Midi A/N: I apologize for the long time it took me to post this chapter in comparison to the first three. I am no longer doing my office-hours research thing; instead, I am a couple of days from doing my overseas clerkship, so time has been scarce and will be even more so with the added obstacle of limited internet access.
First off, I'd like to thank everyone who has added the story to their alert and favorites lists. I'm humbled by the unexpected number of people that have done so, my inbox went kind of crazy last month. Thank you, thank you. I am perfectly aware of how tedious it is to leave reviews, even for outstanding works (I am guilty of this, since I am a bedtime reader and often fall asleep before I even finish a chapter sometimes.) The fact that you enjoy the story enough to fave/alert tells me something, and I'm grateful. That said, seeing how I can appreciate the obstacles to reviewing, I have to give special recognition to those brave souls who do review: T.I.M., Lady Bastilla, , Twistedaristocrat, violingrl07, Reading Disorder, palkia, and of course, LadyGreatSkullZero ( don't fret! I love long reviews, I give them myself whenever I can ;)
Anyway, this chapter ended up being huge, so I've had to split it. I'm up to 8K words, and it doesn't want to stop... I'm afraid not many exciting things happen here, as it is a transitional chapter, and I was left a little drained from writing Fenris's nightmare-of-doom. I thought I'd balance that out with a bit of lightness courtesy of the Heroic Ladies Guild of Kirkwall. I'm iffy about my ability to pull off the dynamics between Isabela, Merrill, and Aveline, but I gave it the old school try. As before, it's unbeta'ed and unstable... like Anders.
Here it is: the mystery of how the ill-timed tryst between a fiercely private ex-slave and a prideful jilted Fereldan became public knowledge. In case you're interested, a more detailed Author's Note can be found at my livejournal (link can be found on my profile)
Disclaimer: BioWare's shinies, my strange imaginings, your entertainment, and sadly, no monies were made by me.
Chapter 3- Part 1: You and I and Everyone
Her initial reaction had been an indifferent sort of annoyance, the kind she would feel at finding her tankard empty during a rousing game of Wicked Grace. A rather uninspired, 'Huh?' was the first thing that crossed her mind. He begged her forgiveness and beat a hasty retreat into the grey dawn while she sat at the side of the bed, half-naked and still sticky from their lovemaking; a pity to be sure, but not quite the end of the world.
Shortly after, she heard the garden gate squeak and clang shut, and she managed to lumber across the room to find her chemise piled under her weapons in a corner by her desk. It was as she wended her way back to bed through the trail of her discarded clothing and hardware that the shock seeped in to melt away the protective shell of her apathy. The scent that enveloped her when she curled herself back under the sheets was equivalent to a sucker-punch to her belly.
Secretly, she admired Isabela for her detachment and self-interest; though Hawke believed herself somewhat capable of separating lust from other complications if the opportunity presented itself to her. She had fancied herself a lot more aloof and practical a woman to bother with… romance. No. Marian had been too logical and calculating to let herself suffer the humiliation and pain that inevitably followed any love entanglement. But in the awkward aftermath of her liaison with Fenris, she finally allowed herself to probe at all those thoughts she'd pulled up short from fruition over the past two years.
She had recognized long ago that fear of attachment was the reason she pretended to be oblivious whenever Anders dropped hints of his affections, or why she teased Sebastian with amorous innuendo, or why she usually parried Fenris's clumsy flirtations with much too forward retorts designed to intimidate him and force him to back off. It made her feel like a bit of a scoundrel, fully aware of their intentions in the case of Anders and Fenris, but too cowardly to directly disabuse either of the idea. So instead, she'd made a game out of flirtatious exchanges with every other one of her male companions. She hoped her flightiness and lighthearted approach to affection would clue them in— especially Anders— that she didn't think of them that way. But she was a shitty liar, of course...the proof of it scored, bitten, and kissed all over her body at the moment; she wasn't equally indifferent to everyone.
Maker save her, she certainly didn't care to repeat the mistake she'd seen Bethany make shortly before Lothering had come crashing down around their heads. Love was just too much trouble for someone as obstinate as herself. That, and she suspected that behind his gentle words and soft manners, Anders hid a bucket-full of batshit crazy she had no skill with which to deal.
Maybe she was being hasty. It was true that she was no blushing maiden, but it had certainly been a long time since she'd last… indulged her baser needs. Perhaps the lack of practice had thrown her off balance? Surely she had not been ready to end her dry spell with the grenade of suppressed emotions she knew Fenris to be.
