After childhood, after Amelle's magic blossomed, Kiara had never truly let herself imagine her own wedding. It was too remote a possibility. Oh, she had occasionally permitted herself daydreams of dancing until dawn on Lothering's village green with some discreet village lad willing to accept her in spite of the magic in her family. Later, in Kirkwall, she'd allowed herself one or two painful fantasies of hosting a ceremony at the Hawke estate, though her choice of groom was rather problematic, as at the time the only candidate was sworn to rather inviolable vows. Never, ever, had she imagined something like this. Some dreams were too big even for the most overactive imaginations, and no one had ever accused her of dreaming small.
And yet, in the end, Kiara mused, though the details and trappings and—in this case—expense were vastly different, weddings were weddings. Like most, this one had music and dancing and food and drink. It also, of course, had infinitely more guests than she'd ever have thought to invite on her own. Maker, Lothering's entire population could've fit in the Great Hall twice over and still left room for half of Gwaren on the dance floor. And if the drink was finer than any even available in Lothering, and the food comprised of dishes each more fanciful and delectable than the last, and the dancing rather more courtly than country jigs, the people who mattered were all present. From her table, Kiara had an excellent view of them.
As if this table were merely a transplant of his massive monstrosity at The Hanged Man, Varric sat at the head, Isabela beside him. The pirate was casting rather speculative glances at the silverware and the fine, filigreed candlesticks. Aveline, rosy-cheeked and smiling, nestled close to her husband, and Donnic, as always, gazed upon his wife with the moon-eyed wonder of a man who couldn't quite believe his own good fortune. Even after all this time. Kiara cast a surreptitious glance at her own husband—husband!—and found him already looking her way, expression fond and tinged with no small amount of his own wonderment. Reaching over, she squeezed his hand. Half the red ribbon that had bound them was still wrapped around his wrist; the other half curled around hers. His was embroidered with the Amell and Hawke crests, and hers with the Vael, and she thought, perhaps, it was the dearest accessory she'd ever owned.
Looking back to the table of her friends, she found Merrill in earnest conversation with a bemused-looking Cullen, while across the table Fenris bent his head to whisper into Amelle's ear. Whatever he said made her sister smile, as bright and free and unfettered a smile as Kiara had ever seen. From this angle she couldn't quite tell, but Kiara suspected they were holding hands under the tablecloth. With her free hand, Amelle snatched something from her plate and deftly slipped it beneath the table, where doubtless Cupcake was happily ensconced, fed by people well-trained to indulge him.
Kiara allowed herself a moment to think of the absent faces, the missing friends, but the grief did not linger. She imagined her parents, ever-elegant in movement, leading a dance. She imagined Carver pretending very hard not to enjoy himself. She even, for a moment, let herself picture Anders down at that table of laughing friends. Beside Varric, perhaps. She imagined not the Anders of the very end, but the one who'd patched her back together every time Amelle wasn't there to do it, the one who laughed at her jokes and offered ones of his own, the one whom she'd called friend.
Her reverie was cut blessedly short by her husband—husband!—leaning so close to her ear she could feel the sweet warmth of his breath on her cheek. "Dear heart," he whispered, "ought I be worried?"
She blinked at him. "Why?"
With his free hand he reached across and tapped her wine glass. "You haven't even tasted it, and I assure you the vintage puts even Fenris' Aggregio to shame."
This startled a laugh from her so loud Amelle looked up from her table and smirked. She didn't have to say Inside voice, Kiri for Kiara to hear it loud and clear. Lifting the wine glass, she raised a silent toast to her little sister. Amelle echoed her gesture, and they sipped at the same time. It was, indeed, an exceptional vintage, but Kiara hardly tasted it. Weddings were weddings, and formalities were formalities, but that part would be over soon enough. And then? Then the party would start.
Sebastian huffed a brief laugh, as if reading her thoughts, and pressed a kiss to her cheek. Not content with this chaste little gesture, Kiara caught him before he could pull away and returned his kiss rather more forcefully. He grinned against her, but didn't retreat. Imagining Lady Aileene's horror at the scandal of kissing in public, Kiara held tight to her husband a little longer than strictly decorous.
Kiara knew she'd been truly successful at horrifying all the staid old guard when she heard an approving whistle so loud and piercing it could only belong to Isabela.
"You're going to drive them all mad," Sebastian whispered against her lips when she finally pulled away. He did not, she noted, sound entirely disapproving, and his eyes shone with amusement.
She grinned, pressing a final kiss to the tip of his nose. "That's the plan, my love. That's the plan."
It had been a good day and was, as it happened, shaping up to be a lovely evening. Her sister was married, positively glowing with happiness, and the festivities were such that if anybody wasn't happy for the newlyweds, they were keeping it to themselves. The day also hadn't been interrupted, which had been Amelle's most secret fear. It was almost enough to make her forget their lives had ever been anything—could ever be anything—less than entirely idyllic.
A cold nose nudged Amelle's hand, pulling her from her reverie; she glanced down to spy a pair of plaintive dark eyes above a lolling tongue. Cupcake was only too happy to take yet another sliver of perfectly roasted pheasant from Amelle's fingers, giving her a hopelessly slobbery palm in return.
"Beast," she muttered on a laugh, scrubbing away the saliva with her napkin. "We're going to have to roll you out of here at this rate."
"Wouldn't happen if you weren't feeding him under the table," Aveline said, grinning.
"If I wasn't feeding him under the table, somebody else would be," Amelle riposted, sliding a look Fenris' way.
Fenris paused, wineglass halfway to his lips, to send Amelle a look. "You are mistaken."
"Please," she said, gently nudging Fenris' shoulder with her own. "Spero knows exactly who to go to, begging food in exchange for pathetic, wide-eyed looks."
"Yes," Fenris replied evenly. "Your sister."
This pulled another laugh from Amelle, and even Donnic was chuckling, but Aveline was looking between them both with a narrow gaze, like she'd never seen anything quite like them before.
"Something amiss, Aveline?" Amelle asked. As she spoke, Fenris' fingers slid across her arm up to her wrist and she sent up silent thanks she hadn't been taking a sip of wine just then.
But Aveline shook her head slowly, a faint, fond smile playing at her mouth. "Just wondering how I hadn't noticed this—" she nodded at the two of them, but it was clear enough what she was indicating, "before."
"It is fair to say you were… otherwise occupied," Fenris replied. Aveline made a face.
"I think what my wife means," Donnic interjected with a fond look at the woman in question, "is how Kirkwall's notoriously incisive Guard Captain could manage to overlook something that—now—is as plain as the nose on her face."
