Zevran watched from his spot by the fire as Neria paced around the camp, staring out into the dark. It was freezing; she was stamping her feet and blowing on her gloved hands, but she stayed carefully out of the light of the fire, and he guessed it was to hide her expression from their companions.
She’d left the decision of what to do with the Urn of Sacred Ashes to Genitivi, but Zevran knew her too well to believe she’d relinquished all responsibility. Neria would take the blame if revealing the urn’s location turned out to be the wrong decision.. It was clearly weighing on her. She was always unsure, but refused to let even a hint of it show.
Zevran got to his feet in one smooth movement and walked towards her, making no effort to quiet his steps.
He thought perhaps he could tempt her into her tent, away from the gaze of the others. Allow her to let her mask down and distract her.
A chill ran down his spine as the warmth of the fire fell away, replaced by cold shadow. Neria’s ear twitched and she turned her head just slightly towards him, indicating she had heard him approach. He slid his arms around her waist to embrace her, halting her uneasy movement. Neria let out a breath, leaning back into his warmth as he gently moved her hair to one side and tucked his head in by her neck.
“What was it you said earlier?” he murmured, as he trailed kisses under her jaw. “Dread Wolf take you? I am no wolf—nor, I hope, am I dreaded—but I’d be more than willing to take you.”
He smoothed his hand over her abdomen, expecting her usual laugh or playful swat, but she didn't react.
“Do you think they’ll work?” she murmured.
Zevran paused. “What do you mean?”
“The ashes.” Neria glanced back at him, noting his raised eyebrows and confused expression.
“How should I know?” Zevran said, a little too abruptly. He thought it odd that she would choose to talk to him about this particular topic. “The Maker and I aren’t exactly... amigos .”
Neria’s lips twitched. She’d been laughing at everything earlier in the day, but Zevran realised that it had probably been more out of emotional exhaustion than of seeing any real humour in the situation. She was either going to laugh or cry, so in front of the others it had better be laugh. He hoped that in time, at least when they were alone, she would be able to let that go.
“I never believed in the Maker,” she said quietly. “I believe that Andraste existed, that she led the rising against the Tevinter Imperium. I believe she was killed and became a martyr. But she was a mortal woman. If those truly were her ashes, how could they do anything?”
She looked to Zev, but he had as little in the way of answers as she did. He did not claim to know the truth, but such a thing was impossible in his mind. In the temple, he’d seen her cringe visibly at their companions’ unwavering belief in the Urn. His own cynicism had quite possibly been the only thing keeping her sane.
“Leliana, Alistair and Wynne… they all believe,” Neria said. “They see this discovery as proof of the Maker’s existence. Proof that she was the Maker’s bride, that she became divine... but how is it proof of anything? We found an urn and a busty statue. It could have been anyone’s ashes.”
She huffed, a sound of exasperation, and Zevran grinned at her irreverence.
“Perhaps Sten was right. Maybe I’m insane. It may have been their faith that directed us here, but it was my decision. I could have said no.”
Neria lapsed into silence, and not knowing how to respond, Zevran brought his hand to her cheek, stroking the soft skin with his thumb. His fingers traced her jaw, encouraging her to lift her chin until she reluctantly met his gaze.
“What’s brought this on?” he asked softly, and tucked her hair behind her ear. Neria sighed, slumping, and leaned into his hand before she answered.
“I just don’t know if any of this was worth it. I was hoping that we’d find definitive proof. Either for or against, I wouldn’t have cared. But instead, all we found was a bunch of riddles and unanswerable questions.” She shook her head. “That Guardian asked too much. He hurt you. All of you—and that was my fault.”
“No, mi querida. ” Zevran recognised the guilt in Neria’s face—he’d seen the same expression before. Always blaming herself for the actions of others, even to the point of irrationality. He drew her into his arms, one hand smoothing across her back, and the other carding through her hair.
“That was not your fault. Whoever—or whatever—put that Guardian there is to blame.”
He cringed a little as he remembered what the guardian had said to her. She had been so young when she’d been separated from her family, and under such awful circumstances. He didn’t know if her past trauma or the recent events were what was affecting her now.
“You were as much a victim of it as the rest of us,” he said into her hair. “I’m sorry about your family. I understand why you have not mentioned them before. But you know I am here should you need to talk, sì? ”
Neria said nothing. After a moment Zevran pulled back, touching his forehead to hers, and looked into her eyes. Under his gaze she smiled and nodded, but he could see she had no intention of taking him up on the offer. She tucked her head back in under his chin and pulled him in tight, effectively hiding herself from his gaze. She was always open to listening when any one of their companions needed to talk, but when any sympathy was aimed in her direction she closed herself off immediately. Something they had in common.
“Who was the woman?” Neria whispered, taking him by surprise. He’d been hoping that she would have forgotten, what with everything else on her mind. Neria had become his closest friend, and more, though there was no real understanding between them. She’d made it clear she cared about him, but Zevran still found himself wondering why she should spare a single thought for his troubles.
