Summary: She was getting ugly, and she knew it. He still looked at her like the stars shined out of her arse, though. A look at how beauty is relative. Alistair/Cousland.
A/N: In which I subvert the Princess Cous-Cous trope, and then play it straight. Or do I?
Being a Grey Warden required sacrifice: a Grey Warden sacrificed their mortality (a lifespan of fifty, if you were lucky), their titles, their personal commitments, even their lives, all for the greater good of defeating the darkspawn.
For Elissa, this meant sacrificing her beauty.
When she was little, her father sadly told her that just wasn't built to be a warrior like the rest of the family. At the time, thirteen years old and standing next to Fergus, whose shoulders seemed so impossibly broad, she was inclined to believe him. Which was why as she grew older her father hired the Antivan (a Crow—she knew now he had to be) to teach her how to use her daggers. And, well, she supposed she just naturally fought dirty. No honor among thieves and all. She taught herself how to pick locks, and badgered Arl Howe's (Maker curse his soul) eldest into teaching her how to sneak about unseen. The rest of it was easily learned, for she seemed a natural rogue.
If her father could see her now, she suspected he would tell her she looked like a warrior like the rest of the family, and not like the, to quote Fergus, "sneaky little shit" she trained to be all her life.
She was getting ugly, and she knew it.
(Not that warriors couldn't be beautiful; it was just that charm, the easy grace that came with such a pretty face, was vital to her talents. Most warriors simply lacked the…finesse she required in her day-to-day life.)
It was, she felt, a natural progression of things, like everything else in her life. She was no longer pampered and spoiled and pretty, the young daughter of a popular lord: instead, she was a hardened battle warrior, scarred and violent, and it showed on every inch of her body. Her skin was darker and frecklier now than it had ever been in the past, far from the pasty ideal her predecessors set. She felt dirty all the time, and sometimes she felt as though she would never be clean, no matter how often she bathed in rivers and streams. Even if she had managed to wipe the grime away, there was still blood on her hands.
Her bosom, high and mighty and slightly larger than average, of which she was once oh-so-proud, was now nothing more than a nuisance on the battlefield. Darkspawn weren't distracted by breasts like the knights of Highever once were. Having breasts meant that her armor fit funny. She could no longer afford to pay an armorer to make custom armor for her—instead, she had to make do with whatever armor they found on the road, which didn't always come made for a woman. Elven armor for either gender was the worst, because elves weren't built with larger busts, and so her bosom really ached after spending a day marching through the Ferelden countryside. It pushed her breasts back until they hurt like hell and she wanted nothing more than to lob them off.
She lost weight and then gained it back twice-fold because she was hungry all the time, and it seemed all Grey Wardens really did was eat. Alistair ate a lot, too, but he was a boy. Boys carried their weight differently—all of Alistair's Grey Warden weight seemed to turn into muscle, but all of Elissa's weight went straight to her hips and thighs (a woman's body, her mother's voice said in her head, was meant to carry children, and Elissa's body was built to carry children-a future matriarch, all hips and thighs and breasts). It was true that a lot of her weight was in muscle, but still. Her arse in particular seemed so much larger than it was before. She was a little (selfishly, stupidly) afraid that if her arse got much larger they would declare it a small country. She was no longer the ladychild she once was, and that hurt, too, in a different sort of way. The more weight she carried, the harder it was to sneak around, and she relied on her sneakiness. The only advantage she had over the darkspawn was her speed and her stealth, and it was harder to do that when your body was getting larger.
Her hair, once long and fair and delightfully curly, had no place on the battlefield. In the beginning, she had kept it tied up, unwilling to cut it, but that hadn't lasted long. She lobbed her ponytail off shortly after reaching the Circle Tower, unwilling to see her hair burned by a stray fireball. It was boy-short now, hastily cut in an effort to keep it out of the way. It wasn't even a cute short hairstyle—the knife she used had been crude, leaving her hair jagged and uneven, a mess of once-delicate curls piled on the top her head like a rat's nest. She mourned the loss of her hair like a mother might mourn the loss of a child, or a particularly prized possession. She toyed with the idea of having a funeral session for the discarded locks, but the idea of Morrigan's cruel, mocking laughter was too much to bear.
The worst part had been the scars, criss-crossed along every inch of her body. There was a particularly nasty one on the back of her leg and her upper thigh and an even worse one on her collar bone, right where her neck met her shoulder. Her hands in particular were the worst of the lot, looking like she had dropped them into a vat of knives, covered with many small cuts and bruises. They were far from the delicate, painted lady hands she once carried, the envy of the other ladies at her mother's spring salon.
Even her eyes, Cousland-blue and strong, no longer held the wide-eyed innocence of her youth. They were cold eyes now, better used for analyzing politics and battle plans than for batting prettily at Father, in hopes that he would give in to whatever desire was driving her that week. Her smile had faded from the wide grin of youth to the battle-hardened grimace of a trained battle maiden. Wrinkles had gathered in her forehead from where her face continually scrunched up in worry—she no longer carried the charming face of a young heiress, but rather one of a hardened general.
