He watches Hawke go; something he does on a depressingly regular basis.
Oh, it’s not that there isn’t anything to be said for watching the man walk away… but it still means him leaving, and Anders being left with nothing but the smell of boiled elfroot and piss, and the complaints of patients ringing in his ears.
He lingers by the clinic’s doors, gazing after the tawny, leather-clad figure as it recedes into Darktown’s crawling throngs, and he clenches his jaw against a small, wan sigh of frustration. The bastard doesn’t even look back. Not one glance.
He shouldn’t expect it, he supposes. Shouldn’t hope for it.
It’s just a distraction.
That’s true… but that’s what Anders wants. He wants to remember that there’s more to living, more to life, than the dim, oppressive rat holes he’s come to call home. More than the stink, the constant keening of crying children and frightened old men, the filth and the fear and the ever-present edge of death, bearing in on all of them like a great, dark wall.
Is distraction, in that case, so very wrong?
He is, he knows, supposed to be more than a loose ball of desires and urges and impulses—
Which is all anyone is, if you think about it. I mean, we’re only people, after all.
—and he has risen above it, flung off his selfishness and his immaturity and accepted that there is a need he must minister to. Some things are greater than any one person; those universal principles that demand sacrifices, like hungry gods to be appeased by the faithful, as if pouring the blood and flesh of devotion, of service, might somehow stem the tide of suffering. There are things that matter more than him.
Anders knows that, with a knowing that runs bone-and-soul deep.
He just doesn’t like it.
He blinks, and tears himself away from staring off down the tunnels like a lonely puppy. Stupid, anyway. What are you, twelve? He runs his tongue over the backs of his teeth, tasting the rime of unwashed, dishevelled decay, and promises himself a rendezvous with a tin of dentifrice when they’ve closed up shop for the night. There are not many luxuries to be had in Darktown, and he carefully husbands the ones he has managed to find.
“Has he gone?”
Anders blinks again, his mind dislocated and blurred. He’s still thinking of a lop-sided, dry smile, of eyes as green and hard as two polished chips of agate, and of that leather jerkin that Hawke wears, which leaves his arms bare and lets the light gild the swells of his muscles.
He glances at the small, skinny girl standing nervously beside him.
She nods to the tunnel beyond the doors, her wide, round face—like a paper fan, he thinks, the skin drawn tight by hunger over high, broad cheekbones—etched with a look of wary concern.
“Serah Hawke. I-I know I shouldn’t listen, but I heard you talking, and—”
Anders’ lips twitch. Bugger.
It’s like the Circle, really. No privacy. Ever. She’d know about that… she’s a runaway herself. Of course, Kirkwall’s mage tower is more a fortified prison than the ivory enclosure Irving had always wanted to pretend Kinloch Hold was. Anders reckons Eryn is probably about fifteen, and more used to having her privacy invaded by beatings and abuses than the apprentice gossip that he always found so intrusive. He was fortunate, all things considered, and he’d never known how much so. Not until it was too late.
It’s still on wrong on principle. If they weren’t given that power, it wouldn’t corrupt them. No man should have the authority to command another so, based only on the strength of what he is….
Anders clears his throat, as if it might drown out the thoughts. They aren’t even really thoughts: just the mingled threads of a reaction that bobs up, familiar and unwelcome, and never goes away completely. It’s like he has an ill-healed wound, a half-scabbed sore inside him, and the whole world is a rough seam, rubbing and rubbing at it.
Eryn is a sweet girl, and promises to become a good healer, but sometimes just looking at her makes him so bloody angry.
He tells himself it’s not him, it’s Justice, but that’s not true. They are the same. They are he, it, I, we… and everything happens in his head at once. He sees everything, feels everything and, to part of him, it is terrible and confusing. Yes, his anger—that old anger of his, born of outrage and spite and frustration—has changed the spirit within him, but Justice has changed him too. He doesn’t think any of it has been for the better, though it pains him to admit it. Justice is hurt immeasurably by the sense that this body, this soul, wishes it had never welcomed him.
Anders tries to focus on the girl he is sheltering.
“Sorry,” he says again, and he really, truly is. “What, um… what was…?”
She twists the hem of her dirty apron with herb-smudged fingers. “You’re not really going to, are you? Bandits and that? Only, the coast paths are so dangerous, and I don’t know if I can manage if you’re not here, and… and I am grateful for everything you’ve done, ser, really I am, but—”
Anders sighs wearily. Nearby, an argument is breaking out between two of his patients over who arrived first, and thus is more deserving of treatment. Neither of them is as sick as some of the other people here. One has a broken wrist, the other phlegm on his chest that won’t clear. Anders wants—Justice wants—to roar at them both with outraged anger, and make them all wait until he has seen to the old man in the corner, whose mind has gone and who is afraid, because he is dying and he wants to hold the hand of a wife he doesn’t remember passed away five years ago. His daughter sits by his bedside, her smile a rictus, and the man has no idea who she is.
Anders turns back to Eryn, rubbing absently at his forehead with one hand. It doesn’t help the pressure building there, but it’s becoming a nervous tic.
“You don’t need to call me ser. And don’t worry. Hawke and I have worked together before. I’m surprised any bandits still use the coast, what with him around. It’s safer than it sounds, I promise, and people like that can’t be left to prey on the weak, anyway. It’s… it’s not right.” Anders frowns slightly, the burn of angered righteousness shifting in him at the thought. Justice would see every single petty thief and cutthroat face a final penalty for their crimes, even if it took a lifetime. “Um. Now, have you prepared the batch of embrium I asked you to? We’ll need some hot poultices, and some pulmonaria, too. About two ounces, I think, from the back cupboard.”
Her mouth twists reluctantly, like she wants to argue, but she nods, and the mundanity of work closes over him again as he follows her back to the cramped rows of beds and pallets.
Anders is grateful for that, in a small way. It helps.
He could be angry with Hawke, if he let himself. Angry that he comes down here—maybe helps roll a couple of bandages, smiles at a few elderly ladies and makes them giggle like coquettes—and then just walks away again.
Hawke always leaves. When he’s here, the world seems fractionally more bearable, and he must be a distraction, because that’s how he makes Anders agree to things he knows he shouldn’t do, like messing around with derelict mines, or chasing bandits along the Wounded Coast, when he’s not a bounty hunter, and anyway he’s needed here…. And then, every time, the bastard goes again, and abandons Anders to this frustrated, peculiar limbo, where he is so very lonely, and yet never quite alone.
It is a busy day. Time wears on, and brings him a child with a broken collarbone, four venereal cases—two of them Madam Lusine’s girls, one with her face half-covered by a scarf, as if she can pretend she isn’t really here—three abscessed gums, and an old man with bleeding haemorrhoids.
For a while, it stops him thinking. Healing does that. Anders just looks at what needs to be done, and then he puts his mind somewhere else, and opens up that still, breathless void of concentration, and channels the power that Justice lends him. It’s easier than it ever was in classes, back in the Tower. Then, he used to struggle to hold onto the spells, to keep everything smooth and strong and calm, the way healing has to be.
He got better at it during his time with the Wardens, but more from necessity than any natural blossoming of skill or talent. There comes a point where you have to learn, or die. His education on the way people’s insides are meant to work was rapid, and visceral, and frequently smelled bad, but he learned more about patching up wounds at Vigil’s Keep than he would have done from a hundred dry old tomes.
Anders forgets, though, that a well can run to empty. Sometimes he puts himself too far away, and Justice sees all this misery and fear and pain, and he won’t stop until it’s mended… and sometimes people can’t be mended just with healing. That leaves Justice confused, and Anders is afraid that, one day, he’ll have put himself too far away to come back and stand between the spirit and the world.
As it is, he has to rein in a lot of the things he wants to say to people, and he knows he’s getting tired when the odd brusque, waspish comment slips out, and pinched, offended faces glare at him.
The old man dies that afternoon.
He feels it just before it happens—Justice feels its—and he looks up from the broken bone he is setting, which belongs to a careless dockhand, and there is no discernable change in much, except a certain quality of stillness… and then the man’s daughter begins to wail.
Anders knows he needs to be kind to her, and gentle, and careful. He tries—he tries so hard—but he can’t stop the raging anger that wells up in him, because this man was a blameless Fereldan farmer, and should not have ended his time in this dank place, this city where there are no fields and no rolling hills, pressed in amongst the jostling of people and voices, and poxed whores with their smallclothes down to their ankles.
On top of that—that anger that is his, and is Justice’s, and is this terrible, growing canker they share—he feels the spirit’s confusion. He has seen death before, so often before… but to Justice this natural ending, this quiet stilling and slow receding into sleep, is both unfamiliar and frightening. It is different to the kind of death that slakes Vengeance—that is blood and fury and leaves cold places behind it—and he finds it unnerving.
There isn’t much that can be done until the clinic clears a bit. They cover the body over with a sheet, and Eryn consoles the weeping woman, which Anders is glad of, because he doesn’t know how to do it. He remembers compassion, and patience, but the shapes of the words won’t come.
Later, when things are quieter and they are laying out the old man’s body for his daughter to have taken to the paupers’ field, Eryn cries too. Anders wants to comfort her, but he’s numb and silent, and too tired to try.
At least, he supposes, it stops him thinking about Hawke for a while.
That riles him, that small, snide, sly thought, and he feels anger thread through his flesh… anger at himself, anger at those echoes of someone he used to be, who’d palm off a joke like that and use it as a sharp, dark blade against the sorrow.
When it’s late and they’ve finally cleared the clinic and bolted the doors for the night, and Eryn is saying her prayers at the foot of the pallet she sleeps on—
Chantry lies. Chantry always lies. They weren’t there, they don’t know… what if Andraste herself was a mage? We’re not the enemy, not the cursed ones. The lies they feed us make us stupid, make us easier to control, and that’s all they want, that’s all they’ve ever wanted….
—he can finally breathe again. Or at least attempt to.
He bids Eryn goodnight and goes into his little den, his scrape behind the ratty old curtain hung on a broom handle, where he sheds his coat, boots and trousers, and he lies on his narrow cot, staring up at the patterns the shadows make against the beams.
