The Only Place That I Call Home
Every heartbeat has a rule.
Keep your eyes down. Keep your head still. Don't look men in the eye. Open your legs. Hold still. Don't show pain or fear.
So many rules.
"Isabela," Luis calls from his office. It's not her name, but it's the one he gave her on the day that he bought her. "Come here."
She nods to the servant she has been supervising and turns, moving with a deliberate slowness. Don't move quickly, lest your breasts and hips attract undue attention. The silk of her skirts flutters around her ankles. Isabela glides into the office and pauses by the doorway, studying her husband's guests out of the corner of her eye.
It's Claudio. Bastard. She keeps the disgust from her face and raises her eyes slightly. "Yes?"
Luis has that little smile on his face, the one he wears when he's enjoying showing her off to his friends. "Order refreshments brought, and leave us. Show good Claudio's manservant to the courtyard."
A slight form steps out from Claudio's shadow—an elf, wearing the livery of his house. She barely spares a glance for him as he gives her a slight bow. She nods and leads him away, through the kitchen where she orders wine to be brought to the office. She has about two hours before the men drink enough wine that Luis will order her back to show her off once more.
"Here," she tells the elf, gesturing to a bench beneath a vine-shaded arbor in the courtyard. "I'll have something to eat sent out. Make yourself comfortable."
But the elf doesn't sit. "What is your name?" he asks her, and his atrocious accent marks him as a foreigner. From Antiva City, probably; she's met quite a few men with that same lilted and slurred accent. Luis's associates, mostly.
Isabela turns, raises an eyebrow. "What's yours?" she asks, reminding him with a look that the subordinate always gives his name first.
He's a pretty thing, about her age, tanned skin and light hair close-cropped. "Zevran," he says, and gives her an insouciant smile. "My friends call me Zev."
"Isabela," she tells him as a rising breeze caresses her shoulders. Impulsively, she adds, "But my friends call me Bela."
Nobody calls her Bela.
"Well, Bela, it is good to meet you," he says, and there is something feral in his gaze, something that makes her heart beat faster.
"Likewise," she says, and turns away. Then she looks over her shoulder. "Zev."
Then there's a commotion in the kitchen and she hurries to see what is wrong, and when she ends up in the evening gallery that night the look in the elf's eyes keeps coming back to her.
I can use him, the thought returns, over and over again.
"Back again?" she says as she passes by the arbor where Claudio's servant sits, putting just a bit of a sway in her step.
Zevran lounges on the bench, obviously showing off. She pauses and takes a moment to run her gaze over him, deciding that perhaps his vanity is justified. He reminds her of the lean, tanned young sailors that she sometimes gets to see when she visits the docks with Luis. He lifts his chin slightly, preening. "I go where my master does," he says with a smile. "I suspect you will see more of me as time goes on, no?"
Isabela glances over her shoulder. They're alone in the courtyard for the moment, and a personal servant ranks highly enough in Claudio's household that having a conversation with Zevran wouldn't be too unusual. (Another rule: who she may or may not speak to. Claudio is of slightly higher social standing than Luis, who is low-ranking Llomerryn nobility, so Claudio's personal body servant and Luis's wife are on approximately the same social level. She hates those calculations.)
She settles herself on the bench on the other side of the arbor, sitting primly. "Likely." She meets his eyes. "At least until the negotiations are settled. So tell me, how does Claudio come to be in possession of a body servant from Antiva?"
Zevran chuckles lightly. "Ah, dear Bela. I will tell you the story in return for you telling me how one as lovely as yourself comes to live in such a dreary place."
She twitches an eyebrow at him, just a little. "Most people wouldn't consider this house dreary. But if you're curious..."
"I am. And I am not most people." His smile is lazy, and doesn't warm his eyes. "I lived until recently in Antiva City. My master was in financial straits, and sold my contract to Lord Claudio with the promise that he would buy it back if he could." Zevran glances around, at the small, walled courtyard with vine-covered walls, the fountain in the center providing soothing background noise. Beyond the walls, the noise of the city rumbles and hums. "I find this country altogether...damp."
