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“Bloody hell.”

 

Alistair heard the muttered curse through the trees and immediately made a beeline for where he thought it had come from.  He knew that voice; it was Caitwyn’s voice, with that sharp lilt from Denerim’s Alienage that made her words blur together when she spoke quickly.  Bulling through the undergrowth, he had fleeting images of her in trouble.  Maybe an animal had cornered her, or some darkspawn had snuck up on her.  She was still new to being a Warden, and it was his job to look after her, a job he’d already failed once in the Tower. 

 

The memory of her bleeding out, her body going still and cold resurfaced, and he’d be damned if he let that happen again. 

 

Branches broke on his armor and he crashed through the final bit of brush to see an entirely unexpected sight.  Caitwyn hanging upside down, a noose of rope closed around her ankle as she swung suspended from a tree, her long braid dangling nearly down to the forest floor.  Maethor sat on his haunches, and at Alistair’s approach turned his massive head and grinned at him.  The dog might have bonded to Caitwyn, but that did not seem to prevent him from finding this amusing.

 

Fighting down his own laughter, Alistair rocked back on his heels as Caitwyn spun gently on the rope.  She was trying to haul her torso up and reach the loop that held her ankle, which made the spinning worse.  With a frustrated grunt, she gave up a final attempt and her body hung limp, and then she saw him.   Her summer-green eyes glinted with annoyance.

 

“So,” he drawled.

 

“Don’t, don’t you even start,” she threatened, cutting him off.  He spread his hands, a silent protest that he hadn’t been about to tease her.  No, he would never do something like that.  Especially not after she’d had to stifle laughter when he’d gotten caught in a leg trap.  Unfortunately, he wasn’t as good as controlling his face as she was, and she glared at him because he couldn’t stop grinning like a loon.

 

As funny as this was, he didn’t want to her to be angry at him.  She’d only just stopped being so guarded around everyone, and he had no idea what would send her scurrying back to how she had been.  Not that he could blame her for how she had reacted after Ostagar.  Some days had been better than others, for both of them.  They’d even managed a joke or two between them.  But he had lost the closest thing to family he’d known in a long time, and she… she had been practically thrown into the deepest part of the ocean in the middle of a storm.  It wasn’t fair, but here they were. 

 

“Sorry, promise I won’t.  Though, can’t help but wonder how this happened,” he said, trying keep his tone light.  Maethor wuffed and pawed at the ground, which probably meant something very important, but Alistair was damned if he knew what.

 

“Was training with Sten,” Caitwyn told him.  She closed her eyes and breathed in deep, then she surged upwards again, this time managing to catch her own leg.  Hauling herself up her own body, she got one hand on the rope and drew her knife with the other.  While she sawed through the rope, she continued, “Trying to learn how to survive out here, and since he got all the way from the coast to Lothering without anyone noticing, figured he’d be a good one to teach me.”

 

Alistair declined to point out that she hadn’t quite explained everything, and instead focused on how she was cutting herself off of her only means of not crashing onto the ground.  Should he warn her?  Or just try to catch her?  The rope started to come apart, strands fraying as she cut, and even her negligible weight began to strain the remains of the trap.  He took a half step forward, but then she flung the knife point first into the ground and let her body fall limp again.  The rope snapped, but instead of breaking her neck, she braced herself on her hands, turning the fall into a handstand, and she neatly righted herself as if she were an acrobat.

 

“Long story short,” she went on as if she hadn’t just nearly died, “he set up an obstacle course and I was to get through it and tap him on the shoulder before he could notice me.  Was doing fine, too, until I ran into this.”  At this, she frowned and kicked off the piece of rope that was still attached to her.  Then she picked up her knife, wiping off the dirt before resheathing it.

 

“That’s a… unique method of training,” he said dryly.  She shrugged, no longer bothered by his amusement at the situation now that she was out of it.  Tugging her braid over her shoulder, she quickly wiped away the winter-dry leaves that it had accumulated in her near-fall. 

 

“Not much different from—” she started to say and then caught herself, as if she had been about to say too much.  He barely knew anything about her, save that she was from Denerim and that Duncan had saved her by recruiting her, and he wondered what in her life had made her so habitually wary.  He wanted her to be able to trust him, to rely on him.  It was half the reason he’d stopped evading when she’d asked him about Eamon and let her know he was a bastard.  Though not all of it, not who his father had been.  He didn’t want that to be important, and he had no idea how she’d react to that. 

 

But there was more to it.  She was the leader, not him.  She might not see it in herself, but he did.  She’d given courage to the men in the Tower of Ishal, she’d done what she could for the villagers in Lothering, and she’d decided their course afterward; that meant it was down to him to help her.  However he could. 

