The Broken Binding
part three

-.-

The next morning, the sun broke clear and warm through the clouds, and the girl and her Pup went on their way with many thanks to the family that had again offered her a room for the night. Her dress was cleaned and mended and her hair properly combed for the first time in months, and with the knowledge that dinner and a real bed awaited her at the end of the day, the girl felt herself rather equal to any surprises the day might bring her.

Though she had thought it impossible, the city was even grander in the daylight; indeed, her first glimpse of the white stone walls shimmering in the sunlight made her clutch at Pup's shoulder in delight. Long ago, the city had been built on the banks of a great river, and as the ages passed, it grew in size and splendor on either side of the waters until it reached the very edges of the hills it bordered, the very same hills that had brought her here. The sight of the river brought tears to her eyes, for its swift-flowing waters laughed and gleamed in the sun like her river from home, and she found herself wondering if the river ever wondered of her.

More than one head turned at the golden-haired young woman standing so still at the bridge's edge, a woman who wept and smiled and waved down at the perplexed ferrymen who passed beneath her, her short stature at odds with the most enormous black mabari sprawled at her side in perfect unconcern. Soon enough, though, she composed herself and roused her companion, and as they descended the other side of the bridge, she was astonished to see the silver spires of a castle rising from the hills. It sat atop a rise at the edge of the city so that its white towers might be seen far in any direction, a beacon to call its weary warriors home, and the girl felt a strong desire to see it more closely. They made their way nearer and nearer to that great palace, though Pup grew unhappier with every step, and when eventually they reached the silver gates that guarded the outer walls, he sat on his haunches and refused to go a step farther.

"What ails you, Pup?" the girl asked, bending to cup the dog's face in her hands, but he would not meet her eyes. She pulled gently at his ears and tweaked his nose, thinking perhaps he was playing, but when he still would not move, she stepped back with a sigh. "Have it your own way," she said, and turned to see what she could of the castle through the gates.

"Even the beasts know," said a voice contemplatively. The girl looked behind her to see a pair of old men seated across the way who had apparently noticed her struggles with Pup.

"Aye," said the other, nodding his head. "Two years ago today it happened, and not a word in the while of the Black Prince."

The girl was intrigued, remembering the charming words of the fair thief, and she joined the elders at their table. "I am new to this city," she said, "and I do not know this story. Who is the Black Prince?"

"The eldest son of the king," the first man told her, knocking his pipe against his knee. "Two years ago today he was cursed to wander the world, friendless, and not a single messenger the queen has sent in search of him has found even a trace of the prince."

The girl checked over her shoulder, making certain that her mabari was still sitting by the gate; when he threw her a longsuffering look and slumped to the ground with a huff, she laughed and turned back to her companions. "Cursed? Why?"

"For failing to protect his people." The second man nodded again, his long, whiskery beard drooping on the table. "The Black Prince, who was well-loved by his father the king, was given charge of the building of a dam in the southern mountains of the realm. But he thought that the task was beneath him, and he did not do his duty and oversee the work properly. The dam was poorly built, so when the spring thaws came and the rivers flooded their banks, the dam did not hold."

"Aye," said the first. "It burst like so much kindling, flooding the town that lay beneath it with little warning. No lives were lost, but the people's homes and their farmlands were destroyed, and the king sent the Black Prince to the town to make amends." He puffed on his pipe and blew a meditative smoke ring, then leaned forward with a gleam in his eye. "But the prince did not know that a powerful mage lived in the town. The mage watched the prince riding in on his fine horse, with his silver buckles and glittering crown and his hunting dogs baying at his side, and he saw that the prince still did not see that the responsibility for the destruction of the town was his."

"That he had failed in his duty to protect his people!" cried the second man, slapping his knee for emphasis. "The town was of little consequence to any but those who lived there, but the mage saw that a man who would not protect the weak would be neither a good king nor a strong one, and he knew that no words would reach the distant ears of the prince. So he called on the wildness of his magic and cursed the prince."

The girl's mind spun. "Was the mage ever caught?"

"Nay, girl, though enough of the townspeople saw the magic as it happened. Vanished into thin air, he did, and never was he seen again in these lands. Worse, with the prince's brother and sister barely scraping a score of years between them, the king must fear for his throne as much as he does for his lost son."

The first man leaned back in his chair, nodding at a tale well-told. "Cursed to wander the world, never returning home until he learned to protect those in his care. That is the curse of the Black Prince."

"I thank you," said the girl, and when she stood to leave, the castle completely forgotten in the light of this new tale, her mabari trotted happily after her.

-.-

Anders arrives shortly after eighth bell. His face is creased with fatigue and his feathers a bit disheveled, but his eyes are clear as he drops his bag stuffed with medical supplies to the carpet with a thump. "Where's Hawke?" he asks without preamble. "I came as soon as I could."

Fenris folds his arms over his chest, irked and not bothering to hide it. "I'm glad you saw the need to hurry. She is in the study. Where she's been for the last hour, waiting for you."

"A man's eye was destroyed in a mining accident. Interrupting that sort of healing might have left him permanently blinded. But no, by all means continue insulting the mage you asked for help—it's politic."

Fenris jerks his head to the side, stung. Venhedis, this mage–but, though it galls him to admit it, Anders is right. Hawke needs help that he cannot give, and she is worth more than this wound to his pride. "Thank you. For coming," he grits out. It still feels like chewing nails.

Anders gives him a thin smile. "I didn't come for you."

