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The words I'm leaving out

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“I'm just enjoying that you finally have to do dumb nobility shit too,” Hawke says, leaning Varric’s desk chair back on two legs and grinning.

“The Tethras family isn't noble. I mean, not technically, not anymore. But there are... obligations. Things I didn't used to worry about. This trip being one of them.” Things Bartrand used to do, he doesn't say. Varric doesn't play his cards close to his chest, in wicked grace or in life--that would be too obvious. Instead he laughs and drinks and gestures and still manages to never let you see his hand. He started leaving Bartrand out of conversations almost as soon as Bartrand left them behind, but it took Hawke a year to notice.

“Well, we will try to behave ourselves while you're gone,” Hawke says. “No promises, though. If Kirkwall burns down I definitely intend to blame you.”

Varric pauses in his packing, holding up an ornately trimmed shirt midway through folding. “Actually,” he says, “I have a proposal.”

The tone throws her. It almost sounds more like the tone he uses in business deals with strangers, instead of the one he uses to rope Hawke into schemes--careful, diplomatic, ready to negotiate. Which of course has the opposite effect it's probably meant to have, as Hawke is immediately suspicious.

“Oh Maker,” she groans. “What is it? Am I about to regret every time I ever said I owed you one?”

“No,” Varric replies, “because you don't owe me this one. You don't have to. I'll owe you if anything.”

The other two legs of Varric's chair hit the floor with a thump. “Okay,” Hawke says, “now you're making me nervous.”

“Nothing to be nervous about,” says Varric, resuming the folding of his shirt. “There's just a… situation.” Hawke says nothing and waits for him to elaborate, eyebrows raised. Varric sighs. “Many prominent surface dwarf families will be there, many of whom I have to secure business relationships with for the next year. Among those attending is… a woman.”

“Oooh,” says Hawke. “Have you told me about her? Oh, oh, is she the one when you had to smuggle--”

“a woman of sterling reputation, I assure you,” Varric cuts in.

“--and the goat--”

“A pillar of her community,” Varric insists.

“--and you told the Revered Mother that--”

“Immaterial,” says Varric, waving the question away airily. “The point is, I’ll be dealing with her family on some very promising business ventures, and negotiations on this front would be easiest if they didn't feel they had to... worry about me.”

“I assume this is the ‘stay away from her’ type of worry rather than the ‘wear your hat dear, it's cold out’ type?” says Hawke, tipping back in Varric's chair again.

“Precisely,” says Varric, his eyes on his packing. “So I felt I could ease their worry by… bringing a date.”

There is a moment's pause. Then the chair falls over.

Hawke's other friends would have rushed over to see if she was okay--well, Merrill would have--but Varric just looks over at her feet sticking up over the edge of his upended armchair and says “That chair cost me money, Hawke.”

She crawls out from behind the chair with as much dignity as she can manage. “You should get your money back,” she says. “The legs are wobbly.”

“They're wobbly because you're always leaning back in it,” Varric replies.

Hawke brushes off her knees and tries to restore her hair to its proper level of rakish dishevelment.

“All right,” she says as she focuses on studiously finger combing her fringe. “I'll date you.”

It takes a second for Varric to respond to her sudden shift back to the previous topic, which Hawke thinks he really ought to be better at after years of knowing her.

“You will?” he says, and she looks down from her efforts with her hair.

“Well, yeah,” she answers. “That's what you were getting at, right? Convincing a bunch of business dwarves that we're far too besotted for you to ever think of straying? That sounds hysterical.” She grins suddenly. “Why, did you think I was going to be weird about it?”

“You're weird in general,” Varric says, which isn't a denial.

Hawke apes a swoon, hand against her forehead, and falls back against Varric's desk.

“Oh Varric,” she flutters, “I don't think our rampant sexual tension can survive such a ruse! How will I ever prevent myself from tearing your clothes off the moment we're alone?”

“Fuck off,” he fires back pleasantly. “And pick my chair up.” He does seem to be more relaxed now, which is both good and also very funny. He selects another finely trimmed pair of trousers from his wardrobe and folds them for his saddlebag. “Thanks Hawke. We leave in two days.” He gives her rumpled clothes an exaggerated once over, and pointedly returns to his packing. “And try to bring something nice.”

Hawke grabs her staff and bag, shrugging. “No problem. I have to meet Isabela this afternoon, I’ll just borrow something from her.”

“Please consider the consequences of wearing no pants in a house full of people my height,” Varric says. “It won’t be my fault if you have to deal with five days of noble dwarves talking to your thighs.”

“Will you be jealous, lover?” she coos, and winks. Varric rolls his eyes, and she blows him a kiss as she walks out the door.

This is going to be hilarious.

---

The event is happening at someone's lavish estate a ways out from Starkhaven, so they have a long ride out. Hawke doesn’t mind. She doesn’t have much occasion to ride, but she knows how from her Lothering days. It’s peaceful, riding across the Marches with Varric mostly in silence, but when the sun goes down and they stop for the night at an inn, she’s happy to do so. Only so many biscuits can fit in the pockets of even the best riding coat.

“A stew for you and the chicken for your sister,” says the server, and Hawke and Varric look blankly at each other.

Hawke looks back at the man first. “We have dramatically different coloring,” she points out.

“And she's a human,” Varric adds, which she thinks is kind of belaboring the point.

The man looks bored. “Anyone can be a family,” he says, and walks away.

“So you just err on the side of caution?” Varric calls after him.

“I think it's kind of sweet,” Hawke says. “Anyone can be a family, awww. Varric, you're my family!”

“And you’re mine, Hawke,” he replies, patting her hand indulgently.

“Although,” she continues, “this raises a concern if we look more like a brother and sister than a couple.”

Varric withdraws his hand from hers and settles back in his chair.

“Well, I don't think that guy is necessarily representative of the majority. But yeah, this was probably poorly thought out.” He shrugs. “Let's forget it. We'll just say you're my plus one.”

“I'm ashamed of you for giving up so easily, Tethras,” she scolds. “Come on, we just need to practice.”

Hawke puts her elbows on the table and leans forward, reaching over to grab his hand again, although it more closely resembles a wrestling move then a gesture of tender affection. Under the table, she crosses one leg over the other and lifts her foot to run the toe of her boot down the length of Varric's calf. He jumps, and she cackles.

“Flirting isn't something you're going to beat me at,” he says mildly, and turns his hand over in hers so they're palm to palm. Hawke is expecting that. What she isn't expecting is the fingertips that brush feather lightly over her pulse point, the calluses from his crossbow tracing the artery with long, barely-there strokes.

Okay, so yes, Hawke forgot for a second that Varric flirts as easily as breathing. But for Varric's part, he's clearly forgotten about Hawke's competitive streak.

She tips her head forward and lets her fringe fall in her face, making the best cow eyes she's got at her best friend through her hair. The tender gaze he's pinning her with isn't so surprising in its warmth and sweetness--she's seen it directed at his weapon often enough to recognize it. But while Hawke is busy trying to gaze harder than he can, Varric's other hand comes up to brush her hair gently back into place. Damn him, that's her secret weapon. She doesn't let her lovestricken smile waver, though. His knuckle drags down her temple, and his palm, warm and dry, cups her cheek. Hawke turns her face into it, which is a nice opportunity to break eye contact for a second, which is getting uncomfortable and making her weirdly nervous. She's got to have an escalating move soon. Under the table, she toes off one of her boots.

Just as their stew and chicken arrives, Hawke’s foot finds its mark.

Varric doesn't yelp, unfortunately, but he does make a sort of swallowed noise in the back of his throat, and the hand that was on Hawke's cheek hits the table a little abruptly.

Hawke smiles charmingly at their server, but there is no apology forthcoming for his previous mistake. Instead he just continues to look bored and walks away.

Still, Hawke knows a victory when she sees one. “I won that,” she says smugly as she picks up a chicken wing.

“It's not a game,” says Varric. He sounds so serious for a second that Hawke looks up, but he's just turning to her with a theatrically wounded expression.

“It's my livelihood,” he says sadly, and Hawke snorts. “If I can't butter these people up sufficiently, I could be empaupered!”

“You won't be empaupered,” she scoffs, tucking into her chicken wing.

“How would you know? I have a very expensive lifestyle after all,” Varric counters, gesturing at her with his spoon. “I could end up on the streets! Or in some pathetic Darktown shack, getting Blondie to bandage my rat bites.”

Hawke wags a chicken bone right back at him. “Because you've always got other irons in the fire. You're too smart to let one bad deal ruin you.” She puts the wing bone down and picks up a leg. “Besides, you wouldn't be on the streets. You'd obviously just come live with me.”

The goofy frown falls off his face and a small smile sprouts there instead. He goes back to his stew.

They eat in silence for a minute.

“You could've ruined me,” he says. “I risked a lot on you.”

Such a reference to their expedition is the closest he ever gets to talking about the things he doesn't talk about. It's the main difference between the two of them--Hawke jokes about the things she loses.

“Well,” she says, “I'm a very good bet.”

---

When they finally get to the lavish estate, Hawke finds it a little lacking. She doesn't have a great deal of personal experience with country estates, but though the grounds are vast and the structure sprawls, there are only a couple of floors.

“Where's the rest of it?” she asks, slowing her horse. Varric chuckles.

“It's a dwarf estate,” he says.

“What does that mean?” she demands. “Is this a height thing? Am I going to be knocking my head on the ceilings all week?”

Varric huffs a laugh. “No, it means the rest of it is underground. Most of the bedrooms are going to be underground, and at least one dining room. You can take the dwarves out of Orzammar…”

Hawke makes a face. “I always forget you're not a normal dwarf. A week of beards and cellars. Wonderful.”

Figures are approaching as they get closer to the mansion, and Hawke has a sudden thought.

“Hey! Do we have any pet names?” she says in a low voice.

Varric turns to her wearing an expression of unhelpful bafflement.

“Pet names,” she hisses. He shrugs. She wishes they'd thought of things like this before they got here. It's just now occurred to her that convincing a country estate full of possibly suspicious businessdwarves that Varric and she are lovers for a week might actually be kind of difficult.

“What if someone asks us how we ended up together?” she says quickly before the stable elf approaching them comes within earshot.

“You are overestimating strangers’ involvement in our fictional love life,” Varric says, and waves to the elf. Fine. If anyone does ask, it's his job to come up with something.

“Tethras and guest,” Varric says to the elf as they both dismount. She nods.

“Very good, sir. I'll let Master Vasca know. Some of the guests are gathering in the drawing room, if you would like to join them. It if you are tired from your journey, I can have someone show you to a room.”

Varric waves the offer away. “We're fresh as daisies,” he says, which seems like a stretch, unless he has some particular slightly gritty, sweaty, saddle sore daisies in mind. But Hawke's appeared before influencers in worse state, and the stablehand is already nodding them on to the house as she begins unloading their horses, so Hawke follows Varric, presumably toward the drawing room. It's weird to be walking a step behind him instead of a step in front, but it's a nice change of pace.

All the same, she steps up next to him before they get to the door.

“Put your arm around my waist,” she whispers. He rings the bell and looks her at her waist consideringly.

“It's at a very inconvenient height for arms,” he mutters back. “Can I put my arm around your ass?”

There's a sound on the other side of the door, and just before it opens, Hawke reaches behind her and grabs his hand, planting it firmly on her opposite hip. It's definitely wrapped around her ass. She does her best to smile winningly at the dwarf standing looking at them.

“Varric Tethras,” Varric says with great solemnity, “and Marian Hawke, Champion of Kirkwall. We were told there were others waiting in the drawing room.” Hawke cuts him a look, which he returns innocently. “What, I'm not allowed to be proud of you?”

Hawke--and indeed Varric on another day--would have called it showing off, but Varric's word choice makes her smile more than she'd have thought it would. She keeps smiling as the dwarf servant leads them through a foyer and two halls and then pushes open an ornate door, into a room full of dwarves who all turn to look at them.

“Varric Tethras and Marian Hawke, Champion of Kirkwall," the servant announces.

Hawke keeps the smile on her face, but to a well-versed observer, it goes a little less pleased and a little more forced.

Varric guides her into the room with a hand that's now at the small of her back, smiling too, exactly as though he can't tell nine out of ten people here aren't happy to see him. He walks them straight up to a couple who are regarding them both with intense skepticism.

“Varric,” the woman says before either Varric or Hawke can say anything. “I have to say, we were expecting your brother. Will he be joining us later?”

No, you didn't have to say, Hawke thinks with irritation, but Varric's tone is calm as he greets them.

“Omer, Venda. I'm afraid he will no longer be attending any future events owing to a personal tragedy a couple of years ago,” he says.

Hawke knows very well, despite his composure, how much that sentence cost him. She wishes she could comfort him, before the hand still on her back reminds her that she can. She drops a hand casually on his shoulder and squeezes, and Varric pulls her slightly closer.

“I’d like you to meet Marian Hawke,” he says with a plastered on smile. “Hawke, this is Omer and Venda Marin.” Hawke extends her other hand to shake. Omer receives it with a little more warmth than Venda.

“Yes, we've heard of her,” the woman says with a pickled onion smile. “The same?”

As though Hawke wasn't just introduced as the Champion. “If there's another I won't stand for it,” Hawke answers brightly. “I'll chase them out of the Marches.”

“Please do,” says Varric. “I don't want that possible litigation hanging over my head when I finish my book about you.”

“She's your muse then?” says Omer, and before Hawke can make a face at that, Varric looks up at her with eyes soft.

“She's my everything,” he says.

Hawke's stomach definitely does not swoop startlingly inside her, because that would be stupid.

“If you'll excuse us, I have further introductions to make,” Varric says, and pilots Hawke away from them with no further pleasantries. Hawke can't help imagining her mother scolding her for such rudeness, but she suspects they probably deserve it.

“Welcome Tethras. Where's your brother?” comes a rumbling voice from the direction of a dwarf with more beard than face.

“Unfortunately, he won't be coming,” Hawke puts in quickly before Varric has to say it again. “It's a pleasure to meet you. I'm Marian Hawke.” She shakes his hand and the hands of his two companions.

“Hawke, this is Casmir Othred, Jans Parvan, and Stanweg Herso. Cas, I hope you're ready to lose at Diamondback this week,” Varric grins, shaking hands as well and then settling his arm comfortably around Hawke again. “I'm taking all your money home with me.”

“So this is the Champion, is she?” says Stanweg, looking at her like a pawnbroker might look at what you swore was a solid gold watch.

“The one and only,” says Varric, smiling toothily. Hawke laughs, for Varric's benefit and not the other dwarves.

“I'm starting to feel like the trophy woman, sugarbun,” she says. There's half a beat where Varric glances at her -- that's what he gets for not wanting to clear any pet names ahead of time -- and then he scoffs.

“Ridiculous, dollface. I'm obviously the trophy in this relationship,” he says. “Have you seen me? I'm a catch.”

At the far end of the room a door opens, different from the one they came through. A servant steps through, and stands to the side until everyone had stopped talking and turned their attention to him and the well dressed female dwarf standing in the doorway.

“Your hostess, Bianca Davri,” he announces, and the dwarves in attendance clap politely. Varric's warm hand leaving her to clap leaves Hawke's back cold for a moment.

It isn't until Hawke looks down at him and sees the strange look on his face that the name clicks.

Among those attending is… a woman.

Bianca Davri.

Bianca.

Hawke freezes mid clap. Nobody seems to notice.

Varric is staring at Bianca. Bianca looks at Varric, too, before turning her eyes away to address the room.

“Sorry for my lateness, everyone,” she says to the room. “This is a big house, but you're a lot of people to put away, and you’re not even all here yet.” The dwarves around Hawke chuckle obligingly. Bianca claps her hands together. “Still, it's an honor to host you this year. Dinner will be served early tonight since I'm sure you're all hungry after your journeys, and we should have a few more in attendance by then. Including, hopefully, my husband.”

The dwarves chuckle again, and their hostess moves into the room to begin mingling.

With his refusal to talk about her, Hawke has spent all these years assuming Bianca was dead. But she's not.

She's married.

Varric looks up at Hawke, and whatever expression she's wearing, it's apparently not the one he's expecting. He takes her arm and pulls her discreetly to the side.

“So I probably should have told you who the lady was,” he says. His face is a mask for the rest of the party of gentle concern, as though Hawke isn't feeling well. She wonders a little dimly if that's a precaution in case she decides to walk straight out. But why would she do that?

She would do that, she realizes, because she's angry.

“Fucking Bianca?” she whispers.

“I know, I'm sorry. I'll tell you later,” he mumbles. “C’mon, I'll owe you favors you'll be cashing in for the rest of your life.”

And besides Hawke is a good friend, and a better actress than she's given credit for, she takes a breath, puts on a smile, and turns back toward the party.

Just in time for Bianca herself to walk up to them. The woman is dressed in iron gray silk, her hair coiffed in elaborate braids, but the velvet stole she's wearing does not manage to hide the width and strength in her shoulders and arms.

She looks smart, and tough, and beautiful, and perfect for Varric, and he can't be with her because she's married.

Hawke is acutely aware that she is wearing her second best riding clothes which are gritty with dried sweat and road dust.

“Davri,” Varric greets her.

“Tethras,” she returns. “You’re tempting fate being here.”

“Look,” says Varric smoothly. “The way I see it, it's about time we all move past that. I'm the only Tethras now, and you know I'm the best contact any of you have in Kirkwall. The Merchant's Guild is shooting itself in the foot.” He spreads his hands in a casual, vaguely expressive gesture. “Besides, it was years and years ago. The danger of allowing us contact is past. You're married, and I'm desperately in love.” He pulls Hawke in again and she forces her smile even broader.

“Yes, I was wondering when you were going to remember your manners,” Bianca says, turning her attention to Hawke. Hawke sticks out her hand.

“Marian Hawke,” she says quickly, before Varric can introduce her as the Champion. “It's an honor to finally meet you.”

“I think that's my line,” Bianca says, shooting a look at Varric as she accepts the handshake. “Been telling stories about me, has he?”

“None whatsoever,” Hawke answers.

“Ah. Much worse,” Bianca says knowingly. “I suppose we'll find out sooner or later if my husband intends to set the dogs on you, Varric. Hawke, a pleasure,” she finishes with a nod, and moves on to the next cluster of guests.

Names and dresses and bearded faces blur together as Hawke is introduced to dwarf after dwarf, but out of the corner of her eye she watches Bianca. She doesn't really know why, since there's not much to watch. She's simply circulating the room like a good hostess, although Leandra would have very familiar words to say about her wide, unladylike stance and the loudness of her laugh. She seems like exactly the kind of person Hawke would be friends with.

Varric doesn't seem to be watching Bianca at all. Hawke knows though that even without the threat of Templars, he's still pretty good at pretending he doesn't notice the one thing in the room he's keeping the closest eye on. He's schmoozing in top form, snarking and flattering a dozen dwarves who look like they still can't figure out why he's here. He would seem happy and at ease to anyone who'd never played wicked grace with him in the Hanged Man, four hands and three shitty mugs of ale into a weeknight.

Hawke is going to make this work.

---

“Your room is in the Green Hall,” says their escort, leading them down a hall that's definitely green. “The mistress has placed you in the Bregorn Bedroom-- I trust you will find it satisfactory.” Hawke wonders if the Bregorn Bedroom is the one with bedbugs, or a ghost, or possibly a secret passageway to the mistress's bedroom.

No, that would be dumb as long as she thinks Varric's here with his girlfriend, Hawke reminds herself. She thinks this at the same time as the servant opens the door to the Bregorn Bedroom, and a split second before she sees the sleeping arrangements the thought connects, and she realizes exactly what she's going to see.

“Thanks, it's lovely. We'll be down for dinner shortly,” Varric says with just a moment's delay. Hawke figures he arrived to the same conclusion as late as she did.

They step inside. The servant nods. The door closes behind them with a click.

“I'll take the floor,” says Varric gallantly. Hawke is not distracted.

Fucking Bianca,” she says. Varric winces.

“Right.”

“We had a whole trip here where you could have mentioned whose house we were going to be staying at,” she points out. “Or anything about the woman this was about at all.”

“I know,” says Varric.

He doesn't try to offer an explanation, and Hawke doesn't ask for one. She knows why he didn't say anything. Varric's a man of action--she’s had more evidence than she ever wanted, over the years, that Varric would do anything for his friends, would die for Hawke in a moment.

But Varric doesn't talk about things that are important. She knows this about him already. She can't even totally explain why she's angry.

“I cannot believe,” she says heatedly as she starts digging in her bag that's been left by a servant at the end of the bed, “that you let me wear these clothes into that fucking room.”

There's no response, and she looks up to see Varric starting at her in gobsmacked confusion.

“What?”

That makes her madder. This one isn't difficult, at least. “Everyone else was dressed for a society party and there I was smelling like horse. We should have changed first.”

