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not pure, like sugarcane (sweeter)

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“I wasn't always around/ When we felt so low down./ She was your shoulder you cried on/ When I weighed you down./ Not pure like sugarcane. . . ./ Sweeter./ She was so sweet when you were alone./ Sweet and low.”

Tedeschi Trucks Band, “Sweet And Low”

 

~#~

 

 

Harvestmere, 9:46DA; Soldier’s Peak Fortress

 

The marvelous make of and craftsmanship gone into the longsword is such that, for precious minutes, Carver Hawke loses track of everything: the world, its woes . . . even himself.

 

Despite the blustery-dry chill of Soldier’s Peak during late autumn, the crisp air has softened, growing almost weighty with the as-yet-faint promise of future snow. But that scent isn’t remotely strong enough to compete with the pervasive, homey, safe scents whipped around by the fall bluster: woodsmoke, tanning, roasted meat and stews, baked goods, and molten metal.

 

Collectively, the scents of civilization. Of humanity.

 

After weeks of travel to get here—at his companion’s insistence and impatience to be here at exactly this part of Harvestmere—Carver’s entire soul breathes a welcome sigh of relief. For as much as he enjoys their travels, he’d enjoy them a lot less if they weren’t leavened now and then, with rest-and-recovery stops for a week or two, here and there, between their destinations.

 

Above him stretches a pale, midafternoon sky with heavy-looking, pearl-gray clouds scudding in that makes him even more grateful for their upcoming respite than he’d usually be. Snows this far north in Northern Ferelden tend to not be as sudden, frequent, and precipitous as in South Reach, and the other Hinterlands and Wilds-adjacent arlings where he’d spent his childhood. But once clouds with that heavy-gray look move in to set a spell—and with no wind persistent and powerful enough to drive them right back out—that could mean weeks of intermittent, steady snows.

 

And it must surely be worse in the mountains. Isn’t it always? Carver has supposed several times already, on their journey to the Peak. He had also quickly accepted that he was very likely to find out for sure, either way.

 

Now, however, he’s even forgotten to breathe in that air of homey civilization and safety, or so he realizes when rangy, layered arms slide around his waist and a rangy, layered body presses against his back . . . causing him to gasp and groan at the instant and unabated thrill of contact, still so intense after all this time.

 

More than intense enough to distract from the longsword, even.

 

His relaxation into that bracing-keeping, steady-sturdy hold is also instant—automatic. Unquestioning.

 

Thankful.

 

“These southern climes, 1mio caro, are ridiculous,” Zev grumbles into Carver’s right shoulder then huffs. “Of all the times for you to wander off in a market—ridiculous, too. I’ve been searching high and low for hours.”

 

“Hours?” Carver asks drily, letting himself be once more enrapt by the longsword, barely noticing that its purveyor—and purveyor of other finely made weapons and armor, in the largest stall at Soldier’s Peak Market—is watching him with solemn curiosity. “Are you quite sure, Zev?”

 

“Well. . . .”

 

“And isn’t the High and Low that inn you’ve been nonstop about since before we took ship at Antiva City?”

 

Zev hems and haws a little, clutching at Carver’s waist a bit tighter, then concedes defeat to both questions with a fond chuckle. “Yes, to both your queries, my comely companion. And I did manage to secure us a fine private room, now that you mention it. One of the last. And Levi still stocks my favorite Rivaini fernet—he’s a truly gracious host, even after so many years.”

 

“Hmm. Almost fifteen years, you mentioned?”

 

“Yes,” is Zev’s easy, but unusually sober and unadorned reply. Carver doesn’t probe for details, out of long habit. As ever, he tells himself that if and when Zev wants to talk about his last visit here, and the circumstances surrounding it, Zev would and will bring it up, himself.

 

In his own time, no matter Carver’s nudging or lack thereof.

 

Though, that time has yet to even hint at, let alone suggest itself.

 

“If anything, Soldier’s Peak is even colder than my memories and fear have painted it. But it has certainly grown into a prosperous settlement. The Dryden name is hardly a millstone, any longer,” he finally adds, sounding pleased if bemused. Then reluctant and nostalgic, as he goes on: “To see this would have made . . . would have made the Hero of Ferelden proud and very happy.”

 

Recalling that the Hero, Warden Mahariel, had been widely rumored to have been the one to clear the demons, abominations, and apostates from the old Grey Warden fortress in which they stand, Carver nods—spares a moment to remember the Hero to Andraste and the Maker . . . and to Mythal and whatever other Dalish gods might be eavesdropping—then sends a friendly smile to the smith minding the well-stocked arms stall. Said smith returns it with a polite, barely there-curve of his thin mouth. But his weathered face creases into a veritable roadmap of lines, nonetheless.

 

“Certainly, if this market boasts other goods of such fine quality as its arms. That’s a remarkable instrument, serah,” Carver says, nodding at the longsword. The smith doesn’t even turn to see which instrument is being praised, unsurprisingly. For, though all his wares are excellent, the longsword is a true masterwork: striking and matchless.

 

“Aye. ‘Twas made for a remarkable warrior. One of the Maker’s Own Champions,” the smith replies succinctly, but with grave respect and humility. And before Carver can ask who this remarkable warrior was—wondering if the sword might have been made for some famous name he recognizes: Ameridan, or Garahel, or possibly Calenhad . . . or for the Hero, Warden Mahariel, himself—Zev leans around him.

 

“Hmm, indeed. And of all the weapons Warden Mahariel claimed or won, this one was truly his equal in every way,” he agrees, and the smith nods at him, his dark eyes crinkling and his small smile widening.

 

“Aye. Welcome back, Serah Arainai,” he says, plain and sincere.

 

Carver’s still in the midst of being mildly surprised this smith knows his lover—not to mention far more than mildly shocked that the sword he’s been admiring had, in fact, belonged to the Hero . . . though it likely hadn’t been the one he’d used to slay the Archdemon, Urthemiel—when Zev laughs, long and delighted. Relieved and abashed.

 

This man—this market . . . Soldier’s Peak—is a bit of Zev’s mostly shrouded past. A clearly significant part to surprise all the guile and carefully constructed charm out of Zevran Arainai’s manner. Even if only for a brief time.

 

As ever, curiosity burns at Carver, as well as a familiar, increasingly keen ache. A nagging sense of having yet again failed: to earn confidence and trust, and to be good enough in general.

 

But, also as ever, Carver quashes the old instinct for self-castigation, self-centeredness, and self-pity. He suspects it’ll never be easy, but it has gotten easier over the years with rigorous and regular practice.

 

Zev’s past is his own—his to tell me or not, in his own time. His entire life, even since I’ve become a part of it isn’t about me, so the parts before he met me certainly aren’t. And I won’t fall back into my old ways and try to make his entire life about me, just so that something will be. Biting back a sigh, Carver remains doggedly resolute. It’s a Hawke-specialty, and Carver, as the last Hawke, now has to shoulder all of that virtue. In time, he’ll trust me enough and be comfortable enough. Be ready enough. And maybe, I’ll even be good enough. In time. . . .

 

But Carver’s been telling himself that for almost three years. The only thing wearing thinner than his faith, belief, and optimism, is his patience.

 

“. . . we come bearing you stoic, winter-loving Drydens balmy greetings from many far more temperate places!” Zev is exclaiming with his usual bombast and bonhomie back in place. But as he lets go of Carver (who immediately misses the warmth and a feeling of belonging like he’d never known before meeting Zevran Arainai) and steps closer to the counter and the longsword catches his eyes, it’s all he has eyes for, and his amusing blatherskite instantly, unexpectedly dries up. “Not that I expected otherwise, but . . . you’ve cared for her well, Mikhael. She . . . looks as she did on the day you presented her to him. I’m amazed no one has yet offered whatever price you’ve placed on her.”

 

The smith, Mikhael, snorts quietly. “Warden Mahariel’s sword isn’t for sale. Never has been and never will be, as long as there’s a smith with integrity left in the Dryden family,” he vows.

 

For nearly a minute Zev says nothing, merely stands there, swaying a little, before squaring up, ramrod-straight. “Yes, well. That’s, ah . . . quite decent of you, Mikhael. And a far more fitting tribute to him than that hideously austere extravagance at Weisshaupt they have the gall to call a memorial. These Anders and their intimidating piles of grimly rendered stone. Pah!” He clears his throat, sniffs, and tugs his thick, woolen hat down even lower—and his woolen tunic collar higher—until surely only his bright, brass-colored eyes and the narrow swatch of lightly wind-burned skin they sit in are visible.

 

Carver, meanwhile, gapes at his fidgeting, fussing lover. “You . . . you knew the Warden?” he asks, glancing back at the longsword with more awe than before. “And . . . this sword was definitely his?”

 

“Made it for him, myself, aye. With a chunk of ore he’d found, that’d crashed to Thedas from the sky,” Mikhael clarifies, nodding. “Never seen its like, before or since. Malleable and easy enough to work, once it’s at the right temperature. But once it’s cast and tempered, it’s done, unless you want to smelt the metal beyond all usefulness. Destroy it. This star-metal’s only ever been one thing and will only ever be that one thing. This sword. The only thing it could be changed to is just another a hunk of metal again . . . though I hope I don’t live to see such a dark, Maker-forsaken day, as Starfang’s ruin.”

 

Carver looks away from the shuddering smith as he wards himself with understated fervor, and he stuffs down his urgent questions for Zev, as always . . . though, this time, only until the privacy of their reserved room, rather than who-knows-when. Anyway, the longsword is clearly a far more solvable study, and worth turning back to. Even before knowing that it had been one of the Hero’s weapons, Carver wouldn’t have turned his nose up at the chance of wielding such a magnificent blade. But with such a history behind her . . . knowing that this blade is as legendary as her former wielder ignites a strange, quiet fire in Carver’s gut and soul.

 

Of course, it does. But this blade is far too legendary for the likes Carver Hawke. Of course: former soldier, former smuggler, former mercenary, and former Templar . . . and currently a wandering hire-sword with a freelance assassin for a lover. None of which is the stuff of great tales, let alone legends. But a man can certainly dream. And though he’s always naturally excelled at wielding two-handed weapons—such as greatswords, war-axes and war-hammers, and mauls—his Templar training and regimens, with which he still keeps up, has ensured he knows his way around one-handed weapons, as well. Not to mention the usually accompanying off-hand weapon, such as a shield or shortblade.

