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Between Disasters

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Varric will write that it was love at first sight, fate’s thunderbolt striking down Inquisitor and Champion in tandem, but the truth is, the first time Mahanon Lavellan sees Marian Hawke she only strikes him as bony, with a face like an assassin’s favorite dagger and a pitch black crop of hair just starting to streak with gray. He thinks she looks like a villain.

A not unpromising beginning. All tales begin somewhere. This one finds itself starting between disasters, Varric will write. He didn’t embellish on that.

So: Haven had just been leveled by an impossibly old abomination and his tainted reptile. You had to be there to get the full effect of the abject fear and the panic. Andraste’s Herald was elven, lean and contentions, though not as feral as most Dalish, which is a backhanded way of saying no one expected him to stay behind and draw the ancient thing’s fury. Or survive. Or lead them all to Skyhold and safety.

So many achievements in so short a time, no wonder he’s declared Inquisitor by the time Hawke arrives at Skyhold. She strides down the battlements like she’s made of angles. Which she is, insofar as all histories stamp their peculiar geometries onto their victims.

Kirkwall lurks in every sharp movement; her losses etched a line perpendicular to her straight, dark brows; the touch and go dalliances with her companions, Mahanon thinks, slash at the tension between the reserve of her manner and the frank appraisal of her glance. Only her voice is a thing apart, soft and clear, incongruous to her keen edges. Varric’s book didn’t mention that.

Mahanon catches himself staring, snaps to, funnels his attention into making the plans necessary to reach her Warden friend.

On the eve of departure, he runs across her in the tavern, where’s she hunched like her namesake over the roasted carcass of some indistinct species of fowl.

“Inquisitor, I didn’t know you walked among the little people,” she says. There’s an ironic glint in her eye that says she saw him drinking with Bull, which is his euphemism for hitting on a Ben-Hassrath agent. One of his many mutinies against having been anointed Herald of the shems’ burning goddess, truth be told.

Good thing he’s mustered enough prudence to keep a clear head for the morrow. “Serah Hawke, what a pleasure.”

Her eyes flick to the bar, where Bull is needling Cabot. “Is it?”

“A rare one.”

“Interesting,” she says, “how responsibility makes right proper nobs of us all.”

“Maybe it’s just the higher class of booze talking.”

A short bark of laughter that fades into a slicing smile. “Call me Marian,” she says.

The exchange stays with him all the way to Crestwood. It bothers him that her laconic response feels like a circumstantial defeat of his subversion. Not for the first time, he has to still the urge to let it all go to pieces.

His pensive mood dissipates at the first tensing of his bow string, and the tavern is his first stop on their return to Skyhold. This is how he lives now: each lull is famine, every conflict a feast. Sated as he is, he has no problem contending with Marian Hawke.

Too bad she left for the Approach already, though it’s hardly surprising. Cassandra’s still blasting Varric with ominous looks for having kept Hawke’s whereabouts a secret, and they are just slightly less murderous without Hawke herself around to fuel the Lady Seeker’s ire. Mahanon sighs philosophically, and resorts to amusing himself with dull reports on Orlesian politics, followed by the usual round of drinks with Bull. On impulse, he discusses strategy instead of flirting. Time enough for that later.

When he goes to the Approach, he brings Bull along. He doesn’t know why he expected the excursion to the ritual tower to be fruitful. Now that he’s heard Livius Erimond’s shite go at logic, he’s itching to make like Sera and have him eat it. All of it. Of course, Erimond thwarts that desire by scuttling away.

Mahanon methodically vents his frustration on demons and warden mages alike, but the exercise doesn’t have the same zing when you’re felling duped minions instead of the mastermind. Which Erimond isn’t. Only a self-important lackey. And he, Mahanon, is a long way from sticking it to Corypheus. Demons, on the other hand— In the numbers they’ve been summoned, he’ll run out of arrows.

His arrow sinks amid a terror’s eye cluster. Right in the space that might be called a forehead, given the demon’s whimsical sense of anatomy. With a grimace, Mahanon loads another, and loosens an explosive shot at a Warden spellbinder.

“Boss, five o’clock!”

