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The Cave [Complete M-S]

Nathaniel Howe

Warden Commander of Ferelden
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#1
((OOC: Cloudreach 6, 9:35, Late-Afternoon, Just outside Highever and Castle Cousland later, @Fergus Cousland))

Salt water misted the air, moistening Nathaniel’s skin as he pushed his horse faster along the shoreline of Highever. The sound of crashing waves mixed with the heavy breath of his horse and the push of sand and small rocks beneath Rex’s hooves. An adult game of tag, he had issued a challenge to Fergus at the top of a cliff above, “I bet I can beat you to the cave.”

The trail down had not changed much over the years. Sturdy grass patched the rock and dirt covered path down. Periwinkles and amaranth had begun their bloom, offering splashes of color amongst the green and browns. As boys, they had run this race many times. As men, they merely ran a little faster, carried by their horses.

The cave was not a place Nathaniel had thought of for many years. Afternoons and sometimes parts of the evening, Fergus and Nathaniel would disappear to their secret cave. The cave was a place to hide from Aedan and their parents. The cave was a place where they spoke of the future and what their lives might be like as men. The cave was a place in which they forged a friendship Rendon Howe, thankfully, did not destroy.

The last time Nathaniel and Fergus ran this race, Fergus came out victorious. The loser always had to participate in a dare that ranged from stealing something from the larder under Nan’s nose to snatching a scandalous book for the duo to read together. A more practiced rider, having spent a great deal of time training in the Free Marches, Nathaniel beat Fergus to the cave. A good lather on Rex, Nathaniel patted the horse’s neck before dismounting and tethering the horse to a coastal tree adjacent to the cave.

Dares were for young boys and men that felt as if they need show their worth. Fergus and Nathaniel were neither. There would be no dare on this day. There would, however, be drink. From within a saddle bag, Nathaniel withdrew a bottle of whiskey for himself and brandy for Fergus as he awaited the arrival of his friend.
 

Fergus Cousland

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#2
The warhorse was definitely not what he was used to. It was much thicker than the horse he had been relearning on, and a bit more aggressive. His time in Antiva had seen him riding sleek and lean creatures, though he had not brought one back with him when he brought his first wife home. So he was rusty, and when Nathaniel issued the challenge he knew he had already lost.

The cave was their destination. A place that had been a getaway in their youth, that they believed for a long time no one else knew about. It wasn't until he was older that his father had told him he made sure the cave was cleared of dangerous animals so they wouldn't get harmed. It was something he continued to do, even if he didn't visit it like he did in his youth. Most of his lone musings happened at the top of the cliffs, not the bottom.

Having Nathaniel here was nice. It had been years since both men had really been able to be the friends they once were. Time and obligation kept them distant from one another. It almost felt like family coming home.

By the time they reached the end of the trail, he and the warhorse had come to some amicable agreement. It didn't try to buck him, and he didn't pull back too hard on the reins. He wasn't sure what he would name the creature, but there was still time yet. It seemed happy to be rid of him, and he tied him nearby Nathaniel's mount.

The mouth of the cave was shadowed by vines, but easy enough to see. He noticed the bottles in Nathaniel's hand and gave a chuckle. "So, the winner is baring gifts I see. It's like a picnic, only with more alcohol and less food."

He made sure to remember to take the herbal concoction that Anya had been making for him this morning, he didn't want the horse ride to aggravate his aches, or be too lame to walk back up the trail in case the horse became too stubborn. "I have more in my saddlebags should we run out."
 

Nathaniel Howe

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#3
Nathaniel heard Fergus long before he saw him. War horses did not simply run upon the ground, they thundered. A strong torso and even stronger legs provided the horses with enough stamina to last the most lengthy of battles as well as the power to shake the ground in their wake. Such a horse would take time to grow used to. Nathaniel hoped it would prove a good distraction for Fergus, something to occupy his mind. More than most, Nathaniel appreciated the value of such distractions.

Fergus dismounted his horse and tied it by Nathaniel's. An easy smile and laughter touched Fergus' lips, "So, the winner is baring gifts I see. It's like a picnic, only with more alcohol and less food. I have more in my saddlebags should we run out."

Nathaniel flicked his chin in the direction of his horse and the saddle atop Rex. "There's some cheese, bread and olives in there too. So it's a picnic with both alcohol and food."

