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Flowers for the Seeker

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Cassandra was thankful for the Inquisitor in many ways. There was faith, of course; Cassandra believed Adaar was the Herald of Andraste even if Adaar herself remained skeptical. There was the relief of having someone to lead the Inquisition, someone to seal rifts and hold demons and other threats at bay with Cassandra at her side. And then there was friendship, the newest and most fragile: between her heritage and her work, Cassandra had few friends.

At least, Cassandra hoped it was friendship that kept the Inquisitor from taking her and Varric on field excursions together. It could as easily be wariness, desire to avoid conflict within the inner circle of Adaar’s most trusted companions. 

Surely not. She and Varric hadn’t gotten into a shouting match in over a month, not since the last time she’d asked about Hawke. Cassandra had resolved to conduct herself in a more professional manner afterward, if only because enemy spies could be anywhere despite Leliana’s best efforts and Cassandra would not be responsible for giving the impression of weakness within the Inquisition. 

And Varric had looked so tired at the end, after she’d thrown the chair. 

They’d avoided each other since, aided by Adaar’s careful allotment of assignments. This past fortnight, Cassandra had remained at Skyhold to help Cullen and the Iron Bull whip new recruits into shape. Maker knew they’d be needed sooner than they’d be ready regardless.

She kept finding her gaze lingering on Varric’s usual seat at the long dinner table in the hall, on the spot by the fire where she’d often seen him writing late into the night. His absence didn’t bother her—quite the reverse—but it was disconcerting to have him out of her sight for so long. He’d proven he couldn’t be trusted, after all.

Only…that wasn’t exactly true, was it? The same dogged devotion Cassandra’s interrogation had run up against regarding Hawke gleamed in Varric’s eyes when he spoke of Adaar. 

He was as powerful an ally as he’d been infuriating an enemy. His connections ran wide and deep across the south; his quick thinking and clever tongue had earned the Inquisition aid and averted several disasters of diplomacy. He was a menace on the field of battle, piercing armor and hide and skulls with his bolts—and failing that, with the two wicked runed knives he wore at his belt.

Cassandra bit back a smile. The five ranks of soldiers before her were drilling in a ragged square, and the last thing she wanted was for them to think her expression one of approbation.

It was a ridiculous thing to smile over, anyway. Any competent archer could cover Adaar as she swung her hammer or her ax. Any rogue worth their salt would be able to tailor their fighting style to fill the gaps left by a hard hitter like Cassandra. Or Bull, or Blackwall, who was currently out in the Emerald Graves with Adaar, Varric, and Dorian. 

“Again!” roared Bull to Cassandra’s left. “The first Templar you face will spit you from eyeball to asshole if you don’t get your shields up faster.” He wasn’t going any easier on his group of recruits than Cassandra had been; his boundless patience and good humor were nowhere to be found of late. Cassandra suspected they’d left the keep with a certain mage from Tevinter, but had no intention of pointing that out lest the Bull make a too-keen observation of his own regarding her recent bad temper.

Biting back a sound of disgust, she signaled a halt and demonstrated the simple strike and parry for a fifth time. Her charges were learning, but too slowly by far. 

It wasn’t, she reflected as she removed her armor at the end of the day, that she wanted Varric around. He was simply good for morale. So was Blackwall, if it came down to it—of course she regretted his absence equally. And Dorian’s, if only so Bull would stop scowling.

Besides, the sooner Varric returned, the sooner he could produce another chapter of his serial. She could admit, here in the privacy of her spare loft quarters, that she did long to know what became of the knight-captain and her lover.

She picked up the most recent volume instead—the one Adaar had prodded Varric into writing and giving to her. Blushing was something children did, so Cassandra did not blush as she remembered the content of one of the more salacious scenes. It had taken her days to get through, mostly because every time she accidentally thought of Varric writing such things, she’d had to throw the book aside and go hit something until her disgust faded and she could immerse herself in the tale again.

Because honestly, what kind of experiences did the man have to conjure such scenes? Cassandra had had her fair share of risque encounters—stolen kisses and fumbling in dark corners with fellow recruits—but had only been intimate with Regalyan, Maker keep his soul. And even that had been long ago, well before the Conclave and his untimely death. 

Cassandra was a soldier. She was a Seeker for Truth. She had no time or inclination for dalliances, much less the grand romances of fanciful novels.

So she told herself as she set the book gently down and prepared for bed.

 

###

 

Varric dipped the cloth in the basin of water and wrung it out before wiping the remnants of blood and dirt from his face. He sighed and slumped into his desk chair, thankful for the scout who had run ahead and informed Skyhold’s staff that the Inquisitor was coming home. Even more grateful to whoever had thought to lay a fire in his hearth and leave him warm water and fresh linens.

“Andraste’s ass, I’m getting too old for this shit,” he muttered. It had been Red Templars, too, and he could never get the creeping song of tainted lyrium out of his head until days later.

He bent to unlace his damp boots and pry them off, ignoring the ache in his back as he straightened. Sleeping in a tent for two weeks wasn’t his idea of a good time, and Blackwall snored fit to wake an archdemon. A dead one. 

The only small mercy had been Adaar bringing Blackwall instead of the Seeker. Varric would tolerate any quantity of snoring if it meant keeping all his limbs attached to his body.

Speaking of the Seeker… Varric smirked as he shuffled through the papers on his desk. He hadn’t been planning to write another chapter of Swords and Shields , but he was glad he’d let Adaar talk him into it. The Seeker’s expression when he presented it to her had been enough to entertain him during their long slog through the Graves. The next volume would be complete in under a week unless Adaar wanted him in the field again.

Finally clean and warm, Varric discovered he was also hungry. Preserved ram meat and stale biscuit might sustain the body, but the palate appreciated some variety. That was a direct quote from Dorian, who had complained incessantly for fourteen days despite never falling behind or missing an opportunity to fireball a giant in the shins; Varric agreed wholeheartedly.

He’d be damned to the Fade and back before he stomped into his sodden boots, so he pulled on his thickest pair of wool socks, changed his tunic, and braved the chill of the keep with a candle for light. Surely there’d be something left over from dinner he could scavenge in the kitchen. The Herald’s Rest would be better—there’d be ale in addition to food—but the Chargers tended to be raucous and Varric could already feel a headache blooming between his eyes.

At first glance, the kitchen was deserted, torches extinguished and food cleared away. On second glance, it contained Sera, rummaging through a corner cupboard and swearing softly under her breath.

“You’d better not be snitching all the honey again,” Varric said.

Sera jumped, turning to face him. Her arms were full of bread and fruit, which didn’t seem immediately dangerous, although you never knew with Sera. When she saw who it was, she grinned. “Nah, I have a better plan this time. That thing where the guys make candy, with the sugar whatsis? It’s sticky as balls, and—”

Varric held up a hand. “Gonna stop you right there, Buttercup. The less I know, the less I get blamed for later. Hand your shit over.”

Sera danced out of his reach, clutching the bread tighter so that it squashed slightly. “Keep your tits on! This’s for Serah Big Britches. Get it? Because she’s the Inquisitor but also she wears—”

“Yes, I get it,” Varric said, ending his efforts to take Sera’s hoard. It was better, he’d found, not to let Sera finish some sentences. “Skip along back to bed, then.”

Twirling out of the room with a rude gesture that made her drop two apples, Sera made her exit. 

Varric crossed to retrieve the apples, muttering, “Kids these days.”

