"Such fond memories…And I do love what they've done with the place. The grime, wailing and overall sense of hopelessness really give it that extra pop." Up; down: two fingers bob against a set of rigid bars. Gaile looks to the standing captive. "Would you like to tell me exactly why you're here or should I simply start to guess?"
Isabela shrugs, an uninvolved flick of the shoulders as she fiddles with a found rock—before dragging it against a desolate stone wall in one, long, firm stroke. "What's the point?"
"Oh, the difference between two weeks and two months." Her peripherals catch the other's boot shift. "A small matter, I know."
"Not out by the hour? That title of yours does have its limits." The pirate smirks here, as if accomplishing something—and then it's gone, before Gaile could prove it anything more than her imagination. "I suppose we all can't be saved by the 'Champion'."
"No, you've already had your turn, remember?" Isabela turns to her sharply—another glimpse, that thing she could not catch…before darkness claims the other's expression once more; a single candle is all that is awarded each cell at night. "All right: guessing then. Let's see… You were three sheets to the wind and your bottle just so happened to break two windows, twenty-five men's jaws, and four innocent merchant stalls?"
"You were there, Hawke."
"I was. Unfortunately, I only came after the unconscious bodies littering the streets. Right when Aveline had to order five of her guards to corner you while she placed you in irons."
The imprisoned woman scoffs. "Dirty trick. I would have outrun them all if one hadn't caught hold of my sash." Terse; a verbal assurance of an act Gaile could not see. "Leave it to even the guards of this city to be clingy."
"You can hardly blame them." The two fingers hook, clenching a corrugated bar. "You're just so damn good at running away."
"Yes, well, I suppose some people never learn." A dead topic picked many times over, the words listlessly recited. "At any rate, I'm apparently not as good as you think I am; I wouldn't be locked up here otherwise. 'Disorderly conduct'." Illuminated fingers emphasize the quotation. "Bollocks."
"Oh, good. I do believe we've reached the part where we stop wasting the other's time and you tell me what really did happen back there."
"The same thing that always happens, Hawke. I was after a few giggles when several stodgy bastards decided they weren't up for playing along. So, I rallied those who weren't utter stick-in-the-muds, and had my fun anyhow." Half the pirate is draped in shadow as she reclines against the nearest wall, the visible hand at her side toying with the rock still. "Three years and it's all the same." A chuckle that holds none of the usual warmth. "I should have never come back."
"Yet here you are."
"Right back at you, champ." Isabela is suddenly motion, kicking off the surface and moving near: candlelight nestles in the lines of her face, bronze skin intensified by its faint orange glow. "Did captain ball-crusher send ser hero down to reform me? Or is this," her body presses against the cell, "personal?"
Gaile's lips twist, warring emotions tugging opposite corners. "You think that's why I've come? So you can fuck me through the bars?"
"It wouldn't be the first time I had to diddle a guard to break free."
"I'm no guard."
"Details…" a prisoner jeers, claiming the Champion should talk to him instead; Isabela smiles, "It certainly can't be because you had nothing better to do. Even now, there must be a burning building somewhere with a poor puss or two trapped inside." The pirate reaches out with her free hand, wrist grazing the thick metal rods as she cups the other's cheek; the Champion tenses. "You're their only hope…."
Sharp, drawn brows. "You know, Isabela — you're so bloody…"
"Say it." A clenched jaw; the pirate's eyes narrow. "Say it so you stop making everything so flaming complicated."
Gaile pulls back—realizing the pattern: the same words echoed again and again. "This isn't why I'm here." They were beyond mind games. "Tell me what I want to know or I'll leave."
"You won't. You're like a damned kicked dog."
"The truth, Isabela."
The two women stare at each other, a silent battle of wills as neither breaks eye contact… Isabela gives a tight-lipped smile. "It's a tavern, Hawke. A place to go when you're looking for a good time. You know, that thing you used to be good at?"
"But that's not the real reason."
The rock slips from the pirate's fingers as she turns away.
No. Maybe it wasn't.
"So." Isabela drew a frayed card from the deck, discarding a useless one to a haphazard pile beside it soon after. "I'm curious. Just how much coin did you pocket now that I'm back?"
Varric grinned, eyes never leaving his cards. "Rivaini, I'm insulted you would ever even think I would wager on something as crucial as your chance arrival in fair Kirkwall."
The pirate's hand slinked under the table, brushing the material of her sash as she felt the cards there with a smirk; her hand wasn't terrible, but it was always good to know one's options. Luck was a fickle bitch. "Sovereigns, then?"
He finally looked up to her, an easy formality in the slightest variation of his expression, it slacking just so to resemble guilt at being caught. "Two."
"Ooh. Do I get a cut?"
"Of course." Keeping the grin from their banter, he picked a card of his own, making it near impossible to tell if it was actually good or if he was still amused. "You'll understand why I keep it, though: saves us both the time of me winning it back off you."
Isabela snorted. "Typical. Why are all dwarves so tight-assed when it comes to their coin? You'd think it was ingrained in each of you from the womb or something." Another card — one she knew, a nail catching on the slightest scratch in its corner, before it was added to her hand. "Did the midwife have to flash a silver in front of your mother's taint or did you come out willingly?"
