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A Matter of Trust

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Alistair was fairly certain that his fellow Warden had lost her blighted mind.

He knew that he wasn't the only one wondering what Aria could possibly be thinking, letting an assassin wander around freely. An assassin who had already attempted to kill them all once, even. It had taken her ages to trust him, after all.

Well, and the others, of course, but the him part was a bit more personal.

He supposed that he couldn't truly blame her for being so wary. Alistair didn't know the whole story, but – considering the little bit he'd been able to piece together about what had happened to her before she'd met Duncan – it didn't sound like something that left a person all that trusting of anyone, no matter who they might be.

But still, ages, even after they had fought and bled and mourned together. And there she was, trusting an Antivan Crow who had been hired to kill them without a second thought.

If he hadn't known from personal experience just how talented a healer Wynne was, Alistair would have assumed that Aria must have hit her head harder than any of them had realized when she'd gotten thrown into that wall back in Redcliffe. As it was... well, if she wasn't going to watch her back to keep the damned elf from sticking a knife in it, then Alistair was going to have to do it for her.

He didn't trust Zevran. Not even a little.

Especially not when it came to her.

Alistair looked over in Zevran's direction. The assassin was sitting – rather noticeably alone, Alistair couldn't help but observe – in the very visible part of camp that Aria had suggested he set up his tent. After a moment or two, almost as if he could feel Alistair's gaze on him, the elf glanced at him. Then he grinned broadly and gave Alistair an obviously exaggerated wink.

Scowling, Alistair looked away.

It didn't make any sense. He'd been letting Aria make all of the decisions since Ostagar, and this was the first one she had made that he couldn't for the life of him understand. She was a born leader, that much was obvious. She didn't trust easily, and she was about as far from foolhardy as possible for someone to be. So why had she done it? What could have convinced her to let someone who had tried to kill them, tried to kill her, join them instead?

"You should trust her."

Alistair startled, glancing to his right as Leliana sat down beside him in front of the fire. Her gaze pointedly drifted toward Zevran for a second or two before she turned her attention back toward Alistair. Her face was carefully expressionless, as if she was purposefully not giving him any clues as to what she was thinking.

Which is when he realized that he'd been gaping at her since she'd spoken. He quickly snapped his mouth shut.

The corner of Leliana's mouth twitched, just slightly. Alistair couldn't help but think that she'd probably intended for him to see it. If she hadn't, then it wouldn't have happened in the first place. He might not be the smartest, but even he had picked up on the fact that Leliana didn't do anything unintentionally.

"What are you talking about?" Alistair asked, not even trying to hide his confusion.

Until that moment, he hadn't realized that someone could give the impression of rolling their eyes without actually moving a single muscle. But Leliana somehow managed to pull it off. If it hadn't been aimed at him, Alistair might have been impressed. As it was, he suddenly felt the urge to duck his head and pretend to be invisible.

"I understand why you do not trust him," Leliana said patiently, with just a hint of chastisement in her voice, "but I would think by now that you would trust her."

Alistair spluttered for a moment. "I do!" he protested. "You know that I do. With my life."

Leliana raised an eyebrow. "Do you?" she asked. "Truly? Because that is not what I see."

Alistair opened his mouth. Then he closed it. "He's an assassin," he said weakly. "He tried to kill us."

"Yes," Leliana agreed. "Yet for whatever reason, she has chosen to give him a second chance." Her eyes twinkled with just a little too much merriment for Alistair's taste. "Perhaps it was his offer to warm her bed?"

His first instinct was to snap at her, to protest that Aria would never even consider taking the assassin up on the offer. Except...

... except that was actually what he was worried about, wasn't it? That Aria was tired of waiting for him to join her in her tent. That no matter what she said, taking things at his pace wasn't going to be enough for her. That she wanted to be done with the careful dance they'd been doing ever since they'd first met. She'd made it quite clear that she had much more experience than he did, and he was well aware that she wasn't going to wait on him forever.

Alistair didn't even know why she'd waited this long, if he was honest. It wasn't as if he was anything special. And even he had noticed that the assassin was handsome, despite Zevran being an untrustworthy ass who was probably going to try to kill them all in their sleep one day. Why would she wait around for him to stop being a coward when the elf was there blatantly asking to join her in her tent?

Leliana made a small, quiet noise of understanding. "I see," she said, shaking her head as she pulled herself to her feet. "It's not merely distrust, is it?"

