Sitting at a table and sharing a meal seemed odd to him. It wasn’t the idea of sharing a real meal with Hawke that was strange; no, Fenris found the idea of sitting at a table to eat anomalous. He had never really given it much thought; while he was on the run he ate when he could. Even in Kirkwall there seemed little point to stand on ceremony when the meal was bread and dried meat.
Helping Payton in the kitchen was…an experience. Her initial instruction of what to do with the sticky mess had confused him. Imagine it was someone he was angry with? He still remembered her lilting giggle after he asked her how he was supposed to kill dough.
Half the time in the kitchen he had been certain he was doing everything wrong. When the dough was ‘finished’ she had set him to work on vegetables asking him to cut them. Handling a small kitchen knife was awkward for him and he nearly nipped his fingers with the edge multiple times.
Her ringing laughter as he concentrated was almost pleasant. Cooking was not something he would say he enjoyed but he would admit, he liked doing it with her.
Looking across the table at her, he couldn’t help but smile at the look on her face as she ate. He had never met anyone with a face as expressive as hers. The simple act of eating seemed to be an adventure for her.
“Most of the stuff down there is cleared out now,” she said conversationally as she scraped the bottom of the bowl. “There wasn’t much left behind,” She paused to take a drink from the cup she had put water into for herself. “The greens are all in the soup, you have a nice collection of spices should you ever wish to flavor something.” Her nose wrinkled. “And there was some fish in the icebox.”
He arched his brow at her. Fenris would freely admit that he disliked fish.
“I have to say; once fish becomes your only source of meat for a while you grow to hate it.” She nibbled on the bread, pushing her empty bowl away. “Did you enjoy the fruits of your labor?” Payton teased wagging her eyebrows at him. “Or technically vegetables,”
Fenris chuckled. The flavors of the soup were significantly better than many of the stews he had eaten over time. “The meal was quite good, Hawke. You are an excellent cook,” He was rewarded with the shy smile and faint pink tint coloring her cheeks.
“Not really,” she dismissed. “Stew is really easy, you throw everything not rotting into a pot with some stock and let simmer for a few hours. Eventually it turns into something,” Payton sniggered. “Once Beth and I convinced Carver that if he put tree bark in he could grow ten feet over night,” She shook her head. “Mother was so mad at him when she caught him adding bark to the food. He was so lucky the bark he used wasn’t poisonous,”
“Then I am glad your brother did not make the meal,”
Payton giggled. “He was never very good at making anything. The only flavor he excelled at was charcoal.”
Silence passed between them for a few minutes.
Suddenly Hawke perked up. “I’ve got a pack of cards in my bag; you want to play Wicked Grace?”
Fenris nodded. “That sounds acceptable,”
She stood and disappeared into the other room only to return with a deck held together with a red ribbon. As she cleared the table, Fenris fetched a bottle of wine from the mantle and opened it.
“What is it tonight?” she asked nodding toward the bottle as she shuffled the cards.
“Antivan,” he answered setting the bottle down on the table. “A different vintage than the one from the other night,”
Reaching across she took a sip and savored the taste. The corners of his mouth turned up slightly as he watched her.
“Not bad,” she began to deal the cards.
Fenris agreed; while it was not the best of the wines they have shared it was good. Sweeping his cards up, he arranged them pensively. He knew she was waiting for the storm to break before telling anyone that she had raised the money for the Deep Roads. If his instincts about the storm were correct, it would likely break very soon, possibly even tonight.
Drawing a card he reordered his hand and then discarded. He knew she had been trying to decide who to bring with her and that the number was limited. While he had no desire to spend weeks underground with nothing but ruins and darkspawn surrounding them, Fenris felt a certain amount of fear at the idea of letting her go without him.
Idly he wondered why she was going in the first place. He had heard how the trip had the potential for great wealth but Hawke never seemed like a person to be interested in money. With how much coin she floated through the various people in her group, Fenris was certain that it mattered very little to her. So why go?
“I have a query, if I may,” Fenris said after deliberation. She had always encouraged him to ask her questions if needed.
Her blue eyes looked at him inquisitively. “If your question is if I’ll go easy on you,” she laid the Angel of Death. “No I won’t.” Laying her cards, she grinned triumphantly.
Conceding her win, Fenris watched her gather the cards and reshuffle. “Why are you going to the Deep Roads?”
Hawke paused. “Glory, riches, the chance to bravely go where no one has been in ages,” she shrugged. “You’ve heard the story,”
Fenris frowned. The tone in her voice made it clear that she was not telling the truth. Picking up his cards, he sparred them only a glance before settling his gaze on her. She sighed, blowing a piece of her hair out of her face and laying a card.