Bull’s cry tears through the chaos of battle. Mahanon spins around just in time to see another terror ready to unleash its impossible scream. Its fetid aura ripples over him, and his movements turn sluggish. No chance of leaping away. Shadows swarm all around.

He scents the sharp tang of ozone before he sees the flash of lightning, hears its crack. The terror’s paralyzed. No hesitation: he lines up a close quarters long shot, leaps backwards on its discharge, leaving what’s left of the injured shadows for Bull’s charge to dispatch.

Across the way, Marian Hawke brandishes her staff with a flourish, and, improbably, takes the time to wink at Mahanon. Her take on guarding their backs is as dramatic as it is effective. Point for Varric: that, he did write about.

Back at Skyhold, he beelines for the tavern. Well, after the war room, where there’s dissent of opinion: Commander Curly thinks they should waste not a moment and march on Adamant this instant, never you mind that Lady de Whosit’s sappers will take time to wrangle into position, while Josephine contends that an early Halamshiral arrival will benefit the Inquisition’s image, as well as give Lady de Whosit time to get the message that her sappers require wrangling. Leliana has no views on sappers or the wrangling thereof, but she doesn’t see any urgency in marching on Adamant.

He’s just caught Bull up on the situation. “Change of plans, huh, Boss?” Count on Bull to take everything in stride.

“It seems like a good idea.” Mahanon stares at his ale with an expression that contradicts not just every word in the sentence, but every syllable as well. “Hope you like epaulets.”

“Uniforms are good.” Bull pulls at his drink with a contemplative air. “Lets you know where someone stands, what their allegiances are.”

“Unless somebody wears the uniform for reasons other than loyalty.”

“Yeah, pretty much.”

Mahanon can’t tell what exactly in Bull’s tone has changed, but there’s an undercurrent there that makes him think he, Mahanon, has just agreed to something he didn’t know was even being discussed. He forgoes the planned flirting. They talk about Bull’s Orlais adventures instead.

Neither those stories, however, nor the reports he read with half his attention, nor Josephine’s meticulous etiquette lessons, are sufficient preparation for the Orlesian court. His uniform feels itchy the entire blasted night, and he half suspects that voidawful sensation is half responsible for his decision to let the assassin have Celene. The other half is equal parts anger, a strict sense of comeuppance, and an appreciation for Briala he didn’t know he had.

When he drags himself back to the tavern, the first thing of note he does is tell Maryden that if she sings Empress of Fire one more time, she’ll end up like her hair-pulling rival.

The second thing of note, he doesn’t do; it happens to him.

“Is this him?” The human woman’s gold jewels are a rich glitter against her brown skin, a few shades darker than his own. She swats at Marian Hawke with an astonishing feathered hat, and says, “Well played, Hawke.” Her laughter calls to mind the clinking of royals.

“Bela means I’ve been out-cheating her all night, Inquisitor,” says Marian Hawke from behind her cards, “and now she’s trying to distract me. Which is,” she adds dryly, without taking her eyes from her hand, “the only way a lousy cheater like her can win.”

The woman called Bela seems not in the least bothered by the happy barrel of daggers that is Marian Hawke. “There are other ways, my surly little eyas,” she says with genuine affection. And with a frank glance at Mahanon: “Maybe you should give them a try.”

Varric, who is the third occupant at their small table, chooses this moment to cut in. “Admiral Isabela, Inquisitor Lavellan. Iquisitor, Admiral Isabela. Thanks to Hawke’s prodding, she has offered her skills to the Inquisition for the time being.”

Whatever is left of his Halamshiral manners, he squanders on chit-chat. He wasn’t looking forward to drinking alone, and meeting the Isabela seems like a decent enough distraction. What keeps him awake into the night, however, is the image of Hawke’s intense scrutiny of her cards, her lips pressed into a line like a knife’s edge. He might have been too caught up in thinking about the ball’s repercussions to recognize the pirate from Varric’s description, but he’s aware enough to notice Hawke’s curious discomfort with Isabela’s banter. And his own interest in it.

