Pale grey sunlight streamed through the high windows lining the eastern wall, prodding at her eyelids like tiny pins and stirring her from sleep. She did not need to open her eyes to know it was raining beyond those windows. The sun was too dull, the light bleak and dirty silver and she could hear the droplets pelting the glass. The panes rattled against the harsh wind.
When she moved, her body acclimating to wakefulness, he shuffled unconsciously to accommodate her movement. His warmth receded as he shifted and rolled away, making her shiver a little beneath the heaviness of the quilt they shared.
Her muscles still twinged with the strain of their lovemaking, the ache of it lingering as she stretched her legs toward the end of the bed. She wanted to move with him, snake her arm through the tangle of blankets and drape it across his waist to spoon with him, but she didn’t. Instead, she turned onto her back and stared at the windows on the other side of the room. Beads of rain rolled in illuminated streams down the glass, some of them shattering and diminishing as they merged with other droplets.
She’d slept. For hours uninterrupted, she’d drifted through peaceful slumber with nary a dark whisper to disturb her, but the whispers were still there. Just beneath the surface, reassuring her that the darkspawn had not gone, that they would never leave her thoughts so long as she lived. Blinking drowsily, the pelting sound of rain drew her back into the dark comfort of peaceful sleep where the absence of dreams was soon invaded with memory.
“You’ve been quiet all day,” she noticed. Glancing over her shoulder at him, he avoided her eyes as she searched his face, the twisting of his mouth making her uncomfortable as she awaited his response. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” he said, his gaze quickly flitting outward to meet hers before he looked away again. “I didn’t sleep well last night, that’s all.”
“I’m sorry,” she lowered her head. “Did I steal all the covers again?”
“You did,” a flicker of a smile touched the corners of his mouth. “Wrapped yourself up in them all like a little pig in a blanket. No amount of tugging or jerking set them free, so I finally gave up. Just laid there shivering and cursing you under my breath until the sun came up.”
“I imagine you called me all sorts of bad names.”
“You’ve no idea,” he grinned and averted his gaze once more, staring out at the road before them.
That momentary joy disappeared, the dark, haunted look returning to harden his features. He looked so severe and she found herself thinking about King Cailan. Cailan had been less severe than Alistair, which was saying something because she honestly believed there wasn’t a severe bone in the man’s body. The king was all smiles and puppy faces, his childish fantasy of being the great hero of legend riding into battle beside the Grey Wardens making him seem far too optimistic about an upcoming battle that was surely stacked against them. Loghain Mac Tir had been furious with him as they stood in council, the king gushing and spouting about glory that was sure to be his, the songs they’d sing, the tales they’d tell.
Alistair wanted none of those things.
“What is it, Alistair? You know you can talk to me.”
“I know,” he shook he head. “It’s just… I don’t want to upset you, or ruin your day with negativity and doubt. I’m always whining and…”
“Nothing you say could ever ruin my day.”
“I highly doubt that is true.”
“Well you would be wrong.”
“It wouldn’t be the first time….”
“Stop it. Try me. What’s the matter?”
“I… I don’t know, Belle. Ever since we returned to Ostagar, I’ve been having the most awful dreams.” As if he sensed the rise of her brow, he went on to add, “Worse than usual. About Duncan and the battle. You know, I’ve often wondered if I… could have saved him had I been there. And sometimes I dream that I was there. That I fought beside him and all the others and I…”
The words died on his lips, becoming whispers that blew away on the wind. Arabelle tried not to stare, knowing her disbelief would seem insensitive, that if she spoke the words rising in her aloud he would think she didn’t understand.
“I’m sorry,” he muttered, shaking his head. “I thought I was getting past all this, but it never quite goes away, does it?”
“I don’t think it ever will, Alistair. They were a part of us, you know?”
“I know you lost people too, your parents, your brother, so I must seem insensitive to your grief. I don’t meant to. It’s just Duncan was all I ever really had. The one person in my life before you that cared about me, about what I wanted.”
“I loved him too,” she pointed out. “Maybe I didn’t know him like you did. I didn’t have the time with him you did, but I loved him, nonetheless. He was a good man and he gave his life for us. Sometimes I think about how hard we argued with him in those final moments we had with him…”
“Me too,” he lamented.
“The way he rolled his eyes at us while we were laughing and joking as the drums of war sounded less than a mile from where we stood. But he saved us by sending us to the Tower of Ishal. Maybe he didn’t mean to, but he did, and whenever I think about that I can’t help feeling like the Maker moved through him in that moment. That even though we were driving him crazy with our silliness, he only wanted to keep us safe because maybe, just maybe he knew what we were really up against and that the only way we’d get through it was together.”
“That’s…” Head down, he turned his gaze sidelong again, stared at her from the corner of his eye. “I never… I hadn’t thought about it that way.”
“I know it hurts,” she went on. “I know you will never stop blaming yourself no matter what I say, but it wasn’t your fault. Duncan cared for you so much he gave his own life so we could not only live, but finish what he could not.”
