damalur: (ats • madness rides the star-wind)
no, use my SPACE name! ([personal profile] damalur) wrote2015-03-21 10:51 am

crooked little (dragon age, hawke/varric)

Title: Crooked Little
Pairing: Hawke/Varric
Wordcount: 26k
Warnings: Light body horror, corpse mutilation, and all the trappings that go along with blood magic.
Summary: It's a crooked little thing they have, but it's theirs (or at least it is until ballgowns, card games, and apostasy get in the way).
Notes: It came from the kink meme! Many thanks to Lotte and all the folks on Twitter who listening to my writing pains, and even more thanks to everyone who stuck with this through the first posting. <3

They both knew that Varric was still in love with Bianca and Hawke wasn't interested in relationships; that was why the arrangement worked.

"But didn't it hurt?" said Hawke.

Varric swatted at her lazily.

"I'm serious, Varric—all right, don't snort." She tugged at one of his earrings. "Aren't they uncomfortable to sleep in? What if someone rips them off in a fight? What if someone cuts off your ear and uses it to ransom you—"

"You have enough money," Varric said. "I'm sure you'd figure something out."

"Yes," said Hawke, "but you'd look unbalanced with only one ear, don't you think? Maybe Anders could grow you a new one. Oh, but you'd have to get it pierced again." She shuddered dramatically; pressed together as they were, Varric felt it run from her head to her toes.

"Hawke, are you telling me you're afraid of needles?"

"It's a common fear!" said Hawke. "Just because I don't want to have my flappy bits skewered in the name of vanity—"

"It doesn't hurt as much as you're imagining. Shit, it doesn't hurt as much as being stabbed, and you've probably been stabbed...what? Dozens of times?"

"Hundreds," said Hawke. "Maybe thousands." She sighed and finally let go of his earring. "Time to go home. I promised Bodahn I'd be around tomorrow."

Varric cracked open an eye, the better to appreciate the scenery as it bent to retrieve its boots. She'd put on a little more weight, thank the Maker; there were days in the immediate aftermath of Leandra's funeral when he'd worried Hawke was going to starve herself to death before she could drink herself into oblivion. She hadn't quite reached an even keel yet, but for the first time in months, he was starting to believe she might find herself sooner rather than later.

He thought about asking her to stay, but then decided he'd better not.

"Why?" he asked instead.

"No idea," Hawke said. She finished buttoning her shirt and dragged on the oversized gray coat that had belonged to her father; he hadn't seen that since before their expedition to the Deep Roads, which had provided her the funds to finally purchase new clothing. "But Bodahn doesn't ask for all that much. I'm inclined to believe he needs someone to keep an eye on Sandal while he runs errands."

"Do me a favor, Hawke—make sure the two of you together don't get some dangerous idea in your head, like enchanting your dog to fly, or putting explosive runes on the fireplace."

Hawke snorted. "If I blew up the house, Mother would come back from beyond the Fade to haunt me." She took a flask from her pocket and downed a fortifying swig. "And I'm off. Any plans for tomorrow?"

"I have some business to take care of," Varric lied. "Even I can't avoid the Merchant's Guild indefinitely. Some other time?"

"Fine by me," said Hawke. She finished tucking her precautionary knife into her belt and turned to the door. Varric scratched his chest and sat up; the sheets fell to his lap.

"You know," he said, "now that I think about it, that business shouldn't take all day, if you wanted to swing by in the evening."

"Either way," said Hawke.


"And don't let anyone cut off your ears in the meantime," she added, and then she waved at him and departed. The air felt charged when Hawke was in a room, and her sudden absence left a void Varric could never quite manage to fill of his own accord.

After a while, he pulled on some clothes and went down to the main floor of the tavern to eat. Norah—provided she wasn't too busy—was more than willing to bring his meal up to his rooms, but Varric needed the noise, he needed the clamor of the bar; he needed the stench and the muted light.

He...probably didn't need Guard Captain Aveline, but there she was anyway, planted in the middle of a table, a boulder in the midst of a stream of drunken merriment. There wasn't a whole lot of point in avoiding Aveline; he could try, but sooner or later she'd fix him with a stare and twitch her eyebrow upward until he buckled. Varric was a soft touch for a pretty lady, and Aveline was certainly that, although he'd never say as much to her face. She was pretty, but she could break him over her knee, and they both knew it.

"Aveline!" he said, and swung a leg over the bench. "What brings you to this fine establishment?"

Up twitched the eyebrow. "Dinner," said Aveline. "And news, of course. Was that Hawke I saw leaving a few minutes ago?"

"Might have been. You know Hawke—here and gone." Varric gave Norah a nod, and she tipped a wink back at him and bustled into the kitchen to retrieve a second plate. "How's the married life treating you?"

"Well enough. It's difficult to take pleasure in my new circumstances when Hawke is...still grieving." Leandra had vanished a matter of days after Aveline's wedding; Varric had to pity Donnic, the poor bastard, who'd had his honeymoon interrupted when his wife charged off to muster her guard and clean up after a crazy, murderous blood mage. And Donnic had spent so long planning the trip, too.

"Hawke will be fine," Varric said. "Not just yet, maybe, but give her time. She's a survivor."

"She vomited on the steps of the Viscount's Keep last week. I had to bribe a lad to clean the mess up before word got out."

Norah deposited a plate, a bowl, and a tankard, all filled, in front of Varric. "Do you really want to have a conversation about Hawke's delicate mental state?"

"No," said Aveline, "but nonetheless, you know her as well as anyone. Better, even."

"Yeah, I'm not so sure about that," Varric countered.

"She's your friend—"

"She's everyone's friend," said Varric. "And if she isn't their friend, she's their rival, their partner, their sworn enemy, or their drinking buddy. Hawke's got a way with people."

Aveline drove her fork into her mystery meat and angled herself in a way that made Varric abruptly aware that the breadth of her shoulders nearly rivaled his own. "Varric," she said.

"All right, all right, don't get your sword in a knot." He propped his elbows on the table. "You want to know what I think? I think that for the first time she can remember, Hawke doesn't have anyone depending on her. Her sister's dead, her mother's gone, and Junior is off fighting darkspawn—Hawke couldn't play shepherd with him if she tried."

"That's an awfully generous assessment of a woman who thinks cheating at cards is a legitimate career," said Aveline. She couldn't keep the judgment from her tone, but it was threaded through with fondness. For reasons Varric had never fully understood, Aveline liked Hawke, and maybe even liked that Hawke was a scoundrel.

"Oh," he said, "I'm not saying she isn't…" Absurd? Insane? Special? "Eccentric," he settled on, "but she's also been the provider for her family since dear old Malcolm met his end."

Aveline's eyes narrowed in thought, and she cut a chunk of meat and chewed it while she turned over the idea. Varric wasn't particularly inclined to discuss Hawke's feelings, but he trusted Aveline, and that said a lot.

"You mean," she finally said, "that this is eight years of mourning, not eight weeks."

"Something like that." Varric abandoned the meat in favor of his stewed vegetables. "Does this taste weird to you? Shit, I hope there isn't boiled goat under all of this."

"Are you sure you know what you're doing with her?"

"With what, the goat? I don't know for sure it's a 'she,' but I'll give you the benefit of the doubt—"

Aveline snorted. "With Hawke."

Varric gave up the stewed vegetables and decided to stick with the ale. The Hanged Man's cuisine wasn't as universally atrocious as its detractors claimed, but there were off-nights. Sometimes off-weeks. Now and then the occasional off-month. This was shaping up to be one of the latter. He swallowed and said, "This isn't about the incident with that Orlesian chevalier, is it? Because I told you, Hawke and I didn't start that. Actually, it's fair to say that we were the victims in the whole affair—"

"That man ended up in front of the Chantry, naked from the waist down. If there's blame to be had, dwarf, I'm sure you and Hawke deserve a fair portion," Aveline said. "And no, that wasn't what I meant."

"I can't decide if that's a good sign or a bad one. Ah, well." Varric shrugged, drained his mug, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "As long as I don't have to spend the night in one of your jail cells, I'm counting it as a win."

Aveline fixed him with one of those stares. "I know you're sleeping with Hawke, Varric."

Well now, that did change things. He didn't rush to answer the accusation; defensive wasn't the tone he needed to strike here. Aveline's gaze never wavered as he tore off a chunk of bread and used it to mop up the gravy on his plate, but Varric wouldn't have expected any less.

"I'd pat you on the back for being observant," he said, "but we haven't been trying to hide it. Nothing wrong with a little fun between friends."

"And is that what your arrangement is? 'Fun'?"

Varric shrugged. "More or less. Neither of us are exactly, ah...looking for attachments, if you know what I mean. Hawke offered—or did I offer? It's hazy." He waved a hand negligently.

"You might not be set on keeping it a secret," said Aveline, "but you aren't particularly forthcoming, either. How long has this been going on? A week? A month? Since before Leandra died?"

"Eight months," Varric admitted, and Andraste's shiny armored ass, he hoped Aveline wouldn't read something into it that wasn't there.

"Eight months." Aveline flattened her hands against the table and leaned forward in agitation. "So help me, if you're using her, Varric—"

"Whoa there," he said. "There's no using." Not in the sense Aveline meant, at least, although he and Hawke had definitely used each other enthusiastically and thoroughly on a number of occasions. "You said it yourself—Hawke's my friend, of course she means something to me. A couple of rounds of slap-and-tickle doesn't change that."

Aveline's eyes narrowed to slits. "But you're not in love with her?"

He snorted. "I'm about as in love with Hawke as she is with me. Look, if it makes you feel better, it probably won't last much longer—you know Hawke can never settle on one person, and I've got other obligations."

Their spontaneous staring contest was interrupted when Norah appeared to swap his empty tankard for a full one and set a small plate of cookies on the table beside Aveline's elbow. "Our thanks for clearing out those ruffians last week," she said with a wink, and Aveline retreated to a normal and not uncomfortably intimate distance. Varric sometimes wondered if the rest of Hawke's misfit band realized what a rare kind of woman the Guard Captain was—almost as rare as Hawke herself. Sure, Aveline was a dour prude, but every hero needed a couple of character flaws to keep them interesting.

"All right," Aveline relented. "If you say so. It isn't any of my business." She bit into one of her cookies.

"Hey, Red, you know I don't mind you looking out for Hawke." He smirked when she glowered at the nickname, and then he snatched one of her cookies away; it was a good sign that she let him take one without more than a brief grumble. "Now—were you looking to hear news, or tell it?"

"Both. This is a matter that requires discretion. It concerns Hawke."


She wiped her lips and then her fingertips clean on a napkin with more delicacy than Varric would have given her credit for. "You're familiar with Kirkwall's human nobility?"

"I thought we'd established that I am very familiar with at least one member of Kirkwall's nobility—"

"Varric." Her mouth twitched once before returning to its usual stern line. Oh, that was a good detail—he'd have to remember to write it down for the next installment of Swords and Shields. "The information I have concerns a Lord Osgar Selbrech."

"Ah," Varric said.

"You know something."

"Why don't you tell me what you've got, and we'll see if it jars my memory."

Her expression told him she wasn't impressed with his ingenuity. "Very well. Selbrech's the head of an old Marcher family—influential still, if not so large as it once was."

"Does he have a wife? Kids?"

"Married with one son," Aveline said, "although he's named his brother's oldest girl as his heir. I've yet to hear an explanation for that."

Huh. She really had done her research. Varric propped his elbows on the table and said, "I'm no expert, but none of that sounds particularly criminal."

"I'd be shocked if Selbrech has ever broken a law in his life," Aveline agreed. "He tithes a quarter of his income or more, spends one day a week counselling prisoners, and employs only destitute refugees. Last year he went to court against a magister on behalf of the escaped slave he'd hired as a cook."


"And there is the problem," she said. "Selbrech is devout."

"Let me guess—'magic should serve man.'"

"That's it," said Aveline. "Lord Selbrech feels strongly that the Circle is the most compassionate place for mages, and last week one of his aides was at the Viscount's Keep asking for whatever records were publicly available on the Amell family."

Varric took another swig of his ale as he mulled the situation over. It wasn't common knowledge that Hawke was an apostate, and he'd gone to a lot of trouble make sure that information stayed privileged. Her fighting style did a lot to disguise her nature; for all the potentially revealing scrapes she got into, she carried a weapon that was closer to a glaive than a traditional staff, and she knew how to use it in a melee, too. (She referred to it as a 'stick retrieved from Parthalan's rear,' which Varric had assumed was obscure Ferelden humor until he'd done a little digging.)

No, as far as the templars, nobility, and other interested parties of Kirkwall were concerned, Hawke was simply a slightly eccentric spearwoman. Hearing that one of the above had a possible interest in locking her away was...alarming.

"And you—you already knew everything I told you, didn't you?" said Aveline.

"Maybe," he said, pleased at her realization. "It says a lot that you think Selbrech is worth paying attention to, though. Hawke's a fad right now—everyone wants to know who she is, where she came from, and why she won't come to their parties. Selbrech's guy was the fifth person to ask for the Amell genealogies this month. Most of them just want to check how closely they're related to Hawke before they try to marry their sons off to her, but Selbrech's son—"

"Is twelve," Aveline finished.

"Exactly," said Varric.

"I'm trusting that I won't see Hawke dragged through the streets to the Gallows by Knight-Commander Meredith any time soon."

"Oh, believe me," Varric said, "if I have anything to say, you won't see that ever. Keep your ears open, though—there's always a chance you'll hear something I won't."

"Not much of one, but I'll do my part." Aveline wiped her mouth and set her napkin on the table before standing; her sword and shield were leaning against the wall within easy reach, and she girded the sword and then swung the shield easily over her back. "And Varric?"


"Lord Selbrech's a good man—"

"For a narrow definition of 'good', sure."

"He's a good man," Aveline repeated. "Don't harm him because of what you think he might one day do."

Varric raised his hands. "Not my style."

"No," said Aveline, "but you have a blind spot when it comes to her. I won't be given cause to regret this."

"It's a little late to be casting aspersions on my character."

"Good night, Varric."

"Good night, Aveline." He chuckled as he watched her leave; a crowd of young men had just come through the door, but one look at Aveline's glower had them scattering out of her way. Which reminded him— "Tell Donnic he still owes me from last week!"

"Tell him yourself!" she called back, and then she lifted one hand and disappeared into the night.

Well, now. Selbrech asking after Hawke, and Aveline worried about it—that was interesting. It might mean nothing at all; but it might mean something more dire than Varric felt like contemplating. Hawke had never seen a Circle from the inside in her entire life, and if he had anything to say about it, she never would. There were few things he could think of that would kill Hawke more quickly than the Gallows, and none at all that could tip her so easily off the edge into despair.


He was at Hawke's mansion in Hightown late the next morning. The situation warranted urgency and caution and all those other not-nice things, sure, but it wasn't the end of the world, which meant there was no reason to rise with the sun. Hawke herself was obviously hungover; he had to drag her out of bed and bully her into clothes, and the only way he got her out the door was by promising they could take her dog along with them.

"Weren't you busy today?" Hawke asked.

"I have no idea where you heard that," Varric lied.

"You told me," said Hawke. "In fact, I distinctly remember you mentioning that you had guild business."

"Yeah, well, you were supposed to be helping Bodahn—" Hawke's dog planted himself firmly in Varric's path, and Varric had to haul himself up short to avoid tripping. "Shit!"

"Oh, look. He brought you something," said Hawke.

"A rock. Great." Rabbit tilted his head and whined, and Varric sighed. "It's not that I don't appreciate the thought, and I know it's a traditional gift, but you know how I feel about rocks."

