Guarded Love

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Chapter 35: Mother Issues

It was sad how long it took Alistair to realize that Reiss fell asleep in his arms. While her silence and methodical breathing weren’t enough to tip him off, the small puddle of drool building upon his tunic was. Amazingly, she didn’t rouse as he picked her up in his arms and staggered to his feet. It wasn’t the best move in his life, his back angry at daring to put so much strain on it, and the arms being general jerks, but he managed to make it all the way inside to her room before she so much as stirred. Even then, it was only a small crinkle of her nose before she drifted off. She was more exhausted than she let on.

Laying her down in her bed, Alistair managed to yank her covers up over her before stopping and glancing down at the obvious silhouette of boots hiding below. Only cursing under his breath, he yanked those off her feet, re-added her covers, and then slid out to his room. He wanted to stay, to curl up beside her, to drape an arm over her stomach and accidentally engulf her hair in sleep. To wake with her as sun’s morning light skipped across her face. But people would wonder, and question, and then there’d be lots of “Here’s why this is bad for the country” meetings he was in no mood for.

Putting away the wish for something normal, Alistair quietly closed the door separating them and fell face down into his bed. He didn’t have the tenacity left to remove his own boots. When he woke from a pleasant slumber and even more pleasant dreams, he found a few servants standing at the foot of the bed. “Don’t tell me,” he groaned, the ache in his head reminding him why champagne was bad. He never noticed how much he drank until the bottles began to stack up. “It’s Satinalia! Everyone’s waiting for me to open up their presents.”

“No, Sire,” the first servant responded seriously to his joke. “It is only Summerday, remember.”

“Yes, I know, I was...” he rolled over, accidentally knocking an elbow into the nightstand and a shoe against the bedpost. Lifting up off the bed, he gazed through the door to catch Reiss standing outside. She’d already dressed in her armor for the day, but a sweet smile graced her lips that seemed to be only for him.

“You were what, your Majesty?” the second more senior servant grabbed at the sheet Alistair kept rolling on top of and gave it a good yank.

“Joking,” he coughed, accepting defeat and sliding off the bed to land upon his still laced on boots. Maker, he didn’t sleep in his clothes? Glancing down Alistair confirmed that he did in fact fall fast asleep in the damn things.

“Long night for his Highness?”

“I dunno, if I find him I’ll be sure to ask,” Alistair quipped back. He fumbled for a comb to de-knot his hair but snatched up a small pin instead. What was that even doing here? Oh well. Unlatching it, he tried to use the single stick to dig apart the mashed ends of his hair.

“Sire?” the poor, serious servant stumbled again.

“Another one of those joke things you seem to be allergic to.” He tried to blink through the nests spiders built overnight in his eyes to catch a glimpse of the man circling him, “Are you new?”

“No Sire,” he bit back, which caused the second servant to break into a few silent giggles. “Shall we bathe his Majesty?” the serious one asked.

“No we shall not. I think his Majesty can figure out how a sponge works all by his little lonesome.” The old servant who’d been buffing Alistair’s shoes since he first strolled into the palace politely coughed into his fist. Admitting to his past misdeeds, he added, “Provided it’s not at the end of a stick which can grow slippery and be launched out a window fully on accident and not because I was sword fighting with it. Fair enough, Charles.”

“I said nothing, Sire.”

Whatever they were fussing with, both men abandoned it, stepping away from the exhausted but technically upright King. Their jobs were finished. “Sire, I believe the water is hot and the bathing room is open. Shall I accompany you...?”

“Maker’s sake, did the entire castle decide I was an invalid overnight? So I slept in, I was up watching the shooting stars. It’s not a national disaster for me to miss first light,” he dug a finger through his hair and found it didn’t fall back down the way it should. Flames, what’d he get stuck in it now? Struggling to try and get a glimpse over the busybodies, he heard a soft snicker from the doorway and for a brief second caught Reiss’ amused eye.

“If you’re both finished here...?” he began, dragging his hand out.

The serious one looked about to argue, no doubt sent on Karelle’s orders to get him into tip top shape for whatever awaited the King today, but Charles knew Alistair well. “It’s best if we give you your space,” he said while grabbing onto the other man’s arm. “Come along.”

“But the Chamberlain ordered...” Whatever she’d threatened them with faded as both servants politely distanced themselves from the ramshackle King.

Abandoning hope of digging out whatever it was, Alistair turned to the beautiful woman who looked as if she’d slept a good ten hours on a feather mattress instead of curling up in his lap during a cool summer night. “Do I look that bad?” he asked seriously, his eyes unwilling to focus on the mirror.

“No,” she lied while sliding into the room. “It’s,” Reiss yanked off her gauntlet so her warm fingers could tousle his hair back to where it belonged. Alistair fell dumbstruck from the care she gave for the smallest and most pointless detail. He was likely to have a gallon of water dumped on it soon, but it seemed to be important to her.

“There,” she smiled, flipping his stomach up and down, “much better. Nothing one can do about the eyes I’m afraid.”

“Let me guess, red as a sunburnt nug,” he groaned, trying to scrub his cheeks.

