All thieves and assassins need to be taught their craft; to this end, the Antivan Crows hold in tenure two of the best that have ever walked Thedas, and though they do not feature prominently in this tale (their stories are for another day), for the impact that they have upon one Zevran Arainai, they must be mentioned in passing.
Fox is a redheaded Orlesian prodigy from a city on the coast named Melusine, renowned for his deep drawling growl and no-nonsense ways, and for slitting the throats of three high-profile targets in three separate districts in the span of a single night. To Zevran, Fox imparts the knowledge of dealing death - how to see weapons in everyday objects (a scarf, a cigarette, a chair) and how to move without sound across rooftops, where to strike to blind or incapacitate or kill, how to recite Jeniard's Lover in his head whenever he must wait in the interests of stealth, to ensure that he does not rush and botch a thing of artistry. Of all the things that Fox teaches him, however, the one that sticks most in the tanned little vagrant's head is this: Love is a tool, and like any tool it don't give a flying sod what it cuts, or whose hand it's in at the time.
The apprentices whisper that Fox had lost a lover, when he left Melusine, and bereft and lacking purpose he had come to the Crows, who gave him shelter and a reason to continue existing. Zevran never found out if it was true or not, before he left the Crows for good. In hindsight, it seems just as likely as any other of the wild theories the apprentices engendered, in the dark times between sunrises.
The other mentor is Wolf, and Wolf is a mystery even to her own; she is a waste-wanderer, born of the nomads who find life in Antiva's deserts, and when the apprentices dare to whisper of her it is to claim that she once stood atop the highest parapet of the Arl of Denerim's estate and fired a single arrow, that flew the length and breadth of Ferelden to strike the King of Orzammar dead in the heart. For anyone else, Zevran would scoff and declaim immediately that the story is such an obvious fabrication that he doesn't know why the apprentices still tell it - except that he has studied with Wolf, walked in her tall shadow between the dunes, seen her keen grey gaze and her clever hands and her nigh-obscene skill with bow and dagger. And because it is Wolf, he hesitates, just a bit, to say that anything is untrue of her, simply because he would look rather a fool if she went and proved him wrong. That is something she would do, simply for the pride of it.
She teaches Zevran how to track, how to plan, how to find water in the wastes. She teaches him what plants will kill him and how quickly, which ones may be turned toward his own purposes as poisons, how to meld into the landscape without trace, and most importantly, how to think in that survival-geared, inimitably pragmatic way of one raised to the desert and its dangers.
Wolf speaks as if words cost her money, and what she has to say on the subject of love is this: It will destroy you.
Zevran had thought, at the time, that she meant in the specific, not the general.
But Wolf and Fox haunt him many years after he leaves their custody, and from them both he learns to put up walls, to hide his thoughts, to fence out all others who might draw near enough to harm him. Fox does it with scorn, Wolf with distant coldness - Zevran makes do with a heavy vulgar streak, appropriate of the streets on which he was raised, with the further added benefit of making those who see it underestimate him by far.
Love is a tool, and it will destroy you.
How he wishes he'd listened when they tried to warn him.
Her family name is Tabris - he never hears any of the others call her by her given name; he supposes that it's something embarassing or ugly, or otherwise holds connotations she didn't like - and she is a skilled thief born in an alienage in Denerim, and that is all he knows of her for a very long time, even after he cares enough to find out. When he ambushes her ragtag party in that summertime pass, a score of Crows under his command going forth against a mere handful of travellers, he never dreamt what a grim and lovely spectre of violence she would make, sweeping through the ranks like a shadow, deadly as the plague and infinitely quicker with her choices. He isn't precisely upset by being so thoroughly beaten by a mere slip of a girl (far from it, in fact, because the bawdy part of Zevran adores a woman who is as sharp and dangerous as he is) but waking to find her boot heel grinding his Adam's apple is at once both wonderful and disheartening, because he can practically see Wolf and Fox peering down at him from over her narrow shoulders, frowning in disappointment.
She allows him to live, in the end, despite the fact that he has been sent to kill her for an exorbitant fee. He finds the balls to ask her why - because it is unlike him to let things lie, especially when he can dance the thin red line of tempting fate instead - and she smiles and says, "You remind me of someone I used to know."
And she would say no more on it, then or ever.
