So maybe there was a use for Morrigan after all, Alistair thought. He would, however, keep that thought to himself. It seemed almost worth it having to put with her presence, if they could convince her to heat a pool of water for washing after a long and gruelling day more often.
He dropped the last of his blood- and mud (and other substances he was in no hurry to examine too closely) stained clothes onto the closest boulder and slipped into the still steaming water. They'd collected the unexpected boiled fish for supper, after the shock had worn off and given way to laughter, and drawn lots for the order of bathing. That, of course, had resulted in the women going first. Alistair himself had been so busy cleaning various bits of his armour that he had to go last; just his usual luck. On the other hand, it had kept a naked Zevran out of his vicinity, which was an unexpected blessing.
Alistair rationed the soap carefully; there was no telling whether they'd meet a salesman before reaching Orzammar. A dozen cuts that had been great big bloody wounds just hours before – thank the Maker for Wynne! – stung mercilessly, making him hiss and swear under his breath. He forced himself not to look over his shoulder; neither the Novice Mistress nor, Maker forbid, the Grand Cleric were ever likely to overhear him again, but old habits died hard.
The sun was about to set, and the water was cooling. Alistair made short, and not entirely successful, work of washing his clothes. The vague fish smell wouldn't disappear, and it made his stomach turn, helped in no small degree by Wynne's foul-tasting potions. By the time he gave up, changed, and picked his way up the treacherous mountain path, the sun had set and there was little to guide him but the campfires ahead and the stars above.
It would have been beautiful, in different circumstances.
He spread his clothes out to dry and settled onto a log by the fire, upwind from the cooking pot. Smoke was better than fish.
After a moment he caught himself covertly contemplating a very specific tent. By now he knew every stitch and stain in the canvas, which was really incredibly silly, verging on incredibly pathetic. But the alternative would have meant looking at her, and he had endured enough amused remarks from the others to know how much of a bad idea that was. He could swear even the bloody dog was eying him these days.
It was just so... incredibly easy. Frighteningly so. He was drawn to her like a moth to the flame, and wasn't that a cheerful image. She was the first one to take him seriously when Duncan put him in command of the recruits, and how about that joke, him in command of anything? And afterwards, after his whole world had come down crashing and burning, she had stayed with him and made the seamless transition from recruit to leader of their small party without ruffling anyone's feathers. She made it seem so easy, being always calmly cheerful at rest and collected in battle. Nobody could have guessed he had six months' experience with the Wardens, never mind a few years' of age, on her.
Maybe it was what they'd taught highborn ladies nowadays, although she certainly was nothing like Arlessa Isolde or the few other noble ladies he'd met at Redcliffe as a boy. She actually seemed to like his sense of humour; a rather novel experience. Alistair was self-aware enough to know that – and why – his sense of humour was rather... lopsided, and also how annoying it could get. He'd collected enough bruises from the other novices to learn that one in great detail. And she, she just laughed or joked along with him. Or, on some memorable occasions, saw right through his desperate attempts at humour to gently extract the truth from him. Even Duncan, whom Alistair had respected and loved, so often had nothing but amused exasperation for him. She, however, seemed to genuinely enjoy his company, and how frightening was that?
And then, as if his thoughts had summoned her, he felt a light touch on his shoulder.
Which was followed by a quarter-loaf of bread falling into his lap.
"You forgot to lock me up, first," he said, turning around and wincing as that pulled at his healing cuts. "Before you condemn me to bread and water, I mean."
She sat down next to him and he could hear the grin in her voice. "You didn't seem to enjoy the prospect of fish stew for dinner. If I was wrong..."
"No, no," Alistair said quickly, clutching the bread. "The stew just smells a little... fishy."
She gave him a quick grin. "It was a bit of a surprise, seeing the side effects of Morrigan's spell. But at least we won't go hungry tonight."
Alistair grimaced and bit into the bread. "I suppose," he replied indistinctly.
She picked up a branch and poked at the fire, sending a fountain of sparks up into the night sky. "Alistair, are templars always this... grim?" she asked suddenly.
He swallowed the bread he had been chewing and turned to look at her. "Grim like me, you mean?"
She sniggered: entirely unladylike, and entirely endearing. "Not quite, no. I mean like the ones we saw at the Tower. They were all so... I mean, there were terrible things happening, but even after that, I don't think I saw any of them even smile. And that poor man being fed upon by the Desire Demon, the one it said resented his vows and wanted a family... And you said they were addicted to lyrium. That doesn't make for a cheerful picture of templar life, altogether."
Alistair stared into the fire, remembering the young novices turning on each other in fear and grey hopelessness, the years spent studying, training and praying, and the only goal and incentive being to get out, to get away somehow.