"I'm not jealous," Alistair muttered. He was well aware that his petulant tone most likely undermined his words, which were fairly damning all on their own, but they were already out of his mouth before he could stop them.

She reached out and patted him on the head as if he was a small child. Or perhaps a mabari. "Either you trust her or you don't, Alistair," she said. "You need to make up your mind as to which it is."

"It's not her that I don't trust," he grumbled under his breath.

Leliana gave him an exasperated look. "Then perhaps you should act like it," she said, a hint of iron in her tone. Then, without saying another word, she turned and left him alone beside the fire.

Not for the first time, Alistair couldn't help but think that he would never understand women.

*

The first time that Alistair walked back into camp to find Zevran cooking dinner for them, he may have overreacted. Just a tiny little bit.

He hadn't actually meant to start yelling. It just happened. And then there was arm waving and swearing and... and...

Well, it was safe to say that it escalated quickly.

"What in the name of the Ancestors is going on here?" Aria asked loudly as she came hurrying toward the center of the camp, her face settled into a rather impressive scowl.

Then her gaze settled on the overturned bowl of what had once been stew before moving past it to where Alistair was looming over Zevran, his face red with anger while the elf wore a disturbingly placid look on his face.

"I asked a question," Aria repeated, her voice as hard as iron. "What is going on here?"

Alistair opened his mouth to reply, not entirely certain what was about to come out of his mouth, but before he had a chance Zevran jumped in.

"Merely a misunderstanding," Zevran said pleasantly, although his gaze rather pointedly didn't drift in Alistair's direction even once. "Your fellow Warden here mistook some of the spices I was adding to our dinner for something, ah, perhaps a bit less pleasant."

Aria's gaze snapped away from Zevran to focus on Alistair. "You thought he was trying to poison us?" she asked incredulously.

"He's an assassin," Alistair snapped at her, a bit more heat in his voice than he'd intended there to be. "It's only been a few weeks since he tried to kill us all."

Aria shot him a warning look. "Alistair—"

"How do we know that he's not just biding his time?" Alistair asked, cutting in.

A few feet away, Sten tilted his head to the side. "That question is not an entirely foolish one."

"See!" Alistair exclaimed, perhaps flailing his arms just a bit more than was entirely necessary. "Even Sten agrees with me!"

Aria turned her glare towards Sten.

"I did not say I agree," Sten said with a frown. Or maybe it was a smile. It was hard to tell with him since all of his expressions were basically identical. "I simply said it was not an entirely foolish question."

"That's close enough to agreeing, considering who we're talking about," Alistair muttered.

Aria's gaze was like ice when she turned it back towards him. "Zevran hasn't done anything since joining us to give us reason to doubt him."

Alistair glared at her, pointedly ignoring the warnings his brain was shooting at him to just stop talking. "So we're just going to ignore the fact that he tried to kill us?" he asked. "Really? We're just going to pretend that never happened?"

"He gave us his word," Aria said in a voice that brooked no argument, "and I trust him."

"And I'm not entirely convinced that you haven't lost your mind!" Alistair snapped back, regretting the words almost the exact moment that he said them.

Aria's eyes flashed with hurt, and Alistair immediately felt like a complete and utter ass.

"I—" He started to apologize, to say he hadn't actually meant it, but he stopped himself before he could. Because he did mean it, and both of them knew it. Lying about it wasn't going to change that fact. "I just don't understand."

"I can see that much," Aria said, her annoyance clearly showing through in her tone. "Just as I can see that it's because you're not even trying."

She didn't say it was because he wasn't smart enough to understand. He had to give her that much. Aria didn't have to say the words for him to hear the unspoken "you idiot" at the end, though, what she wasn't saying biting more than what she was. He'd heard similar things from enough people in his life to know that tone and what it meant.

Some things would never change, he supposed. No one would ever seen him as anything but a fool. He really should have been used to it, but somehow it still managed to hurt every time.

Especially when it was coming from someone whose opinion he cared about.

Alistair threw his hands up. It was like talking to a stone wall, and for the time being he was simply done. He wasn't going to change her mind, and he knew it. Without saying another word, he pushed past her, heading out of camp.

"Where do you think you're doing?" Aria asked. When he didn't reply, her tone shifted a bit from irritated more toward concerned. "Alistair?"

He ignored her as he stomped away. He was smart enough to know that saying anything else would be a bad idea, at least.

*

It was late when Alistair crept back into camp, pointedly ignoring Morrigan's smirk as he went past where she was sitting up on watch.

