disclaimer: disclaimed
dedication: to megan, who enables me, and also, she keeps writing cliffhangers? so like. here.
notes: listen sometimes i just want them to kiss ok?!
notes2: enjoy your life — MARINA.

title: with eyes aflame
summary: There is a new Commander in Haven. — templar!au part ii; Alistair/Bethany.

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Nighttime comes.

The evening is pale blue, the air washed cool with dew and the far-away strains of music, and the Winter Palace glitters, lit golden with a thousand candles. People mill about the gardens, masks catching the light, laughter low and burbling sweetly. It's an unreal place, clouds of perfume following women with porcelain faces and beautiful dresses, shadow-dark and unsweet as unsugared chocolate. Me with shining pits for eyes behind their masks and more money than sense lounge at every turn. Laughter tinkles silver and starlight, cut with the evening's cool air.

Bethany tucks her hand into the crook of Alistair's arm.

Oh, Maker, she's never felt more out of place in her life.

(The templars had watched, and Kirkwall at the very beginning had been only heart-clenching terror for it. The Winter Palace is different: it's very easy to tell a templar amongst a crowd. It's not so easy to tell a murderer in a crowd of equally blood-soaked knives.)

"If I never come back here again, it'll be too soon," Alistair grumbles in Bethany's ear.

"We can survive one night, I think," she murmurs in reply. "We look the part, at least?"

It's true, they do the look part.

There is a morbid elegance to the sweep of monochrome and gold that drip from all the members of Lady Lavellan's delegation. Austere and glittering, they catch the silvery illumination from the witchlamps, resplendent and looking absolutely as though they all belong. Bethany's curls tumble loose over her bared shoulders, the beaded bodice of her ink-black dress cut low in front and lower in the back, shimmering with its own gathered darkness.

It is, Bethany thinks, the most Chasind thing she's ever owned.

"Yes, well. You look—" Alistair pauses, surveys her up and down out of the corner of his eye. To Bethany's delight, he turns faintly pink just along the ridges of his cheekbones. "You do look lovely, Beth."

"You don't look so bad yourself," Bethany murmurs, fondly. It's very easy to tip her head up to brush her mouth against his jaw, so she does.

Alistair turns pinker.

"We're very lucky most people think I'm a fool, or this would be very embarrassing," Alistair tells her, crooking an eyebrow at her.

"What, blushing at your wife?" Bethany teases. Now that she thinks about it, she's rather pink, too. If he's a fool, she's not much better.

So, fools, the both of them.

"More like the part where I'm painfully desperate for your attention, but I suppose it's the same thing," he shrugs.

It's a good thing that they're in a garden. Gardens have hedges and hedges are very helpful given Bethany's sudden current desire to drag her husband someplace private. She darts up on her toes, catches his mouth, hums pleasure when his hands close convulsively around her hips.

Oh, yes, this is what she wanted.

"You know," Alistair says, a little strangled, "one of these days, we're going to get in trouble."

"At least it'll be both of us getting in trouble?" Bethany manages, only a little unsteady. Everything is a bit lover-dark, her lips bitten-kissed and her fingers wound tight into his well-cut jacket and her heart, always her heart, yearning for the closeness of his arms.

"I've mussed you all up," Alistair murmurs, voice like gravel. "Maker, Beth, at this rate we're going to be indecent, and then we're going to have more children. Not that that'd be a bad thing, mind you, I'm rather interested in the making—"

Bethany smothers a hysteric, high-pitched little giggle into the crook of his neck. "Incorrigible!"

"I try," Alistair grants. He pulls back enough to smile down at her, crinkling along the eyes. "You are, though."

"What?"

"Lovely."

Bethany has to kiss him all over again, for that.

When they finally manage to come up for air, the bulk of the guests have wandered themselves in towards the Winter Palace. Alistair takes a moment to sort them both out; he brushes Bethany's curls out of her eyes, tugs the wide neckline of her dress back up to where it belongs to cover the already-reddening mouth marks all over her shoulders; sets her back to rights as best he can.

"My turn," Bethany murmurs, tugging gently on his lapels, soft and shining in the eyes.

"I don't know if there's a point, love, I'm a right mess," he says. He's flushed all the way to the tips of his ears, his eyes glazed. His hair sticks up at the back from where Bethany's been tugging at it, his doublet loose, breeches untucked. He looks half-mauled and delicious for it. If Bethany were younger, she'd probably be more embarrassed about this, but it's rather hard when Alistair is gazing down at her fondly as he is, all warm brown eyes and tiny quirked grin.

"Alistair," Bethany says, patience and steel in equal measure, "let me."

And he does.

Bethany goes about straightening his surcoat, smoothing down the sharp-tailored seams. Carefully rebuttons his buttons, flattens his hair into some semblance of order, tucks in his undershirt. His mail is light, meant more for decoration than for protection; it sets her teeth on edge, that there's so few layers of metal between her husband's neck and whatever sharp things might come their way.

But he shines, does Alistair.

It takes Bethany's breath away.

"There," she says at last, so quietly. Her fingers linger at his chest, fiddling over the bright brass gleam. "All done."

Alistair catches her wrist, pulls it up to his mouth, kisses her fingertips. Grins unrepentantly at her sharp inhale of breath; he really is incorrigible. "What would I do without you?"

"We do have to go inside, eventually," Bethany tells him, a little unsteady.

"Eventually," Alistair agrees absently. He dips down to brush his mouth over the high curve of her cheek. His hands dig sharply into her hips, reeling her close, so close. "I feel like I never see you anymore, love."

Bethany sways in closer. "You're going to muss us up again."

"I don't think that's entirely a bad thing, Beth—"

"Oh, Maker, please don't."

Alistair groans into Bethany's curls and she has to bite back a hysteric giggle. "I hate him," her husband mutters, "He ruins everything—"

"Lady Montilyet sent me," Ser Cullen says, like an apology. Bethany peers over Alistair's shoulder to find Ser Cullen staring determinedly at the splay of stars across the sky, doing absolutely everything he can to avoid looking them. "Are you two decent?"

(Bethany doesn't really blame the poor man for not wanting to look, even though they are wearing clothes, this time. This time.)

"Not because I want to be," Alistair tosses over his shoulder casually and yet rather pointedly. "Go away, would you?"

"Why do I put up with you," Ser Cullen groans under his breath, still managing to be loud enough to be heard over the pleasant burble of the water fountain.

Bethany giggles into Alistair's throat, high and breathless. "He likes us."

"Yes, he rather does," Alistair says, very smugly, and certainly loud enough to be overheard. "Too bad for him, isn't it?"

Ser Cullen groans again. The night pinks up with his desolation, all for more for how dramatic it is. "Are you two going to stop, or is Josephine going to have to come deal with it? Please. That's cruel. She'll panic herself out of her skin."

"Yeah, we'll be in," Alistair answers for the both of them. "Now would you go somewhere else already. mate?"

"There's no helping you. Maker, just get decent!" Ser Cullen throws his proverbial hands up and tromps off, making exceedingly cantankerous comments under his breath about the sort of people he deigns to associate with.

Bethany waits until he's out of earshot to laugh into Alistair's throat some more. "You enjoy harassing him too much."

"Someone should," Alistair grins into the top of her head. "Maker's breath, it'll be the only fun I'll have all night. Don't take it away from me, Beth!"

"I would never," Bethany says, dimples up at him. "Shall we go inside, then?"

"I'd call that ruining my fun, you know," Alistair snorts.

