AN: Thank you xseikax for the beta help!


Entering her daughter's room, Leandra frowned at the sight of the girl sitting in the chair at her desk, head back and mouth agape, accompanied by an uneven rattle of snoring. That her breathing was labored during sleep was nothing new, just something else she had in common with her father. However, it had been much more pronounced since her latest flirtation with death, and it was apparent that even a week and a half later she was still falling asleep at the drop of a hat, often without bothering to get up from wherever she happened to be at the time.

Leandra studied the sleeping girl's appearance. Dark circles were still present around her slightly puffy eyes, though fortunately the swelling had almost subsided and her complexion was nearly back to normal. The improvement was a stark contrast to the rather ghoulish appearance she had when her friends initially dragged her home.

More troubling to Leandra, however, was something evidenced by the barely touched bowl of soup on the desk. Mireille had already been underweight when she arrived home from Antiva not long ago, and not eating well since the poisoning had resulted in even more lost weight. While her figure had always been lithe, she now looked downright malnourished.

Sighing, Leandra reached down and gently shook her daughter's shoulder to rouse her. She frowned again when Mireille's eyes opening was accompanied by a brief grimace, as if the sudden exposure to the light was causing pain.

"Are your eyes still bothering you?"

Misery shrugged tiredly. "They're at least adjusting faster. I have to assume that's a positive. Maybe it would help if I could keep them open longer than a few hours at a time."

"Do you need me to remind you again that not eating is doing nothing to help that?" Leandra asked, gesturing to the bowl on the desk. "Even if swallowing still hurts, you must eat. Your strength will not return otherwise."

"I can't just remain sickly until people stop asking me for help?"

Leandra reached over and took the spoon from the bowl. "Open," she said.

"You seriously intend to feed me like a ba-?"

Her words were cut off when Leandra seized the opportunity to shove the spoon into her mouth. After choking down the thick liquid, she glared at her mother, who was clearly amused and trying not to laugh while dipping out another spoonful.

"Open."

"Mother, I can feed my-"

Leandra jabbed the spoon back into her mouth.

"Alright, already!" Misery exclaimed after swallowing. "You win… I'll eat."

"That's better. Besides, it would not do for you to wither away to nothing when saving Lowtown has netted you four marriage proposals."

"Wh-what?" Misery asked, her eyes growing wide.

Leandra smirked. "Or perhaps that was just my wishful thinking."

Realizing now that her mother was putting her on, Misery returned the smirk. "Well, aren't you in a mood today?"

"It is a good day. The sun is out, my heroic daughter remains the talk of the town, and I am going to visit my brother. That is why I came in here actually, to let you know I am off to see Gamlen. Please do not forget to eat the rest of your soup while I am gone."

Misery rolled her eyes. She didn't feel particularly heroic, and guessed that a certain dwarf had been spreading exaggerated stories again. "Take Revas with you. It's been awhile since he's gotten to harass Uncle."

Leandra shook her head. "He is with your friend Varric."

"Did Varric say what for?"

"No, the way he acted I assumed you already knew and had given him permission. It is the third time this week he has taken Revas out. Should I refuse him if he comes by for Revas again while you are sleeping?"

"No, it's alright. I trust Varric. I'm just curious as to the sudden interest. I'll have to ask him about it." Misery sighed and shook her head. "Give me twenty minutes, I'll get ready and walk you to Uncle's."

Leandra smirked again. "I hardly need an escort. I have made my weekly visit without fail for more than three years now, nearly always unaccompanied."

"Yes, well, it's as good an excuse as any to finally go see the Arishok and return his helm. I'm half surprised he hasn't sent someone to retrieve it by now."

Leandra's expression turned to one of concern. "Are you certain you are up to it? You have not gone further than the viscount's office since being poisoned, and it is much, much further to the Docks and back. At minimum you should wait until Aveline can go with you, just in case you need help."

Left unspoken was Leandra's distrust of the Qunari and her unease with her daughter being alone in their compound.

"I'm sure," Misery answered immediately, bristling inwardly at being coddled.

Leandra suspected she wasn't being told the whole truth, but also recognized the stubborn determination on her daughter's face and knew she'd push herself regardless. Sighing, she nodded in resignation and went to wait downstairs.

-==0==-

Varric nodded in understanding. "Alright, Cor, I'll expect a status update no later than two weeks from today. If it doesn't turn out as expected, we'll move on to Plan B. And just so there's no misunderstanding, I'll remind you one more time to keep this business on the up and up. The client I represent is not one you want to even think of screwing over."

Cor Blimey, leader of the Lowtown gang dubbed 'The Dog Lords', was for good reason better known as 'The Bastard'. The man was ruthless and had a reputation for double-crossing people. However, Varric had done his homework, and by all accounts Cor was the man in Kirkwall best able to deliver what he was after.

Cor scoffed. "Your client will receive exactly what we agreed upon. The rest are mine." He gestured towards Revas. "By the way, I'll raise my offer to twenty for him. Convince your man to sell the dog."

"Twenty, eh? Sounds like you're more than a little impressed with the pup."

"I worked the Royal Kennels in Denerim for seventeen years, until that knife-eared Grey Warden the Queen made her general ran me and a lot of other good men out of there. Our dogs were the best of the best. But I'll concede that this one from Redcliffe would hold his own with ours. In fact, why don't we just complete the sale right now and you can tell your man whatever story you want about what happened to the dog."

Revas growled, causing Varric to laugh. "It doesn't matter how much you offer, Cor. Twenty sovereigns or twenty thousand, I wouldn't get to enjoy any of it even if I turned from here, walked out the city gates, and never looked back. There's nowhere in Thedas that would be safe from my client's wrath."

"Just who is this you're representing?"

Varric shrugged. "Someone who prefers to keep a low profile. If this works out, you'll meet them for the pickup. That's all you need to know until then."

