disclaimer: disclaimed
dedication: to myself. sometimes we all deserve some self-indulgent schmoop. as a treat.
notes: persephonesnow called this the Austen!AU and you know what. she's RIGHT.
notes2: galaxybrain levels of au, y'all, right here
notes3: remember me — towers x refeeld.

title: sunshine romantic
summary: Lady Bethany Hawke comes to Denerim's court. It's—well. It's something. — Alistair/Bethany, others.

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"I'm not ready, Mother!"

"Nonsense, darling, you're more than prepared. You've been prepared forever," Lady Leandra Hawke waves away her youngest daughter's concerns. "And your brother's been there a year, already. They're going to think there's something wrong with you!"

"Isn't there?!"

"Not that I'm aware of, no," Lady Leandra says, rather shrewdly. She looks Bethany over, tutting. "Sweet Andraste, you'll need a new dress, we've let this one out twice already…"

"Mother…"

"Oh, don't be ridiculous, Bethany. We've no excuse, and we shouldn't want any! Her Majesty is a very old family friend, and she'll not let anything happen to you. I promise, you needn't worry so much."

"But I—"

"That's enough, dear. I've made my decision. You're going."

"But Mother—"

"Enough, Bethany," Lady Leandra says, voice gone sharp as new steel. "It's court here, or it's court in Tevinter! You can take your pick, but it will be one of them!"

Bethany's shoulders slump. "Yes, Mother."

Lady Leandra softens, just a little. She understands, truly. Her tiny little slip of a mage daughter is scared of the entire universe, and in so many ways, rightly so; if not for Her Majesty, Lady Leandra may well have still been living in the Hinterland wilds. But thank the Maker for long reaches and longer memories, and most of all for long, long shipping agreements with the Merchants Guild.

You really only ever build yourself an empire once, Lady Leandra reflects.

"You won't be alone, my darling," Lady Leandra tells her daughter softly, as comfortingly as she can. "Carver's at court. It won't be so bad."

"But what if—Mother, the templars are—?"

"Then we'll deal with it, won't we?"

Her daughter's face falls to pieces all over again. "Yes, Mother."

"Very good," Lady Leandra claps her hands, the matter laid to rest. Her daughter will go to court, and nothing will happen, and if they are very, very lucky, Bethany will come home with more contacts than she left with. "Now, go find the seamstress, would you? We'll need to get on taking your measurements if we want it done within a fortnight—"

A new dress, new contacts for the Guild, and perhaps more new courage for her baby. Little steps, one by one.

All in good time, Lady Leandra is sure.

"I think I'm going to be sick," Bethany says, arms wrapped around her middle.

"Everyone feels that way the first time, my darling," her mother says airily. She doesn't look up from the click-click of her knitting, and so doesn't see Bethany's despair. "I did, too. Once it's over, you won't remember why you were nervous in the first place."

Everything inside of her squirms unpleasantly. Denerim is new, and big, and unnervingly unfamiliar. Bethany hasn't spent any time in Ferelden's capital; Marian had been there, before she'd run off to go heckle the Armada, but Marian isn't afraid of anything! And Carver's a boy. And normal.

It's not the same, no matter what Bethany's mother thinks!

The new dress fits like a glove. Thin, well-spun wool dyed heady indigo and trimmed silver and vermillion-dark sparkling bloodstone, the Amell crest embroidered into the wrists; it's the most eye-catching piece of clothing Bethany owns. It's nothing of Orlais or the Marches, but the wide band of well-tooled crimson leather at the waist makes her think of her older sister. It's packed away in a trunk, for now. It's not travelling clothes, too soft and expensive by far.

"People are going to stare, if I wear that."

"That's the point, Bethany, darling," Mother hums.

Bethany turns back to the window, and her stomach continues to try to eat itself. She doesn't think she's ever going to be hungry again. The carriage is a long, bumpy ride, but that's not even it, is it?

Andraste, she wants to go home.

But it's not an argument Bethany is going to win, and she's certainly aware of that fact. Mother's put her foot down. Carver is already in Denerim, squiring for Fergus Cousland because of course he is, and so to Denerim Bethany goes, to take part in court-life's ups and downs. And, fine, it's not as thought Bethany doesn't know that eventually she was going to have to be a part of it! She's not like Marian, she's not—not capable, of that. She can't run off to be a pirate, much as some days she'd like to.

Bethany, for good or ill, is her father's daughter.

"Someone's going to find out," Bethany whispers to the glass.

"No, they won't," says Mother, rather briskly. "You're doomsaying, dear. It's not becoming."

Bethany pulls the thick wool of her cloak closer around her shoulders, shivering even in the heat of floorpans. "I'm sorry, Mother, but I just…"

"I know, my love," Mother murmurs. Her lips barely move, even as the sigh that leaves her shifts Bethany in her very soul. "I know."

They're both silent for the rest of the day. The rocking of the carriage churns Bethany's stomach worse; she can't look down long enough to read or work on her stiching or anything at all. Instead, she stares out at the landscape flashing by: the shining white-capped blue of the Waking Sea disappears behind them, melding into the crimson-ochre fire of Ferelden's heart in autumn. It's early, still, the farmers out in the fields for threshing. Endless fields of wheat waving shimmer-gold in the wind stretch as far as the eye can see.

Somewhere beyond all that grain is the Waking Sea, and beyond the water is Kirkwall, and beyond that—

The world is too big to comprehend, Bethany thinks.

But still not big enough to disappear into, when there are templars on the hunt.

(Bethany bites down hard on her lip, draws blood. Mother fusses when she sees.)

It's six days travel from Storm Bay to Denerim. Bethany and her mother pass them together, sleeping and eating in turns, etiquette lessons as they watch the world go by. There's going to be bruises on Bethany's body everywhere forever, but the carriage still doesn't stop. Mother would push them farther, Bethany knows, but it's not fair to the horses. There's only so far they can go in a day.

But as the days go on, the passing towns grow larger, more sprawling. Heartland, Bethany thinks. Her lips are numb.

Denerim hovers closer, shadowed and smiling as a lover in the dark.

Gods, Maker, anyone, please

"Oh, lovely, we've made good time," Mother says, announces, straightening up, pleased with herself. "Look, darling, we'll be there in time for supper!"

Bethany chances a look out the window.

All of her breath leaves her lungs.

Cool grey stone walls loom in the distance, a thin line before a shining sea. Tiny dots bob along the horizon; ships, or people, or ships again. Buzzing, the dull roar of a hundred thousand far-away voices, and horses, and mabari braying all caught on the wind and carried right into Bethany's lap. Everything amplifies in this moment: the scratch of fur from her cloak against her jawline, the delicate weight of the Amell jewels around her neck, the faint tremble in her hands that she clasps her palms to hide.

The whispery roil of magic beneath her sternum, barely contained inside of her skin.

"I don't think I can do this, Mother," Bethany inhales the words. "I—I'm not—what if—"

"You'll be fine, Bethany."

"How do you know?!"

Mother smiles. It blossoms across her face a slow thing, perfectly content, perfectly at ease, the edges curling up with sincerity. It's like nothing Bethany has ever seen on her mother's face before in her entire life.

"I just do," Mother says, and it's so gentle. "Trust me, my darling. Have I ever led you wrong?"

Yes, Bethany wants to say.

But she can't. It's Mother. It's always Mother.

And so she doesn't.

The gates of the capital loom ever closer, open and waiting for them to pass through the throngs of people that skitter around them. Bethany swallows hard in her throat, pushes down the fear that chatters between her teeth.

Bethany sits with her hands folded neatly in her lap, shaking in her soul.

They trundle inside, and Denerim swallows them up.

"You couldn't have written?!"

"Hello, Lissy," Bethany sighs as she steps down from the carriage. "I thought you weren't supposed to be walking until after the baby?"

"What Cailan doesn't know can't hurt him," says the Queen. She shakes her hair out, dark auburn curls wild down her shoulders to the very prominent swell of her abdomen. Elissa Cousland—Theirin, Bethany reminds herself, it's been Theirin for a near year, and might as well have been for several years longer—is Bethany's oldest, dearest friend, but when she decides she has a bone to pick, she's the kind to pick it clean.

"I don't think that's how that works," Bethany tells her, because it's true.

"It is now," Elissa grins, satisfaction in the corners. "'Draste in a sea squall, it's good to see you. I didn't think you were ever going to come!"

"I didn't want to," Bethany murmurs, a little uneasy. She glances around them askance, but oddly, no one seems to be paying their Queen any attention. "Maker, have you frightened them all out of their wits?"

"You're supposed to say 'It's good to see you, too, Lissy. We both had those lessons," Elissa says. For all of her cheek, she moves more slowly than Bethany has ever seen, and without entirely thinking about it, Bethany is reaching out to steady her old friend careful.

"It's good to see you, too, Lissy," Bethany parrots, but gentle, her hand cupped around Elissa's elbow.

"Brat," says Elissa.

"Twit," says Bethany.

"I missed you," Elissa's smile wobbles a little, and then the two girls are clinging to one another, sniffling wetly into each other's hair. There's care in it, awareness of Elissa's predicament, but it's still a little too tight, a little too sharp.

"I missed you, too," Bethany whispers soddenly in reply.

Loneliness. It's a hard thing to bear.

"Some things never change, I see," Mother's voice floats down from the carriage behind them. Elissa and Bethany pull apart from one another, both surreptitiously wiping at their eyes, to find Bethany's mother hovering above them with a fond, funny little smile on her lips. "Hello, Your Majesty. It's lovely to see you. I do hope you received our regards from my daughter on your wedding? We apologize for being unable to make the date."

"It was wonderful, Lady Leandra," Elissa slips into being Queen as though she was born to it. It's very strange to watch. "Thank you so much, Hawke looked after everything."

Mother hums contentedly. "I suppose she's making up for it, now."

"Yes, I suppose she is," Elissa laughs. She tucks her arm through Bethany's, a leftover gesture from when they were children. "Lady Leandra, you wouldn't have happened to have heard from my mother, have you?"

"Oh, yes," Mother says, purses her lips. "She told me to tell you to stay off your feet, dear, but I can see that won't do any good. She'll be here in a fortnight. I think she was finishing up some paperwork for your father?"

"That does sound like her, yes," the Queen grins.

"I don't mean to interrupt," Bethany says, though she very much means to interrupt; it's better to head Elissa and her mother off before they get started, and they're already very close to it, now, "But—Lissy, where are we going to stay?"

"Oh, there's rooms made up in my wing," Elissa says easily. "Iona fixed them this morning, they ought to be done by now. We can go up and look, if you'd like?"

Bethany casts a nervous glance back at the trousseaux that Mother insisted they bring along. She'd thought it ridiculous when they left, and it only seems worse, now. Six trunks up Maker-knows-how-many stairs? "Our things…"

"Someone will bring them up," says Elissa, and then her face turns dark as she looks down at the distended state of her body. "With my bloody luck, they'll make it there faster than we will."

"Has it been that awful?"

"You don't even want to know," the Queen mutters. "I walk three steps and—"

"You know, bedrest doesn't usually mean greeting guests, 'Lissa."

"—and someone manages to come scold me for it!" Elissa turns away to glower at a very tall, very blond man who's appeared at her side so silently that Bethany startles backwards half a foot to see him. "I thought you were off with Alistair today!"

"You seemed too pleased about it; I knew you were up to something, love. We trained with Soris, instead," the man says placidly. "Maker, I'm going to have to chain you to the bed at this rate."

"You wouldn't."

"I might," he says. He inspects Elissa all over, frowning only a little. "Won't you stop? Please?"

"No!"

Bethany takes another half-step backwards. Elissa isn't even upset. She's arguing for the sake of arguing—Bethany knows that look, the little curve of the mouth, the flicker of satisfaction behind her old friend's eyes.

That's Lissy happy.

And that means that this man is King Cailan, and Bethany probably ought to say hello.

But Bethany isn't very good at people, for all that her mother has drilled the social graces into her head a hundred times over. She opens her mouth, half-uncertain of how to interject herself into this particular squabble, but before she can get there, Mother swamps over everything like a wave.

"Elissa, Cailan," Mother says, perfectly poised and yet somehow radiating noxious irritation in all directions, "Please."

Sometimes, Bethany is intensely grateful that her mother is the way she is.

This is one of those times. She'd never think to see a grown man—the king of the realm, no less—wince with her mother's admonition, but here they are. He sort of shuffles his weight back and forth, ducks his head, sighs.

"Hello, Lady Leandra," he says. "We weren't expecting you until tomorrow."

"Hmn," says Mother, which conveys entirely how she feels about that. "I need to have a word with your mothers, darling. I assume they're still in the rooms in the East Tower?"

The King has the grace to turn ruddy. "Yes, m'lady, they are."

"Excellent," says Mother. She favours Ferelden's reigning monarch with a pleased little smile and picks up her skirts. "I'll just find them, then, Your Majesty, I know my way about."

Mother has the gall to reach up to pat the King on the top of the head as she sweeps past him. It is somehow the most degrading thing that Bethany has seen in her life, and also somehow the most affectionate.

Andraste, Bethany's mother.

"They're going to kill me," the king groans into the top of Elissa's head. "Why didn't you tell me she was coming in today?!"

"Revenge," Elissa says brightly. "Why else?"

"What for?"

"You did just threaten to chain her to the bed," Bethany is compelled to point out, very quietly. She flushes when both the king and Elissa blink at her; she's used to being forgotten, likes it that way, but she can't always keep her tongue in her head. Too much Hawke in the blood, Mother likes to say. "Stop looking at me like that, you did!"

"She's not wrong."

"No, she's not," Cailan mutters, more to himself than to either Bethany or Elissa. He looks at her glazed for a moment. "Maker, I'm bad with faces, I'm so sorry. Have we met?"

"Bethany Hawke, You Majesty," Bethany finds herself dipping into a low, automatic curtsey. Maybe Mother's lessons were good for something, after all. "I—you've just been speaking to my mother."

"Oh, bloody hell, you're the littlest Hawke!"

"Uhm," Bethany blinks twice. "Yes?"

King Cailan bursts into laughter.

He laughs for a full minute, and then he laughs some more. Bethany gets the distinct sense that he'd continue laughing, except that Elissa sends a well-aimed kick at his shin. He comes up grinning, absolutely unrepentant.

"Sorry, sorry," he says, sticking a hand out to shake. "I shouldn't laugh, it's unkind of me. I just—you're nothing like your sister, are you?"

"You know Mari?" Bethany asks, perking up with surprise even as she's not sure why she's surprised. Everyone knows Marian Hawke; it shouldn't startle her so that the King does, given that Mari's off waging legal war on the Armada.

"I'm terrified of her," the king says gamely. "She's excellent drinking company, though."

He's somehow managed to get an arm around Elissa's waist. Bethany keeps expecting her friend to shove it off, but Elissa does nothing except to sink further into the embrace, seemingly content to allow the man the leeway. Bethany decides not to needle about it. It seems cruel, when it's so rare to see Lissy look so unconcernedly happy.

"She is that, I'm told," Bethany murmurs. She looks between them, biting down on the edge of her lip, shrugs a little. "We don't look much alike, you see."

"No, I don't expect you do," the king muses. He glances down at Elissa, something strange and calculating in his face for a moment before it's gone. "Are you going to be at dinner?"

"I think so, yes. My mother's…"

"Rather insistent that you come," Elissa supplies the word, lips curling up. "And so am I, for that matter. The cooks are doing something special!"

"Is that what's got Chamberlain croaking this time?" the king asks, and when Elissa merely grins prettily at him in reply, he pinches the bridge of his nose. "Maker, 'Lissa! He's been at me all day!"

"It's not my fault you weren't aware."

"It is, actually. You didn't tell me to expect guests."

"Bethy's not a guest," Elissa says, very smug. "She's family."

Bethany flushes all over again, and contemplates hiding behind her hair. Ducking her head seems a fair compromise. "You needn't go to any trouble, Lissy," she murmurs. "I'm probably just going to fall asleep. It's been a very long journey."

"And make me miss Carver sobbing into his sword when he sees you? Don't you dare," Elissa gasps. "I've been looking forward to it for a week!"

A tiny little laugh escapes between them, brightening out into the open air of the courtyard. Bethany shrugs at the king, helpless in the face of the sudden swell of affection for the woman between them.

Elissa never changes. Thank the Maker for that.

"Can I at least wash up, first?" Bethany asks. "Please?"

"If you must, you must," Elissa grants. "Come on, let's go face the stairs."

Bethany wears the dress.

It takes a servant helping her to lace the stays to get it to sit right, but once it's on, it's not—not as terrible as it could be. The fine wool falls smoothly about her hips, weighed down by the bloodstone and the heavy whorls of embroidery. It cost half a fortune, but Mother always does seem to have half a fortune to spare.

She looks at herself in the mirror, and finds a dark-eyed Chasind witchgirl looking out of the glass.

"No one's going to know," Bethany tells her reflection. Lightning crackles behind her lips. "How could they?"

The belief is bitter as ashes in her mouth, but the witchgirl in the mirror smiles her reply. Her eyes are hazy-smoke-brown but kind, the way Father's used to be, before everything. The dark length of her hair falls down her back in long, loose spirals that shine in the flicker of the candlelight.

Bethany hardly recognizes herself.

But Mother will approve.

And so Bethany takes a sharp, fortifying breath, and makes herself scarce.

Denerim's Imperial Palace is a right maze. Bethany doesn't know how her mother manages to get them down to the hall without getting lost, but Mother is Mother, and so perhaps this ought not be such a surprise. Mother leads them through the wending halls with the refined confidence of someone who's done this so many times it would be an insult to think that she couldn't.

"This way, darling," Mother says. She waves Bethany forwards toward a pair of rather impressive oaken door that she pushes through with nary so much as a second glance.

A roar of sound nearly flattens Bethany to the back wall.

"Mother, I—"

"Bravery, darling," Mother says. She glances over her shoulder at Bethany, lips crooked into a smile that would make Bethany's older sister proud. "Be brave."

And then Mother walks into the crowded hall and leaves Bethany behind.

Bravery, Bethany thinks, is so hard.

But she picks up her skirts and follows her mother, because what else is there? The hall is hot and close, lit with the flicker of a thousand candles and another hundred hearths besides, laughter loud over the braying of mabari, the spill of mead, the screech of wood against stone.