Hawke is indeed in the study, curled up in one of the armchairs by the window and dozing lightly. Orana has done her dark hair in two braids that hang down over her shoulders, the red ribbons on their ends matching her dress, and somehow, Fenris thinks, they make her look even younger. Anders crosses to her side without hesitation; he crouches and touches her head softly to wake her, and a sudden surge of protective jealousy nearly swallows Fenris where he stands near the fire. He bites it back as Hawke stirs to wakefulness, shocked at its intensity.

"Hi there," says Anders as Hawke sits up, his voice kind. Neither of them misses the way her eyes go first to Fenris, as if making sure he is there, but Anders's gentle smile does not flicker in the slightest. "My name is Anders. Fenris says you're starting to hear whispers when you sleep. Is that right?" Marian nods uncertainly, and suddenly Fenris sees why Anders had not hesitated to come.

He is excellent with children.

In a matter of seconds, he has Marian entirely at ease. He makes a joke of checking her pulse and she giggles; he pretends to be startled by her reflexes and she laughs outright. In Anders's presence Marian looks at last the child she is, unaffected by the cares that Fenris has unwittingly laid on her shoulders. Beside the fire, he stands forgotten, a dark blot on the light of their gaiety. Eventually, Anders sits back on his heels and pats Hawke's knee. "Healthy as a horse," he says with satisfaction. The smile she gives him is all cheeky adoration, and he tweaks one of her braids. "Now, we can move on. Do you know how to make fire yet?"

Now they remember Fenris; Marian's eyes fly to his in indecision, but this is why Anders is here, after all, and Fenris, tersely, says, "Go ahead."

She turns back to Anders and his encouraging smile. Doubtfully she raises one hand between them and looks at it hard; a moment later, a tiny flame licks up the inside of her thumb. When it reaches the thumbnail, it jumps through the air to the tip of her forefinger, and then to the next, and in two breaths, her whole hand is alight.

"Excellent," Anders says, sounding genuinely impressed. He reaches out both hands and covers her palm to put out the fire—

"No!" Marian cries out, and yanks her hand away sharply. Fenris is halfway across the room before the little flames wink into nothingness, but even as they vanish she reaches out for Anders's hand again, startling them all. "Did I burn you?" she asks, her voice very small as she turns his hand from side to side.

Ah. Not fear, then—concern.Concern for the abomination, even now. Fenris doesn't know why he's surprised, and as Anders folds his long fingers around Marian's hand, he looks away.

"I'm all right," Anders says, and the warmth in his voice settles in Fenris's gut like ice.

The tests continue without further interruption, either magical or otherwise. Anders has Marian make sparks, snow, and stone in quick succession and is pleased when she struggles only with stone; a small, glittering barrier around his palm takes her nearly fifteen minutes to break through, but when at last she punctures it like so much netting, he nods in satisfaction. Time seems to pass by too quickly as they turn from one skill to another, and when the bells eventually chime half past nine, Anders blinks like a man emerging from deep water.

"Already?" he murmurs, pushing himself to his feet with the movements of someone much older than he is. Hawke droops in the armchair in exhaustion, her fingers still twitching faintly in her lap, but perks up enough to give him a tired smile when he rests a hand absently on her head. "You did a wonderful job, Marian. Thank you for sticking with me so long."

He turns to Fenris, jerking his head in the direction of the entrance hall, and Fenris unfolds himself from the wall to follow him from the room. He glances back, just once, to see Marian turn her head towards the window and a city still strange to her, pale save the flush of exertion on her cheeks, her dark braids falling over the shoulders of her red dress. With her feet drawn up under her and her back suddenly straight, she looks, now, like what she is—a little girl, lost in a world she does not truly understand. Alone.

Fenris tears his eyes away with effort. Anders leads them to the foyer, then stops, placing his bag on a bench to double-check the arrangement of its contents. "Well?" Fenris asks, managing to keep most of his impatience from his voice. The sooner the abomination is gone, the better.

Anders shrugs, tying the bag closed. "As far as I can tell, she's a perfectly normal six-year-old. And that includes her magic—she's a little advanced for her age, but it's nothing so notable as to attract the attention of demons."

"The voices she heard."

"Were probably nothing more than your standard-issue Fade spirits. I don't know where her magic is right now, but as she is, demons will hardly notice her. She might as well be invisible."

He sounds tired but calm, and even through their mutual dislike, Fenris knows he would not lie about Marian's safety. He closes his eyes briefly, not bothering to conceal the gratitude he feels towards Anders at this moment. "Then she is safe."

"She's a mage," Anders snaps. "She'll never be safe."

Fenris's goodwill dissipates at the familiar, aggrieved tones. "We will manage," he says stiffly, and takes a meaningful step towards the front door.

Anders stands his ground and scowls. "Of course you will. You'll hide an untrained apostate from the templars; you'll make sure that she learns how to use her magic properly. Because that's what you're known for."

"I will do what is needed." He hears the insulted edge creeping into his voice, but Anders takes no notice of his affront and moves even closer.

"What is needed," Anders repeats, eyes narrowed, and then he scoffs so loudly Fenris feels his breath on his neck. "Yes, Hawke needs you now, Maker alone knows why, and at least while you're in this city I can be sure you're teaching her what she needs to know. At least I can do that for her."

"Be silent—"

"No, Fenris," he snaps again. "Because you don't know what in the Void you're doing, and I'll be damned if I see you ruin Hawke out of your ignorance." It is as if he has reached into Fenris's heart and torn out his deepest fears, exposing them to the ruthless glare of daylight, and he finds himself speechless as Anders continues. "You think you know what she needs. Maybe right now, you do. But what are you going to do, Fenris,when the demons come for her in earnest? When you find yourself running from city to city because she can't control her magic?"

