She turned the stem round in her hand, watching the way the firelight darkened the delicate blush of red. Still the petals were full, straining open toward the light. It was an uncanny thing.
The approaching steps paused, the chuckle half hidden beneath his gasp. "I don't believe it." He sat beside her on the ground, sliding close, barely seeming to notice the leg that fell against her own. "You still have it."
It was impossible to meet those eyes and not smile. "Yeah."
"I just thought it would have… you know… wilted or something."
So had she, truly. When he had presented her with the rose the words had come slow and awkward, but there had been a beauty to them that she could not deny. He had spoken of unexpected discoveries and things to be treasured. She should have been pleased, relished the moment, but she couldn't help but see them, those deeper metaphors best left unuttered.
Here was a thing plucked from its roots, from an earth that it could no longer call its own. Cast out of Orzammar, stripped of her very identity, she too had made her way to the surface, struggling toward the light. They had both been left alone, amidst the spreading taint, waiting only to be scooped up by forces that they could never understand. She turned the rose in her hand, feeling the sharp prick of an errant thorn. Beautiful it might be, but for yet how long? They were Grey Wardens, doomed to fade.
Alistair was watching her, eyes roaming from the petals to her face, his own cheeks almost mirroring the color there. He could not know, not these things, not until he absolutely must. His smile, though, had softened, voice dropping to a whisper.
"I should have known."
"That it would… endure."
She chuckled, raising her eyes slowly. Whatever coy remark there might have been, though, died on her tongue. Never had she seen him so serious, never had she seen such a…
His lips were on hers before she could stiffen, hands fluttering halfway between warding him off and pulling him close. Soon enough the warmth of him, the calloused but gentle fingers slipping though her hair won out. For weeks her mind had been spinning, betrayal, death, their almost certain doom… now, though, now at last it was still.
The air was cool when finally he pulled away, her lips still wide and gasping for a heat that was no longer there. Her hands, too, seemed to flex of their own volition remembering the knotted muscles of his arms, the tension sweeping cross his shoulders as he pressed her down.
At least he seemed to be faring no better. He sat, one arm resting cross his upturned knee, but there was no hiding the ragged rise and fall of his chest, the deepening blush beneath his two-days beard.
Something stirred, almost angry, as she reached for him again. "Why—?"
His smile came sheepish, his nod gesturing across the campfire.
Zevran leaned easy against the log. She should not have been surprised at the assassin's silent approach, but Oghren squatted at his side, grin widening as he let out a rumbling belch. She hadn't heard the dwarf either; had her defenses been so far gone?
The elf met her eyes with a delicately raised brow, the leer more amused than accusing. Oghren, though, turned his barking laugh to Alistair.
"Taking my advice, boy? Old Oghren won't ever steer ya wrong."
She would not have thought it possible, but Alistair's flush actually deepened. He turned to her with an almost panicked look behind his eyes, the words coming in a breathy tumble. "Would you maybe… want to… ahh…?"
Zevran chuckled. "Stay, please. We do not mind."
She came quick to her feet, if only to spare Alistair. Yes, to spare him. Taking his hand in hers, she steered him to the deeper shadows of the waiting tents.
Once the flames were out of sight, she could no longer help herself. Bending double, she let the laughter take her, chest heaving as her eyes pinched shut. He hesitated only a moment, the hesitant chuckle becoming deep and throaty and full.
Straightening, she was surprised at how close he stood.
"You forgot this." The rose was in his hand, fingers tracing across her forehead as he pulled the hair back and tucked it behind her ear. Stepping back, he seemed to be admiring the effect but she trapped the hand, pinning it against her cheek, nuzzling against the cupping warmth.
Her eyes had fallen closed, she realized, senses rising to drink him in. Opening them, she saw again how close he was, liquid eyes only a hairsbreadth from her own. Still, she smiled.
"I never thought… that you would ask me to your tent?"
"Have I? Did I say that? I don't seem to remember…"
Her lips were on his now, straining even as he bent low. Tall he was, even for a human, but those arms found her waist, lifting her easily. He was moving, she was almost sure of it, stepping backward into enveloping shadow. A tent… his? Her own? She could not tell.
The blankets beneath her were warm, close and welcoming. His movements, too, were gentle now, careful, as if afraid to hurt her, afraid to do something wrong.
Had his fingers hesitated when they plucked the rose?
But he had told her of this, trusted her with it. She had scarcely been able to believe it, but he had been raised in the Chantry after all. Rising to her elbows, she met his eyes. So young he looked, all of the boyish charm draining away to leave only lingering doubt and fear. He had told her once that he would follow her until the end, trust her to lead them, trust her to protect him.
Slipping eager fingers beneath the edge of his tunic, she smiled. "Just follow my lead."