“I smell like horse too,” Varric points out, and Hawke scoffs.

“You always look good,” she says. “If it were possible for a dwarf, I'd assume you made some kind of deal with a demon to constantly look roguishly handsome.”

“It's true,” he admits. “Look, Hawke, I've seen you show up to a dinner party with spider lymph still on your clothes. It honestly didn't occur to me that it would bother you to be underdressed. I'm sorry.”

He has a point. It still rankles, but she feels bad for yelling.

“No, I'm sorry,” she sighs. “That was weird of me. I'm going to try to get a little cleaned up before I change for dinner, at least.” She pulls a rolled up tunic out of her bag and looks up to meet her friend's eyes. “And Varric? I need to know the Bianca story now.”

Varric is silent as she grabs the pitcher and basin and carries them carefully over behind the large inlaid dressing screen. It isn't until she's thrown her riding tunic over the top of it and wet the towel that she finally hears a deep sigh.

“It was a long time ago,” he says. “Her family were wealthy and respected smith caste, and mine were… not, but nominally noble enough, and I had my brother to headbutt his way through the society roadblocks. She was brilliant, and I always had a knack for working the system. It's a good recipe for making chaos, if chaos is something you're interested in. We were kids, and it was.” He pauses.

“I'm filling in the ‘world-shaking love affair’ part in my head,” Hawke puts in as she scrubs her face. “I assume it goes without saying.”

“Naturally,” says Varric. “Anyway, things happened. Abstruse, dwarven political things. If we hadn't already been surfacers, they probably would have exiled us. Instead the Merchant's Guild basically had us separated.”

“They can do that?” wonders Hawke, pausing in her ablutions. She hears Varric snort.

“They can do whatever they like. Her parents married her to a nice smith caste boy, cementing her as half of one of the biggest power couples in surface Dwarva, and here we are today.” There's a momentary silence. “We write letters sometimes,” he adds.

Hawke remembers all the times she’s seen him in his rooms, scribbling at his desk. She wonders how often ‘sometimes’ is. She wonders if she's ever seen him writing to her.

“Does she know me from the whole Arishok thing, or does she know me from your letters?” Hawke asks as she pulls on the fresh tunic.

“Bianca Davri is a very well-informed woman,” Varric says.

A pair of trousers, which she realizes now she forgot to grab, flips over the top of the divider. She takes them down and pulls them on, steadying herself against the wall. There's a mirror on this side of the divider, and she tries vainly to coax her hair back into place.

“So I guess it begs the question, how literal is this separation? Because you're in the same house right now. This isn’t just something scandalous about you two still making eyes at each other even though she's married, is it?”

“We weren't making eyes. But it was fairly literal,” is his answer. “We were at least officially forbidden from seeing each other or living in the same city. This thing is held only every few years, but she and her husband always attend, so I always stayed away, even if I was always the better one at rubbing elbows. Now I'm their only option for a Tethras. I'm hoping that strong evidence Bianca and I aren't about to resume the dream team will be enough to get me an in again.”

Hawke gives up on her hair. She sighs. “You could have just said,” she says, even though she knows there's not much point.

“I know,” he says.

Hawke stands staring into the mirror, rubbing absently at the scar across her nose.

“She looked good, right?” says Varric. Hawke grabs the towel and her dirty clothes and comes out.

“I don't really know what I'm supposed to say here, as a friend,” she says lightly, swinging the towel over her shoulder. “What are your looking for? ‘Yes, your ex looked super hot, nice one’ or ‘No, she looked miserable, she's clearly languishing in a loveless marriage’?”.

Varric rolls his eyes and snatches the towel as he walks past her, his own clean clothes already bundled under his arm.

“I just mean she looks like she's done well,” he says.

Hawke thinks it's about time everyone else at this thing sees that Varric has done well too.

---

The dining room, like their bedroom, is indeed below ground level as Varric predicted, which makes it feel later than it is when they go to dinner. She's glad Varric recommended she wear her armor, not only because everyone else at the table looks just on the prettier side of battle ready, but because her battle robes have furs and this dining room is godsdamned cold. She wonders when the food is going to come out. She hopes it's hot.

Varric, meanwhile, is warm. She lets him pull her chair out for her, but scoots it a little closer to his once he sits down. She takes his hand where it lays on the table and laces her cold fingers with his warm ones.

“Your hand is like ice,” he mutters, and she smiles coyly as though he's whispered her a sweet nothing. Hawke turns her head to murmur in his ear, close enough for her lips to brush it and his hair to tickle her nose.

“it's fucking freezing in here. Look, even you've got goosebumps. Are you the only dwarf in Thedas who knows how to build a fire?”

He stretches up and she turns her head, leaning down so he can reach her ear.

“Dwarves have thick skin,” he whispers to her earlobe. She squeezes his hand on the table and giggles. It feels very out of character. “That's creepy, Hawke. Laying it on a little heavy, aren't we?”

“That's her husband sitting next to her, right?” she says into his hair. “He's been giving you the evil eye since he came in. I figure we've got until the end of dinner to convince him you're not planning to run off with his wife. For Andraste's sake, try not to look at her tonight.”

His answer is a rich chuckle as though he's approving of whatever she's suggested they get up to later.

“I think we've pretty well convinced everyone else, at least,” he returns, just as the servants come in with the first course. Hawke can see from the corner of her eye the looks they're getting, but she's still not as sure as he is.

The first course is a creamy, pale brown soup, and beside her Hawke hears the deep inhale of Varric about to undertake an unpleasant task. She disentangles her hand from his to pick up her spoon, and lifts a covert eyebrow at him.

“Mushrooms,” he explains under his breath. Hawke grins.

“You don't like mushrooms?”

“Have you ever seen me eat a mushroom?” he challenges.

“There's a lot of people I haven't seen eat mushrooms,” she answers. “Don't dwarves--”

“Yes,” he says. “We'll be eating them all week.”

“So how long have you two been together?” comes a voice at Hawke's elbow. She turns to see Venda, the woman from earlier, smiling at her. “One moment you're honeymooners and the next you seem like an old married couple.”

“It certainly feels that way sometimes,” Hawke says, trying to make her eyes crinkle sweetly. “I guess it's not far from the truth. We've known each other for years.”

“Really!” the other woman says in a tone that seems polite but raises Hawke's hackles somehow. “Friends first, how romantic. So how long has this been going on?”

Hawke pretends to pause and think because damn him, it is Varric's job to come up with the backstories.

“Little over a year, hasn't it been?” Varric puts in, as she feels his arm slide over the back of her chair. Hawke nods in agreement. A year is a good amount -- long enough to be serious, but not enough to have to fabricate a dating history with milestones and excuses for why they aren't at least engaged.

Varric leans comfortably into her chair. “I'll tell you a secret though,” her informs Hawke's neighbor and also the table at large, many of whom are already listening. “I was crazy about her for a long time before that.”

Hawke smirks fondly. “Took you long enough to spit it out,” she says, shoving him a little with her shoulder. “Great with words, this one,” she confides to Venda and Omer. “Terrible with feelings.”

Beside her, Varric coughs, and she wonders suddenly if she was too on the nose. That's definitely how it would have happened, but she's not meaning to call him out in front of unfriendly strangers.

“Sometimes,” she tacks on. It's a little feeble. “But I love him,” she adds.

“Mathild, I've been wondering how that druffalo racing experiment of yours went,” says Varric, and Hawke exhales a subtle breath of relief as a lady across the table laughs.

“You heard about that? It was more exciting than you'd think, but I lost more money than anyone did to the bookie.”

Varric sighs. “Such is business.”

Hawke listens to them discuss the ups and downs of running gambling establishments -- if he has experience other than various betting pools and cheating Aveline out of her money at wicked grace, Hawke will have to get that story later -- and eats her soup. It's very good.

The next course is fish -- she would say the kind where they leave the eyes in, except this one doesn't have eyes at all. Its translucent skin is cooked to a fine crackle; it looks both delicious and very off-putting. The other guests ooh and ah in admiration, which Bianca and her husband accept graciously, every though Hawke doubts they cooked it themselves.

“Cave fish,” Varric mutters to her. “Imported. Very expensive.” Hawke hardly needs to ask imported from where.

Hawke listens to Varric have a complicated conversation about investment with his table neighbor rather than try to engage the Marins, and enjoys her weird blind fish. The dwarves around her are both like and unlike Varric. The beards and snooty attitudes make her think more of her mother’s dinner party “friends,” but the cadence of the business banter at the table and the sound of the rumbling chuckles around the table are familiar. She’s happy just to observe. And the yams they bring out next, cut like roses and glittering with sugar, are even better than the fish.

Hawke, thinking of long fancy dinners in Hightown, is expecting to have to pick at three more courses while she wishes she paced herself, but after the yams Bianca and Bogdan rise from the head of the table, and the guests do too. Hawke hurries to follow, feeling much too tall all over again.

“Shall we?” says Bianca, and a chorus of agreement rises from the room.

Hawke bends down to speak in Varric’s ear.

“Shall we what?” she whispers.

“Dancing,” he whispers back. “Merchant’s assembly first night tradition.”

Great. She’s tempted to smack him in the arm, but she’s not sure if that would come across as sufficiently enamored. “You didn’t tell me there’d be dancing!” she hisses. He only smirks and turns to join the movement of guests toward the doors.

Hawke is a terrible dancer. She’s not looking forward to bumping into stuck up gentledwarves and treading on feet and pretending she’s having a great time. Maybe she can sit this one out and nobody will mind.

They’re led to a parlor -- different from the sitting room, hung with drapery of scarlet velvet and with a floor of intricate wood parquet. There are two elves with flutes, a dwarf with a viol, a human with a cello, and, thank the Maker, chairs near the wall. Varric’s attention is on a red-bearded dwarf’s diatribe about silk export taxes out of Orlais, so Hawke sneaks as casually as possible through the chattering gathering to take a seat to the side. At a small movement of Bianca’s hand, the music begins, stately and rich. Some of the dwarves pair up, and some step to the side to continue conversations, but Hawke hopes that sitting down will dissuade anyone from asking her to dance.

A shadow at her elbow makes it clear that hasn’t worked.

Hawke turns to see Varric grinning at her, and scowls.

“Come on, Varric, don’t make me dance. I’m way too tall for this crowd anyway.”

Varric takes her hand in his and nudges her with one boot. “Come on, just stand up for a sec.” The only result of her baleful stare is a wider grin and another nudge. “You can sit back down in a second if you want. Just stand up for me.”

Hawke heaves a sigh and gets to her feet, and allows Varric to tug her a step away from her chair.

“Okay, I’m up. What are you--” He pulls the chair our a little, She cuts herself off to snort into her hand as Varric, with great gravitas and still holding her hand, steps up onto the chair. “That chair’s probably expensive, you know,” she points out.

“Good thing I’m even more expensive,” he says, putting his other hand on her waist. “And now we’re both too tall.” He leans in closer, eyes sparkling with mischief. “Come on,” he murmurs. “Who’s going to believe we’re in love if you won’t even dance with me?”

Hawke laughs and relents, putting her other hand on his shoulder and beginning to sway.

“This is barely dancing,” she says. “And people are glaring at us.”

“They’d be glaring at us anyway,” he responds. It’s weird having his face so close while she’s standing up. She tries to keep convincingly soppy eye contact, like in the inn on the way here, but he’s close enough for her to count his eyelashes and she’s trying to remember to move her feet a little. She glances away to look covertly around the room. There are a lot of unimpressed dwarves looking back and pretending they aren't. Venda Marin, in particular, has narrowed eyes and a suspicious frown. She's gonna be a tough case, Hawke can tell.

“They really don’t like you much, huh?” she mutters. “Is it just the Bianca thing?”

“For some of them,” he replies. “The rest are mostly mad about who I’m not.”

Bartrand. Hawke represses a sigh. He wasn’t even a particularly charming guy -- they’re all lucky to have Varric here instead. Not like she’d ever say that where Varric could hear, of course. Her hand moves around Varric’s shoulder without her instruction, pulling him just a little bit closer, and she’s more surprised than she maybe should be when his hand tightens around her waist. Hawke looks back to his face. His smile is still there, but it’s smaller now, his eyes almost solemn.

She smiles back and squeezes his shoulder. “They'll learn to love you, Tethras,” she says. “You're more than a match for this bunch.”

Varric returns the smile and the squeeze, but looks away, and Hawke can't help but feel like somehow that was the wrong thing to say.

“We've got this in the bag,” he says. “The Merchant's Guild won't know what hit it.” He releases her waist and lifts her hand, guiding her into a little spin. Hawke laughs and turns under his arm, and pretends there's no Marins, and no Merchant's Guild, and no Bianca.

---

“So then, how'd you like the dwarven upper crust? Or lower crust, as I suppose some of them would prefer,” Varric amends that night back in the room, cracking a joint in his neck. “Better or worse than the human variety back home?”

“About par,” Hawke says. She frowns. “Do you think we fooled Bogdan?”

“I think half the party was averting their eyes and the other half was waiting in suspense for you to put your tongue down my ear,” he laughs. Hawke doesn't laugh. That's not what she saw. Varric picks up on her worry right away, of course. “I don't know, I was supposed to be not looking at them, remember? I don't hear any dogs coming down the hall, so I'd say we're probably safe for the night. Why, did he seem suspicious to you?”

Hawke sighs and rubs her scratchy eyes.

“Who knows. I'm suspicious of myself by this point.” She shivers and glares at the lavish bedroom around them. “You'd think they'd give the only human in attendance an above ground bedroom,” she complains. “It might be a little warmer.”

“Maybe, maybe not. It's possible we're simply being chilled through the walls by the glares of all the people here who hate me and it wouldn't matter where we were sleeping.” He digs Hawke's sleeping clothes out of her bag and tosses them to her in a wad. “Go ahead and change and get into bed. You'll warm up fast enough.”

Hawke catches them. “Yeah, and I suppose you're just going to grab a quilt and a pillow and camp out on the floor?”

Varric grabs a pillow and the coverlet folded at the end of the bed. “And why would I do that,” he says, “when there are two perfectly nice armchairs right over here?”

“Search me,” says Hawke. “I don't know why you would do either of those things. Varric, I've only ever known you to go without silk sheets and a feather mattress once since I've known you, and you complained about it the entire time.” The one time was their expedition to the Deep Roads. See? Hawke can not mention stuff too. “Whereas I can and have used rocks as pillows. Just take the damn bed.”

Varric delivers a prolonged sigh. “Look, I didn't want to bring the possibly up,” he says, “but there is a small chance you might become slightly less gorgeous if you don't get a proper night's sleep. And it's very important to my plans that you continue making everyone that's not dating you horribly jealous.”

Hawke crosses her arms. “Am I supposed to blush?”

Varric shrugs. “That's entirely up to you. If you feel moved to blush at this point, please go right ahead.”

She snatches at his pillow with one lightning move, but she's not quite fast enough and Varric's fingers clamp down on it. “You know what will really age me?” she says, the pillow clenched between them. “Listening to you whine about your lower back all week. Go to bed.”

“You're the one who's cold!”

Hawke lets go of the pillow and throws up her hands. “You know what? This is stupid. Let's just share the fucking bed.” She grabs one of the lit candles and stalks toward the dressing screen. “I don't know what we're even worried about,” she said from behind it as she changes her clothes. “Obviously not propriety--is this a dwarf thing? We definitely didn't tell them we were married.”

Varric coughs. “I think it might be a matter of my reputation.”

A reputation with ladies in general or the hostess in particular, Hawke suddenly wonders? She doesn't actually want to know.

“Anyway, I promise not to ravish you if you promise likewise.” Hawke stretches for one of her buckles, and tosses her chest plate to the side. “So how long has it been since you've seen any of these people?”

“Several years, for most of them,” he answers. “Casmir comes through Kirkwall every now and then. Marya and Ivan are old contacts and we tap each other for favors. For a few of them, it's been decades.”

“How about Venda and Omer?” asks Hawke, throwing her pauldron after the chest plate with a mighty clank.

“The Marins are too political for my tastes,” he says. “They left Orzammar to leave their caste and gain status, but they never gained quite enough to suit them. It was a risky move -- their family wasn't noble, but they certainly weren't hurting. So now they're Kalnas when it suits them and social climbers when it doesn't.” Hawke's gauntlet joins the pile. “You know, I'm starting to suspect all those dents and scratches on your armor aren't battle damage but rather your unique polishing routine.”

“It makes me look worldly,” she answers, and chucks her belt over.

“Now Marya Bevoll,” he continues, “she left to make her fortune too, but she was servant caste. And look at her now, with a seat at the table.” Hawke smiles at the pride in his voice.

“Which one was she?”

“Gray hair, pewter tooth. Hell of a left hook.”

“I didn't notice any fights, so that last one doesn't help much.” She thinks she remembers the tooth, though.

“Just wait,” Varric promises.

Hawke wrestles her way out of her trousers and runs over her mental list of dwarves she met today. “What about the one with the druffalo?”

“Mathild?” he says. “She's second generation like me and Bianca. Born on the surface.”

Hawke wishes she knew more about his family, but she knows those are questions that are too far and might make him clam up completely. She carefully measures out one he might actually answer.

“Have you ever been there?” she asks as casually as she can manage, pulling on her sleeping clothes.

“Where, the almighty hole in the ground? A few times,” he says. His tone is relaxed, so she dares another question.

“And you never wished you could stay?”

“Not a chance,” he replies. “You drag me to more than enough caves to satisfy me.”

Hawke comes out from behind the screen, finger combing her hair. Varric has extinguished all but one of the other candles and is in bed with reading spectacles perched on his nose, flipping through a stack of papers from the leather satchel on his lap. Hawke smiles to herself. She loves his spectacles, especially since almost nobody gets to see them. They seem to be for low light, since he only wears them in his rooms in the evenings. She hasn't ever asked. She's afraid he might get vain and stop wearing them around her too.

“Well, I'm glad after a year long relationship I can still keep you satisfied,” she says. She puts her candle on the nightstand and climbs into the other side of the bed. The blankets are freezing.

“A year is respectable, right?” Varric says, not looking up from his papers. “I figured that wouldn't get us into trouble.”

“Oh, now you agree we need backstory?” says Hawke. She kicks her legs to warm the sheets up and Varric finally puts down his papers and looks at her over the top of his spectacles.

“Fuck’s sake, are you a fish? What's with the thrashing?”

“The sheets are cold!” she protests, and Varric rolls his eyes.

“They'll warm up soon enough if you get under them,” he says. “Can you sleep with my candle lit? I just have a few things to do before bed.”

Hawke yawns. “I'll suffer through,” she says. She blows out her own candle and scoots down under the blankets. “Night. If you hear dogs, wake me up.”

She barely hears his soft “Will do, Hawke,” but shuts her eyes and doesn't bother answering.

Chapter Text

Hawke wakes up to Varric coming out from behind the screen, already dressed and drying his face, his hair down around his ears.

“Shit, what time is it?” she burbles from halfway under her pillow, struggling with her sleepy brain to work out where “up” is so she can sit in that direction. Varric, however, gestures her back down to the mattress. Hawke gladly complies.

“Easy, Hawke. You don't have to go anywhere just yet, I'm up early.” She squints at him as he fixes his coat cuff and retrieves a leather string from his pocket. “I've got meetings all morning, but I'll find you for lunch,” he says as he ties his hair back. “Somebody should be by here in a little while to bring you breakfast.”

He smiles at her, and even in her morning muzzyheadedness, she smiles back.

He picks up his satchel from next to the bed and rifles briefly through its contents before shutting it again and slinging it over his shoulder.

“Stay out of trouble,” he says, pointing to her, and goes, shutting the door gently behind him.

Hawke has no problem with following those orders -- a whole morning with a guarantee nobody will burst through the door and tell her Kirkwall is in grave danger? She's changed her mind. She loves this place. Hawke snuggles happily back into the blankets (which are perfectly and wonderfully warm now) and goes back to sleep.

When she wakes up again there are gas lamps and candles burning, and a tray on her nightstand with coffee and potatoes and an omelet. The gas lamps help a little bit, but with no windows it still feels like she's getting up in the middle of the night. The omelet has not quite enough cheese, but plenty of mushrooms. It's delicious.

She doesn't know the extent to which it's acceptable to go wandering in the house, but she figures they won't throw her in a dungeon or anything. She peeks into sitting rooms and drawing rooms and smoking rooms -- she’ll never get used to how many rooms rich people have for doing nothing in. There's a gallery that she lingers in, looking at the parade of portraits, some Orlesian style oil paintings and some shadowy geometric figures that must be Orzammaran. Hawke wonders if an Orzammaran portrait of Varric's parents ever hung in a Tethras ancestral home. Maybe one still exists somewhere, stacked in an attic or basement, gathering cobwebs.

The thought is a gloomy one, and to banish it she heads upstairs, seeking sunlight. She's rewarded with the discovery of a well-windowed library, awash in gold and smelling of leather and mahogany.

