The clinic was, as ever, packed. The lantern that hung from the wall outside cast a dim, yellowish light over the huddled group of people waiting to enter, although its role as a signifier of what lay within was largely unnecessary. Everyone knew where to find the healer. Everyone knew where to go when they needed him… and knew that he would be there.
He always was.
Of course, Tobias reflected, as he skulked at the edge of the group, trying to avoid the worst of the coughing, hacking and vomiting, that was the problem. An old man, being held up by a pair of thin, rough-looking women who appeared to be his daughters, seemed to be almost insensible with fever. Bloody bile dribbled down his chin, his ravaged face pallid and sweaty, and his eyes rolled in hollow sockets, skin pulled tight with pain. Someone cannoned into one of the women in the crush. She swore, the old man sagged, and somehow—against all his better judgement—Tobias found himself helping, slipping a broad hand beneath a skinny, unnaturally hot arm, and keeping the frail body from hitting the filthy, dirt-packed floor.
The woman turned, readying a ferocious glare at his interference, and then mumbled a hasty ‘thank you’ instead.
“Let me help you get him inside,” Tobias suggested.
She nodded. Her grubby, pinched face seemed to relax a little and, together, the three of them half-steered and half-carried the old man through the press of bodies, through the rough wooden doors, and into the clinic.
Funny, Tobias thought, that he’d never heard of this place the first year he’d been in Kirkwall. Hadn’t needed it, he supposed. Working under Athenril—despite Mother and Carver disapproving—had offered certain benefits, and a tidy healthcare package was one. That, and anything he could safely skim off the proceeds owed to that two-faced, manipulative bitch.
They had not parted on good terms. Definitely not after that last job, which made the score coming up in Tobias’ future all the more important to get right.
He frowned at the stray thought, promises of glory and vast wealth a little outweighed by the prospect of danger and horrific death. Varric said the Deep Roads were virtually empty after a Blight, but what if the rumours were true, and the Fifth Blight had been nothing more than an unusually large incursion of darkspawn, allowed to run riot after the failure at Ostagar?
That was not, of course, an allowable topic of conversation in his family. Carver took references to the King’s army, failure thereof, very personally, and Mother just went all weak and weepy and started talking about Bethany… and then everything ended up in one of those bitter, tear-sodden and recrimination-strewn arguments that being crammed in under Gamlen’s roof left them so vulnerable to.
It would all change, Tobias had promised himself. He’d fix it. Mend everything, and maybe make up for the things he’d broken in the first place.
It should have been me….
The old man coughed, and spat up a weak posset of bile, blood and phlegm, which spattered the front of Tobias’ leather jerkin.
One of the women shot him a look of guilty apology, and he smiled weakly, while trying to breathe through his ears. Maker, but it stank in here. The clinic might have been one of the cleanest places in Darktown—the floor was kept well-swept, the low make-shift beds and tables washed, and brass dishes of charcoal and copal resin burned at the doors—but there was no disguising the stench of illness… or death.
Between the slumped bodies of the genuinely ill, and the furtive figures who were here for less life-threatening reasons, the healer was at work. Twin globes of blue light worked over the body of a child: a young boy, clutching his father’s hand as he lay on a narrow pallet.
Tobias thought of the first time he’d come down here, with Varric and Carver in tow, trying to follow up on a tip about maps and a runaway Grey Warden. He’d expected some grizzled brute of a man, taciturn and snarling, not… well, not Anders. Not someone bright and tense and made of contradictions, with those tired eyes and that air of weary, battered hopefulness.
If he’d been thinking properly, Tobias would have known it would be trouble. If he had learned anything in the fourteen months since falling off that stinking boat, it was that everyone had a price. A man who refused every offer of coin or barter, and wanted only to save another mage from the templars… well, it was just too bloody noble to be reasonable, wasn’t it?
