Of Shirts and Baskets

A/N: because after all the relative darkness of the last oneshot, we all need some lighter tones, right?

"There, that should do it." Leliana claps her hands excitedly as she carefully folds the cloth on the last piece of cheese and closes the basket. "I am glad we found this… and those apples were most good-looking, wouldn't you agree?"

"If you say so…" Giovanna Cousland surveys the picnic basket in front of her as if it were an unexploded acid flask, ready to splutter green fumes everywhere at any moment. "You sure this is a good idea?"

"Shoot, are you going to chicken out now?" The ex-bard shakes her head, her fox-red tresses flying around her head. Giovanna scowls. "Come on, I had to hide those cookies from Sten!" She leans closer and whispers, conspiratorially. "Besides, I don't want to lose two sovereigns to Zev, so…"

"You bet over this? With Zevran?" Giovanna feels her cheeks redden. It is much easier these days for some reason; as if the heavy frost that froze her into emotionlessness finally came to an end. "But… you're a lay Sister of the Chantry!"

"Yes, I figure you'd probably disapprove." says Leliana, still grinning, then she glances up and elbows her. "Quick, he just came back! Now is as good a time as ever." Her eyes widen appreciatively. "Maker's Breath, but he looks good without his shirt on. I wonder where he left it, though?"

"What?" Giovanna looks absentmindedly over her shoulder, and freezes to the spot, lips slightly parted, as she watches Alistair winding his way through their little camp at the edge of the Dalish elf grove. Water is still dripping from his hair from his apparent dip in the lake over the forest ridge; small droplets slowly find their way from his shoulder down on his chest through his chiseled abdomen muscles and then…

Sweet Maker, Giovanna, stop that! she scolds herself as she tries to breathe evenly. You were bad enough to crush his ego mercilessly last time you had any meaningful to talk about, then proceeded to all but tell him you couldn't go anywhere with what so obviously started between the two of you…

But you kissed him, that other voice in her head whispers.

It was just a peck, she defends herself. Almost like a parting, really.

And that's why you have this picnic basket assembled, ready to take the man out to the Brecilian Forest for a pastoral outing between killing werewolves and undead?

"Ladies…" By Andastre's Ashes, why did he have to stop right by them? He really should have just gone straight to his tent in…in this indecent state! Has no one taught him that flaunting that absolutely breathtaking lean, muscled torso and corded arms and shoulders is a sin against decency? And why is he doing it, anyway? And what's up with that smile he flashes at Leliana anyway? "Have you seen Wynne, by any chance?"

"In her tent." Did Leliana actually giggle? Did she, really?

Giovanna glares at the lay sister, who's ogling the ex-Templar in a most un-Sisterlike way at the moment, and considers what she should say next very carefully.

Then she discards the whole thing from her head as she remembers something Alistair said a while back.

"You need her to mend your shirt, I assume?" she asks in a perfectly neutral voice.

"Yep." Alistair regards her with a particularly innocent stare. "I need to tell her that a certain Mabari hound thought that my shirt while drying by the lakeside was a perfectly acceptable chewtoy, and beg her to help me so I don't have to walk around like this all day, as the rest of my shirts are all wet as well." He raises an eyebrow. "What?" he asks defiantly. "I was doing laundry. As I was accused of neglecting that on more than one occasion, if I recall?"

"Err." Giovanna says. "Yes. Correct. Um. About Poppy, now…"Please, please do not do that thing you do when you are slightly embarrassed, that thing with your hair when you lift your arms and run your fingers through your hair, please, by Andastre's flaming sword, not now, because I think I might just…

She swallows.

Good grief. She should have realized this would happen, of course. For all her rigorous warrior training at Highever, she was also the daughter of the teyrn, not exactly one of the 'boys' living in the soldiers' quarters or where her father's knights lodged. So seeing someone of the opposite sex half-naked, and especially him

Of course, that doesn't mean that she didn't receive The Talk from her mother, but so far, apart from occasionally looking at Ser Gilmore's broad shoulders in admiration once or twice when they sparred and thinking about why the knight was strangely tongue-tied in her presence, Giovanna wouldn't have called herself particularly concerned with matters pertaining the other sex. Yes, there were those books of poetry she found in her mother's desk one day when she was sixteen that were rather…risqué, especially the illustrations, but after looking them over and getting a bit bothered she quickly decided that when it all boils down to it, they were just variations on the same mechanics Lady Eleanor discussed with her so dispassionately as if they were conversing about the weather.

Curses and damnation, why does he have to arch his back when he does that…that hair thing? Does he have any idea what that does to my breathing and ability to think clearly and not just wanting to lean forward and lick those drops of water right off…?

This is going to be a long day. A very cold, long dip in that lake starts to look appealing. Spending the afternoon in his company with a picnic basket, however…

Well, maybe if I take this as a punishment for being so awful with him…? Proud of herself to be able to steer her thoughts into a more somber vein, Giovanna Cousland offers a tentative smile.

"I'll have a talk with Poppy. Maybe to make bigger holes next time?"

Now that got him blushing. Finally. Giovanna lets out the air carefully, and ducks her head under the pretense of picking up the basket.

"So when you finished with bribing Wynne into fixing up your shirt and drying off, do you want to join me for a lunch?" she asks, as casually as she can.

"I was just about to ask what you were doing with that basket." Alistair murmurs, looking her over. Giovanna furrows her brow and wonders what's wrong with her appearance. She does a quick mental check: her hair is clean, freshly washed at dawn and braided as always, she scrubbed the remains of armor polish off her hands, her shirt is a light blue linen one she picked up from one of the elven vendors here Leliana dragged her to, and it's clean and free of any frills, except its billowing sleeves that still make it a bit awkward, but Leliana insisted it actually suits her. Yes, she's out of armor, which is rare except when she's asleep but it's not as if Alistair ever…

Don't. Go. There.

