Guarded Love

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Chapter 44: Misery

People were quick to notice two things about their King: that his bodyguard was no longer hovering close to his elbow, and asking him about it was liable to get them thrown into the dungeon. Alistair insisted he was only kidding the first time, but no one was willing to test just how far his kidding would stretch before snapping. The throbbing jaw from gritted teeth and eyes that looked as if he spent the night drinking were enough of a hint.

He tried sleeping that night, but staying in his room so close to her only made him want to rip apart every dummy in the castle with his bare hands. Instead, the King paced up and down through his battlements while dressed in a long white robe he “borrowed” out of a laundry basket when it grew cold. Unbeknownst to Alistair, more than a few whispers grew that night that King Maric was haunting their very halls. Probably looking for revenge for his murder, as all ghost Kings did. Alistair never stopped long enough to hear anything or to see anything. He feared that if he stopped moving he’d start thinking, and then crying, and never stop.

By dawn’s light, a few of the servants -- while pumping out the well -- stumbled across their King half jammed inside the stable window speaking to the horses like his peers. He was a mess, the stubble that gave him more of a cavalier look was brittle as grass after a flash frost, and nearly as white. The bags under his eyes went and bought themselves an entire castle’s worth of furniture just to put in storage, and the less said about the hue of his putrid skin the better. A few people even threatened to send for a healer which Alistair responded to by saying he’d get changed and maybe shave for once.

Charles did his best, but there wasn’t much saving a man who had his heart crushed inside his chest. It was rather impressive Alistair was even upright. His mind kept tricking over the stupidest thing it could find to save him. From the hours of two in the morning until four, or whenever the Sister’s sang, he kept trying to remember the exact lyrics to a bawdy pub tune Oghren tried to teach him. It was in dwarven, which Alistair didn’t know, and apparently full of double entendres. The task took nearly all of his brain power and he dug elbows into it, doing his best to not think of...

A vase of daises sat perched upon the table beside the window. How did he not see them when he walked in? Alistair plucked up one of the flowers, its yellow color fading to a dull red-orange as time came for them. His fingers dusted over the fragile petals, stricken by the urge to rip each one off the stem, but...

Returning the flower back to its vase, he groaned, his head falling to his chest. His hollow, ransacked, stomped and spat on chest. It’d never hurt this bad before, not with the other mages. Most of them either drifted away or turned on their heel and ran for the hills. A few were legendary shouting matches with Alistair trying to come up with even more outlandish things to finally get her to go away. But with each he’d feel a moment of loss, a pang of regret, and then move on after drinking heavy for a night. This was different, an accidentally swallow a dagger then realize it’s gonna have to come back out kind of different.

All he wanted to do was curl up into a ball and never come out. But he couldn’t do that, because there was an entire country wanting his attention and a full castle that knew nothing about how badly he fell for his bodyguard. He had to finish this, the right way. She’d blindsided him yesterday, leaving Alistair stuttering in his room alone and trying to scrape his brains off the floor. After adjusting the knots along his biceps, he nodded to the broken man in the mirror. Just one more talk. Despite his best efforts to drown it out, hope circled his legs like the minnows in a stream. Maybe if they were lucky, food would fall from the sky. And maybe, if he was lucky, Reiss would realize that she didn’t want to turn her back on him, on everything he offered to her.

Alistair was never lucky.

Raising his fist, he got one solid knock on their shared door before it crumpled against the wood. Maker’s sake, what was he doing? How could he do this? He was going to just waltz in there and let her go with his heart as if it was a matter of signing off on some paperwork. Shouldn’t he fight or at least argue that she was wrong, that he deserved another chance to...to do what? What did he even do wrong?

When the latch drew across the door, Alistair leaped backwards. It opened a sliver, revealing one of Reiss’ eyes, bloodshot and hunting through him.

Every resolve inside his body died a quick death. “I...we need to talk.”

