Of Blood and Sacrifices

Written for the LiveJournal Team Alistair's official weekly swooping challenge. Option 1.

A/N: First of all, thanks to everyone who's read my previous one-shots. It keeps me going, to know that people are interested in what I have to tell.

This piece stemmed from my dissatisfaction with the developers giving an 'easy-out' with the Circle of Tower option in Redcliffe over how to defeat the demon in Connor. With all the other hard choices they throw at you in the game, this somehow seemed off, both story-wise and just based on sheer logistics. Plus, it provides an excellent basis for a subplot I was struggling with for a while.

Another note: game dialog, for the reasons above, will be heavily paraphrased in this particular piece.

"We must talk." He catches her arm in a vise-like grip and basically drags her into the small parlor off to the side of the main receiving hall of Redcliffe Castle. "Right now."

He cornered her after they finished the funeral ceremonies for all the fallen soldiers and staff; they elected not to participate in the arlessa's last rites, considering. Bann Teagan nodded as she excused herself, all pale but composed and solemn. She didn't look at any of her companions: she was The Cousland again, the mask of noble distance fully in place, the woman destined to lead and command. Not that Alistair would have had anything to say to her then: they both avoided each other since Morrigan came out of the trance she was placed in by the blood mage's ritual to travel into the Fade and save Connor.

But now he's here, facing her, practically touching her body with his, anger radiating off him like red waves, almost visible.

"Yes?" She crosses her arms in front of her, still wearing her emotionless noble face, schooled into impassivity by long years of training by her mother. "Talk, then. I haven't the time."

He explodes then, with a force he'd never thought he'd use against her of all people. Unrestrained, unchained, unbridled, his voice rings under the vaults of the room.

"How could you do that? How could you betray everything you've believed in, what I believe in? If nothing else, you started your training as a Templar! Are all of my teachings completely wasted on you? You've let that blood mage use his filthy ritual and kill the arlessa!"

"She offered it." Giovanna Cousland says; her head high, her hands behind her back. She does not defend herself, or gives excuses—she states facts. "Would you have preferred to kill the boy instead, then?"

"Dammit, Giovanna, we could have done something else! We could have gone to the Circle! We could have…"

"We could have what, Alistair?" She tosses her head; the tone is bitter now. "There was no time. The Circle is two days' ride each way, the mages couldn't be of help. We had a demon hiding inside a child-mage, an Abomination in front of our very eyes that already rampaged through a whole castle! We had innocent people killed by the dozen for the demon's amusement, a valuable strategic asset against the Blight rendered entirely inoperable because the shortsightedness of a mother who refused to part from her precious prodigy and entrusted him instead to an equally unreliable fringe-mage who poisoned her husband and exposed her son to the Fade untrained, unprepared! Both her and Jowan saw what happened, and offered what they could as an atonement—because everyone has to pay and justice has to be done if wrongs have to be righted." She shakes her head dismissively. "Enough. The decision was mine, and I made it."

"By the Maker, you're cold." Alistair says bitterly. "Just like the arlessa was."

"Isolde." Her voice is quiet and precise, but clear. "Her name was Isolde."

"What on earth does that have to do with what you've done?" He's still red-hot with anger; leaning into her face so their noses almost touch, he glares into her eyes with all the righteous wrath he's feeling.

"Everything." She stands ramrod-straight, almost his own height, two crimson spots on her pale cheeks. Still using the same precise, clear voice, her commander tone, she continues. "I remember her name. I don't simply call her by her title because she'd done me wrong when I was a child and she wanted to protect her family from what she thought was a threat. I don't want to distance myself from her, relegating her into some distant corner of my memories, tucked away like a shameful secret." She suddenly lifts a hand and slaps it against his chest with almost full strength so he reels backwards. Her voice loses the coldness now, but none of its intensity; it changes into a hoarse whisper, as if her old throat wound is bothering her again—or as is she's choking on memories. "Isolde was her name, and she made a mother's choice to save her son, just like my mother made her choice to save me. Blood for blood." She shoves at him with all her strength in it and he finds he cannot stop her; his back is against the wall, heels scrambling to stop himself from losing his balance on the thick carpet.

"You shut up and listen to me, Alistair FitzTheirin, just this once, because you know nothing!" He blinks as he hears her calling him by that name, acknowledging out loud the heritage he told her about a long time ago. She is, like in all things, methodical and precise in this as well, it seems. But her voice, oh, that voice, it rises and falls with emotions so pure and primal after being repressed so long it's almost frightening. Alistair closes his eyes for a second in face of the outburst he caused.

"You stand here with your oh so righteous Templar anger and dare to look me in the eye and all but call me evil, while I am doing everything I can to gather a force we can use against the Blight that Teyrn Loghainn's retreat from the battle field took away from us! You are all holy indignation about me making the hard command decision while you were all soft and whiny about how you can't tell your little bitch of a sister how it hurt you to get nothing but selfishness, accusation and demands from her, but I wasn't allowed to tell you how that's how life treats us sometimes because it might have hurt your precious little ego! You dare, DARE to call me out on the hardest thing I've ever done in my life when you did nothing in your entire life but ran from hard choices. You still think this here is all about Arl Eamon and you, don't you? You are still afraid how he'd react when he finally comes to and realizes what happened to his family, and what your part in it was? And you call me cold?"

She stops, breathing hard, hands balled into fists, trembling in her whole body, with all of those emotions on her face—and despite all she said, despite how she said it, Alistair can't find the will to deny anything with which she accused him. So he just looks at her, with head suddenly clear and free of the red rage engulfing it just moments earlier, heart pounding wildly, face pale, mind casting about to say something, anything and coming to terms with the fact that just this once him, the famously all-talk Alistair finally cannot find the right words. Any words, in fact.