"Don't feel bad. Kiara didn't figure it out either." She sent a sidelong grin Fenris' way. "We out-rogued the rogues."
"Not these rogues," drawled Varric, jerking a thumb between himself and Isabela, who was likewise looking smug. "Broody and Firefly didn't put anything past us. Why else do you think we had you collect all that firewood together?"
"And clear camping spots," Isabela chimed in.
Varric nodded. "Forage for breakfast. Prep the horses."
"Ugh," Isabela groaned, rolling her eyes, "the horses. Oh, and then there was the time you suggested they make dinner together, Fuzzy. That was a nice one."
"Gotta admit," he said, buffing his nails against his shirt, "I felt inspired. It was a pretty good stew, too. Seasoned liberally with unresolved sexual tension."
Closing her eyes, Aveline shook her head. "Did the two of you do anything on the journey?"
"Of course they did. Who do you think," Amelle drawled, arching an eyebrow, "was in charge of suggesting nightly card games?"
"Somebody had to," Isabela sniffed. "It's not as if you two were going to suggest anything fun."
Beside her, Fenris bowed his head slowly, brow creasing in thought. Then he lifted his gaze, took in their friends lining the table, and slanted an altogether pleasantly inscrutable look Amelle's way. After another moment Fenris stood, never relinquishing his hold on her hand.
"Fenris?" she murmured, amused and confused and, Maker, her breath still caught when his fingers were on her wrist, when he looked at her that way. "What are you doing?"
He tipped his head to the side, indicating the wedding guests at the opposite end of the hall, arranged in an intricate twist of what Amelle supposed to be the current Starkhaven dances. "Is it not common practice to dance at a wedding?" He held her gaze for a long, promising moment before adding, "Is that not considered 'fun'?"
Slowly, Amelle stood, her eyes searching Fenris' face for any hint of jest. But no, he was simply watching her in a way that made warmth prickle at the base of her scalp and bloom deep in her belly, which was entirely inappropriate given the time and place. But once the warmth of his hand pressed against the small of her back, there was nowhere Amelle wouldn't have let Fenris lead her.
Amelle turned her head, breathing a whisper into Fenris ear, trying—and failing—to feel gratified when he shivered. "I should warn you I don't know any of the dances they favor in Starkhaven."
"Nor do I," he returned in a low tone.
"I might step on your toes," she confessed.
The corner of his mouth twitched and Amelle tamped down hard on the sudden, mad urge to kiss that very corner. "Then it is lucky for both of us I am wearing shoes," came his quiet reply.
"It could go badly, you know. These shoes? This dress?" For as much as she loved the froth of skirts and the sheen of gold against her skin, it was all far, far more than she was used to. "Maker's breath, what if I fall?"
They were barely halfway across the hall when Fenris stopped and turned minutely, bringing the rough, warm fingers of his free hand up to rest beneath her chin, tipping her face until she was looking him in the eye. What she saw there banished her uncertainty.
"If you fall, Amelle Hawke, I will never be so far away that I cannot catch you."
Words momentarily stolen by his earnest intensity, Amelle leaned a little closer. His hand on her back tightened approvingly. "That's all well and good, Fenris," Amelle mused, the warmth of a blush heating her cheeks ever so slightly, and oh, Maker what a challenge it was to keep herself from launching herself at that enticing smile, "except I'm pretty sure the weight of this gown could crush you."
"Mmm." The smile grew fractionally wider. In the language of Fenris' expressions it meant he was infinitely more amused.
She held her skirts as wide as she could, and still it seemed fathoms of fabric swirled about her. "If I fall at the right angle, you'd suffocate before rescue could arrive."
"I trust I'm agile enough to avoid the worst of the avalanche, should such occur." He paused, tilting his head. "Do you not wish to dance?"
"Ahh. No. It's—it's not that. I suppose I… am so used to blending in. Or trying to. This is something altogether different."
"And yet everyone here is aware you are a mage. Is there not some measure of relief in that?"
She sighed. "Magic won't save me on the dance floor. More's the pity."
Another small change in the grammar of his smile turned the gesture a little… impish. "Then do not try to blend in. We'll make our own dance."
"Is this where you break out those mansion dances you teased Varric about?"
Heedless of the milling people and the eyes on them, he pulled her as close as her skirts would allow and bent his head to close the rest of the distance, his lips brushing her ear. "Who," he murmured, low and thrilling, "said I was teasing?"
Aveline and Donnic soon followed in Amelle and Fenris' footsteps, wandering off to the dance floor. After an interminable amount of ribbing, Isabela dragged Varric off to, in her words, check the lay of the land (Cullen decided he didn't want to know), and Cullen found himself at the table with only Merrill and the mabari for company. Cupcake was curled in as small a ball as it was possible for a giant hound to make, keeping Merrill's bare feet warm, while the elf, with several winding tangents on half a dozen different subjects, told him about Dalish ceremonies. Her eyes took on a strange, faraway gleam. A little melancholy, perhaps, which was why he found his mouth opening and the words, "Wouldn't you like to dance?" falling out.
"Oh," she said, blinking at him. Longingly, she gazed out toward the dancing. Beneath the weight of the dog, he was certain her foot tapped along with the beat. "Everyone's busy. Varric said he might, later."
Cullen flushed a little, and wished he still had food on his plate to distract him. He turned to the half-drunk glass of wine instead. He was mid-sip when Merrill laughed and clapped a hand to her mouth. "Oh, Creators. You weren't asking me were you?"
"Ah." He choked a little on the wine. "I only—you needn't feel obligated—"
"You're allowed? You all seem so… well, you know." She waved, taking him in. He wondered then how she saw him—staid and stern and disapproving of her very existence? He found himself thinking of Solona Amell, then, laughing Solona who'd sometimes looked at him like he wasn't just staid and stern and disapproving of her very existence. With the hand she'd used to wave, she reached over and patted him on the back of his hand. "Of course. If you're allowed. You needn't, you know, if it's only to make me feel better. Cupcake and I are good friends, after all."
It seemed needlessly hurtful to ask why she'd always been the one left to keep the mabari company, so he rose to his feet. When she lifted her hand to wave him a goodbye, he captured her hand in his and said, "I daresay the hound will manage well enough on his own for a turn or two. There are plates for him to scour, if nothing else."
Cupcake's agreeable bark made the silver on the table clatter. Merrill blinked once, down near the vicinity of her knees, then looked up again, her expression far brighter than it had been a moment before. "Well. He seems to agree with you, in any case. I don't suppose it could hurt, provided you're sure you're allowed." She wiggled bare toes against the floor. "And provided you don't step on my feet. That might hurt as well."