The dwarf laughed. "Hey, you try being a beggar in Orzammar all because your great-great-great grandmother had a thing for casteless nug wranglers, and we'll see how you feel about coin."
"I'll bet you still have money stashed away from that Deep Roads expedition. And it's been years…If you're the wily, handsome dwarf I know you to be, you've earned even more while I was away."
Varric chuckled, opening his mouth to reply—only to be cut off by a sudden wave of laughter and cheers. As soon as the wave had gathered, it had dispersed, lulling back into a dull murmur.
The dwarf turned in his chair, eyeing the commotion behind him. "Looks like the Champion's still got it." He faced the pirate again, smirking. "I guess the only thing people will shout for louder than my stories is the subject of them."
Isabela's gaze drifted to the scene, the nails of her free hand tapping against their table. The Hanged Man was positively festive despite the sun being high in the sky, most of the clamor coming from Hightown citizens who wouldn't dare show their faces in the seedy tavern before. All because of Hawke. They continued to gather, like flies above stagnate water, each trying to out buzz the last in a near desperate need for the woman's attention.
It had barely been two weeks since the pirate set foot in the city and all she would hear was 'Champion' this, 'Champion' that. How wonderful the 'Champion' was; how virtuous. Until all of it became some huge joke she hadn't been let in on.
"Vultures." Isabela reached for her drink, slouching slightly in her chair as she let the amber liquid burn its way down her throat.
"You know, Rivaini, this is pretty standard—even here. Of course, Corff loves the new business." A short pause as Varric downed a bit of his beer. "There isn't a time when Hawke isn't being mobbed by her admirers these days. Shit: if anything, it's getting harder to exaggerate their number in stories. No one wants to hear how the Champion was overrun by hundreds of zealots if they just saw it yesterday." It was a meager complaint, one that showed the dwarf actually enjoyed the new challenge; he tossed a card to the pile.
"They're using her." The pirate had easily managed to slip the cards she needed in her hand when the other had turned around; now it became only a matter of time. "When you get right down to it, she's nothing more than a glorified errand girl."
A smile. "Maybe. But, if I know Hawke, she's using them just as much as they are her. And people always go for those 'hard to win' types; everyone likes to think they're the one who can save the hero." Another cheer filled the tavern, a person offering a toast in the Champion's honor—a request made for the Hanged Man's finest. "While we're on the subject, there's one noble in particular… Esras, I think his name is. Magistrate Breislein's boy before his old man died in the Qunari uprising three years back. Didn't seem to have any trouble taking over the role himself. Looks like he was bred for it." The dwarf waved a hand, shooing away the extra details. "Anyway: he's been very straight with his attentions. Wants to marry her and for everybody to know it."
Isabela's legs crossed underneath the tabletop, securing another card only to lose two in the process. "Sounds like your average snob."
"He's certainly an ambitious little shit, no doubt about that, but his claims are full of holes." Varric glanced up from his hand, "The biggest being that Hawke still cares about you."
"That why she banned sex between us?" She scoffed, amused. "I'd rather she hate me. Hate sex is the absolute best." The pirate drained the last of her ale, setting the empty mug in front of her; they had talked in their usual way, neither of them commenting on what was apparent, this one, new rule being the only real shift. "She used to be so eager…It almost makes me wonder what's gotten into her — or who."
"Far as I know, there's been no one else; no one serious, anyway. Of course, there are always rumors, but I don't trust anything that doesn't come from my own mouth. Besides," his grin resurfaced, "it's better if everyone thinks our Champion unattached and heartbroken. I wouldn't be making such a killing off you two otherwise."
"A new story I whipped up a while back: 'Rogue Hearts' — people eat that double meaning shit up." He indulged his drink once more. "A titillating tale of lust, betrayal, and redemption with just enough scandal to make any woman flush with delight. And men…Well, let's just say, they do something else entirely."
A smile. "I'll bet. In fact—"
Another commotion burbled before erupting, swallowing her words with sounds of shock and awe as a Hightowner chirped for the Champion to share her latest escapade at the Wounded Coast — especially the part with the giant spiders.
Varric chuckled at his exaggerated creation; Isabela's toes clenched inside her boot.
"Oh, look—it's Norah!" Amber eyes caught the neutral blouse, the tightly-wound bun as she guided the barmaid closer. "I might as well pay my respects too, right?" She produced several coins. "Here: three bits. Bring the Champion a jigger of whiskey, on me." The pirate winked. "There'll be a tip in it for you if you really kiss her ass."
It wasn't long—because of its recipient—before Norah made her approach to the two packed tables with a small copper cup; she scooted the many glasses other patrons bought the Champion to make room for it. The bar wench quickly departed with a reverent nod and a quick word — an apology, perhaps, for the poor quality of the container, but the pirate betted on her name as well. The nobles' chatter never ceased as Hawke examined the single copper jigger within a throng of polished, filled glasses.
Their eyes connected.
The cup is raised; tipped in silent salute.
The copper kissed Hawke's lips, the corner of her mouth twitching before she swallowed its contents.
Their gazes collide a second time… before the pirate's shrugged away.
The angel of death finally makes her appearance and, with a groan from Varric, the game is over.
Isabela revealed her ensured hand, expression growing. "I win."
