Surana first notices when they are on the road from Redcliffe to Orzammar.
Summer has finally come to Ferelden, and it is hard to contain her excitement at feeling the soft grass on her bare feet, bathing in the blessedly cool water of snowmelt streams, shading her eyes from the sparkling sun. Her feet have finally blistered over, and Leliana had insisted she buy expensive, outdoor shoes in Redcliffe, the leather buttery between her hands. Perhaps she should feel guilty for the flush of happiness coming at such a dark time, but this is her first summer outside of the Circle, and Ferelden is so beautiful in bloom.
Alistair is telling Zevran about his upbringing in the Chantry to gentle needling, when she notices. He slides his eyes towards her, as he often does when he thinks her attention is elsewhere, and blushes slightly as he catches her gaze. When her furrowed-brow star does not waver, he falters in his story and raises a hand to rub at his cheek, chuckling.
“What? Do I have darkspawn on my face?”
“No, there’s—you have spots!”
The words are out of her mouth before she can stop them, and she clenches her fist in her robes, where no one will see. Bites her tongue at the open curiosity in her voice, the admission that she knows his face well enough to spot the differences.
Zevran is now peering at Alistair’s face, as well, and Morrigan has paused up ahead, mouth cut in an impatient line.
“Those are freckles, my dear Warden,” says Zevran, laughing. It isn’t cruel, but she recedes slightly into the raised collar of her robe and looks away.
“But—he didn’t have them before…”
“Some people get them in the sun,” Wynne says, catching up with them where they have halted on the path. “Have you never seen any?”
Surana ducks her head, suddenly too hot with embarrassment and with the weight of Alistair’s surprised, amused expression. She studies the far reach of the rolling hills, tumbling up to the Frostbacks in the distance, and mutters, “We weren’t allowed outside of the tower.” And those who had the spots hadn’t exactly been in the habit of sprouting new ones.
“The Templars…?” Alistair asks, eyes pleased but brows pulled together in confusion.
“We were encouraged not to look at them.”
They grow quiet, as they sometimes do when Surana speaks of her time at the Lake Calenhad Circle. Even Wynne, she thinks, did not know what the young mages—the elves, especially—went through, being so senior and having lived in different Circles.
“We should continue on if we wish to make camp by nightfall,” Morrigan says, sparing a glare for Alistair as if the heavy introspection that has overtaken them is his fault. Of all of them, she thinks Morrigan is most attuned to her moods, as much as she tries to furrow them away under the placidity she learned in the Circle.
She tilts her head at Surana, inviting her to join her in her contemplation of the various plants native to the region. Some, Surana recognizes from her studies, and some Morrigan draws her attention to, for their magical properties or strange colors. By the time they have made camp in the foothills, Surana’s pack is overflowing with herbs, green shoots poking out from between the straps.
Alistair joins her by the fire as she catalogues them by their uses—healing plants here, toxins there—half-out of his armor and reddened gently by the sun. He watches her peel back the leaves from the plants the way she learned in the Circles infirmary, when they were in desperate need of poultices to ease the ache of broken ribs and bruised faces. When she darts a glance at him out of the corner of her eye, his gaze is on her hands, and he is smiling in the gentle way that he has.
This is what she is good at: sorting plants, weaving spells, and now, strangely, killing. She has learned to keep the things she cares about at arm’s length, to keep her deficiencies buried under competency and purpose. Her hands on the elfroot stalks are sure, and she forces her gaze away from Alistair. She is raw from the sun and from her own ignorance, and the world will never be safe enough for the weight of her gaze.
Eventually, Alistair huffs a laugh, says, “You might get some, too, you know.”
Her hands still and she glances at him in confusion. His eyes flicker in the firelight, and she knows that his laughter is not at her expense, the same way she knows the feeling of fire in her palms.
“Freckles!” He beams, and his warm hand is suddenly so close, a blunt, rough fingertip brushing over her cheekbone. “Right there, maybe. Where the sun hits.”
His face is open and soft, as if asking her to understand, and she thinks this is an apology—for mentioning the Templars, for making her retreat to her plants, something—and she’s not sure how to tell him that he doesn’t owe her one. She’s not sure how to tell him that he needn’t apologize for her past when he makes her smile so easily, when he seeks her out to comfort and be comforted and doesn’t blame her for all of her lacks—maybe he doesn’t even see them.
Instead, she begins to tell him what the different plants are for and which can kill him, as he listens with rapt attention, his laughter warm, easy.
High in the Frostbacks, as they near the gates of Orzammar, Leliana excitedly says, “Warden! You have sprouted freckles! Oh my, look at how fetching they are—a dusting of stars!” Leliana is always very poetic in her compliments, which are usually entirely unnecessary and still make Surana flush to the pointed tips of her ears.
Surana brings a hand to her own face, as if she can feel the darkened pinpricks of skin, and catches Alistair’s bright grin from up ahead, as brilliant as the sun.