Guarded Love

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Chapter 45: Loves Company

Lanny’d been traipsing around outside of Ferelden for too long. He barely even recognized the lamb stew, the meat boiled for at most two hours and actual bits of carrot and some kind of potato bobbing in the surface. If it wasn’t one single color with the consistency of regurgitated beans and oil floating on the surface you had to stir back in, it wasn’t proper stew. They didn’t eat huddled away from their various staff and charges, but gathered everyone together in the open kitchen/dining hall. It was a bit awkward when the templar called for a prayer before eating, Alistair midway to sticking the spoon in his mouth as every other hand clasped together.

Of course the man made certain to drone on and on in thanks to Andraste, and the Maker, and whatever bits of the Chant he felt like drudging up. The other templars all followed suit, their heads bowed in reverence. Even the staff, most obvious by a familiar gingham check pattern to all their clothes, closed their eyes with folded hands. Bored, Alistair glanced around while waiting for the go ahead to put food in his yawning gullet when he caught Lanny’s eye. She kept her flatware in place, but wasn’t hunched over in prayer, her sight locking in with his. Alistair was about to respond somehow, maybe by mocking his tossing a knife in the air, when the templar finished his meandering prayer and eating commenced.

The lord and lady of the abbey sat at the middle of the long table. Lanny offered him a seat near her, but he plopped down beside an elderly woman who commented on how terrible the stew was with every spoonful until she ate it all. He didn’t think he was up to sitting beside Lanny while she and the templar were all...them. Stupid loving and caring gestures, it burned Alistair’s eyes the way staring at the sun did. Surprisingly, no one seemed to recognize him. There were almost no politics at the table, most of the people discussing their bets for the coming tourney Alistair was supposed to supervise. That entailed him sitting in a chair outside, gnawing on meat skewered to swords, and occasionally waving. It was one of the perks of his job.

Mid-meal a head landed on his lap, big brown eyes watering in anticipation. He knew he shouldn’t, but he also knew it’d piss the templar off more as Alistair palmed wads of bread and a few carrots to the pink and black tongue panting near his crotch. Their dog, Honor, wiggled in happiness with each offering. Her entire back end caused the table to buck. Alistair would cast glances up at the head table, and while there was a scowl on the templar’s face, Lanny was clearly trying to hide away her smile. It was worth it.

With his stomach more or less overburdened with the stripped down meal, the pair in charge of the place wandered off and Alistair was led to a room. He’d expected to be sharing it, and was almost hoping to have that acrimonious woman from dinner. Her constant assertions of what was wrong with Ferelden these days would keep his thoughts off of the barely beating lump in his chest. But no, of course not. He was left alone to drop onto the cot someone was kind enough to toss a mattress on and wait.

A single candle burned upon a nightstand, the wax being carefully caught for use later -- and someone left a book. Curious, Alistair paged through it, only to realize it was one of the chantry’s supplements that they’d make templar recruits recite while waiting in line. Of course he’d have this here, it was a wonder the man didn’t have a chanter stationed just outside their walls. More than likely Cullen would grunt out the old canticles while thrusting away...

Sneering at his imagination biting against him, Alistair chucked the book onto the nightstand and moved to lean back on the blank mattress. The door opened, and he stood up only to have disappointment personified standing there.

“Here’s a pillow and blanket for the night,” Cullen said. He didn’t hurl them at Alistair’s head but it was crystal clear from the sneer deepening his lips that he wanted to.

Snatching both up, Alistair dropped the pillow in place but wrapped the blanket around his shoulders like a cloak. The abbey was freezing, or he was too used to being constantly pampered with already lit fires. “Thanks, here’s hoping I don’t become a human ice block by morning.”

“Yes, that’d be a real tragedy,” the templar deadpanned, the jawline twitching harder. “Lana’s attending to rounds, but...” He pointed out the door he barely crossed into as if afraid of Alistair attacking him. Groaning, Cullen dug into the back of his neck and stepped back and forth on his feet.

Before he could start the accusations that’d probably been building since learning of Alistair’s untimely arrival, Alistair spoke up, “Sorry for dropping in without messaging ahead first. If I’d had it my way I wouldn’t have had a reason to come.”

“That...” the man screwed up his eyes, “I don’t like you.”

“No,” Alistair gasped, “I am shocked and appalled. What about all those late nights we shared together? The bonhomie built over bonfires? Being knocked about on deck during storms at sea? Did it all mean nothing?”

