In which Alistair is mostly adorable and Aedan is mostly not.
Previous Chapter (To Dream of Dragons – Chapter 16: Wisdom to Know the Difference)
Sunday, 3 Solace, 9:30 Dragon
It was strange to admit, after the horrors of Lothering, but Raven felt more relaxed than she’d been since she’d first met the Wardens. The cool, quiet forest was soothing and peaceful. She chuckled to herself as she imagined Rob’s reaction to that train of thought.
“Something funny?” asked Alistair, walking beside her.
“Just picturing how my brother would gloat if he knew I was actually enjoying myself. I’ve always hated being outdoors, even as a kid. I usually complain nonstop about the bugs, the weather, the lack of proper bathrooms… everything, really… and Rob always harasses me about it.”
“I can’t picture you complaining that much.”
She gave a soft huff of laughter. “That’s only because I’ve been on my best behavior, so Aedan wouldn’t get sick of me and dump me in the nearest town.” The other Warden looked up at the sound of his name, and shook his head with a smile before going back to his conversation with Wynne. “Trust me, under the right circumstances, I’m a world champion whiner.”
“I’ll take your word for it,” Alistair chuckled. “So, what’s different about this trip?” His voice held just a shade too much nonchalance, and she couldn’t resist the chance to tease him.
“Well, for one thing, I grew up near a lot of woods. There’s something comforting about being someplace that looks like home.”
His face fell. “Oh. Yes, of course.”
“And I suppose it helps that the company is good.”
“It… it is?”
“Definitely. I mean, Wynne’s got some of the best stories, and Hohaku is a great listener.”
Alistair gave her a sidelong glance, trying to determine if she was serious. With a smirk, she leaned over and playfully bumped his armored bicep with her shoulder. “Oh, and there’s this one ridiculously handsome ex-templar that’s all right to be around, I guess.”
His eyes lit up and he bounced like an eager puppy, which was adorably at odds with his attempt to sound suave. “Soooo… you think I’m handsome, hmmmmm?”
Raven grinned. “Did I say that? I’m sure I couldn’t have. It would be forward, unladylike or something.”
“Riiiight,” the ex-templar drawled with a chuckle. “So, is this the part where I get to say the same?”
“What, that you also find yourself ridiculously handsome?” She feigned a scandalized glance. “Seems a bit conceited, don’t you think?”
He laughed. “Possibly, but who am I to argue with facts?” He pretended to preen as she giggled.
As the day wore on, Alistair spoke up again. “I was trying to imagine how a child could’ve preferred being cooped up inside.” He gave her a rueful grin. “Then it occurred to me that inside for me was where Isolde was, so that may have influenced my preference for the outdoors.”
Raven ignored his attempt at humor in favor of curiosity. “She was awful to you even then?”
He gave a mirthless laugh. “She hated me before she ever laid eyes on me. Before she came, Arl Eamon treated me sort of like a pageboy. I had a small room in the Keep, clothes, playthings. Eamon was usually busy, but I did have lessons with one of the Chantry brothers, and sometimes Teagan would visit and tell me stories of the Grand Tourneys up in the Marches.”
“It sounds… lonely,” she said.
He shrugged, uncomfortable. “I… suppose it was, a bit. But the arl didn’t have to take me in at all. I was grateful… until Isolde came.”
Alistair stared unseeing down the path ahead, his expression at odds with his carefully indifferent tone. “She said it wasn’t proper for some bastard child to be treated like nobility. My lessons stopped, and I was sent to live in the stable hayloft with three other boys. I wasn’t allowed in the library; too grubby to be around the books, she said. My playthings disappeared. And the servants… any who might have taken pity on me were afraid to. Isolde wasn’t cruel to them; she was too pious for that. But everyone knew she hated me, and she controlled who was hired or dismissed. No servant would risk a place in the arl’s household over some motherless brat.”
