Above and ahead the Frostback Mountains rose out of the thick forest around them. The road was more of a muddy track at this point: narrow, winding and dangerous. This far into the mountains, the threat of darkspawn was an almost constant presence that grated on Alistair's nerves, although he couldn't feel any immediate danger for the time being.
Well, apart from the bandits, wolves, bears, assassins and loose rocks above. Not to mention the giant spiders.
Really, truly no need to mention those.
He forced himself to pay attention to road and, more importantly, to the dark, rustling forest. Only, it had been a long, cold and miserable day, and they had accomplished nothing more exciting than climbing up a few rocks, and he could all but sense the Blight closing up on them. He could feel his concentration waning by the minute.
The others were quiet; each seemed to be lost in thought. Or it may have been just the cold and the incipient rain.
The oppressive silence and the vague, unsettling thoughts that rose up with it, did nothing for Alistair's mood. He knew he really, truly shouldn't do this, but his steps quickened almost involuntarily to bring him to the head of their small group.
"Lovely weather this afternoon!" he said brightly to their intrepid leader as he fell into step with her.
Elissa didn't look up, but he could see her smile out of the corner of his eyes. "So it is. I feel like frolicking through the forest and singing with the birds, don't you?"
"Ah, you have found me out," Alistair said, all the while cursing himself. Why, why, why did he do this to himself?
It was positively indecent how they'd fall into easy banter and jokes, and once all tangled up in their conversation and the flash of her smile – not to mention the easy glide of her movement, or her sense of humour, or her braids on the curve of her neck, or the myriad other things that pulled at him – he was lost for hours. Or days.
In fact, if forced to be honest with himself, which was something Alistair viewed as a detestable but necessary evil, he would have to acknowledge that he might be lost for good.
"We've made good time today," Elissa said, pulling him out of his reverie. "If our map is accurate, we should make it to Haven tomorrow."
"Yeah," Alistair said absently. "Hey, do you realise we've been walking along this road all day and met not a single bandit ambush or rabid wolf?"
Elissa turned to look at him. "Alistair," she said with slow precision, "are you aware of the expression 'tempting fate'?" Before he could reply, her gaze slid past him and focussed at something in the distance. "What's that?"
He turned, already half-reaching for his sword, but the forest was quiet. After a moment, he realised what had caught her attention. "That? Looks like a Chantry monastery, judging by the style."
"We could reach it before nightfall," Elissa said thoughtfully. "Think they'd let us sleep in the hayloft?" She frowned. "Do monasteries let in travellers? Camping inside the walls would be enough, really."
"No!" Alistair said without thinking.
She turned to look at him, her eyebrows raised. "No to which? No, they don't take in travellers? No, Chantry monasteries keep their holiest relics in the hayloft and won't let us defile them?"
Alistair shook his head, trying to clear it. The surge of violent hatred had been unexpected – or rather, unexpectedly strong. "I suppose they take in most travellers, unless they arrive in the middle of the night or sprout horns. And the relics are only kept in the hayloft on holy days, didn't you know?"
Elissa threw a quick look over her shoulder at the others, then moved closer to him and lowered her voice. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing," Alistair said between clenched teeth. He consciously loosened his grip on the sword hilt. "Right! Let me see the map. There ought to be a path up to the monastery, unless they learned to fly somehow. Hey, maybe they've got griffins in the stable. Or would griffins need a roost?"
She didn't reach for the map, or raise her voice. "There is a river further on, through an open plain of sorts, and that trader said he camps there every time. Won't make such a big detour, either."
"You needn't humour me," Alistair bit off, and then forced himself to take a deep breath. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to snap at you. The monastery is fine. You are right; it's the safest place for tonight."
"We've been fine so far camping in the open and staying alert," Elissa pointed out.
It was a good thing that she sounded businesslike instead of soothing, or Alistair would have been sorely tempted to stomp off to the monastery on his own; never mind how pointlessly stupid that might have been. "The monastery is fine; it's great, let's go."
Elissa looked at him evenly. "Apparently it's not fine," she said in her level leader tone and without looking away from Alistair raised her voice so the others could hear. "There's supposed to be a river bend and a bit of plain land up ahead. We'll be camping there for the night if it's defensible."
