she sat back, trying to steady her bad shoulder against the constant bumping of the carriage over rough stones.

The carriage was dark, shutters drawn, so Hawke couldn't watch the passing street lamps as distraction. She counted turns, once peering through the shutters' crack to confirm her count, and was pleased to see they were trotting past the darkened chantry board just as she suspected.

In no time, the carriage pulled into the laneway behind Hawke's manse. Clambering out, Hawke waited for the carriage to disappear before heading for the back gate, grateful when she saw that someone had reactivated the unlocking mechanism on the outer wall. It was dark enough, despite the moon high in the night sky, that no one would see them in the lane.

Hawke had just unlatched the mechanism and stepped into her garden when Fenris, hesitant, put a hand on her shoulder. She could feel the warmth in his palm through the thin material of the sling.

Hawke rested her hand on top of his, briefly, then wrapped her fingers around two of his own, and -- grip gentle enough he could tug his fingers out of hers with no effort at all -- Hawke pulled Fenris up the walk.

In the shadow of her kitchen doorway, Hawke finally turned, watching Fenris. "I--" he started, then ran a frustrated hand through his hair. He finally settled on, "I am sorry that Cullen required this of you. Offering your home for my protection."

Hawke looked away, uncomfortable. "He's right." To Fenris's confused look, Hawke clarified, "That my mansion is safer than your room. And Orana will be happy."

"I still do not wish to impose."

The formality in his tone grated on Hawke's nerves, his brief frustration well buried, as if even now he could be dismissive and polite, distant, when she could still feel the warmth of the pads of his fingers against the sensitive flesh of her palm.

She stepped away from him, letting his hand fall away from her, crossed her arms. "Are you so made of stone that nothing rattles you at all?" she demanded, feeling her skin vibrate with tension. Hawke knew it was nerves from the case throwing her off, not Fenris, but he was in front of her, and so Hawke couldn't stop herself from biting out, "Are you always polite and unfailingly calm?"

Fenris's eyes flashed and he stepped forward, moving easily into her space. Hawke backed up against the door, shoulder hitting it with a dull thud and a stab of pain that faded as Fenris grasped both her forearms; Hawke felt her arms melt into his hands, fall to her sides. "What is the dwarf to you?" he asked, voice low, gravelly.

"I--" and Hawke laughed quietly, let her head fall against the wood. She stared up past the stone overhang, tried to spy sky beyond Fenris's shoulder, but saw only more stone, more buildings, the trappings of Hightown all around her.

The way Fenris held her, his fingers were tight around her forearms but he was angling her away from his body, his elbows locked so she couldn't move closer to him. The conflicting position -- simultaneously pulling her close, and holding her away, made Hawke desperate, confused, and her charm fled. She panicked, blurting, "Truthfully, I don't know. Some days, everything. Some days, the only steadiness I've ever known."

After a moment, Fenris let her go and stepped back. Hawke began to get angry, seeing his calm descend-- but then noticed his chest heaving as he fought for breath, fingers clenched tight.

She took a half-step forward and then, hesitant, halted. Fenris watched her, eyes dark and intense. He licked his lips but only said, "You do not strike me as a woman who craves steady."

The worst mission Hawke had ever been sent on before Ostagar, she'd been ordered to complete in the name of King Cailan. It still woke her with nightmares, screams dying before she could choke them out, air thick with smoke and the peculiar scent of darkspawn chemicals. She'd spent weeks soaking them in, huddled in village after village, scouting, and even before she'd gone in, the army had known her mission would be to simply dispatch survivors: no one could live in that toxic waste and remain whole.

The assignment was given to Hawke with the caveat she might not survive. No one knew how toxic the land would be they were sending her through, nor what she'd find. Those memories haunted her nights, still.

And yet.

A month after Hawke had recovered from the poisoned environment, could smell a cooking fire without throwing up bile, she'd already been restless in camp, needing escape, desperate to be reassigned.

Fenris smiled, small and triumphant; he put one hand on her waist, squeezing gently -- even then, mindful of her bandages. Hawke felt a jolt of frisson deep in her belly, heat pooling fast, skin shivering with need.

Point to Fenris, she thought, and then, Maybe more than one.

Mouth dry, Hawke licked her lips, croaked out, "I'm not," and it felt like an admission, a confession, of the worst kind.

-

Varric was reclining on the guest bed, a book in his hand, when Hawke peered in. He didn't look up as she sidled into the room, but raised an eyebrow.

Hawke watched him for a moment, but Varric's eyes were no longer tracking across the page. She said to Varric, "You were supposed to be naked," which elicited no response; not that she thought it would. Finally, Hawke admitted, "Fenris came home with me."

Still Varric didn't look up, though she saw his shoulder twitch. He replied, "Did he now."

"Don't start," Hawke answered, suddenly heartsick. Sinking onto the corner of the bed, Hawke leaned down to awkwardly begin unbuckling her boots. It was slow going, with one arm, and she cursed under her breath as finally, the first one loosened enough for her to try and toe it off.

She felt Varric slide off the bed, covers rustling, and come around to kneel beside her. One hand trailed gently up her boot to the soft, supple leather of her leggings, up and around the back of her knee. Hawke shivered. "How's the shoulder?" Varric murmured.

"Painful," Hawke admitted, and then hissed, "don't stop," as Varric's fingers paused in their caress of her calf.

He pulled her other boot off and gripped her ankle. Hawke felt dirty, layered with grime that came from hours tramping through Lowtown, sweaty and exhausted. Varric carefully moved her ankle and bent her leg up so she was canted on the bed, one knee splayed out and hopelessly vulnerable, legs spread.

Hawke felt her breathing speed up, pulse racing and desire singing across her skin, but--

"You should get Bethany to see to your arm," Varric said, with regret. He released her foot, stood up and stepped back. "And you've got time for a hot bath, too."

Hawke let herself flop back onto the bed, panted once or twice, and scowled at her bed canopy. "Why do you do this to me?" she asked the ceiling. Her clit was pulsing, desperate for some kind of friction, aching in the sweetest way, and yet Varric was backing slowly toward the door.

His voice came floating over to her, amused and frustrated all at once, low and melodic. He said, "Maybe I want to keep your attention," and then Hawke heard the click of the bedroom door.

She took a few more moments to compose herself, then Hawke sat up and rooted around for a pair of house slippers before emerging. Despite the late hour, the kitchen was warm and cozy when she entered: Orana at the stove, Varric and Bethany sitting at the long table.

"You weren't supposed to wait up for me," Hawke said, looking at Orana, then Bethany in turn -- then she grinned. "But I'm glad you did. I've been reliably told that my arm needs your careful ministrations, sister," Hawke told the room cheerfully, easing herself onto the bench beside Bethany. "And Orana, if that squash root soup is still hot, I would kill for a bowl."

"Of course," Orana replied promptly, and busied herself with setting out a place for Hawke: soup, crusty bread, and a pat of butter. "I've got more water on the boil as well, Lady Bethany."

A small smile played over Bethany's face, and she nodded at Orana. "Thank you."

As she started to eat Hawke narrowed her eyes at Bethany, who shook her head, and then turned to Varric. "What's going on?"

Varric swallowed noisily, wiping his mouth off with a napkin, and leaned back. "Your shoulder, Hawke."

Hawke hadn't consciously acknowledged it until now, but the sharp pulsing pain in her wound was hot enough to signal infection. "Damn," she answered, but dutifully began removing her leathers, managing one-handed but slowly, until Varric stood up to assist.

"You do like getting involved in taking care of my shoulder, don't you," she murmured-- quiet enough that Hawke thought only Varric would hear, but Bethany blushed.

"Leave the undershirt on for now, but take off your stays, Marian," Bethany instructed. Varric glanced at Hawke, one scorching look, before gesturing for her to turn around. Hawke presented her back to Varric, who lifted her undershirt over her shoulders enough to get at her back.

Hawke felt Varric loosen her stays, tugging a little harshly one way, trailing his callused finger over the seam the next moment. She fought the colour rushing to her cheeks and prayed to the Maker, Andraste, the elven gods and anyone else listening that only Bethany would notice.

Hawke knew it would be too much to hope her sister didn't see her naked desire, but Orana was sensitive, and Hawke didn't want to embarrass or upset the girl.

Bethany, with a brief smirk, turned to the kitchen counter and asked Orana to go into the stores and pull various herbs. Hawke was grateful for the reprieve and hung her head, felt her skin burn as Varric -- by now more than done with her stays -- let his clever fingers slip under them, twisting her nipple between his fingertips, as he pulled them out from under her shirt.

On impulse, she reached behind him, grabbed his thigh before sliding her hand farther up to squeeze his cock through his leather pants...and was rewarded by Varric's cut-off groan, deep-throated, in her ear.

"Marian," Bethany scolded from where she stood at the counter, but she didn't turn around and Hawke could hear the laughter in her voice. Varric rewarded Hawke's silence by untying the bandage, peeling the cloth away from her shoulder and stroking the underside of her breast again as he did. Hawke coughed, so turned on she felt dizzy, and squeezed again in retaliation to feel Varric's cock jump.

From the other side of the room, Hawke heard, "Am I interrupting?"

After a brief moment of warring with herself (it was her house; oh, but it was embarrassing-- but it was her house and Varric was right there--) Hawke moved her hand back to the bench as Varric dropped her shirt back down.

Clad only in her thin white linen undershirt, nipples visible through the fabric, Hawke was embarrassed and hopelessly turned on as Fenris regarded her, eyes dark.

She said, "Yes," as Varric said,

"Not at all."

"Come in," Hawke growled, and as Varric -- under the table where Fenris and Bethany couldn't see -- pinched her thigh, she struggled to modulate her voice, tried to keep her tone pleasant as she admitted, "I apologize. It's been a long day, and I apparently have no manners. Please, do come in. Ignore me."

Fenris moved into the room carefully and studiously turned his gaze away from Varric and Hawke. "My thanks for the hospitality, Hawke," he said to her, to which Varric guffawed.

"Ignore the dwarf," she answered tartly, and tucked her bad arm up, gripped her libido, hard, and forced her body to still itself. Trying for an inviting tone Hawke told Fenris, "Orana's made supper -- well. It was Bethany's supper, our midnight snack. There's tea."

As she moved to rise, he held up a hand. "If you will permit me," Fenris told her, "I am able to wait upon myself."

Bethany pointed out bowls and spoons, and then turned to Hawke. "I'll try and treat the shoulder as quickly as possible, but this is going to hurt, sister."

Hawke was well aware it was going to hurt. The smell of the bowl in Bethany's hands turned her gut, a long-hated reminder of her time in the sick ward in Cailan's camp before being pronounced out of real danger. At least her shoulder hadn't discoloured. Perhaps Beth caught it in time and her shoulder wouldn't progress to full-blown infection.

"I know it will," Hawke gritted out, all hint of desire tamped down in the face of her injury.

Bethany, straddling the bench, repositioned Hawke so she could face Hawke's bad shoulder, gesturing to Varric and lifting Hawke's shirt out of the way. "Take her other side, Varric, and keep her still."

"I should--"

Bethany interrupted Fenris with, "It will only take a moment, don't worry."

She should probably address Fenris's reticence, but instead of offering reassurances or requesting privacy, Hawke just closed her eyes, gripping Varric's palm in anticipated pain instead of pleasure. Varric didn't move, didn't allow her to pull away, but held her steady under Bethany's ministrations.

And oh, it stung, the boiling water and herbal tonic a searing jab of hot agony, which dulled into throbbing and heat as Bethany put her hand over the wound and tried to stitch it back together with her magic.

Hawke could feel herself trembling, the age-old reaction to pain, limbs shaking, vision greying as she swayed where she sat before the world blurred completely.

She drifted, the world around her foggy, sounds muffled and vision black...until eventually her sight and mind started to clear, her body recovering from the shock. Hawke slowly realized that during her distraction, Varric had pulled her into his lap and begun an animated discussion with Fenris.

"I just don't trust any card games where the best way to cheat is to use a staff," Varric was saying.

Slowly, feeling a bit faint, Hawke raised her head from where it was tucked into Varric's shoulder and said sluggishly, "You simply don't like any games where the best way to cheat is something you haven't mastered."

Across the table, Fenris stared at her, small smirk firmly in place. "It seems I will have to be well guarded when betting against you," he said to Varric.

Varric looked at Hawke for a long moment, features softening from the merry smirk that was his stock in trade. "Come on," he said, voice fond, "let's get you into the bath before you keel over, Hawke."

"I'm fine," she protested, even as Varric dragged her up off the bench and held a hand out to steady her as she swayed on her feet. "I'm not completely unaware of the effects of infection and treatment," she tried to tell him. "I will be well enough in an hour."

"And at that point," Varric told her, "you can join the rest of the grownups." She wanted to protest, but Varric touched the small of her back gently and said, "Orana drew you a bath. Think of it: warmth, soaking..."

He raised an eyebrow and added, "I'll wait up," but suddenly Hawke shivered, thinking of finally being clean and finding Varric in her bed.

-

Orana had, indeed, drawn her a bath, in the bathroom on the lower level. It was smaller than the master suite's sumptuous granite tiles and double-sized soaker tub. The guest suite bath was only big enough for one, and short enough that Hawke couldn't properly lie down in the water.

Usually this would have annoyed her, but as she carefully lowered herself into the steaming water, Hawke was grateful: there was a good chance that, were she able to lie down and fully relax, she'd fall asleep and drown.

"Can I get you anything, my lady?"

Orana had helped her with her clothes and lower armour, efficiently re-folding her undergarments and taking her leathers to oil and clean.

Hawke groaned a little as she sunk her wound under the water. Bethany had promised heat would soothe the ache, but Hawke had doubts, and hissed in pain as the hot water touched the inflamed flesh. "If I thought my sister would let you bring me wine, yes," Hawke admitted. "Otherwise, the bathing oil and a cloth, please."

"Of course," Orana promised. She rummaged around in the basket she'd brought with her into the suite, and handed over a small bottle of scented bathing oil. "Lady Bethany suggested this one," she told Hawke, "it should soothe your arm."

"Hmmm," Hawke muttered, but as Orana poured the oil in, Hawke did feel herself relaxing, the lingering throb in her shoulder simmering down to a more bearable ache.

"Are you feeling more yourself?" came Bethany's voice from the direction of the doorway.

Orana curtseyed, which Hawke tried to acknowledge as best she could. Orana stopped to murmur to Bethany, who squeezed the girl's hand quickly and sent her on her way. Only then did Bethany come into the room. She pulled the wooden stool to the side of the tub, leaning over Hawke in amusement.

Hawke tried to scowl and said, "Are you quite entertained?"

Bethany's small smile grew into a wide grin, both delighted and wicked at the same time. She handed Hawke the scrub brush, tapped her finger to her lips, and said, "I do believe I was not the intended audience."

"Bethany..." Hawke tried to protest, but grunted as she tried to wash her hair, shoulder tugging. Bethany huffed and leaned over before Hawke could say anything, scrubbing her head. Bethany's hands and fingers massaged Hawke's scalp, and she poured water over her head to get the soap out. Hawke closed her eyes and replied, "It wasn't intentional."

Bethany's voice was teasing as she told Hawke, "Not on your part, perhaps."

"I--"

"Calm down, Marian," Bethany said affectionately. "I can't help but be impressed when someone is capable of keeping up with you."

"It isn't Varric that's having trouble keeping up," Hawke grumbled, sinking under the water briefly to rinse her hair.

Bethany twisted the valve to suck the dirty water out of the tub, immediately refilling it with steaming fresh water. She leaned back, arms crossed and face amused, as she told Hawke, "Oh, I didn't mean Varric."

Hawke scowled, and busied herself with rinsing the soap off her limbs, avoiding Bethany's gaze. Finally, she sighed. "I know nothing about Fenris, not really," she told Bethany. Hawke paused, then swallowed nervously, trying to sort out what to say. She fiddled with the washcloth as she admitted, "And I trust no one right now."

"No one save Varric," Bethany reminded her gently. She sighed, and said to Hawke, "When we were in the sewers, he didn't hesitate, Marian. He might not trust magic, but that didn't stop him from jumping in."

"I'm sorry, Beth, I never should have--"

Bethany held her hand up, sponge dripping water: stop. She looked away, chewed her lip, then finally told Hawke, "You may not think you trust him, but some part of you does. I think your instincts are better than you let yourself believe. And...I was glad to be able to help." She grinned a little and added, "Besides, if he's so eager to please you, he can't be all bad."

Interesting. Despite herself, Hawke relaxed a little. If Bethany felt no danger, then perhaps...perhaps....

It would all be irrelevant if they couldn't stay alive. Focus, Hawke, she told herself. Hawke splashed the water a little, moody, and -- instead of so many other things -- said to her sister, "Varric wants me to sleep with him. With Fenris," she clarified.

"And you don't?" Bethany teased.

"I want a lot of things," Hawke muttered.

Hawke started as her sister reached into the tub to squeeze her bare shoulder. Bethany said, voice quiet, "Do you really think Varric is so fickle?"

"I--" and Hawke felt a surge of shame. Did she really think Varric would take his affection or his desire back, once offered? Would he really distance himself, simply because there was another man in the picture that tightened Hawke's loins, set her afire?

"Of course not," Hawke managed to lie. "After all, if he didn't drop me when I threw up on his favourite coat that one night we never speak of, what's a little friendly competition?"

The wicked smile returned to Bethany's face as she held a bathing sheet up for Hawke to wrap her lower half in, carefully tucking the edge into itself while Hawke poked at her shoulder. Bethany swatted her hand away, saying, "Hold this," as she placed the thick gauze against Hawke's wound. Obediently, Hawke held the piece in place as Bethany rewrapped her shoulder, securing the bandage.

As she worked, Bethany told her, "You know how much Varric likes to win at cards. I think a little friendly competition is probably right up his alley."

Hawke began to chuckle, laughing even harder as Bethany joined in. Hawke put both hands over her mouth to try and stop herself, eyes watering. "I want you to tell him that," Hawke sputtered.

"He did bet on you when no one else would have," Bethany told her, settling down, and Hawke nodded. She, too, stopped laughing, wrapping the bathing sheet more firmly around herself as she remembered Varric's offer of a job, a perilous caravan route, security for a convoy that turned out to be a trap -- something Varric's brother had failed to mention.

Something Varric's brother had already paid for, dearly. Some things couldn't be forgiven.

"I suppose you're right," Hawke said. There was more, of course, but it all stuck in her throat; Hawke was never one to say what she meant. In that, she and Varric were the same. "And anyway, Varric always wins at cards." She winked at Bethany, hauling the bathing sheet up, tightening the wrapping over her breasts -- but hitching up the bottom so it came to mid-thigh.

Bethany sighed, long-suffering, but only said, "At least you're feeling more yourself."

Hawke picked up the silk wisps Orana had laid out for her: underthings, barely, the kind Hawke had packaged away in enchanted chests, left in storage, when she'd fled Hightown.

She said to Bethany, "Would you mind putting these in the guest room for me?"

Bethany rolled her eyes as she took the pile, and held the door open for Hawke. All she said, however, was, "Andraste's sake, Marian, don't put any weight on that arm no matter what else you do."

Chapter Text

When Hawke reappeared in the kitchen, Orana had gone to bed and Bethany was quick to follow, retreating to her own room. Fenris and Varric however, were both sitting at the kitchen table, facing each other.

They each held five cards in one hand and a glass in the other, and Hawke grimaced. Clearly, Varric hadn't wasted any time. "Since you're intent on keeping the poor man up all night, I do hope you found Fenris something from the not-vinegar side of the cellar," Hawke said archly, leaning against the kitchen doorway.

Varric, who had to turn around to see her, raised his eyebrow. He was angled away from the table enough that the long up and down stare he gave Hawke wouldn't be visible to Fenris, though Hawke was doubtful the elf would have noticed: he'd been in the middle of taking a sip when she entered, and Hawke saw him gracefully recover from choking.

Fenris covered admirably, but Hawke grinned. It seemed he wasn't unflappable, since each time he'd been presented with her body he'd flinched, and Hawke had finally realized it wasn't in a bad way.

Varric, however, simply whistled and said, "If we weren't in the middle of a hand, you'd be in trouble, beautiful."

Hawke made her way over to the table, electing to sit on the table itself rather than the bench, giving both men an eyeful of leg.

Fenris replied before Hawke got a chance. He said, with a careful glance at Hawke's face, "With due respect, Hawke... were I you, Varric, I would forfeit."

Fenris's tone was only a touch playful, a single beat off polite consideration, but Hawke stared at Fenris, feeling her interest spike. "Is that so?" she asked, and leaned over.

From this angle, she was nearly in Varric's lap -- but it also left Fenris with a perfect view of where her towel was slipping down just a tiny bit over her breasts, and a flash of where the sheet slid up her thigh.

Tilting back, Hawke made a great show of examining Varric's cards (who simply sighed and angled his hand closer to her).

"I don't know," she told Fenris, sitting up once more. The bathing sheet loosened, coming perilously close to falling off. She gripped the upper edge with one fist and added, "He does have an unforgivably good hand."

Fenris played another card, took a gulp of wine, and stared her right in the eye as he answered, tone deliberate, "There could be nothing on the table worth more than your-- than the company of a beautiful woman."