"This is going to go straight to my ass." Isabela licked at the sweet remains on her fork, placing it back in her mouth to suck on it slowly. "But it's so worth it."
Merrill quickly swallowed, studying her chocolate slice inquisitively before looking behind her back. "Do you think it would go to mine too? I don't think I'd mind. Everything's so dull back there."
"I think your ass is fine, Merrill." The Champion glanced away from the window of her estate's sitting room to appraise the Dalish elf.
"Oh…" pink stained her cheeks, "You're teasing me again, aren't you?"
Isabela's brow inclined as she pierced her slice. "What? No compliment for me?"
"You, Isabela, are looking refreshingly sober at the moment."
The pirate rolled her eyes. "Smartass…."
"You see, Merrill: asses can be smart too. Chocolate works in mysterious ways."
Merrill giggled before catching sight of her friend's barely touched plate. "Why aren't you eating, Hawke?"
"Hm?" The other woman looked down at her desert as if it just appeared and the elf only worried more. "I don't particularly have the stomach for it. I get so many of these things…It's good to be able to share this one instead of letting it rot like all the others." Gaile chuckled. "I'm sure Bodahn will appreciate one less, 'love filled pastry' to toss, and poor Sandal's still recovering from all that pie."
"Is Sandal's stomach bothering him still? I hope he feels better soon… Though, I do think it sweet the people of Kirkwall take the time to make you these desserts. I don't know what I would do if everyone in the city started baking me things. Well," a slight pause to reconsider, "I don't suppose I'd have the room for it in the first place — even if I did, it would only be encouragement for the rats to linger and I only just got them to leave. They're perfectly nice rats, of course. We just came to an agreement since they're awfully loud scurrying about at—"
Isabela pinched the elf's cheek affectionately. "Take a breath, Kitten."
Merrill colored again. "I'll…just keep eating—sorry. Keep my mouth busy so I won't babble as much."
"Oh, I don't know. If you were to stop being so cute, the sun may very well fall from the sky." Merrill's cheeks continued to darken, red now touching the tips of her ears, and Gaile decided to be somewhat merciful and let her recover; the rogue's hand secured her fork, using it to poke at the decadent slice. "The other night, I wondered if I even tasted food anymore. Truly tasted it. I wondered if I'd become so accustomed to having fine foods—expecting them day-by-day—that I could no longer appreciate their respective flavors."
"It's cake, Hawke. Stuff it in that mouth of yours and love it." Isabela reached over and stole a portion of her chocolate wedge; the Champion's shoulders tensed. "Or I will."
"Well, I don't think it's, at all, strange to think things like that." Merrill offered with a smile. "I know when I don't eat, I appreciate the taste of food much more. I…suppose that's nearly every day, though…."
"Have those pesky rats taken off with your bread again?" Gaile's grin returned. "Or was it mere thieves this time?"
"Thieves—but they looked terribly hungry. And desperate. Worse than the cats who follow me home after I go to market; I would have felt dreadful turning them away… Not that I really could have said no, or anything else. They really were in a hurry."
Gaile shook her head, chuckling: the elf was entirely too nice, but it was the best trait about her. "Merrill, you're always welcome here when you're hungry. Bodahn prepares far too much most days and I'd enjoy the company."
"I know, I just…I'm already such a bother. You've done these sorts of things many times over the years, and you've been so good to me." Her green orbs quivered, something more than sadness touching her words. "I only wish I could do something for you in return, Hawke…"
Isabela's empty plate clattered against the dark tile floor. "This is boring." She stretched her arms. "And depressing. Let's go somewhere." She scooted to Merrill, wrapping her arms around the lithe elf and earning a smile. "Do something fun."
A knock — Bodahn suddenly entering the room before dipping into a hurried bow. "Messere. I'm awful sorry to bother you while you're with guests…" the dwarf wrung his hands nervously, the severity of the situation told by the many wrinkles gathered on his forehead, "I told him you were busy, but he was very… insistent on seeing you."
"Now you've done it:" Gaile shot the pirate an amused look, "it's all jinxed now. Not that I can rightly complain; I did get a whole hour left to my own devices." The Champion set her saucer aside, rising to dust off her finery. "Where is my 'insistent' visitor?"
"In the foyer, Serah. From his own claims, what he has to share with you is of the utmost importance."
"Yes… It always is, isn't it?" She made her way to the exit, motioning for the dwarf to tag along.
Isabela clucked her tongue as they faded from view, releasing Merrill while her ears followed the pair of footfalls…until they were too faint to be recognized.
"Do you suppose everything's all right?" The sweet Dalish began to fret. "She'd tell us if something were wrong, wouldn't she? Take us with her?"
"Hawke's a big girl."
Merrill did not have a response, lip jutting, as she frowned when her eyes met the abandoned cake slice yet again; it looked so lonely — mutilated, now, from the chunk Isabela had stolen. Ruined. It would never be the same again.
"Merrill." The small elf, snapped from her reverie, looked up, only to see her friend's face still turned toward the opening. "The letter. Did she ever…?"
"No," the younger woman felt shamed saying it aloud, chin tucking in as she glanced to the floor, "I really am sorry—it's all my fault, isn't it? I tried; I did — I swear. I never stopped. But…Hawke wouldn't even look my way when I mentioned it. She'd always change the subject or make me laugh—mostly the laughing—and then it would have been terribly awkward to bring it back up." Dark brows furrowed. "Before I knew it, she was always leaving and I couldn't stop her."