"Save it for your next game of diamondback, boy," Hawke advised. "You can use it to sweeten the pot." Rabbit perked up again, seized the rock in his slobbery jaws, and bolted off. It was a wonder Hawke wasn't the terror of the town, what with the way she let her giant warhound run around and all.

Hawke, meanwhile, used Varric's temporary distraction to swing around and start back home; Varric caught her by the elbow and turned her back in the direction of the markets. Fortunately, she didn't make a fuss. In the weeks since Leandra had passed, he'd made a habit of forcing her outside and into long, rambling walks. Not exactly Varric's favorite pastime, except in that no time spent with Hawke was time wasted, but at least the pallor in her cheeks was giving ground to a healthy flush.

Lowtown's bazaar was already crawling with activity; it was, after all, Market Day, and even some of the fancy bastards from Hightown would be nosing around the stalls, looking to buy or sell or take in the lowerclass color. Hawke scowled at the hum of noise, but Varric liked the sights and sounds. There were merchants calling out their wares, hopefuls bargaining for a round of cheese or a bolt of cloth or a sharp dagger, craftsmen and tourists and minstrels and even a couple of dirty-faced urchins slinking around the edges of the whole ruckus.

Varric planted himself behind Hawke and herded her into the crowd. He almost lost her when she twisted to the side, but then he caught sight of a velvet purse in her hand before it vanished up a sleeve. A few paces later the same purse reappeared just in time to drop in the lap of one of those dirty-faced urchins.

"Better not let anyone catch you at that," he muttered.

"Why, Varric, I have no idea what you mean," said Hawke, and Varric grinned to himself.

"Haven't you heard? Hightown ladies don't have sticky fingers."

Hawke stopped short, and he almost slammed into her. "A lady?" she said. "Did you just call me a lady?"

"Careful there, Hawke—don't get too worked up, I know you Hightown types have delicate constitutions, and nobody wants to see you swoon in the middle of the market." Actually, Varric would have paid good money to see Hawke swoon, or at least see her attempt at it; he wasn't sure she was capable of the act sincerely, but her imitation would be a hoot. Lots of staggering around while she tried not to laugh at her own wit, he'd bet.

"You know, I'm not sure I care to be seen in public with someone who insults me so horrendously." She sniffed a couple of times; hard to tell if she was imitating some upper-crust snot flouncing or if the hangover had made her congested.

"Uh-huh," said Varric. "Well, if my presence is such a burden, feel free to make your escape."

"I will," said Hawke.

He waited.

"Any minute now," Hawke added.

He shaded his eyes and looked up at her. It was late summer in Kirkwall, and the city was sticky with a heat even the fresh breeze off the ocean couldn't drive away. There wasn't any reason for Hawke to be standing as close to him as she was, not when both of them were already starting to perspire under the noon sun.

Hawke shifted; like magic, the scowl on her face vanished, the bow of her mouth pursed, and her eyes, already blue enough to stop a man's heart in his chest, widened to an irresistible degree.

Varric spread his feet and braced himself.

"Varric," said Hawke. Had her voice always been that breathy? "Varric, my oldest, dearest friend, the comrade of my bosom, the companion of my loins—"

"You're good," Varric said, "but not good enough to get away with using 'loins.' Nice try, Hawke."

"Five sovereigns," said Hawke. "Five. That's all I'm asking."

"Aren't you supposed to be rich now?"

"If someone hadn't dragged me out of the house when I was barely awake, we wouldn't be having this conversation," Hawke pointed out. "And I was recently informed that stealing is wrong, although of course I suppose that's a matter of relative morality—"

Varric sighed heavily and made a show of digging a couple of coins out of his pocket. "Don't buy anything that has holes in it," he warned Hawke. "I don't care how good of a deal it is."

"That scarf was only lightly moth-bitten."

"Your head is moth-bitten," he retorted. Not his best, but the sun had caught the color in Hawke's eyes again. He wasn't lovestruck or anything; it was just that her eyes were blue like something from beyond the Veil. Striking, but creepy. Hawke smirked crookedly at him and turned into the crowd, undoubtedly to pick through the wares until she found some totally useless bauble that she would later try to pawn off as a gift. Hawke's gift-giving skills were roughly equivalent to her talent for staying out of trouble—that was, non-existent.

Left to his own devices, Varric drifted past the stalls until he found a vendor selling apples. It was still early in the season, but the first crop was ripe enough; he bought a couple of them and then positioned himself halfway up one of the many staircases that ringed Lowtown, where he pulled a knife from his belt and cut a slice from the fruit. Tart and sweet; perfect.

He let his eyes wander where they would. One of the minstrels tucked down an alley had started up a song that was apparently a celebration of Queen Anora's charms, although it sounded approximately as cheerful as a funeral dirge. After a couple of verses, the poor woman was shouted down by a crowd of Marchers hollering for something more patriotic, and she struck up 'The Lay of the Squealing Plains' to generous applause.

Hawke was easy to pick out even at this distance, with her tall, slim figure and dark hair. There was, of course, also the matter of her clothing. 'Slovenly' was too kind a word; her linen shirt was sized for someone twice as broad through the shoulders, and the red scarf she was using for a belt looked like something a traveling company would use in a farce. Apostate fashion—they all dressed like magpies, or maybe like peacocks, in whatever clothing was closest at hand and with whatever accessories were the most garish.

He was so busy watching her argue with the shopkeeper that he almost forgot the real reason he'd made this little trip. Lord Osgar Selbrech and son strolled into the bazaar from the direction of Hightown; it was only the way the crowd parted for them that drew his eyes. Selbrech and the kid were both dressed in plain clothes, the father's hand clasping his son's shoulder paternally. Right on schedule, Selbrech stopped to talk to a couple of Ferelden refugees while the kid ran over to the weaponsmith and started looking at the daggers. Looking, but not touching—Selbrech's son was well-behaved.

Aveline had been right to assume that Varric had already caught wind of Selbrech's, ah, opinions. Varric paid good coin to be informed, and even better coin to be informed about Hawke; he had arrangements with no fewer than three clerks at the Viscount's Keep, two of whom had notified him within a couple of hours that Selbrech had sent his aide specifically to inquire about Marian Hawke's family history. He knew Selbrech's annual income and where the family investments sat, he knew the origin of the man's personal seal and how many horses he kept...shit, Varric knew which pew Selbrech favored during Chantry services. The one thing he hadn't done, though, was set eyes on Selbrech, and that was the purpose of this little jaunt. Well, that and getting Hawke out of the house.

Down in the market, Selbrech pressed a purse not unlike the one Hawke had lifted earlier into a refugee's hands and then rejoined his son at the weaponsmithy. They spent a couple of minutes talking, the boy's face eager, Selbrech's sober—no chance of hearing what they were saying over the din of the crowd—and then Selbrech passed a couple of flashing coins to the smith and picked up a short dagger, which he presented to his son. The boy lit up like a candle, and Selbrech grinned at his son's obvious joy.

The problem was that Selbrech was exactly what he appeared to be. Varric mulled that over, a little bitter that the man wasn't obviously cruel or haughty or incompetent. No, Selbrech had to be respectful to the shopkeepers, kind to the impoverished, and adoring to his son, who clearly thought the sun shone out of his father's ass. Actually, that was the one thing that did surprise Varric—the kid didn't look at all like his dad. Of course, that didn't mean anything; Varric and Bartrand both favored their mother, and to hear Leandra (Maker bless her) talk, Hawke and her brother were the spitting images of old Malcolm.

And speak of the demon: here was Hawke herself, climbing up the steps with her dog bounding at her heels. She dropped down beside Varric on the stair, and Rabbit took up an obedient post just below her.

"Find anything?" Varric asked, and obligingly offered her a slice of his apple.

Hawke plucked the piece from the flat of his knife and stuck the whole thing in her mouth. "Regrettably, nothing moth-eaten," she said. "I did find this amulet for Isabela, though—the shopkeeper assured me it would cause her enemies' pockets to turn out and spill all their coin on the streets. Sounds promising."

Varric snorted. "Sounds exactly like the kind of nonsense Rivaini would use to build up her own legend. On second thought, you're right—she'll love it." Hawke was pouting in the direction of his apple, so he carved off another slice and passed it to her. She ate this one in two clean bites and then licked the juice from her fingers.

Selbrech and son were making their way back home. Varric lost sight of them as they started the long climb out of the pit of Lowtown; if his sources were correct (and they usually were), Selbrech would spend his afternoon with his lady wife before taking his evening ride west, towards the delta country, where his extensive lands were located.

"You know," said Hawke, "I haven't had an apple since before Mother…"

Rabbit dropped his head and whined, and Varric's attention resolved solely on Hawke. She cleared her throat and said, "She used to make apple tarts when we lived in Lothering. Every autumn, because Father liked apples, and because it was the one dessert she knew how to bake. Not much of a cook, was Mother. She would make us all help her, even Carver. I hated it—being stuck in the kitchen with her. She always...she used to laugh at me, you know. Said someday I'd be baking apple tarts with my own daughter. I suppose the joke's on her in the end, though. Imagine—me with children." Hawke laughed, but without her usual riotous glee; the sound was flat and forced.

"You aren't planning on kids?" he said carefully.

"We aren't all destined to be the paternal head of a flock of twelve," said Hawke. "And the last time I tried to cook, I caught the oven on fire."

"I'm no expert on cooking, but from what I've heard, that's what you're supposed to do with ovens."

"Yes, well—don't laugh—I was trying to speed things along with a small fireball. There wasn't much of an oven left by the time I was finished. I told you not to laugh. In fact, I was very clear in that instruction."

Varric was laughing so hard he had to turn his head to the side so he didn't spew flecks of apple all over Hawke. After a couple of seconds, he felt her shoulders start to shake against him, and Rabbit, ever sensitive to his mistress's moods, let out a couple of rapid and excited barks. They must have spent ten minutes in hysterics, no doubt looking like a couple of lazy idiots as they sprawled on the stairs beside each other; when they finally got themselves under control, Varric wiped the tears from his eyes with the back of his hand.

"All right," he said. "No cooking for you, Hawke."

"I spent years trying to convince Mother of that," she said, all bright hauteur. "Fortunately, I have a number of other talents. Would you like a demonstration?"

"Not in public," said Varric.

"What a shame," said Hawke. "I happen to think I perform rather well with an audience." She cast him a sideways look. "I'd suggest a private show, but I really ought to keep my word to Bodahn. Unless you had some other pressing business…?"

Varric flicked a couple of apple seeds down the steps; Hawke's dog almost did a backbend trying to see where they landed before he caught on and spun himself around to investigate. "Nah," he said. "Thanks for coming along, though."

Hawke wrinkled her nose; it was a good thing Varric wasn't looking for disappointment in her face, because he didn't find any. "Still trying to get me to appreciate fresh air, I see," she said. "You, of all people. I thought better of you than this."

"Yeah, well, you know me, Hawke—I live to torment you."

Her face cracked into a grin that once would have come far more readily, and she rolled to her feet with a grace that vividly illustrated the martial training that had been drilled into her since childhood. He remembered how shocked he'd been the first time he'd seen her throw a punch after learning she was an apostate—that was back when he'd still been shadowing her, trying to figure out if she'd make a decent investment. She'd driven her hit from the hip and had sent the idiot who'd called her out for cheating clean to the floor. Of course, after that the whole thing had devolved into a basic bar fight. Hawke had broken a chair over someone's head and then gone down under a pile of drunks, which would've seemed unfair if Varric hadn't known for sure that she really had been cheating.

"Right," she said, looking down at him. There was an odd hesitance to her, but then she shook it off. "Until later, Varric."

"Don't be a stranger," he called after her. She was swallowed by the throng within a couple of steps, but then a sharp whistle cut through the din, and Rabbit popped to his feet and trotted after his mistress. He still had an apple seed stuck to his nose.

Varric, diminished without his chief source of entertainment and companionship at his side, rubbed hand over his face. She was putting on a good front, at least, and that was better than the wreck she'd been in the immediate aftermath of the funeral. Aw, well. It was probably time to take a break from worrying about Hawke so he could get back to worrying about Hawke. Shit, he really needed some new hobbies.

Before going home, he stopped to drop a couple of words in the right ears; and then he went to the Hanged Man and ignored the stack of Guild paperwork demanding his attention in favor of finishing the latest chapter of Hard in Hightown. Hawke always teased him about using paperwork to procrastinate from writing and writing to procrastinate from paperwork, but Varric liked to retort that he had to take inspiration where he could get it—and Hawke was tremendously inspiring.


He avoided Hawke for the rest of the week; a little separation was healthy, after all, and it wasn't like he wanted to see her every day. Hawke was inspiring, but she was also more than a handful. The best part was that it turned into the most productive week he'd had in years—the last time he'd gotten so much work done was when Bartrand had come down with a bad case of croup and had been stuck in his fancy-ass mansion for the better part of a month. Varric had been temporarily forced into a more visible role; he'd hated it, but he'd gotten the job done. Now there was no Bartrand to act as padding between Varric and the rest of the business world. He still hated it.

On Saturday Isabela dragged him out of his room and down to the bar for what she claimed would be only a short break; four hours later, their table was covered with empty mugs. The conversation had meandered from a rumor Isabela had heard about Choir Boy to a short argument about the best things to do with nipple rings to the current economic situation in Ostwick. By the time half a dozen templars crowded into the Hanged Man, they were both pleasantly tipsy and had solved half the world's problems.

Rivaini made a face when the templars came in. "Ugh," she said. "See, that's why I keep telling Merrill she has to be more careful. Poor sweetheart doesn't realize how quickly one slip-up could ruin the rest of her life."

"Hawke's got the money to keep Daisy comfortable even if she does end up in the Circle," Varric pointed out. "And barring that, you can always smuggle her out."

"That's my point, though—it's an extortion racket. Pay the Knight-Commander, and your sister or husband or daughter stays safe for another year. Fail to pay, and Aunt Susannah gets beaten or worse at the Knight-Commander's leisure."

"Tell the truth: have you been reading Blondie's manifesto again?"

Isabela leaned forward and laughed, which did amazing things to her tits, as she well knew. "He wishes! Alas, not all aspiring authors are as talented as the two of us." She winked. "I'm not interested in revolution, though, just in keeping a few of my favorite mages out of the Gallows. Merrill's too much a sweetheart to be kept locked away, and Anders would probably set himself on fire before he'd let them haul him back under chains."

Varric snorted. "They'd probably skip straight to the Rite of Tranquility for Blondie." He couldn't summon even the pretense of levity at the thought. For Anders there wouldn't be even the recourse of using Hawke's station to plead with Viscount Dumar; Dumar ruled at Meredith's pleasure, and everyone knew it.

"And Hawke," Isabela continued, oblivious to the way Varric closed his eyes against what he knew was coming. "I cannot imagine our darling girl being shut away—"

"Nobody's going to lock away Hawke, not now that she's got a pretty title," Varric ground out.

"Five years ago, I might have believed that," said Rivaini, "but Meredith's getting bolder. I know you've noticed. She took that one boy away last week, Lady Whatsit's heir, and nary a pip has been heard from Young Master Whatsit since."

Varric opened his eyes. "Nobody's taking Hawke," he said again.

"Wishing won't make it so," Isabela said, matching his flat tone. "All I'm saying is that they need to be careful. We need to be careful. Hawke doesn't exactly fade into the background. She'd be safer if she left, but good luck ousting her from Mother's much-loved estate when the dirt hasn't yet settled over Leandra's grave."

Norah arrived with a new set of mugs and took away six of their empties with her. Varric quaffed half of his, lowered it, and said, "Haven't you heard, Rivaini? 'Careful' is my middle name."

"Liar," Isabela said, but not without affection.

Varric smirked at her because it was expected and quaffed the bottom half of his mug because he couldn't shake the image of Hawke being—of Hawke chained—

"Something the matter?" said Isabela.

