dedication: to alma, because reasons.
notes: MILLIONS AND MILLIONS OF OTP PICS FALL OUT OF JACKET
notes2: honestly im not even gonna try to explain this one so here have the templar!alistair au of my dreams bc i am human garbage #kanyeshrug
title: gold in the wreckage
summary: There is a new templar in Lothering. — Alistair/Bethany.
There is a new templar in Lothering.
This is not something to be remarked upon; Lothering is a very small village for all that it is the only true rest stop between Denerim and Redcliffe. The Chantry here is much the same, a waystation for lay sisters and young templars alike on their way to bigger and better places, and the faces change all the time. New templars are not even a curiosity to most, features oft hidden behind their helmets, voices a tinny hollow ping.
Regardless, Bethany Hawke knows them all.
She knows them all, every one. Knows their faces, knows their families, knows the banked violence they all carry in their eyes, the stiff shoulders, the fanatic devotion. She knows them. She does. Sunday morning mass after Marian and Carver have left is always a difficult thing, and Beth swallows hard as she ducks down behind the pew. They can't just not go; someone would think that something was wrong, and then they'd ask questions, and Bethany… Bethany isn't very good, at questions.
Questions make everything so, so much worse.
And so it goes: sitting in the pews with her head bowed, the Chant rises all around her. It sings along her bones, twining harmonies cresting towards the ceiling and dancing with dust motes all aglow with the sunlight in through the stained windows. She mouths along, more wind than sound, the words a combination of lyrium and lead. Her mother is a silent, somber presence at her side.
(Some days, Beth thinks that her mother's faith in the Maker died along with her father, buried beneath an unmarked grave on the edge of town. Some days, Beth thinks her own faith did, too. Faith is so hard, when your whole life you've been told that your freedom is an offense against the Maker. Guilt sticks to the insides of her ribs and churns, churns. Some days, she wonders if it wouldn't have been better that she'd never been born.)
But there is Sister Leliana and her stories, and Mother Nita's gentle grace, and the Chant, always the Chant, floating around them and hovering soft as feathers. Perhaps there are worse things than broken faith, but Beth can't name them. An apostate must believe, but they must never be caught. They must never, never be caught.
And there is a new templar in Lothering.
She can see him out of the corner of her eye. He shifts uncomfortably, the slow roll of a body unused to plate armour, all wrong and jerky instead—it's how she can tell he's new, no one used to the armour moves like that, it's too easy to get caught in the skirt—and his face is hidden behind the helmet. He doesn't watch like the others do, either.
She thinks, a little surprised, that he might actually be whispering along.
Tamping down the surprise is as second nature as anything, these days. Carver and Marian have been gone for a week, headed down south to fight the growing darkspawn horde. Beth prays for them both every night before she sleeps: please let my siblings come home safe. Please let us stay together. Please, Maker, please, I don't think I will survive without them. I don't think I can. It's an ugly prayer, a selfish prayer, but she thinks that the maker probably understands selfishness. He turned away from His children for it; surprise at humanity's incredible capability for selfishness is likely not in His repertoire.
Without her siblings, Beth only has one line of defense. It crackles inside of her, a green-edged blue power that sings through her veins, familiar and tempting and so, so dangerous. She knows that if anyone finds out, the quiet existence her family has spent a decade building will end.
Whispering the words to the Chant or not, a new templar is still a new templar. It is still another person to stay away from. It is still another threat.
Beth stares down at her hands folded neatly in her lap, and doesn't look up until the service is over.
His name is Alistair.
He is a year her elder, maybe two, and Beth thinks very secretly that he is not a very good templar. He's… kind, that's the word. Kind, in a world where kindness has never been anything but a sucker's game. He shouldn't be kind. He shouldn't.
But there it is: Lothering's new templar is kind.
Bethany catches him with sweets in his hands after services, tucking them away in the children's palms when their parents aren't looking, and she has to dip her head so that she doesn't catch his eye and accidentally smile at him. That would attract his attention, and that would be bad. And she knows that, and that's the only reason she doesn't raise her head to grin at him when the clang of gauntlet against chest plate rings through the Chantry. Lothering's Knight-Captain isn't very forgiving of his templars stepping out of line.
The prayer falls from Bethany's lips without her express permission. She doesn't want his attention, but she can't help that she chances a glance up. It's a bad idea; of course it is, Maker knows that Marian has spent enough time drilling it into her head. A new templar only means trouble, and she should know better. One of these days, this stupid fascination is going to get her killed.
(It doesn't stop her, though. Beth swallows, and carefully doesn't think of mana-drain cuffs.)
In the dusty light of the sun through the Chantry's stained-glass windows, it's easy to stare at him out of the corner of her eye. He's got a gauntleted hand up on the back of his neck, and while the helmet does its level best to obscure his face, there's no hiding the shifting guilt in his posture. The discomfort of the gesture makes her think—makes her think—
Beth squashes that thought down. It doesn't make her think anything. It doesn't make her think of anything at all.
The days go by, the sun baking the earth cracked and brown. Heat rises from the dry ground, but the inside of the Chantry is a cool quiet benediction. Bethany sits next to her mother, trying not to dream of a Winter's Grasp strong enough to encase the whole world in a block of ice. Marian and Carver have been gone a month, and she misses them both so much that it aches. She misses her sister's perpetual smirk. She misses her brother's hulking scowl. The dark sticky place behind her sternum burns with the lack of them like a knife between the ribs, but it's not enough. It never is.
The days go by, and her siblings don't come home, and Bethany almost speaks to Alistair three times.
Once: he's rubbing the back of his neck. Dog sits peaceably at her heels, and Beth listens as Sister Leliana tells a wicked Orlesian folktale that has the children screeching with laughter. The Knight-Captain frowns at them, looks like he's about to come over to tell them off for being so irreverent in the Chantry. Alistair steps in between to waylay the man, and she knows, she knows, that he's trying to give them a few more minutes.
