“I used to be a lot stronger, you know.” For a moment he looked so serious it was hard to tell where he intended to take that line of conversation, then he quirked his brow, which had a lot more furrows than it used to, and added, “And much more fun at parties.”
“Was that before or after you got all paranoid?”
Before Justice, he assumed, before Vengeance ran blue through his veins and made him stand up in ways he’d always been afraid to do before. Funny, how that worked. Before fleeing from Amaranthine to Kirkwall after leaving the Grey Wardens, Anders escaped the Templars seven times.
Only a man with drive and fortitude would keep trying.
The dwarf couldn’t imagine someone strong needing to take the spirit of Justice into them in order to… well… enact justice, but even he knew there was only so far a man could be pushed before he found himself hanging from the edge of the cliff, straining fingers barely able to cling to the crumbling stone holding him above a jagged precipice that wanted nothing more than to chew his body to shreds as he fell to his death.
“Oh, I was always paranoid, and with good reason. All that time alone, nothing but my thoughts… I was just better able to hide behind a witty wall of sarcasm and nonchalance. You have nothing but time to think up clever one-liners when you’re locked up in the tower.”
“You?” the merchant prince chuckled appreciatively. “Witty? Now I’ve heard just about everything.”
The mage’s laughter was a strange comfort, one he hadn’t realized how much he’d missed until the sound of it found his ears.
“I would have thought you’d believe me less likely to be nonchalant than witty, Varric.”
It wasn’t an unusual thing for him to be nervous. In fact, in all the years Varric Tethras had known Anders, he’d come to think of the man as downright twitchy, and that was putting it mildly.
Paranoid, excitable, and just a little bit out of his mind, it was a rare occasion for him to be still, but he was exceedingly anxious as they wound the mountain pass together. Constantly shooting glances over his shoulder, he scanned the landscape ahead and behind them and tripped over his own boots half a dozen times before Varric finally let loose a sigh and hitched Bianca a little higher on his back.
“Oh, you’re witty enough when you want to be, I suppose, but you’re right. I’m having a hard time imagining an Anders whose smallclothes weren’t wedged so far up his own arse he could barely sit down.”
“I’ve got good reason to be distrustful,” he insisted. “And my reasons have only grown tenfold since we fled Kirkwall.”
“True,” he nodded agreement. “True, but you’re acting awful strange, Blondie. Stranger than usual, which is saying a lot for someone of your… particular affliction. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think you were just a little bit…”
“Paranoid?” The corners of Anders’ mouth stretched unexpectedly, his amber eyes widening for a moment before he shrugged and said, “You’ll see why soon enough.”
“Is it Hawke?”
“Yes?” He shrugged, leaving the question of his own admission up in the air. “No? I don’t know. It’s easy enough to explain, but I promised her I wouldn’t.”
“You send for me, even though you know you shouldn’t. Tell me it’s important, but won’t say why. I haven’t seen or heard from you or Hawke for almost two years… What in the name of Andraste’s holy knickers is going on?”
“You’ll see,” he said for the second time since they’d met on the road.
Being a purveyor, as well as a teller, of fine tales, Varric was intrigued, but the whole charade was getting tiresome. Two years of silence, not that he blamed her, or the mage for that silence. They were apostates, on the run in a world far touchier than it had ever been before. After the Justice-possessed nutjob walking nervously beside him blew up the Chantry, pushing the tension between the Templars and Mages to a breaking point, the Champion of Kirkwall had to give up her illustrious title and position and head into the shadows. Disappointed was putting it mildly—he’d worked his ass off to see Hawke in that position, but he understood.
Love was a strange thing, and no matter how many times he’d warned her about the twitchy bastard, Marian Hawke saw something in Anders no one else could see. He didn’t know; maybe he reminded her of her father, Malcolm. Maker knew both Carver and Leandra made the reference often enough after Anders started hanging around. Carver hated Anders, but Leandra had all but pushed them together in those early days, inviting the poor sod to dinner, making him feel right at home, leaving the two of them alone so they could talk.
