Most of their last night in Orzammar was spent in silence. Companionable silence, but silence nonetheless.
Ilona couldn't remember the last time she'd seen Alistair so quiet, or when she'd felt so moved to be the same. The aging King Bhelen offered them a feast in honor of their contributions, but they both swiftly denied the honor, claiming that they would prefer to spend their final night in each other's company, preparing themselves for what was to come. He understood, offering them two of the best rooms he could find empty and sending them a small keg of fine ale.
Dwarven food never settled well in Ilona's stomach. She was surprised to find that Alistair remembered this when he withdrew a hefty parcel from his pack, revealing an assortment of different snack foods. So she settled herself on the foot of his bed, and they ate together, sharing stories as they shared the King's cheese.
"I still can't believe you threatened that poor Revered Mother," he chuckled. Sliding his knife through a hunk of bright orange cheddar, he lifted the chunk to his lips and popped it in. "If I recall correctly – and you know I do – you were very bitchy those first few days." She could tell he was teasing her. It was obvious in the way his eyes all but twinkled at her in the well-lit room.
She snatched away the hunk of bread lying near his knee, "Yes, well, Morrigan and I had to keep an eye on you, if I recall correctly. We thought you were going to fling yourself into the wheels of a carriage or something. Maker's blood – this bread is impossible to tear. How old is it?"
"A few days," Alistair laughed, "I was wary to even try. I figured I'd let you have a go at it first."
Narrowing her eyes at him, Ilona finally managed to tear off a hunk from the halved loaf. "But as I was saying, those first few days were difficult for all of us. And we got Sten out of my threatening that poor Revered Mother, so you can't blame me."
He nodded, his grin turning into a slight, thoughtful smile. He'd changed so much from what she remembered during those travels all those years ago. There were wrinkles around his eyes and mouth that spoke of how often he laughed. Silver streaks ran through his copper hair, intensifying around his temples. But no matter how different he looked to her physically, the moment he smiled, she was transported back to when she discovered his mother's amulet in Arl Eamon's study or when, together, they stood above the corpse of the Archdemon and he uttered a single bark of relieved laughter.
Thirty years could do remarkable thinks to a man. He'd gone from that hesitant ex-templar to one of the greatest kings Ferelden had ever known and would likely ever know. His humility was genuine when he claimed anyone saying such spoke complete lies, but he always held himself a bit higher afterward. She knew he liked the compliments.
His son would do well.
Ilona chewed on the hunk of bread with forced gusto, grinding the toughened wheat between her teeth until manageable. The two of them left Denerim the night after his son's coronation. Alistair was beginning to suffer the effects of the taint and could wait no longer, though he wished for nothing more. Her heart twisted horribly at the sight of her dear friend say goodbye to his loved ones. Both Elissa and Duncan tried so hard to stay strong. That sight in itself was enough to send a pain straight through her chest.
Her thoughts then strayed to Nathaniel and their goodbye. He was still living at Vigil's Keep, and for the longest time she fretted over telling him of her departure. She feared he would want to go with her. He still had so much time; she couldn't bear letting him lose out on those long months. She could feel his lips nestled between her brows, the strong, steady hand on the slope of her neck. There were no words. What would he have said? That he loved her? That in her leaving, she would take his heart with her? He couldn't find it within himself to leave her with that guilt, nor could he repeat those words he'd so often told her over the past years. She knew them.
When Alistair saw that she was staring at him, his hand went to his mouth. "What? Do I have something on my face?"
"Besides that stupid look? No."
They both laughed before returning to their "meal." Quiet took them once again. She could tell from his cinched brows and squared shoulders that he was thinking. Probably of his wife, or of the battle to come. While they traveled, the two of them made a deal. He would let her be the first to die. When he recalled the shaken, pale-faced mage she'd become during their first trip into the Deep Roads, he quickly understood why she all but begged him to let her go first. And so he swore to her that he would fight to stay alive until he knew she was gone.
Ilona's dreams had not even begun yet. She was here because they were friends. If she could give up her life so that he wasn't alone, he wouldn't let them take her off and make her into one of those monsters. This was only the second request she'd ever made in their long friendship, and he wasn't about to deny her now.
When the food was rendered to nothing but crumbs, Alistair began to gather his things. Dusting the crumbs off onto the floor, he folded the cloth he'd kept the food in and returned it to his pack. When this was finished, his eyes went to Ilona to see her lying on her back, staring up at the ceiling. Pausing, he reached out and settled a hand atop her wrist. She looked down at him, her wide, still somehow guileless eyes glassy despite the twitch of a smile in the corner of her mouth.