Bethany doesn't bother to dignify this with a response. Her husband.

He grins again, arms still looped around her frame. "How do you do that, love? You make a very compelling argument, but you don't say a word?"

"Magic," Bethany flashes him a brilliant little smile. She stands up on her toes to brush her lips against his cheek, winding her hands into his lapels for balance. The sharp intake of his breath is very satisfying. "Let's go save Ser Cullen from Lady Montilyet's wrath?"

"You're too nice to him," Alistair says, voice a little rough. "He could use a little suffering; I've had to deal her hovering at me for the last week. He ran off every time she turned up, Beth, I thought I was going to go mad!"

"She means well," Bethany murmurs. She tucks herself beneath Alistair's arm, tugging him forwards and out of the garden spill of perfume and foliage; they're too close to one another for propriety's sake, but she finds that she doesn't much care. It's right that she be this close to Alistair, and Bethany doesn't care who knows it.

Alistair sighs, and allows it.

They meander their way out of the gardens, towards the glittering golden gates, arm-in-arm. Among the last stragglers to make their way indoors, Bethany finds herself watching people as they pass. Tension ripples beneath the surface of the way they all move, held stiff and terrified in the face of the coming storm. Ginger, like a broken bone.

Andraste, it's no wonder Orlesians wear masks.

If they didn't, absolutely everyone could see how afraid they are.

But the Winter Palace is a study in decadence. Those glittering gates lead up stark white stairs to a foyer covered over in gilt and glimmer and gold. There's marble's pale cream, obsidian's wet-ink shine, the flickering glow of a million candles and the soft strains of a far-away orchestra lingering in the air.

"Thank the Maker, there you are! They are about to announce Lady Lavellan!"

Josephine Montilyet is more tense than Bethany has ever seen. Her jaw is tight, her gaze is wild, and she's clutching at the air frenetically as though she'd give anything on the Maker's green earth to have her writing board in her hands. It's very alarming, as these things go. Bethany didn't think there was anything that could rattle Lady Montilyet, but here they are. The woman eyes Alistair and Bethany up and down; the spike in her breathing from the sheer panic is audible. She is near vibrating out of her skin.

(They have clearly been deemed not up to standard. Alistair glances at Bethany out of the corner of his eye, and has the gall to wink. Bethany jabs her elbow into his side in revenge.)

"Josie, calm down! The night's barely begun," Sister Leliana laughs softly from the shadow of a pillar. "I'm sure there will be plenty more things to fret over than our illustriously rumpled Commander and his wife."

"Leliana, please!"

The good Sister laughs again, stepping forwards into the light. Madame de Fer had insisted that the Inquisition look their very best tonight, and it's a relief that she did; they are all stark and austere, uniform in black and white and gold. Sister Leliana was not spared. "Josie, we're here, now. Let's make the best of it, hm?"

Lady Montilyet deflates in place. Her shoulders slump, the breath goes out of her, and she looks—very young, all of a sudden, Bethany thinks.

It's easy to forget that Lady Montilyet is Bethany's own age, or just a bare year younger. The Inquisition's Ambassador is so frighteningly competent that she seems much olde; it's only times like this that Bethany realizes that people are just people, no matter how old they get.

"Please—please do not do anything unnecessary," Lady Montilyet says, at last. All her breath gusts out of her, as though she's entirely given up.

Bethany privately thinks that asking this particular group of individuals not to do anything unnecessary is asking rather too much. Before she can voice this thought—or whisper very quietly it into Alistair's ear, for him alone—Lady Montilyet herds them forwards.

In they go, into the gleaming mar of the Winter Palace's ballroom, to await their introductions.

"Lord Alistair of Kirkwall, Commander of the Inquisition's forces, and his wife, Lady Bethany Hawke, sister to the Champion of Kirkwall!" rings out across the room.

Bethany keeps her palm tucked into the crook of Alistair's elbow and her head down, slow and graceful as a line of music. The light slicks off her hair

"We're being stared at."

"Your sister did start a war, love," Alistair reminds her, very unnecessarily. He catches her eye and grins, small enough that it's only for her, careful and private. There's plenty of reasons they're being stared at; the Champion of Kirkwall is only one of them.

The walk across the floor is endlessly slow. The introductions continue, one title after another—a long string of names that belongs to Lady Pentaghast that Varric is never going to let her live down—Sister Leliana and Lady Montilyet ahead, Ser Cullen behind.

A stately elegance, one and all.

Lady Lavellan's advisors and their various hangers-on hang back far enough not to intrude on the the Inquisitor's conversation with the Empress. There are layers to it. so many layers, and Bethany never really learned to play the Game.

The Empress inclines her head.

They are dismissed.

INTRODUCTIONS

VARRIC HAS SOME THOUGHTS ABOUT THIS PLACE, SEEKER

Varric looks to be about two moments away from pulling a quill and a scrap of paper out from underneath his jacket to start writing lurid lies about absolutely everyone in the room. He's as colourless as the rest: his hair stands our red-gold-threaded-white over the black-dyed leather and the golden thread.

(Madame de Fer had committed to the aesthetic. Bethany will give the woman that.)

But oh, Bethany is desperately fond of him.

"Mari would be hurt you dressed up without her."

"Shit, Sunshine, what can I say? A dwarf's gotta clean up sometimes," Varric says. "And Hawke doesn't get to talk, she goes to fun parties without me all the time!"

"You hate parties, Varric."

"I hate 'em less when your sister's around."

This is very true on all counts, Bethany thinks. She leans against him, content to watch Alistair and Lady Lavellan's other advisors bicker companionably amongst themselves. Varric is sturdy as a stone in a river, scrubbly and rough and familiar as anything for it. His gaze keeps skipping; keeps eyeing the hallways and the vestibule around them up and down. His attention stays nowhere for longer than half a second, and he misses nothing. Andraste, she doesn't even want to think about what terribly gleeful things are running through his head.

"Looking for someone?" Bethany asks.

Varric glances up at her, measuring. Maker, Bethany knows that look—that's the to tell Hawke's baby sister or not to tell Hawke's baby sister look, and though it's been a year or two or five since Bethany's seen, it's not something a person just forgets.

"If my sister decides to show up out of the blue, Varric…"

"Shit, no, I'd have a heart attack!" Varric says, aghast. He throws a hand over his heart, gasps at the sheer audacity. But his voice drops, eyes flickering over Bethany's shoulder. "Nah, it's—I'm looking for the Seeker."

"Seeker Pentaghast? Why?"

"'Cause she's—" Varric cuts himself off, squints up at her, eyes very narrow. "You're too easy to talk to, Sunshine, you know that?"

"We have that in common, I think," Bethany laughs softly. She bumps her hip against him. "Story-teller."

"You wound me, madame!"

"You'll survive. So what about Seeker Pentaghast? Are you worried she's going to kidnap you again?"

"I don't think even the Seeker could manage to kidnap me twice."

"What, then?"

Varric sighs. His shoulders slump. "You're not gonna let this go, are you?"

"You brought it up," says Bethany, very reasonably. "And Mari would never forgive me if I missed an opportunity to tease you."

Whatever Varric is about to say is cut off when Seeker Cassandra Pentaghast herself comes stomping up, the very picture of a Nevarran noblewoman in mourning: deeply irate, dressed in black, and appallingly ready to fight a dragon or breathe fire or possibly both. She's wearing a dress, shoulders bare, her fury wrapped around her like a shroud.

