Guarded Love

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Chapter 49: The Sun

Lana was the first to hit the ground, her cane rattling quickly against the steps as, sure enough, the people Reiss ordered to guard the King came out to stop her. The Hero wasn’t about to be pushed around by anyone and raised her fist, magic sparkling around when Reiss shouted from outside the gate, “She’s with me!”

Nodding her thanks, Lana hurried up towards Alistair’s room, almost as if she knew right where he was without having to ask. It was the Commander who helped Reiss off her horse, his eyes darting over her a minute to see if she needed help standing, but once she got her legs under her, she bolted for the stairs. He kept close on her heels until they stumbled upon the thrown open door. Alistair’s silent body lay prostrated where Reiss left him, the eyes shut tight and his face wiped of all emotion as Lana shifted closer to him.

“Please tell me he’s alive,” Reiss gasped. Lana froze a moment with her hand hovering above his dangerously still chest, her eyes in shock. Shaking herself, she found her courage and with the certainty of a healer laid it upon his sternum.

Time froze, Reiss clinging tight to her wounded shoulder while feeling her life split in two. One path had hope, no matter how brief it may be, while the other was an eternal darkness she may never climb out of.

Lana gasped, and nodded her head, “He’s still with us.”

Thank the Maker! Reiss sobbed to herself, freezing up in the doorway. Luckily the healer, now assured that her patient lived, was on the job. Lana yanked the pouch she got special off her back and placed it on the chair.

“Cullen,” she turned to her husband filling up the door, “take his shirt off.”

What should have been awkward for all was nothing as the Commander tugged out a small hunting knife and split apart the King’s blood soaked tunic. It fell open revealing the gore stained wound and burned flesh. Lana hissed at the sight, her fingers dancing over it as her eyes closed.

“I get why, probably saved his life, but...” She chuckled mirthlessly to herself, “Sorry Ali, this is going to hurt.” Twisting her fingers around, white light poured out of her hand aimed at the wound. Below her fingers, Reiss could see the charred flesh rising away to a rubbed raw pink as if it healed quickly, but the blood returned, gurgling out the wound.

Lana yanked off the light, a panic in her eyes. She didn’t seem concerned about the bleeding, her hand waving across it and stitching the torn flesh together in an instant. “He didn’t scream, he should have screamed,” she mouthed, her eyes darting back to Reiss a moment before folding her hands together and slowly drawing them down Alistair’s exposed chest. Cullen stood beside the bed, his fingers rolling back and forth the knife while he watched his wife closely.

At that exact moment, the servants came bustling into the room. “What are you doing?” The bandage boy called out, angry at her messing with his work, or perhaps trying to defend his King. Patrice’s eyes widened to just the whites as she clung tightly to her elbows, one of which was stained crimson.

Lana snarled, “Cullen, get them out of here.”

He nodded at his wife and swooped his arms out to block the servant’s view. “Let’s go, she needs time to work.”

Reiss turned to leave when Lana called out, “You stay. I might need your help.”

Maker’s sake, what could she do to help? Nodding at the order, Reiss tried to move to the Hero’s side when the Commander, having finished shoving the servants out and about to close the door, leaned to her. “Make certain she doesn’t kill herself.”

Was that a possibility? Reiss bobbed her head, terrified of what he’d do if she failed. His eyes darted back to his wife once before Cullen shut the door, no doubt standing in the way so no one would interrupt.

“Come here. I need you to dig into that satchel and pull out a bottle.”

It wasn’t the easiest to unknot the tie with only one hand, but Reiss didn’t slow down while Lana kept kneading her fingers an inch above Alistair. “Will he make it?” she pleaded.

“I...” Lana opened her eyes a moment and sighed, “I’m not sure yet. Do you have the vial?”

Reaching into the pouch, her hand skimmed over strangely warm glass and Reiss yanked out a blue cylinder that almost pulsed with power. Staring too hard at it made her teeth hurt. Reiss shoved it toward’s Lana, but the healer shook her head.

“No, just open the cap and Maker’s sake don’t touch it,” Lana ordered.

