Here There Be Dragons
Act III. Varric/female!Hawke. Even a storyteller can occasionally be surprised by unexpected twists in the tale.
The Bone Pit had been nothing but trouble from the very start. Varric had never understood why Hawke continued to retain part-ownership of the site; yes, the mine had come cheap, and yes, the profits had been enough to keep the Amell estate in working order over the years, along with earning some favor with the local employed Fereldans, and yes, it was occasionally useful for Varric whenever he needed an excuse to duck out of another Merchant's Guild meeting, claiming he had to go survey one of the few sources of ore that was closer than Orzammar and lacked export taxes to boot. Yes. Once in a while, it wasn't completely a waste.
Other than that, the mine was little better than a headache. Every time it was brought to Hawke's attention, it was always to go clear out some type of animal that had tried to nest in prime funeral real-estate. The beasts were never anything easy, either. Most places had roaches. Hawke's mine had giant, flesh-dissolving spiders.
And bandits. Bandits came included with the package, naturally.
Hubert had hired guards, once, only to have the mine go completely without incident for six months, at which point he dismissed them as a waste of funds. Naturally, a bizarre infestation of spitting lizards had promptly moved right in. The Pit showed no signs of ever planning to become convenient; Varric had been trying to convince Hawke to give it away to him for free for years.
This time was no different. The workers had run off again, if Hubert was to be believed, sending only a horse back to town as a cryptic messenger. Unfortunately, they'd neglected to tidy up the mine first, leaving several of their bodies behind, much of their equipment still smoldering, and a total lack of explanation. Many of the corpses bore chew marks. The verdict was either very hungry looters, very flammable beasts, or a combination of both.
With no creatures in immediate sight, Hawke had suggested checking inside the mine for any survivors, or at least anyone cowardly enough who could be counted on to preserve their own skin. It wouldn't have been a bad plan, normally. None of them had thought much of it; after all, they'd gone in and out of the quarry for years, mostly to flush out spiders or dragonlings or drunken nobles on a dare.
Stepping inside the caves hadn't twinged any of Varric's survival instincts. The site had looked as stable as could be expected, which also meant - predictably enough - full of spiders again. Spiders didn't fit the profile of either teeth or fire, but they were still in the way of a decent investigation, so Varric had unshouldered Bianca and taken her out to play.
It was all basic routine, the kind that earned them just enough gold for drinks at the Hanged Man, and then breakfast in the morning to help recover from the hangovers. In the chaos of bursting insect abdomens and web strands getting into everyone's hair and eyes, and the boredom of yet another trip through the Bone Pit, no one had bothered to pay anything more than cursory attention to their surroundings. Hubert had been promising to invest in traps for half a year, so the occasional sight of a chemical bulb didn't earn more than a cursory glance; half of them looked to be filled with plain water, and the others had been subverted for use as lanterns.
So no one expected to find half a tunnel under construction and barely supported by wooden beams when they swung around the corner, which was the first problem. The second was the row of freshly-oiled triggers that immediately hooked Varric's attention, all of them armed.
The third problem involved fire spells.
While flame was a traditional favorite when it came to eliminating spiders of all types, it also was a potential hazard around shaky architecture, let alone liquids that had a violent reaction when mixed. Unfortunately, the spiders had come first on all three of the mages' priority list. Varric had barely managed to scramble backwards when the first fireballs had detonated and taken most of the support rafters with them, roasting the ceiling and sending a flood of heat crashing over his body; then, with the same spine-chilling noise as the safety on a crossbow being released, he'd heard the triggers sound off, one by one.
The subsequent explosions had been deafening. Varric had hunched down behind the nearest rock, folding himself protectively around Bianca as she nuzzled against his stomach. Merrill had scuttled by him with one hand cupped over her head. Anders had bolted out like a startled kitten, arms awkwardly pinwheeling, smacking his staff against the walls as a dangerous hint of color simmered in his eyes: Justice had gone on the alert, drawn out by the potential of impending death for his vessel. Undeterred, the fire traps kept hiccuping and burping gouts of molten death, greedily eating at the tunnel until the ceiling gave in and smothered it.
