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The Danger of Touch
In my time as a slave, I learned many rules. I knew how to appear menacing when my master required a show of strength. I learned many methods of killing, both with and without tools. Though I was never permitted to indulge in excess, I also knew the exquisite taste that could be teased forth from the Tevinter vineyards, having tasted my master's meals and drink for poison on more than one occasion.
Beyond it all, however, there is one lesson that I learned that superseded all other knowledge.
The danger of touch.
Men die because of touch. How else could you kill a man? The touch of a blade, the touch of magic, the touch of poison. Touch causes pain. The good slave – that is, the smart slave – learns very early on to find any way to avoid the touch of a master. Myself included.
A few months as a free man do little to calm the fears of a lifetime of servitude.
I hate being touched.
That being said, it is a unique feeling, being able to do something about unwanted contact.
It didn't take long for Merrill to realize that I did not take kindly to her absent personal bubble. For such a naïve elf, she is fairly good at judging body language - when she doesn't think about it too much. A few dirty looks and deft avoidances of her constant need to pet people put her off after only a few minutes.
Dealing with Isabella's attentions proved to be a bit more difficult.
And unfortunately, this just so happened to be what was plaguing me today.
She leaned forward, settling her elbows on her knees in such a way that cause her cleavage to strain against her bodice. She sat in the same worn out chair that most of my 'guests' occupied when they decided to drop by to bother me. "Don't you get bored up here, all alone?" She asked. Her voice was low and throaty in a way that made my ears itch. She sounded like Hadriana.
"I overheard you talking to Varric the other day," she said. "And I got to thinking. What DO you do up here by yourself all day when Hawke is taking a breather?"
"Dance." I said immediately. "I thought you said you were listening."
"Don't be coy."
"You aren't interested in my personal habits and we both know it. What is it that you want?"
I could feel her eyes climb up my body. An appraisal. Like a new horse on auction, or perhaps a dog. I held back a grimace and soon enough her gaze dragged itself from my torso to my eyes. "I think you know exactly what I want, Fenris. Tell me, are you as rough in bed as you look?"
"Considering I have never actually slept in a bed, I wouldn't know."
Her eyes flickered over to the large, canopied affair that occupied the other end of the room. Like everything else, it was in disarray. It also held a thick, even coat of dust over its surfaces. There were a few daggers imbedded in one of the columns where the draperies had sagged free of their ties. "I see." She said, "But I don't understand why."
"Call it a mystery, then," I said, settling back in my chair.
"I'll call it something." Again with that look. I fought the urge to shudder. "So. Where do you sleep? The couch? The floor? You know when I say 'bed' it is only a suggestion."
I turned to stare at the fire. Of all the things in this room, that fire was the one element that didn't seem dead and aged in the aftermath of the events that had taken place here. I made certain to keep the hearth warm though I didn't quite know why. Everyone needs something to do, I suppose.
Isabella stayed for a while, but in the end, she made a frustrated noise and stumped noisily to her feet. I, on the other hand, reveled in the strange sensation that came from ignoring someone.
It is not something I've done much.
She walked around where I was sitting, close enough for her fingertips to graze my arm where my tattoos were thickest. I think, perhaps, it was a testament to my self control that I didn't break her arm, nor give any indication of my discomfiture. She seemed the sort to continue pecking at things if she sensed she found a weak point.
"You'll come 'round," she murmured. Then she was gone and I was alone with my stinging skin. Still, it was a step in the right direction, I reasoned, and cause enough for an internal pat on the back. With any luck, she'd leave off.
So busy was I, exploring my tiny triumph, that I hardly registered the sound of footsteps on the heavy carpet. Hawke was there before I'd had time to turn and see who it was. "What'd you do to Isabella?" she asked. She laughed. "She looked like a kicked cat. Did you break her heart, Fenris?"
"At the risk of shattering your euphemism, a heart can only be broken when linked with emotions." I replied with a shrug. I grabbed the poker from the floor and stirred the fire. It didn't need it, but for some reason I felt like doing something. "As I am sure she has neither the capacity nor the ability to attach emotion to a physical act, I'm certain she was just upset that I did not let her have her way."
Minutes stretched. The sound of the fire devouring the log was the only noise beyond that of the cicadas through the broken window. Several moments passed before I withdrew the poker, tapped the end against the hearthstones to remove the ash, and neatly set it aside.
Hawke was staring at me. "What?" I demanded.
"Nothing. That was just…" she trailed off as though thinking for the right term. After a moment, she rolled her left shoulder and gestured vaguely. "Unexpectedly profound."
Hawke leaned forward and dropped a bundle on the bench beside me. The cloth that held it together loosen with a few tugs and the smell of fresh bread filled the air. "Here. Mother had me brings this over. She said to tell you 'You're too skinny for your height and you need to put some meat on your bones.'" Hawke's brow creased with good humor as she pitched her voice an octave higher in what was a ridiculous parody of her mother's tone.
A smile tugged at my mouth but I banished it before it could spread. "Interesting. I wasn't aware your mother could cook."
"She can't." Hawke produced a belt knife and set about slicing one of the apples that I hadn't noticed hidden away behind the bread. Investigating further, I discovered two rounds of aged cheese and a jug of apple cider. "I made it."
We ate in companionable silence for a few minutes. The bread was rich and chewy, the apples tart, and the cheese mellow. I swallowed a mouthful of cider then passed the bottle to Hawke. "Thank you for the meal. Fresh baked goods are a rarity to me."
"That's a pity. Do you know how to cook?"
"I've picked up basics over the past few years. However, my skills are limited to putting things in boiling water and hoping they don't make me sick."
She snorted. "Sounds like Carver. He never could do much past burning water. There was one time he gave me food poisoning when he tried making dinner for my birthday" Her expression was a smile. It seemed rueful. "He felt so bad that he did my chores for a month. Never thought I'd missing milking cows and feeding chickens."
Her smile didn't fade but there was a minute tightening of her jaw and the skin around her eyes. "Ah, yes. I'm sorry, I forgot. Carver's my brother. He died." She had a clipped tone that enhanced her Ferelden dialect more than usual. "I'd assumed that Varric had already given you all my gory personal details."
"Oh. My condolences." The bench was warm, this close to the stoked fire and my hindquarters were starting to go numb from sitting in one position for too long. I didn't want to shift my weight and give the impression that I was discomfited. "I haven't talked much with the others."
She seemed to be waiting for something. What it was, I had no idea, so I kept my silence. After a while she sighed and stood. "Thank you, Fenris."
"You don't pry. I appreciate that."
"We all have our pasts, Hawke. I keep my own counsel. There is no reason to expect anything different of you." I took the opportunity to stand as well. The rush of circulation through my lower body was welcome, if a bit painful. I resisted the urge to massage my hip. "That being said, however, I have no issue if you have need to speak of your burdens." As the words materialized, I wanted to cringe. The offer seemed to meet with no dislike from the woman, as strange as it sounded to my own ears.
Soon after, she excused herself. There was a lingering sense of awkwardness in her departure but nothing I was not able to dismiss within moments.
I surveyed the empty room. The fire burned warm in the hearth, though the effect did not lend life to the rest of the space. Instead, it seemed that the fire sucked all color from the furniture, leaching life from what were once deep red curtains, and fading the walls from off-white to a dusky, dirty grey.
I looked down at my hands. I was not wearing gloves and the markings etched to my skin were bright against the faded calluses of my palms. The brightness of the fire did little to draw the stark white tattoos.