He anticipated an argument, for her to state that she’d finished what she had to and slam the door in his face, but she nodded her head and slowly drew the door back. Alistair stood in his room, warily eyeing up the one refuge that they’d been free to hold each other, to talk to each other, to be with each other. Its once welcoming warmth warped to a sickness knotting his stomach with visions of what could have been.

“You can come in,” Reiss’ voice scratched across his ears, the words barely forming through the gravel.

Like a skittish rabbit, Alistair slunk into the room they shared. He noticed the bed looked as if no one had slept in it, a pile of blankets strewn across the ground instead. “I...I’m setting out for the Hinterlands today.”

“Right,” Reiss grimaced, “I forgot.”

“If you...” He couldn’t look at her. He was so mad at her for breaking his heart he wanted to rage and growl, but seeing her in pain overrode all that anger and he ached to comfort her. As if he could be the one to help, as if he could ever hope to do it again. Shaking off the thought, Alistair gripped his hands tight to his back and tried to stand up higher, “If you intend to leave then you will have to go through Karelle.”

She didn’t look at him, her eyes burning a hole through the ugly braided rug. At first her head shook, as if she was about to disagree with his words, but a breath pushed a single, “Okay,” through her lips.

Andraste, he’d never get to kiss those lips again.

“She will walk you through untangling any remaining...ties you have and will handle any remaining pay necessary.” Maker, every word stung him like he was breathing in fire. Alistair didn’t cry, he never did when he was with people. But alone, when no one could hear or see, he’d collapsed into a heap groaning on the floor. Black and blue bruises coated his bony kneecaps, which Charles was kind enough to not mention.

Reiss nodded, perhaps she’d already made arrangements with Karelle and was on her way out. It was doubtful he could add anything to her life anymore aside from a lingering grief. After a moment, she lifted her head and those summery eyes he wanted to lose himself forever in focused upon him. “I...”

“Please,” Alistair gasped, the control fleeing from him in an instant. “Please don’t. I can’t, anything else, anything more will...” A forced snicker broke up his words, “You can only kick a man when he’s down so many times before you start making tartar with your boot.”

She flinched at his assessment and maybe he should feel bad for it, but it was accurate. Alistair’s entire body felt like it’d been beaten and mashed until he was nothing but meat goo. “I will not be around for your departure, so officially I thank you for your assistance and devotion to the duty you performed by the job of guarding the duty to the crown.” He’d been working on what to say to her all morning, but the words jumbled in his brain until he was spitting them out at random, duty crowding out his tongue as the word haunted him like a vengeful wraith.

Reiss didn’t speak, only nodded her head. It looked like her neck was replaced by a spring and the breeze kept bouncing her head back and forth. There was no conscious movement to it, only a need to do something.

“Right,” Alistair spun on his heel and marched to the door. Should he say goodbye? Would it matter if he didn’t? It was growing more doubtful in his gut that she ever cared for him the way he did for her. The way he loved her. Grabbing onto the door that was about to be locked for good because no one would need it, no smiling face would light up his heart when he opened it, Alistair paused.

His fingernails dug into the wood, gouging deeper as the finality rattled in his soul. He’d been prepared to do anything he could for her, to fight for her, to stand up to Eamon, or Cade, or anyone else that thought an elven lover to the King was unseemly. He didn’t care, he loved her.

“What did I do wrong?” Alistair whispered to himself. He didn’t realize it was aloud until Reiss’ gasp whipped his head back to her.

She looked as broken as he felt, her ear bleeding again. Alistair couldn’t even save her from those awful helmets. No wonder she turned her back on him. Digging her fingers into her cheeks, Reiss rocked her body up and down on her heels. He should leave, let her be. She made her choice and there was no changing it. Accepting that this was the end, Alistair slid across the threshold and began to close the door.

“It wasn’t you.”

Reiss’ cry froze his body, his eyes glaring a hole through the doorframe while his ears begged for her to save them. But he wasn’t the kind of person who was afforded miracles. “It’s not you, it’s...” she pointed towards the top of his head.