 

Even though the Warden had used a longsword and various bucklers almost exclusively—which everyone knows—that had been according to his facility and fighting-style (that of a defender), not a lack of sufficient might and stamina. Just so, Carver’s affinity for two-handed weapons is no indication of his own precision and skill with single-handed weapons, simply his preferred do-or-die, juggernaut fighting-style.

 

“Might I . . . might I, perhaps . . . hold her?” Carver hears himself ask in a voice that’s soft and beseeching. The gleam of her is . . . enthralling, but he drags his gaze back to Mikhael. “I won’t insult you by making a monetary offer to do so, serah, but I do ask with humility and reverence for this simple, but momentous kindness.”

 

Mikhael almost frowns for a few moments. Opens his mouth . . . huffs softly, then closes his mouth and almost smiles as he turns to reach for the longsword.

 

“Carver, caro,” Zev murmurs, soft, but heavy . . . warning. Carver’s already stepping forward while removing his thick mittens, however, and has been moving since Mikhael half-smiled.

 

In seconds, he’s taking the longsword by the hilt and the flat of the blade. Both seem unusually warm, for metal left out in sub-freezing, Ferelden almost-winter temperatures for most of a day. Carver can’t imagine how that’s even possible.

 

Not that he’s focused on anything beyond the feel of her in his hands. So great and grave and winnowed is that focus and concentration that for several drawn-out moments, Carver goes abominably dizzy, staggering a bit to his right. Into Zev, who wraps those rangy arms back around Carver’s waist and bears him up with a strength and ease and steadiness that are as reassuring and familiar as they are surprising and impressive.

 

Caro—what is it? Are you all right?” Zev murmurs with such warmth and concern, but threaded through with tension. Carver hears it as if Zev’s at the top of a long, stone well, and he, himself, is at the bottom. It seems to echo and fade even as Zev speaks.

 

So does the rest of the spinning, now-trebled world, going gray, then monotone, then dark . . . before suddenly reappearing: still, singular, in-focus, and bright and brightly colored.

 

Well. Brightly colored for a Ferelden winter, anyway.

 

Blinking, Carver straightens, his numbed, chilled fingers and hand grasping the sword tighter. As he blinks and looks around himself, first at Zev then at Mikhael, he smiles, a bit puzzled and chagrined, then shrugs.

 

“I beg your pardon, what were we talking about? I came over a bit disoriented for a few moments and lost the plot,” he apologizes, then chuckles. “Right! You were letting me hold this gorgeous scimitar for a few moments, so I could eat my heart out!”

 

So saying, Carver sighs, then raises the large, wicked-curved blade with a swash-y, one-handed flourish, lost for a few moments in the gleam of her which, he imagines, no one could ever find less than stirring. For a few silly moments, he wants more than anything to use this blade—to wield it. To have the purpose that would bestow the determination to use this blade to change what needs changing . . . whether it’s a village or a county or all of Thedas.

 

“I suppose that’s how the heroes’ journeys always begin. A sense of purpose, determination, awakened or amplified by a special or even destined tool that helps them realize it,” Carver muses, thinking of a different champion than the Warden. Thinking of the Champion of Kirkwall, his late sister, Marian Hawke. Of the change in her when she’d first acquired a staff that’d truly matched her affinities and amplified them. Amplified her. . . .

 

(He’d never personally seen such a gamechanger as Marian Hawke returned from the Deep Roads with distance in her eyes and Stone’s Breath in her hand. Prior to Bartram Tethras’s ill-fated expedition, she’d always favored lightning as her element of choice and her staves had always reflected that. As had their father’s and Bethany’s staves, and they’d favored ice and fire, respectively. But after surfacing from that darkspawn-riddled clusterfuck—richer than damn-near anyone in Kirkwall (excluding the Viscount, of course, and maybe even the apparently loyal, but infinitely sarcastic and annoying Varric Tethras) she’d begun wielding quieter, less dramatic spells. Spells that didn’t electrify or burn or freeze, but that drained life-force and sapped the spirit . . . among other chilling results.

 

“Most of Thedas would call it necromancy—and rightly so. I simply call it cutting out the middle-man,” she’d once said with deep and solemn regret for the necessity, but no remorse for the use. At the time, Carver had found the latter lack unnerving. But with experience and age and too much fighting seen and participated in, he’d realized that Marian’s rigid, yet mercenary certainty had not stemmed from her power but the reverse. That in-part, her rather terrifying penchant and talent for spirit magic and necromancy had been driven by her sense of righteousness. She’d wielded the element at which she was best and fastest, and with which she was most likely to win. And even a moment of doubt regarding her aims and direction might have meant that lack of confidence spreading to those skills and that response-time. Questioning herself, even when not in battle, could have got her killed, possessed, or worse.)

 

When Zev makes a strange, garbled sound of shock and disbelief, Carver’s startled out of his brief, brooding meander down Memory Lane. The expression on Zev’s face could accurately be described as “a pale rictus of existential terror” if Carver, himself, weren’t still more than a touch distracted. “Erm . . . are you all right, Zev? You look . . . distressed.”

 

Zev’s gaze is on the Hero’s scimitar, wide and unblinking. Taking a good look at her, himself, Carver then turns to Mikhael to ask if he’s missing something, but the smith looks as lost as Carver feels.

 

“Mikhael, did you . . . see. . . ?” Zev’s voice is shaking worse than the wind-buffeted trees ringing fortress and peak, but he holds onto Carver—one arm around his waist and one around his shoulders—even tighter, both protective and possessive, claiming and keeping.

 

“See, serah?” Mikhael asks, sounding hesitant and confused as he, too, looks at the Hero’s sword. He studies it then shakes his head. “With respect and humility, Serah Arainai, I see no flaw or inconsistency in her, if that’s what you mean . . . Starfang is and always will be my finest work. For Warden Mahariel, I could have made nothing less.”

 

The simple, but genuine reverence in Mikhael’s quiet voice makes Carver look between the smith and his lover. Zev is visibly shivering as he shakes his head in frightened negation.

 

“Put it down, now, mio amore. Please,” he whispers, his still-wide eyes going back to the scimitar. He looks so spooked and uneasy—really, frightened—that Carver doesn’t hesitate to do as he asks, though the idea of giving up his—the Hero’s greatsword even after holding her for a couple minutes is . . . painful and wrong-feeling. . . .

 

But before he can set the scimitar down on the counter, Mikhael shakes his head once and holds up his hands in a blocking—no, a warding gesture.

 

“I don’t think you’re meant to do that, Serah, er—”

 

“Hawke. Carver Hawke, of South Reach,” Carver says, automatically smiling. Adding his first name and the last arling he’d called home is a custom that’d characterized his entire childhood and early manhood in Ferelden. Now, it’s come to characterize the years since his first and second returns to his homeland.

 

His return to himself.

 

Mikhael’s brows shoot up in even more surprise and Carver readies himself for the inevitable flood of questions about his sister. For a long time, the prospect of such questions had filled him with envious anxiety and resentment. Now, they simply fill him with the greatest grief he’s ever known. The greatest regret.

 

They make him resent himself for wasting so much time stewing in his own jealousy—even more than he’d ever resented Marian for being so extraordinary.

 

But Mikhael’s expression lightens with relief and friendliness, and the question he asks isn’t close to what Carver expects. “You’d be Malcolm and Leandra’s boy, yes?”

 

Carver’s jaw is still dropped when Zev squeezes him tighter than ever. “Put it down. We have a nice, warm bed to be getting to and . . . Starfang’s time is past, and its tale is done.”

 

“Beggin’ your pardon, Serah Arainai, but,” Mikhael shakes his head wonderingly. “I think Starfang disagrees with you.”

 

“You knew my parents?” falls from Carver’s numb lips as he once again fights disorientation.

 

“Wouldn’t say I knew them—not well. But they did my brother and me a good turn, at a time when they had more pressing issues. Such as Templars on their scent and providing for a small child and twin toddlers while on the run.” Mikhael sighs and near-smiles again. “Even that desperation didn’t stop their compassion. Their kindness.”

 

Then, with a slightly sad upward tick of that near-smile, he waves at the Warden’s scimitar. “Bein’ Malcolm’s son, I imagine you’ll do wondrous things with such a well-suited instrument.”

 

“What . . . what are you doing, Serah Dryden?” Zev demands through anger-gritted teeth. Mikhael’s brows lift again.

 

“Levi and I were—are indebted, and not merely as a matter of fairness and honor. I’m at last payin’ a debt forward,” he says. Zev sniffs, and even that sounds angry-and-getting-angrier.

 

“If you valued the kindness of Carver’s parents, you would not press this blade on their only surviving child as payment of your debt to them.” Zev’s voice is icy and almost threatening.

 

Mikhael’s expression shifts. The smile fades, replaced by his initial stoic countenance, and he shrugs.

 

“Never said it was my debt to Malcolm and Leandra that I was payin’.” Another shrug, slow and labored, that ends in a melancholy slump. “But I . . . I do wish you both Andraste’s guidance and the Maker’s own protection on your road.”

 

“Sit on your precious Maker and spin,” Zev spits, his voice stiffer and colder than ever. “If only the Hero of Ferelden had had the impressive lack of honor and integrity you Drydens seem to possess in excess! Your family might still be pariahs and he might still be alive!”

 

“Or all of Thedas might not be, him, and the Dryden family, included.” Mikhael shrugs a third time. “The Warden made his choices. I didn’t know him well, but . . . I imagine he’d want those choices respected, no matter the outcome. And his legacy to be preserved and cared for.”

 

“Oh, you imagine, do you?” Zev’s tone is now icier than the nonstop wind.

 

“And you must, too, else you’d have let Starfang be entombed with Warden Mahariel,” Mikhael nods at the scimitar Carver still holds. “But you brought her back here, to where she was created. Because you knew it was what he wanted and because there’ll always be a need for such as Starfang, by the champions who’ll earn her.”

