"91. 92. 93 …" Fenris paused in the count, his ears picking up a familiar whinny. His heartrate increased with relief and anticipation—Evelyn was home.
"Papa! You stopped counting!" His daughter's voice broke into his thoughts.
"I am sorry." Obediently, he resumed. "94, 95, 96, 97, 98, 99 … 100. Prepared or not, here I come!"
There was an answering rustle in the treetops; she was on the move. Fenris closed his eyes, listening to her progress among the branches. Daughter of two warriors though she might be, his daughter inclined more toward Isabela's style of stealth. Or she would when she learned not to make so much noise, Fenris thought with amusement.
He and Hawke had been the proud owners of this Antivan lemon grove for the past six years, and the proud parents of Bianca Vael Hawke for a little more than five of those.
After the deaths of Meredith and Orsino, and the ascension of Aveline to the Viscount's seat, Fenris and Hawke had remained in Kirkwall, but it wasn't the same. Hawke had lost her taste for getting involved in the city's affairs, and Aveline had made it clear that despite her respect for Hawke, mercenaries who worked outside the law could no longer be tolerated. The empty space where the Chantry had stood was a constant reminder of what they had lost that day, and what Hawke had lost throughout her time in Kirkwall.
True to Cullen's prediction, he hadn't remained Knight-Commander of Kirkwall's Circle for long. They never found out where he'd been sent, but Varric's sources suggested it might have been Aeonar, the mages' prison. Bethany had been under constant suspicion and scrutiny, despite her valiant attempts to keep the Circle together while mages were revolting against their Chantry oppressors across the rest of Thedas, and after a little more than a year she had found it necessary to leave Kirkwall, escaping in the dead of night on Isabela's ship, the Temptress. After some serious consideration, and spurred on by the increasing interest the Chantry was showing in Hawke's role in the events that had shaped Kirkwall over the decade she'd spent there, Fenris and Evelyn had accompanied Bethany in her flight. They'd spent a couple of years on the run, enjoying the freedom and excitement of pirate life.
And then the miracle occurred—Hawke had discovered she was pregnant. The idea of a child had always teased at the backs of their minds, but after years in which Hawke had never shown the slightest indication of fertility, they had assumed that for whatever reason, it would never happen. The pregnancy had changed everything; with a child on the way, they could no longer afford to live in the kind of danger Isabela constantly courted, and they both felt a strong desire to settle down somewhere peaceful and quiet. A great deal of subterfuge had been necessary, since the Chantry was increasingly eager to discover Hawke's whereabouts and question her, and Tevinter magisters still came around occasionally looking for the famed lyrium warrior as an addition to their slave collections, but eventually they had settled here in the warm anonymity of the Antivan countryside. The local village pretended to think they were perfectly normal, given Hawke's willingness to help out on any and all occasions, and Hawke and Varric had arranged a complicated set of ruses to ensure safe communication—overly complicated, in Fenris's opinion, but that was Varric for you.
Hawke was returning now from a visit to the coast, purchasing supplies and checking on news from Varric. She was the logical choice for these journeys, as her appearance was far more easily modified and less noticeable to start with than Fenris's. He had to admit, he enjoyed being left at home with Bianca and only occasionally missed the greater excitement of the outside world. Even after all these years of patient tutelage, Hawke was an impatient Wicked Grace player at best … although when she resorted to her particular brand of cheating, it became an entirely new game, Fenris thought, warmth shooting through him. Hawke's absence had been slightly longer than usual this time, and he looked forward to being alone with her tonight.
A faint giggle cut through the air high above him, reminding him of the game in progress. He shook his thoughts off with some difficulty and applied his attention instead to listening for his daughter's movements.
Fenris moved stealthily across the grove to a twisted tree that rarely fruited. He parted two branches, looking up at Bianca's feet.
"Papa …" she complained. The tips of two long black braids appeared, and then the rest of the braids and finally her face, upside down as she hung from an upper branch by her knees. "No fair cheating with your elf ears."
"It is not cheating to use one's abilities," he reminded her. "You need to learn to be less noisy." Green eyes stared into green eyes, Fenris trying to hold the sternness, but it couldn't last. He'd been wrapped around Bianca's tiny little fingers since the first time he felt her movement inside Evelyn's body. During her mother's absences he did his best to be a strict parent and hold her to the rules, but they all knew how easily he folded in the face of his daughter's opposition. He smiled at her now. "You will learn."
Her eyes widened with excitement as she looked past his shoulder. "Mama!" She flipped casually off the branch, landing on her feet running.
Fenris turned around, his heart filling at the sight of his wife. He watched eagerly as Bianca raced through the trees toward her mother, leaping as soon as she was in reach. Hawke had put an oddly shaped box down when she saw the little girl coming, and she held her arms out, catching Bianca.
"Look at you! What has your father been feeding you?"
"Cookies!" Bianca giggled, burying her face in her mother's neck.
"I don't doubt it." Hawke caught Fenris's gaze over the top of their daughter's head. "And I bet neither of you saved any for me."
