They make their way west for Orzammar. Sten makes Alistair and Hera run ahead of the party all day, carrying everyone’s equipment, to build endurance. Somehow the giant keeps up with them, running between them and making snide comments about them all day. He claims it is to prepare them for the archdemon, but Alistair is certain the qunari practice subtle torture techniques, and that Sten must have excelled at it in qunari torture school.
Finally, he calls for a stop and tells them to set up camp in the snow while he goes back for the others to lead them to the clearing. While they wait, Hera pitches their tent and he digs fire pits. Together they get one fire blazing and the other banked, then set potatoes along the edge of the second to bake slowly overnight. She had taught them to do this so they could have something ready to eat any time, and to cover small, plucked birds with a thick layer of clay and set them among the coals when both clay and birds were available. In the morning they would be tender and juicy, and all you had to do was break open the clay coat.
An hour later the others arrive, and he watches Hera make her weary way to the hot spring pool that had made the decision to stop a simple one. He follows as soon as Sten returns, hoping to avoid more work from the qunari, silently thanking the Maker for the abundance of Ferelden hot springs.
Steam wreathes the pool, glowing in the light of her lamp, making Alistair think of fairy tales he’d heard as a boy. He approaches noisily so as not to startle her, crunching through the snow and muttering to himself, but it’s unnecessary: she’s fast asleep, leaning against a boulder near the edge of the pool.
She wakes the moment he splashes in, but closes her eyes when he draws her close and lets her lay against him. “You’re worn out, aren’t you?” she murmurs.
Alistair sighs as the heat begins to work through his tingling muscles. “You must be too,” he says, drawing her legs over his lap. “He made you carry more.”
“I can do it,” she insists, reaching a hand up to rub his stubbled cheek. “Superhuman strength and all.”
“Can you even get stronger?” he asks jealously.
“I don’t know,” she admits. “But I can’t exactly let him know that, can I? I’ll be fine tomorrow.”
“Lucky,” he mutters, smacking his lips against her neck and making her giggle. “I feel like I’ve been beaten.”
“You have, sort of.”
They linger in the pool until Zevran comes for them, ogling them both, and tells them dinner is ready. “Sten has declared that neither of you will have watch, as well,” he adds, watching Hera climb out of the pool and wrap a towel around herself. “He says you need the rest.”
“Zevran, stop looking at her that way,” Alistair grumbles. “And me too.”
“How can I ignore such perfect beauty?” he asks, taking her hand and kissing her knuckles. “You are a pearl among pebbles, amora. And Alistair, ” he gasps and clutches his chest with a grin. “You are both too beautiful for words.”
Somehow, she finds the energy to be charming, and Alistair feels only slightly jealous when she turns that teasing smile on the elf. “Yes, I know,” she tells him, and makes her way to camp, barefoot and damp through the snow.
“She’s insane,” he mutters, dressing as quickly as possible. “Look at her, dripping wet and practically naked!”
“Yes, I know,” Zevran sighs. “My good friend Alistair, are you aware that you are the luckiest bastard alive?”
Alistair grins over at his friend, tugging on his boots. “Yes, I am.”
They follow behind and join the meal at the fire. “Where’s Hera?” Alistair asks, sitting down with his bowl of stew.
“Why did you let her walk around in just a towel?” Leliana demands. “She’ll catch a cold!”
“I...Well...have you seen her naked?” he asks in an embarrassed voice. “It’s hard to think, let alone tell her what to do.”
Zevran laughs, choking on his stew, and Sten smacks him on the back with great force. The blow throws him to the ground, his bowl slamming into his chest hard enough to bruise. “T-Thank you, Sten,” he gasps, groaning as he raises up to find the bowl unharmed but his stew all over his shirt.
“You are welcome.”
Everyone laughs except Morrigan, who raises her voice over the noise to answer Alistair’s question. “She took a cup of tea and some bread and went to her tent,” Morrigan explains, not looking up from the book she’s reading. “She asked me to tell you not to bother her.”
“Me?” he asks.
“You, specifically. She said she’d rather I turn you into a toad.”
“Now I know you’re lying.”
Wynne chuckles at their bickering. “She did take tea and bread to her tent,” she confirms. “I thought she’d just dress and join us, but it seems not.”
“I’ll check on her,” he offers and fills a second bowl of stew. He pokes his head inside their tent and his heart melts.
Hera lies sleeping among the cured furs they’d traded for fresh pelts, wearing only his templar tunic. He lets the tent flaps fall closed behind him and sets the bowls near her cup of cooling tea, stretching out beside her. “Raven,” he whispers, gathering her hair in one hand and tossing it aside.
“Hmm?” she mumbles.
“Wake up,” he says softly, kissing her earlobe. “You need to eat something.”
“No,” she sighs, rolling over and cuddling close to him. “Sleepy.”
“No,” he chuckles. “Wake up. Eat. You don’t want Sten to come in here and make you eat.”
“No,” she moans, shivering. “Cold.”
“Put on some clothes,” he laughs. “Come on, get up. You can wear my coat if you’ll sit up and eat.”
She groans, letting him pull her to a sitting position and put the bowl of stew in her hands. “I hate Sten,” she grumbles, blowing over the hot food. “He’s cruel.”
“Me too,” he laughs and picks up his own bowl.
They eat in comfortable silence, listening to the sounds of conversation and laughter outside. These are the moments he likes best, when they can be quiet with one another. He doesn’t feel like he has to try and be charming or brave, he can just be himself. She always seems so open and generous with everyone, but when they’re alone, he sees that she’s really just as scared of the Blight as he is- and she has even more to be afraid of. He knows she’s afraid of never finding a way home- and whatever she keeps from them scares her so much she can’t even speak of it- but he’s glad she trusts him enough to show him that she isn’t always as confident and skilled as she wants the others to think.
“It’s times like this when I miss Zeus the most,” she says softly, looking down at her food. “He always knew what to say when I was too tired to go on.”
“I can’t imagine you ever being so tired.”
He sees her blink rapidly, as if she’s blinking away tears before she speaks again. “I am so tired, Alistair,” she whispers. “Not being with my twin is like missing a limb, and I’m tired of fighting. Tired of being afraid of tomorrow and trying not to show it.”
“I know,” he says, putting a hand on her knee. “Me too.”
“Is it ever going to end?” she asks, looking up at him, eyes glassy with tears. “Will we ever have time to be...I don’t know, happy? Will I ever see my brother again?”
“I hope so.” He takes the empty bowl from her and sets them aside, then pulls her into his lap. “I hope so, because I can’t wait to see you dressed up in something other than armor. I think I’d like to meet your brother, too.”
“He’s all I’ve ever had,” she sniffs.