This is why, he rationalizes, he spends so much time observing Marian Hawke on the way to Adamant. He doesn’t go out of his way to seek her out, but if she’s around, he pays attention. Her most noteworthy action consists of gossiping with Varric, still well away from Cassandra’s line of sight.

The eve of the siege brings a variation. A shadow falls across the sheaf of arrows he’s been checking. He heard her approach, of course, no point in pretending he couldn’t recognize the precise cadence of her step.

“It’s comforting, isn’t it?” she says. “I usually undo and redo the wraps on my staff grip at least twice.”

He slides the last arrow into the quiver before looking at her. “Habit or superstition?”

“Both, I think.”

“I tell myself it’s only habit, but I’d lie if I said I didn’t believe it might help tomorrow to know that I have exactly forty nine arrows per quiver. And who knows, maybe it does help as much as the strategy.” This is the most he’s said to her, and yet it feels like he’s picking up a conversation they just left off. It is, among other things, disconcerting. “Drink?” He holds out the flask at his elbow.

The tips of her fingers brush his. He notes they are cold. “Hey, real Avvar mead,” she says after a long pull. “Didn’t figure you for a mead drinker.”

“Our Avvar agent insisted the tavern stock up.”

“I bet Cabot loved that.”

“He met the request with his usual gentle good humor.” He catches himself wondering how much of the mead’s subtle honey flavor he’d taste were he to kiss her. “So, what brings you here?”

“You.”

“Taking your friend Isabela’s advice?”

“Actually.” She licks a bit of mead from the corner of her mouth, and fixes him with her lightning blue glance. “My own.”

“Not how I expected this evening to turn out.”

“Interested?”

He’d lie if he said no, which, in truth, he considers doing. But he’s made it through The Tale of the Champion; he believes she never complicates things beyond a night’s pleasure. So he says yes.

It’s not what he expected. He didn’t know what to expect. There’s the faint taste of mead on her tongue as they tumble into his tent, and there’s frantic undoing of too many clasps and buckles, and fingernails and teeth raking back and neck. There’s soft, smooth skin at odds with the taut muscles beneath, and there’s a wicked low sound in her throat when his mouth finds her nipple, and a matching look in her eyes when the heat of her mouth closes on his cock.

There are his fingers buried in her slickness, and her hands in his hair, and that low, wicked sound—Creators, that sound she makes—as she opens up to his tongue. There’s the shudder of her climax, and the faint, rhythmic pulsing of her heated cunt as she slides down the length of him.

There’s Marian Hawke saying, “Undo your braid,” and the hunger in her glance, and the clenching of her thighs under his hands as she rides and rides him. There’s that sound again. There’s the body’s welcome disaster.

There’s the world’s oldest language, and her face buried in his hair when they’re both spent.

Later, after she’s dressed, she pauses on her way out. “Mind if I ask you something? How do you do this?” And, without waiting for an answer: “If I were Dalish, I’d have chucked this whole Herald business a long time ago, let the humans sort out their own problems.”

“Not like I don’t think about it.”

“But?” She wants her answer.

“Better me than some Chantry-going human. At least, this way the hand that holds the holy sword has seen life at its point.”

“You’re an archer.”

He chuckles. “Observant.” They stare at each other a moment. “I don’t think you’d have run, Marian.”

She seems to resolve some inner struggle before saying, “No, I guess not.”

Barring Kirkwall, she doesn’t run from much. That, he sees for himself on Adamant’s ramparts. Even cornered by two pride demons and a pack of shades, she stands her ground in a flare of magic. He lets fly an explosive shot, bursting down the shades, and giving her the opening needed to have at the demons.

“Keep my troops safe,” he tells her after the combat is over. And: “We’re even now.”

He realizes she’ll disagree with this equation once he decides Stroud should hold Nightmare off, but there is no question of leaving her in the Fade. First, Varric would be heartbroken, and he, Mahanon, doesn’t believe in bringing grief to his friends. Second, there are plenty of senior Wardens at Weisshaupt, and whatever Corypheus and his dragon may be, this isn’t a Blight. Third, he can’t see himself leaving her behind, though part of him believes she’d have found a way out.