Twice: guarding the Chantry doors. Bethany lowers her head so that she doesn't meet his eyes. The comforting weight of her staff is missing. Her tongue is lead. She can feel his gaze burning through her spine, and she wonders if magic has a taste. If it does, can he taste it? Can he feel it churning inside of her?
Three times: Mother Nita asks for help sweeping out the Chantry, long fragrant grasses tucked in her arms to scatter along the floor. From far away, the Chant rises; even from this distance, Sister Leliana's voice is unmistakeable. Bethany stands in the pews, eyes closed, swaying a little back and forth. She doesn't notice at all when he comes up to stand beside her. She doesn't notice at all he's there until he coughs, coughs, and her eyes snap open. She pulls in a sharp breath, chances a glance at him, helmeted face and all—oh, Maker, no, if he says anything she'll have to reply—but before anything happens, the Knight-Captain calls his name. He turns.
And Bethany—Bethany runs.
That night, she presses her face into her pillow, and thinks of her father. She thinks of her father and her father's tales of the Gallows, the slow way he died coughing, coughing. Her mother breathes in the next room, the slow shallow breathes of deep sleep. Bethany thinks of all that her mother gave up, a home and a family and a title; there's a whole world of things that Leandra Hawke left behind to build herself something new.
And for her to sacrifice it all for a boy…
No, Bethany thinks, I can't.
Marian would kill her.
And so she lets the Fade take her, swallows down the disappointment, and resolves to keep herself to herself, if only for her mother's sake. There's only so much a person can lose before they lose themselves, and Bethany doesn't know how much more her mother can take.
But of course, nothing ever goes the way a person wants it to. Bethany knows this, but she didn't expect that it would happen so soon.
Today's service is no different. The Chantry is quiet, the echoes of Mother Nita's sermon long since faded, and most of the congregation has left. Even the gaunt-faced refugees have gone back to their tents in the fields. More flood in every day, but the darkspawn haven't made it past the King's army at Ostagar, and Beth doesn't worry only because she knows that Carver and Marian are as close to unkillable as unkillable gets. She doesn't think about what they'd say, her twin and her older sister, if they knew what she was doing. A templar, Bethany? Really?
Once, twice, three times she's had words stuck in her throat when Alistair's not-so-secretly been a not-very-good templar. She counts them on her fingers, all the ways he breaks the rules. The Chantry seems to ring with them.
So, four: he takes the stupid helmet off.
Beneath the metal is a face with a sharp nose and a sandy fringe, a crookedly nervous kind of grin. A nice face. He's going to get in trouble for taking the helmet off, but he's knelt down to pet Dog, and when he looks up at her for permission, she thinks all the air goes out of her lungs. His eyes are the colour of aged Chasind mead, the exact same kind her father used to love.
Oh, Bethany thinks. Oh.
(It figures that the fourth time isn't almost. It figures that the fourth time is the one she can't close her mouth, can't be softer, sweeter, safer; it figures that after she'd made the choice to stop, to keep her head down and mercilessly choke off the urge to smile at him, he'd go and make the decision for her.)
"I like dogs," he's saying, rubbing Dog behind the ears. Dog, the traitor, yips happily and pushes his head into Alistair's hands. "Sorry about before."
"It's fine," Bethany says, very softly. She has to fight with her hands to keep them from flexing. Normal girls don't do that, she reminds herself. Be normal, be normal. "His name's Dog. I know, so creative, but my sister named him. I think she thinks it's funny."
"I didn't know you had a sister," he says. "She doesn't come to services?"
Bethany laughs a little tremulously. Marian, in a Chantry? Maker, no, she thinks her sister would burst into flame. But she doesn't say that, just shakes her head and tries to keep the amusement out of her voice. It's a losing battle. "She's gone to Ostagar to fight the darkspawn. My brother, too."
"But not you?" he asks, looking up at her sharply. The platemail clinks with the movement.
She shrugs, a helpless little smile working its way across her face as she tucks dark curls behind her ear. It's a nervous habit, the hair-tucking, but she can't stop. "Not me. I'm no soldier."
He looks at her for another moment. "What are you, then?"
"A girl," Bethany says. There's a smile threatening, though she has no idea what. "What else is there?"
"Lots of things," he says. There's a wicked little twinkle in his eyes, mischievousness made tangible. "Does this girl have a name?"
"She might," Bethany says, playing along. He can't be all bad—Dog rumbles contentedly, and whatever else the silly creature may be, he's got a very good sense about people. "She'll trade you for it. Name for a name?"
"Alistair," he says. "Your turn."
"I already gave you Dog's. Doesn't that count?"
He chokes on a laugh, shoulders shaking. "I'm pretty sure the Maker would smite me if I called you anything but your name."
"You don't even know my name!"
"I'd like to."
Beth's cheeks go hot. She looks down at her hands folded in her lap, and has absolutely no idea what's happening here. She is in so much trouble. "It's Bethany," she says. "Bethany Hawke."
"Could I interest you in a walk, Miss Hawke?"
"I'm sorry, Alistair, I can't. I need to go home," she says, and finds that she actually is sorry. It's been a long time she allowed herself the luxury of talking to someone. But—templar, and mage, and things. And she needs to go home. She always needs to go home. "My mother will be waiting, and she worries."
"Then can I—can I walk you? If you're not busy?" he stumbles over the words, flushing all the way to the tips of his ears. Oh, Maker, he's hopeless. She's hopeless. They're both hopeless, this is going to be a travesty.
And she should say no. Andraste's blood, but she should really say no.
"I think I'd like that," Bethany says, instead, even though there's a voice in the back of her skull that sounds like Marian screaming obscenities. This is a bad idea, the worst idea, maybe, and she doesn't care. She's spent her whole life hiding the lightning in her veins, and he's a templar. It's just asking for trouble.
But she thinks of candy, and children, and that first day in the Chantry when he was whispering along to the Chant like he really believed. It's just a walk. What harm could it do?
When he offers her his arm, Bethany smiles so shyly and takes it.
It doesn't stay just a walk.
