Of Socks and Roses
She's a Cousland, daughter of Teyrn Bryce and Eleanor, and she's used to being alone.
Thus this is somewhat new to her, traveling in the company of several others, constantly being asked, being talked to, surrounded by company. Back in the days she doesn't like to think about often, the days at Highever, she sought out solitude, pursued it with almost as much fervor and determination as her studies with shield and sword, or Orlesian language, or Fereldian history: almost as if she decided to be champion of the stereotype—a lonely warrior, the strong, silent type.
With breasts, though, she thinks with a certain bitterness now, as she makes herself a bit more comfortable next to the fire. She took up the habit of muttering to herself on occasion from a very early age, and she regularly unnerves her current companions with it, who view this as yet another sign of her eccentricity as a Grey Warden.
What they don't know is that this quietness is new, and voluntary. She doesn't talk much since that night when her childhood and everything she thought was secure and safe crumbled and drowned in blood like her father's sword-pierced lungs. Even back then, she was a shy, retiring girl who only ever laughed and joked with her parents and sometimes her brother or the war dog she was given for her twentieth birthday.
This dog…She reaches down now, absentmindedly, and scratches his head right behind one ragged ear, mindful of not disturbing the slowly healing gash where he got nicked by a darkspawn's axe.
"Poppy..." she murmurs his name almost silently, but the Mabari hears and rewards her with a soulful look and a mouthful of slobber on her boots. Loneliness only goes for her relationship with two-legged ones, it seems—this dog followed her everywhere she went since that Midwinter day when her father placed the barely palm-sized warhound puppy in her lap.
Since we can't really convince you to get out of that armor and get married, her father remarked dryly, you might as well have a Mabari as your bed-warmer. Although your mother threatened me with doing the same to me if I continue to encourage your behavior, I've decided that you need at least someone you can talk to, as conversation with males other than your weapons instructor so obviously is not on your list of skills you wish to practice.
She misses him so fiercely, her breastbone aches sometimes behind her plate armor. Her father's gentle teasing, the way he never, not for a moment tried to force her into an arranged marriage the way most nobles would have expected their daughters to obey them. Not since I've ended up challenging the last one to a duel, anyway…she remembers now, and a brief smile flashes across her face, normally so austere and distant with its high cheekbones, sharp chin and large almost-sapphire eyes.
The eyes are her mother's, Lady Eleanor's, and for a brief second she considers how she saw her last: dressed in hastily donned armor, holding her sword, standing next to her husband and lord in the dim twilight of the castle larder where they prepared to make their last stand. She misses her too: she knows well that Teyrn Cousland didn't object to her taking up arms and armor was because in her own youth his wife did the very same, and was quite famous for it in King Maric's court. There were stories about how she supported Maric in his quest in retaking Ferelden from the Orlesian conquerors, joining the rebels hiding in the Korcari Wild for years.
"It's a filthy sock!" She looks up at that, the voice of Wynne, normally so calm, so collected Wynne, almost shrill with disgust, echoing across the camp, and her eyes narrow as she takes in the scene in the light of their campfire. "How did it find its way to my bedroll?"
The mage holds the offending piece of clothing in her outstretched hand, pinched between two fingers. Her stance, in fact, is so similar to one of the complicated movements of an exercise the Antivan member of her little band performs regularly at sunrise that it's almost uncanny. Her mouth quirks again as she remembers how the man who is the current subject of Wynne's anger titled that particular move 'Maiden Pulls Out Dead Skunk From Chamberpot'.
"Maybe it likes you." Giovanna Cousland cannot help but bite her lip to contain the bark of laughter that almost bursts out as she hears the reply. Maker help me, that so reminds me of how Mother and I used to deadpan with each other when I was in a talkative mood. I still remember when I told her how Nan's head exploded and Poppy ate it, and how she came back telling me that well, at least someone had a decent dinner in the house. She rests her chin in her palm and leans forward as she surveys the offending party, and cannot help but notice the way the chiseled features of his face look so much like a statue in the firelight reflecting on them.