When the dust had stopped choking the air, Hawke had been ominously absent.
They called her name over and over, backtracking through the tunnel in hopes that she'd just retreated past them in a fit of self-preservation; it wouldn't have been the first time that she'd ended up halfway to Kirkwall while using the excuse of finding better cover. Nothing turned up. The mine was cloudy with dirt. They fumbled their way over to the rockslide and shouted there instead, until finally, finally they were answered by a weak remark: "If this is the Maker's side I'm supposed to be at, it's rather dank."
"Hawke!" Anders pressed himself instantly against the nearest boulder. "Are you - are you alive! No," he corrected instantly, realizing the pointlessness of the question, "I mean, are you hurt! Can you move!"
"A little! I can't see very much. I'm pinned under some of this rubbish." A flicker of azure light seeped out from between the cracks - barely a sliver of power, but all three of them huddled closer to the gleam as if it were the last rays of sun in winter. "The lamps are knocked out on this side, it's completely dark. I'm not sure how much of the tunnel is clear!"
Varric had the sense to cringe at the echoes bouncing up and down the tunnel. "Do you really think it's such a good idea to keep making loud noises?" he hissed, visions of additional cave-ins flooding his imagination.
"Well, we've got to get Hawke out," Anders snapped back. A wisp of magic unfolded in his palm, rippling over his skin like water; he used it to survey the wreckage, tilting his hand back and forth to try and shine the light into crevices. "We need to get a dwarf, they'd know how to fix this."
"You have a dwarf, he's standing right here, telling you that he has no bloody clue what to do!" Clearing his throat as he realized his own voice was ricocheting just as badly through the mine, Varric forced his fists to relax. "We're in one of the main tunnels, or so I'm guessing from the trail of lanterns. That means there must be at least a few side routes. If not, then there has to be a way to reinforce the tunnel quickly, because there's no point in having a mine that shuts down every time someone sneezes."
Giving up on one of the larger boulders, Merrill finally clambered down the rock pile, face drawn but determined. "We could get Fenris to reach through and phase her out."
"Yes, if you want to have have him come back with a handful of Hawke's entrails!" Anders snapped. "If Fenris could swing entire people in and out of places, he'd be living a far more lucrative life as a burgler!"
"Okay!" Holding up a hand in warning, Varric studied the rubble that clogged the way forward. To his eyes, it all looked like rock, rock, and more rock, all of which belonged to the rock category, in the rock family. No innate dwarven wisdom leapt forth to magically supply him with the right information. "The miners know this place best of all. If none of them are alive, then at least Hubert's got to have maps of this place. It's a long walk back to Kirkwall. We'd better start now."
"We can't just leave Hawke here," Merrill protested. "What if something comes and eats her! Like a looter. Though why they'd be hungry for people, I don't want to know."
"I'll stay." Anders drew himself up with as much dignity as he could muster with dirt caking the feathers of his jacket into sad, muddy tufts. "After all, I don't trust you to come up with ideas that aren't dangerous while you wait."
"Both of you get back to the city." Cutting between the two like a particularly stern uncle, Varric aimed his orders first at Merrill. "Daisy, I know you mean well, but you'll just worry yourself sick if you're the one waiting here. And you, Blondie," he turned upon the other mage next, wagging his finger, "you'll probably start accusing the tunnel of some sort of Templar conspiracy, and make things worse. Anyway, I won't be alone," he continued, patting his crossbow. "Bianca will stay with me. Now, go. We're all wasting time talking like this."
Anders muttered, but obeyed; both he and Merrill trudged out gloomily, casting frequent backwards glances. Varric twiddled his fingers at them each time. Only when they were gone did he let his smile vanish, spinning back to the rockfall and eyeing it intently, in case sheer willpower could somehow convince it to melt away into harmless sand.
