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"Cinders"

Title: "A Chance of Frost"
Author: Amorissy
Characters: Varric, Bethany, Anders, f!Hawke/Fenris
Rating: 14+
Warning: Set during game events.  Spoiler warning for up to and including the end of Act II.
Summary: One-shot. As the fires burn in the city of chains, a lone Grey Warden returns to Kirkwall against orders and a storyteller finds the one tale he's not allowed to tell.

Author's Note:  Written for Isabeau of Greenlea.  A CMDA exchange fic.




Cinders



Andraste's ass.

He hates chaos. Hates it to his normally unshakeable core. There's so very few things that he despises so passionately, but this night has him seething. The noise, the senselessness, the loss. Chaos is ugly, it's cruel, and completely indiscriminate. It only takes, and destroys, and takes, and takes. The smoke and the screaming. No, he doesn't like chaos one bit.

But more than chaos, Varric hates chaos in his city. He likes order, even if it's common knowledge that the order of things around here is a little fucked up. There's a balance in his world, at the very least, and he's gotten good at maintaining that balance if he ignores the humans and their skirty politics, unless, of course, he's in the mood for a little flavour.

Which has been his mood a lot as of late, ever since he'd set his sights on a plucky refugee and her apostate sister after they had set their sights on his brother. In retrospect, it's a shame that two pretty faces and an impeccable reputation apiece had stopped him from noticing the uncanny knack for trouble that followed behind them like a particularly persistent stray. That's as apt a description as he can fix to it when it comes in small doses, but even he can't put to words, or even begin to fully comprehend, the meaning of nights like tonight.

Outside the walls of the estate, his city's near to burning. It'll be days before the fires in Lowtown burn themselves out. But the Qunari are all dead or defected now, and the chaos is relenting with nothing left to feed it. The veil of confusion and panic is lifting. Word is trickling down from Hightown to the undercity, and it's on his mind to get an ear out for what exactly it is that they're saying so he can figure out how to top it later, but just then his focus is required elsewhere. He's trapped in his own little circle of chaos and there's not a thing he can do about it.

Strange how it seems almost routine now, this cycle of Hawke and the blood, glory, and profit. They'll make her Champion for this, if she lives. He fervently hopes she'll live – it's only the smallest part of him that muses at what he could do with the champion angle once this mess dies down a bit, and people are in the mood for a tale or two again, ready to drink to the woman who saved them all. It might be a good story if the hero dies, but it doesn't make for a very long one. No, his hero's made of stronger stuff than all that, titles or no. Hawke can't, and won't, die – Blondie will see to it. She's still got a lot of good to do in this city.

But at that moment, glancing up the stairs, he knows there's not much he can tell himself to make the worry any less. He doesn't need to look around to see that he's not the only one afflicted with this damnable grief, either, but he looks around just the same, to take it in with his own eyes, this part of the story that's all pain and stench and tears, the part that no one ever wants to hear.

Their sudden, very loud appearance has rattled the household. There's a trail of bloody footprints streaked across the floor, and the elven girl Hawke keeps on for the dusting is eyeing it nervously, a twitch at the corner of her mouth, and he's honestly unsure whether she means to cry or clean. Bodahn's been in and out, a steady stream of activity, but Varric hasn't seen hide nor hair of his boy, and that bothers him more than it should.

And then there's Fenris, crimson-wristed and scowling, leaning a shoulder against the mantel. He's all agitation and guilt, and if Varric had an ounce of sympathy to spare, he'd say something to break this blighted silence because all this unknowing is really starting to drag him down.

After a while, Aveline comes in, then leaves again, reeking of smoke and blood. She bangs her way inside, a fiery human flurry of purpose, lingering only long enough to reassure herself that her last link in this world hasn't up and died on her. When she leaves, it's with an easy calm that Varric finds himself envying.

Of the others, he sees no sign. Off praying, off hiding, off saving stray kittens, it really makes no matter to him. He supposes he should be out there too, fighting for his city, putting things to rights, making a difference, that sort of thing, but he can't force himself to go. Perhaps he's just a coward with a strikingly beautiful crossbow.

Or maybe, just maybe, there's something more important he needs to take care of, first.

Time passes, ridiculously slow. There's a faint blue light cast against the walls up on the balcony, intermittent but strong as Anders tries to fix the bloody mess the Arishok made of Hawke. That cold blue contrasts nicely with the faint orange glow spilling in the windows, the fires down in Lowtown lighting up the late evening sky. It occurs to him that if someone doesn't get those under control soon, he might not have a bed to go back to when all this is said and done, and then a wave of panic near cinches his throat shut at the thought. He coughs uncomfortably, sputters really, but his feet stay planted. No, he's not going anywhere.

