After they passed through the gates of Orzammar, Alistair’s eyes strayed from her so little that he almost tripped over his own feet several times. He caught Wynne smiling at him every so oftem – though he was a little wary to call it grandmotherly anymore thanks to tidbits he’d learned about the older woman – and Zevran had ramped up his suggestions of how he could improve himself for her. Both attitudes made him want to scream but he held his temper as well as his tongue in check purely for her sake.
Everyone they traveled with knew she was casteless – that was blindingly obvious thanks to the grand that covered her right cheek and eye. What she had never said out loud to the others was that she had been a member of the Carta since she could hold a blade, scraping out the meager shell of a life in Dust Town by steel and blood. She had been the elder sister, the one responsible for her family since her father had disappeared for the surface when she and her sister were young, and she had taken the idea to heart. Her body bore too many old wounds to count (and Alistair had tried once), remnants of street battles won and lost, but she could recall every scar she’d taken for her sister. In her own words, she had described herself as a ruthless animal and shakily admitted she didn’t want to become that again.
Now they were walking back into the place that had made her become that and he was terrified that he might lose her. That was why he watched her so closely and tried to stay at her side to the best of his ability. There was no comfort he could give to reassure her and she’d already stated that she wouldn’t accept any until the stones of the city were at their back.
I must be steel and stone to face this, had been her shaky words, muttered between the last kisses they’d shared before setting out from their camp. Please understand.
He had understood all too well since he’d come to discover lately that the main thing they shared was that neither of them growing up had ever been allowed to be themselves. The reality of facing Orzammar at her side, however, was harder than he’d expected.
When she had flinched just that slightest barely noticeable inch when on dwarf refused to look past the brand on her face, he had warred between the need to wrap her in his arms and run the idiot through. It’s fine, had been her quiet words after and he had done nothing more than touch her cheek, knowing his face told her that it wasn’t.
As Bhelen’s man Vartag confirmed the papers they’d been given were forgeries, he’d watched her entire demeanor grow cold with the realization that the politics of the noble caste were just as twisted as those she had dealt with in the Carta.
Then there was the rage that he saw revealed only in the subtle shift of her hips when they learned how likely it was that the Prince had orchestrated the murder and exile of his elder brothers that had led to the death of their father. Zevran had given him a lecherous smile when he’d caught him watching but Alistair had only felt sick to his core. She had been happy that to find that her sister had caught the Prince and gotten out of Dust Town but now she could only see the blood on Bhelen’s hands. Her entire life had been spent shedding blood so her younger sister wouldn’t have to and Rica had ended up with a man who had willingly orchestrated the deaths of his own family.
He had nearly dragged her bodily out of the city when they had gone after the Carta and she had discovered the betrayal of her oldest friend. The cold, detatched look upon her face as she had stared down at his corpse wasn’t her, not the rough-tongued yet bright and kind woman he had fallen in love with. It belonged to the woman she feared turning back into but all he could do was touch her shoulder to get her attention and steer her away. If he had done anything else, she could have crumbled.
When they entered the Deep Roads, Alistair had to war with his need to keep his eyes on her. Focusing on the darkspawn was far harder than it should have been, his worry was so great to her, and it took him three days of travel through those ancient tunnels before he was able to focus the impotent rage he felt at being unable to help her towards the monsters.
As they came across Hespith and learned what become of Branka and her House, he almost thought she was going to break. When she’d explained the idea of Houses to him, she’d related it as family and family was everything, so to see it tossed away like a collection of broken toys was a hammerblow. She had held it together, however, and had been the one to deliver the final mercy blow to not only the broodmother but the twisted Paragon herself. Alistair saw her hands shake, though, after she dropped the hammer that destroyed the Anvil of the Void and knew that she was coming to the end.
When Bhelen ordered Harrowmont executed and she bellowed that she had not thrown in her vote with him so he could become a tyrant, he felt his own world crumbling with hers. He ignored Zevran and Wynne’s curious looks as he stepped up next to her, resting on hand lightly on her shoulder, and leaned down to breath in her ear over the roar of the Assembly a handful of words.
After a short goodbye to her sister and a promise that the old treaty would be held to, neither of them could seem to move fast enough to get out of the city. Their entire party was quiet on the walk back – even Zevran – and no one in camp spoke up as she entered like a dark thunderstorm. He followed on her heels into their tent, knowing what was about to come.
She held onto the remnants of her mask of steel and stone as they stripped out of their armor but by the time the last of his plate and her leather was set aside, it slipped hard before falling utterly. He imagined that he could hear it clattering to the ground, shattering into pieces, and he was all too glad to see it gone. As tears welled up in her green eyes, Alistair knelt down and drew her to him, finally able to wrap his arms around her as he had yeared to throughout their weeks in Orzammar. She buried her face in his shoulder as the first sob came and every one after felt like it broke his heart anew.
After, she touched his face with rough, dirty fingers and he turned his head so he could press a kiss against her palm. And as she tried to breathe out an apology, he stopped her words by pressing his fingers against her lips. She shook her head in the negative before asking, “How did you know?”
Alistair just smiled and moved his hand to twine his fingers amongst her red hair.
“You know how,” he answered softly. “You’re the one that taught me how to see beneath your masks.”