The crown. The one thing he could never get away from. What took Lanny from him. What kept him forever chained to this life of people pretending he was important. What was taking Reiss too. Blinking madly from tears bubbling in his eyes, Alistair shut the door and didn’t turn back. He couldn’t change who he was, even if he wanted to burn all the royal blood coursing through his bastard veins and never look back.

Broken and dumbstruck, Alistair nodded dumbly when Cade intercepted his little cavalcade heading to the Hinterlands. The Commander was the first to ask the King point blank where Reiss was.

“She’s decided to return to her post in the City Watch,” Alistair didn’t entirely lie.

Cade eyed him up, no doubt expecting the King to crack into blubbering tears, but there was no water left in his body to cry out. “Good,” he summarized, “but you should have someone at your side.”

“In case of what? The assassins are dead. I was there, watched it. Made a thumb’s down, or across the throat, or stuck it in a pie. Whatever I was supposed to do.”

“There is still the matter of transferring power, the bodyguard handled some of your day to day duties that will need to be...”

“Fine,” Alistair interrupted, “I don’t care. Send whoever you think I need. The walking bear, right? Brant?”

Unable to muster a fight for anything, Alistair let Brunt slide in behind him. At least the man didn’t talk, which kept the usually boisterous King from having to explain why he wasn’t in the mood to play any traveling games. Few traveled with him to the Hinterlands, and the ones forming the caravan began to break away the further west they went. Everyone else had their duties to attend to and keep them busy. That foolish King, however, left himself with nothing but a block of free time to do nothing but wallow.

By the fifth day, Alistair finally arrived to Teagan’s welcoming handshake. His uncle didn’t comment on the dour turn still haunting Alistair’s gait, he was too busy greeting the rest of the entourage that always followed a King. Maker’s sake, how did he wind up with so damn many people trailing behind him, ready to pick up anything he may accidentally drop or wipe the soup from his chin? He was a grown man, he’d suffered worse problems as a child.

All Alistair wanted was to be left alone and...

He stood gazing out one of the windows in the hunting lodge. It was bigger than he remembered, far better furnished too for being meant to hold nothing but deer carcasses and filthy hunters rolling in from the woods. Fires burned in the stone hearths surrounded on all sides by the bookcases Teagan preferred to sitting outside in the rain hunting for stag. Alistair heard Teagan’s wife was the same, the two of them often inviting dignitaries to their lodge and letting them have free run of the land while they stayed behind to...

The ache never really left him, but it’d often flare up like his knee in the rain. It struck worst when they rode past a field brimming with wildflowers, their golden petals leaning to the sun for love. He wanted to kick himself for being in so much pain, it was foolish. They’d only known each other for a few months. How did he fall so hard so fast?

“What are you watching for, your Highness?”

“Teagan, we’re nowhere near Denerim, the Landsmeet chambers, or Eamon. I think you can drop all the fancy pants titles for the time being.”

He paused, a cup of tea in his fingers as he stepped beside his sort-of nephew. “You’re right, Alistair.”

“Huh, I haven’t heard that in a few years,” Alistair grumbled to himself. Folding his arms, he stared out across the afternoon lands. By the window he could watch the road leading up to the lodge, but what drew his attention was the horizon. Trees obscured nearly everything beyond a few hundred feet, yet he could spot smoke circling through the air.

“You can’t see it from this distance,” Teagan said before taking a slow sip of the herbal tea.

“See what?” Alistair blinked, happy to focus on anything but the gaping wound in his chest.

Teagan didn’t answer him. Instead, he place the cup back onto a saucer. Maker’s sake, only Arl Teagan would have porcelain saucers in a hunting lodge. He was proper without being a right tit about it, and would have made a far better King than the one Ferelden was stuck with. Anyone else would. Shit, stick the crown on a nug, draw a small beard on him, plop on a blonde wig, and call it good. Your new King.

