Of The Importance of Relaxing
A/N: This takes place immediately after the happenings in Of Shirts and Baskets.
"If you really need to know."
"I'm afraid I do. I really, really do. I mean, think about it. I might shrivel and die if I never learn the secret. Or you might shrivel and die if you keep it. Or we both could, in which case Poppy would be inconsolable and Morrigan would finally smile. Do you really want that on your conscience?"
"Point." Giovanna Cousland admits grudgingly. She surveys the elven-made cloth in front of her, with the remains of their lunch and sighs. Two Grey Wardens can lay waste to a surprising amount of food, and she kind of hoped there was more left than a couple of biscuits, some honey and half of an apple. She really should be annoyed at Alistair for eating most of it—he had the opportunity to get accustomed to the hunger much better than her.
But how can one be annoyed at a man who smiles at her like that, hair still slightly damp and tousled from his dip in the lake earlier, leaving his neck so achingly vulnerable that there's all she can do not to run her fingers gently across right where a stray strand of blonde curves against his nape?
That simply wouldn't do, Giovanna. She admonishes herself sternly. There is no use for such thoughts… he surely cooled all possible feelings towards her after she had made her decision regarding Arlessa Isolde. And so must she, now, without ever letting him know just how much she aches for him on all of those cold nights when she keeps watch, staring into the fire of their little camp and listening to night noises to drive the thoughts of him sleeping so close by away.
And still, she keeps hoping against all hope. She almost smiles as he keeps insisting to know about this thing Sten is supposedly watching for Leliana, and with his usual stubbornness and determination in being as silly as he can, he finally succeeds drawing it out of her, despite her inclination to sulk for a while.
"Leliana has a kitten." She looks at Alistair sheepishly as she smears honey on a piece of biscuit. "She found that thing somewhere on the outskirts of Denerim and now she can't just leave it somewhere, so she keeps it around and lets the Feddicks take care of it when traveling as she's terrified what Poppy would do to it. Truly, I think he'd probably lick it to death." She shrugs. "Anyway, apparently Sten is quite fond of the thing." She lowers her voice. "Not that he'd ever admit it, and if you ever mention it to him he'll probably cut off your…"
"Right." Alistair says, wincing. "Right. No worries there. My lips are sealed." He pauses. "Wow. That's…I mean… Are we talking about the same Sten? 'I am a soldier of the Berezaad' 'I like swords; I follow orders' Sten? You know, seven feet tall, hair all white, quiet as a log, chops darkspawn in half with a single swipe, thinks women should be at home cooking and such?"
"I knew someone who claimed fifteen kills at the Battle of West Hill and he had this pet raven he nursed back to health after he found it with a broken wing in the courtyard." Giovanna says, remembering. "It followed Ser Gwym everywhere, was most annoying during training, let me tell you." She peeks under the tablecloth in hopes there's a stray piece of ham somewhere. "So the idea of Sten playing with a piece of string and a kitten doesn't shock me as much as perhaps it does a Chantry-raised ex-Templar."
"Hey." Alistair holds up a hand, defensively. "Just because I lived the sheltered life of an altar-boy doesn't mean I can't understand the facts of life, and…" He pauses, and looks at her with a faint blush on his cheek. "Uh-oh. That sounded a bit…"
"Yeah." Giovanna nods, studying the empty basket. "Let's just…" She takes a deep breath, hating the fact that lately everything Alistair says starts to sound laced with hidden meaning. "Sorry. Bad memories, is all."
"Your… family?" Alistair asks cautiously.
Giovanna frowns. She never actually talked about what happened, with anyone. Duncan was there, yes, but he's gone, and with him and King Cailan dead, Teyrn Loghain sitting as regent and Arl Howe his advisor, there's no one who would make the connection that the last scion of the Couslands is the same Grey Warden that was last seen atop the Tower of Ishal lighting the signal beacon.
"You don't have to..." Alistair hastens to amend. "You know, it's just that your forehead gets all wrinkly and sad when you think about them. Surely it..."
"No, it's fine." Giovanna shakes her head and looks around. It is almost surreal, how peaceful and serene the Brecilian Forest looks like from here at the edge of the treeline, with the slight noise of the Dalish camp muffled by the distance and a little copse of ages-old oak trees.
