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.
She looked away, guilt written plain across her face. She put the stack of books she was holding down on a chair, and clasped her hands together in front of her. She stood awkwardly, looking down at the ugly Orlesian carpet, and scuffed the toe of one well-worn leather boot against the other.
"Um, hi. Sorry, I didn't mean to wake you, but you should probably go to bed. It's late..."
"Which begs the question: what are you doing up, 'Lis?"
"Couldn't sleep. And I didn't hear you go to bed – your door squeaks. So I came looking for you."
"How long've you been standing there?"
She flushed. "A while," she admitted. "I hated to disturb you. And I was curious what you were doing."
"Nothing," he replied, too quickly. Defensively. And then his eyes fell on the notebook sitting on the table where Elissa'd left it – not where he'd been writing in it. His face flushed, whether with embarrassment or irritation, she couldn't tell.
"I wasn't ... okay, I was prying, but ... it's not what you think. I didn't know it was your notebook. It fell, and I was just curious what you were reading."
"You know what they say about curiosity, 'Lis..."
She looked back at his face to see his expression wry, but not angry. She sighed and slid in to sit beside him on the couch. "So what's all this about, then?"
He shifted to make room, but he was a large man, and it wasn't a large couch. Their thighs touched, lightly, the heat of her skin warming him even through the leather armour she wore. He cleared his throat nervously. "Well, you and Arl Eamon seem to think I'm to be the King ... and I'll admit, the prospect doesn't scare me as much as it once did. But ... I wasn't raised for this, like Cailan, with tutors and lessons in politics and diplomacy and such. I've got a lot of catching up to do. Eamon suggested I read some books..." He gestured helplessly at the multiple stacks of heavy, dusty tomes. "But none of them agree with each other. And none of them is really practical for application. They're all vague and contradictory."
She smiled. "My father used to give us lessons on politics, sometimes. I mean, Brother Aldous was in charge of our education, but he felt that the Couslands needed to be different than the image of nobility the rest of Ferelden seems to want to adhere to. He thought reading stuffy philosophical papers on the nature of nobility or politics or leadership were useless."
Her face lit up with the memories as she continued. "Instead, he'd give us a little lesson on this or that, and then take us with him to court to see if we were able to apply that lesson. For example, he'd teach us that trade was important, and that the people in Highever couldn't survive without lumber from Gwaren, while the people in Gwaren needed the imports from Antiva and the Free Marches that come through Highever's port. And then he'd take us to court and hear a case about bandits caught disrupting the trade routes to Denerim. And after we'd heard everything, he'd make Fergus or I step up and decide what was to be done."
"And what did you do?" Alistair's expression was curious, not judgemental.
"I'd always jump to extreme punishments. Tell father to have him executed. And father would nod, and then hand me a sword. 'A true leader doesn't rely on others to carry out their judgements, Ellie, ' he'd say, and then I'd look from his face to the terrified bandit standing in front of me, and I wouldn't be able to do it. Usually there was a family starving at home or a sick parent or something, and I just ... didn't want their blood on my hands. Sometimes father would take the sword back, and assign another punishment – join the guard, be held in prison, maybe a lashing ... other times, he'd execute the perpetrator, because, as awful as that was, sometimes it's the only thing you can do, and as a leader, sometimes you have to be prepared to get blood on your hands."
"That's not helping, you know."
"The point is, hard decisions have to be made, and as a Teyrn, or a King, you have to stand behind them. Make the best decision you can, based on the available information, knowing that sometimes you'll be wrong. And then live with the consequences. There's no greater power, and no greater responsibility. But if you asked my father, there was no greater reward, either."
"I wish I could have met him."
"So do I. He'd have loved you."
Alistair looked away shyly, and bit his lip. "You don't talk about them much."
She considered. "At first ... it hurt too much. And I was afraid if I stopped to mourn, I'd never get going again. And then it was a bit of a habit, I suppose." She glanced away, flushing slightly. "You don't talk about Duncan much, either."
"Same problem, I expect."
They sat silently for a few moments.
"These books aren't really going to help me be a good King, are they."
"I doubt it."
"Why did Eamon recommend them, I wonder?"
Elissa didn't answer, but she knew quite well – an ignorant King was an easily controlled King, as Cailan learned the hard way. "Mmm," she replied, non-commitally.
"You seem to have a pretty good handle on it, though."
"How do you figure?"
"Well, you were trained to be a noble. You know all sorts of stuff about politics and Ferelden. And you've been leading us since Ostagar – if I was leading, we'd all be lost in the Frostbacks by now without pants. And Connor would be dead, and we'd never have recruited the assassin, or Sten, or Morrigan for that matter. You've kept us all together."
"Well, I-" She stopped and thought about it. He was right, sort of. She'd kept her disparate band of renegades and rejects together largely by strength of will. But that didn't make it remarkable. "Other people could have done it."
"Maybe. But you did. And I want you to teach me."
"I want to learn as much as I can about Ferelden, and its politics, the major players, the underlying issues ... and you're the perfect person to teach me."
"I ... don't know what to say."
"Say yes." He smiled, his green eyes flashing.