"Have you traveled much outside of Antiva?" she asks, intrigued despite herself.
"Ah, no. A trip to Cumberland and Kirkwall, once, but I have largely lived in the confines of the most beautiful city in Thedas." His grin this time is swift and far more genuine. "The jewel of the desert. Nothing even remotely compares. Now, your story?"
"It's not nearly as interesting as yours." Isabela shrugs, then stretches out one leg, letting a slippered toe peek from beneath her silks. "Born and raised in the Glory." At his curious look, she adds, "Ratter's Glory. A shithole about a mile from the docks." Her voice roughens for a moment, takes on the growling cant of the Glory. She returns to "proper" tones with an effort of will. "My mother sold me to Luis when I was twelve. He wanted a young thing to train up right. And here I am." She gestures at the house with a sweep of her hand. "Lifted from the gutter, to this."
She forces it from her mind.
"And yet you are bored," Zevran says.
She looks at him, lifting her chin slightly. "And if I am?"
The lazy smile is back on his lips. "I assure you, Bela, that I can be entertaining, should you wish it."
"Mmm." She rises, brushing off her skirts, heartbeat pounding hard. She has never done anything like this before. I am Bela. I am fearless. And I am going to get out of here. "Second floor, the southern wing, the door at the end of the hallway." She gives the elf a slow, small smile. "Luis and Claudio will go out tonight. They will gamble and whore and not return until dawn."
She walks away, and does not look back.
The summer chorus of night insects is in full wail as they lie loosely intertwined, damp skin sticking to damp skin. "Ah, but you are delightful," Zevran murmurs, lips against her shoulder. "Your husband has no idea of the jewel he has in you."
Isabela snorts and shifts against him, stretching. "I look good in his silks and I open my legs for him whenever he wants. He cares about nothing else." One of Zevran's hands loosely cups one of her breasts. It had been something of a revelation to discover that the elf is apparently well-practiced in the art of bedsport, and even if he does not truly care about her pleasure, at least he has the grace to pretend. More than she ever gets from Luis.
Don't get attached, Isabela, she tells herself.
"Mmm." His breath is warm on her shoulder. "Have you ever thought about freeing yourself?"
She laughs. "Of course I have. But I can't just walk away. Luis would never stand for it, and I don't fancy becoming a fugitive from the Crows for the rest of my life." She runs her fingers through Zevran's short hair.
Zevran's voice is thoughtful. "What would you do, if you were free?"
She grins sharply, and rolls her hips. "I would take a fast ship and a few good men and women to sail her. I've studied Luis's trade enough to know where all the good shipping lanes are, and the best time of year to hit them." Her voice softens then, just a little. "There's a ship currently at the docks, one of Luis's named The Siren's Call. She's fast, she's shallow-drafted, and it wouldn't take more than six people to sail her properly."
He laughs and kisses her neck. "You would be a terror."
"I would be, wouldn't I?" The thought of the ship makes a tingle run down her spine. "Think of it. Freedom. Nobody telling me what to do."
"A dangerous ambition, for one married to a factor for the Antivan Crows."
She twitches the corner of her mouth. "And he is helping Claudio consolidate his power over the city, which I would think you know." She walks her fingers down his chest, draws a small circle over his stomach. "You have such nice lines down here. You should tattoo them."
He makes an amused noise. "For you, Bela, anything."
Isabela turns her head, and meets his eyes. "Anything? I like the sound of that. I could do worse than to have a Crow at my beck and call."
Zevran makes a surprised noise and draws back from her slightly. "You know?"
She tweaks the tip of his ear. "Claudio always has Crows as personal servants. One of the things Luis arranges for him." The look of dismay on Zevran's face is comical enough that she laughs. "I pay attention, Zev. It's how I survive." The dismay in his eyes melts into an appreciative look as she stretches, her hand sliding lower, curling around him. "And now, I'd like to go another round before Luis gets back."