“It’s complicated,” she finally said. She took a long drink from the wine bottle before leaning back, a pensive look settling on her face as she played. “Did you know my mother’s family used to be nobility here?”
Fenris gave a small nod; he remembered Carver bemoaning something about that one night in the Hanged Man.
“Well, my mother left all that when she fell in love with my father. Ran away,” a smile spread on her lips. “Probably the only thing I ever admired her for,”
He raised a brow at the comment. It was common knowledge that the two of them rarely saw eye to eye. One of the many topics he had heard Hawke talk about when she visited him was her mother. She never really got over the hurt she had felt when her mother blamed her for Bethany’s death.
“Leaving everything, sacrificing it all for the one you love,” Payton nodded. “I can respect that.” She sipped from the bottle and tossed a card into the discard pile. “When we came here to get away from the Blight, mother expected to step right back into that lifestyle. Leandra Amell back from being on the run with her Ferelden apostate; she would have been the talk of the town,”
Fenris picked up the Angel of Death and frowned at it. Putting a snake down, he waited for her to continue.
“Only none of that happened,” She took another drink and glared at her cards as though they offended her. “The gates were closed; no one cared who she claimed she was. When the guard finally tracked down Gamlen we learned everything was gone. The estate, the title, the money, all of it,”
Part of him wondered what title she would have had.
“Gamlen’s bright idea to get us into the city was to sell Carver and I off,” Fenris stiffened. “Indentured servants for a year just for safe passage into a city that was so bogged with refuges we were just another face in the crowd,” Hawke fell silent, brooding as they played.
“Was that how you joined the Red Iron?” he ventured.
She nodded. “I could have joined a smuggling ring but Aveline and Carver objected. Honestly, some days I think I would have liked it better.” Payton drew and then discarded. “Athenril’s group weren’t killers or slavers, just as honest as you can get smugglers. Meeran was a piece of shit craped out by darkspawn and then pissed on by the Maker,”
Fenris chuckled at her vicious description.
“Carver wanted so badly to impress those thugs. As though being someone’s sword was something to be proud of,” Payton took another drink and then offered him the bottle. “One year we worked for him, one year where if I wanted my family safe and food on our table I had to kill and protect whatever or whoever Meeran told me to,”
Happy with his hand, Fenris laid the game ending card. She leaned forward to see his hand and grinned. Hers was better.
“Anyway,” she dealt out five cards each. “Once we were free of him, I started poking around to what happened with the estate, not because I cared but because mother was miserable in Lowtown,”
Fenris grimaced at his hand, quickly discarding his snake card.
“Turns out Gamlen lost the estate to slavers over a dice game. I’m not sure what pissed me off more about that, the fact he socialized with slavers or the fact that they used my mother’s ancestral home as a base of operations,” She accepted the bottle back. “Anyway even if I didn’t learn that Gamlen left grandfather’s will in the vault I would have cleared the place out. I have to admit taking pleasure not only in killing every slaver in the place but leaving traps behind if any of them dared to come back.”
A certain amount of satisfaction filled Fenris when he heard this; he had learned that slavers got her angry but she was one of the few people he ever met who did something about it rather than simply complain of the injustice of it all.
“So Carver and I get the will and find that Gamlen gambled away money that didn’t belong to him,” She bit her lip before dropping a card on the discard pile. “Grandfather left everything to my mother.”
Fenris picked up the card she had placed in exchange for one of his.
“Mother claimed that it didn’t matter, all that she cared about was the fact her parents didn’t hate her,”
He studied her. “You don’t believe her,” he mused.
Payton shook her head, her long brown hair falling over her shoulders. “Not a jot,” the answer was immediate. “The very next day she started talking about petitioning the Viscount for the title and estate back.”
“And this somehow makes her untruthful?”
She sighed heavily barely looking at the card she drew before tossing it away. “Not necessarily. I just don’t like it. She’s abandoned the Hawke name, signing the letters she writes with Amell. All she talks about now is how good it will be to be back in Hightown and how she’ll enjoy visiting old friends again,” Payton shook her head. “If they were really mother’s friends, they wouldn’t care that she’s a title-less widow in Lowtown,”
Secretly, Fenris wondered if her view on friendship was idealistic; though he was willing to admit that he knew little of friends so he was not the best judge.