The rest of the camp was still and silent, and it was clear that everyone had already gone to their bedrolls or tents for the night. Or, at least, that's what he thought until someone cleared their throat rather pointedly as he walked by the tent that Wynne and Leliana usually shared.

Grimacing, Alistair reluctantly turned toward the sound.

Wynne was sitting just outside the tent, hidden in its shadow, which was probably why he hadn't seen her. Her face was suspiciously expressionless.

"Welcome back, Alistair," Wynne said, her voice gentle and motherly, and he just knew she was about to rip him to shreds because that was the only time she ever played up that aspect of herself. "You have been acting like a child, and you know it."

And there it was.

Part of Alistair wanted to argue, but the truth of the matter was that she was right and both of them knew it. He wasn't quite at the point where he was willing to admit it, though, even to her. He still had a little bit of pride that he wasn't quite willing to let go of yet.

He looked away, scuffing at the dirt with his boots.

Wynne sighed, but she didn't say anything else. She merely pushed herself to her feet with a soft grunt of exertion. "Goodnight, Alistair."

It was a sign of just how badly he had screwed up that she wasn't pushing the conversation. She knew that he knew, and that was apparently enough.

"Goodnight," he mumbled back at her, still not meeting her gaze.

"Alistair?"

He paused for a moment before reluctantly bringing his gaze up. Wynne was standing in the doorway of the tent, a tired look on her face.

"From what I have heard of Antivan Crows," she said pointedly, "if Zevran had wanted us dead then we would be dead."

And Alistair knew that much as well, even if he didn't exactly want to admit it. He bit his lip, not replying but not looking away either.

The expression on Wynne's face softened. "I do not trust him either," she said, a knowing look in her eyes, "but I do trust her."

Alistair looked away. "I know, I know," he said, his voice a little shakier than he'd meant for it to be. "Is it really so wrong of me to want to protect her?"

Wynne chuckled, and he reluctantly glanced back at her. "Of course not," she said, a hint of amusement in her eyes, "but have you stopped to consider that perhaps she can protect herself?"

She disappeared into her tent before Alistair could come up with a response.

Silently cursing himself, Alistair walked over the remains of the fire and dropped down beside it. The flames had died down while he had been gone, leaving nothing but a few glowing embers in their wake. He stared at them, his anger from earlier faded away and leaving nothing but an exhausted rawness behind it.

He wasn't entirely certain how long he sat there, silently staring at the reddish glow of the cooling embers. It might have been minutes, or it might have been an hour. Whichever the case, it had been long enough that it caught him by surprise when someone quietly cleared their throat nearby.

"Alistair?"

He couldn't help but flinch, just a little, at the sound of Aria's voice. With more than a little reluctance, he glanced in the direction of her tent.

Aria was standing just in front of it, one hand still resting on the cloth of it as it she was halfway tempted to disappear back inside of it. He couldn't make out her face clearly, not with only a thin sliver of one of the moons shining above them, barely providing enough light to see even shadows. Still, he could hear the hesitance in her voice, and it sent another pang of regret rushing through him for being the cause of it.

But that was the thing, wasn't it? He didn't necessarily regret what he'd said, just how he'd said it. That it had hurt her.

"Hey," he said quietly, bringing his hand up to rub the back of his neck. He wasn't certain what else to say.

She bit her lip, and for just a moment she looked like nothing more than a nervous young woman, not the battle-tested warrior that he was used to seeing her as. "Do you mind if I join you?"

Alistair shook his head. "Of course not."

Something that looked suspiciously like surprise flashed across her face, almost as if Aria had expected his answer to be different. Then, still with that reticence he wasn't used to seeing from her, she made her way over and sat down beside him.

Neither of them spoke.

But when Alistair tentatively reached over to take her hand a few minutes later, she took it.

*

Three weeks after Zevran joined their motley crew of misfits, he took an arrow that was meant for Aria.

Everything happened so quickly that Alistair barely even realized what had happened. One minute, Aria was standing there swinging her ridiculously huge sword at one of the bandits that really should have been more careful about who they decided to waylay. The next, Zevran had shoved her out of the way, giving her the chance to roll into cover, and was cursing as he grasped at an arrow shaft suddenly sticking out of his thigh.

Alistair wasn't a complete idiot, no matter what some people liked to claim. He was well aware that an arrow that hit the thigh of an elf would have hit something much more vital on a dwarf.