Unable to think of a suitable reply, Raven reached out and took the tall Warden’s gauntleted hand. The worn leather covering his palm was warm against her fingers. He looked down in surprise, and forced a self-deprecating laugh. “Listen to me nattering on. Pity the poor little bastard prince, forced to work for a living! Who’s the world champion whiner now, eh?”
When her only response was to tighten her grip, he sighed. “It’s just… I tried so hard to get her to like me. I saw the servant children with their mothers, and… well.” His mouth crooked in a not-smile full of old pain. “When I was small, Eamon gave me a…” he colored slightly, “a golem doll from a shop in Denerim. Silly, I know, but I loved it… so when they started taking my things away, I hid it by burying it in the gardens, and congratulated my young self on being so clever. But then Isolde’s name day came, and I didn’t have a gift for her. So I dug up the only thing I owned… brushed the dirt off as best I could, and gave it to her. She… she said it was filthy and disgusting, and threw it in the fire.” After a long moment, he brushed hastily at the corners of his eyes, and shrugged. “It was filthy and disgusting; she wasn’t wrong. But to answer your question, no, Isolde’s feelings aren’t new. She always thought me a troublesome and worthless burden, and most people since have seemed to agree.”
They had stopped in the middle of the path. Aedan and Wynne drew further ahead, but Raven was unable to look away from the ache in the depths of the warrior’s amber eyes. “Alistair, that idiotic woman has been wrong about nearly everything in her foolish life, but she was by far the most wrong about you.” With effort and a deep breath, she set aside her anger at Isolde and arranged her thoughts. After a moment, she poured her heart into her eyes and willed him to believe her. “You are not now, nor have you ever been, worthless. You’re kind, funny, strong, and smart… more attractive than anyone has a right to be… you care for people whether they deserve it or not, and you risk your life to protect them. You’re amazing.”
Blushing awkwardly, he shrugged. “Don’t let Morrigan hear you say that; she’ll start doubting your sanity.”
She had no intention of letting him deflect. “I’m serious! Would the Grey Wardens choose a ‘worthless burden’ to join them on the verge of a Blight? Duncan knew your value; he was so determined to recruit you that he fought the Revered Mother over it! And what about Cullen? Someone with his stubborn grip on honor wouldn’t be friends with just anybody.”
Alistair shifted self-consciously and wouldn’t meet her eyes; that simply wouldn’t do. She reached up and laid her hands on either side of his face, bringing his gaze to hers. “You are a good man, Alistair Theirin. Please believe me when I say you can’t possibly imagine how many people you’ve already touched and inspired. You’re a hero.”
Their eyes locked; warm golden sand met blue summer sky. As Raven’s urgent need to comfort him abated, she realized with a start that his arms had folded around her. Her heartbeat kicked into overdrive, and her thoughts scattered as he leaned down to rest his forehead against hers.
“I… thank you,” he said softly. “No one has ever spoken of me that way before. I will do my best to be worthy of it.” And gently, he pressed his lips to her forehead, his chin resting against the bridge of her nose, and his hand cradling the back of her head.
It was a moment outside of time, and they might have stayed that way forever… but Aedan called out impatiently, and Hohaku came running back to find them. They broke apart, blushing, but Raven tucked her arm through Alistair’s elbow as they hurried to catch up with the others.
The afternoon sun filtered greenly through the treetops, decorating the shaded path with tiny stars of daylight. And then suddenly, the scholar laughed.
Alistair looked at her, confused. “What?”
She grinned back with evil glee. “I just thought… I know you don’t want the job, but if Eamon does announce your parentage and try to make you the next king, just imagine Isolde’s face.” After a moment of looking utterly stunned, he burst into helpless laughter along with her, and their mirth rang through the wood.
Monday, 4 Solace, 9:30 Dragon
She’d just finished setting up camp for the evening when Alistair beckoned her to the edge of the clearing. “What’s up?” she asked? His brow wrinkled for a second – ‘Oops, Earth slang again,’ she thought – but he just shrugged and drew her into the trees.