"Oh, Maker take it, what am I doing?" Giovanna whispers suddenly with a quick shake of her head, desperation thick in her voice. "Alistair, I…" Her hands fall next to her body like dying branches of a tree, her lips tremble… and the next moment her arms are around him, clinging to him with the desperation of one truly heartbroken.

"Oh." Alistair hears himself say, a bit breathlessly. His hands come up as if from their own volition, wrapping themselves around her shoulder and waist, awkwardly patting her back. This is so different from how he wanted their first embrace to be, how he dreamed about it in the loneliness of his tent so often.

Nothing, nothing like this—and yet, his body betrays him as they stand there, trying to mold himself to the curved lines of her body. Despite the impossible situation, despite his own inexperience, or perhaps because of it? He cannot tell.

"Hey…it's all right. It truly is." His mouth offers the soothing words, but he knows he owes more to her, after all that was said between them: and after all that wasn't. "I hear what you say…You made a command decision, a hard one…who am I to question it?"

"But that's just it, Alistair." She pulls back a bit and looks him in the eye, pupils brimmed in tears. "That's just it."

He looks at her in shock, confused. How could he make her cry, always hard, always so centered, always so competent Giovanna Cousland, who always seems to be in charge of everything she does, the few words she says, the emotions she shows? What kind of man is he, to make her lose herself so?

"You didn't take it." Giovanna's voice is almost unintelligible between the large sobs raking her body now. "You didn't take the lead…You were the senior Warden, you had the experience in command, you knew everything so much better than I after Ostagar, and you just…wouldn't lead. You told me you didn't want to. Didn't want to lead. Didn't want to be a royal bastard. Didn't want to… be king. Didn't want to… so I had to do it."

What she says now…He feels a yawning pit opening under his feet, shame plunging him deeper and deeper in it, an abyss, a roaring void made out of his own failures, his own little lies he built for himself, all the hidden fears, insecurities and desire for avoiding personal conflicts.

He didn't take the lead…so she had to. She took it up on herself, this mantle of a leader she didn't want, the responsibility for their nigh-impossible task, the need to find the source and the cure for the Blight, the end of Ferelden's division to battle it, the care and well-being of their companions gathering under her wings one by one…

'Nobility does not exist without obligation. We owe all we have, even our lives, to our land and our people.'

He has almost forgotten those words. Arl Eamon spoke them to him long years ago during one of his visits to the abbey he trained in, after he told him about his true heritage. Now he remembers, and shame and regret shake his body with the force of revelation as he hears another familiar voice in his memories.

'In war, victory. In peace, vigilance. In death, sacrifice.' The Words of a Grey Warden, the words he lived by, or claimed he did, since Duncan picked him from amongst the Templar initiates ready to take their sacramental vows.

Words that he thought he understood—but they were all made into a new perspective, a dizzyingly sharp new focus, by this woman sobbing quietly in his arms who decided to make all the hard decisions for him but finally could bear it no more—not when he himself turned on her with selfish anger.

"I am sorry." He whispers finally, burying his face in her hair, crushing her against him with all the force he can muster. "I am so, so sorry, lady." And because he's, after all, Alistair, he has to add. "Feel free to kick me wherever you wish for causing you so much pain." His face twists as he remembers what he told her scarce weeks ago . "By Andastre's Sword, what a lowlife you must think me! Scarce weeks ago I vowed never to hurt you…" A short, sharp laugh escapes his lips. "Some promise that turned out to be!" He hurt her all this time, and didn't even know it.

"Oh, Fade take it, Alistair." Giovanna says in a suddenly exasperated voice as she lifts her head from his shoulder. "Can you just for a little bit stop the self-pitying and truly tell me what you think?" Her tears of the truly grief-stricken are gone now, and her face is blotchy and streaked with red. Funny, Alistair thinks, how she never looked more beautiful. She is alive, her mask of polite indifference, or frozen rigidness is gone. He's suddenly glad the wall is behind his back as he realizes he's still holding her in his arms.

"What I think?" he says slowly, gazing into her eyes. "I think you are largely right about me. I think I need to think on what you said, seriously."

I think you're the most beautiful woman in the world.

I think your eyes are deep pools of cool water under stormy summer skies.

I think your lips right where they curl just a bit upwards at the corner were made to be kissed slowly, agonizingly slowly, until they part and finally smile.

I think the curve of your neck, where your hairline starts was made for my fingers to trace little circles on your skin until you shiver in your entire body and sigh my name and I slide my hand ever so slowly down until...

He takes a deep breath and lets it out.

Easy, Alistair.

He never needed his self control so much in his entire life then now as he keeps looking at her and continues.

"I think you made a bad decision, but I probably would have made the same one when it all comes down to it." He grudgingly admits. "And the fact that I allowed you to make it alone should have told me that I somehow agreed with you, just was too cowardly to take that burden upon myself."

"It doesn't make it any better, though." Giovanna says, watching his face with her sapphire eyes, with deep sadness that hurts him more than any of her harsh words earlier. "When the time comes, I will tell Arl Eamon what happened and why. Until then..." she sighs and her mouth twists into a parody of a smile, "Why, I already have nightmares aplenty. I am just adding another one." She steps back, disengaging from his embrace, then she leans forward, lightning-quick —and to his greatest shock, Alistair feels the merest brush of her lips against his, so light that afterwards he doesn't even know whether he dreamed it.

As she turns and walks out of the room, Alistair, head still reeling from everything that happened, especially that last thing...

Did she really kiss me?

...he hears her whisper under her breath:

"Isn't that what we Grey Wardens do the best?"