"Fine…" Cor grumbled. "Then our business is done for now. I'll be in touch."

-==0==-

Misery grimaced in response to stepping outside into the sunlight, and immediately pulled the hood of her Dalish cloak over her head to partially shade her eyes. She didn't even consider using the helmet tucked under her arm, wanting no part of wearing that thing ever again. Leandra noticed her daughter's discomfort, but said nothing as they walked towards the Red Lantern district and the stairs to Lowtown.

"Mother?" Misery asked after a few minutes. "How did you know Father was the one?"

Leandra raised an eyebrow curiously. "What prompted that?"

"I suppose all of this talk of courtship and marriage of late has me contemplating such things. Not to mention… there is a loosely related situation that is rather uncomfortable, one I need to deal with sooner rather than later."

"Merrill?"

"H-how did you…?"

Leandra waved her hand. "She comes to check on you nearly every day, yet will not go to your room unless you are sleeping. I pressed her until she finally broke down a few days ago and told me what was wrong. I will admit… It came as a shock, and I had little to say in response. I still do not know what to think. It never occurred to me to even consider this, but… tell me, Mireille, am I barking up the wrong tree attempting to find you a husband? Are you-"

"No, Mother," she answered, nipping the line of questioning in the bud. "Merrill is dear to me, but not in that way. I am not attracted to women like that. I don't know what gave her the impression I would be… or honestly if that was even her intent. I mean, it's possible that the kiss wasn't anything more than she was just worried and took friendly affection too far. But in hindsight, she has been more touchy feely since I've been back. So I don't know…"

Misery had spent enough time dwelling on Merrill's kiss to move past the initial response to considering alternate explanations. However, she was still undecided on the elf's motivation.

"Judging by her stress level," Leandra answered, "I believe it's more to her than a simple mistake to apologize for."

"I don't know what to say to her then. I suppose I should be flattered, but I want to punch her in the mouth for thinking it was alright to surprise kiss me like she did. But then… at the same time… I sort of feel bad for her, even though that makes no sense to me either."

Misery sighed and continued rambling, "I don't know what to do. I need to make it clear to her that there is no possibility of that kind of relationship, but I also don't want to kill her over it because I truly want to keep her friendship if she'll accept that's all we can be. I'm… I know I'm not exactly the diplomatic type. I'm not good at being gentle or delicate with people's feelings. Probably the only reason I even have friends is because Bethany did that stuff for me. I just don't know how to handle this… how to spare her feelings without leading her on or giving her false hope. I… Mother… I could… I could really use your advice."

Leandra stopped in her tracks and looked upwards, causing Misery to stop as well.

"Mother? What is it?"

"Huh…" she answered, "and here I was certain the sky would begin falling."

"Wow… just wow…" Misery grumbled. "Yes, you certainly are in a mood today."

Leandra laughed lightly, her sarcastic expression softening to a warm smile. "I do not believe I can recall the last time you asked me for advice. Thank you, Love."

As they resumed walking, she continued, "However, I do believe you already have your answer. Leave out the part about wanting to punch her, and focus on how much you care for her despite not being able to return that type of affection. In truth, it is far less complicated than you are making it. Merrill is not unreasonable. If you explain that you are not rejecting her personally as if you were choosing one man… or woman as it were… over another, but rather are incapable of those feelings for any woman, she will understand."

"I wish I had your confidence of that… or in myself to pull it off."

"Oh, I got the impression from listening to Merrill that more than anything she is afraid you will want nothing to do with her. If you both have the goal of saving your friendship, I am certain you will find the common ground necessary."

Misery nodded slowly after a few long moments contemplating those words. "Thank you, Mother."

Leandra sighed lightly, a mixture of contentment with the greatly improved relationship with her oldest and relief at getting the answer she wanted to the Merrill question. It had taken a lot of willpower over the past few days to be patient and not ask Mireille, to stay the course on keeping her daughter as stress-free as possible and focused on recovering. That didn't stop her from dwelling on it, however, and she'd begun to wonder if Mireille's cooperation on being courted was simply an illusion, a means of pacifying her.

Also, despite genuinely liking Merrill, Leandra still bore the common racial and class prejudices, and strongly disliked the thought of her daughter in a committed romantic relationship with someone of another race. That was a bigger issue to her than it being another woman, though her selfish desire for grandchildren left her less than thrilled with that aspect as well.

While Leandra was thinking things through, another thought came to mind. "Love, I suppose I have been remiss in asking this as well, but what qualities are you looking for in a potential husband?"

Misery frowned slightly, though it was as much a response to the ache in her leg muscles as they descended the long flight of stairs as it was to the question.

"I… I've never given it much thought, to be honest. I guess I assumed I would just know it when I saw it."

"That is not particularly helpful," Leandra replied, laughing. "And quite possibly why you remain unwed. Well, that and your ongoing lack of attention to how you present yourself."

Misery fell into thought for a few minutes while considering the question. Finally she answered, "I want a man that knows what I am and accepts me anyway, that isn't going to be embarrassed or feel the need to make excuses for me to others. Someone secure enough to follow my lead, but also confident enough to stand up to me when that's what I need. I want to be able to trust them so completely that I don't feel this burning need to be in control of everything. I mean, I'm never going to be the demure, submissive type in general, but sometimes it would be nice to be able to defer to my partner knowing I never have to question whether or not he knows what he's doing or has my best interests at heart. I want to be the most important thing in his life. Give me all of that and everything else is negotiable."

Leandra chuckled softly. "You know, so much of that describes Malcolm. I think I chose your father because while I do believe Guillaume would have loved me, to him the marriage was more about the trappings, such as social status. Back then my family name and my beauty made me somewhat of a trophy in that regard. His interest in me never felt personal like it did with Malcolm. While your father was always respectful about it, he was quite assertive in courting me. I could not help but find that appealing."