Green and brown vines twisted about the entrance to the cave. How long had it been since she had a visitor, Nathaniel wondered. The last Fergus and he had come to the cave, they were both sixteen, young men on the cusp of manhood. A young man's curiosity that day pushed Nathaniel upon the path that made him the man he had become. Fergus had been a better friend to Nathaniel that day than he would ever know.

With his shoulder, he nudged a patch of brittle vines out of his way and slipped into the cool of the cave. Dark, illuminated only by the fingers of light that permeated through the curtain of vines, the cave appeared relatively untouched from their last visit. The fire ring sat mostly in tact, only a few stones askew. Two pieces of driftwood they, at age twelve, had scavenged from the beach outside flanked opposite sides of the ring.

Nathaniel set the bottles down adjacent to his seat. "I will go get some driftwood." That all of this had lasted all these years seemed too lucky. Glancing over his shoulder before he left the cave in search of fuel for the fire, Nathaniel asked, "You have been watching after the place?" That was the only possible explanation.
 

Fergus Cousland

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#4
"There's some cheese, bread and olives in there too. So it's a picnic with both alcohol and food." Fergus glanced back at the horses when Nathaniel motioned in their direction. At least if they got hungry they would have something, though he certainly assumed whatever the duration of their stay the majority would likely be spent in the bottles Nathaniel had ready for them.

"Ahh, brandy and olives. Had you brought salt pork I would have considered this a date." He gave a hearty chuckle and followed Nathaniel into the cave, the vines just enough to obscure the view from the outside and make things a bit dark inside.

The last time they had been here together had definitely awakened something in Fergus. He remembered the kiss and how it brought about his awareness of certain desires. Desires he could not foster being expected to produce heirs to the teyrnir. Still, he had dallied a few times after that, but he hadn't sought out such opportunities in many years. He wondered if Nathaniel remembered.

When Nathaniel said he was going to get driftwood, Fergus took up his usual spot. He toed one of the loose rocks, trying to put it back in place in the fire ring.

"You have been watching after the place?" Fergus gave a short nod at that.

"Yeah, I come down or have someone come down about once a month to clear it out. You know, in case you decide to visit or I needed a place to hide for a few hours." He decided not to mention Bryce always taking care of it before him. It would probably be best not to mention fathers today.
 

Nathaniel Howe

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#5
Fergus confirmed Nathaniel's suspicions, answering before Nathaniel left the cave. "Yeah, I come down or have someone come down about once a month to clear it out. You know, in case you decide to visit or I needed a place to hide for a few hours."

The sentiment brought a genuine smile to Nathaniel's lips as he pushed the vines aside and returned to the beach. Fergus was a true friend. For a man like Nathaniel, those were a rare commodity.

He did not have to search far for wood dry enough to use as firewood. On the lower edge of a bluff, Nathaniel found what he needed: two planks, some dried grass, and gnarled and hole dotted piece of driftwood. The dried grass he placed in a pocket of his pants. Boards first and then log, he stacked the wood in his arms and started back toward the cave. Orange poppies swayed within a gentle breeze and captured his attention, however, stalling his return.

He had no salted pork, but flowers he could provide in a pinch. If Fergus wanted to kid about this being a date, Nathaniel would take the joke even further.

Setting the wood down temporarily, he grabbed at a bunch of the poppies and slid the stems between his lips. The flowers tasted of salt and sand. After picking the wood up once again, Nathaniel bit down so as to not lose a single of the flowers on his journey back to the cave.

Gone no more than ten minutes, he returned to Fergus bearing both wood and flowers. The wood he dropped at his feet near the fire ring. The flowers, he released from his mouth to rest against the palm of his hand. "Maybe these will be salty enough for you," he kidded through tilted grin.
 

Fergus Cousland

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#6
Nathaniel went off to find wood for the fire and Fergus was left alone for a few minutes. Usually he would spend time like this alone too brood, but today had been a rather good day. Despite the disposition of the warhorse, the ride itself had been good exercise, and it was nice to have an actual friend to spend time with again.

Men like Teagan were his friend as well, but he could never imagine inviting him down to a cave for a drink. No they would spend their cordial privacy together in his study or some other formal setting. That was the rules of their association.