"I am confident we'll not be struck down by lightning for attempting a turn around the floor," Cullen replied, offering Merrill his arm. Her lingering hesitation lasted no more than seconds before she pushed away whatever concerns she might have had about leaving the dog alone, to say nothing of Cullen's vows and how dancing related to them, and slid her arm into his. He knew precisely none of the dances most of Hawke's guests were engaged with, but that hadn't stopped Amelle and Fenris, or Aveline and Donnic, and Cullen had by now learned that oftentimes being a part of Hawke's family—family, he hadn't dared think that word prior to this point, prior to… Cullen hadn't thought that word at all prior to his posting at Kinloch Hold; so strange it should come so naturally to him now—went hand in hand with not belonging somewhere else.
As he settled a hand on Merrill's waist, Cullen saw Hawke's enormous mabari from the corner of his eye, huge front paws planted on the table as he voraciously licked clean every remaining plate.
And there was Hawke, doing a very poor job of not laughing at the sight.
"It looks like Cupcake's having a good time."
Amelle's whisper was warm against Fenris' ear, such that he shivered, and the next breath—this time of laughter—told him she'd done it entirely on purpose. He stole a glance at the dog, who was being coaxed away from the table by a manservant offering a soupbone roughly the size of a femur. The mabari's head came up at the sight, ears pricking and his short stump of a tail wagging excitedly before he reared up—the table jostled back into place with a heavy thump as wineglasses wobbled precariously without tumbling—and bounded over to the manservant, who clearly had not thought things through to that particular point, for he tossed the enormous bone at the dog and backed away as if he'd narrowly missed his own leg being put on the hound's dinner menu.
"Do you suppose they'll grow accustomed to him?" Fenris asked as they moved—Amelle was a better dancer than she'd given herself credit for, and the longer they moved together, the more confident she became. Her hand no longer gripped his shoulder or clenched around his own, and she'd long since stopped sneaking glances at their feet. Confidence suited her, and Fenris was not the only one to think so; the younger Hawke was the object of several looks on the dance floor, many of them openly admiring. Amelle had, however, noticed none of them.
"I don't suppose they've got much choice," she murmured, flashing him a dimpled smile. "He's probably got a title now and everything—Royal Mabari to the Princess of Starkhaven—because I doubt anybody's going to be able to call him 'Cupcake' with a straight face."
The dog in question now had the bone braced between his giant paws and was gnawing determinedly on it, tearing away tendon and sinew, the abandoned dinner plates long forgotten.
"I believe," said a familiar voice at Fenris' shoulder, "it's Lord Cupcake, Master of the Dinner Scraps. And woe to any who snicker at the majestic hound's given name."
The very tips of her toes trod on Fenris' foot as they stopped mid-step to find Sebastian smiling behind Fenris, Hawke at his side. Amelle's sister was gazing fondly after the mabari in question, but the entirety of Sebastian's attention was focused on Amelle. He inclined his head, smiling. "I wonder if my new sister might permit me the next."
"Oh," Amelle said, a blush coloring her cheeks as she stole a glance Fenris' way, her eyes darting down uncertainly to his feet before turning an apologetic grimace back to Sebastian. "Well." She scuffed her foot, gently bumping the toe of his boot. "I. Well. I'm not really very—"
Hawke waved airily. "Trust me, he knows the steps well enough you'll think you were born dancing. It's quite the experience, really."
"You flatter me, my own one." But he said it fondly, and when Fenris took a moment to look at the two of them—to truly look—he realized he had never seen either of these particular friends so thoroughly happy. Happiness of any sort had proven elusive for Hawke for so many of the years he'd known her; that she was in possession of such now was… reassuring.
"What do you say, Fenris?" Hawke asked, with a little smirk, though her cheeks still glowed pink with either wine or joy. He suspected the latter; at the table she'd recently vacated, her abandoned glass was still almost entirely full. "Shall you and I find a terrifically expensive bottle and demolish it? We are both, I think, entirely too sober for an affair such as this one, and I've got money on Isabela and Varric trying to start a card game before the night is through."
"At your… wedding?" Amelle choked. "They—well, they would, I suppose. Even if they shouldn't."
"When has 'shouldn't' ever stopped Isabela?" Hawke replied, though she was grinning, and Fenris began to suspect perhaps the idea hadn't been entirely only Isabela's. He knew Hawke's expressions well enough to surmise she was as interested in shaking up the staid status quo as certain pirates of their acquaintance.
But Amelle still looked somewhat ill at ease, and given her initial reluctance to come dance with him, Fenris did not imagine for a moment she was displeased at the prospect of being left in her new brother's company.
"Amelle?" Fenris asked quietly, reading her hesitance and sliding a hand to the small of her back; warmth rushed over him when she tipped her head up and smiled.
Amelle squeezed his hand. "Fear only for the prince of Starkhaven's feet." And then she read his reluctance with such ease it surprised him. "Oh, go on," she said, her smile warming into a grin. "Look at Kiara's eyes. It must be quite the bottle she's got hidden away."
"Quite the bottle!" Hawke crowed. "You don't know the half of it. Why, the vintage—"
"Would be entirely lost on me, I'm sure," Amelle murmured. "I think I'll take the dancing."
"More for me. And Fenris." Hawke made a face. "And probably Isabela. She has the most alarming knack of showing up just as the good stuff comes out. And then she doesn't ever rave over it as much as she should."
Sebastian dropped a kiss on Hawke's temple, "I think she does it purely to spite you. Her taste does trend quite fine, after all. Just remember those Hercinian gowns."
Hawke let out such a laugh half a dozen nearby guests turned to cast shocked expressions her way, only to hide them the instant they realized the source. "But did you notice she had her parasol outside today? A fine gift."
"Um," Amelle said, "very… ruffled. Also… uh, very pink."
"Just you wait until your next birthday." Hawke waggled her eyebrows at Amelle in a very alarming manner. Sebastian chuckled before bowing slightly to Amelle and offering his hand; Amelle's fingers tightened around his own, briefly, before she let Sebastian lead her off. Fenris didn't miss the way the crowd parted soundlessly for them as Sebastian led Amelle to a better spot, nearer the musicians. Nor did Fenris, as he and Hawke turned, miss the way the crowd parted just as effortlessly for them. Unlike when he and Amelle had been moving through not-quite-the-right-steps, no one came too close.
"What do you say, old friend?" Hawke asked, linking arms with him. "Shall we find that bottle?"