That earned him the gravel munching growl Alistair expected. He wanted it, wanted to make someone at least a tenth of as miserable as he felt. “But,” Cullen spat out, “you’re her guest. And I won’t interfere in that.”

Alistair blinked in surprise. He wasn’t expecting that. Lanny was good at getting her way, relying upon a special blend of tenacity and logic, but even she deferred to her husband in matters of things that made him uncomfortable. Being one of the chantry’s once golden boys, nearly anything different made him run scampering away scared.

“Look at that,” Cullen snickered, “four years and I finally found a way to shut you up.”

“I am merely out of practice. There aren’t as many templars running around in Denerim as there once were,” Alistair stumbled, annoyed at himself for giving in so fast.

“For which you have us to thank,” he didn’t bow. Shit, in all the time they traveled together he never once showed a lick of deference even while always calling him King. Whistling for his dog, the templar turned on his heel and marched away.

Tugging the blanket cloak off his shoulders, Alistair slumped onto the bed. He didn’t fall asleep, but his mind skipped aimlessly through his thoughts. Most of it was pure nonsense, with an emphasis on the cheese unicorn he was certain could work if he just got the right mage to see his mad brilliance. But lurking at the heart of it all was Reiss. He kept tripping back to their first meeting in his bedroom, her room. She’d looked uncertain while facing up to this big new world, but didn’t flinch for a moment as he fumbled and bumbled around. Even then Alistair wanted to kiss her, to rub salve on the tips of her ears and promise he’d protect her. Fat lot that did. All his words added up to was a pile of horse shit and nothing else. She didn’t want him, didn’t even need him. He was the lone brussels sprout bobbing in the stew that you tossed to the dogs, and even they knew better than to eat it.

A knock broke through the fog of near sleep, and Alistair sat up as the door opened. He was surprised to find the creep of night framing behind Lanny. “Sorry that took so long, there’s been a problem with...” Her eyes wandered over the threadbare blanket clinging to him, “Maker’s sake, is that all Cullen gave you?”

“Don’t worry, I was thinking about embracing my new life as a meat iceberg.”

She rolled her eyes skyward and slid into the room, “It’s not as if we don’t have plenty in stock. I’ll get you more blankets, and a better pillow.” Groaning, she collapsed onto the second cot in the room, this one missing a mattress.

“I’m getting the impression your ball and chain doesn’t much care for me,” Alistair snickered.

“It’s not that,” she said, before pausing and shifting her head, “it’s some of that. He’s not having a good day.”

“Due to that dashing, rapscallion king wandering into his home unannounced, no doubt. And daring to stay the night as well, most unbecoming.”

Lanny chuckled a moment at Alistair’s bully for them voice before she folded her head into her hands, “You had nothing to do with it. It’s a Wednesday.”

“Pretty sure it’s Saturday,” he said, his eyes crossing to try and remember if that was right.

“Never mind, it’s... How are you doing?” she reached over across the gap between their beds, her fingers skirting over his. Alistair watched her sweet brown skin softly rolling over his sallow flesh, entranced in it a moment before shaking his head.

“Me? Who wants to talk about me? There’s nothing interesting whatsoever in my life, but you. What about you and that old man you’ve got teetering through this abbey?”

“Old?” Lanny pursed her lips, her hand sliding off of his, “He’s your age.”

“Exactly, I’m old as dirt now. Hear that,” Alistair creaked his knee back and forth, getting the pop he expected, “happens all the damn time now.”

“Cullen will be fine. Later I’ll, uh...” a momentary blush erupted on Lanny’s cheeks, her retracted private moment with that man she for some reason married throwing up the shield always between her and Alistair. Just what he needed to be reminded of, all those happy couples out there being free to love each other without any of that political muck getting in the way.

Lanny patted her cheeks, trying to dampen down the blush, before she reached into the pocket of her apron. A flat bottle full of amber liquid twisted back and forth in her fingers before she passed it over to the heartbroken man. “It’s Nevarran whiskey, more or less.”

Alistair already uncorked it and was about to take a drink when he paused, “What do you mean ‘more or less?’” Despite that, he still poured more than a shot down, needing to feel his throat burn the way the rest of his insides did. Tears that for once had nothing to do with Reiss burned in his eyes, which he wiped with the back of his hand before passing the bottle back.

