Of Losses And Gains

It is late evening when they finally near the camp. He has a load of supplies on the horse he leads; wasn't exactly happy about the fact that he had to go on this mission, but Giovanna, of course, was right—it was time for him to do something like this, to hone his skills as a Grey Warden… and, to tell the truth, to get away from it all for a while with his thoughts. Taking Sten with him didn't change much: the Qunari, as always, was quiet and only said something when spoken to. Really, not much of a company, but at least he had some useful insight about preserving the edge of a blade, and once Alistair got through the initial shock of his greatsword slamming against his own blade with the force of a landslide, their sparring became quite enjoyable as well.

And they found cheese. Okay, they also found the real location of where Brother Genitivi, the reclusive scholar went to pursue his research of Andraste's Ashes. And he has to admit, they had fun dispatching those disturbingly lurid-eyed fanatics who attacked the two of them outside that inn. There is something refreshingly simple in fighting alongside a seven-foot tall giant who can decapitate two opponents with one single strike. Sten fights in complete silence: no grunts, battle cries or witty remarks of the kind with which Alistair likes to pepper his own progress. The qunari just kills, efficiently and fast—like a force of nature, really. Alistair suspects if he was to turn into something the way Morrigan shapechanges, Sten would be a strike of lightning, just before the thunder rolls through the hills during a summer storm.

But, cheese. The brie had to go first, of course; it doesn't keep well, and so he finished that one off during their way back. It was from Orlais, Maker knows whose table it was destined to. The price was outrageous, but he had his share of their latest trade, and decided to indulge. His other purchases were more practical: hardtack, dried meats and fruits, leather straps, nails and buckles for armor repair, spirits for disinfecting, a new stew pot, some spoons, and most importantly, the prized ingredients for Wynne for her lyrium potions and healing unguents she is overdue brewing. All from the carefully written-out list in Giovanna's methodical handwriting. She is neat and orderly in this as well, no splotches of ink on the scrap of parchment, no crooked rows on the list, so unlike his own chickenscratch…

He knows he has a lopsided grin on his face, half-anticipation, and half sheer nerves: he was trying to come up with some suitable snappy greeting for her in the last mile or so, and failed miserably. He misses her, more than anyone before, and even Sten noticed his slight distraction as he commented surly about a particularly sloppy sword stroke as they debriefed after that encounter at Lake Calenhad.

"Humans." the qunari mutters now, seven feet of disapproval, as he stops, barely avoiding running into Alistair who is deep in thoughts. "I'll never figure you out."

"Oh?" Alistair asks absentmindedly; he wonders whether she'd like that little thing he picked up for her. 'What's that?"

"Mating rituals." Sten says, and Alistair almost chokes on his own breath, as the giant continues. "You're already kissing her, so why are you trying to buy her favors with gifts? Why not just go ahead and suggest to complete mating?…"

"Um, Sten, I hate to break you this, but she'd bash my face in with the pommel of her sword if I did that." I can't believe I 'm having this conversation, Alistair thinks. "And quite possibly yours."

"Hm." The qunari stops and looks at him, lavender eyes without expression. "Yes. You're right. She would."

The quiet right around camp immediately tells him something is wrong. Normally the air is full with noises: Leliana singing, Poppy barking, Zevran boasting…But now, barely the sound of the fire crackling, and that strange, sharp smell that usually lingers over a battlefield…

"Perimeter check." He whispers to Sten as he freezes, closed fist held up in the air and circling. The qunari nods, his hand tightening on the handle of his sword, and would start out… when a shadow lengthens, steps away from a tree, and becomes a leather-clad elf with moonlight-colored hair.

"You're back." says Zevran; his normally frivolous face is deadly serious now, which in itself is a warning. "Good. That means the supplies are with you too."

"Zevran!" Alistair narrows his eyes: there's something in the stance of the assassin that screams 'trouble'. Too stiff, too constrained. And the deep shadows underneath his eyes speak of sleepless nights and long watches. "What is it?" he starts, but at the same time his brain finally catches up to what Zevran was saying about the supplies they brought back and the way he has no mirth on his face… and he feels himself moving, as if he was one of Shale's brothers and someone was commanding him through a control rod: thud-thud, the sound of his heart, thud, thud, the sound of his feet, because that one look at Zevran's worry-etched face really told him everything, and the world suddenly turns to gray and cold and slightly spinning as he skids into a halt next to her tent only because the solid stone of Shale blocks his way.