It nags at him. Zevran vastly prefers this new life he has stumbled into all unwittingly, free from the pesky influence of the Crows, and if he is going to live it, he would rather not do so in someone else's shadow - Wolf taught him that too, how to be proud in a very specific, cutting manner. But though he asks in roundabout ways (Leliana over eggs at breakfast; Morrigan at her bonfire at midnight; Wynne in her tent, and when he oversteps his welcome there she chases him off with her staff, a scowl and no apologies) what he seeks he finds, of course, in the last place he thinks to look.
"That would be Daveth," Alistair says rather uncomfortably, his head tilted, hands folded atop one another as he leans on the handle of the axe.
"Should I know him?" prods Zevran with a smirk when the knight does not continue; Alistair hauls the axe out of the tree-stump with a quick tensing of muscle (and he cuts quite a figure, naked from the waist up cutting firewood in the morning light, notes Zevran's naughty side) but he is unnerved by the questions and by Zevran's wandering eyes, and the axe is quickly shouldered with both hands, Alistair's elbows carefully covering up certain bits of the male anatomy.
"Not unless you can speak with the dead," allows Alistair. "He was a conscript to the Wardens." He pauses - it is a unique sight, witnessing Alistair actually considering his words before they leap unbidden from his mouth. "Our inauguration ceremonies can get a bit... messy."
And that makes Zevran's eyebrows rise, for more reasons than one. This is unfortunate; it is impossible to compete with a dead man, and he knows better than to try. "Aaah. Were they... close?" A change of pitch and tone, an eyebrow waggle to underscore the point. Alistair's cheeks pink and his eyes turn heavenward, as if seeking the Maker's intervention to end this ghastly conversation, but the deity stays His hand and Alistair's prayers, if they are answered, receive only a sharp No. "Not... not in that way." He spits it out as though it is a subject not spoken of, ever, but Zevran has already pinpointed this weakness of the knight's, and will needle it further if necessary. "They were fast friends, of course. She's very good at making friends. But Daveth wasn't around long, before, y'know."
Was that a tepid glare the templar sent his way, full of resentment cloaked by anxiety? Perhaps a weak implication, or a projected prayer, that Zevran would not be around long before he conveniently disappeared?
Sorry to say, little knight, smirks Zevran to himself as he continues to harrass Alistair until the knight flees into his tent, but I will be a thorn in your side for quite some time to come, if I have any say in it.
The problem with such an oath, however, is that in a group as disparate and varied as the one united beneath Tabris's gentle rule, the only one who really has a say in, well, anything, is Tabris.
And so it was that Zevran set out to secure his new place, and stumbled into something else entirely.
She could always be found at the fire during the second watch; it is both the hardest watch (the watchman's sleep was split in half) and the easiest (ambushes tended to happen closer to dawn or dusk) but Tabris never allows anyone to relieve her of this self-inflicted duty. Not even Alistair and his puppy-eyed begging can persuade her otherwise, and it seems that no matter what transpires during the daylight hours, no matter how hard she fights or how far they travel, she is vigilant and wide-eyed at midnight, Dog's great head thrust into her lap, her clever fingers massaging his skull or sharpening her daggers.
At first, Zevran is content to watch her routine, attempting to get a feel (ha!) for his new mistress, but little can be determined from afar, other than the fact that if she ever notices him lurking in the shadows, she gives no sign of it. Eventually, the game tires; there is no entertainment in sneaking about if she is determined not to catch him, and so he switches tack entirely, flopping down at the fireside without so much as a word, much less a by-your-leave. She graces him with a curious smile, an arching of her delicate brows, and he produces a deck of cards from thin air and asks in rolling tones, "Do you know Wicked Grace?"
"Can't sleep, I see," she notes, tapping Dog's skull to prompt him to lift his head. He whines and makes a show of misery, rejected by his mistress, but she turns her back into the massive curve of his sinewy shoulder, the Mabari converted to a convenient pillow upon which to prop herself. "I've never played. Will you teach me?"
So innocently asked, with such a clear and lovely smile! How can he refuse? ("Perhaps afterward you will let me teach you some rather more interesting things to do with your fingers, eh?" and she laughs and tells him to put up or shut up, but with such a sweet little smirk on her face that he can hardly be offended.) So he lays out the rules, working in as much innuendo as he can, of course - his own routines are second-nature to him now, he hardly hears himself anymore - and calling cards to the top of the deck between shuffles, which makes her clap her hands in delight and makes the Mabari tilt his head in confusion. They play one hand, two hands, three. With each successive hand she shows a better grasp of the rules, less hesitance and more daring, and as she does not seem the sort to appreciate being tamely allowed to win, he plays in earnest. He does not even cheat. (Much.)
