She found him, in the library of all places, in Redcliffe. Not that she thought he was stupid – quite the opposite, actually; he was smarter than he gave himself credit for, most of the time – but after weeks of walking, and fighting, and the emotional turmoil of grieving, reading was possibly the last thing she expected him to be doing.
And it was, essentially, the last thing he was doing, she realised as she crept through the door; he was fast asleep, face flopped down on an open book, snores resonating through the drafty stone room. It was a good thing he didn't drool, she decided with a soft grin. Much, at least.
Alistair Theirin was possibly the handsomest man Elissa had ever met. His burnished blond hair, aquiline nose, and cheeky smile had won her heart almost right from the beginning, when he turned to face her after teasing a grumpy mage before the battle at Ostagar. He'd been able to wring the first, unwilling smile from her after the massacre of all she held dear, and managed to keep her forward focused and holding a small shred of hope for her future ever since. Despite all the death, and the fighting, and the tragedy, she'd found something, someone, remarkable, and she couldn't bring herself to regret everything, not anymore.
He had yet to understand the depth of affection she felt for him, which secretly amused her. She knew she acted little better than a blushing school girl, most days, fawning over the tall warrior and barely managing to keep her eyes off his tight behind any time he was in front of her. Everyone else knew – the Orlesian bard she couldn't quite trust, the Antivan assassin she definitely didn't; even the witch and the circle mage, who she might have thought would be a bit more oblivious to the ways of the heart, had subtly teased or pried at some point. Perhaps the only person who hadn't figured it out was the object of her crush, Alistair himself.
Sure, he knew she thought of him as a friend, and he must have noticed she went out of her way to draw him out of himself, to elicit his opinion on various decisions, but she was quite certain he had no inkling that it ran any deeper than that. After his horrendous upbringing – between having to live with Isolde, the most petty-minded noble Elissa could think of, perhaps second only to her cousin Habren, and then being dumped unceremoniously on the Chantry's doorstep because he was inconvenient – it wasn't exactly surprising he didn't recognise her attention for what it really was.
His upbringing was to blame for much, she mused as she watched the page of the open book flutter with each steady breath. He was the heir to Ferelden's throne, not to mention one of the last two Grey Wardens in the country, and yet, he held no regard for himself. He didn't even seem to understand how handsome he was. For all of Morrigan's complaining, Elissa knew she wasn't the only one inappropriately ogling those broad shoulders or bulging biceps when he emerged from his tent in the morning to wash. But he ... he was clueless.
It was the same with his intelligence. Despite a quick wit and a thoughtful thoroughness she relied on heavily when making hard decisions, he was all too quick to believe Morrigan's claims that he was stupid. It had taken everything Elissa had to counter the drop in self-esteem she could see happening every time almost anyone spoke about Alistair, especially the witch. And she still hadn't been sure she'd succeeded, not until today.
Telling him he needed to harden up and put himself first more often had hurt Elissa, badly. Alistair was one of the few selfless, altruistic souls in the world, and ruining that would cause her to feel guilty until the day she died. But given who he was, what he was, kindness was going to be the end of him, she knew. Naivety could not be encouraged in someone who was going to be entering the cut-throat business of politics in Ferelden, whether he wanted to or not.
And enter it he would; he looked far too much like the recently deceased Cailan not to be a contender for the throne, regardless of his wishes. And Elissa wasn't convinced that was a bad thing, overall – Anora had allowed her father to declare a regency for her, despite supposedly being perfectly capable of ruling without a regent, and it made Elissa wonder if there was more going on. Had the Queen been complicit in the murder of her husband at the hands of her father? Elissa shook her head, dispelling the thoughts for a while. There were more important things to think about right now.
Yes, deliberately hurting Alistair to teach him to stand up for himself had nearly killed her, but she'd done it. Just like every other suboptimal choice she'd had since Ostagar, she had done what was necessary. But it didn't make her feel good, and she had worried it was all for naught anyway, given how quiet he'd been in the days since they'd left Denerim, left his shrew of a sister to rot in her own bitterness.
She'd told him that people were selfish. That they were only out for themselves. That he needed to look out for himself more, to put what he wanted ahead of what others wanted for him. It was a risk; there was no guarantee he wouldn't take that to mean she was out for herself, wanted something from him, or that he shouldn't just abandon her and the Wardens entirely to have what he wanted.
She sighed. It was done; there was nothing she could do about it now.
Alistair shifted slightly, in his sleep, and one of the multiple books stacked around him slipped off the table. Quick, like the rogue she was, she grabbed it before it hit the floor and woke him. She wasn't quite done watching him sleep, and sure didn't want to be caught doing so.
Looking down at the book in her hands, she realised it was a notebook, mostly blank. The first several pages were filled with cramped, legible but hurried script that she recognised as Alistair's. She opened to the first page of what she had assumed would be a journal, feeling guilty, but unable to resist the temptation of reading what he'd written.
To her surprise, instead of personal ramblings, there were a variety of quotes, some of which she recognised from Brother Aldous' lessons while she was growing up, others she didn't.
The first was "Leadership is solving problems. The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either list confidence that you can help, or concluded you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership." She couldn't remember who'd said that, but the quote was definitely familiar. In Alistair's scrawled writing underneath was a comment of his own: "And what if they never had confidence in the first place?"
There were a couple of other quotes, some with commentary, some without, from a startling variety of sources. On the next page was one that caught her eye: "It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership." And then Alistair's comment: "Yeah, 'cause that worked out so well for Cailan!"
Curious, Elissa closed the notebook and set it on a nearby table, then leaned over to pick up the book off the top of the stack nearest Alistair. And then she picked up a few others, staring at their titles in amazement. There were histories, of Orlais and Tevinter and other places, biographies of Queen Rowan, King Maric, the usurper King Meghren, and many more. There were philosophical treatises on war, leadership, and ruling, as well as detailed descriptions of the workings of politics both within Ferelden and without.
Elissa had honestly expected him to be reading yet another book about griffons. Or the Grey Wardens' miraculous victories over the previous blights. Even one of the adventure books he was so fond of quoting. She assumed he'd been pouting, blaming her, hating his supposed duty ... but here he'd been embracing it. Perhaps not in the most organised fashion, but he'd been trying to learn how to perform the duty that everyone insisted was his.
She'd underestimated him. Just like everyone else he'd ever known, she'd treated him like a child, made assumptions about him and decisions for him; she'd betrayed him every bit as badly as Maric had, leaving his child to Eamon to raise, or as Eamon himself had, shipping him off to the Chantry when he became inconvenient. It was like a blow to the stomach, realising what she'd done. She swallowed thickly, feeling nauseated.
Absent-mindedly, she flipped the pages of one of the biographies of Meghren. She stared blankly at the pages, not even reading what they said, mind a-whirl with sickening thoughts of how she'd patronised Alistair for months, without even realising it. How she hadn't defended him from Morrigan, hadn't given him the chance to talk through his loss of the entire order, hadn't really asked what he thought of his encounter with Goldanna or whether he had changed his mind about wanting his father's throne. She'd liked him – his open, honest nature and self-deprecating sense of humour – but she hadn't respected him.
A voice startled her out of her uncomfortable reverie. "Could you think less loudly? I can hear you all the way from here."
She looked up from the book to see Alistair watching her, brow furrowed. He had the remains of some dried up drool on his cheek, and a clear imprint of the edge of the book he'd been sleeping on across his face; his hair was adorably mussed up, and his clothes were wrinkled.
He was ... gorgeous.
.... There is more of this story ...