There's also already someone there, sitting in one of a pair of armchairs--the dwarf with the gray hair she remembers Varric identifying as Marya. The way he talked about her she seemed like one of the good ones, so when she looks up from her book, Hawke smiles. Marya smiles back, and Hawke spots the pewter tooth.

“Good morning!” Marya greets her. “Marian Hawke, right?”

“Just Hawke is fine,” says Hawke as she comes over. “And you're Marya, right?”

“Marya Bevoll, at your service,” she says, tapping her forehead in a small salute.

“You don't have any meetings to be at?” Hawke asks. “Varric said he was going to be busy all morning.”

“Most of the meetings this week won't be as formal as all that,” Marya says. “They'll be meeting up in twos and threes over coffee or whiskey or chess or cards. I'll be doing plenty of shaking hands this week, but nothing this morning.” Marya gives Hawke an obvious once over. “So you're Varric's woman, huh?”

Hawke finds that as far as titles go, “Varric's woman” tickles her far more than hearing “Champion” again.

“Sure am,” she grins. Only then does the woman pat the low table between the two chairs. Hawke comes over and plops down in the other.

“Tell me how he's doing,” Marya says, shutting her book.

Hawke laughs and rubs the back of her neck. Varric seemed to approve of Marya, but that doesn't necessarily mean she's not a rival at least, and Hawke doesn't want to spill any beans Varric wouldn't want spilled.

“Well,” she waffles. “You know Varric.”

“I do,” says Marya seriously. “We write letters once in a while. Which is why I know what he's up to, but not how he's doing.”

“That sounds like him,” Hawke sighs. “I hardly know what's going on in his head sometimes myself.”

“And then, of course, after what happened to his brother,” Marya clucks, shaking her head sadly. “Terrible, wasn’t it?”

Hawke is on her guard again. If there's one thing Varric wouldn't want her yapping about to strangers, it's Bartrand. She's not even sure all of their friends back home know what happened. She makes a noncommittal noise, and says nothing.

After a long moment, Marya grins at her, sudden and wicked, her tooth glinting.

“You're a smart woman, and very loyal,” says Marya approvingly. “I won't get it out of you, I suppose?” Hawke shrugs and shakes her head, and Marya shrugs back. “It was worth a shot,” she says. “All Varric would tell me is old Bartrand is still alive, and then he shows up here. We're all wondering, of course, though most not as benignly as me, I think.” She reaches over and pats Hawke's hand like a kindly auntie, instead of someone who was trying to pump Hawke for her best friend's deepest secrets a moment ago.

“And the Bartrand issue, of course, becomes mostly academic next to the Bianca issue,” Marya continues. “I'm sure you know all about that.”

“Varric told me enough,” Hawke confirms vaguely, and Marya nods.

“It's the guild’s decision whether to put it in the past, but really it's Bogdan Vasca's decision. The Guild will acknowledge his personal investment in the situation, but even if they didn't, some people say that between him and his wife, half the power of surface Dwarva is sewn up in this estate.”

“His personal investment, you said,” repeats Hawke. “Because Bianca's his wife, obviously, but what was between them happened before she was married. Just because her lot affects his?”

“It more than affects his lot,” Marya snorts. “This is his estate, but it's her money and her brain and the Davri reputation that's made them what they are.” Marya shrugs again, widely and innocently. “Some people wonder what he could do with two of those three if you didn't have to have the Davri heiress to go with them, but if Vasca wonders that himself, it's not for minds such as mine to speculate.”

Hawke doesn't like the sound of that.

“How could that happen? Him getting her money and power?”

“if she were found at fault in a divorce, a lot of things could happen. So you keep an eye on that young man of yours.” Marya pats her hand again. “Oh, I'm sure he loves you. But the figures from our past, they hold a lot of power, don't they?”

Hawke thinks of the figures from her own past, and can't help but agree.

In the quiet library the soft creak of the door opening sounds loud. Hawke looks up, already steeled to face a hostile stranger, but the face she sees is neither.

“Varric,” she greets, a relieved smile blooming on her face.

“A servant said they thought you came this way,” he says. He shuts the door behind him and comes over to their chairs. “A woman after my own heart,” he declares, looking around the library. “More sun than I've seen all day.”

Varric smacks a kiss on Hawke's temple, loud and dry. It's not particularly romantic, wouldn't be far out of place at the Hanged Man, but Marya smiles like it's the sweetest thing she's ever seen and it makes Hawke feel a little self conscious. She loops an arm around Varric's waist--ha!--tethering him to the chair. He settles in comfortably with his hip against it.

“You and Marya getting to know each other?” Varric says. “Be careful. She's used that gossipy old broad act to build an intelligence network that nearly outdoes mine.”

“Nearly?” Marya scoffs. Varric lays his arm over Hawke's shoulders.

“No use trying to get my fatal flaw out of this one, Bevoll,” he grins. “She's a vault.”

“I don't even know what it is,” Hawke admits.

“No,” says Marya thoughtfully. “I don't think you do.” Somehow she means something different than Hawke's joke.

“You ladies hungry?” Varric asks. “Lunch is soon, I think. The Marins are still duking it out about caste with Biskom and Arnad, so we might get a peaceful meal without them.”

The two of them rise from their chairs and Marya clicks her tongue.

“Their sour grapes do them more harm than anyone else,” she says as they head toward the dining room. “Kalnas dwarves think casteless are some kind of threat, but we're nothing compared to two faced ladder climbers.”

“A pox on ladder climbers,” Varric declares, and Marya points a finger at him.

“I'm honest about it,” she says. “Vasca would do well to watch his back around his fellow society types instead of suspecting the rabble, but who listens to me?”

“Anyone with sense,” Varric assures her. “They'd never start something against another Guild chair without proof, though.”

“Who needs proof?” Marya huffs. “I can feel their greediness in my bad elbow.”

“Think that's the rain,” says Varric, and holds the dining room door open for the two of them.

The lunch crowd is sparse, just the three of them, a redheaded woman with what must be five pounds of beads in her hair, and two men sitting together, engaged in quiet conversation.

“Looks like everyone else is in lunch meetings,” Varric observes.

“Laszlo better keep his snappy,” says the beaded woman. “His last wasn't supposed to run into lunch, and I've got him just after.”

“I passed by his on the way to find this one,” Varric says, nodding at Hawke as he pulls out her chair. “Sounded like he was throwing around arguments about caste with Clay and the Marins. Although by this point, they might be throwing other things.”

The woman groans. “They were only supposed to be meeting about the Marins’ trade contacts with the Circles. How'd they even get on that topic?”

Varric sits down next to Hawke as servants bring out sandwiches and wine.

“The Circles?” Hawke says.

“The Marins trade in lyrium,” Marya says. “Their family in the homeland has a share in a lyrium mining operation. Venda and Omer head distribution.”

“Miss Hawke is familiar with the Circles?” one of the men says. His face behind his curly blond beard is that of bland small talk, but Hawke knows better than to trust an opener like that. Her status as an apostate may be an open secret back home, but this isn't home.

“It would be hard to be ignorant of them, considering where I live,” she replies brightly, picking up her sandwich.

“Dwarves tend to find the human attitude toward apostasy a bit strange,” the woman says. “With neither your faith not your magic, I suppose we have no frame of reference for its condemnation.” Hawke doesn't miss the possessive pronoun on 'magic.’

“Even some of those of the faith find it strange, Lady Helga,” Varric says casually. He didn't miss it either. His hand drops below the level of the table to give her knee a quick reassuring squeeze like a good fake boyfriend, before he starts on his sandwich too.

“Yes, of course,” says Helga, not seeming too concerned with the distinction. “But those who do favor the perspective tend to speak with great religious fervor, you must admit.”

Varric smiles blandly at her. “Well,” he says, “I suppose vocally supporting something you don't believe in just to further an agenda is a cross-cultural trait, isn't it?”

Helga frowns and one of the men cough. Hawke puts down her sandwich to reach for her wine and return Varric's comforting knee squeeze. She doesn't know what's gotten into him -- he usually keeps his politics to himself and just lets those he disagrees with keep digging themselves in deeper. He certainly doesn't need to be making any enemies this week.

“Marya, I've just had some news from Antiva you ought to hear,” says the darker haired man, and the conversation moves on.

---

Dinner that evening is another affair of mushrooms and tubers, with baked nug crusted in herbs and breadcrumbs as a main course. Varric actually winces when it's brought out, though Hawke only sees because she's watching for it. She has to smother her laughter with a bite of sauteed morels. Poor Varric. He really isn't a very good dwarf.

After dinner is coffee and cigars, and Varric gets collared by who Hawke is pretty sure is Greta, Stanweg, and Lazslo. Hawke doesn't mind. Mathild is telling her a frankly amazing story about a drunk druffalo jockey, and if it ends with anything less than a stampede Hawke will eat Mathild's cigar.

Interfering with her enjoyment of the druffalo disaster is her self appointed task of keeping an eye on Bianca and Bogdan. They circulate the room arm in arm for a few minutes, and just as Mathild is getting to the extremely satisfying stampede, wherein a paddock is destroyed and a refreshment stand is trampled, they split up.

If she wasn't paying attention, Hawke might not have noticed that the side of the room Bianca meanders to is the furthest side from Varric. Bogdan, on the other hand, seems to be drifting over in Varric's direction, and Hawke is instantly on alert, ready to appear at Varric's side to blush and bullshit and nibble his earlobe if necessary. But after a minute or so (in which the drunk jockey vomits on a baroness and is arrested), it becomes clear that Bogdan isn't hovering around Varric waiting to accost him.

He's hovering around Hawke.

Hawke laughs at the big conclusion, clasps Mathild's hand, and promises her a story later about giant spiders, and Mathild departs to go swap recipes or espionage or something with Helga. Hawke braces herself. When Bogdan ambles over, doing a very good impression of someone who has only just decided to walk in this direction, she's ready for him.

“Mr. Vasca!” she exclaims, with her best trying-to-get-a-favor-out-of Bran smile. “I've been wanting to compliment you on your lovely home but I haven't had a chance. I believe I heard someone say the decor was all imported?”

Bogdan snorts. “Ancestors alone know. All I do is pay for it.”

That's not quite true, though, is it? Hawke thinks. It's Davri money that pays for things around here. She doesn't say it, though. Even though he stands not quite a handsbreadth shorter than Varric, he gives off the distinct aura of someone you should have to tip back your head to talk to.

“It's beautiful,” she says instead. “We don't get the privilege to see much of dwarven culture back in Kirkwall, so I admit I've had a bit of a crash course these last couple of days.”

“Just wait until you see our provings,” Bogdan rumbles, a sliver of a smile visible behind his beard. “Nothing like the ones back Home, of course, but we do our best. From what I've heard of you, I think you might appreciate them.”

“Provings?” says Hawke. She wishes Varric had written her up a fucking glossary or something.

“A hand to hand combat tournament,” he answers. “A dwarven tradition as old as the stone. We'll have our own to conclude the week.”

Now that was more like it.

“Interesting,” Hawke says as casually as she knows how. “Now, these provings. Can anyone enter, or is it strictly a dwarf only event?”

“I don't think we've ever had a non-dwarf at a guild event before,” Bogdan laughs, “so there's no rule against it, as far as I know.” It's almost like the way Marya laughed at her, but not quite. It's a little different.

“Well, as any of my friends who follow me around regularly watching the show off can tell you,” she says, “I love proving myself.”

Bogdan's eyes meet hers, dark as volcanic rock, at odds with his smile and congenial host’s posture. “You'll have ample opportunity to this week,” he says. Hawke is just about to deliver another pleasantry and excuse herself, but Bogdan speaks again, his eyes never leaving her. “I recommend you bring your greatest weapons and your wisest cautions, because dwarves don't like outsiders. And we don't like to lose.”

Hawke's blood turns to ice.

“I'll do my best,” she says, because what else can she say? Her brain is shouting at her to excuse herself and go warn Varric immediately, but she knows how that will look, knows Bogdan is waiting for a foolish move like that. She resists even looking over at him.

After a moment, Bogdan nods, as if more to himself.

“Enjoy the festivities, Miss Hawke,” he says, and walks away, leaving Hawke standing clutching her cup of coffee like a defensive weapon.

She scans the room. Varric is still head to head with Laszlo, discussing something with low voices and small, emphatic gestures. Marya is bent over with her palms flat on a side table spread with papers, nodding along as Helga points to particular lines over Marya's shoulder. Bianca is sipping her coffee and listening to someone's story. Nobody seems to have noticed this exchange between Bogdan and Hawke at all, but Hawke still feels like she's standing naked in this tastefully decorated sitting room.

She knows this is a conversation they can't possibly have in public, but she goes over to join Varric anyway. Her instincts are telling her to present a united front in the face of attack, as though they're up against darkspawn or bandits instead of politics and treachery.

The fact that Bogdan suspects them but isn't going to do anything about it makes her particularly nervous, especially after what she learned this afternoon. It isn't just that Varric risks being ejected from the party; Bogdan biding his time means that if they fuck up, he'll probably use it to ruin both Varric and Bianca. the way Varric talked about the Merchant's Guild, she doesn't know what they'd stop at this time.

Varric looks up and smiles when she comes over and stands next to him, which she returns as convincingly as she can. He goes back to listening to Laszlo explain some sort of trading contract negotiation without further greeting, but after a moment he lifts his hand and settles it on her opposite hip. Hawke lets the feeling of his arm ground her. The danger isn't imminent. They have at least a little time to plan. Maybe if she starts getting flirty, she can get Varric away early under pretense of some hanky panky back in the room.

From one side of the room the tinkle of a musical instrument starts up, and the crowd begins to quiet. Hawke looks for the source of the sound. Someone has uncovered a delicate spinet piano, all lacquered wood and gilding, and is pressing out the opening notes of a solemn, dwarven sounding song.

After a moment, a chestnut bearded man steps up behind the spinet player and rests a hand on his shoulder, then opens his mouth in song.

Hear as it echoes in the halls and the caverns
as it rings in the sinew and bone;
In the house of our mothers, in the blood of our fathers
It calls out, the voice of the Stone…

“Dwarves are dwarves,” Varric mutters to Hawke. “There's no fighting it.”

Hawke hums thoughtfully. “Good thing I don't know any of those, then.”

“A very good thing,” he agrees.

Still, the song is pretty. it sounds out of place though, in a hard to define way. Something to do, maybe, with the thin, crystalline sound of the small instrument, and the singer's slightly reedy voice, and the large, lush room, its wood paneling and soft fabric tapestries. This isn't the setting or the sound that went with this song when it was first sung, however long ago. Even underground as they are, the Stone he sings about seems far away. It probably seems even farther, she realizes, to this room full of emigrants, whether they've ever seen Orzammar or not, whether they even want to see it or not.

Dwarves are dwarves.

The man finishes, and the room claps.

“Why don't you sing something for us, Tethras?” calls out a white haired man standing to the other side of the spinet. “I know you haven't forgotten how.”

Varric is smiling and waving off the voices that are speaking up in agreement.

“I don't know what you're talking about,” he laughs. “You've got the wrong guy.” Hawke's stomach drops, as for one confusing moment she thinks maybe they've forgotten which Tethras brother is in attendance. But Marya is smirking to their right, egging him on as well.

“Come on, Tethras,” she says. “I used to love your voice.”

“A very long time ago,” he protests. “Pretty sure the voice you're referring to has dropped since you last heard it.”

Varric sings? Varric used to sing? These people in particular know Varric as someone who used to sing? He's still trying to turn them down, but he ought to know better than to pass up this chance to remind them that he belongs here. And also, Hawke really wants to hear him sing. If there was every a time to cash in on being Varric Tethras's pretend lover, now is that time.

Hawke presses her hands to her face. “I've never heard him sing!” she gasps, and a renewed chorus of voices pipe up.

“Your woman's never heard you sing?” squawks Casmir, or maybe Ivan.

“Come on, Tethras,” laughs Mathild. “Do it for her.”

“Yeah, poopsie,” says Hawke with a simpering smile. “For me?”

Varric cuts a look up at her and heaves a sigh, but his eyes are soft. “For you, babycake? Anything.”

His hand slips from her hip and he steps forward to take the other man's place.

“Any requests?” says the man at the piano. Varric pauses to consider. He glances briefly back toward Hawke.

“You know Dragon Lady Fair?” he asks, and the man nods and begins to play.

It sounds considerably less dwarven, of course. The tune is lilting and melodic, some kind of bittersweet tavern song.

Varric turns around, and his eyes fall directly on Hawke. She stares back at him adoringly -- or at least, what she hopes is adoringly. Mostly, she's thinking about how she can't wait to tease him about this later.

The spinet strikes a lifting cord, and Varric raises his chin and takes a breath.

Do not be indifferent, my dear love, I pray,
Do not send me coldly and cruelly away.
Surely you know I love no one but you,
Nor never will all of my days.

His singing voice is as rough and rich as his speaking voice, but it resonates like the thrum of a fired crossbow, like the buzz of magic under her hands. Hawke holds his eye contact as firmly as he does hers. His expression is warm, but a little more determined than she thinks is probably appropriate. It's got to be taking a lot of willpower not to search the crowd for Bianca. Hawke looks steadily back at him, trying to keep smiling, something aching suddenly in the back of her throat. It's okay, she thinks at him. She can hear you. She's listening.

Is there fire in the sun like that in your eyes?
You darken my dreams like wings darken the skies
and you carry my poor heart away as your prize
my dragon lady fair.

It's a good song -- much better than the ones comparing lady loves to flowers and baby animals, certainly. It's a perfect song for the kind of woman you'd name a deadly weapon after. The tune is a little familiar, like Hawke might've heard Varric humming it before. Maybe as he sat at his desk, writing one of those letters that was bound for this house. Maybe on a long trek along the Wounded Coast of an evening, with Hawke slogging next to him.

Maybe she doesn't want to think about this anymore.

I stand before you as a mountainside burned
Having lived, having loved, but never once learned
Do not rend me with talons, do not leave me spurned…

His eyes never once leave Hawke's. Hawke tries to look the way she hopes someone looks when they're being serenaded.

When it's over, everyone claps, and one or two people whistle. Varric bows, and returns to Hawke's side.

“Just when I think I've seen all your talents, here comes another, honeybear. I'm the luckiest woman in the world,” Hawke coos. Varric looks away, a crooked smile on his face.

“You know it, muffin,” he says.

---

She doesn't get a chance to talk to him in private until the evening is over and everyone has gone back to their rooms.

“So Bogdan cornered me after dinner and basically told me he was going to rumble us,” she says as soon as Varric closes the door behind them. He raises an eyebrow at her.

“What'd he say exactly?” he asks, as though Hawke is just paranoid or something. After a lifetime of people actually being out to get her, Hawke has learned that a little paranoia is conducive to a long and healthy life.

“He said I should be careful because dwarves don't like outsiders and they don't like to lose,” she says. “It was not friendly advice.”

“To be fair,” Varric reasons, “he's not wrong.”

Hawke huffs impatiently. “Varric, this guy has it out for you.”

“It would be weirder if he didn't,” Varric returns. “Look, Bianca said she talked to him.”

Hawke's finger shot out toward Varric accusingly. “So you did meet up with Bianca! He's going to find out, you've got to be careful.” Varric turns away and slides his arms out of his coat sleeves.

“There's nothing to find out, Hawke,” he says, and Hawke rolls her eyes. Let no one ever say Varric doesn't stick to his stories.

“Sure,” she says, throwing up her hands. “Well, be careful when you aren't trysting with married women too, I guess.”

“If I occasionally look stupid,” he says easily, as he hangs his coat on the rack, “it's only a show to catch my enemies off guard. I do have some basic sense of self preservation.”

He's pissed. Hawke can't imagine why -- he must just be on edge from having enemies around. He ought to know Hawke isn't one of them.

“Whatever,” she huffs, stalking over to her bags to grab her sleeping clothes. “Have it your way. I'm not saying I can't fight the whole Merchant's Guild to defend your honor. If that's what I've got to do, fine.”

When she turns back around, the thin line of tension that was drawing back his shoulders and schooling his face is gone. His eyes are on his boots that he's bending to unlace, but there's a small smile on his mouth.

“You know,” he says, “I kind of feel like you could.”

Chapter Text

The room is as dark as always, so Hawke is slow to wake up.

At first she even thinks that she's just having a nice dream--something warm and soft and nice smelling. The smell, familiar, starts to form into a new dream, as she starts to fall back to sleep, of a night at the Hanged Man a few months ago. Varric had beaten her, Isabela, and Merrill in a drinking game, and in the aftermath the table conversation, such as it was, had left her behind. She'd slumped in her chair and her head lolled, and Varric’s shoulder had been right there for her to land on, his own head drooping to to rest on hers. She had felt safe, more than anything else, and the moment had smelled like--

Something tickles her face, and she reaches up to brush it away and wakes herself up again. The moment had smelled like Varric, she realizes, like leather and aftershave and his warm skin. She's never quite close enough to him to pick up that smell that's just him.