"Nope," said Varric. "Just remembered that there's an errand I have to run. Tell Corff to put it on my tab."

"Ooh, lucky me! Any chance that offer's good for the rest of the evening?"

"Just this once, Rivaini," he said. "And only if you promise to keep an eye on our friends in the skirts over there." He jerked his chin in the direction of the crowd of templars. Isabela offered him a lazy toast in return, but her gaze was sharp when she trained it on the increasingly rowdy crowd of Meredith's boys and girls. Good woman.

He hauled ass to grab his coat; tonight he didn't bother with Bianca. What was the point? She'd only slow him down, and it wasn't like he needed an audience for his random acts of stupidity. That was the worst part—he knew he was being stupid, but self-reflection did nothing to banish his paranoia that Hawke had been hauled off between Thursday last and now.

Of course, that paranoia just had to manifest when someone caught him by the shoulder ten steps from the Hanged Man. He spun on the bastard, only to find his assailant was some poor kid who'd doubled over to gasp for breath.

"Sorry," the boy wheezed. "Sorry, tried to catch you inside—"

Varric shifted so the light from a nearby brazier washed over the kid's face, and, realizing the boy was one of the runners in his employ, eased his hand away from the knife tucked through the back of his belt. "...Micah?"

"Messere," Micah said. "Whew! Sorry about that, I ran all the way from the estate district. Hightown's crawling with soldiers. You said 'urgent,' though, and my sister lives to serve." Ah, right—Micah's older sister was a junior page with a keen eye and a sharp appreciation for the monetary value of discretion. Varric had hired the both of them two or three years ago when they'd washed up in Darktown fresh from Starkhaven.

He glanced around and pulled the kid down a side alley. "Yeah? What'd she find?"

"She said to tell you that you were right, Messere. About the son, I mean—not that she's found anything definite, but she wouldn't, would she? She did get her hands on a couple of letters, though."

"You have copies?"

Micah yanked the strap of his satchel over his head and offered it to Varric. "Lots," he said cheerfully. "Bad case of the croup going around. Gives Marda plenty of opportunity to go snooping, and you know she likes to snoop."

"Well done," said Varric, and extracted a couple of sovereigns from his pocket. He dropped them into Micah's palm without bothering to count them; the astonishment on the kid's face was thanks enough. "Buy yourself a couple of pies," he said. "And tell your sister I'm sending her a copy of Brother Genitivi's latest book—she'll get a kick out of the chapter where he gets sidetracked by philology."

"Pleasure doing business with you," said Micah, who swept into a bow that nearly brought his nose to his knees before he bolted off again, this time in the direction of the rooms he and his sister rented in Lowtown.

Varric, meanwhile, slung the satchel over his shoulder and resumed his trek to Hawke's mansion at a more sedate pace. Although he'd learned long ago to keep any sign of strain from his face, his heart was hammering; the effort of keeping his steps measured was enough to floor him. Rivani had been sure in her assessment that Anders would be given the Rite of Tranquility straight-off, but while he was a deserter and a rebel, he hadn't blatantly, gleefully paraded himself around in front of the Knight-Commander. If Hawke was outed, she wouldn't be made tranquil—no, Meredith would take the sword to Hawke's neck personally. There would be no trial, just a sharp edge pressed to the hollow of Hawke's throat where Varric had more than once laved kisses into her skin.

He'd never kiss her again if she were charged with apostasy. He'd never hear her laugh again, never watch her fight again, never stay up until dawn talking with her—and somehow that seemed like the biggest loss of all. A lifetime of Hawke's opinions and Hawke's bad jokes and Hawke's laughing inquiries that concealed genuine compassion wouldn't be nearly enough.

And shit, without realizing it he'd fallen in the cadence he used when he was writing romance serials. He'd published one under his own name and half a dozen others under pseudonyms. A few of them had even outsold his crime series, which hadn't made him proud, exactly, but for sheer profit-to-effort, he'd made more money with less work on those than he had anything else. It was ridiculous to even think about Hawke and romances in the same breath, though—she liked farces, adventure novels, and grimoires. The only way he could get her to read anything outside of those narrow categories was if there was a dragon featured prominently on the cover.

The kid had been right, too; Hightown was choked with soldiers. Varric spotted templars, guards, even a couple of regulars from Kirkwall's small standing militia—which meant the Viscount must've really had his pants in a twist over something, if he was willing to call in the ax-crazies. Varric, banking on bravado as the best way to dodge scrutiny, walked like he belonged and greeted Donnic and a couple of the other guardsmen by name.

There was a cluster of them in the courtyard outside of Hawke's door; the sight sent his heart tripping up his windpipe again, but they dispersed at his approach, thank Andraste. Varric waited until they were well out of sight before knocking.

Nobody answered. Shit, shit—that hadn't been paranoia earlier, it'd been a hunch warning him that they'd already come for her. She was probably being forced to her knees in front of the Knight-Commander right at that moment. His mind skipped over the rescue fantasy and straight to a grief too black and an anger too pure to be expressed with words, and all he could think was, Varric, you sorry bastard—

The bolt drew back and the door opened. "Varric?" said Hawke. "If this is about the five sovereigns I owe you, you should know that I fully intend to...intend to… What are you laughing about?"

Varric wheezed at her in relief.

"Right," Hawke said. "Well, if you're determined to go crazy, might as well come inside instead of breaking down on my doorstep. Although that would scandalize the neighbors—right now they seem convinced that the ruffians who call on me only add to my air of mystery, but I'm doing my best to disabuse them of the idea."

Hawke shut the door behind him and waited for him to collect himself with her hands in her pockets. She was wearing the ridiculous velvet jacket that she claimed to like because it made her feel like a Nevarran princess; it fell only to the middle of her thighs, leaving the rest of her legs bare.

She caught him staring and smirked. "Here to scratch an itch?" she inquired sweetly.

Varric straightened. "You're like that proverbial man with a hammer who thinks every problem needs to be nailed." He heard the words coming out of his mouth, he knew he should've stopped, but his tongue had gotten ahead of him.

"Now that you mention it—" said Hawke.


"Mother always said I was her problem child."

"Hawke, no."

"Varric." She adopted an expression of mock hurt. "You mean you don't want to nail me?"

"You had to go there, didn't you," he said. "Actually—wait, did I wake you up?"

"Not at all," said Hawke, "although if you don't mind, perhaps we could take this conversation somewhere else? Sandal's a light sleeper."

"Sure," said Varric. He tossed his duster over one of the entry tables as he passed. The main hall was dark; Hawke led him through to the library and closed the door. Here the fire was blazing, and on the floor in front of the hearth were Hawke's dog (asleep—some guard dog he was), a plate with half a sandwich on it, and an open book. Upon closer inspection, the book contained what looked like spells.

"Chair?" said Hawke. "Or...I see you've already made yourself at home on the floor. When in Tevinter, do as the Tevenes." She fetched a jug of wine and two cups from a cabinet and joined him.

Varric had picked up her spellbook and was holding it gingerly with both hands, like a bird that might fly away or bite him depending on how he handled it. "You keep these locked up, right?"

"Actually, I'd been thinking of setting up a museum. Or perhaps a lending-library—something that really says there's an apostate in residence. Should I advertise?"


She blew her bangs out of her face. "Yes, Varric, I keep my spellbooks locked up like a good little outlaw. I don't have all that many, you know."

"You shouldn't have left this one out while you answered the door," he said. "What if I'd been someone else?"

"Then I would have invited you in to debate the finer points of blood magic."

"I'm serious—"

"But why, that's my question. Oh, all right. I have survived this long, which means I have some idea of what I'm doing." Her hair had fallen in front of her eyes again, and she pushed it back impatiently. "Did you really turn up in the middle of the night to lecture me?"

It was possible he'd let his paranoia get the better of him again. "Sorry," he said.

"That's better." Having made her point, Hawke picked up her sandwich and took an enormous bite. "Mmmfl mmmf?"

"Try that again in trade tongue."

She swallowed. "Why are you here?"

"I don't know, Hawke, that depends—how interested are you in helping me blackmail a fellow noble?"

Her eyes lit up. "Is it tawdry? Please, do tell me it's tawdry."

Varric set aside the spellbook and emptied his satchel of letters out onto the rug. He wasn't planning on revealing the full story just yet, but he'd never been able to resist inviting Hawke to be his partner-in-crime, and if she stumbled across the full story, so be it. "Yeah, maybe. I have a hunch about Lord Osgar Selbrech. Heard of him?"

"Isn't he the one with the hair?" Her hand made a convoluted and meaningless gesture over her head.

"Are you asking if he has hair?"

Hawke narrowed her eyes. "No," she said. "No, definitely not asking that."

"You don't have any idea who he is, do you?"

"Oh, pardon me for not being able to tell Lord Whatsit from Lord Whosthat," said Hawke. "I'm clearly the one at fault here." Sensing an opportunity, she stretched one exploratory foot out towards his crotch. Varric caught her by the ankle and dug his thumbs into her arch, and Hawke melted.

"The theory," Varric said, "goes like this. Osgar Selbrech, forty-four, has one son with his wife, Lady Genevieve of Wycome, but he named one of his younger brother's kids as his heir." Hawke dropped back to her elbows and deposited her other foot in Varric's lap. "The brother's daughter is in her twenties, and Selbrech's son is only eleven or twelve, but it's still pretty damn weird," Varric added. "Selbrech didn't draw up the paperwork to make his niece the official successor until after his son was born."

Hawke made a noise and fell backwards entirely. Varric transferred his grip to her other foot and started to rub her heel. "Mmm," said Hawke. "Wait, you don't think that the niece is…?"

"Up to something?" said Varric. "Yeah, I thought about that, but then I actually got a look at Selbrech's kid. He looks nothing like his father."

She went up on her elbows again. "The son is…"

"You guessed it—as illegitimate as the King of Ferelden. The proof should be somewhere in one of these letters." He nodded at the pile. "I'd like to know the particulars, but one of my sources as good as confirmed it."

Hawke's toes wiggled as she thought. "But Selbrech is raising the boy as his own."

"He is, which is what makes the whole thing even weirder. Lady Genevieve runs off with an old lover—that's who the letters are from—and gets herself knocked up, but then she comes running back to Selbrech, and he just...forgives her?"

"It would explain why he'd written the boy out of the title, though," Hawke pointed out. Varric ran his hand up the underside of one of her calves just to see if he could get her to groan again. "Keeping things in the bloodline and all that nonsense. And it could be that…"


"Well," she said. "It could be that he loves her. Genevieve, I mean." When he didn't answer, Hawke sat up and drew her feet up under her. She didn't look at him, instead training her attention the jar of wine and the process of pouring it out. "Of course, you're the expert on star-crossed lovers. I know a good limerick or two, but that's probably not useful in this situation."

"No, Hawke, that's...definitely an angle to consider."

"I wouldn't rule out the theory that the wife or the niece or both are blackmailing him, though," she said, too cheerful by far. "Wine? Here you are." She set one of the glasses in front of him and retreated back across the rug to sit beside Rabbit; her legs, even out of reach as they were, remained distractingly bare.

Varric was startled that she'd brought it up. Hawke rarely registered romance except to mock it or dismiss it, but she was right, it was entirely possible that Selbrech had simply loved his wife enough to forgive her. There weren't many heads of noble households that would have forgiven a trespass like that, but Selbrech had 'golden boy' written all over him. He radiated holy righteousness as blatantly as Sebastian Vael ever did.

"I used to resent my parents for their love story," Hawke said. She was looking straight at the fire; Varric pulled up one of his knees to rest an arm across it as he listened to her. "If Mother had stayed where she belonged, if Father hadn't been an apostate… I used to think that it was their fault that we had to move so often, that we were so poor, that we had to live in fear of the templars. And it was, in a way—they prioritized each other over comfort and safety without considering what that would mean for their children—but they never gave me cause to doubt that love exists." Her shoulders drew back. "Still. Better to avoid it entirely, don't you think?"

Varric snorted. "Come on, Hawke, you know me better than that. There's nothing like it."

"Far too much of a headache," she said.

"Aw, shit, what would you know?" Varric reached over and knocked his fist against her arm. "You've never been in love."

"I have," she retorted. "And you don't have to look so surprised, you know. It's like a plague, there's no way to prevent it."

Was it Rivaini? The elf? Hawke was indiscriminate with her sexual affection, but Varric hadn't noticed her paying attention to anyone in particular, at least not since they'd started their arrangement, and she hadn't mentioned another partner, which they'd both agreed to do for purposes of hygiene. No, wait—shit. Aw, shit. It had to be Blondie—of course it was Blondie, he and Hawke were both smart-mouthed, bleeding-heart apostates out to pick a fight with the establishment.

"Oh, yeah?" he managed to say without choking. "Who's that?"

"...Nobody you know," said Hawke.

Not Blondie. It must've been somebody Hawke had left behind in Lothering. Too bad. "And what would...she? He?"

"He," said Hawke. "Probably."

"What would he do if you turned up with kid that wasn't his, this old flame of yours?"

"Hard to say." Hawke scratched her nose. "What would you do? If your lover turned up with an illegitimate child, that is."

"I'd...probably take her back," he admitted. "If she wanted to be taken back. If she didn't, I'd offer to help out with the kid and send her on her way."

"That's what he'd do, too," said Hawke. "You know. My—what did you call him? My old flame. Sorry, I just realized I implied there was only one. I meant six. I've fallen in love six times—or was it twelve? Actually, now that I think about it, they were all in love with me, not the other way around. And none of them had any children, illegitimate or otherwise. Thank the Maker."

"Twelve, huh?" said Varric. For the first time that day, he felt like the unbidden knot in his chest was unfurling. It was probably the wine. Too much stress, not enough liquor—no wonder he was feeling paranoid.

"Twelve. Maybe fifteen," Hawke added. "They were all rather demanding, though. I had to cut them loose. Much easier to proposition a friend."

Varric chuckled. "It's less complicated, Hawke, I'll give you that," he said.

"Less complicated," she said, but she was looking into the fire as she said it. "Isn't that me all around?" Before Varric could reply, she was on her feet, collecting her plate and spellbook. "And on that sorry note, I think it's time for bed. Are you staying? The guest room is made up, courtesy of Orana—"

The guest room?

"Or," Hawke continued smoothly, "you're welcome to share, although I might not be much of a hostess tonight. All that reading is exhausting, I don't know how you do it every day."

Varric's skill at prevarication hadn't come naturally. As a kid, he'd been open-hearted and earnest—a little wild, sure, but he'd believed in things; and then his mother, who'd managed to hold herself together for the first few years after her husband's death, had fallen apart, and Bartrand had gone from being Varric's brother to being the head of House Tethras, and Varric...ah, he hadn't been able to do anything but tell himself stories. One day he'd stopping lying to himself and started lying to everyone else, and now he flat-out told people he was a liar, and they still never believed him. It was funny, but darkly so, which was the story of his life.

His skill at prevarication wasn't innate, but it was so practiced he could draw it over himself like a second skin. "Not all of us are as bird-brained as you," he said.

"Ha ha," said Marian. "Is that the stunning wit that conquered the literary elite? You had better leave the puns to the experts."

"Whatever you say, Hawke." He heaved himself upright, started to look for his duster, and remembered he'd left it in the hall. "Thanks for the offer, but I should really be getting back. Rivaini looked like she was about to get in trouble when I left, and someone has to bribe Corff into forgetting about whatever happened."

"We all have our burdens to bear. You can see yourself out?"

"No problem," said Varric, and he didn't even remind her to lock the door behind him.


It was more than a week before more news of Lord Selbrech reached Varric's ear. The Selbrechs were apparently busy preparing for some fancy ball that Varric couldn't give a rat's ass about. He couldn't justify going after Selbrech until the man made an explicit threat against Hawke, but Varric's gut said trouble was coming, and he'd learned to trust his gut.