She winced at his metaphor, but after glancing at the door, she slid close to him. Alistair’s groaning at his pitiful state froze immediately from the beautiful woman wrapping her body around his. Those succulent arms curled up around his neck, his instantly matching by cuddling the small of her back. It was a bit more of a reach thanks to all that armor, but even with the metal can acting as a buffer he still felt a wave of calm from holding her.

“I take it I fell asleep while we were star gazing,” Reiss whispered, her lips beside his ear. Perhaps she was afraid of the others standing outside the door overhearing, but Alistair couldn’t hide a shudder up his legs at the intimacy.

“Uh huh, out like a cold cock to the back of the head.”

“Thank you for caring enough to remove my boots and...” she paused, her eyes darting down as if a thousand darker thoughts trailed through her. Alistair turned his head to try and meet her, attempting to assuage her fears, when she smiled, “and letting me get my sleep. It seems you were less fortunate.”

“I went down almost as soon as you did. This mess is one part getting old, one part I forgot what champagne does to me, and probably three parts being a Grey Warden.”

Reiss scrunched her cute nose at that, the side with the bump wrinkling up so bad, Alistair couldn’t help himself. Darting forward he planted a kiss upon the side of it. As he leaned back, he watched her cheeks bloom red, Reiss smiling while her eyes stared off into the distance. Rubbing her gloveless hand against his scruff, she pulled him closer to her lips for a kiss. Even knowing that he looked like cat barf eaten by a mabari and barfed up again, she still wanted to kiss him. Maker he was so stupidly lucky. His lips brushed softly against hers when the door knocked open.

“Sire, the bath awaits,” Charles called.

She was quick to slip away from his grasp, already wearing her gauntlet when the exasperated servant walked in on his King seeming to have a little conference with the bodyguard. “My Lord,” Charles continued, trying to jerk his chin to the bathroom.

Alistair glanced back at Reiss, but she was focusing out the window doing her best to seem aloof and slightly terrifying the way all good guards were. “Right,” he ratcheted up his smile and beamed, “on to the bathing section of the day, my good man.” Charles took the hearty slap to his back as he always did while handing his King a towel and being certain to keep him on the path. He wished he could stay with Reiss, let her finish whatever she wanted to say, but duty and scrubbing himself squeaky clean awaited.

It wasn’t until midway through the day that Alistair figured out why everyone was voidsent on getting him scrubbed within an inch of his life. They even brought out the pumice stone. That was reserved for days after he’d been in the field, had tried hunting, or once fell down a long slope in the mud, gave up on the idea of ever being clean again, and proceeded to start a mudball war. Squeaked, scrubbed, and shaved within an inch of his life, Alistair feared his skin probably shined bright enough it could blind someone. Even his hair was perfumed with a weirdly fruity blend that reminded him of a wine mixed with Spud’s typical oatmeal breakfast.

The day’s chores had been light: solve this matter, wave at a few people at the gate, act real impressed at some kind of tiny model waterwheel while no one got his joke about how it’d work great for milling flour in the ant kingdom. After all that Alistair was happy to retire to his favorite of the studies. It wasn’t much of anything special, the same usual number of desks, clerks skimming in and out, the chair about as uncomfortable as the rest, but they housed it right overtop the kitchens. All day he got to relish in the smells of whatever Renata was baking or roasting. This hour it seemed to be something bready with hints of roasted nuts.

“Okay,” Alistair slapped his hands on his thighs and thought about making another loop of the room. He was getting tired of sitting while people told him things and needed to stretch. “I think that’s about it for the day.”

“Sire?” Eamon asked. Ever since the illness, the Chancellor was hot on Alistair’s tail, as if he had any skills in healing or keeping someone from rushing headlong into a frozen river.

“I get it, we’re all waiting with fishy breath to hear if our newest Spymaster has caught the criminals down by the ol’ smuggling hole, but it’ll be a few days. Weeks probably.” His eyes wandered away from Eamon and the handful of other advisors following the man, to land upon Reiss. She stood beside the door, doing her best to be in the room while not a part of the proceedings. At his pronouncement, she blinked and her eyes wandered down to the ground.

He knew that catching the assassins and solving that problem would put Reiss out of a job and severely limit their time together, but he had no intentions of casting her off. There was a way to make it all work even when the immediate danger was past. And, Alistair realized, he should probably tell her that so she wasn’t worrying herself over fear the King was going to go all Kingy.

“There are other matters besides the assassins,” Eamon tried, but even he kept wandering off to Harding’s stand-in. The new Spymaster was off doing what she did best, slipping back into the scouting role without a second thought, while this guy tried to work as a go between. At the moment he seemed to be half merman, requiring a constant supply of sweat to keep himself alive on land. As word trailed through the castle that they were close, everyone kept hounding the poor guy for updates. Alistair made himself promise he’d only ask once a day.

“No there aren’t,” Alistair announced. “It’s summer. Damn near everyone’s off down in their southern homes, or up by the Waking Sea for the season. Denerim is surprisingly quiet. All in all, it’s a good day to knock off early and do something fun.” He slapped his hands together and rose off his chair when a man barreled through the open door.

He almost ran flat out at the King, but managed to pause just before Alistair. They stood so close, he could reach out and kiss the kid, who suddenly realized that fact and scampered back. Reiss moved towards him, a hand on her hilt, but the kid shouted out, “Sire, I come bearing news.”

