A/N: This is it, you guys.
See my afterword for feels and lowdown.
A Fortnight and a Month More
She missed the bed more than anything else.
Her mother had chosen the furniture for the estate – every ounce of consideration paid to curtains and carving and color, the more expensive the better – and at the very bottom of the priorities list, below 'will it match the drapes?' and 'does it have a fancy Orlesian name?', was comfort.
This was, perhaps, why Hawke had never been allowed to make furniture decisions. If she had, the Amell ancestral home would have been decorated with sturdy, tragically mismatched pieces that you could lose hours in but that would humiliate her mother and draw severe protests from the neighbors.
Aesthetics aside, attempting to relax at night under a stiff, over-embroidered coverlet in a mostly-empty and increasingly chilly room was a hard adjustment to make – especially when compared with thick furs and a warm body with a heartbeat that could calm a dragon.
But Mairead Hawke was not going to waste another Maker-damned second thinking about that giant bag of dicks in a Qunari-skin suit.
She'd come back to Kirkwall swinging... and jumping, and stabbing. There wasn't a day when she wasn't out washing the streets in her newly-discovered motivation to rid the city of its evildoers and relieve said evildoers of their material possessions. It seemed like getting the most infamous woman in Kirkwall's attention had never been easier; anything crossing her desk that involved violence or even the promise of it was immediately seen to, often with a determination that made even her would-be employers nervous.
Hawke would only come home to dump her latest gains in a pile on the table for her mother to sort and store, caring little enough about the small fortune she was quickly accruing to not notice that Bodahn had needed to invest in a new household register to keep up with it all. She slept (sometimes), ate (less often), and then dashed out the door as quickly as she had come, recruiting – or dragging – her co-conspirators to her next task with promises of excitement, adventure, and reward.
The spoils were good – gold and rare gems and charmed artifacts – but the effects of being driven so hard by a relentlessly energetic leader were beginning to take their toll on her companions. Varric had once shoved her right back out his door, telling her, with all due respect, to kindly fuck off and let him sleep. Sebastian and Aveline were the biggest rainclouds on her parade, but at least the former couched his criticism in genuine (or genuine-sounding) concern. The guard-captain simply issued flat warnings about idiocy and overexertion, eyeing Hawke meaningfully every time she picked up her shield to join the patrol.
Still, fighting kept her from thinking, because thinking more often than not led to remembering – and remembering led to furious indignation, which in turn eventually deflated into depression, and that crawled right into a bottle. Despite the siren song of the hooch, Hawke vowed that she was not going to become Gamlen, permanently half-sauced and whinging about the past. She would be clear and focused and punching the fuck out of the present. And to do that, she had to stay busy.
So when she received a summons from the Viscount, her usual annoyed groans and heel-dragging petulance were instantly replaced with enthusiasm and joy not unlike that of a child beholding the first lights of Satinalia. Viscount business was almost always long, involved, and bloody. Perfect.
She showed up at the Keep the next morning, Sebastian and Merrill equally chipper, and Fenris a surly shade of awake. His eyes were fixed into a glossy, half-lidded glare, and his growlings about being made to climb a completely unnecessary amount of stairs before midday fell on deaf ears. Hawke strode up the steps to Dumar's office two at a time, greeting his pompous chief bureaucrat with a broad smile.
"Seneschal Bran," she dropped an insultingly shallow curtsey. "How are you this fine morning?"
Skepticism dug itself deeply into his features as he crossed his arms, finery crinkling at the elbows. "You're here rather quickly, Serah Hawke."
"You know me," she replied brightly, "always happy to serve the city and make the Viscount's life a little easier."
"For a price."
Sighing, Hawke stretched her arms above her head. "Bran, you are so cynical. Have you been to the Rose lately?" At his resulting face, she snickered and vowed to file that one away for later. She flexed her wrists, then rolled her neck from left to right and worked out a few satisfying pops. "So, what is it this time? Bandits, werewolves, giant spiders?"
"I appreciate your concern." His eyes fell upon her companions as they caught up to her – Aveline clearly not among them – and he sighed. "No, this time it's yet another problem with the Qunari."
This time, it was Bran getting all the satisfaction from Hawke's expression.
"Well," he smirked, "still 'happy to serve'?"
They got through the gate with minimal fuss.
The words 'Viscount sent us' were enough to grant them entry, and Hawke strode through the enormous doors with long, determined steps. She was getting stared at from all sides, including from behind. Fenris' now suddenly-alert gaze was burning a hole in the back of her head, and while she appreciated his concern, she just wished that he would be less damn obvious about it.
A small contingent of elven converts sat on a set of benches at the base of one stone wall, looking up from their books and quieting their chatter to meet her eyes as she passed. They nodded their heads in greeting – the most they felt they were allowed, most likely, given the circumstances of her ejection from the compound. Hawke didn't fault them in the least.
