Anora Mac Tir was the first person that Brae Cousland ever kissed.
They'd barely been more than children at the time, both of them slowly slipping into the first blushes of womanhood. Looking back, Brae suspected that she hadn't been the first for Anora, neither for kissing nor anything else that followed, not considering the difference in their ages. There were less than three years between them, but it had been a lifetime at that point.
Still, they hadn't understood exactly what was growing between them, not back then. There had been uncertainty and laughter, neither of them quite certain what they were doing but wanting nothing more than to keep pressing forward.
For a few short months, they had been each other's everything.
Brae missed the simplicity sometimes. It had been a different time, not quite the innocence of childhood but not the twists and turns of the Game that had made up her life for years either. It had been a time of transition, a fleeting moment of her life that had disappeared almost before she had realized it had started in the first place.
It was one of many things that she missed nowadays.
"I'd almost forgotten what this was like," Anora said quietly. There was a long pause before she continued in a voice that was barely more than a whisper: "I've missed it."
Brae pulled herself out of her thoughts and back to the present. Anora was sitting on a stool in front of her, her hair loose and flowing as Brae gently brushed it out. "So have I," she admitted, the words slipping out before she could pull them back.
Anora let out a quiet huff that Brae wasn't quite certain how to interpret. Perhaps she was amused by her honesty or, more likely, she realized that Brae hadn't meant to admit it in the first place. They had always brought out the best and the worst in each other. "A lot has changed since then."
"Yes," Brae said simply, closing her eyes for a moment. Her family's faces flashed in her mind, followed closely behind by that of Duncan. And then Howe. "It has."
Beneath her hands, Anora went still as if she knew where Brae's thoughts had gone. Perhaps she did. They'd always been good at knowing what the other was thinking. Besides, Brae wasn't the only one who had lost people in this Maker forsaken mess.
Arl Howe had been like an uncle to her once. Looking back at her childhood with adult eyes, hindsight bringing out what hadn't been noticeable, she could see the cruelty hidden within him even then. But she had loved him when she was younger, just as she had loved his children on the rare occasion they had seen each other. They had been like a second family to her. Even now, after everything, it was difficult to combine those memories with more recent ones.
Sometimes she could still feel Howe's blood on her hands, a wave of sorrow rushing through her despite everything he had done. Sometimes she couldn't help but wonder if he had felt the same way after he had killed her family, if even a tiny part of him had regretted what he'd done to people who had loved and trusted him.
As for Teyrn Mac Tir, even now there was a part of her that understand why he had committed the acts that he had. He'd done what he thought was best, misguided as some of it might have been. Brae couldn't forgive him, not even in death, but Maker forgive her she understood. She'd done things that she wasn't proud of herself, to stop the Blight.
That, more than anything, had convinced her that pushing Alistair and Anora together was the best option for Fereldan's future. It had been the final straw that had helped her push down the tiny thought of "what if?" that had been fluttering around in her head from the moment Arl Eamon had brought up putting Alistair on the throne.
She wasn't the same woman she'd been a year ago, before her family had been betrayed and her entire world had collapsed out from under her. That woman might have made a decent queen. But the woman she was now, the Grey Warden who had helped save Fereldan... no, queen wasn't a role she was meant to play, not any longer.
No matter how much a part of her might wish otherwise.
"You've been traveling with this Alistair for almost a year, haven't you?" Anora asked, a mixture of curiosity and something Brae couldn't quite make out in her voice.
Brae nodded, opening her eyes again and focusing them on Anora's face. "I have," she said cautiously. "Why?"
Anora gave her a wry smile that didn't quite meet her eyes. "If I'm going to be marrying the man, I'd like to know more about him." She paused, just for a moment, a hint of wariness showing on her face. "Is he much like his brother?"
"No." Brae's answer was immediate, before she even had a chance to think about it. "No, he's nothing like Cailan. Not in the ways that matter."
It wasn't that she had disliked Cailan. She'd known him since she was a child, just like she had known Anora, although she had never been as close to him as Anora had been. It was just that he had never quite outgrown the stubbornness of boyhood, even after he had been crowned king. That was the part of him that she hadn't been fond of.
Brae would be the first to admit that Alistair had his moments of naivety, not to mention stubbornness, but he listened. He learned. Cailan hadn't been interested in changing more often than not. When he was convinced he was in the right, nothing and no one could have changed his mind.