Of course it doesn't. This—whatever this is—has no business staying just a walk. It's too complicated, too real, and it evolves like this:
Alistair walks her home. He walks her home and walks her home and walks her home, learns to whistle for Dog, teaches her how to braid flowers into her hair. And they talk. They talk about everything, her family and his templars, politics and dreams and favourite colours. He likes horses, she finds out, and sometimes he says things about himself that make all her insides squeeze. There are things that freeze them both up, but of course there are. Bethany can't explain about her father or where they came from. Alistair goes very quiet when his childhood comes up. It's an exercise in masochism, a dance where no one knows the steps but one toe out of line tips them back into the fire. He touches her elbow. Bethany has to duck her head to hide the blush.
It's something to live for, day by day.
But Lothering has bigger problems. Outside of the little bubble of Bethany's quiet existence, the refugees from the south flood in, more every day. They're all gaunt-faced and empty-eyed, the hollows of their cheeks more pronounced than ever. The field of tents goes on forever.
It's not so bad. The Chantry has plenty of food stored up. Bethany finds herself helping Sister Leliana and Sister Elaine distributing soup and rice, mid-morning sun sinking hot into her curls. The colour seems to have gone out of the world, and everything is baked brown and dead.
And then the sickness comes.
Really, she shouldn't be so surprised. There's already a Blight; of course there's going to be something contagious on top of it. That's the way things work, misery on misery on even more misery. They're running out of elfroot and spindelweed, and Bethany would go on her own because she'd be alright, but… well. Templars.
"Will you come with me?" she asks, after service, fiddling with the edge of her scarf. It was Marian's, once, and the arterial crimson of it stands out starkly against her skin. It's the only thing she owns that still has any colour left. There's something fitting about that, she thinks. "Elder Miriam needs herbs, and there's no one else willing to go."
"You really have to ask?" Alistair says. "Even the Knight-Commander can't get annoyed, I'm leaving for a good cause."
"For once," she teases, a smile splitting across her face.
"You're always a good cause, I don't know what his problem is."
Bethany doesn't have anything to say to that (anything, at least, that won't get her in all kinds of trouble), and so she bobs her head. He probably still notes the bright red that suffuses her cheeks. Oh, well.
When they go, Bethany carries a basket and a visceral awareness of the space between them. The elfroot grows right along the treeline, the spindelweed tucked along the overflow off the creek where it puddles into wet pats of land. The sky sails cloudless above them, an unending stretch of blue domed around them. There's such a hush; the whole world's fallen silent, far enough away from the village that the sounds of everyday life have fallen away until there's nothing but the crunch of boots against dry grass.
"Thank you for coming," Bethany says, voice very soft, hands full of elfroot leaves. They've made it all the way out to Dog's favourite tree, a big-trunked thing standing on the crest of a hill. She bends down to pick a few more of the herbs. They grow thickly here. "I know that you probably had better things to do today."
The sun shines slickly off Alistair's sword. There are bandits this far out, and it never hurts to be careful. He glances at her, expression creasing. "It's fine, Beth. I wanted to come."
Beth laughs, curls flying wildly as she shakes her head. "Well, that's a lie. No one wants to go herb-picking, it's not a lot of excitement. Really, I should have just brought Dog."
"You'd leave me at the Knight-Captain's mercy? He'd have me scrubbing the scullery all day. Don't be cruel, Beth."
She smothers a giggle with her hand. "Maybe I should have grabbed Dog, I'm sure the Chantry could use a good scrub—"
Alistair makes an offended noise, already in the middle of grumbling about just how unfair the Knight-Captain tends to be in his chore distribution. Bethany bends again, fingers snapping through the elfroot's tender stalks.
"I'm wounded, Bethany. Wounded."
"Oh, I'm sure—" she looks up to find that he's stepped into her space, hovering right there. It's just habit to take a step back, a startled instinctive thing. The tree bark is rough against her back when she hits the solid trunk, but he still moves to close the distance between them. He's so close, nose only a hairsbreadth away, and he's staring down at her with a tiny shadow of a grin on his face. Her lungs close up, and she can't get her breath back. If this is how it is for other people, she's surprised that other people don't just implode.
"Hi," he murmurs.
"Hi," Bethany whispers back. She can smell the crush of elfroot between them, oiled metal, clean skin.
"You're biting your lip, Bethany," Alistair says, reaches up to pull her lip free of her teeth. She has no idea when he got his gauntlets off, but he did. His thumb is warm, and lingers at the corner of her mouth.
"Sorry," she says, because she has no idea what else to say.
"I'm not the one being bitten," he says, and his lips twitch closer into a real smile. He's not very good at being serious, is Alistair, always too close to shaking into laughter to really be able to be a serious kind of person. Even when there are things that he can't—that he doesn't—even when the world is falling apart, he still doesn't know how to be grim.
(Andraste, she likes him so much.)
"I don't see how you would be, given that I'm the one doing the biting," Bethany tells him,
"Are you sure about that, Beth?"
"When would I be biting you, hm?"
"Think about it," he grins, slow and syrupy as molasses, and just about as dark. Alistair's voice has gone low, lower than she's ever heard it, and it sings a thrill up her spine.
His laughter is lost in the sound of wind through leaves and he bends to brush his nose along the line of her cheek, stubble a warm scrape against her jaw. It's not a kiss, not quite, but she thinks if either of them even an inch, it will be. His mouth presses into the corner of hers.
"Is this alright?" Alistair asks, very softly, into her skin.
"Yes," Bethany says. She doesn't know what to do with her hands, has to lay them against his chest plate for lack of anything else to hold onto. "I hate your armour. Are you going to kiss me now?"
"Bossy," he chuckles. He catches a fistful of her curls, tilts her head back to look her full in the face. His pupils are so wide, only a thin ring of honey-brown iris left, and the air leaves Bethany's lungs for the third time in as many minutes. The naked want on his face wipes all other thought from her mind.
"You are going to get me in so much trouble," she breathes, and stands up on her tiptoes to seal them together, arms around his neck, mouth against mouth.