“I’d hoped it was that and not that a trio of bears were chasing you through the palace. What is it? Maker’s breath, Harding didn’t already get the assassins did, she?” Alistair honed in on the kid who felt a dozen very interested eyes drilling into him.

“Assassins? No my Lord, I know nothing about any assassins. I...Sire, your Highness.”

“Yes, yes,” Alistair rolled his hand through all the ways people could not say his name. “What is it?”

“It’s the Grand Enchanter,” the kid spat out.

“Oh.” Alistair’s interest fell off a cliff and he wanted to slump back into his chair in a sulk. Instead, he picked at the arm, “Let me guess, she sent another letter admonishing me for sending her little ‘let’s kill the Queen’ mage back home.” He’d received a good dozen and ignored them all. Eamon glared at Alistair’s interpretation of the events, but didn’t yell at him. Maybe even he was getting tired of the mage’s power games.

“Ah,” the messenger’s eyes glanced around at the room before landing back on the King, “No, my Lord. She’s here.”

“What?!” Alistair whipped back around and he grabbed onto the man’s lapels. Hauling him up to his face, he sputtered out, “Here, here? Fiona’s here, in Denerim?”

“She’s waiting in the atrium,” the poor kid sputtered, his toes scrabbling to reach the ground, but Alistair didn’t notice. Here. How could she...? Why would she even...? And Karelle blighted knew she was coming and didn’t think to tell him!

Alistair released the kid to the floor and pounded his fist into his hand. The Chamberlain and he were going to have a few words later. Very short, evil sounding words. She may think she knows everything about how to control her flippant King but on this matter he would have liked, no he needed some warning. Fiona. Finally in the same room as him. Sweet Maker, what was he going to do?

“Sire, what should I, uh, do?” the messenger asked, darting back away to keep from being snatched up by the King.

“I...I have no idea,” Alistair admitted. How could she be here? He’d worked through what to say to her, how to talk to her, but it was always while in the bathroom or alone at night. And most of it sputtered into a rage that’d be certain to get him into trouble with the college and all his advisors.

Eamon was quick to step in, “Send the Grand Enchanter up, but limit her party to only two.”

“No,” Alistair interrupted, “Just her. And all of the rest of you, leave us alone.”

“Sire, is that wise?” Eamon turned his surprised and unimpressed face on him. Normally, Alistair backed down at that, but this time he stood up against the man.

“I mean it, Eamon,” Alistair thundered from behind the chair. He clung knuckles tight to it, digging into the flattened padding and ruffling up what had once been a very deep green velvet. Now it looked as if a mold sprouted across the wear spots.

Eamon blinked a moment before tipping his head, “As his Majesty says. We shall all excuse ourselves for a private meeting. You,” he turned to the messenger doing his best to not shit his hose, “go and guide the Grand Enchanter here.”

“Do I have to? She’s, I mean, she’s one of them,” he sputtered.

“For the love of...!” Alistair roared, his anxiety snapping him like a cheap blade. The shrapnel reverberated through the room, causing nearly everyone to slink back. Glaring at the kid, he shouted, “If you can’t do your damn job...Eamon, think you can lead a single mage up here?”

“Yes Sire, I can,” he smiled before turning a curt look upon the man scared of mages, “And we shall have discussions with you later.” The messenger only eeped quietly while the Chancellor drug him out on his ear without having to touch the man. That was Eamon’s true speciality. One by one, the rest of the people that always surrounded Alistair, who kept the country humming and him somewhat on track slipped through the door. The clerks picked up their books they’d been hard at work on to try and find somewhere else quiet to scribble down whatever they did all day.

Alistair didn’t hear any of it, he couldn’t see beyond the white spots picking apart his vision. This was what he wanted, right? Why he kept inviting her to the castle to get answers from her, to learn why she abandoned him. Why she never thought to tell him the truth. Why she let him flounder alone without anyone to care a whit for him.

“Alistair,” a cold hand landed upon his shoulder and he glanced up into Reiss’ darkened eyes. They burned with concern as she stared down at his clenched fists. “Are you okay?”

“I...yes,” he tried to throw on a smile, but she frowned at it, “Maybe. I don’t know.”

“Are you worried that the Grand Enchanter won’t believe you about why you removed Linaya?”

Shit. What if that was the only reason she really came? Did she even care about the boy she abandoned all those years ago? Think about it? Wonder about him? Maybe she didn’t know it was him, thinking there were other bastards kicking around. What were the chances hers wound up on the throne? What would he do if she hadn’t thought about him at all?

“I, I,” he clung to her gauntlet, squeezing against the cold metal and wishing that he could throw his arms around her instead.

“Sire,” Eamon’s voice boomed from the door, drawing both their attention. Reiss slid away naturally, but it took Alistair until the end of the tether to let go of his rock. “May I present Grand Enchanter Fiona and President in Standing for the Enchanter’s College.”