A decidedly, disturbingly handsome statue, that is. With the oddest sense of humor and weirdest outlook on life she'd ever encountered.
Also the only person from their company she can always, absolutely and without reservation can count on. Her only surviving brother from the order that she joined so briefly before it was brutally crushed in the battle when whatever remained from her security knowing her place in this world was erased.
"Socks are sneaky that way." Alistair continues, with a small wink of mirth dancing in his eyes. "Anyway…" and he studies the sock Wynne holds with raised eyebrows, "…it's not mine."
Wynne pauses as she considers this, then enunciates carefully, measuring the words between her teeth, like a grandmother talking to her particularly annoying and thickheaded grandson.
"It. Has. Your. Name. Stitched. On. It."
Poppy emits a sound that suspiciously sounds like the canine equivalent of laughter. Giovanna reaches into the small sack next to her, pulls out a piece of jerky, breaks it in two and shares it with her hound; then another and another, in quick succession. Her appetite is the subject of mild and not so mild jokes amongst her companions, although only one of them knows the truth: the Joining ritual she underwent as a Grey Warden candidate had some serious side effects, one of the mildest of which is the increased, almost ravenous hunger she constantly battles.
"Oh. Ha, ha. Ha." A sheepish grin blossoms on the Alistair's face, and Giovanna considers just how many times that smile sustained her in the past months when everything seemed lost or just about to.
She's not sure about the nervous titter that follows, though. That reminds her a bit of her own as a child, before she consciously trained herself to rather be silent than embarrass herself with that particular sound. Alistair, however, apparently was never told just how...how ungainly that laugh is, how unseemly and unfit for a Grey Warden and almost-Templar and royal bastard, and how... how yet somehow, she cannot imagine him without it. How it is part of him, awkwardness and all, and ...how she just recently realized that she really cannot imagine her life without hearing it.
This, of course, she will not tell him. Her mouth sets in a grim line as she considers how unpractical these emotions are, how distracting. No, she will not tell him of this. She cannot.
But maybe precisely because of that? Because of the distraction, the potential of danger that might arrive on the wake of these emotions, the possibility of being weakened somehow...Yes, perhaps she should talk to him about this, after all. It might help.
"Part of templar training, back at the Chantry." Alistair, meanwhile, continues as Wynne crosses her arms and listens to him with slightly twitching features. "The men... um, were always getting their socks mixed up." He pulls up his shoulders and reaches out, deftly plucking the offending clothes item out of the mage's hand. "Anyway, uh, sorry about that. I'll take it from you right now. Thank you!" He turns away , that sheepish grin still on his face as he explains. "In fact, one of my socks is feeling a little damp anyway. A change would be nice."
Giovanna watches. Poppy watches. Wynne watches, hands on her hips, head cocked on the side as Alistair plops down next to the fire, and starts pulling off one of his boots.
"You are going to put that on?" Wynne asks incredulously. "But...it's filthy!"
It is. As she reaches for another piece of jerky, Giovanna Cousland cannot help but agree with the mage, and allows herself a quiet moment of satisfaction over the fact that she'd never, ever would be caught with something like that. She was always pedantically orderly and clean about her equipment, clothing and habits as long as she can remember, and in this recent whirlwind of events often it is the only thing that keeps her sane, the slow, methodical strokes of applying armor polish, the satisfying 'thunk' noises as her laundry got washed in a stream, the way she fills her backpack and saddlebags in the exact order of thing she'd probably need them at the next campsite. When she has laundry that needs washing, she'd neatly roll it up, place it in a cloth sack at the bottom of one of the saddlebags and wash it out as soon as they found a campsite next to a water source or gave it to a washerwoman if they lodged at an inn somewhere. Have it linger long enough to look like that... She shakes her head just a tiny bit.
