He was standing with his arms folded across his chest when they entered camp, looming over Oghren with a bemused grin playing at his full lips and an almost familiar shine in his eyes. The pale blond locks of his hair braided and drifting on the slow wind, they caught in the mid-afternoon sun’s light like fine spun gold.
“I notice you never call our Grey Warden this.”
“Indeed, she is. Did you not ever notice?”
“I thought her name was Warden,” the dwarf slurred, his broad shoulders hiking up around his neck.
“As you thought my name was Elf, no doubt. It is not, however. I am so very sorry to disappoint you.”
“Hey, Elf, you’re all right.”
“Aye. I was thinking that you’re… you’re just all right.”
“Drunk again, Oghren?”
“’Drunk again, Oghren.’ You sound like my father. He was all, ‘You’re drunk. Stop wetting on the table.’”
Zevran clutched at his chest in mock-surprise, declaring, “How dare he?”
“Least my mom had the good sense to hide the booze from him. So, you know, she could drink where he couldn’t see her.” The gruff, yet strangely endearing rumble of the dwarf’s laughter echoed through the camp.
“Hey buddy, let’s not go crazy or anything. Keep your pants where I can see ‘em.”
“If I’m dangling them in front of you, it’ll matter not if I wear them, so long as you can see them, yes?”
Zevran laughed merrily, his devious chuckle drawing her in the way moths were drawn to flame in the darkness. Approaching, she watched for several seconds, her own arms crossed over her chest as Oghren swayed before her, and then he dropped backwards and started snoring beneath the tangled red braids of his beard.
“I do not know why, but that always amuses me,” he shrugged.
“You shouldn’t tease him when he’s drunk.”
“Then I would never get to tease him at all.”
“Fair point,” she realized. “So, are you busy?”
“Not entirely, why do you ask? Are there things to stab and kill that need my attention?”
Only her heart, she thought. Smiling tentatively, she shook her head. “I thought maybe we could take a walk together.”
“Oh…” He looked away, the amusement fading from his face, only to be replaced by a sullen frown she’d seen far too much of in the last thirty-six hours.
Zevran was always smiling, always laughing. It was one of the things she loved most about him. Even in the most absurd and dark situations, he found humor and reveled in it, and it was difficult not to take pleasure in his twisted amusement as he laughed and made light of otherwise appalling situations. Wynne said he was despicable, but sometimes what else was there to do but laugh in the face of darkness?
It destroyed her to think the idea of taking a simple walk alone with her brought him such sorrow.
“I suppose, if that is what you really want, I could oblige.”
“It is what I really want.”
“As you like.”
Falling into step beside her, she listened to the steady and simultaneous fall of their feet upon the dirt and grass. They moved in unison, left, right, left right. He was not much taller than she was; their strides matched almost perfectly. Inconsequential, but sometimes it was little things like that that thrilled her in ways there were no words for. She could never keep up with Alistair when they were walking. His legs were so much longer than hers, he was always a step and a half ahead of her, but Zevran was always right beside her.
They headed away from camp, toward the trees just beyond the wall around the city. The arl told her they were all welcome to stay within his estate, and the thought was tempting, but in the end nearly everyone else had felt far more comfortable in camp. They could relax there. They weren’t expected to put on airs with each other, or keep up appearances. Alistair spent time there, but even he always made his way back to camp shortly after sundown.
There was something so familiar about the sanctuary of camp. She didn’t know how she would ever sleep beneath a roof when all was said and done, assuming she was still alive at the end of it all, and she was expected to return to a place with a real roof over her head and bed to lay her body in. She would miss the hardness of the earth beneath her back, the smell of the dew-slicked grass when she woke up in the morning.
For several paces, there was little more than the soft swish of his leather boots upon the earth, the rustling of her armor skirt. She didn’t realize how far away from camp they’d gotten until they were surrounded and shadowed within the trees and she no longer heard Alistair’s laughter and Wynne’s scolding tone as she threatened him with problems greater than excess gathered fabric and holes in his shirt.
When she glanced back over her shoulder, she could barely see their fire at all through the sturdy trunks weaving chaotically into forest. Feeling they’d come far enough to have a little privacy, she gathered her courage and stopped walking.
Zevran went on for a few feet before realizing she was no longer beside him. He turned back to look at her, almost expectantly, and she felt her stomach quiver inside her, as though she’d eaten an entire net full of butterflies for breakfast and they were only then just realizing they were trapped inside her with no way out.
“I thought we were walking.”
“We were,” she stammered. “I mean we are. I… I wanted to talk. Away from camp, just us with no prying ears or eyes.”
“All right. What do you wish to talk about?”
She didn’t know what to say now that she had him alone. She was terrified, so afraid she could feel her palms sweating and her heart palpitating inside her chest. Every breath felt like it was going to be her last, and when she realized he was staring at her with gentle expectation, it only made matters that much worse.
“I was wrong, and I’m sorry. I… I just want to go back to the way we were.”
“I do not know that I can, Illuviel.”
“Because I pushed you? I didn’t meant to… I…”
“It is not that.”
“Then what? You seem so different now.”
“Are you certain you really wish to talk about this? I really do not know what to say.”
“Yes,” she nodded. “I want to know what’s changed.” If it could be salvaged. If there was hope, or if she would face the archdemon with a heart full of regret and go to the Maker unfulfilled. “Are you having second thoughts about us?”
“I… no, this… I am acting like a child, I realize. I apologize.” She’d never seen his face so serious, so soft and yet so hard he almost didn’t seem like the same man at all. He was… terrified, something she never thought to see in him. “Let me try to explain.”