Another voice joined the conversation. "I'm with Alistair on this one, my Lady."
She stood, and so did Alistair. "My Lord. I hope we didn't disturb you, Bann Teagan."
"No. And it's just Teagan, remember? I was just looking for a book to try to help me fall asleep."
She picked up the open book Alistair had so recently fallen asleep on. "Try this. You wouldn't be the first to fall asleep reading it." Not even the first tonight. She snickered, and Alistair shot her a dirty look.
Teagan glanced at the title and grimaced. "No wonder. Flaubert? I didn't know he'd condescend to write in the common tongue. Eamon's pick?" Alistair nodded. "Ugh. I think learning from Elissa would be much less odious. And probably less sedating." Teagan grinned, and Alistair blushed.
"I can't argue against you both. I'll try my best."
Alistair took her hand and squeezed, making Elissa's heart pound as her fingers easily fit into place laced with his. "Thanks, Elissa. I mean it."
"Well. Ser Leader, when do you think we should leave for Orzammar?"
"What? Why are you asking me?"
"You wanted to learn about leading – doing it, in small doses with a safety net, is the best way. Remember my story about the bandits?"
He nodded, still looking uncomfortable. "How about ... the day after tomorrow? We need to leave soon, but we don't have time to make sure everyone is ready tonight."
Elissa smiled. "Good decision."
They did get underway, and the travel was fairly uneventful. They were ambushed a couple of times by darkspawn, and then ran into a stranded merchant in Sulcher's Pass. As had been Elissa's way, since the night in Redcliffe, she deferred the decision to Alistair. In a sudden fit of confidence, he took the golem control rod, given freely, and headed them further up Sulcher's Pass.
As they travelled, Elissa had been explaining the relevant politics in Ferelden. Alistair was a fast learner, and asked clever questions, but he was right – he hadn't been raised with this sort of thing taught over breakfast. Things she felt were obvious, given her upbringing, he had no idea of at all.
"No, Alistair. I know that it seems like the King, and then the Teyrns, and then the Arls and Banns have the power, but it's actually the other way around. If the Freeholders don't approve of their Bann, they can choose to swear fealty elsewhere. If the Banns don't like the Arl or Teyrn, they can switch allegiances. And each time something like that happens, their liege lord gains or loses income in the form of taxes, influence, political connections ... for some Arls, losing a single important Bann could begin the downfall of the entire Arling.
"Likewise, if a King does not do what's best for the entire nation, the Landsmeet will remove him from power. You know that Cailan almost didn't end up as the King after Maric died? Nervous about his youth, inexperience, and undue influence from the MacTir family, a number of Banns and Arls tried to raise up my father, instead. The only reason he wasn't made King is because he threw his support behind Cailan."
"But that's ... isn't that treason? To depose the King?"
"Not if they do it legally, in the Landsmeet. Think about it. What if Cailan had been a tyrant? Or just even more incompetent than he was? What if he hadn't had Anora to run the administrative duties of the country for him? There has to be a mechanism in place to prevent someone like Meghren from remaining King."
"So if I'm the King, I have to, what? Suck up to the Bannorn?"
"No, that's not it. You have to do what's best for Ferelden, whether that means finding a compromise or making a decree and enforcing it ... and trust that those underneath you in the hierarchy will do the same. And if one link somewhere doesn't, they will lose power and be replaced. The higher up you go, the more people need to agree, so no one Bann can depose the King, but enough of them certainly could."
"And you trust all of those people – Banns, Arls, Teyrns – to do what's best for Ferelden, not just to look out for themselves? After Loghain, I'd have some trouble believing they're all just 'nice people'."
"Not at all. Most of them are selfish bastards. But their ability to reach too far is strictly limited by those around them. One noble tries to grab too much power, and the rest will rise up to block them. That's why we are in a civil war right now. The Bannorn don't agree with Loghain's power grab, nor with Howe's. They won't allow it to stand.
"If it weren't for the darkspawn, this would be simple. Messy, of course, but simple. Those who oppose Loghain and Howe would raise an army to fight, defeat them, and replace them. The problem is, with the darkspawn encroaching, every soldier who dies in the civil war, every farm burnt, makes it harder for Ferelden to defend itself against the Blight. Civil war is occasionally necessary, as awful as that is, but now is not the time."
Alistair's mouth thinned to a line in anger as he contemplated Loghain, the traitor that he'd become. The lesson ended, both Elissa and Alistair wrapped in their own, grim thoughts.
Changes in Alistair's confidence and maturity were obvious elsewhere, as well. Elissa had not intervened in Alistair's debates with Morrigan, and the mocking continued; Alistair had, to the witch's surprise, threatened to kick her out of the group, and Elissa said nothing, backing him up by the simple expedient of not contradicting him. With a thoughtful huff, Morrigan began keeping her opinions to herself.
Honnleath was not exactly a fun experience. They fought darkspawn, freed some trapped villagers, and wandered into some mad scientist's little shop of horrors in search of a frightened little girl. Elissa was starting to regret allowing Alistair to lead, when he made a deal with the demon trying to take over said little girl. She shuffled and fidgeted nervously, watching Alistair muddle his way through a logic puzzle to free the demon, increasingly worried by the second. Would he actually let a demon take over that sweet child? Her Alistair, the former templar?