"You should get some rest," he said, voice oddly quiet.
She sniffed, biting back a laugh and lifting her other hand to give his a pat. "Somehow I doubt that's going to be possible." Sleep wasn't easy alone after lying so many years with a body beside yours, and now, with the Roads so close, she knew his nightmares were probably getting worse. But... "You should stay."
A brow rose on his forehead, and she knew what was going to come out of his mouth before he even said it. "Don't you think it's a little late to make your intentions known, 'Lona?"
"You know what I mean."
"I'm afraid I don't, my lady."
Ilona rolled her eyes at him, laughing. She lifted both hands to her face, fingers massaging absently at her eyelids, rubbing any stray tears into her skin. Struggling to sit up, she shifted around until her legs were crossed and she was looking directly at him. "You said once that your nightmares aren't as bad when you're with someone," she pointed out, to which he nodded.
He took a moment before the realization of what she meant dawned on him. Evidently his lack of sleep was muddying up his thought processes. Once he'd accepted the idea, a matter that did not take long given his exhaustion, he set about clearing the mattress of their things. He settled his pack near the foot of the bed, just beside her own. She set to putting out the candles, leaving two of them lit to preserve at least a small amount of light. With none of the shyness of years past, they shucked off their armor and robes and climbed into bed.
At first, their positioning was incredibly awkward. Lying on the opposite sides of the bed, nearly to the point of falling off, they merely stared at each other for a long time. This awkwardness was more of preoccupation than uncertainty or sexual tension. With their hearts and minds so far displaced, finding comfort with someone else was an entirely foreign concept, even with the gesture being as friendly as it was.
"We won't be getting any sleep like this," Ilona told him finally. Her ability for stating the obvious never waned, it seemed.
Holding out an arm, Alistair managed a twist of a smile. "Come here, then. So long as you don't have your way with me while I'm asleep, our closeness shouldn't be a problem."
He wasn't really expecting a snort of laughter, but that's what he was given and he was willing to accept that. Rolling his eyes at her, he lifted his arms even higher as she scooted over to him. She turned over onto her side and moved closer until her back was nearly touching his chest, rubbing her cheek against the pillow as she felt his arm curl over her. "I hope you don't mind this," she heard him murmur, "It's just what I'm used to."
"I don't mind," came her whispered reply. "It's what I'm used to, too."
Ilona felt so different from Elissa. His wife was petite; soft, but not plush. She was so small he could wrap an arm all the way around her shoulders, pick her up without so much as a second's worth of strain. His dear friend, however, was as tall as any man. She was tall, and she was unbelievably soft. He always wondered how she could maintain such a figure after all the traveling they did.
He remembered Zevran's apt description of her down to the word: "Look at it this way, Alistair. Imagine your favorite pillow - soft, comfortable, fits in your arms no matter your size. Now, imagine your favorite pillow is a woman. She, my friend, is that pillow."
Ilona cracked open her eyes, brows knitted. "Yes?"
"Who was-- er, is it?"
The woman shifted in his arms, turning just enough to look up at him. He could just barely see her face – pale, thick-lipped, eyes suddenly wide. When she spoke, her voice was thick and quiet. "What do you mean?"
"Who are you used to?" He paused, "You've never discussed those sorts of things with me. Unless you don't want to talk about it..."
He watched as she lifted a hand to her forehead to rub the slightly wrinkled skin there. "No. No, it's alright." She took a long, slow breath before releasing it in a sigh, turning back onto her side. Alistair slid in behind her, just as he had before. "It's just... complicated. I hardly know where to begin."
"Begin with the one you love, 'Lona. That's all I need to know." He chuckled. "It'll make for a good bedtime story, I'm sure."
"Ah, yes," Ilona laughed in response, "I'm to humor you by telling you what I've left behind."
The strain of bitterness in her tone tugged at the organ in the center of his chest. "I didn't--"
"Don't worry, Al. I know when you're teasing." She took another long breath, holding this one in her lungs for far longer than she should have, and her chest quivered when she finally exhaled. "Who I love and who I'm leaving behind... They're not the same thing. Not really."
