Sideline Wednesday: The Champion's Side, Chapter 36

Growing Pains

During this quiet void after what we came to call The Year of the Qunari, I happened upon a book about Shartan, the elf famous for helping Andraste free the slaves a thousand years before. Naturally my thoughts turned to Fenris, with whom I had fallen into a delicate friendship laced with tensions we tried to ignore.

I wandered up to the mansion one night when I knew he’d avoided The Hanged Man. Most nights he joined us but he also had Donnic and a few others over for cards once a week or so and some evenings he simply didn’t come. After so long alone it sometimes made him very uncomfortable to have so many people near, even if most of them were his friends.

We never knocked on one another’s doors. I called up from the foyer, surrounded by cobwebs and beams of moonlight that shone through the holes Fenris never could be bothered to repair. He could afford it but it never mattered to him. It did not, after all, belong to him.

When he came to the railing above, he stood for a long moment with his eyes on me. I said his name again and he shook his head a little. “Your tunic is the only spot of color in the room,” he said cryptically. “Do come up.”

I gave him the book casually, as though I happened to have it with me and thought he might like it. But instead of the equally dismissive thanks I expected he threw the thing on his table, knocking over empty wine bottles and sending a plate sliding to clatter across the floor.

“You think they teach slaves to read” he snarled, “or am I your new project?”

And what could I say, that I hadn’t thought at all? He might take my assertion that he was so well-spoken that I assumed he could as some sort of insult in his suddenly-ugly mood. Hesitatingly, I said that I could teach him. Even to me it sounded weak. “Really, I’d like to,” I added a little more forcefully.

Fenris stalked around the table and threw his arms in the air. “You’re a noble” he shouted, “Champion of Kirkwall and darling of the city, a prince’s friend and an eligible woman. Why do you waste your time on me? Am I your token charity case?”

That stung. “You were my friend long before any of that was true, Fenris. Would you prefer I turn my back and stick my nose in the air? Should I stop going to The Hanged man, drop Merrill and Bela and Varric, too? Maybe I’ll make some new friends, ones who can keep me up on Hightown gossip and the latest fashion in Val Royeaux.”

He looked determined but his voice dropped to a bitter grumble. “Maybe you should. Surely you can do better than an escaped slave squatting in a borrowed mansion.”

All of my defensiveness faded away. “Fenris,” I said gently, trying to get him to look at me. He refused to meet my eyes, ducking his head so he couldn’t see my face. “Maybe I don’t think so. Maybe I don’t want to.”

He waved a hand at me. “Pah, fine. Teach me to read if you want to so badly.” He’d reached that same window he liked so much to stare through and stopped. His face stayed turned, his eyes on the courtyard below. “I suppose it will pass the time.”

Pass the time it did. Fenris may have been uneducated but he picked things up quickly, struggling through learning the symbols for the sounds of his third language. Once he’d deciphered some of them I decreed that he needed to write them to claim ownership. He drew laborious characters to describe simple things like the sky or my dog.

For some reason these lessons never took place in my home. I would cross two squares and climb the steps that led nearly to his door every few days. He read to me, haltingly at first, and I would lean over his shoulder to point at a word or guide his hand in making the proper shape. At first he shrank from such closeness but over time he stopped noticing. It was simply a part of our lessons.

Some days this proximity tortured me and I couldn’t face it. While we sat around his bedroom, he reading aloud and both of us sipping wine, I could pretend that I felt nothing but warm friendship for him. But when he turned to look at me, triumphant at conquering a particularly difficult passage, his face so close to mine where I stretched over his arm, I struggled to keep from leaping on him like a harlot.

Even after he no longer needed my help he enjoyed reading to me. I loved to watch him, to wallow in his voice rolling over me as he worked his way through half the books in my library. They could have been market lists and I would have sat, rapt, until the very end.

Fenris never showed any sign of being bothered by these evenings and none of our companions knew how this sudden love of literature had started. Bela had come once, well after Fenris had begun reading on his own, and claimed to have been bored to tears. Merrill flitted through from time to time but she, too, found little to interest her. Anders, of course, never set foot in the mansion if he could help it and Varric found his own quarters far too comfortable to abandon them for a drafty room in the back of a decaying mansion where the story would not be one of his own telling.