He turned, and Cole was there, studying him with vague interest from beneath the brim of his hat. “Hello, Varric,” he said. “Did you wish to speak with me? You call me ‘Kid,’ so I came.”

Sometimes it was hard to remember Cole was a displaced spirit from the Fade. Other times, not so much. “I was using it in a general sense,” Varric said, and seeing Cole tip his head and open his mouth on a question, “Never mind. It’s nice to see you, Kid. Hold down the fort all right while we were away?”

“Yes, the fort,” Cole said. “Fortress in the sky, but not floating away. Held down.” He cocked his head again, as though listening. “She wants to be held, sometimes. She has your words, but she wants flowers and flames besides. Goodnight, Varric.” And he slid away between one blink and another, leaving Varric wearing a bemused expression.

A cursory search of Sera’s cupboard yielded a loaf of crusty bread, a few cured sausages, and a pot of berry preserves. Varric set to with a vengeance…and paused mid-chew; he heard familiar footsteps in the corridor. “For shit’s sake,” he muttered.

The Seeker looked well, though it was always odd to see her out of armor. He studied her face carefully, looking as he always did for clues to her mood and finding himself distracted.

“Ugh,” she said, catching sight of him. 

“Good evening, Seeker,” he replied as she approached. Maker, had she always been so tall? His heart beat faster and he frowned—he hadn’t been scared of the woman in months, but evidently his body hadn’t gotten the message.

“What are you doing here, Varric?”

He gestured exaggeratedly to the food on the table. “Eating. Why, do you usually come here to interrogate the ovens for practice?”

“I had nearly forgotten how irritating you were,” she said. 

“Maybe I can talk the Inquisitor into hauling me through the left nostril of nowhere for three weeks instead of two next time, and when I come back we’ll be the best of friends.” 

Something happened on the Seeker’s face. Emotions, certainly, three or four different ones, but that didn’t mean Varric was closer to figuring out what any of it meant. The flickering light of his lone candle sure wasn’t helping. So he motioned to the span of table beside him and broke off a piece of bread. “Join me?”

She paused for a long moment, sharp features and long limbs tense. Then she relaxed fractionally and took the proffered bread. “Thank you,” she said: grudging but sincere.

And hey, maybe that’s where Varric had been going wrong all this time—the Seeker’s voice was much easier to read than her face. Void, he could probably tell her mood by the cadence of her bootheels on the floor at this point.

In the spirit of a test, he asked, “Anything interesting happen while we were away? I have no doubt Skyhold suffered immensely without my vast epistolary prowess.” He looked at the table while he waited for her answer. No visual input; ears only.

Her clothes whispered as she shifted. “You’ve been around Dorian too long, I think. You’re beginning to talk like him.” And, in a tone he’d never heard from her,  “It is true you were…missed.”

Varric looked up sharply, unable to stop himself. “Seeker?”

When at last she dragged her gaze up to meet his, he finally registered the circles beneath her eyes. “I cannot play these games tonight, Varric,” she said, accent weighting her vowels more strongly than usual. “Pass the jam, won’t you?”

 

###

 

The stench and grit of the Wastes outside clung to Cassandra’s skin even after a thorough scrubbing in (thank the Maker) a real bath with good milled soap. In truth there was little point to the bath as the following day would be more of the same, but if she was going to sleep in an actual bed for once, Cassandra was damn well going to be clean enough to enjoy it. 

She’d already been in a foul mood when their party had set out to disrupt the increasing Venatori presence to the north. Battling foreign mages carried too much of the element of chance. Cassandra did not like leaving things to chance, especially not the life of Andraste’s chosen.

Worse, the Wastes contained a strange above-ground thaig, so of course Adaar had brought Varric along in case he was needed to translate any artifacts they found there. Two days slogging through sand and battling those accursed mages would have been trial enough without the incessant back-and-forth between Varric and Vivienne. Who would have thought that pair might have so much to discuss?

But then, they both played the Game, and skillfully. Perhaps they appreciated the opportunity to sharpen their wits on each other. For her part, Cassandra had been more than happy to keep pace beside Adaar, walking in companionable silence between skirmishes.

They’d made camp in a long-abandoned fort, its stone walls worn smooth by time and buffeting sand. One of the scouts had unearthed a well with a working pump, and Cassandra, Varric, and Adaar had aided the soldiers in chasing dust from the barracks and laying out their bedrolls on the sturdy bedframes left by the fort’s original owners. Vivienne had bent her pride enough to heat water for baths and repair the jagged hole in the barracks ceiling.

“But what did the Venatori want with it?” Adaar asked beyond the door. 

Cassandra had eaten quickly and retired to bed early, seeking a moment of solitude before the others claimed their own beds. However, her companions’ voices carried clearly from the mess one room over, so sleep was out of the question.

“If it really is Kal Repartha—and I have to think it is, based on…well, everything—then there may be valuable knowledge of runes concealed there.” Varric sounded frustrated, or maybe perplexed. “Why Paragon Fairel left the Shaperate and moved his whole house above ground has been a mystery for centuries, but we do know the skill of his rune work.”

Adaar made a disgruntled noise. “I don’t like it. How long will it take you to sort through those tablets? If Corypheus wanted something from the thaig, I need to know what it was.”

Cassandra shifted to her side, burying her head in what was actually a passably soft pillow, if a bit musty. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to block the rumble of Varric’s voice. “I can’t say, your Inquisitorialness. It’s a mite difficult to figure out what someone took based on what’s left behind. And some of these are in a dialect I don’t know. Give me a few days, some ale, and some quiet, and I might have information for you.”

“Those things will be easier to come by in Skyhold than the Hissing Wastes,” Vivienne said, her quiet, modulated voice much more difficult to hear than the others. “And I would like to speak with Solas and Dorian about the Venatori. Something about their magic is not right.”

Abruptly, the door opened and light spilled through from the mess. Varric shut it behind him, leaned against the worn wood, and thumped his head on the boards a couple of times. 

Cassandra rolled onto her back again so she could glare at him. “I would appreciate some peace,” she said acerbically. “That’s why I’m in here, not out there. If you want your skull knocked about so badly, come here and I’ll do it for you.”

Varric crossed to sit on the bed beside hers. He had bathed too, and now smelled faintly of soap and the oil he used on his crossbow’s mechanical workings. Ink stained his fingers. She wished he were not so near.

“Seeker, after the day I’ve had, I might welcome a good slap upside the head,” he said. “Might rattle something useful into place. Can’t be worse than digging through the crap we recovered from the ruins, anyway. Why do paragons always have such terrible penmanship?”

Cassandra said, “Yes, well. I would be remiss in my duties if I dealt you a head wound in the field. You do good work protecting the Inquisitor.”

Varric blinked in evident surprise. “Was that a joke, Seeker? Followed by a compliment?”

She only snorted. “Go to bed, Varric. Not directly next to me, please.

***

If the Wastes had been bad, the Approach was worse. There was sand again , and poisonous fumes besides. Worst, there was a high dragon, and the Inquisitor pursued it with single-minded focus despite the composition of their group being all wrong to fight such a creature. What had inspired Adaar to bring two rogues and not a single mage?

“Cassandra!” Adaar shouted, grinning as she swung her massive hammer at the dragon’s foreleg. The limb buckled and iced over, the weapon’s inlaid runes doing their job. Cassandra saw the opening Adaar had indicated and drove her sword into the dragon’s opposite front leg, aiming for the joint and feeling bone crack under the blow.