He chuckles throatily, and complies.
The spring days wear on into summer. Isabela gets used to having Zevran around, as Luis is drawn deeper into Claudio's power grab. Finding time to slip off with one another is a challenge, under all the eyes of the house, and Luis is no fool.
"Let me show you something," Zevran murmurs one of the rare nights where they know they have until dawn together. Isabela is stretched out on the bed, the sheet under them tangled and twisted, Zev draped bonelessly against her.
She gives him a sidelong look. "Something else?" she asks, voice dropping to a purr.
Zev chuckles and reaches for one of her hands, cradling it palm-up. "It is useful at times to be able to speak silently, no? There is a code we are taught, to use when it is unsafe to speak." He draws a circle in her palm with his other hand. "This, for example, means all is well."
"Useful." She gives him half a grin in the dim. "And if things aren't going so well?"
Zev traces a zigzag line in her palm. "This is the sign for something not going according to plan, advising caution." Another sign, this one a cross. "This means all is lost, abandon the mission and regroup."
They go over other signs. It's a simple system, not capable of conveying too much information. But there are some very interesting signs. Zevran draws a curving line in her palm, wrist to the mounts of her fingers and back. "And that one?" she asks.
His smile in the dim is wide and brilliant. "That one is a proposition for bedsport."
Isabela laughs sharply and rolls against him, drawing the same curving line on his skin, framing the hollow of his throat. "That seems clear enough, doesn't it?" She meets his eyes as his hand comes up to the back of her neck, and pulls her down into a hard kiss.
She is demanding with him, digging in her nails, with every movement enforcing a subtle authority. You are mine. My weapon. His surrender is so complete that she suspects it's genuine.
The small, hard part of her that has seen her through years of captivity in this luxurious cage is pleased. Her body hums with pleasure. Anything else, she ignores.
After, Zevran's lips are at her ear. "I fear, my dear Bela, that you have quite stolen my heart away."
Isabela grins sharply. "So? You weren't using it."
He traces a design on her neck with one finger. "Cunning thief that you are, to steal something so worthless that none will miss it." He nips at her earlobe. "I must go."
She stretches, sleepy and satiated. He leaves behind a warm place in the bed that quickly cools and leaves no trace that he was ever there.
Isabela dreams of home.
Home is the smell of sewage and rotting flesh and the acrid taint of smoked resin. The heavy thud of a body hitting the wall and then the floor. Her mother's screaming. She scrambles through the streets endlessly, endlessly; there is no place to hide, so she must run. The streets of the Glory stretch out before her and she will never be free of them.
She knows she's dreaming in this wine-slurred sleep and still she cannot escape.
Something catches her shoulder and she strokes out at it, only to have her wrist caught as well. She pitches forward, trying to headbutt whoever has her.
That's not my name.
She opens her eyes to see Luis's face not half a foot from hers. She flinches away before she can stop herself, and he lets her go. "Pfaugh. Crawled into the bottle again, did you?"
"What do you want?" She gives him a hard look, or tries to. Her head is pounding and mazed with wine and sleep.
Luis rises from the bed. She'd thought he was handsome, once, but there's an ugly look in his eyes. "We're having a gathering two days from now. In the evening gallery."
There's something about his tone, something about the way he looks at her, that makes fear curdle in her gut. "We don't entertain in the evening gallery."
"We do. Or, more to the point, you do. Wife."
She takes a breath, her mouth falling open. "I-"
"If you're going to humiliate me, Isabela, you will do it in a manner that benefits me." He knows, the fear carols in her chest. "Get yourself cleaned up. You smell like the gutter."
He walks out of her room, and slams the door behind him. Isabela shoves herself upright, hands cradling her splitting head. There's no more time. She will not be Luis's whore; being his wife is bad enough.
She looks through her fingers at the heavily curtained window. Beyond that window, down at the docks, is a fast ship lying in harbor.
Wait for me a little longer, love. I'll be there soon.
There's no time to waste.
It surprises her how easy it is to look Zevran in the eye and say, "I want my husband dead."