Nathaniel had been a friend since his youth, when he was wild and a bit more free than he was now. There were things he would share with him, that none of his current list of friends would understand. That's what made him especially glad they were doing this. It felt like reconnecting to something he desperately needed since losing so much. Losing Oriana, Oren, his parents, Rae, and apparently losing his brother on whatever quest he ventured out on.

When Nathaniel returned, he could not help but let out a laugh at seeing the flowers in his mouth. "Maybe these will be salty enough for you," he said as he offered Fergus the flowers now in his hand.

"Oh, well aren't you just a charmer today." He took the flower, and picked one that didn't seem as chewed as the others, sticking it behind his ear. He shook his head laughing at his silliness. He placed the remaining flowers gingerly on the stone he called a seat and moved to help Nathaniel get the fire going.

"It's nice to have you here, Nate." The smile he gave was warm as he looked across the fire pit at his friend.
 

Nathaniel Howe

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#7
"Oh, well aren't you just a charmer today,” Fergus commented before plucking the flowers from Nathaniel’s mouth. The prettiest Cousland to ever Cousland, Fergus placed one of the flowers behind an ear.

"I'm not all brooding stares and daddy issues, Fergus." Oghren had teased Nathaniel about his angst and father issues once before. In Fergus' company, Nathaniel felt comfortable enough to joke about them himself.

In unison, the men laughed at the ridiculousness of it all.

Deep laughter, born deep in the gut was not something Nathaniel had done in quite some time. There were others in his life he called friend. None of those knew him before he had become a Grey Warden, though. Only Fergus knew him not only as arl and Warden-Commander, but also as Nate. The history between the men, though touched with tragedy, was a rich one and created a bond Nathaniel shared with no other person alive. Even with those he called close friends within the wardens, he kept barriers, hiding parts of himself they could not possibly understand. They could say they did, but how could they? They did not know Rendon. They did not know Nathaniel, the boy, the teenager or young man. Fergus did. They did not understand losing a wife. Fergus did.

Nathaniel took a knee and dug the dried grass out of his pocket to that Fergus and he might get to making the fire.

"It's nice to have you here, Nate.”

Nathaniel’s eyes uplifted from the fire pit to regard Fergus for a moment and his mouth slid into a wry smile. “Of course it is.”

Flint and steel withdrawn from a pocket, Nathaniel sparked a small flame in the dried grass. A few puffs of air upon the newborn fire fueled the flames enough to catch ignite a small portion of the driftwood. The fire would not be a large one and would take time to grow, but they had time. There were bottles to drink and conversation to be had yet.

Nathaniel rose only long enough to move to his stump and took a seat. The bottle of brandy he offered to Fergus, first, then reached for his whiskey. Raising the freshly opened bottle, he toasted, “To pirates."
 

Fergus Cousland

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#8
It was nice to forget all of the crap in his life for a few fleeting moments spent with a longtime friend. The fire got started, and Nathaniel handed him the bottle of brandy. Antiva had made him partial to brandy, it was a lot cheaper there and definitely more free flowing.

He knew his contemporaries enjoyed Ferelden spirits more, but he had never been able to shake the desire for a good brandy. Even when he stopped drinking for some time, at Rae's request, he still had the itch for a glass of brandy before bed.

Those days were over though, and despite what others would request of him there would be no stopping his drinking now. He would moderate as best he could, but there were aches too deep that needed to be soothed by the bitter burn of the bottle.

To pirates." Fergus lifted his bottle to Nathaniel's toast before adding his own.

"To old friends." He took a swig from the bottle and squinted his eyes a bit as he swallowed. It had a good burn, a little more aged than he was used to, and while his smile was still genuine some of his melancholy had definitely returned. Too many thoughts while looking into the fire and thinking about the drink that was offered.

He let out a long sigh and rubbed over his forehead. Part of him did not want to ask the question that was resting on the tip of his tongue. He finally gave in, "Have you heard from my damnable brother recently?"

They were both wardens, surely Aedan hadn't completely abandoned the order. Then again, he had abandoned his only family left had he not. It was very plausible he had left his supposed brotherhood behind.
 

Nathaniel Howe

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#9
"To old friends."