"It will live." The golem rumbles, in a strangely quiet voice. "I carried it most of the way back so its bones don't get out of alignment, just like the mage told me to." She shakes her head a bit. "But then there were the burns…"

"Burns." He repeats stupidly; the world is still gray, only Shale's crystals pepper it with tiny lights. "How did she get burns…?"

"Alistair!" Leliana's eyes are red, and there's a deep furrow between her brows, worry-worn and hard. She clutches at his arm with surprising strength. "Thank the Maker! We hoped you get back faster, and..."

"Got ran over by some cultists..." he hears himself saying as if through fog; the same fog as only lets him see from the corner of his eye how Wynne emerges from the tent and dashes over to where Sten holds the reins of the pack horse, her lips pursed in concentration and fatigue. Then he asks the question he's been dreading since he realized just how quiet the camp was. "What happened?"

Leliana sniffs and avoids his eyes.

"I wish she'd told you..." she starts, and something twists in Alistair's stomach, similar to how he felt everything coming down around him when the arl told him he was to go to the Chantry and become a templar.

"Tell me what?" he growls, and the ex-bard quickly takes a step back, fear clearly written on her features. "Tell me WHAT?" he repeats, the last word rising up above the pine trees lining their campsite.

So she tells him. Quickly, almost stumbling over the words that spill out of her mouth, painting images on his eyelids he'd rather forget.

The Witch of the Wilds. They went to confront the Witch of the Wilds over her plans for Morrigan, based on what that cursed witch told Giovanna, and she believed her. She believed her, and walked right into the lair of a blasted dragon, curse it. Flemeth, the Shapeshifter, they call her in some legends mothers use to scare their children all across Ferelden, but apparently Teyrn Cousland's daughter never heard those tales, so she didn't expect an old hag to shimmer and stretch and grow and turn into a monster with huge wings and talons and powerful hind legs that grasp and shred armor like it was parchment and a breath that singes and burns skin and flesh like the forge of a Dwarven armory melts steel…

That yawning pit in his stomach keeps getting bigger and bigger, as he turns away from Leliana in the middle of a fumbling sentence, turns away, and with steps steady and almost even, he approaches that other fire, where the yellow-eyed witch sits, cradling a black-bound tome to her chest and staring into the flames as if she could see what really happened there.

"It's your fault, you know that." Alistair spits the words, almost sizzling. "You put this idea in her head that you were in some kind of danger from your mother, didn't you?" Morrigan looks up for a second, but just as fast she turns her gaze back to the flames, the corners of her perfect mouth drawing down just a bit in that condescending disapproval only she can project so well. Alistair doesn't care at the moment; the anger is hot in him, like the fire she's staring at, and for a second he wonders whether she chose to look at that rather than him because right now those flames are more bearable for her. "And she knew I'd never go along with this plan, so she sent me away with Sten on a supply and recon mission while they all went out to kill your mother for that." He jerks his head towards the black volume that rests in Morrigan's arms like a swaddled infant. "Is there no limit to your hunger for power, witch?" His blood is pounding in his veins as his thoughts swirl around madly in his head like so many black crows: 'she sent me away, she did, she believed her and didn't want me to have to choose…she made the decision without telling me… she trusts the witch more than she ever did me…'He leans close, so their faces are almost touch and asks, is a hoarse whisper that sounds as alien to himself as this whole situation is unreal. "Tell me, witch: why should I suffer you to live?"

"Alistair!" The voice is sharp, cracks like a whip at his back, and he blinks as his muscles obey the command in the tone. It's Wynne, standing right behind him, lips compressed in a thin line, her normally so calm blue eyes threatening a storm. "I'd be grateful for some assisitance, here. Now."

