Night had already fallen in Kirkwall, but Varric spoke at the same volume as always. He had to if he wanted to be heard over the street brawls and drunken songs that made up the city-state's lullaby. When you couldn't just step out into the streets whenever you wanted, it was strangely uplifting to be out in the city. That crawling sensation settled into your very bones in the Gallows, but you got used to it. As natural as the stars Hawke could make out more clearly than the piss puddles he had to avoid in the roads. The idea of going back to it when he walked between Varric and Aveline? Hawke buried the discomfort behind a smirk, letting his dwarven friend fill the silence.

"This whole fiasco is Kirkwall in a nutshell. Stolen money, Coterie infighting, wrongful accusations, killing someone to prove you didn't kill someone, impulsive business deals," Varric trailed off into a chuckle, gesturing to Hawke and flashing a grin. "All we're missing is a political scandal."

"It's not too late," Hawke taunted back, the banter like a balm. "I'm sure we can come across something disgraceful."

"It could have ended much worse than it did. And those miners will be better off now with the raise Hawke promised." A good deed lifted Aveline's spirits as well as alcohol lifted Hawke's and Varric's. Not that Hawke didn't notice her pace slowing as their path escorting Hawke back to the Circle and Templars reached its end.

So he laughed to keep their minds off that ugly business. "Oh, Hubert was not happy with that."

"Frankly?" Ah, perfect, Aveline's rare playful smile graced her face. "Hubert be damned."

Varric put his hand to his chest in mock surprise, eyes glinting at Hawke mischievously for a second before focusing on Aveline. "Guard Captain Aveline, having fun? You really are magical, Hawke."

"I am the only mage in Thedas that can be in the Circle and run a business." Maker's breath, that was a blunder. The time he lost strip poker to Isabela in the Hanged Man—for the third time—was less embarrassing. He'd be damned if he wouldn't try to salvage it anyway. "What? There something on my face?"

"No, just—" Aveline sighed, marching ahead at a regular pace now. Hawke could sense Varric holding back on saying something like the metallic, weighty feeling that came before rain. "How are you doing at the Gallows?"

"With a name like that, it's about what you'd expect." He couldn't go into it with her or Varric. Meredith kept him busy on errands and somehow, his outside life still managed to worm its way in. Like handling the business with Hubert, actually. Then there was Merrill's escape that Anders coordinated for a few days from now. Yes, Garrett had enough to deal with already. The worried, pitying stares would just have to wait. Maybe they could perfect it in the meantime. Wouldn't that be nice?

"Told you he wouldn't give a straight answer."

"Hawke—" Never missed a hint, that Aveline. It was rare that Varric and Aveline were teaming up against him, though, so maybe Hawke should feel special.

"Yes, mother?"

She leveled her best guard captain stare at him and added a dash of nurturing concern for good measure. Somewhere in a nearby alley, a stranger puked up tonight's drink as their friend slurred through comforting them. "I know you, Hawke. You have to be careful in there in ways you aren't out here. If ever. I'm right to be worried about you."

"And she's not alone." Varric joined in with his own thoughtful stare and Garrett felt guilt like a stone hit the pit of his stomach. He knew he'd figure it out somehow or another, but the idea behind that was to get Merrill out and… Alright, there was no real plan for the part that saved his skin.

"Oh, you guys are so thoughtful! I'll put in a good word for you in my letter to Mother tonight."

Aveline sighed more heavily than all that armor she lugged around, shaking her head at him. In the corner of his eyes, he saw Varric's trademark 'you're really in it now' smile. "Can't you take this seriously? Your life could be in danger. Again."

"I couldn't be safer, Aveline." More accurately, he was unsafe as ever but in a different way, so at least Hawke could handle whatever came. Probably. "I'm useful to the Circle, so Meredith isn't any more suspicious of me than she already was."

Right now, that was a win and good enough for Hawke. He led the way toward the Gallows to keep his friends moving and maybe spare himself a lengthy discussion about exactly what kind of idea this was. Not when it was too late to change course anyway. And it was a long ways better than outrunning darkspawn.

"Cullen's backed me up as a good little mage and everything. I'm ready for the big event so I can keep suspicion off me—see? There's a plan in all this."

