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Of Proposals and Non-Proposals

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“They did it. They actually did it.”

Malia has repeated the same thing in different variations perhaps ten times; Leliana claps her hands together again and makes a sound that hurts Alistair's ears, but that sounds like joyful agreement.

Kwerkus and Zevran are now celebrating their... engagement, in Kwerkus' tent. Loudly. Alistair considers taking Schmooples and using him as ear-muffler, but Wynne has brought out a bottle of wine to celebrate the occasion and Leliana has gone after her, followed by her nug.

Only Malia remains by the campfire. She's staring at the flames, eyes wide open. Alistair has spent more time than he'd like to admit looking at her ever since her Joining, but he still can't quite make out her expression right now. Her eyelashes are clumped with the tears she'd shed when Zevran had said 'yes' and her lips keep curving into a small smile every time a particularly enthusiastic sound wafts through the camp, but if Alistair had to bet his life on it, he'd say she looks sad.

“Um,” he says, going to sit beside her. “Everything alright?”

“Oh, yes, yes,” she says immediately. “It's wonderful. They did it. They finally did it. I was half-afraid we'd have to lock them in a room or tie them together to a tree to get them to talk, but they managed on their own! Kwerkus is very brave.”

Alistair doesn't doubt Malia is happy for them. She'd been whistling and hooting and jumping when the newly-engaged couple had kissed, and before they could escape into their tent, she grabbed Kwerkus and hugged him and kissed him on the forehead, beaming like a madwoman. Not to mention that she's spent the last few days, after Alistair told her about the earring and what Kwerkus said about it, alternatively glowering and looking worried at both elves.

So, why is she looking so sad now? Alistair is afraid to ask, but he'd rather chop himself into little bits and feed himself to the Archdemon than see her sad, so he soldiers on.

“And are you alright?”

Malia opens her mouth to answer (Alistair can see the 'of course!' forming on her lips), then closes it again and looks away.

“Weddings make me emotional?” she tries, looking at her boots.

Alistair has heard about this particular phenomenon. In fact, what he remembers best from Arl Eamon's wedding to Isolde is the cook going into hysterics, but Malia isn't one to sound so unsure of herself. He tries to look at her more closely, but she's practically bent in half to hide her face from him.

“Malia...” he starts, feeling something heavy settling on the pit of his stomach.

Just then, a particularly loud exclamation in Elvish rings out across camp. Malia's laughter echoes that of Wynne and Leliana, but Alistair sees her wipe her hand across her face at the same time.

“... are you crying?”

She shrugs, her armour clinking at the movement.

“Why...? Why are you...?” Alistair tries to keep his voice under control through the rising panic; one public spectacle at camp is enough for the night, plus he doesn't doubt Morrigan will try to kill him if she thinks he made Malia cry. “... is this my fault somehow?” he hisses, and only too late he realises he sounds angry.

“Maker, no!” Malia shakes her head and looks up and smiles at him through her tears, and if Alistair weren't already irrevocably in love with her, he'd fall into it all over again. “It's fine, Alistair.”

“You're crying, it's not fine,” he says mulishly. “And this wasn't even a wedding, it was barely an engagement.”

“We're in the middle of a Blight, it might as well have been,” she answers; the smile slides right off her face as she looks at where Kwerkus had stood shouting at Zevran. “That ring, he found it months ago, and kept it all this time... I often caught his hand going to that pouch in his belt and wondered what he kept there.”

“And this makes you sad?” asks Alistair, who is a man of fixed ideas.

“No, no, I'm truly happy for them! It's just...” Malia trails off and shakes her head.

“Just what?”

“I wish I was as brave as Kwerkus, that's all,” she blurts out.

Alistair sits there and looks at her, feeling like that time a qunari mercenary had hit him on the head with a mace while he wore a heavy steel helmet; even the ringing in his ears is the same.

“I know you don't want to talk about the future,” Malia continues when he says nothing, again looking at her boots. “We're in the middle of a Blight, for a start, and, you might be king one day, or we might both be killed tomorrow... it's no time to be thinking about commitment, I understand. I just...”