And then, naturally, that awful night had gone horribly, hideously wrong. Karl had been Tranquil, it had all been a set-up, and they’d made a really nasty mess of those expensive Chantry carpets. And Anders had turned out to be… well, whatever Anders was. A not-quite-abomination, perhaps? A creature of two worlds, in whom the Fade and the living plane collided in roiling, barely controlled, glowy glory? Tobias wasn’t sure, although he’d recoiled from the word Carver had used when—in the dank, cold air of a side-street off the chantry courtyard—Anders had tried to explain. Monster. Huh… his brother had scorn to spare for mages at the best of times, and he wasn’t likely to shut up about this in the foreseeable future.
He’d nagged all the way home when, finally, they’d left a despondent and exhausted Anders at the edge of Darktown, and headed back to the delights of Gamlen’s smelly hovel.
You can’t possibly trust him! You saw what he did to those men!
Now, Tobias helped heft the sick old man onto a nearby pallet, and flinched mentally from the recollection of suspicious contempt on his brother’s face.
I saw the way you looked at him. It’s not going to be like that, is it?
Anders’ voice, burred a little by fatigue, cut through the thoughts, and Tobias looked up, catching sight of the thin smile, the dirty blond hair… and that bloody awful coat that smelled like wet dog.
They hadn’t seen much of each other since that night at the chantry. A couple of brief exchanges, but Tobias had been busy playing errand boy, scraping up the last ten sovereigns he needed to buy his way into Bartrand’s expedition—and settling a few old scores before it was time to leave. Besides, there’s nothing like unleashing a ravening Fade spirit on half a dozen templars to make conversation awkward the next day. Not to mention what had happened to Karl.
Tobias pushed the thoughts away and jerked his head at the old man he’d helped bring in. The women with him looked nervous, one fussing around her father, the other all but cringing as the healer approached.
“Got another one for you,” he said, as Anders went to the old man’s side, those long fingers skimming with practised ease over forehead, lips, cheeks… down to the joints of his elbows and knees, testing their tightness and checking for signs of weakness.
The former Warden’s mouth curled pensively. He frowned, a terse, clinical expression settling where that all too brief smile of recognition had been.
“How long has he been this way?”
The less intimidated of the women muttered out a reply—five days, though the fever had worsened suddenly—and Tobias realised he might as well not have been there. Quick-fire analysis followed; short-hand references to diagnose and offer threads of hope.
“I can make him comfortable,” Anders promised. “Beyond that, I don’t know, but at least it’s a start.”
One of the women began to cry, and Tobias’ back tensed. He never knew what to do with weeping females and, invariably, they got parcelled onto him—just as she did now, turning to him with her shoulders shaking and her face all red and screwed up. Oh, Maker…. He patted her gingerly.
“Um. There, there?”
Anders glanced at him and nodded to the back of the clinic, where a row of cookpots were balanced over a stone-hearthed fire, and a handful of the scrawny runaways and apprentices who served as his unofficial assistants were boiling water and mixing plaisters and poultices.
“You can wait back there… and ask Clara to hurry up with that salve, will you?”
And there it was. A brisk, business-like demotion to the rank and file. Worse, Tobias found himself wordlessly obeying. With his arm tentatively around the sobbing woman’s shoulders, he headed into the hot, smelly miasma of steam, and supposed that at least the odour of boiling elfroot and redblossom was better than that of piss, blood and infected wounds.
As they walked away, he could feel Anders begin the healing. He didn’t need to look; every pulse of it beat in his body, with the sweet, dark pull that only magic had.
Tobias had never possessed the knack of healing. Bethany had. When they were children, even though she was younger than him, she used to put her stubby-fingered hand to his grazed elbows or skinned knees with all the grace and confidence of a girl twice her age. She’d take the pain, and leave him whole, and he could almost taste the power in her. Endless, like the sweet, cool depths of a dappled pond. Father had been different, of course. His power tasted like hot leather, like a dusty book that lived beneath his skin, and was somehow always distant and restrained. And Anders… well, different wasn’t the word for that.