He’s tired. So very, very tired. He doesn’t know why that means he can’t sleep. He wants to, wants to fall into safe, oblivious nothingness, but maybe that’s too close to losing himself in the Fade. He’s always hated the Fade. Nothing’s real there, and Anders has long considered that his whole life has been too much about ‘not real’.
When he was a boy, before the Tower—before the templars came, before they tore apart everything that was safe and comfortable, and ripped him from the people he loved—he learned about dreams the hard way. He learned that, in the Fade, things are deceitful, and demons hide in the darkness. He learned about the creatures of rage and hunger and desire that prey on the souls of mages who slip the bounds of mortal coils in the night, and walk in those ethereal planes. He remembers waking, screaming, streaming with sweat as the taste of the Fade still lays bitter on his lips, and the dream-face of his baby brother melts into that of a demon, and swaddling clothes turn into curved, vicious talons.
He learned to shield himself. He learned it early, and no one taught him.
He remembers clawing his way back from the dangerous places, sobbing with terror as he wakes in wet sheets, and his mother coming to comfort him… and the burst of magefire that roared in his hand before he knew what he was doing. He remembers her gathering him to her, smoothing his hair and whispering in her native tongue that she knows he’d never hurt her, even as the flame dies on his fingers and tears knot his throat.
In the Tower, the dormitories all had enchantments on them. The youngest apprentices—the little ones of six and seven, who weren’t expected to do much more than accidentally set things on fire and periodically wet themselves—were guarded from it. They all were, really, until they were deemed old enough to learn how to channel their dreaming, how to walk the Fade and come to no harm. And, he supposes, even if someone did make a mistake, there were always templars guarding the doors. One slip, even while you were asleep, and they’d be only too happy to stick a sword through your chest.
Anders bangs his head softly, repetitively, against his thin pillow. It’s a gesture of frustration. He’s sick of not sleeping, and yet he does and does not want to let himself go. The Fade’s even more dangerous now. It is Justice’s home, and though dreams are not the same as entering that realm in a waking state—alert, with every ounce of his power crackling under his skin—they are still enough to give the spirit the taste of his old freedoms. He rears up at that, and it is frightening… frightening, to be so close to the empty freefall of sleep, and to worry that he may not wake, or that, more accurately, it may not be him that does.
After a while, Anders looses a long, slow sigh between his teeth. He can hear the regular rise and fall of Eryn’s breathing. She sleeps the way everyone slept in the apprentice dorms: neat and quiet and tidy, with her lips tightly shut, because if you snored your bunkmates used to grate soap into your mouth. Anders assumes they do that in Kirkwall too, although he wonders if, being Kirkwall, it isn’t something worse. Karl once told him about a boy who woke up to find a live mouse being dangled onto his tongue… and as he started to scream, it took fright and bit him. There was blood everywhere, and the templars disciplined half the dormitory. Anders was never sure whether the boy in the story was actually Karl or not but, either way, he has never snored, so he was always lucky.
He reaches out for the small stub of candle that sits on the crate beside his pallet, and lights it with a flame he conjures from the air.
There. Magic serving man. Knickers to the Chantry.
For a moment, Anders winces in the light, and then he props himself up on one elbow as he considers the books beside his bed. He has, in the small moments he has to himself, been doing some research. He is writing that manifesto he’s always said he would. The stack of pages on the trunk at the foot of the pallet is growing steadily, and every line hollows out another little piece of truth.
And yet… it’s not the treatise on ancient Chantry law that he reaches for, or the tatty pamphlet tucked between its pages, about the Libertarian bill of secession, or even the book reassessing Brahm’s scale of demonic possession, which he paid a great deal of money to obtain, and which Justice considers an insult.
Anders’ fingers close on the worn cover of the trashy Orlesian romance he’s been reading, and he pulls it towards him guiltily. It’s lurid and improbable, poorly translated (as far as he can tell; he never did learn the stupid language properly, so it may just be bad writing), and has plot holes big enough to drive an ox-cart through. He doesn’t care. These books are all the same, anyway. That is their appeal. They feature noble heroes, strong of arm and kind of heart, who are ridiculously handsome and spotlessly perfect. What’s more, they’re also always decent enough to take their clothes off for a swim or a bath around chapter three, so there’s something to dwell on until the end of the book, when their animal passions overcome them, and the eager young heroine finally gets the jolly good ravishing she’s spent the last hundred and sixty pages angling for.
At the moment, Anders is on page ninety-three. The Duc de Chatonbleu’s luxurious steam bath—wherein the sultry, damp heat misted upon his muscular form, his manly body glistened as his dark curls lay wet against his nape, and there might even have been mention of a turgid member—seems like a long while ago, but he’s holding out for another good bit.
It is not real. These people are not real, nor their lives more than paper copies, parodies of emotions.
Anders frowns. That is true, but he would quite like thoughts of that nature to shut up and go away. It has been a long day.
The girl is not even a very good governess. She has taught those children nothing of morality, and the example she sets is poor. They see only her pining for the man who is their guardian, and he lusting for her in turn. Mortals are too distracted by their flesh. How can they learn to function in the world if they are not taught to respect what is right and just?
The words blur a little on the page, and Anders closes his eyes.
The way the rest of us do, probably. Trial and error.
That isn’t right, he knows. Not strictly speaking. An innate moral code isn’t something you can learn. Look at—
No, don’t look. Please don’t.
Hawke, Hawke, bloody Hawke….
Anders leans his head back, back past the pillow, until it touches the rough wooden wall, and stifles the urge to groan in irritation.
Tobias Hawke would not be most people’s best exemplar of an upright, moral man. He is what might nominally be termed a fixer; a man who fixes people’s problems, whether they’re to do with recovering lost goods, moving items of merchandise—which, say, might normally be subject to impractically large port fees, or technically in the ownership of someone inconvenient—or eliminating a client’s competition.
He is, not to put too fine a point on it, a smuggler, a casual hired blade, an occasional extortioner and racketeer, and a petty crook. He rarely agrees to a deal unless there’s coin in it for him—or so he’d have people believe—and he’ll dirty his hands in mostly anything if the price is right. He drinks too much, and regularly over-indulges himself with the whores at The Blooming Rose. Anders knows this, not just because of the stories that circulate (and oh, there are stories about Hawke, and not just the ones that Varric spreads…!) but because it’s him that, every so often, has to dole out the discreet little pots of redblossom salve, and pretend that there is not a knife of frustrated, tired jealousy buried hilt-deep in his gut when he does so.
You want injustice? That’s injustice, right there.
People are invariably grateful for Hawke’s solutions to their problems, though. They are, because if they’re not, Hawke is the kind of man who will mention those problems—and the names of the people who had them—to the Coterie barkers, and then everyone will suddenly find themselves in dire need of a fixer all over again.
Some might say that’s dishonest. Hawke says it’s funny how Fate works.
Anders is aware that Justice has other opinions.
Still, they say you can tell a good man because he’ll kill you without a word, whereas an evil bastard will gloat and torture. When Hawke metes out death, it is swift and as clean as he can make it… most of the time. And he uses blades for preference yet he, like Anders, is an apostate.
He has his own ethics, too. Anders has seen him slip plenty of small acts of charity under the fence when he thinks no one’s looking: there are the donations he makes to the clinic, and to the various refugee funds, and that time he cut one of Athenril’s operatives loose after a bungled double-cross, and lied blatantly to the smugglers so the boy had a chance at running. He was kind then, even if he’d rather have died than admit it.
It’s confusing. He is confusing. A contradiction. Yes. The man is, Anders decides, a bona fide contradiction. If you sliced him in two, the pieces wouldn’t even go back together.
He wears those sleeveless leather jerkins—all buckles and dyed hide, and tanned, bare skin—with his worn leather breeches and his heavy, Fereldan boots, and he is always so careful to have nothing about his appearance even whisper ‘mage’. And yet, at every turn, he is their supporter. He defends them, gives his coin and his time to help them… even though Anders could almost swear he’s ashamed of his own gifts.
Anders lets his eyes close, resting himself against the darkness behind them. It lasts barely a moment, before the thoughts—and that overwhelming sense of consternation—are buzzing in the blue-bright veins of electricity inside his mind.
He is not a good man. He is not righteous, or noble. He is no better than any other… far worse, in fact, than many. The brother, Carver—
Ah, yes. The one who referred to Anders solely as ‘magey’ on the handful of occasions they met, and dropped several pointed references to always travelling armed in the presence of an abomination.
—at least he chose a path he believed to be right.
Anders scoffs quietly. Bastard joined the templars in a fit of childish pique because Tobias didn’t take him on that Maker-forsaken expedition into the Deep Roads. His own brother! Could he have done anything more calculated to wound—and, more importantly, more potentially devastating to Tobias’ safety?
He has promised not to report him.
Fair enough. For now, perhaps. For now, Carver is merely a recruit. No one has asked him if he knows of the whereabouts of any apostates. He’s just there to learn about discipline—
Because if there’s one thing the bloody templars know, it’s discipline, isn’t it?
—and how to hit things that misbehave with a sword. He’s not yet fully one of them. Chances are, it could be years before that happens. Maybe things will have changed by then.
Kirkwall is due a change.
Anders clings to that. He knows Hawke loves his brother, despite all the bad feeling and resentment. He doesn’t want to see him hurt… even less than he wants to see any more mages rounded up and carted off to The Gallows.
Would Carver Hawke still be so bloody righteous if he sold his own brother to the Knight-Commander?
Fear curdles in his gut at the thought, and he knows he mustn’t think it.
Anyway, nothing about the templars is right. Bloody Chantry watchdogs, doped up on lyrium and trained to be mindless slaves. Bark, bark, bite, bite… it’s an army of idiots, where the sadists rise to the top, like rotten eggs.
He doesn’t want to dwell on it. He doesn’t want to let his thoughts go that way, and he determinedly picks up the book again, making himself focus on the words.
I’ll kill him myself if he turns anyone in.
The words jump and jumble, and Anders squeezes his eyes shut once more, though there’s no peace in doing it. He takes a long breath, counts for ten as he draws it in, then out for three, in for three, out and in, then out for ten, repeating until at last he lets all the air leave him in one slow, controlled sigh. He is empty, hollow… still, like the Stone. It is a dwarven exercise, taught to him by Sigrun back at the Vigil, back when the first templars came there; their auditors, their observers, poking their noses into Grey Warden business and making all their little notes.