Zev twitches an eyebrow, and then smiles. "Such things can be arranged."
"I can pay you," she tells him. She has no idea how much a murder costs, but surely there's something she can give him for this. She'd intended to wait a little longer, sell a few more things, but Luis has been suspicious of her and selling off the household's assets is a little more difficult under his watchful eye.
Zev's chuckle is lazy and dangerous. They're tucked in an alcove of the house, speaking in hushed voices. "I will give you this one for free, dear Bela."
She gives him a doubtful look. "Crows don't kill for free."
"Well. Let us say that it has already been paid for, then." He smiles slowly. "The timing is my gift to you."
She looks at him, the pieces falling together in her mind. You've been using me just as much as I've been using you. "Tonight," she says. "Two hours after sundown. My room."
He nods, and steps out of the alcove. A moment later, he's gone.
Luis comes to her bedroom that night, shoving the door open without knocking. "It is time, Is-"
Isabela lifts her head and gives him a nasty little smile. "Time for what, Luis?" Beside her on the bed, Zevran goes from relaxed to taut as a bowstring without changing his position even a hair.
The look on Luis's face is almost comical, shock sending him reeling. Isabela meets his eyes and holds them with hers, and Zev is abruptly no longer beside her. Between one heartbeat and the next, he retrieves a blade hidden just out of sight and leaps for Luis, moving like a great cat.
Zev cuts Luis's throat before he can make another sound.
Luis stumbles away, holding his throat with both hands, leaving Zev standing with his bare skin spattered with blood. "Go," she hisses at Zev, pointing at the window. "Go. Meet me later."
Zevran hesitates, giving her an odd look. Then he gives her just the barest nod and flees out the open window, not bothering to collect his clothing. Luis collapses against a side table, knocking a vase to the floor.
Isabela snatches up the sheet, presses it to her chest as she imagines most women would, and begins to scream.
Three hours later, she's holed up in a tattered room by the docks, pacing from doorpost to window, seven paces forward, seven back. Her heart is stuttering in her chest, hands shaking. She's so close. If only-
There's a breath of a breeze as the door opens, and she turns to see Zev in the doorway, leaning against the doorframe. He's wearing a too-big shirt and trousers with ragged hems, obviously stolen off of some clothesline, and there is still that odd look in his eyes.
She holds out a hand to him, and he steps forward.
They come together with a force that leaves Isabela breathless, wrapping their arms around each other so tightly. "You did it," she says. "I can't thank you enough."
Zev shifts a hand to caress her jaw, looking into her eyes. "You are leaving, then?"
"We sail at dawn," she tells him. It had been close, too close, and had cost her more coin than she'd wanted to spend, but she had a crew and the dockmaster would look the other way.
He makes a soft noise and kisses her lightly. "If you would like company on your journey, I find myself somewhat at loose ends," he murmurs, accent thicker than usual. "Should you wish me beside you...I would be. Until the end."
Her heart stops.
He means it, she knows. And for a moment she considers it, considers sailing with this man beside her. Perhaps even marrying him some day. It's a pretty picture. She almost wishes, for just that moment, that she could. That he could.
Neither of them are those people. Not now, probably not ever.
Isabela brushes her lips against Zevran's. "There are some things I have to do myself. But thank you."
"As you wish." There's a muted sort of heartbreak in his voice, and Isabela takes a shivering breath. "I must report. But perhaps I will come visit your ship, before dawn. One last bout before you sail, no?"
She gives him a small, warm smile. "Do that. I could use a good sendoff." Then she kisses him, making all sorts of promises with her lips and tongue and her body pressed against his. She releases him, and pats his rear end fondly. "Go on. I have things to do."
Zevran twitches the corner of his mouth. Then he turns and is gone.
She waits for a few minutes in the shadows by the windows. There's a scuffling commotion, then a loud voice that declares that they're taking Zevran in for the murder of a citizen. "Sorry," she murmurs as she crosses to the bed, changes out of her silks for a pair of trousers and a tight-laced shirt. She doesn't think Zevran will have much trouble escaping the guards, but it'll delay him until after midnight, when the tide turns.