The men each drank from their bottles, Nathaniel his whiskey and Fergus his brandy. Nathaniel had heard a man in a tavern once declare there was no ailment whiskey could not cure. Whiskey had yet to heal the scars of Fiona's passing, but that did not stop Nathaniel from trying. Anders had been right about one thing that day; Nathaniel's drink had become a problem. Too many people were aware. He had tried to stop, being so good along the trip to West Hills. One drink to take the edge off turned into three. Three became six and on continued to the cycle in the secrecy of his chambers. He did not need to hide his widower's thirst from Fergus. His friend's was as ravenous as his own.

They had avoided speaking of Fiona or Lene during their ride. To not think about Fiona, to not be reminded of his failure if for but an afternoon spent with an old friend was an opportunity best not squandered. Still, a somber air mixed with the wisps of smoke from the fire. They could stay inevitable for only so long. Dark clouds loomed, the quiet ushering in the storm of memory.

It was Fergus who spoke next, either searching for respite from his own thoughts or seeking to save Nathaniel's from his. "Have you heard from my damnable brother recently?"

Aedan was a better topic for thought than Fiona, but only just barely. Nathaniel was grateful for many things Aedan had done for him. Aedan saved Nathaniel's life by conscripting him. Without Aedan, Nathaniel, no doubt, would have graced the gallows in Amaranthine or Denerim. Aedan had made Nathaniel Warden-Commander and the arling of Amaranthine. He had been a good friend at times and then others... He was just a prick.

Nathaniel swallowed another drink. Fergus would ask the question for only one reason. He had not heard from Aedan.

His tongue licked at down-turned lips. This was not news he relished in sharing, but he shared it all the same. "He sent me a letter after Fiona's death. He was off doing who knows what with his brother, Iain." As a man that kept his sexual proclivities secret for many years, Nathaniel knew how to recognize them in another man. Aedan had been in denial about Iain. He spoke of brotherhood and best friends when, deep down, Nathaniel knew he simply wished to bed the man and call him lover. There was no shame in such a desire; there was only shame in denying the desire.
 

Fergus Cousland

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#10
There was a few moments of silence, and Fergus guess whatever Nathaniel was going to say would be something he likely didn't really want to hear. "He sent me a letter after Fiona's death. He was off doing who knows what with his brother, Iain."

Fergus' face soured at that and he took another drink of his brandy. Iain and Aedan had been good friends in their youth, though Fergus had never been truly close with the man. He assumed it was the age difference. He had been a good knight for a while, but when Aedan made his great escape the man had gone with. There was some bitter thoughts in Fergus' mind about it.

"Well, he should be here with his actual brother. All that talk about not leaving me to handle things on my own anymore. Bullshit." He wasn't sure where it fell apart again. If there was too much pain between them with the loss of their parents, or if Aedan blamed himself for the death of Oriana and Oren.

Fergus had certainly blamed him. Their fight in Denerim, with Fergus drop dead drunk had gotten all those bitter feelings out. How could he have not heard their cries or the men invading the rooms. How could he have not saved them. And now, when Fergus lost someone so important again there was no word from his brother.

"He hasn't even sent me a letter to let me know he's okay. It is painful to believe he thinks so little of me to even write me." He sighed and this time took a very long swig of the brandy. He wiped his mouth on the back of his hand afterwards and looked over at Nate. "I'm beginning to wonder if I didn't lose my brother the night the rest of my family was murdered."
 

Nathaniel Howe

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#11
Not what Fergus expected or even wanted to hear. The disdain shadowed his features as he drank of his brandy. "Well, he should be here with his actual brother. All that talk about not leaving me to handle things on my own anymore. Bullshit."

Nathaniel has his own opinions on Aedan, but he stayed mute and allowed Fergus to vent his.

"He hasn't even sent me a letter to let me know he's okay. It is painful to believe he thinks so little of me to even write me." The flow of brandy continued as Fergus' frustrations grew. "I'm beginning to wonder if I didn't lose my brother the night the rest of my family was murdered."

Fergus lost Aedan in more ways than he could know. Then again, Aedan had a very big mouth and Fergus knew exactly what it meant to be a warden. Aedan and his liberal sharing of warden secrets was one of the main reasons Nathaniel instituted the conscription rule after becoming Warden-Commander. Share warden secrets with a non-warden, and that person would be conscripted. If people knew what made wardens what they were, wardens would be more reviled than mages.