 

“With blood and horror and loss, yes?” Zev sneers as Mikhael’s heavy gaze drifts to Carver and lingers. “Regardless. He’s dead, Serah Dryden. Dead champions relinquish their personal concerns when they take up the eldritch first-half of that noble mantle. And I . . . well, I just hate to see any valuable item go into the ground, when there’s coin to be made off it, still.”

 

“As I recall,” Mikhael says quietly, turning a softer, more compassionate gaze on Zev, “no coin exchanged hands when I presented her to the Warden, nor when you presented her right back to me, two years later.”

 

Floored and gaping, Carver faces Zev, who appears to have gone twice as stiff as the wind.

 

“Zevran—” he starts, reaching out with hand and heart for his clearly devastated lover, automatically stuffing down his questions, as he’s become accustomed to do. For once, he feels nothing at having to do it but for exponentially deepening concern about Zev, whose secrets are, obviously, far bigger than Carver had guessed.

 

The quality of Zev’s bright gaze goes from harsh and brittle, to glittering and shattered and he moves away from Carver and the stall by several steps, shaking his head and chuckling, with self-mocking and rue. But he stops shortly and sketches a fancy, Orlesian-style bow to Mikhael. “Touché! And far be it from me to press my apparent lack of advantage, upon being so soundly routed in conversation!”

 

The gaze he turns briefly to Carver is considering and . . . strangely desperate. More than a little exhausted. “What the stories and legends of heroes’ journeys never tell us, is that it’s sheer madness to fall in with these champions. Madness and folly and agony that don’t end until death ends everything.” Sniffling, he looks away quickly. “If, ah, you’ll both pardon me, I must . . . I must see about some things I left in storage here, long ago. The room is in both our names, caro. You should go rest.”

 

Zev’s turned and gone, off down the trail—toward the fortress gate and not deeper into the fortress, or anyplace that might be storage—before Carver can respond.

 

Starting immediately after Zev—his own time, be damned—and still holding the Hero’s blade, Carver then pauses and turns back to Mikhael, who’s staring after Zev with that same stoic-compassionate expression.

 

“No disrespect, serah, but . . . what in the bloody hell just happened, here?” Carver exclaims—but politely and humbly. Two ways of being that only time, the hard road, and the loss of many people and places he’d valued, have taught him.

 

Mikhael’s stolid gaze ticks to Carver, dark and flickering. “A lot,” he says after several moments.

 

When nothing more is forthcoming, Carver sighs, assuming that’s that—he’s known his share of this buttoned-up type . . . and anyway, he has no interest in suppositions, theory, or gossip. He wants to get the truth, if he gets anything at all. And the only person to get that from would be Zev.

 

Ironic, that . . . or so Zev would no doubt claim.

 

“Best you not leave Serah Arainai to his own devices, such as they are. Might do him some good to talk it out,” Mikhael hints broadly. Then he shrugs, yet again. “Or it might not.”

 

Sighing, Carver nods at the smith. “Yes, very helpful, that. But . . . you’re right. I’d . . . I’d best get after him. Good day, serah.”

 

He hitches up the pack he’s yet to take off since just after dawn—it’s now a wintry, heavily overcast midafternoon—and turns away. Partway down the path leading from the Soldier’s Peak Market to the gates of the fortress, he doesn’t even realize that he’s still holding the Hero’s scimitar until Mikhael calls after him: Malcolm’s boy! And Serah Carver!

 

As if they had once been long-time neighbors in the same small village.

 

Seconds later, having left his long-serving Chasind flatblade—with which he’d replaced the greatsword he’d wielded for the Order—behind on Mikhael’s counter, still in its scabbard, Carver Hawke, Malcolm and Leandra’s boy, jogs back down the trail to the gate, buckling his new scimitar and scabbard on over his thick, woolen greatcoat.

 

# # #

 

Carver Hawke has always been a watcher of people, usually from the outside and—at his closest—from the sidelines.

 

But for all the many chances at observation he’s been given, he’s never been a reader of people. For all that he’d spent the first half of his life on the sidelines and outside of his own family—and, even when he was inside, it was also in the shadows of his sisters—he’d spent too much time coveting that which he’d never had and never really tried to cultivate. Envied his sisters their talent and power, and their places as his parents’ favorites: the firstborn who could do no wrong, and the youngest, the sweetest, the baby. Carver’s place had always been the forgettable and disappointing middle child (less than quarter of an hour older than Bethany), even as it was on the sidelines and outside.

 

He’d blamed his sisters for that and, to a far lesser extent, his parents. For so long . . . so long.

 

Far too late, he’d lamented his immature, wounded and sullen conceit. Lamented being jealous of not having Bethany’s mostly unexplored magical potential and talent when, far more telling, he hadn’t possessed even one-third of Bethany’s empathy, warmth, and kind-heartedness.

 

Carver had been so resentful of Marian and her eventually well-documented, but not fully measured magical potential and talent. Envious of the seemingly effortless primacy she’d always held in their parents’ hearts—as their firstborn and objectively most impressive child—that he’d never stopped to consider acquiring even one-tenth of Marian’s uprightness, determination, and unflinching sense of self and selflessness. Her sense of honor.

 

(Even in death, and under mysterious circumstances, none spoke of her, of the Champion of Kirkwall, of Marian Jacinthe Hawke with anything less than respect. Love her or hate her—and even Carver had done his unfair share of the latter, to his eventual shame and regret—she’d been the sort of quietly indomitable will that had been half-legendary even in life, never mind after that, when fame had been fed by time and tale-telling.)

 

Yet both of the last Hawke mages, both Carver’s sisters were dead at the hands of monsters and demons—dead from defending the defenseless and saving that which they’d held precious beyond all:

 

The lives of those they had loved and cared for.

 

While Carver . . . ludicrously, had still been alive. Just another useless ex-Templar battling lyrium addiction even several years after having renounced the Order that would have seen his sisters imprisoned, Tranquil, or dead.

 

Bethany’s body had no doubt long-since been picked clean by ravening darkspawn, sixteen years ago . . . just beyond Lothering, where she’d been slain by the ogre that’d threatened their mother.

 

But according to the new Viscount of Kirkwall—bloody, sodding Kirkwall—one of Marian’s closest friends and also a personal friend of the Inquisitor, Marian’s body had never been recovered after the siege at Adamant. More than that, Varric Tethras had been unwilling to say. Though Carver’d had and still has his theories and suspicions about the events surrounding his sister’s death.

 

That Marian’s letter, delivered just as the insanity surrounding the Breach had begun to spiral, had been the warning to disappear, and not Marian, herself, had been . . . telling. That Marian had been desperate enough and frightened enough of the spreading unrest and danger to even the very rare ex-Templars to urge Carver to rely on bloody Isabela—the conniving, untrustworthy ex-lover who’d broken Marian’s heart a million times over—to smuggle him into Ferelden and away from any of the conflagrations, had been telling, too. Even Aveline Hendyr, as grim, anxious, and concerned as anyone, had urged Carver to caution when dealing with the notorious pirate.

 

Also telling and worrying had been that Isabela, the least sentimental person Carver had ever met—rather callous even for a bloody, ruthless pirate queen—had, rather frequently during the voyage from Kirkwall to Port Haven, sought Carver out to ask about Marian and to . . . reminisce about “the bad, ol’ days.” Or to obliquely pass along free, but cryptic rumors she’d been hearing about the Breach, the Venatori, Corypheus . . . and a group of “Red” Templars using corrupted lyrium that gave them horrific, Maker-condemned powers.

 

(Carver, at the time still in the restless, often agonizing grips of his own lengthy withdrawal from lyrium, post-Order—even a few more years than Carver’s near-decade on the stuff, and he’d have likely relapsed, or simply died from the extremity of his withdrawal symptoms—had had to grit his teeth through these particular tidbits.)

 

Marian had not told Isabela, Carver, or even Aveline where she’d been off to, herself. The latter two, at least, would have flown into danger without pause—Aveline dragging poor, loyal Donnic with her—to support Marian.

 

Isabela, meanwhile, had advised Carver to lose himself in the Bannorn or the Hinterlands, or the Korcari Wilds or the Brecilian Forest—and he had, each in-turn. After a few months and the relenting of the worst of his symptoms, he’d wandered the Bannorn (though, not the Blighted ruins of Lothering) and the Hinterlands; he’d explored the Korcari Wilds down into the unnerving edges of the Uncharted Lands . . . then wisely turned northward again.

 

He’d passed through haunted, sere Ostagar, to remember the battle, and his friends and comrades who, unlike himself, had not survived the darkspawn attack and invasion that’d initiated the Fifth Blight.

 

To pay his respects to good King Cailan. . . .

 

He’d then made his way east, into the Southron Hills and through the Brecilian Passage, to the forest of the same name.

 

Instead of spending a few easy days in those southern outskirts, then continuing on his now heartsore and foot-weary way southeast to Gwaren and its port, he’d forded north, wandering first the western, then eastern half of the forest.

 

News of Marian’s death had caught up to Carver most of a year after his arrival in the forest, and almost eight months after having met Zevran Arainai: at the small arms and armor section of a sprawling Dalish trading post and market, in which Carver had gotten somewhat lost . . . like any other dazzled shemlen tourist.

 

By the time another half-year had passed, and Carver had been sunk in grief that’d felt endless and insurmountable—that’d really been despair—he and Zev had been mostly exclusive “traveling companions” for longer than they’d been no-strings ones.

 

Even so, it’d been more than a month into their journey to Orlais—to see the Inquisition’s Champion’s Memorial, at Skyhold—before Carver had realized that whatever “traveling companion” meant to Zev, that definition had included “following my grieving companion partway around the world to pay respects to his dead sibling.”

 

Thus, Carver had finally been forced to climb out of his spiraling despair completely just to consider what “companion” had meant to him.

 

Fortuitously enough, mere days into that consideration, not far into the Frostbacks and on the road to Skyhold, they’d been set-upon by a band of Avvar bandits.

