A/N: New year, new story!
This takes place about two or three years after the culmination of Act II, when the Qunari vacate Kirkwall.
It also takes place after the events of my in-progress story The Arrowhead, and assumes that Hawke let the Arishok take Isabela and leave, breaking her heart in the process. But this is only one of Hawke's possible futures, and I fully intend on exploring other paths she might take. =)
I held a vote as to who would be the main companion for my NaNoWriMo challenge, and the winner was our lovely choir boy. It's quite fun writing something extended with Sebastian - usually he's there to be either a) seduced or b) a wet blanket. He's one of the less-loved characters (my lord, there's a lot of Anders and Fenris love in this fandom!) but one of my absolute favorites.
(Speaking of other characters I love, there's an extended cameo of everyone's favorite Antivan assassin waiting for you in the later chapters.)
As Starkhaven is DA's rough allegory for Scotland, I was all too happy to dive right in. I even called my very scottish family overseas for tips on language, though not many still speak scots gaelic. This is how the conversation with my uncles went:
"How do you say [x]?"
"… how do you spell that?"
"HAHA YEAH RIGHT Here, have a website."
Anyway, I plan on weekly updates up until the 17th chapter and an epilogue, so stick with me. The end is in sight!
"Yeah," Varric declared. "Definitely a trap."
He sat with Sebastian at the Hanged Man, a scroll dripping with jewel-toned ribbons and gold leaf sitting on the table between them, calligraphy scrawled expertly in its contents.
Sebastian sighed, leaning back in his chair and running a hand through his hair. "I had assumed as much, though I thought it best to check with someone who has had more -"
"Dirty dealings?" Varric offered.
"Relevant life experience," the archer finished, raising an eyebrow. "Though your counsel is much appreciated."
Varric frowned, picking up the fluttering piece of parchment and giving it another once-over. "Still don't see what you needed me for. Any idiot could look at this and smell a rat."
"I know." He smiled bitterly, folding his hands in his lap. "I suppose I was somehow hoping that it wasn't, that I was being paranoid."
"I know, kid." Rolling it back up, the dwarf handed the invitation back. "I know the feeling."
They sat in silence for a moment, Varric's next ale arriving and Sebastian's glass of wine sitting in front of him, still largely untouched. A shadow passed over the latter's face, and Varric studied his expression for a moment before letting out an exasperated sigh.
"Don't tell me you're still planning on going."
"I don't have much of a choice, Varric." He stared darkly at the royal seal, as if its very use offended him. "This is a sign, one that cannot be ignored. I've spent the years following my parents' deaths knowing what I must do, and finding every reason not to."
"Helping Hawke is a perfectly good reason."
A smile passed over Sebastian's lips as he remembered the moment he had offered his services to her in whatever capacity she should need. She'd grinned and snapped back with some kind of innuendo, but after she saw the look that must've been on his face, she had apologized profusely and promised to try to keep her bad habit in check when he was around.
She'd lasted all of a week.
"Aye," he said with a chuckle, "if anyone were able to convince me to stay, it would be Hawke."
Varric leered at him over the rim of his mug, and Sebastian narrowed his blue eyes just enough to remind him that they were not going down that path of conversation again. He had no desire to be the butt of the dwarf's jokes any more than usual.
When Varric simply snickered but said nothing, the archer relaxed and gave him an acknowledging nod in modest thanks.
"I'll take my leave of you now," he said, standing and gathering up the fanciful invitation. "It appears I have some business to attend to with the Grand Cleric."
"Good luck with that," the dwarf replied, leaning against the arm of his chair. As Sebastian turned to leave, Varric called out to him. "Hey, Choir Boy."
The man turned, and Varric gave him the closest thing to sound advice that he could stomach giving to anyone.
"A wise man avoids traps. A smart man walks into a trap with reinforcements."
Hawke walked briskly through Lowtown, the last remaining chills of winter to survive into spring biting at her cheeks. She'd had to dig out one of her cloaks from the storage bureau, where she'd over-excitedly packed all of her winter clothes at the first sign of buds on the trees just a few weeks before.
She may have been slightly premature, and the Kirkwall spring was mocking her for it now.