A chorus of assent drifted over, as well as a sharp zing! as Shale shot an unwary bird with a bolt of lightning.
Alistair closed his eyes briefly and took another deep breath, and another, until his hands stopped shaking. "Right," he said eventually, and was pleasantly surprised how even his voice had sounded. "Is this one of the White River tributaries? I haven't been this far west myself, but they've made us… but I've seen maps of the mountains." Maybe he could distract her with geography.
Well. It was worth a try, at least.
"Still better than me," Elissa replied easily, as if picking up an entirely different conversation. Alistair had a moment of lifting hopes, until he saw the steely glint in her eyes. "I know the lands around Highever and a great deal of the northern coast like the back of my hand, but our poor head scribe always said that making me learn any bit of geography that I hadn't ridden across was like teaching a Mabari to sew."
Dog, who had been trotting at their heels, raised his head and barked happily.
"We spent years learning history and geography, not to mention theology," Alistair said doggedly. "It's a miracle they managed to squeeze in any time for arms training, really. At times it felt like we'd end up having to fight with our quills and using the exercise slates for shields."
"I was a bit of a trial for my tutor, as well as for my parents. My father agreed to teach me to fight when he realised I was stubborn enough to keep asking again and again. And by the time my mother had realised what was going on and that I could handle the sword much better than the dance floor, it was entirely too late."
"If you dance only half as well as you fight she couldn't have had any complaints," Alistair said, and immediately felt like walloping himself with the flat of his sword.
Elissa laughed. "Thanks, but I can barely remember the steps to the village dances. It was a good thing I managed to talk Mother out of bringing me to the King's court when I came of age."
Alistair could easily imagine a tomboyish, laughing girl twisting her parents around her little finger with equal love and ease. That love, made bittersweet by the recent loss, shone through every mention of them.
"I'm glad they didn't teach you to dance," he said, and after a moment of horrified fascination, groaned out loud. "I can't believe I just said that."
"Would you care to elaborate?" Elissa asked, her lips twitching suspiciously.
"I mean, I'm glad you learned to fight instead of dancing and embroidery, or whatever it is ladies do. We wouldn't have met otherwise. And I'm very glad I've met you," Alistair said, feeling his ears burn. Smooth, real smooth, no wonder she was laughing at him.
Somewhat to his surprise, however, Elissa just flashed him a quick grin. "So am I," she said quietly, and fell silent.
They reached the river bend still in daylight, but only just. The grassy plain, pockmarked with past camp fires, was indeed big enough for all their tents, and high enough to overlook the road and the river.
Shale, Sten and Alistair made quick work of clearing a space large enough for all their tents, and watch shifts were assigned without any fuss. Far from being relieved, however, Alistair waited for the other shoe to drop, tension coiling in his stomach.
While the others were busy with their tents and blankets, Alistair slipped away to the river. The freezing water didn't invite washing, but he managed to clean up somewhat.
And when he looked up, the monastery was clearly visible on the mountainside above, a few windows glowing like tiny embers. From where he was standing, it looked no bigger than a child's toy.
Alistair leaned on a spindly tree and tried to clear his mind, calling up all the templar training that used to come to him as easy as breathing. He was not entirely surprised when it didn't work.
And then there were unhurried steps crunching over the dead leaves and twigs and he sighed, leaning his head back to stare at the emerging stars, and gave in to the inevitable.
"Yes, sorry, but I'm not going away just yet," Elissa said, coming to stand in front of him. "About earlier…"
Alistair rubbed a hand over his face, feeling weariness resettle over him. "How about we don't revisit that little episode."
Elissa looked up at him, her face expressionless. "I'm not very keen on, what did you call it? poking you for my own amusement, you know. If you won't accept that I just want to make sure a friend is all right, feel free to see it as part of a leader's responsibility to make sure everyone is well."
Over her shoulder, Alistair could see thin smoke curl from the chimneys of the monastery, now disappearing into the growing darkness. "I am all right! I was just surprised," he said, trying to get a grip on his temper. "Now can we go eat?"
"You know I barely know anything about the Chantry as an institution," Elissa said, turning to look at the monastery as well. "What Wynne said was downright frightening. Or rather, what she didn't say. And you said enough that I should have guessed how you'd react. I'm sorry for springing this on you. We'll try to stay away from them in the future, unless there is no other choice."