Varric played his turn, tossing a card which Hawke knew ruined his hand. He grinned at Fenris but said only, "Some things are worth the wait."

Fenris paled, played a serpent Hawke suspected he didn't see -- the elf hadn't looked at his hand once since Hawke came in -- and replied, face dismayed, "My apologies, Hawke, I did not mean--"

"He's only giving me a hard time, Fenris, don't worry," Hawke cut in, feeling sorry for Fenris. Fenris was caught in the middle of a singularly bizarre courtship, yet (to be fair) keeping up remarkably well.

She glared briefly at Varric, the familiar swell of charmed annoyance as comfortable as anything she'd ever known. Hawke looked back at Fenris, winked, and added, "After all, he has no idea what he's missing."

Varric threw yet another valuable card down, twisting his lips. "You think I don't," he muttered, and as he drew, snorted. "Well, this hand's down the shitter."

Hawke stood, managed to secure her bathing sheet, and padded around the table to where Fenris sat peering at his hand. Feeling reckless, and more fond of Fenris since he appeared able to lob back anything Varric could throw -- that impressed Hawke more than she wanted to admit -- she leaned over Fenris's shoulder, pressing against his back just enough to let him feel her sheet slip a little, feel her breasts pressed against him.

Hawke made a show of checking Fenris's cards.

She felt him stiffen, a minute tension in his shoulders, and Hawke got ready to move away, when all at once she felt him lean back just a little, just enough to shift against her bare skin. With a little sigh, he held up his cards to her; she pressed her chin against his shoulder, felt his hair brush her cheek as she examined them.

"Well, you don't have him beat yet, but soon," Hawke murmured.

Varric leaned back and tilted his head with a wide grin. "You know," he said, "I just had a thought. Why not make this game more interesting?"

Hawke and Fenris moved their heads as one, cheeks pressed close, to look at Varric. The smug, near-gleeful expression he wore spelled trouble, and Hawke hoped Fenris was aware of how much. She said nothing, only raised one eyebrow; Varric shrugged in return.

Beside her, Fenris let out a little snort of laughter. As he shook his head, Hawke felt his hair tickle her ear. "This is one of those moments," he said, "where later all anyone will tell you is, 'you should have known', is it not?"

He played a card -- Hawke could tell Fenris, at least, was playing for keeps, though not well enough to beat Varric's rampant cheating -- and added, "Why do I get the feeling I am being played?"

Hawke stood, stretched (gave Varric a bigger show than originally intended as the towel slid up to her hips), and replied, "Because you are an excellent detective."

As she went back around the table to grab herself a glass, Fenris answered, voice laced with irony, "Yes, and because of it, I know you will not allow me to disagree."

"Good man," Varric replied, grinning. "Hawke, you're in next hand, and don't worry, we won't play strip." He paused, and Hawke could feel Varric's eyes on her from behind as she poured her own wine. Varric chuckled and added, "After all, one hand and you'd have to forfeit, and then we'd be playing a whole different game."

"Varric," Hawke warned, turning back to the bench. She shoved him with one foot, giving everyone yet another eyeful under her bathing sheet (they'd both seen between her legs, now). "So what are we playing for?" she asked as she sat down.

"Oh," Varric answered, "I'm sure we'll think of something."

"And this," Fenris said, drily, "is where people will say later, things went wrong."

-

Varric dealt two more hands playing only for the nuts and dried fruit currently in the pot ("Have to finish out this round, at least," he explained). However, the second time the angel of death appeared in less than ten turns, Varric folded his hands on the table (winning again, of course; Hawke ate a handful of the pot before he could grab it).

Varric said, "So."

Hawke (well versed in the ways her friends could turn the simple game of Wicked Grace into the ridiculous, illegal, and utterly shameless) immediately replied, "Unless we're playing Llomerryn rules, the bathing sheet stays on."

Fenris looked equal parts intrigued and despairing, and Hawke was yet again struck at how quickly he'd accepted the irregular occurrences that happened around her, reacting to Varric much the same way she did.

Fenris also, Hawke noted, did not ask what Llomerryn rules meant -- though she couldn't be sure if that was from familiarity, or simply because he didn't want to know.

Varric, too, looked intrigued for one moment, then answered, defeated, "If Isabela found out we'd played without her, she'd have my--"

Hawke held her hand up, palm out: stop, and Varric grinned, unrepentant. He said, "And while I'm happy to take your money, Hawke, the elf here," thumb pointed to Fenris, who scowled, "doesn't have enough to make the stakes worth playing."

Hawke frowned, confused. Fenris regularly flashed foreign currency around, though perhaps it was all accountable somewhere?

"He will not take anything but Kirkwall gold," Fenris explained, and scowled. "And there are precious few people who are willing to exchange currency, who will also deign to deal with an elf."

Hawke fought not to grimace, because of course; the only money lenders or businessmen that would take Orlesian or farther-afield (never mind Tevinter) coins would be in Hightown, and they wouldn't deal with clients they didn't already know.

"I'd happily take your money," she said, "but the Keep isn't open for business at this particular hour, so I'm limited to the coins in my pockets."

Fenris told her, "You are not wearing any pockets."

Varric cut in, reaching behind him to grasp the wine bottle and filling all three glasses. "So we'll play for something else." He smiled, enticement in his patented 'who, me? nothing to worry about here' grin, and Hawke got a sinking feeling in her stomach. "How about information?"

A sharp inhale from Fenris, and Hawke had to look at the table. Had to grip her glass carefully, take a sip, to steady herself. "And what of the things we don't, in fact, wish to share, you charlatan?" she asked Varric.

She'd tried to keep it light, but obviously it hadn't worked since Varric's face softened a little, and in place of that oh so tempting grin, he looked apologetic. Still, all he said was, "Then you fold."

"And what is the penalty for folding?" Fenris asked, arms crossed and face skeptical.

Varric looked at Hawke only briefly before beginning to grin. "A piece of clothing."

Hawke threw her head back, felt the stretch in her shoulder as she stared at the ceiling (and thrust her breasts out, though this time it was a side effect of her pique rather than calculated seduction). She considered, but only for a moment: Varric was the more likely to ask the questions she wouldn't wish to answer, and until he wanted her naked, he wouldn't ask them.

She'd had enough wine to think that it could have been a worse idea. At least, she could ask Fenris questions without it looking too contrived -- or rather, with it looking like Varric had contrived it.

Finally, Hawke tilted her head back to look at them and complained to Varric, "I thought we weren't playing Llomerryn rules."

"As there are three of us," Fenris asked, "how is a hand won? Does the person who won get to ask each of the others something, or does whoever lose the worst have to answer two things?"

"The first," Hawke answered quickly, because the thought of having to answer both of them was too much. "Otherwise the two of you will simply pile on."

"And who says you'll be the one to lose, hmm?" Varric asked. Hawke didn't even deign to answer. "Anyway, that hardly seems fair. Loser should answer twice, since whoever is dealing will have the upper hand."

Hawke tried to protest but was outvoted, and began to suspect she was in trouble.

Fenris held his hand out for the battered deck of cards. Varric passed it over easily, but that meant little since they were Varric's cards, and he knew each mark and tick. Fenris dealing would make it slightly more difficult for Varric to cheat, but not nearly difficult enough for Hawke's comfort.

Hawke's starting hand was passable, though wouldn't beat anything, and each subsequent round gave her nothing but garbage. They played the first hand and drank, saying little; when the angel of death appeared, Hawke only had a pair to show for it, and she threw down her cards in disgust. There was no point in pretending.

Unless Fenris had thrown the hand completely, she'd be the first one answering questions.

A quick glance at their cards confirmed it: she was beaten. With a sigh, Hawke said, "Get it over with."

Varric gestured for Fenris to go first, and the elf frowned. Head tilted down to study his discarded hand instead of Hawke, Fenris started, "You have training. Beyond that of a detective." Hawke allowed a nod, though he wasn't looking at her. He asked, "Where did you train?"

An innocuous question at first glance, but Hawke sucked in a breath. Still, it was give him the brief details -- unpleasant, but distantly so -- or drop the sheet already, so she told him, "The army." Without prompting, Hawke added, "I was in service to Cailan's Intelligence bureau."

"How did you come to Kirkwall?"

Hawke should have argued, should have claimed that he didn't get two questions, but really it wasn't much worse to outline the bare bones of the end of her espionage career than it was to think of her time during. "I fled at Ostagar," she stated flatly.

Hawke was surprised to find it twinged only a little to admit.

Varric was watching her, face wary, but Fenris only asked, "You were a deserter?"

Hawke's first instinct was to snap at him in defense, but Fenris's question was devoid of judgment or disdain. He was simply curious. So Hawke told him, "I was a survivor." She curled her lip and allowed, "Of course, at Ostagar, it meant the same thing."

Fenris nodded once, and when Hawke risked a glance, he was again drinking his wine as if it mattered little. Perhaps, to him, it didn't. He was, if she wasn't mistaken, a runaway himself, so perhaps he could understand the desperation of flight. Or perhaps someone originally from Tevinter could not fathom the depth of loathing most other Fereldens would feel, hearing Hawke's confession.

"All right," Varric interrupted, and poured a generous helping of wine into Hawke's empty glass. He slopped a little over the side, hand shaking; Hawke decided not to mention it. Varric had wrangled her story out of her, knew much of her intelligence days, but they both preferred to avoid the subject when possible.

Varric tilted back in the kitchen chair he was sitting in and asked Hawke, "Did you walk out in just a bathing towel on purpose?"

She gritted her teeth. Of course, Varric's questions would be more pleasant, but no less probing. Deciding he didn't deserve a full explanation, Hawke said, "Yes."

Varric smirked and let it go, reaching for the cards. Hawke sighed, playing with half an eye on her cards, since she'd be sure to lose again with Varric dealing. She was surprised when her three serpents heartily trounced Fenris's garbage: he held not a single decent card.

Hawke was feeling generous enough toward Varric to run her bare foot up his calf, digging into the hard muscle. She was gratified to see him shudder with desire, though he hid it by taking a long gulp of his wine.

"All right," Fenris told them. He drained his glass and folded his arms.

"Why did you really come to Kirkwall?" Hawke blurted. It was something she'd wondered several times over the past days, but never felt like she could ask, in large part because it might invite questions about her history in return. But since she'd just admitted she'd abandoned her King and her duty in Cailan's darkest hour...

Frowning, Hawke said, "You asked for the assignment, so you weren't transferred. Kirkwall was your choice -- or at least, Lowtown was. But why?"

Fenris looked away, gaze on her stove where the fire crackled. His face showed he was troubled in the downturn at the corner of his mouth, the way his eyes narrowed in a stare -- toward the fire, but not seeing it, thoughts far away. Still, he hadn't donned his impassive mask, and so Hawke waited.

After a few moments Fenris said, "As you know, the Wycome guard wanted someone to follow up on reports of smugglers working from Minrathous to the Marches." He shrugged, twisting his body back to face the kitchen table, though his gaze was now on the discarded cards on the table. "I am -- I was, knowledgeable about Tevinter protocol, and the captain there agreed I might offer assistance here that another could not."

Eyes and face upturned to Hawke, Fenris grinned, slow, a little curl of his lips. "I know," he agreed, "It does not explain why I wanted to come." Sighing, he pursed his lips, and explained, "Wycome is a bustling city, full of people from across Thedas. There are festivals every month, ships in and out daily with food, goods, and more. Very few people who come to Wycome actually stay, and -- I was ready to leave."

"I see," Hawke said -- though really, she didn't. It explained nothing of why he'd come to her district, but she decided not to push it.

Varric asked immediately, "So how, by Andraste's knickers, did you come to land in Wycome in the first place?"

Fenris remained outwardly calm, but he removed his silk gloves and handed them to Varric without a word.

-

They went through several more hands, and Hawke found out that Varric was never serious, that Fenris loathed the food in the Free Marches more than the weather, and the colour of everyone's smallclothes.

Hawke, in return, had to describe in excruciating detail the last time she'd slept with Isabela, the last time she'd slept with a man (that perfectly beautiful assassin they'd run into in the course of a kidnapping investigation who turned out to be an Antivan agent, rather than the kidnapper), and the first arrest she'd made (a thoroughly humiliating, though entertaining, story).

Throwing her cards down again, Hawke wasn't even disgusted anymore, just resigned. Varric had forced her to lose. Again. Without saying a word, she tumbled her hands together: come on, move along.

"Have you ever slept with more than one person at a time, Hawke?" Varric asked. Beside him, Fenris spluttered on his wine.

Fenris had been quiet, contemplative, while Hawke described the marathon sex with her assassin; collected (though flushed) while she told Varric about her and Isabela.

"You know I have," Hawke said, eyes narrowed. "And if you wanted me to rehash the best and brightest stories of my sexual adventures, we could have dispensed with the cards and gone straight for the wine."

Varric stood up to pound Fenris on the back, who was still having trouble breathing. Once he was sitting back down, Varric crossed his arms over his chest, raised one eyebrow, and said, "Do tell."

Hawke couldn't decide if Varric liked torture, or if he was trying to get Fenris so turned on that the other man couldn't say no. Either possibility seemed particularly cruel, or at the least frustrating, and she was losing her patience with him.

"I may not be nearly as promiscuous as the betting pool assumes, but I've never shied away from new experiences," she replied. The kitchen was cozy, and so despite her lack of clothes Hawke wasn't cold; still, her nipples peaked as she remembered. "The first time," she told them, "it was with two other soldiers. We didn't know what we were doing."

She felt her cheeks get warm and swore to herself, not able to decide whether they'd think it was embarrassment or desire. Better to imply desire. Hawke licked her lips and continued, "Isabela's a particular fan, of course, and she's picked up someone else for us a time or two."

"Damnit," Varric muttered. Hawke put a palm on her own thigh, gripped it tight, under the table where Varric could see but Fenris couldn't. Varric's eyes darted to her bare skin, the sheet gaping at the vee between her thighs, her modesty long gone. She was wet already, just from Varric's eyes.

Still, Hawke was never one to back down from a challenge, and so she said, "You did ask. If it's too much to handle, perhaps stay away from my sex life."

"Perhaps I should retire," came from across the table. Hawke looked at Fenris, who was breathing quicker again, faint pink tinge at the roots of his hair and tips of his ears.

"Nonsense," Varric replied, smooth as butter and friendly as anything. He leaned back and looked toward Fenris. Hawke could tell that Varric was hard, his cock clearly outlined in his pants. His voice was hoarse, but Varric said, "So have you ever slept with two men, Hawke?"

Hawke wanted to make fun of Varric's lack of subtlety, wanted to roll her eyes, but she was still molten and wet, so half her mind was focused on keeping her fingers from creeping up and digging between her legs, giving herself some relief, and damned if they watched.

"Of course I have," she replied. It only came out a little breathy, and Hawke thought, point to me. "Most women," and she licked her lips, "want two men to focus on them, ignore each other. I prefer men who aren't afraid to touch each other."

Varric was about to hand her the cards when Fenris said, "I believe I have a question left." Hawke waited, and Fenris asked with a small grin, "Why is Varric intent on asking you questions about your relationships, that he already knows the answers to?"

Hawke saw Varric's eyes widen and couldn't help the little smirk that crossed her own face; for the first time in several hands, they weren't ganged up on her. "He thinks he's being subtle," Hawke replied.

She was about to say, "and he's trying to seduce you for me," but Fenris wouldn't entirely meet her eyes, and so she took pity on them both and didn't elaborate.

Fenris's low, "I see," held no clue, and after a moment, Hawke began to shuffle the cards.

She wasn't quite as good at cheating as the two men, especially not halfway to drunk (when had she sworn off drinking? Or was it simply public drinking that had her heart jumping?). Still, Varric cooperated and by the time the angel of death showed her baleful face, he'd lost by several lengths.

"That's the last time I let the Rivaini teach you how to play cards, Hawke," Varric complained, but he relaxed and said, "Do your worst."

Hawke frowned, thinking. There were few things that she didn't already know about Varric, few things that they hadn't shared. Absently, Hawke waved her hand at Fenris to go ahead, and he immediately asked Varric, "Have you slept with more than one person at once?"

The way he asked it was smooth, though a dare, and it occurred to Hawke that Fenris might think she was uncomfortable, and this was his way of getting back at Varric on her behalf.

Or -- Fenris was looking very smug, one eyebrow arched up -- perhaps he simply was as unable to back down from a challenge as she was.

Varric gave Fenris a dirty look and pulled off his shirt, jacket long abandoned because of the heat of the stove. He handed the shirt to Fenris and crossed his arms over his broad, muscled chest.

"That would be a no," Fenris told Hawke. "And in order that you do not waste another hand on this charade, yes, I have slept with more than one person at a time." He carefully placed Varric's shirt onto his winnings pile.

Hawke could see Fenris's shoulders were tense, even though his voice was light, and her thoughts crashed together in a painful realization. She nearly didn't ask, since it hit close to the things Hawke suspected Fenris didn't want to answer; she framed it as a statement, rather than question, when she said, "It wasn't consensual."

"No," Fenris said. His eyes closed, squeezed tight, then he relaxed, looking right at her. He added, "And then, yes."

The two of them were waiting for her question for Varric, and Hawke couldn't think of anything to say. She and Varric.... She didn't want him to explain anything, didn't want him to say more than they already had.

Hawke finally settled on, "Why didn't you ever publish your last book?"

It was a cop-out, nothing she didn't know. The investigation, the missing mages, the underground, meeting a chantry agent in a midnight rendezvous -- his entire fictional plot was ridiculous, exaggerated and spun from long facts and a longer night. The truth was, Hawke's contacts had fuelled the search and her legwork had brought her to the chantry that night. Pure dumb luck meant she'd dealt with Anders' sabotage before it could do more damage. Most of Varric's unpublished book was fiction.

He sounded angry as he told her, "I don't know, because I wanted you to speak to me the next day? Or ever again?"

Fenris asked her, "What was it about?" and Hawke swallowed.

It wasn't her turn, so she could have simply refused to answer, but a forfeit was a forfeit, and so instead she stood. Hawke stripped off the sheet, long dry, and -- unselfconscious -- handed it to Fenris. With a small smile, Hawke said, "I believe that's my hand done, gentlemen."

Fenris took the sheet, and Hawke was amused to see that he would not look anywhere but at her face. Fenris, too, stood and began, "Hawke, I am--"

"Don't worry about it," Hawke said. She shrugged her good arm, and her chest moved; Fenris's gaze darted down, then up again, guilty. She smirked and repeated, "Truly. Don't worry."

She turned to Varric and said easily, "You might as well tell him the truth, I don't mind." To Hawke's surprise, she meant it, she really trusted Fenris enough that Hawke didn't mind Fenris knowing the truth of her downfall, every ugly detail.

To Varric's concerned look, Hawke added, "I'll see you back in the room whenever one of you loses your smallclothes, I suppose."

Hawke didn't know what else to say to indicate that she was fine with Varric explaining what had really happened four years ago; that Hawke was calm thinking about Varric telling Fenris how she'd spared Anders's life -- the mage would have chosen death over imprisonment, and as she'd pressed the knife against his throat, Hawke willing to dispense justice swiftly rather than make Anders face the courts, the prisons -- but...Hawke just couldn't kill him, and wouldn't lock him up. Had to let him flee.

Had failed.

She didn't know how to explain that she was fine with Fenris knowing, but Hawke couldn't stomach the thought of having to tell him herself, having to explain her failure aloud.

Varric stared at her a long moment, and she nodded, then he nodded, and Hawke smiled gratefully; once again, Varric knew what she couldn't say.

The tense moment broken, Varric relaxed again and simply stared at her, unashamed. Hawke began to fidget and turned it into an attempt at a sultry glance at Fenris -- and was gratified to see he, too, was staring. She winked at him, slid her legs slightly farther apart, hips jutting -- and was astonished when Fenris, instead of ducking his head, gave her a careful once over, eyes burning and dark, intent on her.

Hawke shuddered.

Varric whistled, pitched low, and she faced him. He was hard again, his legs spread farther apart than they'd been. Hawke, unthinking, felt her hips move toward him, a quick jolt, and saw him twitch in his chair before she caught herself. She'd done that, Varric had gotten so hard just looking at her that he'd--

Hawke, skin burning and feeling herself begin to get wetter, beat a hasty retreat.

-

Hawke thought Varric might follow her after only a token length of time, one or two hands he'd throw terribly, but the water clock (when had Orana had time to reset the water clock in the guest room? Why had she?) said it had been twenty minutes already since she'd laid down.

Hawke gave up on a swift end to the card game and pulled out her slate instead.

The silk nightclothes that Orana had chosen were dainty scraps of thin lace, and Hawke shivered a little, feeling the fabric brush against her skin. They were beautiful garments, but did nothing to keep her warm. The girl had lit the stove however, and after setting another log on Hawke slid under the covers. Orana had put a bed warmer between the sheets, too.

Her slate (tucked carefully with the rest of her paltry things and all of her assorted weapons onto the night stand) flashed insistently, and Hawke frowned. The usual suspects that would have sent her any messages were currently ensconced in her house. Who would be trying to get a hold of her with such insistency that the sigil was red and angry?

Brennan had messaged her a quick etching, along with one line:

followed him to warehouse. Couldn't get closer.