The distance between the gate and the audience arena seemed long, too long. It was definitely much farther than she remembered it being, and much more uncomfortable, somehow too hot and too cold and too dry and too humid all at once and that had absolutely nothing to do with the Arishok and damn it all if he would see her so much as sweat, that bastard.
Hawke repeated that to herself every time her boots hit dust and her heart double-beat against her ribs. There couldn't have been a cleaner cut. Get out, he had said, and get out she done did. Finished. Easy. Over.
It was a very unpleasant, telling surprise when her mouth ran dry at the sight of him.
Reclining on his dais, his gaze snapped to Hawke the moment she turned the corner, her companions ignored entirely. He shifted his rubbish posture as she crossed the remaining space to the base of the stairs, resting his elbows on his knees and leaning forward to better inspect something that had caught his eye. She knew it was the red scarf around her neck, and she made imaginary obscene hand gestures as his nose crinkled in a frown.
"Arishok," she greeted dryly.
"Serah Hawke," he responded in kind, lifting his chin. "You have added to your armor."
"I don't see how that's relevant or any of your damn business." She crossed her arms, feeling the scratch of her family's crest against her jawline, neatly covering her newest set of scars. "Viscount's paying me good money to be here."
The warlord grumbled his displeasure, but didn't budge. "You insist that you are not the fool's lapdog, yet you run his errands."
"Couldn't be helped," she quipped, "Viscount called for me specifically." After a moment of waiting for a response and getting none, she spread her palms. "You'd have preferred he sent someone else?"
"No," he agreed, "his choice was appropriate."
"Then stop whining and let me do what I came here to do."
The tone in her voice didn't go unnoticed, and Sebastian shifted his weight uncomfortably. "Hawke," he cautioned.
"Fenris can translate if there's a language problem."
His voice was strained, but he let her be. "I'm not sure if the term 'language problem' is adequate."
Hawke took a step forward and yanked a thick, half-rolled stack of parchment out from the open flap of her satchel. "These are reports of families whose children have gone missing recently. Dumar wanted me to cross-check with you to see if any of them match any of your new converts."
The Arishok paused, but whether it was to actually consider his position or simply make her squirm was unclear.
Mairead glared. She wouldn't have been surprised at the latter.
"If they follow the Qun," he finally rumbled, "what will you do?"
"I didn't make the Viscount any other promises," she snapped. "We just need to know where they are, or if we should send out a search party for slavers and bandits. Anything after that isn't in my job description."
Something resembling a pleased tone slid into his gravelly voice. "You would not attempt to retrieve them."
She narrowed her eyes. "If they weren't kidnapped, they don't need rescuing."
He raised a hand to signal a Kithshok beside him, who promptly disappeared behind a stone partition. "Your awareness is appreciated."
"I'm not doing this for you or him," Hawke insisted coolly. "I'm doing this for them and their families."
One of the healers, the compound's makeshift tamassrans, emerged wiping his hands, having apparently been interrupted while doing something green and filthy. He was an elf, the nearly-lone human noted, which would make her job a lot easier.
"Here are the descriptions of the missing people," she explained, offering the papers to the healer as he descended the steps. "All young, all poor. I'm sorry to pull you from your work, but if you could take a look and see if anything matches any of the new viddathari, anything at all, I'd appreciate it."
She heard a loud snort from atop the stairs, clearly in response to the radical and obvious change in her tone. Hawke had no reason to be unkind to the healers – they had treated her well. She had resolved on the long trek to the docks that the target of her ire should be the only one to suffer from it. And if that irritated him, so much the better.
The wait as the healer shuffled through the reports was interminable. Admittedly, it was a result of his insistence to do the matter justice - pausing on each long enough to be absolutely sure - but every second Hawke spent where the Arishok could look down on her from above was like a needle in the soles of her feet.
"My apologies," he announced as he handed back the thick roll. "None of these are ours."
Sighing, Hawke accepted it and tucked it back into her bag. "Thank you for your time, then."
He acknowledged her thanks and excused himself and, as he scaled the steps back to work, Hawke turned toward her companions. "That's that, then – time to inform our lord Viscount." A loose edge on her scarf tickled the skin of her throat, and she absentmindedly raised a hand to scratch it. "They're all either sold or dead, but at least none converted; I'm sure he'll be thrilled."
He had caught her off guard. She hated that.
As she turned to face him, prickling, he rested against the side of his sun-warmed white throne and tapped his claws along the bleached stone.
"These disappearances - they are recent, and not a clumsy attempt to raise my guard."
It was an accusation, but as much as she wanted to, Hawke couldn't fault him for it. It was very much something any scheming idiot in ever-tolerant Kirkwall would do: grab some old incident reports, make a racket about them at the Viscount, and thrust them in the Qunari's faces in the hope of sparking action from either side.
"No," she confirmed. "They're all from the last week, within days of one another."
"Then," he rumbled, reclining back, "they are not my problem."