Sniffing first, Lanny took a more generous sip before answering, “It wasn’t technically whiskeyed up in Nevarra but by Nevarran traders.”

“Whiskeyed up?” Alistair chuckled.

“I don’t know the blighted word for it. Distilled? Brewed? Whatever one does with wine?”

“I believe we call that ’smashing the hell out of grapes and then leaving it in the sun for a few years,” he picked up the bottle and took another shot. “More or less.”

Chuckling at their inanity, the pair traded the whiskey back and forth between them until the bottle ran dry. They didn’t need any glasses, drinking just like they had during the Blight when something so frivolous as cups wasn’t an option. He remembered far too well the first time she found a bottle of wine, or what they said was wine. After the hangover he woke up to, Alistair suspected someone passed off their varnish drowned in piss as wine. She wanted to get him to open up about Duncan, he didn’t want to talk about it. So instead they drank, one for one until that damn seal on his mouth opened up. After Kinloch, he did the same for her, in that case with a bottle of rum that someone drowned flowers in.

“I’ve missed you,” Alistair groaned, one hand propping up his head. Why did he need to prop it up? Oh, because it was too heavy to keep upright. Duh.

“I miss you too,” she tried to pat his knee, but missed and swiped at the bed instead. Shrugging, Lanny crossed her leg in the least lady-like way possible. Good thing she was always in trousers, or the templar would probably have to challenge Alistair to a duel, and in his state he’d wind up a stain on the ground.

“If you miss me so much then why don’t you ever come to Denerim? It takes my nearly dying for me to see you, and even then it’s only for what? A few days.”

“Ali...” She shook her head sadly before smooshing her poofed out hair to her face to try and hold it all tight in place. “I can’t just up and leave. I’m needed here.”

“That templar can handle it. Isn’t that the point? Bet he loves stomping around giving orders to all the others. Has he built a squirrel army yet?”

“Squirrel...?” Lanny looked about to ask, which would have led them down a winding rabbit hole, but she shook it off. “It isn’t just duty that I’d leave behind here, and you know that.”

“Ssso what? It’s a few weeks without him, big whoop. Whoa!” Alistair leaned over, planting a hand on the ground to try and stop it from spinning away.

She grew silent, her eyes staring out the door before speaking, “Why don’t you come out here more?”

“Because it’d bring a good dozen and a half people all babbling about what the King needs and how they have to secure this and that as if I’m some baby that can’t chew his own food.”

“And...”

“And what?” Alistair blinked slowly before his heart waved the answer before him, “Right, and I can’t leave my kids for long. Don’t want to leave them. Maker, did you see how big Spud’s gotten already?”

She nodded her head slowly, her teeth nibbling on her bottom lip. “I miss you, but Cullen’s a different kind of missing. A more urgent kind, like you with your children.”

Any biting response he had shriveled up at that thought. Even when Spud was in her ‘Let’s shove everything breakable off a shelf because I’m half cat’ stage and Cailan was somehow suffering from double colic because why not, he still yearned to be near them. With breaks mind, and the much needed nap, but even this time away while his kids were off with their only grandfather and various aunts doing fun summer things where no one wanted that King to mess stuff up, he missed them. Wished he could see them, play with them, put them to bed and every once in awhile strike a candle to watch them sleep.

Lanny reached forward to grab his hand tight. He glanced down at their clasped hands but didn’t grip back, Alistair’s spine prickling with worry. Thankfully, the whiskey didn’t toss all her common sense out the window and she refrained from leaping on top and ravaging him. Alistair was about 75% certain he’d have the wherewithal to stop her. Probably.

It took her a few more moments before she spoke, her voice roiling in unspilled tears, “Maker only knows how much longer we have with them.”

Clasping his other hand over their conjoined ones, Alistair nodded his head. She was always fretting over it, that ever shortening fuse burning away in their veins until one day...Boom! Somehow, in between saving templars and marrying that loutish oaf, Lanny kept on trying to cure the blight, to give them both another decade or two with the ones they loved. He didn’t want to dampen her spirits, but deep in his heart Alistair feared that there was no answer. Life wasn’t fair and in the end no one cheated death.

“At least I have you at the end of it.” He meant to whisper it to himself, but she lifted her weary face and smiled.

“Always,” she squeezed his fingers once before releasing them, Alistair letting her hand return to her. “I’m sorry that, you know...”