The dragon roared, reared, and spun to face Varric and Sera, who had been harrying its flanks for half an hour whenever its back was turned. Sera cartwheeled away, laughing as ferally as Adaar, and Varric put a bolt in its left eye before diving away from the many gnashing teeth.

Then it was over quickly: Adaar took advantage of the creature’s new blind spot, flinging herself bodily atop its shoulder and smashing its skull with her hammer. She hit the ground with a wild light in her eyes, drenched in the dragon’s dark blood.

“We’re going to want to get to camp fast,” Varric said, materializing at Cassandra’s side. He was eyeing Adaar warily.

“What?” Cassandra asked, distracted by Sera rummaging somewhere beneath the great corpse and coming up with, of all things, a carved figurine of a halla. 

“Shit, I forgot you weren’t there when we fought the one in Crestwood. Qunari have a thing for dragons, see. Adaar kept it together that time, but Tiny half lost his mind. I think it’s because Sparkler was there. I was on the other side of camp and the sounds they made still haunt me. Kept me awake all night.” 

Cassandra’s eyes widened and she shot another glance at the Inquisitor. The woman was sensible. Surely she wouldn’t go on some kind of sex rampage because her blood was up after a battle. But Adaar was eyeing Sera like she wanted to eat her, and Sera appeared to be amenable.

Varric hooked a hand around the side of Cassandra’s breastplate and tugged her in the direction of their most recent encampment. “Better get a move on, Seeker, or you’re going to get an eyeful you probably don’t want. I don’t think those two are going to make it back to camp for a while.”

“Ah,” Cassandra said faintly, allowing herself to be led. “I take your point.”

Only once they’d reached the camp did Cassandra realize their problem. It was a small encampment, just their tents and a weatherproof canvas covering the supplies they’d need for a few days’ march. Most of their group had stayed behind at Griffon Wing Keep to scout the surrounding area and set up supply lines. They four alone had set out after the dragon, which meant only two tents, which meant…

“Well, shit,” Varric said, having reached the same conclusion. Doubtfully, he went on. “I can try to talk them into keeping our usual sleeping arrangement, but even my powers of persuasion have limits.”

“It is of no concern,” Cassandra said stiffly, walking to the tent she’d shared with Sera the previous night. “We are all adults here. I trust we can behave in a rational manner.”

She’d shared a tent with Varric before on several occasions, she reminded herself. There was no reason for this time to be any different. Except it was, because now Cassandra noticed things like how Varric smelled and how big and competent his hands were. 

Maybe fortune would smile on them and Adaar and Sera would get everything out of their systems before returning to camp.

Varric ducked into the tent a few minutes later, setting his bedroll and pack on the ground. He looked at her, then swiftly away. She flushed—clearly something of her worry showed on her face, and now she’d made things awkward. 

Confirming her suspicions, Varric picked up Sera’s belongings and left again at once, calling, “I’m going to see about rustling up some dinner.” 

“Yes, good,” she managed, then immediately castigated herself for behaving so foolishly. This was ridiculous. She was no lovesick child, mooning over a good set of shoulders and a nice voice. How had she let herself get so lost?

By the time Varric returned with a dressed quillback haunch, Cassandra had started the fire and mastered her wayward emotions. Varric was doing an excellent job of reminding her of her actual sentiments toward him, telling ribald jokes and generally poking at her temper in the way only he could. It felt…normal. Nice, even.

And then the Inquisitor returned.

Cassandra’s mouth fell open as Adaar stepped into the circle of light thrown by the fire. The Inquisitor, blessed Herald of Andraste, had Sera literally over her shoulder, one hand resting on the elf’s plaid-covered rear. “Oh thanks, dinner,” Adaar said, swiping most of the remaining quillback meat from its spit and heading for her tent. Sera waved cheerily to them before the flap closed.

On the other side of the fire, Varric snorted and set his battered tin cup down. “Yeah, this is about how it went last time, only now there’s even less chance we’ll be able to get out of earshot.”

“Maybe if we fall asleep quickly—” Cassandra suggested.

Varric shrugged. “I don’t have any better ideas. Besides, going toe to toe with a dragon took it out of me. Must be losing my touch.” He vanished into the tent.

Their tent, for the night, anyway.

Entering the tent second was much worse than already being there when Varric arrived. Cassandra clenched her hands around the hilt of her sword, praying the familiar sensation would steady her. She banked the fire and marched toward the tent.

And then stopped dead. What if Varric was undressing?

She cleared her throat, calling, “I’m coming in.”

“Don’t worry, I’m decent,” Varric said. She scowled, hearing the chuckle in his tone, and kicked the flap open.

It was too dark to see anything, of course, and Cassandra cursed herself for having been worried. Varric’s voice had come from the right, so Cassandra moved to the left, feeling for her bedroll and pack. She unbuckled her armor with practiced fingers, set aside the padded tunic she wore underneath, unlaced her boots. All normal.

The scratchy warmth of her blankets was a relief. She truly was tired, pleasantly sore but emotionally wrung out from watching the Inquisitor nearly die half a dozen times in the space of an hour. The heat of the day had faded quickly after sunset, but the tent was comparatively warm. Stretching, she burrowed deeper and closed her eyes.

“Goodnight, Seeker,” Varric said softly. Maker preserve her, his voice so close in the dark set her heart beating faster and heat curling low in her belly.

“Goodnight, Varric.”

Adaar must have been more circumspect than Bull, or maybe she and Sera had already tired themselves out; no sounds came from the other side of camp, and Cassandra soon drifted off to sleep, lulled by Varric’s even breathing beside her.

 

###

 

Varric was no stranger to bad days, but this was near the top of his list of truly shitty ones. He signaled Cabot for a second mug of ale and downed half of it in one long pull.

The Iron Bull loomed at the bar beside him, his Chargers uncharacteristically subdued in the background. They liked Cassandra too, respected her from their frequent sparring.

“Boss says your girl will be okay in a few days,” Bull said, patting Varric on the shoulder hard enough that he had to grip the counter to stay upright. “And Solas was right there when it happened. Her hands are going to be fine, just not yet.”

Varric stared unblinking into the golden depths of his drink. He’d been in the keep when the runner had arrived, and when Leliana had come down from the rookery at a jog, he’d leapt up from the table and started after her, asking what was wrong. And she’d told him: Red Templars, further gone than any they’d encountered before; a corrupted creature with crystalline spikes for arms; Cassandra’s hands on the hilt of her sword, the sword buried in the creature’s body as it shattered

—and Cassandra’s hands shattered with it, every bone from the wrist down splintered.

Solas had been there; he’d drained himself healing her. Adaar had carried Cassandra home, but Solas had been staggering so badly he’d likely needed carrying himself. The healers—before they’d physically shoved Varric out of their ward—said Solas had worked a miracle, but the miracle would take two days to be complete, and Cassandra’s hands would hurt badly as the bones knitted together and the nerves reconnected.

The Inquisitor and Cassandra’s other friends had been taking it in shifts to keep her company, doing what they could to distract her from the discomfort once she’d woken from the healing sleep that had occupied most of her first day back. 

Varric—damn him for a coward—had not yet been to see her.

“You could take her mind off it,” Bull was saying. If there’d been any salacious implications in his voice, Varric might have hit him, but he merely sounded contemplative. “That book you’re writing her—you said the new part was done, right?”