And still Morrigan doesn't say anything, doesn't move either, except for a little motion of back and forth rocking with that black grimoire on her lap, and Alistair would really rather just grab her scrawny neck and choke her until her last breath, except that she's so silent and quiet and has no response to anything he says, nothing at all, as if life just went out of her somehow, as if that black tome would be sucking her life out… And suddenly that thought is more frightening than anything he'd ever encountered in his life this far, and given how many fights they have behind them, darkspawn, demons, undead, giant spiders, werewolves, abominations and revenants, that's saying a lot. Alistair backs up slowly, his eyes still trained on Morrigan, as if he expects her to swing into motion at any moment, like a serpent lying in wait trying to lure an unsuspecting hare close.

"Yes, Wynne?" He exhales and wills his voice to be calm, summoning all of the exercises they taught him at the Chantry. "What can I do for you?"

"So that templar training was good for something after all, I see." Wynne says, blue eyes searching his features. "Good. Come with me now, I need some help with redressing her wounds if I want to apply new salves."

The tent is dark and cramped, and his mind is still reeling after all the things that happened since they neared the campsite, so his brain at first refuses to interpret what he sees, until Wynne elbows him to move aside and kneels by the bedroll where—dear Maker, be merciful!—Giovanna lays, swathed in white linen bandages covering her torso and side. Her eyes are shut so tight that there are deep wrinkles around them, her brows are furrowed with echoes of pain, her hair, her beautiful dark-red hair sticks to her scalp and her pillow in a loose, sweaty braid, and her hands are clutching at the sheets under her as she whimpers softly in a fitful, drug-induced dream.

"I managed to stop the infection that set in." Wynne explains as he stares, frozen into place. "My powers were rather drained after…" She pauses and Alistair understands all too well her need of not dwelling too much on what exactly happened, after hearing it from Leliana once already. "Anyhow, I had some magic left just to stabilize her, then Shale carried her back as fast as it was prudent and possible; we followed behind. I trusted that Morrigan can take care of her while we made it through." She searches his face for understanding. "And when we got back, and you two still haven't arrived, we worked as hard as possible to keep her alive."

"We should never allow our healing supplies run this low again." He hears himself saying, and is mildly surprised just how calm his own tone is. Indeed, must be the Templar training kicking in, he thinks. "Never." He repeats, avoiding looking towards Giovanna, avoiding acknowledging the fact that they got careless with their supplies so badly, that they came to rely on their resident merchants so much, that he hasn't thought about it earlier, what with him having technical seniority and all. "Will what we brought back be enough?"

"I think so." Wynne nods, and suddenly Alistair feels his legs give and he sinks down next to the cot, taking one of those limp and sweaty hands in his own. He strokes the clenched fingers apart until they relax, concentrating on that and only that as he hears the mage moving about: bottles clinging, magelight hissing, the slow murmur of an incantation, the sharp smell of herbs and the dusty tang of lyrium in the air. He knows that she probably prepared a mana restoring potion for herself first, and he understands the priority from his Templar training. Drained by the encounter with the dragon and without enough lyrium to sufficiently regain her magical powers, the mage lacked strength to speed Giovanna's healing by anything but conventional means. Mages depend on lyrium, the magical ore processed by dwarves in the fabled city of Orzammar to replenish their mana. Alistair knows this from his Templar training: he represses a shiver as he remembers the realization after his first experience as a novice with a carefully controlled amount of lyrium to unleash his potentials. The stuff is addictive, and in the most dangerous way.

"It should be better now." Wynne whispers as she gently seats herself cross-legged on Giovanna's other side. Her face is smoother, her pupils are dilated and the air around her almost cracks with power and the smell of lyrium dust. "Much better. Let me see." She puts the bowl she's holding into her side and reaches to gently cradle Giovanna's cheek with one hand. "First, the fever and pain…" She murmurs a few words, her fingers twitch in the dance of a healing spell, and Alistair sees little blue sparkles light up the air as they sink under pale skin. Giovanna's feverish murmur ceases and she sighs as she settles into a sleep at last. Wynne's hand moves, down to Giovanna's side where the bandages are secured, and she lifts her eyes to look at Alistair. "When I say lift, lift; but gently. Let me show you where you can touch her; the burns are quite extensive."