No, that wouldn't do. Just wouldn't. Disorder. Unpredictability.
"And dry." Alistair amends to Wynne's description and glances up, raising a finger to punctuate his point."We're not exactly traveling in the lap of luxury here, you know."
Wynne sputters, not unlike a certain aunt Giovanna always thought of as the most stuck-up of all of her relatives when she found out her niece started arms training at the same age her own precious noble-born boy.
And I'd beaten him with his own sword, too. Giovanna remembers with a certain sense of satisfaction. He tried to ambush me from behind a column in the courtyard, the little sneaker, and I beat the snot out of him. Then I took away his sword and spanked his butt with it.
"What hideous habits you've picked up." The mage sniffs, her nose wrinkled in disgust. Giovanna finds this a bit ironic, considering their first meeting, when the white-haired, always impeccable wizard was covered head-to-toe in demon ichor from one of the monstrosities she killed while defending the apprentices of the Circle. "Alistair, you need to do laundry more often." she declares before marching off, hands thrown up in the air, still muttering.
"Unhappy, way too much, that poor woman is." Alistair declares to no one in particular. He still holds his boot in his hand, the lonely sock in the other, tentatively. "Maybe I can ask her to do my laundry? Or mend my clothes? I had a tear on my cuff the other day and I thought..."
"Alistair." Giovanna says softly, leaning forward. She needs to say something, however much she'd rather stay quiet and just observe.
Some things should not wait. She thinks this already did, too much—and with the same practicality the possessed from her childhood, she decides. I shall talk to him. Tonight. Now.
The man stumbles forward from the log he was sitting on, dropping everything in his hands to the ground, groping for his sword on his side in a lightning-quick motion.
"Oh. You." he says, recovering quickly, sweeping his hair out of his eyes with one hand. He laughs nervously. "Sorry. I didn't see you there and..."
"But you did." She cuts him off, looks at him calmly, waiting.
"Oh...you mean when I came back from my watch shift?" She nods. "All right, yes, I confess. But that doesn't mean..."
"Alistair." she says his name again and he falls silent, raking his hair over again.
"Must you tease Wynne so?" she asks finally.
"She's way too serious." Alistair shrugs, hobbles over to her side, sits down and pets Poppy, who barks happily and promptly licks him on the face. "Who's the puppy?" Alistair croons, then wipes at his face with the sock still in his hand absentmindedly.
"Alistair." she sighs the third time. This is getting old. "Would you put that sock somewhere I don't have to smell it and come back, please? We need to talk."
"She's serious, too." Alistair scratches the dog's neck. "I better do what she says, otherwise she really does what Wynne asked her for yesterday and makes you sleep with me, pup."
She scoffs and lifts a hand as if she'd smack him, but he deftly dodges her.
"As you command." He flashes that grin again and disappears in the darkness towards where his tent lies.
Giovanna settles back with Poppy and the bag of jerky, a bit uneasy. Now that she decided on finally talking to him about these... feelings disturbing her lately, now that she made the first steps down on the path she never thought she would, it feels...not right somehow. She wonders briefly if it is her upbringing intruding unexpectedly, the proper ladylike behavior in which her mother insisted she receives education despite the arms practices that took up countless hours of the week.
You can't just simply be a woman with a sword, dea r, Eleanor Cousland insisted. You are Teyrn Cousland's daughter. You have duty and obligation to House Cousland, to your ancestors, to those we lead. You have the chance to be something more than most of the noblewomen in this country. Maker willing, you one day might lead a House yourself. Lady Eleanor clapped her hands briskly. Just as your brother had to study etiquette, dance and proper argumentation and literature of the ancients, you have to as well.
"Here, look at this." Alistair's voice rouses her from the intruding memory and she shakes herself, stifling an annoyed groan most sternly. I wonder what he wants to show me this time? Another sock? A half-eaten bunny Poppy put in his tent as a token of his affection, like he did with Morrigan? A shirt with a torn cuff? "Do you know what this is?"