"Indeed," Fenris replied. "And see how long it takes Isabela to find us, afterward."
"My bet's ten minutes."
"I," he said, "give her five."
"So all this fuss is nearly over," Amelle said, sending Sebastian a conspiratorial grin as he guided his new sister into another pattern of steps; she followed his lead with scarcely a stutter. "Relieved?"
Sebastian glanced around them, then tipped his head forward, lowering his voice, likewise conspiratorially. "I've no idea what you mean, Amelle. I'm sure I'll miss the endless talk of flowers and colors and bunting and your sister's increasingly inventive attempts to… avoid those very matters."
"Avoid," she echoed quietly, tilting her head. "That's probably the most diplomatic way I've heard it put."
"Mm," he replied, shooting a knowing look Amelle's way, "especially since my sources told me you were hiding together."
Amelle's own expression turned to one of instant and entirely unbelievable guilelessness. "Sebastian Vael," she gasped, eyes widening in mock affront, "I am shocked and appalled you'd accuse me of assisting my sister in avoiding that gaggle of over-perfumed harpies."
"A thousand apologies," he replied archly, inclining his head. "I did not intend to cast aspersions on your character, sister."
But then there was a stutter in Amelle's steps, her breath catching in a tiny gasp as she blinked up at him, too startled for her reaction to be anything but genuine. Sebastian's own surprised twisted into alarm when he realized Amelle's eyes were bright with tears. He slowed their dance, preparatory to stopping entirely, but Amelle squeezed his hand tightly and gave a brief shake of her head.
"No," she said, her voice uncharacteristically thick. "No, it's all right." His skepticism must have shown, for Amelle sent him a tremulous smile, pleased and yet sheepish at the same time. "I suppose it's silly. It only just hit me. I… am your sister now."
"Aye," Sebastian replied, breathing a short laugh of his own. "And I, your brother."
"Well, that is a relief, as I suspect it's a bit late to undo the damage."
Amelle let out a more muted version of one of Kiara's sharp barks of laughter and shook her head. "It was… it was a beautiful ceremony," she said after a few turns, her voluminous skirts swirling out gently one way, and then the other.
Sebastian smiled softly. "I daresay she will never admit to it, but your sister's sentimental streak is prodigious."
Her smile going crooked, Amelle looked up at him. "Yes, because it's such a secret to anyone who knows her."
"You wouldn't shatter her illusions, would you?"
"Perish the thought, brother." Amelle gestured with her chin in the direction Kiara had disappeared. "It was… her idea, then?"
"For the most part, yes, though one I was happy to accede to. Some traditions must always be acknowledged—for the sake of those over-perfumed harpies, as you say—but others… there is room for more than tradition has known before us, we hope."
Amelle grinned as he spun her out, changed his grip, and pulled her back again. "In more ways than one, I suppose."
"In many more ways that one." The pace of the dance shifted, and Sebastian, effortlessly, changed along with it. Amelle, to her credit, added a little skip to her step and fell immediately back in position. Her exhale was a little breathless. "I—we, really—do hope you'll lend some of your experience."
"As a mage?"
"Partly. Also as a sister. As… an observer. I think, perhaps, younger siblings often see things their elder ones do not." He shrugged, and then bowed as their dance came to an end. Another began and he raised his eyebrows in question, but she shook her head, already looking to where Kiara and Fenris had gone. "It is not always comfortable in the shadow an elder sibling casts," he said, tucking her arm close to his and managing to guide them from the dance floor without looking as though they were fleeing it. "And though your sister has a keen eye for many things, and an even keener edge when it comes to dealing with people, she cannot see everything. Nor can I, nor you. I hope… my dearest hope is that all those lessons we learned tromping around slaying dragons and giant spiders—" Amelle shuddered. "—Can be put to good use here."
"You think your nobles are dragons?"
He chuckled, whispering close to her ear, "Indeed, with their plots and plans and webs, I think they are closer to the giant spiders."
She blinked at him once, as if not quite comprehending his words, and then she raised a hand to hide her giggle. "I always was particularly good at taking out the giant spiders."
"Yes, well, I do believe it's because you were terrified of them."
Those laughing eyes narrowed. "Was not."
"Please, Amelle. Your feelings about giant spiders are as well known as your feelings about regular baths. Though they fall on rather opposite ends of the love-hate spectrum."
She dropped her hand, but was still smiling broadly. "I'm going to assume you don't actually want me to burn them with fire and smite them with lightning and then freeze the remains just to make sure they're definitely dead."
"We'll attempt to refrain from carnage. Though I reserve the right to change my mind."
"Sebastian," she said, touching her fingertips to the bare skin of his hand, her smile shifting and changing, becoming more subtle. "I am so… so very happy for you."
He bent his neck and pressed a brotherly kiss to the top of her head. "And I for you, Amelle. Most sincerely. Now, I must claim my wife for a final tour of the room, and then I daresay we'll join you wherever she's sent Fenris and that excellent bottle of wine."
"You're leaving so soon?"
He lifted one corner of his mouth. "Privilege of rank, as I once told your sister. Once the duty is done, I may leave and choose to spent the evening in… a less public manner. And in finer company. Less—" he waved absently, taking in the grandeur, the excess, the noise, the gossip.
"Indeed." He laughed. "Fewer spiders."
The scene upon entering Sebastian's study reminded Amelle powerfully of the last time they'd all gathered here. Kiara had clearly put the word out already, for Amelle and Sebastian were the last to arrive. Cullen, Kinnon, and Donnic were maneuvering a large table to stand by the fire, while Tasia and Merrill moved chairs. Aveline stood with Isabela; the unamused look Aveline wore, coupled with Isabela's most guileless (and usually very full of guile anyway) smile told Amelle they were in deep conversation regarding the deck of cards in Isabela's hand at that moment. Varric stood by the fire, Cupcake curled by his feet and a glass of what looked a great deal like Starkhaven's finest in hand, watching them all, as if committing the scene to memory that he might record it later for posterity.
At the far end of the room, however, sat her sister and Fenris, wineglasses in hand, their heads bowed in deep conference. So deep, in fact, they neither of them noticed Amelle and Sebastian had entered the room at all until Sebastian rather pointedly cleared his throat. When they both looked up, though, their reactions couldn't have been more different. Kiara's smile was instant, wide, and dangerously smug. Fenris, on the other hand, appeared as discomfited as Amelle had ever seen him, and—was that a tinge of color at his cheeks? Amelle's gaze—eyes narrowed now—slid back to her sister, but before she could say anything at all, the new Princess of Starkhaven got to her feet with enviable ease and swept forward, pressing a kiss to Amelle's cheek before taking her husband's arm in hers.