She supposed it hadn't helped her opinion of him that it been clear from the start that his marriage to Anora had not made either of them happy. It had been a marriage of convenience, nothing more and nothing less, and despite their friendship it had been clear to everyone who knew both Anora and Cailan that their marriage was stifling them.
Not that she was willing to admit that part out loud. She wasn't that selfish.
"Well then," Anora asked, a bit more curiosity in her voice than before, "what can you tell me about this man that I'll be calling my husband?"
Brae hesitated for a moment before taking a deep breath. "He's smarter than he thinks he is," she said, forcing back the smile that threatened to make its way onto her face. "He's loyal, and he's kind, and he loves Fereldan as much as we do. He's made no secret that he never wanted the throne, but he's willing to take it for the sake of the kingdom."
She paused, tilting her head a bit in thought. No, that wasn't quite right.
"No, not for the kingdom," she said slowly, correcting herself. "For its people. From the richest human noble to the lowliest elf in the Alienages. Templars and mages. Dalish elves, and Chantry sisters, and surface dwarfs, and merchants, and farmers, and fishermen, and the Chasind, and probably even the witches of the Wilds. He sees all of them as Fereldan's people."
Anora's eyebrows rose slightly. "He's an idealist."
"Sometimes," Brae agreed. Then she gave Anora a pointed look. "He knows that you're better at ruling than him, and he'll follow your lead. He won't ignore you simply because he's king and you are not. But he won't agree blindly either. He'll want to learn, to understand what he's agreeing to before he says 'yes' or 'no' in any situation."
If anything, Anora's eyebrows had risen even higher. "You make him sound almost like a decent man."
"He is," Brae said, the corners of her mouth twisting upward despite her best efforts. "He truly is."
She knew the moment that the words left her mouth that she'd said too much. It hadn't been what she'd said, not alone, but the tone of her voice had clearly revealed what she had done her best to keep secret.
Anora's face suddenly went blank, whatever she was thinking hidden behind a mask that even Brae couldn't see behind.
Brae did her best to put on a similar mask. She could almost feel the cracks in it, though, the tiny fractures she'd been trying her best to hide slowly spreading. She'd already shown too much of her hand, and there was no pulling back from that. Not with Anora.
"You love him," Anora said slowly. She sounded almost surprised, even though there was no hint of it on her face or in her eyes.
There was no point in denying it. It wasn't a question, after all, but rather a statement. Anora had known Brae for a very long time.
"Yes," Brae agreed quietly. "I do."
For a long moment, neither of them said anything. Then Anora sighed and crossed her arms in front of her chest, focusing her gaze on Brae with that same inscrutable look on her face.
With her hair hanging loose from its usual braids, falling down to gently frame her face, it felt almost as if they'd been transported back in time. Like they were girls on the cusp of womanhood again, neither of them certain what the future held as they clung desperately to what they had in that moment.
"I knew the two of you were lovers," Anora said. "I didn't know that it was more than that. Why didn't you say something before now?"
Brae didn't reply. She knew a rhetorical question when she heard one.
Anora sighed. "You're a Cousland," she said pointedly. "It would have been simple enough for you to declare yourself queen. The majority would have supported you in an instant."
Brae couldn't help but give her a half-smile at that. "Fereldan already has a queen."
One of Anora's eyebrows arched upward. "That's not an answer."
"You never actually asked a question," Brae pointed out, trying her best to hide her amusement at slipping so easily into the word games they'd played when they were younger. Judging by the look Anora was directing her way, she hadn't succeeded very well.
Still, it was better than the blank mask Anora had been wearing up until then. It was still a mask, but this was one that Brae knew how to read.
Anora met her gaze straight on, a thoroughly unamused look on her face. "Why?"
The hint of a smile tugging at the corner of Brae's mouth faded somewhat at the bluntness of the question. She sighed, pointedly looking down to avoid Anora's eyes.
"It's going to be hard enough, having a Grey Warden for a king," Brae said quietly. "If I had declared myself queen, announced that I would rule at his side, it wouldn't have been for the sake of Fereldan. It would have been for me."
Anora reached over and gently placed a hand under Brae's chin, tilting her face up so that both of them could see the other clearly. Then she arched an eyebrow. "And is that such a bad thing?" Anora asked lightly. "To put love before duty for once in your life?"
"Yes," Brae said simply. Her gaze didn't waver from Anora's face even though the other woman had pulled her hand away by then. "As I'm sure you know well."
Anora didn't flinch. She was too well-bred for that. Still, the expression that flickered across her face for just an instant made it clear that she remembered the conversation that Brae was referring to just as clearly as Brae herself did.