"Never were," Hawke replied sharply. With her companions quickly following, she made an abrupt turn back for the gate sans parting words or pleasantries.
And now you're not my problem, either.
Like any good troublemaker, Hawke waited the requisite amount of time for the storm from her visit to settle before returning alone to the compound doors. A few days, she hoped, would have been enough for the Arishok to stop being a colossal ass and screw his horns on right again. With any luck, this latest mess had just served as a distraction, a reason to focus on race relations or viddathari training rather than making her life difficult.
Luck, it seemed, was not on her side with the Qunari.
As she neared the barred wooden entryway, she saw that the pair of kithshok usually stationed impassively at the archway had been replaced. In their stead the half-horned Sten glared as he waited. He'd been stationed there specifically, Hawke suspected, in the event that she returned without official, to-the-point business.
"Sten," she greeted enthusiastically, her half-smile half-grimace twitching as her facial muscles fought her gut and she attempted to meander innocently in his direction. "What a lovely, crisp autumn afternoon for a friendly chat!"
He crossed his arms across his chest, twin swords gleaming in the streaks of orange sun that filtered in between the harbormasters' warehouses. "I am assigned this post," he said slowly, "because of my immunity to your... methods."
Amusement plainly brightening her voice, Hawke tapped him on the chest. "Aw, Arishok, where's the trust?"
"He trusts that you will make an attempt," the Sten snorted, "and trusts me to ensure that you do not succeed."
She raised her hands defensively, a lazy, familiar smile stretching across her face despite herself. "I don't want in," she protested. "Just an update." Leaning in, she tilted her head slightly. "Or is that against your orders, too?"
He studied her silently, considering, and Hawke leapt at the hesitation.
"Nothing wrong with keeping a viddathari informed," she coaxed, rocking back on her heels. At his contemplative growl, she produced a tied wax-paper bundle. "A viddathari with berry biscuits...?"
He narrowed his eyes, but unfolded his arms. "Your pastries are not required."
"We'll share. Now talk."
Time found them sitting on the dust-coated steps of the archway, taking advantage of the shade the stone provided and breaking the buttery, flaky confections into edible sizes.
"Training has been..." The Sten paused, narrowing his eyes in thought. "Challenging."
"Isn't it always?" Hawke asked through a mouthful of crumbs. "That's the aim of it."
"Yes," he agreed, "and the Arishok has recently determined that our drills have been greatly insufficient."
Meaning that since she had walked out, Mairead realized, he was redirecting all of his frustration into putting his men through the wringer. Guilt pricked at her stomach, and she hastily swallowed another mouthful of pastry in an attempt to appease it. "And Fenlin?"
"The healer, too, has shown signs of irritability in your absence."
"More so than usual?"
The Sten huffed, plucking another chunk off of the parcel with his claws. "He threatens to let patients die. Of small cuts."
Hawke offered him the rest. "He wouldn't."
"He would not." The Sten accepted, moving the butter-coated paper to atop his knee. "He is Qunari – he will do his duty."
"But you don't want to test it."
She snickered at that, leaning on her elbows, and they sat in silence for a few moments as they observed the foot traffic passing by. She had missed him; aside from being made aware that she was the recent source of some acute suffering, she relished his company.
It was the Sten who broke the quiet, offering his observation unprompted.
"Your absence is noticed."
That sentence bit at Hawke like an elfroot poultice; she wasn't sure if it was meant to make her feel better or worse in the long run, but damn, did it sting something awful right now. She inhaled deeply through her nostrils, so quickly and so strongly that her eyes watered.
"You should be pleased," the Sten said. "The change is proof that you fulfilled a needed role."
The human sat back against the cool stone, brushing pebbles out of her way. "I don't like to think of him needing– "
"You are afraid of the responsibility." He frowned openly, and for all that he was Qunari, Hawke could practically hear the eye-rolling in his voice.
"Hey now." Hawke raised her hands defensively. "I said no such thing."
"I know," he said, turning his attention back to the streets. "You do not say much with words, for one who speaks endlessly."
At that, Mairead had pulled her knees around and was about to let him have it – but then something tiny and fast struck the side of her head, and what the– ?
She picked up the offending object – a dry corn kernel - and looked about for its source. It took a bit of scanning and squinting, but she eventually spotted the glint of gold and flash of blue ducking around a corner into the dockmaster's office.
"Sorry, Sten," she excused herself, standing and brushing herself off. "Someone either has pressing news or desperately needs to irritate me. Fifty-fifty."
"All right, Isabela," Hawke began as she joined the pirate by one of the less-busy pillars. "What did you manage to squeeze out of him?"
"I like your choice of words," she chuckled. "But sadly, the answer is nothing. Out of him, anyway."