They kiss like a forest fire. They kiss like the end of the world. They kiss until Bethany's lips go numb, and then they kiss some more, breathing against each other, hitched up and ground down and pressed close, so close. She can't stop touching him: shoulders and knuckles and throat, all the exposed skin she can get her hands on.
Maker, she really hates the stupid armour, and she has to hide her face in his neck to get her bearings back.
"Alright?" he asks, but it doesn't really sound like a question. More of a statement of fact, though who it's about is still a question.
"Are you?" she asks in reply, and when he snickers, she thinks that things are going to be fine. She lets him brush curls off her forehead, closes her eyes just a little, and pretends that the weightless feeling in her chest isn't entirely going to destroy them both.
"Good point," he says. "We managed to screw up plant-gathering. Elder Miriam is going to be so disappointed."
Beth looks down at her hands. They've crushed the elfroot into pulpy bits and pieces that aren't good for anything and dropped the rest, long leaves scattered everywhere. She and Alistair blink at each other for a moment, and then they both have the gall to burst into embarrassed laughter.
"Maker," someone says, but Bethany will never be able to tell quite who.
(Alistair kisses her bare shoulder like an afterthought, readjusts her scarf to hide the delicate bruises already purpling her collarbone. Forget Elder Miriam; if Bethany's mother sees those marks, unmistakeable for anything but what they are, disappointment will be the least of her worries. She chances a glance at Alistair's mouth, and decides she doesn't much care. Andraste, so much trouble.)
"Walk me home?" Bethany asks, at last. The sun's already going down, and there's only so much time she can stretch these excursions out over. One of these days, her mother is going to decide that she's put herself in more than enough danger, and that will be the end of that. It's not something Beth is very much looking forwards to; she has little enough freedom as it is.
"We should probably get those herbs, first," Alistair says, a little wryly. He's looking down at her, and she colours under his regard. His gaze is very warm, and his eyes crinkle at the corners when he smiles.
"Probably," she hums her agreement, still trying to force the flush away. "Are we actually going to do that this time?"
"Depends," he says.
"My impulse control."
"You're terrible," Bethany says, laughing a little helplessly, because honestly. He is the worst templar she's ever met. She likes him so much.
"I never said I wasn't," Alistair says cheerfully. He catches her wrist to lace their fingers, a lattice of skin and bone. Bethany's magic prickles inside of her with the urge to shock him. In another life, she thinks it would make him laugh, and there's a very mad part of her that thinks he should laugh always. It's an urge that's going to get her killed.
(But really, what isn't going to get her killed?)
And so they walk Lothering's fields to gather herbs, hand in hand. And then he walks her home because he's always walking her home and even though he doesn't kiss her at the door, it's a close thing. Instead, he swipes a thumb along her pulse, smiles his goodbye, goes see you tomorrow. Bethany's heart nearly beats its way right out her ribs.
She slips into the little house her father built, low-ceilinged and solid with flowerboxes beneath the windows, walks straight into the bedroom she's shared with her siblings for as long as she can remember, and lies face-down in her pillow smiling so hard her cheeks hurt.
It was such a good day, she thinks, still smiling.
But the day goes on and turns to evening, and lying around in bed isn't conducive to keeping the house running. Leandra is about as good a cook as Marian is, which is to say not at all, and so Bethany gets up, and goes to scrape something together. They're running low on everything again, vegetables and bread and meat. The cup that holds spare coppers is very light.
Where on earth are her siblings?
There's a pot of thin soup on the fire, and there's someone at the door.
Three hard knocks, an open-palm slap, two hard again. It's a call and reply that she hasn't heard in a very long time; it was her father's system far more than it has ever been Beth's.
Oh, she thinks, swallows hard. Oh.
Someone needs healing.
Beth steels herself, draws in air. She thinks of the crinkle of Alistair's eyes before he'd kissed her and how she'd wanted to trace the lines of his face, the way he'd been so close and all she'd wanted was for him to be closer, wanted to climb inside his skin.
And he thinks she's normal.
Oh, Maker, he's going to hate her for this.
Bethany goes to get the door.
A woman in a ragged travelling cloak stands there, trembling. She's got her arms wrapped around a little body, and her eyes are wild in a starving face. There are starts and stops written all over her, and her face isn't one that Bethany knows. A refugee from the south.
"They say you're a healer," she says. It sounds like she's choking on it. Her hands skitter over the child like she can't touch him enough. He can't be older than six, downy hair soaked with sweat.
Bethany's heart clenches.
And yet… "I think you have the wrong house."
"He's sick," the woman says. "He's so sick, and there's nothing—no one can—please, Miss Hawke," the woman whispers brokenly, the sentence shattering into a hoarse sob. "Please. He's all I have left."
And Bethany doesn't hesitate anymore.
She doesn't know who gave her away, but half the village knows that her father had been the best healer from here to Kinloch Hold. She's not surprised they put two and two together; say what you like about Fereldens, they're a suspicious lot at the best of times, fiercely loyal and incredibly paranoid in equal measure, and this is no different.
"Get him on the table," she says, raises her voice to call, "Mother!"
Leandra sweeps in, takes one look at the refugee woman hovering by the door, the boy on the table, and her daughter in between them already rolling up her sleeves. "I'll get a cloth," she says, and then sweeps back out again. Bethany loves her mother very desperately in this moment.
"I'm not a very good healer," Beth tells the woman. "I'm not—my father was the healer. I only know a little."
"Anything is better than nothing," she says. Her eyes are blue. Her hair is blonde. Underneath the hood there is a sharply-pointed ear, and when she catches Bethany looking, she shrinks back. Oh, that would explain it, wouldn't it. Beth looks down at the little boy on her table, round-eared and struggling to breathe.
Andraste, she can't believe that this still matters to people.
"I'll do whatever I can," Bethany says, gives the woman a tiny smile. It sounds like a promise.
Her mother comes back with a bowl of water and a cloth, and they begin.