A tiny shiver traced Tobias’ spine as he settled the woman on a wooden stool and, as he’d been asked, chivvied the girl standing over one of the cookpots. She nodded, picked up a clay pot full of some foul-smelling unguent, and scurried off to Anders’ side. A Circle runaway, Tobias guessed. There were always gaggles of castaways here, cutting bandages or boiling roots, and Anders wouldn’t talk about any of them. He just called them ‘volunteers’, with that small, peculiar smirk… and the same faces rarely stayed around for long.
Carver would probably have made some dire comment about them getting rendered down for ointment, but Tobias had been in Kirkwall long enough to hear about the so-called Mage Underground. He’d never had proof of it—probably because he hadn’t needed it, safe enough as he’d been in the smugglers’ employ—but you heard stories. They did what even the Collective couldn’t do, so people said. Helped apostates, helped the runaways and the undiscovered, and shielded the business of those involved from the templars which, in this climate of suspicion and near-hostility, had to be a good thing.
So, Tobias hadn’t asked complicated questions. And he didn’t plan to, certainly not until after this Deep Roads gig was over and—cash safely in hand—he could afford the sole possessor of the maps he needed taking offence. Not that he thought Anders would. He might not welcome interference in whatever it was he was involved in, but Tobias doubted he’d back out of his end of the bargain… especially after that night at the chantry.
He handed the sobbing woman—now just sniffling, thank the Maker—a grubby handkerchief from the pocket of his leathers, patted her back and muttered some vague platitudes, and settled down to wait. It didn’t really surprise him that his gaze fell on the healer, drawn there across the busy room, across the litter of bodies and desolation, as if by some magnetic force.
He didn’t look like an abomination. Soothing light enveloped his hands, suffused his whole body—not quite that eerie, split-skin, eye-glowing thing—but more than Tobias had ever seen a mage do. It was as if a whole ocean of power ran through his veins, that pale skin turning translucent as he made the Veil shake.
The old man coughed, spluttered, opened his eyes and seemed to ask for his daughter. Anders sagged, reaching a hand to the pallet for support, and the damp woman at Tobias’ side flung the handkerchief back at him and rushed to her father.
Tobias mopped absently at the stain on his jerkin, and watched that little moment of happiness flare in a dim and uncaring world. He watched Anders smile, too, just for a moment looking so free and happy, despite the wobbly tiredness.
He drove himself too hard, refusing to admit that he’d be no use to his patients if he was worn thin and too exhausted to think straight. That much had been obvious from the first time they met. Varric called it self-indulgence… that constant drive to martyr himself on the pyre of righteousness. He was probably going to write a poem about it.
Tobias shook his head ruefully at the thought, a small smile tugging at the corner of his mouth as he leaned against the clinic’s rough wooden wall. The plaster had mostly rotted away, leaving the frame beneath bare, riddled with woodworm holes and the smell of dry rot.
Still, he waited. He didn’t mind.
Eventually, the clinic emptied for the night. The old man was well enough to be taken home, though whether he would last the night was anyone’s guess. The patients filed out in dribs and drabs; a man with his hand on his son’s shoulder, watching intently as the boy’s rattling cough loosened, his steps growing firmer as they headed out of the door. A woman in a dull slub shawl clutched a baby to her chest and a dark glass bottle in one thin, red-knuckled hand.
“I’ll pay you, messere,” she repeated, as Anders ushered her towards the exit, gently but firmly. “I will. I’ll find some way to pay you….”
He smiled wearily. “Hm. If I wanted coin, I’ve been going about it all wrong. Go on. Go home, and don’t forget… every four hours—”
“Until the fever’s been down for a full day.” She nodded fervently. “Thank you. Thank you….”
Tobias watched him wave her off, and pry the last remaining refugees, drunks, whores and desperate people out into the night. He’d wondered, the first time he came down here, how Anders could bear it. It must be like suffocating under the dregs of Kirkwall’s slops… worse than the sprawl of Lowtown, or even the old city slums that he called home. (Although, technically, Tobias had to admit that he didn’t think of his uncle’s place as ‘home’ so much as ‘that shack where I leave my stuff and pray to Andraste that the old bastard doesn’t sell it while I’m out’. Relations within the family were somewhat strained after so long cooped up together.)
