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The Warden and the Crow

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He lost track of her in the throng of battle, their dual blades spinning, fine Antivan craftsmanship that had saved lives and taken them in equal measure. Her absence didn’t trouble him, since she was the Hero of Fereldan and one of the most formidable assassins of the age. She could hold her own in a battle, and afterwards they would celebrate a job well done.

               A genlock screamed when Zevran buried his blade in its eye and yanked it back out. Yes, his paramour could hold her own, she could-

               Wait.

               Through the surging throngs of darkspawn he saw her figure halt, knives raised, as the arrow split the armor over her chest, appearing quick as lightning where there was no arrow before.

               She was falling, the ruby earring he’d given her glinting like a star.

               “Shae!”

               Another arrow sprouted from her shoulder, and he spotted the hurlock firing from an outcropping just above them. His knife spun through the air and the darkspawn fell, but another smelled blood and was already approaching Shae where she’d fallen to her knees. It raised its sword.

*

Earlier

“So Thedas once again has need of you,” he sighed, looking over her shoulder at the letter in his lover’s hands. The raven that delivered it was still perched on her wrist, talons digging into her lick leather glove, and it looked at Zevran with a familiar sort of menace. Something about Leliana’s birds was unmistakable, the spymaster’s touch evident in their training and behavior.

               “When doesn’t it?” she sighed, tone dark, the hand that held the letter tensing until stress lines appeared in the parchment, warping Leliana’s impeccable penmanship. “I suppose the search will have to wait.”

               “Mi amore, no- I can go-”

               “No.”

               There would be no negotiating on this then, he could tell. Tabris tore apart the letter and stomped it into the muddy earth until there was nothing left, then pulled the grey warden crest from around her neck. The raven stood perfectly still as she wound the necklace tight around its foot.

               “To your mistress,” she commanded. The raven launched into the sky and vanished in the upward grey clouds.

               Zevran placed a gentle hand on her shoulder and she finally let herself lean in, shoulders fitting against his like they were tailor-made for each other. She looked so tired.

               “You are sure? If Leliana knew what we are doing, she would understand if only I go,” he said. Tabris sighed.

               “The Inquisition is too important, Zevran, and you know she wouldn’t have asked if I wasn’t important.”

               “Curing the Calling is also important,” he pointed out, punctuating it with a kiss to her forehead, their complementary height meaning she had to duck slightly. It had the dual effect of hiding the sudden darkness that fell across her delicate features. “I do not fancy losing you to the Blight any time soon.”

               “You won’t. I have time, Zevran. We have time.”

               “Then indulge me?”

               She looked up at him with level eyes the color of heather, and he had to hold her gaze. Even after all this time she still amazed him, and their many years together only increased her fierce drive to protect what she considered hers. Their scattered friends from the first Blight, her mabari Aegis, the ring she still wore on a chain around her neck … so much duty for such slim shoulders, now the Inquisition added to it, while the Blight burned in her veins.

               His iron-willed lover. He wanted more than these past ten years with her; he wanted a lifetime. Which he was increasingly afraid he wouldn’t get, if Thedas kept pulling them away from each other.

               “Fine,” she said at last, squeezing his hand. “We’ll finish this lead, then go. Together.”

               Together, yes, together always, the Crow and the Warden.

*

“Together.”

               Aegis mauled a hurlock before it could get close to his mistress, and Zevran slipped between the legs of another, scissoring open rough grey flesh with a yell. He was finally at her side.

               “Shae? Mi amore?”

               Her braid was undone, brown hair in bloody tangles around her face, pale as a corpse as rain sluiced down her waxy cheeks, lips parted in a breath she couldn’t get past the arrow in her chest, her shoulder, lodged between her ribs, their thick shafts and black fletching as evil as the darkspawn that made them. When his hand came to brace her shoulder she swayed into him. That was when he saw the fourth arrow in her thigh.

               No. No no no no. They promised. Together always, always together.

               They found each other during the Blight, they fought an archdemon together, they took on the Antivan Crows, they rebuilt the Southern Wardens, they were going to find a cure for the Calling-

               Zevran hurled a knife into the chest of the last darkspawn and, as the blade sailed from his hand, felt absolutely nothing.

               “Shae…. Shae, you must stay with me. We have things to do and people to kill, remember?” he said as he methodically broke the arrow shafts so he could lean her against a nearby tree. “Thedas needs you.”