Unbidden, a memory came to her of the moment in which his initial violent reaction to her touch had morphed into a precarious mixture of recognition, fear and lust. She remembered how his muscles had been so tense with restraint that he trembled slightly under her hands.
If what she was trying to make herself believe was true, she was a foul villain indeed. She could not really be so selfish as to take advantage of his moment of weakness just to satisfy her need for a good rutting. She would not have been so pleased at their mostly clichéd exchanges in between if she had only sex in mind. And most certainly, she would not be giving a second thought to the hot ball of anger, humiliation, and confusion that tugged her mind in different directions now. Her eyes would be clear and dry and absolutely not stinging and blurred like they felt. She would have gotten her ass out of bed, gathered the sodden sheets and tossed them into a pile for the laundress to deal with instead of cocooning herself into the places in her mattress that still smelled so distinctly of him.
A watery sigh escaped her mouth when she clutched the pillow where his head had rested earlier. She pressed her face into the cushion, surprised by the flood of heated memories the smell brought and by the hollow pain in her chest that accompanied them.
Hindsight was blunt and unkind. The net had been cast a long time ago with her cheeky offer to provide him with some complications. Hawke let loose a wry chuckle when she recalled the way his eyebrows had arched in disconcerted confusion. It was her ability to breach his prickly posturing that had encouraged her, and soon enough, she had unwittingly tangled herself up in her own net.
She had been hopelessly lost by the time she found herself at his table, drinking with him from the same dusty bottle of Aggregio on the anniversary of his escape. Oh, the thrill she'd felt at his purred response when she mentioned how much she enjoyed hearing him speak. There had been a knowing gleam in his eye when he'd leaned toward her and complied, his voice low and full of meaning.
"There are few pleasures greater than speaking with a beautiful woman."
No one had ever called her beautiful before.
The look they had exchanged then had snared her instantly. She would recall the moment often and find herself flustered, even months later. The moment had not lasted very long, but she recognized it for what it had been: a test of the boundaries between them. Hawke had been sure he could read her like a book (oh, irony of ironies!), and once he had figured her out, he retreated under the pretext of settling in for the tale.
Hawke had to wonder now— in light of the turn of events, just how much of his motivation to share his story with her was to encourage whatever he had recognized in her demeanor and how much of it was to discourage her advances.
It was midmorning by the time she managed to drift off, though her mind got no rest, caught in the eddy of her memories. The ghost of sensation still remained fresh across her skin. Some last vestige of her consciousness recognized the bitter futility these memories would provide her every time she fell asleep from that moment and for a long time to come.
Judging by the angle and color of the light filtering through the window, it was late in the afternoon when Marian finally stirred from her shallow, restless sleep. She stared past the rippled glass out into an orange-tinged sky, hunting for the first glints of starlight in an effort to pretend she had finally managed to stop thinking.
A jaunty rap at the door startled her from beginning another thought about Fenris. She gratefully scrambled to her feet and hastily slipped into her dressing gown.
"Just a moment!" she called out, hoping to stall long enough to clean up the mess in her room.
To her surprise, the scattered pieces of her equipment and clothing had been picked up and neatly stowed away as she slept. There was even a tray of food on her writing table.
Orana. Something had to be said for the elf's stealth, apparently. The door opened and Isabela poked her head in with a hopeful look on her face.
"It's not like you have something I don't, you know!" She clucked her tongue in mock reproach. "Ahh, bollocks! You're all covered up already. And here I thought I could squeeze a couple of sovereigns out of the boys for the juicy details."
"Isn't it a bit early to be peeping around people's homes, Isabela?"
Hawke felt invigorated with the distraction and set about selecting something more appropriate to wear.
"Isn't it a bit late to be lounging in your chemise, Hawke?" The Rivaini countered with a narrow-eyed expression that reminded Marian of a fox on the hunt.
"I thought a little beauty rest might do me some good." She smirked, hoping her face didn't look as stiff as it felt.
She felt a pinprick of weariness when the bejeweled raider shut the door behind her and casually made her way to the writing desk to idly poke at the cold food on the tray.
"You didn't show up to your lunch with Merrill, so she got her smalls into a twist wondering if she had done to upset you." Isabela gave her a sideways glance, plucking a grape from the tray and rolling it between her fingers. "Then she worried that you'd gotten mauled by a gang of Mabari Lords."