The light from Hawke's side had gone out. He counted down from ten, slowly, refusing to think that she'd done something as awkward as die soundlessly while the rest of them had been busy arguing.
After a few minutes, his faith was rewarded when Hawke's voice trickled out. "Hello? Anyone still around?"
"I'm here," he called back. Without the fussing of the group, it was easier to hear her words, which were fainter than before. Varric tried not to think about what that meant. "Just me."
"Oh, good," came the eventual reply. "At least I'll have someone around who can lie about my heroic death."
"So when I'm dead, I just want to make sure that you get the facts straight, Varric."
Varric - whose better achievements of the last few hours had been verbal encouragement, poking at stones, and then finally suggesting that they both nap to pass the time - lifted an eyebrow. Humor was good, he figured. Humor could keep Hawke's mind off the fact that she was trapped and likely going to perish from the next cave-in. Varric hadn't felt any more tremors, but he knew that whatever they tried to do to free Hawke would likely set off another one. In that respect, they were both probably lucky that the entire mine hadn't already collapsed like a damp Orlesian pastry.
Someday there would be a Paragon whose sole contribution to dwarfdom would be to convince Varric's people that they were all crazy for living under tons of rock. It would be a glorious day indeed.
Until then, he could stare at the slag-pile of rubble and try to work out a dozen different ways for levering the rocks away, all of which were likely to get Hawke killed that much faster.
"Varric, this is important. I want you to make sure the estate and everything in it is bequeathed to my mabari."
"I'm sure Carver and Bethany would also agree with me, if they were here. Don't let Gamlen piss it all away again. And you should come up with a proper speech at my memorial."
"Hawke. You'll be fine." It didn't come out as sincerely as he'd hoped, which was ridiculous; he had nothing but a stunning track record of being right. Except when he wasn't.
"And I hope you tell everyone how I defeated the Arishok single-handedly in heroic combat."
Frowning, Varric paused in unhooking Bianca and setting her on the ground. "I seem to recall that you did."
"I ran away in circles around the pillars for half an hour, taking potshots while my mabari chewed on him," she corrected acidly. "Remember? You all stood there looking mortified. I think the Arishok died out of embarrassment."
He chuckled, drumming his fingers over Bianca's stock. "Since you insist, I'll be sure to regal everyone with the epic tale of how you ripped the Arishok in half with blood magic, your eyes glowing like twin infernos."
"Now I just sound like a public menace."
"That would be one of the kinder descriptions I've heard about you over the years." Flipping out a handkerchief, he began to work at wiping Bianca off. There was no sense in letting the dirt linger, even if he didn't have the right supplies to clean her properly. Grit was murder on gears. "On the other hand, if you did have blood magic, I don't know how much help it'd be right now."
Hawke sighed. "Too bad my mabari's helping train Aveline's guards. He could dig me right out of here. That, or maybe a demon could get me out." Her voice turned syrupy with exaggerated pantomime. "Justice will simply have to punish the landscape for the decision I was forced into. Gravity was unjust."
"Hawke," he protested, but weakly. It really didn't sound like that bad of an idea. They could always kill the demon afterwards. The only problem would be if Justice held a grudge. And maybe Anders. Or Fenris. Or -
On the other hand, maybe only he and Isabela should know anything about it at all.
Hoping to steer them both away from desperate bargains, Varric cleared his throat. "About this story of yours, I've been thinking. I could tell them how you were incredibly kind to everyone you met -"
"I am incredibly kind."
"Or incredibly witty -"
"I am incredibly witty."
"Or an incredible jackass."
"I am - Varric!"
"My point being," he insisted, overriding her squawks of protest, "that with the right rumors in place, you could be any of those things. Too many people underestimate storytellers, Hawke. I could probably convince them of anything. In fact," he added, his imagination starting to warm up, "the wilder it gets, the better the tale becomes."
The granite sandwiched between them blotted out what was probably an extraordinarily skeptical expression on Hawke's face. "Just how wild are you thinking of? Are you going to start claiming I was really a man?"