When he double-crossed the demon, and they killed it without harming Amalia, she was so relieved, so impressed that he was able to maintain the deception, that she didn't think; she kissed him. And not a light peck, either. She pressed her lips ardently against his, then sucked his lower lip, flicking it with her tongue, and he groaned, whether in confusion or arousal, she couldn't be sure.
Realising what she'd done, she pulled away, face aflame, and fled from the basement laboratory before he or anyone else could stop her. She left it to him and the group to activate the golem on their own, and returned to camp to hide in her tent. Laying down on her bedroll, she lifted her head and banged it against the hard ground underneath, berating herself for her actions. But she couldn't deny that what had been attraction for his more obvious superficial charms had turned into something deeper. Seeing his resolve to do what was right, and his ability to lead when not given a choice ... He was possibly the sexiest man alive, and being around him, trying to remain professional ... was becoming impossible.
She sighed, a couple of tears meandering down her cheek. He'd never indicated in any way that he felt the same about her. He treated her with respect, was even friendly, but no more so than Leliana or Wynne. When she thought about it, he was probably far more interested in Leliana, with her pale, perfect skin and lilting voice.
When the rest of the group filtered back in to camp, she stayed in her tent, avoiding everyone. Finally she was driven out to find food, when her Grey Warden appetite wouldn't be ignored any longer. She didn't make eye contact with anyone, not wanting to see the mocking, or worse, pity she knew would be there if she caught Leliana's or even Zevran's gaze.
When she was done eating, Alistair leaned down behind her and asked, very quietly, to talk to her in private. She stood, anxiously, and followed him out of camp a little ways. She was feeling short of breath, and there was a strange ache in her chest as she contemplated what he was going to say. Would he be angry? Disgusted? Would he try to let her down easily? She resolved to speak first, and excuse her actions before he could say the words.
It was harder to begin talking then she'd thought. "Alistair, I ... Look, I'm sorry about earlier. I was so relieved that little girl lived that I don't know what came over me. I didn't mean to ... make you uncomfortable."
His face was strangely flushed, and he looked away. "No problem."
"I ... we're like siblings, right? Brother and Sister Grey Wardens? I know that's all we are. I wasn't trying to ... start anything else."
"Of course. Siblings."
Elissa nodded, then turning away, looked back over her shoulder. "Goodnight, Alistair."
"Goodnight, Elissa." He watched her go, and had she looked back she would have seen a curious mix of disappointment, relief, and melancholy across his handsome face. But she didn't, and imagined only the relief of someone who didn't have to extricate himself from unwanted romantic demands.
The trip to Orzammar was uneventful; they defeated a couple of groups of bandits and a band of bounty hunters, but arrived at the gates unscathed. Elissa had avoided being alone with Alistair, actually avoided being alone with anyone, and basically only spoke when necessary for the group's function. The easy camaraderie she'd shared with Alistair from the first day they'd met was now awkward and stilted.
And of course, nothing was ever easy; the gates to Orzammar were closed, and the guards reluctant to let them in. Elissa subtly pushed Alistair forward, and he cajoled the guard until the gates were opened. Elissa gave Alistair a proud smile, and he blushed. Things didn't get much better once they'd gotten inside, though; the dwarves were killing each other in the streets over who would become the King.
They met with the seconds for each candidate, and then sat down together at Tapster's as a group to decide where to go from there.
"I don't trust Bhelen," Alistair began. "I heard he killed his brother, framed his sister for it, and then poisoned his father to get to the throne."
Leliana agreed heartily, as did Wynne. Sten, who didn't care at all but was annoyed by the delay, had gone to bed. Zevran disagreed strenuously.
"And Harrowmont, he is not of the royal bloodline, yes? He weaseled his way in to being a contender – no one except for him can confirm that Endrin named him as a successor. Besides, he is weak," he scoffed. "Too tied into the concept of dwarven honour to see that their society is doomed. He will destroy Orzammar with inaction and hesitancy."
Morrigan agreed. "Bhelen may offend your delicate sensibilities, templar, but he is the stronger candidate. He will contribute more to the Blight, and afterwards, the increase in trade will benefit Ferelden."
Alistair listened to both sides thoughtfully, his handsome face marred by a large frown. When they retired to their rooms, he cornered Elissa before she could close the door.
"You didn't say what you thought."
"I'll follow you, whatever you decide, Alistair."
"But ... they're both terrible choices! How am I supposed to choose? Wardens are supposed to stay away from politics."
"So think about it as the future King, instead of as a Warden. Who will benefit Ferelden the most? Whose alliance will improve things for your people? If the dwarves themselves cannot decide who to rule them and place the responsibility on us, I'd say we choose based on what's best for us."
Alistair looked frustrated, and Elissa smiled and touched his cheek with her finger. "You're doing fine. And whatever you pick, I'll be right behind you." With that she turned, slipped into her room, and closed the door.