Chapter 29

This chapter takes place after "Maker bless us, everyone!"

Author notes

Hi! Hope you're well. I've had a crazy year. Work, uni, every eligible voter in Australia getting the chance to decide if LGBT+ people in this country should be permitted to marry in a drawn-out government-sanctioned postal survey, you know. The usual. I haven't been writing. I finally got this chapter ready so I hope it's enjoyable. I can't wait for uni to be over so I have one less thing off my plate and more time for stuff I actually want to do, like write this story.

Also, the postal vote got a YES result, despite the conception of the ridiculous plebiscite/postal vote coming from a certain buffoonish anti-LGBT+ conservative who was overthrown from being Prime Minister for being a national laughing stock (seriously, google "Australian Prime Minister onion eater" or "Australian Prime Minister Suppository of all wisdom" – seriously - and you'll see exactly what we were dealing with); despite so much media time being given to "no" vote campaigners whose arguments as I'm sure you can imagine were the same tired irrelevant rhetoric ever spewed by any other tired undead dinosaurs and space-wasters of their ilk; despite actual snail mail post being chosen as the method of delivery of this non-compulsory, non-legally binding survey, an act deliberately chosen to deter young people who were most likely to vote in our favour from voting at all; despite ballots being stolen from mail boxes in some cases, and post boxes being set on fire in others; despite the astounding amount of money available to the "no" vote campaigners (the Sydney Anglican Diocese gave $1,000,000 to fund the "No" campaign, as one example); despite the fact that the "No" vote campaign paid for skywriters to scrawl their hateful message in the sky over Sydney for all to see; despite all the filth and propaganda; despite several government MPs declaring that they would vote "No" no matter what the public decided, ignoring the fact that countless polls have delivered the same consistent results indicating that the public is in favour of allowing marriage equality; despite all the vitriol and lies and the fact that the odds were stacked against us from the very beginning of this despicable charade, WE STILL. FUCKING. WON! And the government actually stepped up and did its job and made it law. It's lawful, now.

And I am getting married in 2018, to the woman I love, in the country of my birth. Yay! *Confetti*

Happy new year, my friends. May 2018 be a better year for everyone.

xxx M xxx

"So, why does Aveline want to see the two of us, exactly?" I ask, looking up at Hawke as we stride through the great doors into the Keep. Not what I wanted to be doing on such a fine clear morning, but when Aveline asks you to come and see her when you have a moment, she means just as soon as possible and before she gets annoyed. "She's not going to lecture us about the mirror again, is she?"

"I don't think so," Hawke smiles, lacing her fingers with mine as we head up the stairs towards the guard's wing. "She just said it's something she trusts us to handle for her. She doesn't want to involve anyone else in… whatever this new problem is."

I sigh. I can't help it. Why are there so many problems we must get involved with fixing? "You know, I think the two of us ought to go on a holiday of our own, ma vhenan. Somewhere without any people to give us problems to solve, just us. And not tell anyone we're going."

"That would be nice," Hawke agrees absently, pausing just outside Aveline's austere office. "But I think if we tried that, our friends would panic that we've been kidnapped, and they'd all come and hunt us down. And they'd find us eventually." She grins meaningfully at me as she taps on the door. "Likely at the most inopportune, intimate moment."

I laugh, agreeing, as Aveline calls for us to enter.

"Hawke, Merrill. Glad to see you. Close the door," Aveline says, not looking up from her desk as we enter. Hawke looks at me and raises a bemused eyebrow, then complies with Aveline's request and shuts the door quietly behind us.

Aveline writes a few more lines on whatever dreary bit of paperwork she has in front of her and then rises, walking round to the front of her desk and leaning back against it, her clear green eyes fixed appraisingly on the pair of us.

"What's this all about, Aveline?" Hawke asks after a moment.

Aveline takes a quick breath. "Hawke, I need… a favour that I can only trust to you."

Hawke glances at me and grins at Aveline, raising an eyebrow. "Oh, this should be good."

Aveline doesn't seem to hear. Or she ignores it, perhaps. "It should be a small matter, but I worry. I need you to give something to Guardsman Donnic. Here, in the barracks." She holds a small, cloth-wrapped package out to Hawke. "No questions, and he is not to know it's from me."

"Donnic, eh?" Hawke smiles, taking it from Aveline's outstretched hand. She looks it over interestedly. "What's the package?"

"Nothing you need to worry about," Aveline answers, somewhat shiftily in my opinion. She gives Hawke rather a cross look. "And you're doing very badly at the "no questions" part."

"It must be something important if you're going to all this trouble," Hawke fishes, watching Aveline's face for clues. She has that look on her face that says she's trying very hard not to laugh.

The Guard Captain stares back at her, her face impassive as she crosses her arms. "That's none of your business."

Hawke shakes her head a little, an amused smile on her rosy lips. "How very Qunari of you," she says. Aveline does rather resemble them when she stands like that, all serious and forbidding.

"I already regret this" Aveline says, obviously making a conscious effort to be less Qunari-like as she deliberately unfolds her arms. "I'm not about to make it worse by... exposing unnecessary facts." She lifts one shoulder in a shrug. "You can accept that or not, but that's all I can say."

Hawke glances down at the package in her hand, and back up at Aveline, confusion clear in her bright blue eyes. "You need me for something as simple as this? Why don't you assign someone?"

Aveline is silent for a moment, gazing at the wall. "I protect many people – citizens well beyond the men and women I command," she says slowly. "But… who do I really know besides you?" She looks up and meets Hawke's eyes squarely. "I need a friend to do this. It's a short list. And I know I can rely on you."

"You hardly seem to need me here," I observe cautiously. Aveline is in a bit of a funny mood, I think. I don't want to get my head bitten off for asking the wrong question. "Hawke can successfully deliver a small parcel to someone in the near vicinity without my supervision. Usually."

Hawke laughs, and Aveline smiles a little, which is good enough for me. "I trust you too, Merrill," Aveline answers gently. "Besides, I'm not going to ask Hawke for a favour she can't tell you about. I thought you might as well be here, so I asked for you both. It shouldn't take long, if all goes well."

I glow inside at hearing Hawke and I referred to as partners. I like the word. It makes us sound like the team that we are, the two of us.

"Well, we're here to help," Hawke tells Aveline, smiling warmly at her.

"Whenever you need," I add generously.

"Oh, that's sweet." Aveline smiles, a real one this time. "This is… strangely difficult. Please, hurry back with his reaction. I appreciate this, Hawke, Merrill. I really do."

"Guardsman Donnic?"

"Serah Hawke," Donnic greets Hawke, smiling as he turns to face us, mild surprise showing in his eyes. He turns his kind gaze to me. "Serah Sabrae. It's been some time. You're both living here in Hightown now, right?"

"Yes, that's right." I smile at him, warmed to the heart to hear him call me "Serah Sabrae". Sabrae is not exactly my family name, but it does well enough, and to be addressed as "serah"? That is a respectful rarity. What a considerate and thoughtful man he is. I do like him. "Hawke and I are together, now."

"Yes, I think the Captain mentioned it." He smiles at me agreeably, nothing but amiable acceptance in his expression. I wish there were more like him. He glances at Hawke, who is surveying him with an approving look. "I see your uncle now and then on my patrols, but…" Donnic tapers off his words, looking a little awkward. "…we don't talk."

"I don't blame you, and I don't advise that you start," Hawke grins, looking him up and down. "No ill effects from the ambush, I trust? No lingering limp, or angry scars that know when rain is on the way? I know it was some years ago now, but these things have a way of sneaking up on us when we least expect it."

Donnic rolls his shoulders, one corner of his mouth lifted in a sardonic smile. "They got me pretty good, I'll admit. But they fared worse, so I can't complain. Guard is a good career if you're careful. A short one if you're not. And the Captain makes sure that we're careful." He looks between us curiously. "To what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?"

Hawke hands him the package, smiling at his obvious confusion as he takes it from her hands. "I have it on good authority that you're going to enjoy this."

"Am I now?" Donnic says mildly, raising an eyebrow as he unwraps the- whatever it is that Aveline has given him. He stares at it for a moment, unspeaking, then his brows draw together, bewilderment writ large on his face. "It's a copper relief of... marigolds?" He asks questioningly, peering closer at the thing. "Ah. And it helpfully says so. 'Marigolds.' Well. How crafty." He looks up at me and Hawke, clearly still at a loss. "Is there a meaning to this that I should know?"

I share a glance with Hawke, but she clearly has no more clue as to what Aveline is thinking than I do.

Hawke shrugs helplessly, giving a sheepish sort of smile and obviously taking refuge from this increasingly awkward situation with humour, as she does. "Possibly 'Here, you throw this away?'"

I stifle a giggle, refusing to let it escape me. Donnic is not amused.

"Well, it certainly conveys that," he replies, looking at Hawke with an odd look. Sort of… annoyed, and confused. But mostly annoyed. I suppose he thinks we're wasting his time, or playing some sort of silly game. I wish we could just tell him Aveline wanted him to have it.

"Just keep it," Hawke says after a moment. She looks like she regrets doing this for Aveline. Donnic is going to think we're very strange now. "I'm sure it's more than it seems."

"It would have to be," Donnic mutters, staring down uncomprehendingly at the copper relief in his hands. He looks back up at us and gives a tight nod. I think he wants us to leave now. "Right. I'm sure we both have things to do. Of varying import." He stares at Hawke a moment longer and gives another, stronger nod, one that smacks of dismissal. "Serah Hawke. Serah Sabrae."

There isn't really anything else for it but to leave.

We close the door to the guards' common room behind us, leaving Donnic to puzzle over his marigolds alone.

I gaze up at Hawke, mystified by the odd turn our errand took. "Why did Aveline want us to give him that?"

"No idea," Hawke says, turning to look at the closed door of Aveline's office. "Donnic clearly hadn't a clue what that was about, or who would have given it to him. Whatever Aveline intended to convey didn't translate very well. It just made us look a bit foolish." She starts towards Aveline's office. "Come on. Let's go find out what Aveline was thinking."

xxx H xxx

"You're back!" Aveline all but jumps up from her desk when Merrill and I walk back inside. Her cheeks are somewhat red and her hair seems rather more frazzled than usual, wilful little hairs sticking up every which way from beneath her headband, which I notice is the one I gave her for Feastday. Nice to see some people can appreciate gifts. "Of course you are. You're efficient. Get things done. Good or ill." She pauses, tapping her foot in what I can only describe as a nervous manner. "So, how did Donnic react?"

I cross my arms and lift an eyebrow at her, torn between amusement and annoyance. "As one might expect when confused?"

My irritation at the awkward situation Aveline put us through fades as my friend looks at me, wide-eyed with dismay. "I thought it was clear," she exclaims, sounding as bewildered as I am. She counts on her fingers as she speaks, listing with the tones of someone utterly convinced that what she is saying makes nothing but complete sense. "Metal is strong. Copper ages well. Flowers are soft."


My utter incomprehension must show vividly on my face. It could hardly display anything else at this moment.

"I've clearly gone about this the wrong way," Aveline mutters, shaking her head. She looks disappointed. "Don't talk to him again. Just take this." She hands me a piece of parchment which I take without thought. "The patrols for next week. Post it to the roster and just listen."

I blink. That… sounds really simple. She really needs me to do this? "Really? Just walk over there and… post the roster?"

She nods once, firmly. "I want his honest reaction without the Captain present."

I look over the parchment in my hand, frowning. She's changed his patrol from Lowtown to Hightown? Perhaps she suspects him of something and is keeping him close?

"You could just have him hauled off," I suggest dryly. Really, if she suspects him of misconduct, she's within her rights to do so and ask questions later.