He opens his eyes, and his small, candlelit world doesn’t seem quite real for a moment. He blinks, concentrates on the cheap Orlesian romance, and finds a kind of stability in its familiar rhythms.
The useless governess is still pining after the duc. She sprains her ankle—
Silly bitch can’t even manage walking. It’s a wonder she can breathe without an explanatory pamphlet.
—at a ball, and is aided by the dastardly Lord Fontaine, who endeavours to press his attentions on her in the cloakroom, which of course Chatonbleu discovers and misinterprets. Anders skims a few pages and, at the end of the chapter, it’s starting to look like Miss Might-Snap-A-Femur-If-I-Try-To-Run won’t end up getting her ravishing after all.
She will, of course. It’ll all come right in the end.
The duc will realise she was pure and blameless, and grovel for her forgiveness. He will confess his passionate, undying adoration, and as she whispers that she loves him too, he will probably crush her to his manly chest and press fierce, tender kisses to her lips. She might even swoon a bit… and eventually he will take her, thoroughly and with repeated rounds of mind-throttling bliss, on the colossal four-poster bed in his mansion, amid the seas of white silk sheets.
There will not be a wet patch, or any bumping of noses or elbows, and no one will accidentally break wind at an intimate moment. It will be utterly, rigorously perfect.
Anders wrinkles his nose. These books are all the same. They are like the smutty, sensationally vivid tales Varric makes beer money from, and he supposes maybe that’s why the heroes all end up reminding him of Hawke.
He closes the book and sets it carefully back on the crate, between the reassessment of Brahm’s Scale and the history with the ragged pamphlet tucked inside it.
Anders can’t remember the last time he got a jolly good ravishing.
It was a very long time ago, he decides. There was one pleasant encounter during his final week of freedom, before the templars caught him en route to Rivain, and dragged him back via that fateful pit-stop at Vigil’s Keep. Cheap pick-up in the tavern he’d been staying at. He can’t remember the girl’s name… probably hadn’t known it. Pretty, though. Long, red hair, and pink, well-scrubbed skin. She giggled a lot, and she was fun. Sweet, effervescent, delightful fun. He hadn’t even minded that she stole forty silvers from him before she left in the early hours of the morning.
Didn’t really count as ravishment, though… and Justice disapproves. Anders isn’t sure why, whether it’s the theft or the cavalier casualness that offends the spirit more. He doesn’t think it ever offended him, but then very little ever has. There are certainly, in Anders’ opinion, more important things in the world to be outraged by than sex.
That thought occurs to him, all at once silly and poignant, the same way that—in that moment—he remembers his first time. He can’t even keep the memories straight in his head anymore… and this one is dangerous. It’s just one more of the things he mustn’t think of, because it’s still too soon to think about Karl, and he can’t do that. Not yet. Still too raw, too painful. It makes the anger swell, with corded, bloody edges, like rope biting into abscessed skin.
He feels it now, right at the centre of his chest, and he feels the weight of Karl’s head in his hand as he cradles him… the crispness of his hair, the warmth of his skin, and the wetness of his blood as he looks up at Anders with the blankness closing in his eyes, and thanks him for the blessing of the knife. It is agony.
Justice doesn’t understand time. It doesn’t work the same way for his kind. Everything that has happened simply is, and there are few distinctions in when. Memories, for Justice, do not dull with the passage of months or years. They remain tangible, and terrible, either in their torment or their joy. Anders wants so badly to forget that night at the chantry… although not completely, because they were still Karl’s last moments. He wants to forget the failure, and he wants that sharp, bitter edge to be ground away from the pain, so he can see past it and remember other, happier days. He wants to relive the memories he has of their apprenticeship, when he was so young and naïve, and Karl was everything he wanted to be. He wants to remember the sweetness and the secret, stolen times, when they pretended they were happy—fuck it, when maybe they actually were.
It is all there, suddenly, behind his eyes, because Justice feels that nostalgic ache in him, that sense of loss and grief, and Anders knows he is curious. He senses that; this feeling of a part of himself carefully taking out his memories, turning them over and touching them like treasures that have long been packed away.
The first time they kissed—his uncertain nervousness, and Karl’s breathless, gleeful grin—and the fun they shared, breaking rules and evading strictures… like it was all a game, like the templars were the clumsy, clunking bogeymen who could never, ever catch them. He remembers sneaking away from evening chapel to hide in the old supply room Karl had found, staring out of that tiny window over Lake Calenhad, and talking rubbish about the places they’d go and the things they’d do when they escaped.
Anders remembers how Karl would smile indulgently whenever he said stupid things like that—
Because he loved me.
—and how his skin smelled just after it had been licked, how one eyebrow grew ever so slightly differently from the other, how he would hold his spoon in his left hand while he salted his food… and all those hundreds of tiny, yet deeply significant things. They pile on his mind, a wall in which every brick is its own private recrimination, and his nerves are strained beyond endurance. He relives, remembers, revisits every moment all at once, and yet he feels Justice’s bewilderment.
Justice has never understood the messy, chaotic plethora of human emotions, much less the whole business of impulses, needs, and urges. Kristoff’s body—oh, his first host was hardly an ideal introduction to humanity—had held traces of feelings, but that was different. They were memories, filtered through the man who had once inhabited that half-rotted flesh. Anders can, if he concentrates, taste them now, through Justice. He feels the edges of the spirit’s confusion, the remembered love for a wife—the poor woman who was so angry and distraught at discovering her husband’s fate. There is pain there; grief, and loss, and regret at having hurt her, both as Kristoff and as Justice, and also in that strange, twilit, in-between-world, where Anders now walks so perilously.
I, us, him, me… they’re just words, aren’t they?
Given that experience, Justice shies from emotion. He considers it dangerous.
He’s right. They even agree on that point… they always did, didn’t they? Back when they first met, that’s who Anders was. He’d wrapped himself up in slickness, so the world would slide off his back. Laugh, joke, but don’t let it break the walls. Karl was the one to teach him that, though he may well not have known it.
He swallows, and realises his cheeks are wet. He is weeping, but there are no convulsive sobs, no damp and strangled breaths. His eyes are simply leaking, as a faulty tap might do. He doesn’t even know if he is crying for Karl, or himself, or Justice, or Kristoff and his wife, or for any of the thousand things that have never been and now never will.
There is a lot to weep for in this world. But mourning injustice does not rectify it. To bemoan is not to challenge, to put action to inaction and effect change.
He can’t. He can’t do it. Not any more. It’s been nearly two years, and his head is not his own. It wasn’t this bad in the beginning, and he thought he was strong enough. Justice thought he was strong enough… if he hadn’t, he would never have consented to this. The benefits were meant to outweigh the dangers and the sacrifices. Their combined power, the good they could do—it was such a beautiful idea, and he had wanted Justice to live.
He is. Anders is sorrier than he’s ever been for anything. Sorrier than he is for what happened to Karl—the lover he betrayed all those years ago, who forgave him, and yet who he could not save—and sorrier than he is for the family he lost and has never been able to find again.
It is too late to regret. What is done is done, and there is more in the world than one man’s desire.
The guilt cuts in then and, though he’s ready for it—oh, yes, it comes as a familiar gall now—Anders still winces. He is a snivelling child, a whining, puling, petulant brat. How dare he put his own petty, maudlin concerns above the importance of a greater good? What does his panicked loneliness matter against something so much more? Look at everything happening in Kirkwall… the abuses the templars inflict, the iron rod with which Meredith seeks to cow the city, and the weak-willed slackness of government and Chantry alike that allows her to get away with it! Everything is corruption. Everything is broken, damaged…
And you wondered why you found yourself here.
He meets Hawke on the coast path, as arranged. It’s early morning, and the clear, sunlit sky is wide and vividly blue. There is quite the hunting party gathered: Varric is fondling his crossbow affectionately, and Isabela sits on a nearby boulder, sunning herself while Hawke scowls out at the ocean.
Anders doesn’t really want to notice the way the wind stirs his hair, or to look too closely at that hard, proud profile. He doesn’t need to, unfortunately; it takes barely a breath, and every detail of the scene is committed to memory. His stomach tautens as Hawke turns his head and smiles, and for a very brief moment a look passes between the two of them that makes Anders want to whimper aloud.
It was bad enough, that time after the Deep Roads when Hawke got drunk and got himself mugged outside the alienage. He was lucky to be alive when Merrill brought him to the clinic. He still doesn’t know—and Anders is damned if he’s going to tell him—how much he owes his life to her accursed blood magic. It’s one of the only reasons Anders tolerates her… that, and it’s hard to really dislike Merrill, even if he wants to physically shake the stupidity out of her.
But, that night, having to strip Hawke down, heal him, and bandage him… Maker, that was difficult. Seeing him like that, bloodied and vulnerable, brought home just how much Anders fears the things that could happen to him—and how much he would give to protect him.
So, he doesn’t mind the fact that Hawke can convince him to make trips out to the coast like this. He doesn’t mind that he is a distraction, and a potent one at that.
Not really, anyway.
They find the bandits that Hawke wants to claim the bounty on. They don’t put up much of a fight, especially when they realise they’re being confronted by two mages, in addition to Varric’s nasty little grenades, and Isabela’s quick, vicious daggers. One pleads for his life, and gets a crossbow bolt through the neck for his trouble, while two more try to run. Hawke brings them down with a telekinetic force spell that Anders privately considers quite impressive. His clenched fist rips through the air, sending both bandits crashing to the ground. One appears to be broken against a rock, his body turning limp as his neck lolls at an unnatural angle. The other is winded, but struggles up and, with a look at his comrade’s corpse, roars and charges Hawke, blade in hand.
Varric is reloading, and Isabela is busy with her own quarry, but Anders has his hands full of flame. He’s ready to cremate the bastard where he stands, rather than let him touch Hawke, but Tobias himself evidently has other ideas, because then he’s running, and the glint of steel in his hand gives him away. He punches the man across the face—it’s a bloody good left hook, too, and Anders hears the crunch of cartilage from where he’s standing—and then the knife is in. It’s a quick, clean, business-like shivving, straight up under the ribs. As the body crumples at his feet, Hawke is already shaking out his scraped knuckles and swearing, his blood-smeared blade hanging loosely in his fingers.
