Solona clung to a railing slick with relentless spray and held her breath as the sun set over the horizon. The wind had picked up, and the ship rocked as it cut through the water, disturbing the illusion that the sea had been painted red and gold to match the sky. She thought that she'd seen much of the world in her travels, but this was nothing like the endless treks across the bleak Fereldan countryside. It was vast, wild and exhilarating, and for the first time since coming to Amaranthine, she felt alive.
Anders had watched her closely all day, as though gauging her mood. He knew that this was her first time on a vessel larger than the ferry across Lake Calenhad. He also understood what it meant for her to go to Antiva, and she suspected that he questioned her motives in making the journey. In truth, she wasn't certain of them herself. She had thought that the passage of time would soften her memories of Zevran, ease the pain of loss, but it seemed that the ache only grew. She missed the way he lived with reckless abandon, his boundless energy and determination to make every moment count, all the more now that her own life was so unsatisfying.
"Do you think you'll find him there?"
Solona turned to find Anders beside her, hair plastered to his face and eyes reddened from the stinging spray. He looked uncharacteristically reserved, cautious, and she knew what he was really asking. Do you want to find him?
"I don't know where he went…if he's even still alive. But he loved Antiva City." It seemed so inadequate, but how could she answer when she was unsure of her own feelings? They stood in silence, staring out at the sea, and the sun had all but disappeared from the sky before she spoke again. "Do you think I'm being foolish?"
Anders sighed, pushing his hair from his eyes as he faced her. "I think…that this thing with the Crows needs to be dealt with, and that you would never leave the Wardens unless you thought it had to be done. But I also think that part of you is hoping for answers."
Up close, Solona could see that he was tired and worried, and she felt a twinge of guilt. For undertaking this dubious journey and taking two of her Wardens away from their duties to follow her…for making Anders suffer in the shadow of a man she would never be able to forget.
"Sometimes I wonder if it didn't mean anything to him at all…if I never meant anything. Wynne knew, almost before I did, how I felt about him. She tried to warn me, told me that he cared only for himself, and that he would hurt me in the end. But he was different with me." She closed her eyes, remembering. "There were times when he would let his guard down, and I could see the person he might have been, if things were different."
She'd lost track of how long they'd been in the Deep Roads; she knew only that her control was beginning to slip. She'd just started to grow accustomed to a life outside captivity, and the tunnels made her feel trapped, like a cornered animal. It was difficult and dangerous, being a Warden – a death sentence, in many ways – but for all that, it was freedom. She longed for the simple reminders that she was alive: the way the sun burned her pale skin, and her lips grew chapped from bitter wind. When rain woke her in the middle of the night, she would climb out of her tent to stand, face upturned, reveling in the cold.
So to be surrounded again by walls, where she could almost feel the weight of Thedas pressing down, and her skin crawled ceaselessly with the knowledge of darkspawn… it was torment. The others, even Alistair, accepted her false bravado without question, but Zevran had known.
She'd been sitting some distance from her slumbering companions, attempting to tire her eyes and mind by reading a book of spells. She'd taken it from the tower's library after the attack, and no matter how many times her brain insisted it was impossible, she imagined that she could still smell those terrible days in the binding - blood and lyrium and fear. These thoughts did nothing to still her growing panic, and when Zevran materialized at her side, she raised a hand instinctively, marshalling her power for an attack. He caught her wrist, halting the half-formed words on her lips.
"It is merely I," he whispered, sinking to the ground beside her. "I would appreciate it if you did not turn me into a block of ice; it is already quite cold enough down here."
Solona huffed in amusement. It was not quite a laugh, but it brought a smile to Zevran's handsome face, and she spent a long moment lost in his strange, pale eyes before realizing that he still held her wrist. His grip was surprisingly gentle, and as she watched, his long, nimble fingers, dark against her own skin, ghosted over the delicate veins. She thought perhaps it was meant to be comforting – his attempts at seduction were usually much more blatant – but she found her pulse quickening at the sensation. It occurred to her that she should pull away, and her glance drifted guiltily to where Alistair lay nearby, twitching in his sleep.
Alistair had been the only constant in her life for so long, sweet and honorable and almost painfully innocent. When she'd found herself suddenly adrift in an unfamiliar world, he'd been there, depending on her, giving her purpose. When the tower had fallen and the only family she'd ever known lay slaughtered, or worse, she'd found comfort in his arms.
But here in the Deep Roads, with her nerves frayed from the presence of darkspawn, that connection she normally cherished, that ability to sense the other Warden when he was nearby, put her even more on edge. But Zevran…Zevran was warmth and light and the absence of fear, and she was unwilling to relinquish this brief oasis in the midst of her own personal nightmare.