With her thumb and forefinger, Reiss slowly unscrewed the lid until it tumbled off and bounced off the ground. Something happened, the air in the room thickening and Reiss felt her fingers reaching around and around the vial as she tried to hold it steady. But all she could see was the blue liquid dissipate out of the vial as if by magic. When the final drop vanished into the air, Lana parted her hands across Alistair’s chest and he tossed his head back, his lungs pulling in a deep breath.

“Is he...?” Reiss ran to the other side of the bed, hoping he’d open his eyes.

“Not yet, but...that’s a good sign. This is going to take some time,” she groaned, exhaustion evident. Oh Maker, what if the Commander was right and she had to sacrifice herself to save him? Was that how magic worked? Reiss had never been near it before beyond the small spells.

“Don’t...” Reiss began, but the woman waved her concerns away as she prodded at Alistair’s ribs. “What should I do?”

Lana’s eyes darted over to her standing awkwardly beside him before returning to her patient. “Hold his hand, talk to him. Give him a reason to stay here.”

“That...” tears bit in her eyes, but she shook them off. This wasn’t the time. Fumbling down his forearm, Reiss’ fingers wrapped around his slack ones. Maker, they were so cold. It felt as if he stumbled in from a day of building snowmen. Was that something he enjoyed doing? She didn’t even know because she hadn’t been with him long enough to see their first winter together.

“I’m here,” she whispered, falling to a knee. “I’m here, and I’m not going anywhere.”

Lana worked her magic above her while Reiss kept mumbling the same two words over and over. She was so exhausted she couldn’t think of anything else to say, but she prayed that it would be enough. His fingers dangled limply in her grip, Reiss trying to impart her useless life force through him, as if that could work.

Don’t die. Please. Just. Don’t. I can’t lose you after I...

After I already lost you.

Reiss started at the thought infecting her brain, surprised that her heavy eyelids slid open. Did she fall asleep on her knees? Struggling in a breath, the pain reared awake in her arm -- the draught’s power having ebbed out of her system. She glanced up at Lana and the woman didn’t look as if she’d moved a step, her fingers spread over Alistair’s midsection. Both eyes closed, she breathed softly through her parted lips, the scent of lightning brash in the room.

Alistair didn’t look any better, but he didn’t look worse either. Please be okay. Please come through this. So many people care for you. Need you.

Love you.

“You should head out to the hall to sit with Cullen,” Lana’s voice boomed through the still room. Reiss drew away from staring a plea into Alistair’s closed eyes. The mage hadn’t opened her eyes but she looked strained.

“It’s all right,” Reiss coughed out. “I’m fine, I can stay.”

“It wasn’t a suggestion,” the depths of the power of the Hero washed over Reiss and she staggered up to her legs. For a moment her knee tried to buckle, the muscle falling asleep when she did, but she managed to stagger around without bumping into the bed.

“Will he...?”

“I need to concentrate,” Lana hissed, her fingers parting through that veil the mage’s used. Blue light sparked from one hand to the next, undulating as she honed in on his chest.

Reiss didn’t want to leave but she had no logical standing to remain. She made that choice to exit his life, it only made sense that his closest friends would try to protect him now. Staggering to the door, Reiss turned on the handle and left the healer alone to try and save the dying man.

The servants must have scattered after realizing there was no crossing the Commander. He wasn’t standing guard the way Reiss would but was sitting on a bench beside the wall. Hands clasped together, his eyes were shut tight as soft prayers moved through his lips. The words were so quiet Reiss could only catch the barest breath of the consonants, but she knew it. Atisha wasn’t a fan of the ‘darker parts of the chant’ as she put it, she liked the lighter stories -- like Andraste toppling an empire. That was good bedtime reading.

But this canticle Reiss knew well, having heard it often reverberating in the refugee camps, in filthy work houses, bandied about by bleeding lips while survivors huddled together during the Blight.

“When I have lost all else, when my eyes fail me and the taste of blood fills my mouth, then in the pounding of my heart, I hear the glory of creation.”

Bending her legs, Reiss collapsed onto the bench doing her best to keep her shattered arm from hitting anything. The pain threatened to knock her stomach about, but it was empty -- everything long since voided in her mad dash to save Alistair. And it could all be for nothing. So close and she could still... Silly rabbit, you already lost him.

Maybe, but that doesn’t mean the world should too.

