Neria was restless, unwilling to sleep for fear of falling into yet another disturbing vision of the Archdemon. She’d volunteered for first watch, and had been keeping herself busy with menial tasks in the camp. It wasn’t enough—her mind still buzzed with thoughts she’d rather avoid.
Zevran was the only other person still awake, and not for the first time she wondered if he’d stayed up intentionally to spend time with her. He sat by the fire, awash with its red glow, and his shining eyes followed her as she sat down beside him. He stayed silent, but gifted her with a charming smile which made her heart flutter uncontrollably. Neria returned the smile before tearing her eyes away, hoping the dim light disguised the beginnings of a blush on her cheeks. She remembered the gloves she’d found suddenly, and retrieved them from her pocket. His gaze flicked between her eyes and her hands as she held the gift out towards him.
A little furrow appeared between his brows. “Gloves? You’re giving me gloves? What for?”
Neria smiled and reached for his hand, turning it palm up, and placing the gloves on it.
“When I saw them, I thought they might be a little like what your mother wore.”
She watched his face, biting her lip nervously. Not once, until right now, had she considered that he might not enjoy this reminder of his past. Then the confusion on his face fell away to wonder, a small smile twitching at his lips.
“I—Maker's breath, you’re right,” Zevran breathed. He examined the gloves, eyes widening. “The leather wasn’t as thick, and there was more embroidery, but these are very close. And quite handsome.”
He looked up at her for a long moment, opened his mouth, then shut it again.
Neria had to smile. Zevran, speechless? This was a first.
“You’re welcome,” she teased.
“Do I seem surprised?” he said, smiling ruefully. “Perhaps I am. Still, I appreciate the fact that you even thought of me. No one has simply given me a gift before.” He gave her one of his rare, genuinely warm smiles, and something that could have been affection flashed in his eyes. She smiled back at him, but her heart tightened in her chest. That he was so completely unused to kindness of any kind—that he had never even received a simple gift—made her sad.
“Thank you,” he murmured. His tone was sincere, with none of his usual flowery language and flirting.
“Zev, we’re friends, of course I thought of you,” Neria said softly, and looked at the fire. “Your story really stuck with me.”
They fell into silence, and when she looked up at him again he was staring down at the gloves. His expression crumpled slowly, vulnerability creeping in around the edges, and suddenly she felt incredibly guilty. She hadn’t meant to upset him with this.
“I don’t think I’ll be able to sleep yet,” Neria said casually, and Zevran looked up at her. “Is it too late for a sparring lesson?”
The request was as much to distract herself as it was for him, and it seemed to work.
“I am at your disposal as always,” he said, as he put the gloves aside and stood, shedding his coat. Suddenly his familiar easy grin returned, the vulnerable expression vanishing, and she wasn’t sure to be relieved or sad that his walls were back in place.
Neria couldn’t help but watch as he casually strode away from the fire, his shirt billowing slightly in the breeze. He turned and caught her looking, grinned wickedly, and flustered her with a wink.
Zevran gestured at her to begin. Neria went in low, aiming a strike at his stomach, and he dodged it deftly, as she knew he would. The world tilted suddenly as he used her momentum to unbalance her. She let out a startled cry as she fell, but just as quickly a strong arm wrapped around her waist and stopped her moments before she hit the ground.
For a moment their faces were only inches apart, and she stared up at him wide eyed, breath caught in her chest. Her eyes shifted down to his parted lips of their own accord before she forced them back up to his eyes. His intense gaze didn’t help calm the fluttering in her stomach.
“I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to do that,” she said breathlessly, her voice cutting through the moment. He laughed as he helped her upright again.
“It is much easier if you are simply disarming your opponent.” He looked far too smug for her liking all of a sudden. “Not trying to catch them at the same time.”
“Don’t go so easy on me, then,” Neria shot back. "I'll never learn that way."
"Agreed," Zevran said. The easy grin played on his lips and she reached out to give him a playful smack—quick as a snake, he caught her hand and spun her around, pinning her arm behind her. His other hand caressed her throat, feather-light, tilting her chin back.
The hold was firm, but not tight enough to even be uncomfortable. He was still holding back.
Neria let out a shuddering breath. He was pressed right up against her, his chest against her back so she could feel every shift of muscle against her skin. Then he leaned in close, his breath tickling her ear.
"Are you sure that is what you want?"
She could hear the smug grin in his voice. Oh, how she would love to wipe it off his face. Neria steadied her breathing, covered his hand with hers and summoned her magic. Ice crystals began to form on his fingers; she heard a muttered curse by her ear, and then his grip loosened. Neria slipped out of his arms and spun to face him, matching his smug look with one of her own.