Anders is fairly sure he shouldn’t be as attracted to the man as he is right at this moment. He is standing amid a pile of bodies, and what they have just done is murder. Yes, there were crimes to be paid for, but it does not feel like justice to all of him.
“Damn,” Hawke says, looking up. “Think I broke one. Anders, would you…?”
He flexes the hand with the bloodied knuckles, and Anders goes to him—
Like a lapdog.
—and gently places his fingers on the tender flesh. The tanned, strong hand is relaxed in his grasp, and Tobias is right; he has broken a knuckle and fractured his finger. Anders presses carefully, assessing the damage, and his gaze flicks to Tobias’ face as he winces and draws a hiss of breath over his teeth.
“S’what you get for showing off,” Anders says mildly, curving his thumb into the hollow of that firm, callused palm.
Tobias grins that sarcastic, lop-sided grin of his, and his eyes fill with an undeniable warmth that nearly makes Anders forget there’s a dead man at his feet.
“Mm. Suppose that means I’ll have to stop bringing you along, then.”
Anders’ jaw tightens. “I’d be more impressed if you didn’t need healing every five minutes.”
He takes a breath, and tries not to watch the way the pulse beats steadily at the base of Tobias’ throat. The man’s gentle laughter caresses his ears as magic swells between them, and Anders starts to heal the breaks.
“True,” Hawke says quietly, as the blue glow of light subsides, taking with it that faint smell of warm bread and copper, “but I did get to hold your hand. Now all I need is a groin injury, and—”
Anders snorts, and tries to pretend it’s in disapproval instead of amusement.
Varric ambles over, having already started looting the bodies, and the two of them break apart, like they were doing something to be embarrassed by. Anders clears his throat and asks if everyone else is all right. They are, though Isabela does suggest he gives her a quick rubdown just to be sure. He politely declines, and they set to going through the bandits’ camp.
Anders—Justice—has mild qualms about stealing from dead men, but whatever they had they don’t need any more, and looting is one of the prime perks of bounty hunting. Besides, he has uses for the coin. The Underground needs it, the clinic needs it… and there are too many other good causes that go under-funded in Kirkwall.
When they get back to the city, Varric suggests a drink. Tobias smells of sweat and salt and blood, and Anders is tired. He can almost taste the other mage’s power—he’s sharp, and sweetly sour, like the scent of wood sap and clean linen, underscored with something dark and rich, reminiscent of the oaken smoothness of aged wine—and it’s too much.
What he wants—what he really, really wants—is to go to The Hanged Man with them, get completely and utterly smashed, and take Tobias bloody Hawke to bed in an uninhibited, drunken fugue that will result in bruises, bite marks, and broken chairs, but the first thing Anders had to give up because of Justice was drinking.
It is a poison. You have but one body. Why would you poison it? And why do you wish to impair its function? How is this pleasurable?
He tried to explain, tried to demonstrate, but lowering his inhibitions meant losing control and—back at the Vigil, when the templars were poking into everything—that ended up not being good.
Now, Anders starts to feel wobbly on just half a cup of wine, and Justice manages to make him nauseous on anything more than that, just in case they both do something he regrets. It’s a terrible thing, but probably not as terrible as the things he could do.
So, he excuses himself as they near the tavern, and says he needs to get back to the clinic. Isabela and Varric bid him farewell, but Tobias follows him into the mouth of the alleyway he means to cut through, and Anders curses silently at the sound of his footsteps.
He turns. Tobias is holding a leather pouch, but Anders isn’t looking at that so much as the bare arms and the green eyes, and the unbearable way the man has of just being there, and making the air itself feel like sparks on his skin.
Hawke wants him, too, impossible as it is to believe. He’s actually said as much, actually laid himself at Anders’ feet… not that it ever needed putting into words. It has lapped up around them from the very first, flowing between them, pulling them back to each other when the only sane thing to do—the only rational, sensible thing—would have been to shy away.
It won’t work, though. It can’t. There’s no possibility of it, naturally. Not with Hawke. He remains strictly off-limits. In fact, the whole thing is… no, it doesn’t bear thinking about.
Tobias holds out the pouch. “Here. I want you to take this.”
Anders frowns, nonplussed.
“Don’t tell the others. It’s only twelve sovereigns, but it’ll buy some bandages or something, right?”
That lop-sided grin is back, but it’s a poor disguise. Anders knows he is far more keenly aware of the value of coin than that. Comparatively, it’s a lot of money. Still just a drop in the ocean, and not enough for everything his patients need… but it will bring in some much-needed supplies.
“You’re giving me your share?”
Hawke shrugs. “Not all of it. Anyway, I still have the bounty itself to collect. You’ll get your fifteen percent. This—” He jingles the pouch for emphasis. “—this is gravy. So take it. As a gift.”
Anders steps forwards and, reluctantly—although he can’t deny that Tobias is right, and obviously he is going to take the money and put it to good use—he grasps the pouch. Of course, their fingers brush as he does so. He expected nothing less, and yet it is a jolt, as if some arcane bolt passes between them.
He lifts his gaze and it feels as if, just by looking, he is touching the planes of that handsome face, pressing his fingertips to the hard places of cheekbones and jaw… exploring the softness of lips and cheeks.
“Three nights’ time,” he says quietly. “The safe house in the Foundry District. I’ll meet you behind Hamren Orgood’s warehouse, we’ll go from there.”
Tobias nods, looking wonderfully determined. “Right.”
Anders smiles thinly.
He may not be able to take Hawke as a lover, but he has fallen upon his friendship like a starving dog on a side of meat… and they will always have the Underground.
The Mage Underground is a far-reaching organisation. Its tendrils snake into everything, and extend far beyond the borders of Kirkwall, or indeed the Marches as a whole.
Just as every Circle has its escapees, its ex-templars—who either have their own disillusions or grudges to guide them, or can perhaps be bought for the price of a few pouches of dust—and its antagonists, there are cells of the Underground there, ready to catch the mis-steps of those who would live free.
Of course, it is a hugely complex and idiosyncratic network. There is no discernable hierarchy, no united common goal—except perhaps staying alive—and no one knows anyone outside of their immediate set of contacts, because it’s safer that way.
It was Karl who gave him Mistress Selby’s name, heavily encoded, in one of the last letters he sent… after Anders had agreed to come to Kirkwall and see the state of things for himself. He remembers the words his friend used:
The sooner you come, the better. I worry more each day. When you get here, stay out of Hightown. Don’t come across the lake. Go to the docks – there is much more to buy or to sell by there. A woman, for instance. Three sovereigns should do it, and ask for Marie A.
Anders thinks Karl already suspected the templars were intercepting the letters. He, in turn, was careful with what he wrote—too careful, because he never had the chance to write down the things he really wanted to say—but it didn’t stop Karl from adding a poignant postscript to the last letter Anders ever received. He still has it now; he keeps it with the others, in a box at the back of the locked potions cupboard in the clinic. He kept everything Karl ever sent him.
One last thing: you know that I forgave you, don’t you? For everything. It wasn’t your fault. And I think you may even have been right… but don’t let it go to your head. I hope we’ll talk more when we meet. I should like very much to see you again, my friend. Sometimes, it’s as if the years haven’t passed at all.
Anders was a fool. He knows that now. He’s known it for a while, but somehow it’s worse now there’s nothing he can do about it… or possibly it’s because of Justice, picking through the recollections and helpfully highlighting all the times he was at fault.
He contemplates it as he potters around the clinic in the evening, putting pots of herbs on to boil and rendering down cheap fat he’s cadged from the least appalling of the local butchers. The stink is horrific, but he’s grown worryingly used to it. Selby will be by later. He’s on his own here now that Eryn has gone on to start her new life. The Underground buys or barters passage out by one of a number of routes: she will be going north with five other apostates, ostensibly as part of a merchant caravan. It will be difficult, but hopefully they will cross the Vimmark Mountains, and break into Wildervale, where there should be enough open country for them to scratch some sort of living. It’s safer than the cities, anyway, though Anders isn’t sure he envies them.
Anyway, Selby always drops by at times like these and says it’s because he needs a spare pair of hands—which is admittedly very useful right now, as no replacement for Eryn or any of his other part-time volunteers-cum-apostate-refugees has yet been found—but Anders suspects she’s just checking up on him. He thinks people are worried he’ll ‘do something silly’, as the phrase so often goes.
He’s thought about it, yes. It wouldn’t take much, would it, just to end things… and he knows how. He has enough herbs in the clinic to mix up some very potent poisons, or there is always the simplicity of steel. Maker’s balls, he could just scramble up to the top end of Hightown and chuck himself off the parapets if he wanted. Maybe it would be easier. Maybe Justice would go back to the Fade, and this unnatural twinning would almost have never happened.
He feels himself rebel at the thought. It hurts the spirit—catches right at the very essence of his existence—to think he has so damaged Anders.
The ultimate injustice.
He smiles mirthlessly at the thought, and hauls a copper full of linens off the fire. They’re as clean as they’re going to get.
No… things aren’t that bad. Not yet. He has good days and bad days, light times and dark times. For now, he is in control. He has learned the limits of his shared body—or so he thinks—and he knows what he can and cannot do. For now, he does more good in the world than evil, and there is a great deal left to do yet.
The fact that there are other reasons—that he doesn’t actually want to die, and that he can feel Justice’s hunger to know more of the mortal life, even if he doesn’t understand it—are, Anders tells himself, irrelevances.
Selby says there are plenty of people in the Underground who’d miss him if he wasn’t there. Yeah… like a hole in the head. She’s right, though. For whatever reasons, Anders has good friends among them. Many of them are also very good people, although others he’s not so sure about.
And… it’s true, isn’t it, that Hawke is his friend?
He would miss Anders, and if the peace of death means never seeing him again, Anders knows he’s content to loiter a little longer in this strange, troubled existence.
Besides, the daft sod needs someone around to patch him up next time he goes out on the lash and gets knifed in an alley….
Anders feels Justice harrumph and shift reproachfully. It’s an odd sensation, this feeling of disapproving of himself; very peculiar, because he has never, ever been given to self-loathing or the dichotomies of repression. From the earliest times in the Tower—once his life was torn apart, then given back to him as if it didn’t matter, as if he was worth no more than that patched sackcloth existence—he has known himself completely, up to the hilt of his limitations. He had faced himself, and not been afraid.
