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La vie en rose

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Working at the Page Underground could be worse.

Shitty name aside—sure, the shop’s tucked away in what was once the dusty wine cellar of some Hightown estate, but Varric’s pun remains atrocious—there’s at least an endless supply of decent Antivan coffee. It’s a relatively cool setting to suffer in, too. All mural-covered exposed brick and vaulted archways lit by strung-up lights, piles of old music scores and records are stuffed wherever they can fit. Towers of wrinkled paperbacks lean against worn leather sofas and armchairs; patterned rugs blanket the floor. And beside the counter, there’s an ancient, hulking jukebox in desperate need of re-enchantment that Hawke’s somehow gotten sole control over. Varric doesn’t care what music she plays, so it’s mainly angry women singing about being angry. A decent, cathartic perk of the job.

Another perk is that Hawke gets to take home as many books as her pea-sized, notoriously unsentimental heart desires. Not that she reads much, any more. Nights are usually spent with Athenril these days: either on jobs, or in her bed. The sex is fine, but not having to sleep on Gamlen’s smelly, stained sofa whilst her hairy lump of a brother snores in the nearby camp-bed is better. And the fact that Hawke keeps getting picked for the highest-paid jobs is the best thing of all.

Sleeping with your boss can pay off, if you’re careful.

There’s decent company at the Underground too. Hawke doesn’t want to sleep with this particular boss, though, even if he has the finest chest hair in all Kirkwall. Somehow, he’s wrangled his way into being her closest friend, and it’s quite nice to have one of those. Talker, or storyteller, or whatever you want to call him, there’s never a truly dull moment if you’re on shift with Varric, even when there’s not a soul browsing the upsettingly disorganised shelves or nursing an overpriced flat white. Especially when there’s not a soul in, actually. That’s when the boldest, bawdiest stories come out, usually something he’s workshopping for his next smutty serial.

Not that his regular stories aren’t enough to make even the most seasoned brothel madame blush, mind. But these ones sell like disgusting, sleazy hotcakes. For such a Maker-fearing bunch, Kirkwallers are fiends.

This particular shift, though, it’s a wash-out. Rain-drenched, Kirkwall’s streets are even more grey and miserable than usual, and Hawke’s not having such a great time herself.

“What a glorious sight!” Varric had called, as she’d stubbed out her cigarette and forced herself through the poster-covered shop door. “Morning, beautiful! Ah, Athenril’s a lucky woman. You’re a vision, Hawke.”

So maybe she hadn’t looked her best when she’d rolled into work. Blunt-cut hair still mussed from bed, eyeliner smudged, jumpsuit on inside out and love-bites littering her neck. But Varric had never stipulated that she needed to be presentable. Just that she needed to stop making customers cry.

“Piss off,” she’d told him, then had made him the largest cappuccino she could to shut him up. That had been hours ago. Much to Hawke’s discomfort, though, there’s still a shit-eating grin on on his face as he lounges behind the till, scanning through the fat stack of typewritten papers sat beside the cash register.

“Cannoodling with the boss, huh?” He throws her a saucy look over his square-framed glasses. “Should I be offended that you chose her and not me? Is it the ears?”

“Varric, you know I think you’re Kirkwall’s most eligible bachelor,” Hawke groans, then drags herself back to face the customer who’s had the audacity to appear in front of the bar. She makes a point of refusing to smile. “Piccolo? Cool, yeah, sure. No, I’m just the bean-slinger. The dwarf’s the one swindles you out of your sovereigns. Now shoo.”

“You know, this could really be something. Smugglers in love! Young refugee falls head-over-heels for infamous criminal! Barista by day, heartbreaker by night—ah, yes, that’ll be a silver. Expensive? Hardly."

Her customer looks highly distressed as Hawke pretends to puke. “Maker’s balls, Varric, stop, please.” She frowns at the customer. “Oh, stop looking at me like that! You tell me where you can find better latte art. Show me a smoother mouthfeel!”