               Her breath came in short, panicked gasps. There was so much blood and it was still raining freely on them both, on the corpses of the darkspawn ambush Tabris had sensed and said they could handle.

               “Zev-ran…”

               “Stay awake!” he commanded. “Stay awake, Shae! I need you too, remember?”

               He got a tired almost-smile.

               “Promised not to- leave you.”

               “That’s right, and I’m not about to let you break a promise.”

*

Earlier

“I miss the good old days. Parties throughout the night, fine clothes, silk pillows, good pay, steady jobs… No dawkspawn trying to kill us,” Zevran mused as he picked his way across the rocks. Ahead of him Tabris did the same on feet just as light, though their training had been considerably different- alienages and the tutelage of assassins were both cruel in their own ways, though only one was intentional in growing adept murderers.

               “Darkspawn are always trying to kill me,” she called back. Then in one deft motion she pulled herself up on an outcropping and dropped her pack.

               “Soon we will change that,” Zevran said. Tabris looked away, but he could see her profile against the fading light and knew how hard she was trying to bury an expression of hope. There were precious few times when life was kind to either of them, though Zevran had learned to let his heart feel more than it had in early years. Tabris still hadn’t let down her great castle walls all the way. He only got glimpses- more, when they were with Wynne or Alistair, when they searched for Morrigan and found her briefly, only for Tabris’s heart to break again.

               “Maybe,” she murmured.

               Maybe. Zevran snorted. They would cure the Calling, whatever it took. They already had years of searching behind them and he was willing to give more. Anything to have more time with her. Even if it killed him, she could have a life. She deserved that much.

               She deserved everything.

               “Look!” her cry tore his attention, gaze skipping up her lithe form to where she pointed at the sky, a dark shape descending to alight upon her arm.

His heart sank.

*

“Don’t go, don’t go!” he begged. There was blood on his hands, on her blue and grey armor, and it was so hot leaving her body that it steamed in the frigid rain. “Cara mia, mi amore, Maker no…”

               Her breath came and went falteringly now. When he pressed a hand over her chest he could feel the staccato beat of her heart as it lost the battle. With his other hand he held up her face, pale as death, rain washing away the darkspawn blood even as he replaced it with her own, printed from his fingers.

               “Didn’t- l-lo-ok,” she coughed, followed by a cough that spit blood onto his forehead. “Faster. N-ext ti-i-ime-!” breaking off with a whine of pain, one of her hands lifted to scrabble at the arrow in her gut, but her twitching fingers only knocked it further into her flesh. There was a cut-off scream. He thought it was going to tear his heart to pieces.

               “Of course you will be,” Zevran murmured. “There is no-one faster than the great Shae Tabris, yes? But now you must not think of such things- just hold on, alright?”

               Shaking fingers brushed his cheek, following the lines of his tattoos. He could feel the blood left behind. She smiled weakly, lips drained of color. Her eyes looked like bruises. The tips of her ears were turning blue.

               “You’re a fighter.”

               He wanted to throw his head back and scream. He wanted to curl into her and muffle his sobs against her bleeding stomach. He wanted some numbing release from this feeling like shards of glass being pressed into his skin. Worse than any torture the Crows ever inflicted.

               “You’re a fighter.” He dug his knees into the ground, wrapped his arms around her, and lifted with all his strength. Even with her armor Tabris was light, but fatigue and heavy darkspawn arrows made her a burden while he also carried their pack. Maneuvering carefully, he let the pack fall to the earth and whistled for Aegis. “Carry this if you can, or stay and guard it, and I will return for you.”

               The mabari looked at his mistress and whined, but Zevran was already moving, not turning to see if the hound would follow.

*

He carried her all the way to the nearest village, terrified, her blood soaking his leather armor, each movement of her body digging the arrows deeper into her flesh, each drop of rain catching cold into them. He needed her to live. He needed her to live.

               Cara mia, blessed Andraste, do not take her from me.

               Rain slipped over her closed eyes and beaded in her lashes. Blood drip drip dripped in a river behind them. Aegis whined, nudging his mistress’ limp hand, paying no mind to the fact that he was carrying both their packs.

               Lights in the distance, silhouettes in the dark, and Zevran was running, pounding on a door with his boot, the sign of a crown and bone swinging above him.

