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The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright lawn
and he names the sky his own.
But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing
The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.
~ Maya Angelou
When he steps into the tavern her breath catches in her throat, in a sudden, choking burst of what once was. She thinks it must be his eyes that tug at her memories the most. They are wide, green, like a forest after a storm - their mother's eyes. It is enough that Varania can almost feel the Tevinter sun on her back, the sea salt in the air; see the bright flowers of the gardens they used to play in. She remembers looking into those eyes, innocent, guileless, as her brother showed her a bird he had rescued. Look, Vari. Isn't she beautiful? Can we keep her?
What is before her now is a distortion, a parody of the brother she knew. His hair is ivory, like the expensive china Master Arihman used to collect. His armour is finely crafted, Tevinter in origin but worn over time, its grey spikes broken up by a strange soft ribbon around his wrist. He's slouching, guarded, in a way that their mother never would have allowed; she always used to chide him, say that the wooden greatsword he lumbered around would bend his back. And of course, there are the lines of lyrium that snake their way about his skin, cutting into his bronze flesh and marking forever the changes that have come over him.
In all the ways that matter, he is not her brother. He is tense, and fierce, and there is a viciousness lurking beneath his quiet civility. Leto was loud, and alive, buzzing with an energy he almost seemed to glean merely from sun and fresh air, dashing about the master's gardens and bird houses. She remembers being a small girl in awe of him, and his boundless wonder and animation, swinging around his sword and proclaiming he would be the greatest warrior Thedas had ever seen.
And how here he is. A great warrior - the best in Kirkwall, she's heard.
But he does not know her. And truly...Varania does not know him.
He's not her brother any more; he hasn't been for over a decade. She fights to remember that, as she watches Fenris from her peripheral hiding spot. He is stalking around the tavern's perimeter, eyes sharp and anxious as they search. This is not the boy who used to climb - and fall out of - trees to chase birds. He saved them from cats. He would bring those with broken wings to their mother. But this...this is someone else. This a slave, a -
Fenris glances back at the woman with him, and the word bends.
Leto. He's there, hidden in that expression, straining away underneath the surface and emerging only as he looks at his companion. The woman - the Champion, Varania supposes from the descriptions, the stories, she's heard - doesn't notice Fenris looking at her, but that doesn't seem to matter to him. Everything about him has shifted. His stance is still defensive, still harsh, but re-orientated to the Champion and her measured steps. Yet the greatest changes flicker across his face, as sudden, as bright as moonbeams. The angles of his jaw have softened, and through the impassive ice is a warmth, pulling at the corner of his mouth and soothing years from the creases of his forehead, the tightness around his eyes. From a man who was crafted of stone, he now seems as weightless as light itself. He looks like a man who could love.
Varania supposes that no other person could recognise the extent of the changes that have come over him - no one else could appreciate the small shifts to his face and what they mean. Because in looking at the Champion, Fenris is gone. And someone else takes his place.
Leto used to look that way. When she broke her leg; when he tried to stop the men beating their mother; when he strode out into that fighting pit, wooden sword strapped to his back and the promise of freedom on his lips. Leto who had laughed and loved, and would do anything to protect those whom he cared for.
Her brother - still chasing birds. Running along the hard ground, running after a hawke.
Varania closes her eyes, a panic descending on her so swiftly that she thinks she may pass out. Her eyes prick with something which may be tears, and it is this abrupt and ridiculous realization which breaks the iron grip of terror from her neck. She takes in a few long breaths, but the air in the tavern is foul and she half gags on it. When she finally opens her eyes, the Fenris has returned; he's looked away from the woman, and is once again hard lines and coolness. She must forget that which she saw - that which she imagined for half a heartbeat. He is no longer her brother. He is merely a slave, a criminal, a traitor. He is one who does not know his place.
And Variana will do what she must.
There is a moment when he first advances, coloured in the blood of the man Varania believed as a child to be immortal, that a fear, primal - animal - causes the words to burst out from her. 'Please, make him stop!'