Fenris stares. Anders is furious, moreso than he has seen him in a long time and worse, he cannot say this time that his anger is unjustified. Anders paces in a tight circle, one hand jammed into his hair, and then he spins and jabs Fenris so hard in the breastbone that his markings flare in automatic defense. "You," Anders grits out, "do not understand. It's been ten days since that bloody book enchanted her. Ten days, and you think you can care for a child. Tell me, what happens when it's been a month? Six months? How long will it take before you start to wonder if this magic is permanent, before you stop hoping for a miracle?"

Six months—six months—he hasn't even thought—but Anders continues, merciless. "And what will you do when you realize that she will never be the Hawke you knew?" His voice softens from his near-shouting, but it is no less angry, and his eyes do not break from Fenris's. His hand is white-knuckled at his side. "That she might not ever care for you again?"

He might as well have struck Fenris across the face.

"She will grow up. She will grow up seeing you as the man who became her father, and when she falls in love with someone else, you will be the one she comes to. You will be the one she tells how happy she is with another man. And even if she does, by some idiotic miracle, fall in love with you again—?" Anders shakes his head, but there is no spite in it. Tiredness leaches the anger from his voice, leaving only a quiet pity, and he gives a calm, humorless laugh. "Hawke, eighteen, and you nearing fifty. At least your hair can't go any greyer."

Fenris wrenches his head away at that, unable to bear another instant of the man's too-sympathetic gaze. "Get out."

Anders raises a hand—to do what, Fenris doesn't know—but when it comes too close he shoves it away from him violently. "Get out," he says again, and his voice trembles before he can master it. Anders drops his hand and he sees him hesitate in his peripheral vision, but he still cannot look back and after a moment more, Anders turns and heads for the door.

He pauses with his hand on the knob, his back to Fenris, and speaks without turning. "People like you and me…we don't get happy endings."

And then he opens the door, and is gone.

Fenris stands still for a long time. His hands are clenched at his sides so hard they ache, and yet he still cannot stop their shaking; Anders's words fill his head until there is nothing left, no room for silence or peace or even simple hope. His future stretches out before his feet in a way he has never imagined—always, always it has been at Hawke's side, ever since the day she first gave him leave to stand there, but now—but now

His breath comes too tight in his chest. He struggles to inhale, his shoulders heaving with the effort of it, but the air presses too close—it is crushing him—he pushes the heel of his hand against his chest where it aches, but it doesn't help, doesn't ease the terrifying sorrow taking root in his heart. Hawke, his Hawke, lost to him forever—Hawke

He has to move. He has to move. He straightens from where he is bent almost double, his hand still clenched on his chest, and strides forward with such single-minded focus that he nearly knocks over Orana where she stands in the doorway. He has no idea how long she has been standing there—long enough, if the distraught look on her face is any indication—and his hands go out to steady her without thinking, without pausing. The rooms pass in a blur; he knows what he seeks as surely as a ship lost at sea turns to the stars, and when he bursts into the study and sees Hawke's face turn to his, sees her smile, just for him—he knows, and she is in his arms before he realizes he's crossed the room. Marian makes a noise of surprise but doesn't object, and slowly, her arms come around his neck in return, holding him just as tightly as he holds her. Her feet dangle at his hips.

It doesn't matter.

Fenris breathes, in and out, the ribbons of Hawke's braids brushing against his arms. Anders is right, and everything he said is true, but—it doesn't matter. Not to him. He has fought all of his life and run all of his life, and until he'd met Hawke he had expected to die doing just that. But she gave him hope, and shelter, and when she helped him slay Danarius she gave him peace—and even more than that, she dared to give him something he never in his life imagined being granted. She gave him herself, unequivocally and without reservation; when he fled, she waited, and when he returned, she was there to greet him with open arms. He can do no less for her now. He wants to do no less.

His arms tighten around Marian as he gathers his fears from that hidden place in his heart. He turns them over, one by one; he sees his despair, and his dread, and his uselessness, and he acknowledges their existence—and then, with a breath, he banishes them. He will not live in fear, not while Marian needs him. And even though there is a part of him, a lonely, desperate thing, that longs for his own Hawke, there is a larger part scored too deep in his soul that knows that he belongs at her side no matter her age, that even if she can no longer care for him the way he does for her, even if she never will again, that this—

This is home.

-.-

That night, the girl and Pup reached the home of the merchant and his wife only moments before the sky tore open in a storm. Thunder rolled low over the rooftops and torrents of lashing rain fell in great sheets, and the girl was grateful beyond words that her hosts were kind enough to give her shelter a second night. Again they ate well, and though cracks of lightning lit the sky as she and Pup climbed the stairs to her room, the girl felt quite content. Within moments of falling into bed, she was asleep.

In the wee hours of the night, the loudest crack of thunder she had ever heard split the air around her and she sat up with a start. Her mabari rolled over on the floor beside her bed, sleepily unimpressed; she was comforted by his presence and allowed herself to drift off again, noting absently that the rain no longer drummed on the roof. Time passed, enough that she found her dreams again, but again she was awoken, this time by an insistent tug on her sleeve and a faint growling she knew for her hound's. She reached out without opening her eyes, hoping to calm him, but when his sharp teeth clamped down hard on her fingers she came fully awake with a yelp. She looked to the mabari, surprised and hurt; he snarled and her eyes widened, her protest dying in her throat.

The house was burning.

Her room was already filling with black smoke, so thick she could barely see the door on the other side. No flames had yet reached her room, but she could see the angry red glow reflected on the houses outside her window and the anxious crowd gathering in the street. A few of them saw her and shouted, but the window was far too narrow for her to fit through, much less her dog, and without a second thought she threw her blanket over both her head and Pup's and fled for the door. The doorknob scalded her fingers when she touched it, but there was little time to nurse her pain, and wrapping the corner of her blanket around her hand, she flung it open.