From across the hall, a voice rings out.

"Bethany! There you are! Come sit!"

The very pregnant Queen of Ferelden stands from the dais, and waves.

A ripple of murmurs breaks across the crowd. It can't always be like this, can it? People ought to always be coming and going, there's no reason for them to stare as they are! Bethany chances a glance upwards, and catches the flash of pure, unmitigated glee across Elissa's face. She's on the other side of the room, but she's nearly wriggling with delight as she tracks the spread of whatever it is that she's put in motion.

Oh, Andraste. That's not good.

Eyes on her shoulders.

"—ethany Hawke, daughter of Lady Leandra Hawke of Storm Bay and Kirkwall, sister of Lady High Admiral Marian Hawke—"

It's nothing that Bethany hasn't heard before, but it's one thing to have heard it before, and another to have two hundred pairs of eyes on her as she tries not to trip over the hem of her dress while someone's shouting about who she's related to and how.

Panic wells in Bethany's throat.

(Don't freeze, don't freeze, don't freeze!)

She'll never know how she does it, but Bethany succeeds in making her way through the hall without ruining the family name or her dress or any number of the other twelve things she could have ruined on the walk. The edges of her vision are a little dark, and she can't breathe, and if one more person stares at her she's going to die, but—

Bethany collapses at Elissa's side. Her voice cracks. "Don't ever do that to me again, Lissy. That was horrible."

"You're fine," Elissa smiles out of the corner of her mouth. "It's out of the way, now, isn't it? They know who you are. They'll leave you alone."

Bethany manages a dying sound at the back of her throat. Maker, she'd give anything for some sand to bury her head in, or a pillow to scream into, or a goblet of wine to take the edge off, but—not wine, not tonight. Never, really. Witches and wine is a bad combination, in Bethany's estimation. It never leads anywhere good. She tucks her trembling palms beneath her thighs, and wills herself to calm down.

"Says you," Bethany says, a little shakily.

"Here, eat something, you'll feel better," says Elissa, not unkindly. She pushes a bowl of something steaming in Bethany's direction like an apology.

Bethany takes it, because what else is there?

It's good, though, when she sips at it. A thick and creamy stew, hearty with clams. Savoury, vaguely spicy. It tastes like the chowder that the cook would make on stormy nights when they were small, Elissa and Carver and Bethany herself up too late listening to Marian and Fergus trying to spook one another with ghost-tales. The memory washes over her like sand and surf between her toes, and it warms her from the inside out.

She allows herself a tiny little smile. It smothers down the fire burning behind her ribs.

"Bethany, you've met Cailan—"

"If you want to call that meeting, love, I suppose you can—" the king interjects.

Elissa ignores the man grinning horribly at her side completely, "—but you don't know anyone else, do you?"

Bethany shoots her friend a look from beneath her eyelashes. Elissa well knows that Bethany doesn't know anyone else, and she knows well why, too. What are you planning, Lissy?

Nothing, says Elissa's wide-eyed innocence. Nothing at all! Why would you think I'm planning something?

This is a lie, Bethany is nearly certain. She shifts a little, pulling herself in close like a shield, fiddling with the edge of the table-covering. Elissa spent far too much time with Mari for Bethany to believe anything out of her mouth when she gets like this, because it's precisely the same way her older sister gets when she's plotting. "I haven't really had the time, yet."

"Mmm," the queen hums. "You really should have someone show you the castle. I can't, obviously—" and here, she pauses to glare down at her stomach, "—but you'll get lost if you don't. It's a bit of maze, this place."

"It can't be worse than Highever?"

"You'd be surprised," Elissa says. She drops an elbow to the table to rest her chin against, staring into space, drawing pictures in the air with her spoon for long moments. "I don't know—Cailan, can you get Alistair's attention for me?"

"I could, but I think you broke him, 'Lissa," the king says under his breath, threaded through with laughter. "You're going to owe me a sovereign."

"When have I ever owed you a sovereign?" Elissa's lips curl.

The King bends over to whisper something in her ear that makes Elissa laugh, low and molasses-sweet, cut with clean orange-citrus zeal. It sounds like her I've made a bet laugh; Maker knows that Bethany has heard that one more than once in her life.

It never bodes well for anyone involved.

Bethany drinks her soup, instead.

And the evening goes on.

"Who do you know?"

Bethany chances a glance up at Elissa. The Queen taps her spoon against her mouth, silver-slick shine of metal in the hearthglow. There doesn't seem to be an undercurrent to it, as there so often is.

"You'd be better off asking who I don't know," Bethany says, softly. She hasn't recognized a single face in the hall, yet. It's rather unnerving. "Then the answer would just be everyone."

"Spoil my fun, why don't you," sighs Elissa.

"I didn't mean to?"

The queen laughs, very softly. "I know you didn't, Bethy. You never do."

That's true, at least. Bethany drops her head to rest very briefly against Elissa's shoulder. The Queen of Ferelden isn't the most affectionate person, but there's something very fond in the line of her mouth when she gently bumps her shoulder against Bethany's cheek.

Acknowledgement.

It's as good as affection, coming from Lissy.

And so Bethany's first introduction to the Prince of Ferelden goes like this:

It's late, and the fires have begun to burn low. There's a slow shift in the air as the Court's inhabitants slide from eating to conferring to bed; they begin to rise and slip away into the gathering dark, paying their respects to their monarchs with dipped heads as they go.

King Cailan leans around his wife to tap Bethany gently on the shoulder. The frankness of the touch startles her; for an awful second, she tastes lightning behind her lips.

But the king's smile is kind. "You alright?"

"I-I—yes, I'm fine, I'm sorry," Bethany flushes high in her cheeks. "Lost in thought, that's all."

This isn't entirely a lie. As Elissa has sunk deeper and deeper into the king's side, Bethany has found herself more and more without a diversion. What she'd said to the queen early in the evening is also certainly not a lie; she doesn't know anyone, and watching the Court interact only goes as far as the Court remains close-by to watch. Lord Fergus and Lady Oriana seem to have eschewed evemeal, and Bethany knows how her twin is. If Carver doesn't have to be at a party, he won't be. That leaves only Mother—whom Bethany has still not seen once since the beginning of the night—and the queen herself, who is currently almost the entire way asleep in the circle of the king's arms.

"I'm going to take her to bed," the king says, simple and quiet. He glances down at the top of Elissa's head, very fond with it. "She gets snappish when she doesn't get enough sleep."

"I don't," comes Elissa's predictably-snappish protest, muffled into King Cailan's shoulder.

The king raises his eyebrows at Bethany. She does, says that look.

Bethany can't help the smile in reply.

(Andraste, she never thought she'd see the day. Elissa Cousland, content to let someone else carry her weight. It's—good, somehow, Bethany thinks. To see her friend this happy. Lissy doesn't really allow herself happiness. Not like this, anyway.)

Elissa mutters something that Bethany can't hear into the king's ear.

King Cailan frowns. "What? Maker, 'Lissa, no, that'll break him for sure!"

Bethany has no idea what on the Maker's green earth they're talking about. The king and queen go back and forth like this for a few more minutes, King Cailan's frown growing deeper, and Elissa's half-hidden smirk growing wider with every breath.

Finally, the king sighs.

(It sounds like someone relenting.)

"Oi, Alistair, mate, I need a favour," the king says over his shoulder. It carries strangely; the entire feasthall doesn't fall silent, but the high tables feels as though it does. The clatter of cutlery and plates and tankards of ale, and the laughter that accompanies it, is very far away.

The man sitting at Cailan's right has been quiet all evening. The resemblance between them in is stark, now that she looks at them together; the long face is the same, the wide shoulders. But his hair shades closer to golden-brown, and his eyes are the colour of the aged Chasind mead that Bethasny's father used to love, honey-dark. There's something about his mouth that hints at a crooked grin, a very strange sense of humour. He looks like what late-summer-fading-autumn would look like, if it were a person, and just about that good-looking.

You've a kind face, Bethany thinks idly.

He blinks at them. "I—shite, what'd I miss?"

"Could you take Lady Hawke back to the gest wing? I would, but—" here, the king pauses, tilts his head down to stare pointedly at his snoozing wife, "—'Lissa."

"She'll get lost," says Elissa, sleepily into the king's shoulder. "It's a maze, you know it is."

"You don't need to, I'm sure I'll be—" Bethany starts.

"No, it's fine," the man says, shakes his head. "You'll—" and here he pauses to look at her. Bethany finds herself the recipient of a very strange once-over that leaves her a little dizzy for its intensity, and even more-so for the way that it strikes her that he isn't much older than she herself is.

"Finish the sentence, mate, you can do it," says the king, not unkindly, which snaps them both out of it.

"I, er," he says, looks at Bethany again. Reddens. "I—don't remember."

Elissa hides her face in King Cailan's shoulder entirely. Bethany has a sudden, horrible sneaking suspicion that her old friend is much less exhausted than she's putting on to be. That would be just like Lissy.

"Taking Lady Hawke back to her rooms?" prompts King Cailan. He's grinning like a child with a sweet. "Come on, Alistair, think it through."

(Oh, Maker, the king and Elissa suit one another. That's what this is. They're a nightmare, and they're right for each other!)

"Right," he—Alistair—says. "That. Are you, er, done?"

Bethany blinks down at the empty bowl of soup still sitting in front of her. Bites down on her lip. Andraste, she hates being an inconvenience. "Yes."

Elissa makes a great show of dragging her face away from the crook of King Cailan's neck. She squints between them. "Bethany, this is Cailan's brother, Alistair. Don't let him fool you into thinking he's an idiot, he's not."

"Hey!"

There are layers to this conversation that Bethany isn't nearly prepared to parse apart. She hitches up an uncertain smile for Elissa's benefit. "It really isn't a problem, I'm sure I'll be fine?"

Elissa goes on as though she hasn't heard either of them. "Alistair, this is Lady Bethany Hawke. Don't scare her off, it took me weeks to convince her mother to bring her to court."

"I, er, I got that, actually—"

"Good!" says Elissa, entirely triumphant and entirely exhausted. It's not the best combination that Bethany's ever seen on her, and her friends eyes are slits, they're so close to being closed. "Now, shoo. Off with you. Go!"

"Lissy—?"

Elissa, in all of the Maker-given grace in the world, plants her face right back in King Cailan's shoulder and, for all purposes and appearances, goes right back to sleep.

The king, his brother, and Bethany all stare uncomfortably at one another. Elissa huffs contentedly.

(It's very difficult to get a word in edgewise in an argument when half of the arguing party has decided that sleeping is far more interesting than arguing. It's a tactic that Bethany is full-fair certain that Elissa picked up from watching Bethany's older sister argue with their mother—argue with anyone, really—and it's one that always, always works. What's the point in arguing if one is just going to do whatever they please regardless?)

Bethany bites down on her lip, chews until it hurts. "I don't mean to be a bother."

"You're not," the prince says. He crooks an eyebrow at her, just like he'd crook a smile. "We might as well. Fancy a walk?"

"If you insist."

Alistair laughs out of the corner of his mouth. "Come on, then."

Bethany follows the prince out of the feasthall. He's very careful never to get too far ahead of her; his every step is measured with the awareness that he has nearly a foot of height on her. He keeps tossing concerned glances over his shoulder at her every third pace or so, as though to make sure he hasn't lost track of her.

It's altogether too sweet of him.

As they slip further out of the hall into the quiet of the rest of the castle, Bethany can't say which of them exhales the sigh of relief so loud to be audible.

"I hate these things," Alistair mutters, shaking his head. "Right bloody nightmare."

"Are they always like that?" Bethany asks. She hadn't realized how heavy the weight of all those hazes had gotten to be. No wonder Carver hadn't shown his face; he'd have hated it.

"Sometimes they're worse, and I have to talk to people."

"Oh," Bethany says. "Is this why Lissy said not to let you convince me you're a fool? Because you don't sound like a fool, but I suppose if you hate talking to people…"

"Ouch."

"Would you have done?"

The Prince of Ferelden tilts his head down to survey Bethany's face. He looks at her for an uncomfortably long moment, a passive sort of thing that she doesn't have a name for. Invasive, except that it isn't.

"Might have," he acknowledges, finally. "Ruined it by warning you, though, didn't she."

Bethany shrugs. "If it's all the same, I think I'd prefer your honesty, messere. Getting back to bed's going to be enough of a trial, as it is."

"I can walk you back, if you want?" he asks, hesitant. It's very quiet in the corridor, away from the din of the feasthall. "They weren't messing about, it can be a maze if you haven't spent time in it."

Bethany blinks up at him. "You really don't have to. I'm sure you've got better things to do?"

"I—I think I'd like to?"

"Oh," Bethany says. Her cheeks burn, and she's fervently glad for the gloom. It's not any sort of proper that they're here alone. "Uhm, well then, yes? I'd appreciate it, thank you, messere. I-I don't actually know where I'm supposed to be going. My mother led me down, earlier, and I've no idea where she's got to."

"It's like that for the first while. And you can call me Alistair," he grins at her. "It's a little more personal than 'messere'."

"Alistair," she tries the name out. It rolls cleanly off her tongue. "You're very strange, for a prince."

"I try," he says, curled up warmly like a sweet. "What shall I call you then, my lady?"

"Does it matter? I think the entire court knows my name, now," Bethany sighs. "Andraste's pyre, she's put a bloody target on my back."

"That's not really an answer," Alistair points out.

"Oh, fine, be like that. It's Bethany," she says, smiles up at him. "My name's Bethany."

He looks a bit like someone's clubbed him 'round the ears for a moment where he just blinks sort of dazedly at her. Bethany can feel the flush crawling from her cheeks down her neck; she's glad for the obscuring fall of her hair.

"What?" she asks. "Did I say something funny?"

"No, I—nothing like that, sorry," Alistair says. He shakes himself of the quiet, and then grins decidedly charming. "Ignore me. Most people do and they're better for it!"

Bethany catches herself biting down on a bubble of laughter. "I don't think I can ignore you if you're walking me back to my rooms. Wouldn't that be unforgivably rude?"

"Maybe a little," he says. But he offers her his elbow, all the same.

Laughter burbles in her mouth. Bethany sets her fingers in her crook of his arm, the picture of Marcher poise but for the giggling still spilling out of her. Alistair makes a face and she giggles harder, a cracked jug leaking golden light, breathing easy for the first time all evening.

It doesn't subside until they're well and truly on their way, lost in the bowels of the castle.

"It all looks the same," Bethany says, eventually, as they turn a corner and make their way up another set of stairs. "How do you ever know where you are?"

Alistair grins crookedly. "Would you believe me if I said Cailan still gets lost?"

"Not a chance," Bethany laughs. "What sort of king gets lost in his own castle?"

"He's about as good a king as I am a prince, if we're being honest," he tells her. "Oh, look, we're here. This is it, isn't it?"

Bethany blinks at a familiar door. It's the same brassy handle that she'd pushed open nearly half a day ago, but she doesn't have a single clue as to how on earth they got back. Maker, she needs to pay better attention; her mother would be so disappointed.

"Yes," tumbles out of Bethany's mouth unbidden. "I—thank you, Alistair. I'd never have found my way back on my own."

"It's not a problem. I'll, ah, I can come get you for breakfast in the morning?"

"I'm sure it's better in daylight," Bethany says. She tucks her hands behind her back, glad for the solidity of the wood behind her. It takes her weight without even a creak of protest. "You must have better things to do. I don't want to impose."

"Elissa might kill me if I let you off on your own?"

Bethany bites down on her lip. He's not wrong; Elissa never took well to not having her orders followed through to the letter. But at the same time—

Andraste, he's the prince.

(She has a vague notion that people don't often turn down the chance to spend time with monarchs. There's something in that, she's sure.)

"Are you sure it wouldn't be a bother?"

"Of course not!"

"Then I'd—I'd quite like to go down to the docks, tomorrow," Bethany says, slowly. "Carver might not have the time to take me, and my mother'll have a fit if I try to go on my own. I hate to ask, but if you're not too busy, Alistair, would you mind…?"

"What time?"

"I'm sorry?"

"What time do you want to go?" Alistair coughs a little. His ears are faintly red even in the torchlight. "After noonmeal?"

"That sounds perfect! But I—" and here, Bethany has to cut herself off. She fiddles with the cuff of her sleeve. "Are you sure it's not going to get you in trouble, Alistair?"

"Positive," Alistair says, grinning. "You worry too much, Beth."

"Only fools are positive," Bethany says, prim. "Maybe you don't worry enough."

Something about the way she says it makes him smile. Alistair's gaze goes very soft and oddly—familiar, though Bethany couldn't say when she's ever had anyone look at her quite like this, before.

"You might have a point," Alistair murmurs. He reaches up and, for a moment where she entirely loses the ability to breathe, Bethany thinks that he's going to tug affectionately on a wild curl.

But he doesn't, and Bethany figures out how to draw in air, again.

Alistair puts his hand on the doorknob behind her, gently clicks open the door. He's still so close, too close, and if anyone were to see them like this—

"You'll be free of me in a minute," Alistair says, grinning crookedly. "It was good to meet you, Beth. I'll see you in the morning."

Suddenly, Bethany doesn't quite care what anyone might think. In fact, she's having a bit of difficulty stringing a coherent thought together, and she hasn't a clue why. It's all she can do to smile shyly up at him and shrug. "You don't have to."

"I want to," says Alistair, still grinning. If anything, he's gotten worse about it. Bethany thinks, a little faintly, that her face might be on fire.

"Thank you for walking me back," she says, very softly.

"Any time," he says.

"Goodnight, Alistair."

"Goodnight, Bethany," he says.

And with a last, tremulous little smile, Bethany slips inside, and closes the door behind her.

"Mother," Bethany, as soon as the door is locked behind her (and only a little strangled), says, "I think there's something wrong with me."

Mother, predictably, does not treat this with the gravitas it deserves. She doesn't look up from the needlework in her lap. "Did you have a good evening, darling?"

"I—I don't know?"

At this, Mother carefully sets aside the knitting. She looks Bethany up and down, and then makes her way over to her youngest daughter's side.

"If your brother's to be believed, you spent the entire night making eyes at the prince," Mother says, very lightly. "He came up all in a huff and demanded I take you home this instant!"

Bethany gapes. "I did not! And how would Carver know? He wasn't even there, Mother!"