Fenris looked away sheepishly, and Bianca hugged her mother tighter. "We would have if we'd known you were coming today. We missed you!"
"And I missed you."
"No trouble?" Fenris asked.
Hawke shook her head and started to say something, but was interrupted by Bianca's insistent voice. "Presents! What did Uncle Varric send me?"
"How do you know he sent you anything?"
Bianca frowned. "He's Uncle Varric. He never forgets to send me a present."
"All right, then." Hawke put the little girl down and handed her the box, watching as Bianca deftly found the catch and lifted the lid.
"Ooh!" Bianca lifted from the box a perfect miniature replica of her namesake, Varric's crossbow, and a smaller box of quarrels. "Oh, looky, Mama!" As if she'd been doing it all her life, she loaded a quarrel, cocked the weapon, and fired it. A lemon fell from a tree, neatly skewered. "Wow!" She ran off to inspect her prize, and then moved deeper into the grove, accompanied by the newest Bianca's ratchets and clicks.
"It works?" Fenris asked, raising his eyebrows. "What have we ever done to Varric?"
Hawke grinned. "Left Kirkwall?"
"I believe that answers the question of whether he intends to come visit. He must know his reception would be less than cordial if he sent this item along."
Brandishing a piece of parchment, Hawke said, "I can't tell until I read the letter, and you know what that means." Her grin widened.
"Oh, no," Fenris said. "Before I allow you to use me in such a fashion, I intend to welcome you properly."
"I thought you'd never ask."
She came into his arms then, her sweet lips opening beneath his. All the concerns that lurked in the back of his mind whenever she was away, the ones he refused to acknowledge even to himself, faded in the onslaught of overwhelming sensations. Fenris turned her around, pressing her back against the nearest tree, his fingers gripping her hips and holding her still as he pressed himself urgently against her. Just as he was beginning to convince himself that Bianca's new toy would keep her away long enough, an errant quarrel sped through the air and bounced off the tree trunk above their heads.
Fenris groaned, leaning his head against Hawke's shoulder.
"Bianca Vael! If you can't play more responsibly, maybe the crossbow should be put away," Evelyn snapped.
"Sorry, Mama!" sang the little voice.
Evelyn pressed her cheek against Fenris's hair. "Later. After a very early bedtime," she promised.
"Was your journey uneventful?" he asked, pulling away from her distractingly soft, warm body.
"No trouble. A bit more curiosity than usual when picking up Varric's packet, so I took a couple of extra detours on the way back."
"I wondered. You were gone longer than I had expected. I wish I could make the journey in your stead occasionally." He looked down at the markings, cursing them anew. "This burden should not fall entirely on your shoulders."
"Why not? I'm the one the Chantry's Seekers are looking for. If it weren't for me, you and Bianca could live a normal life—you could even go back to Kirkwall and see your friends again." Her lips trembled, and she pressed them firmly together, looking away.
"I am not certain I would recognize a normal life, and if I did, whether I would want it. And you forget," Fenris said, cupping her cheek and turning her face toward him again, "that the Tevinters are still searching for me, as well. I am in hiding from them as much as you are in hiding from the Chantry." His thumb stroked across her skin. "And I am certainly not the only one who would like to go back to Kirkwall and cannot do so. But let us not forget how many of our friends are no longer there—in fact, only Varric and Aveline and Donnic still remain. Everyone else has scattered. Even Tomwise has taken his potion-making skills elsewhere—Llomerryn, I believe Varric said in his last letter."
Evelyn leaned into his touch, her eyes closing for a moment. She opened them, searching his face. "I still feel badly … you had your own life for the first time, and I took you away from that."
"You are my life. You and Bianca. I need nothing more."
She clearly saw in his face that he meant it, because she nodded, the lines of tension smoothing away. "Same here." Evelyn removed his hand from her cheek, kissing it, and then drew a rolled parchment from her pocket. "Shall we see what Varric has to say?"
Fenris groaned, but he obediently rolled up his sleeve, holding his arm out and activating the lyrium. "Surely you and Varric could devise a method of communication that does not require my abilities."
Unrolling the parchment and holding it over his arm, Evelyn grinned at him. "Where would be the fun in that?"
Before Sandal and Bodahn had left Hawke's service, heading for Orlais and a new life there, Sandal had devised an ink that could be seen only under the light of activated lyrium and given it to Hawke as a present, smiling his secret smile. Apparently the young dwarf had foreseen that Hawke might need to send and receive private messages long before Hawke had determined that necessity for herself. Varric had acquired a chunk of shielded lyrium that he used as a paperweight on his end, and Hawke found using Fenris's markings to read Varric's messages a never-ending source of amusement.
She scanned the page quickly, greedy for news of her loved ones. Fenris knew she would read the letter over several more times before writing her response. Despite her concern over his happiness, Hawke was the one who truly yearned for all the friends they had cut themselves off from. If he had known how to resolve that for her, he would have done so a long time ago.
