He looks different from the picture in her memory, and yet, not nearly different enough.
His hair is cut shorter now, straight and streaked with white as it falls down towards his chin. The lines around his eyes and mouth are numerous and much deeper, the shape of his jaw is softer, and there is a tremendous scar running from the corner of his cheek and down underneath his collar. It's thick enough to look like a sword mark. She imagines that a blow like that almost killed him, and despite all of the years and all of the violence she's seen since the last time they parted, she still feels something twist inside of her gut at the thought.
He holds himself with confidence… but less arrogance than she recalls. His voice is crisp and even as he speaks with a small-statured vendor, nearly lost amidst the cacophony of voices and traders that line the Antivan streets. In his shadow stand two young, silent, slender figures, and she doesn't need to guess to know that they are Crows. From her place on the opposite side of the street, she leans against the building, face low beneath her hood and arms folded tightly as she watches. He is still as beautiful as ever.
That hasn't changed. Not in more than twenty years.
She guesses that he can feel someone staring, because his eyes glance ever-so-slightly in different directions around him. Cautious. Assessing. The corners of her mouth twitch upwards, and she thinks about racing out into the street to attack him. It'd certainly be a dramatic entrance.
But it will also throw the street in disarray, and tempting as it is, she's still tired from the long trip and the… well, the long trip is enough on its own. It only takes him a moment to lay his eyes on her, anyway. She reflexively stills. It's unlikely that he can see her face beneath her hood, and even more unlikely that he'd recognize her anyway. But he's figured out that she's the one looking at him.
She doesn't really know what she's even doing there. Finding him is one thing. But actually doing something now that she's standing within reach of him…
Maybe it would have been better to just leave it be, and let him have whatever memories he cares to. But it's too late now, and she knows she's only second-guessing herself because, really, what can she say?
Zevran's gaze flicks away, then back again. The line of his shoulders straightens a little, and after a second he's openly staring at her, the vendor's conversation awkwardly petering to a halt when he realizes that he no longer has his customer's attention. The two little shadows follow his line of sight as well, first confused, and then suspicious and slightly hostile.
She stays where she is for a moment. The view of his face is even clearer when he's looking straight at her, and past melts into present as her memory layers the image of his younger self underneath the changes.
She almost forgets how to breathe.
Then she turns, lowering her arms into the folds of her cloak as she slips into the alleyway behind herself, following the road with quick, decisive steps until it leads out into another street, further down the marketplace. The colourful stalls and wide variety of patrons would ordinarily fascinate her, but just then, they might as well be painted black and white for all that they hold her attention. Instead her focus is on her footsteps, and the sound – the very, very faint sound – of footsteps behind her.
She can't glance back with the hood obscuring her view, but she guesses that he's left his entourage behind. Or sent one of them to follow her, but her instincts tell her otherwise. She threads through the bright clusters of people and structures. It is her first time in Antiva City, but she has been to enough cities by now to know that, apart from culture, they are mostly the same. She can spot the pickpockets and the travelers, the locals, the legitimate vendors and those who probably have one or two things going on under the table. It's a simple matter to avoid them all.
There is nothing remarkable about a shady figure keeping to herself in a place like this.
She works her way past the marketplace, ending up amidst slightly shabbier buildings near the docks, and is about to double-back. She has lost track of her pursuer, so she is actually not too surprised when she hears the briefest disturbance behind her. There is a shadow in the corner of her eye, and then a hand grasping her arm tightly.
The smile fixes onto her face.
"You've gotten a lot better," she notes, and the grip tightens a little.
If he did not guess her identity before, he certainly has now.
"You…" he says, in a voice that she has not heard in so long, her mind has almost forgotten it. Then there is a breath, and she keeps her gaze firmly fixed in front of herself – and away from him – as she hears him swallow. "You require a great deal of skill when you are the head of an assassins' guild. It is a cutthroat business, after all."
When she laughs, it's almost as unexpected to her as it is to him. "I suppose it is, at that," she agrees quietly. "Can I have my arm back?"
Again, the hand briefly tightens on her. "What would you do if I were to say 'no'?" he asks.
She doesn't answer that. After a beat, he releases his hold all the same, and she straightens a little. The few passersby seem to avert their gaze from them. The air is heavy and charged and thick enough to make her sick, but she also feels better than she has in months. Maybe years. It's as if someone is poised with a blade to her chest, threatening to destroy something and free it in one stroke.
For a long time they just stay like that. She can see his shadow, just slightly to the left of her own.
"My dear Warden," he says quietly.