"Oh yes, let's make life as uncomfortable as possible just to humour the poor traumatised bastard," Alistair snarled. "Brilliant idea."
Elissa turned around and fixed him with a heated glare. "Alistair, what do you want me to do? I don't want to force you into situations you hate if they're avoidable. And you also don't have anything to prove to me or anyone else!" Her fists clenched in frustration. "Maker's mercy, you won't tell me what's wrong, so I have to stumble from one bad choice into the next, either hurting you or possibly endangering us all!"
Only as the sharp pain spread through his hand did Alistair realize that he'd hit the trunk of the nearest tree, hard. Dry leaves and debris fluttered from above. "Ow," he muttered resentfully.
Elissa, who hadn't flinched at the sudden assault, stepped forward and turned his wrist gently, looking down at the abraded skin. When she looked up, the sudden intimacy as their eyes met made Alistair's breath catch.
"You are important to me," she said slowly and carefully. "I'm not going to hurt you intentionally, and I don't want to hurt you through my ignorance. Do you understand?"
And suddenly, like the Veil flickering in front of his eyes, something shifted, and he understood her meaning, and not just her words.
"I haven't been to Redcliffe since I was a boy," he said into her hair, clutching her tightly, his words pouring out of him unchecked. "I never thought I'd return there at all. And when I did, it was overrun by walking corpses, the arlessa was just as charming as when she made the arl throw me out of the castle, Arl Eamon himself is sick and unlikely to recover and I just…" He drew back, suddenly aware that the top of Elissa's head was wet and, Maker's breath, he was sick of his own moping.
Elissa took a step back and looked up into his face. "First, we find the Urn," she said decisively. "Then we'll see what else we can do."
"That easy, huh?" But something had given way in him, loosened a constriction he hadn't even known was there. This was not only a stupid fantasy of his, daydreaming of a girl who was just joking at his expense. Elissa was on his side, for whatever it was worth, and maybe, together, they could sort out whatever life saw fit to throw at them.
"Well, one step at a time. First the Urn, then the archdemon, then the rest," she said, and while her smile hadn't changed, the warmth he felt looking at it was certainly different.
It was only right that he should take advantage of it, then, pulling her closer again and kissing her with all his desperation and joy and absolute lack of finesse.
She didn't seem to mind at all.
They were camping near the Drakon River tonight; just far enough off the roads into Denerim that the steady flow of refugees bypassed them entirely. Shale, to nobody's surprise, stood watch, Sten seemed to be talking to his sword, and Zevran and Leliana were embroiled in a heated dispute over the cooking fire.
When he heard steps approach, Alistair couldn't even work up the energy to be irritated. If anybody would disregard his pointed hints to be left alone – such as, for instance, setting up his tent away from the others' and even building his own fire – it would be Elissa.
Well, or Zevran, or Morrigan, or even Wynne if she thought it was for his own good. But it was indeed Elissa; he could tell by the way she moved even without seeing her, which was a rather scary thought in itself.
On another day he might have been annoyed. Or charmed. Now, he just felt empty.
"There's some soup left, and Zevran's shot some hares that Leliana took away from him. She says Fereldans can't cook, and neither can Antivans, and judging by the smells, I'm now firmly in favour of Orlesian cuisine," Elissa said, sinking to the ground behind him.
"I'm not hungry; thanks," Alistair said. His traitorous stomach chose that exact moment to growl loudly.
Elissa didn't laugh, Maker bless her; she just moved in closer. "I know it's not the same," she said after a moment, "but you have plenty of people who care about you. And Goldanna… She's just bitter and unhappy and looking for a convenient scapegoat. Try not to think about her anymore."
The fires danced and spluttered, hissing around damp branches.
"It's just," Alistair began, and then shook his head, unable to find the words. "You know, I've dreamed about her so often… wait. You do know. You've seen it, in the Fade." He closed his eyes, remembering the happiness he'd felt there. In hindsight, the rightness of it should have made him suspicious just by itself.
"And what's wrong with that?" Elissa said. She put her arms around him, cheek resting against his back. "I dream of my parents and of Fergus and even of little Oren, and I suspect I always will."
"Your memories are real," Alistair said, catching her hands in his. "I was just… chasing after stupid fantasies."
