She likes giving gifts. It's something to do with being a noble; an ages-old tradition of providing and showing status at the same time, an almost compulsive obligation that on occasion results in wild excesses, like one of her great-grandsires who in a fit of generosity almost bankrupted the teyrnage by inviting everyone at Denerim's royal court to Highever for a royal birthday celebration and commissioned a suit of dwarven-made armor for each noble guest.
She could hardly afford something like that, but during their travels she takes the time to learn about the quirks and personal likes of each of her companions and every now and then she disappears on lonely trips to merchants when the opportunity arises, returning with some unique items that no one else but the receiver of that particular gift could appreciate. Sometimes she rummages through her saddlebags to find long-forgotten little trinkets that might mean absolutely nothing to anyone but one particular person, and tucks them into bedrolls or bags with a little note on a torn piece of parchment, bearing her bold signature and a couple of words.
They each react differently, of course. Leliana is the loudest: when one morning she finds a pair of neatly wrapped soft blue shoes in front of her tent, with wide blue satin ribbons to tie around the ankles and wrap around the calves, her excited chatter wakes everyone still sleeping. "And the puppy pendants… look at them, aren't they just adorable?" Sten stares at the faded painting of Moira The Rebel Queen with her great mess of red hair, standing on her chariot and brandishing her sword, his lavender eyes undecipherable… but they catch him later inquiring from Alistair about 'his grandmother's war' and listening intently as he dregs up from his memory what little he remembers about it. Wynne just chuckles at the two bottles of strong red wine, but the illustrated copy of some obscure Orlesian ballad make her eyes sparkle. "Oh, a sordid love story that ends tragically. How I love those!" Zevran seeks her out and bows extravagantly the first time he finds a neatly wrapped pale gold bar on his pillow, but his customary nonchalant mask slips when she hands him the embroidered Dalish leather gloves. "For…me?" he asks, his voice cracking just a bit. "Why do you wish to give it to me?" And when he listens to her answer, that she remembered his story about his mother's gloves, he truly looks at her in astonishment. "You… remembered that? And… do not want anything in return?"
She almost cries after that. She knew before that he was bought and sold as a young boy, to be an assassin… an elven slave, child of a prostitute, hardened beyond her comprehension even before he killed his first assignment. But to just what extent his individuality was crushed and how the terrible abuse of the Crows shaped his personality to almost complete emptiness of any understanding of deeper ties of commitment… the daughter of Teyrn Cousland has to think hard about that one, and quietly reassess her view about the nonchalant assassin.
Morrigan is a strange case, with her love of fine jewellery, but she actually enjoys how her dark eyes sparkle for a second when she finds delicate silver rope necklaces or golden brooches in those little packages. She probably never had anything like this growing up, as Flemeth definitely didn't mollycoddle her daughter, if Morrigan's tales are to be believed. Using her as bait for luring Templars into the Wilds and gutting them while alive definitely wouldn't be a prime example of proper child rearing, and Giovanna Cousland quietly labels the witch as another of those abused strays she seems to collect in her little group.
She crouches now in this vaulted room of the great keep of Soldiers' Peak, warming her hand by the fire that burns, after all these years, in the fireplace again, and listens to the clatter of her companions go about the usual routine of setting up camp. Levi Dryden is quieter than usual: learning about the fate of his great-grandmother was bad enough, let alone actually meeting her in the flesh, or what remained of it. She realizes she'd need to talk to him soon, but right now she has something else to keep in mind. She ascertained the date from Avernus—the terrible old mage looked her like she was mad when she asked about what day and month of the year it was… as if she was expected to keep track of it somehow during their running around in Ferelden. He obliged her, however, probably figuring her temper was on a very short fuse after all that demon business and him being a war criminal, practically. So she fidgets, unusually nervous, as she approaches Alistair, who is sitting next to Poppy on a rickety chair drawn up next to his pile of armor, working, yet again, on sharpening his sword.
"Um." She starts, clearing her throat, hating, not the first and not the last time, how she sounds. "Can I have a word?"
"That was already five, lady, not counting the 'um'." he says jovially, but he puts the sword and sharpening tool down and turns towards her. "However: your desire is my command." His soft, throaty delivery has the exact same effect of her as it always has, turning her knees into water and making her blush just enough for him to know her thoughts went into exactly the direction he wanted them to steer.
"Bastard." she mutters under her breath, and Alistair snorts.
"Royal bastard, thankyouverymuch," he corrects her with feigned dignity but with a satisfied smile. He seems to be easier about mentioning him being the son of a king these days, as if he finally came to terms with his heritage and the implications it carries, or at least he's trying really hard. Kissing Teryrn Cousland's daughter on a regular basis probably has a lot to do with it, but Giovanna doesn't harbor any illusions. This will be a long road.
"You're stealing my lines. " she says sternly, and takes his hand with her commander's air fully around her. "Come on, I need some air." She yanks him upright from his chair in one motion. He's still surprised at her strength after all these months, but obeys.
"Ooh, privacy, hm?" Zev smirks from where he is busy re-feathering some arrows in a corner, with his back comfortably against the stone wall. "Can I watch?"