               “Maledizione! Open up, you dog-lord-”

               “What’s all the racket?” the inn door swung open, an old woman peering out in the rainy night until her gaze fell on Zevran and the dying woman in his arms. “Oh no- I don’t want no trouble-”

               “This is the Warden-Commander of Fereldan, Hero of the Fifth Blight, and if you don’t help her I swear I will send you to the Maker myself,” Zevran spat. He was shaking but his voice, miraculously, was steady, and he watched as the old woman realized just what armor Tabris was wearing.

               “Gryff, fetch the apothecary!” she cried, ushering Zevran inside and quickly closing the door.

               The inn was warm and smelled like hardy Fereldan food, a few people milling about drinking, talking, one absently strumming a lute in the other corner by the fire. It was as far removed from the battle and storm outside, so peaceful it made Zevran want to scream.

               “Don’t just stand there- go!” the woman yelled to the boy sitting by the fire. “This is the Hero of Fereldan bleeding out in my inn!”

               She led Zevran up the stairs to a small room and hastily motioned for him to set her on the bed, hands shaking eyes wide. Tabris’s braid slipped to the floor, and her face turned to the light as she let out a small moan. The innkeep gasped, reaching to touch the grey warden crest over her heart.

               “Maker preserve me… it is her,” she breathed. Zevran rounded on her.

               “It won’t be if you keep staring!” he snapped. “She is dying you foolish-”

               “Is it true?” Another voice, the slam of the door, a figure towering, a tall woman with Chasind tattoos on each cheek and a satchel thrown over her shoulders.

               After that, it was all a blur.

*

Fever had ravaged her body, draining her face of color and alternately flushing it red as the blood that continually stained her bandages. The apothecary had done all she could- now Zevran could only wait, and pray to the Maker that this was not the end.

               It couldn’t happen like this- loud and slow and undignified. This wasn’t how Heroes were supposed to die.

               “Nel-ros…” the name dragged from her lips and hit Zevran like a knife to the chest. “Ne-el-ro-os…” It was barely there, she was so weak, more a feeble push of sound than a true articulation past chapped lips, waxy face twitching back and forth, hair stuck to her forehead with sweat. Her hand tightened in his and loosened.

               Nelros.

               Zevran could still remember the day she finally told him about how she was recruited to the wardens, explained the ring she never took off the chain around her neck. The whole miserable business of it, which once had been hers to carry, had become their shared burden. But she was trapped in the Fade, tormented by nightmares, and there was nothing he could do to help her.

               “Mi amore, come back,” he murmured, kissing her hand, pressing it between his own. The little inn room felt so small with just the two of them, and at the same time impossibly vast. It was too much for him, the thought of her slipping away. Now. Here. “Come back to me.”

               “My father and I were well off, as far as alienages go, so when it came time for me to marry he was able to secure a blacksmith’s apprentice from Highever. I would have to leave Denerim after the wedding, of course, but we both knew that Highever’s alienage was safer, and with a husband I would have a chance at safety,” she explains, turning the ring back and forth in her hands and not looking at Zevran, hazel eyes lingering just over his shoulder at something inconsequential.

               He’s never see her look so remote before. Then, she’s never spoken of her past before, either. Not during the Blight, not while she rebuilt Amaranthine and he took on the Crows, not even in the months following their reunion in Antiva when she officially left the Grey Wardens. He isn’t sure what makes today special, but he isn’t going to risk a question that might spook her. He knows a thing or two about troubled pasts.

               “The day came, and I… I didn’t know what to feel. I had packed my last keepsakes of my mother’s, I was wearing a brand new dress, the nicest thing I’d ever owned… when my cousin Shianni told me that my betrothed had arrived, and that he was handsome, I think… I felt hope. He was kind, even though we were strangers. He promised that he would spend his whole life making sure I was happy…”

               “The ring you wear- it was his?” Zevran asks gently. The golden circle stills in her hands, and her eyes fall shut with a sigh.

               “Yes. He never got the chance to give it to me.”

               “What happened?”

               She looks at him squarely this time, and doesn’t flinch at a single, horrifying detail, though as each word falls Zevran suddenly feels his understanding of his lover grow as it never has before.

               “The son of the arl, Vaughn”- a name said with enough poison to kill a high dragon- “decided to seek some fun in the alienage. He took me, he took Shianni, he took my cousin Soris’ betrothed, and another girl, and we were powerless to stop him. I didn’t even try to fight back- I told him we’d come quietly, because I didn’t want to see anyone get hurt.”

