Guarded Love

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Chapter 28: Healing

Bright green wings flapped across the sky, a butterfly darting down to a flower before being abruptly attacked by a three year old dead certain she was some kind of sea monster. Alistair couldn’t get which one out of her, Spud far too excited to form proper words, but it must be a terrifying creature as she kept lashing her hands together to make a tail and cackling.

“Should it bother me how good she is at that?” he asked, while trying to shuffle more of his weight off the woman holding him up.

Lanny didn’t even blink at Spud’s over exuberance at being mustache twirling evil. “Better to get it out now and not let it fester,” she chuckled. Their shared arm gripped tight to her cane as Lanny hobbled around the garden seeming to be requiring the King’s assistance. In truth, he was the one relying upon her to keep upright. They hadn’t gone far, only skirted around some of the fancier flowerbeds and stopped on the path to watch the sea monster eyeing up a fresh dirt patch.

Every few feet, someone with enough fancy titles to their names to sink a ship would wander past, tip a hat -- or a pretend one if none was available -- to the King, then scurry on back for the next contestant. At first Alistair humored it, but after the tenth or twelfth “Just checking to see if you’re really alive” he was growing more agitated.

“Maker take Eamon and his constant politicking. I can barely get out of bed and already I’m supposed to wave politely and make small talk.”

“Actually,” Lanny started up again, dragging him with her. While his body groaned and popped with each movement, the sun beating down upon his aching bones was Maker sent. “It was my idea.”

“Yours?” Alistair stuttered. She’d been a constant throughout the past few days, a fact that made his knowing she’d be gone soon ache even more. While Alistair dozed in bed, or attempted to read something at first important and then frivolous, he’d glance over to find Lanny sitting primly at the desk, elbow bent, and scratching away at vellum with a quill.

Turning under him, she smiled politely, “Don’t act so shocked I can play the game. I was Arlessa of Amaranthine for nearly ten years. It was like walking in a pit of vipers and having to shake their tails every morning. Whenever word would reach the Banns that I’d been in the deep, flocks would show up at the Vigil. Throwing on a false smile and leaping out of bed regardless of injury I’d parade before them to prove that the Arling was safe. Maker do I not miss those days.”

She groaned under her breath at the memory, pinching into her nose as if the very idea drew forth a headache. “Also, I needed to get out of your bedroom and feel the sun on my skin again before I snapped.”

“Ha, now that I can agree with,” Alistair chuckled. Even he began to grow restless trapped under silk sheets and wishing to be anywhere else. On occasion he tried to talk Reiss into bringing him a bow so he could practice aiming. That got an eyebrow arch from Lanny and a ‘I don’t think that’s wise, Ser’ from Reiss. Glancing over the once hedge maze that began more as a hedge labyrinth and then, after Alistair got drunkly lost in it, a waist high spattering of shrubbery, he spotted Reiss. She stood awkwardly beside one of the tasteful statues of a man carrying around water. Her eyes would wander over to him for a brief beat before canvasing the rest of the nobility.

A burning sensation flicked at the back of his ear and he knew it was his brain reminding him that they hadn’t talked about rolling around on the ground and trading tongues yet. After this much time would it even be possible? He feared he might die of awkwardness if he tried.

“Auntie!” Spud suddenly flipped on her muddied knees and bum rushed straight to Lanny.

“Ah, yes,” she took the muck like a champion, but Spud’s enthusiasm almost sent her and Alistair toppling over.

“Spudkins, you have to be gentle with your auntie, remember?”

She nodded her head vigorously before latching both arms around Lanny’s battled legs and hugging tight. Instead of flinching, Lanny tried to hug back and began to pick at a stand of leaves stuck in his daughter’s eternally filthy hair. Alistair released his grip, taking all his weight back onto joints that as his healer predicted, burned like someone dropped hot coals against each one.

“Maker’s fiery crotch,” he groaned to himself, when bright and always curious emerald eyes danced over to her father. Ah shit, he was in for it now.

“Do you need help?” Lanny whispered to him, sliding closer and griping a hand around his back.

“No, I’ve got it. Gonna have to figure out walking on my own soon enough. And you,” he turned back to the woman who could barely hobble up a flight of stairs, “how are you able to keep going and prop me up?”

Those deep brown eyes stared into his when a flare of blue washed across them. Chuckling at his reaction, Lanny whispered, “You never were a good templar.”

“You can say that again,” he sighed. “Spud, you play with your auntie. Daddy’s got to sit.”

That drew her attention away from her favoritest aunt and she turned her world renowned pout upon him. Unable to bend to meet her, Alistair tugged out a leaf and in a loud whisper told her, “Lanny can do the sparkles.” Spud’s eyes lit up and she turned her gaping maw back to the mage that was trying to not scowl at the girl’s enthusiasm. “Big ones too, big enough to light up the sky and change the world.”