After placing a hand to the window, Teagan whispered, “It’s about a two to three hour ride to the abbey from here.”

He’d wondered if that was what the smoke was, but not at this distance. Probably someone’s small shack they set on fire to celebrate the feast of burning down your home, or a pyre to purge the last of a dead animal’s carcass. Or any number of things within easy reach that wouldn’t do a thing to soothe Alistair’s perforated soul.

“I wish I could...” Alistair wanted to talk to her, to see her, to spend time with the one person in Ferelden he was never King with. But that was impossible. Dragging so many of his handlers into her abby would only invite questions and suspicion. He was selfish, but not that selfish. “Too bad I’ve got damn near enough people following my every move we could host our own miracle play.”

Teagan yanked off his hat a moment and wiped at the nearly smooth bald head. Either the last of his hair gave in, or he took Alistair’s advice to give up on fighting it. “There is a horse saddled and ready on the grounds,” he whispered.

Alistair turned to him, his eyebrows practically meeting in the middle in confusion. “Okay?”

Smiling through the reflection on the window, Teagan focused out on the horizon, “I believe I can distract your entourage for an hour, which should be enough time you can give the slip.”

“Wait, really? What about the body...the bear assigned to me?” Alistair dropped his voice, aware that Brunt was standing outside the door glaring. Not at anything in particular, he just seemed to really love glaring.

Teagan chuckled, “Give me some faith, your Majesty.”

“I dunno, I mean there’s a good chance Brunt can’t even speak our language, and maybe ate a few campers on the way here,” Alistair hopped back and forth on his shoes, hope rising in his stomach despite his dour words. He wanted nothing more than to ride as far from everyone as possible.

Placing down the teacup, Teagan turned from the window. He paused a moment and patted his nephew on the shoulder, “When you see her, give her my love.”

A smile lifted up Alistair’s lips, “I always do.”

Teagan didn’t take long to pull Brunt away from his half-assed post, inquiring of the man about his life and learning more about him in a ten second conversation than Alistair had in months. Once the man-bear broke away, Alistair was able to slip quickly down the stairs and out the door. No one even blinked an eye at the King boldly tugging on the reins of a horse, leading it to the road, mounting up, and riding fast towards the west.

By the time he turned down the barely evident path that led up to the abbey, Alistair felt slightly giddy. The entire ride out he feared Brunt and a pack of dogs rushing into the forest to dredge up their wayward King, but there wasn’t another soul on the road that day. Only a handful of hawks scattered the air on the hunt for dinner. It seemed either the entourage were all entranced by the always charming Arl, or had no cares to give about a King that was suddenly playing hide and seek by himself.

The last time he’d been to the abbey was over a year ago, for that damn wedding. Well, it hadn’t been all bad. He did get to watch Leliana outdrink the Champion of Kirkwall, which surprised everyone but the smirking dwarf. And she was happy, at least. Tugging back on the reins, Alistair slowed his horse to barely a trot as hooves churned up the muddy grass. He had to duck down a bit to avoid the recently repaired stone archway. There must have been a gate for it as well, but either it too was one of those things they’d add later or, in trying to be welcoming to everyone, she had it removed.

It was a beautiful abbey. One of those older styles from before the Orlesian occupation when a bunch of introverted sisters sick and tired of having to deal with people trekked up into the hills and made their own refuge from the needy poor and sick. Time and war tried to break apart the building, but the foundation was true Ferelden -- solid all the way to the heart of the earth. In the right hands, its hidden beauty returned.

“Excuse me,” a voice perked up from below Alistair. He was quick to dismount off the saddle and wandered stiff legged around in circles while tying to shake off the cramped muscles. The black and white horse snorted at the indignation of her rider spinning pointlessly while tugging on the reins in his fingers.

“Do you have an appointment to be here?” the voice continued, a harried man in what looked like bastardized chantry robes stomping towards him.