So what is it you fear now? Losing yourself?
The choices you make are yours alone. The repercussions are yours. The price is yours, and there is no sense in resenting it.
That might be true, but it doesn’t mean he has no regrets.
Your regrets are for others. For what has been, and what cannot be.
Anders sighs. Justice can be remarkably obtuse. Either that, or he can. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell.
What is past is past. What you desire and yet deny—the distractions and the follies—is best left undone. So why do you yet dwell upon it?
Anders grits his teeth.
Because. Just because, all right?
…But that is not a reason.
Sometimes, he closes his eyes and lets his thoughts roam, and he chafes himself so hard against his memories that it feels as if his soul could bleed.
Justice doesn’t understand them. When he thinks of Karl—of those times back in the Circle Tower, when he was young and everything was new—he still feels the same sweet flood of nostalgic longing. They were in love, whatever he’s tried to tell himself over the years. He should have been kinder, braver… more persuasive. All those times he tried to convince Karl to come with him; he should have tried harder. They should have run away together, lived in isolated bliss on some windswept stretch of moorland somewhere, and grown old surrounded by wild sheep and hedge mustard.
He smiles at that, despite the flare of confusion in his head. It’s a silly idea. Karl would have hated it. Karl loved books and learning and ideas, and he would have withered up like a weed stuck out in the middle of nowhere, away from everything. Plus, Anders has never much liked the amount of mud in the great outdoors. Seems daft now, when he spends so much time up to his ankles in Maker only knows what at the clinic, but it’s true.
Still, there should have been something better. Something good. He wishes he’d been able to give Karl that. He didn’t deserve what happened, and the weight of tears is suddenly tugging at Anders’ eyes. He blinks and swallows, hard, and through the blurred veil he sees a boy of nineteen, brave and beautiful, who taught him so much about love, and desire. He wishes he’d learned more quickly… particularly the part about not being a selfish arsehole.
It’s over, though, isn’t it? Too little, too late. Someone who really cared about me, and I managed to fuck it up more comprehensively than I’ve ever fucked anything up, and that is really saying something….
Justice feels uncomfortable with the idea of love. Anders knows this because of the wave of self-loathing that crests up in him—and isn’t that rich, in him, of all people—and the sense that he, himself, is a monster for desiring to possess another person. It is wrong. It is oppression, the very thing he detests above all things. It is presumptuous and ugly, and it brings shadows with it.
No, he thinks… no, because that is only partially true. Yes, love can obscure things. Yes, it can become heavy, and dark, and—
You seek to possess. That is wrong.
No, not possess. Just… share. It’s part of it. Of course, he regrets thinking that right away, because Justice and he share this body—his body, his mind, his own entire self—and after that it all becomes confusing.
Anders sets the clarified fat to cool, makes himself some tea, and sits quietly in the corner of the empty clinic, elbows on the table and his forehead resting on the heels of his palms, as if he needs to press hard to keep his brain from falling out. His head hurts when it gets like this. Everything hurts.
Love isn’t possession. Desire isn’t about possession. Well, not totally.
I never owned Karl. He was a different person… his own person. That’s why we never—
—I failed him. If I loved him, I should have convinced him to save himself, shouldn’t I? Or saved him on my own, somehow, or—
—because you can’t force anyone to be anything, or feel anything. You can’t change their mind for them, or stop caring for them, even if it’s a stupid thing to do. That’s what loving someone is….
Or, potentially, that’s an obsession. No. Yes. It’s distracting—
—Yes, of course, because love is bigger than one person, or two people. It’s…
…the biological imperative to procreate?
—No! No, that’s lust. And that’s not always… I mean, yes, sometimes. Maybe. But….
Anders groans and tries to pick up his tea, only his hands don’t want to work properly, and he can see two of everything again. The outlines on the world are blurry, and Selby will be here soon, and he doesn’t want to look like a complete headcase in front of her, because she’ll worry.
All right, yes. That’s what it is. Fine.
And yet you desire Hawke.
Fuck. Anders swallows his mouthful of tea and coughs as it gulps down his throat. He fights it and fights it, because he doesn’t want his mind to go that way, but trying to harness the thoughts is like trying to punch the tide.
Oh, shut up. That… that isn’t the same.
It isn’t, anyway. It’s definitely not his body’s urge to procreate—
—although we could have an entertaining time trying to get him pregnant—
—and it… well, it is lust, isn’t it? No more than that. Tobias is an attractive man. They just… happen to share several opinions, some common interests, a sense of humour, and a certain kind of inexplicable closeness that makes Anders feel a tad weak in the knee department whenever the bastard smiles.
I have a tiny crush. All right?
Of course, Justice despises the lie. The lie is almost as bad as the things Anders thinks when he lets his mind dwell on that crooked grin, or on the eyes and the broad shoulders and the long, long, leather-clad legs….
Justice cannot assimilate the idea of this man they—he—sees on a regular basis, and knows and speaks to and, all right, yes, flirts with—because, come on, he’s attractive and available and, often, he starts it, and Anders knows he could… it’s just that he mustn’t—and the thoughts that are there in the night.
You would possess him?
No. Yes. Not like that.
Anders doesn’t know. He can’t deny the desire that bubbles up between them—Tobias has made it abundantly clear that he’s both capable of acting on it and more than willing—and, oh, Maker, he wants to. But it isn’t that simple. It never bloody is. And yet, he can’t help his thoughts. He can’t help thinking of those strong, tawny arms wrapped around him, or the feel of that broad, solid body against his. He wants that, wants it so very badly, and he can’t explain it to Justice… to himself. This want, this ache that is like need in its sharpness… he feels it gnaw at him when he has to watch Hawke from afar, or to smile and talk with him, when all he really wants is to fling himself at the man and kiss him so hard neither of them can breathe.
He wants to see that dry, lop-sided grin turn shaky and desperate, to hear all the cockiness drop out of that voice as Tobias murmurs his name, and he wants to be held close to that broad chest, sated and comfortable in a room that smells like Hawke.
Then you would yield yourself. You desire to be possessed… subjugated?
It isn’t that! His head pounds with frustration. I want him. I want him to want me. I want us to be lovers… that’s different. And it is. It is different. It’s not about power or control, though those things can be a part of it. They’re not the games Anders wants. He wants… well, what he wants he can’t have. He knows that all too well. But Justice doesn’t understand. He feels that bewilderment as keenly as he feels the ache of desire, and the burn of frustration, and he can’t even work that off himself without things flaring up afresh.
He’s thought about going to a whorehouse, but it wouldn’t help. The fact he sees half of Kirkwall’s red lantern district pass through the clinic’s doors in any given week puts him off the idea to start with, and that’s not even touching on the fact that Justice would probably explode.
Anyway, Anders doesn’t want a tart, although he rather wishes he did. Somehow, it would be a lot easier if all this were simply an itch that needed scratching. He knows it isn’t, despite the fact it’s been a very long time since he last got laid.
Then you… care for him? This is what it is to l—
—Bugger it! Knickers! Shut up!—
It’s been such a long time since there was someone who affected him like this. Well, not like this, exactly, but… so long since he felt any kind of attraction that was something more than the initial piquing of interest, the acknowledgement of seeing something pretty and wanting to play with it.
Anders misses those days. He misses that man he used to be, back when he thought he was world-weary and jaded. He misses keeping his anger locked up inside him, safe beneath the lacquer of dry wit and blarney, because he didn’t want to be dragged back into that whole ghastly mess.
No… he spent himself on the moments, and let the days take care of themselves. That was safer, and it didn’t hurt so much. It was easier to—
Perhaps. He said that to Justice once: avoiding his oppression instead of fighting it. There was a time when it genuinely felt like a more elegant solution.
It wasn’t that he didn’t care, just that he didn’t see himself as bound to a cause by solidarity. The idea of mages as a single brotherhood was a Circle lie, and a stupid, flimsy one at that. Anders decided that after years of watching the members of the bitterly divided fraternities glaring at each over their oatmeal every morning. Besides, it’s not like anyone’s ever looked out for him, have they? He can count on one hand the people he’s really trusted. They’re all gone now, anyway, or as good as, and there aren’t any elegant solutions left.
Instead, there are lines drawn across great swathes of the world that—if this was the Fade, if people were simple, or sensible, or as easily defined as Justice’s kind—would divide everything into black, white, right and wrong. Trouble is, the lines get distorted. They get bent out of shape, pushed and pulled and chewed around by all the chaos and stupidity and impossibility of life, and nothing is simple. No one is simple. Not even him.
He looks back on the man he was, and he misses it, and yet he is appalled. Or Justice is. Maybe both. The casual pleasures, the drinking, the silliness… even those Maker-forsaken days in the Vigil, which he hated so much, have a rose-tinted glow to them.
Justice never understood why Anders was not proud to be a Grey Warden. He still had the taste of Kristoff’s memories, of course… a man who had not been conscripted against his will, exchanging one prison for another, and who had not had Gerard Caron yelling at him every day for the best part of a year.
No, despite all the privations and strife of Kirkwall, Anders can’t find it in his heart to miss the Vigil.
The part of himself he thinks of as Justice grumps and shifts irritably at that, and the rest of him grins uncharitably and drinks his tea, and doesn’t think anymore about darkspawn, or his old friend Oghren, or even Tobias Hawke.
He does a few of Sigrun’s breathing exercises, too, although it doesn’t stop much. It doesn’t make anything go away, and it’s all still there when he closes his eyes.
When Selby arrives, Anders prides himself on putting on a good show. He has combed his hair, brushed his coat down, and got through quite a lot of the jobs.
She removes her cloak at the door—the dark fabric is misted with raindrops, the damp stains of splashes running all along its hem, meaning it’s probably been raining all day, and he had no idea—and smiles at him.
“Anders. You look well.”
“So do you, Selby. Ravishing as ever,” he adds, and she smirks.
She is old enough to be his mother, and her face is that of a woman who has lived through both her own hardships and those of many others. A thick fall of grey hair frames narrow, sharp cheeks, and her eyes are a dark blue, the irises ringed with lines that are almost black. When she is angry, they are like terrible, swirling pools and, at other times, they soften with an almost maternal kindness.