"You can't judge all templars by one failure and an emergency," he said finally, picking his words with care. "I suppose most of them aren't the cheeriest bunch, but--"
"You are not a failure," she interrupted. "Don't even joke about that. Besides, you have years of experience with templars, and I have seen maybe one or two before meeting the ones at the Tower. To be honest," she added thoughtfully, "I didn't have much contact with the Chantry at all, other than the Mother Mallol back home."
"Templars and priests are two entirely different kettle of fish," Alistair said, and then winced. "Uh, bad image there, never mind."
"Hang on." She leaned back and rummaged in her belongings, then sat up again and offered him a water skin. "That's from the spring that's feeding the pool. No fish in sight."
Alistair gulped down the water, trying not to appear too greedy. "Thanks," he said finally, wiping his mouth.
She waved him off, still worrying at the topic like a Mabari with a bone. "You didn't make it sound very appealing, being a templar. Well, unless one has a thing about hunting mages, I suppose. And those templars didn't exactly prove you wrong. So, why do people become templars, then?"
"Some of them had their choice made for them," Alistair said, tearing the last of the bread into smaller chunks. "And as for the others... the Chantry looks for strong, unimaginative warriors who are stubborn as mules. Oh, pardon me, I meant, who have an unshakeable belief."
"In the Maker, you mean?"
"In what the Chantry thinks is right, which amounts to the same thing."
She made a face. "Don't let Leliana hear you."
He rolled his eyes and slid down to sit on the blankets, closer to the fire. "Yeah, like she's a good example, being so sane and all."
To his mingled delight and terror, she dropped off the log to sit next to him, so close that he could have touched her without moving. "Sanity is relative. And possibly overrated," she said quietly.
Alistair tried to concentrate on the rising wind, or the next day's logistics, or even, in desperation, on long-ago lessons in dwarven politics and history. It was no good. He could feel her breathing next to him and the wind was pulling at her hair, tickling his neck with it. It was worse than distracting; it was absolutely maddening.
Of course she spoke when he'd almost managed to lose himself in the crackling and hissing of the fire. "I still have your rose."
Alistair didn't dare to look at her. "Oh? Do you? I mean, yes, of course you do, you just said so."
"I put it in a book, so I could preserve it," she said quietly. He couldn't tell if she was smiling. "It's still just as beautiful."
"So are you," he blurted, then felt his face prickle with a furious blush. "I mean, you are beautiful, no still about it. It hasn't changed. You being beautiful. Ah, I better stop now, I think, before I dig myself in deeper."
She laughed quietly and, Maker help him, actually leaned on his shoulder. "Oh, go on, do."
Cautiously he brought one arm up to rest on the log behind her back. "I think that was my quota of awkwardness for tonight, thanks."
She was silent for a moment. "I don't think I told you how much it meant to me."
Alistair gave up on subtlety and put his arm around her shoulder, pulling her closer. "Actually, you did thank me. That and not calling me a sentimental fool kind of gave me the idea that you liked it. If I was wrong, please don't tell me."
She turned her head, all but tucking it under his chin. "You lost Duncan and the others," she said into his shirt. "But so did I, you know, just days after I'd lost... everything else. I even... lost myself. And then... You are not the only one who found unexpected beauty in a barren land, Alistair."
He swallowed, feeling her hair catch in his stubble. "Just so we're clear, you are not talking about the rose any more, are you?"
"Only as a metaphor, ser knight."
"Glad to hear it, my lady."
She shifted impatiently, and then subsided, all but curled up against him. "Oh, don't call me that. I'm not a lady any more."
"Of course you are. Didn't you notice peasants and knights alike jumping to do your bidding, when you get that certain note in your voice?" He suddenly realised that she was rigidly tense against his shoulder. "What? What is it?"
She swallowed thickly. "Is that why you..."
"Why I what? Don't like fish? Think Leliana is a nutter? Follow you, o fearless leader?"
She was so quiet he could barely make out the words. "That, and the rose."
It took a moment to sink in. "What? No! Maker's breath, who do you take me for?" He wished he could see her face. "There are no titles in the Grey Wardens; why do you think most of us give up our last names? Not that I had much to give up, but that's not my point." He pulled her closer. "My point is, I follow you because you're... you. I'm not a sheep, you know; I can make my own decisions. And I chose you. I don't care who you were before, other than that it has made you into somebody... somebody who makes my head spin."
She chuckled quietly into his shoulder. "Thanks. I think."
Alistair winced. "Uh, I mean, in a good way. You're beautiful, and smart, and witty, and a great fighter and I feel like an absolute fool when I'm around you, and please don't make the obvious comment."