"Your new weapon of choice?" Her training kicks in at once, just like that. As she realizes what he holds in his hand, oh so carefully cradling the delicate stem of the deep-red rose in his calloused hand, as her breath catches at the beauty of the velvety petals, she retreats to the safety of courtly banter almost instinctively, feeling the mask of polite indifference snapping into place like bars of a prison cell.
"Yes, that's right." Alistair's eyes narrow for a second, and the cheeky grin trembles at the corner of his mouth as if it'd crumble at any minute. Then he snorts."Watch as I thrash our enemies with the mighty power of floral arrangements! Feel my thorns, darkspawn! I will overpower you with my rosy scent!"
"A rose is a rose is a rose." Giovanna quotes the old Chantry tractate, and hopes the ex-Templar catches the reference: the impossibility of him showing up with that in his hand and the infinite possibilities branching out of this delicate moment the way the rose's petals fold on each other... "You've been thumbing that for a while." She adds, inclining her head towards Alistair's hand. "Watch the thorns."
"I picked it in Lothering, you know." he says softly, haltingly. She watches his fingers tracing the outer petals of the flower with a gentleness she'd never have thought he's capable of. "I remember thinking: how could something so beautiful exist in a place with so much despair and ugliness? I probably should have left it alone, but I couldn't." Giovanna sees his eyes fill with sadness, hears his voice catch, and feels something slowly give in her chest, as if a thick, tall and impenetrable wall of ice would slowly start cracking under the pressure of warm spring air. "The darkspawn would come and their taint would just destroy it. So... I've had it ever since."
"That's a nice sentiment." she whispers, folding her fingers in her lap and feeling her heart flutter in a most unexpected way. "Alistair, I wanted to..." She trains her eyes on her fingers, concentrates on breathing evenly, the way her trainer taught her to do before battle.
"I thought..." He is not looking at her either as he rushes on. "I thought that I might..." He takes a deep breath, she hears his cloak rustling as he shifts on the log nervously. "That I might give it to you, actually. In a lot of ways, I think the same thing when I look at you."
"I... don't know what to say." she says after a while, still resolutely staring at her hands. She feels like she can hear every single heartbeat of hers. It is unbelievable, this thing, that she wanted to talk to him about this just now...
"I guess it's a bit silly, isn't it?" Alistair sounds wistful. She lifts her head to look at him then, and is struck by the concerned expression on his face. "I just thought, here I am doing all this complaining you have to listen to, and you haven't exactly been having a good time of it yourself." He sighs. "You've had none of the good experience of being a Grey Warden since your Joining. Not a word of thanks or congratulations or even a celebration. It's all been death and fighting and tragedy."
"And eating."she interjects quickly, hoping her voice isn't as weak as her knees. She gives silent thanks to the Maker she is sitting."Let's not forget the appetite."
"Oh, that, yes." Alistair laughs softly, then suddenly reaches out and takes her hand in his."Listen, Giovanna, I... I thought maybe I could say something. Tell you what a rare and wonderful thing you are to find amidst all this…darkness." His hand is warm and his fingers are strong as he presses the rose gently into her hand. "Just like this rose."
"Thank you." She looks at him, really looks at him now, like she did after the battle at Ostagar when they realized they were the only ones left of the Grey Wardens, and the truth slips out between her lips now, finally. The truth, that, she realizes as she says it, she cradled there in her heart from exactly that moment. "I feel the same way about you."
"Oh." His breath catches just a bit with a soft sound like a bird's feathers rustling, like the snow falling on the branches of a pine tree on a winter morning. "Really?"
Giovanna just nods, her gaze unwavering, a tiny smile slowly blossoming on her lips to mirror his... and silence creeps between the two of them as they sit on the log by the fire, hands holding the rose, and each other.
They only realize later that Poppy's slobber soaked through their boots and drenched their socks completely.