She is definitely close enough now.

Hawke is curled around him, her face in his hair, her arm around his neck, and one leg thrown over his hip at the knee. His arm, for that matter, is slung around her ribs, and his nose is pressed to her throat. She can feel his breath on her collarbones, and he is warm and this is definitely on Hawke. That is, Hawke is on Varric. This is Hawke's fault, is the point. She was the one who insisted they share the bed, and she was the one who said she wasn't going to make it weird, but wow, she's never this close to Varric and she just wants to bury her face in his hair again and go back to sleep and this is definitely weird. This is weird of her. She made it weird.

Hawke doesn't think she's ever woken up so completely so fast before.

Oh Maker, what if Varric was up so early yesterday because she did this last night too and it was weird?

What if he's about to wake up now?

She lifts her head off the pillow as gingerly as she can to see the clock on Varric's bedside table, but it's hopeless in the dark. She wonders if there's any possible way to extricate herself without waking him up. If she lifts her arm and rolls over -- but there's still his arm around her middle. And the way she's curled around him, there's really nowhere for her to roll. The back of her neck is facing the headboard and if she just turns she'll probably clonk her head on it and then he'll definitely wake up. Varric’s always been a light sleeper, as she has learned in multiple attempts to prank him in the night.

At the very least she can quit fucking trying to ride him sidesaddle. She lifts her leg carefully under the blankets and withdraws it from his hip. Then she picks up her arm, extremely slowly, and for lack of anything else curls the arm to her chest.

She's still very close to him, and his arm is still around her, but that could easily look like his fault. And if she's honest with herself, which she tries her best to never be, there's some little part of her (that she's not looking directly at) that doesn't want to move his arm at all. It's heavy in just the right way and the room is dark and the bed is warm and Varric is warmer. But it still looks weird, and what if she falls asleep again and climbs back onto him --

Varric shifts and she feels the warm gust of a quiet sigh on her skin.

Hawke freezes.

But Varric only rolls away from her and his arm goes with him, taking more warmth than it should. The hand that had been on her ribs comes up to rub at one eye. She watches him for a second, but then realizes what she's doing and scoots quickly down into a more reasonable place on the bed. Just as his eyes start to come open, hers snap shut.

There is a small shifting sound on the other pillow, then a long pause where Hawke tries to keep her breathing slow.

Just when she thinks that Varric has gone back to sleep, she hears him sit up and push the covers off.

She waits until she hears Varric go behind the dressing screen before she rolls onto her back and looks at the ceiling. She doesn't know what would happen if Varric knew she'd slept on top of him -- he'd probably just make some joke -- but it would probably be humiliating even if he didn't mean it to be.

She doesn't think too hard about why.

Varric better be being careful with Bianca, she thinks. The way Bogdan was talking the other night makes her more than nervous; she's had a funny feeling in her stomach practically since they got here, and it's only gotten worse. This hasn't been the hilarious shenanigans Hawke thought it would be when she agreed to it. It's probably because she's seen first hand now what this all means to him -- these people are really the closest thing Varric's got to a family anymore, and most of them want Bartrand here, not him. This is everything shitty about waiting for your family to appreciate you, combined with everything shitty about meeting with business contacts for drinks and awkward silences.

And then, of course, there's the matter of Bianca.

Varric comes out from behind the dressing screen, and Hawke props herself up on her elbows. He’s dressed even nicer than he was yesterday, in rich ruby and gold tones, his shirt half open (unlikely to change) and his hair down (being rectified as she watches).

“Oh hey,” he says, smiling in greeting. “You're up.”

Hawke looks back at his face and blinks, then feels weird about the delay and yawns to cover it.

“Hey, good morning.” She rubs an eye with her fist. “Who are you meeting today?”

“The Lathrens, some others,” he says, turning toward the full length mirror on the wall to smooth out his hair. “Not as many today.”

“Which ones are those?” she asks, sitting up. Varric straightens his jacket.

“Brigid and Tormod. She's the one with all the gold earrings, he's the one with the big braided beard. They're siblings, very successful clothiers operating out of Tantervale, but they have sales all the way out to Antiva and they're looking to expand. They've got strong trade connections in Orlais, too.”

Hawke squints at the ceiling, trying to sort through the people she's meet this week. She’s never even tried to keep the names of Varric's contacts in Kirkwall straight, much less what they do or how he knows them. She hasn't the slightest idea what business Varric could have with international clothiers besides getting his trousers tailored to that particularly flattering degree, but she's always known all that business correspondence on his desk he's forever answering isn't all from his editor, and he must use that spy network of his for something.

“Are the Lathrens ones that hate you?” she asks, and Varric chuckles.

“They're not about to found my fan club, at any rate,” he says. He goes over to the sconce on the wall and starts lighting the gas lights, which improves the dark considerably. “But if I can convince them my youthful indiscretions are in the past and I'm in good with Bogdan Vasca, I should be able to cement a working relationship with them.”

Hawke decides not to point out that he is not actually in good with Bogdan Vasca. It does not seem like a useful reminder.

“They couldn't found your fan club if they wanted to,” Hawke says, pushing off the covers and swinging her legs out of the bed. “I already did.”

“Is that so?”

“Well, me and Merrill. I'm president though. Merrill is secretary, because she likes the clipboard.” She stretches and shivers. “When I woke up yesterday there was breakfast.”

“When you woke up yesterday it was past nine,” Varric smirks. Hawke looks over at the clock, now that she can finally see it, and groans.

“Why am I up at a quarter to eight?” she exclaims, flopping backward onto the mattress.

“Don't ask me. Maybe being underground agrees with you.” She lifts her head to glare at his grin.

“It's this no windows thing,” Hawke grouses. “It's tricking me into waking up because I don't know what time it is.” That, and because his breath in the hollow of her throat scared the fucking sleep right out of her, but she doesn't say that.

“Most people wake up before the sun gets high enough to shine straight into their eyes,” Varric says, and Hawke, giving her lie-in up for lost, sits back up.

“I don't think that's true,” she says with great dignity. “I think you are an anomaly and cannot speak reliably on the subject.”

“We can go down to breakfast in the dining room and you can see the evidence for yourself,” he returns. “Or are you going back to bed?”

Hawke hauls herself off the bed and to her feet. “No, I'm coming,” she sighs.

Varric takes up a post leaning on the door to wait and Hawke drags her bones behind the dressing screen to change.

“Do you have any morning meetings tomorrow?” she asks as she pulls her sleeping tunic over her head.

“None planned, but that could change,” comes Varric's voice. “Why?”

“If you don't, we should both sleep in tomorrow,” Hawke snickers. “Make them think we're getting busy.” She wonders if that suspicious Venda lady and her husband would be scandalized or placated.

None of this has been as easy as she expected, true, but it's still pretty funny when she thinks about it. It's certainly going to make a good story. If Hawke dares to tell her, Isabela will think the story about this morning is hysterical.

“I wish Isabela was here,” she says out loud. “She'd back up our story with wild enthusiasm.” She grins to imagine Isabela making lewd comments about the two of them to a room full of businessdwarves, with much broad elbowing and winking. Maybe Hawke will tell her about this morning. It wasn't a big deal. Hawke was probably just having a dream she doesn't remember about some hottie back home -- Isabela will likely claim the dream was about her.

“She is going to love hearing about this when we get back,” Hawke says, leaning against the wall to pull on her trousers. “She'll be so mad we didn't bring her.” She threads her arms through a clean tunic and starts laughing at the thought. “Merrill will love it too. Except she'll probably take it way too seriously and ask if we're sure we didn't fall even a little bit in love, and she'll be disappointed even if she pretends she isn't --”

“I get it. It's hilarious,” Varric says suddenly.

The tone is almost sharp, and Hawke sticks her head out from behind the screen. Varric is tense as a bowstring, which is to say he looks just the same as before, propped against the door frame with his hands in his pockets, except for the straight right angles of his shoulders and the controlled, too-static expression on his face.

“Are you still mad about last night?” Hawke asks, narrowing her eyes. “Or just being grumpy about this whole trip again?”

Varric rolls his eyes, but it's still a carefully chosen movement, no more relaxed than he was. “I'm not mad,” he says. “Just-- look, can we not tell them?” Hawke comes fully out from behind the screen, frowning, and he sighs. “Aveline gave me a whole lecture before we left about what a bad idea this was, and she'll probably give me another when we get back no matter how it goes. I'd rather not hear it from the rest of the peanut gallery too.”

“When did your skin get so thin?” Hawke wonders.

It's apparently the wrong thing to say.

Varric turns around abruptly and shoves open the door. “Never mind,” he says. “It's fine. Tell who you want.” In a moment he's out of the room and heading down the hall, and Hawke has to shove her feet in her boots and stumble to catch up.

She doesn't think she's ever seen Varric's feathers this ruffled. She's used to nothing bothering him, or him at least acting like nothing bothers him -- and doing better acting than this -- his easy smile smoothing over the bumps and valleys of stress and tragedy and awkward situations. Hell, the last thing that had him this rattled was probably…

Bartrand. Of course. Hawke’s so used to him shrugging things off, she keeps forgetting he has every reason to be genuinely upset. Varric's surrounded by people who knew his family, has probably had them come up in conversation more than once. This isn't just an awkward family reunion or an awkward business meeting -- he's probably fucked up about his brother all over again, which Hawke knows from experience is what happens when you refuse to actually take the time to mourn.

Plus, though she doesn't like to think about it, he's seeing Bianca again. Hawke wasn't even there the first time Varric was fucked up over Bianca, but she's seen the reverence with which he treats her namesake weapon, heard the whistled song for which he's never told anyone the words. Varric finally gets to be close to the woman he loves, but he can't say anything to anyone and he doesn't get to keep her. When the week is over they'll pack up and go home, and everything will go back to how it was and he has to pretend he doesn't mind.

What could compete with that? Nothing could. Not even Varric Tethras's equilibrium. It's no wonder he's on edge.

Varric's walking fast, but Hawke's legs are still longer and she catches up quickly. For a moment they walk in silence.

“Sorry,” Hawke finally says. “I know you're stressed. That was out of line.”

It’s a long moment -- long enough to make Hawke nervous -- before Varric sighs and his shoulders release a little.

“Stressed? Me?” he scoffs. “Don't be ridiculous.”

Hawke smiles, but doesn't ruin it with talk. They walk to breakfast without saying anything more.

---

Varric has yet another meeting that afternoon, which Hawke suspects is mostly going to be whiskey and gambling. Hawke doesn't mind; she hasn't yet been out to check on the horses, and today seems like a good day to do it. She gets some directions from one of the servants after breakfast, gets her bearings, sets out, and almost immediately gets lost.

She thinks the trouble is she forgot if she was one or two floors underground. When she finds a window, she discovers that she's not on the ground floor at all, which would explain her difficulty finding an exit. She must have gone up too many of those little half flights of stairs? Now she's totally turned around.

This part of the house is much less lavish. From experience poking around in other people's estates, she figures this must be the equivalent of the servant wing. Makes sense, when most of the servants are human or elf. Hawke can't help but snort to herself a little, knowing how much more ornate the other side of this window is. You'd never know from outside that half of what you can see is servants’ quarters. Rich people and their appearances.

From around a corner, she hears two voices speaking. At least she can ask where the stairs are.

“But what got him exiled?” one of the voices is saying. “Did he kill somebody?”

Oho, Hawke likes gossip even better than stairs. And servants’ gossip is the best kind of all. She halts her steps before she rounds the corner and listens. Maybe she can bring back a juicy tidbit to Varric that he can use in his negotiations.

“You think that'd be enough for a bunch of dwarves?” the other servant scoffs. “They'd probably have given him a promotion. No serah, it'd have to be something really sacred. They caught him fixing the Provings.”

“Provings?”

“You know, that dwarf thing they do at the end of the week,” the voice explains. “The fights.” This other servant ought to pay more attention, working in a dwarf household and not knowing something like that. Hawke's known what Provings are for a whole day.

“That got him exiled?”

“Sure as salt. They say his wife couldn't handle the shame and took to drink before she died.”

Who's here solo? It eliminates Ivan or Bayard. Who'd fix a prizefight? Maybe Stanweg?

“So how come his kid's here at all?”

His kid?

“Well, you know, he hasn't been for years. His brother knew the game, I guess. Made some friends. Now the brother's disappeared under mysterious circumstances, and here pops up Junior, and after all that business with the mistress! He's got some nerves, is all I mean.”

Hawke freezes. Her lungs seize in a moment of horror -- Varric wouldn't want her to know this -- and then suddenly there's blood rushing in her ears because they're talking about Varric, they're splashing Varric's secrets around like paint and making cruel implications and bringing up that shit with Bianca, exactly the shit he's trying to get past, and they won't even let the things his father did go, won't just let him be his own person --

Before she's made a plan, she's striding around the corner, a big toothy smile pasted on her face.

“Ladies!” she exclaims, and both of them spin around. One of them definitely knows who Hawke is and who she's here with, based on how fast the blood leaves her face. Good.

“I seem to have gotten myself lost,” she confides. “Can either of you direct me toward the stairs? I'm trying to find the door out, but it seems this house is more treacherous than I gave it credit for.” The caught-out one glances at the other, and says nothing.

“Right down this hall and to the left,” the other servant says. From her voice, she's the one who was spreading tales. She is a little brisk, annoyed perhaps with having to give directions to one of these hoity toity guests. For someone so well-informed, you'd think she'd learn to put faces to names. Hawke thinks about spelling it out for her, but from the look on the other one's face, she'll hear about it pretty soon.

So because Hawke can't start a fistfight with a servant without making trouble for Varric, she just says “Thanks,” and shoulders past them.

Still, something quiet reminds her: they can only repeat what they've heard elsewhere.

---

Even hours later, she's still trying not to think about it. The frustrating thing is, she doesn't even know if it's true. She doesn't know anything. It could be a leaked secret, or common knowledge, or exaggeration, or straight up lies. She's never heard Varric give even an obviously false account of his parents. She's not sure she's even heard him make a passing allusion to them. If he had his way, he’d probably have everyone believe he popped into existence one day when someone started to tell a story not at all properly.

Kicked out of town for rigging a bet sounds familiar, except for the getting kicked out of town part. Varric is charming enough that he can cheat someone out of their purse one day and be slapped on the back by the same man the next. Maybe his father was just as charming, but dwarves take their Provings very seriously.

Or maybe they take it seriously, and he wasn't charming at all. Maybe he was terrible. Why would you say so little about a father that you had so much in common with, after all?

A voice in her head whispers Malcolm, but she ignores it.

She doesn't even know if it's true. She's better off not thinking about it. She's better off not thinking about people in this house telling stories about Varric at all.

She's supposed to meet him outside some study, next door to the parlor down the hall from the dining room. She gets there what she knows is too early and still gets nervous that she’s in the wrong place after a few minutes. Hawke leans forward and listens at the door. She relaxes at the low, wordless timbre of a familiar voice, but the voice that joins it gives her pause. She’s met so many dwarves lately, heard so many new voices…

Part of her, though, already knows who it is.

She hears him laugh richly through the door.

This is such a stupid risk for him. They're in the heart of the house; someone could come by at any moment.

And here's Hawke, acting like every other person in this house, who thinks Varric should be careful and respectable instead of happy.

From somewhere nearby, she hears the sound of people approaching, two or three of them, intent in conversation. She's pretty sure she hears Bogdan's rumble, and as they get closer -- they must be not far around the corner now -- she hears it shape a name that sounds like “Tormod.”

Tormod -- isn't he one of the clothiers? Yeah, the Lathrens, the sibling duo that disapproves of Varric. Maybe they'll pass right by, though. Maybe she can just start walking the other direction and pretend she's on her way somewhere else instead of waiting here.

She barely has time to even hope it before the study door starts creaking open.

They'll ask who he was just meeting with. They'll see her come out. It won't even matter if all they'd been doing in there was playing chess, nobody will believe it and it will undo everything Varric came here to do, including reconnect with Bianca…

Just before Bogdan and the others round the corner, Varric steps out of the study. He smiles to see her. Hawke glimpses a flash of Bianca, who meets her eyes and reaches to closes the door behind Varric, but there's no time for anything more than that. Hawke drops to her knees.

She pushes Varric against the wall and her mouth against his, and her urgently rushing blood stops in her veins.

His mouth falls open. One hand comes up against the side of her face and the other clutches her shoulder, almost too tight. His hands are warm, but his lips are cool. His breath tastes like brandy on her lips, on her tongue, his callused fingertips are shifting against her cheek, his thumb moving on her jaw.

Bogdan and the Lathrens and Bianca have already left her head. It's either a half second or a half hour, or possibly something in between the two, when the grip on her shoulder turns into a flat hand, pushing her away, hard.

“I apologize,” comes Varric's voice, cool and smooth. “I didn't realize you were there.” Hawke opens her eyes. Varric isn't looking at her, of course, but it takes her a second to follow his gaze over her shoulder to the three dwarves standing behind them.

Brigid and Tormod look embarrassed to have interrupted them. Bogdan doesn't. He's looking at them steadily, not flustered, not even suspicious, and Hawke remembers why she was kissing Varric in the first place just before the cold, queasy realization that it's failed grips her stomach. She has no doubt that Bogdan knows who's in the study behind them.

Varric's hand is still firmly against her shoulder, pressing, like he's holding a door closed. Hawke moves her hands from Varric's face, where she hadn't realized they'd ended up, to his chest.

“Clearly,” says Tormod. Neither he nor his sister look the way you want someone to look when you need to close a sensitive business deal with them, and Hawke goes from thinking she hasn't done enough to thinking she's screwed it all up.

“Come on, Brigid,” laughs Varric. His hand is still on her shoulder. “If making time with a beautiful woman was a crime, they would have locked you up years ago.”

It looks like it isn't going to work, and then it does. Brigid's face cracks into a smirk. Tormod rolls his eyes, fighting a smile. Bogdan isn't smiling.

“Guilty as charged,” Brigid says, and her brother makes eye contact with Hawke and grimaces sympathetically. Hawke forces a laugh, her mind still muddled, her heart racing.

She's trying to make what remains of their embrace look natural, but it's difficult with Varric holding her away from him with that hand on her shoulder, like she's something that stinks. Like he'd rather do anything in the world than hold her.

“Just don't make so much time you miss lunch,” Tormod says. “Parvan was telling us about some opportunities I said seemed up your alley. He'll probably try to find you once his meeting's out.”

“How long's that?” Varric asks, and Brigid consults a pocket watch.

“Hour and a half,” she reports, and Varric grins sharply. If they really knew him, they'd know that's not how Varric grins.

“No problem, then,” he says. “Lotta things you can do in an hour and a half. If you'll excuse us.”

They nod -- the Lathrens still smirking, Bogdan not -- and move on. Hawke is terrified for a moment that they'll go into the study where Bianca is surely still hiding. They don't. They resume the business conversation they were having and turn the corner without looking back and Hawke doesn't need the hint of the hand on her shoulder for another fucking second.

She drops her hands from his chest and stands up, steps backward. Takes another step backward. Clasps her hands behind her back. Varric's hand, still raised between them, finally lowers itself, much too delayed, as he turns to look at her. His mouth works around a sentence he's not quite getting out, probably apologizing for how he had to get the Lathrens off his back, or for almost getting caught, or noticing that Bogdan didn't seem fooled.

“What the hell was that?” Varric says tightly instead.

It's too much. Like it was Hawke being incautious. Like Hawke isn't doing all of this to save Varric suffering. If he has such an objection to kissing her, he shouldn't have asked her to do this stupid favor for him in the first place.

That's not right. She's not angry. She doesn't know what she's feeling.

“Just trying to keep you from getting caught, Tethras,” she hisses, because in the absence of any other answer, anger works. “No need to thank me.”

He's opening his mouth to say something else, but she doesn't want to hear it. Her blood is definitely going again, roaring in her ears. She takes another hurried step backwards.

“Well, I only came to tell you where I was,” she says quickly. “Can't have lunch. Sorry. I'm eating with… with Mathild. She promised to tell me a story that can't be recounted in polite company and I said I'd tell her the one about Aveline and the graffiti epidemic. You know, with the limericks?” Varric is frowning now as she keeps walking backward. Hawke hopes she can find Mathild before lunch.

“Good luck with Parvan,” is the most she can manage, and then she turns and flees.

Varric doesn't follow her.

---

She doesn't find Mathild. She does find the library again, blessedly empty, and camps out there in a wingback leather armchair for hours, flipping through books. She hopes Mathild wasn't at lunch. More importantly, she supposes, if she was at lunch, Hawke hopes Varric can give a convincing explanation for why Hawke wasn't. Hell, with the note they left the Lathrens on, maybe they'll believe she's sleeping it off.