 

Already wearied from extended traveling, Carver and Zev had been losing ground in the fight—quite steadily. They’d both known it. The itch-tingle-chill of mana being gathered in the service of magic had swept through Carver’s entire being and over his skin, signaling the presence of an apostate. One kept waiting in the wings until victory was assured and all that would be needed was a quick coup de grâce.

 

Had Carver not been a former-Templar, with access to the talents and protections trained into any member of the Order—even without the power and stamina amplification granted by lyrium-use—the apostate would have been his and Zev’s death-knell.

 

Carver had let himself appear to flag, let his greatsword—a serviceable, but unremarkable Chasind flatblade—slow and droop as if he was becoming overwhelmed. The mage had paused in his spellcasting and moved closer, presumably to get a better seat to Carver’s, then Zev’s imminent slaughter, since his magic had clearly not been needed after all.

 

It had been going exactly as Carver had hoped . . . but not quite as he’d planned.

 

The plan, had been to use a potent, broad-acting Canticle for offense—Staggering Smite had seemed the wisest choice, and would have been powerful even three-plus years past Carver’s last dose of lyrium—then Blessed Blades to give himself the needed strength and will to nullify the apostate quickly. Then, he and Zev could deal with the stunned fighters at their leisure.

 

But Zev, seeing Carver appear to weaken, had leapt to support and defend him, and had, himself, been wounded. Brought down with a crossbow-bolt high in his right shoulder, while dodging a mace-blow.

 

His right dagger had fallen to the ground from his now useless hand, and even as it did, the force of another bolt inches from the first had driven Zev backward into a stagger and fall.

 

Carver hadn’t even thought consciously about which Canticle to use for this new, alarming development. Wrath of Heaven had come blazing from his being, stronger, hotter, and brighter than it ever had even during his days in the Order. Striking down all who stood against him on the battlefield—not with a manifestation of his deep, unshaken faith in the Maker . . . but with his own will and determination to protect and preserve that which mattered most.

 

He hadn’t even felt the crossbow bolt that’d hit him in his midsection, a moment before his body erupted in righteous light. Hadn’t felt any pain . . . only a sudden pressure and breathlessness that’d ended the Canticle sooner than he’d meant to. And, as the light he’d become had faded, he’d looked down at himself.

 

Oh, he’d thought with both surprise and . . . acceptance.

 

Even as he’d fallen to his knees and Wrath of Heaven had guttered completely—though, it had been, Carver would find out later, seen at least as far north in the Frostbacks as Skyhold, and as far east as the Inquisition regiment on the last leg of its return from Redcliffe Castle, mere hours behind Carver and Zev on the same road—the Invocation of Last Sacrifice had blossomed within him, gathering every last scrap of his energy, stamina, focus, and will to deploy in this final effort.

 

Without a second thought, he’d yanked the barbed crossbow-bolt free from his gut, as he’d released the Invocation. All at once, power had soughed from him on a single wheezing, stuttered exhale, and a veritable waterfall of agony, blood, and damaged viscera.

 

And with, not least of all . . . a single, final word.

 

His penultimate feeling had been savage satisfaction that his death would mean that Zev would be healed and energized, and he could quickly end those bloody Avvar jackals as they lay stunned and helpless. Including, hopefully, the hidden archer who’d nearly killed them both.

 

His ultimate feeling had been that he’d never loved anyone like he loved his “traveling companion,” Zevran Arainai. And, so be the will of the Maker, he never would again.

 

That had suited Carver just fine and he had not feared the fast-encroaching darkness.

 

Then, an eternity later . . . light.

 

Carver had woken up alive in a strange bed and bedroom—he’d find out that he was ensconced in Skyhold, as an honored guest of Andraste’s Herald, Inquisitor Dannon Trevelyan—to dim, kind lighting and his heavy, weak hand being held by the only hand that’d ever taken it so.

 

To Zevran Arainai, deeply asleep in a chair at Carver’s erstwhile bedside, snoring quietly, and looking several days’ worth of haggard and disheveled. Looking . . . beautiful.

 

And Carver’s first feeling had been much the same as his last. The same truth, but more certainly and definitively known:

 

He had never loved anyone the way he loved Zevran Arainai and never again would he . . . and not even the Maker and all his bloody champions on rabid, nuggalope steeds could change or destroy that love.

 

And this, too, had suited Carver fine. It had been the joy of his life and would continue to be, almost three years later.

 

And it would for the rest of his life, as well as for the unknowable span and existence beyond it, he didn’t doubt and never would.

 

But in those bleary, sickbed moments, Carver had smiled and squeezed Zev’s talented, work-roughened hand, causing the sleeping assassin to awaken suddenly. He was instantly alert, and somewhat panicked, but upon seeing Carver’s surely ridiculous and sappy smile, Zev had settled and huffed a lot, blushing, and not meeting Carver’s sleepy-happy gaze.

 

His hands, holding Carver’s hand, had been so warm and sure and keeping. His eyes, however, had been wide and bright and anguished.

 

“What-ever happened to your delightfully entrenched cynicism, caro?” he’d scoffed playfully. But under that cracking veneer, he’d been more than half-hysterical—Carver had long-known the signs. Scared, enraged, and . . . something else. Something Carver hadn’t been able to read, injured, and exhausted as he’d been. And certainly not once Zev had averted his tired-telling face from the light. “Did you lose it, perhaps, during our long travels, my tempting Templar? Honestly, rushing in to play the martyr in the name of your Maker and His Bride—ready to sacrifice your life with Their word in your heart and on your lips? How trite!”

 

Grinning suddenly, Carver had yawned. When it’d passed, it’d left him triple-exhausted . . . but beached on the shores of true sleep, rather than of prolonged unconsciousness.

 

“What was in my heart . . . and on my lips . . . had nothing to do with the Maker’s name . . . or Andraste’s. Zevran,” Carver had added. It’d turned into another titanic yawn that’d closed Carver’s eyes for him and sent him off into dreams. But not before he’d seen the candle-lit shine of tears rolling down Zev’s cheek.

 

“You Templars,” Zev had scoffed again, on the back of strange-sounding gasps that’d followed Carver into sleep, “stupido.”

 

# # #

 

You Antivans. For such a scheming and clever people, you seem to intentionally pick the worst places and times to go walk-about for a brood. Final bloody week of an especially cold bloody Harvestmere—up on Soldier’s-bloody-Peak, to boot! Really, Zevran,” Carver grumbles as he steps out of one of the many small, dense scraggles of fir trees leading to a sudden and precipitous plummet, which Soldier’s Peak seems to offer.

 

They are surrounded on all sides, in the near, middle, and far distance, by rock, forest, and sky, all in rather similar shades of gray-something: gray-black and -brown for the rock; gray-green for the forest; and gray-blue and -white for the sky.

 

And, almost half a mile from the fortress and market, the air even smells gray-green and gray-white: like trees and the coming snow.

 

Zev is sitting on the edge of a cliff-face of some height, with his legs dangling over the side. His streamlined pack is further back from said edge, but in arm’s reach. Its owner doesn’t start at Carver’s arrival, merely slumps and hunches.

 

Carver approaches his lover, shrugs off his own pack and drops it near Zev’s, then does the same with his new belted scabbard and blade. He finally sits with a relieved grunt and swings his legs over the edge of the drop.

 

After a couple minutes of morose silence, he leans into Zev briefly.

 

“And your line, Serah Arainai, was: ‘Perhaps I’d have chosen a better place, my boyish barbarian, if you hirsute, cold-loving Fereldans had any such better places on offer, hmmmm?’”

 

Zev sighs as Carver straightens and drums his booted heels against the jagged rock-face leading downward. “Ah, caro, despite our several eventful years of companionship, your Antivan accent is still utter shit.”

 

“Yes . . . it’s almost as if much of our, erm, companionship has been rather . . . talking-lite. . . .” Carver trails off and can sense Zev’s smug, amused smirk. He counts it as a coup.

 

“That’s certainly one way to describe our travels together, yes.” Zev glances over at Carver and is, indeed, a-smirk. Gorgeous with it, too, as ever. “To my credit, my plans for that mouth of yours have never much involved . . . talking.”

 

“How chivalrous of you,” Carver drawls, rolling his eyes. “Well. No matter how limited you find my conversational skills, Serah Arainai, my ears, as ever, remain an as yet unspoiled wonderland. The offer of them stands in perpetuity, for you.”

 

Zev’s brassy eyes—his entire face flickers, dramatically, but is still unreadable. What isn’t unreadable is the tenderness of his gloved hand—the finest Antivan calfskin, lined with equally fine lambs-wool—coming up to cup Carver’s stubbly cheek.

 

Caro. I know I can be . . . rather tight-lipped about . . . myself—my past,” he begins, and even that sounds as if it pains him. Carver’s instinct is to hush him with kisses—and comforting words and sexual acts, as per usual. But for once, instead of rushing to soothe, he lets Zev go on, hoping that if his lover finally feels free to purge himself of the clearly large hurts in his past, he might begin to do so.

 

But Zev pauses and jumps up, pacing away from the drop. Carver follows him a few moments later, back toward the scraggle of fir trees from which he’d emerged, but Zev stops short of the uneven treeline and turns to face Carver.

 

His expression is one of frustration and misery, and his agonized gaze pins, then releases Carver, drifting past him to the expanse of sky beyond the drop. That pained expression clears to something more poised and less honest. “Really, my life before we met . . . it was nothing to write home about—characterized by little more than elegant murder and sporadic tragedy. Themselves, interspersed with far too much walking and not nearly enough mind-melting sexual encounters. Though, recently, at least one part of that odious interspersal seems to be shifting significantly for the better,” he shoots Carver a heated smirk that Carver matches with a big grin.

 

“You sweet-talking jackass. Play your cards right and we’ll see to that other half, too.”

 

Zev’s smirk turns into a slow, wry Carver-ish grin. “Yes . . . now that I’m walking myself to exhaustion far less often, perhaps I’ll have the energy and stamina required to ravish you as vigorously and frequently as you’ve been needing.”

 

Carver’s grin now turns into a Zevran-ish smug smirk. “Oh, exhaustion aside, you’ve always ravished me just right. You’re a natural at it.”