"Well, then." The ex-bard says in a singsong voice. "It was nice chatting with you, Giovanna, Alistair, but I have to run. Sten is, ah, watching something for me and I would have to…"

"Watching something?" Alistair inquires, intrigued. "You need to explain that, you know."

"No, I don't." Leliana, to Giovanna's greatest amazement, blushes. " Seeyoulaterbye." She scrambles the words together as she bounces away as fast as she can.

"Do you, by any chance, know what she was talking about?" Alistair looks at Giovanna. "Or was that an elaborate code for something I really don't want to know about and probably would make me blush?"

"Nope." She just shakes her head; suddenly words are betraying her again. Curses and damnation. This, this is the very reason she consciously chose to be known as the girl who seldom spoke at home… when she gets excited, her voice becomes shrill and hoarse, her face red and blotchy, her palms sweaty… rather unbecoming for a noble lady of her rank, and decidedly unfitting for one who wanted to be a knight for so long. She ended up studying the classics and literature with fervor, and learned to know her way around how to construct an argument and to behave in court just fine; but from early on, she had to work very hard on speaking slowly and carefully, and control that nervous energy that bubbled so close to the surface and which often reduced her to a bouncing, uncontrollably babbling puppy so much so her father even nicknamed her such. The throat wound she received during the night when Highever fell to Arl Rendon Howe's men completed the process: now Giovanna is known to her companions as one who speaks seldom, and in carefully measured sentences that precisely because of their rarity they have to really pay attention to.

"I see." Alistair grows serious as he tilts his head to one side. "You know, lady, you don't have to do this. The lunch, I mean. You didn't offend me when you called me on something I should have realized so long ago."

She winces as she remembers how she poured all her desperation, frustration, tiredness and anger at him back weeks ago at Redcliffe. Yes, there was truth there, but still… she shouldn't have just overwhelmed him like that.

You kissed him, she reminds herself sternly. That you did it on impulse and as an apology doesn't lessen the impact of it.

You still owe him an explanation.

"Not a burden." She says now, glad that her voice doesn't squeak as she's afraid it might. "I thought this might be…nice after all the things we went through lately."

'Ah." Alistair nods sagely. "You mean the tragedy, the constant brushes with death, the battles, the Blight looming over us...?"

"All of that." Giovanna clears her throat. "So? Interested?"

"Sure." He peeks at the basket. "Is there cheese in there?"

"Three different kinds." she says, glad she asked Leliana to go with her to the market. She had no idea what to buy. "Locally made, though. I don't know if you…"

"Oh, small batch farm cheese." Mmm." Alistair grins. "Perfect." He looks so devastatingly handsome with that lopsided smile on his face and that unruly lock of hair on his forehead….Giovanna reaches out to smooth it back to its place unthinkingly…

"No!" The shriek that shatters the moment comes from the back of the camp. "No, you absolutely can't have that, you flea-ridden, useless mangy bag of fur! Give it back to me, or I tan your hide with lightning!"

Morrigan appears in front of her tent, directly behind Poppy who's barking excitedly and jumping up and down around her, holding some small piece of clothing in his mouth.

"I said, give it back, you…Giovanna, I demand that you teach your dog manners!" she yells, strolling towards her with long, angry strides, dark eyes crackling with danger.

"He's a Mabari war hound." Giovanna offers as an explanation, bending down to soothe Poppy's excitement. "Calm down now, Poppy, let me get that…Oh." Her face turns beet red as she realizes what she's holding in her hand.

"Thank you very much." Morrigan snaps, yanking the piece of underwear out of her hands. "Your dog is utterly insufferable, and I shall put up with it no more! First he licks my feet, then he slobbers over my pack, then he leaves a half-rabbit in my tent, then this…"

"A dog of exceptionally good taste, I see." Zevran has this uncanny ability to show up seemingly out of nowhere at her elbow; Giovanna's hand reflexively flies to her side where she always keeps her sword. "Is this lace?"

"Zevran Arainai, you shut up right now." Giovanna's mouth presses into a thin line as she barks a command. She found out a while back that this is the way to deal with the assassin, and it works, but for a certain cost.

"Ah, how can I resist a command when it comes from those lips?" Zevran sighs, but obeys.

"Good." Giovanna nods and turns to Morrigan, who's practically trembling with rage. "I apologize; this should not happen again. " She's all business as she stares at her hound. "Poppy, you come with me. We need to talk."

Damnation and Blight, this is all going to the Fade in a handbasket, and all because of a stupid dog…

"I'll just, ah… see you later, then, I guess?" Alistair sounds a bit dejected, as if their interrupted conversation bothers him. He looks the part to, with slightly parted lips, looking at her with his tousled hair and wide eyes…

Oh, Archdemon take it, I am a Grey Warden, and not some coddled noble lady of Orlais with live birds in her hair! I am the leader of this group even if not by choice and if I want to do something that is right and good, then by Andastre, I shall do it.

"Definitely." She pulls that commander air around herself like a cloak; like something to draw strength from. "Find a shirt and meet me by my tent in five. We have a lunch to eat before it spoils."

So, there.

"Ooh." Zev croons, eyes lit up, nostrils flaring. "I like this new code system the two of you so obviously devised. Very clever. But why does he need a shirt for that?"

"Zevran. Mouth." Giovanna snaps and picks up the basket. "Come on, Poppy."

"Well." She hears Alistair announcing to no one in particular as she sweeps away, a rather sheepish Mabari trailing in her wake, "Well. That went well."