Hawke squinted, but-- yes, that was their missing sailor. Accompanying the picture was the description of one of the smaller warehouses on their watch list, and a ship registry.

"Damnit," Hawke swore, "Maker damn all of it--"

Could she really have missed their only lead while playing cards and flirting? This time last week she'd already be dressing, already be halfway out the door. But her arm still ached and Hawke knew that it wouldn't move naturally, not one hundred percent, would be awkward to fight. No amount of recklessness would change the fact that, quite frankly, she was still a liability.

Sighing, she scrawled out:

when?

Because if they were ready to heave-to, all bets were off.

Sergeant Brennan replied immediately, and Hawke sighed in relief when she read:

hour ago. Warehouse is locked tight, goods aren't loaded, no one in sight.

Hawke didn't reply, but she did thank the Maker for small miracles. If they'd finished business for the evening she could put together a plan that was a little more refined than simply 'leap into fray'.

She flipped her slate over in her hand, thinking. Owing another favour to Athenril was risky, but perhaps the other woman would accept money. Making her decision, Hawke sent to Athenril:

how much for a watch on a warehouse? east docks

If the new Carta players had really thrown Athenril as much as she hadn't said, then it was likely the woman already had set a watch on the place, and Hawke only needed to pay for information already in Athenril's possession.

It was another few minutes, and Hawke flipped back through the rest of her messages, making sure there was nothing else urgent, before Athenril answered.

Where?

Hawke frowned. She didn't want to send the location by slate, didn't trust it...but Athenril had the same encryption on her slate as Hawke, care of Bethany (years older, true, but still). If the ship was docked, and the cargo tucked safely away, then even if they got wind of her knowledge, they couldn't move without someone getting her word.

She sent the location to Athenril, who named a price (steep, but nothing Hawke wouldn't give), then went silent after Hawke agreed to terms. Hawke knew she'd come through. Athenril's business hinged on her reliability, and if the other woman had had reservations or concerns, she'd have voiced them the same time she'd told Hawke the price.

She wanted to inform Cullen as well, but the man was guaranteed to be asleep by now. Hawke sent him a brief message, made sure it was tagged 'urgent' for morning bells rather than midnight, and tossed her slate away.

More than thirty minutes had passed now, and Hawke sighed. It seemed Varric had decided that telling Fenris the story of Ande-- the story of the chantry sabotage trumped a night with Hawke. Or at least, an immediate night.

Well versed in the way that Varric could be chipper, cheerful, but stubborn, Hawke flipped through the folder that Cullen had passed her, but found little she didn't already know or hadn't suspected. The man who'd turned himself in admitted to carving up "that elven boy" (the suspect's words), had been shaking while he'd confessed. He'd been pale, shaking, distracted...and Hawke frowned.

The last thing the man had said before clamming up was that he thought there was a demon in him, but Cullen had noted his skepticism: "Suspect looks left while discussing demon, will not describe possession effects. Cannot explain true possession, claims he cannot remember. Likely lying."

He wouldn't, interestingly, confirm he was a Templar recruit; he wouldn't say anything to that question at all. Cullen had noticed his lyrium scars. Hawke sighed, frustrated, and then started scrawling out notes for the official forms to request information from the regional Templar office. Not that they would actually produce results or answer any requests for information-sharing.

Then -- remembering the slight lilt in the man's voice as he spoke -- duplicated the request and flagged it "forward to Orlais".

-

Hawke, partly due to the wine on a mostly-empty stomach and partly due to exhaustion borne from the last few days, had fallen into a light doze when she heard the bedroom door finally open.

Varric slipped into the room, still bare-chested, holding his clothing in one hand and a wine glass in the other. Letting the door swing closed, Varric leaned against it and stared at Hawke on the bed, as she blinked, struggling to sit up.

After a moment, his mouth quirked up into a small grin. "I should be offended you fell asleep, maybe," Varric admitted, and moved toward the bed, "but to be honest I didn't expect you to wake up when I came in."

Hawke rubbed her eyes, frowning, trying to shake off the brief nap. "You didn't?"

"Hawke, you've been going flat-out for days, " Varric explained. He dropped his shirt and jacket onto the chair beside her bed, abandoned the wine glass and added, "It's good to see you relaxing, even for an hour."

Hawke let the blankets fall into her lap, exposing the silk she wore. The nightdress barely covered her cleavage, and Hawke watched as Varric's eyes traced her body before returning to her face. Hawke shivered at his gaze, but shrugged. "If you didn't want me to wake, you didn't have to come in."

"Hawke--" Varric started, soft, then shook his head, rueful. "You have no idea."

"What?"

Without moving, Varric inhaled slow, fastened his eyes back on her. "The things I want to do."

Hawke used her good arm to push herself up to lean properly against the headboard; she had to use her legs to push herself up properly, kicking the bedclothes aside at the same time as she struggled -- and in the process rucking up her silk nightgown.

Varric inhaled, sharply, and watched her hungrily as she accidentally revealed herself. Still, he didn't move any closer to the bed, even when Hawke carefully canted one leg out, splayed her knee, in invitation.

Finally, Hawke cleared her throat. Her pulse beat rapidly, a pool of desperate desire burned in her clit and her stomach -- but the fact that Varric hadn't approached made her jumpy, made her skin tingle with nerves as much as desire. Suddenly feeling self-conscious in a way that Varric never made her feel, Hawke blurted, "Are you going to stand there all night?"

"Am I?" Varric countered.

Hawke could see the clear outline of his cock, thick and full, against the material of his pants; part of her wanted to cover up, now that they were alone and he still refused to budge. Now that there was nothing keeping them apart, Varric seemed content to wait her out.

"I don't know," Hawke muttered, feeling embarrassed. She inhaled, irritated with herself, and tugged on her hair like it could provide the answer to-- oh, everything. Smooth, Hawke, she thought.

Varric just raised an eyebrow. "You know," he offered, "if you want a rain check on--"

"Wait--" Hawke interrupted, alarmed, then quieter, repeated, "Please." Hawke closed her eyes, and somehow that made it easier to choke out, "I just don't know what to do to-- to."

She licked her lips, daring to glance at Varric, then tilted her head back until her throat felt oh so exposed, eyes staring at the canopy of the wide bed. Hawke never knew how to express herself, nor bridge this canyon between flirting and reality, and the wild frustration of it might make her burst before she could lay a hand on Varric.

"Huh," is all he said.

Without dropping her gaze, Hawke told him, "If you dare tell Isabela..."

She managed not to finish the threat, but mostly because Varric was already chuckling. "Wouldn't dream of it," he said. "But you have to give me something here."

Hawke let her eyes drift to his face once more, dropped her hands into her lap and gave up on being seductive. She said truthfully, "Right now all I want in all of Kirkwall is to move this along. But I don't know how to--"

Cutting herself off, Hawke shrugged. Varric crossed his arms, tilted his head, eyes flicking over her body where she sat. "I can work with that, Marian," he rumbled, and hearing her first name in Varric's honeyed voice was nearly enough to undo her then and there.

After a long moment, in which Hawke held herself perfectly still and felt a flush in her face, her chest, her belly, Varric nodded to himself. "Let's try something," he said.

As Hawke raised one eyebrow Varric grinned, a smile smile taking over his face as his gaze roved over her body. "Think you can follow instructions?" he asked, head tilted in challenge. As Hawke stared, confused, Varric raised a hand and, softer, told her, "I know it probably isn't usually your thing, but, if the goal's to get to the good stuff..."

Understanding hit Hawke, and she flushed more, felt herself light up; unable to keep his eyes, she dropped her stare to the hands in her lap, breath coming in quiet pants already. "Let's find out, shall we?" she murmured.

Varric moved toward the bed, knees touching the mattress. Out of the corner of her eye, Hawke saw him lick his lips, saw his hand grip the covers in a tight fist. Hawke shivered in want, and then Varric said low and sweet, "So first, I think you should lean back."

"Varric..."

"Marian," Varric said, quiet and firm, and she gasped, a hitched breath, before pushing herself back down onto the pillows, scrabbling to obey. "That's it, beautiful," Varric murmured, and she felt the mattress dip beside her as he climbed on.

"Maker's breath," Hawke managed to choke out, "I'm far too close already."

She kept her eyes firmly on the bed canopy above her, rather than watch Varric -- somehow, this was getting easier. "Can you go more than once?" he asked, seriously, "or should I be careful?"

"Andraste-- yes, usually," Hawke replied. Couldn't help but let out another hitching pant, as she saw him out of the corner of her eye-- then let out a small whimper as his hands grasped the silk nightdress and pushed it slowly up her body. "Fuck--"

"Not yet," Varric promised. "Not if you can come more than once."

Hawke had to close her eyes, as Varric's firm hands stroked her ribs, her belly, comforting and warm, before trailing his fingers down her inner thigh, a barely-there caress that had her tilting her hips up, straining desperately for the touch on her clit that wouldn't come.

"Right now, Marian," Varric murmured, and groaned as she pushed her hips up once more, "Right now, I've got you where I want you. So, by Andraste, I'm going to take my time."

She felt warm breath on her mound, and moaned aloud, before crying out as Varric's tongue stroked her over the underwear, a soft move that had her nearly coming already.

"Maker," he muttered. "You're so sweet."

"Please," Hawke cried, struggling to push up against his face, not able to help herself. Varric's strong hands held her down, and another flash of heat seared her, made her widen her legs, push up.

"Hold still," Varric commanded, and Hawke froze. He let out another low groan, before his hands gripped her underwear and pulled it off.

Completely exposed to him, Hawke opened her eyes to stare down at Varric's face; he was intent, curious, his desire plain. His eyes locked onto hers, and without letting his gaze drop, Varric latched his lips onto her.

Hawke keened, felt herself lose all control, as Varric's clever tongue took her over the edge.

"Still with me?" Varric's voice asked, amused.

Hawke blinked her eyes open, dazed, to stare at the canopy above the bed once more. Her legs were jelly, her skin prickling hot and cold. She shuddered once, an aftershock, and then felt herself relax, boneless, into the mattress.

"I guess not," Varric said, after a moment.

Hawke huffed out a breath, feeling her lips curve up in a smile. "You were right," she answered. She raised her good hand to push sweaty hair out of her eyes, before letting it fall back to the bed gracelessly.

Varric sat up, leaning over to peer into her face. There was a smile on his face -- too soft to be properly smug, but too much of a smirk to be entirely gentle, either. Hawke could barely move, but she managed to reach out and flop her hand onto his thigh, patted his leg. He glanced down, twitched his lips, but just asked, "What am I right about?"

Hawke let out a chuckle, trying to raise herself upright with her good arm, before giving up and falling on her back on the bed. "You were right," she told him, "about not knowing what I was missing."

Varric leaned down to press a kiss on her collarbone, a lingering touch that had Hawke shivering as she began to stir once more. He stared at her, eyes dark, before saying, "Neither did I."

Hawke felt her skin goosebump, and she squeezed his thigh, rubbing her thumb against the seam of his pants carefully. He let out a breath, and Hawke felt herself smile again, before she said, "There's only so much you can learn without the hands-on experience."

"All too true," Varric agreed. He put a hand on her hip, stroking, and Hawke closed her eyes -- already feeling her energy returning. Still.

"What time is it?" Hawke asked reluctantly. She squinted at the waterclock, without success. It can't matter, she told herself. Not right now. Let it go.

"Well," Varric said, checking the slate in his pocket, "too late to get a full morning's sleep." He threw the slate onto a nearby chair; Hawke watched the motion, before staring up at Varric again.

He seemed to know that that wouldn't be enough to convince Hawke, and so he grinned at her, drew one fingertip down her breastbone. Hawke shivered at the touch as Varric told her, "But early enough we've got time to find out what else we've been missing."

-

Hawke was choking, she was drowning in tar and every time she opened her mouth more poured in, it smelled like the darkspawn, it smelled like-- oh maker, sweet andraste, they were clawing their way up her leg and down her body and please, oh please--

A dim sound, a voice, pierced through her terror, and Hawke tried to yell, tried to warn the-- was it the Maker calling to her, was the voice a demon, what was--

"Hawke."

Hands holding her down, and she shoved, the darkspawn wouldn't get her, wouldn't turn her into--

"--come on, it's me, Hawke, wake up--"

Eyes opened, Hawke felt her chest heave, throat hoarse. She croaked, blinked. Eyes were gummy. Candle on the table.

Varric's voice coming from beside her, out of sight. Right. Okay. Nightmare.

Hawke leaned down, gulping in air through scratchy lungs, and shook her head at Varric, unable to look at him quite yet. The memory of claws on her skin was too real yet to face him.

Carefully, he got back into bed (she'd knocked him off then in her terror, wonderful), and tucked the blankets around himself. He kept his hands to himself. "Are you awake?" he asked, voice even and soothing.

Out of the corner of her eye, Hawke could see him twisting his fingers together. She nodded, raked her fingernails over her face.

Too panicked yet to trust her voice.

"Can I--" and Varric cut himself off, just held a hand out, palm up: asking "can I, will it help?" without saying it. Grateful, shaky still, Hawke nodded once more.

A rough palm came to rest on her bare shoulder gently, and she shuddered. It was nothing like claws, and Hawke felt herself begin to settle. Another breath. She was awake.

At that moment, Fenris burst into the room in nothing but his smallclothes, short sword in his hand and chest heaving with breath, eyes dangerous, wild. He stopped short at the sight on the bed: Hawke, bent over and struggling to calm her breathing, and Varric running a hand slowly down her spine.

Hawke gulped, tried to speak, and could feel Fenris's wild gaze on her. This could go poorly, the both of them running on panicked instinct, and she forced out, choked out, "I'm fine."

Uncertain, Fenris said to her, "You were screaming."

She glared at him, or tried to, but it held no heat; Varric still looked vaguely terrified (though was doing an admirable job of covering), so whatever noises she'd been making were bad enough. "Nightmare," Hawke snapped. Her heart was still pulsing in her throat, heavy and afraid.

"Ah." He lowered the sword, nodded curtly. "My apologies," Fenris said, and turned to flee, closing the door with more force than necessary, but not to signal fury.

"That was weird," Varric said. "And kind of rude."

Hawke shrugged. "It was instinct," she said, feeling exhausted. Varric's hand stilled, then resumed its soothing rhythm. "He barely looked awake," Hawke said, "just reacted. That kind of fear, it--" and she cut herself off, swallowing.

Decided to take a different track.

Her throat was still raw, but Hawke found it easier to talk, now, as she stared down at the blanket on her knees. "I've seen that kind of gut reaction. In the war. It doesn't, he didn't mean anything. Nothing mattered but the immediate reaction."

Ducking away from Varric, Hawke slid out of the bed to wet a washcloth in the basin. Scrubbing her face, she told him, voice muffled, "You find the threat, neutralize it, and then, think about it."

Varric made no indication to follow her, and Hawke turned to face him. Couldn't quite meet his eyes, but smiled her approval, her gratitude. He knew when to back off. Instead, Varric asked, "Do you want a drink?"

Briefly she thought about it, then Hawke shook her head. "I'd be better off with a tonic," she admitted, surprising herself. And Varric, from the way his eyebrows shot up into his hairline; all right, fine, she rarely admitted troubles sleeping, but they'd just fucked, wasn't some disclosure natural? "But there's too much to do today."

His surprised look vanished, and in its place came a kind of rueful resignation, all too familiar. Varric replied, "None of those things involve more sex with dwarves, do they."

Trying for her usual flirtation, Hawke dropped the washrag back into the basin, cocked a hip. "One never knows what goes on at the docks," she replied.

"Hmmph," was the answer. Glancing at the water clock, Varric began pulling his underclothes on. "You've got hours before sunset, beautiful," he told her, more serious. "If you're going without me, I'll wait at the precinct."

"You could wait in my bed," she suggested.

"I could," Varric answered easily, "but it isn't where news of your untimely demise will come first. So I think I'll go bother your captain."

Hawke felt a stab of pain in her chest at the slight tension in Varric's voice as he talked of her death; guilt at putting it there, guilt at refusing to include him. She tried to shove it aside. Hawke was the cop, Hawke was the one with something to--

"At the risk of being forcibly ejected, can I say something, Hawke?" Varric asked. Warily, she nodded. Varric began putting on his clothes, his outer jacket, his gloves-- to avoid facing her. He continued, "There's a point where atonement becomes masochism, you know."

Only Varric could say such to her; but then, just hours ago he'd had his tongue deep inside her, had her crying with pleasure, and still avoided touching or even looking at the ugly scar on her stomach from the qunari sword that nearly killed her. As if the reminder still hurt.

So all Hawke could reply was, "I know."

Varric sighed and came to Hawke. She thought he might pull her into a kiss, but instead he gripped her bare hip with his gloved hand, hard, then let go.

Varric said, "Your arm's better," and it wasn't a question. Still, for his sake, Hawke tested it and nodded. "Small miracles," he told her, and left her to dress.

Chapter Text

As promised, when Hawke ventured into the kitchen Varric was nowhere to be found. Perhaps he needed space, and Hawke found herself grateful. It would take time, she knew, to settle into a new equilibrium where the low simmer of attraction they shared was actually sated. If it could be.

She found Fenris and Bethany in the kitchen, body language closed off, defensive; Hawke swallowed, nervous, but told herself it would be fine.

"It is not personal," Fenris said, voice tight. "I do not react well to magic, I cannot -- that mistrust is a brand under my skin I can feel as wrong. How can one overcome that?"

Bethany had the frown on her face that said she was angry, but not unbearably so. It was the kind of face she used to get when Gamlen said-- oh, anything really. She replied, "It can't not be personal. Magic is a part of me, and so you're saying you can't trust me."

Hawke stayed in the shadow of the doorway. She wanted to jump in, to shove Fenris out the front door and hang the danger, wanted to put herself physically between the two of them... but Hawke knew Bethany would not thank her for the intrusion.

Fenris snapped back, "As these are a part of me," and he held out his arms to show off the tattoos on his skin. "I cannot remove them, I cannot deny the pain they cause, the never-ending -- I cannot ignore them, much as I wish I could. I have tried. They will not go away, I cannot make them go away."

Bethany sat at the table, crossing her arms, but her features softened. Now, Hawke saw, she just looked a little sad. "I'm sorry, I am," she told him, but continued, "but I didn't have anything to do with your suffering."

Holding a hand out, palm up, Beth conjured a tiny lick of blue flame on the end of her fingers. She said quietly, "I can't make this go away, either. Believe me, I've tried."

Hawke watched Fenris as he dropped his hands, bowed his head as he gripped the table for a moment, before nodding once: yes. His voice was soft when he said, "I apologize. I did not mean to imply you intended-- Hawke!" Fenris cut himself off, surprised, as his gaze caught her standing in the shadows. A tinge of colour in his cheeks made Hawke grin as he said, "I did not see you there."

"I heard you earlier," Bethany told her, arms still crossed. Hawke winced; Beth was always sensitive to her nightmares. Bethany looked at her a moment, then asked, "Are you awake enough to be upright?"

Hawke slid onto the bench at the kitchen table, taking Fenris's mug without thinking. She decided to ignore the question about her nightmare. "I'm flattered by your estimation of my energy reserves," she told Bethany instead, "but Varric and I were asleep hours ago."

"How's your arm?" Bethany asked, as if she wasn't already studying the way Hawke moved her shoulder, critical eye ever-watchful.

"It's healing, thank you," Hawke replied, and demonstrated by rotating the shoulder almost the full way 'round. The movement barely stung, which meant any infection had burned out and her muscle was knitting back together. Hawke added, "If you tighten the bandage, I can probably fight again."

"Marian..."

"It can't wait," Hawke told Bethany seriously. "The tide's full in two days' time, which means they could ship off any moment."

Bethany frowned, but came over to rest her hand on Hawke's injured shoulder. A wash of cool magic sank into her muscle, repairing the minute tears and strain on the wound.

"You are healed well enough?" Fenris asked.

Hawke looked over to him and Fenris clenching his teeth. Of course, Bethany's magic was strong, even if healing wasn't her first specialty. Fenris would be feeling the pain along his tattoos, sitting so close.

Hawke grimaced, said to him, "I'm sorry, you can duck out until Bethany is--"

"I will be fine," Fenris gritted out, and then allowed, "I would not leave you."

Hawke swallowed against the lump in her throat. She had done nothing to earn his loyalty, nor his respect...yet he proved, once more, that both were assured. Trying to shake it off, as Bethany prodded her bandage, Hawke replied, flippant, "I hardly think Cullen meant you to stare at me all hours of the day."

If anything, her dismissal made Fenris's expression darker. In a gruff tone, he told her, "It would be a pleasure to do so," and shoved his way from the kitchen table.

"Well," Bethany said, into the ensuing silence, eyebrow raised. Fenris, Hawke could hear, was waiting her in the front hall, pacing.

"Yes," Hawke answered, a little embarrassed.

Bethany stepped back, eyed her sister, then said, "The arm's healing, you should be fine as long as you don't hold your entire weight on that muscle alone."

"So no dangling from rooftops with just my one hand, understood," Hawke quipped.

Bethany looked at her another moment before rolling her eyes. "What he sees in you, I have no idea," she teased Hawke.

Stung, Hawke pressed a hand to her heart. "Varric and I are alike as--"

"I didn't mean Varric," Bethany cut her off, small smile in place. "Varric, you might notice, is willing to leave your side."

