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The Chemistry Between Us

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Some aspects of The Hanged Man are the same as they were back in the day: slurring chatter in the background, disagreements that threaten to turn violent, and floorboards that creak and whine when you move. The tables haven’t been changed in years; Bethany can still make out the crude shape of a dick Garrett carved out on one hazy, raucous night. She remembers Varric erupting in an impromptu story just to keep Norah, the waitress, too occupied to notice.

Isabela had leant across the table, watching the work-in-process with a lewd grin on her face, while Bethany herself tried to get Garrett to stop. Her protests had died in her throat when Isabela directed that smile at her, accompanied by a wink.

Just as many things are different now. Norah’s smile is forced when Bethany orders a drink; not a flash of recognition crosses her face when Bethany calls her by her name. The old bartender, Corff, is nowhere to be seen; a lad who looks barely sixteen hustles behind the bar. She wanted to ask after Corff, but Norah hurried off after bringing over her order.

But what really gets to her is that she sits alone.

The apartment directly facing the stairs has its door closed. It hasn’t housed a dwarf known for his outrageous, but entertaining, lies in years now. She doesn’t even want to think about the apartment that housed another friend, one equally outrageous as Varric. All those nights sitting on that lumpy bed, right next to Isabela. Hoping tonight would be the night; that Isabela would make good on all those little winks and innuendos… and now someone else probably lives there.

Is this why she came here? To chase memories?

She takes a swig of her beer; it’s somehow watery and bitter at the same time. Just like old times. Two more mouthfuls and she’s done. Out the door and off to find another place to lay down for the night. She used to hate this place before she found her own spot by this defiled table, and now she’s back to despising it; it’s nothing special on her own.

A loud creak draws her attention to the front door — the hinges still slightly mismatched and ungreased, she ventures to guess — and watches as three men, already drunk off their heads, stagger in. They’re singing tunelessly, a feminine voice — clear and beautiful — coming from somewhere amidst them. That’s when one of the men stumbles to the floor and gives view to the source of that voice. Isabela.

Bethany gasps and lowers her pint, blinking. Surely her eyes deceive her.

An admiral’s hat sits precariously on Isabela’s head. She’s clad in a blue uniform jacket, but no pants; the familiar thigh-high boots cover her legs instead. Isabela — still singing — hops gracefully over the fallen man, making her way to the bartender. “A round for my crew!”

It really is her. That voice is unmistakable.

Bethany makes no effort to hide her gawking. It’s been a long day, travelling on horseback down the Vimmark mountains. Besides, ten years in the Wardens is more than enough to strip a lady of her social graces. And if memory serves, Isabela never cared for decorum, anyway. These things in mind, Bethany calls out to her old friend with a wave.

The momentary confusion on Isabela’s face turns into a wide, pleased grin. “Sweetness!”

A drink in hand, Isabela approaches Bethany, stopping Norah on the way for a quick word. Warmth erupts in Bethany’s stomach as the woman takes a seat next to her. Too close. Always too close. Just like old times. After settling her beer on the table, Isabela looks her up and down in lieu of a proper greeting.

Bethany takes the time to find all the changes in her friend. Her hair is longer, but not straight like it used to be. It cascades from underneath her hat in loose, soft-looking curls. The large coin-like earrings have made way for golden hoops; two large ones, three smaller ones above them on each ear. Her eyes radiate the same mischief as before, but little crinkles at the corners deepen as she grins.

It’s not hard to recall why her heart skipped a beat whenever Isabela looked at her.

If it did so now, Bethany wouldn’t admit it.

“My, my. Don’t you look tough and imposing in that uniform.” There's a note of genuine admiration in her voice. “Little baby Hawke is all grown up now.”

Bethany straightens her tabard, smoothing out wrinkles and tapping off a dust stain from the hem. If she was the girl she used to be, she would be hiding her blush this way, but those days are long gone. She's rifling through her head for a worthy response, and they come easily enough these days. “All grown up and now equipped with Warden stamina.”

Isabela lets out an appreciative hum, grabbing a swig of her beer. “Ooh, is that so? Interesting to know.”

“Your new uniform looks quite fetching, as well.” Bethany risks a wink, enjoying the way Isabela’s brow arches in response. The moment lingers a while longer, broken only when Isabela inquires after Garrett. There’s very little to tell; the last time Bethany heard of him was months ago. Garrett and Anders were in Ferelden, moving from village to village, never settling down for long. She could never reply to the letters, knowing they would have moved on by the time her response arrived.