"This isn't about an accusation I can put in a report and explain," Aveline says, avoiding my eyes. I've never known her to do that. "I need someone… unofficial."

I glance at Merrill, who lifts her slender shoulders in a small shrug, and nods. "Alright, if that's what you want." I grin, reaching across Aveline's desk to give her a gentle punch in the shoulder. "But I'm starting to think you just like having us around."

Aveline's lips quirk in a slight smile, but she doesn't respond to my banter. "I need to know exactly how he reacts. That's key." She sits at her desk again, pulling a fresh piece of parchment towards her. "Thank you," she says, and looks down at her work, effectively dismissing us.

Merrill glances back at Aveline before I close the door behind us. She looks up at me with a baffled expression. "This is weird… right?"

"It is," I agree slowly, walking the three weary steps over to pin the patrol parchment to the roster board. "But I've a feeling I might know what this is about." If it's got anything to do with that silly courting ritual book I gave Aveline for Feastday...

"What is it about-" Merrill – Andraste love her – predictably begins to ask, but I take her arm and caution her to silence, pulling her gently around the corner as I hear footsteps approaching the roster behind us.

"Wait," I mouth to Merrill, and take a quick look around the corner. Guardswoman Brennan is perusing the patrols listing. I catch a glimpse of a frown on her face as I pull my head back, leaning against the wall next to Merrill with every attempt at appearing casual, motioning Merrill to copy me. She complies. Fortunately, Merrill has become much better at subterfuge.

Brennan's voice rings loudly across the guard's common room. "Hey, Donnic! Whose pucker have you been greasing to get Hightown?"

"What?" comes Donnic's strong voice, his confusion evident. I hear heavy footsteps approach, and then Donnic speaks again, closer now. "You're daft. I'm working those skinnings across town.

"Says here you're guarding the square," Brennan says, a twist of jealousy and suspicion in her voice. So Hightown is a desirable patrol, then? "Always been a make-work job, that one. You someone's pet?"

"Check your eyes," Donnic says tersely, his annoyance clear. "It's a mistake."

"Says the pet," Brennan replies with not a little scorn. Her lighter footsteps recede down the passageway towards the barracks. I sneak another look to see Donnic staring at the roster board, a look of disgust etched on his rugged features.

"You have got to be kidding me," he mutters angrily to himself. "What did I do to get that post?"

He stalks off in the same direction as Brennan, and Merrill peers around the corner with me, watching him go. I do hope no one is watching us spying on the guards. I doubt they'd like it much.

"He didn't like that at all," Merrill observes gravely. "The other woman sounded like she wanted the Hightown posting, but Donnic obviously doesn't. He's not one to shirk his duty, I suppose. What is Aveline doing, Hawke? I can't work it out, at all."

I push away from the wall, sighing to myself. These simple favours for Aveline are getting more complicated and confusing by the minute. "Let's find out."

"Donnic thinks I'm punishing him? But Hightown is a safe patrol, a reward!"

I shrug, spreading my hands in front of me in a gesture of helplessness. "You wanted his reaction." What else can I say?

"Alright. I can fix this." Aveline paces up and down behind her desk. "I need… I need three goats, and a sheaf of wheat. You'll take them to his mother."

I give her an incredulous look. Then I remember. I've heard – read – that phrase somewhere. Glancing at her desk, I notice a book I really should have noticed before. I gave it to her, after all. Kindling the Flame: A guide to courtship in Kirkwall.

Well. This is all my fault, really. I really should have read the bloody thing before I gave it to her.

"It's a dowry tradition," Aveline admits, crossing her arms defensibly across her chest. I should have figured that was what this was. Somehow, I didn't expect Aveline to act on her obvious feelings for Donnic so soon. She still carries Wesley's shield. "Maybe it will smooth the process."

"Don't be silly," Merrill giggles, smiling at Aveline with affection. "A dowry would only matter if you were courting him. Right?"

Aveline sighs, lowering her head. "Uh, Merrill…"

Merrill gasps. "Oh! You're courting him!"

I can hardly blame her for being slow on the uptake this time. So was I, after all. And I shouldn't have given Aveline that damn book. You weren't meant to take it seriously, I think at my tall, red-headed friend.

"Aveline." I smile at her fondly as she looks up at me, her eyes wary. Expecting mockery, most likely. Not today, friend. Well… not right this moment at least. "You know you can talk to me."

"What am I to say?" Aveline asks with a rueful shrug. "That a grown woman can't speak her mind? I've been focused on being captain for so long, that's all I know."

"But you've done it before," Merrill reminds her with a smile, which vanishes in a blink as she realises the other meaning of her words. "I-I mean, been married."

Aveline smiles slightly. That is as much as she will acknowledge Merrill's accidental double entendre, to her credit. She doesn't enjoy the embarrassment of others. "That was… a long time ago," she says, her eyes reflective and a little sad. "It was easier. Or seemed to be."

"So… you've been by yourself since you came to Kirkwall?" I ask, trying to be delicate. There's nothing wrong at all with it if she hasn't sought companionship all this while. She lost her husband to a terrible fate, struck the final blow herself. And even in the short time I knew Wesley, I could see the devotion between the two of them.

"I am… diligent on behalf of my men," Aveline answers, shifting uncomfortably and avoiding my eyes. Her arms cross over her chest defensively. "And I've neglected many other things."

"I understand completely, Aveline," I tell her softly, wanting to reassure her that there is no judgement here, only compassion and understanding. "And there's no need to explain anything. I know how much you love Wesley." Aveline looks up, smiling as I speak the word 'love' in the present tense. She can see that I understand. I smile at her. "Love does not die with the people we care for, Aveline. It's alright to hold Wesley in your heart. You need never let him go. But… do you feel as though it's time to make room for another?"

Aveline closes her eyes briefly, and walks over to the window, though not before I see the start of tears running down her cheeks. She stands with her head bowed, hands clasped behind her back. She makes no sound, but I can see her shoulders shaking. I bite my lip at her distress, but stay still. I'm not certain what to do. Instinct tells me to comfort her immediately, but she is so proud, so stoic… I'm not certain if she would welcome it, and I hesitate.

Merrill makes a small sound of sympathetic anguish beside me. She glances briefly up at me, and then moves over to stand by Aveline's side. Silently, she snakes a slender arm about Aveline's waist, hugging her gently. After a moment, Aveline returns the gesture. I don't know if that would have worked, coming from me. I'm glad Merrill followed her instincts.

After a few moments, Aveline gently extricates herself from Merrill's embrace, smiling gratefully at her. She leans against the window sill as Merrill steps back to my side, perching on the edge of Aveline's desk.

"Sorry," Aveline murmurs. "Thank you, Merrill. I think I needed that."

"Anytime," Merrill tells her softly. "And don't be sorry. We all need comfort and friendship."

Aveline lifts her eyes to mine searchingly. Finding nothing but friendship and compassion, she smiles a little, rubbing at her eyes for a moment before her control is firmly back in place. She takes a breath. "I'll never forget Wesley. And for a long time, I didn't think I'd want anyone ever again. Not in any… capacity." I nod my understanding, fervently grateful that I didn't have the complete insensitivity to bring Isabela with me today, and Aveline continues. "Donnic is… I've… noticed him, for some time now, but… I didn't want to notice him. I didn't want to feel anything for anyone. Does that make sense?"

Merrill and I both nod. "Absolutely."

"Noticing him turned to attraction in that first year in Kirkwall, but I wasn't ready. And then, when I became Captain…" Aveline sighs. "It's been four years since Wesley. I've made my peace. He'd want me to live. And… I've gotten to know Donnic so well over the years. He's a wonderful man. But I'm his Captain, and that rank provides a… complication. A dilemma. It holds me back from really pursuing a relationship with him, but it also affects my leadership where he is concerned. The guards are in my care. I hurt when they hurt. But Donnic... I want him to know that I feel... but if something happened to him..." Aveline trails off, her thread lost. She blinks in confusion. This is a thorny subject for her, and no mistake.

"Something already happened and he's fine," I offer helpfully, remembering the events with the erstwhile Captain Jeven and the ambush that nearly cost Donnic his life, but for our timely intervention.

Aveline snorts indelicately. "If it made sense, I wouldn't need you. It's just... fear." She shakes her head as if to dislodge a fly, annoyed. "I know it's foolish, but I can't get away from it. What about you and Merrill? She's all but daring the Fade to take her." Aveline looks at Merrill, apology in her eyes, but she continues to make her point. "As a friend, I can barely stand the worry myself. How do you live with that danger?"

I look down for a long moment, grappling suddenly with all my fears at once. I can see the ache in Merrill's eyes as I look up, gazing briefly into her stricken gaze before I turn once more to Aveline. "Maybe we're not the best example." I give Merrill's arm a light touch with my fingertips, then take her hand in mine, a silent reassurance which she accepts with a smile. We both know the danger. "I still wouldn't trade this for the world, no matter the risk." Merrill's cheeks dimple with her radiant smile at my words.

"But you understand," Aveline presses. "I feel paralysed. I hate it."

"Well, this little dance certainly isn't helping you to move on," I quip wryly, glancing at the ridiculous courting book I wish I'd never laid eyes on, and sweeping it casually off the desk and into the wastebasket. "So, what will?"

Aveline gives a helpless shrug. "I'm the Captain. He's my Guardsman. I can't get past that."

"Being in the barracks doesn't help," Merrill says, eyes shining excitedly. "Go somewhere you can talk."

"What, just go out somewhere?" Aveline looks incredulous, her brow furrowed. "Like it's that easy?"

"Yes, it can be," I chime in, smiling sweetly at Merrill for a moment, then grinning at Aveline. "What, too simple?"

Aveline shakes her head in mild exasperation, a frequent occurrence when I'm around. "Tell Donnic…" Aveline thinks for a moment, then looks up, eyes sparkling as she lays out her new and hopefully improved plan. "Invite him to the Hanged Man. Don't tell him about me. Make something up. It's a surprise, or just you, or a group. Anything to get him there. He's not like the others." A wistful smile crosses her features for a moment, soon disappearing into the look of worry now claiming Aveline's features. "I don't want him to think he's meeting the Captain."

I smile, catching on to her plan. "And then you'll 'happen by' and join us in a completely casual, definitely not pre-arranged manner?"

Merrill laughs, and Aveline grins. "Exactly. You just have to get him there, and keep him there for a little while. I'll take it from there."

"That sounds like a plan." I quirk an eyebrow at her, grinning. "Just don't leave me hanging too long. I think I've already used up most of my possible conversation material with Donnic today already…"

Xxx M xxx

"What are they saying?"

Aveline's whisper, while probably quiet enough for human hearing, rings through my sensitive ears as though the woman is shouting into them.

"Aveline, hush," I murmur reprovingly, my eyes trained on Hawke and Guardsman Donnic as they sit, alone, at the large wooden table right in the centre of the noisy tavern. "They haven't said anything for a while, not since Donnic asked Hawke how her mother is doing for the third time." I glance at Aveline, see her worrying at her lower lip with her teeth. "Maybe you should go over there now? I think it's been long enough," I suggest, rather less gently than the previous two times. What is the matter with her? Is this really so terrifying? It was her idea in the first place!

Aveline shakes her head, eyes still caught on the increasingly uncomfortable objects of our respective affections sitting in awkward silence at the table, mugs clutched tightly in their hands as they try not to stare at each other. "Not yet. It… it's not the right time, not yet. What are they saying now?"

I bite back a growl of frustration. I will admit to getting a bit cranky, now. This isn't how it was meant to work at all. I glance again at Hawke and Donnic and train my ears on them, trying to hear them through the press of people surrounding us without catching Donnic's attention.