Alistair held his breath while glancing up at the woman who looked so much frailer than he expected. The last time he saw her he wasn’t in the happiest of moods having to fight through a horde of evil Tevinter mages only to learn the damn people he was trying to save went and sold themselves into slavery. Not to mention fighting to get back his uncle’s castle for the second time in his life. He couldn’t remember much of the Grand Enchanter during their quick meeting beyond the accent and dark hair.

It was greying now, even that elven blood couldn’t keep age at bay forever, but her eyes sparkled as she folded her hands against the staff clutched in her grasp. “Your Majesty,” she bowed her head to him, the lines on her face aged like a thin sheet of leather delicately folded in the linen cabinet. While time came for her, Fiona wore it well, with a grace that she’d no doubt used to navigate all the politics over the years.

“My...Ma’am,” Reiss stumbled at what to call her while stepping forward, “I shall have to confiscate your staff in the interim while you meet with the King.”

“Whatever for?” she chuckled mirthlessly in that foreign accent. Would he have spoken with it if she’d kept him?

“For his safety,” Reiss said in her stern voice. She called it the ‘Getting her brother to eat his damn dinner’ one when they were alone.

Alistair shook his head and waved a hand, “It’s all right, Ser Reiss. She can keep it.”

“Ser,” Reiss spun around, her eyes honing on him. He focused away from his mile long stare to to watch her mouth ‘Alistair’ before continuing, “Are you certain?”

Summoning the cocky soul he kept hidden away for emergencies, Alistair chuckled, “I highly doubt the leader of the Mages is going to fireball me down in my own home. It wouldn’t look so good for the rest of them.”

“Nor would it be polite,” Fiona tacked on.

Reiss looked like she wanted to argue, which was just what he didn’t need, but she tucked her hand away and sighed, “As you say, Ser.”

Grateful that she’d given in, Alistair glanced over at her and said, “If you would be so kind as to leave us.”

“I...” her eyes darted over to the woman who stood pointedly in the doorway, seeming to fill it. Fiona was short standing next to Reiss, and no doubt was dwarfed next to Alistair. Somehow that fact didn’t do much to comfort him. Reiss focused on him. Reflected in her he saw the concern that something was clearly wrong wafting across his face but he had no way to explain it, and feared opening his mouth would cause only a great squeak to erupt.

“Very well, I shall just be on the other side of the door,” Reiss assured him while tugging upon the handle. She was slow to close off his only means of escape, Fiona carefully watching until the click of the latch falling into place broke over the suddenly silent room. What was he supposed to say? Should he be the first to say anything? Alistair began to rock back and forth on his toes and found he’d scurried behind the chair as if it gave him some protection should the mage suddenly turn on him.

He glanced over the Grand Enchanter, dressed in thinner robes than what he came to expect from the elite of the Circle. It seemed the higher up one moved, the more furs and shiny bits they added to your outfit. Perhaps it was her traveling outfit, or she was dressed in deference to the heat creeping across Ferelden. The Fereldens were not a people who liked it hot.

“You don’t have a staff blade,” Alistair pointed out at random, his mouth moving before his brain thought to reel it in.

Fiona didn’t need to stare at her own staff to know the truth, “I do not require one as this is mostly ceremonial. Shall I be the bigger person and begin this or do we keep waiting in silence?”

“Bigger...I don’t even know why you’re here,” he scoffed.

“My intentions were made perfectly clear in the letters I sent. The ones His Highness deemed unworthy of answering,” Fiona responded. She was trying to be deferential to him, but there was a venom in there that no doubt had been stewing for months. Too bad for her Alistair had his brewing over decades.

“Oh, is that so? It only seemed fair given how you never bother to answer the ones I send.”

“I always respond in a timely manner to every missive from the King’s estate,” she was quick to bite back with.

Alistair began to nod his head back and forth, that strange concoction of anger and fear bubbling over in his gut. It tasted like gassy iron at the back of his tongue. “Right, uh-huh, they’re always those polite ‘No, I didn’t read this. I made one of my under secretaries write out something noncommittal and stamped it.’”

“Are you accusing the College of not taking its role with the Ferelden allegiance seriously?” she piped up, clinging to duty like it was a dusty old shield. As if that was the reason she came. Shit! Was that the reason she came?

“Tell me why you came here and then we’ll get to who’s not taking what seriously,” Alistair tried to do the bardic shuffle a few of his advisors taught him over the years. The trick was to never say anything and always ask a lot of stupid questions. He was a lot better at the latter than the former.

Fiona seemed to catch onto his ploy and folded her arms up, her long nails clutching tightly to her staff. “You are well aware why my presence is required after you so unceremoniously removed our arcane advisor from your court without even petitioning a single member of the College.”

“I have to ask now if I need to put up with your castoff dregs?” his eyebrows shot up at that idiotic protocol, as if they were all in Orlais or something.

“She was hand picked...”

“She was an idiot, barely capable of simple spells, often claiming to have knowledge of things far beyond her,” Alistair began to pace behind the chair as all of Linaya’s faults fell into his memory. He’d excused a lot of it at the time because he didn’t really much care. They didn’t need a mage, and if there was someone he was going to turn to for vital magical advice it wouldn’t be the woman force-giggling so hard her chest bounced.

“The woman was trained by our top instructors, past her Harrowing, accomplished in matters of alchemy, chosen for...”

