Of Training and Lampposts
"You are a bad person." Alistair mutters as they cut through the underbrush, away from camp. It is cold, but they are dressed warm, layers of leather and furs. "Why are you making me do this?"
Giovanna Cousland cocks an eyebrow at him, but remains silent. She concentrates of avoiding the thorns in some brushes instead.
"Wait, don't say anything." Alistair continues, boots stomping on some dry weeds. "I'll figure this out all by myself. You think I offered to train you as a Templar because I am so bored otherwise. Or you think I was just joking and now you want to have the last laugh. Or you want to turn me into a morning person." He snaps his fingers. "That's it! You think I sleep in way too late and need some healthy exercise on an empty stomach to start my day. You think by doing this I can be turned into one of those cheerful people who are up at the crack of dawn singing Orlesian ballads as they fill the tea kettle…" He pauses, considers his words. "Wait a minute; you're usually there making gruel by the time Leliana is back with the water, so that makes you a morning person as well. And to call you cheerful…"
"Finished?" Giovanna inquires from the corner of her mouth. Alistair pouts at her.
"And still she doesn't talk to me." He sighs. "I pour my heart out to her in confidence, share with her all my witty thoughts despite the fact the sun is barely up…"
"Was up two hours ago." she points out curtly, then considers for a second and adds. "I watched it."
"Did I tell you I hate you? Really, really?" He stops, looks around. "Well, this is as good a place as any." he announces, with some petulance in his tone still. "Will you make breakfast after this, at least?"
She nods as she slings her sword and shield free.
"I make you a deal." Alistair sighs as he follows her example. "If you beat me today, you can ask me a personal question."
"Hm?" Giovanna drops into the Templar fighting stance they practiced the last few times already, choosing the classic 'bait' position: feet shoulder-width apart, right leg slightly forward and bent, sword raised high above her head, shield on the side. It screams 'come at me, I'm open' and it is exceedingly vulnerable. "A personal question?"
"Anything you like." Alistair wiggles an eyebrow. "Come on, lady, I am giving you all the advantage here."
"Nope." she says curtly, but her eyes thaw a bit. "You just want me to drop my guard while I'm thinking about that."
"Evil woman." Alistair grins and charges, lowering his shield just to yank it up in the last possible second while sidestepping Giovanna's downsweeping blade with perfect timing.
Their relationship changed since that night when he gave her that rose. First it was subtle: the way she stood closer to him when they talked, the way he touched her shoulder when alerting her to danger, the way their eyes met and held each other's gaze longer than mere friendship would have warranted. She still doesn't talk much, and he's still resolute in trying to bait her into smiling at any possible occasion. That much haven't changed.
"Did you…come up with a question?" he shoots at her while dodging a thrust aimed over her shield towards his exposed neck. Damn, he thinks as he steps back and parries, she learns fast. That was one of the classic moves he showed her just yesterday. Maybe she practices in secret. Does she sleep at all?
And why, precisely, Alistair, my boy, would imagining her asleep cause your heart to skip a beat?
But he knows the answer to his own question: it is hidden in plain sight in the graceful sweep of her neck, visible now that she's not wearing heavy armor, in the slightly almond-shaped large eyes that hide her thoughts so well, in the grim set of her lips that he'd do anything to see to curve into a smile. Giovanna Cousland entered his heart unseen, unbidden, unasked-for from that first moment he saw her in the ruined nave of the ancient temple at Ostagar.
He was busy lecturing that mage of the Circle about something or other—honestly, he's forgotten anything he'd said to him the minute the man departed all huffing and puffing, so accustomed to his own power and so hurt over being put into his place. He turned, with a satisfied smirk on his lips over a day's work well done, a habit he retained from his Templar days… and fear slammed into him stronger than any darkspawn could ever invoke. It knocked the air out of his lungs, like a warflail's blow, as he watched her picking her way carefully along the rubble of ancient columns, walking like a great predatory cat, slow but with the assurance and readiness of born warriors.
"You're Alistair." Her voice was rough and hoarse; he couldn't tell its real timbre, but didn't care. Her throat was thickly wound with white bandages and a fine-looking blue scarf on top of it that once had seen better days. "Duncan sent me."