Mother laughs. "Even if you had done, darling, I'd still have told him no. He was being unreasonable; you know how your brother gets. Now, tell me. Did you have a good evening, or not?"

Colour suffuses Bethany's cheeks all over again. It's not often that she catches her mother in this mood: the soft dreaminess had nearly died with Bethany's father, and peeks out from behind her mother's eyes only rarely.

"Yes, I did," Bethany admits, very softly. "It's good to see Lissy again. She seems… happier, somehow?"

"Falling in love does that to a person," Mother agrees. She moves around to Bethany's back, a brush in hand. "I never thought I'd see the day, but His Majesty is good for her."

"He does seem to match her," Bethany says. Her mother unworks the tangles in the curls with slow, smooth strokes.

"And what your brother said about His Highness?"

"I didn't, Mother, really! But Alistair is—he's lovely? He offered to walk me back," says Bethany, lulled into sleepy honesty. She leans droopily into her mother's side. "Carver had already left, the prat."

"Language, darling," says Mother, absently, like an afterthought. "Do you still want to go home?"

"Yes," Bethany says, because she does.

Mother laughs. "I'm terribly sorry to disappoint you, darling, but we'll be here a little while, yet.

"Why?" Bethany cranes her neck back to stare at her mother curiously. The gentle tug of horse bristles through her curls is a hypnotic thing, and Bethany finds herself leaning into it without meaning to. "I don't understand."

Mother hums. "It would be very rude, darling."

Underlying this is something else that Bethany hears only because she's looking for it: Court here or Court in Kirkwall, my little love; your pick.

Which is just like Mother, isn't it.

After a long moment, Bethany swallows down her trepidation. "He's—the prince is very kind, Mother."

"Oh?" says Mother. The brushstrokes remain long, perfect and even in the firelight.

"He walked me back."

"Did he?"

Bethany nods, slow. "He said he'd take me down to the docks tomorrow, although I suppose he's only doing it to be polite. I think Lissy probably threatened him into it, but it's still—it's still nice of him?"

Mother is quiet for a long moment that Bethany isn't entirely sure how to interpret. Mother gets quiet like this when she's unhappy, too, but there's no saltwater grief hanging in the air.

There's only the crackle of the fire, and her mother's silent contemplation.

"Give him a chance, darling," Mother says, at last. "I think he's trying his best."

"I just don't see why he would," Bethany murmurs.

Mother bends down to kiss the top of Bethany's head, like an old secret. It was something she'd done often when Bethany was a child; the only one of Leandra Amell's offspring not to outgrow her.

"We always have difficulty seeing what we are, darling," Mother says. She smooths her hands over Bethany's curls. "Sometimes, other people see us better than we see ourselves."

"But I shouldn't," Bethany says.

"Shouldn't you?"

"Mother, that makes no sense!"

And Mother laughs again, but it's soft, now, strangely bitter-edged.

"No," says she. "No, I suppose it doesn't."

The morning light filters in gauzy-pale and bleary. It's early, still; the wharfgulls and the seabirds haven't yet started their morning scream. But the sun is rising, and pale grey dawn edges its way into full daylight.

Bethany ducks under the covers to shut it out.

The air doesn't smell right.

It doesn't smell like home.

But Bethany can hear Mother moving in the other room, the sshh-sshh of slippered feet shuffling over stone. It won't be long, now; once Mother's up and about, the day begins. Whether that's to lessons or helping with the gardens or preparing for harvest, there's always something to do.

It strikes Bethany that the days are going to be very long, without the work.

But, funnily enough, the do seem to go on.

"Hi," Alistair says. He grins at her, bright-eyed with the afternoon brisk and the watery sunshine floating through the air. "Are you ready to go? You've eaten something, haven't you?"

Bethany nods, suddenly shy.

(Maker, she knows how this is going to look.)

But it's a gorgeous morning, clear and cloudless, the sky a perfect endlessly blue dome around the world. The salt off the ocean gets into everything, and Alistair's still grinning at her, and there's nerves fluttering in her stomach loudly enough that she thinks the Maker must be able to hear them.

Alistair offers her his elbow.

"You're very courtly for someone who seems so silly, did you know," is out before Bethany quite realizes what she's said. She claps a hand over her mouth, eyes wide. "O-oh, Andraste, I'm sorry, I didn't mean it like that!"

"I've been called worse things," Alistair says, very fairly. He peers at her, peers at his elbow still unclasped. "Should I not?"

"No, I-I—it's very kind of you?" Bethany flushes a little. "I'm not used to it, that's all. No one's ever offered."

"Never?" Alistair blinks at her. "Ever?"

"No. Who would have done? Storm Bay isn't very big, you know. And the sailors wouldn't talk to me, I was Lady Hawke's daughter."

"But you're—" Alistair cuts himself off with a visible little shake, as though he wanted to argue with one of the simple facts of Bethany's life over their rudeness. Instead, he offers her his elbow again, crooks an eyebrow and a grin. "I'll be the first, then. Will you walk with me, Lady Beth?"

"You can't call me Lady if you won't let me call you messere!"

"Why not?"

"You're royalty! It's rude!"

"Barely," says Alistair.

"Barely, Your Highness?"

"Oh, Maker, alright, please don't do that," Alistair manages, makes a face like he's swallowed something sour. "I get that enough from everyone else 'round here, I don't need it from you, too."

Bethany smiles up at him, entirely unrepentant. "You'll survive, I think."

Alistair heaves a very great sigh. "You're going to insist, aren't you? Maker. If my mother overhears and yells, you'd best promise you'll tell her it was your idea!"

"Of course? It was my idea?"

"No, I mean—you know what, never mind, I'm just going to look like an idiot," Alistair shakes his head more to himself than to her. He catches her eye and he grins, charming and crooked. "Walk with me, Beth?"

Bethany sets her fingers delicately in the crook of his elbow, smiles up at him so warmly that the patchy Harvestmere sun doesn't seem so thin. "I'd love to, Alistair."

It's a long walk down to the docks. Nearly on the other side of the city, in fact; hours away on foot, through Denerim's twisted labyrinth of alleys and haphazard cobbled streets. The day is warm, but not warm enough to be out for that long. And Mother would throw a fit if she found out that Bethany had been out in the city's heart without a single guard, her arm tucked through the Prince of Ferelden's or not.

But Alistair doesn't seem the sort to miss something so pressing.

And Bethany's not called it wrong, either. Alistair tugs her gently towards the carriage-house. There are calluses on his palms. She couldn't say why she notices; they're sword-calluses, near the same kind Carver has but spaced slightly different.

It's oddly reassuring, somehow.

She might not have her stave (and she might still be pretending to be normal—Maker, please, be normal, be normal—for all that normal definitely out of her grasp), but at the very least, Alistair probably won't get killed in broad daylight.

Bethany would never hear the end of it if he did, she's sure.

(She might not be able to forgive herself for it, either, which is something else entirely.)

But the ships—the ships make it feel like home.

They bob along the horizon, billowing white sails like puffy little clouds against the sky. The air is salt and crisp, bitter with fishmeal and rust; acrid on the back of her tongue but perfect for it, anyway. Late autumn nips frost along her ankles, threatening winter already; thank the Maker, it's such an unadorned carriage that brought them down, they might be anyone—a merchant couple, perhaps, come to sound out their next shipment of goods in from the Marches, which, in Bethany's case, is so close to being true that it almost isn't a lie at all.

Either way, no one pays them any mind.

Bethany beams up at Alistair. "Will you come with me down to the water?"

"Maker, please don't fall in?"

She laughs outright, the bright clear sound of it ringing out over the ocean. "It wouldn't do me any good, so I'll try to keep dry. Besides, my mother would kill me if I ruined this dress."

"And mine would kill me, so let's just avoid that, shall we?" Alistair shakes his head. He keeps a very tight grip on Bethany's elbow, tucking her solidly into his side.

"You're not going to lose me, you know," Bethany says, still laughing a little.

(Alistair is very warm, Bethany finds. She doesn't want to admit how nice it is, not having to worry about hands chapped from the seabreeze and the cold. She might not even have to magic them back to normal when she gets home! The thought isn't an awful one; Bethany isn't a very good healer.)

"With my luck, I might," mutters Alistair. "Stay close, Beth."

As though that would even be a hardship. Bethany tugs him forwards into the raucous bustle of the docks as they prepare for the coldest months. There are people everywhere; dockworkers and shiphands and three separate harbourmasters all shouting at one another, over the creaking of the old weathered wood beneath their feet.

"You're really—you really enjoy this, don't you," Alistair says, as he blinks down at her, halfway to amazed.

"I wouldn't have wanted to come if I didn't," Bethany tips her head. She shrugs. "The docks are usually as close as I get to swimming."

"You don't know how to swim?" Alistair asks.

"I never really learned, no," Bethany smiles a little bit rueful out of the corner of her mouth. "I was too busy with lessons. And I think Mother blames the swimming for—well, for my sister being my sister?"

Alistair crooks an eyebrow. "How?"

"Mother thinks if Mari had never learned to swim, she wouldn't be a pirate, now."

"She's not technically a pirate, Beth, she's got a letter that says she's allowed—"

"The Armada hates her," Bethany points out, which is true. The Armada does hate Mari. "She's a pirate, and she's a problem for everyone she meets. No letter's going to change that!"

Alistair snickers. "You've rather strong feelings about this."

"You're not the one who has to put up with her coming home and making all the servants fall in love with her," Bethany huffs out. "And then she leaves, and they all cry at me! What am I supposed to do about it?"

The snickering turns into laughter outright.

Whatever Bethany was about to say strangles itself to a gruesome death in her throat.

Oh.

Alistair Theirin is lovely when he laughs. Bethany has to duck her head, shrink back into her hair, so that he doesn't catch sight of the bright red that's suffused her cheeks. It's silly! She's being silly. It's just a laugh. There's no reason to—melt, or whatever awful little wibble her heart happens to have decided on! It doesn't help anyone!

"Does that happen often?" Alistair asks, still grinning.

"Twice a year like clockwork when she comes home," Bethany sighs, glum. "You'd think they'd learn?"

"Nah," says Alistair. He slows, a little, as they come 'round the smaller wharfs to the big berths, where the ocean ships come in. "We can only live in hope?"

"That's true," Bethany murmurs. She cranes her neck back, staring up at the heady rise of the masts. "Wow."

"It makes you feel small, doesn't it?"

Bethany hums her agreement. Sometimes the world is too big for things as inarticulate as words. She thinks of her magic, curled contentedly in her chest and shimmering blue-green, just waiting for her grip. Bethany loves the sea because it would kill her all the same, and it wouldn't be personal.

The templars could learn a thing or two, she thinks.

"You could stay here all day, couldn't you," says Alistair. It's not a question.

Bethany dimples at him. "If you let me, yes."

"She's going to be the death of me," Alistair raises his eyes to the sky. He inhales, but it doesn't sound put-upon. If anything, it sounds pleased.

"I—Alistair, really, if you want to go back to the castle, you can—"

"No, I want to stay," he says. He grins at her, crooked and wickedly unfair. "C'mon, Beth, we ought to find something to eat, and then we can go explore."

She thinks, as she allows Alistair to lead her back to solid ground:

If anyone's going to be dying here, it's going to be me dying of you!

Sometimes, Bethany wanders.

When she's pricked her fingers to bleeding on her needlework and too frustrated to continue, and Elissa is busy being queen, and Mother's being annoying, and Carver's busy squiring, and Alistair's busy—doing whatever it is that Alistair does when he's not making her laugh, Bethany wanders. The Imperial Palace is, as she was warned, as close to a maze as any place she's seen. But there's a certain logic to it, Bethany's found, in that as soon as she stopped trying to remember how to get from one bit of the castle to another, she manages to find her way there without trying. A strange magic, but an easy one.

And so she wanders.

The library, maybe. It's always quiet, and there are enough little nooks to hide away in that no one will find her before supper. Bethany thinks very idly about how nice it would be to read for a bit, and rather expects to find herself deposited in front of the library's tall oak doors.

The hallways seem to twist as she walks through them, just as the always.

But it's not the library that Bethany finds herself blinking at.

It's the training yards.

Curiosity pushes her forwards. She's only been here once, to fetch Carver for Mother, and she'd not been quite at this angle; she looks down into the yards, the stone of the balustrade solid and pearl-grey beneath her hands. How in the Maker's name she got to the open-air yards is a mystery, but it's not something she's going to dwell on. Bethany knows very well that she'll just drive herself mad trying to figure it out; magic is as magic does.

Bethany peeks over the balustrade, and finds herself blinking, rather confoundedly, at the top of the Prince of Ferelden's head.

She's never seen anyone use a polearm in her life.

Not like this, at any rate; the blade slices through the air shining and silver, a whistling death in its wake. It's a starkly elegant thing, all gleaming violence with nothing but clean force behind the movement, unencumbered by overhandling. Bethany gets the sense that even Carver wouldn't find anything to criticize, and her twin has a very a standard.

Alistair is very good; it's lovely to watch.

Bethany sinks down a little between the balustrade's block-cut teeth, content to be unseen. She thinks she could probably watch him all day and not tire of it.

And then Alistair takes his shirt off.

Bethany makes a sound like a mouse being trod on.

Not nearly loud enough to be heard down in the yards, but she still ducks down behind the stone on instinct. Maker, what if he sees? Bethany doesn't think she's ever going to be able to look him in the eye ever again!

It's—he's—

Oh, Andraste.

It's not as though she's never seen a man without a shirt. Carver used to walk 'round without a shirt on all the time, flexing at the mirrors; the sailors who docked in the bay were salt-soaked and tanned to deep craggy lines in the face, as though they didn't have time for clothing like the rest of the world when they were out on the water. Just a body, really!

Alistair is—not either of those things.

Alistair is beautiful.

There are constellations of freckles across his shoulders, just a shade darker than the bronze of his skin; if she were closer, she might trace lines between them, fractals of ink in whispers and whorls, stories beneath her fingertips that she doesn't yet know—

"You could have picked worse, I guess."

Bethany startles out of the fuzziness to find her twin brother squinting between her and Alistair, down below. "I—Carver, what are you doing here?"

"Right now, I'm watching you make cow eyes at the prince?"

"I'm not—" Bethany has to cut herself off, because he's not exactly wrong, is he. She is making cow eyes at the prince. "Oh, stop laughing, you look like Mari!"

"I'm not laughing," Carver says. He plops himself down more comfortably beside her, although Bethany couldn't say how, because her twin grew up far too big for regular things like doors and longswords and sitting on the ground. His legs stick out, shoulder at an odd angle as he shrugs, discomfited. "I mean it. You could have picked worse."

"I didn't mean to pick anyone at all," Bethany confesses in a whisper.

"You were always going to, though," Carver says, as though this is a foregone conclusion as far as he's concerned. "You're Mother's only hope, and you know it. Mar's horrible, obviously, so she'd be the worst."

"What about you?"

Carver goes perfectly still all over. He takes a slow, dark breath. "I don't think I'm cut out for it, either."

Bethany drops her head to his shoulder.

It's a quiet solidarity, because she understands.

Oh, Maker, she understands.

"Honestly, I don't think you could have picked better, now I think about it," Carver says, slowly, after a moment. He drops his head back, squints at the sky. "If anyone could get away with marrying you, it'd be a prince."

"And there's Lissy, too."

"I was trying not to think about that whole mess, thanks."

Bethany giggles. "Still think she's frightening, do you?"

"Have you met her?!" Carver shakes his head, flabbergasted. "She's mental and her husband's just as awful when he wants to be! I can't believe you like her so much."

"You really ought to forgive her, Carver. We're not children anymore, she's not going to help Mari dunk you in the Waking Sea, again."

"Says you! She's exactly like Mar, but she manages to be worse!"

Bethany bursts into laughter. She doesn't mean to, but she can't help it. The sound rings out loud and clear through the empty air, filtering down into the practise yards before she can swallow it back and keep it in her throat. It's just that Carver's so grumpy, and he's always been so grumpy, and anyone who's anything even a little bit like their older sister just gets beneath his skin—

From down below, like an echo: "'Lo? Is someone up there?"

Her twin, unsurprisingly, is very smug about this.

(Carver just loves to see her embarrassed. Prat.)

"Aren't you going to answer him?"

Bethany jabs her elbow into his side in retaliation, sinking down further and praying to every god that she knows that Alistair might just think he imagined it and not come up to investigate. The last thing she needs is for—for her—for Alistair to come up here and find Carver grinning like a maniac and Bethany herself red as beet. The very last thing she needs!

"Carver, if he comes up here, I will never forgive you!" Bethany hisses through her teeth.

Carver, predictably, has the gall to smirk at her.

She wonders, not for the first time in her life, how angry her mother would be if she magicked her twin off a castle wall and into a pile of something unpleasant. It would serve him right!

But then the th-thud of blunted metal hitting wood resumes, and Bethany exhales heavily in relief.

"…You really like him, don't you," Carver says, quietly, after a very long moment.

"More than I ought to," says Bethany, very softly. "He's—different, I think."

"If it makes you feel any better, he won't shut up about you," Carver offers. "Thinks you're special, if you must know."

Bethany's cheeks flush. She rather thinks he's special, too, though she's not about to tell Carver that. He'll be unbearable. And really, if anyone ought to hear it, it ought to be Alistair, as it is about him in the first place.

Of course, that's dependent on Bethany being able to look him in the face again.

(She thinks of Alistair. She thinks of Alistair's shoulders. Her brain goes a little funny. Oh, Andraste, this is going to be a struggle.)

"Is it silly?" she asks.

Carver sighs. "For you? No."

"Really?"

"It's what you want, isn't it?"

Bethany nods. It feels too big for saying aloud, stuck proper in her throat. She doesn't know what she wants. But it wouldn't be completely awful, if Alistair were a part of it. She drops her head to Carver's shoulder again. "Maybe? I don't know."

Her twin's arm comes up to hover 'round her shoulders for a long moment. "I can't blame you, I guess. Better him than someone else?"

"That's not reassuring, Carver."

"S'not meant to be? Anyway, we ought to go find something to eat, it's almost supper."

She jabs her elbow into his side with great prejudice. Bethany peeks over the balustrade again. It's been quiet for some time, now, so she doesn't really expect there to be anything down there, though maybe if she hopes

But the practise yards are empty.