Here was the fire. It licked at the walls already, curling around the edges of the paintings and spitting sparks when it reached the tapestries. Already the western rooms were afire and the heat blistered her cheeks, but the girl did not hesitate as she led her mabari towards the stairs. The fire was here, too, twisting its way up the carved banister like a golden snake, hissing as the lacquer cracked before it, but there was no other choice, and pulling firmly on her hound's fur, the girl started down the stairs. All around her the walls burned and buckled and belched smoke that stole her breath, but she knew that if they stopped they would perish, and she, more than anything, wished to save her friend.

And then the stairs collapsed beneath her.

The girl cried out as she fell, the next seconds lost in the wild rush of heat and light and the fire roaring in her ears. When at last the world came to rest, the girl lay stunned on her back, one leg twisted beneath her, and a heavy beam from the roof pinned her to the floor, stopped only from crushing her ribs by the shattered remains of the stairs. Gasping, she pushed against the wood, but it was as thick as she was and crafted of solid oak, and she could not move it. She screamed in fury and fear and shoved with all her strength, but the beam shifted not so much as an inch; around her the walls creaked ominously and the heat of the fire pressed against her face and shoulders, and the girl thought suddenly of her dog, lost in the collapse.

And then he was there as if summoned by her thoughts alone, his nose, gone dry with heat, pressing urgently at her face and neck. She gripped his neck in wordless panic and he saw what trapped her; he wrenched his head away and with a growl, he slammed the full weight of his body into the oaken beam. It did not move, and he charged again, using himself as a battering ram, but again it did not move. Again, and again, and again he threw himself at it, snarling and barking and ignoring the flames that crept ever closer until the beam grew bloody with his efforts. A man might have shifted it where the dog could not, but the girl saw that the fire burned far too hot and too close to expect a rescue, and then she knew, with sudden clarity, that soon she would die.

The knowledge settled over her like snowfall, cool and soft and calming, and she reached out a hand to her mabari to still him. He turned to her with teeth bared, raging at her interruption, and then he saw in her eyes the understanding that she would not survive, and a light in his own eyes went out. She pushed at his chest, for the smoke had grown too thick for her to speak, and when he did not move she pushed again, harder, and pointed at the door, willing him to safety. But her mabari would not move no matter how she shoved, whining low in his throat, and though the fire licked now at the very beam that pinned her, though the tears coursing down her cheeks burned away before they could fall, he lay down with his head on her chest as if they were in the forest again, with nothing but the trees and the stars and the silent-winging owls to keep them company.

Somewhere a wall gave way, and with a roar, a swirling tower of flame burst into the room. The girl twined her fingers into the smoldering fur of her dearest friend and met his eyes through the blurring tears in her own. He gave her a dog's smile, his tongue lolling out as if he were laughing, and with a shadow of the playfulness of their first meeting, he licked her cheek to catch a tear as it fell.

Something lit between them.

It was cold, and clear, and the white light it bore held nothing of the livid blaze of the flames that surrounded them. It hovered in the air between them like a star and the girl's heart ached at its beauty, but even as she reached to touch it, it darted to her mabari's chest and alit there. The room burned swiftly around them; this light burned swifter still, coursing over his singed black fur as fast as she could follow it and faster. In its wake the fur rippled and vanished and his legs grew long; it flickered over his spine and she blinked as his back bent and straightened and his face changed its shape. She heard a great crack and he cried out, and even through the roaring of the fire she knew the voice that spoke was human.

A man knelt on the floor beside her.

His head was bowed; he raised a trembling hand to his face, hidden under his thick black hair, and she saw that he wore a dark uniform with silver trimmings that caught the light of the fire still blazing around them. She reached out her fingers to his curled and smoking hair, not daring to believe the visions of a dying woman, but before the girl could touch him he raised his head and he looked at her with a man's face, and with a man's eyes, and she saw that the truth in those eyes had not changed.

She knew him for her Pup.

A flame snapped near them and she flinched, and in a moment the man had leapt to his feet. She saw his arms strain against the oaken beam that pinned her, saw his strong back curve and flex with the effort, and then the beam shifted against her ribs. She pushed against it, breathless with smoke and shock, and felt it give at last; he set his booted feet more squarely beneath him and heaved again, and this time the beam lifted free.

The girl shoved hard against it, forcing herself away from its heavy weight and pulling at her twisted knee with her hands; the moment her bare feet slid free the beam crashed down behind them, and the man who was Pup lifted her in his arms and ran.

-.-

Two weeks.

Two weeks Hawke has been a child, and though he won't admit it, Fenris knows that Varric has almost given up hope. He has exhausted every avenue he has and a few more besides, and still, nothing has come to light; indeed, at their last meeting, Varric had muttered something almost like an apology, and that had unsettled Fenris more than anything since Hawke's original transformation. Now Fenris sits in Hawke's armchair in the study, looking at nothing in particular. A book lies upside-down on the armrest at his elbow, forgotten; he'd plucked something from Hawke's shelf without particular care, seeking only a distraction, but when he'd found himself staring at the same sentence for nearly ten minutes he'd given up and abandoned the pretense.

He snorts to himself. That seems to be a common-enough theme with him, lately, and he leans back in the chair, letting his eyes close for a moment. The future will come as it comes, and he is prepared—as much as he can be, anyway. Fretting further would be ridiculous and purposeless, and he is resolved not to look back again.