“Athenril certainly thinks your mouthfeel is very smooth,” chimes a voice: Isabela, of course, strolling out from her room in the back. “I have to say, I’m as jealous as our favourite dwarf.” She pops the lid off one of the glass jars in which they store their mocha-protein balls (or “gentrification nuggets,” as Varric calls them) and helps herself, leaning back against a vacant table as she nibbles. “I’ve been trying to get you to smuggle my goods for months, Kitten.”

At this, the customer snatches their drink from the counter and practically hurls themselves out of the premises.

“No tears!” Hawke exclaims to Varric, as the door wobbles closed. “Only horror. Is that better?”

“Your customer service is exceptional, Hawke,” the dwarf replies, not glancing away from the copyedits of his newest manuscript. “Employee of the month.”

Stacking dishwasher-warm mugs on top of the coffee machine, Hawke laughs. “I’m your only employee.”

Isabela clears her throat.

“I’m your only employee who actually does any work,” Hawke corrects herself. When Isabela makes a show of slotting a stray book into one of the alcove shelves running along the shop’s walls, Hawke rolls her eyes. “Wow. That looked difficult. You really go the extra mile, Issy.”

“You know me.” Isabela smiles sweetly, wrapping a lock of dark, curled hair around her finger. “I always aim to please—oh, hi!”

Just when Hawke thinks her deep, deep contempt for generally having to exist couldn’t get much worse, it gets worse. The wail of sirens and a strong, mizzle-flavoured breeze shove into the shop as the door swings open; Hawke doesn’t have to turn around to know exactly who’s entered.

She knows that hi. Stretched out to oblivion, a good octave above Isabela’s usual pitch, accompanied by a toothy smile, that hi is reserved for one person and one person alone.

“Ah, Hawke! Good to see you. That a new tattoo?”

Hawke closes her eyes for a second, collecting herself, before spinning to face her next victim. She forces a smile that doesn’t reach her dimples, let alone her eyes.

Sebastian Vael, once-heir to the Starkhaven fortune and owner of the stupidest, sexiest accent in Kirkwall, hovers on the other side of the bar. Like always, he’s the sharpest-dressed youth pastor she’s ever encountered: a crisp, patterned shirt, unbuttoned once; a drizzle-dewed leather jacket; the family signet ring shining gold on his little finger. Maybe Sebastian thinks that if he impresses his lord and saviour enough with his outfits, the Maker will decide the people of Thedas are worth His love after all.

To be fair, Sebastian does look good. Not that Hawke’s going to admit that out loud anytime soon.

“Hey there,” Hawke says, voice monotone. She glances down at the inked map of stars on her right forearm, the freshest addition to her unfinished sleeve. Draconis, Beth’s birth-sign. Her heart twists, painfully, but she doesn’t let him see that. “This? Yeah. The usual?”

Extra hot large decaf latte with skinny oat milk and two sweeteners: an Hightown heiress’ order, basically. Not even caffeinated. Does the man have no dignity? Is his fiery devotion to Andraste the only fuel he needs?

Rumour has it Sebastian was the baddest boy in the Marches, back in the day. Hawke doesn’t believe them. He orders this monstrosity. He spends his time telling kids to leave six inches for the Maker’s love. He wears a sun-emblazoned lanyard with the words Ask Me About Andraste! printed next to a picture of his face. This guy did not fuck.

Yet he still tries to flirt with her, as if he does fuck. ‘Flirt to convert’, Isabela calls it. Some kind of covert Chantry operation to bring lost souls back to the flock, luring you in using reformed rich boys with flowing, chestnut brown, beautiful hair.

Maker, he has great hair.

Sometimes, she wonders if she should let slip that she’s an undocumented mage, just to see if it’ll get him to back down. Other times, she wonders if she should just sleep with him and get it over with—if he even sleeps with people, that is.

Hawke’s not sure which option’s worse.

“You’re a dream,” Sebastian replies, handing her his travel mug.