“Auntie, auntie,” Spud tugged on Lanny’s sleeves, begging to see the sparkles while Alistair shrugged and moved towards the bench. In sight of all the gentry coming to make certain the line was still secure, he tipped his head back to face the sweet sun and groaned. A rawness remained in his throat, often following a long hacking session as he tried to free up more of that fluid Lanny kept on about. But what really got him was when all that mucus moved up to squat on his brain, lightening up his nose until it felt like it was going to float away while his mind languished in headache hell.

At the moment all he felt was a slight constricting in his ribs, and a flaring pain against his butt cheeks from the stone bench flattening them. It could have been far worse. “Are you all right, Ser?” a voice broke barely over the bird song flitting through the garden.

He cracked an eye, getting a beam of sunlight and had to hold a hand over his forehead to watch Reiss standing hesitantly behind the bench. Shuffling to sit up properly, Alistair smiled at her and weakly patted the seat beside him. “Please, join me.” It wasn’t anything romantic by any means, not that he had much at his disposal at the moment, but the beautiful lady’s lips lifted and she stepped around the bench to sit beside him.

Saying nothing, Reiss’ hands gripped onto her thighs, the fingernails trying to dig into the leather section between all the metal bits. While a tiny part of his brain knew he shouldn’t, Alistair couldn’t stop staring at her. The hardness, the sharp edges, the armor filling out and reinforcing her form didn’t detract from whatever kept tacking his tongue to the roof of his mouth. Not below or hidden but mixed into the gruff and ready to leap off a roof parts was the softest smile. It’d begin slowly each time, her vibrant eyes glancing around to make certain it was all right, before blossoming into a full flower by the proper light. Alistair found himself wanting to figure out every trigger that could get it to go, even if it meant making a colossal fool out of himself just to catch a glimpse of that rare sight.

“Sire.” Her voice snapped him out of his hazy daydream and Alistair blinked like mad, trying to focus on her with a Kingly gaze and not the lust addled man trapped inside. Reiss released the death grip on her thighs to worry her fingers together in thought. “I should apologize.”

“For what now?”

Those bright green eyes landed upon him and he had to bite down an urge to cup her cheek. She looked about to break, whether into tears or screams he couldn’t tell. All he wanted was to try and provide a modicum of comfort and pray she wasn’t mad at him for screwing something up. “Your illness,” she explained, swallowing deep and letting her sight travel across the garden, “I should have stopped you from racing to the rescue.”

“And if you had, the dam would have burst and I’d probably be dead anyway. Maybe. I forget how dams work exactly.” He’d hoped that would draw a chuckle from her, but she glared down at her knotted fingers and whispered to them.

“You don’t know that.”

Forgetting decorum and anything else that would get tongues flapping, Alistair reached over and scooped her hand into his. She had the thinnest fingers he’d ever seen, tinier even than Lanny’s, with a small callus knotted upon each pad. Absently, he ran his thumb over them all while saying, “It’s not as if you could know that I’d get sick or that every alchemist in the castle is a blighted moron apparently.” That was courtesy of Lanny cursing up a storm as she went over their masses of bottles and getting very jabby with some of her vellum. She was a woman with very certain opinions on things that one didn’t cross and survive. That was a fact he didn’t miss so much about her. Good luck to the templar with that one.

Reiss closed her eyes and breathed deep. Slowly she rotated her fingers in his. Alistair expected her to yank her hand away, but instead hers threaded with his and locked into place. “It’s my job to protect you from harm.”

“Assassins, your job is to protect me from assassins. Water’s not an assassin, I hope. Let’s not give any blood mages ideas. And whatever bad vapors I inhaled or drank that liquified my insides wasn’t an assassin either.” This felt foolish, as far as he knew she’d done all she could to save him. He was the one to charge head first into a black and frozen river without any plan beyond ‘try not to drown. It’d be bad.’

“You don’t have to keep apologizing to me for you not knowing and planning for every eventuality fate throws at us. It’s not like you’re the Maker,” he chortled before the idea struck hold and his voice dropped, “You’re not the Maker, are you?”

“No,” Reiss laughed once, her lips lifting in a guarded smile. “I...” her striking eyes rose to his and she said, “I will try to keep it in mind.” The thought roared back into his brain from its cage.

Kiss her.

It’d been there skulking in the shadows for what felt like weeks now, but every time he wanted to press his advantage the timing was beyond awkward. Here in a garden, with dozens of people doing their best to politely listen in was probably slightly better than making out in the throne room during a landsmeet. Still, the voice persisted. Kiss her. Run your fingers through her golden hair. Bump noses and giggle at it. Cup her long ears while mashing your foreheads together. Be with her.

“I should be the one saying sorry,” Alistair spoke, trying to shift away his damn invasive libido. “Standing around all day watching me sleep has to be the height of boredom for a guard.”

The left side of Reiss’ mouth lifted and she shrugged, “It’s not the worst, but it can get rather dull.”

