How did I end up here? What steps were those that set me on this path? I have done my best, but perfection seems to elude me, always; often I think on what my parents would say if they could see me now: would they approve of my choices, of the shape that my life has taken? So much of my time has been spent working for the good of others, of the country, of the world, and yet I have been able to glean a few moments of joy here and there-is it wrong to yearn for a simpler life?
When he gave me the rose, that was the day that my world changed. You may think that it was the day that Howe betrayed king and country, murdered my family and destroyed my House, and that is true, but that was a larger world. My world, my little bubble of thoughts and feelings, that was turned on its head when Alistair approached me with the battered flower, its scent still heady after all that time.
"What a rare and wonderful thing you are, amidst all this darkness."
My heart, I thought that it would burst from being so full, so overwhelmed with joy in that moment; even now, I regard that moment as one of the best of my short life. When we kissed, every fiber of my being said yes, this is the way it should be...
Irreverant, playful, impossible Zev.
At once my greatest weakness and source of my strength. I thought that I knew what love was, until our eyes met. Even there, at my feet, surrounded by the bodies of his associates and facing certain death at the hands of the ones he was sent to kill, he found a way to make me smile by finding humor in his situation. None of the others understood or agreed, but so be it. I was not born and raised to be a weak-willed sapling, bending at the wills of those around me, and as they set me in the place of leader, it was my decision to make.
I chose to let him live, one of the few choices that I shall never regret.
From there, it was only a matter of time. My attention slipped from Alistair-poor, sweet Alistair, who deserved better than to love a wretch like me-and I found myself entranced by the Antivan, finding ways to place myself on watch with him at night, a thing that none of the others missed. Leiliana never tired of teasing me, nor Morrigan of making her snide remarks, though I think that she was secretly pleased, as I had since sensed a strange attraction growing between her and Alistair despite their constant bickering. Oghren, of course, found it entirely amusing while Sten or Shale seemed to give less than a care, of which I was grateful. Wynne...well, it was my impression that she preferred to think of us all as chaste, but anyway...
Zevran. We spent many hours together on watches, sitting in the glow of the campfire, watching the smoke dissipate into the night air as the embers before us radiated heat. At first, I tried to tell myself that it was merely the warmth of the fire that made my skin burn, and not the sharp yet alluring gaze of the Antivan assassin, who, by all rights, I should have mistrusted.
"What are you looking at with such curiosity in those lovely eyes?" It was late one night, past the threshold where darkness begins to cross into dawn. Heat crept to my cheeks at being caught staring-again-but I tried to keep my guard up.
"Your tattoos," I said, which was partly true. "They are unlike any I have seen." In response, he smiled and turned his cheek to me so that I might get a better look; I leaned closer. "Did they hurt?"
"Yes," he answered in his blunt fashion. "But not any more so than being stabbed repeatedly by any sharp object. You may touch it, if you like." This last part was accompanied by a lewd waggle of his eyebrows suggesting...well, you can imagine. I did, certainly, and felt that damnable flush creep to my cheeks again. I don't think that either of us expected me to actually touch his face, but I did, once, my fingertips barely brushing the sweeping marks against his golden-toned skin.
I think that was when I was well and truly lost, though I didn't yet realize it. There was embarrassment, naturally, for I had acted well beyond how a "proper" lady should, not to mention the fact that I had bedded Alistair not hours ago, a consideration which shamed me into rising quickly, muttering somewhat about feeling ill, and hurrying off to a dark, quiet section of woods.
Zev let me go.
Not that he should have done anything else; I was, after all, his "boss," as Oghren put it, as well as in a relationship with another man, but I must admit, part of me wanted him to come after me, to make that choice so that I would not have to.
I never said I wasn't selfish.
"You're so beautiful," Alistair said, tracing his fingertips along my arm. "How do you do it?"
"Remain so...perfect, even tramping about in the wilderness?"
I regarded him, letting his earnest gaze fall across me before I responded. "I'm not perfect, Alistair. You idealize me." At this he frowned, but it was more of a "I'm-considering-what-you've-just-said" frown than a "I-don't-like-what-you've-just-said" frown. Smiling, I elaborated, turning on my side to face him in the pre-dawn light that trickled into his tent. "Alistair, how many women have you known? Intimately, I mean."
His chuckle was easy. "You know that! Just the one...why?"
"I just...you should know that I'm not innocent," I replied. "I'm not perfect...no one is."
"Yes, well, you're pretty close." He kissed me, but my mind wandered. We spent the morning together, in our fashion, though I found that my attention was constantly elsewhere, somewhere outside his tent, somewhere sharper and more dangerous than I had ever been. Eventually, when we exited the tent, I hurried to a nearby stream to bathe. Not to wash him off of me, I thought as I collected the soaps that Wynne managed to keep around. Because I haven't cleaned off the darkspawn blood in a few days. Not to wash his scent off of me.