Varric opened his mouth to say he wasn’t continuing Swords and Shields specifically for her…but he was, wasn’t he. And he had finished the latest chapter, although it wasn’t as polished as he might have liked. It was juicy, too: the knight-captain and her favored guard quarreled, fought a great battle side by side, and then reconciled in an extremely intimate fashion. It wasn’t the most indecent thing Varric had ever written, but it came close.

Before he realized he’d made up his mind, he was standing, pushing coins across the bar to pay his tab. He must’ve muttered something to Bull because the man clapped him on the shoulder again and wished him luck.

He trudged through the still-falling snow to the keep. The cold had brought him to his senses somewhat, and he hesitated again before taking the sheaf of papers from his desk. Odds were the Seeker would take one look at him and shout him out of her room—her temporary room, just down the hall from his, because Solas had made clear that lying on a pallet in the loft above the smithy would not expedite her healing.

Then he was in front of her door with no memory of walking there. He shoved the papers under his arm and knocked before he could talk himself out of it.

The Inquisitor herself opened the door, her curled horns nearly scraping the sides of the jamb. “Thank the Maker,” she said with poorly disguised relief. In answer to Varric’s querying look, she lowered her voice and added, “She’s in a terrible temper. Says her hands hurt and itch at the same time, and she’s exhausted but can’t fall back asleep.”

“I can still hear you,” the Seeker called from within. She did sound irritable. More than usual, which was…worrying.

“Look, Cassandra, Varric’s here,” Adaar announced cheerfully, stepping back and hauling Varric inside by his collar when he would have shoved the manuscript at her and fled. “Good thing, because Josie says I owe some Orlesians a stuffy-ass dinner. Too bad for them if it’s closer to bedtime.”

She ducked through the door, Void take her, leaving Varric quite alone.

He took in the arrangement of the room: anything rather than look at the bed against the far wall, the Seeker stretched pale and scowling atop the blankets in only a shift, her hands twin bundles of bandages past the wrists. There was a roaring fire in the hearth, warming the room almost unbearably. He imagined Adaar stoking the flames too frequently, either out of concern for the chill or desire to avoid Cassandra. A heavy chair sat by the fireplace, and a table with a wash basin and a stack of folded cloths in the corner. The bed was big, its frame ornately carved from some dark wood.

“Did you only come here to stare?” The Seeker’s acerbic voice broke through Varric’s daze and he met her eyes at last.

“No, Seeker,” he said. “I brought you the new chapter of Swords and Shields. Thought it might help you keep your mind off the pain.”

She snarled—not the reaction he’d been expecting, and certainly not the one he’d hoped for. “And how do you propose I hold the thing? How can I turn the pages?” With a gesture of impotent rage, she lifted her swaddled hands from the bed and waved them at him.

Shit. 

“I could read it aloud to you,” he offered quickly, and only too late recalled the content of the later parts of the chapter. When was the last time he’d blushed? He was blushing now; perhaps his proximity to the fire would provide an excuse.

“Would you?” She was looking at him with cautious hope in her eyes and he couldn’t bring himself to take it away.

He cleared his throat. “I, uh. I have to warn you, it gets kinda rique at the end. But I can read everything up to that part, and then you can finish it yourself tomorrow when the bandages come off.”

“Very well,” she said, sounding much more herself. She struggled to sit up against the headboard and Varric hurriedly crossed to put an arm behind her back, helping keep the weight off her hands. She was still breathing hard with the effort of so small a motion; he politely averted his eyes and dragged the chair to her bedside.

“Ready?” he asked. “You don’t need anything?”

She shook her head. “People have been here all day, prodding me to eat, to drink water—all manner of things, except get up from this damned bed and do something useful. Begin.”

So he did, against his better judgment. She was a perfect audience, listening raptly as he read the first scene, gasping in all the right places as the characters tore at each other with words and parted on the eve of battle, angry and heartbroken.

The battle scene was his masterpiece, if any part of this dross could be called such; the Seeker’s eyes sparkled as Varric described the clash of swords and the final frantic charge, the knight-captain wounded and the guard covering her weak side as they pushed the enemy back together. Too soon, he’d reached the part where they cleaned up after, tenderly bathing each other’s wounds. He read up until the guard bowed to his captain, begging her forgiveness and declaring his love, then set the papers down.

“You cannot stop there,” the Seeker said, real distress in her tone. “Does she love him back? I must know!”

She did, of course, love him back, but she didn’t tell him so until he’d given her two orgasms and was working on a third. There was simply no scenario in which Varric would read that aloud to Cassandra too-many-names Pentaghast, who had once stabbed his best book to date and later thrown a chair at him.

Please , Varric,” she said.

Evidently that was all it took.

“Fuck,” he said with calm resignation, and read on. “The captain reached out with shaking fingers, pulling the guard up to face her. ‘You claim to care for me so deeply,’ she whispered. ‘But I know you are a man of action more than words. Show me how you feel, and then I will give you your answer.’” He continued, cursing his past self for writing what amounted to pure smut. By the time the guard had laid his captain down in bed and undressed her, the Seeker’s eyes were wide and Varric was forcing each word past gritted teeth.

He got to the end of the next page and could not go on. “Seeker, I can’t,” he said. “I’m sorry to leave you hanging like this—” in more ways than one; he feared from the quality of her shifting legs that she was at least a little aroused— “but I’d need to be out of my mind with drink before I could get through the rest.”

She looked as though she meant to argue, but finally went limp against the pillows instead. “Very well,” she said. “Only, will you tell me,” she added, abruptly shifty, “Is that real? The last part; I have never heard of anyone…”

For a single, blissful moment, Varric had no idea what she was talking about. Then he went back over the words he’d been speaking and deliberately trying not to register. The guard bent to his task, stroking his fingers over that most sensitive part of his love’s desire-drenched inner passage. She clawed at his back and screamed his name, the climax ripping through her with an intensity near violence.

“Um,” he managed, intelligently, staring at the floor. “Sometimes, when people feel very passionate toward each other, they express it by—”

“Yes, I know how people couple, and the pleasure they may take from it,” she said, dry as anything. “But the…the motion the guard made with his fingers, within— I have never heard of such a thing. It is some flight of fiction, surely.”

Varric closed his eyes. He could not— would not—have this conversation with her. When her hands had healed, she might try it for herself, or solicit a partner and ask. He found, though, that he did not like the idea of another person’s hands on her in that manner.

“Seeker,” he began—but no, if he was going to do this thing, best do it right— “Cassandra. In a moment I’m going to ask you something that’s probably going to make you want to hit me, but you have to keep your hands still. If I’ve read this wrong, you can have at me as soon as you’re healed.” Maker, if he’d read this wrong, he’d have to flee farther than Kirkwall to save his sorry skin.

But Cassandra had met his eyes at the sound of her name, and she looked…

Varric drew an unsteady breath. “Would you like me to show you? What the guard did for his captain, I mean.”

The Seeker gasped, bandaged hands trembling at her sides above the coverlet. A flush had begun at her ears as Varric read and now it spilled across her cheeks and down into the place where her shift lay open beneath her throat. Her gaze had fallen, unconscious, to his hands.

“I swear to you, Varric, if this is a joke—”

“Never. I would never, Cassandra, I promise.”

“Then yes.”