Isabela faced her, taking the other's hand and squeezing it appreciatively. "It's all right, Kitten. I know you did your best. Hawke's just stubborn, is all."
Merrill nodded. "It's endearing, don't you think? It's one of the things I really like about her. She never gives up on those she cares about."
"Listen," her fingers squeezed again, and the elf eyed her curiously; "you and Hawke…"
Gaile barged into the room, hand massaging her wrist. "Well, that turned out exactly as I thought it would. Sorry, you two; I'll have to cut this short." She reached for a rolled document resting on a nearby table. "I'll just use the normal excuse: saving the day, so on and so on. See yourselves out?"
The Champion left before either answered.
"Hawke's always so busy. It almost makes me tired at times, watching her." Merrill turned back to the pirate. "What did you want to say, Isabela? Ooh—was it something dirty? I missed your dirty jokes… Not that it could have been dirty since it involved me and Hawke. Though, if it were something dirty, I'm sure she would have liked to hear it as well. Hawke always liked your jokes; I'd really like to see her smile more. Oh, I know she's always grinning, but those are different, aren't they?" The innocent plea in her tone was almost crippling. "You'll make her smile again, won't you Isabela? Now that you're back. You were always so good at it."
"Tell you what," a pat to the head, "I'll think about it, Kitten." The pirate grinned, pulling the elf up with her as she stood to her feet. "Since Hawke ditched us, what do you say we visit that old hat shop in Lowtown? It's still around, isn't it?" Merrill nodded. "Good: a girl can never have too many hats. Come on."
The pirate leaned casually against a building, a briskly parted whisper belying her stance before its female receiver slipped away.
"Hawke." Amber orbs languidly connected.
Gaile visually trailed the somewhat recognizable woman until she disappeared into the dark belly of the alleyway.
"You don't know her."
"…Yet I'm certain she knows me from the way she scurried off." Her gaze returned to the pirate. "You do know that exchange of yours positively screamed, 'why, yes—I am a shady deal', don't you?"
"Some of us still have to make a living." Isabela smirked—and they both know it as a challenge. "Will you turn me in?"
"I'd have to chase you then, wouldn't I? Something tells me you'd just enjoy that." At her knowing glance, the other's smirk only became more pronounced. "I'm afraid petty crime doesn't do it for me anymore. Now, if you were an escaped blood mage driven to desperation…."
"Standards, Hawke?" The pirate shifted against the wall, hips cantered to one side. "I didn't have to slice myself up to get your attention before."
The implication is too much; the cord snaps — ignored, and adaptation begins anew.
"So," Isabela crossed her arms, "why are you here? Besides ruining perfectly legitimate business deals."
"Catchy; I could make that my new motto." Gaile raised her hands to illustrate the phrase. "Ruining business deals, one leisurely stroll at a time. Maybe even add in something about 'running' and 'murder'…." She shielded her eyes from the glaring sun, taking in the view to the left of them. "I like the docks. Coming here clears my head."
"The constant bustle of overworked dockworkers and rowdy sailors clears your head?"
"It forces me to stop thinking. The frantic pace…making things simpler." Their eyes met. "A reminder that time never stops."
"That was almost nostalgic." Isabela detached from the wall, her previous position against it so natural, the building seemed less without her; she sauntered forward. "Do you sit on the landings staring dolefully out to sea like an old fishwife?" A straying touch… "Did you think of me?"
Gaile turned. "Before, with that woman;" her feet resumed their course down the main avenue, "what were the two of you talking about?"
The pirate smirked, pursing her. "Business. Man-hands' been cracking down on my girls again." A snort. "Her way of welcoming me back to the city."
"It's Aveline. Seeing as your head's still firmly attached, I'd say you haven't gotten the worst of it." A denizen bowed in passing and the Champion acknowledged them with a nod. "She had some…colorful words when you returned. I'm sure you haven't forgotten how protective that one can be for those she cares for."
"Aww…that's almost sweet. The overbearing mother hen still squawking over her favorite chick."
"And you're the fox."
"There's a shock." Isabela scoffed. "Go on: give me the worst of it. What pole does she have stuck up her ass this time? And don't go telling me it's Donnic's—I wouldn't be in this mess if he were doing his job."
"It's the strangest thing." A wry grin settled on her lips. "She seems to be under the impression you'll hurt me."
"I will." A shrug. "Doesn't mean we can't have our fun." The rogue didn't respond and Isabela followed her newly narrowed gaze, landing on a grand memorial, now in front of them. "Ohh," her eyes flashed with mirth; a low chuckle, "look at this…"
The pirate whistled as she neared the impressive idol, trailing a hand along its base until halting at a large plaque; Isabela bent for a closer look. "In honor of Abigaile Madison Hawke," she paused to glance up to the one mentioned, lips puckered in a silent 'ooh', "for her boundless courage, undaunted valor — et cetera, et cetera — during the Qunari rebellion. May our new Champion's mighty blades always keep Kirkwall's future bright. And you have tiny flames there as your weapons." Isabela cooed. "Darling."
Gaile's entire body was rigid. "Are you done?"