Alistair paused in his circling to shrug, “Probably not, but I know the owner.”

That didn’t impress the man, who folded his hands up those giant sleeves and harrumphed, “Most claim to know the Commander.”

Alistair flinched. “Not that one. The better one.” This man must not have recognized him a lick as he huffed at such indignation to the beloved once Commander for the Inquisition forces. A brief thought flitted through Alistair’s mind that he may wind up getting kicked out if he wasn’t careful. The man seemed to be thinking the same as he moved to push the horse into Alistair.

“Maker’s breath, you were the last person I expected to find standing on my doorstep today. What are you doing here?”

The cheeky smile he’d taped on for the ride vanished into a heartfelt one as Alistair turned to find that voice. Lanny stood with one hand on her hip, the other curled around a box of bottles. She’d tied a towel through her hair, the black locks spilling out of it no matter how hard she tried. Tinges of green dotted along her fingers and dusted the nose -- probably from another one of her mage experiments gone awry. Or she took up painting in her old age.

“Being told to leave by...” Alistair turned away from her a moment to glance down at the man, “Sorry, didn’t get your name.”

“It’s, uh...” his eyes widened as they skipped over to the woman who ran this abbey and back to the seeming interloper. “Ma’am, I wasn’t about to. I didn’t realize that he...he came without warning.”

Lanny waved a hand as she passed him her box, “Don’t worry about it, Thomas. He has a way of showing up unexpectedly. Take these to the potion room, please.”

“Of course,” Thomas bowed deeply to her before scurrying away leaving Lanny and Alistair alone in the courtyard save the snorting horse.

“Ali? How are you here, without anyone else trailing behind you?” she glanced through the gate, no doubt expecting his usual train to come galloping through.

“It’s, uh...” Alistair shrugged, the weight of his coming crashing down upon him. The easy smile cracked away, revealing the heartbreak he’d barely bothered to disguise. “Kind of a long story. Did I come at a bad time? I can always try again later.” He almost wanted to leap back on his horse and keep riding west, through the Frostbacks, past Orlais, back into the Anderfels and beyond thedas itself. Leave every damn thing behind, the pain couldn’t hurt if he had nothing to remind him of her.

Lanny’s warm eyes canvassed across him, her fingers almost touching his. Even at the opportunity, Alistair didn’t look up. He felt like someone jabbed barbed hooks into his heart then tethered it down into his shoes. Nodding, Lanny hobbled over to one of dozen stacks of crates. The abbey was littered with them for whatever reason. She picked up an empty one and then her cane.

“Amber,” Lanny waved to a girl barely over fifteen slipping in and out of one of the rooms on the ground floor. She squeaked and raced over to her mistress. “Take the...our visitor’s horse here, dry it off and bed it down. I’m going to go pick some more elfroot for our stores.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Amber lifted the hem of her apron and curtsied. With a smile only a girl who loves horses could have, she tugged upon the bridle and began to coo to the one Alistair rode hard to freedom.

Lanny stuck out her elbow and watched Alistair shifting painfully back and forth on his uncertain feet. Her eyes traveled across every inch of his face, no doubt finding all the pain he’d been digging graves for when anyone looked. Waving her hand, she commanded, “Shall we?”

At her urging, he was quick to take it and help guide her out of the abbey and into the woods beyond it. Lanny took charge, as she always did when with him, as she always should. Alistair was grateful for the few moments when he wasn’t the one anyone was looking to. They didn’t wander too far, the woman on his arm not saying a word until she stopped in a small copse of trees and placed the box on the ground.

He suspected the elfroot was a ruse, until she bent down and yanked upon that far too familiar plant and dropped leaves into the box. Not wanting to feel totally useless, Alistair grabbed onto a tuft himself and yanked a few free. They passed the time, slowly blanketing the bottom of the box in the old herb and speaking not a word. What could he really say to her anyway?