"That's a pretty generous use of the word 'plan'." Varric kept his smirk up, but it was only partially a joke. At least he wasn't trying to drag the walk on for more time to lecture him. Aveline.

"Writers."

"Just—" Aveline resigned herself with a sigh, catching up to their pace in a few strides. "Be careful, Hawke. I mean it."

"Don't do anything you wouldn't invite us to," Varric agreed, chuckling.

"I wouldn't dream of it."

"Another successful report." Meredith set aside the physical report, or he assumed it was, and looked at him with an appraising smile over gauntleted hands. "Nicely done, Hawke."

Andraste's holy knickers, was that genuine praise from Knight Commander Meredith? He couldn't decide what was more discomforting—that she could even mean it or that he was being given a once-over like a fine magical artifact worth purchasing. Or was it that he'd started to think of their one-on-one meetings like any other day instead of risky?

"But when I tell you that armor is flattering, it's too much?" Hawke smirked, settling down into his usual chair. "Please, you'll make me blush."

"I've only just begun." Wait. Garrett was still catching up to the first comment and—was that a threat? Or what, a promise for more flattery? Bad news no matter how he looked at it. Once Merrill was out, he doubted those warm, fuzzy feelings would last. "You are an example to other Circle mages, Hawke—and not in the way I first imagined."

Wasn't that barely audible laugh of hers as she stood and circled her desk just ominous. Templars going through his room almost daily while he wasn't there, that rotating guard as promised, and the feeling of eyes always on him wherever he went… And there was more she'd imagined but not acted on. Maker's breath. Meredith walked past him without a glance, and he heard the door to the office shut.

"If only they understood as well as you do how vital our work is here."

Garrett knew very well what being backed into a corner looked like. The narrow escape from Lothering. Scraping together a plan to leave Ferelden. Persuading Mother to leave Bethany behind. Selling himself into servitude to buy his way into Kirkwall. Selling himself again to get into the Deep Roads, of all places. He thanked his luck for getting out every time, but somehow, Hawke just kept finding himself in corners of all shapes and sizes. This one just happened to be a worn armchair in the Templar Knight Commander's office. And he did the same thing he did every time: put on a good show of having it all under control. The rest usually followed. Usually.

"That's me. Templar sympathizer and model mage."

"There is a great deal of work that must be done for the Circle and society at large that Templars themselves cannot do." She found her way back to her desk without anything else weird happening, coming back into view on his right and taking a seat with that same steady expression. Hawke could feel the closed door behind him like it was charged with magic. He knew it wasn't, but that didn't change a damn thing. "With such a record for success and promising behavior, I would be negligent not to entrust more responsibilities to you."

This had to be a test of some kind. A trick to burn him out and get him to rat out Merrill by mistake. Andraste's ass, why was it always Hawke? Was it something he said or did? Perhaps that pumpkin he stole once from a farmer in Lothering. Or was it because he told that Chantry sister who spat at Bethany as a child that she had the face of a toad and a heart full of warts? Maybe the Maker just hated him that much? Blast it all, he really should've gone to the Chantry more.

"Oh, I don't know about that." He shrugged it off, propping one leg up on his knee like this was his den back at home. Just getting ready for a round of cards with Varric so he could part with coin on his terms. "I am still a mage. How much responsibility can I possibly handle?"

"Don't play the fool." That was an order if he'd ever heard one. She set one fist on the table, that smile dropping to her usual stern stonewall look. Somehow, that didn't get rid of the tension. "I know you've seen the atrocities in the dark underbelly of the world that so many others shut out."

That sentence alone was like a bucket of cold water, or—no, like a sheet of snow dropping on him unceremoniously from the trees of Ferelden. Even Carver laughed with Bethany at the yelp Garrett made, rushing to get his coat off as if that would make any difference then. They were just kids; he was barely in his teenage years. Father had died only a few years back, though they felt long and yet—like it had just happened. Their laughter was uncommon to hear those days and Hawke would do anything to make it continue.

But happiness never lasted.

