Cards on the Table


“It’s—– difficult to explain.” He hesitated, automatically reaching up to run a hand through his hair and leaving breadcrumbs clinging to the curls. He barely seemed to notice, too caught up in cringing at his own poor life decisions. “It sounds so pathetic when you say it out loud, but… ah, Jesus…”

He let out a heavy breath through his nose, visibly steeling himself. “It wasn’t anything dramatic; not really dramatic, like she was fucking somebody else or she had an evil twin or something like that… It just… I came to realise that there was something really wrong with the way the relationship was. Like, someone’s no good for you, but you refuse to see it until you’re in too deep? I guess it was like that.”

A flicker of movement at his elbow, and there came a waiter like a ghost in a starched half-apron, bearing plates of spaghetti and an expression that said that he saw this kind of awkward date material every day of his damn life. Hard not to, he supposed, in such a popular place. Briefly he wondered where this ranked on the scale of drama – preferably below public, sobbing breakups and screaming matches – but the waiter was not forthcoming. Instead, he placed their meals in front of them in silence, refilled their wine with a smile and a quiet ‘enjoy your meal’, and yet Kieran could have sworn he received a very small wink. Weirdly enough, it helped a little.

“You know how I said I was crazy about her? Well, it didn’t go both ways.” The plate under his nose held a wonderful aroma of garlic and parmesan, but he didn’t so much as pick up his fork, eyes fixed somewhere in this past, not on his food. “If you’d have asked me then, I’d have said she was the One. I loved her so much and she… pretty much ignored me. She was so far above me, and it seemed like nothing I could do could bring her down to earth. She—– she acted like she was somehow doing me a favour in being with me, like I wasn’t good enough for her to be an equal. I had to fight to impress her, to kiss her, to even get a smile on the bad days. She was so… cold. So remote… and then she’d smile and laugh and put her arm around me and I’d forget all over again. Give up my friends, change my style… I was like a fucking puppy begging for scraps.”

Somewhere in this monologue, Kieran had given up trying to look Marian in the eye, his gaze sinking to the steam curling from his pasta. He couldn’t bear to see the look upon her face: those big blue eyes filled with disgust… no, not disgust, Marian wasn’t so cruel. Pity. That’s what it would be: pity for this silly man-child she’d married, who was fool enough to be taken in by a red-headed witch, his heart carefully plucked out with sharp, manicured nails and thrown at his feet. No, he didn’t want to see that expression, not as he made it quite clear how emotionally inept he truly was.

“I had to get out. I just… couldn’t take the hurt any more. I packed my bags while she was at work, left a note saying it was over and just… turned up at my brother’s place. She never even called.”

This is really tough for him, Marian mused as she watched her husband stiffen up, the way you would before a needle or a shot of bourbon. Marian’s lips thinned to a pink line. For a time, only her eyebrows moved, up then down again when Kieran swore. Not that her fun-loving, Irish husband never swore, but there was swearing casually with your mates…and there was swearing afterward.

“Like, someone’s no good for you,” he was saying, “but you refuse to see it until you’re in too deep? I guess it was like that.”

“I have that sort of relationship with cake,” Marian put in with a wan smile, aiming for something between interrupting and easing the tension.

She thanked the waiter politely, taking a moment to lean over the steam wafting from her plate, inhaling deeply but resisting the urge to take up her utensils until KIeran did. She glanced down the way the cheese was sort of sinking into the gaps between the noodles, begged whatever deity might be listening for patience, and locked her fingers together on her lap. Luckily, Kieran started talking again and her thoughts left the food as briskly as the waiter had left the table.

Sounds more like an iceberg than a woman. Marian kept that thought to herself, watching in her mind as the story of Kieran and his ex played out. She didn’t have a lot of dating experience herself to compare it to. There were a few highlights, sure, but she’d never really been able to hang onto anyone long enough to give up anything but her buzzer number.

Her brother, Garrett, knew a thing or too about women that were more like weather systems though, blowing into your life and leaving you shuddering.

The brown eyes she’d been growing fond of had drifted down and away, as though Kieran was ashamed of what he’d been telling her and Marian noticed this with a twist in her chest.