Her thoughts were filled with very little besides her work as the arlessa and as Nathaniel's close friend for the past twenty-eight years. There were times when she saw something that reminded her of Justice. At first, she thought of him any time she removed her robes to find the lyrium ring she gave him hanging on a chain around her throat. After a few months of that singular pang in her chest every time she saw the ring, she removed it and placed it in the chest where she kept all of her jewelry, hidden at the very bottom, but the location was never completely forgotten.
Those moments were nothing compared to the few times she passed Aura on the street. The woman did not speak to her; they had nothing to say to each other. However, every time Kristoff's widow rounded the corner and was out of earshot, Ilona found herself breathless.
Reaching into the folds of her robes, she withdrew the familiar ring of silver, thumb stroking over the curve of it, savoring each familiar dip and notch.
"It may be difficult for you to understand." Before he was able to protest, she continued. "And don't tell me that you could. It's not that simple." Letting the ring fall from her fingers, she pressed her cheek into her pillow. She wasn't comfortable, but she felt she would be able to sleep. Maybe if he had her here, his nightmares would not keep him awake. That was enough to get her to stay. "Do you remember, just after the Blight, when I was sent to the Keep?"
"While I was there, I met a ma-- … someone." The emphasized word fell into silence, and she shifted beneath the weight of his arm. "I believe that what I had for him was the closest thing to actual love I've felt."
"Why wouldn't I understand that?"
Ilona stopped herself from answering him outright. Because it's ridiculous. Because it's impossible. Because I've spent the past twenty-eight years of my life in love with a sodding spirit. When she finally spoke, her voice was quieter. "You met him. After the siege, after I killed the Mother, when you visited, you met him."
"Anders?" Alistair asked, not giving her a moment's wait before beginning the guessing game. He knew she'd enjoyed Zevran's company while they were battling the Blight. The snarky mage held some likeness to the assassin. When she gave a snort of laughter, he continued, "It wasn't Oghren, was it?"
"Yes, Alistair. I've spent the last near three decades of my life pining over the drunken dwarf I just so happen to consider one of my greatest friends. That is exactly it."
Her tone was dry and almost acidic. The sound made him wince inwardly. Even after so many years of being King, she was the only person who could knee him between the thighs with a single string of words. "I was just asking," he muttered, nearly moved to lift his arm from around her. Comfort won out, and he remained. But he wasn't pleased with her. "You don't have to bite my head off for it."
Ilona clamped her eyes shut, rubbing at the span of skin between her brows. "Justice. You commended him for remaining diligent despite the fact that he could have easily left the Keep."
Despite his age and current state, he remembered the time after the Blight as clear as day, which included the time spent at Vigil after she'd decimated the Mother and the scourge was truly seen as ended. He remembered Anders and Nathaniel. He recalled comparing Velanna to Morrigan beneath his breath, just as he considered just how surprising Sigrun was for a dwarf. Oghren was there. Justice... Suddenly, those few extra memories clicked into place, and he was rewarded with an image of the man in question.
"The corpse?" he asked, eyes widening slightly at the back of Ilona's head. He watched her shift away from him.
"I shouldn't have said anything."
Alistair moved forward, his hand lifting to rest on her shoulder. "No. I'm sorry. I didn't mean for it to come out like that." His thumb stroked over the soft fabric of her robes, and he felt the tension melt away beneath his palm. "I was... surprised. That's all." There was another long stretch of silence before he continued. "Tell me about him?"
She turned just far enough to look at him over her shoulder. Her eyes were narrowed, lips forming a thin, unamused line. "Are you humoring me? Or are you genuinely curious?"
"Genuinely curious," he responded. The gravity in his tone made her believe him, so she shifted onto her other side until they were facing each other. What could she say? How could you condense something like what they had into under an hour, tongue heavy with fatigue? She feared she couldn't, but she would try if it would help her sleep better. Her story began simply, not with their meeting, but the last time she saw him. She told Alistair of how he gave her back the ring she'd given him many months prior, about that last embrace, about how, when Nathaniel woke, everything changed, and it never changed back again.
She was telling him of their adventure deep into the Free Marshes when she heard the sound of Alistair's quiet, even breathing. Mustering a quiet laugh, she shook her head and settled onto her pillow, muttering, "Typical."
Everything is green-tinted. The air is thick and too quiet.
"She told me about you." Even his voice doesn't seem the same.
The spectre shifts. He's never seen a spirit shift before. They're always so collected and serene.
"She's going to die."
He takes a shaky breath.