“Do not grieve for me, Maker of All. Though all others may forget You, Your name is etched into my every step.”

“I will not forsake You, even if I forget myself.”

Reiss didn’t realize she spoke the prayer aloud with him until the Commander parted his hands and glanced over at her. She moved to apologize for interrupting him, but exhaustion and guilt stamped out her ability to play nice. Everything in her life dangled upon the knife’s edge, and no matter the outcome it would never be the same. She’d never be the same.

“I’m sorry,” the Commander spoke to her, his voice soft. Its lightness surprised the ex-soldier who only ever heard it bellowed with a raw rasp across battlefields and crowded halls. “For trying to send you away. For not listening.”

She swallowed hard, uncertain what to say. In the list of offenses against her, his fell so far down it wasn’t even in her mind. Closing her eyes against the stinging light, Reiss sighed, “You were protecting her.”

He snickered at that. The Commander sat with his legs wide, both elbows pushing into the thighs while his hands dangled limply in the middle. He felt useless, as useless as Reiss did. Right now there was a man dying, a King dying, and only one person who could help.

“It’s not easy, loving someone like that.”

Reiss’ eyes flew open and she whipped her head over at the man who as far as she knew never opened up to anyone. Little was known about the Commander’s private life, which he seemed to prefer, and also inspired the rumor mill. Somehow, in between the dowager and empress and ambassador rumors, no one ever got that he was enraptured with the Hero of Ferelden right.

Aware of her scrutiny, he leaned up, the back of his head brushing against the wall. “Like trying to protect the sun itself. All your worry, all your fears mean nothing because that sun shines bright enough to both attract constant danger but also ferret away darkness.”

“I...” Reiss couldn’t shake her own awe at the real Solona Amell being only a room away. She was a legend, rescued her and her family, and entire world.

Cullen glanced over, his weary eyes almost lifting in a smirk, “Falling for someone like that, someone who has saved millions of lives, impacted all of thedas. It’s...terrifying at times.”

“But you...” Reiss struggled to speak her thoughts, that shield she kept in place to protect herself rising up. No, there was no point now. “You’re the Commander of the Inquisition. Or were, your standing, it must be close to hers.”

He didn’t smile, but he nodded his head a moment as if slightly impressed. Turning away to stare down the open floor, Cullen spoke, “I wasn’t always. I certainly wasn’t when I fell for her. One templar out of a hundred, a thousand, a nobody who foolishly loved the woman that saved Ferelden, saved the world. I didn’t think for a moment that she’d even cast a second glance my way.”

On the first floor below them, Reiss spotted the head of Patrice slowly sliding towards the fireplace. She hurled a log onto the puny flame before glancing up to the quiet room where a King would either live or die tonight.

“It’s maddening sometimes,” Cullen continued, “to think that someone like her can care about me, can love me. That I can have that great of an impact on her life.”

“She married you,” Reiss sighed, knowing that was never in her cards. Granted, an elf with no alienage and no parents was destined to be a spinster regardless.

“She did, and still,” he leaned out of his seat as if he could peer through the door to watch his wife struggling to save Alistair. “Sometimes I see the sun and I fear I might be lost in her wake. They forget, they don’t know what they are to people. Lana’s...she’s slipped more and more from what she once was while in hiding. But I remember.” A smile lifted upon his dour lips as he stared out across the vast emptiness, no doubt rifling through a favorite memory.

“I don’t...” Reiss shifted, feeling like she was being given a lecture in a language she didn’t speak.

“That man is an idiot,” Cullen said point blank about his King while jabbing a finger towards the door. “I was forced to live through his depths of idiocy for far too long, but...and it pains me to say it, he’s a good man.”

“I know...” she swallowed hard.

“I don’t know what came between you two, but I can take a wild guess. He did something stupid, more than likely not out of malice, but because he didn’t stop to think, to remember that we’re not all the same. Those two,” he jerked his head to the door, “they can’t see the pedestal the rest of us put them on. And when they try to drag one of us up to it, it gets messy.”

“I’m sorry, Ser, what are you saying?” Reiss wasn’t certain if she was hallucinating from the pain wracking her body, or if the actual Commander of the Inquisition was giving her relationship advice. The former seemed far more likely.