"Oh, be a sport. It's not every day a person gets a statue." The carved curves were surprisingly subtle about the face, the dark stone somehow softer. "Such a beauty…You could have your pick of Kirkwall now." Her fingers began to trace the letters of what she read, a nail rising to tap against a single word. "They all stare at you."
"I stare at your ass."
A flutter of her lips, amounting to nothing. "Everyone wants something. You happen to be more direct about it." Gaile looked up at her likeness, face betraying nothing. "The people in this city see me as a hero. I see that I was greedy." She glanced back down to the other woman. "What do you see?"
"Something I'm not."
"That isn't a bad thing."
"You're reading too much into it." The pirate returned to her full height, moving from the statue to nudge her foot against a series of spindly iron rods behind it; she looked to the boats in the harbor. "Some part of you must love all this. The nobles that used to sneer at you, groveling for your aid on a daily basis."
"A part — it used to be a treat: something for Varric and I to have a laugh over. That was the first year." Kirkwall had been united during the rebuilding, calamity bringing so much talk of change; her naivety was appalling. "A new year. Then another, and you come to find the 'groveling' never ends."
"Stop helping them."
Gaile chuckled: with her, it's always so simple. "I should help you instead?"
"Exactly." Isabela tossed a smirk over her shoulder. "Look: it doesn't matter who you help in the long run—the point is never letting another make choices for you." The pirate faced her. "Don't you miss it? Being your own person? Instead, you're saddled with all the city's problems. The one who's always got be doing something important."
"That's right." Flippant. "Everyone here runs. Everyone here escapes. So many ways to fill the spaces…" her eyes drift from the thought, only to come back cold, "Anything to forget."
"There are better ways to forget. More gratifying ways." A group of dockworkers who just finished their shifts, pass them, one straightening as he notices his Champion. "Have you…?"
"Once. Didn't work out." Gaile shrugged. "Haven't since."
"You gave it up because of one bad experience?" Isabela tsked. "Hawke, I'm disappointed in you. How's this: now that I'm back, I'll set you up with someone from the Rose. With how long you've gone without, I think a 'hunter horned special' is definitely in order."
"That's so like you." Fond; even as she shook her head. "Is there anything you can't solve with sex?"
"Not that I know of. It's…Well…sex." A wicked smile. "It's just one of those answers to everything. Looking for a good time: sex. Low on coin: sex. Random dead body: sex. Well — maybe not so much with that last one, but you get the idea."
Gaile grinned, but said nothing.
The same group of dockworkers caught the pirate's attention, once again, all of them alerted now to their Champion's presence as they stop and stared; some parts longer than others. Isabela smiled—smirked. "Who was it?"
"Does it matter?"
"No." Her eyes are on the men. "Not really."
With one last buck of her hips, Isabela rolled off the stranger, back hitting her lumpy mattress with a soft thud as she wiped dark, sweat slicked tendrils from her eyes.
A quaky breath.
A budding smirk.
That. Was good.
Not the man himself—she won't even remember his name — but the sex. There was something about it: the frenzied domination; the savage rhythm; the impending release…
How everything, afterward, was always clearer.
A chuckle bubbled inside her, spilling from her lips. Why she hadn't done this sooner….
The man next to her attempted to laugh as well, but it comes more as a rush of air, his breaths still shallow.
Isabela rolled her eyes, letting him believe he was the cause of her good spirits; letting it feed his ego. He had been average. More than enough for, say, the bored housewife engaging in her first sordid affair — but he had been an excellent tool for her to take out some pent-up energy. Now that the one thing the man could offer had been done, she had no further use for him.
The pirate shifted her legs to the edge of the bed—her back to him as she sat up; a not so subtle hint that it was now time for the man to do the same.
This was her room, after all.
Isabela grabbed for her tunic while feeling the bed shift.
"You've bedded the Champion, right?" The tunic slipped from her fingers. "Messed around with her back when she was just another flea-ridden refugee?" His expression was in his tone: glib; accomplished. "Suppose laying with you's the closest I'll ever get to her, eh?"
Fidgeting fingers—before she turned to him with a smile, shifting close enough to the man to be able to place a hand on his chest. Isabela leaned forward — and he's eager. When her lips grow near; brush along his cheek….
"Want to go again, do you?"
Her nails dug into his flesh as she ascended to his ear. "Get out."
The heat of her whisper delayed his response; it was a few moments before his brows drew heavily with realization. "What?"
"Out." The hand she had on his chest now shoves him away. "Once more and my blades will say it."
Her daggers were always near and the man flinched when he spotted one, hurriedly scrambling from her bed to gather his clothes. With a "crazy bitch" for good measure, he left the very moment his pants were secured.
The room is quiet.
Biting her lip as she eyed the dingy wall, Isabela ran a hand through her uncovered hair before reaching for her headscarf.
She wondered if it was too late to grab a drink with Varric.
The cold steel seemed to part the night air with its swiftness, biting along the pirate's neck… Before realization darkened auburn orbs.
The dagger was released, clattering to the ground.
Isabela was impressed.
Chomp Chomp whined.
The pirate pressed against the woman's body, backing her further into the ivy-lined wall; she peered into those eyes, dimmed by the brim of her hood, and saw something missing. The spark—the fight had vanished, the orbs nowhere near animated enough for what could have very well been a deadly encounter.