"There were supposed to be others coming, right?" Donnic's voice is a deep undercurrent in the throng, not particularly easy to pick out. I think that's what he said. He sounds quite uncomfortable, and I can't blame him. It must seem very strange, what Hawke is doing, especially since they've run dry of conversation and she won't let him leave.

"Plans change, apparently," Hawke says darkly, her gentle voice easily identifiable amongst the babble. I would know it anywhere. I hear the shrug in her tone, and the impatience. She catches my eye briefly through the crowd and I shake my head helplessly, not bothering to conceal my own frustration. Why won't Aveline just go to them?

"Right," Donnic says after a heavy pause. He pushes up from the bench, preparing to leave. Aveline gives a little groan beside me. "Look, I should really, um…" Donnic begins.

"What? No!" I see Hawke's eyes widen as she hastens to stop him leaving. Her voice takes on a slight tone of command. I doubt she realises. "Sit! Drink!" She smiles at him to mask her discomfort as Donnic reluctantly sits again, as ordered.

"Another round?" Hawke asks, waving Norah the barmaid over to their table.

"Maker, yes!" says Donnic, desperation in his tone.

"Aveline!" I try and give her a little push in their direction but she is immovable as stone. "Hawke can't keep him there much longer. I bet he already thinks she's being odd."

Aveline rubs her hand through her hair. "I know, alright? I just can't, not yet!"

"Hey, Norah!" An unkempt man in the rough garb of a dockworker grabs Norah by the wrist as she tries to pass between Aveline and his table. He pulls her close and runs his other hand over her backside. "You and me in my room, upstairs." He leers at her, displaying his lack of teeth and fetid breath. "What do you say?"

"Not if you were the last man in the Free Marches," Norah spits, attempting to yank her wrist from his grasp. His expression darkens and he pulls her closer, only to find his own wrist gripped in steel-covered fingers and wrenched behind his back. Aveline's courage certainly isn't lacking in this area, at any rate.

Norah escapes the tables with muttered thanks to Aveline, who nods in acknowledgement before turning her ferocious glare onto the hapless wretch in her grasp, whose dirty face pales as he recognises her uniform. "Rules to live by," she growls at him, all her pent-up frustration finding an outlet. "Keep your hands to yourself unless given proper consent, don't proposition people while they're working, especially in a job where they're supposed to be nice to you, and if you do proposition them anyway and they say no, then that. Means. NO."

"Yes, Guard Captain," he gasps, and scuttles away and out the door of the Hanged Man as soon as Aveline lets him go.

"Guard Captain?" A familiar voice purrs beside us, causing Aveline to turn red and then grow pale by turns. "Fancy seeing you here this fine evening. Can't get enough of me?"

I turn and look up into Isabela's catlike grin, equal parts thrilled to see her and anxious to keep her out of what we're doing here. Trying to do. I love Isabela, truly I do, but if she realises what is going on between Hawke and Donnic and Aveline, she will probably make fun, and that's not really what is needed. One look at Aveline tells me that this is never going to work now. Hawke should just give it up and let poor Donnic go home. I hope he hasn't got a patrol tomorrow. He'll be ever so tired and cross, especially after all this nonsense.

"I…" Aveline trails off, looking taken aback, and Isabela laughs.

"Don't worry, big girl. I'm only playing with you. Thanks for looking out for Norah. She's never once brought me the right drink, but she's a good sort really. Just needs some self-confidence and a few tips on defending herself from ruffians." She grins again. "I've offered to give her some hands-on experience in my rooms, but she seems to think I'm propositioning her, just like the rest."

"Can't imagine why," Aveline mutters, glancing at Hawke and Donnic before hastily looking away as Isabela follows her gaze.

The pirate queen arches a perfect eyebrow at the sight of Aveline's guardsman and my lover sitting in awkward silence across the table from one another. Donnic appears to be staring down into his drink as Hawke rubs at the back of her neck. Hawke looks crossly at Aveline over Donnic's shoulder, but Aveline only shakes her head and hides behind Isabela as Donnic tries to look round to see what Hawke is looking at. He looks confused and cranky.

Isabela looks quizzically back to Aveline and I. "What's going on?" she asks, amusement in her voice. "Spying on your guardsman, Guard Captain? Not very ethical, is it?" Aveline blushes, and Isabela's voice gains a sort of… shivery quality. "Or has he done something… bad?"

"It's nothing of the sort, Isabela," I tell her reprovingly. "Donnic is a good man. We all like him very much, and Aveline-"

"Merrill," Aveline growls in warning, and I start in surprise, looking at her reproachfully. She didn't even know what I was going to say. I wasn't going to say anything about her courting Donnic!

Isabela's eyes widen with realisation. "Hawke is trying to set you up with Donnic? Well! What are you still doing hovering in the shadows?" She tries to shoo Aveline over to the table, with as much success as I had.

Aveline turns away, obviously embarrassed by Isabela's presence, although I think she is genuinely trying to be supportive. "No. The moment's gone."

"Not while he's still there, it's not," Isabela protests gleefully, looking at Donnic and Hawke again. "They're both looking like they'd be grateful if a darkspawn horde attacked them now. You'd be a slightly more palatable interruption. Go on," she urges as Aveline stubbornly shakes her head again. "Oh, go on, big girl! He won't be able to resist, I'm sure," Isabela says cajolingly, giving Aveline a rare compliment which she ruins utterly in the next moment. "Come on, how long has it been now? You must creak like a rusty hinge.!"

Aveline glares at her. "Many people have their lives because of me."

"But poor you, no life of your own," Isabela pouts, still full of good humour.

"We both place others above ourselves," Aveline retorts, her eyes flashing dangerously. "I happen to do it clothed."

Isabela's smile slips, and she takes a step into Aveline. "You're splitting hairs, but wishing someone would split yours," she says, her tone now more jibe than jest. I can't help but grimace at the vivid image Isabela's words bring to mind. I don't really want to think about Aveline like that!

"I've had enough of your loose lips," Aveline snarls, her patience worn thin. "Like many, I'm sure."

"Oh, touché." Isabela narrows her eyes at Aveline, angry now. "Prig!"

"Slattern!" Aveline throws back, and now I feel as though I'm minding a couple of unruly children. Unruly, rude children.

"Stop it, both of you!" I hiss as quietly as possible, making sure to use the stern, controlled angry voice the Keeper used to keep us all in line. How Hawke and Donnic have managed not to notice this heated exchange going on not two tables away, I don't know. "This isn't helping!"

"Sorry, kitten," Isabela whispers, calming down immediately. She takes a breath, shakes her head at herself and puts a consoling hand on Aveline's shoulder. "Sorry, big girl. Listen, if now isn't the time, don't give up. There'll be another chance. You owe it to yourself to try." She hesitates. "For what it's worth, I think he'd be lucky to have you."

Aveline sighs resignedly. "Thanks, Isabela. I… appreciate that."

Isabela smiles slightly and walks towards the stairs to her rooms. "Bye, kitten. See you later, Guard Captain."

I glance at Aveline, who is now gazing after Isabela with a somewhat contrite expression on her face, and sigh. So, she really isn't going to go over to him. I turn my attention back to Hawke. My poor Hawke. This can't go on for much longer.

"So…" Hawke is saying, a forced smile of merriment upon her rosy lips. "Aveline is great!"

Donnic's voice is filled with disapproval as he puts down his mug and pushes it away from him. "Look, if this was all an attempt to get to me through the Captain?" He shakes his head dismissively. "Um… you're just not my type. All this 'playing shy' business. I like a little backbone." Hawke's eyes widen in surprise, and then a range of emotions flitter across her face, not least of which is embarrassment closely followed by irritation as Donnic abruptly stands, clambering out quickly from behind the bench. "I have to go," he says curtly. "Thanks for the drinks."

Hawke watches him leave, her expression now inscrutable, and then rises rather more slowly and approaches the corner in which Aveline and I stand. Her eyes fall questioningly on Aveline, who is now redder than the hair on her own head.

"I… I couldn't do it," Aveline confesses, mortified. "What did he say?"

"He thinks I'm interested in him," Hawke replies bluntly, her tone conveying her opinion of the outcome of this endeavour.

Aveline hangs her head. "I'm an idiot."

"Admitting it is a good step," Hawke advises her, an affectionate smile now lighting up her face as she bumps Aveline's shoulder with her own. "Where are you heading next?"

The shamefaced Guard Captain lifts her head, smiling ruefully. "The barracks, Ferelden, the deepest hole I can find?" she says wryly.

Hawke raises a disbelieving eyebrow at her friend. "You've never been the hiding type," she chastises gently.

"I know, alright? But I freeze up!" Aveline bursts out, a rare slip in her calm demeanour. "The only place I'm not a mess is on patrol. And killing highwaymen doesn't afford much opportunity for banter."

I smile at her. Hawke and I would never let a little awkwardness get in our way. Creators know I had enough of it to put us both off if that had been the case. Aveline can do this. "You'll never know unless you try. We can all banter when we're killing bandits with Hawke, you can do the same on patrol with Donnic! Come on," I coax. "You want this."

"I will not risk…" Aveline begins, but I cut her off, brimming with impatience.

"But… look at you two! You'd be so lovely together, you have to try!"

"Trust your friends," Hawke tells her, taking my hand and giving me a loving smile. I return it in earnest. "You can't ignore advice from such stable source."

"But I can't fight and talk," Aveline protests. "Not around Donnic."

Hawke looks at me, and I can see the idea forming behind her clever blue eyes. I nod approvingly, and she turns back to Aveline, a full grin on her lips. "Merrill and I will clear the way ahead of you, and you can see if he's the one," she offers. "We'll light a small fire to signal when our way is clear. Just watch for the smoke. People camp out there all the time. Donnic won't see anything unusual in it if we keep it small."

A slow smile lights up Aveline's handsome face. "You're too good at this! Is it any wonder you've all but taken Hightown?" she says admiringly to Hawke, green eyes dancing merrily. She nods her agreement happily. "My next rostered patrol with Donnic is tomorrow evening on the Wounded Coast. You clear the route, and I… will think of something to say."

xxx H xxx

"Back!" I order commandingly, holding my hand up between myself and the rogue mabari pack whose territory, admittedly, I am invading. "Get back! Go!" I flare my fingers and another burst of flame shoots from my hand into the sky, scaring the dogs back another few paces before they regroup and advance again, bristling and snapping.

The mabari leader growls, his pack staggered out behind him, some favouring a paw here and there. Neither Merrill nor I wanted to hurt them, but they took us completely by surprise: we had to fight them a little, though we have not yet had to kill. Who would have thought there would be a bunch of wild mabari here, of all places?

"Don't hurt them, ma vhenan!" Merrill implores softly behind me, holding her arcane shield firmly in place before her.

I stay a pace in front of her, a human barrier between her and the dogs. Not that she needs protecting from them, far from it. I had to drop my own arcane shield when the foolish canines insisted on throwing themselves into it. Hence the cause of so many bruised front paws. The threat of magical flame is slightly more effective, but they still will not give up on trying to regain their territory. It seems unusual. They should have been scared off by the flames. Wild mabari are more akin to wolves than their trained war dog cousins, smart as they are.

"I don't intend to, Merrill," I tell her, keeping my eyes locked in challenge with those of the lead dog. We haven't killed any yet and I will not, if I can help it. If I can get them to back down this time before Aveline and Donnic come up that path, they'll probably abandon this area and move further into the wild. This route isn't travelled particularly often, but I know that any guard who came across these beasts living so close to the city would likely feel it their duty to eradicate them. Poor creatures. They won't harm anyone if left alone, though these ones are being particularly aggressive about us being in this clearing…

A rustling in the bushes behind us startles me, and I twist my body around to look, making sure not to turn my back on the mabari completely. Have we been flanked? Mabari are clever, but surely these wild dogs don't have that kind of tactical acumen! The dogs take the opportunity to advance a few more steps and I warn them off once more with a skyward jet of flame, making them whine and bark in fright and but keeping them at bay.