“I know,” Hawke says, deadpan, then purposefully blasts the steamer to drown out whatever he continues to say. Nodding along, she’s a dab hand at staying blissfully oblivious. Keep talking, pretty boy, she thinks. So long as she can’t hear a word he’s uttering, she can admire his face.

As she finishes steaming the milk, Varric hops down from his chair behind the till and slips her a scrawled note.

Heading out. Catch you at the Hanged Man for the quiz later. Tell Rivaini I’ll kick her out for real if she gets us disqualified before the start again. You good to lock up?

“Sure,” she calls out automatically, concentrating on the pour. She might not like Sebastian, but Hawke’s professional. Well, tries to be. She’s going to at least make his terrible drink as look pretty as possible. “Sounds good!”

The door clicks closed as Varric leaves—probably off to go talk business with his brother, or spin tales for his fan-club at the Hanged Man. Trapped in momentary admiration for her latte art, Hawke doesn’t notice that it’s gone weirdly, suddenly quiet. Only when she pops the lid on the mug, slides it onto the counter and glances up does she realise that both Sebastian and Isabela are watching her intently.

Paused mid-way through wiping down the last few tables, Isabela’s expression is one of sheer, unadulterated joy.

Sebastian’s is more…shocked? Why is he shocked? Why are his eyes lighting up as he takes his drink? Hawke’s stomach drops. Andraste’s perky tits, what’s she missed?

“So…it’s a date?” he says, doing a shit job of hiding his delight. ”Great! I mean, that’s cool! I mean—Maker, listen to me. Okay. Drinks? I know this place in Hightown…Friday? Friday. I’ll meet you here after you’re done. Does that work? Sorry, I have to run—blessed word to spread and all—but have a good one, Hawke! Maker watch you!”

Mouth hanging open like a gutted fish on the slab, Hawke gawks at him. “I—I—what—”

A date. A date? She never said anything about—

Oh. That’s what she’s missed. But he’s slipped away into the rainy evening before she can splutter out any kind of reply, smiling to himself like a madman.

“Fuck,” Hawke mumbles, staring at the door in his wake. Her cheeks are hot, her skin crawling, her gut fizzing with that delightful combination of self-hatred and anxiety and then more self-hatred.

This isn’t how it was meant to go. He was meant to get bored of trying, not encouraged.

Isabela bursts into fits of hideous laughter, flipping their sign to closed, not that you can really see it through all the posters and flyers littered across the glass door. She keeps laughing as the two of them start to shut the place down. The sound’s usually husky and melodious, but today, it makes Hawke want to hire an entire House of Antivan Crows on herself rather than join in.

“I can hear the wedding bells already! Marian Vael. Or will it be Sebastian Hawke? You are so domineering…”

“Don’t,” Hawke mutters, cleaning down her workspace. The image of his smile’s burnt into her mind’s eye, all buoyant and hopeful, and she hates it. Sure! Sounds good! What a dumb fucking move.

“How’s Athenril going to feel? Her favourite plaything abandoning her for the Maker’s fine, girthy, preachy instrument.”

A groan bursts from deep in Hawke’s chest. “Really, Iz?”

Striking a pose of theatrical, faux consideration, Isabela pauses. “I ask the important questions! Like: do you think he shouts verses from the Chant when he comes?”

Hawke makes a gagging noise, scrunches her damp, coffee-sodden cloth and chucks it at her friend. “Right! Out!”

Isabela cackles all the way out of the Underground, wrapping her friend in a hug and pressing a kiss to her cheek before Hawke can wrangle her off. “Closing up all by yourself? You’re a doll, sweetness. Remind me to hire you when I get my next ship. Also, I expect to be a bridesmaid, a godparent, and to have a hand in his murder when you want the inheritance!”

Half an hour of stewing in her own idiocy later, Hawke’s covered in coffee grinds and ready for this day to be done.

“Sure!” she keeps on mumbling to herself, as she lugs bags filled that day’s rubbish up the stairs to the street. “Sounds good! Sounds great! Sounds fucking delightful! I can’t wait to get kidnapped and indoctrinated into a cult!”