And then it comes to it - he tests the waters. One can learn quite a lot by pressing the boundaries of others, and it is a field of study which Zevran excels at. "I believe you have the knack of it, my dear Tabris. Shall we raise the stakes?"
She tilts her head and smiles that pretty smile again, her hair falling charmingly into her dark eyes. "What did you have in mind?"
He tells her.
"Zevran!" Her outraged laughter rings through the night, even through the tones of scandal in her voice. "Naughty boy!"
"Is that a yes?" he grins, and then a tacit dare: "Or.... perhaps the stakes are not high enough?"
She smirks and lifts her chin, and in a voice worthy of a queen she says, "I accept your challenge, Arainai - but I will deal the cards." He accedes, of course, and her clever fingers are put to shuffling the deck, and he does not yet think to examine them for treachery, to look as a magician does at another practitioner of the arts of legerdemain. Her smile is so sincere, so innocent that even Zevran Arainai, terror of Antivan bar-bettors, does not think to question it.
It takes him all of five minutes to discover that he has been rooked, and she is, in fact, a spectacular cheat at Wicked Grace.
Anyone else would say that Tabris has an incredible run of luck. The cards appear exactly when she needs them and where, several of her victories anything but assured, at least to the untrained eye - for what drama is there when the cheating is obvious? (Isabel may be a smoother deal, but her lack of tact and pacing tips her hand well before the true play can come to fruition.) But Zevran was raised among Antivan whores, and there exist no women in all Thedas more skilled than they at separating a man from his hard-earned coin.
So he cheats back, and the game becomes a question of who is more daring, whose hands are more steady, whose misdirection is more subtle. And she is very, very good.
This woman is full of surprises, laughs Fox, somewhere in the back of Zevran's mind.
She has a head start, of course. As they play through the long hours of her watch, more of his clothing than hers joins the shared pile between the Mabari's massive paws ("You can filch them back later," she grins at him as she gleefully deposits the first such item there, his boots, and her eyeteeth are visible in the corners of her mouth) until she is sitting in a long grey tunic and he is sitting in not very much at all, a pile of leathers and weapons made prisoner on her side of the duelling field.
No woman has ever taken up so much of his focus before, so much of his effort, his desire to match and then surpass. (He does not consider Wolf a woman - she is a force of nature. Tabris is far more attainable.) They are locked to each other, she with the barest sliver of advantage, her pleasant smile a graceful wicked masque that he is finding more difficult to crack the longer he stares at it, rather than the other way round. The deck is threadbare, the draw pile scant and the graveyard a swaying stack of paper, and she holds her cards just so and the firelight is tricky, that he cannot quite tell if she is holding six cards instead of five -
"Forgive me if I am wrong, being merely a silly little backwater girl from the Wilds," says an imperious feminine alto from over Zevran's shoulder, "but I believe that there is only one knight of dawn in Wicked Grace, is there not?"
Morrigan, the yellow-eyed temptress, and never has he wished so little to see her in the scarf she passed off as a chest-covering. "The lady is always right, no matter the argument," he purrs in his best silken tenor, his own masque slipping into place with the ease of long habit. "Had I known you were to peruse them, Dark Lady, I would have arranged my wares a bit more toward your liking."
It is simple, to flirt uproariously, because most do not think to look beneath the lewdness for the truth of the man. And Morrigan enjoys flirting with him, he knows, because he is not afraid of her - and why should he be? A witch is a woman beneath her clothes, the same as any other - but he thinks that it is a hollow game, for though she makes hooded eyes and promises of deliciously violent encounters, there is the sense there that her outrageousness is there for the same purposes as his, to hide the truth. (Love is a tool; so is deception.) They flirt back and forth, and she serves to keep his tongue practiced in the art of seduction, but Tabris's smile is cold and clear as river-water as she gathers the borrowed deck and picks her things out from between his, prodding Dog awake with her bare foot. Before Zevran can extricate himself gracefully from Morrigan's clutches, Tabris and Dog are gone, disappeared into the huddle of tents on the outskirts.
His leathers are soaked in Mabari spittle, much to his distaste. Dog drools when he naps, apparently.
Later, he lays in his tent - alone - and stares up at the inverted valley that forms his roof, and thinks on Tabris and her odd, pretty, cold smile. Somehow he knows already that this will not be the first night he lies awake, thinking about this strange woman.