She also felt that she was getting old. It was silly—she was twenty-two, for the Maker's sake!—but for the year they travelled on the road, she aged significantly. She didn't look twenty-two; she looked closer to thirty. And with the pains and aches that came with fighting and walking every day, she felt more like fifty.
Makeup and pretty clothing had no place on the battlefield, and so they were quickly discarded in favor of practical things, like swords and oil and food. It was only thanks to Leliana's gentle prodding that she even remembered to change clothes regularly. Compared to the child she had once been, with dresses and makeup and doe eyes and a figure to kill for, she was positively homely. Men didn't stare at her as she walked around the market like they use to. No one whistled as she walked by, and the useless compliments from her youth were few and far between.
He still looked at her, though, like the stars shined out of her arse. Like she was the prettiest thing in Thedas; like she actually stood a chance against a scarless mage like Morrigan, or a bard whose skin still managed to be soft like Leliana. She half-wondered if he wasn't blind as a bat if he could ignore the scars that lined her hands and the added, ah, chubbiness of her hips and thighs. Even Zevran, who would sleep with almost anything given the chance, had commented on the thickness of her forearms and the tatted mess that served as her hair.
Alistair hadn't, though:
"Maker's breath, you are beautiful. I am a lucky man." And then he kissed her again, and she knew then that she had found the man she wanted to spend the rest of her life with. He had seen past her faults (her vanity, for one. Her need to always be in control. Her sheer selfishness. Her Maker-damned pride) and her flaws (she was afraid if she got any uglier Alistair would never sleep with her, and then she really would be a virgin forever because she loved that stupid man and she didn't think she could bring herself to settle for anyone she didn't love). He even thought she was a—what was it he had said before? Oh yes, a rare and wonderful thing amidst all the darkness.
That man, really. What had she done to deserve such sweetness, such adoration? It sure wasn't her pretty face, though once upon a time she might've believed that. She didn't think it was her sparkling personality, either-she was a downright bitch, most days—not to Alistair, usually, but it couldn't have won her any favors. Who wanted to be with a woman who bullied and intimidated others instead using her sparkling personality to persuade them? Not that she was without her charms—she was a Teyrn's daughter, for Andraste's sake—she just got so impatient and frustrated that she tended to pull out her sword and yell instead of trying to talk sense into them. It was like all of her mother's lessons were going to waste: speak softly and carry a big stick was fundamentally pointless if the stick was large enough. Or, say, you had a giant talking golem to do your bidding. That handled things pretty quickly.
It couldn't be her outstanding morals, either. She lied, often. She stole regularly. And while she might be convinced to give a starving elf a gold piece, she didn't really consider that much of a service. Alistair was a downright saint compared to her.
(It was funny that he hated Morrigan so much, considering how similar the two of them were. The sole difference between them was the Elissa felt people were more valuable to her alive than dead, and Morrigan disagreed wholeheartedly.)
There had to be other reasons for why he found her attractive, though what they were Elissa was hard-pressed to guess. It wasn't like she was very pretty, and she told him as much.
"Wha-? Are you serious?" he asked her, eyes wide and one arm draped around her shoulders. "Elissa, you're one of the prettiest people I know."
He was lying. He had to be. "Right. Have you seen my arse lately? Tell me you're joking."
"I'm quite fond of your arse, actually, and I'm not sure what the problem is."
"What about my skin? It's dark and freckly now."
"Sun-kissed," he corrected her, nibbling on an exposed part of her neck. "And quite alluring."
She rolled her eyes. "Alright. My hair, then. You can't tell me that's attractive," she mumbled, fondling the shrewish blonde locks with disgust.
He merely shrugged. "It's cute. It's rather-pixie-ish. I like it."
"You're just saying that."
"Maker's breath, I am not." He kissed hands, lightly tracing one of her newest scars with his lips. "You are lovely, Elissa. Where is all this negativity coming from?"
How could he not understand? For Elissa, appearance was everything. The child of a teyrn grew up with her every move scrutinized by her equally noble peers. Every batted eyelash was a sign, a warning to other bickering nobles and the common folk her family protected: look at my noble features, her blue eyes sparkled, don't you trust me? I can take care of you. Look at my hips, don't I look like the sort of woman who could give you a strong son? Look at my arms: don't I look like a girl who can take care of myself? Look at my long, gorgeous hair—aren't I a jewel your sons and daughters should die to protect? Her beauty was a weapon and a bargaining tool, her greatest strength and the only thing she had left of value. For someone to not care about it at all was almost unthinkable.
She pulled her hands away from him, tracing the scars (burn marks, scratches, bruises, parts where she had been poisoned and the skin had yet to return to its natural color) lightly. "What about these, then? You can't tell me these make me beautiful."
He paused, giving her statement thought before pulling her hands back into his own. "When I see these hands, I see a woman who is willing to fight to do the right that. And that's more beautiful than anything else in all of Thedas."
Then he leaned forward and kissed her gently on the lips.
She may not have been very pretty anymore, but to him she was beautiful.