Varric gulps audibly.

Seeker Pentaghast pays them not one iota of attention: she heads straight for Alistair and Ser Cullen and the others, a thundercloud on her face. Bethany has to smother a giggle when her husband actually takes a step back—Andraste, she'd do the same if Seeker Pentaghast were stomping towards her with that look on her face.

Alistair is sensible, sometimes.

But Bethany misses the other reactions (Ser Cullen's would have been spectacular, no doubt, and she's sorry to have missed it), because Varric makes a low whistling sound like the air let out of a pig's bladder balloon, an unconscious thing, and Bethany looks down at him instead, blinking.

Varric looks gutted.

Oh.

Oh.

"Varric," Bethany says, slowly so as not to frighten him off. "You might want to close your mouth. You'll catch flies like that."

Varric shakes himself out of the stupor.

It's also in this moment that he seems to realize that he's not alone, and that Bethany is still very much standing next to him. Varric regards her for a very long moment. It feels, oddly, like how Carver used to regard her: how far can I push this, says that squint-eyed

"Don't tell Hawke," he says.

"I wouldn't dream of it," Bethany smiles. "I will have to tease you in her place, though."

"That's fair," says Varric. "But I will never write another book about you and Death Wish if you don't."

"Wait, what've you written about us already?"

"Nothing! Nothing."

"Varric…"

"C'mon, Sunshine, trust me on this one. I'm not selling anybody out."

"Not even Seeker Pentaghast?"

"'Draste's ass, I knew there was a Hawke underneath all that magic and niceness," Varric dramatically wipes his eyes. "Your sister would be so proud!"

"She'd never let either of us live it down, Varric, and you know it."

"That's true, too," Varric says. He groans. "I'm getting too old for this, Sunshine."

"You're never too old to fall in love."

"Nah, not that. This," he says, gestures vaguely around them, to the glitz and the glint of the Winter Palace. "Not my scene, you know?"

Bethany's gaze settles on Alistair's shoulders. He's rubbing the back of his neck the way he's always wont to do when he's uncomfortable. Of all the things that the Winter Palace could bring out in her husband, discomfort is the one that Bethany expected the most, and likes the least.

And maybe Varric knows that, too, the strain of wanting simply to go home and sleep for a while. It's all well and good to tease him about Seeker Pentaghast, and undoubtedly Marian would be properly insulted if she ever finds out that Varric didn't tell her first, but—

The Winter Palace has magic all its own. Dangerous and beautiful in equal measure.

Bethany leans more of her weight against Varric's shoulder.

It murmurs: I understand.

Bethany won't tell her sister what's happened here, tonight. Not all of it, anyway; she thinks of the Tale of the Champion, and all the stories that Varric never told anyone, and all of the secrets he keeps.

It won't cost her, to keep one for him.

"…I suppose terrifying can be attractive, in some lights," Bethany says, after a moment's contemplation.

"Sunshine?"

"Yes?"

"What did I ever do to you?"

Bethany laughs, high and clear, the sound rising like golden bubbles in expensive mead. Alistair turns to blink over at them at the sound of it; Bethany watches all of her husband's features go soft and fond, and she's near dazzled by it.

"Varric, I—"

"Yeah, yeah," Varric says. He waves her off. "Your Death Wish wants your attention, I know. Go on. I know you can't help it. Get gone, Sunshine."

There is nothing quite like losing an argument to Varric Tethras, Bethany thinks, bemused, as she does as she's told. There's nothing quite like it at all.

Alistair's whole face lights up as Bethany crosses the floor. He wastes no times; he abandons the others to scoop her out of the air, patently, charmingly oblivious to the way half of the vestibule turns to stare at them. His arms go 'round her waist and she presses her face into his neck, and suddenly everything is right again in the world.

("Merde," she hears muttered from under Sister Leliana's breath. She sounds like she's just lost a bet. Bethany doesn't even want to know.)

Alistair smiles at her.

It is devasting.

"Hello, love. Had enough of Varric's teasing, have you?"

"Mmmn, more like he had enough of mine," Bethany murmurs. She can feel his heart beneath his clothes, the steady beat. Andraste. It's the only thing that feels like home.

Alistair presses his mouth against her hair. "Oh?"

Bethany sighs. "I don't think he appreciated my pointing out his crush on Seeker Pentaghast. He seemed a little put out?"

He snorts a laugh. "Maker's breath, Beth, of course he was. You weren't supposed to tell him about it!"

"What was I supposed to do, then? Tell him later?"

"Well, yes."

Bethany's mouth curls up against Alistair's collarbone. "Sometimes I think you like Varric more than you like me."

"If that were the case, I'd have married him by now," Alistair points out, mildly.

("Merde," Bethany hears, again. "Does it ever stop?"

A pause like a breath.

"No. You're going to owe that dwarf so much money. You brought this on yourself, you know, I told you not to," says Ser Cullen.

For all that Bethany can barely hear him, she knows that stiff look he gets when he's trying not to be peevish. She'd send them both shocks for the impertinence, but frankly they're fairly easy to ignore. Terrible, the both of them, and if they owe Varric money, then they absolutely deserve it!)

"And you married me, instead."

"Says something decent about my taste, doesn't it?"

Bethany laughs. "Oh, if that's the case, then—"

"It always is, love," Alistair tells her. His eyes are very warm. He stands so, so close, and it takes all of Bethany's not-inconsiderable willpower to keep from curling up against him in front of all these people and throwing caution to the proverbial wind. The Inquisition needs him, but the Inquisition always needs him. The question, as ever, is who needs him more.

And, as ever, the Inquisition wins out.

"Lady Montilyet is about to come over here," Bethany murmurs.

"How can you tell?" asks Alistair. There is genuinely curiosity in his voice; he turns just enough to see Lady Montilyet across the room, so high-strung that she looks about to vibrate off the ground into flight.

"It's either that, or she's going to start screaming?"

Alistair grumbles something intensely exasperated under his breath that Bethany doesn't catch. He blows all the breath out of his lungs.

"Shite," he mutters darkly. "You know, Beth, I hate it when you're right."

"Why?"

"Because you're always right about things that I'd rather not deal with. Maker's breath, here I was, thinking we could go one night without a disaster. Will you be alright on your own, for a bit?"

"I could use some fresh air," Bethany smiles up at him.

"You are far too good for me," Alistair says, fervently. He kisses her quick and warm and lovely as candlelight. "Don't disappear for long, love. I'll come find you when Josephine doesn't look like—well, like that."

Bethany watches him dash off. He's never loud, Alistair; he always moves with a kind of quiet, deadly efficiency that used to be so at odds with the sunnily self-deprecating disposition. It's what used to make him such a good templar; there were times he'd be out of bed and halfway through clasping his regalia on before Bethany was even awake.

It was also probably what made him such a terrible templar, too, now that Bethany thinks about it. She catches the way he glances back over his shoulder at her, anxiety at the leaving.

Yes, definitely what made him such a terrible templar.

And so Bethany wanders.

She passes through the Winter Palace's glittering hallways, quiet as a ghost. She's a shadow-creature; no one pays her any attention. The Inquisition's all-seeing eye is worked in gold thread into the diamond-point edges of her cuffs, and maybe this is what keeps people away.

But she hears: Lady Hawke and mage rebellion and sister to the Champion, so maybe it's not the Inquisition at all. No matter how far Bethany goes, she's realized that there's no escaping Marian's shadow.