A thought she echoes, just before she leaves for Weisshaupt. “Maybe I’d have made it out,” she says instead of goodbye. A breeze ruffles her collar. There are dark circles under her eyes. “But I also like living.”

“Living is good,” he agrees.

“Then stay alive, Mahanon. When this is over, I owe you a drink.”

It becomes a post scriptum refrain to her letters, that drink. She doesn’t write often, and they’re always short missives in an unsurprisingly bold and angular hand. Five of them in two years: I never doubted you’d beat the blighted snot out of Corypheus; Weisshaupt was a jolly pile of vipers; Rivain is nice this time of year; AM too dRukn, pls imagIne A puN hre; be careful, I hear Ferelden hates your guts even more than Orlais.

She isn’t wrong, though what both nations hate isn’t Mahanon, but the dent the Inquisition made in their pride. He’s tempted to keep Inquisition around, if only to say fuck you very much, but the thought of all that power harnessed to the Divine, even one such as Leliana, kills the notion fast. Besides, he’s better at hit and run tactics, and he wants less pomp and circumstance in his life.

The official Inquisitor send-off party is set for First Day’s Eve. He contrives for the tavern to be the festivities’ heart over the great hall by making unscrupulous reference to Krem and Maryden’s recent engagement. Josephine can’t disagree. The garlands are crafted out of golden Antivan foil-paper, the lanterns waiting for their midnight release are dyed and embellished rice paper, and Dagna has taken a break from fine-tuning his prosthesis to hint that something, at some point, just might explode with glitter. There are also four types of spiced wine on offer, along with five kinds of brandy, just as many herbal liqueurs, and entirely too many barrels of ale. And that’s just the drink; the food is even more splendidly varied. What touches him most is that Josephine has gotten the kitchens halla butter, which resulted in a pile of gloriously golden hearth cakes.

“Looks like the perfect occasion for that drink I promised.”

The sound of her voice fills him with an odd, lightheaded sensation, and he takes his time turning around. She must have just arrived. Her nod to the cold is a dark coat cut in a military style, at odds with the pattern of dragons and daisies of her fingerless gloves and matching woolen scarf. She’s grown out her hair a bit, perhaps to set off the new scar on her eyebrow, and the scant gray hairs he remembers have become a rakish silver streak.

She smiles, and her blue eyes glint as ironic as ever.“Do you know what they say about shaking hands with Orlesians?”

“What?” he replies cautiously. He realizes he hasn’t recovered from seeing her yet.

“Give them a hand, they’ll take the whole arm.”

“Next time I see Fen’Harel, I’ll tell him he should move to Orlais.”

They regard each other a moment. “Hey,” Marian says. There are spots of color in her normally pale cheeks, making her look for a moment less full of edges.

“You look well,” he tells her.

“So do you, considering.”

“I lost my arm, not my face.”

He’s surprised how well he remembers her sharp bark of laughter. “I think you’ll do well in Kirkwall,” she says.

Varric must have told her already, which makes him think her arrival is more planned than it looks. “About that drink,” he says.

She takes out a small silver flask from her coat’s inner pocket, uncaps it for him. The delicate honey-like scent of starflower hits his nostrils, and with it, the image of bees buzzing in the summer air as a breeze snaps the sails on the aravels.

“You like?” Her grin is blinding. “Just something to tide you over until you make back to the Marches.”

Mahanon takes his time savoring the familiar flavor. “This makes up for the lateness,” he says. “How did you think of it?”

“I’d like to take credit, but my friend Merrill suggested it. She said Dalish clans in the Marches make starflower wine, so—” She gestures vaguely, and adds with a small note of triumph, “Now the Avvar mead is explained.”

It’s his turn to laugh. “I can’t believe it bothered you this entire time.”

“I don’t like inconsistencies, if it makes a difference.” She shrugs, a swift movement. “Listen, I wanted to stop by sooner, but it never seemed like a good time. Or a good idea. I mean—” She picks at her glove. “You had an Inquisition to run, and I—” A sigh. “Fuck it. What I mean is, I’ve a talent for complicating things.”