“What woman?” he replied carefully. She looked up at him, and a little furrow appeared between her brows as she studied his face.
“The guardian said that you regretted taking one life more than any other.”
He tried to compose himself under her scrutiny, but found it much harder to erect a wall between them. Harder than he knew it should be.
“I assume you saw her in your vision,” she murmured, tilting her head. “Do you want to talk about it?”
Zevran stopped abruptly, forcing himself to think for a moment. His immediate reaction had been to deflect again—to shut himself off and reject her sympathy.
But, if he was to be honest—with Neria, and with himself—he had never let go of Rinna and his guilt at the part he played in her death. His vision at the Temple of Sacred Ashes forced him to confront how it was eating him up.
Perhaps it would scare Neria away, Zevran thought, and dropped his gaze. It was strange to fear losing her affection or her respect, but he would only know if he let it out. He sighed and lifted his gaze to hers, finding concern for him shining in her eyes. That one look tore all his defences away, and Zevran felt completely vulnerable for the first time in years. Incredibly, it did not scare him.
“I suppose it is time,” he said quietly. “You have been a good friend to me, and it has proven impossible to let go of. Maybe speaking it out loud will help.”
As apprehensive as he was about telling his story, there was no-one else he would ever feel more comfortable with. Still, this wasn’t going to be easy.
After a long moment of silence, Neria shivered and pulled him in closer.
“Let’s get out of this damnable cold first, sí ?” Zevran said, and felt more than heard Neria’s hum of approval against his chest. She shifted to his side, head on his shoulder. He instinctively pulled her closer, kissing her head as they walked toward the tent.
They silently got ready for bed. It was strange, helping to relieve Neria of her armour without any intention or expectation of more. It surprised him how natural it felt. She stole his shirt with a grin as soon as he took it off, slipping it over her head before pulling him under the many layers of blankets and furs.
Zevran smiled as Neria tucked herself into the crook of his neck. There was something about seeing her in his shirt, and nothing else, that made his heart glow. He gently traced patterns up and down her back, enjoying the moment, but she pushed herself up onto her elbow and looked down at him expectantly.
“This isn’t the kind of pillow talk I’m used to,” he teased, hoping to lighten the mood, but she didn’t react other than to smile at him sympathetically. “Where to begin?”
Neria tucked her head under his chin. Her lips brushed against his neck, and his shuddering breath ghosted over her cheek.
“You don’t have to, if it’s too hard,” she murmured, breath warm against his skin. “I don’t want to push you.”
He smiled at her compassion before leaning down to press a kiss to her hair, drawing strength from her as he breathed her in.
“I need to,” Zevran said firmly, and took a deep breath before continuing. “There is a reason I accepted this mission in Ferelden, far away from home, and it had nothing to do with any thought that I might leave the Crows. Meeting you, after all, was quite a wonderful little accident. My last mission before this one… did not end well.
“I have told you before that I was one of only two apprentices who survived their training the year I was recruited?”
Neria nodded slowly.
“Well, the other was a human boy by the name of Taliesen. He was strong, stubborn, with one hell of an attitude. He made it through with sheer willpower.” He shook his head fondly at the memory. “What I told you was true. We do not have friends in the Crows, but he was as close to a friend as anything I’d ever had.
“Our first mission we were teamed with a woman named Rinnala. The three of us worked well together. So well, in fact, that the Crows began to treat us as a single unit, sending us on most of our missions as a team. Taliesen was the brawn, Rinna handled most of our planning and information, and I specialised in poisons and seductions.” He paused, breath tightening in his throat, and tried to calm his increasing heartbeat. “We eventually became... involved.”
“You and Rinna?” Neria asked quietly.
“No, the three of us.” For a moment he held his breath as he waited for her to react, but she only nodded again.
“It was an open relationship, of course,” he continued. "Just sex, or at least that’s how it began, but Rinna became special to me in a way that Taliesen was not. She was a marvel—tough, smooth, wicked. Eyes that gleamed like justice. Everything I thought I desired.”
“You fell in love,” Neria murmured. She leaned on his chest, chin on her hands, and regarded him. All he could see in her eyes was curiosity, no judgement, which was a relief. He shrugged a little and shook his head. He didn’t know if what he had felt for Rinna was love.
“I had closed off my heart, I thought, and yet she touched something within me that I didn’t know existed. That frightened me.”
He swallowed, and she tilted her head in sympathy. He didn’t add that Neria was, even now, touching that same part of him, and had managed to reach even deeper into his soul in the short time he’d known her. He shifted his eyes away from her unyielding gaze as he continued.
“Back then I was cocky and arrogant. I believed myself to be the best Crow in Antiva, and I bragged of my conquests often, both as an assassin, and lover. One of the Crow masters grew tired of my boasting, and my bid for an incredibly difficult mark was accepted, to my surprise. It was a wealthy merchant with many guards, and his death was to be completely silent. Taliesen and Rinna were with me, of course.