Misery nodded. "As silly as it may sound coming from me of all people, I want to be pursued like that, to be worth going out on a limb for. And yes, I realize I might as well be asking for the moon, especially when so little about me is endearing."

"You have plenty to offer if you will simply make the effort to demonstrate that. Remember this, Love, just as you judge a man's worthiness of having you, so you are judged. It's not silly wanting to be coveted, but without giving someone reason to, it is naïve to expect to be. Though I will say, if you do manage to find a man with all of those qualities to show interest, do not let him get away, for they are a rare breed."

This wasn't the first, second, or even the tenth time Leandra had encouraged her daughter to make more of an effort in how she presented herself to the world. The topic had been an ongoing source of frustration for both of them over the years. In the past Misery never cared because there was no immediacy to it, it always seemed irrelevant to her life and therefore more trouble than it was worth.

Now, however, Misery was of a mind to be receptive of those words. As they sunk in, her thoughts drifted towards the man that had been there time and time again, and that she had completely taken for granted.

"What if… he was someone you would disapprove of?"

Leandra didn't answer immediately. Just when Misery was sure she wasn't going to, Leandra sighed knowingly. "I can all but hear my mother's laughter whispering on the winds. She would tell me this serves me right for doing the same to her and Father."

She sighed again as they reached the bottom of the stairs and stepped off into Lowtown. "You truly believe this dwarf is the one? You will consider no others?"

"I didn't say that," Misery replied. "And he's shown no inclination to pursue me, so for all I know it's no different in his eyes than how I see Merrill."

Misery now consciously doubted that she'd done anything to make the effort of pursuing her worthwhile. She realized it was likely that how she was viewed by Varric, or really anyone besides Merrill, was no different than her thinking that despite once upon a time finding Anders physically attractive, there's no way she'd have ever bothered putting out the effort to fight through all of his baggage. It just wasn't worth it.

Instead of voicing that, however, she smirked and continued, "I just want to establish whether or not you're going to put your foot down and forbid me from going against your wishes, or disown me if I do so anyway."

Misery gestured to a stone bench nearby. "I need a short rest," she reluctantly added. Leandra nodded and joined her in taking a seat.

"You have done many things in your life that I have disapproved of," Leandra said. "If I were to forbid this now, would you honestly obey?"

Misery bit her bottom lip, looking away. "Yes… I would," she admitted softly. "You should know there's a difference between giving me an opinion and giving me an order. One leaves me a choice in the matter, one does not."

Leandra's breath caught. In her mind the question she'd posed was rhetorical, but the other way around. She was stunned to learn that her word still carried that much weight with her daughter. And she didn't know what to think of never realizing Mireille adhered to such a specific, black and white rule when it came to parental authority. A couple of minutes elapsed while she collected her thoughts and composed herself before exhaling a long breath.

"I cannot say I am prepared to bless such a decision, should it come to that. However… perhaps… perhaps I will… refrain from forbidding it." She forced a slight smile. "But I still disapprove."

Misery nodded slowly. "I understand."

Leandra leaned back. Changing the subject, she waved her hand in a wide sweeping motion. "You know, one of the many nice things about Hightown is not living with this stench on a daily basis. Sometimes I wonder how I got used to it when we lived down here."

Misery grunted noncommittally. She hadn't told anyone, but the saar-qamek destroyed her sense of smell. Not even the extensive healing she'd received from Anders, whom Varric had gone and retrieved immediately after helping get her home, had restored it. Neither had potions. She wondered if it would ever come back. However, it was a lesser concern to her.

Her primary concerns were the diminished endurance and general malaise that were no longer improving. Simply walking to Lowtown had left her much more fatigued and aching than she was revealing, so much so that she wondered how she was possibly get through the afternoon and back home. The earlier thought of going to see Merrill if she finished speaking with the Arishok quickly enough seemed laughable now.

Her thoughts were interrupted by the sound of barking getting closer. She looked up to see Revas bounding towards them, with Varric in the distance trailing at a much more casual pace.

-==0==-

Varric raised an eyebrow quizzically as he approached the Hawkes. The Qunari helm on the bench next to Misery told him exactly what her plans were, and while he hadn't talked to her in a few days, to look at her now she didn't seem any more ready to be out and about than she did then.

"I'm surprised to see you out on the town," he said, flashing a grin. "You feeling better than you look?"

Misery shrugged. "It's the day of the week she visits Uncle Gamlen, and I'm escorting her since, you know, Revas was not home to do so. I know you've already noticed, but I decided to get seeing the Arishok over with while I'm already down here."

Varric winced at the implication before turning his eyes to Leandra. "Ahhh… Mama Hawke, I apologize. I wouldn't have borrowed the pup if I knew you needed him. I… should've thought to ask."

Leandra waved her hand to indicate it was no concern, smirking slightly at how the dwarf referred to her. "As I told her, an escort is entirely unnecessary. I have visited my brother every week without fail since we got the estate back, and very rarely has anyone accompanied me."

Varric nodded. His eyes drifted back over to Misery and it took him only a moment longer to realize what seemed off about this entire situation. "Hey, I'm going with you to the Qunari. Wait here for me, I'll be back in about ten minutes, alright?"

A slight smile crept across Misery's lips. She nodded in response, and her smile grew a little wider when he winked before spinning and striding away.

The silent exchange didn't go unnoticed by Leandra, who sighed lightly but didn't comment on it.

"Mother," Misery said, "You can take Revas and go on to Uncle's if you want. I'll see you later at home."

"I will stay with you until he returns. Please though… do not try to do too much this afternoon. You are still recovering."

"I know… I'll be careful."

-==0==-

Misery was leaning over, facing the ground with her eyes closed when she felt a light thump against her leg. She opened her eyes and looked up to see Varric holding out a staff.

"What's that about?"

"I know you, Miz. You didn't stop on your way to your uncle's to sit on a public bench in Lowtown just to relax and enjoy the lovely smog and fragrant air of decay. Anyway, Sunshine used to use her staff as a walking stick at times when she was tired, so, you know… it made me think you could do the same."