"Aedan was a selfish boy that grew into a selfish man." The words were voiced with no antipathy or even malice. Merely statements of fact repeated before a draw of whiskey. "That did not change when he became a Grey Warden. He was forced to become the Hero and was resentful of the responsibility. It was one of the reasons he gave everything to me." Nathaniel exhaled a deep breath. The story to tell not a good one. What goes up, must come down. And as the sun began to set outside the cave, the light and carefree nature of their outing gave way to heavy-hearted conversation.

"Given how surprised you were at the Landsmeet when Aedan announced me Warden-Commander and Arl of Amaranthine, I imagine he never shared with you the story of how that all came about?" Nathaniel would share it now, but first, whiskey. A first drink followed by a second. He swallowed down the liquor and continued, "Aedan did something he should not have done during the Blight; something he kept concealed from all of us wardens, me included, his second-in-command. He only revealed this to me when his hand was forced and he found himself boxed into a corner."

He shook his head. Bitterness crept into his tone, "I proposed a fix for the problem. It had become to my job to do that often, to clean up his messes like a maid picking up a spoiled child's toys each night and I made the mistake of mentioning he might delay his marriage to Lady Jenna. He told me exactly what he felt about that and I, of all people, Nathaniel Howe, should not speak to him of duty and sacrifice."

Gruff laughter became muffled as he drank once more. "I cleaned the mess best I could and disappeared to Amaranthine. When I returned, he apologized for losing his temper but still would not do as I recommended. Instead, he decided to abandon his duty all together and leave it to me to pick up the pieces in his stead as Warden-Commander and arl."
 

Fergus Cousland

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#12
"Aedan was a selfish boy that grew into a selfish man." He could not help but nod along in agreement. Though, it made him wonder if he was also selfish. They were brothers after all. Had his desires and hopes with Rae been selfish. The things he had been trying to accomplish. He shook himself out of such thoughts and listened to the rest of what Nathaniel had to say.

"I cleaned the mess best I could and disappeared to Amaranthine. When I returned, he apologized for losing his temper but still would not do as I recommended. Instead, he decided to abandon his duty all together and leave it to me to pick up the pieces in his stead as Warden-Commander and arl." His parents always had a way of sweeping Aedan's screw ups under the rug. They doted on him, but he wasn't ever expected to have duty beyond marriage and Cousland children. It was Fergus would would be Teyrn, Fergus who bore the brunt of responsibility. He let out a slightly strained laugh and shook his head.

"I actually believed he had changed. That having to do what he did for Ferelden, with the Blight and everything. I actually thought it made him a different person." He took another long drink of the brandy, staring into the fire. He was angry. Angry that Aedan was still the spoiled brat he had been when they were growing up. Angry that he was breaking more vows and promises.

"He hasn't the right to call himself a Cousland anymore. Blasted spoiled little brat." Fergus' arms tightened and he had the urge to throw the only thing he was holding, which was the bottle of brandy. He thought better of it before it became a decoration on the cave wall.

"You may be truly a better man than I, Nate, as I would have put him in his place one way or another. But then we are both bound by honor and duty are we not? How could he not see that what you did was because of that. I did not know the story of why he did it, I was shocked that he did it. After all the talk of Wardens being a brotherhood, and the sacrifice you all make. It makes me sick." He spat the words out, and realized he was letting himself get too worked up. His brother was gone, likely lost to him, and he had to come to terms with that. His shoulders slumped and he let out a soft laugh. It was followed by more brandy.
 

Nathaniel Howe

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#13
"I actually believed he had changed. That having to do what he did for Ferelden, with the Blight and everything. I actually thought it made him a different person." His expression, the way he drank his brandy, Fergus was livid.

"He hasn't the right to call himself a Cousland anymore. Blasted spoiled little brat."

Nathaniel frowned. Aedan's sins were many and of the ilk that enraged Nathaniel more times than not. But there was no denying he was a Cousland. He would not strip that from Aedan even if Fergus would in his anger.

"You may be truly a better man than I, Nate, as I would have put him in his place one way or another. But then we are both bound by honor and duty are we not? How could he not see that what you did was because of that. I did not know the story of why he did it, I was shocked that he did it. After all the talk of Wardens being a brotherhood, and the sacrifice you all make. It makes me sick."

Most households were not like the Howe's where father pitted son against son to see whom might come out the better man. Most noble families had the heir and the spare. Aedan had been that spare. He had been raised to be the second son. No real responsibility was expected of him. When duty and expectations were dropped upon Aedan's doorstep, he was completely unprepared. Revenge had been his motivator, not honor or duty. They were two concepts he simply did not understand.