“When Taliesen revealed to me that Rinna had accepted a bribe from the merchant, told him of our plan, I readily agreed that she needed to pay the price.” He heard Neria gasp quietly, but he couldn’t bring himself to meet her eyes. “Rinna begged me for her life, on her knees with tears streaming down her face. She said she hadn’t betrayed us. She told me that she loved me.” He took a sharp breath as her desperate expression flashed in his mind. It was impossible to ignore; he’d seen it again earlier today. “I hardened my heart. I laughed in her face and told her that even if it were true, I didn’t care.”
“But that wasn’t true... was it?” Neria whispered. Her brows furrowed in concern when he looked at her.
“I convinced myself it was.”
Zevran closed his eyes, trying desperately to block out the memory of Rinna’s face.
“Taliesen cut her throat and I watched her bleed as she stared up at me. I… I spat on her for betraying the Crows.” He felt his face crumple in shame. As he struggled to control his expression, Neria reached out to stroke his cheek, pulling him back to the present. He opened his eyes and focused on her for a moment, calming himself before he continued.
“When Taliesen and I assassinated the merchant, we found the true source of his information. The evidence had been planted. Rinna had not betrayed us after all.”
He felt her hand freeze, and he looked at her again to see horror and concern warring openly on her face.
“Someone had wanted her dead. It turned out she was the bastard of some Prince or other, and she was seen as a threat. I wanted to report our mistake, but Taliesen convinced me that it would be a needless waste. He told them that she had been killed in the attempt. We needn’t have bothered. The Crows knew. They had betrayed her through us.”
Neria leaned over and pressed her forehead against his. He closed his eyes and breathed her in deeply. She could just be standing in his line of sight and he felt immediately better, but having her close like this soothed his soul, and he didn’t know why. He still had to tell her the worst part, however, and he didn’t know how she would take it. He wasn’t sure he could bear to see her face when he said it.
Zevran gently pushed her back and sat up. She seemed a little confused, but she just moved to hold him from behind instead.
“You once asked me why I wanted to leave the Crows,” he continued. “In truth, what I wanted was to die.” He felt her stiffen behind him, and her hands slowly withdrew. His voice dropped to barely a whisper. “What better way than to throw myself at not one, but two fabled Grey Wardens?”
“Zevran, I’m so sorry.”
Her voice cracked, making him turn to look at her. She reached out to him again, slowly, allowing him time to withdraw—but despite his instincts, he didn’t move.
Her arms came around his neck and she held him tightly. Zevran trembled, unable to stop himself. Pain and relief seeped out of him, like poison being drawn from a wound. He slowly lifted his hands to return her embrace and let out a breath he didn't know he’d been holding.
“It… feels good to speak of it to someone,” Zevran said, once he could trust his voice again. “I swore to myself I never would.”
Neria leaned her cheek on his shoulder, it felt wet which puzzled him.
“Do you still... want to die?”
Zevran considered the question carefully before pulling away, watching the tears run freely down her cheeks. She was crying—for him? Why exactly, he had no idea. He shook his head firmly and she let out a breath, relief washing over her features.
“What I want is to begin again.” He carefully removed the hair that clung to her cheeks, wet with her tears. “Whatever it was I sought by leaving Antiva, I think I have found it. I owe you a great deal. Perhaps now you understand how great that debt truly is.”
She shook her head before lunging in to hug him tightly again.
“You owe me nothing, Zev,” she murmured after a moment. She pulled back and grasped his shoulders, her gaze locked with his. “You did those things yourself. All I did was reach out my hand. You had to choose to take it—and you did. You chose to leave the Crows. You chose to change your life.”
He smiled, but shook his head. “Be that as it may, I would never have been able to do it without you. Not only did you spare my life, but you restored my will to live it.”
He kissed her softly, then sat back and gazed at her face in the dim light. It amazed him how compassionate she could be, with everything she’d gone through herself.
“I wish I could help you in return,” he said quietly. If he could only do for her even a fraction of what she’d done for him.
“You have,” she said, smiling, even as her eyes shimmered with tears. “You’ve been the only thing holding me together this past month, if not longer. I love Alistair and Leli, but there are some things that they will simply never be able to understand. You have no idea how glad I am to have you with me.”
They lay down together, tucking the blankets around them. She rested her head on his chest and he wrapped his arms around her, holding her as close as possible.
It was an odd feeling, he thought as they relaxed into the blankets. Like a part of him
had been hollow for his entire life, and only now was it beginning to be filled.
“Will you stay?” Neria asked, surprising him. “I’m not sure I’ll be able to sleep alone tonight. Plus, it’s freezing.”
She gave a dramatic shiver, and Zevran chuckled, tugging her closer in answer. He never wanted to leave, so how could he force himself to go back to his own tent when she wanted him to stay? This was a first for him, another line to cross, but he’d started to think that, perhaps, Neria was an exception to all of his rules.
“As you wish, mi vida .”