For the lovely Bidelle - my Secret Swooper over at Swooping_is_Bad on LJ. Happy Holidays! And thank you to finding_marie and meandering_mynd for betaing this.
How a Reformation Really Feels
He kneels on a ridge above the roadway, the warm scent of his leather armor as it heats under the midday sun rising to flirt with his memories, and figures this is a good day to die.
Far below him, in the distance, the Wardens come. He watches, sizing them up. The larger of the two lingers behind the other, the shy hesitation of inexperience clear in his deference. The smaller Warden strides at the front of the group, punishing the ground with her forceful steps, and he bares his teeth in a fierce kind of joy. She will be the one, Rinna proclaims, and the others mistake his nod of agreement for a signal.
His bait runs off, a delicate damsel in distress aimed straight at the heroic hearts of his marks. He drops down lightly into the roadway and watches the scene with grim anticipation unfolding in his chest, and he does not have to wait long before the Wardens are upon them.
He locks daggers with her at once, as he solidifies behind her and she spins, bringing her own two blades up to block and his blood shouts, rejoicing in her skill. She is his mirror image, returning his every blow with a perfect block, and they dance together, twin cyclones of flashing steel and ringing blades. He is close enough to feel her sweat as it flies from her, to see the striations in her eyes.
They weave back and forth, neither gaining the upper hand, until the exhaustion plucks at his bones. It would be so simple to just lie down and let it all end, but some stubborn streak refuses to let him make it easy on himself. He feels the burn of strained muscles, the sting of a bloody cut where she nicked his forearm on a vicious strike, and Rinna laps up his misery like a cat with cream.
Then it comes, a moment where they lock, and it would be so easy to just shove a bit, to throw the Warden off balance and claim victory as his own. Instead he hesitates, his foot slipping on the slick bloody grass at his feet as the hilt of her blade comes crashing into his temple. The dark wings of unconsciousness unfurl around him, and he hears the echoes of Rinna's triumphant laughter as he crumples to the ground.
It is not long before the webbing of darkness is pushed aside and a shape swims before his eyes, feminine but still sketched in the dim lines of senselessness, and his lips try to form Rinna's name. But it is not Rinna; it is some other woman - a stranger, armored and bloody, her mouth moving in words he can't hear over the ringing in his ears. Warden, his brain supplies, and the crush of defeat swells over him as the realization that he still lives begins to sink in.
Even in sacrifice his pride had demanded a finale, death in glorious battle at the hands of a Grey Warden, and he had failed. But perhaps this was more fitting, in the end - to die crawling and mewling, broken at the feet of a beautiful woman. He can feel Rinna bare her teeth with delight at the delicious irony of it.
He bows his head and braces himself for a killing blow, digging fingers deep into the soft loam at his knees. His tardy sense of self-preservation comes roaring back into existence only to be pinned down by Rinna's snarling claws. Both warring impulses burn along his nerves, feeding on their very substance for fuel until he is trembling, exhausted by the battle that rages through his veins.
And still he doesn't feel the bite of a blade at his neck.
He dares to look, dragging his reluctant eyes upwards to meet the Warden's gaze where she stands over him, the midday sun at her back shading her eyes into black expressionless sockets.
She speaks to him then. Asking probing questions about the nature of his mission, and despite his flippant replies his stomach quails and fear fills him from the bottom up like molten lead at the prospect of torture. Discretion has never been his strong point, and the answers she seeks pour from his lips in the heedless rush of a man with little left to live for.
Until his instinct to survive, honed over years of scrabbling and scratching for ever scrap he had ever received, chooses this moment to begin winning its battle with the ghost of Rinna.
Sacrifice was simple when it was passionate, malformed plans birthed in the dark of night in a cold empty bed. But here on his knees with the remains of his glorious swan song turning to ash in his mouth, he finds his idealism withering under the bright light of a midday sun. Before he can seem to stop his traitorous tongue it speaks, platitudes and promises of service sliding from its polished surface. The only thing that shocks him more than his self-betrayal is her acceptance of his offer.
He finds himself floundering, lost amidst the feeling that everything he has ever known or believed has just been inverted - shaken and tossed aside like a reckless child with a toy.
A thousand memories of the times he has sought fruitlessly for mercy wash over him. Searching for it in the eyes of Antivan whores, in the smell of his own blood spilled after beatings, in the rain of blows struck by other children. In his own heart as he watches a woman writhe at his feet, calling his name and pleading for her life. Never before has he found it.
And yet here, in the unlikeliest of places, he finds mercy being extended by the strangest of hands. The shame he feels, knowing that his former mark can so calmly and passively shake the foundations of his soul with a few short sentences, is a bitter pill that burns the whole way down.
Despite this, the thorn festering in his heart seems to halt its relentless drive deeper, and he takes what feels like the first real breath in months.
He wavers then, suspended inside his own storm of emotions as the moment frays around him. As Rinna screams about duty and obligation and blood debts, about the foolishness of hope and the fleeting nature of loyalty, dark whispers of betrayal and empty promises and the fear of vulnerability. He clings to the edge, slowly buffeted back towards the guilt slicked slope he had just begun clawing his way up when suddenly the Warden is there, extending a hand up and he clutches it with a desperation he does not want to examine.
Rinna howls out in impotent anger, crashing between his head and his heart in a gibbering line of frustration and he growls, shoving her aside for the time being.