No matter how much he disliked and distrusted Zevran, Alistair didn't hesitate to bring up his shield and throw himself in front of him before the assassin could end up with any more arrows in him. He'd have done it for any of the others. Even Morrigan. Well, probably Morrigan. Maybe. If only because he knew Aria would never forgive him if he didn't.

Besides, he was well aware that Zevran had quite possibly just saved Aria's life. Which meant that he owed him, whether he liked it or not.

"How bad is it?" Alistair asked, gritting his teeth as several arrows clashed against his shield.

Zevran didn't reply.

Alistair reluctantly glanced over at the elf, frowning at just how pale he'd gone in such a short amount of time. Zevran was still standing but judging by the look of him Alistair wasn't certain how much longer that would be true.

"Zevran," he snapped, hoping that maybe the surprise of him actually calling the assassin by his name might get his attention, "how bad is it?"

It worked. Zevran blinked, a hazy look in his eyes that Alistair didn't like in the least bit. "Not good, I think," he said, his words slurred enough that when combined with his accent Alistair could barely understand him. Then he swayed for a moment before sliding to the ground.

Alistair swore under his breath, shifting so that his shield was held protectively in front of both of them. He could hear the others fighting in the distance, presumably taking down the rest of the bandits who were out there, but nothing seemed to be moving in their general vicinity. Well, nothing but Aria, who was no longer taking cover and was hurrying toward them now that arrows had stopped raining down from the sky.

There was more blood dripping down her sword than there had been a few seconds earlier. He supposed that she had taken care of the archer personally.

Zevran had managed to prop himself up on one arm in the handful of seconds since Alistair had looked away, and he was staring at the arrow sticking out of his leg with a surprisingly blank expression. His face was pale and chalky, as if all of the blood had completely drained from it.

"Alistair, are you hurt?" Aria asked breathlessly, dropping down to her knees at Zevran's side. One of her hands immediately went to the point where the arrow met his skin, pressing down on it.

Zevran hissed in pain.

With one last wary look around, Alistair knelt down as well. "I'm fine," he said, his eyes drawn to Zevran's thigh. Then he frowned as he took in the steady stream of blood that was pooling in the dirt under them. "Maker's breath, should it be bleeding that much?"

Zevran's mouth tightened into a grim line.

"No," Aria said tightly. Then she raised her voice, reminding Alistair not for the first time that she had been trained for the battlefield all her life. "Wynne! We need help over here now!"

Alistair frowned as Aria reached out and grabbed Zevran's hand with her free one, squeezing it tightly. He felt a quick pang of something that decidedly wasn't jealousy, thank you very much.

"Zevran, I need you to keep your eyes open," Aria said firmly, her tone making it clear that she wouldn't brook any argument. It was an order, not a suggestion. "Wynne will be here in just a moment to get you patched up."

Zevran's mouth twitched with something that he probably intended to be one of his usual smirks. It came across more as a grimace. "I am certain the sight of Wynne's magnificent bosom will—"

He cut off with a strangled yelp of pain as Aria pressed down on his injured leg. Alistair suspected that she probably put a bit more strength into it than was absolutely necessary, judging by the hurt look the elf was shooting her. Or maybe she hadn't, and he was just overreacting, the pain making even a helpful touch hurt. He supposed that either option was plausible.

And then Wynne was there, sweeping in like a storm cloud, the look on her face as dark as one. She took one look at Zevran's leg and swore with more vehemence than Alistair was even aware she was capable of. He hadn't even heard a few of those words before, and he'd spent time living with a bunch of Wardens.

"How bad is it?" Alistair asked, not entirely certain he wanted to hear the answer.

Wynne ignored him, not that he was all that surprised. She'd gotten good at ignoring him over the past few months. "We need to get that arrow out now," she said grimly.

Aria shot him a pointed look, and Alistair nodded. He reached out and put his hand on the shaft of the arrow, while she let go of Zevran's hand and placed both of her hands on his leg.

"On the count of three," Aria said, her voice hard.

Zevran let out a shaky breath, closing his eyes.

Alistair grimaced when Aria looked up, meeting his gaze. He was getting pretty good at reading her by now, and he was pretty sure that she was about to skip straight to—

"Three!"

*

It was an unusually solemn camp that night.

Zevran had passed out within seconds of them removing the arrow, and he had yet to wake up even though Wynne had finished healing his injury hours earlier. It wasn't exactly a secret that he'd lost a lot of blood before Wynne could stop the bleeding, and the longer he remained unconscious the grimmer the expression on her face became.