He still didn’t really understand it. Perhaps it was penance on Anders’ part, he thought, or passion, or the just easiest way the man had of numbing himself, burying all his wounds under other people’s hurts.
Anders sighed as he shut the door, slid the bar across, and turned to pace back across the room, hands slightly outstretched at his sides, as if he hadn’t been able to flex them all day.
Tobias watched, green eyes tracing every line of the movement, balancing the weight of every footfall. When Anders stopped, rolled his shoulders, leaned his head back and stretched that long, white neck, it felt like cruel titillation.
They were alone. Even the scrawny bag of runaways was gone for the night, the fire damped down and the smell of greasy ointments and herbs hanging in the air like some dank, verdant perfume.
“So,” Anders said, giving him a tired, genial smile, “to what do I owe the pleasure?”
Tobias snatched his mind out of the gutter. No. He’d already promised himself a night of vast alcohol consumption and debauchery at The Blooming Rose once the expedition was over. It had been rather too long since his last visit, but the money he’d have spent ridding himself of his frustrations had been needed elsewhere.
Trouble was, all that chastity left him… preoccupied. Especially in the presence of an interesting, attractive man whom he was at least sixty percent certain had similar predilections to his own. He shrugged.
“Come to The Hanged Man,” he heard himself say. “Come have a drink.”
Anders shook his head. “Justice doesn’t let me get drunk anymore.”
“Should it stop you trying?”
The smile widened, lighting up a face worn to creases by a long day. A few wisps of blond hair had escaped from his stubby ponytail, and they stuck out, frizzy and unkempt. For a brief moment, the desire to smooth them down assailed Tobias, and he clenched his fingers, focusing his attention on those dark, sunken eyes, shaded with fatigue.
“It’s late, Hawke. What do you want?”
“Bartrand’s fixed a date for the expedition. We leave in a fortnight.”
A small frown pinched the healer’s brow, and Tobias recalled what he’d said before: My maps are yours, as am I…. Even then, despite the blood and the chaos—or maybe just a little bit because of it—the words had nudged at his core.
“I see.” Anders cleared his throat. “Will you want me to…?”
Tobias glanced around at the clinic. “And take you away from all this splendid glamour? I couldn’t possibly.”
“I did say that I’d—”
“Your patients need you. I won’t deprive them of that. Anyway, Bartrand has plenty of healers and hired muscle on his payroll. We’ll be fine.”
Tobias folded his arms across his chest. He cocked his head to the side, and wondered if he was imagining the way Anders’ gaze seemed to follow the lines of his flesh. Unlike the other mage, with his heavy boots and trousers, and that ridiculous feathered coat, Tobias favoured a sleeveless jack in a rough, green-tinted leather, his tanned skin bare to the elbows. Studded leather bracers and light breeches toughened with leather patches completed the look: subtle enough that the guard didn’t quite chase him out of Hightown, should he find himself in the market, and yet both light, protective, and faintly intimidating enough that he could get business done in the rest of the city.
Anders frowned. “Hm. Sure you’re not just worried about Justice?”
He smiled mirthlessly, and Tobias understood the tension in his stance. He shook his head.
“No,” he lied.
The thought had occurred to him, naturally, even before Carver had started whining about it. It was true that he’d have been useful, both as a healer and because the Deep Roads were definitively Grey Warden territory. However, the prospect of being stuck several miles underground with Anders in full blue-glowing rage mode—should it happen—had not been encouraging, and Tobias had decided it might be sensible to offer an option on the expedition around a few of his other contacts.
Anders didn’t seem appeased, though. He nodded grimly, and lifted one hand to scratch at the back of his head.
“Look, I… I’m sorry for the way I dumped all that on you before. About Justice, and— well, it all got a bit weighty, didn’t it?”
Tobias shrugged, a smile pulling at his lips. “It’s all right. You’d be surprised how many people tell me their darkest secrets when we’ve only just met. I must look trustworthy or something.”