"Just in time, Mely."
"Just in time for what?" Amelle asked, taking no pains to hide her suspicion.
"Cards, of course!" Kiara replied, still smiling.
Another glance at Fenris revealed him to have schooled his own expression back to something far more natural and neutral, but for the hint of color that would not fade. Amelle looked back at her sister. "What did you do, Kiri?"
"You're going to have to be more specific," Kiara answered earnestly. "I got married, organized a card game, found a terrifically expensive bottle in the cellar—one Fenris and I haven't quite managed to finish. I told him I think you should share the last of it with him. That's the only way you'll learn to appreciate the finer vintages, Mely—let someone share them with you."
That all sounded far too… wise and metaphorical for Kiara, and Amelle narrowed her eyes anew.
"Maker's balls," Kiara huffed. "My own sister—my baby sister— giving me such a look on my wedding day. What would Lady Caddell say?"
"That depends," piped up Kinnon from across the room, "if she'd been smited or not."
To Kinnon's right, Cullen—rather surprisingly—did not go beet red. He merely bowed his head, shaking it with a rueful chuckle. "I am fairly certain it's 'smote.'"
"A debate for the ages," Kiara remarked, not unkindly, her smile quirking into a grin.
"Speaking of ages," Sebastian reminded her gently, "we'll never get back here if we don't go make our farewells now, dear one."
Kiara sighed. "Must we?"
"We must." Sebastian bent and pressed a kiss to Kiara's temple. "It will be over before you know it, and I'll have someone rescue another bottle or two of that wine from the cellar for when we get back."
"Ahh, you do know the way to a girl's heart, Sebastian Vael."
"I thought it was weaponry," he murmured.
"Wine will do in a pinch," she insisted. "Though a new bow never hurts."
Fenris chuckled. "Do you not already have a dozen, Hawke?"
Varric, sipping from his tumbler, raised his brows. "And can we still call you Hawke, Hawke?"
"You can't call me Vael," Kiara said. "So I suppose Hawke'll have to stand. Maker knows I don't want to give you all fits by asking you to use my given name after all this time. It's three whole syllables, after all. Enough to exhaust a person."
"Hawke," Sebastian purred, dragging the single syllable to thrice its usual length. "You are stalling."
Kiara made a face. "Of course I am. I've thus far managed to avoid exchanging so much as a word with Aileene Caddell, and now my favorite holy-power-wielding bodyguard isn't even in the room."
"Why should you be afraid of her, though, Hawke?" Merrill asked, head tilted and braids dancing. "Aren't you—well, you're the princess now. Shouldn't she have to listen to you?"
Kiara snorted a very unprincesslike laugh, and raised her hand to cover her mouth too late to cover it. Amelle didn't miss the way her sister's eyes shone. "You know, Merrill? You are completely right. Aileene Caddell should be so lucky, should I decide to grace her with Our presence."
"Maker preserve us," Sebastian said, offering Kiara his arm. "We've created a monster. One who uses the royal We."
Kiara tilted her chin imperiously, and gazed down her nose in what Amelle thought was a truly prodigious impression of Lady Caddell. "We are not amused, Prince Sebastian. We are not amused at all."
"We are," Varric said, chuckling. "Have to say you win this one, Rivaini."
"What was the bet now?" Amelle groaned.
"How fast the power would go to her head," Isabela quipped.
Amelle gaped in false-horror. "And I wasn't included in this bet? I'd've put a sovereign on instantly." From his spot in front of the fire, Cupcake lifted his head and let out a bark, clearly objecting to such aspersions being cast upon his human.
"Hey," Kiara protested, laughing.
Varric raised his brows and then lifted his glass in a subtle toast. "And that's why we didn't include you in the bet, Firefly."
Kiara and Sebastian left the room, and Amelle privately thought it nothing short of a miracle that Kiara's skirts fit through the door at all. Breathing a contented sigh that the day's madness was very nearly over, she sat upon the couch next to Fenris.
"I understand there's enough left in that bottle for me to have a sip. At least," she amended, "I'm pretty sure that was the gist, however hidden under metaphor it was."
Fenris' answering smile was small and private as he inclined his head and poured what remained of the bottle into a delicate glass. She took it, pressing a kiss to his cheek as thanks, and touched her glass to his.
"She seemed to think you would enjoy it."
Amelle breathed in the aroma coming off the glass and took a small, experimental sip. Then another, less experimental sip. "It appears she was right." She pulled a face and looked at Fenris, saying, "Maker, we're going to have to tell her she was right, aren't we?"
"It has been my experience that is knowledge Hawke discovers for herself more often than not."
"So you're saying we shouldn't try to hide it from her."
"And speaking of people not trying to hide things from other people—" The hint of color returned to Fenris' face, much to Amelle's amazement. "What were you and my sister talking about that had you both looking so bloody guilty?"
Discomfiture shifted swiftly to something else, some close kin to annoyance, perhaps—though for as often as Fenris wore that particular expression, something about it didn't quite fit. After a moment, he shook his head. "Hawke is… Hawke," he said finally, as if such a statement could answer anything. That said, in Amelle's experience, that was usually true.
"Teasing you, then," Amelle said, for she'd already guessed as much.
Another hesitation. "Perhaps."
"And I believe I can guess," she drawled, taking another sip of what was turning out to be a most excellent wine, "at the subject matter." She raised a pointed eyebrow. Fenris' expression betrayed nothing, but that didn't mean Amelle couldn't read it anyway. The corner of her mouth kicked up in a grin as she leaned close, saying, "If I might be permitted to paraphrase a certain elf?"
"My nosy, meddling sister be damned—the rest will be our decision."
"Funny, isn't it?"
Cullen looked up to see Ser Kinnon shooting him a crooked grin. "I'm sorry?"
The knight nodded at Amelle and Fenris, engrossed in a conversation that appeared as deep as the one he'd been in with Hawke earlier. The difference was that Fenris was smiling—well, as much as he ever smiled, in any event. "He barely says a word to anyone in the practice yard, but when he does, be certain the men listen. He can be bloody intimidating with a sword in his hands—intimidating even without."
"Intimidating, unless you happen to be Amelle Hawke," Cullen supplied.
Kinnon chuckled. "I'm not sure the Hawke ladies know the meaning of intimidation, actually. They only ever seem to get their feathers ruffled, and woe betide the poor fool whose plans to intimidate so spectacularly backfire."