Hawke, meanwhile, had fallen into a funk again—not in any way that showed, but her remarks were a little more cutting, and her laughter a little less bright. She still hadn't heard from Junior, and Varric suspected it was that more than anything else that was eating at her. He'd gotten her out of the house only by reminding her that she'd promised to show Merrill how to play Wicked Grace, and now the two of them were sitting at the far end of the table in his suite while Varric went over his accounts at the other end.

"I still don't think I understand, Hawke," said Daisy. "If the point of the game is to cheat, then why do I have to learn all these rules?"

"There are rules for cheating," said Hawke.

"But that doesn't make any sense! And why would anyone want to cheat anyway? It isn't fun if everyone is making up their own version of the game as they go along." Half of Merrill's cards spilled out of her hands again—face-up, of course, despite her fumbling attempt to catch them. "Oops," she said.

Hawke covered her eyes with one hand. "Merrill," she said, "we may have discovered the one thing you are incapable of learning. Varric, would you care to explain, or shall we go back to Shepard's Six?"

"I know that's a children's game," said Merrill. "Isabela told me. She said it was still a lot of fun, though, but she also said there's no way to use it to take people's clothes off, which didn't make any sense, although maybe if I understood the rules—"

"No games for you that involve any removal of clothing," said Hawke. "Let's call that a blanket rule."

"Why?" said Merrill. "I don't mind being naked, you know. Do you often play games in the nude?"

"No," Varric cut in, at the same time Hawke said, "Yes."

"No," Varric said again. "Hawke, no."

"I thought you were working," said Hawke. She laid her hand down on the table and swung one of her legs over the arm of her chair; Hawke never sat when she could slouch, slump, or sprawl. "And Merrill, Strip Grace is perhaps a touch advanced for where you're at."

"All I really want," said Merrill, "is to know enough that I can join in your weekly games. I don't want to win anyone's clothes, or—or, you know." Her voice dropped to a whisper. "Have sex with them. People, I mean, not clothes."

Hawke sighed, but Varric could tell she was softening. He suspected, although nobody had ever confirmed it, that Merrill brought out feelings in Hawke that had been buried since her sister had died. "All right," Hawke said. "Your eyes are revoltingly enormous when you make that face; I'd like to meet the person who could resist. Let's start with the suits again." She started to lay cards face-up on the table.

Someone knocked, and Varric, glad for any excuse to stop staring at columns of numbers, got up to answer. Norah was waiting in the hall with a letter in her hand; the wax was still sealed. "Message for you," she said. "From a lad with bright orange hair."

"Thanks," said Varric. "Anything else?"

"He said you'd know what it meant. Oh, and Corff was wondering if you knew where that set of fancy goblets we have went. He's got some fellow he's trying to impress."

Varric tapped his finger against the edge of the letter as he thought. "Martin?"

"Swears he didn't sell them."

"Under the bar?"

She brightened. "That might be it. Thanks, love. Let me know if you'd like to leave a reply."

"Will do." He waved her off; Norah, like most of the tavern's staff, occupied a comfortable spot near the top of Varric's payroll. The note she'd passed along to him was brief, but he read it three times in the hallway:

Osgar Selbrech paid a visit to Gamlen Amell last night. They talked for a quarter of an hour before Selbrech and his guard left. Amell drank several bottles of cheap spirits and has been passed out on his floor since.

Shit. Shit.

Varric went back inside and immediately took a candle to the letter; it went up in flames before Hawke could do more than give him a startled look. "Trouble?" she said.

"What in the Maker's wide world would make you think that?" Daisy's eyes went big and guileless again, so Varric made himself smile. "It's nothing. Nothing I can't handle, at least."

"Let me know if you need help," said Hawke. "You know my rates. I might even be persuaded to give you my friends-and-family discount."

He sat down next to Merrill and reached over to rearrange her cards. "Here," he said, "play that one next. Actually, Hawke, now that you mention it—"

"Why am I not surprised?"

"You remember that, ah, conversation we had—the one about Osgar Selbrech?"

"The one with the hair?"

"Yeah," said Varric, "that's the one. No, Daisy, hang on to that for later—discard these two. It turns out Selbrech and his wife are throwing some big party next week. Now, you know I don't like to make assumptions, but that seems like exactly the kind of thing a wealthy, unmarried noble might receive an invitation to—"

"And how is Sebastian these days?" said Hawke. "I hadn't thought he was much one for parties anymore, but of course I bow to your greater social understanding."

"Hawke," said Varric.

"Varric," said Hawke.

"What does this one do again?" said Merrill. "The—ohh, I know this. The Angel of Death! Is that a good card to have?"

"That ends the game, Daisy," said Varric. He wanted to laugh at the flabbergasted expression crowding onto Hawke's face, but currently he was more interested in staying on her good side. "Come on, Hawke, we both know you've got invitations coming out your ears—"

"Not literally, I hope," added Merrill.

Hawke swung her other leg up over the chair's arm and let her head fall backward; the position put the line of her throat on full display. "There's a problem with your plan, Varric," she said. "A serious problem—nay, a dire problem."

"Yeah? I thought it was a pretty good plan, myself," he said.

"The problem is that the invitation I received is for 'Lady Marian Hawke and guest.' Do you see the problem, Varric, or do you need me to spell it out? No, I can see I'm going to have to spell it out. Your plan and that invitation both require that I be in residence at said party."

"Oh!" Daisy hopped in her chair. "Would you get to wear a pretty dress, Hawke?"

"Yes," said Hawke. "And then I would probably expire from misery."

"All right," Varric said.

"...All right?"

He shrugged and dug his shoulders into his chair. "It's fine, Hawke. I didn't think you'd be up to it. I can find another way in. Shit, there's got to be half a dozen places I can corner Selbrech for our little talk—no need to drag you into it."

Hawke's head slowly rose; her eyes narrowed to slits; the room began to crackle with potential. "Is this a trick?" she said.

"Would I trick you?"

"Yes," said Hawke.

Varric chuckled. "Fair enough. I'm not trying to trick you this time, though. We all know you don't have the constitution to hold up under Hightown scrutiny. Like I said, Hawke—it's no problem. We all have our weaknesses."

"Not Hawke!" said Merrill, whose loyalty saved Hawke from having to say it herself. "Hawke doesn't have any weaknesses."

"Sure," said Varric.

"It sounds like you're daring me to attend this ball," said Hawke. "Is that right, Varric? Are you daring me? Do you remember what happened the last time you dared me to do something?"

"Hawke, I'm not—"

"I accept your challenge," she said. "We'll go to this—this ball thingy, and I will wear a dress, and I will not get into any fights. Probably. That might be setting the bar a little high."

Point for Tethras. "Only if you're sure," he said.

"Watch me," said Hawke.

And that was how Varric conned his way into Lord Selbrech's ball.


Summer was in full effect on the auspicious day, and even in the early evening, the air was cloyingly warm. Varric, who'd forgotten to factor in exactly how little he liked dressing up like a peacock and parading around in front of a bunch of self-absorbed morons, almost called the whole charade off; what stopped him was thinking about how much someone like Selbrech revealed in the course of a ball like this one, and about how many chances there'd be to corner the man for a private conversation.

He finished dressing in his suit—the coat of which, at least, had the long tails he favored—while bitching through his cracked door to Isabela about the heat, and before he presented himself for inspection, he drank an extra glass of water and wiped his brow with a towel that had seen better days. Varric would admit to a little vanity now and then, and it wouldn't do to put in all that effort and ruin it by looking like a wilted marigold.

"Sure you don't want to come, Rivaini?" he said.

"You know how I love fancy balls, but I promised Merrill I'd show her a thing or two tonight. Oh, don't make that sound—she wants to play cards, that's all." Isabela looked up as he finished shrugging into his coat, and he grinned when her eyes widened. "Well, well," she said. "Varric, you do clean up nicely. Our Hawke is a lucky woman."

He snorted. "If I can get 'our Hawke' through the door without trying to bolt for home, I'm counting tonight as a win."

"You could remind her of all the fancy cheeses they'll be serving—Hawke does like cheese."

"I'm not sure even Hawke likes cheese that much." He slipped a couple of necessities into his pocket and tugged on Rivani's hair as he passed. "Say hi to Daisy."

"Don't do anything with or to Hawke that I wouldn't do," said Isabela. Varric bowed with a flourish and showed himself out.

The sun was sinking below the high rim of the horizon as he set out for Hightown. One of the advantages of living in Kirkwall (and there weren't many) was the lack of horse shit. There were so many stairs that travel by horseback wasn't possible; the very wealthy had palanquins, and everyone else walked. It kept the smell tolerable, even if it did mean the walk from the Hanged Man to the district where Hawke lived took twenty minutes or more. Sometimes he missed the days when she lived around the corner in her uncle's hovel—not that he'd inflict Gamlen Amell on his worst enemy, much less one of his dearest friends, for longer than was absolutely required.

Varric had a plan for the evening. It was a decent plan: structured, but with enough room for improvisation if things got out of hand. The plan went like this:

1. Pick up Hawke. He'd allowed a little extra time in case she tried to back out or refused to change into the one formal suit she owned (Hawke's idea of formalwear usually involved adding piecemeal armor to her heavy gear).

2. Observe Selbrech. Not the most interesting step, but he'd have to keep an eye on Hawke at the same time to make sure she didn't drink too much or insult the wrong person. Leandra might have done her best to housebreak her daughter, but good luck counting on Hawke to demonstrate any consistency when it came to manners.

3. Corner Selbrech. Varric was going to enjoy that part. Scratch, he was going to relish it.

4. Retrieve Hawke and go home for a little friendly rough-and-tumble. It wasn't the most dramatic conclusion to the plot, granted, but a good writer knew that sometimes you had to throw artistic integrity out the window and give the audience what they really wanted. Tonight Varric was his own audience, and what he really wanted was Hawke stripped and spread-eagled.

He shouldn't have been surprised when everything fell apart before he'd gotten past the first step. It was impossible to work Hawke into any plan; she was like a force of nature, a storm, a last-minute rewrite after spotting three gaping plot-holes. Sure, the plan appeared to be going smoothly when he knocked at Hawke's door; Orana answered, told him Hawke needed another minute or two, and then tore back up the stairs. Varric figured he'd give Hawke a minute or ten before going after her.

Rabbit was sitting at the foot of the staircase watching him. Bodahn and Sandal were nowhere in sight, so Varric walked over to the dog and gave him a rub behind the ears. "Collar getting tight?" Rabbit whined. "Tell me about it," said Varric. "Maybe you and I can work out a trade—you track down Hawke if she's trying to back out, and I'll see if I can find you a nice, juicy ham hock."

"Really, Varric," came a voice from above. "Bribing my dog?"

And Varric looked up.

And his jaw hit the Deep Roads.

He hadn't been kidding about Hawke's fashion sense; she preferred armor when necessary and whatever weird assembly of clothes she'd won or stolen from her acquaintances the rest of the time. What she wore didn't matter. Hawke would be magnetic in a sackcloth—shit, he could attest from personal experience that she was magnetic in nothing at all.

Dressed as she was, though, she was beyond magnetic. Varric couldn't tear his eyes away from her.

The dress she wore had a tightly-fitted bodice of worked lace that left her arms bare, but at her waist the skirt swept out, and as she moved, Varric realized it was made of thousands of feathers dyed midnight blue to match the bodice. Someone—Orana, probably—had painted her face so there were huge, dramatic shadows around her eyes, and the brutal glamor of her coloring paired with the ethereality of the dress and the bruises visible on her knuckles were enough to send a shiver down the spine of even the worldliest and most jaded of writers.

She made it three steps down the staircase before trippng. "Shit," said Hawke as she caught herself on the bannister. "Wouldn't you know, Orana tried to coerce me into a pair of those fancy shoes they like in Orlais. They're tied on with ribbons. Ribbons! I have enough trouble with a skirt as it is. I suppose if things become really perilous, I can turn into a bird and fly off—Varric?"

"Yeah," Varric croaked. He cleared his throat. "Sorry. Dry out there, have you noticed?" (It wasn't. Late summer in Kirkwall was a sticky nightmare.) "Can you, uh...fight in that thing?"

Something moved beneath the surface of Hawke's face, and then she was back to herself, no longer a vision, once more a woman. "Is there going to be fighting?" she said with considerable interest.

He snorted and offered her a hand to help her down the last couple of steps. "Probably not, but you never know at these kinds of events. At the last Guild soiree I bothered attending, a couple of the richer idiots got bored and starting making their servants fight." Her fingers slid from his before he was ready to let them go, but that, Varric reflected, was life. At very least, the pattern of calluses on her hand and the march of scar tissue up her arm marked her as recognizably his.

"I'm as lazy as the next rich idiot, but really, that's too much. Waste of a perfectly good fight, if you ask me. Much more scandalous if you throw yourself into the fray, don't you think?" She stopped to scratch her dog behind the ears and appeared unconcerned when several clumps of dog hair floated through the air and attached themselves to her dress. "Well, it's now or never, I suppose. We could still make it 'never'—"

"Nope," said Varric, and herded her towards the door before she could make her escape.

Hawke only tripped once between the hall and the street. She stopped to lock the door behind them and then dropped the key into her pocket. "That thing has pockets?" Varric asked. The dress, in his head, had already taken on the name of 'That Thing' in an attempt to restrict any sentiment that might become attached to it or its memory.

"Would I wear a dress without pockets?" said Hawke. "No, don't insult me by answering that. Orana has all sorts of opinions about fashion, you know. She likes those magazines, the ones with all the frilly pictures. I thought she was going to cry when I told her to buy something for herself from the designer. It isn't as though I don't pay her, you'd think she'd have a dozen ballgowns by now."

"She probably doesn't have much use for ballgowns," Varric pointed out. "She spends most of the day cleaning up after you."

"That's no reason not to wear a pretty dress if she wants."

"Says the rich idiot who's tripped six times in a five-minute period."

Hawke drew herself up. A man passing in the other direction was so busy staring that he walked clean into a wall, not that Hawke noticed. "Next time," said Hawke, "I believe you'll be the one to wear the dress, and I'll be the one who...what exactly are you doing tonight?"

"Having a leisurely evening with a beautiful woman," Varric said. He hadn't thought about it. Shit, half of what he said rolled off his tongue without any instruction from his head, but he figured he could let it stand; Hawke knew how things were between them, and the truth was that 'beautiful' didn't begin to describe how terrifyingly attractive she looked. Maybe they could call the evening off in favor of figuring out how that skirt looked when it was bunched around her thighs—

Hawke tripped for a seventh time. Selbrech. Right.

"I'm fantastic at having leisurely evenings with beautiful women," Hawke said. "It's easily among my five best skills, right below fire and accidental slaughter. If we duck into this alleyway, we can exchange outfits and go about this the proper way."

Three more people walked into something while gaping at Hawke before they reached Selbrech's manor, not that Varric was keeping track. Hawke was still going on about the things that could be done with or to a beautiful woman when they joined the line outside the gates; he was never sure if she was wildly exaggerating or wildly underselling her sexual history, but she did get a couple of scandalized gasps and at least one appreciative chuckle from the cluster of nobles. And then, finally, they reached the front of the line, and Hawke passed over her invitation, and they were in.

Like most residences in Kirkwall, space was at a premium among residents of Hightown, even if every mansion Varric had ever seen still had enough rooms to stable an entire herd of brontos. The lanterns suspended throughout the courtyard threw the three levels of encircling balconies above into relief, but nothing about the place felt claustrophobic; the Amell estate was a hovel in comparison.

"No offense, Hawke," said Varric, "but this place makes you like a noble's poor relation."