The words fell between them into a chasm of silence. Varric felt as though his heart might beat out of his chest. Even as he’d made the offer, he hadn’t truly imagined it ending any way but with his humiliation and disgrace. But then, he’d never made the best choices; only ask anyone who’d ever met him. He was taking too long. He had begun this, and could not under the circumstances do anything but finish it. Did not want to do anything but finish it.

“All right.” He scarcely recognized his own voice for its parched rasp. “Can you—can you turn sideways on the bed without jarring your hands? Legs over the side, here.”

Her eyes were enormous and so very dark. Gingerly, she rose onto her elbows and slid down the bed before pivoting so that she could rest her feet on the floor.

Varric knelt before her. Maker help him, he was truly lost; the graceful arches of her bare feet were set to unman him entirely. As though from a great distance, he watched himself wrap a hand around each of her ankles, rubbing the callused pads of his thumbs over the fine bones there. 

“Lie back,” he instructed—she was still perched on her elbows, watching him. They were both breathing as though freshly come from battle themselves. “I’ll have to stop if you can’t keep your hands still. Can you?”

She nodded fervently, pressing the two bundles of bandages down on either side of her hips. She still hadn’t put her head back, so he rose long enough to take the pillows from the head of the bed and position them beneath her shoulders.

“Wait,” she said. He froze halfway back to his knees. “Will you kiss me first? Just once.”

He would have kissed her until the world ended and stone closed over their heads; surely she knew that. But perhaps not: she gasped and shivered as he rose again and leaned over her, one knee on the bed for balance, the opposite hand coming up to cup her cheek and the side of her neck.

He might have stared at her forever, but she moved beneath him and said, “Today, if you please,” in tones so familiar that he huffed a breathless laugh before bending to set his lips to hers.

It had been his intention to keep the kiss sweet and slow, but she opened her mouth almost at once and by pure instinct he swept his tongue hungrily inside. She shuddered and met him with equal fervor, arms coming up so she could rest her wrists on his shoulders and draw him down.

Instead, he pulled gently away. “Hands on the bed, Seeker,” he reminded her. “Here are the rules. You say stop, I stop. You move your hands, I stop. Anything you want to add?”

She shook her head, licking her lips.

Then there was nothing to do but to skim his hands up her calves, marveling at the softness of the skin and hair beneath his palms. He watched her closely for any sign of pain or hesitation and found none. When he reached the lower edge of her shift, he wrapped his hands around her legs and eased them wider so his shoulders would fit between her knees.

Her hips gave a tiny hitch.

Varric groaned, abruptly aware that he was hard, his cock pressing uncomfortably against the placket of his trousers. No matter. This was about her, not him. If he survived to walk out of this room…after, he would take care of himself then. He could not imagine an after; could hardly comprehend the now.

Rather than examine that unsettling feeling, he hooked his thumbs over the hem of her shift and drew it slowly up as his hands spanned the muscular breadth of her thighs.

“You need not coddle me so. I am no untried maiden.” Those severe features were set in a warning, daring him to cross more of the invisible lines that guided their every interaction.

He knew that, but he also knew she had only been with one man, fully. “As you say, Seeker,” he whispered against the inside of her knee, and continued only a little faster. He found he could no longer meet her eyes, so he watched her hands instead, the near-disaster of her injury keeping him anchored.

At last, Varric slid the shift over Cassandra’s hips to pool at her waist. The final barrier of her pale cotton smallclothes seemed insurmountable. What had he been thinking, to propose this? With each passing moment, he expected her to sit up and order him to leave, to remember all the reasons why this could not happen between them.

“Varric,” she began, and he flinched as though struck. But then she said, “Talk to me, please. I cannot do this without hearing your voice.”

“I’ll have to remember what words are first,” he replied hoarsely. “What would you have me say?”

“Anything, just—” And there was that movement of her hips again, not so small this time. 

Her name. Surely he could manage that. “Cassandra,” he whispered, lifting his hand at last. He pressed the backs of his knuckles against the center of her and found the fabric there damp already. “It scared me shitless, you know, when the Inquisitor carried you through the gates. Forget tears in the Veil and lyrium-twisted magisters—that was when I felt like the world was ending.”

It was perhaps the worst subject he could have landed on, considering this evening had begun with him intending to take her mind off her injury and its slow and delicate healing, but maybe she really had just needed to hear his voice. She relaxed, falling back on the pillows with a sigh, and let her hips work against his hand.

“I’m serious, Seeker,” he went on, sliding his fingers beneath the cloth and understanding at last the depth of her need. She was soaking wet; he bowed his head against her thigh and swallowed hard. “You’re so solid, so strong. It was like watching a mountain dissolve into mist. Impossible.”

He found the firm nub at the apex of her folds and circled it gently with his thumb. She cried out and twitched, but kept her hands on the bed. If he hadn’t thought it would earn him a kick in the ribs, he might have told her how well she was doing, how impressive he found her self-control.

“It made me want to do impossible things too. Rip the stars from the sky and string them on a necklace, if only you would be well. Bring you flowers, write you poems—you know how I loathe poetry.” Sitting back on his heels, he slid the smalls down and away.

“Flowers and poems aren’t— ah! —aren’t impossible,” Cassandra pointed out as he swept the tips of two fingers through her wetness, coming to rest where the hot flesh opened for him.

His laugh was bitter, breathless. “Between the two of us, they might as well be. Although maybe I’ll take Solas flowers in thanks for saving your hands. Some of that royal elfroot he uses to color his paint.” Carefully, he pressed against her, bringing his other hand up to rub her clit. She gave way beneath his fingers, the wet-silk grip of her yielding by torturous increments.

She was panting, making tiny, punched-out sounds as he began to move within her, drawing his fingers back and pressing deeper with each stroke. Still she managed, “Is this what you wrote of? I have had this pleasure before after all. I had thought—”

Varric curled his fingers.

Cassandra nearly arched off the bed, back bowing as she cried out. He checked: her hands had not moved. Maker, she was incredible. 

He continued to drag the pads of his fingers against that swollen, textured place inside her, reveling in the slick heat. She was twisting wildly beneath him; he got his free arm across her hips to hold her in place and lowered his head.

The first press of his mouth made her thrash and sob. “Varric, please,” she said, choked. “Oh, it’s too much, I cannot—”

She would truly come undone for him so quickly—already, she’d begun to tighten around his fingers, nearing the edge. Resisting the urge to get fancy, he kept up the steady motion of his hand and increased the tempo of his tongue. It took real effort to hold her down as her hips bucked and her legs gripped his ribs.

Abruptly, she stiffened, every muscle he could feel going solid as iron. And like iron, she broke at last, calling his name so that it sounded like a prayer—sacrilege even to think it, of course, but he already knew this would stay with him the rest of his life and did not care.

Gentling, he stroked her though it, easing back as she became oversensitive. He slipped his fingers free and she whimpered at the loss; he wiped her slick from his hand against the side of his trousers, quashing the base urge to lick it clean instead.

Surely this would be the moment the Seeker came to her senses and booted him from her room, he thought. With great effort, he made himself look at her face.

She was smiling, soft and satisfied. “Thank you,” she said. “I…I needed that.” Up on her elbows again, she let her eyes fall to his straining erection. “You haven’t—? Come, let me—”

“No,” he said quickly. “No, thank you. Do you need anything else? Otherwise I’ll be on my way.”

Her smile faded, the familiar frown forming between her dark brows. “You will not stay? Leliana is going to come sit with me after the third bell, but that is ages away yet.”