Misery blinked in surprise. "You just went and bought that for me?"

He laughed. "What can I say? It's a pretty safe bet you wouldn't want me carrying you."

"You say that like you actually think you could."

"Haven't I been your pack mule enough times for you to realize I pack some power? Besides, have you looked in a mirror lately? At the rate you're going it won't be much longer until your armor weighs more than you."

Misery slowly rose from the bench. "Mother, you put him up to saying something, didn't you?"

"No, Love. I am quite certain he can see for himself how awful you look."

Varric laughed at Misery's pouty expression. "Look at it this way, if we run into a scrap you can just turn sideways and hide behind the staff."

"And you say I'm incorrigible," she muttered, rolling her eyes. "Mother already made it clear that eating isn't optional, so consider that point made. I promise I'll force myself, even though nothing tastes good or goes down easily. I also promise that if you try to shove a spoon down my throat like she did, I'll gut you."

Despite the harsh words, a grin played across her lips, letting him know she was mostly joking.

He shook his head. "I'm pretty sure only Mama Hawke could pull off something like that and come out of it unscathed."

Leandra smiled at the dwarf. She might not approve of him as a mate for her daughter, but that didn't prevent her from appreciating him as a reliable friend to her.

"Since my daughter has forgotten her manners, allow me to say thank you on her behalf for the walking stick. It was very thoughtful. Can I trust you were not serious about finding trouble? She has no business exerting herself to that extent, and I would appreciate it if you kept her from doing so."

"Mother, please…" Misery complained. "I don't need a babysitter."

Leandra glanced at her for a moment before turning back to the dwarf. "You have my permission to remind her, as much as necessary, to refrain from working."

Misery rolled her eyes again and began walking away. "Come on, Papa, I mean Varric. Before I decide to be spiteful and go see if Sebastian is ready to do a job he wants my help with."

Varric raised an eyebrow, though it wasn't in response to her sarcasm. "Ummm, Miz?"

When she glanced back he gestured towards the bench. Misery's eyes followed and a frown formed at the sight of the Qunari helm she'd started to leave behind. The frown gradually turned into a scowl as she became angry with herself over what could have been a very costly mistake.

"Thank you," she grumbled while retrieving the helm.

"Hey, nothing to it. Having your back is what I do, right?"

Misery's scowl faded as she nodded. "Yeah…"

"Speaking of having your back," he continued, "I already took care of Prince Choirboy's job for you, so the only thing you need to do is remember to thank Fenris, Rivaini, and Daisy next time you see them."

"What? When? How did you even know about it?"

Leandra, who had begun to walk towards Gamlen's with Revas in tow, stopped to listen. This was news to her as well – pleasant news.

Varric shrugged. "A few days after the saar-qamek stuff, he showed up to talk to you at the same time Daisy and I were leaving your place. I ran interference, told him you were unavailable, kept you from being bothered having to deal with his problem. Anyway, if you're ready to go, I'll fill you in on the details while we walk."

Misery stared at him for a moment as she tried to determine his motivation, but soon nodded and left with him.

He wasn't going to tell her the whole truth though. That would involve admitting that with still being in the dark at the time about the extent of her relationship with Sebastian, jealousy as much as protectiveness had led him to stonewall the choirboy's attempt to gain access to her. He'd hardly been able to suppress his giddiness upon learning the real score from Sebastian later while on the job. Although, afterwards his mood was tempered by the realization that Leandra actively pushing along Misery's love life meant time was running out on him.

Varric was feeling the urgency to talk to her. Yet his misguided dilemma was finding the right time, mistakenly thinking such a thing as timing made a whole lot of difference. It was merely rationalization, giving power to the insecurity within, though like most in his situation he didn't recognize it as such.

For Leandra's part, she contemplated what she'd just observed as she resumed walking towards Gamlen's. She'd paid close attention not only to what was said, but to the non-verbal communication passing between those two. And she reluctantly conceded both that Varric genuinely looked out for Mireille and that she responded well to it.

She still loathed the thought of her daughter choosing a dwarf as her mate, and she wanted to forbid it. However, guilt was holding her back. Even more than knowing that preventing her daughter from entering a union unbecoming of her station was the height of hypocrisy, knowing that Mireille would actually submit to her authority on the matter made Leandra even more hesitant to impose her will to that degree.

Until fairly recently she wouldn't have thought twice about imposing her will, at least if she'd actually known the trick to doing so was as simple as phrasing her wishes in the form of commands. However, Mireille's prolonged absences on the heels of losing Bethany to the Grey Wardens had left Leandra with many, many days and nights alone to dwell on the past. And the less likely it seemed Mireille was ever coming home, the more Leandra's feelings regarding her oldest turned to regret. She swore to herself to be a better mother if she got another chance, and had been working hard to do just that since Mireille's return.

Leandra would go so far as to say their relationship was currently better than it had ever been. That was knowledge she found contentment in. So while she now knew she could extract obedience if she wanted, she harbored no delusions that Mireille wouldn't resent her tremendously for it, and that was a price higher than she was willing to pay.

Leandra also remembered all the time she'd spent believing that her own mother hated her for running away with Malcolm, that she'd carried that hatred to her death. Leandra came to the realization that regardless of her own opinions, now that she'd clearly voiced her disapproval, she needed to let go. She ultimately needed to allow Mireille to decide this for herself.

That didn't mean she wouldn't continue attempting to match Mireille with a more suitable mate. But Leandra resolved to ensure that if for some reason Mireille did end up with the dwarf, Mireille would know without a doubt that her mother didn't love her any less for it.

-==0==-

Aveline sighed lightly, looking up from the report she was reading to observe the lively chatter taking place in front of the assignment board a short distance outside her door. She loved her job, but there were times like this when she missed the camaraderie of just being one of the troops.