With illness, it's always better to try the natural remedies, first. A pile of blankets, stoke the fire: they're going to smother the fever in its own heat to help burn the sickness out. Elfroot leaves boiled and mixed with a little honey for the cough; vinegar and fibrous blood lotus tubers to help him breathe; spindelweed seeds mixed with embrium to make a thick paste for his chest. They don't stop moving, a frenzy of limbs and intent and the sickening knowledge that even magic may not be enough; it's not a cure-all, and Bethany is not a spirit healer.
The moon rises and sinks, and finally, there's nothing else. Dawn peeks over the horizon pale grey. The colour has all leeched out of the world. The little boy's gone quiet, lips cracked, and every breath is a fight. The fever's not breaking.
Bethany's magic sings.
(Nothing else for it.)
She takes a single minute to center herself, and then she reaches for it.
Bethany's magic is a blue-green pool that gleams in her minds eye. It hangs suspended in her chest, just behind her heart; it's the deepest, most intrinsic part of her, and most days she can't stand that it exists at all. It's marked her different from the first day she was born, kept her sheltered and forced them to move more than once. There have been a lot of homes, and leaving them behind was always the hardest thing. They've stayed in Lothering in the longest, but that had more to do with Marian and her disappearing acts than anything else. Beth thinks that if her mother had her way, they would have left the day her father died. But they didn't, and now there's this: a growing Blight, a refugee woman who refuses to give her name, a sick little boy.
Her hand closes around a glowing skein of mana. The magic leaks out of her like water out of a broken jug.
There's a knock at the door.
Everyone in the room freezes. The boy's mother, eyes wide and shaking all over. Leandra, hands dipped into the bowl of water, still in the middle of wringing out the cloth. And Beth herself, flayed open from sternum to stomach, her darkest secret shimmering in the air around her. It paints the whole house in light glittering blue and green and white in turn, all damning.
Oh, Maker, please no, Bethany thinks. It can't already be time—
But it is. It is.
Alistair comes to walk her to the Chantry, most mornings. Bethany doesn't know when it started; she doesn't really have a date. She just knows that one day he showed up, shifting his weight from foot to foot, and had said, well, I'm already walking you home. I might as well walk you there, too.
At the time, her heart had strangled itself to death, and Bethany had smiled up at him like a sunrise, soft and shy and full of hope.
Now, it just feels like a death in the family.
He's standing in the doorway, gauntleted knuckles tight around the knob. That stupid armour, always getting in the way, the long skirt tangled around his knees. His face is white, and Beth is so, so sorry. For him. For her. For the both of them.
"Bethany?" and he seems to swallow the words.
"Alistair, it's not—it's not what it looks—" but that's a lie, it is a blatant lie and she has to try again. He's staring at her, at the blue-green glow around her hands. Sweat sticks her curls to the back of her neck, and she draws in air thick as mud. The boy on the table moans like he's dying. He might be. Bethany decides that everything else can wait. "Alright, fine, it's exactly what it looks like, but he needs my help, and you can—you can be mad at me later, okay?"
He gawks at her for another minute, and there's a distant part of Bethany that expects a sword through the gut. He pressed her up against a tree, anchored her into the world mouth to mouth. So much for trust. The boy between them makes another pained sound. Maker, she hopes she's done enough, she doesn't know if he's is going to be fine on his own—
"What do you need me to do?" Alistair asks. He's pulling his gauntlets off. "What can I do, Beth?"
Her head spins a lazy circle. Marian is never going to forgive her for this. And Carver, Maker, Carver is going to be a nightmare. All lost, because she couldn't keep her nose where it belonged. It's a little ironic, but it is what it is.
(Bethany wonders, far-away and dreamy, what her father would say.)
"I—hold him down," she says. "I have to burn the fever out."
The clang of platemail against floor is loud in her ears, and then Alistair is there in nothing but a pair of soft thin breeches and a shirt full of holes. His arms come up to hold the boy's shoulders down, and doesn't flinch at the wet sucking rattle of his breath.
Beth manages a smile, though she doesn't know for who, and sinks back into the magic.
Time goes strange the way it always does when she heals. She's not very good at it; healing, that is. What she told the boy's mother wasn't a lie: she doesn't have half the aptitude for it that her father did, and it takes so much more energy for her than it ever did for him. Bethany's magic flickers like a flame in the wind, but she pours more of herself into it, forces the magic out and out and out. The illness has settled into the boy's lungs, and burning it out is an arduous process. She is a knife, she is a forest fire, she is a mage. She burns the infection out and burns it out and burns out, burns and burns and burns until there is nothing left.
She thinks she can hear her name being called from very far away.
"—eth. Bethany, come back, that's enough, you've done enough, come back, please come back—"
"Oh, hello, Alistair," she says. "I think I need to sit."
He catches her when she her knees give out and she collapses. The world swims in and out, but his face is all she can focus on. It's nice. A nice face. She's almost sorry that she can't hold it together long enough to try to explain.
He's saying something else, but there's nothing she can do. The Void gapes open, wide and hungry and reaching for her. The Fade waits.
Consciousness filters in slowly. The sun slats in through the window with the bright white-gold glow of early afternoon. All of Bethany's muscles protest, and something tells her that she'd be much better off closing her eyes and falling back asleep.
But her mouth tastes like death, and she's thirsty enough to drink the ocean. Bethany rubs sleep from her eyes, and forces herself to sit up.
Alistair is sitting at her side, staring at her.
"Good morning," Bethany says. She keeps her eyes down. What in the Maker's name is he doing here? Shouldn't he have already gone running back to the Chantry to round up the other templars? Or is he giving her a chance to leave?
Bethany knows the vows. Thou shalt not suffer a maleficarum to live. Healing doesn't make her maleficar, but it's close. She's an apostate, regardless, and he's bound by every holy law she's ever read to take her to the Circle.