“Tell me about it, and you’re not stuck rooming with a mage that’s spouting off alchemical theories about how the correct velocity applied to an acid will create some kind of mucus discharge, blah blah, something with gold.”

“Gold?”

“It’s always gold in alchemy,” he nodded sagely and began to stroke his chin in thought, which drew a snort from Reiss.

“I’m afraid I know little to nothing about potions, or healing, or any of that,” she grimaced, her fingers tightening around his. “If I was better taught, trained in how to...”

“I heard you,” Alistair whispered. She whipped her head over to him so fast that errant tendril of blonde hair dipped down across her eye. Forgetting where he was and who he was, Alistair drew a finger against her runaway hair and tucked it back. A blush burned up Reiss’ cheeks and she mouthed a silent ‘thank you’ under her breath. “In the cart up to Denerim. Wasn’t a hundred percent certain it wasn’t a trick of the fade at the time, and there were a lot more pink rabbits hopping around the castle than I remember, but...”

Alistair shifted in his seat and leaned closer to her.

Kiss her.

Shut up, little head. This is important too. “I was glad you were there with me.”

“It...” Reiss’ blush amplified tenfold, her forehead and chin breaking out in the adorable fever as she kept retucking her hair back behind her ears, “I didn’t know what to, it seemed to at the time, I...I tried.”

“And it helped,” he whispered, his skin aching to touch hers, to watch her summery eyes slip shut in anticipation as he kissed those pink lips. But Alistair jammed another hook into his errant libido and dragged it back into the cage. Not now. Maybe. Maybe later. If she was up for it. If he was up for it.

He glanced out at the garden and watched Marn approaching Lanny. Cailan was coddled in her arms, the boy getting his own daily dose of sun while the nursemaid kept her good eye on Spud. His daughter, tired of watching sparkles, was back to digging for something in the mud. Somedays he wondered if the Maker didn’t get the souls mixed up and Spud got a mabari’s by mistake.

“For what it’s worth,” Reiss whispered, dragging him away from his children, “I haven’t forgotten either.”

Alistair swallowed hard at that. A literal awe shucks rampaged out of his broiled throat and plopped onto the ground with as much dignity as Oghren anywhere at anytime. He felt the fever return to his exhausted body, lighting up the cheeks in particular as he reached to fluff his hair and try to not melt into the stone bench. A voice shouted at the edge of the garden, and Alistair whipped back in time to watch Marn clapping her hands at Spud. The princess ignored the order which drew out the wrathful nanny inside. Barely glancing over, she dumped Cailan into Lanny’s arms, scooped Spud up by the middle and began to drag the digging mudball out of the ground.

Spud was in full on tantrum, twisting and screaming that she didn’t want something. It was impossible to make out through the tears. Alistair knew he should get up and deal with it, but Marn only shot a quick ‘I’ve got this’ look at him before dragging her away from the assembled patrons of the garden to dump her into a no doubt wrathful bath followed by a timeout. Or perhaps vice versa, depending on Marn’s mood.

Blinking as if an archdemon just flew overhead, Lanny stood shocked with a baby in her arms. For delivering so many, she didn’t seem certain what to do, vaguely rocking back and forth on her hips and holding Cailan as if he was a bag of melons. When her eyes landed on Alistair, she began to limp towards him. Reiss didn’t even say anything, only released their grip and staggered to her feet.

“My lady,” she said in deference to Lanny before drifting back into the garden. Alistair watched her a moment before a cooing baby was thrust into his face.

“Who’s this then?” he cuddled to the for once happy Cailan chewing away on his blanket.

“Are they supposed to do that?” Lanny asked as she collapsed onto the bench beside him.

“I dunno,” Alistair admitted, “but if it stops the crying I’ll let him do whatever he wants as long as it only maims a few people.”

Her uncertainty washed away as the father resumed caring for his child, Alistair happily dangling a finger before Cailan’s face and watching those bright blue eyes try to follow it. He always wore a deadly serious face as if trying to dissect the world around him. Spud had it for a few months, but the second she got smiling down, it almost never returned. This one, Alistair suspected, was a lot more like his father -- the other one.

Glancing away from the baby trying to nom his finger off with soggy gums, Alistair watched Lanny. She’d abandoned her hood a few minutes into their garden walk. While no one had walked up to her and demanded “Are you the Hero of Ferelden?” she kept her trademark birthmark hidden behind a high collar just in case. He remembered every time the old Warden Commander dared to step a foot into the Palace she always seemed perturbed, wrinkle lines hoeing across her forehead and a small dance to her step as if she wanted to skitter far away. He used to assume it was him, but even Teagan commented on it once and she’d aways loved that man.

But now, her face was at peace. Haggard from the trials of her life, he spotted even more previously unknown wrinkles digging into her cheeks and by the sides of her eyes. Even after everything she faced including being trapped in the fade, she still looked a good five years younger than him, perhaps more. Either it was her natural gifted looks, those striking cheekbones she did her best to ignore, or the smile that seemed to always flit through her face.