From somewhere in the distance came the clatter of falling rocks, echoing eerily through the narrow passageways. Solona shivered as her imagination supplied a plethora of foul creatures that might have caused the disturbance. Zevran felt her tremble and pulled her close, his arm wrapped around her shoulders and the hand that had caught her wrist now absently massaging her cold fingers. His body was solid and warm against hers, somehow both reassuring and unsettling.
"Tell me a story, Zev." The words felt childlike, particularly considering the intimacy of their position, but he regarded her seriously.
"You wish to hear another of my adventures?"
"Something…." She hesitated, aware of how vulnerable she was in that instant. She rarely allowed her weaknesses to show, never admitted that she was uncertain and tired, and yet, she found that she couldn't turn away, couldn't look away. "Something to make me forget."
She half expected him to smirk and mock her fears, or make a lewd suggestion, but he was frowning slightly, deep in thought. Then he looked up and smiled, one of his rare, true smiles that made her breath catch in her throat.
"I believe I know just the tale…."
Echoing footsteps and the clatter of loose stone broke the heavy silence inside the cave, and Zevran shook his stiff limbs and eased farther into the shadows. It had been risky, leaving the docks ahead of the Crows, but Gabriel had been certain that his master would bring their victim here. The target had somehow learned about the plot against his life, and his abrupt departure from Rivain had made it impossible for the assassins to place a man on the Caterina before the ship departed.
The Crows had undoubtedly planned their attack with the same logic Zevran applied – a straightforward assault would draw too much attention. Though the assassins cared little for the fates of innocent victims, and the city guard was easily bribed, abduction was simpler and cheaper. The entrance to the cave was easily accessible from the waterfront, but virtually invisible to the casual passerby - it had once been the base of a smuggler who had fallen victim to his own greed and the wrath of the Crows.
The human Crow who had been with Gabriel on the docks entered the cavern first, an unconscious, dark-skinned man slung over his shoulder. Gabriel followed close behind, his harsh breathing loud in the confined space. The human dropped his prisoner carelessly, and the man's head met the floor with a sharp crack. His head lolled to one side, and Zevran, staring from his hiding place several feet away, realized that the captive had only a single eye. The right side of the Rivaini man's face was smooth and handsome, but the left had been reduced to a mass of old, deep scars.
The Crow master slid a dagger from the sheath on his back and offered it to Gabriel with a twisted smile. "Here, little knife-ears. Your first kill. I've already done all the hard work; now let's teach this scum a lesson about getting on the wrong side of the Crows."
Gabriel froze, his unblinking gaze focused on the blade, and Zevran cursed silently. The boy was meant to attack his master, distract him long enough for Zevran to spring from the shadows, but he seemed paralyzed by indecision or fear. The human saw his reluctance and seized him roughly by the shirt, dragging him close to hiss a threat that sent a tremor through the boy's emaciated body. Neither of them saw the prisoner on the floor stir or reach for the knife hidden in his boot.
The captive lunged at Gabriel, and Zevran took the opportunity to sprint from his hiding place and tackle the older Crow. A brief twinge of something like guilt burned in his chest, but he shoved it aside. He could not reach the boy in time, and the knife had been small. The master possessed both weapons and reflexes far more deadly than that of the Rivaini prisoner. The human was larger and stronger, but Zevran had the element of surprise and a furious determination, and the Crow managed no more than a minute's ineffective grappling before Zevran's blade slid between his ribs.
The captive had fallen to his knees, and though blood trickled slowly from his scalp, he appeared otherwise unharmed. He looked up as Zevran approached, his good eye struggling to focus before narrowing in suspicion. Gabriel lay nearby, his eyes glassy and wide, a small pool of blood staining the stone beneath him. Zevran crouched beside Gabriel, relieved to find the young man still breathing despite the blade lodged in his side.
"Why did you intervene?" the Rivaini demanded as he struggled to his feet. His voice was low and harsh, his accent so thick it was nearly impenetrable. "You do yourself no favors, angering the Crows."
Zevran laughed humorlessly. "I am uninterested in favors, whether they benefit you or myself. My only goal is the destruction of the Crows, which in this case happened to involve preventing your death. I suggest that if you wish to thank me for it, you leave Antiva quickly, before they discover you still live." He waved a hand in dismissal, and the disfigured man studied him for a long moment before turning and limping from the cave.