"Fergus," irony tugged at Nathaniel's mouth wryly, "It was a sacrifice for him, I suppose. I know he told you things about us wardens."Aedan revealed secrets he should not have to his brother. Nathaniel would allude to them but would not say them outright. "He gave up his life that day in the larder while watching your father die. To him, that was an ultimate sacrifice. He was forced to grow up before he was ready."

Once again, Nathaniel Howe attempted to clean up Aedan Cousland's mess.

Nathaniel shook his head. Enough about Aedan. It would figure that on a day when Fergus and Nathaniel were having what probably amounted to the best time either had in the last month, Aedan would manage to damper their fun.

No more.

He scooted along his log, edging closer to Fergus'. Head tilting to the side, his expression grew serious, though a hint of mischief lit his eyes. "We should wrestle."
 

Fergus Cousland

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#14
And then in a turn of events he had not expected, Nathaniel began to defend Aedan. He frowned as the man spoke, drinking more from his bottle too keep his mouth quiet and not interrupt. "He gave up his life that day in the larder while watching your father die. To him, that was an ultimate sacrifice. He was forced to grow up before he was ready."

He closed his eyes. He watched father die. He found the bodies of Oriana and Oren. Perhaps the memories of such things never left his brother. Perhaps he wanted to remove himself from those memories, from his own obligations because of the pain. While Fergus could sympathize, he lived in the real world where you had to find a way to cope and not run away from your responsibilities. Aedan took the easy way out.

He wouldn't voice that to his friend. The conversation died, and Fergus let out a long sigh as he looked at the fire. He wished he hadn't brought Aedan up, things were going so well before he had. He would be lying if he said that he did not miss him, even his arrogance would be a slight comfort right now.

He ran his fingers through his hair, brushing the bangs from his eyes. When he looked over, Nathaniel had moved closer to him giving him a strangely serious look. "We should wrestle."

Fergus stared at him. Then he laughed, covering his mouth with his free hand. After that a grin crept up on his face, "I bet even with a bum leg, I can take you down this time."

Because the brandy was important, he returned the cork to the bottle and moved to set it where it would be out of the way. Nathaniel had came out on top the last time they wrestled, but Fergus was less wiry than he had been back then. Muscles thicker with his warrior training. His disadvantage would be in his old injuries flaring up.

When he turned back to Nate there was a challenge in his eyes. He moved off of his seat and a little further back into the cave. He held out his hand to Nathaniel, and once the other man took it, the match was on. The cave floor was dusty, but not enough for their boots to lose grip as they tried to overpower one another. Fergus tried to use his strength to overpower his friend, hoping this time he would not be the one on his back.
 

Nathaniel Howe

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#15
Not at all what Fergus expected Nathaniel to say, but it had been what Fergus needed to hear to lift his mood and bring laughter and a smile to his lips once again. "I bet even with a bum leg, I can take you down this time."

The last time the men had wrestled, they were no more than sixteen. The trip had been Nathaniel’s last to Highever before his father sent him to the Free Marches and his banishment. Nathaniel clung to the memory of that happy afternoon with his friend for some time after arriving at his new home at Lord Errol’s estates. How would things have been different if he had been a Cousland rather than a Howe? Bryce would never have sent his son away, but then Fergus never disappointed Bryce as Nathaniel did Rendon.

That day had been a day of firsts for both Nathaniel and Fergus: a first lock pick, a first stolen bottle of wine, a first kiss. Innocence was not something to be longed for but something they lived for just a short while longer.

Adults now, Nathaniel and Fergus’ perspective had changed. They were no longer those little boys or young men that escaped to this cave together. The weight of the duty rested upon their shoulders. And that duty told them both, right now, to set their liquor aside. Brandy and whiskey bottles were important vessels not to abused.

“You might. We shall see,” Nathaniel challenged his friend. Fergus was more muscled now than he had been in those days. Nathaniel was still faster and had more experience.

The men clasped hands, readying for the match. When it began, when Fergus lunged at Nathaniel, boots digging into the hardened clay of the cave floor, Nathaniel dug his own feet in, attempting to push back with all his strength. He would not be able to overpower Fergus. That much was obvious. Nathaniel’s agility would serve as his strength.