"Merrill, what's back there? Can you see?"

The leaves shake again, longer, and I shoot a quick glance at Merrill over my shoulder. Her eyes, wider than they have ever been, are fixed on the wild shrubs behind me. Her lips part in surprise at what she sees and for a few tense moments her arcane shield flickers as she loses her focus.


"Hawke…" Her voice is soft, gentle, but urgent. "Look…"

She drops her barrier completely, and I feel the slight rush of air in front of me which I know to mean she has set her barrier to protect me from the dogs, allowing me to turn away without fear of attack. I spin cautiously on my heel, hand still raised before me to ward of any forthcoming attack, and stop.

And stare.

"Rror?" says the little mabari puppy, its fuzzy little head poking out from between the leaves of the rustling shrub.

"Oh…" is all I can manage to get out.

The grown dogs behind me whine and I turn to see them dancing in place, something very like anxiety in their manner. The puppy tilts its tiny head at me, looking me over curiously, then sneezes. It looks around at the older dogs, and gives an unhappy little whine as it sees their obvious distress.

Well. Now I feel like an arse.

I meet Merrill's eyes, which are now full of mirth, and shake my head. "I should have guessed when they wouldn't just run." I move very slowly over to where Merrill stands on the side of the clearing opposite the puppy. I motion for her to copy me and sink down to my heels, making myself as small and non-threatening as possible. When she crouches beside me I raise the smallest shield I can about us both, clearing the way for the dogs to approach while keeping us from harm if they decide to attack despite our current non-aggressive state.

Another small, tawny head pokes out of the bush beside the first puppy, and gives a happy yip as it sees its pack, waiting just down the trail.

"A little out of season, aren't they?" I call to the adult mabari, making my voice as calm and friendly as possible, hoping that they will be able to tell we really mean them no harm. "Go on, go get them. Terribly sorry. Had no idea. Glad I didn't kill any of you."

The lead dog looks at me for a long moment. When neither Merrill or I move a muscle, he gives a gruff bark and walks up the path into the clearing. The rest of the pack stay behind; on his orders, I suppose. He walks over to the puppies and sniffs them all over, then gives a satisfied huff at finding them unharmed. Another gruff bark sends the puppies scrambling out of their bush-nest and down the path towards their pack. The lead dog follows without a backward glance, and they all disappear into the scrub, hopefully heading for lands with less two-legged creatures to stumble into their dens.

Merrill and I wait for a few moments, listening as the sounds of bodies brushing through bushes fades away. When Merrill can no longer hear them, we stand and grin at each other.

"Well, that was unexpected," I laugh, wiping my forehead with my shirtsleeve. "No wonder they wouldn't leave! I wouldn't have thought they'd want to live so close to the city. Mabari are rare in the wild."

"I'm glad we didn't have to hurt them in the end," Merrill comments soberly, leaning on her staff. "And that it was us who found them. They might not have survived an encounter with the guard."

I nod, collecting a few bits of kindling together, making sure to include some green branches and leaves to create a good amount of smoke, and then clear a safe space for a small beacon fire in the dirt. "Speaking of guards, are Aveline and Donnic close?"

Merrill cocks her head and closes her eyes, listening hard. "I think they're at the base of the path. I can hear Aveline." She pauses for a moment. "She's telling him about how important it is to check the straps on your greaves before walking uphill. I suppose she's stalling?"

Uh-oh. "I'll light the signal, and we'll run up the path ahead of them. Ready?"

Merrill nods eagerly. I shoot a spark into the little pile of sticks and foliage with a delayed dampening spell to subtly douse the flames after a few minutes, and we dash up the path as the smoke rises behind us.

The path takes us up and around the hill to another clearing overlooking the one we just left. Keeping well out of sight, we wait. After only a few moments, I hear Donnic's voice float up from the path below us.

"So, this route's pretty quiet," Donnic comments, his voice that of a man searching desperately for something to say. He sounds almost as uncomfortable as when I was stuck at that blasted table in the Hanged Man. Maker, that embarrassing evening will haunt my dreams, right up there with the dreams where I'm in the middle of a fierce fight with whatever terrible enemy I last fought in the waking world, and I look down to find I'm not wearing any pants.

"Yes," Aveline replies, her voice uncharacteristically bright and cheerful. "And it's... a real nice night... for an evening."

I wince at her clumsy phrasing, as Donnic apparently does the same.

"Um, as you say, Captain." His footsteps move away from her as he inspects the clearing and hopefully disregards the fire which should now have put itself out.

Aveline laughs awkwardly. "Hah, yes, as I say."

Silence resumes.

Merrill raises her eyebrows at me silently as we head further along the route, and I shake my head incredulously.

"Maker, she's bad at this."

Wiping the spatters of raider blood from my forehead, I light the second signal fire, and Merrill and I move along the path with weary steps. For Andraste's sake, why does nobody ever surrender or run away? Surely after the first few of the bandits lost their lives after jumping us, the rest would have given the ambush up as a bad job, but no. Idiots. Interesting that I feel much less badly about killing these bandits than I would have if I had killed any of those mabari back there. I wonder if that should trouble me.

A safe distance from the beacon, Merrill and I wait to make sure that Aveline has seen it. Sure enough, it isn't long until we hear their voices. Well, Aveline's voice. The current conversation seems rather one-sided. Perhaps Donnic is enthralled by Aveline's chosen topic.

"If it isn't done right, the blade can be too soft." Aveline's entirely unromantic words of wisdom reach our ears, and I hear Merrill mutter something unbelieving under her breath in Elvhen.

Donnic makes an appropriate "I'm definitely listening" noise as Aveline continues. "Quenching the steel is a vital step that can make or break a sword." Well, that has promise, if she's speaking suggestively. She is speaking suggestively, isn't she?

"Right," Donnic says vaguely.

"A blade for every purpose," Aveline finishes happily. "What do you think? About blades?

A beat of uncomfortable silence. "I'm sorry, Captain," Donnic says apologetically. "I drifted off a bit."

More silence.

"Right," Aveline says, rather curtly. "Of course."

"Ugh. Painful," I mutter as Merrill and I scramble up to the top of the path.

"We weren't as awkward and foolish as this, were we?" Merrill asks worriedly as we crest the hill.

I shake my head, trying to remember. "No. Maker, I hope not. Come on. One more beacon, and then I'm ending this torture for all of us."

"What's this? A pair of pretties! Take them, boys, and don't mark the faces!"

I can't believe it. A pack of angry mabari, a bandit ambush, and now a slave raid? This defies belief! Are all the guards' patrols usually quite this unrelentingly perilous? Or is it just because I'm involved?

The slavers advance on us confidently, seeing nothing but a vulnerable pair of helpless women, alone on an isolated hillside path. I hear Merrill sigh in resignation, see her ready her staff for the imminent battle, and I grit my teeth in annoyance as I draw Vigilance in a controlled but vicious movement.

I am getting somewhat cranky now.

The sword gives the idiots pause, but only for a brief moment before they hurl themselves at us, their own blades raised high, clearly expecting to overwhelm us easily with their superior numbers. And if physical prowess were all we had, perhaps they would have succeeded. Unfortunately for them, once our other skills come into play, we cannot afford to let any of them live. Which I would not, in any case.

Slavers do not get to survive meeting me.

I let the full force of my mana go, sending a chain of lightning shooting through all the slavers at once as Merrill does the same. I follow it up with a sweeping blast of spirit energy, ripping the life from half their number, and Merrill ends the rest with a controlled blast of fire. They drop like flies around us to a man.

"They're coming already, ma vhenan, I hear their footsteps," Merrill whispers urgently, gesturing to the route behind us. I realise that the smoke coming from one particularly seared corpse must have looked like a beacon. Oh well, it can't be helped now.

I turn and look back down the hill. From our vantage point, we will be able to see them coming. I should have been able to hear them talking, if they're close enough that Merrill can hear their steps…

Aveline and Donnic come up the hill, walking beside each other in total silence. They aren't even looking at each other. I feel my jaw tighten in irritation. Aveline isn't making any effort at all now. This really is not her strength, is it?

Well, perhaps it's time for a little friendly intervention.

"Well, Guardsman," Aveline says at last as they reach the top at last. "Good patrol. I think we're done, and I..." She and Donnic both stop short, blinking in shock at the sight of Merrill and I standing casually amongst a pile of gently smouldering slaver bodies. Aveline recovers first. "Hawke! What a surprise!" She blurts, too quickly and too loudly not to be suspicious. Donnic glances at her, frowning slightly. "What are you doing here?"

Really? I glare at her, tired of the continued pretence. "Aveline!"

"Hawke, don't." Aveline raises her hands in front of her as if to ward off a blow, her eyes pleading, but at this point, after all we went through this evening, I have reached my limit. Donnic glances confusedly between his Guard Captain and myself, clearly utterly at a loss. He has no idea what could possibly be going on with his captain at all. I don't believe she even really tried to talk to him properly.

Oh, Aveline. So brave, and yet so gutless.

"We don't have all night, you know," I admonish her gently, affection warring with exasperation.

"Would someone please tell me what's going on?" Donnic interjects, confirming my suspicions that he is not even a little clued in to Aveline's feelings or true purpose here tonight. If he has absolutely no idea how she feels, and she is his ranking superior, he will either never allow himself to feel anything for her, or if he does, he will never act on it without prior indication of interest from Aveline. I hate to do it, but I'm afraid I have to give them a nudge.

Explaining the situation to Aveline's advantage will, of course, require delicate phrasing-

"You two are adorable!" Merrill exclaims happily, beaming at the two of them as they stand awkwardly beside one another. She flaps her hands at Aveline in a 'hurry up' motion. "Kiss him already!"

Oh, Merrill. "That may have worked for us, sweetheart, but I'm not sure they're quite there yet," I murmur to her as quietly as I can.

It does no good. Donnic hears me, and looks his Captain in the face, wide eyed. "Captain?"

"Ah…" Aveline gives a strange, strained laugh and falls silent, at a complete loss for words now.

Donnic's eyebrows creep towards his hairline. "I…" he begins, his voice almost a whisper, then coughs uncomfortably. "I should… get back to the barracks."

He gives a short bow to Aveline, and marches off with the air of a man putting on a stoic performance because he doesn't know how to feel.

Aveline watches him go in silence. Once he has disappeared along the route back to Kirkwall, she turns back to me, an infinite sadness in her green eyes that makes my heart lurch. "I thought we were friends." The hurt in her voice slices through me like a knife. Oh, Aveline…

"We are," I tell her gently, smiling affectionately at her. More than that. She's a sister to me. "And friends sometimes push."

She blinks at me for a moment, turning my words over in her mind. I see the moment she accepts them, but it doesn't calm her. Her eyes widen in panic, an unpleasant thought clearly striking her. "I… I have to fix this." She paces back and forth, rubbing a hand through her fiery hair, shaking it loose from its bindings and giving herself a wild look that frankly is rather attractive. If she lets him see her like this, he'll be hard pressed to resist her charms, if she can manage to use them properly. "He'll file a complaint, ask for a transfer."

Hm. I hadn't considered that. I don't think he will; not once he gives himself a chance to get used to knowing Aveline wants him. On the occasions I've seen him interact with her, I'm sure I've seen signs of interest-

"You!" Aveline whirls on me suddenly, eyes blazing as she stabs a furious finger in my face. "You're coming back to the barracks to explain why you put him on the spot! Double time, Hawke, or so help me..."

She turns on her heel without another word and marches back towards the city, her hard, angry steps kicking up emphatic dust with every stomp.

Wide eyed, I look at Merrill, who gazes helplessly back at me. "I think I'm in trouble."