Zevran turned to Gabriel, quashing the sudden fear awakened by the other elf's sickly pallor. He was an assassin, not a nursemaid - if he was concerned, it was undoubtedly only because the boy complicated his plans. "Come, we must disappear. Can you walk?"
Gabriel shook his head, refusing to meet Zevran's eyes. His words came in pained spurts, interrupted by ragged gasps for breath. "No. Hurts too much. Just…go without me. I know you tried."
Zevran sighed and knelt to gather Gabriel into his arms, careful of the protruding knife. He stood, staggering slightly as his straightened his knees. The boy was heavier than he looked, and it was a long walk to Zevran's lodgings.
"Just leave me," Gabriel insisted, struggling weakly. "I was supposed to die. I can't…." He hissed as they emerged on the surface, the movement jostling his wound. "I'm not good for anything else."
Zevran exhaled impatiently. "Do you think you are the first to make a mistake? I have lived through far more humiliating blunders."
Gabriel finally turned his head to look at Zevran. He was clearly terrified and in pain, but curiosity had replaced the despair in his voice. "Really?"
Zevran peered around a corner, checking that the way was clear before ducking into a dark alley. As his eyes swept the streets for danger, the wind shifted, carrying with it the unmistakable smell of the sea and a memory that made him long for a simpler time.
"Yes. I could tell you of one assignment that took place when I was near the age you are now. I had been sent to deal with a smuggler who was interfering with a wealthy merchant's business. I was to find my way onto his ship and make it appear as though he had met an untimely, but accidental, end at sea…."
He hesitated, suddenly remembering the last time he had told this story. The traitorous, sentimental voice in his head was shouting at him to stop, because he had shared it with no one else, and if he did so it would no longer be theirs. Solona had always been terribly amused by tales of his misadventures, though he understood there was no malice behind it, and he'd known it would cheer her.
He'd found her cowering with her back against the wall, that night in the Deep Roads, wide-eyed and shivering, and though later it would occur to the assassin that she'd been easy prey, all he could think was to put a smile back on her lovely face. He'd never seen her afraid – she faced down angry templars, ruthless mercenaries, and legions of darkspawn with the same straight back and fierce scowl – and it unnerved him. So when she'd asked for his help, trusted him, he'd done so without a second thought. He'd told her of the sea, of wide open places and brisk wind and salty air, and he'd seen her eyes grow unfocused as she forgot her surroundings and slowly relaxed against him. Something in that moment had made him feel worthwhile, powerful in a way that watching the life drain from a target never had.
"Ser? I mean, Zevran?" the boy asked uncertainly. "You don't have to-"
"No," Zevran interrupted, annoyed at his own distraction. "It's nothing. I bribed my way onto the ship, where I posed as one of the crew. It was my first time at sea, and I feared that I would give myself away with my ineptitude, so I resolved to strike at the first opportunity. It was but two days' journey, and I hoped that the man's disappearance would go unnoticed until we'd arrived.
"That first night, I saw my chance. The weather was poor and the sea rough, and most of the crew had gone below, but the smuggler was standing alone, looking out at the sky. I tried to approach him silently, but I slipped on the wet deck, and he turned to see me with a dagger in my hand. We struggled for some time, but he was stronger, and I knew he would win in the end. He disarmed me, and I was waiting for the killing blow when the wind suddenly worsened and began to toss the ship. We both stumbled, then his hand was around my arm, and we both went overboard. The smuggler must have hit his head as we fell, because I found him floating facedown in the water. I panicked, struggling to stay afloat, certain that at any moment I would be washed out to sea.
"Eventually someone noticed our absence and heard my shouts for help, and I was rescued. I said that I had seen the smuggler fall, and in attempting to save him, been pulled overboard myself. I was certain that they would see through my flimsy excuse, but the crew believed me, and called my efforts heroic. I, of course, told a slightly different version of the story to my master when I returned, and was handsomely rewarded."
Gabriel's eyes had gone wide, his mouth hanging open slightly, and the expression was so absurd that Zevran snorted in amusement. It had been longer than he cared to think about since he'd had cause for laughter, since he'd felt he deserved it, and there was something almost cleansing about the act. Then Gabriel, who had begun to chuckle as well, was struck by a fit of coughing, a wet, wheezing sound that made Zevran double his pace, though his legs were already burning. He attempted to murmur something comforting, distracted by the blood he felt soaking through his gloves, and found himself wishing that he knew more of saving lives than taking them.
A/N: My apologies for the ridiculously long delay. I'm terrible at writing fight scenes, and this one came kicking and screaming. Thanks go to Fluidfyre and Vshard for their help sorting it out.