"If I die before her, I want you to be there."
And that was exactly how the events unfolded.
Ilona turned just as she saw Alistair fell the final of a cluster of darkspawn only to stagger backwards. She knew what exhaustion looked like. She'd seen it – felt it – before. That was not exhaustion.
She nearly tripped over her own robes as she rushed to him, clutching the hindering fabric in her fist as she moved as quickly as she was able. Her staff fell with a loud clatter against the stone floor, and her pulse hammered in her ears at the sight of him resting against the darkened wall of the cave, patting at his stomach. When he withdrew his palm, she saw a pool of red. Her heart nearly stopped.
"Al!" she called out as she half-ran the last few feet to his side, her soft-soled shoes slipping on the stone. He looked up with eyes that no doubt mirrored hers – wide, full of disbelief. The only difference was the sharp line between his brows that she could only identify as pain. "Let me help you. Please, let me help you."
Alistair groaned, dusting her hands away. "It's deep." His voice was strained, and when he coughed, he gave a harsh sob. "... Didn't you say... don't get-- get stabbed, Alistair. I couldn't heal.. a papercut?"
Her chin quavered as she peered down at him, his body bent almost completely in half as he rested against the wall, clutching uselessly to the wound. This wasn't supposed to happen. She was supposed to die first. If he died now, she'd be alone, and she could... Shaking her head, she pushed those thoughts aside. Now was not the time to think about herself, not with Alistair bleeding out right in front of her. "I have to get you somewhere safe," she muttered, mostly to herself. "There's – there's an offshoot just there. Do you think you can make it?"
All he could do was nod.
While Ilona was a large woman, she was not a strong one. Thankfully, Alistair could still carry most of his weight, though he leaned heavily on the mage at first. She continued to speak to him through the minutes of struggle that passed. Her voice was surprisingly warm when she felt it was necessary, and he found himself drawn forward by the sound of her and sheer willpower alone.
Near the mouth of the small offshoot, she heard his sword fall to the ground, followed by his shield. He was tired of carrying them, due to both the physical weight and the sheer size of the burden that came with the dragonbone blade.
When he settled down against the curve of the darkened cave, a single thought rang out in his head: I'm not getting up. The thought stung him, and his entire face morphed into an expression torn between grief and annoyance. He wasn't supposed to be first. He was supposed to fight until he knew she was safe. Leave it to me, he mused with distinct acidity, Ruining the plans. Getting killed before I'm supposed to.
He was so absorbed in his own thoughts that he didn't take note of what Ilona was doing. Her slender hand was slipped beneath his armor, exactly where the curved darkspawn dagger had pierced, and he could feel a spreading chill over his stomach, followed by a sudden absence of sensation. "This should numb the pain," she said, voice cracking on nearly every word that passed her lips.
"'Lona," Alistair choked out, "We only had one of those."
Lifting her reddened eyes to his, her brow creased. "I don't sodding care how many we had."
Instead of arguing with her, he nodded, and the sight of it pulled another few tears from her eyes. Sniffing them back, she finished her task and withdrew her hand to find that her fingers were slicked with blood. Her stomach turned, but she ignored the feeling, wiping her hand on her robes.
"Are you comfortable?" The words are thin, and she can hardly believe she's saying them aloud. Not now, not to Alistair. Maker, why now? Why not forty years? Fifty? Why not ever? Why couldn't this man die in his sleep? He deserved better than this, and yet all he was given was a cheap slice from one of those monsters. He was the best thing to happen to Ferelden in centuries, perhaps in all of history, but everything boiled down to this – to bleeding out in a cave with no one around but her to bid him farewell.
He bit down on his bottom lip, and again he nodded. She could tell he was close. She could almost feel the life seeping out of him. Swallowing down the lump in her throat, Ilona moved forward, tilting his chin back to give him a single kiss on his forehead.
She couldn't sit there and wait. She couldn't see him die. Rising from her knees beside him, she turned and moved toward his sword and shield. They couldn't be left out in the open. The darkspawn wouldn't pick up Maric's sword, but the King's shield... She had to make sure it was safe. While she was unsteady on her feet, wavering from fatigue, the way to the discarded weapons was easy to find, and she was soon sitting on her knees before them.
Perhaps the pressure in her chest would yield if she could only let go of the wail contracted in its very center. But she had to stay quiet; she had to gather his things and attempt a burial. Letting Alistair rot out in the open was out of the question. He deserved some last shred of respect.
