A/N: I know it's not just me that finds the prospect of a buried past between the Howes and the Couslands intriguing. And then there's Nathaniel, who crops up seemingly out of nowhere, when Rendon is trying to marry you off to his other son, Thomas. An...older brother, without the drinking problem, who has a lovely gravelly voice and an odd sort of faith in the best of people, considering his father. The whole time I'm writing this, I'm thinking that Elissa needs a friend, a red-headed witchy friend, maybe, who counsels her about Nathaniel and tells her that she, too, knows the love of a taciturn man. Cookies for whomever can name this friend.
At any rate. This is their beginning. There exists a sequel (currently in progress) to this, entitled "Thousand Mile Wish". And so I write that, trying not to take this here and leap into complete left field and write what has been deemed the Happily Ever After AU, with no Blight, no civil war, and instead, what they should have had...
Disclaimer: Bioware owns all.
Castle Cousland, 9:28 Dragon
"Nathaniel!" She hated wearing skirts, and wanted nothing more to be in her breeks when she saw him. She picked up her skirts, far higher than was proper, and kicked off her silly shoes, running barefoot across the stone and barrelling into the visitor.
She threw herself into him, and he caught her deftly, letting out an "oof" and stumbling slightly.
"Elissa," he said into her hair, and tightened his grip on her. He had missed the smell of her hair, and she...had improved in the last year. He certainly didn't remember her...chest pressing against him in just this way before.
"You're back," she said into the side of his face. His stubble was rough against her skin, but she didn't care. He was back.
"For a little while, anyway," he said, and she pulled away.
"What do you mean?" Her face was confused, and she tried not to let her sudden, sharp sadness show. It would not do.
"I just came home see Father. But I couldn't leave without coming to see you," he almost smiled, a little quirk at the corner of his mouth, and reached his hands up her arms to cup her face. His eyes searched hers, and her heart tripped over itself. He pressed his lips together, and then made a small noise in the back of his throat, and leaned in to kiss her gently.
She held her breath. Not that she hadn't ever imagined it, she had. But she had pretty much figured it was all her, and tried not to mope so much that her mother might notice. But he was kissing her! It didn't last very long, and she must have looked shocked when he pulled away, because she was treated to one of his very rare chuckles.
"Was it really that bad?" he asked softly.
"No, no, not at all," she stuttered hurriedly, pitching her voice low like his. They were in the middle of the courtyard, and of all the things she might've expected out of her day, Nathaniel Howe kissing her wasn't even on the list. And she thought herself to be pretty imaginative.
His mouth quirked again, and she couldn't help but smile at him. "I've been wanting to do that for awhile," he said.
"Well you could do it again, if you'd like," she offered, her eyes darting away and back to his as she got the words out.
"Oh how selfless of you," he replied, and she couldn't get enough of all this smiling he was doing. It was contagious, and completely out of character - just enough so that when she closed her eyes again as he leaned in again, she expected to be awoken from a dream.
The bit of hair on his chin rubbed against hers, and when he opened his mouth, coaxing hers open, and sliding his fingers into her hair, she clutched the material of his tunic in her hands. She jerked a bit when his tongue slid past her lips to touch hers, but he merely wrapped his arm tighter around her, pulling her closer to him. His hand at her jaw guided her head this way and that, and it was so gentle that she could have almost convinced herself it didn't tremble slightly - that it was only her imagination. When he pulled away, she was flushed, and couldn't seem to take a deep enough breath. The fingers that had been on her face now followed his gaze as he swept a little tendril off her face, tucking it behind her ear.
"We should...we're in the courtyard."
"We are," he agreed, his eyes dancing.
"I just, I mean...anyone could see us," she whispered.
"Elissa Cousland, afraid of getting in trouble? I never thought I'd see the day!"
"No, no, I'm not! No! It's just..."
"Don't want anyone to catch you?"
"Catch the bothof us," she raised an eyebrow at him, and he loosened his grip on her, his arm falling away from her waist, and his hand touching to hers. He slid his fingers between hers, and squeezed briefly.
"Who are you worried will catch us? Your father?"
"Or Fergus or Oriana or my mother," she curled a lip. She had spent many months convincing her mother she was not interested in boys, and she definitely did not want to see her mother's satisfied told-you-so smile if she caught her only daughter wrapped around a man in their courtyard.
"Well I did have something to speak to your father about. Would you like to come with me? I am merely being escorted by one of the lovely ladies of the house," he attempted to look very gentlemanly in his...she stepped back to look at him. He was not dressed in his customary dirty scuffed boots and studded leather doublet. She reached out her hand to finger the material of his tunic at his wrist - fine woven linen, and tucked just so into clean buckskin breeks. His boots were not new, but they were clean and polished, though the material was not condusive to a shine like the pair Father always wore when he was trying to make a good impression.
"You're awfully dressed up," she frowned, furrowing her brow.
"That I am," he agreed, and bent his elbow for her. "Are you going to escort me or no?" She hooked her arm around his, and he gestured forward. "Lead on, my lady."
She knocked on the door to her father's study, and he looked up from his desk.