She is not a riddle to be solved overnight. Zevran cannot say whether that is a good omen, or an ill one.
By day they fight side by side, ever daring each other to new and greater heights of deadly skill, and by night they play Wicked Grace, though never again for such stakes, at her insistence and his (only half-feigned) pouting disappointment.
They talk, while they play these later games, and she draws from him his story piece by piece, and he is surprised to find that he is not aggrieved to part with the information, tiny shards of himself that he clings to as a surrogate of identity. He learns to read her masque - the pretty one is symmetrical and deeply dimpled and beautiful, and that is the one she uses to hide things - and he notices as they travel that while he sees it in town quite often (as she shamelessly cons merchants, or guides the decisions of nobles, or secures aid for her growing army of pseudo-Wardens) the only time he sees it in camp is when she speaks to him on certain matters, and when playing Wicked Grace. In camp, her face is different entirely, her eyes half-lidded and crinkling at the corners, her grin crooked and showing too much of her teeth and mouth to be quite as attractive as her masque.
But merely because it is less attractive does not mean that he does not like it.
He gets the uncanny sense, however, that as he studies her masque, she sees right through his. He flirts constantly and incautiously, baiting her laughter, but her questions probe ever deeper and he has the distinct feeling that she is not fooled by him, how he plays the sex-crazed rogue.
He finds bars of gold and silver heaped at his tent-side some evenings, and other nights there is brandy and wine, and the night he decides he will take the wine to their game of Wicked Grace is the night they are ambushed at first watch. (They should have known better than to chase the beasts into the night - would have known better, but Tabris leads the charge, and what were they to do except follow her? Not a one of them would abandon her to the shadows.) But Alistair's shield is too slow, and Zevran is too far from her to intervene when an errant and lucky darkspawn's blade slices open Tabris's pale belly, bearing some exotic poison into her guts, and she crumples into a ball where she stands, her small prone form made a rallying point for a party of fighters made desperate.
Sten carries her back to camp in arms scarlet to the shoulder in her blood, his baritone voice bellowing for Wynne the entire way.
The elderly mage banishes them all from her tent, even Dog who otherwise would not move for the will of mountains, and they retreat as a clan to the fire, where they can yet hear Tabris whimpering as the poison wracks every muscle of her lithe little frame.
Leliana's instruments are stilled, her hands nervously unstringing and restringing them over and over again, simply to give her something to do in a time when bardsong is anything but appropriate. Sten and Ohgren and Dog sit shoulder to shoulder, silent, stoic, fearful; Alistair has his head in his hands, fingers gripped so tight in his hair he is fit to pull it out in great hanks, miserable with guilt. Shale is an unmoving wall behind unwontedly social Morrigan, who stares into the flames and makes pictures in them with her magic, her fingers laced together and her chin upon her knuckles.
Zevran finds, against all logic, that even he cannot summon his usual irreverent disdain for the problems of others. But Wynne will not have him when he offers ("I haven't the first bit of interest in your advances, Zevran," she practically growls at him, standing at the entry-flap to Tabris's tent like a steel wall of motherly concern, "or in your alleged expertise in poisons. I am doing all that I can for her. You would serve her best by getting some sleep.") and so he is relegated to the fireside, twirling a dagger absently across his fingers, watching with dull, detached interest the pictures Morrigan makes in the flames.
He misses his games with Tabris already, though he knows it is ridiculous. That is time that no one could take from them, time she spends only with him (and Dog, but the Mabari does not count) and for a while she is focused not on her duties as Warden or her missions or on the darkspawn, but on him and him alone, and something well beneath his bawdy veneer stirs in response to that, to such focus and pure love of his company. The rest of them should be abed now, and some few even yawn, up well past their bedtimes. It should be just him and just her in the circle of dancing light, matching wits and trading stories, and he cannot help resent them all for intruding, even with very good reason.
She will be alright. She must be.
Eventually, the whimpering stops, and with a pounding heart Zevran tells himself that it is either the pain's diminishment or sleep's victory that makes it so, and not the other option.
(It will destroy you, Wolf whispers in the back of his mind, and Zevran tells her sharply to shut her sodding trap. Miraculously, she does.)