“Well,” he finished and she sat back with her brow knit tight, meaning with every ounce of her being to say something assuring and confidence-boosting to the man who had just poured his heart out to her, but instead all that came out was an incredulous, maybe too loud for a quiet restaurant: “What a bitch–I mean, that’s awful and everything but–”

“Breakups are like arrests: you’re entitled to a phonecall! Trust me I’ve overheard a lot of them. Actually,” Marian paused, torn between wanting to solve the puzzle and not wanting to make trouble. “Actually, darling…” There, that was better. She hoped.

“Are you absolutely sure your brother didn’t intercept them?”


Cards on the Table


“At least you got a therapist.” The remnants of Kieran’s breadstick moved like a conductors baton, scattering crumbs as he did a little gesturing of his own and almost colliding with her wine glass in mid-air. “Crap, sorry—- and anyway, Varric’s alright. Seems like a mate more than a therapist, so that’s got to count for something, right?”

Particle physics. Briefly, Kieran let himself wonder where particle physics would fall on the scale of human relationships – or whether it would even qualify. She did this often, he noticed: got him thinking about this possibility or that silly notion. It rarely made sense, and tended to lead to meandering conversations that had them both yawning the next day at work, but they were the sort of talks to look back on and smile, to be fondly recalled over future beers as they started the cycle all over again. They actually talked, not like—– well. They actually talked, was the point, about anything and everything, from weird tangents to her equally weird friends, and in spite of himself, he found himself smiling, enjoying the patter for the distraction it was.

“Your friend Isabela is a legend.” He said emphatically, grinning. “Y’know, when she’s not trying to grab my arse on the sly, but what can you do?” He chuckled, but that brief moment of levity faded just as quickly, the two of them settling back into something considerably more sober. “Kinda envy her, sometimes. I don’t think she’d ever let herself be caught up in any sort of complicated… not that sort, anyway.”

The servers moved as though on rails, swerving effortlessly through the crowds, and Kieran followed Marian’s gaze to watch them, his gaze lingering far longer than hers. Her summary of the situation – as good a euphemism as any – earned her a rueful snort, but it took a little time before he looked back to her, eyes following the mounds of plates and wine and piles upon piles of breadsticks without truly seeing. It was the warmth in her voice that brought him back, his smile as grateful as it was gentle. “Tangled up.” He repeated quietly, and a hand crept across the tablecloth to lie atop hers, squeezing in wordless thanks. “…I think I like that better than mine.”

Tangled up. His stomach certainly felt that way, his breadstick reduced to crumbs on the table rather than the standard path of mouth to stomach, all flakes of crust and smears of butter. All he needed was crayons and a colouring mat and he’d be a three-year-old too big to fit in his high chair. He brushed them away with a grimace, tipping them into the ashtray they weren’t actually allowed to use in this restaurant. He set it aside, resisting the urge to wipe his clammy hands on his nice new dinner slacks, and let out his breath in a long low sigh.

“No harm in telling, I guess,” He said at length – although at that moment, the urge to take up his wineglass and down the lot was looking to be quite attractive. He took another deep breath, his crumb-covered hands clasped on the tabletop to keep from fidgeting. It didn’t work. “I met her four years ago, when I was twenty-two, going on twenty-three. She was… older. Red hair, taller than me with these eyes that could either light you up from the inside or cut you—- you know the type? Don’t even have to say a word, they just… cut you down right where you stand.”


“I don’t think I’ve ever fallen so hard… or so fast. My family and friends didn’t like her, were always suspicious around her, which should have been a red flag, but… I was crazy about her. She acted like a Queen, and I saw her as one: would have done anything for her. Lie, cheat, steal… it didn’t matter. I’d have robbed a bank stark bollock naked and dancing the Macarena if it meant she’d look at me and smile.”

For a few moments, Marian thought she might have overstepped. Kieran’s warm hand lifted from hers to find some crumbs, brushing fastidiously before moving to clasp the tabletop. A familiar apology was just forming on her lips; typical Hawke, always sticking her nose where it didn’t belong. She reached forward, batted a few crumbs around for good measure, and was just opening her mouth to make a joke about him attracting pigeons, when Kieran suddenly began speaking again and the words dissolved like sugar on her tongue. 

As he spoke, a picture filled itself in. What he described as ‘red’, Marian assumed to be long and mermaid-glossy. Tall was statuesque, no, Amazonian! Obviously, but the way he described the eyes…the eyes she understood in mortal concepts. If Malcolm Hawke were sitting here, he probably would have slapped the table and chimed in with a ‘Hot damn! Sounds like my kind of woman!’

