Kaylee opened the door to her apartments and closed it swiftly behind her, hoping she had left unnoticed. When she did not hear footsteps following her in the hall, she sighed in relief. She was in no shape for these long, brutally exhausting ball nights anymore. Her feet hurt like crazy in the new shoes Leliana chose for her, and the corset of her ball gown was pressing uncomfortably on the sore wound on her back, a last parting gift from the Archdemon.
She tried to pull at the laces maintaining the torture instrument in place, but they were too high up her back. But then, small deft hands were tugging at the corset, untying the knots.
“Thank the Maker for you, Denala,” she sighed, as she let her chambermaid undo the back of her dress. This she did miss.
In no time, the laces were gone and her back was free. She took in a very deep, very satisfying breath, that caught in her throat when she felt her maid’s hands slide slowly under the fabric of the dress and around her waist, to gently caress her belly. Warm lips pressed against the curve of her neck. She whirled:
“Did you know,” he said, perfectly at ease, as if he was continuing a conversation they were having, “that it is shockingly easy to get inside the future queen’s room? She would be an all-too easy target for assassination. You know, if someone was of such a mind.”
“When I didn’t see you downstairs, I thought… I thought you were gone already.”
“Without saying goodbye? How little you must think of me.” He was walking around the room, sliding his fingers on the furniture, taking the little decorative figurines, examining them and putting them back. “Were you sad, at least?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Ah, so things are brightening up already. Good.” He finally sat on the bed and prompted himself against the pillows, crossing his boots on the beautifully woven linen. “I am here, my beautiful Grey Warden, because we have some unfinished business together.”
“Oh, so you are here to kill me,” she said playfully, trying to keep the front of her bodice from falling out, and ending up holding it with two hands on her breasts. Zevran smiled mockingly.
“Oh, and such a delectable target you’d be right now, if that were the case. But lucky for you, we are way past that now, don’t you agree?”
“All right then,” she said, sitting by the foot of the bed. “What’s on your mind?”
“I’m here about my oath.”
“I told you when Taliesen died. I released you from it. You chose to stay.”
“Yes. And what if I chose to do it again?”
“Of course, you can stay,” she said surprised. “Haven’t I been clear on this?”
“Yes, yes, but if I so choose, what is in store for me? For the both of us?”
“What does that mean?” she said, her eyes confused.
“Will you continue to keep me on the side, to comfort you when things get bad with the husband? Will we be friends with much appreciated benefits? Or will I become one of your employees, no more fit to lay eyes on you than the elf who fetch your things?”
“Zevran!” she exclaimed, horrified. “How can you say such things?”
“Aren’t they true?” he asked, leaning towards her. “Isn’t that what you do? Come cry on the assassin’s shoulder when things with the bastard king do not go your way, then jump back in his arms when the sun shines again?”
She stared at him, wordless, for a while:
“Mm…maybe,” she finally staggered.
“Ah!” he exulted, leaning back on the pillows. “So you are finally honest with yourself.”
“Well, in all honesty… I… never talked about it with you because you always made it very clear to me you came with no strings attached. I never thought you minded.”
“I minded!” he shouted at her. “I mind! I care!” He got up in one swift movement and took a step towards her. “And you knew! Do not lie to me! You know how I feel about you!”
“It seems I don’t, really,” she said, her voice surprisingly calm. “How do you feel about me, Zevran?”
“I… I…” He gestured helplessly. “I care for you. I respect you. I lust for you.”
She sat there and looked at him, silent.
“Don’t you see… don’t you see what I want to say?”
“Oh yes. It’s becoming quite clear now. You think you’re in love with me.”
“What? No! No, I don’t think!”
“But you’re not.”
“How could you say that? How would you know? What makes you say that?”
“Well, for one thing, you can’t bring yourself to say the actual words.”
“I… I…” He took in a deep breath. “I…”
She waited, witnessing his silent struggle for words.
“I told you about this already,” he finally said. “In the Crows, I was trained to bury my feelings, to shield myself against the weakness of love and friendship.”
