Disclaimer: Bioware owns all, I earn nothing.
WARNING: This story has TWO MEN FALLING IN LOVE WITH EACH OTHER AND EXPRESSING SEMI-HEALTHY DESIRE FOR EACH OTHER'S BODIES. If you don't like homoerotic romance PLEASE BACK OFF! If that kind of thing makes you go start praying at the porcelain gods in a hurry, YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED. Please exit quietly using the "Back" button, thank you. Please note that if you decide to continue, we do not supply brain bleach, so bring your bleach brand of choice before your eyes start drifting further. Thank you for your cooperation, and have a nice day.
Acknowledgements: Thanks to SiaLater and Scarylady1 for catching my errors and telling me how to tame them.
Of Whoresons and Nobles
On another day, Zevran would praise Erlina the maid – although he doubted that 'maid' was her only profession – for choosing such a quiet, stealthy, and mostly foolproof route into the Arl of Denerim's estate. In their guards' disguise, they encountered not a hint of suspicion from the actual guards, allowing them to sneak through the estate unnoticed.
But the lack of action only emphasised his own feelings. Gave him too much free time to think.
Made him realise what it felt like to have his heart ripped out and stepped on.
His chest felt empty, hollow. Only years of training in the art of subterfuge allowed him to put on a veneer of normality, let him function well enough to know when to avert his eyes, or to put on a nonchalant appearance when passing by a guard. Beyond that, his mind was elsewhere; reliving past conversations, replaying arguments and actions. He tried to see, to learn where and how he'd made such a terrible misstep. All in the desperate hope that he'd simply missed a clue somewhere, or had misinterpreted something...
But no. Whatever he'd done, he'd done horribly wrong, and it was clear from the hardness in the Warden's expression – a closed expression that showed him nothing but an unshakable, determined implacability – that it was up to him to fix this rift that had suddenly appeared between them.
A rift that showed in their actions and movements; they both kept their distance, figuratively and literally, to the point that they kept themselves apart as far as possible in their little party, putting Morrigan and Leliana between them as they weaved through numerous back alleys, followed by numerous hallways. Neither he nor the Warden made any kind of effort to talk, or even glance at each other; Leliana kept shooting questioning - and increasingly concerned - looks at the both of them, but Zevran refused to meet her gaze, and the Warden simply gave her a glacier-cold stare each time their eyes met. Morrigan gave no sign of how she felt about this, only making her usual snide comments about Denerim – and by extension, cities in general – and the myriad flaws of living in civilized society.
The whole atmosphere grated on his nerves. He wished Morrigan could at least say something useful; how to destroy or dispel the barriers that had kept Anora locked in her room, for example. Odd that a mage had no idea how to undo such magic. He also wished that Leliana would try to ignore him, and that the Warden would stop doing the same thing.
Perhaps he was simply being desperate, to think of such impossible things.
When they finally encountered some truly alert – and properly suspicious – guards, it was almost a welcome relief. It was easier to not focus on the emptiness when he had to make sure that neither he nor anyone in their party died, or ended up crippled by some life-threatening injury.
Not that the dungeons underneath the estate provided much chance for that sort of thinking. There were rather interesting relics of past depravity that showed just how cruel some of this estate's previous owners could be. Although, none of those old instruments could compare to the ones that looked like new additions ordered by the current Arl, and Zevran found himself admiring the gruesomely... inventive implements that were clearly often used.
His companions weren't impressed when he commented on the masterful crafting of the rack that some poor nobleman's boy had been tied down to earlier. Or fine metalwork of the dragonhead shears and carding combs he'd spotted drying on a table from a recent wash.
Eventually Leliana stopped him with a wide-eyed, pleading look while he was examining a set of thumbscrews. A shame, really; he knew how effective thumbscrews were, despite their so very basic function, and these really were quite solidly-made specimens.
"This Arl Howe must have a lot of excess gold, to afford such luxuries," he murmured to Leliana, while the Warden quietly talked to a nervous elven prisoner. "I wonder if we could find some of that treasure."