The woman was no longer afraid to die.
Gaile licked her thumb, wiping it across the thin line of blood that began to form at her throat; Isabela smirked.
"No you're not."
The pirate halted the other's reply with a kiss, claiming her lips, pushing into their softness as fingers slipped inside her hood to dance upon the nape of her neck.
Gaile did not respond.
"Oh, come on, Hawke." She retracted; only inches. "For old time's sake."
"You know you're attractive, Isabela. I've never seen you have trouble securing a warm body for the night." Her voice is colorless. "The Blooming Rose isn't far from here. You have the coin."
"I want you." The Champion's new armor is very tightly constrained, and there's a belt right beneath her breast….
"Because you can't have me."
Isabela smiled as her wandering hand dipped lower—and even those dead orbs dilate. "You want me."
"Because my body doesn't know any better."
"Your body's the honest one." The pirate shifted closer — pressed harder, remembering the soft curves, well, while feeling the other's body respond in kind. "Why not listen to it?"
"Shit." Isabela chuckled breathily. "You know how to kill a mood."
"Obviously not well enough."
Her eyes suddenly narrowed. "You're not the same, Hawke."
…A pause. "I need time to think."
"Thinking is boring." Her lips rested at the corner of Gaile's mouth, the fingers at her neck, now, teasing the skin beneath her crimson top. "What's there to think about?
"Three years you were gone doing Maker knows what. Now, all I ask for is time, and you can't give even that to me?"
"I missed you…"
Soft; primal—cheating; Gaile gritted her teeth. "Stop this."
Isabela laughed, releasing the woman. "This time." A nail traced her lips, feeling the evidence she was there. "You're just no fun anymore."
The pirate smirked—turned away, giving a scratch behind a dour Chomp Chomp's ear before walking off.
A win was a win.
"Another time, Hawke."
Isabela's elbow dug into the rough wood of the counter as she thought on the words, raising her mug to her lips to quaff what little remained of its contents. She wasted no time securing a replacement bottle from behind the bar — ignoring the dirty look Corff made time for, even while gossiping with a customer — and promptly poured herself another.
Hawke had been avoiding her; though, the pirate liked to convince herself it had been her who'd done the avoiding first.
By a full day, at least.
It was never overt—nothing between them ever was—the woman still stopping by the Hanged Man when there was yet another noble task to complete. Isabela would then refuse her, claiming to have better things to do before quipping she call her pet guard captain in her stead. And Hawke would just shrug as if none of it mattered; and she would simply call for an additional drink as if none of it mattered.
Because none of it did.
The Champion didn't need her. Three years without, and a new formation had been assembled, a new squad relied upon during the woman's adventures; the pirate no longer the one required at her back.
But it didn't matter.
That she had imbibed several drinks now and tiresome thoughts such as those had not all but melted from her mind: that, was the problem. The smell of nightfall accompanied each new occupant like a second skin, the tavern now filled with far more regulars than the paltry handful of Hightowners waiting for the off chance of their Champion's arrival—the noise mindless; already voices slurred bawdy things and laughter bordered on the obnoxious.
And here she was, out of sorts, missing the absolute charm of it all.
Isabela stood to her feet, forgoing the mug and taking a gracious swig of the bottle with a backward tilt of her head, before it was pounded against the counter. "Buck up, boys!" She wiped her mouth and smiled, turning to the two tables behind her; knowing all the grinning faces. "Despite your sorry efforts, I'm in the mood to make this a night we won't forget — then drink a bit more until we do." She winked, jostling the nearest chair. "So, up, you lazy lot! Moonlight's burning!"
"Hey, hey!" One of them yelled back, thrusting his foamy mug in the air in salute. "There's nothing wrong with being a lazy sod!"
A brow raised at both the proclamation and the sight of his pronounced gut, the pirate stamping her foot on his seat, directly between the man's privates. "It's certainly not doing you any favors. Though, I do believe congratulations are in order — you should have told us you had a bun in the oven…" a smirk, "Or twelve."
Raucous laughter broke out around the table at her sport, and he grumbled good naturally. "All right, all right! Just tell us what you had in mind."
"Well, we're in a tavern, Barden. Chances are drinking's going to be involved. In fact…" Isabela pushed off his chair and he started as it wobbled before settling back to the floor, "I've a drinking game in mind. A new one I picked up while I was away, guaranteed to knock all of you on your asses." She backed up to an open spot on the table, smoothly propping herself on its lip and crossing a booted leg. "Sound like fun?"
The men whistled and cheered, some pounding their hands and mugs. Yes. Isabela had certainly missed this.
"Barden, you grab a pitcher. Everyone else, mark your mugs. Once you're done, set them on that table there: it'll be better than a square one." The men went to work on carrying out her orders, it all just evocative enough to make her almost feel like a captain again. "And, someone get me a deck! Norah!" The barmaid glanced up to her, chatting up male customers as usual. "I'll need beers over here, dear! Make it," she did a quick head count, "six to start — then tell Corff to keep them flowing!"
"Oi! I've got that pitcher, Isabela! What now?"
The pirate glanced over her shoulder. "Place it in the middle of the table and you can go back to resting that belly of yours."
The rest was gathered in swift order and the octagonal table was prepared.
