Fandom: Dragon Age: Origins
Rating: PG-13, for now
Characters: Zevran, Alistair
Pairings: Alistair/Elissa Cousland
Spoilers: Yes, for the Redeemer ending
Summary: Ten years after the Blight's end, Zevran finds an old friend in need of aid. But can you ever really go home again?
Notes: It's been a long, long time since I've posted a new story as a WIP. It's something I try to avoid, mostly because even my longer stories tend not to have natural chapter breaks. But this one is playing out differently, so I figure, why not? It's almost done, I promise; just a couple more scenes to go on the last chapter.
My first time through the Landsmeet, I was Elissa Cousland, playing her as goodhearted but practical, and Riordan's logic for conscripting Loghain into the Wardens seemed entirely sensible, to me and her both. So I couldn't quite believe, even as it was happening, that Alistair was really going to walk away and leave her forever. But then he did, and when he didn't even show up for the final battle at Denerim, I insisted on going back and doing the Landsmeet again, just to get him back. So I've never actually played through the Redeemer ending, but the concept of it still appeals to me as a writer. Especially since I am a total sucker for a separation and reunion story, and this seemed a perfect set-up.
"A pint of your finest, my lovely, and make it snappy." Zevran slid onto the barstool and leered at the bartender, a pretty girl of about twenty. She returned his smile warmly, then pulled him a glass. He drank deep of the refreshing ale, finishing half the glass in just a few swallows. The last leg of his journey to Starkhaven had been a hot and thirsty one, but the reward would be sweet.
Setting down the glass with a thump, he swiveled around on his seat and took the measure of the tavern. Intelligence-gathering, that was his new specialty, taking people's secrets rather than their lives; he found the work almost as exciting, and he slept more soundly. And if the occasional situation got out of hand, well. For good or ill, such incidents came with the territory. As long as he provided the goods and covered his tracks well enough, his employer knew better than to ask too many questions.
Today, the tavern was filled with the usual characters: farmers and workmen enjoying a pint with their lunch, a minstrel playing away by the fire, young women indulging in gossip. Even the requisite sot was on hand, already in his cups despite the hour, slumped at a dark table, a bottle in his hands and another empty at his feet. There was something not quite right, though, Zevran thought with a frown, and then it came to him: the man seemed far too young to be the town drunkard. Too young, and too fit, he added silently, with a moment of admiration for the fellow's well-tuned arms. Curiosity got the better of him, and he turned back to the bartender .
"You see that poor bastard in the corner?" Zevran waved in the man's general direction. "What's his story?"
"Ah, the sad sack." The girl shook her head, ruefully. "He's a small-time mercenary, a solo operator. Hunts down bandits, the occasional darkspawn, that kind of thing. He comes here most days, to drown his sorrows I assume, although no one knows what they are. He doesn't talk much, see, not unless he's arranging a job. There's a rumor that he used to be a Grey Warden, can you believe it?" She sighed. "Shame, really, a fine man like that, letting himself go to waste."
"A Grey Warden?" Zevran raised his eyebrows, and then he almost fell off the stool. "No!" He whispered it to himself, a thrill of horror racing down his spine. "No, it cannot be!" He leaned forward, peering closer, taking in the dark blond hair, the broad shoulders, the square jaw... and the impossible became probable as the man looked up.
Zevran whirled back to the bar and busied himself with his drink. Had he been noticed? He thought not -- the man's eyes were bleary, focused into the distance -- but still he waited, watching out of the corner of his eye until his target looked away, gaze turned back onto his bottle. Only then did he stand up and walk across the room, blending into the background until he reached the table and the man's side. Once there, safely out of earshot of the bartender, covered by the sound of chatting and singing and clinking glasses, he cleared his throat.