"I-uh… completely forgot about that. I had a long night," Hawke shrugged, turning away to hide the blush she was sure had crept up her neck by now.
Isabela's sultry chuckle sent shivers up her spine. Alarmed, Hawke turned to find her at the foot of the bed.
"I see," Isabela purred. "A long, rough night, it appears."
Marian felt the blood leave her face. Her heart beat wildly in her chest and threatened to launch up and out of her throat. A strangled sound was all she managed to make when Isabela next spoke.
"I'm guessing that Amell crest Fenris is now parading around on his belt came from there?" The Rivaini pointed a sharp-nailed finger toward the center of the massive headboard, to the faded outline where a small shield had been affixed before.
Hawke's blush had to be obvious now, she was sure her ears were on fire if the guffaw she earned when Isabela looked straight at her was any indication.
His belt was disposed of with great efficiency, tossed over her shoulder. It wasn't until later, when she found herself scrambling for a handhold to leverage into a better position that she grabbed hold of it where it had landed, caught from the Amell crest affixed on her headboard.
It came off with little resistance, landing with a clatter on his head. Fenris let out a hearty string of Arcanum expletives, trying to bat away the tangled belt and crest while maintaining his rhythm.
They both laughed because he failed to do either. When they reluctantly paused, she arranged it across his chest like a dignitary's sash and said it suited him.
He offered to fix the crest later, but she told him it may fall on him again next time, so he could just keep it. He'd granted her an impish smile and proceeded to kiss her senseless. A few seconds after, the tangled belt and crest flew over his shoulder and landed in a heap near the fireplace.
"Ah!" Isabela let out a contented sigh, "It's good to see I was right about all that repressed tension having a very interesting potential. I mean, if he got a trophy for his performance and all," the Rivaini popped the grape into her mouth and chewed thoughtfully.
"I am not having this conversation with you." Marian dropped into the bench by the dressing table, covering her face with both hands. "Maker, this is not happening!" she groaned, mostly for her own benefit.
Her head was beginning to hurt. She dared a peek through her fingers to find Isabela standing right in front of her, arms crossed under her bosom.
"I'm guessing your astounding speechlessness means I should go find Merrill and tell her the good news?"
Hawke shot to her feet and glared at the Rivaini.
"Don't you even think about it!" she drawled.
Isabela chuckled and raised a hand to poke her index finger against Hawke's nose.
"Not about you hoisting the mainsail of the old Glowy Broodnought, of course." She grinned playfully, "I mean that you are alive and forgetful as ever. She thinks you didn't come to lunch because you're mad at her, the poor kitten."
"Oh, well then—" she blinked, the heat of her embarrassment and irritation draining instantly. Before she could finish off the sentence, she was cut off by the sound of the door creaking open once more.
"You went sailing, Hawke?"
Isabela and Hawke both turned their heads towards the door where Merrill now stood, head tilted to the side and an eager glint in her eyes.
"I think it's sweet, really," Merrill mused, her distant gaze lost in the smoky spirals hovering between the rafters of Hawke's study loft. "It says something that he's wearing your crest, Hawke. I mean, he's a downright tosser, he is… but he's a sweet tosser!"
Isabela nodded sternly beside Merrill; only the slight crinkle at the corner of her amber-colored eyes betrayed her amusement. "And a lucky wanker, besides!" At this declaration, she leaned forward in her seat, holding up her half-empty tumbler. "Bloody lucky, sweetness!"
"Oh! Because you've been trying so hard to get into Hawke's pants and he got in there without any effort?" Merrill piped up, excited at the prospect of catching a double entendre without help.
"Wonderful, the entire household is now officially privy to the latest scandalous and stupid thing I've done." Marian sighed and let her head drop into the cradle of her arms on the table.
Aveline's heavy armor clanked as she made her way up the stairs to the loft.
"Am I going to have to arrest one of you? Isabela, you sent that message to the barracks, so I'm looking at you."
"Oh yes, let's all blame the sexy one for keeping it interesting!" Isabela yawned and made a rather rude elaborate hand gesture in Aveline's direction. "You sure know how to cock-up a good time, golem-face!"
"What you call interesting, I'm more inclined to call immoral and illegal, whore," Aveline sneered, plonking down into the bench next to Marian.
Hawke snickered into the inside of her elbow, the ridiculousness of the day hitting her all at once.