Cullen grumbled, seeming to have lost the words he was barely able to get out. “Tell him what you need, make him realize that you’re not the same. He’s too stupid and kind hearted to figure it out himself.”

“Oh,” Reiss’ head hung down, her eyes focusing on the carpet. Was that the problem between them? Why she ran when she felt the collar of high society tightening against her throat like a noose? Did he really not realize that others would see her differently? Oh Maker.

“And for my sake and his, never tell him I shared this with you,” Cullen sneered, folding back against the wall in silence.

Reiss didn’t know exactly what went on between the two but she got the feeling there wasn’t exactly any love lost. “My lips are sealed,” she promised.

The pair of them fell silent sitting on the bench. On occasion a few muted sounds would permeate the closed door, mostly shuffling, but Reiss thought she heard the sound of glass breaking which drew a deeper frown to the Commander’s face. She’d spent so long worrying about what to do if Alistair didn’t make it, a new thought rattled in her brain. What was she going to do if he survived? Would he hate her? He should, she broke his heart. It was only fair. And rushing out to save him left her without anything to return to.

Reiss should feel something about abandoning her post, leaving behind the only job she’d known for the past year and a half but it was a soap bubble. Letting it pop from neglect had little impact upon her. It was money and a bed, but it wasn’t what she wanted.

Maker’s sake, Rat. What do you want?

The door opened, jarring both Reiss and Cullen out of their daydreams. She moved to stand, but he was faster on the draw already on his feet to grip onto the elbow of his wife.

“I’ve done all of what I can for now.” Lana looked like she’d walked through the void itself and returned. Her fingers gripped tight to her cane which Cullen was quick to take over for as he helped her to sit down.

“His chances?” Reiss asked, her fingers digging into her knee as she glared out at the world. She had to know but didn’t want to.

“They’re...” the Hero paused, her hand kneading against her forehead as exhaustion rampaged up.

“Lana,” Cullen’s hands cupped her shoulder, the man providing support for her. Perhaps the only way a normal person could to the sun.

She gritted her teeth and patted his hand. “I’d give it fifty, fifty right now. If he makes it ’til morning then...then I think he’s in the clear. It was bad, worse than I first anticipated.”

Andraste, please. Reiss couldn’t fold her hands together so she curled the only working one up into a fist, her body wanting to take out all its frustration and fear upon the one who caused it. But beating a dead corpse wouldn’t get her very far.

“You’re exhausted,” Cullen drew his fingers down his wife’s cheek.

“I’m fine,” she said, shaking her head despite all evidence to the contrary. There’d been a cold professionalism in the room but without her patient needing her to be focused, a redness welled up in her eyes, the pain quick to overtake her.

The Commander took her assurances about as well as Reiss expected, his arms folding as he asked point blank, “How many vials of lyrium?”

“All of them.”

“What? All four!”

“It was very bad. And close. If we’d been an hour late, a half hour, I don’t know if...oh,” she leaned her head back against the wall and began to flex her hands out across her knees. Her husband looked on, clearly wishing he could do something to ease the burden on their only mage.

Wrapping an arm around the back of her neck, Cullen tugged his chest to her cheek in a strange hug. “Rest up, I’ll see if I can find you some food.”

A heart rending smile played about her lips before the Hero turned to place a kiss upon him. “Thank you,” she whispered. With something to do, Cullen stomped off, his growling voice already requesting for one of the servants to point him in the direction of the larder.

After a moment of exhausted silence, Lana sat up and turned to Reiss. “Let me take a look at your arm.”

“No, it’s...” she moved to yank it away, but the mage was already slipping her fingers over it. Reiss gritted her teeth anticipating pain, but none came. Numbness drew away all feeling upon her arm as the mage stared down at it. “Don’t exert yourself on my account.”

A soft chuckle was the only response she got as Lana passed her fingers back and forth over the break. Sure enough, the bone began to retract to where it belonged -- not shattering through her skin. The sight was almost sickening to watch, as if she was suffering her attack but in reverse.

“It won’t be fully healed, and will need to be kept in a sling for awhile, but that should help ease the pain.”

“Th...” Reiss tried to wiggle it against the belt but her elbow refused to communicate down her fingers. “Thank you,” she whispered.