Her eyes settled on one of the men, Donnic, who she'd taken a liking to over the past couple of years. Almost as if sensing she was watching, he glanced over in her direction. Aveline immediately averted her gaze back to her report, wincing inwardly because she was nearly positive she'd blushed.

She was still directing an unfocused gaze on the top page when a brief rapping of knuckles on the doorframe to her office got her attention.

"Captain?" Donnic asked. "Are we making too much noise?"

She smiled. "No, it's fine. Carry on."

"Very good," he replied, nodding before returning to the others.

Aveline sighed again. It had taken her a long time to come to the conclusion that she was ready to move on from Wesley, but now that she had she couldn't figure out what to do. The Guard was her life and even in her off-duty hours there were very few people she associated with that weren't part of the Guard.

However, her position made the proposition of becoming romantically involved with one of her guardsmen precarious at best. Expressing that kind of interest in one of them could get her dismissed for harassment if they felt uncomfortable enough to take a complaint to the seneschal.

She also understood that some people would see a relationship between the guard-captain and a direct report as a conflict of interests, but she trusted herself not to play favorites, and felt she was a good enough judge of character to ensure that a man worthy of her wouldn't expect it or try to take advantage of their relationship for his own gain.

Laughter from out in the hall drew her attention for a brief moment before she caught herself smiling at Donnic again and turned away. The thought came to mind that this would be so much easier if he'd just give some indication as to his own interest in a relationship.

That thought set the wheels into motion in Aveline's head. Getting Donnic to show his hand first was the way to go with it, but how to do it?

Realizing she was getting nowhere on her report, she stood and grabbed her sword and shield. Perhaps she would pay Leandra a visit and see what she thought.

-==0==-

"He's wrong, you know," Varric said quietly, breaking the tense silence that had clung to the air since departing the Qunari compound.

"About?"

"The likelihood of the damage you suffered being permanent. He doesn't know that, or know how strong you-"

"Don't," Misery stated sharply, cutting him off.

"Don't what?"

"Pretend you know anything more about it than the Arishok does. You don't."

"Hey, I'm just trying to-"

"I know what you're trying to do," she said, interrupting him again. "Stop."

Varric sighed and fell silent while they continued to walk. He sincerely believed the situation was far from hopeless yet, even with the Arishok's pessimistic outlook. Just because the Qunari didn't have any answers didn't mean no one else did either.

At least that's what Varric told himself. He hoped he wasn't just in denial after finding out at the same time as the Arishok that Misery's health had stopped improving and that she was perhaps even worse off than she'd been letting on. It irritated him that she was still falling into that same old pattern of behavior, suffering in silence.

"I'm sorry for snapping at you," Misery said a few minutes later, shaking Varric from his thoughts. "I do appreciate that you want to help. But please… don't look at me like that."

"Like what?"

Misery shook her head. "I'm keenly aware of my frailty. I don't need to see your face reflecting that back at me like a mirror. Stop pitying me."

"Is it really so wrong for me to worry about you? To wish there was something I could do to help?"

"If you want to help, don't try to fill my head with false hope thinking it's going to cheer me up. You should know me well enough to know all that will accomplish is pissing me off. Don't try to coddle me thinking you are a better judge of my limitations than I am. It's not doing me any favors. Let me push my limits, and be there when I can go no further."

Varric chuckled sarcastically. "We've known each other what, four plus years now?"

"Your point?"

"The next time you actually tell me you're at your limit instead of leaving me guessing will be your first. Andraste's ass, Misery, after all this time you're still not honest with me when it comes to being hurt and needing help. Are you even honest with yourself?"

When Misery still hadn't answered after nearly half a minute had elapsed, he asked, "So are you telling me it was a mistake on my part to get you that staff?"

Misery unconsciously tightened her grip around the smooth walnut. In a soft tone she replied, "No, it wasn't. I appreciated it."

"Well, was it a mistake to get rid of Prince Choirboy's problem without bothering you with it?"

"No…" she admitted.

"Help me out here, then. You say you don't want me trying to make things easier on you, but then you're implying that you don't mind, and maybe even like it just a little. See my problem? How am I supposed to know what to do? You're being completely contradictory."

Misery frowned. She knew he was right, and what made it worse was that she didn't even know how to explain it coherently. Finally she sighed in exasperation. "I'm a woman. It's my Maker-given right to be contradictory."

Varric's jaw dropped. "You gotta be kidding me. Tell me you didn't just play that card."

"You're supposed to just know, alright?" The frustration in her voice was clear. "And no, it doesn't have to make sense."

Varric held up his hands in front of his face, intently studying an imaginary hand of cards before shaking his head. "You got me. I have nothing to trump that sort of logic." He motioned as if tossing the non-existent cards on to an equally non-existent table.

Silence took hold until they eventually reached the stairs to Hightown. Misery stopped, leaning more heavily on her walking stick while looking up the long flight with slight trepidation.

Even without her giving voice to it, Varric could see that she doubted herself. He was just about to suggest they take a rest when she turned away.

"At my limit…" she mumbled. "I'm going to go sit down and listen to the news." She gestured in the direction of the nearest crier's gathering spot.

Varric opted not to reply as he fell in stride with her. However, he didn't bother suppressing the grin that formed from the knowledge that despite having been argumentative about it, Misery had recognized his point and was making an effort.

-==0==-

"Congratulations," Varric said to Misery as the crier moved on to his next topic. "Good to see your work didn't go unrecognized."

The remark came in response to the crier's recitation of a formal proclamation from the Office of the Viscount that praised Misery Hawke for her heroic actions during the Lowtown poison gas crisis.

Misery scoffed, not bothering to redirect her eyes from the ground in front of her. "The decree is bullshit. What Dumar had to say to me in private was quite different."

"Oh? When was that?"