Inexplicably, beyond the horror she can think of little but a sudden, overwhelming memory. Of finding Leto, barely older than three summers, amongst the shattered remains of their master's pot of honey. His dark hair stuck up in stiff peaks, his smile sticky and perfect. How could that boy, that beautiful boy, become the monster before her? How could she grow to fear him?
The brother with no memories; the sister with nothing but them. If there is a Maker, surely he has the cruellest sense of irony.
The corner of his mouth quivers; his eyes are strangely glassy. 'I would have given you everything.' The words are pulled from him, in a half noise he barely sees to be aware he is making.
Varania believes him. Believes it with every part of her, in each nerve tingling with fear, in the bead of sweat slipping down her face. For a moment, a wavering moment, she allows herself to wonder. Wonder what would have been if she had tried to run to Kirkwall, without Danarius, to find her brother.
But it would have been a search - a sacrifice of her tentative position, a provocation of a magister's rage - in vain. For she would not have found the brother she lost. She knows that, as he steps forward and raises a fist, which casts his sombre, tired face in an unearthly glow. In that moment, Varania hates him, hates him, because he's not Leto - her brother is gone, buried - and this bastard means nothing to her, and she will look him in the eye as he pulls her heart from her chest -
'Fenris - stop!' The Champion steps between them. There is a moment, a flickering, when Varania thinks that he will simply continue, and kill them both. Then he blinks. Once, so quickly, looking so very fragile, and like Leto again, not this Fenris myth which has been created and has stolen her brother's face. Then his expression is stone once more, and he is snarling like his namesake.
'Get out of the way, Hawke,' he says; his voice is a low rumble, a terrible thing, like breaking thunder, and Varania presses back against the blood spattered tavern walls. The wetness seeps through the thin material of her dress. She can feel it on her skin.
'No Fenris,' the Champion repeats, but her tone is softer. She steps towards him, her bloodied hands raised in surrender. 'Please, listen to me, for just a moment.'
He flinches away from her approach. There is blood in his white hair, pressing it against his face and over his burning eyes like broad brushes of paint. He used to have such beautiful black hair, just like their mother. Varania remembers how she would stroke through it at night, to help him sleep. Now her fingers only tremble.
'Why should I? She was ready to have me killed!'
Maker, it's such a ridiculous thing, but Varania bites down on her lip until it splits to fight the sob rising in her throat. She's can't remember the last time she cried - that's a lie, she can, back at Magister Arihman's, with hands everywhere, holding, nails biting into her skin and the awful echo of laughter so loud she can't even hear herself scream - and she wouldn't start here. She doesn't want them to think she's weeping for her life like a child. But Maker...it's the voice. His voice. It was only just starting to break when he first left them, fluttering between the breathy, high rush of a child and a deeper rumble. Now it's so rough, and jagged, uncurling like darkness, and she wonders whether it's from age or the life he has led.
She wonders if her voice sounds different.
She wishes he could tell her.
'I understand, Fenris - Fenris, look at me,' the Champion pleads, as he turns his face away from them both. 'Listen.' Varania thinks it must be the strength of her words, not the compassion, which finally twists Fenris' head back around, reluctance screaming through every inch of him. 'Fenris, there is a difference between all the people in the world who hurt you and stab you in the back, all the people that we've hunted down and killed. The difference is that this is your sister. Your family -'
'This isn't your sister, Hawke!' It explodes out of him suddenly, and he surges forward to glare down at her. 'This isn't your Bethany. This is a witch, a snake, and you should stop with your pointless words and let me rip her heart out.'