The rain’s still a heavy, endless thrum. It slicks her dark hair to her face and neck, soaking her scarlet boiler-suit in ugly patches and running the mascara that she’d hastily layered over yesterday’s. If only Sebastian could see her now, even more of a gremlin than before.

In the back of her mind, though, she knows it wouldn’t put him off. Part of her’s weirdly satisfied with the knowledge—it always feels good to be wanted—but the rest of her’s kind of creeped out. Even if he used to be the type of guy she’s into, this current evolution of him is just so nice. Too nice. She doesn’t like nice. She likes—

“No more genlocks, bud! Or hurlocks! Or terrible people—no, Pounce, stay in the bag—”

Someone collides with Hawke, and there’s a yowl, and then she’s slipped and is on the floor before she knows quite what’s happened. Surrounded by binbags, covered in coffee grinds, and upsettingly damp, she blinks through the hammering rain at the tall, lanky blonde who just stumbled into her.

He’s all limbs and angles, but he’s not looking at her. He barely even registers that she’s sprawled on the pavement at his feet. He’s darting around saying fuck fuck fuck fuck, looking as though someone just punched a child in front of him.

“Asshole!” Hawke hisses, picking herself up. A spear of pain spikes up her back as she moves; she must’ve landed right on her tailbone.

The sound of her voice seems to knock the guy from his panic. Kind of. He still looks panicked, but now he’s looking panicked at her, instead of at the street. “Maker, I’m so sorry—I was just distracted—work’s been a whole lot, and I shouldn’t really be up here, and my cat’s decided to do a runner…”

When he realises he’s rambling and that she’s massaging the small of her back with one hand, he stops himself. He takes a couple of steps towards her, then seems to think better of it, stuffing his hands into his pockets. “Are you all right?”

Now she can see this guy’s face properly, Hawke notices the mottled grey circles under his warm, brown eyes, the dusty blonde five o’clock shadow: he looks tired as sin. As drenched as she is, too. His green cord jacket, dotted with a red star pin and what look like anarchist badges, is sodden, as is the mustard yellow fisherman’s beanie that barely covers his hair. The empty canvas bag slung over his shoulder is so damp it’s practically translucent.

“Oh, I’m perfect.” Hawke kicks the bingbags over to the inside edge of the pavement. The kicks would be therapeutic, if she wasn’t wincing with each movement. “No thanks to you and your dumb animal.”

Another yowl comes from Hawke’s left. Scowling, she turns, and there’s said cat—a tabby with a little bell collar, sat halfway down the rain-slick staircase to the shop, looking very pleased with itself.

“Speaking of.” She glares at it, then its owner. “There’s your asshole cat, asshole.”

The guy makes a face. “He’s not an asshole! He’s a noble beast! He just really hates travelling —”

“You’re defending your cat after you just slammed me into the ground? Really? Just fetch the thing and have a nice day, okay?” Letting out an exasperated sigh, she nudges past him, towards the tabby. What she wouldn’t give for a vodka tonic and a chain-smoke right now, instead of being soaked to the bone, listening to some stranger talk about how much he loves his cat. An admittedly cute stranger; she’s always had a thing for string-bean blondes. But still. “Listen, I’ll even grab it for you! How kind, I know. Come here, Asshole! Ps-ps-ps—”

Just as Hawke bends down to sweep the asshole cat into her arms, it bolts. Straight through the door she’s left wide open, into her nice, clean, hygienic, purposefully animal-free coffee shop.

They’re both silent for a second, letting fat drops of rain slam against them as they stare after the cat.

Then Hawke roars “Are you fucking kidding me!” and rushes after it.

Bursting through the door, she desperately scans the café for any flash of orange, listens for the jingle of the tiny bell around its neck. But like the idiot she is, she’s left the jukebox on at full volume: it’s blasting old Orlesian jazz, the singer’s yearning voice drowning out any evil meows that this small, ginger creature of chaos might be emitting. Hawke hurries over to turn it down—not off, because she’s realised the guy’s followed her in. Standing in awkward silence with some randomer off the street really doesn’t sound like fun.