“Unfortunately for her she needs money in order to get anything heard in this town, not fancy letters or old contacts she hasn’t spoken to in over twenty years,” Payton frowned ending the hand. “Your game,” she said before offering the cards for him to shuffle. “Then word of Bartrand’s trip almost gets dumped in our lap. I mean seriously, I was out hunting for a job that I could actually do when I run into the dwarf. He screams at me for getting in his way and then goes off talking to someone. That’s when I met Varric,”
She chewed her lip and abandoned a card to the pile.
“The name I made for Hawke,” she mocked. “While working for the Red Irons made him interested in me. Took Carver to the Hanged Man that night to talk over the crazy dwarf’s idea; somehow between cheap ale and Carver’s moaning, we got talked into helping fund the venture for a split of the profits. I swear, Varric can talk a fish into buying a mountain vista,”
Fenris’ brow furrowed as he processed the information. “So your joining the expedition was,” He paused. “Accidental?”
Her soft laugh rang out. “Not so much accidental as,” she searched for a word. “I don’t know, serendipity. Mother wanted coin to get her shiny estate back. Carver wanted a way to make a name for himself.”
A cheeky grin was shot in his direction. “I’m suicidal; I’d have thought you’d learn that by now.”
While that would explain many of her decisions, Fenris knew she was avoiding the truth.
Absently she discarded a high card. “I don’t really know what I want,” she finally confessed. “I’ve been so focused with the next task, the next thing someone needed from me I haven’t given it much thought. I went from protecting my family to joining a war, from fighting to survive darkspawn to struggling to live in Kirkwall. I want to build a life but it’s gotten to the point I don’t know who I am unless I’m off killing something,”
On some level, Fenris understood.
“The life of a courtier is not one I want. And I doubt it’s one Carver wants either but mother is the only family we have left. A large part of our decisions right now is to get her situated, happy,” Payton pulled the top card from the discard pile.
“And after that?” Fenris found himself paying more attention to her answers than the game. “After your mother is settled, will you stay in Kirkwall?”
A familiar smile stole across her lips. “I suppose I could see myself staying,” Her blue eyes sparkled as she looked at him. “For the right reasons,”
His words from their first conversation after she helped him liberate the estate made a warm feeling spread through him and he smiled at her.
There was absolutely no reason whatsoever that she should go over to Fenris’ room tonight, Payton repeated to herself again and again. Over two hours had gone by since they went their separate ways for the night. At first she tried to sleep but quickly gave that up for pacing by the fireplace. Her mind was racing, inventing excuses for her to slip into his room and make sure he was sleeping well.
She had a nice pile of it in the corner.
Both her sketch and her writing journal were on the desk.
The deck was tossed on the table in the room to await the possibility of another game.
She hadn’t used one today.
Letting out a huff, Payton whirled around and sat down on the mattress with a thump, staring at the fire. This was getting to be ridiculous. It was one thing for her to accidentally see him and then help him but to go to his room with the sole purpose of insuring he didn’t need her that night…
Running her fingers through her hair, she held her head in her hands. Today had been wonderful. After the rocky start in the morning where she inadvertently offended him, it had turned into a great day.
She hadn’t expected him to come to the kitchen while she prepared the meal. In all honesty she had thought he’d glance at her sketching journal and then set it aside so that he could practice. But he hadn’t.
Payton knew she had thrown him but she still wasn’t sure why. He had said that people only ever saw him as a slave or as an overly brooding man. He did brood, she’d have to be blind not to see the moods he got into but there was always something behind them. It wasn’t as though he brooded for the sake of brooding.
Then when he helped her in the kitchen; a warm feeling spread through her. It was a simple meal and the most preparation it required was the bread and the cutting of vegetables. But there had been a certain amount of…well intimacy as they worked; from her showing him the proper way to knead the dough, to instructing him to cut the vegetables after she washed them. When he tried to cut the vegetables up he looked as though he had never held a knife that small before—which of course sent her giggling as Isabela’s voice sounded in the back of her mind teasing about the size of knives and swords.
At the meal he had asked her about the Deep Roads trip; not about the details of the trip, not about the money, or who would be joining the expedition but about why she was going. Of all her friends not a single one had asked her that; for Carver and Varric it was enough that she agreed to go.
Anders didn’t care as long as she stayed safe and didn’t ask him to come along. Isabela bemoaned the idea of spending that long without a good choice of men; Merrill had wondered what it would be like to go so long without seeing the sky. Even Aveline hadn’t thought to ask her why she was going.
The fact that he cared enough to ask had sent a feeling that she could only describe as butterflies soaring through her.
Glancing toward the window, Payton frowned. The storm had been lessening for hours; now only the slightest hints of rain could be heard hitting the glass. With the weather passing she had to make a decision soon and she was almost scared to.