It didn't matter, though. She had needed a long walk, and snow or hail wouldn't have stopped her. It had been nearly two years since the qunari had quit the city, the Arishok leading them home to Par Vollen. And two years since she had stayed behind on the docks as she ships set sail, the both of them knowing full well that it was the way things had to be.
Now the former compound was shrouded in enormous black hangings, emblazoned with eye-shaped insignias and pointed edges. It was eerie to see it so devoid of life and closed off, and it was near a month that she couldn't walk by without keenly feeling her loss.
Friends had helped. Friends and booze, both of which she had both clung to and battled with fiercely for some time after the Arishok's departure. Neither had judged her, though, and she'd been closer to herself again for over a year. And her relationships with both had been healthier again.
The walks had also become therapeutic. They were a way of meditating without sitting still, and the endorphins from exercise kept her thoughts farther from homicidal and more toward the practical.
She was a grown woman who knew what she was getting into when she leapt into it headfirst. And she'd come out all the wiser for it, having loved and been loved, both in their own way.
And with her new armor, she could now withstand a bolt of lighting. There was irony to be found in there somewhere.
But back to life as she knew it, with all of its troubles and the passing of time.
Speaking of time, she thought as she looked to the darkening sky, she had a date to keep at the Hanged Man. She hooked a right at the next set of towering city walls, weaving her way through the thinning crowd and heading for the tavern.
Once inside, she pulled off the fur-lined hood and warmed her face and hands by the fire, scanning the room for her companions. It took all of a moment to spot Varric and Fenris at the table, an open bottle of wine making it look that much more inviting.
She threw herself into the open chair waiting for her, shrugging off the cloak and draping it over the back. "I need something, anything hot," she said, pressing her palms to her cheeks. "and a decent set of gloves."
Varric snickered at her pink cheeks and Fenris waved over one of the servers. "You know, Hawke," the dwarf started, "that could mean any-"
She clapped a chilly hand over his mouth to silence him, taking an enormous swig from whatever he was drinking. "Nice try," she said, placing the mug back on the table, "you'll get it next time."
"You owe me a drink now."
"I owe you a tenth of a drink and you practically own this place."
He shook his head, looking sadly at his ale. "Fenris, back me up here."
Smirking into his wine, Fenris pointedly looked away. "I saw nothing."
Hawke laughed and pressed an icy kiss to his temple, a sign of affection that the elf now tolerated, if not enjoyed. Not that he would ever admit it.
"You are freezing," he noted with a frown. "It is unwise to spend all day unprotected at this temperature."
"An hour or two," she shrugged, pouring herself a glass of wine, "and it helps clear my head. Cold is a small price to pay." After taking a larger sip than was necessary, she swallowed hard and did her best to rein in a sigh. "This city is driving me mad."
"Understandable." He slid the bottle closer to her, and she rewarded him with a warm smile.
"I think you need to get out of this place for a while," Varric said as he watched her top off her wine. "Go do something other than solve everyone else's problems."
"I agree," Fenris echoed. "You have more than earned time away from this... place."
He couldn't bring himself to say "city," Hawke noted. Because it wasn't. It was an oubliette.
"You forget my magnetic personality," she reminded them bitterly, tapping her fingers on the table. "Wherever I go, I'm sure to be followed. I have a lot of people with long arms and deep pockets very unhappy with me."
"Maybe you haven't gone far enough," Varric suggested in a far-too-helpful tone, which didn't go unnoticed.
Fenris watched him curiously, setting down his wineglass. "If I did not know better, Varric," he said, "I would think you had something specific in mind."
The dwarf smiled innocently, shrugging.
"I hear Starkhaven is nice this time of year."
The halls of the Chantry echoed Sebastian's footsteps as he walked the long path around the inner worship hall and into the library. The talk he'd had with Elthina was... enlightening. Difficult, but enlightening nonetheless.
The Grand Cleric had always been a mother figure to him, and her stern advice never failed to disappoint that role. He had gone to visit her Grace, expected to be shackled to the Chantry pillars or ordered penance, but instead, she had very nearly shoved him out the door.