That's it. It isn't even her name, but it hits a chord that's arguably closer to home. Coming from him, at least. So she lets out the breath she hadn't realized she was holding, and reaches up, pulls the hood away from her face. Her hair, too, is streaked with grey now. For a second she feels a trill of fear. But then it settles, overcome by the quiet resolve which has kept her alive for all these years, and so when she turns she feels none of it. Not even when his eyes widen.
The city goes still.
His hand comes up. It pauses mid-reach, between the two of them, and she wonders how long it's been since someone has caught him by surprise.
"Oh, yes. This," she says, as if she has forgotten how her looks have changed since the last time they spoke. The scars that bloom along the left side of her face are black and angry marks which have never healed in the normal way. They tear over the bridge of her nose and the corner of her mouth and chin, deep, unsettling grooves surrounded by little blue and grey spider web veins. "I ran afoul of a very peculiar bloodmage several years ago. He decided to leave me a permanent memento of our encounter."
In point of fact he had smashed her across the face with a bottle full of demon blood before she killed him, leaving her trapped in the magic-sealed crypt he'd been operating out of for several weeks. Until she'd figured out a way around his spells and managed to free herself. The blood had a peculiar reaction with the darkspawn taint, and left her with her unique injury.
His expression is almost impossible to read.
"I see. Does it hurt?" he asks her, gaze flitting from one part of her face to another, from the lines of her scars to the lines brought by age, before finally settling on the lone earring which catches the sunlight.
"From time to time," she replies, and then stills as his hand finishes its journey, gently pressing against the blackened tissue. She can't feel it very well, but she can see as he brushes the back of his fingers against it, the caress catching her utterly off guard.
She swallows, and after a second extends her own fingers to the long, impressive scar dragging down from his own face. "What about you?" she asks.
"My predecessor's parting gift," he replies with a shrug.
The uneven skin feels warm beneath her touch. She runs her thumb softly over the corner of his cheek, and then a moment later, he takes a step forward and she leans closer to his face and there is a warm mouth pressed against her own. He tastes like fish soup and spices, which shouldn't be as pleasant as it is, and she barely has time to note it before he's pressed her back against the building behind them.
It's not quite the reunion she pictured, but then, she never really bothered to picture it in the first place. It's hard to think about, anyway, until they finally part long enough to draw in deep, shaky breaths. His skin looks flushed and his eyes are a bright, shining honey-brown.
So. Apparently the disfigurement hasn't utterly repulsed him.
There is a pause. Then he clears his throat, and before she can even think to stop herself, she brushes a rogue strand of hair away from his face.
"You should see my house. It is quite unnecessarily opulent," he informs her. "Particularly the bedroom."
She laughs, taking his face into her hands and pressing another kiss to his lips. "I think I'd like that."
He gives her an assessing look, a familiar glint in his eye. Not a glint she imagined she'd ever see again, to be honest. Then he steps back, and with a small smile she lifts her hood over her head once more. He doesn't protest. She's glad – the staring tends to make her edgy.
When he reaches out and clasps her hand, looping it through his arm, she's surprised again. Her body language betrays it, because he answers the unspoken question as they move away from the wall, and start back down the street. "It would perhaps be best if the residents of this city know that you are not a person I object to," he explains. "I would not want to lose my new recruits, after all, simply because they decided to impress me by eliminating you. They are impetuous and idiotic that way."
She thinks of some of the younger Grey Wardens back home, and inclines her head slightly. "I see."
His arm is warm and solid in her grasp, and he wears a sunny expression as he leads her back to the market place. She can't stop herself from periodically staring at him, marveling at him. He is a little thicker around his waist than he used to be, and even though it isn't actually so, he seems taller, too.
She finds herself under similar scrutiny, both of them examining each other in turns, both utterly aware of how obvious they are. The city locals react to him in a deferential manner, hurrying out of his path, offering him nods or else otherwise giving him a wide berth. Honestly, she would expect that he would want to keep his identity quiet, but then, if he had done that, she would have had more difficulty in finding him.
"How long have you been in the city?" he asks.
"Four hours," she replies. "I got off of the boat this morning."
He blinks. Then he laughs, pausing in his steps a moment as he does so wholeheartedly, and places his hand over hers in the crook of his arm. "So it only took you four hours to track me down? And to think I didn't even tell a soul where I was going today."
She smiles. "Well. You're not the only one who's gotten better at some things," she replies, as he recovers and they begin moving again.
"Indeed! However did you manage it?"
"I started walking."
He glances at her, then shakes his head and chuckles. Before he can produce a suitable reply, however, he pauses, and she notes the two individuals she spotted him with before, standing on the far end of the street. They are watching them suspiciously.
"Little birds of yours?" she asks.
"You could say that," he agrees. "Tamia and Eldren. They have tried to kill me on many separate occasions, to take my place as leader of the Crows. I use them as bodyguards."