Alistair's gone.

(It is what it is.)

Bethany sighs, and gets up to follow Carver to evemeal.

"D'you want to come riding with me?"

"I-I'm not a very good rider, Alistair," Bethany manages.

It's been a week, and she still can't look at him without turning red as a beet. If she didn't miss him so desperately—and she does miss him desperately; so, so desperately—she'd have ducked out of the mealhall before he'd caught sight of her and made his way over.

But, again, she does miss him desperately.

"You can't be that bad," he says. His voice is very warm, but it turns quiet and strangely wobbly, on the next breath. "I feel like I haven't seen you in a year, Beth. Please?"

Bethany doesn't point out that they haven't known each other a year, because she feels it, too: the missing aches between her teeth. A constant, nagging throb. She peeks up at him. One peek shouldn't hurt.

Oh, but there's such hope in his face, it could break her heart.

"When I fall off my horse, you're not allowed to laugh," Bethany tells him.

"You're not going to fall off."

"I will, and you can't laugh about it when I do. Promise?"

Alistair looks at her for a moment, weighing. "Will you come if I say yes?"

"I'll think about it."

"Then I swear on my mother's life that I won't laugh if you fall off," he says, very solemnly. "I really don't think you will, though, you're exaggerating."

And he watches, dumbfounded, as Bethany proves that she is, in fact, just as bad as she's said.

"Oh," Alistair says, blinking at her, after the fourth time she's landed in the dirt. "Oh, Maker, you're—you're really bad at this."

Bethany huffs, shoving her curls out of her face. She ought to have tied her damn hair back, it'd be less undignified without dust in it! She's known this was going to happen, this is what always happens, this is why she doesn't ride

"And you didn't believe me!"

"Maker's breath, I won't be doing that again, believe me," Alistair says. He slides down from his horse with an ease born of long practise that Bethany absolutely hates him for, and then he makes it even worse by helping her get the rest of the dust off.

"You promised not to laugh," she says, very darkly.

"I'm not laughing!" he says, but he is laughing! He's laughing with his eyes, awful and gentle, carefully brushing a smear of dirt off of her cheek.

(Bethany forgives him for this, because she doesn't really know how not to forgive him this. He's got nice eyes.)

"I'm sorry," Bethany says, softly. She ducks her head, so he can't see her face anymore. It's easier that he can't. "I really—I really am no good at it. I didn't mean to ruin your day."

Alistair goes very still, his palm suddenly motionless against her cheekbone. "Why would you say that?"

"Say what?"

"That you've ruined it. You haven't ruined anything, Beth."

"But I—" Bethany frowns up at him. "You wanted to go riding, but I can't. Clearly."

"Not on your own, you can't," he murmurs. Bethany gets the sense that Alistair isn't really talking to her; his gaze tracks back to the horses with their packs and lingers there for a very long moment, before darting back. "Trust me, will you?"

Bethany tips her head. "Alright?"

"Just—" Alistair breaks off, grins a little sheepishly. "Just stay here and trust me."

(He's such a strange boy. She would be less worried if she didn't like him so much.)

He straightens, though when he'd started to stoop, Bethany couldn't say. Alistair sort of glances her over, up and down, and then he spins, and heads straight for the horsepacks. He's oddly—graceful, that's the word. He's graceful as he loads all the gear from one horse to the other, blankets and food and what looks to be a canteen. He does all of this in under a minute, and when he's finished, he grins over his shoulder.

"Oh, good, you didn't leave," Alistair says, voice flooded with relief. "Come here, would you?"

Only slight trepidation keeps Bethany from throwing caution to the wind and letting him take her wherever he might want to go. As it is, she fits herself to his side. "Do I get an explanation?"

"I'll sit behind you so you don't fall," Alistair says. He scratches nervously at the back of his neck and hastens to add, "As long as you're comfortable with it. I don't want to—I mean, you don't have to—"

He loves wherever it is he's planning to bring her to. It wobbles in his voice as he stumbles over himself, trying to find the right words and not ruin everything.

"You're going to have to help me up," Bethany tells him, quite reasonably. "I've had quite enough of falling off horses for one day."

Alistair looks at her very intensely. "Beth, if you don't want to, you really don't have to—"

"Are you going to help me up or not, Alistair? I've said yes!"

Bethany thinks, for a blinding moment of thrilling panic, that he might actually kiss her. He's ducked down again, so much closer than he ought to be, and she can nearly see the thought work its way though his mind. She tips her head up, unconscious with it.

Oh, Andraste, please.

But he doesn't.

Kiss her, that is.

Alistair seems to shake himself of that bright, wanting grip. He pulls back, a little, and Bethany has to tell herself desperately not to be disappointed. They'll get in trouble. It's too early. No one falls in love with mage girls who're determinedly hiding that they're mage girls, even when they're hiding in plain sight.

(It's better this way, Bethany reminds herself ruthlessly. Her knuckles ache from how hard she's clenching her hands to keep from pulling him back in, giddy and sick from the wanting. It's better, and don't pretend it's not!)

"Hold on to me, alright?" Alistair murmurs.

"Please don't drop me?"

"I've got you, Beth."

Alistair slides his arms around her as though he's done it his entire life. Bethany squeaks when suddenly she's entirely weightless, off the ground and scrambling to get her bearings. She very nearly clings, eyes squinched shut. This is deeply horrifying, she is never going to trust him again, she's going to fall—!

But Alistair is steady as stone.

"You can open your eyes," comes his voice, threaded through with amusement.

Bethany opens her eyes, heart in her throat, and finds herself rather higher above where she usually is.

"Have a little faith," Alistair laughs. He swings up behind her; the ease with which he does this is very unfair, and then he's chuckling softly in her ear and it's even more unfair. "Not much, but a little!"

"Has anyone ever told you that you're a menace?" Bethany manages, half an octave too high to be normal.

"Once or twice," Alistair says, and from his tone, Bethany thinks that he might be smirking.

(It not a mental image she needs, pressed back-to-chest as they are. Her pulse ticks wild in her throat, the leather of his jerkin warm with the late autumn sunshine and body heat, skin and sweat and the oiled metal of the sword at his side. Bethany thinks she might be dying. She might be dying, and she might already be dead!)

Bethany slumps back against him. Her voice is faint. "You're having far too much fun at my expense, Lord Theirin."

"Hey! We agreed not to bring the title into it!"

"You agreed," Bethany smiles up at him.

"And I'm the menace," Alistair says, disbelieving.

"You are!"

"I am not!"

Bethany doesn't dignify this with a response. Instead, she leans back into Alistair's chest, content to concern herself with the passing landscape. She doesn't have to pay attention to the road the way he does; reigning in the horses, even on a line, is a labour unto itself. She's not entirely sure how he does it, but it seems to suit him.

Riding is different than a carriage. The wind whips her hood off and the world is a blur of flames dancing around them, the trees alight with it. Bethany finds that there's bubbling laughter in her mouth as they trot along.

She hasn't a single clue as to where they might be going.

Worse, she doesn't care.

But they canter to a stop eventually, about an hour's ride from Denerim's gates. There's a little copse of trees up on a hill; Bethany spies what looks to be horse blanket spread out on the ground.

He helps her down, only a little sheepish with it.

"Er," Alistair says, pulling a tartan sack of food from the saddlebags. "Surprise picnic?"

"Did you—" Bethany pauses to blink at him, biting down on a threatening giggle. Oh, Maker, he really is going to be the death of her, and she won't even be upset about it. "Alistair, did you forget that you could just ask me to come?"

Alistair colours. "I didn't think you'd say yes."

Bethany steps over the gulf between them to carefully take the bright-checked kerchief from him. Andraste, she's going to have to forgive him for the smirking, because he clearly has no idea what he does to her insides. But—she might have no idea what she does to his insides, either; it makes an odd sort of sense, that a surprise is easier because he could chalk it up to dislike of surprises, if she'd been upset.

(But she isn't upset. She doesn't think she's going to be upset ever again.)

"I did say yes, though," Bethany murmurs. "Ask me, next time."

"Will you say yes?"

"Yes."

"Oh," Alistair says. He looks terribly pleased with himself. "Well then."

Bethany tips her face up to look at him. It's easier now, somehow; he's still just Alistair, no matter how good-looking he is. She tugs gently on his wrist. "Come sit?"

Alistair lets her lead him to the high crest of the knoll, helpless to do anything except follow when she pulls him forward. She knows the feeling in her stomach, in her bones.

He would follow her anywhere.

And—

Oh, but he does. Alistair follows her up to the top of the hill, and he follows her in laying the horse blankets out into some semblance of a picnic square beneath the wide-spread branches of the trees, and he follows her settling down and tucking in.

He doesn't even think about it.

He just does.

And so they spread out on the very top of the knoll, all alone. The air is perfectly clear; the thick mugginess of Denerim's too-close streets falls away as though it had never been. Bethany isn't surprised to see the contents of kerchief: wrapped in cheesecloth, there's fresh-made herbed bread, a thick wedge of the soft Redcliffe cheese that Alistair can't get enough of, cured ram sausage, sliced dried pear, and what looks like honey cake, although Maker knows how it held up.

It's more than a decent meal for two people, even for travel food.

She hesitates only for a blink of a moment before she curls against his side, skirts swept out. Alistair shifts just a little to accommodate the lean-in of her body, palm lingering at the sharp cut of her waist.

(If Mother knew even half the liberties Bethany's allowed Alistair, she's fairly certain that she'd be locked up for the rest of her natural life. A sobering thought.)

But this high up, the Amaranthine spreads out silver and shining as far as the eye can see. Denerim is dwarfed by the ocean's sheer size; it's a strange little city that looks like a child's toy, all of the buildings like tiny wooden blocks in a landscape caught on fire with late autumn's brisk kiss.

"It doesn't look real, does it?" Alistair says. He hands her a bit of pear smeared with cheese, which is very nice of him.

"No," Bethany agrees. "It's like a painting."

"It's always like this, this time of year," he shrugs. Pauses to chew, swallows, then continues. "Awful in winter, though."

"You don't like winter?" Bethany tilts her head at him. "Why not?"

Alistair grimaces. "Denerim's winter's not like winter anywhere else. It's wet. Even the bloody snow, it just sticks to everything and turns the ground to mud."

"Very Ferelden of it."

"That's what they all say!"

Bethany's tongue trips into the giggles. "You're very indignant about this, did you know?"

"You haven't tried to ride through it," Alistair mutters gloomily. He frowns grumpily at something very far away. "It's a right mess, I can't stand it."

"So hard-done by," Bethany smiles. She reaches over to pluck another piece of pear from his hands, pops it in her mouth. "Your life must be very difficult."

"Hey," he protests, but very softly, tugging on one of her curls. "Unfair. I was going to eat that."

"Carver and I used to argue about who was going to eat something all the time," Bethany says, laughing a little. "While we were at it, Mari would just eat whatever it was we were arguing over, even if whatever it was was something she couldn't stand. It stopped us yelling at each other, at any rate, but Lissy hated it."

"Because then you'd all have to complain about her, instead?"

"Every time," and the wind sucks away the rest of the laughter. "That's my sister for you."

"Terrifying," Alistair pronounces. "You know, I never thought I'd be grateful that Cailan's so boring, but I'm beginning to rethink that—"

Bethany laughs some more, ducking her face into his side to smother it down. "What's it like, having a boring sibling?"

"Probably a bit like what having Carver for a twin is like," Alistair grins crookedly.

She gasps. "I'm going to tell him you said that!"

"Maker, don't, he'll skewer me—!"

They scrabble at one another, playfighting in the dappled sun-and-shadow firelight of the trees. Bethany flops against Alistair's side, eventually, still laughing but breathless, now, and happier for it. She smiles into his shoulder.

"Thank you," Bethany murmurs.

"For what?" Alistair says. Surprise in his voice.

"Nothing, really," she says. "This, I suppose. It's nice. Thank you for bringing me here."

"Oh," says Alistair. He takes a slow, deep breath. "I thought you might—like it?"

"I do," says Bethany. She doesn't bother to pull her face out of his side; she knows that if she does, she'll be as red as the leaves, and she won't be able to get the words out. "Honestly, Alistair. Thank you. You didn't have to."

"I know," he says. "But—"

"But what?"

"But I wanted to," Alistair finishes the sentence, heavy on the exhale. Relief, like a river, like a secret finally out in the open air. She can feel the way he shakes his head. "I know I didn't have to. But I wanted to."

But I wanted to.

Bethany nods into his side. Understands.

I wanted to.

"You!"

The word cracks through the air, sharp as a whip. Alistair and Bethany startle away from one another, a glaring half-foot of space suddenly stark between them.

"You bloody prick, I'm gonna kill you!"

"Oh, shite," Alistair breathes out through his nose. "Beth, duck!"

Bethany ducks. She hasn't lived this long with a sister like Marian Hawke not to know urgency when she hears it; she ducks, and Alistair bodily drags her to the side just as a crash rings out loud enough to send a horse screaming in fear.

A tiny blonde elf falls out of the rafters, and breaks everything on the way down!

This is… not what Bethany was expecting.

The elfgirl stands only a scant two inches shorter than Bethany does, but she holds herself as though she's tall as a Qunari. Pale as a witchlight, her hair is yellow-gold and frizzes off in all directions beneath the wildest pair of wine-dark ocean eyes that Bethany's ever seen; she's rail-thin, packed with taut muscle and the clink-clink of daggers hidden in her boots. She moves the way Mari used to, before Mari compressed all of her killing edges into night-dark things.

Her lips pull back from her teeth. "Have you lost your friggin' mind, Knobby?!"

Alistair's shoulders slump. "Maker's breath, Kally. What did I do now?"

"Got the whole bloody place in an uproar, you did," she snaps at him, scowling fiercely. "D'you know how long I been looking for you?! Chamberlain was about to cry! It was horrible."

"He's part of the castle, he can't cry," Alistair says instantly. He's somehow managed to tuck Bethany behind his back; she peeks around him, blinking widely, with her hands knotted into the back of his jerkin.

"Oi, quit that. S'not as though I haven't had to watch you two make eyes at each other for the last month," the girl—Kally—says, irritable. She darts around them, quick as lightning, and then she's so close to Bethany that they're near nose-to-nose. She squints, assessing. "…She's too pretty for you, Knobby."

"Thanks, Kal, really appreciate that," Alistair sighs.

"You're too pretty for him," she repeats to Bethany.

"Erm," says Bethany, who is deeply bewildered by this entire series of events. "Thank you?"

"Oh, and you got'a be polite about it, too," Kally wrinkles her face up so that she resembles nothing so much as a belligerently drunk frog. She makes a disgusted noise. "'Draste's tits, you deserve each other—"

"Kal," the girl's name cracks out of Alistair's mouth. "Leave off."

"You're no fun when you're scribbly, y'know," sniffs Kally. She sticks her nose in the air; a blur, a shift, a smear, and very abruptly, Bethany finds herself blinking owlishly at a girl her own age denied a sweet.

Bethany tries not to boggle.

(She boggles.)

"I'm not trying to be fun," Alistair's saying, scowling right back. It sits oddly on his face; he's not meant to scowl, the lines are all wrong.

"Scribbly," Kally says again, resolute and nodding with it.

"What does that even mean?!"

"It means that we've all been looking for the pair of you for the last four hours," comes a very snippy voice that Bethany knows as well as she knows the back of her hand, testy with his annoyance. Carver can move very quietly for someone who wears heavy armour the way he does when he wants.

"We didn't—we didn't go very far?" Bethany tries. "It was only an hour's ride."

Something relaxes infinitesimally in Carver's face. He's looking her over the same way Mother does, the same way everyone does when she's been out of sight for just a little too long.

And then what she's said seems to dawn on him, and Carver gapes at them both, mouth wide as a fish. "You got her on a horse? He got you on a horse? How? Maker's breath, how many times did you fall off?"

For the second time in as many weeks, Bethany wonders how angry their mother would be if she accidentally magicked her twin out a window. Into a pile of manure. And then into the river. And then maybe out into the ocean to drown.

"I dunno what you're talking about," Alistair says. "She was fine?"

It's said with such easy, innocent confusion that if Bethany hadn't been there (and if she hadn't been the one falling off the horse), she'd have thought Alistair was telling the truth.

"You're lying," says Carver. He looks at Bethany. "He's lying."

"It's good to know you've got faith in me, thanks, Carver," Bethany snips, only a little bit acidic.

Her twin only raises his eyebrows: Carver's seen her fall off horses more than anyone, so he's a right to it. He was the only one who never laughed when they were little. When other people were around, at any rate; her twin never let her forget it when it was just the pair of them alone.

Bethany thinks longingly about magicking him out the window again.

"You lot done?" Kally asks. She cocks her head like a bird. "Glad you're not dead, Knobby. Ahni'd never let me live it down."

"How much trouble am I in?" Alistair asks.

"Dunno," says Kally. "Lissy weren't upset. Trollop, neither. Just Auntie Ro and Auntie Fee?"

"They're going to kill me," he groans.

"Pro'bly," agrees Kally cheerfully. "Sorry, Knobby, 'cept m'not really sorry!"

"Maker's breath. Sorry, Beth," Alistair says under his breath. Carver's still within earshot, and so he drops his voice ever lower, until it's just barely a husk of a sound. "I didn't mean to drag you into this. They're not normally this mental, I promise."

"I'm not upset about it," she murmurs in reply. It's an easy thing, to tuck a smile into the corner of her mouth just for him.

"You should be," he mutters.

"No," Bethany shakes her head. Hesitating, reaching up to tuck a wild stray curl behind her ear. The words feel like a flower in her mouth, held delicate between her jaws. "It was—fun?"

"It was," Alistair says. His gaze turns very soft.

"Will I see you in the morning?" she asks.

Alistair grins. "So long as my mothers don't kill me, yeah. That's the plan."

"Alistair."

"Of course, if they do kill me, then they'll be down a prince and Cailan'll be annoyed, so maybe it's better that they don't. We should run off together properly this time—"

"Alistair."

He laughs, too big and bright for the nighttime of the hallway. "You're never going to let me get away with anything, are you? Maker's breath, I suppose I deserve it."

"Probably not," Bethany says. Affection curls up her mouth with sweetness. "Goodnight, Alistair."

"Goodnight, Beth. Sleep well."