“You look… something,” Anders admitted. “True. Proud. Like even if you don’t agree with me, you’ll be honest.”
Tobias blinked, a little taken aback at such grand words.
There was very little natural light anywhere in Darktown. Lanterns and thick, greasy tallow candles lit the clinic, and Anders made a slow circuit of the room, blowing all but three of them out. Little pools of stagnant, yellow light caught at the pitted, stained floor, and left both men adrift in them.
Tobias took a step forward, towards the pale figure outlined in gold, his gaze fixed firmly on those dark, guarded eyes.
“I try to be… honest,” he said carefully. “And whether I agree or not, you could tell me anything. If you wanted.”
He stopped the other side of a low table, its surface littered with stacks of bandages and stoppered bottles.
“Anything?” Anders echoed, raising one of those dark, penstroke eyebrows.
A smile quirked his lips, brief as a spark, and it was easy and wicked and delicious. Tobias blinked, sure he must have imagined it but, no, there were still traces of it there.
“Careful what you offer,” the healer said quietly, and it was playful… tempting.
Tobias’ gut tightened, the lazy spirals of lust that had been half-heartedly picking at him growing more urgent. Two weeks, and then the expedition would be gone. Down into the dark, where the monsters were… the things that had killed Bethany and so very, very nearly done for the rest of them. Filthy, blighted creatures with black, poisonous blades and stinking ichor in their knotted veins, and they would know only death and destruction. And that wasn’t even touching on the possibilities of rockfalls, fever, or Maker knew what other perils the Deep Roads might hold.
He’d come here to speak to Anders about it, because the man had been a Grey Warden and—insane stories about cats and twisted Fade spirits aside—his knowledge would be useful… and Tobias had known before he even got here that it wasn’t the only reason.
He cleared his throat. “So, uh… how about that drink?”
Anders crossed to the poky little space right at the back of the clinic, partitioned off by a thin wall and a curtain hung on an old broom handle. Tobias wasn’t sure, but it looked as if he actually slept in there. It made sense, he supposed… the clinic had too much in the way of potions that might have been worth stealing to be left unattended.
He waited, listened to the rustling and rummaging, and watched as Anders re-emerged, brandishing a bottle of cheap wine and two tin mugs.
Tobias grinned. “Not quite what I meant, but I’m not complaining.”
The glug of liquid filled up the quiet, and Anders motioned him to sit on the cleanest of the narrow beds, its covers long since stripped off to be boiled. Tobias tried not to think of how many people had died on this thing, or how many babies had been delivered, how many unpleasant rashes and peculiar pustules examined…. But then the pallet creaked under Anders’ weight, and they were sitting side-by-side, and a mug of slightly scummy wine was pushed into his unresisting fingers.
“So… two weeks, you said? Before you leave?”
Tobias nodded. He swallowed heavily, excruciatingly aware of the other man’s presence. That smell of herbs and sweat, the mingled grease and muck of this bloody place, and this bloody city… there should be nothing pleasant about it, and yet it all swirled together in the most intoxicating, enticing ballet of scent, and he didn’t want to go into the dark without—
Sod it. Tobias slipped Anders a sidelong glance, watching the hard lines of his profile, shadowed against the dim light. He brought the wine to his lips, took a long sip, and winced at its sharpness. Anders stared at the far wall, and it seemed as if he was looking back into a pit of memories. Amaranthine, Tobias supposed, and the Blackmarsh, and… other things.
“You’ll be careful, won’t you?”
He raised an eyebrow. “Well, I was thinking it might make a pleasant jaunt… you know, a change of pace from dodging those Coterie bastards down at the docks, but—”
“I’m serious.” Anders thumbed the rim of his mug and frowned. “Don’t take anything for granted down there. Any… feeling, any whisper. It’s not safe. It won’t be safe, even after a Blight.”
Tobias contemplated the thought, and wondered if deciding not to ask the mage to accompany him was really a good idea.
“Is Carver going with you?”