“You’re happy,” he commented, the thought striking him fast.

“Hm?” Lanny turned away from the garden, her eyebrow lifting as she waited for him to continue.

Alistair shifted in his seat, feeling like his belt was constricting tighter as he confessed, “You know I’m loathe to admit this, but, marriage seems to suit you.” A bright smile broke across her lips and Alistair turned away, “Mind you, you would have been better off choosing anyone else as a husband. Perhaps a malifecarum, or a golem.”

At that Lanny rolled her eyes and sighed. “Why is it so hard for you two to get on?”

“He did hit me,” Alistair offered up limply.

“Yes, and as I understand it, you then hit him.”

“Well sure, and then after I...” he paused in the memory to watch Lanny’s eyes honing in on him. Quickly retracting his words, Alistair shrewdly eyed her up, “And he never told you the full of it, did he?”

“Damn,” she folded up a fist and playfully pounded it into her hand, “I don’t know why this is the secret you’re both taking to your pyre.”

Alistair didn’t respond but he had a funny feeling it was because the templar felt embarrassed by it, and he considered it one of the lower points in his life. Not just for rising to the bait, or for letting his fists do the talking, but also because he damn near lost and that was just inexcusable. It felt another lifetime ago, before Spud and Cailan, when he was going through the motions of life and drop kicked his heart into a locked chest and refused to crack it open.

He felt Lanny eyeing him up from the side as if she was thinking the same thing. “So, is there a good reason there’s no longer an arcane advisor in the castle?”

Alistair felt a growl reverberating in his gut, but for the sake of his ailing throat he tamped it down with the rest of the bile, “I know what you’re thinking and it’s not because of some lover’s spat.”

She blinked slowly and crossed her arms, “I wasn’t presuming anything.”

“Right, fine,” he began to rock back and forth in his seat, not for the baby in his arms but because he wanted to run far from the conversation every time it popped up. “Because I don’t have damn near every person in the castle glaring at me for ruining their betting pool about when the King would bed the mage.”

A coldness wafted across Lanny at that. She turned out to the garden so he couldn’t watch her smile snap away. From the corner of her mouth, she said, “That particular quirk of yours isn’t one I’m a fan of.”

In some teeny, tiny cognizant part of Alistair’s brain he knew why he tended to pursue women in robes, and that reason was sitting beside him trying to not lapse back into their not-so-dormant arguments. Before, he’d waved it away as familiarity, the heart wanting what it wanted, and also being somewhat scared that his attempts at being physical with a non-mage would somehow crash and burn. It went from trying to recreate the glory years to a debilitating crutch, and what finally shattered it all was Lanny’s death.

“I don’t, I mean,” he stuttered wanting to prove that he wasn’t some knuckle dragger fresh out of a swamp. “It’s not as if I order them special from the circle, and now college. Shit, I asked her where she was during the Blight, figuring maybe we ran into each other during rescuing the tower, you know.”

Lanny didn’t turn to him but she nodded slowly. “Where were you during the Blight?” was practically a Ferelden ice breaker.

“You know what she told me? She was with her parents as they fled north to Nevarra because the girl was eight years old at the time,” he tried to not gasp at the enormity of the thought. It took Lanny a moment before she turned to him with her own surprise.

“Eight, playing in mud while wearing pig tails as we’re off saving the world from a bunch of sword waving darkspawn and a pickled looking archdemon. It’s...” he shuddered at the concept. Sure, the girl, woman, was an adult and capable of making her own choices but Maker’s sake that was weird. “She didn’t have much of a concept of the Blight beyond being sad about leaving her friends behind,” he groaned.

“Is that why you kicked her out of your court?” Lanny asked.

“No,” Alistair shook his head, “I’m petty, but I’m not that bad. She threatened the Queen, joked about how it’d be so much easier if she’d died in childbirth and I...fine, I snapped, and yelled, and maybe drug her across the floor like she was a spoiled child but...” Maker’s sake, every time he had to retell it, it sounded worse and worse. It was just a joke, he could see it upon every face when he tried to excuse himself. You’ve heard worse and pretended to laugh at them. Let it go.

Lanny didn’t stampede or race to defend her fellow mage. That part was the least surprising of all, she never seemed to have much love for any of the arcane advisors assigned to Ferelden, for obvious reasons. “Ali,” she turned to him and those deep eyes searched through his cowering face, “was this really about Beatrice or is there something else bothering you?”

At first he couldn’t respond, so Alistair tucked the baby closer to his face and let the grabby fingers try to yank out his hair. “Get all the grey,” he encouraged, his lips skirting near that petal soft forehead as Cailan attempted to obey his father.