He shifted on his hip, trying to lean all his weight onto as little of his ass as possible. Somehow that would distract him from the pain reverberating up every bone in his body. “My life’s always been one colossal screw up, right? Not like I’ve ever gotten a thing right. Why should I start now?”

“Ali...”

“I’m fine,” he waved away her concerns.

“Bullshit,” Lanny was always quick to call him to the carpet for it. He knew he was hurting, and of course she did, but in that moment all he wanted to do was sulk far from prying eyes and concerned tongues. “It’s all right if you don’t want to talk about it now. There’s plenty of time later.”

“Later?” Alistair scrunched up his nose, fully confused.

She shrugged a shoulder, causing the strap of her apron to go sliding off. That was Lanny, she never could find anything that fit properly. He almost moved to push it back automatically, but her fingers beat him to it. “You can stay as long as you’d like. Follow around with me, hold bottles, mix things, get people to drink stuff they all but spit in my face.”

“You make it sound so enticing,” Alistair laughed. “But I rather doubt your templar will like me sticking around for long.”

“Nonsense,” Lanny waved her hand, “he’s fine. Okay, he’ll grumble, but he won’t say anything directly...to you.”

“I don’t want to get you in trouble.”

That caused her to laugh, “Says the man who pointed down a path littered with bear traps and exclaimed, ‘It’s a shortcut.’”

“That...”

“And then, in the middle of stepping around them, we have nearly a dozen wolves descend upon us.”

“It got us there faster, I think,” he scratched his chin, barely remembering the incident. There were so many in that year it was hard for him to keep track.

No doubt she was aching to tell him how wrong he was, but Lanny let it subside. Instead, she patted the empty bottle and sighed, “Stay, we can send a raven to Teagan telling him you’re safe and being watched over by friends.”

She seemed to be all but begging him to remain. Was it for her benefit to have someone other than the dour templar to keep her entertained or...? A dirty mirror hung on the wall, barely tended to by the always busy staff. Out of the corner of his eye he caught his own reflection and nearly panicked. Alistair looked half dead, his skin so pale the reds of his besotted lips burst like a darkspawn’s intestines in snow. The under eye baggage piled up on top of his cheekbones, waiting for someone to come along and claim them. But most striking of all were the frown lines setting into the fold on his forehead. They seemed to be permanent now.

Lanny wasn’t hoping he’d stay for her sake, but for his. She went and became a full time nurse and healer when he was off playing King and he didn’t even notice. The mighty warrior that killed hundreds, perhaps thousands of darkspawn found her true calling in shoveling medicine down a crotchety old templar’s throat.

“I’ll consider it,” Alistair lied. While he’d love nothing more than to give into her ministrations, able to easily distract himself with her witty banter, he knew what watching her and that damn man she loved would do to him.

“Good,” she nodded, a bright smile lifting up her soft cheeks. Hers was the kind of smile that brightened up a room. No, an entire building. He missed how easily he used to be able to draw one from her, before everything between them became weighted by years and disappointment.

“Do you...?” Alistair spoke before his brain told him this was a bad idea. But it was too late now, might as well keep going. “Do you ever wish that I’d never taken the crown? That I’d stayed a Grey Warden...with you?” He stared at his hands while talking but, when no answer came from her, looked up.

She was tugging on a curl, her lips pursed as she thought. “Ali, I’m married. Happily so, to the point it annoys some of the more conservative of our charges,” at that confession, a blush burned on her cheeks. “The past is just that. I wouldn’t change what I have now for anything.”

He winced even while knowing that’d be her answer. Of course in the scales of life she’d choose her templar; damn near every woman in thedas had that blighted sketch of him nailed to their bedroom wall.

“But,” Lanny interrupted his self lashing thoughts, “before Cullen, I did think upon it. Often.”

“One more thing I completely screwed up,” Alistair said, but there was no malice in it at her or him. He knew that as King it never would have worked with her, but without that crown... He’d hoped that Reiss would be different. Then again, he wanted her because she cared nothing for the damn thing. “I’m not worth overcoming the insurmountable pit of shit that comes with that shiny hat.”

“Yes you are,” Lanny insisted the way all smug married couples do. Then again, he was technically married. Maybe he should ask his wife how she was able to find someone to fall in line as her lover without buckling under the weight. “There’s got to be someone out there for you.”

“Lanny Amell, the eternal optimist.”

“I am not,” she pouted.