Varric never understood it. After losing everyone in her family, why would Leandra push her daughter into the arms of a man just like her father? A man who could never give her the life she so righteously deserved, a life Varric himself strove to see her positioned in before it all went to hell, no small thanks to Anders.
To hear Hawke talk about her father, Malcolm was a strong man, a determined and crafty man. A man willing to do whatever it took to keep his wife and children safe, even if it meant uprooting them every time they thought to get comfortable. A man with fear and regrets who died to protect his family and set Hawke’s entire world on the edge. In the deep roads Hawke learned more about her father than she ever wanted to know, including his fears of passing on magic’s curse to his unborn child. So much for that hope. Not one, but two of his children were born mages, and he spent all the years he had with Hawke and Bethany, teaching them to control their power, to hide and fit in.
It was no wonder she fell in love with Anders, he supposed. They had far more in common than anyone could have ever guessed.
A life on the run—it was all she’d ever really known, and though that seven years in Kirkwall was a nice reprieve, someone like Hawke didn’t know how to sit still, couldn’t afford it, actually.
But still… She must have known that no amount of love and acceptance would ever make Anders right in the head. Or maybe he was wrong. What did he know? Maybe Malcolm Hawke was just a few bricks shy of a wall himself; maybe it was the crazy part of Anders she loved best.
“So, how have you been, Varric?”
“We’re making small talk now?”
“Isn’t that what people in civilized communities do?” Anders shrugged. “How’s the weather? How’s the lovely Bianca? It’s been so long since I’ve been among so-called civilized people, I almost forget how to behave.”
Varric laughed, an appreciative chuckle rumbling through his chest and garnering another grin from the mage. “It hasn’t been that long, Blondie. Surely you haven’t forgotten I’m probably one the least civilized people you know.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that. I always thought you were just this close,” he held his fingers together to demonstrate his point, “to being a true gentleman.”
“You haven’t changed a damn bit,” he laughed again. “Good! Part of me was worried the two of you wouldn’t make it out here on the run.”
“We aren’t running right now, though I can’t say how long that will last. We’ve been… unable to run these last few months. Though I keep telling her we should, that staying in one place too long is absolutely idiotic considering everything, but she has her reasons, and I suppose I do too. We won’t be able to stay here much longer. It’s nearly time to move on again, but she wanted to see you before we disappeared.”
“I suppose asking what those reasons might be would be a waste of breath?”
“…see,” he finished. “So you keep saying. I just hope that whatever this is, it meets all the expectations I’ve built around it.”
They said nothing more as they crested the hill and Anders led him onto a well-hidden path darting off through the trees and further up the mountain. It felt like hours that they walked, the muscles in his legs aching with the incline, but the sun’s position above the trees didn’t shift nearly as much as it should have, and before long the pines began to thin, revealing a little-used road that only someone who knew it was there would be able to find.
Anders picked up the pace a bit when a small, orange tabby trotted out to the meet them on the road. Several steps ahead of Varric, he bent to scoop the cat into his arms, holding it close to his chest as he muttered a string of fluffy words that made little to no sense at all and were quickly swallowed by the rumbling, obnoxious purr of an overly-excited, meowing feline.
“It’s just up here,” he told Varric, and following the nod of his head in that direction he spied a small, rundown cottage with specks of mildew staining the wood and dilapidated shutters hanging from a single, dirty window beside a warded door, the protective glow of magic casting a pale blue light in the sporadic grass poking from the mud in front of it.
“Home sweet home?”
“For the moment,” Anders shrugged as they approached.
The mage lifted a graceful hand and withdrew the ward, the hum of magic ceasing only to be replaced by an ear-shattering and constant wail from within. Varric’s first thought was a tortured cat, but as Anders reached forward and curled fingers around the doorknob to open up the cottage, everything made sense.
That was no mewling and tormented cat; it was something much, much worse, and though he thought he understood the mage’s paranoia on the path up the hillside, now he knew its true purpose.
“Maker’s breath,” the dwarf muttered under into his shoulder.
Anders stepped across the threshold, inviting his companion inside and quickly closing the door behind them. Just below the relentless screams he heard a soft, familiar and charmingly sarcastic voice declare, “You see? All your screaming and fussing was for naught. I told you he’d be back, and you were worried for nothing.”