Isabela slipped off the edge of her makeshift seat, turning to face them. "So, here's the rules!" She grabbed the deck from one of them and slid the cards around the pitcher, each facedown. "And don't worry your pretty little heads over having to think tonight: they're remarkably simple. A person is picked to go first and we go round the table from them. Instead of coin, beers will place your bets — from a sip to a mug, as long as there's an amount, it's fair play. Said bet will be placed in that lovely pitcher there, then you only need pick a card and guess it odd or even. Choose right, and there's no penalties. Choose wrong," she smiled wickedly, dragging the tall container closer, "and you'll have to down the whole of this pitcher. No matter how full it is."
There was a mixture of liveliness and wary mumbles at the prospect, before one of the men stood to his feet. "Sounds like a good time! What are we waiting for?"
"That's the spirit! You'll go first." Snatching up a pint, Isabela downed the amber liquid until it was half full, giving them all a show as she leaned over to distribute the remaining beer into the large pitcher. "There. That'll get us started."
Boldly betting two full cups of beer his first turn, he declared his card even, only to flip it and get odd. A series of groans and jeers accompanied his wrong decision as he was forced to add his drink into the glass pitcher. The last of it chugged down, he pumped his arms up victoriously, challenging the one next to him to do the same.
Isabela smiled to herself — this. This was how she was supposed to be spending her nights: seeking cheap thrills, drinking with others who understood her—were just like her. Not thinking of Hawke and things said and done between them.
Not thinking of how everything had changed.
Another round, the player criticized for not taking a big enough risk when only a fourth of a cup was sacrificed.
The Hanged Man was the same, from the people who drank there, to the dead rat still in the corner. Unchanging. And that made her comfortable. To know that somewhere in this city, her actions did not show their consequences. To know that here, a seat always waited for her.
More cheers: the player who'd gone next was also safe from drinking.
Hawke was Kirkwall's. The pirate expected to mold into a new role and smile and nod and act as if none of it mattered — but it did. It shouldn't—she didn't do regrets—and yet it still did.
What made her matter? More? More than…
"Balls." Isabela tossed the card behind her as if thwarted by its result and no one was sober enough to check it; the pitcher wasn't full, but with her liquid bet, it was close enough. "Take a good look, boys. Here's how it's done." The container was fearlessly taken on, and she relished the utter lapse in thought—the pounding in her ears; the warm buzzing in her head, as a drop of amber rolled down her chin.
"What do we have here?" The suave voice was unmistakable, and she looked up to see her favorite dwarf shutting the door to the tavern, infamous grin on his lips. "Don't tell me I missed out on all the action?"
"Varric, you paragon of manliness—you're just in time! I could use some real competition." The buzz she had now was nice, but the pirate knew she was nowhere near drunk; her dwarven friend, however, could easily change that. "Think you've the balls to outdrink me?"
Varric eyed the empty pitcher still in her hand. "I don't think anyone has the balls for that. Doesn't mean I won't try." He claimed a chair, and made himself comfortable at their table, being greeted by the others, who still had the ability, before gesturing to Norah for a round. "Now I only need to remember if I paid my tab off this month…" his eyes drifted to the left in thought, "Shit; I'll work it out later. What are we playing?"
"It's new. All you have to do is hazard if the card you choose is odd or even and place a bet with your beer. You drink this pitcher," she placed the empty container in front of him, snatching a random drink and refilling a portion of it, "if you happen to guess wrong. You pour your bet in with no consequence if you're right. And just to make this interesting: if I win, I gain unrestricted access to that glorious chest of yours." A lascivious stare. "That means tongue, Varric."
He chuckled as Norah slid a couple of beers in front of him. "Trust me, Rivaini, if you do win, I'm taking you down with me."
"Keep that up, and I'll let you 'take' me wherever you want." She winked at him. "As long as you remember I'm always on top."
"Coming from you, I'd expect nothing less. A full mug." The dwarf reached for the card closest to him and declared it odd, flashing it with no hesitation; the men cheered. "Look at that."
"If it makes you feel any better, I'll still drink a beer." He emptied one mug into the pitcher and polished the other one off himself. "There. One drink closer to a hangover we'll all regret in the morning."
Isabela laughed. "That's the plan."
"Ah—I almost forgot. Guess who I spotted when I walked in?" She eyed him questioningly. "You remember that noble I told you about who has his mind set on Hawke being his wife? Breislein?" He pointed his drink at an immaculately dressed blonde, sampling his wine. "That's him."
"Not bad. Though, I was right about the snob bit." A finger traced the rim of her mug; the noble was remarkably apparent against the shoddy surroundings of the tavern, a piece of Kirkwall invading the one place she could get away. "You know… I think I'll introduce myself."
Varric's brow arched, knowing that tone. "Look — I don't like the guy either, but he's a magistrate. You can't touch him." The pirate was already out her chair, making her way over; he sighed, grabbing for the rest of her beer before leaving his seat as well. "I'm getting too old for this shit."
With each sway of her hips, the pounding in her ears returned, body oscillating with the music of the tavern: instruments and voices alike; the guards around the magistrate's table immediately noticed when she approached.
"Esras, right?" Isabela stepped right in front of the man, ignoring the others. "I hear you have a hard-on for Hawke."