"Couple days ago Aveline took me to his office for a debriefing of sorts. He carried on about the district being a total loss and enemies in the shadows trying to push the city into a war with the Qunari. Bran was rather pointed in his displeasure that I let the elf go without getting as much as a name, let alone any details about the people behind her. Even though Aveline vouched for me, I get the feeling they're still rather suspicious of my involvement with the Arishok. Uneasy with it at minimum."

"Bran is a pompous blowhard who has his head stuck too far up Dumar's ass to see what's going on outside the keep. Don't take anything he says to heart. The word on the streets is that you're a hero, and that is the truth of the matter."

"The truth? Or merely the stories you are spreading?"

"I'm not going to apologize for it, you deserve the credit. You're the one that risked everything to save that district, and still paying for it."

Misery scowled. "I didn't save a damned thing and you know it!" she hissed. "It was already a bloodbath when I went in there, and when all was said and done no one survived! Many died by my hands, even a child, and many more died because I was unable to do anything to stop it! The 'truth' is I accomplished nothing, and that I very possibly ruined myself for that nothing."

She rose to her feet when Varric didn't seem inclined to say anything in reply. "I'm going home."

Varric reached out and grabbed her arm to prevent her from walking away. "No, not yet. You're coming with me first. I need to show you something."

"Another time. I'm tired and achy and just want to go home and crawl into bed."

"Objection noted and overruled. You're going to have to fight through it awhile longer. Come on."

Misery pulled her arm free. "What makes you think you can just order me around?"

"The fact that you trust me, and that you know I wouldn't push if I didn't think it was the right thing to do."

"Ugh… such a cheap tactic."

Varric smirked in amusement. "Not any cheaper than you invoking the right of femininity. Oh, and I promised Mama Hawke I wouldn't let you overdo it today, so you also know that I think you're up to it."

"What's so damned important that it can't wait?" she asked, sighing in resignation that she was going to give in.

"You'll see when we get there. Come on."

"Fine…" she grumbled, motioning for him to lead the way.

-==0==-

It didn't take long before Misery got a sneaking suspicion as to where Varric was leading her. And she did not want to go there. She held her tongue until she knew for sure, but once they turned up the alley that would take them into the area devastated by the saar-qamek, she stopped in her tracks.

"No…" she said.

"Yes… come on."

"I mean it, Varric. I'm not going in there."

"Trust, remember? I'm telling you that you need to see this."

Misery tapped her foot in irritation. "You realize you're spending an awful lot of the capital you've built up with me, right? That you're right on the edge of pushing me too far? Is this really worth it to you?"

"Misery…" he began, sighing lightly. "I can tell you why you're full of shit about not being a hero until I'm blue in the face, but it's a waste of time because you don't want to listen right now. So I'm going to show you the truth you are refusing to accept."

When she only returned a skeptical stare in response, he quietly added, "I believe in you. What more do you need from me to return the favor?"

Misery opened her mouth to protest the accusation, but the words died before they reached her mouth, overtaken by another thought.

Make the effort…

She closed her eyes and took in a deep breath through her nose, breathing it back out slowly before letting the final bit rush out in exasperation at the whistling noise her nose made. "Nothing…" she admitted. "I'm a pain in the ass, I know that… I'll try to stop being so… difficult."

Without prompting this time she resumed walking towards their destination, while Varric took the hint that she didn't really want confirmation of her self-assessment or to belabor the point.

-==0==-

Misery remained silent as she and Varric strolled around the square that had been the epicenter of the saar-qamek outbreak, stopping occasionally when the memories became too vivid. The most intense memory came when they approached the old monument in the center of the square.

One moment she saw the monument as it currently stood, appearing not quite so dilapidated. The metal structure and its surrounding statues had obviously been given a lot of scrubbing and freshly polished. She saw the baskets of flowers, wreaths, and bouquets arranged around the monument as a memorial to the fallen.

In the next moment those images were replaced with the sight of the monument tarnished, shrouded eerily in that hazy green glow from the poison mist spewing out of a couple barrels. She saw the shallow streams of blood running from one lifeless body to the next, macabre tributaries running together and dammed by other bodies into ponds. The cacophony of conflict from those still struggling for survival rang in her ears.

And just like that, those images were gone again.

Lingering in their wake, however, was the uncomfortable feeling that her efforts were ultimately meaningless. Had the end result of closing the barrels been fundamentally different than if they'd been left to burn out on their own? Her injuries notwithstanding, in hindsight she didn't believe so.

Misery's flashbacks continued as they walked the quiet streets. It was early evening, with just a sliver of sky left before the sun kissed the horizon, a time of day when there should be a bustle of activity. The absence of life beyond a few guardsmen milling about was doing nothing to change her mind.

"I'm wearing down…" she said as they turned down another side street. "Is there something specific I'm supposed to see?"

Varric looked around and sighed. "Yeah… maybe I'll just ask the guards. Let's go talk to them."

"You go on ahead. I'm going to sit down for a few."

"Fair enough, back in a bit."

-==0==-

Misery was still waiting on Varric ten minutes later when something caught her ear. She perked up, swearing she'd heard her name. She strained to listen, and just when she'd decided it was her imagination, she heard it again amid an otherwise unintelligible fit of a child's shouting and laughter. Her curiosity was easily enough to overcome her weariness as she moved towards the source of the noise.

The rogue quietly made her way a short distance down a side street before taking another turn into an alley just in time to nearly be bowled over by a young girl who was playing boisterously. The girl fell from the collision, her eyes growing wide at the unexpected armed visitor.

"S-sorry!" the girl exclaimed, scooting backwards away from the person towering over her. She clutched the two dolls she'd been playing with to her chest while pushing her long brunette hair from her face.

Misery guessed that the wispy girl was seven or eight. "It's alright," she said, chuckling softly while gesturing for her to relax. "I didn't mean to run into you either. I'll forgive you if you'll forgive me." Misery propped her staff against the wall and removed the hood of her cloak so the girl could better see her non-threatening expression.