Selby is not a mage, although her sister is… or was. They were both Kirkwall born and bred, but someone made a report to the templars, and Agnes was taken in the night, her family told to make no attempt to contact her. Of course, that command was ignored and, when Selby did manage to get a line into The Gallows, she discovered more than she had ever bargained for.
Agnes told of the rapes and beatings, the humiliations and degradations the templars inflicted on them for fun, or to exert their power. It set the course of both sisters’ lives. Mariah Selby—up until then a respected wool merchant in the city—gave herself to the Underground, selling her business and all but disappearing from the surface trade. Agnes was made Tranquil, and yet the abuses didn’t stop there. She died three days before her planned rescue, and the templars left her body splayed naked in the prison cell they’d kept her in, her blood congealed on the stones.
But they will pay. They will all pay…. These abuses will not be forgotten, and every last one of them will feel—
Anders blinks. Yes, there has to be justice. Just not right now.
He dredges up a smile, aware that Selby said something he didn’t hear. They are standing at the back of the clinic, by the banked-down fires, and she is helping him drain the linens and a large batch of blindweed, which has been boiled and now needs to mature in the grain alcohol he bought with the money Hawke gave him. Anders has been lucky this time: none of the refugees have nicked it and tried to sell it for a profit, or just drunk the lot.
Selby snorts. “Knew you weren’t listening. Come on. Copper for ’em?”
She grins. “Your thoughts, boy. Head in the clouds again, ain’t you? Thinking about something interesting?”
Anders shrugs. He considers making a nominal complaint about being called ‘boy’ although, secretly, he rather likes it.
Selby slips him a sly, sidelong look. “I did see you brought your friend to the meeting again.”
The wet linens slop from the copper, steam billowing up as Anders guides them into a dry basket with a stout paddle, and tries to play ignorant. Selby is a crafty old minx, however.
“Yes,” she says, slapping the bottom of the copper. “You know. Whatshisname. The Fereldan. Dark hair, green eyes… bum like two hazelnuts in a handkerchief?”
That matronly act of hers fools no one. Anders snorts, but it’s amusement instead of disbelief, and he can’t really bring himself to try and be shocked. Anyway, it’s a very accurate description of Tobias’ backside, especially when he’s breaking in a new pair of breeches, and it looks like he’s been practically poured into the leather.
Anders blinks again, aware that serious distraction lies along the path of thoughts like that. He shakes his head.
“Really, Selby,” he murmurs in mock reproach. “But, yes, that’s him. Hawke.”
“He’s very generous,” she observes, as she helps him heft the linens up onto a table, ready to peg out on the strings that run the length of the clinic, so that hopefully the bandages will be dry by the time they are needed.
Anders nods slowly. It’s true that—ever since he introduced Tobias to the Underground, he has been flinging coin at it. Sometimes, he gifts extremely large amounts of money… and, once, enough to pay for an entire group’s passage to Rivain. It was a very dramatic gesture.
“Ye-es,” he says warily, because he suspects—as there often is with Selby—that there may be some hidden sting to her line of questioning.
“Trying to impress you, is he?”
Anders frowns at her, though his rebuke is only very slightly less playful. She has her tongue firmly wedged in her cheek, and it looks as if she has a gumboil. Her eyes glitter with mirth.
“I couldn’t say,” he demurs.
Selby’s grin widens. “Then you haven’t bedded him yet? Tch! I thought you liked men.”
The corner of Anders’ mouth twists and, once, she might have made him blush… which he sometimes thinks is her life’s ambition. Instead, he just chuckles.
“I do. I told you, I like… people. For who they are, not what.”
Well, that’s mainly true. After all, his attractions have, in the past, taken little notice of things like age, gender, or hair colour. And, as much as he would like to believe otherwise, it is not simply physical lust that draws him to Hawke.
“So?” A ribald elbow connects with his ribs as Selby crosses behind him, picking the first wet swathe of bandage out of the basket. “I wouldn’t have hung around. You shouldn’t either, my lad… or someone else’ll snap him up. Mind you, given the way he looks at you—”
“What?” She raises her thinly plucked brows. “S’true. We all seen it. Smitten, I believe is the word.”
She cackles, and moves away to peg up the bandages. Anders does likewise, but the warm, wet linens are sluggish in his fingers, and he struggles with what should be a simple task. He wants very much to believe her, and to believe in a pretty fairytale, where everyone knows he and Tobias are meant for each other and, the moment they kiss, there will be tweeting bluebirds and sparkly rainbows and everything will be fine. Unfortunately, life is not like that, and part of him is almost angry with Selby for dangling these impossibilities before him… or maybe angry with himself, for being so obviously stupid. The entire Underground is quite possibly laughing at him.
Anders frowns, and looks curiously at her.
“D’you really think so?”
She treats him to a broad, smug grin. “I suspect it cuts both ways. Said you was distracted, didn’t I?”
He is a distraction… and it is folly to persist, when you cannot pursue such an… entanglement. Why do this? Why indulge this obsession, or welcome notice of it by others? This is not right. This is—
“I’m not. I can still do my work. I’m still—”
Selby’s grin widens even further. “Hush, now… I didn’t say it was a bad thing, did I? Think I’ve seen you smile more in the past two weeks than I have in a year. If that’s what having him around does—”
“He’s not ‘around’,” Anders protests. “We’ve just been doing a bit of work together.”
“Whatever you want to call it,” she says airily, peering at him over the string of wet bandages.
Anders sticks his tongue out at her, and she laughs.
“All I’m saying, Anders, is that it looks like it’s good for you. Little bit of support. Someone to lean on… as long as you’re careful,” she adds, and her smile begins to fade.
He frowns. “What’s that meant to mean?”
Selby comes out from behind the line, brushing her hands together, and picks out another long, wide strip of bandage. She shrugs.
“Hawke… I knew the name was familiar. ’Course, he was one of them smugglers, wasn’t he? Got hisself involved in that bust-up between one of the small companies and the Coterie, year or so back.”
Anders winces. Technically, Tobias is still a smuggler, though he doesn’t run any coherent company, or officially associate himself with any of Kirkwall’s organised cartels. He’s a free agent, as it were… and yet a good man. Isn’t he?
“He is,” Anders says glumly. “He— he’s a good man, though, I mean.”
Saying it aloud seems to confirm it, at least a little bit. It makes him feel very slightly braver, and he meets Selby’s gaze, watching with curiosity the way she arches an eyebrow, her mouth twisting into a doubtful moue.
“He is,” Anders repeats, stubborn and suddenly determined to wring a polite agreement from her, if nothing more. “Anyway, you shouldn’t confuse goodness with legality, Selby.”
He picks up a wet square of cloth used for binding splints, folds it in two, and hangs it over the line. The wet linens are dripping onto the floorboards, little splashes of warm water dappling the tired, scuffed wood with dark stars. He smoothes his fingers along the cloth, and peers at Selby from under his lashes, searching for some sign of her response.
She looks guardedly at him for a moment, then her face splits around a wide smile, her cheeks wrinkling, and she laughs.
“Fair point,” she admits with a nod. “We ain’t so spotless on that either, are we?”
Anders smiles back at her as they finish off the linens, although his expression is a little forced. It’s true that the law and real justice are not always the same thing, and the Underground is of course illegal by its very existence, but he feels a little uncomfortable with it sometimes. For all the years he spent enjoying the flouting of rules, he worries that some of the apostates he has met want to see the whole world burn, just to salve the anger they bear.
And should there not be fire? Doesn’t the Chantry itself speak of being cleansed in the flames? If the apple is rotten throughout, it is useless to pare it back to the core. Besides, they must pay. They must all pay….
He shakes himself as Selby crosses to the pot of blindweed, and he pads after her, readying the jug of grain alcohol and the vat they will soak it in. She places a large metal sieve over the vat and holds it steady, so he can pour off the water the tough, woody herb parts have boiled in. Anders thinks, for a moment, he’s gotten off reasonably lightly, but then she’s looking at him again with that peculiar, speculative expression in her eyes.
“So,” Selby says, as he bites his lip and tries to focus on pouring out the copper without spilling the blindweed everywhere, “about this Hawke of yours.”
“He’s not—” Anders begins, as the sodden herbs splosh out, all rough stems and greenish pap. It smells vile, and he wrinkles his nose.
“What’s stopping you?” she demands. “Hm?”
He sighs as he upends the copper, tipping the last of the water out, and swipes a hand around the warm belly of the metal, scooping out the last bits of herb.
“I-I can’t. That’s all,” he mutters, flicking bits of blindweed off his fingers. “Everything I touch ends up… you know. Anyone I’m close to, I’m scared I’ll hurt, or put in danger. Hawke’s an apostate too, so he’s already at risk, and… I’d never forgive myself if anything happened.”
“And what about if it didn’t?” Selby asks dryly. “Ain’t that just as bad?”
Anders blinks owlishly at her as he sets the copper down. She smirks and draws off the sieve, and says nothing as he helps her lift the vat and tip the water back into the copper, ready for the next batch. It’s still clean, or as good as, and they don’t waste resources here.
“You give yourself too much credit,” Selby says, narrowing her eyes. “Every damn one of us is capable of fouling up, my boy. You’re not special in that respect.”
Together, they tip the blindweed into the now-empty vat, and Anders winces as he pours on the alcohol. He wants to bluster and weasel away from her words, but he has to admit she’s right… and her brusqueness does help. Selby sees the world in refreshingly crisp divisions of black and white, and he’s grateful for that sometimes.
“I don’t know,” he says dubiously, looking to her for another small shove. “I mean, I wouldn’t want to hurt him.”
She smiles, her deep blue eyes twinkling lasciviously as the rough smell of the grog seeps through the air between them. “Oh, he looked like a big boy to me. What’s the harm, eh?”
Anders chuckles. She has a point. Tobias Hawke is well known across certain parts of the city for his ability to take care of himself… and that’s discounting most of Varric’s more imaginative stories. And he has made the first move. Numerous times, as a matter of fact. That is powerful stuff all by itself, as far as Anders is concerned. For so long, he’s played the cad, picked up fun where he found it and been the pursuer, the cheeky, winking rogue. Now he allows himself to admit it, he finds it has struck home with unexpected force to be the object of someone else’s attentions… especially an attractive man who makes no bones about his desire.