The front door bursts open soon after. Varric doesn't bother to turn, not when so many are expected back and even more haven't yet shown their faces, but the unfamiliar clink of mail echoing through the small entryway causes him to turn just in time to see Bethany. She strides confidently into the greater hall, only to balk as the high-vaulted ceiling opens up above her and she gets lost in the overreaching grandeur of the estate, like a little bird caught among Chantry rafters.

"Sunshine," he mutters suddenly, a single breath of a word, and then she's turning to him, her eyes lighting up as she sets sight on someone familiar, something to anchor her here in this great stone hall with its cold, lofty ceiling and blood-spattered floor.

"Where is she?" Bethany asks, eyes following the bloodied footprints up the stairs. "Is she –"

"A work in progress," he says as reassuringly as he's able. Curious, how much energy he can summon for this. Confounding, even. "Blondie's up there, doing that thing he does and hopefully doing it well."

"You still haven't learned to use anyone's name yet, Varric?" she asks, and there's a hint of familiarity, the comfort and ease of friendship, love and loyalty and all those other heady sentimentalities that are normally best avoided. He's about to smile and say something witty when there's a bright flash of bluish light from above and Anders shouts at Hawke, command or plea it's hard to tell, but all goes quiet again as suddenly as the charge began and Bethany is still beside him, paled and shaken, all that amity and affection flown as reality sinks in.

"I thought the Wardens were long gone by now," he says, a vague attempt at distraction.

"They are. I'll catch up," she replies, and she looks around her for the first time, taking it all in, the elven maidservant, the forbiddingly high windows and the behemoth of a fireplace. When she sees Fenris, sullen and silent, she pauses and for a fleeting moment it seems that she's going to say something, but soon enough her lips twist sadly and she sighs.

"Blue suits you," Varric says, and he knows he's truly floundering now, grasping and pathetic, but she smiles, and it's a rare and beautiful thing. He'll have to try and remember to give himself a pat on the back for this later.

"Thank you. Better than Circle robes might have, do you think?" she asks.

"Infinitely," he says, frowning. He can pretend all he wants that there's a hint of a teasing tone in her voice, but he knows better. He's heard this wistful musing from her before, and as ever, it comes as close to breaking his heart as anything ever has, another anomaly, one rightfully ignored. "It seems that the city owes the Wardens a debt of gratitude."

Bethany gives an indelicate laugh. "One that's not likely to be remembered, let alone repaid."

"That tough, huh?" he asks, looking up at her and enjoying the rising pink that colours her cheeks just then.

She looks up the stairs again; the magical blue glow has yet to cease, but there hasn't been another outburst like the one before. It's a good enough sign, experience tells him, but he can't seem to shake the anxiety that comes hand-in-hand with all this waiting. "This is a soft life she's living," Bethany says, cutting into his thoughts. "To step in only when she's called upon, the choice of what she stands for, or if she stands at all. It seems so easy."

"Easy?" He laughs. "She killed a Qunari commander in single combat. I don't even need to exaggerate on that point. I'd hardly call that easy."

"Maybe not so easy then, but still," she says softly, "it was her choice to fight alone. Not a one of you would have let her, otherwise."

Across the room, there's the scrape of stone and crunch of metal, an odd sound and out of place, and Varric looks up to see Fenris has moved, an almost imperceptible shift in bearing, but he sees it, the jet-chased gauntlet gripping the mantel, the brace of an arm holding more weight than it had before.

"She did what she had to," Varric says; he goes for pride and does it well. She's worthy of the champion's title, selfless and just, saving the city for the children, et cetera. No one will ever know she did it to preserve the dusky skin of a pirate queen, just as no one will ever know how much of her blood marks a trail down the steep stone steps of Viscount's Keep. He wonders then if it may have been more prudent to take her to the clinic in the undercity, but then – as jarring as if it's for the first time – he sees the bloody footprints marking their way across the floor and up the stairs and he knows she would not have made it that far.

"I forgot how fast news travels in this city. I heard about the Keep before I was in the city walls," Bethany says then, crossing her arms over her chest. "I shouldn't be here, I should be – but I couldn't leave it like this, I couldn't leave her if she was –" Her voice thickens with emotion, and without much in the way of thought, Varric reaches out and puts a light hand on her elbow. The smile as she looks down at him is genuine for all that it's watered with grief and loss. "I don't know why I ever bother to doubt her. She'll make it through anything. Always has."

"Not without help," he says, and gives her elbow a gentle squeeze, meant to be a comfort, before he lets her go, before he gets any ideas in his head about her staying in Kirkwall, about her being anything but a mage, a Grey Warden, and his recurring heroine's baby sister, besides. Ever the same thoughts, indecent and implausible. It has always been such, long before that cursed expedition and its terrible end, watching as Hawke had passed over her sister's wasting, blight-ridden body to a Warden who said it was no kindness; giving her sister over to a lifetime of service in return for life at all.