A wide grin formed on the girl's face. "Deal!" she exclaimed as she hopped to her feet. "I 'aven't seen ya before. What's yer name?"

"Misery… and you are?"

The girl stared back curiously for a moment. "Misery? That's a weird name. I'm Sabrina."

Misery chuckled again. She liked the girl's precociousness. "I live in another part of the city actually. I'm just here with a friend who is busy talking to some guardsmen. What were you playing back here?"

"Oh!" she exclaimed excitedly, holding up one of the dolls for Misery to see. "My poppets! Do you wanna play? This is Penelope. Grammae made 'er when I was little." Sabrina pulled that doll back and held out the other one, beaming proudly. "And this is Hawke! I made 'er myself! Well… I mean… Mum sewed 'er up an all, but I gathered the cloth and straw."

The smirk Misery wore from Sabrina's implication of no longer being little despite her obvious youth was wiped clean by the last revelation. "H-hawke?" she asked, staring in disbelief at the cloth doll with a little wooden sword sewed into one hand and what was probably supposed to be a shield on the other. The doll was simple, rather crude even, but clearly cherished.

Sabrina nodded vigorously. "She's super strong and pertects us from the bad men! My brother Syd says 'e 'eard the real Hawke killed a thousan' of 'em all by 'erself to take away their scary poison. 'e says she kin jump from 'ere to the roof up there, outrun a fox, and kill someone just by lookin' at 'em."

I can only imagine where he heard something that ridiculous, Misery thought before smiling gently. "That's a very nice doll, err… poppet, Sabrina. Just… be careful how much faith you put in… Hawke. You might find out she doesn't live up to your expectations. She… can't really manage all of that, even on her best day."

"You dunno nuthin'!" Sabrina exclaimed, putting her hands on her hips. "Hawke kin do anything! When I get bigger I'm gonna go find 'er and learn 'ow to pertect people too!"

Misery bit her bottom lip. "Have you met her before? What I mean to say is, why do you believe she's so great?"

Sabrina shook her head. "When the scary green smoke turnin' everyone crazy was gettin' closer, Mum made us 'ide upstairs and cover our faces. We was scared. But… but then it stopped. Later a guard man knocked and said we was safe, that Hawke came when she 'eard about the bad men's poison and saved us from it. I… I wish Hawke could've come sooner… my best friend's mum and pa died… but I 'spose she couldn't. Mum says Kirkwall is too big for even Hawke to 'elp everyone by 'erself. That's why I'm gonna be like 'er too. Oh, and I'm gonna be viscountess too and make rules so everyone kin 'ave a place to live and food to eat."

Misery bit down harder on her lip, fighting the mixed emotions the girl was unknowingly stirring in her. She didn't really know what to say, but she knew she didn't want to tear down the idealistic hope for a better life that Sabrina had pinned to her.

"Misery?" Sabrina asked. "Are you-"

Her question was interrupted by her mother whistling for her. "Dinner time!" the woman called as she poked her head out of an open doorway a short distance away. The woman's expression quickly changed at the sight of the unknown armed woman near her daughter and she quickly moved to intervene.

"What do you want?" the woman asked suspiciously while positioning herself in front of Sabrina.

"Mum!" Sabrina complained, pushing her way back in front. "This is my new friend Misery. We was just talkin'!"

The woman's expression remained skeptical as she took in the appearance of the rogue. "You one of them mercs? We've 'ad enough trouble from yer kind lately."

Misery took a deep breath to calm her nerves before shaking her head. "No, not like you're thinking. You could say I'm a… freelancer of sorts. At least I was… I'm not in the condition to do much of anything right now. Regardless, I mean no harm. I heard Sabrina playing and-"

"There you are!" Varric exclaimed from behind her, huffing as he approached. "Dammit, Hawke! What were you thinking just walking off like that? Are you trying to get me in trouble with your mother?"

Sabrina and her mother gasped simultaneously. "Misery?" Sabrina asked, staring wide-eyed.

Misery smirked slightly. "Yes… Misery Hawke. The indignant dwarf here is my friend Varric."

Sabrina lunged forward and hugged Misery tightly. "Why didn't you say yer Hawke?"

Misery closed her eyes briefly before extracting herself from the girl and kneeling in front of her. "Sabrina…" she said softly, "Remember what I said about Hawke not living up to your expectations? I can't do all those great things. Your Hawke is a much better hero than I am. I didn't want to take that away from you."

"But… but you really saved us, right?"

Varric spoke up when Misery hesitated to answer. "Yes, she did. Hawke, this is what I brought you to see. According to Guardsman Maecon, there are a couple dozen families down here that are probably only alive because of you. Regardless of what those idiots in the Viscount's Keep think, you made a difference."

"I'm sorry…" Misery replied. "When Dumar told me it'd been a total loss, I took it at face value."

She turned her attention back to Sabrina. "I'm still very sick from the bad men's poison and don't know how things are going to turn out. But meeting you has made me feel a little bit better. I am… happy for that."

"Thank you fer what you did," Sabrina's mother said as Misery rose to her feet. "We 'ave nothing to repay you with, but thank you. Sorry 'bout thinkin' you were one of them mercs."

Misery waved her hand to indicate neither payment nor the mistaken identity was of concern. "You were concerned for your daughter. I respect that. Take good care of Sabrina, she's a good kid."

She turned to leave when Sabrina grabbed her wrist.

"Misery?" Sabrina began while holding the Hawke doll in her outstretched hand. "Ummm… 'ere."

"You are giving her to me?"

"Hawke kin do anything, remember? She'll 'elp you get strong again. Promise me you'll take good care of 'er even once yer better, 'kay?"

Misery blinked back the tears that were forming, understanding the significance of this. Not only was Sabrina giving up what was probably one of her few possessions, but one that was well loved.