Cullen echoed the other man's laugh. "You make a fair point, Ser Kinnon. It's as if being intimidated never really crosses their minds, and so on they go, doing the impossible because they haven't realized they weren't meant to be allowed to. It's a certain kind of bravery, of self-reliance, and I'll be damned if it doesn't have the strange effect of inspiring the same in others around them. It's a rare quality."
They were interrupted by Isabela's throaty laugh, and when Cullen turned, he saw the pirate and Tasia in conversation, light head and dark bent together. He didn't miss the way Kinnon's gaze turned immediately to the fair and lingered. Isabela laughed again, and spoke something into Tasia's ear. The maid glanced toward them, her lips turning up in the faintest smirk.
"What do you suppose they're talking about?" Kinnon asked. Cullen wondered if the man realized just how much longing came through in voice and demeanor, but decided not to draw attention to it. The poor fellow had it bad enough without making him self-conscious.
"I daresay Isabela's teasing her," Cullen said lightly. "Or flirting. Or both."
Mournfully, Kinnon said, "She looks like she's enjoying it."
"Isabela is a rather accomplished flirt." Cullen leaned back a little in his chair, swirling the untouched alcohol in the glass Isabela had earlier pressed upon him. "Though I think it is a little like a game."
Kinnon's brow furrowed. "She's leading Tasia on, then?"
Cullen said, "Ser Kinnon, do you honestly think Tasia's the type to be led?"
"Of course not!" Kinnon protested, gesturing weakly with empty hands. "It's only… it's only I wouldn't like to see Tasia's feelings hurt."
The ladies laughed again, both of them this time, and Tasia leaned up on her toes and whispered something in Isabela's ear, hiding her lips behind her hand. Kinnon's cheeks flushed pink, but he didn't look away. Cullen, smiling faintly, remembered all too well the misery of loving from afar someone he'd deemed beyond his station, and though he knew he'd have never listened to the most well-meaning of advice then, he couldn't quite stop himself from offering some now. "You might go speak with her yourself, you know."
Kinnon shook his head, and tore his gaze from the gossiping ladies. "It's not—you don't understand, Ser Cullen. Begging your pardon. Perhaps I'm her favorite resident buffoon, but she's Tasia."
"Far be it from me to interfere, Ser Kinnon, but I'd suggest taking a page from the book of the Hawke ladies on this one."
Kinnon's shoulders slumped. "Would it were that easy."
Cullen took a sip of the fine liquor, held it a moment on his tongue, and then let the warmth trickle down his throat. "An event happened today. A rather significant one, I believe. A wedding? Perhaps you recall it?"
Kinnon's eyes narrowed. "I was there."
"Mmm," Cullen murmured. "And I was in Kirkwall when Kiara Hawke was no more than a guttersnipe Fereldan refugee. Today she became Princess of Starkhaven. At some point, I think she must have decided she could be more than the world told her she was." He paused, gesturing toward the chaise where Amelle and Fenris still spoke quietly together over their wine. Fenris gave a low laugh; Amelle echoed it, her shoulder pressed to his. They made the very picture of ease and intimacy. "As I understand it, Fenris was rather vociferously opposed to magic in any and all forms for no small period of time, and yet there he sits, as happy as I've ever seen him, and in the company of a mage. Faint heart never won fair maid, Ser Kinnon."
The knight's brow creased into a pensive frown that lasted all of perhaps five seconds before he gave a determined nod and pushed out of his seat, making his way to Tasia and Isabela; the latter, at least, didn't look at all surprised at the development.
"You're fitting in well here, Knight-Captain."
He turned to correct the speaker—he truly didn't know what his new title was now, short of Private Templar Bodyguard to the Royal Healer, which was a bit of a mouthful, but calling himself Amelle Hawke's Keeper had earned him a threatening look and the promise of fireballs raining down on his head—but when he found Aveline sitting next to him wearing an arch smile, he only breathed a rueful chuckle and shook his head. "I'd correct you on that front, but I suspect you already heard the story."
"Correct me on which front?" she asked, propping an elbow on the table. "Your title, or whether you're settling in?"
Her shoulder lifted in a minute shrug. "Might've heard something." Aveline's expression turned shrewd then, which was far more familiar ground for Cullen. "Might've heard a few things."
Lifting his glass, Cullen took another small sip, savoring a moment before swallowing. "I can only imagine."
"It's not often I'm wrong when I take the measure of a man." She lifted her chin. "And when I am wrong, I admit it." Aveline's eyes flicked back toward Amelle for the briefest moment before settling on Cullen again. "I may have been wrong about you, Knight-C—Cullen. Cullen. I may have been wrong about you."
It perhaps wasn't the most effusive of statements, and it only toed the line of apology, but Cullen appreciated the gesture nonetheless. He inclined his head, touching his glass to Aveline's. "Given your, ah, past experiences, I doubt I can blame you your mistrust."
"They're like sisters to me." Her lips twitched as she suppressed her smile. Then, reaching down to give Cupcake a brief scratch behind the ears, went on to add, "A pair of bossy, troublesome sisters who can find a scrape without even trying, but… sisters." Then a flicker of sadness settled in Aveline's eyes, but only a flicker, and the guard captain sat up a little straighter, as if to banish the emotion. "You'll watch over them."
"I rather doubt Hawke needs me in that capacity, you know."
She breathed a short bark of laughter. "Take it from someone who knows better—she will."
"And you?" he asked. "Not tempted to… relocate? Hawke seems content to find positions for all her acquaintance."
She laughed again. "And leave Varric and Isabela to their devices with no one to check them? Better not. They'd undo all my hard work and progress in a fortnight. And someone must look out for Merrill, especially if she intends to keep on with the clinic. It's awfully visible a position for her."
"Merrill tells me she's to live at the estate? She says Hawke asked her to take care of the plants."
"All the more reason for me to keep an eye on her. She'll leave the door unlocked and be robbed blind within a week." Aveline glanced toward her husband. Donnic was laughing with Varric, one hand actually clutched to his belly in mirth. "I was married to a templar, you know. Believe it or not, I have a great deal of esteem for your Order. For years I watched as Meredith ground the city beneath her iron-shod foot. I used to imagine what Wesley would say. I used to imagine what Wesley would do. Fight, I thought. Stand between the wicked and the innocent. Be a shield." She shook her head sadly. "He was always too good a shield. And now I am married to a guardsman. A different shield, perhaps, but a shield nonetheless. Donnic—Donnic is a Kirkwaller, through and through. I think, perhaps, I'm nearly one myself. Kirkwall needs a shield, Ser Cullen. I'd like to believe I've made a small difference, these past years. I'd like to believe I can continue to do so, in the years to come, no matter what turmoil they bring."