And suddenly that bottle of wine Leliana found at one of the merchants looks very appealing. She insisted on adding it to the basket, even digging into one of her packs to find two delicate silver drinking cups to take with her. Maker knows what significance they held for the ex-bard to hold on to them all through her time in the Chantry and on the road, but she was adamant about lending them for this occasion.
Perhaps it's time to let it out, she considers, turning one of the cups around in her hand. Perhaps, perhaps there is a time for everything, and she carried this for way too long, all by herself.
And perhaps, just perhaps, there is a chance that this time she'll find the right words to say, and perhaps he won't run away.
One can only hope. She thinks with a certain amount of bitterness. Considering all the things I told him, I am still amazed he took it so well.
"You probably already know that my family was... important." she starts, uncorking the wine and pouring. She pauses and looks up at him, and her heart skips a beat at the concern that he so openly wears for her on his face now.
"Duncan mentioned something about you being from Highever... I figured maybe someone from the teyrn's household? Was one of The Cousland's knights your father? I kind of heard what happened there...of course there were all kinds of rumors about it." He accepts the cup from her hand, and hesitates just a heartbeat as their fingers briefly touch. For Giovanna it feels like a spark from a smoldering pyre she was foolish enough to poke with a stick as a child: dangerous but irresistible. She tosses the contents of her cup back, barely paying attention to just how nice the wine is. All she needs now is the courage to continue.
"I know we lose our surnames when we Join." she says, tasting the bitter tannins of the heady red wine on her tongue. "And you never asked. None of you, ever, in fact. But you told me your story... so this is only fair. I owe it to you." She takes another drink, and smiles up at Alistair mirthlessly. "I waited way too long with this already... and it's eating me up inside. As if the darkspawn blood wouldn't be enough." Another deep breath. "The Cousland was my father. I am his second child, and as far as I know, I am The Cousland now, as my brother Fergus is believed to have died at Ostagar. Not that it means anything anymore."
She would never admit it, but inside she trembles like a gentle court-raised lady, waiting for him to say something, anything as a reaction to her revelation. She avoids his gaze, staring in her lap instead, her hands holding the cup so tight her knuckles are white.
"Well." He shakes his head, and a small laughter escapes his lips. "I know I am supposed to say something witty, like it's expected of me, but I confess right now words fail me." He looks at her, with something almost like wonder in his eyes. "So... you are Teyrn Bryce's daughter? Great Maker, that explains a lot."
"Like what?" She hates that her voice sounds so harsh, so ridiculously ugly; she never before wished that she'd taken up voice lessons like her mother urged. The dagger of the man sent to kill her didn't help matters either. Had it been not for Duncan's skills for mending injuries while they traveled to Ostagar, and him paying for a lot of magical healing from some Circle mages at the royal camp, she probably would have ended up almost mute. This way her voice is just raspy at best, throaty and permanently sounding like she has a chest cold, getting back into that silly falsetto unpredictably when she gets excited…
"I've met Teyrn Bryce once when he visited Redcliffe in the king's entourage." Alistair explains, squinting a little as he looks towards the lake. "I was only a boy, but he actually talked to me as if I was an adult. He asked about my plans for my future and actually seemed to care enough to ask Arl Eamon if it was possible for me to visit Highever for a while." He shrugs. "But then I was sent to the Chantry and that was that."
"Oh." Giovanna says softly. The thought of them meeting as children, however distant, the possibility of even growing up together (for surely that's what would have happened if her father decided to have Maric's bastard son in his court) sends shivers up her spine.
"I'd have beaten you at swordplay anyway, you know." she says quickly to cover her embarrassment over her thoughts, and is rewarded by his chuckle.
"Oh, no doubt about that, lady." he says, then pauses and adds, a bit hesitantly. "He talked about you, you know. Your father." He closes his eyes for a second, as if to summon his thoughts and she thinks she'd just give an arm and a leg if her father would be alive right now. "He said he had a son and a daughter, and while his son was destined to follow him as the teyrn, he …wasn't exactly sure what his daughter was intending to do besides playing with swords." He opens his eyes and grins. "In fact, he said you were very much like Prince Cailan in that regard."