"Yes," she agrees. "But not me, apparently. I think maybe she forgot I was even here."

I look back towards Kirkwall, watching the angry trail of dust follow Aveline back to the city.

"Count your blessings, ma sa'lath."

"Maker, where is Donnic?" Aveline mutters, pacing up and down in front of her office door. I lean against the cool stone of the barracks wall, watching her calmly, which only seems to irritate her more. I really don't think she has anything to worry about, though. Donnic didn't seem angry at all, merely thoughtful. And it's not like she did anything terrible like stick her tongue down his throat without permission. All that happened, as far as will be visible to anyone outside of Merrill, Aveline and I, is that Aveline and Donnic had a couple of awkward conversations on the Wounded coast about nothing in particular during an uneventful patrol, and then a couple of Aveline's friends showed up to embarrass her in front of her subordinate. Nothing solid there. No, there's really nothing Donnic could say or do about any of this that should cause Aveline to worry. Besides, he's had plenty of time to do so before we got back to the city, if he wanted to, and nothing has happened. I'm sure he's simply off somewhere, mulling over the possibilities.

Which is why I am currently able to find this whole situation incredibly amusing.

"I have to head this off before it goes to the Viscount," Aveline babbles, her unfounded concern clearly unabated by my calm demeanour. "Maybe a formal apology? Something that shows the Guards they can still trust me."

"I suggest awkward gifts," I advise, putting an abrupt end to her pacing as I earn myself a filthy glare. She'll calm down once she finally realises Donnic isn't going to do anything to hurt her. "Try the copper marigolds again. In hindsight, they weren't the worst option."

"Oh, ma vhenan," I hear Merrill groan softly behind me, though I hear something suspiciously familiar to a giggle as well, quickly stifled.

"It's not funny!" Aveline growls, a fierce scowl on her lips as she steps threateningly towards me.

I merely grin happily, unphased by her toothless display. "I beg to differ."

Aveline jabs a hard finger into my chest. "You'll beg for more than that if you keep this up!"

A loud throat-clearing sound catches our attention, and we both turn to find Donnic standing a pace away. He looks between both of us and smiles. "My apologies, Serah Hawke." He gives me a polite nod, and then turns his kind eyes on Aveline. "But I need a moment with the Captain."

"Guardsman Donnic…" the Captain in question stammers uncertainly, taking in his caring, gentle smile with some surprise.

Donnic turns to face her, his smile only deepening as his eyes rest on her striking features. "Please," he requests.

Aveline looks questioningly at me, as though wishing to confirm that this is real. I nod encouragingly, and Aveline smiles and beckons Donnic into her office. With a polite nod of acknowledgement to me and Merrill, Donnic follows her, closing the door behind him.

Merrill and I wait, keeping a respectful distance from the office door, but straining to hear, waiting to see if everything is alright.

Long minutes pass, and I glance questioningly at Merrill. "I can't hear any raised voices," I comment hopefully. "I hope that means everything is alright. Do you hear anything?"

"They're just talking softly," Merrill says, concentrating fiercely. "I can't hear what about, but they don't sound angry." A sudden bubble of quiet laughter comes from beyond the door, and Merrill looks at me as though to see whether I heard it too. I nod, and she tilts her head toward the door again.

"They're talking some more now, and… giggling?" Merrill's brow furrows and she tilts her head the other way. I know she's simply trying to point her ears at the most advantageous angle, but Maker it's adorable. She's reminding me very strongly of the curious mabari pups from the Coast. "Now it sounds like they're hugging," Merrill reports, still listening hard. "I can hear bits of their armour clinking together…" She trails off, turning bright red, and turns to me. "I don't think I should be listening to that. They're fine, now. I think maybe we should leave, Hawke, please. Right now?"

Suddenly the office door opens, and Donnic walks out slowly, a smile clear in his voice as he speaks to Aveline over his broad shoulder. "Tonight. I'll be there. See you soon, my Captain."

He smiles at us, and leaves, heading for the front entrance of the Keep. Merrill and I glance at each other, then venture carefully into Aveline's office.

"Aveline?" I call cautiously, hoping my presence will be welcomed.

Aveline is leaning against her desk, arms crossed, smiling beatifically at nothing.

"Guardsman Donnic…" she says blissfully as Merrill and I walk towards her, "… did not file a complaint." Her smile widens as she turns her languid, happy gaze on Merrill and me. Her tone, when she speaks, is filled with gratitude. "This was all incredibly stupid. And you made it wonderful."

"I don't know, I thought all your talk of 'quenching the steel' had promise, at least until I realised you weren't speaking euphemistically," I quip merrily, endlessly pleased that everything does, in fact, seem to have worked out for the absolute best. I knew it would all along, of course. "But I'm glad you've finally mastered the obvious. I'll take your word on the 'wonderful' part."

"You'll get the chance," Aveline chuckles, eyes dancing. "I was mute, and now I want to sing!

"Please don't," I beg jokingly, and Aveline laughs softly.

"I just… there's no way I can never repay you." She smiles. "Perhaps it's simple. Thank you. Both of you."

"You're welcome," Merrill and I chorus, and then chuckle at one another.

"Hey, can I ask you something?" Aveline says after a moment. "Was there a moment when you thought I was beyond help?"

Hah. Can't answer that question honestly, can I? "Not for a second," I reply immediately, too quickly.

"You don't lie very well," Aveline comments drolly, grinning in amusement.

I grin back. "As far as you know."

She laughs again, a wonderful sound, and gives me an affectionate smile. "Shout when you need me, Hawke. I'll always be here for you. Just…" Aveline raises a suggestive eyebrow. "Knock first."

We leave Aveline sitting languidly in her chair, twiddling a quill in her gauntleted fingers and staring dreamily out the window.

Merrill sighs happily, taking my arm in hers and leaning comfortably against my shoulder as we walk down the cold stone steps of the Keep towards home. "I'm so glad all of that worked out well, in the end. I don't think I remember ever seeing Aveline so blissful! And the way they looked at one another! Do you suppose we look like that, when we're looking at each other?"

I smile down at her, letting everything I feel for her show in my eyes, feeling the pleasurable shivering that the intensity of my gaze causes through her slender frame. "Oh yes. And then some, my love."

She giggles, and I feel her squeeze my arm in affectionate acknowledgement of my sentiment. A yawn escapes her as we reach the door of the mansion, and she stretches, thanking me gratefully as I hold the door open for her.

"I'm so tired, now," she confesses as we trudge up the stairs after returning Bodahn's cheerful salutations with as much energy as we can muster. "Can we have a bath after supper, Hawke? And then go straight to bed? And then not do anything terribly strenuous or risky tomorrow, at all?"

"Yes, yes, and yes," I answer, laughing at her imploring look. "I've a meeting with the Hahren tomorrow, but that is only brief, and you needn't trouble yourself if you'd rather stay here." Merrill nods gratefully, yawning again and I smile, hugging her to my side. "After that, I absolutely will come home, and we can lounge about like ladies of the Orlesian court, if we so choose."

Well, perhaps not right after the meeting in the Alienage. I may just stop by the Hanged Man for a little. What can I say. I get gossiped about enough by my friends. Sometimes, I give as good as I get.

And Varric has got to hear about this.

"You have got to hear this, Hawke!" Varric greets me enthusiastically as he waves me into his small, comfortable living quarters. The raucous cheers and sounds of the post-Feastday revelry in the bar room behind us grow louder. The Feastday celebrations at the Hanged Man can draw out for weeks after Satinalia is well over. You'd think it was in Antiva.

Varric drops into a chair and slides a mug of ale towards me as I take a seat opposite him, making myself as comfortable as I can on the dwarven-height furniture. "There's this tale making the rounds," he tells me happily, a familiar self-satisfied gleam in his eye. "They're saying you single-handedly fought off a pirate invasion, at midnight, on the sacred ground of the Chantry."

Oh, are they, indeed? I think to myself, but to Varric I only raise an eyebrow in an unimpressed manner. "Is that all?" I query dryly. "Don't the stories mention my stunning good looks? What about my cunning wit?"

"No," Varric drawls in response, as aware of my game as I am of his. "They skip straight to the part about the loveable dwarf with the gorgeous crossbow and the heart of gold." He shrugs, feigning helplessness. "I try to steer them straight, but you know how stories go. Just don't seem surprised if people seem in awe."

Maker's tits. Now some of the wide-eyed looks I got when I arrived at the at the tavern this evening make a lot more sense. Just what I need. "What compels you to spin these ridiculous tales?"

"I love the sound of my own voice," Varric grins. "And I'm a compulsive liar. Honestly, I don't know. It's just something I do." He taps the side of his mug thoughtfully, his tone becoming more serious. "There's power in stories, though. That's all history is: The best tales. The ones that last. Might as well be mine."

"Why am I the hero?" I ask, mildly exasperated. I've never been one to seek attention, no matter what anyone thinks. I just can't help but receive it, good or bad. "Wouldn't it make more sense for you to be the main character in these tall tales of yours?" I can't say I'd be sorry if someone else took a leading role in Varric's stories for a change. I like his Swords and Shields serial. Why can't he write more of those?

"There's a recipe to a good hero, Hawke." Varric smiles at me, holding my eyes with his own warm golden ones. "It's like alchemy. One part down-to-earth, one part selfless nobility, two parts crazy, and you season liberally with wild falsehoods. You let that percolate through a good audience for a while, and when it's done, you've got your hero." He raises his mug towards me, giving me an almost respectful salute with it.

"What do you get out of this? You aren't writing a serial about me, are you?" I give him a suspicious look as he shakes his head in denial. "I find it hard to believe you're spreading these stories without getting something in return."

"Well that just shows what you know, Hawke. The stories are their own reward." He grins. "You really need to see the look on someone's face when I tell them you ripped the arms off an ogre. Just once."

Well… I have done that. With magic, not my bare hands, though obviously I'm happy not to correct that detail at present. I shrug, relenting. For now. "I guess awe works. A little reverence wouldn't hurt, though." I grin at him, taking a small sip of ale.

Varric gazes at me, his smile reflecting the sincerity of his words. "You're beautiful, deadly, and hang out with fantastic dwarves. It would be a crime if people didn't talk about you." He pushes his empty mug aside and stretches in his chair. "Anyway, I'll quit exaggerating before it goes to your head. If I ever do write a serious book about you, I'll let you know."

"But you won't ask permission."

"Hawke, my friend, your story is already worth writing about. And I see greater things in your future." Varric grins, spreading his hands in a placatory manner. "Someone, somewhere is going to write about you one day. Wouldn't you rather it was someone who knows you so well, and someone who was there for most of it? Not to mention someone whose words flow like honey over chocolate-coated berries on a warm summer's night?"

I laugh, conceding the point. "Alright. But I would ask you, if you ever do write such a book, not to embellish anything, or change any details to make me look better, or make things more exciting. Just the facts, please. That's all I ask. People listen to you, you know."

"Alright, Hawke, I'll try." Varric shakes his head. "It's not like anyone will be able to tell the difference anyway. Who would believe that a witch from legend in the form of a dragon saved you from being overwhelmed by Darkspawn? Or that you carried a piece of her soul or something in your pocket for over a year, before freeing her in an ancient Elven death rite on top of a mountain, in the company of a sweet rambling Dalish bloodmage who turned out to be your one true love?" He grins at me as I laugh at that.

"No need to embellish, then," I smile. "You only have to put it into your delicious honey-coated words."

"Speaking of words…" Varric leans back in his chair, flashing a grin at me. "How are the reading lessons with Broody?"