Nathaniel twisted about, turning his back to press against Fergus’ chest. Strong arms and hands wrapped about Nathaniel, squeezing the very breath out of him. He wheezed out a laugh and bent at the waist, attempting to lift Fergus off his feet.
 

Fergus Cousland

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#16
Both men worked against each other well, using what talents they had learned since their last match. Nathaniel ended up with his back to Fergus and he squeezed his arms around his chest trying to pull him to one side so they would end up on the ground. Their laughter echoed against the stone walls of the cave, along with the shuffle of their boots.

Nathaniel ended up lifting Fergus off the ground, and he gave a surprised grunt. His friend got the better of him as he tried to pull back to gain a foothold and they went tumbling to the floor. From there the struggle grew in earnest. Nathaniel was more agile, and many times was able to get out of Fergus' grip. More than once did each man end up on top of the other trying to pin them.

By the end of it, both men were winded. Fergus gained the upper hand and ended up astride Nathaniel, pinning his arms above his head. Sweat beaded his brow, and he grinned wide at the man under him. The last time they were in this position, it was Nathaniel on top of him, and after a moment of uncertainty he had initiated a kiss.

Why should this be any different? Two friends could certainly share such things, could they not. Instead of the triumphant boast that had been his first instinct, he moved quickly and captured Nathaniel's lips in a fierce, needy kiss. There was nothing about Nathaniel that would dredge up memories of either of his wives, and for that he was grateful.

He pulled back, close to panting his grip on Nathaniel's arms loosened now. He searched his friend's eyes hoping that he had not made a mistake.
 

Nathaniel Howe

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#17
The men struggled against one another. Nathaniel would gain the upper hand only to lose out to Fergus. Back and forth the tug-of-power went until Fergus gained a final advantage and pinned Nathaniel to the ground. Roles had reversed, an irony not lost to Nathaniel as he felt the pinch of Fergus’ fingers against his wrist or the weight of his body atop his own.

The kiss that followed, however, Nathaniel did not expect. His eyes widened at first, shooting open in surprise. He never assumed Fergus shared his inclinations. The shock faded quickly, however, and the tension that tightened his muscles began to relax. This was not a young boy’s kiss, tentative, experimental and unsure. Fergus kissed with a man’s experience and need. There was nothing gentle in movement of his lips or the tasting of his tongue.

Fergus took what he wanted and Nathaniel did the same. His wrists pushed against Fergus’ hand as his body rocked beneath Fergus. Teeth tugged at Fergus’ lower lip before kissing his friend in return. And much like that day so long ago, something stirred between the men. The shared kiss was so much more than living a happier time in the past, but also the comfort it brought in the present. A confirmation of what they truly meant to the other. All that had happened or would happen could not erase the history between them. No matter what happened, no matter the loved ones that passed through their lives, they had one another still. They were not alone.

Fergus peeled away and released his hold upon Nathaniel’s arms. Both men’s chests rose and fell in deep breaths. Anticipation mixed with apprehension deepened the wrinkles about Fergus’ eyes and mouth as he regarded Nathaniel awaiting his reaction.

Bottom would simply not do.

Nathaniel’s hands found Fergus’ waist and reversed their positioning, pushing Fergus onto his back. There was no romance. No softly spoken words of affection or a forever spent together. Neither would view the other with pity. Neither would tell the other how sorry they were for their loss. To touch someone, to feel closeness in nothingness. Raw comfort Fergus could provide Nathaniel, and he him. This had not been the purpose of their afternoon ride, but it would certainly be a benefit.

“Have you ever?” The words whispered in between kisses and the tugging of Fergus’ shirt loose from his pants.
 

Fergus Cousland

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#18
Fergus was not expecting Nathaniel's response. To end up on his back, Nate's mouth on his again with a hunger not at all different than his own. He didn't realize how much he needed this. It was affirmation of a bond, but it wasn't a love song. Friends who knew each others pains and desires who could at least make each other forget for a few hours.

Fergus wasn't used to being on his back in these situations, but he really didn't care at the moment. His hands were doing much the same to Nathaniel, seeking his shirt and tugging it free. His calloused hands moved over Nathaniel's stomach then, before both hands grabbed at his waist. He growled into the kiss, his hips lifting.

