Z is for Zevran
[Author's Note: You may want to have the tissues handy for this one]
Cerys is in the foothills outside Markham, in a refugee camp-cum-resistance headquarters, when the message reaches her.
Come home, the note says. Papa's not doing well. It's not signed; it doesn't have to be. She knows Rhys's writing better than she does her own.
Cerys closes her eyes. Takes a breath. Lets it out.
She's curled up on her bedroll with the man she most often shares it with, his arm draped loosely over her. "I have to go," she says, softly. "Back to Nevarra. Home."
Torben nods, and tightens his arm over her. "The resistance—"
"Will do just fine without me," she snaps, then sighs. "Sorry."
"I was just going to say that," he says gently. Torben's used to her moods and her snappishness, and takes everything she throws at him in stride. It's one of the things she likes best about him. "Do you want me to come with you?"
Cerys folds the note and turns in his arms, curling into him. "Please," she murmurs. "Please."
He kisses her brow. "We can leave in the morning," he says.
She is twenty-four, and she's been a leader of the resistance for eight years. She's lost troops, she's lost friends, she's lost lovers. But to lose Papa, the last of her parents…
If she starts crying now, she won't stop till the border. So she swallows her tears down, dread heavy in her chest.
They arrive three weeks later at the little house at the edge of the woods. Rhys is outside, weeding the garden, and Wynne is sitting on the wall tinkering with one of her endless contraptions. It's no surprise that she feels them before she sees them; they were raised together, trained together, and their magics know one another probably even better than they do.
Rhys straightens and grins. "Ker! You made it!" Behind that smile is a shadow, felt more than seen, but Cerys puts a bright smile on her own face. "Wynnie was just wondering if you would."
Wynne snorts and hops off the wall. "I hate it when you call me that." She bounces over to Cerys, bright red curls flying, and wraps her up in a hard hug. "Good to see you. Who's this?"
"This is Torben, my…" She trails off. "Friend," she finishes, a little lamely.
Wynne isn't fooled. She winks at Cerys and bounces over to hug Torben, who looks surprised but tentatively hugs her back. "Well, greetings, Torben!" she crows. "Maker's Tits, you're about as big as Da!"
Somewhat to her horror, Cerys feels herself flush. "Now I remember why I don't come home much," she says dryly as she turns to hug Rhys.
Her big brother engulfs her in a hug. "That and you can't run a revolution from a cottage in the middle of nowhere."
"Too true. Where's Branwen?"
"Not here." Rhys shakes his head. "I thought she might be back by now, but no such luck."
Cerys lets out a long sigh. "How is Papa?"
Rhys's blue eyes dim, a shadow passing over them. "Not good," he says quietly. "Wynne thought he was going to go a week ago. I think he was hanging on till you got here. We're doing what we can, but he's in a lot of pain."
"I should go let him know I'm here," she says. "Could you show Torben to wherever we're bunking down?"
Rhys nods and lets her go, stepping back. "This way," he tells Torben. "I'm afraid you two are going to be sleeping in a glorified shed, but we're a little low on space at the moment."
Torben laughs. "If it has a roof that doesn't leak too much, it'll be better than anything I've slept in for the last two years!"
Wynne comes and stands next to Cerys as they watch the two men walk around the corner of the cottage and out of sight. "He seems nice," Wynne says. "Are you all right, Ker? You're skin and bones."
"It's just traveling does that to me, just like Mama," Cerys says. "I'll be fine. I should go in."
Her sister nods and steps back, retreating to the wall again. Cerys takes a breath, steels herself, and heads into the cottage.
There's a bed in the front room, and a fire built up despite the fact that the day is mild. There's a stool next to the bed. A drooping bouquet of wildflowers in a jar. Bundles of herbs hanging from the low rafters.
Papa is asleep, she thinks at first. But then he stirs, turns his head towards her, and opens his eyes. "Cerys," he says in a voice that retains the smooth accent of his native Antiva. "Mi tesora."