"Zevran, please," Leliana said, her voice pained. "I don't understand how you can talk about these horrid things with such—"
"Appreciation?" he suggested.
"I know, I know, I'm terrible."
She glared at him, opening her mouth to reply, but the Warden had finished questioning the elf and had returned, his face grim, curtly commenting that Howe was nearby.
As it turned out, Howe was in the very next room. And he had been waiting for them, if the malicious glee in his beady eyes were any indication.
"Well, well, Bryce Cousland's little boy," Howe said with a sneer, when they halted just inside the room, "all grown up, and still trying to fit into daddy's armour." He shook his head, as if in disbelief. "I never thought you'd be fool enough to turn up here. But then I never thought you'd live, either."
Zevran felt the Warden's body freeze with those words. One look was enough to confirm that yes, the Warden had gone pale, his hands clenching into fists. Anger, however, was not the main emotion in the wide, unblinking stare he gave Howe.
It took a moment for Zevran to realize that the proper name for that emotion was despair.
"Why betray us, Howe?" The Warden's voice was quiet, disbelieving. "My father was your friend!"
Howe's face darkened with a fierce, vindictive scowl. "A clumsy appeal, child," he said, spitting out the last word like an insult. "He was a traitor to me and a coward to his nation! Trips to Orlais, gifts from old enemies; all while I sank in obscurity!"
Zevran stared as Howe savagely railed about how the Cousland family had stolen the glory and fame that was rightfully his, voice dripping with bitter venom while jealousy that had been suppressed for years, now loosed, poured from him. Not even the softness of his voice masked the malice behind the words. He was an old man who'd stewed with resentment for so long that he had become nothing but a virulent, rabid dog, driven by his own madness.
The Warden appeared to realize that; the initial shock at Howe's vicious little outburst had worn off, only to be replaced by a cold, blank mien as he reached for his greatsword and unsheathed it. When Howe hissed at his henchmen to kill them all, the only emotion in the Warden's eyes was the cool, quiet intent of a killer as he shifted into a combat-ready stance.
The fight was a fierce, dirty one. The low ceiling and enclosed space of the dungeon meant that they had to fight in close quarters, and any sort of magic could hit a friend just as easily as a foe. Morrigan was cursing loudly as she sent bolts of ice and magically-packed earth at Howe's pet mages, unable to use her stronger fire and lightning spells. Even Leliana had to reach for her rarely used daggers when one of Howe's henchmen got too close for her to draw her bow in time; she had some decent skill with using them, Zevran noted, as he swept past a wild axe swing and slashed out, his blades slicing easily through exposed hamstrings. A little bit rusty, but he liked the little tricks and flashes she used to feint and distract her opponent. Very Orlesian. He should talk with her sometime about those.
A loud snarl – quickly followed by a clash of metal grating against metal – drew his attention. The Warden was fully engaged with Howe, fighting one on one.
More fighters rushed against Zevran – he recalled, vaguely, that the Arl had given orders to "kill the knife ear and the girls, the boy is mine" – and the melee distracted him, confused him. It was only when he had cut down one of the luckless fools following Howe's orders that he realised that something was wrong.
The Warden was flagging, backing away, fighting defensively – he never fought that way. Not even when surrounded. Then Zevran saw the Warden's armor gleaming with streaks of red, saw the broken off pieces of armour on the ground. Saw the savage little smirk on Arl Howe's face as he swung at the Warden, his axe shining brilliantly – far too brilliantly for the shine to be natural. The glare of runes flashed as the axe sliced a gaping cut over the surface of the reinforced silverite of the Warden's breastplate like it was made of hide instead.
"Give it up, child," Howe taunted, as his axe sung through the air, slicing another cut on the Warden's armour. "Your family is dead, your bloodline all but gone, and all that's left of you is a pathetic husk of a man, likely to die buried beneath a rock in the Deep Roads. Even the Wardens are gone, banished to the Anderfels with the last of their kind. You have nothing left to fight for. You are only prolonging the inevitable."