The door creaks open, and Fenris opens his eyes to see Marian easing it closed behind her. She is in green today, a dark skirt and vest over a white blouse, and he can see her bare toes sinking into the carpet as she approaches his chair. There is something in her face, something serious and doubting, and he doesn't quite know what to do with it. "Marian."

"Hello, Fenris." Marian hesitates, pushing a stray hair out of her face as she looks at him searchingly, then seems to give up on whatever thought has brought her into the room. Instead, she sidles up to him, leaning both elbows on the armrest next to the book. She nudges the book's cover without a word, and when it does nothing in response, she drops her chin to the armrest between her hands and sighs.

"Is something…the matter?"

She shakes her head and one hand comes forward to pick idly at the sleeve of his jerkin. "You wear this a lot."

"Hmm."

Her finger slides down one seam, bumping along the rougher edges of the leather until she reaches the scrap of red ribbon bound around his wrist. Two weeks she has seen it and paid it no mind, but today it grabs her interest, and Fenris feels almost dizzy as she plucks at it. "You wear this all the time."

"Yes," he says helplessly.

"Why?"

"It's…" It is the most precious thing he owns. It is a reminder of his past and a promise of a future that seems more elusive by the day, and when she touches it with so little recognition it nearly cracks him in two. "It's special to me."

She nods as if she understands and pats the back of his hand; arrested by a thought, Fenris turns his palm over, catching her fingers in his. Her hands are so small. So small. Her fingers barely reach the base of his own, even when she stretches; a single movement, and he could crush her pale hand in his. Fenris closes his eyes, appalled. His hands are the hands of a killer, more often sheathed in steel and caked in blood than not; he has no right to be here, holding the hand of a child. He has no right to be trusted by this child.

But no. He has laid aside those fears. That same hand pats his own again, and he opens his eyes; Marian looks up at him with eyes full of worry, and he offers her a small smile. He will be worthy of that trust.

She smiles back, that smile that she only shows to him. He sees her gaze drop to his wrist again where the ribbon lies knotted; she touches the crimson fabric again, then lets her hand continue down his wrist to the white tattoos that streak his fingers. Marian studies them intently, then looks to the markings on his chin, to his eyes, and to his hair. "I don't know anybody like you," she says at last. She sounds surprised at the realization.

Fenris lets out a near-silent laugh. "I know."

Finally, the tension in the room eases. They sit in silent camaraderie for several seconds before Hawke starts fidgeting again, and Fenris sees the thought that had brought her here on her face again.

"Will you…" she starts, then trails off, looking away.

He can't tell if it's unease or embarrassment, but neither of them fits her particularly well. "Will I…?"

She sucks in a breath, then lets it all out in a whoosh."I want you to read something to me."

Fenris feels his eyebrows shoot straight into his hairline. Of all the things she might have said, this he had not expected. He does not truly dislike the idea, once he has turned it over in his mind—he has read well enough to satisfy Hawke for years, after all—but he doesn't understand why the request has agitated Marian so badly, and he asks as much.

Her eyes flick up to his and then away again. "Because you won't like it."

"Even so," he says, gesturing for her to continue. She chews on her lip before nodding.

His curiosity thoroughly piqued, he watches as she throws one last tormented look at him, then fetches the little wooden chair from her desk. Understanding does not dawn until the chair has come to rest by the hearth and she is half atop it, and by the time he has extricated himself from the chair and pushed to his feet, Of Magicks Wilde and Wicked has already been pulled safely into her arms. Fenris stands where he is in an agony of indecision—everything in him desperately wants to tear the book away from her, to throw the damned thing into the fire and be done with it once and for all, but he has frightened her like that once before and refuses to do so again; and besides, the thing is done already, and she seems as yet none the worse for it.

Though every inch of his skin is tingling in disquiet, he forces himself to ease back into his seat as Hawke crosses back to him. She holds the book out to him expectantly, then hesitates and draws it back, and he sees by the look on her face that he has not schooled his own quite as well as he'd wished.

"I knew you'd be angry," she mumbles, and begins to turn away.

Fenris takes the book from her hands.

It is a heavy weight on his palm—he forgets, every time, how heavy it is—and once more, the faded lettering on the cover stares up at him innocently. Hawke takes this as silent assent, and in a trice she has clambered into his lap, nearly kneeing his chin in the process. Autumn is well upon Kirkwall and the room is chilly despite the afternoon; there is a thickly-woven blanket thrown over the back of the chair they sit in, feathers embroidered in gold chasing across a deep red background, and Hawke pulls it down over his shoulder to wrap herself in it.

"You wish me to read from this," Fenris says, still not quite believing it. One hand goes out to steady Hawke without thinking as she maneuvers herself more snugly against him.

"The first one."

The Mabari Prince.

"I am—not certain that is wise." A horrendous understatement. He can think of few ideas worse.

She twists in his arms. He thinks at first she is simply readjusting the blanket around herself, but she moves until she faces him and gives him a level look far beyond her years. "You have to read it," she says matter-of-factly, then touches the center of her chest. "I can feel it here."

Magic books, magic feelings—Fenris hates magic, hates more this terrible uncertainty. "How do you know?"

Marian frowns, still touching her chest as she searches for the words. "You have to finish the story," she says at last, and Fenris forgets to breathe.

He's heard that before. Varric's voice—Xenon's words.

The story doesn't end until you've read it.

Can it really be that simple?

He stares at the little girl in his lap, at Hawke's bright blue eyes and black hair, at the too-wide mouth and familiar nose. She meets his eyes without flinching—whatever might come of this, there is no doubt in her face. This is right. This must be right.