“Why is he crying?” Anxious, Anders closed the space between them and arrived at her side. He placed one gentle hand on her shoulder before lowering the other to the back of a healthy baby with tufts of wild black hair. He leaned inward and tenderly kissed that hair, then withdrew to beam blissfully at Hawke. “Is he hurt? What happened?”
“Nothing happened. I suspect he believed you were never coming back,” she quipped. “He’s ridiculously attached to you. One would almost think it was you who carried him around in your body for nearly nine full months…”
“And to make up for that hardship, I carry him everywhere now so you don’t have to,” he shrugged. “It’s not my fault he loves me so.”
The red-faced, tiny human quieted with a surprising amount of quickness upon hearing the dulcet one of his father’s voice. Hitching little shoulders and staring with large, glassy, hazel eyes up at Anders, the distress faded from his face, pudgy cheeks rising as a toothless grin found his lips and an eager hand reached as he stretched his body toward his father.
“Andraste’s flaming sword,” Varric muttered, catching Hawke’s brilliant blue gaze as she turned that saucy grin on him. Somehow ‘you’ll see’ didn’t quite encompass the moment at all.
“Varric,” she beamed.
“It’s lovely to see you again, old friend. Would you like something to drink? We’ve got water and… more water.”
He laughed, remembering their first visit to Merrill’s home inside the alienage. How nervous she’d been, how hospitable the poor little flower aimed to be, even though she barely had the means to feed herself.
“Drinks are on me,” he lifted his pack, the bottles within clanking together. “And damn if I don’t need one right about now.”
“Come to Papa.” Anders scooped the child from her arms and cradled him against his chest as he stroked a thoughtful, comforting hand down his back. The child tilted and lowered his head onto Anders’s shoulder, blinking and sniffling as he cuddled close. “Was she pinching you? Telling you scary stories again?”
“Oh yes,” she rolled her eyes. “I was telling him all about the Witch of the Wilds and how she loves to eat little children who won’t stop crying.”
“Mummy is a mean, mean woman,” he teased.
“Who barely gets any sleep. It’s no wonder she’s so cranky.”
“We should take a walk outdoors, go and see the kitties. Maybe a bit of fresh air will do him some good and tire him out for a nice long nap.”
“I think that’s a marvelous idea,” she agreed, watching with tilted head as he walked across the small cottage and toward the door. Only once they were outside did she gesture to the small table in the corner of the room and say, “It’s not Hawke Manor, I know, but lack of luxury is no cause to be inhospitable. Please, have a seat.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” he shrugged and cocked his head to shoot her a grin, “it has its charms, I suppose.”
Varric followed her to the table, drew the chair out and propped Bianca up against the wall before huffing into the seat. She put two old tin cups on the table before joining him, and didn’t say a single word until after he started to pour shots of amber liquid into them. They made a wordless toast, tilted their cups inward until they touched, then both of them tossed it back and lowered to the table again for a refill.
“I have to say,” he began, splashing each of them another shot, “this was not a chapter I expected to write in the Hawke-Anders romance. Apostate lovers on the run, yes, but a family of magic-wielding fugitives fleeing war and destruction…” He screwed his face and looked away from her, whistling through his teeth. “That is not the story I hoped to write for you.”
“Do tell me a story so tragic at least has a few happy crescendos, even if the ending doesn’t bode well for anyone involved.”
“You think we’re fools, no doubt.” Before he could answer that he did, in fact, think they were, she went on to say, “I thought so too, and sometimes I still do. I watched my mother and father go through this. I went through it with them right up until the end, but… I don’t know.” Casting her eyes downward, he watched her head waver back and forth as if there were no words to encompass what she was feeling inside. “When he’s sleeping in between us at night, I watch his little eyes flit with dream beneath his lids and I think, ‘Why would we be so stupid and careless with someone else’s life?’ An innocent who had no choice in his birth, who probably would have said, ‘No, thank you,’ if asked if he’d liked to be born to us. And then Anders lifts his head from the pillow and looks at me. He smiles and there is something in his eyes that goes so much deeper than that radical fear and hopelessness he’s known so long. He deserves a family, Varric, and I know in those moments this is the right thing.”