Look at that, Alistair’s back on your doorstep with his heart ripped open needing the healing only you’re capable of. Again. It was an accident the first time, the King needing to visit the Vigil. He’d meant to keep it to himself, Lanny was still barely talking to him at the time. But then he found a bottle of something that should have been labeled with a skull and crossbones and his tongue spilled all the beans. She should have thrown him out for it, for dragging his latest love affair gone bottoms up below her nose, but she didn’t. Sweet Lanny was always there for him with a shoulder and a few “I told you so’s,” which she rightly deserved.

“Are you ready to talk?” she said, shaking Alistair from his dour turn.

“Me? What? I...” he folded in an instant from the perch he’d maintained. Nearly a week and no one got him to open up and admit what happened, they couldn’t even get him to say her name. Most gave up hope, or didn’t bother to care to plunge into Alistair’s icy depths, but Lanny was always different.

She folded her hands and staggered upright. The cane she was never far from rested against her leg but she put no weight on it. “You show up on my doorstep without any warning and...alone.” Her voice dropped low and for a moment her fingers skirted over his arm, “What happened?”

“I don’t know,” Alistair gasped out. He couldn’t look at her, rather doubted he could look at any woman ever again for fear that his eyeballs would melt from his skull. Shutting his eyes tight, he let loose every thought that’d been beating tiny fists against his brain.

“One minute things were fine, better than fine for the first time in so Maker damn long, and the next...” The back of his eyes boiled, trying to release the tears, but he wouldn’t let it happen. He kept shaking his head to cram all the emotions back down into a single knot in his stomach. That was the healthy thing to do.

A soft hand caressed up and down his bicep, tugging Alistair right into Lanny’s eyes. She had the kind of bottomless irises that sucked a person deep in and never let go. For being the slayer of so many darkspawn she was a comfort to him, one he didn’t realize he needed until she entered his life.

“I tried, Lanny, I really did. I wanted it to work, I...” still did. Reiss gave no hint that she would give him a second chance, or another opportunity but that damn scar tissue he called a heart foolishly clung to hope. “Gah!” Alistair slipped out of her careful grip and began to pace back and forth through the clearing.

“It was supposed to be different this time,” he growled. His tongue wanted to list every one of Reiss’ sins, to place all the blame upon her shoulders for breaking his heart. How dare she turn from him! He did everything he could for her! Gave her a job, better prospects than any random elf in the streets could manage! And how did she repay him? By crushing his heart in his chest as if it was nothing more than an errant mosquito. When his foot cracked on a stick, Alistair slowed to a crawl, “It was different this time.”

“Ali...”

Lanny’s soft voice rattled him and when he glanced up at her he started to find tears streaking down his cheeks. The sight of him breaking down that bad caused her eyes to widen, but she didn’t move as if he terrified her the way a wild animal would. Scowling, Alistair wiped at his cheeks and eyes, trying to hide away the evidence. “Things were good. We caught the assassins, she was going to join the royal guards, and then...I don’t know. Somehow I messed everything up...”

“How?”

He should have told her. Not just about the Grey Warden curse, but how hard he fell for her, how he didn’t want to lose her. Alistair was scared of telling her the truth and having her laugh it off or worse, but also of him being that far gone. There were few in his life he’d ever truly let into his heart, and... He glanced over at Lanny and his tongue ran dry. So many of them kept disappearing from his life.

“By being an idiot,” he muttered to himself. It didn’t matter, none of it did. He failed, again. Maker damn it all!

“I’m sorry,” Lanny whispered, her hands folded together. She’d often said it to him before, after each of his affairs had gone belly up and the news reached her one way or the other. It was usually spoken with varying degrees of sarcasm, but this time she radiated sincerity.

At his look of shock, she added, “I’d had hopes that...you two seemed to fit well.”

“Really?” Alistair snorted, the full hilarity of the situation landing upon him. “What about King and elf guard seems to work together? Sounds more like trying to stick two pieces together from separate puzzles.”