She gestures, helplessly, to where Kwerkus made his rather spectacular declaration.

Alistair stares, still stunned.

“You want...?” he gestures at the same uninteresting patch of scraggly grass.

Malia shrugs, still looking in fascination at her boots; even though her skin is almost as dark as Duncan's once was, Alistair can see her blushing.

He gapes at his fellow Grey Warden. He's come to terms with the fact that she likes him, that she's willing to have sex with him, and that she will go to great lengths to keep him safe and happy; on a good day, Alistair can almost begin to acknowledge that there's a possibility she loves him a little and is not simply humouring him when she says she does.

But now she's practically saying she'd ask him to marry her if she had the guts. Alistair's head is spinning.

“I... I...” he stammers.

“I know,” she says with a wry smile, and he voice is tinged with impatience and a little bit of hurt. “You don't think it's the right time to talk about it. It's fine.”

She gets up and goes towards her tent, calling for Beast as she goes, a clear sign that tonight Alistair's company is not wanted, and he's left there, feeling as if the world had tilted under his feet.

**********************************************************

When Kwerkus and Zevran fight, there are shouts and icy silences and the pointed sharpening of a wide array of weapons. That (and the lightness he feels now that he's come clean to Zevran and been accepted in return) is what leads Kwerkus to miss what's going on between Malia and Alistair for a whole day.

But tonight, Malia is at Morrigan's campfire, helping the witch practice her swordfighting, and Alistair is sitting by Wynne, looking over his shoulder every ten seconds, not like he's ogling either of the women, but like he's afraid someone is going to stab him in the back.

When Morrigan decides that she's had enough for the night, Kwerkus sees his opportunity and ambushes Malia as she returns to the main campfire.

She smiles at him when she sees him, and cups the left side of his face, looking at the earring hanging there.

“I am so happy for you,” she says warmly, and Kwerkus can feel himself blush. “That was really brave of you, to talk to him like that. May the Maker heap His blessings upon you both.”

“Oh, shut up,” he grumbles, trying not to smile. “What is going on with you, though?”

She stiffens a little and lets her hand drop.

“I'm fine,” she says, looking away.

“Don't lie to me,” he snaps. When she doesn't say anything, lips pressed tight, he adds, more softly, “What did Alistair do?”

She smiles again, but this time her smile is tinged with bitterness.

“Nothing,” she says, walking towards her tent. “He did nothing at all.”

**********************************************************

It's the work of a moment to recruit Zevran and, when dinner is served, execute a careful pincer movement that separates Alistair from the group.

When Alistair finds himself sandwiched between them, he hunches in on himself and focuses on the bowl of roasted rabbit on his lap. Magnanimously, Kwerkus decides to let him eat before he starts the interrogation.

“What. Did. You. Do,” he asks the moment Alistair swallows the last bite of barley.

“Nothing!” he answers immediately, like one who's been expecting the question.

“Funny,” says Kwerkus darkly. “That's exactly what Malia said.”

Alistair deflates at that, looking so miserable that Kwerkus slides to sit by his side and elbow him on the side.

“My dear friend, do cheer up,” Zevran intervenes. “Surely it can't be that bad.”

Alistair chuckles mirthlessly.

“What would you do,” he asks, looking up at Zevran, “if last night Kwerkus had caught you by surprise so much that you hadn't been able to answer him, not even with Leliana cheering you on?”

Kwerkus feels Zevran look at him, then turn his thoughtful gaze to Alistair.

“I would beg,” the Antivan says simply. “I would beg for forgiveness grandly, constantly, and sincerely. And, even then, I wouldn't be sure that he would forgive me. An alternate plan would be to fall on my own dagger and say some very touching words with my last breath, yes?”

Alistair lets out a noisy breath and sinks into Kwerkus, holding his head between his hands. Kwerkus thinks for a moment of how he would have felt last night if, instead of Zevran kissing him and professing his love in front of all their companions, he'd have simply stood there in silence; he feels the sting of imaginary rejection, and he knows himself well enough to admit that he'd probably still be in a treetop, refusing to come down.