He couldn’t deny her. He remained, helping her straighten her clothes and then accompanying her to the privy, which she could not manage alone with her hands bound as they were. This task, he found, did not diminish his desire in the slightest, but rather made a constricting warmth grip his chest. Returning to her room, they lay side by side on the bed, facing inward toward each other.

They kissed without discussion, as slow and gentle as Varric had meant their first kiss to be. His arousal was a vague and distant thing; he paid it no mind, bent instead on drawing quiet gasps and moans from Cassandra’s lips, always mindful of her hands cradled between their bodies.

Many deep, drugging kisses later, Cassandra’s breath began to come faster once more. He drew back and gave her a lopsided smile. Her mouth and chin were red from the scrape of his stubble. “Shall I, again?” he asked, low.

This time was better than the first—for one thing, Varric might remember something of it later besides his own all-consuming nerves. For another, he made the Seeker laugh twice, though the second time also earned him a toe in the gut and an admonition not to blaspheme. 

At the end, Cassandra tensed, shuddered, and came around his fingers, accompanied by a brief gush of liquid that dripped down Varric’s wrist and onto his sleeve. She flushed, and apologized, and thanked him again.

“My pleasure, Seeker,” he said, and gave in to the urge to lick his fingers.

When he rose at last, she regarded him with hooded eyes and said, “Do you know, I might actually be able to sleep now.”

She crept under the covers and suited her words within minutes, not even stirring when Varric carefully repositioned her arms to keep her wrists straight and her hands from catching in the blankets. Varric returned the chair to its place near the fire and sat. He’d stoked the flames twice and was drifting off himself by the time Leliana arrived, letting herself in without a knock.

“Lady Nightingale,” he said quietly, rising to offer her the best bow he could manage with his back and knees aching as they were. 

“Master Tethras,” she returned, fixing him with a shrewd eye. If she was surprised to find him there, it didn’t show. “You have my thanks for making the Seeker comfortable. Solas tells me the bandages can certainly come off tomorrow. There had been some doubt.”

He schooled his face to stillness, refusing to reveal anything by reacting. “Good news indeed.” 

“Yes.” Her face was equally blank. “Rest well, Master Tethras.”

 

###

 

At first, Cassandra thought Varric was avoiding her. She’d kept her temporary room in the keep at Josephine’s insistence, which made it even more strange that she’d hardly glimpsed Varric since…well. 

Her hands were recovering nicely, considering how bad they’d been. She tried not to think of how they’d looked as her sword fell and red lyrium showered down: less like hands and more like twin sacks of flesh drooping at the ends of her arms. The pain had come later, and she woke up every night drenched in sweat, remembering. 

But now she was able to grip a sword—a new one, because Dagna feared the first had been weakened imperceptibly by the shattering—and spent her days sparring with Cullen and the Chargers to accustom herself to its feel. She could dress and wash herself, thankfully. If her hands occasionally spasmed, if her grip was a bit weaker than it had been, that was small enough price. Until the bandages had come off, she’d feared she’d never wield a sword again whatever Solas said.

Cassandra wasn’t usually given to outpourings of gratitude, but she’d thanked Solas profusely anytime she happened near his tower room. Eventually, he said, “Lady Seeker, I was merely doing my duty, as were you. Think no more of it.” Which had been a very tactful way of telling her to leave off.

As she’d turned to go, she’d spotted a new addition to his table: a bundle of royal elfroot blossoms, carefully dried. Her face had heated and she’d hurried away to hide her flush.

There’d been no sign of Varric at dinner with the Inquisitor that evening or the next, nor was he in his usual corner of the great hall. By the end of the week, Cassandra had begun to consider poking her head into the Herald’s Rest—but no, if Varric wanted to avoid her after what had transpired between them, she would not force him to look upon her.

Just as embarrassment gave way to anger— he had propositioned her —she returned to her room and found an elaborate floral arrangement outside her door. Heart in her throat, she looked around to see if anyone was watching, then scooped the massive thing up and went inside.

There was a folded bit of vellum tucked between two sturdy stems. They’re magically preserved, so they won’t fade unless you decide to stab them. - V

She snorted. He was never going to let that go.

And then it truly came clear: Varric had gotten her flowers. Not any flowers she’d seen on excursions with the Inquisitor, either, but big hothouse blooms such as they grew in Val Royeaux. Frivolous things. Ridiculous. She buried her face in them and found that whatever magic had been used on them had not stolen their fragrance.

He was at dinner that night. Surely he hadn’t traveled somewhere to acquire the flowers himself?

She wanted to wait until fewer people were present to overhear, but everyone lingered after the meal, even Cullen and Vivienne. They were going to play Wicked Grace, evidently. Still, Cassandra was no coward. When she rose to leave, she said, “Thank you, Varric, for the thoughtful gift,” and stalked away before she could overhear any of the others’ comments. 

Maybe she was a bit of a coward, in this.

Then there was the halla leather. Cassandra was growing accustomed to her new two-hander at last, and even preferred its balance to her old sword. But the grip was all wrong, too narrow and too smooth. She’d said so to Bull and he’d advised she change the handle’s wrapping. The following morning, Varric had approached her in the training yard and offered her a treated length of rare halla skin, which had felt perfect beneath her palms.

That time she’d been able to watch his expression when she thanked him, enjoying the rare sincere smile that spread across his face. “My pleasure, Seeker,” he’d said. And she’d blushed again, damn her, recalling the last time he’d spoken those words.

And now there was the accursed ball at the Winter Palace. Cassandra had a terrible feeling Adaar had only brought her along so she’d be involved in an important mission without having to fight. The Inquisition’s soldiers were coming up against lyrium-corrupted Templars more and more often, and no matter how loudly Cassandra said she wasn’t afraid to fight them again, Adaar kept her back.

Of course the Inquisitor had brought Varric and Vivienne along too, as they were best suited to navigate the intrigues of the Orlesian court. Dorian would have been a far better addition to their cohort than Cassandra, only adding to her suspicion that Adaar was coddling her.

It was not to be borne, obviously. Cassandra spent the evening remembering how to make small talk with nobles who’d never seen the sharp end of a blade and deciding how to broach the subject without seeming to question the Inquisitor’s authority. She danced with half a dozen partners, men and women in intricate finery and gilded masks framing eyes that weighed and measured with fearsome precision. Every time she tried to seek out the Inquisitor or one of the others, they were nowhere to be found. Well, except Cullen, who appeared to be having an even worse time than her. 

By the second bell, she was short-tempered and hungry. Maintaining a polite smile while listening to an elderly Orlesian couple tell stories of their Templar son’s victories took significant effort. She tried not to wonder if their beloved Julien was one of the monsters she’d slain.

“Pardon me, Lord and Lady Blanchet. Might I borrow Seeker Pentaghast for the duration of a dance?” 

Torn between relief and the urge to wring Varric’s neck—where had he and the Inquisitor been all these hours?—Cassandra allowed Varric to escort her away with a hand at the base of her spine. When they’d reached the edge of the crowd, Cassandra sighed, rolling her shoulders. “What took you so long? And what does the Inquisitor need? Take me to her at once.”

Varric chuckled, but not in the warm way Cassandra liked. “Is it so hard to believe I actually wanted to dance with you, Seeker?”

“Oh,” she said. “I— I beg your pardon. Please.” She motioned back to the dancers.

He paused. “How about some fresh air and a plate of those things with the cheese and that little red garnish instead?”