“I want to show you something,” he said once they were out of sight of the camp, and he pulled something out of his pocket with a nervous smile.
It was a rose. It was the rose.
Raven’s thoughts screeched to a halt as, once again, she struggled with the surreal. In the game, once a female character chose the right romance-related dialogue options, Alistair would present her with a rose, comparing it to her uniqueness and beauty. It was a conversation she’d played through countless times, always with a happy little flutter in her heart.
And now, here he stood in front of her, in reality.
“Do you know what this is?” he asked.
Still scrambling to wrap her mind around the situation, she heard herself give her favorite in-game response: “Your new weapon of choice?”
“Yes, that’s right,” he agreed merrily, launching into faux battle. “Watch as I thrash our enemies with the mighty power of floral arrangements! Feel my thorns, darkspawn! I will overpower you with my rosy scent!”
Raven giggled, disarmed as always by his humor. With a shrug, he added, “Or, you know, it could just be a rose. I know that’s pretty dull in comparison.”
Her heart hammered as his golden gaze enveloped her. “I picked it in Lothering, outside the Hawkes’ house. I remember thinking, ‘How could something so beautiful exist, surrounded by so much despair and ugliness?’“ He gave a rueful grin. “I probably should’ve left it alone. I’m lucky there wasn’t some… some spell waiting to ensnare unwary flower thieves.” After she chuckled, he grew serious again. “But I couldn’t just leave it there. Wynne said the wards would fade, and I couldn’t let the darkspawn’s filth creep in and destroy it. So I picked it. And I’ve had it ever since.”
“It’s beautiful,” she said… and, because she’d always been bothered by the plot hole, added, “How is it still fresh after all this time?”
“Wynne did a little magic to preserve it… but she said it would’ve lasted longer than normal anyway; something about the wards, and magic affecting the plants. I mostly just nodded and tried to look like I understood what she was talking about.”
“Well, I’m glad you found it. And I’m sure the Hawkes would be too.”
He’d left his armor in camp, and it added to his vulnerability as he cleared his throat nervously. “Yes, well… good. That’s good. No need for me to fear the wrath of the magic garden monster, then.”
“No,” she said, smiling softly.
“So anyway, the rose… I thought it was beautiful, and I wanted to… give it to you, actually. In a lot of ways, I think the same thing when I look at you.”
She knew the right response was to thank him for the sentiment. And she wanted to; oh, she wanted to… to fall into that story and into his arms and believe every bit of it down to the depths of her soul. But…
“Why?” she said instead, wincing at the pathetic, plaintive tone of her voice.
He blinked. “…what?”
“I just… Alistair, I’m a mess. I don’t know what I’m doing out here. I muddle through, just barely finding a way to make myself useful, one bad day away from putting everybody else in danger because of my incompetence. Wynne and Morrigan can shoot lightning from their hands, and Leliana and Zevran know enough ways to kill people to fill a book, and you… you’re a Grey Warden, a hero of legend, a knight in shining armor who vanquishes evil and protects the innocent! And meanwhile I’m here, sweating to keep up, glasses slipping down my nose, like, ‘Uh, I read about the Dalish once.’” Her eyes slid off into the distance. “Not to mention that you’re amazing, and roses are beautiful, and I’m… not.” Her eyes were downcast. “I just… I don’t see why you’d connect something like that with someone like me.”
To her surprise, the Warden chuckled. “You realize we just had this conversation yesterday,” he said, “except the other way ‘round.”
“That was different,” she said stubbornly.
Alistair laughed, shaking his head. “Not at all. You call me a hero, but you’re more heroic than any of us.”
“…pssh, right. How?” she scoffed.
“Wynne and Morrigan were born with a power you don’t have. I don’t know about Leliana, but I’ve been trained in combat since childhood.” He scowled briefly. “I suppose Zevran was as well, though his main skill seems to lie in being obnoxious.”