"Not stupid." Elissa extricated her hands gently and raised them to his shoulders. "It's not stupid to want to belong, to be loved." Her fingers dug in, finding the knots in muscles aching from a day's wearing heavy plate, a shield and a pack. "I'm sorry she turned out to be like that. But, I mean, family doesn't have to be blood. Duncan was far more like family to you than King Maric, wasn't he?"
"Like family, yes," Alistair said, letting his head fall forward. Her fingers felt divine, working away the pain of a long, terrible day. Curiously, her words helped to do the same. "It would be nice to have the real thing, though."
"You do," she murmured, and he groaned as a tight, sharp ache in his shoulder gave way and was replaced by spreading warmth. "You have me."
"Ah, sweet romance!" said a voice suddenly. "I see you are no strangers to the pleasures of the flesh after all, despite all your protests. I could teach you—"
"You know, Zevran," Elissa said calmly, her fingers never once pausing, "I've always wondered why the very first Antivan phrase my tutor had ever taught me was 'Thank you, I'm not interested'. Followed closely by 'Please go away'. Now I understand."
"Ah, I can tell when I'm not wanted. Pity, I could have taught you two so much," Zevran said, but his voice was already fading as he walked back to the main cooking fire.
Alistair let out the breath he had been holding and consciously tried to relax all the muscles that had tensed at the elf's approach. "Why did you let him live, again?" he asked only half-jokingly.
"He is a better shot than you, and so we can have game instead of fish for dinner," Elissa replied. "Hold still."
Alistair did, trying to just enjoy the massage. After a few minutes, however, something that might have been what the Novice Matron had called his ingrained desire for punishment forced him to say, "I guess I do have the other Grey Wardens as a family."
"No," Elissa said very quietly but very firmly. "That is, we both have them, yes. But I meant that you have me. However much time I have, I'll always be there for you." She paused, and then went on, sounding unexpectedly uncertain. "As long as you want me, that is."
Alistair moved before he even knew he was going to, turning around and pressing her close, so that their faces were only inches apart. Then he took care of those few inches as well.
When they drew away from each other after a few moments, Elissa's eyes were dancing and Alistair thought he was grinning rather stupidly, although he couldn't bring himself to care. "It's my hair, isn't it?" he asked, tracing a finger down Elissa's cheek. "Women just can't resist my hair."
"Absolutely," Elissa said straight-faced, then turned her head and, suddenly and sharply, bit his finger. The unexpected jolt went a lot further than Alistair would have thought. And it seemed to lodge in unexpected places, too.
"Come on," she said, getting to her feed. "Even if those hares aren't done by now, I'm hungry enough to eat them half-raw."
"In a minute," Alistair said, rather weakly, shifting uncomfortably. How in the Maker's name was he supposed to walk anywhere like this?
Their camp at the foot of the Frostback Mountains overlooked a bit of Lake Calenhad, but the mountains and the forest hid both the Circle Tower and the Redcliffe Castle from sight, which, in Alistair's opinion was a very good thing. He didn't want to think about Redcliffe too closely, in any case.
In fact, after two days on the road to Orzammar, and after the shock of Arl Eamon's speech had worn off a little, his mind – and his unruly body – were very firmly back on a track he'd been valiantly trying to steer clear of for weeks now.
Elissa's response to his increasingly less shy kisses had been nothing short of enthusiastic, and she seemed to enjoy his touch as much as he enjoyed hers. He could talk to her more freely than to any other woman – or person, really – he knew and it was amazing how quickly she'd become his closest friend, the one he could confide in and who talked to him in turn, even of topics that he couldn't imagine she'd shared with many other people. Their emotional closeness wasn't the problem.
Their physical one was.
For somebody who'd hated life in the Chantry with every bit of his being, Alistair reflected glumly, he certainly had internalised far too many of their values. Here was a beautiful, smart, witty girl who was incredibly dear to him and whose interest was unmistakably clear, and he was agonising whether to allow himself more than the occasional kiss.
On the other hand, he couldn't imagine being the kind of rough braggart who laughingly measured his conquest in numbers only, or the kind of sleazy, sex-obsessed Antivan elf, who… no, that was unfair.