"The Maker has a path set for all of us, Sebastian," she said, handing him a well-worn copy of the Chant of Light – one of her favorites, he noted. "You have had two doors open for you, and denied both."
He began to protest, but she shushed him. "It has been several years, this conflict of yours. I tire of holding this same discussion on an almost monthly basis. You remain here in the chantry after enacting your vengeance and forswearing your vows. What are you holding onto here that is so precious to you?"
"The Chantry is precious to me," he said earnestly, gripping the book in both hands. "All of the good I've done and the lessons I've learned have been in service."
"I believe you," she sighed, placing a hand over his on the leatherbound volume. "And He will always welcome you back with open arms. But you forget..." She met his eyes, trying to convey her message as straightforwardly as possible. "He would not lay upon you a heavier burden than you could bear."
He thought about her words as he pushed open the enormous reinforced doors in front of him. Elthina had seen his fears and told him to face them head-on, as he had known in his heart that she would.
He walked to one of the long tables, setting down several pieces of parchment and an inkwell at the blank expanse of workspace. It had been some time since he'd traveled, and the art of planning ahead was nothing to be undertaken lightly. He turned down the stacks to his right, and after scanning the labels, tugged loose a topographical map of the Free Marches. He returned to the table, unrolling it and spreading it out fully.
As he scanned northward from Kirkwall to Starkhaven, he noticed a small book within arm's reach that he hadn't seen there before. He reached for it, intending to put it on the re-shelving cart, but hesitated when he saw that it was a travel log of a mountaineer crossing the Vimmark mountains from Kirkwall and headed northward – one prospective path to his homeland.
Deeming it potentially useful, he placed it on the stool next to him and set off a second time, this time in search of a dockmaster's listing of the passenger ships from the last year. He had to explore all options, and it would be foolhardy to ignore boat travel when located on the Waking Sea.
This time, when he returned to place it atop the first book he'd found, there now lay a second book, an illustrated catalog of edible plants and shrubs along the Free Marches. Another smaller scroll sat squarely in the middle of his map, which turned out to contain a roughly-drawn map of trade routes stretching from the Waking Sea to Antiva.
Frowning, he spun around and surveyed the library. Aside from a few of the bookkeepers, the library seemed largely empty. His mystery helper was nowhere to be found, and he slowly turned his attention back to his research, though his shoulders were tense and he subconsciously confirmed that his quiver was full.
It happened twice more, and each time a few remarkably pertinent volumes magically appeared on the table, no matter how quickly he ran back after fetching what he'd sought. The final time, though, he laid eyes on the book his anonymous assistant had offered and sighed.
Precariously close to one corner sat a copy of Varric's latest product: The Stone Temptress: Forges of Passion.
"Hawke," he called calmly, "the Chantry would like to thank you for your thoughtful donation, but must regretfully refuse."
Her laughter bounced off of the walls and she emerged from behind the Languages section, leaning against the aisle's end corner.
"Took you long enough. Must be because of the echo in here."
He held the book out to her, waving it a few times to prompt her to take the offending piece of questionable literature. She did so as she walked forward to survey his collection, tucking it into her satchel.
"I assume that Varric informed you of our conversation this morning," Sebastian said, free of any malice or bitterness.
"About as much as he tells anyone anything," she replied, adding another map to the pile. "You know. Bits and pieces and hints."
"I see." He placed his palms flat on the table, leaning forward to inspect the large topographical map more closely. "You must think me a fool, Hawke."
"Actually, I'm thinking the opposite." She sat on the edge of the table, crossing her ankles. "I'm glad you're taking the initiative and doing something. You've been so miserable these past few years." She ducked her head to catch his gaze, grinning. "And coming from me, that's saying something."
He chuckled, and she ruffled his hair. "See?" she said. "Feeling better already."
He felt some of the tension melt from his shoulders, and he smiled warmly at the woman next to him. "Seeing you never fails to cheer me."
Hopping down, Hawke nudged his shoulder with hers. "I'm immune to your cheap flattery, messere."
His smile faltered for the briefest moment, but he fought to keep it all the same as he turned his attention back to the map, trying to smother the sting. He had meant it.