He bows, choking an oath out around the remains of his brief freedom that was lodged in his throat. And with those words, he feels the old hateful bindings of duty and fealty tightening again, settling back onto his bones like a second skin. A bitter smile twists his lips. Wasn't it said, that the more things change the more they stay the same? But he can bide his time, until freedom comes again. He has nothing left in this world but time and patience.
So he waits. And he watches each member of this ragtag group she is compiling, silently observing the ebb and flow of comraderie. But mostly he watches her.
He can't place it exactly, what it is about the Warden that reminds him of Rinna. It isn't the hair, or the eyes. It isn't the shape of her face, or the color of her skin. Maybe it is whispered, in the way her hands cradled a blade, the graceful sweep of a wrist as she strikes. The sly humor that trickles into her eyes as he banters with her, or the angle she tilts her head at while listening. They are at once the same woman and nothing alike.
But Rinna was never as nosy as the Warden.
She pokes and prods and rattles around him, the pointed stick of her questions jabbing at the patch he's slapped over the Rinna-shaped hole in his armor until it crumbles like plaster. And she tries to worm her way in, to wiggle through the chink only it doesn't work because she's not shaped like Rinna - only Rinna could fit in that hole. But that doesn't seem to stop the Warden from trying, from widening the gap through brute determination and dogged persistence until he is unable to keep her out any longer.
She cannot truly care to know, Rinna whispers, trailing ghostly fingers along the inside of his skull. And would you want her to know what you did to me? Do you care to see those pretty eyes turn away from you in disgust? He snarls a warning and squashes her, back into the corner between memories and dreams where he usually keeps her locked nowadays, but the damage is done. She draws the story of Rinna and his past from within his heart, grasping the threads he has carelessly let unravel and weaving them into the truth.
And then the Warden has the gall to forgive him, to look at him with something like pity in her eyes.
He curls his hands with the need to silence her, torn between cutting her throat or searing her mouth shut with his own. All he knows is that he hates her. For being like her. Or maybe it is something else, not hate - something he is unwilling or unable to name. He can't tell the feelings apart anymore, knows nothing other than that she and he have become tangled into this skein of emotion that he stows under his breastbone, only taking it out to worry at the knots when he knew no one else was around.
And when he eventually give up in disgust at the hopeless tangle, the answer comes to him, so simple and straightforward he should have thought of it first.
He invites her to his tent.
At first just because he can, because he knows women well enough to know that she won't refuse - he has seen the way her pulse speeds when he stands too close, the fluttering beat like bird wings at her throat. Because the quickest way to exorcise a woman from his thoughts has always been to lose himself in her soft honeyed flesh.
But then it is because he learns that the only thing louder than the sound of Rinna's voice is the Warden's soft breath as it rasps in his ear, her low moans and sighs of pleasure. Lying in the circle of her arms he is able to banish Rinna, even if only for moments. And over many nights those moments turn into minutes, and the minutes into hours, and she becomes much more to him than he wishes to define. The painful weeds of hope begin to sprout amongst the cracks in his heart and soul.
He is almost happy, in his own fashion. A balance is struck - during the day he is flagellated by Rinna, but as the light slips below the horizon and he follows the night into his Warden's tent, he belongs to no one save her. He is almost able to convince himself that they can continue this way indefinitely.
Until Taliesen shows up, and his house of cards comes crashing down.
He knows what returning to the Crows will bring. Despite Taliesen's assurances otherwise, they would see through his lies, and he would die a swift death for his betrayal. Have you forgotten about me then, so quickly? Have I been lost inside the soft thighs of your newest woman? Rinna stalks the edge of his consciousness, lashing out angrily like a wounded lioness. Am I never to have my vengeance, Zevran?
He hesitates a moment then, his mouth opening to agree with Taliesen, to turn his back on everything he has begun. And then the Warden protests, claiming him as her own. He knows that whatever he decides now is his own choice. She will never beg, never presume to tell him what he should choose. He sees her, from the corner of his eye as he deliberates, sorrowful resignation clear in the way she bows her head slightly.
He cannot help wondering if he looked the same so many months ago, bent at her feet and waiting for a killing blow that never came.
He is a man suspended, oscillating between the two things that still tie him to this world. Some time ago he had made the decision to live for his past, and at that point this choice would have been easy.
But those small shoots of hope have begun to bloom while he wasn't watching, watered by the loss that is written on her face at this moment, and he begins to realize that the Warden has given him a gift greater than gloves or boots - somewhere in her quick smile, in the way she arches her back beneath him, in the tangle of her hair on his pillow, she has given him a future.
The oath he has labored under for so many months, that has felt like an ill-fitting skin, has suddenly become the thickest of armor. He summons the courage and the will to look his old friend in the face and to shove Rinna kicking and screaming firmly into the past, shutting the door and locking it behind her.
And when it is all over, he looks up at the Warden across the body of Taliesen with a wild fierce joy tugging his lips into a grin, and offers that future to her.
The nervous apprehension that huddles in his chest is chased off by her laugh, a joyous sound that breaks against his glorious new-found silence and cuts the last threads tying Rinna to his heart. It's all he can do to hide the bubbling laughter as she somberly asks him to stay, amused by the knowledge that she is unaware of how little Taliesen's offer truly meant, for there is nowhere else that he would rather be than by her side.
His reply leaps unfettered from his lips, to dance ecstatically in the space between them.
"Then stay I shall." Because I think I love you, he says, only it comes out, "I am with you, until the end."
And for now, he thinks that will be enough.