Lanny sighed at his obstinance, her fingers tugging off the sack in her hair. Sure enough, those eternal spirals bounded free, most of them reaching nearly to her back. He hadn’t seen it this long in years. Not since...

Alistair closed his eyes as a memory washed over him, “Do you remember what you told me after Marta?”

She pursed her lips in thought, and some bitterness, “Was that the tall redhead?”

“No, she was short,” he paused and readjusted for the tiny woman before him, “shorter than me and with olive skin. It doesn’t matter. You were in Denerim on Warden business and happened to be in the blast range of an argument.” A chuckle rumbled in his chest at the memory of so many servants scattering whenever Marta took a deep breath before her impressive string of curses launched free. She was a very disciplined mage with the mouth of a pirate.

“I,” Lanny tapped her foot at the toe, a clear sign she wasn’t happy tripping this far down memory lane with him, “you had a lot of paramours.”

“Not that many,” Alistair shot back with.

That earned him an eye roll, “Enough for the days of the week, forgive me for not remembering each moment with them.”

“It, I was thinking about how after that screaming match you walked past, demanded whatever it was the Wardens needed and were about to walk out. You were so not you back then -- short hair, spine of steel -- when you wore that metal armor overtop the robes to seem more Commandery.”

“Ugh,” Lanny rubbed a hand on the top of her chest, “that stuff pinched terribly. I do not miss it.”

“Anyway, at the door you say in a soft voice, ‘She’s trying to get you to hate her. Give her what she wants and cut it free before everyone goes deaf.’ Which I did, took me a few more days to work up the courage but you were right, as always. Marta practically skipped the entire way back to Kinloch.”

Lanny winced either at her unkind words or at how accurate they were. “Ali, why are you telling me this?”

“It was easy for me to go along with things, to nod when I was supposed to, smile when ordered, love what,” he grimaced at how he’d put up and even encouraged that damn betting pool about him, “everyone expected of me. I stopped fighting for anything because nothing mattered, life was easiest without rocking the boat.”

“Maker’s breath,” Lanny gasped, a hand covering her lips, “you love her.”

“That...” he wanted to deny it, afraid that letting such a fragile thing out into the world would destroy it even more, but he couldn’t lie to Lanny. “Can’t be love, right? It’d be love-d, past tense and all.”

“Ali,” she reached forward, her hands skirting over his shoulders to tug him to her for a hug. He didn’t lift his arms, too scared of what to do, but he was grateful to her for trying. His head thudded against her shoulder, Alistair’s knees bent to close the distance.

It’d been so long since she’d hugged him this tight, the phantom of their past always crowding him out until now. But even as he picked up one limp hand to grip onto her upper back, he wished it was someone else clinging to him. Someone taller, with eyes the color of the forest by summer’s height and a crinkled nose with a bump on the top. A gasp rattled in his throat as he dug his fingers in tighter, trying to bury another round of tears into her shoulder.

Lanny rocked back and forth on her toes and whispered, “You don’t stop loving someone just because you can’t be together.”

He chuckled at her statement of fact, “Ten years and you’d think I’d remember that. I didn’t hide any of my life. I know it’s a lot; kids, a wife, an entire country breathing down my neck, but...” Alistair added his other hand to fully close off the hug and blubbered against the strap of her dress, “Blessed Andraste, I really thought it would work. That she’d want me in spite of...no, of course not. Never. I’m so bad at this.”

She didn’t say anything, just let him whimper against her while cupping her hands against the back of his neck. Somehow the woman whose heart he crushed was probably the only person in thedas to know what he was going through. He’d turned his back on her, on what future they’d hoped for because he was too afraid of what his life would be like with her. Every day having to defend it, to disappoint so many people because he dared to love a mage. And Reiss, she didn’t want to fight either. Saw her chance to run from the politics, the drain he’d be on her life and took it. He almost couldn’t blame her.