 

“Well, yes.” Now . . . Zev’s grin is a strangely defenseless smile and he looks down as it softens further. “But even I cannot claim that’s more my skill than it is the inspiring sight of you . . . splayed in askew bedsheets. Or bent over something sturdy. Or astride me. Or . . . on your kneeeeees. . . .” he lets out a breath that’s really half-chuckle and half-sigh. “You are . . . impossibly beautiful, Carver Hawke.”

 

Carver blushes, but his smirk widens back into his usual grin. “Trust me, Zev, my, erm, beauty couldn’t be any more possible for you, else I’d simply start shedding clothing every time you looked at me!”

 

“Speaking of ideas whose time has come. . . .” Zev’s smile also widens for a moment as he darts a glance at Carver. He looks quite dazed and content . . . but then, he sighs again, and the sound is discontented. Then he quickly closes the brief, but still respectable distance between them and brackets Carver’s hips with his hands—fingers stealing under the greatcoat to anchor in the winter-weight wool of Carver’s trousers. His eyes seem to burn and glow as he looks up into Carver’s face. His expression is so somber, Carver doesn’t expect the kisses Zev leans in to steal. That doesn’t stop him from submitting to and sighing into them with every ounce of his need and yearning. It doesn’t prevent him from leaning into Zev’s body with all of the same.

 

As most of their kisses and amorous physical contact tend to, it soon gets increasingly, eagerly out of hand.

 

Rather, increasing, eagerly into it.

 

“I know what you’re doing, schemer,” Carver accuses as he instinctively thrusts into Zev’s promising, undeterred grip. The reward for his utter lack of conviction is Zev’s brightest, most captivating smile and Zev’s left hand groping and squeezing his arse with just the perfect amount of savoring roughness. Carver returns the favor, sliding his hands under Zev’s wool cloak to give some appreciative gropes and squeezes of his own—not remotely a chore, when Zev’s arse is the closest thing Carver’s ever seen or felt to a Maker-sent miracle. “Unh. You’re trying to distract me.”

 

“Why, yes, caro, I am! No flies on you, are there?” Zev’s chuckle is deeply wicked and endlessly thrilling, even after almost four years of such sounds. He teases Carver’s ear lobe with his tongue, then anchors his teeth in it delicately. At first. “Is it working, by the way?”

 

“It might be,” Carver allows, which is good for another chuckle . . . this one charmingly arrogant. He sighs happily. “And it might be, that I’m about to tackle you down into this nice, cushioning snow, unfasten these skin-tight, weather-inappropriate, prick-tease trousers you wear just to torture me . . . get you good and hard, and. . . .”

 

“I must say, I like the direction this is headed . . . but for the snow, of course.” Zev hums in satisfaction. “Now, about this aaaaand. . . ?”

 

Carver leans down, smirking, and nibbles Zev’s ear right back. His hair smells of fir trees, clean sweat, and the spicy-sweet, Dalish soap he favors. “Aaaaand . . . then I’ll listen with interest and without judgment as you finally open up to me about your mysterious past, and what it has to do with the Hero of Ferelden.”

 

Zev groans—not nearly as desirously as he tends to when Carver’s tongue is in his ear and Carver’s hands are on his arse. “Ah, mio caro, but why ruin such a lovely and spontaneous moment of passion for that?”

 

Carver suddenly pulls Zev’s body against his and rocks his hips into Zev’s as Zev’s arms wind around his waist, tight-tight-tight. When Zev lays his head on Carver’s shoulder, Carver kisses the top of his ridiculous, flapped and fluffy hat. “And when you’re talked-out, I’m going to pick right up where we left off . . . push you down in the snow and swallow your prick with at least double my usual enthusiasm and gusto. Right here in front of the Maker, all of nature, and half the bloody fortress, until you’re passed-out in a puddle of melted snow and dead leaves. Then, I’m going to carry you back to this fancy room you’ve reserved for us, strip you naked, get you warm again and hard again, then ride you until I pass out.”

 

Zev groans once more, long and low, and only manages to vocalize the first half of Carver’s name while doing so. But his hands in their fine gloves are shamelessly ambitious: he’s scrambled down the back of Carver’s trousers and his fingers bite hungrily and aggressively into firm muscle. He nuzzles Carver’s neck, jaw, and ear, then whispers rushed, heated, undoubtedly filthy nothings.

 

Only . . . the tone is rather off for Zev’s style of filthy nothings. And though Carver’s Antivan is awful, he knows the filthier words and phrases well-enough, from years of travelling and sleeping with Zev. And whatever Zev’s saying—“2Il mio campione coraggioso e brillante . . . Non potrei sopravvivere se ti perdessi anche io. . . .”—the words are off, too. The urgency of them doesn’t match the urgency of the hands wringing wanton, desperate sounds from Carver so adeptly.

 

And when he moans Zev’s name, with a mind to put his foot down and halt the distraction, at last, Zev lunges up into a hard, hungry kiss that tastes of strong fernet, moaning and whimpering as if he’s about to come and die. Simultaneously.

 

His whole body is shaking, though . . . and now, he tastes noticeably of tears, too.

 

The hands and arms and body that suddenly attempt to bear Carver to the snowy, rocky ground are anxious and unusually uncoordinated. It’s far too easy for Carver to put a stop to the proceedings. Though Zev’s fond of tussling as foreplay in certain moods, he’s never purposely made it this easy to win such tussles.

 

And certainly not this easy to win an actual spar or fight—and it seems as if Zev thinks this is shaping up to be the latter.

 

“Zev—ZEV.” Carver executes a simple, but effective take-down he’d learned from long before he’d even joined King Cailan’s army—one that Zev’s successfully turned against him dozens of times, over the years.

 

That he’s not of a mind to do so now is . . . worrying.

 

Between Zev’s distraction, and Carver’s facility with stopping and restraining even scrappy, wily, slippery rogues of Zev’s caliber—not to mention his own markedly greater size and body-mass . . . a Hawke trademark, this brute strength-body that’d gone mostly unappreciated in a family of mages, after the advent of Carver’s first major growth spurt—pinning and straddling Zev on the snowy-icy ground is short, if notably unsatisfying work.

 

And the result of said work is Zev lying in the snow, gasping, red-faced, and with his eyes screwed shut very tight. His nostrils flare with every in-drawn breath. His body is nominally still, yet it thrums and quakes intensely under Carver’s in a way that has nothing to do his usual whole-hearted enjoyment of Carver’s rare, sexually aggressive and dominant moods.

 

“Zevran, love,” Carver murmurs, squeezing Zev’s corded, tense biceps as he leans down to kiss Zev’s forehead, his cheek, his lips, the tip of his nose. At these familiar displays of tenderness and affection, Zev really starts squirming and trying to buck Carver off him. To fight his way free. “It’s all right. Trust me, it’ll be all right.”

 

“Don’t!” Zev keeps saying, averting his face every which way, but not fast enough for Carver to miss the shine of tears.

 

Only the third time he’s ever seen Zev shed a tear, and it’s within the same hour as the second time.

 

And, once again, Carver has his suppositions and theories, even if not the details that would finish sketching in a full picture.

 

“Will you tell me about him, at last?” he asks, soft and with fragile, tremulous hope. “Will you tell me about this Theron who, aside from during your nightmares, you’ve never spoken of in front me, until today? And about . . . about the Hero of Ferelden?”

 

Zev shudders and stills . . . then, seconds later, starts struggling again, if half-heartedly. “I do not wish to talk about this with you.”

 

“Right. But whatever’s going on, you’ll talk about it with some bloody blacksmith you haven’t even seen in fifteen years?” Carver snaps, then sighs, shaking his head. He closes his eyes on vision that wants to double and treble and swim, and tries to calm his uneven breathing. “Will you at least try to talk to me about whatever it is and has always been . . . for once? Please?”

 

He gets the surprise of his life when Zev stills again and opens his eyes warily. They’re red and irritated from successfully holding back more than tears, and for more than the four-ish years he and Carver have known each other.

 

They are wounded and accusing, and don’t make contact for more than the barest moment at a time.

 

Carver gives Zev’s biceps another, gentler squeeze and leans down to place a lingering, reverent kiss between Zev’s startled eyes.

 

Please, love. Please?” Sitting back, Carver catches Zev’s wide, now fearful gaze. “Won’t you let me in at last, Zev? I love you so much. You don’t have to be alone in this, anymore.”

 

Zev’s body quakes, once again. Hard enough to have taken Carver, Soldier’s Peak, and Southern Thedas with it, it feels like. Then he screws his eyes shut again and resumes his uncoordinated bucking and wriggling, harder than ever.

 

“Release me!” he grits, hoarse, winded, and suddenly angry. And aggrieved. That anger and aggrievement is not aimed at Carver, per se, but at whomever it is Zev sometimes sees when he gets randomly, irrationally angry at Carver. “You cannot hold me here—you will not hold me here, if I wish to go! Let me go!”

 

Though Zev’s words are forceful, the tone is not. It sounds more like panicked sobs, than anything, and that . . . hurts Carver as few things have, since hearing about Marian’s death. It feels like a greater defeat than losing the last of his family—the last, but for bloody Gamlen Amell, rather—had felt.

 

Is that what you wish, then, love?” Carver doesn’t increase his effort, merely maintains his current middling one. His voice is pitched low and easy. Gentle. But the heart in his chest and the blood in his veins would tell another tale, entirely, could Zev hear them. “To be free of me? To . . . leave?”

 

Zev’s struggles falter for a moment, then continue stronger than ever, even though he doesn’t answer Carver’s question.

 

“Damnit, Zev, please! Tell me something—anything—that’s true for and about you! Tell me who you are! After all this time, trust me at least that far!” Carver demands, though it feels and sounds much more like begging—not that he cares.

 

Zev laughs bitterly, gasping in shaky breaths that gust right back out. “Is that what you wish, mio? For me to tell you something that’s true?” he mimics, sounding more than a little unhinged. When he makes eye-contact, his gaze is wet and wild. “You wish to know about Theron and about the Hero, yes? Well, you now bear his sword! Warden Theron Mahariel’s precious Starfang. There! Now, would you like to know something else that’s true? Almost the moment you touched it, Theron’s Dalish-style longsword transformed into a scimitar not so different from your Chasind flatblade! Yes, that is true, too, though I seem to be the only one who knows or remembers it, if Mikhael’s response is any indicator! And who knows how long I’ll be allowed to remember that the weapon of one of Thedas’s greatest heroes changed itself of its own volition, before my very eyes, so that it could once again belong to a champion?”