“Alistair,” he says, sitting up urgently, “what did you do?”

“Nothing,” Alistair repeats miserably. “She told me she wished she could do what you did, and I just sat there and gaped at her.” Kwerkus stares at him, mouth open. “I didn't know what to say! I love her, you know that, but I thought about everything that Wynne said about the Blight and our duty to stop it, and how can I promise her anything when the world is about to end?”

“Alistair,” growls Kwerkus. “How can I promise anything to Zevran? I'm a Grey Warden, just like you and her.”

“Technically, you didn't promise me anything,” Zevran intervenes. “Just that, when this is all over, if we're both still alive...”

Kwerkus looks up to his lover and smiles, feeling warm inside.

“... if you still haven't gotten tired of me,” he says, half a question.

“... or you of me...” adds Zevran in the same tone.

“Yes, I get it!” Alistair interrupts. “But...”

“But what?” asks Kwerkus, turning back towards him. “She knows as well as you do that you can't sweep her in your arms and carry her to the nearest Chantry, I don't think that's what she wants.”

“There's power in a promise, though,” Zevran adds. “What have you promised her, dear friend?”

“What can I give her? Not even my life is my own, if I have to die tomorrow to stop the Blight I will.”

“You have as much as the rest of us,” Kwerkus points out uncharitably.

Alistair slumps in despair. Kwerkus steals a look at Malia, who is chatting with Shale, her shoulders curved with sadness.

“What do I do?” Alistair asks from behind the hands covering his face.

“Well...” says Zevran with a devious smile. Kwerkus prepares to go into damage-control mode.

**********************************************************

“Can I talk to you?” Alistair asks the following evening.

Zevran and Kwerkus have herded everyone to one side to give them the illusion of privacy, and Malia looks at the deserted encampment and nods.

“Yes, of course.”

“About what you said yesterday...”

“I understand,” she interrupts him. “It's a bad time, and anyway... well, I was the Last of the Couslands and now I'm only a Grey Warden, and you were only a Grey Warden and now you're the Last of the Theirins. I can only imagine what Arl Eamon must have said to you.”

“What? No! No, that's... that has nothing to do with it.” Alistair scratches the back of his neck. Arl Eamon *had* tried to talk to him, but Alistair had shut down the conversation with his loud insistence that he'd make an awful king and made his escape. “I'm afraid.”

Malia, who has been holding herself stiffly at a distance from him (so different from all those other nights when she leaned against him in front of the fire, playing with his hands), sighs and turns to him.

“So am I,” she says softly. “We all are. Even Shale. But I don't want to let being afraid stop me from taking what I want, while I can get it and for as long as I can get it.”

“But the Blight...” Alistair tries.

“Alistair, I love you, but don't think for a second that if the only option to stop the Blight means your death, or mine, I won't take it.” She looks at him, her face all hard lines and soft eyes. “I am a Cousland, or I was, and I know duty.”

“What do you want?” Alistair asks then, tired of pretending that he cares about something more than he cares about the woman in front of him. “I would give you everything I have, everything I could ever have. I would lay my life down to see you safe, whatever that meant, and all I'd ask of the Maker if I could still pray is that I could spend the rest of my life by your side.” Alistair breaks off, breathless, and sees Malia looking at him with tears in her eyes. “Aaaand instead I made you cry again. This is just my wretched luck.”

“Shut up,” she says, and in one long stride she's in front of him and grabbing his face to kiss him. “This is all that I wanted,” she adds when she breaks off the kiss. “Not a ring, not a public proposal or you shouting at me across the camp. Just this, knowing that you won't let me go, no matter what...”

“I thought that was obvious,” Alistair says, then winces when she frowns at him and looks down.

“You didn't want to talk about it, and I didn't want to assume,” she murmurs.

“You know how I am with words. From now on, you're welcome to assume that I will be dodging your steps for the rest of our lives.”

“Zevran is clapping, isn't he?” she asks, burying her face in the curve of his neck.

“And I owe Kwerkus five sovereigns for keeping Morrigan away. Worth it.”