Sleep well, indeed.

Life goes on, as it tends to do. The days get shorter and greyer as winter creeps in towards the capital, and Bethany spends them with her mother and with Alistair and with—

And with Elissa.

"I hear you've been spending rather a lot of time with someone," the Queen of Ferelden says, painfully casual. She very pointedly doesn't look at Bethany.

Bethany raises her head, carefully removing her gaze from the seamstress working pins into the hem of the gown. She's always been very careful with pins. "Who?"

"Tall, hair like wet sand, grins like an idiot?" Elissa says, and flattens any protest Bethany might have made by soldiering on. "My husband's brother? Named Alistair? Took you riding a week ago? Ring any bells?"

Crimson floods Bethany's cheeks. It's just like Lissy to trap her into a dress fitting as cover for an emotional blackmail discovery session. Bethany can't exactly go anywhere—if she tries, the skirt will fall to pieces, and the last thing she needs today is her mother's scolding—and so here she's caught until Elissa has good and well had her fill of the teasing.

"You told him to, Lissy," Bethany says, managing to keep her voice from tearing through half an octave in embarrassment through willpower alone. The thought of his bare chest still makes her chest flame. "It's not indecent."

"I never said it was," Elissa smiles, satisfied with herself for the trap. "I said I'd heard you'd been spending rather a lot of time with him."

"Isn't that the same thing?"

"Not even a little bit, and you know you it. Turn 'round, would you? I want to see the back."

Bethany twists so her friend can decide how she feels about the lacing. Tries again. "I really don't know what you're talking about."

"And I'm not pregnant," Elissa snaps the words off with her teeth, murderfish-vicious. "He keeps walking into walls every time he catches you smiling."

"Is that how he bloodied his nose yesterday?"

Elissa hums smug affirmation. "Mm, yes. I want to see what it'll take to make him choke on his tongue. The red's not right, take that off. Blue, maybe? Purple?"

"I doubt very much that you're not pregnant," Bethany mutters. "His Majesty hardly takes his eyes off you."

"Did I just not say Alistair's been walking into walls? We've put money on it!"

"You can't say for sure that it has anything to do with me—"

"Bethany, please," says Elissa, archly, and she sounds so much like Bethany's mother in this moment that the crescendo of laughter afterwards catches them both off-guard. She flicks her fingers in Bethany's general direction. "Ugh, you look good in everything, it's not fair. I miss fashion."

"You're not going to be this pregnant forever," Bethany reminds her.

"I'll kill someone if I am," says Elissa, very dark.

The red's pooled woolen on the floor. Elissa's slim blonde maid is terrifyingly efficient; Bethany hardly felt the cloth fall away. Her shoulders are bare, now rising above the shimmering samite of the neckline. She hesitates. "Lissy, doesn't this seem a little… low-cut?"

"It's fine, that's how it's supposed to be!"

It's something. Bethany blinks at herself, hesitant again. Still Chasind witch, but—less. The brocade silk is the colour of purple-grey dusk shot through with mist, some heather-lilac colour that shifts in the light. Enchanted, limned in silver.

After a very long moment, Bethany asks, very softly, "How long have you been planning this?"

"Months," says Elissa, without a trace of shame.

"You didn't have to," Bethany tells her, still so quiet. She ducks her head, wraps her arms around herself.

"Yes? And?"

All of a sudden, Bethany remembers that Elissa, for better or worse, is still the Queen of Ferelden. That her heart's in the right place, as it always has been, but that she's a little skewed in how she goes about it—that it's not just Highever and the Storm Coast she's responsible for, not just Storm Bay with its bright-painted shutters and high walls to keep out the winter storms. It's in the Hinterlands, and the mires in the south, and the Korcari Wilds, and the Frostbacks, and all the long coasts and the Brecilian and—

And all of the people who live free within its borders.

It's rather a lot of people to be responsible for.

And still, here Elissa is, trying to plot Bethany's life out for her.

(Once upon a time, Marian used Bethany as a walking, talking moral compass. Elissa did the much the same, but she was braver about it. It's why they're still friends, after all this time. Half a country, and magic, and a hundred other things; once upon a time, they sat with their older siblings in a witchlight telling ghost-tales to spook one another, just because they could.)

Bethany drops her arms to her sides, loose all over and smiling, soft and slow. "What am I going to do with you, Lissy?"

"You could make Alistair choke on his tongue. I love it when Cailan owes me money."

"That's terrible?"

"Have I ever not been terrible?"

"No," Bethany says, still laughing a little. She reaches across the space between them to wrap her arms around Elissa's shoulders, pins and all. "But—thank you. It's good. Better."

"Really?"

"Yes," says Bethany. "Better."

It starts to snow just as the sun goes down.

"Oh," Bethany breathes out wonder. The air is cold enough that if she breathed out frost, no one would know; a cloud of ice settles over the world and cracks itself open, fat flakes of frozen water that ought to catch on her cheeks and soak through her dress if she were allowed to go outside on her own.

Alistair, behind her, makes a sound like a dying frog.

(Somewhere, Bethany has a feeling that King Cailan suddenly owes Elissa money.)

She glances over her shoulder and beams at him, startling as sunlight. "I'm going outside. Will you come?"

"Beth, you're going to catch a cold—"

"A little snow never hurt anyone, Alistair," Bethany smiles. She catches his hands, tugs gently. "We don't have to be out for long. And I don't get cold, I promise."

"Everyone gets cold, Beth—"

"Oh, hush, come on, please?"

And Alistair, sort of helplessly, allows himself to be dragged out into the night.

"It gets so quiet," Bethany whispers. The snow muffles Denerim's city sounds down to nothing, until there's only the crunch of snow beneath their boots. "Like there's no one else in the entire world."

"Does it snow much in Storm Bay?"

She laughs very softly. "No. If we're lucky it'll snow for Satinalia, but not often. Mother likes it, though. I think it reminds her of home."

"Where's that?"

"Across the Waking Sea. Kirkwall."

"Oh."

"You don't need to say it like that!"

Alistair grins down at her, nose a little pink from the bite of the wind. Bethany stands in the lee of his body, hidden from the worst of the chill. There's a secret in the corner of his mouth. Maker, she wants to reach up at touch it.

"How should I say it, then? Elissa likes it there?" he spouts at her.

"Something like that, yes," she laughs at him, then falls silent.

Bethany knows that she can't tell him the rest. Shouldn't. Much as she wants to. The nighttime settles softly around her shoulders.

(It hurts, how much she wants to believe that she might be able to trust him.)

Light filters down across the ocean in patches, moonglow and shadow over the water. Bethany holds her breath for fear of disturbing it; they're so high up, and it's so still.

"Beth…" Alistair says. Her name. Just her name.

She turns in towards him. "What is it?"

Alistair stares at her, and Bethany's breath catches in her throat. People don't really look like this, she doesn't think. There's a faint furrow to his brow, the long lines of his face pulled downwards. Snow and starlight scatter over his hair, melting darkly into his skin.

"You've got—" he coughs a little, embarrassed. "Snow, sorry, you've just got snow in your eyelashes."

"Oh," Bethany says.

"Here, just—" Alistair's hands are shaking. "Don't move, will you?"

Bethany freezes where she stands. He's so careful as he wipes the snow, already half-melted, away from her face. He lingers too close for a very long time, and Bethany thinks that all of the blood in her body has managed to find its way to her cheeks, she must be so red.

"There," Alistair says. "Now you're perfect."

Andraste, he can't just say things like that!

"Alistair, would you close your eyes for me?" Bethany asks, very softly.

"I'm sorry?"

"Just trust me, please?"

Alistair sighs, and closes his eyes. "If you push me off the wall, I'm going to be very disappointed in myself."

(Bethany bites down on a giggle. He's so silly.)

She stands on her toes, and very carefully fits her mouth to his jaw. "Thank you for coming out to walk with me. I know it's cold."

For a very long moment, her blood pounds in her ears.

Nothing else.

And then Alistair makes a low wounded sound, some animal noise absolutely unreal with want. It holes up purring lovely in Bethany's chest, and she's about to ask him if he's alright, if she shouldn't have, when he curls a palm around the back of her neck and drags her up to kiss her properly.

Oh.

Oh.

"You have no—no idea—" Alistair says into her mouth, ragged with sweetness, "—no idea, I-I thought I was going mad—"

Bethany shivers, though she can't tell whether from the cold or from the brush of his thumb over her pulse. It might be both. It might be neither. She wants to kiss him again, more than she's ever wanted anything.

"I just wanted to say thank you," she says.

Alistair chuckles. It reverberates all through her, forehead to forehead as they are. "If that's what I'm going to get for it, you can thank me any time you'd like."

Bethany flushes and ducks to hide her face in his chest.

Maker, she doesn't have an answer for that!

For a moment, they stand there together, still just a little too close. Alistair props his chin against the top of Bethany's head, arms loose around her. It cuts the ice in the air down to the quick, and the night doesn't seem so frigid anymore.

Or mostly, anyway.

"…You're shivering, Beth," Alistair says, unamused.

"That doesn't mean I'm cold?"

"Does, too," he mutters, shakes his head at the sky. He halfway through sliding his cloak off his shoulders and around her before Bethany quite knows what he's done. "Put this on, would you? You really are going to catch ill at this rate!"

"It's not so bad, honestly."

"Just—" Alistair breaks off, a frustrated noise escaping through his teeth. "Please? Please, Beth. Please wear the cloak until we're inside. Please."

Bethany doesn't point out that she's now wearing two cloaks, and managing to soak his through from the inside out. He's got a look on his face like he might try to fight a bear if she tries to give it back. And it's not as though he's exactly wrong; her teeth would have started to chatter in another minute.

"You're never going to believe me when I say I don't get cold ever again, are you?"

"Not a chance," Alistair mutters darkly. He hesitates for a moment before carefully reaching out to tuck a stray curl behind her ear. "The last thing I want is to get you sick."

Bethany can't help herself. She leans her head into the touch, just a little. Just enough. "I don't want you to get sick, either."

Alistair's gaze turns very soft.

"I won't," he says. "But you will if we don't get you inside, and then Elissa will kill me for it. Haven't you had enough of the snow, yet?"

"No, never," Bethany says, smiles.

"Maker's breath," Alistair murmurs, so quietly that Bethany thinks he that he might not realize that he's speaking aloud. "It's impossible."

"What is?"

"You," says Alistair. "Just you."

"What about me?" Bethany asks, frowning a little. It stings. She's a lot of things, but impossible hasn't ever really been one of them. "What have I done?"

"Nothing," he shakes his head. He touches her cheekbone. Softly, like a prayer. "You're just always in love with everything. I don't know what to do with it, Beth."

"Oh," says Bethany. "I'm sorry?"

"No," says Alistair. "Don't be."

Bethany doesn't know when she started to seek Alistair out, but she realizes that she does.

Between the shortening winter days and the fading autumn light, it's not entirely difficult to admit—at least to herself—that she vastly prefers his company to anyone else's. Alistair is very good at distracting her.

And as the days goes by, Bethany realizes that he always does seem to know just where to find her.

(Perhaps, she reflects, it's less that she seeks Alistair out and more the other way around.)

The Imperial Palace's library is generally very quiet. Daylight slants in through spiny tall windows cut cool with the clouds, pale and shimmering when it catches on the dust in the air. The thin leather slippers that Mother insisted upon do little good against the draught that shivers along the floor; Bethany sits curled in her favourite reading nook far in the back with a quilt over her legs. There's no one around to scold her for it.

"Maker's breath, there you are, I've been looking all day! Move over, it's bloody well freezing out."

Bethany's pulling her legs back into her own space before she fully realizes just what on the Maker's green earth is going on. Alistair flops down beside her, ice melting over his shoulders and into his hair.

"Bloody well madness out there," he mutters. Alistair insinuates himself behind her, comfortable back to chest, his long legs splayed out neatly on her either side. Bethany allows him to arrange her to his liking, looped up contentedly in the heat that rolls off of him like heat off a banked fire.

"Carver's going to have a fit," Bethany says, neutral. She drops her head back to his collarbone to blink up at him. "You know he will."

"What your brother doesn't know can't hurt him," Alistair says.

And it's—

Well.

Alistair's not wrong.

Bethany reaches down to tuck the quilt more securely around her toes. Now that Alistair's here, it's a little more difficult—it's not exactly the largest quilt—but there's something inexplicably satisfying about the sight of their limbs all tangled up beneath it.

It's not indecent, she'd told Elissa.

And she'd meant it, too! Strange and comforting and right, is Alistair. Not indecent.

But Bethany could see how someone might think of it that way. She isn't unaware that she and Alistair have tripped fast and hard all over one another; she isn't unaware that other people might think it untoward. They do spend a frightful amount of time alone together.

The truth of the matter is simply that there isn't anyone else like Alistair. There's no one else like him in the world. She's sure of that much in her bones; whether he's following her out into a star-cut snowscape or trying his very best to keep her from falling off a horse, Alistair is unreservedly singular in every way.

Bethany doesn't love him.

But she could.

Andraste's blood, she could.

The thought leaves her a little dizzy. Love. Love. Bethany has to put it away, for now; she can't think about it, because if she does, she might lose her head entire. Love isn't for apostates— surviving is too important. She tries very hard not to remember what kissing Alistair when there's no one around feels like, because it only muddles the process further.

"You can have that argument with him, then," Bethany says, instead.

"Oh, if that's how it is, maybe I'll just go—"

"Would you, really?"

"Not if my life depended on it," says Alistair cheerfully, and given that he's not made any iota of effort to dislodge himself, Bethany can't entirely say she's surprised. He hooks his chin over her shoulder. "What are you reading?"

"Nothing interesting, if I'm honest," says Bethany. She's not about to tell him—well. She can't tell him—about the magic in the thick old tome. It doesn't sit right, and she's not ready.

(Maker, she might not ever be ready. But she wants to be, and that's worse.)

"You don't strike me as the sort to read uninteresting things, love."

"I can be," Bethany says, non-committal. She nudges him very gently. "You were looking for me?"

Alistair grumbles something too low into the side of her neck for Bethany to quite catch it. It's half a huff of irritation, something not entirely all the way there, and all the more frustrated for it.

It's not like him at all. Bethany twists just enough to stare him in the eye. "Alistair? What is it?"

"I'm the Teyrn of Gwaren, did you know? Or I will be, in a year," he exhales the words in a great long sigh.

Once Elissa's baby is born, she hears what he doesn't say.

But—

"No, I didn't," Bethany shifts a little more so that she can better look him full in the face. Concern is acrid in her throat; he looks so unhappy about it, all the lines that make him up cricked and cracked and bleeding misery. "What does that have to do with anything?"

"I'll have to go," Alistair says. Shrugs, a little helpless. "It's not terrible, you know, I quite like it there. Very quiet."

"But?"

Alistair stares at her for what feels like an eternity.

"It's a long time, that's all," he says, finally. "Most of the spring, at least, and probably again for harvest. They'll need the help."

"Do you not want to?" Bethany asks.

"It doesn't matter what I want," Alistair says, so quietly.

"It should," Bethany tells him. She feels like she ought to be whispering. It sticks in her throat like broken glass even though she can't exactly say why; tastes the hot metal red of blood all over her teeth. She touches his arm. "It should, Alistair."

A grin cracks its way across his face. "You never let me down, Beth."

"I can't tell if that's a compliment," Bethany wrinkles her nose up at him. So attractive, Bethy. "Because I—I somehow don't think it is?"

"It is, I promise," he says, still grinning.

"Why do I feel like you're making fun of me?"

Laughter spills out of Alistair like water out of a broken goblet. Something sharp in the set of his mouth softens, and he bends to kiss the top of her head, easy as anything. "I'd never make fun of you, love."

"Oh, now, you're definitely making fun of me!"

Alistair kisses the outrage right off of her mouth.

Bethany blinks at him, stunned into silence. They haven't—it's been nearly a fortnight since that evening on the battlements in the snow. She'd begun to think that the whole thing had been a dream.

But it wasn't a dream, and this isn't a dream, and she thinks she might die if he doesn't kiss her again.

"Alistair," says Bethany, not unkindly. She reaches up to curl her hands around his face. Andraste, he needs someone to be careful with him. "You really ought to kiss me, again."

"Oh," says Alistair. Nods, a little dazed. "Yes. I-I can do that. If you want."

"I do," Bethany murmurs, dimpling. "Please."

And he does. He kisses her. He kisses her again. Again, a third time. Again, a fourth. A tiny sigh slides out of Bethany, a droplet of perfect golden light that colours up the air to shining. Warm and everywhere and perfect.

Alistair kisses her.

Alistair kisses her again, and again, and again.

The last ships of the season dock into Denerim's harbour three days before the worst storm of the year rolls in. Bethany watches the scuttle of a thousand tiny bodies crawling over the cloud-white sails on the backdrop of a grey sky, bobbing mournfully on the slate of the ocean.

She wonders, idly, if her sister is down there.

(Elissa had mentioned it off-hand, one night at evemeal; all the naval privateers would be home before Satinalia. The Amaranthine is less forgiving than the Waking Sea, and Ferelden can't afford to lose the little ground they've gained.)

"Oh, Bethy, darling! Look at you!"

The idle wonder cuts right off.

Bethany's older sister lounges against the doorframe in a long leather coat, a wide tricorn hat stuck with an extravagantly large feather sewn into the brim tipped down over the bright ice blue of her eyes. Her hair shorn feather-dark and wild, and her face is still vicious-edged and perfect, just as it was when she left. She grins, painted crimson mouth open over the white shine of her teeth, and it's almost enough to distract from the twelve daggers hidden all over her person.

Oh, Maker, why is she like this?

"Hello, Mari," Bethany sighs.

"Bethany! Darling!" Marian Hawke crows. "You're here!"

"Blame Mother, I didn't want to come," says Bethany, only a little uneasily.

It's not a lie. It's not easy to lie to Marian, and so Bethany doesn't even bother to try. She hadn't wanted to come to Denerim; for all that she's not upset that she's here, now, it had been a nightmare when their mother had put her foot down.

Storm Bay had been a refuge for a very long time.

Marian taps her nose, surveying Bethany up and down. "I don't suspect you did," she murmurs, more to herself than anyone else. "But you're not unhappy about it, are you?"

"I-I'm sorry?"