It's a good thing that Bethany doesn't mind.

(Oh, Maker, Carver would hate it here.)

She makes her way out onto the terraces, dragging her fingertips along the wall. The night air filters down cool and clear as fresh dew over Bethany's shoulders. The din from inside is faint out here on the terraces, and it's nice, for a moment, to allow herself to breathe.

Five minutes to herself never goes amiss, even when she's not bound to worrying about her children.

Not that that ever really stops, of course, but—

Still.

A breath, just for herself.

"Lady Hawke? Might I have a moment of your time?"

(Well, so much for that.)

Bethany startles out of her thoughts, glancing over her shoulder to find a tall, slim blonde woman smiling neutrally in the doorway. She is dressed very simply, for all the luxurious fabric; her accent is Ferelden. And she holds herself—it's very reminiscent of how Mother holds herself, actually, now that Bethany thinks about it. The easy grace and the steel rod for a spine, it's all the same.

The manners kick in. Unlike some people, Alistair, Bethany wasn't raised in a barn.

"Please," Bethany says, indicates the open space all around her. "I'm sorry, this is terribly rude of me, but I don't know your name."

The woman laughs. "No, you wouldn't. We haven't been introduced."

Bethany waits. She's very good at it, waiting. Maker knows, but she's had practise; waiting is as ingrained as breathing, or magic, or loving Alistair. It's a part of her.

And so: Bethany waits.

"My name is Anora," the woman says. A funny little smile works its way across her face; it's as though she'd expected Bethany to break first, and is pleasantly surprised that she didn't.

"It's lovely to meet you," Bethany says. "I suppose I must have missed your introduction. We did come in rather late in the evening, but my husband prefers fresh air; he wanted to stay out in the gardens as long as we could. Where are you from?"

"Denerim," says the lady. "And believe me, you didn't miss much. I had no introduction to speak of."

"Oh? Really?"

"Mm, yes. You might call me a liaison for the Ferelden crown; I have a rather vested interest in Celene remaining Empress, you see. We're—wary, you could say, of Gaspard's intentions. He rather likes to think himself an expansionist."

"I'd imagine that would make the crown nervous, yes."

"You'd not be wrong," Lady Anora agrees, her mouth curling upwards sardonically. She pauses to look Bethany over. The Winter Palace hovers around them soft as feathers, sharp as knives; Bethany doesn't know what she's expecting.

But there's nothing.

"So, what can I do for you, Lady Anora?"

"Do?" the woman raises an eyebrow. "You needn't do anything. I suppose I simply hadn't expected so much of the Inquisition's leadership to be Fereldan, given the circumstances, that's all."

"The Inquisition is on Ferelden soil," Bethany says, slowly. A voice in the back of her head that sounds like Marian whispers: tread lightly, Bethy. "Does it surprise you?"

"Oh, you misunderstand. I don't disapprove. Quite the contrary, in fact," says Lady Anora. Her mouth curls ever closer to true amusement. "Your Inquisitor is a busy woman. I don't think she's stopped moving all night."

She's too young to have to deal with this, Bethany doesn't say, although the words sit raw and thick in her throat. There's too much sitting on Lady Lavellan's slim shoulders, too many responsibilities, too many lives. And it's not fair, it's really not fair, to expect a Dalish First to solve all of humanity's problems.

She's nothing like Merrill at all, Lady Lavellan, but Bethany doesn't doubt that they'd get along without all of the stumbling that they're both prone to when there are humans about.

Andraste, but Bethany misses Merrill.

"She won't have, no," Bethany says. It comes out a little hoarse, and she swallows back the sudden wave of grief.

Grief is so difficult. She never knows who she's feeling it for.

"Hawke isn't a very common name. Chasind, isn't it?"

"Yes, it is."

"You don't look much like your brother, if you don't mind my saying so,"

"He's my twin," Bethany corrects, automatic, and then shakes herself for the lost footing. "I-I'm sorry, I didn't mean—how do you know my brother? Carver's not very…"

"I've met him, once or twice," the lady allows, with a smile that could coax a recalcitrant cat. She truly must have met him; it seems as though she knows exactly what Bethany is going to say about Carver Hawke's general disposition. Surly, at best. "But the Warden-Commander spoke highly of him, and I do tend to trust her judgement."

Carver talked about her, Bethany doesn't say. The Hero of Ferelden is a strange topic, in an Orlesian palace; she's not sure what Lady Anora wants from the conversation. There's something there, beneath the surface, but Bethany can't touch it.

It's there—

But it's not.

"If you want to know about my sister, you can just say so," Bethany says. She stares straight, doesn't move her jaw, looking out into the dark and stormy sky. The clouds roil, bubbling with the beginnings of purple-white lightning that crackles through the air. It prickles against Bethany's skin, pebbling into gooseflesh.

"That's what most people ask about, I suppose?"

"She did start a war," Bethany murmurs, in an odd echo of Alistair earlier. "Not many people can say that about their sisters."

"Not many people can say that about anyone they know, at all," Lady Anora replies. Out of the corner of her eye, Bethany watches the woman study the sky, choosing her next words carefully. "You left during the Blight?"

"A lot of people did," Bethany says. She remembers Lothering's fields, brown and brittle as dry straw, and all the refugees that came with it. They reach out through the ancient halls of time and memory with sharpened claws, hollow cheeks, hollow eyes, hollow hands.

Bethany has to shake off her ghosts.

"More than anyone would have liked, I think," Lady Anora murmurs. She raises a hand to tuck blonde hair away from her entirely bare face; Bethany thinks that the Orlesians could learn a thing or two about poise from this woman. If they carry their fear in their body, Lady Anora carries her lack of it just the same.

The words shiver away on the breeze.

"Marian thought it best," Bethany shrugs, tips her head back and forth at the sky. "We took ship from Gwaren, made it to Kirkwall. I'm assuming you've read Varric's Tale of the Champion. He only lied a little bit, but really, it's Varric. You have to expect a lie or two."

Quiet, again, but only for a moment.

"I grew up there," Lady Anora says.

"Pardon?"

"Gwaren. I grew up there," the woman says again. "But I haven't been back since I was a child. Does the sunset still turn the Amaranthine to liquid fire?"

"Yes. We were only there for a few days, but I'd never seen the ocean, before."

Lady Anora smiles. It's the first real smile that Bethany's seen out of her, she realizes; it blooms across the lady's face like a sunrise, slow and pale with joy. "There's nothing like the Amaranthine."

"Why haven't you gone back?"

"Duty calls us away from the places that we love," Lady Anora says, very quietly. She looks at Bethany out of the corner of her eye. "You would know that, Lady Hawke, wouldn't you? You are here, after all."

"I—yes, I suppose so."

Lady Anora regards Bethany for a long, unbroken moment that hangs fragile as morning sunlight through clear glass between them. Bethany doesn't know what she finds in the measure, but it must be something.

(It's always something.)

She looks to be about to say something else, but as Bethany waits for it, the woman cuts herself off before the words make it out into the open air.

The woman dips her golden head. "I appreciate you taking the time, Lady Hawke. I'm sure I've taken up enough of yours. I'll leave you to your thoughts."

And before Bethany can say anything more, Lady Anora floats off.

Silent as flower petals caught on a breeze.

"Maker's bloody breath, there you are, I've been looking an hour!"

"I-I'm sorry?"

Alistair catches Bethany up when she finally returns to the ballroom, relief at the sight of her morphing to concern as he takes stock. The emotion etches itself deep into his face, pulls down his lines into sobriety. "Are you alright, love? What's happened?"