She grimaces at the book in her hands and shuts it a little violently. She doesn't know why she's thinking about it still.

She waits until just before dinner to go out to the room and change, to minimize the risk of running into Varric. She picks a pretty dress -- which she did not borrow from Isabela -- and, remembering what is apparently the dwarven standard for fine dressing, straps her armor over top of it. Maybe it'll help keep the cold out, too. She remembers Varric's comment on the first night about waiting for a fight, and wonders if he was talking about the Provings or if there's any likelihood an actual fight might break out. She's hardly going to take her staff regardless, she supposes. Hawke compromises with a knife on her belt, and heads down to dinner.

Varric is already there, and smiles when she comes in, but it's not the right smile. It's not the one reserved for her. It's hardly a smile for an ally at all. It's the smile that goes with What the hell was that? Hawke returns it as quickly as she can, takes her seat, and turns away.

Dinner is -- who cares what dinner is? Steak of some kind. Mushroom caps stuffed with crumbly cheese. Wine, mostly. She's starving from missing lunch, so she barely tastes it. Casmir is sitting next to her tonight, so she keeps her attention on him rather than Varric. Casmir is happy to regale her with thrilling stories of strangely heavily-armed business meetings that went sour; by the third story and the third glass of wine, Hawke is pretty sure he's in the Carta, or at least has an awful lot of Carta buddies. One of the stories sounds very familiar, like she's heard it from Varric some night at the Hanged Man, with a few dramatic embellishments. She doesn't turn to him and ask him to account for stealing Casmir's story, though.

She doesn't know why she's mad. No, wait, she's not mad, that was just what she decided to go with at the time. She doesn't know why she's upset, let's say. Except that she's not upset, because that would be stupid. She's a little annoyed at Varric, of course. They always have each other's backs, but she's never known him to do so little to help her out in his back-having. Hawke feels like she's had this same conversation with herself ten different times since they got here, offered the same explanations for Varric's behavior ten different ways. She wishes he would just talk to her.

Not that Varric talks to anyone. Why should Hawke be special? She's only his best friend. She motions for the servant to pour her another glass of wine.

She bets he talks to Bianca.

The designated after dinner activity is drinks and cards, which is exactly the kind of thing Hawke needs right now. She loves playing cards with nobility -- they're always willing to play for credit, and they're always good for it.

She and Varric are a power team at any number of games; they may not have needed the money in years, but it hasn't stopped them from cleaning up tables full of suckers just for the fun of it. They could probably leave here with more gold and property deeds and vague Carta favors then would fit in their saddlebags.

Hawke joins the game across the room with her back to Varric's table.

There's nobody at this table she has to be particularly careful of; Bogdan and Bianca are playing somewhere to her left, along with the Marins. Hawke accepts a glass of port and her cards, and tries to forget where she is.

She's already on another glass by the time the hand of cards is done, and she feels a heavy hand of the other kind on her shoulder.

“Taken all these nice people's money yet, darling?” Varric said behind her.

“Finally gonna come double with your woman instead of Arnad, Tethras?” says Marya, tapping the deck on the table.

“Oh, I have a grudge match with Othred,” Varric says just as Hawke realizes she could have fucked this up real bad just by trying to get some distance from him. “Matter of honor, you know. If I played with this one, he wouldn't have a chance. Gotta keep it fair.” He squeezes Hawke’s shoulder, and Hawke turns her heads to smile at him, feeling guilty and forgiving.

“Go get 'em, bunny boo,” she says, lifting her half empty drink in a salute. A servant standing by takes that as a sign to top it off. Hawke shrugs and lets them. Varric chuckles and lets his hand slip from her shoulder. She misses it instantly, achingly, which is weird enough that she doesn't say anything or turn around as Varric leaves for his own table.

Marya deals the next hand, and Hawke takes a gulp of her port.

---

By the time they're walking back to their room, Hawke is loose-jointed and has lost the last of her antagonism. She's got her arm draped over Varric's back even though there's nobody around to see, because it feels good and he's letting her. He doesn't have his arm around her waist, though, which is too bad.

“Marya cheats at diamondback,” Hawke announces.

“Believe me,” says Varric, “I know.”

Once they're in the room, Varric ducks out from under her arm. There isn't any time for it to make her sad, though, before he's shutting the door behind them and speaking.

“You can change first,” he says, because he is, despite any protests, a gentleman. Her year in servitude was enough to teach her what a real rogue was like, if she hadn't already known. That's why Varric doesn't ever let a look linger, doesn't takes a ribald joke too far.

Doesn't let a fake kiss last any longer than it has to.

And here she is thinking about it again, because that wasn't the way he pushed her away, like a gentleman refusing to overstep his bounds. But she'sdone analyzing that when it was hours ago and it doesn't even matter and damnit, was this buckle always this hard to reach?

“You okay back there?” Varric calls as she fumbles the buckle again and lets out a frustrated growl.

“Why did I wear my fucking armor tonight?” she grouses, giving up and moving on to the pauldron strap. Varric makes a noise of mock thoughtfulness.

“Is this a riddle? Because I'm shit at those.”

“These straps are stupid,” she mutters. The pauldron buckle is in a weird place too, and her fingers and brain are too thick with alcohol to make sense of it. “Armor is stupid. Nobody even attacked me. Ugh.

“Would you prefer they had?” asks Varric. Hawke doesn't answer, her tongue stuck out between her teeth in concentration. There's a sigh from the other side of the dressing screen, and suddenly Varric is standing in front of her.

“Here, let me help,” he says, batting her hands away from her armor straps and stepping behind her. Hawke stands in silence for a few drunken moments, focusing on the feeling of Varric's steady fingers working at the fastenings on her back.

“You probably would have, really,” Varric is saying now, and Hawke has to pull herself back to the present moment.

“Would have what?” she frowns.

“Preferred they'd attacked you,” he says. Hawke tries to chuckle in acknowledgement at least, but she isn't feeling it. He's right -- she probably would have. She's always found politics exhausting.

He pulls her chest piece off, his hands so much gentler than they need to be; he's seen how she treats her armor. She doesn't point this out to him, though, as he places the chest piece on the floor and circles around to her pauldron. They're both quiet. His fingers easing the strap out of its buckle are tickling her ribs a little and she's trying not to squirm. Hawke almost doesn't want to breathe, and she's not sure why.

When the pauldron is off, he takes a knee to unhook her greaves. He has to lift the hem of her skirt a few inches to get to the fastenings, and for some reason this morning comes to her mind, the moment between when Varric moved and when he opened his eyes. She really is holding her breath now. His hands move on the back of her calf, almost imperceptible through the leather wrapping of the armor, but still it feels... dangerous. It feels like Varric is somehow about to connect some unknown dots and catch Hawke at something forbidden.

She's probably just drunk. Drunk and paranoid.

Still, it seems like Varric ought to be making fun of her for this, drinking too much and needing help with her armor. Or she should be making fun of herself. But he lowers the hem of her dress again and sets the second greave next to the first and still neither of them has said anything.

Varric straightens and takes her hand, and for one panicking second she thinks he has something to say after all. About the kiss? About this morning? She doesn't know what she'll say, she can't think through the booze, how can he wait until she's drunk to tell her she's making it weird when she can't find the words to explain herself --

But all he does is turn her hand over in his and start unbuckling her gauntlet.

With her wine-blurred brain electrified for a confrontation, it just leaves her confused.

“You pushed me away,” Hawke blurts. He tenses, his fingers stilling on her wrist for a moment. He doesn't look up. She realizes Varric hasn't met her eyes since he joined her behind the screen. She's struggling to remember if he has looked at her once since they left the others tonight.

“S’fine,” she clarifies, because it is fine. He doesn't owe her anything. “S'fine if you don't want… don't want…”

The gauntlet comes free from her hand, and she swallows and flexes her fingers.

“...my help,” she finishes hoarsely.

He turns away and puts the gauntlet with the rest of her armor.

“I'm sorry,” she says.

“It's okay, Hawke,” he says and walks out from the screen again.

Hawke stands in her wrinkled gown, rubbing her wrist where her gauntlet was (where his fingers were) and staring at the dressing screen. Her heart is galloping inside her ribs, but there's nothing for her to do about it, no one to fight.

She's in love with Varric.

Chapter Text

When Hawke wakes up, Varric isn't there.

She doesn’t even have to look, horribly enough. She just knows already what a bed with Varric in it feels like.

She's not fully awake yet, so it takes her a minute to remember why that's awful. It's her position curled up on the very edge of the mattress that comes to her first. Then she blurrily remembers a long wakefulness last night, lying here like this afraid that she would touch Varric accidentally, terrified that she'd reach for him after she fell asleep. Then she remembers waking up in Varric's arms yesterday, and only then does she remember the important part: she's in love with him.

She's in love with Varric Tethras.

You know, Varric. Her best friend for five years. That one.

Shit.

It’s kind of a relief to realize how it makes all her unpredictable nonsense feelings from this week make sense, but mostly it’s not a fucking relief at all. She makes herself roll over and look, but of course he's not there. The brass clock on his table reads five to nine. Varric said yesterday that he didn't have any morning meetings today, but maybe he scheduled one since then and didn’t mention it. Or maybe he left anyway to get away from Hawke's desperate, sloppy drunk ass. She grabs a pillow and shoves it over her face. If she smothers herself, she won't be miserable or embarrassing. And she won't have to dissect this whole situation any further. Wins all around.

There's a tap at the door, and Hawke lifts one end of the pillow up. Maybe it was a really early meeting, and he’s back to get her for breakfast.

“Come in,” she calls.

The door creaks open, but it’s a young lady with a silver tray, not Varric. Hawke sighs and sits up. It’s only when the woman looks at Hawke and goes pale that Hawke recognizes her.

“You’re one of the gossips from yesterday!” she exclaims. The woman looks like she's about to either bolt or faint. Hawke, sensing danger to the delicious smells on the tray, holds out her hands entreatingly. “Please, just give me my breakfast before you start swooning. I am really hungover.”

The woman approaches the bed, her face indicating that she’s discovered the third option, groveling.

“Messere, you left before I could apologized,” she says, her expression pained. “I know Erica shouldn’t have been spreading rumors like that, but I shouldn’t have been listening. It’s just that I’m new in the house and everyone else already knows who hates who and what rooms not to walk in on, and I’m so afraid I’m going to put my foot in it, and I need the job, Messere.”

“Don’t we all,” Hawke mutters. She pats the bedside table, and the woman hastily puts the tray down.

“Lights, Messere?” she says, and Hawke grunts assent.

She has too much to think about to take time to torture servants for their indiscretions. It’s still flooding back in, everything she laid awake thinking of last night, stiff as the dead with her back to her best friend. Hawke stuffs a jam-smothered crumpet into her mouth while the woman hurries around the room igniting the gas lamps. The crumpet doesn’t manage to drown out the shit filling her brain. She chews a little louder. That doesn’t help either.

“I’m Hawke,” she says. The woman turns around and nods.

“I know, Messere Hawke.”

Hawke shakes her head. “No, I mean I’m Hawke, not Messere anything. I’m much too Ferelden for that shit. And you are?”

“Alice,” the woman says, looking nervous.

“Tell you what, Alice,” Hawke says, reaching for another crumpet. “Let me in on the gossip and I swear I won’t say a word.”

Alice seems to relax at that. Hawke gets it; magnanimity is suspect, but a deal you can trust.

The voice saying that in her head sounds like Varric. She swallows the half chewed lump of crumpet and puts a jammy hand down absently in the sheets (where Varric slept, where she woke up wrapped around him yesterday and she’s an idiot).

“What do you want to know?” says Alice.

Hawke picks her hand back up with a grimace, and wipes her fingers on the slate gray napkin on the tray.

“Well, what do they say about us?” she asks casually, eyes on the coffee she’s pouring from a silver pot, and not on the other woman.

“You?” Alice says. Hawke makes herself look up, smile.

“Tethras and I,” she says. “Never been to a Merchant’s Assembly before, have I? I’d like to know what kind of impression I’m making. And if I recall correctly, a little bird might have mentioned why public opinion of us is precarious at the moment.”

Alice looks uncomfortable. Hawke makes a dismissive wave at her hesitation.

“Don’t worry, I already know a lot of them hate us.” It does not feel suddenly strange or presumptuous to say ‘us’ -- they’ve been an ‘us’ for years. The feeling of a rope tying Hawke’s guts to his, like mountain climbers scaling a dangerous, peak, is familiar. The only strange part is how she took this long to figure out what it meant.

“The Messeres Hurston and Biskom suspect Messere Tethras is having an affair behind your back. The Pentases think he’s doing it with your knowledge,” Alice says reluctantly. Hawke barks a laugh. It’s not funny for the same reason she’d admit, but the humor is certainly there.

“I think most people disagree,” Alice says hurriedly. “I’m sure it’s not true. I’ve seen the two of you together. He doesn’t see anyone in the room but you.” It’s sweet, even if the lady needs her eyes checked. Hawke smiles what she hopes is reassuringly.

“Don’t worry. I know with absolute certainty that there’s no way Varric's cheating on me,” Hawke says. He can’t possibly cheat on her when they’re not together, after all. She banishes an unbidden image of Varric brushing Bianca’s hair from her ear to murmur endearments. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. She just has to make sure they don’t get caught.

“Now, Venda and Omer Marin,” Hawke says, picking up the mug of coffee. “I know they don’t like us.”

“They don’t say anything about their suspicions, if they’ve got any,” Alice says. “But they’re devious, from what I hear. Less they talk, more worried I’d be.”

“Is there anyone they have been talking to?” Hawke asks. “Even behind closed doors?”

Alice hesitates again. “I don’t like to say,” she finally answers.

Hawke picks up a sausage and takes a thoughtful bite. It reminds her of dinner a couple nights ago -- nug. Not too bad. Alice was pretty blunt a minute ago, and after saying that much, there isn’t a lot that ought to close her mouth. Besides, maybe, implicating the one paying her wages. Dwarves don’t like outsiders. And we don’t like to lose.

“Fair enough,” says Hawke. “Anything you can tell me about them?”

The woman chews her lip in thought. “I think they must have some kind of contract in jeopardy,” she hazards. “That’s what I heard, anyway. They trade in lyrium, and they’ve had personal couriers from the Starkhaven Circle come by the estate twice.”

The lyrium information isn’t new, but Hawke frowns to hear it anyway. “Is that really so unusual, about the couriers?” Hawke wonders. “I don’t know much about the Guild, but I’m pretty sure having a lot going on is a prerequisite for membership.”

Alice shrugs. “Apparently it’s very unusual, especially twice. The other servants were guessing either their standing with their Templar contacts was falling through, or they were acting on information they’d gotten this week.”

Hawke doesn’t have a chance of learning and unravelling the intricacies of Merchant’s Guild politics in the next couple of days. As tempting as it is, the fantasy of taking down Varric’s enemies from within their own systems, that’s not her job here. Her job is to convince Varric’s enemies that she’s in love with him.

Which, on the plus side, shouldn’t be as hard as she thought it would be.

Hawke throws the covers off her legs and goes over to her bags sitting against the wall. She digs in one for her money purse, and pulls out a couple pieces of silver.

“Thank you,” she says, handing the money to Alice. “That helps. It’s really important to me that Varric leaves here with everything he needs, and that baseless rumors like this aren’t going to undermine him.” She lets some of what she feels seep into her voice as she looks down and fiddles with her purse strings. “These are his people,” she says. “The only ones he has left. He seems like he doesn’t care, but I know how important that is when you’ve lost everything else.” She looks up into Alice’s face, meets her eyes firmly. “You know what I mean?”

Alice nods solemnly. She looks like she really does know. Hawke isn’t surprised -- people like that can recognize each other. Hawke smiles at her.

“Thank you for breakfast,” she says.

Alice nods again, and goes. Hawke is left alone, in the cold, dim room, the sheets of the bed now too rumpled to even tell there was ever a second person in them.

---

Without much to go on about where she can find Varric, Hawke ends up wandering. Somehow Marya Bevoll finds her anyway, somewhere between the humidor and parlor number three. She has no doubt that Marya did indeed find her; the dwarf acts as though the meeting is accidental, but her surprise reads a little too much like Varric with a scheme on his mind.

“Marian Hawke, just who I'd like to see!” she exclaims. “How are you feeling this morning after last night?”

Hawke shakes her head. “I drank the whole pot of coffee they sent me this morning,” she says. “I'm all right now, but I was certainly cursing my straps and buckles last night.” Maybe Varric helping her is a good detail that could be mistaken for intimacy, but she can't quite bring herself to share it. “How about you? Anyone take a hit out on you yet to get their money back?”

Marya rolls her eyes. “Don't joke,” she says. “I hate the years we have assassination attempts, especially before the last day. You're trying to fit a half-dozen clandestine deals in an afternoon, and suddenly everyone wants their alibi signed and notarized and bodyguards sitting in on every liason.”

Hawke isn't sure if Marya is kidding or not. She kind of thinks she isn't.

“How about Tethras?” Marya is saying. “Did he finally settle his grudge match with Parvan?”

Hawke winces inwardly, wishing she’d had the sense to find that out last night, since Varric was smart enough to establish a cover story for Hawke’s stupid breakdown. Outwardly, she tries to laugh lightly.

“I actually didn't ask,” she says. “We were a little... distracted when we got back to our room.”

Marya shoots her an amused glance, but only hums thoughtfully and doesn't reply.

“Are you entering the Provings tomorrow?” she says instead.

“I'd like to,” Hawke admits. “It wouldn't be gauche and unheard of for a human to participate would it? It wouldn't make Varric look bad?” She doesn’t put it past Bogdan to invite her to participate just to turn public opinion against Varric, even if that seems a little subtle.

Marya chuckles. “Not gauche I don't think, and no more unheard of than him bringing a human to the Assembly in the first place. Come on, then. Let’s go out to the field and practice.”

They walk through the chilly house and up a half flight of stairs to a modest armory, even chillier than the rest. Weapons of various kinds are displayed in cabinets against the wall and racks lined up in the center of the room.

“Don’t you already have a weapon?” Hawke asks, inspecting a glass fronted case of short swords. “Pretty sure almost everyone was armed at that first dinner.”

“I brought my war hammer, yeah,” Marya says. “But the Assembly uses nonlethal weapons for their Provings.”

Hawke shrugs. “Makes sense,” she says, and Marya snorts.

“Yes, but not for the reason you think,” she replies. Hawke turns away from the case to cock an inquisitive brow at Marya, who rolls her eyes. “The Orzammar dwarves hold the Provings sacred,” she explains. “Supposedly, the ancestors speak through the warriors and determine the winner. There’s piles of ceremonies and regulations to keep it fair and sacred. No talking over the ancestors just because you don’t like the decision they made, you know.”

Hawke shoots her a look over her shoulder. “You don’t sound convinced,” she says. Marya’s expression of mock scandal and offense makes Hawke snicker.

“Try to keep up a working relationship with a bunch of self-important, devout Kalnas, without a deep and sincere belief in the sacred wisdom of the Paragons and the ancestors?” she gasps. “I would never.”

Hawke smirks and moves on to a cabinet of ornate axes. “So something like fixing official Provings would be basically like… blasphemy, I guess?” Out of the corner of her eye, Hawke sees Marya glance quickly over at her, and she suppresses another wince. The story about Varric’s father might be more than just a story.

“Yeah, the kind of thing that gets dwarves exiled,” Marya answers nonchalantly. Fuck.

The tension is broken by the clank of a chest lid falling closed. Hawke jumps, but Marya only moves on to the next chest.

“So of course, a bunch of exiles and sun-touched salesmen couldn’t possibly put on their own Provings,” she goes on, pulling out the center of the chest to see the knives in the second layer.

“And I suppose in a real Proving, you use real weapons?” Hawke guesses. Marya puts the chest back together and clicks her tongue.

“Got it in one. If they make enough small deviations from the standard, they can have their fake traditions without being blasphemers. Which is fucking funny, because we’re all dead to the Stone anyway for living on the surface.”

“Still, I get it,” Hawke says, running her fingers over the grip of a pretty halberd. “Traditions are important. The appearance of things is important, sometimes.”

If Marya agrees at all, she doesn’t say. She hefts a padded hammer from a rack onto her shoulder, and turns to Hawke.

“Let me guess,” she says. “Quarterstaff for you?”

“Or a glaive,” Hawke shrugs. “How’d you know?”

“I keep my ears open,” Marya says breezily.

Hawke suppresses a frustrated groan. It seems pretty clear that if Marya’s kept her ears open, what she’s heard is that Hawke doesn’t use a quarterstaff or a glaive. She’s brought her staff, but safely hidden away wrapped in the other contents of her road pack. The mage thing is a topic Hawke really hoped she could avoid this week; that conversation at lunch a couple days ago was a close enough call for her.