His amber eyes searched her face. “But you… even though you spent most of your life in a library, here you are. When most people were cowering in the Redcliffe Chantry, you were arguing for the chance to come out and fight for them. When you couldn’t, you turned that beautiful mind of yours toward building clever defenses. You helped fend off a professional assassin, and had an arrow cut out of your arm with barely a whimper. I could go on, but the point is, it’s one thing to charge into a fight when you’ve trained for it all your life. It’s something else entirely when you’re brave enough to face it without that, just because it’s the right thing to do.”
She frowned. “Well, but that’s… I mean, what else could I do? I couldn’t very well just sit back with a book and a cup of tea and hope it all works out.”
“You could, actually, and no one would fault you for it. But I’m glad you didn’t. And you’re right that it isn’t fair to compare your beauty to a rose…” His gaze roamed her face with a reverence that made her heart skip. “A simple flower could never come close.”
With agonizing slowness, he leaned closer, and Raven was certain he’d hear her pulse hammering as his lips met hers. It was dizzyingly sweet, even despite his inexpert awkwardness. But her arms slid up around his neck, and she tilted her head to find a better angle, and discovered he was a blindingly fast learner. When they finally parted, she smiled dreamily up at him with half-lidded eyes, and found him looking nervous. “That… that wasn’t too soon, was it?”
“I don’t know,” she quoted the game. “I need more testing to be sure.”
“Well, I’ll have to arrange that, then, won’t I?” he laughed, and then fell back to studying her face with that expression of wonderment that melted her soul. “Maker’s breath, but you’re beautiful.”
She knew she wouldn’t be able to speak without falling into giddy tears, so instead, she just kissed him again.
Tuesday, 5 Solace, 9:30 Dragon
They had walked for four days just to reach the edge of the Dalish scout patrols, and they felt the eyes of unseen elves upon them the whole time. Aedan had grown more irritable with each passing day. Finally, one of their hidden watchers materialized on the path in front of them to say they’d reached the outer edge of the clan’s patrols and were nearing the heart of the forest. Before anyone could respond, the elf vanished back into the foliage.
“Friendly bunch, aren’t they?” said Alistair. Aedan just glowered and continued walking.
The tension grew throughout the day, but Raven got no closer to figuring out the Warden’s foul mood. So she was utterly unprepared when, after they made camp that night, he gave her a measuring glance and said, “So, Raven. What’s about to happen?”
She gaped at him open-mouthed, while Wynne and Alistair exchanged confused looks. Finally, she stammered, “What… what do you mean?”
He glared, and that aged, ‘weight of the world’ look flashed over his features again. “Can we just skip the part where you pretend not to know what I’m talking about? I am stomping around some Maker-forsaken forest, running errands for a self-important arse of an elf who I know – I know – is lying to me… just so he’ll honor a treaty his people already signed, and lend me a few Dalish fighters who weren’t good enough to defend their own camp. I do not need any more shite to deal with right now.”
Wynne’s blue eyes were kind as she reached out to give the young Warden a gentle pat on the shoulder. “I can’t imagine all you’ve been through, dear…but you have already accomplished great things, and—“
Aedan had been fidgeting with a stick while he spoke, and at that, he flung it into the underbrush with surprising force. “No, you don’t get it. This isn’t me. My brother Fergus is the important one, the heir. I’m the spare. My life was supposed to be tournaments and wenches, maybe someday marry some boring noble girl for an alliance. That’s it. And now I’m supposed to stop a fucking Blight. I’d never even seen a Dalish elf before, but now I’m negotiating treaties with them. And I have to, because I’m the only one who can, even though I have no fucking clue what I’m doing.”
He paused in his tirade, his green eyes boring into Raven’s. “So when someone has the answers I need, you can be damned sure I’m going to get them.”
Alistair frowned, edging protectively toward the scholar. “But Raven has been helping all along. I don’t see why you’re suddenly acting like she won’t.”
The other Warden gave a tired, humorless laugh. “No, I’m sure you don’t. Perhaps the lady could explain?”