"Oh, hullo." he said stupidly, voice cracking like when he was fifteen, hand coming up to rake his hair, a nervous habit he hated but could never shake. "You must be the new recruit, right? I figured since Duncan told me he was bringing a girl. Not that…you'd be…I mean you are, but not that you're a…"
"I don't know." Back in the present, Giovanna grunts as she leans away from a binding he instinctively threw at her. The execution was sloppy: she was able to immediately turn it into a counter-thrust that grazes his shoulder.
He swears under his breath: by the Maker, no one can distract him like this! But he almost loses his sword when he sees something dancing in her eyes, something that is perilously close to a wicked gleam, as she asks deceptively lightly.
"Maybe something about your… tendency to blush when you hear one of Leliana's bawdier songs?"
"Mhm?" This is unfair, he decides, and he retreats two steps as she pushes forward. She must be doing this on purpose. She cannot really…
But it's too late. The distraction happens, just like that, at the blink of an eye—and Giovanna steps into the breach he left in his defenses, just as fast as she always is in battle. She's merciless, too. She drops her shield so she can have a quick grip on his sword with her gloved hand, and with one smooth motion she wrenches it out of his hand so it falls on the ground next to her shield, while his arm is painfully twisted behind his back, his own knuckles pressing into his spine.
She used a bloody lower key on me… he thinks, dazed, still unbelieving.
"So: do you yield?" she asks, still calm, still with that mask of indifference on her face.
"Dammit, woman..." he grinds it out and lets his spine sag as if in defeat...
...then he drops his bodyweight, twists his hip, driving it into her side, and sweeps her legs from underneath her. She makes a surprising little sound as they both fall to the ground.
"I am heavier than you, dear lady." he says, slightly out of breath. Neither of them is wearing armor, and even through the layers of leather and thick wool he can feel her body against his. And it's distracting. Very much so. This close, for the first time... She has tiny little flecks of gold in her iris, he sees, and her eyelashes are full and long. Alistair feels that familiar squeeze around his heart, and knows that he's lost again, just like back then in Ostagar, just like in the Circle Tower when she walked the Fade to save them all, just like when she woke up screaming in the night from her first nightmare and looked at him as if he could make the images to go away...
What possessed him to give her that rose, he still doesn't know. Must have been one of those moments when reason flees and gives way to unrestrained, mad 'come-what-it-may'. Something like those Orlesian ballads talk about that Lelaina likes to sing as she goes about her business in camp. But she took it and looked at him with those sapphire-blue eyes of hers, and for just a second, for a heartbeat, for a beautiful shining moment hope kindled in his heart like a beacon on a watchtower.
He hasn't seen that look on her face ever since. He knows she has unspeakable sorrows in her past, that she lost people she loved and cared for dearly... but she doesn't talk about it. Most of the time she doesn't talk at all, and that breaks his heart every time he thinks about it, because he knows she wasn't always like this. He knows this, as surely as he knows that they are both Grey Wardens, destined to battle darkspawn until that final day when their nightmares are too much, and they set out on the road to Orzammar.
As surely as he knows he can think about no other woman, ever.
And he thinks about her, Maker help him, he thinks about her often. More and more, in fact, and he hides it with his jests, with the increasing attempts to cheer her up, to show her that not everything is all darkness and despair, that there is hope and there is beauty in this world worth fighting for. He aches to hold her, to trace the high cheekbones with his calloused fingers, to unbind her severely braided hair and bury his face in its waves...
"That you are." he hears Giovanna saying, and he swallows thickly, knowing that yet again, his own thoughts distracted him. "Look down."
She had a dagger hidden in one of her boots, and now its cold, hard edge is pressing against his ribs. She got to it while he was daydreaming about what can never be.
"You learned that from that Antivan." he says quickly, making it sound like an accusation. "Really, dear lady, you shouldn't take lessons from anyone else but your fellow Warden, 'tis not good for the soul."
"I've learned it from my father, who took me down to the training yard after my first moon's blood and showed me how to defend myself in case someone got drunk and forgot who I was." she says crisply and coldly, the words almost cutting the air with their edge. She talks now, quite a lot, in fact, but Alistair finds no joy in it at all. "His household would have never even thought about it, but he prepared me to eventually go to war, I believe, and unless it became a second nature, he said, due to the undeniable fact that men just have a larger body mass and stronger musculature than women even with the training I've received..." She shrugs. "Well, I don't think I need to elaborate on that." She pauses, regarding his face with those icy blue eyes. "Alistair, you're blushing."
"Well, yes." he says,desperately trying for an out. "After all, you bested me, and..."