“Do you figure it’s a detail that finds its way into many open ears?” Hawke asks as Marya hands her a medium-weight quarterstaff with a beautiful silver grip.

“I’d figure a few,” says Marya. “Hard to say which ones.” She taps one of the pair of large white jewels she’s wearing. “I do have very good ears.”

Here’s hoping. Hawke gives the quarterstaff a little spin -- it’s a bit shorter than one made for a human, but not much shorter than her staff, and she’s almost as good at whacking people with that as she is at throwing fireballs with it. No weight on the end of this one, though. She’ll need some practice adjusting to the balance of it.

“Come on, Champion,” Marya says, pushing open a door. “Field is this way. I won’t go easy on you.”

Hawke laughs and spins the staff again.

“Sure you want me to do the same?” she says, wrinkling her nose skeptically. “I mean, I went a little easy on the Arishok. For diplomatic reasons, you know. Not sure if you’ve heard how that went for him.”

Marya smirks. “I’ve heard the story from your man himself, kid.”

“Yeah, but my man himself definitely lied.”

“And you think you’re the only one who knows how to decode his bullshit?” Marya fires back. “That’s exactly how I know you didn’t go easy on anyone. But sure, try hitting me harder than you hit a Qunari. That sounds like fun.”

Hawke laughs again, ignoring the twinge in her chest, and follows Marya out onto the practice field.

---

It’s a productive hour or so, learning the knack of the dwarven quarterstaff and grilling Marya for more information on the other attendees. Apparently they thoroughly convinced the Lathrens yesterday in the hallway outside the study. They had formerly been in the ‘probably having an affair with the lady of the house’ camp, but were heard at the late game last night remarking on how gone Varric was on this human.

She also learns that there was a late game after they went to bed. Dwarves are partiers.

Marya confirms too that the Marins have been in private conversation with Bogdan Vasca more than once this week. She sees Hawke’s uneasy expression and shrugs philosophically, then catches Hawke in the back of the knees with the severely underpadded hammer.

Hawke lays on the ground catching her breath for a moment before she accepts the hand up. When she’s blinked the stars out of her eyes and popped her spine, there’s someone else with them -- an elf standing to the side of the field.

“I’ve come to fetch Marian Hawke for her afternoon meeting,” he says.

“Afternoon meeting?” Hawke parrots. She looks at Marya, who shrugs again. Hawke shrugs back at her.

“I’ll put your staff back,” Marya says. “It’s probably your fella.” She winks. “Better not keep him waiting.”

Hawke hands her the quarterstaff, with her thanks. It’s either Varric or someone wanting to threaten her, she figures. Being threatened would probably be informative, but she hopes it’s Varric. She wants to apologize for drinking so much last night, and also for avoiding him yesterday, and… also maybe for kissing him, at least without warning, even though it did get the Lathrens on their side, and maybe she could also feel out how early he was awake yesterday morning.

The servant leads Hawke to a large conservatory on the side of the house, the glass panes flashing in the sun. This is certainly the kind of place Varric would love, and which likewise seems like it would make his enemies uncomfortable. She doesn’t know why a half-buried dwarf estate would even have a conservatory.

She is led to an exterior door, where the servant bows and leaves her. Hawke pulls the door open and goes inside.

It’s hard not to breathe a satisfied sigh as she steps through. The chill of the house, even the briskness of the outdoor breeze is completely absent here. The air is still and hot like a comforting bath. She gives in to the sensation for a moment before she goes to find Varric, closing her eyes and tipping her face up, so she can feel the rays heat her skin and paint the light coming in through her eyelids red.

“Serah Hawke, I’m glad you could come. I apologize that I didn’t check if you were busy before sending for you -- I hope I’m not interrupting anything.”

It isn’t Varric. The stab of disappointment in her stomach turns quickly into a jagged slash of horror when her eyes pop open and she puts a face to the voice that she’s already recognized.

“Serah Davri,” she greets, smiling as best she can.

Bianca smiles too. “The polite thing, of course, would have been to make an appointment, or even tell you who it was that wanted to see you,” Bianca says, putting down the watering can she’s holding and brushing off her hands together. “But I was afraid you might get a surprise headache and be unable to meet with me.” Hawke tries to make the predictable protests, but Bianca waves them away. “Honestly, I think that’s what I would do in your situation.”

It is? What situation is that?

“I was just sparring with Marya Bevoll with the practice weapons in the armory,” Hawke replies. “You weren’t interrupting -- probably just saved my pride. We’d been going for a while and her stamina is nothing to sneeze at.”

Bianca’s hostess smile turns into a grin. “You’re entering the Provings tomorrow, right?” she says, and Hawke nods.

“If it’s okay.”

“Of course it is,” Bianca says. “I hope I get to go up against you.” She chuckles and turns to start walking slowly down a row of raised flowerbeds. Hawke falls into step beside her. “I’m sure we all seem like we’re chomping at the bit for it. I suspect some of the Merchants’ Guild only come to these events to settle scores from the previous Assembly Provings,” she jokes. “Did you like the weapons you tried? I made most of them.”

“You made them?” Hawke exclaims. That’s right, she’s smith caste, didn’t Varric say? That must not be just a title. “They’re great. Really beautiful and well balanced.”

“Thanks. I’m much more into machinery, but they’re fun now and then. Those don’t get much use -- the Assembly changes estates every time, and they haven’t been here for several years.”

A thought is slowly forming in Hawke’s head, and it’s all she can do to not slap her own forehead.

“Wait, did you make Bianca?” she says, feeling suddenly stupid. “I mean, Varric’s crossbow. That was you, wasn’t it?”

They pause in front of a trellis upon which is climbing a young grapevine. Bianca doesn’t look at Hawke, just reaches up and winds the curlicue of a wandering tendril around part of the wire lattice.

“You mean that mechanized bow of his?” she says mildly. “It’s quite a piece of work, isn’t it? I can’t claim that achievement, I’m afraid.” She reaches above the tendril and pinches off a dead leaf. “Whoever did would have to answer for making death as easy as they did, and hope nobody ever gets their hands on that design.”

Hawke remembers Varric saying something like that once before. She has no doubt about with whom he made that decision, who knows how long ago.

“Well, if there’s only one,” she answers slowly, “I think its maker can rest easy that it’s in responsible hands.”

Bianca looks up from the grapevine then, and gives Hawke a small smile.

“None better,” she says.

It’s easier than it ought to be, talking to Bianca about Varric. The atmosphere in the humid conservatory is calm and benign. Hawke thinks she could be friends with her without really trying. She could even give up Varric to a woman like this.

“I was just thinking today,” Bianca is saying now, “How strange it is that Varric calls you ‘Hawke.’”

Hawke flinches, thinking she’s relaxed too soon. Is this what’s happening now? She’s going to get their sloppy charade personally critiqued by the woman whose health, happiness, and reputation most rely on its success?

“I promise it’s not that strange,” Hawke assures her hastily. “Everyone calls me Hawke. My own mother called me Hawke. Pretty sure I call myself Hawke in my head most of the time. My first name is going to rot and fall off from disuse at this rate.”

Bianca laughs and shakes her head. “Not what I meant. I mean with his friends, there’s usually a nickname.”

Hawke tries not to exhale in too much relief.

“He tries to give me ‘Chuckles’ once,” she says. “It didn’t stick.”

“He called you ‘Rookie’ in his letter just before the expedition to the Deep Roads,” Bianca offers. “That didn’t stick either.”

Did he now?” Hawke laughs. “He never did to my face.” She’s definitely going to give him shit for that one.

“For all that he never stops talking, Tethras says very few things to anyone’s face,” Bianca says, leading them over to a row of fruit trees growing from brick-circled holes in the floor. Hawke wonders what happens to the fruit from these trees. She’s enjoyed the food that's been served so far, but she isn’t sure she’s seen a fresh fruit or vegetable yet.

“Maker knows I know,” Hawke sighs. “I hope after all this time I can hear a lot of what he doesn’t say, but I never get all of it.” She steps around a caterpillar scooting across the stone floor, and makes a face at her own words. “Sorry, that’s got to sound silly to you, when you’ve known him so much longer.”

Bianca joins her hands behind her and shakes her head. “Not at all. Five years for you, isn’t it? I haven’t seen him more than a handful of days in the last ten. At this point you probably know him better than I do.”

“You write,” Hawke protests.

“Not the same. You think he’s good at obscuring his meanings in person, try divining it from pithy letters in immaculate handwriting.”

Hawke pictures being separated from Varric from years, reading and rereading his letters, wanting to see him again if just to shake their real meaning out of him. She can hardly bear even imagining it. If she hadn’t had Varric two steps behind her through the last few years, she’s not sure how she would have managed.

“Maybe you’ll see each other more often now, though,” Hawke says, trying to sound encouraging.

Bianca lays a hand on the trunk of one of the trees, and looks up into the branches of one tree laden with tiny green spheres. Hawke wonders what they’ll be when they're ripe.

Bianca’s eyes come back down to her and Hawke expects her to say something but she just.. doesn't. She looks at Hawke for a long, long minute, steadily, consideringly. The mood has changed all of a sudden, and Hawke isn’t sure how or why. She starts to squirm under the piercing gaze before Bianca finally speaks again.

“Maybe,” is all she says.

Silence fills the hot, heavy air.

“I just want him to be happy,” Hawke blurts.

Bianca pats the tree and lets her hand drop. She gives Hawke a sympathetic smile.

“Me too,” she says, and keeps walking.

She knows.

Somehow, she knows that Hawke is in love with her lover, and it ought to be humiliating, but instead Hawke is just tired. Tired, and sad, and grateful that Bianca wants to take care of Varric too, and hoping she’ll get to. Hawke doesn't know what kind of future they can have, with Bianca unable to leave her husband without sinking both her and Varric, but that's not Hawke's call.

“You know,” Bianca is saying now, “you could always ask him.”

“Ask him what?” Hawke frowns, returning her attention to the woman in front of her. She's turned to look over her shoulder at Hawke again, and Hawke finds herself wishing a little desperately that she wouldn't.

“What he's thinking,” Bianca answers. “What he doesn't say.”

Hawke shakes her head and nudges a loose brick at the bottom of a tree back into place with her foot. “Maybe you can,” she says. “Me, I find questions spook him half the time. I think there's a lot about himself he wants to pretend isn't even real -- certainly doesn't want people to know.”

“You aren't just people, though,” Bianca says. “Spooked or not, he's not going anywhere.” She says it so offhandedly, like it goes without saying, but the look she pins Hawke with over a flowering shrub is disquietingly intense. “Trust me. You're special to him,” she says, and means it.

Not special enough. Hawke shakes the thought away with a quick flick of her bangs.

“How does --” she starts, and then second-guesses her question. She stops and bites the inside of her cheek. Bianca gives her a ‘go on’ gesture, and Hawke takes a breath. “How does your husband feel about him being here?”

Bianca laughs, a low, colorful chuckle. “He had his misgivings,” she says. “But I assured him there was nothing for him to worry about.”

Hawke wants to say I don't think he believes you, but she recognizes that as a step too far and keeps her mouth shut.

“You said you make machines,” she says instead. “Speaking as someone whose only marketable skill is maiming and death, that’s kind of amazing. What kind of thing do you build?”

The other woman grins and starts talking about some kind of mechanical thresher, and Hawke listens and tries to make her heart shut up.

---

She doesn’t see Varric for the rest of the day, but by dinner she’s more determined than ever to make up for the damage to their ruse she did yesterday. She’s forgone the armor today, wearing a long sleeved dress that’s not nearly thick enough, and a shawl from Leandra’s closet that she’s glad she thought to pack. When she walks into the dining room to see Varric sitting in his usual seat, she doesn’t have to play up the smile that spreads over her face.

“Sweetiepie! How’ve you been today? I’m sorry I didn’t wake up to see you off.” And for freaking out, she adds in her head. And for kissing you in front of Bianca. And for falling in love with you.

A corner of Varric’s mouth turns up, and Hawke relaxes, as though she’s gotten forgiveness for all her unspoken crimes too.

“Well, you looked so peaceful I didn’t want to disturb you, butterbean,” he says, taking the hand she’s reaching out to him. He bends over it and presses a kiss to her palm, and it tugs painfully on a sharp fishhook stuck behind her sternum. Varric’s smile goes crooked and his eyes twinkle, and that’s worse, somehow.

“Besides,” he adds, “I value my life too much to wake you up early after a night like that,” and she’s sure she really is forgiven.

He retains her hand in his to guide her into her seat, and then folds them together on the table between their place settings. And she knows it’s just for show. She knows he’d rather be sitting next to the strong, funny, gardening inventor and weaponsmith at the head of the table. She knows she’ll have to let go of his hand to eat, or to get up, or to go to bed.

But just for right now, she pretends none of that is true.

A dwarf whose name she doesn’t know calls out a joke she doesn’t understand, and Varric laughs. Hawke laughs too. The room is cold, but she refuses to shiver under her mother’s borrowed shawl, and the warmth and ease of the Hanged Man seems very far away.

---

Hawke is relieved to shut the door between them and the rest of the house that night, more than she likes to admit. She’s taking off the shawl and thinking mostly about the fights tomorrow when Varric speaks behind her.

“I think we need to talk,” he says.

Hawke’s heart stops, and then starts pounding double time. She spins around, holding up her hands, her shawl bunched up in one of them.

“No, it’s okay,” she says quickly. “I get it. I was all over the place yesterday, I’m sorry.” She’s looking him in the eyes as hard as she can, even though she’d rather have this whole conversation with the toes of his boots, because she needs him to know she means it. She needs it to be okay, to know she hasn’t ruined anything. Varric may not talk about things with words, but bringing her on this trip was an act of trust, and she can’t reward that by making this about her. He needs to know she gets that.

“You asked me here as a friend,” she says, staring into his face and trying to sound reasonable and not pleading, “and I haven’t been acting like one.” Varric shifts from one foot to another, runs a hand back over his hair.

“That’s not…” He takes in a breath. “That’s not exactly why I asked you here.”

That brings Hawke up short. She takes a split second to think the worst, but he doesn’t look angry or anything. Right, of course she’s just made it about herself again.

“I know,” she says quickly. “I know. I’m sorry, that’s not--” She shakes her head. “Before we got here, I didn’t realize how important this was.”

“I don’t think you do know,” says Varric, then adds, bemused, “Wait. What do you mean how important this is?” He closes his eyes and pinches the bridge of his nose with two fingers. “You’re not still on about Bianca, are you?”

“Not just Bianca,” she says. Hawke needs him to understand. She needs him to know that she understands. “Everyone. All these people here, they’re the closest thing you’ve got to family anymore.”

His eyes are open again to stare at her. “These people?” he repeats. “The ones you’ve met? The ones at dinner? Because most of them hate me, Hawke.” He huffs a breath. “Although put it that way, I guess I can see what you mean.”

“They don’t hate you. Not most of them.”

Varric throws up his hands. “Okay, they’re indifferent to me at best and are aware my death or retirement would improve their lives. Didn’t think it was an important distinction.”

Hawke groans. Does he really not see? What he has here, in this house, that he doesn’t have in Kirkwall anymore?

“They’re not your enemies,” she argues. “They know you. I get how you might have a hard time telling the difference between those two concepts--”

“They don’t know me,” says Varric incredulously. “We’ve been lying to them all week, or did you miss that?”

“You lie to everyone!” Hawke doesn’t know when she raised her voice. “So sue them for not trusting you. But they knew Bartrand, and your parents. They know all these stories about you. They’ve--” She balls her hands into fists at her sides. The shawl is never going to recover. “They’ve heard you sing!”

“Fuck Bartrand,” Varric grits out. “And you don’t know shit about my parents.” Hawke makes a sound that’s almost like a laugh.

“Because you’ve never told me!” she shouts.

Varric points a finger at her, and she’s only seen him angry like this as a stone door pulled shut in front of them miles beneath the ground.

“Don’t put your family shit on me, Hawke,” he says. “Just because you’re still trying to make your mother proud of you doesn’t mean I am.” Hawke sucks in a breath. “Living in her house, wearing her clothes--”

She balls up Leandra’s shawl and throws it at his face. He catches it in both hands, and his fingers clench in the fabric.

“And you drag me here so you can sneak around Bianca’s house, the Bianca, lying about everything you really care about to keep the Tethras guild seat--”

“That’s not the same thing,” he growls.

“If you’re an outsider here, it’s only because you want to be,” Hawke says, and she refuses to cry. She doesn’t know how it turned into this. “And if I don’t understand that, it’s because you can’t tell me the truth either!”

She stalks over to the bed and grabs the folded quilt at the end -- the one Varric tried to take their first night here -- and doesn’t look at him as she strides past him to one of the wingback chairs by the fire.

She’s never fought with Varric before, not like this, and she’s not even sure what they just fought about. She pulls her too-long legs up into the too-small chair and shakes the quilt out over herself.

She hears a sigh behind her.

“Hawke, I’m sorry.”

She doesn’t answer him. She’s been waiting to give him her apology all day, and then he didn’t want to hear it. She doesn’t even know what this was.

What is it like, she wonders, to be Bianca Davri, with Varric’s heart and the apparent ability to just ask him what’s wrong? How much does Varric have to love someone before he’ll answer that kind of question?

After a long minute, his footsteps cross the room --not to the fire, but to the dressing screen. She hears the rustle of him changing clothes for bed.

After he comes out, there’s another pause.

“Hawke,” he says again, but it’s soft, like he doesn’t want to wake her. She tries to breathe silently.

Only once he blows out the candles, turns out the gas lights, and goes to bed does Hawke squeeze her hot, dry eyes shut, heave a quiet, shuddering breath, and fall asleep.

Chapter Text

The weather on the Proving grounds is gray, the clouds hanging low and pale. Some of the dwarves are already paired up and sparring on the packed earth. Hawke stands to the side and watches, rolling the shaft of her borrowed quarterstaff between her hands. She’s stiff from a night spent in the armchair, and her head hurts worse than it did yesterday morning.

She’s already written on the bracket board that’s stuck into the ground not far away — she doesn’t know if that’s a result of talking to Bogdan and Bianca about it, or of the frighteningly efficient Merchant’s Guild grapevine. She’s fighting Veltan Idra, while Marya has Laszlo Arnad. Her eyes roam over the sparring dwarves, trying to put each name on the board to a face.

“You can take him,” says a familiar voice beside her. “Broody’s better with a longsword than that, and you won me twenty silver against him last time.” Longsword? Ah yes, that dark haired one on the north side.

“It’s all the blunt instruments I’m afraid of,” she says without looking at him. “I felt Marya’s ‘padded’ hammer yesterday. That looks like just a club over there — seems if you’re trained in club weilding it’d be hard to make that shit nonlethal.”

“Stanweg? Yeah, that’s a good instinct,” he answers. “I hear one of his preferred strategies is just to hand out a major concussion early on and then half his opponents resign.”

She nods to the brackets board. “You’re not competing?”

“Wouldn’t feel right fighting with something other than my bow,” he says “Besides, what would they give me, rubber darts?”

She hears him not say Bianca. ‘My bow’ sounds odd from his mouth, but she doesn’t comment on it. Varric takes a breath.

“Hawke—”

“I missed breakfast,” she says a little too loud. “Do you think they’ve got refreshments out here somewhere?”

She’d gotten up before seven and dressed silently in the dark, but accidentally meeting in the dining room had sounded unbearable, and showing up without him was too suspicious.  A walk around the grounds this morning made her braver. As long as they never have to acknowledge last night, ever, at all, she’ll be okay. They’ll be friends. How could they not be friends?

It’s just this place, she thinks. When they get back to Kirkwall, they’ll be fine. She feels bad for thinking it almost immediately, selfish. When they go home, he’ll be leaving Bianca behind, for who knows how long. He can’t be looking forward to it at all.

She decides suddenly that she doesn’t care if it’s a selfish thought. 

Varric is still standing next to her, quiet as though he doesn’t trust himself to speak. Hawke casts her eyes restlessly over the field, but something makes her frown.

“I thought I’d met everyone at dinner, but there’s a lot of people here I haven’t seen before,” she says. Varric follows her gaze to several beefy-looking dwarves standing on the edges of the field and eyeballing their opponents.

“Ah. They’re probably warriors here to honor — that is, represent — noble or wannabe noble dwarves who aren’t fighting for themselves. They’ll have gotten here last night, I imagine.”

Hawke rolls her eyes and groans. “Ugh, seriously? All nobility really is the same. How does letting someone else fight in your name honor you?”

Varric clears his throat and Hawke looks over to see him smothering a smile.

“What?” she demands, squinting suspiciously.

“It’s just… technically, since you’re not a part of any dwarven house, and you’re here as my plus one, that makes you the warrior honoring House Tethras.”

 

Hawke throws her hands in the air. “Ugghhh, nobles ,” she exclaims, but Varric is laughing and she’s laughing too. It's fine, for a second.