“And any minute now,” she said, almost cruelly, “this excuse is going to stop working. If you had real love for me,” she continued in a more gentle tone, “I can understand it would be difficult to say. But if you were actually trying to say it, like right now, you would not be able to keep it inside. Those three words, they would want to burst out of you.”
“This is not true. My feelings… I do not express them this way. Ever. This… this is not how I work.”
“What you are feeling, you think it is love, because it is the first thing you have let your heart feel since… well, for a long time. But it is not. Come. Sit.”
She led him to a loveseat in a corner of the room. He sank in as if all strength had left his body.
“This is not going the way I imagined it would,” he mumbled. She took place beside him.
“You feel grateful, because I spared your life, and then I gave it meaning, with a mission you found worthwhile. You also feel grateful because I’ve shown trust in you when you thought nobody ever would again. You feel close to me because I’ve shared with you some of my most intimate secrets, and so have you. You respect me because of what I have accomplished, and because you know what it cost me. How am I doing so far?”
“Surprisingly well. I’m beginning to think I should ask you to sweep yourself off your feet instead.”
“But this isn’t love, Zevran. We are so thoroughly different on things that matter that it can never be.”
“We are not that different,” he protested.
“Oh, but we really are. I do kill, I am even pretty good at it, but I don’t enjoy it. I do it because it is necessary. You do not.”
“This is not entirely true, surely.”
“Well, I did not kill you when we first met, and you were an assassin trying to kill me. I think this speaks for itself.”
“But you took Ignacio’s contracts.”
She looked away.
“It was necessary… to get the Crows off my back.”
“You’re lying to me,” he said with some surprise. “Why did you do it?”
She sat still for a moment before meeting his eyes again:
“I did it for you. Because I thought they could be convinced not to come after you anymore. I wanted you to be free of them. I gave Ignacio a lot more power within the Crows than he deserved, I guess. I only learned afterwards that… that it did not make a bit of difference.” Her lips were trembling. “So yes… maybe sometimes I kill and it is not necessary. But I don’t enjoy it.”
He stared at her, speechless, for a while.
“It is not enough,” he said at lenght. “It does not mean I do not feel what I feel.”
“These feelings you think you have, I understand why you are trying to cling to them. Because they are safe.”
“Safe?” he scoffed.
“Yes. It makes you feel safe to know that I will not respond to them, that I won’t feel the same. Because it prevents you from really falling in love with someone else. Someone who can love you back. Someone you can really let in, even if it means giving her the power to betray you, to hurt you again.”
“This …proves nothing,” he said, but his voice was unsteady.
“All right, then. Would you be willing to play a game?”
“I like games,” he said with a grin. “What kind of games are we talking here? Naked games, perhaps?”
“Close your eyes.” He did, still smiling. “Now think about me.”
“Mmm, I like where this is going already.”
“No, no, no talking. Just think about me. About the things you like about me.” She waited.
“Do you see me now? In your mind?”
“Yes,” he said, his smile wide.
“All right. Now, you’re going to think…” she stopped, hating herself for being the one to twist this knife in his heart. She swallowed, then continued: “… about Rinna.”
His smile disappeared then.
“This is not funny,” he murmured.
“It’s not supposed to be. Just do it. Think about her. About the curve of her cheek, the hollow of her neck, the way she smiled when she saw you. The way her lips felt under yours. The way she held your hand when she thought no one was watching. The way she touched you…”
Two tears glided soundlessly across Zevran’s face.
“Open your eyes,” she whispered, and he did. Her face was mere inches from his.
“Kiss me,” she urged him. He leaned in, put his lips on hers. But when he closed his eyes to savour the sensation, Rinna was there, with her smile and her laugh and her touch, and he felt… nothing. Empty.
He backed away suddenly and stared at her. She smiled sadly.
“I am so sorry. I had to make you understand…”
He got up abruptly and almost run to the door, swinging it open. In the doorway, he paused, then turned towards her. She hadn’t moved.
“You were right,” he said, and he sounded more surprised than angry.