"You're wearing that little smile you get when you've got a secret, darling," Marian laughs very softly. "You and Carver, the two of you wear your hearts on your sleeves."

Sometimes, Marian is entirely too perceptive for her own good. Bethany can feel heat flush over her cheeks

"Where is our wayward sibling, incidentally?"

Bethany bites down on her lip. She doesn't try to keep track of Carver, anymore; he's off doing something for Lord Fergus every other minute, near to the point that Bethany won't see him for days on end. It's part of why she has been spending so much time with Alistar: Carver is squiring and Elissa is busy being Queen, and Mother is Mother—Bethany has mostly been left to her own devices.

And she's never been very good at being left mostly to her own devices.

Her older sister looks at her, eyes glinting, her smile growing with every passing second. Bethany doesn't want to know what her sister is thinking. It won't be anything good. It's never anything good!

Bethany knows full well what Marian will say when she finds out that Bethany's been gallivanting about with the Prince of Ferelden. Full well. Andraste, she can hear the whip-crack of words already.

Is it wrong to want to put it off for just a little longer?

"He's around here, somewhere," Bethany says, as casually as she can. "Where have you been?"

Marian probably sees right through the attempt to change the subject. But oddly, she doesn't—push it. She lets it go, allows Bethany to slip beneath the cover of pretense, doesn't drag the top up to scrutiny beneath the light.

Maybe that's what growing up looks like, on Bethany's older sister.

"Harassing Antivan merchant princes," says Marian. "Where else?"

"Is that really what you do?"

"Sometimes I stop in Kirkwall to harass the templars, instead. That's fun, as well," Marian bats her eyelashes. "I've even made friends, Bethy, you ought to be proud of me!"

Bethany sighs. Maybe not.

"You make friends everywhere you go, Mari," Bethany reminds her.

"Only when I need to," Marian smiles sharp out of the corner of her mouth. "But I ought to go say hello to Cailan, he's probably having a conniption that I didn't do that, first. Oh, well."

"The King," Bethany says, flatly.

"Yes, that's the one," nods Marian. "Rather tall, quite blond. Good-natured. Bit of a prat, really."

Bethany has a feeling that if this were anyone else, they'd be killed for insulting the monarch, or being irreverent, or – or something! But it's Marian, and so it doesn't matter, because Marian could kill her way out of a bar brawl and not blink 'til she was outside and covered in blood and booze and vomit. Possibly all three. If her older sister hasn't called the King of Ferelden a bit of a prat, really to his face, Bethany wouldn't be surprised. She might have to turn herself in to the templars, but she wouldn't be surprised.

Sometimes, Bethany wonders which one of them is actually the elder child.

"Please don't kill anyone on your way down there," Bethany manages.

"Have some faith, darling! I do like getting paid," Marian grants her, gracious. But then she cocks her head like a mabari with a bloodscent, crooks an eyebrow. "Have you met him? Cailan, I mean."

"A few times? Lissy seems to like him," Bethany says.

Bethany doesn't like what flashes across her older sister's face: half glee and half triumph, but she can't precisely say why she dislikes it so much. Marian never had to work to gut her younger siblings, and never meant to, either; that doesn't mean it didn't happen, but the intent was never there. Marian never meant to hurt.

"Have you met his brother?" asks Marian.

Oh, that's why. It feels like hurt.

"Yes," Bethany says, cautious, now. "Once or twice."

Marian's lips quirk, softening like the sun going down. "If you get a chance to talk to him, darling, do. He's sweet. Also a bit of prat, but I think it's the sort of prat you'd like."

"That's not a compliment, Mari."

"No, it's not," Marian agrees, but she's smiling. She reaches out to tug on one of Bethany's curls, gentle in the movement; her fingers are rough from salt and sea wind, more chapped than Bethany's ever seen them, calluses on her fingertips where there were none, before. "But I think you'll survive, little sister."

Somehow, someway, they've both grown up.

"I'm not glad you're back," says Bethany. She throws her arms around Marian's neck and clings, just this side of too tight.

"Nor am I," Marian murmurs. She pats the top of Bethany's hair, still a full head taller. Six years between them, and Bethany's never going to catch up. "Don't tell Mother I'm here, yet, please. Honestly, she'll be terrible about it."

"You probably deserve it," Bethany says, muffled into Marian's throat.

"Probably I do," her older sister nods sagely. "I'd rather I didn't have to deal with it,, though."

"You're the worst," Bethany whispers. It hurts in her throat like broken glass.

"Yes," Marian agrees. Soft and sad and strange, her palms close convulsively around Bethany's shoulders. Trying to hold on, and not quite managing it. "Yes, Bethy, I am."

"I was right, your sister is terrifying," Alistair says fervently, when they finally manage to sneak away together.

(It only took them six days, and the excuse of Denerim's yearly Satinalia market opening. Bethany doesn't want to say that she missed him, but she missed him.)

Bethany sort of collapses against his side, sighing heavily. Winter's set in real and true, now, wet and sticky in the lungs; her breath leaves her solid in whimsy clouds, but with her hood pulled up, she hardly feels the cold. "Oh, no. Sweet Maker, what did she do?"

"She walked in, sat on Cailan's desk, and called him a twat," Alistair says. "I've never seen anything like it. He laughed, Beth."

"That does sound like her, yes," Bethany covers her face with her hands and groans.

"He laughed about it?" Alistair says again, bewildered, as though this is the part that most confuses him, and not the fact that Bethany's older sister had the gall to tromp into the king's study without an invitation and sit on his desk.

It's such a predictably Marian thing to do!

"I'm so, so sorry about her," Bethany manages to get out from between her fingers. "She's—I can't even say she's not always like that, because she is."

"Mental," says Alistair, shaking his head. "Maybe they're friends? I've never seen him amused like that."

"Oh, I hope not, my mother'll have a fit," Bethany says miserably, and then pauses, because— while Alistair isn't wrong, it is mental—it is also precisely the sort of thing Mother would have encouraged.

And it's not as thought Bethany is unaware that Mother is just Marian except civilized, sometimes.

"You think?" Alistair blinks down at her.

"Better Mother having a fit than the alternative," she tells him. The alternative is Mother tried to marry them to one another, and Marian probably stabbed a valet to make sure that it would never have happened.

Honestly, Bethany's not entirely sure which is the worse scenario.

"He didn't look upset, if it makes you feel any better," Alistair murmurs. He's a little closer than Bethany expected; she startles a little, wide-eyed, as he reaches down to fix the fur around her face. "That wasn't my brother's upset smile."

"He has an upset smile?"

"Yeah, I'd rather not talk about it," he sighs. "It's never good when it shows up, it usually means someone's insulted our mothers."

"Why would anyone do that? Your mothers are lovely."

Alistair stops mid-step and just looks at her, for a very long moment. There's something very significant in his face that Bethany doesn't entirely understand; maybe doesn't want to understand. It chafes at the slow-churn slick of blue-green magic inside of her chest. Or—nearly the same thing, but not. Maker, it's not as though the entire court doesn't know that Lady Fiona and Queen Rowan share a bed. Common knowledge, it is, as far as Bethany knows.

"I couldn't tell you," he says, quietly, at last. Alistair catches her hand, tucks it carefully into the crook of his elbow. Her fingers tingle with sudden warmth. "But we ought to hurry, love, we're going to be late."

"They're not going to start without you," Bethany points out.

"You never know. They might?"

"I somehow doubt that, Your Highness!"

Alistair grins very brightly at her, in a way that sets all of her nerves aflutter. Bethany has to duck her head to avoid looking at him for much longer, because she thinks that if she does, she very might well burst into flame.

"I can't really say you're wrong, can I?"

"No, you really can't," she says. "Alistair, I—are you sure this is alright?"

"What?"

"This," Bethany tells him, dipping her head down to indicate where he's got her hand trapped against his side. "It's not—not exactly subtle? Everyone will know."

"Do you not want to?" he blinks at her.

"No, I-I—" Bethany breaks off, biting down on her lip so hard it nearly breaks through the skin. The pain helps, somehow, focuses her. "I do want to. I do."

"But?" Alistair asks. He scans her face, frowning a little. "There's a but, love, I can tell. What did I do?"

"Not you," Bethany shakes her head fiercely. "It's not you, Alistair, it's me. I'm—"

"You're what?"

There isn't anyone around, and it isn't dark. A flame would catch attention, but the healing could be written off as sun-shimmer from far away. Elissa hates the Chantry, and King Cailan can't be too far off from that, but if Alistair doesn't—if he isn't

"Magic," she whispers, and allows her fingers to glimmer with witchlight.

"Oh," says Alistair.

"Yes," says Bethany, and tries to pull her hands away from his person.

Alistair doesn't let her. "What are you doing, stop that, you'll get cold. Maker's breath, I—I knew, Beth. I knew!"

Bethany gapes at him. "You—how? How did you know?!"

He scrubs his free hand over his hair, very stubborn in keeping her pulled close. The weak winter sunlight turns him pale as aurum, his freckles bunching as he winces. "It's—I can feel it? A bit. A lot. All the time. How'd you think I kept finding you? I wasn't about to ask your brother!"

"But I—" Bethany flinches, just a little. "I don't understand. You're not a templar, I haven't seen you at lyrium at all."

"I'm not," he says. He shrugs one shoulder, quick like a bird. "I'd never. Never."

"How, Alistair?!"

"Children of mages are generally better at it," he says, very low. "When they're not mages themselves, anyway. Bit like Seekers. Even then, I'm better at it than most."

Queen Rowan is not a mage. Bethany knows this in her bones. But Alistair looks far too much like King Cailan to be anything save for blood family. Which means—

"Oh," Bethany says. "Lady Fiona."

Alistair swallows around what looks to be an ugly lump in his throat. Nods. "I suppose it's a good thing we're going to Gwaren. With our luck, any children we have'll probably be magic, too."

Bethany manages to laugh. It's only a tad bit wet, crystallizing in the icy air. "Thinking a little ahead of ourselves, are we?"

"Have I not been obvious enough about it? It's been that way since the start."

"No, you have done," Bethany murmurs. She takes half a step forward, very careful into the cave of his body, and sighs in ardent relief when Alistair slides his arms around her to take her weight. "I'm not that blind."

"Did you really not know that I knew?"

"I really didn't," Bethany shakes her head into his collar. "Do you know how terrifying it is, telling someone that?"

"I did just tell you that my mother's an elf," Alistair says, which is a very fair point.

Deadly little secrets, smothered down between them. It strikes her that they could rip each other to shreds, like this, if they wanted; she wonders, absently, whether anyone else knows. Marian or Mother or the king. Maybe they all do. It would fit with everything else.

"What now? Bethany asks, softly.

"We go to market, I hold your hand if you'll let me, the entire city knows by the end of the day and we don't have to tell anyone anything embarrassing about our lives?" Alistair tries.

"I'm going to have to tell my mother," Bethany mumbles. "And my sister. And Lissy!"

"Oh, bloody hell, I hadn't thought about her. She's going to have a field day," Alistair says, very grim. "You know, she's been at me about picking someone for months. And she actually likes you! Maker, she's going to be unbearably smug."

"My sister, Alistair. Lissy might be smug, but Mari's going to be awful!"

Alistair groans. "D'you think—maybe we ought to just run off together, Beth. We could, you know. It'd probably be less painful?"

"That'd be worse," Bethany sighs into his throat. "They'd absolutely find a way to make it worse."

"We could pretend we were going south early?"

"Alistair."

"No one would ever know the truth; we wouldn't have to face it! We could leave today! Cailan'll help, he owes me for the mabari kennels last Wintersend—"

"Alistair."

"Can I at least hold your hand, Beth? Please? Grant me that."

Bethany can't entirely tell if she's laughing or crying. It might be a little bit of both. There really is no one like him in the entire world; only Alistair would try to drag the king into an escape route scheme. She shakes her head against his collarbone again, his breath turning to icicles in her curls. "I'd like that, I think."

"Good," Alistair says, kisses the top of her head. "I'd have been very put out if you'd said no."

Bethany has to hide her face in his chest for a whole long minute to keep her head from exploding.

It takes them both a while, but they do manage to calm down.

Alistair and Bethany walk the rest of the way into Denerim's heart with their fingers tangled. It ought to be freezing, but the bright little glow in Bethany's chest every time she looks down at their clasped hands chases it away. And it's early, still; the market's not yet in full swing. People mill about, but they don't pay the pair of them any mind, too busy setting up shop for the day. It's nice, even as a sugar-light dusting of snow starts to fall.

It feels, Bethany thinks, a little bit like magic.

(Like how magic should feel, anyway: bright and clear and sweet as spring rain. Alistair's hand closed around hers feels like that, too, and so does the brilliant little flicker of hope in her chest, and her own curiosity about the day, and a million other things that Bethany had never dared to think about for fear of scattering it all away.)

Alistair, watching her face, grins unrepentantly.

"This happens every year?" Bethany asks, wonder-struck. "It's like Highever's midsummer market!"

"Blame my mother," Alistair says, very fond. "She said it wasn't right that Highever had all the nicest things."

She laughs into his shoulder to hide how strangely at home she feels, all of a sudden. Denerim isn't anything like Highever, not even a little bit, and even less so like Storm Bay; everything here is built of wood that would soak through and rot, languishing away to nothing on the coast, mud caked even between the stones.

But the market—the market. It feels like home away from home, but wintertime. Ginger and cinnamon-sugar are caught warm on the breeze, rising from the bakery carts that line the far end of the stalls in a wave. People are meandering in their direction, pulled helpless into the undertow of it. The entire city is waking up, shaking off the wintertime slumber, slow and hungry as anything.

Alistair's stomach rumbles. Bethany wants to laugh.

It's always food.

He has the grace to blush. "I may have skipped breakfast."

Bethany's brows draw together. "That's not healthy, you know."

"I'm fine, honestly—"

She shakes her head. "No, we ought to get something. I don't want you collapsing on me, I'm not strong enough to drag you home."

Alistair snorts, but allows her to tug him forwards. Bethany has no doubt that as soon as things get moving, the long narrow paths between stalls will be impossible to navigate with throngs of people, but for now only the snow swirls around them, chap-fingered and cold-lipped, red-nosed and laughing.

Two coppers for a sticky-honey bun each, still piping hot from the fire.

(When Alistair ducks down to kiss the corner of her mouth, it's clumsy and sweet as the sugar crust. Bethany licks his nose in retaliation.)

Not the worst mornmeal she's ever had, all things considered.

"Who do you still need something for?" Alistair asks, after they've wiped their fingers clean and somehow tucked themselves into each other's sides all over again.

"Boots for Carver; new loom-needles for Mother, heartwood if I can find them. And—Mari's impossible for presents, but she's always been impossible, so Andraste knows what I'll do for her," Bethany sighs. "You?"

"Whisky for one mother, Dalish wine for the other. Tea for Elissa, another dagger for Kal—maybe gloves for your brother? My brother's a problem, too," Alistair blows his breath out. "Why are siblings so hard to find presents for?"

"Because they'd never let us alone if they weren't," Bethany smiles out of the corner of her mouth.

Alistair laughs. "You might have a point."

They wander through the hex tents for a little bit. It's an idle meander that Bethany is significantly inclined to; the snow is already turning to slush beneath their feet, and they linger over stalls that have nothing to do with what either of them are looking for.

(Food, mostly. At this rate, she's going to have to loosen her stays.)

Bethany catches a glimmer across the way, out of the corner of her eye. Something shining.

She turns towards it without meaning to, but once she's caught a glimpse of the thing, she can't look away. A misshapen pearl hung on a chain thin as spider-silk, big as her thumbnail, glinting cerise and gold like a sunrise. She can't help the sharp little intake of breath.

"Beth?"

"I—hold on, I'm sorry, Alistair, do you mind?" Bethany startles a little. "I just want to look."

"Course," he says.

Alistair lets her go (kisses the top of her head like an afterthought, which leaves Bethany blushing furiously), and wanders down the way to go squint at a hawker's wares. Once he's just out of earshot, she reaches down and carefully, carefully picks the necklace up.

Oh, but it's beautiful.

It might be the most beautiful thing she's ever seen.

But—no. Bethany puts the beautiful pearl down. Much as she'd love it, there's no reason for it; when would she even wear it? It's not nearly extravagant enough for court-wear, but too expensive for anything else.

And Mother would kill her.

Maybe later, Bethany tells herself, even as she knows it's unlikely. It's so lovely; it'll be gone the minute she looks away.

She smiles a little sheepishly at the shopkeep, shrugs her silent, awkward apology.

As much as she wants it, Bethany would much rather find something for Alistair, instead. He's squinting at a little line of stone statuettes on the edge of the stall three down, and Bethany's about to make her way back to him, when something sparkling in the next stall over catches the very edge of her eye.

Runestones.

All sorts, when she really stops to look. Fire runes for a hearth that promise an everlasting flame; hale runes for healthy children; ice runes for a particularly bad-tempered cold-box. Tucked into the back, however, beneath a pile of dweomer runes that look like they ought to be dosed with dredged magic, is a slim white runestone inscribed in gold on both sides. The runework is old, old Tevinter; speed and protection, if she's not wrong.

It'd be a decent rune for a travel charm.

Bethany blinks against the weak sunlight for a moment, caught in the decision. She knows he has to leave in the spring, and—

It's not always safe, travelling.

"This, please," Bethany says, before she can second-guess it. The gold slips through her fingers like water—Mother really is going to kill her—but she manages to hide the rune away before Alistair catches sight of it.

"Did you find what you were looking for?" he asks, when she touches his elbow.

"Yes," Bethany smiles up at him. "I think so."

The days leading up to Satinalia are a little more tense than Bethany expects.

Elissa is very pregnant.

And in the vein of the Queen of Ferelden being very pregnant, the King of Ferelden is correspondingly more and more on edge, turned quieter and quieter by the day and sent anyone in his wake skittering for fear of the lack of a decent mood. He's normally so good-natured that it's a significant departure from form, and it has the entire castle on the verge of melting into hysterics.

(When Bethany asks him about it, Alistair shrugs. He stares at her for an uncomfortably long moment, and then says, very low, "He loves her too much. Always has done—Maker, I can't say I don't understand."

Bethany's face flames just thinking about it.)