I give him a long look. I'm hardly surprised that Varric knows about the offer I made to Fenris on Feastday after thoughtlessly gifting him a book, which I should have realised he could not read. Slavers generally do not encourage their slaves to gain informative skills which might give them ideas. "We've only just begun." I answer non-committedly. "If you know about that then you know that Fenris would rather not spread that around."

"Everything gets around our little group eventually, Hawke, you know that," Varric chuckles, "but mum's the word. And I won't pry into his progress…much. But..." He taps his fingers rhythmically on the arm of his chair, looking thoughtful. "I am curious about one thing."

I quirk an eyebrow at him curiously. "And that is?"

He smiles, somewhat enigmatically. "How Merrill feels about the arrangement."

I sigh, considering the question. I know she would rather I spent less time with him, and I know she would rather spend as little time as possible in Fenris's company herself. Often when Fenris is at the mansion for his lessons, Merrill spends her time giving reading lessons to Orana in a different part of the house, or spends time in her Alienage house, or with Varric and Isabela here at the Hanged Man. Probably why Varric is bringing it up, I suppose. Doubtless Merrill complains to them about it when she's here, though she says little about it to me. The fact is, I want to help him learn to read, and I feel somehow that I am the only person Fenris would agree to learn from. And despite his mage aversion, I like the bastard. He is a loyal friend.

"She doesn't like it. I am aware that Merrill and Fenris are not friends, and I know he can treat her very poorly-" I cut myself off, shaking my head. "Oh, the void with it. He can be a complete and utter arsehole to her."

Varric nods seriously. "That he can. I don't like it any more than you do, Hawke. I think it wears on Daisy, you know."

"Yes," I sigh. "I have made it clear to him that I will not tolerate any arse-like behaviour or comments toward her or about her, whether in my presence or not. At the moment, there seems to be a tenuous sort of peace between them, but Merrill still avoids him like the plague if she can. I can hardly blame her." I play with my warming mug of ale, batting it moodily between my hands. "I really can't understand the level of hostility he seems to constantly direct towards her. It can't just be because she's a mage. I know he hates blood mages worse than any other kind, and I know he harbours no fondness for Anders either, but he doesn't behave in such a way towards me. Or at least, only very rarely, and he usually ends up apologising. Why am I any different, if mages are all so terrible?"

Varric makes a thoughtful noise and looks at me over the top of his steepled fingers, a knowing expression glittering in his amber eyes. "I think you know, Hawke."

I narrow my own eyes at him. "What?"

"Come on, Hawke," is his gently chiding reply. "The man constantly hangs around you, stares at you, reacts weirdly if you happen to touch him, repeatedly volunteers to follow you into danger, snarls at anyone he perceives to be a source of potential harm to you, and hates your girlfriend with a fiery passion. What does that sound like to you?"

I stare at him. This is it. This is what I've been dreading hearing, what I've been avoiding thinking about, and I just waltz right into this conversation without a care in the bloody world.

"He has feelings for me." My voice is toneless. I knew it. I just absolutely did not want to think about it.

"Yup," Varric confirms happily. "Either love or lust, or both."

An awkward pause.

"Well, shit."

Varric laughs. "Yup. Poor broody. Nothing worse than unrequited love."

"Maker. How long-?" I rub my forehead, my mind helpfully replaying every moment with Fenris which might have triggered suspicions in me, had I allowed them in at the time. "Never mind. It doesn't matter how long. Who else knows about this? I'm not the last to figure it out, am I?"

Varric shrugs, one corner of his mouth curved in a wry smile. "Well, there's me. And Isabela. She probably figured it out before any of us. Aveline might suspect as well, but she's nearly as inept as you at identifying romantic feelings in others. And I'm fairly certain Merrill knows."

I raise my eyes to his in dismay. "Really?"

He nods, sipping his drink. "Isabela seems to think so, anyway. Merrill is aware of it, but she's too sweet a girl to demand that you stop being friends with him because of it. Isabela hasn't actually spoken to Merrill about it, mind you, she just said something about her 'magnificent powers of observation'. But I'd say she's on the money." His sudden grin worries me, and I watch him warily, wondering what unpleasant truth he will drop on me now. "And it's not just Fenris. You know Anders is in love with you too, don't you?"

I stare at him, wanting dearly to deny it but knowing it to be true. I recognised his animosity towards Merrill, saw it as jealousy, though I did not want to truly accept the reasons for it. Small wonder he treats Merrill so, though he may claim it is only due to her use of blood magic. The lies we tell ourselves. "Bloody void! Who else? You? The Grand Cleric?"

Varric simply chuckles. "That's all I know of in our immediate circle. I believe Isabela may suffer from a case of unrequited lust for one or both of you, but it doesn't affect her too deeply. She has suffered many of those." He eyes me shrewdly. "How does this news hit you, Hawke? Not too hard, I hope?"

"I should have known," I mutter, annoyance at myself colouring my voice in dark tones. "I should have let myself see it sooner. If I had, I could have nipped it in the bud for both of them. I just didn't think… I can't see why-"

"You're too modest, Hawke," Varric says fondly, cutting me gently off. "Any fool can see it would be easy to have feelings for you. No doubt I would too, if my heart wasn't already taken," he jokes, patting Bianca to show his meaning, though I sense his jest holds truth in it. Perhaps regarding his married lover. I remain unwilling to press him on that front, preferring to let him confide in me if he wishes. "You're honourable, tough, courageous, kind. And attractive. These are winning qualities, ask anyone."

"Well, I'm taken, so they'll just have to move on," I growl, scratching uncomfortably at the back of my neck. I don't know how I can make it clearer to either of them that my interests lie firmly elsewhere. I shouldn't have to make a further point of it. "I've told them both on various occasions that I will not stand for ill treatment of Merrill. She's the most important person in my life, and if they can't honour that, I would prefer to have nothing more to do with them, loathe as I am that it should come to that."

"I'll try and impress that upon them, next time I see either one," Varric promises. "Might help to hear advice from someone other than the object of their affection. Especially if it helps them realise they're not keeping their obsessions as preciously hidden as they thought."

I sigh. "Alright. Thank you, Varric. And I am grateful that you made this known to me. I'll have to take it into account in more ways than one." To begin with, I will suggest that Fenris and Orana now take lessons together, with Merrill and I both teaching them together. I believe they are at a level now where they will be able to help each other, and benefit in more ways than one. They might be encouraged to befriend one another. It might help them both to heal, to know another person whose experience mirrors their own.

I shift in my chair to sit cross legged, resting my knees against the low armrests as I've seen Isabela do. It is… slightly more comfortable. "Now, what do I need to offer you to change the subject? Gold? Jewels? Two comely lasses of virtue true?"

Varric chuckles. "Alright, alright. Have a topic in mind, do you?"

I smile at him, raising a knowing eyebrow. My turn to play. "Perhaps we could discuss the romantic afflictions of someone else in our woeful little group?" I have the satisfaction of watching Varric's cheeks turn a rosy pink before I offer him relief. "I assume you've noticed our brave Guard Captain's, shall we say, particular regard for one Guardsman Donnic?"

"Hah!" A surprised laugh erupts from the bottom of Varric's chest and he raises his mug to me in salute. "And here was me thinking you'd never notice unless you tripped over them during one of their awkward vaguely suggestive exchanges."

"Apparently, I'm not completely dense when it doesn't involve me," I reply, laughing self-deprecatingly at the image his words conjure.

"I think even Aveline must have figured it out at this point," Varric grins. He shakes his head. "I suppose that explains that odd courting book you gave Aveline for Feastday."

"I didn't realise how odd a book it was, or that she'd actually take my gift of it seriously."

"I would dearly love to see what she does with it."

"I didn't let her use it in the end, but it would have been quite amusing if I had," I tell him idly, and wait for his reaction with a smug smile.

"I smell a story there!" Varric claps his hands together, eyes bright with interest and fixed attentively on me. "Come on, Hawke! What are you dying to tell me?"

I can't help it, alright? Sometimes I am as susceptible to a good piece of juicy gossip as anyone. And Aveline can't really expect me to keep this story to myself, can she? She'll laugh about it eventually. Hopefully she'll be too happy to worry about it for a while. And I would dearly love for some of Varric's literary attention to be fixed on someone else's love life for a change, and at this point I don't even care if it's wrong.

I fill him in on all of the events surrounding the beautifully awkward beginning of Aveline and Donnic's courtship, not sparing a single ridiculous detail. When I reach the part about meeting Donnic for a drink, Varric is red in the face from laughter.

"S-s-so that's why you and Donnic were here that night, at that table all alone!" Varric guffaws, clutching his stomach. "Andraste's arse, you both looked so uncomfortable! If I hadn't known better, and if it hadn't been clear as a bell that neither of you were enjoying yourselves in the slightest, I would have thought that you and Donnic were interested in each other, and Aveline was doing her usual lonely soldier thing."

"Nope, all just a part of Aveline's master plan," I chuckle, though I can't help but cringe inwardly at the memory of that terrible hour Donnic and I wasted awkwardly together. At least he knows what that was all about now. Hopefully. I point a finger at Varric accusingly. "You could have come over, you know. Donnic expected other people to show up. It would have saved me a lot of embarrassment when Aveline lost her spine." I'll admit it: I'm still quite sore over that.

"You should have brought me in on the plan, if you wanted a buffer," Varric grins, shrugging innocently. "I was just giving you two some privacy. It's good for you to have friends outside our misfit parade. Tell me the rest."

"Wait 'til you hear the part where she talked to him for ten minutes about the correct method of forging a sword," I tell him, grinning.

By the time the whole tale is done I've got him laughing so hard I'm half afraid he's going to pass out on me.

"Stop… stop!" Varric is nearly falling out of his chair, eyes streaming with tears of merriment. "'I suggest awkward gifts'… Maker, that's gold! I can't take it!"

"Fortunately, that's the end of it," I grin, allowing him time to sufficiently compose himself. "He came to see her, and when we heard them… giggling together," I raise my eyebrows, "we knew they were going to be alright."

"Well, I'm glad Aveline has a little happiness in her life," Varric says in a rare bout of sincerity. "I hope they can go the distance."

"They'll be fine," I assure him, waving a dismissive hand. "Donnic is a good, steady man, and it's clear he respects her. I believe they are friends and that's a good beginning. If he can see past her station as his captain, I think they'll be rather wonderful together."

"I happen to agree with you. They'd be good for each other," Varric comments merrily. "He's always seemed like a solid, dependable sort to me. A good guard, and not completely hung up on the rule book."

I grin. "He sounds like the protagonist from your new guard serial. I don't suppose Donnen Brennokovick is based on our Donnic, by any chance?" It'd be nice to know it isn't just Merrill and I that Varric uses for inspiration to create his fictional characters.

Varric's enigmatic smile is not entirely unexpected. "Hah! Aveline tells me there have been fistfights among her guards over who is the model for Brennokovick. Nice to know my tales are enjoyed to such a passionate degree." He blinks, and then looks sharply at me. "Wait, you've been reading Hard in Hightown?" I nod, and he grins. "Well! You're enjoying it, I hope?"

"Far more than I did The Kitten and the Hawk," I reply wryly, gratified to wring a dry chuckle from him. "It's a riveting serial, Varric. I'm enjoying it very much."

A pink tinge in his cheeks, Varric masks his pleasure in another sip of ale. "Well, thanks Hawke. Enjoy it while it lasts. Aveline has extracted my solemn promise that there will only be three more chapters until Donnen Brennokovick retires and opens a tavern on the coast." He shakes his head gravely. "I sure hope he makes it. He's getting too old for this shit."

He smiles as I chuckle at his jest, and tilts his head enquiringly at me. "A little bird tells me you spent a great deal of time in the alienage this morning, without Daisy," he comments, changing the subject adroitly.