He was stuck being himself, and lately that was causing him no end of trouble. But what was he, Alistair not-ever-and-now-definitely-not-Theirin, royal bastard, former novice templar? He was sure of very few things in his life. He was a Grey Warden, he would fight to stop the Blight, and he, much to his desperate confusion, loved Elissa.
The Blight was almost upon them, however, and time was running out. Alistair had no patience for Arl Eamon's politics when there were darkspawn flooding Ferelden; he had a far more urgent concern in the shape of a hulking big evil archdemon. He was no prince, he was a fighter.
And fighting, and the Taint buzzing in his blood, made him so very, very aware of his mortality. His own – and Elissa's. How long could he afford to wait and wonder and argue with himself? In their case, it was very uncertain what the next hour would bring, never mind the next day or week.
It was that thought that finally made him corner Elissa when she came back from some last-minute washing up after their supper.
"Could we talk?" he asked her quietly, trying not to fidget.
Elissa straightened from putting her things away and smiled at him. "Sure, what is it?"
Alistair bit his lip. "Somewhere more private?"
"Ohh, this sounds intriguing." She followed him to the tree line, far enough from the others that their voices could barely be heard.
"I don't even know how to ask you this," Alistair said when they were standing in patch of moonlight filtering through the trees.
"Ask me what? You want us to run away to Orlais? Join the Antivan Crows? Break into the next town's Chantry and paint silly pictures in the Reverend Mother's study?"
Despite everything, he had to grin at the last one. "Who's been telling? Was it Teagan?"
"Lucky guess." Elissa leaned forward, squinting in the dim light. "Alistair, are you sweating? What is it?"
"You know, I practiced what I would say to you, but when I try, it just comes out sounding either plain stupid or very offensive." He ran a hand through his hair, resisting the impulse to tear it out in clumps. "So. I… you mean so very much to me. I never thought I could find someone like you, ever. And then, there you were, when everything else was falling apart and you are just so… wonderful. I think I was falling for you from that first day at Ostagar."
"You might have been," Elissa said very seriously. "You offered to wear a pretty dress for me, remember?"
"Oh, Maker. I'd forgotten that."
Elissa smiled, sweetly and gently, and leaned forward to give him a quick, warm kiss. "Alistair, I've told you before that I feel just the same. You are so very dear to me. I will tell you again and again, as often as you want to hear it."
"Oh? I'll take you up on it." He tried a cocky grin but thought it must have looked more than a bit shaky. "It's not what I was going to say, though. Or at least, not all of it."
Elissa nodded, waiting.
"I love you, but there's this whole Blight thing, and bandits, and bears, and I just realised what I'm saying. I'm sorry. It's just, I feel like every time I start talking to you my brain shuts off."
"Why, thank you, Ser," Elissa replied very seriously, executing a picture-perfect curtsey despite wearing only a shift and leggings.
"I didn't mean it that way!" Alistair said desperately. "I just, you are here, and I'm so grateful for every day, every minute we get to spend together, because who knows what will happen tomorrow? I don't know if it's sudden, but I wanted to ask you, if… if you want to spend the night with me. Tonight, I mean. In other circumstances I'd have wanted to wait until there was a better time, a perfect time, but there isn't, and there might never be."
"Don't say that," Elissa said softly. "I don't want to rush you just because we're both afraid of what's coming."
"I'm not rushing. That is, unless you think I am rushing you. I've thought about this. Maker knows I haven't been able to think about anything else. I just... I want to be with you. If… you want to, that is. Of course, if you don't—"
Elissa put a finger against his lips. "I want. I want it very, very much. If you are really sure, Alistair, then yes, I would love nothing more than to spend the night with you. This night, and however many others we may have."
His breath whooshed out of him in one giant sigh. "I wasn't sure… I mean, I am very sure about this, but I wasn't sure you—"
"No?" Elissa kissed him again, slower this time, and now the kiss was a sweet promise. "So I fooled you, did I? Good to know."
Alistair laughed helplessly even as Elissa took him by the hand, leading him back to the campsite.
In the dimness of her tent that was really too small for two adults to move comfortably, they settled onto the blankets, Elissa reaching up to wrap her hands around his neck. She kissed him, first as gently as always, then more and aggressively, licking and nibbling on his lips. It was intoxicating.