“If I didn’t like complicated, I’d have never left my clan.” It’s as much an admission to himself as to her. “And it’s not like I insisted you come.”

“I’m glad you didn’t.”

He figured as much. It’s what stayed his hand when the urge to reply to her letters became overwhelming. “Marian,” he says. Her name in his mouth is headier than the wine. “Let’s go pick lanterns before the good ones are gone.”

The night is cold and clear, the sky immense with the lucid glitter of stars. All around the courtyard, colorful paper lanterns have been hung, unlit.

“Look, this one matches your scarf.” Mahanon nods to one of the more fanciful ones, cunningly crafted out of red and orange paper to resemble a Fereldan Frostback. And he can’t resist adding, “Nice scarf, by the way.”

She laughs as she unhooks the lantern. “Merrill knitted it for me. She calls it a friendship pattern. I think it suits me.”

He can’t decide what he likes more: that she has friends who knit her winter wear, or that she delights in it so much. He watches her as she inspects lantern after lantern. Packed snow crunches underfoot.

“How about this one?” Marian hands him her dragon and picks up a round blue lantern, in the surface of which an expert hand has cut out the shape of Fervenial and filled in the space with onion skin parchment. “It looks like your vallaslin,” she says, breath billowing in the cold air. “It’ll be like a bright little tree floating up.”

He wants to tell her how surprising he finds her choice, but the sounds of Bull’s drunken tones shatter the illusion that they’re the only two people in the world. “I’m telling you, kadan, it was only yesterday I was teaching that boy proper shield form.”

“Amatus, wouldn’t you rather reminisce inside the tavern? Drunken tears in this desperate cold would be an unmitigated disaster for your face.”

“They’ll be the best battle scars I ever had. Let’s get lanterns. I saw some dragon ones earlier.”

Marian, grinning, holds a finger to her lips. He can’t remember having seen any other dragons, so he gestures toward the battlements. Another surprise: for a mage, she’s not half bad at stealth. A timely escape, as people are starting to gather in the courtyard below.

“It must be near midnight,” she says softly.

“I’ll have to go down and make a speech.” He sets her dragon on a nearby ledge. “Did you know Verimensis is the ancient Tevene translation of the month’s elvhen name? Or so I read. Month of truth.” He pauses, aware his words are placing him on a precipice he couldn’t have envisioned a few hours ago.

“And I’m inclined to believe this speculation,” he adds, but it’s her attentive silence that convinces him to continue. “My people have a custom: at the New Year we choose someone to tell a truth heretofore hidden. The light of truth, set free.” And, with a nod to the lanterns, “In that, at least, the gulf that separates us isn’t so wide at all.”

Laughter drifts up from the courtyard, Rainier and Sera by the sounds of it.

“I’m going to miss this,” he says. “But what I wanted to say is, I’d like to share a truth with you.”

She nods, mutely. The line of her body reminds him of his bowstring.

“The truth is this: I hope you’ll go back to Kirkwall. The future is uncertain, but I am sure I want to meet it with you by my side.”

In the silence that follows, it seems to him the world is frozen under an infinite canopy of stars. And then, from bowstring to arrow: a kiss is her answer, because sometimes words fail where bodies do not. She presses herself against him as if she’s trying to obliterate the barriers of flesh, her mouth hot and faintly redolent of spices, her arms tight around his neck.

“Just so you know,” she says against his mouth, “I’ve just taken a flying leap into an abyss.”

“Sounds like you.”

She nips at his lower lip, laughs. “Let’s light our lanterns now,” she says, “before that speech kills the magic.”

“I make very inspirational speeches, I’ll have you know.” But he takes his lantern from her hand, and holds it out.

She grabs her dragon, makes a face that hints at her opinion of speeches, then gestures across the lanterns. Inside their paper housings, the wicks flame.

“Ready?” he asks. It’s as much a question for him as for her.

She smiles, a small, surprising smile, more like a new moon sliver than the expected curved blade, and lets go of her paper dragon. His constellation globe drifts up soon after, and he feels an on odd admixture of anticipation and comfort as he puts his arm around her. Above them, two points of light, unfettered, follow each other into the starry, vast unknown.