Bethany collapses against him with a great, garbled sigh, her head to his collarbone, trying to breath. Everything about him is familiar, in this moment; familiar and perfect, and the love of him clenches around her lungs tight as a vice.

"I'm fine," she manages.

"You don't look fine…" Alistair trails off, inspecting her a second time. "Beth, honestly, what happened?"

"Nothing," she says, because it really was nothing, for all that it's left her with ghosts and shivers in her bones. Lady Anora. Ferelden's crown. Nothing; nothing at all. "Nothing, really, it's fine."

"Beth…"

"I'll tell you about it later," Bethany says into his chest. It's nice to have his arms around her, all solid and warm and feeling like a home. "How's everyone out here?"

"Leliana's having the time of her Maker-forsaken life," Alistair mutters. "She's got the Inquisitor running all over the place collecting blackmail for her. Bloody hell, there's no helping either of them."

A tiny little slip of a laugh escapes Bethany's throat. "And the others?"

"Josephine's bouncing off the walls because she's gone right mental," Alistair says, rather fondly. "And Cullen's—well, he's over there. Being harassed by Orlesians, last I checked."

Bethany peeks over Alistair's shoulder, and finds that indeed, Ser Cullen is looking about as huntedly, horrifically uncomfortable as Bethany has ever seen him. He's hiding in a corner with his back to the walls, arms crossed over his chest, cringing away from the crowd of people that seem to be hovering around him.

"Oh, Andraste, that's dreadful," Bethany breathes. "Oughtn't we go save him? Alistair, he looks miserable!"

Alistair crooks an eyebrow good-naturedly. "How do you suppose we do that, love? I haven't seen the less-terrifying Trevelyan all right. I think she's hiding? Smart girl, actually, we ought to go hide somewhere ourselves."

Bethany pokes him sharply in the ticklish spot high on his ribs, and is immensely pleased when she squawks and cringes away.

"Hey! You promised not to exploit that!"

"And you promised not to be so terrible about poor Ser Cullen. It's not his fault he's like that, you know!"

"Yes, I'm a bad, bad man," Alistair says. He smirks at her, the crooked edges of his grin shading into wickedness. "You like it."

"You're very smug, did you know?" Bethany asks, breathless with it. Mirth bubbles in her stomach, a welcome distraction, and she stands up on her toes to seal them together mouth-to-mouth. It only lasts a second; she forces herself to pull away, twines her arm through his, and steers them determinedly away from the ballroom.

"You've said, yes," Alistair agrees, very smugly because he hasn't an ounce of shame in his entire body. He frankly couldn't care less who sees them, but he allows her the want for privacy. "And you still like it."

Bethany doesn't deny this.

He's not wrong.

But the Grand Library is unlocked, the royal blue doors cracked to yawning. The Winter Palace's vestibule is empty as it's been all night, and Bethany tugs Alistair into the dark and the quiet, high above the ballroom and all the more lovely for how lonely it is. The door clicks closed behind them, and then they're alone.

She's not going to crawl into his lap in front of three quarters of Orlais' ruling class.

She might do it when they're on their own in the Grand Library, however.

Bethany leans forwards to press her face into the crook of Alistair's neck, breathing in skin and soap. The acrid bite of metal is replaced by the faint sweet luster of cotton. It freezes her insides, how much she misses it.

"I wish you were wearing armour," Bethany whispers into his ear, so low.

"If it's any consolation, so do I," Alistair murmurs. His eyes are soft, and he pulls her an impossible inch closer, arms closing a little tighter around her waist. "But we can't all have what we want all the time, love. Besides, this way I don't have to be so careful when we're like this! I can't hurt you! Bright sides!"

"That's not a very good bright side," Bethany says. "I'd rather have to be careful than have you stabbed, Alistair."

"Demanding about my safety tonight, are you?"

"Says the man who threw a fit every time I wouldn't him go somewhere without me."

"That's different."

"How?"

Alistair pulls back to stare down at her for what feels like a hundred years. His face is frighteningly serious, a measure in candlelight and shimmering gold that buries itself inside Bethany's ribs, ratcheting up into her throat to ache between her teeth. She holds that quiet, serious look like a flower in her mouth, and swallows it down to let it settle in her heart, so raw that a cool breeze smarts.

He grins at her. "Come on, Beth. You're the best thing that ever happened to me. I can't just go and let you get hurt. Not on my account."

Oh, Alistair.

Bethany reaches up to lace her arms around his neck. She pulls him down enough that they're eye-to-eye, matched clothes and colours and all the other things that exist.

It's like putting her heart between her teeth and hoping for the best, loving this man.

"It's the same for me, Alistair," Bethany whispers, half-ragged with the truth of it. "Andraste. You know it is."

Alistair ducks his face to the curve of her neck. Presses a hot, open-mouthed kiss to the think skin over her pulse.

"I know," her mutters into the th-thump of her heart. It seems they're both always doing it, always trying to get so close. "I know, but I can't—not you, Beth, love. Not you."

And Bethany understands. Her spine cracks a little sickly as she takes his weight; there's contentedness to the doing, to letting him know that she can carry him, if he needs to be carried. She curls a hand into his hair, tugging gently, an anchor to draw him back to shore.

Much as she wishes they were anywhere else, the Winter Palace is not the kind of place where one has the luxury of falling apart.

"I love you," Bethany sighs.

"And thank the Maker for that," Alistair says, shudders, draws closer even still. Bethany is fiercely glad for the relative privacy of the Grand Library; even though they definitely are not supposed to be here, it's given them both a moment to breathe and recentre. She doesn't know which of them needs it more, right now: her for the holding, or Alistair for the being held/

Maybe it's both. They always are too desperate for one another.

But it's not like the quakings of the early days, when all they'd each had was each other. This is edged in the soft pale sigh of sweet choice.

You. I will always choose you.

They cling to each other for a long, long time. Long enough that Alistair manages to bodily manhandle Bethany into one of the squishy chairs that overlook the ballroom floor; he settles her in his lap, and they watch the colourful swirl and sway of the dancers below together.

Bethany would be perfectly happy to sit here for the rest of the evening, just like this, and not have to say a word. Alistair winds her curls around his fingers, that old, contented habit he picked up somewhere between Lothering and Lowtown and never really stopped.

She turns her face into his hands.

Kisses his palm.

"Shining, shimmering, splendid, still as beautiful as the first day I saw her. She's everything. I'll die if something happens to her. Maker, that can't be healthy, but I don't care."

Bethany blinks.

Alistair, on the other hand, only groans. He closes his eyes for a second longer than a standard blink. "Cole, must you do that?"

"Yes. Am I not supposed to?"

"Not when she's sitting on top of me!"

"But you want her to know. I know you must, you think about it all the time?"

Bethany blinks some more. A boy melts out of the shadows. He's pale as moonlight, dressed in black, wearing a large floppy hat over a fringe of blond hair near the same shade as his skin, and there is nothing but confusion in his face. "I don't understand."

Alistair sighs heavily, deeply put upon, but also—not upset, Bethany doesn't think. Exasperated, perhaps, the same way he gets when Liana and Carina have done something that he's trying not to be endeared by.

"Come meet Beth, Cole," Alistair says. "You might as well. She's the one I'm always thinking about."