"I'd like to believe someone with foresight would name you Viscount, Ser Aveline."
She snorted. "I've no wish for that honor, ser."
"Perhaps that is why you'd be the best for the position. You are not wrong, after all. Meredith was a blight, and was permitted to be for far too long. Kirkwall's power vacuum cannot continue in the manner it has. Someone must stand." Cullen smiled. "Someone must be that shield."
"Easy enough for you to say," she murmured, though not unkindly. "I don't see you volunteering."
He gestured mildly toward Amelle. "I am a much smaller shield."
"No less important, I daresay, for all that," Aveline said. Then she sighed. "To answer your question, though, no, I am not tempted to remain here. I will miss them—Maker, but I'll miss them—but they will always be my family. My sweet sisters who made a Blight and flight and poverty bearable with their laughter and their love. And Kirkwall is not, in the end, so very far away."
The low hum of conversation was broken with the sound of Isabela slapping a deck of cards on the table and dropping into a chair, making an aborted movement to swing her feet up on the table, suddenly remembering she wasn't wearing clothing that allowed for that particular brand of ease of movement. She made a face but remained seated. "Lucky," she said, addressing Kinnon, who until that moment had been deep in conversation with Tasia, "bring us a fresh bottle of the good stuff. Let's see if we can't get a few hands in before Hawke turns up."
"Before she turns up to catch you out when you try to cheat, you mean?" Amelle asked mildly as Fenris rose, offering her his hand. She accepted it with a grateful smile and the two approached the table, Amelle sitting on Cullen's other side, and Fenris sitting next to Amelle. The mabari pushed to his feet, gave a stretch, and resettled himself against Amelle's slippered feet.
"You wound me, kitten," Isabela replied, picking up her deck with a flourish and shuffling them.
"She won't, but I might," Aveline said, shooting Isabela a warning look. "If we're starting without Hawke, I'll only play a hand Varric deals."
The pirate snorted, turning an almost accusatory look Varric's way. "Why have they all got the idea you're honest when you deal?"
"All part of being a reliable narrator, Rivaini," replied Varric smoothly as he downed the last of his drink and slid into the chair next to Isabela. While Isabela protested loudly that she too was perfectly reliable, thank you very much, Varric pulled a brand new deck of cards from one of his coat's inner pockets, and began to shuffle. Across the room, Ser Kinnon was—with Tasia's assistance, Cullen noted—searching through an open cabinet. Bottles clinked as the two rummaged; Kinnon withdrew another bottle of Starkhaven's most famous export, while Tasia came away from the cabinet cradling a dark green bottle, which she set in front of Fenris with a knowing smile. The elf inclined his head and pulled the bottle closer, prying off the wax seal with a thumbnail.
Varric dealt the cards as drinks were poured and Cullen could not help but notice the difference in atmosphere from the last time they'd all gathered here. Then, the room had been full of people who'd needed to heal, to remind themselves that life did not have to be rife with pain and difficult decisions, people who'd needed to be reminded what living felt like. Tonight, it was not reassurance and companionship they all needed, but… something different, and yet no less important: quiet intimacy among friends.
"You're the cheatingest cheater who ever cheated!" Kiara cried, launching herself most of the way across the table but still falling a little short of her mark. She blamed the very excellent whiskey she'd been imbibing since the moment they fled the party—she and Sebastian nearly resorting to physically dragging Corwin away from what he'd assumed were his duties (the prince's steward's duties, as Sebastian reminded him, were to do whatever the prince said; a point upon which the steward had little room to argue)—and she was no longer required to be on her best, most sober behavior.
Sebastian's drink tipped, but luckily the tumbler was mostly empty and his quick reflexes saved the rest. Isabela, trying not to get caught, pushed herself backward from the table, underestimated the volume of her skirts, and fell back against the floor with a fabric-muffled thump. Kiara, crowing her delight at the uncharacteristic show of gracelessness, hoisted herself up, ran around the table, and jumped on Isabela before she could rise again. "Where are they hidden!"
"I don't know what you're talking about!" Isabela retorted, though her eyes shone with barely restrained mirth.
"I was dealt the Angel of Death in the first hand," Kiara insisted. Her own skirts were no great help; she couldn't get a good pinning grip with her legs. "So imagine my surprise when you had one too! There's only one in the deck, 'Bela. Hence? Cheatingest cheater."
Varric snorted. "And just what were you doing holding onto the Angel all this time, Hawke?"
Kiara blew a fallen lock of hair from her face and grinned at the dwarf. "Wouldn't you like to know? But it hardly matters now, because Isabela is a cheating cheater and it's time to make her pay."
Isabela smirked up at her, not looking particularly put out, for all she was flat on her back and half-buried under a thousand yards of fabric. "Mmm. And just how do you intend to do that, Hawke? Because I'm really rather enjoying the view from here, and would hardly call it punishment. In fact, I'm suddenly reminded of that mud-wrestling match. What do you say we do this in a more civilized, less-clothed fashion?"
"How is less clothed more civilized?" Tasia asked. Kiara didn't need to look at her to picture the exact disapproving eyebrow doubtless arching at the very thought.
"We could always ask Tasia to provide mud-wrestling gowns," Kiara mused. "And you'd only find another way to cheat. Swathed in yards of skirt is the closest we'll ever be to evenly matched."
Isabela laughed a very startling, very unsettling laugh, and Kiara had about three seconds to regret her whiskey-fueled attack before she found herself on her back, glaring up at a very self-satisfied pirate. "Sweet thing," Isabela purred, leaning close enough that Kiara felt the warmth of her breath against her ear, "I may prefer the feel of the breeze against unclad thighs, but don't assume that means I can't fight in a dress." Isabela tilted her head just enough to press a brief, chaste kiss to Kiara's cheekbone. "And I will never tell you where I keep them, kitten."
"In her corset," Varric supplied mildly, leaning back in his own seat. "And is deft with both her hands and her ability to provide distraction long enough to retrieve them." Varric wiggled his fingers in Isabela's general direction. "Before the memorable play of the double Angel of Death, you'll recall she made our noble Turnip blush and then cast aspersions on poor Lucky's manhood. Then she poured Hawke another drink, which necessitated quite the acrobatic lean over the table. I'm pretty sure that's when the card came out. Still warm, I don't doubt."
Isabela sat back hard, surrounded by the froth of her skirts, her eyes wide. "Fuzzy! How could you?"