He shrugged. “He wants to. He’s helped get a lot of Bartrand’s money together, so…. Of course, Mother isn’t too keen.”
“I can imagine,” Anders observed laconically, though the wryness wore off as he sipped his wine, and his face turned desolately sad. “She’s already lost one child. Losing someone you care about is… well, it’s not good.”
Memories turned over in Tobias’ mind, but they didn’t gore him the way they had a year ago. Their edges were dulled now, like the familiar shadows on a bedroom wall, stripped of their power to frighten simply through repetition.
He frowned, aware of the weight behind Anders’ words still hanging in the air between them, and cursed inwardly.
Stupid of him not to have asked before, he supposed. It hadn’t been all that long since this man—this man who spent every day healing and tending and nurturing, because he was afraid of what he might do if he didn’t—had stuck a knife into the chest of a friend he’d wanted to risk everything to save.
“I, er….” Tobias cleared his throat awkwardly. “Are you all right? About… you know.”
Anders nodded slowly. “Not really. But I will be, I expect. He was a good man… a good mage.”
Silence fell between them like a rough cloth, touching all manner of raw wounds. Tobias winced, faintly ashamed of himself for coming here tonight, for having these thoughts, these… desires. What had he wanted? To play out a seduction scene, a last tumble before his great adventure?
He took a mouthful of the appalling wine, and tried to swallow down with it the unnerving realisation that—whatever had been in his mind when he left Gamlen’s house—things were not going to plan.
He was aware of Anders looking hesitantly at him, those dark eyes slightly narrowed, as if a question might be hovering on his lips… lips that Tobias found his gaze drawn to, close as they were. Even after just a few sips, a wine stain bloomed on the lower one.
“You know,” Anders began, his voice low, “growing up in the Circle, everything is about order and rules and the templars. As apprentices… we had to find ways to make that bearable.”
Their gazes locked. Tobias inclined his head fractionally, trying to give a sign that he understood, but without all the messy clumsiness of words. Anders wanted to say it, though. Needed to, possibly.
“Karl and I… he was my first,” he said, with a slight coyness that Tobias found both surprising and rather touching. “It was more than just breaking rules, finding stupid little ways to get under the templars’ skins. We could forget everything… forget the Circle, and the world, and… just for once, we could feel like we were more than just templar slaves.”
His voice echoed with a melancholy wistfulness that made Tobias’ chest ache. He’d loved like that, once… for the length of exactly one summer. Cal had been a big, beautiful, blond-haired farmer’s boy, full of selfish perfection, effortless grace, and casual cruelty—especially once he discovered Tobias’ secret. Oh, it was fine to allow a fledgling Hawke to kneel for him in Lothering’s waving barley fields, apparently, but not an apostate in the making. Not a freak, cursed by nature and marked with the Maker’s disfavour.
Tobias blinked, letting the memories ebb away.
“We hadn’t been together for a long time. But still… it hurt.”
He frowned, and glanced at Anders, left breathless by the sheer simplicity of his expression. There was pain there, and regret, and the memory of something sweeter, and yet all those things were bound into one clean-honed mask of sorrow… as if he really believed it was all his fault, or that he could have done something to change it.
Tobias wanted to say something useful, something that patched up the hurt and the cracks, and maybe even covered over some of his own embarrassment, but he struggled to find the words.
“So, uh… you… and Karl, huh?”
He gave himself a good, hard mental kick, amazed at his ham-fisted idiocy.
Anders just smiled benignly and raised his eyebrows. “Well? I’ve always believed people fall in love with a whole person, not just a body. Why would you shy away from loving someone just because they’re like you?”
Those dark eyes, deep-set and ringed with shadows, held his gaze for a little longer than could possibly have been necessary, and want spooled in Tobias’ gut, undeniable and unanswerable.
“Why indeed,” he murmured huskily.
He wanted this man, contradictions and complexities and everything. He wanted to crush his mouth against those lips, kiss him until they were both light-headed and gasping, rub his chin along that scruffy jawline and breathe in the scent of his hair and—quite possibly most of all—he wanted to take Anders to bed and fuck until they were both too exhausted to move.