 

“Look, you don’t have to tell me your life story, but whatever happened before you joined up, it’s not going to get you in trouble or anything.  I mean, we’re already wanted criminals as it is, not like it can get any worse,” he said, injecting as much levity into his tone as possible.  She regarded him with opaque eyes, and he would have given a good deal to know what she was thinking right then.  Then Maethor butted his head against her leg, and she grunted at the impact. 

 

“Did second-story work for a time in Denerim, among other things,” she admitted, and he’d seen people have teeth pulled with less trepidation.  “Was a family business, in a way.  Anyway, used to train by running courses in the city, on rooftops, that sort of thing.  It’s different out here.  Not used to it yet.”  She shrugged, as if to say it wasn’t important, but she watched him carefully for his reaction. 

 

“Huh.  This mean you lost, then or what?” he asked, waving his hand at the remnants of the trap she’d broken herself out of.  With a sharp exhalation she shook her head, and he thought, just maybe, he saw the corner of her mouth twitch up. 

 

“No, he didn’t have to come looking for me, so I’m still under the time limit, though I don’t think by much.  Gotta be quick if I’m gonna beat him.”  Her brows knit in a thoughtful frown, and she then regarded him with sharp eyes.  Slowly, she spoke, as if thinking and speaking at the same time.  “He also said I could use whatever I find in the forest.”

 

“I don’t like where this is going,” he said flatly.  Her grin was razor quick, her canines flashing white and bright in the dimness under the trees.  “Nope, really don’t like where this is going.”

 


 

“Get back here you… you… bad dog!” Alistair yelled as Maethor ran through camp, one of Alistair’s boots in his mouth.  He chased after the dog on one bare foot, and every head turned to see watch the commotion.  Even Sten’s.  Alistair heard Leliana giggle and Morrigan snort in disgust, but while everyone was watching him, he hoped Caitwyn was circling around and sneaking up behind the qunari.  If not, he’d gone through this for nothing.

 

The dog skid to a halt, keeping to the lake side of camp, ensuring everyone’s backs were to the forest, and then charged at Alistair.  Considering he did want his boot back, he tried to tackle the dog, throwing his arms around that thick neck, only to be dragged a good three feet before his weight brought the dog down. 

 

“Give it back!” he commanded, but Maethor held on like grim death.  Alistair wasn’t sure if the dog understood that this was for pretend, or maybe he did and was doing this to him anyway?  Hard to tell with Mabari. 

 

Then he heard a deep grunt of surprise, and Maethor promptly let go of the boot.  Not expecting a lack of resistance, Alistair fell backwards and hit the ground hard.  Then Maethor licked his face before trotting away.  Sitting up, Alistair saw Caitwyn grinning up at Sten, pleased as anything that she’d gotten the drop on him.

 

“You undercut the intent of the exercise,” the qunari told her in uncompromising tones.  Caitwyn gave him an arch look and refused to be cowed.  It was almost comical, seeing such a tiny woman going toe-to-toe with the hulking giant. 

 

“You said all I had to do was score a touch on you without you noticing.  I could use anything I found in the woods do to that.  I found Alistair, and he agreed to help me.  Isn’t distracting the enemy a valid tactic?” she asked pointedly.  He certainly hoped so.

 

“Hm, you are not incorrect,” Sten allowed, and Caitwyn looked so pleased with the result that Alistair couldn’t help but smile.  Then Sten had to go and ruin it.  “However, you are clearly overly pleased with your cleverness.  We shall do this again, but you must catch me unawares and you may not use anyone else to aid you.  A count of twenty should be sufficient.”

 

Caitwyn sighed and turned her back to the woods, and Sten disappeared into the trees.

 

Then Caitwyn caught Alistair’s eye and gave him a chagrinned smile, as if to say what can you do?  He shrugged, his slobber-covered boot still in hand, and that turned her smile into a fully amused grin.  Then she nodded, having reached the end of her count, and Alistair, unable to help himself, pointed in the direction Sten had gone.  She mouthed a silent thank you at him, and he ducked his head and pressed his hand to his chest in mockery of a courtly bow. 

 

That actually made her laugh, and not just that little half-surprised huff she did when she didn’t expect someone to joke.  Glancing up, he saw real mirth in her eyes before she melted away into the shadows to run another mad obstacle course.

 

For a moment he regarded the space where she had been, trying to think if had ever seen her smile so openly before.  He didn’t think he had, and he wondered if he could make her do it again.