"Varric is far more aware of my capabilities in the field than a certain elf," Hawke grumbled.

"Or Cullen, it seems," Bethany teased. She clucked her tongue, then asked, "Do you need me to come with you?"

Hawke's knee-jerk reaction (absolutely not) warred with her practical side (a mage to fight mages, and a mage to stop them from bleeding to death on a warehouse floor); practicality won out as she told her sister, "Yes, but no, Beth."

An obstinate look crossed Bethany's face, and she replied, "I can handle this, you know."

Immediately Hawke relented. "Of course you can, I know you can." She sighed, standing, and asked, "What about you and Fenris?"

Bethany glanced at the open kitchen door, then looked back at Hawke. In a low tone, she replied, "That was a theoretical disagreement."

"Beth--"

Her sister's face firmed, and she stared at Hawke, unflinching, waiting until Hawke met her eyes. "I've fought with him already, you remember, and we managed well. He might be slow to trust, but he isn't the only one," she told Hawke. "Besides, he's attached enough to you I don't fear him."

That Bethany thought Fenris's affection for Hawke would keep her safe was terrifying; terrifying, and yet so far he'd done nothing to endanger Beth's freedom, shown no inclination to anything save cautious watchfulness (something Fenris had in spades for any and all people in his immediate -- and not so immediate -- vicinity). Watchfulness and caution weren't traits which Hawke, much as she wanted to, could judge too harshly.

"There might be guards there." A long moment, in which Bethany just continued to look at her, and finally Hawke admitted, "I don't like it, is all."

Bethany said immediately, "I don't like the odds this warehouse offers you, either. Let me help."

Hawke sighed. Keeping Bethany from sight was her highest priority, had been ever since they were forced from Hightown and into the shadows; and long before that, too. "Lady Amell shouldn't be consorting with ruffians," Hawke protested, but the objection rang hollow and they both knew it.

Bethany rolled her eyes once more, already turning to grab her overcoat, tucking her staff under it. "And Lady Amell would be pleased to avoid ruffians," Bethany retorted, "if she weren't related to them. Either I follow you -- at a discreet distance," Bethany reassured, "or you go without a mage, with that shoulder. Which would you prefer?"

Hawke grimaced, knowing Bethany was right. Hating that Bethany was right, and once again her sister was risking her own freedom to help out. "I'll make sure no one else is around before you come anywhere near," Hawke warned, but inwardly admitted defeat.

-

"This doesn't look promising," Hawke murmured.

They were perched on the roof two buildings down from the warehouse Athenril had under surveillance. Athenril's contact had thoughtfully left his surveillance equipment for them, once Hawke assured him that she'd return it. The view was partial at best, and she squinted, trying to find an open route into the upper walkways of the building.

"There, the skylight," Fenris whispered.

Hawke shook her head, frowning. "Could be better," she replied, "most of these buildings are secured from above. We'd likely have to break it to get in."

"Hmm." Fenris made a sound deep in his throat, his own collapsible binocs to his eyes. "Then we risk the second floor window."

Bethany, on her stomach behind them, muttered, "Can you open the skylight if you get in?"

Hawke turned her shoulders, awkwardly contorting to keep below the narrow wall they were crouched behind and still look at Bethany. "How?" she whispered. "Grapple up with the harness that will undo all your work on my shoulder?"

Bethany shrugged, waved a hand as if to indicate, well, Hawke didn't know. "I suppose one of you will have to get a look inside the building, then," Bethany replied.

Hawke continued to frown at the building, training the surveillance scope at one, then another window. "I don't like it," she whispered, "there are too many opportunities to trip something and lose the element of surprise."

"Then I suggest we follow you in," Fenris said, and tucked his glasses away. "A more palatable option will not appear by staring at the warehouse."

Hawke looked back at Bethany again. This was the real test, the reason she didn't want Beth to come. She muttered, "Listen, if Bethany goes in there and they see--"

Fenris cut her off, already moving slowly to the fire escape which would grant access to the building next door. "I do not expect surrender," he whispered back, "but surely the eyes of one witness are unreliable."

"Possible Templar witnesses," Hawke hissed, but followed him down the ladder. "And you don't have a problem with what I might do?" What she would always do, when it came to Bethany. No Templar could be left standing.

Fenris paused, held a hand out to steady Hawke as she hopped silently onto the platform, then stepped aside as Hawke helped Bethany down. He waited until they both faced him before answering, "These men, whoever they might have been, are trafficking in corruption forced into the bodies of slaves. Their lives," he growled, "are forfeit."

Hawke nodded sharply, and Bethany looked troubled. Before he leapt across the gap to the next building's terrace, Fenris whispered to Hawke, "Besides, as much as I wish it were not true, this will go easier for you with a mage."

Following him to the roof next to the warehouse that was their target, Hawke held up her hand: silence. She didn't want to risk tripping any audio traps or alerting any long-ranging sentinels that they were there. Athenril's man never got this close, never scouted the perimeter, so they were going in blind. Hawke didn't like it.

As they crossed the roof, Hawke was painfully aware of their shadows standing out. It was mid-afternoon, and if anyone looked up--

Fenris held a hand up, freezing in place, and Hawke paused mid-step, Bethany at her heels. Fenris waved a hand and whispered, "Some kind of glyph. Invisible to the eye."

Fenris's tattoos, apparently, were sensitive enough he could sense passive magic in waiting. "Can you disarm it?" Hawke asked Bethany.

Her sister frowned, stepping forward to where Fenris waited. She closed her eyes, then said, "Perhaps, but it would be safer to step around." She carefully picked out a path across the roofing tiles, waiting on the other side for Hawke to take the lead.

"Magical traps," Fenris muttered. Hawke continued to step carefully, keeping close to Fenris.

"And non-magical ones, as well," Hawke said, indicating the trip-wire in front of her. She wouldn't have caught it, except Isabela had taught her how to lay the invisible fishing-line several years ago. "This is a Rivaini trick," she whispered, examining the bricks to one side where the mechanism was hidden.

The thing was hinged both to one of the loose bricks, and to the intact roof tile below. Hawke could cut one side, but it would spring; she could move the bricks, but it would tighten and snare her. She studied it from several angles, before she pulled out two pairs of wire cutters and -- breath held -- cut both trigger mechanisms at once.

The line fell loose, and Hawke breathed.

"Now I really don't like this," Hawke said, motioning them forward carefully. She placed one foot, then the other, and they were at the roof edge, staring at the warehouse. "Why would a Rivaini pirate be in league with Tevinter slavers?"

"Or Templars," Bethany added. "It isn't as if the Armada out of Rivain does much business with the chantry, like the Carta does."

"Rivain has the fastest ships in Thedas," Fenris rumbled. "Perhaps that is the connection."

Hawke shook her head, gesturing behind her. "That isn't the work of an ordinary sailor, or even Carta affiliated," she told them. "This group is better funded than we thought if they can hire that kind of talent from Llomerryn."

She turned back to the warehouse and tried to keep in the shadow of the water tower behind them. "You're going to go in the window," Bethany murmured, "aren't you."

"I don't know another way inside," Hawke replied. True, the frame could be trapped, but Hawke knew she could disarm most things; and better only one of them risk discovery. "If I can get in, I can clear a path to the walkways for you, scout the best position."

"And get yourself killed in the meantime," Fenris snapped.

Hawke sighed, suddenly angry. "I appreciate your concern," she hissed, readying herself to jump across to the window ledge, "but I'm more than capable of this. I'll signal when you can come across. Use the grapple." She pulled the hook and pulley system from her jacket and handed it to Bethany, refusing to look at Fenris.

After a moment, he cleared his throat and murmured, "I apologize. Of course you are able."

She stared at him a moment, before answering, "Yes. I am." Stretching one last time, she said, "Be ready. If the Void opens up before I call for you, keep cover."

Hawke intended, should she be captured, to fake affiliation with Athenril, so long as long as none of the men inside recognized her.

Fenris scowled at this and hissed, "You would have us leave you? After all of this?"

He swept his arms out, indicating-- Hawke didn't have time to answer the question, answer any of it, including her faint flush, the rush of warmth at his concern. She stared him down and said, "Yes. Leave me." She added, "I've been in worse spots," and a shiver went down her spine.

Bracing herself, shoving away the darkspawn tainted memories that threatened to surface, Hawke jumped, both arms outstretched, to catch the brickwork beside the hopefully open window.

-

Once inside, Hawke was relieved to find that security wasn't as tight as the traps on the roof. Probably most worried about Athenril stealing from them, she thought to herself, and snorted. They really didn't know the smuggler if they thought she was the biggest threat at the docks.

The window had opened easily enough, a simple latch-trap Hawke disarmed while peering into the warehouse below. She wasn't lucky enough to pick the window that actually backed onto the catwalk, of course; but there was a goods hauler a few feet away, arm hanging out over empty space. The main haft of the hauler abutted the catwalks. If she could reach the solid metal arm instead of the chain....

Hawke prayed to the Maker, leapt from the window -- and grabbed wildly for the metal arm. Kicking the chain with her knee, she winced at the noise, but the faint clank was lost in the cavernous room.

Dangling precariously over two storeys, Hawke shuffled a bit, getting a better grip on the slippery metal, then made her way hand-over-hand to where the outstretched arm joined the hauler's body. With each motion her shoulder tugged, a flare of pain -- but it was manageable.

Hawke pulled herself up to straddle the hauler arm, thighs gripping the metal beam and giving her a more solid perch. From there, shimmying down to the catwalk railings was easy, and Hawke crept along the upper walk toward the open-water end of the warehouse where the ship was berthed. Along the way, she disarmed several more simple latch-traps on the windows and the catwalk floor, leaving Bethany and Fenris a clear path to follow.

At the far end of the catwalk, Hawke hid behind some crates and studied the scene around the ship. This was where the majority of the men and women working the warehouse were focused.

They were loading the ship.

"Damnit," she breathed. Several men, all wearing heavy chainmail and an officious demeanour, were guiding the work. The rest of the people actually loading crates, Hawke knew to be poorer dock workers from their clothes and their body language, the ease with which they handled the makeshift machines to load each crate. Now and then a sailor -- recognizable from their attention to various ropes on the ship masts -- appeared in view.

None among them appeared to be Carta, and that made her wary. Where were the smugglers in this operation?

The ship looked about half loaded, which meant she had time, but not much. Not enough to risk leaving and returning. Signal Cullen now, or wait? Announce herself in a foolish ploy for distraction (and give up the advantage)? Try to end the inevitable battle swiftly by killing the ex-Templar nearest her, taking one of the main combatants out of play?

Hawke didn't recognize the people loading the crates, but that didn't mean they were loyal to this crew, nor did it mean they had any idea what they were being paid to move around. Plenty of poor refugees had to take whatever work was available, and a day's pay from a shipyard was a fine day's work.

Provided you didn't look in the crates. Hawke swallowed against sudden nausea, shoving away all thoughts of the red lyrium.

If she could remove the workers from play, this would be an easier scenario to manoeuver through, and she wouldn't feel at all guilty about throwing a knife from the shadows without announcing herself. Still, first things.

Hawke crouch-walked her way back to the window closest to the hauler, keeping to the shadows behind the railing, and pushed it open carefully. Waving an arm out, she only hoped Fenris and Bethany were paying attention -- and everyone else was not.

"What is the situation?" Fenris asked, once Hawke heard the quiet hiss of her grapple line retracting. Bethany was looking down at the warehouse floor, frowning to herself.

"They're half loaded," she whispered. "Several of what I'd bet are Templars are overseeing the workers. None I recognize, which means they aren't from Kirkwall."

Fenris craned his neck to try and see the crowd near the ship. "Do the workers seem culpable?"

Hawke shook her head unhappily. "They look the sort of people who don't ask when someone's willing to pay them for work." She gestured, adding, "There are sailors on board, but they seem preoccupied with preparing to launch."

"A good day's pay, or something more?"

Bethany answered Fenris's question before Hawke could; she whispered, "No captain would take on cargo they hadn't investigated. If they're smuggling it, they know what's inside." She looked back to the warehouse floor. "I can cause a panic, but most of what I could do would come too close to the boxes they're loading...."

Hawke blanched at the mental image of Bethany raining fire down on those crates, of the stench of burning flesh and-- what would fire even do to the Blighted lyrium? Hawke didn't want to find out.

"I want those dock workers gone before we do anything," Hawke finally murmured to them. "There are too many people down there who might have no idea what's going on, and the only way we'll be able to take the Templar group successfully is by surprise."

"What if they do not leave before the ship?"

Hawke shook her head and answered, "We'll be able to tell when they're nearly ready to leave, and they'll send everyone home with their pay before that." She pointed at the main door, propped open slightly. "They wouldn't have such lax security, even with the guards, if the most valuable cargo wasn't still missing."

Bethany sat down, folding her legs up and resting her chin on her knees, hands clasped around them. She whispered, "What's missing?"

Hawke couldn't look at Fenris, because this was his theory; his come by way of brutal experience. They hadn't seen any sign of Carta, so far, but watching the ship and crates Hawke had figured out why. They were busy with their Tevinter client.

She told her sister, "Slaves."

Fenris growled, a low noise in his throat, but simply nodded. "The lyrium grows best within living hosts," he explained, tightly. "Unless they intend to kidnap their workers, they have none."

Hawke pointed at several workers closest to them, shaking her head. "See their clothes? I don't recognize them, but they aren't desperate enough to never be missed. They might be hard up for money, but these can eat. It would be too risky for so many to disappear."

"Then we have to wait until the next...shipment arrives?" Bethany asked. "Won't that put them at risk as well?"

It was true, that would leave another group of people who would be in the middle of the fighting, not to mention another group of people who might see Bethany's magic.

Hawke whispered, "If they're from the alienage, then they won't cooperate with the precinct or the guard. Only a handful of guardsmen are welcome in that district, and you know Lia won't report anything that happened."

"They will still be at risk from your throwing knives, not to mention any magic fireballs," Fenris pointed out.

Hawke ignored the jab and took her slate out of her pocket. Time to let Cullen know what was going on, in so many words. She couldn't give him the details of what was happening, in case he wanted to storm the warehouse and risk letting the Carta and Tevinter agents go...but she had to tell him enough that, should things go sideways, he knew to follow her in.

fenris and i at docks, warehouse 677 seventhr row, stakeout. Ath has details if urgent action necessary. will msg when action imminent, stay hidden. if i'm radio silent 20 mins after, come in, a dozen or more w you. DO NOT FOLLOW SOONER addnl on the way

It was, perhaps, too curt to send to her superior, but, Cullen needed to understand the gravity of the situation. He sent a reply immediately:

If you screw this up, I'll kill you myself. And BE CAREFUL.

Good. He would trust her judgment on when to act. Hawke hesitated, then sent one more message.

if i'm stabbed to death have lots of sex with isabela in mourning

It was not, perhaps, the most romantic thing to send, but then, Varric was the romantic. Almost immediately, Hawke regretted sending it to him. Who wanted a flippant scrawl before possible grief? Could she do nothing right when it came to--

Varric's answer came nearly as immediate as Cullen's.

Please don't die.

A moment, then a second message came, sigil flashing, on the heels of the first.

Grieving and horny isn't a good look on me.

Hawke couldn't help but grin.

She wanted to reply, wanted to continue the conversation longer, anything to distract from the scene below them. But to do the job, her mind had to be clear. Resolute, she turned her slate off and tucked it back inside her leathers.

Then she settled down, back resting against the wall and spyglass out, to watch the warehouse floor. Soon, she'd have to try and make her way across the roof rafters (farther above them again, and narrower) to the other catwalk, see what that particular vantage point could tell them. She'd have to lay some traps, and direct Bethany to try and ward the entrances without anyone noticing. See if Fenris had any ideas for how to help keep them alive.

For now, however, they waited.

-

Hawke was actually attempting to read the obscure codes on one of the Templar crates when Fenris hissed at her to get her attention.

She swung her gaze around to the entrance, where the dock workers were being handed coins and ushered out one by one. This was it, then.

"So where are our friends?" she murmured.

The warehouse had one obvious entrance, though Hawke knew the buildings in the docks areas were riddled with bolt-holes and underground passages. It seemed likely that anyone transporting...live cargo...would be moving through those, not the streets.

There was no way to know which innocuous looking pile of crates held an exit, however, and so they were forced to wait.

After several minutes, Hawke pointed as people finally began to appear from the wall facing them, out from behind a stack of wooden boxes. "Predictable," she breathed, and Bethany snorted.

Fenris ignored them, whispering, "We must cover that exit so that none escape. Once they load their cargo, I will move over there and take the slavers."

Hawke surveyed the floor. None of the combatants were near the front entrance, though she didn't like the position of the merchandise (people or volatile lyrium). Too many things could go wrong between their position and the--

"Mages?" she asked, indicating the slavers.

Fenris nodded, narrowing his eyes at the group who were now approaching the Templars. "They will load their prizes," he snapped, voice low, "into that container," and Fenris gestured to a particularly large wheeled cart. "For transport. Once they are in, we move."

They waited another moment as the slavers prodded the dozen or so men and women into the box, then Fenris stood, and Hawke watched as he--

Fenris's tattoos glowed. He snarled and threw himself off the catwalk to charge at the slaver wearing a visible staff, greatsword out.

Hawke looked at her sister, wincing, then told Bethany, "To it, I suppose. Stay clear of the Templars and out of sight, and go out the window if anyone comes near."

The slaves were huddled down, so Hawke took aim with one of her throwing knives (a nasty little piece of hardware, a gift from Isabela) and hit the closest Templar in the neck.

Fenris was yelling about being from the guard while fending off attackers (that wasn't going to help much). He was ably fighting off those near him, either ignoring or unconcerned with the magefire getting closer. He was also, she saw, not pulling his aim with the slavers, unconcerned with incapacitation and simply killing them clean.

Hawke pulled out another throwing knife, then handed it to Bethany. "Just in case," she warned-- and leapt from the railing to the floor below, two blades digging into the soft tissue at another Templar's neck and shoulder, where the chainmail never quite met. She hit his artery clean, and blood spurted as he went down.

Two others (sword-trained, she noted: bulky but slow) turned to face her, yelling out their surprise, but Hawke was already weaving around them to bring her blades back up; a savage jab and the one Templar's sword arm was useless, the man going down to his knees. His fellow had his weapon out, was swinging it at Hawke. She swerved, knives up to redirect the blow when--

A glow as Fenris dodged and brought his own sword up to parry -- a more solid move than her knives would take, for sure. Fenris made one curt gesture, his chin pointed to the far wall, and Hawke was gone, dodging through crates.

There was a mage over here, at least one, she could feel the heat from expelled fire. Hawke jumped up onto one of the piles of crates, scanning through-- there. She rushed his position, knives out, trying to get within arm's reach before he saw her...

No such luck. Hawke felt her limbs go heavy, breath slowing as she was caught in the mage's trap, air thickening as around Hawke, the pressure built. But she hadn't fought with her sister and in the bowels of Kirkwall this long not to have a counter for one of the most popular fighting spells.

With her strength sapped and limbs heavy as lead, Hawke still could snap her wrist -- and sent the knife in her good hand to embed itself in the mage's heart.

One dagger, now, at least until she could retrieve the thrown one, and no other weapons. Not ideal, but if nothing else--

A blow from behind, and Hawke staggered. Dizzy, vision greying out, she twisted around, ducking as the sword hilt came down again (they were trying to take her alive, interesting, she thought absently). It missed by a hairsbreadth, but next time she wouldn't be so lucky.

Stumbling back, Hawke hit a crate and went down, to her knees and then collapsing. The sword bearer would be just in front of her; she had one knife, she was too disoriented to throw true, and there'd be more of them coming.

She had only a split second to feel the gathering heat against her skin, no time, get up, get up. Hawke flipped up onto her hands, head and shoulder screaming in pain, threw herself into a handspring away from--

A fireball engulfed the three, hot enough Hawke felt sunburn.

She staggered to her feet, leaned heavily against the wall, and studied the faces of the screaming men, their armour. Spying the hidden insignia... they were Carta. Interesting. Feeling pity for the contortions of pain on their enflamed faces, Hawke reached out, and tried to slit their throats as mercy, but the heat was too much.

She turned away, seeing Fenris battering himself against the last two Templars. The rest were dead or dying around his feet. Hawke shook her head out, testing her reflexes. Adrenaline coursed through her, she couldn't feel her shoulder. It was enough. She crept around the crates and rushed the Templar nearest her, clumsily slit his throat while he was busy fending Fenris off.

Her dagger buried in the man's throat, Hawke had no weapon as the body fell, but Fenris, seeing her distress, easily dispatched the last man and came to her. "You are hurt?" he asked.

"Dazed only," she answered; it was mostly true, at least for the moment. Hawke reached to retrieve her knife. "I think. You?"

Fenris snorted, though the amount of blood on his face was alarming. "I have seen much worse." He wiped at his cheeks with a handkerchief. "I caught a glancing blow, irritating only for the blood in my eyes."

Hawke looked up to Bethany, who waved from the upper level. Beth was safe. Hawke asked Fenris, "Do you want Bethany to--" but cut herself off when Fenris shook his head. "Of course not," she muttered.