It's time for both of us to put away childhood fancies.
Neither of them was who they had once been, in those few months where they'd been more than children but not yet adults. They'd learned the hard way just what was expected of them by their families, by society, by Fereldan as a whole. Both of them had made sacrifices over the years.
"That isn't fair," Anora said softly.
Brae gave her a half-hearted shrug. It was more casual than she usually allowed herself to be, but Anora had always been the exception to most of her rules. "Life usually isn't."
For a moment they stood there in silence, simply staring at each other. Then, still without saying a word, Anora leaned in kissed her.
There wasn't any of the awkward fumbling of the last time they had kissed, ten years and a lifetime ago. Neither of them was a blushing girl anymore, unaware of what they were doing. Both of them had grown up. They'd found other lovers, and they'd learned from them as much as they'd once learned from each other.
Brae all but melted into the kiss. It had been such a long time, and yet it felt as if no time at all had passed. For just a moment, she was a girl again, sneaking off with Anora to explore each other's body while the adults in their lives were preoccupied with other things.
And then someone cleared their throat from the doorway.
They broke apart instantly, both of them schooling their expressions as they turned towards the sound. Brae was already thinking of excuses, the words on the tip of her tongue. The moment she saw who had stumbled upon them, though, they died on her lips.
Alistair was standing there, his eyes wide as he stared at the two of them.
He looked confused and a bit hurt, which Brae supposed was to be expected. Things had been awkward between the two of them ever since she had pushed him to accept the throne and a marriage of state, and the last thing he probably expected was to walk in on his lover and his wife-to-be kissing in Brae's chambers.
"Alistair, I can explain."
The words slipped out before Brae could stop them, and she flinched a bit at the almost pleading tone in her voice. It was so easy for him to throw her off-balance, even now.
Alistair opened his mouth. Then he closed it. "I think that I might have missed something," he said slowly, his gaze moving confusedly between the two of them.
The corner of Anora's lips curled upward. "It seems that we share at least one thing in common, my husband to be," she said, her hand sliding down to very pointedly rest on Brae's lower back. "I'm glad to find out you at least have good taste in such things."
Brae didn't blush. She'd been trained from girlhood onward not to let her emotions show, to keep them hidden behind a carefully constructed public mask. Still, it took much more effort than she was used to in order to prevent it.
Alistair was a different story. His face flushed red, and it took him a moment to pull his gaze away from where Anora's hand was resting and back upwards toward their faces.
There was a spark in his eyes that Brae hadn't seen in what felt like an age. Not since the argument they'd had when she had told him that he needed to marry Anora. For the first time in ages, he actually seemed to see her again. She hadn't realized how much she had missed him until that moment.
It was fitting that Anora was here for this, all things considered.
"I'm confused," Alistair said slowly, his gaze focused on Brae's face but still darting warily back to Anora from time to time.
"I told you stories," Brae said, resisting the urge to bite her lip. She didn't want to lay herself bare, not even for him. Especially not for him, after everything they had gone through. "Stories about when I was younger."
Brae could tell the moment that Alistair put it all together, the vague stories she'd told him throughout their journey coming together to make a whole picture. "Oh," he said, his eyes darting between the two of them. "Oh."
"'Oh', indeed," Anora said lightly.
Brae recognized that tone of voice. It was the one that Anora used when she was being deadly serious but didn't want anyone else to know.
"We should probably talk," Brae said, her gaze moving between Anora beside her and Alistair standing on the other side of the room watching them.
"Yes, talking would be good," Alistair said, and his voice was only a little strangled. Without being prompted, he stepped further into the room and pulled the door shut behind him. Brae almost smiled. The man she'd met at Ostagar wouldn't have thought that far ahead. He'd grown up since then, at least in some ways.
Anora finally moved her hand from Brae's back. With a few quick strides, she crossed the room and was standing in front of Alistair.
"Come, husband," Anora said, reaching out to take him by the arm. He flinched a bit at the moniker, but it wasn't nearly as obvious as it had been just a few days earlier. He was learning. Slowly, perhaps, but he was still learning. "We have much to discuss, I think."
Alistair met Brae's gaze as he gave in, letting him Anora pull him along with her. There was still confusion and surprise showing on his face, but there was something else there as well. Something that Brae wasn't quite certain how to interpret.
Brae felt the corners of her mouth turn upward into a smile as both of them made their way back towards her side. For the first time in a long time, everything felt right.