“Ali,” Lanny sighed, not about to give this up. She knew, by the void, she was the one who put all the pieces together and told him the truth of his origins. That was one of the hardest letters Alistair ever received from her. He’d been expecting little more than her typical day to day life establishing the abbey, maybe more requests for any documents from King Marric’s time with the Wardens as she hunted for a blight cure, and then...

“I don’t know why I keep trying,” Alistair groaned. “It’s not like she’s had, oh, 37 or so years to come forward and admit the truth. But, Maker damn it all, I keep thinking I’ll find some magic reason to draw her to Denerim, to meet her face to face and then...”

A warm hand scooped under Cailan’s blanket to cup his fingers clinging tight to his son. His son who wasn’t technically his son. “Is this what you want?” Lanny whispered.

“What I want? What I want is a good pair of galoshes that don’t flood in a puddle, or a cheese wheel that never runs out, or...or,” watching the boy that he’d never abandon for anything, a fire stirred in Alistair’s belly. “Is it so much to ask that she own up to her choices, to be the parent for once and-and at least tell me in her words. Give me a reason why she found it so easy to abandon her child like it, he, I was a basket of old fish?”

He was behaving like a baby, whining and wanting to kick something until it fell over into dust, but Lanny didn’t snap at him. Slowly folding her arms tight, she rocked back and forth while holding herself for a few minutes. Alistair knew that move, she wanted to say something that was weighing on her soul but had to find the courage.

It took a few more flutters of the green moths circling the flowers before her voice cracked, “What about Kieran?”

“What?” Alistair snapped up at that.

“What if Kieran were to appear at the Palace on this day wishing to see you, wanting to hear why you abandoned him? Why he never got to meet his father?”

“This has nothing to do with, that was all Morrigan’s doing, her icy cold choice, and...” the growl and bile he’d kept tamped down erupted, spilling across the woman sitting beside him. “It was your decision in the first place. Your blighted idea, I only...”

Lanny winced at that and slowly rocked in place, “But he doesn’t know that. You can’t blame the child for things beyond his control.”

“I...” Alistair folded deeper on himself, feeling the gas burning in his gut, “I don’t know what I’d do. I hadn’t thought about it before and, Maker’s sake, why are you suddenly on her side about this?”

“Believe me, Ali, I’ve never been on the Grand Enchanter’s side for anything,” Lanny swallowed deep and closed her eyes. “I’m worried about you and how it’s eating you up inside.”

“So, help me find a way to get her to come clean. You know lots of tricksy moves, and if not you, our dear Divine practically pops out three clever plans before breakfast.”

Lanny smoothed her forehead with her fingers, massaging the wrinkles that snapped back into place. “Are you certain this is an angle you wish to pursue? What if you don’t like the answer?” He scrunched his face up at that, certain that he’d never like the answer but wanting it regardless -- which she was well aware of. Groaning, Lanny stared directly at him, “Before the blight, I used to imagine scenarios for why my parents were no longer in contact with me. I wanted to believe that they still loved me but were being held back by nefarious forces or were embroiled in rather fanciful problems.”

She drew her fingers under the handle of her cane and clung tight, “It was a happy bubble I maintained until I went and popped it.” He was there, despite the two of them being on the outs-ish at the time. Lanny begged him to travel with her to the Free Marches as she rekindled with her family.

“When I learned the truth, that even saving the world from a blight didn’t endear me to them, that I was nothing more than a stranger to my blood relatives I...I didn’t bear it well. It has been thirty seven years, perhaps maintaining the fantasy is best for both of you.”

“Lanny,” he nudged a shoulder into her, trying to knock away the pain circling her once smiling face. Maker take him, he wished the damn templar was here to give her a hug or something.

“I am fine,” she forced a smile, “it’s been many years. I’m more concerned about you.”

“Come on, you know nothing gets to me,” Alistair tried to laugh it off. “Got that one emotion tapped down, haven’t bruised anything in awhile, and my gas is under control, so...” He slapped on a smile but it only got a slow glower from Lanny. Moving to slot her arms across her chest, she intended to drag the confessing bits out of him but Alistair wasn’t in the mood. His muscles ached like the Qunari army walked over him, the lungs burned if he thought of breathing, and enough of the tinctures of chicken soup and broiled octopus liver Lanny kept forcing down his throat gurgled in his enraged stomach. Adding the whole confronting his personal question of parentage and what it meant to him on top of that was going to lead one very large and kingly tantrum.

Seeming to sense his stubbornness, she unfolded her arms and gently tapped his elbow, “You know you can talk to me if you need to.”

“Yeah, yeah,” he waved it away with a carefree hand, “if I ever get drunk into a blubbering stupor I’ll pick up the crystal.” Alistair tried to laugh it off, but he caught those always compassionate eyes watering up as she gazed over at him and he felt himself folding. Slowly he nodded. He couldn’t muster up the courage to admit that he would probably need her beyond her magical healing skills, but she read the acceptance in his head bob.