"No!" Actually, he could already see it. Broad shoulders, rugged jaw, a physique that suited a warrior who bathed while in full plate and ate swords for breakfast. Lots of chest hair. Lots. "Never. Never, Hawke, you have my word. I won't change a single thing about you."
There was a long pause.
"I'm just saying, you'd look good with a beard, Hawke."
"Says the dwarf with the polished chin! Anyway," and he heard a faint shifting of pebbles, "thank the Maker, I've finally got my leg free. Now for the other one. Everything's pins and needles. Whoops - "
The sudden dance of pebbles scattering down Varric's side of the barrier was like a nail being driven into his spine; he straightened up, hands plastering themselves to the stones as if he could keep them all from collapse with his own fingers. "Just make sure to survive," he offered, nubs of soil flecking his sleeves. "Do that, and I promise, I'll say whatever you like."
"So, just so I have this straight," she said. "Anders and Merrill went back to get help for me."
The level of oil in the lanterns had dipped further, settling in their basins like a low tide. Varric had lost all track of time; he'd dozed, woken up, and dozed again, checking each time to make sure Hawke was still coherent. He could only imagine the state of her bladder. "Yes."
"Anders and Merrill," she repeated slowly. "Who we assume made it all the way back to Kirkwall without killing one another, and then were able to cooperate long enough to look for assistance." Her voice made a series of half-hearted hiccups, fits and starts of words that never made it to fruition. "Look, I'm just feeling a bit hopeless about now, you'll have to bear with me."
Varric tilted his head back. The ceiling above leered at him, shattered rafters bristling through the dirt like an explosion of darkened bones, a wooden ribcage that had been wrenched open by an Qunari's fist. That was a good line; he'd have to remember it for later. "We'll get you out."
"There is a giant rock on my stomach, and if I move, it will squish me the rest of the way." The words were breezy, but flat. If there was mirth, he couldn't detect it. "I am going to die, Varric. Either I'm crushed, or I starve to death, or the spiders will come back and eat me alive."
"You'll die of dehydration first, not starvation, Hawke." Scrounging for cheer only made him think about the last time they'd been trapped like this, down in the Deep Roads when none of them had been sure they could get out. Disturbingly enough, he was starting to miss Kirkwall. "And at least you have a friendly ear to keep you company. See, there's a bright side to everything."
A muted glow trickled through the barrier again, along with an erratic tapping; the noise confused him for a minute, until he realized it must be Hawke's staff, prodding like a blind man's cane against the stones. "So," she began, punctuating each tak of wood, "as the historian of my last few moments, are you going to tell everyone how I was always in love with you?"
Something about the question struck him as odd; Varric frowned as he digested it, trying to figure out why it felt so heavy in his ears. "Now there's a twist," he laughed, buying time while he worked at the puzzle. "I wonder how much of a scandal that might cause. A merchant prince of House Tethras and a restored noble scion. I can already hear the Hightown gossip."
"I'm serious." Hawke's voice was so low that he almost missed it over the noise of the staff. "Out of everyone we've traveled with all these years, you're the one I'd spend all my time with, if I could."
It took Varric a moment before he could answer. All his cleverness had escaped his brain; his wits had fled like startled muggers. "Hawke," he managed, stumbling over his own disbelief. "I think you're running out of air in there. Are you sure you're thinking straight?"
"Varric." The word stopped him cold, slaughtered his humor and left him with a hard knot in his gut. "You've always been there. Over all these years, you've come along with me into the worst messes imaginable, whether it seemed profitable or not. You've always put up with me. You - "
Time seized up around him, squeezing his lungs. Varric could feel it, in that chronicler's part of his brain that knew how to pay attention to the best moments that would otherwise go overlooked, soaking in each detail like a sponge right before the drama hit - and this one had all the earmarks of a tragedy barreling down the road, of a confused confession that would be made at the last second before a gruesome demise. He'd written too many stories not to recognize a traditional build-up. He knew what typically came next.