Hawke had left her in charge of interrogating a trader who claimed to have seen a large collection of non-Dalish elves and a handful of human teenagers being ushered along the Wounded Coast. The numbers matched the missing persons Hawke had been tasked with pinning on the Qunari, but the instant she'd asked for more details, he'd clammed up faster than a templar at a brothel. The usual blabbermouths were wising up, it seemed, which threatened to run one of Hawke's most profitable information veins dry. Luckily, she had an expert on hand.
"His men, however, were more than happy to spill all the juicy details," Isabela continued. "Especially when they saw how absolutely fascinated I was by their thrilling adventures carting rugs and cheap booze about."
Hawke smirked, scratching the back of one shoulderblade against the rough stone behind her. "You do 'fascinated' well."
"Don't I know it." She crossed her arms over her chest, joining Mairead along the wall. "Tide comes in at sunrise. If they're waiting for a boat, that's when they'll make a run for it."
Hawke didn't question Isabela's sense for the tides – the captain on forced hiatus was more accurate than any chart or instrument. "Looks like we'll be spending the night pummeling slavers," she said, straightening up and tugging her gloves into place. "I just love doing good deeds, don't you?"
The only discernible changes had been small.
The winds from the sea were colder, the days grew shorter, and the errant few patches of grass in the dockside compound dried and crunched underfoot. These were inevitable, cyclical shifts entirely independent of his existence, and did not bother him in the least.
Another day had come and gone, and the Arishok returned to his tent, teapot in hand. This was not unusual, nor was the late hour of his return. He entered, warmed by the lamplight and lack of wind.
It was empty, as it should have been.
She turned up to him from her usual position, her favorite red cushion pulled up to the table and surrounded by books and papers – references for her journal, which lay open on the table. She shut it, the warm smile on her face as honest a welcome he had ever received.
"Another hour and I would've gone out to drag you back," she teased, stretching her arms above her head. It was a particular pleasure of his when she did so – her musculature was polished, cultivated; a thing to be admired.
"I have returned."
His words echoed in empty space, answered by the sight of a single red cushion unmoved from its place at the table, its usual occupant having been long vacant. He frowned, placing the teapot on the table as he made his way to the armor stand. He removed his pauldrons, sliding each into place on the wooden sculpture. Its smaller twin to the left was bare, the only evidence of its use in scuffmarks and worn patches along the enameled surface.
"I can't believe how damn light this stuff is," she said, latching her waistpiece around the central pole. "Every day, it still surprises me."
Her appreciation for the craftsmanship was evident as she ran her fingertips over the weaving, and the Arishok approved of the respect she showed when respect was due.
He finished disrobing in silence, the movements embedded in his muscle memory and so requiring little attention. Freed from the weight of his armor, he moved to the sea of embroidered cushions, the familiar sink of their cloth around him as he sat greeting him with its usual comfort. They had not been disturbed since the night before, and his rough impression remained. His book, too, lay open to the page he had last needed.
He was the Arishok, he mused as he poured his tea. Things remained where they should be, for the purpose they were intended.
As he replaced the ceramic with a click, his sight fell on the cup opposite him, empty and gathering the faint sheen of dust and disuse.
"I swear, if Fenlin criticizes my handwriting one more time," she grumbled, "I am going to carve obscenities into his workbench." She completed another row of the character for 'aa,' her penmanship legible but still lacking in shape or finesse.
Still grousing, she refilled her cup and muttered curses into the steam as she lifted it to her lips.
Inhaling the perfume of the steeped leaves, the Arishok reclined into the padded arrangement behind him. The evidence of her existence had been called into sharp relief after her visit in the flesh, the senses he had tuned to her sharpened anew. Her treatment of him had been expected; the blatant covering of her scars, the visible proof of their shared experience, had not.
His claws twitched on the cup's smooth surface.
He drank his tea in silence, considering the cushion and teacup in his immediate vicinity. They were not an inconvenience, and as such undeserving of the effort it would take to remove them. He would do it when he rose next. Rumbling his decision, he reached for his book.
Hours came and went, and neither cup nor cushion were moved.
From her place behind the boulder, Hawke unclipped her daggers in one soundless, fluid motion and wrapped her palms around the worn leather in the hilts. She could feel the thrum of the lyrium waking to the warmth of her skin, tongues of lightning springing from the runes and spreading in all directions. As it crackled around her forearms, Hawke saw the leather of her bracers flash iridescent at each touchdown.
Images of being blasted by a saarebas to test the new coating on her armor surged to the forefront of her mind, and she set her jaw. The first time she'd attempted to test the serum, the Arishok had –
"You are the Arishok."
"I am the Arishok. But there are times, with you, where I am not."
The sound of clinking metal and muffled crying from behind snapped her out of that particularly ill-timed and wholly undesired memory.
"Move it," barked an angry, human-sounding voice. "And cut the damn weeping."