 

His breathing is panting, now and his expression is once again miserable and hopeless, his eyes shining with tears and fears. And Carver sits back a bit, too stunned to even ask what Zev means by claiming the Hero’s weapon is some sort of shapeshifting longsword, when everyone knows the legendary Warden Mahariel had only wielded two-handed blades. And usually of such a size and heft that even the old Arishok might have given a second thought to taking on the person wielding such a blade against him, and with such uncanny skill.

 

Everyone knows that Warden Mahariel (Theron Mahariel, Zev’s mysterious, long-lost love, who still holds quite a sway over Zev’s heart) had been wielding a massive and unique two-hander when he’d slain the Archdemon.

 

But Carver realizes now, that this Starfang—laying some few yards distant—is the blade that had brought down Urthemiel, before the Fifth Blight could get fully, unstoppably, apocalyptically under-way.

 

“Would you like for me to tell you a third true thing, caro, as I’m feeling quite magnanimous today?” Zev teases, both playful and cruel and, under those, clearly distraught. Tears are running down the sides of his face ceaselessly, though he doesn’t seem to realize or care. “I had no wish to be in love again . . . let alone with another champion—another hero. No matter how truly and faithfully I love, when you’re dead, and done saving the world—and swaddled in fame and glory, and sitting by the Maker’s right hand . . . how wonderful!—there’ll be nothing left for me, but a life of memories and misery! Yet again!

 

“There . . . is that enough truth to satisfy your curiosity and prurience?” he growls, his face gone pale, but his narrowed eyes gone darker and stormy . . . more molten bronze than warmed or heated brass.

 

After a long silence, that incendiary gaze skitters away, off to the right, still red, wet, and narrowed. Carver, sighs and sits back on Zev’s thighs.

 

“Zev, I . . . it’s not prurience that eats at me. Nor even mere curiosity. But want. I want you to know the same respite from a troubled past and its secrets that I’ve known, since. . . .” he falls silent, then lets go of Zev’s tense biceps and steels himself, holding that wounded, raging, resentful stare. “Understanding and patience have never been easy or natural for me. But because I love and trust you—and that love and trust are the greatest gifts of my life . . . you are the greatest gift of my life—I’ve forced myself to learn those things. To bloody grow up, at last. I’m able to share who I am with you and feel safe and appreciated for it. And it bloody kills me that not only can’t I give you the same, but that you might not even be able to. . . .”

 

Carver cuts himself off and shakes his head. He refuses to put the blame for any of this on Zev. “You are the first . . . and the only. Even before we fought those bloody bandits in the Frostbacks, I’d have died for you. That day was simply the first time that I was called to live up to that conviction. And I would have died for you every day since, had I been called to do so. But luckily for me, I was called to live for you—live with you. And I have. Ecstatically. You . . . make me so bloody happy, Zev! I only . . . want to give you the same.”

 

Zev blinks, looking more than surprised . . . looking completely disarmed. As even his struggles taper off, his gaze skitters away. “C-Carver,” he begins, husky and shaking, his entire body stilling even as the tension in it releases entirely. “I can’t. 3Tu sei il battito del mio cuore, ma . . . Non posso . . . Non posso.”

 

“These have been the best, happiest years of my entire life, Zev!” Carver exclaims, laughing and sniffling back unexpected tears, himself. Zev shivers but doesn’t meet his gaze. “And I’d live every shit moment of that life over a thousand-thousand times, if it meant that at the end, I still got to be with you!

 

Zev screws his eyes shut again, tighter than he had previously. “At the end . . . oh, mio caro, please, stop. . . .”

 

It’s this soft, simple, earnest—aching—plea that gives Carver his greatest moment of doubt. One that sits and sinks-in and takes deep, virulent root in seconds.

 

Though, admittedly, life’s been preparing that ground for just such doubts for thirty-six years.

 

And now, at the last, he doesn’t even know if he keeps failing in the same way because he’s come to expect it, or if he expects it because he keeps failing. It probably doesn’t even matter.

 

What does matter, most of all—and always will—is Zev. Zev, in pain that Carver is causing him, even though that’s the last thing Carver ever wants to do. . . .

 

Suffering, even though Carver’s entire life has become about brightening Zev’s, until the shadows in his striking eyes and his wary, walled-off heart—in his dreams—are chased away for keeps.

 

Barring that obviously unlikely success, Carver will do the only other thing he can hope is in his power regarding Zev finding true, lasting happiness (or at least a less unbearable misery) again:

 

Get out of the way.

 

For, as Carver can attest, there are few things worse than being endlessly lonely . . . even and especially when one is never alone. When one’s main company is someone who isn’t what one wants or needs or, after enough time and familiarity, can tolerate.

 

Carver Hawke has been the person who’s made the loneliness worse, more often than he’d like. But the idea of being so to Zev shakes and levels him to the core, and leaves him half-crumpled over Zev’s still, limp form, trying to control his breath before he bloody-well-passes out on top of him.

 

“I’m so sorry,” Carver whispers, still floored and numb. This time, he’s the one to close his eyes as tightly as he can. “I know trust is only earned over time and through shared experience—that it can’t be forced or rushed. But I’ve been trying for years, now, you see? Trying to figure out why I’m never allowed in, not even a little. Not ever, with anyone.” He means the sound that comes out of him to be a sigh, but it sounds like waterlogged hiccup. “I don’t understand why, after everything, I’m still right back to being just that non-special Hawke. I mean, I know that’s what I am and maybe always have been, but I’ve been trying to be—be more than just that. Be better. For you.”

 

 

Carver falls silent for what feels like eternity, only opening his eyes when he can be sure he won’t wet Zev’s face with idiot tears. And he doesn’t . . . but it feels like a close thing. His vision trebles and is very blurry. He can barely make out Zev’s rakish, handsome features and wide-open eyes. “I mean to be the sort of man you need—I do. Please, know that. With you . . . I’ve always tried to be good enough.”

 

Such is the blurred and iffy state of Carver’s vision that he starts and gasps when Zev’s warm, hard hand—sans expensive Antivan calfskin glove and fine woolen lining—cups his face hesitantly, his callused thumb caressing Carver’s cheek gently like the brush of a coarse feather.

 

For a little bit, Carver leans into that soothing, reassuring touch, certain that—if nothing else—Zev doesn’t wish to see him suffer or hurt, despite the consternation of his own mind and heart.

 

Underneath the callous charm and flighty lecherousness, Zev is far kinder than he knows. And it’s that, that makes Carver finally jerk away from that tender-seeming touch.

 

“Carver. . . .” Zev breathes and starts shifting, as if to struggle again . . . or, perhaps, simply sit up. Carver quickly scrambles back and up—to his feet and a few yards away, by the time Zev is sitting rather than lying.

 

“I’ve never wanted anything as much as I’ve wanted to be the sort of man you would want and love and maybe even need. But I know . . . I know that’s my own selfishness and need, getting in the way of what you need, and that’s not acceptable to me. Especially since the sort of man you need is . . . a legend. A Maker-sent champion. An Archdemon-slayer and selfless savior of the world. The sort of man you need is everything I’m not, never have been, and never will be. And there was never any point to me trying to be better than the Hero of bloody Ferelden, was there?” Carver goes to rub and covertly blot at his traitor-eyes (under the guise of pinching the bridge of his nose) only to forget he’s wearing mittens. The slightly scratchy wool of them makes his eyes water hard enough for tears to actually fall. Which makes him swear blisteringly for several seconds.

 

“Listen, caro . . . listen,” Zev says, sounding hesitant and strange. Awkward and uneasy.

 

Well, of course he does. Because he is. Everything I say is making this all worse and harder on him. Making him feel pity and maybe guilt, on-top of the heartbreak he’s been carrying for fifteen years. When Carver’s vision clears, it’s just in time to see that Zev is on his feet, looking stricken and overwhelmed. Looking far younger than his very well-kept forty-two years. Bloody hell. Best just apologize and take myself off before I make it any worse for either of us.

 

Carver quickly stops castigating himself—it really solves nothing and soothes no one, not even him, anymore—and takes a deep breath in that shudders. It comes out the same way, sending more Maker-damned tears as a vanguard and rearguard. He averts his face—not toward the Fortress, but away from it. To the mountains, forest, and sky beyond the nearby cliff.

 

It’s several nights of rough-camping, and walking dawn until dusk, to the nearest small mountain settlement, but Carver’s weathered worse than walking to exhaustion, and a cold, rocky bed after. Worse, and for longer than days.

 

Zev says his name again, sounding a bit more composed, but Carver quickly speaks before that hidden depth of kindness makes Zev say or commit to something he doesn’t truly feel, beyond the bounds of pity and compassion. “Please, let me finish my piece, Zev, then I’ll . . . be out of your hair.

 

“I never meant to pull you into my silly nonsense. I knew when we first met that what’s been true for me all my life, is still true: I’m never enough. Not good enough, or bad enough. Not enough. And that’s not—not your fault! It’s mine—all mine, I just . . . I dunno why I thought that with you, I could be different. But I did and I was wrong, and . . . it doesn’t even matter, the why. I always fall short of enough. And you deserve better than that.” Carver’s voice cracks and croaks and breaks as he says this. It’s the truest thing he’s ever said and makes his throat and heart and entire body ache with a longing and regret he suspects he will carry always. Just as he will always carry the way Zev looks in this moment: distraught, gray hat wildly askew on his braided-cornsilk head . . . one glove on and one off. Face winter-pale and painfully anxious and disarmed. Carver once again turns his gaze to majestic nature, before the greatest beauty he’s ever seen breaks his heart completely. “I wish I could be the one to give that to you . . . I wish that more than anything. But I won’t let my selfish, clingy ways steal time and potential happiness from you. Not anymore. I’m done putting myself before the people I love. Just . . . . done.”