Focused, Hawke leaned over next to him, reddish curls tumbling down across one shoulder. "The mountain pass will add a week to the journey."
He murmured an agreement, tracing one finger along the lower jagged lines. "And the foothills are treacherous this time of year, when the snowbanks become weak."
"This is useless, then," she said, tossing aside the mountaineer's log. She gathered up a few more in her arms, trotting off to the re-shelving cart. "So, when do we leave?"
Sebastian froze, then straightened up to look at her in confusion. Had he misheard?
She dumped the small stack onto the rickety contraption, brushing the dust off of her leathers. "You didn't think I'd let you do this alone, did you?"
She flapped a hand at him, sending a wave of musty-smelling particles into his face. "I'm denying you the right to refuse. You've knowingly followed me into danger for years, and I would be a shit friend if I wouldn't even accompany you to a fancy party in exchange. You're a dear friend," she said, crossing her arms, "and I won't let you walk into a trap alone. Especially if there's food."
He dragged the back of his hand lightly across one cheek, hiding a smile behind his fingers as he rid himself of the dust. "You're sure? You will likely have to wear a dress at some point."
"Still better than darkspawn blood. Besides," she added thoughtfully, "I could use a vacation."
He arched one eyebrow, crossing his arms across his chest. "This is hardly a vacation, Hawke. It may well be the first step in my coup for my family's throne."
"Which is like a vacation for me."
He couldn't argue that, and as he slumped his shoulders a bit in defeat, Hawke walked over to him and clapped a hand on his shoulder.
"I already said that I was coming with you," she said, "and so you'll have my help in any capacity you need."
He felt his heart lift a bit. "Hawke..."
"In exchange," she said, grinning, "you'll have to listen to my rambling when it gets late and I can't sleep. The whole trip."
Unable to keep the smirk from his face, Sebastian tilted his head. "How is that different from now?"
She swatted at him, grazing his ear, and he flinched away with a chuckle.
"You watch your mouth, Ser," she glared. "It'll be just the two of us, and I'll know where you sleep."
He watched as she walked away, wondering what he'd done to have earned himself a friend in such a woman. Perhaps, he mused, this journey wouldn't be quite as excruciating as he'd thought.
Hawke flagged down one of the pages by the door, dictating instructions and pressing a coin into his hand before jogging back to the table.
"I sent for Varric," she explained, snickering. "He stuck his nose into this, so now he's going to help."
"So why am I here?"
Hawke beamed at the dwarf as he walked in, looking as though he felt dirty for even setting foot in the building of worship. She loved seeing him suffer a little.
"You arranged it so that I'd sign up for this," she declared, "and now you're going to keep being helpful."
The dwarf snickered at the insinuation that he'd manipulated her at all. "What? I've always been a man who... arranges things."
"Then arrange us a couple of horses and provisions for the trip."
Sebastian paused, glancing over the map again. "Horses? We hadn't yet decided to go by land."
"Boat'd be easier," Varric added, scratching his jaw. "Take passage to the main highway west of here, at least."
"Or even sail eastward and ride the river barges right into the city thoroughfare," Sebastian agreed.
"But we'd have to find a boat first of all, never mind wait for it to set off," Hawke pointed out. "It could be days."
"We have a few days' leeway." He handed her the invitation, and she frowned at the amount of frills and glittery accoutrements that dripped from the parchment. Was all of Starkhaven this froofy?
"Either this banquet is enormously important, or your people have yet to learn that it only takes one ribbon to keep a scroll shut."
"It is a royal event," he explained, "and my cousin, the current prince regent, will shortly be having his thirtieth name day."
"So it's a glorified name day party?"
"Much more than that." He tapped the writing with one finger. "That is the age by which the princes of Starkhaven have traditionally taken a wife. To solidify his claim, it is in his best interest to select a bride before breaking tradition."
Understanding, Hawke pursed her lips. This invitation wasn't just a simple invitation – it was a solicitation for those who wanted power and had unmarried daughters. "So it's a time for those with horses to put them in the race, and those without to ensure that their favorite comes out ahead."
Varric chuckled. "Your analogy is a little crude, Hawke."
"No," Sebastian sighed, "she is sadly accurate."