Isabela’s hand lands lightly on Bethany’s back; an unnecessary show of sympathy, but she’s grateful all the same. When Bethany asks what Isabela’s been doing since running from the Arishok, her eyes light up. She had joined a ship’s crew, quickly elevating her status through means of both cunning and accomplishment. Now the vessel is her own, alongside a couple of others she’s acquired. She calls it her criminal empire, to which they toast with a laugh.

Norah comes by with pints and time takes flight; the wood in the hearth burns lower, the patrons of the inn grow louder. A fight erupts between Isabela’s crewmen, which she interrupts with a stern yell, returning her attention to Bethany as soon as the men settle. Their conversation hops from one topic to another, ranging from Bethany’s rise through the Warden ranks to Isabela’s exploits at the sea, from mishaps in Vigil’s Keep to narrow escapes from the Qunari.

It’s funny how there are people you grow apart from, even when they’re right there, and then there are people life separates you from, but it’s like you never really parted. It’s not about the two of you being the same people you once were; it’s more that you both adjust to the little spikes and new grooves, slotting together even if the pieces are a little different. A natural chemistry of sorts. Isabela orders more drinks from Norah, placing one of them before Bethany’s empty one, and slides closer in the process. Their arms brush; Isabela smiles into her glass. It’s definitely that kind of chemistry with her.

Bethany is only stopping by. Tomorrow night she sleeps in a ship headed to Amaranthine, listening to the songs of sailors and crashing waves, the dust of Lowtown a trace in the sole of her shoes. Isabela is the only source of light in this broken city, and damned if she isn’t shining as brightly as ever, luring Bethany in. Just like old times.

Isabela’s eyes linger on her lips, and really, it’s an invitation if Bethany ever saw one.

Why should she resist?

“I’ve missed you,” Bethany says, her fingers brushing Isabela’s cheek. She marvels at the softness there, at the way Isabela leans into her touch.

“Me too, sweetness.”

Isabela’s words are but a whisper against Bethany’s wandering fingertips. Bethany revels in her beauty for a beat longer; it’s not often reality beats a treasured fantasy. She’s dreamt of this so many times; Isabela’s attention — that dark gaze she’s seen aimed at strangers now resting on her. In her imaginings it was never this intense, this scorching. This full of promise.

When she kisses Isabela, it’s with a promise of her own. It’s not a promise of forever, but one of honest desire, wherever it may lead. She kisses her with certainty, with the passion of too many missed opportunities.

“My, my,” Isabela laughs, licking her lips, “all grown up, indeed. Would you care to show me that Warden stamina, then?”

Bethany can’t help it; she grins. “Lead the way.”

Isabela guides her upstairs, stopping before a familiar door to dig for the keys. It’s almost like old times.

*

Rays of light tickle Bethany’s face and she wakes to a new day. She’s irritated only for a beat; a dark, bare thigh rests on her own, a warm body presses against her back. The night before comes back in flashes — her lips on Isabela’s neck, a sigh in her hair as her fingers move, slow and steady — and she smiles.

Another thing her years in the Wardens have taught: good things aren’t to be wasted. Happiness will slip past unnoticed unless you grab for it.

She snuggles closer to Isabela, these lessons in mind. Sure, she has regrets, but they’re worthless without a way to fix them. An arm worms its way underneath hers, coming to rest on her belly. At least Isabela is no longer one of them.

Isabela’s hat sits discarded on the floor, alongside her uniform coat and Bethany’s tunic. The Warden tabard is squished somewhere between their bodies, having been an accessory in the evening’s activities; the most creative use Bethany has so far come up for it. Her mind goes back a decade, to sitting in this very room, always hoping and never believing she'd wake up here one day, just like this. Some things are worth the wait — which makes her wonder why Isabela waited so long. Surely the woman had learnt the same lessons she has, years ago inside her gilded cage.

The lady in question wakes, and they talk lazily until heat builds up again; the sun is warm on Bethany’s back as she presses Isabela against the mattress. It’s when the woman succumbs to her so sweetly that she gets it; they’re on equal footing now.

Once it's over and she's dressed to go, she takes a risk unimaginable to her younger self; “You know where I'll be if you want to write,” she says, gazing from behind her shoulder, “or visit.”

Isabela's smile broadens, “Don't tempt me, sweetness. I might come and steal you away in the dead of night.”

Her heart skips a beat, just like old times, but she doesn't let it get the best of her. There's a ship in the harbour waiting, a report to deliver to the Warden-Commander, a life of purpose and duty to get back to. But unlike the old times, she doesn’t fool herself. She’d leave it in a heartbeat for Isabela.

Garrett knew it. Bethany knows he was right: some things are worth life on the run.

“If that’s what you want,” she opens the door, shooting a smile at Isabela, “don’t keep me waiting this time.”