"It is not a kindness, Hawke, even if it is meant as such," Fenris told her gruff, then met her eyes. "It is nothing. Truly. Tell your sister to disappear."

The words were curt, dismissive, but Hawke looked at Fenris, the slight softening around his eyes, and knew it to be his own style of concern. She motioned for Bethany to leave, and her sister called out, "Are you sure?"

"We're fine," Hawke called back. "Fine enough, at least." Hawke looked around; at her feet, a man moaned. "Cullen will be here any minute. Get lost, Beth."

"The thanks I get," Bethany yelled back, but she pulled herself out the window.

"We should dispatch the wounded," Fenris told her after a moment.

It was true, for several reasons (top of hers was Bethany's safety, but mercy counted among them). "Cullen won't like it," she said, reaching down to put the man moaning beside her out of his misery. A quick slice to the throat and he gurgled out, then went quiet.

His original wound would have been fatal without magical intervention; Hawke had seen enough gut wounds to know. It still galled her, slicing through someone's artery who might have yet lived. Came too close to reminding her of missions through darkspawn territory.

A hand came to rest on top of hers, still holding the hilt of her knife. She turned, saw Fenris crouching beside her. Silently, he took the knife from her hand and stood, moving to the next body.

Unwilling to watch Fenris in his gruesome task, Hawke shook her bad arm out (little lingering pain, good), and cautiously went to open the container full of slaves. She knew that people could react unpredictably, that even her attempts to help them could appear threatening.

The elves -- for they were all elves -- in the box crouched or sat. Only one stood up, snarling, as she opened the door; the rest sat cowering. She fought to keep the vicious curse off her lips. These men and women didn't deserve her rage, and those that did were dead on the floor.

Instead, she schooled her face blank, forced herself to numbness. "Come on," Hawke said, briskly, "if you want to get back home before the guard or my precinct show up, I need you to stand up."

The man standing stepped forward: a scarred man with a grim face and his arms crossed. "And what does this freedom cost us?"

Hawke tilted her head, eyed him. Shrewd. "A bargainer. You've heard of Hawke?" she asked. The man's eyes narrowed further, but he nodded, grudging. "Well, you're speaking with her. I want your silence on what happened."

The elf looked around at his fellow elves chained up, and snorted. "None of them will blink, much less talk to one of you. The sooner we get out of here the better."

"Good then, we have an accord." She motioned for him to come closer and examined the chains holding them together. "If I get these chains off, can you remove the metal cuffs? We don't have time to pick the locks on everyone's wrists."

The man scowled more, but pulled his hands to his face. He studied the locks, then nodded. "Should do."

"Good. Take care of everyone's hands once you're back in the alienage, and there'll be pay in it."

He jerked his hands away from Hawke, snarling, "I don't need pay to take care of my own."

Hawke continued her work on the chain, picking the complicated contraption that held the links together and prevented the elves from going anywhere. Andraste's ass, this was clever Carta work, and Hawke wanted to know where they'd gotten it.

Answering his stinging rejection, Hawke said coolly, "Then don't take it. I pay for people's time when they assist me, no matter the reason, and you'd know that if you knew my reputation."

Clinking, the thin chain slid free, and Hawke pulled. It took a moment or two to make the elves understand they had to stand and let Hawke pull the chain free from their hands, but the elf who'd spoken with her cajoled the others into cooperation. Then they were all free.

"I'll pay for the cuffs you don't want to keep, as well," she told the man, meeting his eyes. "Now get out of here before you have to answer any questions."

The rest fled, either out through the main entrance or back down through the tunnel (Hawke hoped they'd be safe in whatever district it spat them out into), but the scarred elf waited. "And I'm to come to your precinct to find you?" he asked.

Hawke snorted. "You may," she allowed, "though I'm at the Hanged Man most evenings if you'd prefer neutral ground. It's the bar near Adolpho Armoury, in Lowtown."

"I know it," he told her, then nodded and disappeared.

Hawke looked around once more. Fenris had taken care of the dying, and now only corpses remained. She went to the dead mage and pulled her other dagger free, wiping the blades down before sheathing them. She'd have to clean them, and her leathers and armour, thoroughly anyway.

"Cullen will have my head, for this," she muttered to herself.

"Why is that?" Fenris asked, materializing at her elbow.

Hawke sighed, gesturing around her. "We 'lost' half the cargo, left no witnesses, and found no new leads."

Fenris surveyed the wreckage around them. "We did not allow the ship to sail," he replied. "I would choose to call it a victory."

-

"And these?"

Hawke had been answering questions for three quarters of an hour. Now they were onto questions about the dead men on the floor: who stabbed him? Do you know who they were? Couldn't you have left a few alive, to give us a witness or suspect?

"Detective?"

Hawke blinked, attention back on the city guard taking her statement. The guardsman waved at the bodies on the stairs: charred. Hawke kept her face steely. They'd died quick, she knew, and that was important.

Fenris stepped beside her. "Mine."

The guard's expression reminded Hawke remarkably of Bran (one of his favourites, perhaps?). He raised one manicured eyebrow, clearly skeptical. "You flash-burned three unknown assailants from across the room?"

Their Carta insignias were scorched beyond recognition, and Hawke would have to decide soon whether or not to share that information with the rest of the class.

Fenris gave a curt nod. Hawke stood beside him and bit her tongue. It wouldn't do to flinch.

The guard asked, "And how, precisely, did you accomplish this?"

Hawke bit her tongue once again. It wouldn't do to punch a guard in the face, either, even if she was technically higher ranked-- actually, it would go worse for her, because she was higher ranked.

This one must be working for Bran, Hawke thought. The guard had his special brand of annoyance down.

Fenris replied, "Flash powder." A beat, and he growled out, "It is a... Tevinter technique. Classified."

The guard wrote that down on his slate, stylus scratching loud enough to send shivers up Hawke's spine, the noise grating. As the guard opened his mouth, Fenris pulled something from an inner pocket -- no, from around his neck, and under his armour -- and presented it.

The guard's eyes widened, slightly, but he just scratched out another line on his slate and told them, "Ah, thank you. Yes. I believe I have enough."

Hawke watched the team carefully gathering up the corpses, instead of watching Fenris. Two questions were warring in her mind, thoughts whirling around, pieces slotting together even as they left more questions. Hawke couldn't figure it out: why would Fenris lie to protect her sister? And how?

He murmured, quiet enough only she could hear, "Ask."

Instead of the more personal, Hawke decided to ask the obvious question. She turned to Fenris, tilted her head. He waited until she asked, "What did you give him?"

He handed it over: a medallion, an exquisitely crafted specimen of some kind of silverite-looking metal and gold, gems still bright. The rune burned with a complex sigil, one that Hawke couldn't parse.

Hawke studied it carefully, felt the power in it even without any sense of magic of her own, then handed it back as she admitted, "All I can read is the signifier for 'Minrathous'."

"'By the power vested in the title of Magister, Danarius of Minrathous appoints the holder with the honour of enforcer and the allowances attached'." Fenris studied the medallion for another moment, then tucked it away again. "There is more, but that is the gist."

"So, you've actually been working for Minrathous all along?" Hawke asked. She tried for casual, tried to hide the hurt, the hollow feeling in her stomach; to think, she'd trusted Fenris to--

Fenris turned to her, face in a snarl. "I abandoned Tevinter and that-- that magister, a decade ago." He turned away, fists clenched, and Hawke watched him force his features back into the calm mask. Finally, he turned back around and said, "It would be a kindness to say I chose exile. There was no choice."

The rest of the pieces fell into place for Hawke: he was a refugee, fleeing Tevinter, that she'd known. He'd implied he had experienced indentured servitude, that Wycome had welcomed him when he was not welcome elsewhere. But Fenris had been trained as the personal guard, sentinel, investigator, and assassin for an important magister...and he'd run from the honour.

Hawke licked her lips, felt her shoulder throb, but her churning stomach settled, her nerves eased. She asked, "How did you really end up in Wycome?"

Fenris shrugged, but relaxed somewhat. He told her, "It was simply a place to stop, for a time, but the guard there," and he paused. "There was a place for me -- in Wycome," Fenris explained with a chuckle, "there is a place for nearly anyone. The bounty hunters who were looking for me aren't welcome. It was a place to hide, for a time, where I was safe. Safe enough, at least."

"So why risk admitting your identity now?" Hawke asked, without thought.

Fenris turned away from her, staring at the special crate designed to transport the 'live cargo'. "Would you have forgiven me, if your sister were discovered?" he finally asked.

Hawke swallowed, ashamed. She hadn't believed he wouldn't turn Bethany in, not really, and instead--

"And so," Fenris told her, turning back to face Hawke.

Hawke couldn't meet his eyes and dropped her gaze. The risk seemed too great, that he'd take one look at her face and simply know everything she couldn't admit out loud, her shame, the secret place in her that harboured mistrust, even after-- even after all of it. She had been waiting for Fenris to turn Bethany in, and instead he'd just risked his own piece of freedom to protect her, an unregistered mage, in order to prove to Hawke his--

No. It was too much, it spoke too much of-- Hawke was no one to risk for, she didn't deserve--

Hawke cast around for something else to say, desperate, and settled on, "So then why did you want to leave Wycome?"

Fenris shrugged easily, and replied, "Wycome was safe, because it is a port city. Few people call it home. As I said before, many pass through, and the new faces make it easy for one to hide in the crowd. But it also means those you call friends pass on to other things too quickly. I thought it might be time to search for...somewhere else."

Hawke blinked, and blurted, "My condolences for the nug shit you landed in, in that case. To look for a home and find Kirkwall, instead."

She waved a hand to indicate the warehouse full of bodies, the forensics team studying her and Fenris's handiwork, Cullen talking to Aveline's second-in-command with a dissatisfied look.

"I found a woman worth following," he corrected. Fenris's face was flushed, slightly, but his eyes were intense, boring into her. "Even if she is infuriatingly flippant."

Hawke licked her lips, felt herself heat up at his unflinching gaze; she took a half-step toward him, unable to stop herself. "And what, tell me, is so intriguing about myself?"

Fenris barked out a laugh. "What is not?" he asked, and put a hand on her hip, squeezing.

Hawke inhaled, a little gasp, and was reminded of Varric's hands on her just that morning, which made her shiver even more. It was insanity, but Fenris mirroring Varric's position made Hawke want him more, made her want to shove Fenris up against the closest wall, make Fenris show her he could hold her weight up, even as they--

"We're about done with you two," Cullen cut in, and Hawke stepped back, out of Fenris's reach. She forced herself to look at Cullen, sure her face would give her away, but Cullen didn't flinch or blink. He just continued, "I want you around tomorrow, but Maker willing, it'll be a quiet few days while we clean up this mess."

"I can hardly be blamed for this whole disaster," Hawke replied, automatically.

Cullen stared at her. "Can't you."

Hawke shrugged, daring a glance at Fenris-- yes, he was still flushed dark. She swallowed and told Cullen, "I wasn't the one who hired Orlesian Carta to smuggle corrupted lyrium and slaves through Kirkwall."

"Hmm." Cullen's smile flickered, and he said, "I suppose I'll have to give you that one. Now go on, go home."

Hawke was going to protest (paperwork, check-ins, Varric, and all at the precinct), but Cullen held a hand up. He said, "Whatever it is can wait. Go home before someone asks you something else inconvenient," he finished, and this time Cullen was looking sternly at Fenris.

Fenris pursed his lips. "It is far more than an inconvenience for me," he growled out.

Cullen shook his head and looked far too long-suffering. "The work to make sure your little stunt with the medallion doesn't show up in the record will take all morning, I'll have you know," he told Fenris, "so please, by Andraste, by the Maker, by whatever god or gods you will -- go away."

Fenris looked stunned as Cullen waved at them, effectively dismissing them from the scene. Hawke grabbed Fenris's forearm (not at all a sensual touch, now), and tugged him toward the warehouse exit. When Fenris refused to move, Hawke suggested, "We should leave."

"I-- he would ensure the record removed?" Fenris asked her, eyes wide, disbelieving.

Hawke tugged again, kept him walking out and into the docks proper. They'd never get a carriage, this time of day and this neighbourhood, but a swift march to Lowtown might reward them with transportation. Hawke was too tired, not to mention too sore, to run all the way to Hightown on foot if she could help it.

Some good should come of her forced return to nobility, and a carriage was a small reward.

Once they were onto the main thoroughfare of the docks and headed at a trot to Lowtown proper, Hawke said to Fenris, "Cullen protects his assets, you know." She hesitated, then said, "After all, he kept me employed, kept my sister free, even after I nearly got the chantry blown up."

A moment passed, and Fenris replied, "That does not seem professional."

There, the stairs up to Lowtown, and not a drunk in sight. Hawke had no doubt they were still being watched. By Athenril's people, of course, and Carta -- Kirkwall's -- at least. Her instincts were still on high alert, pointing out all the possible targets around them (the loader, shoving crates around; an open window, gauzy curtains fluttering; that open doorway--)

And yet Fenris had risked his own identity to protect Bethany, to win her favour. A warm feeling filled her gut as she told Fenris, "I suppose professionalism isn't the most popular trait among the people I know," and she shrugged. "But no one's perfect. Whatever else, Cullen protects his people, which is more important."

"It is," Fenris agreed. "Professionalism is one thing." A pause, and then Fenris said quietly, "Loyalty is another."

Chapter Text

There was a messenger sitting on the outer stoop of her mansion by the time the carriage arrived (two gold pieces, and Hawke remembered why she rarely took them). The runner dipped his head respectfully, told her, "This was for your hands only, ser," and -- once he discharged his sealed papers -- took off.

"Curious," Hawke said. She absently lead Fenris around to the back gate, putting her palm to the locking mechanism as she tried to flick the package open with the other.

Fenris said, "Allow me," as he pushed open the gate, leaving Hawke able to pull the letter out unencumbered. It had Bran's official seal on it, the message short and to the point.

As she moved, Hawke read aloud, "Blah blah blah, thank you, blah blah blah, disaster, blah blah blah, job well done, blah blah, secrecy -- who on earth does he think I'm going to tell this story to?"

Fenris held the door open so she could enter the kitchen, and replied, "Perhaps the reporter you are sleeping with?"

She turned, angry, but Fenris's face was set in that familiar smirk: no judgment or disdain, the provocation in his raised eyebrow, in the quirk of his mouth, was full of heat. Hawke's anger deflated, twisted to bloom low in her gut. "Either I'm getting better at reading your face, or you are becoming friendlier, ser," she quipped, and inhaled deeply.

He turned from her to sit and remove his shoes. Without meeting her eyes, Fenris told her, "I have been told before that my demeanour is hard to read."

She snorted. "Understatement of the year." She tossed the letter aside, scowling at it, before saying, "And how did he have a messenger waiting before I arrived?" Fenris paused in his unbuckling, turning his head to look up at her from where he was kneeling, puzzled. Hawke sighed. "Never mind," she said. "Rhetorical question. The seneschal is like that."

Removing her own armour and boots (Orana would have a fit at the amount of blood on her leathers, but really, slitting a man's throat tended to get messy), Hawke sighed. She was home once more, and Varric was probably still at the station, and Bethany....

"Orana?" Hawke called out softly, fingers stilling on the laces to undo her armour. "Orana, are you up?"

Hawke didn't want to wake the girl if she'd already retired, but she heard soft footsteps as Orana ducked into the kitchen. "Lady Hawke!" she said. "I'm glad you made it back tonight."

"Where's Bethany?"

Orana took in the scene with a glance and stepped into the linen cupboard off the kitchen, gathering towels and bathing sheets and other assorted sundries. "She came home, then told me she needed to go to her shop. She'll see you at breakfast tomorrow."

So Bethany, at least, thought the world safe enough. Good. Her sister deserved whatever normalcy they could wring from this miserable city. Hawke said, "Thank you, Orana. Please, go back to bed."

"I know it's late, but I'll draw the two of you a bath," the girl said, and here Orana coloured slightly but soldiered on. "Will you want the main tub full, my lady?"

The tub large enough for two. So. Orana hadn't been blind to the sparks crackling. Hawke kept her face still with effort, though the urge to laugh was strong, and she could feel a blush starting. "Please, Orana, as you were. I'm perfectly capable of turning on the taps."

A snort came from where Fenris had his face carefully turned to the wall, and Hawke amended, "We are perfectly capable. There are two bathing rooms on this floor, do go back to what you were doing."

Orana curtsied, putting the linens prominently on the kitchen table, then took her leave -- but not before promising Hawke a meal when she emerged from the bath.

"So," Fenris asked when they were alone, "you often entertain young men in your private bathing chambers in the evening?"

Hawke blushed; then got annoyed at herself for blushing and snapped, "And women too. Whatever you might have heard, Fenris, it is only this: I enjoy the company of my friends. There is no shame in it."

He'd removed his armour as well, hung up his overcoat, and now Fenris wore only a thin shirt and his leggings, leaving nothing to the imagination. Hawke was little better, in her thin undershirt and leggings, stays still carefully tied.

She stole a glance at him, eyes tracing the fine musculature, his visible tattoos, and any further retort died before she could say it. Hawke swallowed, mouth dry.

Fenris was openly staring at her, a heated look that made her skin flutter. She'd seen glimpses of that fire before, had tasted it when they'd played Wicked Grace and she'd handed him the sight of her, naked.

Dirty, exhausted, and in pain (her head was throbbing), Hawke still wanted nothing more in that moment to have him on the kitchen table, to fling her shirt and leggings aside and let him prove himself.

Fenris, looking for all Thedas like he wanted to devour her, said in a low growl, "This may be the first time I have seen you speechless."

Hawke broke first. Point to Fenris, she thought. Of course. She bent over the bench, sorting the towels into two piles. "Right now, I'd like to be clean more than anything." To herself, Hawke muttered, "Much to my great dismay."

Hawke felt herself heat up, and impulsively she told Fenris, "When you're feeling less like the docks vomited on you, come back to the parlour. I'll have Orana make us a late supper."

It was the worst kind of idea, the sort of intimate supper that you set for a lover, not a-- a colleague. A-- well.

Fenris nodded, letting the fire in his eyes dim, his hungry gaze settled into warmth instead. He replied, ever-polite, "It would be my pleasure." Not a hint of the previous heat remained in his voice, and Hawke was grateful. The two instincts -- to be clean, and to have him -- warred, and focusing on one at a time would be the only way to get through.

"Orana set you up in one of the guest suites, I believe?" she said to him, knowing that she had; it was inanity, but Hawke couldn't stop speaking. Fenris nodded, smiling slightly, amused at Hawke's discomfort.

She sighed at herself, tossed him the bathing things Orana had thoughtfully provided for them, and once more fled his presence.

-

Hawke's bath was hot and soothed the various aches in her muscles, but not her head. She'd have to have Bethany check it out before -- no, Bethany was back at her place of business. Well, hopefully there were stills some salves in their stocks.

Hawke noticed her slate was glowing, and with one hand she checked her messages: Cullen. Cullen. Varric. Cullen. Sergeant Brennan, that wasn't good. Varric. And just now, one of Athenril's best thieves.

Cullen's messages were terse updates on his warehouse findings, things like: found transport crates, but no other human trafficking evidence, Hawke?? and found your missing sailor. Dead, arm gone. and ship too large for size of haul, even discounting missing animate cargo?

None of the messages spelled good news, from an inevitable argument with Cullen over letting loose the elves, to the disturbing question of where all the rest of their cargo was if it wasn't on the seized ship or in the warehouse. He'd attached more information to each message, but Hawke resisted looking at it -- at least for now, for one evening, Hawke was willing to take his orders to relax.

Besides, Cullen had already warned her that he wouldn't tell her anything else until tomorrow, and with her head still a touch muzzy from the blow Hawke didn't trust herself to follow his findings.

Sergeant Brennan's message was only a request to meet when Hawke was back on duty. She scrawled out an affirmative, and asked the other woman to name a time.

Athenril's thief was also requesting a meet, and Hawke simply sent him when and where, trusting that the man would understand the question was an affirmative and either find her or give her a location.

Varric's messages were unusually short: one shortly after the attack on the warehouse had begun, after Hawke had stowed her slate away, that said:

try not to get yourself killed

And then another, shortly after Cullen had arrived on the scene that said:

Curly says he sent you home. I'll be over tonight, if you want me.

Hawke felt a flare of anger at herself, ashamed she hadn't responded to that one immediately. She'd put her slate in her pocket without even examining it, and so had missed Varric's veiled question.

Knowing it was too late, but unwilling to let it go, Hawke replied to him:

of course i want you, out of everything but your boots

It was less than he deserved, but all she could think to offer. As she waited for Varric's message, Hawke sent a quick query to her sister-- uneasy that Bethany wasn't in the fortified manse but back in Lowtown.

Her sister replied before Varric did.

I'm fine, Marian, I promise. There are a few orders in that Dagna needed input on. I do have clients that need my attention.

She knew it wasn't an admonition, that it was simply a jibe, but Hawke added it to the pile of things already churning her gut; she answered:

of cousre, just checking on my favourite sister

and Hawke dropped her head to the rim of the tub.

The back of her head ached, sharper as she banged it against the ceramic, and Hawke reached behind her to feel the goose egg she knew was developing. Bethany sent, in neat, loopy writing:

My security is running, Marian, don't worry. I'll see you tomorrow morning, if you're up. If not, tomorrow tea time

And then almost immediately after:

More good news: Dagna hasn't blown up my shop yet, which is frankly surprising.