"Hmm. Borrowing a page from my book?" she asks as they move closer to the pair, past a stall selling very strange-looking fruit.
"Not quite, no," he admits with another chuckle. "But both of them are very set on being the one to do the deed, as it were. It is a matter of pride, you see, and so far they have most ably thwarted one another's attempts at taking the honour, as well as several outside efforts." He grins. "So long as they do not successfully kill each other, or overcome their fallacies long enough to attack me together, they are quite an effective means of protection."
She rolls her eyes at him, wondering at how happy he can be while more or less standing on the edge of a knife. Whatever else he has become, he still isn't a coward.
That's good. A certain level of cockiness suits him, even with a few more decades under his belt.
"Master Zevran," one of them – the woman, so presumably Tamia – greets as they approach, inclining her head in a deferential sort of way. Her peer looks like he's swallowed something foul-tasting. "Is everything alright?"
He waves a hand dismissively. "Of course. My friend and I will be heading home. You and Eldren may do whatever pleases you for the rest of the day."
The pair exchange knowing glances. Eldren's look of displeasure increases, and he scoffs and then stalks off without a further word. Tamia inclines her head again. "As you say, Master Zevran," she agrees, before following.
Once she's gone, they begin to walk again. "Do not mind the black looks," he advises, with a sigh. "They likely think you are competition for their goal." Then he shakes his head. "Ah, but once upon a time, you almost did put them out of a job, didn't you?"
She snorts. "Certainly. Back before they were even born, I would guess." Neither of them looked like they could be older than thirty, after all.
"Now there is a frightening thought. Has it truly been so long?" he asks, the vaguely wondering note in his voice carrying some genuine sentiment.
"Yes," she replies with more severity than she meant to. He casts her a sidelong look, but says nothing about it.
Instead he begins to tell her little bits of things about the streets and buildings they pass, describing his city to her as they make their way through it. He doesn't curb his tongue in the least, blithely informing her of who among the merchants and nobles has hired assassins to kill his competition, or the cousin who stood to inherit, or what have you. He points out the district where the whorehouse he grew up in used to be, since renovated to encompass the ever-growing market, and tells her about the increased trade which Antiva has been enjoying with Orlais. Then he proceeds to list all of the illegal materials being exchanged between the two, and she is doing a bad job at not snickering at his straight-forwardness, and the jokes he attempts to ply her with.
Over the course of the next hour, she smiles more than she has in… well, a very long while, anyway.
It's almost like going back in time, and that makes her wonder if she isn't asleep and dreaming the whole thing. But she guesses not, given that her dreams are never anything so pleasant, and she cannot feel the hazy disorientation that comes with being pulled into the Fade, either.
They leave the market district soon enough, heading up into the wealthier clusters of homes, where the streets are wider and there is increasingly more space between the buildings. The house he leads her to is very fine, though not the finest. Its white-painted walls are crisp and clean, gleaming in the sunlight, and the windows are filled with delicately tinted glass in hues of gold and dusty orange. It doesn't look like the house a master assassin would keep.
She never expected that it would, however.
Inside is light and airy, and utterly bereft of servants. That doesn't surprise her, either.
"I could afford something even grander, of course," Zevran tells her, as she takes in the ornate furniture and gilded frames which seem particularly lavish for an entryway. "But good help is so hard to find, and households do take some effort to maintain. It is a pity."
"Hmm," she replies, letting go of him so as to pull off her dark cloak. She breathes out an unconscious sigh of relief as she feels immediately cooler. Silently, he takes it from her, hanging it carefully on the row of narrow, golden hooks before turning back to her. His gaze flits over her undisguised frame. She isn't armed but for a pair of sturdy boots and a simple dagger, and his eyebrows go up in obvious surprise.
"This is it? One cheap little knife?" he asks, his hand lowering to her belt alongside where it is sheathed. "Not that I doubt your prowess even unarmed, but my dear, Antiva is hardly without its dangers. Have you taken to gambling and lost all of your possessions?"
She chuckles, leaning forward enough to rest her head against him. "I left in something of a hurry," she admits.
There is a pause. Then he is gently pushing her back, looking into her eyes with a fresh expression now. More open, and more concerned and curious than before.
Nevertheless, he doesn't ask. He just looks, and then takes her hand again, and leads her further into the house. The sitting room is even more beautiful than the entry, but she has little time to glimpse it before he is leading her up a wide, green-carpeted staircase.
The bedroom is fairly ostentatious. Mostly because of the bed, a four-poster with a golden silk canopy and enough pillows to drown a man. She blinks at it, and then cranes her head a little, leaning down to spy the bedroll tucked on the floor underneath its frame.
"You sleep down there most of the time, don't you?" she asks.