Her shadow grew before her very eyes, cast over the sleek blade in her hands, extending almost all the way to the other side of the wide tunnel. A light – there'd been a light. She saw it out of the very corner of her eye. Her entire body tensed, the fingers of her left hand half-curling around her palm, an orange flame sprouting and licking at the air. She even grasped Maric's sword, though she knew she couldn't swing the heavy weapon.
But before she was able to turn, she heard something that made her heart swell to twice its usual size.
Any of the tears she'd been holding in rushed out of her as the flame in her hand died. She knew that voice. Laying the sword down at her feet, she stood and turned in the same motion.
Alistair stood there, but she knew he was not Alistair.
Her shoulders shook as the quiet, hiccuping sobs continued, though her eyes were almost as dry as her throat. For a long moment, they merely stared at each other. Finally, she reached out to him with a single hand, her fingers twitching as she struggled to keep the limb upright. The weight of fatigue refused to let up despite the glimmer of joy that rushed over her.
The outstretched hand was all the invitation he needed. His steps were awkward at first, as he grew used to this form, but the distance between them closed and quickly. When he stood before her, his eyes a mere inch higher than hers, he found that he didn't know what to say. She, too, was silent; her eyes narrowed slightly as they ran over his face. Alistair's face.
Before he could speak, Ilona drifted forward, her forehead drooping down to rest against cold silverite. She was out of tears, uttering a single, shuddering sigh against his breastplate. The moment stretched out forever, and his gauntleted hand twitched beneath the desire to touch her, to comfort her in some small way.
When he was finally able to reach for her, his fingers settled lightly on her forearm, sliding over her sleeve to cup her elbow in his palm. He heard her breath catch.
"It really is you, then," she murmured.
The word pulled her forward, closer, her arms circling his waist. She did not look up into his face. She couldn't. She'd see only Alistair. So instead, she shut her eyes tight and kept her forehead pressed to the armor, fighting to keep the biting, coppery smell from her nose. The sudden closeness drove him to rest his other hand on the slope of her neck, fingers threading through the back of her hair.
"Why now?" Her voice was quiet; thick. "I was almost there."
"You were alone. You... shouldn't be alone."
She bit down hard on her bottom lip. They couldn't stay here. Prolonging her death would only make leaving more painful. If Justice was here, she could fight. She would fight. Even with exhaustion fraying the edges of her concentration, she wouldn't go down easily. "We should leave," she whispered. "Grab his sword and shield. I'll... I'll lead the way."
When she pulled away, Ilona tilted her face up to look at him. Familiar honey-hued eyes stared down at her, but his expression was grave unlike she'd ever seen Alistair wear. The hand that was settled on her forearm moved to cup her cheek, but he withdrew the moment he saw her brow wrinkle and felt her give him a faint, almost unnoticeable push.
"Please," she breathed, shaking her head, "Don't look at me like that. I can't. Not here. Not... not him."
Damn that voice, she cursed silently, lifting a hand to scrub over her face. If she could only close her eyes, only remind herself that this man was Alistair in body alone, this reunion would be so much simpler. But she couldn't. Every time she looked at him, all she saw was Alistair. Once, a long time ago, he told her to close her eyes and concentrate on his voice, but that would not work today, not now, not after so many years.
With the heels of her palms buried into her eyes, she stood there, shoulders hunched forward. "I love you." The words were quiet and strained, but as genuine as they'd ever been.
She felt heavy hands on her shoulders.
"I love you," he repeated, and she could feel her knees weaken.
"We should go."
He took a deep breath. "We should."
A few years later, two marked graves were discovered in the bowels of the Roads.
Above one pile of rocks was the blade of Maric the Savior, unmistakeable in its design. At one time, beside it rested a shield, but that shield was long gone.
There was a dip in the second swell of stones where something once stood. As the shield, the staff was long gone, but in the scavenger's haste, they'd dislodged the single thing that meant the most to that resting place.
When the staff was forcefully removed, the thin, time-worn chain broke, sending the ring rolling until it came to rest just beside the blade.
There, it was safe, and there, it would stay.
A/N: I suppose an explanation is in order! This is a companion piece to the larger fic I'm planning on writing very soon, "To Become What I Can't Be." As of yet, it's still in the planning stages, but this little story idea grabbed me and wouldn't let me go. Anyway! I hope you enjoyed it. :)