Seeing Bethany now, even as sad and bitter as she is with the dying firelight in her eyes, Varric knows he'd willingly lose her to the Wardens all over again in a heartbeat – a decision that had never been his, but a choice he knows Hawke would mirror were she conscious just now. In a heartbeat.

By every damn ancestor he's got, he's praying that she'll be having plenty more of those.

There are words he's wanting to say then, important words dressed up like only he knows how, but he finds he can't say them. Not with Hawke the way she is, not with Fenris looming darkly over glowing embers, not with the chance that the door will burst open any second, bringing Gamlen, Aveline, or worse. Meredith comes to mind, a golden blaze of righteous fury, and he shudders.

"You should go on up there, Sunshine," he says, forcing himself to say what's safe. "You could be of help."

"I'm no good at mending wounds," Bethany says. "I'm far better at making them now." She laughs, and he almost forgets about Hawke and the whole city along with her, just for a moment. And perhaps she forgets too, because then it's as if she remembers where she is and what brought her here, and the smile goes away. "Is she terribly hurt, Varric?"

"Not so terribly," he says carefully, but it comes out a little strained, and he can tell with one look that she knows it to be a lie. "Well, Anders knows what he's doing, anyway. He'll patch her up."

"She really saved the city," she says, exhaling long and slow to temper her disbelief. "And I wasn't there with her. I thought I'd given all that up for good, but... oh, I don't know, it feels wrong somehow."

"You wouldn't have wanted to be there," he says gently. "It wasn't a pretty fight."

"If only she'd learn a lesson or two from it. Stay out of trouble for a bit, you know?"

He smirks. "Oh, I imagine it'll be quiet around here for a while after this."

"Can you promise?"

No, is his immediate thought, but before he can put it more eloquently into words, there's another shout from Anders upstairs, and all at once the blue light fades to ambient shadow and then comes the most blessedly welcome sound Varric has ever heard in his life: Hawke letting loose a string of rather choice, colourful oaths and a languid groan of pain. In no time at all, Anders is on the landing, beaming despite his bloody clothes and pale, haggard face.

"She's –" is all he manages to get out before a coarse, ragged shout erupts from the enveloping darkness at his back.

"Where in the bloody hell is the bastard that put me up to this?"

Fenris glances up, but then only closes his eyes and lets his head hang. If it's a moment of indecision on his part, he makes his choice quickly, and it's not to run to her side for a good verbal lashing – though from what Varric knows about it, which is more than he should, it would be well-deserved indeed. No, instead Fenris lets go the mantel and kneels before the grate. The gauntlets come off, and then he goes about stoking the sparking coals with fresh kindling. Menial work for idle hands to prolong the inevitable. Probably a smart move.

Beside him, Bethany watches Fenris, transfixed, and in turn, Varric watches her. It's the quietest, most peaceful thing that's happened to him all day, and as is the way of such things, he doesn't realize the serenity he's found in one single moment in time before it's fading and gone too fast. Another cry of pain from upstairs breaks the spell, and there's a curse from Anders before he disappears into the bedchamber, utterly unaware of what just transpired beneath him.

"Get back on that bed, Hawke, or so help me –"

Bethany starts. "I should go."

"You should talk to her," Varric says, and he wants very much for her to stay, and it's the knowing she can't that hurts the most. Duty, honour, sacrifice, it's all hers now. No titles, no glory. Just darkspawn and death. "She's going to want to see you. It's been a tough year –"

"Nothing I say will change that now," she says, and it's a sad truth. "Don't tell her. I was never here, Varric."

"But it'd make such a good story, especially if there's a tearful reunion."

She smiles, rare and beautiful, and he can't help but smile too. He misses her.

"Goodbye, Varric." She leans down and presses a kiss to his forehead, and her face is an impassive mask when she straightens, but he's got a funny feeling she was still smiling when she kissed him, and that's all that matters. And then she's slipping through the doorway again, and there's that sound of her mail echoing in the small hall, and the heavy front door closes, and then nothing for so, so long.

He sighs. Bye, Sunshine.

Fenris has finished with the fireplace by then, and there are flames licking at the wood he laid down. Drawn to it almost, Varric walks across the room and stands before the grate. For a time, Fenris stays kneeling, so that they're almost of a height, but then he stands, watching Varric carefully, appraising.

"Do all dwarves blush so easily?" he asks, smirking.

Varric groans and runs a hand over his face. "Yes," he says, and he despite it all, he chuckles at himself. "I think I finally understand what the beards are for."

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