“I say you should go for it,” Selby says, nudging him in the ribs with one bony elbow. “Have a little fun.”
Anders smiles politely, but wringing the gesture out leaves a bad taste in his mouth. She doesn’t understand. People don’t. It’s not as if he can really explain about how Justice sees things—how he sees them. How they feel.
He doesn’t want fun. He wants… well, what he wants isn’t a good idea.
“I’m going to ask him to come with us,” Anders says, and he doesn’t know for the life of him why. It’s a stupid thing to say, something he shouldn’t mention yet, because he just knows Selby won’t approve. Damn it, he’s barely made the decision himself. “At the end of the month. The Gallows run.”
Selby’s face stiffens, just as he knew it would.
“Creer said we wasn’t doin’ ’em no more,” she says, her brow crumpling into a frown. “It’s too dangerous. We risk losing people every time, and the templars are getting wise. Creer said we were better off focusing our attentions on the north road and the docks, where they bring ’em in. Get ’em out before they get ’em in. For one, I agree.”
“I don’t.” Anders shakes his head. “I don’t agree with a single mage being in that place… not when there are templars like Alrik on the loose.”
He swears he can feel the temperature of the room drop by several degrees. The look of irritation that swipes across Selby’s face is swift, and brutal, but then it softens into sympathy.
“Anders… you’ve got to let that rest. He’ll get his, you know it, but don’t make it worse than it is.”
He scowls. “And how can it be worse, exactly? You know what he did, what he’s planning to—”
“You have no proof of that!” Selby reminds him sharply, and the words slap Anders into silence, but the voice in his head is roaring.
Ser Alrik is one of those rotten eggs… one of those sadists who float to the top. And he must pay. We will have him for what he did.
After Karl died, Anders couldn’t let it be. He bribed and cajoled the information out of places he should have known better than to go fishing—and there were details he didn’t need to know. Details Justice didn’t need to hear. They fuelled everything for a while, made it worse… made it almost impossible, until he was—yes, all right, distracted—by the news about Hawke’s Deep Roads expedition, and how only Varric’s brother had made it back alive, and Tobias was lost, or dead, under the ground.
It was a shock, and it brought him back from the edge for a little while. Just long enough to remember that there were people who needed him, that—just because some sadistic bastard tortured and humiliated Karl until he was too weak to resist the Rite of Tranquillity, and just because a man like Hawke could die so senselessly, when Anders could have insisted on joining the expedition, and maybe protected him—other people’s small, everyday tragedies didn’t simply stop or go away. So he stayed. He tended the sick and nursed the dying, and healed the ones he could save. And that was something.
It wasn’t enough, but it was something.
Of course, Hawke came back. Surprised everyone… surprised Anders by the strength of his own reaction. He’d never imagined just hearing the news that Tobias was all right would have floored him the way it did.
He’ll believe me. After the things he’s seen, the things he’s done… he knows that, even if something sounds impossible, it might still be true.
Tobias might believe him, or he might not. Few others in the Underground do, and Anders blames himself for that. He was incandescent when he first reported back what he’d heard—the rumours about Ser Alrik’s great plan to turn every mage in the Marches Tranquil—and his brothers and sisters in the cause pursed their lips, furrowed their brows, and tutted in consternation. No one thought it possible, no one rose up in righteous fury… and then Selby took his arm and made him sit down, and gave him half a cup of watered wine.
He suspects some of them still think he’s mad.
Now, Anders bites his lower lip, and looks guardedly at Selby. “There’s enough to make me think it could happen,” he says, and the words chime like dark stones of prophecy against his ears. “Men like Alrik won’t stop until they’ve either yoked or killed every last one of us. Gethyn’s with me. He agrees.”
Her cheeks hollow just a little; she’s drawing breath to tell him he’s a fool. Ordinarily, he’d agree. Gethyn Drummer is one of them, yes, but the whole Underground knows he is a firebrand set with a hair trigger, unreliable and unpredictable. And they don’t know Hawke at all… only as the man Anders has dragged along to a couple of meetings, and who has dropped more coin on the cell than any new face should, apostate or no. Some of them probably think he’s a plant by the templars or the viscount’s administration—and he does have too much to do with the guard and the city officials to be considered safe enough to hear much of the Underground’s really sensitive information—but they don’t know him like Anders does.
It doesn’t matter, in any case. Anders trusts him. Anders would trust him with his life and—if they are going to enter The Gallows, instead of pulling back from those missions, the way their self-appointed leader, Elias Creer, would apparently like—he can’t think of anyone he’d rather have fighting beside him.
Anyway, he figures Hawke probably owes him one after messing around with all those bloody bandits.
After Selby leaves, Anders decides on an early night. She hugged him when she left, and he held on for all he was worth, that momentary sourness of disagreement forgotten. She still thinks he’s a fool, he suspects, but he knows there’s no other way around it. He is aware of the contradiction she so gracefully delineated—
So, let me get this right: you’re prepared to take him into the mouth of the templars’ den, where death is very likely to await you, but you won’t bed him in case it doesn’t work out? Tch. And I thought you were the smart one, boy….
—but she doesn’t understand. Hawke may not even come. He may refuse to enter The Gallows, and Anders would quite understand why… but he doubts it.
This is placing too much trust in an idea, a hope. Nothing more. I shouldn’t second-guess him. There’s no knowing what he’ll do.
…No. I don’t know. But I believe he’ll do it. I have faith in him.
He smirks a little bit at that, because faith is one thing Anders has never really been overburdened with. Even in the Tower, when many of the apprentices clung to the sweet incense and comforting words of chapel services, hoping to find their redemption in the Maker’s eyes, the priests’ sermons always struck him as hollow.
He can accept a degree of it: the being nice to each other and not lying, cheating, stealing or killing (except when it’s really, really necessary) parts seem logical, but the gloss of allegory and self-aggrandisement the Chantry slaps onto everything like a coat of cheap paint feel wrong, and it wears just as patchily.
Religion, Anders thinks, as he stretches out on his narrow pallet, the woollen blanket pulled up to his chin in deference to the night’s cool dampness, is fine until it becomes political… or until it becomes zealotry. He’s seen that fire too often in the eyes of templars, and every one of them has ended up dead. He doesn’t know how many, he realises, and that knowledge shames him. He tries to keep in mind that they were all men—all someone’s son, someone’s brother, like Carver is Hawke’s brother, and Tobias hasn’t stopped caring about him just because of the stupid metal suit—but the only memories of those encounters Justice has left him with are the feel of flesh tearing and crushing beneath his hands, and the taste of warm blood spattering his lips.
His stomach convulses slightly at the memory of the first time it happened… that terrifying, unreal moment of coming back to himself when it was over, and not knowing what he’d done.
Anders breathes deeply, and lets the thoughts seep away. He can feel Justice’s torment, and the twin impulses of rage and apology that flow through the spirit. They are his, aren’t they? They must be. They are his emotions, his reactions to all that death… and they are warping Justice a little further every day. He blinks, and takes a visual inventory of his tiny den, noting the familiar shapes of his coat hanging on the back of the chair with the broken leg that he must really get around to fixing; the stack of papers on his trunk, and the books beside him, where the candle is flickering and throwing shadows against the rough wooden walls.
He remembers a wooden hut, and his mother; also his father, and siblings… and other relatives, other children in the village. Walls like these, with firelight and candles making shapes that danced while there were stories and stew. Justice pokes at those memories sometimes, but Anders clamps down on them, jealous and guarded. They are his, and his alone. Not even for his own mind to touch. They are already so distant, so formless, that he isn’t sure how real they are, and he can’t bear the thought that they might shift and change beneath him, or that he might lose them completely.
Sometimes, he can feel Justice trying to soothe him, trying to yield up some kind of comfort into the recesses of his mind. He turns in towards the spirit then, blindly seeking the consolation and warmth that he has no other source for anymore, but it is clumsy and fleeting, and it always leaves him bereft.
Anders is used to being on his own. One normally is, when one is running, and that has always been his speciality. Thing is, he used to have his memories to keep him company, to entertain him on the long evenings… and, all right, occasionally to pass the time on the long journeys back to the Tower, manacled to Ser Rylock or whichever other templar had been tasked with the dreary duty of dragging him, kicking, screaming, and swearing, back into the Tower’s shallow grave.
Rylock asked him why he kept doing it, once. He smiles as he remembers her scowl, her clear, sharply drawn face, and her eyes full of stubborn insistence and annoyed curiosity. She thought him a wretch—a childish, idiotic, selfish brat—but she still wanted to take him apart and find out how he worked.
Oh, everyone needs a hobby, he’d said chirpily, and jangled his shackles.
He hadn’t thought a frown like hers could get deeper, and yet it had. Yours will get you killed, fool.
Anders had shrugged nonchalantly as he met her gaze, enjoying the utter confusion he could cause in her rigidly defined, damnably inflexible world.
Then I’ll die knowing I did something, rather than just settle to a living death.
It’s what it was all about, he supposes. The way he lived in those snatches of time he was free. All those things he did—those stupid, hedonistic, selfish things that felt good, and reminded him he was actually alive—used to leave behind the soft imprints of memory that sustained him. They used to keep him going when the templars caught up, as they inevitably did, and the world closed over him again. He misses that.
Anders would turn to the comfort of those memories now, but they haven’t been the same since Justice.
He tilts his head, watches the stub of candle on the upturned crate beside the bed throwing an oval of warm orange light on the wall. It dances sinuously, but when he puts the bodies of women he’s had to the curves and subtle movements, he tastes ashes on his tongue instead of their sweetness. Guilt plays against his flesh instead of the remembered embraces of lovers… as if he had wasted his time, or wasted theirs, or been somehow false or selfish, because to Justice nothing exists except that central impulse that defines his very being. There is nothing but Justice, and the outrages against which he must stand. Vengeance, and the wrongs he must right, although Anders is aware the spirit dislikes this epithet strongly. Vengeance is the canker that grows where justice rots, uncontained and humming with wild, brutal power. It is not the same, but it seems as good a name as any for the thing that lurks within—
I, it, us, we, him
—and words are only words, after all.