“Oh, I figured out why she was chosen.” He wasn’t listening to her, didn’t care, the anger taking hold. It was rare for Alistair to let it stew like this but he needed to get it all out. “She’s what, barely twenty five, if that? And seemed to spend all her classes capturing the perfect way to curtsy while scooting backwards. Even I know more about the transmutation of spirits into healing...Flames, I actually do.” That caused him to pause, a flutter rising to his stomach from all the mages in his life who’d tried to get Alistair to understand a lick about magic. He never thought any of it took, but, looking back he could see Linaya’s sloppy technique so evident that any senior enchanter would have groaned at it.

Fiona blinked at his realization, her mouth working quickly as she seemed to be weighing through various ways to curse at him without saying them. One of the few perks to the job, he only got called a bastard behind his back. “We did not send the girl here because she is considered unteachable.”

“No?” he began to pace again, needing to feel something under his shoes to distract him from the pins riding up his shins. “I hadn’t even considered you were dumping her on us so she didn’t accidentally blow up the shiny new College. She made it pretty evident from her first meeting why she thought she was sent packing to Denerim. ‘Oh, let me bat my eyelashes at you, your Majesty. I seem to have tripped and require you to carry me, your Highness. Help, half my dress ripped off and I fell into this puddle!’”

He all but forgot Fiona was in the room, needing to hear himself complain, until she growled, “It was made evident to me what happens to mages that fill the position of arcane advisor in this court, which I took into consideration.”

“Great, that’s not...” he was about to call it weird for his mother to pick out a mistress for him, but paused. The word perched upon his tongue, waiting to come flying free, but it wasn’t breaking off. Instead he fell back to Linaya. “I don’t even care. Maidens can flirt, given enough time she’d probably have found some other knight to burden with her overbearing affections.”

“Then why remove her? Was it due to her lacking abilities? I didn’t realize sitting around in court required a highly trained mage to grow fat on the spoils,” Fiona groaned.

He watched a flash of anger in her eyes and an old report darted into Alistair’s head about how much the Grand Enchanter was at odds with a certain other mage who was trying to rebuild the circles in Orlais. A mage that wielded the Orlesian court like a sword. “Didn’t Linaya tell you why?” he asked, pausing in his pacing.

Fiona narrowed her eyes at him and sighed, “Very little, she was inconsolable and in tears for nearly a month.”

A nub of guilt burrowed into the back of Alistair’s skull at causing her that much pain, but he shook it off. Folding his arms, he glared at the Grand Enchanter, “She told me that it’d have been better for me if the Queen had died in childbirth. I suppose freeing up the position for her to fill, as if such a thing were ever possible.”

“What?” that caught her, Fiona’s eyes startling open. “No one told me that...are you certain you didn’t mishear?”

“There is comes again. Alistair, you must be imagining things. Alistair, it’s all in your head. Alistair, don’t be so daft. She means well,” he stopped rolling his head around to glare at her, “She knew exactly what she was doing, and what she said. At this point, I don’t care if you hate me, if the entire College is going to blackball us. I’d do it again.”

“I have...” Fiona glared down at the floor, her eyes working over it while calculations whirred behind, “I shall have words with the council upon my return about this matter. We were informed differently and had been planning -- it does not matter now.” For a moment she faded, the energy that seemed to keep her going vanished to leave a frail and exhausted woman behind. She flexed her aching hand and watched the papery skin fluttering above creaking bones before the glint returned. The tired lady vanished, leaving the same flint hard woman behind.

“This entire problem could have been solved if you’d answered a letter yourself instead of leaving the College in the dark.” As if deciding the problem was over, Fiona turned, about to grab onto the door’s handle.

“That’s it then,” Alistair’s mouth spoke. “You’re just done, going to leave, head back to the coast and never come back here.”

“My business is concluded,” she said, frozen to her spot. Officially, she couldn’t leave unless the King gave her permission. Fiona glared at the door, her hand hanging an inch from grabbing onto the latch and freeing herself from him, from the son she abandoned and couldn’t seem to muster a single care to give for him.

Steam hissed in his stomach as the anger boiled away and the fear lodged in his throat, stopping up the words he wanted to spit at her. To curse at her for leaving him to think his whole life that he’d killed his mother, that he was the royal bastard no one loved because he was inconvenient. A mistake, best kicked off to the side until, Maker help them all, he’s needed. Oops.

“You know I know,” he mumbled, the fight kicked out of him as he all but whispered the words he’d been wanting to say for two years.

Fiona snapped up tight, her shoulders locking into place as she spun around on her feet. Why did he always picture his mother as someone with big brown eyes who wore a cap to hide away her curls? With a warm face and round arms to offer up hugs, thin lips to sing songs and kiss away pains. The exact opposite of the glaring and hard woman standing before him. He wanted Wynne and got Morrigan instead.

“Whatever you think you know...” she began.

“It’s why you wouldn’t attend any summits, even when you were needed, when the College was needed. It’s why you avoid all matters that have anything to do with Ferelden. It’s why you can’t even look at me.”

Fiona snapped up, her eyes for the first time landing upon his instead of drifting to a shoulder or out a window, “That isn’t...Whatever reasons you believe you know my motives are false. I am growing old and intend to step down soon. There is little I can add to any conversation for the sake of the College.”