In his arms, Cailan finished testing out the blanket with his mouth and began to stare up at the sky. “What are you looking at?” Alistair asked the baby in his high pitched talking to things that were probably already smarter than him voice, “That’s a lot of blue. Haven’t seen it since Drakonis.”

“A lot of rain in the east, I take it?” Lanny asked.

“There was talk of a lake forming in the area outside the Pearl. People wanted to try and drain it, but I thought it might attract some business.”

“Skinny dipping plus?” she smiled, that old orneriness flaring up. It was a wonder that that studious and dangerously smart mage who stumbled into the warden camp ever cast more than a glance over him. In truth, at the time Alistair doubted they’d have much of anything in common but whenever she’d pull out her sharp and witty tongue he’d melt into a puddle. It also helped that thanks to all her magic the woman had a set of nimble fingers that could tie and untie a knot one handed.

While rocking Cailan back and forth in his arms, Lanny leaned over. She didn’t touch the baby, but she kept staring deep into his eyes as if trying to read his thoughts. “Here,” Alistair interrupted. Before she had time to object, he plopped the boy into her arms.

“Wha...?” She stuttered, racing to cup his head. Cailan bore the change in scenery as unexciting, a yawn scrunching up those tubby cheeks. He’d gone from scrawny newborn to chubby rolls so fast, Alistair was surprised Marn could still walk around.

The happy father leaned over to tug the blanket flap out of the baby’s face and smiled, “If you’re going to have so many of these around, you might as well get used to holding one.”

“I...there are mothers for that sort of thing,” she sounded frazzled, the mighty Hero of Ferelden trying to swallow down panic at holding a tiny baby.

“Fathers too,” Alistair sighed, before catching her eye and whispering, “and second fathers.”

She looked about to ask something at that, but walked it back. With her usual gentle touch, Lanny inched her face closer to the baby and watched him. Enraptured as that tiny fist rose off the bed with a stretch, his gums smacked together and a bit of drool skirted down the cheeks as sleep wrapped around him. “Do you ever wonder what they dream of in the Fade?”

“If it’s anything like mine, constant terror in the most adorable form possible. I think I’ve had to suffer too many of Spud’s cutesy books.” There was one that involved mice drinking tea where absolutely nothing happened for thirty pages. The worst part, without an obvious ending, his daughter tended to assume there was more, and even Alistair took to flipping the book over as if the true story was hidden behind.

The panic of the uninitiated began to wear off and Lanny eased back against the bench. Her arms kept a slow rocking for Cailan but he seemed rather happy. After a moment of watching, her eyes darted up to Alistair and a far too dangerous voice innocently asked, “By the way, who’s Reiss?”

“What?” Alistair started. “What do you mean, who’s Reiss? I, uh...” He began to fidget in his seat, trying to not glance over at the woman in question haunting through the garden like a lost soul.

“You mentioned her name in your sleep, would often shout it across the room,” Lanny coyly smiled up at him.

“Oh that,” Alistair batted at the air and dug a hand into his hair. “She’s my bodyguard. You know, the new one. Makes sense that I’d be calling for her, as I was dreaming about, uh, bad things happening.”

For a beat, Lanny watched him, her face betraying nothing as she stared in anticipation of Alistair breaking down. But he had a good grip on his hair and intended to tug it up in case anything tried to slip out of his mouth. Accepting defeat, she turned down to the baby and he sighed, releasing his death hold.

“Alistair, how long have I known you?”

“Uh, too long,” he admitted.

“And you don’t think in all that time traveling together, sharing campsites, tents, sometimes beds, that I don’t know the difference between your ‘Ah, oh no!’ dreams and ‘Ah, oh, do it again!’ ones?”

Shit! Shittingshitshitontoastshit!

His cheeks ignited like the hot embers in a dwarf’s lava pit and he tried to swallow while guilty eyes skirted around the garden. Rifling through his memory, he tried to remember exactly which dreams he had about Reiss and if he’d shouted anything incriminating. Was there anything to be incriminating about? Maker’s sake, why was this so damn hard?

“So,” Lanny continued, stretching out the rope for him, “let’s try it again. Who’s Reiss?”

“She is my bodyguard,” he admitted, facing her down with the truth.

“Who...”

“Fine, fine, you and your shrewd, devious brain caught me. I have an attraction to her. In some capacity. That may involve occasional dreams and will you stop grinning at me like that!”

He paused at that and glanced around the garden to find a few curious eyes glancing over at the shouting King. Lifting up his hand, he cried out at the top of his lungs, “Sure is a lovely day today, isn’t it?!”

Lanny couldn’t hide the giggles shaking her body as she twisted her head back and forth. “Anything else about her you’d like to share? While I’m trapped here with a baby. No rush now.”

“She,” Alistair felt weird. He knew Lanny knew about all the other women in his life, but they never ever talked about it. Sometimes to the extent she’d pointedly ignore one in the room if the woman in question was being rather handsy at the time. But, that was before Lanny went and said those fancy words before a chantry sister. Before he finally accepted that whatever they’d had would never happen again. Maybe it could work.