For a moment, she can't move. His eyes are sunken, cheeks hollow, his hair brittle and dull. But he smiles, and it's the same smile he's always had, and she crosses the room in a flash to wrap her arms around him, her heart twisting in her chest. "Papa," she says, and her voice cracks.
"Sssh," he says, and winds his arms around her briefly. "Sit, daughter, and tell me of your adventures. It has been some time, no?"
"Three years," she says. "I meant to come back to visit, but…" She lets him go and settles on the stool. "It was one thing after another."
"It always is, is it not?" He smiles again, and his eyes are warm. "Ah, little one. You remind me so much of your mother."
That warms her through, thaws the things frozen inside of her a little. "I brought someone for you to meet," she says. "His name's Torben. He's my…" She pauses, swallows. "My templar. My lover."
Papa's gaze is sharp on her, and then he chuckles, a bit weakly. "Ah, indeed. And that is not the only person you have brought back with you, is it?" He gives her midsection a sharp glance.
She's just gone scarlet, she knows. "I never could hide anything from you, Papa. How did you know?"
"A thousand little things," he says, and closes his eyes. "Ah, I am glad you have come. I hoped to see you once more."
She slides her hand into his, looking at his scarred knuckles, the outlines of his bones clearly visible through parchment-thin flesh. "Are they very sure there's nothing to be done?"
"They are." He doesn't open his eyes, but he tightens his hand on hers slightly. The fire pops and crackles. "I have lived long enough to see all three of you grown, and I fear that a life spent rendering oneself immune to poisons has a consequence or three. I will be sad to leave, little one, but I am looking forward to seeing your mother and Da once more."
Don't cry, Cerys tells herself. Don't cry, don't cry—
But the tears don't listen.
She ends up with her face against Papa's shoulder, sobbing, Papa's hand stroking her hair just like he used to when she was little and she would wake from nightmares.
When she stops crying, Papa tugs gently on a lock of her hair. "I am proud of you," he murmurs. "So very proud, my daughter."
They talk for a while, Cerys's throat and eyes aching, until Papa falls asleep mid-sentence. She slips out of the house, joins her siblings and Torben in the garden.
The perfume of late spring is heavy on the air. They silently pass a bottle of honey brandy between them, as the sun goes down and bats flutter, shrilling almost inaudibly, across the darkening sky.
"Yes, mi tesora?"
"When did you know that you loved Mama and Da?"
He lifts a hand to touch her cheek, and smiles, just a little. "Ah, little one, now that is a story…"
Papa slips away in the middle of the night two days later.
Typical, Cerys thinks, swiping the back of her hand across her eyes. Just like you, Papa, to make a clean getaway. She and Wynne have done what's necessary for the body. Rhys and Torben are out digging a grave.
Wynne leans against the edge of the kitchen table, dark circles under her eyes. "It's not fair," she whispers. "I can fix anything why couldn't I fix him? Why couldn't I fix the one thing that was important?"
Cerys pulls her sister into her arms, and Wynne buries her face in Cerys's shoulder and sobs. They sink down to the floor together, clear morning light streaming in through the window. Cerys holds onto Wynne, her own eyes dry and aching with tears she can't shed, not yet. Something inside of her is broken.
She sets her cheek against Wynne's flame-red hair. I miss you already, Papa.
Word gets out, somehow.
Over the next few weeks, visitors straggle in. Mama's cousin Etain arrives, and always next to him is the shadow of his husband Anders, dead these five years. Aunt Leliana and Aunt Amity come to visit as well. A woman named Isabela arrives and immediately gets into a fistfight with Etain, but ten minutes after Rhys and Cerys pull them off of each other they're passing a bottle of wine between them like old friends, which Cerys surmises that they are.
Uncle Jowan comes, and brings a small contingent of Fereldan Grey Wardens with him. He just shrugs when Cerys asks why they came. "Your father was a hero of the Blight," he says, glancing over at the Wardens he brought with him. "We honor his memory."