It was also frightening.
Now that it was entirely too late to back out, Alistair felt more like running than ever, despite his former deliberations and seemingly unshakeable conviction. He'd never considered himself a coward, but this, this was different from any battlefield. Just kissing had been easy.
This was… harder.
Alistair felt conscious of every inch of his body, and of Elissa's, pressed so close. So many ways to get it wrong, to hurt her, to make himself ridiculous. He barely knew where to put his hands.
"I think you need to stop worrying and relax," Elissa murmured then, as if she'd read his thoughts. Her hot breath on his neck was making it barely possible to concentrate on her words. "What's the worst that could happen?"
That one, however, penetrated the fog of lust easily. "Oh, let me think," Alistair said, sitting back. "You could take one look at me and start laughing. My pride may never recover, you know? Orrrr… I could hurt you because I've no idea what I'm doing. Or you'll never want to speak to me after this. Or the teachings are true and I will be hit by lightning the moment we…"
"Oh, shush." Elissa trailed her fingertips along his neck and up into his hair. "I'm not in the habit of laughing when I see very handsome men undressed." She leaned back and smiled at his tenderly. "Besides, you make me happy just by being yourself. Everything else is just a bonus."
Alistair pulled her close again, because he neither trusted himself to speak yet, nor for her to see his face. "Very handsome, eh?" he murmured eventually.
"Very, very handsome," Elissa said. Her hands had somehow wandered under his shirt, unnoticed, and the light touch of her fingers was leaving a firestorm on his skin in its wake.
Never one to lag behind, Alistair leaned in to explore the soft skin under her ear with his lips and teeth, and the mystery that lay under her clothing with his fingers. It felt incredible, being permitted, almost required, to touch a woman this way, and not just any woman either.
Her, always her; from the moment he saw her alive and well outside Flemeth's hut and realised he wasn't alone after all.
"Stay with me, stay," he murmured into her neck, wondering when they'd managed to tumble down onto the blankets and why her "yes, yes, always, yes" felt as good as her hands and her tongue and, Andraste's fire, her teeth, and they were sure to leave marks but he didn't care because one of her hands was busily undoing his belt… and the shock of that made him move back and sit up, hovering over her awkwardly.
Elissa dropped her hands to the ground and looked up at him. Her hair was spread like a halo, braids askew and her swollen lips a temptation he wasn't sure he could resist. "Too fast?" she asked.
Alistair shook his head, his brain having lost all connection with his tongue. "I, that is, oh, you're going to laugh, I just know it."
"Not if you start telling those awful Southern jokes again. Those were vile."
Despite the awkwardness of it all he couldn't help grinning at that one.
Elissa grinned back. "Let's start this again. We're both where we wanted to be. Let's get to the fun stuff." She spread her hands, looking a bit like a sacrificial offering.
Alistair tried to swallow, his throat dry as sandpaper. "You want me to…"
"I want us to," she said. "But you asked me to… dance, so you can begin."
"Templars aren't famous for their dancing skills," Alistair said, stroking the side of her neck. "Their dress sense, yes, but not their dancing skills."
Elissa rose up on her elbows. "A secret for you," she said, and waited until he bent closer. "You are not a templar."
"What a lovely coincidence," Alistair said, his hand moving to the laces of her shift, "because a templar shouldn't do this." He pulled at the laces, exposing a pale, round breast, and why hadn't all the statues and random glimpses had prepared him for that?
"Oh, men and breasts, honestly," Elissa said, but she was laughing and pulling at his shirt.
He obliged her, removing it and tossing it to the side. "Like what you see?"
"Yes," Elissa said, her twitching lips at odds with her serious tone, "but I understand why you like cheese, now. You're soul mates, and it shows."
"Oi!" Alistair leaned down to kiss that grins off her lips, realising far too late that he'd planted his hand on her spread hair.
Elissa winced and extricated herself gingerly. "Ouch."
Alistair winced as well. "Sorry! I just—" He didn't get to complete that sentence, because Elissa pulled him down for the kiss after all. And then everything sped up somehow, and he found himself nuzzling and kissing her lips, her throat, the soft skin of her breasts and even the thin scar on her shoulder.