(And maybe, maybe there is a secret, quiet part of Bethany that wants this. That wants the choice taken away; which it finally, finally has been. Marian can't make a fuss if Beth didn't turn herself in, and this was unavoidable. A life for a life. And Mother will be able to go back to Kirkwall, and Carver—well, Carver will be alright.)
"Water?" he asks, holding up a cup.
"Thank you," Bethany says, takes it from him. She's very careful not to touch his skin. Now that he knows…
"Not too fast," he says. Her grip trembles like she's about to pay him absolutely no mind, tilts her head back to swallow the water down. Alistair catches her, hands around hers, and sternly keeps her from gulping it all down.
When she's finished, she sets it down on the bedside table with a final-sound clink. Well, there's nothing else for it. They were going to have to have this conversation sooner or later; she'd known they were going to have to talk about it from the moment he curled his hand around her cheek.
But still. It's hard.
"Is my patient alright?" Bethany has to force herself to ask.
"Yes," Alistair says. The skin around his eyes has gone tight. "His mother took him back to the camp, and your mother gave them soup. He should be fine."
"Oh," she says. Her throat works all funny, still too dry and it clicks while she searches for the right words to make this better. Probably, there aren't any. How do you make a lie about your whole life better? "That's good. I wasn't sure that I'd—done enough."
"You did enough. You're a mage," he says.
"Yes," Bethany says. There's no denying it, not now. She tugs at a stray thread on the quilt. Her mother would be so disappointed. "I am."
"Do you know how much magic you used? You crumpled and passed out," Alistair stresses, and he sounds more horrified about this than about anything else. She watches as he runs his hands over his face. There are lines to his expression that she doesn't remember being there before. She wants to wipe them away the hurt; he's been hurt enough. "You could have—that was dangerous, Bethany. You could have died!"
"What does it matter?" she asks.
"You could have died," he repeats. "What would your sister say? What would you twin say?"
"That's not fair," Bethany says, flinching back into the pillow. "That's not—don't bring them into this. I had to, you know I did."
"Not like that, you didn't," Alistair retorts, too sharp even as he's trying not to be. Bethany knows that struggle, has held it between her teeth every time Marian and Carver come home bruised and broken and bleeding. Caring about someone is difficult. Caring about someone when they don't care about themselves is even more difficult.
Being on the other side of it isn't necessarily pleasant. She squirms a little, but it wasn't like she'd take it back even if she could. She'd done what she had to do, and she has, at least, the excuse of a life in her hands.
"What did you expect me to do? Turn them away? We tried everything else first, and none of it worked. The magic was my last resort!"
"No," Alistair says, hot frustration in the word. "No, but—not that, anything but that. You could have died!"
"Yes, I know. But what else is there?!"
"I don't know! I'm not a mage!"
"And I am, so trust me when I say that I didn't really have another choice!"
They both flinch at that, mostly because it's all true.
"Maker's breath, Beth, I almost lost you," he says, and his voice is so hollow and so low that she almost doesn't hear it. He's looking at her like he can't quite believe that she's sitting there, hands hovering just an inch away from hers. For a moment she studies them, the knobs and veins, the tight flex to them. A memory hits her: normal girls don't do this, be normal, be normal. Maybe he's thinking it, too. Be normal. Be normal.
Bethany has no idea what she's doing. She reaches over, and very carefully laces their fingers. Alistair starts, but then settles. Settles.
"I'm sorry," she says. It feels like a long time later.
"For what?" Alistair asks.
"For this," she says. She doesn't say: for being a mage, even though that's what she means. She doesn't say: for nearly dying, even though she means that, too. She doesn't say: for lying, even though that's what she's sorriest about. Beth looks up at him, nose and mouth and eyes, tries to commit it all to memory. "I'm sorry."
"Don't be," he says. "What happens now?"
"You're supposed to take me to the Circle," she tries for humour, but it falls flat. It's hard to joke about spending the rest of your life locked up, it seems. The Gallows rise in her mind, endless white stone soaked in a thousand years of blood. Her father taught her well. "Apostate, remember?"
"No," he says, frowning.
"What do you mean, no?"
"I mean no," Alistair repeats. He brushes a sweat-soaked curl away from her face, the gentleness of the gesture at odds with the bad shake to his fingers. He hasn't let her other hand go, yet. "I'm not—no. I can't. I won't."
"Won't you get in trouble?"
"I dunno," he says, shrugging. "Probably."
"Alistair, I'm sor—"
"Beth," he says. "It's fine."
"It is," he says. He raises her hand, holds it like it's a breakable thing. Salt and skin; he touches his mouth to the pale blue veins on the inside of her wrist. It's not a kiss. It's something a lot more dangerous than that. Bethany can feel the flush all the way down to her collarbones, but he doesn't look away, and so neither does she. "I promise. It's fine. You're not going anywhere."
And he's not wrong: it is fine.
Nothing changes. Bethany still goes to services at the Chantry, Sister Leliana still sings, and the Knight-Captain still scowls at Alistair three times a week. The days pass in blur, one day smearing into the next. The villagers send them pleased little glances when he walks her home, arms full of groceries; a good match, Leandra must be pleased, do you think a spring wedding, may not be a wedding at all if the darkspawn have anything to say about it—
It's one of those days after service that Marian and Carver come home.
Alistair and Bethany are standing in the kitchen in afternoon-bright sunshine, when her sister comes tumbling through the door with blood streaked across her face like a wound. It's a Tuesday.
Alistair startles so badly he nearly falls over, but Bethany is used to Marian yelling her head off about everything and only jumps a little. Marian's eyes are a deadly bright flash, blue as blue can be, blue as ice, blue as the sky. "We need to go," she half-shouts, cheerful as anything to cover the urgency in the words. "We need to go now, the darkspawn are coming, Bethy, get Mother, we have to go—!"
"Marian? What are you—?" Bethany gets out, but her sister cuts her off.
"You heard me. Darkspawn, Mother, Dog, chop chop. And who is this?" she asks, gaze turning to flint when it passes over Alistair. Bethany's sister takes in the templar armour, the sticky-up way that his hair sits after he's pulled the helmet off. She shifts, coiled muscles a smooth shift beneath her skin, and there are daggers in her palms.