“Whatever you say, Lady Hawke of the Kirkwall Amells,” he chuckles. “I’ll see if I can’t find those refreshments.”

He doesn’t come back before the Provings begin. She doesn’t know if that’s him avoiding her again, or that he just lost track of her in the crowd, or if he’s taking that hunt for refreshments really seriously and just missed the opening. Or something else. All she knows for sure is that when someone blows a long blast on some kind of animal horn and she’s ushered over to join the other warriors, including Bianca, she can’t see Varric anywhere. Bogdan starts giving a speech about the Assembly and the Houses and the Stone, and she stops looking for him and starts pretending to listen.

Well, that’s all right. They’re not joined at the hip.

Someone hits a gong and the first fights of the bracket are announced, and Hawke goes where she’s directed. She grips her quarterstaff and stands across from the ruddy-faced dwarf with dark, bushy hair who Varric identified as Veltan Idra.

“Face each other, ready your weapons, and fight with honor,” says the referee, then a whistle is blown, and they both leap into action.

Varric was right — even without using her magic, she’s not worried about the outcome of this fight. It seems a professional Provings warrior might not have a lot of experience fighting full-sized humans in nonlethal combat. Half his technique apparently involves trying to bear down on Hawke even though she’s got a good two heads on him.

HIs sword catches her staff next to the grip and slides along it, trying to flip the weapon out of her hands. If the sword had been sharp, Hawke might have yielded for the sake of keeping all her fingers. Instead she holds fast, hissing in pain as the blunt blade strikes her knuckles, making the bones of her hands ring.

She stomps on the warrior’s outstretched foot (at which he doesn’t even flinch; Hawke needs to get herself a good pair of dwarven made boots) and crowds into his space, swinging the far end of her staff around to crack him in the temple.

Hawke using his own strategy against him seems to piss Veltan off. He gets sloppy, and soon afterward she shoves him to the ground with a sharp strike of the end of her staff between his shoulder blades, and the fight is over.

She walks off the circle of packed earth, wiping her face, and over to where a grinning Casmir Othred looks like he’s waiting for her.

“That means it’s you and me next, Serah Hawke,” is his greeting. From the Carta-adjascent stories he was telling at dinner a couple nights ago, Hawke isn’t surprised Casmir is fighting his own Provings.

“I look forward to seeing if you learned any good moves from those business acquaintances of yours,” she grins.

“Nothing I can use in a Proving,” he laughs. Hawke frowns in mock confusion.

 

“Wait, really? Shit, remind me, is it acceptable to poison your competitors, or no? I might have gotten that mixed up.”

“Make jokes like that a little quieter,” Casmir says, but he’s still laughing. “Lotta people here with no sense of humor, especially today. The ones who aren’t gnashing their teeth for the Provings’ own sakes are cognizant they’ve only got a day left to bring their agendas home.” Hawke looks around the Provings field at all the dwarves and all the agendas she’s been navigating the last couple of days. She’s not sure she’s done it very well, but she supposes that’s for others to decide. 

 

She still doesn’t see Varric anywhere. The largest group of dwarves are gathered around one of the fights still in progress. Thanks to the whole crowd being so short, though, Hawke can see the fight from here — it’s Bianca against one of the Pentases, both moving so fast Hawke can hardly track their weapons. Bianca is dual wielding something or other, and the other woman is swinging a heavy looking mace thing in wide arcs as Bianca dodges and peppers her with blows. 

 

She looks to Casmir and jerks her head toward the fight. He nods and waves her on, so Hawke heads over alone and takes up a place on the edge of the crowd to watch. Her opponent is forcing Bianca backward, but only slowly and with much effort.

“Refreshments?” says a voice beside her. Hawke looks down to see Varric holding up a halved orange and a sweet roll, his face turned up to hers.

“Where’ve you been? You missed the start,” she says, accepting the food. The roll is still a little warm — he probably went all the way to the kitchen to find this. As for the orange, who knows where he tracked down an actual fresh piece of fruit?

“I doubt I missed much,” he says. “I imagine Vasca gave a speech about the Stone or somesuch.” The crowd gasps at something, and Varric flicks his eyes in the direction of the fight, but not for long. “Sorry I missed your first match, though.”

“I won,” Hawke says.

“Obviously,” he snorts, turning toward the field as the crowd starts to applaud. “I’m sorry anyway.”

Hawke looks over to the aftermath of the match. Bianca stands over her opponent, two short batons crossed before the other dwarf’s neck. The padded mace lays on the ground at a short distance from the two competitors, its former wielder's teeth gritted in defeat. Hawke and Varric clap too, or at least Hawke does her best to clang her armored wrist against her chest plate with her hands full of breakfast and her staff leaning in the crook of her elbow.

“Who are you up against next?” Varric asks.

“Casmir Othred,” she answers, and he smiles.

“Now that match I wouldn’t miss for anything,” he says. “Please defeat him humiliatingly so that I can bring it up every time he passes through Kirkwall.”

Hawke sucks sweetroll frosting off her thumb and then salutes with still-sticky fingers.

“I’ll do my best,” she says.

His smile takes on a strange cast, and she sees him bite the inside of his cheek and look away from her face.

“Hey,” he starts, and she already knows she doesn’t want to hear this, but they’re surrounded by strangers and there’s nowhere to go. “Later, we need to — I know you wish I’d shut up, but we should… talk. Yeah?”

She looks down at her halved orange, shoving a thumbnail in between the fruit and the peel. 

“If you want,” she says. She misses and breaks the section, sending juice bleeding down her hand. Hawke frowns at the mess. Once you’ve fucked up peeling an orange, it makes the rest of the job even harder. And her hands are going to be sticky for her next fight.

“I do want,” he says quietly.

Hawke tries to put a finger in the center and pick the damaged wedge out that way, but she just mushes the fruit again. Fuck it. She scoops a pulpy chunk of orange out with her fingernails and pops it in her mouth.

“Sure, then. Whatever,” she says, and wipes her hand on the exposed of her tunic.

“Knew you’d send Veltan packing,” comes the voice of Bianca. Hawke turns to find the other woman clomping up to them. “If we both win our next matches, it’s me against you, Serah Hawke.”

Hawke turns toward her and nods to the thick leather boots Bianca has donned for the event.

“Don’t suppose there are any precautions in place to render those nonlethal?” she says. Bianca grins and grinds one heavy heel in the dirt.

“These are just to make me harder to knock over,” she says. “I don’t kick anyone in the teeth with them unless they really deserve it. I’m a respectable hostess, after all.”

“That’s my favorite part of The Compendium of Orlesian Court Manners ,” Varric puts in.

The horn blows again, and Hawke wipes orange juice off her face with the back of her hand.

“Shit, not much of a recess,” she says, looking around. Is she supposed to go fight Casmir right now?

“They’re just starting the second half of the first round,” says Bianca. “The first eight fights are in two successive groups of four simultaneous matches, then it’s all one by one, and a break for lunch before the final title match. We love our Provings, but we do want ‘em done before the sun goes down.”

“Marya Bevoll’s in this group,” Varric says. “You want to go watch her match?”

Hawke doesn’t know how to say no, so she nods a yes. Varric’s gentle request for a premeditated Conversation about Difficult Things is enough unlike him to put her on edge on a regular day, much less this gray and prickly morning with a paving stone resting on her chest. She wishes he’d avoid her instead, even if she doesn’t really. She wishes she wanted to avoid him.

“I’ll see you later then,” says Bianca. “I’m going to go show off this bruise Greta gave me. Bogdan’s already pissy that I’m representing our House and he has to be Master of Ceremonies,” she laughs. “This’ll make him fume.”

 

Hawke turns and watches Bianca go, just so she doesn't have to look at Varric doing it.







Casmir plants his feet wide across the patch of earth and cocks a smile at Hawke behind his beard. In one of his hands is a long staff with two blunted prongs making a narrow fork at the end.

“Why Othred, you should have mentioned your weapon of choice earlier,” Hawke says, spinning her own staff lazily in her hand. “I could have given you some tips.”

“That staff’s a little short for you,” Casmir observes.

You’re a little short for me, old man. I think the staff’s long enough for purposes.”

“On second thought, let’s not talk of staff sizes,” Casmir says, cracking his neck. “Your fella might get jealous.”

Hawke laughs loudly, ignoring the twinge ‘your fella’ gives her. She can feel Varric over on the sidelines, being proud of her and planning uncomfortable conversations. 

“My fella’s going to be quoting all this to everyone you know after I hand you your ass,” she returns, “so please, keep going. He likes to have lots to work with.”

Casmir raises an eyebrow and gives her a suggestive up-and-down. “That much I’ve gathered.”

“Casmir of House Othred,” cuts in the referee shouting over the din of the crowd, “and the warrior honoring House Tethras, Marian Hawke, champion of Kirkwall.”

“Time’s up,” Hawke shrugs.

Casmir grins and slaps his palm with his weapon. “For you,” he says.

“Face each other, ready your weapons, and fight with honor,” the ref recites. The whistle blows. Hawke charges.

Hawke isn’t shabby with a quarterstaff, but it obviously isn’t her primary means of dropping bodies, nonlethally or not. Casmir Othred is trained — no points for guessing for what or by who — and it shows. Despite her height advantage, she’s forced to duck twice in quick succession before she even gets her first strike in.

“Show ’em how we do it in Kirkwall,” Varric shouts.

It’s Casmir’s turn to duck now, but he doesn’t move quick enough to get him out of the way of the next spin. It knocks him upside the chin with a sickening smack; he staggers back, but catches himself in a crouch and blocks what should have been her finishing move.

Hawke can feel a smile pulling at her face as she fights. She ought to spar with her friends more when she gets home —it feels good to fight with nothing hanging in the balance except bragging rights, nobody’s blood wetting her shoes. Casmir spins his staff in a move she’s never seen, and cracks her in the ankle bone behind her greaves.

“Shit!” she barks. Then she laughs and swings low and tight, and connects hard with his shoulder.

Casmir staggers, thrown off balance, and Hawke chases one blow with another, ringing his helmet like a bell and then punching him in the solar plexus with her staff end.

It doesn’t take too long after that for Hawke to get Casmir on the ground, spitting out dust with the butt of her staff to his neck.

From the edge of the ring, Varric stomps and whistles.




 

 

Bianca wins her fight, of course, and that means the merciless Provings bracket has Hawke up against her next.

Even though she knows Bianca has been hoping to fight her, Hawke kind of wasn't. Another time and place maybe it would have been fun, but here and now the competition feels too much like a metaphor. She isn't sure how she should want this to go. What are the consequences of Bianca winning? For that matter, what are the consequences of Bianca losing?

She might as well just try her best. The ancestors are meant to speak through the warriors, right? She's supposes that's better than throwing a coin.

She and Bianca take their places.

“Bianca, of House Davri,” shouts Bogdan, and Bianca bows to the crowd, and then directs a nod and a smile in the direction of her husband. “And the warrior honoring House Tethras, Marian Hawke, Champion of Kirkwall.” Hawke bows to the crowd, and not to be outdone, blows a showy kiss to Varric and waves. He gives her a lopsided smile and mimes catching it.

Hawke swallows around a sharp feeling in her throat. They'll be fine.

“Face each other, ready your weapons, and fight with honor,” Bogdan booms, and Hawke turns toward Bianca. Bianca grins at her, and Hawke adjusts her grip on her quarterstaff. Bianca isn't worried. Hawke won't worry either. 

It's just for fun anyway, right?

The whistle sounds, and the two of them rush forward.

One of Bianca's batons comes down vertically at Hawke's chest, and the other swings horizontally at her knee. She lifts her staff and blocks the top one, but has to jump out of the way of the other. Waiting in the path of her leap is a short and sturdy leg, and Hawke topples over it and skids through the dust. She rolls over quickly, though, and manages to block the downward swing of both batons with her staff before she leaps to her feet. 

Bianca Davri is f ast , and her two batons work separately as often as they do in tandem, like paired dancers. Hawke has to keep her staff spinning to fight them both off at once. Hawke forces her back a few steps, but then Bianca does the same to her. She wishes they’d sparred earlier in the week. If she wasn’t having such an awful day, Hawke might actually enjoy this.

Hawke blocks a swing coming in at her knees from the side, and swipes it out of the way with her staff, but the movement leaves her open. Bianca can get her smaller weapon back up quicker than Hawke can, and she jumps upward to level a double strike directly at Hawke’s torso. 

Hawke sees a burst of light, like the sun flashing off a hand mirror. 

She isn't sure if the baton ever actually connects with her chest piece, but there is a feeling something like a sharpened ship's mast passing straight through her ribcage. She does not realize she's flying backward through the air until she hits the ground with an impact that clatters her bones. 

Hawke opens her mouth to gasp for air, but her lungs are gone; her hands come up to paw at the hole she knows is there, but her hands find only her undamaged armor. She opens her mouth again and takes in a thin thread of air. There is ice in her fingers, and grey on the edges of her vision as she stares up at the clouded sky.

And then, all at once, there is Varric.

Her body shrieks in protest as he gathers her into his arms, but the panic in her mind quiets.

“Hawke, sweetheart, Marian,” he says in a low, frantic voice. She can barely feel his hand on the side of her face. All her brain power is reserved for the shock jangling in her core. “Hawke, are you okay? Are you okay?

Taking in air is like carrying water in a sieve. Her throat convulses around a breath that doesn't quite manage to make it into her lungs. 

“I shouldn’t have said those things last night,” Varric says. “I’m so sorry.” She’s aware of a commotion rising around them, but she’s only got the focus for what Varric’s saying, for the sight of his face silhouetted against the clouded sky. “There was so much I needed to say, I still need to say, and I fucked it up. I’m sorry. There’s no excuse for it. Hawke, I’m sorry.” She puts a numb hand over his on her cheek.

“Shit,” she wheezes.

Varric laughs shakily.

“How are you feeling, Hawke?” he asks. “You’re scaring me a little.” Hawke thinks that tone might be the worst false bravado she’s ever heard out of him. His smile looks broken apart and put back together and his eyes are chunks of amber with firelight behind them. Backlit like this, she can almost see what’s caught in them…

“Come on beautiful, talk to me,” he says more urgently. Hawke focuses her eyes on him again. 

“I’m okay,” she rasps, and smiles at him.

He leans down and kisses her, hard.

She’s too dizzy and confused and aching to question or refuse it or remind herself about the whole stupid charade, so she just closes her eyes and soaks it in. She almost just died, probably — she’s unclear on that — so she thinks she deserves lips and hands and Varric holding her like he’s defying someone trying to take her away.

“We all saw it!” screeches someone on the periphery of Hawke’s awareness. “She made the weapons herself, you think she doesn’t know what they do?”

“You’d like that, I’m sure,” says Bianca’s voice, and Hawke curses herself for realizing through the kiss that they’re talking about what’s just happened.

She pulls reluctantly away, flinching at her protesting ribs.

“What’s going on?” she croaks, and coughs, which she regrets immediately. “Ow, fuck . Help me sit up.” Varric looks like he wants to refuse, but he slides an arm gently behind her back — Hawke holds her breath to keep from whimpering — and levers her slowly up.

“Is she okay?” Bianca asks. Varric chuckles a little and shakes his head.

“I’m pretty sure she’ll live,” he says, “but if she wasn’t she wouldn’t admit to it and I wouldn’t be able to stop her from doing what she wants anyway.”

A smirk curls the corner of Bianca’s mouth. “I definitely know the type.”

“I’m right here,” Hawke complains. 

Venda Marin, who was apparently the one doing the screeching, is clearly not pleased to be ignored. She turns fully toward Bogdan, drawing herself up as though she’s under the impression she’s much more impressive than she is. 

“You seem,” says Bogdan before she can speak, “to be accusing my wife of something, Serah Marin.”

“Serah Vasca,” she says with laughable stateliness, “I’m sure it is difficult to hear, but I have reliable witnesses who will testify that Bianca Davri and Varric Tethras have been meeting in secret all week.” Hawke’s stomach drops, and her skin chills as though a cold wind has blown over her sweat-beaded neck. “It is sufficient evidence that I’m sure the Guild would support your pursuit of a divorce, especially after what we’ve all seen today.”

It’s over. After everything, it’s over. 

“Perhaps it might, if I had any intention to pursue such a thing,” Bogdan says calmly. “But since I was perfectly well aware of my wife’s meeting with her old friend Serah Tethras, I’m much more interested in how this has happened to my esteemed guest, the Champion of Kirkwall.”

What?

Hawke isn’t sure what’s happening. She’d be inclined to blame this on the ringing in her ears, but neither Bianca nor Varric look worried. Varric hasn’t even twitched under her arm. 

She briefly considers trying to puzzle it out, but she’s flabbergasted and dizzy and her head hurts and honestly she’s also interested in how this happened to his esteemed guest the Champion of Kirkwall.

Bianca’s mouth flattens out into a grim press of lips as she holds up one of her batons in Bogdan’s direction. Hawke squints, but can’t see what Bianca’s trying to show. 

“Templar’s enchantments have been added to my batons without my knowledge,” she says. “I would never have allowed this to happen to Serah Hawke if I had known, but they didn’t change the weight or balance, so I didn’t notice until I knew to look for something.”

“A likely story,” Omer Marin scoffs. “Serah, your wife was enraged by Tethras bringing his new love to the Assembly, and she has attacked this human in a jealous scheme! You must see that!”

Hawke is too brain-rattled to keep herself from speaking her immediate thought out loud. 

“He’s kidding, right?” she blurts.

“If I had,” Bianca says, speaking to Omer but throwing a glance at Hawke, “I imagine Tethras would step into the ring with sharpened arrows.”

“Keep your story straight,” Varric says, apparently ignoring Bianca’s addition. “Am I meant to be using the Champion as a front for my affair, or taunting my ex with my ‘new love?’ Speaking as an expert, consistency is very important for a trustworthy narrative.”

“Your insistence on this point is not flattering, Marin,” says Bogdan, and concussed though she may be, Hawke hears something new growing in his voice. She’d thought the way he spoke to her a few days ago had been dangerous and threatening, but that was something different. This was what a dangerous and threatening Bogdan sounded like — not loud, not blustering. Just making Hawke glad she isn’t the Marins.

“Templar enchantments, you said, dear?” he addresses Bianca — and huh, that tone is an interesting one too. Bianca nods.

“Some kind of runes. They’ve been enchanted for… use in the Circles,” Bianca says, and Hawke snorts a little at that evasion that barely evades anything. “And of all the attendees this week, I believe there is just one House that keeps trading contracts with the Templars.”

Oh shit. The meetings with the Templar messengers. That was to take out Hawke? Or, more relevantly, that was to frame Bianca?

Venda and Omer have gone in a moment from looking belligerent to looking hunted. Venda spins again to face Bogdan.

“Messere, you cannot possibly think—”

But it’s clear from the knife-sharpness in his eyes that he can.

“I’m standing,” Hawke mutters to Varric. She’s not sure what’s going on still, but trying to parse it from the ground in Varric’s arms is becoming increasingly ridiculous. She still feels a pang in her chest (that isn’t a bruised rib) as she disentangles herself from the embrace.

“Are you sure you should --” he says, but Hawke is already using his shoulder to hoist herself to wobbly feet, hissing air between her teeth as she goes, so he reaches up and steadies her at her elbow and back. She teeters on her feet and fights off a wave of nausea, but forces her eyes to refocus on Bogdan Vasca, still holding court on the edge of the Proving ground, and his wife, who has now come to stand beside him. They stand like twin pillars in a thaig, their arms crossed over their chests, mirroring one another.

Hawke is beginning to realize she truly has missed something.

“We’ve been aware for some time that our enemies were speaking with intent of this Assembly,” Bogdan intones. “To have enemies within the Guild is expected, but when they move against us we fully intend to defend our gates.”

“The rumors about our marriage have continued unchanged for years,” Bianca says, picking up the thread. She sounds unimpressed and annoyed, but still speaks with the same boom that includes the whole field in this proclamation. “With,” she adds, “very little evidence.”

Hawke doesn’t think she’s imagining the look Bianca throws her. There seems to be a lot of that going on..

“My husband and I knew that Serah Tethras’s attendance would draw those enemies out, but even in my not inconsiderable cynicism I never guessed those enemies would violate the sanctity of the Provings, or put an unaffiliated guest of the Guild in danger.”

Omer’s eyes are round with fear, his cheeks pale above his beard. “The runes are nonlethal,” he blurts.

Bingo. Venda spins to glare at him, but the jig is up.

“Venda and Omer Marin,” Bogdan proclaims, with a terrible sonorous sobriety. “The Guild will determine at a later time the consequences of your actions here today, although I think I have a guess as to what they will decide.” Hawke thinks about Marya saying how the Vasca and Davri houses have most of the power of the Guild sewn up between them, and about Erica the gossipy servant saying how a dwarf would have to harm something really sacred to get exiled. Hawke finds she has a guess about the Guild’s decision as well.