"What does that make Gamlen, I wonder? The poorer relation?" Her gaze wandered over to a server bearing a cheese platter. People were starting to notice her; Varric read shock, intrigue, and finally astonished recognition in the faces turned towards them.

"You aren't still giving that bastard money, are you?"

"Giving? No," said Hawke. "Although it's possible we play cards every Tuesday and that I lose badly on purpose." She stuck her hands in her pockets and turned toward him. "Further instructions?"

Varric tugged at his collar. "I hear mingling is the point of these things," he said.

"Do I have to dance?"

"Not unless a handsome suitor catches your eye," Varric said, and then self-consciously dropped his hand back to his side. "As far as I care, Hawke, you can stand by the buffet eating cheese and collecting compliments on your plumage for the rest of the night. Just...don't get us kicked out yet, if you don't mind."

"Expensive cheese and outrageous flattery? I'll be quite content with that combination." She took a few steps further into the courtyard and then paused. "You're absolutely sure you won't need backup?"

"Tell you what," he said, "I'll scream if I need help. I know how much you like to make an entrance."

"Excellent," said Hawke. She still hesitated; her figure was backlit by a cluster of lanterns, and she ducked down and brushed a kiss against his cheek before Varric had registered what she was doing. "For luck," she murmured. "I hear it's customary, and Maker knows you need all the help you can get."

Varric winked at her. "We both know I'm the luckiest son-of-a-bitch—sorry, Mother—that you'll ever meet. Go on, that cheese platter's almost out of sight."

Hawke smirked and then strode into the crowd; they parted before her, and by the time she had cornered the server with the ever-important cheese tray, no fewer than three women and five men of marriageable age had broken off to follow her. All part of the plan—if Hawke decided she never wanted to settle down, good for her, but if she did, she had to start meeting people sooner or later. Varric might've had a hard time imagining her with someone who couldn't appreciate every side of her life, and he doubted any of the Hightown flock would fit the role, but he'd been wrong before. Only once or twice, granted; anyway, the good thing was that he wasn't the jealous type.

He was tempted to lift a glass of wine, but on second thought decided it was better to save the liquor for later. If he'd read Selbrech right, the man wasn't going to throw them out of his house unless Hawke did something drastic, and there was every reason to take as much advantage of Selbrech's hospitality as possible. Actually, nothing would make Varric happier than to empty Selbrech's kitchens and drain his cellars, but small chance of that happening when the Selbrech coffers were overflowing.

His plan was to stick to the outskirts, and for the most part, it worked; a couple of former business partners greeted him, and Varric nodded back amiably, but that was the extent of the interaction required of him. A party like this was mostly human—there were no elves, of course, and the only dwarves were the wealthier merchants who had connections enough to purchase an invitation. He hadn't spotted the host or hostess yet, but he kept his eyes open and cut around the perimeter of the party while doing his best to appear like he was dazzled by the spectacle.

Hawke, who was over on the far side next to a very large wheel of cheese, was being plied with a fancy crystal glass presented to her by a man twice her age. She took the flute obligingly, downed the contents, turned her head to the side, and belched. Varric pondered the possibilities of a novel called The Apostate's Mating Rituals before deciding it was no good; he'd already risked life and limb by reworking Aveline into a protagonist, and while Hawke herself probably wouldn't be offended, it wasn't a good idea to draw attention to her. Anyway, writing about a lover, however casual the affair, felt wrong. Too intimate, maybe; he didn't like the idea of splashing himself all over the page.

A shout caught his attention, and he turned in time to catch sight of Selbrech's kid darting through the crowd. The boy drew up in front of...yeah, there they were: Lord and Lady Selbrech, the host and hostess themselves. Varric found himself a nice, out-of-the-way pillar with a clear view of his targets and settled in to watch. Old Osgar immediately put an arm around his kid and pulled the boy in to ruffle his hair, but the wife was distracted; every couple of minutes, she twisted away and went up on her toes.

It took Varric a couple of minutes himself to work out that Lady Genevieve was staring at Hawke, and then a couple more to work out what was even weirder: Lord Selbrech wasn't. Even when she wasn't wearing That Dress, Hawke drew the eye. She had the coloring of a porcelain doll and the bone structure of a witch who lurked beneath the waves waiting to tear out the hearts unsuspecting sailors. Her temperament was that of an easily distracted cat, which was why Varric figured the first two points were inconsequential, but Selbrech's avoidance of her was starting to look deliberate. Even when Hawke let out a peal of laughter that rang over the murmur of the crowd, Selbrech didn't glance in her direction.

And that, to Varric, said one thing: Selbrech didn't want to tip her off before he sold her out to the Knight-Commander.

After a few more words, Sebrech broke away from his wife and son and started to move through the crowd. He stopped briefly to talk with a woman Varric had pegged for his niece, and then he began his rounds. He was good at it; he never stayed with one conversation for long, but every face was a little brighter in his wake, and the laughter flowed a little more freely behind him. Varric was bored, but indulging himself in a touch of excitement meant losing his opportunity, so he waited, and watched, and did his best not to wonder who was making Hawke laugh.

That opportunity finally came when Selbrech, who'd taken a path through the courtyard that took him away from Hawke rather than towards her, offered his excuses and ducked through a side door. Varric had seen a map of the place, and he knew the door led to a staircase that cut straight to Selbrech's study; he waited for a count of thirty and then started towards the manor's great hall, which was packed with revelers. By avoiding the back entrance, he could at least claim he'd gotten lost or that he was an architectural enthusiast or whatever story he came up with on the spot.

The story, though, proved unnecessary, which was disappointing; there weren't even any guards. It was like Selbrech wanted to suck all the fun out of this chase. His study door was closed, and the hallway in front of it entirely empty.

Varric sucked in his breath, held it, let it out, and reminded himself that he was brilliant; and then he knocked twice and let himself in without invitation.

Selbrech was behind his desk, and he was out of his chair and halfway to the ornamental sword on the wall behind him by the time the door was shut again. "Hold your horses," said Varric. "I'm not here to make trouble. All I want is a nice, friendly conversation."

Selbrech's hand fell away from the sword. "A conversation," he said. "I suppose this isn't a business proposition?"

"You could call it that." Varric crossed the room, but he took his time doing it; no need to spook anyone. "Varric Tethras. I'm here as one of your guests—legitimately, believe it or not." He offered Selbrech a grin and a handshake. Selbrech refused the first, but after a heartbeat of consideration, he took Varric's hand and then gestured him into one of the chairs in front of the desk. The seat would leave Varric's back to the door, but he was willing to gamble on Selbrech's character.

"I know who you are, Serah." Selbrech laid his arms on the desk and crossed his hands. His expression was polite, interested, and otherwise blank. "Our families have had dealings before—all amiable, as I recall."

"Then let's hope we're able to carry that tradition forward," said Varric. "Look, Lord Selbrech—I'm not interested in wasting your time or mine. Your reputation has led me to believe you're a man who values forthrightness, so I'm going to be forthright with you. I've noticed you taking interest in a friend of mine."

"Ah," said Selbrech. "Is that so? There are a number of dwarves in my social circle—"

"She's human."

Selbrech leaned back. "Interesting."

"Yeah, I thought so." Varric mirrored Selbrech's posture, but he focused every scrap of attention he had on Selbrech's face; this was the big moment, the one that gave away the game. "She's down in your courtyard right now, actually. You've probably heard of Marian Hawke."

Selbrech flinched.

"The Lady Hawke has had a...difficult few months," Varric continued. "Her mother, Leandra Amell, passed away suddenly. It was murder. A blood mage. Lady Hawke is still grieving."

"I'm sorry to hear of Lady Leandra's death," said Selbrech. "I knew her when she was young."

"She was something else. We kept the murder quiet. Hawke—Lady Hawke—was distraught." Varric tried a smirk. "You know how women are."

"No," said Selbrech. "No, I don't."

Huh. Religious, then, but not conservative. Of course, the Chantry espoused equality between the genders, but in Varric's experience, there were still pockets of old prejudice, particularly among the wealthy or in the army. "Sorry," he said. "Bad joke. She's one of the most resilient people I know, but finding her mother mutilated by a mage...well, that'd be enough to rattle anyone. Which is why the last thing Lady Marian needs to be dealing with right now is slander."

"...Slander," said Selbrech.

"Don't get me wrong," Varric said. "I can understand why a devout man like yourself would misinterpret certain...ah, anomalies. Looks to me like maybe you're mistaking rumor and a couple of unfortunate flowerings of Lady Marian's genealogy as fact." He rubbed his hand over his chin, considering; Selbrech wasn't giving any ground, and for the first time, it occurred to Varric that he should've paid a little more attention to Blondie's manifesto. He didn't have a problem with mages, and he knew there was rampant abuse within the Circles; but he hadn't ever considered the day-to-day reality of it, of being a fugitive like Blondie or even like Hawke herself.

"'Mistaken.' Is that what I am?" Selbrech asked.

Varric shrugged. "A man like you—what was the word I used? Right, 'devout.' You probably think that if Hawke has nothing to hide, her innocence will prove itself. Maybe you're right, but the Knight-Commander has a tendency to stab first and ask questions later. There's no reason for Lady Marian to be publicly charged; all I'm looking to do is save her some trouble and you some humiliation."

"You think this will convince me?"

"I'm willing to negotiate," said Varric. "If you can't be reasoned with, I'm here to see if you can be bought."

"And if I can't be bought?"

"Then I'm willing to threaten," Varric said. And there it was, laid out on the table.

Selbrech had Tevinter or Rivain somewhere in his family tree—probably the former, considering Kirkwall's once-treasured status in the Imperium. There was no flush of embarrassment on his dark cheeks, no waiver of his gaze. Varric wouldn't have been impressed if he hadn't been so damn frustrated.

"Interesting," said Selbrech. "That is interesting." He drummed the fingers of his left hand on the arm of his chair while he thought, and then he leaned forward and began to speak.

"You must be a very dear friend of Hawke's," said Selbrech, "to go to such great lengths for her. It's true that I suspect your friend of apostasy. As yet I have no proof, but that, I think we both know, is only a matter of time. You might very well have the influence or the wealth to buy her freedom, but I wonder if you've really considered what her freedom means."

"She isn't an apostate," said Varric.

"No? If she isn't, then this conversation is of no consequence. If she is a mage, however, then life has done her a great disservice by keeping her from a place in the Circle. She's probably been hunted by fanatics; she almost certainly has a poor understanding of her abilities, and she must constantly guard herself against possession."

"Fanatics," Varric said.

"You think me one?"

"Oh, no," Varric said, holding up his palms. "This is fascinating. Don't let me interrupt."

"The safest place, the best place for her, is the Circle. I'm not trying to damn your friend, only to offer her sanctuary," said Selbrech. "If she is innocent, her innocence will release her. If she is guilty, this is the choice that will put her back on a path to the Maker's side."

"That implies that Hawke has a choice." Varric kept his voice as mild as he could make it, but Selbrech's flat fervor has unnerved him. The man was creepy; fanatics usually were.

"You called me forthright, so believe me when I tell you that my silence cannot be bought."

"You just had to take the hard way, didn't you?" Varric said.

Selbrech didn't respond, but Varric wasn't going to be the one to break the silence. He let it build instead, banking on the idea that it would make Selbrech unsettled. Varric wasn't himself nervous—he would be later, maybe, when he could afford to be, but right now there was no room for uncertainty.

There was also the possibility of killing Selbrech outright. They were alone in the room, and Selbrech might have had a foot an a half on him, but Varric probably had thirty pounds and desperation on his side, and he'd spent the past couple of years playing back-up on Hawke's adventures—he was in the best shape of his life. He didn't want to murder anyone, but he would; and he saw that recognition bloom over Selbrech's face.

"Very well," said Selbrech. "Make your threats."

Varric thought about it. He really did; but Selbrech turning up in a room after Varric fled the premise—and small chance that he'd get out unseen when he hadn't planned an escape—would mean investigations, which meant he'd be throwing his known associates into the light, which meant trouble for just about all of them. On top of that, as romantic as the idea of life on the run sounded, Varric hadn't been further than a day or two's travel from Kirkwall, not once in his whole life.

Nah; better to play to his strengths.

"That kid of yours," Varric said. "Bright boy."

Selbrech shot to his feet. "I won't let you harm my son—"

"I don't kill kids, you have nothing to worry about there." Varric snorted. "Not that you'll believe me—I expect half a dozen guards on your boy from the time I walk out of here until the time he's old enough to swing a sword himself. No, I just think it's interesting, how much he takes after his mother...and how little he takes after you."

"You intend to expose my wife's affair." Selbrech caught on fast.

Varric shrugged. "Some of her letters happened to fall into my possession. Hard to say what I'll do with them. I might be willing to take suggestions from a man who does me a favor."

Selbrech sagged, but he stayed upright although his head was bowed. "This is dishonorable," he said. "I cannot believe…"

"Honor isn't what I'm worried about," said Varric. "You've obviously covered the legalities, since you've written the boy out of the title, but it won't be pretty, what the Lady Selbrech will have to go through when her indiscretion is the talk of Hightown. And if the kid finds out…"

"This is despicable," Selbrech spat. "I love my wife; we've made our peace. Who are you to threaten that?"

"Me? I'm nobody." Varric crossed his legs at the ankle and settled back a little more comfortably. "This is about you. You've got a choice: drop whatever false accusations you're planning to make against Hawke, or watch as your family's reputation is dragged through the mud."

There was a drawn, hanging moment, and then Selbrech's hands tightened and his head went up. "I will make no false accusations," he said. "But I will reveal Lady Hawke as an apostate, and I will make her sin known to the authorities. 'All things are known to our Maker, and He shall judge their lies.' Take your games and your threats elsewhere."

That was Transfigurations, first verse—magic exists to serve man, and never to rule over him; foul and corrupt are they who have taken His gift and turned it against His children, was how it went. Varric's heart had thudded to a halt inside his chest. "You're sure about that," he said, very calmly.

"I am unswayed," said Selbrech. "I will do what is right. Yes, I am sure."

"All right," said Varric, and he stood up. He brushed the lapels of his coat, and he slid the chair back into place before Selbrech's enormous slab desk. "I don't have to remind you that right now we're guests in your home."

"I have offered my hospitality for the evening," said Selbrech. "You have nothing to fear tonight, but I will have my witnesses soon; if the Lady Hawke flees before I make my charges, there is not a city in Thedas where she will be safe from persecution."

"Yeah, I sort of thought that's what you'd say." Varric didn't offer his hand. "I'd say it was a pleasure, but we both know it wasn't. Watch your back, Selbrech."

"Good evening, Serah," said Selbrech. He stayed behind his desk as Varric showed himself out. It was tempting to lock him in there and set the whole place on fire, but that would lead to a lot of collateral damage. There were other ways to play this, Varric knew—better ways, safer ways—but all he could think about was grabbing Hawke and getting out of Selbrech's fancy house as fast as they could manage. It was possible that panic was starting to set in.

He stumbled across her in one of the empty rooms that led to Selbrech's back study, and in fact he almost walked straight past her in his rush to find her. She was standing in front of a gallery wall and holding a glass of some fizzy drink, and when he doubled back to her she said, "Varric! There you are."

"Hawke," said Varric. "Come on, time to go—"

"Look at this," she said. "This flower thing. What is it?" She stabbed a finger at a shadow box hanging just above Varric's eye-level.

"Veil flowers. Let's get out of here, Hawke." Varric started nudging her towards the door, but Hawke was having none of it; she draped her arm over his shoulder, leaned her hip into him, and sloshed champagne all down the front of his coat.

"But does it mean something?" she said. "Is there some greater significance? They're sort of puny for flowers, don't you think—almost like weeds."