As her hands slipped over his chest, tangling amongst the delicate hair, lingering over smooth muscle and puckered scars, she pressed her hips against his own. His eyes widened, but his arms were eager, crushing her against him with unexpected strength. As they sank back amongst the blankets, she felt the rose slip from her hair, falling discarded to the waiting shadows.
* * *
Months later, a darkness of another sort. Denerim rose in the distance, snaking plumes of fire already filling the air with a thick and choking ash. Her hand went to her chest, slipping beneath the supple folds of the leather before she could stop herself. There was nothing there. She had left it in Redcliff, breaking the gentle clasp as she lay it beneath a loosened stone.
The rose had begun to wilt that very night, forgotten and half-crushed beneath the pillow. Desperately she had tried to smooth it, to recover something of the delicate bend of the broken petals. Ironically, it was Leliana who had come to her aid, speaking of gentle Orleasian arts, helping her to press the petals into an amulet that they discovered amongst Master Bodin's wares. But already they were blackening, the faintest hints of brittle death curling at their edges.
Leliana had seemed pleased with the effect, the memorial frozen beneath the tiny, beaded glass. It was only the way of bards, perhaps, preserving the stuff of heroes long after they had passed beyond the Fade. In song they might linger, but never again would they be touched.
And so it had rested against her chest these months, safe within the warm folds of her armor. So too had Alistair rested there, every night that they were able to slip away. He would curl against her chest, seeking there perhaps that protection that she couldn't guarantee by day. But it had been over a week now since the Landsmeet, since the protected had been called upon to stand for all the world.
His words had seemed harsh, but she had known that they would come. Now he realized, now he understood. She had only been able to keep it from him for so long. Why then did it hurt so much? Why did the emptiness go so much deeper than her chest?
He was king now and a human king would need a human heir. Even now he rode with the vanguard, approaching the city in resplendent armor of hammered gold. The rest of their companions were not far behind, but she had felt his glances, felt them linger. Each time it had taken all her strength to turn away.
Morrigan had made her offer, a promise almost beyond belief. But she had not told him of that, no. The price was too great, stirring with it other pains that had threatened to tear her through. Already she had forced him into another woman's arms; she would not do it again. Never would he have chosen this path, never if not for her. She would not seal his fate in deals with demons.
But Morrigan had not sensed her true thoughts, slipping into the night without a word. She had remembered the rose, then, at last understood the full meaning behind it. She was all that he had said, rare and beautiful and fading. This was her purpose, here, today.
She watched him take to a tumbled battlement, saw him gesture to her as the words swelled. Here was a battle cry, here men put aside what they might have been to be what they truly are. The crowd seemed to open to him, straining toward the light of their new crowned king.
They took the gate with ease, gathering together one last time as the darkspawn roared within the city walls. Those few who would accompany her stood by her side: Sten stoic and hollow-eyed, Wynne implacably patient, Zevran crouching with a coiled eagerness.
Now, though, there were goodbyes to make. Leliana took her hand with a reassuring warmth, eyes trailing toward the back of the crowd. He came then, moving easily between the assembled forces. One last time, she could look to him, raise her eyes without trembling. The garrisons were assembled but, for the moment, they were truly alone.
There was something of the old smile there, crooked even here. "So you want me to… guard the gate?"
"And the archdemon? You are not the only Grey Warden here."
"But you are the only king."
He sighed, eyes turning round to take in their waiting forces. "It doesn't… feel like it."
"Trust me. It does."
The timid smile held, but it was the eyes that faltered. He knew, he realized. Still, though, she could give him hope.
"Riordan will be with me."
Either of them could make the final blow, could take the mantle upon themselves. It would be a lie to say she believed it, but perhaps it would be enough.
After a moment, Alistair nodded.
Slipping a hand into her glove, she felt it there, wrapped round in a soft swath of velvety linen. The amulet she had left behind, but this… She pressed it into his hand, biting her lip as his eyes grew wide.
Fingers shook as she raised them, laying them hesitantly against his cheek. "Do not open it now. You will know when."
She left him standing there, resplendent against the horde, all that she had been laid wrapped in his palm. Stepping toward the gate, she loosed the swords at her back. If she was a rose, let them feel her thorns.
* * *
He felt the change a moment before it broke, the light erupting skyward in searing, red-tinged waves. The men were startled, crying out before realization hit, before their screams turned to cheers. The darkspawn, too, felt it, abandoning the field to flee into the waiting woods.
Around him they moved, the world changing, shifting at last. But all he felt was pain. It came against his skin like stabbing claws, moments passing before he realized that the pain was in his hand, in the tight gripped fist. Opening it at last, he let the cloth fall away, saw the twin pinpricks already welling red.
Taking the bare stem between two fingers, he turned it round, imagining then how full and flushed it had been. They had seen enough battles, shared enough panting and exhausted grins across the backs of the slain. He could almost imagine he had been there at the end, seeing that flush one last time, seeing her smile. Still, she would endure.