He craned his head around at Zevran, eyes narrowed. "And what if I am?" It was the same voice, all right, and the same eyes, though shot through with red from the drink, and sunken into the dark hollows of cheeks rough with stubble. His hair had grown out into an unruly mop, his skin had gone sallow, and there was a meanness to his musculature that Zevran did not remember from before. And then there was the smell: Zevran had noticed the miasma of alcohol right away, but there was a sour, musky undercurrent to it, too, of unwashed sweat and stale vomit. In short, he was a mess. No wonder Zevran had not recognized him right away.
"Do you not know me?" Zevran tipped his head to the side. "It has been a long time, to be sure, but I would hate to think I might be that forgettable."
Alistair blinked, and his mouth turned down in a frown. "Zevran? What are you doing here?"
"Running an errand for the Warden-Commander. I'd tell you more, but then I'd have to kill you." The quip did not draw so much as a smile, and Zevran sighed inside at the change in his former companion. "May I join you?" Without waiting for an answer, he drew a chair over from the next empty table and sat, placing his glass on the table. "I would ask how you are, but I suspect I already know the answer."
Alistair looked away, at the floor. "If you're here to make small talk, you might as well leave now. I've no interest in catching up; not on the old times, nor on the new. If you're here for a drink, well." He waved a dismissive hand at the bottle in front of him. "Then stay. I'm good for that much, at least."
Zevran said nothing, remembering. He had been there at the Landsmeet, an observer in the shadows on the day Alistair had left their company for good. When their leader had spared Loghain's life to make him a Warden, something broke in him, all the light in his eyes sputtering out as he had made ready to leave.
"Don't go," she had said, pleading, a hand reaching out, stopping just short of his arm.
But Alistair had only looked away. "I can't." And then he had gone, turning his back on her, on all of them, trudging out of the hall and out of the story, leaving nothing behind except the wreckage of two hearts, shattered in pieces on the flagstone floor. She had stared at the closed door for too long, her expression one of utter desolation; when she finally returned to the discussion at hand, she'd composed herself back into the decisive commander, but Zevran still saw the difference, on that day and every one after. The joy had gone out of her, and now, looking at Alistair, his hands wrapped around his bottle, his cheeks flushed and his back bowed, Zevran rather thought joy kept itself far from this place, too. Whatever had broken was still not mended, and might never be, without help.
"One drink," he said. "But only if you tell me what you are doing here, alone, derelict from your duties."
"My duties?" Alistair snorted. "The sword on my back and the bottle in my hand: that's all I have a duty to, now."
"Oh?" Zevran raised an eyebrow. "Pardon me if I speak out of turn, but somehow I received the impression that a Grey Warden took his vows for life."
Alistair's gaze hardened. "Do not presume to speak to me of a Warden's duty, a Warden's honor. I thought I knew what those things were. And then..." His hand tightened around the bottle, knuckles white, and he lifted it to his lips and drank, eyes closed as he tossed his head back.
Zevran shook his head. "Alistair. The man has been dead for ten years. Surely you could find some way to let it go."
"Let it go?" The bottle landed back on the table with a thump, and Alistair stared across the table at him. "Loghain is dead, yes. A dead hero. Made the ultimate sacrifice to stop the Blight, to save Ferelden and all of Thedas, that's what they say. His name is spoken with reverence." His eyes flashed with rage, and the bitterness in his voice could have curdled cream. "Does anyone speak of Duncan so, remember him as a hero? Or the other Grey Wardens who fell at Ostegar? No. No one remembers. No one, except for me." He grabbed the bottle and flung it against the wall; it crashed, leaving only shards of glass in a puddle of whiskey. "And so, to answer your question. What am I doing here? I... am drinking. So I don't have to remember. So I can sleep without dreaming. So I can live with myself for letting it all happen." He propped his elbows on the table and let his forehead fall into his hands, fingers buried in his hair. "Now leave. Me. Alone."