Hawke glanced up to her left, where Isabela surveyed from her perch in a gnarled tree. Ten, she flashed with her fingers, and Hawke nodded. Not a number that was unmanageable, really, but their usual ambush tactics were complicated by the presence of potentially panicked, chained bystanders. Impaired movement meant that they were twice as likely to get hit or shot with a stray arrow, and Hawke had chosen her companions accordingly.
She flashed 'ten' to Aveline beside her, who rolled her shoulders and came up off her heels, crouched and ready. Merrill, too, quietly wrapped her limbs in glowing green thorns that writhed and twisted and reached into the open air.
Suddenly, Hawke heard a yelp, and the sniffling worsened into a full-out fit of tears.
"Andraste's sake," the first voice groaned, "I swear, elves cry like sick cats. Gives me a headache every time."
Over the hiccuping and sobs, a second voice called to the first. "If you can't shut him up, kill him," he instructed. "We can't have him giving us away, and knife-ears are worth the least coin of the lot."
Immediately, Mairead snapped her gaze to Merrill's face, for which the word 'unpleasant' was absurdly inadequate at that moment. "Merrill," she mouthed, "no. Wait."
It was no use. The Dalish mage had already leapt over their cover, yelling and slicing her staff in a wide arc across the sand. Tendrils of blink-and-you-miss-it-fast black smoke shot forward, chasing the slavers apart and sending the chained youths recoiling against the cliffs.
"Aveline," Hawke called, and the guard-captain made a dash for the captives to defend them as best she could.
So much for keeping them together, Hawke groused as she pelted after the closest fleeing slaver, slamming her daggers into the sand. As the two trails of lightning caught up with him and he screamed, Hawke had barely enough time to roll sideways to avoid losing her head from her shoulders. Her new attacker came after her again, his two-handed swings slow and heavy. She took that half-moment to slide in enough to break his nose, and as he dropped his sword to wail, she grabbed her girls and finished him off on the way to the next.
The ease with which she had dispatched the human had a touch of novelty to it, though her skill had always been leagues above the average street thug. But after spending weeks fighting barehanded against fastidiously-trained giants, it was as though it had made anything not twice her size into a comparatively easier target. The vestiges of her time spent with the qunari, it seemed, weren't so easy to shake loose.
The thought prickled at her already adrenaline-heavy nerves, and her stomach tightened. It didn't bother her in the least. She trained, she became better. It was a simple cause and effect and had nothing to do with the bastard who had pulled her in and then cast her out.
Besides, she reminded herself as she dug her feet into the shifting ground in pursuit of the best-dressed of the bunch, the only reason she was paying it any thought at all was having had to see him face-to-face again. It had brought it all back in a rush she'd been wholly unprepared for. Before then, she'd had good weeks, plenty of them. Hours, then days would go by without having the urge to punch anything horned.
On one of her better days, she had even removed her viddathari earring. She had been tempted to throw it away at first, but instead thought better of it and kept it on a leather thong around her neck as a talisman, of sorts. She had survived both a near-fatal wounding and a near-broken heart, and that little loop of brass was her trophy. If the Arishok wanted it back, he'd have to pry it from her corpse.
It clicked against her chestpiece as she kicked a piece of driftwood into the back of the fleeing slaver, sending him flying face-first into the gravel. She covered the distance between them in a few long strides, kicking the knives he'd been carrying out of his reach. He rolled to his back, but before he could regain his footing, Hawke pinned him with her knees.
He grasped for her throat in a desperate attempt to spare his own life. "Fereldan bitch," he spat, growling and clawing at her armor. "Worthless, meddling cunt – "
Unfazed, Hawke raised her daggers...
...and his calloused, stubby fingers found her necklace.
Everything seemed to stop as he ripped it from her throat in his scrambling, the thin leather no match for a dying man's strength. His fist clenched around it as he swung for her jaw, then sent it sailing through the air with a dull glimmer as he failed to connect.
All of the breath left Hawke's lungs at the earring's loss. It was a tiny thing, not worth more than a single coin, and hadn't even been bestowed upon her properly. Not that either she or the Arishok had cared at the time. But it had been hers, and it had been his, and –
With a visceral, wrenching cry, she drove both lit daggers into the flesh of the chest beneath her, the bursts of electricity and light searing skin and bone alike. The acrid smell of vaporized blood and burning hair filled her nostrils as she held firm, the vibration of his death throes and the intensity of the lyrium shaking the bright steel in her fists. White light blinded her and her blood thundered in her ears, but she felt nothing besides mindless, coursing rage.
It died down in a sputtering fountain of sparks and flame, and as Hawke forced herself to her feet, she yanked the daggers free of the crumbling, smoldering ash that had once resembled a human.
While Merrill snared the last captor with her demonic vines a safe distance away, Hawke's limbs felt leaden as she walked a few paces in the path her trinket had taken. She toed at the sand around the base of one rock, unearthing a length of leather, but nothing more. After a moment, however, a glint of light nearby caught her eye, and the pace of her heart quickened as she deftly tucked the ring, sand and all, into her satchel.