Cerys wakes up one morning and on her way to the outhouse spies Rhys and Branwen in the garden, wrapped up in each other's arms. She watches them for a moment, feeling something inside of her unwind. If Branwen is here, Rhys will be all right.
And then, one evening, Cerys takes a walk out to Papa's grave. She's got a bottle of unfermented cider in one hand—wine bothers her stomach now—and in her pocket is a little key. One last gift from Papa. She has no idea what it opens.
She settles down next to the grave, contemplates the grass shoots that are poking through the turned earth. "Your friend Isabela cheats at cards," she tells him. "I like her. I wish you were here to play one more hand of Wicked Grace. One more day. Maybe one more year."
There aren't words for how much she misses him, how much she misses Da and Mama. She bends her head, breathing out.
When she raises it, she is no longer alone.
The woman on the other side of the grave is whip-thin, face lined with years of sun and wind, hair grey-streaked. Cerys hasn't seen her since Da left for his Calling. "Morrigan," Cerys says. She hesitates. "Branwen is at the house."
"I know." Morrigan's eyes are hooded, but clear. "She is not who I came to see." She rounds Papa's grave with a smooth step, producing a small wooden box from her bag. "This is for you. I believe you have the key."
Cerys frowns, but accepts the box. "What is it?"
"Something your mother wished you to have." Morrigan's voice is filled with studied carelessness. "After King Alistair vanished, it and the promise that he made her were forgotten. I have retrieved it for you."
"Thank you," Cerys says, for lack of anything else to say.
Morrigan steps back. She glances at Papa's grave, and her mouth twists. "The world is a poorer place without Zevran in it," she says. "I am sorry."
Then she's gone. A raven beats its wings against the air and flies away.
Cerys digs the key out of her pocket and fits it into the lock on the box. It's full of letters and papers, and on top is a folded piece of parchment with For Cerys written on it in her mother's spiky, crabbed writing.
She unfolds the letter, and begins to read.
When she can't read any more because tears are blurring her vision, she sets the letter aside and puts her head down on her knees, shaking with sobs.
After a while Rhys is there, in his silver-striped cat form, pressing into her side and offering silent comfort. She rests her hand on his back. "Rhys." Her voice cracks. "I have something to tell you."
She's lying nose to nose with Torben, in the dark of the shed they've occupied since they arrived. After Papa died, there was enough room for them to stay in the house, but there's more privacy out here.
"We should go back soon," she tells him. "I think it's time."
"We can stay as long as you need," Torben says, and kisses her nose. "Let's not hurry off."
She breathes in. Breathes out. What do you mean you haven't told him yet, Rhys's voice echoes in her mind. Ker, you have to tell him. He needs to know.
"Torben…there's something…" She swallows. "What I mean to say is that I'm pregnant."
She feels him freeze, feels his breath stop and his arms tighten around her. "Is it…"
"Yours," she whispers. "I haven't been with anyone else in over a year."
It takes him a long moment to relax again. She shifts in his arms and he pulls her close. "I would marry you," he says, his lips against her hair. "If I thought you'd let me."
Cerys thinks about this, thinks about this man, her templar, who has been her rock for years. Who's seen the worst she has to dish out. Who loves her anyway.
Who she loves.
"I might," she says, and her voice hitches. "You've met my crazy family, and you'd still…"
Torben chuckles. "Yes," he tells her. "Yes. A thousand times, yes."
Cerys raises her head, finds his lips with her own. "We can talk about it in the morning," she murmurs. Then she kisses him, and for a long time they forget about anything else but each other.
They have an impromptu ceremony in the garden the next afternoon.
After the words are spoken and Cerys has kissed Torben most thoroughly, they turn to the onlookers—her family, their family—and raise their clasped hands to the sun.
This family, she thinks. These extraordinary people.
They lift her up to the light. She holds Torben's hand, and shines.