He really planned on seeing her without clothes in an entirely different setting, it runs through his mind as he obeys Wynne's precise instructions. There's nothing even remotely arousing about the way the woman he values most in this world lays before his eyes now, shed bandages slowly revealing her naked form, the flesh-red of burns and half-healed scars crisscrossing her freckled skin and slack muscles. She sighs softly as the two of them pat her down with the salve Wynne prepared, and then, as he holds her shoulders, Wynne pours some of the newly concocted healing potion down her throat. Her body shakes, from head to toe, rather violently, as the magic clashes with the Taint of darkspawn blood in her. Alistair saw this a number of times during their travels, even experienced it himself, but never this strongly, and he instinctively tightens his hold on her, despite his efforts of being as gentle as possible. Giovanna's breath hitches as pain breaks through the haze of potion-induced half-coma, and a low moan issues from her throat that ends in a quiet sob, making Alistair feel like he's the clumsiest and most cruel man in Ferelden for hurting her even when trying to protect her.

"Sorry." He whispers, hoping that she hears him. "So sorry, lady." All his anger he felt over being sidelined so blatantly dissipates now: that little whimper of hers killed it so effectively like water drenches the campfire in the morning when it's time to move on.

"She'll be fine now." Wynne sighs as she lifts her hands again and smoothes her palm on Giovanna's skin over her heart. The glow of her healing magic is soothing lavender now, and much stronger; the lyrium is in full effect and her mana reserves are fully restored. "It will be a couple of days, but she'll recover fully."

"Thank you." Alistair says thickly, and watches as Wynne slowly and with sure fingers redresses Giovanna's wounds. It's strange, he reflects, how he's able to switch into what he calls his 'fellow Warden' mode when injuries are concerned. Every time one of them got hurt in the past, the fact that they were of different gender who happened to be attracted to each other played no part at all in the way they treated each other's wounds. After all, they are Grey Wardens above all—comrades-in-arms, fellow soldiers in a war that lasted for centuries peppered with Blights, the Wardens ever vigilant and their blood shed freely in defense of Thedas.

It shouldn't be otherwise now either, he tells himself, and he almost believes it, almost able to not feel the softness of her skin as Wynne's power bathes her in its lavender glow and her burns start to fade in front of his very eyes, almost able to not feast his eyes on her taut curves… until she relaxes in his arms, and burrows against his chest with a barely audible little sigh that makes his heart clench and other parts of him to flare up in white-hot heat so he has to shift uncomfortably as he is sitting there.

"Here, let me help you with the fresh bandages. " he says desperately to Wynne who regards him with one of her more unfathomable gazes before she reaches for the fresh stack of clean linen next to the cot. Giovanna doesn't make any more sound as they work quickly and in silence: it seems Wynne's healing magic took hold and, coupled with the healing potion she finally is on her way to mend.

She has to.

Alistair hangs onto that hope, and concentrates of the coolness of the linen between his fingers and the slightly minty smell that emanates from the ointment it is soaked in, instead of the shadows the faint candlelight casts on Giovanna's collarbone, emphasizing the freckles on her shoulders. White bandages soon cover her upper body once more, and Alistair hopes he never has to do this again.

"You know why I asked you." Wynne says suddenly, tucking the last loose end of linen in place.

"Erm…" Alistair says, clearing his throat. "Asking me what, exactly?"

"Alistair." Wynne says, still serious, and quite bit testy. "I know you're not an idiot, whatever else Morrigan might say, so stop pretending. I asked you to help me here, not Leliana, not Morrigan—not the females in the group, in other words. I asked you, because of the… relationship you have with our leader." She pauses, and shakes her head seeing the flush of his cheeks. "Maker's Breath, Alistair, this is nothing to blush about. It's quite natural, you know."

"So you say." He mutters, ducking his head and arranging Giovanna's covers on her, tucking the edge of the blanket carefully under her chin.

"Oh." Wynne regards him with narrowed eyes. "Was I wrong then? Are you not…?"

"Umm, well…" This is not the best time to discuss this, Alistair knows, and yet, sheer absurdness of the situation alone is enough to feel that stupid grin threatening to split his face again. "Not exactly, but…That's not a very…grandmotherly question, Wynne, I am heartbroken. Then again, maybe it is—I've never known my grandmothers." He hates himself sometime, how he always tries to turn a serious situation to laughter, his own inability, it seems, to take anything seriously. No one sees as he quietly hides in a corner of his own heart and bleeds to death this way.