By dawn, she'll be five hours out of port, far beyond his reach.
She stalks the shadowed docks, a pair of new daggers riding at her hips. The crew is busy on the deck of the Siren's Call, and she strides into their midst exactly as if she belongs there. They slip out of port not an hour later, leaving behind the Llomerryn docks and everything Isabela doesn't want to remember.
Mid-day, she retires to her cabin. There's a box resting on her bunk, made of polished wood. She raises an eyebrow and goes to pick up the folded note that rests on the lid.
I suspect you will turn down my offer, and I also suspect I will not see you again. I give you two final gifts: the contents of this box, and half of a contract that I will not complete. You were to be the other target.
I wish you all luck. Perhaps we will see one another again, some day.
She sets the note aside with numb hands, and opens the box.
Inside is a pair of boots, long-shafted enough that they will come up to her thighs when they're on. Buckles gleam against the leather. There's a smile playing around the corner of her mouth as she realizes she won't be able to wear them over her trousers.
She pulls off her trousers and pulls on the boots. They fit perfectly, made for her by someone who had access to an assassin who knows every curve of her legs. They are worth a king's ransom.
A king's ransom, or every last coin that a Crow might make from the murder of a high-ranking factor for a rival band of Crows.
Her shirt is long enough to cover precisely what is needful, and nothing else. She poses, grinning, and decides that this does indeed suit her very well indeed.
Isabela knows people who know people, and it's easy enough to keep tabs on an Antivan Crow who is fast becoming a rising star among his kind.
"Yer friend left the Crows," Yod tells her when she drinks with him in Cumberland. Yod's got one eye and breath that could kill a bronto at twelve paces, but he's well-connected. "Took a contract to kill some Grey Wardens in Ferelden. 'e surfaced a month later, traveling with them."
She snorts. "Pull the other one, Yod, go on. Even the Crows don't go against the Wardens. Especially when a Blight's brewing."
Yod snorts and squints his good eye. "Maker's own truth, gel. Hear there was some trouble in his cell. Some belldancer got herself dead. Rumor is that your friend was doin' her and killed her for some reason. Took the next contract that would get him out of Antiva."
Isabela raises an eyebrow. Crow Belldancers are near-legendary, and they don't just get themselves dead. "Yeah? I'd pay good coin for details."
"Can get those for you." He gives her a gap-toothed grin, face squinching up. "Got a guy in the same cell who talks to me a'times."
She grins and finishes her whiskey. "Good. Keep that seat warm for me, Yod. I've got itchy sails."
"Hear there's an ointment for that." He smirks. "Where you off to?"
"None of your business," she tells him.
Denerim, she thinks. There's probably a coin or two for an enterprising sort there, and she's been hearing chatter of Fereldans getting north while the getting is good. And if she happens to run into a certain assassin while she's there...well, wouldn't that be a coincidence?
She's getting into it with a trio of bruisers at the Pearl when she spots him.
Her first thought, as she narrowly dodges the knife the tall one swipes at her gut, is he grew out his hair.
She hands the bruisers their asses without bothering to draw it out like she usually does. They pick themselves up and scamper, and she sits back down at her table, considering the elf who is trying very hard not to look at her.
Zevran's acquired tattoos on one side of his face, and he's settled into that timeless age that elves seem to occupy from the time they are in their mid-twenties until they are sixty and suddenly old. His armor's good, as are the weapons he carries-longsword and dagger.
He's with a small woman who has a bright shock of white hair, another woman with an altogether too familiar grace, and a man who looks very uncomfortable indeed. Isabela watches them, not bothering to disguise her interest. The white-haired woman, she suspects, is in charge.
They don't speak to her. That time.
Zevran returns later, though, and sits down across from her. "I do not know why I was surprised to see you here," he says without preamble. "The tales of your exploits always put you in the middle of trouble, no?"