"I'm not Morrigan," she said, sitting up.
Alistair saw her face, relaxed in an unguarded smile, and exhaled in relief. "For which fact I'm profoundly grateful." He looked down at her. "I'm not normally so tongue-tied, you know that, right? It's just, you are so... you take my breath away, and I never know what to say to you."
She looked up, her face lit up with a mischievous smile. "You're doing much better than you think."
"Oh?" He felt an answering smile tug at his lips. "Good. Great! Just so you know, this is usually the point where we kiss, and then I wake up."
"Oh no, that would be too easy." She straightened, still leaning against him, and drew her free hand down to his stomach. "Feeling any better?"
Alistair sighed. "Was I that obvious?"
"You were looking a bit green earlier, and I've had enough of Wynne's potions to know of their side effects. Do you think it's a law somewhere, that every kind of medicine has to taste absolutely disgusting?"
"Very likely." The heat of her hand was seeping through his shirt and, Maker's breath, travelling lower and lower and he had to get away, and quickly. "I, ah, better turn in," he said quickly, carefully extracting himself. "It's getting late, and we have an early start tomorrow."
She caught his shoulder as he was getting to his feet and leaned in to give him a quick peck on the cheek. "Good night, my knight," she said with a grin.
Alistair clenched his teeth at the image of her kneeling in front of him, which did nothing for his equilibrium, or his circulation, as blood rapidly left his brain to migrate south for the winter. "Hey, bad puns are my job," he said weakly, and tried to neither run, nor stumble to his tent.
Inside the dark, stuffy little world of canvas it was strangely quiet, as if the walls could actually keep out sound. He undressed hastily and slipped under the blankets in his smalls, teeth and fists clenched against the burn of wantwantwant that seemed to encompass his entire being.
Privacy in the camp was just as much an illusion as it had been in the novice dormitories, only now there would be pointed comments instead of the punishments of his youth. He didn't know which was less pleasant. His fellow Wardens had laughed at what they had thought was his naïveté and innocence, not knowing about the habits that had been drilled into him with the cane and the sermons. The simple truth was, he wanted like any other man. Oh Maker, did he ever...
He could still feel her soft hair tickling his neck and the press of her lithe body against his side, and how every breath of her brought her, Maker's mercy, her breasts into closer contact.
Alistair bit his lip when he realised that his treacherous hand had wandered under the blanket and was now cupping and stroking gently. He couldn't do this, shouldn't do this, he didn't want the others to know... He pressed the heel of his hand down, hard, oh Maker, hard, and bit his lip on a moan of relief. He shouldn't, he really, really shouldn't, but how could he not, when his memory persisted in showing him every glint in her eyes, every sweet smile she'd directed his way, every time he'd seen her out of armour or even touching him, touching...
He brought his left hand up and bit down on it sharply to muffle the sound, as his back arched at the white-hot stab of pleasure. Memory gave way to fantasy as he wondered how her hair would feel against his naked chest, with her curled up against him or poised above him, smiling down at him with parted lips as she...
A tight coil of tension built in Alistair's stomach and slipped lower, lower, and his hand followed it, stroking and twisting as his fantasy played out amazing, frightening scenarios, with her above him, and below, riding him and clenching around him and sliding down to take him... but no, that was just a sleazy story boys told each other, surely decent people didn't really do this? But his mind offered him a perfect moment, frozen in time, with her tongue, oh Maker, would she really? her tongue wrapped around, and there, right there, just a little more...
There were steps on the other side of the campsite, and her voice calling out a cheerful goodnight to Wynne, and that was it, that was enough, enough for the tension to explode, to stab him like a weapon of pure pleasure, going on and on and on, making him wonder, for one brief second of insanity, whether being possessed by a Desire Demon was like this, like a never-ending cascade of gut-wrenching pleasure and relief.
And then it was over. His left hand and lower lip were bleeding, and his breath and pulse were racing like after a fight. Alistair stretched uncomfortably, wincing at the mess. This had certainly been different from his earlier forays into... experimentation. More intense, the same way a volcano was somewhat more intense than a camp fire. At this rate, if he ever got around to the real thing, it might quite possibly kill him. What a way to go.
Having cleaned up ineffectually, Alistair wrapped himself in a cocoon of blankets and closed his eyes, listening for anything from outside the tent, but there was nothing but the sounds of the dying fire and a lone nocturnal bird. The next day would show if his... performance had been noticed.
As he drifted off, buoyed by a warm cloud of contentment, one thought stayed sharp and clear: He needed to talk to her, and soon. But Maker, while the Chantry had certainly showed him what not to do, it was no help whatsoever now that he'd thrown off all his old teachings. How would he find the words now that he knew what he wanted?