"I suppose it counts as criminal stupidity of some sort," she muttered darkly, flicking her nails against the half-empty bottle of spiced rum in front of her. "Want a drink, Aveline?" She dared a glance in Aveline's direction and found the Guard Captain giving her a suspiciously pitying look. "What?"
"I saw Fenris earlier," Aveline replied after a few seconds of silent scrutiny.
Marian tried her best to keep her face neutral. She found holding Aveline's gaze a bit disconcerting when she recognized the set of her mouth, businesslike and stern, like when questioning a suspect. Her eyes drifted away to inspect the peeling label on the bottle.
"Yeah?" She shrugged, hoping to appear nonchalant. "Lot's of people did too, I hear."
"Hawke," Aveline's tone carried some warning.
"Aveline," Marian mimicked the tone.
"Are you the reason he was so eager to take two weeks-worth of out-of-Kirkwall assignments off my hands?" Aveline let her forearms rest against the tabletop.
"I imagine he was angling for a holiday. The climate in the city could be… uncomfortable this time of year," Marian muttered, sounding bored.
"Uncomfortable?" Merrill blinked, confused, "but it has been beautiful and cool all week! Is it uncomfortable for Fenris because Tevinter is hot?"
"Now, now, kitten," Isabela chuckled, patting the clueless Dalish on the back. "Don't break your head over it. It just means our sweet tosser is trying to avoid an awkward meeting, is all."
"Oh! Right then," Merrill gave a single nod, "because of Hawke and him having…" she spun the index fingers of both hands around each other. "Ow!" not two seconds later, she winced and ducked to look under the table.
"Oops!" Marian glared at her, "Me and my clumsy big feet; so sorry, Merrill. "
Merrill reached beneath the table to rub at her sore shin, "You could have just shushed me, you know. It's just Aveline, she won't say anything."
Aveline sighed beside Marian.
"I really just wanted this whole thing to go and die quietly in secret," Marian shifted uncomfortably and shot a glare in Isabela's direction. "I don't see why you had to organize this…this… I don't know what this is supposed to be!"
"Hmm, well, I was hoping for the graphic details, but your mouth is clenched tighter than Aveline's arse." Isabela teased, pouring the Guard Captain a healthy dose of rum.
"Better it be that than loose and used up like yours," Aveline groused half-hearted, accepting the tumbler from Isabela.
"Ooh! Your creativity is rivaled only by your femininity, Ball-Stomper."
"Yes, because I've never been accused of being manly by you before, slattern."
"I've just gotten started, wait 'til I get drunker first—"
"—Is what you hear when you approach a sober man." Aveline interjected, a slight smirk curving the corners of her mouth.
"Aha! I knew you could do better," Isabela grinned and leaned forward, clinking her tumbler against Aveline's. "That's my girl!"
That managed to get a snicker out of Hawke. If only in the hopes that Aveline had been successfully distracted from asking too many questions. Isabela sent a meaningful look her way, not missing a beat in trading insults with the Guard Captain. All in good spirits, of course. Perhaps the idea of getting all the girls together to rib each other and drink wasn't so pointless after all. Maybe Isabela really did know a thing or two about coping. Hawke sat up, and gave Isabela a curt nod of acknowledgement, her mood a slight bit less morose than if she were left to her own devices.
When Aveline had first mentioned Fenris's request for outside work, she felt panic bubbling at the pit of her stomach. What if he never came back? But then, it occurred to her that not seeing each other for a while was actually the best thing. Who knows what she was liable to do or say if she ran into him too soon. She resolved the best approach was to take things one day at a time; she'd dealt with far bigger disappointments in the past four years, having lost father, brother, and home. By comparison, being rejected by a contrary, bitter man was about as significant as being besieged by a gnat.
She caught the end of something dirty Isabela muttered that caused both Merrill and Aveline to sputter and choke on their respective drinks. She had missed the innuendo, but the looks on both Aveline and Merrill's flushed, dribbling faces was comical enough to almost send her tumbling backwards off the bench. Hawke wrapped her arms around her sides, letting out a healthy cackling laugh that inevitably proved quite contagious; first sending Isabela into a fit of equally raucous laughter, then setting off Merrill into breathless giggles, and finally conquering Aveline who coughed into her fist, trying to disguise the strangled chuckles that bubbled up from her throat.
Yeah, she could manage this... It wasn't the end of the world, and she wasn't alone. Not really.
End Part I