Silence. The Champion sways slightly, as if faint. Her boot scraps slightly into the red soaked floorboards, as if to steady herself...and then she rises, like an ocean, building on her brief blow to strike back, devastating and all consuming. 'I know this isn't Bethy, Fenris. She means nothing to me, and if she were anyone else I would put her in the ground for her betrayal without a second thought.' She's a few inches shorter than Fenris, but she seems to grow with each word, until they are both a hundred feet tall and Varania is nothing but an ant to them 'But you cannot kill the past, cannot simply bury it, like you're trying to do to your sister. You can only let it go, stop allowing it to define you. Accept that we cannot change or control it.' Her voice drops low, so low that none of their other companions can hear, and Varania can only do so as her words seem to beat in the same erratic pattern as her stuttering heart. 'You're not just trying to kill her because of what she did. You're trying to kill her so that it doesn't hurt anymore. Trying to cut out of you the past you cannot reclaim.' The Champion steps forward, so that she is now closer to Fenris than Varania herself, face proud and upturned to look into his storming eyes. And then, in a small voice at odds with the strength of her stance, she whispers, 'I am begging you. Don't kill her. You are more than your past.'
Varania doesn't understand what is happening here - doesn't understand who or what they are talking about, but she understands anger, and pain, as it rips through the woman in front of her. And she sees its answer in Fenris. Who wears his rage as a cloak, a disguise for his regret, an emotion Varania understands even better. They say nothing, caught in a moment which none of them can understand, for what seems like hours. Varania is faint, exhausted from her terror, and her hate; she sways and leans slightly against the wall for support. Wooden splinters press into fingernails.
It is a feral snarl that crackles through the air without warning, and Fenris doesn't turns to her when he barks it out. Doesn't even step away from the Champion, their faces still inches apart.
Doesn't even look at Varania as she half stumbles, so lightheaded that the world seems to twist before her, towards the door. She trips on an uneven floorboard and collapses onto an upturned table; the sudden blow to her stomach has her seeing spots.
And still he does not look.
Her humiliation...her worthlessness. It is at its zenith. And Varania has never wanted to hurt her brother more.
Still half bent over the table, she turns her head to hiss the word at his back. Words which she never thought she would say, for they have no purpose but to hurt. They are the darkest part of her mind, and now they paint the air black. 'You said you didn't ask for this, but that's not true.' He doesn't move - doesn't even flinch, and Varania speaks faster, desperate for him to feel the same agony, the same pain, which she has had to endure. 'You...you wanted it - you competed for it. When you won you used the boon to have mother and I freed.'
Now he jerks and spins to face her, as if Danarius were still playing him like a puppet. His eyes are wide - almost like a child - and his voice is ragged. Pleading. 'Why are you telling me this?'
'Freedom was no boon,' Varania spits, staggering to her feet. The world still tilts, but she stands firm. Hate has rooted her. 'I look on you now, and I think you received the better end of her bargain.'
Not because he has found a home here, and Varania has nothing before her but running. Not because he has power and strength, while her own powers are neglected and erratic, bringing whispering demons into every dark passage of her life. Not because his mind is wiped of the horrors they saw as children, while Varania can barely pass through the night without remembering the beaten face of their mother, or the dead eyes of the father Leto never had the chance to know.
No. It is because when is all said and done, when their pasts lie before them in a bloody defeated battlefield, the carnage dividing them irrevocably...this man, this Fenris, has someone who slips her hand into his. Someone who can uplift him from the life he has led, and make him Leto once more.
And Varania has no one.
It is one of the other dockworkers in Cumberland who tells her about Kirkwall. Who tells her about the sky burning and the streets running red. About the disappearance of the Hawke. And the Wolf.
For a moment, Varania considers. Considers saying 'That's my brother.'
But that isn't really the truth, so she doesn't.
That night she pauses as she passes by the Chantry. And for the first time in more than a decade - since her mother died - she goes inside and lights a candle.
She prays. Prays for her sins, and her regrets, and her mother. She prays for Leto, who only exists for the Champion now; and for Fenris, in repentance for the darkness she helped cast in the short shadow of his life. She prays for her memories, and those beautiful warm days spent in the garden with her brother, none of them knowing the broken path they would tread. Such perfect days which will remain forever untouched in the golden recesses of her mind.
She wishes she could go back and warn her past self of all the mistakes, all the lies she will believe and all the parts of her soul, her body, which she will offer up just for a meal or a warm bed. She wishes she could go back to lying on the warm grass, staring up at the overwhelming blue sky, dreaming of being able to float up into it.