The stream was cold and fast moving, which suited my mood perfectly, though I regretted the thorough dunking I gave myself immediately upon submerging my body in the clear, icy water. Within moments I was vigorously scrubbing my skin with the soaps, then my hair for good measure; suddenly, I felt as though I was being watched. It was not the dreaded pit-of-the-stomach feeling that accompanied the presence of darkspawn, but it startled me at first, until I realized who it was. I hadn't seen him in camp when I'd asked Wynne for the soaps, so I'd assumed he'd been hunting for some game; now he stood on the opposite edge of the stream, clutching a brace of coneys and watching me with unabashed interest.
By all rights, I should have been furious; not only did he invade my privacy, but he had made no attempt to convey apology or contrition-but I was, well, I can hardly say it: I was aroused, by the Maker, though I tried to conceal my true feelings with anger. "What do you think you're doing?"
His smile was meant to be disarming as he held up the coneys. "Hunting, though I think I've caught more than I bargained for."
I leveled one of my mother's sternest glares at him even as I sank up to my chin in the frigid water. "You were staring at me."
"I was," he replied, a smile tugging at his mouth. "You caught me off guard, as it were." His eyes flicked up and down, and I realized that the water was mostly clear.
Andraste's knickers. "I caught you off guard?"
He set the coneys down and came to stand closer to the water's edge, leaning on his longbow as if we were having a casual discussion back in camp. "I was not expecting to find a beautiful, naked woman so close to our camp, you see. There are far more private places upstream, no? Why did you not choose to bathe there?"
"My business is my own," I replied with an assurance that I did not feel. The mask was slipping. Naturally, I did the only thing that I could do to save face in such a situation. "Leave me alone, Zevran, if you know what's good for you."
"I know exactly what is good for me," he answered as he picked up the coneys and made his way to the camp. "The real question, I think, is do you?"
Anger clouded my eyes and whetted away at my caution and I dunked one last time to rinse my hair and body of soap before I pushed through the water to the shore, heedless of my nakedness as I called his name. The Antivan had not gone far and he stopped and turned obligingly at the sound of my voice, his eyes widening a bit as he took in my dripping form. A small thrill of pleasure rose up within me, though I told myself it was merely the act of catching him off guard that caused me to react so; it was most certainly not the way his eyes lingered on my body, or the cool breeze against my skin. "If you want to look," I said, spreading my arms. "Look. I have nothing to hide from you. Can you say the same?"
At this he threw back his head and laughed. "You are a hypocrite, my dear. A beautiful, canny, deadly hypocrite, but a hypocrite nonetheless." At my frown he set the coneys down one last time and came close to me, our eyes level. "We all must wear a mask from day to day, Warden, but you wear many at once, yes? You act as though you are angry with me for 'spying' on you, yet, here you are, in all of your glory-and there is a considerable amount of it, I might add." His face was so close, his breath on my skin was warm and smelled faintly of spices I could not name. "What you desire, I can give you," he whispered. "But I will not do so until you are honest with yourself."
"You are an assassin," I breathed. "Deception is your life. You wear a mask, too." Maker's breath, I wanted him to kiss me! But he did not, rather, he regarded me with a strange mixture of curiosity and longing, which heartened me to some degree. "Zevran..."
"I may not seem like the most moral fellow," he said after a moment. "And I have bedded other men's wives and companions before, it is true, but this," he gestured to the two of us standing on the edge of the stream. "This is not a path that will lead either of us to any lasting happiness, which is, I think, what you ultimately desire."
"You have no idea what I desire," I replied, injecting venom in my voice to hide the sudden shame at my actions. "You don't know me, at all." Hugging my arms to my chest, I turned to dive back into the water, for my legs and feet had gotten sandy, and, to be honest, I felt like I was embarrassed enough to drown myself in that particular moment. As it was, I remained submerged until I saw his blurred form disappear and I was alone once more.
We did not speak to one another for several days, during which time I tried to vent my growing frustrations and anxiousness in the swing of my blades, taking my pleasure in the final gurgle from the throat of some wretched creature who was stupid enough to get in my way. Unadulterated rage began to creep in me, I found myself growing more short tempered than I could ever recall being. It didn't help that Alistair and Wynne pushed me to return to Ostegar, to retrieve Cailan's armor and give our king a proper burial; in retrospect, I was not ready to make such a harrowing journey, to face the sum of all of my failures in one place. Alistair stood by my side and wept openly as his brother's body burned; I wept too, for my parents, for my brother, and for the king, who, though he was a fool, did not deserve to be strung up for the darkspawns' amusement. That night Alistair came to me, as he had not done for some weeks, and for a little while it was like old times, until he turned to look at me, just as the edges of sleep were beginning to creep into my mind.