Whoever had filled the shadow box hadn't given much thought to presentation. Veil flowers were about the size of a fingertip and closer to cream than white, and these had been dried and then poured into the frame; on the whole, they looked like something that was meant to be smoked rather than displayed, which would have concerned Varric if he weren't so busy with not letting Hawke get her head chopped off.

"Old Marcher tradition," he said. "I swear to Andraste, Hawke, I'll tell you whatever you want to know later, but it's safe to say that we've overstayed our welcome—"

"Mother used to stitch them into everything." He was starting to wonder how many fizzy drinks she'd had. "I always wondered why, and then I decided she was just terrible at embroidering flowers and could only do the one. Flowers on handkerchiefs, flowers on smallclothes—don't think that didn't make Carver livid for a while. He was a tit at fourteen. Of course, I suspect he secretly grew fond of them...what was the question again?"

"Something about how ready you are to leave?" This would be a lot easier if he told Hawke why they had to make their escape, but he had his own reasons for keeping Selbrech's scheming from her. "Shit, so am I. Guess we'd better go—"

"You'll tell me about the flowers later," she instructed.

"I'll talk about flowers until your ears fall off," Varric promised.

Her balanced shifted, and he automatically put an arm around her waist to steady her. Hawke's hand, the one attached to the arm that was around his shoulders, began to crawl down his chest. "Wouldn't you like to dance?" said Hawke.


"Well," said Hawke, "you did say I was allowed, if a handsome suitor caught my eye." She turned her head and winked at him. "I supposed you'll do."

Varric had a thousand responses to that. He hadn't taken a turn on a dance floor in years, for one, and for another, there was a chance that looking up at Hawke's face from that angle for the duration of a song would permanently bruise his neck. And there was the matter of the music; he could hear the Lovers' Reel being played in the courtyard below, which was both too lively and too intimate to dance with a woman who was primarily his drinking companion and business partner, especially when there was a real possibility that any dancing would spur him into backing her into a dark corner and hiking up her skirt.

His jaw was hanging open again. He decided to close it.

"Dance," Varric said again. It...wasn't his best line.

Hawke looked away, noticed the glass in her hand, and threw back the rest of the contents. "Oh, well," she said, "if you're going to be like that about it, I suppose I'll have to hold out for a charming young prince. Do you think there are any princes here? I wouldn't mind a princess, either. It's the combination of rich and useless that does it for me." She twirled out from him, and the feathered skirt of her dress went spinning around her legs. "Weren't we leaving?"

"Uh...yeah. Right," said Varric, and he followed her out of the room and down the stairs before he even thought to look behind him. No tail, at least not yet. Hawke discarded her empty glass by dropping it in the hands of the Margrave of Ansburg as she passed; Varric offered a truncated bow to a gaping Lady Genevieve Selbrech, ducked past the guards at the gate, and went after Hawke.

She tried to cut down a back alley that led more directly to her home, but Varric managed to catch her by the elbow and swing her back into the broad, heavily-trafficked, well-lit street before she got too far. At her disgruntled expression, he said, "Hey, you wanted to hear about those flowers, right?"

"Flowers?" said Hawke. "Oh, flowers." Her face looked strange for a moment, but then her expression dropped back into her usual cocky ease. Might've been the lighting, or the weird way her face was painted; or maybe it was melancholy, brought on by the memory of her mother. "They're a Marcher tradition, you said?"

"Something like that." Varric glanced over his shoulder and then slid his hands into his pockets. "It started here, at any rate, or at least that's what Marchers claim, although veil flowers are hardy—they'll grow just about anywhere."

"Not in Ferelden," said Hawke.

"Maybe not," he conceded. "I had an old woman from the Anderfels tell me that they could even withstand the taint, although she was either drunk or out of her head when I talked to her—hard to tell. There's an old legend about a shieldmaiden who wove a veil of flowers and left it with her love before she marched to war, which is where the name comes from."

"Not from the veil-Veil?" said Hawke. "You know, the one that stops the world from going mad, keeps us all from turning into abominations, so on and so on?"

They passed under a streetlamp and back into shadow. "There's a Chantry tale," Varric said, "that claims Andraste came through the Veil and made flowers grow on the grave of one of her disciples after his death, but that's revisionism. I wrote it into a book once," he added. "Had to do the research. In the original story, the shieldmaiden falls in love with a bard, but she's called to war, so she weaves a veil of flowers for her lover to hide the bard's tears when he sings. The shieldmaiden is wounded, and by the time she recovers the bard thinks she's dead; she fights her way back to him, and after they're reunited, the bard is so overcome that he makes her a cloak of the same flowers to protect her the next time she goes to war."

"Well, isn't that morbid," said Hawke. "And impractical. 'Here, sweetheart! I could buy you a nice suit of armor, but no, have this magical flower cloak instead. It won't stop an arrow, but at least you'll smell nice!' Maybe the bard was trying to tell her she needed a bath."

Varric grinned; he felt a lot better now that they were out from under Selbrech's thumb. "No respect for the classics," he said. "Anyway, that's where the tradition comes from—veil flowers are a sign of commitment to love, even through adversity. Around here, the idea is that you give them to your intended to show your devotion, and the next year they return the favor."

"And then they marry?"

"Not always. If they're Andrastrian, sure. Sometimes they do an informal handfasting. I knew a couple who never did anything but the veil flowers—they traded them every year, back and forth, until they died. That's the oldest tradition."

"Ah," said Hawke, and she bit her lip and tipped her head back to look at the sky.


"It's nothing," she said. "Just remembering something my father used to do for my mother."

Varric reassured himself that his knife was still tucked in the back of his belt while her attention was elsewhere; they were only a minute or two from Hawke's front door, and then they'd be home safe, where she could lock herself in for the night and where there was more than one escape route. She'd never walled up the old entrance from Darktown that led to her cellars, for one, and if she stayed put for a day or two, Varric could have the whole mess taken care of without causing her any trouble at all.

"And here we are!" Hawke announced. They were at the door of her mansion; she put her hand in her pocket and pulled out the key. "Coming inside?"

"Just for a few minutes," Varric said. He was busy watching the street, but he put a hand on the small of her back as he stepped in afterwards. "I have a few loose ends to tie up after our errand tonight."

Hawke dropped the key on the side table, and then added a fistful of crap from her other pocket to the pile. Coins, scraps of paper, a sprig of elfroot...that explained the way she smelled, at least. "And was our errand a success?"

"Hard to say. Give me a couple of days, and I might have a more conclusive response. Hawke—"

She swept from the entrance into the main hall; the fire was banked, and there was a small stack of correspondence waiting for her. Hawke threw herself into the chair—she sat like she was still in trousers, with her legs spread—tore through the letters without appearing to read them, and then bolted upright again. She finally came to a halt in front of the fire, where little sparks danced upwards to meet her. The glow threw her silhouette into deep shadow and turned the profile of her feathered dress into something thrilling and foreign.

"Hawke," Varric said again.

"I don't think we should do this anymore," she said.

Varric snorted. "I'm not going to argue. That wasn't a party, it was a fashion parade. No cards, no dice, no beer—"

"No," Hawke said, "I don't think we should keep seeing each other. Having sex, I mean." She whirled around and clasped her hands behind her back; there was something curling at her lips, maybe a smile, maybe a smirk, maybe neither. "Don't get me wrong, it's been fun…"

Fun. "Yeah," Varric said. "Sure. Whatever you think, Hawke."

"Good. Excellent," said Hawke. "It's your fault, when you think about it—we agreed to keep feelings out of it, and there you go, being irresistible. You can hardly blame a woman, can you? It's probably the chest hair; you did warn me about the chest hair." She pinched out the candles on the desk and feigned a yawn. "Oh, would you look at the time. We'd better get to bed. Separately. I'll see you later, Varric. Cards next weekend? Superb. Can't wait." She was out of sight before he'd had time to get a word out, before he'd even thought of a word to say.

Not that there was anything to say—about the termination of their arrangement, at least. Hawke had implied a couple of things that he'd want to take out and examine later, when he was alone and when he had the luxury of time to think, but right now there was no time at all.

He took the key she'd left on the sideboard and locked the door behind him when he went. No telling if Hawke would remember; she was careless like that, but Varric wasn't about to take any chances.


From Hightown he went straight to the Hanged Man, where he stopped chiefly to talk to Rivaini. She was sacked out in her cot, boots still on and mouth open as she snored. Varric kicked the leg of her bed a couple of times, and she bolted upright with a snarl.

"Easy, it's just me."

"Oh." Isabela blinked. "Varric. Well, hello, big boy. What brings you to my door at this time of night?"

"It's about Hawke," he said, and the coquette slid from her face. "I need a favor."

"For you, anything," said Isabela, "and for Hawke, the world. Mmm, I am good to my friends, aren't I? Let's hear the problem."

He told her the whole situation, or enough that she could fill in the gaps on her own, and then he told her what he wanted her to do. The trick with Isabela was that people tended to underestimate her; she was dangerous in a fight, sure, and she could command a room of gamblers and drunks without effort, but it was easy to forget that she'd once commanded much more. That focus surfaced now, and the sharp edge of it made Varric glad she was on his side instead of the other guy's.

"And that's all of it," he said. "I know it's a lot to ask—"

"Please." Isabela was lacing up her bodice as she spoke, fingers flying, and then out came the daggers, crossed through her belt. "This is nothing. Try sailing into a water spout to avoid the kraken on your tail—now that's difficult."

"Tell the elf to recruit whoever he needs," Varric said. "We need Hawke out of her house until late tomorrow night—"

"I know, I know. I'll wake him on my way past. No need to bother Merrill until the morning, I think—she could use the rest, poor darling."

"That's fine." Varric pinched the bridge of his nose—it was, if he said so himself, a pretty substantial bridge—and sighed. "I'll send Aveline a note tomorrow; she can meet up with us in the evening."

"All according to plan," Rivaini quipped, and then she grabbed his chin and pressed a smacking kiss to his cheek. "Get some rest yourself, hmm? No good if both of us are dead on our feet."

"I'll see you in a couple of hours," he promised her. She left with a wink and a cat's-cream grin, and Varric couldn't summon even a smirk in return. What a shame; women like Isabela should never go unappreciated. And like Hawke—Hawke was cut from the same substance, but he didn't have time to think about Hawke right now, did he?

He stopped in his suite long enough to change clothes; there was no sense in getting blood and effluvia all over his fancy suit, and he needed backup for where he was going, even if hauling Bianca on top of the package he was about to pick up would put a strain on even the sturdiest dwarf.

And then he set off for Darktown.

The place was never truly quiet, not even in the dead of night—and it was well past midnight by the time Varric wound his way into the tunnels—but the huddles of refugees, outlaws, and other disreputables were more inclined to shy away from a lantern when it was late than seek the light out. He reached Anders' clinic without any trouble and let himself inside.

Most of the cavernous room was dark, and smelled, if not clean, at least not as full of rot as the rest of Darktown. Blondie was sitting beside a small body stretched out on a cot, his elbows on his knees, his hands steepled as he stared off into the air.

"Knock, knock," said Varric. "Anyone in there?"

Anders jolted; there were a precarious few seconds when his eyes didn't seem to focus, but then his expression cleared, and he said, "Varric. Awfully late to be wandering around, isn't it?"

"You know me—late to bed, late to rise. Listen, there's a favor I need to ask you…"

"Well," said Anders, "I'm not sure I want to involve myself in stripping another chevalier of his trousers, but how many men get to participate in something like that twice? Say the word, and I'm there."

"I wish. Ah, that was a good one." Varric came around the cot; there was a kid on it, curled up with his hands near his face. Varric couldn't tell if the boy was sleeping or dead. "Actually, this has to do with Hawke. Someone's after her. Now, I can take care of it, but there's one thing I need from you."

"Oh? Just one thing?"

"A body," said Varric.

Blondie recoiled. Of course he did, bleeding heart that he was. "A...body?"

"Someone who died recently. Preferably someone who won't be recognized or missed." Varric spread his hands. "Look, I know it's not a run-of-the-mill request, but even though you save a lot of the people who come through your doors, you don't save them all."

There was a bitter pinch to Anders' mouth, but he wasn't glowing. "These people deserve respect, you know," he said. "Even in death. Just because nobody will remember them doesn't mean they don't deserve a proper burial—"

"I know that," Varric said. "You think I don't? But you have to trust that this is for Hawke, and that it'll hurt Meredith's cause. Shit, maybe it'll even help yours."

"...All right."

Thank the Maker. "I appreciate it," said Varric.

Blondie ignored him. "Not the boy," he said. "There's a young man; he died earlier today. Infection," he added. "From a stab wound. I trust that won't be detrimental?"

It would actually be beneficial, but Varric knew better than to say so. "That's fine," he said.

"Right. I...I'll help you bundle him up." Anders went behind one of the ragged screens that served for privacy and came back with a coil of rope. "He's over here. I suppose this is one of the things I'm better off not knowing?"

"Trust me, the last thing we need is another apostate getting involved." The man laid out on the cot was hardly more than a kid himself; he had a shock of bright red hair that made Varric think of Micah, one of the runners he employed to bring him news. "This the one?"

"That's him," said Anders. He laid a couple of fingers on the man's face and then with surprisingly swift movements bundled the blanket around the corpse. Varric helped him tie off the bundle with the coil of rope. "Do you need my help moving him?" Anders added.

"Nope. Thanks for the offer, though," said Varric. "Hey, do me a favor—"

"Another one?"

"Keep your head down for a few days, Blondie. I mean it." Warning delivered, Varric stooped down and hauled the body over his shoulder. He had to shift it a couple of times to get it in position, and something squelched ominously, but it wasn't so heavy that he couldn't take the weight of it for twenty minutes. This was the easy part; the hard part was making it back to Hightown without being seen.

"Well, this has certainly been interesting." Anders trailed him to the door. "If I didn't know better, I would suspect you of blood magic. Please feel free to stop by and ask for a corpse handout at any time."

"What else are friends for?" said Varric.

"The fact that I can't come up with a better answer shows how badly I need new friends," said Anders. "Give Hawke my regards."

"Sure," Varric said. He let Anders get the door for him; the body bumped against the doorframe, and then Varric was out, back in the tunnels.

He stuck to the shadows, but the nice thing about Darktown was that even if someone spotted him carrying a corpse, they wouldn't stop him to ask questions. There were a couple of shortcuts that led straight up to Hightown, too; the easiest way would be to cut through the partially-collapsed entrance to Hawke's cellars. She'd installed an actual door a few years ago, but he still had her key. On the whole, though, he figured it was probably better if he didn't invite questions from Hawke or her household at this late stage, so he took a different route instead.

There were a couple of close calls, including one that involved two of Aveline's guardsmen, but he made it to the estate district without being seen. Isabela was waiting for him; she'd scouted out a hiding place close to the rear entrance of Selbrech's place. There was an enormous fountain in the shared courtyard there, and she showed him how someone had cut into the fountain's base. It must have been a dead drop once, but judging by the difficulty they had working the stone cover free, it hadn't been used in years.

"Will that do?" Rivaini said. "It's shallow."

"Might as well give it a try," said Varric, and he picked up the body by its shoulders. Isabela took the feet, and together they swung it into the hole. The cover was a stone piece a little longer than Varric was tall that fit into place over the cutaway; there were a couple of crunches when they shoved it back into place, and the first light of dawn was creeping over the streets by the time they were satisfied that the body was hidden.

They split up before returning to the Hanged Man, wary that someone was watching. Varric couldn't speak for Isabela, but he was asleep before he managed to get his boots off. He didn't dream; dwarves never did; but his last thought was of Hawke, feathered and grieving.


Aveline was the last to arrive the next evening; Merrill and Isabela were already in Varric's quarters, clustered around the crude map he'd sketched of Selbrech's house. "There you are," he said.