"As you will." Zevran finished his ale, though he had no stomach for it now, and stood. "But I must tell you one thing first. You are not the only person who remembers. Of this, I can assure you." Alistair bowed his head more deeply, and Zevren let a hand fall on his shoulder. "I expect be in the city for a week's time. And so, exactly one week from today, I will come by this tavern. If you are here, I will take it as a sign that you are ready to talk." He squeezed Alistair's shoulder lightly, then let go. "I understand if you cannot forgive. Some wounds cut too deep to ever truly heal. But I think she would at least like to know that you live. Be well, my friend, and perhaps I will see you soon." Without another look back, he left.
One week later, Zevran found himself at the same table, in the same tavern, ostensibly looking at the reports he had gathered and nursing his drink, but really he was waiting. And hoping, though his hope dimmed with each passing minute. He had not, he supposed, been too surprised not to find Alistair waiting for him. But he had more than half-expected to see him eventually. Had he been in Alistair's shoes, simple curiosity would probably have driven him here.
But the appointed hour had been and gone, and nothing would be served by dawdling further. With a sigh, Zevran finished his drink. After straightened his papers and securing them in his rucksack, he tossed a few silvers on the table and left.
And then, in the courtyard by the stables, there he was. Dressed in worn plate armor, a shining sword and a somewhat battered shield bearing the Grey Warden griffon on his back, and leaning against the post of the paddock, his expression was wary, and a sheen of sweat rested on his brow. Zevran took a few steps toward him, and he stood up straight.
"I don't know why I came," he said.
"We can talk about it inside, if you like." Zevran gestured to the door.
"I think... I had best stay out of taverns for a little while." Alistair glanced up at the sky and winced. "Although the sun isn't doing me much better." He swayed a little on his feet; Zevran moved to catch him, but he regained balance on his own. "Maker's breath, I need a drink."
Zevran shook his head. "I have a better plan. Alcohol is a poison like any other, yes? And so, like any other, it is susceptible to antidotes. Come with me, and I'll craft one for you."
"I would be most grateful. I think." Alistair's next question carried a faint air of astonishment. "But why would you help me?"
"You question my motives for providing aid to an old comrade-in-arms?" Zevran grinned up at him. "Should that not be its own reward?"
"For you?" Alistair cast him a sideways glance. "No."
Zevran laughed. "Well, you may believe me or not, as you prefer, but I do happen to care about your welfare. But in truth, it is as much for her as for you, or for myself."
"For her." Alistair sighed. "You must mean... Elissa." He flinched as he spoke the name, the pain as fresh on his face as it had been ten years ago.
"Indeed," Zevran replied with a nod. "I still work for her, you see, and we remain great friends. And I think she would like it if I took care of you."
Alistair raised an eyebrow. "Friends?"
He scarred the word with disbelief and sarcasm, and Zevran spread his hands in response. "Friends," he confirmed. Well, most of the time. She had come to him, that first night in the field on the way back to Redcliffe, looking for comfort and a place to sleep, and he had been more than willing to provide both, on that night and many nights that followed. But her heart had never truly been in it, and they had broken things off amiably not long after the Blight's end, although they still sought one another's company from time to time. Still, best not to go into too much detail -- it would only confuse the poor boy. "Now come with me."
They had ridden a short distance from Starkhaven, then made a rough camp to take care of the business of sobering up. Alistair had half-fallen off his horse twice on the journey, his hands shaking against the reins, and so when Zevran finally called a halt, he dismounted in relief. Only pride kept his knees from buckling as he hit the ground; he grabbed at the water skin and drank, and though it quenched his simple thirst, it did nothing for the emptiness that clawed at his belly or the pounding in his head. He longed for something stronger, just a sip. A nip to dull the pain that was his constant companion. It took all his will not to give in.
Oblivion was his craving, and it was oblivion he had sought: the temporary peace provided by the bottle, the final peace of falling in battle. The latter had eluded him, and so he killed himself by degrees instead. After Zevran had left the tavern, Alistair had not moved for a long time, contemplating these things, seeing himself as Zevran must have seen him, a broken husk of a man, stinking of whiskey and regret. He forced himself to stare into a mirror that night, and he misliked the face that stared back.