"Wouldn't be privacy that way now, would it?" Giovanna has no time for playing games with the elf right now. "Be a dear and finish those arrows, would you? You might just not get first watch if you get those done before supper."
"Incentives. I loves them." Zevran quips and bows as he sits. "As my mistress commands, of course."
"I hate when he does that." Alistair announces forcefully as Giovanna leads him out from the room to the courtyard of the keep. "The whole lewd slave-boy act, I mean." he explains in response to her raised eyebrows.
"Jealous?" she inquires, taking two stairs at a time as she strides up to the parapet overlooking the snow-covered valley.
"Well… maybe." He admits, staring at his boots, looking and sounding a bit sullen all of a sudden. "He plays on your 'let's save people even from themselves' instincts so well, I've just…" He shrugs and lets his voice trail off.
"That's stupid, Alistair," she says, a bit irritated. "I'm not the kind of woman who'd encourage that type of behavior, and you know that. Zevran had some rather horrifying things shaping him in his past; just like you did, just like I did, just like all of us in this little group. We're all killers, professional grade, when it comes down to it, and the sooner we acknowledge that, the better." She works really hard to keep the bitterness out of her voice. "I can't believe we're talking about this, anyway, when I…"
"You're right, I'm sorry." He backs off a bit, lifting his hand in a placating gesture. "I didn't mean to imply that…"
"I didn't think you did." She says hastily. She hates when he gets so defensive, but understands. This thing between them is so new, so tentative still that they unwittingly keep bumping into each other as they test the boundaries of their new relationship. "Just trust yourself a bit more." She adds, stepping closer and trailing a hand down his face. "Seriously, Alistair: how could I be even thinking about Zevran when I have this?"
He swallows thickly as she wraps her arms around him and lets her head drop on her shoulder. She's being overly bold in this, she suspects… but Maker knows, it's difficult not to be.
"Thank you." He says quietly, pulling her to him. His face is unusually serious. "I am in a bad mood today, but… thank you." He tries for a more lighthearted tone, but Giovanna can tell his heart isn't in it. "So—what was it you wanted to talk to me about?"
She takes a deep breath: she suspects why he's so moody on this day of all days, and it's not simply the fact that they just recently had to form a reluctant partnership with a half-crazed old Grey Warden mage to close a tear in the Veil in a former Warden stronghold and to destroy a horde of demons in the process.
"I… I know that this is not the best time or place." She starts, trying to let her jaw to unclench and her face to relax. "I wish there'd be candles, and harp music and white tablecloth, and a ten-course feast with wines to match and six different cheeses at the end, and probably me in a real lady's gown, but since that cannot be at the moment…" She reaches into the pocket of her winter doublet and pulls out a little velvet pouch. "I just have to do it this way: Happy birthday, Alistair."
"Oh." The air goes out of his lungs in one soft sigh as he lets her press the pouch in his palm. "You… you knew? How did you know about my birthday?"
"I asked Bann Teagan when in Redcliffe." She says simply. 'Figured since you grew up there he probably knew, and since I could hardly ask the Arl…"
"You asked Teagan?" he stammers, staring at her. "Maker's Breath, woman, and he remembered?"
"Well, considering that last time he was there at one of your birthday parties it ended up with you and him completely covered in mud and Arl Eamon having to sleep in a separate wing of the castle for a week after Arlessa Isolde 'threw a fit' as he put it…You're grinning." She says with a happy sigh; she hoped that particular memory would help him out of his melancholy, and she's pleased at the success.
"I was ten." he says as if it explains everything. "They just told me not too long before that I had to go to the abbey for education, but I guess Eamon wanted to have a nicer sendoff and threw me a birthday party."
"The way Teagan told me it was at his insistence." Giovanna smiles.
"Well, yes." Alistair's expression is a bit sheepish as he remembers. "Of course, for a ten-year old the best birthday party could only be held at the lakeshore, so it was a picnic. With baskets and rustic tablecloths and a mage with sparkles and fireworks and stuff; it was grand, really. Teagan helped me to build a sandcastle."
"And you rewarded him for all of that by pushing him into it as soon as it was done." Giovanna says with slight accusation in her voice.
"What can I say? I was a terrible boy. Still miffed about the fact that I was sent away, I'm afraid. I vented my anger on him." He grins. "Besides, he pulled me right with him anyway, so we both were covered in wet sand in no time."
"I see. But how did you end up dragging the arl into this mess?" she inquires.
"Oh, well, you see, I was chased. Around the picnic, as it were. By Teagan." Alistair stares at his boots again. "And, um, I was small and fast, and he was um, he wasn't, so he fell. Covered in wet sand and mud. Right into the middle of Arlessa Isolde's picnic spread."
"Hmm. The way he remembered was that you dashed across that tablecloth first, trying to hide behind the arl." Giovanna chuckles lightly. "Memory is an amazing thing… I always remembered Fergus started our fights, while he swore I picked on him on purpose and he just returned the favor, as I…" She trails off suddenly as the pain over the loss of her family yet again invades her thoughts like a white lightning strike. She shakes her head to clear the unpleasant memories of blood on cobblestone, of rasping breath and skin with the pallor of death, of cold, sweaty hands grabbing her own. "Never mind that." she says quickly and cannot help but bounce a bit on the balls of her feet nervously as she looks at him. "Would you open it, please?"
