She woke screaming, her throat raw and burning, her fingers closed around her daggers, and there was someone in her tent with her, multiple someones, and no, it wasn't her tent, she was outside in the cool night air, and someone was grappling with her, fighting, and all she could see was the ogre's face, its half-rotted yellow eyes sneering at her, its long tongue whispering over its lips as it hissed vile and obscene things. The Archdemon will kill you, bear you to the ground, rip out your insides and feast on them, cut you open, rip you open, tear into you and bite you, feast on your bones, crunch them, and then on your companions, on Morrigan first and then Leliana, but not Alistair, not him, not until last, because it sees into your mind like you see into its and it knows what you think about him in the dark of your tent.
Strong hands grabbed at her, more hands than an ogre should have, but she refused to be cowed, shrieking and shouting wordless denials. Something crunched when her elbow contacted with it, and a man howled. Her offhand dagger sliced at scraps of clothing – pathetic, pissant darkspawn armor – and then she was on the ogre again, cutting and slashing, her weapons thirsting for its blood.
It grunted when she slammed into it, catching her wrists and forcing her hands away. Leaping back, she dropped, sweeping her legs toward it. It wasn't expecting that, and she took it to the ground with her kick, and then she rolled onto it, lifting her daggers to plunge them into its eyes or its throat or its mouth. She'd force the blades straight through, out the back of its head, coat her hands in its brain matter and make it bleed and die.
She brought her hand up and back, and someone tackled her. His body forced her into the dirt at the side of a fire, so close it burned her eyes and she choked on the smoke. He was warm and solid on her back, and she liked it so much she wanted to spin about and backhand him.
Alistair breathed her name in her ear, and she froze beneath him, went utterly still.
Then, weakly, "Alistair?"
Bless him, he didn't hesitate, just pushed off her. Rolling over, she released her death grip on her daggers, her knuckles crying out in protest as she flexed her hands. Behind Alistair's crouched, watchful form, she saw Sten slowly rising to his feet, and beyond him, Wynne healing Zevran's broken nose and Leliana wearing a tunic complete with a gaping hole in the front.
Dropping her head to her hands, she choked back a sob, only just realizing what she'd nearly done.
Alistair moved closer to her, gently taking her by the shoulder and drawing her into his arms. The heat from his body seeped into hers, but she still felt vile and tainted, twisted by the darkness of her nightmare, and she pushed her face into his neck to hide her tears of distress and fear from their party. Gently, he pressed his fingers against her shoulders, rubbing soothing circles over her back with his other hand.
"Is she calmed?" Morrigan asked
She felt the brush of Alistair's cheek against her hair as he nodded, one of his hands slipping up to her neck to hold her against him. His other arm curled under her legs, and he picked her up, cradling her against his body, and all she could smell was leather and sweat and Alistair. It was a comfort. A relief. "She's fine." She felt the words more than she heard them, the rumble of his voice soothing.
His chest swelled with a startled breath, and she felt him tense just before Morrigan's fingers touched the naked, cold flesh of her arm. Even wrapped in Alistair's warmth, the night chill took her, her nightmare's frozen claws refusing to let go. "Rest easy when you sleep." A moment's hesitance. "My friend."
Alistair carried her across the camp, and she kept her face hidden in his shoulder, closing her eyes to stop the flow of tears. They'd changed, shifted from upset and terror to shame and anguish. She'd hurt her friends. Her companions. Because of a dream.
A horrible, terrible dream, yes, one that scarred her soul. But that was no excuse. None.
And in that moment, she felt old. So very, very old and worn and beaten down. Not like tempered metal, or the steel blade of a sword, but like something used and abused to the point of worthlessness.
Shifting his hold on her, Alistair stooped and stumbled into one of the tents. His feet must have slipped, because they fell, suddenly, and only him twisting at the last minute saved her from slamming into the ground with his crushing weight on top of her. But she found she liked how they landed, as he gasped and choked and sucked in the air the earth had knocked out of him.
Curling against him, she pushed her fingers under his tunic until the strong beat of his heart pounded against her hand, ignoring his quiet protests.
"I'm so sorry," she whispered against his shirt, ducking her head so he couldn't see her self-loathing.
"No. Don't be." She heard his hard swallow, felt his fingers drift over her hair. "It was a dream, wasn't it? About the Archdemon?"
Just the name sent a frisson of terror down her spine, and she pressed closer to him, needing the comfort of his warm, living body. The Archdemon had crushed him in her dream, snapped his spine in half and tossed him, bent and broken, to the ground. Or had it held him in its claws and slowly roasted him? Or—she bit her lip to stifle her sob of despair.
Be strong, she told herself.
But she wasn't strong. She was weak in the face of the Archdemon and its horde, just a pathetic human facing down an Old God and its minions. It plagued her with dreams, night after night, and she couldn't escape them. How could she possibly be strong?
"Yes." Her voice quivered, broken and defeated, and he made a sound of quiet distress.
Carefully, he pulled her closer, and he tilted her chin up. She averted her gaze, refusing to look him in the eye as he studied her, as if by looking away she could hide her weakness.