Leaving Fenris behind was becoming less and less of an option in her mind. Spending weeks away from him sounded awful. Where would she be without his sardonic remarks? His silent support, his soft smiles?
Groaning she fell back on the mattress staring at the ceiling as though it could hold the answers for her. She felt like a teenager again, heart pounding over that first crush. Her first crush had been on an elf in the town, much to her mother’s chagrin.
Payton could still remember him vividly. His name had been Lupin. He would often bring items from the Dalish to sell. The first time they talked it had been because of a runaway cart. She had been walking down the street when out of nowhere she was tackled to the ground, a cart crashing into the spot she had been in seconds later.
His eyes were as gray as the full moon and he had stolen her first kiss. She fancied herself in love with him for a time, sneaking off to meet him where they would spend hours together. He would show her how to shoot a bow and she would teach him what she knew of swordplay. A romance it was decidedly not but at the time it was enough for her.
But teens were always fickle when it came to matters of the heart and she always felt that there had been something missing. In a very dramatic fashion they had parted ways and that was that. She had had flirtations with other men but never felt that same rush.
Until now, the stupid voice that sounded like Isabela teased mercilessly. The more she was around him the less it took for him to make her heart flutter; that soft smile he seemed to reserve only for her, his ability to make her laugh at anything, the unexpressed mirth he would hold in his captivating green eyes. Maker only knew how it had gotten so bad so fast. There were times she felt like she would do anything to see him smile at her again.
Of course none of this helped with her current problem, Payton looked toward her closed bedroom door. Closing her eyes, she inadvertently pictured Fenris. He had looked so peaceful, so serene when she woke to find his head in her lap this morning. It was a vast difference from the harsh lines that marred his features the last two times she had seen him dreaming.
Whether she was trying to excuse her behavior or not, she would readily admit that there had been a marked difference in his behavior when she soothed him at night. He hadn’t seemed so clipped, so angry. His long silences and curt opinions obviously had remained but there was something softer with his words; an ease he seemed to feel.
Getting to her feet, Payton tiptoed toward the door, decision half made. She would see, that’s all she was going to do; see if he was having nightmares again. If he wasn’t she would march right back into her room and go to bed.
The fire in his room was cackling, a log popped as she peeked in. He was not in the chair she had left him in. Sliding into the room, Payton’s heart pounded in her chest. Sneaking toward his bed, she made his face out in the dark.
His dark brows were down, not in a glare but in a look that conveyed pain. Like the previous nights he was curled under the blanket, shoulders hunched. Every so often he would flinch, cringing back.
Licking her lips, Payton eased herself slowly onto the bed. At first Fenris shrank back, frightened. Reaching out, she gently brushed his white hair off his forehead. Repeating the gesture, she ran the tips of her fingers down his head. Little by little the lines bled out of his face, the tension relaxing.
Stroking his hair, she looked at the wall, lost in thought. Fenris’ past colored so much of his present; even now in his sleep he bore the taint of the magisters. Chances were that even with Danarius dead, he would never be completely free of what they did to him. He would forever carry part of it with him.
The cheeky part of her personality said she liked a challenge. He would be one too, Payton reckoned. Even in their friendship there had been many times where she had said something that he had taken the wrong way; case in point this morning. The cleaning barb had only meant to be a tease, a joke about the dead body he had left in his foyer until she made him clean it out last week.
If she pursued anything with him beyond friendship, there would be many missteps, moments that would end in either one of them shouting at the other. Misunderstandings, hurt, there were so many things that could go wrong, that the logical part of her pushed as proof of why it would be bad.
Would it be worth it?
Biting her lip she looked down at the elf that was now sleeping soundly. He was slowly inching closer to her and she was certain his head would be in her lap again before the night was out.
Would the struggle be worth it?
Payton was not a romantic. Unlike Varric who loved weaving stories with tales of some sort of epic exploit, she leaned far more practical in that regard. In Varric’s story he would probably write a dashing knight riding in to sweep her off her feet.
But that wasn’t what she wanted. She wanted someone to stand beside her. Payton wasn’t looking for some fantasy. Love, like life, was hard; it was struggle. It could make or break a person.
Running her fingers through the soft white locks, she frowned. Fenris, of all the people in her life outside of family, was the one person she was quickly discovering she couldn’t stand to lose. What if he left? What if, when confronted with her feelings, he bolted? Could she take that chance? Was having him in her life more important than having him in her life?
Closing her eyes, she leaned her head back. One thing was certain; whether she knew how deep her feelings for the elven warrior went or not, she would not push him; not when pushing him had the chance of him disappearing from her life forever.