The tent kept out nothing more than the wind, but he felt as if he bathed in sun: on fire and sweating, as he traced his tongue around her nipple and felt her writhe under him, her thigh slipping between his and pressing up deliciously.
They somehow shed their clothes in the process, and he could not get enough of touching her soft skin and the occasional thin tracks of scars, but he didn't quite know where to put his hands.
He'd dreamed of it so often, and he'd imagined it in great detail, only the reality was so… real and a bit overwhelming, and yes, there were her delicious, firm breasts, all his to touch, but what did one do with breasts?
And then he must have hesitated a moment too long.
"My turn," Elissa purred, and, hooking a leg around his, flipped him on his back, hard enough to drive the air from his lungs.
"I used to train with my older, heavier brother," she whispered into Alistair's ear, her hair spread like a veil around them.
"And a good thing he can't see you now," Alistair managed, and, Maker's breath, he'd had no idea his nipples were so sensitive. The feel of her tongue was electric, and when she gently closed her teeth on one and bit down, his back arched involuntarily off the blankets. Rubbing against her was perfect, so different from touching himself, so good he was afraid the entire adventure might end then and there.
And then she was moving lower, nuzzling his stomach and— oh Maker. He quickly bit down on his much-abused hand because just the tiniest touch of her tongue was so much more than he ever imagined in his fantasies.
So much better, in fact, that he jerked back, panting. "I can't, too much, I won't be able to," he tried, but the words made no sense, all jumbled up because the core of his being had shifted down there and was pulsing hotly, fiercely demanding attention, and was he insane to stop her?
Then she sat up, laughing, shifted forward to almost sit astride him, and—
Even the feel of her tongue hadn't prepared him for that. It was almost unbelievable heat and pressure and pleasure, yes, but the feeling of being so intimately a part of her was what drove him up and up and made him cling to her almost desperately.
His mind was gone, replaced by lightning further down and random flashes of thought further up. She squeezed around him and he moaned from the heat and the brain-melting ecstasy that crystallised something from the far reaches of his mind.
"You are—are the fire at the heart of the world," he panted into her ear and moaned again as a twist of her hips did something amazing, and he didn't know how long he could hold out against this onslaught of bliss.
"Are you— blaspheming?" she murmured, half laughing, and lowered her head to his ear. "Touch me with fire that I be cleansed."
The Chant should touch him to the very core, yes, every priest would agree, but he doubted they meant that core, or else everybody's really been missing out on—the trail of thoughts looped on itself and got tighter and tighter and he was hanging on by the skin of his teeth, but then Elissa moaned, low and hoarse and tightened around him and the world went white.
When he opened his eyes again, they were stubbornly refusing to focus, but he could still make out Elissa's amused grin above him.
"Oh, no," he moaned, covering his face with a hand. "I'm sorry. I just… you did this thing and… gah! I thought I could… I'm sorry."
Elissa was shaking. Convulsing, really, and he could feel a great deal of it, being still so… intimately connected. Wincing in mortification, he moved his hand away and saw that she was giggling, laughing, really, biting her fist to keep quiet.
"Oh, I knew it. Didn't I say you'd be laughing at me? Great. Just great. Thanks." He let his head fall back to the ground with a dull thud. So much for not being in the habit of laughing.
"Oh, Alistair." The warmth and affection in Elissa's voice were so unexpectedly sweet that he opened his again to look up at her.
"I'm sorry. I wasn't laughing at you," she said, stroking a fingertip down his cheek.
"Suuuuure you weren't." His burning mortification was abating slowly at her tone and expression, however.
"I was laughing at us, at the entire situation. Did you enjoy yourself?"
Alistair blinked. "Is that a trick question?"
"Just checking." Elissa's eyes were positively twinkling.
Alistair gestured down, hoping his blush would be invisible in the dim half-light. "I should have thought that was obvious."
"Good." Elissa carefully levered herself up and off him, making him gasp and shiver. "Now on to the next part."
"Uh." Now Alistair was sure that his blush was lighting up the tent better than the camp fire outside. "I can't… I mean, I just… Oh, Hessarian's mercy, stop laughing at me!"
"That," and she copied his gesture, making him fear spontaneous combustion from sheer embarrassment, "was just the beginning."
"Yes. And now it's my turn."