"Hello," says the boy. He shifts his weight back and forth, doesn't quite look in her the face. He can't be older than twenty. Before she can say anything, or even smile, he opens his mouth again. "Quiet, have to be quiet, if it's quiet no one will know. Keep close, counting three little heads, one sovereign, two sovereign, three night sky, they're all so young and I love them so must—"

Bethany raises her eyebrows.

Well.

"He does it to everyone," Alistair says into her ear. He's grinning, because he is terrible. "That was rather pointed, though, Beth. All I think about is you, and all you think about is our children? I don't know how I feel about that. Seems a bit unfair."

"Hush," Bethany prods him sharply with her elbow.

Alistair hushes, cheerfully.

"Oh," Cole says, startling a little. "They're looking for you. They want to know if you're alright. I can tell them you are, if you want to stay. It's quiet, here."

Alistair glances down at Bethany. That last bit was for her, they both know. Cole ducks a little, shrinking into himself; he nearly disappears entirely. It's a talent Bethany herself would have given almost anything to have had at her fingertips, growing up.

Oh, but she's not so young, anymore.

"We should probably go make sure Ser Cullen isn't sobbing in a corner," Bethany says, a little wry. "He's worse off than we are."

"And how is that my problem?"

"did you or did you not tell him that throwing himself at Lady Evelyn's mercy might put her off?"

Alistair is not impressed by this rebuttal. "I wasn't wrong. He wanted to write poetry. About her eyes! It wasn't even good—oh, Cole's gone. You know, sometimes I think he and Mal would get along."

Bethany smiles into his shoulder. Oh, Alistair. "They might. We'll see, when we get home. But did Ser Cullen really write poetry?"

"Yes," says Alistair. "He made me listen to it. It was awful. I was doing him a favour, Beth, really, I promise."

The smile turns into a laugh, high and clear as bell. "You enjoyed crushing his dreams, didn't you?"

"Absolutely."

Bethany tucks her face into Alistair's chest to smother down the mirth, or to quiet it, at the very least. "You know," she says, "if you were anyone else, I'd call that very cruel."

"It was cruel," Alistair grins. "I laughed in his face and didn't apologize for it."

His heartbeat is very steady beneath Bethany's ear, slow and rhythmic as the waves of the Waking Sea breaking on the rocky shores of the Wounded Coast. For one dreamy, heart-stopping moment, Bethany thinks she can smell the sea.

But then it's gone, and there is only Alistair's collarbone beneath her lips and the Winter Palace around them, and the iridescent, far-away strains of music rising from the ballroom.

"I don't think you could be cruel if you tried," Bethany murmurs.

"Says the girl what married me."

"And I'd do it again, too, if I had the choice."

Alistair blinks very rapidly. "Maker. Really?"

"Yes."

"Even when I'm being a fool?"

"Yes, Alistair."

He stares down at her, expression grave, for a very long time in the halflight. He touches her curls, painfully careful, so gentle that every breath aches. Alistair inhales tightly, closes his eyes for something that might be like courage. "After—after all this is done, Beth, will you marry me again? Properly, this time, like we ought to have in the first place."

"If you want," Bethany says, lips curving up into something private and soft. "But I do think we're properly married, anyway."

"We are, but I still—I do. Want to, that is. I want to," Alistair says, quietly. He dips his head down to catch the very edge of her smile.

Oh, Bethany thinks. Oh, Alistair.

She doesn't know how she ends up splayed across his lap, his hips caged between her knees and her fingers knotted in his hair, kissing so furiously it blots out the world. Alistair's hands bite into her thighs, long clever fingers tucking beneath the bunch of skirts to find warm skin, and Bethany can't help the sound that slides out of her.

"Maker," Alistair manages around a groan. "I'm going to tear this thing off you when we get home—"

Bethany is halfway to agreeing with him, the beautiful fabric beneath her fingers ready to burn without flame if it means he'll put his mouth back on her.

And a bell tolls.

The sound rings clear through the palace, something like a call to arms. Alistair jerks beneath her, absolute dread in the lines of him. He wraps her closer, as though that will somehow stall the clanging passage of time. It is a call to arms.

The Inquisition will have its due.

"No," Alistair groans. "I don't want to," and he buries his face in the side of her throat, teeth grazing the skin there. Her breath catches, slick between the thighs, and she can feel the way he smirks about it. Damn him, he always knows. "They can't make me, Beth."

"I don't think that's the way this works," Bethany laughs, breathless and very soft into his ear. She's too hot, wanting to crawl out of her skin, but Alistair's no better: he's looking very glazed, but Bethany supposes that this isn't a huge change from how he's looking most of the night.

(They have snuck off to nearly undress each other more than once.)

"Don't care," Alistair growls, as the bell continues to toll. It's getting late. An hour to tenth toll, already. Liana and Carina will have finally just been convinced to crawl into bed. Malcolm will have gone hours ago; Bethany has no idea how Malcolm is the only one of her children with the sense to value his sleep.

"What happened to rescuing Ser Cullen?"

"That was your idea, and I did say I thought he deserved it," Alistair points out. "And you sat on me. When are you going to learn that's always going to distract me? Because it does, you know, you're so soft, Beth—"

Bethany squirms away from him, giggling. "You know I'm ticklish, Alistair, quit it!"

"That is why I do it," he says, grinning unrepentantly. "And you're pretty when you laugh like that."

She stops squirming. Alistair's sort of—gone still, very gently stroking his thumb over the curve of her cheek. Bethany finds herself leaning into the touch, helpless beneath the pull of it.

Andraste, he always makes her feel so much.

The bell tolls again.

"We're going to be late," Bethany murmurs.

"Late for what?"

"Alistair."

Alistair heaves a sigh. "Fine. Up you get, then, love. Let's go save Cullen from the handsy Orlesians while we still can."

As it turns out, saving Ser Cullen from the handsy Orlesians is easier said than done.

"I hate you both," Ser Cullen manages. He's looking rather hunted around the eyes, the skin there taut and white with stress. "You went off together and—Maker, I don't know, made another child—"

"Didn't," Alistair cuts in, cheerfully. "Beth wouldn't let me try!"

"—and I have stood here, waiting for the Inquisitor to finish dancing with Lady Florianne—"

Bethany and Alistair wait very patiently for Ser Cullen to rant himself out, arm-in-arm. When he finally trails off, misery etched into his face, Bethany makes a decision.

"Come dance with me," Bethany says, very firmly. Ser Cullen is shaking, and looks like he's about to absolutely eviscerate the next person who so much as breathes at him wrong. Worse, he looks like he might start crying.

Andraste, no one wants to see that.

Ser Cullen is already shaking his head. "I—I shouldn't, I have avoided it all night, someone might think—"

"That wasn't an invitation, Ser Cullen," Bethany says, still very firm. She tucks her palm into his elbow and leads him, entirely no-nonsense, out onto the ballroom floor. The sudden movement of eyes to the back of her neck is easy to ignore.

(Maker. Orlesians. They've no tact.)

He doesn't fight her an inch, and she can feel the knots in his shoulders go down with every step.

"You're getting more like Lady Leandra every day, Bethany," Ser Cullen says. He's very quiet for a moment, and when he speaks next, his voice is ragged with relief. "Thank you."

Bethany hums. It's not an insult, coming from Ser Cullen; he's used to Mother sorting him out, and if anything, he's come to expect it. If it were anyone one, she might be hurt; her Mother is her Mother, and Lady Leandra Hawke is nothing if not formidable. Andraste knows that Mother does whatever she wants, and she did raise Marian.