The Warden remained silent, still backing away, but when Howe rushed him, the greatsword swung in a neat, tightly controlled arc that made Howe leap back to avoid getting beheaded.
"Liar," the Warden said, quietly. "You are fooling no one but yourself, Howe. I am a Grey Warden. You are a hindrance in the war against the Blight. For that alone, this dungeon will be the place of your death."
Howe stared for a brief moment, his expression serious, eyes sober with thought. "Ah, and there it is," he sighed. "That damned look in the eye that marked every Cousland success that held me back. Your father would been proud." Thin lips curled back in a sneer as one of his hands dropped to his sides. "I, on the other hand, want you dead more than ever."
Too late, Zevran saw the flask – the clear glass showing the sickly green liquid within – that had been strapped to Howe's belt.
He didn't think. Didn't give himself time to think. A man-at-arms with sword and shield charged at him; he twisted away, disengaging, already changing his grip on one of his daggers. By the time Howe had pulled that flask off his belt, Zevran had raised his arm, and – with a silent but fervent prayer to the Maker and his bride – he threw
The dagger cartwheeled through the air. Once, twice, three times, four.
And sank deep into Howe's shoulder just as the flask had been raised overhead.
Howe yelped. The flask dropped from his suddenly-numb hand, crashing on his shoulder and shattering into glittering pieces. The howl of pain that pierced the air was as sharp as a darkspawn shriek's, and the smell of melting leather and flesh was just as pungent as the stink of tainted blood.
The Warden saw the chance, the brief moment of vulnerability, and Zevran nearly shouted with elation as the Warden drew his sword back, the tip pointed forward, and charged, sinking his blade deep into Howe's belly.
The thrust was forceful enough to make Howe double over the sword, gasping with shock, but the Warden didn't waste time; he pulled his sword out, quick enough to make blood rush out of the suddenly gaping wound like a fountain, and by the time Howe had dropped on his knees, the Warden was already striding away, towards their other enemies, ignoring his fallen foe.
At the clear defeat of their leader, the men-at-arms faltered; with the Warden fully engaged, it was easy enough to wipe them out, so the only ones still standing were the Warden's party.
Leliana made a distressed noise when she saw the Warden. "Maker's breath, Warden, you're wounded."
The Warden shook his head, his lips thinning. "I'll live," he said curtly, at the same time Morrigan rushed to his side with a hissed "Hold still" as she laid her already glowing hands over the most obvious wounds.
The Warden waited, with barely concealed impatience, as Morrigan's magic closed the relatively clean wounds, leaving no scars. Zevran was impressed at the speed; the witch had been learning a few things from watching a certain old biddy in their little menagerie work, obviously. As soon as Morrigan stepped back, the Warden turned around and strode off.
To where Howe lay in a gradually widening pool of blood.
The fallen Arl was struggling to sit up as the Warden approached; he managed, somehow, to support himself on one arm while clutching at the gaping slash at his belly with his free hand. Zevran could just see the gleam of exposed guts, could smell the stench of them over the blood and the acid-eaten flesh.
The Warden simply stood over Howe, watching. Waiting. His face was stone, as impassive as a statue's.
Howe drew in a hissing breath, and coughed out a red-tinged spray. "Maker spit on you," he choked, blood running past his lips and trailing over his chin. "I deserved... more."
The last word was nothing more than a gargle, and Howe slumped back, his mouth still hanging open. His lungs expelled out one last, groaning moan, and then he was dead.
And still the Warden stared quietly. Long enough that Zevran wondered if the Warden was not actually looking at Howe, but inwardly, at some distant memory.
Carefully, not wanting to startle the Warden, he went up to his side, and laid a hand gently on one pauldron-covered shoulder.
"I left my father behind like this."
The sudden comment nearly made Zevran snatch his hand back in surprise. Then the Warden turned his head, slightly, to regard Zevran, before returning his gaze to Howe's body.
The brief look was enough to tell Zevran that the Warden's eyes were blank, distant. They were the eyes of a man who had seen too much, and been given too little time to understand it.