He looked at her like any noble would: always slightly above, even while sitting. "Excuse me?"
"Hawke." Reiterated with a smirk. "You want to fuck her."
The noble's jaw twitched and he straightened his collar. "The Champion, and I wish her hand." His blue eyes narrowed, examining her face. "I'm sorry; you are…?"
"I can't blame you." She continued as if he said nothing—because he hadn't. "She's an absolute tiger in bed. Relentless. Oh…" a small pause, "You did know she liked women, too?" Their expressions told they didn't, and one of them even coughed, reddening; her smirk grew. "Want a few tips? I'd be willing to share what I know." She apprehended his glass, swirling the red wine. "Free of charge."
"Rivaini," Varric's tone is a warning, "you don't want to do this…."
Esras stared at her incredulously as Isabela depleted his drink in one gulp, casting the glass to the floor. "I can give you all her spots, you know." The back of her hand caressed his cheek. "All the places that make her wet—"
The man caught her wrist, nostrils flaring indignantly. "You dare speak of the Champion as if she were some common whore?"
"And you're—what? Defending her 'honor'?" The pirate scoffed. "Please."
His grip on her tightened. "Do you know who I am, girl? I could have you arrested for speaking to me in this manner, alone."
Isabela chuckled at his threat, stomping hard on Breislein's foot; the man instinctively loosed her hand with a yelp before she punched him. "Well! I feel much better! Anyone else?"
One of his lackeys immediately jumped up and tried to grab her and she dodged it with a laugh, literally kicking his ass and sending him sprawling toward a once occupied table. As he tried to get back up, a bottle was brought across the back of his head and Isabela grinned as one the occupants of the table was granted their revenge.
All it took was a spark.
Another threw a punch and Varric tipped her off as she ducked, Barden holding a third guard from behind as Isabela kneed him in the gut, narrowly missing a flung chair. Such a rousing chorus: the crashing of mugs and glasses; the raucous screams of murder — the sound of flesh against flesh as limbs flew from every direction—
Until it was all a beautiful blur, the pirate no longer knowing who she was hitting as she pissed it all away.
Gaile watches the illuminated patch of ivory, counting the flickering cell bars painted across the other's back. "You still haven't answered my question."
"You know why." Isabela's voice is soft.
"Do I?" More back and forth and the rogue wonders why they can never say things directly. "Humor me, then. Let's imagine I don't and this whole thing comes across as somewhat surprising—what then?"
"You'll just have to accept I'm a worthless scoundrel like everyone else."
"And insult us both?" Gaile shakes her head even if the other can't see it. "A 'worthless scoundrel'. Before that, a 'lying, thieving snake'. You keep saying these things, these endless reminders. When will it be enough, Isabela? Until you convince me?" Her eyes narrow. "Until you convince yourself?"
"We're not the same, Hawke." A reoccurring theme; a jaded tone. "Not anymore."
"We've both done terrible things. I have a title for it." She'd killed, stolen, cheated; lied — had even been paid for some of it. "Sometimes, it's sickening: 'Champion', 'Champion'. Sometimes, it's too much. Yet so damn fitting." Gaile steps up to the bars again, grabbing hold of one, marring the shadowy scene. "That's my reminder. Every day, they call me their Champion; every day I remember the lives lost for me to hear it."
The silence between them is deafening—more so against the shrill outcries of the other prisoners.
Until, "Why didn't you read the letter?"
Gaile grins at the shift. "Self-preservation."
Isabela begins to pace. "You should have read it."
"We're both here: tell me what you wrote now." More silence. "You can't. Just like I can't. We're even."
"No we're not."
"Oh?" The pirate disappears into the darkness, the other only knowing her presence by her footfalls. "Why's that?"
"I'm in here and you're not."
"Because I'll never belong in that world, Hawke — your world." Their circle of words finally breaks; her pacing stops. "I come back and all of Kirkwall notices you now. Everyone in this damned city wants you for themselves, and I'm nothing more than the person you threw away." Isabela scoffs—but it's too shaky. "Do you know I can't even have sex anymore without hearing about the flaming 'Champion'?"
"Really?" Gaile places a hand to her mouth. "I bet you just hate the Champion now. She must think herself so much better than you—not be the same 'Hawke' you knew three years ago? Moved on?"
"Yes, all right! You've gone and figured me all out once again!" The pirate's form bursts from the darkness, anger no longer restricted to voice. "There's a rotten part of me that hoped none of it would change. Even when I was the one who left." Her body is a tightly wound coil. "I'm selfish, Hawke; I wish to bloody hell you'd see it."
"You're not selfish. You're scared."
Amber orbs narrow sharply. "Don't tell me what I am."
"Because everyone else does or because, coming from me, you'd actually believe it?"
"You…" Isabela whips away, groaning her frustration, "I hate this. That you can even do this…"
Gaile is unmoved. "It was horrible, you know. Realizing how much I missed you. That all the memories didn't come close…" a pause; an emotion she can't describe stealing her words. "It was too real. Having you here all at once…Everything I felt in three years, all in seconds." She lets go of the bar. "I'll have another talk with Aveline; Esras will drop the charges for either me or his pride. After you get out, you can decide what it is you want to do."
The Champion does not linger; turns to leave.
Isabela slumps against the nearest wall, falling to her knees with a curse.