 

Half a minute of silence and stillness from them both and Carver knows he really is done. That they—this—what he’d hoped they might have, is . . . done.

 

That realization comes with hard-won acceptance of himself and his world, and the attendant limitations on both. With a humility learned from the quiet, generous example of his greatest personal hero . . . Marian Hawke.

 

He doesn’t even have to ask himself what she might do or advise in this strange, still aftermath. He means to retrieve his pack and get started on the first leg of his journey back down the mountain. He and Zev had passed some rocky outcroppings several miles down that would’ve provided shelter from the wind, at least, and a safe-sturdy place to put one’s back against, if need-be.

 

Carver’s quite certain he can make it that far by dusk. He’s spent more of his life than he’d like walking, running, retreating, and fleeing. He’s very familiar with the amount of ground he can cover in a variety of physical and mental states.

 

He’s just started toward his pack and Starfang, when he’s suddenly got nearly thirteen stone of rangy, amorous Antivan assassin on him like a leather and wool-clad griffon stooping on unwary prey.

 

And at enough velocity and with enough momentum to topple them both into the snow.

 

“Zev!” Carver squawks. He’s a lot startled and a little annoyed, and not even thinking in terms of defending himself—not that he could or would against a Zev determined to harm him.

 

But, as Zev takes advantage of Carver’s discombobulation to manhandle Carver onto his back and straddle him—a reverse of their previous positions, complete with Zev pinning Carver, but by his shoulders, rather than biceps—it’s quickly clear that an attack isn’t what Zev has in mind.

 

Not a harmful one, anyway.

 

“Zev—” Carver tries again, only for Zev’s mouth to crash against his hard. Hot. Hungry. The kisses he gives—or is it takes?—are wild and beyond wanton. Primal and as instinctive as the breaths they share via panting, gasping, and groaning.

 

Zev doesn’t waste time with anything like foreplay, other than some fast-hard-punitive grinding down on Carver’s quickly hardening prick. Then he’s shrugging off his thick cloak, undoing the belted double-scabbard with his old Crow daggers and dropping it within quick left-hand’s reach, and skinning-down his ridiculous, showcasing leather trousers as far as he can. He then bobs up to his knees, and balances on one then the other to get the tight trousers past said knees and nearly bunched around his boots.

 

(Because, of course . . . if anyone would be widely experienced at getting out of leather pants in a trice, it would be Zevran Arainai.)

 

Then, he straddles Carver again with a low grunt, and unfastens then opens Carver’s greatcoat wide. He snakes his half-gloved hands under Carver’s tunic.

 

Into Carver’s fly.

 

Zev’s clever fingers—one set of them cold and calfskin smooth, the other warm and callused-tough—have Carver out of his trousers in moments. He and Carver both make very loud, very satisfied sounds when Zev takes him in hand and starts stroking slow and hard.

 

“But you’re not going anywhere, 4il mio stupido, bellissimo martire,” he breathes, half-into Carver’s mouth and half-on his cheek as he initiates more breathtaking kisses. “Il mio nobile idiota altruista. Mio . . . l'amore più dolce e più vero—il battito del mio cuore e l'unica ragione dietro il suo feroce battito. I want you more than anyone. I need you more than anyone.” Zev anchors his teeth in Carver’s bottom lip while laving it with his tongue. “And I will have you, bello. Now and always.”

 

And Carver can’t even enquire or gainsay—not that he’s inclined to do either—what with Zev’s talented, take-no-prisoners tongue invading his mouth with force and skill that have melted and mastered Carver from the first.

 

What with Zev all but taking the skin off his prick and making him buck and pant and beg (wordlessly) for more.

 

Carver moans and runs restrained but shaking, still-gloved hands up Zev’s bare thighs, using them to lever his mittens off. Then they both moan as Carver’s hot, appreciative palms caress chilled skin and the jumping muscles underneath.

 

Meanwhile, not a single thrill of the icy, blustery wind has touched Carver’s prick, for the closeness of their bodies and Zev’s dedicated punishing-tight strokes. Carver wants to buck up into that stroking again—into the squeezing and tugging of his balls that soon leavens it. But he knows Zev and he recognizes Zev’s current sexual mood . . . and it’s the one Carver’s long-since nicknamed the “lie still and come when you’re told, caro”-mood.

 

Zev expects him to remain receptive, obedient, and still, and Carver will never not try to live up to Zev’s expectations. And . . . it just so happens that Carver especially enjoys living up to this one.

 

Carver wants to give and give-over, even as Zev takes. And Zev wants Carver to take whatever he’s given.

 

It’s long-workable state of complimentary needs and desires—exceedingly so.

 

After an unknowable but blissful span characterized by demanding, urgent kissing, groping, and frottage, icy air does touch Carver’s prick, but only for a few moments before Zev’s ungloved hand—still coarse and callused but also sinful-slick, because, of course . . . Zev always has something on his person (in some hidden pocket) to ease their frequent and often sudden assignations—is on him again.

 

Carver groans at the slippery glide of that hand on both their pricks and bunches his hand tight in his spread-open greatcoat. Then, those hands are sliding up Zev’s nearby knees.

 

Maker, let this never end,” he mumbles into their still-fierce kisses. Zev chuckles then levers himself up on his other arm to watch Carver.

 

Such is the predatory, owning nature of that gaze—and such is Carver’s arousal from and addiction to it—that this nearly does end right then, no matter the Maker’s ideas on the whole situation. For Carver’s woken from many-a dead-sleep feeling that admiring-devouring regard on him. And before he’d even thought to wipe the sleep from his eyes, Zev would be on him, overwhelming him, marking his body and soul in ways that were indelible. That had made him Zevran Arainai’s in a way nothing had ever made him anyone’s.

 

Now, Zev watches him with that familiar intensity seemingly quadrupled—Carver can feel it, even though his dodgy vision isn’t much help.

 

Zev occasionally steals kisses as Carver gasps, groans, and cries out at particular and tortuous attention paid to the head of his prick, just under it, and the slit.

 

“You are mine, caro, never doubt that.”

 

Zev starts at a whisper and ends in a growl that’s smothered on and in Carver’s mouth as he takes more of those overwhelming kisses. His lips taste slightly of leather, though Carver doesn’t notice he notices this until the question of why is answered. “You are mine and I adore you. You own the heart and soul of me, and even if I could change that . . . I wouldn’t. Not now. I need this—need you. Need the way you love and trust me. Right here in front of the Maker, all of nature . . . and half the fortress. Until we’re passed-out in a puddle of melted snow and dead leaves.”

 

Ahhhh—fuck, Zev . . . please. . . .” Carver can’t control the sudden buck-thrust of his hips, though he tries. For Zev. Always and anything for Zev.

 

Reality happens eternally slow and quicksilver fast, of a sudden. Zev’s up on his knees again, gripping and gliding, squeezing and angling, sitting and impaling himself on Carver’s too-hot-to-be-cold prick with an entire chorus of filthily ravenous and needy sounds. Both his and Carver’s bare, brand-hot hands, shove under tunics and undershirts: Carver’s to trace the lines of scars and definition, and simply to ground himself in the feel of Zev’s feverish skin. And Zev’s to scratch blunt but strong nails down Carver’s muscle-padded ribs while also tracing scars, and to tweak Carver’s nipples with sexy, savage entitlement.

 

It’s all a thrilling, ecstatic jumble of glorious contact and pressure. Zev rides him like a fey, eldritch wight: beautiful and bright and burning as a flame, and with no rhythm but the steadily increasing consumption of Carver Hawke, body and soul, nor rhyme other than his frantic need to take pleasure and even hoard it before release caps the hobby.

 

Slick-clutching-feverish Heaven seeks to render Carver down to his merest elements—then, to a pile of ash . . . prick-first. His balls feel as if they’re full of molten lyrium and his hips, in their resumed bucking-thrusts, don’t obey his will.

 

As ever, they obey Zev’s . . . driving Carver’s aching-burning prick up into Zev’s grinding-gyrating body to a series of hissed yesssssses. Carver’s compromised vision is a blur of grays and flushed tans, with flashes of bright-brass and white-gold, like braided cornsilk.

 

Freeing his tight grasp of Zev’s left hip, he feels for Zev’s prick and gets that hand batted away. Undeterred, he feels a bit lower, for Zev’s balls, then begins measured, slowly intensifying squeezes in counter-time to Zev’s hand just above and with no rhythmic relation to the spontaneous, stuttered force of his thrusts.

 

Despite this jangling of different times—or, perhaps, because of it—Zev is transported beyond his customary poise and self-control with unusual speed.

 

5Non è mai stato bello come lo è con te. Mai. Non smettere mai. . . ah, il mio cuore, il mio unico amore . . . Più forte . . . e non smettere mai. Non mai . . . ohhhhh . . . adesso, caro, adesso,” he croons, as tears run down his face from wide, unseeing eyes that shine pale-gold in the afternoon sunlight. Then he groans low and hitching and protracted, his body stilling but for the repeated clutch-spasm of the hot-tight muscles around Carver’s prick. Rather abruptly, those croons become desperate chanting and those wide-bright eyes shut tight. “Ho bisogno di avere tutti voi, essere riempiti da voi . . . per favore . . . dammelo ora, per favoreeeee. . . !

 

Zev comes suddenly, copiously—spattering both their torsos and Carver’s face, a little—and with no further sound than a soft gasp, followed by: “Carrrrrver, oh, mio amore. . . .”

 

Carver swipes his tongue across his lips and faintly tastes expensive leather and much less faintly tastes the familiar, bitter-salt of Zev’s release.

 

He groans and lets his own impending climax drag him to the edge at speed, his body shifting and lifting his weight and Zev’s with each hard, sharp thrust. It isn’t long until Zev’s slumped forward on him with a weary-sated huff, lazily seeking Carver’s mouth for languid, unambitious kisses that Carver is too close to return . . . too close. . . .

 

His hands clamp on Zev’s sweaty hips and clutch hard enough to bruise lavishly and quickly, and he puts everything into his final thrusts.

 

Then, the entire cosmos ceases to be in one bright-hot-love-YES! moment, taking Carver Aristide Hawke into sweet-soft-deep oblivion, with it.