The evening before Feastday, Bethany sits with her mother and her sister by the fire, putting the last finishing touches on the embroidery along the edges of the baby blanket. Mabari and dragons rampant; Andraste knows that no child of Lissy's is going to be anything less than that sort of terrifyingly fierce.

"We've been invited to Her Majesty's gift opening tomorrow morning, my darlings," Mother says, lightly. "I expect we'll be there most of the day."

Marian leans forward, eyes glinting. "Oh, really? All of us? For the entire day?"

"Yes, Marian, and you'll behave yourself, or I'll be very disappointed in you," Mother says crisply.

"But Mother, we—we haven't gifts, it'll be so rude—" Bethany bites down on her lip.

"Oh, my love, you needn't worry," Mother says, waving the concern away like pearly spirals of steam from a fresh cup of tea. "I was prepared for this."

Somehow, Bethany isn't surprised. That's just like Mother, isn't it, to always be twelve steps ahead of everyone else—if it means that Mother's managed Feastday gifts for every member of the extended royal family (because, certainly, Fergus and Lady Oriana are in-house with little Oren, and Uncle Bryce and Auntie Ellie until the weather improves, and Elissa and Cailan and the Queen Dowager and Lady Fiona and Alistair and, oh, sweet Maker, that's not a small number of gifts), then that's what it means.

It is where Mari gets it from, at any rate.

(This says, perhaps, more about her family than Bethany wants to admit.)

Bethany folds up the blanket, fingers careful. It's the most beautiful thing she'd ever made, and she's quite proud of it. It's the last of her Satinalia gifts left unwrapped, but she doesn't think Elissa will mind.

The babe's not come, yet.

She'll put it in a basket with the other gifts—even the other gift that she'd not even been sure she'd give; if Bethany hadn't seen him all day, she'd have put it away, but it's not as though she has the option to hide from Alistair now—and in the morning after mornmeal, they'll figure it out. The mummers and the other festivities are set for later in the day.

But Satinalia's morning is for family.

"Mother," Bethany starts, "I—"

"Oh, Andraste. I've seen how you look at the prince, Bethany," Mother sighs. "You're not subtle, dear. Half the castle's seen how you look at him, and the rest have seen how he looks at you. Are you really surprised that we've been invited?"

"So, no chalking it up to being family, then?" Marian breaks in, eyebrow crooked. "Why, Mother, I didn't think you had it in you!"

"Marian, darling, that's enough," says Mother, smiling, but it's not a nice smile.

"Yes, Mother," laughs Marian, clapping her hands. She rolls into standing, stretching, her spine popping sickly with the movement. "Ought to be bedtime, then, no? We can't be oversleeping on Feastday! The scandal!"

Bethany wants to hate her, sometimes.

But it's impossible, really, to hate her older sister, even when she's at her very worst.

She lies awake for hours, worrying herself into knots. What if he doesn't like it? What if she's read this all wrong, and it's not what she thinks it is? What if she—

witchlights on the water. she turns, fallowing strings of laterns, curls in her mouth. candle flicker, columns of light that go on forever, lit and dancing. a girl laughing—me? is that me?—her reflection crackling in the winds of salt and mirror shards on the ground. flowers in her hair, bells at her wrists, the flare of a pale blue dress. a hand on her cheek that she leans into, against, maker's breath, you're beautiful. a name in her mouth, his name, oh, alistair—

—wakes up?

Bethany blinks at the ceiling, winter-pale light filtering in through the window. The last embers of the banked fire spark, even now; it's morning, already. She doesn't remember falling asleep.

Andraste, strange dreams.

She rubs the rest from her eyes, still gummy from the depths of the Fade. Maker, her curls are everywhere, they're going to be impossible. Bethany drags herself from the grasping warmth of her bed, blindly searching for the bucket of clean water by the washbasin. A thin, shining crust of ice has formed overnight.

She plunges her hands into the water, frost crackling around her fingerstips.

It is brilliantly cold.

The shock of it against her skin startles Bethany full into wakefulness. There's no point in dwelling, not on strange dreams and not on how little control over her hair she has. She splashes her face to wash away the rest of the melancholy, dripping wetly until she feels a little better.

There's nothing to do but to face it. It's only one day.

Bethany reaches for the lavender-dusk dress.

It glimmers faintly, woven through with silver thread, and it hangs perfectly from her frame, tailored in close as it is. The fabric is smooth and soft beneath her fingers when she touches it. Bethany sighs.

Elissa is going to have a field day.

But—Bethany looks beautiful. Chasind witch or noblewoman, Hawke or Amell, normal or not; it remains an objective fact in the mirror. She looks beautiful. She doesn't bother to argue with it, even to her own self. Maker, she wishes she wasn't so worried about what Alistair is going to think.

But she is.

She is worried about what Alistair is going to think. Bethany bites down on her lip, chewing until it hurts and the flush of blood is close, right at the surface of her skin.

There's no helping it.

She is what she is, and that's all. Whether he wants her or not—that's an entirely different story.

"Oh, good, you're ready!" says Mother, entirely pleased from the doorway. Bethany had been so engrossed in the girl in the mirror that she hadn't even heard her mother open the door.

"Please don't say anything, Mother," Bethany begs. Mother has that look on her face, the one that's not quite mischievous not quite not planning something, which might be worse.

"I was only going to say that you look very nice, Bethany," Mother tells her, primly. "You needn't worry so much, darling, it's going to be a perfect day."

Bethany's stomach churns. "I don't know about that."

"You'll be fine, dear," Mother waves the concern away, because she's Mother, and nothing ruffles her even when she's at her most disapproving. Bethany wraps her arms around herself, the lavender-dusk dress shifting with her. It's a little bit of a comfort, somehow.

"Mother, I—"

But Mother shakes her head, cutting Bethany off. "Bethany, if I gave you a choice, you'd still be in Storm Bay. Sometimes a mother has to push."

This is greatly unfair.

It is also, unfortunately, true.

"Then what should I do, Mother?" Bethany asks, plaintive. Oddly, it feels like she's asking for something else, although Bethany couldn't say what answer she's really looking for. How to be a person, maybe; Bethany was never any good at that, either.

Mother's gaze softens. "You'll come with me and you'll have a lovely time, and I promise I won't let your sister ruin it. How's that?"

This is about as good as it's going to get. Bethany isn't unaware.

And so they go.

Mother leads the way. The corridors of the Imperial Palace still confuse Bethany to no end, but it's—nice, sort of, allowing Mother to set their course. Carver yawns at Bethany's left, still half-asleep, and Mari stretches until her spine makes an awful crack.

The royal wing is a labyrinth.

Mother navigates it with aplomb.

And suddenly, there they are. The old oak door is carved with mabari rampant, flowers and ferns and winding knots besides. Mother does the honours. She is the matriarch of the family; Lady Hawke until such a time as she chooses not to be.

She knocks.

King Cailan opens the door, grinning brightly. For a moment, Bethany is struck by the resemblance; he and Alistair really do look alike. The long handsome face, the lines of the smile, even the tawny bronze of the skin. It's impossible that they aren't related. The king is blonder, wider in the shoulder and taller, inasmuch as those things matter. The eyes are a little different, too.

But they grin the same. It sets something in Bethany's chest at ease.

"Maker, there you are, Oren's getting impatient," King Cailan says. He ushers them in, poking fun at Marian—who seems utterly delighted by the whole thing—ruffling Carver's hair, chatting at Mother as though he does it every day of his life. There's a little boy staring longingly at the mound of presents; when the king says the boy's name, he waves.

"Let's not keep him waiting any longer, then. shall we," Mother says. She nods approvingly in Oren's direction. "He's been very good to have lasted this long."

The family wing is a hum of indulgent low voices, warm with tea and the syrupy, sleepy magic that infuses all Feastday mornings. Uncle Bryce is yawning around a pastry; Auntie Ellie is on the floor, returned to distracting Oren from the pile of gifts by the fireplace. Lady Rowan and Lady Fiona sit very close in a chaise, knees touching, hands twined out of sight; Elissa is arguing with Fergus quietly about something that probably doesn't matter very much, Oriana sitting between them and looking amused.

Bethany's family slips in among them as though they belong there: Marian goes to plop herself down next to Uncle Bryce, the unashamed favourite of the nieces and nephews; Mother settles gracefully in Lady Rowan's orbit, which is all sorts of worrying but which Bethany will deal with at a later date; King Cailan cheerfully drags Carver into Elissa and Fergus' argument with very little dignity and very much fanfare instead.

Andraste, her family.

They're all impossible, but she loves them.

Bethany sets the basket of gifts down by the rest, and then turns around to find herself blinking at Alistair's chest. She won't pretend as though she hadn't been looking for him; sweetness sticks in her throat that he thought to look for her at all.

"Happy Feastday, Beth," Alistair grins down at her, very soft. "You, uh, you look nice."

"Happy Feastday," she says, just a little shy. "My mother insisted."

"Yeah, it's, er, it suits you," he says. The tips of his ears have turned a little pink. It's sweet. Alistair ducks a little, as though he can't help himself. "Do you want to—?"

"Presents!" comes a very impatient voice. Both Alistair and Bethany startle, just a little, and look up to find most of the rest of the family gathered at the fire. Oren, all of four years old, conducts. "Uncle Alli, presents! Now!"

"I think you've been summoned," Bethany says, biting down on a smile.

"If I'm going, so're you," Alistair murmurs, eyes crinkling.

"Must I?"

"Yes, absolutely, sorry, love—"

"Bethy, princeling, please, you can flirt later," Marian calls, laughing. "Indulge the boy. It's Feastday!"

"I'll Feastday you," Carver mutters.

(Bethany loves him very intensely in this moment.)

The family settles. No one actually denies Mari's horror, and Alistair and Bethany stumble to sit among them, red as though their heads were on fire. It takes a tremendous amount of effort on Bethany's part not to bury her face in her knees. Her mother is sitting there!

But Mother pays them hardly any more attention than she'd pay a Chantry sister begging alms. She's far too busy entertaining Oren and Lady Rowan and Lady Fiona with shadows on the wall, smoky and shadow-shard, the kind of stories that Bethany had grown up with. Her father's stories, really.

Alistair tugs on Bethany's wrist.

"Everyone's distracted," he whispers in Bethany's ear. "Come outside with me?"

Everyone is distracted. They might have five minutes to themselves, if they escape right this minute.

Bethany nods, and together, they sneak towards the door out onto the balcony, long thin icicles growing down from the eaves. She's fair certain that her older sister has caught them out at it, but—Marian only crooks an eyebrow from across the room, and doesn't call them out for it. Once was enough, maybe. But maybe it's also that Marian delights in the trickery.

And it is Satinalia.

Alistair tugs Bethany outside in a whirl of snowflakes and cold wind, closing their families inside behind them. The entire world mutes down to snow and silt, the sky clear and blue for the first time in what feels like months.

"Mental, the lot," Alistair shakes his head, disbelieving.

"And we're related to them," says Bethany, mouth curling into a small, desperately fond smile. She leans against Alistair, basking in the warmth of his frame. "My sister's a nightmare, honestly. I'm so sorry, Alistair."

He chuckles, a low rumbling sound in his throat that shivers warm in Bethany's chest. "She wasn't—well, wasn't quite wrong?"

"What do you mean?"

"I was flirting with you, Beth."

"Oh!"

"I mean, it's—I can stop. Do you want me to stop?"

Bethany blinks up at him. Where in the Maker's name did he get that idea? As though she'd not have run off and not spoken to him at all if she'd not wanted him to continue! But—bravery, maybe. Maybe she has to be a little bit brave. Alistair has moments of strange insecurity that she isn't entirely sure how to name, or how to prevent, or—

Or anything, really. Bethany twines their fingers, instead. "Don't," she says, shakes her head, "Alistair, don't."

"Don't what? Don't flirt with you, or don't stop?"

He's impossible.

Bethany darts up to kiss his cheek. She drops back down, very tempted to hide behind her curls, but she doesn't. Bravery. "I don't mind if it's you flirting with me, you know."

"That's—you're—" Alistair makes a sound like a small death, shakes himself of whatever's twisted up behind his eyes. He stares at her very intensely. "Are you sure?"

"Yes."

"I'm—Maker's breath, Beth, I'm trying not to kiss you!"

Bethany smiles, sweet and slow. "You could, you know."

"I, er, I got you something," he says, swallowing hard, not quite looking her in the face. "I dunno if I shouldn't have, but I thought—why not? It's Feastday."

"If it makes you feel any better, so did I," Bethany continues to smile at him, still slow, still sweet.

"What, got you something? That doesn't seem very much in the spirit of the thing—"

"Got you something, Alistair."

He grins at her. "Sorry. I know what you meant, I'm just—I'm not very good at this. Gift-giving. Words. Any of it. Hm, Maker's breath, Kally's going to make fun of me."

"Not if you don't tell her. It's not going too badly, so far, you know," Bethany says, very reasonably. "Do you want yours, first?"

"No, I, er—" Alistair breaks off, shaking his head. He's got his hands tucked behind his back, a nervous little roll of his shoulders, "—here. I hope you like it?"

It's a slim little box made of obsidian-black wood, lacquered shiny. Only an inch high, hinged in gold, it's barely the size of her palm. Bethany holds it for a minute, too nervous to open it. She doesn't know why, but it sticks in her throat, and—

From somewhere in her chest, Bethany manages to find the courage to open it.

A pearl on a chain, big as her thumbnail, cerise and gold where it catches the light.

"Oh," Bethany breathes. "Oh, Alistair, I—how did you know?"

"You stared at it for a good ten minutes at the market, Beth, it wasn't that hard a guess," Alistair says, flushing a little. He scratches at his neck. "You like it, then?"

"It's beautiful," Bethany says, heart in her throat. "Help me put it on?"

She turns, lifts her hair away from her neck. The clasp is delicate; Alistair's hands are trembling.

(There is something of a ritual, to this. It feels almost like a promise; Bethany remembers her father clasping closed the locket her mother wears every day much the same way. It matters, though she couldn't say precisely why.)

"There," Alistair says, a little rough. He swallows. "All done."

Bethany turns around, stands up on her toes, and kisses him soundly on the mouth.

"Thank you, Alistair," Bethany murmurs, when she drops back down, pink in the cheeks. "I'll never take it off."

Alistair looks rather like someone's clubbed him over the head. He stares at her for a moment, slightly open-mouthed, more-than-slightly glaze-eyed. "Beth, love, if I said I'd rather have another kiss, would you consider—?"

"After," Bethany says, flush darkening. Maker, that sounds like a promise. "Feastday gift, first."

"I'd prefer the kiss, if I'm honest."

"Alistair," says Bethany.

"Oh, alright, go on, then," he says, and Bethany carefully pulls the little leather bag she'd stashed the charm from her sleeve. Alistair takes it from her fingers, frowning slightly. "What's this?"

The runestone falls into his palm, looped on a leather cord. The runework glints gold—speed and protection, spinning like a flipped coin—cut with the soft fawn-brown of the feathers, the teal-blue shine of the beads. It looks very small in his hands.

"Travel charm," Bethany says, biting at her lip. "I know you're not leaving until the spring, but I thought—"

"Are these griffon feathers?"

Bethany nods, lip still between her teeth. "Real ones."

"Where did you get them?"

"If you hadn't picked up on it, my sister's a bit of a magpie," Bethany says. "She brought them home when I was… twelve or thirteen, I think. But they seemed to fit. Do you like it?"

Alistair looks up from the runestone, expression very still. Bethany's not entirely sure what that's supposed to mean; he slips the rune into his pocket without saying a word, knuckles white with pressure for a moment.

"Beth," he says, low, held careful in his mouth. "Are you cold?"

"No? Alistair? Is everything alright?"

He tugs her out of sight of the glass, up against his chest with her back to the stone of the castle wall. A chill goes all the way through her, and then another when Alistair kisses her so fiercely it curls her toes.

"You—I—you're perfect, how're you—" and he punctuates every word with another kiss, staggered with it, "—how're you this—I love you—"

"Alistair," cracks out of Bethany's throat, hungry and whiny and needy, hardly herself, so close and desperate to be closer. A shuddering breath slides out of her.

He keeps her pinned against the wall, hands and wrists and knuckles and knobs, and Bethany lets him, can only tilt her head back to let him at her neck, bare and vulnerable beneath his teeth. Maker, she'd let him do anything. She'd let him have anything.

Neither of them says another word for a very long time.

"You have something on your neck," says Elissa, entirely casual. "Just there, below your jaw."

Bethany reaches up to touch the spot, and a tiny spark of bruise-pain just the shape of Alistair's mouth flickers through her like a candle in the wind.

"Don't tease," is out of Bethany's mouth before she can stop it.

"I would never!" says Elissa. This is a lie, given the way the Queen of Ferelden is grinning with all of her teeth. "Really, I'm surprised you've only the one."

"That's teasing, Lissy!"

"Oh, fine, I might tease a little," Elissa amends. She leans forward, makes a face when that becomes too difficult and has to flop backwards, and tries to arrange herself a little more comfortably. "You could tease me back, if you wanted."

"What would be the point? You're—" Bethany kind of apologetically indicates Elissa's everything, "—well, you're having a hard-enough time as it is, aren't you?"

"Teasing you is the only thing that gives me joy anymore," mutters the Queen. She grimaces. "I think I've forgotten what having fun is like. Tell me about it?"

Bethany bites down on her lip—

Alistair's hands close convulsively around her hips.

"Someone's going to hear us," she whispers, the last word sliding into a high-pitched whine, so grateful for his knee between her thighs holding her up against the wall. "Alistair, Alistair, we can't, we're going to get in trouble—"

"S'fine, Beth," Alistair hums something else much more incoherent under his breath, nudges her cheek with his nose. Bethany drops her head back against the cool stone of the wall, throat bared for his mouth.

It probably—it probably really isn't fine, but—

Alistair chooses this precise moment to apply his teeth to a spot behind her ear, and Bethany promptly forgets her own name—

—trying to stave off the rush of blood to the head. Staring into space, not entirely all the way there, she doesn't realize that she hasn't actually replied. The needlework in her lap threatens to falling.

"Bethany," Elissa says after a moment, only a little strained.

"Hm?"

"Could you go find my husband, please?"

Bethany looks up from the daydream, blinking. That doesn't sound like Elissa at all—Bethany doesn't think her old friend has ever said please in her life. Certainly she's never said in this tone; high-pitched and plaintive doesn't suit the Queen of Ferelden. She'd kill a man to be described that way.