That was hardly the only thing I did over the next two years, though it certainly was what bothered my dreams. Some mornings I welcomed the freezing chill of winter in my room as I hauled my overheated imagination from the bed where he’d once, in reality, done the very things that plagued my dreams.

Maker knew I could have slaked that thirst at half the wells in Hightown. I’d been introduced to every unmarried male noble between the ages of sixty and twelve and I’d had to dance with each of them at least once. They’d shared inappropriate suggestions, their incredibly dull interests, and in two memorable cases their preference for Sebastian, but none sparked my interest for more than five minutes. I had it bad.

But I refused to loll about in my misery. If Aveline had no news of bandits to distract me I could count on Isabela to find some trouble for us to enjoy or Anders to show up again, now disheveled and starving, now calm and collected. Most days I passed in companionable busy work, keeping Sandal and Bodahn hard at work removing the remnants of scum from my gauntlets and sword or trying to explain to me why I couldn’t wear the same dress to every party.

The events of that insane, explosive battle weighed on me, as well. On nights when I enjoyed a reprieve from steamy thoughts of Fenris thoughts of poor Dumar, his head rolling to a stop at my feet, chased around my dreams between images of my mother’s head stitched onto another body.

“I didn’t even know his first name,” I said to Aveline one evening as we made our way to the Hanged Man.

“It was Marlowe,” she answered. “Is it any wonder he didn’t use it?”

I laughed a little and resolved again to set aside the grief my life had heaped around me. If I stopped to mourn every death in my life I’d never get anything done. I pushed my guilt about my mother, my fears for Anders, and my sorrow over my lost opportunities with Fenris under the tasks that occupied me day-to-day. I couldn’t go back in time to save Marlowe or his son, much as I’d have preferred them alive and their killers still dead.

Sebastian and I often sat together in the Chantry, deep in discussion, at an out-of-the-way table that was yet fully visible to anyone who happened up the stairs. Yet we rarely noticed others wandering through the open spaces of the building when we were intent on a given topic. A fire always crackled in the nearby grate making it a welcome and restful backwater on chilly days, not quite a hiding place but somewhere I was at my ease and rarely surprised.

That fall, the second after I’d fought the Arishok, dragged by. Rain sluiced the dust of summer from the stones of Kirkwall and making a mess of Darktown. As the wet days grew colder the weather kept most bandits from marauding along the Wounded Coast, for lack of victims if nothing else, and left my friends and me with a lot of time on our hands.

One such afternoon my princely friend and I sat, our chairs half-turned to the fire, in comradely silence. I was contemplating nothing weightier than whether I wanted to spend another evening laying around Varric’s rooms and drinking with everyone or if I could stand another evening with Fenris when Sebastian spoke.

“Are you happy here, Hawke?”

I considered my answer. “No,” I admitted, turning to him. I spoke slowly as I felt my way through my feelings. “No I’m not. I thought I had something but it just…slipped away.” I sighed, thinking of how Fenris had looked in that moment before he’d left my bedroom the second time, how much it had hurt him to admit that he could not face his past, even for me, even with me. I couldn’t ask him again. Neither of us wanted to repeat the scene.

A look of sadness came over Sebastian’s face and I hurried to ease his mind. “I’m not unhappy,” I said. “My friends have become my family and I’m…occupied, most of the time. Plus Kirkwall is mine to defend, now.” I laughed a little and gave a sort of half-shrug. “There’s just a piece missing, one I thought I’d found. Most of the time it doesn’t matter. These rainy days make me melancholy sometimes, that’s all.” I smiled gently at him, my mind still far away.

He smiled back a little, his face kind in the warm firelight. “It gladdens me to hear that, at least. I wish…” He trailed off then tried again. “I would like for you to find that missing piece.”

“So would I, Sebastian,” I answered. “What about you? I know you aren’t happy, with the unsettled questions in Starkhaven. But are you unhappy in Kirkwall?”

His mouth drooped again as he studied my face. He lifted a hand as though to touch mine and then returned it to the arm of his chair. “No, Hawke,” he answered as gently as I’d ever heard him speak, “I’m not unhappy. Wherever I can commit myself to Andraste and the Maker I can be content.”

We exchanged wry looks at our shared feelings. Kirkwall simply wasn’t a happy place but it did have its moments. I’d long given up on convincing Sebastian that Petrice had been a symptom and not an aberration. His calm certainty made me wonder that we could see the same events and draw such opposite conclusions about the Chantry and its Templars.

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