As it is, it's just Ser Cullen, and Bethany is willing to take it for what it is.

And Bethany has seen him worse than this, but not by much.

(She supposes, though, that Orlesians don't really have anything on the Gallows when they were under Knight-Commander Meredith's half-mad gaze. Orlesians didn't murder twenty-seven mage children, or if they did, Ser Cullen doesn't blame himself for it. There aren't many things worse in the world, at all.)

Ser Cullen is a terrible dancer when he's uncomfortable.

"Breathe," Bethany reminds him, gentle. He's so very stiff; far too aware of the hundreds of gazes turned abruptly on the back of his neck. The tightness to his shoulders is so sharp it's painful to look at, and Bethany is reminded of the awful, wild panic that used to seize her as a child, before she'd entirely gotten a handle on her magic.

There are days when she still feels like that, of course, but it's—less so, now, in a world not cupped in the Chantry's greedy palms.

Her magic doesn't feel so much like a death sentence.

There are no more templars to make it one.

A moment of twelve later, there is a marked difference in Ser Cullen. He's concentrating on the steps and not on the shaking in her hands, Bethany thinks. The other dancers swirl past them, too busy in their own orbits to pay the pair of them any attention; a blur of silk and laughing, gilt mouths beneath porcelain masks.

Lady Lavellan is still dancing with Lady Florianne. Bethany only catches sight of the girl out of the corner of her eye, but she thinks that the Inquisitor must be absolutely exhausted.

(Andraste, that'll be half the Inquisition that needs saving. Where's Varric when you need him?)

But the Inquisitor isn't the only one that looks exhausted. Ser Cullen doesn't seem to be about to burst into tears, anymore, but there is still—there's something, although for the life of her, Bethany couldn't name it.

Loneliness, maybe.

He's very good, at loneliness.

"Have you spoken to Lady Pentaghast at all? Or Varric?"

"I have not seen anyone all evening," Ser Cullen says, perhaps a touch gloomily. "I have been—well—"

"You stood in that corner all night, didn't you," Bethany asks, but it's not really a question. At Ser Cullen's answering wince, she makes a face. "Oh, Cullen, why?"

"It kept people away."

"Even Lady Evelyn?"

"I didn't mean for her to keep away," Ser Cullen swallows hard around the words. "She's—"

"If it's any consolation, I think she's hiding from everyone," Bethany says, not unkindly. She thinks of the perfect stillness of the library, Alistair's hands on her hips and how good it had felt, how right to have him all to herself so far away from home.

Thinks, a little wryly, that Ser Cullen could use that kind of rest.

Bethany regards him for a quiet moment as they dip away from one another—the demands of the gigue lourée—and then return. Very softly, beneath her rising violin crescendo, she says, "You ought to tell her you're in love with her."

"I ought to do a lot of things," Ser Cullen says.

"But will you?"

Ser Cullen doesn't answer her. It's better than Bethany had expected; she'd expected him to outright deny it, and thank the Maker, he didn't. Progress, Alistair would say, chortling absolutely awfully because that is, unfortunately, just the way Bethany's husband is.

(It is a wonder they're friends. Honestly, poor Ser Cullen.)

The music rises up to the rafters, crests open-winged and full, glowing molten gold as the orchestra leads them through the steps.

Slowly, slowly, it fades.

And so, too, does the dance.

Ser Cullen escorts Bethany back to his corner as the last strains of notes becomes a golden fall of applause. Alistair is leaning against the wall, a very strange look on his face. Bethany tucks herself into his side with a tiny noise of deep contentment, too low for anyone else to hear.

It really always is like coming home.

Bethany tips her head up to brush her mouth against Alistair's jaw like an afterthought. She can feel the way he smiles beneath it, the pull of muscles old and familiar, and it settles in her chest glowing like an ember.

It's the little things that get them through.

But back on solid ground with nothing to distract him, already Ser Cullen is beginning to freeze up and fracture apart. His mouth is a thin white like stark in his face.

"The library's open," Alistair says, rather unexpectedly. He's staring at Ser Cullen, frowning just a little, eyebrows pulling faintly together. An intense study; Bethany wonders if Alistair sees the same thing she does. "No one will bother you there, mater. Might do you some good."

A fierce wave of affection wells up in Bethany's chest. Only Alistair. Only Alistair would look at the tightening to Ser Cullen's expression and offer the exact same thing that Bethany herself would offer in the way of relief; only Alistair would even think of it like that.

"But if something—" Ser Cullen starts, thick in the throat.

"If something happens, we'll know where to find you," Alistair cuts him off again, but it's a gentle thing, now. There's only kindness to the words, nothing sharp, nothing sarcastic. Nothing to cut. Nothing to hurt.

They're friends, too.

And… looking after one another is what friends do.

Ser Cullen shuffles his weight back and forth. There is a peripheral hovering on the edges of Bethany's awareness; a strange crowd all holding their breaths, waiting for the moment the good Commander is again alone. They want his attention, Bethany realizes; they want his attention the Bethany herself wants Alistair's attention. It might have been a bad thing, that she dragged him out to dance; now they'll never leave him alone, not now that he's proven he could.

But they likely wouldn't have left him alone, regardless.

"Are you sure no one's there?" Ser Cullen asks, deadly quiet and urgent. "Are you sure?"

"Just Cole, but he hardly counts," Alistair says, very fairly. "Maker's balls, go, would you? I'll promise we'll send your Trevelyan after you, if we see her."

Ser Cullen opens his mouth rather like a dying fish. "You—why do I find that reassuring?"

"Because he means it," says Bethany, softly, smiling at him. They're all shadow-dark in the golden spill of light from the chandeliers, shivery and shining. Alistair's palm comes up to curl at the small of her back, thumb pressing into the divot at the base of her spine.

"I—" Ser Cullen stops, pauses to inhale sharply. "Thank you."

"Why are you thanking her? It wasn't her idea."

"Because Lady Bethany is nicer to me than you are," Ser Cullen says. "That's why."

"Twat," Alistair says, extraordinarily fond.

Bethany jabs her elbow into her husband's side for the third time in what feels like an hour. There is a line, Alistair.

But it's not a line that Alistair ever bothered to pay any attention to, even when they had the excuse of being too young to know better. He blows right past it, and doesn't look back.

Ser Cullen was always more careful, that way, Bethany thinks, but at the same time—

She'll still never know what it was like, walking into the Gallows every morning, day after day, year after year, and always knowing that at any moment, if the wrong person were to find out, he would lose her. Bethany doesn't even know why Alistair bothered, when it was always such a bloody risk.

But he did, and even when the Gallows had tried to swallow him whole, he'd still found ways to come back to her.

Giving Ser Cullen an out, Bethany knows, is exactly the same thing. Alistair has an awful habit of making himself bleed so that the people he loves needn't.

Sometimes she wishes that he wasn't so painfully selfless, but there's never not a moment where she isn't grateful for it.

Ser Cullen goes, sneaking away under cover of the pale blue shadows in through the windows and the beginning of another round of the orchestra, and Bethany is left to lean against her husband in a ballroom full of Orlesians. It strikes her how intensely she adores him; it scares her, a little. Alistair makes a broken-off sound at the back of his throat.

Bethany blinks up at him.

He stares at her.

"Why are you looking at me like that?" Bethany asks.

"I didn't know you liked dancing," Alistair says, looping his arms around her, easy as breathing. "I didn't even know you knew how, Beth."