He had to get Hawke to stop talking, in order to save her life.
"Hawke, I really think - "
"You get all my jokes," she continued fiercely, crushing his protests like an ogre's charge. "You like all my jokes, and you're one of the closest friends I have in Kirkwall. I - I can trust you. You're witty and capable and you always have my back, always, and even now as I'm stuck in this pit, dying of stupidity, you're still here. And now that I've just said all that, I feel remarkably even more stupid, so I think - I think I'm going to try and get myself out, because nothing could possibly be worse than the last few minutes - "
Just as Varric had reached the point of desperation and was willing to start kicking at the wall, a horrifying clatter started up on the other side: a few rasping scrapes, a grunt of pain, and then a rattling avalanche as one rock slid loose and started dragging all the rest with it. The ceiling groaned and vomited a fresh flurry of dirt. Varric pitched forward, smashing his elbow against the boulders as he tried to keep his hands on the rockslide, fighting not to lose the contact. Roots caught in his hair. Soil poured down his jacket, over his boots, so that he was forced to lift his feet and stamp to keep his footing, struggling through the earthen fountain until the dirt finally slid completely under his heels and unseated him, flicking him aside.
The glow of Hawke's magic had vanished. The wreckage had bloated in size, melted into a swirl of dirt and rubble - and Varric was stuck wondering how to explain to everyone else that he'd misplaced Hawke, possibly terminally.
He stared at the slumped mass of the cave-in, swollen with boulders and charred beams, and finally staggered upright with a snarl.
"You are not allowed to die, Hawke!" he roared. "It's too cliche!"
By the time Varric's energy ran out, he'd worn himself hoarse, numbing his fingers trying to shift the stones. He'd scrabbled at the rocks, pulling away what little he could and shoving fruitlessly at the rest. He'd scooped at the dirt, chipped at the wall, yelled at the Maker; nothing had put a dent in the collapse, which had sat there with total indifference for his efforts.
He stood back at last, panting, mud smeared over his jacket. That damnable penmanship of his brain, however, kept ticking on, choosing and discarding the best words to describe the unimaginable grief or the hero who had lost their final standoff with death. He tried to ignore it; it kept writing along anyway, dispassionately recording how he was standing there in total helplessness, ready to collapse slowly to his knees. Because that's what the hero in the tragedies did: they knelt dramatically until they swore vengeance or were found by members of the supporting cast. It was formulaic.
Except that Varric couldn't vow revenge against the terrain without looking as crazy as Anders, and he was a member of the supporting cast when it came to Hawke. She was the one who had changed things in Kirkwall; she was the one who dragged them all along, and made their lives that much richer for it.
He slumped back against the wall instead, detached enough to let his brain leap right over whatever heroics he wasn't engaging in, and back to what Hawke had started to claim. Dying people said all kinds of things; it wouldn't be the first time someone had had a sudden outburst of emotion right before the chopping block. Hawke had used some particularly choice words during the Arishok; he still brought them out occasion whenever he wanted to see her squirm.
But even if Hawke had been speaking out of crazed desperation, joking about her depth of feeling, it shouldn't have mattered. Hawke wasn't the type to get involved like that. It wasn't for lack of affection being directed her way; Maker knew that most of their traveling companions were attached to her, even if they expressed it occasionally through quarrels. Even among Kirkwall's nobility, she'd had more than her fair share of suitors. She'd been flooded with invitations, in fact. Varric had heard the stories about each and every one of them, from all the times that Hawke had snuck out of those dinner parties and matchmaking attempts, showing up at his table at the Hanged Man with a grin and a new story on her lips. She'd always escaped them, and come to spend the evening with Varric instead so they both could have a laugh, choosing his company over an entire parade of other options -
He was worse than Aveline.