He snorts. "Now why would any sane, reasonable man choose to sleep on the cold, hard ground when he takes such obvious pleasure in a feather mattress?" he asks, before leaving her side to walk over to the bed, and promptly shed the covers off of it. She watches as he examines them carefully, before folding and then, a few minutes later, replacing them. The pillows are treated to a similar inspection.
"Tamia once placed a live viper in my cushions," he informs her.
She shakes her head. "What happened?"
"Well, after it finished flailing about, I threw it out of the window," he replies. "Still, poison-tipped needles and live reptiles do have a way of ruining the mood."
"Or making it more interesting."
He laughs, and she looks out of his windows at the rose-hued view of the city as he finishes his task to his satisfaction. Then he gives the room one last sweep before walking towards her, and as they come together again, they say nothing more that day. Or night.
She wakes to the grey light of very early morning, shivering despite the lack of cold as her eyes fly open, and by force of habit she takes long, even breaths. Her bones itch, and behind her breast she can feel a deep, lingering black fire. For a moment she can't remember where she is, or who she is, or that anything exists beyond that dark echo.
Then her sanity slips back in through the cracks, and she unclenches the hands which have gripped the bed sheets tightly enough to risk tearing them.
When she turns her head, it is to see him watching her. He is propped onto one of his arms, expression unreadable.
She closes her eyes and runs a hand over her face.
"Are you waiting for me to ask why you've come here?" he wonders. "Or would you prefer to simply tell me in your own time?"
The question takes a minute to reach her, through the haze of sleep and dreams of darkness.
"I hadn't thought about it," she admits.
After a second he lowers his head back onto the pillows, extending the arm he'd propped himself on towards her until she grasps his hand in her own. "Which?" he asks. "Why you came here, or when you would tell me?"
The lay like that for a while, until the grey light gets a little brighter, and she is almost completely awake – and more importantly, almost completely herself – again. Then she raises their clasped hands and kisses his knuckles, closing her eyes briefly before she lowers them again.
"Have you ever heard of a Grey Warden who died of old age?" she asks him, turning her head a little to regard his profile. His hair is in utter disarray from where her fingers have run amok in it. It only compounds the brief glimpse of confusion she gets from his expression.
"No," he replies. "But then, I have never heard of a Crow who did, either. You and I are in dangerous lines of work."
"True enough," she agrees. "Most Grey Wardens are killed by darkspawn. We…" she trails off, trying to find a means of explaining it to him properly. It isn't something she has had to do in quite some time. "After we are initiated, a clock begins to tick. The taint which allows us to sense the darkspawn does not corrupt us for about thirty years. Then it… does."
She can all but see the gears turning behind his eyes, and knows he has figured it out when they narrow, and the line of his mouth hardens. "Thirty years. You are saying that you are becoming a darkspawn soon?" he asks, forthright as ever.
"I can feel it," she admits. "When the time is coming, we can tell." The dreams have changed. The pulse in her blood and the hum in her bones has changed. The darkness is creeping in, and her mind is being pushed out.
There is silence between them for a time. Then he shifts slightly, looking away from her. "You still have not answered my question," he quietly informs her.
That he does not attempt to take his hand back is somewhat reassuring.
"When you left," she asks him instead of answering. "Did you ever wish that I would come after you?"
He takes a moment to reply. For a while she is worried that she'd thought wrong, and the idea settles against her like a cold weight.
"Yes," he finally admits, much to her relief.
She pulls him closer, then, turning on her side and winding her arms around him. He closes his eyes and rests his head against her, his soft exhalation trailing over her skin. "Yes. Even though I knew you could no more leave Ferelden than I could remain in it, I wanted that."
"I wanted it too," she whispers.
That is why she has come, she knows. Because of all the things she has wanted, chasing him was the one she wanted most, and if she is going to die, then she would rather not go without at least attempting it.
His lips move to her mouth, at that, and they occupy themselves with such happy distractions until the sun has well and truly risen into its glory. The sounds of the city filter in through the windows as they rest, tangled up in one another, and he runs idle fingers over the curve of her shoulder.
"You will stay?" he asks her. "Until… then?"
"Most Grey Wardens go to the Deep Roads to fight until they're dead," she explains, feeling him stiffen slightly beneath her. "But female Wardens can take a separate option, given the, ah, complications," she continues, making a vague gesture with her hand which somehow manages to convey the concept of 'Brood Mother'. Or at least, it does so enough that he only nods in rather disturbed understanding. She swallows down her own discomfort. "So, I could. Stay, I mean. But – if I do, then eventually…"
Their eyes meet.
He leans over, quietly kissing her before he pulls back again. "You know, every woman I have ever loved has died because of me, in one way or another," he replies.
She swallows hard.
"It seems a shame to break with tradition."