My brows lift in surprise; I thought I'd gotten better at picking his little urchin spies. Impressive. "Your informants are improving. I didn't make anyone following me. Should I be concerned at the level of professionalism your spymastery has reached?"

Varric waves a languid hand. "Never pays to be underprepared. I'm grateful you don't mind letting my kids practice on you, Hawke. I reckon it'll pay off for us one day when big trouble catches up with us. But I digress. I hear the Alienage has had more than a few improvements made lately. A benefactor is employing elves to restore and maintain the Alienage buildings, including their own dwellings, and improving the general look and liveability of the place. Apparently, that's your doing, though I had to dig a bit to hear that you were behind it."

I smile, acknowledging his discovery. "I am, with the Hahren's approval. That isn't why I visited today, though."

"No?" The surprise in Varric's eyes surprise is short lived, replaced quickly by a spark of inquisitiveness. "Now I'm really curious."

I sigh softly, tracing the edge of the chair arm with a finger. "I wanted information from the Hahren… about my father."

Varric raises his eyebrows, and I lift one shoulder in a shrug. "Merrill seems to think I may have elvhen blood somewhere down the line, and I admit I'm curious to know if it could be possible. My mother's line is impeccably human, but my father's origins are somewhat more of a mystery to me. I'm only lately realising just how little I knew about his life before he met my mother."

"Leandra can't answer your questions?" Varric asks carefully.

I shake my head. "She says that Malcolm guarded many secrets not even she was privy to. He made out that he remembered little of his life before the Circle. That could very well be true. If not, I believe if he held anything back about his own life, either it was too painful to discuss, or it was something he felt he needed to keep from us, to protect us."

"What do you suppose he needed to protect you from?" Varric asks curiously. "Aside from the obvious 'Circle-mage-turned-apostate' thing."

"I'm not sure yet." I reply simply. "The Hahren can't recall anyone by the name of Malcolm or Hawke living in the Alienage, but he will make enquiries. He thinks it possible that either Father went by a name other than Malcolm Hawke, or that he may have been born to an elf living outside the alienage, or fathered on a human woman. I shrug again. "There are multiple possibilities, but… hiding his bloodlines, whether elvhen or illegitimate noble or both, to protect his wife and children from discrimination could explain his reticence to some degree. Either way, this is the best place I could think of to start looking."

"Well, that's not the answer I was expecting," Varric comments lightly, giving me a sympathetic grin. "I wish you the best in your quest, my friend, and my network is at your disposal if you need it."

I smile at him gratefully. "Thank you, Varric. I may take you up on that." A thought occurs to me, and I lean forward suddenly enough to cause him to jump a little in alarm. "Actually, I have a need of it immediately, if your offer is serious."

"Of course it is, Chuckles," Varric reiterates fondly, putting down his tankard and sitting up attentively. "What can I do for you?"

I hesitate a moment, wondering briefly if I am making too much of a single encounter, but… "Not long ago, I saw someone watching Merrill and I in Lowtown. A fair skinned human woman, with red braided hair and piercing blue eyes, dressed as a Chantry sister, but I don't believe she was such. Her costume, if that's what it was, was impeccable, but… She had such a… a presence about her." I watch Varric's expression change slowly to one of worry as I let my memories surface. "Something about her eyes, her walk… she seemed more worldly and able than I would expect of a simple Chantry sister. She had an air of – for lack of a better word – danger about her."

"Was she hostile?" Varric asks, concerned.

"No," I reply, thinking back. "The danger wasn't directed at us, it was more a sense that she could be dangerous, if she so chose. She was watching us intently until I spotted her, which I doubt I would have done if she was trying to remain unseen, and then she was quick to retreat. I thought at first she was an inexperienced informant of Aveline's. You know how she likes to have us watched, for our 'protection'." Varric nods, a half grin briefly appearing on his face. "But Aveline doesn't recognise her description, which leads me to believe that the woman wasn't following us, or hadn't been before that point. In which case, it was rather more like a chance encounter, though I don't understand her interest in us."

"You don't think the Chantry might be suspicious of you, or of Merrill, of being apostates?" Varric's cheeks have lost their colour somewhat, and his eyes are sharp with worry.

I shake my head, hoping fervently that it isn't so. "I did worry that might have been the case at first. The odd thing is," I continue, running a hand through my hair as my discomfort at the situation grows, "Sebastian hasn't seen anyone in the Chantry fitting her description either."

"He may not have seen her if she was a visitor from another city, I suppose," Varric muses aloud, rubbing the stubble on his chin thoughtfully. "Dull as he is, Choir boy doesn't spend every waking moment hiding away in the Chantry. Even so, she doesn't sound much like a Sister. That's quite a mystery, Hawke. Have you seen her since?"

"No." I arch an eyebrow at him. "Since you're so fond of having me followed, I was rather hoping you might be able to find out something about her, since your surprise would indicate she isn't one of yours."

"Not one of mine, no," Varric replies absently, his voice far-off as he ponders the situation. "Leave it with me, Hawke. I'll see what I can find out. Might be it's one of the Arishok's agents keeping tabs on you. It's not just oxmen who follow the Qun. Doesn't seem likely, though, since the big fellow seems to almost like you. Wait-" A though suddenly appears to occur to him, and he glances at me sharply. "I don't suppose it could be someone sent by Senseschal Bran? To make sure you're looking into the Qunari problem as you promised the Viscount, perhaps? Seems like something he might do, if he's growing suspicious of the respect afforded you by the Arishok."

Maker, how many different factions might I have to worry about spying on me? Bad enough I have agents sent by at least two of my friends keeping track of my movements! "I hope not. I should think I deserve better treatment than that, especially considering how many problems I have solved for Dumar. Not least protecting his son from those rogue mercenaries."

"Maybe they don't like you interfering in City business by fixing up the Alienage?" Varric suggests bluntly, but I dismiss this concern.

"No, this happened before I properly set the Alienage restoration in motion. Besides, I cleared it with the Viscount's office before I even approached the elves. The Viscount approves. He has no problem with helping the elves. He told me he would do it himself using Kirkwall's coffers, if he didn't fear it would upset the nobles too much, particularly those who make the largest contributions to public works." Distaste colours my words as I speak this last. "I believe him, as far as his good intentions reach, but I cannot respect such a weak-willed position."

"He doesn't do his image any favours with such inaction," Varric agrees. "Try to please everyone and you end up pleasing no-one. He's not a bad man, but his courage only stretches so far, which makes his authority weak. Small wonder he relies on people like you to do so many tasks he can't be seen to do himself, for fear of upsetting someone with a modicum of real power." He shrugs. "Alright, so this spy of yours wasn't sent by the Viscount's office either. No problem, narrows it down. I'll find something for you, Hawke. My word on it."

"Thank you, Varric, I appreciate it."

He salutes me again with his tankard, and drinks deeply. "I tell you what, Hawke," he grins after another mouthful. "The Viscount is going to owe you after everything you've done for him, especially all this Qunari business he's got you messing around with. If Dumar graciously allowing you to spend your own money to fix up a bunch of crumbling buildings in the most neglected part of Lowtown is all you're getting in return, I'd say our Viscount is getting the better of the bargain, and knows it too."

"I know," I mutter darkly. "Put it like that, and it makes me look quite the fool, doesn't it? But I daren't push for more, particularly not concessions for myself. I can't afford the scrutiny. As an apostate, I have to be careful."

"And that's exactly why you need to know who's watching you," Varric finishes for me, sobering instantly. We share a sardonic smile, and Varric reaches across the table to pat my hand in commiseration. "It feels a little like everything is in a tenuous balance at the moment, doesn't it?" He sounds, uncharacteristically, a little sad.

Gold eyes meet mine as I nod slowly, and he sighs, resting his chin in his hand and staring into the fire. "I wonder how long it will be before it all comes crashing down."

Pensive silence reigns for a moment before Varric gives himself a shake and flashes an apologetic smile in my direction. "Sorry, Hawke. Got a bit maudlin there for a moment. What say I grab Isabela for a few rounds of Wicked Grace?"

I smile, relieved at the lightened atmosphere. "So long as we don't end up inciting another bar brawl like last time, I'm all for it."

Varric grins, rising and heading eagerly for the door. "No promises, Chuckles."

An hour or so past noon finds me in Hightown once more, more than ready to be at home. I smile, as always, at the sight of the proud old façade of the place, and am no more than a few steps away from my door when I feel a soft tug at my sleeve. One hand flying automatically to check that my coin purse is still at my belt, I glance down… to find myself looking into the eyes of Urchin, the silent servant boy in the employ of Xenon the Antiquarian. I stare at him, somewhat amazed to see the lad above ground, though only for a heartbeat. I suppose he must have to run errands on Xenon's behalf after all, so this really shouldn't surprise me.

"Hello," I say simply, waiting cautiously for his reaction. He watches me warily, and nods in reply after a moment. I can't blame him. I daresay I didn't leave him with an entirely favourable impression last time we saw one another, considering that I was threatening to burn down his master's shop in a fit of rage at the time. I offer him a gentle smile. "How may I help you, young Master Urchin?"

A genuine smile crosses his pale lips at my addressing him so, and he bows. As he straightens, he offers me a scroll in one hand, sealed with Xenon's mark, and a small box in the other, wrapped in brown paper and tied with an elaborate frilly ribbon.

Somewhat perplexed, I take them and dig in my purse for a coin for him, earning myself a smile and a salute before he takes to his heels in the direction of Lowtown, waving merrily at me as he rounds the corner and vanishes from sight. It seems I am redeemed in his eyes, then. That's… good?

Once inside, I crack the seal on the scroll and scan it quickly.

Serah Hawke,

I have sent Urchin with a last gift to convince you of my remorse, and then I shall desist. I do not wish to be an annoyance, and I fear my persistence may not endear me to you. I expect young Merrill will know its value. I hope it will be of use to you.

I hope to see you return to my Emporium once more, if you can forgive your humble servant.

Yours eternally,


Hm. That's… shorter than I've come to expect from him. And the tone of this missive seems genuinely remorseful. I don't like to nurse a grudge, but still I wonder if I should trust him. I don't know if anything would motivate me to set foot in that place again. I do feel I should convey my appreciation for the gifts he has sent. They have indeed been useful; Vigilance in particular. Perhaps I could write a letter, if I could figure out a way to actually get it to Xenon. He is not exactly accessible by courier.

I turn my attention to the small beribboned package, delicately examining it with my mana. I feel a magical resonance, but nothing active or sinister. I remove the ribbon and paper to reveal a plain wooden box small enough to sit in my palm. Inside is a small, multifaceted crimson gemstone carved with strange foreign writing, sparking brightly in the sunlight, nestled in a bed of dried elfroot leaves.

Alright then.

I walk into the parlour, glancing around the empty room, wondering where I might find Merrill. Something crunches beneath my boot. There are a number of wood splinters on the ground midway between the fireplace and the writing desk. Lying beside them is a small piece of parchment with my name written on it in Merrill's graceful hand.


I pick up the note.

Ma vhenan,

I'm so very sorry. Leandra and I are in the garden. I will explain everything, I promise. I'm sorry!

Come and find us, please.



I suppose I'm off to the roof garden then?

xxx M xxx

Oh, the feel of grass against my bare skin is so, so wonderful. I will be forever grateful to Hawke for the gift of this place. To have full access to a pocket of flowers and greenery in the midst of this dense shemlen city is a blessing I could never have imagined possible. No one can chase me out of this garden! Knowing that Hawke understands what a balm to my soul this place is a gift in itself, as well. And I am not the only one who finds it so. Perched comfortably beside Leandra on one of the stone benches at the centre of the garden glade, I watch in amusement as the small white blur races around and around in a circle, then tears up and down on the grass in pursuit of the small spot of light that is captivating and frustrating the tiny hunter in equal measure.