Have you ever?” It seemed it was Nathaniel's moment to be unsure, and Fergus gave him a grin. Had he ever? Flashes of memories he had actually tried to forget for some time entered his mind. Men who were required to make heirs for their family were not supposed to have such dalliances.

"I have..." His breath was heavy, and he gave a short laugh as he lifted up enough for Nate to pull off his shirt. "Though, I haven't since returning from Antiva."

Antiva had been... full of debauchery until Oriana. But he didn't want to think about Oriana. He wanted to lose himself in Nate, and he was sure by the needy look in his eyes he wanted the same thing.

For once he wasn't self conscious about having his shirt off, knowing the man would not stare over long at the scars that made up most of his abdomen. He would not gasp and ask if they hurt. He would not pity him.

The cave floor wasn't very comfortable, the dirt floor scratching into his back. Instead of focusing on it, he focused on getting rid of Nathaniel's shirt, and seeking out his mouth once more once that obstacle had been overcome.
 

Nathaniel Howe

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#19
"I have..." Breathing labored, Fergus managed a laugh and shifted about beneath Nathaniel enough to allow him to remove his shirt. "Though, I haven't since returning from Antiva."

That Nathaniel did not know. The day had been full of surprises amongst the old. Even as well as he knew Fergus, there were still things to discover. New stories, new understandings, new sensations.

Nathaniel's shirt went next, over his head and tossed to the side with Fergus'. Chest to chest, they laid. Mouths collided once more with fervent need. Fergus' touch was not gentle; neither was Nathaniel's. There were benefits to being with men, many of which Nathaniel planned to take advantage of.

Fergus was not the first man Nathaniel was with that had scars. Jean had one on his left shoulder and lower right calf. Nathaniel's own scars were of a similar kind - his right shoulder and left hip bearing the marks of different darkspawn battles. Fergus' were more extreme. They made him angry and he muted a growl against Fergus' mouth before rolling to Fergus' side. Those scars might not have been there were it not for Rendon. Rendon and his grand plans. He would destroy anything and everyone that got in his way including his own son.

"I have as well." He nudged Fergus' head toward his and gravelly words were spoken against Fergus' lips, "Many times." The tip of two fingers traced the scars along Fergus' stomach, no care taken to be soft or ginger.

When he had traced their length, from right to left, from top to bottom, Nathaniel's hand trailed lower still. The laces on Fergus' pants did not remain tied for long and Nathaniel continued his exploring and discovery of the new. The words were chosen deliberately. An homage to a father that deserved more and would found all of this abhorrent. "That is why he sent me away."
 

Fergus Cousland

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#20
Skin pressed to skin, and he swore he could feel Nathaniel's heart beating against his. Not some fluttery poetic thought, but the strong beating heart of another person so close to him. Kissing him roughly with a need he reciprocated. Each rough touch and hungry kiss was filling an aching void inside of him usually reserved for the bottles of brandy he emptied on a daily basic. It could not make him forget, but it certainly could dull the pain for now.

Nate rolled to his side after a moment, and Fergus instinctively turned towards him. "I have as well." Nathaniel's voice rumbled close to him, and a shiver ran through him. "Many times."

"Then it seems you may have some things to teach me." His companion's experienced hands roamed over his chest and abdomen with purpose, the pressure was not light. There was no tender touch wishing to take away those scars, just an acceptance of what was there of who he was. His muscles flexed and jumped at the touch, and he closed his eyes for a moment. This would not erase the painful memories, but for a while it could dull the pain. For a while he could be young again.

Nathaniel didn't stop with his abdomen, his hand finding its way further down. Fergus reached up, his hand moving across Nathaniel's neck. It found a home at the nape of his neck, fingers curling tight into his hair. He needed some control as Nate deftly unlaced his pants. Soon he wasn't sure how much control he would actually have.

He let out a gasp when Nathaniel's hand found his growing erection, hips involuntarily pressing against his hand. Fergus had average length, but above average girth. It had always served him well enough, with few complaints. He hoped he did not disappoint his current companion.

"That is why he sent me away." It took a moment to process it, distracted by the hand down his pants. So the desire for other men had caused his father to send him to the Marches. That only made him hate Rendon Howe even more.

Fergus used his grip in Nathaniel's hair to tug his head back, his lips running along the man's jaw, before kissing him again. It was rougher than before and seemed to have a purpose. Fergus desperately hoped Nathaniel would not mention his father again.
 
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