“Then who am I to tell you that you’re wrong?”
“You’ve never had trouble telling me I was wrong in the past,” she grinned at him. “I presume because it happens so rarely.”
“It’s good to know some things never change,” he chuckled, and they tipped their cups again.
“This is a life I’m most familiar with,” she told him. “All those years in Kirkwall, I wanted it to last. I wanted to stay there forever and be Her champion. I really did, Varric, but I was fooling myself. Trying to be something I wasn’t meant to…”
“Oh, I don’t know about that. You were a damn good champion, Hawke. You did good things for Kirkwall, even if it all blew up in our faces, rather literally before the end.”
“Aveline would disagree,” she pointed out. “And Fenris…”
“Fenris would disagree if you told him the bloody sun was hot.”
“He’d probably say I corrupted it with my foul magic,” she tittered.
“It’s just his disposition.”
The lightness of her laughter was an unexpected bliss, one he’d missed more than he could put into words and words were his thing. “Have you heard from Fenris?”
“No, and I don’t expect I will.”
“Me neither. I miss him sometimes. His dry humor, the way he loved to argue with me. Hell, at times I even miss listening to him bicker back and forth with Anders.”
“I don’t miss that. They were like oil and water, those two. I did talk to Daisy though, not long ago.”
“Is she well?”
“About as well as you and Anders, I suppose, though she doesn’t have any little secrets as big as yours. I ran into her by accident, actually, in a tavern of all places. We had a drink, talked about old times and then she was off again into the shadows.”
“I miss her sometimes.”
“She misses you too,” he confessed. “You and the sense of purpose you instilled in everyone around you.”
“We all knew it would come to this,” she sighed. “Long before Vengeance…”
“Speaking of Justice…”
“Oh, he’s more righteous than ever before,” she sighed. “He used to say I softened Anders, that I made him forget his purpose and his cause. He thinks I was a fool for showing mercy after what happened to the Chantry in Kirkwall, that their actions demanded righteousness as well, but there is integrity in mercy, I think. Holding someone else’s life, someone innocent, in his hands is a small bit of justice I don’t think Justice ever expected.”
“Is a fire that will never burn out.”
For a moment it almost appeared the presence of that spirit flared in the brilliance of her pale blue eyes, but then the smile flashed at the edges of her mouth again and she leaned back in the chair, the half-empty cup in her hand rested upon her thigh.
It must be terrifying for her, he thought, living with an unpredictable abomination. Even for Varric, who spied the mage just beyond those dusty windows holding his son just inches from his chest and making silly faces that invoked laughter, it was difficult to forget about Vengeance, the power of it always looming beneath the surface, searching for moments to explode upon the masses.
That power would protect their son, of that he had no doubt, but at what eventual cost?
Surely, she’d thought of that.
“I learned a lot from Justice, almost as much as I learned from Anders over the years, and before him, my father. I know now this is not a life anyone deserves to live, Varric. My father never wanted this for me or Bethany, and for a long time I wanted to do right, to make him proud, but how could I ever make him proud if I didn’t stand up for what was right? The only reason he didn’t stand taller was because he was trying to protect us. He was terrified, and look where it got us. Father’s fear destroyed our entire family.”
And yet without that fear, without his precautions, she probably wouldn’t be sitting there in front of him. Now she would find ways to destroy herself to protect her own offspring, of that he had no doubt. Varric never met Malcolm Hawke, but he’d heard Leandra say plenty of times his eldest daughter was so much like the man it was both a comfort and a terror.
And now she’d spend the rest of her days on the run, just as her father had done.
“It was easy for me to hide in Kirkwall, to pretend I was something I was not, but I couldn’t hide there forever. I don’t want to have to hide anymore. I don’t want to pretend.”
“And yet, what else is there for you to do?”
“You’re right,” she sighed. “You’re right, I know. To protect him, we will do what needs to be done. We will run, hide… As my father taught me, I will teach him to hide who he is if necessary. I won’t let the Circle or the Templars or anyone else ever come near my son. I don’t care how separated they all are from each other now. I won’t let it happen.”