"What is the word?" he asked, noticing that she had moved the page up and was reading again, more slowly.
"Varric saw Bethany! The Temptress was in Kirkwall for repairs. He says life at sea clearly agrees with her, and she and Isabela are very happy together. To think," Evelyn said, glancing up at Fenris with a wry smile, "that Isabela would be the sanest and most stable relationship choice Bethany ever made. Apparently Charade is in Cumberland—she's taken a position as secretary to an investigator called Steele." Evelyn frowned. "Charade as a secretary? That sounds off, somehow. Hey, you remember those brothers she and Isabela were with for a while in Antiva, what were their names?"
"Simonez," Fenris said. "Ricardo and Alejandro Jose."
"Those were the ones. Weren't they some kind of detectives?" She nodded, answering her own question, and her eyes twinkled. "How much you want to bet Charade decided to be a detective, too, and this man Steele is just a front?" Shaking her head in amusement, she bent back over the letter. "Uncle Gamlen was ill over the winter, but seems recovered now, told Varric to say hello."
"Mama!" Bianca's voice came from the trees, and the little girl's face appeared. "I ran out of bolts."
"Then go find the ones you already used," Hawke said.
"Oh! Of course!" The leaves rustled as she went off to find the quarrels.
Hawke smiled as she watched Bianca's progress. "She's grown so big! Seems like just yesterday she was too short to reach the branches and had to be lifted into the trees."
"One of us will have to teach her to use that device," Fenris said, and they exchanged looks. While both were conversant in bows, neither was particularly proficient. "I do not suppose you could convince Varric to leave the Hanged Man long enough to visit."
"You 'do not suppose' correctly." Hawke double-checked Bianca's whereabouts, then said softly, "Varric says he was captured and interrogated by the Seekers. Says not to worry, that he told them 'the truth', Varric style—" She broke off as Fenris groaned. "No doubt he embellished a bit."
"'Embellished a bit'?" Fenris echoed. "I can only imagine what his tale would be of Meredith and Orsino's final moments. He'd have her awakening the very statues in the courtyard, no doubt."
"Wouldn't surprise me," Hawke said. "He did mention that he heard from Merrill and she's quite happy—settled with some Fereldan elf named Soris." She sighed. "So much for hoping that Varric would have a fairytale happy ending."
"Varric is more likely to write the fairytale than to live it," Fenris said. "Something in him makes him an observer rather than an actor—you should feel pride that you coaxed him to be part of the story for as long as you did."
"I suppose you're right." The corners of Hawke's mouth turned down, and Fenris could feel how much she missed her friend.
"What other news does Varric have to impart? How do Aveline and Donnic fare?"
"Very well, apparently, although Varric says their sons have taken Kirkwall by storm and suggests that if Aveline had half the discipline over her children that she has over the rest of the city, he wouldn't fear so much for the future of Thedas." She winked at Fenris. "Imagine that, a powerful warrior like Aveline putty in the hands of her children."
Fenris caught the jibe easily. "No doubt she's merely an exceptionally loving parent," he said. "Perhaps a more stern parent would be looking after his child right now rather than providing a light source so his wife could read a letter." He tugged at his arm.
"Not a step, there, you." Hawke laughed, closing both hands around his arm and pulling him closer. "Have I thanked you yet for staying home and taking such good care of Bianca?"
"I do not recall you doing so, no."
She pressed against him, kissing along the edge of his jaw. "Thank you."
Fenris's arms closed around her, but with her usual impeccable timing Bianca was squeezing between them, a handful of quarrels in one hand and the crossbow clenched in the other. Smiling at each other, they shifted to make room, lifting her up so she was snuggled between them. "I'm sleepy," Bianca announced, blinking her big green eyes. "Tell me a story?"
"There's nothing I'd like better," Hawke said. She found the blanket Fenris and Bianca had been using earlier in the morning and settled down on it. Bianca curled up against her mother, the miniature crossbow at her feet. "Let's see. What would you like to hear?"
"Something about Uncle Varric, and you, and Papa," Bianca said.
"Ah." Hawke leaned her head back against the trunk of the tree. Fenris followed them, stretching out across the grass with his head in Hawke's lap. He gazed up into the blue sky, framed by fluttering green leaves, and sighed in contentment as Hawke began the story. "Once upon a time, four people went into the Deep Roads. A warrior, an elf, a mage, and a dwarf—and let's not forget the fifth member of the party, an exceptional weapon named Bianca …"
A/N: Many thanks to everyone who has read this! This continues to be my absolute favorite story of everything I've written, and it makes me incredibly happy to be able to share it with so many of you.
If you're interested in following Evelyn and Fenris further, there are sequels: "The Blood of the Hawke," which covers the Legacy DLC; "A Long Way to Go," which covers the Mark of the Assassin DLC; "A Future to Be Had," which sees our adventurers a decade after the epilogue embroiled in another adventure; and "Gladly," a sequence of one-shots set at different times in their lives.