Thinking about that, Marian took a sip of her wine, listening in repose. When Kieran said ‘family and friends’, one face leapt to mind ahead of the others: Felix. Oh, the flinty glances the blonde man had shot Marian at the wedding reception until he and Garrett found a bottle of Connemara whiskey to drown their conspiracy theories in. She understood though, all too well. She would have acted the same if Carver were still alive to be his rash, let-me-learn-the-hard-way self.


“I’d have paid to see that,” Marian flashed a smile. “Unchoreographed bank robberies are getting so dull these days – I can see the headline now. ‘Man Without Pockets Makes Liberal Withdrawal’,” she chuckled, then waved her own humour away. “Sorry. There’s a reason they keep me up in the news helicopter and out of the media room.” She nudged Kieran’s leg beneath the table and kept hers there against it for extra support.
“So, how’s it end with the Red Queen and the dancing fool?” 

Cards on the Table


Marian could eat like a horse. Not the most flattering comparison, but since the day of their wedding reception, it had been the only suitable way to describe the amount of food that tiny woman could put away. No, actually, maybe just after the reception: they’d both been so terrified of spoiling their clothes and anxious about the wedding that neither of them had eaten more than a few bites—– either way, she could eat at an incredible speed. One, two, three, and then it was gone.

Provided she wasn’t choking on it first.

“Thanks for sounding so shocked.” His response was dry, a smirk ticking up the corner of his mouth as she washed down the bread she’d almost inhaled. He supposed that a response of that caliber was pretty flattering, all things considered. He hadn’t exactly considered himself the greatest catch in the world, most of his time wasted on women who wouldn’t give him the time of day, or worse: the ones that would. After that they usually only headed one way, and it had been enough to jade him until the project had rolled around, at which point he had promptly lost his head all over again and signed on the dotted line. Hopefully this time with more promising results.

“Aww, but I thought we were going down the whole dating route anyway?” He pretended to pout, pushing away those buzzing thoughts before they turned maudlin. “I’m gonna feel like I’m missing out, now that you’ve said that!” He managed to swipe the butter before Marian could use it all on her second breadstick, taking his time fiddling with the butter knife. Her prodding earned a few chuckles and a fond shake of his head, but he neither confirmed nor denied anything, letting her run herself dry while he munched on his bread, entertained. His indulgent smile however, died with hers, and for a brief moment, an awkward silence reigned.

Well… if he was going to get this out in the open, he might as well do it now.

“Sick in the head is more like it.” He sighed, with no small amount of bitterness. “Or at least, that’s what it felt like half the time.” He took a moment to gnaw on his lip, scowling at the bread basket as though it had done him some personal harm. 

“There was this… girl. Long term and… really feckin’ complicated.”


“Sick in the head?” Marian repeated, one brow rising in tandem with her wine glass, which she chose to gesture with, first toward Kieran and then to herself. “Were we at the same wedding? You know, the one where my therapist walked me down the aisle?” Laughing, she plunked the crystal back onto the tablecloth and reached for the remaining breadstick, using the movement as a means to divert Kieran’s attention from the glowering contest he was having with the basket before he turned it to stone. 

“I take it you mean the ‘bad’ kind of complicated,”

she ventured after a thinking pause. “Not like particle physics, or my Uncle Gamlen’s homebrewed poker rules. Y’know, the only one who’s ever successfully out-cheated him at cards is Isabela. She’s got a knack for leaving men wondering where their money went. Or their pants. Sometimes both. However…”

Marian added with a sobering shake of her head.
“I don’t think ‘complicated’ is anywhere in that colorful vocabulary of hers.” 

“We all get…tangled up, sometimes. What looks like crazy in the rear-view…”

she stopped to watch a server weave past them before looking back at Kieran warmly.

“Looks like a man with a marathon capacity to care from over here.” 

After the wedding, they’d lain awake in the hotel room for hours, shoes kicked off while they quizzed eachother about birthdays and favourite seasons, allergies and sports teams. Marian knew he’d broken his right leg when he was eighteen, on a hunting trip with his Uncle. Asking how he’d broken his heart was just the next logical step, right?


“What happened?”