Lana closed her eyes as she leaned back against the wall, her fingers back to worrying up and down her lap as if they itched terribly. “Soldier’s bravado?”

“Hm?” Reiss slid back and forth on her legs, surprised to find herself capable of more without the constant pain beating her down.

“Why you didn’t want me to heal you? It’s either fear of mages or soldier’s bravado that pain will make you stronger. As idiotic as it sounds.”

“No it,” Reiss gulped, “your...the Commander told me to make certain you didn’t overexert yourself when casting magic. He said I should keep you from killing yourself.”

That caused her to open one eye, a brow lifting higher as Lana turned on her, “Did he now?”

“Ah, sort of, yes. I was afraid that...I mean, this isn’t life threatening, and if it hurt you...”

Lana dismissed her apologies with the wave of her hand, “Don’t worry about it. I’m made of sterner stuff.” She lapsed into silence, the deafening kind where the air thickened with every unspoken word knocking hard against Reiss’ head. It kept reverberating that she should say something, but damn if she knew what. Even thinking Alistair’s name clogged up her throat, speaking it aloud might be what did her in.

“It’s a lucky thing,” Lana’s voice cut through the oppressive atmosphere. “You showing up when you did, protecting him and all.” Her words seemed full of praise, but the tone was damning. She’d been distant before, but with exhaustion and fear stripping away the mask she wore to heal professionally, the metaphorical gloves were off.

Reiss accepted the anger, her head hanging low as she whispered, “I should have been here before, never have given them an opportunity.”

She didn’t answer that, but Reiss could feel the nod of, “Yes, you damn well should have.” Shifting on her weary bones, Lana ran her fingers over the handle of her cane, as if tracing something underneath it. Her breath slowed as she kept repeating the pattern. Either she was working up the courage or the energy to tell Reiss off for endangering the King. No, for endangering her friend and someone so dear to her. As if Reiss wasn’t already crumbling inside for it.

“Here,” Cullen softly jogged across the creaking wood floor to deposit a mass of berries and nuts into Lana’s hand.

The offering vanished quickly, her fingers plucking each up as she swallowed. In between bites, she turned to her husband to say, “The one time my pockets are empty. Not even a slice of bread in here.”

His fingers curled over the back of her neck and down to pat her shoulders. Always protecting her. Reiss tried to not think on the fact that one of the most well known templars in thedas was now actively hiding an apostate. Announcing that fact would probably turn both of them against her.

Chewing apart the last of the berries, Lana began to stagger up to her feet. “Thanks, that should be enough to last me for a few more hours,” she jammed her cane under her and moved a step towards the door, when Cullen’s fingers gripped onto her shoulder.

“No, you’ve put in enough. You’re exhausted beyond measure, Lana. Bed is the only place you belong.”

That earned him a near on growl and a massive eye roll. “For the love of the Maker, Cullen. Not...”

“This is not up for debate,” he thundered. “You went through four vials, alone.” That paused her, Lana’s eyes skirting down to the ground. “It’s been a long day, and...you won’t do him any good so fatigued you can’t stand.” Butting his forehead to hers, he drew his hand up to her cheek and whispered, “You know that.”

She sneered, her head turning to the side to break the contact. Reiss braced herself for an oncoming couple fight, potentially with magic thrown in. But Cullen broke it all away by pressing his lips to her cheek and in a wobbling voice say, “I don’t want to lose you.”

That steel certainty melted away, and Lana wrapped a hand around the back of the one her husband pinned to her cheek.

“Now,” Cullen coughed, the emotion cracking off his voice, “do I have to carry you bed or...”

For a brief second, the Hero chuckled, “No, I can walk. But someone should stay with him in case...” Her head rotated over her shoulder and the eyes almost softened on Reiss. “Sit with him, please. Just watch, make sure that he’s stable. And if anything changes.”

“I’ll come find you, right away,” Reiss swore, absently saluting which brought her fist right into her broken arm. With the numbing still floating through her system it felt like she punched a block of cottony wood instead.

Accepting that she had no say in her own life, Lana hooked an arm around her husband’s shoulders and he led her away towards a bedroom. Reiss glared down at her broken arm as she heard the steps creaking down the hall. She should do this, she had to do this. No one else could.