"Oh." Alistair bit his lip. "You know I've never… that is, when I was a boy, Bann Teagan told me how… but I don't really…" He trailed off and sighed. "Did I mention that I always feel like a great bumbling fool when I'm trying to talk to you about… you know? But I guess you noticed that, huh?"
"I might have." Elissa smiled mischievously. "But it's part of your charm."
"Funny, Leliana said the same thing."
"You were trying to charm Leliana? Should I be jealous?"
"Oh… you!" Alistair sat up, without quite knowing whether he wanted to kiss that arch smile off her face or collect his clothes and storm off in a huff. The former option looked far more appealing, but the latter became all the more probable with each of her teasing remarks.
Possibly sensing his frustration, Elissa gentled her expression, although her eyes remained playful. "Alistair, everything is fine. I was serious; this was just the beginning. Now we can continue to the other fun parts."
"If it's any more fun than what we've just done, my head may explode," he said honestly.
"I thought it already had?"
"Oh, Maker, give me strength!" Alistair let himself fall back down. His face was burning.
"Payback is sweet," Elissa suddenly sounded very close, and he opened his eyes just in time so see her lean in for a kiss. Unexpectedly, or perhaps because they were still so close and he was still so sensitive in… some places, the kiss turned into something far more intense and went on and on, becoming a slow exploration with tongues and fingers.
He would have burned up in sheer embarrassment if Elissa had actually started talking about what she was, in effect, showing him and teaching him, but the way she did it, guiding his hands along her body, arching up and murmuring and eventually crying out and clenching around his fingers was so much better than his first, inexpert fumbling.
And while mapping and learning her body he also found out that her gently scratching her fingernails along the base of his spine sent little bolts of lightning into places he thought were already asleep for the night, and that there were unexpected spots on his neck where a scrape of her teeth made him breathless.
And then, with her hot tongue tracing the outline of his ear and one of her hands moving along his stomach and lower, and then even unexpectedly lower, which was really very strange, until suddenly—
"Holy Maker!" Alistair arched off the bedroll, panting. "That was… that… people do that?"
Elissa bit down on his earlobe and simultaneously twisted her fingers, stealing his breath and his entire brain functions for a moment. "People do whatever they enjoy doing together. There's no rule saying we may only… thread needles."
"Not that there's anything wrong with threading needles, yes?" Alistair said, a bit desperately, because one very insistent part of him was declaring emphatically that no, the night was a long way away from over, and what he'd thought had been the ending had actually been just a temporary break.
In response, Elissa rolled on her back, gloriously beautiful and inviting and winked at him.
Their second joining was slower and so, so much better, with the terror and the urgency gone and replaced by pure pleasure and joy. He knew how to touch her now, learning more from her sighs and quiet cries, and she felt divine, under and around him, her hands tracing and scratching and stroking. This time, she reached her peak first, pulling him down after her.
After, Alistair curled around her, as if holding her close could ward off the world outside. "That wasn't too bad, was it?" he asked, hoping not to sound too nervous.
"It was wonderful," Elissa murmured, nuzzling his neck sleepily. "You were wonderful. You don't regret it, do you?"
He came a little more awake. "What? No!" Her hair smelled of smoke and soap. "I'm glad we did it tonight. We don't know…"
"We might have all the time in the world," Elissa said into his shoulder. "You never know. We might assemble the armies, get rid of the archdemon and live happily ever after."
"Yeah, right." Sleep was fast claiming him now, but parts of his brain were still buzzing, had been buzzing for days. "I could almost hate Eamon."
"Because he wants you to claim the throne?"
"I have no place in politics. I am the son of a scullery maid!"
"You are smart, and just, and well educated. If you wanted to, you could be a great king; I have no doubt of it." Elissa's voice was quieter now.
"I don't want to. I've been taught to fight, not to govern. I don't want to," his throat was unexpectedly tight, "I don't want to order men to their deaths while I spend my days arguing and writing laws."
"Then you won't." There was a steely note in Elissa's voice that made him look down at her. "You'll do whatever you want to do, Alistair. Even if you want to run off to Orlais to become a pirate. Don't let Eamon, or me, or anyone else tell you what to do."
He grinned, feeling curiously calm now. "Yes, my lady."
"Oh, you." She was smiling. "Go to sleep. We'll face the future as it comes."