A dog’s deep bwoof echoed through the trees, scattering a flock of birds to the air. Alistair lifted his head off Lanny’s shoulder as a mabari came barreling through the underbrush. It was on a collision course with their legs, but dug front feet into the ground to stop before striking Lanny. Chuckling, she released her hold on Alistair and reached down to pet the dog’s head. Before he even had time to wipe off his nose, the last person Alistair wanted to see him in this condition waltzed through the trees.

“Lana, here you are. That horse girl told me you were out picking elfroot. I said I would do it, you didn’t have to go it alone. There simply hadn’t been time to...” the templar’s admonishing of his wife faded away as he finally glanced over at Alistair doing his best to skulk away into the shadows.

Her eyes darted from Alistair back to the reddening man. “I didn’t expect you to be here with her,” Cullen said, his words pointed at Alistair but he honed in on Lanny.

She shook her head and despite the limp, dashed over to Cullen. Her words dipped down as she no doubt explained that Alistair had his heart gutted from him and she was trying to provide some comfort the way a normal human being does. Of course, the templar wasn’t a real human, but some kind of golem formed not from stone but duty, and a superiority complex that set Alistair’s teeth on edge. The blood pounded in his ears, mushing together the words they exchanged, but he couldn’t stop watching them.

Lanny’s hand instinctively cupped across the templar’s chest, and he wrapped his around hers -- always holding her close and protecting her. She leaned into him, not for the sake of whispering but to be near. The aching pit widened even more in Alistair’s gut but he was unable to turn away from the two people so damn much in love it was almost sickening. He wasn’t jealous of Cullen. Maker’s sake, the last thing he wanted was a stick that big wedged up his own ass to match, but...a brick thudded in his gut as he realized he’d never again hold Reiss’ fingers in his hands. Never thumb the points of her ears, or press a kiss to her stomach. She was gone and he found himself once again alone and unloved.

Cullen lifted his head, speaking loud enough the leaves on the trees rattled, “I am...” He looked about to apologize but Lanny’s quick shake of her head stopped him. “I came to tell my wife that dinner is prepared.”

Alistair snickered at his making certain to mention that Lanny was his wife. Though, in his mind, he always thought of the templar as her husband, not the other way around, and he was damn lucky to be given that position. Most people in thedas would kill for it. Staggering up from his lean against a fallen tree, Alistair began to shake the dust off his trousers. He knew what the dinner bell meant -- he wasn’t wanted much more around these parts and it was time he headed home, wherever home was.

He moved to leave the copse, though stopped to rustle up the mabari’s ears, before casting a single pathetic glance at Lanny. The last thing he wanted to do was get her in trouble with her templar, but there were probably going to be words later about his appearing out of nowhere. All Alistair wanted was...what? He knew the answer his heart kept screaming, but that was impossible.

Cullen shifted slightly on his heels, that almost replica face blocking Alistair, “You’re welcome to stay, if you’d like.”

“You...” he stared at the man, terrified that this was a test or he was about to get his jaw punched again. “Are you sure?”

“It will be dark soon,” Lanny interrupted from him. “And the last thing we need is you thrown from your horse that ran into a rock it couldn’t see.”

Alistair stared into her earnest face and then tried to catch the templar’s eye but he was staring through the distance, clearly not happy with the idea but willing to give in to Lanny’s logic. It was the hardest damn thing in thedas after all. Knowing he couldn’t defeat it either, Alistair nodded his head, “Okay, I doubt they’ll start combing the woods for my body until tomorrow at the latest.”

“Good,” Lanny smiled and for a brief flicker his spirits raised.

“So, what’s for dinner, because I’m starving?”

Cullen kept a grip to his wife’s arm, steadying her as she limped upon her cane while Alistair hauled up the box of elfroot they’d sort of begun picking. He couldn’t see her face as they walked back to the abbey, but he could hear the exuberance as she laughed, “One of your favorites, lamb stew.”

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