"He was alone near the servant's entrance when Mother and I found him," the Warden went on, "We had to fight our way out of the living quarters. Howe tried to kill us while we were sleeping and defenseless, but Anlan heard them, and woke us up before they could break in. Ser Gilmore and the remaining guards barricaded the main entrance to the castle, giving us the time needed to reach the servants' entrance. Gilmore told us that Father was wounded, but we didn't know how bad it was until we found him."
His tone was soft and light, his voice not nearly loud enough to be counted as more than a whisper. But to Zevran, the quiet, conversational manner in which the Warden spoke – and that blank, faraway gaze – was far more disturbing than if he had simply broken down in tears.
"We were too late. He was dying. Duncan found us, told us we didn't have much time before the castle was overwhelmed. Mother refused to leave Father's side. She told me that she would delay Howe's men, would give Duncan and I enough time to escape. I... we had to leave them both. I never knew what happened to them before they died." The Warden dragged in a tight-sounding breath, let it out slowly in a shuddering, shaky sigh, his eyelids falling closed. "Now I'll never know." His eyes opened, and they were focused, almost fierce with some emotion that was between anger and satisfaction. Narrowed in a sharp glare at the corpse of Rendon Howe at his feet. "I'm not sure how I feel about Howe dying in a similar manner, and in similar circumstances, to how my father died—" His mouth curved in a thin and vicious smile like the edge of a knife. "—but I suppose I could call it poetic justice."
Zevran studied the Warden's face, hard and tense with too many emotions. Wondered. "Are you truly the last of your family?"
"As far as I know, yes. My brother, Fergus... I don't know if he still lives. He was at Ostagar, scouting. But I don't know if he'd escaped, or died there. Like so many others."
Zevran wasn't very well-versed with Ferelden politics, but... "So with Howe dead, you'll be—"
"—the new Teryn?" The Warden snorted. "We'll see. Last I checked, Grey Wardens can't hold titles. Then there's the problem of getting married and begetting an heir... while I have no doubt that you'd look very pretty in a dress, I don't think any children will come from that."
Zevran blinked. Stared.
The Warden looked at him, eyes sharp with amusement and lips twisted in a taunting half-smile, before he shrugged, making Zevran's hand drop off his shoulder, where it had been left there, mostly forgotten in the wake of Zevran's shock.
Feeling like someone had tugged a rug out from right under his feet, Zevran turned his head, staring after the Warden, who'd walked towards where Morrigan and Leliana had stood at a distance away, both of them not wanting – or daring – to approach the Warden while he'd been watching Howe's final moments. "Right," the Warden said, his tone crisp, "we're done here. Let's finish cleaning up whatever other messes Howe left in this dungeon, get out, pick up the queen, and head back to Arl Eamon. I don't want to waste more time than we have."
Zevran's body moved, instinctively following the sharp command in the Warden's voice, but his mind and his thoughts were distracted, focused on something else.
The strange comment about marriage – and the taunting smile that followed it – circled in his mind as they methodically pocketed whatever valuables they could find (he took the enchanted axe, to replace his damaged dagger) before they went to deal with the remaining prisoners in the dungeon. The nobleman, purportedly the rightful Arl of Denerim, was killed, although the Warden cleverly persuaded the idiot to give him a key to some treasure. The delirious templar nearby refused to leave his cell, but the Warden did take a ring and made some promise to get someone to rescue him.
The initial shock had worn off by the time they were retracing their tracks back to where the Warden had left Erlina and Queen Anora. Seized by a sudden, uncharacteristically optimistic hope, he frenetically re-examined the refusal of his earring, the rejection of that gift.
He'd thought... he'd been so sure that the Warden had refused him, that he wasn't wanted at all.
That wasn't it, he realised. The Warden wasn't rejecting him; but he, in his typical, maddeningly indirect way, was asking for something else.
Something more than just the sentimental value behind the gifting of his earring.
With that insight, he immediately knew what that more would be.
He gritted his teeth. He understood what the Warden ultimately wanted from him, but he didn't want to think about it.