“Do you think it will be necessary?”
“It’s impossible to say at this point, but his chances aren’t exactly the best, not with both his parents being what we are. If they learn of him, and I’ve no doubt they will eventually, it won’t matter what his chances are. They’ll take him from us anyway. It’s what they do. What they’ve always done”
“Damn, Hawke! As if I didn’t already have enough reasons to worry about you,” he scoffed and poured a third drink for himself, but when he held the bottle out to her, she politely shook her head. “You know telling me this was probably not the best plan. People ask questions. Not that I’d ever betray you…”
“I know you wouldn’t,” she smiled.
“In all fairness, why? Why give this to me?”
“Why? Because you’re my chronicler, of course.” The lightness of her laughter brought a grin to his lips. “You’re the one who tells my story, Varric, from beginning to end. One day, when all is said and done, I want you to have all the proper details so you can embellish them just right.”
“You know I’ll always do right by you, no matter what.”
“I know,” and then she grew serious again, something so rare and terrifying it made his heart skip a beat inside the barrel of his chest. “I wanted you to know, if things go awry, why I’ve done the things I’ve done from this moment forward.”
He understood, though there weren’t words to express that understanding, so instead he only nodded and then gulped down the burning liquid in his cup, relishing in the quick fashion in which it warmed him from the inside out.
“We’ll be leaving this place soon,” she declared. “Anders can’t sit still much longer, and now he’s even antsier than ever before. I have no idea where we’ll go, what we’ll do when we get there, but I may not see you again.”
“And that’s the real reason you called me up here.”
“I suppose it is.”
To say goodbye; once and for all.
For a moment he thought to insist upon coming with them, but they both knew that just wasn’t who he was. Varric Tethras, shady as he tended to be, was not cut out to be a fugitive, and though he’d suffer that brand for her, for the closest friend he’d ever had, he knew she’d never ask him to so he would never offer.
“Are you sure you won’t have another drink,” he reached for the bottle and slid it across the table.
“Oh,” she shrugged, “what the hell. Why not?”
They’d been so embroiled in their conversation, neither of them heard the door open until Anders had already passed through it. He walked with careful footsteps across old, creaking floorboards and laid the sleeping baby in the center of the bed. He positioned worn pillows around him in case he rolled over in his sleep, then he joined them at the table.
“I hope you saved a drink for me.”
“But of course.” Varric poured a third, and the three of them tilted and clinked their metal cups together, the dwarf declaring, “To friendship.”
“To friendship,” Hawke and Anders both agreed, and they drank.
“So,” he leaned back in his chair and stretched his neck, “what did you name the little abomination.”
“He is not an abomination,” Anders defended.
Hawke tittered, nudged her elbow into her partner and winked at Varric as she confessed, “Don’t listen to Anders. He’s quite the little monster, especially now that he’s learning to crawl. Before you know it, he’ll be setting barns on fire…”
“His name is Malcolm,” he interrupted. “And if he ever sets a barn on fire, I’ll bloody well applaud him for it.”
“So will I,” she grinned. “So will I.”
“Malcolm,” Varric nodded. “A strong name.”
“He’ll have to be strong, I suppose,” Hawke noted, a hint of lament in her voice, “if he wants to survive this world we live in.”
And though a part of him was skeptical, the worry he felt inside inching ever closer to the surface, he found an encouraging smile and said, “He comes from strong stock. I’ve no doubt the two of you will teach him everything he needs to know to get by and then some. And if worse comes to worst, old Uncle Varric can show him a few things too.”
“As long as it doesn’t involve lock-picking,” Anders said.
“Oh, I don’t know,” the dwarf shrugged. “You never know when you might need to pick your way out of chains.”
It wasn’t funny because it was true, too true, but they laughed anyway, those three old friends sitting around the table in a quiet, rundown cottage in the mountains as the sun went down beyond the reach of the dirty windows. They had to laugh because they had no idea when they’d get to laugh together again, and though Varric didn’t often allow himself to succumb to melancholy, the thought of never seeing Hawke or Anders again made him very sad.