“Here’s what I don’t have to guess at,” Bianca says. “Neither you nor any of your house are welcome in the rooms or grounds of our estate, effective immediately, and any dealings between our houses are terminated.” 

A murmur rises in the crowd, and Venda’s eyes are wide with horror, her hands lifting before her already in supplication, but nobody is listening. She steps toward the nearest edge of the Provings ground, and as one the crowd steps back. Venda flicks her eyes to Bogdan first, and then to Bianca, but clearly sees no quarter there. 

She turns toward Hawke and Varric last.

“Messeres—”

Varric tightens the arm supporting Hawke and turns them to the house.

“Come on Hawke,” he says. “Let’s go inside.”




 

 

They are ushered quickly off into a quiet parlor with a reclining couch and an ice pack for Hawke’s throbbing head. The servant leaves them and the door clicks shut, and Hawke spins to face Varric.

Or at least, she tries to. A spin is a very sudden movement, and she’s still feeling a little too wobbly for those. Plus, she’s pretty sure she has a bruised rib or two in addition to what is definitely a concussion. So really she only manages to tilt dangerously on the couch in Varric’s direction, only to be surprised by how close he’s standing.

He lifts the edge of her towel-wrapped bundle of ice to get a look at her goose egg, and Hawke hisses in pain.

“Sorry. You really knocked your noggin there, huh?”

“What the shit was all that out there?” Hawke demands, throwing up the hand not holding the ice to her head. “Bogdan knew? What the fuck, Varric?”

Varric puts up his own hands in response. “Hey, I told you as much,” he laughs, shaking his head. “You’re the one who didn’t believe me.”

Hawke thinks about that for a second.

“Wait. So — Wait.” She shuts her mouth and frowns. Varric’s hand goes up to her head again, fussing with the towel.

“I wasn’t ‘trysting’ with Bianca, as you put it before,” he says, still smiling. “Never was. We aren’t together, Hawke. Haven’t been for years.”

Hawke’s brow furrows. She’s not sure if that’s better or worse. “But you do love her.”

“Not the way you mean it. She’ll always be important to me, but she… she doesn’t have my heart.” He wets his lips. “Not anymore.”

He isn’t fiddling with the towel, she realizes. He’s fiddling with her hair. He’s just… touching it, carding his fingers through it.

He doesn’t love Bianca?

Varric takes a deep breath. “About last night.”

Hawke shakes her head quickly, quicker than she should, and she squeezes her eyes shut against the swimming room. She hadn’t meant to dislodge his hand, but it retracts to his side anyway.

“We don’t have to talk about that,” she says.

“No, we do,” Varric says. “We've known each other for this long, you can place my lunch order before I know I'm hungry. There's a lot of stuff we don't have to talk about, but I'm figuring out — well, I've been informed that there are some things we do.”

Hawke is sure without knowing why that the one who informed him is Bianca. That feeling from the Provings ground is coming over her again, like she’s stepped out of her depth, that she’s missing something crucial. Or possibly that’s just nausea from the concussion. Varric is speaking again, and she focuses back on what he’s saying.

“I’m not… We have very different relationships with the concept of family,” he says. He laughs low and drags a hand over his face. “It is… not bragging to say that I was my mother’s favorite. It didn’t do me any good. Her attention, her reliance…  And my father’s shame. He was exiled from Orzammar, and neither of them ever really got over it.”

“Yeah, you’d think Venda would know better than to fuck with the Provings, of all things,” Hawke says absently, and Varric’s eyes snap back to her from where they’d wandered to the wallpaper. Hawke squeezes her eyes shut.

“Fuck. I’m sorry Varric, I overheard someone talking about it. Just a summary, a sentence or two.”

She opens her eyes again in time to see him shrug one shoulder, looking back away. “Well, no harm,” he says. “It’s what happened. But this… responsibility you take, this loyalty to the past, a past that doesn’t deserve you? It’s alien to me.” He shakes his head again. “I get why you might think I should want a connection to my history, to a culture that wants to claim me, why not having that might seem lonely or something to you. But that’s wasted empathy.”

“No such thing,” Hawke says automatically. At that, Varric gives her a real smile. 

"I was… frustrated, but I said some awful shit and there's no excuse for it," he says. "And I hope you can forgive me, but I won't blame you if you can't."

She's never heard Varric hesitate this much when he speaks. He's testing every word like planks in a rickety bridge, making sure it's the right one. It's a different kind of careful than his usual practiced patter and it's… sweet, it's the opposite of what they were doing last night. She loves him so much for it she aches. But it's not them.

"I think… I'd rather we hurt each other sometimes than have to be careful what we say." She adjusts her ice pack and smirks. "I can take a hit." Varric laughs a little, and Hawke chews her lip. "I did it too, though. I've been so mad at everyone all week for talking about your past because I knew you didn't want it brought up, and then I brought it up. I'm so sorry."

"I was never trying to shut you out of my past," he says quickly. "That's just not where I want to live. I like the future better, and that's where I want you."

It's almost too much to hear him saying something like that. She looks away, across the room.

“Well, good,” she says lightly. “Not like you’re getting rid of me.”

There is a brief, surprisingly heavy silence, and then Varric circles around so he’s back in Hawke’s line of sight.

His expression is strange. His forehead is creased, in confusion or concentration, and he is peering at Hawke as one might through a window into a darkened house. Hawke watches him dubiously back.

“Hawke,” He says slowly. “Please tell me you’re all up to speed about everything that’s happened this week.”

“What, is there going to be a quiz?“ she jokes. 

Varric does not laugh. Hawke frowns uncomfortably. 

“Okay, uh. A lot of weird dwarven politics — I guess the Marins were hoping to collude with Bogdan to get evidence to break up his marriage and give him advantage in the divorce, except actually Bianca and he were tricking them into outing themselves as traitors?” She blows out an unimpressed exhale. “Still not clear on why that meant I had to be blown thirty feet across a field with Templar runes.”

Varric is still looking at her like he's searching for something, or maybe waiting for it. 

“And nothing else of any significance happened, I suppose?” he asks.

Hawke looks back at him blankly. It is apparently not the response he's hoping for.

He turns away from her suddenly, throwing up his hands and turning his face to the ceiling.

“I tried!” he declares. “Maker as my witness, I really, honestly did try!”

Hawke adjusts the ice on her head, irritated.

“Great. Kudos for trying. Would you like to catch up the woman with the head injury, please?”

He turns back around, his face overly grave like it's hiding laughter, or perhaps hysterics. He sits on the edge of the fainting couch and looks directly into her eyes.

“The Marins set up Bianca to attack you, because they saw their plan to catch her with me wouldn't work,” he explains, slowly and with an air of great patience. “Not because there wasn't anything to catch, although there wasn't. But because when they saw me with you, they knew nobody would buy it.”

“Yeah, because we were pretending to be together,” she says, trying not to mumble. She still doesn't like the flavor of the words in her mouth.

“No,” he says. His eyes don't leave hers, and his voice is calm and even. “Because it was painfully obvious I wasn't pretending to be in love.” 

The room is perfectly silent, probably. It’s hard to tell, what with the blood thundering in Hawke’s ears.

“So… what are you saying?” she says, and Varric rolls his eyes.

“For the love of—” he growls, and then he grabs Hawke’s face, and kisses her. 

And fuck, her head, but apparently she doesn't mind too much because she's already dropped the towel full of ice and has one cold hand in Varric’s hair and the other looking for a hold on his shoulder. It’s nothing like their first kiss, which was all Hawke’s initiative and all reaction from Varric. It's not like their second kiss either, which was just the opposite. This kiss is giving and taking both, and isn't that interesting, and isn't it even more interesting, come to think of it, that she has two other kisses with her best friend to compare it to, and now she's starting to see what Varric meant about things of significance happening this week.

She pulls away from the kiss, which she only dares to do because she's starting to figure out that this isn't going to be her last chance to kiss Varric Tethras.

“Now, hold on,” she says, feeling a little dizzy. 

“I'm holding,” Varric quips. “As are you, I should mention.” He gives her a wry smile. Oh, she is, isn't she? “But I could hold tighter, if you'd like.”

Hawke hushes a voice in her head that says yes, she'd like that very much, thank you, and tries to stay on task. 

“This isn't part of the con,” she presses on doggedly. 

Varric inhales, and then sighs. 

“No,” he says, “it's not.” He looks away from her eyes for just a second, and then back, newly sobered. “But we can pretend it was, if you want to.”

Hawke can picture it with uncomfortable clarity — how if she said yes, he would pull away, and take a breath, and smile. He'd say something like, ‘Well, we certainly fooled them,’ and he'd pick up her ice and hand it to her, and they would never mention it ever again. He'd never let on, even if they were friends for another fifty years, that she'd broken his heart.

How fortunate, then, that she doesn't want to fucking do that at all.

“No,” she says. “Just checking.” And she pulls him in for another kiss.

His lips are chapped, but warmer than the first time, and the texture of his hair between her fingers is just as good as she imagined it. She feels fizzy and silly and all hot in her lungs and her throat, like at any moment she might laugh or sing or howl like a wolf. She's almost smiling too hard to keep kissing him, but not quite. It’s either love or the head injury, she figures. 

This really is something they should have started doing ages ago, Hawke thinks. The kissing, she means, mostly, but also the talking about things. She’s sure this isn’t always how talking about feelings ends up, but right now it’s doing a hell of a lot in the way of positive reinforcement. Just to give it some help, she pulls away again.

“To be clear,” she says, “you love me.”

Varric swallows visibly. He's fighting off a smile too, but he also looks more than a little rattled, and his lips are reddened.

“I love you,” he agrees. Hawke hums happily. She almost moves in again, before she remembers the other half of her question.

“And to be clear,” she adds, leaning back again, “you've loved me since before you asked me to come pretend to be your date?”

“I think if the jury reviews the record,” Varric says, “they'll find that what I did was construct a paper thin excuse to actually bring you as my date . You're the one who came up with pretending right out of the gate.”

Hawke opens her mouth, then stops.

“Huh.”

“Yeah,” he grins.

“Well, why'd you say it now? How'd you know to say anything?” she says defensively. If she'd known, she could have said it first. It didn't seem hard. Varric rolls his eyes.

“Kind of figured I'd shown my hand out on the Proving grounds and didn’t have anything to lose,” he says, sounding very patient again. “But no, I suppose I don’t know anything for sure yet. It just seemed like a good bet to make.“

Oh.

Hawke clears her throat.

“Hey, Varric?” she says casually.

Varric smirks.

“Yes, Hawke?”

She curls her fingers in his jacket, and pulls him close.

“I love you too,” she says, staring into his eyes as deeply as she can. Varric blinks and wets his lips. 

“Good to know,” he says.

Hawke figures that’s enough talking for a little while.

 


 

 

They sneak out of the parlor and up to their room at some point, the servants set to guard the door nodding but saying nothing. They don’t make an appearance at dinner. Hawke wonders aloud if maybe they should, but Varric waves it off.

“After a show like that, the only people who’d be there are gossips I don't feel like being nice to,” Varric says, shrugging. “Everyone else is busy capitalizing on it.”

“So if you weren't part of the show, would you have been one of the gossips, or one of the capitalizers?” Hawke teases.

“I'm the one ordering dinner brought to the room,” he says, pulling on a robe, “and staying in bed for the rest of the day.”

Hawke leans forward and reaches a hand out for the extra quilt heaped at the foot of the bed. 

“Oh, well, I could take the chair by the fire if you like,” she says innocently. “I wouldn't want to make it awkward .”

Varric turns on his way to the door and points warningly at her.

“If you put one foot out of that bed, I’ll burn your clothes and you'll have to ride back to Kirkwall as the Maker formed you.”

Hawke falls back on the pillows laughing, her heart light.

 


 

Morning brings two mushroom topped potato hashes on two silver trays, traded out for last night's dishes by a nervously smiling Alice. Hawke nods and smiles back. When she's gone, Varric wrinkles his nose at the dish, and Hawke giggles. 

“Last mushrooms of the week,” she says. “When we get back we’ll have Orana hunt down every strawberry in Kirkwall and eat them with fresh cream in the sunshine.”

Varric sighs at the words like someone might at a warm bath. 

“We haven't even been together twenty four hours and you're already guessing my fantasies,” he says, and scrapes his mushrooms off onto Hawke's plate, who tucks in happily.

The house is a bustle when they finally emerge from the room, servants carrying trunks and bags up and down the corridors.

“Bet this house can't wait to get back to normal,” Varric chuckles.  “I've got a couple business contacts to make one more schmooze in the direction of. You good to oversee our removal from the premises?”

“Yeah,” Hawke says, waving him off. “Go rub elbows.” Neither of them ever really unpacked, and Hawke has a goodbye or two of her own to make.

She dresses and throws their few scattered things back in their bags, then flags down a servant in the hall to take them out to the stable. She finds Marya Bevoll just off the entrance hall, standing drinking coffee out of a porcelain mug more like a stein, a servant ready at her elbow with a steaming silver pot for refills.

“Hawke!” Marya greets her. “Good to see you walking about alive and breathing and things. How's that bump on the head?” 

“Still hurts like a bitch,” Hawke says, reaching up to rub it tenderly. “But a little rest and recuperation goes a long way.”

Marya inspects Hawke over the edge of her mug, smirking, and hums consideringly.

“Yes, get a lot of… recuperating done, did you?” 

Hawke coughs, and Marya laughs.

“You kids figured things out then?” she says, reaching for the silver pot. Hawke thinks of the other day in the library, Marya’s odd looks and indecipherable comments, and thinks she realizes part of why Varric likes this one. Marya replaces the pot on the tray and waves the servant away before Hawke dares to speak. Well, you never know.

“I have it on good authority that we fooled everyone but you,” Hawke says sotto voce, pointing a finger at Marya accusingly.

“Nothing to get fooled about, by the end there,” she chuckles. “I'm glad though. You're obviously a good fit for each other.” She sips her coffee and looks at Hawke appraisingly. 

“You know,” Marya says, “even knowing all the Champion nonsense, I questioned Tethras’s judgement bringing you here, at first.” Hawke raises an eyebrow at this confession, which Marya waves off. “Kirkwall is a rough town, I know, but the Merchant’s Guild is something else entirely. If I brought an outsider into this, it wouldn’t be because I liked them.” She looks approvingly at Hawke. “I should’ve known the man wouldn’t hitch his wagon to anything less than someone like you.”

“I’m not sure what that means exactly,” Hawke says, cocking her head, “but six years around Varric and six days around all of you makes me think it’s probably a compliment.”

Marya laughs and slaps Hawke on the lower back in lieu of reaching her shoulder. Hawke tries not to wince.

“There'll be another Assembly in a couple years,” Marya says. “If I don't see you both, I'll come to Kirkwall and drag you in by the hair.”

Hawke scoffs. “As though I'm going to miss the opportunity to win your little Proving fair and square,” she says. 

“Not likely,” Marya snorts. She tips back another gulp of coffee, and pats Hawke on the elbow. “Take care of yourself, Champion. And take care of him,” she says, and then winks and stomps off with her coffee. That's apparently Marya’s goodbye. Hawke grins, and heads off in search of others.

Casmir congratulates her again on the fight yesterday with a slapped handshake and asks after her health. 

“Barely a bump,” she says. “Have you seen Serah Davri this morning?” 

Casmir gestures off in one direction.

“The drawing room,” he says. “The one they did the receiving in. I've still got a couple palms to scratch, but if I don't see you and Tethras before we go, best of the vein to you both.”

They shake and Hawke heads to the drawing room, only getting a little lost on the way.

The drawing room is sparsely populated, apparently host to a recently concluded meeting judging by the papers someone is scooping up. Hawke thinks that’s probably Olna, and over talking to Bogdan is Jans, she’s pretty sure. Varric will have to quiz her on names before the next Assembly.

Bianca looks up from her conversation with Ivan Reddov and smiles as Hawke walks in. She shakes Ivan’s hand and gives him some parting blessing, and crosses the room to Hawke. 

“I was hoping we’d have a chance to talk once more before you left,” she said. “Are you free?”

“I was coming to find you for the same purpose, actually,” Hawke smiles, and Bianca chuckles.

”Yes, I thought you might have something on your mind,” she says. “Dear, don’t let Helga leave without handing over the money she lost to me at Diamondback,” she calls over her shoulder to Bogdan, and then gestures Hawke out the door ahead of her with a smile.

They walk together down the wide corridors, the wall sconces casting a torchlike yellow light through the dim. Hawke thanks, for the hundredth time this week, that you can hardly tell it’s still midmorning. Roots and families and all the baggage of history aside, she’s glad Varric doesn’t want this strange twilight world, that he’d prefer to stay in the sun. In Kirkwall. With her.

“You seem happier,” Bianca says. “Did you finally ask him what he was thinking, then? Or did he tell you on his own?”

Hawke tries not to groan. She suspects she knows at least one of the topics Varric and Bianca spoke on during those ‘trysts.’

“Somewhere in between, I think,” she admits, but can’t help the smile starting to spread on her face. Bianka smirks back.

“Just keep doing one or the other,“ she says, “and I think you two have as good a shot as any.”

Hawke opens her mouth to ask a question, but doesn't know how to word it. She closes her mouth again.

“We weren’t great at it, him and me,” Bianca says, which is just close enough to what Hawke was trying to figure out that it’s a little embarrassing. “We’re better at it now that we’re friends.” 

“Bogdan,” Hawke says, which isn’t a complete thought either, but at least it’s out loud. Bianca nods obligingly.

“Arranged, technically, I suppose,” she muses. “But I would hardly have married him if I didn’t like him an awful lot.” She chuckles. “He might have been a good little smith caste kalna when my parents picked him out, but I soon fixed that.”

Hawke grins. She's sure now that Bianca orchestrated this whole ruse this week, and she thinks the kind of husband that would go along with something like that is the kind of person Hawke would like to know.

“I kind of think Varric half-expected the dogs, at least at first,” Hawke says thoughtfully, remembering their conversation that first night in the safety of their bedroom. Bianca snorts.

“He oughta have. I didn't even know he was coming until a servant told me thirty seconds before I came in to greet my guests. My parents have always prickled more at our relationship than Bogdan did—speaking of which, I'm hoping I've ensured you won't meet any Davri assassins on the road, but no promises — but all the same.” She shrugs. “He knows I love him, but I suppose Varric and I should expect to be a sensitive subject.” 

Hawke shakes her head. She'll have to ask Varric about it later, but she's forming a picture in her mind of that ‘world shaking love affair’ smoothing out into the bond of shared history and a protective, closely guarded friendship. Hawke couldn't have resented that even before yesterday.

“I'm glad he's got you,” she says, a sort of echo of what she was trying to say that day in the greenhouse, but different.

“The way he never talked about you, I used to think you must be dead,” Hawke admits after another beat.

Bianca laughs. 

“Can’t imagine you were more surprised to see me kicking then I was to see Varric with his arm around you,” she says, smirking slyly. “Figured a very good story must've happened since his last letter.” 

“That's for a different time,” Hawke says, grimacing. “But I promise I can almost definitely make that into his fault.”

“I believe you,” Bianca chuckles. “Put it in a letter. Make Varric send it with his — he’s usually got something heading this direction, if not always to me.”

The imperative makes Hawke feel warm and grateful. She’s sure there have been attendees this week who would love to be invited to send Bianca Davri a personal letter.

“I will,” she promises.

“There you two are,” comes a voice behind them. Hawke turns and smiles as Varric approaches. He’s smiling too, and looking more relaxed and contented than he has all week.

Hawke probably had a little something to do with that.

“Helga said she saw you come this way,” Varric says. “Telling stories about me?”

“No worse than the ones you tell about yourself,” says Bianca. “About time for you to get out of here?”

“Yeah, someone told me the horses are loaded,” he says. “Hoping if we make good time we'll find a different inn to stop at before this one gets hungry.”

“It'll have to be very good time,” Hawke says. “I don't have pocket snacks this trip.”

“I got you some date bread from the kitchen,” Varric replies, rolling his eyes. Hawke laughs.

He turns to Bianca, and smiles. Bianca opens her arms, and the two fold each other into a fond embrace.

“It was good to see you again, Genius,” Varric murmurs.

“Try not to get yourself killed, Loudmouth,” Bianca responds.

After a moment they release one another and Varric comes over to stand next to Hawke where she's been inspecting a painting on the wall intently for the last thirty seconds or so. She looks up to see Bianca waving and disappearing down the hall, then looks down to Varric. 

He reaches up to lace his fingers with hers, and presses a kiss to the back of her hand. The love in his eyes makes her stomach flutter. Hawke wonders how long, exactly, she’s been not seeing it — she imagines that if she asks, Varric will be happy to explain to her every moment she missed. 

“Let’s go home, Hawke,” he says.

And they do.