“She’s my bodyguard,” he began again which got a slow glare from the woman. “Who is from Ferelden and served in the Inquisition no less. So your templar might know her.”

“And you’re okay with that?” Lanny asked.

“Amazingly, I think she’s the only woman in thedas who didn’t have a crush on him,” Alistair grumbled to himself. After he returned from the Anderfells, he took a little poll of the women in his inner circle and by the tenth stopped asking before he ground his teeth so hard he broke something.

Lanny looked about to argue before she groaned and tipped her head back at the cloudless sky. “A lot of them tend to assume they know what he’s really like. I imagine if they had to deal with one of his ‘I’m going to fix this problem even if I have to head butt it to death’ moods, they’d change their opinion rather quickly.”

He felt an urge to keep listening to all of the templar’s faults, in particular with long descriptions and hand movements, but Alistair let the moment waft away. Lanny was happy, sometimes deliriously so in her letters and who was he to try and wedge that apart? “Reiss is...she’s not like many people I know. Tough as nails,” Alistair stared at the chipped and broken ends of his fingers, “tougher than nails. Cute in that terrifying woman-who-might-break-your-nose next door kind of way. And...” he began to slide back and forth, a thought that’d been building at the back of his head bubbling up.

“She notices things, fast. I’d never seen anything like it before, how she’ll take small, pointless things wrong and figure out that someone’s about to shoot a few arrows at me.”

“An intuitioner,” Lanny said sagely.

“A what? I don’t think that’s a word.”

That got him a slow pursing of the lips as if she wasn’t ten times more pedantic in such matters. “There are certain people who seem to have a far more heightened sense of intuition. It’s almost as if they know things before they’re about to happen. You said she was in the Inquisition, in what capacity?”

“A soldier,” Alistair knew that much. She didn’t talk a lot about those days, but sometimes she’d let slip rather entertaining missions while tramping up and down through woods and swamps.

“Hm,” Lanny twisted her lips to the side in thought, “someone must have missed her obvious skills. Soldiers are best when they follow orders, but that’s almost an antithesis to an intuitioner.”

“No matter how many times you repeat it, it’s still not going to be a word,” Alistair jibbed back. “Wait, how do you know all this army marching stuff anyway?”

That got him a snort as she shut her eyes tight, “Do you have any idea how many strategy and war books I’ve had to overhear in the past few years? At least at this point there’s woodworking in the mix. And now I fear he’ll devise some kind of wood golem army.”

“I’d actually give good coin to see the templar try,” Alistair said, imagining him strutting up and down across a pile of cut trees shouting for them to fall into formation.

“This Reiss woman,” Lanny broke him from his imagination flight of fancy, “I assume she’s not a mage.”

“No, at least not to my knowledge. We’re around each other enough I’d like to think I’d notice some magic.”

Lanny eyed him up slowly before lifting her hand and drawing forth a small green glow. “As you say. So, not a mage and working for you. That’s quite a change, Ali.”

“And she’s an elf,” he said as if describing her hair color but a cloud drew across Lanny’s brow.

“An elf? You, you’ve got an elf guarding you, the King, and then you bloody went and fell for her?”

“Yeah, what’s the problem?” his eyes darted around, trying to find someone to come to his rescue.

“Maker’s blighted sake, Alistair,” she dropped her head towards her lap before remembering it was full of baby. “Think for a moment about what it would mean to the outside world. If...” Whatever she was going to tell him that was so bloody obvious he fully missed it faded away. “Does she know your obvious attraction?”

“Kinda,” Alistair plucked at his broken nails.

“What does ‘kinda’ mean? You didn’t stand near her and break out into a spasm of giggles, did you?”

“No! I’m a bit better than that,” he shook his head, trying to summon a dram of dignity out of his quickly emptying sack. “We kissed.”

“You kissed?” she sounded incredulous, as if he couldn’t manage something so simple on his own.

“Well, she kissed me and I kissed her back.”

“Then what happened?”

Alistair paused, his hand hanging in the air, “Ah, that’s the knotted up tricky part. Mid-rolling around on the ground-- ” That caused Lanny to roll her eyes. “--We were interrupted by Spud leaping out of bushes onto me.”

“How romantic,” she snorted.

“No kidding, and after that it was off to the Dalish to stand around with a bunch of nobles and elves to talk about nobly elf shit, then the flood, then I nearly tried to die, you appeared to save me, and now we’re here. There wasn’t really any time to talk about the after kiss part.”

Lanny began to laugh silently, her shoulders shaking as she tried to hold Cailan sort of still, “Sweet Andraste, you do make things difficult. Though, I’m not one to go pointing the finger.”

“At least there hasn’t been any bringing back from the dead, taking down undead pirates while facing off against an ancient creature made out of old pastries,” Alistair nodded sagely, happy to turn the finger back on her.