 

# # #

 

“Can I . . . ask you something? I mean, something else, after this permission?”

 

Carver’s voice is weak and hoarse, and his throat sore in a way it usually only is after Zev’s put his back into Carver for most of a night. Or his hips into a forceful-fast Antivan Hello—both of which certainly happen frequently when they have the safety and security of walls, but not so much when they’re on the road.

 

Well, not unless Carver’s in the mood to be gagged. For though Zev’s the talker of the two of them, once Carver is climax-adjacent, he turns into something of a screamer-roarer.

 

Zev finds it bemusing and flattering. Carver . . . has recently begun to find it slightly less mortifying that he turns into a mindless banshee when Zev has him on his stomach or with his knees up by his ears.

 

Slightly.

 

Now, in the hinterlands of the afterglow preceded by the most devastating release Carver’s ever experienced—watching the afternoon take on a milky-orange glow as overcast sunset nears with a probable snowstorm on its heels—he’s just regained access to his higher mental functions. And his awareness that they’re indeed lying in a morass of sodden leaves and slush, on the probable ruin of Carver’s greatcoat, with Zev’s cloak covering them both. Carver’s fly is still open and the area around it as sodden as the ground. Zev’s pulled his own trousers up to his knees, but had then clearly given up, settling for the somewhat iffy warmth of the cloak.

 

He’s sprawled across Carver, as he tends to do—like a weighty, perfect blanket made of wickedly chuckling and purring northerner. Zev’s hat has fallen off and is . . . somewhere out of Carver’s limited sight-range. But he’s wearing his calfskin gloves again, lazily stroking high on Carver’s thigh under the shelter of the cloak.

 

Carver had woken up to all this and now, some . . . who-even-cares?-time later, drifts reluctantly out of perfect contentment.

 

The drift is slow . . . but not glacial. Even on his worst day, Carver’s never been glacial. Having seemingly—somehow—gotten everything he’s been wanting for literal years has begun to disperse the fog of formidable afterglow rather quicker than even natural progression and chilly weather should.

 

He has questions that need and might get answering, at last. But there’s one in particular that won’t wait a moment longer—that will no longer sit unasked. Not now that he’s at last certain regarding the if of it, and has been for . . . nearly two hours, depending on the accuracy of his dead-reckoning by the cloudy sunset.

 

Regarding Carver’s request, Zev takes his time, then makes a soft-sleepy grunting sound that’s not a yes, but isn’t a no, either.

 

So, Carver—who’s never lacked for bravery and direction, only, occasionally, fortitude and willpower—doesn’t even bother to take a steadying breath. He simply takes the plunge:

 

“How long?”

 

After a minute or two has passed in heavy and expectant silence, Zev shifts a little, then settles again, nuzzling into the scratchy bit of woolen tunic over Carver’s heart.

 

“At least since you asked me to travel to Skyhold with you, to find out what there was to find out about your sister’s death. You didn’t just need a traveling companion . . . you wanted . . . me. Trusted me. For such as I, that is the rarest of occurrences. And I’ve always had an acquisitive eye for the rare, the beautiful, and the valuable. Now,” Zev says, suddenly all business and sounding far more awake than he had seconds ago. He shifts again and levers himself so that he’s propped up on Carver’s ribs. His eyes are the color and temperature of tempered bronze. “My turn: What did you think would happen to me, once you were gone, after that ambush in the Frostbacks, caro? Once you had sacrificed yourself to fend off those desperate curs and save me? What would have happened to me if the Inquisitor and his party had not been providentially nearby—ridiculously so—on the way back to Skyhold from some quest or other? What if he hadn’t had the power and reserves to bring you back from the brink of your foolish, stupidly noble suicide attempt? What. Then?”

 

Unable to look away from Zev’s intent, flickering stare, Carver’s entire being trips and stumbles over its own feet.

 

You are magnificent, that being declares as it lies in an undignified, utterly content heap, there is no one who compares to you and I love you more than I have words or even lifetime to say. And you love me, too. All is right with my world, or soon will be.

 

Though Carver’s instinct is to grin, huge and half-witted—perhaps, even quarter-witted—he manages not to. He senses that in this moment it would only cause more stumbling blocks.

 

So, he brushes shiny-fine wisps of hair escaped from Zev’s many braids back and behind his long, elegantly pointed ear. He then lets his fingertips travel the angle of Zev’s tightly set jaw. “I . . . didn’t get that far, whilst detailing my foolish, but intricate plan for stupid, noble suicide. All that mattered was making sure those bastards didn’t hurt you anymore, or . . . or kill you. But I was certain I’d wake up in the Abyss, after. And that was fine, so long as . . . as I’d saved you. But I didn’t wake up to the Abyss. I woke up to you. To you by my side, to your concern—to the prospect of a life with the only person I’ve ever loved.” Carver sighs and smiles, wry and hapless: very much a smile from the Hawke side of the family’s repertoire. First seen on dad then on Marian, then practiced on Bethany and mum . . . and, now, perfected by Carver . . . not the best of the Hawkes, simply the last. “You once asked me what-ever happened to my ‘delightfully entrenched cynicism.’ That’s what happened to it, Zevran. I finally found something far better and truer. That cynicism had always been a lie. At least, when I was brave enough to let it be a lie. And when I woke up to what I expected to be my ultimate reward . . . there you were . . . by my side. I didn’t care whether I was dead or alive or just dreaming, only that you were there. Whatever else . . . you were there. And my cynicism ceased to even be a useful lie, let alone a used one.”

 

As Carver’s been speaking, Zev’s facial expression has been shifting from stern and wary—keen, in the manner of one attempting to sniff-out nugshit—to startled, vulnerable, and even a bit frightened. Then, very briefly, weary and despairing.

 

8Non ti ho mai odiato di più,” he murmurs, then huffs a tiny, tired giggle and shakes his head. “Né ho mai amato qualcuno così profondamente. Stupido, Zevran. . .”

 

Then his expression settles and stays on melancholy adoration and hope . . . and fondness, too. Zev even quirks a slight, self-deprecating smirk at Carver, before catching the hand still lingering near his jaw. He presses a single, fervent kiss to Carver’s scarred knuckles.

 

Then, he resumes his indolent sprawl across Carver, resting his head over Carver’s wool-buffered heartbeat.

 

“She’s already had her champion,” Zev whispers to the strong, slow rhythm, his tone determined and ferocious. Even . . . murderous. “She will only take you from me over my dead body.”

 

Carver doesn’t even have to wonder to whom Zev is referring. Now that its presence is recalled to him, he can feel Starfang, quiescent but ready, mere feet away. He can feel it, waiting and eager . . . just as he can feel Zev’s body tensing then releasing against his own.

 

Then tightening . . . then loosening.

 

On-alert . . . then, finally . . . relaxing.

 

Trusting, beyond all doubt.

 

Also, beyond doubt is that during some slumber or moment of distraction of Carver’s, before their stay on Soldier’s Peak has ended, the legendary Starfang will turn-up missing, if not exactly missed.

 

Zev will, of course, help Carver search high and low—and even High and Low . . . starting with the wine cellars—for the great blade, but to no avail. And eventually, by midwinter at latest, Zev will have convinced him to move-on to somewhere warmer.

 

And, at some point in the far-too-near future, Carver knows, some young, unsung, pure-of-heart champion-in-waiting will stumble across the most amazing . . . whatever sort of weapon, lying at the bottom of a ravine below lonely Soldier’s Peak and its fortress. . . .

 

Carver knows all this and decides the best thing to do, would be to do as Marian Hawke would do: cut out the middle-man.

 

Once whatever snowstorm is gathering has done and blustered out, he and Zev can be back on the road, again. Hopefully, in less than a week . . . and, perhaps, to Rivain, for a year or three.

 

It’s a plan, and a good one. Any plan that involves seeing the world with Zev as his beloved “companion” and guide is a good one.

 

So, Carver holds close and holds on, committed and given-over beyond all reserve and reason.

 

When the overcast, orange glow has shifted even more precipitously westward, the wind and chill pick up noticeably. Carver’s long-since assumed that Zev’s drifted off, and he’s trying to figure out how to get them both dressed again, then get them and their gear to the High and Low, without waking his light-sleeping lover. It’s as Carver’s settled on and mentally designed a make-do travois of his greatcoat, some twine from his pack, and whatever yardsticks he can find—with himself in the role of nuggalope-of-burden—that Zev starts speaking:

 

“I knew him. The Hero of Ferelden,” he admits, hesitant and quiet. “The Warden. Theron Mahariel was . . . as the stories say . . . brave and noble. Kind and true. Fierce, and fantastically gorgeous. Yet . . . unexpectedly earnest and unselfconscious. Adorable. In other words, precisely my type.”

 

Zev’s chuckle is sad and sardonic, but more nostalgic than grieving. “He, ah . . . was also a man of such peerless character and ethical code, even I could not doubt him. And. . . .

 

“I loved him. I loved him, and . . . and I’m almost entirely certain he loved me back. . . .”

 

 

~#~

 

“Not pure like sugarcane. . . ./ Sweeter./ She was so sweet when you were alone./ Sweet and low./ She seems to soothe the pain inside/ Oh, inside you./ We were so sweet before we were alone./ Oh, so alone. . . .”

Tedeschi Trucks Band, “Sweet And Low”

 

~END~

 

“Antivan” Translations :

 

  1. “My dear one.”
  2. “My brave and shining champion . . . I couldn’t survive if I lost you, too. . . .”
  3. “You are the beating of my heart, but . . . I cannot . . . I cannot.”
  4. “My stupid, beautiful martyr . . . My noble, selfless idiot. My . . . sweetest, most true love—the beating of my heart and the only reason behind its fierce beating . . . pretty.”
  5. “It's never been as good as it is with you. Never. Don't ever stop . . . ah, my heart, my only love . . . harder . . . and don't ever stop. Don't ever . . . ohhhh . . . now, dear one, now . . . Need to have all of you, be filled by you . . . please . . . give it to me, now, pleeeeease. . . .”
  6. “I have never hated you more . . . nor have I ever loved anyone so deeply. Stupid, Zevran.”