"Hello Pup! And I see you've found young Nathaniel! I was getting worried - thought maybe you'd run off with him," Bryce chuckled, rising from his desk and reaching out to greet the eldest Howe son. They gripped each other's forearms and Nathaniel nodded in greeting.
"Not yet, Ser," Nathaniel assured him, and Elissa snorted and rolled her eyes.
"Now that I've escorted you, I'm sure mother has something for me to do that I don't want to do," she said. "Come find me before you leave?" she said to Nathaniel.
Nathaniel shifted from one foot to the other, and looked at her and then at her father. "Actually, if you...could stay?"
She raised her eyebrows. "What's going on?"
Bryce merely smiled. "Something on your mind, Nathaniel?"
"Yes, Ser," he said, and he turned his head to look at Elissa, who still stood behind him. He reached out his hand to her, and she looked down at his outstretched fingers, and then up at him, panicking that he would do such a thing in front of her father. And then the pieces fell into place, and she inhaled, short and sharp. She looked from his fingers to his face, eyes questioning, and he gave her the tiniest of smiles, a mere twitch of his lips. She swallowed and stepped towards him, and put her hand in his. He threaded their fingers together again and faced her father, clearing his throat. "Ser Cousland, our families have been friends for many years," he began, and she blinked, entirely unsure of how she managed to keep drawing breath.
She developed a crush on Nathaniel Howe when she was ten. He was fourteen, and had no time for her. It only got worse, and when she was twelve, he was sent off to squire at Dragon's Peak, and she didn't see him for several seasons. He returned when she was fourteen, and still treated her as a girl of ten. When he was sent to the Free Marches, two years ago, she had cried herself to sleep, and decided that she had to get over it. Her mother intended to see her married off, and there was little she could do against the bulwark force that was Eleanor Cousland, matchmaker. Her mother tsked her for spending so much time practicing her sword and dagger, but it was not an earnest discouragement. Her mother had a fair skill at the bow, and was no stranger to a longsword - but she did try to steer her daughter (who was so very much like herself) into a dress now and then to meet potential suitors. She had a couple of letters from Nathaniel, friendly correspondence, nothing she would have been afraid to show her mother. She had thought she was getting over him - she was able to converse with him in letters about the goings-on (the king took a wife - Teryn Loghain's daughter Anora) in Ferelden; but when he showed up in the courtyard that afternoon, she realized the time away had not done a cursed thing for her affection. And then he kissed her and everything since then had been a blur.
"Is this what you want, Pup?" Her father's voice snapped her back to reality, and she found both he and Nathaniel were staring at her - her father with an amused-serious look on his face.
Bryce laughed. "Young Nathaniel here was asking for your hand, and your mind seems to be elsewhere," he observed.
"I..." She looked at Nathaniel, who squeezed her hand.
"It would not be for a couple of years yet," Nathaniel offered, his thumb now stroking the back of her hand. "Not right away. I still must finish my service in the Marches..." he trailed off, now actually looking a tiny bit nervous.
"Oh! Oh! You're asking me?"
Her father laughed again, and Nathaniel let out an uneasy chuckle. "Well, yes," Nathaniel got out, and she pulled her hand from his to take his face between her palms and kiss him. Right in front of her father. Amidst her father's genuine joviality, Nathaniel pulled her hands off his face and separated them, chuckling uneasily. "Is that an answer?"
"Sure looked like it," Bryce managed to say. He'd predicted this for some years. Rendon had insisted that Elissa would marry his younger son Thomas, but for all that Thomas and Elissa seemed to share the same joie de vivre, as the Orlesians called it, Nathaniel was a far better match. They complemented each other - Nathaniel would bring her stillness, and, by the will of Andraste, maybe she could get the boy to lighten up a bit. Bryce suspected that, despite his vague protestations elsewise, Rendon Howe was trying to marry Nathaniel off to Anora Mac Tir - such a firm, fierce woman would never have a boy such as Thomas, and Rendon always seemed to be trying to hide his true desire to move the Howes up in the ranks of Ferelden. Though he never said it, Bryce suspected he wanted Deliah to be married to Cailan, but those plans were fairly thrown in the dust when Anora and Cailan were matched. Perhaps he was still licking his wounds, and consented to the marriage because then at least one of his sons would be well-connected. Last he heard, Deliah was just as intractable when it came to arranged marriages as Elissa had proven to be (though Deliah was a bit older, and it was becoming an issue), and Thomas was spending more time in pubs than in court. Nathaniel, while taciturn at the best of times, was a dutiful son, a good soldier, and, by all accounts, a fine young man.
Bryce reached out grip Nathaniel's forearm again. "Congratulations, son," he offered, and turned to his daughter, kissing her on the cheek. "Good choice, Pup," he whispered in her ear, and he felt her cheeks flush before he moved away. "Perhaps you should go see your mother. If one of the servants has told her that you two were in here like this, and she makes her own conclusions before you tell her, you'll be in sorry trouble."
"Yes, Father," she said, and nodded her head, watching her father leave the room. As his footsteps receded, she felt an arm slip around her waist, and Nathaniel pulled her to him, pressing a kiss to the back of her neck. She shivered slightly, and wrapped her arms around his at her waist. "And you," she craned her neck around to look at him. "What was that all about?"