To dwell on that only made him more acutely aware of the very real, very terrifying vulnerability that... caring for the Warden and needing him so desperately opened in his chest, in his very soul.
He wanted to, and knew he could, live the rest of his possibly-short life without acknowledging that large, gaping hole in his emotional shield, in the carefully-constructed personal armour he had put around his heart. Could suppress that sense of emotional exposure that being with the Warden, sexually or otherwise, invoked; a feeling that he had little doubt would become far more intense if he were to admit its existence.
A feeling that the Warden knew about, apparently; Zevran remembered all the little looks that the Warden often shot at him when their eyes met during travel or rest, the enigmatic smiles and knowing, quietly taunting eyes, as if the Warden understood something that he didn't.
Like that half-smile and teasing gaze in the dungeon.
Those looks had unsettled Zevran when he'd received them before. Simply thinking about them still unsettled him. The Warden was a dangerously intelligent and keenly observant man; the realisation that, even with his best efforts, those keen eyes could see right through his words and deep into his true thoughts was a frightening one.
Zevran was starting to suspect that the Warden not only knew that his feelings were far deeper than that of a friendly sex partner, but that he also knew Zevran didn't want to look too closely at them. So he'd been circling, prowling, waiting – and eventually baiting him, luring him into a position where he had no choice but to admit to himself how he truly felt about the close bond that had formed between them.
He mentally winced. The more he thought about it, the more he realised that it should have been obvious to him, but he'd been so willfully blind to the whole affair that he'd completely missed the Warden's careful manoeuvring.
Until now. Until the Warden had clearly lost his patience, and possibly his temper as well, and bluntly refused the earring. He'd forced Zevran to think, to feel.
Zevran didn't know if he should clap his hands in wry admiration, or just strangle the Warden for manipulating him.
A decision he could only make later, unfortunately; their little adventure beneath the estate proper had not gone unnoticed, it seemed, and they were almost immediately swarmed by guards as soon as they'd stumbled out of the dungeon. It was easy enough to dispose of them, and then they were at the door to Anora's room-turned-prison-cell.
He'd never met Anora before, truth to be told, even though he'd dealt with her father. She was quite beautiful, and the way the obviously stolen armour hugged her body was very fetching. Her eyes were cold, however, and sharp as Howe's axe. A dangerous woman.
If the Warden noticed any of that, he gave no sign, although his eyes did study her body quickly, taking in the far-from-queenly disguise as one eyebrow rose in something that looked like puzzled interest, before he stared at her face for a much longer time.
"... Aren't you a little short for a guard?"
The dry tone of the Warden's voice made Zevran bark out a laugh before he hastily covered the slip with a cough. Anora's maid gasped in shock, possibly with a bit of outrage, but Anora simply gave the Warden an unamused look.
"Funny," she said. "Very funny." Shaking her head, she changed the subject to something rather more urgent. "We must go quickly and avoid notice. If Howe's people find me, I'll be killed. And my people will insist on escorting me back to the palace... where my father may also have me killed." Her voice grew quiet as she spoke of her father. She sounded almost sad.
The Warden didn't say anything to that; he simply nodded, motioned for Anora to follow. His gaze raked over her one last time – like a wolf quietly appraising a lone sheep – before he turned away. But not before Zevran caught the sly, appreciative smile that curved the Warden's lips.
The sudden urge to stalk over to the Warden's side and give him a punch in the face startled Zevran with its intensity.
It was just a glance – one of male approval, yes, but there was no active interest. He knew that. Didn't quite know how he knew that to be true, but he did. Maker's breath, he knew he had looked at the Queen the same way when he first saw her, might have even smiled the same way. But the idea of the Warden showing any sort of interest –
He looked up as they entered the main entrance hall of the estate. Blinked. Stared at the archers and mages barring the entrance, bows drawn and spells ready. Hastily shoved his thoughts to the back of his mind, biting back a vicious curse as he caught sight of the formidable woman who stood right in front of the massive double doors, a stern frown on her harsh-featured face.