Hawke chuckled, remembering Bethany's description of the dwarf's enthusiastic attempts to improve upon her inventions' designs.

i'll cross my fingers for the continued survival of your livelihood

Bethany sent back:

You had best. The two of us do not do well enough to keep the Amell fortune afloat without other funds.

While money was, theoretically, not an object for either of them, the estate was locked so tight into rules about expenditures that neither of them could touch most of it while living elsewhere.

Hawke was trying to decide what to send back when Varric's reply came scrawling through, blinking over Bethany's messages (proving that, yet again, her sister had hacked her slate from afar and altering the programmed behaviour of her messages).

I'm already on my way, beautiful.

Hawke was suffused with warmth, and gratitude, at his easy reply. She didn't know if Varric meant he was leaving immediately, or if she'd caught him en route, and decided she didn't care. The reply meant he'd forgive her this trespass, that her silence meant nothing, was already behind them.

Hawke sank down into the tub, quickly scrubbing away the top layer of dirt and grime, watching as the water got murky and dark. She drained the water, grateful for the quick mechanism as she shivered in the empty tub, then refilled it with hot water from the taps. Scrubbing her hair with soap, she watched as the bathwater once again went dark, the rusty water floating around her.

Hawke drained the tub several more times, each time the water a little less cloudy, then once she was clean, filled it once more with hot water and lay back, trying to relax.

A timid knock came on the bathing room door, and Hawke called out, "Come in, Orana."

"My lady, your guests are waiting in the parlour. Ser Fenris said he should meet you there? And Ser Tethras has made himself at home."

Hawke snorted. That meant Varric was drinking all her brandy and smoking any cigars still in stock. "Of course he has, he may do as he likes," Hawke reassured Orana. "I know it's far too late to ask, but do you have anything quick we could serve three hungry, tired people? It need not be elaborate."

Orana fussed over her leathers, stacking them neatly from where Hawke had dumped them on the floor, brushing off the dirt where able. The other woman frowned, thinking. "I was planning on doing lamb roast tomorrow, if you were in for lunch, but I could cut and roast some skewers Tevene style, heat some soup and throw some bread in to warm. It wouldn't take long, my lady."

Hawke's mouth watered. "You are a miracle worker and I do not deserve you, Orana. Please, if you're comfortable, pull Fenris aside and ask if he's amenable," she said.

Varric's tastes she knew, as did Orana -- they might have had few years in this manse, but she'd tried to make the best of them and Varric had been a frequent dinner guest. Fenris, on the other hand, might not want any reminders of his former home.

Orana stood tall and looked at Hawke. She smiled and told Hawke, "I can arrange the menu, my lady."

Hawke was struck once again by how far the girl had come into her own. As a caterer Orana must have spoken with several prickly nobles with opinions, and her meekness might have done her well there -- but that she was now able to ask the questions, when the first month Hawke's mother had barely coaxed a word out...

Orana picked up the pile of Hawke's leathers, tutting again over their state, and added, "I'll send these out for cleaning-- no?" she amended, as Hawke shook her head.

Hawke answered, "I'd -- I'd just rather they didn't leave the house."

Orana nodded, hmming. "I can see if a friend will do me a favour, then, and have them clean for you by the time your supper is concluded."

As she left, Hawke sighed. The bathwater was going from 'hot' to 'mild', and she really did have to rise if both Varric and Fenris were in her parlour. She was not surprised to see that Orana had tucked a dress hanger onto the back of the door, but hoped it was something a little warmer to wear than the lingerie the girl had chosen before.

Or at least, that Orana had picked out something else as well as lacey lingerie.

Hawke reluctantly rose and drained the tub. She took her time drying off, finally dressing in what was (thankfully) simply one of her after-dinner outfits, a silk wrap dress and underthings, Hawke paused as she walked past the mirror. Peering at herself, she frowned. Was her skin really that pale? Eyes really that dark? Short hair that limp?

Another knock sounded on the door, and Hawke called out absently, "Come in."

"I thought I heard the tub drain, my lady," Orana murmured, hurrying over to her. "Come, sit, it will take just a moment."

Hawke eyed the woman for a moment, then decided to submit to her gracefully. A moment in Orana's eyes was merely a moment, and if the girl wanted to fix her hair it would--

Well. Hawke had never attracted those she'd shared time with on her appearance alone, but right now she looked...tired. That wouldn't do. "I don't suppose we have any more healing salves, either," she tried to joke.

Orana halted in brushing Hawke's hair and made a distressed noise. "Oh, my lady! Should I call for Lady Bethany?"

Hawke interrupted her. "I'm quite fine." She looked at Orana's reflection and reassured her, "It isn't the shoulder. I took a blow to the head and it aches, is all."

The girl's face cleared, looked more business-like. "No dizziness?" she asked, brushing more gently. "Your vision is fine?"

Hawke nodded, grinning a little. "I know when things are mushier up here," and she pointed at her head, "never fear. And I have someone to watch in case things worsen."

Orana pulled out the hot irons, and carefully began flattening Hawke's bangs. How she managed without burning her skin, Hawke didn't know. It had been ages since Hawke had bothered with her hair, leaving it to dry naturally after bathing, too weary or too busy to care.

Once Orana was satisfied with Hawke's hair, she put the irons away in their special heat-proof box. "And you'll tell them about your head, so they know to watch for you," she said to Hawke.

"I'll tell them," Hawke promised. "Are we finished?"

Orana gestured for Hawke to turn around and said, "Close your eyes." Hawke obediently did so, waiting for more instruction, but Orana clinked some things together and then cooling gel hit Hawke's face. Hawke fidgeted and Orana tsked, but didn't scold her, just held her chin in one hand.

"I'm simply going to supper," Hawke protested. "And then perhaps bed."

Hawke felt Orana's hand and then a brush on her skin, and had to assume the girl was putting various cosmetics and salves on her face.

"Be still, please," the girl said, and then, "I heard Lord Teth-- Varric, mention the Hanged Man," she explained. "And it has been a while since I could assist you, my lady."

Hawke felt a pang of guilt, of hurt, at that; it was true, she hadn't spoken to Orana in...Had it been months? Truly? Had she forgotten so much of what was good in what was gone? It was a positive development, of course, that Orana had a business now: the woman deserved more than to be Hawke's maid, and she had flourished in Hawke's absence.

But had Hawke forgotten that Orana had also depended on their household, that even though Hawke felt clumsy and insensitive in her attempts to help-- that Orana was family?

"I'm sorry," Hawke murmured.

"Lips still, please," Orana replied as she applied the brush to Hawke's lips, but her voice was soft, and Hawke felt a little better.

-

Varric whistled as Hawke pushed open the door to her parlour, and she curtsied, mouth quirked. He and Fenris both stood as she moved into the room, Varric nodding at her as Fenris performed a flawless bow in her direction.

"Please, gentlemen," Hawke protested. "Not twenty-four hours ago, I lost what little clothing I was wearing in a game of cards. There's no need to feign decorum, or pretend I have any dignity left."

Fenris glanced away, cheeks dark, but Varric guffawed, falling gracefully back into his armchair. "Fair enough," he answered, giving her another once over. "I always forget how well you clean up, Hawke."

She moved to sit across from the two of them, in the chair nearest the fire. "It shocks me as well," she answered, and took the wine glass Varric passed her. "Orana missed controlling my wardrobe, I think."

Fenris, silent still, offered to pour, and Hawke held her glass out. Varric reclined, one arm draped over the back of his chair, and waved his glass around. "That was some entertainment, I'll give you."

Varric turned to Fenris, grin wide. "Picture it," Varric started, voice full of glee, "our pirate jazz singer Isabela; Hawke's partner from the precinct -- an amazon of a woman named Aveline, who can bench press a carriage and is more concerned with decorum than the viscount; our mage friend who used to live with the Dalish and so didn't know the difference between men's trousers and women's sleepwear; Orana, a master with the hairbrush...and in the middle of it, Hawke, all of them trying to dress her in their own unique style."

Hawke scowled at Varric, remembering a few of the more heated debates she'd gotten into about her wardrobe when attending public functions. "And you," she shot back, "sitting in that very chair if I recall, drinking my liquor and laughing."

Fenris let out a soft snort, and said to Varric, "Were you not taking notes?"

"First of all," Varric said, holding a finger up, "it wasn't this chair." He paused, smirking, and said to Hawke, "I was in your great foyer. It had a better view of the stairs, not to mention your escape attempts. Second," and he turned to Fenris, "I have an excellent memory."

"Of course," Fenris answered, drily. He sipped his wine once more, studying Varric, then asked, tone mild, "I am surprised to hear you were not attempting to remove Hawke from her wardrobe."

Hawke blinked. She'd thought he and Varric had discussed...things. Varric glanced at her, helpless for a beat, then relaxed into his chair once more. "Trust me," he told Fenris, "getting between Hawke and those women while they were trying to get her ready to face the nobility of this city wasn't worth anything."

Fenris looked between the two of them, and Hawke swallowed, suddenly nervous. She could stand in front of them with no clothing, barely concerned; she could leap from a second storey window without missing a beat. If one of them began undressing right now she'd sleep with them eagerly, no flutters at all.

But her heart started to race just contemplating answering-- still, no. Varric started this, but Fenris and she had continued it, so he deserved--

"You've witnessed the entirety of our physical relationship, Fenris," she said, and was proud of herself when her voice hardly shook at 'relationship'. Hawke licked her lips, mouth dry, and added, "Well. All but the actual sex. Though I suppose it's probable you heard that part, since you heard the nightmare that followed it."

Varric added, "And ten years of tension," but his tone was no longer playful. Hawke dared a glance at him, and he looked-- well. Not angry, at least. Hesitant, perhaps, and Hawke ached to see it; Varric so rarely showed discomfort.

"I did not realize," Fenris answered, studying them both. His impassive face showed little, but Hawke thought she might see a flicker of, was that hope? Was he actually surprised at the admission?

"I did tell you we weren't sleeping together," Hawke reminded him, trying to sound light.

Fenris answered, "So you did."

Hawke frowned and asked, "You didn't believe me?"

Fenris shrugged, one shoulder hunched, and looked away from them both. "It seemed...unlikely," he admitted. "And I cannot read you, nor tell when you are dissembling."

"Well." Hawke leaned back, surprised. "I suppose that makes two of us." She shot Varric an amused look, to which he raised an eyebrow; Hawke quirked her lips. Fenris tilted his head, waiting, and finally Hawke said, "I'll ring for supper."

Orana brought them their meal (lamb, as promised, and Hawke covertly watched Fenris dig into the Tevene dish with relish). They spoke little as they ate until Hawke rubbed her temples several times, and Fenris asked her, "You are still in pain?"

"What happened?" Varric asked, leaning forward instantly.

Hawke shot Fenris an annoyed look, then answered Varric. "Blow to the head, but it isn't getting worse. It just aches," she admitted.

Varric relaxed as he asked her, "Not the shoulder?"

"The shoulder is fine," she told him. "Really," she added, softer. "I learned that lesson scaling the garden wall."

"You should not fall asleep for some hours yet," Fenris remarked. He looked at her, tentative, as if she might disagree or fight the suggestion, but Hawke knew he was right -- and could now tell the difference between his diffidence and his hidden concern.

"I'd like nothing better than to go straight to sleep, I'll confess," Hawke told Fenris ruefully, "but you're right. Besides, I have to see a woman about -- actually, I'm not sure what either Brennan or Athenril's thief want, but both wanted a meeting." Hawke glanced at her slate, unsurprised to see no responses from either. She shrugged, putting the slate away once more.

Digging into her food again, Hawke told them, "I suppose the Hanged Man would be the place to while away the night. Athenril's men have been in there every night for weeks."

Concentrating on his supper, Varric asked, "Planning a job or watching you?"

It was deceptively casual, for sure, but Hawke still heard the concern. She answered, lightly, "Come now, everyone watches me in that bar. I am highly intriguing, I have it on good authority." A brief pause, and Hawke added, more seriously, "I've no fear of Athenril, I know her well enough. Besides, we pose no risk to each other. I can't fault her for wanting information."

As Hawke continued eating her food, she waited, wincing a little inwardly as neither man answered her. She dared to look up, and saw Fenris was not eating.

Seeing her gaze, Fenris asked in a low growl, "And you are satisfied to go back to drinking at the establishment where you nearly died?"

Hawke winced again. She didn't want to think about it too carefully, but-- "I refuse to be chased out of my home away from home," she told him. "Not when I don't pay for drinks."

"Not when you don't pay for drinks, maybe," Varric muttered. He looked at her, and asked quietly, "Are you sure--"

"We either find out now or later, if it's safe," Hawke interrupted. She reached over, gripped Varric's wrist tightly; she did it without thought. "And better I find out than you."

"Says you," he replied, and flipped their hands so he could squeeze her fingers.

"We both know I'm the better fighter in close quarters," she told him. "Besides, I won't go to the privy alone."

Varric let her hand go, amused again. "That will turn some heads." He leaned back, and Hawke did the same. Varric continued, "What am I thinking? You nearly dying didn't even get most of them off their stools."

"I will accompany you," Fenris interjected. He coughed and added, "If you will allow it."

Varric didn't look at either of them, but said innocuously, "I did call it."

Hawke snorted. She knew all too well that Isabela and Varric had probably bet on the time it would take her and Fenris to sleep together -- Maker knew, they bet on everything else, and the two of them were well aware of how she wore attraction. Possibly better than Hawke herself.

"I remember your request, as well," she warned Varric. Intriguingly, Varric looked away. "Oh how he blushes," she teased, amused that Varric would actually show embarrassment at his interest.

"Do you fold?" Fenris asked casually; so casual, in fact, that Hawke nearly missed his intent.

Varric, however, had not, as he narrowed his eyes at Fenris. "I never fold," he warned. Fenris cocked his head and stayed silent. "Fine," Varric huffed, and pointed at Fenris. "The first time you two are together, I wanted to watch."

Varric sat back, deceptively relaxed, and bit into his bread. "Which means not in the Hanged Man's privy."

Hawke should have known Varric wouldn't back down if challenged outright, and she couldn't help but be impressed, once more, with Fenris for calling his bluff.

Fenris glanced at her, to which Hawke grinned and held her hands out, palms up: 'not getting into it'. Perhaps she should have an opinion, but she wanted them both, fiercely, for vastly different reasons and in different ways. To have them in accord would be her preference, and make Isabela insanely envious besides.

"I see," was all Fenris said in response. He gripped his fork tighter as he bent over his place, Hawke noticed, and his face was no longer calm or relaxed. Hawke wasn't sure what had caused the change, and didn't know what to do to intercede.

Varric cut his eyes to her, a question on his face, and she lifted one shoulder in response: no clue. "It isn't a requirement," Varric offered, after a moment. Fenris raised his eyes, hand frozen halfway to his mouth, and Varric shrugged, rueful. "I like to watch beautiful people, what can I say," he offered, hands outstretched: what can you do.

"I see," Fenris repeated, but Hawke could see the dark smirk hiding, the huff of breath he let out, the tension in his eyes shift to desire.

"Oh, for Andraste's sake," Hawke said, and crossed her arms. "I thought you two worked this out when I went to bed."

"After I told him about the chantry, we mostly played cards," Varric admitted after a minute. "For nonexistent money."

"It exists, swindler," Fenris protested. "It is simply not Kirkwall gold."

Hawke shook her head. "Pitiful," she teased them. "It's a good thing you're both good looking."

"I have a proposition," Fenris said smoothly (choosing to ignore Hawke, it seemed). "If these meetings tonight are work," he began, "then perhaps we should shelve this discussion until...until after work."

"Professionalism?" Varric asked wryly. "You do know who you're talking to, right? There's a reason there's a pool."

"One time! I slept with an informant once!" Hawke protested. "And Isabela was my friend, my close friend, long before she was involved in a case!"

"The lovely Antivan gentleman you told us about yesterday," Varric said, raising his index finger.

"That was after we'd closed the case!"

"The elf from the Rose who still slips you information," Varric continued, now holding two fingers up.

Hawke scowled. "Mutiny," she complained. "Besides, I first...met, Jethann, long before I was a cop!"

"Need I go on?" Varric replied, holding up his entire hand, palm out. "And are we pretending nothing happened with the blond mage who shall not be named?"

Stung, Hawke reared back. She couldn't believe that Varric, of all people, would bring that up just to hurt her, would even--

"The mage from the clinic?" Fenris asked.

"The very same," Varric answered. He looked over at Hawke; she could feel her jaw set and she resolutely stared at the wall. Her breathing was even, nothing showed on her face from years of practice.

Immediately, Varric looked appalled, said, "Aw, shit, Hawke. I didn't mean it like--"

"Didn't you?" she bit out, still unable to look at Varric. She dared a glance at Fenris, who appeared to be simply waiting, no judgment. Judgment deferred.

Hawke felt the offhand comment like a cracked rib; but ground out, "It was a brief fling a long time ago, and we didn't know each other well, or long, at the time." Forcing herself to continue, teeth clenched, Hawke said, "And I was still assigned to pursue his case, so obviously my superiors didn't think I was compromised."

"I swear, I really didn't mean it like--"

Hawke finally inhaled, held her breath, then let it go -- and turned to Varric. He refused to meet her eyes, twisting his hands under the table where she couldn't see, the evidence only in his tight elbows.

After all the things she'd done, and would do, to hurt him, she could either let this go or deal with it. "I probably was compromised," Hawke admitted to them both, staring at Varric as he looked at his hands. "But not because we'd been lovers. He-- we were friends for years, I volunteered-- Bethany volunteered at that damned clinic once a week for almost a decade, and he had the gall to think I might understand--"

Hawke cut herself off, all anger at Varric easily falling away in remembered pain of Anders, his disbelief, his weary resignation as she accused him and he hadn't denied it.

Huffing a breath, Hawke looked to the ceiling, shoving the familiar anger back down -- then she grabbed Varric's hands from under the table, leaned toward him, forced him to look at her, to meet her eyes. "I'm sorry for not sending you a message earlier," Hawke told him.

It was inadequate, an apology for a drop in the bucket when Hawke knew, could see in the way he asked about the Hanged Man that Varric was still frightened from the near-miss of losing her, that she'd caused that scare in him and it lingered still.

In return, Varric smiled -- still a little raw, still a little miserable, but smiling at least -- and told her, "I'm sorry I suggested you couldn't handle mixing business with pleasure."

Fenris cleared his throat, and they both leaned back, shaky masks back in place. He raised one eyebrow, to which Varric raised both in question in return, and Hawke simply shrugged.

Fenris allowed, "I am not sure if that was one of the more romantic declarations I have heard, or the script of a particularly terrible Orlesian opera."

"Either way, you got the only front-row seat," Varric volleyed back.

Hawke saw Fenris hesitate. She felt her stomach flip, nervous and hopeful churning into an anxious pile in her gut as Fenris answered, "Perhaps, with time, I will be able to discern the difference."

It was barely noticeable, the lilt at the end of his statement, as if to ask permission, but it twisted Hawke's heart further, enough she had to respond, "As long as you're in town." She paused, then grinned, "Though I refuse to sing."

Chapter Text

Hawke didn't want to admit it, but even with the easy supper in her belly and (moderate) wine consumption, as she approached the Hanged Man she was still on high alert. They were the kind of nerves an intelligence officer couldn't shake.

"Can I reiterate how good you look tonight?" Varric murmured from behind her, and Hawke couldn't help but grin.

Despite the late hour, Hawke had opted to mix her evening silks with armour, rather than keep to the simple leggings and thick leathers. Perhaps that was part of it: the outfit was more vulnerable than she'd usually wear, dense under-armour without full outer protection. Still.

"You may," Hawke allowed. Normally she'd flirt back some, but -- on edge as she was -- most of Hawke's concentration was on their surroundings, the noises coming from the alleys, the shadows on the roofs and in doorways, the footfalls.

Fenris stepped up, to walk beside her down the main promenade of Lowtown. "You are wary," he murmured.

Hawke tried to shake it off, replied quietly, "It isn't anything-- nothing's wrong, that is."

"And yet you are wary." Fenris glanced around, hair falling into his eyes as he moved closer to her and brushed his hand against hers. Hawke saw the set of his jaw and knew it for the distraction it was.

Knowing he was using their closeness as cover sank any desire Hawke might have felt at Fenris's closeness. Instead she played to it, moved into his space in return while looking behind her.

As he wrapped one arm loosely around her shoulders, Hawke leaned her head up to his ear and whispered, "Perhaps it's just fear. We aren't long off the warehouse."

Fenris smiled down at her, but it didn't reach his eyes. "I know the paranoia of a life lived on the run, and your instinct are sharp, Hawke. I would not dismiss them so easily."

From behind them, Varric muttered, "Watching the two of you cozy up to each other is doing nothing for my resolve, you know." He said it lightly, but with one glance Hawke caught him, hand on his crossbow, and was reassured: Varric, too, felt uneasy.

Hawke stepped away from Fenris as they rounded the corner to the Hanged Man, the dingy steps and single sign a dark shadow at the end of the block. She replied to them both, "Well, even without all of the last week, Lowtown is full of people who'd happily rob a person, so we might as well continue the vigilance."