"This is a wonderful gift…" she whispered hoarsely while hugging the girl again. "I promise not to let anything happen to her. Thank you so much."

Sabrina's smile grew even wider. "Get strong again so you kin teach me everything about pertectin' people."

"Come along now, Sabrina," her mother said. "Dinner is getting cold and we've taken enough of Hawke's time." She nodded at Misery. "Thank you again."

Sabrina waved and ran ahead of her mother towards the apartment shouting, "I can't wait to tell Syd I'm friends with Hawke! He'll be so jealous!"

-==0==-

Walking back through the square, Misery exhaled unsteadily and held the doll out for Varric to see. "This is Hawke. Sabrina had no idea who she was actually talking to until you showed up, but she was so proud telling me how she and her mother made the doll… she practically worshipped Hawke, because Hawke could do all kinds of superhuman things to protect people…"

Varric whistled. "The kid's a genius. I can't believe I never thought of marketing you as a line of toys. Think of the possibilities! You go around doing heroic shit, and I sell Hawke poppets to your adoring fans. Accessories sold separately. We'll rake in a fortune!"

"Did you really have to cheapen it like that? Really?" She put the doll in her pack, shaking her head in frustration.

"Sorry… I didn't mean… I just… nevermind, it was just a dumb thing to say. No excuses."

Misery stopped and turned to face the dwarf. "No… I am sorry… again… I… I don't know why you put up with me." She shook her head. "You've been amazing today, and I've been miserable in return. And it's pissing me off that I realize that and can't even stop myself."

She sat on the ground and rested her head in her hand. "I'm tapped out…" she admitted without looking up. "Look… if I'm keeping you from something and you want to take off, it's fine."

"I'm right where I want to be, Miz."

Misery looked up to see Varric smiling, and it gave her a warm feeling. A jumble of words and phrases to respond with flew through her mind, but the right ones remained elusive. She finally settled for returning the smile with a heartfelt one of her own and nodding.

A few minutes later Varric cleared his throat. "Hey, I know you already know this, but with the sun just about gone we really should get to a more populated area. I was teasing earlier about carrying you, but I'll do it if you need me to."

He didn't need to elaborate further for Misery to get the point. They'd be easy pickings for bandits or gang members that might come along. An audible groan escaped her lips as she dragged herself to her feet.

"I can go awhile longer. I'm just not sure that by the time we reach the stairs I'll be able to climb them."

Varric rubbed his chin in thought as they resumed walking. "How about this… we're not far from the alienage. I can drop you off at Daisy's, then when I get back to The Hanged Man I can send a runner up to the estate to make sure your mother knows you're alright. And I know you and Daisy need to… talk."

"Yeah… but that could be a problem. You've seen what I've been like today. If it goes poorly and she throws me out, I'm screwed."

"Well, for what it's worth, I've already dropped hints to her here and there that you see her more like a kid sister. So I think she's already prepared not to hear what she wants to hear. Just go easy on her, it'll be fine."

Misery flashed a slightly annoyed, quizzical stare. "And just how would you know how I see her? Maybe I'm going to go profess my undying love."

Varric laughed. "You're still a lousy bluffer. Besides the fact you wouldn't be worried about her throwing you out if that was your plan, I've been around the two of you far too long not to see that you treat her more or less the same way you did Sunshine. Unless, of course, you're telling me that you and Sunshine were a little… ahem, closer than sisters should be."

Misery shuddered involuntarily. "Ugh! Seriously, don't even joke about that. Dis-gust-ing!"

He held up his hands in surrender while still laughing. "Alright, alright, message received. If you really don't want to see Daisy right now though, you know you're welcome at my place. It's further to walk, but obviously not as far as Hightown."

"No…" she finally answered after thinking about it. "You're right. Merrill and I need to talk, and it's only a short distance from here." She paused before adding, "Thank you, I wouldn't have thought of it. You've been a step ahead of me all day, and I can't tell you how much I appreciate you for it."

"Even when I've had to drag you kicking and screaming into things?" he asked, smirking.

Misery didn't answer until a couple of minutes later, after they'd reached the main road in Lowtown.

"You're a better person than me to even bother. I can tell you that I wouldn't put up with me if I was in your boots. However, I'm trying to learn to stop… to stop taking you for granted… to be more worthy of the effort you put into me." She flashed a smile at him before returning her attention ahead.

Varric blinked in surprise, caught off guard by her impromptu confession. He exhaled a long breath and replied, "See… this is why I bother. Because when you let your guard down and stop being Misery, you're a pretty damned amazing woman. And when you're like this I'm a greedy bastard. I can't get enough of you."

Misery gulped, beginning to feel a tingling sensation that was distracting her from her aches. "V-varric… I…"

He stopped and grabbed her arm to turn her towards him. "Miz, I know things are rather… complicated for you right now. And I'm going to keep doing everything I can to help you through it. Just know that you're the most important person in my life." He took another deep breath before continuing, "You're my best friend… but I… I want more… if you're willing."

Misery was having difficulty fully processing what was happening and didn't answer immediately, continuing to stare wide-eyed.

"Ummm…" Varric began, "this is kinda awkward. You've sprung a leak on me, but in case you didn't know, this is the part where you're supposed to say something."

Misery exhaled a ragged breath. "This is not unwelcome, I swear that… but…"

"But?" he asked when she didn't continue.

"I-I have to… to sort out some things… I n-need you to give me a little time." Mother… She wanted to speak with her mother about the subject again before going against her wishes, especially since it had now become more than just a hypothetical.

He sighed but nodded. "I can do that. It took me longer than I care to admit to even talk to you anyway. And hey, if it can't work out… I'm still not going anywhere. So no worries, alright?"

She leaned forward and hugged him briefly, whispering, "Thank you…"

After resuming the walk to the alienage, she thought that for as miserable as she'd felt and still felt, this had possibly been one of the best days of her life.