The Page Underground, it slowly dawns on her, is a cat’s paradise. So many places to hide. So many things to wantonly destroy. The asshole could be anywhere. Groaning, Hawke strides over to the maze of settees and tables towards the back of the café and starts to search.

“I’m so sorry, honestly,” the guy’s repeating as he mirrors her, peering beneath one of the sofas, sticking a hand into the dark. Occasionally, he says Pounce, I swear to the Maker, as if getting scolded will make the cat miraculously appear. “I’m usually more observant—”

“Save it,” Hawke grumbles, brushing her dripping fringe away from her forehead. Of all the things she’d though she’d be doing on a miserable Wednesday night—her only night off, she reminds herself, grumpily—it very much wasn’t this. Marian Hawke: apostate, smuggler and now, it seems, cat wrangler for some guy who, she realises, smells nice. Weirdly nice. Like elfroot tea, and rain…

Maker’s breath. Why is she smelling him? Is sleep deprivation finally digging in its claws? She needs to stop having so much sex. She also needs to find this animal and get both her unwanted visitors out before she cracks fully. Hawke drops to her hands and knees to check the next dark nook she can find, reaching her own arm into the gap between floor and couch, as if the cat’s not just going to either bite her or run away—

And brushes her fingertips against the back of this guy’s hand.

The sensation’s electric. Head-spinning. Enough to send pins-and-needles rushing up her arm.

Hawke jolts at the touch, snatching her hand away, feeling her breath hitch.

The guy does the same, stuttering something incoherent.

Turns out they end up elbowing each other, because somehow, without realising, they’ve managed to shuffle so close that their shoulders are almost—almost—touching. His hand is soft, fine-boned, warm as sunlight. His elbow’s not. It’s sharp and spiky and lands square in her ribs.

Before they know of it, the two of them have jerked to their feet, stumbling apart. Blinking in confusion, holding his hands up like they’re murder weapons, the guy looks stunned. Only a few steps away, Hawke’s massaging her aching side, and trying not to look at him, and blushing. Blushing. What is this? Sure, she just accidentally stroked his hand like a creep. But Marian Hawke—apostate, smuggler and Kirkwall’s finest barista—never fucking blushes.

For some damned reason, she can barely force out words. “Did you—”

“I’m not—” He breaks in, but a series of small crashes and a self-satisfied meow distracts him.

Both of them whip around to find a trail of minor feline destruction leading up to the very top shelf above the coffee bar, upon which lazes a yawning cat, stretched out between jars of loose-leaf tea. Bags of the house blend are scattered across the floor, the lower shelves where they’re usually stored lying naked. Shredded napkins litter the countertop like snow. There’s milk glugging from a knocked-over bottle, seeping across the freshly cleaned workspace, and there are coffee beans everywhere.

Hawke still feels dazed. Hawke’s not sure what to say. Hawke’s not sure why she’s impressed.

“Your cat,” she eventually murmurs, gaze slowly flickering between the tabby and the mess, “is a monster.”

“I’m genuinely so sorry,” the guy replies, for what feels like the fiftieth time. He’s earnest. Very earnest. It’s…weirdly endearing? “He’s not usually…look, I’ll clean this up.” Rushing forward into the U-shaped kitchen area, he grabs the brush Hawke’s left leaning by the till and starts to manically sweep.

For a moment, Hawke watches him. The memory of his touch still lingers on her fingertips; she balls her fist, like that’ll get rid of the strange feeling coiling and twisting inside her. Maybe doing will help, she decides, so starts to assist. She keeps a safe distance from him, and he seems to do the same, until they’re dancing around each other, only speaking to say thanks or sorry or honestly, this day couldn’t get much worse, so stop apologising.

Meanwhile, the cat gazes upon them like a Bann surveying the autumn tithe. Every so often, it lets out a meow; in a response that Hawke finds both bizarre and strangely funny, the guy stops what he’s doing and scolds it each time, until he just ends up barking, “Ser Pounce-a-Lot, this is not the kind of good behaviour we discussed this morning, do you hear me?”