“An assassin… must learn to forget about sentiment. It is dangerous. You take your pleasures where you can when life is good. To expect anything more would be reckless. I thought it was the same between us. Something to enjoy, a pleasant diversion and little more. And yet…”
He paused, the silence lingering between them for so long, Illuviel forgot to breathe again. She forgot how to use her tongue and her teeth, to put them together with her breath and make words, so when the question escaped her, even she was surprised.
“Are you saying you’re in love with me, Zevran?”
“I don’t know,” he took a step back. “How would you know such a thing? I grew up among those who sold the illusion of love, and then I was trained to make my heart cold in favor of the kill. Everything I have been taught says what I feel is wrong. Yet… I cannot help it. Since you asked me into your tent I have been nothing but confused. Do you understand me at all?”
“I am no wiser in that area than you are, Zevran.”
“All I need to know is if there might be some future for us. Some possibility of… I do not know what.”
Was he asking her not to die? To promise him something she couldn’t give?
“I don’t know, Zev, but I know how I feel about you.”
For the first time since the morning before, she saw that wonderful light in his eyes again, shining apprehensively as he told her, “I… still have the earring. I would like to give it to you… as a token of affection. Will you take it?”
“That sounds like a proposal.”
Her throat was so dry it felt like she’d gulped down flagon after flagon of sand. She trembled; what if she was reading him wrong again? What if he told her she was acting crazy and he was done with her for good? Was that what it felt like to be in love with someone? To feel desperate and crazy, at her wit’s end, distrustful of her own thoughts and emotions to the point of questioning every single word that came from her mouth?
“Not unless you wish it.”
She didn’t know how long it took before relief sunk in, before her voice once more spoke without her brain telling her to. “I will take it.”
“Then that is enough for me.” He sighed, a relieved exhale of breath that almost stunned her. He held it out to her, placing it gently in the palm of her slowly outstretching hand. “I am sorry for acting so strangely.” He closed her fingers around it and squeezed her hand inside his own as he leaned inward. “I think I will be better now. Much better.”
“I’m sorry too.” She draped her arms over his shoulders, drawing him in as they circled around his neck and she found his eager lips, ready to kiss her.
It had only been a day since he’d kissed her last, but it felt like a lifetime. His arms came around her and drew her close. The soft brush of his nose across hers as he drank deep from her lips relaxed every tense muscle in her body. Sliding his warm hand along the small of her back, his fingers tickled across bare skin and sent shivers of need racing through her blood.
“I did not sleep last night,” he confessed in a breathy murmur against the corner of her mouth before withdrawing to tilt his forehead into hers. He closed his eyes, the long lashes laying against his cheeks. “I lay awake, alone and fretful, confused by my own thoughts and terrified I would lose you to my own stubbornness and pride. I wanted to come to you, lay down beside you and hold you, but I thought after the way I treated you you would only send me away.”
“I would never send you away,” she promised, hugging her arms tighter around his neck.
“This is good to know.”
“I was so very happy to have you with me yesterday, for you to meet my family, crazy as they are. I imagined it differently, but I am grateful now that you have met them and they you.”
“And I was happy to meet them, though I do not think your father would approve much of our… relations if he were to be made aware.” Leaning back a little, he chuckled. “He kept giving me the suspicious looks and asking the strangest questions.”
“Well, he did try to pawn me off on Alistair while we were outside talking. Something about him always wanting a queen for a daughter.” The playful shimmer was back in his eyes, and in that moment he was more alive, more stunning than she had ever seen him. “But I was firm with him,” she went on. “I told him it was my life, and I’d spend it with whomever I liked.”
“You are such a powerful woman to assert yourself that way, my dear,” he purred, his hand slipping down the length of her arm, fingers catching hers before he took two steps back. “Have I ever told you I am quite fond of powerful women. There is something exciting about knowing she will not be so easily conquered.”
“You might have mentioned it a time or two.”
“I have? Well, it bears repeating, I think.”
“Then by all means, do tell me again.”
“Perhaps I should attempt to conquer you instead.”
Tightening his fingers around hers, he tugged her forward, further into the quiet, waiting woods outside of Denerim.
When he backed her like a predator into a tree, one hand sliding into the leather of her armored skirt, tickling the flesh of her thigh as he crawled upward to tease her, she dropped a hand, curled fingers around his wrist and tugged his hand away. An appreciative grin flashed as he stared down at her grip. He was just about to click his tongue against his teeth in playful scolding when she surged forward, pushing him aggressively into the tree opposite where he’d pinned her. The metal of blades clattered noisily, and he grunted, delighted surprise became appreciative laughter with challenge in every tone.
The games began.
Familiar, playful attempts at domination, feigned submission. He was on his back, skilled hands working the buckles and straps of her armor while she teased him with kisses and whispered promises. The tide turned and he found himself on top again, her arms pinned above her as he pressed down hard, the bones of his hips grinding into hers, jagged stones carving into her back as they came together in rapturous bliss.
Maybe Wynne was right, and what they had was the most selfish thing in the world. Loving someone that much, wanting nothing more than to please him, finding fulfillment in the warmth of his eager breath against her cheek as he exhaled, reaching unbelievable heights and then tumbling back through the clouds as he finished her off…
It was all that mattered. In that place they reached together, there was no matter more pressing than the next breath, the collision of their bodies, the damp and seeking brush of his lips across hers as he whispered, “Te quiero, mi amor. Siempre.”
“One day you will have to teach me to speak your language.” She traced the tattooed skin of his chest with the tip of her finger.
“One day I will take you to Antiva, though I cannot say when, circumstances being what they are.”
“Whatever you face there, we will face it together.
“I am glad to know you will be beside me.”
“Always, Zevran. I will always be beside you.”
“And I you.”
*Spanish, the occasionally “implied” language in Antiva.
Te quiero mi amor. Siempre: I love you, my love. Always.