"Oh, you've been following my exploits, have you?" she purrs. "Are you going to introduce me to your friends, Zev?"
He chuckles. "Later, my dear Bela, later. For now..." He leans forward, puts his hand in hers, draws a long curve from wrist to fingers and back again. "Shall we have a drink, for old times' sake?"
Some time later, she traces the lines of the lower part of his belly. "You did get them tattooed. Zev, you are a sly dog."
He chuckles, sprawled with one arm draped over her. They're in her cabin, and Isabela feels the subtle motions of the Siren at rest. "I have been called such, yes. You liked the boots, I take it?"
Isabela laughs. "You knew I would. You also knew I was sailing before dawn."
"Mmm." He glances over at her, rueful. "You did not have to have me arrested, you know."
"I was being cautious." Isabela looks sidelong at him. "So tell me about these friends of yours. Which of them was the Warden?"
"The white-haired mage, and the long, uncomfortable fellow both," Zev says. There's a small smile on his face. "Should you meet them...be kind to the mage, no? She does get twitchy betimes."
She plays with one of his braids idly. "Oh? And is it true, what they say about Warden stamina?"
"I have not had the pleasure, alas." At Isabela's glance, Zev adds, "The two Wardens are involved."
Isabela gives a surprised snort, and then a laugh. "Oh, Zev. You have a crush, don't you?"
Rather than answer he rolls over and kisses her, and the conversation is over just as abruptly as it began.
He does not spend the night, returning to his Warden long before dawn. Bela sees him-and his Warden-a number of times before Sanga pays her to whisk a boatload of whores off to safe harbor, before the darkspawn get to Denerim.
She's well-pleased with the truth behind the rumors of Grey Warden stamina. She wonders if Zev will ever find out for himself.
The next time she sees him, they're just outside of Kirkwall, heading towards Sundermount. It's been almost eight years since they've seen each other.
Zev is carrying a little girl, perhaps five years old, down the rocky, dusty road. And as the girl stirs on his hip and points, Isabela gets the shock of her life to realize that the girl has Zev's blond hair and pointed chin. She's unmistakably his.
He turns and looks, and breaks into a wide smile. "Ah, Isabela! I had heard you were living in Kirkwall, but I did not expect to see you out here."
She's all too aware of Hawke's questioning look, but doesn't answer it. "And I heard you were just passing through."
Behind Isabela, Merrill makes an excited burble. "Is that your friend from Antiva? Oh, the little girl looks just like him!"
Zevran chuckles low. "And may I present my daughter, Cerys. Cerys, this is Isabela. And her friends."
Cerys's smile is an exact copy of her father's, and there are a thousand questions that Isabela can't ask here, not in front of Hawke and everyone. And there are secrets in Zev's eyes as he looks at her, inclining his head towards his daughter.
She laughs and strides forward, taking the child's hand. "It is good to meet you, Cerys."
Cerys shakes Bela's hand gravely. "I'bela," she says, and giggles.
Zevran takes Isabela's hand in his, and meets her gaze with a smile as he traces a circle in her palm.
All is well.
And as she traces a circle in his own palm, she glances over her shoulder at Hawke. When she looks back, his smile has deepened, and his hand tightens on hers.
"Perhaps," he murmurs, "we will come to visit."
Hawke sweeps in with a grin and Merrill flutters over the little girl, and behind them all is Varric, watching with a grin, probably making up some story that he'll tell later. Something terribly romantic about a retired assassin watching over his little girl.
There are moments when Isabela likes Varric's version of reality better than her own.
They're older now, and probably wiser. And as Zevran sets his daughter down and whispers something into her ear, love written in the lines of his body even if it does not show on his face, she wonders at how much changes, and how much stays the same.
A circle, drawn in a palm.
All is well.
So I'm cheating just a little with this story. This is my Zevran and solitae's Isabela, who are from two different versions of Thedas. However, they're also pretty much my Zev/Bela OTP. So this is what might have happened if we'd somehow managed to squish their realities together.