Varric ground the heels of his hands into his eyes. The Deep Roads expedition had been a simple business investment to start, but it had bound the two of them together throughout the years with a steady stream of odd jobs and political subterfuge. Varric had welcomed the fresh company. Hawke had been a constant source of interesting gossip and good humor, even in the face of abominations and the devolving state of Kirkwall's sanity. Varric had always made room for her at his table. She'd always brought the most tantalizing stories to his ears.
She'd been a fixture in his life. He'd never realized how he'd been one in hers.
But waiting there in the bottom of a cave solved nothing. Either Hawke was dead and he was wasting time, or she was alive and he was still wasting his time being overwhelmed by the landscape.
He slogged out of the mine, hoping dully to attract attention somehow - maybe by stacking up a few of the bodies and setting them alight as some kind of smoke-signal - and came to a halt. The nearest campfire had been tidied up, enough to allow four people to crouch around it: Anders, Merrill, Aveline, and, incredibly enough, Hawke.
Aveline glanced up from the firepit. Hawke's mabari rolled at her feet; she reached down and gave it an absent scratch behind the ears. "We were beginning to wonder if you were ever coming out of there," she remarked dryly.
Merrill had the good grace to blush, casting an anxious glance at the guardswoman and then back at Varric. "We were about to go right in for you!" she protested, rubbing her hands together. "It's just, we're still a bit tired, that's all. After finding Aveline and sending word to hire new workers to come over with supplies, and then traveling back - "
Baffled, uncertain if he should be wildly angry or not, Varric sputtered, "How long have you been here?"
"We got sidetracked by the high dragon," Hawke said flatly from where she was sitting on a blanket that looked suspiciously like Anders's jacket. "Along with a whole slew of its little brood. One bit me, right here."
He stared at the unmarred patch of skin on her arm. "There's no wound."
Hawke rolled her eyes, jabbing again at the spot. "I healed it up already. I can do that, I'm magic."
Abandoning that particular argument for the moment, Varric jerked his gaze around the camp. Merrill had blood crusting along her boot - hers or someone else's, he didn't know - and Aveline had a nasty bruise darkening underneath her headband. Anders looked exhausted, his expression pinched; his annoyance alone implied that some type of fight really had occurred, badly enough to push him to the edge of self-control. Soot was smeared over all four of them, along with the mabari, who was busy trying to roll it off onto the ground.
"There was a dragon, Varric," Anders announced when he caught the dwarf looking at him. "Maker knows, we could have used your help with it. When we got here, it had Hawke pinned down by the far tunnel exit - thank goodness we spotted her in time."
Varric attempted a skeptical glare; it went ignored. "Oh come on, Blondie, now you're in on it too?"
Hawke was the one to break the tension at last. She pushed herself up from her makeshift blanket, groaning openly as she did. Limping around the campfire, she slung an arm around Varric's shoulder when she reached him,
"We really were about to come get you," she promised. "The thought of leaving my favorite claustrophobic dwarf underground was just too much to bear."
Automatically, Varric scoffed - but, despite himself, he couldn't craning his neck to look up at her. After so many hours spent waiting underground, some part of him wanted to make sure she wasn't a hallucination, that he wasn't just ignoring some horrible wound in his relief to see her. All her limbs seemed intact. Her pants were smeared with mud and dust; there was ichor still on her face, and stains on every part of her clothing. The heavy musk of sweat lingered, forking her hair into matted clumps. Her eyes were puffy, reddened and squinting.
She was beautiful.
Just for show, he wrinkled his nose. "When I write this down, I'll make sure to leave out the part where you really needed a bath, Hawke."
Her smile was impish as she straightened up, shoving the heel of her hand playfully against his shoulder. "Care to lend a hand with that?"
The question hung in the air, deceptively light. This time, Varric didn't let it pass unscrutinized. Nothing about Hawke's tone was any different than before. It was the same jovial banter that she'd always offered throughout the years: the same warmth, the same affection, the same everything he'd only interpreted one way, over and over no matter how many times it had been delivered and dismissed.
"I'll give you an answer when we get back to Kirkwall," he replied, smiling. "The Bone Pit's a terrible setting for a real story."