Bethany swallows hard.
(This was not how she'd envisioned this conversation. Even Mother hadn't been this difficult, had only raised an eyebrow as she'd looked between them and then said I hope you know what you're doing. Alistair had helped with dinner that night. Leandra Hawke had watched as they moved around each other, and hadn't said a word. But of course Marian's a different story; this is Marian they're talking about, and Bethany ought not have expected so much.)
"Alistair," he says. His hand finds Bethany's, but still he steps forwards a little to meet her sister's gaze squarely. It's brave, and also insane. Marian Hawke does not cut an undaunting figure. She looks like a knife-cut, all sharp edges and killer's eyes even when she smiles.
And she's not smiling right now. "Was I talking to you?" Marian asks, crooks an eyebrow at him.
"You were talking about me," he says easily. "Ought to count, I think."
"It doesn't. Does he know?" Marian asks. She watching their linked hands, the way that Alistair's stepped just a little in front of Bethany like a shield. The helmet on the table shines in the syrupy light in through the front door. It's a gauntlet thrown down between them.
"He knows," Bethany says, fingers tightening. He knows, he knows, he knows.
Marian's eyes narrow. "Does he, Bethany? Does he really?"
She means: do I have to kill him? She means: did he hurt you? She means: Bethany, how could you let this happen?
"If you mean the mage thing," Alistair says, risking life and limb though he can't know it. He's staring at Marian like a hundred thousand things suddenly make sense. Mage thing, he says. Mage thing. "Yes, I know. She told me—," and then he stops to remember the way that Bethany had poured her magic into the little boy to burn the fever out, and amends, "—showed me."
Marian tilts her head at him so that her fringe falls across her eyes. It shadows her gaze, makes her look intimidating, but Bethany knows that Marian only does it because she knows it makes her look like she's bigger than she is, that it gives people pause, gives her a few minutes to contemplate any given situation to decide how to react to it. She watches them, attention flickering between their twined fingers, the templar helmet on the table, Dog curled up in front of the fire. Bethany doesn't know what her sister finds in the regard, but it must be something, because after a moment she nods sharply and the ice in her expression melts until she's nothing but Bethany's older sister again.
The killer recedes, the daggers slip back in their sheaths, and the whole room lets out a collective breath.
But Marian has never been one to let things lie. "Wonderful," she says. When she opens her mouth, the blood across her nose stretches lazily. Bethany feels a little sick. "Our little adventure just got so much more exciting. A templar! You get to tell Carver."
"Tell me what?"
"Nothing, dearest, Mother's not in here. Go check the garden," Marian sings, waves him away even as she moves to block his line of sight. It's a small mercy, and the sound of Carver's heavy steps against packed earth fade into nothing. She looks between Alistair and Bethany for another too-long moment, face inscrutable.
Time hangs, suspended.
There's an apology somewhere in Bethany's throat, but she doesn't say it because she won't mean it. Alistair's hand is warm and large, rough with calluses from holding a sword, and he still hasn't let go. Warmth unspools in Beth's chest, a skein of golden light wound tight around her heart, and she thinks of the long hot days in between the first time she'd seen him and now. He's breaking holy laws just to know her. Her sister is nothing, compared to that.
"I hope you're ready to leave," Marian says, voice light. Bethany can tell that her mind is far away; it's the way she talks, like she's not even there. "The horde isn't going to wait. Bethy, love, do you have your staff?"
"We're going to need it. Ostagar's lost," Marian says. Her eyebrow quirks up and she smiles, but it's not a happy thing. "The King is dead."
Alistair goes perfectly still.
"Oh, Maker," Beth breathes.
"That's what I said, but less vulgar," Marian says. She kneels down next to Dog, knee cracking sickly. It's the most tactful invitation for privacy that Bethany's ever seen, and while her sister wrestles with her mabari, it's easy for Beth to tip her face up to look at the man at her side.
"Alistair?" Bethany asks, very softly. His hand's turned clammy in hers, and she has an absurd desire to touch his cheek and wipe away the ash that's settled into his expression. He looks like a man about to go to his death. "Are you alright?"
"No," he says, faint. His grip tightens. "I'm—I'll tell you later?"
Later, when her sister isn't watching them like the hawk she is. Dog barks, loud and raucous. It bounces off the walls until it's a cacophony of noise, and the silly creature scares himself and goes bounding outside. Marian whistles for him through her teeth, but he's long gone. She sighs, raises the cool blue of her attention to the pair of them. "Are you coming with us?"
"Me?" Alistair asks.
"No, the helmet on the table," Marian bares her teeth. "Yes, you."
"I don't—I don't know," he says.
"The horde is coming," Bethany's sister says. Her voice is perfectly without emotion, simply matter of fact. "There's no stopping it. We tried, and there are several thousand dead bodies in Ostagar to prove it. If you stay here, templar, you will die. And then Bethy will be upset, and that's really not something I want to deal with today. So take your pick, but do it quickly. I have very little patience for indecision."
"Mari—" Beth starts, mouth pulling down. Her sister is a terror.
"It's his choice, Bethy," Marian cuts her off, very simply. "Let him choose."
"Will it help?"
"It'll keep you alive. And another sword is another sword," Marian says, easily. She waves at the space between them. "Whatever's happening here—whatever this is—you'll keep on eye on Bethy, that much is painfully obvious. And that's all I ask. I'll even keep Carver from glowering at you too much!"
He thinks about it for a second, looks down at Bethany in the interim. She doesn't know what he sees in her face, but it must be something, because finally, he nods. Slowly, so slowly, he nods.
"I'll come," Alistair says. "Yes, I'll—I'll come."
"Spectacular," Marian claps, face splitting into a horrible smirk. "Now, if we're all agreed. I would like to go before the darkspawn come to eat us. Death by the chomping jaws of a monster really isn't the way I want to go, it's so overdone," she says, surveys them up and down a second time. "Yes?"