"You gave me a birthday present?… Wow." Alistair turns the little pouch around in his hands carefully. "That's…Thank you."
"Well, you haven't seen it yet." She swears she can hear her own heartbeat as Alistair unties the cords on the velvet bag and shakes the contents in his palm.
"This…this is my mother's amulet!" He turns it sound in his hands a couple of times, the silver chain spilling between his fingers. His voice cracks a bit. "But…why isn't it broken? I shattered it on the wall the night Eamon told me I was going to the abbey." He lifts his gaze to look upon her, incredulous. "Where did you find it?"
"In Redcliffe—in the study. " she offers, falling back unselfconsciously to her taciturn speech patterns again.
"The arl's study?" Alistair traces his fingers across the cracked surface of the etching on the pendant, forming the flames of Andraste. "Then he must have found the amulet after I threw it at the wall." He pauses. "And he repaired it and kept it? I…don't understand. Why would he do that?"
Giovanna shakes her head; Alistair, poor Alistair who never had a real family, who never experienced the closeness those ties can give, who was whisked away to be a Templar novice just as he started to really perceive the world around him… of course he'd not understand.
"Perhaps you mean more to him than you think." She says quietly, slipping her hand in his. "You might have been an unwanted burden first, and obligation to a liege, honor-bound to take care of… but he must have grown to love you."
"I…guess you could be right." He says hesitantly, still holding the amulet as if he's afraid it would break again, shatter into tiny pieces against the invisible wall of his own anger. "We… never really talked that much, and then the way I left…"
"Covered in mud, no doubt." Giovanna supplies, and Alistair looks up sharply, the frown on his face replaced by a startled smile.
"Hey." he says defensively. "It wasn't that bad." He pauses and looks at her suspiciously. "Wait; did Teagan talk about this as well?"
Giovanna blushes slightly.
"I... asked a few questions about you of him, yes."
"And I thought he was a gentleman." Alistair mutters. "Now you know all my shameful childhood secrets, and you have me at a terrible disadvantage." He sighs. "The things I'm willing to suffer from you, lady."
"You poor thing." Giovanna scoffs and before she can think about it, reaches out and ruffles his hair, the way she always did to her brother when he did something cute. The next second she wishes that she hasn't done that. Because, when it all comes down to it, which man likes to be treated as a little boy by a woman? Especially after being reminded of their childhood escapades.
But she's wrong, oh, she is, she has to realize, as she finds herself in a crushing embrace suddenly, lifted off the ground and kissed so soundly, thoroughly and passionately that all her thoughts of doing wrong (all her thoughts, really)go right out of her head. Only sensations remain: his hard muscles against hers, his hand slipping through layers of clothing to tentatively caress he bare skin, his scent filling her nostrils, his voice murmuring her name, and the slowly spreading fire in her middle with the intensity of the need to get closer, even closer...
"Maker's Breath." Alistair gasps as he finally lets go, burying his face in her shoulder. "I'm sorry, I got carried away. I just wanted to... thank you, seriously. For the gift, I mean." He laughs, a bit shakily and embarrassed. "See, when I'm around you I can't even think straight." He is still holding her close, though, and she doesn't make any effort to step away either. "I am shocked that you even remembered me mentioning it... I'm more used to people not really listen when I go on about things."
"Of course I remembered." She is not sure how to say this: her mind is still reeling from that kiss, her body is aching with a need she's never felt before she's met him, but despite the fact that they are still standing perilously close, the cold of Soldier's Peak is starting to seep into her bones. "You're special to me."
"Oh, wow." She can see, even by the spare moonlight up here that he blushes: strange, that, given that there was nothing chaste or innocent about the way he kissed her just now. "Is this the part where the music starts and we begin dancing?" His eyes sparkle. "Because I'm game."
"I didn't know you could dance." she says and is almost shocked to hear the tones of light teasing in her own voice. She never thought it would return; she never thought any of these emotions would ever come back to her, amidst the blood and carnage and horrors and violence that never left her since that night in Highever. But now, now she realizes it's there, that life is there, and knows that it's him who brought it back, digging it up patiently like an early spring flower from under the snow. It was him, her fellow Grey Warden, this strange, strange man who has a heart of a child in one moment and that of a lion in another, who resents his heritage and is his heritage at the same time, the bastard prince and ex-Templar, the knight who captured her heart forever.
"So..." Giovanna Cousland clears her throat and curtsies. "I don't suppose you remember the steps, maybe...?"
And thus, they dance: battered leather coat and winter jerkin, sword belt and high boots, bastard prince and teyrn's daughter. On top of the battlement, under the gibbous moon that hangs on the winter sky over Soldier's Keep like a huge lantern in the gardens of the royal palace at Denerim in carnival season, Alistair hums a tune he remembers from a long ago winter ball he sneaked in to back in Redcliffe, and he holds Giovanna tight as they stumble through the steps almost, but never truly forgotten.