Behind her, Isabela sauntered over to the charred corpse and assessed it with a low whistle.
"What on earth," she chided, "did that man ever do to you?"
"Sneezed on me," Hawke replied calmly, snapping her daggers into place. She turned, offering a lopsided smirk.
"The rudeness of some people, am I right?"
It was late evening, and as the twilight services had long since ended, the Chantry was enveloped in its usual, low-hum quiet.
Sebastian walked along the rows of benches, straightening cushions and smiling greetings to the faithful who remained, being careful not to interrupt their devotions. The number of people staying late into the night to offer prayer had increased over the last year, another symptom of the city's desperation and fear.
The Maker would offer them all respite, he thought as he continued his work. Anyone who came seeking solace, no matter their race, social standing, or even knowledge of the faith, would be welcomed and given a temporary reprieve from the burdens of life outside the Chantry's walls. It was all he had in his power to give, but making that small difference to a troubled soul was what rewarded him the most.
As he neared the backmost rows, Sebastian noted the chained-off doors to the eastern stairwell. They were closed, as usual, but a red string had been looped around one handle.
He smiled, wiping his palms on the cleaning rag he'd tucked into his belt.
Speaking of troubled souls.
He did a quick visual sweep of the area, and the moment the coast was clear, leaned into the shadows and ducked inside.
As expected, Hawke sat in the leftmost alcove, a small oil lamp at her feet. The string was her 'occupied' signal – either she needed to think and be left alone, or she sought his counsel. It was most often the former, and she'd made such a habit of it that he'd brought her a few of the spare cushions to make her improvised retreat a bit more comfortable.
After all, if anyone in Kirkwall needed sanctuary, it was Hawke.
"You know," she wondered aloud as he stooped to sit opposite her, "I'm surprised people still believe that these stairs have been 'under repair' for six years."
Chuckling, Sebastian adjusted to accommodate his armor, resting one arm atop his knee. "I suppose no one questions constant repairs of such an old building."
She snorted. "And I put up a sign."
"That you did."
They sat in silence for a bit, the lamplight flickering across Hawke's face as Sebastian waited calmly for her to either tell him to shove off and let her be, or for her to let him in on the thoughts currently weighing on her mind. Every time she chose the latter option and allowed him in that much closer, the warmth and gratification he felt were increasingly worth the wait.
"You're the only one I know who ever truly gave something up for good," she began, leaning forward and coming off the aged wood. "So I came to you with this, only you." He watched as she fidgeted with her hands, rolling a coin back and forth between her fingers while he maintained his well-practiced patience. When she did finally look up at him, the tentative, guarded look on her face set a nervous lump in his chest, but he expertly squashed it down.
"Promise you won't judge?"
"I hear confessions every day, Hawke," he reassured her in his rolling brogue, allowing himself a smile. "And I know a fair amount of the things you've done or boasted of doing without you ever having set foot in one of those booths." She snickered, but he continued. "You have my word," he promised, and meant it.
"Then brace yourself," she said, leaning in and wrapping her arms around herself. "I... While I was recovering in the qunari compound, I was sleeping with the Arishok."
As her words sank in, he felt his tongue grow thick in his mouth, and the blood drain from his face. He had been expecting lying, stealing, cheating, or any combination of those; most certainly not–
"I..." He lowered his head, rubbing the back of his neck. "Oh, Maker."
"Hey," Hawke protested, straightening accusingly. "You said you wouldn't – "
"I'm not," he interrupted, holding up a hand. "Just... a moment, please."
As he gathered his thoughts and composed himself – Andraste's grace, Hawke! – he exhaled deeply. The two were both adults, he reminded himself, and she had said nothing of coercion or force. The fact that the qunari were the stuff of nightmares for most of the faithful he saw on a daily basis and Hawke had shared a bed with the largest, most intimidating one was just as fitting as it was jarring, and the two fought wildly in his head.
Through his process, he did not miss the effect his silence was having on his companion. Her discomfort was visible, and she had drawn herself back against the paneling. Guilt pricked at his conscience – bizarre or no, what she had offered him was deeply personal and indicative of her trust. As he calmed, Sebastian's chest tightened a bit, and he found himself wholly moved by her honesty.
The least he could do, he decided, was offer something in return.
Shifting his posture, he turned to face her. "Then," he announced, "if I may share something of my own, in the same spirit of trust."
That caught her interest, and she uncrossed her arms. "Of course."
He considered his words carefully as he cleared his throat. "I forswore my vows the day I learned of my family's murder, as you know."
"However." He leaned in, mimicking her earlier delivery. "I have not yet formally taken them up again since."
Hawke's eyes widened, and she shoved her hands in her lap. "Holy shit, really?"
He raised an eyebrow at the exclamation, and she ducked her head sheepishly.