"What?" Varric asked with feigned innocence. "I didn't tell them about the ones you keep in your boots. Or under your headscarf. Or that one time you—"
"Best stop now, Varric," Sebastian mused, chuckling. "I'd rather not see this day end in murder."
Varric crossed his hands over his belly and winked. "Also, I'm pretty sure she stole your necklace while she was kissing you just now, Hawke."
Placing her hand upon her neck and finding it bare, Kiara swung her head around to glare at Isabela, who looked incredibly put out. She rolled her eyes and, with no discernible movement whatsoever beyond a twist of her wrist, produced the pilfered necklace, hanging from one crooked finger.
"I know I should be horrified," Amelle mused as she looked down at them, "but mostly I'm just impressed."
"Maker's balls, Mely, don't tell her that. You'll just encourage her."
"And when," asked Fenris, "has Isabela ever needed encouragement?"
"The elf speaks truth," Varric intoned.
Grumbling, Kiara snatched the delicate necklace from where it dangled, the gold still warm from her skin, and refastened it, which she managed after two or three—okay, four—attempts. When she tried to get to her feet, a feat made far more difficult by the froth of skirts surrounding both her and Isabela, she looked up to find her new husband doing a very poor job of hiding his mirth, even as he stood and offered her a hand up. Even more annoying, Isabela had gotten to her feet with enviable ease, skirts or no skirts.
"I can get up perfectly fine on my own, thank you," Kiara sniffed with as much wounded dignity as she could muster, which was a not inconsiderable amount; however, once she began the attempt to right herself, the sheer volume of material, which had felt positively cloudlike when she'd put it on that morning, was so billowing and unwieldy, she couldn't manage to lever herself up again.
"You're quite sure, my heart?" asked Sebastian, maddeningly straight-faced.
"Of course I'm sure," Kiara returned, very carefully keeping the huffiness out of her voice. "I'm simply not ready to get up yet, and this floor is surprisingly comfortable." She gathered her skirts more closely around her and sank down, pillowing herself against the fluffy, bunched material.
Somewhere above her, Tasia made a tiny, horrified sound. "Your Highness," she squeaked, in a very unTasialike tone, doubtless helped by her own consumption of whiskey. "Have you any idea what the value of—"
Kiara rolled her eyes and flopped backward, a tacit invitation for Cupcake to come snuffling over if ever there was one. "Maker's balls, Tasia, I'm hardly going to have occasion to wear it again." As a cold nose pressed her cheek and dog hair doubtless found its way on the garment, she turned her head and grinned, blinking wide eyes at her horrified maid, "And I trust your superlative gown, uh, caring-for skills. If anyone can rescue it after its brief stint as a mattress, I know you can."
Amelle laughed. "Is this our cue to leave, Kiri?"
"Any and all of you are welcome to join me down here. Sebastian, love, there are an abominable number of spider webs on your ceiling."
Amelle's laugh froze, mid-ha. "My bed is sounding better and better."
"Perhaps," Fenris murmured, "a strategic retreat is in order."
"Couldn't have said it better myself," Amelle agreed.
"Oh, fine," Kiara muttered. "If someone would be so kind as to lend me a hand or six, we'll have a final toast and call it an evening. Isabela, so help me if you take that pot, I will have your ship impounded. I can do that now, you know."
"Oh, Hawke!" Merrill cried as Corwin reached over her to add another splash of whiskey to her glass, "You wouldn't! How would we get home again?"
"Over land, like civilized people," Varric muttered. "Impound the boat. Please."
"Ship," Isabela growled, though she grinned and reached out to ruffle Varric's hair as she did.
"I think I'd take seasickness over darkspawn and avalanches," Cullen said. "And rain. And caves. And bandits."
Varric raised his brows. "Says the Turnip who gets to stay safe and sound inside his nice warm castle. With a plethora of pretentious noblewomen to smite."
"Better them than me," muttered Amelle into her glass.
"You're the one keen to head back," Kiara reminded Varric mildly, leaning on one elbow. Tasia made another indignant noise. "Your invitation is an entirely open-ended one. My safe warm palace is your safe warm palace."
Varric rolled his eyes. "And let Rivaini get up to no good without me? Won't do, Hawke. Seasickness or no seasickness, I guess."
As grim as only a onetime cabinmate could be, Sebastian said, "I'd wager on the seasickness."
Kiara let her husband offer both his hands and use more than his share of leverage to pull her to her feet. Upright once more, she nestled under the weight of his arm and turned her face up to accept the warmth of his kiss.
"You're not near as drunk as you were pretending to be just now, dear one," Sebastian murmured against her lips.
"Am I not?" she asked with feigned innocence. "One might think I had other plans for the rest of this evening. Um. Night. Morning? Have we hit morning yet?"
The fire was dying now, leaving the room half-swathed in shadows, but she could make out every one of the smiling, familiar faces turned her way. Chuckling, she handed Sebastian's nearly-empty glass to him and picked up her own, lifting it in a silent toast. He clinked the edge of his crystal cup to hers. "To the future?"
"To the future," she said, moving her gaze slowly around the room, meeting the eyes of each and every one of her companions, old and new. A knot of emotion lodged in her throat as she remembered a very different night, and a very different drink, alone after the mess of the battle with Meredith and the loss of the Chantry. How different things were now.
Here was her sister, glowing with happiness as she held Fenris' hand; Aveline and Donnic, whole and hale, the hope for a city once deemed hopeless; Varric and Isabela, grinning, surprising wisdom couched in levity. Tasia and Kinnon weren't quite touching, but Kiara didn't miss the way the backs of their hands brushed and neither pulled away. Corwin smiled his fatherly smile, pleased and proud in a way she'd not seen since her own father died. Merrill's eyes were bright with unshed tears, her hands clasped at her breast, the marks of her blood magic now faded to the dimmest of scars. Cullen gave Kiara a nod, serious but not reserved. Even Cupcake sat, alert and attentive, as if he knew perfectly well the significance of the moment. And Sebastian—oh, she'd never even allowed herself to dream an echo of this reality. His lips turned up as if he knew the exact tenor of her thoughts; perhaps he did. For once she didn't swallow her tears or blink them away. She lifted her glass to each in turn. "And to family, chosen family, strange and patchwork as we are, far-flung as we may end up. You are the best people I have ever known, and my life would have been incomparably poorer—and infinitely shorter, I think—without you in it."
Murmured agreements followed this, and glasses were raised and brought together and sipped from.
"The future," Kiara repeated, meeting Amelle's eyes.
"The future," Amelle agreed. "And home."