Garrett was the first to notice anything, which should have been surprising. Anders was a healer, for goodness sake; if he had failed to notice his own body start to decay, how in the Void could he be expected to properly identify injuries and illness in others? Had he been missing things, overlooking things, for very long? Had he truly been so blind, so bloody stupid—
Before he could work himself up into too much of a lather, Garrett was there, crawled up from the foot of the bed where he'd been slowly stripping Anders out of his socks and nuzzling kisses against each spindly ankle. That was where he'd found it, of course.
You traipsing around barefoot again, old man? You've bruised your heel.
But it was not a bruise— Anders would have felt a bruise. Felt it in his flesh, the bite of a pebble into his sole, but also deeper; he would have felt the injury happen, the impossibly tiny veins bursting under the pressure of a sharp stone, and his unshed blood clotting. This was nothing, with no pain or sense of injury radiating from it, but when he had stretched his magic out toward the small, mottled black spot, no bigger than the pad of his thumb, it made everything itchy, like ants skittering over his skin.
Garrett had known something was wrong the instant Anders went so very still. Even if he hadn't been so damned perceptive, and so infuriatingly dogged about every little thing, Anders had been utterly unable to lie to the man for two decades, not since the stink of charred wood and drakestone had burned everything away, leaving them both broken and new.
And now, after Anders had stammered out words like taint and corruption, and their bedroom (their bedroom, their home, and it was too soon) grew dark and hazy around the edges, blurry with the grittiness Anders could not seem to blink away, Garrett was there, beside him.
"Take a breath, love." There wasn't enough air in Thedas to banish the phantom press of the shrinking walls around him, the ceiling above him, crushing down upon his lungs with all the weight of the world. For an instant, he was in the Deep Roads already, swallowed up by the terror of cold, alone, dark, forever, but then Garrett was holding his hand, smoothing rough fingers over his trembling. "Anders, breathe. Look at me, and just breathe."
Inhaling sharply, drawing clean air in so deep it made his abdomen cramp, he forced himself to stop staring at their hands— his veins stood out thick and blue under his skin, which was still milky fair compared to Garrett's warm, sun-weathered complexion. Anders remembered when they hadn't been quite so lined, with fewer scars and freckles, but they were still the same where it mattered.
Garrett's hands still held him up, held him close, when it mattered.
The shouting, Anders had expected. Garrett was nothing if not forceful, and damn the man for being so nug-headed, he was far too used to getting his own way. He was spoilt, accustomed to ploughing his way through any and all resistance with fierce mulishness, but there were some things that could not be compromised. Sometimes, Anders was forced to butt heads with the thickest skull in Thedas.
The arguments were trying, but Anders could be just as intractable, and he had learned a thing or two over the years about Garrett Hawke. Letting harsh tones and hoarse words wash over him like the surf, Anders stood firm as a stone. It was a bit morbid to consider, but in some ways he did actually have time on his side— it was likely the corruption would take him before Garrett had any hope of wearing him down. Even the nightmares were getting worse now, after so many years of Justice shielding his sleeping mind from the whispers in the dark.
"No," he said again, for at least the thousandth time since Garrett had found that first Maker-damned spot, and he pointedly did not look up from his book. The bruising was spreading, slow but steady, now blackening most of his calf and a few smaller marks on his chest. It was a strange sort of consolation that he already had little hair left to lose; he remembered a time long ago when he'd been so incredibly vain, but looking back, it felt as though he was recalling another man's life.
The man he caught sight of in mirrors now wore a life fulfilled on his face— rough and craggy in places, with the skin starting to sag under his eyes and lines deepening every year on his forehead. Every line marked laughter or worry; he was no longer a brash and angry boy, or even a bone-weary man struggling impotently against oppression and cruelty. He was a man who had lived far longer than he had ever expected, and far better than he'd ever dared hope in even his wildest dreams.
And despite all that, he was still a deeply greedy bastard, because it wasn't enough. The future had shrunk to a pinprick, and it was all he could do to keep from scrabbling vainly for more, howling like a beast into the Void.