               The idea of his paramour going quietly with anyone, especially a shemlen man, is more foreign than the idea of kissing a darkspawn.

               “His guards killed one girl, Nola, because she couldn’t stop weeping. He raped Shianni. And when Soris and Nelros came to rescue us, Nelros was cut down like he meant nothing. I could only stop long enough to take his sword, and… find the ring. He risked everything to rescue a stranger, and he died for it.”

               “Vaughn?”

               “Dead. I cut his throat, and his guards, and I was ready to fight my way out of Denerim when Duncan saved me from justice and recruited me. Vaughn is the first man I ever killed. I don’t regret it.”

               His fearsome, iron-willed Shae, widowed before her wedding even happened, had clung on to the hatred she felt for Vaughn, and the righteous fury for those he hurt, and never let them go. Even now he could see that dark history flash behind her eyes each time she killed a mark or a darkspawn. Knowing where she came from had only opened his eyes to why she was the way she was, why it had taken so long for her to trust him, and why she wore the ruby-gold earring he’d given her like it was more precious than any marriage certificate.

               No, he didn’t begrudge Nelros a place in Tabris’s heart, the poor fool. If it hadn’t been for his bravery Zevran might never have met Tabris, and she never would have grown into the lion she is.

               He hadn’t prayed in so long.

               “Blessed are those who stand before the corrupt and the wicked and do not falter- blessed are the peacekeepers…”

*

When she woke, he quickly cleaned his face of tear tracks, took her hands, and smiled as though she had only been taking a nap, and not dying.

               As though his heart didn’t break each time her breath hesitated, or her face paled. As though he barely noticed at all that she was gone.

               “Good morning,” he murmured, resting a hand gently against her wasted cheek. She sighed. Smiled. Leaned in.

               “I’m glad it wasn’t all a dream.”

               “Hm?”

               She blinked and her green eyes were big as the moon fading outside. When she shifted she winced and settled down again.

               “I thought I was about to wake up in a cell for the murder of a noble. That Duncan, and the Blight…” she trailed off, eyes growing dim as she sighed deeper into the bed. She was wearier than Zevran had ever seen her.

               “It was not a dream,” he murmured, and kissed her hand, clutched between his own perhaps tighter than it should have been.

               “No,” she smiled. “I don’t think I ever could have dreamed you.”

               “I’m too devilishly handsome, even for your imagination.” He winced salaciously and was gratified by her laugh, though it stopped as soon as it began when she gave a bit-off yell of pain and pressed a hand over her ribs.

               “You’re a pain in my arse, is what you are,” she panted. He kissed her hand again, then reached out to push a tendril of her hair behind one pointed ear, fingers brushing the ruby earring.

               “But I’m yours.”

               “I don’t think I could get rid of you if I tried.”

               “Hey! I saved your life, you know,” he said indignantly. It earned him another smile- he’d tell as many stupid, self-deprecating jokes about himself as it took if they could keep her smiling.

               “You did.” She reached up with her free hand and traced the tattoo on his cheek, a wistful look in her eyes. “I love you, Zevran.”

               He was floored.

               I love you.

               He could count on one hand the number of time he had heard that from her, though he said it all the time, as much as he could, perhaps to a ridiculous degree.

               “Shae,” he said grimly, leaning forward, pressing his thumb into her cheek, feeling involuntary tears well up- Maker, this was embarrassing, but he didn’t care, he didn’t have to hide emotions anymore and he would never hide them from her, not when she needed him to be there. “I will always be here for you, even in your dreams I will find you, you understand? I would storm the gates of the Black City itself to bring you back to me.”

               “Showoff,” she muttered, but two glittering tears still slipped down from her cheeks, and he knew they were as much from the pain of her wounds as anything he’d said but it still made his chest ache. They had been so close- so close, to losing each other. The shadow of death lingered too close for comfort, and they were the kind of people who regularly toyed with death.

               “Incurable, I’m afraid,” he grinned. Then he rested his head on the side of the bed, right next to her side, and tucked her hands against his chest. They breathed quietly for a moment, before she freed one hand and rested it gently on his head.

               “Stay with me,” she said, so low he could barely hear. “Please.”

               He closed his eyes.

               “Always.”