"Sorry," she admitted. "You're just so -"
After a moment of quiet between them, Hawke turned to him with a smirk, clearly determined to defuse the heaviness of both confessions in her characteristic manner.
"So," she started, "if you don't technically have a vow of chastity, would you be interested in – "
"No," he interrupted, a smile tugging at his mouth despite himself.
"How about just the ti– "
He put a gloved hand over her mouth, knowing exactly where that was going. "Hawke."
She pulled his fingers down with a grin. "Worth a shot."
He chuckled, and she nipped at his fingertips as he pulled his hand away, eliciting a half-hearted scolding.
Sighing, Hawke leaned back and let her head hit the wall with a soft thunk. "But really, it's like a whole other world in there. You can't even imagine the difference a few walls can make."
"I have caught glimpses," he agreed, "and I believe you."
"It's incredible, Sebastian," she murmured. "No one is lost, or unvalued, or overlooked, or..." She gestured absently in the air. "The rules are set and followed - peacefully. Everything has a place and a purpose. Everyone has a place and purpose. Some of the qunari even have a sense of humor. And the more I was there, the more I was accepted and trusted."
"Including by the Arishok," he observed – half question and half statement - and she smiled to herself, scratching idly at the back of one hand.
"He was everything," she said. "Belonging, purpose, family, respect, love, all of it tied up into one big, strict, ill-tempered, difficult-to-understand package."
The use of the word 'love' was not lost on Sebastian, and he thought a bit, debating how best to respond. After a moment, he adjusted the lamp as he stared at the wall opposite their hideaway.
While he knew nothing of the Qun, he did know a thing or two about running, about pushing people away – and that was the part of himself that he spoke from as he offered Hawke everything he could think to give.
Near two hours later, advice tapped, Sebastian provided Hawke with a lookout from outside the stairwell. As she crept out into the main hall's shadows, he felt both relief and sympathy settle into his chest. It seemed as if nothing ever came to Hawke easily, and the number of challenges she had to face often seemed insurmountable.
He left to tend to the candles, praying for her with every lit flame. Even if he didn't know what success would be in this case, he knew she could use Andraste's help to find it.
Hey might also have offered a prayer to help her sneak past the compound guards, though he wasn't sure how much Andraste or the Maker could help with that.
The Arishok stood just inside the doorway, the flap having fallen shut behind him. A teapot in one hand radiated heat, and Hawke smirked to note that he had had to get his own damn tea.
She had also noticed two cups: one gathering dust, having not been moved in weeks.
With a smile, she saluted him and returned to her business. Seated comfortably in the cushions, his waistpiece balanced on her lap, she worked a bluish white bar of wax into the weaving. Long, firm strokes produced an even coating that gleamed softly in the low light before sinking into the material.
"Frost protection," she explained, waving the bar to demonstrate. "You're rubbish against magic cold."
He exhaled through his nose, moving forward to place the teapot on its table stand. "You have returned."
"It wasn't hard." She gestured vaguely northeastward with her free hand. "You need to work on your upper east wall patrolling. Also, your bullshit defense mechanisms." At the second half of her undisguised criticism, she saw his posture stiffen. Standing, she wiped her hands on the rough fabric of her trousers. "And there was something Sebastian said to me earlier."
Look at the signs, he had said. There had been many times in his life when he had been faced with a difficult decision, a challenge or a crisis of faith, and only when had he stopped thinking and opened his eyes did he see the sign that the Maker or his bride had left in plain sight. And though Hawke wouldn't bet a copper that either of the two deities would be of any help in this particular situation, the prince's words had refused to leave her head.
Thus she had returned, looking for a sign – and finding three.
"My cup, pillow, and armor stand," she said. "All still here. Why is that?"
The Arishok growled something low in his throat. "It is pointless to ask questions to which you already know the answer."
"And it's equally pointless to assume that words have no weight," she countered. "Then again, you're not really good with the whole 'talking about it' thing, which is how we ended up here." Slowly, she made her way out from behind the table, stopping just out of arm's reach. "You said nothing, so I said everything, like throwing fistfuls of sardines at a dartboard in hopes that one'd stick. But let me see if I got this right."
She began to pace, effectively trapping him in place as she attempted to unravel what promised to be either a very personal issue with intimacy for the warlord or a load of rationalized crap that her twisted mind had come up with.
"At first I thought that it was like a patronizing if-you-love-it-set-it-free bullshit scenario, deciding what was best for me and taking my agency out of the question. But the more I thought, the more I realized something." She turned, catching his interested stare. "You didn't do it for me. You did it for yourself, didn't you?"
She waited. He was studying her intently – evidently with a good deal going on behind those eyes - but when no answer came, she continued.
"You were trying to clarify it, and you couldn't," she added. "Did I want you or the Qun? Was I fighting so hard out of a genuine desire to stay, or out of fear of being cast out, a knee-jerk reaction that would fade?"