“Thank you, Belle,” he nodded and reached an arm out to draw her into him as they walked. “You’ve given me something to think about.”
Only sometimes, as selfish as it seemed, she wished she hadn’t. Sometimes, she knew in her heart it was that conversation between them that drove him to make the final sacrifice to save her. He was more like Duncan than he ever knew…
Alistair could not have known what waited for her beyond him. He could never have guessed where his sacrifice would lead her, but she wanted to find comfort in the thought. The kind of comfort she’d offered him when she told him that maybe Duncan kept them alive because he knew they could only get through what lay ahead together. It was one of the reasons she could never see herself as anything other than a Grey Warden. She owed Duncan that much, she owed it to Alistair. But Duncan left her with Alistair. Alistair had left her… alone.
She came awake again, stretching her legs through the sheets and arching her back into the mattress. His arm lay across her waist, slack and lazy at first, then tightening when her movement stirred him to her waking. Nathaniel moaned softly, drawing in a flaring breath through his nose that he exhaled into his bicep as he buried his head.
Arabelle turned into him, burrowing in and snuggling close. She wasn’t alone. Not anymore, but Alistair couldn’t have known what would happen to her after he died. He had no idea what would become of her. Sometimes it still made her so angry, and biting into her bottom lip, she felt her eyes sting with unshed tears. Lifting a hand up to rest against her brow, she shielded her eyes and willed herself not to let emotion overpower her.
She was happy, content to have woken in his arms, the warmth and nearness of his body making her feel safe even though she knew safety was an illusion she could no longer afford to trick herself with. There was no such thing. If she let herself love him, eventually she would lose him too. To the darkspawn or the taint or some other foul thing she was powerless to stop. Shoulders trembling against her will, it was only the tightness of her teeth piercing through her lip that kept the sob rising in her chest from spilling into the room.
She swallowed against it until it built up inside her like a bubble and began to drop into her gut, a lead weight of emotions she still didn’t want to acknowledge.
“Sometimes I hate how vivid my dreams are.” Voice muffled by the blanket, she willed herself silently to pull it together. She could feel the dampness of her own tears, stifled to keep them from overflowing, but she hadn’t been able to stop them entirely. A few leaked out. “I wake up sometimes and forget where I am, what’s going on in the world around me.”
“What were you dreaming about?”
“I… nothing. It was nothing.”
She stiffened, awash in the strangeness of his saying that name. She felt guilty, as though she’d done something wrong and her face heated and flushed with the shame of things she had no control over.
“You were murmuring in your sleep for a little while. The only thing I made out was his name. Do you… want to talk about it?”
“I… I’m sorry, Nathaniel.” She started to disentangle on impulse, her instincts kicking in and telling her to run. “I thought… I don’t think… Maybe I’m not ready for this.”
“Arabelle.” She didn’t even sit up fully before he wrapped gentle fingers around her arm to hold her in place. “You will likely never be ready for this, but I am here for you. Don’t turn away from me.”
“I can’t do this to you. I will hurt you…”
“I am stronger than you think. I can take it.”
“How can you say that?” The tears she’d fought so hard against slipped down her face as she lifted her head to look at him. “I am not even strong enough to take it…”
“Yes, you are.” Loosening his fingers from her arm, he lifted them to her face, thumb cascading across her cheek as he brushed the tears thoughtfully away. “Only someone with great strength could endure the things you have and still find it in herself to move forward.”
“Sometimes I don’t even want to move forward.”
“But you do it anyway.” Leaning across the space between them, he pressed soft lips to her forehead, his kiss lingering there upon her skin for what felt like an eternity. “If you feel like this is happening too fast, I will gladly slow down, but please don’t turn away from me entirely. Let me be there for you. I don’t just want to be your lover, Belle. I want to be your friend.”
“Why?” she shook her head. “Why would you want to? What if I’m never ready?”
“Because I love you.” He said that so easily it made her breath catch in her throat. Laying his cheek atop her head, he added, “And I will wait forever if that’s what it takes.”
“I… I don’t deserve you.”
He drew back, took her chin between his thumb and forefinger and lifted her face so she had no choice but to look at him through the blur of her own tears. “You deserve to be happy, whether you choose to believe that or not.”
“I want to be happy.” She struggled with those words, more than any of the others she’d spoken. Because they were true, but she didn’t think she knew how to be happy anymore and that terrified her.
“So do I,” he smiled. “Maybe it’s something we can work on together. Could we? Perhaps?”
“Okay,” she nodded.
“Good,” he leaned in and kissed her forehead again. “And if at any moment it feels like things are too much, too fast just tell me and we will take a step back.”
Lifting her hand, she touched her fingers to the stubble on his cheek as she drew his face back down toward hers. “You are a good man, Nathaniel Howe.”
“If you’re the only one who ever thinks so, that will be enough for me.”