The same feeling hit him when he saw Mother sobbing over Bethany's body, begging her to get up against all reason. Even if her body wasn't completely still and lifeless, she never would have been able to walk in that condition. Or ever again, most likely. Maker, the vacant look on her face still woke Hawke up with a choking gasp some nights.

After a lifetime as the family with no father and passing the silent desperation of other families with mages in them, seeing what they could be brought to when the Templars sometimes came for them… Yes, Hawke knew what life could do to a person. He just had the good sense not to talk about it to someone he had imprisoned and at his will.

Garrett felt the smile falter just a hair and no doubt, Meredith saw it too. The smile didn't reach his eyes anymore, not even if he faked it like he often did. "And what would make you think that? Usually, I hear about my roguish good looks or clever wit."

"It is your resilience in the face of hardship." She sat back, keeping one hand palm down on the desk as if to keep it in place despite her relatively relaxed posture. "My older sister was a mage too. Amelia was gentle, a tender soul, and she was not ready for the rigorous standards that the Circle upholds."

Garrett found his expression softening along with her tone. Whatever her opinion of mages or freedom or common human decency… The Meredith in front of him was a younger sister living with a mage in the family who saw her as sibling she didn't want to lose.

"…You hid her."

Meredith nodded sharply. "Not well. The Templars were called, and when they came, my sister entered a deal with a demon and became an abomination." She said it with a level voice but the tension in the air gave away that this was still raw. And always would be, if Hawke's own losses meant anything. "I watched as she cut my family down and before she was put to rest by the Templars, she had taken 70 other souls with her. I barely escaped with my life."

Of course, Hawke had heard plenty of stories like this. Told tearfully or angrily, over tankards or corpses in rain-battered coastlines, hugging people he'd just met and never see again because it just felt like he had to. Nothing made him ready to hear it from Knight Commander Meredith, who turned a blind eye to the Templars under her that wanted to make mages Tranquil for the smallest suspicion and never let up on Orsino or any Circle mage.

"I can see it in your eyes even now. You understand where no one else does how important it is to protect mages from themselves."

That wasn't what he did. Sending Feynriel to the Dalish was because he needed guidance to understand his abilities. There was a damn good reason he never once considered sending him to the Circle to be shackled like an animal. The half-elf mage didn't have the benefit of noble standing and something of a reputation to protect him. What Hawke wanted to shield him from was ignorant people, not himself. But how could a woman like Meredith understand? She saw the tragedy of magic as a child, and now it was the only thing she could see.

"Not all of them have your resolve, Hawke. Those that don't will inevitably end up hurting others—or worse."

Where was he supposed to begin? Hawke couldn't talk about this, not with her. It didn't matter that she was wrong, and most mages he knew about whose lives ended in tragedy only went that way because they felt trapped. All he could think of right then was how his entire family stayed on the move to keep Bethany and Garrett from being found out and taken away only to have Bethany die unburied. What did her freedom do for her when she died young anyway? Would she have been happier in the Circle, not like tender Amelia Stannard? Or would she have withered in there and met an early death in one of the grim, horrific ways that so many Circle mages did?

Neither side was right or wrong. The Templars shackled the mages and the Chantry collared the Templars. Like everything else Hawke just had to stick his nose in, it was a bloody mess. And he wasn't here about that anyway. This was all for Merrill. Whatever he did to protect her, Hawke could manage.

"It's a harsh truth. Never goes over well at parties."

That seemed to do it for Meredith. Her analytical smile was back, and she leaned towards him over the desk.

"In the coming weeks, your tasks will be to watch over your fellow mages. Report anyone you find suspicious." Oh, was that all? Hawke knew that if he came up empty, she'd start to suspect him. Just peachy. "And if work outside the Gallows needs a covert approach to track down dangerous mages, I will call on you. Be prepared." He endured another assessing look, weighing him for Maker-knew-what. "You are dismissed."

Led by the new watch of Templars to his cell, Garrett stared up at the ceiling that night as his mind whirled to think of answers. Well, Garrett, you got yourself here. Merrill would escape in just a couple days now, technically, and he couldn't risk it all now. He could try to covertly talk to Orsino or contact Anders somehow to ask after which mages he should put under Meredith's scrutiny, but… Well, shit. Now what?