Hawke mentally checked the date, then glanced at the map again. "We'd have more of a time margin if we went on horseback."
"I needn't stay in the city itself for long."
"And," she continued, "if this is a setup, then if we're ambushed when we're at sea, it'll be a lot harder to defend ourselves safely."
She saw a grin spread from one of Varric's ears to the other, and Sebastian was looking at her strangely.
"Hawke," the archer said slowly, "is there perhaps a reason you'd like to avoid sea travel?"
She shrugged, avoiding eye contact and instead trailing her gaze over the chart's finely-drawn mountain ranges. "Boats remind me of the trip over from Ferelden. Lots of bad memories there."
From his expression, she could tell he wasn't buying it.
"Hawke," he repeated, and she noted with a knot in her stomach that he sounded remarkably like her mother had when Mairead came home guilty of something. Except her mother hadn't had a thick Starkhaven accent.
She smiled brilliantly in response, the same tactic that had failed to mollify her mother for years. "What?"
He crossed his arms, frowning a little. "If you get seasick, there is nothing to be ashamed of. Traveling by ship doesn't agree with everyone."
"It's not the boat she doesn't agree with," Varric snickered. "It's the water."
"Varric," she warned.
"Aye, seasickness," Sebastian repeated.
"Not exactly, Choir Boy. It's when there's a... meeting of worlds that there's a problem."
It was too late. It took only seconds before she saw the telltale smile on Sebastian's face as he turned to her.
"You cannot swim?"
"Ferelden is made of dirt," she snapped, glaring. "I only ever spent summers in Highever at a friend's estate. Which was entirely landlocked. So, no. I never learned."
He chuckled. "That's–"
"If you say 'adorable,'" she interrupted, "or anything else remotely patronizing, I will stab you. Here, in the Chantry."
He closed his mouth obligingly, still smiling. She turned back to the maps, and heard Varric murmur behind her.
"It is cute, isn't it?"
"Absolutely," Sebastian agreed.
"I'm right here," she hissed, spinning back around. "And that never leaves this room, understood? I can count on one hand the people who know and are still alive: Bethany, the Arishok, and the two of you."
"The Arishok knew?" asked the archer.
"Came up in conversation."
"What did he do?"
Frowning at the memory, Hawke picked up a book sullenly. "Bastard threw me in the harbor."
The two men burst out laughing, and she sighed. "Lesson in overcoming weakness, he said. It didn't go over well."
"No," Sebastian said, calming down enough to speak, "I would imagine not." Gently, he pushed aside the books covering the Vimmark mountains on the map, running his finger along the line from Kirkwall.
Hawke watched him silently, dreading his next words. And wondering the best way to stay in the hold for the entire journey without coming up deck even once.
"There's a valley here in the lowlands," he said finally, indicating the point in question. "It borders the Planasene forest, which makes it an unpopular route for merchants, but roads do exist. We should have no trouble."
Relief blossomed across Hawke's features, and she fought the urge to hug the man around his chest. Never had his thick accent sounded more attractive than when he was saying that there would be no boat involved.
"Varric will see about provisions and horses," she said, eyeing the dwarf pointedly, "and I'll take care of things at my estate. Two days should be more than enough."
As Sebastian walked off in search of a better map of the valley, Hawke turned to her best friend.
"You sure this is a good idea, Varric?"
He smirked up at her, shoving her with one shoulder playfully. "I don't encourage good ideas, Hawke. I encourage entertaining ones."
"Right. How could I forget?" She bit back a smile, hooking an elbow around his neck and giving him a tight, brief hug. He looked after all of them, and she knew that he would never admit to his role in their lives. He didn't look for credit, and she knew he'd hate it if she told him that he was a good man.
"Hey," she said quietly, "while I'm gone, could I ask one thing of you?"
"I know," he replied, patting her hand. "I'll keep an eye on Sunshine, maybe even send Ogre her way."
"Thanks." She kissed the top of his head, smiling at the idea of the mabari staying in the circle. "You want any souvenirs from Starkhaven?"
"Bring me back a good story." After a moment, he added thoughtfully: "And maybe a classy ribbon for Bianca."