"Andraste, Mari, go away, you've traumatized us all enough!" Bethany says.
Her sister—cackles, that's the only word for the sound she makes. She throws back her head and cackles, dark shorn feathery hair absolutely everywhere. "Oh, Bethy, you found a spine while I was gone! Alright, alright, I'm going. Hurry up, sister mine, we need to decide where to spend the rest of our days!"
The door swings shut behind her, cutting off the mad laughter and Dog's barking. It's a blessing, as much as anything is.
"Is she always like that?" Alistair finally asks, stricken.
Bethany sighs, thinking of all the ways that her sister ruins people's lives (or ends them, depending on how she's feeling that particular day. Honestly, she's like a cat: casual murder is Marian Hawke's trademark, and if one day it comes back to bite them all in the arse, Bethany isn't going to be surprised). On the usual scale, this hardly counts. "Unfortunately, yes. That's my sister for you. She loves to make life difficult. Alistair, about—about—do you want to talk about it?"
"Not really," Alistair swallows. "But we should. The King's dead," he says. "I—can't believe it."
"Marian wouldn't lie," Bethany says, shaking her head. "Well, no, she would, but not about this."
"No, I know that, it's just—" Alistair's smile goes strange, darkness hiding in the corners of it as it stretches out unreal. "Well, if we're going north, you should probably know. My—I told you that I'm a bastard, didn't I? And that Arl Eamon raised me."
Bethany nods. It had been a very quiet conversation, sitting on a hill. He'd looked at his hands for a very long time. She'd touched his elbow.
Alistair blows out a breath, shoulders dropping. "The reason he did that was because—well, because my father was King Maric. Which made Cailan my… half-brother, I suppose. I should have told you before, but I—"
He breaks off, can't quite look at her.
"You wanted to be normal," Bethany finishes the sentence for him. Maker knows, but she knows what that feels like. And everyone has secrets—the ones between her and him are out in the open now, at least. They can't do any more damage. Mage, templar, prince; there's not much else they could hurt each other with. "I understand."
"Do you?" he asks. "You don't think I'm—?"
Beth holds her hand out, palm up. A tiny fire sparks into existence and she holds it there for a moment. The flame is edged in blue and green, like it's burning salted wood. "I get it, Alistair. You know that I do."
She lets the flame go out, closes her hand into a fist. For a moment, it's very quiet between them.
"Where do you think we'll go?"
"Kirkwall, maybe," Bethany murmurs. She leans against him, head against his shoulder. Andraste, she's tired. She's so tired. "My mother has family there."
"There are a lot of templars in Kirkwall," Alistair says, hesitantly slipping an arm around her shoulders. It's warm and heavy as a wool blanket, and just about as reassuring.
Bethany looks up him, steadily, for a very long time. It won't be the first time she's thought about this; her mother, and Kirkwall, and the templars. Always the templars. The setting sun burns along her bare shoulders, turns the whole world dripping crimson-gold. It washes over them like a war. "You're a templar. Would they expect you to be hiding a mage?"
He presses his thumb into the pulse in her wrist. "No," he says.
"And they wouldn't expect the prince of Ferelden to be anywhere near Kirkwall. We'd be… ordinary, together. Would you mind pretending?" she asks, because even after everything, she has to know. She has to know.
"No," he says, again. Her heart is in her throat, and she thinks he must be able to feel it thundering away, fear and hope in equal measure. Alistair turns her hands over in his, so gentle. "Would it really be pretending, Bethany?"
"I don't think so," he says. He's staring very hard at her palms, like he's trying to see right through her to the blue-green magic that hovers just beneath her skin. The sunset throws him all in shadows until he's nothing but the curve of a cheek, depressions for eyes, protrusion of nose. His armour looks so heavy. "It wouldn't be pretending. Not for me."
"It wouldn't be pretending for me, either," Bethany whispers it like the confession it is. All her insides clench. She remembers the first day in the Chantry, sitting in the pews with her head down like she couldn't see him, like she hadn't watched him from the minute he stepped in. As though she didn't pay attention to every single new templar who walked through those doors. As though the kindness in him wasn't entirely foreign. "You know that they'll think we're—"
"Let them think," Alistair says. He brushes a curl off her forehead. He is so infinitely gentle.
"You'll have to deal with my siblings," Bethany says, a little thickly. Her throat sticks. "They might never—never—I mean, look at them."
He does. Carver and Marian are standing up on the rise, the former tall and scowling grumpily—his face is going to stick like that—and the latter feigning a dramatic death and falling over to roll in the dirt behind him. Mother is watching the pair of them, despair written all over her posture, and Dog's barking madly. Everything's gone up in flames, but this is her family: small and cracked and liable to kill a man for one another. Lothering is behind them, and for all that Marian pretends that nothing is wrong, it will be a long mourning.
No, her siblings may never anything. They may never everything.
But it's something.
And it could be good.
Kirkwall has a lot of templars, and Bethany has a lot of magic. And it won't be—it won't be easy. She knows that, standing here in the shadow of the Imperial Highway with her hands tucked into his, she knows that it's never going to be easy. It'll be wolves and dragons and darkspawn, and for all the Maker knows, they might all die.
Alistair catches her chin, tips her face up. He's grinning, but there's a softness to his eyes that twists her heart. "Worth it," he says.
"Did you know you're not a very good templar, Alistair," she says, the corners of her lips curling up, a hysteric little bubble of laughter bursting in her chest. He is the worst templar, and it's wonderful. He is the worst templar, and she can't imagine him any other way. Bethany stands up on her tiptoes to brush her mouth against the corner of his, and she thinks she can feel him smile.
Alistair's hand comes up to curl around her hip, pull her close. "I'm not surprised. It's not a very rewarding job, I've found. No benefits, and piss-poor social skills. But Maker's breath, I'd make an even worse prince. Just unlucky, I suppose?"
"I suppose," Bethany echoes, laughter pitched soft, and tugs him down to kiss him properly.
notes3: kiss my ass, bioware!