"Pfft." Giovanna finds herself making yet another very un-ladylike sound. "Problem was, Cailan never talked about anything else but swords. Or Wardens. Wardens with swords, to be specific. I tried to have him interested in anything else, like some history with no Wardens in it, or about our studies, like…" She takes a deep breath as she remembers, but the pain is not as sharp now, almost as if the wine finally starts to take effect. "Like Mother taught me to do, you know… make polite conversation with the one-day-to-be-king." She recalls Cailan, resplendent in his golden armor, at Ostagar, his laughing eyes and confident smile, and shudders at the memory of how vivid the crimson of his blood stood out as the ogre crushed his ribs with one powerful blow on the battlefield, and how helpless she felt on the top of the Tower of Ishal, watching it all.
"He was wiser than anyone thought." Alistair says suddenly, with some bitterness creeping into his voice.
"Hmm?" Giovanna lifts an eyebrow, filling their cups again.
"Cailan. He sent me to the Tower of Ishal with you, instead of staying with the other Wardens in battle." Now it's him who gulps down an entire cup of wine as if it were water, and stretches out for a refill. "Almost as if he wanted to make sure I was safe… that you were safe. Knowing now what I do about you… that makes perfect sense. He wanted to keep the last of the Couslands alive. But me? Why me, the always-joking ex-Templar, the junior Grey Warden?"
"By Andraste…" Giovanna breathes, as she understands what Alistair means. "You… he wanted to keep you alive because he knew you were Maric's son. His half-brother." She lifts her head; the air amongst the trees suddenly seems cold. She thought she'd left the world of intrigue and politics behind forever when she Joined the Grey Wardens; it seems, however, that she was wrong. "Do you think he suspected something from Loghain…?"
"No one could have suspected he'd simply quit the battlefield." Alistair shakes his head, brows furrowed in thought. "But surely it betrays some foresight…not that it makes me feel any better about not being there when…" he trails off, voice choking on emotion, and Giovanna knows he's thinking of Duncan again, the Warden Commander of Ferelden, his mentor—and hers, however briefly.
"Cailan was his father's son." she says, her voice firm and clear at last, and, leaning forward, she grasps Alistair's hand. "Just like you are."
"Bah. Impossible. I was raised by dogs, you know." There he goes again, trying to derail the conversation with one of his jokes, while she tries to tell him, however obliquely, how much she… cares.
"Sure. That's where you got your manners." she growls back, a bit annoyed. "No wonder Poppy likes you."
"He's just after my socks, obviously." Alistair smiles. "Hey, this wine is good." he says, with a slight surprise. "I might be a bit tipsy. Just a fair warning…"
"Tell me about it." Giovanna murmurs. Yes, curse her, Leliana chose one of the more potent ones in that merchant's stock and naturally, she didn't tell her.
"Will you miss it when it's gone?" Alistair asks suddenly. Giovanna can't help but realize that he's still holding her hand and shows no inclination of letting go.
"Miss what? The wine?" she asks, confused and more than a little dazed, not merely from the wine but from the way his fingers enveloping hers.
"This." He says, and gestures with his other hand, seemingly encompassing the entire Brecilian Forest. "You know. The adventure. The smell of my cooking. Morrigan telling Wynne what to do with her herbs. Shale rumbling about whether the crystals make her look wide. The sound of Sten sharpening various pointy objects of destruction. Leliana humming something. Zevran trying to spin a tale of past conquests." His eyes are glittering in the light of the setting sun. "Once this is all over, and there will be no more running for our lives, no more darkspawn, no more camping in the middle of nowhere."
"Oh." Now that he put it that way, Giovanna realizes that indeed, she just might. It's a long road they embarked upon, and one that might not end nicely… but as she looks at the other Warden sitting opposite her, she feels another short, sharp pain behind her breastbone. "When it's over? I…hadn't thought that far ahead."
"Surely you did." Alistair insists, waving a hand magnanimously. "About when we finished with the Archdemon and we're heroes of the Realm and we all ride into Denerim on white horses, and you have your name restored, Howe's and Loghain's head on a pike…that sort of thing?"
She smiles a bit at that, she can't help it. She always thought his relentless optimism rather endearing. And so she returns the banter, something she does almost instinctively now, after all these months of traveling with him.
"You mean when you're king?" As soon as the words are out, she wants to take them back and apologize furiously, and it's merely her pride that keeps her from doing so. Curse the wine, the strange elven vintage, that makes her so open, so relaxed so… prone to say things that can hurt. I swear if I offended him, I'll never touch this stuff again.
She whispers a silent prayer to the Maker when Alistair doesn't look at her as if she'd kicked his puppy. Instead, he just shakes his head and goes for the bottle again.