Anders blinks, decides he ought to conserve the candle, and leans over to blow it out.
The darkness is thick, soft… it seeps into everything, and it takes a while for his eyes to become accustomed to the dimness, and for the initial cramp of discomfort to ease out of his flesh. This is not bad darkness. It is full of familiar things, and he is fine. Everything is fine.
He stifles a yawn. It had been a long day, among other long days, and he was tired. Truly, deeply, tired, right down to the bone… but, again, he cannot sleep. He should know better, he supposes. If he doesn’t rest enough, this happens. Justice rears up within him, catching the scent of the world like a dog, and he keeps pushing and pushing for more, forgetting that bodies need rest, and that all things have their limits.
Anders rolls over, thwacking his thin pillow into fresh submission, and rubs absently at his arm. It is not as cold as it has been, or as it could be, but he is uncomfortably aware of the particular warmth he lacks.
He doesn’t really want to think about Hawke again, but it happens with tiresome regularity. He lies here, and his fingers of his left hand curl against his right arm, and the touch feels strange, like it could almost belong to somebody else. Maker, but he misses just touching someone… the casual tenderness of a hand on an arm, shoulder, or thigh; the small, shared delight of a glance, a smile; a kiss.
Justice doesn’t understand why it matters, because it doesn’t, to him. Anders supposes, one day, it will probably stop mattering completely, just the way that, one day, there may well be no more of him left. Only Justice, or whatever he has become by then. The spirit will consume him, if the taint—damn you, Caron, damn you to the fucking Void—doesn’t take him first. Maybe the two things will fight it out for the last shreds of him, and he will meet his end torn between them, a blighted ghost that is no more a man than Kristoff was, lurching around with the smell of decay rising from his flesh.
The thought terrifies Anders, and he feels he is at the mouth of a tunnel, staring down into the darkness with just the stale wind of dead air blowing back to greet him.
He thinks of Hawke’s venture with the old mine, and the way Varric kept winding him up about being a ‘legitimate businessman’, and—oh, Maker—then it’s as if he never blew the candle out at all, because he can see Tobias’ face right before him, clear as day.
Anders bites his lip and squeezes his eyes tight shut. It doesn’t help, and Justice’s prurient blend of curiosity and mild disapproval just makes things worse.
It doesn’t stop him thinking about it, though. Aching for it. Far too long, Anders thinks, since he’s touched someone else in tenderness. Far too long since he’s felt another’s body against his… someone he actually likes, not just an evening’s entertainment. Maker, it’s been years, hasn’t it? Not since his sixth escape from the Tower, when he’d met another apostate on the run near the Frostbacks. Keryn was her name. Dark hair, dark eyes, sun-burned skin and a laugh like wine hitting glass. Allying together was easy enough—they were both on the run, two heads were better than one, plus pooling resources and equipment made sense—and somehow it became more than that. They made it nearly three months, staying ahead of the templars at every turn… only, when the bastards did catch up, he got ready to run, and Keryn got ready to fight.
That never used to be Anders’ first choice. He didn’t expect it to be hers. He didn’t expect her to know the kind of magic she did, either, and he would have thought he’d have been able to tell. He’d always thought that… as if blood mages would give off some kind of dark, unpleasant aura that would send little alarms bells pealing in his head.
They don’t, of course. Look at Merrill. To all intents and purposes, she’s as dangerous as cress growing on a wet flannel—right up until she splits you in half.
Anders sighs. He is restless. Justice is restless.
He rolls over onto his back again, and lets his hand settle on his chest, fingers splayed out against the thin fabric of his shirt. He misses it. Touching. Just… human contact. Strong, warm hands, cupping his face as kiss after kiss plunders his mouth, palming their way across his flesh, searing promises into his skin. Oh, but he needs that… needs to be held, desired, wanted. Just for a little while, to be a man again, not a monster, and to have just one train of thoughts in his head: one bright, true beacon of desire.
Anders stifles a small groan. It’s not fair. He’s not the only man in Kirkwall, but it feels like it sometimes… as if no one else really exists, really matters. Not next to him.
This probably means that Justice and Selby are both right, and he is the worst kind of distraction imaginable. Anders wonders briefly if—should that be the case, and those two arbiters of his life are truly in agreement—Selby is actually another part of him, and she has somehow escaped his consciousness and is at large in the mortal realm when she should not be. It is a mad, absurd thought, and it makes him grin into the darkness, and he wants to laugh but he doesn’t, because as he smiles, warmth starts to creep back into his body, and he’s almost teetering on the edge of a dream where he could tell Tobias about these stupid, insane things that hammer around his head. He would laugh.
If he didn’t think I was crazy. Huh… maybe I am crazy.
It doesn’t matter, either way, because Anders is given over to the thoughts of him now. All the things Selby said echo back to him—the way he looks at you, have a little fun—and the frustration wells up in him like a fluid-filled blister that throbs and aches until it is lanced, and Anders thinks he won’t breathe again unless he does something.
Of course, it’s difficult ministering to his own requirements when he can feel part of himself being quietly, politely appalled by it.
Anders burrows down into the narrow space of his bed, blanket over his head and hand wavering indistinctly between his thighs. This is maddening. It infuriates him. He’s never been furtive, never been ashamed—always stuck two fingers up at the bloody templars and their rules and regulations, the ways they had of trying to mess you up—and now look at him. Everything feels wrong, and here he is, wound tighter than a cranequin, and barely half-hard for the resistance he feels within himself.
It is wrong, to put these images to that man.
It isn’t. It’s normal, natural… it’s everything that is aching to happen between them, and the only wrong thing is choking it back the way he’s been doing.
In the still, small space of the night, Anders is convinced of that. He’s emboldened by it, practically convinced that—at first light—he’s going to march up to Tobias’ door and, the moment it opens, he’s going to grab him by the buckles of that dyed leather jerkin and pin him against the wall.
The fantasy is familiar, like a dream he’s often tried to have, although the scene frequently changes. Places don’t matter. Only he matters.
Hawke is a few years younger than him, Anders thinks, though he’s not sure by how much… still young enough to be sensitive about his age, anyway, as if he has something to prove, or thinks he’ll be considered callow. It doesn’t matter. Age is only a number, but it means—in the semi-privacy of Anders’ head—that he’d be a vibrant, passionate, confident lover. Hands, lips, teeth, tongue… all of him, full of that heat and drive he brings to life.
In tonight’s imagining, the wooden wall has stayed. It is rough as Tobias pushes him against it—oddly enough, the inverse of his first thought. Anders doesn’t pause to speculate. He squeezes his eyes shut in the darkness, until light bursts behind them, and he tries to make-believe that his own touch feels the way Hawke’s would feel, though it probably doesn’t. He hears Tobias’ voice, hears the lust-soaked burr in it that he has never heard but knows will be there, and if Justice could peel away from his flesh and go and stand nonchalantly at the other end of the clinic, whistling, the spirit definitely would.
He can’t, of course, so he retaliates the only way he is able. He seizes at Anders’ memories—or perhaps it is Anders himself that does it—and he breaks them open, flings the most secret, intimate parts of them into the searing heart of this new desire.
And what of Karl?
Anders swallows heavily, curling around himself, and the choked air beneath the blanket is hot and stultifying. That was different. Whatever the memories feel like, whatever ragged sense of betrayal now tugs at him—
—Karl is dead.
—You loved him, yet now you lust for Hawke.
No. Yes. It was a different kind of love. A different time, a different place… two very, very different people to the men they became. That’s what ruined everything.
Anders wets his dry, cracked lips. He knows his sins. He knows he hurt Karl well before he failed him, and he does not need reminding, though the memories pour through him. Even so, they don’t quite wash the ache away; they don’t quite obliterate his desire for someone who is so different to and yet, sometimes, so very reminiscent of Karl.
—Love changes. People change. It had been over for a long time before he died, anyway, a long time before—
—Then nothing lasts. Your definitions of emotions—your immutable, permanent love—is as fleeting as a mayfly.
…No one likes a killjoy. Stop it.
—Then you do not love him. Hawke. You want only to sate your urges, and—
—he deserves more than that. No. Yes… I mean… I do. I—
Oh, Maker, it’s all there… all laid out in his flesh and his heart. Anders trembles with the thing that is not quite a realisation, because he’s known it for a while, even if he has been trying hard to pretend it isn’t true.
—oh, sod it—
Hawke’s touch, his kiss… the feral, violent slaking of lust, the temptation of which has the power to shake the air between them: he wants these things with a desperate, physical need, but they are not all he wants, not all he aches for. Anders’ deepest desires are simpler, less easy to quantify, and yet they burn even brighter.
—I love him.
It’s liberating, just thinking the words, though that first gulp of exultation is soon tempered by frustration. He flings himself into the need, into the keen blade of want that is carving at him, gnawing with its years of recrimination and denial, and his mind is a compellingly potent thing. He can conjure the man he wants, feel the heat of his skin, the desire and the unyielding, unflinching closeness that lurks beneath the surface, ready to become a searing bond the moment they give in to this shared weakness… because, surely, no one would ever let a man like Hawke go.
It is those thoughts that swarm behind his eyes, the fantasy of that frenetic coupling: his face pressed to the wall, or the bed, and Tobias’ hot breath panting in his ear, his touch a brand of ownership, of—yes, of possession.
Anders spills with a whimper, and the pleasure is punishment enough. Chafed, with the spasms of his flesh giving way—after that single, short lurch of elation—to a shamed, guilty tension, he clings to his own body, hugged in on himself and with the blanket pulled tight around him. The sound of his breathing seems loud and ragged, but he’s glad of it… glad of something that sounds like life, and living.
When the daylight comes, and brings with it easier, calmer times, he will go to Hawke. He will ask him to join the mission into The Gallows, to find proof of Ser Alrik’s plan, because that is all that matters—or all that should matter. The cause. The truth. Justice.
That, he can have, and he can hold it close, treasuring the time they share, even if it is drenched in blood and chaos. A stupid dichotomy, perhaps: dragging Hawke into danger with him just to prove that loving him is dangerous… clinging to the refusals so tightly that, somehow, he hopes they will weaken and break.
If Anders cannot give his Hawke his love, he will make a gift of his trust, complete and unconditional.
It is not enough, but it is something.