“Sorry, Rutherford. Maker’s sake, I know you took his name to hide but couldn’t you have just made up something better instead? Sounds like the noise a horse makes just before it sprays snot all over you. Rrrrutherford!”

She giggled at his mangling her beloved’s family name, her family name. “I meant I’m not an optimist. You can still call me Amell, provided no one else is around.”

That brought a soft glow to his cheeks, “You are so the optimist. Come on, you were the one leading us through the damn near impossible for a year. If it were left up to me we’d have laid down in a ditch five feet outside of Lothering and let the darkspawn trample us to death.”

“No, there’s no way. You’re more competent than you give yourself credit. Also, Morrigan would have kicked us for miles until we were safely out of the darkspawn path.”

He frowned at the witch’s name, but didn’t rise up to rant and rave about her. Alistair was getting better about it. Getting better about a lot of things, but still not good enough. Not for her, not enough for her to keep him. Why did it have to hurt so bad?

When Lanny’s hand rubbed up and down his back, he startled and sat up, not realizing he’d bent over in pain. Maker’s breath, he was tired. “I shouldn’t keep you. I’m sure you have to get back to your dour darling and do whatever it is to fix him.”

“Ali, I don’t have to leave right this second. Cullen’s fine, at least he’s not pacing outside the door.”

He smiled at her acknowledging the strangeness of the situation. Lanny usually got through it by ignoring it which somehow made it all even worse. Shaking his head, he staggered up to his legs in the universal ‘the party’s over’ move. “I’m really exhausted, about to pass out and I don’t want to have that man jump to wild conclusions that lead to him pounding my face into the ground.”

Lanny frowned, her lips pursed almost to a flat line.

“What? I’ve grown rather attached to this face. It’s not good by any means, but it’s familiar. Think of all the new paintings they’d have to make if it got beaten to mashed potatoes.”

“All right, I’ll leave you be,” she stood up, slipping the empty bottle into her apron pocket. “Whenever you wake up, you can come find me. If you want to talk, we can. If you want to work, I know some stables that need a good mucking.”

“Ooh, both delightful options. However will I choose?” he chuckled, earning a soft crinkle at the edge of her eyes. Those lines weren’t vanishing as quickly as they once did, age always creeping up on them both. She nodded once and tried to shift out between the beds to the door.

“Lanny?”

His plea paused her and she turned, her chin quirked up.

“Would it be unseemly if I...could I have one more hug?”

Her eyes shattered as a thousand thoughts and regrets burst and faded away, that weird, wobbly wall between them thickening and waning as she burned through every possibility of what a hug could cost her. “Of course,” she said, sliding towards him. So much tinier than Reiss, tinier than nearly everyone he interacted with that wasn’t a dwarf, her cheek pressed into his chest and Alistair leaned over to cup his hands against her back. Just as he did during the blight when they’d sit together by the light of the campfire terrified of what the next day would bring. Friends at the time, friends now, clinging to the rare anchor they could both depend upon in this world.

Patting her hands once more before sliding back, she glanced up at his eyes and smiled, “Try and get some sleep. I hear that whiskey’s got a real kick to it.”

“Something I can look forward to tomorrow along with the horse shit.”

With the smile that’d never leave his memory, Lanny tugged open the door and stepped into full night out beyond the abbey’s walls. An owl’s cry burst above them, the feathered fiend’s glide silent save its hooting. Maker only knew how many screws the templar was going to put her for this, but she’d bounce back -- that was what the Hero of Ferelden did. When the world kicked her down she kept getting back up and fighting.

“I’m sorry,” Alistair whispered to her retreating back. She paused in the doorway, her head glancing over her shoulder to stare a question at him. “For hurting you after the landsmeet, for rejecting you because of...I’m sorry.”

She winced a moment before letting it slide away into a beatific smile, “I know. And I’m sorry too.”

“For what?”

“That you’re hurting now,” her final words reverberated in the fresh air as she closed the door behind her. Alistair curled up on the cot’s cheap mattress and tugged the blanket up to his head. Of course that left his toes and ankles exposed to the nipping cold of the south, that was just the kind of man he was and life he lived. Always coming up short no matter how hard he tried.

Licking his fingers, he pinched off the candle flame and tried to dig himself into a dreamless sleep. Inside his chest, his heart labored on as if unaware it’d been left shattered in a million pieces and would never work again.

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