“That sounds wonderful,” she told him, relieved.

Varric slipped up to one of the heavily laden tables along the wall and swiped two platters of tiny Orlesian finger foods. They were separated in the crowd, but he rejoined her as they reached the nearest balcony and stepped into the blessedly cold night air.

“Sit. This shit’s more tiring than scouting and fighting any day,” Varric said, suiting his own words and easing himself down to lean against the stone railing. He put the trays of food between them.

Cassandra snorted, taking several absurd appetizers and shoving them one at a time in her mouth. When she’d finished chewing, she said, “At least in the field there’s real food. These are mostly air.”

Finishing his own mouthful, Varric regarded her. The finery Dorian and Josephine had dreamed up for this occasion looked well on him, though she’d never admit it. “Want me to fill you in on what Adaar’s been up to?”

Politics of the worst sort, Cassandra was relieved to learn. It meant Adaar hadn’t failed to include Cassandra in the night’s exploration as a sop but because Cassandra would be less help than Varric or Vivienne in such intrigues, and someone would have noticed if most of the Inquisition delegation went missing. The mess between Empress Celene and her rivals, one of whom was also possibly her lover, was Orlais’ Game at its finest. Cassandra wanted no part of it.

Varric’s account of the night lasted long enough for them to reduce their purloined food to scraps. Cassandra had removed her gloves to eat, but now regretted it. She couldn’t seem to chase the chill from her hands, although the rest of her was comfortable enough.

“Do they still hurt?” Varric asked.

She jumped; she’d been chafing her hands together in an attempt to warm them and hadn’t known Varric was watching. “No,” she said. “And my grip has recovered greatly, although it will take time to develop my calluses properly once more. It is more than I could have hoped. They do seem to catch cold more easily, though, and the chill goes right to the bone.”

“Good thing I run hot,” he said, shoving the richly ornamented silver platters aside. “Give me your hands, Seeker.”

Certain he could hear her heart pounding, she scooted into the space he’d cleared and held out her hands. His hands engulfed hers, big and rough and blessedly warm. The sound that escaped her was carnal, but although Varric’s eyes darkened, he only laughed softly, seemingly at himself.

The Inquisitor made an entrance not long afterward with Vivienne at her side. Cassandra and Varric slipped back inside in time to watch their esteemed leader cause a scene by airing a great deal of the Orlesian nobles’ dirty laundry. The woman Adaar had danced with earlier—evidently a grand duchess—was at the center of the upheaval, but Adaar managed to talk her out of resorting to outright violence once her schemes had been revealed. To Cassandra’s eye, all the other players up to and including the empress herself appeared to have blood on their hands, but Varric hummed in approval as Adaar forced the dissidents to agree to a truce.

“Surely they don’t mean to carry on as though nothing happened,” Cassandra murmured to Varric as the musicians began to play once more. Couples were returning to their dances, whispering fiercely and cutting looks at Adaar, who was speaking with Josephine and appeared unaware of the attention.

Varric grinned up at her. “All part of the entertainment for these folks. Just think how much juicy gossip they’ll have to share in their stuffy parlors tomorrow evening.”

Shaking her head—she would never understand Orlesians—Cassandra asked, “Do you suppose that’s the last of it? I’ll stay if the Inquisitor may have need of me, but it has been a very long day.”

“I think you’re off the hook for what’s left of the night,” Varric replied.

She took a bracing breath. “Well then, perhaps you’ll do me the honor of a dance before I retire.”

It wasn’t often she was able to startle Varric. To his credit, he accepted her hand and bowed over it as though he hadn’t hesitated at all. And then they danced, her hands on his shoulders, his on her hips. She was relieved to find she hadn’t forgotten everything her etiquette tutor had attempted to impress upon her as a child; she only stepped on Varric’s toes twice.

When the music faded before sliding into a more upbeat tempo, they broke apart. The foot of space between them suddenly felt like far too much, but Cassandra couldn’t think how to close it without awkwardness.

“Goodnight, Varric,” she said instead.

“Goodnight, Seeker.”

***

The Winter Palace was a labyrinth of oil paintings and gold-chased statuary. When Cassandra finally reached the wing where the Inquisitor’s party and other honored guests were to sleep before departing the following day, she’d grown frustrated rather than tired.

In honesty, she was more irritated with herself than anything. She’d known she’d be out of her element in Orlais, but she had let Adaar talk her into coming anyway, and then she had practically sulked all evening like a child. It was a wonder she hadn’t caused a diplomatic incident. Or maybe she had, and the offended Orlesian in question was only waiting for a good time to air their grievances.

She stripped with a soldier’s efficiency, tossing the uncomfortable shirt and breeches into a corner of the room before pulling a clean shift over her head. The bed was as ridiculous as the rest of the palace. Even the mattress was stuffed with feathers rather than straw or old fabric. 

No sooner had she lain down than she was up again, pacing the confines of the room. Better a tent or the barracks than this ornate prison. Before she could think better of it, she put on her boots and flung herself out into the hallway.

…And nearly collided with Varric, whose room was two down from hers.

There was a long moment of silence in which Cassandra had ample time to consider how odd she must look, how improper her attire for anything besides sleep. Mortified, she began to back away, reaching for her door again.

“Seek— Cassandra,” Varric began, hand out as though to stop her.

“I— Excuse me, I was just going to bed,” she said, locating the doorknob at last, half-stumbling backward through the door and slamming it shut between them. She sat on the bed with her heart racing and took off her boots. Outrageously, she felt as though she might cry. 

There came a knock on the door. Of course he wouldn’t leave it be.

If she didn’t answer, she knew he’d go away. 

Gritting her teeth, she went to the door. She’d spent enough of the day behaving like a child.

“Are you all right?” he asked at once.

Maker preserve her, he appeared genuinely concerned. Though, why wouldn’t he, when she’d just burst into the hall in a shift and boots? “I’m perfectly well,” she said. Then, when he didn’t go away, only kept looking at her with those too-kind eyes, she blurted, “My bed is too soft.”

Instead of treating this foolishness as it deserved, he nodded somberly. “The Orlesians have been known to take their comforts too far.” She watched his throat move as he swallowed. “My bed is quite comfortable, if you’d care to try it.”

She followed him back into the hall, bright with burning torches. His room was dark aside from a pair of candles, and his bed did actually look more promising than hers. 

He had not offered to trade rooms with her, or to sleep on the floor. Slowly, she moved to the side of the bed farther from the door and slid beneath the blankets. If the mattress was nearly as soft as hers, she did not care. 

When he began to undress for bed, she didn’t look away. He watched her watching him, breaking eye contact only to pull the tunic over his head. His boots, socks, belt and trousers followed; he turned to put out the candles before crossing to the bed.

How long had it been since Cassandra felt truly safe in someone else’s company? She did now. If she kept to her side of the bed, if she simply said goodnight and rolled over to sleep, he wouldn’t mind. He knew when to push and when not, a skill she had never mastered. “Varric?” she said.

“Yes, Seeker?” He climbed under the covers; the gust of cool air made her shiver before his warmth chased the chill away.

“I finished the chapter you brought me. It— I enjoyed it greatly.” She understood why he hadn’t kept reading it aloud to her—the part he’d gotten through had been salacious, but the remainder was entirely indecent, worse once she had the memory of his hands on her as she read. She had no doubt he’d committed all the acts he described, though perhaps with fewer interludes of flowery speech.