None of them particularly considered the elf a friend, but he was still one of their companions. That counted for something, apparently, even if most of them still didn't trust him wholeheartedly. Or didn't trust him at all, in at least a few cases. Besides, he'd gotten hurt protecting Aria. That meant something to all of them.

Whether any of them would admit it or not.

Alistair didn't like the elf. He didn't trust him. But that didn't mean he wanted him to die on them. Especially not when he'd gotten himself hurt in the first place trying to keep Aria safe.

"He'll be fine," Alistair said. He was trying his best to sound casual, but he knew that there was more than a little bit of awkwardness in his voice.

Aria didn't even glance at him. "It's my fault," she said quietly. "I wasn't paying enough attention."

"You were a little preoccupied with not dying at the time," Alistair pointed out with a frown. "You remember the big man with a sword who was trying to decapitate you, don't you?"

Her hands clenched into fists in her lap. "I still should have seen the archer," she said. "I was trained for this. It was an amateur mistake, and Zevran's paying for it."

Alistair opened his mouth to trying to argue. Then he thought twice about it and closed his mouth with an aggravated sigh. If he'd learned anything about Aria over the last few months, it was that she was the most stubborn woman he had ever met. He wasn't going to change her mind with words, not on this.

He hesitated for a moment before reaching over to rest his hand on her shoulder.

Aria stiffened at the touch for a moment or two before relaxing into it, leaning to the side a bit so that her arm was resting against his. She didn't say anything, and Alistair pointedly kept his own mouth shut. He was well aware that he tended to make things worse, not better, and things were bad enough on their own. The situation didn't need any help from him.

Alistair wasn't entirely certain how long they sat there, but it was long enough that he immediately missed the warmth from Aria leaning against him when she all but jumped to her feet. "How is he?"

He turned, following Aria's gaze. Wynne had just stepped out of the tent where they'd taken Zevran, a few spots of drying blood still showing clearly on her robes. She was frowning and shaking her head, an unreadable look on her face.

Aria's gaze was trained on her. "Wynne, how he is?" she repeated, something in her tone that Alistair couldn't quite interpret. Worry, yes, but there was something more to it than that. Even he could tell that much.

At that, Wynne finally glanced over at her and let out an amused snort of laughter. "Awake," she said dryly, "and I'm already missing the silence."

The grim look on Aria's face disappeared in a heartbeat, her mouth twisting into a smile that took Alistair's breath away. Or, at least, it did until he realized that she was smiling like that because of Zevran, at which point his appreciation of it soured somewhat.

... and he tried very much not to think about what that meant, because if he convinced himself that he wasn't actually jealous then maybe it would stick.

Aria didn't say anything before she was slipping past Wynne and disappearing into the tent. She didn't even glance his way.

Then again, she didn't look at anyone else either. So that was something, at least.

Alistair sighed and turned his gaze back towards the campfire. He did his best to ignore some of the looks that he just knew were being aimed at him, trying to focus his attention on the shifting flames instead. It was surprisingly simple to let his mind wander.

At least, it was until he heard the sound of a tent flap opening behind him.

He glanced behind him, not surprised to see Aria stepping back out of the tent. He was caught a bit off guard by the fact that Zevran was beside her, though, moving slowly and carefully as Aria rested her hand against his non-injured leg in support.

"What do you think you're doing?" Wynne snapped, already climbing to her feet from the spot she'd claimed on the other side of the campfire.

Zevran's mouth twisted into his customary smirk as he glanced at her. "I'm merely going for a short walk," he said brightly. "That tent was becoming much too stifling for me."

Wynne narrowed her eyes. "I swear, if you undo all the work I put into you—"

Alistair tuned out the banter, letting his attention focus on the scene in front of him instead. Zevran's face was still a little too pale and, although he was doing a good job at hiding it, a person could still see the lines of pain at the corners of his eyes if they knew what to look for. There was a nervous tension to Aria that was just as noticeable, and she was watching Zevran carefully as she helped him settle down beside the fire. As if she was worried he was made of glass and about to shatter.

Her attention was focused entirely on Zevran. Alistair was fairly certain that at that moment, the entire world had ceased to exist for her. Even him.

And if he felt a pang of something that decidedly wasn't jealousy, thank you very much, when he saw Aria reach over and pat Zevran on the shoulder once he'd settled down on the ground? Well, he kept it to himself, at least. Even he learned from his past mistakes.

No matter what everyone thought, he wasn't an idiot.