These things were facts. They were natural. They were safe, comfortable, sane things to want, and they did not scare him. And yet, Tobias knew he wouldn’t do any of them.
Every thought he might have had in his head tonight, any consideration of coming here, alone, to tempt the healer into his arms, lay shrivelled and flaccid in him. He took a slow swallow of the foul, sharp wine, and wrenched his gaze away from Anders’, fixing it instead on the far wall, and the damp, flaky plaster.
“You… really cared for him, didn’t you?”
It wasn’t a question, although it sounded like one. The answer was obvious in every etched line and shadow on Anders’ face, and the hot burn of guilt bubbled at the back of Tobias’ mind. Why had he not seen it, that night in the chantry? He should have done. That particular note of horror in Anders’ voice when he saw the brand, the way he’d so carefully held Karl’s head as the life and the light ebbed from him… and that moment when he’d turned and fled, a whirl of grief and anger crested with feathers.
Anders nodded ruefully. “Once. Yes. It’s… hard to believe he’s dead, and at my hand.”
“You helped him. Don’t forget that. It wasn’t your fault we were too late.”
We? What are you talking about, Hawke?
Tobias took another mouthful of wine, and pondered that. He’d been there—like he found himself in so many other places in this poxy city—fulfilling an obligation, a contracted service. That, and nothing more.
Besides, Anders hadn’t really been too late. He’d been tricked. There was a distinct difference… although perhaps it wouldn’t be kind to raise that point right now.
Anders scowled. “It’s the bloody templars… that’s what it is. They don’t see us as people. They don’t care that Karl was someone’s son… someone’s lover.”
As if to illustrate his point, he stabbed a finger at the air—apparently forgetting that he was still holding the tin mug in the same hand. It was almost two-thirds full, and threatened to spill all over the floor. He frowned at it, as if suddenly recalling its existence, and leaned close to pour the majority of the wine into Tobias’ mug.
“There you go. No… if you’re born with magic, they hear about it. They search your little rat-spit village and find you. They tell your parents they’ll be thrown in prison if they ever ask about you, stripped of their rights in the eyes of the Maker. And,” he added bitterly, the tail of the rant snaking like a wild thing, “if you run away, they hunt you down. Again and again and again.”
“Personal experience, I take it?” Tobias asked, privately wondering if this was what Anders had meant about Justice not allowing him to get drunk.
Less than a quarter of a cup of wine and his coordination was starting to go… no slurring, no unfocused eyes, but it looked as if he was struggling to keep his grip on the world.
“Yep. After the seventh escape attempt, you’d think they’d have given me credit for trying, but no. Bastards.” Anders’ brow furrowed afresh as he gazed into the mainly empty mug. “Andraste’s words were that magic must not rule over man. But it’s not ruling to simply wish for the same right as any other man, is it?” He looked up suddenly, and those dark eyes pinned Tobias, all at once pleading and yet fired with a righteous anger. “Doesn’t every mage deserve the freedom you’ve had?”
Well. Of all things, he hadn’t expected jealousy.
Part of him wanted to argue that it wasn’t like that, that his kind of apostasy meant running and hiding and—if you weren’t careful—actually coming to believe that you’d done something wrong simply by existing. And there was no going back. When she got to the age of about twelve, Bethany had grown resentful of everything their parents had done. She’d screamed and shouted that they should have let her go to the Circle, instead of keeping her hidden away. She could have been safe, she’d protested, and not always looking over her shoulder, always living in fear.
She had, from her exalted position as the joint youngest, and the only girl, declared that she would have been better off. She hadn’t meant it, but it had made their mother cry.
Still… safety and security over family? Over freedom? Some days, Tobias could see the merits of the Circle, as an abstract idea. But, to hear Anders describe it… to see the way some of the templars looked at mages in The Gallows… that wasn’t security. It wasn’t even control.