“Do you know,” he said, “that you sound as though it pains you when you give me a compliment?”

She knew from his voice alone that he was teasing her, and a sudden swell of fondness stole her breath. It was unexpectedly pleasant to know and be known in this manner. “Only because you become insufferable when complimented,” she replied, turning to face him.

In the dark, she reached for him, searching until her hand closed over his bare shoulder.

The breath he drew was unsteady; he put his hand around her wrist. “Cassandra,” he whispered, “come here.” 

He pulled her nearer and she went eagerly, closing the last distance between them and pressing her body to his. 

Their kisses had been cautious before, a necessity dictated by the state of her hands. Now their lips met with no hesitation and Cassandra realized with a shock that she had missed this, despite only having had it once, briefly. And it was better this time, much better—she was not half out of her mind with fear and pain, and she could comb her fingers through his hair, could seek out the gold rings in his ears and trace them curiously.

He’d begun to harden immediately against her hip. With a rush of—what? excitement, or vindication; she did not know her mind in the moment—she moved against him, trying to get closer still. She felt the moment he schooled himself to restraint, but she wouldn’t have it, not now. She bit him on the ear. “Treat me sweetly next time. Tonight, remind me we are alive.”

“Fuck,” he said, resting his forehead against her shoulder.

“Yes, that’s the idea.” She worked a hand between them and caressed him through the thin cloth of his smalls. She’d need light to be sure, but he felt larger than she’d had before. Thicker, certainly.

He’d been laughing quietly; at her touch he groaned and rolled them, pressing her into the bed with his weight. By instinct, she parted her legs around his body and made a needy sound of her own as he slid down and moved his hips.

They went for her shift at the same time, him shoving it up and her tearing it over her head. She had to arch off the bed to do so, which drew a snarl from him. Then his mouth was on her breasts, hot and sure as he sucked one nipple and then the other to aching peaks.

An unbearable ache was building between her legs. She bit back a moan she was sure would have been shamefully loud. “Off,” she gasped then, wrestling with his smalls. 

He seemed uninclined to abandon his agonizing work upon her breasts, but he raised his lower body long enough for her to shove the offending garment down. 

At last, she closed her hand around his cock. She gasped; he swore. Blood was pounding in her ears and she realized she was chanting “now, please, now ,” and pressing the head of him against her. But her underthings were in the way, caught around her hips when she tried to remove them.

“Let me,” he said hoarsely, and worked his fingers beneath the gusset before tearing the cloth away with a great ripping of seams. Then he was again against her, inside her, and she threw her head back and panted as he speared her open inch by inch. She would have had him move faster, but their strength was matched—she gripped him with her legs and he braced himself with his arms, and the slide of him within her remained maddeningly slow. 

“Varric,” she snarled.

He was breathing hard, and when he spoke, his voice betrayed the strain of his pace. “I will not injure you,” he said. “I’ll get you there, just give it a moment.” Abruptly, she wished for light so she could see his expression.

Finally, his hips rested snug against the cradle of hers. She clenched around him experimentally and sighed in a sort of primal satisfaction: she had been filled entirely. 

He moved. The slide back was faster than the first penetration, and he hilted himself again more quickly still. Evidently sure she wasn’t going to break, he set a rhythm fast and forceful enough to make her cry out and reach for his shoulders to steady herself. Once she had the sense of the thing again she got her feet flat on the bed and did her best to meet his thrusts.

Her climax came upon her with frightening speed; as if sensing it, Varric slowed. His mouth was on her breast again, and one of his hands between their bodies to press against her clit. Cassandra was gasping, a great gulp of air punctuating each roll of Varric’s hips. 

All at once she tightened, arching as pleasure exploded from her core. Her throat hurt—she feared she might have screamed. Waves of sensation crashed through her, going on for so long that she began to tremble in time with the spasms of her cunt. She was saying something: brokenly, she heard herself telling Varric it was so good, he felt perfect, and urging him to find his own peak and spill inside her.

Above her, he shuddered and stilled, burying himself deep. The liquid warmth of his seed made her shiver with a final spike of pleasure so sweet it was nearly pain.

He lifted his head; she reached down and drew a hand over his face, finding sweat on his forehead before tracing his mouth. “Maker’s breath, Cassandra,” he said against her fingers.

She laughed and kissed the crown of his head, feeling light enough to float away.

As their bodies cooled and he slid from her, she drew him up so they were face to face. He put his mouth to her neck and the edge of her jaw before meeting her lips with his own.

“You didn’t thank me this time,” he said in a lull between kisses. “Should I be worried?”

Snorting softly, she replied, “I thank people when I’m nervous. A bad habit—one I thought I’d rid myself of years ago.” She put both hands to his face and traced the strong cheekbones, the oft-broken nose. “I wasn’t nervous this time.”

He caught her hands and pressed a kiss to each palm. “Glad to hear it, Seeker.” Their mouths met again.

“I should return to my room,” she said after a time. 

“Should you?” he asked, dragging his cheek against her clavicle, no doubt leaving a terrible red mark with his stubble. “I have it on excellent authority the bed’s no good.”

She made a sound of disgust, then tangled her hand in his chest hair and let him pull the covers over them both.

 

###

 

“Good evening, Lady Nightingale,” Varric called, circling the rookery to approach her desk. 

Leliana regarded him seriously, her hair haloed from behind by the failing sun. “Master Tethras,” she said. “Are you aware the Seeker is a candidate for the Divine?” 

He blinked—he’d expected her to dance around the point for a few minutes at least. “I am.”

“What are your intentions should she be named to the post?”

“She and I have discussed the possibility,” he said. It had not been a pleasant conversation, but it had been a necessary one. “She will accept the position and its attendant duties. I will cart myself back to Kirkwall and do what I can to make that sorry excuse for a city into somewhere worth living. As I’m not Andrastean, there’s no reason for our paths to cross ever again.”

Leliana nodded. “And if another candidate is chosen in her stead?”

Varric had expected the first question and dreaded the second. This was not part of what he and the Seeker had discussed; Leliana was more than capable of killing him and disappearing his corpse if she disliked his answer or suspected Cassandra might.

“I’ll ask her to marry me,” he said.

After they’d slain Corypheus, he’d had his grandmother’s favorite necklace stripped of its stones, which the best jeweler in Kirkwall had set into a ring. It was a dwarven custom, but he hoped Cassandra would be amenable. He also hoped his grandmother was turning in her cairn—she’d been a terrible person.

Had he imagined the hint of a smile at the corner of Leliana’s mouth? “You are good for her, and she for you.”

He gaped. “What, you’re not going to tell me to go bury myself in a hole because I’m not worthy? You’re not going to put a knife in my eye and feed me to your birds?”

She smiled, not reassuringly. “Better an arrow in the field. An accident, of course, and I would be sure to extract the perpetrator from prison eventually in payment for their service.” Then her voice softened. “Master Tethras, you have made Cassandra laugh more times in the last two months than I’ve seen her do in all our acquaintance. You respect her, but you don’t let her intimidate you. I can think of no one who would suit her better, for all I know a great many people.”

“With my luck, she’ll be Divine for sure now that you’ve approved me,” he said.

“Cassandra would be a legendary Divine. Strong, principled, no-nonsense. But she is not what Thedas needs now, I think.” She sounded tired, although her face hadn’t changed. “Go with my blessing, Varric. Make her happy.”