Zevran raised his eyebrows before looking down at his stiff arms incredulously.
“Ah, sí , I see your point,” he said, and his grin widened. Neria melted the ice with a lazy gesture.
“So, you are powerful even without your staff. May I ask, though, have you had any training with weapons?”
“Well, no. Blades of any kind were banned in the circle. Plenty of paranoia about blood mages.”
“Ah, I see.”
Zevran’s eyes narrowed as he thought for a moment, then he nodded.
“I will teach you how to wield a knife,” he said. “These sparring lessons are a start, to be sure, but self-defence can only go so far without a weapon. I have complete faith in your abilities of course, but if for whatever reason you were unable to use them…” He shrugged. “Well, it would give me some peace of mind knowing you were not completely vulnerable.”
Neria frowned as she considered his words, flustered by his sudden concern for her well-being. Regardless of where the offer was coming from though, she knew she shouldn’t let the opportunity to learn slip by. Besides, more time with Zevran was a bonus.
“Are you sure? As you already know, I’m not the most graceful and coordinated person. It could end badly.”
“No need to worry. I will work you through it. You will need a knife, of course.”
He produced a small blade from his boot, flipped it effortlessly and handed it to her hilt-first. “This will suit nicely, I think.”
Gingerly she reached for the blade and held it between her thumb and forefinger, examining it closely.
“Grip it for a moment,” Zevran said. “Balance it between your fingers and get a feel for it.”
He demonstrated with his own knife, and Neria tried to copy him— but where he was all grace and precision, she felt clumsy and fumbling. Normally she would have expected him to make a joke, but he only smiled and covered her hand with his. They held the knife together, and he gently guided her hand from one grip to another. She tried and failed to focus more on the way he held the knife than the feel of his warm hand on hers.
“I’ll need to practice that,” she said, looking up at him with a wry smile.
Zevran smiled back encouragingly. “I have no doubt you’ll master it in no time. The first thing you should know is where to stab. To wound an opponent with a single strike is much more difficult than it appears.”
“It already looks difficult enough as it is,” she grumbled.
He chuckled as he stepped even closer to her, guiding both of their hands until the knife was aimed at a spot just under his ribs.
“If you thrust up from here, you will puncture a lung.” He moved the knife up slowly. “Here, the heart. Your blade must strike through the ribs—with precision, and you must be sure to avoid the breastbone.” He took her other hand and pushed it against the middle of his chest. “Feel it?”
All she could do was nod slowly, desperately avoiding his gaze.
“If your blade becomes stuck in bone, you will be vulnerable.” He stepped closer to her suddenly, tugging her hand around until the knife was pressed against one side of his lower back.
“The back is tricky,” he murmured, and they were so close she could feel his hot breath on her face, and his heartbeat against her chest. It made her wonder if he could tell how elevated hers was. “Not a lot of vulnerable places, but a thrust under the ribs will hit the kidney, on this side and the other. You will know if your blade finds the organ. Your enemy will drop like a stone.” He moved her arm again, guiding the knife back around and then up. She widened her eyes when he rested it against his throat, amazed by how calm he seemed.
“This is by far the quickest, easiest way to kill. Puncture the blood vessel here, or cut the throat, and they will die in moments.” His voice was rough and low, and he leaned in even closer. He moved his hands away from the knife still held to his throat, sliding them down her arms and leaving her in complete control.
Neria swallowed as she dragged her eyes up from the blade to his lips, slightly parted in a soft smile, and finally up to his eyes. They were dark with an emotion she couldn’t quite read. Her breath caught in her chest as his hands slid further down and rested on her waist.
“I have yet to mention my greatest weakness,” Zevran said, smiling, “but I would not have a knife aimed at her, even in practice.” His gaze flicked to her mouth, and Neria bit her lip to stifle a gasp as she caught his meaning.
At that moment Alistair emerged from his tent, probably to relieve Neria of her watch. He startled a little when he saw the two of them, and his eyes landed on the dagger in her hand, still pressed to Zev’s throat. He remained silent, but his eyes widened. Had the situation been reversed Neria knew he would have reacted far more strongly.
Zevran let his hands drop, and she smiled reassuringly at Alistair, before carefully lowering the knife and allowing Zevran to move away.
“It’s late,” Zevran said, bringing her attention back to him. “This is no kind of time to be focusing on knife work.” He stepped away and she couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed, but he was right. She held his knife out toward him, but he shook his head.
“That one is yours now,” he said, smiling at her one last time before he carefully collected his gloves and headed for his tent. Neria gave Alistair a little wave before doing the same, all too aware of how pink her cheeks must be.