As Raven radiated unease, Aedan sighed. “Look, I didn’t intend to do things this way. I told your brother I understood your reasons for secrecy, and I do. But after seeing Lothering… and then having these damned elves run us off into the forest, watching us, forcing us to dance to their tune… I just can’t keep this up.”
He threw a dismissive glance at their companions. “Who knows; Wynne’s experience as a mage might give her some insight. And… something tells me you’ll want Alistair to know sooner or later anyway.”
Raven removed her glasses and scrubbed her face with the heels of her hands, trying to steel herself against the possible fallout of the corner Aedan had just backed her into. Finally, with her eyes riveted on the flames of their small campfire, she began to speak.
“Well, that is certainly an interesting story,” Wynne said, clearly trying to hide her disbelief, but Raven had no attention to spare for the old mage. Alistair had listened to the whole tale with an increasingly unreadable expression, and when she’d finished, he’d risen without a word and walked out of camp.
Aedan looked off in the direction he’d gone for a long moment, before turning back to the scholar. “So, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way—“
Raven held up her index finger, the calm gesture of negation at odds with the anger crackling in her eyes. “No,” she said, her voice dangerously quiet. “You didn’t have to do it like this. I’ll still help you, because I’m not that petty. But that was utter bullshit you just pulled, and you know it. I am not talking to you right now.” The Warden’s mouth hung slightly open as she rose and walked away.
She found Alistair perched in the crook of an old oak tree, watching a pair of halla in a small clearing on the other side of a narrow brook. The beautiful white deer-like creatures, with their long spiraling antlers twisting back from their graceful heads, looked up sharply at her approach, but seeing no threat, they returned to grazing. Raven breathed in the pine-scented serenity of the forest, and wished she felt as calm.
“I used to watch deer graze like that in a field near my house when I was little,” she said tentatively. “They always seemed so pretty and peaceful.”
“And was that in your made-up childhood in the real Free Marches, or your real childhood in the made-up land beyond the Fade where my life is just some funny story you tell for entertainment?” he asked harshly.
She recoiled, stricken. “It’s not like that!”
“And how would I know what it’s like? You hid it from me!” he burst out. “All the times we’ve talked in the last two months… I even told you about Isolde and that stupid doll, which I’ve never told anyone, and you were lying to me the whole time! Idiot Alistair isn’t smart enough to understand the truth, so why bother, right?” The anger in his tone shattered her, but not nearly as much as the wounded look in his eyes.
“You’d have thought I was crazy! ‘Oh hi, I’m Raven and I’m from an alternate dimension and I thought you were a fictional character but it turns out here you are!’ That would’ve gone over well! And at first, I thought we’d find a way home, and nobody would even remember us anyway. But…”
“But now you’re stuck here, with us imaginary people who you can manipulate to do what you want.” The Warden’s voice held a bitterness that didn’t suit him. “Tell me, when you said those nice things to me the other day, did you really mean any of that, or was it just a test to see if I was foolish enough to believe it?”
The unfairness of his accusation added a hint of anger to her anguish, and her words flowed as unchecked as the tears streaming down her face. “You have no idea how wrong you are. So many times… so many… when I was lonely, hurt, feeling worthless… I’d go back and replay your story, and I’d feel better. And every single time, I fell in love with you a little bit more. And I mocked myself, because you weren’t real, and how stupid was I to daydream about a man who didn’t even exist? But I couldn’t help it. I couldn’t help loving you! And then I got here, and I met you, and I tried to fight it, even though Rob and Leliana and even Zevran could see it. But then I found out we were staying, and even though it seemed ridiculous to hope, I hoped…”
Alistair silently watched her with turbulent eyes, and she ran out of strength to fight. “But I should’ve known better. I should have known something would ruin it. I told Leliana back in Redcliffe… people like me don’t get to be with people like you.”
Defeated and heartbroken, she turned and walked off into the dark and silent wood.
He didn’t follow.
Next Chapter (To Dream of Dragons – Chapter 18: The Course of True Love)