For her. Her of the pale, freckled shoulders, long-fingered, strong hands, serious but oh so kissable mouth and lavender-scented hair, and…

"You are incorrigible and exasperating." Wynne throws up her hands. "Be that way if you wish. But you will listen to what I have to say, if I have to beat it into you." It's never a good thing when a mage threatens you. It was ingrained in the Templar training: Alistair sits up and pays attention. "I needed you to help me because I had to… apologize to you about something I told Giovanna, right before you went to Lake Calanhad. " Wynne stares at her hands, clutched tightly in her lap. "I…talked to her about you. About you and her."

"You did…what?" Can this get more absurd? Alistair wonders as he watches Wynne flinch at the memory slightly. "Wait a minute…" he holds up a hand as his thoughts race along that path and his mind picks up on the implications. "What did you tell her, Wynne?" He's surprised how bitter his voice sounds. "That this cannot be a good thing? That this distracts us from our duties as Wardens? That she has to consider her duties first, and that she is endangering my…" he almost spits the word, "…innocence and youthful optimism? That one day she might have to choose between me and the greater good?" He suddenly remembers Morrigan's amused smile one evening by the fireside asking pretty much the same thing, and for one brief second he hates both mages with equal hatred for being so cold, calculating and practical.

"I was wrong to ask that." Wynne grates out, her face pale and wan from her healing efforts and the aftereffects of using lyrium in large quantities. "But I cannot take it back; and so I am partially responsible for her sending you away and going after Flemeth without you."

I should have known. Alistair thinks, the bitterness in his mouth threatening to spill out and choke him. I should have known that it wasn't her doing. I should've insisted to stay. I should have asked what was wrong.

"I am so sorry." Wynne reaches out and touches Alistair's hand and he has to stop himself from flinching. "I didn't understand just how strong your bond was until now. I..." she pauses and sighs. "I am not the best judge when it comes to matters of the heart. We...at the Circle, we don't get...emotionally involved a lot."

"Well, that would be an understatement." Alistair murmurs under his breath. He cannot help with his inner voice never could, actually—and as soon as he realizes he spoke it out loud, he knows he can't hold a grudge against the elder mage.

"Wynne." he starts, then pauses and throws his hand up in the air. "What can I say? You… you were wrong to meddle in this, but… you did it out of good will. And bad things done out of good intentions are anything new to us, right?" He pauses as he remembers so many things he'd seen in the past few months that fit that category. "Just… make sure she recovers quickly, all right?" He swallows. "I can't… I can't lose her." He thinks about all the others gone and feels the lump in his throat getting larger. "She's… she's my life."

"Touching." The whisper comes from under the blankets, and is more of a croak than anything. Both of their heads whip around to look at Giovanna, who has her eyes cracked open and looks at them from under her lashes, clearly awake and conscious. "But I'm…not gone." Alistair's heart lurches as he sees the weak, trembling beginnings of a smile around Giovanna's parched lips. "I'm here to stay." She pauses, and he feels a hand, calloused from long hours of swordplay just like his own, squeeze his fingers as he sits there. "For a long time."

Wynne starts fussing then, getting out more salves and unguents, some water for her to drink, contemplating calling Leliana for some broth, rearranging blankets and pillows, and generally being very grandmother-like again… but Alistair, Alistair doesn't care. He can only sit there, grinning like an idiot, holding Giovanna's hand, thinking that even if the Archdemon would swoop down on them right now and slaughter them all, he'd die happy, really, because of what shines at him from those sapphire eyes of hers. Sniveling idiot syndrome, he remembers some of his Templar brothers called it when discussing matters of the heart generally forbidden to them, and he has it bad, dear Maker, he does.

But she's alive and well, and she'll recover, and as soon as she can move, Alistair vows, giddy as Giovanna's fingers sneak into his palm and one of her fingernails scratches his skin, making his breath hitch, he'll definitely stop acting like a shy, bumbling fool and make sure they have some privacy, because by Andraste, she is gorgeous, and he's only a man, and they have waited enough.