The Hanged Man's sign wasn't lit, whatever magic lighting the letters from within having faded before Hawke even moved to Kirkwall. The street lamps on this block (full of shops selling armour, salves, clothing, food vendors, and poisons if you knew who to ask) were never lit.

As always, Hawke hopped the loose grate two storefronts away from the bar and heard Varric behind her do the same.

"You know this city well," Fenris said to her, as she stepped first down the stairs.

Hawke shrugged. "I walk the same streets every day, and have since long before I was posted to this district."

"She's being modest," Varric answered.

The boy behind the door called out, "What?" and Hawke sighed; some things in Kirkwall would never change. The weather would always be unpleasantly rainy, the spring and fall would smell like chokedamp, and yet again the Hanged Man had new door staff.

She fumbled in her pocket for her sigil, scowling in the general direction of the steel door in front of her. "I swear," she muttered, "every other day they've forgotten who I am." Her fingers gripped the runed stone and she pulled it out, holding it for inspection while narrowing her eyes at the kid.

Varric replied, "I can't believe they don't just have a picture of you up by the door." He stepped up next and the voice admitted him without need for ID. Hawke scowled even more, and Varric smirked.

"Perhaps one at the bar, as well," Hawke replied, as Fenris came to be examined. A coin flashed, and then the steel door swung open, a burly and none-too-bright young man staring at them as they entered. Hawke added, "With a caption: 'all drinks to be paid by the tab of Varric Tethras'."

Right before hitting the bar proper, Varric snorted. "I think that might actually exist," he muttered, "but it's under the bar, not above it."

Isabela wasn't on stage yet, but Hawke would bet that she would be, since her ship had arrived in port that morning. Hawke wondered if Beth would come by, then inwardly winced. Until this case, Hawke had been avoiding her sister without realizing it: trying to keep her out of the places in Lowtown where Hawke thrived had turned into keeping away from Bethany except in quick snatches. A breakfast here, a cup of tea before going on duty there.

Varric, of course, headed immediately for his empty table by the fireplace, and Fenris to the bar. Hawke pulled out her slate and scrawled a quick message to Bethany before she had time to second-guess it.

am at bar, if youre awake

Hawke went to join Varric at his table, deciding that taking the seat across from him, rather than next to him, would forestall much of the...distraction, he might provide.

"Is Fenris buying?" she asked, eyebrow arched.

Varric -- like every other time he'd been in that chair -- had his slate out, stylus at the ready, and didn't even glance her way. "Seems unlikely. Elf's poor as a chantry mouse."

And yet, Fenris came back with two mugs of ale and a bottle of-- no, it was sometimes best not to know, Hawke thought as he kept the bottle for himself and slid the mugs onto the table. It probably wasn't poisonous, and absolutely was alcoholic, and sometimes that's all one could hope for.

"Someone other than me bought a round? Alert the press," Varric said, wryly.

Fenris huffed and crossed his arms. "Who are you meeting, Hawke?"

Sergeant Brennan wasn't in attendance, but if she was on late patrol, the woman wouldn't be off work until past midnight bells, and they'd only just rung. "A thief, and a cop," Hawke admitted.

After a beat, Fenris asked, "Together?"

Hawke actually laughed. "Separately, I'm hoping." Lowering her voice, Hawke told him, "One of Athenril's men, one I trust -- relatively, at least -- had news. And a sergeant who's proven herself resourceful and discreet told me she wanted to give me something."

Hawke's slate flashed warm in her pocket, and she pulled it out: Bethany had replied. "Bethany will be in shortly," she told Varric. "I'll be leaving her in your care while I'm working."

Hawke sipped her ale, and parried Varric's complaints about his own work easily. "My editor is convinced I'm holding out on him. Would I do that?" Varric asked in a disgusted tone.

"Yes," Fenris replied immediately, just as Hawke nodded.

Varric tapped on his slate, then threw it to the table with a groan. He stared at it, annoyed, before telling them, "This is ridiculous. Why do I work there anymore? It isn't fun, it isn't constructive journalism or satisfying writing. The editor pays a pittance."

"Why do you not simply leave?" Fenris asked.

Varric glanced at Hawke, then away. "Mostly, because it kept me around the precinct," he confessed.

Hawke felt something warm unfurl in her chest. Even when she'd done her best to stay away from the things that hurt too much, those things that reminded her of what she'd lost -- even when Hawke had avoided her own sister -- Varric had found a way to worm his way into her new world.

"Well," and she sucked in a breath; still unsure, she pushed ahead with, "you're welcome at the manse, now, so there's no need to have to come to the precinct."

"I liked stealing your pens," Varric replied, but then asked, "And anyway, where am I supposed to bug you when you move back out again?" He hesitated, then asked, "If, you move back out again?"

Hawke rolled her eyes to cover the mushy feelings threatening to overflow. "All right," she answered, "I promise to stay at the manse, find an apartment nice enough for you to come over and drink all my brandy like before, or crash in your bed with enough regularity it'll be like I never left."

Varric was quiet, staring at Hawke long enough that she felt uncomfortable. Fenris had pulled his slate out, either uncomfortable with the exchange (though it was far from the most revealing, or the most emotional, they'd had in front of him) or trying to allow them privacy while continuing to observe.

Varric grabbed his own slate and said aloud, "I... quit..." as he wrote it, tapping out the send acknowledgement. "You can't take it back," he warned Hawke. Varric's fist was tight, gripping the slate, tension visible around his eyes. He said fiercely, "Promise me."

"I-- yes," Hawke answered, awkward. "If I try, stop me."

"Okay," Varric exhaled. "All right, then. I'm newly unemployed, it's time to celebrate."

"I have to wait for my contacts before I drink anything more," Hawke answered, reluctantly. "But once they show, I'm all yours."

"See? Professionalism," Varric joked. He looked a little astonished, either at himself, or Hawke, or perhaps both: they'd both done unprecedented things in the last few minutes. Varric had admitted that he cared for her more than journalism, and she'd admitted she'd carve a place for him in her life regardless of what that life looked like.

"And it's a good thing, too," Varric added. He tossed his slate on the table, uncaring as it made an ominous cracking sound. "Since you're now the official breadwinner in this relationship."

"Do you not own a bank, or several?" Fenris inquired, blandly. He was looking at neither of them, still intent on his slate, though Hawke knew he hadn't touched the thing in minutes; knew it was simply a ruse, that his attention was on them.

"And does that mean I have to pay for my own drinks, now?" Hawke asked, as if it had just occurred to her. "That won't do."

Varric looked like he was going to counter that, but Hawke held her hand up. "Sorry," she muttered, "Brennan just came in."

She took a breath, then stood -- it would be safer to sit away from the two of them, at the bar, until business was concluded. Before Brennan spotted her, Hawke stood and moved swiftly over to the bar, sitting down to wait.

-

As Hawke suspected, once she was at the bar in the most conspicuous corner, Sergeant Brennan made a beeline for her, sitting on the stool next to Hawke. "Detective," she said, nodding. "I'm sorry, but this couldn't wait."

"You said you had something for me?" Hawke asked, posture and voice casual. "I'm not usually easily surprised, but I have to admit..."

After a moment, Brennan shifted on the stool. "Cullen said it was important," she told Hawke, "but I don't like it."

"What is it?"

Brennan pulled her slate out, tapping at it for a moment before gesturing with her hand. "Information, I think," she told Hawke. As Hawke handed her slate over, Brennan passed her own slate on top of Hawke's and Hawke saw the connection sigil glow -- Brennan's slate was sending information to hers. "I don't know, and right now I don't want to," Brennan admitted.

"But you're here," Hawke said.

Brennan nodded. "I am," she allowed. "Because something isn't right. I might not want to know, but I can't ignore that."

Her slate flashed blue, then red, and Brennan disconnected them, tucking her own away before handing Hawke hers. "Whatever it is, I transferred it to you," she told Hawke. "That's all Cullen asked. I don't know what it is, didn't ask, didn't read it."

Hawke studied the other woman. "What's really going on?" she asked.

Brennan was already standing, already turning away, but paused to say, "Cullen said to tell you he'd try to be by later to explain everything. All I know is that there were a lot of unmarked badges flashed this evening."

Hawke nodded, and the woman made her escape. Only after the sergeant was out the door and back up the steps did Hawke take a look around the bar to survey the damage.

It was a quiet night so far, thankfully. Athenril's regular contact was at her table, ready to conduct business should someone wish to approach but ignoring the room otherwise. It was no guarantee that the meeting hadn't been recorded for Athenril, but the smuggler was, to a point, on Hawke's side.

At the least, Hawke trusted her well enough, had spent enough time working for Athenril to know the woman's loyalties were to her own survival, and the survival of those she employed. Hawke could work with that.

Only a few other patrons were spread out in the bar, and half of those were so drunk they were nearly face down on the tables. Martin was also at his table, but his back was to the room, so he wasn't in the mood for business that evening.

She recognized all the regulars, all of the wait staff too. It was probably safe, and Hawke relaxed enough to turn back to the bar, lean over her still-full mug, and let her mind drift, at least a little.

Hawke had been sitting, eavesdropping on a particularly entertaining conversation between two of the drunkest patrons (something vaguely to do with the relative merits of griffins versus dragons as racing mounts, only mostly consisting of enthusiastic grunting), when the scarred elf slunk into the room.

The Hanged Man had a higher number of non-human drinkers, which was part of why it had become her de facto home, and possibly Varric's too: he'd never been refused service simply because he could barely see over the bar. In that regard, the elf didn't stand out at all, his shifty expression, rough visage, and light gait garnering neither second nor even first looks.

Hawke watched him in the tiny mirror above the bar until he took the seat recently vacated by Brennan. "I didn't think you'd bother," she told him.

"Offence isn't a reason not to get paid. Neither's pride," he said.

"The cuffs?" she asked.

They were conducting the entire conversation looking at each other in the glass, bodies turned toward the bar. Still, the elf jutted his chin out, defiant. "And the labour."

Hawke nodded. "Fair's fair. Where do I send it?"

The elf crossed his arms. "Where do I drop off your magical handcuffs?"

At first, Hawke wanted to say the bar, but she didn't want Norah involved. Then, she wanted to say the manse, but knew that while this elf could blend in at the Hanged Man, her neighbours would have him clapped in irons just for walking her street-- and she gritted her teeth at that thought.

Hawke settled on, "There's a shop for mechanical curios, three blocks over."

The elf nodded -- and evidently, he'd done his homework on her before coming, because he replied gruffly, "Your sister runs it?"

Hawke clamped down on her immediate reaction (which was to simply slit his throat and remove the danger). She didn't answer the question, didn't let her features twitch at all, just told him, "Ask for Dagna, and she'll take them off your hands for a generous fee."

The elf nodded, then chewed on his lip a moment. "I'm not taking the money for me," he finally told her. His face was pinched, eyes narrowed, as if she'd judge him for accepting payment he'd shunned before. "The alienage can use it to repair the square," he told her.

"If you want more work for the alienage," she replied -- and this was the tricky part: Hawke was not in the habit of charity, not least of which because no one would take it, but she paid fairly for work done well, and often people mistook that for charity -- "come and find me."

The elf looked even more dangerous and began to stand. "I know what that means," he answered, "and if we weren't in your bar, I'd have an answer for it."

Hawke didn't stand, didn't move except to sip her ale as cover. Calmly, she asked him, "Do I have the reputation of a slaver? Or of giving anyone leniency because of money, or being human?" She shrugged -- unsure if he believed any of it, but unwilling to not at least try to convince him.

Hawke told him, "You don't get demoted and posted to Lowtown by playing by those rules. I try to help because I can, and I pay well because I remember all too well a time when I had to fight for pay, too."

The elf paused, standing by her stool. "Name's Almon," he said. "I'll think about it."

"Fair enough," she allowed. If nothing else, she'd gotten a pair of intriguing handcuffs out of the deal, and one more person in the alienage who might not close the door in her face, next time.

-

Hawke continued to sit, waiting -- she'd seen Athenril's agent send several messages, so it was even money that the thief would find her by the next bells. Athenril didn't like to wait to pass on information (the longer you waited, the less likely it was someone would pay you), and if it was this important, Hawke knew, Athenril would ask a steep price for promptness.

As she suspected, on the tone of the bells a man in Athenril's colours came in. He made no pretense, simply came to Hawke and said, "We should meet privately."

Either he'd worked it out beforehand between Athenril's other agent and Norah, or they had a standing agreement, because after passing Norah some coins he gestured for Hawke to follow him.

She did not, however, step down. "You do realize," she asked quietly, "that I was stabbed right down that hall you intend me to follow you through?"

The thief, an elf named Ilya whom she'd always liked, tutted impatiently. "Then have one of your men follow us," he said, not bothering to lower his voice. To be fair, the only people left in the bar close enough to hear them were the men discussing griffins -- and they were quite obviously unaware of anything.

While she was still trying to work out whether she liked the particular phrase "your men" (on the one hand, well, yes, clearly there was something appealing there, on the other, it meant that Athenril's men already knew they were-- oh, void and damnation), Hawke used her slate to send a message to Fenris (follow us, one minute). Then, only a little uneasy, she followed Ilya.

Ilya led her to a storage room, only the second door off the hall, nowhere near the point she'd been stabbed. "In here," he said, holding the door open for her. Hawke waved an arm, and he strode in. Only then did she grab the door and follow him, made sure the door was still open.

"If I wished to kill you, Hawke," he said, rolling his eyes, "I would not have made such an obvious entrance."

Hawke grudgingly allowed that her reticence was probably unfounded. Ilya was an accomplished thief, well trained. They'd worked together, and she knew he was able. "Habit," Hawke replied, as close to an apology as she'd probably get.

"Downside of the job, I suppose," Ilya answered philosophically, then looked over as Fenris joined them. "Now." He pulled out a slate -- one of the ones Hawke recognized as the kind Athenril bought for single-use. Disposable, to be destroyed once their purpose was fulfilled.

"What's going on?" she asked.

In answer, he tapped on the slate, then handed it over. Hawke took it, tilted it so that Fenris could see over her shoulder, and watched.

At first, she couldn't understand the significance: it was simply a dark room, some boxes, one lit candle. Then, men began shuffling the crates, loading them onto a heavy-duty bronto carriage, beast nowhere in sight. The view was grainy, the magical picture shuffling as if whoever was capturing it was moving around. Slowly, Hawke began to discern features, and then -- as two of the men dropped a crate -- her stomach roiled in horror.

"That is--" Fenris said, and broke off. He gripped Hawke's shoulder, hard enough to bruise, and Hawke was grateful he wasn't holding her injured arm.

A foot had spilled out of the crate, one that had a red crystalline growth protruding from it.

On the slate, whoever was filming had jerked in surprise, then steadied the slate to try and capture the rest. The men had reloaded the crate and slung it up on the carriage with the rest.

Within minutes, working with an efficiency that suggested military training (or Templar, Hawke's mind whispered), the dark room in the picture was empty of goods.

"I took that not four hours ago, in the western end of the bronto tunnels," Ilya told them. "There were over a dozen caravans, waiting to be loaded. I'd already sent you a message, but Athenril took one look and said it couldn't wait. I was to show it to you, transfer our records if you want them, then burn the slate. Though--" and here he shot her an indecipherable look, "here I quote: 'if I were you, Hawke, I'd burn it and get out.'"

"Athenril's cutting her losses?" Hawke asked, handing over her slate. The smuggler had worked in Kirkwall for years, and while Hawke didn't necessarily call her friend....

Ilya connected the two slates and pulled his cloak up, obviously readying to leave. "Not yet," was all he said.

Implying that it was only a matter of time. "Fuck," Hawke said. "All right. I'll make good on this. Tell Athenril when she leaves to say goodbye first."

"If we can," he answered. Hawke's slate flashed blue, and the other red, sigil blank. Hawke took hers back, tucked it away. Ilya stared at the slate in his hand for a long moment, then -- moving to the butcher's block in the corner of the room -- picked up a heavy, cast-iron pan. Placing the slate on the block, he swung the pan around, and a thick snap sounded as he made contact.

The slate was in several pieces; Ilya scooped them up, then handed them to Hawke. "We'll waive the price if you'll have your sister destroy these," he told her.

Hawke nodded, and put the pieces of slate into the pocket of her under-armour as Ilya slipped away.

Fenris watched her for a moment, then asked, "What do we do?"

"No suggestions?" Hawke joked, trying to ignore the implications of what Athenril had given them.

"Several," Fenris answered. "I do not know if they are wise, however."

"How so?"

Fenris looked away. "I have some experience with large scale conspiracy, having worked for a magister," he finally told her. "But in those cases, my role was simple: keep him alive, ensure his enemies were not." He turned to face Hawke, expression bitter. "I was to root out the source of danger. Justice, mercy -- they had no part."

"I've fled large scale conspiracy," Hawke admitted, and ran a hand through her hair. She shuddered, thinking of Ostagar, and told Fenris, "I don't know how to fight it."

"Perhaps we do not," Fenris said to her. "Perhaps all we do is try to keep the alienage from becoming a slave market. A larger slave market," he said bitterly.

Hawke felt exhausted, suddenly. Too much, too soon. She'd known Bran's congratulations were premature, but to know they'd failed to dent the ring so thoroughly was demoralizing, made the victory hollow.

"Hawke," Fenris said, finally. "You cannot prevent every catastrophe."

"That's what Varric always says," she answered with a ghost of a smile.

"Do not tell him, but he is a wise dwarf," Fenris said.

Hawke bit out a laugh. "I won't," she vowed. More soberly, Hawke asked, "So what do we do?"

Fenris replied without hesitation, "Tell those who should know. Have your sister destroy that slate."

"And then?"

Hawke looked at Fenris, expectant, and he looked at her, and a black mood settled on Hawke. There was nothing to do, and it seemed now they knew it.

"Perhaps we should return to Varric and your sister," Fenris allowed at last. As they moved out of the room, Fenris murmured, "I am sorry. I do not know, Hawke."

A tight anxiety, her instincts clamouring at her once more, took hold of Hawke. There didn't seem to be anything else to say.

-

Hawke and Fenris rejoined the table, where Varric was drinking steadily and quietly, ignoring Isabela on stage as well as all of Bethany's attempts to draw him into discussion. The four of them settled in, subdued even though (inevitably) Varric had pulled out a deck of cards.

Through the game, Hawke slowly relaxed; the tension in her belly hadn't gone away, per se, but it had quieted down some, eased a little in the interim. She knew how to wait, knew how to play the long con, and part of that was allowing oneself ease to keep cover. Watchfulness, caution, these were habits to hone until they were second nature... but fear would give away one's cover. So Hawke thrust it down, buried it under cards and drink. She saw Fenris do the same.

There would be time enough. Hopefully.

Isabela was just finishing her second set, bells ringing out two hours past midnight, when a man stepped in, broad shoulders covered in a cloak and face hidden behind a balaclava. Varric, intent on his cards, nudged Hawke without looking up. "I believe someone owes me money," he told her.

Cullen stepped to the bar, not immediately to their table. Hawke wondered why he was so disguised, when it was obvious from the shock of hair visible and his eyes who wore the mask. But then, Hawke knew the man. Perhaps others, watching for his description, others less trained than she, could miss him.

"It isn't me," Hawke replied, discarding a dagger card. Her nerves started to sing, but she controlled it, letting her subconscious stay on alert.

Bethany, who'd taken the seat with her back to the room only after no one else was willing to sit so exposed, asked, "What's going on?"

Varric answered, shuffling his cards and playing one before discarding, "Curly just walked in wearing the most ridiculous disguise."

Bethany perked up, interested. Hawke saw her shift in her seat, and knew she wanted to turn around. "Is it safe to look?" Bethany asked.

It was Fenris's turn with the cards, and he looked to the bar before playing his hand, then drawing four more cards. "He is buying a round for five, so it is safe to say you will have your chance to see him."

"He's coming over here?" Bethany asked, surprised.

Hawke stared at her cards: nothing. "I need to put a halt to gambling for money," she complained. "Otherwise the Amell line will be penniless once more."

Varric chuckled, immediately playing off her hand to score more points than Hawke had managed. "Don't you mean the Hawke line?" he asked her, voice soothing but mouth quirked in glee. "Bethany's the one with the keys to the Amell vault, now."

"Traitor," Hawke told him, watching Bethany score higher points than she. Hawke pointed at Varric, giving him a dirty look, then sighed. She said, "At least the Hawkes were always penniless."

"Cullen is approaching," Fenris told them, voice low.

Hawke didn't glance over, didn't need to. She threw her cards down in exasperation (one landed in her ale mug): obviously both Varric and Fenris had been cheating to keep her so low in points. Moreover, they'd been cheating together, which was just unfair.

Glaring at first Varric, then Fenris, Hawke warned, "This will be remembered."

"Can I interrupt?" Cullen said.

"Pull up a chair, stranger," Varric told him, all easy smiles and pleasant welcome. "But these two won't give up their positions, backs to the wall, and I'm not going any farther from the fireplace. So sit beside Lady Amell, would you?"

Cullen snorted, sliding five mugs off the tray he carried and onto the table precariously; in the process, spilling ale on Hawke's Wicked Grace hand. She would be angrier, were there any decent cards in play, but, well.