"That's right." he says, pausing to drink before continuing. There is just a faint hint of slur in his voice. "In this theoretical future when I am king and you're The Cousland and the Archdemon is defeated, and the world is saved, and where, although we didn't know each other for long, I've somehow came to…care for you. A great deal. In fact. "He stares into his cup as if he would be able to see the future there. "Maybe because we've been through so much together, I don't know." He shrugs, and looks up, with that lopsided grin on his face that makes her heart break a little every time she sees it. It's even more charming now that the wine started working on him, too; he probably didn't have a lot of chances to drink while training as a Templar, it runs through Giovanna's head, along with the vague thought of what else he didn't have a lot of chance of doing, and she feels herself flush.
And considering the way this conversation is going, she's not sure she can even start down on that path.
"Oops." Alistair says now, as he finishes what's in his cup and upends it, placing it next to him on the tablecloth. He sways a little bit as he sits but Giovanna suspects she's not too steady herself. "Fade take it, maybe I am imagining things. Or I am drunk. Or both. Or maybe I am fooling myself. I've been known to do that, on numerous occasions." He looks up then, straight at her, and Giovanna rocks back, seeing the play of emotions on his face: bitterness, determination, a pinch of fear, some self-loathing, hope… and something else, something she never would have dreamed of seeing on any man's face looking at her. "So: your king commands, my dear Cousland… In this theoretical future, you understand…tell me: am I? Fooling myself?"
She scarcely believes what she hears, and is sure it's merely the wine, at first.
"You're drunk, FitzTheirin." she says hesitantly, trying to deflect as if her words were a shield, but Alistair would have none of it.
"Come on now." he says, smiling, but unrelenting, his gaze intently boring into hers, and somehow she finds that his face is closer now, much closer, as he is leaning towards her. "That's beside the point. Remember: it's your theoretical king commanding you. Do you think you'd ever feel the same way about me, lady?"
I am drunk, too, Giovanna realizes, staring at him, mesmerized, too awestruck and hoping against all hope to do anything else. I feel drunk, too, but not necessarily from the wine. It might be the way his warm breath, slightly wine-scented, tickles my face…dear Maker, he is so close I can see tiny little freckles at the base of his nose I'd never noticed before. It might be the way his hands are taking mine, the way his eyes dilate, his lips slightly part…
"I…I think I already do." That cursed and blessed Cousland honesty compels her to answer, just like he probably suspected it would. Really, the ex-Templar is much cleverer than he lets anyone in.
A triumphant smile appears on his face now, one that makes the fine wrinkles at the corners of his eyes and the tiny freckles by his nose dance.
"So I fooled you, did I?" His chuckle is throaty and deep, and it makes her shiver with cold and burn with fever all at once as he reaches to cup her face in his hands. "Good to know." he murmurs as his mouth closes that final distance, and dear, sweet Maker, that wine, that cursed, that blessed elven vintage tastes like honey and raspberries on his lips, and her heart is about to burst, and her arms go up around his neck like iron clasps as she kisses him back with the desperation of someone doing it for the first time.
"That…that wasn't too soon, was it?" She hears him vaguely, as through a haze of red and gold, and suddenly Giovanna Cousland, the stern, taciturn daughter of Teyrn Bryce feels as if she could go and dance the Remigold in front of the entire royal court.
"Not sure…" she whispers back, eyes still closed, her forehead against his. "I think it bears further investigation."
"Oh." His arms tighten around her waist and laughter enters his voice like a bright ray of sunshine, alighting her entire soul. "I think we can…arrange that."
He kisses her again, more thoroughly this time, and Giovanna feels as if all of her bones would melt. This is more than she'd dreamed of, it is more than she'd ever hoped for, and she finds that all of a sudden it is very, very hard to breathe.
"Maker's Breath…" she hears him murmuring, kissing the corner of her mouth over and over again with an agonizing slowness that sets her entire middle on fire, "…but you're beautiful. I am a lucky man."
He really rather talks too much, though.
"Shut up, FitzTeirin." If this is a dream, then may it never end, she thinks vaguely, threading her fingers through his still-damp hair. If it is the wine, though, she decides, arching her body against his as he trails trembling fingers down the nape of her neck slowly, than I will go and buy up that merchant's entire stock. As soon as I kissed him silent.