“I think,” he said carefully, weighing the words before he spoke them, “I think that things do need to change. But—”
“And they watch,” Anders said darkly, seemingly not even aware Tobias had spoken. “They pry, they… wait for you to slip up, and they try to force it on you. Throw you at demons and wait for you to burn.”
Tobias peered at him, noticing an alarming sheen to his eyes, and the faint hint of blue light crazing the back of his hand. He coughed gently.
“Er, Anders? You’re, um, you’re starting to glow again….”
Anders blinked, shook his head and, closing his eyes, took a deep breath. The light subsided, but the taste lingered in Tobias’ mouth. Magic, and more than magic. Something wide and wonderful, like hot metal and honey, and the bursting of a thousand stars. His forehead throbbed with the echo of it, and his tongue felt dry.
Anders opened his eyes, apparently in perfect control once more.
“And, as yours is the only head here, and I’d rather not rip it off, I should stop. Yes. Sorry. I should try to keep to more… pleasant… topics.”
He flashed a thin, guilty smile, and they looked at each other in silence for a little. Tobias was unused to this—this strange, complex feeling, this sense that he had no right to take what Anders might or might not choose to give. It would have been easy, he supposed, to push the flirtation further, to just do it now… lean forwards, take that wide, handsome mouth against his. If he moved quickly enough, there wouldn’t be time to think.
He had no idea why he didn’t do it.
For more than a year, the only men he’d been with were the stalwart employees of the Rose, who could be trusted to provide him with exactly what he wanted: sex, and a comfortable pretence of intimacy that lasted just as long as the coin did. There was something wonderful about the earthy, joyous, slightly drunk couplings he could manage with one of Madam Lusine’s mid-priced tarts; something unrepentant and without repercussions.
Anders blinked first. He looked away, and he seemed… sad. Or maybe just tired. Yes, that was it, Tobias decided. He was tired. Everyone was… tired.
He stood the tin mug down by his foot and clapped his hands against his thighs.
“Well,” he said, readying to stand, “thanks for the drink. I should probably go.”
Anders looked mildly surprised. “You’re going to walk home through Darktown? Past the alienage? At night, and on your own?”
“I’ll be fine,” Tobias assured him. “Really.”
Anders shook his head incredulously. “And they say the stories about you are all bullshit. Hmph.”
“Stories?” Tobias grinned. “You haven’t been listening to Varric ramble on, have you? I swear, last time he told the story about the ogre, the thing was thirty feet tall and had six arms.”
Funny what time changed, he thought. A year ago, he’d have punched out anyone trying to make a tale of that thing, and his eyes would have been full of Bethany’s bloodied, slumped body. Not true now. The words were only words, and they didn’t mean anything. They were… dulled, like the memories.
“Hm.” Anders grimaced. “They’re worse when they’re possessed. Anyway, just… watch yourself, Hawke. All right?”
Tobias’ mouth hung open for a moment as he wondered about possessed ogres, but he decided it was a question for another day. There were, he thought, many questions for Anders that he needed to keep wrapped up safe, held tight to his chest until he worked out how to ask them.
“I will,” he said instead, and refused to contemplate the notion that Anders meant in the Deep Roads as well as on his long, lonely walk home, because quite obviously he would be coming back here before the expedition left.
Wouldn’t he? Yes. Obviously. Two weeks. There would have to be a reason, a… an excuse.
When Tobias left the clinic, Darktown’s stagnant air hit him full in the face. He almost thought it would paralyse him, knock him out like chokedamp and leave him a petrified corpse. But it didn’t. He glanced over his shoulder, thinking he might see Anders at the clinic’s door, but it was already closed against the night, the lantern a dim glow in the darkness.
He picked his way over the huddled bodies in the tunnels, slipping through the shadows the way a man who worked in his kind of business learned to do, and headed for a place that wasn’t quite home.
Above ground, not even the moonlight made Lowtown look pretty. Salt stung the air, and Tobias’ feet hit the dirt-packed streets in a steady rhythm, as he waited for the world to start making sense again.