Dazed, Fenris opens the book to The Mabari Prince.It feels as though he is in a dream: his hands moving without conscious thought, his fingers numb on the leather cover, the feeling of Hawke again settling against his arms distant and remote. The pages fall open to the painting of the fair-haired girl standing next to the massive mabari; she seems to smile up at him with understanding in her eyes, and the dog's grin is a trifle wider than he remembers it. Marian brushes her fingers against the dog's fur, and she smiles, and before Fenris can convince himself what a blindingly foolish idea this is, he begins to read.

"The Mabari Prince," he says aloud. His voice shakes. Here is where everything went wrong; here is where he lost the thing that mattered most. But he has started already, and—he has to finish the story. "Once upon a time—there was a little girl who lived with her father in a wooden cottage at the very end of the river." He hesitates, waiting for—magic.

Nothing. Time has not slowed, nor has he changed into a child himself. Instead he feels the sudden sense of something easing back into place, a weight too long unbalanced righting itself at last. Marian looks up at him, confused by his pause, and he continues. "Most days, she was a contented child…"

-.-

When the girl opened her eyes, she found herself resting against the chest of the man who was Pup, both of them seated on the edge of a stone fountain in the square. Behind her the house smoldered still, though the worst of the damage seemed to be through; faint rain fell softly but steadily, and men and women in robes and rolled-up sleeves threw bucket after bucket of water on the last glowing embers. Their kindly hosts stood silent before the remains of the home they had shared so easily, and the girl's heart hurt that she could do nothing for them.

Then the girl looked up and found the man who was Pup watching her, his face creased with concern and faint uncertainty; she floated somewhere outside herself, giddy with magic and the fiercer rush of unexpected survival, and without thinking, she brushed the lingering raindrops from his hair before touching the silver clasp at his throat. She swallowed the last of the flames from her voice and said, "You are the Black Prince."

"Aye," he said easily enough, and though his voice was rough with smoke it was warm and deep, and she found that she liked it a great deal.

Blood dipped and smeared just above his collar, where her mabari had flung himself again and again at the wooden beam that trapped her. "And my Pup," she added, her hand curling into a loose fist on his chest.

"Aye," he said again, this time with unhidden anxiety.

Her fist thumped against his shoulder. "You ought to have fled when I told you to go!" she cried, though she made no move to rise from his lap and his arms did not loosen from her waist. "You ought to have saved yourself!"

He caught the fist in his hand and opened it gently to reveal the angry burns stretching across her fingers. His thumb traced the worst of them, and then he brought her hand to his mouth and touched her fingers to his lips. His eyes met hers without blinking.

"I would not leave you," he said.

A thin and trembling thing began to unfurl in her heart. She knew it for what it was, for she saw the same thing alight in his own dark eyes, but she would not yet name something so fragile before she knew if it would live, so instead she smiled and shook her head and curved her shoulders into the rain. "You are very reckless," she said instead. "Here, and with the wolves…"

"So says she, who faced them with nothing but a dagger." His eyes crinkled in good humor. "I have seen men quake with fear at less."

She blushed to say it, but her honesty would let her do no less. "I could not be afraid. I knew that you would protect me."

His smile grew dim and his arms tightened around her. "Had you known me before this, you could not have said such a thing. You know the story?" She nodded and his laugh was painful, a mockery of his own suffering. "Near eighteen months I spent as that dog before I met you, and not once in that time did I spare a thought for anyone but myself."

"Why did the mage choose a mabari, I wonder?" It felt so odd, she thought, discussing such great magic so plainly, but her curiosity could not be denied. Behind them, as the last of the coals died to steam in the gentle rain, the crowd began to scatter, paying little mind to the damp couple.

"The hounds I brought with me," he said, shaking his head. "The mage saw rightly that I valued them more than the homes my carelessness had destroyed, so he gave me their shape in return."

She cocked her head, feeling the heavy weight of her wet, unbound hair sliding across her shoulders. "I see it," she said with a smile, and touched his face. "Here, in the ears, and in the shape of the nose." He caught her hand again and she laughed aloud, cupping her palm around his cheek. "And then I found you in that trap."

He pressed his hand against hers, holding it to his face. "Aye, for I'd been fool enough to let my hunger bait me into it. A whole calf's hind left out as obvious as anything, and I was blinded to the danger until it was too late."

"And then I found you," she finished, but a thought struck her and she straightened with an exclamation. "And you scratched me!"

"You frightened me!" he returned, but the Black Prince had the good grace to look abashed.

The girl slid from his knee, drawing up to her full and entirely unimpressive height, laughing as she gestured to her sodden, smoke-stained dress, her bare feet on the cobbled street, her golden hair singed at the ends and falling loose around her. "I inspire so much terror?"

The smile left his face and took hers with it, and he clasped both her hands in his as he rose from the stone edge of the fountain. "I knew no terror as I did tonight," he said, "when I saw that I had failed to protect you."

He stood a good deal taller than her, his hair and uniform mere shadows against the night, but she saw the grief in his eyes clearly. "You saved me."

"The spell broke."

"Nay, you broke it yourself." She brushed her fingers over his shoulder where it bled, where he had given everything he'd had to protect her, and the glimmer of his smile touched her heart to set the trembling thing within it soaring. "We did not, perhaps," she added, lightening her words, "begin this friendship in gentleness. I trust that in the future, your greetings will be more tender."

"Then allow me to greet you again," said the man who was Pup and the Black Prince at once, his smile growing broad and true, and then he caught her in his arms, and he kissed her.