His lips touched her forehead, and he turned to his side before adjusting his hold on her, shifting her body against his until her back pressed against his chest, and his legs curled under hers. One of his arms became her pillow, and the other wrapped about her abdomen, his fingers lacing with hers. Against the back of her head, he hummed a quiet tune, and then he began to sing, his voice barely a whisper.
Her eyes widened. She hadn't known he could sing, hadn't had the slightest suspicion. But, oh, Maker, his voice. Strong and rich, the baritone melody washed over her like a physical caress, making her skin prickle. The heady sound curled about her, settling in her finger tips and toes and low in her belly, warm and thick like honey. Solace. His voice was solace from the horrors outside the tent, from the bitter anguish of her nightmares. It captured comfort and warmth with its tremulous strains and draped them over her body with its dipping crescendos and rolling melody.
The lullaby was old, familiar, one every child in Ferelden knew, and she mouthed the words along with him, refusing to add her voice to his and ruin everything. His song soaked through her and brought old memories to the surface, half-forgotten glimpses of Highever, of her mother's lilac scent and her gentle hands in Elissa's hair as she sang her daughter to sleep.
She dozed in Alistair's embrace, her lips turned upward in the tiniest of smiles, and he curled tighter about her as he finished the song, burying his face in her hair. "Elissa?"
"You… you know that I care about you," he murmured, his voice muffled by her hair. "A great deal."
She knew this was important, though why he was addressing it now, when she was half asleep, was beyond her, and she dragged herself back from the edge of slumber. For a moment, her brain groaned in protest, refusing to process his words. "Mmm," she managed, nodding her head so he would know she heard, understood, and comprehended.
Those were all different things, weren't they? Especially the last two. She thought they were. Was fairly sure they were. Maybe they weren't.
"Maybe… maybe I'm just fooling myself."
A nervous laugh bubbled past his lips. "Am I?"
She was confused. Was that a rhetorical question? Didn't he know the answer to it? She half wondered why she wasn't rolling over and shaking him to death, and then, when she tried to move, she remembered. Her body was full of delicious languor, from the heat of his presence and the rich tones of his voice. She never wanted to move again. Let the Blight close around them and let the Orlesian Wardens save the day. She and Alistair could stay in their tent, him wrapped around her and singing, until the Archdemon itself swooped down on them and snapped them up.
No. No, wait. Wasn't swooping bad? Certainly, the Archdemon was. Maybe swooping was, too. She suspected it was. Why did she suspect that again?
"Am I fooling myself?
If she hadn't been so content, she would have rolled over and bashed his head against the ground. Dredging up the capacity – and the desire – to speak actual words, she managed to say "no, I do, too" and was quite proud of herself for doing so.
"Ah, so I fooled you, did I?"
What. He fooled—what. No, his words weren't important. What was important was the way his voice rumbled in his chest, low and deep and sultry, and she thought templar voices weren't supposed to sound like that, all rich and gravely in texture. But, then again, she thought he could sound however he wanted, because he caught her chin with his hand and gently, ever so gently, turned her face toward her shoulder. His arm under her head shifted so he could prop himself up, and he leaned down, kissing her.
A soft kiss. A sweet kiss. A kiss that made her chest feel tight and her head light and airy. Warmth rushed through her, an easy wave of comforting pleasure that erased the last chilling vestiges of her nightmare and washed them away.
She was just ready to lean into the kiss – as it were; their awkward positions wouldn't allow for much leaning, or much leverage, but she'd make do – when he pulled back. Clearly, the next chance she got, she would be marching to the Chantry and demanding they teach their templars-turned-Grey-Wardens not to pull back from kisses that made a girl's toes curl.
"That wasn't too soon, was it?"
Full of stupid questions, that was her Alistair. With a half-grumbled, half-mumbled complaint, she turned toward him and kissed him again, curling her fingers against the rough stubble dusting his cheek. A quiet sigh of contentment slipped past her lips when his arms drew her closer, cradling her against him, and when she finally pulled back, he wore a mystified expression, like he couldn't quite believe she'd kissed him.
It made her smile, that silly face, and she stroked her fingers over his jaw until he smiled back at her, a little stupid, a lot happy. Stupid happy was a good look for him. "Maker's breath, but you're beautiful."
With a muffled sound of disagreement – honestly, she hadn't bathed in a week and her hair was so greasy she could stand it on end without trouble – she muttered, "You say this after I tried to kill our friends?"
"Murderous intent looks good on you?"
She weighed that response just long enough for him to become uncomfortable, his hand flexing against the small of her back. "Fair. You should kiss me again in the morning."
"I'll remember to do that." He shifted, rolling onto his back, and pulled her with him. Quite content with the arrangement of their bodies, she sprawled on top of him, tucking her head under his chin. They weren't too far from Denerim, she thought. Close enough that they'd reach it after a few hours walking. She'd get cookies for Sten as an apology, and something leather for Zevran, and a new tunic for Leliana. Or maybe a dress. Leliana would probably like the dress more.
And when she finally drifted to sleep, it was to dream about ridiculous, frothy dresses, the kind that look like confections instead of clothes, and Alistair's mouth helping her out of them.