But Elissa is white as paste. Her freckles stand out starkly on her face, eyes overbright. Bethany can near feel the sudden, bright hot throb of pain that trembles its way through her friend's frame. It leaves shivers in its wake, the horrible grimace of bloody bitter pain.

"Lissy?" Bethany asks. "Is everything alright?"

"No," says Elissa, tight with pain. "No, I think I'm about to have his sprog right this minute, and I need him here, or I might kill us both."

Bethany's up like a shot.

"Don't do that," Bethany manages. "I'll find him, just—just breathe, Lissy—"

"My mother, too?"

"Yes," Bethany nods frantically. "I-I can do that. I'll be right back, hold on!"

She's up and moving before she really has time to think about.

Bethany doesn't have a clue how she's going to manage finding the king (given that the castle seems to hate her and she only ever seems to end up finding Alistair when she goes to find something), but for once, luck seems to be on her side.

Bethany skitters out of the royal wing at a ship's clip, takes two steps, and crashes straight into the King of Ferelden's chest.

(She'll find out later that he was two floors down from the royal wing, in the Landsmeet hall. There's no way, no how she could have made that trip in two steps. Bethany thinks: magic.)

King Cailan steadies her shoulders. "Maker's breath, Lady Bethany? Where'd you come from?"

"Lissy needs you," Bethany manages to get out. "She's—the baby, Your Majesty?"

The colour drains from the king's face. "Oh, bloody hell. Already?"

Bethany can only nod. They'd hoped—they'd all hoped, including the palace healer—that they might have another week, at least. Another week would have given them a little time to wind down from the Satinalia celebrations, to prepare.

But there's no time, now.

King Cailan makes a sound rather like the air being let out of a pig's bladder balloon. He nods, more to himself than to Bethany.

(It strikes her that she's seen the mannerism before; Alistair and King Cailan share many of the same facial expressions, but the tight hot worry on the king's face is one that Bethany never wants to see on Alistair. She has a sneaking suspicion that it might well kill her, if she does.)

"Right," says King Cailan. "Right. I'll send someone for Anders—you're a healer too, aren't you? 'Lissa said."

"I—yes," says Bethany, only a little bit nervous. Elissa would never have told him if she'd been unsure, and…

Well. Bethany remembers what Alistair had said about Lady Fiona. King Cailan calls the elvhen woman maman, too. Family is a strange thing. A hard thing, too; sometimes through blood, sometimes found, sometimes built from the ashes of what came before.

But good.

Always good.

The king nods again. He's still very pale. "You'll come, won't you? You're—you're friends, you and 'Lissa."

"Oh, yes, of course, if you want me there," Bethany says.

King Cailan smiles tightly. "I hate to ask, but losing her'll kill me."

And then Alistair will have to deal with it, and so will you, because you're the same, you're his 'Lissa, he doesn't say.

Andraste, that's a nightmare thought.

"No one wants that, Your Majesty," Bethany says, very softly. "I can fetch Alistair and everyone, if you'd like?"

"No," says King Cailan, instantly. "No, I'll—I'll do that part, I'll find everyone, you go keep 'Lissa from screaming. Alright?"

"If that's what you want," Bethany tells him, as gently as she can. Somehow, someway, all of a sudden King Cailan and Elissa make sense to Bethany in a way that they didn't, before. She's not even sure why, but they do; there's a familiar desperation to the way that the king loves Elissa, and it eases Bethany's heart to see it.

(Bethany understands desperation. Marian taught her all about it.)

King Cailan claps Bethany on the shoulder, only a little bit too tight.

"She's going to be fine," Bethany murmurs, comfortingly.

"Of course she is," the king says. When he grins, it hurts just at the edges. "She's 'Lissa. She's always fine, until it kills her."

And Maker, if that isn't the truth, Bethany doesn't know what is.

Bethany is covered in blood. All of her muscles ache. She doesn't think she's ever been this tired in her entire life, and she wasn't even the one having the baby. Alistair's collarbone is very solid, and a perfect place to lay her head for a while. His arm comes up to wrap around her shoulders, steady as a stone in a storm.

"Well," she heaves a sigh, closes her eyes. "They're both fine, thank Andraste. You have a nephew. I think I'm going to sleep for a week."

"Marry me," Alistair says.

"You—" Bethany has to open her eyes so that she can look him in the face. "I'm sorry, what?"

"I—Maker's breath, sorry, that didn't come out the way I wanted it to," Alistair says. He's bright red all over. "I meant it, though. Marry me, Beth Hawke."

"I'm covered in Lissy's blood, and you want to marry me?"

Alistair blinks at her. "Well, I'm hoping you're not planning to be covered in her blood forever, if that makes you feel any better. Seems a bit unsanitary, if you ask me."

"That's—" Bethany finds herself laughing, a little bit hysteric. Covered in her oldest friend's blood, exhausted, not entirely sure she isn't dreaming. "Timing, Alistair."

"When else would I have asked?"

"You didn't really ask, though, you know?

"She makes a decent point," Alistair murmurs, slipped out under his breath, more to himself than to her. He props his chin against her head. "Will you be able to stand if I let you go, love?"

"Probably not," Bethany says, very judiciously.

"Then I'll stay where I am," he kisses the words into the top of her head, easy as anything. He takes her entire weight without any trouble at all. "Will you marry me? Come to Gwaren? It might be lonely, you know."

"It won't be," Bethany murmurs.

"You think so?"

"You'll be there," she says. "And so will I. How could it be lonely?"

"That isn't a yes," Alistair says, just to make her squirm.

Bethany tucks a smile into the pulse beating in his throat, the visible nerves of it. As though there could be any other answer out of her, honestly—as though somehow, they haven't been rawly honest with each other every minute of every day, stripped themselves bare down to the bones.

"I suppose it's not," she agrees. "But this is. Yes, Alistair Theirin, I'll marry you."

The breath leaves him all in a rush. Alistair ducks his face to press into her hair, clinging just a little too close for a long moment. They breathe against one another, swaying back and forth to the silence of the cool night air.

"Are you going to be alright?" Bethany asks him, softly, smiling a little.

"One day," Alistair says. "Maker, I think I'm shaking."

"Why?"

"Terrified," he says, softly like a secret. "What if you'd said no?"

"It would have been a lie if I'd said no," Bethany says. Exhausted as she is, there's still something of satisfaction in the way he allows her to reach up to cup a palm around the side of his face. "Oh, Maker, Alistair. Please don't look so sad?"

"I'm not sad," he says. He turns his face into her hand. Kisses her fingertips. Kisses her palm.

Bethany's heart stutters in her chest, and it's suddenly curiously difficult to breathe. "Stop trying to distract me."

"Not trying to distract you, either," Alistair murmurs, but there's a tiny spark of mischief to the words, and when he looks up at her through his eyelashes, he's grinning into her skin. "Although I could try, if you'd like."

"I'll fall over if you let go of me right now," Bethany reminds him, a little faint.

"The blood's sort of off-putting, too, now I think about it," muses Alistair. He's very careful to settle her against him so that she doesn't wobble; he looks her over again, frowning a little. "We really ought to get you cleaned up."

It's easy to slump against him. Bethany wants to get clean, but getting clean involves moving, and moving involves more energy than she has, at present. And Alistair is entirely solid and entirely warm, wonderful body heat seeping into her tired limbs.

Bethany had known she was tired; she hadn't known she was this tired. She shakes her head into Alistair's throat. "They want to see you, I think."

"Look at me, would you?"

Dragging her face from the crook of Alistair's neck requires the kind of impossible, dragon-starlight strength that lives only in myth. She manages it, squinting against the torchlight only a little. "What?"

Alistair dips his head down to kiss her.

Oh, Bethany thinks.

(Well, then. If that's how he wants to be.)

His mouth is earnest and sweet, and gone as quick as it had come. A flashfire of heat that swamps over her and then leaves, trailing shivers in its wake. Alistair cradles the back of her head so gently.

If Bethany had the energy to glower at him for this, she would. "You're very unfair when you want to be, Alistair Theirin."

"Only when I have to be," Alistair smiles down at her. "Come on, let's go see what they want, and then I'll walk you back."

There's something about the way he says it that pings wrong in Bethany's head, but she's a little too close to fuzzy incoherence to put her finger on precisely what that wrongness is. Alistair weaves their fingers and tugs her into walking with him, straight back from whence she'd come. Elissa is probably asleep, and she shouldn't be intruding, and—

Alistair doesn't let go of her all the way back into Elissa and Cailan's rooms.

Bethany digs her heels in before they slip inside. It's not—he should, but not her, it's not, it's family— "Alistair," she manages, "Alistair, I shouldn't—"

He blinks back at her. "Why not?"

"Because I—he's your nephew—"

"He'll be your nephew, too," Alistair points out, very quietly. It's the way he moves; he fills up her entire world, even though he's frowning, eyebrows pulled together with a strange kind of concern. "Not quite yet, obviously, but… Well. You know."

Too close. Not close enough. Bethany wants to sleep for a week. She ducks her head to keep him from seeing the flush, because she hadn't—well, hadn't really thought of it like that. It's an easy thing to say, when it's only Alistair. Yes.

"Are you certain?" she whispers.

"Am I certain that he's going to be your nephew? Er, yes, I'm fairly sure that's how marriage works, Beth," says Alistair. "Unless you've decided you don't want to marry me, which I suppose I can't blame you for."

"Alistair," Bethany says.

"Yes, dear?"

"Don't be ridiculous."

"I could tell you the same," Alistair says. He reaches up to tuck a stray curl behind her ear, slow and with exceeding care. "You can't expect me to believe Elissa won't be annoyed with us both if you're not there."

He makes a decent point, Bethany knows. Annoyance at her absence would be, unfortunately, very in-character for Queen Elissa Theirin.

(Newborn babe in her arms and all. That's just Lissy; that's the way she is. The way she's always been, really, even when they were small. It would be frightfully bothersome if Bethany didn't love her so brilliantly for it.)

"I hate that you're not wrong."

"It's very bothersome, isn't it, it's like I haven't known her my entire life," Alistair beams smarmily at her. It shouldn't be half so attractive as Bethany finds it; Andraste, he's going to be the death of her. "Come on, love. Please?"

"Oh, alright," she murmurs, pink in the cheeks.

Alistair dips his head to kiss her again.

And then Bethany allows him to lead her forwards, and closes the door to the family wing behind them.

Cétshamhain.

It means first of summer. The word tastes odd on Bethany's tongue, the old Alamarri brogue-roll of it foreign in a way she can't quite pronounce. It's Gwaren tradition from before the occupation, and long before that, besides; without a proper Teyrn, the local folk had continued to observe the rites, even if no one else did.

Bethany doesn't think she's seen this many flowers in one place in her entire life.

The city sings with them, soaking the entire world in sugar and salt breeze. The perfect cusp of summer threatens: daylight spills into the palace golden-white, soft as clouds and twice as clean. The fires have already been lit; she can see the pillars of smoke rising from the beach from here. Burn away the old to make way for the new. Magic for the land, for a good harvest, for an easy year.

Marriage and children, too. Bethany flushes just thinking about it.

(It's funny how many of the old traditions she knows. A blue dress, a crown of flowers and braids, bells at her wrists. The Hawke tartan, stark scarlet and ink, to be worn around her shoulders in the evening when it gets cold. It'll be the last time she wears it; Bethany mourns only a little. It always belonged to her older sister more than to her, but still. But still.)

"You're really going to do this, aren't you."

Bethany's older sister lounges in the doorframe, a funny little smile across her face. Marian watches her in the mirror with her arms crossed; she's all knives and agony and red, violent red.

"Yes," says Bethany. "I am."

"Oh, don't think I'm upset about it, darling," Marian says. The corner of her mouth quirks, and the funniness smooths into affection. "I think you'll be very happy here. It'll suit you, and your princeling's still arse over tits out of his head, so it's fine."

Maker, but Marian does have a way of putting things into perspective.

"He's right for me, I think," Bethany says, very softly. "He—I don't know, Mari. Alistair makes me feel like starlight all the time."

"I'm aware, Bethy, you're awful at hiding how you feel," laughs Marian. She crosses the floor to carefully wraps her arms around Bethany from behind. They really look nothing alike; Bethany takes so after their father—all dark curls and dark eyes—and Marian so after their mother.

In the reflection of the glass sit a Chasind witch and a Marcher assassin.

The Hawke sisters are very quiet for a very long time.

It feels right, somehow.

"I suppose it's a bit late to ask if he knows," Marian says, a tad amused. She tweaks one of the forest wildflower blooms in Bethany's hair. "He must, you'd have never gotten this far if he hadn't. A little strange for a princeling, don't you think?"

"He knows," Bethany murmurs. "It's not my secret to tell, sorry, Mari."

"Mmm, that's not a surprise," Marian smiles. Her gaze is very fond. "Look at you, all grown up."

"Why do you sound like you're never going to see me again?" Bethany blinks.

"You won't just be my little sister anymore," is all that Marian says. She kisses the top of Bethany's head and then steps back, putting half a foot of space between them. "Up you get, darling, let's not keep your princeling waiting any longer than he has done!"

Bethany rises only a tiny bit unsteady.

Marian's hands are there to catch her, just as they always have been.

But that's Bethany's older sister all over, isn't it? Marian does whatever she wants, whenever she wants to do it, but she's always been the safety net beneath Bethany's feet.

But she can't be, anymore.

Alistair's willing to do it, instead.

When Bethany's back on her feet and standing entirely on her own, she reaches out to wrap her arms around her elder sister's neck. Mari smells like family and grief, the sea and leather and sharp metal death, if that had a smell. Something like winter, but alive.

She doesn't smell like home, anymore, though.

Maybe that's the difference.

Bethany kisses her older sister's cheek, feeling full to bursting, inside. "Thank you for being here, Mari. You didn't have to."

"I wouldn't miss it, Bethy," Marian says, more solemn than Bethany has ever known her older sister to be. "Not for anything. You're getting married, little sister, aren't you? Someone ought to be here!"

"I know, but—"

"No, darling," Marian murmurs. She pulls away to look Bethany full in the face and smiles bittersweet, white and blue and clear. "This is right. This is where you ought to be. I'm proud of you."

"Really?"

"More than you know," Marian says. "Now, are you ready? You're only going to get married once."

"I think so," says Bethany. "I hope so?"

"No," says Marian. "You are."

They leave it like this between them, painless and easy. The afternoon leavens slowly into twilight-purple dusk, lanterns lit half-golden with flickering light. Marian walks Bethany out into it, long strings of lanterns to light their way.

Gwaren isn't like other places, Bethany's discovered.

They keep to the old traditions, here.

Cétshamhain is a festival of light, of early summer, marriage, fertility. The fire by the Chantry burns low, for now; safe to jump over the molten glow of the embers, once the sun is gone completely. The Brecilian's trees loom in close, leafy and dark-lit with the night's first fireflies. Bethany stands with the four other girls to be married over the fires, giggling amongst themselves.

(Bethany's never really had friends her own age who weren't Elissa. The four girls all smile easily at her, tuck their elbows through one another's without artifice. All of them, to a one—two human, one dwarven, one Dalish who'd left her clan for a boy from Gwaren's alienage—include her in it. They crowd together, and it slips into Bethany's chest somewhere deep and dark behind her ribs to settle pale and glimmering like a witchlight. Friendship. Oh, friendship.)

It won't be long, now. The sun's gone down.

Nighttime plunges over the Brecilian, swallows it up. The clearing outside the Chantry begins to fill, a murmuring of excited voices wound through with fiddle-song. There are petals along the path, mounds of flowers that she doesn't have names for, and more candles; light and light and light to chase away the night.

And in the middle of it all, Bethany finds Alistair, holding his breath.

"Hi," she says, softly.

"Hi," Alistair breathes, very softly, awed beyond measure as he looks at her. "You're here."

"I am. And so are you," Bethany says. The words are like flowers in her mouth, lavender-sweet. She reaches out to twine their fingers. "Are we going?"

"Yeah," Alistair says. "If you want."

"I do," says Bethany.

They cling to each other all the way down to the pyre. Alistair's grip is just this side of too tight. He grins down at her nervously, skin taut around the eyes, and he keeps glancing at the fire, and then glancing at Bethany's dress, and then back to the fire again.

"I'm not going to trip into the fire," Bethany murmurs, a tiny little thread of laughter in the words.

"Your sister'll kill me, Beth," he manages. "And you look—you look—your dress is—"

"I look what?"

Alistair swallows hard. His ears go pink. "Very nice. You look—very nice."

Bethany bites down on the giggle that threatens in her throat. Only Alistair, honestly. She squeezes his fingers gently in reply, and feels him hold on tighter. Lavender and bluebottle colour up her nose, a bouquet of purple thistle and crystal grace and blue bells besides. They'll help feed the pyre back to a bonfire late in the evening; all of those good wishes, sent in smoke and ash to the Maker.

"I love you," Bethany says, because it's true. His name in her mouth. "Maybe I ought to have said it before, but I—I do. I love you, Alistair."

"Maker's breath, you're beautiful," Alistair breathes. "Beth, I—"

"Shh," she whispers. "It's starting!"

Bethany won't remember much more of this night.

She won't remember the moon rising to hover huge and golden over the Amaranthine. She won't remember the cool press of the night air against her skin, the laughter echoing through the woods. She won't remember the nerves fluttering in her stomach; she won't remember the way that Alistair looks at her when she's not paying attention, startled and sweet and shaking only a little. She won't remember the boy with the funny ears carrying the dwarven girl over the fire, laughing all the while. She won't remember the magic on her tongue, tasting like spun sugar and sunshine romantic.

But she'll remember the expression on Alistair's face when they jump. Terror and hope and wild adoration, taking on the world together, all at once.

And Bethany will remember the way he catches her, drags her into his chest, and kisses the breath right out of her lungs.

"I told you I wouldn't trip," Bethany giggles into Alistair's mouth.

"I love you," says Alistair, delirious with it. "I love you, I can't believe you let me marry you, have you lost your bloody mind—"

And Bethany laughs, and kisses him, and kisses him again.

Feeling like starlight.

Feeling like magic.

Feeling like starting all over again.

.

.

.

.

.

fin.