"Are you alright? You've been so...distant lately. In fact, we haven't...you know...in kind of a long time. Not that I've come to expect it or anything, but, I just wanted to make sure that you're...well." A smile came to me despite everything and he smiled too, hopeful, though his face faded once he looked into my eyes. "You're not happy with me, are you? You don't seem happy at all, in fact." It was an astute observation for him, though it occurred to me that I was not so opaque as I'd hoped. What you desire, I can give you, but I will not do so until you are honest with yourself. After several long minutes, I shook my head slowly.
"I'm sorry, Alistair."
He nodded and sat up, the moonlight casting a glow on his well-muscled form. He will make some woman very happy, I thought suddenly. But not me. His eyes met mine; kind, patient, loving. "You were my first, you know. I shall always care for you. Though I wish...well. You can probably guess. You were always much smarter than me."
"For what it's worth," I replied. "I wish it, too."
"Is it...someone else?" Here I paused, feeling that it would be too cruel to admit the truth, though I admit, it was not his feelings that I was afraid of hurting in that moment. Finally I nodded. He sighed, then, unexpectedly, shot me one of the crooked smiles that had set my heart to fluttering months ago. "It's the dwarf, isn't it? Those beards are hard to resist, I'm sure."
Laughter bubbled up in my throat, the sound hitting my ears with unfamiliarity. "No actually, it's the constant belching." We shared a chuckle, then he sighed and looked at me, pain flickering in his eyes. "I want you to be happy, you know I do. Will you?"
"I hope so."
It was a quick affair to get dressed and return to my tent, though he insisted on walking me back, as though it were miles away across a thousand dark alleys filled with villains, as though I were not every bit the warrior that he was, as though we were not preternaturally gifted to sense our enemies. He gave me a kiss on my cheek, innocently reminding me of the earliest days. "Zev's a lucky bastard," he said quietly, before he turned to go.
I sat within my tent, rocking back and forth on my heels, completely and utterly indecisive. My mother, if she were alive, would be furious, I knew, and my father would probably just shake his head and sigh. But darling, he's to be king...you are all that's left of our House. What are you doing? Guilt flared within me at the thought of their faces...what had I done? What honor was there for my family if I sought only to bed an assassin who was sent to end my short life, rather than stand beside the future king?
Again my thoughts turned to the Gauntlet, to the image of my father standing before me, a frosted shadow of the great man I had loved. No longer must you grieve, my girl. Take the pain, acknowledge it, and let go.
It is time.
I could not. Grief clung to me; I was mired in remorse and anger and fear, overwhelming my thoughts and breaking me apart. "Mother, father...I'm sorry." My voice sounded unfamiliar and small to my ears, the chill air stealing the words from my lips the moment they left. I have failed. Again and again and again. Suddenly, I was taken by a desire to move, to swing my blade and fell dozens of enemies, to somehow rid myself of this wanton, nervous energy that fractured the pieces of my spirit into unrecognizable shards. Bow in hand, blades in their sheaths, I was soon slipping across the fallen snow, silent as I could be, nodding once to Sten who stood his solitary vigil, as he preferred; he did not question me, for a mercy. The air was bracing and sharp, and I felt energy plummet through me like never before.
I ran into the darkness.
It wasn't long before I sensed them; a small troop, possibly scouts, who were camped to the north of our little clearing. Perhaps they were following us, perhaps it was a happy coincidence that they were here; I cared little. One explosive in the middle of their camp got their attention; flame tipped arrows stung their ire; my blades stopped their hearts.
But I was a fool.
There were more than I'd reckoned, for there was a second group of fighters that I had overlooked-or ignored in my haste and reckless flight-and I soon found myself in the midst of what looked to be my last battle. Cursing myself for my carelessness, I cut down as many as I could, but more came out of the shadows-rogues that I had not taken into account. There was a sting on my arm-an arrow nicked my shoulder. Pain sharpened my confusion into hard reality. Well and so: if I was going to die here, I would take as many of them down as I could. My swings were not pretty or controlled, but with each fiend that I cut down, I saw my father's face, heard my mother's voice, felt Duncan's hand on my shoulder...all of the people who'd relied on me, all of them who I'd failed so miserably swam before my vision.
But still the darkspawn came.
I am going to die.
One of them knocked me backwards and loomed over me, grinning as I scrabbled in the snow for my family sword. Suddenly, he looked startled as an arrow caught him in the neck and he began to fall towards me; I had to roll to one side to avoid his body crushing mine. Another one was felled, and another, and another...