-.-

Marian leans against him with a sigh as Fenris reads. He tells her of a girl with golden hair and a hound nearly as large as she; he tells her of wolves in the night, of witches with dragon's eyes, of a white-stoned city that spanned a laughing river; he tells her of a cursed prince and a man who did not protect those who needed him. He speaks so long that his throat grows dry, but he will not stop, cannot stop—a key is fitting in a lock, something slow and strong building between them with every word, and he senses that to end it now would shatter into a thousand pieces whatever chance this magic has given them. Marian listens in grave silence, offering nothing, saying nothing, though her eyes stay trained on his face. In the tale a house burns and Marian flinches, and for a moment he thinks that he almost feels the heat of the flames on his own skin; by the time he reaches the end it seems that the pages nearly turn on their own, as if the story itself is frantic to be read. The words leap from the page to his lips and in the room there swells a palpable pressure, insistent the way breathing is insistent, and when he reads the last words aloud he thinks the very air might split from the untamed force of it.

"The end," Fenris says.

Hawke breathes, and the key turns home.

The world splinters with a sudden hard crack that nearly deafens him, and the book bursts outward with light. Before the magic had been silent, subtle in its potency, but this furious explosion is its opposite and more—a distant chime rings silver and the sound fills his chest, his throat; the light grows brighter and sharper, washing the room to pale shadows in its exquisite brilliance. Marian's weight slides from his knees and Fenris reaches out for her blindly, but his hands only brush the twist-wool fringe of her blanket before the pressure crushes him back without mercy.

The magic builds around them in a whirlwind of white fire and Hawke stands at its heart, her shape nothing but a shivering dark space to his dazzled eyes; the chime still resounds in his ears and he cannot breathe under its sheer immensity. The pull of the magic is so strong that his tattoos flare in defense—everything in him rages at his impotence, savage with fear for Hawke, her small shadow standing awash in light as the storm surges to its peak—and then, with the abrupt cresting of a wave at sea—

—it breaks.

For a moment the light burns so bright that Fenris throws his arm over his eyes. The chime dies away at last, and in its wake he hears the faint whisperings of a thousand voices, men and women and children warm and laughing as they murmur the words of old tales. They speak only an instant and then they are gone, taking the last of the pressure with them. The light lingers longer, though it is nothing so bright as it was, and Fenris's heart hammers loud in the sudden silence as he lowers his arm.

Marian kneels on the floor, her back to him and bent so low she is nothing but a heap of crimson blanket and dark hair. Fenris stands, his stomach clenched in anxiety, but before he can reach her the pattern of golden feathers ripples over her shoulders with a breath, the gilded thread glimmering in the light, and Hawke rises to her feet.

Hawke rises.

She is so tall—so tall—how has he forgotten this? The blanket that drowned Marian falls around Hawke's shoulders like a cloak, the feathers drifting down her back that stands steady and straight before him. The binding has come loose on her hair and the black wave of it ripples as she raises her head—and then she turns to him in a sudden sharp motion and it lifts cloudlike around her face. The gold of sunlight catches in her blue eyes, on the curve of her too-wide lips drawn up in a smile, on the sloping arch of her cheekbone.

"Fenris," she says, and knows him.

A thing in his heart that had been broken is made whole again, and he puts a hand to his face, overcome. He cannot find words—there is nothing he can say that can possibly convey the ache of his gladness and the anguish of his unbearable relief; every word crashes together on his tongue at once and in the end, the only thing that escapes him is, "Hawke."

She laughs breathlessly and his heart leaps at the sound. "Fenris," she says again, and again his breath catches in his throat at the sound of his name. "Fenris, I've torn it!"

Her eyes are bright with giddy humor, and so lost is he in her face that he barely hears her words. "Torn—torn what?"

"Everything!" She spreads her arms wide to reveal the child's skirt, the seams split clear past her hips, the green vest hanging by mere threads over a white blouse with the shoulder seams popped cleanly, the fabric barely reaching her waist. She draws the blanket closed again so that the gold feathers hide her safely; she laughs again and he hears the tears choking the edges of it, wild and euphoric and free, and he takes two steps forward and crushes her, blanket and all, against his chest.

Here is where she fits. Here is her hair brushing his forehead and her long-fingered hands curling over his back, his shoulders. Here is her heart beating sparrow-fast against his own and her lips on his cheek, whispering things he cannot make out through the shuddering that swallows them both. Hawke leans back first and oh, it is hard to release her, but she moves only enough to press a kiss to the corner of his mouth.

It is not enough. He has been without Hawke, his Hawke, for two weeks with no promise of an end, and this is not enough, but even at this faint touch he feels as if he might crack to pieces, and this time when she pulls back he lets her. "I have missed you," Fenris says. The sentiment is woefully inadequate, but she nods as if she understands all the same.

"You too," she says. "I mean, it was different. There was a—a hole." She draws back, gesturing between them. "I knew something was missing, just not—what."

He has so many things to say, so many questions he wishes to ask her, that he cannot decide which topic to broach first. "You were right about the book. That reading the tale would break the enchantment."

Hawke gives him a wry grin. "Nay, you broke it yourself."

Her smile is so bright—it is too much for him, too much for his heart; he feels like a man underground too long, blinded when he emerges at last into the sunlight. He cups her cheek in his hand and she leans into the touch and then, perhaps sensing how near he is to being overwhelmed, she steps back and runs a hand through her hair. "Everything looks so small," she says, breaking the tension as she glances around the room. Her gaze falls on Of Magicks Wilde and Wicked lying forgotten on the floor, still open to the painting of the girl standing next to her mabari.

"You did barely reach my knee," says Fenris as she bends to pick it up, and he is pleased to find his voice is almost normal.

"I wasn't that short." Hawke's thumb brushes over the mabari's black fur again, the other hand holding the deep red fabric of the blanket close around her. "I think the magic's gone now. Well. Save what's in the words themselves, I suppose."