"Oh," Bethany says, blinking up at him. The strange look from before is back, now that Ser Cullen is gone and there's no one around that Alistair cares to hide himself from. There's only her, and a sea of faceless masks behind. "Mother taught all of us. I'm surprised I still remember how, honestly; I haven't had much reason to practise."

(The long Lothering winters roar. Firelight aglow crackling red-gold in the hearth, Mother clapping time, Father laughing, and the mummers come Wintersend, their minstrels and their songs. For a moment the recollection is so visceral that Bethany could be standing by the fire in the dim and dusk with the freezing winter night outside, the snow glittering and cold. The family she'd grown up with, held precious in her memory.)

Alistair chucks her chin up, so that they can look each other in the eye. "I'm sorry, love."

"What?" Bethany asks. "Why?"

"Because you clearly enjoy it, and I've two left feet."

She shakes her head. "I do, but I'd rather stand here with you than dance with someone I don't know."

"Still," he murmurs. Alistair's expression darkens, just slightly, and Bethany doesn't know, but it sticks in her craw. "I wish I'd learned."

"Mother could teach other, I'm sure," Bethany tells him. Her mother's apprentice school is half a finishing education as it is; Andraste knows that Leandra Hawke would kill a man to willingly have the chance to instruct her son-in-law (and the Inquisition's Commander, which is likely the more important bit) in social niceties. "Although I can't imagine you'd enjoy it. She is my mother."

Alistair chuckles, the sound low and drawn from deep inside his chest. It shivers over Bethany's skin, like a ripple in clear water. "I'd rather have you teach me, Beth. Sounds safer, I must admit."

"There aren't many things more dangerous," Bethany agrees. "Mari, maybe."

"Darkspawn," Alistair counters.

"Are darkspawn really worse than my sister?"

"…You make a decent argument, love."

Bethany knows that Marian could joke away all manner of things, or kill them in the absence of the joking, but there's no joking away the damned Blight. There was only running, and hoping that they didn't drown in an ocean storm, and then there was Kirkwall. There was no joking that away.

There's no joking away a hole in the sky, either.

Alistair presses his mouth to Bethany's temple. "It could be worse, you know. Can you imagine Orlesian darkspawn? Maker, what a nightmare!"

She laughs. Maker, she can't help it, Alistair's always making her laugh. "You might want to keep your voice down. Think about where we are?"

His smile becomes a little fixed. "I keep trying not to think about it, thanks, love. The last thing I want is an Orlesian war-monger on the throne."

Bethany doesn't like the possibility of it, either. She likes Ferelden, with its bitterherb resilience and its hard-won pride. Even when they go back to Kirkwall—Ferelden is still home.

Home: the wild places where a mage could hide in the Hinterlands, the forest set alight with autumn around them. Home: Liana and Carina holding court in Haven in the brilliant afternoon, the sun refracting off the snow. Home: Lothering, with its dry grass and its little Chantry and all the songs that Bethany had long thought she'd forgotten. Ferelden is many things, but all of them are empty of people and all of them are safe.

And she's certainly not the only one.

(Bethany thinks about Lady Anora, and wonders.)

The night's worn on too long. The dress is still the most beautiful thing she's ever touched and Alistair is still so handsome in black and gold that it leaves her without air in her lungs. There is a part of her, still, that revels in his nearness, in the simple openness in the regard they have for one another. She is no mage in hiding and he is not templar. They're a strikingly lovely couple in Inquisition colours, and no more.

But—

Home. Bethany wants to go home. She wants the twins and Mal within reach, the sleepy-warm comfort of knowing that her children are close enough to touch should the sky decide to tear open again.

It's happened once already. She won't put it past the sky to not happen again. Maker, but Bethany isn't that optimistic.

Or that lucky, for that matter.

Bethany tips her head up to catch Alistair's mouth for one single, shimmering split-second.

And then, in a move that would absolutely delight Bethany's older sister, Lady Lavellan comes crashing through a wall, wild-eyed and smelling of smoke, and forces the world to move forwards.

"You know, I think we work well together," Alistair says, very cheerfully for a man who just witnessed a slim elven woman decide the fate of the world's largest nation. "Up you get, Beth, there's a love."

Bethany half-stumbles into the carriage, content to let Alistair arrange her as he pleases.

Andraste, it's sad almost to the point of comedy, how she can't stay awake past twelfth toll. What sort of adult is she?

But the Fade calls, open-armed and waiting patiently in the wings. The roiling-lightning rain clouds that Bethany had stared at for so long earlier in the evening have cracked apart and begun to spill a fine, misty rain that darkens Alistair's hair to a dark golden-brown in the half-minute he's outside of the carriage.

"Are you coming, dwarf?"

"Hold your horses, Death Wish, I'll get there when I get there!"

Bethany giggles into the plush velvet seats. Varric never does anything by half. He's the only person in this entire palace that Bethany would trust to really be able to keep someone alive; not Ser Cullen. not Alistair, not even Bethany herself.

But that's the way Varric is.

She wouldn't want her sister's dwarf any other way.

When Alistair finally heaves himself into the carriage (and closes the door behind him, because he does have moments of pettiness), Bethany reaches for him without a second thought. A giddy rush of adoration pours over her when he settles down beside her without having to be asked.

"I love you," Bethany murmurs, sweet and dark as molasses.

Alistair slips himself into her cracks, folding them into one another so close that there's a hairsbreadth of space left between. He's so very gentle as he does this, nudging her forwards, left and right and up and over until Bethany is more on top of him than not, and he can hook his chin over her shoulder without a crick in his neck. They splay out in dark carmine comfort, drawing the curtains over the carriage windows for a momentary sense of privacy, and Alistair kisses her shoulder.

"The only thing I've wanted to hear all night, that."

"Mmm," Bethany hums. She wants him everywhere; she tilts her head to the side with a happy little sigh to let him put his mouth on her throat, next.

Alistair obliges her, in this.

Oh, she loves him—

Varric opens the door, grins at the pair of them draped all over one another as they are absolutely horribly, and then shouts over his shoulder, "That's four, Nightingale!"

"Merde!" comes Sister Leliana's faint reply, and then a stream of unintelligible Orlesian filth that cuts off rather abruptly when Varric settles himself on the opposite seat and kicks closed the door.

"How much money does she owe you?" Alistair asks in the same tone he'd use to ask about the weather outside, crooking an eyebrow. Bethany is too far-gone to pay this conversation the attention it deserves; she turns and tucks her face into her husband's throat.

"Enough that she's swearing about it," Varric says. He rubs his hands together, warding off the night's chill. "You two are always a good bet, and no one ever believes me."

Alistair snickers, rumbling all the way through Bethany's chest.

Oh, Maker, she could stay here forever. Tucked up against Alistair's side, warm all over, his pulse thudding away beneath her lips like keeping time. Varric's voice burbles; she can hear the crinkling of his eyes when he laughs. Or she could, except that that doesn't have a sound.

Soon they'll be moving, rattling towards the Frostbacks. Back to Skyhold.

Back to her babies.

It might have been better if they'd been able to talk quietly on the ride home, just the two of them. Bethany has so many things she needs to tell Alistair, but when doesn't she have so many things that she needs to tell Alistair?

It's never-ending.

But—

Varric makes the carriage feel like they're already home.

And that makes it survivable.

Bethany keeps her face pressed firmly into the crook of her husband's throat, and allows herself to drift.

.

.

.

.

.

tbc.