"No?" There was an almighty crash as a rather pretty (if obscenely shaped) Antivan vase went flying, shattering against the wall beside their bedroom door— an anniversary gift from Isabela, years before. Bits of vibrantly red and blue enamelled pottery skittered across the floor, but the mess stayed well clear of where Anders sat reading in bed, back against the pillows and knees bent under the quilts. "You're not my flaming mother, you self-righteous, idiotic prick. I'll go if I like."
"No." Turning a page, not caring one whit for the words before him, Anders found the courage to glance up. He managed to keep his own expression cool and impassive, even in the face of Garrett's fiercest fury. It was not a look he had ever found turned his way before, not even during the worst of the war, and it twisted inside him more painfully than the taint ever had. "You won't. You're scarcely more than fifty, and still as healthy as a bronto."
Pottery shards crunched under boots— Garrett was still dressed, and though plate and scale spent more time tarnishing in a cupboard now than being battered around, the impression of armour was obvious. They were getting ready for bed, and Garrett was shored up for battle.
Anders tried not to dwell on his own detachment, the book, the quilts, as further shields between them. "Garrett, love... please. Please don't make this difficult."
It was a selfish, stupid thing to say, and Anders knew it the moment the exhausted words slipped free. The noise that tore from Garrett's throat was not human— some sort of animalistic snarl, wrathful and terrifying, thick with raw agony. It was a sound pained enough to make Anders weak, to make him look away and clench his jaw against words he could not say, and such weakness now was unforgivable.
Garrett deserved better. But then, when hadn't he?
Staring blindly at a spot on the coverlet, trying to find order in the clamour of his thoughts again, Anders didn't notice Garrett moving until it was too late. His book met a similar fate as the vase, hurled heedlessly against the wall with a resounding thud, and then Anders found himself buried under Garrett's bulk, crushed against the mattress.
"Is this meant to be easy?" For all Anders was taller, Garrett had always been broader, thicker, and so much stronger. Old muscles, still corded and firm, strained under the thin wool of his shirt as he caught and pinned Anders' forearms, gripping flesh and bone almost dangerously tight for an instant before he slid up, tangling their fingers together. Anders wheezed under the weight of him, but it sounded too much like a sob, and the room was blurring again, gritty and hot.
"Tell me—" Turning his face away was useless; Garrett simply spoke against his neck instead, growling low and broken, trailing tracks of dampness that Anders tried so desperately not to feel. Anger was better. "Tell me what part of this should be easy. Tell me how I can lose you now without tearing myself apart from the torment of it. Tell me how I`m meant to go on alone."
He didn't dare answer; Maker only knew what idiotic tripe would spill forth if he allowed himself even one word.
I'm terrified, Garrett.
I don't want to leave. I'm not ready.
I cannot die in the dark. Maker, please don't make me.
Please. Please, my love. I am so afraid to be alone.
The quiet tingle of approval winding through him like smoke was a subtle thing, and a meagre comfort, but beggars could hardly be choosers. He stayed silent, and that was the only honourable course left before him. The choice to spare Garrett that little bit of anguish, no matter how agonising and wrong it felt to keep his fears l ocked away, was right and just.
Protecting Garrett was second nature. That would never change, even when Anders trudged into the Deep Roads for one final hurrah. Or, if it indeed proved true that in the end he was too much of a bloody coward to brave the dark again, it wouldn't change when he hurled himself off the highest cliff he could climb, running away again but at least meeting death in the sunlight.
He bit his tongue, humming wordlessly into Garrett's silvering hair as the granite-willed barbarian of a man shook like a leaf against him, squeezing their hands together. He had no answers to give, no assurances, and too many apologies. He was mute, sinking, drowning. He was dying, and he ached with it.
Garrett's hair smelled faintly of wood smoke and fresh grass, and Anders breathed it deep into himself, praying the feeling might curl inside and take root. That the scent, familiar and warm and Garrett, might stay inside his chest, filling him up, for just a little while longer.
There were no more words to say, for either of them. Stay with me was deafeningly loud in the heavy press of Garrett's body. I cannot bear this again was bitter poison in the tears wetting Anders' neck. I love you was thick in the air between them, as always, shared on every breath and in every heartbeat. I love you, in every pulse of Justice's fire.
Dawn would come, days would pass, and the Call would not wait forever. There were no more words to say; not aloud.
Not even goodbye.