"Varric," answered Aveline. "Your note said it was urgent."

"Come inside, shut the door—that's it. No reason to take any chances." He waved her over to the table. "I wouldn't normally put you in this position, but I need someone I can trust, someone who knows about Hawke."

Aveline looked at the map and then back at him. "Selbrech."

"Right in one, big girl," said Isabela.

Whether she realized it or not—and Varric would bet she didn't—Aveline's hand went straight to the hilt of her sword. "What's this about, then? I thought you were going to speak to the man—"

"He can't be persuaded," said Varric. "Or bought, or threatened. Which leaves us with only the more permanent kind of solution—not my first choice, I'll admit, but he has to be taken care of one way or another. You won't need to do anything but keep watch; Rivaini and I will do the breaking and entering, and Daisy's backup if we need an escape path. She's better than an entire army." He winked at Merrill, and she flushed, pleased with the praise.

"Has Selbrech moved against Hawke?" asked Aveline.

Varric shrugged. "Not yet, but his intentions are pretty clear. And if he vanishes in the middle of the night and his body washes up on shore a week later...well, nobody's going to connect that to Hawke, are they?"

"He's a good man, Varric."

"He's a threat," said Varric.

Her jaw clenched; between her ginger hair, her height, and the way the sconces threw light on her, she looked as though she'd walked out of some fiery rift, a wrathful avatar of justice. At least her mulish expression dispelled a little of the terror. "I won't let you do this," she said. "If you plan to murder Lord Selbrech, I will muster the guard and stop you."

Varric layered his performance with disbelief, added a dash of betrayal, and used a liberal hand with the hurt. "You're the one who came to me—"

"I was," said Aveline. "But this isn't the solution."

"It is if you want Hawke safe," Varric argued. Isabela and Merrill stayed quiet, Isabela lazy and assured to complement Merrill's wide-eyed fascination. "Come on, Aveline, it isn't like this is the first time you've stepped outside of the law to keep her safe. You won't arrest us."

"If I catch you at it, I will," Aveline said. She was so stiff with grim honor that Varric could almost taste it. "I've had enough of this. Selbrech will have a guard set on him, and none of you will go near the man. Find another solution." She pivoted neatly and slammed her way out of the room, exactly on cue.

"Are you sure we shouldn't—" said Merrill.

"Hush, kitten," said Isabela. "It's all for the best. Aveline has other responsibilities."

Varric rolled up the map. "We need to move," he said. "It won't take her long to put together a decent security force. Rivaini, the only thing you have to worry about is getting Daisy here in and out safely. Let me take care of the rest. Daisy—you listen to her."

"I know what to do, Varric," said Merrill.

"Good. Then get going, both of you. I'll met you inside Selbrech's."

Merrill was white-knuckling it, but she'd been through worse before—shit, she'd done worse before, and for lesser causes. Isabela ushered her out with a calmness that Varric envied; he waited to a count of eighty before he followed them.


It was past midnight, and Kirkwall was about as quiet as you'd expect: in other words, not very. Varric took every back-alley shortcut he knew, and a couple of times he even cut up on the rooftops. Isabela and Merrill were working their way to the same destination by a different route; the last thing they needed was for all three of them to be caught in the same place at the same time.

Isabela had spent most of the past day scouting Selbrech's house. The human had posted his own private guards, of course, but thanks to Rivaini, Varric now knew how many of them there were, what routes they patrolled, and when they changed shifts. He also knew what kind of locks to expect on Selbrech's doors and where Selbrech slept; courtesy of a bit of gold and a servant with loose morals, he even knew that Selbrech's wife and son had been drugged heavily enough to sleep well past daybreak.

Except for the spillover of a party two streets down from Selbrech's, the estate district was quiet enough. Varric slipped around the back of the house, to the courtyard shared with the properties adjoining the Selbrech home, and crouched down at the base of the stone fountain. The sound of the trickling water made for a decent cover, but if the stone casing over the dead drop was as stubborn as it had been the day before, he would alert every human, elf, and dwarf in the area.

Luckily, it wasn't. Varric had the body pried free and the cover back in place without any trouble at all. When it was easy, that was when you got suspicious—but he'd gone over this so many times in his head that it was more like reliving a memory than living a moment. He hoisted the corpse of Anders' poor bastard patient over his shoulder and made for the back door. Isabela had left it unlocked for him, in accord with the plan.

He'd come in through the kitchen, and with access to the servants' staircases, there was a small chance of being spotted. Rivaini and Daisy were already in Selbrech's study when Varric shouldered his way in and let the corpse down on Selbrech's desk.

"Any trouble?" said Isabela.

"None," he said. "How much longer does she need?"

Merrill had already started; there was a ring of blood painted on the floor around the desk, and she unwrapped the corpse without any of the reluctance Varric himself would have privately felt. "Ooh, it's still very fresh, isn't it?" she said.

"Chop chop, Daisy," said Varric. "We don't have time for you to start experimenting."

"Right," Merrill said. She tugged the corpse into position, limbs outstretched, hands dangling off the sides of the desk, and then added, "Where did I put my knife again? I know I left it around here somewhere...there it is! Silly thing." She was still chattering as she set her knife to the corpse's elbow, pierced the skin, and cut open the arm from elbow to wrist.

"They bleed better like this," she explained. "You did say you wanted it to look authentic, although I don't think any of the templars really know what blood magic is about. And not that I'd ever want to hurt someone who's still alive! Or someone who's dead, really, but I want Hawke to be captured even less. There, that should do."

It was a gruesome scene; even though Varric knew that most of the blood on the floor and even on the body itself had come from a butcher, he still got a chill when he looked at the corpse draped over the desk. Merrill had spilled a little lyrium nearby, and there were some esoteric symbols carved into the surface of the desk that added an extra measure of morbidity.

"Unless—" Daisy added. "I could, you know. If you'd like, I could fix up Lord Selbrech, too…?"

"No cutting him, kitten," said Isabela.

"Oh, no, I only meant that I could write on him. With the cow's blood," said Merrill.

"One minute," said Varric. "After that, you're both gone. And don't say a word."

"Not one word," Merrill agreed.

Rivani was looking at him strangely, but Varric didn't have time to argue; he was busy with the big, wicked knife he'd brought along. It was flashier than what he normally carried—no need to make Bianca jealous—but tonight was a night for drama.

"Remind me never to piss you off," said Isabela.

"Keep Hawke happy, and you won't have to worry," Varric said, and then he slipped back into the hall.

Selbrech slept around the corner, in a massive bedroom overlooking the courtyard, and even though he'd hired a security force, he hadn't done a very good job of spreading them throughout the house; most of them were outside, stationed on the balconies. Varric could have done better with three drunks and a mabari, although it didn't seem charitable to think that about a man he was about to completely and utterly ruin.

He let himself into Selbrech's bedroom very slowly and very carefully, and then he very slowly and very carefully made his way over to Selbrech's bed, and then he very slowly and very carefully set the point of his knife against Selbrech's eye.

And then, last of all, he put his mouth against Selbrech's ear and said, "Wake up."

He'd told himself he wasn't going to enjoy this, but the way Selbrech jolted awake—the animal panic on his face, and then the sunrise of recognition? Varric enjoyed that. He enjoyed it a lot, and he enjoyed it primarily because it was the only balm that worked on the jagged possibility of Hawke facing the Rite of Tranquility.

He slid his knife from Selbrech's eye down his throat to his ribcage and used his other hand to drop a scrap of fabric on Selbrech's chest. "That," said Varric, "is a blindfold. Put it on."

Selbrech hesitated, so Varric added, "If you scream, your kid won't be waking up tomorrow. Put. It. On."

Selbrech tied the blindfold on. His hands were shaking.

"Good. See, no need to be unfriendly." Varric punctuated that by grabbing Selbrech's hair; it was shoulder-length, and he got a pretty decent purchase in it—decent enough to drag Selbrech out of bed and force him upright. He transferred the knife to the small of Selbrech's back in the process. The human had to bow backwards, his spine curved, to keep Varric from yanking his hair out or piercing his kidneys.

"What did I tell you?" Varric said. "And now we're going for a trip. Just down the hall to your study—that's it." He eased Selbrech along in front of him. Selbrech was heaving like a racehorse, but he hadn't made any other sounds; apparently he'd believed Varric's threat about his kid. "Left here," Varric added, and brought Selbrech to a halt just inside of the study.

Merrill was waiting with a clay pot of blood; she cut Selbrech's shirt open with a delicacy that was hilariously at odds with the situation, and then she began to paint small, strange symbols across his throat and chest. She worked fast, and when she was finished, she looked down at Varric. He gave her a smile that was too thin to be encouraging and jerked his head at the door.

Come on, kitten, Isabela mouthed.

Merrill opened her mouth to say something, but Varric shook his head. She nodded, and then she let Isabela take her and lead her away. Varric waited until the sound of their footfalls had died before he breathed again; Selbrech would know someone else had been in the room, but he wouldn't have names or faces.

Selbrech was shivering all over, and it wasn't because the night was cold.

Varric shoved him into a chair. He didn't bother tying Selbrech's hands; there wasn't a need for it, not with Selbrech scared witless. "Talk."

"Please," Selbrech said. "Please, I beg you, do whatever you must to me, but leave my wife and son—"

Varric jerked the blindfold over his head, and Selbrech went mute.

"Like I said before: I'm willing to negotiate." Varric traded the knife for Bianca, not that Selbrech noticed; he only had eyes for the bloody tableau in front of him.

"Whatever dark ritual this is," said Selbrech, "the Maker will preserve me—"

"Oh, shut it—I'm not going to touch a hair on your head. You're not being murdered, you're being framed." Blank incomprehension from Selbrech. Ah, well; this was the part Varric had hoped he'd have a chance to relish anyway. "You know what this looks like?"

"Blood magic," Selbrech spat.

"Close enough," said Varric. "The authorities in this city all bow to Meredith, and we both know how the Knight-Commander feels about maleficarum—if they're lucky, they might get a farce of a trial before she lops their heads off. If they're not, it's straight to the beheading." Varric patted Bianca a couple of times; she was starting to feel jumpy under his hands. "You might call this poetic justice."

And there was the comprehension. It was laced through with horror. "You mean to make it appear…"

"Like you're a blood mage. Come on, Selbrech, we already covered this—keep up," said Varric. "The minute someone walks through that door, you have two options. You can run, or you can start numbering your days. Either way, you'll be too busy to make trouble, and that's just how I like it."

"You—they will not believe—"

"Maybe not," Varric said, "or maybe they'll think that your previous zeal for exposing apostates was a way to direct attention away from yourself."

Selbrech looked closed to vomiting. "This is preposterous. All things are known to the Maker; He will guard me and keep me from harm—"

There was an enormous crash from downstairs, immediately followed by a clamor of voices. "I'd love to stay and debate with you," Varric said, "but that means my time is up. Did I mention that the City Guard's on the way?"

The last of Selbrech's nerve failed him; he turned his head and retched.

"Start running, or start counting. Your choice."

"You…" Selbrech said. "You."

"Yeah," Varric said. "Me." He had Bianca trained on Selbrech, her crosshairs aligned right on the Selbrech's forehead; the crossbow quivered under his hands, but he had no intention of shooting. It was enough to see horror on the face of the man who would have seen Hawke imprisoned or violated or dead simply for being what she was.

The moment crested and rolled out, and Varric went with it. He slipped out the back while Aveline's forces were pounding down the front; Hightown was stirring, and there were soldiers in the streets. Instead of trying to dodge them, Varric went the opposite direction, towards the Viscount's Keep. When he came to Hawke's front door, he let himself inside. He passed through the main hall and down to her cellars, and from there to Darktown, and from Darktown back to the Hanged Man.

The news broke the next morning. Varric heard it over breakfast; the City Guard had discovered a blood mage among Kirkwall's nobility. The Guard sent word to the Gallows immediately, and Meredith herself had come with two dozen of her templars to investigate. Lord Selbrech had died by the Knight-Commander's hand at dawn, leaving his wife a widow, his son an orphan, and Varric satisfied that Hawke was, for the moment, safe.


Aveline found him eventually. Not the next day, or the day after, but one afternoon he went down for lunch and found her sitting at his usual table, wearing her usual frown. "Varric," she said.

"Aveline. How's life in the guard?"

"You used me, Varric," she said.

He settled in across from her and took his time answering. "And you didn't use me? Coming to me, asking me to make sure Hawke didn't get hauled off in chains? I did exactly what you asked me to do."

"You lied to me—"

"I told you when I met you that I'm a liar. I tell everyone. 'Hello there. Varric Tethras. I'm prone to outrageous lies.' Why that makes me seem trustworthy, I have no idea."

Aveline squared her shoulders. "No worries about that anymore," she said. "You knew that I would muster the guard and rush to Selbrech's house, and you knew that with ten other witnesses along, I would have to pass word to Meredith. You might as well have killed the man yourself."

"It doesn't matter that he's dead," Varric countered. "What matters is how he died. Meredith has her apostate, and nobody can link Hawke to the crime. It's a closed book. Now, if I had taken care of Selbrech myself, there would have been an investigation. Questions would have been asked. Even I can't cover every angle."


"Well," said Varric. "Not always."

Aveline went back to her meal. She had a cut of pork, a biscuit, and the Hanged Man's standard mushroom sauce over both, and she cleaned her plate before she deigned to speak to him again. Varric didn't point out that she wasn't exactly running to Meredith or the Viscount with the full story herself.

"All right," she finally said. "You got results, I can't deny that. What you did, that was…" She shook her head. "I assume Merrill was involved?"

"If you're that invested in me being honest with you, you probably don't want to ask too many questions," said Varric.

"You ruined the man," Aveline said. "You took his reputation and his life, and you did both in the most public and the most brutal way possible. The question I have to ask is—why?"

"Oh, come on, we both know that answer to that—"

"No, we don't," she said. "You might be the one of us who makes a living by watching, but don't think I haven't noticed a few things of my own. You're willing to involve yourself, Varric, but only so far. You'll step into a burning building to save a friend, but you'll keep one eye on the exit the whole time."

He shrugged. "It's Hawke."

"This is because she's your lover, then?"

That annoyed him. Varric was a lot of things, not all of them good; among his repertoire he counted a small helping of cowardice, a healthy dose of avoidance, and a good measure of stubborn refusal to move beyond his past. He also hated it when other people paid as much attention to him as he paid to them. The reverse of all that was that he helped where he could, to the best of his ability. He watched out for his friends. Was it so hard to believe he'd do the same for Hawke?

"No," he said. "And we put an end to the bedroom hijinks, thanks for asking."

"Ah," said Aveline. "I thought as much."

"What the hell does that mean?"

"Figure it out yourself," Aveline said. "I have work to do." She stood up, tossed a few coins on the table, and girded her sword.

"This has been a lovely conversation. Please feel free to stop by and tell me how terrible I am at your convenience," said Varric.

"Don't be rude," Aveline said. "And Varric—once you figure it out, make sure you're certain. I won't have you undoing all the effort you put into keeping Hawke unharmed."

"It's too early for this."

"It's noon."

"I'm going back to bed."

"Do as you wish," Aveline said.

Varric almost accused her of not being any fun, but he realized he was starting to get pissed off, and picking a fight with Aveline wasn't half as thrilling as it sounded. "See you around, Red."

She scowled at the nickname—'too common' indeed. "Goodbye, Varric," she said, and then she left.

Varric did go back to bed. It was probably the avoidance at work again. He slept until late in the evening and then involved himself in a game of dice that lasted well into the night. More sleep was followed by a little overdue business with the Merchant's Guild, a mostly futile effort to provide his imaginary cousin with some authentic-looking documentation, still more sleep, a drinking context with Rivani that started at breakfast, several hours of a drunken stupor, and a good stint in front of an appreciative audience who hadn't heard the one about Hawke and the dragon.