Her fingers fumbled limply for the door latch, as if the numbing spell was affecting her entire body. But no, it was her brain scampering in fear that despite the Hero’s words she’d open that door and find him dead. That even with her all, she’d failed him by being selfish and stupid. Swallowing it all down, Reiss pushed it open and slipped inside.

Lana took the time to tug the blankets up around Alistair’s shoulders, but she must not have been able to pull his ripped shirt off. His skin looked as deathly pale as Reiss remembered, with a yellow twinge offset even worse against the tan bedding. Grabbing onto a chair, Reiss dragged it across the ground. She wasn’t able to fully lift it one handed and winced at the horrific sound, but it didn’t cause the King to stir. He had his head propped up on two pillows, his mouth slightly open as he gasped for air to fill his body anyway it could.

Dropping into the chair, Reiss stared down at him and a thought struck her. If she’d been happy with what he offered her he wouldn’t be near death. She’d be watching him sleep in her arms instead of dangling on the edge with a deadly knife wound infecting his guts. Damn her weak heart.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered to the air. “I’m sorry I didn’t...” Flecks of blood decorated his face like sprinkles on a cake. Someone, probably one of the servants, left a water basin near the bed. Tugging out an old and dingy kerchief, Reiss dabbed it in the water and tried to wipe away the blood. Was it his or hers?

“I wish I could be the one. That I didn’t keep thinking about everything that will go wrong, could go wrong. I want to be. I tried to be once, but it...” Reiss drew the cloth back through the water, her mind rolling over Ethan. She lost herself for no reason other than wanting to matter to someone. To be noticed. It was a mistake forever marked not on her body but in her mind. She still felt it sometimes, his words rotting through her soul more than any blade wound ever did.

“You’re so much better than I ever thought was possible,” Reiss gasped, her fingers releasing the kerchief. It bloomed in the cold water, slowly hovering in between the surface and bottom of the bowl. “I never imagined meeting someone like you, falling for someone like you.”

Tears dripped down her cheeks, each one filled with her stupid little failures. What did she want? People kept asking it, but they didn’t understand. Her life hadn’t been one of want. It was always need. She needed to survive, and in order to do that she needed food, shelter, the promise that tomorrow would come. Wants didn’t filter into that. Want was a necessity that only led to more pain.

Maker take her, but she wanted him. Digging under the blanket, Reiss fished out his fingers. Even after dragging hers through the water, his felt cold in her hand. Almost as if they were preserved in ice, unreachable to her. How often did she watch those fingers tug up his hair, wrap around his daughter, cuddle his infant son, and hold her? And she walked away from it. She nearly doomed them to never rise again.

“I love you,” Reiss whispered. “I should have said it before, or trusted in my gut, done something else. I don’t know, I wish I did because I just keep thinking if I got it right, then...none of this would have happened. You’d be safe, you’d be... You’d be better off if you’d never have met me. If you’d fallen for the mage like you were supposed to. All I did was walk into your life and ruin it.” Her head hung low, the tears falling so freely she couldn’t see anything through the fog tearing apart her insides. Blessed Andraste, how could she live with herself if he died? The world would despise her, would call for her head, and she’d gladly give it up.

Despair ransacked her resolve, and Reiss buried her head against the blanket. Through it she could feel the slow intake of a breath filling his body. Even while slipping further into the dark abyss, she matched it in kind, needing to feel some connection to him. In and out. She didn’t need him. In and out. But damn it all, she wanted him. In. Too bad, Rat. Out. Because you already ruined it.

“Reiss...”

It took a moment for her ears to register that the voice was real. She sat up quickly, blood rushing to her head. Sweet brown eyes blinked up at her, and Alistair tried to attempt a limp smile.

“Sweet Maker,” she gasped, wishing she could wipe away the tears clogging her view of him awake. But she wouldn’t let go of her grip to his fingers. He watched her a moment longer before his eyes began to slide shut.

Reiss sat forward, her cheek pressing against his cold one. “Stay with me,” she pleaded, those blighted tears running down to pool where her skin met his. “Please, stay with me.”

He didn’t open his eyes again, but in a strained voice Alistair whispered, “Okay.”

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