And so he had spent a week of long nights in his hovel, wrestling with the question of what to do next. Zevran's words weighed on him, and the face that he drank to forget hovered at the edge of his mind. He ached to see her, to touch her cheek and hold her close, even as his stomach twisted in angry knots at the memory of her betrayal. He hated her still; he loved her yet; he could not say which emotion was the more powerful. But one truth overrode them both: Zevran's visit had shocked him out of his fugue state. He had only been able to continue on this path when he could ignore the cliff it was leading him over. Now he looked past the edge, saw the rocks and the churning sea that awaited him at the bottom, and the vision stopped him dead in his tracks. Perhaps returning to Ferelden would be a mistake, but he had to make some change in course. Even a catastrophic change was preferable to none at all.
And so here he was, huddled by a small fire, arms wrapped around himself and shaking, but though his body rebelled, his head was clear for the first time in years.
"You do not look so well." Zevran stared down at him, concern written plain on his face. "It will take me some time to prepare the antidote; can you hold on for a little while? Would you like a nap, perhaps, or something to eat?"
Alistair laughed, a sharp, mirthless sound. "I think even the smell of food would not go down easy. And there's only thing that brings me sleep, anymore. Thank you, but I will manage. Just..." His mouth twisted into a frown. "Don't take too long about it, all right?"
Zevran patted him on the shoulder. "I will be as quick as I can. Meanwhile, just try to rest."
With a nod, Alistair drew even tighter into himself, closed his eyes, and willed time to pass.
Zevran looked up from his cauldron and wiped the sweat from his eyes. It was hot work, brewing antidotes over an open fire, but now it was done. He took a gulp of water from his canteen, then pulled four crystal flasks from his pack, which he set down on the ground with great care, balancing them on the flattest spot he could find. After nestling them in the dirt to hold them steady, he poured the vile-smelling yellow liquid out of the cauldron and into each flask, taking care not to spill any. Once the last drop was away, he put the cauldron aside and stoppered the bottles, holding one up to the light. Yes, this was right -- just the perfect level of clarity, not a smudge of sediment left.
Satisfied, he turned to his patient, who had barely moved; still crouched by the fire, Alistair had wrapped a dirty grey blanket over his shoulders and clutched it to himself despite the warmth of the day, shivering violently. He stared into the flames with focused intensity, and Zevran could swear there was a green tinge to his temples.
"It's ready," he said, and Alistair looked up with a jerk, startled. Zevran walked around the fire and knelt next to him, holding out the first flask. "Drink it all, in a single draught if you can manage it. This is not a brew meant for delicate sips."
Alistair took the bottle and examined it, cautious. "It looks like piss." He pulled out the stopper, then jerked away, rolling his eyes in revulsion. "And it smells even worse! Do I have to?"
The petulant tone reminded Zevran so much of Alistair's occasional reactions to having wounds stitched in the field that he had to smile. Perhaps his old friend was still buried somewhere in that ravaged shell after all. "It is a strong build-up of toxins that your body must fight, so it takes a potent brew to counteract them. The sooner you drink, the sooner you will sleep, and when you wake, you will feel better."
Alistair wrinkled his nose. "I suppose I haven't much choice other than to trust you." Closing his eyes, he drank the entire contents of the flask in a few swallows, and then he tossed it away into the bushes, shuddering. "Ugh. That has to be the most disgusting thing I've ever tasted, and that includes darkspawn blood. You had... better be right... about..." The tonic took hold even before he could finish the sentence; his eyes drooped shut, and as his body relaxed, he lay down on the ground, breathing heavily. Zevran spread the blanket out over his prone form and pulled out a second one, still folded up, to slip under his cheek as a pillow. He watched until he was certain that Alistair had slipped into complete unconsciousness; once Alistair's breathing had eased, Zevran leaned closer and ran a gentle hand over his hair. "It is good to have you back, my friend," he murmured. "I only hope it is not too late."
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