She laughed at his summation of her life, shifted the baby in her waning arms which roused him from his sleep, and spoke sweetly, “And in all that time you never once found an opportunity to talk to her about it? To move forward or see if you’re on the same page?”

“Like I said, gentry everywhere, then mucus, and you,” he gestured wildly at the woman unperturbed to have the blame placed on her head, “you’ve been around near constantly.”

“Ali...” He knew that sigh to his name. It meant she was about to drop a ten ton chest filled with common sense onto his head. Gritting his teeth, he braced himself for the oncoming onslaught. “If you wanted to you could make the time. You’re the King, order people to leave you alone for a few hours and get out of your hair. How do you not already do that?”

“Usually I have to command people to stay around me instead of scattering away,” he moped, wanting to feel sorry for himself. A pitiful existence was Alistair’s safety blanket.

“You’re scared, aren’t you?”

“Who, me?” he gasped, a litany of the various monsters he’d faced head on filtering through his head. There were quite a few, even some Lanny had nothing to do with, but they all evaporated at the gentle concern in her eyes. “Yeah, all right, I’m a tiny bit scared. What if, you know...?”

“She doesn’t like you back?” Lanny tried to stifle her laugh at the absurdity but she was always shit at a wicked grace face.

“I dunno,” Alistair folded deeper into himself, wishing he could burrow into the earth and rest there. He was the sick one, after all. People should at least be nice to him while he recovered from a death plague, or wait to insist he man up until he could walk by himself.

“Maker’s blasted bologna,” he spat at himself, hands massaging up and down his face, “I’m behaving like a spoiled snot too scared to clean up the shattered vase, like a cad that can’t be bothered to stick around for breakfast, like a...”

“Like a man with a pretty bad crush, who’s worried about ruining it,” Lanny interrupted. She nudged into him with her shoulder and turned her attention back to the baby in her arms. His baby, two kids plus a wife, oh and an entire country shoving its nose wherever it feels like it. Sweet Andraste, how could he hope for anyone to put up with that much of a mess?

Alistair tousled the black hair across his son’s forehead, “What am I going to do? What if it’s too late? I mean, it went from awkward, to super awkward, to we might both burst into flames from the unending awkwardness filling the room.”

“If she cares for you as much as you do her, she’ll fight through the awkwardness. It’s on you to do the same.”

If there was one thing he figured out about that pretty elf, she was a fighter, a survivor of more than he could ever imagine. Maybe, maybe there’d be a chance to move this beyond one blushing kiss. Chuckling, he glanced over at his oldest friend, “When did you get so damn smart about all this?”

“Oh, I wouldn’t call it wisdom so much as stumbling, painful experience. I had to turn a lot of men into frogs before I found the faith to risk my heart.”

“Don’t you mean kiss a lot of frogs?” Alistair asked.

Those ornery but compassionate eyes flared at him and he tasted the bite of the veil ripping to shreds. “No,” Lanny threatened in her booming Hero voice before fading it all away with a whisper. Something in the fade slicing into their world stirred Cailan and a cry began in that tiny throat. Tears tumbled off of those still ocean eyes while Lanny tried to soothe him by awkwardly rocking the baby back and forth.

“Here,” Alistair reached over, using the greatest father trick at his disposal. With one hand upon Cailan’s back, he cupped the squealing mouth against his shirt, letting the warmth of his body connect with the angry baby. It took a few more sways and “Oh come on, it’s not that bad” before the cries quieted down. The whole time he felt Lanny watching from the side, her calculating expression on. She wore that whenever brewing up potions or was about to rain fire down upon a horde of darkspawn. Seeing as how no bottles or hurlocks were in the area, Alistair was fairly certain it was aimed at him.

“What is it?”

“You so easily calming a crying baby. I’m trying to think of that twenty year old I met in the Kokari Wilds attempting it and it’s beyond me.”

He shrugged, uncertain what to say. There was a learning curve with Spud, but he kept stepping up to the line and trying no matter how often her tiny foot managed to take out his jangling coin purse. “It’s not so hard once you figure it out. Like finding the weak point between a shriek’s ribs and jabbing up through the heart.”

“I’m glad that you’re happy, with your children,” she smiled brightly and he felt the conviction of her words. Struggling to find any way to respond to the woman who’d been a constant in his life, even when she was out of it, Lanny took over for him. “Figure out your bodyguard issue and maybe you can fill out the rest of your life too.”

“It’s that simple?” he asked sarcastically while secretly wishing it was. All the missteps and failures, the broken hearts, and empty nights somehow solidifying together to finally give him a peace he never thought possible.

Lanny glanced out at the garden falling still as the sun finally dipped below Fort Drakon, rendering most of the palace in shadows. It wasn’t the creeping chill of night but a gentle waft into a slumber before the new day. With a soft smile, she whispered, “You won’t know until you try.”

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