Half-way through mopping up all the milk she can, Hawke pauses.

Ser Pounce-A-Lot?She echoes, a grin starting to twitch at her lips.You named your cat after the fictional womanising chevalier from the Orlesian romances?”

The guy’s cheeks go ruddy. “I—maybe!”

Hawke cackles, long and hard, and then something in her mind clicks. His accent. It’s familiar. It’s like home.

“Even worse.” She’s smiling now, despite herself. Despite the fact that this guy knocked her on her ass, whilst his cat ruined her bookstore. Despite the fact that she’s somehow going on a fucking date with Sebastian fucking Vael, too. “You’re Ferelden, right? A name like that’s treason, you know, even if it is for a cat.”

“I…maybe,” the guy mumbles, slipping his beanie off to run a hand through his fine, blonde hair.

“So,” she asks, “what’s a dog-lord like you doing in a place like this?”

Quite why she’s not sure, but the sound of his small, answering laugh makes her feel weird things again.

“Oh, just the Blight,” he says, quickly. “Got us all, didn’t it?”

Got us all. Hawke thinks of Beth, again, and it hurts.

They slip back into their strange dance, and he continues as they clean. “I actually work for this not-for-profit down in Darktown, helping the refugees. It’s just fucking shit for them, you know? Honestly, it’s a joke—no food, no medical provision, nothing, even after what—a year, two? A joke. The Viscount should be ashamed. The whole system needs upheaval, radical change. And not just for displaced peoples. For mages, too. When one is oppressed, all are oppressed, right?”

Passion sings in his voice—passion, and anger. An anger that makes Hawke glance over her shoulder at him, but he doesn’t notice: he’s away in his own world. His eyes have lit up, though not in the way that Sebastian’s had when she’d unknowingly agreed to the date. This is more like inspiration, or drive, or maybe righteous fury.

It’s…well, she’s never met anyone who spoke like this. So openly, so frankly.

It’s wonderful.

They start to chat as they finish up—it doesn’t take long, actually, once they settle into a rhythm. About home, and Kirkwall, and the work he does. Not so much about the work she does, but Hawke’s happier with it that way. Keeping people at arms’ length is second nature, by now.

But when Hawke finishes her section and turns around, she realises the guy’s not at arms’ length at all. Their domestic waltz has wound them so close that they’re almost brushing against each other again, and he seems to notice at the same instant that she does.

There’s nowhere to run, though: they’re sandwiched between the counter and the wall. So close she can hear the soft huff of his breaths, can pick out the tiny holes in his oat-coloured woollen jumper, can feel the warmth radiating from him even as he stands there, soaked through. There’s nowhere to look but at him, so she does. He’s looking at her, too, his amber eyes bright, and neither of them speak, until the silence gets too much.

“Thanks for the help,” she starts, trying not to focus on how close they are. “But fuck you and your cat for making me need it.”

“Ha. True. We didn’t get off on the best foot, huh.” There’s a sheepish smile on the guy’s face as he leans back against the counter, hands stuffed in pockets.

Hawke doesn’t mean to, but she finds herself smiling, too. “You could say that.”

“Well.” The guy raises an eyebrow. “Should we start again?”

The jukebox is playing some softer jazz number now, lazy and sweet. Some love song, Hawke reckons, though her Orlesian’s scrappy. Quand il me pas dans se bras, il me parle tout bas, je vois la vie en rose…

“I’m Anders,” Anders says.

“Hawke,” Hawke answers.

Only then does Ser Pounce-A-Lot deign to drop down from his throne and pad along the worktop, brushing into her elbow and wrapping his tail around her, purring intently. And quite adorably, Hawke’s reluctant to admit. All big blue eyes and fur as soft and fluffy as a cloud at sunset.

“Stop being cute, asshole,” Hawke tells the cat, and Anders laughs, reaching out to scoop it into his arms. Above it all, the song goes on, and Hawke starts to wonder whether she’s having that bad a day, after all.