"You suppose."

She gives him an impish smile. "I could always try another one, if you like?"

"No! Put it away." He is rattled by the very idea and Hawke relents when she sees it, tucking the book into its habitual place on the mantle. It seems so—innocuous, there, as if it really might be nothing more than a collection of children's stories, but Fenris decides to consider himself blessed if he never sees the inside of that book again.

Her hand lingers on the mantle, and when she speaks she does not look back at him. "It was nice, though. Having Bethany and my parents again, I mean, even if it was only for a few days. I even missed Carver's bawling." Her voice catches, but she does not weep, and the eyes she turns to him are clear. "I'd like to…maybe I could tell you about them, some time. I think Bethany would have liked you."

He nods, knowing how close she keeps those memories. "I would like that."

She smiles, one less tinged with grief than he remembers, and then her eyes widen in sudden memory. "Fenris! I made you be Rowan!"

She looks both faintly appalled and utterly amused, and when Fenris coughs delicately into his fist, she lets out a burst of laughter so warm it hurts, so bright it chases away every shadow still lingering in his heart. In another life he might have resented the injury to his dignity; now, the corners of his own mouth turn up in shared amusement. The moment passes too soon, but stifled giggles still leak from Hawke as she wipes tears from her eyes.

"I'm sorry, Fenris," she says, managing something very like sincerity, and then she runs a hand over her eyes. "I wonder if Isabela knows I saw her keep the cockle shells."

He can think of nothing to say. Seeing Hawke's face with his own eyes, the muted joy a reflection of his own—he feels as though he drinks in the sight of her, that he cannot look at her enough to sate his thirst.

"Mistress!" The cry comes from the door, and both of them turn to see Orana standing there, her hands over her mouth and her eyes filling with tears. "Mistress, you're—you—"

"I'm—me!" Hawke crosses the room and embraces her, still wrapped in the gold-feathered blanket; a moment later they hear nails skittering on the floor and Hawke nudges Orana just enough out of the way that when Toby comes barreling through the door, Hawke is the only one knocked from her feet. The dog covers her face with enthusiastic slobber, allowing her to rise to her elbows only to shove forward and send her sprawling again. "Toby, stop—stop, you overgrown clod—" She pushes his muzzle away, making a face at the drool on her hand, but she is laughing as she says it. The blanket lies forgotten on the ground and Orana clucks to see Hawke's state of tattered undress, her tears forgotten in the light of Toby's antics. She disappears and returns a moment later with a robe; Fenris helps Hawke to her feet despite the mabari leaping at their legs, and Hawke slips into it gratefully.

"Andraste's left knee," she says, looking down at herself. "I feel almost grown-up again."

Fenris tucks his arms around her waist, unable to muster the slightest sense of concern at the openness of the gesture. Her touch is a luxury, he'd thought once, and he thinks he has more than earned this indulgence. Hawke turns her face up to his with a smile as Orana slips from the room again, saying something about messages as she gives them their privacy. "Hello," Hawke says, quirking an eyebrow. "Come to collect your lady's kiss?"

"My lady's—?"

"He caught her in his arms, and he kissed her," Hawke quotes in a passable imitation of Fenris's voice. "The tale's over, the story's done—all that's left is the kiss and the happily ever after."

Fenris thinks, then, of Anders's words. Fairytale endings are not for people like them, he'd said, and that might yet be true—still, here, with Hawke, his Hawke, in his arms, he cannot help but smile. "Then I suppose I will oblige."

"Oblige—" Hawke says indignantly, but his mouth is already slanting over hers, and in the kiss he gives her everything he has felt since she vanished into herself, every twinge of fear and pang of loss, every instant of tempered joy now set free. She wraps her arms around his neck to meet him just as intensely; her hand fumbles into his hair and he pulls her closer, and for many minutes there is no sound in the room but their mingling breaths. At last they break apart, unsteady on their feet, and she rests her forehead against his for a long time. "Oblige me more often," she says at last, and tugs at the hair on the nape of his neck.

He laughs despite himself. Orana has gone to send messages to their friends; soon enough the room will be full of people and all of them will demand their equal share of Hawke's time. Varric will have a hundred questions, only half of them appropriate; Aveline and Merrill will wring out every detail of Hawke's transformation, eager to see a second childhood through her eyes. Anders will smile and touch Hawke's hands too often, and Isabela will bring enough alcohol to ensure not a single one of them is walking straight by nightfall.

"Happily ever after," Hawke reminds him, smiling as if she knows his thoughts.

Fenris kisses her again. "Such as it is."

Happily ever after. In truth, he doubts they will find it so easily—their lives do not lend themselves to peace and quiet, after all, and Kirkwall will pull them back into its chaos soon enough—but as long as he stands at Hawke's side, he will not count it an impossibility. And as for the future, with its anxious hopes, its uneasy shadows, and even the great uncertainty of magic…well.

He's rather looking forward to it.

-.-

In a land not very far from here, there is a river that flows through a white city. Its waters are clear and sweet, and if you wished, you might follow them as they wend their way through the wild forests and sloping hills, turning ever southward until at last they end near a little cottage all grown over with vining roses. There, if you took the care to listen, you might hear the leaves of the trees whisper to you their rustling secrets, or smell the spices carried far on the wind from distant lands to this hidden place. And, if you listened closely enough, you might even hear in the laughing of the river the story of the wise advice it once gave a girl who lived beside it, and of how that girl married her true love in the spring on the same river's bright and gleaming banks, and of how she, and her Black Prince, whom she ever called Pup, found at last their happily ever after.

-.-

The End