"Warden," Ser Cauthrien called. "In the name of the regent, I am placing you under arrest for the murder of Rendon Howe and his men-at-arms." Her eyes narrowed into an intimidating glare. "Surrender, and you may be shown mercy."
Highly efficient, for city guards, Zevran thought with no small amount of cynicism. Doubtless they had known the Warden would come here, and had already guessed – or perhaps expected – that Howe would not live to see the next day.
Leliana muttered a creative little curse, reaching for her bow. Morrigan, likewise, had swung her staff out, magic making the tip of it glow ominously. Zevran felt a chill as he counted the archers, the mages. Too many attackers in too small a space. Even if they attacked at once, there was no guarantee that they could get rid of their welcome party quickly enough, before a spell or arrow seriously injured one of them. Then there was the little queen they were escorting; even if she knew how to fight, which he doubted, it was in their best interests to keep her alive, while their enemies wanted her dead. She was a very, very vulnerable weakness that could be exploited. He didn't like their odds at all.
"I will stand down."
The Warden's statement made all of them – even Ser Cauthrien, who looked surprised at this – pause. He didn't appear to notice or care, however, as he stared, unflinchingly, at Loghain's underling, before shaking his head. "You don't know the full story."
Ser Cauthrien's jaw dropped slightly; an apt expression. Zevran knew his own face mirrored her shock. Behind him, Morrigan scoffed. "We have killed so many other guards," she sneered, and Zevran noticed some of Cauthrien's men shift, looking distinctly ill-at-ease at Morrigan's carelessly cold words. "What do a few more matter?"
The Warden turned his head, gave her a disapproving look, which she returned with a coolly raised brow.
The maid, Erlina, shifted close to the Warden, clutched his arm, whispered just barely loud enough for Zevran to catch her words. "Are you sure this is what you wish?"
The Warden's lips thinned – he looked angry, frustrated, but his eyes were hard with resolve. "Killing them just reinforces Loghain's lies about me," he said quietly.
And handing your head over on a silver platter is going to help you how, exactly?
Zevran wanted to yelp that at the Warden, but then Ser Cauthrien chose that moment to recover her composure. "I'm surprised this ended peacefully," she said, sounding not surprised at all. She motioned to the two men beside her, who were the largest and most hard-faced men of her group. "Bring the Warden. Loghain doesn't care about the rest."
A cold wave surged through Zevran as he watched those men approach, while the Warden stood motionless, raising his hands up in clear surrender. It left ice in his wake, cold and desolate, as one of the men took the Warden's weapons away while the other turned him around and pulled his arms back – sharp enough to make the otherwise stoic face flinch.
Zevran stepped forward, his hand closing around the hilt of his dagger.
Beside him, Leliana reached out, put a hand on his shoulder. "Please," she said softly, her voice rough-edged, as if she was choking back a wave of panic. "We can't stay here."
He didn't move, not even when Leliana tugged slightly. He hauled in a breath, opened his mouth –
The Warden raised his eyes. Pinned Zevran down with a stare. "No."
That one word was steely, laden with command even at this moment of vulnerability. Zevran froze at the word, all but quivering under the restraint of that command.
The Warden said nothing, gave no sign as his arms were bound back, but his eyes were open and clear as they held Zevran's. They told Zevran what wasn't being said, what didn't need to be said.
I'll find a way past this. Trust me.
Zevran expelled the breath in his lungs in an uneasy, shaking hiss. Forced himself to breathe, even though his lungs felt like they were caught in a vice. Fighting to curb the dark panic that roiled through him, he nodded, slightly, as he stepped back, hand shifting away from his dagger.
He knew he couldn't say anything, had no time to say anything. He simply gave the Warden one last look before he turned away and allowed Leliana to guide him towards the exit. Prayed that the Warden could read that look correctly.
I'll save you, Warden. Somehow.
~to be continued~
A/N: A surprise for the readers! No need to wait a few months before this chapter, hm?
Although I doubt a cliffhanger like this is really a good thing.
More to come! Maybe soon!