Hawke. It always came back to Hawke. Hawke here, Hawke there, Hawke in his head. He couldn't stop thinking about what Aveline had said; even if he was good at avoidance, he wasn't dense enough to completely miss what she'd been implying.

And Hawke, unchecked, was never going to do anything but keep running away from him. If he tried to talk about it, she'd start a bar-fight; if he let her down gently, she'd laugh him off and deny the whole thing. The really terrifying part was that she appeared to have no other defenses against him. She'd keep coming back, no matter how much it hurt her, and all that would happen was that she'd get better and better at hiding her hurt. She'd lost a lot, and all her sore spots and tough skin made for the strangest, most fascinating blend of compassionate spirit and complete jackass.

He wasn't any better himself. Better to hold on to something from long ago, something he had idealized beyond the point of recognition, than to take that risk again. The last thing Varric needed was one more person walking out of his life, and if the person walking away was Hawke

On top of that, all he really wanted to do was pull her into bed, screw her wordless, and then laugh with her about how ridiculous he was being. What did he even have to offer her? There had to be a reason people kept walking out on him, after all.

He was out of Lowtown before he realized he'd left; his feet had carried him to the flanks of the Sundermount and to what grew there, and he spent the rest of the day under the hot sun. Maybe he was a romantic—either that, or a lunatic.

After that, the project took on a life of its own. Varric found a shallow box about three feet square in the market; it was made of ironbark, and the hinges and lock were silver. With a lot of effort, he dredged up what he remembered about woodworking and carved Hawke's name inside the lid. He thought about inscribing something a little more poetic, or even 'To Marian, from Varric,' but in the end he settled for 'Marian Hawke' in letters that resembled his own handwriting. It didn't look half bad when he was finished.

What went inside the box was for Hawke's eyes only, and then all that was left was to give it to her. That was the crux, the turning point—he could lock the box and stick it away somewhere to be forgotten just as easily, and that was in some ways the better and kinder option.

Shit. He was starting to brood.

If he waited any longer, the whole thing would be rendered moot when rot set in. Maybe it was better to just forget it, just forget all of it. He was starting to get hungry, too; it was almost time for dinner, and after that—well, who knew where the evening might lead. Norah had hired a new musician for the busier nights, and music could lead to all kind of revelry. Or maybe he'd go visit Daisy. Someone had to make sure she was taking care of herself.

Unfortunately, right when he'd made up his mind, Hawke knocked on the door. "Varric?" she called. "Are you in there?"

"Come in!" he called. "It's unlocked. Hi, Hawke—haven't seen you in a while."

"Yes, well, I lead a strenuous life of luxury these days," she said. "Eating chocolates, choosing the best velvet draperies for my windows, scandalizing the neighbors...it's a hard job, but someone has to do it. And then I realized that I still owed you those five sovereigns." Instead of sitting down in the chair he pushed out, she started digging through her pockets. The coins came out in fits and starts: one from her hip, one from the pouch at her waist, two more from some inside pocket of her long coat, and the last from her sleeve. "There we go," she said. "Five sovereigns."

"You didn't have to, but thanks," said Varric.

"I always pay my debts. Often. I often pay my debts. Perhaps it's most accurate to say that I occasionally pay my debts but always mean to pay them, and doesn't intention count for something?" She was running her mouth again, although Varric couldn't tell if that was Hawke being Hawke or Hawke being distressed at his company. "I won't keep you any longer, then—"

"Stay," Varric said.

"...Excuse me?"

Shit. He'd better come up with something fast. "For a game of Wicked Grace," Varric added. Ah, that was good bait. "We haven't played for a couple of weeks." As soon as the words left his mouth, an idea started to take hold. He didn't have to decide what to do with Hawke; chance would do the work for him. If she won, she could have everything, but if Varric won, he'd still have his dignity.

"I suppose a hand or two wouldn't hurt," Hawke said, and she sat gingerly in the chair. It was too low for her; everything in the room was sized for a dwarf, but she had a way of coiling herself into the seats that removed any awkwardness. "Should I open?"

Varric produced a deck of cards and started to shuffle. "Hold on," he said, and then he put his fingers through their paces, riffling the cards, bridging them, sending them in a cascade from one hand to the other. Hawke rolled her eyes at the show, but she was at least as pleased with her own dexterity as he was with his. Varric wasn't a good enough card player to sit in on the really high-stakes games, but that was mostly because he'd never worked at it; there weren't many in Kirkwall who enjoyed going up against him in a serious round. Hawke was one of the few who could match him.

She cheated outrageously, of course, but that was all part of the fun.

"There we go," Varric said, and he finished dealing them five cards apiece. The stack went between them. Hawke dropped a couple of coppers on the table to open, Varric matched her, and they went to work arranging their hands.

"What's that box?" Hawke asked.

"What box?" said Varric. He was busy trying to figure out if he should keep or discard his Drake of Ashes. He'd pulled another Drake, but he also held the Angel of Summer and the Song of Autumn, which together made up half of one of the best hands in the game.

"The box right here," said Hawke. "I realize that it's been a few days since we last spoke, but—" She cut herself off abruptly; Varric figured it was because she'd referenced, however obliquely, her almost-confession of the other night.

"Oh, that box? Nothing important." He discarded, drew, and played his Song of Autumn, reversed.

Hawke looked at the card and let a smile curl at her lips. "Interesting choice," she said, and when Varric set down his Angel of Summer, the smile broadened. Three turns later, she laid down a High Dragon's Run and took the round. "Aren't you supposed to be good at this game?" she said as she scooped the pot into her lap.

"Even a master artist needs time to warm up," Varric said. "How about another one?"

Hawke looked torn, but then she unbuttoned her overcoat and slid out of it; there was a clattering as she dumped the coins in her lap onto the floor. "One more," she agreed. "After that I really ought to be going, though—"

"Relax, Hawke. I'm not going to make things weird." He shuffled and cut the deck again while he watched her; her eyes flicked away, and a flush started to rise on her cheeks, although that might have been the late summer heat.

"Weird?" she said. "Varric, it seems you haven't noticed, but Kirkwall is remarkably weird at all times. There was a woman in floral armor outside my house this morning. She was selling indulgences. From the Black Divine. And the only thing about her that bothered me was that she was standing dangerously close to the flowers that Sandal had potted the day before."

Varric dealt and picked up his hand. "Floral armor?"

"It was enameled," said Hawke. "Even I wouldn't have been caught in that monstrosity."

"Daisy would have loved it."

"Let's not give Merrill any ideas. She has enough of her own." She narrowed her eyes at him. "I don't suppose you'll tell me what's in that box if I win?"

It almost broke Varric's heart, how committed she was to pretending their friendship was exactly as it always had been. "It's a pretty boring story, Hawke. Trust me, you can walk away with better than that."

"Really?" She discarded a card and drew from the stack. "How high should I be aiming here?"

"Lower than Bianca, higher than that box." Nevermind that he'd paid more for what was in the box than he had for any single other item in his life.

"Your duster," said Hawke.

"All right, I'll wager that against…" He wasn't going to try to take her coat away from her, not when he knew it had once belonged to her father. "Your dog?"

"Hmm. No."

"My pick of any five books from your family library."

"Done," Hawke said immediately.

Varric discarded, drew, and set down the Serpent of Avarice. "Anything exciting happening in Hightown?"

"Aveline told me to keep to myself for a few days, actually. You heard about Lord Selbrech? I think she's afraid someone will know me for an apostate simply by looking at me. Poor Aveline, too paranoid for her own good."

Varric grunted.

"Lucky that you finished your business with him," Hawke added. Her eyes cut across the table. "At the party, that is."

He didn't want to be talking about this. If she brought up how bizarre it was that Selbrech was taken for a blood mage, Varric was going to show her the door and proceed to drink himself blind. "Yeah," he said, and set down the Serpent of Eternity. "Lucky."

"And you're absolutely sure that you don't want to tell me what's in that box?" Hawke said.

Varric smirked at her. "What do you think?"

"I think," said Hawke, "that you're deliberately keeping it a secret to see if you can break me. Squirrely, Varric, very squirrely." She played three cards; in response, Varric set down the Serpents of Decay and Deceit and watched her wince.

"Aren't you supposed to be good at this game?" he said.

"Fortune is fickle, and so am I." Hawke sighed. "All right, any five books. Stop by whenever you like, although I'll warn you, Orana started cleaning the library. There's no telling what she might throw out." She reached for her coat and started to rise, but Varric tapped his cards on the table a couple of times until he had her attention.

"You really want to know what's in that box?" Varric said. "Let's play one more round."

She hesitated. "Only one?"

"Only one," Varric said.

"...All right, if you're going to insist." She settled back into place. "There's no way for me to have any idea what I can wager that's of equivalent value, you realize. For all I know, you have gold or"—she leaned closer to sniff at the box's lid—"mmm, perfumes in there. Have you gotten involved with perfume smugglers, Varric?"

He chuckled. "It's not perfume."

"Liar," she said. "Oh, it isn't a dragon egg, is it? A dragon egg! I've always wanted one. Imagine if it hatched, and the dragon thought you were its mother."

"You could ride it when it got big enough," Varric said, and then, when he saw her eyes light up: "Hawke, no. It isn't a dragon egg."

"What a shame. Ah, well. I could use some nice perfume. Rabbit discovered a mud puddle just outside the house, and he's smelled like wet dog ever since. It's almost like he actually is a wet dog."

"An astonishing coincidence," he said. His heart was hammering, not that Hawke had any clue. He thought about stacking the deck but decided that violated the spirit of the game—not the Wicked Grace he was playing with Hawke, but the gamble he was making with himself. "So. My box, against your…"

"Clarification," Hawke said. "If I win, do I actually get to keep the box, or do I only get to see what's inside of it?"

"I'll tell you what: if you want what's in there, it's all yours," said Varric.

"And what am I to wager in return?"

"You still owe me those five sovereigns," he said, and he nodded at the pile of coins that was sitting at the end of the table.

"Those are your five sovereigns."

"Call it a loan," Varric said.

"You know, five sovereigns might be enough to buy an indulgence from the Imperial Chantry, and I hear those are worth a lot more than some measly little box—" Varric flicked her first card across the table to her, and Hawke blew her bangs out of her face in mock irritation. "Well. I can see how it's going to be."

Varric settled the remainder of the deck between them. Hawke was sorting through her hand already, muttering to herself as she did; there were dark circles beneath her eyes, and she looked like she hadn't been getting much sleep.

If she won this hand, he would tell her everything; he would tell her how he felt, he would tell her he missed her if he didn't see her every day, he would tell her she was everything he wanted in a partner. He would tell her that she was his favorite person, and that she was gorgeous and brash and damn funny. Maybe he would even tell her how much it annoyed him when she interrupted him in the middle of telling a story to editorialize; accepting her flaws was part of loving her, after all, and he loved her absolutely.

If she lost, she would never know any better. If she lost—if Varric won—he wouldn't have to stop clinging to a safe memory, he wouldn't have to forsake his fear, and he wouldn't have to face the possibility that the tragedy of her parents had taught her a hard lesson too early in life. The beauty of it was that he didn't have to decide, because luck was going to decide for him.

He passed a hand over his hair. There wasn't any reason to be nervous; it was, or it wasn't.

And then he picked up his cards.

There were six arrays of cards in Wicked Grace that were popularly considered the most desirable hands. Varric was holding the best of the six.

"I hope you don't mind that I plan to crush you now," Hawke was saying. "What's in the box, what's in the box...if it really is a dragon egg, I'm going to be angry. Delighted, but also angry."

He'd never held a natural Fool's Array in his life. No matter was Hawke had drawn, there was no chance that she'd be able to beat him now; even cheating wouldn't bring her close. She was going to lose, and Varric was going to take the five sovereigns, usher her out the door, maintain a carefully distanced friendship, watch as she invited someone else into her bed and her life, and grow old while Hawke only grew more and more like herself. He'd left it up to chance, and chance had screwed him out of the one thing he was too afraid to admit he wanted.

"Varric?" said Hawke. She was looking at him.

He set his cards down.

"Pressure getting to you?" she said. "I can't say that I blame you. I did fight an ogre to a standstill, after all."

"Nah," Varric said. "I fold."

It took her a couple of seconds to register what he'd said. "...What?"

"I fold," Varric repeated. "You win."

She blinked. "That was anticlimactic. There isn't anything at all in the box, is there? I knew you were trying to get inside my head."

Varric swept the cards aside and slid the box over. "Find out for yourself," he said. "Go ahead—open it."

"This isn't some sort of trick, is it?"

"No trick," he said. "On my honor."

"Honor? What honor? When did that happen?"

Varric laughed at her, completely helpless. He felt like he'd shed a decade's worth of burdens all in the span of a minute. Hawke was obviously pleased that she'd made him laugh, too, although she was also perplexed that her bad joke had inspired such an appreciative response.

"Now you're stalling," he said. "It's yours, Hawke. Might as well see what it has to offer."

She gave him a quick smile and said, "Well, I do like winning things," and then her fingers were at the latch, and then the box was open.

Varric was watching Hawke rather than the box, since he knew what was inside without having to look. The mail shirt Hawke held up was made from thaig-steel, but it glinted in the light like gold; there was no substance stronger nor lighter-weight. She could wear it comfortably beneath her clothes, and it would turn away even a greatsword or a crossbow bolt. Only in Orzammar did they make thaig-steel, and Varric had abused every contact he had to have it brought to Kirkwall.

Her sharp intake of breath wasn't for the mail shirt, though, but for the veil flowers threaded through the tiny links of the shirt. There were thousands of them; Varric knew, because he'd cut and threaded them himself. He'd almost gone blind from the effort, but it was worth it for the look on her face.

"Hey, Hawke," he said. "You need a bath."

She was holding the mail by the shoulders, but she lowered it back into the box. "You said you didn't want to be obligated—"

"I lied," Varric said.

"That we were just blowing off stress—"

"Yeah," he said. "That was a lie, too."

"That you didn't want to see me every day—"

"Complete nugshit," Varric said.

"Ah," said Hawke. "I shouldn't be surprised, considering the story you fed me about Lord Selbrech. Were you ever planning on telling me that he was after me?"

"You—shit. Of course you knew."

"I'm deeply suspicious that anyone else would find what you did reprehensible," she said, "but I've done worse for my family, and I would do worse again. For my family, or for you." She heaved a sigh. "I suppose you'll be wanting a veil of flowers to wear around town now. That's how it always goes—someone confesses their undying love, and I end up having to learn how to make garments out of local wildlife."

"I'd settle for a wreath to stick on the door," Varric said. "Counteract all the wet dogs smelling up the place."

"I accept on one condition." Hawke folded her arms. "If I have to take a bath, you have to take one with me."

Varric stood up and circled the table. "All right," he said. "If you can find a big enough tub."

"Did I say one condition? I meant two. Two conditions." She ticked them off on her fingers. "We bathe together, and I never have to wear a dress again."

Varric took her by the hand. "You sure you wouldn't be open to a private showing?"

"Three conditions," Hawke said. "We bathe together, I never have to wear a dress in public again, and you kiss me whenever I like."

Varric was in the process of pulling her towards the bed, but when he heard her third condition, he turned around, went up on his toes, and planted one on her. It was a good kiss; they were practiced enough with each other that they didn't accidentally smack their noses together or clack teeth.

They were both breathless when they pulled away, and Varric couldn't seem to stop grinning. Hawke, though, opened her mouth and said, "Again—"


(And there were veil flowers the next year and every year after; and their lives were never easy—but shit, Varric would take 'interesting' over 'easy' every damn time.)

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