“Just like that,” he tried to shake off the tears building in his eyes as the woman kept dodging every plea he threw out, “you’d turn and leave even now. Even knowing that I...I,” Alistair threw his hands up in the air and shouted, “You know what, fine. Go ahead. I get what tiny insignificant speck I can possibly matter to you. What little mistakes in the past are and how quickly they’re forgotten, if they were ever even thought of.”

Fiona surged forward, a finger darting into his face like a scolding nanny, “You know nothing about me, about the sacrifices I’ve made in my life. The pain I’ve suffered.”

He stared down her threatening finger to find her eyes and shrugged, “And do you know a damn thing about me?”

“I...” she blinked, her eyelids fluttering as Fiona folded away from him. “It was for is for the, there are matters that move beyond your understanding, beyond any that...” Shaking her head, she began to spin around towards the door. “The past belongs where it lays.”

That was it. He could feel it collapsing between them. There’d almost been a moment when she’d finally admitted it to him but the walls closed back around. Leaning onto her staff, Fiona limped towards the door, to most likely close it in his face and life forever when it burst open and a blur of pink shot around the old elf.

Alistair barely had time to catch on when Spud’s sticky fingers grabbed tight to his knee. She planted her chin upon it and gazed up at him. “Daddy!” her shout echoed against the cover of every book in the study.

Without thinking, he reached down to grab onto her and tugged Spud up into his arms. She hugged tight to his neck, her forehead bonking him in the nose, but Alistair didn’t care. He needed this without even knowing it. “Are you supposed to be breaking into Daddy’s secret meetings, Tater Tot?”

“Yes?” she asked with a question so sincere it drew a laugh to him instead of the wrinkly, frowny face it should.

“This...” Fiona spoke up. Alistair turned away from the girl trying to yank off the golden rope sewn to his shirt to the woman he was certain had already stomped off. “This is your daughter?”

“Yes,” he pecked a kiss against Spud’s cheek, which caused her to stick her tongue out and dramatically wipe it off. After entertaining her father, she glanced back at the strange woman in the doorway, the thumb heading right to her mouth. “The princess of the place, though the way she runs around you’d think she was Empress.”

Spud didn’t respond as she was too busy warily eyeing up Fiona, her thumb working overtime to soothe away the stranger danger.

“She has black hair,” Fiona mused, almost reaching out to touch it.

“Gets that from her mother, don’t you?” he said to the girl in an effort to distract her.

“Yes’m,” she mumbled. “Daddy?” Spud grabbed onto his earlobe as if that would somehow dislodge the entire ear to tug down to her. In the toddler loud whisper, she asked, “Who’s that?”

“It’s okay, Spuddy. She’s not important. But let me guess...” Alistair glanced up to catch Marn hoofing it down the long hallway towards the open door. “You aren’t supposed to be here. Did Marn tell you not to open this door?”

“No,” Spud insisted.

“Did she tell you not to find me?”

“No.” Damn, this kid was good when it came to the strict logic of truth to prove she wasn’t at fault.

Shifting his daughter in his arms, Spud wrapped both arms around his neck again for leverage as Alistair asked what he knew would get her, “Did Marn tell you to not leave your room?”

“Sss,” Spud hissed through her teeth, the thumb clogging it up.

“What was that?” Alistair asked.

“Yes,” she spat out as if writing her own death sentence.

“We’re supposed to listen to Marn,” Alistair said as he lifted his eyes up to the Nanny breathing hard in the doorway. “She knows what’s best for us.”

“Since when do you listen?” Marn grumbled, but Alistair smiled sweetly at it.

“Daddy,” Spud groaned, aware that she was about to face a terrible punishment like standing in the corner and waiting for nearly ten minutes, “I want to stay with you.”

Alistair sighed at the subtle manipulation of a three year old, “I know, but you can’t.”

“Because...” Marn prompted.

“I did wrong,” Spud answered, not believing a word of it.

Stepping forward, Marn swept past Fiona to snatch up Spud. “Give ’er to me.”

Clinging tighter to her father, Spud tried the last weapon in her arsenal, “I love you, Daddy.”

Plucking a kiss to her forehead, Alistair sighed, “I love you too, but you’re going with Marn.”

The sneer was instant, the sweet princess no doubt planning on turning into a snarling beast at her father for not getting her way, but Marn was quick to shut that down with a glare. Spud still pouted, but silently as she slunk to the ground. Marn kept a tight grip to her pudgy hand while the pair of them toddled to the door. “You, young lady, are in big trouble. Streaking across the castle, hiding in the armor, walking into three different closed meetings and running under the tables...” Marn continued to list Spud’s crimes which faded as the door shut behind.

Trapped alone with the woman who’d never admit to being his mother, the awkwardness circling the air like hungry wolves drove Alistair to pick at the edge of the chair. He began to notice a crack in the wood that needed to be sanded out. Rather than tell anyone, he preferred to pick at it needlessly when he was supposed to be working.

“She seems to be rather spirited,” Fiona said softly, her eyes gazing past the door she no doubt wanted to run through.