"What can we do for you?" she asked, making room for Cullen's chair by moving closer to Fenris.

"Can't a man simply want a drink?" Cullen asked.

Varric snorted. "No. You don't like night shifts, for one, and it's past midnight."

Cullen sighed in response. Hawke saw he held his ale mug, but didn't drink, and that wasn't a good sign. "What's happened?" Hawke asked quietly.

"Should I leave?" Bethany said, face troubled.

Cullen looked at Bethany, eyes tired even behind the balaclava, and Hawke tensed even more. Still his voice was warm when he answered, "It's fine." He leaned back, eyes darting around, before he told them, "The case is closed, anyway."

"I hate to burst your bubble, Cullen, but--"

Hawke was interrupted by Cullen putting his mug down on the table, hard enough to make the cards rattle. "Don't," he said, but his voice was tired, not angry.

"What's Bran done now?" she asked.

Cullen replied, "It wasn't Bran, this time. A special investigation unit came, complete with the chantry's head of analysis and research's seal." He sighed, leaned back. "They took all of it. All the evidence, all the witness reports and-- and, everything."

"So that's what Brennan gave me tonight," Hawke murmured, and Cullen nodded.

Hawke had spent enough time in Intelligence to have developed a keen sense of good officers and bad officers. It had saved her life, and the lives of her informants, many times. Hawke knew, even if she hadn't served with him, that Cullen had been a good officer, more often than not.

If he thought that the evidence was going to disappear, it was probably going to disappear. And he was a good officer: he wouldn't expect his soldiers to break the rules, break rank, unless he was ready to do so himself.

Hawke wasn't regular army, though. Hawke had been in Intelligence, and Intelligence hadn't run like a military unit. She'd had independence, and a degree of autonomy regular soldiers couldn't even begin to imagine. Most of the time, Hawke had been given a target or assignment and was told to come back when it was finished. But even so, if the assignment was flawed, her own judgment came into play on how to proceed.

From time to time, Hawke had made the call to scrap a mission. Each time whoever had assigned her would try and bring her up on charges, she'd explain the snafu to whoever was above them, and that would be that, Hawke redeployed.

Only once had there been no one above the man to explain his flawed logic, and it had led her to desertion, to flee the battlefield in desperation one dark, terrible evening.

She still had nightmares about those orders, even though she'd been miles away before the massacre at Ostagar had happened, on a stolen horse. Her nightmares weren't about the battle; she'd seen battle. Hawke's nightmares were about going into Cailan's tent and reporting her orders, having him believe her. Had she simply--

No, there would have been no way to get an audience with Cailan. She would have been held for treason for her words against Loghain, then died in a cage while darkspawn overran their position. Hawke's instincts were honed to a knife-edge, and her escape that night had saved her life. She was sure of it.

Her instincts now were to flee on a stolen horse.

The others were quiet, occasionally commenting on the card game. Hawke hadn't been paying attention to any of it since Cullen told them the evidence had been seized.

"What nationality?" she asked Cullen, suddenly.

He'd been griping about his poor hand (Varric had dealt both Cullen and Isabela in while she'd been thinking). Cullen answered easily enough, "Orlesian, I believe, though their accents weren't apparent." Cullen frowned, eyes strained behind the mask he still hadn't taken off. "It was in their gait, and the grammar mostly."

"I can't believe my information request was processed and sent on to Val Royeaux so quickly," she murmured, and fell silent. And she'd only asked about recently discharged Templars with a lyrium habit that might have come through the Marches.

Around her, the card game didn't start up again, and Hawke paused, looking around. "Forgive me, thinking aloud."

"Do I want to know?" Cullen asked her, tone wary.

Hawke looked at him, at the strain, the creases in his brow, the hollows under his eyes not covered by the mask. "No," she decided. "Never mind," she added, "it isn't urgent."

"Hawke?" Fenris said, tone evidencing concern and caution.

She shook her head, mind still ticking. If the chantry was actually involved, it was larger than they could handle. Best avoid the larger picture (well, no, best book passage on a ship to Rivain alongside Athenril; but when one couldn't do that).

If the chantry wasn't involved -- or at least, the faction of the chantry who'd come to investigate -- then someone else considered this a serious case, one with further-reaching consequences...and they would not be grateful for a lowly precinct in a poor neighbourhood stepping on their toes. Best not to get involved.

"We should warn Aveline," she murmured, mulling it over. Aveline had her ear to everything the guard did, both the city police and the viscount's personal staff. "And then maybe...send a message over to whoever Fenris knows in Wycome. I had a contact from Orlais, I'll see if I can find her."

Hawke sighed, frustrated. Four years ago, she'd been so close to having the kind of reputation that might have been able to get people to listen to--

Don't dwell on what was gone, what you gave up to keep Anders from the gallows, Hawke told herself. It's gone.

"I can do that," Cullen told her.

"Why are you suddenly treating her as the one in charge?" Isabela drawled, head tilted at just an angle.

Cullen replied, "Because she is the one who has counter-intelligence training. I led recruits in battle, but I was just an officer."

"Isabela, can you try and find out what pirates they've managed to pay for?" Hawke said.

Fenris, who throughout the conversation had been watching Hawke, eyes narrow, added, "They were accomplished sailors, though brash. Accent suggested they were not strictly Rivaini."

"That should make it easier," Isabela answered. "Raiders who aren't strictly Rivaini? No one likes that."

Bethany (whom Hawke had tried not to watch) also took the chance to speak up. "Do we know where the-- where this substance came from?"

It was the most frightening question, one Hawke had asked everyone numerous times and yet found no satisfactory answer.

"We assumed it was being shipped through Kirkwall," Bethany continued, "but, I was reading Ande-- I was reading the notes gathered on its properties." She winced, voice quiet. "That doesn't seem likely."

"You mean it comes from somewhere nearby?"

"Its properties are unstable," Bethany replied to Cullen. She turned in her chair, hand up. "It isn't volatile enough to, say, explode simply by being moved, but I would imagine it had a very short shelf life outside of a host. Perhaps long enough for a short sea voyage -- a few days, maybe a week?"

"So someone in Kirkwall is the original supplier?" Varric asked, aghast.

Hawke pulled out her slate, ignoring the murmured argument going on around her. That spark of unseen connection, a tickle in the back of her mind: Athenril had been tracking several warehouses that night, she'd picked up on shipping companies through them and--

There. Hawke wordlessly handed Varric her slate, who cut himself off mid-complaint to take it, scanning it rapidly. "This is just notes on a financier that bought out a shipping company several years ago before the case even-- oh." Varric handed her slate back, face stony. "Fucking perfect," he muttered.

"What?" Cullen asked.

Fenris raised one eyebrow as well, and Hawke gritted her teeth. This was one mistake that, apparently, kept on giving. "When I first met Varric, Bethany and I were hired on as security for a shipping caravan that his brother had just bought out. It all went sideways, of course."

She felt the muscles in her jaw clenching, forced in a breath, exhaled. Hawke said, "Athenril suspected that was the bronto caravan moving out tonight."

"With the rest of the shipment?" Cullen asked, eyes wide. "Bartrand's been dead for years, how could--"

Varric cut him off, face still hard. A tick in his jaw was the only hint he was as angry as Hawke. She'd kept herself from snarling, but only just. "Someone bought us out recently," Varric said. "Templars, it looks like. My business manager was eager to sell, that route never made money."

Hawke couldn't reach Varric's knee or hand, and she regretted not sitting beside him now. She knew that his brother's callous disregard for their lives so long ago still stung, even if Bartrand had paid for it dearly.

"If that is the case, if Kirkwall is the source -- if Kirkwall is even one source," Cullen replied, quiet, "then there is a good chance there are other investors." He paused, then said, "I hate to ask, Hawke, but..."

Cullen trailed off, but Hawke knew what he couldn't say: someone in the neighbourhood of her manse, someone among the nobility, probably had money on the line. And there was nothing that could close ranks faster than nobles with money to lose. In order to get close to that secret, Hawke would have to recant her exile.

"I want Beth's immunity in writing. From Bran. No, better yet, from Dumar. He owes me his life, I want Bethany's in return," Hawke warned.

"Marian," Bethany began, but Hawke wouldn't hear it.

"You'll get it," Cullen promised. "The seneschal is the one who sent me here tonight. His hands might be tied, but this isn't good for business."

Hawke sighed. "Beth?" she asked, because she'd never ask her sister to really take up the mantle of Lady Amell -- living in the estate, holding the balls, being seen in society -- not when there was a good chance it could land her behind bars. Even with the viscount's protection, all it would take is a new viscount to put Bethany's metaphorical head under the guillotine, her freedom forfeit.

"It's fine, Marian," Bethany said quietly. "This-- we can't let this stand." After a moment, Beth quirked a smile, and told Hawke lightly, "Besides, Dagna's been talking about moving into the shop. Quite frankly I'd rather have other living quarters if that happens."

Hawke grimaced, momentarily distracted by the mental image of the girl -- enthusiastic in her efforts, but safety protocols sometimes a little, lax -- adjusting the shower. "If you're sure," she said.

Bethany's jaw tightened, but she nodded. She told Hawke, "Remember what father used to tell us: if nothing else, you can always run. Until then, we have to do something."

Hawke promised, "If it comes down to that, at least living in the manse we'll have access to the gold in the vault."

"None of this can't wait until morning," Varric told them. "Tomorrow is soon enough to start to act." He picked up the cards, began to shuffle them without thought.

Hawke knew he was upset about Bartrand. And it was true, nothing that they could do would be best done now. "All right," she said. "I'll play, and I'll even drink," Hawke told them, "but as of right now, my money is off the table."

Her sister grinned at her and said innocently, "Isn't it my money, technically?"

Hawke scowled.

-

They played several hands, Hawke drinking little, but as the night bled into early morning (and she continued to lose), she pushed aside the worry over being watched and concentrated on being a sore loser. Were anyone watching them this evening, Hawke wanted them to see a celebratory evening, case closed, danger passed, all's well. Play the long con, Hawke she told herself. That's how you play to win.

"If I'm going to drink this swill," she complained, throwing her cards down, "would it be so much to ask to win one hand? Honestly."

Varric froze, mouth downturned, and Hawke replayed what she'd said. Inwardly wincing, she hastily said, "I meant the taste, not the-- I'm sorry," she said, hunching her shoulders.

Fenris, beside her, cleared his throat, then picked his cards up again. "I believe we were in the middle of a hand," he said.

Because she'd spent hours, over the last several days, attempting to analyze Fenris's expressions, the slight inflections in his tone, Hawke knew he was hesitant. Hawke looked over at Cullen's cards, feigning concentration, then actually got distracted by his cards. "Why does my boss have twice as decent a hand as I've had all night?" she asked. "A better question, why does Cullen have twice a decent hand as I have all night, when I know three of the dealers have been blatantly cheating?"

Cullen tilted his cards back toward himself. "I suppose the dwarf only cheats so you lose," he replied smoothly.

"Hawke--" Varric started to say, but was interrupted by Bethany clearing her throat.

Reddening only a little, Bethany said, "I don't know why Varric would have you lose, we aren't playing Llomerryn rules this time."

Isabela interjected, outraged. "There was a game and I wasn't invited?" She glared at Hawke, eyes sparkling. "And after all the delicious things I've done for you."

"I'm no longer responsible for my fate, you'll have to take your complaint to who is," Hawke quipped back, then...she froze, momentarily. It had simply popped out, another joke, but Hawke realized she thought it true: her life (at the least, her sex life) was no longer hers to rule, alone. At least one other person had a controlling interest.

Hawke could feel a smile start to bloom, one that was far too obvious and soppy. She tried to tamp it down, until she spied Varric's expression. He'd relaxed, softened around the eyes, and was trying not to stare at her.

She knew that wasn't the end of the discussion, or of the case, and that this was a brief reprieve only. Hawke had little hope that they'd shut the enterprise down, the best they'd managed to do is temporarily halt operations or perhaps push the smuggling underground.

Still, it was a slim victory to see Varric swallow, then -- attempting casualness -- picked up his cards. "I don't need to win at cards to get Hawke out of her clothes," he retorted. If it was a little shaky, Hawke figured Isabela didn't notice, since her face was currently flickering through surprise to cheerful outrage. "Besides," Varric added, "I'll never turn down an opportunity to take your money."

"Are you serious!" Isabela nearly shouted. Varric raised an eyebrow, and Isabela turned to Hawke. Hawke, knowing from long experience this wasn't a conversation she could get away from, simply nodded, face in her hands.

"Well, finally," Isabela said. She pulled several coins from her cleavage and slapped them down on the table in front of Bethany, who scooped them up with a small grin. "Never say I don't pay my debts," Isabela said to them.

"You all owe me for the last pool on Hawke, as well," Varric told them.

Even behind the balaclava, Cullen looked confused. "Wait, which one was that?" he said.

Fenris interrupted with, "I do not believe I know, either."

Varric grinned, wicked. "Curly, you have to show up to find out these things. And Fenris, you wouldn't. Unless you'd bet against yourself, which seems...actually, that seems exactly like you."

With a mournful sigh, Hawke decided to forego her fear of drinking in order to hasten this along to its embarrassing conclusion. "They bet on us," she explained to Fenris, mug in hand. "Apparently."

"In what manner?"

Bethany choked, and Isabela outright laughed; but Fenris, beside Hawke and close enough she could feel his knee suddenly press against hers, simply looked quizzical. Nonchalant.

Hawke licked her teeth, but allowed herself to slide her leg so she could stroke his ankle with hers, once, sparking a flare of heat. Her face, she managed to keep to a tempting grin as she explained, pretending to be peeved, "The only thing with larger pots of money on the line than the weekly card game is Varric's unending wagers on my sex life."

"You had long odds, I'll admit," Varric continued, entertained, "but I'm never wrong."

Isabela, hands on her hips, stood and gave them all a gleeful look, one that Hawke knew spelled nothing good. "This calls for another round," she declared, "of which Varric is paying with his newfound wealth."

Fenris only looked at her. "I believe Varric's pay day is premature."

"Oh, is it?" Varric said, eyebrow raised. "Planning on going somewhere?"

Cullen (who'd been in the process of pulling out coins Hawke would bet...well, all right, she was swearing off betting money, but she would bet they weren't from Kirkwall) frowned. "Didn't you tell them?" he asked.

Fenris ducked his head. "I had not yet--" He straightened, pulled his leg away from Hawke's, clasped his hands in his lap.

Because she was sitting beside him, Hawke could see his tension, and suspected he was gripping his hands to remain calm. "Cullen has offered me a place in the Lowtown precinct," Fenris said to the table, inflectionless. "Detective."

Hawke stared at him. As her partner, and-- "Permanent?" she managed to get out. Fenris simply nodded.

No one else was as reticent as Hawke: Varric and Bethany both offered their congratulations, though Bethany's was more reserved. Isabela kissed him full-on the lips, straddling Varric's lap to do so (Hawke's brain snagged on that briefly, startled and aroused in equal measure, then shoved it aside to be investigated later). Hawke just gaped, eyes wide, and tried to find something, anything, to say.

Isabela immediately called for a round of finer alcohol than ale; Varric countered that the Hanged Man didn't actually have any finer alcohol; Bethany and Cullen began discussing the card game once more. Hawke was grateful for their distractions, even contrived as they were, since she was still too shocked to dissemble.

Fenris, still quiet, leaned over to whisper in her ear, "Say the word, I will not accept."

"I...no," she answered. Too loud, too surprised. She shuffled closer, to be able to murmur low enough that the others-- oh, they could probably hear if they tried, but still. It gave Hawke the illusion of privacy. "Do you want to stay?" Hawke asked. She licked her lips, explained, "I mean, even ignoring this case, Kirkwall is a bit of a hole."

Fenris leaned close to tell her, "Wycome was home for a long time. It gave me both haven and shelter, allowed a runaway time to mourn, to learn how to live. Those in the guard who took me in...without them, I would not know the meaning of freedom." Fenris admitted, "But I did not know how to -- they are easy, they believed in freedom for its own sake, for everyone. That was what I needed, at the time."

"I'd think that was a good thing."

"I knew many people, in Wycome, but few close friends, and those have since left for other shores." Fenris shrugged, sheepish. "The city might be known for its lax law, for its love of festivals, but...I did not know a soul there who would play Llomerryn rules Wicked Grace," he confessed. "If they lived in Wycome, we never met. Those I knew in the guard, they would not have understood the rules, even if they were to be explained."

Hawke leaned back, searching his face, trying to understand his meaning. She finally shrugged, not knowing how to respond, and said, "To be honest, the times I've played Llomerryn rules Wicked Grace, I was drunk enough I can't claim I know the rules, myself."

"That is not what I--" and Fenris ran a hand through his hair, frustrated. "They would not have released a caravan full of trapped people, either," he murmured. "Few would, if it meant their own careers were at risk. Nor would they be able to kill in cold blood, then still be affected enough to flinch from putting men out of their misery. I would...I would like to work with those who would do these things."

He looked at Hawke, then said, plain, "Do you wish me to stay? To work together? If so, I am yours. If not, I will leave."

"I--" and Hawke halted. Fenris was serious: it would be on her word.

She glanced around at the rest of her friends. They were still bickering over drinks and cards, though Varric had convinced Isabela not to buy a bottle for each of them. The game had resumed while she and Fenris talked, the better to afford them privacy.

Hawke felt a swell of affection for Fenris, for everyone at the table -- and then fear, and then anger at her fear. Had she not gotten past this? But no.

She was still keeping everyone at arms' length, even those who would come to her aid at the drop of a hat. Those she hadn't seen in years, moreover: Aveline, those in the guard, Merrill and her elven friends who'd moved outside the city whom Hawke never visited. Even her own sister. Anders hadn't burned the chantry to the ground, perhaps, but Hawke still tasted ash every time she pushed people away.

Swift anger at herself flared, and Hawke made the snap decision.

"I understand," Fenris said. He made as if to rise, but Hawke grabbed his wrist: stay.

To stall, she asked him, "Did Varric know?"

Fenris looked away, looking a bit guilty. "He deferred to you," Fenris admitted.

Hawke had guessed as much, since Varric hadn't looked surprised. The dwarf had trusted Fenris long before she had. Even if they didn't always get along, she could tell they were well suited: one couldn't say anything without a joke, the other who simply would not speak. It was on her, her fear of people, of yet again finding herself facing one who'd--

Fenris waited, and Hawke rolled her eyes at herself, attempted a smile, tried to unknot her stomach. "I-- two conditions," she said. "One, please don't get stabbed simply to get away from partnering me, my ego can't handle it again. A transfer will suffice."

Fenris finally relaxed, but nodded gravely. "I will do my best to avoid being stabbed, though I should point out it was you who found someone else's blade," he said. "I would ask that you avoid it, as well."

"Second." Here she swallowed and tried for her usual charm -- charm that had failed with Fenris all but a handful of times, but still. Hawke leaned in, close enough her lips were nearly on his ear, breath warm. In this position, Hawke was pressed up against Fenris's side, breasts tight and legs twisted awkwardly. It was part arousal and part nerves that had her pulse racing.

Hawke whispered in Fenris's ear, "Either allow Varric to collect, or call a forfeit."

She'd tried to be serious, but couldn't help but sound glib; Hawke tried again, whispering, "I don't, like to dance around it. Not this time, with you. Please." Fenris inhaled, sharp, but didn't pull away.

She'd closed her eyes, face buried in Fenris's neck, the curve of his ear, so it was a shock when she felt his hot fingers clutch at her thigh, dig into her leg. "Then, I accept your invitation," he growled. "Or, Varric's invitation."

Hawke shivered; all she could grind out was, "Good."

She pulled away, nodded at him. Fenris's smile grew mellow, even content, and she couldn't help but smile back -- heart still thumping, skin still tingling with desire, but chest warm with fondness, too.

"Now," Hawke said loudly, turning back to the table as if the last few minutes hadn't happened. "I believe Isabela said something about a toast. To our newest detective, Varric's unemployment -- and, I suppose, the Hawke sisters...who've returned to Hightown to disturb the neighbours."

The game halted, and four pairs of eyes looked at her. Hawke simply raised one eyebrow.

Nothing was truly settled. The case was a shambles of half-lies, dead ends, and unnerving findings. Varric had quit the paper. Her sister would have to take on the management of their estate, since Hawke had irrevocably relinquished the title at Bran's demand four years ago.

Hawke had no idea where she stood with either man in her life (not to mention Isabela, who seemed far too pleased with said developments), nor whether they'd even be alive this time next week.

And yet.

Finally, Isabela shook her head. "Of course, sweet," she replied, with a touch of impatience. "We already poured the glasses."

"As long as you didn't bet on it," Hawke warned.

Varric's twitch made her scowl.

"You did," Hawke said, glaring at Varric. "You are impossible, I can't even begin to -- all right," she declared, "I have a new house rule. If I must make nice with the nobles once more, live in Hightown, host balls, run covert espionage out of my parlour, play well with the lords and ladies, avoid assassination attempts, and fend off insulting marriage proposals, all while continuing to host you absolute cretins -- while paying for the drinks? There will be no more betting on my sex life!"

Varric opened his mouth to retort (inwardly, Hawke winced), but it was Fenris who answered, "No promises."