Leandra laughs softly as she tilts the little mirror and makes the spot travel up the trunk of one of the small trees nearby. Feathers halts at its base, looking baffled, and then climbs up the tree in a series of awkward little hops, looking triumphant and then confused as he perches on a sturdy branch, looking for his shiny prey.

Leandra, however, has put the mirror down and looks to me, worry etched on her noble features. "I didn't mean for him to do that," she exclaims. "Maker, how are we going to get him down?"

Feathers chirps happily as the roof access door opens and Hawke enters. I smile lovingly as she approaches, pleased to see her, but my attention remains on Feathers as he prances happily along his branch, paying small attention to the drop at his feet. I am not sure if he knows how to get himself down, the silly baby. Our mabari rises from his contented place in the warm sunlight and trots purposefully to the bottom of the tree, whining softly as he gazes up at his troublesome griffon pup.

"Feathers," I call softly, not wishing to startle him. "Careful, now!"

"Oh, dear," Hawke murmurs as she steps up beside me, one hand shielding her eyes from the sun. "When did this happen?"

"Just now," Leandra answers her. "My fault, I'm afraid. I was getting him to chase sunspots with my mirror. I'm afraid both he and I got rather carried away."

"It's alright," Hawke says cheerfully, giving us one of her lovely confident grins. "This is an opportunity for him to figure out how to get out of this himself. Give him time, and see if he can get himself down."

Feathers looks around for a few more moments, but when he is unable to find the elusive spot of light, he begins looking at the ground and the trunk of his tree, apparently trying to find a way to the ground. I watch him worriedly but remain seated, trusting Hawke, and Feather's own instincts. Besides, if he falls, both Hawke and I can stop him falling in a heartbeat without stirring an inch, if need be. No Templars up here, after all.

Feathers bobs his head up and down quickly, still trying to puzzle out his predicament, and gives a little warble, which is answered by a bird sitting in a branch on a nearby tree. Feathers cocks his head and watches it, apparently fascinated.

"I've an idea," Hawke says softly, and picks up a scone from a plate on the bench beside me, the remains of our afternoon tea. She tosses some crumbs on the ground beneath the bird's tree. The bird flaps its wings and jumps from the branch, fluttering down to the ground to peck at the crumbs. Another joins it, then another. Feathers watches this display, and I can almost see the idea turning over in his own mind. Oh, the clever little boy! He begins flapping his own wings, faster and faster, and then before I can so much as blink, he leaps from the branch and flaps clumsily down to the ground. Once he has all four feet back on the soft green grass, he holds himself still a moment, as if he can't quite believe what he has done. Then he gives a happy squawk and runs over to me, stretching up to place his paws on my knees, then pushing off and dancing in little circles all around the glade in excitement, sending the birds fluttering back into the tree branches. Feathers stops again, staring at them in amazement. Then he flaps his wings harder than ever, though he only manages to achieve a foot or so of lift before his underdeveloped flight muscles give out on him and he flops back to the ground. He trots over to his mabari friend, chirping excitedly, presumably telling him about his new discovery. The patient old dog gives every appearance of patiently listening to his young companion.

"He learns fast," comments Hawke, and I nod, impressed despite my worry. Elgar'nan, he learns fast indeed! I've no true idea of how old he is, nor how old he should be before he could be ready to fly properly, but Creators above! How am I going to keep him safe if he learns to fly before he learns to obey?

"I think I'd better pay more attention to his training," I say, speaking my thoughts aloud. "I need to know he'll come in an instant if called. I can't have him flying off wherever he pleases, not when he's so little."

"You'll have to reveal his presence eventually," Leandra cautions sensibly. "He won't stay little forever."

"I know," Hawke says, rubbing her neck. "We need to think about that, how to answer questions about where we found him, if there are more. There must be, somewhere."

"That would be wonderful," I sigh happily. "The Wardens would be very interested to know if there were more."

"Perhaps we'll find out, one day," Hawke muses, settling herself down on the bench beside me and taking a scone for herself. "For the moment, we'll keep him safely secret. Now," she says, fixing me with a querying eye and brandishing a scrap of parchment at me. "Care to explain what this is all about?"

My note! Uh oh…

Leandra smothers a smile, and I shoot her a quelling glare. Just a little one, though. It probably won't work on Leandra, anyway. I turn back to Hawke, who is watching me with her usual penetrating, slightly amused air. I can't help but smile a little, though I know it's not really a laughing matter. It was very foolish, what I did, and I really wish I'd thought better of it. It seemed like a good idea at the time!

"I am so sorry about the wardrobe," I blurt, near frantic to explain myself. "It wasn't very badly smashed!"

Hawke's expression remains unchanged save for the quirk of one slender eyebrow. "Is that what that was?" she asks lightly. I hasten to explain.

"From our chambers. The one I was using, not yours. The doors broke off and one of the drawers splintered. And the mirror was shattered, of course. But apart from that, I think it's very fixable!"

"It's fine Merrill, it's just a wardrobe." Hawke manages to insert into my babbling. She sounds quite unconcerned. I suppose it's not a very sentimental wardrobe, then. She shrugs one shoulder, looking at me with curiosity, nothing more. "Clearly no one is hurt, whatever happened. How did it break anyway?"

I sigh deeply. I'm glad Hawke isn't upset, but I still feel quite a fool. "I didn't expect it to fall over the railing like that."

Hawke's smile grows more amused, and perplexed. "Fell over the railing? What?"

Leandra chuckles quietly and I feel my face reddening. I'm not doing a good job of explaining, I know I'm not. "I thought it'd be more stable. I mean it held up just fine for me and Orana!"

I watch Hawke's face as she puzzles through what I've told her. Her face clears. "You were swinging on the chandelier again," she asks, glancing at Leandra for confirmation. Leandra nods, eyes twinkling merrily.

"Yes," I admit, feeling childish, "but it's fun! I was showing Orana, and Sandal wanted to join us. I'd moved the wardrobe out to the landing so it was easier for Orana to reach the chandelier, you see, and when Sandal tried to climb up on it, his stocky weight tipped the thing over the railing and the poor boy had to grab on to the chandelier to save himself. It took hours for Bodahn to coax him down."

"But he's alright, I assume," Hawke supplies gently. "Else you'd hardly be calmly enjoying yourselves in the garden."

"He's absolutely fine," Leandra tells Hawke firmly. "I don't believe he was even scared, not after the first few moments after the wardrobe fell. He simply didn't want to get down, he was having too much fun playing up there. I think we ought to have the chandelier inspected at some point, by the by. I've no desire to have it fall on my head."

"How did Bodahn respond to all this?" Hawke asks, a note of worry in her voice at last, but I quickly put her mind at ease.

"Oh, he is fine, ma vhenan, not to worry. He thought it was lovely that me and Orana would include his boy in our game. He and Sandal have taken the wardrobe to be fixed. Orana went with them. Apparently, she has a calming effect on Sandal when he gets too excited. They're all fine. I'm going to get them all something nice to make it up to them, nonetheless."

"Orana seemed to think the whole thing was a jolly adventure," Leandra adds, smiling, a pleased note in her voice. "She's really coming along in leaps and bounds, that girl!"

"Well, I'm glad that no one was hurt." Hawke glances around at the young trees surrounding us with a critical eye. "Sounds like I ought to put a swing in up here, if it can be done."

Oh, I do hope she's serious. I would so love that!

"Well, now that we've recounted the thrilling tale of Sandal and the chandelier," Leandra quips wryly, settling herself on a nearby chair. "Why don't you tell us about your day, love?"

Hawke tells us of her relatively, rather shockingly, uneventful day in between neat bites of her scone, and shows me the wooden box that Xenon's boy delivered to her. The gem inside is lovely, and the writing does resemble elvhen writing. I can't quite make out what it says. My eyes don't want to focus on it properly. Perhaps the characters are too faded to read in such bright sunlight. Why do I feel as though I've seen something like this before?"

"Hm," I exclaim softly as I recall why I find it so familiar. "This rather resembles the amulet, Hawke. The one given you by Asha'bel'anar, that you brought to Sundermount the day we first met. Doesn't it?"

"Asha'bel'anar?" Leandra asks, politely puzzled. Feathers climbs into her lap to peer into the wooden box, apparently fascinated with the way the gem sparkles.

"It's what the Dalish call Flemeth," Hawke answers absently, leaning over to examine the amulet more closely. "I suppose it does look like it. Not quite the same but similar." She frowns suddenly. "I hope there isn't a dangerous witch of legend hidden inside this one, too. What are these things, anyway?"

"I really don't know," I reply. "I didn't know what would happen the last time; I just did what Marethari instructed; place Asha'bel'anar's amulet on the altar and recite "In Unthenara". Marethari wouldn't tell me anything about why that ritual was necessary, or how she knew you were coming, or what debt she owed Flemeth. At that point, she wasn't exactly willing to confide in me, determined as I was to seek my own path here in Kirkwall."

"If you don't know what this is, why has this Xenon person sent this to you?" Leandra asks, her confusion obviously mounting, as well as no small amount of alarm. "What does it have to do with the Witch of the Wilds?"

Leandra places her hand mirror face down on the ground as she speaks, and Hawke chuckles at her mother, breaking the growing tension. "Mother, don't be silly. I'm sure Flemeth can't hear us."

Her mother glances down at the mirror, stares for a moment, and then begins to chuckle. "I didn't even realise I did that! How unlike me to succumb to such a silly superstition." She picks up the mirror, still keeping its shiny surface turned towards the ground. "Still, knowing Flemeth is more than a legend does make me think that perhaps those tales I used to tell you children are based in fact, somewhere down the line."

I look between them, bewildered. "What are you two talking about?"

"Ah, it's one of those tales mothers in Ferelden use to scare their children into behaving," Hawke tells me, sharing a look of fond reminiscence with her mother. "They say that if you're bad, Flemeth will spirit you away and bind you to her forever. That sort of thing."

"They also say that Flemeth mourns her lost beauty, and will steal yours through your looking glass if she catches you," Leandra adds ominously, the gleam in her eyes betraying her amusement as she raises her mirror quickly, pointing it first at me, then at Hawke. "Watch out, girls!"

Our laughter rolls across the garden, and we laugh all the harder when Feathers suddenly launches himself at the sparkly gem, nearly knocking it out of my hand, box and all. I swiftly close it as Hawke scoops him up. "I'll examine it properly later, Hawke, if I may?"

"Of course, Merrill. If anyone can figure out what it's for, you can. Xenon seems to think so-" Hawke struggles to hold on to Feathers as he wriggles and writhes in her hands. "Alright, alright, little fellow! I'll put you down. You can't have that gem, though." Feathers huffs in annoyance as she puts him on the grass. "I know, I'm sorry. I know it's delightfully sparkly but you can't have it."

Feathers huffs again, and flops down on her feet, as he's so often seen her faithful mabari do.

"Oh, darling," Leandra exclaims suddenly, sitting up alertly and swivelling to face Hawke, who starts a little at her abrupt motion. "Before the wardrobe incident, a messenger came from the Keep. You've been summoned to the office of the Viscount first thing tomorrow!"

"Oh, dear," Hawke sighs, leaning back and slipping an arm around me almost without thought. "I wonder what weighty problem the Viscount's office needs me to solve now."

"Whatever it is, I'm sure you'll handle it beautifully, love." Leandra beams at her daughter. "To think; the Viscount himself calls upon my child to fix the problems he can't. What would your father say, to see you now! You do us all so proud, love."

Hawke's hold on me tightens and I lean into her, smiling myself at Leandra's lovely words.

"Thank you, Mama," my Hawke says quietly, sounding surprised but pleased, and grateful. "I love you."

Leandra smiles at both of us together, her face beatific.

"My girls. I love you both."