"I did, didn't I?" Giovanna says slowly, and Alistair sees that little sparkle returning into her eyes again, hope against all hope. "So I believe there was this personal question I can ask of you now...?" She makes no effort to move, either and that is even more distracting. Maker's Breath, but she is so damned beautiful and unachievable, so sure of herself and still so vulnerable...
"Indeed." he manages to croak out in a what he believes is a reasonably calm voice.
"Good." She nods. "Given your behavior, there was something I wanted to ask for a long time now." Her voice is brisk and businesslike, just like when Arlessa Isolde was discussing his sending off to the Chantry with her husband. "So: have you ever...?"
She pauses as if that was the end of the question, and Alistair sees a faint rosy color blossom on her alabaster cheeks.
"Have I ever what...?" He's not sure he heard that well. "Owned a pair of shoe? Darned my socks by myself?"
Her eyes narrow, and that imperious tone she almost never uses with anyone else but Morrigan creeps into her voice.
"You know what I mean."
"Oh, I am not sure I do." Alistair is desperately stalling for time; yes, he knows exactly where this goes, and never, ever in his wildest dreams he'd have thought she might ask him this. "Have I ever seen a basilisk? Ate jellied ham? Locked myself in a cage? Owned a giant cat? Have I ever licked a lamppost in the winter?"
"Now you're making fun of me, sir." Her voice is icy now, her brows arch haughty, and her entire body is stiff and rigid as if with anger.
"Dear lady, perish the thought!" he exclaims—he suddenly sees an out of this trap she oh so cleverly laid to him, and seizes the opportunity with desperate fervor.
"But tell me: have you ever licked a lamppost in the winter?"
She blinks, and nervously bites her lower lip. He can hardly contain the triumph he feels: he might win this sparring match yet!
"But of course I've licked a lamppost in the winter once!" she says indignantly "But..."
"Just the once?" he continues quickly. "And you've not lost half of your tongue in the process?" He laughs, making light of it. "I'm impressed."
"Of course I did!" she retorts, now truly angry, the pale roses on her cheek glowing furiously. She's even more gorgeous now, life returning in her eyes, and he can hardly contain the wave of desire threatening to overwhelm him. "That's what I'm trying to explain you, you dolt! I did it on a dare because Fergus acted like a great big jerk and said girls can't do it, so we sneaked down to the courtyard one evening when my nanny was asleep and I did it and my tongue got stuck halfway and..." Her voice falters as she realizes what she's talking about isn't exactly what he meant, and the deep crimson of a full blush blossoms on her face now, from her forehead all the way down to her fur collar on her neck.
"What exactly were you talking about, Alistair?" she demands. "Is this some kind of stupid Templar metaphor for what I was asking you about?"
Now it's his turn to arch eyebrows at her: he crosses his arms in front of his chest so she doesn't notice how wildly his heart flutters and his hands tremble. Better to act offended.
"Oh but dear lady, I was raised in a Chantry, you see. They taught me to be a gentleman. Especially in the presence of beautiful ladies such as yourself." he adds, honesty compelling him again to speak his mind even as the other side of his brain curses him for it. "That's not such a bad thing, is it?"
He expects her to arch those high eyebrows again, to lash at him with that icy tone, anything but the hushed, plaintive, almost girlish voice that sounds just like on that night when she woke from her first nightmare after they left the Korcari Wilds.
"You...you really think I am beautiful?" She is so still, so quiet, he can almost hear her heartbeat, and can see the vein pounding on her neck under her porcelain skin.
He feels hot and cold at the same time, like fire and ice coursing in his veins. He can't look away: those sapphire eyes draw him in like pools of deep water.
"Of course you are." he hears himself whisper. "You are ravishing, resourceful and all those other things you'd... probably... hurt me... for... not... saying." He is slowly leaning forward as he speaks, so at the end his nose bumps gently against her forehead. He has no idea what madness claimed him to do this, but there's no way back now.
"I would...never hurt you." Her voice still has that plaintive tremble in it, echoes of a much younger, more frail Giovanna, one that he aches to know better. Cool, leather-covered fingers reach up, smooth tendrils of hair out of his forehead, and Alistair swears he sees a tear gathering in the corner of her eye.
All traces of silliness or attempts at jokes forgotten now, he takes her hand in his, and gently breather a kiss in her palm, as if sealing a pact between them.
"Nor I you, lady. Nor I you. Ever."