“She just hit three so spirited is on a good day. It’s mostly tyrannical monster but then she’ll throw in a sweet kiss, or hug, or ‘I wuv you’ to keep herself alive.” Alistair swallowed deep at the fear lurking inside him. He’d worried about her from the day he first held Spud, but it was vague fears: what if he dropped her? What if she got a bruise or a sprain because of him? Then it happened, those newly discovered legs causing the barely walking baby to smack right into a wall. It got better. She sometimes seemed to enjoy ramming head first into furniture, much to her father’s dismay. But death...his own mortality never came up much for him. Even during the blight he was willing to take the blow -- his life not worth much -- but Lanny’s tears convinced him. It wasn’t his only piddly little life he worried about, but leaving her behind to hate him.

How would Spud take his selfish loss? Not even an if anymore thanks to the taint swirling in his veins. Parents couldn’t help hurting their children. As much as he wanted to swaddle her in nothing but cotton, sometimes she insisted on knocking her head into that statue.

“You know,” Alistair whispered to himself, “it’s funny. For a long time I had no idea what my birthday was. Eamon told me a month, but no one remembered the day itself. No one cared.” He paused to glance out the window, not worrying if Fiona listened or not. The day everyone gathered to celebrate his meager existence was one he guessed at based upon when a woman died giving birth in the Redcliffe palace. It seemed the most likely answer and also led him to that horrible woman’s doorstep with Lanny in tow. Maker, how did she never give him shit for that mess?

“All those people getting dressed up fancy, the biggest families in Ferelden stuffed into corsets and tight trousers to stand around on a date I plucked from nowhere,” Alistair chuckled at the absurd idea of it all. What did it matter, it was all on ceremony? The chuckles gave way to deeper laughter and he folded in on his stomach, letting the tears wash down his cheeks at the madness.

As it faded, he staggered up and glanced over at the unamused elf glaring through him. “Maybe it’s one of those you had to be there kind of funny things.”

“It was a Wednesday,” Fiona whispered to the air. “The day began with rain, a near constant downpour as was typical for Weisshaupt in the fall. Skies black as pitch when labor began.”

Alistair turned over to stare at the woman clinging to her staff as if it was the only thing giving her life. She didn’t look at him, her eyes shut tight as she kept talking. “It was the second most pain I’ve ever been in after the Joining, but...when the healers laid the child upon my chest and pulled open the curtain, a rainbow appeared in the sky. The rains had stopped just in time for the sun to allow me the first sight of my son.”

Fiona maintained a steady voice, but Alistair’s eyes burned with a cauldron of tears threatening to bubble over. He pinched his thumbs to keep himself in check. For a moment, Fiona stared off in the distance, a soft smile knotting up her cheeks as if she was...she was staring at a baby. Shaking from the past vision, she focused on the adult in the room and he almost broke down into the same gurgling tears as his daughter, as his own son.

“Kingsway,” she said, shaking off the soft memories and snapping back to her unbreakable certainty, “It was the 12th of Kingsway.”

“I...” he stumbled, wishing to say something. Should he hug her? Beg her to tell him more? Ask why, why wasn’t he worthy of keeping after all this time?

Fiona shook off every clinging hope he had as she drew her shoulders back and said, “My time here is finished. We shall deal with the Linaya issue and then I believe I will retire within the College walls at last.”

Like that, she’d snapped it back shut. Just like his father who would barely look at the boy running around Eamon’s estates. Alistair was cursed with two parents who were both saddled with a problem neither wanted to solve, which they dealt with by ignoring him. He should be angry, ready to shout himself hoarse from all the self loathing lurking in his stomach, but Beatrice’s thoughts floated through him. All there was in this game was trying your best. Maybe Lanny was right and it was time he gave up on the idea of turning someone into the mother he wanted.

Nodding his head, Alistair said in a wobbly voice, “Understood.” He feared to speak another syllable because it would crash into him openly bawling in front of her.

Fiona looked surprised at his strength of will, her eyes darting over his face for the last time. With no one to hold her back, she turned and lifted the latch to the door. He expected her to yank it open and flee to freedom, but she paused with the door open a crack.

“The First Warden, he told me to not name the child because I would grow attached and be unable to fulfill my duty. Officially I didn’t and left it up to your...the father. But while you took your first nap from the birthing process I named you Caledon in my heart.” She turned away from the door, tears clinging in her eyes, “It means the strength of the people.”

Before Alistair could offer up anything, she disappeared from his life, no doubt for the last time.

“Maker’s sake, I need to get a better mattress in here,” Alistair complained as his ass sunk deeper until it struck the wooden planks. “Is this thing stuffed with nug down?”

“What? Nugs don’t have feathers,” Reiss chuckled. Her naked body straddled him, giving Alistair a vision of perfection while his ass flattened beyond redemption. His hands wandered up and down her thighs clenching into his sides, lost in the dips of her muscles.

“Exactly my point,” he chuckled at his inanity, glad to have anything other than the events of the day to think about. Luckily, his bodyguard was exceptional at distractions. Gripping onto her waist, Alistair strained to tug her down to him. She giggled at it, but gave in. Forgetting to adjust for the fall, all of Reiss crashed into his ribs, causing a gasp to escape from his lungs, but he rebounded instantly to kiss her. First her lips, so achingly fresh, then down her shoulder, her cheek, up to her forehead -- each one caused another bright laugh and drew a smile to him. This was what he wanted, what he needed after Fiona...