"Must I really recount the event for you?"
She pulled away from him to smack him on the arm. "I had no idea you felt that way about me!" And then she sobered suddenly. "Or...don't you and this...?" She couldn't even get the words out. He had never seemed fond of her in that way before - today was a complete surprise. Perhaps this was merely...convenience. After all, he had said it himself - their families had been friends for years...why not?
"Elissa," he said, his voice low, and reached out to pull her to him. "This is no marriage of convenience. I am quite enthralled by you," he whispered, and kissed her again, like he had in the courtyard, open-mouthed and stroking her tongue with his. He stole the breath from her lungs, and she wrapped her arms around his neck like one of the women in her mother's romantic stories. He pulled away, his face customarily serious. "Does this...please you?"
She scoffed. "If it did not please me, Nathaniel Howe, you would have been strung up for your wandering hands several hours ago," she chided, and this time it was she who initiated the kiss.
"A servant!" her mother's voice interrupted what was becoming her very favorite activity. She sprang away from him, but he held her tightly around the waist, as though he could not stand to part from her. She flushed under her mother's narrow-eyed scrutiny.
"From a servant I had to hear that you were in here with your hands all over some strange man! At least that much was exaggerated," she added, her voice calmer. "Lovely to see you again, Nathaniel," she managed to look both amused and critical, her eyes taking in his arm around her waist, and her hand across her stomach, over his at her hip.
"We were just coming to speak to you, Mother."
Her mother let out a scoff. "When? Next week? In the spring, maybe? It is very difficult to speak to someone when you are engaged in such...activities," she admonished, and both of them attempted to look repentant. "Oh pish tosh! Come here!" She held out her arms, and it did not escape Eleanor Cousland's eye that, seemingly by instinct, while Nathaniel did let go of her daughter's waist, they seamlessly switched hands so that they were still touching, her arm bent behind her as she hugged her mother. She wondered idly how long her daughter had been keeping a secret - it would certainly explain her moodiness when many weeks would go by without a letter from the Marches. She saved all the things she wanted to say to her daughter for when she could get her alone, and released her to approach Nathaniel and hug him. He stiffened at her embrace, and she was both sad and glad at that - sad because she did not like Rendon very much, and noticed keenly how he treated his children; glad because she knew Elissa would be so good for him.
"Well, how long do I have to plan?"
"A couple of years, my lady," Nathaniel said, and he looked down at Elissa and Eleanor was filled with pride - he did indeed care for her, and she could not be happier for her daughter. "I am to return to the Free Marches immediately. I came home...to seek the teryn's permission. And Elissa's as well," he added quickly and Eleanor smiled at her daughter's brief frown. "I know that...Elissa is highly...sought, and...I wanted to ensure that my wishes were known. Honestly," he continued, and Elissa was surprised at his loquacity, "I did not expect it to end like this."
"What, you thought I'd say no?"
"I simply inferred that your father would not permit anything to be settled until I returned from the Marches. I was...surprised that he gave his blessing." Elissa smiled up and him, and the hand that was not entwined with his reached over to gently stroke his arm.
"I am glad that it was settled - I was tiring quickly of her intractable nature when it came to suitors," Eleanor chided.
"That pleases me a great deal - I worried she would be spoken for already as it was."
"See how much her stubbornness pleases you after you're married to her," Eleanor replied. "Once the Chantry has given the Maker's blessing, you're quite stuck with her."
"I believe I will adjust," he said with a soft chuckle, and Elissa rolled her eyes.
"Well, now you know, and Nathaniel must be going, so I will be escorting him back to the stable, Mother."
"See that he finds his way there sooner rather than later, my darling. It will be dark soon."
Elissa raised an eyebrow. "Mother, it is barely afternoon!"
Eleanor snorted lightly and bid farewell to her daughter and son-to-be, not honoring her daughter with a reply.
"What did she mean by that?" Elissa sounded genuinely confused.
"I suspect she believes we might allow ourselves to be...waylaid," he replied dryly.
"Theres not that much of interest between here and the stables."
She was pulled back into his embrace and another kiss. "I adore that you are so obtuse in this way, Elissa," he offered, and she smacked his arm again. "Ow. Would you send your betrothed packing beaten and bruised?"
"Get used to it," she stated, and kissed him briefly, jokingly.
"Nothing would please me more."
"Stop that," she said.
"Stop saying 'please' like that. It does...funny things to my stomach," she informed him in a whisper.
"Oh it does, does it? Does this please you, my lady?" This time his kiss was not on her lips, but on her jaw, and then he tilted her neck up to touch his lips there.
"Stop that," she protested weakly.
"Do you really wish me to?"
"Someone is going to catch us," she replied.
"Are we doing something that warrants being caught?" he teased.
She pulled away from him to look him in the eye. "I suspect there may be less traffic in the library, if Aldous isn't in there..."
"Are you suggesting we need to be alone, my lady?" he looked positively predatory, and the flush crept up her neck.
"You're going to be gone for two years - I think I need a few more kisses before I let you leave me."
"As my lady wishes," he said, and with a brief chaste kiss, she led him out of the study.