And she wishes - more than anything in the world - that she could take her brother by the hand and confess a small truth, a truth will always be true, even though she will never have the chance to say it to him.
It's almost too easy to imagine, to dream. To believe herself, her adult self, to be walking through the estate, feet bare in the soil and wind pulling at her hair. She finds her brother beneath a tree; building a nest, laying down seed. He looks up and her.
She sits beside him and takes his small hand in hers. 'I'm sorry.'
He blinks at her with slow, confused eyes. 'You never say sorry, Vari.'
It's true. She never has. Not to him. But he's never said it to her either. Maker, she'd forgotten how stubborn they both were, how awful they could be. The fights they had - vicious. Maybe there were always that way. Maybe they've always been at war.
But even as she thinks it Varania knows it's a lie to try and ease her conscience. Because there's a world of difference between the fighting of the children and what she did.
'I'm sorry because I am a terrible sister. Not just because of Kirkwall. Because I let you go with that monster in the first place.' She confesses what he cannot understand, but he is mute as her confession tumbles out of her in a breathless rush. 'Because I didn't protest enough, and I watched you, my little brother, walk into that fighting pit. You smiled, and you were so brave - but you were a child, and it was my job to keep you safe.
'I've met who you become. And he's furious, and vicious, and terrifying. He has power that would have all these bastards here running scared, but it rules over him, not the other way around.' The next words she stutters over, because they will always be difficult, will always rip old wounds no matter how often she says them. The anger, the bitterness, bites in her veins like poison. 'And he doesn't know me. And he doesn't know mother.'
Her words hang in the air; and through the pall of regret, Varania dreams. Of things unknown
but longed for still; of all that may have been; of what can happen, what can change, in this shard of her imagination.
Leto is not deterred. 'You're not bad. You're the best sister I've ever had, Vari.' And he reaches up to brush her hair back from her face. His little face is scattered with freckles. 'Am I a hero when I'm older?' he asks. His words whistle slightly through the gap between his small, front teeth. Varania remembers now. He'd cracked his face whilst cleaning one of the marble foundations. Their mother had been terrified, and spent the night scrubbing away at the small blood stain long after it had disappeared.
She nods in answer to his question, thinking back to the stories about the Battle for the Keep. 'Yes Leto,' she says softly, pushing his hair back from his forehead. 'You've saved a great number of people from a terrible fate.'
His eyes light up and he rocks forward on his crossed knees. 'Who'd I save them from, Vari?'
'Can't tell you,' she replies. 'I can't give away all the surprises.' The words - the mock teasing - make her half retch. They are cruel, but she cannot say the truth. Cannot make him live it before his time.
Cannot relive it again herself.
'Do you know what is the most important thing about who you will be Leto?' she blurts out, struggling to break away from the vision of white hair and skin alight. 'The absolute, most important thing?'
He nods, clambering into her lap. He's all long, spindly limbs, and he wraps them around her neck. She breathes in the smell of him; dirt and air, and cinnamon. Not ozone. Not blood. 'You will be a wolf, Leto. And wolves are angry. And they are hunted. They are not understood.'
Leto squirms in her hold, but she pulls him tighter, hands brushing through his hair. 'But he is so loved, Leto. Loved more than I can possibly say with words. He is the earth, and the stars, and the sun for someone, and she will protect her Fenris far better than I ever protected you.
'It was be horrific. And it will break you. But here's the secret, the little secret that Danarius and all the other magisters will never understand.' She imagines the sweet delusion one last time, pulling him back to brush his wild hair from his face and looking into green eyes, wholly and unquestionably trusting. She remembers how it felt when she had all the answers, and he loved her more than anything else he had ever known. 'Someone loves you. And that means no matter what happens, no matter what you face, you're going to be fine, little brother. You're going to be just fine.'
And sitting in that quiet Chantry hall, completely and irrevocably alone as her imagination drains away, Varania finally, finally, cries.
As I was writing this, the focus almost inevitably shifted to the relationship of brother and sister. It felt like it was a story that needed to be told, and I hope you've enjoyed it.