He had straightened by then, and Hawke knew she was hitting right at it. She kept going, because Maker knew this was the last chance she would ever have. If she left now, left again –
"You couldn't figure it out. So you shoved me out the door, counting on me to figure it out for you, then come back and spell it out so that you wouldn't have any doubts. About me, about us, about this path you were taking."
She saw a muscle in his jaw twitch, and his hands clenched and unclenched slowly.
"Am I wrong?" she prompted.
He exhaled slowly through his nose, the warmth of his breath taking an eternity to cross the distance between them. "No."
The short stretch it would take for her arm to raise out and touch the skin of his chest seemed more and more difficult to maintain with every pounding beat in her chest. So close. They were so close now, so close to this whole damn thing falling back in, one of them just needed to lift a hand and reach -
"You have finished speaking," he prompted, interrupting the silence, "but have given no answer."
"I came back."
"It has not been said," he insisted in an impatient rumble.
A broad smirk shot up from Hawke's sudden laughter and claimed her face.
"Maker!" she exclaimed. "That sounds so frustrating."
His eyes narrowed. "Perhaps."
The smile still firmly settled across her lips, Hawke cocked her head to look, really look at him.
For a moment, she saw him as she had months ago - as they were just beginning to establish their bizarre, ill-advised, more-than-either-had-bargained-for bond. And she felt that tug, that pull, just as intense as it ever had been.
"It was you," she answered. "Always you. It's why I came back, and why I don't intend to let you kick me out every time you get scared."
There was an audible groan as all of the air seemed to leave his chest in one long rush. "The Arishok must lead," he rumbled, turning to fix his gaze on the flickering shadows on the tent wall. "It is the will of the Qun."
The unspoken and there are so many ways that this could go wrong slipped its way under Hawke's heels and began to lift them.
"I know," she said quietly. "And I don't know what the future holds, but for now..." She moved closer, well into reach.
He studied her face, his hawk-gold irises bright in the dimness.
Gently, she reached up to run her fingers over his throat, behind his ears, and stood on her toes to bring her forehead to his.
"How about now?"
His palms found their way to her waist and back, ridding them of any remaining distance as his desperate touch betrayed his even voice.
She smiled, brushing her lips across the bridge of his nose.
"That's a good start."
And suddenly she was lifted to eye level and pulled to press against his chest, instantly finding purchase against the familiar body giving in and making up for lost time. His pulse was thunderous under her palms, and she reached for him just as greedily.
They both knew where this could go, but not where it would. As his claws pricked into her skin, warm and sharp and promising, adrenaline and affection flooded Hawke enough to flush away the weight of the decision they'd both just made. It was an odd high, like confidently striding right into a minefield.
Story of my life, she mused, and wound her arms about his neck.
Author's Notes: HOLY SHIT GUYS IT'S DONE
When I started this, I thought it was only going to be a five-chapter 'what if?' exploration, but here I am two years, 25 chapters, and 175k words later. First long story I'd ever written, too.
First of all, thanks where profuse and glorious thanks are due: my sweet, wonderful, moon-and-stars beta reader, analect. I couldn't have done this without her every step of the way. She's incredibly talented, thorough, and leaves notes that even a monkey with a typewriter could understand. She's also a fantastic writer, and you can find her here or on tumblr as specks-of-infinity. I highly recommend Justice in Surrender to get you started – it's a bittersweet M!Hawke/Anders story that, despite never being a big fan of the pairing, I love to death. Seriously, check her stuff out.
Now, onto some questions I've gotten a lot:
Q: So, is this it? Are you done writing Arishawke?
Not necessarily! I have a collection of drabbles I post occasional stuff to, and once in a while I open prompts and write stuff on tumblr. That's where I post almost everything first, so hop over if you like! I might also someday whip up a oneshot detailing what happens during the Invasion of Kirkwall, and how Hawke and the Arishok deal with the weight of those decisions. (Also, my Seb/Hawke story Starkhaven is for Lovers is one possible post-Arrowhead future.) But this story was always just intended as a 'how they got together' piece. =)
Q: What about the events of Inquisition and what happens to the Arishok?
(Minor spoilers) If you turn over Isabela, Varric tells you about the fate of the Arishok – which does leave quite a few questions and a lot of room for speculation, so... fair game? XD
Q: WHAT ABOUT THE INVASION OF KIRKWALL THAT'S GONNA BE SO FUCKED UP
Yeah, no way around that. See my first answer.
Anyway! One last thing – to you, the readers. I love all of you guys for being so patient, for sticking around with this story, and for loving it even though my skill level was close to zero when I started. Just by reading, you've watched me grow as a writer, and every time I got a note or message or comment or art or anything from someone, I learned a little more what an amazing feeling that was. Made my black little heart grow three sizes.
Thank you, thank you, thank you for reading. Drop by tumblr, I'm around – and I'm thrilled to hear from you guys anytime.