“Alistair,” Reiss whispered, her summery eyes burning with concern. “What’s wrong?”

“Hm?” he blinked rapidly, his hands sliding up and down her ass while he tried to find an answer.

“You’ve been...quiet today. Distant. Is there, was there something you wanted to talk about?”

“No, no, no,” he rushed to assure her as he lifted his head to kiss her once more on the lips. “Just lots of politicking, you know. Can’t get enough of sitting around listening to people argue. Joy of my life.”

It’d worked on other people, but Reiss paused above him, those damn perceptive eyes sizing him up. He held his breath, uncertain how he could explain the truth to her. Did he even want to? Did he even want to know anymore? Damn it, did that make Lanny right again? She was going to be so smug.

Softly, Reiss trailed her fingers across his cheek, each one stepping down like the itsy bitsy spider. But this one didn’t get caught in an infernal water spout. This curious creature walked lower down his chest. Savoring a stop against his nipple, her fingers traveled in a circle down each of the ribs, visited with the belly button, and flicked against the edge of his pubic hair before dipping down to circle his excited-at-being-thought-of dick.

They’d been fooling around but hadn’t gotten to quite the final end. She did, a few times if he had to take a guess, but he’d been...distant. Damn, he had to stop falling for such smart women. Running his hand over hers, Alistair deftly picked her exploring fingers up and rolled to the side so Reiss would have room to snuggle beside him. He loved playing the big spoon, but right now he wanted to stare into her eyes and lose the hours watching her smile.

“Am I...?”

“Wonderful,” he said. With one hand he pulled her warm body close, lost in the curves that may drive him to distraction after all. “I was referring to making me sit up and howl, but you’re really good at other things too,” he tacked on, effectively killing the mood. But Reiss, despite his best attempts, smiled brightly and pressed her lips against his. Maker’s breath, she was the balm he needed against the open wound -- her tender ministrations suturing up the gap in his soul he once again tore to shreds for no good reason.

He knew better than to say it, but that terrifying L word drifted deep in his gut. Instead, Alistair skirted her errant hairs back behind her ear and asked, “What was your mother like?”

That caught her off guard, “I admit I wasn’t expecting that. Um...she was my mother. Typical mother like, I guess.”

“I wouldn’t know,” Alistair admitted, “I never had one.”

“Oh,” her warm breath washed over him, lulling him deeper to sleep. “Well, she loved to crochet but hated knitting, which I never understood. She would often pick up odd jobs for people to repair clothes, which I’d tried to learn but was never good enough at. And she grew up in an Alienage with my father. I don’t know which one as they both hated the cities, called them cramped and dirty.”

“Mm hmm,” Alistair let his eyes slip closed for her tale.

He felt a hand filter through his own mashed down hair before she turned in his arms. As her back pressed tight against his chest, Alistair greedily scooped a hand along her stomach, trying to hold her even closer than seemed possible -- skin to skin. His lips pressed against her shoulders, wishing he never had to leave this bed or her.

“She loved to sing, all the time. And the little chantry liked her voice so much they’d let her in to participate in the choir, provided she kept to the back at all times. She always smelled of cinnamon and clove, her favorite two spices. She was dead certain that they worked in any dish my mother cooked. Savory meats, sweet desserts, didn’t matter. You knew there’d be cinnamon and clove in it. I...” Reiss’ voice choked up and she curled deeper to her chest.

Alistair’s wayward hand touched her cheek as he tried to see if she was crying. “It’s all right. You can stop. If it hurts, I don’t want you to suffer.”

“The blight was a long time ago,” Reiss said in a dead voice as if she’d repeated the same chant numerous times.

“And it still hurts,” he said, his skin clinging to all of hers that he could reach.

“Yes, it does,” she sighed, “that’s a loss that doesn’t...people tell you it’ll heal but I think they lie to convince themselves.”

He felt himself nodding along even though what did he know? While he’d been told his parents were dead he was lied to twice over, only to have to be the one to finish off his father and watch limply as his mother walked away for good. His pain wasn’t the same as hers. She lost people who loved her, cared for her, did everything in their power to make her happy. He lost the idea of parents and nothing more.

“Thank you,” Alistair whispered to her back, the tears slipping off.

Reiss’ hard fought hand reached behind her to grace his cheek. He was quick to hide away the evidence that he was crying, but welcomed her touch as he always did. “It’s nice to talk about her sometimes. To remember. Are you sure there’s nothing you want to talk about?”

“Yes,” he said. Maybe one day he’d feel strong enough to tell her the truth, all of the truth. Confess how he felt unfinished, the child formed from unbaked clay but destined for that damn throne whether he wanted it or not. What knowing that Fiona existed but didn’t want him did to him, how it ate him up until he was behaving like a right prig to the mage envoys for no good reason beyond wanting to see her, to hear the truth.

“Right now,” Alistair whispered to her shoulder, “all I want to do is lay here and hold you.” Reiss didn’t say anything, all she did was reach over to hold back.

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