It is well into second watch when a smudge-eyed Wynne emerges from the tent, and announces that Tabris will live, "though she will be weak yet for several days and do not bull-rush her tent and smother her like idiots!" Even Dog stops dead in his tracks at the iron in her voice, and she allows them to visit, one at a time, and Zevran delays his turn for as long as possible, watching them file one by one to see her. (Shale must kneel and settle for the briefest glimpse through lifted cloth, for he - she? - it cannot fit through the doorway, but he hears Tabris laughing hysterically and thinks that a little whimsy is good for her.) Alistair is penitent, Leliana relieved, Morrigan and Sten and Ohgren also relieved, but striving to hide it, each in their own way. Dog yips and cavorts like he is a puppy again, and he is ejected early from his visit, chased by Wynne's blackest curses. And then it is Zevran's turn and he sees Wynne up close, and her face is drawn and haggard.
"Get some sleep, old mother, I'll take care of her," he grins, cheeky, and ducks the mage's cuffing palm, but Wynne is so tired that she does not chase after him, all her energy depleted, given over to stabilizing the Warden. Tabris is waiting for him in the tent, sitting upright, slumped forward as though it hurts to straighten her back, her hair pulled back in a bun, likely to keep it out of Wynne's way; her shirt is gone but in its place are bandages that wind from her hip to her upper chest, and she smiles rather shyly as he materializes and says, "I wondered when you would show up. It looks much worse than it is."
"It usually does," he agrees without thinking, and he sits down next to her, the confines of the tent putting them in much closer proximity than they have ever had these previous weeks, excepting times in battle where they fought side by side. He sees now that a galaxy of freckles spangles across her shoulders, that one of her delicately-pointed ears has a deep nick in the outer edge, that both of her ears are pierced but bear no jewelry, and the circles beneath her eyes are so deep they are almost blue in the dimness of the half-lit tent. "I... we all thought you were lost." It is not what he wants to say, but it is all that he can find upon his silver tongue, pretty words abandoning him to the ravages of half-formed and awkward emotions.
There is her masque, faint but tangible; something he has said was not what she wanted to hear. "So did I. It was a near thing, Wynne tells me."
Silence and distance between them. Spurred by the thought of nearly losing her, he dares, he acts on impulse; his fingers graze her belly, touch featherlight, as though he fears she will break if he is incautious. "Does it hurt?"
Her hand comes up to trace the tattoos at his cheek, unexpected, her motions more stiff and sharper than usual. Her masque slips and her smile strengthens, her ears turn pink, and her shoulders roll forward with her movement, bring her fractionally closer to him, a tacit invitation to cross the canyon that divides them. "Does this?"
The inches thwart him only for as long as his self control holds out, which, for Zevran, has never been for very long.
Her lips are softer and more forgiving than he'd ever hoped they would be, and her hand is callused but clever as it seeks his ear, tangles in his hair with a sudden fierce possessiveness that does not encourage him to gentility. He does not expect it, much as he did not expect her hand at his cheek (This woman is full of surprises, Fox laughs in the back of Zevran's brain) and before he knows it he is leaning forward over her, his hand is at her lower back and guiding her to lay down, and she makes a tiny noise of pain in the hollow of her throat -
- he pauses, remembering her injury and Wynne's warning that she will be weak, but Tabris smacks his shoulder with an open palm and growls against him, "Don't you dare stop now, Arainai," and who is he but a servant of this beautiful and dangerous sex goddess? But Wynne's voice is serious and strident at the tent flap, claiming awareness of what they are up to and that they had better stop this instant, and like two teenagers caught necking in the pantry they stare at each other as if to question if there is a graceful way out of this.
There isn't. "Oh, bugger all this for a lark in the woods," she curses quietly against his shoulder, turning the most adorable shade of scarlet, and he cannot help uproarious laughter at their reversal of roles, even as he relinquishes her from his grasp, holding back only her hand, to kiss her palm and smirk dashingly in the dark. "Another time," she promises with a reluctant sigh; he nods and echoes her, and slips from the tent.
Before he goes, he sees her flop on her back like a petulant child deprived of a birthday pony, and all seriousness evades him as he imagines what it will be like when she is not hurt and they are not surrounded by the listening ears of the camp entire.
Earrings, he decides. She could do with a set of earrings.
Love is a tool, and it could destroy him. But Zevran rather thinks he can evade it for a while longer, or at least, long enough for it to count most.
A/N: For Callalili.
I really had a hard time getting into Zev's head for this one, so be gentle! And kudos to anyone who can spot the shout-outs/cameos in this fic. :D